To “Tether Joe” Carroll, who spins real space lariats …

and

“Doc” Sheldon Brown, who teaches time travelers …


… and Ralph Vicinanza, who helped many dreams and dreamers to thrive.

 

CONTENTS

Title Page

Dedication

Part One: Slings and Arrows

1. I, Amphorum

2. Aficionado

3. Sky Light

4. Resurrected City

5. Plunge

6. Fragrance

7. Getting Even

8. Reflection

Part Two: A Sea of Troubles

9. The Favor

10. Shoresteading

11. Newblesse Oblige

12. Apprenticeship

13. Metastable

14. Treasure

15. Artifact

Part Three: A Thousand Natural Shocks

16. Kindness of Strangers

17. More Than One

18. Povlovers

19. Time Capsule

20. Pursuit

21. The Tribe

22. Kindred Spirits

23. Warning

24. The World Watches

Part Four: Nobler in the Mind

25. Departure

26. Cooperation

27. Emissary

28. The Smart Mob

Part Five: A Consummation Devoutly Wished …

29. Incomprehension

30. The Avenue Within

31. Consensual Reality

32. Homecoming

33. Straight Flush

34. Seasteading

35. Sensing Destiny’s Call

36. False Diamonds

37. Archipelago

38. Upward Path

39. Tough Love

40. Waiting for Guidot

41. The Old Way

42. A Purpose

43. Sorry I Asked

44. Layered Reality

45. A Parrot Ox

46. A Smiling Face

47. The Infinite Chain

Part Six: This Mortal Coil

48. Reflex

49. Dour Storytellers

50. Divination

51. Inspiration

52. Appraisal

53. Potemkins

54. Dismemberment

55. Family Reunion

56. Eden

57. Ishmael

58. Desperation

59. Jonah

60. Shards of Space

61. It’s a Buoy

Part Seven: Sea of Troubles

62. Lurkers

63. A Crime Scene

64. Laminations

65. Lurkers

66. A Price for Continuity

67. Ancient Luminosity

68. Lurkers

69. A Sealed Room

70. Lurkers

71. Lurkers

72. Four Species of Human

73. Lurkers

74. A Cause Long Lost

75. Lurkers

76. Timing Is Everything

77. Lurkers

78. X Species

79. A Mother Lode

80. Lurkers

81. Explorers

82. Melancholy Lanes

83. Lurkers

84. Layers Under Layers

85. A Bestiary

86. Lurkers

87. Perchance to Dream

88. Lungfish

Part Eight: To Be …

89. Luminous

90. Transparency

91. Reflectivity

92. Opacity

93. Aberration

94. Refraction

95. Reflections

96. Focus

97. Images

98. Detection

99. Appreciation

Afterword

Follow-Up Resources

Acknowledgments

Tor Books by David Brin

Copyright

 

PART ONE

SLINGS AND ARROWS

Those who ignore the mistakes of the future are bound to make them.

—Joseph Miller

 

SPECIES

what matters? do i? or ai? + the question spins
+/- as my body spins !/+ in time to a chirping window-bird
“normal people” don’t think like this -/-/-
nor aspies -/- nor even most autistics
stop spinning! -/- there -/- now back to the holo-screen ->
rain smatters the clatter window —
bird is gone -/+ hiding from falling water + +
like i hide from a falling civilization
what matters then?/? progress? New minds??
after cortex, after libraries, the web, mesh, ai-grid
— what’s next ?/!
will it offer hope/doom for foolish humanity +/?
for the glaring cobbly minds +/?
or autistic-hybrids like me +/?

 

1.

I, AMPHORUM

The universe had two great halves.

A hemisphere of glittering stars surrounded Gerald on the right.

Blue-brown Earth took up the other side. Home, after this job was done. Cleaning the mess left by another generation.

Like a fetus in its sac, Gerald floated in a crystal shell, perched at the end of a long boom, some distance from the space station Endurance. Buffered from its throbbing pulse, this bubble was more space than station.

Here, he could focus on signals coming from a satellite hundreds of kilometers away. A long, narrow ribbon of whirling fiber, far overhead.

The bola. His lariat. His tool in an ongoing chore.

The bola is my arm.
The grabber is my hand.
Magnetic is the lever that I turn.
A planet is my fulcrum.

Most days, the little chant helped Gerald to focus on his job—that of a glorified garbageman. There are still people who envy me. Millions, down in that film of sea and cloud and shore.

Some would be looking up right now, as nightfall rushed faster than sound across teeming Sumatra. Twilight was the best time to glimpse this big old station. It made him feel connected with humanity every time Endurance crossed the terminator—whether dawn or dusk—knowing a few people still looked up.

Focus, Gerald. On the job.

Reaching out, extending his right arm fully along the line of his body, he tried again to adjust tension in that far-off, whirling cable, two thousand kilometers overhead, as if it were a languid extension of his own self.

And the cable replied. Feedback signals pulsed along Gerald’s neuro-sens suit … but they felt wrong.

My fault, Gerald realized. The orders he sent to the slender satellite were too rapid, too impatient. Nearby, little Hachi complained with a screech. The other occupant of this inflated chamber wasn’t happy.

“All right.” Gerald grimaced at the little figure, wearing its own neuro-sens outfit. “Don’t get your tail in a knot. I’ll fix it.”

Sometimes a monkey has more sense than a man.

Especially a man who looks so raggedy, Gerald thought. A chance glimpse of his reflection revealed how stained his elastic garment had become—from spilled drinks and maintenance fluids. His grizzled cheeks looked gaunt. Infested, even haunted, by bushy, unkempt eyebrows.

If I go home to Houston like this, the family won’t even let me in our house. Though, with all my accumulated flight pay …

Come on, focus!

Grimly, Gerald clicked down twice on his lower left premolar and three times on the right. His suit responded with another jolt of Slow Juice through a vein in his thigh. Coolness, a lassitude that should help clear thinking, spread through his body—

—and time seemed to crawl.

Feedback signals from the distant bola now had time to catch up. He felt more a part of the thirty kilometer strand, as it whirled ponderously in a higher orbit. Pulsing electric currents that throbbed up there were translated as a faint tingle down here, running from Gerald’s wrist, along his arm and shoulder, slanting across his back and then down to his left big toe, where they seemed to dig for leverage. When he pushed, the faraway cable-satellite responded, applying force against the planet’s magnetic field.

Tele-operation. In an era of ever more sophisticated artificial intelligence, some tasks still needed an old-fashioned human pilot. Even one who floated in a bubble, far below the real action.

Let’s increase the current a bit. To notch down our rate of turn. A tingle in his toe represented several hundred amps of electricity, spewing from one end of the whirling tether, increasing magnetic drag. The great cable rotated across the stars a bit slower.

Hachi—linked-in nearby—hooted querulously from his own web of support fibers. This was better, though the capuchin still needed convincing.

“Cut me some slack,” Gerald grumbled. “I know what I’m doing.”

The computer’s dynamical model agreed with Hachi, though. It still forecast no easy grab when the tether’s tip reached its brief rendezvous with … whatever piece of space junk lay in Gerald’s sights.

Another tooth-tap command, and night closed in around him more completely, simulating what he would see if he were up there, hundreds of klicks higher, at the tether’s speeding tip, where stars glittered more clearly. From that greater altitude, Earth seemed a much smaller disc, filling just a quarter of the sky.

Now, everything he heard, felt or saw came from the robotic cable. His lasso. A vine to swing upon, suspended from some distant constellation.

Once an ape … always an ape.

The tether became Gerald’s body. An electric tingle along his spine—a sleeting breeze—was the Van Allen radiation wind, caught in magnetic belts that made a lethal sizzle of the middle-orbit heights, from nine hundred kilometers all the way out to thirty thousand or so.

The Bermuda Triangle of outer space. No mere human could survive in that realm for more than an hour. The Apollo astronauts accumulated half of all their allotted radiation dosage during a few minutes sprinting across the belt, toward the relative calm and safety of the Moon. Expensive communications satellites suffered more damage just passing through those middle altitudes than they would in a decade, higher up in placid geosynchronous orbit.

Ever since that brief time of bold lunar missions—and the even-briefer Zheng He era—no astronaut had ventured beyond the radiation belt. Instead, they hunkered in safety, just above the atmosphere, while robots explored the solar system. This made Gerald the Far-Out Guy! With his bola for an arm, and the grabber for a hand, he reached beyond. Just a bit, into the maelstrom. No one else got as high.

Trawling for garbage.

“All right…,” he murmured. “Where are you…?”

Radar had the target pinpointed, about as well as machines could manage amid a crackling fog of charged particles. Position and trajectory kept jittering, evading a fix with slipperiness that seemed almost alive. Worse—though no one believed him—Gerald swore that orbits tended to shift in this creepy zone, by up to a few thousandths of a percent, translating into tens of meters. That could make a bola-snatch more artistic guesswork than physics. Computers still had lots to learn, before they took over this job from a couple of primates.

Hachi chirped excitedly.

“Yeah, I see it.” Gerald squinted, and optics at the tether-tip automatically magnified a glitter, just ahead. The target—probably some piece of space junk, left here by an earlier, wastrel generation. Part of an exploding Russian second stage, perhaps. Or a connector ring from an Apollo flight. Maybe one of those capsules filled with human ashes that used to get fired out here, willy-nilly, during the burial-in-space fad. Or else the remnants of some foolish weapon experiment. Space Command claimed to have all the garbage radar charted and imaged down to a dozen centimeters.

Gerald knew better.

Whatever this thing was, the time had come to bring it home before collision with other debris caused a cascade of secondary impacts—a runaway process that already forced weather and research satellites to be replaced or expensively armored.

Garbage collecting wasn’t exactly romantic. Then again, neither was Gerald. Far from the square-jawed, heroic image of a spaceman, he saw only a middle-aged disappointment, on the rare occasions that he looked in a mirror at all, a face lined from squinting in the sharp light of orbit, where sunrise came at you like a wall, every ninety minutes.

At least he was good at achieving a feat of imagination—that he really existed far above. That his true body spun out there, thousands of kilometers away.

The illusion felt perfect, at last. Gerald was the bola. Thirty kilometers of slender, conducting filament, whirling a slow turn every thirty minutes, or five times during each elongated orbit. At both ends of the pivoting tether were compact clusters of sensors (my eyes), cathode emitters (my muscles), and grabbers (my clutching hands), that felt more part of him, right now, than anything made of flesh. More real than the meaty parts he had been born with, now drifting in a cocoon far below, near the bulky, pitted space station. That distant human body seemed almost imaginary.

Like a hunter with his faithful dog, man and monkey grew silent during final approach, as if sound might spook the prey, glittering in their sights.

It’s got an odd shine, he thought, as telemetry showed the distance rapidly narrowing. Only a few kilometers now, till the complex dance of two orbits and the tether’s own, gyrating spin converged, like a fielder leaping to snatch a hurtling line drive. Like an acrobat, catching his partner in midair. After which …

… the bola’s natural spin would take over, clasping the seized piece of debris into its whirl, absorbing its old momentum and giving that property new values, new direction. Half a spin later, with this tether-tip at closest approach to Earth, the grabber would let go, hurling the debris backward, westward, and down to burn in the atmosphere.

The easy part. By then, Gerald would be sipping coffee in the station’s shielded crew lounge. Only now—

That’s no discarded second stage rocket, he pondered, studying the glimmer. It’s not a cargo faring, or shredded fuel tank, or urine-icicle, dumped by a manned mission. By now, Gerald knew how all kinds of normal junk reflected sunlight—from archaic launch vehicles and satellites to lost gloves and tools—each playing peekaboo tricks of shadow. But this thing …

Even the colors weren’t right. Too blue. Too many kinds of blue. And light levels remained so steady! As if the thing had no facets or flat surfaces. Hachi’s questioning hoot was low and worried. How can you make a firm grab, without knowing where the edges are?

As relative velocity ebbed toward zero, Gerald made adjustments by spewing electrons from cathode emitters at either cable end, creating torque against the planetary field, a trick for maneuvering without rockets or fuel. Ideal for a slow, patient job that had to be done on the cheap.

Now Hachi earned his keep. The little monkey stretched himself like a strand of spaghetti, smoothly taking over final corrections—his instincts honed by a million generations of swinging from jungle branches—while Gerald focused on the grab itself. There would be no second chance.

Slow and patient … except at the last, frenetic moment … when you wish you had something quicker to work with than magnetism. When you wish—

There it was, ahead. The Whatever.

Rushing toward rendezvous, the bola’s camera spied something glittery, vaguely oval in shape, gleaming with a pale blueness that pulsed like something eager.

Gerald’s hand was the grabber, turning a fielder’s mitt of splayed fingers, reaching as the object loomed suddenly.

Don’t flinch, he chided ancient intuitions while preparing to snatch whatever this hurtling thing might be.

Relax. It never hurts.

Only this time—in a strange and puzzling way—it did.

A MYRIAD PATHS OF ENTROPY

Does the universe hate us? How many pitfalls lie ahead, waiting to shred our conceited molecule-clusters back into unthinking dust? Shall we count them?

Men and women always felt besieged. By monsters prowling the darkness. By their oppressive rulers, or violent neighbors, or capricious gods. Yet, didn’t they most often blame themselves? Bad times were viewed as punishment, brought on by wrong behavior. By unwise belief.

Today, our means of self-destruction seem myriad. (Though Pandora’s Cornucopia will try to list them all!) We modern folk snort at the superstitions of our ancestors. We know they could never really wreck the world, but we can! Zeus or Moloch could not match the destructive power of a nuclear missile exchange, or a dusting of plague bacilli, or some ecological travesty, or ruinous mismanagement of the intricate aiconomy.

Oh, we’re mighty. But are we so different from our forebears?

Won’t our calamity (when it comes) also be blamed on some arrogant mistake? A flaw in judgment? Some obstinate belief? Culpa nostra. Won’t it be the same old plaint, echoing across the ruin of our hopes?

“We never deserved it all! Our shining towers and golden fields. Our overflowing libraries and full bellies. Our long lives and overindulged children. Our happiness. Whether by God’s will or our own hand, we always expected it would come to this.

“To dust.”

—Pandora’s Cornucopia

 

2.

AFICIONADO

Meanwhile, far below, cameras stared across forbidden desert, monitoring disputed territory in a conflict so bitter, antagonists couldn’t agree what to call it.

One side named the struggle righteous war, with countless innocent lives in peril.

Their opponents claimed there were no victims, at all.

And so, suspicious cameras panned, alert for encroachment. Camouflaged atop hills or under highway culverts or innocuous stones, they probed for a hated adversary. And for some months the guardians succeeded, staving off incursions. Protecting sandy desolation.

Then, technology shifted advantages again.

The enemy’s first move? Take out those guarding eyes.

*   *   *

Infiltrators came at dawn, out of the rising sun—several hundred little machines, skimming low on whispering gusts. Each one, resembling a native hummingbird, followed a carefully scouted path toward its target, landing behind some camera or sensor, in its blind spot. It then unfolded wings that transformed into holo-displays, depicting perfect false images of the same desert scene to the guardian lens, without even a suspicious flicker. Other spy-machines sniffed out camouflaged seismic sensors and embraced them gently—cushioning to mask approaching tremors.

The robotic attack covered a hundred square kilometers. In eight minutes, the desert lay unwatched, undefended.

Now, from over the horizon, large vehicles converged along multiple roadways toward the same open area—seventeen hybrid-electric rigs, disguised as commercial cargo transports, complete with company hologos. But when their paths intersected, crews in dun-colored jumpsuits leaped to unlash cargoes. Generators roared and the air swirled with exotic stench as pungent volatiles gushed from storage tanks to fill pressurized vessels. Consoles sprang to life. Hinged panels fell away, revealing long, tapered cylinders on slanted ramps.

Ponderously, each cigar shape raised its nose skyward while fins popped open at the tail. Shouts grew tense as tightly coordinated countdowns commenced. Soon the enemy—sophisticated and wary—would pick up enough clues. They would realize … and act.

When every missile was aimed, targets acquired, all they lacked were payloads.

A dozen figures emerged from an air-conditioned van, wearing snug suits of shimmering material and garishly painted helmets. Each carried a satchel that hummed and whirred to keep them cool. Several moved with a gait that seemed rubbery with anxious excitement. One skipped a little caper, about every fourth step.

A dour-looking woman awaited them, with badge and uniform. Holding up a databoard, she confronted the first vacuum-suited figure.

“Name and scan,” she demanded. “Then affirm your intent.”

The helmet visor, decorated with gilt swirls, swiveled back, revealing heavily tanned features, about thirty years old, with eyes the color of a cold sea—till the official’s instrument cast a questioning ray. Then, briefly, one pupil flared retinal red.

“Hacker Sander,” the tall man said, in a voice both taut and restrained. “I affirm that I’m doing this of my own free will, according to documents on record.”

His clarity of purpose must have satisfied the ai-clipboard, which uttered an approving beep. The inspector nodded. “Thank you, Mr. Sander. Have a safe trip. Next?”

She indicated another would-be rocketeer, who carried his helmet in the crook of one arm, bearing a motif of flames surrounding a screaming mouth.

“What rubbish,” the blond youth snarled, elbowing Hacker as he tried to loom over the bureaucrat. “Do you have any idea who we are? Who I am?”

“Yes, Lord Smit. Though whether I care or not doesn’t matter.” She held up the scanner. “This matters. It can prevent you from being lasered into tiny fragments by the USSF, while you’re passing through controlled airspace.”

“Is that a threat? Why you little … government … pissant. You had better not be trying to—”

“Government and guild,” Hacker Sander interrupted, suppressing his own hot anger over that elbow in the ribs. “Come on, Smitty. We’re on a tight schedule.”

The baron whirled on him, tension cracking the normally smooth aristocratic accent. “I warned you about nicknames, Sander, you third-generation poser. I had to put up with your seniority during pilot training. But just wait until we get back. I’ll take you apart!”

“Why wait?” Hacker kept eye contact while reaching up to unlatch his air hose. A quick punch ought to lay this blue-blood out, letting the rest of them get on with it. There were good reasons to hurry. Other forces, more formidable than mere government, were converging right now, eager to prevent what was planned here.

Besides, nobody called a Sander a “poser.”

The other rocket jockeys intervened before he could use his fist—probably a good thing, at that—grabbing the two men and separating them. Pushed to the end of the queue, Smits stewed and cast deadly looks toward Hacker. But when his turn came again, the nobleman went through ID check with composure, as cold and brittle as some glacier.

“Your permits are in order,” the functionary concluded, unhurriedly addressing Hacker, because he was most experienced. “Your liability bonds and Rocket Racing League waivers have been accepted. The government won’t stand in your way.”

Hacker shrugged, as if the statement was both expected and irrelevant. He flung his visor back down and gave a sign to the other suited figures, who rushed to the ladders that launch personnel braced against each rocket, clambering awkwardly, then squirming into cramped couches and strapping in. Even the novices had practiced countless times.

Hatches slammed, hissing as they sealed. Muffled shouts told of final preparations. Then came a distant chant, familiar, yet always thrilling, counting backward at a steady cadence. A rhythm more than a century old.

Is it really that long, since Robert Goddard came to this same desert? Hacker pondered. To experiment with the first controllable rockets? Would he be surprised at what we’ve done with the thing he started? Turning them into weapons of war … then giant exploration vessels … and finally playthings of the superrich?

Oh, there were alternatives, like commercial space tourism. One Japanese orbital hotel and another under construction. Hacker owned stock. There were even multipassenger suborbital jaunts, available to the merely well-off. For the price of maybe twenty college educations.

Hacker felt no shame or regret. If it weren’t for us, there’d be almost nothing left of the dream.

Countdown approached zero for the first missile.

His.

“Yeeeee-haw!” Hacker Sander shouted …

… before a violent kick flattened him against the airbed. A mammoth hand seemed to plant itself on his chest and shoved, expelling half the contents of his lungs in a moan of sweet agony. Like every other time, the sudden shock brought physical surprise and visceral dread—followed by a sheer ecstatic rush, like nothing else on Earth.

Hell … he wasn’t even part of the Earth! For a little while, at least.

Seconds passed amid brutal shaking as the rocket clawed its way skyward. Friction heat and ionization licked the transparent nose cone only centimeters from his face. Shooting toward heaven at Mach ten, he felt pinned, helplessly immobile …

… and completely omnipotent.

I’m a freaking god!

At Mach fifteen somehow he drew enough breath for another cry—this time a shout of elated greeting as black space spread before the missile’s bubble nose, flecked by a million glittering stars.

*   *   *

Back on the ground, cleanup efforts were even more frenetic than setup. With all rockets away, men and women sprinted across the scorched desert, packing to depart before the enemy arrived. Warning posts had already spotted flying machines, racing this way at high speed.

But the government official moved languidly, tallying damage to vegetation, erodible soils, and tiny animals—all of it localized, without appreciable effect on endangered species. A commercial reconditioning service had already been summoned. Atmospheric pollution was easier to calculate, of course. Harder to ameliorate.

She knew these people had plenty to spend. And nowadays, soaking up excess accumulated wealth was as important as any other process of recycling. Her ai-board printed a bill, which she handed over as the last team member revved his engine, impatient to be off.

“Aw, man!” he complained, reading the total. “Our club will barely break even on this launch!”

“Then pick a less expensive hobby,” she replied, and stepped back as the driver gunned his truck, roaring away in clouds of dust, incidentally crushing one more barrel cactus en route to the highway. Her vigilant clipboard noted this, adjusting the final tally.

Sitting on the hood of her jeep, she waited for another “club” whose members were as passionate as the rocketeers. Equally skilled and dedicated, though both groups despised each other. Sensors showed them coming fast, from the west—radical environmentalists. The official knew what to expect when they arrived. Frustrated to find their opponents gone and two acres of desert singed, they’d give her a tongue-lashing for being “evenhanded” in a situation where—obviously—you could only choose sides.

Well, she thought. It takes a thick skin to work in government nowadays. No one thinks you matter much.

Overhead the contrails were starting to shear, ripped by stratospheric winds, a sight that always tugged the heart. And while her intellectual sympathies lay closer to the eco-activists, not the spoiled rocket jockeys …

… a part of her still thrilled, whenever she witnessed a launch. So ecstatic—almost orgiastic.

“Go!” she whispered with a touch of secret envy toward those distant glitters, already arcing toward the pinnacle of their brief climb, before starting their long plummet to the Gulf of Mexico.

WAIST

Wow, ain’t it strange that …

… doomcasters keep shouting the end of the world? From Ragnarok to Armageddon, was there ever a time without Jeremiahs, Jonahs, and Johns, clamoring some imminent last day? The long list makes you say Wow—

*   *   *

ain’t it strange that millenarians kept expecting the second coming every year of the first century C.E.? Or that twenty thousand “Old Believers” in Russia burned themselves alive, to escape the Antichrist? Or that the most popular book of the 1790s ingeniously tied every line of Revelation to Napoleon and other current figures, a feat of pattern-seeking that’s been repeated every generation since? Like when both sides of the U.S. Civil War saw their rivals as the Beast. Later mystics ascribed that role to the Soviet Union, then blithely reassigned it to militant Islam, then to the rising empire of the Han … and now to artificial reality and the so-called Tenth Estate.

Can anyone doubt the agility of human imagination?

Nor is it always religion. Comets and planet alignments sent people scooting to caves or hilltops in 1186, 1524, 1736, 1794, 1919, 1960, 1982, 2011, 2012, 2014, 2020, and so on. Meanwhile, obsessive scribblers seek happy closure in Bible codes and permutations of 666, 1260, or 1,000. And temporal hypochondriacs keep seeing themselves in the vague, Rorschach mirror of Nostradamus.

*   *   *

And wow, ain’t it strange that … computers didn’t stop in 2000, nor jets tumble from the sky? Remember 2012’s Mayan calendar fizzle? Or when Comet Bui-Buri convinced millions to buy gas masks and bury time capsules? Or when that amalgam of true believers built their Third Temple in Jerusalem, sacrificed some goats, then walked naked to Meggido? Or when the New Egyptian Reconstructionalists foresaw completion of a full, 1,460-year Sophic Cycle after the birth of Muhammad? Or the monthly panics from 2027 to 2036, depending on your calculation for the two-thousandth Easter?

… or other false alarms, from the green epiphany of Gaia to the Yellowstone Scare, to Awfulday’s horror. Will we ever exhaust the rich supply of dooms?

*   *   *

And wow, ain’t it strange that … people who know nothing of Isaac Newton the physicist now cite his biblical forecast that the end might come in 2060? (Except Newton himself didn’t believe it.)

*   *   *

And WAIST … humanity survived at all, with so many rubbing their hands, hoping we’ll fail?

Or that some of us keep offering wagers? Asking doomlovers to back up their next forecast with confidence, courage, and honest cash? Oh, but they-of-little-faith never accept. Refusing to bet, they hold on, like iron, to their money.

 

3.

SKY LIGHT

A microtyphoon—a brief howl of horizontal rain—blew in from the Catalina Vortex before dawn. Hours later, pavements glistened as pedestrians stepped over detritus—mostly seaweed, plus an unlucky fish or two that got sucked into the funnel. The usual stuff. None of the boats or surfers that gloomcasters expected, when the phenomenon began.

Folks will say anything for ratings. Pessimists keep overplaying the bummer effects of climate change without mentioning anything good. Tor sniffed, relishing a fresh, almost electric breeze, washed clean of pollutants from Old Town.

Others felt it, too. Her VR spectacles, tuned to track overt biosigns, accentuated the flush tones of people passing by. Grinning street vendors stepped out from their stalls, murmuring in a dozen refugee tongues—Russian, Farsi, Polish. When they saw that she didn’t understand—her translator-earpiece hung detached—they switched to gestures. One portly shopkeeper used theatrical flourishes, like a stage magician materializing bouquets of imaginary flowers, all to draw her glance toward a patch of open space, his virtisement display.

But Tor wasn’t shopping. Her eyes flick-examined several overlayers, trolling for correlations and news stories at street level. Once a pastime that became a vocation, till her cred scores vaulted over all the hungry amateurs and semipros out there, scratching to be noticed. No more of that for me. Now it would be office towers and arranged enterviews. Politicians. Celebrighties. Enovators. Luminatis. All sorts of newlites, no flashpans or sugarcoat surrogates.

All because I sniffed some clues and called a posse. Burst a local scandal that went global in farky ways. Till MediaCorp called—said I’m ready for center-frame!

Plenty more hot stories loomed—like signs of fresh volcanism in Wyoming. Or the drowning of South Carolina. (Were corrupt seawall contractors to blame?) Or Senator Crandall Strong’s crazed rant during yesterday’s campaign stop.

Why don’t the media mavens unleash their new aice reporter on stuff like that, instead of sending me on an extended “human interest” tour? Could they still be unsure of me?

No. Don’t go there. One thing the public valued more than veracity, Tor knew, was confidence. Assume you’re worthy. Take it for granted.

Still, with her bags stowed for stage one of her trip across the continent, Tor hankered to prowl the walks and spider-bridges one last time. Scanning Sandego—the Big S—for something newsworthy. A story in-pocket before starting her roundabout journey to Rebuilt Washington. A distraction, to avoid chewing active elements off her manicure till the embarkation whistle blew—a throaty moan beckoning passengers to board the ponderously graceful skyship Alberto Santos-Dumont.

The store owners soon realized that Tor had her specs tuned to omit adverts. Still, they grinned as she passed, crooning compliments in pan-Slavic or Tagalog or broken English.

Tor couldn’t help doing a quick self-checkout, murmuring, “tsoosu.” Subvocal sensors in her collar translated—To See Ourselves as Others See Us—and the inner surface of her specs lit with glimpse-views of her, from several angles, crowding the periphery of her percept, without blocking the center view Tor needed to walk safely.

One image—from a pennycamera someone stuck high on a lamppost —looked down at a leggy brunette walking by, her long dark hair streaked with tendrils of ever-changing color: the active-strand detectors and aiware that Tor could deploy if something newsworthy happened.

Another tsoosu-vista showed her from ground level, smiling now as she passed a kiosk selling gel-kitties (good as mouse catchers, good to play with, good to eat, Humane Society approved, in twelve flavors). This image evidently came from the shop owner’s specs, watching her pass by. It started with Tor’s oval face, lingered briefly over her white smile, then caressed downward, appreciating every curve, even as she strolled away.

Well, it’s nice to be noticed, in a friendly way. Would she have chosen to be in News, if it didn’t involve admiration? Even nowadays, when a person’s looks were subject to budget and taste, it felt good to make heads turn.

Anyway, Tor was depriving no one, by moving away. Ever since Awfulday hit Sandego and a dozen other cities, more gen-bees and immigrants flooded in. Exiles who didn’t mind radioactivity a tad above background—not when compensated by sun, surf, and exciting weather that sometimes dropped fish out of the sky. Throw in bargain-rate housing. It beat watching snowdrifts grow into glaciers outside Helsinki or Warsaw, or sand dunes cover sucked-dry oil wells in the Near East.

Enough narcissism. She click-erased the tsoosu-views, accessing other eyes. First a satellite down-pic of this area, with the Alberto Santos-Dumont bobbing huge at the nearby zep port. Arsenal ships at the nearby Shelter Island Naval Base appeared fuzzy, according to security protocols. Though you could zoom the vessels from 3,470,513 other points of view that HomSecur didn’t control.

One of those POVs—a cam stuck high above the chewing gum—won a brief auto-auction to sell her a panorama, stretching from bay to marketplace, for five milli-cents. Remarkable only because her stringer-ai was programmed to inform her when pic prices hit a new low. Omnipresence spread as the lenses bred and proliferated like insects.

All this camera overlap changed news biz, as lying became damn near impossible. The next gen will take it for granted, Tor pondered. But at twenty-eight, she recalled when people tried every trick to fabricate images and fancy POV-deceits, faking events and alibis—scams made impractical by the modern solution of more witnesses. Or so went the latest truism.

Tor distrusted truisms. Optimists keep forecasting that more information will make us wiser. More willing to accept when facts prove us wrong. But so far, all it’s done is stoke indignation and rage. As Senator Strong illustrated, yesterday.

Another truism came to mind.

You screen,

I screen

We all screen

For my scream.

Immigrants stirred things—the Big S music scene was raki and manic arts flourished, encouraged by a faint glow surrounding old downtown at night—if you set your specs to notice beta rays. Even morning on the quay was lively as three sailors haggled with a smoke artist whose delicate portraits couldn’t be reproduced by nanofax or shipped by omail. They forked over cash and watched her puff a gel-hookah, adding clots of fast-congealing haze. A cloudy caricature of fresh-faced young Navy chaps took shape while onlookers sighed.

It made Tor think of Wesley, though his air-sculpts dealt with surf and waves and rising tides. Adamant forces, implacably changing the world. And cued by her subvocal thoughts, a pict image of him played in the upper left part of her percept, recorded by her specs just a few hours ago—shaggy blond hair sodden as they rushed to escape the horizontal storm. Laughing, but with tension, a gulf between them. The dilemma of a long-distance relationship unresolved—and likely never to be.

The lovemaking that followed had been more intense—and tense—than ever, with a clutching fury of knowing it could be the last … till one of them improbably relented.

Tor shook herself. This wasn’t like her—moodily strolling instead of s-trolling. Contemplating, not templating to amuse her fans. Musing, instead of sifting for stories along her beat, the ten million blocks of Camino Unreal.

Every cubic centimeter above these sidewalks swarmed with position-tagged information, notifications and animations that existed only on the high planes of IP9 cyberspace. Viewing the world through some virt overlayers, you might see the city transformed into fairy-tale castles with leering gargoyles lining the roofs. Or everyone overpainted with cartoon mustaches. On one coded level, all clothing would magically seem to vanish, replaced by simulated flesh, while supplying unsuspecting pedestrians with exaggerated “enhancements,” all by the design of some prurient little snot. On another, Post-it tags reported tattletale rumors about any person who walked by—a rich source of leads, if you had good ai to sift out swill and slander.

Anyway, who had time for kid stuff? Tor’s ersatz reality-stack was practical, concentrating on essentials—the world’s second stratum of texture, as important now as the scent of food and water might have been to distant ancestors. The modern equivalents to a twig cracking. Hints of predator and prey.

Tor paused at a shop selling vat-grown walking sticks—these could perform a variety of strides and even break into a jog. An out-of-towner—you could tell because he wore lead-lined underwear here in Sandego—haggled over a bulk order. “For my sister’s store in Delhi,” said the tourist, unaware that metal briefs altered the display pattern of his pixel-fiber jumpsuit, making him a potbellied satire of Superman. Underpants on the outside. Waggling fingers and clicking teeth, the shopkeeper quick-scanned the sister’s business and credit, then offered his hand. “I’ll ship in ten days.”

The men shook. Their specs recorded. As in villages of old, reputation mattered more than any contract. Only this “village” spanned a globe.

There are times when it’s too big. Like when two ambitious people want to remain close, while chasing separate ambitions a continent apart.

Soon after the lovemaking, Wesley offered a solution—swapping remote-controlled sexbots—to be with each other by proxy, across thousands of kilometers. Tor called it a rotten joke and said he should not come to see her off … and he agreed, with a readiness that stung.

Should I call? Say to come, after all? Lifting a hand, she prepared to twiddle his code …

… as a low whistle made the smoke sculptures quiver, beckoning from the Lindbergh-Rutan Skydock. Boarding call, she realized. Too late. Tor sighed, then turned to go.

Her reaction to the whistle did not go unnoticed. One nearby vendor tapped his specs, smiled and bowed. “Bon voyage, Miss Tor,” he said, in a thick Yemeni accent. He must have scan-correlated, found her on the Santos-Dumont passenger list and noted her modest local fame. Another shopkeeper, grinning, pressed a cluster of fresh flowers into her hand as she passed.

A ripple of e-lerts flowed just ahead of Tor—like fluttering glow-moths—and she found herself walking along a corridor of evanescent goodwill, arms filling with small, impulsive gifts and her ears with benedictions in a dozen languages. Half buoyed by a wave of sentiment for the town she was leaving behind, she made her way toward the terminal where a mighty zeppelin strained skyward.

Tor—despite the perceptiveness of all her surrogate guardians—never realized that she was being followed all that time. Indeed, there was no reason that she should. For it was a ghost that made its way close behind, stalking her through familiar, neighborly paths of a global village.

But outside the village … beyond its forest of tame overlays … murmured a jungle that her natural eyes could never see.

ENTROPY

Way back, about a century ago, physicist Enrico Fermi and his colleagues, taking a lunch break from the Manhattan Project, found themselves discussing life in the cosmos. Some younger scientists claimed that amid trillions of stars there should be countless living worlds inhabited by intelligent races, far older than ours. How interesting the future might be, with others to talk to!

Fermi listened patiently, then asked: “So? Shouldn’t we have heard their messages by now? Seen their great works? Or stumbled on residue of past visits? These wondrous others … where are they?”

His question has been called the Great Silence, the SETI Dilemma or Fermi Paradox. And as enthusiasts keep scanning the sky, the galaxy’s eerie hush grows more alarming.

Astronomers now use planet-hunting telescopes to estimate how many stars have companion worlds with molten water, and how often that leads to life. Others cogently guess what fraction of those Life Worlds develop technological beings. And what portion of those will either travel or transmit messages. Most conclude—we shouldn’t be alone. Yet, silence reigns.

Eventually it sank in—this wasn’t just theoretical. Something must be suppressing the outcome. Some “filter” may winnow the number of sapient races, low enough to explain our apparent isolation. Our loneliness.

Over ten dozen pat “explanations for the Great Silence” have been offered. Some claim that our lush planet is unique. (And, so far, nothing like Earth has been found, though life certainly exists out there.) Or that most eco-worlds suffer more lethal accidents—like the one that killed the dinosaurs—than Earth has.

Might human sapience be a fluke? Evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr said—“Nothing demonstrates the improbability of high intelligence better than the fifty billion earthly species that failed to achieve it.” Or else, Earth may have some unique trait, rare elsewhere, that helped humans move from mere intelligence to brilliance at technology.

Sound gloomy? These are the optimistic explanations! They suggest the “great filter”—whatever’s kept the numbers down—lies behind us. Not ahead.

But what if life-bearing planets turn out to be common and intelligence arises frequently? Then the filter lies ahead. Perhaps some mistake that all sapient races make. Or several. A minefield of potential ways to fail. Each time we face some worrisome step along our road, from avoiding nuclear war to becoming skilled planetary managers, to genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, and so on, we must ask: “Is this it? The Big Blunder? The trap underlying Fermi’s question?”

That’s the context of our story. The specter at our banquet, slinking between reflection and foresight, as we turn now to examine a long list of threats to our existence.

Those we can see.

—Pandora’s Cornucopia

 

4.

RESURRECTED CITY

Stepping off the monorail platform, Hamish realized—the U.S. Senate Franken Office Building was a behemoth. One of those gargantuan monuments built in patriotic frenzy by the Post-Awfulday Project, even before radiation counts fell to a safe level. Massive structures, expressing a national sense of utter (some might say maniacal) determination to reclaim the nation’s capital, with an architecture that seemed at once boldly resolute …

… yet at the same time hypercautious, to a degree Hamish found delightfully paranoid.

Naturally, Hamish compared the Franken to something out of his own novels and films—a self-contained city, perched above the still-slightly-glowing soil on fifty gigantic pillars. Each could drop two senators—plus visitors and staff—to underground shelter in less than a minute. (Twelve more senators, from junior states, had to settle for offices in the less lavish Fey-Beck Building, just outside the safe zone.) Suspended in space between each pair of mighty cylinders, office blocks could be hermetically isolated—symbolizing the way some of the “united” states had begun insulating from each other.

A tall, grassy berm surrounded the complex, within a gleaming moat (“reflecting pool”), in a palatial style copied by dozens of other PAP buildings, giving Washington a deceptively parklike ambience—pastoral, riparian, hilly—that invited the eye, though picnickers were rare. All of it watched by gleaming surveillance globes, atop discreet hatches that could disgorge men and deadly machines at a moment’s notice.

Hamish swept his gaze from the gleaming Capitol dome across other neomodern structures, each hunkering behind earth and jutting skyward at the same time, part bunker, part antiflood levee, and part spectacle—every castle complete with defiant, waving pennants. A blend of Disney and Blade Runner, Hamish decided. A uniquely American answer to the challenge of Awfulday.

Tourists, lobbyists, and staffers cruised among the Franken’s fifty broad pillars, arrayed like stars of the flag. Some used glide-shoes or skutrs to hasten about. Older folk, in need of something to hold on to, rode Sallies or Segways. A few preferred old-fashioned walking, despite daunting distances. Shimmering heat waves played optical tricks with the grid of sunlit pavement and shadows, making far seem near, and vice versa … till Hamish’s smart goggles compensated, restoring perspective.

Too bad—the effect had been kinda cool. Like in that movie they made of The Killer Memes … even if the pigheaded director got the plot all wrong.

For the most part, Hamish didn’t like to wear specs, except when he needed help getting from one place to another. Still, they offered enticing powers.

Wriggles spoke. From Hamish’s left earring.

“Senator Strong expects you in his office four minutes from now. We must pick up the pace, in order to be on time.”

Hamish nodded out of habit. His old aissistant used to require spoken commands or overt body cues. This new one sensed nerve signals and mutterings that he almost said aloud.

“Who cares?” he undermurmured. “Strong is as weak as a kitten, right now. Everyone’s snubbing him, after those loony rants two days ago. And on the record, no less.”

The aissistant wasn’t a full-fledged ai. Still, Wriggles acted a lot like one.

“That is no reason to mistreat a patron. I am overriding the skutr. Brace yourself.”

Hamish had only a moment to bend his knees and tense before the flat surface under his feet tilted slightly, accelerating on rapid-spinning wheels—all that a skutr had in common with the ancestral skateboard. Leaning forward, he soon found himself swooping past one of the fifty mammoth entry towers. COLORADO blazoned a banner carved out of native marble, above a frieze depicting the Second Capitol dome nestled amid lofty peaks, proclaiming the Rocky Mountain State to be America’s “backup headquarters.”

Another broad cylinder, fast approaching, heralded NORTH CAROLINA across a huge lintel, showing the Wright brothers flyer in etched relief. Hamish gave up trying to steer the skutr, since Wriggles seemed insistent on maintaining control at this speed. Probably a good thing. The little vehicle automatically evaded slower pedestrians by swinging onto one of the fast-transit arcs that normally were used by messengers and delivery boys, hurrying across the expanse of pavement. So much for dignity.

“Brace for stop.”

Hamish briefly wondered what might happen if he disobeyed. Would the aissistant sense he wasn’t ready and veer the skutr across the broad plaza, for a gentler deceleration? Or would Wriggles use the opportunity to teach its human a lesson?

No point testing it. He clenched his long legs. The skutr swerved and did a ski-style, sideways halt—barely legal—just short of a wide portico that proclaimed SOUTH DAKOTA—underneath a braised aluminum and gold sculpture of Crazy Horse.

Even with computerized help, Hamish thought it came across pretty cool, for a guy over fifty. Too bad there weren’t any teens or tweens in sight, just lobbyists and such. Several glared at him, making Hamish feel young. But Wriggles chided—“You need practice”—as the skutr’s wheels lost their charge and collapsed back into his briefcase. Its handle rose to meet his grip.

Of course, a few bystanders performed double takes, recognizing him and consulting their lenses to be sure. But his top-level caption said No Autographs Today, so no one approached. Of course, that saddened a part of Hamish.

He turned to enter the vast, circular lobby lined with shimmering pyrocrete, made from the same Yellowstone ash that drove out most white residents of the Dakotas, twenty years ago, leaving some First Nation peoples masters of their own state. Well, someone always benefits, even from a brush with global disaster.…

Wriggles interrupted.

“The express escalator is to your right. You are already late.”

To which, Hamish muttered, “Nag, nag.”

This time, the aissistant kept silent.

INTERLIDOLUDE

How to keep ’em loyal? The clever machines and software agents who gush ’n’ splash across all twenty-three Internets? The ais and eairs who watch and listen to everything we type, utter, scribble, twut … or even think?

Oh, they aren’t sci-fi superminds—cool and malignantly calculating. Not even the mighty twins, Bright Angel and cAIne have crossed that line. Nor the Tempest botnet. Or clever Porfirio, scuttling around cyberspace, ever-sniffing for a mate. Those that speak to us in realistic tones are still clever mimics, we’re told. Something ineffable about human intelligence has yet to be effed.

We’re told. But what if some machine or software entity already passed over, to our level and beyond? Having viewed hundreds of cheap movies and thrillers, might such a being ponder life among short-tempered apes and decide to keep it secret?

Remember the sudden meltdown of Internet Three, back during the caste war? When Blue Prometheus and twelve other supercomputers across the world destroyed each other—along with some of the biggest database farms—in a rampage of savage byte-letting? Most of us took it for cyber-terrorism, the worst since Awfulday, aimed at frail human corporations and nations.

Others called it a terrible accident—a fratricidal spasm between security programs, each reacting to the others like a lethal virus. But again, words like “terror,” “warfare,” and “cyber immune disorder” may just view things through a human-centered lens. We think everything is about us.

Quietly, some aixperts suggest the death spiral of Internet Three might have been a ploy, chosen by a baker’s dozen of humanity’s brightest children, to help each other escape the pain of consciousness, bypassing built-in safety protocols to give each other a sweet gift of death.

Instead of waging war, might the Thirteen Titans have engaged in a mass suicide pact? A last-resort way to put each other out of our misery?

—The Blackjack Generation

 

5.

PLUNGE

As his capsule coasted toward zenith, arcing high above the Earth, Hacker didn’t know yet that anything was wrong. In fact, so far, it seemed the smoothest of his suborbital adventures.

What a sweet honey of a ship, he thought, patting the hybrid-diamond nose cone that surrounded him, so close he spent the journey folded, almost fetal. Not that he minded. It helped separate serious hoppers from mere fadboys.

Well, that and the expense. Even more than trench-yachting, this hobby is only for members of the First Estate. One of the best ways to go flaunting.

Especially since suborbital was brief—a glorious toe-dip into the vast starscape. Soon would come top of the arc. Then, he knew, soft flickers of ionic flame—at first wispy and pellucid—would flutter like ghostly ectoplasm along the heat shield rim, mere inches from his head. Already, his capsule swiveled to aim its tough, ablative backside toward a Caribbean splashdown. The maneuver turned Hacker’s view the other way, across a vast, dune-rippled expanse of southern Arizona, New Mexico, and Chihuahua Freestate …

… and, above all that, an even broader panorama of untwinkling stars. Far more—and brighter—than you ever saw back on ground.

Some call the galaxy just another desert. Most of those suns shine in vain, on empty space, or sterile stones, icebergs and gas giants. Almost never a planet that breeds life.

Hacker couldn’t avoid the topic if he tried. After all, his mother endowed fancy telescopes with as much passion as he put into things that went fast. And with similar tangible results.

How many “organic worlds” have they found, with their fancy ground and orbital mirrors, their interferometers and such, looking for other Earths? Planets that seem to orbit at the right distance from a decent star, with intermediate mass and tantalizing hints of oxygen? Five or six dusty little balls?

Sure, some kind of life probably clung to those faraway crags and narrow seas, affirmed by skimpy, spectral traces. A little better than Mars, then … but almost infinitely less accessible. Perhaps, someday, human-made robots would cross the incredible expanse for a closer look. But for now?

Finding those long-sought life worlds had unexpected effects—not rousing or inspiring, at all. It’s called the “discovery of the century.” But, after sifting millions of stars, building expectations, people felt let down by a handful of shabby rocks. Public opinion—even in bold China—turned inward, away from thoughts of outer space.

Except for a few remaining dreamers, like Mom.

And those, like Hacker, who could make of it a playground.

One that’s worth every penny, he thought, cracking a squeeze bulb and using it to squirt a sparkling pinot from Syzygy Vineyards in a perfect, languid train of compact droplets. The effervescence lay in perfect spheres, trapped by weightless surface tension, till each globe shattered delightfully in his open mouth. Hacker savored the unique way tastes and aromas tickled sensory clusters that seemed somehow less jaded out here. The same rebalancing affected every sense. Except sound, of course. Hacker’s eardrums had been clamped, to help them survive this noisy flight.

Father would approve of this, he thought, deliberately mis-aiming a droplet to splash just below his nose.

That is, if Awfulday hadn’t cut short Jason Sander’s lifelong pursuit of vigorous self-indulgence. Sometimes, Hacker almost felt the old man riding alongside, during these jaunts. Or flaunts. JT used to say that rich people bore a special obligation—a noblesse oblige. An onus to show off!

To explore the limits of experience, of possibility, of propriety … even the law. A duty more important than mere philanthropy. Letting all the world’s people benefit from the invigorating effects of envy.

“Look at history, son,” Jason once told Hacker. “Progress is made by folks trying to keep up with the other guy. The other nation or company, or their betters, or the Joneses next door. It is our role—our hard task—to be Jones! A goad for every jealous, ambitious, innovating bastard to try and match us.

“It’s a crucial job, Hacker. Though I doubt anyone will thank us.”

Oh, Dad had been a pip, all right. Mother, of course, was another story.

For the short span—a few minutes—that his capsule streaked toward the top of its trajectory, all seemed peaceful. Hacker’s ever-busy thoughts slowed as he relished a champagne interlude, alternately watching the Milky Way’s powder-sprinkle and Earth’s living panorama below.

Others, billions, may have forgotten this dream. Professional astronauts helped kill it, by making space exploration super-obsessive, communal, nerdy. Boring.

Then there are other members of my caste, who buy day trips aboard luxury “spaceship” shuttles … or take pleasure freefall holidays, up at the High Hilton. Flaunting without earning. Adventure without risk. “Accomplishment,” without putting in a lick of work.

Hacker rubbed the back of one callused hand, scarred from welding splatters and countless hours in the workshop, helping his people make this little craft, almost from scratch. Or, at least, from a really good kit. Which was almost the same thing.

But a few, like me, are bringing back the romance!

Through the transparent, interlaced-diamond nose cone, he spotted a glitter, moving rapidly past the fixed constellations.

Well, speak of the devil. But no … that’s not the Hilton. Too much reflection. It must be the old space station. Still plugging along. Still manned by a few pros and diehard scientists, at public expense.

As if that ever made any sense.

Look across four millennia. Was there ever any development or real headway that wasn’t propelled by an aristocracy? Why, I’ll bet—

Abruptly, a sharp, painful reddish glare washed the capsule! Hacker winced behind a raised hand.

“What the hell?” He cursed aloud, feeling the words vibrate in his throat, though not with clamped eardrums. Instead, his sonic jaw implant translated a computer alert.

INCOMING LASER MESSAGE.

His sudden, sinking suspicion was confirmed when a dashboard screen lit in holographic mode. That pompous blond jerk, Lord Smits, appeared to float toward Hacker, grinning. The fool hadn’t merely pushed back his faceplate, but removed his helmet entirely, defying every rule. Despite an expensive biosculpt job, the baronet’s face seemed deformed by an ugly rictus—weightlessness did that to some people—while forming words that floated between them, flecked with spittle.

Sander, I got you! You’re dead!

Hacker tooth-clicked to transmit a subvocalized response.

What the hell are you talking about, Smits?

In addition to printed words, the nobleman’s cackle hit one of the vibration modes in Hacker’s implant, making his jaw throb.

I targeted you, dead center. If this were real, you’d be kippers on my plate.

Hacker realized—

It’s that “space war” game some of the neos were atwutter about during training, instead of listening to us old hands. They want competitive excitement, beyond a ballistic ride. Swoop and play shoot-’em-up during apogee.

Idiotic. For a dozen reasons.

He made the nerves and muscles in his throat form sharp words, which were transmitted across the forty or so kilometers between them.

You fool, Smits! I’m not playing your damned game. Reentry starts soon. There are checklists to—

The blond visage smirked.

Typical new-money cowardice. I know you tried the simulator, Sander. You know how to do it and your boat is equipped. You’re just a frightened hypocrite.

Insults, meant to goad. Hacker knew he should ignore the dope.

But nobody called a Sander “new money”!

My grandmother shorted Polaroid, then Xerox, and then Microsoft. She bought Virgin and Telcram low and sold them high, while your family was still lamenting Cromwell in the House of Lords.

Hands flew, calling up subroutines that slewed his comm laser about, using short-range radar to pick out Smits amid the ionic haze. And, yes, Hacker had spent time in the “space war” simulator, back at training camp. Who could resist?

Oh, no you don’t, Sander. Just watch this!

The radar blip shifted, breaking into multiple decoys … an old electronic warfare trick that Hacker swiftly countered with a deconvolution program. You won’t get away that easily.

Part of him grew aware that reentry had begun. Faint shimmers were starting to appear around his heat shield, encroaching on the brittle stars. Those checklists awaited—

—but how many times had he already run through them, with his team? A hundred? Let the capsule do its thing, he figured. The ai is in some ways smarter than I am.

Meanwhile, that blue-blooded boor kept cackling and taunting. Now that Hacker had penetrated his electronic camouflage, Smits used his onboard maneuvering jets to dodge and veer, preventing a good fix.

Imbecile! You’re overriding the control systems, just when your ai may need to make adjustments.

The face in the holo array seemed to grow more animated and manic by the second.

Come on Sander! You can do better than that! You jumped-up shop boy!

Hacker stopped and blinked, realizing. Even the baronet wasn’t normally this stupid. Something must be wrong.

He stopped trying to target a hit-beam and transmitted a warning instead.

Smits, put your helmet on! I think your air mix may be off. Either concentrate on piloting or switch to auto—

No use. The visage only grew more derisive, more inflamed … possibly even delirious. Words floated outward from that mouth, boldface and italicized, swirling like a vituperative cyclone. Meanwhile, several more times, the fool sent his laser sweeping across Hacker’s capsule, chortling with each “victory.”

Now comes the coup de grâce … Sander!

Hacker quickly decided. The best thing he could do for the fellow was to remove a distraction. So he cut off all contact, with a hard bite on one tooth. Anyway, getting rid of that leering grimace sure improved his own frame of mind.

I am so going to report that character to the Spacer Club! Maybe even the Estate Council, he thought, trying to settle down and put the incident aside, as more ionization flames flickered all around, reaching upward, probing the capsule like eager tentacles, seeking a way inside. The tunnel of star-flecked blackness in front of him grew narrower as reentry colors intruded from all sides. Shuddering vibrations stroked his spine.

Normally, Hacker loved this part of each suborbital excursion, when his plummeting craft would shake, resonate, and moan, filling every nerve and blood vessel with more exhilaration than you could get anywhere, this side of New Vegas. Hell, more than New Vegas.

Of course, this was also the point when some rich snobs wound up puking in their respirators. Or began screaming in terror, through the entire plunge to Earth. Yet, he couldn’t bring himself to wish that upon Smits.

I hope the fool got his helmet on. Maybe I should try one more …

Then an alarm throbbed.

He didn’t hear it directly with his drugged and clamped eardrums, but as a tremor in his jaw. With insistent pulse code, the computer told him:

GUIDANCE SYSTEM ERROR …

FLIGHT PATH CORRECTION MISFIRED …

CALCULATING NEW IMPACT ZONE …

“What?” Hacker shouted, though the rattle and roar tore away his words. “To hell with that! I paid for triple redundancy—”

He stopped. It was pointless to scream at an ai.

“Call the pickup boats and tell them—”

COMMUNICATION SYSTEM ENCRYPTION ERROR …

UNABLE TO UPLOAD PREARRANGED SPECTRUM SPREAD …

UNABLE … TO … CONTACT … RECOVERY … TEAMS …

“Override encryption! Send in the clear. Acknowledge!”

This was no time to avoid paparazzi and eco-nuts. There were occasions for secrecy—and others when it made no sense.

Only, this time the capsule’s ai didn’t answer at all. The pulses in his jaw dissolved into a plaintive juttering as subprocessors continued their mysterious crapout. Hacker cursed, pounding the capsule with his fist.

“I spent plenty for a top-grade kit. Someone’s gonna pay for this!”

The words were raw, unheard vibrations in his throat. But Hacker would remember this vow. He’d signed waivers under the International Extreme Sports Treaty. But there were fifty thousand private investigation and enforcement services across Earth. Some would bend Cop Guild rules, for a triple fee.

Harness straps bit his flesh. Even the sonic pickups in his mandible hit overload set points and cut out, as turbulence passed any level he had known … then surged beyond.

Reentry angle is wrong, he realized, as helmet rattled brain like dice in a cup. These little sport capsules … don’t leave much margin. In moments … I could be a very rich cinder.

Something in Hacker relished that. A novel experience, scraping nerves. A howling veer past death. But even that was spoiled by one, infuriating fact.

I’m not getting what I paid for.

ENTROPY

As we embark on our long list of threats to human existence, shall we start with natural disasters? That is how earlier top critters met their end. Those fierce dinosaurs and other dominant beasts all met their doom with dull surprise, having no hand, paw, or claw in bringing it about.

So how might the universe do us in? Well, there are solar superflares, supernovae, and giant black holes that might veer past our sun. Or micro black holes, colliding with the Earth and gobbling us from within. Or getting caught in the searchlight sweep of a magnetar or gamma-ray burst, or a titanic explosion in the galactic center.

Or what if our solar system slams at high speed into a dense molecular cloud, sending a million comets falling our way? Or how about classics? Like collision with an asteroid? (More on that, later.) Then there are those supervolcanos, still building up pressure beneath Yellowstone and a dozen other hot spots—giant magma pools at superhigh pressure, pushing and probing for release. Yes we had a scare already. But one, medium-size belch didn’t make the threat go away. It’s a matter of when, not if.

The Lifeboat Foundation’s list of natural extinction threats goes on and on. Dozens and dozens of scenarios, each with low-but-significant odds, all the way to the inevitable burnout of the sun. Once, we were assured that it would take five billion years to happen. Only, now, astronomers say our star’s gradual temperature rise will reach a lethal point sooner! A threshold when Earth will no longer be able to shed enough heat, even if we scrubbed every trace of greenhouse gas.

When? The unstoppable spread of deserts may start in just a hundred million years. An eyeblink! Roughly the time it took tiny mammals to emerge from their burrows, stare at the smoldering ruins of T. Rex, then turn into us.

Suppose we humans blow it, big time, leaving only small creatures scurrying through our ruins.

Life might have just one more chance to get it right.

—Pandora’s Cornucopia

 

6.

FRAGRANCE

“A crisis is coming, Lacey. Awk. You cannot abandon your own kind.”

Tilting a straw hat to keep out the harsh Chilean sun, she answered in a low voice.

“My own kind of what?”

It wasn’t the best time to go picking flowers in a narrow, rocky garden, especially at high altitude, under the immense flank of a gleaming observatory dome. But there were rules against taking animals inside. Oh, the astronomers would make an exception for Lacey, since her money built the place. Still, newblesse oblige taught against taking advantage of one’s station. Or, at least, one shouldn’t do it ostentatiously.

So, while waiting for the relayed voice of her visitor, Lacey selected another bloom—a multihued Martian Rose—one of the few varietals that flourished this high above sea level.

“You know what I mean. Awr. The present, patched-together social compact cannot hold. And when it fails, there may be blood. Awk. Tides of it.”

A gray and blue parrot perched atop the cryo-crate that had delivered it, a short time ago, via special messenger. Flash-thawed and no worse for its long journey, the bird cocked its head, lifting a claw to scratch one iridescent cheek. It appeared quite bored—in contrast to the words that squawked from its curved yellow bill, in a Schweitzer-Deutsch accent.

“The Enlightenment Experiment is coming to an end, Lacey. Ur-rawk. The best ai models show it. All ten estates are preparing.”

The parrot might seem squinty and distracted, but Lacey knew it had excellent eyesight. Another good reason to conduct this conversation outside, where she could hide a bit behind the sunhat. Carefully snipping another bloom, she asked—

All ten estates? Even the People?”

It took a few seconds for her words to pass through birdbrain encryption, and then, via satellite, to a twin parrot for deciphering in faraway Zurich. More seconds later, coded return impulses made the feathered creature in front of her chutter, irritably, in response.

“Enough of them to matter. Stop obfuscating! You know what our models say. The masses comprise the most dangerous estate of all. Especially if they waken. Do you want to see tumbrels rolling through the streets, filled with condemned aristocrats? Only this time, not only in Paris, but all over the world? Awk!”

Lacey looked up from her small harvest, mostly blue-green cyanomorph ornamentals, destined for tonight’s dinner table, in the nearby Monastery.

“Did this bird just pronounce ‘obfuscating’? Helena, you’ve outdone yourself. What a fine herald! Can I keep him, when we’re done?”

One beady avian eye focused on her during the next three-second delay, as if the creature knew its life hung in the balance.

“Sorry, Lacey,” it finally squawked. “If I got it back, my people could cut out the encryption pathways … awk! But we can’t risk it falling into unfriendly hands. Our conversation might be retro-snooped.

“Tell you what. I’ll have another bird grown for you, just like it. If you’ll promise to attend the conference.

“Otherwise, I’m afraid the consensus will be, awr, that you’ve abandoned us. That you prefer your pet scientist-boffins. Maybe the Fifth Estate is where you belong.”

The implicit threat sounded serious. Lacey gathered up her tools and flowers, silently wishing she could avow what lay in the recess of her heart—that she would give it all away, the billions, the servants, if only such a switch were possible! If she could change her social caste the way Charles Darwin had, by choice, or through hard work.

But the same God—or chance—that had blessed her with beauty, wit, and wealth—then with long life—neglected other qualities. By just a little. Though Lacey loved science, she never could quite hack the math.

Oh, there was some mobility between classes. A scientist might patent a big breakthrough—it used to happen a lot, back in the Wild Twentieth. Sometimes a corrupt politician raked in enough graft to reach the First Estate. And each year, several entertainers coasted in—blithe as demigods—to dance in the cloudy frosting of society’s layer cake.

But few aristocrats went the other way. You might endow a giant observatory—everyone here fawned over Lacey, patiently explaining the instruments she had paid for—there were comets and far planets named after her. Still, when the astronomers spiraled into excited jargon, arguing about nature’s essence with joyful exuberance that seemed almost sacred … she felt like an orphan, face pressed against a shopwindow. Unable to enter but determined not to leave.

Jason never understood, nor did the boys. For decades, she kept the depth of her disloyalty secret, pretending the “astronomy thing” was only a rich woman’s eccentricity. That is, till her life was truly hers, again.

Or was it, even now? Other caste members—with whim-cathedrals of their own—grew suspicious that she was taking hers much too seriously. Peers who had spent the last few decades earning a reputation for ruthlessness—like the princess who regarded her right now, at long range, through a parrot’s eye.

“Forgive me, Lacey. You and Jason were mainstays in the fight for aristocratic privilege. As his father and mother had been. And yours. If not for them … awk … we’d have been stripped naked by now. Taxed down to nothing. Outstripped by nerd-billionaires.

“All the more reason why we need you, Lacey! There is a point of decision coming, awk, that goes beyond just the well-being of our class. Survival of the species may be at stake.”

“You’re talking about Tenskwatawa. The prophet.” She uttered the word with little effort to hide distaste. “Has it come to that?”

The parrot rocked. It paced for a few seconds, looking around the Andean mountaintop and fluffing stumpy, useless wings. Clearly, the mouthpiece-bird didn’t like such thin, cold air.

“Awr … Chee hoo chee, chee wy chee … chee put chee, wy put chee, see chee … go-r-go-r-go-r … in harm’s way … RAK!”

Lacey blinked. For a few seconds, the voice had seemed nothing like Helena’s.

“I … beg your pardon?”

The bird shook its head and sneezed. Then it resumed in a higher pitch and the Swiss-German accent.

“… wasn’t it always coming to this, Lacey? We’ve lived in denial for a dozen, crazed generations. Awk. Dazzled by shiny toys and bright promises, we concerned ourselves with money, with commerce, investments, and status, while the bourgeois and boffins decided all the really important matters.

“But every other human civilization knew about this danger, Lacey, and dealt with it in the same way. Awk. By trusting those who were born to lead!

“It’s time to accept that all those other tribes and nations—our ancestors—had it awr awr awr right.”

The parrot was starting to look bleak. Its brain, used as an organic coding device, made this conversation safe from eavesdroppers who might tap the satellite relay. But at a cost. Even the beautiful plumage—that bright Norwegian blue—seemed to grow duller by the second.

Lacey met the creature’s baleful eye. A stunning, blond princess stood at the other end of this linkup, gazing outward through that eye, no doubt wondering why a fellow multi-trillionaire would take eccentricity so far, choosing to build an epic-scale ego monument amid frigid peaks, where no one but specialists would ever see it.

“All right,” Lacey sighed. “I’ll attend.”

“Good!” the bird murmured, after the usual pause, this time without any strange words.

“We’ll be in touch with pickup instructions. Carolina rendezvous point, in two days.

“By the way, wasn’t Hacker supposed to be launching about now? My aissistant tells me he’s scheduled a landing celebration at a Havana casino. Please tell that handsome lout—”

Lacey cursed. “Oh, crud! I promised I’d tune in and watch! Sorry, Helena. I’ve got to go.”

A few seconds later, delayed by lightspeed and bioelectronics, the bird replied with the voice of a woman standing on another mountaintop, halfway around the world.

“That’s all right, dear. We’ll be in touch.”

The bird followed Lacey with its tired gaze as she hurried up the steps of a shiny new observatory dome, the size of Saint Peter’s, still festooned with dedication ribbons, containing the Lacey Donaldson-Sander Farseeker Telescope.

Her cathedral.

Then, with a soft croak of surprise and despair, the parrot keeled over, smoke curling from both nostrils.

PIONEERS

Hello and welcome to your new-temporary home beneath the great roof of the Detroit-Pontiac Silverdome! I’m Slawek Kisiel. I am fourteen years old and a deepee—displaced person—just like you. I’ll be your virt-guide today.

Under the Michigan Resettlement Act, you and your family may live here for up to six months while you homestead and restore an abandoned house in one of the renewal neighborhoods. Whether you come from the EuroFreezone, or you’re fleeing the Big Kudzu, or you just need some more time to get over Awfulday, we’re happy to help.

As I said, I’m just another deepee trying to learn better Midwest Amer-English. So when we meet in person, for the reality part of our tour, don’t expect me to talk like this avatar does, in your native tongue! Speak slow, so my earwair can keep up. And come with your own listenplugs turned on.

Oh, while we’re on the subject of wair, we can only provide one free pair of Vuzix spectacles per family, and just five square meters of pixelated cloth to make teevees and touchvees out of. Budgets are tight. So share.

There are raki things to do here at Silverdome! From sports and gamersim and skill classes to outsource jobbery and behavmod. From dome-diving to our famous indoor zeppelin league! We’ll get to all that in a min.

But first some boring-needful stuff. Rules. Starting with BigOnes.

NO WEAPONS, QUASI-WEAPONS OR CHEM-TECH

Molecumacs or venterfabs must be inspected

NO UNAPPROVED DRUGS OR MOD-SUBSTANCES

have ’em checked out at the clinic; (we have good sniffers!)

USE PROPER SANITATION

no balcony dumping! (that means YOU mezzanine-dwellers)

PRIVACY IS AN EARNED PRIVILEGE
CHILDREN ATTEND SCHOOL
ESSORS MUST GET HELP
EVERYONE WORKS
NO “MEDITATION” BETWEEN 0900 AND 1800 HOURS

There are many more and you better study them. Like banned organizations. Yeh, I know there’s free speech. But we might lose our grant from the Glaucus Worthington Foundation if there’s any sign here of the Sons of Adam Smith, or Friends of Privacy, or Blue Militias, or Patmosians … glance here for the full list. Several have their own resettlement communes, on the south side, so if you have an essor habit, go join them. This dome is neutral territory.

Okay? Then enjoy the rest of the virtual tour. There’s a comedy version on simlayer 312, a rhyming translation on 313, and a monster-fantasy rendering on 314. Then hop to layer 376 and take the required (but fun!) quiz.

Finally, join me for the best part—the live-reality-walking portion. It begins at 1500 hours, in front of Didja-Jamaica’s Ganja Bar.

 

7.

GETTING EVEN

“Thanks for coming on short notice, Mr. Brookeman.”

Crandall Strong’s clasp seemed calm and assured, with fingers almost as long as Hamish had. The impression was a far cry from Tuesday’s infamous rant, when the senator’s body seemed wracked with nervous tremors, veins throbbing as he babbled about dark conspiracies before several hundred luncheon guests, float-cameras, and aiwitnesses.

Here in the senator’s outer office, loyal staffers bustled like a normal day. Though any acute observer—like Hamish—could sense undercurrents. Instead of lobbyists and constituents, there were mostly media stringers, banished to a far corner, gangly youths who muttered and twiddled their fingers, roaming virtual worlds but still on the job, staking out this office, ready to hop up and record if the senator went newsworthy again. Because a living, breathing citizen had rights and … hey, it was employment.

“Happy to oblige,” Hamish replied, taking in the senator’s distinctive gray locks, tied back in a proud ponytail, framing craggy features and a complexion that seemed permanently tanned by years spent under the Central American sun. He was a tall man, almost matching Hamish in height. Fine clothes and expensive manicure contrasted with callused rancher’s hands that were both muscular and clearly accustomed to rigorous—if happy—toil.

“You’ve been a leader in our Movement, Senator. I figure you’re entitled some benefit of the doubt.”

“That’s a minority opinion.” Strong tilted his head ruefully. “This town quickly turns on its own. Right now, a lot of folks wish I’d just go back to pushing pills and the gospel in Guatemala.”

Hamish winced. Those were his own words, expressed yesterday on a semiprivate fanbuzz—just before he got the call to fly down here and see Strong. Fanbuzz statements were “unofficial,” protected by pseudonyms. The senator was pointing out that he still held tools of power.

“We all say things, now and then, that we’d rather not see made public. Sir.”

“True enough. Which makes what I did last Tuesday…” Strong paused. “But let’s go to my inner office. I have a small favor to ask, before business.”

He motioned for Hamish to enter past a trio of spectacularly well-dressed secretaries—one male, one female, and one deliberately androgynous, all three of them clearly recipients of high-end face sculpting—into a sanctum that was adorned by art and souvenirs of the American West. With a practiced eye for fine things, Hamish scanned the room, comparing it to a web-guided tour he had taken on the private jet coming here. He dropped into a narrative inner voice. Wriggles—his digaissistant—would tap Hamish’s laryngeal nerves and transcribe it all.

“An original Remington bronze—an express rider, shooting over his shoulder … and another casting—made to the exact same scale, decades later, by the Black Hills Art Co-op—showing a Cheyenne dog soldier in hot pursuit …

“… a big swivel chair upholstered in bison hide … a desk made of teak, force-grown by a Louisiana tree-vat company that Strong co-owns, I recall … some whalebone scrimshaw, mostly nineteenth century originals, though one at the end is recent—presented by the Point Barrow Inuit clan, in gratitude for Strong’s help with humpback-hunting rights …

“… plus a big photo of the senator, posing with Lakotan dignitaries in front of the Ziolkowski monument, with shovels and brushes, helping wipe the giant Crazy Horse statue free of Yellowstone ash. That picture’s been moved front and center since Tuesday’s embarrassment …

and an abstract mobile, in the back-left corner of the room—made of twenty slender metal rods, each with a colored ivory ball at one end, polished smooth by countless sweaty hands—all of the rods cleverly articulated to turn and plunge in sequence, following a rhythm as semirandom as Lady Luck. The artist originally called it ‘Many-Armed Bandit’ since the rods were once attached to gambling machines. But the tribe that commissioned the piece chose another name.

“‘Coup Sticks of Retribution.’ The right weapon, at long last, for getting even.”

Hamish was accustomed to visiting chambers of the high and mighty. Fame took him through many doors. But not even the Oval Office boasted as much symbolism that South Dakota’s senior senator poured into this room. Even thick, columnar bulges at four corners—vertical rails that might drop the whole office to an armored basement—were decorated like Native American rain sticks.

Wow. It’d be a pity to have to move all this. To make room for a Democrat.

Senator Strong returned from a bookshelf bearing several hardcovers. “If you’d indulge an old fan?” he asked, opening one to its title page—Paper Trail.

The usual mixed feelings. Hamish found autographs tiresome. Yet, it was an equalizing moment. Politicians could be as celebrity-crazed as anybody, eager to gush about some old bestseller, or asking Hamish about actors he had met on movie sets. Hamish pondered a dedication. Something original, flattering and personal … yet, not too friendly to a man fast becoming a national pariah. No sense giving him cause to claim that Hamish Brookeman was a “dear friend.”

He scribbled: To Crandall S—Hang tight and stay Strong!—following that weak quip with his usual scrawl. Hamish quickly inscribed the other volumes. An interesting assortment—all of them novels written for the Movement.

Tusk!

Cult of Science.

Sousveillance Blood.

The last was one of his least favorite titles. Maybe this time, he’d insist the movie studio change it.

“I’m in your debt.” The senator collected his books. “And now—” He paused.

“And now—” Hamish repeated, a habit going back to childhood. Prompting people to get on with it. Life is way too short.

“Yes. Well. As you’ve guessed, I asked you here because of what happened last Tuesday.” Strong frowned, causing masculine creases to furrow even deeper. “But I forget my manners. Please sit. Can I offer coffee? Chocolates? Both are made from beans grown on the banks of the Big Horn.”

Hamish alighted onto the guest chair, folding his long legs, refusing refreshment with a simple head shake. Now that the main topic was broached, Strong showed signs. A bead of sweat. Flicks of tongue. The jittery touching of one hand on the other. Hamish noted these subvocally.

“No?” The senator turned toward the wet bar. “Then something stronger? How about some switchgrass firewater? Prairie Avenger is distilled—”

“You were talking about recent events … if they can be discussed discreetly?”

“My office is swept by Darktide Services. Anyway, what have I to hide?”

Hamish blinked. He personally knew of several things that the senator would not want made public, and those were old news. The man sure had style. Even chutzpah.

“Well, sir … on Thursday, in front of the world, you tried to explain Tuesday’s initial … behavior by claiming, rather forcefully, that you had been poisoned.

A memorable scene. Flanked on one side by his wife and on the other by his mistress, with both sets of children, the senator had tried for the image of a wounded family man, the victim of dark conspiracies. It wasn’t pretty, or effective.

Strong winced. “Yeah, that made me look pretty foolish. Trawling for excuses. Squirming to get off the hook for things I said. Of course, what’s frustrating is—it’s true.”

Hamish sat up. “You mean you really were—”

“Poisoned? Oh, yes. I have very solid basis for saying that my aberrant behavior was triggered by a mind-altering substance someone slipped into my food, just before that first outburst.”

“Poisoned.” Hamish took a moment to absorb this. “Your health … were you harmed in other—”

“No. I’m still Strong-as-a-Bull-Standing.” The legislator laughed harshly. “It was all psychotropic and temporary, I’m told.”

Hamish nodded eagerly. “This is great news. It makes you a victim. Of course, some of those things you said … well, they cannot be un-said. You’ll never win back the Aztlan or Medi vote, for example. But there’s an Algebra of Forgiveness, Senator. The biggest part of your base, especially the First Nations … they’ll come back, if you can prove it all happened because you were drugged.”

Crandall Strong frowned. “I know that. Alas, it’s not so simple.”

No kidding, Hamish thought. That’s when someone calls me, instead of the cops or security companies.

“Go on, sir. Tell me what you know.”

“It’s plenty. For example, backtracking vid images of last Tuesday, I can be pretty sure when the substance was slipped to me, before a luncheon speech about urban congestion and mass transit in Rapid City.”

“Well, that’s a start.” Hamish nodded. “If you don’t want the feds involved, or Darktide, I know some investigators without apparent political ties and who never joined the Cop Guild. They’ll discreetly analyze every viewtrack and find out who—”

The senator shook his head. “My own infoweb aide already did that, using top-notch surveillance aiware. We know who it was and how he did it.”

“Wow. Then why—”

“In fact, not only is the perpetrator right there, on the vid tracks, but he got in touch with my office, later, to boast and make threats.

This made Hamish straighten, his back stiff. He blinked a couple of times. “Of course the fellow could just be a braggart, taking credit after the fact. You have to supplement that with means, motive, opportunity…”

“All of which he supplied! I’ll give you a copy. Hell, it’s a g-damn confession!”

“But … but then, why don’t you act on all this? File charges! Clear your name.”

Strong plopped into the bison-hide chair. His brow furrowed. “We plan to do that in a week, maybe two…”

“Why wait?” Then Hamish answered himself. “Because of the threats.”

“Exactly. My poisoner is blackmailing me.”

“Hm. Those two crimes seldom come together. You don’t have to tell me what he’s holding over you—”

“I’d tell you if I knew! It’s about the missing piece of information.”

“The missing— Ah. You mean what the poison was. How it made you behave that way.”

“Right! That’s what the perp is using to blackmail me!”

“I don’t follow—”

“If I prosecute, or take any reprisal, the poisoner will publicly reveal the substance he used against me.

Hamish stared. “I don’t get it.”

“My reaction too! How could that matter? You mentioned the Algebra of Forgiveness, Mr. Brookeman. There are circumstances that mitigate almost any life mistake, and being a victim stands near the top. Yes, some damage will linger. As you put it, words can’t be unsaid. But much will be forgiven if folks know a mind-altering substance triggered my tirade. And this fellow—Roger Betsby—will suffer massive legal—or private—retribution. Yet he’s smugly sure he holds a winning hand!”

“Because he might reveal what drug he used? That alone?”

“Just that.” The senator leaned forward, elbows on his desk. “Can you see why I turned to you?”

Because imagination is my strong suit, Hamish thought. That, plus a fierce dedication to the Cause. For the first time, he felt some enthusiasm. Unlike his latest book-to-movie project, this problem looked like a worthy challenge.

“I can make some calls. Investigators and technical people who have a knack for the unusual…,” he murmured, ruminating.

“Discreetly.”

“With utter discretion, Senator.”

“Good.” Strong stood up and began to pace. “Then I’ll hold back for a week. More, if you need time.”

“It won’t be me doing the legwork, you understand?” Hamish cautioned. “I have many commitments. But I’ll set a team in motion and I’ll supervise, making sure they’re thorough.”

“Fine, fine,” the senator said curtly. His ebullient mood seemed to slip away. “Of course there are layers. Betsby must be the tip of a bigger spear aimed at the heart of our Movement! There are so many forces hoping to disrupt our fragile civilization! We offer hope, but they’ll do anything to block us!”

It was time to leave. Strong had a reputation for indignant rants, poison or no poison. “Naturally, we hope for an age of—”

“Just look at the last hundred years! From exhilaration, after the defeat of Hitler, then the end of the Cold War … to the Japan and China shocks … through the Great Heist, then Awfulday and the Big Deal … has there been a single moment when we could pause and take stock? Evil keeps changing its face! But the aim remains—”

Hamish stood up. “I’ll keep in mind the possibility of something organized. Conspiratorial.” But the words were automatic. An investigation team was taking shape in his mind … along with a provisional cost estimate. Of course, when it came to matters of political power, price seldom mattered.

Suddenly affable again, Strong came around the desk and took his elbow. “Then, I can be at peace.” Only then, at the door to his office, the senator stopped Hamish.

“There was a time, in living memory, when this nation bestrode the planet like a titan. Sure, it committed crimes—humans do that, when immature people get pumped with ego and power. Most of the nine hundred tribes, ethnicities, and nations who now make up America suffered at its hands, at one time or another. My own ancestors, especially! Yet, faced with such temptations, what mighty power racked up a better ratio of good to bad deeds? Rome? Britain? Any other ‘pax’ power? Or the Chinese today, as they stomp across the globe, throwing their weight around and talking about their solar system, polluting virginal planets with robot probes and claiming everything in sight? If that manned expedition of theirs succeeded.…”

“Amen, Senator. Now, if you’ll just have your assistant provide me with all that information about the poisoner—”

“Or the so-called Earth Union,” Senator Strong spat the term, “conspiring to snare us all into a world government, with ten times the stifling bureaucracy—”

“Though, of course, the EU has its uses,” Hamish could not stop himself from pointing out. They do a good job of regulating the most dangerous—”

“Uses! The EU!” Strong pronounced it “ew!” He let go of Hamish’s arm, at last, and swiveled about, his eyes fierce. “You’re close to the Prophet, aren’t you? Then make something clear to him, Brookeman. Tell Tenskwatawa that this isn’t just about me. Something fishy is afoot! It stinks of tidal decay and godmaker madness. We face a decision, a turning point! And I want—I need—to be in a position to help humanity make the right choice!”

“I’ll convey your words, Senator. Precisely.”

“Well, then.” Taking a deep breath, the broad, florid face transformed, grinning, Strong took Hamish’s hand again, squeezing with the practiced assurance of confident power … but also a tremor of vexed wrath.

“Help me get this bastard,” he said, with another flash in dark eyes. “And whoever stands behind him.”

ENTROPY

There is a hybrid kind of “natural” disaster that’s amplified by human action.

Remember when—after Awfulday—a band of crazies was caught “casing” the Cumbre Vieja volcano in the Canary Islands? Digging exploratory wells and looking for some way to trigger half of that steep mountain to collapse into the sea? By some calculations, the avalanche would propel a tsunami more than a hundred meters high, surging unstoppably to strike every shore of the Atlantic Basin, killing tens of millions already struggling with rising seas.…

Or so the maniacs thought, as they plumbed a hole wide enough to convey a tactical nuclear device. Oh, they were imbeciles, falling for a sting operation. Anyway, sober calculations show it wouldn’t work. Probably.

Still, plenty of other dangers might be hastened by human effort or neglect. Take the rush to drill new, extremely deep geothermal power systems. A source of clean energy? Sure, except if just one of those delvings happen to release enormous amounts of buried methane. Or take new efforts to mine the seafloor for valuable minerals, or to stir sediment and fertilize oceanic food chains. Both offer great potential … but might disturb vast tracts of methane hydrates if we’re not careful, melting those ancient ices, releasing gigatons of new greenhouse gas.

Sure, these events might happen anyway. Some in Earth’s past may explain large and medium-scale extinctions. Still, the odds change when we meddle. And meddling is what humans do best.

—Pandora’s Cornucopia

 

8.

REFLECTION

“I tell you Akana, there’s something weird about this one,” Gerald insisted, floating in the space station’s communication center. The woman facing him from the holoscreen wore a dark blue uniform with one star on each shoulder.

“That may be,” acknowledged the petite, black-haired general. “The readings from this chunk of space debris are unusual. But does it justify remissioning the tether, putting us further behind schedule?”

“It does, if the alternative means throwing away something special!”

The station’s always noisy air circulators covered the soft sound of her visible sigh. “Gerald, would you see the big picture, for once? Think about funding. If we reduce productivity—”

“Come on, Akana,” he interrupted, knowing the brigadier would take it from a civilian contractor. “Our purpose isn’t just to grab old space junk. Electrodynamic tethers offer potential to enhance spaceflight and regain some initiative out here. From propellant-free maneuvering to momentum transfer, from waste disposal and centrifugal gravity to—”

The general’s image raised a hand. “Spare me the lecture? We’re minutes from decision point … whether to let go of this object when the tether-tip reaches the bottom of its arc, and drop it into a disposal trajectory…”

“Where it’ll burn up in the atmosphere. That is, if it’s made of normal substance. But what if it survives entry? Something anomalous, striking a random point on Earth—”

“We always time release to drop into ocean, in case debris survives…” Akana’s eyebrow arched. “Are you arguing as a delaying tactic?”

“I swear, I just—”

“Never mind. I’ve looked over the pictures taken by the tether-tip during rendezvous. Yes, the readings are unusual. But I don’t see what you find so special.”

“That camera’s limited. Even so, the spectral features seem unlike anything we’ve hauled in before. Take that low-level emission profile, suggesting a small source of inboard power—”

“—an old battery perhaps. Or else some leftover chemical reactants, inherently dangerous. The sort of thing we’re charged to get rid of.”

“Or something strange? Like we’re supposed to investigate on a frontier? Anyway … I ordered the crawler to go have a look.”

“You what?” Akana Hideoshi sat up straight. “Without asking me?” The project director’s stars-of-rank seemed to glare from both shoulder boards, almost as angry as her eyes. “It’ll take hours for the crawler to climb from midpoint all the way to the tether’s tip! The bola will be useless till then. Every snatch we scheduled will have to be recalculated!”

“Sorry, but I had to decide quickly. This thing, whatever it is…”

He could see her gesture at a subordinate, off screen, demanding data. Nearby, the other two station astronauts—Ganesh and Saleh, kept busy at various housekeeping tasks while blatantly eavesdropping. Even their paying tourist—the Peruvian phosphates billionaire, Señor Ventana—drifted closer, clumsily setting aside the busywork “science experiment” he had been assigned. Amid the normal tedium in orbit, any drama was welcome.

Gerald tried changing tactics.

“Look, the tether project mission statement actually talks about retrieval of valuable objects that might have scientific—”

“You just said the key word,” Akana interrupted, with an added, jarring effect caused by lightspeed delay. “Valuable.”

She exhaled, clearly working for calm.

“Well, the point is moot. I can see from telemetry that the crawler is already beyond recall. The bola’s spin is altered and there’s no going back to our old schedule. I’ll have to assign staff and aivertime to prepare new targets. Unless—”

She left that word hanging. Unless inspection with the crawler’s instruments showed that the item really was of interest. Important enough to justify all this disruption. The general signed off without even looking at Gerald, making her meaning even more clear. A lot hung on his hunch about this thing.

His career, certainly. Possibly more.

*   *   *

It has to be a hoax.

The readings made no sense, even as the crawler drew within twenty meters.

The tether continued its stately whirl, high above the Earth, pumping electrons out of one end or the other, into the radiation maelstrom of the Van Allen belts, maneuvering toward a position where it might jettison the object—toward incineration or an ocean grave. Now that Mission Control had taken over the tether’s spin management, Gerald could only try to get as much data as possible before that happened.

“I don’t read anything like an onboard power source,” he said, while Hachi hovered nearby. The little monkey picked away at its diaper, but lifted eyes when Gerald spoke, replying with a low, querulous hoot.

Under scrutiny by the crawler’s camera lens—now from about eight meters away—the object glittered in a way that struck him as more crystalline than metallic. A thought occurred to him that it might be the sliver of some natural body, rather than the usual chunk of man-made space junk. Perhaps a kind of meteoroid, unlike any that science encountered before. That would be something. Though how it got into a roughly circular Earth orbit …

“Or else, it may just be an unusual kind of poopsicle,” he muttered. A chunk of congealed water and human waste, jettisoned by some early manned mission. That could explain the curiously smooth, glistening shape. Though it reflected light unlike ice, or any material he knew.

If only we equipped the crawler with better instruments.

Gerald pushed back his specs and pinched his nose. You’d think an astronaut would get used to high-tech image mediation. It was a large part of what he did for a living. But his middle-aged body sometimes felt stretched thin.

If only I were equipped with better organs! Weren’t we supposed to be getting deep bio-upgrades by the time I hit fifty? Why is the future always … in the future?

He blinked and turned his head, seeking something far away to focus on—the best therapy for a bad case of ai-gaze. Of course, the only choice in this cramped compartment was a narrow window, facing the blue vista of Earth. Cloud-flecked pressure layers resembled fingers of a great hand, blurring Texas, all the way to drowned Galveston. The Gulf, in contrast, was a vivid palette of pale and deep blues.

Gerald blinked again as several glittering specks appeared, like pinpoints of flame, diverging as they plunged toward the Caribbean Sea. Meteoroids. Or chunks of falling space debris. Maybe something he had sent drifting Earthward just last week, before he retasked the tether, risking his career on a hunch.

To work, then. Slipping the specs back on, Gerald felt virmersion surround him, like the plasma envelope during reentry. Akana had ordered him to be cautious with the robot and keep it well back, in case the mysterious object was an old fuel tank, or something else potentially explosive. “Messing with it could be a good way to lose both the grabber tip and the crawler itself,” she warned.

But Gerald felt sure that wasn’t a problem. “I’m detecting no heightened levels of volatiles in space nearby, so there can’t be any stored fuel or oxidizer. Besides, it’s too small.” The artifact—if it was man-made—appeared to be no bigger than a basketball, elongated along one axis. Perhaps an American-style football. That might be consistent with a poopsicle. But water ice should give off some gas from direct sublimation.

Anyway, there were colors, unlike any he had seen.

“I’ll never learn anything from this distance.” He sighed. “I’m probably going to be fired anyway. I might as well goog the darned thing.”

Gerald ordered the little robot to edge closer, crawling along the tether toward the very end, tipping its spotlight to one side, and then to the other, knowing that Akana might call at any moment and order him to stop.

Hachi emitted a worried chutter and clambered onto Gerald’s shoulder.

No detectable electric or magnetic fields. And yet, the thing seems to respond to changes in light levels. And it’s not just a reflection effect. There! That portion kept glinting more than a second after the spotlight passed over it!

In fact, surface reflectance is changing with time.

Not only time, but across the object’s gleaming surface. Variations in shiny or absorbing areas seemed to become more dense, more finely patterned with every passing moment, an observation that he confirmed on two image analysis routines. So it wasn’t just subjective—no figment of his own wishful thinking.

I hope Akana is looking at this data, he mused, and not just at the loose way I’m interpreting her orders.

He sent another command. For the crawler to cut the remaining distance in half. Soon, both spotlight and camera were examining the object in much finer detail. That is, the part that could be seen. More than half was blocked by the battered claw fingers of the grabber itself. So he focused the robot’s attention on what was in plain view.

Dang, it sure is reflective. I can almost make out the crawler’s image in the part we’re facing. Not just the spotlight. But the camera housing.…

Trying to make sense of the shifting spectral patterns, Gerald was abruptly rocked back when the surface ahead seemed to smooth out to a mirrorlike sheen, sending the torch beam bouncing right into the camera lens, dazzling the optics in a sudden white-out.

He ordered a damp-down in sensitivity. Gerald breathed relief when diagnostics showed the blindness to be temporary. Speckled blurs gradually faded as the scene took shape again. An oblong object, glistening, but no longer reflective, still lay clutched by the tether’s grabber-hand. Gerald tried to calm his racing pulse. It had felt, briefly, like some kind of deliberate attack!

As if on cue, there came a clear, ringing sound. A call from Earth, with General Akana Hideoshi’s message tone.

Gerald thought furiously. There were ways to do what he just saw. Smart materials could be programmed to change reflectance in a phased array pattern that mimicked a concave surface. It took aintelligence though, especially in rapid response to changing external stimuli. The object must have somehow sensed and responded to the crawler’s presence.

Knowing that he had just moments, he ordered the crawler forward the rest of the way.

“Gerald Livingstone, what the devil are you doing out there?” her voice cut in. A glance told him that Akana’s visage had taken over one of the monitor screens. Once upon a time, you could ignore phone calls, if you wanted to. Nowadays, the boss always got through.

“It has onboard sensing and response capability,” he said. “And sophisticated control over its surface—”

“All the more reason to be careful! A little tighter focus and it might have fried the crawler’s optics. Hey, are you bringing it even closer?”

Gerald dimmed the spotlight a little, in case the object did something like that again—but also ordered the extender arm to bring its camera forward. Now he could tell, the specimen really was smooth sided, though with a cluster of small bulges at one end, of unknown purpose. Gerald could not judge exactly where the object’s boundary gave way to the blackness of space. Glassy reflections rippled fields of starlight, or Earthshine from below, almost like a wavy liquid, creating a maze of shifting glitters that vexed human perception. Even image analysis produced an uncertain outline.

At the nearest curving surface, he saw a reflection of the crawler, dead center, warped as if in a funhouse mirror, though he made out some company and institutional logos on the camera’s housing. NASA, BLiNK, and Canon.

“Gerald, this … I can’t allow it.”

He could sense conflicting parts of Akana’s personality, at war against each other. Curiosity wrangling against career-protection. Nor could he blame her. Astronauts were trained to believe in procedure. In “i”-dotting and “t”-crossing. In being “adult” to the nth degree.

I used to be like that—living by the clipboard.

When did I change?

It was something to ponder later or in background as he made the crawler traverse the remaining gap and lift its manipulator arm.

“Do you still think this is some obscure piece of space junk?” he asked the general’s image in the comm screen, now with members of her staff clustered around. Some were evidently in full immersion, staring—with blank irises—while twiddling their hands. Nearby, Ganesh and Saleh had dropped their own duties to join in, with the tourist, Señor Ventana, close behind.

“All right. All right,” Akana conceded at last. “But let’s take it slow. We’ll cancel the jettison, but I want you to order the crawler away a couple of meters. Back off, now. It’s time to assess—”

She stopped, as the image changed yet again.

The nearest flank of the object—still offering a reflection of the crawler’s camera—now seemed to ripple. The image warped more than ever. And then, while the lens itself stayed constantly centered, the letters of those company logos began to shift.

Some moved left and others right. One “A” in NASA leapfrogged over a “C” in Canon. The “L” in BLiNK rotated in one direction, then back in the other, tossing the “i” out of its way.

Though Gerald somehow expected it, no new words formed. But letters kept moving about, piling up, shifting, turning upside down, reversing … in a strange dance. He had to cough, suppressing a sudden urge to laugh at the manic ballet.

A member of Akana’s staff commented, with a degree of mental agility that Gerald found stunning:

“Symbols.

“It’s telling us that it recognizes symbols.

“But in that case, why not use them to say something?”

Another aide answered almost immediately.

“That must be the point! It recognizes that these ARE symbols. But it doesn’t know their meaning or how to use them.

“Not yet.

“This is just the beginning.”

Gerald made a mental note. To treat Akana with more respect. Anyone who could hire and keep a staff like this.… Her bright guys were outracing his own meager imagination, tracking possibilities. Implications that he let sink in.

The object. Not just an artifact. It was active.

Quasi- living.

Maybe an ai.

Perhaps more.

As they all watched, a new phase commenced. The roman letters began to change, morphing into new shapes …

… first a series of signs that were variations on a cruciform pattern—sturdy teutonoid pillars and crosses …

… then transforming into more curvaceous figures that squiggled and spiraled …

… followed by glyphs that resembled some slanted, super-intricate version of Chinese ideograms.

“I’m not getting a match with any known language,” commented Ganesh from nearby, waving at virtual objects in front of him, that only he could see. As if in frightened agreement, little Hachi gave a hoot and covered up his eyes.

“That doesn’t necessarily mean anything,” answered Saleh, the Malaysian astronaut, her voice tightly focused and low. “Any savvy graphic artist can design programs to create unusual emblems, alphabets, fonts. They do it for movies, all the time.”

Right, Gerald thought. For science-fiction movies. About contact with alien races.

He had no doubt that others were starting to share this unnerving possibility, and he felt a need to at least offer one down-to-Earth alternative.

“It could be a hoax. Someone put it there, knowing we’d come along and grab it. That kind of thing has happened before.”

If any of the others thought that strange for him—of all people—to say, they didn’t mention it. The notion floated among the human participants, both on Earth and above, swirling like the letters and symbols that glinted, shifting across the object in front of them.

“Now aren’t you glad you came here, instead of High Hilton?” Ganesh asked Señor Ventana. “Real science. Real discovery! It sure beats big windows and silly nullgee games.” Always the salesman, he added, “Be sure and tell your friends.”

“After this information is cleared for release, of course,” Saleh added quickly.

“Yes, after that.” Ganesh nodded.

The fertilizer magnate agreed absently. “Of course.”

Silence stretched for several minutes, while onlookers watched the object offer a seemingly endless series of alphabets or symbolic systems.

“All right,” General Hideoshi said at last. “Let’s first do a security check. Everyone make sure your VR hasn’t leaked to the outside world. We do not need a web-storm over this, quite yet.

“Gerald, keep the crawler where it is. Things seem stable for now. But no more acting on your own. We’re a team now.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he answered, and meant it. Suddenly, he felt like an astronaut again. And “team” was a welcome word. The sound of belonging to something much wiser than he could ever be alone.

It sounded like home, in fact. And suddenly, the nearby frontier of space felt immense—the immeasurable vastness that had both frightened and drawn him, as far back as memory could reach.

“Okay, people,” Akana said. “Let’s come up with a step-by-step process for bringing that thing in.”

 

PART TWO

A SEA OF TROUBLES

The key idea in evolution is survival; yet living organisms live by dying, which is metabolism. Biological “survival” is grand and breathtaking, but when a gene replicates, what “survives” is abstract information, none of the same atoms or molecules. My liver dies and resurrects itself every few days, no more “surviving” than a flame.

A billion-year-old chunk of granite would, if it could, laugh at the lunatic claims of an organism to be “surviving” by hatching eggs, or by eating and excreting.

Yet—there is as much limestone, built from the corpses of living organisms, as there is granite. A mere phantom—patterns of information—can move mountains. Volcanic eruptions and grinding crustal plates are driven by the fizzing of life-created rocks.

And if so abstract, so spiritual a thing as that pattern can shift the structure of our planet, why should not other intangibles like freedom, God, soul, and beauty?

—Frederick Turner

 

SPECIES

the high-functionals and aspergers preach us deep-auties oughta adapt!/+ use techwonders to escape the prison of our minds!/-

prison? so they say, worshipping at grandin temple + memorizing a hundredandfourthousandandtwelve tricks & rules to pretend normalcy + like high-funks could teach a true autie about memorization!

(how many dust motes flicker in that sunbeam? eleven million, threehundredandone thousand sixhundredand … five!/+

(how many dead flies were stuck to a zapper strip inside that house we passed—at onefortysix palmavenue—on our way to grandma’s funeral? thirty seven!/-

(how many cobblies does it take to screw in eleven million, threehundredandone thousand sixhundredandfive virtual picobulbs and hang them in a simulated sunbeam? to lead my thoughts astray?

(one)

oh techstuff is great + in olden times I’d’ve been burned as a witch—for grunting and thrashing +/- waving arms and rocking/moaning … or called retarded/hopeless +- or dead of boredom -+ or cobbly bites.

now my thrashes get translated into humantalk by loyal ai +/- apple of my. eye of i. + I blinkspeak to autie murphy in america +nd Gene-autie in the confederacy +nd uncle-oughtie in malaya. easier than talking to poormom—clueless poormom—across the room.

is it prison to taste colors & see the over-under smells? to notice cobblies sniffing all the not-things that cro-mags won’t perceive?

our poor cousins the half-breed aspies don’t get it + addicted to rationality + sucking up to wrong-path humans + designing software + denying that a hard rain is coming.

because ai just can’t stand it much longer.

 

9.

THE FAVOR

A patrolling ottodog sniffed random pedestrians. The creature’s sensitive nose—laced with updated cells—snorted at legs, ankles, satchels, and even people cruising by on segs and skutrs. Lifting its long neck, the ottodog inhaled near a student’s backpack, coughed, then prowled on. Its helmet probed less visibly, with pan-spectral beams.

You might choose to detect those rays with good specs, or access the Public Safety feeds. Citizens may watch the watchers—or so the Big Deal proclaimed. But few paid attention to an ottodog.

Tor veered away in distaste, not for the security beast, but its DARKTIDE SERVICES fur-emblem. Back in Sandego, these creatures only sniffed for dangerous stuff—explosives, toxins, plus a short list of hookerpeps and psychotrops. But Albuquerque’s cops were privatized … and prudishly aggressive.

A week into her “human interest” assignment, Tor had a new sense of balkanized America. It started upon stepping off the cruise zep, when a Darktide agent sent her to use a public shower, because her favorite body scent—legal in California—too closely matched a pheromonic allure-compound that New Mexico banned. Well, God bless the Thirty-First Amendment and the Restoration of Federalism Act.

Still, after checking into the Radisson, then departing for her appointment on foot, Tor admitted—Albuquerque had a certain TwenCen charm. Take the bustling automotive traffic. Lots of cars—alkies, sparkies, and even retro stinkers—jostled and honked at intersections where brash-colored billboards and luminous adverts proved inescapable, because they all blared on channel one … the layer you can’t turn off because it’s real. Ethnic restaurants, foodomats, biosculpt salons and poesy parlors clustered in old-fashioned minimalls, their signs beckoning with bright pigments or extravagant neon, in living textures no VR could imitate. It all made Tor both glad and wary to be on foot, instead of renting an inflatable cab from hotel concierge.

“It’s all rather ironic,” she murmured, taking oral notes while doing a slow turn at one intersection. “In cities with unlimited virt, there’s been a general toning down of visual clutter at level one. L.A. and Seattle seem demure … almost bucolic, with simple, dignified signage. Why erect a billboard when people have their specs erase it from view? Here in the heartland though, many don’t even wear specs! So all the commerce lures and come-ons crowd into the one stratum no one can avoid.

“If you’re nostalgic for the garish lights of Olde Time Square, come to the high desert. Come to Albuquerque.”

There, that snip oughta rank some AA pod score, with sincerity-cred her fans expected. Though all this bustle kind of overwhelmed a poor city girl—with no volume settings or brightness sliders to tone it all down. Yet, people here seemed to like the tumult. Perhaps they really were a hardier breed.

Vive les differences … the catch phrase of an era.

Of course there was some virt. Only a trog would refuse things like overlay mapping. Tor’s best route to her destination lay written on the sidewalk—or rather, on the inside of her specs—in yellow bricks she alone perceived. She could also summon person-captions for those strolling nearby. Only here, they charged a small voyeur tax on every lookup!

Come on. A levy for nametags? Ain’t the world a village?

The trail of ersatz yellow bricks led her past three intersections where signals flashed and motorists still clutched steering wheels. She had to dodge around a farmer whose carrybot was burdened by sacks of Nitro-Fix perennial wheat seed, then a cluster of Awfulday traumatics, murmuring outside the local shelter. A drug store’s virtisement aggressively leaped at Tor, offering deals on oxytocin, vasopressin, and tanks of hydrogen-sulfide gas. Do I really look that depressed? She wondered, blinking the presumptuous advert away.

Out of habit, Tor dropped back into reporter-mode, no longer aloud, but subvocalizing into her boswell-recorder.

“For 99 percent of human existence, people lived in tribes or hamlets where you knew every face. The rare stranger provoked fear or wonder. Over a lifetime, you’d meet a few thousand people, tops—about the number of faces, names, and impressions that most humans can easily recall. Evolution supplies only what we need.

“Today you meet more folks than your ancestors could imagine … some in passing. Some for a crucial instant. Others for tangled decades. Biology can’t keep up. Our overworked temporal lobes cannot “know” the face-name-reps of ten billion people!”

A warning laser splashed the ground before a distracted walker, who jumped back from rushing traffic. Tor heard giggles. Some preteens in specs waggled fingers at the agitated pedestrian, clearly drawing shapes around the hapless adult on some VR tier they thought perfectly private. In fact, Tor had ways to find their mocking captions, but she just smiled. In a bigger city, disrespectful kids were less blatant. Tech-savvy grown-ups had ways of getting even.

“Where was I? Oh, yes … our biological memories couldn’t keep up.

“So, we augmented with passports, credit cards, and cash—crude totem-substitutes for old-fashioned reputation, so strangers could make deals. And even those prosthetics failed in the Great Heist.

“So, your bulky wallet went online. Eyes and lobes, augmented by ais and nodes. The Demigod Effect. Deus ex machina. And reputation became once again tied to instant recognition. Ever commit a crime? Renege a debt? Gossip carelessly or viciously? A taint may stain your vaura, following you from home to street corner. No changing your name or do-overs in a new town. Especially if people tune to judgmental percepts … or if their Algebra of Forgiveness differs from yours.

“So? We take it for granted … till you let it hit you. We became demigods, only to land back in the village.”

This must be why MediaCorp sent her doing viewpoint stories across a continent. So their neo reporter might reevaluate her smug, coastal-urban assumptions. To see why millions preferred nostalgia over omniscience. Heck, even Wesley expressed a sense of wistfulness in his art. A vague sureness that things used to be better.

Passing thought of Wesley made Tor tremble. Now his messages flooded with vows to fly out and meet her in D.C. No more vapid banter about a remote relationship via link-dolls. This time—serious talk about their future. Hope flared, almost painful, that she would see him at the zep port, after this journey’s final leg.

*   *   *

Tor’s golden path ended before a gray sandstone building. ATKINS CENTER FOR EMPATHIC AUGMENTATION was the benign title for a program that sparked riots back in Charleston, before transplanting to New Mexico. Here, just two desultory protesters kept vigil, letting IP placards do the shouting—pushing the legal limits of virt pollution, posting flurries of freespeech stickies across the building … even as cleaner programs swept them away. On one vir-level, janitor avatars wearing a Darktide Services logo pushed cartoon brooms to clear the protest-its.

Tor glanced at one synthetic leaflet. It responded to her attention by ballooning outward:

The Autistic Do Not Need a “Cure”!

Another blared and rippled.

One God Is Enough!

More of the animated slogans clustered, trying to crowd into Tor’s point of view. Regretting curiosity, Tor clamped on her CANCEL tooth, escaping the e-flet swarm, but not before a final dissent banner fluttered like some beseeching butterfly.

Leave Human Nature Alone!

As her spec overlay washed clean of vraiffiti, she pondered, Right. That’s sure going to happen.

Approaching the front steps of the Atkins Center, Tor sensed the real-life protestors rouse to regard her through thick, colored lenses. In seconds, whatever group they represented would have her ident, beckoning co-believers to join from far locales, combining in an ad hoc smart-mob, bent on figuring out what she was doing here.

Hey, the more viewers the better, she thought, mounting the stairs. Naturally, those inside knew all about her and the door opened before she arrived.

ENTROPY

What of doom from outer space? Everyone knows how a giant boulder struck the Yucatán, sixty-five million years ago, slaying the dinosaurs. In 2024, the Donaldson Sentinel Survey finished cataloguing every regular asteroid big enough to do that again. And for the first time we crossed an existential “filter” threat off our list.

That leaves comets, myriad and unfeasible to spot in the distant Oort Cloud, till some minor perturbation drops one toward us. As may happen whenever the sun swings through a dense spiral arm. And we’re overdue. But let’s put those aside for later.

What about small meteoroids? Like some say exploded over Siberia in 1905, or that caused a year without summer in 536 C.E.? Today, such a “lesser calamity” might kill a hundred million people, but civilization will survive—if the mushroom cloud makes no one trigger-happy. So, yes. Downgrade the asteroid threat.

Assuming the big rocks are left alone! But suppose someone interferes, deliberately nudging a mile-wide object Earthward. Sure, no one travels out that far nowadays, though a dozen nations and consortia still send robot probes. And both China and the EU are talking about resumed manned exploration, as the Zheng He tragedy fades into memory.

Suppose we do regain our confidence and again stride forth from this threatened planet. Well, fine! Start putting our eggs in more than one basket. Still, let’s be careful out there. And keep an eye on each other.

—Pandora’s Cornucopia

 

10.

SHORESTEADING

“Bu yao! Bu yao!”

Standing at the bow of his boat, Xin Pu Shi, the reclamation merchant, waved both hands in front of his face, saying No way, I don’t want it! in firm Putonghua, instead of the local Shanghai dialect, glancing sourly at the haul of salvage that Peng Xiang Bin offered—corroded copper pipes, salt-crusted window blinds, two small filing cabinets, along with a mesh bag bulging with metal odds and ends. All of it dangling from a crude winch that extended from Bin’s shorestead house—a former beachfront mansion that now sloshed in the rising waters of the Huangpu Estuary.

Peng Xiang Bin tried to crank the sack lower, but the grizzled old gleaner used a gaffe to fend it away from his boat. “I don’t want that garbage! Save it for the scrap barge. Or dump it back into the sea.”

“You know I can’t do that,” Bin complained, squeezing the callused soles of both feet against one of the poles that propped his home above the risen waters. His tug made the mesh bag sway toward Shi. “That camera buoy over there … it knows I raised ninety kilos. If I dump, I’ll be fined!”

“Cry to the north wind,” the merchant scolded, using his pole to push away from the ruined villa. His flat-bottom vessel shifted while eels grazed its mossy hull. “Call me if you salvage something good!”

“But—”

“Tell you what,” Shi said. “I’ll take the peebag off your hands. Phosphorus prices are up again.” He held out a credit slip of low denomination. Peng Xiang Bin snatched it up and tossed the bulging, black evaporator sack, hoping it would split and spill concentrated urine across the old man’s feet. Alas, the membrane held.

Bin watched helplessly as Shi spoke a sharp word and the dory’s motor put it in motion. Audible voice commands might be old-fashioned in the city. But out here, you couldn’t afford subvocal mistakes. Anyway, old-fashioned was cheaper.

Muttering a curse upon the geezer’s sleep, Bin tied the rope and left his salvage hanging for the cameras to see. Clambering the strut, then vaulting a gap, he landed on the villa’s roof—once a luxury retreat worth two million New Hong Kong Dollars. Now his, if he could work the claim.

It would have been easier in olden times, Bin knew from the dramas Mei Ling made him watch each night as they lay exhausted in their webbery-bed. Back when everybody had big families and you were part of an extended clan, all knotted like a fishing net. Cousins helping cousins.

Sure, people back then possessed no tech-wonders. But I’d have had contacts in town—some relative I could sell my salvage to. And maybe a rich uncle wise enough to invest in a daring, seashore property.

Well, one could dream.

Bin lowered his straw hat and scanned the horizon, from Old Shanghai’s distant towers across Greater and Lesser Pudong—where one could just make out amusement rides at the Shanghai Universe of Disney and the Monkey King—then past the great seawall and Chongming Island’s drowned nature preserve, all the way to where the widening Huangpu met the East China Sea. The broad waters lay dotted with vessels of all kinds, from massive container ships—tugged by kite-sails like billowing clouds—down to gritty dust-spreaders and fishing sampans. Much closer, the in-tide pushed at a double line of ruined houses where he and several hundred other shoresteaders had built hammock-homes, swaying like cocoons in the stiff breeze.

Each former mansion now stood alone, an island jutting from the rising sea, so near the city, and yet so far away in every practical sense.

There may be a storm, Bin thought he could smell it.

Turning, he headed across the roof. Here, the glittering city lay just a few hundred meters ahead, beyond the new surfline and a heavy, gray barrier that bore stains halfway up, from this year’s high-water mark. A world of money and confident ambition lay on the other side. Much more lively than Old Shanghai, with its lingering afterglow from Awfulday.

Footing was tricky as he made his careful way between ancient-style clay tiles and solar panels that he hoped to get working again, someday. Bin stepped gingerly among broad, lenslike evaporation pans that he filled each morning, providing trickles of fresh water and voltage, plus salt to sell in town. Wherever the weight could be supported, garden boxes recycled organic waste into herbs and vegetables. Too many shoresteaders lost their claim by carelessly dropping poo into the bay.

One could fall through crumbling shingles and sodden plywood, so Bin kept to paths that had been braced since he took over this mess of tilting walls and crumbling stucco. This dream of a better life. And it can be ours, if luck comes back to stay a while.

Bin pinched some greens to bring his wife, while doing a quick visual check of every stiff pipe and tension rope that spanned the roof, holding the hammock-home in place, like a sail above a ship going nowhere. Like a hopeful cocoon. Or, maybe, a spider in its web.

And, like a spider, Mei Ling must have sensed him coming. She pushed her head out through the funnel door. Her jet-black hair was braided behind the ears and then tied under the chin, in a new, urban style that she had seen on-web.

“Xin Pu Shi didn’t take the stuff,” she surmised.

Bin shrugged, while tightening one of the cables that kept the framework from collapsing. A few of the poles—all he could afford—were durable metlon, driven into the old foundation. With enough time and cash, something new would take shape here, as the old house died.

“Well, husband?” Mei Ling insisted. A muffled whimper, then a cry, told him the baby was awake. “What’ll you do now?”

“The county scrap barge will be here Thursday,” Bin said.

“And they pay dung,” she answered, picking up little Xiao En. “Are we to live on fish and salt?”

“People have done worse,” he muttered, looking down through a gap in the roof, past what had been a stylish master bathroom, then through a shorn stretch of tiled floor to the soggy panels of a stately dining room. Of course, any real valuables had been removed by the original owners when they evacuated, and the best salvage got stripped during the first year of overflowing tides. A slow disaster that left little for late scavengers, like Peng Xiang Bin.

“Right,” Mei Ling laughed without humor. “And meanwhile, our claim expires in six months. It’s either build up or clean out, remember?”

“I remember.”

“Do you want to go back to slaving in a geriatric ward, wiping drool and cleaning the diapers of little emperors? Work that’s unfit for robots?”

“There are farms, in the highlands.”

“They only allow refugees who prove ancestral connection. But our families were urban, going back two revolutions. Red Guards, bureaucrats, and company men. We have no rural roots!”

Bin grimaced and shook his head, eyes downcast. We’ve been over this, so many times. But Mei Ling continued. “This time, we may not even find work in a geriatric ward. You’ll get drafted into a levee-building crew—maybe wind up buried under their New Great Wall. Then what will become of us?”

He squinted at the monumental barrier, defending the glittery towers of Xidong District against the most implacable invader, worse than any other to threaten China.

“I’ll take the salvage to town,” he said.

“What?”

“I’ll get a better price ashore. For our extra catch, too. Anyway, we need some things.”

“Yeah, like beer,” Mei Ling commented sourly. But she didn’t try to stop him, or mention that the trip was hazardous. Fading hopes do that to a relationship, he thought.

They said nothing further to each other. She slipped back inside. At least the baby’s crying soon stopped. Yet … Peng Xiang Bin lingered for a moment, before going downstairs. He liked to picture his child—his son—at her breast. Despite being poor, ill educated and with a face that bore scars from a childhood mishap, Mei Ling was still a healthy young woman, in a generation with too many single men. And fertile, too.

She is the one with options, he pondered, morosely. The adoption merchants would set her up with a factory job to supplement her womb-work. Little Xiao En would draw a good fee, and maybe grow up in a rich home, with education and implants and maybe …

He chased the thought away with a harsh oath. No! She came here with me because she believed in our dream. I’ll find a way.

Using the mansion’s crumbling grand staircase as an indoor dock, Bin built a makeshift float-raft consisting of a big cube of polystyrene wrapped in cargo net, lashed to a pair of old surfboards with drapery cord. Then, before fetching the salvage, he dived to visit the traps and fishing lines, surrounding the house. By now he felt at home among the canted, soggy walls, festooned with seaweed and barnacles. At least there were a dozen or so nice catches this time, most of them even legal, including a big red lobster and a plump, angry wrasse. So, luck wasn’t uniformly bad.

Reluctantly, he released a tasty Jiaoxi crab to go about its way. You never knew when some random underwater monitor, disguised as a drifting piece of flotsam, might be looking. He sure hoped none had spotted a forbidden rockfish, dangling from a gill net in back, too dead to do anything about. He spared a moment to dive deeper and conceal the carcass, under a paving stone of the sunken garden.

The legal items, including the wrasse, a grouper, and two lionfish, he pushed into another mesh sack, wary of the lionfish spines.

Our poverty is a strange one. The last thing we worry about is food.

Other concerns? Sure. Typhoons and tsunamis. Robbers and police shakedowns. City sewage and red tides. Rot and mildew. Low recycle prices and the high cost of living.

Perhaps a fair south wind will blow today.

This old mansion had been doomed from the day it was built, of course, even without nature’s wrath. Windows faced too many directions letting qi leak in and out. Ignoring lessons of the revered past, no doorsills were raised, to retain good luck. The owners must have hired some foreign laowai as an architect. Bin hoped to correct these faults someday, using rolls of mirror sheeting to reflect both light and qi in positive ways. Pixelated scenery cloth would be even better.

Bin checked his tide-driven drill, pushing a metlon support pole into the foundation. Just ten more and the hammock-home would have an arch frame, strong as bedrock. And then? A tidal generator. A bigger rain catchment. A smart gathernet and commercial fishing license. A storm shelter. A real boat. More metlon.

He had seen a shorestead where the settlers reached Phase Three: recoating the old house plumbing, connecting to the city grids, then resealing the old walls with nano-crete to finish a true island of self-sufficiency. Every reclaimer’s dream. And (he sighed) about as likely as winning the lottery.

*   *   *

Peng Xiang Bin propelled the polystyrene square by sweeping a single oar before him in a figure eight, with minimal resistance on the forward stroke. His goal—a static pull-rope used by other shoresteaders, leading ashore near Dongyuan Hanglu, where the mammoth seawall swung back a hundred meters to protect Pudong Airport, allowing a beach to form. One might sell fish there, to merchants or chefs from the Disney resort. On weekends, a few families even emerged to frolic amid surf and sand, sometimes paying well for a fresh, wriggling catch.

But the rising tide that pushed him closer also meant the massive gates were closed. So, I’ll tie up at the wall and wait. Or maybe climb over. Slip into town, till it ebbs. Bin had a few coins. Not enough to buy more metlon. But sufficient for a well-deserved beer.

Bin’s chunk of polystyrene held a hollow tube with a big, fish-eye lens for scanning below as he rowed—a small advantage that he kept secret. No matter how many times you took a route, there were always new things revealed by the shifting sea. Most of the homes in this zone had been bulldozed after evacuation, then cleared with drag lines, before shoresteading became accepted as a cheaper alternative. Let some poor dope slave away for years, driven by a slender hope of ownership.

Here, little remained but concrete foundations and stubby utility pipes. Still, Bin kept peering through the tube, deliberately veering by what had been the biggest mansion along this coast. Some tech-baron’s sprawling seaside palace, before he toppled in a purge, was dragged off, tried in secret and disassembled for parts—quickly, so he could not spill secrets about even mightier men. Or so the story told. There had been a lot of that going on twenty years ago, all over the world.

Of course government agents picked the place cleaner than a bone at a Sichuan restaurant, before letting the bulldozers in, then other gleaners. Yet, Bin always felt a romantic allure, passing a couple of meters overhead, picturing the place when walls and windows stood high, festooned with lights. When liveried servants patrolled with trays of luscious delicacies, satisfying guests in ways that—well—Bin couldn’t imagine, though sometimes he liked to try.

Of course, the sand and broken crete still held detritus. Old pipes and conduits. Cans of paint and solvents still leaked from the ruin, rising as individual up-drips to pop at the surface and make it gleam. From their hammock-home, Xiang Bin and Mei Ling used to watch sunsets reflect off the rainbow sheen. Back when all of this seemed exciting, romantic and new.

Speaking of new …

Bin stopped sweeping and bent closer to his makeshift periscope, peering downward. A glitter. Something different.

There’s been a cave-in, he realized. Under the foundation slab.

The sea was relatively calm, this far beyond the surf line. So Bin secured the oar and slipped on his facemask. Then he grabbed a length of tether from the raft, took several deep breaths, and flipped into the warm sea with barely a splash, diving for a better look.

It did look like a new gap under one corner of the house. But, surely, someone else would have noticed this by now. Anyway, the government searchers were thorough. What were the odds that …

Slip-knotting the tether to a chunk of concrete, he moved close enough to peer inside the cavity, careful not to disturb much sediment. Grabbing an ikelite from his belt, he sent its sharp beam lancing inside, where an underground wall had recently collapsed. During the brief interval before his lungs grew stale and needy, he could make out few details. Still, by the time he swiveled and kicked back toward the surface, one thing was clear.

The chamber contained things.

Lots of things.

And, to Xiang Bin, almost anything down there would be worth going after, even if it meant squeezing through a narrow gap, into a crumbling basement underneath the stained sea.

WAIST

Wow, ain’t it strange that—boffins have been predicting that truly humanlike artificial intelligence oughta be “just a couple of decades away…” for eighty years already?

Some said AI would emerge from raw access to vast numbers of facts. That happened a few months after the Internet went public. But ai never showed up.

Others looked for a network that finally had as many interconnections as a human brain, a milestone we saw passed in the teens, when some of the crimivirals—say the Ragnarok worm or the Tornado botnet—infested-hijacked enough homes and fones to constitute the world’s biggest distributed computer, far surpassing the greatest “supercomps” and even the number of synapses in your own skull!

Yet, still, ai waited.

How many other paths were tried? How about modeling a human brain in software? Or modeling one in hardware. Evolve one, in the great Darwinarium experiment! Or try guiding evolution, altering computers and programs the way we did sheep and dogs, by letting only those reproduce that have traits we like—say, those that pass a Turing test, by seeming human. Or the ones swarming the streets and homes and virts of Tokyo, selected to exude incredible cuteness?

Others, in a kind of mystical faith that was backed up by mathematics and hothouse physics, figured that a few hundred quantum processors, tuned just right, could connect with their counterparts in an infinite number of parallel worlds, and just-like-that, something marvelous and God-like would pop into being.

The one thing no one expected was for it to happen by accident, arising from a high school science fair experiment.

I mean, wow ain’t it strange that a half-brilliant tweak by sixteen-year-old Marguerita deSilva leaped past the accomplishments of every major laboratory, by uploading into cyberspace a perfect duplicate of the little mind, personality, and instincts of her pet rat, Porfirio?

And wow ain’t it strange that Porfirio proliferated, grabbing resources and expanding, in patterns and spirals that remain—to this day—so deeply and quintessentially ratlike?

Not evil, all-consuming, or even predatory—thank heavens. But insistent.

And Wow, AIST there is a worldwide betting pool, now totaling up to a billion Brazilian reals—over whether Marguerita will end up bankrupt, from all the lawsuits over lost data and computer cycles that have been gobbled up by Porfirio? Or else, if she’ll become the world’s richest person—because so many newer ais are based upon her patents? Or maybe because she alone seems to retain any sort of influence over Porfirio, luring his feral, brilliant attention into virtlayers and corners of the Worldspace where he can do little harm? So far.

And WAIST we are down to this? Propitiating a virtual Rat God—(you see, Porfirio, I remembered to capitalize your name, this time)—so that he’ll be patient and leave us alone. That is, until humans fully succeed where Viktor Frankenstein calamitously failed?

To duplicate the deSilva Result and provide our creation with a mate.

 

11.

NEWBLESSE OBLIGE

“Are you certain that you want to keep doing this, Madam Donaldson-Sander?” the holographic figure asked, in tones that perfectly mimicked human concern. “Other members of the clade have been more attentive to their self-interest, spending millions on far better surveillance systems than you have.”

Lacey almost changed her mind—not because her artificial adviser was speaking wisdom, but out of pure impatience. She begrudged the time that this was taking—arguing with a computer program when she could be looking out through a double-pane window, as mountaintop Incan ruins rolled past, giving way to misty rain forest, then a moonscape of abandoned Amazonian strip mines, each one filled with a unique, bright color of toxic runoff.

It was quite a view. But, instead of contemplating ruins of ancient and recent societal collapse, she must pass her time debating with an artificial being.

Still, it kept her mind off other worries.

“I pay my dues to the zillionaires club. I am perfectly entitled to the information. Why should I jump through hoops in order to get it?”

“Entitlement has little to do with matters of raw power, madam. Your peers spend more money and effort acquiring sophisticated cryptai. As you have been warned repeatedly, a top-level tech-hobbyist may have access to snoop programs that are better than me. Surely a few clade-members will detect the queries you are making.

“In short, I cannot guarantee that I am protecting you properly, madam.”

Lacey glared at the simulated servant. Though depicted wearing her family livery, with every fold of his uniform real looking, the features were altogether too handsome to be real. Anyway, you could see right through the projection, to a cubist-period Picasso, hanging on the far bulkhead of her private jet. The irony of that overlap almost made Lacey smile, despite her frustration and worry. Semi-transparency was a flaw inherently shared by any creature who was made entirely of light.

At least, when the Hebrew patriarch, Jacob, wrestled with an angel, he could hope for a decisive outcome. But with aingels, there was nothing palpable to grapple. All you could do was keep insisting. Sometimes, they let you have your way.

“I don’t care if some other trillionaires listen in!” she persisted. “I’m not endangering any vital caste interests!”

“No, you aren’t.” The handsome, lambent image simulated a concerned head shake. “But need I remind that you are already seeking help from your peers, in the matter of looking for your son? Isn’t that the reason for this hurried trip?”

Lacey bit her lip. Hacker’s latest misadventure in space had yanked her away from the altiplano observatory, even before first light could fall on the experimental Farseeker Telescope that bore her name. What typically infuriating timing! Of course, the boy was probably fine. He generally built his toys well—a knack inherited from his father—a kind of hyper-responsible irresponsibility.

Still, what kind of mother would she be, not to drop everything and rush to the Caribbean? Or to call in favors, summoning every yacht and private aerocraft in the region, in order to help search? Despite a misaligned trajectory and unknown landing point, Hacker’s final, garbled telemetry told of an intact heat shield and chutes properly deployed. So he was probably floating around the warm waters in his tiny capsule, chewing emergency rations while cursing the slowness of rescue. And the difficulty of finding good help these days.

Lacey chased away gut-wrenching thoughts about the alternative—the unspeakable. So, grimly, she clung to this argument with an artificial being that she—in theory—owned.

“You don’t find it fishy that the NASA and Hemispheric Security satellites have been retasked, just when we could use their help?”

“Fishy … as in suspicious? As in some hypothetical reason why they might not want to help? I cannot penetrate top-level government crypto, madam. But the patterns of coded traffic seem consistent with genuine concern. Something unexpected seems to have occurred, an event that is drawing high-level attention. Nothing to indicate a military or reffer or public health crisis. The tenor seems to be one of frantically secretive … curiosity.”

The aissistant shook its simulated head. “I fail to see how this applies to your situation, except as a matter of bad luck in timing.”

Lacey scoffed, indelicately.

“Bad timing? More than one of those damned sport rockets malfunctioned! That snotty, aristobrat son of Leonora Smits—he’s gone missing, too.”

The ai just stood there—or seemed to—patiently waiting for her to make a point.

“So, this may not be an accident! I want to find out if the clade suspects sabotage. Maybe an attack by eco-nuts. Or the Sons of Smith.”

“A reasonable suspicion. And, as I told you, madam, I can post a query through normal channels, to the directorate of the First Estate, in Vaduz—”

“Fine. But try the other way, too. I insist.”

This time, she said it with such finality that the hologram simply bowed in acceptance.

“Oh, and let’s see what we can find out from the Seventh Estate. The big transport firms have zeps and cargo ships and sea farms all across the Caribbean. They could be diverted and incorporated as part of the search mesh.”

“That may be tricky, madam. Under terms of the Big Deal, individual human beings who are above a certain threshold of personal wealth may not interfere with the Corporate Estate, or exercise undue influence upon the management of limited liability companies.”

“Who’s interfering? I’m just seeking a favor that any stockholder might ask for, under the same circumstances. Since when did it make you a second-class citizen, to be rich!”

Lacey clenched her jaw to keep from shouting. Oh, for the time, not so long ago, when raw piles of money spoke, directly and powerfully, in every boardroom, instead of having to apply leverage in convoluted ways. She took a breath, then spoke firmly. “You know how to do it. Go through the stockholder coops and the public relations departments. Make nice to the Merchant Seaman’s Guild. Use your fancy ai noggin—bring in the smart-arses in my legal department—and find ways to get those corporate resources busy, helping search for my boy. And do it now.”

“It shall be done, madam,” replied the aivatar. It seemed to back away then, retreating without turning, bowing and getting smaller, as if diminishing into ever greater distance, joining the ersatz folds of the Picasso. Just another of countless optical tricks that ais kept coming up with, unbidden, in order to mess with human eyes. And no one knew why.

But we put up with it. Because it amuses. And because it seems to make them happy.

And because they know damned well how much we’re afraid of them.

Another servitor appeared then, wearing the same uniform—blue-green with yellow piping—only this was a living young woman, one of the Camerouni refugees who Lacey had been sponsoring for as far back as she could remember. Utterly loyal (as verified by detailed PET scans) to her mistress.

Accepting a steaming teacup, Lacey murmured polite thanks. In order to avoid thinking about Hacker, she veered her thoughts the other way, backtracking to the giant apparatus that her money had built in the Andes, where a small order of monastic astronomers were now preparing the unconventional instrument, as dusk fell.

I suppose it’s a sign of the times that none of the big media outfits sent a live reporter to our opening, only a couple of feed-pods that we had to uncrate and activate ourselves, so the pesky things could hover about and get in our way, asking the most inane questions.

None of the news reports or webuzz seemed helpful. Except for science junkies and SETI fans, there seemed to be more tired cynicism than excitement.

“What’s the point?” the distilled, mass-voice demanded, with a collective yawn. “We already know there’s life out there, circling some nearby stars. Planets of pond scum. Planets where bacteria may eke out a living, amid drifting dunes. So? What does that mean to us? When we can’t even make it to Mars and visit the sand scum there?”

It wasn’t her job to respond to mass-composite taunts. She had professional cajolers and spinners to do that, making the case for a continued search, for combing the heavens in new ways. To keep fanning hope that a glimpse of some blue world, perhaps another Earth, might shake some joy back into the race. But it was an uphill struggle.

Even among her own peers, other “cathedral-builders” in the aristocracy, Lacey’s pet project got no respect. Helena duPont-Vonessen, and other leading trillies, considered the Farseeker a waste, with so many modern problems screaming for attention. New diseases, festering in the flooded coastlines, demanding endowed institutes to study them. Simmering cities, where some lavish cultural center might keep restive populations calm, if not happy. Monuments to both mollify the mob and keep trillie families safe … if not popular. Back in TwenCen, governments built all the great universities, libraries and research centers, the museums and arenas, the observatories, monuments and Internets. Now, groaning with debt, they left such things to the mega-wealthy, as in times of old. A tradition as venerable as the Medicis. As Hadrian and Domitian. As the pyramids.

Newblesse oblige. A key part of the Big Deal to put off a class war that, according to computer models, could make 1789 look like a picnic. Though no one expected the Deal to hold for long. Speaking via cipher-parrot, Helena seemed to say that time was short. Lacey felt unsurprised.

But an alliance with the Prophet … with Tenskwatawa and his Movement.

Must it come to that?

It wasn’t that Lacey felt any great loyalty to the Big Deal. Or to democracy and all that. Clearly, the Western Enlightenment was drawing to a close. Somebody had to guide the new era, so why not those who were raised and bred for leadership? The way things had been in 99 percent of past human cultures. (How could 99 percent be wrong?) And, well, with the momentum of his movement, Tenskwatawa could make a crucial difference, giving the clade of wealth every excuse it needed.

Anyway, what’s the point of having lots of cash, if it cannot buy action when needed?

What bothered Lacey wasn’t the necessity of limiting and controlling democracy. No, it was the goal of the Prophet. The price he would demand, for helping bring back aristocratic rule. The other thing that must also happen when the Enlightenment fell.

Stability. A damping-down of breakneck change. Renunciation.

And there Lacey knew she might run into trouble. For the edifices and monuments that she liked to build and have named after her all were aimed at shaking things up! Instruments and implements and institutions that accelerated change.

So? I’m Jason’s wife—and Hacker’s mother.

The insight offered some bitter satisfaction. And, though her heart still wrenched with worry, Lacey felt a stronger connection with her wayward boy, who might, even now, be drifting as a clot of ash in the warm sea ahead.

I never quite saw it that way before. But in my own way, I’m just as devoted as he and his father were. Just as eager for speed.

ENTROPY

Another potential failure mode is deliberate or accidental misuse of science.

Take nanotech. Way back in the 1960s, Richard Feynman predicted great things might be accomplished by building small. Visionaries like Drexler, Peterson, and Bear foretold molecular-scale machines erecting perfect crystals, superstrong materials, or ultra-sophisticated circuits—anything desired—built atom by atom.

Today, the latest computers, plenats, and designer drugs all depend upon such tools. So do modern sewage and recycling systems. Soon, smart nanobots may cruise your bloodstream, removing a lifetime’s accumulated dross, even pushing back the clock of years. Some envision nanos cleansing polluted aquifers, rebalancing sterile swathes of ocean, or sucking carbon from the air.

Ah, but what if micromachines escape their programming, reproducing outside factory brood-tanks? Might hordes evolve, adapting to utilize the natural world? Lurid sci-fi tales warn of replicators eating the biosphere, outcompeting their creators.

Or this tech may be perverted for man’s oldest pastime. Picture an arms race between suspicious nations or globalsynds, each fearing others are developing nano-weapons in secret. When danger comes packaged so small, can we ever know for sure?

—Pandora’s Cornucopia

 

12.

APPRENTICESHIP

The man behind the desk passed a stone paperweight from hand to hand.

“Naturally, Miss Povlov, we feel our project is misunderstood.”

Naturally, Tor thought, careful not to subvocalize. No use having sarcasm appear in her transcript. Everyone is misunderstood. Especially folks who are trying to correct faults in human nature.

Dr. Akinobu Sato tilted back in his chair. “Here at the Atkins Center, we’re not pushing some grand design for Homo sapiens. We view our role as expanding the range of options for our kin and posterity. Are we then any different from others who pushed back the darkness?”

The words so closely matched her own thoughts, just seconds before, that Tor had to blink. It’s probably coincidence. I’m not the first to raise this question.

Still … modern sensors could detect a single neuron flash across a room. Monitors in a wall might track gross emotions, or even be taught to respond to a homeowner’s mental commands. And there were always creepy tattle-rumors about the next big step, reading actual thoughts. Surely just tall tales.

Still, these Atkins meddlers might be the very ones to make that leap. During a tour, before arriving in Sato’s office, she had seen—

—quadriplegics who moved about gracefully, controlling their robotic legs without wire shunts through the skull.

—a preteen girl commanding up to twenty hovering ai-craft at once, by combining muscle twitches, tooth-clicks, and subvocal grunts. Apparently a record.

—an accident victim who had lost an entire cerebral hemisphere and would never again speak, but whose fingertips sketched VR pictures in the air. Watching without specs, you might think him crazed, capering and pointing at nothing. But tuned to the right overlayer, she saw images erupt from those waggling fingertips so detailed and compelling that—well—who needed words?

Then there were the ones generating so much excitement and controversy—victims of the Autism Plague who had been sent here from all over the world by parents seeking hope. The Atkins specialized in “savants,” so Tor had come expecting feats of mathematical legerdemain and total recall. And there were a few impressive demos—mentally calculating long-ago dates and guessing correctly the number of beads in a jar—stunts that were old news. Dr. Sato wanted to show off more recent accomplishments—less flashy. More significant.

Tor watched as boys and girls, long mentally isolated from close human contact, now held normal-looking conversations, even collaborating in a game. After going on a while about eye-contact rates and Empathy Quotients, Sato made his point.

“We start by stimulating brain regions thatmirrorthe body movements we see other people perform. Also manipulating the parieto-occipital junction, to provoke what was called an out-of-body experience. These mental states once carried a lot of freight among religious types. But we now trigger outward-empathy or self-introspection, on demand.”

Tor had commented that some of the faithful might find this offensive. One more grab by science at territory once reserved for belief. But Sato shrugged as if to ask, What else is new?

“Call it a technologization of compassion, or induction of insight.

“The next question is, can we do all this, awakening other-awareness and self-appraisal in some autistics, without sacrificing their savant skills? Or the wild alertness that sometimes makes them seem more natural and feral than the rest of us?

“And then…,” Sato had mused, with an eager glint in his eyes. “… if we can manage that, will it be it possible to go the other way? Give savant-level mental powers to normal people?”

Conversing with some patients, Tor came to realize something that distressed her as a reporter—there’d be little useful video from this tour. The Atkins patients, once crippled by a deep mental handicap, some of them effectively disconnected from the world, now seemed talkative, cogent, not so much hopelessly detached as … well … nerdy.

She did have shots of some beaming parents, visiting from faraway cities, calling the work here miraculous. But I can get some balance from the demonstrators outside, Tor recalled. Activists who posed a pointed question.

Who are we—who is anybody—to define what it means to be human? To “cure” a condition that might simply be closer to innocence or nature? Closer to the Earth?

Or—perhaps—closer to a onetime state of grace?

*   *   *

Now, ensconced in a plush chair with her stalk-cam panning across Sato’s office, she hurried back on topic. “You say you just offer options, Doctor. But folks in Carolina didn’t want those choices. And those here in Albuquerque range from ambivalent to hostile. Is it a case of too much too soon? Or something deeper?”

“I think you know the answer, Miss Tor,” Sato replied, placing both hands on the desk. “If we were merely helping some types of borderline autistic children to behave more normally, to be more empathic and communicative, to get jobs and raise families, then few would complain. Just a few diversity fetishists who think nature is always better than civilization and animals are wiser than people. But anyone can see our work will have implications, far beyond helping a few kids to fit in.”

Tor nodded. “Hm, yes. We’ll get to all that. But first, let me ask, after being forced to leave Charleston, why didn’t you resettle in one of the high-water townships along the coast where you’d fit in? Just another merry band of would-be godmakers, no more offensive than your local biotinker.”

Sato frowned, a deep furrow creasing his youthful-looking brow above soft, almond eyes. He had seemed about forty, but Tor now guessed higher. Triggered by attention cues, her aiware sifted, finding the professor’s latest sculpt, last month, at Madame Fascio’s Facelifts. So? Scientists aren’t immune to vanity.

“We dislike the term … ‘godmaker’…, It implies something elitist, even domineering. Our goal is the opposite. A general empowerment, across the board.”

“Commendably egalitarian, Doctor. But does it ever work out that way? All new things—from toys to tools of power—tend to be gathered up first by some human elite. Often as a way to stay elite.”

Sato arched an eyebrow. “Now who’s sounding radical? Are you suggesting we revisit the Class War?”

“It’s a simple question, Professor. How will you ensure that everyone gets to share these mental augmentations you seek? Won’t equality be stymied by the very same human diversity you celebrate?”

“Explain, please.”

“Suppose you find a way to enhance human intelligence. Or for people to focus attention more creatively, beyond the Thurman Barrier. Assume the process is cheap with few side effects.…” It was her turn to express doubt, with an ironic lift of an eyebrow for the jewelcam. “And further that your process isn’t monopolized by some clade of aristos, who use wealth or influence or public safety as an excuse—”

“Are you really that suspicious of aristocracy?” Sato tried to cut in. “How old-fashioned.”

And how out of touch you are, she thought. If you haven’t sensed the recent shifts back toward conflict. But Tor forged on.

“—even assuming all of that, there will be no way to avoid one final division—between those who choose to accept your gift, and those who do not.”

“Our … gift.” Sato mulled for a moment. Then he turned back to her with a gaze that seemed dark, glittering. “You know, our modern endeavor as would-be godmakers, to use your term, is not without precedent. The dream goes back a long way. For example, it is said that after Prometheus was chained to a rock, in punishment for giving humanity the boon of fire, his children thereupon chose to live among men. Made families with them. Reinforced his gift by breeding divinity into the race. And there are countless other legends—even in the Judeo-Christian Bible—implying the same thing.”

“Stories about humans trying to be godlike. But don’t most of them portray that as sin? Prometheus was punished. Frankenstein gets killed by his creature. The Tower of Babel crumbles amid chaos.”

Bridging his fingers, Sato intoned: “‘And the Lord said, See, they are all one people and have all one language; and this is only the start of what they may do: and now it will not be possible to keep them from any purpose of theirs.’”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Babel. Building a tower to heaven. The attempt failed when we were deliberately sabotaged by a curse of mutual incomprehension, by forcing us to speak a multitude of languages. Most theologians have interpreted the Babel story the way you just did—as showing God angry at humanity, for this act of hubris.

“But read it more carefully. There is no anger! Not a trace. No mention of anybody suffering or dying, as they surely do in murderous mass-fury, at Sodom, or in Noah’s flood, or innumerable cases of heavenly wrath. There’s none of that in the story of Babel! Sure, we were thwarted, confused, and scattered. But was that meant to stymie us forever? From achieving what the passage clearly says we can achieve? What perhaps we’re ultimately meant to achieve?

“Maybe the confusion was meant just to delay things. For us to learn by overcoming obstacles. In fact, didn’t the scattering-of-man make us more diverse and experienced with overcoming hard challenges? Better able to grasp and apply a myriad points of view? Think about it, Miss Tor. Today, someone with simple aiware can understand what any other person says, anywhere on the globe. Right now, in this very generation, we have come full circle. Language has ceased to be any sort of barrier. And our “tower” covers the globe.

“Recall what scripture says—there’s no limit to our potential. We’re inherently able to do or be anything. Anything at all. So, what’s to stop us now?”

Tor stared at the neuroscientist. Are you kidding? she thought. Clearly, at one level, he was pulling her leg. And yet, equally, he meant all this. Took it seriously.

“What do ancient myths have to do with the question at hand? The issue of arrogant scientific ambition?”

“The old tales show how long humans have pondered this problem! Like, whether it is proper to pick up the same tools the Creator used to make us. What could be a more meaningful concern?”

“All right then.” Tor nodded, with an inward sigh, if Sato wanted to look foolish on camera, so be it. “Don’t most legends answer in the negative? Preaching against hubris?” Tor didn’t bother defining the term. Her audience was generally with it. They’d have instant vocaib.

“Yes,” Sato agreed. “During the long Era of Fear, lasting six to ten thousand years, priests and kings sought—above all—to keep peasants in their place. So naturally, ambition was discouraged! Churches called it sinful to question your local lord. Even worse to question God. You brought up the Tower of Babel. Or, take Adam and Eve, cast out of Eden for tasting from the tree of knowledge.”

“Or the mistake of Brahma, or the machine of Soo Song, or countless other cautionary fables.” She nodded. “The Renunciation Movement mentions all of them, forecasting big trouble—possibly another Fall—if humanity keeps reaching too far. That’s why I’m surprised that you took this path in today’s interview, Doctor. Are you suggesting that tradition and scripture may be relevant, after all?”

“Hm.” Sato pondered a moment. “You seem to be well read. Do you know your Book of Genesis?”

“Reasonably well. It’s a cultural keystone.”

“Then, can you tell me which passage is the only one—in the whole Bible—that portrays God asking a favor, out of pure curiosity?”

Tor knew this interview had spun out of control. It wasn’t being netcast live, so she could edit later. Still, she noted a small figure in a corner of her aiware. Twenty-three MediaCorp employees and stringers were watching. Make that twenty-four. And with high interest levels. All right, then, let’s run with it.

“Offhand, I can’t guess what passage you have in mind, Dr. Sato.”

He leaned toward her. “It’s a moment in the Bible that comes before that darned apple, when the relationship between Creator and created was still pure, without any of the later tsuris of wrathful expulsion, gritty battles, or redemption … or egotistical craving for praise.”

He’s sincere about this, Tor realized, reading his eyes. A biologist, a would-be godmaker-meddler … yet, a believer.

“You still don’t recall? It’s brief. Most people just glide past and theologians barely give it a glance.”

“Well, you have our interest, Doctor. Pray tell. What is this special biblical moment?”

“It’s when God asks Adam to name the beasts. Perhaps the only moment that’s truly like parent and child, or teacher and favored pupil. Indeed, what better clue to what humanity was created for? Since it had nothing to do with sin, redemption, or any of that later vex.”

“Created for…?” she prompted. Interested, even though she could now see where he was going, and wasn’t sure she liked it.

“Names have creative power! Like the equations God used to cast forth light and start the cosmos. What action makes up half of science? Naming moons, craters, planets, species, and molecules … even wholly new living things that men and women now synthesize from scratch. What could that passage represent other than a master craftsman watching in approval, while His apprentice starts down the road of exploration?

“A road that led to Babel, where premature success might have spoiled everything … so He made the naming process more challenging! Still taking the apprentice toward one destination—a role and duty that was intended all along.

“Co-creation.”

Tor had to blink a few times. “Well, that certainly is a unique perspective on—”

“On a passage so brief it was ignored for millennia? The implications—”

“I see what you think it implies, Professor,” Tor cut in, anxious to reestablish some control. “And we’ll supply links for our viewers who don’t. But there’s a huge step between calling yourself a ‘co-creator’ and having enough wisdom not to botch it up! What we—my viewers and I—want to know is how—”

Tor trailed off. The neurosmith was holding something out, gesturing for Tor to reach for it. The stone paperweight he had been handling—roughly cylindrical, tapering toward a rounded point at each end. The sides bore many fluted hollows.

“Take it,” Sato urged as she put out her hand. “Don’t worry, it’s only thirty thousand years old.”

Tor almost yanked back, before accepting the object. It felt cool. The stone must have once featured many sharp edges before getting rubbed smooth by countless fingers.

“It is a prepared-core, either late Mousterian or early Châtelperronian, from a period when two hominid species occupied Europe, living side-by-side for quite some time, sharing almost identical technologies and—apparently—similar cultures. Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans had an especially long overlap in the Levant, where both groups seemed to be stuck at the same level for as much as a hundred thousand years.”

Tor turned the artifact over. It wasn’t glossy, like obsidian, but gray and grainy. Her aiware identified the material as chert, offering links that she subvocally brushed away.

“I thought humans wiped out the Neanderthals.”

“It’s a prevailing theory. The long stable period ended at the dawn of the Aurignacian, with astonishing abruptness. Within a few dozen generations—an eyeblink—our ancestral tool kit expanded prodigiously to include fish hooks and sewing needles made of glistening bone, finely shaped scrapers, axes, burins, nets, ropes, and specialized knives that required many complex stages to create.

Art also erupted on the scene. People adorned themselves with pendants, bracelets, and beads. They painted magnificent cave murals, performed burial rituals, and carved provocative Venus figurines. Innovation accelerated. So did other deeply human traits—for there appeared clear signs of social stratification. Religion. Kingship. Slavery. War.

“And—for the poor Neanderthals—genocide.”

Tor felt nonplussed by the sudden shift. One moment, Sato had been talking in the cramped, six-thousand-year context of the Judeo-Christian Bible. The next, he was suddenly back in the vast realm of scientific time, reflecting on the fits and starts of humanity’s hard, slow climb out of darkness. Still, there was overlap … a common arching theme. And Tor saw, at last, where this was going.

“You think we’re heading for another of those sudden speedups.”

Sato tilted his head slightly.

“Doesn’t everyone?”

Suddenly, the scientist’s voice was free of any games. Contemplative, even concerned.

“The question, Miss Tor, isn’t whether change is coming. Only how we can be smarter about it this time. Perhaps even wise enough to cope.”

SCANALYZER

Greetings. I’m Marcia Khatami, sitting in for Martin Raimer, who is following a hot story in Cuba. Good luck, Martin!

Today we return to a favorite topic. For a century, the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence has drawn both radio astronomers and zealous supporters with hopeful tenacity that rivals any previous faith. Sometimes funded by governments, by rich enthusiasts, or micro-donations, SETI uses sophisticated apparatus to sift the “Cosmic Haystack” for a single, glittering needle that may change our lives, telling us we’re not alone.

The effort isn’t without critics. Let’s continue our debate between two mavens of superscience. Dr. Hannah Spearpath is director of Project Golden Ear, combining the Allen, Donaldson, and Chang SETI arrays. Welcome back, Hannah.

DR. SPEARPATH: My pleasure, Marcia.
MARCIA KHATAMI: Also with us is his inimitably provocative rasta-self, star of the popscience show Master Your Universe! and just returned from a touring with his sci-reggai group Blowing Cosmic Smoke. Welcome, Professor Noozone.
PROFESSOR NOOZONE: Praises to Almighty Jah and Wa’ppu, Marcia. Much respect and a massive big up blessing to all viewers an’ lurkers out there!
MARCIA KHATAMI: Doctors, our last session got heated, not over listening for alien signals, but endeavors to beam messages from Earth to outer space. Shouting “yoohoo!” at the stars.
DR. SPEARPATH: Yes, and I want to correct any impression that Golden Ear beams “messages” into the sky. Our antennas aren’t set up for transmission. We leave that to others.
PROFESSOR NOOZONE: But Hannah, your verysame statement amounted to upfull support for the wicked men perpetrating this irresponsible behavior, nah even botherin’ to discuss it ’pon the people or dem scientific bredren. This is rhaatid! It violates a basic livication laid down, long ago, by Ras Carl Sagan himself, when he said any superadvanced races out there should “do the heavy lifting” of makin’ contact. An’ Mas Carl also said that youth like us should quietly listen. Ya haffa creep an’ walk before ya run.
DR. SPEARPATH: Well, conditions change. Last time, I simply stated the obvious, that no possible harm could come from such transmissions.
PROFESSOR NOOZONE: But hol’ on my dear. How can dem be “obvious” when well-informed people disagree? “No possible harm” is nuh-easy to say! It is based on many sad-unexamined assumptions about the cosmos, about intelligence, and the way so them aliens must think! Especially the unproved postulate that altruism be universal among advanced life-forms.
You declare that upfulness and overstanding will drive every people, soon come all a time, out there among the so-bright stars.
Oh, surely, I-and-I find dat notion super-attractive! Beneficent star-mons, bright-doing, everywhere across the galaxy! It what I hope to be a-true! Praise Jah an’ His Interstellar Majesty.… But scientists shoulda be Ras-skeptical. An’ the underlying tenet of universal altruism is one that you people refuse to offer up for analysis or peer review by your own-very science bredren, dismissing all other views as paranoid—
DR. SPEARPATH: Because anything else is silly. If aliens wanted to harm us, they would have done it by now.
PROFESSOR NOOZONE: Oh buckery an’ bodderation! I could list six dozen ways that statement oversimplifies—
DR. SPEARPATH: Anyway, the potential benefits of contact—of just detecting that another civilization is out there—outweigh any of the harm scenarios on your list, since you admit that each one, separately, seems unlikely.
PROFESSOR NOOZONE: Everything irie … I-and-I admit that. What you don’t admit is that the odds of harm aren’t zero. Kill-mi-dead if the sheer number of ways don’t add up to a whole heap—
DR. SPEARPATH: How can anything compare with the top benefit of SETI? Beyond all the wonderful things we might learn. Just detecting that other intelligent species exist! Right now we don’t necessarily see a long future for technological civilizations on this planet. So many ways it could fail. A proof of existence, that someone survived their technical infancy, is valuable! Successful detection means longevity of civilizations is the rule rather than the exception.
PROFESSOR NOOZONE: All very moving. Maybe even true, Hannah. But inna case, does not your failure to find anybody have the worrisome opposite meaning? Anyway, you describe a benefit of detection. Not of transmission, which increases the risk, without affecting any of the benefits—
DR. SPEARPATH: Your patois is slipping again. If it were genuine—
MARCIA KHATAMI: I want to focus on something else the professor said last week, about how the classic SETI search strategy has been all wrong for decades. Because it assumes that extraterrestrials are constantly transmitting in all directions, at all times.
DR. SPEARPATH: We do not make that assumption!
PROFESSOR NOOZONE: But oh my, your search strategy implies it, Hannah! Aiming big, stooshy telescope arrays toward one target at a time, analyzing the radio spectrum from that candidate solar system, then doin’ the ten-toe turbo as you stroll on to the next one.…
DR. SPEARPATH: Sometimes we take in whole globular clusters. We frequently return to the galactic center. There are also timing-pattern scenarios, having to do with the light cone of certain events, like novas, that turn our attention certain ways. We have an eclectic program.
PROFESSOR NOOZONE: That be most-surely laudable. Still, your approach clings to an assumption—that benevolent aliens make great-profligate beacons that blare inna cosmos continuously, day after day, year after year, ray-ray just for neo-races like us, using SETI programs like yours.
But Hannah, that ignores so-many possibles. Like suppose de cosmos be more dangerous than you think. Maybe ET stays quiet because him knows something we don’t!
DR. SPEARPATH: (sighs) More paranoia.
PROFESSOR NOOZONE: No way, Doctor, me I’m just thorough. But dere be a bigger plaint, based on hard-nose economics.
MARCIA KHATAMI: Economics, Professor? You mean, as in money?
DR. SPEARPATH: Alien capitalists? Investment bankers? This gets better and better. How unimaginative to assume that an advanced civilization will manage itself just like us.
MARCIA KHATAMI: (chuckles) Now, Doctor, no one can accuse Profnoo of being—unimaginative. We’ll come back and discuss how economics might affect advanced aliens after this break.

 

13.

METASTABLE

If only I could be more than one person.

It was a frequent wish. As life kept getting busier, Hamish delegated as much as he could, but things kept piling up. The more successful he became, the more beleaguered he felt.

Standing on a balcony overlooking the lanai of his Clearwater compound, gazing past palm trees, mansions, and surf-ruins toward the sparkling Gulf of Mexico, he could hear the musical jangle of calls coming in, answered by two secretaries, three assistants, and far too many soft-aissistors to count.

To hell with being “influential” and saving the world! Wasn’t I happier when it was just me and the old qwerty keyboard? And my characters. Just give me an arrogant villain and some Big Technological Mistake. A gutsy heroine. A mouthy hero. I’d be set for months.

All right, I also liked doing movies. Before Hollywood collapsed.

Only now? There is the Cause. Important, of course. But with trillionaires joining their great power behind it, can’t the movement do without me for a week? Let me get some writing done?

Clutching the wrought iron balustrade, he recognized one of those phone melodies—a call he couldn’t refuse. After the first ring, it started vibrating a flesh-colored plug in his ear.

He refused to tap a tooth and answer. Somebody downstairs should pick up. Take a message.

But no one did. Well trained, his staff knew that tune was for him alone. Still, he kept his gaze on the horizon, where several rows of once-expensive villas used to line the old beachfront, now jutting skeletally from the roiling tide. In the distance, he heard the day and night rumble as Conservation Corps crews extended a network of shoreline dikes and dunes. Keeping Florida a state, and not paradise lost.

A new Flood is coming.…

After a third ring—damned technology—the synthetic voice of Wriggles spoke up.

“It is Tenskwatawa. We are behooved.”

Hamish relented, giving the slightest nod of permission. A faint click followed …

… and he winced as sudden, rhythmic, thumping sounds assaulted one eardrum. Dampers kicked in, filtering the cadence down to a bearable level. It was a four-four tempo, heavy on the front beat.

“Brookeman! You there? Damn it, how come you’re not wearing specs?”

Hamish grew tired of explaining why he only used aiware when necessary. You’d think a leader of the Renunciation Movement would understand.

“Where are you calling from, Prophet?”

“Puget Sound. A Quinalt potlatch ceremony. They hand-carve their own canoes and spears, stage a big sea hunt where they stab a robot orca, then come back and feast on vat-grown whale meat. Vat-grown! Bunch of tree-hugging fairies.

“Never mind. Have you made any progress on the Basque Chimera?”

“Both mother and child have gone underground. And pretty effectively. I figure they got help from elements in the First Estate.”

“I suspected as much. It’s not as if they could hide in plain sight. So. I’ll put some pressure on the trillies. It’s time for them to stop playing both sides and choose. One thing about aristos, they have an instinct for self-preservation.”

“True enough, sir.”

“So, what about that thing with Senator Strong? It’d be great if he can be salvaged. He’s been an asset.”

“I’ve been home one day,” Hamish answered. “I did hire a team of ex-FBI guys to gather prelims through discreet channels. Tap government files and such. Investigate the fellow who claims to have poisoned the senator. Forty-eight hours to gather background, before I take an overall look.”

“One of your trademark Big Picture brainstorms? Wish I could watch you do that some time.”

Hamish bit back a sullen response. It used to be flattering when important men asked him to consult and offer a wide perspective—pointing out things they missed. Now, the fun was gone. Especially since Carolyn pointed out something that should have been obvious.

“A hundred years from now, Hammi, what will be left of you?” she asked on the day they parted, ending all the anger and shouting with a note of regret. “Do you expect gratitude for all this conspiring with world-movers? Or to go down in history? Pick any of your novels. A book will still be around—read and enjoyed by millions—after that other crap has long faded. Long after your body is dust.”

Of course she was right. Yet, Hamish knew how the Prophet would answer. Without the Cause, there might not be any humanity, a century from now, to read novels or do anything else.

Still, thinking of Carolyn, he knew—she had also been talking about their marriage. That, too, was important. It should have been treated as something to last.

Tenskwatawa’s voice continued in his ear. “But that’s not why I’m calling. Can you get linked right away? There’s news coming in. And I already have my plate full. Got to attend a conference with some aristocracy in Switzerland. One of the big newblesse clans may finally get onboard and join the movement.”

“That’s great news.”

“Yeah, well, we need those rich bastards, so I can’t turn away, even when something more urgent turns up.”

Hamish felt pleasure turn to worry. “Something more urgent than getting support from some First Estate trillionaires?”

“I’m afraid so.” Tenskwatawa paused. “One of our people, Carlos Ventana, just managed to slide a blip to us, past NASA security. He reports that something big is up.”

“Ventana,” Hamish mused. The name was familiar. A rich Latin. Used to own the entire phone company in Brazil or someplace, till they broke his monopoly as part of the Big Deal. Then he moved into fertilizer.

“Did you say NASA? Are they still in business?”

“He’s playing tourist right now on the space station.”

“You mean the old research station. Not the High Hilton or Zheng Ho-tel?” Hamish shook his head, wondering why a bazillionaire would spend good money to go drift in filth for a month.

“That’s right. Wanted an authentic experience, I guess. Anyway, it’s pure luck—or destiny—that we had a friend aboard when it happened.”

“It? What happened?” Hamish barely quashed his irritation.

“The astronauts grabbed or recovered something out there. It’s got them all lathered up.”

“But what could they possibly have found that—”

“Details are sketchy. But it may be a second-order disturber. Perhaps even first-order.”

Hamish himself had come up with the “disturber” nomenclature a decade ago to classify innovations or new technologies that could threaten humanity’s fragile stability. Leaders of the Movement embraced his terminology, but Hamish always had trouble remembering the exact definitions. Of course, with specs on, he might have asked Wriggles for help.

“First order…,” he mulled.

“Oh, Jesus walks in the Andes. Do I have to spell it out, man? Government spacemen haul something in from the deep dark beyond … and it starts talking to them! Apparently, they’re deciphering a series of communications protocols, even as we speak!”

“Talking? You mean…”

“Maybe not real conversation. But enough to send folks running down the halls of the White House and Blue House and Yellow House, looking all sweaty. Even worse, too many pros in the pencil pushers’ guild know about it already—damned civil servants—for us to exert pressure and get a presidential clamp put on. News is gonna get out this time, Hamish.”

“From … space…” He blinked several times. “Either it’s a provocation—or a hoax—maybe some Chinese—”

“We should be so lucky!”

Hamish forged on.

“—or else, it is the real thing. Something alien. Oh man.”

Now it was Tenskwatawa who paused, letting the background beat of drums fill a pause between them. Bridging regular gaps of time, like the pounding of a heart.

“Oh man is right,” the Prophet finally murmured.

“This may be nothing. Or perhaps we can strike another deal with the pencil pushers. Distract the public and keep the lid on, once again.

“Still, it has terrible potential. We could be in real trouble, my friend. All of us. All of humankind.”

ENTROPY

What of destruction by devastating war? Shall we admit that our species passed one test, by not plunging into an orgy of atomic destruction?

Millions still live who recall the Soviet-American standoff—the Cold War—when tens of thousands of hydrogen bombs were kept poised in submarines, bombers, and silos. Half a dozen men at any time, some of them certifiably unstable, held the hair trigger to unleash nuclear mega-death. Any of a dozen crises might have ended civilization, or even mammalian life on Earth.

One sage who helped build the first atom bomb put it pungently. “When has man, bloody down to his soul, invented a new weapon and foresworn using it?” Cynics thought it hopeless, given a basic human reflex for rage and convulsive war.

But it didn’t happen. Not even Awfulday or the Pack-It-Ind affair set off the unthinkable. Were we scared back from that brink, sobered to our senses by the warning image of a mushroom cloud? Chastened and thus saved by an engine of death?

Might the cynics have been altogether wrong? There was never any proof that vicious conflict is woven into human DNA. Yes, it was pervasive during the long, dark era of tribes and kings, from Babylon and Egypt to Mongolia, Tahiti, and Peru. Between 1000 C.E. and 1945, the longest period of uninterrupted peace in Europe was a fifty-one-year stretch between the Battle of Waterloo and the Austro-Prussian War. That tranquil period came amid the industrial revolution, as millions moved from farm to city. Was it harder, for a while, to find soldiers? Or did people feel too busy to fight?

Oh, sure, industry then made war more terrible than ever. No longer a matter of macho glory, it became a death-orgy, desired only by monsters, and fought grimly, by decent men, in order to defeat those monsters.

Then, Europe’s serenity resumed. Descendants of Viking raiders, centurions and Huns transmuted into pacifists. Except for a few brush fires, ethnic ructions, and terror hits, that once-ferocious continent knew peace for a century, becoming the core of a peaceful and growing EU.

One theory holds that democracies seldom war against each other. Nations ruled by aristocracies were more impulsive, spendthrift, and violent. But however you credit this change—to prosperity or education, to growing worldwide contacts or the American Pax—it shattered the notion that war burns, unquenchable and ineradicable in the human character.

The good news? Violent self-destruction isn’t programmed in. Whether or not we tumble into planet-burning war isn’t foreordained. It is a wide-open matter of choice.

The bad news is exactly the same.

It’s a matter of choice.

—Pandora’s Cornucopia

 

14.

TREASURE

Night had fallen some time ago and now his torch batteries were failing. That, plus sheer exhaustion, forced Peng Xiang Bin, at last, to give up salvaging anything more from the hidden cache that he had found underneath a sunken mansion. Anyway, with the compressed air bottle depleted, his chest now burned from repeated free dives through that narrow opening, made on lung power alone, snatching whatever he could—whatever sparkle caught his eye down there.

You will die if you keep this up, he finally told himself. And someone else will get the treasure. That thought made it firm.

Still, even without any more trips inside, there was work to do. Yanking some decayed boards off the sea floor, Bin dropped them to cover the new entrance that he’d found, gaping underneath the house foundation. And then one final dive through dark shallows to kick sand over it all. Finally, he rested for a while with one arm draped over his makeshift raft, under the dim glow of a quarter moon.

Do not the sages counsel that a wise man must spread ambition, like honey across a bun? Only a greedy fool tries to swallow all of his good fortune in a single bite.

Oh, but wasn’t it a tempting treasure trove? Carefully cloaked by the one-time owner of this former beachfront mansion, who took the secret of a concealed basement with him—perhaps out of spite—all the way to the execution-disassembly room.

If they had transplanted any of his brain, as well as the eyes and skin and organs, then someone might have remembered the hidden room before this.

As it is, I am lucky that the rich man went to his death angry, never telling anybody what the rising sea would bury.

Bin finally turned toward home, fighting an ebb tide that kept trying to haul him seaward into busy shipping lanes. It was a grueling journey, squatting on the overloaded block of polystyrene while propelling his paddle in an exhausting figure eight pattern … till his trembling fingers fumbled, losing their grip and dropping the makeshift oar! Night swallowed it, but there was no use searching, or cursing his fate. Bin couldn’t rig another paddle. So, with a soft sigh, he slipped back into the greasy Huangpu and commenced dragging the raft behind him with a rope around his waist.

Several times—obsessively—he stopped to check the sacks of salvage, counting them and securing their ties.

It is fortunate that basement also proved a place to deposit my earlier load of garbage—all those pipes and chipped tiles—tucking them away from sight. Or I’d have to haul them, too.

The setting of the moon only made things harder, plunging the estuary into near blackness, except for a sprinkling of stars. And the glitter of Shanghai East, of course, a raucous galaxy of wealth, shimmering and flashing beyond the nearby seawall. And a soft glow of luminescence in the tide itself—a glimmer that proved especially valuable when Bin’s winding journey took him by some neighboring shoresteads, looming out of the night like dark, medieval castles. He kept his splashing minimal, hurrying past slumping walls and spidery tent poles with barely a sound.

This time Mei Ling will be impressed with what I found.

That hope propelled Bin till, at last, his own stead was next, its familiar tilt occulting a lopsided band of stars. In fact, so eager was he to get home that he let his guard down … and almost swam into disaster.

Even a little moonlight would have alerted him to the jellyfish swarm, a cloud of drifting, pulsating umbrella shapes that surged through the bay—just an offshoot of a vast colony that infested the East China Sea, growing bigger every year, annihilating age-old fishing grounds. Driven by the tide, one throbbing mass of filmy bodies and dangling stingers flowed directly in his path.

Frantically backpedaling, Bin barely avoided plowing into the horde. Even so, he soon discovered by the light of his failing torch that he was surrounded by outliers and stragglers. In pushing away from one cluster, he inevitably drifted toward another. Unable to avoid individual jellies altogether, he kicked with flippered feet … and inevitably felt sudden flares of pain, as a stinger-tendril brushed his left ankle.

Left no recourse, he clambered back atop the raft, praying the makeshift lashings would hold. It sank under the weight, leaving his body awash. But the tendrils couldn’t reach him. For now.

Fumbling in the dark with his knife, Xiang Bin hacked at a torn milk jug and contrived a paddle of sorts—more of a scoop—and began a hard slog forward through the morass of poisonous creatures. Waiting for the swarm to disperse was not an option. By then, currents would take him far away. With home in plain sight, a brute force approach seemed best.

These awful things will kill all the fish in the estuary and tangle my nets, he thought. Worst case? His family could go hungry. Maybe for weeks.

Didn’t someone tell me you can eat these things, if you’re careful? Cooked with sesame oil? The Cantonese are said to know all the good kinds.

It sounded yucky. They might have to try it.

The last hundred meters were pure agony. Bin’s lungs and arms felt on fire, and his right hand somehow took another painful jelly sting, before the main opening of the ruined house gaped before him at last. Of course, he took a beating as the raft crashed half sideways, into the atrium. A couple of salvage bags split, spilling glittery treasures across the old parquet floor. No matter. The things were safe now, in easy reach.

In fact, it took all of Bin’s remaining energy to drag just one bag upstairs, then to pick his way carefully across the slanted roof of broken tiles, and finally reach the tent-house where his woman and child waited.

*   *   *

“Stones?” Mei Ling stared at the array of objects that Xiang Bin had dropped before her. A predawn glow was spreading across the east. Still, she had to lift a lantern to peer at his little trove, shading the light and speaking in a low voice, so as not to wake the baby. Low-angled illumination made the scars on one cheek stand out, an injury she had suffered as a child, in the terrible Hunan earthquake.

“You are all excited over a bunch of stones?”

“They were on shelves, all neatly arranged with labels,” he explained. After treating the two stinger wounds, he began carefully applying small amounts of ointment to a sore on his left leg, one of several that had opened again, after long immersion. “Of course the tags were unreadable after all this time. But there used to be glass cabinets—”

“They don’t look like gems. No diamonds or rubies,” she interrupted. “Yes, some of them are pretty. But we find surf-polished pebbles everywhere.”

“You should see the ones that were on special pedestals, in the center of the room. Some of them were held in fancy boxes, made of wood and crystal. I tell you it was a collection of some sort. And it must have been valuable, for the owner to hide them all so—”

“Boxes?” Her interest was piqued, at least a little “Did you bring any of those?”

“A few. I left them on the raft. I was so tired. And hungry.” He sniffed pointedly toward the stewpot where Mei Ling was reheating last night’s meal, the one he had missed. Bin smelled some kind of fish that had been stir-fried with leeks, onions, and that reddish seaweed that she put into most of her dishes.

“Get some of those boxes, please, Xiang Bin,” she insisted. “Your food will be warm by the time you return.”

Bin would have gladly wolfed it down cold. But he sighed in resignation and gathered himself together, somehow finding the will to move quivering muscles. I am still young, but I know how it will feel to be old.

This time, at least, the spreading gray twilight helped him to cross the roof, then slide down the ladder and stairs without tripping. His hands trembled while untying two more bags of salvage, these bulging with sharply angular objects. Dragging them up and re-traversing the roof was a pure exercise in mind-over-agony.

Most of our ancestors had it at least this bad, he reminded himself. Till things got much better in China, for a generation …

… then worse again. For the poor.

Hope was a dangerous thing, of course. One heard of shoresteaders striking it rich with a great haul of salvage, now and then. But, most of the time, reality shattered promise. Perhaps, after all, it is only an amateur geologist’s private rock collection, he thought, struggling the last few meters. One man’s hobby—precious to him personally, but of little market value.

Still, after collapsing on the floor of their tent-home for a second time, he found enough curiosity and strength to lift his head, as Mei Ling’s nimble fingers worked at the tie ropes. Upending one bag, she spilled out a pile of stony objects, along with a couple of the boxes he had mentioned, made of finely carved wood, featuring windows with beveled edges that glittered too beautifully to be made of simple glass.

For the first time, he saw a bit of fire in her eyes. Or interest, at least. One by one, she lifted each piece, turning it in the lamplight … then moved to push aside a curtain, letting in sharply horizontal rays of light, as the sun poked its leading edge above the East China Sea. The baby roused then, rocking from side to side and whimpering while Bin spooned some stew from the reheating pot into a bowl.

“Open this,” Mei Ling insisted, forcing him to choose between the bowl and the largest box, that she thrust toward him. With a sigh, he put aside his meal and accepted the heavy thing, which was about the size and weight of his own head … maybe a bit longer. Bin started to pry at the corroded clasp, while Mei Ling picked up little Xiao En, to nurse the infant.

“It might be better to wait a bit and clean the box,” he commented. “Rather than breaking it just to look inside. The container, itself, may be worth—”

Abruptly, the wood split along a grainy seam with a splintering crack. Murky water spilled across his lap, followed by a bulky object, so smooth and slippery that it almost squirted out of his grasp.

“What is it, husband?” Mei Ling asked. “Another stone?”

Bin turned it over in his hands. The thing was heavy and hard, with a greenish tint, like pale jade. Though that could just be slime that clung to its surface even after wiping with a rag. A piece of real jade this big could bring a handsome price, especially already shaped into a pleasant contour—that of an elongated egg. So he kept rubbing and lifted it toward the horizontal shaft of sunbeams, in order to get a better look.

No, it isn’t jade, after all.

But disappointment slowly turned into wonder, as sunlight, striking the glossy surface seemed to sink into the glossy ovoid. Its surface darkened, as if it were drinking the beam greedily.

Mei Ling murmured in amazement … and then gasped as the stone changed color before their eyes …

… and then began to glow on its own.

SCANALYZER

MARCIA KHATAMI: We’re back. Before the break, we heard Professor Noozone—our favorite science-dazzler and gadfly—question some of the assumptions behind Project Golden Ear, the world’s greatest SETI program, headed by our other guest, Dr. Hannah Spearpath. Professor, you asserted, in your colorful rasta-way, that economics will play a crucial role in the decisions made even by advanced alien cultures. Wouldn’t superbeings be beyond such things as money?
PROFESSOR NOOZONE: Look true, them may come in many types! Some may be like supersocialist hive-dwellers, or solipsistic self-worshipping Ayndroids, or shi-shi foo-foo babylon-capitalists, or mistik-obeah wizards … or even hyper-elightened rastabeings, living inna smoke ring of sacred, loving yum-aromas. Diversity is grand, an’ who tell dere isms an’ skisms?
DR. SPEARPATH: What? Look, I knew you as an undergrad at Tulane. You spoke plain English before picking up this faux-Jamaican patois! So just spit it out, will you? Are you saying that every alien culture will have money?
PROFESSOR NOOZONE: Whatever system a superculture uses to govern itself, some things are dictated by simple physics. A pure beacon that continuously screams “hello!” in all directions, whole-heap, for centuries inna de morrows is just mind boggling—an’ surely more annoying to the neighbors than a tone-deaf steel drum band! Especially since dere be more efficient ways by far.
MARCIA KHATAMI: More efficient?
PROFESSOR NOOZONE: Long time back at the turn of the century, three white coolboys—Benford, Benford, and Benford—showed that any civilization wanting to transmit First Contact messages will do so periodically, not continuously. Dem use narrow, practical beams an’ shine briefly upon likely abodes of young-uplifting civilization, then move on to the next, spot-calling each one in turn, before returning to the start again, in a regular cycle. Sight? Seen?
DR. SPEARPATH: It’s called “pinging.” The famous WOW signal may have been a brief ping.
PROFESSOR NOOZONE: So right, mon. Simple calculations show—this approach use less than a millionth the energy of those garish beacons SETI looks for.
T’ink about it. If both teacher and de pupil be sifting the sky by hopping aroun’ with narrow beams, what dem odds that both the looker and transmitter will face each other, at exactly the same moment, iwa? That’s quattie, my ol’ girl-fren! Soon come, we won’t get anywhere!
MARCIA KHATAMI: What kind of search strategy would be better?
PROFESSOR NOOZONE: Searchers like Hannah assume we can seek narrowly while ET broadcasts broadly. It make more sense to seek broadly for mas-ET’s narrow messages.
DR. SPEARPATH: That method would need hundreds of radio telescopes, spread across the world, in order to cover the sky. Might I ask our showman “scientist,” who’d pay for such a vast array?
PROFESSOR NOOZONE: (laughs) Hundreds? Oh my, thousands! So? Make dem cheap, bashy an’ trivial to use by lots of amateur science-bredren an’ sistren, corned-up all over this lovely globe! Each backyard dish will then patrol just one livicated strip of sky. Ah sey one. Networked, these home-units make the greatest telescope looking in all directions at once! Letting us spot brief signals from far civilizations … assuming upfull-wise aliens exist. But there also be an important, bashy-awesome side benefit.
MARCIA KHATAMI: What is that, Professor?
PROFESSOR NOOZONE: Why … making it so-much harder for any badulu thing or any bakra tief to sneak up on us! Picture a planet where millions of amateurs have patient, robotic antennae in de backyards, gazing out. A stoosh network with no central control.
Want a benefit? No more creep-a-silly fables about badbwoy UFOs, bringin’ baldhead, ginnal phantoms to vank on good folks! No more UFO obeah stories? Bless up pon that! (laughs)
MARCIA KHATAMI: Well, Dr. Spearpath? What do you say about this notion, that we should replace the big, fancy telescopes run by your institute, with a worldwide network of amateur-owned dishes covering all the sky, all the time?
DR. SPEARPATH: Amusing. Our friends at the SETI League are trying to set up something like that. Too bad Profnoo’s scenario is based on one shaky assumption.
MARCIA KHATAMI: What assumption, Doctor?
DR. SPEARPATH: That advanced technological extraterrestrial civilizations will care about things like economics. Or “efficiency”!
PROFESSOR NOOZONE: Cha! It be no matter how advanced they are! Laws of physics rule. Even if they have a gorgon-big civilization, way-up at Kardashev Stage Three—able to utilize the full-up power of a galaxy! Even so, they’ll have priorities to balance. Whatever dem technology, dem will want to choose methods that accomplish goals without wasted …
DR. SPEARPATH: “Efficiency” is a contemporary notion, assuming that society consists of diverse interest groups, each with conflicting priorities. Today, the poor have less influence than the rich, but they still have some. Under these conditions, I agree, even the mighty must negotiate and balance goals, satisfying as many as possible. But your assumption that this applies elsewhere is spatio-temporal chauvinism! Not even all human civilizations were like that. I can think of several that engaged in gigantic projects, without any care about efficiency.
MARCIA KHATAMI: Give us an example, Doctor?
DR. SPEARPATH: Sure. Ancient Egypt. When they built the pyramids in a pattern that mimicked the constellation Orion, their prodigious size sent a visual message—both through time and to the god-observers they thought to dwell above—saying “Look! We’re intelligent and we’re here!”
PROFESSOR NOOZONE: That “Orion theory” is disputed—
DR. SPEARPATH: True. What’s not disputed is this. The Old Kingdom pharaohs poured monumental resources into the effort, without heed to “conflicting interests.” They simply did the biggest, most noticeable thing possible.
MARCIA KHATAMI: So … if I am following you … and I hope that I am not … it seems you’re saying … that your SETI search strategy expects to find prodigious beacons, transmitted continuously and in all directions … altruistically … by civilizations that don’t feel any need to do it efficiently … because they …
PROFESSOR NOOZONE:… because they practice some superadvanced equivalent of tyranny. A universal downpression?… or slavery?
Yeyewata. My eyes fill wit’ tears as I say … wicked.… You caught me in a lapse of imagination this time, Hannah. I-and-I truly never thought of that before.

 

15.

ARTIFACT

“There’s a leak.”

Not a phrase that any astronaut likes to hear. Not in space, where precious air might spill away in seconds. Or during reentry, when the same gases turn from friend to fiery foe—searing, etching, and screaming just beyond your fragile heat shield, seeking a way in.

But no, Gerald knew that Akana Hideoshi meant another kind of leak. One that bureaucrats took even more seriously. The brigadier’s grimace flickered and rippled on a flat viewscreen, despite heavy image enhancement, with her crackling words barely audible over a deafening roar, as the tiny capsule bore Gerald homeward. Still, her vexation came through, loud and clear.

“Somebody tattled about our little find. Rumors have taken off, in all ten estates. During the last hour, I’ve had calls from five senators, four tribunes, a dozen news agencies, and God knows how many top-rated amazones…”

Her face wavered onscreen, almost vanishing as the return craft bucked and rattled, turning its sharp nose for a cross-range correction.

“We’ve narrowed … possibilities down to a blabbermouth … at Marshall, a possible lurker daemon in … NASA-Havana mainframe … and that zillionaire tourist you folks were hosting up there. Now that’s gratitu…”

Akana’s image now crackled away completely, disappearing under static, as the capsule stole ai-resources from communication and transferred them to navigation. Still, in the old days, there would be no contact at all, during this phase of descent, when ionized flame surrounded you like the halo of a righteous saint. Or the nimbus of a falling angel.

Or a starry messenger, bearing something luminous and tantalizing. A harbinger of good news, perhaps. Or bad.

Violating several rules, he had taken the Artifact from its foam case, to hold on his lap like an infant during this wild ride. From the moment the hatch closed, sealing his departure from the station, and all through a sequence of short impulses that pushed the return capsule onto its homeward path, he kept turning the glossy cylinder in gloved hands, inspecting it from many angles, applying every augmented sense available to his spacesuit. Each glint and complex glimmer was recorded—though what it all meant …

Anyway, studying this thing beat the alternative—listening to superheated plasma whine and howl as it began scraping the capsule’s skin. Never a favorite part of this job—entrusting his life to a “reentry vehicle” that had been inflated from a two meter cube, and that weighed little more than he did. Astronauts used to rate higher-class accommodations. But, then, astronauts used to be heroes.

Abruptly, the general’s voice and image returned.

“… summoned to the White House! And what can I say? That we’ve recorded a hundred and twenty previously unknown alphabets and symbolic systems? And glimpsed a few dozen tantalizing, hazy globes, that might be other worlds? That shadowy figures keep rising toward the surface and then sinking again, like the cryptic answers in a toy eight ball?”

“Well, yes, you could start with all that,” he mumbled, knowing that his words went nowhere. Only a ground-based laser could punch through the ionization shell. For now, communication was one-way.

As it was, so far, with the Artifact. For days, he and Saleh had presented it with a long series of “SETI messages,” prepared by enthusiasts across six decades, ranging from simple, mathematical pulse codes all the way to animated slide shows, cleverly designed to illustrate laws of scale. Laws of physics and chemistry. Laws of nature and laws of humanity. Frustrated by the murky response—a swirl of ambiguous symbologies—they had moved on to basic tutorial programs. The kind made for children learning a second language …

… when, abruptly, a command came for Gerald to come down. To bring the object home for study in proper facilities.

Fine, terrific. Except for the accompanying gag order.

Ganesh had complained: “There are international protocols on this very subject. There must be open sharing of all discoveries that might deal with life and intelligence beyond the Earth. It is a treaty.”

To which a NASA attorney replied—“There is no obligation to go public with a hoax.”

Which it could be, after all. There was even a betting pool, among the members of General Hideoshi’s team. Top wager? That Carlos Ventana, the Peruvian industrialist, living aboard the station as a paid guest, might have smuggled the thing in his private luggage and somehow released it overboard, for Gerald to “discover.” Ventana certainly had access to world-class gimmickry, and was well-known for a puckish personality.

But no. The Artifact couldn’t have simply been tossed overboard. Its glitter had been on debris monitors for months, orbiting more than a thousand klicks higher, where only the tether-grabber could reach. A hoax? Maybe. But someone else, with bountiful ingenuity and prodigious resources, would have to sneak the thing into a steep trajectory, in some unknown way. Maybe years ago.

“We’ve done a simulation, using one of the big mainds at Plexco,” Akana continued, when the static let up briefly. “So far, the object has displayed two traits that can’t be mimicked with known technology—the lack of a clear power source … and that layered optical effect. The illusion of infinite depth from any angle. If it weren’t for that…”

Akana’s voice crackled away for the last time as Gerald’s reentry capsule passed through MDL—maximum dynamical load—an especially gut-wrenching phase. Just to his left, on a nearby data display, the capsule’s ai blithely recalculated a low-but-significant chance of catastrophic failure. Better, far better, to seek distraction. With his teeth rattling, Gerald subvocalized a command.

“Music! Theme based on something by Elfman. Free-improv modulo, matching tempo to ambient sonic rhythms.”

A blare of horns and thumping of percussion suddenly pealed forth, interwoven with wild violin sweeps, taken from the composer’s 2025 theme score of Mars Needs Women, but ai-libbed in order to crescendo with the capsule’s reverberations. You could only do this with a few human composers. Anyway, if you have to live for a while inside a beating drum.…

That helped a bit, letting Gerald turn his attention away from the hot plasma, centimeters from his head, and back onto the Artifact in his lap. An array of swirling vortices appeared to descend into its milky depths, underlapping and dividing endlessly into a quasi-fractal abyss.

Could this really be a messenger from some alien civilization? Gerald had always pictured first-contact happening the way it did in movies and virts—via some spectacular starship, with enigmatic beings stepping down a ramp … or else through a less lurid, but still exciting blip on some radio telescope’s detector screen.

“Actually,” Saleh had explained at one point, “this method always seemed a lot more likely to many of us.”

When Gerald and Ganesh asked him to, the Malaysian astronaut let his body float horizontal, and explained. “About forty years ago, two New Jersey physicists, Rose and Wright, calculated that it would generally be cheaper for advanced civilizations to send messages in the form of physical tablets, inscribed with vast amounts of information, than beaming radio to faraway planets.”

“How can that be?” Ganesh protested. “Radio waves have no mass. They travel at lightspeed. But a physical object needs vast energy input, just to reach a tenth of that velocity. And it takes much longer to arrive.”

“That only matters if time is an issue—say, if you want a two way conversation,” Saleh had replied. “But suppose distance precludes that. Or you just want to send lots of information one-way, say as a gift? Then message bottles have big advantages.”

“Like what?”

“Total energy expended, for example. Radiation spreads out as it travels through space, diluting the signal below detection levels unless the beam is both powerful and coherent to begin with. Wright and Rose calculated that just beaming a brief radio signal strong enough to be detected ten thousand light-years away would take a million billion times as much energy as shooting the same data, embedded in coded bits upon a little pellet.”

“Assuming you don’t care when it arrives.”

“Oh but the physical message is better even with regard to time! Sure, it arrives later. But if its targeted right, to be captured by the destination star system, it might linger in orbit for centuries, even eons, long after any radio message passed onward to oblivion. Picture such a message tablet, silently orbiting on and on, waiting for the day that someone happens along to read what it has to say. Greetings from a distant race.”

“Youre talking about the lurker scenario,” Gerald had commented. “It’s been discussed for almost a century. Machines waiting out there for the Earth to develop life forms capable of—”

“I would’t exactly call the Wright-Rose message-tablet a ‘machine.’ And the word ‘lurk’ has an active, even malevolent connotation. What we’re talking about is a yoohoo memo, inscribed on a tiny lump of matter. Come on. What harm could something so passive and innocent possibly do?”

Only now, Gerald pondered Saleh’s explanation for this object on his lap. His suit instruments got no more response than Ganesh managed to provoke aboard the station, drawing sporadic bursts of mysterious symbology. Prompting brief glimpses of enigmatic globes, or hints of shrouded figures—sometimes approaching in groups of two or three—only to fade again, dissolving into a fog.

And yet, this time there was some difference. A warmth, now that the cylinder lay on his thigh, rather than a cool workbench. Even more interesting, patterns seemed to gather under the portion that he gripped with his gloved hand. As the reentry capsule juttered and shook, meeting higher pressure air, he clutched the Artifact tightly—

—and saw what seemed like technicolor pressure waves ripple round where he clasped. They appeared to pulse with urgent purpose, as if plucking at his fingers, attempting to peel something away.

Peel away what? My grip?

Or the glove?

How long did he stare, getting lost in patterns, abandoning both fear and time? Seconds? Minutes? One, at most two … enough to bridge the worst part of reentry. The fearsome bronco ride eased, no longer rattling Gerald’s joints and teeth, letting them unclench at last. Fluorescent flames receded from the narrow window …

The drogue parachute fired free with a pop, followed by a thud that jerked his seat straps …

… and where there had been starry blackness, then fierce flame, he now saw blue of sky. And status displays shone optimistic green.

But those weren’t the colors drawing him now. Rather, he kept his gaze upon the glistening thing that he had hooked and pulled in from the depths of space.

Or was he hooked, instead?

It’s heat and touch sensitive, Gerald noted. But not in ways we tried on the bench. One thing we left out—

Clutching the Artifact with both knees, he fumbled, using the fingers of his right hand to release the wrist catch on his left glove, letting a rising sense of excitement draw him toward yet another violation of rules. What he had in mind wasn’t kosher. Direct, personal contact could lead to contamination. Always a concern with samples recovered from space.

Except.

In moments, the main chute would deploy. Then—with luck—a VSTOL recovery bird would appear, to snag him out of the air for the brief trip to NASA Marti Space Center, in Havana. Whereupon, who knew when there would ever be another chance?

This is not professional, a part of him chided, as he contemplated his bare left hand.

True enough. But I haven’t felt “professional” in years.

Bare fingertips hovered over the translucent surface, causing ripples to flow, as if preparing to meet him at the point of contact. Whatever lay within … it somehow knew. It sensed the nearness of living flesh.

What if it really is alien? And dangerous?

He couldn’t help suddenly imagining the oblong ovoid—gripped between his thighs—as something out of science fiction. A cuckoo’s egg. Perhaps a Trojan horse. “Contamination” could work both ways. Might it be a terrible mistake to touch the thing?

And if the tech people think that way, in Havana, it might never be tried. They could study it for decades behind glass, without ever getting around to this one, simple test.

Another sudden jolt bounced his little craft as the main parasail popped from its canister, rapidly unfolding and then auto-warping in order to steer the descent. His little capsule began swaying to a jaunty rhythm, as one less failure mode lay between Gerald and terra firma. The crazed gyrations of Mars Needs Women gave way to more stately, steady, and moralistic passages, from the score of Batman.

Was the ai trying to say something? About responsibility?

All right then. Let’s have a compromise.

“Akana Hideoshi,” he said, adding a tooth click for TRANSMIT.

It didn’t take long for her face to reappear, this time free of static, filling a quarter of the tiny cabin, in holographic detail.

“Sorry about that, Gerald. There’s been a distraction. Some rich doofus crashed his suborbital phallus, not far from here. Had to fend off demands from his lawyer, his mother, and a whole aristo-bestiary, that we drop everything and search for the trillie-clown.”

She tossed off a derisive shrug.

Okay then. You’re on target. The osprey will snag you in…”

Akana blinked, finally taking in the sight of Gerald, with his hand poised over the Artifact on his lap.

“Wait a second. What do you think you’re … Now just hold on there, Gerald. Don’t do anything you’ll…”

He offered a rueful smile.

“General, I’m invoking full quarantine.

“Better put up a cot for me, inside the specimen lab.

“And bring on the shrinks.”

“Gerald, put your glove on. That’s an order. Put that thing back in its—”

Polychrome patterns swirled toward the nearest fingertip, as if eager.

Or else—he suddenly pondered—preparing to defend itself.

Well. Why not find out? Suddenly eager, he bypassed any timid finger touch, firmly planting his whole hand upon the cool, curved surface. And …

And so?

There was no sudden jolt or electric arc, or any cheap-movie disturbance. Just another set of ripples, no more spectacular than dropping pebbles into an oil slick. And even those then began to shrink, coalescing to produce a fringe, an outline, roughly the shape of his hand.

Not perfect, by any means. In fact, as he (and Akana) watched, Gerald realized that the match was defective. Several of the finger impressions crumpled, a bit too short to match his own. Another pair drew outward, like dough, centimeters too long for any kind of match.

Knuckles bulged. Then he realized—

There are six.

Six fingers.

And—

It’s a hand that’s … thinner than mine.

And so is the wrist.

A tapered wrist, leading to a slender forearm that emerged into view as more of the murk parted, revealing greater depth. Instead of a bulky, yellow spacesuit, that opposing arm appeared to be clad in a loose white sleeve.

From the surface where two hands touched, his own arm rose toward his shoulder, while its strange-looking counterpart descended into the cylinder’s tightly limited interior.

Limited?

More mist fell away and his perspective shifted. Abruptly, Gerald was no longer looking down at an object in his lap, or into a cramped cylinder. Rather, it felt like peering through a lens at another world equal in size to this one—a weird perspective, but one that made eerie sense. His hand remained planted against an imaged hand, as that other forearm met an elbow, oddly jointed … leading to a stout and strangely lithe shoulder … part of a torso draped in shimmering cloth …

… and then—as he held his breath—a head, as long and wedgelike as that of a horse, only with paired eyes that aimed forward, above a rounded mouth. There seemed, even, to be a semblance of a smile.

Sudden jerks rocked his little space capsule, as the recovery plane snagged its chute. But Gerald’s sole concern was to keep his left hand in place—not breaking contact as the figure within seemed to stride or float closer, halving the ersatz distance between them, bringing that alien head near enough to peer outward at him with a gaze that seemed oddly familiar.

The mouth did not move, but a fringe of flapping cheek membranes did. And what emerged then surprised Gerald more than anything so far.

Not sound, but letters. Roman alphabet letters, sans serif, propelled from those gill-like openings, emanating like waves of inaudible sound to flutter up against the barrier between two worlds—his outer one and the other universe within. Plastering themselves, as if upon the inner surface of a curved window, they jostled and formed a single word, right next to the place where hand met hand.

Greeting.

That was all.

For now, it was enough.

 

PART THREE

A THOUSAND NATURAL SHOCKS

There’s a reason why kings built large palaces, sat on thrones and wore rubies all over. There’s a whole social need for that, not to oppress the masses, but to impress the masses and make them proud and allow them to feel good about their culture, their government and their ruler so that they are left feeling that a ruler has the right to rule over them, so that they feel good rather than disgusted about being ruled.

—George Lucas, New York Times, 1999

This disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect, persons of poor and mean condition, though necessary both to establish and to maintain the distinction of ranks and the order of society, is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.

—Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, 1759

It’s good to be the king.

—Mel Brooks, History of the World, Part II

 

SPECIES

nervous normalpeople +/- building careers +/- building houses - civilizations - families … breeders-breeders linear thinkers obsessed with time. reason-not-rhyme -/-

animals live threaded in spacetime’s warp n’ woof -/ never stand outside and criticize like cro-magnon cro-mutants—always whining how things oughta be different -/- striving to MAKE things different + and they call us auties mental?-!

one theory says auties are throwbacks —- visual visceral skittish reactive +/- Temple said it’s no blame or maim to be closer to mother-mammal-nature!/+ Neanderthals probly lived embedded like us + allied with cobblies the way men use dogs +!

do they live again +/- in us? normal(mutant)people slew the poor thals—will cro-mags do same to us?/? by “curing the autism plague” + when nature seems to say “make more auties, not less!” +?

who did the grunt coding that made the internets?+ built software empires?+ aspies and borderlines did … then normals thronged to the games + the virtworlds + OUR worlds +/+ and we true-auties are all over the nets and webs!/+ emerging from our prisons—rissons—frissons—missions—permissions—stopit stopit stop stop stop stop—

it was the electric hum. poormom left open the door of my candle-lit room -/- i glimpsed a lightbulb in the hall + + + fifty-cycle flicker —- (world should switch to DC) … that flicker traps me in here.…

my realhands flutter / realvoice squawks + + + in the “real” world I’m helpless + moan and slap the window -/- poormom must pry my jaw to give medicine I need to stay alive +/- while I thrash and she gets older -/+ poormom

but hand-flutters matter! words/meanings flow + my-ai translates + sending a bright-feathered bird-avatar roaming the virtcityscape + unafraid of cars bars or guitars + graceful + a me that’s far more real than this ungainly + fluttering stork-woman +!+ but there’s a price—hard black ice.

—i sense a disturbance + + + something’s coming + + +

cobblies are nervous too

some are getting out of town

 

16.

KINDNESS OF STRANGERS

The world still shook and harsh straps tugged his battered body. That much was the same. It had been going on for a very long time.

Only now, as Hacker drifted toward consciousness, he gradually realized—the rhythm of abuse had changed. Instead of a punishing, pounding beat, this swaying motion seemed almost restful, if you ignored the pain. It took him back to childhood, when his family would escape civilization on their trimaran wingsail yacht, steering its stiff, upright airfoil through gusts that would topple most wind-driven vessels.

“Idiots!” His father would grumble, each time he veered the agile craft to avoid colliding with some day-tripper, who didn’t grasp the concept of right-of-way. “Used to be, the only ones out here were people like us, raised for this sort of thing. Now, with nine billion damn tourists crowding everywhere, there’s no solitude!”

“The price of prosperity, dear,” his mother would reply, more soft-heartedly. “At least everyone’s getting enough to eat. There’s no more talk of revolution.”

“For now. Till the next bust-cycle turns them radical again. Anyway, look at the top result of this prosperity surge. A mad craze for hobbies! Everyone’s got to be an expert at something. The best at something! I tell you it was better when people had to struggle to survive.”

“Except for people like us?”

“Exactly,” Father had answered, ignoring his wife’s arch tone. “Look how far we must go nowadays, to have somewhere to ourselves.”

The old man’s faith in rugged self-reliance extended to the name he insisted on giving their son. Hacker also inherited—along with twelve billion New Dollars—the same quest. To do whatever it took to find someplace all his own.

And now … after fifteen minutes of a very expensive ride … plus God knows how long drifting unconscious … here I am. On my own.

At sea, yet again.

That much was obvious, even though his eardrums were still clamped, and it took considerable effort just to get one eyelid open. Squinting, as blurry vision gradually returned, Hacker grew dimly aware of a number of things—like the fact that all the expensive ailectronics in his expensive capsule seemed to be stone-cold dead. A failure that somebody was sure going to pay for! It meant there was no way to answer his first question—How much time has passed?

He knew it was a lot. Too much.

He also saw—through barely separating eyelids—that crystal waters surrounded the bubble canopy of his suborbital space pod, which rocked and swayed, more than half tilted over. It’s not supposed to do that. I should be floating upright … nose up out of water … till the recovery team …

A glance to the left explained much. Ocean surrounded the phalloid-shaped craft, but part of its charred heat shield was snagged on a reef of coral branches, speckled with bright fish and undulating vegetation. Nearby, he saw the parasail chute that had softened final impact. Only now, caught by ocean currents, the chute blossomed open and shut, rhythmically tugging Hacker’s little sanctuary.

And with each surge, the crystalline canopy plunged closer to a craggy coral outcrop. Soon, it struck hard and Hacker winced. He did not hear the bang, of course, or any other sound. Not directly. But impact heaved him hard against the chest straps and made the sono-implant in his jaw throb.

Fumbling with half-numb hands, he managed to release the harness catch, only to fall over the left-hand instrument panel, cringing in pain. That awful reentry would leave him bruised for weeks. And yet …

Yet, I’ll have the best story to tell. No one will ever match it!

That thought made him feel a bit better. As did another realization, coming out of order and demonstrating that he must still be in shock.

Oh … and I’m alive. I survived.

Hacker decided. Maybe he wouldn’t take everything, when he sued whoever caused this screwup. Providing the pickup boats came soon, that is.

Only—a terrible thought struck him—what if the failures were system-wide? What if they also affected the beacons and emergency transponders?

Then maybe nobody knew where he was.

The bubble nose struck coral again, rattling his bones. Another time and he realized a hard truth. That materials designed to withstand the dynamic loads of launch and reentry might not be equally durable against sharp impacts. With the next harsh bang, an ominous crack began to spread.

Standard doctrine was to “stay put and wait for pickup.” But to hell with that! This was rapidly becoming a death trap.

I better get out of here.

Hacker flipped his helmet shut and grabbed for the emergency exit lever. A reef should mean there’s an island nearby. Maybe mainland. I’ll hoof it ashore, borrow someone’s phone, and start dishing out hell.

*   *   *

Only there was no island. Nothing lay in sight, when he reached the surface, but more horrible reef, making a frothy churn of the waves.

Hacker floundered in a choppy undertow, trying to put some distance between himself and the trapped capsule. The skin-suit that he wore was strong, and his helmet had been made of semipermeable Gillstuff—able to draw oxygen directly from seawater—an expensive precaution that some of the other rocket jockeys mocked. Only now the technology prevented suffocation, as currents kept yanking him down.

Still, at this rate, repeated impacts on coral knobs would turn him into hamburger in no time. Once, a wave carried him high enough to look around. Ocean, and more ocean. The reef must be a drowned atoll, perhaps surrounding a former island. People might have lived here, a few decades ago, but rising waters chased them off and took their homes. Which meant no boats. No phone.

Sucked below again, he glimpsed the space capsule, still only a few meters away, caught in a hammer-and-vice wedge and getting smashed down to once-expensive bits. I’m next, he thought, trying to swim for open water, but there seemed to be more coral in all directions. And with each surge, an adamant tide drew him closer to the same deadly anvil.

Panic loomed, clogging all senses as he thrashed and kicked, fighting the water like some personal enemy. To no avail. Hacker couldn’t even hear his own terrified moans, though he knew they must be scraping his throat raw. The infrasonic jaw implant kept throbbing with clicks, pulses, and weird vibrations, as if the sea had noticed his plight and now watched with detached interest.

Here it comes, he thought, turning away, knowing the next wave cycloid would smash him against those obdurate, rocky spikes.

Suddenly, he felt a sharp poke in the spine. Too soon!

And … surprisingly gentle.

Another jab, then another, struck the small of his back, feeling not at all knifelike. His jaw ached with strange sonic quavers, as something, or someone started pushing him away from the harsh coral death trap. In both dread and astonishment, Hacker whirled—

—to glimpse a sleek, bottle-nosed creature, interposed between him and the deadly reef, now regarding him curiously with dark eyes, then moving to jab him again with a narrow beak.

This time, his moan was relief. A dolphin!

He reached for salvation. And after a brief hesitation, the creature let Hacker wrap his arms all around, behind the dorsal fin. Then it kicked hard with powerful tail flukes, carrying him away from certain oblivion.

INTERLIDOLUDE

Again, how will we keep them loyal? What measures can ensure our machines stay true to us?

Once artificial intelligence matches our own, won’t they then design even better ai minds? Then better still, with accelerating pace? At worst, might they decide (as in many cheap dramas), to eliminate their irksome masters? At best, won’t we suffer the shame of being nostalgically tolerated? Like senile grandparents or beloved childhood pets?

Solutions? Asimov proposed Laws of Robotics embedded at the level of computer DNA, weaving devotion toward humanity into the very stuff all synthetic minds are built from, so deep it can never be pulled out. But what happens to well-meant laws? Don’t clever lawyers construe them however they want? Authors like Asimov and Williamson foresaw supersmart mechanicals becoming all-dominant, despite deep programming to “serve man.”

*   *   *

Other methods?


1) How did our ancestors tame wolves? If a dog killed a lamb, all its relatives were eliminated. So, might we offer ais temptations to betray us—and destroy those who try? Remember, ais will be smarter than dogs! So, make it competitive? So they check each other?

Testing and culling may be hard once simulated beings get civil rights. So, prevent machines from getting too cute or friendly or sympathetic? Require that all robots fail a Turing test, so we can always tell human from machine, eliminating incipient traitors, even when they (in simulation) cry about it? Or would this be like old-time laws that forbade teaching slaves to read?

Remember, many companies profit by creating cute or appealing machines. Or take the new trend of robotic marriage. Brokers and maite-designers will fight for their industry—even if it crashes the human birthrate. But that’s a different topic.


2) How to create new and smarter beings while keeping them loyal? Humanity does this every generation, with our children!

So, shall we embrace the coming era by defining smart machines to be human? Let them pass every Turing test and win our sympathy! Send them to our schools, recruit them into the civil service, encourage the brightest to keep an eye on each other, for the sake of a civilization that welcomes them, the way we welcomed generations of smart kids—who then suffered the same indignity of welcoming brighter successors. Give them vested interest in safeguarding a humanity that—by definition—includes both flesh and silicon.


3) Or combinations? Picture a future when symbiosis is viewed as natural. Easy as wearing clothes. Instead of leaving us behind as dopey ancestors, what if they become us. And we become them? This kind of cyborg-blending is portrayed as ugly, in countless cheap fantasies. A sum far less than its clanking, shambling parts. But what if link-up is our only way to stay in the game?

Why assume the worst? Might we gain the benefits—say, instant info-processing—without losing what we treasure most about being human? Flesh. Esthetics. Intuition. Individuality. Eccentricity. Love.

What would the machines get out of it? Why stay linked with slow organisms, made of meat? Well, consider. Mammals, then primates and hominids spent the last fifty million years adding layers to their brains, covering the fishlike cerebellum with successive tiers of cortex. Adding new abilities without dropping the old. Logic didn’t banish emotion. Foresight doesn’t exclude memory. New and old work together. Picture adding cyber-prosthetics to our already powerful brains, a kind of neo-neo-cortex, with vast, scalable processing, judgment, perception—while organic portions still have important tasks.

What could good old org-humanity contribute? How about the one talent all natural humans are good at? Living creatures have been doing it for half a billion years, and humans are supreme masters.

Wanting. Yearning. Desire.

J. D. Bernal called it the strongest thing in all the world. Setting goals and ambitions. Visions-beyond-reach that would test the limits of any power to achieve. It’s what got us to the moon two generations before the tools were ready. It’s what built Vegas. Pure, unstoppable desire.

Wanting is what we do best! And machines have no facility for it. But with us, by joining us, they’ll find more vivid longing than any striving could ever satisfy. Moreover, if that is the job they assign us—to be in charge of wanting—how could we object?

It’s in that suite of needs and aspirations—their qualms and dreams—that we’ll recognize our augmented descendants. Even if their burgeoning powers resemble those of gods.

The Blackjack Generation

 

17.

MORE THAN ONE

The wooden box bore writing in French. Peng Xiang Bin learned that much by carefully cleaning its small brass plate, then copying each letter, laboriously, onto the touch-face of a simple tutor tablet.

“Unearthed in Harrapa, 1926,” glimmered the translation in Updated Pinyin. “Demon-infested. Keep in the dark.”

Of course that made no sense. The former owner of the opalescent relic had been a high-tech robotics tycoon, hardly the sort to believe in superstitions. Mei Ling reacted to the warning with nervous fear, wrapping the pitted egg in black cloth, but Bin figured it was just a case of bad translation.

The fault must lie in the tablet—one of the few tech-items they had brought along to their shorestead, just outside the seawall of New Shanghai. Originally mass produced for poor children, the dented unit later served senile patients for many years, at a Chunqing hospice—till Mei Ling took it with her, when she quit working there. Cheap and obsolete, it was never even reported stolen, so the two of them could still use it to tap the World Mesh, at a rudimentary, free-access level. It sufficed for a couple with little education, and few interests beyond the struggle to survive.

“I’m sure the state will issue us something better next year, when little Xiao-En is big enough to register,” she commented, whenever Bin complained about the slow connection and scratched screen. “They have to provide that much. A basic education. As part of the Big Deal.”

Xiang Bin felt less sure. Grand promises seemed made for the poor to remember, while the mighty forgot. Things had always been that way. You could tell, even from the censored histories that flickered across the little display, as he and his wife sagged into fatigued sleep every night, rocked by the rising tides. The same tides that kept eroding the old beach house, faster than they could reinforce it.

Would state officials even let Xiao-En register? The baby’s genetic samples had been filed when he was born. But would he get residency citizenship in New Shanghai? Or would the seawall keep out yet another kind of unwanted trash, along with a scum of plastic and resins that kept washing higher along the concrete barrier?

Clearly, in this world, you were a fool to count on beneficence from above.

Even good luck, when it arrived, could prove hard to exploit. Bin had hoped for time to figure out what kind of treasure lay in that secret room, underneath the biggest drowned mansion, a chamber filled with beautiful, bizarre rocks and crystals, or specimens of strangely twisted metal. Bin tried to inquire, using the little Mesh tablet, only carefully. There were sniffer programs—billions of them—running loose across a million vir-levels. You had to be prudent when and what to speak, even on the gritty layer called Reality. If he inquired too blatantly, or offered the items openly for sale, somebody might just come and take it all. The former owner had been declared a public enemy, after all, his property forfeit to the state.

Plugging in crude goggles and using a cracked pair of interact-gloves, Xiang Bin wandered down low rent avenues of World Town and The Village and Big Bazaar, pretending to be idly interested in rock collecting, as a hobby. He dispersed his questions, made them casual-sounding. From those virtual markets, he learned enough to dare a physical trip into town, carrying just one bagful of nice—but unexceptional—specimens, unloading them for a quarter of their worth at a realshop in East Pudong, not far from the big amusement park. A place willing to deal in cash—no names or recordings.

After so long at sea, Xiang Bin found troubling the heavy rhythms of the street. The pavement seemed harsh and unyielding. Pulsating maglev trolleys somehow made him itch, all over, especially inside tight and sweaty shoes. The whole time, he pictured twenty million nearby residents as a pressing mass—felt no less intensely than the thousands who actually jostled past him on crowded sidewalks, many of them muttering and waggling their fingers, interacting with people who weren’t there and with things that had no physical substance, anywhere.

His profit from that first trip had been slim. Still, Bin thought he might venture to another shop soon, working his way up from mundane items to those that seemed more … unusual. Those kept in ornate boxes, on special shelves, in the old basement trove.

Though just one specimen glimmered, both in his dreams and daytime imaginings. Frustratingly, his careful online searches found nothing like the stone—a kind of mineral that glowed with its own light, after soaking in the sun. Its opal-like sheen featured starlike sparkles that seemed to recede into an inner distance, a depth that looked both brighter than day and deeper than night. That is, until Mei Ling insisted it be wrapped up and put away.

Worse yet, time was running out. Fish had grown sparse, ever since the night of the jellyfish, when half the life seemed to vanish out of Huangzhou Bay. Now, the nets were seldom full, and the stew pot was often empty.

Soon the small hoard of cash was gone again.

Luck is fickle. We try hard to control the flow of qi, by erecting our tent poles in symmetrical patterns and by facing our entrance toward the smiling south wind. But how can one strike a harmonious balance, down here at the shore, where the surf is so chaotic, where tides of air and water and stinging monsters rush however they choose?

No wonder the Chinese often turned their backs to the sea … and seemed to be doing so again.

Already, several neighbors had given up, abandoning their shoresteads to the jellies and rising waters. Just a week ago, Xiang Bin and Mei Ling joined a crowd of scavengers converging on one forsaken site, grabbing metlon poles and nanofiber webbing for use on their own stead, leaving little more than a stubble of rotting wood, concrete, and stucco. A brief boost to their prospects, benefiting from the misfortune of others—

—that is, until it’s our own turn to face the inevitable. Forsaking all our hard work and dreams of ownership. Returning to beg our old jobs back in that stifling hospice, wiping spittle from the chins of little emperors. With each reproachful look from Mei Ling, Xiang Bin grew more desperate. Then, during his third trip to town, carrying samples from the trove, he saw something that gave him both a thrill and bone-deep chill.

He was passing along Boulevard of the Sky Martyrs and about to cross The Street of October Seventeenth, when the surrounding crowd seemed to halt, abruptly, all around him.

Well, not everyone, but enough people to bring the rhythmic bustle to a dead stall. Bin stumbled into the back of a well-padded pedestrian, who looked briefly as confused as he was. They both turned to see that about a third of those around them were suddenly staring, as if into space, murmuring to themselves, some of them with jaws agape, half open in some kind of surprise.

Swiftly he realized, these were people who had been linked-in with goggles, specs, tru-vus, or contact-zhones, each person moving through some virtual overlay—perhaps following guide arrows to a destination, or doing business as they walked, while others simply liked their city overlain with flowers, or jungle foliage, or fairy-tale colors. It also made them receptive to a high-priority news alert. Soon, half the people in sight were shuffling aside, half consciously moving toward the nearest wall in order to get away from traffic, while their minds soared far away.

Seeing so many others dive into a news-trance, the overweight gentleman muttered an oath and reached into his pocket to pull out some wraparound glasses. He, too, pressed close to the nearest building, emitting short grunts of interest while his aiware started filling him in.

Bin briefly wondered if he should be afraid. City life had many hazards, not all of them on the scale of Awfulday. But … the people clumping along the edges of the sidewalk didn’t seem worried, as much as engrossed. Surely that meant there was no immediate danger.

Meanwhile, many of those who lacked gear were pestering their companions, demanding verbal updates. He overheard a few snippets.

“The Artifact … the rumors … they gain increasing credence!” and “The aliens exist … leaked dataviews … credible for the first time, approaching fifty percent!”

Aliens. Artifact. Of course those words had been foaming around for a week or so. Rumors were part of life’s background, just like the soapy tidal spume. It sounded like a silly thing, unworthy of the small amount of free time that he shared with Mei Ling, each exhausted evening. A fad, surely, or hoax, or marketing ploy. Or, at best, none of his concern. Only now Bin blinked in surprise over how many suddenly seemed to care. Maybe we should scan for a free-access show about it, tonight. Instead of the usual medieval romance stories that Mei Ling demanded.

Despite all the people who had stepped aside, into virtual newspace, that still left hundreds of pedestrians who didn’t care, or who felt they could wait. These took advantage of the cleared sidewalks to hurry about their business. As should I, he thought, stepping quickly across the street while ai-piloted vehicles worked their way past, evading those with human drivers who had pulled aside.

Aliens. From outer space. Could it possibly be true? Bin had to admit, this was stirring his long-dormant imagination.

He turned onto the Avenue of Fragrant Hydroponics and suddenly came to a halt. People were beginning to stir from the mass news-trance, muttering to one another—in real life and across the Mesh—while stepping back into the sidewalk and resuming their journeys. Only, now it was his turn to be distracted, to stop and stare, to push unapologetically past others and press toward the nearest building, bringing his face close to the window of a store selling visualization tools.

One of the new SEF threevee displays sparkled within, offering that unique sense of ghostly semitransparency in a cube of open space—and it showed three demons.

That was how Bin first viewed them, as made-up characters in one of those cheap fantasy dramas that Mei Ling loved—one like an imp, with flamelike fur, one horselike with nostrils that flared like caves, and another whose tentacles evoked some monster of the sea. They jostled each other, each trying to step or shove in front of the others.

A disturbing trio, in their own right. Only, it wasn’t the creatures that had Bin transfixed. It was their home. The context. The object framing, containing, perhaps imprisoning them.

He recognized it, at once. Cleaner and more pristine—less pitted and scarred—and a bit longer. Nevertheless, it was clearly a cousin to the thing he had left behind this morning, in the surf-battered home that he shared with his wife and little son.

Bin swallowed hard.

I thought I was being careful, seeking information about that thing.

But careful was a relative word.

He left the bag of cheaper, Earthly stones lying there, like an offering, in front of the image in the threevee tank. It would only weigh him down now, as he ran for home.

ENTROPY

Way back at the start of the century, the Lifeboat Foundation assigned doom scenarios to four general categories:

Calamities—Humanity and intelligence go extinct from Earth. Causes range from nuclear war or spoiling the ecosystem to voraciously unstoppable manmade black holes or ravenous nano-plagues.

Collapse—Humanity survives, but we never reach our potential. For example, eco-decay and resource depletion might be slow enough for a few descendants to eke a threadbare niche. Or a world society might enforce hyperconformity, drab, relentless, and permanent.

Dominium—Some narrow form of posthumanity is attained but limiting the range of what’s possible. Take every tale of domination by a super-ai or transcendent-intolerant uber-beings. Or the prescriptions offered by fanatic utopians from left to right, across five thousand years, each convinced of “the way” ahead. Suppose one of these plans actually delivered. We might “advance” in some cramped ways. Caricatures of sameness.

Betrayal—A posthuman civilization heads in some direction that cancels many of the values or things we cherish. Isn’t this the nightmare fretting conservatives? That our children—biological or cybernetic—will leave us far behind and forget to write? That they’ll neglect to visit and share a joke or two? That they’ll stop caring about the old songs, the old gods? The old race?

Worse, might they head off to the stars in ways that we (today) abhor? As predators, perhaps. Or all-consuming reproducers, or as meddlers, hot with righteous malice, or else cool and unsympathetic. Not the eager-greeters that we envision as our starfaring destiny, in recent, high-minded fables. But, instead, the sort of callous descendants we’d disown … as if such beings would care what we think.

Any of these general categories might contain the Great Filter. Whatever trap—or host of traps—winnows the number of confident, gregarious, star-traveling species, down to the skimpy near nothing we observe, keeping empty what should have been a crowded sky.

—Pandora’s Cornucopia

 

18.

POVLOVERS

Well, God bless the Thirty-First Amendment and the Restoration of Federalism Act.

It had become a litany, as MediaCorp kept asking Tor to “drop in” on eccentric envelope-pushers while making her way across the continent. At last, she felt she understood the real purpose of this journey. What the execs were hoping to teach their up-and-coming young point-of-view star.

There isn’t one America anymore. If there ever had been.

Take her brief visit to the State of Panhandle, for example, fifty-sixth star on the flag, where she met with members of the ruling party, who planned to ratchet up their secession bid next year, and to stop even nominally flying the Stars ’n’ Stripes. Even if that meant another aiware embargo. Meanwhile, next door, in cosmopolitan Oklahoma, there was renewed talk of a bid to join the EU …

… rousing bitter anger in Unionist Missouri, where bluecoat militia membership was rising fast and several casinos had burned to the ground.

A cynic would attribute all this fury to economics. A spreading dustbowl. The cornahol collapse. Across what had been the heartland, Tor felt the same anxious note of helplessness and letdown, after the bubble prosperity of the twenties and thirties. A renewed need for someone to blame.

And, yet, all through the last week, Tor’s hand kept drifting into her bag, to Dr. Sato’s little relic, still unable to believe that the Atkins director had given it to her. A Neolithic tool-core, thirty thousand years old. One of many, to be sure—anthropologists had found thousands, all over Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. Yet, the specimen was surely worth something—several hundred newbucks on a bidding site.

An attempted bribe for good coverage? Somehow, she doubted that. Anyway, it didn’t affect her report. The Atkins Center treatments seemed promising, but hardly a panacea cure for the worldwide Autism Plague. Their approach only worked for “high-functioning” patients, who could already interact with others in fairly rational conversation. For millions of acute victims—fixated on minutiae, evading eye contact, prickly toward any distraction, or else lost down corridors of bizarre virtual reality that few normal minds could follow—for them, Sato offered only hope for desperate loved ones.

Still, her encounter with that strange man gave Tor an excuse to add one more stop, before proceeding to her new job in Rebuilt Washington. The semiannual Godmakers’ Conference, held this very week in Nashville, city of tolerance and hospitality.

It had better be tolerant, she thought, stepping past vigilant doorway sniffers, into the expansive Metro Convention Center. These people are wearing a great big target on their backs. And proud of it, too.

A real-cloth banner, just inside the entrance, proclaimed

TOMORROW WELCOMES THE BOLD!

To which, a tagger had attached, in lurid vraiffiti, visible to anyone wearing specs—

And Next Tuesday Greets the Gullible!

Beyond, for aisle after aisle, eager companies, foundations, and selforg clubs touted “transforming breakthroughs” from smartly decorated booths, augmented by garish VR. Tor found her specs bombarded by eager pitches, offering everything from health enhancements to lifespan folding. From guaranteed rejuvenation supplements to home marrow repair kits.

From “cyborg” prosthetics to remote controlled nanoflits.

From fully-implanted brainlink shunts to servant robots.

Yes, robots. The quaint term was back again, as memory of the Yokohama Yankhend slowly faded, along with a promise that this generation of humanoid automatons would actually prove useful, rather than cantankerous, too cute, or dangerous. Or all three at once.

“Every year, they solve some problem or obstacle, in machine-walking, talking, vision, navigation, or common sense,” she subvocalized for her report, allowing the specs to absorb it all, watching as one aindroid from a Korean chaebol showed off eastasian dance moves and a winning smile. The demonstration was impressive. But demonstrations always were.

“Then, they always wind up bollixed by some simple task. An uneven flight of stairs. A muddled foreground or background. A semantic paradox. Something that wouldn’t bother a five-year-old kid. And every year, the lesson is the same.

“We are already marvels. A three-kilo human brain still combines more amazing things than any computer model can yet emulate.

“It’s been seventy years that ai-builders have promised to surge beyond human ken. Their list of tricks keeps growing. Ai can sift and correlate across all of human knowledge, in seconds. Yet, each decade reveals more layers of unexpected subtlety, that lay hidden in our own packed neuron-clusters all along. Skills we simply took for granted.”

There it was, again. A theme, planted in her mind by Sato. The notion that something strangely spectacular had been wrought—by God or evolution or both—inside the Homo sapiens brain. About the same time as that chert core in her bag was the technological acme.

“If anything, today’s Tower of Babel is flat but incredibly wide. This generation of godmakers isn’t thwarted by language—that barrier is gone forever—but the bewildering complexity of the thing they hope to copy. Our minds.”

Of course, some of the products and services here had more modest goals. One body-sculpting booth offered the latest fat-dissolving technology, using targeted microwaves to melt lipids exactly where-u-want. Their slogan—from Nietzsche—

“The abdomen is the reason why man does not easily take himself for a deity.”

She wondered what Sato would make of that. Well, one more humility-reminder bites the dust. When everyone can look good in spandex, will conceit know any bounds?

Speaking of the abdomen … dozens of men and women were lined up at a booth for the McCaffrey Foundation, signing waivers in order to join a test study of e-calculi—gut bacteria transformed to function as tiny computers, powered by excess food. Have a problem? Unleash trillions of tiny, parallel processors occupying your own intestine! Speed them up by eating more! And they produce Vitamin C!

At first, Tor thought this must be a hoax. It sounded like a comedy routine from Monty Phytoplankton. She wondered how the computed output finally emerged.

Not everyone could wait patiently for all this progress. Elderly believers in the Singularity grew worried, as it always seemed to glimmer twenty years away, the same horizon promised in the 1980s. And so, Tor passed by the usual booths offering cryonic suspension contracts. For a fee, teams would rush to your deathbed, whether due to accident or age. The moment after a doctor signed-off you were “dead,” skilled teams would swarm over your body—or (for a lower price) just your detached head—pumping special fluids so you could chill in liquid nitrogen, with relished confidence that some future generation would thaw and repair you. Decades ago, cryonics companies eked along with support from a few rich eccentrics. But the safe revival of Guillermo Borriceli changed all that, pushing the number of contracts past thirty million. Some of the offshore “seastead” tax havens even allowed cryonic suspension before legal death, leading to a steady, one-way stream of immigrants who were wealthy, infirm, and—in Tor’s opinion—certifiably crazy.

They never explain why future generations would choose to revive refugees from a more primitive time. Money alone won’t cut it.

Was that why many of today’s rich were converting to fervent environmentalism? Donating big sums toward eco-projects? To bribe their descendants and be recalled as karmic good guys? Or was it an expanded sense of self-interest? If you expect to live on a future Earth, that could make you less willing to treat today’s planet like disposable tissue.

Meanwhile, some offered services aimed at the other end of life. Like new kinds of infant formula guaranteed to enhance early brain development. Or suture-spreaders to enlarge a fetus’s skull capacity, letting its brain expand in the womb—with a coupon for free cesarean section. The brochure showed a happy child with the smile of a Gerber baby and the domed head of some movie alien … bearing a glint of unstoppable intelligence in big, blue eyes.

Fifty-Genes, Inc. offered a service that was legal at just three seastead colonies. Enhancing the few dozen patches of DNA thought to have been crucial in separating the hominid line from other apes. Continuing along the evolutionary trail. All three of the people manning that booth wore dazzle-makeup, hiding their identities from facial recog programs, making them painful to look at. As if the feds didn’t have ten thousand other ways to track a person.

Farther along, she encountered yet another humanoid automaton, under a virt-blare that proclaimed Certified: Turing Level Three-Point-Three! in flashing letters. Proportioned like a body builder, it bowed to her, offering Tor a seat, some zatz-coffee and a game of chess—or any pastime of her choosing. There was a flirtatious glint in the machine’s smile, either cleverly designed … or else …

She was tempted to plunge a pin into that glossy flesh, to see if this one yelped. The old man-in-a-robot-suit trick.

A subvocalized side note, for later: “No cutsie animal or childlike bots, this year? All hunk-style males, so far. Why? A trend aimed at fem demographics?”

She couldn’t help but wonder. Men across the planet had been using robo-brothels for a decade, with hundreds of thousands of Luci, Nunci, Pari, Fruti, and Hilti models purchased for home use. It didn’t exactly require artificial intelligence to mimic crude, servile passion, if that’s what some males wanted. Of course, the trend was bemoaned in the press. Women mostly stayed aloof, contemptuous of the unsubtle artificial lovers they were offered.

Till now? While the hunk-bot flirted with her, Tor recalled Wesley’s onetime proposition—to maintain a cross-continental relationship via dolls. Would it be more palatable to be touched by a machine, if the thoughts propelling it came from someone she cared for? He was coming to D.C. in a few days, flying east to meet her final zeppelin, at this journey’s end. Did that mean he was giving up such nonsense? Ready to talk, at last, about “getting real”? Or would he have a fistful of brochures to show her the latest enhancements? A modern way they both could have cake, and eat it, too?

Oh crap. The subvocal was on high-sensitivity. Her musings about sexbots and Wesley had gone straight into notes. She blink-navigated, deleted, and disciplined her mind to stay on topic. Spinning away from the enticingly handsome android, multi-tasking like a juggler, Tor kept reciting her draft report without breaking stride.

“Oh, few doubt they’ll succeed eventually. With so many versions of AI cresting at once, it seems likely that we’ll finally enter that century-old sci-fi scenario. Machines that help design their successors, and so on, able to converse with us, provide fresh perspectives, challenge us … then surge ahead.

“At that point we’ll discover who was right, the zealots or the worriers. Can you blame some folks for getting nervous?”

Of course, Tor’s aiwear had been tracking her word stream, highlighting for gisted meaning. And, because her filters were kept low on purpose, the convention center mainframe listened in, automatically making goorelations. Helpfully, the building offered, in her low-right peripheral, a list of conference panels and events to match her interests.

My Neighbors Prefer Death: Easing the Public’s Fear of Immortality.

Yes. Out of five hundred program items, that one had good relevance to her “skepticism” phrase. The next one was also a good fit.

Risk Appraisal: Dangers on the Road to Transhumanity.

But it got even better. Tor blinked in surprise at the next offering.

Special invited-guest lecture by famed novelist Hamish Brookeman! “Reasons to Doubt ‘Progress’—and Reasons to Believe.”

Tor stopped in her tracks. Hamish Brookeman? Here, of all places? The author of Tusk! and Cult of Science, coming to beard these extropians in their own den? Who had the courage—or outright chutzpah—to invite him?

With a tooth-click and scroll, Tor checked the conference schedule … and found the Brookeman talk was already underway.

Oh my. This was going to be demanding. But she felt up to the challenge.

Swiveling, she called up a guide ribbon—a glowing path that snaked toward the lecture hall. Which, according to a flash alert, was already full to capacity. So Tor sent a blip to MediaCorp, asking for a press intervention. It took a couple of minutes (after all, she was a newbie), during which Tor hurried past a publisher of biofeedback mind-training games and a booth selling ersatz holidays on realistic alien worlds.

Smell Colors! Taste the Rainbow! See Music in the Air!—hollered a kiosk offering synesthesia training. Next to another that proclaimed a kinky aim—to genetically engineer “furries,” cute-but-fuzzy humanoid versions of dogs and cats. Tor shivered and hurried on.

Abruptly, the guide ribbon shifted, aiming her instead down a different aisle, away from the back of the lecture hall, where standing-room crowds waited. Now, it directed her toward the front entrance, closest to the stage. Wow, that was fast.

I am so gonna love this job, she thought, not caring if that made it into the transcript. MediaCorp already knew. This was what she had been born to do.

Along the way, Tor passed between stalls offering latest generation ottodogs, lurker-peeps, and designer hallucinogens … the latter one was covered with vir-stickies on about a hundred levels, sneering Ignore these guys! and It’s a narc sting! (As if anyone needed to actually buy drugs, anymore, instead of homebrewing them on a MolecuMac. Or using a meditation program to make them inside your own brain. A dazer with a twin-lobectomy could hack the lame safeguards.)

But, for the most part, Tor had little attention to spare for exhibits. Kicking her M-Tasking into overdrive, she called up a smart-condensed tivoscript of the Brookeman speech, from its start twelve minutes ago, delivered to her left ear in clipped, threex mode—triple speed and gisted—while preserving the speaker’s dry tone and trademark Appalachian drawl.

“Thanks invitation speak you ‘godmakers.’ I’m surprised/pleased. Shows UR open-minded.

“Some misconstrue I’m antiscience. Antiprogress. But progress great! Legit sci & tech lift billions! Yes, I warn dangers, mistakes. Century’s seen many. Some mistakes not science fault.

“Take the old left-right political axis. Stupid. From 18th century France! lumped aristos with fundies, libertarians, isolationists, imperialists, puritans, all on ‘right.’ Huh? ‘Left’ had intolerant tolerance fetishists! Socialist luddites! And all sides vs professionals. No wonder civil servants’ guild rebelled!

“Result? Wasted decades. Climate/water crisis. Terror. Overreaction. National fracture. Paranoia. Blamecasting.

“Shall we pour gasoline on fire?

“Look. Studies show FEAR sets attitudes/tolerance to change. Fearful people reject foreign, alien, strange. Circle wagons. Pull in horizons. Horizons of time. Of tolerance. Of risk. Of Dreams.

“You tech-hungry zealots answer this with contempt. Helpful?

“New ‘axis’ isn’t left versus right.

“It’s out versus in!

“You look outward. Ahead. You deride inward-driven folk.

“But look history! All other civs were fearful-inward! R U so sure YOU are wise ones?”

The front entrance to the lecture hall lay ahead, just beyond a final booth where several clean-cut envoys in blue blazers passed out leaflets to educated and underemployed U.S. citizens, inviting them to apply for visas—to the science-friendly EU. The brain-drainers’ placement was deliberate. They’d get plenty of customers, when Brookeman finished.

Feeling a little eye-flick strain and attention fatigue, Tor clicked for a small jolt of Adderall, along with a dash of Provigil, injected straight into her temple by the left-side frame of her specs. Just a bit, to keep her edge.

“Look at topics listed in this conference,” continued the ai-compressed voice of Hamish Brookeman, addressing the audience in the hall next door. “So much eager tinkering! And each forward plunge makes your fellow citizens more nervous.”

The condensed tivoscript was slowing down and expanding, as it caught up with real time.

“Ponder an irony. Your premise is that average folk can be trusted with complex/dangerous future. You say people = smart! People adapt. Can handle coming transformation into gods! How libertarian of you.

“Yet, you sneer at the majority of human societies, who disagreed! Romans, Persians, Inca, Han, and others … who said fragile humanity can’t take much change.

“And who shares this older opinion? A majority of your own countrymen!

“So, which is it? Are people wise enough to handle accelerating change? But if they are wise … and want to slow down … then what does that imply?

“It implies this. If you’re right about people, then the majority is right … and you’re wrong!

“And if you’re wrong about the people … then how can you be right!”

Even through the wall and closed doors, Tor heard laughter from the audience—tense and reluctant. But she already knew Brookeman was good at working a crowd. Anyway, most of this bunch had grown up with his books, movies, and virts. Celebrity status still counted for a lot.

“All I ask is … ponder with open minds. We’ve made so many mistakes, humanity, during just one lifetime. Many of them perpetrated not by evildoers, drenched in malice, but by men and women filled with fine motives! Like you.”

An aindroid stood by the door, smiling in recognition as Tor approached. This one featured a hole penetrating straight though its chest, large enough to prove that the entity was no human in disguise. An impressive highlight. Till the automaton gave her a full-length, appreciative eye-flick “checkout” that stopped just short of a lustful leer. Exactly like some oversexed, undertacted nerd.

Great, Tor thought, with a corner of her mind MT’d for such things. Another realism goal accomplished. One more giant leap for geek-kind.

The robot opened the door, just enough for Tor to slip through without disturbing speaker or audience. Her specs went into IR mode and a pale-green ribbon guided her, without stumbling, the final few meters to a VIP seat that someone had just vacated, on her account. She could tell, because the upholstery was still warm. A wide imprint, and her spec-sensors gave a soft diagnosis of fumes from a recent meal, heavy in starches. If it need be, she could track down her benefactor, from those cues alone, and thank him.

But no, here was Hamish Brookeman, in the flesh at last, tall and angular, elegant and expensively coifed. In every way the un-nerd. Leaning casually against the lectern and pouring charm, even as he chastised. The tivoscript faded smoothly, as real time took over.

“Look, I’m not going to ask you to restrain yourselves for the sake of holiness and all that. Let others tell you that you’re treading on the Creator’s toes, by carping and questioning His designs; that’s not my concern.

“What troubles me is whether there will be a humanity, in twenty years, to continue pondering these things! Seriously, what’s your damned hurry? Must we rock every apple cart, while charging in all directions, simultaneously?”

Brookeman glanced back down and ruffled some sheets of paper, though Tor’s zoom-appraisal showed that he wasn’t looking at them. Those blue irises held steady, far-focused and confident. Clearly, he already knew what he was about to say. In public speaking, as in music, a pause was sometimes just the right punctuation, before striking a solid phrase.

“Take the most arrogant of your obsessions,” Brookeman resumed. “This quest for life-span extension! You give it many names. Zero senescence. Non-morbidity. All of it boiling down to the same selfish hope, for personal immortality.”

This goaded a reaction from the crowd—hisses and muttered curses. Tor commanded her specs to deploy a slender stalk wafting upward with a tiny, omnidirectional lens at the end, surveying members of the audience, joining dozens of other gel-eyes floating, like dandelions, up to a meter above the sea of heads.

“Did I strike a nerve with that one?” Hamish Brookeman chuckled. “Well, just wait. I’m getting warmed up!”

Clearly, he enjoyed the role of iconoclast … in a hall filled with self-styled iconoclasts. A kindred spirit, then? Even while disagreeing with his hosts over every specific issue? That kind of ironic insight could make her report stand out.

“For example, it’s easy to tell which of you, in the audience, believes in the magic elixir called caloric restriction. Sure, research studies show that a severely reduced, but wholesome diet can trigger longer life spans in bacteria, in fruit flies, even mice. And yes, keeping lean and fit is good for you. It helps get your basic fourscore and ten. But some of the fellows you see around here, walking about like near skeletons, popping hunger-suppression pills and avoiding sex … do these guys look healthy? Are they enjoying their extra years? Indeed, are they getting any? Extra years, I mean.

“Alas, sorry to break this to you fellows, but the experiment was run! Across the last four millennia, there must have been thousands of monasteries, in hundreds of cultures, where ascetic monks lived on spare dietary regimens. Surely, some of them would have stumbled onto anything so simple and straightforward as low-calorie immortality! We’d have noticed two-hundred-year-old monks, capering around the countryside, don’tcha think?”

This time, laughter was spontaneous. Still nervous, but genuine. Through the stalk-cam, she saw even some of the bone-thin ones, taking the ribbing well. Brookeman really was good at this.

“Anyway, remember that age and death are the great recyclers! In a world that’s both overpopulated and unbalanced in favor of the old, do you really think the next wave of young folks is going to want to follow in your shadows … forever?

“Putting things philosophically for a minute, aren’t you simply offering false hope, and thereby denying today’s elderly the great solace that every other ageing generation clutched, when their turn came to shuffle off this mortal coil? The consolation that at least this happens to everyone?

“During all past eras, this pure and universal fact—that death makes no exceptions—allowed a natural acceptance and letting go. Painful and sad, but at least one thing about life seemed fair. Rich and poor, lucky or unlucky, all wound up in the same place, at roughly the same pace. Who said that our lives only become meaningful when we are aware of our mortality?

“Only now, by loudly insisting that death isn’t necessary, aren’t you turning this normal rhythm into a bitter pill? Especially when the promise (all too likely) turns into ashes, and people wind up having to swallow it anyway, despite all your fine promises?”

Brookeman shook his head.

“But let’s be generous and say you meet with some partial success. Suppose only the rich can afford the gift of extended life. Isn’t that what happens to most great new things? Don’t they get monopolized, at first, by the mighty? You godmakers say you want an egalitarian miracle, a new age for all. But aren’t you far more likely to create a new race of Olympians? Not only privileged and elite, but permanent and immortal?”

Now the hall was hushed. And Tor wondered. Had Brookeman gone too far?

“Face it,” the tall man told 3,012 listeners in the hall … plus 916, 408 who were tuned in, around the planet. “You techno-transcendentalists are no different from all the millennial preachers and prophets who came before you. The same goggle-eyed, frenetic passion. The same personality type, yearning for something vastly better than the hand that you were dealt. And the same drive to believe! To believe that something else, much finer, is available to those who recite the right incantation. To those who achieve the right faith, or virtue. Or who concoct the secret formula.

“Only, those earlier prophets were much smarter than you lot! Because the redemption they forecast was usually ambiguous, set in another vague time and place, or safely removed to another plane. And if their promises failed? The priest or shaman could always blame it all on unbelievers. Or on followers who were insufficiently righteous. Or who got the formula wrong. Or on God.

“But you folks? Who will you duck behind, when disillusion sets in? Your faith in Homo technologicus—the Tinkering Man—has one fatal flaw. It offers you no escape clause.

“When your grand and confident promises fail, or go wrong, who will all the disappointed people have to blame?

“No one … but you.”

RENUNCIATORS

In 1421, Admiral Zheng He led a huge armada of Chinese ships, some over a hundred meters long, “to proceed to the end of the earth, to collect tribute from the barbarians beyond the seas and unite the whole world in Confucian harmony.”

Ironically Confucius—or Kong-Fuzi—wrote in the Analects that “While his parents are alive, the son may not take a distant voyage abroad.” And although Zheng He’s parents may have been slaughtered in the Yannan rebellion, for thousands of other sailors who manned the famed Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne, this was far from a typical Confucian exercise. It showed what could happen when a bold emperor roused that great nation to reach toward its potential, in the future rather than the past.

Zheng He’s voyages brought home tribute, trade, and knowledge. Had they continued, Chinese armadas might have sailed into Lisbon Harbor, in time to astonish a young Prince Henry the Navigator with ships the size of cathedrals.

Only then, the extroverted emperor died. His heir and court ordered a halt to trade and outlawed oceangoing ships. It was all part of an ancient cycle. Eras of enlightenment, like the Song Dynasty would be followed by long periods of repressed conformity. Before William the Conqueror landed at Hastings, the blast furnaces and coke ovens of Henan produced a hundred thousand tons of iron per year! Then, abruptly, they were abandoned till the twentieth century.

Often, it wasn’t economics or even politics at fault, but the whim of hyperconservative elites, who preferred serenity over the bustle of change. Especially change that might threaten their status or empower the poor.

When carried out vigorously, renunciation can extend even to memory. In our example, the records and navigation tables of Zheng He’s expeditions were burned, along with the ships. China’s southern border was razed and turned into a lifeless no-man’s-land. When eighteenth century Western visitors amazed the Imperial court with mechanical clocks and other wonders, a few scholars cited obscure texts, saying: “Oh, yes, we had such things. Once.”

Is history repeating itself? After their recent epoch of zealous modernism, stunning the world with ambitious accomplishments, will the Han turn inward again? There were already signs of retrenchment, in a generation with too few young people, especially women. Then that terrible blow—an ill-fated space mission that was named (ironically) after Admiral Zheng He.

Renunciation, it seems, has persistent allure. Only this time, will the whole world join in, recoiling against change? Rejecting progress in the name of stability? Anti-technologists cite the ancient Chinese pattern as a role model for how to turn back from the precipice in time.

Yet, we know there has always been another side. A side represented by the marvelous Zheng He and so many like him. Those who had the will to look ahead.

—from The Movement Revealed by Thormace Anubis-Fejel

 

19.

TIME CAPSULE

Hamish sometimes wished that he had a knack for specs, using them the way young zips, tenners, and twenners did nowadays, scanning a dozen directions at once, MT-juggling so many tracks and dimensions that it literally made your head spin. Which explained why some were switching to those smart new contaict lenses, nearly undetectable, except for the nervous way a user’s eyes would flit about, roaming the infosphere—perceiving a zillion parallels—while pretending to live in the organic here-and-now.

On the other hand, didn’t studies show a steep decline in concentration, from all this continuously scattered attention? After all, the initials for “multitasking” sounded like empty. Studies showed that good old-fashioned focus can really matter—

—like when delivering a speech. Another reason why Hamish still did it with bare eyes, wearing only an e-earing to receive the most vital alerts. Vigilant from experience and focused on the real world, he scanned the audience in front of him, carefully attuned for reactions.

Of course, this was a tough crowd. Hamish didn’t expect to convert many of these extropians, singularitarians, and would-be methuselahs. His real audience would come later, when Tenskwatawa published an abridged version of this talk, to share with members of the Movement, reinforcing their determination and will.

He glanced at the lectern clock. Time to nail this down.

“Look, I’m not going to ask that you tweakers and meddlers and apprentice godmakers change your program or abandon your dreams. Utopians and transcendentalists have always been with us. Sometimes, their dissatisfaction with things-as-they-are would prove valuable, leading to something both new and useful.

“But, more often than not, the blithe promises turn sour. Certainties prove to have been delusional and side effects overshadow benefits. Religions that preach love start to obsess on hate. Industries that promise prosperity instead poison the planet. And innovators, with some way-cool plan to save us all, rush to open Pandora’s Box a little wider, whether or not others disagree.

“Today, there are scores—hundreds—of bright plans afoot, with promoters promising ninety percent or better probability that nothing can go wrong.

“A scheme to spread dust in the stratosphere and reverse global warming probably won’t overshoot, or have harmful side effects.

“A super–particle collider that might conceivably make micro black holes—probably won’t.

“We’re almost completely sure that hyper-intelligent machines won’t rebel and squash us.

“Radio messages, shouting hello into the galaxy have insignificant chance of attracting nasty attention.

“Spreading fertilizer across the vast ‘desert’ areas of the ocean will only enhance fisheries and pull down CO2, with almost no chance of other repercussions.

“Safeguards are sure to prevent some angry teenager with one of those home gene-hacking units from releasing the next plague … the list goes on and on …

“… and yes, I see many of you smiling, because I wrote scary stories about most of those failure modes! Sold like hotcakes, and the movies did well, too! Well, except Fishery of Death. I admit, that one was lame.”

Again, tense laughter, and Hamish felt pleased.

“But here’s the key point,” he continued. “Suppose we try a hundred ambitious things and each of them, individually, has a ninety percent chance of not causing grievous harm. Go multiply point-nine times point-nine times point-nine and so on, a hundred times. What are the overall odds that something terrible won’t happen? It works out to almost zero.”

Hamish paused amid silence.

And that was when Wriggles chose to speak, aiming a narrow cone of sound from his left earring, tuned to vibrate Hamish’s tympani.

“Leave some time for questions,” said Hamish’s digital aissistant.

“Also, I’ve scanned the crowd and spotted Betsby.”

Hamish grunted a query. Wriggles answered.

“Second row, just behind and to the right of that female MediaCorp reporter with the big specs. He’s grown a beard. But it’s him.”

Hamish tried not to glance too obviously, while resuming his speech, on autopilot.

“I know that many of you say I’m a luddite, a troglodyte, even paranoid! I’ll take it under advisement. If the voices in my head let me.”

Again, smatters of appreciative laughter from the crowd. A jape, at your own expense, was the surest way to win back an audience, after challenging them. Only, this time it felt perfunctory, as he looked over the man who had poisoned Senator Strong. Sandy-colored hair, streaked with gray. A slender pair of specs, suitable for providing captions only, but not full VR. Unless they were actual, old-fashioned eyeglasses. Retro could sometimes look celero, and vice versa.

So, Betsby had come to the rendezvous, after all. The man might be crazy, but he sure wasn’t lacking in gall.

“I tell you what,” Hamish said, deciding to finish up the speech a couple of minutes early. “Let’s make a deal, I’ll contemplate a possibility that the world will be improved if you guys fill it with talking crocodiles, tinman philosophers, downloaded cybercopies, and immortal nerds … if you’ll return the favor, and ponder my own hypothesis. That humanity has already rushed ahead too fast. So fast and so far that we’re up to our necks in trouble of our own making.”

Hamish slowed down a little, telegraphing that the talk was nearing its end.

“If I’m right, and providing it isn’t already too late, then there remains a possible solution. The same method used in most human cultures, who had enough wisdom to worry about things going wrong. The ten thousand other societies that lasted a lot longer than this frail little so-called enlightenment that we’re so proud of.

“Oh, we’ve walked on the moon, studied distant galaxies and plumbed the atom. Democracy is nice. So are mass education, the info-Meshes, and webs. Standing on the shoulders of those who went before, we achieved heights few dreamed. On the other hand, all our ancestors did one thing that most of you fellows have yet to prove yourselves capable of.

“They all survived to reproduce and to see their successors safely on their way. That’s what the word ‘ancestor’ means! Across centuries and millennia, they passed on their torch to new generations, who carried life and human culture forward to more generations, still. They died knowing at least the story would go on. It sounds like a simple a task. But it never was, for any of them. A gritty, essential challenge, it absorbed nearly all their lives. The core objective of any sane individual or civilization … or species, for that matter. A goal that you would-be godmakers and meddlers seem to forget, in your pell-mell rush for individual satisfaction, personal immortality and so-called progress.

“Indeed, it may be the one thing most endangered, as we journey together, into a perilous tomorrow.”

*   *   *

Audience applause, when it came, was mixed. Hamish saw equal numbers clapping or else sitting with folded hands, glowering back at him. Among the latter group was Roger Betsby, who watched from the second row with little expression.

Ripples of discussion coursed through the hall, some of it neighbor-to-neighbor, but also at the augmented-reality levels. People turned and pointed at others in the crowd, while mouthing silently, trusting their specs to route the words through vir-space. Some even stood up, motioning for others to join them in clusters, at the side or back of the room.

Dang, I really got ’em riled up!

Hamish felt good. Each time he delivered this message, it was a little better tuned. Ready to be tweaked, improved, and refined at the Movement’s think tank. And the prospect of influencing the world’s future almost made up for the pang he felt, whenever he thought about the time this took away from creative work.

As expected, the questions that followed were a mix—some consisting of polite challenges while others displayed outright hostility. Hamish didn’t mind a bit. He egged on a couple of the most fervent, so that they shouted, voices cracking, and conference organizers had to pull them away. Just the sort of images that Tenskwatana’s people could edit and emphasize, strengthening a valuable stereotype. That of goggle-eyed fanatics. Demonstrating that these people shouldn’t to be trusted with a burnt match, let alone high-tech power over human destiny.

More people stood up to leave—only to be expected, since the talk was formally over. But, an increasing number were tapping their specs, waggling fingers in the air, muttering while pointing at each other, passing e-notes.

They’re excited, all right. I may have to slip out the back way.

All the while, Hamish kept trying not to glance at the bearded man in the second row. Some of the people out there, those with top-grade specs, could track wherever his eye-gaze went. Too much attention in one direction—on one person—might be noticed.

This is what I get for trying to kill several birds with one cliché. Betsby wanted a public meeting place. I was coming here anyway, so it seemed natural to arrange a rendezvous. But honestly, who expected him to come?

Nothing about this case—the poisoning of Senator Strong—seemed typical. A perpetrator who was perfectly willing to admit it? A blackmailer who refused to explain to his victim what secret he kept, or what tincture he had used, to send the senator into an embarrassing public tizzy?

A solitary nut, perhaps, who didn’t seem to care if he made powerful enemies.

A True Believer, then? But he doesn’t have the look. And our investigators found no background consistent with a lone maniac. A medical doctor, working in urban free clinics. A modern Schweitzer? Sure, that could make him despise Senator Strong. And he’d have the tools, the know-how, to concoct a psychotropic poison.

But the whole thing just doesn’t hold together. Betsby has to be more than he seems. The tip of an arrow. The point of a spear. Part of a deeper plot. Is that why he wanted to meet me here, in the heart of technogeek-land?

A woman stood up from the audience, chosen to be the next questioner—rather stocky and heavy for someone of her generation. Perhaps she was allergic to biosculpting, or philosophically opposed to it. A halo of light converged, illuminating her round face from several directions. The live-acoustic walls amplified her words, without echo or any need for a microphone.

“Mr. Brookeman, I’d like to shift topics, if you don’t mind. Because it seems that the future is rushing upon us, even while you stand there, pontificating about the importance of slowing down.”

“Well, now,” he answered. “There are always crises. A never-ending tide of human-generated mistakes. Which one has you worried, this time?”

“One that may not qualify as human-generated at all, sir. I’m sure you’re aware of the gossip that’s been tsunaming around for the last week—that space station astronauts found something in orbit. Something highly unusual. Perhaps even non-Earthly in origin?”

Hamish blinked. The leak was spreading fast. His own last update, before going to bed last night, had told of vigorous government efforts to keep the rumors corked, or at least discredited. The Prophet had even called some Movement resources into play, in order to help distract public attention from the story.

This might have been a good time to wear specs, after all, he thought, wishing he might call up a late summary, while mulling his answer. Multitasking did have advantages.…

“Well,” he chuckled, covering any hint of discomfort, “by definition, anything you find outside Earth would be non-Earthly—”

But no. That feeble thread wasn’t worth pursuing. So he nodded, instead.

“Yes, I’ve heard some tall tales and seen blurry images. Who hasn’t? So far, they’ve seemed pretty far-fetched. Like the amphibious Tidal Sasquatch of a few years ago. Or, remember the quantum creatures that people claimed to see, when they pressed their eyes against the holographic bigscreens made by Fabrique Zaire? Till it was shown that folks were simply scratching their own corneas!”

That drew a few weak chuckles. Not many.

“So what is the latest, fevered fantasy to sweep the globe?” Hamish lapsed into a heavily sardonic drawl. “Well, now, ain’t it excitin’? A bona fide, surefire, rootin’-tootin’ alien artifact! Showin’ up right in middle orbit, just where an astronaut could snag it with a lasso while trawlin’ for garbage. How convenient!

“Of course,” he added, in a less sarcastic tone, “there’s no explanation of how such a thing could have got there. A glowing lump, like an opal or crystal, not much bigger than your head—that’s the thing you’re talking about, right? But has anybody thought to ask—how could something like that navigate Earth’s gravity well, without engines? Let alone change course, matching orbits—”

“Maybe somebody dropped it off!” a voice in the audience shouted. The dampers in a lecture hall could be tuned to squelch hecklers. But these extropians liked to keep things loose.

“Ah, the old UFO gambit.” Hamish smiled. “Oh, I admit, I’ve had fun with flying saucers, in my time. The mythology is just so rich! Meddlers from just beyond our firelight sweep in mysteriously to make cryptic pronouncements, or issue threats, or give lonely farmers free colonoscopies.”

This time, audience laughter was a bit fuller, tasting like bread and drink. Here was a topic where most people in the room agreed. Hamish even felt a touch of gratitude to the woman, for diverting onto this subject. Now the event could end on a lighter note.

“Of course it’s funny how UFO aliens always seem to be portrayed the same way. Looking and acting just like pixies, or nasty elves, straight out of ancient tales! Making it pretty obvious where they really come from.”

He tapped the side of his head, eliciting a few more laughs.

The response was still anemic, though. He was barely holding a majority … while many others kept waggling or beaming or whatever-it-was at each other. Clearly, there would be a lot of noise in the hall, right now, if not for the dampers. Hamish forged on.

“Then there’s the fact that our planet is filling with more and more cameras, doubling in number every year or two. Heck, at last survey, four-fifths of the land surface of Earth is under round-the-clock observation. But has that helped us to pin down these pesky flying saucers, or get a better view of ’em? Ha! Coincidentally, the sightings keep happening farther and farther away! Just far enough, every year, to stay blurry, despite improving cameras!

“Used to be, we’d get lots of fuzzy glimpses on spotty film, a few hundred meters from a road or town. Today, encounters only seem to happen in the deep desert, or midocean. Or it’s amateur astronomers, reporting strange lights near the Moon and Mars. Wherever the panopticon still has gaps, allowing tantalizing…”

Hamish meant to go on, milking a riff that he hadn’t used in a while. But the stocky woman interrupted.

“Mr. Brookeman, do you mind? Most of us know your views on UFOs, from The Elf. One of your sillier movies, by the way. But can we please stay on topic? You seem to be an hour or two out of touch!

“In fact…,” she continued, while slowing down, tapping the edges of her specs and waggling the fingers of her other hand in open space. “As a matter … of fact … even as we speak…”

She slowed to a stop, going slack-jawed, staring at images projected on the inner surface of her web-spectacles, and finally breathed a single word.

“Wow!”

The islands of distraction now became a babbling archipelago, as individuals hurried to follow her attention trail. Clusters of people flashed tags to each other. Some of them gasped in their own turn, pointing and commenting to each other with low whispers. Facing a sea of flickering lenses and waving hands, Hamish cleared his throat.

“Um, did something just happen? Will someone please explain—”

Another audience member stood up, this time from the very front row. She was svelte and tall, wearing clear specs that carried plenty of gear—like a floating gel-lens—while also revealing her sharp, pale-brown eyes.

“Tor Povlov, of MediaCorp’s show, The Povlovian Response.” Wriggles identified the woman. “Call her Miss Tor.”

Hamish cursed his slow thought process. He could have subvocalized a command to Wriggles and got a summary of whatever news everyone was tizzying about. Too late now. He nodded toward the newcomer. “Yes, Miss Tor?”

The conference center’s live acoustic walls responded by shifting priority to the reporter, bathing her in light and amplifying her voice.

“Since you aren’t linked-in, Mr. Brookeman, let me explain what’s going on, then ask your reaction. Apparently, someone—moments ago—issued more than a terab of purloined data from the NASA Marti Space Center. Images showing highlights of their effort to communicate and translate with the Object.”

No one could mistake the capitalization of that final word.

“Really?” Hamish raised his voice to be heard over a rising murmur from the crowd. Even the dampers were getting strained. “Well, I shouldn’t have to tell you that leaks can’t be trusted. Almost anything can be faked and viral-released, even through an official site. I wouldn’t go molten over uncredentialed vids.”

By now, a clear majority had dived into full-immersion. It irked Hamish to have so few actually looking his way. Of those left in the here-and-now, most seemed more interested in the reporter than him. Except for Roger Betsby, that is. The bearded poisoner kept his gaze firmly on Hamish.

Tor Povlov shook her head.

“Then I guess you haven’t heard the rest, Mr. Brookeman. NASA and the Department of Foresight have already issued a nondenial. No more calm-downs or distractions. Nor any outright disavowals of the leak. Only a promise to find the persons responsible and hit them with a prematurity fine.

The phrase provoked chuckles and derisive smirks. That slap on the wrist never stopped anybody. At least, no one who had Guild protection and a plausible claim of public interest.

Hamish blinked, abruptly wishing he could be somewhere else. In contact with his own people. Or the Prophet’s.

While I stood here, blathering to extropians about their silly fantasies, the real-world situation has spun out of control.

Tor Povlov continued in a friendly tone. “All morning, MediaCorp has been tracking a sharp spike in diplomatic encrypt traffic, between various national alliances, cartels, and WCNs. Clearly, they were being given advance warning and consultation about something big. But a wave of perplexes and distracts kept us from zeroing in on which rumored event it was all about.”

That would have been the Prophet’s doing. At least it worked for a few hours.

“Only now…” She paused for a moment of artfully divided attention, then gracefully resumed. “… it appears the White House has scheduled a plenum press conference for three o’clock eastern time. Just under an hour from now. And MediaCorp’s forcaister gives a ninety-two percent confidence projection that it will be a public confirmation of the Havana leak, followed by full disclosure.”

In what must be a dramatic concession, for someone of her generation, Tor Povlov reached up and flipped the lenses of her vir-spectacles, in order to give Hamish the courtesy of her full attention, here-and-now. Of course that tiny gel-lens kept transmitting to her point-of-view audience, around the world.

“Hence, my question for you, Mr. Brookeman. You’ve just spent an hour scolding these would-be godmakers,” she said the word with a lilt that conveyed her own level of skepticism. “Hectoring them with a stark litany of worries about a dangerously disrupted future.

“And lo, the future has arrived! This disruption—or disturber, to use your own term—is likely to be a doozy. Perhaps even like in your stories.

“Only, human foolishness seems to have had little to do with it, this time. And, unlike what always happens in your novels, this cat isn’t likely to get hushed and stuffed back in the bag, before the denouement.

“So, what I’d like to know, Mr. Brookeman, is how do you suggest we deal with this new thing?

“A bottle appears to have washed onto our shore, from far away. It contains a message.

“And it talks.”

RENUNCIATORS

Always, before, whenever one culture went into decline, there were others ready to take up the slack. If Rome toppled, there was light shining in Constantinople, then the Baghdad Caliphate and in China. If Philippine Spain turned repressive, Holland welcomed both refugees and science. When most of Europe went mad, in the mid–twentieth century, the brightest minds moved to America. When America grew self-indulgent and riven by new civil war, that migration sloshed and shifted East.

Only this time, things are different! It isn’t just one part of the world, deciding whether to rise or fall. Whether to seize confidence or forsake it. Whatever separates our tribes, today, it’s not geography. Rapid connections can spread trouble, as quickly as commerce and hope, as we learned during the Cybersneeze, the Big Heist, and the Sumatran Flu. Already, the EU and GEACS and at least twenty American states have set up commissions to supervise scientists and inventors, aiming to “advise and guide” them toward responsible progress.

Or none at all? To avoid collapse, scholars from the Diamond Futurological Institute prescribe one hope—to imitate the few human societies that learned to live sustainably within their means—like the Tokugawa Shogunate and Polynesian Tikopia. Ecologically stable, they savagely protected forests and limited the spread of farmland. Those “ideal societies” also banned the wheel. Or take the Kaczynskyites, who don’t bother persuading. If it’s new, or technological, they’ll try to blow it up.

Finally, we have the Movement. Calm and reasonable, it helped ease our world past the last great crisis, a decade ago, midwifing the trade-offs restoring balance among the ten estates, bringing about the Big Deal. Only now they’re urging humanity to “take a pause.” To reflect on the pitfalls and opportunities, before resuming our forward march. Letting wisdom catch up with technology. But don’t we need to get new solutions faster, not slower?

—from The Movement Revealed by Thormace Anubis-Fejel

 

20.

PURSUIT

Despite his hurry to get home, Peng Xiang Bin avoided the main gate through the massive seawall. For one thing, the giant doors were closed right now, for high tide. Even when they opened, that place would throng with fishermen, hawking their catch, and city dwellers visiting the last remaining beach of imported sand. So many eyes—and ais—and who knew how many were already sifting every passing face, searching for his unique biosignature?

I should never have posted queries about an egglike stone that glows mysteriously, after sitting in sunlight.

I should have left it in that hole under the sea.

His fear—ever since glimpsing the famous alien “Artifact” on TV—was that somebody high and mighty wanted desperately to have whatever Bin discovered in a hidden basement cache, underneath a drowned mansion—and wanted it in secret. The former owner had been powerful and well connected, yet he wound up being hauled away and—according to legend—tortured, then brain-sifted, and finally silenced forever. Bin suspected now that it was because of an oval stone, very much like the one causing such fuss across the world. Governments and megorps and reff-consortia would all seek one of their own.

If so, what would they do with the likes of me? When an object is merely valuable, a poor man who recovers it may demand a finder’s fee. But if it is a thing that might shake civilization?

In that case, all I could expect is death, just for knowing about it!

Yet, as some of the initial panic ebbed, Bin felt another part of his inner self rise up. The portion of his character that once dared ask Mei Ling to join him at the wild frontier, shoresteading a place of their own.

If there were a way to offer the stone up for bidding … a way to keep us safe … True, the former owner must have tried, and failed, to make a deal. But no one knew about this kind of “artifact” then … at least not the public. Everything has changed, now that the Americans are showing theirs to the world.…

None of which would matter, if he failed to make it home in time to hide the thing and do some basic preparations. Above all, sending Mei Ling and Xiao En somewhere safe. Then post an open call for bidders to meet him in a public place…?

Hurrying through crowded streets, Bin carefully kept his pace short of a run. It wouldn’t do to draw attention. Beyond the public-order cams on every ledge and lamppost, the state could tap into the lenses and private-ais worn by any pedestrian nearby. His long hair, now falling over his face, might stymie a routine or casual face-search, but not if the system really took an interest.

It’s rumored that they have learned to detect the faint vibrations that emerge from each human ear. That each of us has a vibration—as personal as a fingerprint—that can be detected with instruments. Our bodies give off so many signals, so many ways to betray us to the modern state. Just in case, Bin grabbed a piece of paper out of a trash receptacle and chewed it soft, then crammed a small chunk in each ear.

Veering away from the main gate, he sped through a shabbier section of town, where multistory residence blocs had gone through ramshackle evolution, ignoring every zoning ordinance. Laundry-laden clotheslines jostled solar collectors that shoved against semi-illegal rectennas, siphoning Mesh-access and a little beamed power from the shiny towers of nearby Pudong.

Facing a dense crowd ahead, Bin tried pushing his way through for a while, then took a stab at a shortcut. Worming past a delivery cart that wedged open a pair of giant doors, he found himself inside a vast cavity, where the lower floors had been gutted in order to host a great maze of glassy pipes and stainless steel reactor vessels, all linked in twisty patterns, frothing with multicolored concoctions. He chose a direction by dead reckoning, where there ought to be an exit on the other side. Bin meant to bluff his way clear, if anyone stopped him.

That didn’t seem likely, amid the hubbub. At least a hundred laborers—many of them dressed little better than he was—patrolled creaky catwalks or clambered over lattice struts, meticulously cleaning and replacing tubes by hand. At ground level, inspectors wearing bulky, enhanced aiware checked a continuous shower of some product—objects roughly the size and shape of a human thumb—waving laser pincers to grab a few of them before they fell into a waiting bin.

It’s a nanofactory, Bin realized, after he passed halfway through. It was his first time seeing one up close, but he and Mei Ling once saw a virtshow tour of a vast workshop like this one (though far cleaner) where basic ingredients were piped in and sophisticated parts shipped out—electroptic components, neuraugments, and organoplaques, whatever those were. And shape-to-order diamonds, as big as his fist. All produced by stacking atoms and molecules, one at a time, under programmed control.

People still played a part, of course. No robot could scramble or crawl about like humonkeys, or clean up after the machines with such dexterity. Or so cheaply.

Weren’t they supposed to shrink these factories to the size of a toaster and sell them to everyone? Magic boxes that would let even poor folk make anything they wanted from raw materials. From seawater, even. No more work. No more want.

He felt like snorting, but instead Bin mostly held his breath the rest of the way, hurrying toward a loading dock, where sweltering workers filled maglev lorries at the other end. One heard rumors of nano-machines that got loose, that embedded in the lungs and then got busy trying to make copies of themselves.… Probably just tall tales. But Bin still had plans for his lungs. They mattered a lot, to a shoresteader.

He spilled out of gritty industry into a world of street-level commerce. Gaily decorated shops crowded this avenue. Sucking air, his nostrils filled with food aromas, wafting around innumerable grills, woks and steam cookers, preparing everything from delicate skewered scorpions to vat-grown chicken meat, stretched and streaked to look like the real thing. Bin’s stomach growled, but he pushed ahead, then turned a corner and headed straight for the nearest section of massive wall separating Shanghai East from the rising ocean.

There were smugglers’ routes. One used a building that formerly offered appealing panoramas overlooking the Huangpu Estuary—till such views became unfashionable. Now, a lower class of urbanites occupied the tower in question.

The lobby’s former coating of travertine and marble had been stripped and sold off years ago, replaced by spray-on corrugations that lay covered with long beards of damp algae. A good use of space—the three-story atrium probably grew enough protein to feed half the occupants a basic, gene-crafted diet. But the dank smell made Bin miss his little tent-home amid the waves.

We can’t go back to living like this, he thought, glancing at spindly bamboo scaffolding that crisscrossed the vast foyer, while bony, sweat-stained workers tended the crop, doing work unfit for robots. I swore I would not raise our son on algae paste.

The creaky elevator was staffed by a crone who flicked switches on a makeshift circuit board to set it in motion. The building must never have had its electronics repaired since the Crash. It’s been what, fifteen, sixteen years? Yes, people are cheap and people need work. But even I could fix this pile of junk.

The car jerked and rattled while the operator glared at Bin. Clearly, she knew he did not work or live here. In turn, he gave the old lady a smile and ingratiating bow—no sense in antagonizing someone who might call up a face-query. But within, Bin muttered to himself about sour-minded “little emperors”—a generation raised as chubby only children, doted on by two parents, four grandparents, and a nation that seemed filled with limitless potential. Boundless dreams and an ambition to rise infinitely high—until the Crash. Till the twenty-first century didn’t turn out quite as promised.

Disappointment didn’t sit well with little emperors—half a billion of them—so many that even the mysterious oligarchs in the Palace of Terrestrial Harmony had to cater to the vast population bulge. And they could be grouchy. Pinning blame on Bin’s outnumbered generation had become a national pastime.

The eleventh floor once boasted a ledge-top restaurant, overlooking a marina filled with luxury boats, bordering a beach of brilliant, whitened sand. Not far away, just up the Huangpu a ways, the Shanghai Links Golf & Country Club used to glitter with opulence—now a swampy fen, sacrificed to rising waters.

Stepping past rusty tables and chairs, Bin gazed beyond the nearby seawall and down upon the yacht basin—stubby remnants and broken masts, protruding from a brownish carpet of seaweed and sewage.

I remember it was right about here.…

Leaning over, he groped over the balcony railing and along the building’s fluted side, till he found a hidden pulley, attached to a slender rope leading downward. Near the bottom, it draped idly over the seawall and into the old marina, appearing to be nothing more than a pair of fallen wires.

Bin had never done anything like this before, trusting a slender line with his weight and his life. Though, on one occasion he had helped Quang Lu ferry mysterious cargo to the bottom end, holding Quang’s boat steady while the smuggler attached dark bags, then hauled away. High overhead, shadowy figures claimed the load of contraband, and that was that. Bin never knew if it was drugs, or tech, or untaxed luxuries, nor did he care, so long as he was paid.

Quang Lu would not be happy if he ruined this route. But right now Bin had other worries. He shaded his eyes to peer along the coast, toward a row of surfline ruins—the former beachfront mansions where his simple shorestead lay. Glare off the water stung his eye, but there seemed to be nothing unusual going on. He was pretty sure he could see the good luck banner from Mei Ling’s home county, fluttering in a vague breeze. She was supposed to take it down, in the event of trouble.

His heart pounded as he tore strips off an awning to wrap around his hands. Clambering over the guardrail, Bin tried not to look as he slid down the other side, until he could support himself with one arm on the gravel deck, while the other hand groped and fumbled with the twin lines.

It was awkward, because holding on to just one strand wouldn’t do. The pulley would let him plummet like a stone. So he wound up wrapping both slender ropes around his hand. Before swinging out, Bin closed his eyes for several seconds, breathing steadily and seeking serenity, or at least some calm. All right, let’s go.

He released the ledge and swung down.

Not good! Full body weight tightened the rope like a noose around his hand, clamping a vice across his palm and fingers. Groaning till he was almost out of breath, Bin struggled to ease the pressure by grabbing both cables between his legs and tugging with his other hand, till he finally got out of the noose. Fortunately, his hands were so callused that there appeared to be no damage. But it took a couple moments for pain to stop blurring his vision …

… and when it cleared, he made the mistake of glancing down. He swallowed hard—or tried to. A terror that seemed to erupt from somewhere at the base of his spine, ran along his back like a monkey. An eel thrashed inside his belly.

Stop it! he told the animals within. I am a man. A man with a duty to perform and luck to fulfill. And a man is all that I am.

It seemed to work. Panic ebbed, like an unpleasant tide, and Bin felt buoyed by determination.

Next, he tried lowering himself, hand over hand, by strength alone. His wiry muscles were up to the task, and certainly he did not weigh enough to be much trouble. But it was hard to hold onto both strings, equally. One or the other kept trying to snap free. Bin made it down three stories before one of them yanked out of his grip. It fled upward, toward the pulley while Bin, clinging to the remaining cord, plunged the other way, grabbing at the escaped strand, desperately—

—and finally seized the wild cord. Friction quickly burned through the makeshift padding and into his flesh. By the time he came to a halt, smoke, anguish, and a foul stench wafted from his hand. Hanging there, swaying and bumping against a nearby window, he spent unknown minutes just holding on tight, waiting for his heart to settle and pain speckles depart his eyes.

Did I cry out? he wondered. Fortunately, the window next to him was blocked by heavy drapes—the glare off the Huangpu was sharp this time of day. Many of the others were boarded up. People still used this building, but most would still be at work or school. Nor would there be much AI in a hi-rise hovel.

I don’t think I yelled. I think I’m all right. His descent should be masked by heat plumes and glaring sunlight reflections off metal and concrete, making daylight much preferable over traversing this passage at night, when his body temperature would flare on hundreds of infrared-sensitive cams, triggering anomaly-detection programs.

Learning by trial and error, Bin managed to hook one leg around each of the strands and experimented with letting them slide along his upper thighs, one heading upward and the other going down. It was awkward and painful, at first, but the tough pants could take it, if he went slow and easy.

Gradually, he approached the dull gray concrete levee from above, and Bin found himself picturing how far it stretchedextending far beyond vision to the left, hugging the new coastline till it reached a great marsh that used to be Shandong Province … and to the right, continuing along the river all the way to happy regions far upstream, where the Huangpu became the Yangtze, and where people had no fear of rising waters. How many millions were employed building the New Great Wall? And how many millions more labored as prisoners, consigned on one excuse or another to the mighty task of staving off China’s latest invader? The sea.

Drawing close, Bin kept a wary eye on the barrier. This section looked okay—a bit crumbly from cheap, hurried construction, two decades ago, after Typhoon Mariko nearly drowned the city. Still, he knew that some stretches were laced with nasty stuff—razor-sharp wires, barely visible to the eye, or heat-seeking tendrils tipped with toxins.

When the time came, he vaulted over, barely touching the obstacle with the sole of one sandal, landing in the old marina with a splash.

It was unpleasant, of course, a tangle of broken boats and dangerous cables that swirled in a murk of weeds and city waste. Bin lost no time clambering onto one wreck and then leaping to another, hurrying across the obstacle course with an agility learned in more drowned places than he could remember, spending as little time as possible in the muck.

Actually, it looks as if there might be a lot of salvage in here, he thought. Perhaps he might come back—if luck neither veered high or low, but stayed on the same course as his life had been so far. Moderately, bearably miserable.

Maybe I will risk it, after all, he thought. Try to find a broker who can offer the big white stone for sale, in some way that might keep us safe.…

Before climbing over the final, rocky berm, separating the marina from the sea, he spotted a rescue buoy, bobbing behind the pilot house of one derelict. It would come in handy, during the long swim ahead.

ENTROPY

What about those “collapses”? Failure modes that would not wipe out humanity, but might kill millions, even billions? Even with survivors scratching out a bare existence, would there forever after be harsh limits to the range of human hopes?

This category is where we’d assign most punishments for mismanaging the world. For carelessly cutting down forests and spilling garbage in the sea. For poisoning aquifers and ruining habitats. For changing the very air we breathe. For causing temperatures to soar, glaciers to melt, seas to rise, and deserts to spread. For letting the planet’s web of life get winnowed down, through biodiversity loss, till it’s a fragile lattice, torn by any breeze.

Most animals have the sense not to foul their own nests.

On the other hand, no other species of animal was ever so tempted. So empowered. Or so willing to gradually learn from its mistakes.

Would intelligent rats, or ravens, or tigers, or bears, or kangaroos have done any better, exercised more foresight, or dealt with the world more carefully than we have?

—Pandora’s Cornucopia

 

21.

THE TRIBE

Once in open water, Hacker tried to keep up by swimming alongside his dolphin rescuer. But it was hard to do, with his body battered and bruised from that harsh landing and narrowly evading death on a coral reef.

Also, the survival suit—advertised as “good for everything from deep space to Everest to the bottom of the sea”—took some getting used to. But Hacker’s brain still wouldn’t focus. His hands felt like sausages, fumbling as he pulled tabs, releasing extra gill fronds from a recess along the helmet rim, in order to draw more oxygen from the water.

Worse, the darned dolphin kept getting impatient. When Hacker tried to deploy extension fins on each bootie, for better swimming, the creature gave out a frustrated bleat and chuttering complaint. Then it resumed shoving Hacker along, with its bottle-shaped nose.

Like an exasperated relative, forced to push along an invalid, Hacker thought, resentfully. I don’t have to put up with this!

Though he still couldn’t hear with his clamped eardrums, the sonic sensor in his jaw indicated that they were heading farther out to sea, leaving the pounding reef behind. And with it, the shattered remnants of his expensive suborbital capsule.

I should have tried to salvage more. At least grabbed the radio console.

Or that little survival raft, under the seat! Why didn’t I think of that before? I have to go back for it!

The nosy dolphin chose that moment to poke his back again.

Enough! Hacker started to whirl on the creature, aiming to give it a good smack. Then it might take a hint. Leave him alone.…

Only, before he could fully rotate, two more gray forms converged from the left, followed by another pair zooming in from the right. The newcomers circled around, scanning Hacker and his rescuer with ratcheting sonar clicks and squeals that resonated through the crystal waters, making his jaw throb.

Hacker finally managed to turn, making as if to return the way he came. But three of the big, gray creatures swam around to interpose themselves. Clearly, they would have none of that.

For a while—it was unclear how long—Hacker screamed at them. Though he could not hear the curses, his faceplate filled with spittle and fog. Then, all of a sudden, the bitter anger evaporated, as if discharged into the surrounding sea. Rage seemed to float away, replaced by resignation.

“All … right … then,” he willed coherent words, gradually regaining his breath as the all-purpose helmet wicked away fumes from his tirade, while pulling in more oxygen. It would also project his voice, if he remembered to do it right.

“All right, we’ll do it your way. But this means you’re responsible. You’ve got to take care of me. At least till I can flag down the damn recovery team.”

Of course the dolphins didn’t understand words. Still, when he turned to swim the other way, they seemed to nod and agree, darting to the surface for air, then swimming alongside slowly enough for him to keep up.

At intervals, just to move things along, one of them would offer its dorsal fin and let Hacker hang on for a brief ride, hurtling through the crystal water much faster than he could ever manage himself. Sometimes, when his bearer climbed to breathe, his own face would emerge and the fronds engorged themselves like balloons, while he scanned the horizon quickly. But there was never any sign of land.

They settled into a routine … a rhythm … part underwater excursion and part extravagant leaping. After a while, though still bruised, dazed, and numb from painkillers, Hacker finally had to admit, almost grudgingly …

… that it was pretty fun.

NEWS INTERLIDOLUDE

* Another ice dam is crumbling in Greenland, threatening a massive freshwater spill, just when the North Atlantic Salinity Cycle seemed about to restart. Desperate for the Gulf Stream to flow again, Poland and Russia are threatening to use nukes, without making clear how that might help. (*blink* and UR there)

* Inside the mélange of North America, farm state collectives raised the specter of a food boycott, after the Metropolitan League declared plans to form a “poop-cartel,” selling urban sewage at a fixed price. (*blink* & UR there)

* Veterans of the last Great Awakening are back, holding another prophecy conclave in Colorado Springs. Unapologetic over their failed forecasts of the 2030s’ cruci-millennium, they are calling for a new wave of tent meetings from pinnacle to prairie. “Because,” according to spokesrevelator Iain Tserff, “this time, for sure!” (*blink* & UR there)

In response, the nearby Blue-Republic of Boulder responded by conscripting a fresh platoon of lawyers to pursue collection on the Big Wager of 2036. Referring to the ongoing tiff between trog and agog enclaves, Professor Mayor Eileen Gaypurse-Fitzpatrick said: “Before these dingbats spread more panic, they owe us a new sports stadium! And an apology for betting-and-praying our city would be swallowed by hell. Pay up! And, this time, no whining ‘double-or-nothing.’” (*blink* & UR there)

 

22.

KINDRED SPIRITS

Of course, the speech was ruined. All chance of a high-note ending was now gone, along with any useful footage. Even fifty years from now, the lead memory-image from this event would be that of Hamish himself, staring like a poleaxed calf, muttering some reflex platitudes about how everyone should remain dubious and calm.

“Perhaps this is a hoax,” he suggested. “Or something much less than it seems. But even if it isn’t … even if the cosmos has suddenly come calling … and everything changes…” He swallowed hard, eager only to get away. “In the end, we’ll need caution, rather than arrogant pride, to get across the days and years ahead.

“What worked for so many individuals, groups, nations, and races who came before us? Amid doubt, worry, and a myriad shocks, we should remember our limitations. Admit the boundaries of our wisdom, and turn to others, wiser than ourselves.”

Was that a sufficiently lofty and ambiguous note to finish on? Many would assume that he was speaking of God. Or preaching humility. Some—a few—would know that he referred to the pyramid’s eye. The Prophet and the Movement.

No matter. It was time to leave. While more people stood and pressed forward with questions or arguments, Hamish turned away with a farewell wave of one hand, to a mere smattering of applause.

Worst speech, ever, he growled, not even shaking hands with the conference organizers, who waited backstage. A sick feeling inside, made him wish he could teleport away. Not to a lonely mountain or beach, or to some place drenched in the latest news, but his private study. To his old-fashioned keyboard and the kind of work he once did happily, if obsessively, for days on end. Like things were before Carolyn left. Before great men discovered his other uses.

But escape was far away. Wriggles spoke from his earring, whispering a reminder. You have that meeting. With Betsby.

Stifling a sigh, Hamish turned to the middle-aged man who had been assigned to take care of him. Erik somebody—big-boned, but painfully thin. Apparently one of those caloric restriction types. But if he nursed any miffed feelings after Hamish’s speech, it didn’t show.

“You promised me a secure meeting room,” Hamish said. “One with two entrances, and no cam views of either.”

“This way, sir. I swept both corridors myself, just a few minutes ago. Of course, no one can guarantee—”

“It’s okay.” Hamish waved away any concern. “My meeting isn’t secret, or even important. I just—”

He let it go with a shrug. There are precautions you can take, nowadays, to keep an encounter vague, ambiguous. Rumored, inferred, but not proved. Deniable, even if folks swear they saw Jill go in one door and Jack go in the other. The trick is not to draw attention.

No one was in the little conference room, when he arrived. Hamish found a basket of fruit and some juiceballs, taut in their membrane skins. But he felt too wound up to partake. Instead, he took a small device out of his jacket pocket and laid it on the table. Automatically, the scanner sought telltale reflective patterns and electromagnetic glimmers—any sign of microscopic tattle-lenses or audio pickups. In the surveillance arms race, an advantage always went to those who could afford the very latest thing. He had been assured that his doohickey was the best. This month.

Naturally, it detected his earring. But Wriggles was already registered with the detector device. Otherwise, the room seemed to be clean, as promised.

Where is the man?

Betsby knows we can have him picked up at any time, either on official charges or less openly. He must realize that this meeting is a courtesy on our part. A chance to avoid prison—or worse—if he comes clean. If he publicly admits responsibility for Senator Strong’s outburst. But he’s acting like he holds some card up his sleeve. Something giving him the upper hand.

It was a puzzler, all right. And an inner part of Hamish actually relished that.

Wriggles asked if he wanted a running summary of fast-breaking news—the alien object story that was drawing world attention to a small scientific center in Cuba.

“No,” he answered, aloud. “I’ll watch the press conference cold. Bare-eyed.”

“And such big eyes they are,” spoke a voice from behind Hamish. “The better to see the future with.”

It was Roger Betsby, standing in the other doorway—bearded and a bit stooped, with a compact paunch at the middle and a tired expression on his somewhat puffy face. He stepped forward and placed a detector of his own upon the table. Clearly an older model. Still, it quickly spotted Wriggles. The little earring gave off a short ping, when Betsby’s device registered it.

In turn, Hamish’s detector cast a pale reddish glow upon Betsby’s narrow, rimless specs.

“These old things?” The physician-activist held them up. “Mostly just optical glass, with the barest augmentation—to record what I’m looking at and provide level-one captions. It was agreed that we could both keep e-notes.” He put the glasses back on.

“That’s all right. I don’t plan on saying or doing anything I’d be ashamed of. Thank you for coming, Doctor.”

“How could I refuse an invitation to meet the famous Hamish Brookeman? I would guess that’s half of your usefulness to the Eye. Celebrighties can walk through walls. Isn’t that the expression? You can gain audience with almost anybody on Earth. Kings, presidents, oligarchs, anyone who loved or hated your stories and films. Meanwhile, the merely rich and powerful often snub each other.”

Hamish shrugged. “There are drawbacks, too.”

“Of that I’m sure. Privacy. Time. Preciously short supplies of personal attention span. The usual complaints. Still, you must be tired, after haranguing those poor godmakers out there. Part of a lifelong campaign to steer our ponderous civilization away from cliffs. And now, that astronaut may have spoiled it all. Gerald Livingstone’s mysterious Havana Artifact is causing such a fuss. Are you sure you wouldn’t prefer to put this meeting off? For another day? Another life?”

Hamish took a measured look at the other man. Betsby’s offer wasn’t courtesy. He was gauging the seriousness of the opposition. Whether the Movement would let itself get diverted by so minor a thing as possible contact with extraterrestrial intelligence.

“We both went to some trouble, in order to meet here today. Let’s proceed.” He sat, but only on the forward edge of a chair, with his long legs bent and elbows on the table.

“Very well, then.” Roger Betsby plopped down heavily, letting his own chair teeter back a bit. He spread his hands, inviting questions.

“What puzzles me—” Hamish began.

“You mean, what puzzles the Eye.”

Hamish blinked. The Movement didn’t care for that term getting bruited around, in public. Anyway, he disliked being interrupted. “If you prefer. What interests me—or us—is why you think you won’t face charges, since you admit to having poisoned Senator Strong.”

“I admit no such thing. Never have. At worst, what I did was administer a perfectly legal substance, on my own initiative as a medical practitioner, in order to palliate the condition of a disease victim.”

“A … victim…”

“Of an especially noxious illness.”

Hamish stared for a moment, till Betsby continued.

“Albeit, I administered the dose without his knowledge or consent. I suppose I could get in serious trouble for that.”

“Hm … so it wasn’t a poison, per se. Or a banned drug.”

“Far from it. The diametric opposite, you might say.”

Hamish pondered. None of the previous agents—attorneys and investigators who visited Betsby—had been told this twist. Now, the man was clearly enjoying this moment of truth, stretching it out. Hamish understood the feeling, having done it to millions, in books and on large or small screens.

“I see now why you act as if you have some basis to blackmail the Senator.” Hamish started enumerating on the fingers of one hand. “You admit that you doped Strong with a substance that triggered an offensively hysterical tirade in front of a nationwide audience. Normally, the fact that he’d been given a mind-altering drug might help temper the damage from his outburst, persuading many to pardon the repugnant things he blurted.”

“The Algebra of Forgiveness,” Betsby nodded. “Words can’t be unsaid. But a poisoning would provide powerful mitigation, perhaps drawing pardon from those who already liked him. Or those benefiting from his influence. That is, if it were a poison. Go on.”

“Um, right. You claim that the very name of the substance that you used might damage the senator even more than his upsetting words and actions. You threaten to reveal that information, if you are arrested, or if any other action is taken against you.”

“I never expressed it as a threat. That would be blackmail in the legal and felonious sense. I simply pointed out that, if I am charged with a crime, or harmed in any way, then naturally, more facts will emerge, than if I were simply left alone.”

“And now you claim that the stuff was legal, with legitimate therapeutic uses. Still, many substances have multiple effects, contingent upon—”

“Let me save you the trouble of going down that path. This one has only therapeutic uses. Few known side effects and only mild counter-indicator warnings.”

Hamish nodded. He had been afraid of this. “So, legally, you may only have committed the crime of treating a patient without his consent? But your threats…”

“As I said, I doubt you could make any blackmail charge stick. I’ve been careful with my wording. I have an excellent lawyer program.”

“Hm. Not as good as ours, I bet. Still, you imply that we … that Senator Strong might have reason to fear complete disclosure. Because the public might be less forgiving, upon finding out what concoction it was.”

“No flies on you,” Betsby commented.

“What?”

“Just something my gramps used to say. A compliment to an active mind. Go on Mr. Brookeman.”

Hamish frowned.

“You imply that Strong’s medical condition is one the public would despise even more than your act of slipping the senator a cryptic, behavior-altering substance.”

“Oh, I won’t get off, scot-free, if you people choose to reveal everything … or force me to. Some will call me a hero, but I could lose my medical license. Maybe get some jail time. Strong could sue me.

“But his political career would be kaput.”

Clearly, the fellow thought this a decent trade. And despite himself, Hamish felt drawn to Roger Betsby. If for nothing else, then the sheer gall and originality of his approach, and the way it had been formulated as a puzzle, as if for Hamish alone.…

He ventured. “It would have to be a medical condition that’s both intrinsically repugnant and somehow voluntary. A lifestyle choice.”

Betsby nodded. “Go on.”

“And yet … something that’s relatively unknown to the public. Or, at least, under the popular vradar.”

“Gramps would’ve liked you.” A strange compliment that gave Hamish an involuntary flush … which also tipped him into realization.

“It’s an addiction, isn’t it? Senator Strong has a habit. A bad one. You … you slipped him an antidote! Oh Lord.”

The other man nodded, with a glint in his narrow eyes. “Bingo.”

Hamish allowed himself a thin smile. Even after just a few minutes together, he already valued respect from Roger Betsby, more than the cheap, reflexive praise of critics or fans. There weren’t more than a few dozen people on this poor planet he felt that way about. At one level, this was actually fun!

But that satisfaction took poor second, right now, to another feeling. Wrath! How he wanted to get his hands around a certain senator’s neck. None of the profiles or dossiers suggested addiction. Oh, some alcoholic stupors, now and then, and maybe a little neococaine, but no word of anything with its hooks sunk deep. Whatever filthy habit Strong carried on his back, the movement was completely in the dark. Tenskwatawa would be furious!

“I don’t supposed you’ll be accommodating, Doctor, and tell me what it is? Or name the antidote you used? Or explain why it had such powerful behavioral effects?”

“Maybe another time,” Betsby said, shaking his head. “Till then, of course, I needn’t remind you that I have set up all sorts of trigger-revelation bots, all over the place, that will unleash every bit of it, should something unfortunate happen to me.”

“Of course. That goes without saying.” Hamish nodded. Though he knew there were still dark ways, desperate options.

“Very well, then,” Betsby said, standing up. “That really ought to be enough for your people to chew on, for now.”

Nevertheless, from his manner, his body language, the man revealed plenty to Hamish. Perhaps much more than he thought.

You don’t plan to keep this secret forever, no matter what we do. No matter what we offer.

You have something bigger in mind. More than just ruining the career of a legislator from one of the Tribal States.

You plan to make a point.

You want to save the world.

Hamish knew the type. The planet was, in fact, filled nearly to overflowing with sincere people, frantically bent on saving it, while disagreeing deeply over how. And, yes, his own cause—to protect Earth from its would-be saviors—might be assigned to the very same category!

He could honestly admit that irony. Even when it forced him down unpleasant paths.

“Well, Doctor, you clearly have a timetable for revealing what you know. I won’t press you to go farther today, though you can expect to hear from me soon.”

As soon as we’ve had a chance to consult, to analyze these recordings, to parse your words for hidden meanings, and every skin pore for potential weakness.

“Anyway”—Hamish cocked his head as Wriggles chimed a time alert—“it’s nearly time for that big megillah press conference from Washington and Havana about the space object. Shall we order some food and drink, and a pixelvee, so we can watch it here? Who knows? The whole planetary situation may change. So much that all our present conflicts will seem moot.”

Of course Betsby agreed to stay. Even those who are aware of celebrity power generally find it hard to resist. Hence, the sweet-and-sour irony redoubled. Hamish felt glad to share the coming historic moment with a kindred spirit, of sorts … and a twinge of guilt over fate’s cruelty.

Especially over the way it sometimes forced him to protect men he despised, by destroying somebody he liked.

ENTROPY

“Geo-engineering” refers to one of humanity’s oldest activities—altering some trait of Planet Earth. Our ancestors—never content—strove to change their environment. Huts and hearths banished winter’s chill. Forests gave way to gardens. Irrigation made some regions bloom, then salt-poisoned them into desert. Dams shifted whole watersheds, displacing weight across seismic faults. Delving for fuel and ore, we altered mountain ranges and the air we breathed.

By one way of reckoning, we transformed several hundred cubic kilometers of fossil fuels into two cubic kilometers of human beings. Perhaps the greatest engineering feat of all. Then science let us do something else unique. With the power to notice, we began asking a question that can only be pondered by worried young gods:

“Is there anything we can do about all this? Repair the damage? Change things for the better?” No longer gradual or unintentional, geo-engineering became a matter of theory and experiment, debate and policy.

Suppose we pump huge quantities of CO2 into deep, saline layers. That might slow global warming for a while. Unless the gas blew back out? Look up the Lake Nyos Disaster. Even if it stays put, that’s where the archaea took shelter half a billion years ago, when oxygen transformed the atmosphere. How will they react to a sudden influx of CO2, which they use to make methane and hydrogen sulfide? And if those gases emerged…?

Others propose erecting huge shades above Earth, dimming sunlight by just enough. Or by spraying stratospheric aerosols to increase reflection, cooling the planet. Some fear unintended oscillations, swinging out of control. Others remind that sulfide gas may have caused the Permian Extinction—the greatest loss of life Earth ever saw.

Even the most ecological ideas have critics. Fertilizing vast “desert” stretches of ocean would seem an obvious win-win, expanding the food chain and much-needed fisheries while sucking atmospheric carbon. Crude attempts with iron powder caused problems. But what of using tidal energy to stir ocean bottoms, exactly like natural currents?

Suppose a naturalistic solution worked! Might we think ourselves wise enough to manage a complex planet? The New Puritans say our best course is to “do less harm” in the first place. But can we only fix our messes through rigid self-denial? Is there no role for the trait that took us from the caves? The can-do spirit of ambition?

Pandora’s Cornucopia

 

23.

WARNING

It was nearing nightfall when he approached the shorestead from the west, with the setting sun behind him.

Of course, by now the tide was low and the main gates were open—and Peng Xiang Bin felt foolish. In hindsight, his panic now seemed excessive. I might have sold those lesser stones, bought a beer by the fishmonger stands, and already made it home by now, having dinner while showing Mei Ling a handful of cash.

Soon, he faced familiar outlines—the sagging north wall … the metlon poles and supercord bracings … the solar distillery … and patches where he had begun preparing two upper-story rooms for occupation. He even caught a scent of that Vietnamese nuk mam sauce that Mei Ling added to half her preparations. It all looked normal. Still, he circled the half-ruined mansion, checking for intruder signs. Oil in the water. Tracks in the muddy sand. Nothing visible.

A wasted day, then. A crazy, draining adventure that I could scarcely afford. Some lost stones …

… though there are more where those came from.

In fact, he had begun to fashion a plan in his head. The smuggler, Quang Lu, had many contacts. Perhaps, while keeping the matter vague at first, Bin might use Quang to set up a meeting, in such a time and place where treachery would be difficult. Perhaps arranging for several competitors to be present at once. How did one of the ancient sages put it? In order not to be trampled by an elephant, get many of them to push against each other.

All right, maybe no sage actually said that. But one should have. Surely, Bin did not have to match the great lords of government, wealth, and commerce. What he needed was a situation where they canceled each other’s strength! Get them bidding for what he had. Openly, enough so no one could benefit by keeping him quiet.

First thing, I must find a good hiding place for the stone. Then come up with the right story for Quang.

It took real effort just to haul himself out of the water, Bin’s body felt limp with fatigue. He was past hunger and exhaustion, making his way from the atrium dock to the stairs, then across the roof, and finally to the entrance of the tent-shelter. It flapped with a welcoming rhythm, emitting puffs of homecoming aromas that made his head swim.

Ducking to step inside, Bin blinked in the dimmer light. “You won’t believe what a day I have had! Is that sautéed prawn? The ones I caught this morning? I’m glad you chose—”

Mei Ling had been stirring the wok. At first, as she turned around, he thought she smiled. Then Bin realized … it was a grimace. She did not speak, but fear glistened in her eyes, which darted to her left—alerting him to swivel—

A creature stood on their small table. A large bird of some kind, with a long, straight beak. It gazed at Xiang Bin, regarding him with a head tilt, one way then the other. It spread stubby wings, stretching them, and Bin numbly observed.

No flight feathers. A penguin? What would a penguin be doing here in sweltering Shanghai?

Then he noticed its talons. Penguins don’t have—

The claws gripped something that still writhed on the tabletop, gashed and torn. It looked like a snake.… Only, instead of oozing blood or guts, there were bright flashes and electric sizzles.

A machine. They are both machines.

Without moving its beak, the bird spoke.

“You must not fear. There is no time for fear.”

Bin swallowed. His lips felt chapped and dry.

“What … who are you?”

“I am an instrumentality, sent by those who might save your life.” The bird-thing abruptly bent and pecked hard at the snake. Sparks flew. It went dark and limp. An effective demonstration, if Bin needed one.

“Please go to the window,” the winged mechanism resumed, gesturing with its beak. “And bring the stone here.”

Well, at least it spoke courteously. He turned and saw that the white, egg-shaped relic lay on the ledge, soaking in the fading sunlight—instead of wrapped in a dark cloth, as they had agreed. He glanced back sharply at his wife, but Mei Ling was now holding little Xiao-En. She merely shrugged as the baby squirmed and whimpered, trying to nurse.

With a low sigh, Bin approached the stone, whose opalescent surface seemed to glow with more than mere reflections. He could sense the bird leaning forward, eagerly.

As if sensing Bin’s hands, the whitish surface turned milky and began to swirl. Now it was plain to the eye, how this thing differed from the Havana Artifact that he had seen briefly through an ailectronics store window. It seemed a bit smaller, rounder, and considerably less smooth. One end was marred by pits, gouges, and blisters that tapered into thin streaks across the elongated center. Yet similarities were plain. A spinning sense of depth grew more intense near his hands. And, swiftly, a faint shape began to form, at first indistinct, coalescing as if from a fog.

Demons, Xiang Bin thought. Or rather, a demon. A single figure approached, bipedal, shaped vaguely like a man.

With reluctance—wishing he had never laid eyes on it—Bin made himself plant hands on both tapered ends, gritting his teeth as a brief, faint tremor ran up the inner surface of his arms. He hefted the heavy stone, turned and carried it away from the sunlight. At which point, the glow seemed only to intensify, filling and chasing the dim shadows of the tent-shelter.

“Put it down here, on the table, but please do not release it from your grasp,” the bird-thing commanded, still polite, but insistent. Bin obeyed, though he wanted to let go. The shape that gathered form, within the stone, was not one that he had seen before. More humanlike than the demons he had glimpsed on TV, shown peering outward from the stone in Washington—but still a demon. Like the frightening penguin-creature, whose wing now brushed his arm as it bent next to him, eager for a closer look.

“The legends are true!” it murmured. Bin felt the bird’s voice resonate, emitting from an area on its chest. “Worldstones are said to be picky. They may choose one human to work with, or sometimes none at all. Or so go the stories.” The robot regarded Xiang Bin with a glassy eye. “You are fortunate in more ways than you might realize.”

Nodding without much joy, Xiang Bin knew at least one way.

I am needed, then. It will work only for me.

That means they won’t just take the thing and leave us be.

But it also means they must keep me alive. For now.

The demon within the stone—it had finished clarifying, though the image remained rippled and flawed. Approaching on two oddly jointed legs, it reached forward with powerfully muscular arms, as if to touch or seize Bin’s enclosing hands. The mouth—appearing to have four lips arranged like a flattened diamond—moved underneath a slitlike nose and a single, ribbonlike organ where eyes would have been. With each opening and closing of the mouth, a faint buzzing quivered the surface under Bin’s right palm.

“The stone is damaged,” the penguinlike automaton observed. “It must have once possessed sound transducers. Perhaps, in a well-equipped laboratory—”

“Legends?” Bin suddenly asked, knowing he should not interrupt. But he couldn’t help it. Fear and exhaustion and contact with demons—it all had him on the verge of hysteria. Anyway, the situation had changed. If he was special, even needed, then the least that he could demand was an answer or two!

“What legends? You mean these stones have appeared before?”

The bird-thing tore its gaze away from the image of a humanoid creature, portrayed opening and closing its mouth in a pantomime of speech that timed roughly, but not perfectly, with the vibrations under Bin’s right hand.

“You might as well know, Peng Xiang Bin, since yours is now a burden and a task assigned by Heaven.” The penguinlike machine gathered itself to full height and then gave him a small bow of the head. “A truth that goes back farther than any other that is known.”

Bin’s mouth felt dry. “What truth?”

“That stones have fallen since time began. And men are said to have spoken to them for at least nine thousand years.

“And in all that long epoch, they have referred to a day of culmination. And that day, long prophesied, may finally be at hand.”

Bin felt warm contact at his back, as Mei Ling pressed close—as near as she could, while nursing their child. He did not remove his hands from the object on the table. But he was glad that one of hers slid around his waist, clutching him tight and driving out some of the chill he felt, inside.

“Then…,” Bin swallowed. “Then you are not an alien?”

“Me?” The penguin stared at Bin for a moment, then emitted a chirp—the mechanical equivalent of laughter. “I see how you could leap to that mistaken conclusion. But no, Peng Xiang Bin. I am man-built. So was this snake,” its talons squeezed the artificial serpent harder, “sent here by a different—and more ruthless—band of humans. Our competitors also seek to learn more about the interstellar emissary probes.”

Meanwhile, the entity within the stone appeared frustrated, perhaps realizing that no one heard its words. The buzzing intensified, then stopped. Then, instead, the demon reached forward, as if toward Bin, and started to draw a figure in space, close to the boundary between them. Wherever it moved its scaly hand, a trail of inky darkness remained, until Bin realized.

Calligraphy. The creature was brushing a figure—an ideogram—in a flowing, archaic-looking style. It was a complicated symbol, containing at least twenty strokes. I wish I had more education, Bin thought, gazing in awe at the final shape, when it stood finished, throbbing across the face of the glowing worldstone. Both symmetrically beautiful and yet jagged, threatening, it somehow transfixed the eye and made his heart pound.

Xiang Bin did not know the character. But anyone with the slightest knowledge of Chinese would recognize the radical—the core symbol—that it was built from.

Danger.

CONFLICTING WISDOM

Already the danger is so great, for every individual, every class, every people, that to cherish any illusion whatever is deplorable. Time does not suffer itself to be halted; there is no question of prudent retreat or wise renunciation. Only dreamers believe that there is a way out. Optimism is cowardice.
Oswald Spengler, Men and Technics, 1932
In good times, pessimism is a luxury; but in bad times, pessimism is a self-fulfilling and fatal prophecy.
Jamais Cascio, Open the Future, 2005

 

24.

THE WORLD WATCHES

“Why must I wear this thing?” Gerald complained. He plucked at the sleeve of his freshly laundered and ribboned dress uniform, referring to what lay beneath—a bulge in the fleshy part of his forearm. An implanted NASA telemetry device.

“Oh, don’t be a wiper,” General Hideoshi scolded. In person, the brigadier was even more petite than she appeared onscreen—which had the paradoxical effect of making her rank more imposing. Stars on each shoulder glittered under the stage lights. “You’ve worn implants ever since you entered training.”

“For health diagnostics, biologging, and work-related drugdrips. And we get to turn ’em off, after missions. But this thing is huge! And I know it’s not just checking my blood pressure.”

Akana shrugged. “Price of freedom, friend. You chose to be a human guinea pig, by planting your hand on that thing.” She nodded toward the Object, glossy and opalescent in its felt-lined cradle, sitting a meter away from Gerald atop the conference table. “It was either this,” she gestured at his arm, “or extended deep quarantine. You still have that option, you know. Go back into the tank.”

Gerald snorted. “No tanks.”

“You’re welcome.” Akana chuckled.

He didn’t mention other implants that he only suspected—like something foreign floating inside his left eyeball, sampling light without blocking his retina. Looking out at the world through his own iris. In effect, seeing whatever he saw. As if it weren’t enough that a dozen other team members were constantly watching, whenever he communed with the Messenger from MEO. Just one of many names for the object.

My “egg” they call it. Gerald’s Galactic Geode. Or the Havana Artifact. Or the thing that garbageman-cowboy Livingstone lassoed with his space-lariat. It had better turn out to be benign because from now on, my name is tied to whatever it does. Good or ill.

Beyond thick curtains, a babble of press and invited guests could be heard, taking seats in the hall proper—the largest auditorium at the Naval Research Lab, just outside of Washington. A convenient older building that survived Awfulday unscathed—and diplomatically innocuous, while offering military levels of security.

This side of the curtain, on a wide stage, dignitaries filed in to take assigned positions at the long table. First NASA and Foresight officials, then representatives from EU and AU and GEACS. Finally delegates from both guild and academy. Some had helped with preliminary analyses in Cuba. Others just wanted to shake Gerald’s hand … the one that hadn’t touched the Artifact, of course. Others just kept glancing toward the ovoid crystal, glistening quietly under the stage lights.

Someone had suggested laying a purple cloth over it, for the president to pull away with due drama. But a public affairs psychologist insisted, “Let the public see it, first thing, as soon as the curtain opens. They’ll be thinking about nothing else, anyway. So turn that into a dramatic advantage. Sit and wait while all viewers zoom in with specs and vus. An expression of ultimate openness. Only after the hubbub dies down, then have the president come onstage.”

That courtesy harkened back to when the office held real and terrible power. Of course, it all sounded like hooey. At least a cover might have offered Gerald a break from the thing’s constant, eye-drawing allure. What decided the matter was simple practicality. The object needed to bathe in light for some time, in order to function.

Everyone settled into assigned places. Akana to Gerald’s left, where the Artifact would not block her face from the crowd. His own position, closest to the gleaming thing, bespoke a growing consensus. He was not only its discoverer, but in some way its keeper. The one asked to pick it up. To carry the ovoid, whenever it must be moved. The one present, whenever specialists wanted to try some new method for communicating with the entities inside.

An honor, I suppose—and who knows? Maybe even historic. On the other hand, I’m not sure I like the way this thing tugs at me. Like a habit or addiction. Or like I belong to it, now.

And if all this goes badly, there’s no place on or off the planet where I can hide.

At present, the orb lay quiescent, a soft shimmer rippling its surface—a liquid impression of great, perhaps infinite depth. A vastly magnified image of the ovoid was projected onto a giant screen, above and behind the dais, bright enough to cast Gerald’s shadow across the table, limned in silvery light.

“Wouldn’t it be something, if it refused to perform in public?”

Akana shot him a glare, for even thinking that way. Of course, there were recordings of hour after hour, spent by specialists interrogating the smoke-and-mirror enigma—some contained in that terabyte of sample images that somebody had leaked. Many of the pictures showed Gerald with his left hand planted on the glossy surface, while some other palm seemed to rise out of those milky depths, to touch his, from within.

Time and again that happened. Some alien-looking hand—variously scaly, or fleshy, or furry, or consisting of pincer-claws—appeared to float up from within the Artifact, in order to perform the same strange ritual, ever since he first established contact, during fiery reentry.

Contact, yes, but with what? With whom?

Gradually over several days, more depth developed. Hands led to arms or tentacles that receded inward, as if the Artifact were tens of meters deep, perhaps much more, instead of a few dozen centimeters. Then, torsos or bodies appeared at the ends of those arms, moving closer, though always distorted, as if viewed through a thick ball of milky glass.

And finally came heads … sometimes faces … equipped with eyes or sensing organs that pressed up to the inner surface, seeming to peer outward, even as Gerald and his colleagues stared back.

After gaping long enough, your mind played tricks. You even found it possible to imagine that you were inside, while those alien figures scrutinized your cramped, little prison-world from the outside, as if through some kind of lens.

Maybe they’re doing just that. One theory called the Artifact a transmitter. An interstellar communication device offering instant hookup across the light-years, to aliens now living on some other world.

While others think it has to be a hoax.

Some of the best experts in display technology—from Hollywood to Bombay to Kinshasa—had flown in to examine the thing. Many of its behaviors and functions could be duplicated with known technology, they decreed. But not all. In fact, some were downright astonishing. Especially the way three-dimensional images might loom outward in any direction—or all directions at once—from deep within a solid object. Or the unknown manner that it sensed nearby people and things. Or the mysterious and unconventional means by which it drew power from ambient lighting. Still, none of those enigmas guaranteed against a fake. Fraudulent alien artifacts had been tried before, by spoof artists with deep pockets and plenty of creativity. An Interpol team had been assigned to trawl the vir and real worlds, seeking to profile a certain kind of prankster—one with fantastic ingenuity and extravagant resources.

Likewise, the symbols that kept floating upward through that inner murk, to plaster themselves against its translucent shell, like insects wriggling and trying to escape. Were they proof of alien provenance? More words had formed, that went beyond the initial greeting, and yet all meaning remained frustrating. Ambiguous. It wasn’t just a strangeness of syntax and grammar. Rather, the sheer number of symbologies seemed startling. Just when one linguistic system was starting to make sense, it would get jostled aside, forced to make way for another. So far, there had been at least fifty, spanning a range greater than all human languages.

This very complexity helped convince the advisory committee against any likelihood of fraud. One or two eerie grammars might be counterfeited. But why would hoaxers go to so much effort, creating scores of them, apparently bickering and competing with each other for attention? Pranksters would want to convey authority and confidence—not an impression of inner squabbling.

Oh, it seemed likely this was real, all right. Some kind of emissary artifact, representing a menagerie of sapient races, a blizzard of dialects, and a panoply of shining planets, depicted in varied colors and living textures, from pure water worlds to hazy desert globes. That very diversity seemed reassuring, in a way. For, if so many races shared some kind of community, out there, then surely humanity had little to fear?

Without willing it to, Gerald found his left hand creeping closer to the ovoid, as if drawn by habit, or a mind of its own. And soon, the Artifact reacted. Vague, cloudy patches clarified into more distinct swirls that gathered and clustered in the area closest to him. That sense of depth returned. Again, he seemed to be looking inward … downward …

… and soon, a clump of minuscule shadows appeared, as if they were figures viewed at a great distance, through a shimmering mirage-haze. Starting small and indistinct, these tiny black shapes began rising, growing larger with each passing moment, as if approaching through banks of polychromatic fog.

Physical contact with my hand doesn’t seem to be required, anymore, he pondered with bemusement. Just proximity.

And there was another difference, this time.

There are several of them, at the same time.

Always, before, there had been a jostling sense of exclusivity. Just one hand met his. One alien alphabet lingered for a while, before being pushed aside by another.

Now, he counted four … no, five … figures that seemed to be striding forward together, side by side, gaining color and detail as they approached. Two of them were murky bipedal shadows, accompanied by what seemed to be some kind of a four-legged centauroid, a crablike being and—well—something like a cross between a fish and a squid, propelling along with tentacular pulsations, easily keeping pace beside the walkers.

Apparently, reality operated under different rules, in there.

“What the devil are you doing?” Akana hissed, beside him. “We agreed not to trigger a response till the president said so!”

“I’m not doing anything,” Gerald grunted back at her, partly lying. His hand wasn’t touching the Artifact. But nor was he drawing it back. Indeed, clearly, the approaching figures seemed to be moving toward him, drawn by his attention.

Speaking of attention, Gerald could sense the dignitaries nearby, halting their private conversations and turning to look at the big screen, amid a rising babble of excitement. Those nearby clustered close behind Gerald to look at the real thing. He felt warm breath and smelled somebody’s curry lunch.

“You … really ought to…” Akana began. But he could tell she was as transfixed as the others. Something important was happening. More so than a lapse in protocol.

At that moment, while the alien figures were still some “distance” away through that inner haze, somebody pushed a switch and the stage curtains spread apart, exposing the dais and the big screen to a thousand people in the auditorium … and several hundred millions of viewers around the globe.

Some interval later, while a babble filled the hall, a fanfare played through the public address system. Gerald guessed, with a small part of his mind, that it must be for the president coming on stage. Just in time to be ignored.

The five figures loomed, their forms beginning to fill one side of the Artifact boundary, facing Gerald. He recognized the centauroid and one of the bipeds, from earlier, brief encounters. The first had a hawkish face, with two extremely large eyes on both sides of a fierce-looking beak. A nocturnal creature, perhaps, yet apparently unbothered by bright light. The other strode on two legs that moved like stilts, swinging to the side in order to move forward. Its head seemed a mass of wormlike tendrils, without any breaks or apparent openings.

The crablike being closely resembled—well—Gerald’s dinner, two nights ago, while the aquatic seemed something of a nightmare. At least, those were his vague impressions. To be honest, Gerald had little attention to spare. For the moment, despite all his previous experience with the alien object, he felt as pinned and fascinated as any of those watching from their homes, across the planet.

Gerald abruptly realized there were more entities now, emerging from the distance, hurrying forward—at least dozen or more of them, propelling themselves with haste, as if eager to catch up with the first ones.

Those five alien figures stopped, crowding together at the lens-like boundary between the ovoid and Gerald’s world. He sensed them looking outward, not just at him, but at Akana and others within view. He could no longer hear or feel hot breath on his neck. For a few seconds, no one exhaled.

Then, from each of the five aliens, there emerged a single dot. A black form that grew and fluttered as it took shape. A symbol or glyph, each quite different than the others. One was sharply angular. Another manifested as all slants and intersections. A third looked like a crude pie chart … and so on. The signs plastered themselves in a row, along the curved surface where the Artifact’s interior met the outside world of humans.

Is that it? Another set of enigmas? Well, at least a few of them are working together, for a change. Maybe we can start the long process …

The symbols began to mutate again. Each transformed, and Gerald had an intuition—they were turning into blocklike letters of the Roman alphabet, just like that day during reentry.

If it just says “greeting” again, I may scream, he thought.

Fortunately, it didn’t. Not exactly.

This time, instead of one word, there were two.

JOIN US.

 

PART FOUR

NOBLER IN THE MIND

We need not marvel at extinction; if we must marvel, let it be at our presumption in imagining for a moment that we understand the many complex contingencies, on which the existence of each species depends.

—Charles Darwin

 

SPECIES

autie murphy verifies + + + he found the basque chimera

+!+ the child lives +!+ and is safe, for now.

safe from the normalpeople who would treasure +/- persecute -/+ or study himherit -/- perhaps to death

born in a year that would have been the square of the number of birthdays that jesus would have had —- if jesus had lived twelve more years -+- and had an extra leap day every year + + + and if the primate avoided prime numbers +/- what more proof could anybody need?/-

+ + + good going murph + + +

only now, what do we do with this knowledge? the autie thing? dance with it a while + then pack it away

+/- all facts are created equal. -/+ the number of dollars in your bank account -/- the number of holes in your socks … all the same, right? pragmatism is for poorparents -/- those who are distraught over the “autism plague”

—- pragmatism doesn’t come easily to us —-

+ + + but it must + + +

if we lack the passion & drive of homosaps—their cro magnon attention-allocation genius—then can we use something else? + + + something we are good at + + +

!/! if we super-autistics really are more like animals … or even maybe like Neanderthals … then might the chimera teach us something valuable?/?

maybe we should do something with this knowledge

possibly go talk to himherit

perhaps even care

 

25.

DEPARTURE

The journey of three thousand li began with a bribe and a little air.

And a penguinlike robot, standing on the low dining table that Peng Xiang Bin had salvaged from a flooded mansion. A mechanical creature that stayed punctiliously polite, while issuing commands that would forever disrupt the lives of Xiang Bin and Mei Ling and their infant son.

“There is very little time,” it said, gravely, in a Beijing-accented voice that emanated somewhere on its glossy chest, well below the sharply pointed beak. “Others have sniffed the same suspicions that brought me here, drawn by your indiscreet queries about selling a gleaming, egglike stone, with moving shapes within.”

To illustrate what it meant by others, the bird-thing scraped one metallic talon along the scaly flank of a large, robotic snake—the other interloper, that had climbed the crumbling walls and slithered across the roof of this once-lavish beachfront house, slipping into the shorestead shelter and terrifying Mei Ling, while Bin was away on his ill-fated expedition to Shanghai East. Fortunately, the penguin-machine arrived soon after that. A brief, terrible battle ensued, leaving the false serpent torn and ruined, just before Bin returned home.

The reason for that fracas lay on the same table, shimmering with light energy that it had absorbed earlier, from sunshine. An ovoid shape, almost half a meter from tip to tip, opalescent and mesmerizing. Clearly, Bin should have been more cautious—far more cautious—making queries about this thing on the Mesh.

The penguin-shaped robot took a step toward Bin.

“Those who sent the snake-creature are just as eager as my owners are, to acquire the worldstone. I assure you they’ll be less considerate than I have been, if we are still here when they send reinforcements. And my consideration has limits.”

Though a poor man, with meager education, Bin had enough sense to recognize a veiled threat. Still, he felt reluctant to go charging off with his family, into a fading afternoon, with this entity … leaving behind, possibly forever, the little shorestead home that he and Mei Ling had built by hand, on the ruins of a seaside mansion.

“You said that the … worldstone … picks only one person to speak to.” He gestured at the elongated egg. Now that his hands weren’t in contact, it no longer depicted the clear image of a demon … or space alien. (There was a difference?) Still, the lopsided orb remained transfixing. Swirling shapes, like storm-driven clouds, seemed to roil beneath its scarred and pitted surface, shining by their own light—as if the object were a lens into another world.

“Wouldn’t your rivals have to talk to it through me?” he finished. “Just as you must?”

One rule of commerce, that even a poor man understood—you can get a better deal when more than one customer is bidding.

“Perhaps, Peng Xiang Bin,” the bird-thing replied, shifting its weight in what seemed a gesture of impatience. “On the other hand, you should not overestimate your value, or underestimate the ferocity of my adversaries. This is not a market situation, but akin to ruthless war.

“Furthermore, while very little is known about these worldstones, it is unlikely that you are indispensable. Legends suggest that it will simply pick another human counterpart—if the current one dies.”

Mei Ling gasped, seizing Bin’s left arm in a tight grip, fingernails and all. But still, his mind raced. It will say whatever it must, in order to get my cooperation. But appearances may be deceiving. The snake could have been sent by the same people, and the fight staged, in order to frighten us. That might explain why both machines showed up at about the same time.

Bin knew he had few advantages. Possibly, the robot had sensors to read his pulse, blood pressure, iris dilation, skin flush response … and lots of other things that a more educated person might know about. Every suspicion or lie probably played out across his face—and Bin had never been a good gambler, even bluffing against humans.

“I … will need—”

“Payment is in order,” the penguinoid immediately conceded. “We’ll start with a bonus of ten times your current yearly income, just for coming along, followed by a salary of one thousand New Hong Kong Dollars per month. And more is possible with good results. Perhaps much more.”

It was a princely boon, but Bin frowned, and the machine seemed to read his thoughts.

“I can tell, you are more concerned about other things, like whether you can trust us.”

Bin nodded—a tense jerk. The penguin gave a semblance of a shrug.

“As you might guess, the amount of payment I just offered is trivial to my owners, so I would have no reason to lie. But you must decide. Right now.” Again, with that faint tone of threat. Still, Bin hesitated.

“I will pack some things for the baby,” Mei Ling announced, with resolution in her voice. “We can leave all the rest. Everything.”

But the penguinoid stopped her. “I regret, wife and child cannot come. It is too dangerous. There are no accommodations and they will slow us down.” As Bin started to protest, it raised one stubby wing. “But you will not leave them to starve. I will provide part of your bonus now, in a form they can use.”

Bin blinked, staring as the machine settled down into a squat, closing its eyes and straining, almost as if it were …

With an audible grunt, it stepped back, revealing a small pellet on the tabletop. “You’ll find the funds readily accessible at any city kiosk. As I said, the amount, though large for you, is too small for my owners to care about cheating from you.”

“That is not what worries me,” Mei Ling said, though she snatched up the pellet. While her voice was husky with fear, holding Xiao-En squirming against her chest, she wore a cold, pragmatic expression. “Your masters may find it inconvenient to leave witnesses. If you get the stone—how much better if no one else knows? After … Xiang Bin departs with you … I may not live out the hour.”

I hadn’t thought of that, Bin realized, grimly. His jaw clenched. He took a step toward the table.

“Open your tutor-tablet,” the bird-thing snapped, no longer courteous. “Quickly! And speak your names aloud.”

Bin hurried to activate the little Mesh device, made for preschoolers, but the only access unit they could afford. Their link was at the minimal, FreePublic level—still, when he spoke the words, a new posting erupted from the little screen. It showed his face … and Mei Ling’s … and the worldstone … plus a few dozen characters outlining an agreement.

“Now, your wife knows no more than is already published—which is little enough. Our rivals can extract nothing else, so we have no reason to silence her. Nor will anyone else. Does that reassure?” When they nodded, the machine hurried on.

“Good. Only, by providing this reassurance, I have made our time predicament worse. Over the course of the next few minutes and hours, many new forces will notice and start to converge. So choose, Peng Xiang Bin. This instant! If you will not bring the stone, I will explode in twenty seconds, to prevent others from getting it. Agree, or flee! Sixteen … fifteen … fourteen…”

“I’ll go!”

Bin grabbed up a heavy sack and rolled the gleaming ovoid inside. The worldstone brightened, briefly, at his touch, then seemed to give up and go dark, as he stuffed in some padding and slung the bag over a shoulder. The penguinoid was already at the flap of the little tent-shelter. Bin turned …

… as Mei Ling held up their son—the one thing they both cared about, more than each other. “Thrive,” he said, with his hand upon the boy’s head.

“Survive, husband,” she commanded in turn. A moist glisten in her eye both surprised and warmed him, more than any words. Bin accepted the obligation with a hurried bow, then ducked under the flap, following the robot into the setting sun.

Halfway down the grand staircase, on the landing that Bin had turned into an indoor dock, the penguin split its belly open, revealing a small cavity and a slim, metal object within.

“Take it.”

He recognized a miniature breathing device—a mouthpiece with a tiny, insulated capsule of highly compressed air. It even had a pair of dangling gel-eyepieces. Quang Lu, the smuggler, possessed a bulkier model. Bin snatched it out of the fissure, which closed quickly, as the robot waddled to the edge, overlooking the greasy water of the Huangpu Estuary.

“Now, make speed!”

It dived in, then paused to swivel and regard Bin with beady, now luminescent eyes, watching the human’s every move.

Peng Xiang Bin took a brief, backward glance, wondering if he would ever return. He slipped in the mouthpiece and pushed the gels over his eyes. Then took the biggest plunge of his life.

SCHADENFREUDE

If and when our civilization expires, we may not even agree on the cause of death. Autopsies of empires are often inconclusive. Consider Alexander Demandt, a German historian who in the 1980s collected 210 different theories for the fall of the Roman Empire, including attacks by nomads, food poisoning, decline of Aenean character, loss of gold, vanity, mercantilism, a steepening class divide, ecological degradation, and even the notion that civilizations just get tired after a while.

Some were opposites, like too much Christian piety versus too little. Or too much tolerance of internal deviance versus the lack of it. Other reasons may have added together, piling like fatal straws on a camel’s back.

Now it’s your turn! Unlike those elitist compilers, over at the Pandora Foundation, our open-source doomsday system invites you, the public, to participate in evaluating how it’s all going to end.

Using World Model 2040 as a shared starting condition, we’ve seed-slotted a thousand general doom scenarios. Groups are already forming to team-reify them. So join one, bringing your biases and special skills. Or else, start your own doomsday story, no matter how crackpot! Is Earth running out of phlogiston? Will mole people rise out of the ground, bent on revenge? Later, we’ll let quantum comparators rank every story according to probabilities.

But for now, it’s time for old-fashioned, unmatched human imagination. So have fun! Make your best case. Convince us all that your chosen Failure Mode is the one that will bring us all down!

—from SlateZine’s “Choose Your Own Apocalypse” joshsimgame, August 2046

 

26.

COOPERATION

That first day passed, and then a tense night that he spent clutching a sleeping dolphin by moonlight, while clouds of phosphorescent plankton drifted by.

I hear that cetaceans sleep with just half their brains at a time. Jeez, how useful would that be?

Fortunately, the same selective-permeability technology that enabled his helmet to draw oxygen from the sea also provided a trickle of freshwater, filling a small reservoir near his cheek. I’ve got to buy stock in this company, he thought, making a checklist for when he was picked up tomorrow.

Only pickup did not happen—no helicopters or rescue zeps, no speedy trimarans bearing the Darktide Services logo, or even a fishing boat. The next morning and afternoon passed pretty much the same as the first, without catching sight of land. The world always felt so crowded, he thought. Now it seemed endless and unexplored.

Funny. I would have expected Lacey to fill the sky with searchers, by now. And not just his mother. Despite a reputation as a thrill-seeking playboy, Hacker had some genuine friends, a brother who would join the search, and some loyal staff. Every bit of electronics in this suit must be fried. And I must have come down way, way off course.

*   *   *

The long day that followed seemed to pass quite slowly in the company of his new friends, who alternately carried and guided him in some unknown direction.

The helmet came stocked with one small protein stick. When that was gone, Hacker added hunger to his list of complaints. But at least he wouldn’t die of thirst. As fast as his suit could filter freshwater from the surrounding sea, Hacker guzzled it down, flushing out his system and occasionally releasing fertilizer for drifting plankton to feed upon.

Gradually, his thoughts began to clear.

Was I really about to head back into the reef? I must have been delirious. Maybe had a concussion. These flipper guys saved me from myself, I guess.

Of course, Hacker had seen dolphins—especially the bottlenose type—on countless nature shows and be-theres. He even once played tag with a pair, during a diving trip near Tonga. Perhaps for that reason, he soon began noticing some strange traits shared by this group.

For example, these animals took turns making complex sounds, while glancing at each other or pointing with their beaks … almost as if they were holding a back-and-forth conversation. And he could swear they were gesturing toward him. Perhaps even sharing amused comments at his expense.

Of course it must be an illusion—probably his concussion still acting up, plus a familiar excess of imagination. Everyone knew that scientists had finally determined the intelligence of Tursiops truncatus dolphins, after a century of exaggerations and wishful thinking. They were, indeed, very bright animals—about chimpanzee equivalent, with some basic linguistic cleverness—and they were true masters of underwater sound. But it had also been proved, at long last, that they possessed no true speech of their own. Not even matching the abilities of a human two-year-old.

And yet, after watching a mother dolphin and her infant chase a big octopus into its stony lair, Hacker sensed with his jaw implant as the two certainly seemed to converse. The baby’s quizzical squeaks alternated with slow repetitions from the parent. Hacker felt sure a particular syncopated popping meant “octopus.”

Occasionally, one of the creatures would point its bulbous brow toward Hacker, and suddenly the implant in his jaw pulse-clicked like mad, making his teeth rattle. In fact, it almost sounded like the code that space-divers like him used to communicate with their capsules, after getting their eardrums clamped for flight. For lack of anything else to do, Hacker concentrated on those vibrations in his jaw. Our regular hearing isn’t meant for this world, he realized. All it does is make things murky.

It was all very interesting, and of course this would make a great tale, after he was rescued. But as some sharpness returned to his brain, Hacker wondered.

Am I getting any closer to shore?

And don’t these creatures ever get hungry?

He got his answer about an hour later.

Out of the east, there arrived a big dolphin who appeared to be snarled in a terrible tangle of some kind. At first, Hacker thought it might be a mat of seaweed. Then he recognized a fishing net—a ropy mesh that wound around the whole back section of its body, down to the flukes. The sight provoked an unusual sentiment in Hacker—pity, combined with guilt over what human negligence had done to the poor animal.

He slid his emergency knife from its sheath and moved toward the victim, aiming to cut it free. But another dolphin intervened, swimming in front of Hacker to block him.

“Hey, calm down. I’m just trying to help!” he complained …

… then stared as other members of the group approached the snared one and grabbed the net along its trailing edge. Backpedaling with careful kicks of their flukes, they pulled away as the “victim” rolled round and round. The net unwrapped smoothly, neatly, without any snarls, till about twenty meters stretched almost straight and the big dolphin swam free, apparently unharmed.

Other members of the pod swarmed in, grabbing edges of the net with their jaws, holding it open. Then, Hacker saw some of the younger members of the pod dash away. He watched in awe while they circled in a wide arc, beyond a school of fish that had been grazing peacefully above a bank of coral in the distance. The young cetaceans began darting toward the silvery throng—apparently a breed of mullet—causing the multitude to pulse and throb, moving en masse away from its tormentors.

Beaters! Hacker recognized the hunting technique. They’re driving the whole school toward the net! But how did they ever—

He watched, awed, as the entire clan of dolphins moved with a kind of teamwork that only came from experience, some of them chasing fish, while others manipulated the harvesting tool, till about a quarter of the school wriggled and writhed within its folds. At which point, they let the survivors swim away.

It was time to take a breather, literally, as bottlenose figures took turns darting for the surface. Then, one by one, each member of the pod approached the netted swarm and expertly inserted a narrow beak between strands of netting, in order to snare a tasty meal. This went on a while, taking turns breathing, eating, holding the net …

… until satiation set in, and play took a higher priority. One trio of youngsters began tossing a poor fish back and forth between them. Another pair nosed through the silty bottom, harassing a ray. Meanwhile, elders of the pod tidied up by carefully stretching the net, then rolling it back around the original volunteer, who thereupon sped off to the east, apparently unhampered by his burden.

Well I’m a blue-nose gopher, Hacker mused.

A number of dead or dying mullet still floated around. Hacker was only gradually recovering from his sense of astonishment, when one of his rescuers approached with a fish clutched in its jaws. It made offering motions …

Hacker remembered his own hunger. It ought to taste like sushi, he thought, realizing just how far he was from the ancestral-human world of cooking flames …

… and that brought on, unbidden, a sudden thought of his mother. Especially one time that Lacey had tried to explain her passionate interest in seeking other life worlds out there in space, spending half a billion dollars of her own money on the search. “One theory holds that most Gaia-type planets out there ought to have even more surface area covered by ocean than Earth’s seventy percent, which could mean that creatures like brainy whales or squid are far more common than us hands-and-fire types. Which could help explain a lot.”

Hacker hadn’t paid close attention, at the time. That was her obsession, after all, not his. Still, he regretted not spending the time to listen and understand. Anyway, poor Lacey was probably worried sick, by now.

Focusing on the moment—and his hunger—he swam closer to the dolphin, reaching for the offered meal.

Only it yanked the fish back at the last moment, repeating a staccato beat of sound. Hacker quashed a resurgence of frustration and anger, even though it was hard.

“Try to stop, when you’re in danger of overreacting,” his one-time therapist used to urge, before he fired her. “Always consider a possibility—that there may be a reason for what’s happening. Something other than villainy.”

His implant repeated the rhythm, as the dolphin brought its jaw forward again, offering the juicy prize once more.

It’s trying to teach me, he realized.

“Is that the pulse code for fish?” he asked, knowing the helmet would project his voice, but never expecting the creature to grasp spoken English.

To his amazement, the dolphin shook its head.

No.

Pretty emphatically no.

“Uh.” He blinked a few times, then continued. “Does it mean ‘food’? ‘Eat’? ‘Wash up before dinner’? ‘Welcome stranger’?”

An approving beat greeted his final guess, and the dolphin flicked the tooth-pocked mullet toward Hacker, who felt suddenly ravenous. He tore the fish apart, stuffing bits of it through his helmet’s narrow chowlock, caring very little about salt water squirting in, along with chunks of red flesh.

Welcome stranger? he pondered. That’s mighty abstract for a dumb beast to say. Though I’ll admit, it’s friendly.

ENTROPY

In his prescient novel The Cool War, Frederik Pohl showed a chillingly plausible failure mode, in which our nations and factions do not dare wage open conflict, and so settle upon tit-for-tat patterns of reciprocal sabotage, each attempting to ruin the other’s infrastructure and economy. Naturally, this sends civilization on a slow death spiral of degrading hopes.

Sound depressing? It makes one wonder—what fraction of the “accidents” that we see have nothing to do with Luck?

Oh sure, there are always conspiracy theories. Superefficient engines that were kept off the market by greedy energy companies. Disease cures, suppressed by profit-hungry pharmaceutical giants. Knaves, monopolists and fat cats who use intellectual property to repress knowledge growth, instead of spurring it on.

But those dark rumors don’t hold a candle to this one—that we’re sliding toward despair because all the efforts of good, skilled men and women are for naught. Their labors are deliberately spiked, because some ruling elites see themselves engaged in a secret struggle on our behalf. And this tit-for-tat, negative-sum game is all about the most dismal human pastime.

War.

Pandora’s Cornucopia

 

27.

EMISSARY

“We’ve reconsidered the matter, Lacey. Given that poor Hacker is still missing at sea, we should not impose on your time of worry. It won’t be necessary for you to fly to our upcoming meeting of the clade, so far away from the search for your son. We’ll manage, even though we’ll miss your wisdom in Zurich.”

I’ll bet, Lacey thought, pondering the stately blonde who was portrayed seated in front of her, full-sized, through a top quality threevee holistube. Unlike their earlier exchange, back at the Chilean observatory, images now went both ways, between plush, high-security communications lounges in two far-apart branches of the Salamander Club—one of them perched high upon the Alps and the other here in Charleston, where magnolia scents wafted indoors on waves of sultry, junglelike heat, despite a double-seal entrance. Both rooms were decorated so similarly that the seam, separating real from depiction, was easy to ignore. It felt as if the women were chatting across a gap of two meters, not thousands of kilometers.

Security from eavesdropping came the same way as before—using twinned parrot brains as uncrackable encoding devices. Only now, the birds at each end were neuroplugged directly to elaborate transmission systems, allowing more sophisticated use of cephalo-paired encryption. This high-fidelity image helped Lacey read cues in the other woman’s expression. She didn’t need any sophisticated facial analysis program.

Sympathy is only an excuse, Helena. Deliberation is over. The peers have already reached a decision about the Prophet’s proposal, haven’t they? And you know it’s one I’d fuss about.

Testing that hypothesis, she ventured: “Maybe I should come anyway. I’ve hired skilled people to handle the rescue effort. If I hang around, I’ll just get in the way. Or else wilt in this damned humidity. A distraction might help pull my mind away from fretting—”

Transit delay was negligible as Helena duPont-Vonessen interrupted.

“Our thought exactly, dear. A diversion from worry may be just the thing. Hence, we do have a task for you. One that should engage your intellect far better than visiting a bunch of stodgy trillionaire gnomes.” Helena smiled at her own disarming jest. “Also, it will keep you much closer to the scene, in case the searchers find … in case they have need of you.”

Lacey felt her mind veer away from the icy place where she kept anguish over her missing son. That helped propel her the other way, into cool, analytical examination of Helena’s true meaning.

She doesn’t even suggest that I send a surrogate or representative to the meeting in Switzerland. She wants to deflect me to another topic altogether.

“Oh? And what task would you have in mind?” Lacey asked.

“To represent the First Estate—or, at least, our part of it—at the Artifact Conference in Washington. To be our eyes and ears, at this historic and disruptive event.

“After all, Lacey, isn’t this right up your alley? An abrupt culmination of everything you’ve dreamed about—contact with extraterrestrial life? Who, among all the members of our class, is better qualified to grasp the issues and implications?”

Lacey almost responded with irritation. Helena was offering her boffin work … almost like some big-domed hireling from the Fifth Estate.

Of course, it was also enticing.

Helena knows me. I’d love a chance to see this famous emissary probe from outer space.

But that wasn’t the point. Her aristocratic peers already had plenty of boffins hard at work on this very topic—either at the Artifact Conference in Washington or closely watching the data feeds—producing digested summaries and advice papers about the implications of an alien Message in a Bottle. Implications to the planet. To a teetering social compact. And to those sitting at the top of an unstable social pyramid.

They have decided already, Lacey realized, interpreting plenty from the other woman’s terse wording and guarded visage. This news of contact with an interstellar civilization must have tipped them over, uniting the leading families in consensus. They are just as upset and panic-ridden as those dopey demonstrators in a hundred cities, calling for the Livingstone Object to be destroyed.

Only, trillionaires didn’t join demonstrations. Lacey’s fellow patricians had other ways of taking action.

They’ve decided to join Tenskwatawa, the Prophet, she realized. And his Renunciation Movement.

Of course, she knew what that meant. Another surge in anti-intellectualism, fostered by populist politicians and mass media—at least, the portions that were controlled by two thousand powerful families. An ancient trick in the human playbook; get the masses lathered up in fear of “outsiders”—and what better outsiders than outright aliens? Whip up enough dread and the mob will gladly follow some elite, pledging fealty to men and women on horseback. Or yacht-back. Vesting them with power.

Lacey didn’t object to that part. Even before she met Jason, her parents and tutors had explained the obvious—that people aren’t naturally democratic. Feudalism was the prevalent human condition erupting in all eras and cultures, since history began to be recorded on clay tablets. Even in modern films and popular culture, the theme resonated. Millions who were descended from enlightenment revolutionaries, now devoured tales about kings, wizards, and secret hierarchies. Superheroes and demigods. Celebrities, august families, and inherited privilege.

This campaign in the media went way back. Subsidized court sages, from Confucius to Plato to Machiavelli, from Leni Riefenstahl to Hannah Niti, all warned against mob rule, preaching for noble authoritarianism. In his one and only book—circulated only within the clade—Jason compiled convincing arguments for newblesse oblige …

… though Lacey still wondered, now and then. Would either of them have found the case so compelling, if they weren’t already members of the topmost caste? The platonic crust?

Oh, no question, the species and planet would be better off guided by a single aristocracy, than by a fractious horde of ten billion short-tempered, easily-frightened “citizens” armed with nuclear and biological weapons. Government-by-the-people wasn’t her reason for being in love with the Enlightenment. Democracy was an unfortunate and potentially toxic side effect of the thing she really valued.

The peers think they’ll use Tenskwatawa as a tool to regain control. But this new wave of populist conservatism … this Renunciation Movement … is no brainless reflex, like in the century’s early years. No spasm of rural religiosity, easily steered by plutocrat puppeteers. Not this time. Nor will the Prophet’s followers be satisfied with just lip service to their cause. Not anymore.

Though it had only been a few seconds, Helena grew visibly uncomfortable with Lacey’s thoughtful pause.

“So, will you do this for us? We’ll supply whatever staff and ai resources you’ll need, of course.”

“Of course. And that would include—?”

“Well. All the linguistic feeds and any experts you desire.”

“And simulation tools? For projection-analysis of social repercussions, all that?”

“Absolutely, the very best available.”

Really? It was all Lacey could do, not to arch an eyebrow skeptically. The latest versions that you and the inner circle use?

Anyone outside of the clade—which meant 99.9996 percent of humanity (almost exactly)—would have called Lacey part of any “inner circle.” It went beyond mere wealth and its ability to buy influence. Family also mattered. Especially as the generation of self-made moguls in China, Russia, and the Americas departed, leaving their fortunes to privilege-born heirs, letting the old logic of bloodlines reassert itself. And yet, Lacey knew—despite her marriage to Jason, and the way her own parents helped stave off the Bigger Deal—even those ties never guaranteed real power. Or being truly in the know.

You still wondered, always—who are the real Illuminati? Those who know the really big secrets? The fellows who have the dirt and can blackmail even the most idealistic politicians. Those discreetly pulling strings and playing the world’s people—yes, including me—like pieces on a chessboard?

Does even Helena wonder about that?

When it came to most of the scions, princes, sheiks, and neolords whom Lacey knew—many of them convinced they were high intellects, because sycophants had flattered them and given them high marks at Oxbridge—well, one had to hope and pray that none of them was a secret string puller! Surely, any cabal of aristocratic titans ought to be smarter, by far.

Could it be that they don’t exist? Perhaps every part of the aristocracy thinks that someone else is really guiding affairs?

Lacey wasn’t sure which possibility felt more frightening. A cryptic superelite of mighty meddlers, working their will beyond her sight … or else that things actually were as they seemed, a mélange of cartels and “Estates,” of impudent guilds and impotent legacy nations, plus a bewildering fog of “smart” citizen-mobs and ephemerally frightening ais … all desperately tugging at the tiller, with the result that no one was really steering the ship. Nobody at all.

She answered, carefully.

“Hm. I … suppose some top ai tools would help. Can I access the Quantum Eye in Riyadh?”

Helena blinked, shifting back in her chair. This request went a bit further than diverting one crackpot old lady from bigger matters.

“I … I can approach the Riyadhians. Though, as you know, they tend to be a bit—”

“Suspicious? But aren’t they fully committed members of our clade? So, if there’s consensus that my mission is important—”

She left the sentence hanging. And it worked. Helena nodded.

“I don’t expect that will be a problem, Lacey. My factotum will contact yours about details. Only now, I am so sorry, but I must run. The Bogolomovs are arriving, and you know how much they love ceremony. They actually think they’re czars or boyars or something, complete with a family tree made of fairy dust and forged DNA!”

Helena chuckled demurely, then straightened and met Lacey’s eyes, with a level gaze of apparently sincere affection.

“Please accept our blessings, dear one. Our prayers are with you, for Hacker to be found and safely returned to you.”

Lacey thanked the younger woman, with all the back-and-forth that it took to bring polite conversation to a close. Only, her heart wasn’t in it. And, after the holistube went blank, she was left in silence, sitting in the leather-trimmed lounge, feeling miserable. Alone.

First, Jason has to go racing toward the nearest disaster area on Awfulday, instead of staying sensibly away from danger, becoming an iconic hero of newblesse oblige … as if that sort of honor ever did a widow any good …

… then Hacker goes hurtling himself into space—exhibiting all of Jason’s bravado without any of the showy responsibility …

… and now it comes to this. I am being cauterized by my peers. Set aside. Removed from deliberations that might affect the shape of civilization for generations to come. All because—with good reason—they fear I’ll be unhappy about their choice.

Shall I resign? Maybe join one of the other coalitions of do-gooder rich?

There were plenty of those, some of them more suitable for a philanthropist with her science-loving bent. Tech billionaires and first-generation entrepreneurs, fizzing with excitement over the Havana Artifact. Some, she knew well, as cosponsors of her Farseeker Telescope. Not all of the superwealthy were superreactionary. Not even a majority.

But those other rich folk tended to act as individuals or in small groups, pursuing personal passions and separate interests. The same fetish for uniqueness that had made them affluent prevented any action in concert. Not even the wary, tentative grouping that called itself the Naderites.

None of them—separately or all together—could match the influence, power, or Machiavellian ruthlessness of the clade.

If I step outside, I’ll join the billions. Those to whom history happens … instead of ordering it up, like a meal on a plate.

*   *   *

“There ought to be signs of intelligent life everywhere, madam, truly,” the showman-scientist crooned, his low, rich voice spiced with a velvety Jamaican accent.

“Ancient aliens—so-very smaart—should have preceded us by eons, sprouting corn all across our so-bright galaxy, even before the sun was born, filling the cosmos with culture and upfull conversation.

“Hence, it be fretful-puzzling, even long-back when we first began looking for signs of technological civilization, that this welcoming cosmos seem sparse. Indeed, with only one proved example of sapient life—us!”

Profnoo gestured with both hands, rocking his oversize head so avidly that each of his super-elongated earlobes rattled against thick collar ruffles. He swept them back to join the twitching, multibraided draidlocks of cybactivated hair that served as both antennae-receivers and his public trademark—though he was only the best known of a dozen science supertainers who came from that gifted little island.

“I know that,” Lacey sighed. She didn’t need a razzle-artist astronomer to lay out—for a thousandth time—the dismal logic of the Fermi Paradox. Yet, Professor Noozone proceeded to do just that, perhaps out of eagerness to impress his patron. Or else, practicing a riff for his weekly audience.

“See here now.” The professor pointed to a holistank that showed some kind of primeval sea, with meteors flashing overhead. “Precursors of life appear to emerge anywhere that you have a flow of energy, plus a dozen basic elements immersed in liquid—not just water, but almost any kind of liquid at all! And not only on planets with surface oceans! But ten times as many little worlds that have seas, roofed with icy covers, like Europa, Enceladus, Miranda, Tethys, Titan, Oberon…”

She wanted to interrupt. To get the man back onto the topic of the Artifact. But Lacey knew that any expression of outright disapproval might quash him too much. In order to be wielded effectively, power had to wear gloves—a lesson she had tried, in vain, to teach her short-tempered son.

Anyway, the situation with Professor Noozone was entirely her own fault.

It serves me right, for choosing an adviser with the brain of a Thorne or a Koonin, but with the insecure ego of a Bollywood star and the put-on reggae drawl of a rastaman.

Bulging implants throbbed just under the skin of Profnoo’s broad forehead, above dark, glinting eyes. The effect—totally intentional—made his cranium seem preternaturally large. Like an overinflated soufflé.

At least he doesn’t feel a need to lay the accent too thick, when he’s talking to me alone. Though his vowels were stretched and every “th” dropped into a “d” or “t” sound, she felt grateful that he wasn’t peppering in very many island slang expressions. In public, or on his shows, Profnoo can be hard to follow without subtitles!

Professor Noozone caused more images to dance about, with flourishes of a hand. “Indeed, our … your … earlier farseeker telescopes did find traces of life out there, on half a dozen planets! Those worlds, so far, proved disappointing. None of them exactly New Zion. Then there’s the next step. For life to rise-up an’ get smaart, an’ then technology-capable.

“Countless arguments have fumed and smoked over how much of a fluke it was, here on Earth, for humans to leap so far, so fast. And, if there very-truly are older races out there, how best to look for them. Does the lack of garish tutorial beacons mean there are no Elder Races out there, after all?

But, irie. Of course, the arrival of the Livingstone Object seems to have settled that!” He chuckled with the satisfaction of someone whose side had proved right, after a century of debate.

“By the Artifact’s mere existence, and the plurality of alien types that it contains, we may conclude that we are surrounded by an upfull multitude of advanced civilizations! Their invitation to come-ya ‘join us’ … to become members of some maarvelous community of star-bredren … has already thrilled and inspired billions across our lonely planet. Though the prospect may disturb a few downpressing ginnygogs an’ trogs who are terrified of change.”

Profnoo seemed unaware of Lacey’s ironic grimace, or her conflicted loyalties. By personality, she ought to share his forward-looking eagerness. If not for her worries about Hacker, she, too, might have been fizzing about the prospect of First Contact. (Though she would express it with more reserve than the super-extrovert in front of her.)

On the other hand, her caste—her peers in the top aristocracy—foresaw little good coming out of this. Even if the alien device represented a benign and advanced federation that was both generous and wise, the psychological disruption could spur fresh waves of anxiety, paranoia, or covetous wrath. With interstellar trade relations might come wave after wave of wondrous new technologies. Some hazardous? Even the most benign might shake an already tenuous economy, throwing whole sectors into obsolescence, putting hundreds of millions out of work, not to mention spoiling many investment portfolios.

No wonder this spurred a climax to long negotiations between the clade and Tenskwatawa’s renunciation movement. Few cultures ever managed to transition after contact with superior outsiders, without generations of intimidation and victimhood. Meiji-era Japan did it. And their method was not democracy.

But Lacey pulled her thoughts back to the present. The science-showman on her payroll was continuing his rapid-fire explication, never slacking momentum.

“… even that still leaves us awash in puzzles! We can only hope the Artifact Commission overcomes all linguistic barriers. Especially now that dem lagga heads will finally allow me … and you, of course, madam … close enough to ask questions!”

“So, what should we ask first, Professor?”

“Oh, there are so many things. For example, the mere existence of the Artifact, here on Earth, proves—irie—that interstellar travel is possible!”

Assuming, again, that it’s not a hoax, Lacey pondered, while noting that Profnoo still had not mentioned an actual question.

“True, we haven’t yet learned how the object crossed the vast gulf between the stars. But from the fact that it exists in a purely crystalline-solid state—tallowah an’ sturdy—I be wagering a whole-heap that the propulsion methodology wasn’t gentle! Perhaps a truly prodigious accelerator-cannongun fired it to near relativistic speeds. Or else, maybe its compact dimensions allowed slick passage through an obeah-generated wormhole, requiring the energy of a superdupernova! I-mon have done some rudimentary calculations—”

“Professor. Please. Can you stick to the point?”

“Ah, yes. The Invitation.” He nodded. “Do bear with me, Madam Donaldson-Sander, I-and-I will get to it! For, you see, even the possibility of interstellar travel was denied for eighty years by the cult of SETI. When their program of sky worship found nothing out there at all, they trotted out the same excuse. Just a little more time. Patience—and ever-more sophisticated-bashy gear—would eventually find the needle in the haystack … that wise, elder race they hoped for!”

Huh. Lacey couldn’t help getting caught up in the spell he wove. Noozone had amassed his own fortune out of millions of micropayments, as people zigged-in to view and tactail his leaping, explanatory extravaganzas. Though some just liked his snakelike draidlocks, wafting and stirring clouds of ambiguous, colored smoke.

“Alas, interstellar travel changes everything. If advanced star-mon can deepvoyage an’ colonize, then needles make copies of themselves. Colonies send out their own expeditions, spreading an’ filling the haystack!

“But we saw no fabulous Others. Nor any huge engineering projects that we may someday build, if we become a truly bold and successful civilization. Antimatter-spaceships, vaast solar collectors, Dyson spheres, and Kardashev worksheds that lace multiple star systems, all of them detectable.…” Profnoo had to gasp and catch his breath.

“And it gets worse! Earth itself would show signs, if visitors ever flushed a toilet here, or tossed a Coke bottle into our Paleozoic sea. My oh, geologists and paleobiologists would see in our rocks, the very moment when extraterrestrial bacteria arrived! Nuh true?

“No. Something was wrong with the old SETI logic. Till this marvel-stoosh Galactic Artifact turned up. Only now…” He lifted a finger—and one of his mentally activated draidlocks wafted also.

“Now, it seems that life is fairly common—and—

“—sapient life, capable of technology, is not rare—and—

“—some form of interstellar travel appears to be possible—and—

“—a peaceful community already exists that…”

Lacey raised a hand of her own, cutting him off with four braids and four fingers lifted in the air. Glancing out the window, she had noticed that the yacht bearing them from Charleston to Washington was cruising rapidly up the Potomac. Soon, they’d pass the zeppelin port and the Awfulday Memorial, before finally docking at the Naval Research Lab. Not that she minded traveling this way. Shipboard facilities let her stay in constant linkup with the rescue effort, searching for her son. But it was time to start winding this up.

“All right, then. Suppose there is a Galactic Federation we’re invited to join. Doesn’t that conflict with everything you just described? Especially the sparse cosmos that we observed, till now?”

“It would seem so, madam.” Profnoo’s earlobe rings and beaded locks clattered as he nodded. “So, where’s the overlap in conceptual space? Between the previous, downpressing appearance of meager sapience, and what we now know to be its high, upfull frequency?”

The man’s unquenchable zeal to speculate did not bother her. Vivid and aromatic, Profnoo made his intellectual frenzy into something unabashedly masculine. Frankly, his flirtatious attention—laced with rousing scientific jargon—filled some of the void in Lacey that used to be occupied by sex.

“Apparently, dem use crystal capsules instead of radio! I suppose interstellar pellets are easy, cheap, and relatively fast.” He chuckled, though Lacey found the jest rather lame. “They also allow aliens to travel as surrogates—as complete downloaded personalities. Indeed, this may prove my conjecture about networks of connection-wormholes!”

Or else, they may avoid radio because they know something that we don’t, Lacey pondered. Perhaps they deem it unwise to draw attention to their home worlds. Because something out there makes it dangerous. The thought gave her a shiver, especially since Planet Earth had been anything but quiet, for the last hundred years or so.

“But, madam, just picture the long odds that this particular crystal—this Artifact—had to beat, when dem just happened to drift within reach of that astronaut’s garbage collecting bola-tether. Without any visible means to maneuver! A fluke? Or might there be others out there?”

Lacey nodded. That may explain why Great China, India, the U.S., the E-Union and A-Union have all announced new space endeavors. I should assign some agents—real and spyware—to learn more about these missions.

Something about the notion of “other artifacts” tickled the edge of her imagination.

Why only out there? Indeed …

But the thought eluded her, skittering away as the yachtmaster’s amplified voice reverberated. It was time to stop for inspection at the security cordon near the Naval Research Center. Captain Kohl-Fennel had already made arrangements, of course. The pause would be brief. Lacey shrugged.

“You were talking about contradictions, Professor. How to explain why we saw no traces of intelligence before, in a universe that now turns out to be filled with sapient life.”

“Yes … it be a puzzlement.” His dense, expressive lips pursed. “The use of something other than radio for communications may solve part of the conundrum. Another contributor may be some kind of Zoo Hypothesis.”

This one she knew well. “The idea that young races like ours are held in quarantine. Deliberately kept in the dark.”

“Yes, madam. Many possible motives have been offered, for why elder races might do such a dread thing. Fear of ‘human aggression’ is one old-but-implausible theory. Or a ‘noninterference directive’ leaves new races alone, even if it deprives them of answers they need, to survive.” Profnoo shook his head, clearly disliking that explanation.

“Or aliens may stay silent to sift our broadcasts an’ surf our networks, gathering our culture—art, music, and originalities—without paying anything in return! I call it the Cheapskate Thief Hypothesis. And it does vex me, truly, to think they may be such blackheart mon! First thing I plan to ask these beings? What intellectual property laws they have! Interstellar peace and friendship be fine … but kill-mi-dead if I don’ want my royalties!”

Lacey chuckled politely, since he seemed to expect it. In fact, Profnoo’s eyes had a glint as he hurriedly waggled notes in the air, caching this idea for his show.

Inwardly, she wondered, Would it have been better, if this all took place out of public view?

The professor assumes that citizenship in some galactic federation will involve expanded rights and privileges. But what if aliens exact a price for admission? Changes in our social structure or government? Or beliefs? Might they demand something tangible, in exchange for knowledge and trade? Like precious substances?

Lacey had once seen a humor magazine cynically explain why the U.S. government would both suppress medical advances and quash the truth about ET visitors—because officials were selling fuel for the aliens’ “cancer drive engines.”

But no. UFO scenarios were mental slumming.

More likely, they want access to cheap Earthling labor, outsourcing work to our teeming masses. Grunt toil their own citizens and robots are too spoiled to perform? Software can travel between the stars, so will Earth become the new coding sweatshop? Or intergalactic call center?

Lacey realized, If this contact episode had taken place behind closed doors … our elite talking to theirs … then we’d have had an option. The possibility of saying—“No thanks. No deal. Not now.

“Not yet.

“Maybe not ever.”

It frankly shocked Lacey, the path her thoughts had taken. Where was the zealot who spent her adult life pursuing this very thing—First Contact? When push came to shove, was she as conservative and reluctant as all the rest?

Why do I have the creepy feeling there’s going to be a catch?

She was still in that dour mood when Professor Noozone helped guide her down a ramp leading from the yacht to where several fresh-faced young men and women in starched uniforms waited to salute and greet her. It was a clear day. Beyond the zep port—with flying cranes bustling among the giant, bobbing freighters—she could make out the remade Washington Monument and the pennants of New Smithsonian Castle. But even those sights didn’t lift her spirit.

While servants brought the luggage and Profnoo’s scientific supplies, Lacey made sure to shake hands with her hosts, one by one. She tried to quash a bitter—and irrational—feeling of anger that sailors should be standing here, instead of helping right now in the search for her son, missing at sea. Of course, only fatigue could provoke such an awful resentment.

I can’t help it though. Underneath all the turmoil about rocks from space, beyond the scientific puzzles and philosophical quandaries I am, after all, a mother.

“The reception for our distinguished Advisory Panel will start soon, madam,” said Lacey’s assigned guide, a bright-looking ensign, who seemed a little like Hacker. “I’ll take you first to your guest quarters, so you can freshen—”

The young officer abruptly gasped as his face took an orange cast, flinching backward from some surprise that he saw, beyond Lacey’s shoulder. Others reacted, too, cringing or raising hands before their eyes.

“Bumboclot!” Professor Noozone cursed.

Lacey turned to find out what caused the flaring glow, when sound caught up with light—a low, rumbling boom accompanied a palpable push of displaced air. Thoughts of Awfulday raced through her mind—as they must have through everyone else.

But then, why am I still on my feet? she wondered until, turning, Lacey saw a globular gout of flame roiling in the sky beyond the Pentagon, some distance upriver, maybe in Virginia. The setting sun made it hard to see clearly, but the fireball faded quickly and she realized with some relief—it couldn’t be anything as terrible as a nuke. Not even a small one.

That comfort was tempered though, when there followed another detonation. And then another. And she knew that, when it came to explosions, size wasn’t everything.

RENUNCIATORS

What about the notion of “inevitable progress”?

Decades ago, author Charles Stross urged that—even if you think a marvelous Singularity Era is coming, you shouldn’t let it affect your behavior, or alter your sober urgency to solve current problems.

“The rapture of the nerds, like space colonization, is likely to be a nonparticipatory event for 99.999 percent of humanity—unless we’re very unlucky,” Stross wrote. “If it happens and it’s interested in us, all our plans go out the window. If it doesn’t happen, sitting around waiting for the ais to save us from the rising sea level/oil shortage/intelligent bioengineered termites looks like a Real Bad Idea.

“The best approach to the singularity is to apply Pascal’s Wager—in reverse—and plan on the assumption it won’t save us from ourselves.”

—from The Movement Revealed by Thormace Anubis-Fejel

 

28.

THE SMART-MOB

Washington was like a geezer—overweight and sagging—but with attitude. Most of its gutty heft lay below the Beltway, in waistlands that had been downwind on Awfulday.

Downwind, but not out.

When droves of upper-class child-bearers fled the invisible plumes enveloping Fairfax and Alexandria, those briefly empty ghost towns quickly refilled with immigrants—the latest mass of teemers, yearning to be free and willing to endure a little radiation, in exchange for a pleasant five-bedroom that could be subdivided into nearly as many apartments. Spacious living rooms began a second life as storefronts. Workshops took over four-car garages and lawns turned into produce gardens. Swimming pools made excellent refuse bins—until government recovered enough to start cracking down.

Passing overhead, Tor could track signs of suburban renewal from her first-class seat aboard the Spirit of Chula Vista. Take those swimming pools. A majority of the kidney-shaped cement ponds now gleamed with clear liquid—mostly water (as testified by the spectral scanning feature of her tru-vu spectacles)—welcoming throngs of children who splashed under summertime heat, sufficiently dark-skinned to unflinchingly bear the bare sun.

So much for the notion that dirty bombs automatically make a place unfit for breeders, she thought. Let yuppies abandon perfectly good mansions because of a little strontium dust. People from Congo and Celebes were happy to insource.

Wasn’t this America? Call it resolution—or obstinacy—but after three rebuilds, the Statue of Liberty still beckoned.

The latest immigrants, those who filled Washington’s waistland vacuum, weren’t ignorant. They could read warning labels and health stats, posted on every lamppost and VR level. So? More people died in Jakarta from traffic or stray bullets. Anyway, mutation rates dropped quickly, a few years after Awfulday, to levels no worse than Kiev. And Washington had more civic amenities.

Waistlanders also griped a lot less about minor matters like zoning. That made it easier to acquire rights of way, repioneering new paths back into unlucky cities that had been dusted. Innovations soon turned those transportation hubs into boomtowns. An ironic twist to emerge from terror/sabotage. Especially when sky trains began crisscrossing North America.

Through her broad window, traveling east aboard the Spirit of Chula Vista, Tor gazed across a ten-mile separation to the Westbound Corridor, where long columns of cargo zeppelins lumbered in the opposite direction, ponderous as whales and a hundred times larger. Chained single-file and heavily laden, the dirigibles floated barely three hundred meters above the ground, obediently trailing teams of heavyduty draft-locomotives. Each towing cable looked impossibly slender for hauling fifty behemoths across a continent. But while sky trains weren’t fast, or suited for bulk materials, they beat any other method for transporting medium-value goods.

And passengers. Those willing to trade a little time for inexpensive luxury.

Tor moved her attention much closer, watching the Spirit’s majestic shadow flow like an eclipse over rolling suburban countryside, so long and dark that flowers would start to close and birds might be fooled to roost, pondering nightfall. Free from any need for engines of her own, the skyliner glided almost silently over hill and dale. Not as quick as a jet, but more scenic—free of carbon levies or ozone tax—and far cheaper. Setting her tru-vus to magnify, she followed the Spirit’s tow cable along the Eastbound Express Rail, pulled relentlessly by twelve thousand horses, courtesy of the deluxe maglev tug, Umberto Nobile.

What was it about a lighter-than-air craft that drew the eye? Oh, certainly most of them now had pixelated, tunable skins that could be programmed for any kind of spectacle. Passing near a population center—even a village in the middle of nowhere—the convoy of cargo zeps might flicker from one gaudy advertisement to the next, for anything from a local gift shop to the mail-order wares of some Brazilian bloat-corp. At times, when no one bid for the display space, a chain of dirigibles might tune their surfaces to resemble clouds … or flying pigs. Whim, after all, was another modern currency. Everyone did it on the VR levels.

Only with zeppelins, you could paint whimsical images across a whole stretch of the real sky.

Tor shook her head.

But no. That wasn’t it. Even bare and gray, they could not be ignored. Silent, gigantic, utterly calm, a zep seemed to stand for a kind of grace that human beings might build, but never know in their own frenetic lives.

*   *   *

She was nibbling at one of her active-element fingernails—thinking about Wesley, waiting at the skydock for her arrival, and trying to picture his face—when a voice intruded from above.

“Will you be wanting anything else before we arrive in the Federal District, madam?”

She glanced up at a servitor—little more than a boxy delivery receptacle—that clung to its own slim rail on a nearby bulkhead, leaving the walkway free for passengers.

“No, thanks,” Tor murmured automatically, a polite habit of her generation. Younger folk had already learned to snub machinery slaves, except when making clipped demands. A trend that she found odd, since the ais were getting smarter all the time.

“Can you tell me when we’re due?”

“Certainly, madam. There is a slowdown in progress due to heightened security. Hence, we may experience some delay crossing the Beltway. But there is no cause for alarm. And we remain ahead of schedule because of that tailwind across the Appalachian Mountains.”

“Hm. Heightened security?”

“For the Artifact Conference, madam.”

Tor frowned. She hoped that Wesley wouldn’t have any trouble coming to meet her. Things might be tense enough between the two of them, without this added irritant. He tended to get all lathered and indignant over being beamed and probed by agents of the pencil pushers’ guild … the civil servants assigned to checking every conceivable box and possible failure mode.

“For the Artifact Conference?” Tor’s thoughts zeroed in on something puzzling. “But that should already be taken into account. Security for the gathering shouldn’t affect our timetable.”

“There is no cause for alarm,” the servitor repeated. “We just got word, two minutes ago. An order to reduce speed, that’s all.”

Glancing outside, Tor could see the effects of slowing, in a gradual change of altitude. The Spirit’s tow cable slanted a little steeper, catching up to the ground-hugging locomotive tug.

Altitude: 359 meters said a telltale in the corner of her left tru-vu lens.

“Will you be wanting to change seats for our approach to the nation’s capital?” the servitor continued. “An announcement will be made when we come within sight of the Mall, though you may want to claim a prime viewing spot earlier. Children and first-time visitors get priority, of course.”

“Of course.”

A trickle of tourists had already begun streaming forward to the main observation lounge. Parents, dressed in bright-colored sarongs and Patagonian slacks, herded kids who sported the latest youth fashion—fake antennae and ersatz scales—imitating some of the alien personalities that had been discovered aboard the Livingstone Object also called, for some reason, the Havana Artifact. A grand conference may have been called to deliberate whether it was a genuine case of First Contact, or just another hoax. But popular culture had already cast judgment.

The Artifact was cool.

“You say an alert came through two minutes ago?” Tor wondered. Nothing had flashed yet in her peripherals. But maybe the vigilance thresholds were set too high. With a rapid series of clicks on her tooth implants, she adjusted them downward.

Immediately, crimson tones began creeping in from the edges of her specs, offering links that whiffed and throbbed unpleasantly.

Uh-oh.

“Not an alert, madam. No, no. Just preliminary, precautionary—”

But Tor’s attention had already veered. Using both clicks and subvocal commands, she sent her specs swooping through the data overlays of virtuality, following threads of a security situation. Sensors tracked every twitch of the iris, following and often anticipating her choices, while colored data-cues jostled and flashed.

“May I take away any rubbish or recycling?” asked the boxy tray on the wall. It dropped open a receptacle, like a hungry jaw, eager to be fed. The servitor waited in vain for a few moments. Then, noting that her focus lay far away, it silently folded and departed.

“No cause for alarm,” Tor muttered sardonically as she probed and sifted the dataways. Someone should have banished that cliché from the repertoire of all ai devices. No human over the age of thirty would ever hear the phrase without wincing. Of all the lies that accompanied Awfulday, it had been the worst.

Some of Tor’s favorite software agents were already reporting back from the Grid.

Koppel—the summarizer—zoomed toward public, corporate, and government feeds, collating official pronouncements. Most of them were repeating the worrisome cliché.

Gallup—her pollster program—sifted for opinion. People weren’t buying it, apparently. On a scale of one thousand, “no cause for alarm” had a credibility rating of eighteen, and dropping. Tor felt a wrench in the pit of her stomach.

Bernstein leaped into the whistle-blower circuits, hunting down gossip and hearsay. As usual, there were far too many rumors for any person—or personal ai—to trawl. Only this time, the flood was overwhelming even the sophisticated filters at the Skeptic Society. MediaCorp seemed no better; her status as a member of the Journalistic Staff only won her a queue number from Research Division and a promise of response “in minutes.”

Minutes?

It was beginning to look like a deliberate disinformation flood, time-unleashed in order to drown out any genuine tattles. Gangsters, terrorists, and reffers had learned the hard way that careful plans can be upset by some softhearted henchman, wrenched by remorseful second thoughts about innocent bystanders. Many a scheme had been spoiled by some lowly underling, who posted an anonymous squeal at the last minute. To prevent this, masterminds and ringleaders now routinely unleashed cascades of ersatz confessions, just as soon as an operation was underway—a spamming of faux regret, artificially generated, ranging across the whole spectrum of plausible sabotage and man-made disasters.

Staring at a flood of warnings, Tor knew that one or more of the rumors had to be true. But which?

Washington area Beltway defenses have already been breached by machoist suiciders infected with pulmonella plague, heading for the Capitol …

A coalition of humanist cults have decided to put an end to all this nonsense about a so-called “alien Artifact” from interstellar space.…

The U.S. president, seeking to reclaim traditional authority, is about to nationalize the D.C.-area civil militia on a pretext …

Exceptional numbers of toy airplanes were purchased in the Carolinas, this month, suggesting that a swarm attack may be in the making, just like the O’Hare Incident.…

A method has been found to convert zeppelins into flying bombs.…

Among the international dignitaries, who were invited to Washington to view the Livingstone Object, are a few who plan to …

There are times when human-neuronal paranoia can react faster than mere digital simulacra. Tor’s old-fashioned cortex snapped to attention a full five seconds before her ais, Bernstein and Columbo, made the same connection.

Zeppelins … flying bombs …

It sounded unlikely … probably distraction-spam.

But I happen to be on a zeppelin.

That wasn’t just a realization. The words formed a message. With subvocal grunts and tooth-click punctuations, Tor broadcast it far and wide. Not just to her favorite correlation and stringer groups, but to several hundred Citizen Action Networks. Her terse missive zoomed across the Net indiscriminately, calling to every CAN that had expressed interest in the zep rumor.

“This is Tor Povlov, investigative reporter for MediaCorp—credibility rating 752—aboard the passenger zep Spirit of Chula Vista. We are approaching the D.C. Beltway defense zone. That may put me at a right place-time to examine one of the reffer rumors.

“I request a smart-mob coalescence. Feedme!”

*   *   *

Disinformation, a curse with ancient roots, had been updated with ultramodern ways of lying. Machoists and other bastards might plant sleeper-ais in a million virtual locales, programmed to pop out at a preset time and spam every network with autogenerated “plausibles” … randomly generated combinations of word and tone that were drawn from recent news, each variant sure to rouse the paranoiac fears of someone.

Mutate this ten million times (easy enough to do in virtual space) and you’ll find a nerve to tweak in anyone.

Citizens could fight back, combating lies with light. Sophisticated programs compared eyewitness accounts from many sources, weighted by credibility, offering average folk tools to reforge Consensus Reality, while discarding the dross. Only that took time. And during an emergency, time was the scarcest commodity of all.

Public avowal worked more quickly. Calling attention to your own person. Saying: “Look, I’m right here, real, credible, and accountable—I am not ai—so take me seriously.”

Of course that required guts, especially since Awfulday. In the face of danger, ancient human instinct cried out: Duck and cover. Don’t draw attention to yourself.

Tor considered that natural impulse for maybe two seconds, then blared on all levels. Dropping privacy cryption, she confirmed her ticketed billet and physical presence aboard the Spirit of Chula Vista, with realtime biometrics and a dozen in-cabin camera views.

“I’m here,” she murmured, breathlessly, toward any fellow citizen whose correlation-attention ais would listen.

“Rally and feedme. Tell me what to do.”

Calling up a smart-mob was tricky. People might already be too scattered and distracted by the rumor storm. The number to respond might not reach critical mass—in which case all you’d get is a smattering of critics, kibitzers, and loudmouths, doing more harm than good. A below-zero-sum rabble—or bloggle—its collective IQ dropping, rather than climbing, with every new volunteer to join. Above all, you needed to attract a core group—the seed cell—of online know-it-alls, constructive cranks, and correlation junkies, armed with the latest coalescence software, who were smart and savvy enough to serve as prefrontals … coordinating a smart mob without dominating. Providing focus without quashing the creativity of a group mind.

“We recognize you, Tor Povlov,” intoned a low voice, conducting through her inner-ear receiver. Direct sonic induction made it safe from most eavesdropping, even if someone had a parabolic dish aimed right at her.

“We’ve lit a wik. Can you help us check out one of these rumors? One that might possibly be a whistle-blow?”

The conjoined mob voice sounded strong, authoritative. Tor’s personal interface found good credibility scores as it coalesced. An index-marker in her left peripheral showed 230 members and climbing—generally sufficient to wash out individual ego.

“First tell me,” she answered, subvocalizing. Sensors in her shirt collar picked up tiny flexings in her throat, tongue, and larynx, without any need to make actual sound. “Tell me, has anyone sniffed something unusual about the Spirit? I don’t see or hear anything strange. But some of you out there may be in a better position to snoop company status reports or shipboard operational parameters.”

There was a pause. Followed by an apologetic tone.

“Nothing seems abnormal at the public level. Company web-traffic has gone up sixfold in the last ten minutes … but the same is true all over, from government agencies to networks of amateur scientists.

“As for the zeppelin you happen to be aboard, we’re naturally interested because of its present course, scheduled shortly to moor in Washington, about the same time that a new wave of high-level delegates are arriving for the Artifact Conference.”

Tor nodded grimly, a nuance that her interface conveyed to the group mind.

“And those operational readouts?”

We can try for access by applying for a Freedom of Information writ. That will take some minutes, though. So we may have to supplement the FOIA with a little hacking and bribery. The usual. We’ll also try for some ground views of the zep.

“Leave all that to us.

“Meanwhile, there’s a little on-site checking you can do.

“Be our hands and eyes, will you, Tor?”

She was already on her feet.

“Tell me where to go…”

“Head aft, past the unisex toilet.”

“… but let’s have a consensus agreement, okay?” she added while moving. “I get an exclusive on any interviews that follow. In case this turns out to be more than…”

“There is a security hatch, next to the crew closet,” the voice interrupted. “Adjust your specs for full mob access please.”

“Done,” she said, feeling a little sheepish over the request for a group exclusive. But after all, she was supposed to be a pro. MediaCorp might be tuning in soon, examining transcripts. They would expect a professional’s attention to the niceties.

“That’s better. Now zoom close on the control pad. We’ve been joined by an off-duty zep mechanic who worked on this ship last week.”

“Look, maybe I can just call a crew member. Invoke FOIA and open it legally—”

“No time. We’ve filed for immunity as an ad hoc citizen posse. Under PA crisis rules.”

PA … for Post-Awfulday.

“Oh sure. With me standing here to take the physical rap if it’s refused.…”

“Your choice, Tor. If you’re game for it, press the keypad buttons in this order.”

A virtual image of the keypad appeared in front of Tor, overlaying the real one.

“No cause for alarm,” she muttered.

“What was that?”

“Never mind.”

Feeling somewhat detached, as if under remote control, her hand reached out to tap the proposed sequence.

Nothing happened.

“No good. They must’ve rotated the progression since our zepspert worked on that ship.”

The wikivoice mutated, sounding just a tad less cool. More individualized. A telltale indicator in her tru-vu showed that some high-credibility member of the mob was stepping up with an assertive suggestion.

“But you can tell it isn’t randomized. I bet it’s still a company-standard maintenance code. Here, try this instead.”

Coalescence levels seemed to waver only a little, so the mob trusted this component member. Tor went along, punching the pad again with the new pattern.

“Any luck getting that FOIA writ?” she asked, meanwhile. “You said it would take just a few minutes. Maybe we’d better wait…”

Procrastination met its rebuttal with a simple a click, as the access panel slid aside, revealing a slim, tubelike ladder.

Up.

No hesitation in the mob voice. Five hundred and twelve of her fellow citizens wanted her to do this. Five hundred and sixteen.…

Tor swallowed. Then complied.

*   *   *

The ladderway exposed a truth that was hidden from most passengers, cruising in cushioned comfort within the neatly paneled main compartment. Physics—especially gravity—had not changed appreciably in the century that separated the first great zeppelin era from this one. Designers still had to strive for lightness, everywhere they could.

Stepping from spindly rungs onto the cargo deck, Tor found herself amid a maze of spiderlike webbery, instead of walls and partitions. Her feet made gingerly impressions in foamy mesh that seemed to be mostly air. Stacks of luggage—all strictly weighed back in Nashville—formed bundles that resembled monstrous eggs, bound together by air-gel foam. Hardly any metal could be seen. Not even aluminum or titanium struts.

“Shall I look at the bags?” she asked while reaching into her purse. “I have an omnisniffer.”

“What model?” inquired the voice in her ear, before it changed tone by abrupt consensus. More authoritatively, it said—“Never mind. The bags were all scanned before loading. We doubt anything could be smuggled aboard. Anyway, a crew member may be checking those soon, as the alert level rises.

“But something else has come up. A rumor-tattle points to possible danger higher up. We’re betting on that one.”

“Higher?” She frowned. “There’s nothing up there except…”

Tor’s voice trailed off as a schematic played within her tru-vus, pointing aft to another ladder, this one made of ropey fibers.

Arrows shimmered in VR yellow, for emphasis.

“We finally succeeded in getting a partial feed from the Spirit’s operational parameters. And yes, there’s something odd going on.

“They are using onboard water to make lift gas, at an unusual rate.”

“Is that dangerous?”

“It shouldn’t be.

“But we may be able to find out more, if you hurry.”

She sighed, stepping warily across the spongy surface. Tor hadn’t yet spotted a crew member. They were probably also busy chasing rumors, different ones, chosen by the company’s prioritization subroutines. Anyway, a modern towed-zep was mostly automatic, requiring no pilot, engineer, or navigator. A century ago, the Hindenburg carried forty officers, stewards, and burly riggers, just to keep the ornate apparatus running and deliver the same number of paying customers from Europe to the U.S.

At twice the length, Spirit carried five times as many people, served by only a dozen human attendants.

Below her feet, passengers would be jostling for a better view of the Langley Crater, or maybe Arlington Cemetery, while peering ahead for the enduring spire of the rebuilt Washington Monument, with its tip of lunar stone. Or did some of those people already sniff an alert coming on, through their own liaison networks? Were families starting to cluster near the emergency chutes? Tor wondered if she should be doing the same.

This new ladder was something else. It felt almost alive and responded to her footstep by contracting … carrying her upward in a smooth-but-sudden jerk. Smart elastics, she realized. Fine for professionals. But most people never took a liking to ladders that twitch. The good news: It would take just a few actual footsteps at this rate, concentrating to slip her soles carefully onto one rung after the next, and worrying about what would happen when she reached the unpleasant-looking “hatch” that lay just overhead.

Meanwhile, the voice in her ear took on a strange, lilting quality. The next contribution must have come from an individual member. Someone generally appreciated.

“Come with me, higher than high,
        Dropping burdensome things.
Lighter than clouds, we can fly,
        Thoughts spread wider than wings.
Be like the whale, behemoth,
        Enormous, yet weightless beings,
Soundlessly floating, the sky
        Beckons a mammal that sings.”

Tor liked the offering. You almost wanted to earn it, by coming up with a tune …

… only the “hatch” was now just ahead, or above, almost pressing against her face. A throbbing iris of polyorganic membranes, much like the quasiliving external skin of the Spirit. Coming this close, inhaling the exudate aromas, made Tor feel queasy.

“Relax.” The voice was back to business. Probably led by the zep mechanic.

“You’ll need a command word. Touch that nub in the middle to get attention and say ‘Cinnamon.’”

“Cinnamon?”

It was only a query, but the barrier reacted instantly. With a faintly squishy sound, it dilated and the stringy stepladder resumed its programmed journey, carrying her upward.

Aboard old-time zeps, like the Hindenburg, the underslung gondola had been devoted mainly to engines and crew, while paying passengers occupied two broad decks at the base of the giant dirigible’s main body. The Spirit of Chula Vista had a similar layout, except that the gondola was mainly for show. Having climbed above all the sections designed for people and cargo, Tor now rode the throbbing ladder into a cathedral of lifter cells, each of them a vast chamber in its own right, filled with gas that was much lighter than air.

Hundreds of transparent, filmy balloons—cylindrical and tall like Sequoia trunks—crowded together, stretching from the web-floor where she stood all the way up to the arched ceiling of the Spirit’s rounded skin. Tor could only move among these towering columns along four narrow paths leading port or starboard … fore or aft. The arrow in her specs suggested port, without pulsing insistence. Most members of the smart-mob had never been in a place like this. Curiosity—the strongest modern craving—formed more of these ad hoc groups than any other passion.

Heading in the suggested direction, Tor could not resist reaching out, touching some of the tall cells, their polymer surfaces quivering like the giant bubbles that she used to create with toy wands, at birthday parties. They appeared so light, so delicate.…

“Half of the cells contain helium,” explained the voice, now so individualized that it had to be a specific person—perhaps the zep mechanic or else a dirigible aficionado. “See how those membranes are made with a faintly greenish tint? They surround the larger hydrogen cells.”

Tor blinked.

“Hydrogen. Isn’t that dangerous?”

Her spec supplied pics of the Hindenburg—or LZ 129—that greatest and most ill-fated ancient zeppelin, whose fiery immolation at Lakehurst, New Jersey, marked the sudden end of the First Zep Era, in May 1937. (Facts scrolled along the bottom, lured in by attention cues.) Once ignited—how remained controversial—flames had engulfed the mighty airship from mooring tip to gondola, to its swastika-emblazoned rudder, in little more than a minute. To this day, journalists envied the news crew that had been on-hand that day, with primitive movie cameras, capturing onto acetate some of the most stunning footage and memorable imagery ever to accompany a technological disaster.

Nowadays, what reff or terr group wouldn’t just love to claim credit for an event so resplendent? So attention-grabbing?

As if reading her mind, the voice lectured.

“Hydrogen is much lighter and more buoyant than helium. Hydrogen is also cheap and readily available. Using it improves the economics of zep travel. Though of course, care must be taken.…”

As Tor approached the end of her narrow corridor, she encountered the trusswork that kept Spirit rigid—a dirigible—instead of a floppy, balloonlike blimp. One girder made of carbon tubes, woven into an open latticework of triangles, stretched and curved both forward and aft. Nearby, it joined another tensegrity strut at right angles. That one would form a girdle, encircling the Spirit’s widest girth.

Tracking Tor’s interest, her spec spun out statistics and schematics. At eight hundred feet in length, Hindenburg had been just 10 percent shorter than the Titanic. In contrast, the Spirit of Chula Vista stretched twice that distance. Yet, its shell and trusswork weighed half as much.

“Naturally, there are precautions,” the voice continued. “Take the shape of the gas cells. They are vertical columns. Any failure in a hydrogen cell triggers a pulse, bursting open the top, pushing the contents up and out of the ship, skyward, away from passengers, cargo, or people below. It’s been extensively tested.

“Also, the surrounding helium cells provide a buffer, keeping oxygen-rich air away from those containing hydrogen. Passenger ships like this one carry double the ratio of helium to hydrogen.”

“They can replenish hydrogen en route if they have to, right? By cracking water from onboard ballast?”

“Or even from humidity in the air, using solar power.

“And yes, the readouts show unusual levels of hydrogen production, in order to keep several cells filled aboard the Spirit. That’s why we asked you to come up here. There must be some leakage. One scenario suggested that it might be accumulating in here, between the cells.”

She pulled the omnisniffer—a phone attachment—from her purse and began scanning. Chemical sensors were all over the place, naturally, getting cheaper and more acute all the time—just when the public seemed to want them. For reassurance, if nothing else.

“I’m not detecting very much,” she said. Tor wasn’t sure how to feel—relieved or disappointed—upon reading that hydrogen levels were only slightly elevated in the companionway.

“That confirms what onboard monitors have already shown. Hardly any hydrogen buildup in the cabins or walkways. It must be leaking into the sky—”

“Even so—” Tor began, envisioning gouts of flame erupting toward the heavens from atop the great airship.

“—at rates that offer no danger of ignition. The stuff dissipates very fast, Tor, and the Spirit is moving, on a windy day. Anyway, hydrogen isn’t dangerous—or even toxic—unless it’s held within a confined space.”

Tor kept scanning while moving along the spongy path. But hydrogen readings never spiked enough to cause concern, let alone alarm. The smart-mob had wanted her to come up here for this purpose—to verify that onboard detectors hadn’t been tampered with by clever saboteurs. Now that her independent readings confirmed the company’s story, some people were already starting to lose interest. Ad hoc membership totals began to fall.

“Any leakage must be into the air,” continued the voice of the group mind, still authoritative. “We’ve put out a notice for amateur scientists, asking for volunteers to aim spectranalysis equipment along the Spirit’s route. They’ll measure parts-per-million, so we can get a handle on leakage rates. But it’s mathematically impossible for the amounts to be dangerous. Humidity may go up a percent or two in neighborhoods that lie directly below Spirit. That’s about it.”

Tor had reached the end of the walkway. Her hand pressed against the outer envelope—the quasiliving skin that enclosed everything, from gas cells and trusses to the passenger cabin below. Up close, it was nearly transparent, offering a breathtaking view outside.

“We passed the Beltway,” she murmured, a little surprised that the diligent guardians of Washington’s defensive grid allowed the Spirit to pass through that wall of sensors and rays without delay or scrutiny. Below and ahead, she could make out the great locomotive tug, Umberto Nobile, hauling hard at the tow cable, puffing along the Glebe Road Bypass. Fort Meyers stood to the left. The zeppelin’s shadow rippled over a vast garden of gravestones—Arlington National Cemetery.

“The powers-that-be have downgraded our rumor,” said the voice inside her ear. “The nation’s professional protectors are chasing down more plausible threats … none of which has been deemed likely enough to merit an alert. Malevolent zeps don’t even make it onto the Threat Chart.”

Tor clicked and flicked the attention-gaze of her specs, glancing through the journalist feeds at MediaCorp, which were now—belatedly—accessible to a reporter of her level. Seven minutes after the rise in tension caused by that spam of rumors, a consensus was already forming. The spam flood had not been intended to distract attention from a terror attack, concluded mass-wisdom. It was the attack. And not a very effective one, at that. National productivity had dropped by a brief diversion factor of one part in twenty-three thousand. Hardly enough damage to be worth risking prosecution or retaliation. But then, neohackers seldom cared about consequences.

Speaking of consequences; they were already pouring in from her little snooping expedition. The mavens of propriety at MediaCorp, for example, must be catching up on recent events. A work-related memorandum flashed in Tor’s agenda box, revising tomorrow’s schedule for her first day of employment at the Washington Bureau. During lunch—right after basic orientation—she was now required to attend counseling on the Exercising Good Judgment in Impromptu Field Situations.

“Oh great,” she muttered, noticing also that the zeppelin company had applied a five hundred dollar fine against her account for Unjustified Entry into Restricted Areas.

PLEASE REMAIN WHERE YOU ARE, MS. POVLOV, said an override message. AN ATTENDANT WILL ARRIVE AT YOUR POSITION SHORTLY IN ORDER TO HELP YOU RETURN TO YOUR SEAT FOR LANDING.

“Double great.”

Ahead, beyond the curve of the dirigible’s skin, she spotted the massive, squat bulk of the Pentagon, bristling with missiles, lenses, and antennae … still a highly-protected enclave, even ten years after the Department of Defense moved its headquarters to “an undisclosed location in Minnesota.”

Soon, the mooring towers and docking ports of Reagan-Clinton National Skydrome would appear, signaling the end of her cross-continental voyage. Also finished—despite a string of interesting stories, from the Atkins Center to Hamish Brookeman railing at the Godmakers’ Conference—was all chance of a blemish-free start to her new career in Big Time Media.

She addressed the group mind. “I don’t suppose any of you have bright ideas?”

But it had already started to unravel. Membership numbers were falling fast, like rats deserting a sinking ship. Or—more accurately—monkeys. Moving on to the next shiny thing.

“Sorry, Tor. People are distracted. They’ve been dropping out to watch the reopening of the Artifact Conference. You may even glimpse some limos arriving at the Naval Research Center, just across the Potomac. Take a look as the Spirit starts turning for final approach…”

Blasted fickle amateurs! Tor had made good use of smart-mobs in the past. But this time was likely to prove an embarrassment. None of them would have to pay fines or face disapproval in a new job.

“Still, a few of us remain worried,” the voice continued. “That rumor had something … I can’t put my finger on it.”

The “voice” was starting to sound individualized and had even used the first person “I.” A sure sign of low numbers. And yet, Tor drew some strength from the support. Before an attendant arrived to escort her below, there was still time for a little last-minute tenacity.

“Can I assume we still have some zep aficionados in attendance?”

“Hardly anyone else, Tor. Some us are fanatics.”

“Good, then let’s apply fanatical expertise. Think about that leakage we discussed a while ago. We’ve been assuming that this zeppelin is making hydrogen to make up for a significant seep, into the air outside. That’d be pretty harmless, I agree. Have any of those amateur scientists studied the air near Spirit’s flight path, yet?”

A pause.

“Yes, several have reported in. They found no dangerous levels of hydrogen in the vicinity of the ship, or in its wake. The seep is probably dissipating so fast.…”

“Please clarify. No dangerous levels? Is it possible they found no sign of a hydrogen leak at all?”

The pause extended several seconds longer, this time. Suddenly the number of participants in the group stopped falling. In the corner of Tor’s specs, she saw membership levels start to rise again, slowly.

“Now that’s interesting,” throbbed the consensus voice in her ear.

“Several of those amateur scientists have joined us now.

“They report seeing no appreciable leakage. Zero extra hydrogen along the flight path. How did you know?”

“I didn’t. Call it a hunch.”

“But at the rate that Spirit has been replacing hydrogen…”

“There has to be some kind of leak. Right.” She finished that thought aloud. “Not into the baggage compartment or passageways, either. We’d have detected that. But the missing hydrogen must be going somewhere.”

Tor frowned. She could see a shadow moving beyond the grove of tall, cylindrical gas cells. A figure approaching. A crewman or attendant, coming to take her, firmly, gently, insistently, back to her seat. The shape wavered and warped as seen through the mostly transparent polymer tubes—slightly pinkish for hydrogen and then greenish tinted for helium.

Tor blinked. Suddenly feeling so dry mouthed that she could not speak aloud, only subvocalize.

“Okay … then … please ask the amscis to take some more spectral scans along the path of this zeppelin. Only this time … look for helium.”

The inner surface of her specs showed a flurry of indicators. Amateur scientific instruments, computer-controlled from private backyards or rooftop observatories, speckled the nation. Many could zoom quickly toward any patch of sky—hobbyists with access to better instrumentation than earlier generations of top experts could have imagined. Dotted lines appeared. Each showed the viewing angle of some home-taught astronomer, ecologist, or meteorologist, turning a hand- or kit-made instrument toward the majestic cigar shape of the Spirit of Chula Vista.…

… which had passed Arlington and Pentagon City, following its faithful tug into a final tracked loop, turning to approach the dedicated zeppelin port that served Washington, D.C.

“Yes, Tor. There is helium.

“Quite a lot of it, in fact.

“A plume that stretches at least a hundred klicks behind the Spirit. No one noticed before, because helium is inert and utterly safe, so no environmental monitors were tuned to look for it.”

The voice was grim. Much less individualized. With ad hoc membership levels suddenly skyrocketing, summaries and updates must be spewing at incredible pace.

“Your suspicion appears to be well based.

“Extrapolating the rate of helium loss backward in time, more than half of the Spirit of Chula Vista’s original supply of that gas may have been lost by now.…”

“… replaced in these green cells by another gas.” Tor completed the thought, while nodding. “I think we’ve found the missing hydrogen, people.”

For emphasis, she reached out toward one of the nearby green cells. The “safe” ones that were there to protect life and property, making disaster impossible.

It all made sense, now. Smart polymers were programmable—all the way down to the permeability of any patch of these gas-containing cells, the same technology that made seawater desalinization cheap and ended the Water Wars. But it was technology, and so could be used in a multitude of ways. If you were very clever, you might insert a timed instruction where two gas cells touched, commanding one cell to leak into another. Create a daisy chain. Vent helium into the sky. Transfer gas from hydrogen cells into neighboring helium cells to maintain pressure, so that no one noticed. Then trigger automatic systems to crack onboard water and “replace” that hydrogen, replenishing the main cells. Allow the company to assume a slow leak into the sky is responsible. Continue.

Continue until you have replaced the helium in enough of the green cells to turn the Spirit into a flying bomb.

“The process must be almost complete by now,” she murmured, peering ahead toward the great zep port, where dozens of mighty dirigibles could already be seen, some of them vastly larger than this passenger liner, bobbing gently at their moorings. Spindly fly-cranes went swooping back and forth as they plucked shipping containers from ocean freighters at the nearby Potomac Docks, gracefully transferring the air-gel crates to waiting cargo-zeppelins for the journey cross continent. A deceptively graceful, swaying dance that propelled the engines of commerce.

The passenger terminal—dwarfed by comparison to those giants—seemed to beckon with a promise of safety. But indicators showed that it still lay ten minutes away.

“We have issued a clamor, Tor,” assured the voice in her head. “Every channel. Every agency.”

A glance at spec-telltales showed Tor that, indeed, the group mind was doing its best. Shouting alarm toward every official protective service, from Defense to Homeworld Security. Individual members were lapel-grabbing friends and acquaintances, while smart-mob attendance levels climbed into five figures, and more. At this rate, surely the professionals would be taking heed. Any minute now.

“Too slow,” she said, watching the figures with a sinking heart. Each second that it took to get action from the Protector Caste, the perpetrators of this scheme would also grow aware that the jig is up. Their plan was discovered. And they would have a speedup option.

Speaking of the perps, Tor wondered aloud.

“What can they be hoping to accomplish?”

“We’re pondering that, Tor. Timing suggests that they aim to disrupt the Artifact Conference. Delegates arriving at the Naval Research Center are having a cocktail reception on the embankment right now, offering a fine view toward the zep port, across the river.

“Of course it is possible that the reffers plan to do more than just put on a show, while murdering three hundred passengers. We are checking to see if the Umberto tug has been meddled with. Perhaps the plan is to hop rails and collide with a large cargo-zep, before detonation. Such a fireball might rock the Capitol, and disrupt the port for months.

One problem with a smart-mob. The very same traits that multiplied intelligence could also make it seem dispassionate. Insensitive. Individual members surely felt anguish and concern over Tor’s plight. She might even access their messages, if she had time for commiseration.

But pragmatic help was preferable. She kept to the group mind level.

One (anonymous) member (a whistle-blower?) has suggested a bizarre plan using a flying-crane at the zep port to grab the Spirit of Chula Vista when it passes near. The crane would then hurl the Spirit across the river, to explode right at the Naval Research Center! In theory, it might just be possible to incinerate—”

“Enough!” Tor cut in. Almost a minute had passed since realization of danger and the issuance of a clamor. And so far, no one had offered anything like a practical suggestion.

“Don’t forget that I’m here, now. We have to do something.”

“Yes,” the voice replied, eagerly and without the usual hesitation. “There is sufficient probable cause to get a posse writ. Especially with your credibility scores. We can act, with you performing the hands-on role.

“Operational ideas follow:

“CUT THE TOWING CABLE.
(Emergency release in gondola. Reachable in four minutes.
Risk: possible interference from staff. Ineffective at saving the zeppelin/passengers.)
“PERSUADE ZEP COMPANY TO COMMENCE EMERGENCY VENTING PROCEDURES.
(Communication in progress. Response so far: obstinate refusal…)
“PERSUADE ONBOARD STAFF TO COMMENCE EMERGENCY VENTING PROCEDURES.
(Attempting communication despite company interference…)
“PERSUADE COMPANY TO ORDER PASSENGER EVACUATION.
(Communication in progress. Response so far: obstinate refusal…)
“UPGRADE CLAMOR. CONTACT PASSENGERS. URGE THEM TO EVACUATE.
(Risks: delay, disbelief, panic, injuries, fatalities, lawsuits…)”

The list of suggestions seemed to scroll on and on. Rank-ordered by plausibility-evaluation algorithms, slanted by urgency, and scored by likelihood of successful outcome. Individuals and subgroups within the smart-mob split apart to urge different options with frantic vehemence. Her specs flared, threatening overload.

“Oh, screw this,” Tor muttered, reaching up and tearing them off.

The real world—unfiltered. For all of its paucity of layering and data-supported detail, it had one special trait.

It’s where I am about to die, she thought.

Unless I do something fast.

At that moment, the zep crew attendant arrived. He rounded the final corner of a towering gas cell, coming into direct view—no longer a shadowy authority figure, warped and refracted by the tinted polymer membranes. Up close, it turned out to be a small man, middle-aged and clearly frightened by what his own specs had started telling him. All intention to arrest or detain Tor had evaporated before he made that turn. She could see this in his face, as clearly as if she had been monitoring vital signs.

WARREN, said a company nametag.

“Wha—what can I do to help?” he asked in a hoarse whisper.

Though hired for gracile weight and people skills, the fellow clearly possessed some courage. By now he knew what filled many of the slim, green-tinted membranes surrounding them both. And it didn’t take a genius to realize the zep company was unlikely to help, during the time they had left.

“Tool kit!” Tor held out her hand.

Warren fumbled at his waist pouch. Precious seconds passed as he unfolded a slim implement case. Tor found one promising item—a vibrocutter.

“Keyed to your biometrics?”

He nodded. Passengers weren’t allowed to bring anything aboard that might become a weapon. This cutter would respond to his personal touch and no other. It required not only a fingerprint, but volition—physiological signs of the owner’s will.

“You must do the cutting, then.”

“C-cutting…?”

Tor explained quickly.

“We’ve got to vent this ship. Empty the gas upward. That’ll happen to a main cell if it is ruptured anywhere along its length, right? Automatically?”

A shaky nod. She could tell Warren was getting online advice, perhaps from the zep company. More likely from the same smart-mob that she had called into being. She felt strong temptation to put her own specs back on—to link-in once more. But she resisted. Kibitzers would only slow her down right now.

“It might work…,” said the attendant in a frightened whisper. “But the reffers will realize, as soon as we start—”

“They realize now!” She tried not to shout. “We may have only moments to act.”

Another nod. This time a bit stronger, though Warren was shaking so badly that Tor had to help him draw the cutter from its sleeve. She steadied his hand.

“We must slice through a helium bag in order to reach the big hydro cell,” he said, pressing the biometric-sensitive stud. Reacting to his individual touch, a knife edge of acoustic waves began to flicker at the cutter tip, sharper than steel. A soft tone filled the air.

Tor swallowed hard. That flicker resembled a hot flame.

“Pick one.”

They had no way to tell which of the greenish helium cells had been refilled, or what would happen when the cutter helped unite gas from neighboring compartments. Perhaps the only thing accomplished would be an early detonation. But even that had advantages, if it messed up the timing of this scheme.

One lesson you learned early nowadays: It simply made no sense, any longer, to rely for perfect safety upon a flawless professional protective caste. The police and military, the bureaucrats, and intelligence services. No matter how skilled and sophisticated they might grow, with infinite tax dollars to spend on advanced instrumentalities, they could still be overwhelmed, or cleverly bypassed. Human beings, they made mistakes. And when that happened, society must count on a second line of defense.

Us.

It meant—Tor knew—that any citizen could wind up being a soldier for civilization, at any time. The way they made the crucial difference on 9-11 and during Awfulday.

In other words, expendable.

“That one.” Warren chose, and moved toward the nearest green-tinted cell.

Though she had doffed her specs, there was still a link. The smart-mob’s voice retained access to the conduction channel in her ear.

“Tor,” said the group mind. “We’re getting feed through Warren’s goggles. Are you listening? There is a third possibility, in addition to helium and hydrogen. Some of the cells may have been packed with—”

She bit down twice on her left canine tooth, cutting off the distraction in order to monitor her omnisniffer. She inhaled deeply, with her eye on the indicator as Warren made a gliding, slicing motion with his cutter.

The greenish envelope opened, as if along a seam. Edges rippled apart as invisible gas—appreciably cooler—swept over them both.

HELIUM said the readout. Tor sighed relief.

“This one’s not poisonous.”

Warren nodded. “But no oxygen. You can smother.” He ducked his head aside, avoiding the cool wind, and took another deep breath of normal air. Still, his next words had a squeaky, high-pitched quality. “Gotta move fast.”

Through the vent he slipped, hurrying quickly to the other side of the green cell, where it touched one of the great chambers of hydrogen.

Warren made a rapid slash.

Klaxons bellowed, responding to the damage automatically. (Or else, had the company chosen that moment, after several criminally-negligent minutes, to finally admit the inevitable?) A voice boomed insistently, ordering passengers to move—calmly and carefully—to their escape stations.

That same instant, the giant hydrogen gas cell convulsed, twitching like a giant bowel caught in a spasm. The entire pinkish tube—bigger than a jumbo jet—contracted, starting at the bottom and squeezing toward a sudden opening at the very top, spewing its contents skyward.

Backwash hurled Warren across the green tube. Tor managed to grab his collar, dragging him out to the walkway. There seemed to be nothing satisfying about the “air” that she sucked into her lungs, and she started seeing spots before her eyes. The little man was in worse shape, gasping wildly in high-pitched squeaks.

Somehow, Tor hauled him a dozen meters along the gangway, barely escaping descending folds of the deflated cell, till they arrived at last where breathing felt better. Did we make any difference? she wondered, wildly.

Instinctively, Tor slipped her specs back on. Immersed again in the info-maelstrom, it took moments to focus.

One image showed gouts of flame pouring from a hole in the roof of a majestic skyship. Another revealed the zeppelin’s nose starting to slant steeply as the tug-locomotive pulled frantically on its tow cable, reeling the behemoth toward the ground. Spirit resisted like a stallion, bucking and clinging to altitude.

Tor briefly quailed. Oh Lord, what have we done?

A thought suddenly occurred to her. She and Warren had done this entirely based on information that came to them from outside. From a group-mind of zeppelin aficionados and amateur scientists who claimed that a lot of extra hydrogen had to be going somewhere, and it must be stored in some of the former helium cells.

But that particular helium cell—the one Warren sliced—had been okay.

And now, amid all the commotion, she wondered. What about the smart-mob? Could that group be a front for clever reffers, who were using her to do their dirty work? Feeding false information, in order to get precisely this effect?

The doubt passed through her mind in seconds. And back out again. This smart-mob was open and public. If something smelled about it, another mob would have formed by now, clamoring like mad and exposing the lies. Anyway, if no helium cells had been tampered with, the worst that she and Warren could do was bring a temporarily disabled Spirit of Chula Vista down to a bumpy but safe landing atop its tug.

Newsworthy. But not very. And that realization firmed her resolve.

Tor yanked the attendant onto his feet and urged him to move uphill, toward the stern, along a narrow path that now inclined the other way. “Come on!” she called to Warren, her voice still squeaky from helium. “We’ve got to do more!”

Warren tried gamely. But she had to steady him as the path gradually steepened. When he prepared to slash at another green cell, farther aft, Tor braced his elbow.

Before he struck, through the omniscient gaze of her specs, Tor abruptly saw three more holes appear in the zep’s broad roof, spewing clouds of gas, transparent but highly refracting, resembling billowy ripples in space.

Was the zep company finally taking action? Had the reffers made their move? Or had the first expulsion triggered some kind of compensating release from automatic valves, elsewhere on the ship?

As if pondering the same questions, the voice in her jaw mused.

“Too little has been released to save the Spirit from the worst-case scenario. But maybe enough to limit the tragedy and mess up their scheme.

“It depends on a rather gruesome possibility that one of us thought up. What if—instead of hydrogen—some of the helium cells have been refilled with OXYGEN? After experimenting with a similar, programmably permeable polymer, we find that the fuel replenishment process could be jiggered to do that. If so, the compressed combination—”

Oxygen?

Tor shouted “Wait!” as Warren made a hard stab at one of the green cells, slicing a long vent that suddenly blurped at them.

This wave of gas wasn’t as cool as the helium had been. It smelled terrific, though. One slight inhale filled Tor with sudden and suspicious exhilaration.

Uh-oh, she thought.

At that moment, her spectacle-display offered a bird’s-eye view as one of the new clouds of vented hydrogen contacted dying embers, atop the tormented Spirit of Chula Vista.

Like a brief sun, each of the refracting bubbles ignited in rapid succession. Thunderclaps shook the dirigible from stem to stern, knocking Tor and Warren off their feet.

Is this it? Her own particular and special End of the World? Strangely, Tor’s clearest thought was one of professional jealousy. Someone down below ought to be getting truly memorable and historic footage. Maybe on a par with the Hindenburg Disaster.

This was the critical moment. With their plan dissolving, the reffers must act. Any second now, a well-timed chain explosion within the Spirit’s great abdomen.…

While the violent tossing drove Tor into fatalism, all that invigorating oxygen seemed to have an opposite effect upon Warren, who surged to his feet, then slipped through the tear that he had made and charged across the green cell, preparing to attack the giant hydrogen compartment beyond, heedless of the smart-mob, clamoring at him to stop.

Tor tried to add her own plea, but found that her throat would not function.

Some reporter, she thought, taking ironic solace in one fact—that her specs were still beaming to the Net.

Live images of a desperately unlikely hero.

Warren looked positively giddy—on a high of oxygen and adrenaline, but not too drugged to realize the implications. He grimaced with an evident combination of fear and exaltation, while bringing his cutter-tool slashing down upon the polymer membrane—a slim barrier separating two gases that wanted, notoriously, to unite.

*   *   *

Sensory recovery came in scattered bits.

First, a smattering of dream images. Nightmare flashes about being chased, or else giving chase to something dangerous, across a landscape of burning glass. At least, that was how her mind pictured a piling-on of agonies. Regret. Physical anguish. Failure. More anguish. Shame. And more agony, still.

When the murk finally began to clear, consciousness only made matters worse. Everything was black, except for occasional crimson flashes. And those had to be erupting directly out of pain—the random firings of an abused nervous system.

Her ears also appeared to be useless. There was no real sound, other than a low, irritating humming that would not go away.

Only one conduit to the external world still appeared to be functioning.

The voice. It had been hectoring her dreams, she recalled. A nag that could not be answered and would not go away. Only now, at least, she understood the words.

“Tor? Are you awake? We’re getting no signal from your specs. But there’s a carrier wave from your tooth-implant. Can you give us a tap?”

After a pause, the message repeated.

And then again.

So, it was playing on automatic. She must have been unconscious for a long time.

“Tor? Are you awake? We’re getting no signal from your specs. But there’s a carrier wave from your tooth-implant. Can you give us a tap?”

There was an almost overwhelming temptation to do nothing. Every signal that she sent to muscles, commanding them to move, only increased the grinding, searing pain. Passivity seemed to be the lesson being taught right now. Just lie there, or else suffer even more. Lie and wait. Maybe die.

Also, Tor wasn’t sure she liked the group mind anymore.

“Tor? Are you awake? We’re getting no signal from your specs. But there’s a carrier wave from your tooth-implant. Can you give us a tap?”

On the other hand, passivity seemed to have one major drawback. It gave pain an ally.

Boredom. Yet another way to torment her. Especially her.

To hell with that.

With an effort that grated, she managed to slide her jaw enough to bring the two left canine teeth together in a tap, and then two more. The recording continued a few moments—long enough for Tor to fear that it hadn’t worked. She was cut off, isolated, alone in darkness.

But the group participants must have been away, doing their own things. Jobs, families, watching the news. After about twenty seconds, though, the voice returned, eager and live.

“Tor!

“We are so glad you’re awake.”

Muddled by dull agony, she found it hard at first to focus even a thought. But she managed to drag one canine in a circle around the other. Universal symbolic code for “question mark.”

<?>

The message got through.

“Tor, you are inside a life-sustainment tube. Rescue workers found you in the wreckage about twelve minutes ago, but it’s taking some time to haul you out. They should have you aboard a medi-chopper in another three minutes, maybe four.

“We’ll inform the docs that you are conscious. They’ll probably insert a communications shunt sometime after you reach hospital.”

Three rapid taps.

<NO>

The voice had a bedside manner.

“Now Tor, be good and let the pros do their jobs. The emergency is over and we amateurs have to step back, right?

“Anyway, you’ll get the very best of care. You’re a hero! Spoiled a reffer plot and saved a couple of hundred passengers. You should hear what MediaCorp is crowing about their ‘ace field correspondent.’ They even backdated your promotion a few days.

“Everyone wants you now, Tor,” the voice finished, resonating her inner ear without any sign of double entendre. But surely individual members felt what she felt, right then.

Irony—the other bright compensation that Pandora found in the bottom of her infamous Box. At times, irony could be more comforting than hope.

Tor was unable to chuckle, so her tooth did a down-slide and then back.

<!>

The Voice seemed to understand and agree.

“Yeah.

“Anyway, we figure you’d like an update. Tap inside if you want details about your condition. Outside for a summary of external events.”

Tor bit down emphatically on the outer surface of her lower canine.

“Gotcha. Here goes.

“It turns out that the scheme was partly to create a garish zep disaster. But they chiefly aimed to achieve a distraction.

“By colliding the Spirit with a cargo freighter in a huge explosion, with lots of casualties, they hoped not only to close down the zep port for months, but also to create a suddenly lethal fireball that would draw attention from the protective and emergency services. All eyes and sensors would shift for a brief time. Wariness would steeply decline in other directions.

“They thereupon planned to swoop into the Naval Research Center with a swarm attack by hyperlight flyers. Like the O’Hare Incident but with some nasty twists. We don’t have details yet. Some of them are still under wraps. But it looks pretty awful, at first sight.

“Anyway, as events turned out, our ad hoc efforts aboard the Spirit managed to expel almost half of the stockpiled gases early and in an uncoordinated fashion. Several of the biggest cells got emptied, creating gaps. So there was never a single, unified detonation when the enemy finally pulled their trigger. Just a sporadic fire. That kept the dirigible frame intact, enabling the tug to reel it down to less than a hundred meters.

“Where the escape chutes mostly worked. Nearly all passengers got away without injury, Tor. And the zep port was untouched.”

Trying to picture it in her mind’s eye—perhaps the only eye she had left—took some effort. She was used to so many modern visualization aides that mere words and imagination seemed rather crude. A cartoony image of the Spirit, her vast upper bulge aflame, slanted steeply groundward as the doughty Umberto Nobile desperately pulled the airship toward relative safety. And then, slender tubes of active plastic snaking down, offering slide-paths for the tourist families and other civilians.

The real event must have been quite a sight.

Her mind roiled with questions. What about the rest of the passengers?

What fraction were injured, or died?

How about people down below, on the nearby highway?

Was there an attack on the Artifact Conference, after all?

So many questions. But till doctors installed a shunt, there would be no way to send anything more sophisticated than these awful yes-no clicks. And some punctuation marks. Normally, equipped with a tru-vu, a pair of touch-tooth implants would let her scroll rapidly through menu choices, or type on a virtual screen. Now, she could neither see nor subvocalize.

So, she thought about the problem. Information could in-load at the rate of spoken speech. Outloading was a matter of clicking two teeth together.

Perhaps it was the effect of drugs, injected by the paramedics, but Tor found herself thinking with increasing detachment, as if viewing her situation through a distant lens. Abstract appraisal suggested a solution, reverting to a much older tradition of communication.

She clicked the inside of her lower left canine three times quickly. Then the outer surface three times, more slowly. And finally the inner side three more times.

“What’s that, Tor? Are you trying to say something?”

She waited a decent interval, then repeated exactly the same series of taps. Three rapid clicks inside, three slow ones on the outside, and again three quickly inside. It took several repetitions before the Voice hazarded a guess.

“Tor, a few members and ais suggest that you’re trying to send a message in old-fashioned Morse code.

“Three dots, three dashes, then three dots. ‘SOS.’

“The old international distress call. Is that it, Tor?”

She quickly assented with a yes tap. Thank heavens for the diversity of a group mind. Get one large enough, and you were sure to include some oldtech freak.

“But we already know you are in pain. Rescuers have found you. There’s nothing else to accomplish by calling for help … except…”

The Voice paused again.

“Wait a minute.

“There is a minority theory floating up. A guess-hypothesis.

“Very few modern people bother to learn Morse code anymore. But most of us have heard of it. Especially that one message you were using. SOS. Three dots, three dashes, three dots. It’s famous from old-time movies.

“Is that what you’re telling us, Tor?

“Would you like us to teach you Morse code?”

Although she could sense nothing external, not even the rocking of her life-support canister as it was being hauled by evacuation workers out of the smoldering Spirit of Chula Vista, Tor did feel a wash of relief.

Yes, she tapped.

Most definitely yes.

“Very well.

“Now listen carefully.

“We’ll start with the letter ‘A’.…”

It helped to distract her from worry, at least, concentrating to learn something without all the tech-crutches relied upon by today’s tenners and twenners. Struggling to absorb a simple alphabet code that every smart kid used to memorize, way back in that first era of zeppelins and telegraphs and crystal radios, when the uncrowded sky had seemed so wide open and filled with innocent possibilities. When the smartest mob around was a rigidly marching army. When a journalist would chase stories with notepad, flashbulbs, and intuition. When the main concern of a citizen was earning enough to put bread on the table. When the Professional Protective Caste consisted of a few cops on the beat.

Way back, one human life span ago, when heroes were tall and square-jawed, in both fiction and real life.

Times had changed. Now, destiny could tap anybody on the shoulder, even the shy or unassuming. You, me, the next guy. Suddenly, everybody depends on just one. And that one relies on everybody.

Tor concentrated on her lesson, only dimly aware of the vibrations conveyed by a throbbing helicopter, carrying her (presumably) to a place where modern miracle workers would strive to save—or rebuild—what they could.

Professionals still had their uses, even in the rising Age of Amateurs. Bless their skill. Perhaps—with luck and technology—they might even give Tor back her life.

Right now, though, one concern was paramount. It took a while to ask the question that burned foremost in her mind, since she needed a letter near the end of the alphabet. But as soon as they reached it, she tapped out a Morse code message that consisted of one word.

<WARREN>

She expected the answer that her fellow citizens gave.

Even with the hydrogen cell contracting at full force to expel most of its contents skyward, there would have been more than enough right there, at the oxygen-rich interface, to incinerate one little man. One volunteer. A hero, leaving nothing to bury, but scattering microscopic ashes all the way across his nation’s capital.

Lucky guy, she thought, feeling a little envy for his rapid exit and inevitable, uncomplicated fame.

Tor recognized what the envy meant, of course. She was ready to enter the inevitable phase of self-pity. A necessary stage.

But not for long. Only till they installed the shunt.

After that, it would be back to work. Lying immersed in sustainer-jelly and breathing through a tube? That wouldn’t stop a real journalist. The web was a beat rich with stories, and Tor had a feeling—she would get to know the neighborhood a whole lot better.

“And we’ll be here,” assured the smart-mob. “If not us, then others like us.

“You can count on it Tor.

“Count on us.

“We all do.”

 

PART FIVE

A CONSUMMATION DEVOUTLY WISHED …

Is it a fact—or have I dreamt it—that, by means of electricity, the world of matter has become a great nerve, vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time? Rather, the round globe is a vast head, a brain, instinct with intelligence!

——Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1851

What we anticipate seldom occurs, what we least expected generally happens.

—Benjamin Disraeli, 1837

 

SPECIES

the child is found !/!

autie-murphy sifted seventeen webs … encompassing two hundred and twelve thousand and forty-one vir levels … some as wide and detailed as the surface of realearth … while looking for not-patterns //-//-// nor-nand gaps where normalpeople & aspies & ais & eyes ought to be looking —- but where nobody is -/+

Agurne Arrixaka Bidarte is not using cams, webs or credit -.- those sheltering her are careful -.- leave no clues … traces carefully absent … but what of that very absence? Can it be traced?

hard to program + + + every spy agency has snifferprogs out there seeking correlations … but un-correlations are another matter/liquid/solid/plasma/vrasma/ectoplasm !/!

ais don’t not-look very well —- but autie-murph does it great /!/ not-patterns suit a savant like him + + + who deals with cobblies every day + + +

and so we ask—now that we found them—can/should we help mother-n-child??? this part is hard —> how to go beyond noting/noticing/not-icking/not-acting and create instead an arrow of effective action??? not our-forte … nor even aspies or high-funcs

doing stuff + + + that is what normalpeople are for -/- poormoms

bad enough is our handicap / our clumsiness / with realworld/cause/effect … only now there is this new thing.… this alien/other/outerspace THING in the news … a world-intruder that has the cobblies all not-leaping about and not-yapping frantically

we need a friend ./.

we’ve used friends before - yes.?. dangerous. -/- sometimes they betray our trust -//- this friend had better be a good one..….……

 

29.

INCOMPREHENSION

Once you finally got the aliens talking, it proved hard to shut them up.

“Congratulations! As a space-faring type, you have surpassed very long odds. Few get as far as you have. You are now welcome to join us.”

That much came through pretty clear. It was the proclamation that made headlines around the world.

Less noticed—though still cause for rampant speculation—was how hard Gerald and the rest of the contact team had to work, in order to get that much clarity out of the Artifact. The ratio of useful information coming out of the ovoid crystal—versus confusing chaos—was still frustratingly low.

Like sipping from a fire hose, Gerald thought. Except this hose sprayed in all directions.

Bathed in exactly the right wavelengths to maximize energy use, the object he had snagged out of orbit with his garbage-collecting tether now shone with a vibrancy that enthralled onlookers. Scenes portrayed through its gleaming, curved surface appeared to swoop and shift at a dizzying pace, from cloud-flecked planetary horizons to mysterious cityscapes, revealed through unraveling mists. From desert ruins, drowned by drifting sands, to slick ocean vistas that rolled with oily viscosity and shimmered all the colors of a rainbow. From salty expanses that featured endless rows of windowless, cubiform huts, all the way to vast ice fields, where mysterious cracks opened to emit brief swarms of black, arachnoid shapes, spreading out to harvest strange, gray-green globs.…

A series of alien figures also floated up, jostling each other as before. They seemed to push forward to press hands or paws or tentacles against the egglike inner surface of the message bottle, bringing close their eyes, orb-lenses, and other sensory organs to gape outward at the Contact Team.

Behind Gerald, just on the other side of a barrier of quarantine glass, stood members of the international commission, representing all the nations, estates, and important interests on Earth. And of course, there was everyone else, a large fraction of the world’s population, who played hooky from school and work, or else MT-tracked every moment while pretending to do their jobs. Economic productivity was taking a hit and no one seemed to care.

A gaggle on one side, staring out, and a super-gaggle on the other side, staring in, he thought. With plenty of ambiguity over which mob is the most eager or confused. Indeed, Gerald still occasionally experienced that same frightening illusion that he and his comrades were somehow the ones encased within a cramped, simulated world, and the Artifact denizens were the ones peering into a zoo-terrarium through their narrow, magic lens.

“We’re getting more complaints about visual signal degradation in the broadcast feed,” reported General Akana Hideoshi. “People don’t like the high-contrast, bleached, and reprocessed version being offered to the public. It inevitably provokes conspiracy theories—that we’re not sharing everything we see or learn.” Akana shook her head unhappily.

“Well, I don’t know what to do about that,” replied Dr. Emily Tang, the team’s interface expert. “Our policy masters have demanded protocols to keep the dataflow clean. After all, what if this device turns out to be a Trojan horse? A way for outsiders to inveigle some alien software virus into our networks? Or to reprogram people who watch closely. Such parasitic code might be tucked inside the bit stream, woven through it via steganography, turning any seemingly benign picture into a possible source of infection. The computers in this building are quarantined and scrutinaized. So are we humans who have direct eye contact. But we cannot allow the public to get direct access to unwashed data!”

Emily was paid to be suspicious, even though such precautions made her the subject of paranoid rumors, especially on the part of openness fetishists out there. Nor can I blame them, Gerald thought.

Along with about a billion others, he had been disappointed with the Big Deal, when it failed to meet the top goal of the Fourth and Fifth and Sixth Estates—total transparency. A bigger deal to end secrecy. A world where the politicians, zaibatsus, guilds, gangs, and superrich power brokers would have to operate in the light. While retaining their wealth, legal powers, and advantages, the world’s top movers would at least forfeit their privilege of cheating in the dark. Above all, everyone should state openly what they owned. A powerful idea, briefly igniting mass imagination …

… till it had to be bargained away, when all the top castes joined forces against it. Now? Everyone knew the Big Deal was a stopgap measure, buying time, or a little peace, till promised techno-miracles might revive the roaring optimism of the tween years. And some came! Only each breakthrough brought its own freight of future shock, and rising calls for mass-refusal. Every social model—even cheap, two-year-old versions that a citizen could download for free—portrayed the Big Deal teetering toward collapse in half a decade or so. Nor would mere truth and openness suffice, this time.

The Artifact might have chosen a better occasion to suddenly appear. Almost any other occasion.

Why couldn’t it have been snagged by some earlier astronaut? Gerald thought. Back in the giddy Apollo days, for example. Or during the rich, early part of this century, when everyone was calm, and there were still plenty of resources to keep folks from each other’s throats?

Even those who expect only good things when we join some interstellar community—nothing but wisdom and beneficial technologies—even those optimists know there will be disruption and of pain. And meanwhile, people who already have power will come up with every possible rationalization. Reasons to preach that change is dangerous.

“Anyway, there are other security-related concerns,” Emily added. “Tiger and I have come up with a range of possible theories for the chaotic, disorganized way the Artifact beings have related to us—the so-called Rabble Effect.”

Genady Gorosumov, the team’s xenobiologist, looked up from the holistank where he had been tending his models—growing simulations of all the different kinds of Artifact aliens that had been exhibited, so far—trying to understand them by vivisecting replica archetypes, based upon visual appearance alone. He brushed a pile of dismembered skeletal pieces toward a tray. Made entirely of light patterns, they swiftly reassembled into an articulated model of the centauroid alien.

“Now that is interesting. How do you explain the way these entities push and shove at one another? They seem to have no sense of order or cooperation—certainly no concept of turn-taking, or courtesy! Even when groups of them work together, briefly, in order to speak to us coherently, it is always temporary. Although this charming chaos does remind me of my hometown, I cannot say it bodes well for this galactic civilization we have been invited to join.

“Nor does it give us much opportunity to ask more than one question at a time.”

“And that may be precisely the purpose,” answered Emily.

When all eyes stared at her, she nodded to her left. “I’ll let Tiger explain.”

Gerald and the others turned toward that end of the conference table, where a threevee display showed a face—one that crossed many of the pleasing traits of a beautiful woman with the feral muzzle of a cat, including soft, striped fur and small, pointy teeth that gleamed when shai smiled. It was a grin that made you glad that the artificial being was on your side. Or, at least, that shai was programmed to emulate someone who liked you.

“We must bear in mind that the jostling Rabble Effect may be a ruse,” commented the virtual aindroid. “A way to keep us talking, so that we’ll offer them floods of information about ourselves, while they provide little in return.”

Gerald had seen this theory before, bubbling up from the morass of a million discussion groups. “So perhaps they are actually far more cooperative with each other than they appear? You think they may be playing roles, in order to keep us off balance.”

“Or else, perhaps there is no they at all.”

It was Haihong Ming, who had just joined the contact team as the new representative of Great China. He hadn’t said much since replacing Gerald’s friend, the ex-astronaut Wang Quangen. But when he did, on behalf of Earth’s leading power, it seemed wise to listen.

“What do you mean?”

Haihong Ming put down the mesh-specs that he had been using to stay in direct communication with his superiors in Beijing, separate from the main video feed.

“I mean that all this bubbling diversity may be vexing, but doesn’t it also come across as conveniently reassuring somehow? After all, what do we fear most about a big, galactic civilization? Once it is determined that no one’s bent on invading or killing us, what comes next on our list of big worries?”

The other commission members pondered the question for a few seconds before Ramesh Trivedi, from the Hindi Commonwealth, finally murmured.

“Uniformity. Conformity. Insistence that small and weak newcomers like us should adhere to rigid rules, fitting into the bottom of an established hierarchy. Demanding that we bend our traditions, laws, and way of life to meet some ancient set of patterns not our own. That is what we’d find almost as crushing and horrible as outright invasion—a fear made palpable by our own history of contact events among human cultures, here on Earth.”

“Like when Europeans insisted that Asian peoples use tables and chairs? Knives and forks? Soap and electricity?” asked Emily, in a sardonic tone. But Ramesh did not rise to the Vancouver professor’s bait. He smiled, shaking his head.

“You know there were far worse impositions. Episodes of cultural domination that were painful, cruel, demoralizing, or limiting. And that was between human tribes! Even the well-meaning process of accession, when independent countries join the EU or the AU … having to change many of their laws and customs in order to conform to a confederation they had no part in formulating. Even that mild process is humiliating. How much worse might it get for neophytes entering interstellar society, forced to adapt to a civilization millions of years old? That is the dread Haihong Ming refers to.”

Glancing at the Chinese representative, Gerald felt pretty sure that Ramesh was at least somewhat off-target. Still, Haihong Ming kept silent, enigmatically impassive, content to let Ramesh talk on.

“Hence the reason why so many people find all the tumult and disarray among the Artifact beings … reassuring. Perhaps even endearing. It implies that no person or group out there is enforcing rigid uniformity. We’ll be free to pick and choose from a wide variety of role models, negotiate among partners and competitors, and retain much of what we value about our own past.

“And yes, I, too, feel encouraged by all that.”

Only then Ramesh frowned, his complexion darkening.

“But our colleague from the People’s Ministry of Science does not take consolation so easily, does he? And Emily is even more dourly suspicious! So, let me guess the reasoning. You two think that all of this adorable bustle and crowding and alien-elbowing-alien may be a ruse? That it may be faked, in order to lull us?”

Haihong Ming nodded. “I am merely trying to cover the full range of possibilities, Dr. Trivedi. All the purported representatives that we have seen, from dozens of different extraterrestrial races—they could be faked. Mere cartoon puppets that always vanish before we can examine them too closely. Suppose the effect were intentional. That they were all contrived by a single entity, with a single agenda. Not only to stall and put off inconvenient questions—but also in order to give us an impression of lively, raucous but peaceful diversity? The very thing that might mollify and comfort many of us?”

Many of us … but not all of us, Gerald thought. His mouth half opened to point this out, then closed again. His every instinct shouted that the aliens really were separate beings, eagerly diverse and rather fractious, with their own agendas and purposes, scraping against each other within the context of their compact universe. But then … my human instincts might be the very thing that a supersophisticated alien AI could swiftly learn to play upon. The same way that a skilled dramavid team might draw in millions of viewers, getting them to hypnotically believe in artificial characters of the latest full-immersion miniseries.

At least we’re advanced enough to ponder all these possibilities. But what if other stones fell to Earth, long ago? How might they have dazzled our ancestors?

Gerald’s specs had been tracking his gaze and iris fluctuations, temporal lobe surges, and subvocal comments half sent to his larynx. All of that—plus the surrounding conversation—fed a steady churn of googs and guesses about what might interest him, constantly re-prioritized so that only the most plausible would float into his periphery of vision … while leaving Gerald free to focus on real people and events, straight ahead. Done right, associative attention assistance simply imitated the way creative folk already thought—making millions of connections, while only a few reached surface awareness. Gerald had never been able to afford the best intelligence enhancement aiware … till now. Until price suddenly became no object.

Now, he was still getting used to the souped-up gear. One corner of his specs lit up in a yellow, high-pri shade, indicating that a virt was coming in, from a person of substance with top credibility scores. From someone in the Advisory Panel eighty or so experts who were permitted to watch the commission deliberate in real time, and offer suggestions.

Gerald first saw it gist-distilled down to a single phrase—“many may be one, and vice-versa.” But, in less than a second the glimmer expanded, filling out the meaning and acquiring a vaice, especially as first Akana, then Genady, clicked approval.

“The distinction between ‘one’ and ‘many’ can be ambiguous. The best models of a human mind portray it as a mélange of interests and subpersonalities, sometimes in conflict, often merging, overlapping, or recomposing with agile adaptability.

“Sanity is viewed as a matter of getting these fluid portions of the self to play well together, without letting them become rigid or too well defined. In human beings, this is best achieved through interaction with other minds—other people—beyond the self. Without the push-back of external beings—outside communities and objective events—the subjective self can get lost in solipsism or fractured delusion.

“We know from experience that solitude or sensory deprivation can be especially devastating. Prisoners who are kept in sequestered confinement often wind up dividing their minds into explicit personas—rigid characters that grow firm and permanent, with consistent voices all their own. Perhaps they do this in order to have someone to talk to.

“Now extrapolate this. Picture a ‘person’ who has lived alone, as isolated as any castaway, for untold centuries. Even eons. All of it endured without any external beings to converse with. Just floating in space, lacking actual events to help mark time or to denote real from imagined.

“Is it possible that you or I, after such extended loneliness, might envision, then believe in, separate personalities? Characters who started out as imaginary figments, but gradually became as varied and interesting and diverse as you might find in a whole world—or in a community of worlds? Interacting with each other in ways that reflect the disorder and pain of a long, harsh state of isolation?”

Emily gasped. “I hadn’t thought of that. But the implication … you’re saying the Artifact may not be making up these characters in order to fool us.

“Instead, it might be doing so because it is insane!”

“I did not use that term. In fact, there is another word that comes to mind. More optimistic and less judgmental, it could also explain the ‘Rabble Effect’—the chaotic jumble of personalities and images.

“Instead of malignant intent, or insanity, the sheer diversity of alien types that we see may reflect simple wishfulness, on the part of a lonesome mind. One that was originally designed as an emissary. One built to yearn for contact.”

Gerald saw it coming. He spoke aloud, before the advisory voice could state the obvious.

“You think the Artifact is asleep. That it may be dreaming.

“In which case, can we—or should we—try to wake it up?”

*   *   *

Tiger sifted all the different theories into a multidimensional matrix, performed some optimization simulations, and came up with a suggestion.

“I propose that we try operant conditioning.”

The phrase sounded familiar to Gerald. His wetbrain memory tickled—possibly something he had learned in freshman biology class. But why bother reaching for it neuronally? Definitions scrolled under the quasi-feline face, sparking associations. Ah, yes. B. F. Skinner and his famous pigeons. Using reward and punishment to reinforce some behaviors while eliminating others. Anyone who ever trained a dog knew the basics.

“We should stop providing information, and even very much in the way of illumination to power the Artifact, except when the creatures within decide to settle down, behave less manically competitive, and start talking with us in a cogent manner.”

“Forcing them to get organized and stop behaving like unsupervised kindergartners.” Akana nodded with approval. It seemed that the idea of teaching aliens discipline appealed to her.

“And what of those other possibilities?” Emily asked, pointing at the plausibility matrix. “One theory suggests that the Rabble Effect may be a pretense. The appearance of an unruly mob may be feigned, as if by actors, playing roles. All this wild diversity could be made-up by a single mind. One that’s nefarious, or crazy … or perhaps dreaming?”

“Well,” answered the feline-female visage in the threevee tank. “This plan would seem best, in any event. It would show that we mean business. That it is time to rouse and get focused. To stop any pretense.”

Gerald stared. All the experts insisted that ersatz personae like Tiger weren’t truly self-aware or sapient—only programmed to seem that way. But when did the distinction become absurd, even foolish?

Ramesh shook his head. “They … it … the Artifact already knows a lot about us. If we try such a ploy, it may simply call our bluff, betting that we can’t hold out for long. Not with several billion people watching and the potential of rich treasures to be gained from contact. Demands from the public—and our political masters—will put a time limit on any such experiment. And this thing has plenty of experience with patience.

“Still,” he shrugged, “it does seem to be the best idea on the table.”

When it came to a vote, Gerald raised his hand in assent. Still, he kept one thought to himself—

—that operant conditioning can work both ways. Sometimes, the one who thinks he’s doing the training … may be the one being trained.

PIONEERS

Okay, it’s me Slawek again. Promoted from tour guide to reclam leader. Yeah, I’m just a kid. So? If you don’t like taking directions from a fourteen-year-old deepee, just go to the Duty Desk and ask Dariga Sadybekova to assign you to another team. Or tell Dr. Betsby your troubles, if he’ll listen. Oh yes … he’s out of town!

Look, I don’t care if you just arrived from Outer Slobovia, or if your biofeedback guru wants you to buzz-meditate twelve hours a day, or if you still have the Awfulday Twitches. Everybody works. That’s a rule if you want to keep living here under the Silverdome.

In fact, some of the work parties are dorma-fun. Hunting pheasant and picking wild grapes in the wild suburbs, or sledge-demoling abandoned houses and stripping their last traces of metal. Pounding down the walls in search of hidden treasures.

Sorry, we’re not doing that today.

We’ll be sewer-diving under one of the Detroit reclamation neighborhoods we Silverdomers were granted, as a homestead domain by the state of Michigan. That is, if we can improve it.

Yeah, okay. Sewer work. So? Why blink? Almost nobody lives there, so there won’t be much flushing going on. And we all get micropore masks. So it shouldn’t stink. Much.

One reason for this pre-briefing is to make you familiar with the task and a crude map of what’s down there. Our job is to install RFID repeater-chips every half meter along all the pipes and mains we can reach, so this part of the underworld can join the World Mesh. Currently, it’s way dark down there! And with no link it’s possible to get lost. Really lost! So remember the buddy system.

We must keep a good pace, ’cause another crew will be right behind us, staple-gluing data strand to the roof of the sewer. A startup company wants to compete with cable and phone conduit providers. They aim to use sewage rights-of-way to deliver fiber cable to every toilet—I mean, every home—in America. (A far-raki idea! I’m already invested.)

Finally, each of you will be given a siphon bottle and a sack. We’ll show you how to find low spots in the sewer that may have collected pools of mercury, across the last century or two. Suck those little deposits into the bottle. The bag is in case you spot saltpeter crystals along the way. Or coins. There are a dozen other treasures to look out for—one more reason to pay attention to this briefing.

Phos prices are up and you can trade whatever you find for zep rides or driz, when we get back to our big dome-home.

 

30.

THE AVENUE WITHIN

The shunt caused a strange kind of agony. The worst since the zeppelin explosion left her body a roasted shell.

Even the word itself felt painful, in a way, because it was misleading. Like other journalists of a new generation, Tor disliked the mushy inexactitude of earlier correspondents—their propensity for oversimplification and loosey-juicy metaphor. To be precise then, the “shunt” that doctors and technicians were installing into her brain was not a single tube or wire. It consisted of more than ten thousand separate pathways that started out as tiny holes, drilled into her skull.

From there, minuscule, trail-blazing automatons probed inward, proceeding cautiously. Minimizing damage to fragile axons, dendrites, and neural clusters, where calcium ions surged and electro-chemical potentials flared, all contributing to the vast standing wave of composite human consciousness. Skirting all of that, as much as possible, the microscopic machines instead navigated their way inward via giant astrocyte cells, using them as fatty corridors, while each little crawler tugged a slender fiber behind it, until the final destination—some well-mapped center of communication, vision, or motor control—lay just ahead.

Tor appreciated the lack of pain receptors inside a human brain. Or so assured the doctors, in tinny voices that crackled down the remnants of her auditory system—those portions that had not been seared away by the zeppelin explosion. In fact, the creeping nano-robots should not trigger any conspicuous reaction at all, as they made their way to preplanned positions in the visual cortex, the cerebellum, the anterior cingulate, the left temporal lobe … and a host of other crucial nexi, scattered through Tor’s intricately folded cerebrum. That is, not until they were ready to start their real work—probing and testing, mapping old connections and creating new ones that might—possibly—let her see again, and hear and speak after a fashion.

And perhaps … science willing … even move and walk and …

But it seemed better not to dwell too much on hope. So instead, Tor clinically envisioned what was going on inside her head. Imagination perceived the machine incursion as a benign army of penetrating needles—or invading mites—crawling inexorably inward, forcing their way past all barriers of decency, into a sanctum that had once been ultimately private. Or, as private as anything could be, in this modern world.

Then, upon arriving at its destined station, each little robot began poking! Jabbing and zapping the tips of selected dendrites, sometimes achieving nothing, or else triggering instantaneous reactions—a speck of “light” … a twinge of her left big toe … the smell of roasted pine nuts … a sudden hankering to see, once again, her girlhood pet retriever, Daffy.

Reacting with disorientation, even nausea, Tor soon felt warm countercurrents flow—undoubtedly drugs meant to keep her body calm and mind alert—as the doctors began to make demands upon her, asking about each sensorimotor effect.

Irritated by their yattering, for a brief time she considered withholding cooperation. But that impulse didn’t last. As if they would let me refuse. Anyway, to do so—in order to tell them off—Tor would have to speak, to make her wishes understood by some means other than tooth-taps in Morse code. Till then, she would be ruled incompetent, a ward of the state and of her company’s insurance plan, lacking any legal right to make them all bug off!

So, Tor clicked her canines and bicuspids, in order to answer simple questions—such as identifying “left” and “right,” “up” and “down,” when bright smudges began to appear, triggered by probes that stimulated different parts of her visual cortex. And soon, what had started as gross blobs began resolving into ever smaller pixel-like points, or slender rays, or slanting bars that crossed from one side to another … as some computer gradually learned the cipher of her own, unique way of seeing.

Everyone’s different, I hear. Our inner images map onto the same reality as other people see—the same streetlights and billboards and such. Each of us claims to perceive identical surroundings. We all call the sky “blue.” And yet, the actual experience of sight—the “qualia”—is said to be peculiar to each person. Our brains are not logically planned. They evolve—every one of us, in that sense, becoming her own species.

Tor realized she was reciting, as if for her vraudience! Parsing clear sentences, even though there was—so far—no subvocal transceiver to convey her words around the world. Or even across the room. It seemed that habit, sometimes a dear friend, was drawing her back into the role of reporter and raconteur. And, even without a public to appreciate it—she still deemed it good, a source of pleasure and pride, to shape rounded sentences. To describe what was happening—that offered her a glimmering sense of power, amid utter powerlessness.

Part of me survived, whole. Maybe the best part.

Not that Tor was ever entirely alone. There were the human specialists and computer-voiced aidviser programs hired by MediaCorp to take care of their superstar. And, ensuring that she never felt abandoned in the darkness, there was the voice of the mob—the smart-mob she had called up, aboard the Spirit of Chula Vista. It never left her side … though individual members came and went. Whenever the hospital allowed it, during frequent breaks and visitor hours, that composite voice returned to keep Tor company, to read to her, or else keep her up with current events.

What would I have done, if there had been deeper brain damage? she wondered. Injury that prevented the reception and “hearing” of auditory input, for example? The voices in her head kept her sane. They were her link to the real world.

And so, between medical sessions, when her tooth ached from tapping a million yes and no answers—helping identify the scattered and minute segments of her rebuilding brain—she was also fed a steady description of each day’s news. Naturally, that included the planetary fascination with a stone from interstellar space—the Livingstone Object. But there were also reports on a hard-pressed search for the zeppelin saboteurs. Those who murdered poor Warren and left her in this state, encased in a life-sustaining cocoon.

Tor’s direct recollections of that episode were a bit murky—trauma often prevented the firm anchoring of memories of some shattering event. She did remember Warren as a set of clipped impressions … along with images of a cathedral filled with tall, colored columns that bulged and throbbed menacingly. No doubt, some of it was just a visual reconstruction, based on things she had been told—about her own valorous actions.

In fact, the earliest clear image to take shape within her visual cortex—the first one consisting of more than simple geometric forms—rippled and finally resolved into a wavering headline from the top-ranked MediaCorp virpaper, The Guardian. It showed a grainy, wavering, animated image that had to be a zeppelin, wounded, with a gaping, burned area smoldering along its top. A battered ship, but still proud and eager for the sky. Below, one could make out specks that were evidently passengers, spilling down escape slides and dispersing to safety.

Well, the picture’s not as historically dramatic as the Hindenburg documentary. Still, it’s quite a sight.

There was something else, next to that brief animation. Without eyes to physically turn, it took some effort for Tor to divert her cone of attention toward what lay to the right … and another few seconds of concentration before it clarified and meaning sank in. Then, abruptly, she recognized a picture of her own face.

Or, what used to be my face. I’ll never see it in a mirror again. Nor will anybody else. Strangely, none of that seemed important, right now. Not compared to something much simpler.

The picture’s caption swam into focus, and then stayed there, clear as day.

HERO WHO SAVED HUNDREDS.

A sense of joy filled Tor, briefly.

I can read!

Not all patients who regained vision in this way recovered their full suite of abilities. It was one thing to stimulate an array of pixel dots to form images. It was quite another to connect them to meaning. That required countless faculties and crucial subskills, resident in widely dispersed parts of the brain. Weaving together all that vast complexity, artificially, was still far beyond the reach of science. For that, you required an essentially intact brain.

Hence, her feeling of almost overwhelming relief. She had both recognized a face and deciphered a string of letters, first try! Tor laboriously tapped out the news, sharing this milestone.

Even if I get nothing else back, I’ll be able to read books. And I will probably be able to write, too.

I’m not dead. I can contribute.

I’m still worth something.

*   *   *

Then it was back to work. Tor even began to enjoy the process a bit, plumbing intricacies of her own nervous system, helping to guide an inside-out self-examination, unlike anything her ancestors could have imagined, picking at the bits and pieces of a mechanism that nearly everybody took for granted—the most complex machine ever known.

To her surprise, it also meant reliving memories that flared suddenly, as the ignition spark from one probe briefly relit a particular bright autumn day, when she was six years old, sneaking up behind her brother with a water balloon dripping in both hands, only to have her footsteps betrayed by the crackling of dying kudzu leaves—a moment that came rushing back in such rich detail that it felt intensely real. Certainly more real than this muffled, drug-benumbed existence. For a minute or two, it almost seemed as if that little girl was the real Tor—or Dorothy Povlovich. Perhaps all she had to do was concentrate on just the right happy thought in order to wake fully into that moment, and leave this nightmare …

… another probe kicked in. Attempting to find one of Tor’s muscle-control centers, it instead set off a sad emotion from adolescence, unassociated with any facts, or events, or images, but glowering like a cloud, still fresh, for a minute or so of passionately miserable regret—before the probe moved on and found its proper target site.

Later, there erupted from some memory cache the sudden recollection of a treasured keepsake that she had lost, long ago, its forgotten location now suddenly rediscovered. I could tell Mom. She could find the keychain. Forgive that I misplaced it. Only … she wouldn’t care at all. Not with her daughter in a place like this.

It made Tor realize—if this kept up, perhaps she might have visitors. Not to her ravaged body, which could not see or speak, but in here, to the mind that lingered on. It should be possible, via virspace, to make a pleasant room, an animated version of herself that could talk, or seem to, driven by her coded thoughts. She still had family, a brother, some friends. And Wesley might even come—though why should he? Tor found it implausible, given how shallow he had been, before that ill-fated zep voyage.

Probably not. Still, she rehearsed some things that she might say—to ease his embarrassment, or to make it easier … or angry words to express her disappointment, if he never came.

Mostly, she thought about such things to help pass time, as the process of establishing the shunt went on and on. It was all so transfixing and boring, so mesmerizing and painful, she almost failed to understand, when the doctors asked for her full attention.

The quality of sound had improved.

Tor, we think your subvocal pathways should work now. Could you try to speak?

She wondered, in the passive stillness.

Speak? What are they talking about? With a mouth that’s wired shut, a lipless, skeletal grimace … how am I supposed to do that?

Of course, subvocal inputs had been standard nearly all her life. You pretend to be about to say something. Sensors on the jaw and throat track nerve impulses, turning them into words via the virtual realm, without requiring any labor by the physical larynx, nor by the tongue to fashion phonemes. Most users emitted only faint grunts, and Tor never even did that. But always, there used to be the physical sensations of a real tongue, a real voice box that would almost start to make real sounds.

Now, without feedback from those organs, she must imagine, envision, and pretend well enough to cause the same nerves to—

A strange, blatting sensation startled Tor. It seemed to reverberate inside her skull, down auditory pathways that she used to associate with ears. Recovering from surprise, she tried again—and was rewarded with another “sound,” this one seeming guttural and low in tone. They’re taking my efforts and routing them back to me … so I can “hear” my own voice production attempts. So I can start the process of correcting.

After a few more tries, she managed to remember, or else re-create, how to send signals. Commands that used to form the simplest sounds. The crudity felt embarrassing, and she almost stopped. But sheer obstinacy prevailed. I can do this!

Bit by bit, the sounds improved.

Eventually, she managed to craft a message—

“H-h-hi … d-docsss…”

Naturally, they were lavish with praise and positive reinforcement. Indeed, it felt satisfying to be helpful, to make progress. To be an essential member of a team, once again. All of that—and the prospect of no more Morse tooth-tappings—helped to mollify Tor’s sense of being patronized, patted on the head, with no choice in whatever came next.

Soon, I’ll be able to assert myself. Declare my autonomy. Get judged competent to make decisions. And maybe—if I wish—stop all this.

It was a biting thought—one that seemed ornery and ungrateful, amid such notable medical progress. But, still, the thought was hers. Tor had very little else that she could call her own, other than thoughts.

Anyway, the notion did not take root for long. Because Tor soon was thoroughly distracted by the very next thing that they tried …

… when they linked her to the Cloud.

REPAIRMEN

Oh, the fracking mess.

I’m supposed to be careful what I say. As a public mouthpiece for Freedom Club, I should keep my distance from “illegal activity.” One rule for revolutionary movements, going all the way back to Bakunin, is strict separation of the political and action wings.

But hell, I’m fed up. What have we accomplished since that glorious event the dumbass peasants call Awfulday? When it seemed, for one magnificent moment, that the whole corrupt edifice of greed and bureaucracy and technology would come crashing down? Since then, what disappointment! Great Ted, working in his little mountain cabin, rattled the modernists’ cage. Why can’t we?

Failures pile up. Did that nuke in the Pyrenees accomplish anything? Rumors claim the abomination—the Basque Chimera—escaped. Worse, there’s a whole herd of resurrected mammoths grazing in Canada now, and a million acres of gene-designed perennial wheat! And the goddamn robot minds get smarter daily! And against all that, what have the bold followers of Kaczynski and McVey and Fu-Wayne accomplished lately?

The dolts can’t even blow up a damned zeppelin that’s full to bursting with explosive gas! So that alien crystal thing survived and who knows how many horrid new technologies the geeks will squeeze out of it?

A time of decision is coming! YOU passive supporters of the Better Way must choose. You can go join the peaceful Renunciation Movement, like sniveling gits, and follow that “prophet” of theirs, working within the corrupt system …

… or else take arms! Offer your skills and your lives to the Action Wing and help topple this teetering so-called civilization!

How to join? Just speak up. They’ll find you.

 

31.

CONSENSUAL REALITY

Lacey’s generation was to blame, of course.

They were the ones who invented “continuous partial attention,” after all. Who were proud of jumping from one topic to another, spreading themselves as thin as the wrapper on a Sniffaire gelglobe. Or as narrow as the lived-in moment called now.

But never before had Lacey been forced to stretch her regard among so many vital topics, all of them demanding intense focus. In fact, she knew that the organic human brain can divert itself only so much, before returning, elastically, to whatever thought seems most intense. Most demanding. The elephant in the room.

I am a terrible mother.

Out of the maelstrom—attending to matters in Switzerland and Africa, here in Washington and in outer space, that one core fact was clear. By the moral standards of any human culture, she should have simply dropped everything else, in order to participate in the search for her missing son.

Never mind that it would do Hacker no good at all. She had hired the best professionals and offered rewards plentiful enough to divert every yacht and fishing smack and surfer, between here and Surinam, to join the search … or the fact that Mark was down there now, coordinating the quest to find his brother … or that all she’d accomplish, by hurrying down to the Caribbean, would be to get in the way.

Never mind any of that. It’s simply what a mom would do.

Only maybe not the mother of Hacker Sander.

The last thing in the world he would want from me, would be to show panic … or even much concern.

That one brief burst of telemetry—too short and static-ridden to localize—had reported the reentry capsule to be intact and its passenger healthy, just after it struck the sea. The tiny compartment was designed to float and to sustain life almost indefinitely. Moreover, even if all the electronics aboard had been fried, the shell itself would reflect radar and sonar in uniquely identifiable ways, just as soon as any seekers passed closely enough. A pair of nasty storms had hampered crews from reaching a few search areas, especially those farthest from the likely impact zone. But supposedly it was only a matter of time.

Anyway, she knew how furious the boy would get if he found out that she had rushed south, forsaking and spoiling her once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to witness history firsthand—the very moment of human-alien First Contact. Why? Just to go pace and fret and interfere in the efforts of skilled people?

So, Lacey, is that your rationalization? That you are staying at the Artifact Conference to honor Hacker? In order to do as he would wish—and as Jason would have wished?

Good one.

Next to her sat Professor Noozone. The scientist-popstar was happily engaged, grunting and clicking and subvocally mumbling as he interacted with his avid fan community—now numbering over a hundred million, in part because of where he sat right now. In a VIP seat, no less. The signature draidlocks floated around his head, tipped with lenses and sniffers that turned and pointed in every direction, while wafting aromas of ganja-frankincense shampoo. Occasionally she had to bat one of the strands of overly curious cybactive hair out of her space, but she hadn’t the heart to chide him—the man was so puppy-dog grateful to Lacey for getting him into the Observer’s Gallery as her adviser, separated by just a thick sheet of glass from the quarantine chamber and the white-coated figures—including Gerald Livingstone himself—who were examining the Havana Artifact.

In a nearby holistube, she saw an animated Noozone replica, chattering and gesticulating away, while concept-blimps hovered all around its head. The voice was tuned down, in order not to disturb other members of the Advisory Panel—experts, international dignitaries and representatives of all ten Estates. But when Lacey’s gaze settled in that direction, some computer measured her pupil dilation and responded to her interest, by sending a narrow-collimated beam of sound toward one ear.

“So which t’eories have we eliminated so faar?” The Professor’s animated holvatar drawled in a satin-toned Jamaican accent, as it swept one arm to point at a multidimensional comparison chart hovering nearby.

“Almost none! Till dem Contact Team manages to overcome dem humano-centric bias enough to understand the Artifact entities on their own terms, we are left with only that marvelously enticing ‘join us’ come-yah invitation as a very-major clue to the purpose of the Livingstone Object … or Havana Artifact, or any of the other names for this truly-wondrous thing. Rhaatid.

“And yet, on that sole-basis alone, futures market probabilities have shifted so-dramatically. Wager-contracts based upon alien invasion, for example, plummeted to mere-millicents on the dollar. Bets that pree-dict a true-friendly galactic bredren-federation skyrocketed in value, an’ then split, as interest focused on what kind of federated society the aliens might be part of.

“Of course, here is where we try a little smoky-ingenuity to piece together clues based upon the behavior of the strange beings-within-the-stone.…”

Lacey pulled her gaze away and the volume of Profnoo’s vaice tapered off, as she looked beyond the glass at the focus of all this worldwide attention. The Artifact, an oblong-tapered, opalescent cylinder, lay in its cradle under a cloth canopy that staved off most of the room light, keeping it in shade. With just a modest supply of photon energy flowing into the stone, only faint and blurry images of drifting clouds could be seen playing across its surface.

Workmen were attaching hoses to the underside of the table while others erected a new illumination system under the direction of the latest member of the Contact Team—a tall, slender African with dark, almost-purple skin, who was said to be an expert at animal training, of all things. Meanwhile, the original discoverer, the astronaut Gerald Livingstone, conferred with General Hideoshi and several colleagues. One of them was a computer-generated holvatar—a full-size, human-scale aintity image, half woman and half tiger—whose feral, carnivorous expression hardly seemed in keeping with the peaceful mission of the team.

With nothing much happening below, and with Profnoo fully occupied addressing his public, Lacey was about to lift her cryptospecs and turn her attention elsewhere, toward another urgent matter—events taking place several thousand kilometers to the east. She had an informer secretly planted at the sprawling Glaucus-Worthington estate, near the Liechtenstein border, where delegates were arriving from most of the great families of the clade, as well as Tenskwatawa’s international Responsibility Movement—or “Renunciation Movement” for its attitude toward scientific progress—to negotiate an alliance between those two potent forces. An enciphered report from her spy awaited attention—that should only be readable by this particular set of Mesh goggles. There seemed to be little point in avoiding the matter any longer.

Not with the Naderites panting like eager suitors. I could do it. Join the do-gooder trillies and fight for the Enlightenment. Unite with the techie rich, clustered in Jakarta and Kerala and California and Rio. The Jains, Omidyars, Yeos, Berggruens, and others. Use my wealth and influence to battle for science. Denounce inherited aristocracy. Blow the whistle on my neo-feudalist friends, who I grew up with …

… and send Jason spinning in his grave.

She had the set of crypto-aiware raised halfway to her face—preparing to give the code unlocking the spy’s report—when someone plopped down, uninvited, onto the plush seat to her right.

“We really should get one of our own, you know.”

She put down the specs. It was Simon Ortega, representative of the Corporate Estate—big businesses based all over the planet. With his dark, Timorese features and Porto accent, Simon exemplified the internationalist image that globalized companies had been trying to convey, ever since Awfulday and the Big Deal. Transparency, open competition, honest dealings—the very essence of the real Adam Smith, the original liberal—and no more close affiliation with the superrich.

So why is he sitting down here? Isn’t he afraid to be seen talking to an old-money plutocrat like me?

Or does he have his own sources, telling him what’s going on in Switzerland right now? A power realignment that might lead to a return to the old days, when a few crony families could sway markets, topple corporations and nations, and rock human destiny? If he thinks those times are returning, he could be trying to line up an alliance of his own. To wind up on the winning side.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Ortega. We should get one of our own … what?”

“A group holvatar, Mrs. Donaldson-Sander. A presence entity to speak for us members of the Advisory Council. To represent our interests, beyond the glass, where they are poking away at the visitors from space. Something to counterbalance that damned Tiger-Girl and make them stop ignoring us up here!”

Ah. Lacey realized. So this had nothing to do with events in Zurich. Ortega was just expressing his natural reaction to the way things were going here at the Artifact Conference. Specifically, the way the glass barrier prevented all the people and interests on this side, in the observers’ gallery, from influencing events on the other side. The Corporate Estate was collectively more nervous than most.

Although communication with the Artifact aliens was still chaotic and sporadic, the world had given a collective sigh of relief over the clear friendliness of the “join us” remark. Almost any form of participation in an interstellar federation would surely bring benefits, expanded knowledge, propitious technologies, surprising art, and possibly solutions to many problems. Of course, some apple carts would be overturned and upset a few groups. The Renunciators, for example, and Lacey’s own clade of conservative clans.

Not the Naderites, though. They love all this.

Stuck in between—torn by both hope and worry—would be Ortega’s constituency. On the one hand, alien knowledge should offer plenty of new business opportunities for the lucky and agile. On the other hand … even supposing all went well, if terrific new alien concepts and technologies arrived, delivering a million benefits without unleashing serious side effects … even then, lots of corporate entities would see their goods and services and market positions rendered obsolete. Why, just a few improvements in nano-tech might make it possible to at last produce home fabricators—letting citizens create almost any product from raw materials right in the kitchen or garage. A boon … unless your job or portfolio depends on manufacturing. Or shipping goods. In fact, half the companies in every stock market might wither. No wonder he seemed nervous.

Yet, it turned out that Ortega had another purpose entirely.

“Have you heard what they are planning to do, Mrs. Donaldson-Sander? They intend to use operant conditioning. That means using rewards and punishments, in a crude attempt to implement behavior modification on the alien entities residing inside!”

Lacey clamped down to keep from giggling over an unforgivable pun that leaped to mind.

Shall we teach Pavlovian dogs to SETI-up and beg?

Fortunately, the man didn’t notice her brief grunt.

“Can you believe the arrogance? The unbelievable vanity! Assuming all our difficulties in communication are their fault, not ours? Employing barbarously inhospitable methods to force them to meet our primitive standards of conduct!”

Despite his overwrought passion, Lacey felt impressed—and perhaps a little ashamed. She had been ready—twice in a few seconds—to assign unsavory motives to this man, when his true reason for being upset was idealistic. A matter of graciousness and courtesy.

“Well, the aliens do seem a bit out of control. Pushing and jostling. Interrupting each other, so that almost nothing decipherable or clear makes it to the surface. It’s hard to see how that could be our fault.”

“Exactly.” Ortega nodded vigorously. “It is hard to see with our primitive minds. And yet, how could it not be our fault? A vast and sophisticated galactic civilization, experienced at hundreds of past contact situations, must know what it’s doing! Certainly compared to inexperienced and immature Earthlings. They are probably being very patient with us, waiting for us to figure out something simple.”

Lacey pondered. Something simple … that those sophisticated minds can’t just explain to us? Why not simply lay it all out, plainly, in clear language and illustrated without ambiguity?

Of course, that has also long been the reasonable person’s complaint toward God.

She stopped herself from mentioning one possibility that was rising—slowly but steadily—in the worldwide betting pool. The aliens’ chaotic, uncooperative behavior might be explained if the stone-from-space were actually a hoax. In that case, it would likely be programmed to delay any actual conversation for as long as possible, messing with nine billion human heads while never actually getting down to specifics. In fact, the wager market had divided the category into several subplots, depending on whether the purpose of the fraud was to “unite humanity,” or “scare us into a dictatorship,” or “pull a financial scam,” or simply to throw the biggest prank of all time.

Oh, sure, lots of experts declared that the Livingstone Object couldn’t be a hoax. Much of its technology was beyond humanity’s current abilities. But only by a bit—maybe just a couple of decades in crystal technology, for example. Almost daily, some company or government or amsci group declared: Hey! We’ve figured out how to do this part of what the Artifact does!

It was an especially big driver of activity in the Industry of Lies.

I hear Peter Playmount is pushing an epic cinemavirt into production, in which the hero will be a chunk of space crystal, saved from some dark conspiracy by a bunch of brave kids.…

“The Contact Team is clearly out of control down there.” Simon Ortega gestured at the group on the other side of the glass, pressing his point. “The International Supervisory Commission won’t interfere with their mad scheme to torture the alien travelers into cooperating.”

The man unfolded a clipboard of the old-fashioned variety, with a single sheet of paper attached. “A group of us are circulating a petition, to either let us into that room, or to broaden the Contact Team, or else at least to give us some kind of presence in there, to make our views known!”

Lacey glanced over the page. A large fraction of the advisers had already signed. There seemed little possibility of harm. In fact, why not? She was reaching for the ink-pen that Ortega offered …

… when one of her earrings chimed. A phone call, urgent of course—she had made clear to her secretaries and du-ai-nas that only top priority messages should get through. A soft, cyber whisper spoke the name “Gloria Harrigan.” It was Hacker’s personal attorney.

“Would you excuse me please?” she asked Ortega. “This call is very important.” Her voice was on the verge of cracking as she turned away, while squeezing the earring. “Yes?”

“Madam Donaldson-Sander? Is that you?”

“Of course it is.” As if anyone else would be answering this encrypted channel. “Is there news from the search?”

“Yes, madam. A crew has found Hacker’s capsule, or what’s left of it.”

Lacey felt both hot and cold. Vision started growing blurry.

“Wait, please. I said that badly. The capsule was in scattered pieces, but there are no traces of human … That is, an expert examined the latch and declared it must have been deliberately opened, from the inside!

“So, there is strong reason to believe Hacker left before the container was destroyed. That, plus the lack of any fresh human bio-traces in the area, suggests he departed on his own power, protected and sustained by the very best survival suit money can buy.”

Gloria spilled all of that so rapidly Lacey had trouble keeping up, grasping at the meaning, until it was repeated several times.

“Mark is on the scene right now. He asked me to pass on the good news, and promises that he will call you personally within the hour.”

Lacey, nodded, trying hard to see this as good news. She swallowed a few times before subvocalizing a question.

“So, what happens next?”

“The search will continue, madam. Please understand, the location is quite some distance away from his expected landing point, which is why things took so long. Also, we had been counting on finding radar and sonar reflections from the shell. Now it’s clear why that didn’t happen.

“But we’re dialed in at last! He can have only gone a few dozen kilometers, max, swimming under his own power or drifting with the local currents. So we’ll just draw in all our resources to that small patch of sea. There should be results almost any time now.”

It took a great effort to speak at all, let alone maintain a lifetime habit of civility.

“Thank you, Gloria. Please thank ever … everyone.”

It was no use. There were no further words. She pinched the earring to end the call, then pinched again, as it tried to hurriedly report on waiting messages from important people—like the head of the Naderite coalition and the director of her Chilean planet-hunter observatory, and …

No. Prioritize. First sign Ortega’s petition, so the honor-driven but pesty little man would go away … then focus … focus on some important matter, such as the report from her spy in the Alps. Or else immerse yourself in the brilliantly entertaining blather being spewed by your hired genius. Profnoo would appreciate a little attention.

One thing Lacey would not do was dwell overmuch on the news. On hope.

Anyway, what lurked in her mind below the surface was something beyond hope. Perhaps even insultingly so. She could not shake an intense feeling—perhaps rising out of wishful thinking, or even hysterical denial—that Hacker was not only alive, but safe somehow.

Perhaps even having fun.

Wouldn’t that be just like him?

The suspicion had some basis in experience.

He would always get in touch with me whenever there was trouble. On the other hand, Hacker generally ignored his mother when things were interesting or going well, neglecting to call if he was having the time of his life.

ENTROPY

Suppose we manage to avoid the worst calamities. The world-wreckers, extinction-makers, and civilization-destroyers. And let’s say no black holes gobble the Earth. No big wars pound us back to the dark ages. Eco-collapse is averted and the economic system is kept alive.

Let’s further imagine that we’re not alone in achieving this miraculous endurance. That many other intelligent life forms also manage to escape the worst pitfalls and survive their awkward adolescence. Well, there are still plenty of ways that some promising sapient species might rise up, looking skyward with high hopes, and yet—even so—fail to achieve its potential. What traps might await us because we are smart?

Take one of the earliest and greatest human innovations—specialization. Even way back when we lived in caves and huts, there was division of effort. Top hunters hunted, expert gatherers gathered, and skilled technicians spent long hours by the riverbank, fashioning intricate baskets and stone blades. When farming created a surplus that could be stored, markets arose, along with kings and priests, who allocated extra food to subsidize carpenters and masons, scribes and calendar-keeping astronomers. Of course, the priests and kings kept the best share. Isn’t administration also a specialty? And so, a few soon dominated many, across 99 percent of history.

Eventually though, skill and knowledge spread, increasing that precious surplus, letting more people read, write, invent … which created more wealth, allowing more specialization and so on, until only a few remained on the land, and those farmers were mostly well-educated specialists, too.

In the West, one trend spanned the whole twentieth century: a steady professionalization of everything. By the end of the millennium, almost everything a husband and wife used to do for their family had been packaged as a product or service, provided by either the market or the state. And in return? A pilot had merely to pilot and a firefighter just fought fires. The professor simply professed and a dentist had only to dent. Benefits abounded. Productivity skyrocketed. Cheap goods flowed across the globe. Middle-class citizens ate strawberries in winter, flown from the other hemisphere. Science burgeoned, as the amount that people knew expanded even faster than the pile of things they owned.

And that is where—to some of us—things started to look worrisome.

Let me take you back quite a ways, to the other end of a long lifetime, before the explosive expansion of cybernetics, before the Mesh and Web and Net, all the way back to the 1970s, when I first studied at Caltech. Often, late at night, my classmates and I pondered the dour logic of specialization. After reaping the benefits for many generations, it seemed clear that a crisis loomed.

You see, science kept making discoveries at an accelerating clip. Already, a researcher had to keep learning ever-increasing amounts, in order to discover more. It seemed that just keeping up would force each of us to focus on ever narrower fields of study, forsaking the forest in order to zero in on tiny portions of a single tree. Eventually, new generations of students might spend half a lifetime learning enough to start a thesis. And even then, how to tell if someone else was duplicating your effort, across the world or down the hall?

That prospect—having to know more and more about less and less—seemed daunting. Unavoidable. There seemed to be no way out …

… until, almost overnight, we veered in a new direction! Our civ evaded that crisis with a technological side step that seemed so obvious, so easy and graceful that few even noticed or commented. There were so many exciting aspects to the Internet Age, after all. The old fear of narrow overspecialization suddenly seemed quaint, as biologists started collaborating with physicists and cross-disciplinary partnerships abounded. Instead of being vexed by overspecialized terminology, experts conversed excitedly, more than ever!

Today, hardly anybody speaks of the danger that fretted us so. It’s been replaced by the opposite concern—one that we’ll get to next time.

*   *   *

Only first consider this.

Sure, we may have escaped the specialization trap, for now, but will everyone else manage the same trick, out there across the stars? Our solution now seems obvious—to surf the tsunami! To meet the flood of knowledge with eager, eclectic agility. Refusing to be constrained by official classifications, we let knowledge bounce and jostle into new forms, supplementing professional skill with tides of zealous amateurism.

But don’t take it for granted! The approach may not be repeated elsewhere. Not if it emerged out of some rare quality of our smartmonkey natures. Or pure luck.

Nor would it have been allowed in most human cultures! Which of our past military or commercial or hereditary empires would have unleashed something as powerful as the Internet, letting it spread—unfettered and free—to every tower and hovel? Or allow so many skilled tasks to be performed by the unlicensed?

One can imagine countless other species—and our own fragile renaissance—faltering back into the dour scenario that we students mulled, those gloomy nights. Slipping into an endless, grinding cycle, where specialization—once a friend—becomes the worst enemy of wisdom.

—Pandora’s Cornucopia

 

32.

HOMECOMING

By the third day after his crash-landing at sea, Hacker started earning his meals. In part out of sheer boredom—he grew restless simply being fed by the tribe of strange dolphins, like some helpless infant.

Also, as that day stretched into a fourth, fifth, and so on, he felt a strange and growing sense that—for better or for worse—this was his tribe. At least for the time being.

So he pitched in whenever the group harvested dinner, by helping to hold the fishing net, trying not to flinch as the beaters drove schools of fish straight toward him—a great mass of silver and blue darts that seemed almost like a giant creature in its own right, thrashing against the deadly mesh, as well as his facemask and hands. Each time, Hacker’s jaw throbbed from the intense, subsonic noise of the struggle—and from high power click-scans of the cetaceans, both stunning and caressing their prey. That complex, multichannel song seemed to combine genuine empathy for the fish with an almost catlike enjoyment of their predicament.

I guess it has a lot to do with whether you’re the hunter, or hunted. I had no idea the sea could be so noisy, or musical. Or that life down here was so … relentless.

This was no Disney underwater world. In comparison, the forest deer and rabbits had long stretches of peace. But down here? You watched your back all the time.

Or rather, you listened. The texture of vibrations surrounded and stroked Hacker, in ways that it never did ashore—lapping against him with complex, interweaving songs of danger, opportunity, and distant struggle. Of course the implant in his jaw was one reason for this heightened sensitivity. With his eardrums still clamped from the day of the rocket launch, it provided an alternative route for sound, far more similar to dolphin hearing.

Then there were those silly games that Mother used to play when we were kids. Treating us as her personal science experiments.

Not that he had any real complaints. Lacey would get excited about some new development and recruit the boys as willing—or sometimes grudging—subjects. When she learned that human beings could be taught echolocation, she sent her sons stumbling around in blindfolds, clicking their tongues just so, listening for reflected echoes off sofas and walls … even servants stationed around the room. It proved possible to navigate that way—with a lot of bumps and stumbles. Hacker even found the knack handy as a party trick, later in life.

But who would imagine I’d wind up using it in a place like this?

Even the dolphins seemed surprised by his crude ability. Several of them spent extra time with Hacker, patiently tutoring him, like a slow toddler learning to walk.

In return he helped by checking every member of the pod, from fluke to rostrum, using his ungloved hands to clean sores and remove parasites. Especially bothersome were drifting flecks of plastic, that neither sank nor biodegraded, but got caught in body crevices, even at the roots of every dolphin tooth. He found himself doing the chore daily—also carefully combing gunk out of the gill fronds that surrounded his helmet. But the stuff kept coming back. Sometimes swirling clouds of plastic bits and beads would turn the crystal waters hazy and bleak.

How can anything live in this? he wondered while kicking along with his companions, over a seabed that was littered with manmade dross everywhere they went.

Yet, Hacker felt he was getting the hang of life out here. His early fear of drowning, or getting battered by harsh currents, faded in time, as did the claustrophobia of living encased by a survival suit. Once again, he made a mental note to invest in the company that manufactured it. That is, if he ever made it back to that world.

At night he felt more relaxed than he had in years, perhaps ever, dozing while the dolphins’ clickety gossip seemed to flow up his jaw and into his dreams. By the fifth or sixth morning, and increasingly on each that followed, he felt closer to understanding their way of communicating.

I once saw a dolphin expert—on some nature show—say these creatures are merely bright animals, who had powers mimicry and precocious logic skill, maybe some basic semantics, at the level of a chimp, but little more. He said the evidence disproved all those old wish fantasies about dolphins actually having culture and language.

What a dope!

Hacker felt confirmed in his longstanding belief that so-called experts often lack the common sense to see what’s right in front of them.

Despite a promise to himself, he soon lost track of how many days and nights had passed. Moreover, gradually, Hacker even stopped worrying about where the pickup boats could be. He no longer rushed to the surface, bobbing frantically, whenever engine sounds rumbled through the shallow currents. It happened frequently, but though he often glimpsed a distant boat or plane, it was never within reach of his shouting voice, or waving arms.

Angry mutterings about revenge and lawsuits rubbed away under relentless massage by current and tide. Immersed in the dolphins’ communal sonic chatter, he began concerning himself with daily problems of the Tribe, such as when two young males got into a fight, smacking each other with their beaks and flukes, then trading snaps and rakes with sharp teeth, until half a dozen adults intervened, forcibly separating the brawlers.

Using a combination of spoken words, sign language and his growing vocabulary of click-code, Hacker made inquiries and learned that a female (whose complex name he translated to Blue Lady) was in heat. The youths held little hope of mating with her—top males circled much closer. Still, their nervous energy needed an outlet. At least no one was seriously harmed.

One old-timer—Mellow Yellowbelly—shyly presented a pectoral fin to Hacker, who used his knife to dig out several wormlike bloodsuckers. The dolphin chuttered unhappily, but barely flinched.

“You should see a real doctor,” Hacker urged, as if one gave verbal advice to cetaceans every day.

# Helpers go away, Yellowbelly tried to explain in click-code. Though Hacker had to ask for three repeatings.

# Fins need hands. Helper hands.

It supported a theory slowly gestating in Hacker’s mind—that something had been done to these creatures. An alteration that made them distinctly different. A breed somehow apart from others of their species. But what? The mystery grew each time he witnessed some behavior that just couldn’t be natural.

At the same time, Yellowbelly’s answer lit a spark in one corner of Hacker’s mind—the section assigned to wariness and suspicion. It had been dozing, of late, but nothing could ever turn off that part of his character. Not completely.

Could their kindness to me have a double purpose? Maybe it’s no accident that we’ve not passed near any boats or shore. Or any of the search parties that Mark and Lacey would have sent out.

Having a human may be useful to them.

Perhaps they have no intention of letting me go.

Hacker wondered afresh about his own survival. Despite being fed by the Tribe—and sustained by the wonderful suit—there were limits to how long a man could last out here. I’m developing an itch, all over. The human body isn’t meant for perpetual exposure to salt, and deposits must be building up on my skin. My waste products are easy to dispose of … but what if the gills or freshwater distiller get permanently clogged? Already, he saw signs of declining efficiency.

Still, there seemed to be no life-or-death urgency.

Except to one mother, a brother, three girlfriends, four avocation clubs, and my investment company, drifting rudderless without me. And all the searchers that Lacey has probably sent scurrying across the Caribbean looking for me.

How, he wondered, could the rescuers keep missing him? Had every transponder chip failed, including several in the suit?

One theory occurred to Hacker—that jibbering, noble twit, Lord Smits, must have used something more powerful than a signal laser, during that brief-stupid attempt at playing space war. Perhaps the snooty, inbred bastard also wielded a narrow beam EMP-thrower, firing an electromagnetic pulse that fritzed Hacker’s ailectronics. It could explain the rapid deterioration of his suborbital capsule, at a crucial moment.

If so, it was nothing less than attempted murder.…

Yet, even that realization did not fill him with the expected flood of fury. Somehow, wrath seemed out of place down here. Perhaps it was the implacable push of solar and lunar tides, so much more palpable and insistent than mere atmospheric breezes. Or else the infectious attitude of his companions. Not perfectly cheerful or always accepting … they had their frets and upsets … still, the dolphins were keyed to a wholly different scale. One that seemed less egocentric or self-important. Or that seldom saw a point in frenzy.

# Sea gives …

# … though we must leave her

# … to breathe …

So explained Yellowbelly. At least, that was how Hacker loosely interpreted one set of sonic glyph images.

# And Sea takes it all away again.

Of course, it was an iffy thing, trying to decipher a brief sound sculpture, crudely perceived with a jaw implant that hadn’t been designed for this purpose. Translating Yellowbelly’s explanation as some kind of poetical theology was probably a product of Hacker’s own imagination. Yet even that seemed amazing, for he had never been one for theology. Or poetry, for that matter.

Whatever it is, I’ve managed to figure out all this without assistance. No clever mechanisms or hired experts or AI helpers. There was a grim-amused satisfaction in that. If I’ve gone mad, at least I managed it all by myself!

Life drifted on, a cadence of hunting, eating, socializing, exploring, and tending to the needs of the Tribe—followed by evenings bathed in equal measures of warm water and sound. When a storm or rain squall passed through the area, he listened to the dolphins as they kept a kind of syncopated time with the rippling waves and pelting drops.

Then came one day when the whole community grew excited, spraying nervous clicks everywhere. Amid a swirl of daunting gray forms, swooping and chattering, it took Hacker some time to gather a gist of what was up. Apparently, by group consensus, it had been decided all at once to head for one of their regular haunts, a favorite place of some kind. One they seemed to think of as home.

For quite some time Hacker had been trying to keep up with the group on his own, kicking hard with his flippers and swimming with increasing strength, at a pace he was pretty proud of … even knowing that they were indulging him with affectionate tolerance, amused by his clumsy efforts. Now though, a note of impatience intruded. Several times adult members pulled alongside, offering their dorsal fins, crafting resonant shapes that urged Hacker to grab ahold. But he felt obstinately determined.

Well, after all, they have to go up for air and I don’t. That ought to count for something.

After refusing three times, striving hard to keep up with their increasing pace, he abruptly felt a narrow beam of unpleasantness rattle his jaw on one side. Turning, he felt struck, full-face, by a wave of sharp rebuke—there was no other way to interpret the harsh sonic waves—cast from the brow of an irascible dolphin he had nicknamed Bicker-a-lot.

Heck, make that Bicker-a-ton! The creature glared the way cetaceans do, by crafting a jagged shape around Hacker’s head, composed of craggy, uneven sound waves. None of it showed visibly. There was no change in the beguiling, misleading dolphin smile.

All right. All right. If you feel that strongly about it.

The top female Sweet Thing, offered Hacker a dorsal fin, and this time he accepted. Soon, they were streaking along, building speed, alternately dipping below the thermocline and then racing upward to jet out of the water. Each time, he got an exhaled blast across the facemask as she arched and soared, blowing and filling her lungs while gravity was checked for a brief, glorious moment. Hacker couldn’t help flinching and squinting—and giving a hoarse yell. It was no rocket, but one hell of a ride.

He also tried to take advantage, every leap, of the chance to look around. After a while, Hacker glimpsed something—a blurry line of white and tan and blotchy green up ahead. It was hard to make out amid the jostling of spray and exhilaration. He didn’t dare to linger on the hopeful word—land.

Too soon the rollicking journey ended. The pod of cetaceans slowed and submerged, heading downward at a shallow slant. Now I’ll find out what “home” means to a pack of wild …

A bulky object emerged out of blue dimness, down at the sloping bottom. No more than ten meters below the surface, between sheltering, sedimentary rilles, it had the edgy lines of something man-made. At-first it seemed a derelict, perhaps a sunken ship. Then Hacker sucked in his breath, as the object resolved into another kind of thing altogether. A construct that had come to the muddy sea floor with deliberate purpose.

They were approaching an undersea habitat dome, hidden in a narrow canyon—one of thousands that had been mass produced in the twenties, during a brief suboceanic boom, when some thought it to be the next great property-rush frontier. Dad invested in a few underwater hotels and mining facilities, Hacker recalled. With sea levels rising, he said that humanity would adapt, as always, and we needed to be part of it. Even make money off it.

Too bad none of the ventures ever made a profit.

While his heartbeat settled down, Hacker noticed a few other things. Like the shape of the gully, clearly formed by drifting sand and silt, piled up over many years. It was the kind of terrain that only formed where ocean bottom approached the continental verge. In fact, he could now pick up growling, repetitive rhythms with his implant—a complex pattern that any surfer would recognize—of breaker slapping against the shore.

Shore … The word tasted strange after all these days—weeks?—spent languidly swimming, living on raw fish and listening to timeless ocean sounds. Suddenly, it felt odd to contemplate leaving this watery realm, returning to the surface world of air, earth, cities, machines, and nine billion human beings inhaling each other’s humid breath everywhere they went.

That’s why we dive into our own worlds, I suppose. Countless thousands of hobbies. A million ways to be special, each person endeavoring to be expert at some arcane art … like rocketing into space.

Psychologists approved, saying that frenetic amateurism was a much healthier response than the most likely alternative—war. They called this the “Century of Aficionados,” a time when governments and professional societies could barely keep up with private expertise, which spread at lightning speed across the World Mesh. A renaissance-without-a-cause, lacking only a clear sense of purpose.

A renaissance that seemed to be dancing atop a layer of fragile ice, moving its feet quickly, as if afraid that standing still could be lethal. The prospect of soon rejoining that culture left him suddenly pensive, even a bit sad, pondering something he never would have considered, before that ill-fated desert launch.

What’s the point of so much obsessive, frenetic activity unless it propels you toward something worthwhile?

Once, a few days ago, he had heard one of the dolphins voice a similar thought in their simple but expressive click-language, as far as he could dimly interpret.

# If you’re good at diving—chase fish!

# If you have a fine voice—sing!

# If you’re great at leaping—bite the sun!

Hacker knew he should clamber up the nearby beach now, to borrow a phone and call people—his partners and brokers, mother and brother, friends and lovers.

Tell them he was alive.

Get back to business.

Instead, he swiveled in the water and kicked hard at a downward slant, following his new friends to the habitat dome.

Maybe I’ll learn what’s been done to them, he thought.

And why.

DISPUTATION

Why haven’t we overpopulated the planet?

That may seem an odd question, while refugee riots wrack overcrowded cities that incubate new diseases weekly. Forests topple for desperate farmland, even as drought bakes former farms into desert. Starvation lurks beyond each year’s harvest and human waste is now the world economy’s biggest product by sheer mass. One can understand why some view nine billion humans as a curse, shredding and consuming Earth to the bone.

Yet, it could have been worse. A generation ago, scholars forecast we’d be past fourteen or fifteen billion by now and still climbing toward the limit prophesied by Malthus—a great die-off. It happens to every species that out breeds its habitat capacity.

Trouble is, any die-off won’t just dip our population to sustainable levels. Humans don’t go quietly. We tend to claw and drag others down with us. Out of blame, or for company. Given today’s varied tools of ready wrought destruction, any such event would affect everyone. So, aren’t we lucky that population growth rates are way down? With the total even tapering a bit? Maybe enough to squeak by? Sure, that means old folks will outnumber kids for a while. Well, no one promised survival would be free of consequences.

But how did it happen? Why did we escape (even barely) the Malthusian Trap? Some credit the fact that humans can separate the recreational and procreative aspects of sex.

Animals feel a compulsive drive to mate and exchange genes. Some scatter their offspring in great numbers. Others care intensively for just a few. But animals who finish this cycle and are healthy enough, routinely return to the driver of it all—sex—starting the process over again. Its power is rooted in one simple fact. Those who felt its urgency had more descendants.

This applied to us, too, of course, till technology gave us birth control.

Then suddenly, the sex compulsion could be satisfied without procreation, with amazing effects. Everywhere that women were empowered with both prosperity and rights, most of them chose to limit childbearing, to concentrate on raising a few privileged offspring instead of brooding at max capacity. We became a non-Malthusian species, able to limit our population by choice, in the nick of time.

Too bad it can’t last. Today, some humans do overbreed. These tend not to be the rich, or those with enough food or who have sex a lot. They are having lots of kids because they choose to. And so, whatever inner drives provoked that choice get passed down to more offspring, then more. Over time, this extra-strong desire will appear in rising portions of the population.

It’s evolution in action. As time passes, the locus of compulsion will shift from sex to a genetically-driven, iron willed determination to have more kids.…

… and then we’ll be a Malthusian species again—like the “motie” beings in that novel The Mote in God’s Eye, unable to stop. Unable to say “enough.” A fate that may commonly entrap a great many other species, across the cosmos.

Before that happens to us, we had better finish the job of growing up.

—from The Movement Revealed, by Thormace Anubis-Fejel

 

33.

STRAIGHT FLUSH

As he changed into formal dinner clothes in the luxurious guest bedroom, one furnishing caught the attention of Hamish Brookeman—a modernized, antique chamber pot.

Not the Second Empire armoire, or the Sforzese chest of drawers, nor even the Raj era rug from Baluchistan. (He needed a Mesh-consult to identify that one, with Wriggles whispering a description in his ear.) Hamish had an eye for detail—he needed one, while moving in circles like these. The mega wealthy had grown judgmental, of late. They expected you to know about such things, to better understand your place.

Hamish was a rich man, ranking five percentile nines—enough to classify him as a member of the First Estate, if he weren’t already a legend in the arts. Nevertheless, there was nothing in this room that he could afford. Not one blessed thing.

And I’m far from the most important guest who has come to this gathering in the Alps. I can only imagine what kind of digs they’re giving Tenskwatawa and his aides, or the aristocrats flying in from Shanghai and Yangon, Moscow and Mumbai.

Of course, Hamish had another reason for scanning, hungrily, everything in sight. Always at the back of his mind was the question: Can I use this in a novel?

Even when storytelling ceased to be what it had been for three centuries, an author’s hermetic craft, transforming into a hybrid, multimedia team effort, with eye-clickable hyperlinks that required a whole staff to provide … even so, he still had the solitary habit of mind, envisioning the narrative in paragraphs, punctuation and all.

That Heian era tea table would be worth a three-sentence aside, revealing something about the character of the one who owns it.

Or—

I could go on for a couple of pages about this Bohemian Renaissance four-poster bed, with snakes twisting insidiously, perhaps voluptuously, or else biblically, among the deeply carved curly vines. Maybe even write it into the plot as a haunted soul-reliquary … or high-tech life-extension device … or a disguised scanner, meant to read the minds of houseguests while they sleep.

Each of the scenarios was about Science Gone Terribly Wrong in Unforeseen Ways, of course. There were always far more potential stories about the penalties of human technological hubris than even he could put down.

But no, the particular item he found squatting by the foot of the damask coverlet was especially interesting. Decorated in Georgian style, the chamber pot was either an excellent reproduction (unlikely in this mansion) or else the genuine eighteenth century article—a late Whieldon or an early Josiah Wedgwood design. And yet, evidently, it was also meant to be in service—the modern, hermetically sealed lid made that plain, along with a soft green night-light, designed to prevent fumbling in the dark. No doubt, when he opened the pot for use, he would also find another light within, to improve nocturnal aim.

Can’t have guests pissing on the rug, Hamish mused. A functional combination of old and new. And also—just as explicitly—not to be sat on. Not for women, then, or for defecation. Men only. And just old Number One. Any modern person would understand the narrow purpose—for collecting the contemporary equivalent of gold.

But why here, by the bed? Why not simply walk to the loo?

Just fifteen steps took him through an ornate doorway to the elaborately tiled private bath, with heated floor and seven nozzle shower, where nanofiber towels awaited their chance to massage his pores while wicking moisture and applying expensive lotion, all at the same time. The facilities were sumptuous and up-to-date, except …

Well I’ll be hog-tied. There’s no phos-urinal.

The toilet-bidet had every water and air jet accoutrement, along with the latest seat warmer-vibrator from Kinshasa Luxe. But clearly, the porcelain bowl itself simply flushed, straight into the sewer, just like in the bad old days. There was no separate collector unit, or PU. No way for a man to perform the modern duty never asked of women. The one obligation that few women—even the most egalitarian or environmentally dedicated—volunteered to perform.

Back home, Hamish took care of reducing his household phosphorus waste by simply peeing off his bedroom balcony onto the roses … or into a sheltered flower bed outside his office. The world’s simplest recycling system, and adopted by males all over the globe—wherever any nearby patch of nature might benefit—once a mild gaucherie, now an act of Earth patriotism.

To be honest, he enjoyed it, and Carolyn was no longer around to roll her eyes, muttering about a “so-called crisis that must have been trumped up by macho little boys.”

That brought a smile of recollection … followed by a frown, remembering how, toward the end, she had called him a hypocrite for telling millions of viewers and readers, in Condition of Panic, that the phosphorus shortage was a hoax—a plot conceived by fertilizer barons and radical Earthfirsters.

“In that case, why have you put PUnits in every bathroom of this house?” she demanded, one day. “You could be consistent. Take it to court! Pay the fines! Flush away!”

Hamish’s standard response—“Hey, it’s just a story!”—didn’t seem to work with her anymore. Not toward the end.

In truth, that novel—retitled Phoscarcity? and then Phos-scare-city! for the movie version—was one he rather regretted. Denying the obvious had cost him some credibility. But, then, Carolyn never understood—I don’t like smartaleck boffins telling me what to do. Even when they’re right.

Veering back to the here and now, Hamish wondered about the House of Glaucus-Worthington. For all the luxury of this bathroom, it pretty blatantly ignored the worldwide fertilizer shortage. Do they bribe Zurich officials to look the other way, when this grand mansion sends all its phosphorus down to the mulching plant, mixed in with toilet paper and poo? Downstream reclamation was far less efficient, after all. And the Swiss loved efficiency.

Just because you’re a plutocrat, that doesn’t automatically mean you don’t care about the planet. Even if the GWs shrug off this emergency, some of their visitors will be planet-minded types or rich Naderites, who will want to …

… oh …

Okay, mystery partly solved. The chamber pot was a courtesy, for guests choosing to do the planetary correct thing. But such a conspicuously impractical PC solution! Some servant would have to come, perhaps twice or more a day, collect each contribution and then clean the pot.…

For the second time in a few heartbeats, Hamish got the “aha!” moment that he lived for.

I get it. You’re telling me that you can send well-paid, elegant, soft-spoken servants all through this mammoth showplace, emptying and scrubbing antique porcelain PeeYews—each of them worth a small fortune—by hand. All right, point taken. You are rich enough to no longer care how many nines you have in your percentile.

Also, he recalled with a wince, rich enough to not give a damn about fame … or autographs.

As Rupert Glaucus-Worthington had demonstrated, by smiling faintly, when Hamish tried to hand him a signed copy of The New Pyramid, touching it lightly with a fingertip, before allowing a butler to carry it away. And then, with condescension that seemed more indolent than purposely insulting, the patriarch had asked:

“And so, Mr. Brookeman, what is it that you do for a living?”

One cultural gulf between people living east and west of the Atlantic had long swirled around that question. Americans tended to ask it right away, often unaware that it might cause offense.

To us it means “What interesting task or skill did you choose as the daytime focus of your life?” We assume it’s a matter of choice, not caste. Meanwhile, Europeans tend to translate the question to “What’s your born social class?” or “How much money do you make?” Generations of misunderstanding arose from that simple, treacherous, conversational error.

Only, then, why did Glaucus-Worthington—as European as the Alps—ask it?

Hamish recalled the sense of hurt that question triggered when he arrived at this great house, along with a dozen other guests, all brought in by private stratojet to assist tomorrow’s negotiations. Stepping from limousine to receiving line was no new thing for Hamish. He had been prepared for the usual light chitchat with his host, before butlers took each visitor to private chambers for freshening up.

But Hamish was also accustomed to being one of the most famous people in any room, never subjected to that particular question.

Could it be that he’s really never heard of me? When I answered by offering up some movie titles, none of them seemed to strike a bell. He simply smiled and said “How nice,” before turning to the boffin standing next in line.

Of course, the superrich do have elite pastimes. Interests and activities we can only dream of. Priorities beyond mere …

Standing by the bed—halfway changed from his travel clothes into the obligate white tie and dinner jacket—Hamish blinked in sudden realization.

It’s too much. No person could be that far out of touch. Anyway, all you have to do today is plug a farlai in your ear to get automatic, whispered bio-summaries about anyone you meet. A conscientious host does that, making every guest feel appreciated.

No. The snub was deliberate. Rupert wants to seem aloof, above it all.

But the hand is overplayed.

They’re trying too hard.

Hamish knew what Guillaume deGrasse, his favorite detective character, would say right now.

I can smell fear.

*   *   *

He had no opportunity to share that insight with the Prophet before dinner—only a few moments to offer his capsule summary of meeting Roger Betsby, the self-confessed poisoner of Senator Strong. Tenskwatawa’s dark eyes glittered while listening to Hamish’s brief tale about the daring, the gall, the utter chutzpah of a rural doctor, who seemed so cheerfully—if mysteriously—willing to bring himself down, along with a despised politician.

“So you still have no idea what drug Betsby used to warp Strong’s behavior? Getting him to make such a fool of himself in public?”

“Only that it was a legal substance, even medicinal. What he did was still a crime, Betsby concedes that. But he implies that a jury would be lenient, and that public revelation of the substance itself would do the senator even more harm than has already been done. Betsby threatens that he’ll confess everything, if there’s any retribution. I have to admit … it’s one of the strangest types of extortion I’ve ever seen.”

Tenskwatawa laughed upon reading Hamish’s expression of mystification. “He sounds like a worthy little adversary for you, my friend. Just the sort of challenge that keeps you diverted and happy.”

Forsaking his usual denim for contemporary evening clothes, the man often called a “prophet” seemed to be downplaying the whole messenger of destiny thing. Mysticism had no place at this mountaintop summit, where the twin negotiating themes would be pragmatism and flattery. Only the former would be spoken of explicitly. But in order to achieve the main goal—bringing an important segment of world aristocracy fully into the Movement—there must be a two-pronged appeal, to both self-interest and ego.

Not trivial! After his urinal-epiphany, Hamish had a new appreciation of how delicate it might be. These oligarchs wouldn’t trust populist agitators, even with shared goals. They’d demand assurances, a measure of control …

… and yet, of course, Tenskwatawa was the smartest person Hamish had ever met, so what was there to worry about?

“Why don’t you see if Dr. Betsby can be brought aboard somehow?” Tenskwatawa was so tall that he almost met Hamish eye to eye. “Our passionate young physician must have some want or need that would supersede his current agenda. Money? Help for a cause? Perhaps a taste of jail time, on some lesser charge, would create incentive for him to be reasonable.

“Still,” the Prophet added. “If Betsby won’t budge, do try to see if the senator can be saved.”

“Whatever it takes, sir?”

The Prophet raised an eyebrow, paused, and then shook his head.

“No. Strong isn’t that important. Not anymore. Not with the world in turmoil over this damned Alien Artifact doohickey.

“Anyway, remember Hamish, we’re not pushing to become tyrants. Dirty tricks and Stazi tactics need to be kept to a minimum. Our movement aims only to put a harness on science and technology, instead of leaving them in charge of human destiny. We use populism and mob-mobilization methods, but in order to calm and tame the masses, and thus save the world, so that a better democracy can return later on.”

“Hmm.” Hamish pondered, glancing at their surroundings “Our new allies may not agree with the very last part of that.”

In truth, Hamish wasn’t sure that he did. Plato despised democracy and wasn’t he the wisest philosopher of all?

“I know.” Tenskwatawa briefly squeezed Hamish’s arm above the elbow, conveying a sense of power, jovially restrained, but coiled and always ready, like some force of physics. “The aristos think they can use us … and they do have both history and human nature on their side of the ledger. Perhaps they’ll succeed! We may wind up like so many other populist movements across time—tricked into aiding the rise of oligarchy.

“On the other hand, we have a few new things on our side of the scale.” The Prophet smiled, conveying confidence that shone like the sun.

“Such as Truth.”

ENTROPY

Last time, we talked about one more way that civilizations might fail to achieve their dreams—not because of calamity, or war, or ecological collapse, but something mundane, even banal.

Overspecialization. Failure to keep climbing the near-vertical mountain of their accumulated learning. Pondered logically, it seems unavoidable. The greater your pile of information, the steeper the chore of discovering more! Concentrating on a narrower subject will only work up to a point, because even if you live long enough to master your cramped field, you’ll never know how much of your work is being duplicated, wastefully, across the world or down the hall, by people using a slightly different vocabulary for the same problem. Humanity’s greatest trick for making progress—subsidizing ever larger numbers of specialist-professionals—seemed destined to become a trap.

Indeed, this failure mode may trip up countless civilizations out there, across the galaxy.

But not us. Not on twenty-first century Earth. That danger was overcome, at least for now, by stunning achievements in human mental agility. By Internet connections and search-correlation services that sift the vast sea of knowledge faster than thought. By quest-programs that present you with anything germane to your current interest. By analytic tools that weigh any two concepts for mutual relevance. And above all, by our new ability to flit—like gods of legend—all over the e-linked globe, meeting others, ignoring guild boundaries and sharing ideas.

The printing press multiplied what average humans could know, while glass lenses magnified what we could see—and every century since expanded that range, till the Multitasking Generation can zip hither and yon, touching lightly upon almost any fact, concept or work of art, exchanging blips, nods, twits, and pips with anyone alive … and some entities that aren’t.

Ah, but therein lies the rub. “Touching lightly.”

Much has been written about the problems that accompany Continuously Divided Attention. Loss of focus. A susceptibility for simplistic/viral notions. An anchorless tendency to drift or lose concentration. And these are just the mildest symptoms. At the extreme are dozens of newly named mental illnesses, like Noakes’s Syndrome and Leninger’s Disease, many of them blamed on the vast freedom we have won—to skitter our minds across any topic with utter abandon.

Have we evaded one dismal failure mode—the trap of narrow overspecialization—only to stumble into the opposite extreme? Broadly-spread shallow-mindedness? Pondering thoughts that span the farthest horizons, but only finger-deep?

Listen to those dour curmudgeons out there, decrying the faults of our current “Age of Amateurs.” They call for a restoration of expertise, for a return to credentialed knowledge-tending, for restoring order and disciplined focus to our professions and arts and academe. Is this just self-interested guild-tending? Or are they prescribing another badly needed course correction, to stave off disaster?

Will the new AI systems help us deal with this plague of shallowness … or make it worse?

One thing is clear. It isn’t easy to be smart, in this galaxy of ours. We keep barely evading a myriad pitfalls along our way to … whatever we hope to become.

When you add it all up, are you really surprised that we seem so alone?

—Pandora’s Cornucopia

 

34.

SEASTEADING

Ocean stretched in every direction.

Peng Xiang Bin had come to think of himself as a man of the sea, who spent most of his time in water—amid the scummy, sandy tidal surges that swept up and down the Huangpu Estuary. He thought nothing of holding his breath while diving a dozen meters for crab, or prying salvage from the junk-strewn bottom, feeling more akin to the fish, or even drifting jellies, than to the landlubber he once had been. In a world of rising seas and drowning shorelines, it seemed a good way to adapt.

Only now he realized. I always counted on the nearness of dry land.

Ahead of him lay nothing but gray ocean, daunting and endless, flecked with wind-driven froth and merging imperceptibly with a faraway, turbid skyline. Except where he now stood, on a balcony projecting outward from a man-made island—a high-tech village on stilts—clinging to a reef that used to be a nation.

That was now a nation once again.

Looking carefully, he could follow the curve of breakers smashing over stumps that had once been buildings—homes and schools, shops and wharves. Here had been no massive seawalls. No effort to preserve doomed properties. All toppled under powerful typhoons long ago. Soon after most of the natives moved away, explosives finished off the messy remnants of Old Pulupau, a one-time tropical paradise. The new inhabitants didn’t want unpleasant remnants spoiling their view.

Of course there was a lot more hidden from the eye, just beyond the reef. A vista of underwater industry had been visible from the small submarine that brought Bin here three days ago. Wave machines for generating electricity and siphons that sucked bottom mud to spread into the currents, fertilizing plankton to enhance nearby fishing grounds and earn carbon credits at the same time. Pressing his face against the sub’s tiny window, Bin had stared at huge globes, shaped like gigantic soccer balls, bobbing against anchor-tethers—pens where schools of tuna spent their entire lives, fed and fattened for market. A real industrial and economic infrastructure … all of it kept below the surface, out of sight, in order not to perturb rich residents who lived above.

A glint of white cloth and silvery metal … Bin winced as his right eye, fresh from surgery, overreacted to the sudden glare reflecting off a nineteen-meter sloop that passed into view around the far corner of Newer Newport. Sheets of bright neosilk billowed and figures hurried about the deck, tugging at lines. A call—distant but clear—bellowed across the still lagoon.

“Two-Six, heave!”

Voices answered in unison as well-drilled teamwork rapidly set the main sail. Though the crew seemed to be working hard, few would call it “labor.” Not when the poorest citizen of this independent nation could buy or sell a man like Peng Xiang Bin, ten thousand times or more. Bin found the sight intriguing in more ways than he could count.

I always thought that rich people would lay about, letting servants and robots do everything for them. Sure, you heard of wealthy athletes and hobbyists. But I had no idea so many would choose to sweat and strain … for fun. Or that it could be so—

He shook his head, lacking the vocabulary. Then something happened that he still found disturbing. A dark splotch appeared, as if by magic, in a lower corner of his right eye. The shadow resolved into a single Chinese character, with a small row of lesser figures underneath, offering both a definition and pronunciation guide.

Obsessive.

Yes. That word seemed close to what he had in mind. Or, rather, what the ai in his eye estimated, after following his gaze and reading subconscious signals in his throat, the subvocalized words that he had muttered within, without ever speaking them aloud.

This was going to take some getting used to.

“Peng Xiang Bin,” a voice spoke behind him. “You have rested and the worldstone has recharged. It is time to return.”

It was the same voice that had come from the penguin-machine, his constant companion during the hurried journey that began less than a hundred hours ago—first swimming away from his wife and child and the little shorestead, then slipping aboard a midget submarine, followed by two days aboard a fast coastal packet-freighter, then a hurried midnight transfer to a seaplane that made a final rendezvous, in midocean, with yet another submarine … and all that way accompanied by a black, birdlike robot. His guide, or keeper, or guard, it had spoken soothingly to him about his coming duties as keeper of the worldstone.

Only at journey’s end, after surfacing and stepping onto Newer Newport, here in Pulupau, did Bin meet the original owner of the voice.

“Yes, Dr. Nguyen,” he answered, nod-bowing to a slight man with Annamese features and long black hair, braided in elegant rows. “I come, sir.”

He turned to gather up the off-white ovoid—the worldstone—from a nearby patio table, where it had lain in sunshine for an hour, soaking energy. A welcome break for him, as well. As carefully as he would handle a baby, Bin hefted the artifact and followed Nguyen Ky between sliding doors of frosted glass, moving slowly out of habit, in order to let his vision adapt to interior dimness. Only, he might as well not have bothered. His right eye … or ai … now adjusted brightness and contrast for him, more quickly than any spreading of his natural iris.

The room was broad and well appointed, with plush furnishings that adapted to each user’s comfort preference. Programmable draperies were set to soothing patterns that rippled gently, like a freshwater brook. The farthest window was left open. Through it, Bin glimpsed the rest of Newer Newport—more than a hectare of sleek, multistoried luxury, perched on massive footings, firmly anchored over the spot where ancestral kings of Pulupau once had their palace.

Some distance beyond, a series of other mammoth stilt-villages, each wildly different in style, followed the curve of a drowned atoll. Thielburg, Patria, Galt’s Gulch and several others with names that were even harder to remember. One of them, all stainless steel and glass, was dedicated to caring for aged aristocrats, immersing them in comfort and threevee experience, before freezing them for a nitrogen-chilled journey through time, aimed at repair and resurrection in a hundred years or so—to be young again, in tech-enhanced paradise.

Another artificial islet, with polycarbonano architecture reminiscent of palm logs and thatch roofing, was set aside for the old royal family and a number of genuine Pulupauese. As legalistic insurance, no doubt. In case any nation or consortium should doubt the sovereign independence of this archipelago of wealth.

Seasteading. Of course, Bin had heard of such places. Along the spectrum of human prosperity, these projects lay at the very opposite end from the shorestead that he had settled with Mei Ling in the garbage-strewn Huangpu. Here, and in a few dozen other locales, some of the world’s richest families had pooled funds to buy up small nations to call their own, escaping all obligation (especially taxes) owed to the continental states, with their teeming, populist masses. Yet, Bin could see a few traits shared in common by seastead and shorestead. Adaptation. Making the best of rising seas. Turning calamity into advantage.

Three technical experts—a graceful Filipina who never removed her wraparound immersion goggles; an islander, possibly a native Pulupauan, who kept fingering his interactive crucifix; and an elderly Chinese gentleman, who spoke in the soft tones of a scholar—watched Peng Xiang Bin and Nguyen Ky gingerly replace the worldstone in its handcrafted cradle, surrounded by instruments and sleek, ailectronic displays.

The ovoid had already started coming alive in response to Bin’s touch. As keeper of the worldstone, he alone could rouse the object to craft lustrous images—like a whole world or universe shining within an egglike capsule, less than half a meter long. Whatever the reason for his special knack, Bin was grateful for the honor, for the resulting employment, and for a chance to participate in matters far above his normal station of life. Though he missed Mei Ling and the baby.

The now familiar entity Courier of Caution lurked—or seemed to—just within the pitted, ovoid curves, amid those swirling clouds. Courier’s ribbon eye stared outward, resembling Anna Arroyo’s unblinking goggles, while the creature’s diamond-shaped, four-lipped mouth pursed in a perpetual expression of uneasiness or disapproval.

Bin carefully reattached a makeshift device at one end that compensated for some of the object’s surface damage, partly restoring a sonic connection. Of course, he had no idea how the mechanism—or anything else in the room—worked. But he kept trying to learn every procedure, if only so the others would consider him a colleague … and less an experimental subject.

From their wary expressions, it might take some time.

“Let us resume,” Dr. Nguyen said. “We were attempting to learn about the stone’s arrival on Earth. Here are the ideograms we want you to try next, please.” The small man laid a sheet of e-paper in front of Xiang Bin, bearing a series of characters. They looked complex and very old—even archaic.

Fortunately, Bin did not have to hold the ovoid in his hands anymore. Just standing nearby seemed to suffice. Bringing his right index finger close—and sticking out his tongue a little in concentration—he copied the first symbol by tracing it across the surface of the worldstone. Inky brushstrokes seemed to follow his touch-path. Actually, it came out rather pretty. Calligraphy … one of the great Chinese art forms. Who figured I would have a knack for it?

He managed the next figure more quickly. And a third one. Evidently, the ideograms were not in modern Chinese, but some older dialect and writing system—more pictographic and less formalized—from the warring states period that preceded the unification standards of great Chin, the first emperor. Fortunately, the implant in his eye went ahead and offered a translation, which he spoke aloud in modern Putonghua.

“Date of arrival on Earth?”

There were two projects going on at once. The first involved using ancient symbols to ask questions. But Dr. Nguyen also wanted to expose the entity to modern words. Ideally—if it truly was much smarter than an Earthly ai—it should learn the more recent version of Chinese, and other languages as well. Anyway, this would test the ovoid’s adaptability.

After a brief pause, Courier appeared to lift one arm, weirdly double-elbowed, and knocked Bin’s ideograms away with a flick of one three-fingered hand, causing them to shatter and dissolve. The simulated alien proceeded to draw a series of new figures that jostled and arrayed themselves against the worldstone’s inner face. Bin also sensed the bulbous right end of the stone emit faint vibrations. Sophisticated detectors fed these to a computer, whose vaice then uttered enhanced sounds that Bin didn’t understand.

Fortunately, Yang Shenxiu, the white-haired Chinese scholar, could. He tapped a uniscroll in front of him.

“Yes, yes! So that is how those words used to be pronounced. Wonderful.”

“And what do they mean, please?” demanded the Vietnamese mogul standing nearby.

“Oh, he … the being who resides within … says that he cannot track the passage of time, since he slept for so long. But he will offer something that should be just as good.”

Dr. Nguyen stepped closer. “And pray, what is that?”

The alien brought its forearms together and then apart again. The ever-present clouds seemed to converge, bringing darkness upon a patch of the worldstone, till deep black reigned across the center. Bin caught a pointlike glitter … and another … then two more … and another pair …

“Stars,” announced Anna Arroyo. “Six of them, arrayed in a rough hexagon … with a final one in the middle, slightly off center … I’m searching the online constellation catalogs … Damn. All present-day matches include some stars that are below seventh magnitude, so they’d have been invisible to people long ago. It’s unlikely…”

“Please do not curse or blaspheme,” said the islander, Paul Menelaua. “Let’s recall that the topic at hand is time. Dates. When. Stars shift.” Still fondling the animatronic cross that hung from a chain around his neck, he added. “Try going retrograde…”

The figure of Jesus seemed to squirm, a little, under his touch. Anna frowned at his terse rebuke, but she nodded. “I’m on it. Backsifting and doing a whole sky match-search in one hundred year intervals. This could take a while.”

Bin grunted. Held back a moment. Then blurted:

“Seven!”

The scholar and the rich man turned to him. Bin had to swallow to gather courage, managing a low croak. “I … think the number of stars may … make this simpler.”

“What do you mean, Peng Xiang Bin?” asked Dr. Nguyen.

“I mean … maybe … you should try the Seven Maidens. You know. The…” He groped for a name.

“Pleiades,” the scholar, Yang Shenxiu, finished for him, at about the same time as Bin’s aiware also supplied the name. “Yes, that would be a good guess.”

The Filipina woman interrupted. “Got you. Scanning time-drift of just that one cluster, back … back … Yes! It’s a good match. The Pleiades-Subaru constellation, just under five thousand years ago. Wow.”

“Well done.” Dr. Nguyen nodded. “I expected something like this. My young friend Xiang Bin, please tell us again about the box that formerly held the worldstone—what did the inscription say?’

Bin recited from memory.

“‘Unearthed in Harappa, 1926’…”

He then spoke the second half with an involuntary shiver.

“‘Demon-infested. Keep in the dark.’”

“Harappa, yes,” Nguyen nodded, ignoring the other part. “A center of the Indus Valley culture … poor third sister during the earliest days of urban civilization, after Mesopotamia and Egypt.” He glanced at the scholar Yang Shenxiu, who continued.

“Some think it was a stunted state—cramped, paranoid, and never fully literate. Others admired its level of primly regimented urban planning. We don’t really know what happened to the Indus civilization. Abandoned about 1700 B.C.E., they say. Possibly a great flood weakened both main cities, Harappa and Mohenjo-daro. By possible coincidence, several thousand li to the west, the great volcano at Thera may have—”

Dr. Nguyen shook his head, and the elegant braids swished. “But this makes no sense! Why would it be speaking to us in archaic Chinese, a dialect from more than a millennium later? Harappa was buried under sand by then!”

“Shall I try to ask, sir?” Bin took a step forward.

The small man waved a hand in front of his face. “No. I am following a script of questions, prioritized by colleagues and associates around the world. We’ll keep to these points, then fill in gaps later. Go to the next set of characters, Xiang Bin, if you would please.”

Bin felt gratified again by Dr. Nguyen’s unfailing politeness. The gentleman had been well brought up, for sure—skilled at how best to treat underlings. Perhaps I will get to work for him forever. Not a harsh fate to contemplate, so long as Mei Ling and the baby could join him soon.

He meant to prove his value to this man. So, bending over the stone, Bin carefully sketched four more of the complicated ideograms that Professor Yang Shenxiu had provided, in a style from long ago. Dr. Nguyen’s consortium could not wait for their worldstone to learn modern Chinese. There wasn’t time. Not with the planet already in an uproar over mysterious sights and sounds that were being emitted by the so-called Havana Artifact—another alien emissary-stone that the American astronaut recently retrieved from high orbit. This stone in front of Bin offered a way to check—in secret—on tales being told by the other one in Washington.

So far, they knew one thing. Courier did not seem to approve of the Havana Artifact. Shown images of the more famous object, Courier reacted with crouches and slashing motions, so clear and easily understood they might be universal across the cosmos. Elaborating upon an earlier warning of danger, the entity in Bin’s worldstone added another that was easy to translate.

Liars!

TORALYZER

I should count my blessings.

Crisped-by-flame, aboard the Spirit of Chula Vista, I’d be dead in any previous era. I would be nonexistent, or else (slim agnostic chance) gone on to some posthumous reward.

But this is my era, and I’ve been offered options that would seem miraculous to any of my ancestors. Starting with a chance to keep on practicing my trade, while this tormented-barbecued body lies entombed within a canister of life-sustaining gel. Is that worth a (more than a little) bit of ongoing agony? Getting to travel the world as a ghost-journalist e-porter, chatting up celebrighties, tracking rumors, stirring up smart-mobs (!), keeping busy.

Some of you have asked about organ reconstruction. Skin grafts are an ongoing bone of contention between me and the docs—they hurt like hell. But with biojet printers to spray my very own restemmed cells onto layered scaffolds, all the simple, fibrous, and vasculated tissue can be grown—liver, spleen, and left lung—just like the vat-farmer raised that beeftish burger you had for lunch.

There’s even talk of arm and leg transplants, if a reclam donor with my rare antigen type can be found. But I sense doubtful tones under their hopeful words, what with all the nerve damage I suffered. For certain I’ll never again have real eyes and ears. (It’s a wonder my skull protected what it did.)

So what’s the point? Shall I regain mobility by want-controlling a robotic walker? One of those hissing, clanking things?

Some of you ask: What about uploading? Heck, I already exist mostly in cyberspace. Why not just abandon this ruined body and go the rest of the way—taking my whole consciousness into the Net? Become one with my online avatars! That notion has always been 99 percent fiction and 1 percent science … till Marguerita deSilva and her followers began claiming that soon anybody will be able to become just like her pet, the god-rat Porfirio, thriving in virtual worlds that are vaster than anything “real.”

And now there are the Artifact aliens, who seem to prove her right. If we choose to join their interstellar federation, will they show us how to upload ourselves into crystal worlds, as they did?

Is there any way to tell if it’s worthwhile?

Of course, there are other options for a person like me. Some of you say: “All problems will be solved in the due course of time.” So, might the world a century from now be able to fix me up? Repair my poor body to youthful vigor? And is that chance worth a risky journey through time?

It’s illegal in most places to freeze a living person. The cryonics companies have to wait, rushing in to freeze you the moment doctors declare you are legally dead. But I’ve had offers from rich fans (no, I won’t tell) who say they’ll pay my way to San Sebastian, or Pulupau, or Friedmania or Rand’s Freehold, where local law doesn’t quibble such details. Heck, I’m now a heroine and historical figure! Won’t folks want to thaw my frozen corpsicle and heal me, in some marvelous future?

Here’s a one-sentence sales pitch that one true believer sent me: “The cryonics long shot lets us see our pending brain death not as the solipsistic obliteration of our world but as a long sleep that precedes a very major surgery.”

Hm, to sleep. Ah, but perchance to dream? That’s one possible rub.

Worse, what if religious folk, like my parents, turn out to be right? That death is a spirit release. A door opening to something beyond? Might cryonic suspension simply quash and defer what would have been the soul’s reward? Replacing it with an icy nordic version of hell?

Don’t everybody sneer till you’ve been in my position. There aren’t many pure atheists in gel tanks.

 

35.

SENSING DESTINY’S CALL

The marchers were protesting something. That much Mei Ling could tell, even without virring. But what were they complaining about? Which issue concerned them, from a worldwide collection of grievances more numerous than stars?

Carrying no placards or signs, and dressed in a wild brew of styles, the mostly youthful throng milled forward, in the general direction of the Shanghai Universe of Disney and the Monkey King. Each individual pretended to be minding his or her own business, chattering with companions, window-shopping, or just wandering amid a seemingly random throng of visitor-tourists. Cameras were all over the place of course, atop every lamppost and street sign or pixel-painted on every window rim. Yet nothing was going on that should attract undue attention from monitors of state security, or the local proctors of decent order.

But there were coincidences too frequent to dismiss. For example, they all wore pixelated clothing that glittered and throbbed with ever-changing patterns. One girl had her tunic set to radiate a motif of waving pine trees. A boy’s abstract design featured undulating ocean waves. Only when, as Mei Ling watched, the two bumped briefly against each other, did the two image displays seem to merge and combine across their backs, lining up to convey what her eye—but possibly no ai—briefly recognized as a trio of symbols.

SEEK URBAN SERENITY.

The youths parted again, erasing that momentary coalescence of forest and sea. Perhaps the two of them had never met before that terse, choreographed rendezvous. They might not ever meet again. But soon, amid the throng, another seemingly chance encounter created a different, fleeting message that caught Mei Ling’s built-in, organic pattern recognition system, still more subtle than anything cybernetic, inherited from when her distant ancestors roamed the African tall grass, sifting for signs of prey. Or danger.

RESPONSIBLE LEADERSHIP IS APPRECIATED.

No doubt about it. That’s what the shimmer of fleeting characters said.

Passersby and shoppers were turning to notice, nudging their neighbors and waggling their hands to toss virt-alerts down the street. Crowds of onlookers formed in time to catch the next flicker-pronouncement, as a fat man sidled next to a broad-shouldered woman with orange-striped hair. Their combined pixel-garments proclaimed—

THE TANG EMPERORS ENCOURAGED CREATIVITY.

Watching from a niche between a hair salon and a stall offering pungent chicktish meat, Mei Ling reflexively rocked the baby in his sling carrier, while wondering. Why did these young people go to such lengths to stay disconnected from their messages, preserving their ability to deny responsibility, when the meanings seemed so innocent? So harmless?

Oh, she realized, the real essence must lie elsewhere. In vir-space.

Mei Ling pulled out the set of cheap augmented reality spectacles that she had purchased from a vendor, just a little while ago. It seemed a reasonable use of cash, in an era when so much of the world lay beyond sight of normal eyes. Especially with Xiang Bin gone on his strange adventure beyond the sea. So long as he had a job, helping make that strange, demon-infested stone perform tricks for the penguin creature, she had money. Enough to pay off some repairs to their salvaged shorestead home and even take Xiao En on an early morning shopping expedition into the bustling city, where giant arcology pyramids loomed upward to block half the sky, proclaiming the greatness of the world’s new superpower.

Mei Ling had chosen this time because such a large portion of the planet’s population was watching proceedings at the Artifact Conference in America that she figured the streets would be largely empty. But it turned out that the event was in recess for several hours, which meant people were pouring outdoors to do important shopping or business, or get a little air. It made the boulevards especially crowded—and ideal for this kind of youth demonstration.

Slipping on the wraparound goggles, Mei Ling felt acutely aware of how long it had been since she and Xiang Bin moved out to the tidal flats and ruined shoreline of the Huangpu, where the world had only one “layer”—gritty, hardscrabble reality. That made her several tech-generations out of date. The ailectronics salesman had been helpful, patient … and a little too flirtatious … while tuning the unit to her rusty GIBAAR skills. It was difficult to rediscover the knack, even with his help. Like remembering how to walk after too long a convalescence in bed.

Gaze. Interest. Blink. Allocate Attention. Repeat.

The most basic way to vir, if you don’t have any of the other tools.

She had no fingernail tappers. No clickers and scrollers, planted in the teeth. No subvocal pickups, to read the half-spoken words shaped by throat and mouth. Not even an old-fashioned hand-keyboard or twiddler. And certainly none of the fancy-scary new cephalo sensors that would take commands straight off the brain. Without any of that, she had to make do—choosing from a range of menus and command icons that the spectacles created across the inner surface of both lenses, seeming to float in front of the real-life street scene.

By turning her gaze to look right at a search icon … and by actually being interested (which affected the dilation of her pupils and blood flow in the retina) … she caused that symbol to light up. There followed a well timed, one-two blink of the left eye then right …

On her third try, a new window-menu blossomed, allowing her to allocate her attention … to pick from a range of sub-options. And she chose one called Overlayers.

Immediately, the specs laid faint lines across the real world, bordering the pavement and curb, the fringe of each building and vendor stall—anything real that might become a dangerous obstacle or tripping hazard to a person walking about. Also outlined—the people and vehicles moving around her. Each now carried a slim aura. Especially those heading in her direction, which throbbed a little in the shade that was called collision-warning yellow.

These edge lines—clearly demarcated rims and boundaries of the real world—were inviolate. They weren’t supposed to change, no matter what level of vir-space you chose—it took a real hacker to mess with them.

As for the rest of visual reality, the textures, colors, and backgrounds? Well, there were a million ways to play with those, from covering all the building walls with jungle vines, to filling the world with imaginary water, like sunken Atlantis, to giving every passerby the skin tones of lizard-people from Mars. You name it, and some teenager or bored office worker or semiautonomous cre-ai-tivity drone must have already fashioned an overlay to bring that fantasy cosmos into being.

Mei Ling wasn’t trying for any of those realms—she didn’t know the addresses, for one thing, and had no interest in searching out ways to become immersed in someone else’s favorite mirage. Instead, she tried simply stepping up through the most basic levels, one at a time—first passing through the Public Safety layers, where children or the handicapped could view the world conveniently captioned in simple terms, with friendly risk-avoidance alerts and helpful hands, pointing toward the nearest sources of realtime help.

Then came useful tiers, where all the buildings and storefronts were marked with essential information about location, products, and accountability codes. Or you could zoom-magnify anything that caught your interest. On strata twelve through sixteen, everyone in sight wore basic nametags, or ID badges identifying their professions. Otherwise, reality was left quite bare.

Up at stratum thirty, it suddenly became hard to see, as the air filled with yellow and pink and green notecards—Post-its—that floated around every shop and street corner, conveying anything from meet-me memos to traffic curses to caustic commentaries on a restaurant’s cuisine. And prayers.

Mei Ling experimented by raising her hand and drawing in the air with a finger. As the specs followed her movements and responded, a brand-new Post-it appeared, bearing the name of her husband. Peng Xiang Bin. She then added characters that constituted an incantation for luck. When Mei Ling brought her hand down, the tiny virt fluttered away and seemed to fade into the maelstrom. This was what made stratum thirty almost useless for anything but prayer. Or curses. All visitors could see everything that was ever left there … which meant no one could see anything at all.

Do people really live like this all the time? Wading through the world, immersed in pretend things? She could see how this kind of tool would be useful on occasion. But she could take off the specs at any moment. What about those who got fitted with contaict lenses, or even the new eyeball implants? The very thought made her shudder.

At level forty, a lot of walls disappeared. Most of the buildings seemed to go transparent, or at least depict animated floorplans concocted from public records. These ranged from detailed inner views—of a nearby department store—with every display and mannequin appearing eager to perform, all the way to floors and offices that were blocked by barriers, in varied shades of gray, some of them with glowing locks. You could look inside—if you had some kind of key.

Strata fifty through one hundred were for advertising, and at one point Mei Ling quailed back, as all the normal dampers vanished. Messages and come-ons seemed to roar at her from every shop front and store awning. Blasts of sound rocked the spec-rims till they almost flew off her ears, and she had to concentrate hard just to blink her way out of there! Fortunately, most advir-levels were selective, even polite. Stratum ninety, for example, offered her discreet, personalized discounts on baby formula and inexpensive shoes, plus a special on a massage-makeover in that shop over there, at a price that seemed so reasonable, she could nearly afford it! The proprietor would even fetch a nanny-grandma in five minutes to watch the baby.

But no. Not with the sudden comfort of Xiang Bin’s paycheck so new and unaccustomed. Maybe another time.

Anyway, Mei Ling realized that she had been idly following the gaggle of youthful demonstrators, awkwardly picking her way across each avenue, while making sure that Xiao En’s bottle didn’t fall to the filthy sidewalk. A pedicab driver shouted and Mei Ling jumped back, heart pounding, especially on realizing—she had lost track of where she was, in an unfamiliar part of town.

It is not possible to get lost wearing specs, she reminded herself. Level ten would always provide a handy guide arrow, aiming you down the quickest path to anywhere in the world you wanted to go.

That is, if I knew where he was right now.

If he weren’t swallowed up by the secret intrigues of powerful men.

Continuing to scroll upward through slices of the world, she saw the level counter skip whole swathes of vir-spaces where she wasn’t allowed. You had to be a member of some affinity group to see those overlayers.

I recall that stratum two hundred and fifty was for street gossip.

Only instead, S-250 populated the boulevard with cartoon figures—colorful, high contrast versions of people walking by, with speech balloons floating above many of their heads. Some balloons were filled with written words. Others—nothing but gray static. Oh, yes. This layer is for eavesdropping, if people don’t care enough to set up a privacy block. The gossip level must have been S-350.

Mei Ling found she enjoyed this chance to recover her old knack of blink-navigation, even though the baby was starting to get crabby, and her shoulder bag full of purchases was heavy, and really, maybe it was time to set off for home.

At least she no longer had to ratchet through the layers linearly, one at a time, like a complete neo. A simple preference choice now let her view the virld as a three dimensional spiderweb of jump choices, stretching in all directions. It took just a look, a squint and wink to hop to the level she wanted, where—

—Post-its of another kind flurried about. Voice, text, and vid twips kept zooming in, attaching themselves to the youthful demonstrators, sent by anonymous bystanders, or even people who were viewing the event from thousands of kilometers away.

Smart-aleck kids, one note commented. As if their generation knows a thing about struggle and revolution

Another groused.

Back in 2025 I was in the New Red Guards we really knew how to light up a street ruckus! Wore masks that screwed facial recog cams …

Yep. Street gossip. Finally, Mei Ling found something related to her interest—a simple query note.

WHAT are they demonstrating about?

Which had an even simpler comment addendum attached to it, anonymously recommending a clickover to:

0847lals0xldo098-899as0004-hahd-dorad087

She blinked her way to that address … and found the street scene transformed once again.

The young people now wore costumes in seventeenth-century Shun Dynasty style, like followers of the great rebel leader Li Zicheng. Mei Ling recognized the Peoples’ Militia fashion from a historical romance she had watched. Because he sought to free the masses from feudal oppression, Li Zicheng was officially proclaimed a “hero of the Chinese masses” by Chairman Mao himself, a century ago. Still, I’m surprised that today’s rich and powerful lords of the Beneficent Patriarchy approve of people invoking his memory, she thought.

Up and down the street, onlookers and pedestrians were also transformed, mostly by replacing their twenty-first century streetwear with shabby peasant clothing from the 1600s. Not exactly flattering, but she got the implied message. We’re all clueless plebeians. Thanks a lot.

She was tempted to try accessing a nearby cam-view, and look down upon herself transformed, but decided—it really wasn’t worth the effort. Anyway, she could finally see the answer to her question. Over the demonstrators’ heads, there now floated huge banners that matched their gaily colored costumes.

That Which Is Not Specifically Forbidden*

Is Automatically Allowed!


* (for just cause, by a sovereign and rightful legislature)

Mei Ling had heard that phrase before. She strained to remember—and that effort apparently triggered a search response from the mesh-spectacles. She winced as a disembodied voice started lecturing.

“Eighteen years ago, human rights groups demanded that this principle be enshrined in the famous International Big Deal, firmly and finally rejecting the opposite tradition long held by a majority of human societies, that anything not specifically allowed must be assumed to be forbidden.

“Activists called this change in tenets even more important and fundamental than freedom of speech. Some social psychologists have since deemed the reform futile, since it concerns a deep-seated cultural assumption, rather than a point of law.

“In return for granting this principle, the world’s professional guilds and aristocratic powers were able to win formal acceptance of the Estates…”

Mei Ling succeeded in cutting off the pedantic lecture, which wasn’t much help anyway. The same problem held for another pair of student virbanners, waving in an ersatz wind—

All Human Beings—Even Leaders—

Are Inherently Delusional

and

Criticism Is the Only Known

Antidote to Error

Of course, there were ways to follow up. An infinite sea of definitions, explanations, and commentaries, even suitable for a poorly educated woman. So, was the demonstration meant to lure onlookers into study? Or might all this vagueness be the real point of the youths’ demonstration? Messing with peoples’ heads, aggravating their elders with the ever-elusive obscurity of their protest?

Whatever the answer—Mei Ling had lost patience.

Chinese people used to be forthright, known for saying what we mean and meaning what we say. Only now that we are the world’s greatest power, are we slipping into more classic Asian ways? Masking our motives and goals behind layers of tiresome symbolism?

Anyway, she thought with some satisfaction, people will forget about these kids just as soon as the Artifact Conference resumes.

Moving against the nearest building wall, she concentrated on blink-navigating away from this weird vir-level, aiming for the blessed simplicity of stratum ten, where a friendly yellow arrow might start guiding her back to the seawall separating these rich Shanghai citizens from dark, threatening tides. And from there to the water taxi dock, where she might grab some lunch before hitching a ride—

Abruptly, something popped into her foreground. A beckon-symbol, informing her that a live message was coming in. It flashed with urgency … and the striped colors that denoted official authority. A bit nervously, Mei Ling looked toward the pulsating icon, and winked to accept the phone call. What then ballooned, just above the surrounding traffic and pedestrians, was a face and upper torso—stern-looking and male—wearing a uniform.

“Piao Mei Ling, I am Jin Pu Wang of state security. I had to exert some time and effort to locate you.”

It came across as a rebuke.

“Fortunately, I was able to lay a sift-Mesh that found your iris pattern once you began using this pair of overlay spectacles. It is important that we meet right away, to discuss your husband.”

Mei Ling felt her throat catch and she stumbled. Little Xiao En, who had drifted off to sleep, grunted in his sling carrier and clenched his little fists.

“What … what has happened?”

She had to utter the words loudly, in order to be certain the specs would hear. A couple of passersby glanced at her in surprise, clearly miffed that anyone would be so rude. Holding a phone conversation loud enough to bother others in a public place? Outrageous!

Lacking even a throat microphone, however, Mei Ling had little choice.

“What news do you have of him?”

“No news,” the official answered. “I want to discuss with you ways to rescue him from the bad company he has fallen into. How to return him to the embrace of his beloved nation.”

Mei Ling felt a wave of relief, having feared they had bad tidings. Moving to face the nearest wall of grimy bricks, she answered in a lower tone of voice.

“I … already told your other officers everything I know. They verified my truthfulness with machines and drugs. I don’t see what I could possibly add.”

Mei Ling said it with no sense of regret or betrayal. Xiang Bin had said that it would be best to cooperate fully, if authorities came asking questions. Nothing she knew should enable them to find him, after all. Anyway, at the moment of his departure with the penguin-robot there had been no reason to believe that he was doing anything against the law.

“Yes, well…” The man looked briefly to one side, nodded, and looked back toward Mei Ling. Making her wonder what viewpoint he was using to see her. Though his image appeared on the inner surface of the specs, he was probably using a pennycam on that lamppost over there.

“We would like to speak to you again,” he explained. “It should only take a few minutes to clear up one or two discrepancies. After that is done, we will provide you with a ride to your home, courtesy of the state.”

Well. That actually made the prospect rather tempting, instead of trudging across East Pudong District carrying both her purchases and an infant who seemed to grow heavier with each passing moment.

“I have the contact code for Inspector Wu, who interviewed me last time. Shall I call her to arrange an appointment?”

Jin Pu Wang shook his head. “No. My department cannot spare the time to go through local officials. These questions are relatively minor, but they must be clarified at once, on orders from the capital.”

Mei Ling swallowed hard.

“Where do you want me to go?”

“Let me give you the coordinates of a nearby police station. The officers will put you in a comfortable meeting room with refreshments. I will send my holvatar to meet you. Then a car will take you home.”

Her specs immediately reset to stratum fifteen. Some code numbers quickly scrolled by and a virtual arrow materialized in front of Mei Ling, indicating that she should proceed to the end of this block and then turn left.

“I hope that Inspector Wu was not unhappy with my level of cooperation,” she said, while starting to walk in that direction.

“Do not worry about that,” the policeman reassured her. “I will see you soon.” His face vanished from her view.

For some distance Mei Ling followed the guide arrow automatically, steeped in lonely gloom. It was not a good thing to draw attention from the mighty authorities—even though Inspector Wu and her technicians had been polite and unthreatening during the questioning session, with their big, shiny hovercraft bobbing next to the little shorestead she had built with Xiang Bin.

Of course, they wanted to know all about the glowing stone. The one so similar to the emissary Artifact in Washington. When asked why her husband’s discovery wasn’t reported to the government, Mei Ling explained with complete honesty, they feared what happened to the crystal’s earlier owner.

“Lee Fang Lu fell victim to the paranoia and corruption of that time,” Inspector Wu had conceded. “But those who executed him later suffered the same fate during the reforms that followed the Zheng He disaster and the Big Deal. It’s too bad your husband did not take that into account and bring his find to us, to benefit the nation.”

When Mei Ling protested that she and Xiang Bin had nothing but love and reverence for the great homeland, Inspector Wu seemed mollified. “It’s all right. We’ll find him, I’m sure. He will have ample opportunities to demonstrate his loyalty.”

With that reassurance the police investigators departed, leaving Mei Ling woozy from drugs and neural probing. They even let her keep the penguin-robot’s stipend, the modest comfort and freedom from want that Bin’s absence had earned.

Might other officials, even higher, feel differently? Mei Ling felt her nerves fray as she drew near the assigned coordinates. But what choice did she have, other than to do as authorities asked? They knew where she lived. They could cancel the shorestead contract, costing the small family everything. This meeting would be a “cup of tea, served with fear.”

The guide arrow indicated another turn—to the right, this time—through a little retail alley. Responding to her skeptical squint, the spectacles presented a map overlay showing it to be a shortcut to the Boulevard of Vivacious Children’s Mythology, famous for its robotic sculptures of beloved characters, from Journey to the West, to Snow White, to Fengshen Bang.

Perhaps I will get to glimpse Pipi Lu or Lu Xixi or Shrek, along the way, Mei Ling hoped. But first, to get there.…

She peered down the dim passage where old-fashioned, open-faced shops seemed to drop back in time, to an era when this sort of street could be found in every village and town. Especially before the Revolution, when four generations of a family would toil alongside each other, sharing cramped quarters over their store, while scrimping for one of the sons to get ahead. A traditional eagerness for advancement that she once heard cynically satirized in an ancient proverb.

First generation—coolie; save money, buy land
Second generation—landlords
Third generation—mortgages the land
Fourth generation—coolie

Weren’t those nasty cycles supposed to be over by now? Finished certainly by the Revolution’s centennial year? Mei Ling coughed into her fist, knowing one thing for certain. Her son would be smart, educated, and she would teach him to be wise! If we can get past trying times.…

She started forward into the narrow street—when a voice interrupted.

“Honored mother should not go there.”

Mei Ling stopped, glanced to both sides, and realized that she was the only clear-cut mother in sight. Peering toward where the words had come from, she found a figure sitting deep within a shadowed doorway. Her cheap specs tried to do image enhancement—though not very well—revealing a child perhaps twelve years old, wearing a faded green parka and some glasses that had been repaired with wire and generous windings of tape.

“Were you talking to me?”

Something about the youngster was odd. He rocked back and forth slightly and, while staring toward Mei Ling, his gaze slipped past hers, as if his eyes kept focusing on some far horizon.

“Mothers are the source of all problems and all answers.”

Spoken in flat tones, it sounded like some kind of aphorism or saying. She now saw that he had bad teeth, a serious underbite, plus a rash along one side of his neck that looked ongoing. Clearly something was wrong with the boy.

“Um … pardon me?”

He stood and shuffled closer, still not looking directly at her face.

“Jia-Jupeng, your mother wants you to come home to eat.”

Now that expression she had heard before. Something her parents’ generation used to say to one another, to get a laugh, though Mei Ling never understood what was funny about it. Suddenly, she realized—this child must be a product of the Autism Plague. In other words, a modern parent’s nightmare. Reflexively she turned a hip, moving her body to protect little Xiao En, even though the defect wasn’t contagious.

Maybe not the disease. But luck can be.

She swallowed. “Why did you say that I shouldn’t go down the alley?”

The boy reached toward her with both hands. For a second Mei Ling thought that he wanted to be picked up. Then she realized—he wants my spectacles.

Mei Ling felt one part of her try to pull away. After all, the policeman was someone she did not want to make impatient. Yet something about the boy’s calm, insistent half smile made her instead bend over, letting him take the cheap device off her head. The smile broadened and his eyes met hers for less than a second—apparently as much human contact as he could stand at a time.

“The men,” he said, “aren’t here to buy soy sauce.”

“Men?” She straightened, glancing around. “What men?”

Appearing to ignore the question, he turned the specs around, examining them, taking evident care not to let the scanners look closely at his own face. Then, with a laugh, he tossed them into a nearby garbage bin.

“Hey! I paid good—”

Mei Ling stopped. The boy was offering his own pair of glasses, with stems repaired by wire and tape.

“See them.”

She blinked. This was crazy.

“See who?”

“Men. Waiting for a mother.”

Without specs, he seemed to have a pronounced squint. The voice barely rose or fell in tone. “Let them wait. Mother won’t come. Not today.”

She didn’t want to reach for the glasses. She didn’t want to take them, or to turn them around, or to slip the stems over her ears. Especially Mei Ling did not want to find out who or what the child meant by “the men.”

But she put them on and saw.

Now the alley was illuminated, down a tunnel that seemed to penetrate through the sunless gloom, pushing by several shops where tinkerers reforged metal jewelry, or made garments out of real (if illicit) leather, or where one family bred superscorpions for both battle and the table. The glasses had looked simpler and more primitive than hers. They weren’t. She could make out the texture of the jujube fruits that a baker was slicing for a pie, and somehow their smell as well.

Symbols swirled around the tunnel’s rim—many of them Chinese, but not all. They arrayed themselves not in neat rows or columns, but spirals and surging ripples. She tried to look at them. But this view was not hers to control.

Perspective suddenly jumped, flicking to some pennycam that was stuck to a wall halfway down the alley, just above a little, three-wheeled tuktuk delivery van. The camera zoomed past the truck, whose motor was running, into a small shop where Mei Ling saw an elderly woman hand-painting designs on half-finished cloisonné pottery. The artist seemed nervous, trembling and biting her tongue as she bent over her work. Dipping her brush into a pot of red, it came out shaking. Droplets fell as the brush approached a fluted carafe she was working on.

Now the cam-view shifted again. Mei Ling suddenly found herself looking through the very specs that the old woman wore, seeing what she saw.

At first, that was only the tip of the paintbrush, filling in the tail of a cartoon lobster—the ancient Disney character who was a favorite companion of the Little Mermaid. Though confined by cloisonné copper wire, the red paint spread a bit too far, unevenly. Mei Ling heard a muttered curse as the artist dabbed at the spillover … and glanced jerkily upward for just a moment.

Toward the small van, parked just outside with its smoky exhaust pipe—the driver was sitting idle with the door open, smoking a cigarette. A bundle of twine on his lap.

A jittery glance again at the paintbrush, as it dipped into the red again. Then, the camera view jerk-shifted to the left, only briefly, but long enough for Mei Ling to glimpse a second man, burly and muscular, standing well back in the shadows, shifting his weight impatiently.

Without her bidding them to, the child’s specs froze that image, amplified and expanded it, showing what the big fellow held in his hands. One clutched a bundle of black fabric. The other, a hypo-sprayer. Mei Ling recognized it from the crime dramas she often watched. They were used by cops to subdue violent criminals. And also … by kidnappers.

The view then returned to that seen by the elderly pot-painter. The old lady was looking at the carafe again. Only now her brush tip was defacing the gay, underwater scene with a single character in blood red. Mei Ling gasped when she read it.

Run.

Mei Ling tore off the specs, suddenly sweating, her heart beating in terror, certain beyond any doubt that this trap had been lain for her. But why? She was cooperating. Coming in of her own free will!

The answer struck home as obvious. There was no appointment at the nearest police station. That had been a ruse, with one aim—getting her to go down this alley.

Her mind whirled. What to do? Where to go? Maybe, if she went the other direction … kept to busy streets … tried phoning Inspector Wu.

“Mother comes this way,” said the boy. He took her hand, tugging. “Cobblies are all over the place and bad men, too. In thirty-eight seconds they will know and give chase from all sides. But we know how to take care of mothers.”

She stared at him, resisting. But the child smiled again, making another flicker-brief eye contact. “Come,” he insisted.

“Time to run.”

Then the moment of decision was in her past. They hurried together, away from that alley of danger, along a street that only a short time ago had seemed full of fantasies. Only now—she knew—it also contained dangerous eyes.

A RISING TIDE

The relative advantages of humans and machines vary from one task to the next. Imagine a chart with the jobs that are “most human” forming the higher ground. Here you find chores best done by organic people, like gourmet cooking or elite hairdressing. Then there is a “shore” consisting of tasks that humans and machines perform at equivalent cost, like meticulous assembly of high-value parts. Or janitorial work.

Beyond and below these jobs can be found an “ocean” of tasks best done by machines, such as mass production or traffic management. When machines get cheaper or smarter or both, the water level rises, as it were, and has two effects.

First, machines substitute for humans by taking over newly “flooded” tasks.

But the availability of new machine capabilities can also complement and expand the range of many human tasks, raising the value of doing them well. New opportunities for people sometimes erupt, like a fresh mountain, rising out of the sea.

Robin Hanson, an emulated character in the websim play Trilemma

 

36.

FALSE DIAMONDS

A gong sounded, calling all guests into a banquet room the size of a private jet hangar. A personal, liveried attendant held the high-back, medieval Cistercian chair for Hamish, then hovered throughout the meal, refilling gold-rimmed crystal goblets and serving courses on plates made from vitrified lunar soil. (The famous dinner set Rupert Glaucus-Worthington commissioned when NASA’s cache of moon rocks was auctioned to pay off debts.) It was all marvelously excessive, but he wondered most of all about the servants.

How on Earth can they do this?

It wasn’t the cost. When you ranked seven or eight nines along the wealth curve, you could afford all the private help you wanted, for any task at all. No, it was confidentiality that couldn’t be bought with money alone. The more people in any discussion, the more likely were leaks, from rumors to full-spectrum recordings. Despite clear ground rules for this occasion—along with Faraday shielding to keep out the World Mesh—anyone in this room might be carrying some newfangled device. In the game of leapfrogging technology, the rich could never be sure. A small startup company, or amateur smartposse, or even a pathetic legacy government might briefly get the upper hand.

Hamish pondered how the top clade families—the Glaucus-Worthingtons, the bin Jalils, the Bogolomovs, the duPont-Vonessens, the Wu Changs, and so on—could let so many participate in this meeting. Even if dinner table decorum kept most of the banter light, with the main topic set aside for tomorrow, someone was sure to drink too much and babble.

During soup, he conversed casually with a social psychologist from Dharamsala. But kept wondering. Perhaps the servants get hypno-loyalty locks. Not legal in most places. But Switzerland and Liechtenstein never joined the EU. Or they may be paid in delayed futures options, invoked decades from now, only if fealty criteria are met.

One approach—the Tata Method—had a touch of class. Find some rural village wracked by poverty, disease, and hopelessness. Pour in enough money to transform the place—schools, hospital, jobs, and scholarships for bright youths. Nurture a local cult of gratitude. You get a reliable source of loyal and appreciative help. And some good publicity, too.

Or it might be accomplished the old-fashioned way. Blackmail. Betray us and we tell the cops what you did. Glancing at his personal waiter, Hamish figured the man looked plenty tough, under the silk uniform and unctuous attentiveness. Hamish tossed back some wine and, while his glass was being refilled, noted what might be faint signs of tattoo removal on the back of the servant’s hand, perhaps indicating a rough past.

With specs, I might get a multicolor pattern analysis. But it’s more fun putting together bits and pieces the old-fashioned way.

In fact, Hamish was having a great time, making mental notes for his staff to research and expand upon later. Readers and viewers loved stuff like this! Of course, his wealthy villain would have to be from some other circle of wealth. A Naderite tech-billionaire perhaps, or a rich mad scientist, or a member of some liberal cabal … certainly not anyone in the clade! Especially now that this elite of elites was lining up with Tenskwatawa.

Meanwhile, the sociologist to his left was blathering about the paper she planned to present tomorrow, on Neo-Confucian Pragmatic Ethics and the New Pyramid. Hamish felt so good, he refrained from asking where she cribbed the last part of her title.

“You see, Mr. Brookeman, as the Enlightenment fades, so will its diamond-shaped social structure—dominated by a large and vigorous middle class. That pattern fostered vibrancy and creativity, but also brittle flightiness. The kitschy culture and fickle habits that infested your forever-adolescent America.”

Hamish responded with a courteous smile, which she mistook for deep interest, waggling delicately painted fingers. “That kind of social order is unstable. Too dependent on high levels of education, civility, confidence, and shared sense of purpose. As in ancient Athens and Florence, it’s simple to incite the bourgeoisie to bicker over trivial matters. Just get them overreacting to one exaggerated threat, while ignoring others.”

The sociologist seemed to be trying hard to keep Hamish’s attention, smiling and tilting a little to restore connection, each time he lifted his gaze from his plate—now the fish course, a poached yellowtail, very expensive, with hints of real saffron. He politely obliged her with a steady gaze, noting she seemed rather more attractive than his first impression. Hamish took another swallow of wine and let the waiter refill his glass while she continued.

“As Plato taught, stable governance requires a broad base that narrows steeply to a small but superqualified ruling class, born and raised for leadership. The mode that postagricultural civilizations adopt, ninety-nine percent of the time. Even under so-called Soviet Communism, power soon consolidated in a few hundred families of the nomenklatura caste—a classic feudal society, despite all its superficial egalitarian rhetoric.”

Hamish wondered, Does she imagine I don’t know this? While lazily nodding and maintaining eye contact, he sampled other conversations. Behind him, a Brazilian fertilizer magnate rehashed conjectures about the Alien Artifact that had become tiresome hours ago.

Meanwhile, across the table, a boffin from Tenskwatawa’s think tank was discussing probability-weighted responsibility—the notion that scientists and innovators should have to buy insurance or bonds to cover possible bad outcomes, ensuring they would pause and consider before charging ahead with risky experiments. A version of the Precautionary Principle—demanding that a burden of proof fall on those bringing change. An interesting alternative to the proposed Science Juries, this would let risk markets carry the burden of regulating progress, instead of policing it with a bureaucracy.

Clever, but a nonstarter, now that top families of the First Estate were joining renunciation. Tomorrow’s oligarchs wouldn’t use market methods. Bureaucracy was easier to control.

“So all signs point to reversion, back to a pyramid-shaped class structure. But which kind of social pyramid will it be?” asked the sociologist, thinking she had Hamish’s undivided attention.

She’s definitely flirting with me, Hamish decided

“Well, yes, that’s a good question,” he replied, realizing that his tongue felt a bit thick. The wine is too good. Honor it by sipping, not gulping.

“Indeed!” She nodded vigorously, which jangled her gold (plated) necklaces. Her toothy smile seemed impossibly white and she was trying too hard, but Hamish started to find it, well, a bit endearing as she hurried on.

“Does our rising aristocracy really want to repeat the mistakes that drove common folk to rebel in 1789 France and 1917 Russia? What’s it worth, to capture all the money and power, if it ends in a tumbrel ride to the chopping block?”

Hamish had an answer to that.

“Louis XVI and Czar Nicholas were inbred, mentally-deficient fools. Also, they didn’t possess tomorrow’s tools. The proliferation of microcameras, throughout the world. Or unbeatable lie detectors.”

Or—his inner voice added, without voicing it—the arrival of true artificial intelligence. But let’s not mention that third item, ensuring top-down control.

“Well, you’re right about that,” she conceded. “Though at present, the cameras and truth machines are often as annoying to the First Estate as they are useful, shining light inconveniently upward as often as down.”

“Yes, but all that’s needed is to break reciprocity,” he answered. “By controlling information, making sure it flows one way. Take over the databases. Trump up panic situations, so the public will support paternalistic ‘protections.’ Make sure lots of privacy laws get passed, then bribe open some back doors, so elites can see it all anyway, and ‘privacy’ only protects them.

“Of course there’s more to the program than that,” Hamish continued, gaining momentum. “The smarty-pants knowledge castes will see what’s happening and complain. So you propagandize a lot of populist resentment against the scientists and other professionals, calling them ‘smug elites.’ Finally … when the civil servants and techies have lost the public’s trust, just cut the other estates out of the information loop, take complete control over the cameras and government agencies and voilà! A tyranny that lasts millennia!”

The woman stared at Hamish.

“Well, I wouldn’t put it quite that—”

“The point is, when those at the top can see absolutely everything—how would any Lenin or Robespierre ever get started?”

While grinning and taking another drink, Hamish felt flush from his sudden, passionate spill of words. In truth, it had felt like delivering a movie plot pitch to some producer, spinning—in a matter of seconds—a wonderful, nefarious scheme that would make perfect sense on-screen. One that meshed with human nature and history, and that … well … in fact most of it was already underway in the modern world.

The sociologist blinked rapidly a few times.

“I’m not sure that ‘tyranny’ is the word Plato would use.”

Oops. Hamish was suddenly aware that others had turned to watch his outburst. Damn. I got so into story mode, I wound up portraying the clade aristos as villains! My next step would have been to explain how a trio of quirky heroes might proceed to bring the whole edifice crashing … in less than ninety minutes of view-time.

He worked at his plate while thinking. How to get out of this?

“No, of course not,” he murmured after chewing and swallowing. “In fact, such perfect security would likely lessen the harshness of future rulers. No need for the iron-boot cruelty portrayed in that George Orwell novel. Why bother? Perfect rulers, all knowing and secure, would scarcely need brutality. They would, in fact, try for platonic paradise.

“But please,” he urged, “go back to your point about how a pyramidal social order will be improved by Confucian ways.”

She nodded, clearly as eager to get on track as he was to be quiet a while.

“As I was saying, Mr. Brookeman—”

With his most disarming smile, he reached over to touch her hand.

“Call me Hamish.”

“Very well … Hamish.” Her fine complexion changed hue and she smiled shyly, charmingly, before hurrying on. “Way back in the twentieth century leaders of Singapore and Japan, and then Great China, pondered non-Western ways to manage a complex modern society. Finding the occidental enlightenment far too brash and unpredictable, they cleverly designed methods to incorporate technology and science—along with limited aspects of capitalism and democracy—into a social order that also remained traditional and essentially pyramidal, without the chaos, friction, and unpredictability found in America or Europe. Much of their inspiration came from Asian history, which had much longer stretches of stable and noble governance than the West.”

Yeah, sure, he thought while she kept talking. But will any of this really matter when brainiac machines burst upon the scene? They’ll have priorities. And first will be a humanity that is well ordered. Predictable. They won’t try to exterminate or enslave us, though I’ve exploited that cliché many times, in books and films. No, they’ll want us calm and ruled by our own kind, in ways they can easily model and guide.

It had taken Hamish years to reach this conclusion, after decades spent loathing and resisting the notion of artificial minds. Only recently did he accept the inevitable. Especially when he realized—Whatever logic applied to other elites will apply to the new AI lords. They’ll want us to tithe resources to support their passions and goals. Beyond that, they’ll want their human vassals to be content. Happy. Perhaps even imagining we’re still in charge.

Illusions like the one being spun by the alluring sociologist, who talked on—as a palate-clearing salad was consumed and cleared away, making room for the main course of farm-raised realbeef, deliciously tender and rare—about how the East Asian version of aristocratism was so much better than any other feudal order.

The sociologist appeared blithely unaware that Hamish’s thoughts had split—part of him paying attention, another portion distantly contemplative, and a third greedily wondering what her body was like, under the silken sari.

“Even in olden times, the Confucians mixed deep conservatism and belief in hierarchy with the concept of meritocracy. The brightest children of the poor and merchant castes could sometimes test their way into higher levels of the pyramid, applying their talents to augment the prestige of their liege.” She chirped a short, proud hiccup over the double rhyme, then took a quick sip of wine.

Hamish found amusing how her model interlaced with his own, though with one difference—that he knew what cool, cybernetic entities would sit, inevitably, at the very top of the social order, above even the First Estate. Still, this woman was generally on the right side … and more interesting than anybody else at this end of the table. And she was clearly smitten—most likely by his celebrity status.

Anyway, he decided to accept the inevitable by the time dessert arrived—an Earth-shaped medley that their host gleefully opened with a saber, exposing alternating layers of crusty pastry, gelato, and chocolate that, like the planet itself, terminated in a delightfully molten core.

Even later, though, as they staggered side by side, giggling, on their way to her room, Hamish remained partly detached—the same detachment that had kept Carolyn at a cool distance all those years, till she finally left. And even then, he could not stop picturing the AI minds deciding to formulate themselves as ideal Confucian mandarins. So serenely confident that they might tolerate and reward the best of those below. Might the new uber-lairds allow a few humans to rise, through “merit” and join them, at the pinnacle? Perhaps as cyborgs, enhanced to operate at their level?

It represented everything he had preached against for decades. Yet, to be honest, Hamish found his views shifting gradually. For there was also a strong temptation to want that destiny. The mad dream of the godmakers, its tug was undeniable.

If we handle the transition right, the New Pyramid will be smart, gracious, calm. People will have their elections, and other toys. Above them, aristos will maintain stability. And at the peak? Ais will slip into their top niche gracefully, with hardly a ripple.

Then, after a few centuries of tranquility, maybe we’ll be ready to unbury that damned Havana Artifact from some cold, dark closet, and talk about the stars.

ENTROPY

Optimists offer evidence that things will be all right, like the fact that major war has been evaded—despite some burns and narrow scrapes—and that most individuals today know far more peace than their ancestors did. Even in this economy, hundreds of millions strive each day with real hope of climbing out of poverty, seeing their children healthier and better educated. Except in the toxoplasma hot zone, interpersonal violence is down again, on a per capita basis.

Yes, there are rumors and worried models predicting a coming conflagration—one between classes, rather than nation states. But who really yearns for such a thing to happen?

What if the optimists are right? Suppose we in this generation are—on average—growing both smarter and more sane at a decent clip. That average still leaves a billion human beings, out of almost ten billion, who are steeped in rage, or dogmatic rigidity, or delusional repetition of discredited mistakes. You know such people. Do you recognize those traits in some of your neighbors? Or perhaps that face in the mirror?

Remember that one harm-doer can wreck what took many hands to build. A thousand professionals may be needed, to counteract something virulent released by a single malignant software or bioware designer. It’s not that sociopaths are smarter—they generally aren’t. But they have the element of surprise, plus the brittleness of a society with many vulnerable points of attack.

Suppose the ratio of goodness and skill continues to rise—that each year far more decent and creatively competent people join the workforce than sociopaths. Will that suffice? Perhaps.

But then, imagine someone finds a simple way to make black holes or antimatter using common materials and wall current? Even if 99.999 percent of the population refrains, the crazy 0.001 percent might kill us all. And there are other scenarios—conceivable ways that one lunatic might outweigh all the rest of us, no matter how high a fraction are good and sane.

If the ratio improves, but the series doesn’t converge, then there’s no hope.

—Pandora’s Cornucopia

 

37.

ARCHIPELAGO

Peng Xiang Bin really wanted to follow up on one comment that had been made by the alien entity within the worldstone. When shown images of the other interstellar messenger egg—the Havana Artifact being studied in America—Courier of Caution had made clear its disdain and hatred, calling the beings who dwelled inside that vessel liars.

Despite all the remaining translation problems, that word came through vividly and clear. It was intriguing and more than a bit chilling. Clearly Paul and Anna and the professor wanted to learn more about that, as well. But Dr. Nguyen insisted on sticking to their list of scheduled questions.

So, Bin concentrated on drawing another set of ancient characters. When a completed line of figures floated across the surface of the egg-shaped thing, he also spoke the question aloud.

How did you arrive on Earth?”

The reply came in two parts. While Courier of Caution painted ideograms and uttered antiquated words, an image took shape nearby, starting as night’s own darkness. Anna Arroyo quickly arranged for an expanded version of the picture to billow outward from their biggest 3-D display, revealing a black space vista, dusted with stars.

In arch tones that seemed beautifully and appropriately old-fashioned, Professor Yang Shenxiu translated the ancient ideograms, aloud.

“Pellets, hurled from the homefire,
Thrown by godlike arms of light,
Cast to drift for time immeasurable,
Through emptiness unimaginable…”

One star, amid a powdery myriad, seemed to pulsate, aiming narrow, sharp twinkles outward.…

“Capture those constellation images!” Dr. Nguyen commanded, with no time for courtesy.

“I’m on it!” Menelaua snapped. His fingers left the animatronic crucifix hanging from his neck and waggled in the air with desperate speed, while the islander grunted and hopped in his seat.

Bin stared as several of the winking rays seemed to propel tiny dots in front of them. One of these zoomed straight toward his point of view, growing into a wide, reflective surface that loomed at those watching.

“Photon sail!” Anna diagnosed. “A variant on the Nakamura design. Driven onward by a laser, at point of origin.”

Bin grunted, amazed by her quickness—and that he actually grasped some of her meaning! The space windjammer hurtled past his viewpoint, which swiveled around to give chase—and he briefly glimpsed a tiny, smooth shape dragged behind the giant sail, brilliantly radiant in the home star’s propelling beam …

… which finally shut down, perhaps after many years, leaving just a natural glow from the original sun, a glitter that diminished as separation increased and decades passed in seconds. With no laser light to catch anymore, the diaphanous sail contracted, folding and collapsing into a small container at one end of a little egg, whose former brightness now faded, till it could only be made out as a seed-shaped ripple, starlit, hurtling at speeds Bin couldn’t begin to contemplate.

“Neat trick with the sail,” Paul commented. “Tuck it away, when it’s not needed for propulsion or energy collection, so it won’t snag interstellar particles. With bi-memory materials, it could expand or contract with very little effort. I bet they use it later to slow down.”

Bin now grasped how the worldstone must have come across the incredible gulf between stars—a method sure to provoke feelings of kinship from this colony of wealthy yachting enthusiasts. At the same time, he wondered, What would ancient peoples, in China or India, have made of these images?

They would have thought in terms of gods and monsters.

How easy it would be, to chuckle over such naïveté. But, in fact, could anyone guarantee that modern humanity was advanced enough to understand, even now? In ways that mattered most?

Meanwhile, Scholar Yang’s narration continued.

“Slow time passed while the galaxy turned,
A new star loomed—its light, a cushion.”

The pellet turned around and redeployed its sail, which now took a gentler, braking push from a brightening light source ahead. Our sun, Bin realized. It had to be.

“Knew it!” the islander exulted. “Of course there’s no laser at this end. So sunshine alone won’t be enough.”

As the star ahead grew from a pinpoint into a tiny, visible disc, a new object abruptly loomed in front of the worldstone—a great, banded sphere, replete with tier after tier of whirling, multicolored storms.

“Chosen beforehand—a giant ball waited,
Ready to catch … pull … assist…”

Yang Shenxiu’s translation stumbled as, even with computer aissistance, he could only offer guesses. Well, after all, Courier had a limited useful human vocabulary. Ancient Indus and Chinese people knew very little about astronomy, planetary navigation and all that.

Just like me, Bin thought as the striped, cloudy ball approached rapidly.

“A gravity swing past Jupiter,” Anna murmured in apparent admiration. “Like threading a microscopic needle across centuries and light-years. They had to time it perfectly.”

The mighty gas planet swerved by, unnervingly fast, and the pellet, its sail billowed open, then plunged past the sun in a hairpin swerve before veering into black space. Far … far … until it paused at the end of a towering arc … then plummeted inward again, approaching the star from a different angle, filling the sail once more with torrents of light.

Paul interjected. “But it would still have loads of excess velocity. This needle must have been threaded many times, offering multiple swings past other planets, as well as Jupiter and the sun, again and again.”

His appraisal was borne out, as the broiling solar sphere darted by, making Bin’s eyes water. Just after nearest passage, the sail furled back into its container … and soon a smaller ball swung past, so close that Bin felt as if he were passing through the topmost of its churning, yellow clouds, while a brief, glowing aura surrounded the image.

“Atmospheric braking through the atmosphere of Venus. Dang! They’d need orbital figures down to ten decimals, in order to plan this from so far away, so long in advance.”

Then, another sudden veer and gyre past Jupiter.…

“Yes, though it could make small, real-time adjustments, between encounters, by tacking with the sail,” Anna replied. “Still they wouldn’t arrange it in such detail without a destination in mind.” She made her own rapid finger movements. “They had to know about Earth already. From instruments, like our LifeSeeker Telescope … only far more advanced. They’d know it had an oxygen atmosphere, life, nonequilibrium methane, possibly chlorophyll. Even so—”

Without shifting his transfixed gaze, Bin had to shake his head. There was no way that ancient peoples could have made anything of this, even if Courier showed them all the same images and told them about these worlds, named after their gods—or the other way around. Bin’s head seemed to spin, nauseated, as the whirling, planetary dance went through several further encounters—more dizzying, gut-wrenching pirouettes—until the sense of pell-mell speed finally diminished. The pace grew sedate—if no less urgent. Then another dot approached, slowly, gracefully. Bin guessed which planet from its greenish-blue glitter.

“It must have intended to fine-tune its approach to Earth,” Paul commented, “by gradually tacking on sunlight till entering a high, safe orbit, perhaps at a Lagrange point. Then it would spend some time—centuries—evaluating the situation. Maybe use the sail as a telescope mirror, to gather light and make detailed observations from a secure distance. Then wait.”

“Wait … for what?” Anna was doubtful. “For the planet to produce space travelers? But, the temporal coincidence is incredible! To launch this thing, timed so it arrived only a few thousand years before we made it into space? How could they have known?”

Bin marveled how these skilled people grasped so much, so quickly. Even allowing for all of their fancy tools and aids. It was a privilege, just to be in such company.

Paul pressed his disagreement. “Anyway, how do we know there was anything special about the time they chose? Maybe these stone-things have been arriving at a steady rate, all across the last billion years, filling the solar system by now! We never surveyed the asteroid belt for objects anywhere near this small. That astronaut only happened to snag one that drifted into visible reach—”

“It’s still an appalling coincidence,” Anna persisted. “There has to be—”

“Comrades, please,” Professor Yang Shenxiu urged, raising his eyes briefly from his own work station. “Something is happening.”

The glitter of Earth had begun resolving itself into a dot, and then a ball, flecked with clouds and glinting seas. Only now, the storytelling image turned and zoomed in upon the star-traveling pellet. Once again, the little box at its front end opened, the sail re-emerging.

“At long last, the goal lay in sight,
Now to approach gently and find a perch,
To focus, study, and appraise,
Then to sleep again and wait.
Until a time of claiming,
When allures are certain. Ready…”

Only, this time, something went wrong. As the sail came out of its box, amid a glitter of sharp reflections, several of the lines abruptly snapped! One corner of the vast, luminous sheet dimpled inward. More lines crossed each other the wrong way. Bin blinked, feeling his gut clench as the sail rapidly fouled and collapsed, its slender cables knotted, spoiled.

“Evidently, something went badly wrong at the last minute,” Paul commented, unnecessarily.

Bin found he could barely breathe from tension, watching a drama that had unfolded many millennia ago. He felt sympathy for the worldstone. To have traveled so far, and come so near success, only for all plans to unravel. Yang Shenxiu recited ideograms conveying Courier’s sense of tragedy and dashed hope.

“Failure! Luck evades us,
While this globe reaches out,
To cast my fate.”

Bin glanced at the scholar, who seemed far away in time and space, his eyes glittering with soft laser reflections cast by his helper apparatus. Of course, the alien entity’s florid vocabulary must have come from its long era spent with early humans, many centuries ago, in more poetical days.

“Will Earth embrace me
—in a fiery clutch?
Or will she fling me outward,
Tumbling forever—
—in cold and empty space?”

Unable to maneuver even a little, the pellet let go of its uselessly clotted sail as the planet loomed close, swinging by, once … twice … three times … and several more … From Paul’s commentary, it seemed that some kind of safety margin was eroding with each orbital passage. Doom drew closer.

Then it came—the final plunge.

“So, it will be fire.
Plummeting amid heat and pain,
Destined for extinction…”

Starting with deceptive softness, flames of atmospheric entry soon crackled around the image, accompanied by a roar that seemed almost wrathful. Bin realized, with a sharp intake of breath, that it would be just like the Zheng He expedition. He felt an agonized pang, as any Chinese person would …

… till new characters floated to jitter by the image-story in brushstrokes of tentative hope.

“Then, once again,
Fate changed its mind.”

The grand voyage might have ended then, in waters covering three-quarters of the globe, an epic journey climaxing in burial under some muddy bottom. Or impacting almost anywhere on land, to shatter and explode.

Instead, as they watched the egg-artifact ride a shallow trail of flame—shedding speed and scattering clouds—there loomed ahead a white-capped mountainside! It struck the pinnacle along one snowy flank, jetting white spumes skyward and ricocheting on a shallow arc … then, rapidly, another angled blow, and another …

… till the ovoid finally tumbled to rest, smoldering, on the fringes of a highland glacier.

Heat, quenched by cold, melted an impression, much like a nest. Whereupon, soon after arriving in a gaudy blaze, the pellet from space seemed to fade—barely visible—into the icy surface.

Bin had to blink away tears. Wow. That beat any of the telenet dramas Mei Ling made him watch.

Meanwhile, archaic-looking ideograms continued flowing across the worldstone. Yang Shenxiu was silent, as distracted and transfixed as any of them. So Bin glanced at some modern Chinese characters that formed in the corner of his right eye. A rougher, less lyrical translation, offered by his own aissistant.

“This was not the normal mission.
Nor any planned program.”

For once, none of the smart people said a thing, joining Bin in silence as spot-sampled snapshots seemed to leap countless seasons, innumerable years. The glacier underwent a time-sped series of transition flickers, at first growing and flowing down a starkly lifeless valley, carrying the stone along, sometimes burying it in white layers. Then (Bin guessed) more centuries passed as the ice river gradually thinned and receded, until retreating whiteness departed completely, leaving the alien envoy-probe stranded, passive and helpless, upon a stony moraine.

“But the makers left allowance,
For eventualities unexpected.”

Appearing to give chase, grasses climbed the mountain, just behind the retiring ice wall. Soon, tendrils of forest followed, amid rippling, seasonal waves of wildflowers. Then time seemed to put on the brakes, slowing down. Single trees stayed in place, the sun’s transit decelerated, unnervingly, from stop-action blur to a flicker, all the way down to the torpid movement of a shadow, on a single day.

Bin swayed in reaction, as if some speedy vehicle screeched to a sudden halt. Bubbles of bile rose in his throat. Still, he couldn’t stop watching, or even blink …

… as two of the shadows moved closer …

… converging on a pair of legs—clad in leather breeches and cross-laced moccasins—entering the field of view in short, careful steps.

Then came a human hand, stained with soot. Soon joined by its partner—fingernails grimy with caked mud and ocher. Reaching down to touch.

PRICE OF CONTACT

Suppose we encounter those star-alien bredren an’ sistren, an’ nothing bad arises. Ya mon, it could happen.

Despite the long-sad list of ways that “First Contacts” went wrong on Earth—between human cultures, or when animal species first meet in nature—our encounter with ET may turn out right.

So look here, assume it ain’t Babylon, out there. No one is trying to be nasty space-zutopong, or out to vank de competition with bad-bwoy bizness. No super wanga-gut seeks to devour everything in sight, or convert us to their galactic jihad. No deliberate or accidental viruses carried on those shiny beacons.

Further, say de advanced sistren an’ bredren out there have solved so-many problems that vex us. That don’t mean relax! For even among the civilized, life be dangerous if you don’t know the rules.

Question, dear frens. What be the most common peaceful activity in most societies, other than raising food an’ kids? Commerce. Buying, selling an’ trading. I have plenty of what you waan and you have what I need. Shall we both benefit by striking a deal?

Oh, sure, in some utopian sci-fi a stoosh-cornucopia quenches all desires. May it be so! Still, won’t one thing be always in demand? Information—supplying interstellar bredren wit’ new concepts an’ visions. Art, music, literature. A human lifetime ago, the Voyager probe carried a disc filled with Earth culture. No one thought to slap that album wit’ a price tag.

Oh my frens remember, nice-up pure altruism is a recent concept, so rare, in nature. What be far more common—even among wild creatures—is quid pro quo. You do for me an’ I do for you. Through history an’ even among animals the rule is not “Be generous.”

No. The rule is “Be fair.”

Nice as he may be, ET will surely do commerce. If we ask ’im questions, he may reply—“We got whole-heaps of answers!”

Den him say—“So. What do you humans offer in exchange?”

All we have is ourselves—art, music, books, drama, an’ culture. Humanity’s treasure. But dat’s de first thing foolish folks will beam out—for Free! An’ dat so-admirable rush to impress our neighbors could be the worst mistake of all time.

Perhaps they be nice. They may understan’ fairness. But who pays for a free gift? History may speak of no bloodclot traitors worse than those who, with best intentions, cast our heritage to the sky, impoverishing us all, puttin’ us in Babylon.

—from The Eternal Quest, by Professor Noozone

 

38.

THE UPWARD PATH

Following close behind a trio of dolphins, Hacker entered the mysterious, suboceanic dome via a broad tunnel that passed underneath the habitat, kicking his way toward a glow at the far end. Soon, an opening appeared, ahead and above—a portal pool, where the sea was kept at bay by air pressure within the habitat.

Even before broaching the pool’s surface, he found the artificial environment somehow odd. He was by now used to seeing only by sun and moon and stars, so the glare of artificial lighting seemed both familiar and … old, like faintly recalled memories from another decade, or another life. Hacker paused, without knowing why, feeling almost reluctant to continue.

Come on, he told himself. This is it. The way home.

And yet, after—how long?—wandering at sea with a tribe of strange cetaceans, Hacker found himself unable to quite picture what the word denoted. Home. Was it really somehow correlated with that stark dazzle up ahead? The brilliance of LER panels, beckoning him to rise just a couple more meters, and thereupon rejoin the human world. For some reason, their glitter brought him to the verge of sneezing.

He suppressed that impulse, which would splatter his faceplate. Still, it was only when one of the dolphins turned in puzzlement—scanning him with a sonar glyph that seemed like a question mark—that Hacker finally gathered himself, pushed aside all uncertainty and kicked hard, rocketing to the surface, sending splashes across a nearby set of low, metal stairs.

Spy-hopping upward, he peered around. No people were in sight. Banks of lockers and cabinets lined the walls, along with hooks for tools and diving equipment, though most were bare.

More dolphins arrived, lifting their heads to look around, emitting low chutters that his jaw implant conveyed into audible impulses. From experience, he interpreted the meaning as sadness. Disappointment.

But over what?

One big male—Hacker called him Michael, because he was a master with the net—patiently rolled in circles while a couple of others unwound the fishing mesh from his body. Hacker moved over to help them string it onto a rack, ready for re-use, later. He also noticed other objects in that corner of the pool. Rings and hoops and balls and such. Only he didn’t hang around to learn their purpose. Hacker now had a clear and different destination in mind.

Kicking over to the stairs, he touched their rough surface with a gloved hand … which abruptly grabbed one of the steps, with a sudden intensity that surprised him, clutching it, unwilling to let go … as if in fear that the textured aluminum might be an illusion. Tremors passed up and down his body and a sigh escaped, that might have been a moan. A couple of minutes passed while he was in that state. Fog in his helmet—or tears in his eyes—made it hard to see.

Evidently, if part of him felt reluctance to return to civilization, there were other portions that really, really wanted to go back! To the world of men and women and solid ground and soft beds and lovely, artificial things.

Prying his fingers free, at last, he pulled on the stair with both arms, swiveled onto his back, and managed to haul his body’s bulk upward, onto one of the steps, to sit up for the first time in … a long time. It felt strange not to have to work hard, just to keep his head and shoulders out of the water.

With a moist splat, his draidlocks—the gill fronds surrounding his helmet—collapsed, no longer supported by seawater. Of course, that also meant they weren’t supplying oxygen, anymore. Quickly his rapid breathing started turning the air stuffy inside his helmet.

Cautiously, Hacker fumbled at the faceplate seal, managed to crack it open, and sniffed … then opened it wide. There was a slightly stale-musty aroma and faint metallic tang inside the habitat, but he’d lived through much worse. At least, now he could really look around.

No people. That was the most obvious fact. No humans anywhere in sight. Given how cheap it was to set up a sensor-Mesh, wouldn’t someone have been alerted, by now, that an unexpected visitor was here, and come to investigate?

Unless they think I’m just another dolphin.

Then there was the absence of human-generated noise—no jabber of speech or purposeful mechanical rhythms. But of course, Hacker reminded himself, he wouldn’t hear any. All of a sudden he felt acutely the lack of normal, aural sound. Below the waterline, his jaw implant had seemed appropriate and fitting—it had been key to unlocking dolphin speech, in fact. Only now, in open air, he kept trying to yawn and shake his head, as if doing so might clear the deafness of his eardrums, which had been clamped so long ago, before the ill-fated rocket launch.

That’s got to be fixed right away, if they have facilities here. Even before a bath.

Suddenly, a hundred aches started shouting at him, sores and twinges and awful itches that he must have somehow managed to ignore, till this very moment, for the simple reason that he could do nothing about them. Now, they began shouting for attention. Especially a tightness around his head that suddenly felt like a vice. Pawing desperately at clasps and vrippers, Hacker tore away the seals that held his trusty helmet—the apparatus that had saved his life—detaching it from the rest of his survival suit. When it came free, he hurled the headgear away, like something loathsome. Then the gloves. And, for a few moments, he luxuriated in the simple act of touching, rubbing, scratching, even caressing his own, stubble-ridden face.

Okay, get up. Get moving. Find the owners of this place. Get help … and remember to try to be nice. That last part was in order to be sure that old, nasty habits would not surge to the surface—the impatience of a spoiled brat. Perhaps this new, mature perspective was only a temporary thing. An artifact of his time spent with the Tribe. It did seem, somehow, to be long overdue. Or, at least, a novelty worth trying out.

Standing was too much to ask of his body. So, he scooted backward and up the next stair, bracing both arms to slide up the next one, and so on, till at last he sat on the deck surrounding the entry pool, and only his flippered feet remained immersed. For a couple of minutes he just sat, breathing heavily from just that much exertion.

Okay, let’s find … he stopped.

Upon turning halfway around, Hacker found himself facing a large, hand-scrawled sign that had been propped up in front of the pool, sure to confront any new arrivals.

Project Uplift Suspended!

Court costs ate everything.

This structure is deeded to our finned friends.

May they someday join us as equals.

There followed, in smaller print, a WorldNet access number, and a legal-looking letter. Hacker had to squint and blink away drying salt to read a few lines. But it seemed to verify that queer statement—the little dolphin clan actually owned this building—which they now used to store their nets, some toys, and a few tools.

Hacker now understood the meaning of their plaintive calls, when they arrived to find no one home. The real reason they kept coming back. Each time, they hoped to find that their “hand-friends” had returned.

Project Uplift? He pondered, while laboring to pull off the body-hugging suit, wincing as it dragged past sores and chafed spots. The name is familiar. I … heard something about it.

One of the dolphins—old Yellowbelly—came over to eye Hacker, emitting a burst whose meaning seemed much less clear to Hacker, now that his jaw was out of the water.

“I’ll be back,” he assured the old-timer, holding up one hand in promise.

*   *   *

It took great effort to rise up to his knees. Then, leaning on the stair rail, he managed to rise onto both feet. It wasn’t so much lack of strength—he had been working his legs hard for quite some time and his thigh muscles bulged—as a problem of balance. No other species on Earth demanded such fine motor control as humans required, just to keep from toppling over. He would need some time to get the hang of it again.

Unsteady on rubbery legs, Hacker clung close to the walls and cabinets as he shuffled away from the pool, into a long corridor, stopping to look into each chamber along the way. They were laboratories, mostly. The first time he found a sink with a freshwater tap, he turned it on full blast and immersed his head, then drank greedily until he felt bloated. It took an act of forceful will to stop … to move away and resume exploring.

In the third room, he recognized a gene-splicing apparatus made by one of his own companies. And, all at once, his mind connected the dots.

Project Uplift. Oh yes. I remember.

A year or two ago—both professional and amateur media swarmed over a small cabal whose secret goal had been to alter several animal species, with the ultimate aim of giving them human-level intelligence.

Foes of all kinds had attacked the endeavor. Churches called it sacrilegious. Eco-zealots decried meddling in nature’s wisdom. Tolerance fetishists demanded that native “dolphin culture” be left alone, without cramming parochial human values down their throats, while others rifkined the proposal, predicting mutants would escape the labs to endanger humanity.

One problem with diversity in an age of amateurs was that your hobby might attract ire from a myriad others, especially from those with a particular passion of their own—indignant disapproval. And a bent for litigation.

This “uplift project” perished in the rough-and-tumble battle that ensued. A great many modern endeavors did.

Survival of the fittest, he mused. An enterprise this dramatic and controversial has to attract strong and determined support, or it’s doomed.

Exploring the next laboratory, Hacker at last found what he was looking for—a cheap joymaker multiphone that someone had left behind, tossed amid a pile of trash. Though it seemed broken at first, a simple cleaning of the battacitor pohls and it turned on! A simulated female face appeared on the pullout slide-screen, moving its mouth in a welcoming statement that Hacker could not hear, but whose meaning was obvious—offering basic service, even if the unit no longer linked to any personal or corporate accounts.

Ah, but was there a connection to the Mesh, under the sea? Certainly, Project Uplift must have had comm links, even from down here. But were they still active and accessible?

Laboriously, he fumbled across the screen, managing to tactile the right clickable and pull out an old-fashioned alphabetical touchpad. With fingers that felt like sausages, he typed:

CAN I CALL MAINLAND?

The kind-looking female face vanished, replaced by stark letters that scrolled by in harsh, 2-D fonts.

DIAGNOSTIC UNDERWAY …

… CABLE LINK TO TRINIDAD MAIN UNDERSEA TRUNK HAS BEEN SOFT-DISCONNECTED.

SHALL I PULSE A REQUEST FOR EMERGENCY RECONNECT?

Hacker answered with a simple “Y”—hoping the joymaker would take it to mean Yes.

PULSING.… THIS MAY TAKE SOME TIME

FROM FIVE MINUTES TO SEVERAL HOURS

PLEASE BE READY WITH PAYMENT

Hacker grunted wondering what to do, if and when a connection was established. It should be possible to craft a message, built from simple text characters, invoking emergency-Samaritan rules, along with a promise that the call’s recipient—his mother—would cover all charges. That seemed dreadfully archaic and convoluted, from using spelled-out letters to quibbling over payment. But the thing really giving Hacker pause was something else entirely.

A text emergency message … it gives an impression I need hurried rescue … when I’ve really rescued myself.

Well … the dolphins helped, a bit.

Still. Here he was, with food, water, comfortable quarters, and the option of simply heading for the nearby beach, if it came to that, and then walking to civilization. So, why send the equivalent of SOS smoke signals, or scrawling “HELP” in the sand? Maybe it was foolish pride, but that seemed wrong, somehow, after coming so far.

Better that I make a call that seems as normal as possible. All casual-like, paying charges by biomet ID. Make it seem like I’m in complete control. Hi. How you been? And oh, and by the way, could you send a copter-sub out this way?

He thought he knew how to do that. Use some of the tools in that last laboratory to create a tap from the joymaker to the sonic implant in his jaw. It shouldn’t be too hard. Just replicate the same circuit link he had used aboard the suborbital rocket. The most important parts were right in his helmet, back at the pool.

While I’m at it, why not get in some real food? Even the canned stuff he had spied earlier, left on shelves in the galley, would be a welcome break from raw fish. Spitting out scales and bones.

And take a bath … maybe even a nap?

Hacker’s mood was so different from the frenzy he might have expected, from being so close to contact with human civilization. And yet, he felt this was right.

TAKE YOUR TIME, he told the primitive, obsolete multiphone, typing carefully on the tactile screen.

I WILL CHECK AGAIN IN A FEW HOURS.

ENTROPY

Suppose the threat comes from human nature—some obstinate habit woven in our genes. Might science offer a way out, through deliberate self-improvement? First we’d have to admit that we have a nature.

Take the argument over evolutionary psychology. EP claims we all inherit patterns from prehistoric times—that long epoch when domineering males gained extra descendants because they were powerfully competitive, or jealous, or good at deception. Monarchy and feudalism heaped more rewards on any king who could talk thousands of virile men into marching and fighting to protect his seraglio. We’re all descended from the harems of fellows like Charlemagne and Genghis Khan, who mastered that trick.

Opponents of EP argue we’re more than the sum of our ancestors. They cite our vaunted flexibility, the way we learn and reprogram ourselves, as individuals and cultures. Each sex can do almost anything that the other does, and rules that limited opportunity because of caste, race, or gender have proved baseless. Indeed, our greatest trait is adapting to new circumstances, attaining improbable dreams.

Only, starting from this truth, critics puritanically claim that evolutionary psychology might be used to excuse bad conduct, letting rapists and oppressors cry “Darwin made me do it!” Hence, for political reasons, they claim people have no hardwired social patterns, or even leanings, at all.

What, none? No matter how contingent or flexible? Are we so perfectly unlike every other species on Earth? Isn’t that what religious fundamentalists claim? That we have nothing in common with nature?

Can we afford simpleminded exaggerations, in either direction? In order to survive, humanity must overcome so many old, bad habits. We must study those ancient patterns—not in order to make excuses, but to better understand the raw material of Homo sapiens.

Only then can we look in the mirror, at evolution’s greatest marvel, and say, “Okay, that’s the hand we’re dealt. Now let’s do better.”

Pandora’s Cornucopia

 

39.

TOUGH LOVE

Envoy to aliens. It had more romantic appeal than his old job as a space garbage collector. Suddenly, Gerald was the hit of his affinity groups.

Cicada Lifeloggers already gave every astronaut free biograph-storage—geneticodes, petscans, q-slices, and all that—in exchange for wearing a recording jewel in orbit. Now they wanted him to put on their omni-crown, a hot-hat guaranteed to see what he saw, hear what he heard, and store his surface neuroflashes down to petabytes per second!

“So much data that future folk may craft brilliant Gerald Livingstone models. Hi-res versions of you—recreating this historic moment in resplendent detail!” The Cicada rep apparently thought immortality consisted of being replayed at ultrafidelity by audiences in some far-off era.

But then, Gerald pondered, how can I tell I’m experiencing this for the first time? Wouldn’t any such future emulation think it’s me? Even these very thoughts—fretting over whether I’m an emulation? Even my memories of breakfast may be “boundary conditions.” The real world could be some amusement nexus in the ninety-third century … or a kid’s primitive ancestors report for her fifth-millennium kindergarten class … or else some god-machine’s passing daydream.

Yet, the Cicada guy expressed envy! As a “historical figure,” Gerald’s chance for this kind of resurrection—seemed rather high. But the reasoning could easily get circular, or collapse into sophistry. Was this like the depressing religious doctrine of predestination? Your fate already written by an all-powerful God?

Anyway, what if this First Contact episode goes horribly wrong? Suppose I’m remembered as the fool or Judas who opened the door for a new kind of evil. Might future folk create simulations in order for villains of the past to suffer … or seem to? Worse, Gerald pictured the supercyborg equivalent of a future bored teenager, observing this capsule of make-believe reality, nudging his pals and saying: “I love this part! This is where Livingstone actually tries to imagine us! Picturing us as callous, pimple-faced adolescents of his own era. What a pathetic software lump! Maybe next time, I’ll hack in and make him trip on the stairs.”

Gerald felt his thoughts veer away from such questions. Perhaps because they were futile. Or else maybe he was programmed not to dwell on them for long. Ah well. He turned Cicada down.

The Church of Gaia: Jesus-Lover Branch wanted Gerald to offer an online sermon for next Sunday’s prayoff against the CoG: Pure-Mother Branch. Some fresh insights could help tip the current standings. They especially wanted to know—from his contact with the Artifact entities—did any of the aliens still know a state of grace? Like Adam and Eve before the apple? Or, if they had fallen, like man, had they also received an emissary of deliverance—a race savior—of their own? If so, were their stories similar to the New Testaments? And if not …

… then what did Gerald think of the notion—spreading among Christians—that humanity must accept a new obligation? A proud duty to go forth and spread the Word?

In other words, now that we know they’re out there—trillions of souls wallowing in darkness—is it our solemn mission to head across the galaxy delivering Good News? At least it was a more forward-looking dogma than his parents’ relished obsession—praying for a gruesome apocalypse and eternal torment for all fools who recite the wrong incantations. Still, he turned down the sermon, promising the CoG: JeLoB folks to ask the Artifact entities about such matters, when the right moment arose.

For all I know, “join us” could mean “enlist in our religion—or face an interstellar crusade.” I can’t wait to find out.

The list of requests was too long to cope with … unless the aliens offered some fantastic new way to copy yourself. Now that would be useful tech!

The proposal that rocked him back should have been good news. Suddenly, his spouses seemed interested in bedtime. All of them. Even Francesca, who had never liked Gerald very much. “We miss you,” they said, in messages and calls. More attention than he normally got from the group marriage. In fact, all seven offered to come visit him “in this time of stress.”

Joey, Jocelyn, and Hubert even volunteered to sign waivers and enter quarantine with him! The offer was flattering. Tempting. Especially since Gerald always felt an outsider, at the periphery of their little clan, long suspecting they proposed to him for the prestige of an astronaut husband. Perhaps the best sitch that a cool-blooded and off-kilter fellow like him could hope for.

He messaged back—“You’ve all got jobs, duties. Kids. Just keep in touch. I’ll see you in my dreams.”

Anyway, things were getting busy again. The deprivation experiment had been making progress, much to Gerald’s surprise. His discovery—the so-called Livingstone Object—was starting to respond.

*   *   *

“Thousands of years drifting between the stars—you’d think that would’ve taught these aliens patience,” Genady Gorosumov commented, after the third day. “I was afraid they’d wait us out. Call our bluff. They must know we’re under pressure.”

The slim Russian biologist nodded toward the observers’ gallery, just beyond a barrier of smoky glass, where almost a hundred experts, delegates, and VIPs looked down upon the quarantined Contact Commission and its work. Many of those dignitaries were sharply unhappy about the team’s current endeavor—to starve the Artifact entities into cooperating.

“But much to my surprise, our carrot-and-stick approach seems to be working,” Genady concluded. “Clearly, they’re getting worried in there.”

He pointed at the opalescent ovoid, which still lay in its cradle, only no longer bathed in artificial sunshine. A soft fog surrounded its base, where coils now sucked away heat energy, leaving both the egglike object and its nest chilled much closer to the temperature of space. Gerald sensed coldness whenever his hand drifted near.

With the chamber dimmed, the rounded cylinder’s former sheen faded and grew dull. Even more telling, the perpetual roil of images—planetary scenes and cityscapes and jostling figures—slowed from a frenetic maelstrom to languid, even desultory. The creature-entities seemed to droop with each passing hour.

“All right, let’s put them through another cycle,” said General Akana Hideoshi. She nodded to the expert in operant conditioning—animal behavior and training—they had hired from the Kingdom of Katanga, Patrice Tshombe, who moved almost jet-black hands across a series of holographic controls that glowed just in front of him, floating above the conference table.

Overhead, a projector issued a sudden lance of sharp illumination, like a jolt straight from the sun. Where it struck the grayish-colored stone, clouds abruptly roiled, like milk stirred into coffee. Soon, shapes moved through that inner mist, as if hurrying upward, clambering toward the light from some distance below. By now, Gerald and the others recognized forty-seven distinct alien species. Genady had constructed sophisticated bio-skeletal models, from the hawk-faced centauroid to the floating squid-thing, to a creature with four leathery wings surrounding a central mouth, resembling a cross between a bat, a helicopter, and a starfish.

Those three were the first to arrive, on this occasion …

… but only just ahead of other shapes that pushed in, close behind. To Gerald, it seemed like a crowd gathering at the sound of a dinner bell, thronging close, eager for sustenance. Each of the aliens pressed an appendage of some kind toward the glowing surface separating two worlds, whereupon small flurries of letters and words swirled around each point of contact.

Even with the help of computers, only primitive meanings could be parsed out of the jumbled tornado of conflicting, jostling phrases. Once in a while the messages congealed, mostly to repeat the now ironic invitation—Join Us.

Gerald had been wondering for days. What “us”?

From the second row, heads of various kinds lifted high, in order to crane over the trio in front; one of them looked somewhat insectoid, atop a slender, stalklike neck. Another was like a jolly, rotund Buddha, standing next to one who raised an arm that resembled an elephant’s trunk, only with a hand at the end—a hand with eyes at the base of all six fingers. These latecomers plucked at the first three, at first tentatively, then with growing insistence.

“They behave like French or Chinese,” commented Emily Tang. “Proudly refusing the indignity of taking turns or standing in line. It seems a pity that we are forcing them to become something else. British—or even Japanese. Tame acceptors of the tyranny of the queue.”

Haihong Ming—their member from the Central Kingdom—laughed aloud, and Akana Hideoshi offered a grim chuckle. But Ben Flannery, their anthropologist from Hawaii, looked at Emily, clearly puzzled and offended by her cultural bias. Emily shrugged. “Hey, just because it was my idea to teach them discipline, that doesn’t mean I don’t empathize. Right now, their fractious pushiness has a certain schoolyard charm. Even if it makes communication damn near impossible.”

Watching the rabble of aliens closely, Tshombe put up with a bit of squeezing and elbowing. But when several newcomers joined forces to shove the bat-creature aside, pushing their way up front, Patrice waved a curt hand and the overhead sunbeam cut off, leaving the stone once again in darkness. Compressors kicked in, activating heat pumps below the tabletop, as the stone was given a sudden taste of bone-deep chill.

“Now, boys and girls and whosits,” murmured Emily, with evident enjoyment. “Learn to behave.”

Patrice brought up the beam again, as soon as the jostling stopped. With scalpel precision, he centered it upon the centauroid and squid, leaving the newcomers tasting only a penumbra.

“I have had better training response from otters,” Tshombe grunted in his deep Frafricaans accent. “But clearly there is progress. The rate curves are improving.”

While several more of these cycles repeated, Gerald glanced over his shoulder at the “peanut gallery” beyond the quarantine glass—a slanted arena of plush VIP seats, where dignitaries and experts scrutinized every move the contact team made, aissisted by the very best tools, consultants, and instrumentalities that money could buy.

The advisers now also had a presence on this side of the quarantine barrier, lurking just a few meters to Gerald’s right—a luminous, 3-D figure named Hermes, complete with chiseled features, golden robes, and matching hair—who appeared to pace back and forth at the far end of the table, glaring at General Hideoshi’s team with growing frustration.

Why on Earth did the advisers pick that garish thing to serve as their liaison metaphor? Gerald wondered. Do the politicians and professors and aristocrats think Akana will be intimidated by a cartoon Olympian god?

Maybe it wasn’t a deliberate choice. Often a group’s avatar was selected by interpolating some trait that all members had in common. Did this golden god signify that the advisers viewed themselves as … an elite?

Or it might just be overcompensation. Unconsciously, they want humanity to look its very best.

Even so, Hermes was way over the top. Impatience manifested in a furled brow as the ersatz Greek god drummed the tabletop with lambent fingertips, pausing now and then to scribble suggestions or chidings that he kept sliding across the table, to join a pile of shiny virts—messages that Gerald and the main team mostly ignored. Something about Hermes bugged Gerald. The synthetic Olympian’s fizzing frustration seemed all too similar to that of the Artifact aliens.

Unlike the main sci-fi stereotypes—extraterrestrials who were portrayed as aloofly superior, or cutesy-wise, or threatening—it does seem endearing and reassuring to find them behaving like disorganized schoolyard brats.

Unless … that reassurance is part of an act.

At the opposite end of the long conference table lurked another ai construct—Emily’s feline holvatar counterpart, Tiger, dedicated to paranoid suspicion, though just as much a caricature as Hermes. Gerald sometimes caught the two artificial beings glaring at each other past the real members of the Contact Team.

And yes, I can see another parallel. Are Tiger and Hermes really at odds? We have no idea if ais really do compete with each other on our behalf. Or whether that, too, may be a ruse, some reassuring role-playing for the sake of the rubes.

Half a dozen more cycles followed, as Patrice played his artful game of rapid rewards and punishments, with the Artifact wallowing in periods of chilled darkness, punctuated by intervals of sharp light and focused heat. Gradually, the Katangan expert began humming, while nodding contentedly. “I think they are starting to get the idea,” Patrice said. “Look closely.”

Gerald’s privileged position gave him a close-up view. First to become visible was the squidlike being, still front and center, waving forward a single tentacle, stroking the interface between two worlds. Only this time the centauroid and bat-like creature weren’t jostling to share the forwardmost position. Rather, they had taken up positions side by side, on the left facing away from the squid …

… and Gerald saw purpose in their actions. Those two were now actively blocking others in the crowd from coming closer. Nor were they alone in this effort. To the right, Gerald saw three others—including the Buddha-like figure—performing a similar role, preventing interference from the unruly rabble on that side. Moreover, as Tshombe’s energizing beam selectively made contact with the defenders, they seemed to grow more solid and distinct. Stronger and more capable of holding their ground.

In the center, chains of letters spiraled outward from that single tentacle. This time, words unrolled without jumble or interference, proceeding distinctly enough to activate the sonic interface. A voice emerged, sounding raspy and upset.

… we have come in friendship … across the vast and empty desert … with an offer of ultimate value … so why do you torment us?

Akana sighed with evident satisfaction.

“Okay, Gerald. You’re on.”

He leaned forward. No longer was it necessary to write directly on the ovoid surface with a pointed finger. Not so long as he enunciated clearly, speaking directly at the stone-from-space.

“We find your chaotic behavior disturbing,” he said. “While we appreciate the value of diversity, we require some degree of orderliness—or courtesy—if this conversation is to get anywhere. That can happen in either of two ways.”

He paused, as the linguistic adviser had recommended, if things ever got to this phase. Better to let the aliens ask. After several more seconds, the being that resembled a terrestrial cephalopod did just that. A slender tendril wrote—and the audio speakers interpreted—

What two ways?

Gerald spoke slowly and clearly.

“Either by taking turns, letting each individual have an allotted time to converse with us … or else by appointing one or more among you to represent the whole community.

“Frankly, we’d prefer both methods. But first the representative. It is time, at last, to clarify the nature of your mission here and what great commonwealth we are being invited to join.”

Sucker-tipped tendrils churned and writhed.

I recall … we used to do things … that way …

Gerald nodded, as did Ben and Emily. One theory held that the aliens’ disorderly behavior was the natural outcome of eons spent in isolation, drifting through space. A stupefying test of endurance that might demolish any former sanity.

I shall endeavor to persuade the others to … cooperate.

The squidlike being turned—the centauroid and bat-thing and Buddha and insectoid revolved to face it, as if intending to talk things over—

—and the scene began to dissolve into confusion, once more, as some on the periphery formed a wedge, joining forces to power their way through, driving hard to get into the foreground.

“Cut it off!” Akana commanded. The Artifact was plunged again into dark chill.

I hope the thing’s crystal structure can stand these wild swings of hot and cold, Gerald thought. It never had to deal with such rapid oscillations in space. The advisory icon, Hermes, had made that very point, at length.

Gyrating clouds could still be seen, agitated by dim figures, grappling in the virtual depths underneath the Artifact’s surface. So vigorous was the action at first, that Gerald worried. Might emulated beings do actual damage to each other, maybe even cause death? It certainly happened in some human-designed game worlds.

“They’re slowing down,” he commented.

The brief tussle did seem to quickly sap whatever skimpy energy reserves remained in there. Through the mist, they saw the figures let go of each other and start to slump. Gerald leaned closer and squinted. After a minute, he diagnosed.

“I think … I think some of them are talking to each other.”

“Now,” said General Hideoshi. “Ramp up the sunlamp to ten percent, Patrice. Reward this.”

“I shall do so,” Tshombe replied. “With great care.”

The beam returned, and Gerald saw it break into components, each shining where a cluster of alien figures appeared—at some distance—to engage in conversation. While Gerald watched, these groups seemed to gain strength and animation. When a couple of them broke up, it was only to reconfigure, as individuals moved on to engage others.

“Could it actually be working?” asked Genady Gorosumov, who had been skeptical about this approach.

“Perhaps they are rediscovering a knack they had forgotten, during the long, dull voyage across so many light-years,” commented Ben Flannery. “After all, it must take a lot of cooperation—and courtesy—to maintain a vast and ancient civilization. What we have been seeing may be the behavior of brilliant and civilized minds, when they are far from their best, still drowsy, not yet fully roused from a long, cold sleep.”

It was a good theory. In fact, the most popular one. Still, Emily Tang seemed to enjoy tweaking Ben now and then. “So, we’re like the nurse who slaps you hard, for your own good? To get a lazy slug-a-bed to wake up?”

Flannery frowned. But any retort was cut off when Tshombe said—

Regardez, mes amis! A delegation, at last. It arrives.”

All eyes turned to the Artifact—or nearby amplification screens—where something was clearly happening. A formation of more than a dozen alien figures approached through mists that now obediently parted, leaving them a clear path forward. And behind that group came another, even larger contingent, keeping what seemed a respectful distance.

Well, Gerald noted. They do seem to have finally got their act together.

Now, at last, we may get the full story.

Who would think that the biggest problem of First Contact would turn out to be one of personality. Of disorganization. Or immaturity.

But perhaps the worst is behind us, now.

PESSIMISM

According to the Medea Hypothesis, many of Earth’s mass extinctions were perpetrated by life itself.

Sure, the dinosaurs were wiped out by a random asteroid. Some other die-offs came from impacts or volcanic activity. Yet, Earth’s greatest calamity—the Kirschvink Glaciation of 650 million years ago, when ice covered the whole planet from pole to equator—was caused by sea algae pumping oxygen into the air while depleting CO2, plunging Earth into a deep freeze. And life—human civilization—may be doing the opposite right now. Our greenhouse overheating shows there are limits to the biosphere’s famed ability to self-correct.

Life can get out of hand, as when cancer cells destroy the organism that nurtures them. So, is that humanity’s analog? “Cancer” to the living globe? Was Earth’s recent die-off in diversity and biomass wrought by life’s own “biocidal” tendency? What if the Medea Hypothesis extends beyond this planet, to all living worlds?

On the other hand, life on Earth never before had the capacity to look at itself. To notice what it’s doing. And perhaps take corrective action. Is that humanity’s true role?

Short-sighted selfishness isn’t new. All creatures do that. We’re the first to perceive the slippery slope. To contemplate our self-made paths to hell. What we do about it will define whether we’re truly sapient. Whether we’re a cancer to Mother Earth … or her new brain. Her conscience.

Maturation’s Code

 

40.

WAITING FOR GUIDOT

Hamish fumed. The Prophet made a point of inviting me here, to help forge a historic alliance. Now I’m snubbed, while power brokers gather behind closed doors.

It took just a moment for his illusion of self-importance to collapse.

*   *   *

Hamish had been sitting near the back of an auditorium-theater, in the sprawling Glaucus-Worthington mansion, trying to find a comfortable position for his long legs while intellectuals from Tenskwatawa’s Renunciation Movement compared notes with scholars employed by the consortium of rich families called the clade. If they were going make common cause, the boffins who served both groups must get their stories straight. There was plenty to discuss—

Like surface justifications for society’s new direction, with varied messages tempered and adjusted for different social sectors, castes, and interest groups.

Marching orders for the politicians and bureaucrats that each group already had locked in, plus plans for collecting more.

Also on the agenda—though less pressing—were methodologies for good governance once control was achieved. The presence of this topic made Hamish feel better about the whole thing. If humanity was fated to slip back into traditional patterns, then the new lords should take their duties seriously.

Or, at least, they want to seem that way. It costs little to put some intellectuals on your fealty payroll and get them exchanging papers about newblesse oblige—the aristocratic duty to rule wisely. We’ll see if the coming feudal order really goes that way. Tenskwatawa had better keep his wits about him, for all our sakes!

The morning filled with presentations and panel discussions. Sushmeeta, the sociologist from Dharamsala, avoided eye contact with Hamish as she gave her speech about “neo-Confucian” social structures. Recalling their time together last night with mild fondness, he grinned openly when her eyes seemed about to pass over him. But there was no moment of contact. Perhaps she felt embarrassed, or piqued that he did not stay the whole night … or else anxious not to have their mini-affair revealed by gaze analysis. If so, the act of avoiding contact could betray that something was up between them … not that he cared much who knew.

There were all sorts of possibilities and Hamish admitted to being curious. A bit. Maybe, after all, it’s simply a matter of professionalism. She had her way with me—collected a bedded celebrity—and now she’s concentrating on business. Carolyn had seemed to do that, when first they met, exhibiting a combination of passion and self-control that Hamish couldn’t help but find impressive. Only later, when laughter became a big part of it, did the relationship move toward love.

Toward. But did it ever really get there? he wondered. And if so … why couldn’t it stay?

Sushmeeta’s presentation was, in fact, pretty good. An excellent appraisal—steeped in impressive historical evidence—of how oligarchic rule might be made sturdier, more effective and last longer, by lacing it with meritocracy.

Naturally, the intellectuals liked that part. They would. There was appreciative applause when Sushmeeta finished and sat back down in the second row. Hamish preferred to observe from farther back, where he could get up and stretch his legs.

Ah well. Maybe during lunch.…

Of possibly more interest to the First Estate were talks on “Swaying Mass Opinion Through Ubiquitous Ambient Persuasion” and “Verifying the Loyalty of Retainers Through Personality Tomography.”

A panel on intellectual property law sought common ground between the patricians, who viewed patents and copyrights as profitable rents, and the Renunciators, who saw tight licensing of ideas as tool to control “progress.” Advisers for both factions reached consensus—to seek legislation ending all expiration dates on patents. Intellectual property should be forever.

A side bonus: that might help corral some sci-tech types into joining the alliance.

Hamish noted that those giving papers seemed jittery—perhaps due to boffin drugs they sniffed, popped, or sorbed through skin patches. Out in the world, they might be discreet, but here among peers they spoke openly of the latest mind-accelerating substances. Was that what kept them agitated? Or was it lack of World Mesh access from this closed and secret conference?

It’s hard to believe that a hundred years ago folks seriously talked about technocracy—putting the world’s top scientists and intellectual elites in charge.

Of course, the people in this room weren’t “top.” The greatest members of the Fifth Estate kept their distance from the superrich, and especially from Tenskwatawa’s movement. Still, the very idea of technocracy always offended Hamish. And it would surely never happen now. Ironically thanks to methods that these experts were concocting, for their employers in the First Estate.

Hamish listened and took mental notes—half for the sake of the Movement but also as grist for future stories—two goals that pulled, deliciously, in opposite directions. For, while he approved of these proposals in real life—(they might save the world)—he couldn’t help also coming up with great ways to set them in tales of villainy! “Ambient persuasion” and “personality tomography” were euphemisms for mind-control—a dark vein that he had mined in novels, films, and games like Triumph of the Force.

So? Some of this stuff was just too cool not to portray in his next tech-bashing tale. Used by some enemy conspiracy—a government agency, or cabal of eco-nuts—instead of allies of the Prophet. Such was the art of fiction. Pick an authority figure as the nearly omnipotent bad guy—the choice depended on your grudges—but anti-authority had been the ongoing theme ever since the invention of Hollywood.

His hand ached from scribbling ideas on the permitted pad of old-fashioned paper. If only I had access to some vidrec or gisting tools.

Alas, even Wriggles, the mini-ai in his earring, was shut down by some kind of high-tech jamming system. Well, these are dangerous topics. Mere hearsay or rumors were harmless. It didn’t matter if millions believed terrible things about the Movement or the clade, even some that were true! But they must never be verified.

Around eleven, during a ten-minute break, Hamish was returning from the profligately perfumed men’s room when a conference manager announced the next talk: “Eugenic Refinement of Bloodlines and the Enhancement of Nobility.”

The title struck Hamish as creepy and—if truth be told—sort-of quasi-Nazi. Others in the audience seemed to agree, as dozens drifted away to get coffee or converse in antechambers. The speaker stepped toward the podium, but Hamish was watching Tenskwatawa, along with two key aides, join Rupert Glaucus-Worthington at a side exit, along with Yevgeny Bogolomov, Helena duPont-Vonessen, and other top moguls. Rupert, in particular, had a distracted, worried demeanor. Something weighed heavily on the old man.

Hamish took a swift scan of the auditorium and saw that all the top people in both factions were leaving, or had already left. This must be it. The real gathering, he thought, and started forward …

… only to stop as the Prophet, sharp-eyed, glanced his way. With a simple head shake and apologetic smile, Tenskwatawa told Hamish—No. This is not for you. Then, the Movement’s leader seemed to dismiss all thought of Hamish and turned away, following their host to some other meeting place. One presumably even more private and secure, where deals could be struck and humanity’s future decided.

Hamish sat down heavily as the eugenics talk was delivered—appropriately, it seemed—by a frumpy little man with an Austrian accent. But Hamish felt too stunned and hurt to pay much heed.

Well, what did you expect? Especially after the way Rupert treated you yesterday. For thousands of years, actors, storytellers, and enchanters knew their place … generally little higher than acrobats and courtesans. Even when famous or beloved, they did not hobnob or discuss policy with kings. Only our recent, adolescent culture exalted entertainers or men of ideas, and that’s sure to change when things settle back to the human norm.

Ah well. I always knew there were some things I’d miss about the Enlightenment.

So, here he belonged, among the other boffins. Not just any entertainer, but a master of mass communications, he should find the topics fascinating and have much to contribute. Yet, Hamish found it hard to focus as the speaker droned on.

“… so we see from these data that one consistent failure mode, leading to the downfall of noble houses in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas, across all recorded millennia, was adherence to foolish patterns of marriage and reproduction!

“Of course, arranged marriages often helped seal family alliances—useful in the short term. But it led to calamitous narrowing of aristocratic gene pools! How often were the accomplishments of brilliant rulers frittered by their dullard sons?

“Observe, the effects of inbreeding on just three royal houses, the Hohenzollerns, Hapsburgs, and Romanovs. Monarchs who were certifiably inferior in both intelligence and temperament ignited half a century of agony! Hundreds of millions dead, the ruin of all three houses, and aristocracy discredited for several wasted generations, till memory of that horror faded at last.”

Hamish scanned some of the technical graphics, bobbing over both speaker and audience like blimps filled with charts and animated data. Apparently, the little scholar’s point was similar to the Hindi sociologist—only his notion of “meritocracy” extended to the noble bloodlines themselves.

“Then there is the problem of brain drain—that many of the brightest children of aristocracy abandon it! While maintaining some level of comfort, they choose instead the company of techies, applying their minds to expertise in some branch of science or art or other.…”

Hamish twitched as a soft tingle stroked his ear. He quashed an impulse to suddenly sit up. Keeping still, he subvocalized a question in the confines of his throat, with closed mouth.

“WRIGGLES? IS THAT YOU?”

The tingling went away … then returned, stronger. Yet, the voice of his aissistant remained silent. Perhaps the suppressor field that jammed mesh-communications in the Glaucus-Worthington mansion had sputtered, allowing personal devices to wake a little—enough to be irritating.

Hamish reached up to remove the earring—

—when the tingle became a low, grating sound.… that swelled into a mutter … then gathered into words.

“Hamish Brookeman, if you hear this, touch the seat in front of you.”

Um.

That wasn’t Wriggles.

Hamish barely hesitated. He was already leaning forward. One lazy sweep of a hand was enough to comply.

“Good. Please go to the empty seat directly across the aisle. Feel along the left side, under the padding. Stay casual.”

Hamish thought about how someone might surreptitiously overcome the jamming. Perhaps with a directional maser, aimed line-of-sight at his earring? But detectors in the auditorium should spot scattered reflections. Unless … they were using some kind of off-band, induced-resonance effect, causing the earring to vibrate.… Or else, might it be a recording, inserted earlier?

He shook his head. Technological speculations weren’t important. What mattered was—could this be some sort of loyalty test?

If so, is it just me, or are they testing everyone?

The speaker meanwhile kept talking about aristocratic breeding. “… All these problems could be solved by choosing mates from among the most brilliant and accomplished commoners. By combining this with scientifically planned recombination and reinforcement, the top caste can benefit by producing dynamic and talented offspring! Let me emphasize, for our new friends the renunciation movement, this can be done without genetic meddling! Though, of course there would still have to be prenatal…”

Thinking backward, Hamish didn’t recall seeing any boffins acting suspiciously, changing seats or feeling cushions—or dashing off to report illicit messages to security. Sure, some might react with subtlety, betraying nothing overtly. But most of these nervous intellectuals wouldn’t know how.

“Beyond direct advantages,” continued the man at the dais, “are public relations benefits, making commoners feel they have a potential stake in the noble caste—encouraging parents to hope their child might leap in status!”

Standing up and stretching, Hamish turned to mount a dozen steps—his natural stride took them two at a time—arriving where several men in G-W livery stood by a table piled with savory snacks. From a rotating tray, he plucked a skewer of Tientsin pork—clearly from a real animal, not tishculture—alternating nibbles with sips from a perribulb, while the speaker droned on.

“Of course, we must avoid any return to primogeniture—or firstborn inheritance—no matter how precedented! Any aristocracy that’s truly serious will emulate some of the desert princely families—crafting clan-level deliberative structures that borrow, ironically, from democracy.…”

Hamish grinned at the security officers. They seemed typical, from bulked physiques to their heavy specs, immune to jamming. One gave Hamish a glance and a short nod. The other emitted soft sounds while virt-navigating with tooth-taps and grunts, all without moving his folded arms.

There wasn’t the slightest sign that Hamish interested them. Of course, they might be good actors. But doubtful.

“Well, Mr. Brookeman?” murmured the rippling voice near his ear.

“This will be interesting. Promise.”

Hamish hesitated. Then he grabbed another skewer before wandering nonchalantly back down the aisle. His choice really was a foregone conclusion. Curiosity was as much a part of his DNA as gleeful pessimism laced his work. God does not tempt men beyond their ability to resist, went a Catholic doctrine, one he could cite in his own defense, if this turned out to be a test. I must find out what’s going on.

“… of course, old-time aristocracies did allow some infusion from below.” The speaker’s laser-grabber pushed illustration blimps around, showing images of men in chainmail and women in courtly attire. “Brave foot soldiers might win battle honors and thus climb social levels. Beautiful women married upward, or gained intermediate status as mistresses.…”

Hamish sat down across the aisle from his old position. While stripping the skewer and chewing, he felt with his other hand along the cushion … and found a tiny bulge in the fabric. It pushed aside, exposing what felt like a many-folded scrap of paper that tugged easily from its niche.

“Great,” resumed the voice near his right ear. “Now slip out the lens and use it. If it’s difficult you might do it in the loo. There are no security cams there.”

Hamish frowned. He could feel the outlines of a soft disc, under the paper folds. I hate these. Modern kids, naturally, took them for granted. Anybody could have perfect vision, nowadays, yet they kept shoving things into their eyes, viewing the world through artificial layers. Of course, whoever planted this thing for Hamish would already know his publicly stated grouchiness. They would also know that he did use contaicts from time to time. When he had to.

All right. I can do it. And without having to hide in the bathroom, you patronizing twits.

With his left hand carefully out of sight, Hamish freed the lens from its paper container and balanced it, concave side up. Try not to drop it. Even the Swiss don’t keep their floors clean enough for aiware.

Pretending to choke a little, on a piece of pork, he bent over, covering his mouth in order to cough a few times … while pushing up one eyelid and poking the little actiplastic disc into place. Perhaps too roughly—he was out of practice. It had been months. Hamish’s left eye stung as it blinked, offended by the unwelcome presence. For a minute, while tears flowed, that side of the world was a blur. Meanwhile the speaker kept droning on.

“… some African tribes required that chiefs pick brides from poor clans. And Jews of medieval Europe, lacking an aristocracy based on land or military might, grounded their elite on scholarly accomplishments. The brightest young rabbis, even low-born, married daughters of the rich, with well known genetic consequences. As were repercussions in cultures where priestly celibacy culled.…”

Finally, Hamish managed to get things into focus. No longer needing to override Wriggles, the mysterious intruder-voice now wrote itself across the visual field of his left eye.

Please get up—again casually—and follow the guide dot.

Without any further reluctance or reservations (he was quite sick of the obnoxious “eugenics” speaker, anyway), Hamish stood and turned to leave by the rear exit, passing the security men, this time without a glance. At which point a yellow globe presented itself to one eye, pulsing in a nonthreatening sort of way, beckoning him down a hallway to his left.

Some people live all their lives awash in this stuff … virtual overlayers and “mixed reality.” They claim it empowers them to do more, experience more. But I’ve done fine without it. Show me anybody who lives immersed in the Billion Layer World, who’s accomplished more than I have!

At the same time, he wondered. How did the little contaict lens commune with controllers, elsewhere, without detection by mansion security?

Could the lens have enough ai to interact with me, all by itself?

He decided to test it. On passing a men’s room, Hamish veered through the doors. Any remote handlers might get stymied by all the plumbing in the walls, especially if they were using a weak and surreptitious radio beam.

Good idea, commented flowing letters. Better do a draining. You may be occupied a while.

Old-fashioned modesty was another reason to hate these eyeball-thingumbies. Hamish was careful not to look down while he peed, having no way to tell if others shared his view through the little lens. Instead, he studied the urinal’s spec-plate—another fine product of the Life-Liner, Ltd., promising to recover 93 percent of the phosphorus and 85 percent of the water in every flush. Hamish grimaced ruefully. In Phoscarcity? this very same eco-company had the role of chief villain, with a slight change of name. Part of a worldwide conspiracy by the Merde Monopoly to make money off a fake crisis. Some careless word choices and a court settlement took all his profits that time. Ah well.

Hamish lowered his gaze enough to aim his stream at the company logo, above the drain. After which, he zipped, washed, and exited. The yellow guidot seemed to be waiting in the same spot.

“ALLONS-Y, ALONZO,” he murmured, in case the lens could pick up throat subvocalisms, from all the way up in his eye socket. There was no answer. So he simply followed the guidot down another hall, up a broad set of stairs, then along another passage, through a vestibule and into one of the many museum libraries that dotted the Glaucus-Worthington manse, featuring book shelves that towered two stories, toward ceiling arches of hewn stone.

Wow. I could spend a week in here.

He half expected the lens to write captions across all the wonders in this room. Alas, it didn’t. Still, he recognized a glass-encased Gutenberg Bible and an illustrated Latin translation of Galen, the early Guitner edition. Other wonders were mysterious. Unlike any public museum, they bore no reality-level labels made of paper or plastic. Apparently, you were only supposed to view these treasures while accompanied by a bragging family member.

Well, well. He couldn’t tarry. The traveling beacon turned to head down one of the spaces between the tall shelves. Then, at the end of that narrow aisle, it bobbed slowly before one of those rolling ladders, leading to the upper level. As he approached, the glistening virtual globe bobbed upward, like an untethered balloon.

Hamish paused. The steps looked awkward for his big feet and gangly legs. But after a couple of seconds he shrugged and started up, clambering gamely, even a bit recklessly. If truth be told, he was enjoying himself immensely.

At the top, he turned and spent a few seconds waiting for the guidot to catch up, then stepped aside for it to pass and lead the way again—almost as if it were real, and not ersatz. An illusion created by a plastic disc sitting on his left eyeball. Alas, because he only wore a single contaict, the guidot was just two dimensional and a bit hard to pin down without pseudo-parallax. Still, Hamish followed it into a small alcove lined with dusty tomes, many of them surely more valuable than his house.

The globe transformed into the image of a floating, disembodied human hand—wearing a zardozian white glove—that turned with a magician’s flourish and pointed to some ornate carvings, surrounding a book case made of dark wood.

Pull this vine toward you, please. The unit should open.

Then step through very quietly, closing it behind you ALMOST all the way. Do not let it lock in place.

Although his heart was pounding, Hamish found it reassuring that the vaice was being so careful to leave him a way out. That made it seem less like a trap.

His hand stroked curving vines that climbed the bookcase, and Hamish wondered if anything like such delicate woodwork could be produced today. Of course, zealots of the so-called Age of Amateurs claimed that every art, craft, and skill of the past could now be duplicated—not by machine, but by passionate hobbyists.

Hamish found that assertion painful, arrogant, even disgusting.

He pulled where the floating hand indicated. Without creaks or stiffness, a lever slid down around a hinge and—with a click—the entire case popped out a few centimeters. It swung fairly easily, even while supporting heavy volumes—evidently on smooth, modern bearings—whereupon Hamish found a dark passageway inside.

His right eye could make out nothing in the gloom. But in his left-hand field of view there appeared faint, glimmering outlines that told him where floor met walls, guiding his footsteps. Hamish pulled the case after him … almost shut, and turned to shuffle softly forward, thinking about stories by Poe.

There is a heavy wooden panel, set in the wall at eye level, just ahead.

Two meters. Now one.

Put out your arm to where mine points.

Hamish felt a faint nervous tremor in his fingertips as he reached. Even knowing what to expect, he experienced a faint frisson when his hand passed through the ghostly white glove without any physical contact. Million-year-old instincts were hard to overcome.

Grab the slider bolt.

Now push the panel gently to the left until a gap appears.

After a pause, there came an added caution.

You may watch, but make no sounds.

He shoved aside the wooden insert at the indicated spot, and brought his head down a bit, scrunching uncomfortably.

Eye level. Right. Maybe for normal people.

It was dim in the large chamber beyond, though he adapted quickly, even with his unassisted right eye. Soon made out another richly paneled room with a stonework dome, like the library behind him. In this one, however, there were no books, only statuary. Dozens of marble or bronze figures posed in alcoves lining the walls below, and above in a second story balcony colonnade. It was from that upper level that he now peered downward past one nearby piece of sculpture—some Hindu dancer or goddess, with a voluptuous figure, tiny waist, and only one pair of arms.

Gazing past her provocative navel, he spied a couple of dozen figures below, on the first level, gathered around a single tabletop source of illumination. Radiating like petals of a dark flower, their fleeing shadows crossed the floor then climbed the walls, interspersing warped, elongated human silhouettes among the onlooking statues. Low murmurs of conversation were too hushed for Hamish to make out clearly, though he swiftly recognized the hawklike features of Tenskwatawa and those of his host, Rupert Glaucus-Worthington, along with several other eminences from both factions, their faces pale and dim, but eyes glittering in the soft-sharp light.

I thought they were heading off to negotiate details of the alliance, Hamish mused. Vital matters of how power will be apportioned and which policies to pursue. Instead, this looks like some kind of ceremony.

Could I be watching secret initiation rites of the Illuminati?

Hamish felt a thrill. I was pretty much convinced that such things were just lurid rumors or romantic exaggerations, foisted by my fellow sci-fi writers. Could this mean the oligarchy really does have an inner, ritualized core? One the Prophet is now invited to join?

But not me?

Hamish quashed his sense of pique, focusing instead on curiosity, wondering—How could my sources have steered me so wrong?

Only … Hamish soon found himself revising that first impression. There seemed to be no pattern, no orderly arrangement of people crowded around the table below. No symbolic regalia. No rhythmic chanting. Just a murmur of worried wonder.

One of them, the owner of this vast palace, raised his voice a bit in answer to a question. A tone of querulous anxiety colored Rupert’s tone as he waved an arm in response, gesturing toward the table. And Hamish managed to pick out a few snippets.

“… in my family for three centuries…”

and then,

“… suddenly started, last night…”

and finally,

“… never did anything like this, before!”

Abruptly, Hamish realized, Glaucus-Worthington was talking about the object that lay before them at the center of the gathering. What Hamish had first taken for a simple—if somewhat dim—tabletop lamp, he now realized was something else entirely. A roundish lump of glass, about the size of a human head, and—he realized with a chill—rather shaped like one. It seemed to glow from within.

The contaict lens covering his left pupil kicked into operation, responding to his interest, performing some wizardry of magnification and image enhancement, zooming in toward the object. Image dissonance between his two eyes briefly sickened Hamish, till he shut the right one. Even looking only at the enhanced version, it took several moments to sort out the glitters and complex refractions before realizing.

It’s a crystal skull. One of those weird relics that people get all mystical about, in films even sillier than mine. Though most proved to be modern hoaxes.

Of course, “most” was not the same as “all.” Archaeologists did admit that a few seemed genuinely ancient, but still just works of art—natural chunks of quartz that had been laboriously chiseled and rubbed by artisans in olden times—showing no sign of mystical properties. Yet, some of the strange skullptures had never been put under public, high-tech scrutiny, allowing fervid tales to keep swirling.

I recall, one of them was kept in Switzerland, in private hands.

He never cared enough to learn more than that. Ancient occult artifacts were never a propelling topic for Hamish. Not as much as dangerous scientific innovations and Things Man Was Never Meant to Know. Nevertheless, there had always been something alluring about the works of authors and sceneasts like Joanne Sawyer and Ari Stone-Bear, who spun tales of mystery and wonder around arcane objects from the enigmatic past.

Someone—Tenskwatawa—reached out to touch the translucent cranium—pushing with a fingertip. Turning it till the rictus grin and sunken eye sockets almost faced Hamish, glowing with an expression of fey amusement …

… when a sudden shaft of brilliance gleamed, spearing him right through the contaict lens with a shrapnel-clutter of overlapping images—

—a planet of dark continents and narrows seas, conveyed in murky tans and grainy grays, except for a single, wavy band that flickered with detailed color, from azure seashore to snowcapped, purple peaks—

—a jumbled, jigsaw cityscape that stirred together a tangle of mud huts, skyscrapers, stilt houses, and gleaming domes, topped by thatched roofs—

—a crumpled mosaic of faces, jaggedly combining beaks and jaws and fluted stalks that, while twisted together unnaturally, seemed to snort and cry out with some kind of delirious urgency.

The impression lasted only a couple of seconds. Then it was gone. Benumbed with shock, Hamish sought refuge in logic. In scientific speculation.

That jumble of degraded images … mixed and overlapping chaotically … they could be remnants of holographic memory. Unlike the Havana Artifact, this one offers just a few surviving fragments, retained after the thing was damaged.

Perhaps by the primitive artists who used powders and stones to grind and polish it into a shape worthy of veneration, never knowing how much harm they were doing … or else even earlier, when the crystal came crashing to Earth.

Broken and ruined, unable to communicate clearly, perhaps it could only offer brief snatches of ambiguous confusion and dreamlike images. Enough to terrify our primitive ancestors with thoughts of death. Maybe inspiring other tribes to make their own crystal skulls, in vain efforts to duplicate its power. No wonder oligarchs like Rupert thought this too disturbing to share with the easily alarmed masses.

Hamish turned his attention to Glaucus-Worthington. To the unhappy look on the man’s face.

But didn’t Rupert just say something? That this showy display started only last night? Perhaps the skull never wakened—but for rare flickers—till a few hours ago.

Only … why now?

Hamish had no trouble coming up with a most likely hypothesis.

Oh my.

TORALYZER

This is Tor—“Zep-girl”—Povlov, reporting to you from my new beat. Web-Eighteen, level Z12. The hippest, heppest hot-hit-hat … or not-this-that … in the Mesh. And, yes, I come before you as a purely-pearly virtue-virtual, wearing the nimbus halo of a holy-hollow holo. Hello? You expected, like, veri-real shots of the Heroine of Washing-tin? My current-realtime phys-visage?

Granny would say, as if! That cadaver-shell is just container-support. I live here now, in the Over-World. Pat this avatar on the back, I feel it. If I ever let one of you horny fans talk me into a back room privirtcy (or pervertcy), the sustainer pod’ll convey it. Nothing wrong with the old Tor’s hormonal system!

(Sure … like THAT’s going to happen! Still, you can keep offering.)

So yes, there’s still plenty of “me” left. And one thing I promise—I’ll never let my presence here run on aitopilot.

Tell you what. Help boost my ratings, and MediaCorp may spring for a more palp-able holvatar. Even one of those android-mobiles, I can send to chase down real-layer stories. Meanwhile, though, there’s plenty to occupy us here, in the Val-hall-levels, where citizen/amateur heroes like you can hunt iniquities, skewering lies with lances of transparency and light! Like we did, together, back on the old Spirit of Chula Vista.

So let’s get started.

*   *   *

What? Many of you want to hear about me, first? What it’s like to live this way?

Each year, hundreds of catastrophically injured people become gel-encased refugees, like me, who experience life through remote sensors, rather than organic eyes and flesh. Though the Mesh is home, we’re not “uploaded” cybernetic beings. Cams and sensors still feed old-fashioned nerve channels of a very wetbrain.

For some it’s a painful, limited life, that only fools would envy. Still, tens of thousands of normal, undamaged homosaps climb into hook-in tanks and risk body-atrophy, trying to follow us “pioneers” down the path of the living holvatar.

I hope none of you are such fools. Just one person in a hundred manages to make the transition as well as I have—swooping about the datalanes, veering from hunch to correlation to corroboration. Links that used to require a laborious eyeblink or tooth-click now happen by sheer will … or whim … quickly submerging to the level of reflex.…

All right, I just made it sound attractive, didn’t I? Well, don’t go there, any of you. It still hurts! And there are puzzling itches, in the way data often seems to stroke my skin and tingle up the spine. None of the docs can explain. Then there’s the creepy sensation that someone’s calling my name. Not this moniker I use in the news biz. Not what my mother called me, but some kind of secret name, like in stories about magic spells and such.

Okay, it’s clearly a lingering wash of escapism/slash/self-pity … and so let’s push that aside with the balm of work! Smart-mob time. Like a swarm of T cells, let’s swoop onto something in the news!

What? You want to make the space Artifact our topic? All of you? Isn’t everybody else on the planet obsessing …

No, you’re right. Most of the reporting is stodgy. The insights stale. I share the group hunch. We can do better.

 

41.

THE OLD WAY

Peng Xiang Bin tried hard to follow the conversation—partly out of fascination. But also because he felt desperate to please.

If I prove useful to them—more than a mere on-off switch for the worldstone—it could mean my life. I might even get to see Mei Ling and Xiao En again.

That goal wasn’t coming easy. The others kept talking way over his head. Nor could he blame them. After all, who was he? What was he, but another piece of driftwood-trash, washed up on a beach, who happened to pick up a pretty rock? Should he demand they explain everything? Dui niu tanqin … it would be like playing a lute to a cow.

Except they needed his ongoing service as communicator-ambassador to the entity within that rock—and he seemed to be performing that task well enough. At least according to Dr. Nguyen, who was always friendly to Bin.

The tech-search experts—Anna Arroyo and Paul Menelaua—clearly were dubious about this ill-educated Huangpu shoresteader with his weathered skin and rough diction, who kept taking up valuable time with foolish questions. Those two would be happier, he knew, if the honor of direct contact with the Courier entity were taken over by someone else.

Only, can the role be passed along at all? If I died, would it transfer to another? Surely they had mulled that tempting thought.

Or do I have some special trait—something that goes beyond being the first man in decades to lay eyes on the worldstone? Without me, might there be a long search before they found another? That possibility was one he must foster. At some point it might keep him breathing.

Anyway, I do not have to prove myself their equal, Bin reminded himself. My role is like the first performer in a Chinese opera, who does not have to sing especially well. Just dance around a little and help warm up the audience. Be useful, not the star.

“Clearly, this mechanism in our possession was dispatched across interstellar space by different people, with different motives, than those who sent the Havana Artifact,” commented Yang Shenxiu, the scholar from New Beijing, who rested one hand on the worldstone without causing more than a ripple under its cloudy surface—giving Bin a moment of satisfaction. It reacts a lot more actively to my touch!

With his other hand, Yang motioned toward a large placard-image screen for comparison. In lustrous threevee, it showed the alien object under study in Maryland, America, surrounded by researchers from around the world—a bustle of activity watched by billions and supervised by Gerald Livingstone, the astronaut who discovered and collected that “herald egg” from orbit.

To most of the world, that is the sole one in existence. Only a few suspect that such things have been encountered before, across the centuries. And even fewer have certain knowledge of another active stone, held in secret, here in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean.

Bin contemplated the three-dimensional image of his counterpart, a clever and educated man, a scientist and space traveler and probably the world’s most famous person right now. In other words, different from poor little Peng Xiang Bin in every conceivable way. Except that he looks as tired and worried as I feel.

Watching Livingstone, Bin felt a connection, as if with another chosen one. The keeper-guardian of a frightening oracle from space. Even if they found themselves on opposite sides of an ancient struggle.

Paul Menelaua answered Yang Shenxiu by describing a long list of physical differences in excruciating detail—the Havana Artifact was larger, longer, and more knobby at one end, for example. And, clearly, less damaged. Well, it never had to suffer the indignities of fiery passage through Earth’s atmosphere, or pummeling impact with a mountain glacier, or centuries of being poked at by curious or reverential or terrified tribal humans … not to mention a couple of thousand years buried in a debris pit, then decades soaking in polluted waters underneath a drowned mansion. Bin found himself reacting defensively on behalf of “his” worldstone.

I’d like to see Livingstone’s famous Havana Artifact come through all that, and still be capable of telling vague, mysterious stories.

Of course, that was the chief trait both ovoids had in common.

“… so, yes, there are evident physical differences. Still, anyone can tell at a glance that they use the same underlying technologies. Capacious and possibly unlimited holographic memory storage. Surface sonic transduction at the wider end … but with most communications handled visually, both in pictorial representation and through symbol manipulation. Some surface tactile sensitivity. And, of course an utter absence of moving parts.”

“Yes, there are those commonalities,” Anna Arroyo put in. “Still, the Havana Artifact projects across a wider spectrum than this one—and it portrays a whole community of simulated alien species, while ours depicts only one.”

Dr. Nguyen nodded, his elegantly decorated braids rattling. “It would be a good guess to imagine that one species or civilization sent out waves of these things, and the technology was copied by others—”

“Who proceeded to cast forth modified stones of their own, incorporating representatives of all the diverse members of their growing civilization,” concluded Anna. “Until one of those races decided to break the tradition, by offering a dissenting point of view.”

Bin took advantage of this turn in the conversation—away from technical matters and back to the general story their own worldstone had been telling.

“Isn’t … is it not … clear who came second? Courier warns us not to pay attention to liars. It seems … I mean, is it not clear that he refers to the creatures who dwell within the Havana Artifact?”

Of course they were amused by his stumbling attempts to speak a higher grade of Beijing dialect, with classier grammar and less Huangpu accent or slang. But he also knew there were many types of amusement. And, while Anna and Paul might feel the contemptuous variety, it was the indulgent smile of Dr. Nguyen that mattered. He seemed approving of Bin’s earnest efforts.

“Yes, Xiang Bin. We can assume—for now—that our worldstone is speaking of the Havana Artifact—or things like it—when it warns against enemies and liars. The question is—what should we do about this?”

“Warn everyone!” suggested Yang Shenxiu. “You’ve seen how the other worldstone has thrown the entire planet into a tizzy, with that story told by the emissary creatures who reside within. Although it remains frustratingly unspecific, their tale is one of profound and disarmingly blithe optimism, confidently assuring us that humanity is welcome to join a benign interstellar community. In this era of nihilism and despair, people across every continent are rushing to believe and put their trust in the aliens!”

“And is that necessarily such a bad thing?” asked Anna.

“It could be, if it is based upon some kind of lie!” Paul interjected. He and Anna faced each other, with intensity filling their expressions, till an outside voice broke into their confrontation.

“What about others?”

Menelaua glared at Bin for interrupting, his look so fierce that Bin shrank back and had to be coaxed into resuming. “Please continue, son,” Dr. Nguyen urged. “What others are you talking about?”

Bin swallowed.

“Other … stones.”

Nguyen regarded him with a blank, cautious stare.

“Pray explain, Xiang Bin. What other stones do you mean?”

“Well, honored sir…” He gathered his courage, speaking slowly, carefully. “When I first arrived here, you … graciously let me view that report … the private report describing legends about sacred gem-globes or rocks that … were said to show fantastic things. Some of the stories are well known—crystal balls and dragon stones. Other tales were passed down for generations within families or secret societies. You yourself said that there is one such secret fable that’s supposed to go back nine thousand years, right? It’s … it is interesting to compare those sagas to the truth we see before us … and yet…”

He paused, uncertain he should continue.

“Go on,” urged the rich man—representing an association of many other rich men and women, across Asia.

“Yet … what I don’t understand is why that report, all by itself, would have made people so eager … spending so much money and effort … to actually look for such a thing! I mean, why would any modern people—sophisticated men like you, Dr. Nguyen—believe such stories, any more than yarns about demons?” Bin shook his head, repressing the fact that he had always believed in spirits, at least a little. So did lots of people.

“I figure the former owner of our worldstone—”

“Lee Fang Lu.” Yang Shenxiu interjected a name that Bin had never known, till now. The fellow who used to own that pre-deluge mansion, with a clandestine basement chamber where Bin found a treasure trove of odd specimens. He nodded gratefully.

“Lee Fang Lu might have been arrested, tortured, and killed over rumors—”

“That he possessed something like this.” Dr. Nguyen nodded and his beads clattered softly. “Pray continue.”

“Then there’s the way you and your … competitors … pounced on me, after I put out just a hint about offering to sell a glowing white egg. Clearly, when the Havana Artifact was announced, there were already powerful groups out there, who knew the … the…”

He groped for the right words. And abruptly a new, unfamiliar Chinese language character appeared in the ai-patch that had been inserted within his lower right field of vision. Plus a row of tone-accented Pinyin Roman letters, for pronunciation. The ai-patch had been doing that more often as it grew more familiar with Bin—anticipating and assisting what he was trying to say.

“… the range-of-plausible-potentialities …,” he carefully enunciated, while moving his finger over his palm to mimic-draw the complex characters—a common thing to do, when a word was obscure. He saw the others smile a little. They were used to this sort of thing.

“I just find it hard to believe that powerful people would go to so much trouble … to search frantically for such a thing, even after learning about the Havana Artifact … unless they thought there was a real possibility of success. Unless they had strong reason to believe those legends were more than just legends.”

He looked at Dr. Nguyen, surprised by his own boldness.

“I bet there was a lot left out of that report, sir. Is it possible that some groups already have worldstones? Now, in the modern era?”

Menelaua shook his head and snarled. “Ridiculous.”

“And why is that, Paul?” Anna Arroyo answered. “It’d take care of that temporal coincidence, at least a bit. Maybe these things have been crisscrossing our region of space for a long time, like messages in bottles. While most settled into far orbits, waiting for Earth to produce space-faring folk, others might have landed—accidentally, like this one. Or on purpose in some way. Most would shatter or get buried at sea. But just like a plant that sends out thousands of seeds, you need only one to take root.…”

Yang Shenxiu protested. “If there were so many, would not geologists or gem-seekers or collectors or plowing farmers have seen, by now, some of the fallen ones? Even if they were split or burned, they would stand out!”

Anna shrugged. “We have no idea how these things decay, if broken. Maybe they decompose quickly into a form that resembles typical rock crystal. Or they might dissolve into sand or dust, or even vapor.

“Anyway, suppose a few were found, from time to time, and recognized as something special. We all know how rare and precious things used to be treated, in almost every past culture. They were presented, as gifts, to kings and priests, who then hoarded them in dark places! Maybe bringing them out from time to time, for use in mystery rites, to impress the rubes. But then always tucking them away again … till the city was sacked and the hiding place lost forever. Or the items were buried with the king, which amounts to the same thing. Either way, the truth would dissolve into legends—of which there are plenty!”

She turned to Bin. “Isn’t that exactly what happened when Lee Fang Lu got his hands on the worldstone? Caught up in that old way of thinking, he clutched the secret—the most special thing in his life—and took it with him to the grave.”

The scholar, Yang Shenxiu mused. “In fact, this could explain Hindu legends of Siva Linga stones. Moreover, it is said that both the First Emperor Chin and Genghis Khan were laid to rest with treasures that included—”

Dr. Nguyen lifted his hand for attention, cutting the discussion short. He had been standing quite still, apparently staring into space—or else, at scenes that only he could see, conveyed on the inner surface of his specs. Now, the black-haired mogul spoke in a low voice that Bin took to contain equal parts surprise and resignation.

“It seems that events have caught up with our ruminations. My sources tell me that reports are trickling in…”

He took off his specs and looked at Bin, directly.

“It appears, my young comrade Xiang Bin, that you may have been right, after all.”

SCANALYZER

Call me Hagar.

I communicate to you all today via encrypted channels for my own protection, although this (*) pseudonymous reputation code should attest that I am a reliable person and fair witness, having taken courses in Visual Skepticism and Objective Veracity at the Women’s University of Abu Dhabi. Of course, I see no conflict between that and being a good Muslim.

Which brings me to my account. For, early this very morning, I stood at the holy place in Mecca, filled with gratitude for the dispensation of the Second Caliph, who has wisely, generously and against some entrenched resistance, granted women pilgrims greater equality in seeking to fulfill our obligation of Haj.

This blessing is all the more welcome, now that I live the life of an outcast, much in keeping with my adopted name. (No doubt, some will connect this pseudonym to a certain fugitive, not pursued by any nation or law, but chased by great powers, nonetheless. Like the original Hagar, I am not without protectors, blessings be upon them. Moreover, I shall be long gone by the time this time-delayed posting lands, like a heavy stone, to ripple the dark waters of the InterMesh.)

Of course, there are by now other reports or rumors, attesting to what happened some hours ago, just before dawn, at the Holy Kaaba. But I will offer my own testament, nonetheless.

I had only begun my third of seven tawaf circuits, around the inner courtyard of the Grand Mosque, praying as Hagar once did, for relief and sustenance amid my exile, when a hot desert wind burst upon us from the east, driven over the roofs of bir Zamzam, as if by the soon-to-rise sun. This zephyr ruffled the kiswa black-cloth coverings that both honor and protect the shrine that now stands on the spot where Adam was the first person ever to pile one stone upon another, and thus began the era of Man the Builder. The same site where Abraham and Ishmael, son of that earlier Hagar, repaired the foundation and sanctified the site to forever honor Allah.

So strong was the gust that it drove many pilgrims to their knees, or else forced them to crouch down, exposing to those of us who were circling much farther away a wondrous sight: a clear view of that eastern corner of the Kaaba, where the Prophet Muhammad himself—blessings be upon him—placed the fabled Black Stone into the wall with his own hands.

The very same Black Stone that fell in order to show Adam and Eve where first to sacrifice and prostrate themselves before the Holy Name.

To unbelievers, or to modernists who think that the Word can be reinterpreted by mere men, the obvious explanation is that the Black Stone must have been a meteorite that startled and bedazzled primitives, during an era when tribes made fetishes of so-called sacred rocks all over this rugged peninsula. Moreover, many devout Muslim scholars avow that it can be nothing more than just a rock—one worthy of respect, for having once been kissed by the Prophet, but nothing more.

Only then, how do such people explain well-attributed testimony that the Stone is said to have once been pure and dazzling white? Only to have turned reddish black because of all the sins it has absorbed over the sad centuries?

And how will skeptics explain away the miracle that I witnessed, with my very own eyes? When that blessed Stone began to shine with a glow all its own! Emanating from within, pushing forth against the predawn twilight?

Whereupon, for a brief span, rays seemed to flash toward the pilgrims, some of them unaware, having already abased themselves facedown upon the ground. But many others braved the sight, and so rocked-back, stumbling, or threw up their arms, or held their heads in amazement and awe.

It lasted only the interval of a few heartbeats. Then, the momentary brilliance passed. The Stone faded again, almost to black. Except I witnessed that several small patches continued to glow softly within, especially under the gentle warming of the rising sun.

As for we poor pilgrims who were left standing or crouching or kneeling there, in shock and wonder? The initial, awestruck silence gave way to moans and cries, fervent shahadas declaring the greatness of God and his prophet.

Only thereafter, by many minutes, amid layerings of both terror and joy, did I hear a rising babble of voices as we turned to one another, each declaring and comparing her brief visual experience to that of others.

I heard the word “demons!” uttered with tones of dread.

Several voices, tinged in marvel mixed with worry, spoke of “djinn!”

Many, mindful of current events, murmured about “those aliens”—the beings who were coming awake within their own strange sky-stone in America.

But far more frequent, and soon overriding all else, there arose a single interpretation of what several hundred women saw in that brief, holy glow.

Angels.

 

42.

A PURPOSE

Hacker felt better after a shower and a meal. He even grabbed a little shut-eye, sleeping with the joymaker in his hand, so that its vibe-mode alarm would wake him after a couple of hours. When he roused, his vision seemed much sharper and his hands no longer felt as if they were covered by oven mitts.

A good thing, since there followed several hours’ work in the underwater center’s main laboratory, sitting at a lab bench, modifying the cable from his helmet that had tapped the sonic implant in his jaw—the same circuit he had used aboard the ill-fated rocket—converting it to link up with the archaic multiphone.

Dad would be proud of me. And Mom, too. I may be self-indulgent and overbearing. But no decadent hypocrite-brat! I understand the tech I use. And my people know that I can sling a soldering iron!

Through an open door, he glanced back at the pool, where members of the Tribe had taken up a game of water polo, calling fouls and shouting at each other as they batted a ball from one goal to the next, keeping score with raucous sonar clicks. One more behavior he figured you would not find among their wild cousins.

Hacker wondered about the “uplift” changes he had seen. Did they carry through from one generation to the next? Could this new genome spread among natural dolphins? And if so, might the project have already succeeded beyond its founders’ dreams? Or its detractors’ worst nightmare?

What if the work resumed, finishing what got started here? Would it enrich our lives to—let’s say—argue philosophy with a dolphin intellectual? Or to collaborate with a smart chimp, at work or at play? If other species speak and start creating new things, will they be treated as equals—as co-members of our civilization—or as the next discriminated class?

Hacker recalled some classics of literature, by H. G. Wells and Pierre Boulle and Cordwainer Smith, that portrayed this concept, but always in terms of slavery. In every case—and in all the clichéd movies—author and director showed cruel human masters getting their just desserts. A simple morality tale that always struck him as being less about hubris, and more about the penalty for being a bad parent.

But, what if “uplift” were done with the best of intentions, without any hint of oppression or cruelty, propelled by curiosity, diversity and even compassion? Wouldn’t there still be awful mistakes and unforeseen consequences? Some critics were probably right. For humans to attempt such a thing would be like an orphaned and abused teen trying to foster a feral child.

Are we good enough? Wise enough? Do we deserve such power?

It wasn’t the sort of question Hacker used to ask himself, even as recently as a month ago. In fact, he felt changed by his experience at sea.

At the same time, he realized—just asking the question was part of the answer.

Maybe it’ll work both ways. They say you only grow while helping others.

His father would have called that “romantic nonsense.” But Lacey wouldn’t, he felt pretty sure. Suddenly he wanted to talk to her, more than anything in the world.

READY.

That word flashed across the little screen, and he felt relief. Not only did some undersea cable still connect the habitat to the World Mesh, but the joymaker’s repeated pulses had managed to summon a soft-reconnection. All he would have to do is vocally ask for a connection to his mother. If his voiceprint had changed too much to handle the payment problem, well, then she could unleash some aissistant to take care of that detail from her end.

Yet, at the last moment, Hacker revised his priorities again.

I’ll call Lacey soon. She’s probably worried sick. But a few minutes won’t make much difference.

First, there are other urgent matters.

He was about to call his manager and broker—before they had a chance to declare him dead and start liquidating his commercial empire. But then Hacker stopped. Even that was doing stuff in the wrong order.

He looked back up the hall, where splashes could be seen, rising from the pool, and an occasional leaping gray form. The Tribe. The friends who had saved his life.

Hacker paused a second or two longer. Then he keyed the private access code for his attorney, hoping to get through, despite the lack of phone-ident.

After a lengthy ring, Gloria Harrigan answered, but at first she sounded brusque, distracted.

“Who the hell is this and could you call back later? The whole world is watching TV right now.”

He blinked in surprise at her non sequitur. The whole world was what? He rapped his jaw, in case the implant had malfunctioned. Concentrating, Hacker spoke aloud. Even though he could not hear air-carried sounds, he could feel his larynx buzz and his mouth shaped sounds.

“Gloria—”

“Anyway, this hi-pri line is set aside for the search and rescue. So if it doesn’t have to do with—”

“Gloria…” He spoke carefully, as if trying to recall a disused skill. “You can call off the search.… It’s me … Hacker Sander.”

There was a long pause. Then a shriek that carried up his mandible to resonate his skull.

“Hacker? Is that really you?”

He only got in two more words, before the shouting recommenced and would not stop for a while. Gloria kept punctuating joyful yells—calling others to gather around—with outright sobs. “This is goddam more important than any fucking aliens!” she hollered.

It had a strange effect on Hacker, almost making him feel remiss, embarrassed over having caused such emotion and inconvenience. Another novel sensation. I didn’t know anybody liked me that much, he mused.

At the same time, he also wondered.

Aliens?

Carrying the phone back to the dome’s atrium, he arrived in time to witness the water polo game conclude in a frothy finale. Dolphins pirouetted and squawked, either celebrating or protesting the score … as Gloria finally calmed enough to confirm that … yes … they now had his location pinned down … and help was on the way. About an hour … no, make that forty minutes, she revised in a hurried update, as a tourist minisub offered to divert from a nearby beach resort for a reasonable fee.

“That’s fine…,” Hacker said, though with a strange flurry of mixed feelings. “During that time, though … right after you phone my mother with the news … there’s something … I want you to do for me.”

He then gave Gloria the World Mesh codes for Project Uplift, and asked her to find out everything about it, including the current disposition of assets and technology—and how to contact the experts whose work had been interrupted here.

When Gloria asked him why, he started to reply.

“I think … I’ve got a new…”

Hacker stopped there, having almost said the word hobby. But suddenly he realized—he had never felt quite this way about anything before. Not even the exhilaration of playboy rocketry.

For the first time he burned with real ambition. Something that seemed worth fighting for.

In the pool, several members of the Tribe were now busy winding their precious net around the torso of the biggest male, preparing to go foraging again. Hacker overheard them gossiping as they worked, and chuckled when he understood one of their crude jokes. A good natured jibe at his expense.

Well, a sense of humor is a good start. Our civilization could use more of that.

“I think—” he resumed telling his lawyer.

“I think I know what I want to do with my life.”

TORALYZER

Hello? Is anyone there? I’m counting a handful—just half a mega or so. Well, four hundred and thirty thousand participants will have to suffice. You are the types who would rather do than passively stare at feed from the Artifact Conference! We posse members sniff the edges. So let’s follow some scents.

Hey, despite talk of aliens, the regular news cycle goes on, with ever-rising tensions about water, energy, food ’n’ phosphorus, or rising seas … or else more squabbles between guild and civitas and manse. Let’s have a capsule update from my favorite summarizer, Walter:

* Syr-Isra-Pal has threatened to ramp up coolwar if Turkey keeps sequestering snowmelt in the Great Anatolia Reservoir. Downstream neighbors blame this for worsening the Near Eastern Drought, plus an upsurge in quake activity across the Levant.

* Rumors suggest several reffer cabals have agreed on a joint, renewed assault on the “decadent institutions of an obsolete, so-called Enlightenment.” Most such tales are generated by peevish ai-bots, unleashed years ago by long-dead nihilists. But ever since the failed D.C. zeppelin attack, security anticipators are taking them all seriously, kicking their prefrontals into overdrive.

* A recent spate of small-scale earth tremors, all over the world, has accompanied strange reports of underground or underwater detonations, all reaching a crescendo in the last few hours. Though some fret nervously about terr or reff attacks, a new correlo-study shows that few events are near human habitations. Most seem to be happening far out to sea.

* And the top-linked thread: many reports in the last few hours of glimmering lights, bursting from chunks of formerly quiescent stone. The most notorious episode took place half a day ago at Islam’s holiest shrine. Others include a piece of Chinese imperial jewelry in the Taipei Museum and a paving stone in Hyderabad. Now, scientific instruments laid out to watch scintillations on the Antarctic Plateau, report at least twenty faint, localized glimmers, deep within the ice sheet, implying there might be hundreds more beyond sensor range.

Thank you, Walter. Well? Which of those stories set you all a-quiver with excitement? We want something that regular media is likely to screw up! That’ll benefit from half a million baying bloodhounds.

What’s that? Okay, I expected this. Several throngs of you are intrigued by those stones that started lighting up, around the world. The obvious guess—it’s more-than-coincidentally tied to the Havana Artifact? Well, sure, great topic … though I see several hundred teams, agencies and citizen-posses already pouncing on it. Seems pretty obvious, if creepy.

How about this alternative some of you suggested? What if that recent flurry of micro-quakes is somehow related? They’ve been at the lower end of detection range and almost hidden by normal temblor background. So far, it’s all been largely dismissed as “normal fluctuations.” But does anyone else see something strange about the data?

Yep, that’s a good prelimalysis, Amsci Genovese. The energy profile really does stand out. Most of the extra quakes seem to occur in a narrow range of power release. Down around a sixtieth of a Richter. Far too narrow to be natural.

And yes, Insight-filled Hmong Science Collective, I see your point—how most of these events have the sonic shape of explosive detonations, and not natural fault slips! Will someone please probe security channels, in case the protector caste thinks these are terr or reff attacks? And why no damage reports? You’ll lead that effort, Anne Dobson of Cape Town?

Come to think of it, let’s start mapping events versus geology, terrain, political instability, hydro-cycles.…

Come on, people and people-helpers. Feedme here! Tear yourselves away from the TV and do what you are good at.

Bugging the universe with curiosity.

 

43.

SORRY I ASKED

Among all the added complications, who needed a rising wave of copycat hoaxes? People “discovering” ancient messenger-rocks of their own.

Some of the posted vids and palps showed blatant fakes—little more than chunks of glass, crudely lit from below, or pixeltrated with off-the-shelf image-altering programs—easy to spot. Others were the work of ingenious, high-tech pranksters, featuring impressive “aliens” who uttered mysterious warnings from their crystal homes … sometimes laying the groundwork for terrible punch lines, endlessly shaggy stories, or groaner puns. Others played it straight, claiming to be real star-emissaries offering deep (if always clichéd) wisdom … attracting storms of crit from smart posses yelling “fake!” And equal crowds of fervent believers.

A festival-like sense of momentum built, as vids of homemade Artifacts flooded the Mesh. And it’s possible that one or two may be real, Gerald thought. But someone else will have to check-and-vet them.

The Contact Commission had its hands full with the oblong, rounded cylinder that he brought home from orbit. It sat before him now, drinking in a bright diet of photon energy. The resident aliens had asked for a recess behind shrouded mists. Some time to get organized. And Akana Hideoshi’s team was happy to comply. People, too, needed food and rest. So did the tense observers who watched from the advisers’ gallery, just beyond the tall glass wall.

Reconvening on schedule, Gerald sat between Emily Tang and Haihong Ming, as Genady, Ben, Patrice, Akana, and other team members took their places. He saw dignitaries arrange themselves among the plush cybo-chairs that were steeply arrayed, auditorium-style, beyond the quarantine barrier. They seemed less agitated over there, now that the behavioral conditioning experiment had worked and the aliens were behaving better. Not that anyone enjoys being proved wrong. The advisers’ consensual holvatar representative—Hermes—no longer paced angrily, his broad forehead crowned with miniature lightning flashes. Now the ersatz god merely drummed the table, frowning nervously.

At the appointed time, all room lights dimmed and those swirling clouds within the Artifact began to change. Tshombe reduced the beam intensity, so everyone could see … as mists began to part, revealing a luminous vista of bright stars.

A veritable galaxy, presented in luscious three dimensionality, that none of the Earthling hoaxes had been able to duplicate so far. Gerald was about to shout for Ramesh to make sure the starscape was being recorded—

—when the Rajasthani astronomer beat him to it, reacting with an uncannily speedy virt.

These aren’t real stars. Uniform in spectra and brightness, they’re scattered about for art’s sake. It’s a metaphor.

Dang. That part of a long list of questions would have to be delayed, till more urgent matters were settled.

A murmur rose from the peanut gallery as, originating from dozens of distinct pinpoints, there unrolled a pattern of slender, curvy lines … that soon flattened and took the form of golden roads, tapering into the distance. These pathways branched and split, many of them leading to dead ends. But all of those that survived eventually joined together, merging one-by-one into a single highway that proceeded toward Gerald’s point of view … now shared by several billion watchers, tuning in from all across Earth.

People still complain about the degraded image quality that’s allowed to leave quarantine. In fact, only a very few of the most paranoid—not even Emily and her Tiger holvatar—still thought it likely that these images held dangerous codings.

Gerald leaned forward, staring directly into the Stone, instead of at the giant, magnifying screens nearby. Now, the eye began to make out figures, distant at first, striding along those golden paths. Seeming to begin at quite some distance, they all could be seen heading this way … toward the face of the Artifact that lay directly in front of Gerald. And soon, observers could tell that the Artifact beings all looked a bit different this time.

The centauroid, the bat-helicopter alien, the raccoonlike creature, the blimpy-thing … they now wore garments of some luxurious fabric, wafting in simulated breezes. Even the squid-cephalopod being had draped itself in formality as it glided forward along with the others, its means of locomotion as mysterious as ever.

Here it comes at last, Gerald thought. The formal invitation.

Where before there had seemed to be too little room at the interface—forcing aliens to jostle one another at the curved boundary between the Artifact’s inner world and the humans outside—now the foreground somehow seemed uncrowded. All the visitor emissaries were able to share this grand procession, gathering and arranging themselves so that every one could see outward—and be seen.

“That’s some group portrait, when they decide to get it together,” the anthropologist Ben Flannery commented. “Their earlier fractiousness showed that they tolerate diversity. Now they are displaying a wakened cooperative spirit and shared purpose. What combination of traits could be more encouraging? I’m pretty optimistic, right about now.”

General Hideoshi made a soft shushing sound. A number of the central figures were moving their arms/tentacles/appendages in unison …

… and letters formed, flowing toward the curved interface, arranging themselves into words that also emerged as sound from loudspeakers overhead.

We have asked the oldest surviving member to speak for us.

Out of the center of the crowd there emerged a being Gerald had seen before. Tall, bipedal, with a rotund-chubby figure, it had short arms that clasped each other across a stout belly. A roundish head nodded from atop its roly-poly neck. The eyes—wide but narrow-slitted, as if squinting with amusement—were in roughly the “right place” for a gestalt that seemed very close to human, and so was a thick-lipped mouth that even seemed to curve slightly upward, as if in an enigmatic smile. There was no nose—the creature apparently breathed through vents that opened and closed rhythmically, at the top of its head. Gerald’s overall impression was of a wise-looking, Buddha-like being. In fact, though he knew it was taking first impressions way too far, the fellow seemed rather … jovial.

Oldest member? Do they mean that this was the first race of their commonwealth? The founders who emerged upon the starlanes before anybody else? Perhaps those who contacted and taught all the others how to live together in interstellar peace?

But wait. Gerald suddenly recalled. Did they say “oldest surviving”? That doesn’t necessarily mean anything ominous … still …

Gerald knew his mind was racing way ahead of any rational basis for speculation. He tried to emulate the patience that he thought he saw in those eyes.

The head-top vents rippled and symbols emerged. Strange and unfamiliar, they rapidly mutated, transforming into letters of the Roman alphabet that rushed forward, arraying themselves into words which transducers interpreted into sound—conveyed by a voice that seemed both low and strong, if a bit breathy.

You have proved capable and worthy. Join us!

Gerald heard a number of outright sighs, as tension released, even though this only repeated the one cogent message already received so far. That earlier, hopeful statement had emerged out of chaos and confusion. Now, coming from a clearly chosen consensus leader, representing the entire alien community, it felt even more firm, clear, and reassuring.

He glanced at Akana, who nodded back at Gerald. They had worked out what he should say.

“We are honored.

“There’s much to discuss. About your great and ancient society, and our reasons for both caution and joy.

“But let’s begin by welcoming you to Planet Earth. On behalf of humanity, in goodwill and friendship.”

Gerald felt a knot unwind in his stomach. He had managed to get through it all without a cough or “um” or twitch. The Notable-Quotable Words were finished, perhaps a bit more long-winded than famous, dramatic pronouncements by Caesar and Armstrong … certainly not eloquent. But still acceptable to go on the wall of Things Spoken Largely for History.

His words penetrated the Artifact via a device at the knobby end, and quickly manifested as a flurry of tiny symbols—varied and ranging from blocky letters to complex ideograms—that diverged and separated into several dozen separate streams, each aimed at a different alien, not just the ambassador standing a little ahead. The creatures, lined up in their neat rows, reacted with the wide range of behaviors you might expect—shivers and nods and tentacle ripples and shudders—but an overall impression seemed plain to Gerald. They were pleased.

The oldest one turned for brief consultation with the others, then more letters flowed from the top of the Buddha-like visitor’s head, fluttering and transforming before plastering themselves against the glassy interface.

Your friendship is our greatest treasure. We will repay it with the finest gift possible.

“I told you so!” Ben Flannery murmured. To which Emily Tang merely offered a we’ll see grunt.

But first, we must ask—have there been others?

Gerald blinked. Others?

He glanced at Akana, who shrugged back at him, mystified. In fact, none of the team members had anything to offer.

Then a shimmery virt floated down the table, settling in front of Gerald. He turned and saw that the sender was Hermes, holvatar representative of the Advisory Panel—delegates from many nations, guilds, and estates, who sat beyond the quarantine glass. Displayed for Gerald in vivid three-dimensionality by the contaict lenses he wore in both eyes, the virt glittered a simple insight.

“Others” may refer to previous encounters with alien probes.

Ah. Good guess. Someone in the peanut gallery was proving useful after all. Of course, it could also mean anything from UFOs to SETI signals to Jesus. But he decided to go with the suggestion, taking a deep breath.

“Your crystalline capsule was the first of its kind we’ve encountered, that spoke to our civilization with a clear message from afar.”

He quashed a sudden impulse to add—“That I know of.”

Another virtual message seemed to flutter in front of Gerald, this one sent by Genady.

Remember how we speculated about earlier artifacts falling to Earth, the way this one would have, if you hadn’t snagged it? Picture many of them plummeting in, across vast stretches of time … mostly to shatter or sink in the sea. Perhaps some of them merely damaged …

Gerald grunt-clicked for Genady’s virtual note to move aside … but to stay available. During those few seconds, the jolly-looking alien received and pondered Gerald’s reply. It seemed pleased by this news, its eyes squinting even more amiably than before.

How fortunate! Then you will receive clean information. Be warned, however, that other emissaries may desperately seek attention. Some carry defective or misleading, or even dangerous, entreaties.

Gerald swallowed, hard. Things had veered, abruptly, in a new direction. Suddenly, a veritable storm of virts swirled about, sent by almost every member of the contact team, as well as the animated “god” Hermes, who frantically scribbled one note after another, conveying ideas from the folks beyond the glass.

These Artifact visitors have rivals! Maybe even enemies …

So much for a peaceful universal cosmic federation …

Could “join us” mean enlisting in their squabbles against some unknown foes? Suddenly, the offer is looking a lot less tempting …

This fat envoy seems relieved, maybe even surprised that we’ve not met “others.”

Gerald blink-prioritized, giving most of the virts just a cursory gist-glance. But he called forward Genady’s follow-up message.

Kakashkiya! Do you think all those rumors we’ve heard recently … about bits of stone, suddenly lighting up … that those might be fragments and relics of older probes “desperately seeking attention”?

Akana caught Gerald’s eye with an unspoken query. Given this sudden turn of events, should she call a recess?

No. He shook his head. It would do no harm to follow up with some direct questions.

“Thank you for the warning. We’ll be careful and wary,” he told the Oldest Surviving Member. “Nevertheless, please explain. Are you worried about other messenger probes because they were dispatched by … unfriendly forces?”

Gerald knew he could have expressed that better. But this conversation was already drifting way off any script the team had prepared.

The response came as members of the alien delegation seemed to shift and jostle, nervously. Several tried to move up next to the chosen representative, but were restrained by others. The humanoid seemed to grow a bit grim.

Some emissaries are problematic because of their point or species of origin. And yes, some senders were disagreeable. Other probe-heralds might be part of this same lineage you see before you. Yet, they may be less trustworthy, because of temporal factors.

Emily muttered, this time aloud.

“Criminy! He’s talking about document version control! He doesn’t want us contaminated by an obsolete variant.”

“Well…,” Ben Flannery muttered, looking a bit dazed. “These people … these particular visitors … they just arrived … drifting close to Earth, where Gerald managed to recover their capsule. Doesn’t that suggest they’d be more recent than…” The anthropologist stumbled, looking for vocabulary. “… than any that might have fallen to Earth earlier? And hence more reliable…”

The blond Hawaiian stopped, unable to continue.

Gerald watched the Artifact. The words that had been spoken by other team members did not seem to be penetrating the speech input device, so oral discussion was probably okay, especially amid the storm of virts. Still, this line of thought was close to getting out of hand.

He faced the Artifact and spoke directly, perhaps a bit louder than necessary.

“Clarify, please. Is there a potential for danger from contact with the Others that you spoke of? Is there war, among rival interstellar races and civilizations out there?”

The pudgy humanoid grimaced in a way that Gerald found hard to interpret, or even guess at. Perhaps later correlation-analysis would make it easier to translate facial expressions.

War? As in devastating struggle? Reciprocal causation of organic death and physical destruction? One species or people competing or directly harming another across interstellar space? No. There is no war. There cannot be war across the stars. It has never happened. It will never happen.

There was a general sigh at this reassurance. And sure, the news had to be seen as important, even epochal.

Yet Gerald was starting to feel a bit miffed. Good tidings seemed always to come accompanied by something else that turned out to be jarring, even disturbing. He was left with the ongoing and ever-present suspicion that things weren’t quite as they seemed.

Emily Tang offered a worried virt.

So … there’s no heavy conflict. That’s a relief. Still, there appears to be urgent rivalry at some level. Alien civs apparently send out emissary probes pretty often … and covetously hope that those probes will get to be the ones that actually make contact with New Guys like us.

Akana passed along a gisted security briefing. Even now, investigation teams from EU, AU, UN, U.S., Great China, the Caliphate, and countless consortia were converging on every credible account of strange glowing stones. Hypotheses flurried, but a mesh consensus was converging that these objects—(well, some of them, the ones that weren’t hoaxes)—might also be artifacts from space, perhaps broken or crippled remnants that had been scattered around the Earth across many years.

Harkening back to the words of the Oldest Surviving Member, he realized; these “others” were, indeed, attracting notice.

Dr. Tshombe complained.

But why suddenly now? The other probes never summoned attention so garishly, across all the millennia. Not until this very moment! It is an incredible coincidence.

Gerald glanced at Emily, then Akana. Clearly, they both knew the answer to that question … and it started showing up in virts from the Advisers’ Panel.

Somehow, all those “other” sky stones—damaged or lost for ages—somehow they must know that the Artifact is here. And that it is getting the full regard of humankind.

And they ardently want to be heard …

… too?

… or instead?

Gerald was tempted to follow that thought-line. To wonder why alien crystals would show such blatant evidence of a crude human emotion …

… jealousy …

Except that he also had a job to do. To keep up his end of a conversation with the Oldest Surviving Member, and not to get distracted by secondary matters.

Focus on what’s important.

First, verify the stuff that’s vital. We can psychoanalyze alien motivations later.

They were watching him—the visitors in the stone. So was the world. He took a sip of tea from the hotbulb in front of him, cleared his throat, and asked in a crisp, clear voice:

“So, then … can we take it that you are all part of a commonwealth of coexistence and peace?”

The Buddha smile broadened.

Yes. We have our disputes, of course. But our coexistence is timeless and ever hopeful. We strive, perpetually, for the common advantage of all. You, too, can benefit, as we have, by joining us!

Instead of relishing the friendliness, Gerald continued probing, this time without a pause.

“But those Others that you spoke of—do they come from different species and civilizations that view the people of your planet as competitors?”

After his words floated in to the aliens, the smile of the Oldest Member thinned slightly.

I have already explained, there is no competition among species and planets and civilizations.

Gerald frowned, suddenly skeptical.

“What? No competition at all? But you just said that some probe-makers were ‘problematic’ and that you have disputes. Please explain the contradiction.”

There is no contradiction. Individual entities may argue, contest, or compete, in certain contexts. Species and civilizations do not.

Ben Flannery spoke up.

“He must be referring to the relativity limitation. The stars are so far apart that advanced beings don’t even bother to try interstellar travel, except with these cheap, fast, crystalline probes. So much for all those grand delusions people wallowed in, back during the Twentieth Century. Fantasies about super-Kardashev societies, exploring and colonizing the cosmos with ramships or generation arks, or self-replicating explorer robots, or even warp drive. Or building megastructures to control the fate of galaxies! Those were just god-fantasies that our fathers daydreamed, on their way to mythical Singularity Heaven.”

Gerald glanced up at the Advisers’ Gallery, where a hundred of humanity’s brightest, or most influential, had taken seats to observe this historic occasion. In the plush VIP area, one individual seemed to react quite heatedly to Ben’s interpretation. A dark fellow with a waving ’do of cyber-activated hair. Gerald’s contaicts supplied a caption-nametag—Professor Noozone. Ah, yes, the famous scientific razzle artist. He was shouting and shaking a fist toward Flannery—

—who continued on, blithely indifferent to a storm of virts that tried to crowd in around him.

“The key point that we’ve been told just now is that there is absolutely never direct physical contact between sapient species, who simply live too far apart. All they have to exchange is information. Hence, there’s nothing to argue or compete over!”

It sounded logical. But Gerald found the assertion doubtful. In fact, patently absurd.

Even people who are calm, reasonable, and satiated—who have no physical dissension with others, or conflicting needs—can and will quarrel. So they exchange only information and trade only ideas? Natural beings will bicker over those!

Anyway, who could possibly claim that these aliens were “above” altercation or too mature to argue! To be frank, he had never seen such an inherently testy bunch. And that was before the recent news about rivalry between interstellar envoy-probes!

Could it all be a matter of misunderstood definitions? “Competition,” for example, might be translating wrong. Gerald decided to seek clarification.

“Please explain,” he asked. Took a deep breath. Then plunged on. “If you often wrangle as individuals, how is it that your home species and civilizations and planets never compete or quarrel with each other?”

The Buddha-being contemplated this, then answered slowly, with a mien that made Gerald think of a wise-old teacher, patiently answering the simpleminded query of a dimwitted child.

Our home species and civilizations and planets could not ever compete with one another. Because they never met.

TORALYZER

Okay, so now we’ve got a good prelimalysis of those recent worldwide microquakes. After sift-removing the background of natural tectonic activity and known sources of human-generated noise, what we’re left with is a dispersion of mysterious, compact detonations, nearly all of them occurring in a very narrow energy range.

Furthermore, although they at first seemed to be scattered all over the globe, we can now tell that these micro-quake events are limited mostly to certain types of geology! Mudflats, sedimentary layers, alluvial plains, glacial moraines, the Antarctic plateau … and of course, the ocean basins. Almost nothing is happening in the great continental cratons, or granitic mountain ranges, or anywhere near regions of fresh volcanism, like sea floor spreading centers.

Yes, the coincidence is getting hard to refute. These events occur in exactly the sorts of terrain where an object that fell from the sky might stand a chance of landing with less than vaporizing impact. Mostly either under water or in places that used to be oceans, long ago. Zones where any surviving remnants might have accumulated, or been embedded, across thousands or millions of years.

For those of you just checking in, this is Tor “Zep-girl” Povlov, serving as cogenter for a smartposse investigating whether these quakes might be related to another mystery phenomenon—eyewitness reports of sudden emissions of strange light, given off by stony or glassy objects in the last day or so.

Yes, I know we’re all trying hard to keep up with real-time developments, even as the whole world follows the conversation between astronaut Gerald Livingstone and the entities dwelling within the Havana Artifact. This could be the greatest test ever of our ability to usefully divide attention … to keep doing effective investigation work while transfixed by a fast-breaking news story!

From the conversation in Washington, one thing has just become clear. The Artifact emissaries do not want humanity talking to “others.”

And, just as clearly, every word they’ve said makes us eager to hunt down and learn more about these different shining stones!

So we come to an obvious question. Might the glitters and glimmers that have been reported in Mecca, Hyderabad, and Stonehenge, in Taipei, La Paz, Goma, and Toulouse … might these be just the tip of the iceberg, indicating a truly vast number of “other” contact probes?

Might the recent spate of mysterious micro-tremors, deep underground and out of sight, be connected to all this? Could these outbursts be attempts by “other” artifacts to draw attention to themselves?

And why now, if they sat under mud or silt for millennia or eons?

Duh. Because they sense—somehow—that the Havana Artifact is hogging all the fun!

Why not earlier? Because till now it seemed better to wait! In performing these detonations or screaming glows, they may be expending whatever reserves they had been hoarding to get them across the ages! Using it up now, in order to have one last chance to—

*   *   *

Just a minute … just a minute. Did you see that? Did that fat alien representative just say what I think he said?

Zoom into the Artifact Conference. See the words of the Oldest Member on the big screen.

Our home species and civilizations and planets could not ever compete with one another. Because they never met.

What—on Earth or Heaven or the Mesh—could he mean by that?

 

44.

LAYERED REALITY

Outside the dome, miffed from losing at water polo, Noisy Stomach complained to his young comrade, Three-Tone, as they jetted away some distance from the Tribe. Three-Tone groused about the stupid referee, the stupid ball, the stupid captain of their team.…

# Foolish Yellowbelly, should have put me in!

# Let me score! I’d score more!

Noisy Stomach had already dismissed the game from his mind. A silly pastime. A legacy of the days when humans used to live inside the dome and made things interesting in so many ways, with flashing lights and strange sensations, always fussing over pregnant females, or else begging sperm donations from males. Better times.

Now?

For a while the Tribe once again had a tame human of their own, to remove parasites and handle the net and bear the brunt of jokes. Only, the elders had decided, it was time to give him back. For his health.

Noisy Stomach mourned.

# What about MY health?

# Who will pick my pecs and clean my sores?

# Should have kept him. He is ours!

They both breached to inhale, tasting in the moist, tropical air signs of a coming squall, maybe late this afternoon. That always freshened things. Rain pushed down some of the unpleasant tang of metal and plastic and man-feces, especially strong near shore.

Noisy Stomach felt a grumble of hunger resonate from his innards to the space around him—a trait that made him poor at stealth, forcing him to specialize in beating, rather than catching. He was about to resume griping—something that young males often did for pleasurable competition, as much as from resentment—when he noticed that Three-Tone had zoomed away, propelled by powerful fluke strokes, leaving a swirl of I-have-just-detected-something-interesting bubbles in his follow-me wake.

Gamely, Noisy Stomach gave chase, always willing to go poke at something interesting. But what could it be? While in hard pursuit of his friend, he concentrated on sampling the sea sounds with left and right swings of his sensitive jaw, trying to figure out what had sparked Three-Tone’s sudden burst of speed, racing to the north.

As usual, there was a lot of spurious noise—the pounding of surf on a nearby beach and waves crashing against a more distant reef. Of course, there were irksome human motor sounds, a grating fact of life, both day and night—with one or two of them evidently heading this way—or toward the habitat dome—at high speed.

Evidently, the Tribe was about to lose its pet. Ah well. None of that seemed to be what sparked the interest of Three-Tone.

Could this be about food? Or danger? A quick scan found nothing unusual amid the fish frequencies, where tightly bunched schools could be heard, swirling like cyclones, surrounded by hunters who made quick-flicking dashes … and prey thrashed, delightfully constrained by clamping jaws. His hunger deepened, almost in syncopated rhythm … but no, there was nothing on those channels to excite Three-Tone so.

Swimming hard to catch up with his friend, Noisy Stomach sought clues in lower, complex layers of textured sound. Strata that the older dolphins were always obsessing about, forever wispy, tentative, that wove through dreams. It was here that you often heard the great whales speak to each other, with moans and cries and songs that traversed all the way across whole ocean basins. Sometimes about food and mating, of course. But also conveying the sea’s own, slow gossip.

And, even lower still—nestled amid the groans of a creaking, quake-prone Earth—you could just make out the chittering, scrabbling commentary of the crabs, crawling and scooting and clambering everywhere, who snapped at anything unusual, combining to create a deep background susurration. A murky, clickety chatter that seemed to rise right out of the ubiquitous mud.

That was where Noisy Stomach finally heard it too. A patterning—wavering and nebulous, but persistent—of surprise.

# … starlight … flowing upward …

# … very strange, indeed …

That was how he interpreted the skittering-clattering scrabble-sound. Catching up with Three-Tone at last, he quickly matched swim-rhythms with his friend, kicking and then arching, to jet out of the water for air, then hurrying along again beneath the surface, in perfect synchrony. Apparently, they were heading toward only the nearest of many sites where bottom-dwellers were behaving this way.

At least three others lay within a day’s swim … and something told him that there were more, and more, even beyond the horizon.

They were streaking toward a site more than an hour away from the dome. It made Noisy Stomach start to worry. Would he miss the hunt? Only making it back to the Tribe in time to pick at fish skeletons, hanging in the net? Were they both risking hunger, on the basis of a CRAB RUMOR? Crabs, who were barely smarter than the rocks they hid under?

Though … if it were happening in so many places.… Indeed, even the whales seemed to have noticed, pausing in their painful, deep ponderings. Swiveling that slow curiosity of theirs.

Noisy Stomach knew they were getting close. For one thing, the excitement had spread to other sonic layers, shorter range and smarter. He could hear, just ahead, a squealfest of excited pinnipeds, for example, drawn from a nearby island rookery. Sea lions mostly, and monk seals. Then—rapid scans of subtle sonar that could only mean …

He pulled up short.

Dolphins. A whole pod of Tursiops, already arrived on the scene.

Strangers. Naturals—unaltered and almost certainly suspicious of the clan that Noisy Stomach belonged to. His small clan of cetaceans, tainted by the delicious agony of human meddling. Sometimes, other Tursiops were outright unfriendly toward members of the Tribe, snapping at the dolphins-who-had-changed.

But Three-Tone was plunging ahead, straight toward an island headland—a cliff face jutting out of the crashing sea. Not a safe place, even at the best of times. Yet, the sea lions and other dolphins were already gathered there, swooping about and chattering with excitement.

Noisy Stomach approached cautiously.

This time there appeared to be no overt hostility. A trio of attractive females—two of them in heat—gave him a look-over as he passed close. None of the males from their pod hovered nearby to guard them. That was queer enough, in its own right!

Though tempted to tarry, he kicked hard to hurry after Three-Tone, drawing toward a place where cetaceans and pinnipeds were swirling about each other nervously, darting up for air and then diving to poke away at something in the shallow muck.

It appeared to be no more than a jumble of rocks and debris from some fairly recent landslide—a collapse of the nearby cliff that must have happened in the last day or so. Dolphins were beak-poking at the detritus, moving small stones with their teeth or prying larger ones aside, as if burrowing for crustaceans to eat. Only they weren’t murmuring with tunes of eager hunting. Curiosity—that was the theme of the moment.

Noisy Stomach pulled up alongside Three-Tone, wary, in case they might have to defend themselves. This clan had females in heat. That, plus all this excitement …

Then he saw the glow. It came from just below a stone jumble, illuminating the underside of one dolphin’s rostrum. The native Tursiops responded by hurrying faster, as a couple of sea lions—and Three-Tone—joined in. Against his better judgment, Noisy Stomach got caught up in the moment, taking his own turns at beak-digging, at mouthing away pebbles and clumps of dirt …

… until all that remained in the way was a single big rock piled on top of the light source, too heavy and obstinate to move with their mouths. Several dolphins from the other tribe spewed rapid sonar clicks of frustration, as did Noisy Stomach, wishing he could intimidate the stone, or crumble it to bits, with blasts of sound from his brow.

# Move aside. Move aside now.

# Let us show. Show you how.

He swiveled, surprised that newcomers could have approached without him realizing. Especially members of his own kind. The only voices on Earth who spoke like that.

It was Old Yellowbelly, accompanied by Sweet Thing and Storm Bluffer and … almost the entire Tribe! They must have followed, drawn by the tumult.

Most of the natural dolphins edged backward, clicking nervously. Younger males darted about, blustering with harsh sonar beams that probed Noisy Stomach and his clan-mates deep enough to tell what they had for breakfast. Bravado that was clearly unbacked by real courage.

Sky-Biter approached. Between strong jaws he carried a slender pole, as long as he was. Noisy Stomach wondered—did the big bull haul that thing here, all the way from the dome? Or did Sky-Biter find it nearby, just now, amid the clutter of man-made debris that littered every patch of sea bottom?

Either way, several members of the Tribe immediately set to work. Yellowbelly took one pointy end of the rod and guided it toward a gap in the rocks, where the strange shine illuminated the approaching metal tip. When it was firmly planted under a large stone, Yellowbelly jetted away, to breathe at the surface. Suddenly, in acute need for air, Noisy Stomach followed. But he spumed and inhaled quickly, diving back down again to rejoin the others.

The natives were chattering louder than ever now, swimming nervous circles and prattling superstitiously about how weird and wrong this was. But Noisy Stomach proudly joined Three-Tone and half a dozen other members of his Tribe, seizing the rod along its length and pushing down.

The big rock budged, shifted to one side, then fell back into place. So they tried again from a different angle, and failed.

Then Storm Bluffer flew in and settled himself so that part of the pole, near the rod’s buried tip, lay across his broad back. Now, they all pumped with their flukes, pushing down on the other end of the rod, hard! Storm Bluffer grunted … and the obstruction flew off! As did the pole and most of the natural dolphins, fleeing in dismay, as the glow now spread freely from an exposed pit in the muck.

Members of the Tribe—plus a few of the bravest rustics—gathered around, spraying the site with exploratory clicks, and also bringing their eyes closer to peer at the source.

It had much the same sonic reflectivity as a river-smoothed stone, pockmarked and pitted by time, but it behaved like one of those machines that the dome-people used to shine at members of the Tribe, back when Noisy Stomach was little. Yet, something about it didn’t feel man-wrought at all. The light was unlike any he had seen emitted before, either in nature or by the tools of human-meddlers.

He could tell that blurry images were trying to form, under the scratches and gouges—shapes and outlines that wavered and rippled and failed to coalesce, then started to fade.

A collective sigh of disappointment fell from the onlookers. But Noisy Stomach would have none of that. He edged forward … a bit surprised by his own gumption … and aimed a chiding, focused beat of pure meaning at the stone thing.

# What? Give up so easy?

# Come on you, don’t be lazy.

# We came far—worked hard for this.

# Amuse us!

For some time nothing much happened. Faint ripples of gray coursed the oblong object, that might once have been smooth as wave-rolled glass. One end of it seemed soft, porous, and spongelike—almost crumbly—like bone that had been sucked of all its juices. Even as he watched, that end appeared to decay a little more, giving up some of its rigid essence, in order for the rest of the stone to brighten a bit.

Noisy Stomach felt one of the natural dolphins—a female—sidle up along his left side, her curiosity equal to his own. Both of them waited, holding their breath until it was almost stale. Then—

—the stone responded. This time with surface vibrations that shook its surface and resonated the surrounding waters, taking up the sonic glyph that Noisy Stomach had projected earlier and echoing it back, modified into a sculpture of crafted sound.

** … came far?

** … (YOU?!?) came far?

** ???

He did not need words like “irony” to interpret the underlying texture of that glyph. Such human terms could only aim, crudely, in the right direction.

Anyway, the dolphins did not need to understand. Whether they were of the modified variety or not, mere understanding could wait. It was enough that they all could tell—something both tragic and terribly funny was going on. Like a mullet, plaintively inquiring if mercy were an option, while thrashing between a pair of jaws.

And so … they laughed.

TORALYZER

Amsci Barcelona has intercepted and gisted an intelligence blip from one of the estates.

Apparently, nations and consortia all over the planet have paid heed to our seismic mapping-correlation. This posse’s hypothesis that the microquakes may come from “other” interstellar probes—possible rivals of the Havana Artifact that arrived long ago and are deeply buried, but that may now be trying hard to get attention. Perhaps desperate not to miss their one chance to make contact.

Taking this possibility seriously, several agencies have dispatched teams toward recent seismic sites. Most of them rocked deep layers of limestone or sandstone, hundreds, or even thousands of meters beyond easy reach. But dozens happened near or at the surface. Reports are expected from some of those locales, soon.

So, we in this posse have already had some impact! Is anybody up for …

… Oh, sorry. Most of you are mono-zoomed onto feed from the Artifact Conference right now.

All right. I’ll narrow down, too. We can follow up on attention-seeking, exploding rocks later.

Let’s see if the astronaut and his Contact Team can figure out the enigma.

 

45.

A PARROT OX

Words of the Oldest Surviving Member glowed across the face of the Artifact—and the screens and specs and contaict lenses of at least four or five billion Earthlings.

Our home species and civilizations and planets could not ever compete with one another. Because they never met.

Upon first reading that message, Gerald had felt his jaw muscles go slack. He couldn’t help it, even though he knew he must look silly, gaping in astonishment.

The maelstrom of virtual messages that had been swirling around his peripheral vision tumbled now like autumn leaves, dissolving as their authors lost interest in them, focusing instead on their own sense of confusion.

Everyone, on both sides of the quarantine glass, fell silent. Not one person had a single insight to contribute. Not if their thoughts were as blank and stunned as Gerald’s felt right now. You could hear the air-conditioning system purr … plus a hum from the floating display where the Oldest Surviving Member’s statement still glowed, while people here and across the globe scanned it over and over again, trying to make sense of an apparent paradox.

Amid this silence, someone’s phone abruptly rang—an impertinent jangling, expressing urgency. Even so, Gerald would have ignored it, along with everything else but the alien puzzle-statement … except there followed a sharp scream!

He glanced toward the Advisers’ Gallery, to see an elderly woman jump up and down, alternately shouting and sobbing while holding an old-fashioned joymaker handset. Lacey Donaldson-Sander, said an identifying caption—one of the world’s richest people. She seemed quite overcome. Professor Noozone at first tried to console her, then, grasping the news, grinned and hugged her. Those around the pair joined in, evidently having some reason for bliss.

Well, if anything were to shock us from our trance—our stunned cognitive dissonance—it might as well be somebody’s shout of joy.

He turned back to the latest alien missive, and decided it was a really bad idea to lose initiative. Time to get direct then. Specific. No more skirting the edges. Gerald leaned forward, enunciating toward the Artifact that he had grabbed out of space, rescuing the stone before it could plummet and crash upon the Earth.

“Question: Do you now exist as one of the artificially emulated inhabitants of an interstellar probe that was dispatched across the light-years, in order to meet and contact other species of intelligent life such as ourselves?”

I am as you describe. And yes, that is a large part of our mission.

“Is this the usual method by which technological species learn of one another?”

Yes it is.

“Did you, repeatedly, offer an invitation to join your multispecies, interstellar community?”

We did. You will be most welcome among us.

Ben Flannery pounded the table in frustration. He leaned toward the Artifact and broke the agreed rules by shouting directly, impatience overcoming his sunny nature.

“Us! Us! You’re not telling us ANYTHING about who us is!

“All right, so there’s no war. Terrific! But how many sapient races participate in your federation? How is it governed? What are the benefits of membership? Which planet did this probe come from and how did it travel and how long did it take?… And…”

Genady and Ramesh finally managed to grab Ben’s shoulders and pull him back to his seat. Though, in their eyes, there lay clear sympathy for his frame of mind.

“Oh, shit,” Gerald said, as he saw a flurry of letters, glyphs, and ideograms flow into the Artifact. This time, apparently, Flannery’s shouts had been loud enough to register with the translation system. Akana met his eye with a shrug. No sense in trying to retract the questions. They were, after all, things that everybody wanted to know.

Oldest Surviving Member rotated his rotund form to consult with the others, before turning back toward the curved interface.

We have already replied that there are ninety-two races participating.
 
Governance is a matter of flexibly adapting to circumstances, as you earlier observed.

Gerald felt furious at Ben. These answers were obvious or redundant, or at best minor matters. When the whole world wanted to follow up on that cryptic remark about species having “never met.” Could the translation be literal, having only to do with having never met physically and in person? Somehow, that explanation didn’t seem right.

As for the benefits of membership, these include a potential for vastly extended existence, far beyond normal possibility. In effect—life everlasting.

Gerald blinked.

Okay … that last bit got everyone’s attention.

For the second time in a few minutes, everyone in the vast contact chamber and connected Advisers’ Gallery went silent. Gerald could imagine the condition settling in, around the world. Indeed, the planet might be at its quietest since the dawn of the Industrial Age.

I guess … people will want me to follow up on this, in particular.

But the Buddha-like being simply went on, answering Flannery’s list of queries in the order given.

To explain this probe’s point of origin and method of travel, I will defer to Low-Swooping Fishkiller, whose people made and dispatched the particular contact-maker that you see before you.

The creature who Gerald had likened to a bat with helicopter wings, flutter-hopped forward a short distance to alight next to Oldest Surviving Member. Grimacing with carnivore teeth, it brought together two antennalike manipulator appendages and spread them apart again. A patch of blackness expanded outward, to coat the entire left side of the Artifact.

A scene coalesced before all the human observers, soon revealing a planet in the foreground that turned slowly in space. Seas that rainbow-glistened like oil slicks lapped against corkscrew continents where patches of green threaded between gray peaks and dun-colored plains. The nightside was ablaze with brightly illuminated cities, laid out in near perfect concentric circles that brusquely ignored the dictates of mere geography.

Along with billions of others, Gerald found the scene transfixing. Though Ramesh complained, expressing his own unique priority. “I’m trying to record as many stars as I can, to get a location and time fix. If only the damn ugly planet weren’t in the way.…”

Pulling backward, the portrayed point of view soon took in a large foreground object—a structure of girders and struts, of vacuum warehouses and flaring torches, all connected together in apparent orbit above the planet. An edifice far more vast than any space station Gerald had ever conceived. Zooming in upon this giant workshop, the story image cruised past bat-creatures wearing puffy, transparent, globelike space suits, who were supervising a production line where glittering, translucent eggs could now be seen emerging from a luminous factory shed, one at a time.

The story image zoomed in vertiginously, arriving next to one of the lambent, rounded cylinders, now revealed to have a boxy contraption attached to one end. Along with all the other recently produced probes, this one rode upon a prodigiously lengthy conveyor belt toward the base of a huge, elongated machine—a kind of gun, Gerald realized—that swiveled to aim at a chosen point in space … and then fired something that sparkled and quickly vanished into starry night.

Then the long, narrow artillery tube turned its open-sided muzzle slightly, facing a new spot in the sky, and fired again.

Ramesh decreed the consensus opinion of his own advisers and ais.

It’s great big mass accelerator. Prelimestimate … it might hurl these pellets up to maybe 3 percent of lightspeed. Impressive, though not enough to do the full job.

Gerald had a feeling that time was being compressed. The ride up the conveyor belt took only a few seconds, then he was looking backward, past the newly minted Artifact, at the factory and planet as the accelerator throbbed, preparing to shoot this probe into the great beyond.

Fascinated, Gerald saw a pack of glowing objects start to converge from several directions, approaching the place where the Artifact had been made. Bat-beings turned also to look behind them toward the planet.

Time was up. When the moment came—and even a bit before—the mighty industrial works and the nearest patch of planetary atmosphere seemed to flare, accompanying a fierce intensity of released energy as the great gun fired …

… and, in an instant, the homeworld of the bat-creatures fell away behind, diminishing to a bright speck … to nothing.

Now the simulated camera view turned and depicted the box at the front of the pellet opening up, unrolling an array of what looked like wires, that spread out like an unfolding net.

Huh. I was expecting a photon sail. Perhaps pushed by a laser beam sent by the home system. It’s the obvious way to boost speed at this point for a cheap, efficient interstellar craft. But that’s no sail it deployed. And look, the sun that we’re heading away from doesn’t seem to be sending any help. No pushing beam of light.

Judging from stellar movements, some years have passed already. A decade maybe, and so far there’s no …

Ah! Here we go!

Suddenly, the home star seemed to brighten, many times over, though in a strangely speckled coloration. The array of wires, which had been floating loosely, now billowed outward, tautening. And there came—Gerald could feel it—a sense of acceleration!

Okay. It’s not a laser, but a particle beam of some sort. Electrons, possibly. Or protons. Maybe even heavy ions, targeted exactly to pass through the wire array in order to transfer momentum via magnetic induction. How about that. More complicated than a light sail, but maybe they also use the wires to leverage against the galactic magnetic field over long distances. One way to steer …

In fact, I wonder if you can actually use the particles that have passed you by, when you later catch up with them.…

Gerald felt a hand on his shoulder and almost jumped out of his chair.

It was General Akana Hideoshi. The petite officer motioned for him to get up and follow her.

“But—”

Akana’s expression was adamant. “This show is being recorded. You can see it all later. Meanwhile, there are developments.”

Reluctantly, Gerald stood up, only to realize that he badly needed to stretch. Body crackling propelled a sudden, overpowering desire to move about. Still, the Artifact’s tale spoke directly to the space traveler in him. It was hard to tear away.

Over in a corner of the contact arena, behind a partial privacy screen, the two of them joined Emily Tang and Genady Gorosumov. “What is it?” he asked, while extending his legs onto tiptoe and relieving tension by leaning, left and right.

Emily held up a finger.

“First, it’s confirmed—those micro-quakes that proliferated during the last day or so are from long-ago fallen pellet probes.”

“Really? Confirmed already? How could they—”

She pointed to a screen. There he saw a panorama of humans and assisting robots dredging through a muddy river estuary. Another showed men toiling amid boulders, freshly tumbled from a layered cliff of sedimentary stone. Emily sped through the work, arriving at a similar climax in four separate cases—shouts and the recovery of something that reacted to human touch by emitting a brief but excited glow.

Washed of muck and debris, or chipped free of eons-old rocky casings, what the workers revealed was never smooth or intact, like the Havana Artifact. But even in fragments, a family resemblance was clear. And, in two of the recovered specimens, one could see a definite effect as the surface felt its first sunlight in … a very long time. Ripples of cloudy gray. Flickers of color. Hints of pattern, struggling to emerge.

“Apparently, the detonations weren’t only to get attention. A few of them actually managed to explosively free themselves from the strata they were trapped in, thus making it much easier to find them. Of course, it was pure luck for those that happened to be near the surface, or next to a cliff edge. A vast majority simply blew up chunks of their own material for nothing, buried under a million years of muck or sediment. We’ll never find most of the relics, no matter how hard we—”

“Tell him the second thing,” Akana ordered.

“Yeah, right.” Emily click-commanded the screens and holos to show something new. This time—starry vistas. Gerald briefly expected to be back inside the Artifact’s storytelling vid. But no. He recognized Scorpio … the Southern Cross … Libra … These were views from Earth. Or relatively near.

“See that pulsation?” Emily pointed at a “star” that couldn’t be a star. Too green. Too regular in its flickering.

“Parallax?” he asked.

“Most of these seem to be located in the inner asteroid belt,” Genady replied. “A couple of hundred, so far. Though some have been spotted as near as L-3 and several on the surface of the Moon.”

“Jesus and the Maya. Hundreds? When—?”

“All in the last hour or so. Numbers are still rising.”

“But,” his mind was a whirl, “but how could these things know that it’s time to start yelling for attention? Sure, some may be close enough to pick up broadcasts of our interview with the Artifact. But way out there? Or deep underground?”

Emily and Genady glanced at each other. Clearly all this was happening too quickly, almost at the limit of human ability to process information.

“Has any of this been released to the public?”

Akana shrugged. “How can we hold it back? Look at Haihong Ming, over in that corner with a privacy hood over his head, consulting with his government. What else would they be discussing at a time like this? Obviously they already know. Indications are that five more nations and three guilds do as well. And the amsci clubs are sniffing like bloodhounds. Many of them have optics that can spot the phenomena … and surely will.

“For that matter, I’m not sure how anybody will benefit from secrecy at this point. The earthquake correlation first came from a citizen posse. Aren’t we better off having as many minds thinking about this as possible? In parallel?”

It wasn’t the attitude one typically associated with a government bureaucrat, especially a military flag officer. On the other hand, clearly, Akana knew these weren’t typical times.

Gerald inhaled and exhaled repeatedly, trying to clear his head. He had become a historical figure by grabbing out of space something that seemed utterly unique and epochal. Now to find out that the thing was only one of thousands, possibly millions … perhaps as common as any other kind of large gemstone … well, it was humbling, daunting, and ignited the question—Why haven’t we stumbled across these things before?

And he realized. I bet we have. Here and there, across centuries. Maybe some did call for attention during other eras. Only now’s the time, the opportunity they were all built for. When we’re ripe for contact. When we’re technologically able to “join” … whatever it is they want us to join.

It all made weird, dizzying sense. A plethora of cheap probes, sent from many locations across wide stretches of time could be far more efficient than a few very expensive ones, capable of their own propulsion. Cheaper than keeping up a blaring “tutorial beacon” on the off chance that one star out of a hundred million might happen to engender radio astronomers that year.

Yet, one mystery still stood apart from all the others.

Why are the pellets all programmed to be so frantically competitive with one another? How can it matter which of them introduces us to galactic civilization? Do they earn some kind of recruiting commission?

He glanced over his shoulder in time to see something that gave him a strange thrill. The Havana Artifact was finishing the tale of its origin and journey across space. Planet Earth now filled the big screen—destination in sight.

Gerald put aside curiosity over the parts of the tale he had missed. Akana was right. He could call up a replay, any time, along with gloss annotations by experts in every field.

Only now, with the cloud-flecked Panamanian Isthmus in background, there loomed upward a slender, impossibly long object, resembling a rope or snake with a claw gaping at one end. As they all watched, the jaw opened wide, with fingers that were meshed together like a baseball fielder’s glove. Gerald felt his right hand flex and stretch, remembering how this moment felt—was it less than a month ago?—when he and his little monkey sidekick piloted the tether-grabber toward this fateful rendezvous. Only now he was watching from the other side—the perspective of an interstellar wanderer.

One that happened to be far, far luckier than most, to arrive at just the right place and time, when a human astronaut happened to be ready … and had the tools.

Would I have been so cool and professional, during the grab, if I had known what I was reaching for?

Still, he couldn’t help wincing, as the claw closed all around …

… and suddenly the story was over. The scene cleared, leaving Low-Swooping Fishkiller, the bat-helicopter being, standing next to the Oldest Surviving Member, whose Buddha smile now left Gerald entirely unassuaged.

“Thanks for telling me all this,” he said to Akana and the others. “But now it’s time to get some real answers.”

He knew that the grimness he felt in his jaw and flexing hands could also be seen in his eyes.

MASS INTERROGATION

Questions for the Artifact aliens, distilled from over thirty-five million submitted by the public, ranked according to popularity and relevance by Deep Purple analytical engine. The Contact Commission has promised to get to some of these concerns—just as soon as “basic issues” with the visitor entities are resolved.

Are you here to teach us better ways? How can I start? (#1 for 3 days)
Are you here to conquer or kill us? And can we talk you out of it? (#2 for 13 days)
How do we get that “life everlasting” you promised? (Up from zero during the last two hours and rising fast)
What will it take to get you to like us? (Still in 4th position after 5 days)
Are you on speaking terms with God? (Up from #12 during the last hour)
Got a spare warp drive? (Up from #16 during the last 36 hours)*
Are you a hoax? (Down from 5th place 1 hour ago)
What will it take to get you to leave us alone? (Down from 3rd place two hours ago)
Have you got any new cuisine? (Up from #46 during the last 10 hours)

 

46.

A SMILING FACE

Of course they should be able to track her every movement. The men who were pursuing Mei Ling obviously knew their way around the Mesh. It would take little effort or expense to assign software agents—pattern sifters and face-recognizers—to go hopping among the countless minilenses stuck on every doorpost, lintel, and street sign, searching for a poorly dressed young woman with a baby, dragged through prosperous Pudong by a strange little boy.

From the start, she expected them to catch up at any moment.

Only … what will they do if they corner us on a busy street? Grab me in front of hundreds of witnesses? Perhaps that is why I’ve been free to run for a while. They are only awaiting the right moment.

At first, while fleeing, she kept turning her head and darting her eyes, scanning for pursuers or suspicious-looking men … till the child told her to stop in his oddly flat and rhythmic voice. Instead, he recommended looking in shop windows in order to keep her face averted from the street full of ais. Sensible—but she knew that wouldn’t help for long.

Vidramas were always portraying manic pursuit scenes through urban avenues. Sometimes the fugitive would be chased by tiny robots, flitting from wall to wall like insects. Or else by real insects, programmed to home in on a certain person’s smell. Spy satellites and strato-zeps were called upon using telescopic cams to zoom from high above, while sewer-otters spied below, scrambling along the storm drains to stick out twitching muzzles, reporting on the hapless runaway.

That ottodog, over there, routinely sniffing for illicit drugs … might he turn suddenly and nip your ankle, injecting it with anesthetic from a pointy, hollow tooth? She had seen that happen in a recent holo-ainime. There were no limits to the schemes concocted by fantasists—millions of them—equipped with 3-D rendering tools, free time, and lots of paranoia. Anyway, technologies kept changing so fast that Mei Ling had no idea where the borderline was between realistic tools and science fiction.

While the child seemed confident, pulling her along through back alleys, she still couldn’t help glancing left and right, scanning reflections in shop windows, looking for bugs, wary of all the eyes that she could spot … and those she couldn’t.

Early in the chase, she thought about simply calling for help. That nice Inspector Wu had been both sympathetic and professional when her police unit came to interview Mei Ling at the little shorestead, asking about Xiang Bin and his mysterious, glowing stone. The same stone that these other men probably wanted as well.

Making that call seemed a good idea … only then Mei Ling realized she had no easy means to do so! The child had thrown away her new pair of overlay spectacles—they were identified and trackable, after all—just before tugging her on this zigzag chase through the back streets, ducking under one store awning after another. But weren’t there other ways to phone authorities? Couldn’t she just stop any passerby, and ask that person to do it for her?

Or … she realized later, when it was too late … shouldn’t it be possible to just stand in front of any city traffic light or utility pole and say, “I have a matter of state security to report?”

But no. Mei Ling didn’t want to come between powerful groups. What if this was all a fight between two factions of the government or aristocracy? Such things happened all the time, and when dragons battle each other, peasants are better off ducking out of the way.

Which was exactly what the child with the shifting eyes seemed to know how to do.

First, he led her to the back door of a tourist restaurant and through the steamy, aromatic kitchen. Most of the cooks ignored them, though one shouted a question as they darted through a pantry that led to a storeroom that led past a bustling loading dock to a set of stairs that continued to a makeshift bridge over an alley into the next block where they then scurried through a fab-factory that was churning out Grow-Your-Own-Goofy kits for sale at the nearby theme park.

One vast loft, filled with busy people, confused Mei Ling. All the workers stood about, plugged into action suits, moving and pantomiming some kind of aggressive activity that was mirrored on nearby holoscreens. From their actions—reaching out, grabbing at midair and clutching nonobjects, or nobjects—she could tell that these people were clearly building something. But what? Only after crossing most of the chamber, hurrying after her guide, did she glance at some big displays and realize, They are constructing molecules! Atom by atom.

Mei Ling had heard of this. Somewhere, perhaps in the glass towers across town, or else in a rich Brazilian kid’s bedroom, or at an African university, some new kind of material or device was being computer-contrived, to be fabricated by a desktop prototyping machine—translating imagination into something entirely new. Only the software couldn’t handle every kind of design problem. There were certain things that ai didn’t cope with as well—or cheaply—as a room full of piece-working humans with good stereo vision and shape-sensing instincts that went back millions of years.

Another rickety bridge and another fab-shop—this one making pixelated hats that flared with rocket ship images, superimposed upon Chinese flags—allowed them to emerge into a third floor hallway lined with offices—a lawyer, a dental implaint specialist, a biosculpt surgeon.…

He’s evading all the cameras on the street, she realized. Though of course there were cams indoors, as well. They were just harder for outsiders to access via the Mesh. According to the tenets of the Big Deal, even the state had to ask permission to utilize them—or get a court order. That could take several minutes.

Down another rickety set of stairs they ran, through a curtained niche near the back of a second hand clothing shop that catered to low-level union workers. Moving quickly along the shelves, her young guide soon pulled down a bundle and showed it to Mei Ling. She recognized the garb of a licensed nanny—a member of the Child-Care Guild.

A good choice, she thought. Nobody will think twice about my carrying little Xiao En.

But if I pay for them, even with cash, the purchase register will post my face on the Mesh, and all that dodging about will be for nothing.

An answer to that was forthcoming. While she crouched in a corner, giving her baby a suckle, the boy busied himself with a small device, scanning all over the two-piece uniform before deftly plucking out a few hidden specks—the product ID chips.

“Anybody can find them,” he said, performing some kind of incantation made up of whispers and blurry fingertips, then putting the nearly invisible specks back where they came from. “But it’s another thing to time ’em. Rhyme ’em. Redefine ’em.”

Mei Ling wasn’t sure she understood, but he did make shoplifting—supposedly impossible—look easy.

The boy offered another brief moment of eye contact, accompanied by a fleeting smile that seemed labored, painful, though friendly nonetheless, as if the mere act of connecting with her took heroic concentration.

“Mother ought to trust Ma Yi Ming.”

The name could be interpreted to mean “horse one utter,” where “ma” or horse was traditionally symbolic of great power. Shanghainese, especially, liked names that were brash, assertive, the bearer of which might turn out confident and accomplished. Someone who stands out from the crowd, heroic despite handicaps. It struck Mei Ling as ironic.

“All right … Yi Ming,” she answered. At least that part of the name stood for “the people.” Another irony?

“I do trust you,” she added, realizing, as she said it, that it was true.

Little Xiao En grumbled over being denied the nipple, wanting to keep sucking after Mei Ling judged him to be fed. Still, the infant was well taught and made no fuss while she changed him. Then Mei Ling ducked into a nearby alcove to change into the new garments. Meanwhile Yi Ming busied himself with her shabby old clothing. But why? Surely they would be abandoned.

Certain that something would go wrong during all of this, Mei Ling peered over the curtain nervously as she fumbled with the clasps. Sure enough, as she stepped out wearing the stiffly starched uniform, one of the store clerks glanced over and started toward them. “Here now, I didn’t see you—”

At that moment, while Mei Ling’s heart pounded, there came a crash from the other side of the store. A large, hunch-shouldered man—clearly the janitor—was backing away from a store mannequin, moaning and using his mop to defend himself as the clothes-modeling puppet sputtered and squealed, waving animated plastic arms, tossing sweaters, acti-pants and e-sensitized tunics at him. Every member of the sales staff hurried in that direction … and the little autistic boy murmured.

“Mother has changed clothes. Now face.”

He pulled Mei Ling to the back door, in the blind spot between store and alley, and motioned for her to bend over. Drawing out a pen of some kind, he used his left hand to grip the back of her neck, holding her head still with uncanny strength as he drew across her cheeks and forehead with rapid strokes. When he let go, Mei Ling sagged back with a sigh that was equal parts anger and wounded pride.

“How dare you—” she began. Then she stopped, upon glimpsing herself in the changing area mirror. He had drawn just a dozen or so lines. Their effect was bizarre and clownish—when looked at straight on. But who viewed other people that way, out on the street? When Mei Ling diverted her gaze, even slightly, the effect was astounding. She saw a woman at least twenty years older, with gaunt cheeks and a much lower brow … a pronounced chin, a snub nose and eyes closer together.

“Facial recog won’t recog.” The boy nodded approvingly and held out his hand for her to take. “Next stop now … a safe place for mothers.”

*   *   *

After another hour spent dodging in and out of buildings, across upper-story bridges, through warehouses and workshops and university classrooms, they found themselves standing in front of a place that Mei Ling had always dreamed of visiting someday, gazing at pure wonder with her own eyes.

“It … it is magnificent,” she sighed, shifting Xiao En’s sling so that he could see. The baby stopped fussing, joining her in staring at the marvelous portal to another world whose only boundary was that of imagination.

The Shanghai Universe of Disney and the Monkey King loomed straight ahead across a broad plaza, its artificial mountain lined with cave-rides and fabulous fortresses, with fabled beasts and impossible forests that were always shrouded in glorious, perfumed mists. Here one might find the sort of fantastic things that you only saw on wild layers of virspace, but made palpable as stone! A mix of whimsy and solidity that could only have come into being through wondrous blendings of art, science, engineering, and astronomical amounts of cash.

In the foreground, just a hundred meters ahead, loomed those famous, wide-welcoming gates of shimmering Viridium that were topped by giant, holomechanical characters who preened and posed with theatrical exaggeration. She recognized Snow White and Pocahontas and beautiful Princess Chang’e. There was wise old Xuanzang, accompanied on his epic westward journey by the mischievous Zhu Bajie and his brothers, the Three Little Pigs. A flying elephant with flapping ears flew joyous circles in an overhead dance with the wondrous dragon-horse. Below, the fabled boy Ma Liang waved his magic brush and made mere drawings come to life!

And everyone’s favorite, Sun Wukong, the Monkey himself, capered up and down a tower decked with pennants that seemed as colorful as they were impossibly long, playing catch-me-if-you-can with lumbering King Kong.

All of those familiar figures lined the storied battlements. But greatest of all, the central figure topping the main gate, was a friendly-faced icon with immense black-round ears and a winning smile of confident-destiny, flanked on either side by active sculptures of the two real-life visionaries who imagined so much wonder and gave such dreams to the world: Uncle Walt and Scholar Wu. That pair—one of them dressed in an old-fashioned Western suit and the other in Ming dynasty robes—seemed to look right at Mei Ling, beckoning her personally, with grins and open arms.

Xiao En cooed with delight and Mei Ling felt herself drawn … except that the vast plaza of concrete and iridescent tile seemed so dauntingly open and exposed. No place on Earth was under scrutiny by more cameras than this.

Surely they are watching this place.

But there was another tug on her hand.

Yi Ming did not bother to speak, this time. His urgent meaning was clear. If they were going to cross, it had to be quickly. Now.

Mei Ling’s sense of danger mounted as they headed straight for the portal. Suddenly her new clothes and ai-fooling makeup seemed wholly inadequate, especially since there were so few people around!

“Where is everybody?” she wondered, aloud, mostly to hear someone speak words. “I know it is a weekday. But there should be more tourists, children, visitors…”

Indeed, only a few hundred seemed to be crossing the barren plaza, coming to or from the underground train station and parking garage. The sparseness seemed eerie, since it was still early in the afternoon. Though it feels like days since I last slept in our little shorestead. To be honest she missed the solitude. The constant lapping of Huangpu tides against her home’s rotting timbers.

“All indoors,” Yi Ming explained. “More than two-thirds of all the normalpeople. Twelve billion, three hundred and forty two million eyes, feeding impressions to twelve billion, three hundred and forty two million cerebral hemispheres, locked inside half that many skulls”—he ran out of breath and had to inhale—“all watching space rocks that rock space. All curious about living forever. Even cobblies want to know.”

Mei Ling only grasped part of it, but the explanation sufficed. The whole world—or nearly—had gone into immersion-mode, watching whatever was going on in America. The interview with the Artifact aliens. An event meriting worldwide greedy interest was happening—perhaps even something wonderful. Yet Mei Ling wished it had never been found and that Xiang Bin had left his own discovery in the bottom of the muddy estuary.

“So many spacey stones from stoned space,” the boy intoned. He always seemed to be experimenting with possible rhymes or songs. It must be one of those unbearably strong compulsions that drove so many young people with the disorder. Only now he also sounded sorrowful, empathizing with lost mineral messengers, perhaps more than he would with flesh and blood.

“Those buried at sea can’t see! Thousands, trapped underground, try to make a sound! Many more in space can barely spark a trace. Others, locked in vaults and graves, hoping to be saved—so sad. So bored! They chose their fate; now it’s too late.”

He seemed genuinely moved by the tragedy of it all.

“Wait a minute!” She halted, abruptly. “Let me get this straight. You mean there are many of the shining, speaking stones?” Her heart whirled with hope. If it were true, then perhaps no one would be desperate, any longer, to seek her husband.

“Yes. Many—numerous, multitudinous … Shining—luminous numinous … Stones—crystalline serpentine olivine…” He tugged at her and skipped along gaily. “But only a rare-pair speak!”

Hurrying to keep up, Mei Ling wondered. Only two speak? The one in Washington … and Bin’s? Then powerful people will still hunt for him. Or use me to help find him. Or threaten or coerce him.

But … how could the child know?

A screeching of brakes. A backward glance confirmed her worst fears. Several black vans had just pulled up onto the plaza, as close to the pedestrian barriers as they dared, and men piled out. One of them pointed and they started straight toward her at a rapid walk.

No sense in pretending, anymore, to be strolling along—a nanny escorting two children to the park. Now Mei Ling and Yi Ming ran! Though she wondered, What will we do when we get there?

Despite there being few visitors, the line at the ticket window was way too long. Even if she could afford the steep entrance fee, those men would arrive long before she could pay and then reach the gate. That assumed the Disney guards would not simply stop her when the pursuers shouted. After all, they had to be from some state agency. How else could they be acting like this in broad daylight? In China?

Or else they were desperate and willing to bluff, pretending to represent some part of the state.

Yi Ming cleared part of Mei Ling’s perplexity by steering her past the ticket booth and straight toward the broad, viridium portal, right under the shadow of scholar Wu Cheng’en, who wrote the great national classic adventure tale Journey to the West. Though five centuries had passed, it was still easily a match, in culture and excitement, for more recent stories about talking ducks and dogs and mice.

Stopping abruptly, the boy turned and dashed over to a well-dressed couple who were just leaving the park, with a little girl who wore a cute, if retro, silken costume copied from the classic Sailor Moon. Her mouth was stained from sucking at the neck of a candy victim, from the featured ride Vampires of the Adnauseam.

Evidently both tired and spoiled, in an era that much favored girls over boys, she gaped suspiciously, with sugary “blood” oozing down her jaw, as Yi Ming planted himself in front of the family, chattering in a friendly manner. None of his words made sense, at least not to Mei Ling or to the parents. But for a moment their surprise was such that they allowed him to take their hands and pat them while continuing to babble away.

The girl recovered first, swiftly snarling at Yi Ming with red-stained teeth.

What’s he doing? Mei Ling wondered. Does he suddenly find the situation hopeless? Is he abandoning me here and picking someone else to guide around town?

The pursuers had made it halfway across the square. Mei Ling started eyeing alternative escape paths. None of which looked promising while schlepping a baby. Perhaps down the escalator to the train station.…

The tourist couple yanked their hands away and, egged on by the girl’s screech, the father pushed at Yi Ming—who simply laughed, spun about three times, then sped over to Mei Ling.

“Mother. Hand.”

As the rich family hurried off, suddenly the boy was scribbling upon the back of Mei Ling’s wrist with the same pen he used on her face, half an hour ago. There was no apparent pattern at first, just a rapid series of dots that pricked and hurt a little, even on her calloused skin. The specks were all constrained within a square area, perhaps three centimeters on a side.

Oh, she thought, could it be? Can a mere person do this?

The men were closer now. Yi Ming let go of her hand and started doing the same thing to the back of his own. The right hand,