Huw awakens, dazed and confused.
This is by no means unusual, but for once Huw’s head hurts more than his bladder. He’s lying head down, on his back, in a bathtub. He scrabbles for a handhold and pulls himself upright. A tub is a terrible place to spend a night. Or a morning, come to think of it—as he blinks, he sees that it’s midafternoon, and the light slanting in through a high window limns the strange bathroom’s treacly Victorian fixtures with a roseate glow.
That was quite a party. He vaguely remembers the gathering dawn, its red light staining the wall outside the kitchen window as he discussed environmental politics with a tall shaven-headed woman with a blue forelock and a black leather minidress straight out of the twentieth century. (He has an equally vague memory of her defending a hard-core transhumanist line: Score nil–nil to both sides.) This room wasn’t a bathroom when he went to sleep in it: Bits of the bidet are still crawling into position, and there’s a strong smell of VOCs in the air.
His head hurts.
Leaning over the sink, Huw twiddles the taps until they begin to dribble cold water. He splashes his face and runs his hand through his thinning hair, glances up at the mirror, and yells, “Shit!”
There’s a spindly black biohazard trefoil tattooed on his forehead. It wasn’t there when he went to sleep, either.
Behind him, the door opens. “Having a good morning?” asks Sandra Lal, whose mutable attic this must therefore be. She’s playing with a small sledgehammer, tossing it into the air and catching it like a baton-twirler. Her grotesquely muscled forearm has veins that bulge with hyperpressured blood and hormones.
“I wish,” he says. Sandra’s parties tend to be wild. “Am I too late for the dead dog?”
“You’re never too late.” Sandra smiles. “Coffee’s in the kitchen, which is on the ground floor today. Bonnie gave me a subscription to House of the Week and today’s my new edition—don’t worry if you can’t remember where everything is, just remember the entrance is at ground level, okay?”
“Coffee,” Huw says. His head is pounding, but so is his bladder. “Um. Can I have a minute?”
“Yes, but I’d like my spare restroom back afterwards. It’s going to be en suite, but first I’ve got to knock out the wall through into the bedroom.” She hefts her sledgehammer suggestively.
Huw slumps down on the toilet as Sandra shuts the door behind her and bounces off to roust out any other leftover revelers. He shivers as he relieves himself: Trapped in a mutating bathroom by a transgendered atheist Pakistani role-playing critic. Why do I keep ending up in these situations? he wonders as the toilet gives him a scented wash and blow-dry: When it offers him a pubic trim, he hastily retrieves his kilt and goes in search of coffee.
Sandra’s new kitchen is frighteningly modern—a white room job that looks empty at first, sterile as an operating theater, but that oozes when you glance away, extruding worktops and food processors and fresh cutlery. If you slip, there’ll be a chair waiting to catch your buttocks on the way down. There are no separate appliances here, just tons of smart matter. Last night it looked charmingly gas-fired and Victorian, but now Huw can see it as it truly is, and he doesn’t like what he can see. He feels queasy, wondering if he ate anything it had manufactured. But relief is at hand. At the far end of the room there’s a traditional-looking dumb worktop with a battered old-fashioned electric cafetière sitting on it. And some joe who looks strangely familiar is sitting there reading a newssheet.
Huw nods at him. “Uh, where are the mugs?” he asks.
The guy stares at Huw’s forehead for an uncomfortable moment, then gestures at something foggy that’s stacked behind the pot. “Over there,” he says.
“Uh, right.” The mugs turn out to be glassy aerogel cups with walls a centimeter thick, light as frozen cigar smoke and utterly untouched by human artistry and sweat. There’s no sign of the two earthenware mugs he made Sandra for her birthday: bloody typical. He takes the jug and pours, hand shaking. He’s got the sweats: What the hell did I drink? he wonders as he takes a sip.
He glances at his companion, who is evidently another survivor of the party: a medium-height joe, metabolism pegged somewhere in his mid-thirties, bald, with the unnaturally stringy build that comes from overusing a calorie-restriction implant. No piercings, no scars, tattoos, or neomorphisms—apart from his figure—which might be natural. That plus his black leather bodysuit means he could be a fellow naturalist. But this is Sandra’s house, and she has distressingly techie tastes.
“Is that today’s?” he asks, glancing at the paper, which is lovingly printed on wood pulp using hot lead type by the historic reenactors down the other end of the valley.
“It could be.” The fellow puts it down and grins oddly. “Had a good lie-in?”
“I woke up in the bathroom,” Huw says. “Where’s the milk—?”
“Have some freshly squeezed cow juice.” He shoves something that resembles a bowl of blue ice cubes at Huw. Huw pokes at one dubiously, then dunks it in his mug.
“This stuff is organic, isn’t it?”
“Only the best polymer-stabilized emulsions for Sandra,” the joe says sardonically. “Of course it’s organic—nothing but carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, and a bit of phosphorous and sulfur.” Huw can tell when he’s being wound up: he takes a sip, despite the provocation. “Of course, you could say the same about your kilt,” adds the stranger.
“Ah.” Huw puts the mug down, unsure where the conversation’s leading. There’s something disturbing about the joe: A sense of déjà vu nagging at the edges of his mind, as if—
“You don’t remember me, do you?”
“Alcohol has this effect on me at times,” Huw says in a grateful rush. “I’ve got an awful memory—”
“The name’s Bonnie,” says the man. “You spent most of the early hours trying to cop a feel by convincing me that Nietzsche was responsible for global cooling.” Huw stares at him and feels something in his head do an uneasy flip-flop: Yes, the resemblance is clear, this is the woman he was talking to last night.
“’S amazing what a good bathroom can do by way of gender reassignment surgery these days, you know?” the bald guy—Bonnie?—continues. Then he winks at Huw with what Huw realizes, to his horror, is either lascivious intent or broad and filthy-minded humor. “How’s your hangover? Are you up to picking things up where we left off?”
“Aaaugh,” says Huw as the full force of the post-party cultural hangover hits him between the eyes, right beneath the biohazard trefoil, and the coffee hits his stomach. “Need fresh air now…”
* * *
Huw makes sure to wake up in his own bed the next morning. It’s ancient and creaky, the springs bowed to conform to his anatomy, and he wove the blankets himself on the treadle-powered loom in the back parlor that Mum and Dad left him when they ascended, several decades before. (Huw is older than he looks, thanks to an unasked-for inheritance of chromosomal hackery, and has for the most part become set in his ways: incurious and curmudgeonly. He has his reasons.) His alarm clock is a sundial sketched on the whitewashed wall opposite in bold lines of charcoal, slightly smudged; his lifestyle a work of wabi in motion.
He yawns and sits up, pauses for a moment to get his bearings, then ventures down the comfortably unchanging stairs to retrieve his post. There is no email. He doesn’t even have electricity in the house—not since he ripped the wiring out and plastered over the wounds in the walls. The dusty tiles in his vintage late-nineteenth-century terraced home are cold beneath his bare feet. A draft leaks around the ill-fitting outer door, raising gooseflesh on his bare legs as he picks up the dumb paper.
Two-thirds of the mail is spam, which goes straight onto the compost-before-reading pile, but there’s also a genuine letter, complete with a hand-drawn bar code—what they used to call a stamp—on the envelope. Someone took the trouble to communicate with him personally, putting dumb matter in motion to make a point. How quaint, how formal! Huw approves.
He rips the envelope open with a cracked fingernail. He reads: Your application for international triage jury service has been provisionally accepted. To activate your application, present this card in person to …
He carries the notice through into the kitchen, puts it on the table so he can keep an eye on it as he eats. He barely notices the morning chill as he fiddles with the ancient Raeburn, loading kindling and peat and striking a fire to heat the Turkish coffeepot and warm his frying pan. Today is Huw’s big day. He’s been looking forward to this day for months.
Soon, he’ll get to say what he thinks about some item of new technology—and they’ll have to listen to him.
* * *
Welcome to the fractured future, the first century following the singularity.
Earth has a population of roughly a billion hominids. For the most part, they are happy with their lot, living in a preserve at the bottom of a gravity well. Those who are unhappy have emigrated, joining one or another of the swarming densethinker clades that fog the inner solar system with a dust of molecular machinery so thick that it obscures the sun. Except for the solitary lighthouse beam that perpetually tracks the Earth in its orbit, the system from outside resembles a spherical fogbank radiating in the infrared spectrum; a matryoshka brain, nested Dyson spheres built from the dismantled bones of moons and planets.
The splintery metaconsciousness of the solar system has largely sworn off its pre-posthuman cousins dirtside, but its minds sometimes wander nostalgiawise. When that happens, it casually spams Earth’s RF spectrum with plans for cataclysmically disruptive technologies that emulsify whole industries, cultures, and spiritual systems.
A sane species would ignore these get-evolved-quick schemes, but there’s always someone who’ll take a bite from the forbidden fruit. There’s always someone who unaccountably carries the let’s-lick-the-frozen-fence-post gene. There’s always a fucking geek who’ll do it because it’s a historical goddamned technical fucking imperative.
Whether the enlightened, occulting smartcloud sends out its missives as pranks, poison, or care packages is up for debate. Asking it to explain its motives is about as productive as negotiating with an ant colony to get it to abandon your kitchen. Whatever the motive, humanity would be much better off if the cloud would evolve into something uninterested in communicating with meatpeople—or at least smart enough to let well alone.
But until that happy day, there’s the tech jury service: defending the Earth from the scum of the post-singularity patent office.
* * *
After breakfast, Huw dresses and locks the front door carefully behind himself and tells his bicycle—his one truly indispensable piece of advanced technology—to unbolt itself from the rusting red drainpipe that stains the brick side of his house with green moss. He pedals uncertainly to the end of the road, then eases out into traffic, sneering as the omnipresent web of surveillance routes the peoplemovers around him.
Safe cycling is one of the modern conveniences that irritate him most. Also: polite youngsters with plastic smiles; overemotional machines; and geeks who think they understand technology. Geeks, the old aristocracy. He’ll show them, one of these days. Huw wobbles along the side of the main road and pulls in beside the door of the Second Revolutionary Libyan consulate.
“Sayyid Jones? I am pleased to meet you.” The young man behind the desk has a plastic smile and is far too polite for Huw’s taste: Huw grunts assent and sits down in the indicated seat. “Your application has been forwarded to us and, ah? If you would be pleased to travel to our beautiful country, I can assure you of just one week’s jury service.”
Huw nods again.
The polite man fidgets with the air of someone trying to come up with an inoffensive way of saying something potentially rather rude. “I’m pleased to inform you that our ancient land is quite tolerant of other cultures’ customs. I can assure you that whatever ISO-standard containment suit you choose to bring with you will be respected by our people.”
Huw boggles. “What huh?”
“Your, that is, your—” The smiler leans across his desk and points at Huw’s trefoil-marked forehead. The finger he points with meets resistance. A plastic sheet has hermetically sealed Huw’s side of the room off from the rest of the consulate. It is so fantastically transparent that Huw doesn’t even notice it until the smiler’s finger puckers a singularity in its vertical run, causing it to scatter light at funny angles and warp the solid and sensible wood-paneled walls behind the desk into Escheroid impossibilities.
“Ah,” Huw says. “Ah. No, you see, it’s a joke of some sort. Not an official warning.”
“I’m very glad to hear it, Sayyid Jones! You will, of course, have documents attesting to that before you clear our immigration?”
“Right,” Huw says. “Of course.” Fucking Sandra. Whether or not she is directly responsible for the tat is beside the point: It happened on her premises. Damn it, he has errands to run before he catches the flight! Tracking her down and getting her to remove the thing will take too long.
“Then we will see you soon.” The smiler reaches into a desk drawer and pulls out a small tarnished metal teapot, which he shoves gradually through the barrier. The membrane puckers around it and suddenly the teapot is sitting on Huw’s side of the desk, wearing an iridescent soap bubble of pinched-off nanohazard containment. “Peace be with you.”
“And you,” says Huw, rising. The interview is obviously at an end. He picks up the teapot and follows the blinkenlights to the exit from the consulate, studiously avoiding the blurred patches of air where other visitors are screened from one another by the utility fog. “What now?” he asks the teapot.
“Blrrrt. Greetings, Tech Juror Jones. I am a guidance iffrit from the Magical Libyan Jamahiriya Renaissance. Show me to representatives of the Permanent Revolutionary Command Councils and I will be honored to intercede for you. Polish me and I will install translation leeches in your Broca’s area, then assist you in memorizing the Koran and hadith. Release me and I will grant your deepest wish!”
“Um, I don’t think so.” Huw scratches his head. Fucking Sandra, he thinks darkly; then he packs the artifact into his pannier and pedals heavily away toward the pottery. It’s going to be a long working day—almost five hours—before he can sort this mess out, but at least the wet squishy sensation of clay under his fingernails will help calm the roiling indignation he feels at his violation by a random GM party prankster.
* * *
Two days later, Huw’s waiting with his bicycle and a large backpack on a soccer field in a valley outside Monmouth. It has rained overnight, and the field is muddy. A couple of large crows sit on the rusting goalpost, watching him with sidelong curiosity. There are one or two other people slouching around the departure area dispiritedly. Airports just haven’t been the same since the end of the Jet Age.
Huw tries to scratch the side of his nose, irritably. Fucking Sandra, he thinks yet again as he pokes at the opaque spidergoat silk of his biohazard burka. After work yesterday he went round to remonstrate with her, but her house has turned into a size 2,000 Timberland hiking boot, and the doorknob in the heel said Sandra is wintering in Fukushima this year. He can tell a brush-off when he hears one. A net search would probably turn her up, but he isn’t prepared to expose himself to any more viruses this week. One is more than enough—especially in light of the fact that the matching trefoil brand on his shoulder glows in the dark.
A low rumble rattles the goalpost and disturbs the crows as a cloud shadow slides across the pitch. Huw looks up, and up, and up—his eyes can’t quite take in what he’s seeing. That’s got to be more than a kilometer long! he realizes. The engine note rises as the huge catamaran airship jinks and wobbles sideways toward the far end of the pitch and engages its station-keeping motors, then begins to unreel an elevator car the size of a shipping container.
“Attention, passengers now waiting for flight FL-052 to North Africa and stations in the Levant, please prepare for boarding. This means you.”
Huw nearly jumps out of his skin as one of the customs crows lands heavily on his shoulder: “You listening, mate?”
“Yes, yes, I’m listening.” Huw shrugs and tries to keep one eye on the big bird. “Over there, huh?”
“Boarding will commence through lift BZZT GURGLE four in five minutes. Even-numbered passengers first.” The crow flaps heavily toward the huge, rusting shipping container as it lands in the muddy field with a clang. “All aboard!” it caws raucously.
Huw wheels his bike toward the steel box then pauses as a door opens and a couple of confused-looking Australian backpackers stumble out, leading their telltale kangaroo-familiars. “Boarding now!” adds the crow.
He waits while the other three passengers step aboard, then gingerly rolls his bike inside and leans against the guardrail spot-glued to the wall. “Haul away lively, there!” someone yells above, and there’s a creak of ropes as the cargo container lurches into the air. Even before it’s clear of the goalposts, the huge airship has cut the station-keepers and is spooling up to its impressive fifty-knot cruising speed. Huw looks down at the town and the medieval castle unrolling beneath him and takes a deep breath. He can tell this is going to be a long trip.
His nose is itching again.
* * *
Air travel is so slow, you’d almost always be faster going by train. But the Gibraltar bridge is shut for repair this week, and the Orient Express lacks appeal: last time Huw caught a TGV through the Carpathians, he was propositioned incessantly by a feral privatized blood bank that seemed to have a thing for Welsh T helper lymphocytes. At least this tramp floater with its cargo of Christmas trees and chameleon paint is going to give Huw and his fellow passengers a shortcut around the Mediterranean, even if the common room smells of stale marijuana smoke and the other passengers are all dubious cheapskate hitchers and netburn cases who want to ship their meatbodies around instead of doing the decent (and sanitary) thing and using telepresence instead.
Huw isn’t dubious; he’s just on jury service, which requires your physical in-the-flesh presence to prevent identity spoofing by imported weakly godlike AIs and suchlike. But judging from the way the other passengers are avoiding him, he looks dubious: it’s probably the biohazard burka and the many layers of anti-nanophage underwear he’s trussed up in inside it. There has got to be a better way of fighting runaway technology, he tells himself on the second morning as he prepares to go get some breakfast.
Breakfast requires numerous compromises. And it’s not just a matter of accepting that, when he’s traveling, natural organic wholefoods are rare enough that he’ll have to subsist on synthetic slop. Most of the airship’s crew are uplifted gibbons, and during their years of plying the skyways over North Africa and parts east, they’ve picked up enough Islam that it’s murder getting the mess deck food processors to barf up a realistic bacon sandwich. Huw has his mouth-lock extended and is picking morosely at a scrambled egg and something that claims to be tempeh with his fork when someone bounces into the seat beside him, reaches into the folds of his burka, and tears off a bite of the sandwich.
The stranger is a disreputable backpacker in wash-n-wear tropical-weight everything, the smart-wicking, dirt-shedding, rip-stopping leisure suit uniform of the globe-slogging hostel-denizens who write long, rambling HOWTOs online describing their adventures living in Mumbai or Manhattan or some other blasted corner of the world for six months on just five dollars. This one clearly thinks himself quite the merry traveler, eyes a-twinkle, crow’s-feet etched by a thousand foreign sunsets, dimples you could lose a fifty-dollar coin in.
“’Ello!” he says around a mouthful of Huw’s sandwich. “You look interesting. Let’s have a conversation!”
“You don’t look interesting to me,” Huw says, plunking the rest of his food in the backpacker’s lap. “Let’s not.”
“Oh, come on,” the backpacker says. “My name’s Adrian, and I’ve loads of interesting anecdotes about my adventures abroad, including some rather racy ones involving lovely foreign ladies. I’m very entertaining, honest! Give me a try, why don’t you?”
“I really don’t think so,” Huw says. “You’d best get back into your seat—the monkeys don’t like a disorderly cabin. Besides, I’m infectious.”
“Monkeys! You think I’m worried about monkeys? Brother, I once spent a month in a Tasmanian work camp for public drunkenness—imagine, an Australian judge locking an Englishman up for drunkenness! There were some hard men in that camp, let me tell you. The indigenes had the black market liquor racket all sewn up, but the Maori prisoners were starting up their own thing, and here’s me, a poor, gormless backpacker in the middle of it all, dodging homemade shivs and poison arrows. Went a week without eating after it got out that the Maoris were smearing shit in the cook pots to poison the indigenes. Biowar, that’s what it was! By the end of that week, I was hallucinating angels and chewing scrub grass I found on work details, while the prisoners I was chained to shat themselves bloody and collapsed. I caught a ballistic out of there an hour after I’d served my sentence, got shot right to East Timor, where I gorged myself on gado-gado and rijsttafel and got food poisoning anyway and spent the night in the crapper, throwing up chunks of me lungs. So don’t you go telling me about monkeys!” Adrian breaks off his quasi-racist monologue and chows down on the rest of Huw’s lunch.
Fuck you too, Huw manages to restrain himself from saying. Instead: “Yes, that’s all very disgusting. I’m going to have a bit of a nap now, all right? Don’t wait up.”
“Oh, don’t be a weak sister!” says Adrian. “You won’t last five minutes in Libya with an attitude like that. Never been to Libya, have you?”
“No,” Huw says, pointedly bunching up a fold of burka into a pillow and turning his head away.
“You’ll love it. Nothing like a taste of real, down-home socialism after dirty old London. People’s this and Popular that and Magical Democratic the other, everyone off on the latest plebiscite, holding caucuses in the cafés. It’s fantastic! The girls too—fantastic, fantastic. Just talk a little politics with them and they’ll bend your ear until you think you’re going to fall asleep, and then they’ll try to bang the bourgeois out of you. In twos and threes, if you’re recalcitrant enough. I’ve had some fantastic nights in Libya. I can barely wait to touch down.”
“Adrian, can I tell you something, in all honesty?”
“Sure, mate, sure!”
“You’re a jackass. And if you don’t get the fuck back to your own seat, I’m going to tell the monkeys you’re threatening to blow up the airship and they’ll strap you into a restraint chute and push you overboard.”
Adrian rears up, an expression of offended hauteur plastered all over his wrinkled mug. “You’re a bloody card, you are!”
Huw gathers up his burka, stands, climbs over Adrian, and moves to the back of the cabin. He selects an empty row, slides in, and stretches out. A moment later, Adrian comes up and grabs his toe, then wiggles it.
“All right, then, we’ll talk later. Have a nice nap. Thanks for the sarnie!”
* * *
It takes three days for the tramp freighter to bumble its way to Tripoli. It gingerly climbs to its maximum pressure height to skirt the wild and beautiful (but radioactive and deadly) Normandy coastline, then heads southeast, to drop a cargo of incognito Glaswegian gangsters on the outskirts of Marseilles. Then it crosses the Mediterranean coast, and spends a whole twenty-two hours doodling in broad circles around Corsica. Huw tries to amuse himself during this latter interlude by keeping an eye open for smugglers with micro-UAVs, but even this pathetic attempt at distraction falls flat when, after eight hours, a rigging monkey scampers into the forward passenger lounge and delivers a fifty-minute harangue about workers’ solidarity and the black gang’s right to strike in flight, justifying it in language eerily familiar to anyone who—like Huw—has spent days heroically probing the boundaries of suicidal boredom by studying the proceedings of the Third Communist International.
Having exhausted his entire stash of antique dead-tree books two days into a projected two-week expedition, and having found his fellow passengers to consist of lunatics and jackasses, Huw succumbs to the inevitable. He glues his burka to a support truss in the cargo fold, dials the eye slit to opaque, swallows a mug of valerian-laced decaf espresso, and estivates like a lungfish in the dry season.
His first warning that the airship has arrived comes when he awakens in a sticky sweat. Is the house on fire? he wonders muzzily. It feels like someone has opened an oven door and stuck his feet in it, and the sensation is climbing his chest. There’s an anxious moment; then he gets his eye slit working again, and is promptly inundated with visual spam, most of it offensively and noxiously playing to the assumed orientalist stereotypes of visiting Westerners.
Hello! Welcome, effendi! The Thousand Nights and One Night Hotel welcomes careful Westerners! We take euros, dollars, yen, and hash (subject to assay)! For a good night out, visit Ali’s American Diner! Hamburgers 100 percent halal goat here! Need travel insurance and ignorant of sharia banking regulations? Let the al-Jammu Traveler’s Assistance put your mind to rest with our—
Old habits learned before his rejectionist lifestyle became a habit spring fitfully back to life. Huw hesitantly posts a bid for adbuster proxy services, picks the cheapest on offer, then waits for his visual field to clear. After a minute or two he can see again, except for a persistent and annoying green star in the corner of his left eye. Finally, he struggles to unglue himself and looks about.
The passenger lounge is almost empty, a door gaping open in one side. Huw wheels his bicycle over and hops down onto the dusty concrete apron of the former airport. It’s already over forty degrees in the shade, but once he gets out of the shadow of the blimp, his burka’s solar-powered air-conditioning should sort that out. The question is, where to go next? He rummages crossly in the pannier until he finds the battered teapot. “Hey, you. Iffrit! Whatever you call yourself. Which way to the courtroom?”
A cartoon djinni pops into transparent life above the pot’s nozzle and winks at him. “Peace be unto you, O Esteemed Madam Tech Juror Jones Huw! If you will but bear with me for a moment—” The Iffrit fizzles as it hunts for a parasitic network to colonize. “—I believe you will first wish to enter the terminal buildings and present yourself to the People’s Revolutionary Airport Command and Cleaning Council, to process your entry visa. Then they will direct you to a hotel where you will be accommodated in boundless paradisaical luxury at the expense of the grateful Magical Libyan Jamahiriya Renaissance! (Or at least in a good VR facsimile of paradise.)”
“Uh-huh.” Huw looks about. The airport is a deserted dump—literally deserted, for the anti-desertification defenses of the twentieth century, and the genetically engineered succulents frantically planted during the first decades of the twenty-first, have faded. The Libyan national obsession with virtual landscaping (not to mention emigration to Italy) has led to the return of the sand dunes, and the death of the gas-guzzling airline industry has left the airport with the maintenance budget of a rural cross-country bus stop. Broken windows gape emptily from rusting tin huts; a once-outstanding airport terminal building basks in the heat like a torpid lizard, doors open to the breeze. Even the snack vendors seem to have closed up shop.
It takes Huw half an hour to find the People’s Neo-Revolutionary Airport Command and Cleaning Council, an old woman who has her booted feet propped up on a battered wooden desk in the lobby beneath the International Youth Hostelling sign, snoring softly through her open mouth.
“Excuse me, but are you the government?” Huw asks, talking through his teapot translator. “I have come from Wales to serve on a technology jury. Can you direct me to the public transport terminus?”
“I wouldn’t bother if I were you,” someone says from behind him, making Huw jump so high, he almost punches a hole in the yellowing ceiling tiles. “She’s moonlighting, driving a PacRim investment bank’s security bots on the night shift. See all the bandwidth she’s hogging?”
“Um, no, as a matter of fact, I don’t,” Huw says. “I stick to the visible spectrum.”
The interloper is probably female and from somewhere in Northern Europe, judging by the way she’s smeared zinc ointment across her entire observable epidermis. Chilly fog spills from her cuffs at wrist and ankle and there’s the whine of a Peltier cooler pushed to the limit coming from her bum-bag. About all Huw can see of her is her eyes and an electric blue ponytail erupting from the back of her anti-melanoma hood.
“Isn’t it a bit rude to snoop on someone else’s dreams?” he adds.
“Yes.” The interloper shrugs, then grins alarmingly at him. “It’s what I do for a living.” She offers him a hand, and before he can stop himself he’s shaking it politely. “I’m Dagbjört. Dr. Dagbjört.”
“I specialize in musical dream therapy. And I’m here on a tech jury gig too. Perhaps we’ll get a chance to work on the same case?”
At that moment the People’s Second Revolutionary Airport Command and Cleaning Council coughs, spasms painfully, sits up, and looks around querulously. I’m not working! Honest! She exclaims through the medium of Huw’s teapot translator. Then, getting a grip: “Oh, you’re tourists. Can I help you?”
Her manner is so abrupt and rude that Huw feels right at home. “Yes, yes,” he says. “We’re jurors and we need to get to a hotel. Where’s the light rail terminal or bus stand?”
“Are no buses. Today is Friday, can’t you read?”
“Yes, but how are we to our hotel to ride?” asks Dr. Dagbjört, sounding puzzled.
“Why don’t you walk?” The Council asks with gloomy satisfaction, “Haven’t you got legs? Didn’t Allah, the merciful, bless you with a full complement of limbs?”
“But it’s—” Huw consults his wrist-map and again does a double take. “—twelve kilometers! And it’s forty-three degrees in the shade!”
“It’s Friday,” the old woman repeats placidly. “Nothing works on Fridays. It’s in the Koran. Also, union regs.”
“So why are you working for a Burmese banking cartel as a security bot supervisor?” Dagbjört asks.
“That’s—!” The Council glares at her. “That’s none of your business!”
“Burma isn’t an Islamic country,” Huw says, seeing which direction Dagbjört is heading in. Maybe Dagbjört’s not a fucknozzle after all, although he has his doubts about anyone who has anything to do with dream therapy, much less musical dream therapy—unless she’s in it only for purely pragmatic reasons, such as the money. “Do you suppose they might be dealing with their demographic deficit by importing out-of-time-zone Gastarbeiters from Islamic countries who want to work on the day of rest?”
“What an astonishing thought!” snarks Dagbjört. “That must be illegal, mustn’t it?”
Huw decides to play good cop/bad cop with her: “And I’m sure the union will have something to say about moonlighting—”
“Stop! Stop!” The People’s Second Revolutionary Airport Command and Cleaning Council puts her hands up in the air. “I have a nephew, he has a car! Perhaps he can give you a ride on his way to mosque? I’m sure he must be going there in only half an hour, and I’m sure your hotel will turn out to be on his way.”
The car, when it arrives, is a gigantic early-twenty-first-century Mercedes hybrid with tinted windows and air-conditioning and plastic seats that have cracked and split in the dry desert heat. A brilliantly detailed green and silver miniature temple conceals a packet of tissues on the rear parcel shelf and the dash is plastered with green and gold stickers bearing edifying quotations from the hadith. The Council’s nephew looks too young to bear the weight of his huge black mustache, let alone to be directing this Teutonic behemoth’s autopilot, but at least he’s awake and moving in the noonday furnace heat.
“Hotel Marriott,” Dagbjört says. “Vite-schnell-pronto! Jale, jale!”
The Mercedes crawls along the highway like a dung beetle on the lowest step of a pyramid. As they head toward the outskirts of the mostly closed city of Tripoli, Huw feels the gigantic and oppressive weight of advertising bearing down on his proxy filters. When New Libya got serious about consumerism they went overboard on superficial glitz and cheesy sloganizing. The deluge of CoolTown webffiti they’re driving through is full of the usual SinoIndian global mass-produced crap, seasoned with insanely dense technobabble and a bizarrely Arabized version of discreet Victorian traders’ notices. Once they drive under the threshold of the gigantic tinted geodesic dome that hovers above the city, lifted on its own column of hot air, Huw finally gets it: He’s not in Wales anymore.
The Council’s nephew narrates a shouted, heavily accented travelogue as they lurch through the traffic, but most of it is lost in the roar of the air conditioner and the whine of the motors. What little Huw can make out seems to be pitches for local businesses—cafés, hash bars, amusement parlors. Dr. Dagbjört and Huw sit awkwardly at opposite sides of the Merc’s rear bench, conversation an impossibility at the current decibel level.
Dr. Dagbjört fishes in her old-fashioned bum-bag and produces a stylus and a scrap of scribable material, scribbles a moment, and passes it over: DINNER PLANS?
Huw shakes his head. Dinner—ugh. He’s gamy and crusty with dried sweat under his burka and can’t imagine eating, but he supposes he’d better put some fuel in the boiler before he sleeps.
Dagbjört scrolls her message off the material, then scribbles again: I KNOW A PLACE. LOBBY@18H?
Huw nods, suppressing a wince. Dagbjört smiles at him, looking impossibly healthy and scrubbed underneath her zinc armor.
* * *
The Marriott is not a Marriott; it’s a Second Revolutionary Progress Hostel. (There are real hotels elsewhere in Tripoli, but they all charge real hotel bills, and what’s left of the government is trying to run the tech jury service on the cheap.) Huw’s djinni delivers a little canned rantlet about Western imperialist monopolization of trademarks, and explains that this is the People’s Marriott, where the depredations of servile labor have been eliminated in favor of automated conveniences, the maintenance and disposition of which are managed by a Residents’ Committee, and primly admonishes him for being twenty minutes late to his first Committee meeting, which is to run for another two hours and forty minutes. It is, in short, a youth hostel by any other name.
“Can’t I just go to my room and have a wash?” Huw asks. “I’m filthy.”
“Ah! One thousand pardons, madam! Would that our world was a perfect one and the needs of the flesh could come before the commonweal! It is, however, a requirement of residence at the People’s Marriott. You need to attend and be assigned a maintenance detail, and be trained in the chores you are to perform. The common room is wonderfully comfortable, though, and your fellow committee members will be delighted to make you most very welcome indeed!”
“Crap,” Huw says.
“Yes,” the djinni says, “of course. You’ll find a WC to your left after you pass through the main doors.”
Huw stalks through both sets of automatic doors, which judder and groan. The lobby is a grandiose atrium with grimy spun diamond panes fifteen meters above his head through which streams gray light that feeds a riotous garden of root vegetables and tired-looking soy. His vision clouds over; then a double row of shaky blinkenlights appears before him, strobing the way to the common room. He heaves a put-upon sigh and shambles along their path.
The common room is hostel-chic, filled with sagging sofas, a sad and splintery gamesurface, and a collection of random down-at-heel international travelers clutching teapots and scrawling desultorily on a virtual whiteboard. The collaborative space is cluttered with torn-off sheets of whiteboard covering every surface like textual dandruff. Doc Dagbjört has beaten him here, and she is already in the center of the group, animatedly negotiating for the lightest detail possible.
“Huw!” she calls as he plants himself in the most remote sofa, which coughs up a cloud of dust and stale farts smelling of the world’s variegated cuisines.
He lifts one hand weakly and waves. The other committee members are sizing him up without even the barest pretense at fellowship. Huw recognizes the feral calculation in their eyes: he has a feeling he’s about to get the shittiest job in the place. Mitigate the risk, he thinks.
“Hi, there, I’m Huw. I’m here on jury duty, so I’m not going to be available during the days. I’m also a little, uh, toxic at the moment, so I’ll need to stay away from anything health-related. Something in the early evening, not involving food or waste systems would be ideal, really. What fits the bill?” He waits a moment while the teapots chatter translations from all over the room. Huw hears Arabic, Farsi, Hindi, Spanish, French, English, and American.
Various whiteboards are reshuffled from around the room, and finally a heroically ugly ancient Frenchman who looks like an albino chimp squeaks some dependencies across the various boards with a stylus. He coughs out a rapid and hostile stream of French, which the teapot presently translates. “You’ll be on comms patrol. There’s a transceiver every three meters. You take spare parts around to each of them, reboot them, watch the Power-On Self-Test, and swap out any dead parts. Even numbered floors tonight, odd floors tomorrow, guest rooms the day after.” He tosses a whiteboard at Huw, and it snaps to centimeters from his nose, acrawl with floorplans and schematics for broadband relay transceivers.
“Well, that’s done,” Huw says. “Thanks.”
Dagbjört laughs. “You’re not even close to done. That’s your tentative assignment—you need to get checked out on every job, in case you’re reassigned due to illness or misadventure, or the total quality management monitor thinks you’re not pulling your weight.”
“You’re kidding,” he says, rolling his eyes.
“I am not. My assignment is training new committee members. Now, come and sit next to me—the Second Revolutionary Training and Skills-Assessment subcommittee is convening next, and they want to interview all the new arrivals.”
* * *
Huw zones out during the endless subcommittee meetings that last into early evening, then suffers himself to be dragged to the hotel refectory by Doc Dagbjört and a dusky Romanian Lothario from the Cordon Bleu Catering Committee who casts pointed and ugly looks at him until he slouches away from his baklava and dispiritedly climbs the unfinished concrete utility stairway to sublevel 1, where his toil is to begin. He spends the next four hours trudging around the endless sublevels of the hotel—bare concrete corridors optimized for robotic, not human, access—hunting buggy transceivers. By the time he gets to his room, he’s exhausted, footsore, and sticky.
Huw’s room is surprisingly posh for what is basically an overfurnished concrete shoe box, but he’s too tired to appreciate the facilities. He looks at the oversized sleepsurface and sees the maintenance regimen for its control and feedback mechanism. He spins around slowly in the spa-sized loo and all he can think about is the poxy little bots that patrol the plumbing and polish the tile. The media center is a dismal reminder of his responsibility to patrol the endless miles of empty corridor, rebooting little silver mushrooms and watching their blinkenlights for telltale reds. Back when it was a real hotel, the Marriott employed one member of staff per two guest rooms: these days, just staying here is a full-time job.
He fills the pool-sized tub with steaming lavender- and eucalyptus-scented water, then climbs in, burka and all. The djinni’s lamp perches on the tub’s edge, periodically getting soaked in the oversloshes as he shifts his weight, watching the folds of cloth bulge and flutter as its osmotic layers convect gentle streams of water over his many nooks and crannies.
“Esteemed sir,” the djinni says, its voice echoing off the painted tile.
“Figured that one out, huh?” Hew says. “No more madam?”
“My infinite pardons,” it says. “I have received your jury assignment. You are to report to Fifth People’s Technology Court at 800h tomorrow. You will be supplied with a delicious breakfast of fruits and semolina, and a cold lunch of local delicacies. You should be well rested and prepared for a deliberation of at least four days.”
“Sure thing,” Huw says, dunking his head and letting the water rush into his ears. Normally the news of his assignment would fill him with joy—it’s what he’s come all this way for—but right now he just feels trapped, his will to live fading. He resurfaces and shakes his head, unintentionally spattering the walls with water that’s slightly gray. Dismal realization dawns: That’s another half hour’s cleaning. “How far is it to the courthouse?”
“A mere two kilometers. The walk through the colorful and ancient Tripoli shopping mall and souk is both bracing and elevating. You will arrive in a most pleasant and serene state of mind.”
Huw kicks at the drain control, and the tub gurgles itself empty, reminding him of the great water-reclamation facilities in the subbasement. He stands and the burka steams for a moment as every drop of moisture is instantly expelled by its self-wringing nanoweave. “Pleasant and serene. Yeah, right.” He climbs tiredly out of the tub and slouches toward the bedroom. “What time is it?”
“It is two fifteen, esteemed sir,” says the djinni. “Would sir care for a sleeping draft?”
“Sir would care for a real hotel,” Huw grunts, momentarily flashing back to the hotels of his childhood, during his parents’ peripatetic wandering from conference to symposium. He lies down on the wide white rectangle that occupies the center of the bedroom. He doesn’t hear the djinni’s reply: he’s asleep as soon as his head touches the pillow.
* * *
A noise like cats fucking in a trash can drags Huw awake most promptly at zero-dark o’clock. “What’s that?” he yells.
The djinni doesn’t answer: it’s prostrate on the bedside table as if hiding from an invisible overhead ax blade. The noise gets louder, if anything, then modulates into chickens drowning in their own blood, with a side order of Van Halen guitar riffs. “Make it stop!” shouts Huw, stuffing his fingers in his ears.
The noise dies to a distant wail. A minute later it stops and the djinni flickers upright. “My apologies, esteemed sir,” it says dejectedly. “I did not with the room sound system mixer volume control interface correctly. That was the most blessed Imam Anwar Mohammed calling the faithful to prayer, or it would have been if not for the feedback. The blessed Imam is a devotee of the antique Deutsche industrial school of backing tracks and—”
Huw rolls over and grabs the teapot. “Djinni.”
“Yes, O Esteemed Sirrah?”
Huw pauses. “You keep calling me that,” he says slowly. “Do you realize just how rude that is?”
“Eep! Rude? You appear to be squeezing—”
“Listen.” Huw is breathing heavily. He sits up and looks out the window at the sleeping city. Somewhere, 150 gigameters beyond the horizon, the sun might be thinking about the faint possibility of rising. “I am a patient man. But. If you keep provoking me like this—”
“This hostel. The fucking alarm clock. Talking down to me. Repeatedly insulting my intelligence—”
“—I’m not insulting!—”
“Shut up.” Huw blows out a deep breath. “Unless you want me to give you a guided tour of the hotel waste compactor and heavy metal reclamation subsystem. From the inside.”
“Ulp.” The djinni shuts up.
“That’s better. Now. Breakfast. I have a heavy day ahead and I’m half starved from the sandwiches on that fucking airship. I want, let’s see … fried eggs. Bacon rashers. Pork sausages. Toast with butter on it, piles of butter. Don’t argue, I’ve had a gray market LDL anti-cholesterol hack. Oh yeah. Black pudding, hash browns, baked beans, and deep-fried bread. Tell your little friends in the canteen to have it waiting for me. There is no ‘or else’ for you to grasp at, you horrible little robot. You’re going to do this my way or you’re not going to do very much at all, ever again.”
Huw stands up and stretches. His bicycle notices: it unlocks and stretches too, folding itself into shopping mall mode. Memory metal frames and pedal-powered microgenerators are some of the few benefits of high technology, in Huw’s opinion—along with the ability to eat seven different flavors of grease for breakfast and not die of a heart attack before lunchtime.
“I told them, but they say these Turkish food processors, they don’t like working with non-halal—”
The djinni shuts up at Huw’s snarl. Huw picks up the teapot, hangs it from his bike’s handlebars, and pedals off down the hotel corridor with blood in his eye.
I wonder what my chances are of getting a hanging judge?
* * *
After breakfast, Huw rides to the end of the hotel’s drive and hangs a left, following the djinni’s directions, pedals two more blocks, turns right, and runs straight into a wall of humanity.
It’s a good, old-fashioned throng. From his vantage point atop the saddle, it seems to writhe like an explosion in a wardrobe department: a mass of variegated robes, business attire, and exotic imported street fashions from all over, individuals lost in the teem. He studies it for a moment longer, and sees that for all its density it’s moving rather quickly, though with little regard for personal space. He dismounts the bike and it extrudes its kickstand. Planting his hands on his hips, he belches up a haram gust of bacon grease and ponders. He can always lock up the bike and proceed afoot, but nothing handy presents itself for locking. The djinni is manifesting a glowing countdown timer, ticking away the seconds before he will be late at court.
Just then, the crowd shits out a person, who makes a beeline for him.
“Hello, Adrian,” Huw says once the backpacker is within shouting distance—about sixty centimeters, given the din of footfalls and conversations. Huw is somehow unsurprised to see the backpacker again, clad in his travelwear and a rakish stubble, eyes red as a baboon’s ass from a night’s hashtaking.
“Well, fancy meeting you here!” says Adrian. “Out for a bit of a ride?”
“No, actually,” replies Huw. “On my way somewhere, and running late. Are there any bike lanes here? I need to get past this mob.…”
The backpacker snorts. “Sure, if you ride to Tunisia. Yer bike’s not going to do you much good here. And don’t think about locking it up, mate, or it’ll be nationalized by the Popular Low-Impact Transit Committee before you’ve gone three steps.”
“Shit,” grunts Huw. He gestures at the bike and it deflates and compacts itself into a carry-case. He hefts it—the fucking thing weighs a ton.
“Yup,” Adrian agrees. “Nice to have if you want to go on a tour of the ruins or get somewhere at three A.M.—not much good in town, though. Want to sell it to me? I met a pair of sisters last night who’re going to take me off to the countryside for a couple days of indoctrination and heavy petting. I’d love to have some personal transport.”
“Fuck,” says Huw. He’s had the bike for seven years; it’s an old friend, jealously guarded. “How about I rent it to you?”
Adrian grins and produces a smokesaver from one of the many snap-pockets on his chest. A nugget of hash smolders inside the plastic tube, a barely visible coal in the thick smoke. He puts his mouth over the end and slurps down the smoke, holds it for a thoughtful moment, then expels it over Adrian’s head. “Lovely. I’ll return it in two days, three tops. Where’re you staying?”
“The fucking Marriott.”
“Wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. Here, will half a kilo chiseled off the side of this be enough?” He hands Huw a foil-wrapped brick of Assassin-brand hash the size of a paving stone. “The rest’ll be my deposit. The sisters’re into hashishim-revival. Quite versatile minds, they have.”
Huw is already copping a light buzz from the sidestream Adrian’s blowing his way. This much hash would likely put him in a three-day incontinence coma. But someone might want it, he supposes. “I can work with that. Five hundred grams, and you can have the rest back in return for the bike. Four days’ time, at the Marriott, all right?”
Adrian works his head from side to side. “Sure, mate. Works for me.”
“Okay. Just bloody look after it. That bike has sentimental value, we’ve come a long way together.” Huw whispers into the bike’s handlebars and hands it to Adrian. It interfaces with his PAN, accepts him as its new erstwhile owner, and unfolds. Adrian saddles up, waves once, and pedals off for points rural and lecherous.
Huw holds the djinni’s lamp up and hisses at it. “Right,” he says. “Get me to the court on time.”
“With the utmost of pleasures, sirrah,” it begins. Huw gives it a sharp shake. “All right,” it says aggrievedly, “let me teach you to say, ‘Out of my bloody way,’ and we’ll be off.”
* * *
Huw doesn’t know quite what to expect from the Fifth People’s Technology Court. A yurt? Sandstone? A horrible modernist-brutalist white-sheathed space-age pile?
As it turns out, like much of the newer local architecture it’s an inflatable building, an outsized bounce-house made of metallic fabric and aerogel and compressed air. The whole thing could be deflated and carted elsewhere on a flatbed truck in a morning, or simply attached to a dirigible and lifted to a new spot. (A great safety-yellow gasket the size of a manhole cover sprouts from one side, hooked into power, bandwidth, sewage and water.) It’s shaped like a casino owner’s idea of the Parthenon, cartoonish columns and squishy frescoes depicting mankind’s dominance over technology. Huw bounds up the rubbery steps and through the six-meter doors. A fourteen-year-old boy with a glued-on mustache confronts him as he passes into the lobby.
“Pizzpot,” grunts the kid, hefting a curare-blower in Huw’s direction. Huw skids to a stop on the yielding floor.
“Pizzpot,” repeats the boy. He’s wearing some kind of uniform, yellow semi-disposable coveralls tailored like a potato sack and all abristle with insignia. It looks like the kind of thing that Biohazard Containment Cops pass out when they quarantine a borough because it’s dissolving into brightly colored machine parts.
“The People’s Second Revolutionary Technology Court Guardsman wishes to see your passport, sirrah,” his djinni explains. “Court will be in session in fifteen seconds.”
Huw rolls up his sleeve and presses his forearm against the grimy passport reader the guardsman has pulled from his waistband. “Show me the way.” A faint glowing trail appears in front of Huw, snaking down the hall and up to a battered-looking door.
Huw stumbles up to the door and leans on it. It opens easily, sucking him through with a gust of dusty air, and he staggers into a brightly lit green room with a row of benches stretching round three walls. The center of the room is dominated by two boxes; a strangely menacing black cube a meter on a side, and a lectern, behind which hunches a somewhat moth-eaten vulture in a black robe.
Faces and a brace of self-propelled cameras turn to watch Huw as he stumbles to a halt. “You’re late,” squawks the vulture—on second thoughts, Huw realizes she’s not an uplifted avian, but a human being, wizened and twisted by age, her face dominated by a great hatchet of a nose. She’s obviously one of the sadsacks on whom the anti-aging gene hacks worked only halfway: otherwise, she could be one of his contemporaries.
“Terribly sorry,” Huw says. “Won’t happen again.”
“Better not.” The judge harrumphs consumptively. “Dammit, I deserve some respect! Horrible children.”
As the judge rants on about punctuality and the behavior of the dutiful and obedient juror (which, Huw is led to believe, has always been deplorable but has been in terminal decline ever since the abolition of capital punishment for contempt of court back in the eighteenth century), he takes stock of his fellow inmates. For the first time he has reason to be glad of his biohazard burka—and its ability to completely obscure his snarl of anger—because he knows at least half of them. The bastard pseudo-random-number generators at the Magical Libyan Jamahiriya Renaissance’s embassy must be on the blink, because besides Doc Dagbjört—whom he half expected—the jury service has summoned none other than Sandra Lal, and an ominously familiar guy with a blue forelock, and the irritating perpetually drunk centenarian from next door but one. There are a couple of native Libyans, but it looks as if the perennially booming Tripolitanian economy has turned jury service evasion into a national sport. Hence the need to import guest jurors from Wales.
Fuck me, all I need is that turd Adrian to make it a clean sweep, thinks Huw. This must be some kind of setup. An awful thought occurs to him: Or a reality show. Jesus Buddha humping the corpse of Oliver Cromwell, say it’s not so? He collapses on a bench in a rustle of static-charged fabric and with a sense of dread waits for proceedings to begin.
The Vulture stands up and hunches over the lectern. All the cameras abruptly pan to focus on her. “Listen up!” she says, in a forty-a-day voice that sounds like she’s overdue for another pair of lungs, “I am Dr. Rosa Giuliani—that’s doctor of law, not doctor of medicine—and I have volunteered my services for the next two weeks to chair this court, or focus group, or theater or whatever. You are the jury, or potential consumers, or performing animals. Procedurally, the MLJ have given me total autonomy as long as I conduct this hearing in strict accordance within the bounds of international law as laid down by the Hague Tribunal on Transhuman Manifestations and Magic. Some of you may not fully comprehend what this means. What it means is that you are here to decide whether a reasonable person would consider it safe to unleash Exhibit A on the world. If Exhibit A turns out to be a weapon of planetary destruction, you will probably die. If Exhibit A turns out to be a widget that brings everlasting happiness to the whole of humanity, you will probably get to benefit from it. But the price of getting it wrong is very high indeed. So I will enforce extreme measures against any fractional halfwit who tries to smuggle a sample out of this room. I will also nail to the wall the hide of anyone who talks about Exhibit A outside this room, because there are hardware superweapons and there are software superweapons, and we don’t know what Exhibit A is yet. For all we know, it’s a piece of hardware that looks like a portable shower cubicle but turns out to install borgware in the brain of anyone stupid enough to use it. So—”
Giuliani subsides in a fit of racking coughs. She gathers herself.
“We follow a set procedure. A statement is delivered by the damnfool script kiddies who downloaded the memeplex from the metasphere and who are applying for custodial rights to it. This will describe the prior background to their actions. Second, a preliminary activation of the device may be conducted in a closed environment. Thirdly, you rabble get to talk about it. Fourthly, you split into two teams: advocates and prosecution. Your task is to convince the members of the other team to join you. Finally, you deliver your majority verdict to me and I check it for procedural compliance. Then if I’m lucky, I get to hang someone. Are there any questions?”
Doc Dagbjört is already waving a hand in the air, eager to please. The judge turns a black gaze on her that reminds Huw of historical documentaries about the Ayatollah Khomeini. Dagbjört refuses to wilt.
“What,” says Giuliani, “is it?”
“About this Exhibit? Is it the box, in? And if so, how secure the containment is? I would hate for your worries to depart the abstract and concretize themselves, as it were.”
“Huh.” The judge stalks out from behind her lectern and kicks the box, hard. Going by the resulting noise, she’s wearing steel toe-caps. Huw whimpers faintly, envisaging imminent post-singularity gray goop catalyzed nano-annihilation, beyond any hope of resurrection. But the only terrible consequence is that the judge smiles, horribly. “It’s safe,” she says. “This box is a waste containment vessel left over from the second French fast breeder program.”
This announcement brings an appreciative nod from a couple of members of the audience. (The second French fast breeder program was nothing to do with nuclear reactors and everything to do with breeding disaster-mitigation replicators to mop up the eight giga-Curies of plutonium that the first program scattered all over Normandy.) Even Huw is forced to admit that the alien memeplex is probably safe behind the Maginot line of nanotech containment widgets lining a hyperdiamond-reinforced tungsten carbide safe.
“So when do we get to see it?” asks Huw.
Judge Giuliani turns her vicious gaze on him. “Right now!” She snarls and thumps her fist on the lectern. The lights dim, and a multimedia presentation wobbles and firms up on top of her lectern. “Listen up! Let the following testimony entered under oath on placeholder-goes-here be entered in the court record under this-case-number. Go ahead, play, damn you.”
The scene is much as Huw would have imagined it: A couple of pudgy nocturnal hackers holed up in a messy bedroom floored in discarded ready meal packs, the air hazy with programmable utility foglets. They’re building a homebrew radio telescope array by reprogramming their smart wallpaper. They work quietly, exchanging occasional cryptic suggestions about how to improve their rig’s resolving power and gain. About the only thing that surprises Huw is that they’re both three years old—foreheads swollen before their time with premature brain bridges. A discarded pile of wooden alphabet blocks lies in one corner of the room. A forlorn teddy bear lies on the top bunk with its back to the camera viewpoint.
“Ooh, aren’t they cute?” says Sandra. “The one on the left is just like my younger brother before his ickle widdle accident!”
“Silence in court, damn your eyes! What do you think this is, an adoption hearing? Behold, Abdul and Karim Bey. Their father is a waiter and their mother is a member of the presidential guard.” (Brief clips of a waiter and a woman in green battle dress carrying an implausibly complicated gun drift to either side of the nursery scene.) “Their parents love them, which is why they paid for the very best prenatal brainbox upgrades. With entirely predictable results if you ask me, but as you can see, they didn’t.…”
Abdul and Karim are pounding away at their tower of rather goopy-looking foglets—like all artifacts exposed to small children, they have begun to turn gray and crinkly at the corners—but now they are receiving a signal, loud and clear. They’re short on juice, but Karim has the bright idea of eviscerating Teddy and plugging his methanol-powered fuel cell into the tots’ telescope. It briefly extrudes a maser, blats a signal up through the thin roof of their inflatable commodity housing, and collapses in exhaustion.
The hackers have only five minutes or so to wait—in which time Abdul speed-reads through War and Peace in the original Russian while Karim rolls on his back, making googling noises as he tries to grab his feet—for they have apparently found the weakly godlike AIs of the metasphere in a receptive mood. As the bitstream comes in, Abdul whacks his twin brother upside the head with a purple velour giraffe. Karim responds by irritably uploading a correctly formatted patent application with the godvomit as an attachment.
“I hate smart-aleck kids,” mumbles the bald guy with the blue forelock, sitting across the room. The judge pretends to ignore him.
“These two miscreants are below the contractual age of consent,” Huw says, “so how come their application is being accepted?”
“Here in the MLJ, as you should well know, seeing you’re staying here and there was a copy of the Lonely Planet guide in your room,” the judge croaks, “ever since the People kicked out the last of the dictators, your civil rights are a function of your ability to demand them. Which is a bit annoying, because Karim demanded the vote six months ago, while Abdul is a second lieutenant in the People’s Cyberspace Defense Agency and a dab hand at creating new meme viruses. In fact, there’s some question over whether we shouldn’t be dragging him up in front of a court-martial instead.”
Judge Giuliani seems to have forgotten to snarl; her delivery is becoming almost civilized as the presentation from the subpoenaed crib-cam fast-forwards to the terrible two’s attempt to instantiate the bitstream in atoms, using a ripped teddy bear as a containment vessel.
“Ah, here it is. Observe: The artifact is extremely flexible, but not so flexible that it can gestate in a psuedo-living toy. Abdul’s own notes speculate that gestation may be supported in medium-sized dogs, goats, and camels.” Over the lectern, the display zooms in on the teddy bear’s swollen gut. The bear is jerking spasmodically and twitching like a Tourettic children’s TV host, giggling and stuttering nonsensical self-worth affirmations. The gut distends farther and the affirmations become more disjointed, and then a long, sharp blade pokes through the pseudoflesh and flame-retardant fur-analogue. “There are indications that the artifact floods its host organism with endorphins at metamorphosis-time,” says the judge. The rent in the bear’s belly widens, and out climbs a shimmering thing.
It takes Huw a moment to understand what he’s seeing. The artifact is a tall, metallic stalk, at first coiled like a cobra, but gradually roused to full erectness. Its glistening tip dips down toward the bear. “See how it sutures the exit wound?” the judge says, a breath of admiration in her rough voice. “So tidy. Jurors, take note, this is a considerate artifact.” Indeed, the bear’s fur has been closed with such cunning that it’s almost impossible to see the exit wound. However, something has gone horribly awry inside it, as it is now shaking harder than ever, shivering off its limbs and then its fur. Finally its flesh starts breaking away like the sections of a tangerine.
The artifact stands erect again, bounces experimentally a couple times, then collapses in a way that Huw can’t make any sense of. He’s not alone, either. The jurors let out a collective uncomprehending bleat. “Look closely, Jurors!” the judge says, and the scene loops back on itself a couple times in slomo, from multiple angles, then again in wireframe. It makes Huw’s mind hurt. The artifact’s stalk bulges in some places, contracts in others, all the whole slipping through and around itself. His potmaker’s eye tries to no avail to understand what’s happening to the topology and volume.
“Fucking lovely,” Sanda Lal says. She’s always had a thing about trompe l’oeil solids: “Nicest Klein bottle I’ve ever seen.”
A Klein bottle. Of course. Take a Möbius strip and extrude it one more dimension out and you get a vessel with only two sides, the inside and outside a single continuous plane. Glassblower shit. Fucking show-offs.
The young brothers are on hands and knees before the artifact now, staring in slack-jawed concentration, drool slipping between their patchworks of baby teeth and down their chins. The cam zooms in on the artifact, and it begins to fluoresce and pulse, as through digesting a radioactive hamster. The peristaltic throbbing gives it motion, and it begins to work its way toward the hamper in the corner of the room. It inches across the floor, trailed by the crawling brothers, then knocks over the hamper and begins to burrow through the spilled, reeking linens.
“It’s scat-tropic,” Doc Dagbjört says.
“Yes,” the judge says. “And scat-powered. Karim notes that its waste products are a kind of silt, similar to diatomaceous earth and equally effective as a roach and beetle powder. It also excretes water and trace elements.”
“A fractional-dimensional parasitic turd-gobbler from outer space?” Huw says. “Have I got that right?”
“That’s right, ma’am,” says the blue-forelocked joe. “And it’s pretty too. I’d gestate one, if only to eliminate the need for a bloody toilet. Quite a boon to your average WHO-standard pit latrine too, I imagine.”
“Of course you’d gestate one,” Huw says. “Nothing to you if your body is dissolved into toxic tapioca. I imagine you’re just about ready to join the cloud anyroad.”
Sandra casts him a poisonous glare. “Fuck you, and the goat you rode into town on,” she said. “Who the hell are you, anyway?”
“Judge?” Doc Dagbjört says, desperately trying to avoid a mass execution, “my co-juror raises an interesting point. What evidence do we have to support Adbul’s assertion that the artifact can safely gestate in mammals or, more specifically, primates?”
The judge grunts irritably. “Only simulations, of course,” she says. “Are you volunteering?”
Doc Dagbjört sits back hastily. “Just asking!”
“Are you all seated comfortably?” Giuliani asks. “Then I shall continue.” She whacks her gavel on the lectern and the presentation rolls boringly on. “Here’s what happened next.” It’s a dizzying fast-forward montage: The space monster digests the twins’ nappy hamper then chows down on their bedding while Abdul—or maybe it’s Karim—hastily jury-rigs an EMP gun out of animatronic toys and an air force surplus radar set. The twins back into a corner and wait, wide-eyed, as the thing sprouts a pink exoskeleton lined with throbbing veins, rabbit ears, and a set of six baby elephant legs with blue toenails. It squats in the middle of their room, hooting and pinging as it digests the pile of alphabet blocks. Karim—or maybe it’s Abdul—improvises a blue goo attack using the roomful of utility fog, but the ad hoc nanoweaponry just slimes off the space monster like so much detergent.
“At this point, the manifestation estivated,” announces the judge.
“Duh, wassatmean?” asks one of the other jurors, one whom Huw doesn’t know—possibly a nationalist from the Neander valley.
“It went to sleep,” explains Doc Dagbjört. “Isn’t that right, Judge?”
“Damn straight.” The judge whacks her gavel again. “But if I get any more lip out of you, sunshine, I’ll have you flogged ’till the ivory shows. This is my trial. Clear?”
Dagbjört opens her mouth, closes it, then nods.
“Well,” says Judge Giuliani, “that’s that, then. The thing seems to have fallen deeply asleep. Just in case it wakes up, the MLJ Neighborhood Sanitation Committee have packed it into a Class Four nanohazard containment vessel—which I’m standing on right now—and shipped it over here. We’re going to try a directed revival after lunch, with full precautions. Then I’ll have a think about it, you damned meddling baboons can rubber-stamp my verdict, and we’ll wrap up in time for tea. Do it my way and you can all go home three days early: rock the boat and I’ll have you broken on the wheel. Court will now adjourn. Make sure you’re all back here in three hours’ time—or else. And … cut!”
In case the message is insufficiently clear, the bench Huw is perched on humps up into an uncomfortable ridge, forcing him to stand. The Vulture storms out of the courtroom in a flurry of black robes, leaving a pool of affronted jurors milling around a lectern containing a sleeping puddle of reified godvomit.
“All right, everyone,” says Doc Dagbjört, clapping her hands together. “How about we go and find the refectory in this place? I could murder some meze!”
Huw slouches off toward the entrance in a black mood, the teapot clanking at his hip. This isn’t going quite the way he’d imagined, and he’ll be damned before he’ll share a refectory table with that sanctimonious Swedish Girl Scout, much less Sandra and her gender-bending (and disturbingly attractive) friend. Someone is quite clearly doing this in order to get under his skin, and he is deeply pissed off. On the other hand, it’s a long time since breakfast—and there must be somewhere that serves a decent goat curry in Tripoli.
* * *
It is insanely hot on the sidewalk outside the court, hot and crowded and dusty, and even with his biohazard burka pumping away heat as fast as it can, Huw is sweating. His skin itches everywhere, but especially on the shoulder, where he can feel his skin crawling every time he thinks about the glowing trefoil tattoo.
The court is located in a district full of bleached white shells, buildings thrown up by massively overengineered mollusks. Unable to breathe without oxygen supplies, having erected a habitable structure, they die in order to provide a delicious moving-in feast for the residents. It’s cheap favela architecture, but durable and far better than the tent cities of a previous century; snail cities have power, recycling services, bandwidth, and a weird kind of hobbit-ish charm. Some of the bigger shells have been turned into storefronts by various cottage professionals, and Huw is drawn toward one of them by the mouthwatering smell of roasting meat.
There are elaborate cast-iron tables outside the shell-front, and cast-iron chairs, and—luxury of luxuries—a parasol over each. There are people inside the shell, but the outside tables are deserted. Huw wilts into the nearest space and puts his teapot down on the table. “You,” he grunts. “Universal translator for anyone who comes my way. I expect service with a smile. Capisce?”
“Your wish is my command,” pipes his djinni.
A teenaged girl in a black salwar kameez, white face paint, and far too much eye shadow and silver spider-jewelry saunters over, looking for all the world like a refugee from a goth club in Bradford. “Yeah? Whatcher want, granny?”
“It’s mister,” Huw says. “You the waitress?”
“Yeah,” she answers in English, staring at him idly. Her earrings stare too—synthetic eyeballs dangling from desiccated optic nerves. “You trans?”
“No, I’m a biohazard. What’s on the lunch menu?”
“We’ve got a choice of any cloned meat shawarma you fancy: goat, mutton, ox tongue, or Rumsfeld. With salad, olives, cheese, falafels, coffee or Coke. Pretty much anything. Say, are you really a biohazard?”
“Listen,” Huw says, “I’m not wearing this fucking sack because I enjoy it. Your Ministry of Barbarian Affairs insisted—”
“Why don’t you take it off then?” she asks. “If they call you on it, just pay.”
“What’s wrong with you? You one of those dumb Westerners who doesn’t get baksheesh?” She looks unimpressed.
Huw stifles a facepalm. I should have known.… “Thanks. Just get me the goat shawarma and falafels. They’re cloned, you say?”
She looks evasive. “Cloned-ish.”
“Vatmeat?” Huw’s stomach turns.
“You’re not a racist, are you? Nothing wrong with being vatted.”
Huw pictures a pulsating lump of flesh and hoses, recalls that the top-selling album of all time was recorded by such a being, and resigns himself to eating vatmeat rather than getting into a religious argument. “I’ll take the goat. And, uh, a Diet Coke.”
“Okay.” She turns and beams his order to the kitchen, then wanders over to the bar and begins to pour a tall drink.
Huw takes a deep breath. Then he pinches the seal node on his burka and gives it a hard yank. As gestures of defiance go, it’s small but profound; he feels suddenly claustrophobic, and can’t stop until he’s tugged the whole thing off, up and over his head, and yanked down the overalls that make up its bottom half, and stomped them all into the gray dust under his boots.
The air is dry, and smells real. Huw finally begins to relax. The waitress strolls over bearing a large glass, loaded with Coke and ice cubes. As she gets close, her nose wrinkles. “You need a bath, Mr. Biohazard Man.”
“Yeah. Well. You tell the Ministry.” Huw takes the drink, relishes a long swallow, unencumbered by multiple layers of smart antiviral polymer defenses. He can feel the air on his face, the sunlight on his skin. He puts the glass down. Wonder how long I’ll take to work up a suntan? he thinks, and glances at his wrist. He freezes.
There’s a biohazard trefoil on the back of his hand.
Huw stands up, feeling dizzy. “There a toilet here?” he asks.
“Sure.” The waitress points him round the back. “Take your time.”
The bathroom is a small nautiloid annex, but inside it’s as chilly and modern as Sandra Lal’s. Huw locks the door and yanks his tee and sweatpants off. He turns anxiously to check his back in the mirror over the sink—but the trefoil on his shoulder has gone.
It’s on the back of his hand. And it itches.
“Shit,” he says quietly and with feeling.
Back at the table, Huw bolts his food down then rises, leaving an uncharacteristic tip. He picks up the bundle of dusty black biohazard fabric and strolls past the shops. One of them is bound to be a black market nanohacker. His hands are shaking. He isn’t sure which prospect is worse: finding he’s got a big medical bill ahead, or trying to live in ignorance.
“Teapot,” he whispers.
“Where’s the nearest body shop? Doesn’t have to be fully legal under WIPO-compliant treaty terms, just legal enough.”
“Bzzt. It is regrettably not possible for this humble unit to guide you in the commission of felonies, O Noble Sirrah—”
Shake. “There is legal and there is legal,” Huw says. “I don’t give a shit about complying with all the brain-dead treaties the Moral Majority rammed through WIPO in the wake of the Hard Rapture. I just want somewhere that the local police won’t arrest me for frequenting if I pay the usual. Whatever the usual happens to be around here. Can you do that? Or would you like to tell me where the nearest heavy metal reclamation plant is?”
“Eeek! Turn left! Left, I say! Yes, ahead of you! Please, do me no injury, sirrah!”
Huw walks up to a featureless roc’s egg and taps on it. “Anyone at home?” he asks.
A door dilates in the shell, emitting a purple-tinged light. “Enter,” says a distinctly robotic voice.
Inside the shell, Huw finds himself in a room dominated by something that looks like a dentist’s chair as reinvented on behalf of the Spanish Inquisition by H. R. Giger. Standing beside it—
“Does your sister work at the diner along the road?” he asks.
“No, she’s my daughter.” The woman—who looks young enough to be the waitress’s twin, but wears medical white and doesn’t have any body piercings that blink at him—looks distinctly unimpressed. “And she’s got an attitude problem. She’s a goth, you know. Thinks it’s so rebellious.” She sniffs. “Did she send you here?”
Huw holds up his arm. “I’m here because of this,” he says, dodging the question.
“Aha.” She peers at his trefoil. “Do you know what it is?”
“No, that’s why I’m here.”
“Very well. If you take a seat and give me your debit token, I’ll try to find out for you.”
“Will there be any trouble?” Huw asks, lying back on the couch and trying not to focus on the mandibles descending toward him.
“I don’t know—yet.” She fusses and potters and mumbles to herself. “All right, then,” she says at length. “It’s in beta, whatever it is.”
“Oh yes?” Huw says, in a way that he hopes sounds intelligent.
“Certainly. That’s the watermark—it’s compliant with the INEE’s RFC 4253.11 on debug-mode self-replicating organisms. Whatever host medium it finds itself in, it advertises its presence by means of the trefoil.”
“And—?” Huw says.
“And that means that either the person who made it is conscientious, or is working with an RFC-compliant SDK.”
“I see,” Huw says. He supposes that this is probably interesting to people in the biz, but he has no idea what it means. It’s an alien culture. He prefers concrete stuff he can get his hands on. None of these suspicious self-modifying abstractions that suddenly make you sprout antlers.
The hacker mutters to herself some more. “Well,” she says, and “Hmmm,” and “Oh,” until Huw feels like bursting. “Right, then.”
Huw waits. And waits. His whole fucking life seems to consist of conversations like this. He’s read some hilariously naïve accounts of life in the soi-disant “Information Age” about “Future Shock,” all those dim ancestors trying to make sense of their rapidly changing world. They fretted about the “singularity”—the point at which human history goes nonlinear and unpredictable and the world ceases to have any rhyme or reason. Future shock indeed—try living in the fucking singularity, and having your world inverted six times before breakfast.
“Well, that’s it. I can do it in vitro or in situ, up to you.”
“Accelerate it. What, you think I’m going to decompile this thing? That code is so obfuscated, it may as well be cuneiform for all the sense I can make of it. No, there’s only one way to find out what it does: accelerate its life cycle and see what happens. I can do it in your body—that’s best, it’s already halfway there—or I can do it in glass. Your choice.”
“Glass!” Huw says, his heart racing at the vision of an unlicensed tech colony cutting out of his guts, like the thing in the courtroom.
The hacker sighs a put-upon exhalation. “Fine,” she says. Let’s get you cloned, then.” Before he can jerk free, the instrument bush hovering over him has scraped a layer of skin from his forearm and drawn a few milliliters of blood from the back of his hand, leaving behind an anesthetized patch of numb skin that spreads over his knuckles and down to his fingertips. Across the room, a tabletop diamond-walled chamber fogs and hums. The mandibles recede and Huw sits up. A ventilation system kicks in, clearing the fog from the chamber, and there Huw sees his cloned hand taking shape, starting as a fetal fin, sundering into fingers, bones lengthening, proto-fingernails forming. “That’ll take a couple hours to ripen,” the hacker says. “Then I’ll implant it and we’ll see what happens. Come back this time tomorrow, I’ll show you what turns up.” She rubs her thumbs against her forefingers.
Huw sticks his hand out to touch hers and interface their PANs so he can transfer a payment to her, but she shies back. “I don’t think so,” she says. “You’re infectious, remember?”
“Well, how shall I pay you, then?” he says.
“Over there,” she says, gesturing at a meatpuppet in the corner, a wrinkled naked neuter body with no head, just a welter of ramified tubules joined to a bare medulla that flops out of the neck stump like an alien nosegay. Huw shakes the currency zombie’s clammy hand and interfaces with its PAN, transfers a wad of baksheesh to it, and steps back, wiping his hand on the seat of his track pants afterwards.
“This time tomorrow, right?” the hacker says.
“See you then,” Huw says.
* * *
Back at the courthouse, the People’s Second Revolutionary Technology Court Guardsman doesn’t even blink as Huw unrolls the multiple thicknesses of burka he’d wrapped around his telltale hand—which is starting to itch like it’s acrawl with subcutaneous fire ants—and forearm.
As he steps into the gloomy courtroom, he thinks that he’s alone: but after that moment he detects movement and slurping sounds from the shadows behind one of the benches. A familiar head with a blue forelock rears back, face a rictus of agonized enjoyment. Huw makes out a female head suctioned to the joe’s chest, teeth fastened to his nipple. Christ, Huw thinks, he and Sandra are having a snog in the fucking courtroom. The Vulture’s going to string them up by their pubes and skull-fuck them with her gavel.
Then the head turns, worrying at the nipple in a way that looks painful (though it appears to be doing wonders for the joe) and Huw sees that it isn’t Sandra Lal masticating that tit; it’s Doc Dagbjört. He feels a sear of jealousy jetting from his asshole to his shoulder blades, though whom he is jealous of he cannot exactly say. He clears his throat.
The lovebirds spring apart and stand. Doc Dagbjört’s shirt is hiked up around her armpits and before she gets it pulled back down, Huw is treated to a stunning display of her chestular appendages, which are rather spectacular in a showy, fantastically perfect way. The joe is more casual, stretches and yawns and pulls his own sweaty leather shirt down. Then he does a double take as he recognizes Huw.
“You!” he says. “The hell are you doing here?”
“You know him?” Dagbjört asks. She’s blushing a rather lovely and fierce Viking red.
Huw partially unrolls his burka from his arm and dangles it in front of his face. “So do you, Doc,” he says.
“The transvestite?” she says.
“I’m not trans,” Huw says. He rewraps the burka around his arm, which is throbbing with itch and needles of alternating ice and fire. “Just got a nasty little itch and took a while to figure out who to bribe.” He glares at the guy with the blue forelock, Bonnie the party animal. “You wouldn’t happen to know anything about it, would you?”
“Who, me?” Bonnie frowns right back at him. “What did you think you were doing barging in here, anyway?”
Huw crosses his arms defensively. “In case you hadn’t noticed, this is a courtroom and the Vulture’s going to be back in about—”
The door bangs open behind him and he turns round. “Where is everybody?” croaks the black-clad judge. “Dammit, I expect punctuality in my courtroom!”
Judge Giuliani crosses to her box and stands behind it, tapping her toe on the floor and glowering furiously at the doorway as, one by one, the delinquent jurors filter in. Her stare is lost on Sandra, who sees Huw as she opens the door and nearly jumps out of her skin. Huw smiles at her sweetly and she edges around the far side of the room and sits down as far away from him as possible. So while the Vulture is busy tearing a strip off the Neanderthal, he gets up, walks over, and sits down next to her.
“Hello, Sandra,” he says warmly. “How’s it going?”
Sandra leans away from him, looking afraid. “Where did you get that?” she asks, eyeing his biohazard-wrapped wrist.
“I thought you and me, we could talk about it.” Huw smiles. It’s not a friendly expression. I picked it up at your place a week or so back?”
“Listen, I have no idea what this is about, but I don’t like it! I don’t hang out with people who do that sort of thing, least not without warning. Are you sure you weren’t jarked by a stranger on your way over?”
“Silence in court!” says Giuliani, waving her gavel at Sandra, who cowers, trying to get as far away as possible from both the judge and Huw. Huw crosses his arms, annoyed. Is she telling the truth?
“You pukes had better listen up right now! We are about to begin the most dangerous part of the proceedings! Are those of you who believe in physical resurrection all backed up to off-site storage? And are the rest of you all up to date on your life insurance policies? Because if not, you’re too fucking late, haa haa! It is time to open the box!”
“Oh shit.” Huw hastily begins to untangle his burka, in the hope that its advanced biocontainment layers will help if the monster that hatched from the scatotrophic Klein bottle from outer space turns out to be unfriendly. His wrist itches hotly in sympathy, then mercifully stops.
Giuliani twirls her hammer round and presses a button; it turns into something like a cross between a pocket chain saw and a whittling knife. “Now, I am about to open the containment,” she says, standing over the ominous black cube with a raised knife. “With any luck, it’s just sleeping. If it isn’t, well, all I can say is it damn well better behave itself in my courtroom.”
She leans forward and slaps one hand on a side of the box. Something heavy goes clunk inside it. A hand goes up from the far side of the jury box. “What is it now?” says the Vulture.
“Please, Judge, can I go to the bathroom?” Bonnie is waving an anxious hand in the air.
“Oh fuck off, then,” snarls the judge. “Five minutes! Or you’ll be sorry!”
She yanks at the lid of the biohazard containment and Bonnie takes off, scampering behind the benches as if his arse is on fire—or maybe he’s just afraid that it will be, in a few seconds.
The box deconstructs itself into a pile of bubbling pink slime, to reveal the space monster the brothers Bey downloaded. It squats, curled up, in a nest of shredded teddy bears; two of its six legs are wrapped over what ought to be its snout, and it is making a faint whistling noise that it takes Huw a few seconds to recognize as snoring.
“Behold, the stinking pile of godvomit!” says the Vulture. She stands over it, arms akimbo, Swiss Army chain saw at the ready, looking almost pleased with herself. “Exhibit A: asleep. It’s been this way for the past eighteen days, ever since the Bey twins created it. Any questions?”
A susurrus of conversation sweeps the jury benches. “That’s funny,” Huw says, “my arm doesn’t itch anymore.”
“Shut up about your arm already!” Sandra says. “Look!” She points at the box, just as the space monster emits a deep grunting sigh and rolls over on its side, snuffling sleepily.
“Six limbs, bilateral symmetry, exoskeleton. Has anyone tried deconstructing its proteome yet?” asks Doc Dagbjört, looking rather more cheerful than the situation warrants.
“From inside the containment? No.” The Vulture looks thoughtful. “But from traces of carapace scraped off the walls of the Bey residence nursery, we have obtained a partial genotype. Tell your guidebooks or familiars or whatever to download Exhibit B for you. As you can see, the genome of the said item is chimeric and shows signs of crude tampering, but it’s largely derived from Drosophila, Mus musculus, and a twenty-first-century situationist artist or politician called Sarah Palin. Large chunks of its genome appear to be wholly artificial, though, written entirely in Arabic, and there’s an aqueous-phase Turing machine partially derived from octopus ribosomes to interpret them. It looks as if something has been trying to use the sharia code as a platform for implementing a legal virtual machine. We’re not sure why, unless it’s an obscure joke.”
“Does the metasphere have a sense of humor?” Huw says. He clears his throat—the dust must be getting to him, because it feels as if he’s developing a ticklish cough.
“If it didn’t, my life would be a lot simpler,” the Vulture says. A door at the back of the courtroom bangs, Bonnie coming back from the toilet. Huw notes with a spike of erotic shock that Bonnie is female again, a forelocked vision of heroin-chic skin and bones. “As it is, it makes it hard to tell a piece of sculpture from a practical joke, a new type of washing machine, or an alien superweapon.”
“Urk.” Huw subsides into a fit of coughing; it doesn’t help his throat.
“Can we wake it up?” Doc Dagbjört asks. “If I play it some music, perhaps it can the dream awaken from?”
Oh shit, musical dream therapy, Huw realizes with a sinking feeling. So that’s why she’s on this panel.
“That is a possibility,” the Vulture concedes. She prods the sleeping space monster with a steel-toe-capped boot, but it just snores louder and burrows deeper into its nest of disemboweled toys. “I prefer electroshock, myself.”
“Shit.” Sandra says. Huw glances sideways at her, sees her cowering away from him. “Shit!”
“What is it?” he asks.
“Your—” She stops, and rummages in her fanny pack. After pulling out a mirror, she passes it to him. “Throat.”
At the other end of the bench, Doc Dagbjört is explaining the healing properties of ambient postindustrial music to an interested judge and a couple of less skeptical jurors. Huw holds up the hand mirror and points it at his throat.
Huw stares at the mirror nearly cross-eyed and focuses on his stubbly Adam’s apple. It has been completely covered with a familiar biohazard trefoil, surrounded by ranked miniature trefoils, each of them fractally ringed with smaller duplicates, and so on, into hairy infinitude that no doubt extends down to mitochondrial detail.
Huw clutches his hands to his throat and feels it buzzing, vibrating, just as Dagbjört lets fly with an eerie ululation. She sings the quasi-melody rather well, noodling around from a ghostly, bluesy I-IV-V progression to something pentatonic that sounds like the wind whistling over the blasted steppes of some distant Eastern land and then into something Celtic and complicated.
The buzzing under his sweating fingertips heightens. The godvomit is vibrating too, beginning a bobbing sinuous cobra dance, and it begins to sing too, a low droning ommmmmm that resonates in Huw’s bones, in Huw’s throat, in Huw’s mind.
His tongue stirs in his mouth and he feels a great, preverbal welling from his larynx. He feels a burst of Tourettic obscenities tickling at his lips like a sneeze, and he moves his hands from his throat and claps them over his mouth, but it’s too late: he’s singing too.
If you can call it singing. He’s giving voice to two wordless melodies simultaneously, meshing in artful discord with each other and the joint song of the Kleinmonster and Dagbjört. One voice is basso profundo, the other a Tiny Tim falsetto, and the Kleinmonster is turning its attention on him—he can hear it thinking joyful thoughts to itself. His skin crawls with creeping horror as his voice box secedes from his autonomic nervous system, and he flees the courtroom, pursued by the mystified stares of his co-jurors and the glare of the Vulture.
He stumbles for the loo, struggling to keep the alien song inside his chest, lips clamped tightly shut. He has a titanic, painful, rock-hard erection, and he thinks wildly of autoerotic asphyxiators who blow their loads in ecstatic writhing as their oxygen-starved brains stage endorphin-fueled fireworks displays on the backs of their eyelids. He is certain he is dying. He falls to his knees on the rubber tiles of the lav’s floor and begins to retch and weep.
He feels a tentative hand caressing his shoulder and he turns his head. Through a haze of tears, he recognizes Bonnie, her eyes smoldering with barely controlled lust. “You’re so fucking transhuman,” s/he says, and clamps her mouth to his, ramming her tongue in almost to his gag reflex. She pins him to the yielding tiles and straddles him, grinding her/his crotch against his.
It’s enough to shock him out of despair and into anger. He pushes hard against her bony xylophone chest and spits. “You are sick,” he says, rolling away. The song is dying now, just a buzz of harmonics that pick at his pulse. “God!”
Bonnie smirks at him and does a cat stretch on the tile before climbing to her feet. She shakes herself and tosses her fringe and gives him another smirk. “Really? I could have sworn you wanted it,” she says, and leaves him alone.
Huw pulls himself to his feet and staggers for the door, his throat no longer itching, but wriggling. He pushes weakly against the door and steps out into the corridor, where he confronts the entire court, which has apparently adjourned to follow him. The Vulture’s fists are fiercely planted on her hips.
“You’re infected,” the Vulture says. Her voice is ominously calm. “That’s unfortunate. We’ve got a nanocontainment box for you until we sort it out. We’ll pull an alternate juror from the pool.” Sandra, Bonnie, Dagbjört, the caveman, and the centenarian are all staring at him like he’s a sideshow curiosity. “Come along now, the guardsmen will take you to your box.” The guardsmen are a pair of hulking golems, stony-faced and brutal-looking. They advance on him with a thunderous tread, brandishing manacles like B-movie Inquisitors.
Huw’s mind blanks with fear and rage. Bastards! he tries to scream, and what comes out is an eerie howl that makes the jurors wince and probably terrifies every dog within a ten-kilometer radius. He feints toward them, then spins on his heel and dashes for the front doors. Curare darts spang off the rubber walls and rebound around him, but none hit him. He leaps off the courtroom steps and runs headlong into the humanswarm, plowing into its midst.
He runs without any particular direction, but his feet take him back to the hacker’s egg-shaped clinic of their own accord. He turns his head and scans the crowd for jurors or officers of the court. Seeing none, he thumps the egg until the door irises open, then dives through it.
The hacker is laid out on her table, encased in the instrument bush. Her fingers and toes work its tendrils in response to unknowable feedback from its goggles and earphones. Huw coughs in three-part harmony, and she gives her fingers a decisive waggle that causes the bush to contract into a fist near the ceiling.
She looks at him, takes in Huw’s watermarked throat and two-part snoring drone. “Right,” she says. “Looks like you’re about done, then.” The teapot at his belt translates efficiently, giving her a thick Brummie accent for no reason Huw understands.
“What the fuck is this shit?” Huw says, over his drone.
“No need for that sort of language,” she says primly. She gets up off her table and gestures toward it. “Up you go.”
Reluctantly, Huw climbs up, then watches the bush descend on him and encase him in a quintillion smart gossamer fingers.
“I uploaded your opportunistic code to a mailing list,” explains the hacker. “It was a big hit with the Euros—lucky for you it’s their waking hours, or it could have been another twelve hours before we heard back. You’ve solved quite a little mystery, you know.
“The betaware you’re infected with has been floating around the North Sea for about a month now, but it has failed to land a single successful somatic infection—until now. Lots of carriers but no afflicted. Best guess at its origin is a cometary mass extruded from the cloud that burned away protecting its payload.
“So it was quite the mystery until I pasted your genome into a followup. Then it was obvious—it’s looking for specific T helper lymphocytes. Welsh ones. Which begs another question: Why Welsh?
“And here we have the answer.” The bush’s tendrils stroked Huw’s growling voice box. “All those grotty Welsh vowel sounds and glottals. It needed a trained larynx to manifest.”
“Aaaagh,” Huw gargles, tensing angrily and trying to argue. The bush takes the opportunity to shove what feels like a wad of cotton wool into his mouth and extrude exploring wisps to brush samples from his epiglottis.
A histogram scrolls across the egg’s wall in time with Huw’s groan, spiking ferociously. “Oh, very nice,” she says. “You’re modulating a megabit a second over a spread-spectrum short-range audio link. Pushing the limits of info-sci, you are!”
Huw stutters another groan, then vomits a flood of obscenities: They’re enveloped in his di-vocal drone, and the histogram spikes in sympathy.
“No easy way to know what you’re spewing, of course. Lots of activity in your language and vision centers, though.” The bush firmly grips the sides of his head. “Do that again, will you? I’m going to run a PET scan.”
“I don’t think I can,” he begins; then he bursts into Welsh profanity so foul, it triggers his old flinch reflex, some part of his limbic system certain that this sort of display will necessarily be accompanied by a ringing slap from his mother, however uploaded she might be these past fifty years.
“Right,” she says. “Right. Here’s my guess, then. You’re transmitting your sensoria—visual, auditory, olfactory, even tactile. Somewhere out there there’s a complementary bit of receiving equipment that can demodulate the signal. You’re a remote sensing apparatus.”
“Fuck,” Huw says. The histogram is still. He is voluntarily cursing.
“It’s kinky, yes?” she says. “Too kinky for you. One second.” Tentacles slither down his throat briskly, curl around inside his stomach, then come back out. It feels like he’s vomiting, except his guts are limp, and a big bolus of something or other is trying to stick in his throat on the way out. For a panicky moment he feels as if he’s choking—then the lump tears away with a bright stabbing pain, and he can breathe through his nose again.
“Ah, that’s better,” he hears distantly. “A beautiful little whistle! Easy to fence to some out-of-body perv, I think. Oh dear, did I say that aloud?” A fuzzy mat of bush tendrils peel away from his face to reveal an unsympathetic face peering down at him. “You did hear that, didn’t you? Hmm, what a pity. Well, your left kidney is in good shape—”
There’s a loud crash from outside the operating theater, followed by a wail from his belt. “In here!” screams his teapot. “Help, please come quickly!”
More crashing. The hacker straightens up, cursing under her breath. Casting around, her gaze falls on Huw’s biohazard burka. She grabs it and dives for the back door, sending a gleaming operating cart skidding across the floor. She dives out the back as something large batters at the entrance. The door bulges inward. Huw struggles to sit up, pushing back the suddenly quiescent instrument bush—it feels like wrestling with a half ton of candy floss. What now? he thinks wildly.
“In here!” shrieks the djinni, standing in holographic miniature on top of the teapot and waving its arms like a stranded sailor.
“You shut up,” Huw grunts. He manages to get his legs off the side of the chair and stumbles against the trolley. Another crash from the front door, and he sees something on the floor—something silvery and cylindrical, about ten centimeters long and one in diameter, for all the world like a pocket recorder covered in slime. That’s it? he puzzles, and thoughtlessly picks it up and pockets it just as the door gives up the uneven struggle and slams open to admit the two court golems, followed by an extremely irrate hanging judge.
“Arretez-vous!” yells his djinni. “He’s over here! Don’t let him get away this time!” With a sense of horror, Huw realizes that the little snitch is jumping up and down and pointing at him.
“No chance,” says Judge Giuliani. “Get him!” she tells the golems, and they lurch toward him. “Your palanquin is outside, waiting to take you to the People’s Second Revolutionary Memorial Teaching Hospital. It’s quite secure,” she adds with an ugly grin. “Asshole. Do you want to spread it around? Have you any idea how much trouble you’re in already, breaking biocontainment?”
“The—the bastards, set me fucking shitting up—” The Tourette’s is threatening to break out, as is a residual urge to burst out in song even as the huge golems clamp inhumanly gentle six-fingered hands the size of ditch-diggers around his arms. “—party in fucking cockass Monmouth, fucking minger Bonnie slipped me the shit-shit-shitting godvomit raining on Northern fucking Europe, set me up that wasn’t the fucking New Libyan consulate at all, was it? And, and—”
One of the golems slaps a hand over his face. The hand has some kind of flexible membrane on it, with built-in antisound. Huw can hear himself chattering and cursing inside his own head, but nothing’s getting out. The golem slowly shrinkwraps his legs together from hip to ankle, and the other golem picks him up under one arm and carries him through the broken front door. The hands of the first golem part easily at the wrist and go with him, a temporary gag.
“We’ll discuss the charges later, in my chambers,” Giuliani says in his ear. Then she whisks off in a flapping of black-winged robes as the golem lowers Huw into something that looks like a cross between a pedal-powered taxi and an upright coffin.
Bastard fucking bastard must stop fucking swearing, Huw thinks desperately, as he confronts a baby blue padded cell lined with ominous-looking straps. Bonnie set me up for this, bastard neophiliac, but why did the fucking tin whistle want to talk to the shit-monster? Why was the thing happy to hear me—? He stops as the lid closes behind him, momentarily shocked. Because that was the oddest thing about it: the way the godvomit responded to his unwanted flight of song—
As the golems start leaning on the pedals, something squirms in his pocket, like an inquisitive worm. It’s the whistle the hacker yanked out of his throat, he realizes, half-horrified that he’s locked in with it. Which is worse, he asks himself, a traitorous djinni or a musical instrument that wants to nest in my larynx? He gets his answer a moment later as the whistle squirms again, then digs in tiny claws and begins to inch up his shirt. Locked in a small box, on the way to the cells beneath the courthouse, Huw confronts his most primal fear, gives in, and screams himself hoarse behind his antisound gag.
Eventually, his screams taper off. But after a couple of minutes, he feels a heretofore subliminal buzzing against his hip, and screams afresh as he envisions spidery trefoils crawling over his pelvic girdle toward his crotch. Then reason takes over and he realizes that it’s his goddamned phone. Squirming around in the cramped box, he pulls it out and shakes it to life, holding it before his mute face. The picture on the other end resolves. Adrian and his bicycle, in some swarming souk. “Wotcher!” Adrian says. Huw waggles his eyebrows frantically at the pinhole cam. The whistle has climbed atop his chest and is stuck crawling in circles as it tries to locate a suitable aperture to return to its nest by.
“Saucy,” Adrian says. “Hadn’t figured you for bein’ inta that kink. Met a lucky lady, then?”
Huw shakes his head frantically, rolling his eyes. Slowly, he pans the phone around the box, then brings it back to eye level.
“Oh ho! Not voluntary, then.”
Huw nods so fiercely, his head smacks into the padded wall behind him.
“Right, then. See you in two ticks.” The picture on the phone swings crazily as Adrian clips it to one of the thousands of clever grabbers on the front of his wash-n-wears and pedals off on the bike. Periodically, his face looms in the screen as he looks down at the positional data that Huw’s phone is relaying.
Then Huw is looking at a jittery high-def image of the judge’s caravan, at the slowly moving lockbox he’s encased in. Adrian holds his phone up again and Huw sees that his eyes are, if anything, redder than they’d been that morning, nearly fluorescent with stoned glee. “You’re in there, yeah?” he says, and swings the phone toward the strongbox. Huw nods.
“Hrm.” Adrian says, “Tricky.” He clips his phone back to his shirt and turns around. Huw sees two young women swathed in paramilitary black bodysuits bulging with cargo pockets and clever sewn-in bandoliers. They exchange rapid hand signals; then the phone’s POV wheels sickeningly as Adrian does a tire-torturing doughnut and zips off to the head of the caravan. The camera frames the two impassive golems pumping the pedals of the palanquin. Adrian rolls the bike directly into their path, then makes terrified tourist squeaks as he rolls clear of the frame at the same moment as the golems plow through it. They grind to a sudden halt: their wheels have delaminated on impact with Huw’s bike’s frame, which has gone into self-defensive hedgehog mode. Huw hears the Vulture croaking enraged threats at Adrian, whom Huw is certain is shrugging with gormless English apologies.
Huw is thrown to one side, losing his phone in the process. A moment later, light scythes into Huw’s cell and he’s staring up into the eye-slit of a ceramic-reinforced veil. Strong, long-fingered hands lift him free and he’s unceremoniously slung over a hard female shoulder. Dangling upside down, he catches a glimpse of the smoking ceiling of the palanquin dissolving into blue goo. The Vulture waves her arms in their direction, her black robe spread out like tattered wings as she screams orders. The golems are lumbering toward them, but in a moment they’re in the crowd, lost in the swarm.
* * *
The safe house is another inflatable, half-buried in sand and ringed with a memory-wire fence that guards some shepherd’s noisome cache of mutant livestock—cows that give chocolate milk, goats that eat scrap plastic and excrete a soft spun cotton analogue, miniature hamster-sized chickens that seem even stupider than real chickens and flock like tropical fish. Adrian’s already waiting for them when they arrive, standing over the remains of Huw’s bicycle.
“Guess you get to keep the hash, old son,” Adrian says, kicking the wreckage. “Too bad—it was a lovely ride. I see you’ve met Maisie and Becky. Becky, love, would you mind setting Huw down now? He’s looking a little green and I’m sure he’d appreciate some terror firmer and the removal of that horrid gag.”
Neat as that, Huw is sitting plonk on his bottom in the sand, while Adrian laboriously pries back and snaps off each of the golem’s fingers. Adrian tosses them to the goats, and Maisie says something to him that Huw can’t understand.
Adrian shakes his head. “You worry too much—those buggers’ll eat anything.”
Once he’s free of the gag, Huw gives his jaw an experimental wiggle, then opens his mouth in a wide gasp. While he’s catching his breath, the whistle—which has staked out a hiding place behind his left ear—abseils around his jaw, nips inside his mouth, and darts down his throat. “Shit!” Huw chokes: and the whistle nestling in the back of his larynx supplies a buzzing harmonic counterpoint.
“Aha!” says Adrian. “You’re the designated carrier, all right. Excellent. The sisters want samples, later. You’re going to need a bath first, no offense. Come on in,” he says, kicking away sand to reveal a trapdoor. Hoisting it open, Adrian exposes a helical slide into the bounce-house’s depths; he slides in feetfirst and spirals down into the darkness.
Huw gasps for breath, balanced on the fine edge between nervousness and stark screaming terror. Normalcy wins: The whistle doesn’t hurt, indeed barely feels as if it’s there. A goat sidles up behind him with evil in its eyes and leans over his shoulder, sniffing to determine if he’s edible; the hot breath on his ear reminds him that he’s still alive, and not even unable to talk. One of the Libyan goth ninjettes is squatting patiently by the door. “Hello?” he says, experimentally rubbing his throat.
She shrugs and emits a rapid-fire stream of Arabic. Then, seeing he doesn’t understand, she shrugs again and points at the slide. “Oh, I get it,” says Huw. He peers at her closely. “Do I know you from somewhere?”
She says something else, this time sharply. Huw sighs. “Okay, I don’t know you.” His throat feels a bit odd, but not as odd as it ought to for someone who’s just swallowed an alien communication device. I need to know what’s going on, he realizes, eyeing the trapdoor uneasily. Oh well. Steeling himself, he lowers his legs into the slide and forces himself to let go.
The room at the bottom is a large bony cavern, its ceiling hung with what look like gigantic otoliths: the floor is carpeted with pink sensory fronds. Adrian is messing around with a very definitely nonsapient teapot on a battered Japanese camping stove. The other one of the ninjette twins is sitting cross-legged on the floor, immersed in some kind of control interface to the Red Crescent omnifab that squats against one wall, burbling and occasionally squirting glutinously to itself. “Ah, there y’are. Cup of tea, mate?” says Adrian.
“Don’t mind if I do,” Huw replies. “Just what the fuck fuck fuck clunge-swiving hell—’scuse me—is going on?” Who are you and why have you been stalking me from Wales?
“Siddown.” Adrian waves at a beanbag. “Milk, sugar?”
“Both, thanks. Agh—damn. Got anything for-for Tourette’s?”
“’Cording to the user manual, it’ll go away soon. No worries.”
“User manual? Sh—you mean this thing comes with a warranty? That sort of thing?”
“Sure.” Adrian pours boiling water into the teapot and sets it aside to stew. Then he sits down besides the oblivious Libyan woman and pulls out a stash tin. He begins to roll a joint, chatting as he does so. “It’s been spamming to hell and back for the past six months. Seems something up there wants us to, like, talk to it. One of the high transcendents, several gazillion subjective years removed from mere humanity. For some years now, it’s not had much of a clue about us, but it’s finally invented, bred, resurrected, whatever, an interface to the the wossname, human deep grammar engine or whatever they’re calling it these days. Sort of like the crappy teapots the embassy issues everyone with. Trouble is, the interface is really specific, so only a few people can assimilate it. You—” Adrian shrugs. “I wasn’t involved,” he says.
“Who was?” asks Huw, his knuckles whitening. “If I find them—”
“It was sort of one of those things,” Adrian says. “You know how it happens? Someone does some deep data mining on the proteome and spots a correlation. Posts their findings publicly. Someone else thinks, Hey, I know that joe, and invites them to a party along with a bunch of their friends. Someone else spikes the punch while they’re chatting up a bit of fluff, and then a prankster at the New Libyan embassy thinks, Hey, we could maybe rope him into the hanging judge’s reality show, howzabout that? Boy, you can snap your fingers and before you know what’s happening, there’s a flash conspiracy in action—not your real good old-fashioned secret new world order, nobody can be arsed tracking those things these days, but the next best thing. A self-propagating teleology meme. Goal-seeking Neat Ideas are the most dangerous kind. You smoke?”
“Thanks,” says Huw, accepting the joint. “Is the tea ready?”
“Yeah.” And Adrian spends the next minute pouring a couple of mugs of extremely strong breakfast tea, while Huw does his best to calm his shattered nerves by getting blasted right out of his skull on hashishim dope.
“’Kay, lemme get this straight. I was never on tech jury call, right? Was a setup. All along.”
“Well, hurm. It was a real jury, all right, but that doesn’t mean your name was plucked out of the hat at random, follow?”
“All right. Nobody planned, not a conspiracy, just a set of accidents ’cause the cloud wants to talk. Huh?” Huw leans back on the beanbag and bangs his head on a giant otolith, setting it vibrating with a deep gut-churning rumble. “’Sh cool stuff. Fucking cloud. Why can’t it send a letter if it wanna talk to me?”
“Yer the human condition in microcosm, mate. Here, pass the spliff.”
“’Kay. So what wants to talk?”
“Eh, well, you’ve met the ambassador already, right? S’okay, Bonnie’ll be along in a while with it.”
“And whothefuck are you? I mean, what’re you doing in this?”
“Hell.” Adrian looks resigned. “I’m just your ordinary joe, really. Forget the Nobel Prize, that doesn’t mean anything. ’S all a team effort these days, anyway, and I ain’t done any real work in cognitive neuroscience for thirty, forty years. Tell the truth, I was just bumming around, enjoying my second teenage Wanderjahr when I heard ’bout you through the grapevine. Damn shame we couldn’t get a sane judge for the hearing. None of this shit would be necessary if it wasn’t for Rosa’s thing.”
“Rosa Giuliani. Hanging judge and reality show host. She’s like, a bit conservative. Hadn’t you noticed?”
“A bit. Conservative.”
“Yeah, she’s an old-time environmentalist, really likes conserving things—preferably in formalin. Including anyone who’s been infected by a communications vector.”
“Oh.” Normally this description of Giuliani’s politics would fill Huw with the warm fuzzies, but the thing in his throat is a reminder that he’s currently further outside his comfort zone than he’s ventured in decades. He’s still trying to digest the indigestible thought through a haze of amiability-inducing smoke, when the local unplugs herself from the omnifab’s console, stands up and stretches, then plugs in a language module.
“Your bicycle will be healed again in a few hours,” she says, nodding at Huw, just as the omni burps and then hawks up a passable replica of a Shimano dynamo hub. “Can you put it together with tools?”
“I, uh—” Huw gawks at her. “Do I know you?” he asks. “You look just like this hacker—”
She shrugs irritably. “I am not responsible for my idiot clone-aunts!”
“But you—” He stops. “There are lots of you?”
“Oh yes.” She smiles tightly. “Ade, my friend, I am taking a walk. Don’t get up to anything I wouldn’t.”
“I won’t, Becky. Promise.”
“Good. I’m Maisie, though.” She climbs onto a toadstool-shaped bone and rapidly rises toward the ceiling on a pillar of something that might be muscle, but probably isn’t.
“Lovely girls,” Adrian says when she’s gone. “Where was I? Ah, yes: the ambassador.”
“Yeah, ambassador. It’s a special kind of communications node: needs enough brains to talk to that thing in your throat and translate what you send it into something the cloud can work with. You’re the interpreter, see. We’ve been expecting it for a while, but didn’t reckon with those idiot script kiddies ending up in court. It’ll be along—”
There’s a clattering noise behind Huw, and he looks round so abruptly that he nearly falls off his sack, and though he’s feeling mellow—far better disposed toward his fellow man than he was an hour ago—it’s all Huw can do to refrain from jumping up, shrieking.
“You!” says Bonnie, clutching a large and ominously familiar black box in her arms as she slides to a halt at the foot of the spiral. “Hey, Ade, is this your party?”
The box twitches in her arms, as if something inside it is trying to escape. Huw can feel a scream welling up in his throat, and it isn’t his—it’s a scream of welcome, a paean of politics. He bites it back with a curse. “How the hell did you get that?” he says.
“Stole it while the judge was running after you,” Bonnie says. “There’s a README with it that says it needs a translator. That would be you, huh?” She looks at him with ill-concealed lust. “Prepare to plug into the ride of your life!”
“God, no,” he says.
Adrian pats his shoulder. “Pecker up. It’s all for the best.”
The box opens and the Kleinmonster bobs a curtsy at him, then warbles. His throat warbles in response. The hash has loosened his vocal cords so that there isn’t the same sense of forced labor, just a mellow, easy kind of song. His voices and the Kleinmonster’s intertwine in an aural handshake and gradually his sensoria fades away, until he’s no longer looking out of his eyes, no longer feeling through his skin, but rather he’s part of the Cloudmind, smeared across space and time and a billion identities all commingled and aswirl with unknowable convection currents of thought and deed.
Somewhere there is the Earth, the meatspace whence the Cloudmind has ascended. His point of view inverts and now the Earth is enveloped in him, a messy gobstopper dissolving in a probabilistic mindmouth. It’s like looking down at a hatched-out egg, knowing that once upon a time you fit inside that shell, but now you’re well shut of it. Meat, meat, meat. Imperfect and ephemeral and needlessly baroque and kludgy, but it calls to the cloud with a gravitic tug of racial memory.
And then the sensoria recedes and he’s eased back into his skin, singing to the Kleinmonster and its uplink to the cloud. He knows he’s x-mitting his own sensoria, the meat and the unreasoning demands of dopamine and endorphin. Ah, says the ambassador. Ah. Yes. This is what it was like. Ah.
Well, that’s done.
The Kleinmonster uncoils and stretches straight up to the ceiling, then gradually telescopes back into itself until it’s just a button of faintly buzzing nanocrud. The buzzing gains down and then vanishes, and it falls still.
Bonnie shakes his shoulders. “What happened?” she says, eyes shining.
“Got what it needed,” Huw says with a barely noticeable under-drone.
“What? Oh, a bit of a reminder, I expect. A taste of the meat.”
“That’s it?” Bonnie says. “All that for—what? A trip down memory lane? All that fucking work and it doesn’t even want to stick around and chat?”
Huw shrugs. “That’s the cloud for you. In-fucking-effable. Nostalgia trip, fact-finding mission, what’s the difference?”
“Will it be back? I wanted to talk to it about…” She trailed off, blushing. “I wanted to know what it was like.”
Huw thinks of what it was like to be part of the matryoshka-brain, tries to put it into words. “I can’t quite describe it,” he says. “Not in so many words. Not right now. Give me a while, maybe I’ll manage it.” He’s got a nasty case of the pasties and he guzzles a cup of lukewarm milky tea, swirling it around his starchy tongue. “Of course, if you’re really curious, you could always join up.”
Bonnie looks away and Adrian huffs a snort. “I’ll do it someday,” she says. “Just want to know what I’m getting into.”
“I understand,” he says. “Don’t worry, I still think you’re an anti-human race-traitor, girlie. You don’t need to prove anything to me.”
“Fucking right I don’t!” Bonnie says. She’s blushing rather fetchingly.
“Right,” Huw says.
Huw begins to hum a little, experimenting with his new transhuman peripheral. The drone is quite nice: it reminds him vaguely of a digeridoo. Or bagpipes. He sings a little of the song from the courthouse, in two-part discord. Bonnie’s flush deepens and she rubs her palms against her thighs, hissing like a teakettle.
Huw cocks his head at her and leans forward a bit, and she grabs his ears and drags him down on top of her.
Adrian taps him on the shoulder a moment later. “Sorry to interrupt,” he says, “but Judge Rosa’s bound to come looking for you eventually. We’d best get you out of Libya sharpish.”
Huw ignores him, concentrating on the marimba sensation of Bonnie’s rib cage grinding over his chest.
Adrian rolls his eyes. “I’ll just go steal a blimp or something, then, shall I?”
Bonnie breaks off worrying Huw’s ear with her tongue and teeth and says, “Fuck off a while, will you, Adrian?”
Adrian contemplates the two of them for a moment, trying to decide whether they need a good kick round the kidneys, then turns on his heel and goes off to find Maisie, or perhaps Becky, and sort out an escape.
The entity Huw has mistaken for the whole of the cloud whirls in its orbit, tasting the meat with its multifarious sensory apparat, thinking its in-fucking-effable thoughts, muttering in RF and gravity and eigenstate. The ambassador hibernates on the safe house’s floor, prized loose from under Huw’s tailbone, where it had been digging rather uncomfortably, quite spoiling Huw’s concentration, and tossed idly into a corner. The cloud thing’s done with it for now, but its duty-cycle is hardly exhausted, and it wonders what its next use will be.
Huw moans an eerie buzz that sets Bonnie’s gut aquiver in sympathy, which is not nearly so unpleasant as it sounds.
In fact, Bonnie thinks she could rather get used to it.
Copyright © 2012 by Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross