[Chapters 1 and 2 ofRainbows End, by Vernor Vinge, Tor Books]
CHAPTER 01: Mr. Rabbit VisitsBarcelona
Within the intelligence services of the Indo-European Alliance, there were a handful of bureaucratic superstars, people such as Günberk Braun of the EUIB. Hopefully, their identities were unknown -- or a mass of contradictions -- to the general public. The superstars had their own heroes. In particular, when people like Günberk Braun were confronted with the most desperate problems, there was a place to get help. There was a certain department in India's External Intelligence Agency. It didn't show up in EIA organization charts, and its purpose was happily undefined. Basically, it was whatever its boss thought it should be. That boss was an Indian national known (to those very few who knew of him at all) as Alfred Vaz.
Braun took his terrifying discovery to Vaz. At first, the older man was as taken aback as Braun himself had been. But Vaz was a fixer. "With the proper human resources, you can solve almost any problem," he said. "Give me a few days. Let's see what I can dig up."
In downtown Barcelona, three days later:
The rabbit hopped onto the unoccupied wicker chair and thence to the middle of the table, between the teacups and the condiments. It tipped its top hat first at Alfred Vaz and then at Günberk Braun and Keiko Mitsuri. "Have I got a deal for you!" it said. Altogether, it was an unremarkable example of its type.
Alfred reached out and swiped his hand through the image, just to emphasize his own substance. "We're the ones with the deal."
"Hmph." The rabbit plunked its ass down on the table and pulled a tiny tea service out from behind the salt and pepper. It poured itself a drop or two -- enough to fill its cup -- and took a sip. "I'm all ears." It wiggled two long ones to emphasize the point.
From the other side of table, Günberk Braun gave the creature a long stare. Braun was as ephemeral as the rabbit, but he projected a dour earnestness that was quite consistent with his real personality. Alfred thought he detected a certain surprised disappointment in the younger man's expression. In fact, after a moment, Günberk sent him a silent message.
Braun --> Mitsuri, Vaz: <sm>This
is the best you could recruit, Alfred?</sm>
Alfred didn't reply directly. Instead, he turned to the creature sitting on the table. "Welcome to Barcelona, Mr. Rabbit," he said. He waved at the towers of the Sagrada Familia that soared up and up from just across the street. The cathedral was best seen without virtual elaboration; after all, the reality of Gaudí architecture was gaudy beyond the imagination of modern revisionists. "Do you have any idea why we selected this location for our meeting?"
The rabbit sipped its tea. Its gaze slid in a very un-rabbity way to take in the noisy crowds that swept past the tables, to scan the costumes and body-plans of tourists and locals. "Ah, is it that Barcelona is a place for the beautiful and the bizarre, one of the few great cities of the twentieth century whose charm survives in the modern world? Could it be that on the side, you and your families are taking touchy-feely tours through Parc Güell and writing it all off on your expense accounts?" He stared at Braun and at Keiko Mitsuri. Mitsuri was frankly masked. She looked a bit like Marcel Duchamp's nude, built from a shifting complex of crystal planes. The rabbit shrugged, "But then again, maybe you two are thousands of kilometers away."
Keiko laughed. "Oh, don't be so indecisive," she said, speaking with a completely synthetic accent and syntax. "I'm quite happy to be in Parc Güell right now, feeling reality with my very own real hands."
Mitsuri --> Braun, Vaz: <sm>In fact, I'm in my office, admiring the moonlight on Tokyo bay.</sm>
The rabbit continued, ignorant of the silent messaging byplay: "Whatever. In any case, the real reasons for meeting here: Barcelona has very direct connections to wherever you're really from, and modern security to disguise what we say. Best of all, it has laws banning popular and police snooping ... unless of course youare
the EU Intelligence Board."
Mitsuri --> Braun, Vaz: <sm>Well, that's one third of a correct guess.</sm>
Braun --> Mitsuri, Vaz: <sm>Mr. Rabbit himself is calling from some distance.</sm> An EU real-time estimate hung in the air above the little creature's head: 75 percent probability that the mind behind the rabbit image was in North America.
Alfred leaned toward the rabbit and smiled. As the agent with physical presence, Vaz had limitations -- but some advantages, too. "No, we're not the secret police. And yes, we wanted some secure communication that was a bit more personal than text messaging." He tapped his chest. "In particular, you see me physically here. It builds trust."And should give you all sorts of invalid clues.
Vaz waved to a waiter, ordered a glass of Rioja. Then, turning back to the creature on the tablecloth: "In recent months, you have bragged many things, Mr. Rabbit. Others brag similarly nowadays, but you have certificates that are difficult to come by. Various people with notable reputations have endorsed your abilities."
The rabbit preened. This was a rabbit with many implausible mannerisms. Physical realism did not rank high in its priorities. "Of course I am highly recommended. For any problem, political, military, scientific, artistic, or amorous -- meet my terms, and I will deliver."
Mitsuri --> Braun, Vaz: <sm>Go ahead, Alfred.</sm>
Braun --> Mitsuri, Vaz: <sm>Yes, the minimal version of course. Nothing more till we see some results that we couldn't make for ourselves.</sm>
Alfred nodded as if to himself. "Our problem has nothing to do with politics or war, Mr. Rabbit. We have only some scientific interests."
The rabbit ears waggled. "So? Post your needs to the answer boards. That may get you results almost as good as mine, almost as fast. And for certain, a thousand times cheaper."
Wine arrived. Vaz made a thing of sniffing the bouquet. He glanced across the street. The bidding on physical tour slots to La Sagrada Familia was closed for the day, but there was still a queue of people near the cathedral entrance, people hoping for no-shows. It proved once again that the most important things were those you could touch. He looked back at the gray rabbit. "We have needs that are more basic than picking the brains of a few thousand analysts. Our questions require serious, um, experimentation. Some of that has already been done. Much remains. All together, our project is the size you might imagine for a government crash research program."
The rabbit grinned, revealing ivory incisors. "Heh. A government crash program? That's twentieth-century foolishness. Market demands are always more effective. You just have to fool the market into cooperating."
"Maybe. But what we want to do is ..." The hell of it was, even the cover story was extreme. "What we want is, um, administrative authority at a large physical laboratory."
The rabbit froze, and for an instant it looked like a real herbivore, one suddenly caught in a bright light. "Oh? What kind of physical lab?"
"Globally integrated life sciences."
"Well, well, well." Rabbit sat back, communing with itself -- hopefully with itself alone. EU Intelligence set a 65% probability that Rabbit was not sharing the big picture with others, 95% that it was not a tool of China or the U.S.A. Alfred's own organization in India was even more confident of these assumptions.
The rabbit set down his teacup. "I'm intrigued. So this is not an information provision job. You really want me to subvert a major installation."
"Just for a short time," said Günberk.
"Whatever. You've come to the right fellow." Its nose quivered. "I'm sure you know the possibilities. In Europe there are a scattering of top institutions, but none is totally integrated -- and for now they remain in the backwash of sites in China and the U.S.A."
Vaz didn't nod, but the rabbit was right. There were brilliant researchers the world over, but only a few data-intensive labs. In the twentieth century, technical superiority of major labs might last thirty years. Nowadays, things changed faster, but Europe was a little behind. The Bhopal complex in India was more integrated, but lagging in micro-automation. It might be several years before China and the U.S.A. lost their current edge.
The rabbit was chuckling to itself: "Hm, hm. So it must be either the labs in Wuhan or those in Southern California. I could work my miracles with either, of course." That was a lie, or else Alfred's people had totally misjudged this fine furry fiend.
Keiko said, "We'd prefer the biotech complex in San Diego, California."
Alfred had a smooth explanation ready: "We've studied the San Diego labs for some months. We know it has the resources we need." In fact, San Diego was where Günberk Braun's terrible suspicions were focused.
"Just what are you planning?"
Günberk gave a sour smile. "Let us proceed by installments, Mr. Rabbit. For the first installment, we suggest a thirty-day deadline. We'd like from you a survey of the San Diego labs' security. More important, we need credible evidence that you can provide a team of local people to carry out physical acts in and near those labs."
"Well then. I will hop right on it." The rabbit rolled its eyes. "It's obvious you're looking for an expendable player, somebody to shield your operation from the Americans. Okay. I can be a cutout. But be warned. I am very pricey and Iwill
be around to collect afterwards."
Keiko laughed. "No need to be melodramatic, Mr. Rabbit. We know of your famous skills."
"Quite right! But so far you don't believe in them. Now I'll go away, sniff around San Diego and get back to you in a couple of weeks. I'll have something to show you by then, and -- more important for me -- I'll have used my enormous imagination to specify a first payment in this installment plan that Mr. So-German-Seeming has proposed." He gave a little bow in Günberk's direction.
Mitsuri and Braun were radiating bemused silence, so it was Alfred who carried on the conversation. "We'll chat again then. Please remember that for now we want a survey only. We want to know whom you can recruit and how you might use them."
The rabbit touched its nose. "I will be the soul of discretion. I always know much more than I reveal. But you three really should improve your performances. Mr. So-German is just an out-of-date stereotype. And you, Señora, the work of impressionist art reveals nothing and everything. Who might have a special interest in the San Diego bio labs? Who indeed? And as for you --" Rabbit looked at Vaz. "That's a fine Colombian accent you're hiding."
The creature laughed and hopped off the table. "Talk to you soon."
Alfred leaned back and watched the gray form as it dodged between the legs of passersby. It must have a festival permit, since other people were evidently seeing the creature. There was nopoof
of vanishment. The rabbit remained visible for twenty meters up Carrer de Sardenya, then darted into an alley and was finally and quite naturally lost to sight.
The three agents sat for a moment in apparently companionable silence, Günberk bent over his virtual wine, Vaz sipping at his real Rioja and admiring the stilted puppets that were setting up for the afternoon parade. The three blended well with the normal touristy hurly-burly of the Familia district -- except that most tourists paying for cafe seating on C. de Sardenya would have had more than a one-third physical presence.
"He is truly gone," Günberk said, a bit unnecessarily; they could all see the EU signals analysis. A few more seconds passed. The Japanese and Indian intelligence agencies also reported in: Rabbit remained unidentified.
"Well that's something," said Keiko. "He got away clean. Perhaps he can function as a cutout."
Günberk gave a weary shrug. "Perhaps. What a disgusting twit. His kind of dilettante is a cliché a century old, reborn with each new technology. I wager he's fourteen years old and desperately eager to show off." He glanced at Vaz. "Is this the best you could come up with, Alfred?"
"His reputation is not a fraud, Günberk. He has managed projects almost as complex as what we have in mind for him."
"Those were research projects. Perhaps he is a good -- what's the term? -- 'weaver of geniuses'. What we want is more operational."
"Well, he correctly picked up on all of the clues we gave him." There had been Alfred's accent, and the network evidence they had planted about Keiko's origin.
"Ach ja," said Günberk, and a sudden smile crossed his face. "It's a bit humiliating that when I am simply myself, I'm accused of overacting! Yes, so now Mr. Rabbit thinks we are South American drug lords."
The shifting crystal mists that were Keiko's image seemed to smile. "In a way, that's more plausible than what we really are." The heirs of drugwars past had been in eclipse this last decade; access to "ecstasy and enhancement" was so widespread that competition had done what enforcement could never accomplish. But the drug lords were still rich beyond the dreams of most small countries. The ones lurking in failed states might be crazy enough to do what they three had hinted at today.
Günberk said, "The rabbit is manageable, I grant that. Competent for our needs? Much less likely."
"Having second thoughts about our little project, Günberk?" This was Keiko's real voice. Her tone was light, but Alfred knew she had her own very serious misgivings.
"Of course," said Günberk. He fidgeted for a moment. "Look. Terror via technical surprise is the greatest threat to the survival of the human race. The Great Powers -- ourselves, China, the U.S. -- have been at peace for some years, mostly because we recognize that danger and we keep the rest of the world in line. And now we discover that the Americans --"
Keiko: "We don't know it's the Americans, Günberk. The San Diego labs support researchers all over the world."
"That is so. And a week ago I was as dubious as you. But now ... consider: The weapons test was a masterpiece of cloaking. We were incredibly lucky to notice it. The test was a work of patience and professionalism, at the level of a Great Power. Great Powers have their own inertia and bureaucratic caution. Field testing must necessarily be done in the outside world, but they do not run their weapons development in labs they do not own."
Keiko made a sound like far-away chimes. "But why would a Great Power plot a revolution in plague delivery? What profit is there in that?"
Günberk nodded. "Yes, such destruction would make sense for a cult, but not for a superpower. At first, my conclusion was a nightmare without logic. But my analysts have been over this again and again. They've concluded that the 'honeyed nougat symptom' was not simply a stand-in for lethal disease. In fact, it was an essential feature of the test. This enemy is aiming at something greater than instant biowarfare strikes. This enemy is close to having an effective YGBM technology."
Keiko was completely silent; even her crystals lost their mobility. YGBM. That was a bit of science-fiction jargon from the turn of the century: You-Gotta-Believe-Me. That is, mind control. Weak, social forms of YGBM drove all human history. For more than a hundred years, the goal ofirresistible
persuasion had been a topic of academic study. For thirty years it had been a credible technological goal. And for ten, some version of it had been feasible in well-controlled laboratory settings.
The crystals shifted; Alfred could tell that Keiko was looking at him. "Can this be true, Alfred?"
"Yes, I'm afraid so. My people have studied the report. Günberk's luck was extraordinary, since this was really a simultaneous test oftwo
radical innovations. The honeyed-nougat compulsion was far more precise than needed for a test of remote disease triggering. The perpetrators knew what they were coding for -- consider the cloaking advertisement for nougats. My analysts think the enemy may be capable of higher semantic control in as little as a year."
Keiko sighed. "I ... see. All my life, I've fought the cults. I thought the great nations were beyond the most monstrous evils ... but this, this would make me wrong."
Günberk nodded. "If we are right about these labs and if we fail to properly ... deal ... with them, that could be the end of history. It could be the end of all the striving for good against evil that has ever been." He shook himself, abruptly returning to the practical. "And yet we are reduced to working through this damned rabbit person."
Alfred said gently, "I've studied Rabbit's track record, Günberk. I think he can do what we need. One way or another. He'll get us the inside information, or he'll create enough chaos --not
attributable to us -- that any evil will be clearly visible. If the worst is true, we'll have evidence that we and China and even the non-culpable parties in the U.S.A. can use to stamp this out." Suppression attacks on the territory of a Great Power were rare, but there was precedent.
All three were silent for a moment, and the sounds of the festival afternoon swept around Vaz. It had been so many years since his last visit to Barcelona.... Finally, Günberk gave a grudging nod. "I'll recommend to my superiors that we proceed."
Across the table, Keiko's prismatic imagery shimmered and chimed. Mitsuri's background was in sociology. Her analyst teams were heavily into psychology and social institutions -- much less diversified than the teams working for Alfred, or Günberk. But maybe she would come up with some alternative that the other two had missed. Finally she spoke: "There are many decent people in the American intelligence community. I don't like doing this behind their back. And yet, this is an extraordinary situation. I have clearance to go ahead with Plan Rabbit --" she paused "-- with one proviso. Günberk fears that we've erred in the direction of employing an incompetent. Alfred has studied Rabbit more, and thinks he's at just the right level of talent. But what if you are both wrong?"
Günberk started in surprise. "The devil!
" he said. Alfred guessed that some very quick silent messaging passed between the two.
The prisms seemed to nod. "Yes. What if Rabbit is significantlymore
competent than we think? In that unlikely event, Rabbit might hijack the operation, or even ally with our hypothetical enemy. If we proceed, we must develop abort-and-destroy plans to match Rabbit's progress. If he becomes the greater threat, we must be prepared to talk to the Americans. Agreed?"