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"Save it," Ang says quietly. "I think it's a lawyer with a privacy screen."
Pierre glances over his shoulder and glares. "Really?"
Ang puts a restraining hand on his wrist: "Really. Don't pay it any attention. You don't have to, until the trial, you know."
The wicker man sits uneasily in the corner. It resembles a basket-weave silhouette made from dried reeds, dressed in a red kerchief. A glass of doppelbock fills the mess of tied-off ends where its right hand ought to be. From time to time, it raises the glass as if to take a mouthful, and the beer vanishes into the singular interior.
"Fuck the trial," Pierre says shortly. And fuck Amber, too, for naming me her public defender —
"Since when do lawsuits come with an invisible man?" asks Donna the Journalist, blitting into the bar along with a patchy historical trail hinting that she's just come from the back room.
"Since —" Pierre blinks. "Hell." When Donna entered, so did Aineko; or maybe the cat's been there all the time, curled up loaf-of-bread fashion on the table in front of the wicker man. "You're damaging the continuity," Pierre complains. "This universe is broken."
"Fix it yourself," Boris tells him. "Everybody else is coping." He snaps his fingers. "Waiter!"
"Excuse me." Donna shakes her head. "I didn't mean to harm anything."
Ang, as always, is more accommodating. "How are you?" she asks politely: "Would you like to try this most excellent poison cocktail?"
"I am well," says Donna. A heavily built German woman — blonde and solidly muscular, according to the avatar she's presenting to the public — she's surrounded by a haze of viewpoints. They're camera angles on her society of mind, busily integrating and splicing her viewpoint threads together in an endless journal of the journey. A stringer for the CIA media consortium, she uploaded to the ship in the same packet stream as the lawsuit. "Danke, Ang."
"Are you recording right now?" asks Boris.
Donna sniffs. "When am I not?" A momentary smile: "I am only a scanner, no? Five hours, until arrival, to go. I may stop after then." Pierre glances across the table at Su Ang's hands; her knuckles are white and tense. "I am to avoid missing anything if possible," Donna continues, oblivious to Ang's disquiet. "There are eight of me at present! All recording away."
"That's all?" Ang asks, raising an eyebrow.
"Yes, that is all, and I have a job to do! Don't tell me you do not enjoy what it is that you do here?"
"Right." Pierre glances in the corner again, avoiding eye contact with the hearty Girl Friday wannabe. He has a feeling, that if there were any hills hereabouts to animate, she'd be belting out the music. "Amber told you about the privacy code here?"
"There is a privacy code?" asks Donna, swinging at least three subjective ghosts to bear on him for some reason — evidently he's hit an issue she has mixed feelings about.
"A privacy code," Pierre confirms. "No recording in private, no recording where people withhold permission in public, and no sandboxes and cutups."
Donna looks offended. "I would never do such a thing! Trapping a copy of someone in a virtual space to record their responses would be assault under Ring legal code, not true?"
"Your mother," Boris says snidely, brandishing a fresh jug of iced killer jellyfish in her direction.
"As long as we all agree," Ang interrupts, searching for accord. "It's all going to be settled soon, isn't it?"
"Except for the lawsuit," mutters Pierre, glancing at the corner again.
"I don't see the problem," says Donna, "that's just between Amber and her downlink adversaries!"
"Oh, it's a problem all right," says Boris, his tone light. "What are your options worth?"
"My —" Donna shakes her head. "I'm not vested."
"Plausible." Boris doesn't crack a smile. "Even so, when we go home, your credibility metric will bulge. Assuming people still use distributed trust markets to evaluate the stability of their business partners."
Not vested. Pierre turns it over in his mind, slightly surprised. He'd assumed that everybody aboard the ship — except, perhaps, the lawyer, Glashwiecz — was a fully vested member of the expeditionary company.
"I am not vested," Donna insists. "I'm listed independently." For a moment, an almost-smile tugs at her face, a charmingly reticent expression that has nothing to do with her bluff exterior. "Like the cat."
"The —" Pierre turns round in a hurry. Yes, Aineko appears to be sitting silently at the table with the wicker man; but who knows what's going through that furry head right now? I'll have to bring this up with Amber, he realizes uneasily. I ought to bring this up with Amber ... "but your reputation won't suffer for being on this craft, will it?" he asks aloud.
"I will be all right," Donna declares. The waiter comes over: "Mine will be a bottle of schneiderweisse," she adds. And then, without breaking step: "Do you believe in the singularity?"
"Am I a singularitarian, do you mean?" asks Pierre, a fixed grin coming to his face.
"Oh, no, no, no!" Donna waves him down, grins broadly, nods at Su Ang: "I do not mean it like that! Attend: What I meant to ask was whether you in the concept of a singularity believe, and if so, where it is?"
"Is this intended for a public interview?" asks Ang.
"Well, I cannot into a simulation drag you off and expose you to an imitative reality excursion, can I?" Donna leans back as the bartender places a ceramic stein in front of her.
"Oh. Well." Ang glances warningly at Pierre and dispatches a very private memo to scroll across his vision: Don't play with her, this is serious. Boris is watching Ang with an expression of hopeless longing. Pierre tries to ignore it all, taking the journalist's question seriously. "The singularity is a bit like that old-time American Christian rapture nonsense, isn't it?" he says. "When we all go a-flying up to heaven, leaving our bodies behind." He snorts, reaches into thin air and gratuitously violates causality by summoning a jug of ice-cold sangria into existence. "The rapture of the nerds. I'll drink to that."
"But when did it take place?" asks Donna. "My audience, they will to know your opinion be needing."
"Four years ago, when we instantiated this ship," Pierre says promptly.
"Back in the teens," says Ang. "When Amber's father liberated the uploaded lobsters."
"Is not happening yet," contributes Boris. "Singularity implies infinite rate of change achieved momentarily. Future not amenable thereafter to prediction by presingularity beings, right? So has not happened."
"Au contraire. It happened on June 6th, 1969, at eleven hundred hours, eastern seaboard time," Pierre counters. "That was when the first network control protocol packets were sent from the data port of one IMP to another — the first ever Internet connection. That's the singularity. Since then we've all been living in a universe that was impossible to predict from events prior to that time."
"It's rubbish," counters Boris. "Singularity is load of religious junk. Christian mystic rapture recycled for atheist nerds."
"Not so." Su Ang glances at him, hurt. "Here we are, sixty something human minds. We've been migrated — while still awake — right out of our own heads using an amazing combination of nanotechnology and electron spin resonance mapping, and we're now running as software in an operating system designed to virtualize multiple physics models and provide a simulation of reality that doesn't let us go mad from sensory deprivation! And this whole package is about the size of a fingertip, crammed into a starship the size of your grandmother's old Walkman, in orbit around a brown dwarf just over three light-years from home, on its way to plug into a network router created by incredibly ancient alien intelligences, and you can tell me that the idea of a fundamental change in the human condition is nonsense?"
"Mmph." Boris looks perplexed. "Would not put it that way. The singularity is nonsense, not uploading or —"
"Yah, right." Ang smiles winningly at Boris. After a moment, he wilts.
Donna beams at them enthusiastically. "Fascinating!" she enthuses. "Tell me, what are these lobsters you think are important?"
"They're Amber's friends," Ang explains. "Years ago, Amber's father did a deal with them. They were the first uploads, you know? Hybridized spiny lobster neural tissue and a heuristic API and some random mess of backward-chaining expert systems. They got out of their lab and into the Net and Manfred brokered a deal to set them free, in return for their help running a Franklin orbital factory. This was way back in the early days before they figured out how to do self-assembly properly. Anyway, the lobsters insisted — part of their contract — that Bob Franklin pay to have the deep-space tracking network beam them out into interstellar space. They wanted to emigrate, and looking at what's happened to the solar system since then, who can blame them?"
Pierre takes a big mouthful of sangria. "The cat," he says.
"The cat —" Donna's head swivels round, but Aineko has banged out again, retroactively editing her presence out of the event history of this public space. "What about the cat?"
"The family cat," explains Ang. She reaches over for Boris's pitcher of jellyfish juice, but frowns as she does so: "Aineko wasn't conscious back then, but later ... when SETI@home finally received that message back, oh, however many years ago, Aineko remembered the lobsters. And cracked it wide open while all the CETI teams were still thinking in terms of von Neumann architectures and concept-oriented programming. The message was a semantic net designed to mesh perfectly with the lobster broadcast all those years ago, and provide a high-level interface to a communications network we're going to visit." She squeezes Boris's fingertips. "SETI@home logged these coordinates as the origin of the transmission, even though the public word was that the message came from a whole lot farther away — they didn't want to risk a panic if people knew there were aliens on our cosmic doorstep. Anyway, once Amber got established, she decided to come visiting. Hence this expedition. Aineko created a virtual lobster and interrogated the ET packet, hence the communications channel we're about to open."
"Ah, this is all a bit clearer now," says Donna. "But the lawsuit — " She glances at the hollow wicker man in the corner.
"Well, there we have a problem," Ang says diplomatically.
"No," says Pierre. "I have a problem. And it's all Amber's fault."
"Hmm?" Donna stares at him. "Why blame the Queen?"
"Because she's the one who picked the lunar month to be the reporting time period for companies in her domain, and specified trial by combat for resolving corporate conflicts," he grumbles. "And compurgation, but that's not applicable to this case because there isn't a recognized reputation server within three light-years. Trial by combat, for civil suits in this day and age! And she appointed me her champion." In the most traditional way imaginable, he remembers with a warm frisson of nostalgia. He'd been hers in body and soul before that disastrous experiment. He isn't sure whether it still applies, but — "I've got to take on this lawsuit on her behalf, in adversarial stance."
He glances over his shoulder. The wicker man sits there placidly, pouring beer down his invisible throat like a tired farm laborer.
"Trial by combat," Su Ang explains to Donna's perplexed ghost-swarm, which is crawling all over the new concept in a haze of confusion. "Not physical combat, but a competition of ability. It seemed like a good idea at the time, to keep junk litigants out of the Ring Imperium, but the Queen Mother's lawyers are very persistent. Probably because it's taken on something of a grudge match quality over the years. I don't think Pamela cares much anymore, but this ass-hat lawyer has turned it into a personal crusade. I don't think he liked what happened when the music Mafiya caught up with him. But there's a bit more to it, because if he wins, he gets to own everything. And I mean everything."
* * *
Ten million kilometers out and Hyundai +4904/-56 looms beyond the parachute-shaped sail of the Field Circus like a rind of darkness bitten out of the edge of the universe. Heat from the gravitational contraction of its core keeps it warm, radiating at six hundred degrees absolute, but the paltry emission does nothing to break the eternal ice that grips Callidice, Iambe, Celeus, and Metaneira, the stillborn planets locked in orbit around the brown dwarf.
Planets aren't the only structures that orbit the massive sphere of hydrogen. Close in, skimming the cloud tops by only twenty thousand kilometers, Boris's phased-array eye has blinked at something metallic and hot. Whatever it is, it orbits out of the ecliptic plane traced by the icy moons, and in the wrong direction. Farther out, a speckle of reflected emerald laser light picks out a gaudy gem against the starscape: their destination, the router.
"That's it," says Boris. His body shimmers into humanity, retconning the pocket universe of the bridge into agreeing that he's been present in primate form all along. Amber glances sideways. Sadeq is still wrapped in ivy, his skin the texture of weathered limestone. "Closest approach is sixty-three light-seconds, due in eight hundred thousand. Can give you closer contact if we maneuver, but will take time to achieve a stable orbit."
Amber nods thoughtfully, sending copies of herself out to work the mechanics. The big light sail is unwieldy, but can take advantage of two power sources: the original laser beam from Jupiter, and its reflection bouncing off the now-distant primary light sail. The temptation is to rely on the laser for constant acceleration, to just motor on in and squat on the router's cosmic doorstep. But the risk of beam interruption is too dangerous. It's happened before, for seconds to minutes at a time, on six occasions during the voyage so far. She's not sure what causes the beam downtime (Pierre has a theory about Oort cloud objects occulting the laser, but she figures it's more likely to be power cuts back at the Ring), but the consequences of losing power while maneuvering deep in a quasi-stellar gravity well are much more serious than a transient loss of thrust during free interstellar flight. "Let's just play it safe," she says. "We'll go for a straight orbital insertion and steady cranking after that. We've got enough gravity wells to play pinball with. I don't want us on a free-flight trajectory that entails lithobraking if we lose power and can't get the sail back."
"Very prudent," Boris agrees. "Marta, work on it." A buzzing presence of not-insects indicates that the heteromorphic helmswoman is on the job. "I think we should be able to take our first close-in look in about two million seconds, but if you want, I can ping it now ...?"
"No need for protocol analysis," Amber says casually. "Where's — ah, there you are." She reaches down and picks up Aineko, who twists round sinuously and licks her arm with a tongue like sandpaper. "What do you think?"
"Do you want fries with that?" asks the cat, focusing on the artifact at the center of the main screen in front of the bridge.
"No, I just want a conversation," says Amber.
"Well, okay." The cat dims, moves jerkily, sucking up local processing power so fast that it disturbs the local physics model. "Opening port now."
A subjective minute or two passes. "Where's Pierre?" Amber asks herself quietly. Some of the maintenance metrics she can read from her privileged viewpoint are worrying. The
|Dedication to my Father, who understands all this so much better than I. acknowledgements||II. a love Story, and a Dedication page 4|
|Dedication To Jim Baen, my mentor, my publisher and my friend. Just trying to pay forward. Acknowledgements||Primitive Love and Love-Stories|
|Dedication||Starting point: The Dedication of a Messenger|
|Dedication to my husband, James, for feedback and help above and beyond the call of duty, and to Katie for her patience in sharing her Mom||Acknowledgements|