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Chapter 2: Troubadour
Three years later, Manfred is on the run. His gray-eyed fate is in hot pursuit, blundering after him through divorce court, chat room, and meetings of the International Monetary Emergency Fund. It's a merry dance he leads her. But Manfred isn't running away, he's discovered a mission. He's going to make a stand against the laws of economics in the ancient city of Rome. He's going to mount a concert for the spiritual machines. He's going to set the companies free, and break the Italian state government.
In his shadow, his monster runs, keeping him company, never halting.
* * *
Manfred re-enters Europe through an airport that's all twentieth-century chrome and ductwork, barbaric in its decaying nuclear-age splendor. He breezes through customs and walks down a long, echoing arrival hall, sampling the local media feeds. It's November, and in a misplaced corporate search for seasonal cheer, the proprietors have come up with a final solution to the Christmas problem, a mass execution of plush Santas and elves. Bodies hang limply overhead every few meters, feet occasionally twitching in animatronic death, like a war crime perpetrated in a toy shop. Today's increasingly automated corporations don't understand mortality, Manfred thinks, as he passes a mother herding along her upset children. Their immortality is a drawback when dealing with the humans they graze on: They lack insight into one of the main factors that motivates the meat machines who feed them. Well, sooner or later we'll have to do something about that, he tells himself.
The free media channels here are denser and more richly self-referential than anything he's seen in President Santorum's America. The accent's different, though. Luton, London's fourth satellite airport, speaks with an annoyingly bumptious twang, like Australian with a plum in its mouth. Hello, stranger! Is that a brain in your pocket or are you just pleased to think me? Ping Watford Informatics for the latest in cognitive modules and cheesy motion-picture references. He turns the corner and finds himself squeezed up against the wall between the baggage reclaim office and a crowd of drunken Belgian tractor-drag fans, while his left goggle is trying to urgently tell him something about the railway infrastructure of Columbia. The fans wear blue face paint and chant something that sounds ominously like the ancient British war cry, Wemberrrly, Wemberrrly, and they're dragging a gigantic virtual tractor totem through the webspace analogue of the arrivals hall. He takes the reclaim office instead.
As he enters the baggage reclaim zone, his jacket stiffens, and his glasses dim: He can hear the lost souls of suitcases crying for their owners. The eerie keening sets his own accessories on edge with a sense of loss, and for a moment, he's so spooked that he nearly shuts down the thalamic–limbic shunt interface that lets him feel their emotions. He's not in favor of emotions right now, not with the messy divorce proceedings and the blood sacrifice Pam is trying to extract from him; he'd much rather love and loss and hate had never been invented. But he needs the maximum possible sensory bandwidth to keep in touch with the world, so he feels it in his guts every time his footwear takes a shine to some Moldovan pyramid scheme. Shut up, he glyphs at his unruly herd of agents; I can't even hear myself think!
"Hello, sir, have a nice day, how may I be of service?" the yellow plastic suitcase on the counter says chirpily. It doesn't fool Manfred: He can see the Stalinist lines of control chaining it to the sinister, faceless cash register that lurks below the desk, agent of the British Airport Authority corporate bureaucracy. But that's okay. Only bags need fear for their freedom in here.
"Just looking," he mumbles. And it's true. Because of a not entirely accidental cryptographic routing feature embedded in an airline reservations server, his suitcase is on its way to Mombasa, where it will probably be pithed and resurrected in the service of some African cyber-Fagin. That's okay by Manfred — it only contains a statistically normal mixture of second hand clothes and toiletries, and he only carries it to convince the airline passenger-profiling expert systems that he isn't some sort of deviant or terrorist — but it leaves him with a gap in his inventory that he must fill before he leaves the EU zone. He needs to pick up a replacement suitcase so that he has as much luggage leaving the superpower as he had when he entered it: He doesn't want to be accused of trafficking in physical goods in the midst of the transatlantic trade war between new world protectionists and old world globalists. At least, that's his cover story — and he's sticking to it.
There's a row of unclaimed bags in front of the counter, up for sale in the absence of their owners. Some of them are very battered, but among them is a rather good-quality suitcase with integral induction-charged rollers and a keen sense of loyalty: exactly the same model as his old one. He polls it and sees not just GPS, but a Galileo tracker, a gazetteer the size of an old-time storage area network, and an iron determination to follow its owner as far as the gates of hell if necessary. Plus the right distinctive scratch on the lower left side of the case. "How much for just this one?" he asks the bellwether on the desk.
"Ninety euros," it says placidly.
Manfred sighs. "You can do better than that." In the time it takes them to settle on seventy-five, the Hang Sen Index is down fourteen-point-one-six points, and what's left of NASDAQ climbs another two-point-one. "Deal." Manfred spits some virtual cash at the brutal face of the cash register, and it unfetters the suitcase, unaware that Macx has paid a good bit more than seventy-five euros for the privilege of collecting this piece of baggage. Manfred bends down and faces the camera in its handle. "Manfred Macx," he says quietly. "Follow me." He feels the handle heat up as it imprints on his fingerprints, digital and phenotypic. Then he turns and walks out of the slave market, his new luggage rolling at his heels.
* * *
A short train journey later, Manfred checks into a hotel in Milton Keynes. He watches the sun set from his bedroom window, an occlusion of concrete cows blocking the horizon. The room is functional in an overly naturalistic kind of way, rattan and force-grown hardwood and hemp rugs concealing the support systems and concrete walls behind. He sits in a chair, gin and tonic at hand, absorbing the latest market news and grazing his multichannel feeds in parallel. His reputation is up two percent for no obvious reason today, he notices: Odd, that. When he pokes at it he discovers that everybody's reputation — everybody, that is, who has a publicly traded reputation — is up a bit. It's as if the distributed Internet reputation servers are feeling bullish about integrity. Maybe there's a global honesty bubble forming.
Manfred frowns, then snaps his fingers. The suitcase rolls toward him. "Who do you belong to?" he asks.
"Manfred Macx," it replies, slightly bashfully.
"No, before me."
"I don't understand that question."
He sighs. "Open up."
Latches whir and retract: The hard-shell lid rises toward him, and he looks inside to confirm the contents.
The suitcase is full of noise.
* * *
Welcome to the early twenty-first century, human.
It's night in Milton Keynes, sunrise in Hong Kong. Moore's Law rolls inexorably on, dragging humanity toward the uncertain future. The planets of the solar system have a combined mass of approximately 2 x 1027 kilograms. Around the world, laboring women produce forty-five thousand babies a day, representing 1023 MIPS of processing power. Also around the world, fab lines casually churn out thirty million microprocessors a day, representing 1023 MIPS. In another ten months, most of the MIPS being added to the solar system will be machine-hosted for the first time. About ten years after that, the solar system's installed processing power will nudge the critical 1 MIPS per gram threshold — one million instructions per second per gram of matter. After that, singularity — a vanishing point beyond which extrapolating progress becomes meaningless. The time remaining before the intelligence spike is down to single-digit years ...
* * *
Aineko curls on the pillow beside Manfred's head, purring softly as his owner dreams uneasily. The night outside is dark: Vehicles operate on autopilot, running lights dipped to let the Milky Way shine down upon the sleeping city. Their quiet, fuel-cell-powered engines do not trouble Manfred's sleep. The robot cat keeps sleepless watch, alert for intruders, but there are none, save the whispering ghosts of Manfred's metacortex, feeding his dreams with their state vectors.
The metacortex — a distributed cloud of software agents that surrounds him in netspace, borrowing CPU cycles from convenient processors (such as his robot pet) — is as much a part of Manfred as the society of mind that occupies his skull; his thoughts migrate into it, spawning new agents to research new experiences, and at night, they return to roost and share their knowledge.
While Manfred sleeps, he dreams of an alchemical marriage. She waits for him at the altar in a strapless black gown, the surgical instruments gleaming in her gloved hands. "This won't hurt a bit," she explains as she adjusts the straps. "I only want your genome – the extended phenotype can wait until ... later." Blood-red lips, licked: a kiss of steel, then she presents the income tax bill.
There's nothing accidental about this dream. As he experiences it, microelectrodes in his hypothalamus trigger sensitive neurons. Revulsion and shame flood him at the sight of her face, the sense of his vulnerability. Manfred's metacortex, in order to facilitate his divorce, is trying to decondition his strange love. It has been working on him for weeks, but still he craves her whiplash touch, the humiliation of his wife's control, the sense of helpless rage at her unpayable taxes, demanded with interest.
Aineko watches him from the pillow, purring continuously. Retractable claws knead the bedding, first one paw, then the next. Aineko is full of ancient feline wisdom that Pamela installed back when mistress and master were exchanging data and bodily fluids rather than legal documents. Aineko is more cat than robot, these days, thanks in part to her hobbyist's interest in feline neuroanatomy. Aineko knows that Manfred is experiencing nameless neurasthenic agonies, but really doesn't give a shit about that as long as the power supply is clean and there are no intruders.
Aineko curls up and joins Manfred in sleep, dreaming of laser-guided mice.
* * *
Manfred is jolted awake by the hotel room phone shrilling for attention.
"Hello?" he asks, fuzzily.
"Manfred Macx?" It's a human voice, with a gravelly east coast accent.
"Yeah?" Manfred struggles to sit up. His mouth feels like the inside of a tomb, and his eyes don't want to open.
"My name is Alan Glashwiecz, of Smoot, Sedgwick Associates. Am I correct in thinking that you are the Manfred Macx who is a director of a company called, uh, agalmic dot holdings dot root dot one-eight-four dot ninety-seven dot A-for-able dot B-for-baker dot five, incorporated?"
"Uh." Manfred blinks and rubs his eyes. "Hold on a moment." When the retinal patterns fade, he pulls on his glasses and powers them up. "Just a second now." Browsers and menus ricochet through his sleep-laden eyes. "Can you repeat the company name?"
"Sure." Glashwiecz repeats himself patiently. He sounds as tired as Manfred feels.
"Um." Manfred finds it, floating three tiers down an elaborate object hierarchy. It's flashing for attention. There's a priority interrupt, an incoming lawsuit that hasn't propagated up the inheritance tree yet. He prods at the object with a property browser. "I'm afraid I'm not a director of that company, Mr. Glashwiecz. I appear to be retained by it as a technical contractor with non-executive power, reporting to the president, but frankly, this is the first time I've ever heard of the company. However, I can tell you who's in charge if you want."
"Yes?" The attorney sounds almost interested. Manfred figures it out; the guy's in New Jersey, it must be about three in the morning over there.
Malice — revenge for waking him up — sharpens Manfred's voice. "The president of agalmic.holdings.root.184.97.AB5 is agalmic.holdings.root.184.97.201. The secretary is agalmic.holdings.root.184.D5, and the chair is agalmic.holdings.root.184.E8.FF. All the shares are owned by those companies in equal measure, and I can tell you that their regulations are written in Python. Have a nice day, now!" He thumps the bedside phone control and sits up, yawning, then pushes the do-not-disturb button before it can interrupt again. After a moment he stands up and stretches, then heads to the bathroom to brush his teeth, comb his hair, and figure out where the lawsuit originated and how a human being managed to get far enough through his web of robot companies to bug him.
* * *
While he's having breakfast in the hotel restaurant, Manfred decides that he's going to do something unusual for a change: He's going to make himself temporarily rich. This is a change because Manfred's normal profession is making other people rich. Manfred doesn't believe in scarcity or zero-sum games or competition — his world is too fast and information-dense to accommodate primate hierarchy games. However, his current situation calls for him to do something radical: something like making himself a temporary billionaire so he can blow off his divorce settlement in an instant, like a wily accountancy octopus escaping a predator by vanishing in a cloud of his own black ink.
Pam is chasing him partially for ideological reasons — she still hasn't given up on the idea of government as the dominant superorganism of the age — but also because she loves him in her own peculiar way, and the last thing any self-respecting dom can tolerate is rejection by her slave. Pam is a born-again postconservative, a member of the first generation to grow up after the end of the American century. Driven by the need to fix the decaying federal system before it collapses under a mound of Medicare bills, overseas adventurism, and decaying infrastructure, she's willing to use self-denial, entrapment, predatory mercantilism, dirty tricks, and any other tool that boosts the bottom line. She doesn't approve of Manfred's jetting around the world on free airline passes, making strangers rich, somehow never needing money. She can see his listing on the reputation servers, hovering about thirty points above IBM: All the metrics of integrity, effectiveness and goodwill value him above even that most fundamentalist of open-source computer companies. And she knows he craves her tough love, wants to give himself to her completely. So why is he running away?
The reason he's running away is entirely more ordinary. Their unborn daughter, frozen in liquid nitrogen, is an unimplanted 96-hour-old blastula. Pam's bought into the whole Parents for Traditional Children parasite meme. PTC are germ-line recombination refuseniks: They refuse to have their children screened for fixable errors. If there's one thing that Manfred really can't cope with, it's the idea that nature knows best — even though that isn't the point she's making. One steaming row too many, and he kicked back, off to traveling fast and footloose again, spinning off new ideas like a memetic dynamo and living on the largesse of the new paradigm. File for divorce on grounds of irreconcilable ideological differences. No more whiplash-and-leather sex.
* * *
Before he hits the TGV for Rome, Manfred takes time to visit a model airplane show. It's a good place to be picked up by a CIA stringer — he's had a tip-off that someone will be there — and besides, flying models are hot hacker shit this decade. Add microtechnology, cameras, and neural networks to balsa-wood flyers, and you've got the next generation of military stealth flyer: It's a fertile talent-show scene, like the hacker cons of yore. This particular gig is happening in a decaying out-of-town supermarket that rents out its shop floor for events like this. Its emptiness is a sign of the times, ubiquitous broadband and expensive gas. (The robotized warehouse next door is, in contrast, frenetically busy, packing parcels for home delivery. Whether they telecommute or herd in meatspace offices, people still need to eat.)
Today, the food hall is full of people. Eldritch ersatz insects buzz menacingly along the shining empty meat counters without fear of electrocution. Big monitors unfurled above the deli display cabinets show a weird, jerky view of a three-dimensional nightmare, painted all the synthetic colors of radar. The feminine-hygiene galley has been wheeled back to make room for a gigantic plastic-shrouded tampon five meters long and sixty centimeters in diameter — a microsat launcher and conference display, plonked there by the show's sponsors in a transparent attempt to talent-spot the up-and-coming engineering geeks.
Manfred's glasses zoom in and grab a particularly fetching Fokker triplane that buzzes at face height through the crowd: He pipes the image stream up to one of his websites in real time. The Fokker pulls up in a tight Immelman turn beneath the dust-shrouded pneumatic cash tubes that line the ceiling, then picks up the trail of an F-104G. Cold War Luftwaffe and Great War Luftwaffe dart across the sky in an intricate game of tag. Manfred's so busy tracking the warbirds that he nearly trips over the fat white tube's launcher-erector.
"Eh, Manfred! More care, s'il vous plait!"
He wipes the planes and glances round. "Do I know you?" he asks politely, even as he feels a shock of recognition.
"Amsterdam, three years ago." The woman in the double-breasted suit raises an eyebrow at him, and his social secretary remembers her for him, whispers in his ear.
"Annette from Arianespace marketing?" She nods, and he focuses on her. Still dressing in the last-century retro mode that confused him the first time they met, she looks like a Kennedy-era Secret Service man: cropped bleached crew cut like an angry albino hedgehog, pale blue contact lenses, black tie, narrow lapels. Only her skin color hints at her Berber ancestry. Her earrings are cameras, endlessly watching. Her raised eyebrow turns into a lopsided smile as she sees his reaction. "I remember. That cafe in Amsterdam. What brings you here?"
"Why "— her wave takes in the entirety of the show — "this talent show, of course." An elegant shrug and a wave at the orbit-capable tampon. "It's good talent. We're hiring this year. If we re-enter the launcher market, we must employ only the best. Amateurs, not time-servers, engineers who can match the very best Singapore can offer."
For the first time, Manfred notices the discreet corporate logo on the flank of the booster. "You outsourced your launch-vehicle fabrication?"
Annette pulls a face as she explains with forced casualness: "Space hotels were more profitable, this past decade. The high-ups, they cannot be bothered with the rocketry, no? Things that go fast and explode, they are passé, they say. Diversify, they say. Until —" She gives a very Gallic shrug. Manfred nods; her earrings are recording everything she says, for the purposes of due diligence.
"I'm glad to see Europe re-entering the launcher business," he says seriously. "It's going to be very important when the nanosystems conformational replication business gets going for real. A major strategic asset to any corporate entity in the field, even a hotel chain." Especially now they've wound up NASA and the moon race is down to China and India, he thinks sourly.
Her laugh sounds like glass bells chiming. "And yourself, mon cher? What brings you to the Confederaçion? You must have a deal in mind."
"Well., it's Manfred's turn to shrug, "I was
|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|