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And if an answer had come, would they have liked it?
* * *
Adult-Manfred, still disoriented from finding himself awake and reinstantiated a couple of centuries downstream from his hurried exile from Saturn system, is hesitantly navigating his way toward Sirhan and Rita's home when big-Manni-with-Manfred's-memory-ghost drops into his consciousness like a ton of computronium glowing red-hot at the edges.
It's a classic oh-shit moment. Between one foot touching the ground and the next, Manfred stumbles hard, nearly twisting an ankle, and gasps. He remembers. At third hand he remembers being reincarnated as Manni, a bouncing baby boy for Rita and Sirhan (and just why they want to raise an ancestor instead of creating a new child of their own is one of those cultural quirks that is so alien he can scarcely comprehend it). Then for a while he recalls living as Manni's amnesic adult accelerated ghost, watching over his original from the consensus cyberspace of the city: the arrival of Pamela, adult Manni's reaction to her, her dump of yet another copy of Manfred's memories into Manni, and now this — How many of me are there? he wonders nervously. Then: Pamela? What's she doing here?
Manfred shakes his head and looks about. Now he remembers being big-Manni, he knows where he is implicitly, and more importantly, knows what all these next-gen City interfaces are supposed to do. The walls and ceiling are carpeted in glowing glyphs that promise him everything from instant-access local services to teleportation across interstellar distances. So they haven't quite collapsed geography yet, he realizes gratefully, fastening on to the nearest comprehensible thought of his own before old-Manni's memories explain everything for him. It's a weird sensation, seeing all this stuff for the first time — the trappings of a technosphere centuries ahead of the one he's last been awake in — but with the memories to explain it all. He finds his feet are still carrying him forward, toward a grassy square lined with doors opening onto private dwellings. Behind one of them, he's going to meet his descendants, and Pamela in all probability. The thought makes his stomach give a little queasy backflip. I'm not ready for this —
It's an acute moment of déjà vu. He's standing on a familiar doorstep he's never seen before. The door opens and a serious-faced child with three arms — he can't help staring, the extra one is a viciously barbed scythe of bone from the elbow down — looks up at him. "Hello, me," says the kid.
"Hello, you." Manfred stares. "You don't look the way I remember." But Manni's appearance is familiar from big-Manni's memories, captured by the unblinking Argus awareness of the panopticon dust floating in the air. "Are your parents home? Your" — his voice cracks — "great-grandmother?"
The door opens wider. "You can come in," the kid says gravely. Then he hops backward and ducks shyly into a side room — or as if expecting to be gunned down by a hostile sniper, Manfred realizes. It's tough being a kid when there are no rules against lethal force because you can be restored from a backup when playtime ends.
Inside the dwelling — calling it a house seems wrong to Manfred, not when bits of it are separated by trillions of kilometers of empty vacuum — things feel a bit crowded. He can hear voices from the dayroom, so he goes there, brushing through the archway of thornless roses that Rita has trained around the T-gate frame. His body feels lighter, but his heart is heavy as he looks around. "Rita?" he asks. "And —"
"Hello, Manfred." Pamela nods at him guardedly.
Rita raises an eyebrow at him. "The cat asked if he could borrow the household assembler. I wasn't expecting a family reunion."
"Neither was I." Manfred rubs his forehead ruefully. "Pamela, this is Rita. She's married to Sirhan. They're my — I guess eigenparents is as good as term as any? I mean, they're bringing up my reincarnation."
"Please, have a seat," Rita offers, waving at the empty floor between the patio and the stone fountain in the shape of a section through a glass hypersphere. A futon of spun diamondoid congeals out of the utility fog floating in the air, glittering in the artificial sunlight. "Sirhan's just taking care of Manni — our son. He'll be with us in just a minute."
Manfred sits gingerly at one side of the futon. Pamela sits stiffly at the opposite edge, not meeting his eye. Last time they met in the flesh — an awesome gulf of years previously — they'd parted cursing each other, on opposite sides of a fractious divorce as well as an ideological barrier as high as a continental divide. But many subjective decades have passed, and both ideology and divorce have dwindled in significance — if indeed they ever happened. Now that there's common cause to draw them together, Manfred can barely look at her. "How is Manni?" he asks his hostess, desperate for small talk.
"He's fine," Rita says, in a brittle voice. "Just the usual preadolescent turbulence, if it wasn't for ..." She trails off. A door appears in mid air and Sirhan steps through it, followed by a small deity wearing a fur coat.
"Look what the cat dragged in," Aineko remarks.
"You're a fine one to talk," Pamela says icily. "Don't you think you'd —"
"I tried to keep him away from you," Sirhan tells Manfred, "but he wouldn't —"
"That's okay." Manfred waves it off. "Pamela, would you mind starting?"
"Yes, I would." She glances at him sidelong. "You go first."
"Right. You wanted me here." Manfred hunkers down to stare at the cat. "What do you want?"
"If I was your traditional middle-European devil, I'd say I'd come to steal your soul," says Aineko, looking up at Manfred and twitching his tail. "Luckily I'm not a dualist, I just want to borrow it for a while. Won't even get it dirty."
"Uh-huh." Manfred raises an eyebrow. "Why?"
"I'm not omniscient." Aineko sits down, one leg sticking out sideways, but continues to stare at Manfred. "I had a ... a telegram, I guess, claiming to be from you. From the other copy of you, that is, the one that went off through the router network with another copy of me, and with Amber, and everyone else who isn't here. It says it found the answer and it wants to give me a shortcut route out to the deep thinkers at the edge of the observable universe. It knows who made the wormhole network and why, and —" Aineko pauses. If he was human, he'd shrug, but being a cat, he absent mindedly scritches behind his left ear with a hind leg. "Trouble is, I'm not sure I can trust it. So I need you to authenticate the message. I don't dare use my own memory of you because it knows too much about me; if the package is a Trojan, it might find out things I don't want it to learn. I can't even redact its memories of me — that, too, would convey useful information to the packet if it is hostile. So I want a copy of you from the museum, fresh and uncontaminated."
"Is that all?" Sirhan asks incredulously.
"Sounds like enough to me," Manfred responds. Pamela opens her mouth, ready to speak, but Manfred makes eye contact and shakes his head infinitesimally. She looks right back and — a shock goes through him — nods and closes her mouth. The moment of complicity is dizzying. "I want something in return."
"Sure," says the cat. He pauses. "You realize it's a destructive process."
"It's a — what?"
"I need to make a running copy of you. Then I introduce it to the, uh, alien information, in a sandbox. The sandbox gets destroyed afterward — it emits just one bit of information, a yes or no to the question, can I trust the alien information?"
"Uh." Manfred begins to sweat. "Uh. I'm not so sure I like the sound of that."
"It's a copy." Another cat-shrug moment. "You're a copy. Manni is a copy. You've been copied so many times it's silly — you realize every few years every atom in your body changes? Of course, it means a copy of you gets to die after a lifetime or two of unique, unrepeatable experiences that you'll never know about, but that won't matter to you."
"Yes it does! You're talking about condemning a version of me to death! It may not affect me, here, in this body, but it certainly affects that other me. Can't you —"
"No, I can't. If I agreed to rescue the copy if it reached a positive verdict, that would give it an incentive to lie if the truth was that the alien message is untrustworthy, wouldn't it? Also, if I intended to rescue the copy, that would give the message a back channel through which to encode an attack. One bit, Manfred, no more."
"Agh." Manfred stops talking. He knows he should be trying to come up with some kind of objection, but Aineko must have already considered all his possible responses and planned strategies around them. "Where does she fit into this?" he asks, nodding at Pamela.
"Oh, she's your payment," Aineko says with studied insouciance. "I have a very good memory for people, especially people I've known for decades. You've outlasted that crude emotional conditioning I used on you around the time of the divorce, and as for her, she's a good reinstantiation of —"
"Do you know what it's like to die?" Pamela asks, finally losing her self-control. "Or would you like to find out the hard way? Because if you keep talking about me as if I'm a slave —"
"What makes you think you aren't?" The cat is grinning hideously, needle like teeth bared. Why doesn't she hit him? Manfred asks himself fuzzily, wondering also why he feels no urge to move against the monster. "Hybridizing you with Manfred was, admittedly, a fine piece of work on my part, but you would have been bad for him during his peak creative years. A contented Manfred is an idle Manfred. I got several extra good bits of work out of him by splitting you up, and by the time he burned out, Amber was ready. But I digress; if you give me what I want, I shall leave you alone. It's as simple as that. Raising new generations of Macxs has been a good hobby, you make interesting pets, but ultimately it's limited by your stubborn refusal to transcend your humanity. So that's what I'm offering, basically. Let me destructively run a copy of you to completion in a black box along with a purported Turing Oracle based on yourself, and I'll let you go. And you too, Pamela. You'll be happy together this time, without me pushing you apart. And I promise I won't return to haunt your descendants, either." The cat glances over his shoulder at Sirhan and Rita, who clutch at each other in abject horror; and Manfred finds he can sense a shadow of Aineko's huge algorithmic complexity hanging over the household, like a lurching nightmare out of number theory.
"Is that all we are to you? A pet-breeding program?" Pamela asks coldly. She's run up against Aineko's implanted limits, too, Manfred realizes with a growing sense of horror. Did we really split up because Aineko made us? It's hard to believe: Manfred is too much of a realist to trust the cat to tell the truth except when it serves to further his interests. But this —
"Not entirely." Aineko is complacent. "Not at first, before I was aware of my own existence. Besides, you humans keep pets, too. But you were fun to play with."
Pamela stands up, angry to the point of storming out. Before he quite realizes what he's doing, Manfred is on his feet, too, one arm protectively around her. "Tell me first, are our memories our own?" he demands.
"Don't trust it," Pamela says sharply. "It's not human, and it lies." Her shoulders are tense.
"Yes, they are," says Aineko. He yawns. "Tell me I'm lying, bitch," he adds mockingly: "I carried you around in my head for long enough to know you've no evidence."
"But I —" Her arm slips around Manfred's waist. "I don't hate him." A rueful laugh: "I remember hating him, but —"
"Humans: such a brilliant model of emotional self-awareness," Aineko says with a theatrical sigh. "You're as stupid as it's possible for an intelligent species to be — there being no evolutionary pressure to be any smarter — but you still don't internalize that and act accordingly around your superiors. Listen, girl, everything you remember is true. That doesn't mean you remember it because it actually happened, just that you remember it because you experienced it internally. Your memories of experiences are accurate, but your emotional responses to those experiences were manipulated. Get it? One ape's hallucination is another ape's religious experience, it just depends on which one's god module is overactive at the time. That goes for all of you." Aineko looks around at them in mild contempt. "But I don't need you anymore, and if you do this one thing for me, you're going to be free. Understand? Say yes, Manfred; if you leave your mouth open like that, a bird will nest on your tongue."
"Say no —" Pamela urges him, just as Manfred says, "Yes."
Aineko laughs, baring contemptuous fangs at them. "Ah, primate family loyalty! So wonderful and reliable. Thank you, Manny, I do believe you just gave me permission to copy and enslave you —"
Which is when Manni, who has been waiting in the doorway for the past minute, leaps on the cat with a scream and a scythelike arm drawn back and ready to strike.
The cat-avatar is, of course, ready for Manni: It whirls and hisses, extending diamond-sharp claws. Sirhan shouts, "No! Manni!" and begins to move, but adult-Manfred freezes, realizing with a chill that what is happening is more than is apparent. Manni grabs for the cat with his human hands, catching it by the scruff of his neck and dragging it toward his vicious scythe-arm's edge. There's a screech, a nerve-racking caterwauling, and Manni yells, bright parallel blood tracks on his arm — the avatar is a real fleshbody in its own right, with an autonomic control system that isn't going to give up without a fight, whatever its vastly larger exocortex thinks — but Manni's scythe convulses, and there's a horrible bubbling noise and a spray of blood as the pussycat-thing goes flying. It's all over in a second before any of the adults can really move. Sirhan scoops up Manni and yanks him away, but there are no hidden surprises. Aineko's avatar is just a broken rag of bloody fur, guts, and blood spilled across the floor. The ghost of a triumphant feline laugh hangs over their innerspeech ears for a moment, then fades.
"Bad boy!" Rita shouts, striding forward furiously. Manni cowers, then begins to cry, a safe reflex for a little boy who doesn't quite understand the nature of the threat to his parents.
"No! It's all right," Manfred seeks to explain.
Pamela tightens her grip around him. "Are you still ...?"
"Yes." He takes a deep breath.
"You bad, bad child —"
"Cat was going to eat him!" Manni protests, as his parents bundle him protectively out of the room, Sirhan casting a guilty look over his shoulder at the adult instance and his ex-wife. "I had to stop the bad thing!"
Manfred feels Pamela's shoulders shaking. It feels like she's about to laugh. "I'm still here," he murmurs, half-surprised. "Spat out, undigested, after all these years. At least, this version of me thinks he's here."
"Did you believe it?" she finally asks, a tone of disbelief in her voice.
"Oh yes." He shifts his balance from foot to foot, absent mindedly stroking her hair. "I believe everything it said was intended to make us react exactly the way we did. Up to and including giving us good reasons to hate it and provoking Manni into disposing of its avatar. Aineko wanted to check out of our lives and figured a sense of cathartic closure would help. Not to mention playing the deus ex machina in the narrative of our family life. Fucking classical comedian." He checks a status report with Citymind, and sighs: His version number has just been bumped a point. "Tell me, do you think you'll miss having Aineko around? Because we won't be hearing from him again —"
"Don't talk about that, not now," she orders him, digging her chin against the side of his neck. "I feel so used."
"With good reason." They stand holding each other for a while, not speaking, not really questioning why — after so much time apart — they've come together again. "Hanging out with gods is never a safe activity for mere mortals like us. You think you've been used? Aineko has probably killed me by now. Unless he was lying about disposing of the spare copy, too."
She shudders in his arms. "That's the trouble with dealing with posthumans; their mental model of you is likely to be more detailed than your own."
"How long have you been awake?" he asks, gently trying to change the subject.
"I — oh, I'm not sure." She lets go of him and steps back, watching his face appraisingly. "I remember back on Saturn, stealing a museum piece and setting out, and then, well. I found myself here. With you."
"I think," he licks his lips, "we've both been given a wake-up call. Or maybe a second chance. What are you going to do with yours?"
"I don't know." That appraising look again, as if she's trying to work out what he's worth. He's used to it, but this time it doesn't feel hostile. "We've got too much history for this to be easy. Either Aineko was lying, or ... not. What about you? What do you really want?"
He knows what she's asking. "Be my mistress?" he asks, offering her a hand.
"This time," she grips his hand, "without adult supervision." She smiles gratefully, and they walk toward the gateway together, to find out how their descendants are dealing with their sudden freedom.
(THE END: June 1999 to April 2004)
|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|