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Chapter 3: Tourist
Spring-Heeled Jack runs blind, blue fumes crackling from his heels. His right hand, outstretched for balance, clutches a mark's stolen memories. The victim is sitting on the hard stones of the pavement behind him. Maybe he's wondering what's happened; maybe he looks after the fleeing youth. But the tourist crowds block the view effectively, and in any case, he has no hope of catching the mugger. Hit-and-run amnesia is what the polis call it, but to Spring-Heeled Jack it's just more loot to buy fuel for his Russian army-surplus motorized combat boots.
* * *
The victim sits on the cobblestones clutching his aching temples. What happened? he wonders. The universe is a brightly colored blur of fast-moving shapes augmented by deafening noises. His ear-mounted cameras are rebooting repeatedly: They panic every eight hundred milliseconds, whenever they realize that they're alone on his personal area network without the comforting support of a hub to tell them where to send his incoming sensory feed. Two of his mobile phones are bickering moronically, disputing ownership of his grid bandwidth, and his memory ... is missing.
A tall blond clutching an electric chainsaw sheathed in pink bubble wrap leans over him curiously: "you all right?" she asks.
"I —" He shakes his head, which hurts. "Who am I?" His medical monitor is alarmed because his blood pressure has fallen: His pulse is racing, his serum cortisol titer is up, and a host of other biometrics suggest that he's going into shock.
"I think you need an ambulance," the woman announces. She mutters at her lapel, "Phone, call an ambulance. " She waves a finger vaguely at him as if to reify a geolink, then wanders off, chain-saw clutched under one arm. Typical southern émigré behavior in the Athens of the North, too embarrassed to get involved. The man shakes his head again, eyes closed, as a flock of girls on powered blades skid around him in elaborate loops. A siren begins to warble, over the bridge to the north.
Who am I? he wonders. "I'm Manfred," he says with a sense of stunned wonder. He looks up at the bronze statue of a man on a horse that looms above the crowds on this busy street corner. Someone has plastered a Hello Cthulhu! holo on the plaque that names its rider: Languid fluffy pink tentacles wave at him in an attack of kawaii. "I'm Manfred — Manfred. My memory. What's happened to my memory?" Elderly Malaysian tourists point at him from the open top deck of a passing bus. He burns with a sense of horrified urgency. I was going somewhere, he recalls. What was I doing? It was amazingly important, he thinks, but he can't remember what exactly it was. He was going to see someone about — it's on the tip of his tongue —
* * *
Welcome to the eve of the third decade: a time of chaos characterized by an all-out depression in the space industries.
Most of the thinking power on the planet is now manufactured rather than born; there are ten microprocessors for every human being, and the number is doubling every fourteen months. Population growth in the developing world has stalled, the birth rate dropping below replacement level. In the wired nations, more forward-looking politicians are looking for ways to enfranchise their nascent AI base.
Space exploration is still stalled on the cusp of the second recession of the century. The Malaysian government has announced the goal of placing an imam on Mars within ten years, but nobody else cares enough to try.
The Space Settlers Society is still trying to interest Disney Corp. in the media rights to their latest L5 colony plan, unaware that there's already a colony out there and it isn't human: First-generation uploads, Californian spiny lobsters in wobbly symbiosis with elderly expert systems, thrive aboard an asteroid mining project established by the Franklin Trust. Meanwhile, Chinese space agency cutbacks are threatening the continued existence of Moonbase Mao. Nobody, it seems, has figured out how to turn a profit out beyond geosynchronous orbit.
Two years ago, JPL, the ESA, and the uploaded lobster colony on comet Khrunichev-7 picked up an apparently artificial signal from outside the solar system; most people don't know, and of those who do, even fewer care. After all, if humans can't even make it to Mars, who cares what's going on a hundred trillion kilometers farther out?
* * *
Portrait of a wasted youth:
Jack is seventeen years and eleven months old. He has never met his father; he was unplanned, and Dad managed to kill himself in a building-site accident before the Child Support could garnish his income for the upbringing. His mother raised him in a two-bedroom housing association flat in Hawick. She worked in a call center when he was young, but business dried up: Humans aren't needed on the end of a phone anymore. Now she works in a drop-in business shop, stacking shelves for virtual fly-by-nights that come and go like tourists in the Festival season — but humans aren't in demand for shelf stacking either, these days.
His mother sent Jack to a local religious school, where he was regularly excluded and effectively ran wild from the age of twelve. By thirteen, he was wearing a parole cuff for shoplifting; by fourteen, he'd broken his collarbone in a car crash while joyriding and the dour Presbyterian sheriff sent him to the Wee Frees, who completed the destruction of his educational prospects with high principles and an illicit tawse.
Today, he's a graduate of the hard school of avoiding public surveillance cameras, with distinctions in steganographic alibi construction. Mostly this entails high-density crime — if you're going to mug someone, do so where there are so many bystanders that they can't pin the blame on you. But the polis expert systems are on his tail. If he keeps it up at this rate, in another four months they'll have a positive statistical correlation that will convince even a jury of his peers that he's guilty as fuck — and then he'll go down to Saughton for four years.
But Jack doesn't understand the meaning of a Gaussian distribution or the significance of a chi-square test, and the future still looks bright to him as he pulls on the chunky spectacles he ripped off the tourist gawking at the statue on North Bridge. And after a moment, when they begin whispering into his ears in stereo and showing him pictures of the tourist's vision, it looks even brighter.
"Gotta make a deal, gotta close a deal," whisper the glasses. "Meet the borg, strike a chord." Weird graphs in lurid colors are filling up his peripheral vision, like the hallucinations of a drugged marketroid.
"Who the fuck are ye?" asks Jack, intrigued by the bright lights and icons.
"I am your Cartesian theatre and you are our focus," murmur the glasses. "Dow Jones down fifteen points, Federated Confidence up three, incoming briefing on causal decoupling of social control of skirt hem lengths, shaving pattern of beards, and emergence of multidrug antibiotic resistance in Gram-negative bacilli: Accept?"
"Ah can take it," Jack mumbles, as a torrent of images crashes down on his eyeballs and jackhammers its way in through his ears like the superego of a disembodied giant. Which is actually what he's stolen: The glasses and waist pouch he grabbed from the tourist are stuffed with enough hardware to run the entire Internet, circa the turn of the millennium. They've got bandwidth coming out the wazoo, distributed engines running a bazillion inscrutable search tasks, and a whole slew of high-level agents that collectively form a large chunk of the society of mind that is their owner's personality. Their owner is a posthuman genius loci of the net, an agalmic entrepreneur turned policy wonk, specializing in the politics of AI emancipation. When he was in the biz he was the kind of guy who catalysed value wherever he went, leaving money trees growing in his footprints. Now he's the kind of political backroom hitter who builds coalitions where nobody else could see common ground. And Jack has stolen his memories. There are microcams built into the frame of the glasses, pickups in the earpieces; everything is spooled into the holographic cache in the belt pack, before being distributed for remote storage. At four months per terabyte, memory storage is cheap. What makes this bunch so unusual is that their owner — Manfred — has cross-indexed them with his agents. Mind uploading may not be a practical technology yet, but Manfred has made an end run on it already.
In a very real sense, the glasses are Manfred, regardless of the identity of the soft machine with its eyeballs behind the lenses. And it is a very puzzled Manfred who picks himself up and, with a curious vacancy in his head — except for a hesitant request for information about accessories for Russian army boots — dusts himself off and heads for his meeting on the other side of town.
* * *
Meanwhile, in another meeting, Manfred's absence is already being noticed. "Something, something is wrong," says Annette. She raises her mirrorshades and rubs her left eye, visibly worried. "Why is he not answering his chat? He knows we are due to hold this call with him. Don't you think it is odd?"
Gianni nods and leans back, regarding her from behind his desk. He prods at the highly polished rosewood desktop. The wood grain slips, sliding into a strangely different conformation, generating random dot stereoisograms — messages for his eyes only. "He was visiting Scotland for me," he says after a moment. "I do not know his exact whereabouts — the privacy safeguards — but if you, as his designated next of kin, travel in person, I am sure you will find it easier. He was going to talk to the Franklin Collective, face-to-face, one to many ..."
The office translator is good, but it can't provide real-time lip-synch morphing between French and Italian. Annette has to make an effort to listen to his words because the shape of his mouth is all wrong, like a badly dubbed video. Her expensive, recent implants aren't connected up to her Broca's area yet, so she can't simply sideload a deep grammar module for Italian. Their communications are the best that money can buy, their VR environment painstakingly sculpted, but it still doesn't break down the language barrier completely. Besides, there are distractions: the way the desk switches from black ash to rosewood halfway across its expanse, the strange air currents that are all wrong for a room this size. "Then what could be up with him? His voicemail is trying to cover for him. It is good, but it does not lie convincingly."
Gianni looks worried. "Manfred is prone to fits of do his own thing with telling nobody in advance. But I don't like this. He should have to told one of us first." Ever since that first meeting in Rome, when Gianni offered him a job, Manfred has been a core member of Gianni's team, the fixer who goes out and meets people and solves their problems. Losing him at this point could be more than embarrassing. Besides, he's a friend.
"I do not like this either." She stands up. "If he doesn't call back soon —"
"You'll go and fetch him."
"Oui." A smile flashes across her face, rapidly replaced by worry lines. "What can have happened?"
"Anything. Nothing." Gianni shrugs. "But we cannot do without him." He casts her a warning glance. "Or you. Don't let the borg get you. Either of you."
"Not to worry, I will just bring him back, whatever has happened." She stands up, surprising a vacuum cleaner that skulks behind her desk. "Au revoir!"
As she vacates her office, the minister flickers off behind her, leaving the far wall the dull gray of a cold display panel. Gianni is in Rome, she's in Paris, Markus is in Düsseldorf, and Eva's in Wroclaw. There are others, trapped in digital cells scattered halfway across an elderly continent, but as long as they don't try to shake hands, they're free to shout across the office at each other. Their confidences and dirty jokes tunnel through multiple layers of anonymized communication.
Gianni is trying to make his break out of regional politics and into European national affairs: Their job — his election team — is to get him a seat on the Confederacy Commission, as Representative for Intelligence Oversight, and push the boundaries of post-humanistic action outward, into deep space and deeper time. Which makes the loss of a key team player, the house futurologist and fixer, profoundly interesting to certain people: The walls have ears, and not all the brains they feed into are human.
Annette is more worried than she's letting on to Gianni. It's unlike Manfred to be out of contact for long and even odder for his receptionist to stonewall her, given that her apartment is the nearest thing to a home he's had for the past couple of years. But something smells fishy. He sneaked out last night, saying it would be an overnight trip, and now he's not answering. Could it be his ex-wife? she wonders, despite Gianni's hints about a special mission. But there's been no word from Pamela other than the sarcastic cards she dispatches every year without fail, timed to arrive on the birthday of the daughter Manfred has never met. The music Mafiya? A letter bomb from the Copyright Control Association of America? But no, his medical monitor would have been screaming its head off if anything like that had happened.
Annette has organized things so that he's safe from the intellectual property thieves. She's lent him the support he needs, and he's helped her find her own path. She gets a warm sense of happiness whenever she considers how much they've achieved together. But that's exactly why she's worried now. The watchdog hasn't barked ...
Annette summons a taxi to Charles de Gaulle. By the time she arrives, she's already used her parliamentary carte to bump an executive-class seat on the next A320 to Turnhouse, Edinburgh's airport, and scheduled accommodation and transport for her arrival. The plane is climbing out over la Manche before the significance of Gianni's last comment hits her: Might he think the Franklin Collective could be dangerous to Manfred?
* * *
The hospital emergency suite has a waiting room with green plastic bucket seats and subtractive volume renderings by preteens stuck to the walls like surreal Lego sculptures. It's deeply silent, the available bandwidth all sequestrated for medical monitors — there are children crying, periodic sirens wailing as ambulances draw up, and people chattering all around him, but to Manfred, it's like being at the bottom of a deep blue pool of quiet. He feels stoned, except this particular drug brings no euphoria or sense of well-being. Corridor-corner vendors hawk kebab-spitted pigeons next to the chained and rusted voluntary service booth; video cameras watch the blue bivvy bags of the chronic cases lined up next to the nursing station. Alone in his own head, Manfred is frightened and confused.
"I can't check you in 'less you sign the confidentiality agreement," says the triage nurse, pushing an antique tablet at Manfred's face. Service in the NHS is still free, but steps have been taken to reduce the incidence of scandals: "Sign the nondisclosure clause here and here, or the house officer won't see you."
Manfred stares blearily up at the nurse's nose, which is red and slightly inflamed from a nosocomial infection. His phones are bickering again, and he can't remember why; they don't normally behave like this, something must be missing, but thinking about it is hard. "Why am I here?" he asks for the third time.
"Sign it." A pen is thrust into his hand. He focuses on the page, jerks upright as deeply canalized reflexes kick in.
"This is theft of human rights! It says here that the party of the second part is enjoined from disclosing information relating to the operations management triage procedures and processes of the said health-giving institution, that's you, to any third party — that's the public media — on pain of forfeiture of health benefits pursuant to section two of the Health Service Reform Act. I can't sign this! You could repossess my left kidney if I post on the Net about how long I've been in hospital!"
"So don't sign, then." The Hijra nurse shrugs, hitches up his sari, and walks away. "Enjoy your wait!"
Manfred pulls out his backup phone and stares at its display. "Something's
|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|