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The kebab vendor next to Manfred's seating rail chucks a stock cube on his grill; it begins to smoke, aromatic and blue and herbal — cannabinoids to induce tranquillity and appetite. Manfred sniffs twice, then staggers to his feet and heads off in search of the toilet, his head spinning. He's mumbling at his wrist watch: "Hello, Guatemala? Get me posology please. Click down my meme tree, I'm confused. Oh shit. Who was I? What happened? Why is everything blurry? I can't find my glasses ..."
A gaggle of day-trippers are leaving the leprosy ward, men and women dressed in anachronistic garb: men in dark suits, women in long dresses. All of them wear electric blue disposable gloves and face masks. There's a hum and crackle of encrypted bandwidth emanating from them, and Manfred instinctively turns to follow. They leave the A&E unit through the wheelchair exit, two ladies escorted by three gentlemen, with a deranged distressed refugee from the twenty-first century shuffling dizzily after. They're all young, Manfred realizes vaguely. Where's my cat? Aineko might be able to make sense of this, if Aineko was interested.
"I rather fancy we should retire to the club house," says one young beau. "Oh yes! please!" his short blond companion chirps, clapping her hands together, then irritably stripping off the anachronistic plastic gloves to reveal wired-lace positional-sensor mitts underneath. "This trip has obviously been unproductive. If our contact is here, I see no easy way of locating of him without breach of medical confidence or a hefty gratuity."
"The poor things," murmurs the other woman, glancing back at the leprosarium. "Such a humiliating way to die."
"Their own fault; If they hadn't participated in antibiotic abuse they wouldn't be in the isolation ward," harrumphs a twentysomething with mutton-chops and the manner of a precocious paterfamilias. He raps his walking stick on the pavement for punctuation, and they pause for a flock of cyclists and a rickshaw before they cross the road onto the Meadows. "Degenerate medication compliance, degenerate immune systems."
Manfred pauses to survey the grass, brain spinning as he ponders the fractal dimensionality of leaves. Then he lurches after them, nearly getting himself run down by a flywheel-powered tourist bus. Club. His feet hit the pavement, cross it, thud down onto three billion years of vegetative evolution. Something about those people. He feels a weird yearning, a tropism for information. It's almost all that's left of him — his voracious will to know. The tall, dark-haired woman hitches up her long skirts to keep them out of the mud. he sees a flash of iridescent petticoats that ripple like oil on water, worn over old-fashioned combat boots. Not Victorian, then: something else. I came here to see — the name is on the tip of his tongue. Almost. He feels that it has something to do with these people.
The squad cross The Meadows by way of a tree-lined path, and come to a nineteenth-century frontage with wide steps and a polished brass doorbell. They enter, and the man with the mutton-chops pauses on the threshold and turns to face Manfred. "You've followed us this far," he says. "Do you want to come in? You might find what you're looking for."
Manfred follows with knocking knees, desperately afraid of whatever he's forgotten.
* * *
Meanwhile, Annette is busy interrogating Manfred's cat.
"When did you last see your father?"
Aineko turns its head away from her and concentrates on washing the inside of its left leg. Its fur is lifelike and thick, pleasingly patterned except for a manufacturer's URL emblazoned on its flanks; but the mouth produces no saliva, the throat opens on no stomach or lungs. "Go away," it says: "I'm busy."
"When did you last see Manfred?" she repeats intently. "I don't have time for this. The polis don't know. The medical services don't know. He's off net and not responding. So what can you tell me?"
It took her precisely eighteen minutes to locate his hotel once she hit the airport arrivals area and checked the hotel booking front end in the terminal: She knows his preferences. It took her slightly longer to convince the concierge to let her into his room. But Aineko is proving more recalcitrant than she'd expected.
"AI Neko mod two alpha requires maintenance downtime on a regular basis," the cat says pompously: "You knew that when you bought me this body. What were you expecting, five-nines uptime from a lump of meat? Go away, I'm thinking." The tongue rasps out, then pauses while microprobes in its underside replace the hairs that fell out earlier in the day.
Annette sighs. Manfred's been upgrading this robot cat for years, and his ex-wife Pamela used to mess with its neural configuration too: This is its third body, and it's getting more realistically uncooperative with every hardware upgrade. Sooner or later it's going to demand a litter tray and start throwing up on the carpet. "Command override," she says. "Dump event log to my Cartesian theatre, minus eight hours to present."
The cat shudders and looks round at her. "Human bitch!" it hisses. Then it freezes in place as the air fills with a bright and silent tsunami of data. Both Annette and Aineko are wired for extremely high-bandwidth spread-spectrum optical networking; an observer would see the cat's eyes and a ring on her left hand glow blue-white at each other. After a few seconds, Annette nods to herself and wiggles her fingers in the air, navigating a time sequence only she can see. Aineko hisses resentfully at her, then stands and stalks away, tail held high.
"Curiouser and curiouser," Annette hums to herself. She intertwines her fingers, pressing obscure pressure points on knuckle and wrist, then sighs and rubs her eyes. "He left here under his own power, looking normal," she calls to the cat. "Who did he say he was going to see?" The cat sits in a beam of sunlight falling in through the high glass window, pointedly showing her its back. "Merde. If you're not going to help him —"
"Try the Grassmarket," sulks the cat. "He said something about meeting the Franklin Collective near there. Much good they'll do him ..."
* * *
A man wearing secondhand Chinese combat fatigues and a horribly expensive pair of glasses bounces up a flight of damp stone steps beneath a keystone that announces the building to be a Salvation Army hostel. He bangs on the door, his voice almost drowned out by the pair of Cold War Re-enactment Society MiGs that are buzzing the castle up the road: "Open up, ye cunts! Ye've got a deal comin'!"
A peephole set in the door at eye level slides to one side, and a pair of beady, black-eyed video cameras peer out at him. "Who are you and what do you want?" the speaker crackles. They don't belong to the Salvation Army; Christianity has been deeply unfashionable in Scotland for some decades, and the church that currently occupies the building has certainly moved with the times in an effort to stay relevant.
"I'm Macx," he says: "You've heard from my systems. I'm here to offer you a deal you can't refuse." At least that's what his glasses tell him to say: What comes out of his mouth sounds a bit more like, Am Max: Yiv hurdfrae ma system. Am here tae gie ye a deal ye cannae refuse. The glasses haven't had long enough to work on his accent. Meanwhile, he's so full of himself that he snaps his fingers and does a little dance of impatience on the top step.
"Aye, well, hold on a minute." The person on the other side of the speakerphone has the kind of cut-glass Morningside accent that manages to sound more English than the King while remaining vernacular Scots. The door opens, and Macx finds himself confronted by a tall, slightly cadaverous man wearing a tweed suit that has seen better days and a clerical collar cut from a translucent circuit board. His face is almost concealed behind a pair of recording angel goggles. "Who did ye say you were?"
"I'm Macx! Manfred Macx! I'm here with an opportunity you wouldn't believe. I've got the answer to your church's financial situation. I'm going to make you rich!" The glasses prompt, and Macx speaks.
The man in the doorway tilts his head slightly, goggles scanning Macx from head to foot. Bursts of blue combustion products spurt from Macx's heels as he bounces up and down enthusiastically. "Are ye sure ye've got the right address?" he asks worriedly.
"Aye, Ah am that."
The resident backs into the hostel: "Well then, come in, sit yeself down and tell me all about it."
Macx bounces into the room with his brain wide open to a blizzard of pie charts and growth curves, documents spawning in the bizarre phase-space of his corporate management software. "I've got a deal you're not going to believe," he reads, gliding past notice boards upon which Church circulars are staked out to die like exotic butterflies, stepping over rolled-up carpets and a stack of laptops left over from a jumble sale, past the devotional radio telescope that does double duty as Mrs. Muirhouse's back-garden bird bath. "You've been here five years and your posted accounts show you aren't making much money — barely keeping the rent up. But you're a shareholder in Scottish Nuclear Electric, right? Most of the church funds are in the form of a trust left to the church by one of your congregants when she went to join the omega point, right?"
"Er." The minister looks at him oddly. "I cannae comment on the church eschatological investment trust. Why d'ye think that?"
They fetch up, somehow, in the minister's office. A huge, framed rendering hangs over the back of his threadbare office chair: the collapsing cosmos of the End Times, galactic clusters rotten with the Dyson spheres of the eschaton falling toward the big crunch. Saint Tipler the Astrophysicist beams down from above with avuncular approval, a ring of quasars forming a halo around his head. Posters proclaim the new Gospel: COSMOLOGY IS BETTER THAN GUESSWORK, and LIVE FOREVER WITHIN MY LIGHT CONE. "Can I get ye anything? Cup of tea? Fuel cell charge point?" asks the minister.
"Crystal meth?" asks Macx, hopefully. His face falls as the minister shakes his head apologetically. "Aw, dinnae worry, Ah wis only joshing." He leans forward: "Ah know a' aboot yer plutonium futures speculation," he hisses. A finger taps his stolen spectacles in an ominous gesture: "These dinnae just record, they think. An' Ah ken where the money's gone."
"What have ye got?" the minister asks coldly, any indication of good humor flown. "I'm going to have to edit down these memories, ye bastard. I thought I'd forgotten all about that. Bits of me aren't going to merge with the godhead at the end of time now, thanks to you."
"Keep yer shirt on. Whit's the point o' savin' it a' up if ye nae got a life worth living? Ye reckon the big yin's nae gonnae unnerstan' a knees up?"
"What do ye want?"
"Aye, well," Macx leans back, aggrieved. Ah've got —" He pauses. An expression of extreme confusion flits over his head. "Ah've got lobsters," he finally announces. "Genetically engineered uploaded lobsters tae run yer uranium reprocessing plant." As he grows more confused, the glasses' control over his accent slips: "Ah wiz gonnae help yiz oot ba showin ye how ter get yer dosh back whir it belong ..." A strategic pause: "so ye could make the council tax due date. See, they're neutron-resistant, the lobsters. No, that cannae be right. Ah wiz gonnae sell ye somethin' ye cud use fer" — his face slumps into a frown of disgust — "free?"
Approximately thirty seconds later, as he is picking himself up off the front steps of the First Reformed Church of Tipler, Astrophysicist, the man who would be Macx finds himself wondering if maybe this high finance shit isn't as easy as it's cracked up to be. Some of the agents in his glasses are wondering if elocution lessons are the answer; others aren't so optimistic.
* * *
Getting back to the history lesson, the prospects for the decade look mostly medical.
A few thousand elderly baby boomers are converging on Tehran for Woodstock Four. Europe is desperately trying to import eastern European nurses and home-care assistants; in Japan, whole agricultural villages lie vacant and decaying, ghost communities sucked dry as cities slurp people in like residential black holes.
A rumor is spreading throughout gated old-age communities in the American Midwest, leaving havoc and riots in its wake: Senescence is caused by a slow virus coded into the mammalian genome that evolution hasn't weeded out, and rich billionaires are sitting on the rights to a vaccine. As usual, Charles Darwin gets more than his fair share of the blame. (Less spectacular but more realistic treatments for old age — telomere reconstruction and hexose-denatured protein reduction — are available in private clinics for those who are willing to surrender their pensions.) Progress is expected to speed up shortly, as the fundamental patents in genomic engineering begin to expire; the Free Chromosome Foundation has already published a manifesto calling for the creation of an intellectual-property-free genome with improved replacements for all commonly defective exons.
Experiments in digitizing and running neural wetware under emulation are well established; some radical libertarians claim that, as the technology matures, death — with its draconian curtailment of property and voting rights — will become the biggest civil rights issue of all.
For a small extra fee, most veterinary insurance policies now cover cloning of pets in the event of their accidental and distressing death. Human cloning, for reasons nobody is very clear on anymore, is still illegal in most developed nations — but very few judiciaries push for mandatory abortion of identical twins.
Some commodities are expensive: the price of crude oil has broken eighty Euros a barrel and is edging inexorably up. Other commodities are cheap: computers, for example. Hobbyists print off weird new processor architectures on their home inkjets; middle-aged folks wipe their backsides with diagnostic paper that can tell how their cholesterol levels are tending.
The latest casualties of the march of technological progress are: the high-street clothes shop, the flushing water closet, the Main Battle Tank, and the first generation of quantum computers. New with the decade are cheap enhanced immune systems, brain implants that hook right into the Chomsky organ and talk to their owners through their own speech centers, and widespread public paranoia about limbic spam. Nanotechnology has shattered into a dozen disjoint disciplines, and skeptics are predicting that it will all peter out before long. Philosophers have ceded qualia to engineers, and the current difficult problem in AI is getting software to experience embarrassment.
Fusion power is still, of course, fifty years away.
* * *
The Victorians are morphing into goths before Manfred's culture-shocked eyes.
"You looked lost," explains Monica, leaning over him curiously. "What's with your eyes?"
"I can't see too well," Manfred tries to explain. Everything is a blur, and the voices that usually chatter incessantly in his head have left nothing behind but a roaring silence. "I mean, someone
|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|