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PART 2: Point of Inflexion
Life is a process which may be abstracted from other media.
— John Von Neumann
Chapter 4: Halo
The asteroid is running Barney: it sings of love on the high frontier, of the passion of matter for replicators, and its friendship for the needy billions of the Pacific Rim. "I love you," it croons in Amber's ears as she seeks a precise fix on it: "Let me give you a big hug ..."
A fraction of a light-second away, Amber locks a cluster of cursors together on the signal, trains them to track its Doppler shift, and reads off the orbital elements. "Locked and loaded," she mutters. The animated purple dinosaur pirouettes and prances in the middle of her viewport, throwing a diamond-tipped swizzle stick overhead. Sarcastically: "Big hug time! I got asteroid!" Cold gas thrusters bang somewhere behind her in the interstage docking ring, prodding the cumbersome farm ship round to orient on the Barney rock. She damps her enthusiasm self-consciously, her implants hungrily sequestrating surplus neurotransmitter molecules floating around her synapses before reuptake sets in. It doesn't do to get too excited in free flight. But the impulse to spin handstands, jump and sing is still there: It's her rock, and it loves her, and she's going to bring it to life.
The workspace of Amber's room is a mass of stuff that probably doesn't belong on a spaceship. Posters of the latest Lebanese boy band bump and grind through their glam routines: Tentacular restraining straps wave from the corners of her sleeping bag, somehow accumulating a crust of dirty clothing from the air like a giant inanimate hydra. (Cleaning robots seldom dare to venture inside the teenager's bedroom.) One wall is repeatedly cycling through a simulation of the projected construction cycle of Habitat One, a big fuzzy sphere with a glowing core (that Amber is doing her bit to help create). Three or four small pastel-colored plastic kawaii dolls stalk each other across its circumference with million-kilometer strides. And her father's cat is curled up between the aircon duct and her costume locker, snoring in a high-pitched tone.
Amber yanks open the faded velour curtain that shuts her room off from the rest of the hive: "I've got it!" she shouts. "It's all mine! I rule!" It's the sixteenth rock tagged by the orphanage so far, but it's the first that she's tagged by herself, and that makes it special. She bounces off the other side of the commons, surprising one of Oscar's cane toads — which should be locked down in the farm, it's not clear how it got here — and the audio repeaters copy the incoming signal, noise-fuzzed echoes of a thousand fossilized infants' video shows.
* * *
"You're so prompt, Amber," Pierre whines when she corners him in the canteen.
"Well, yeah!" She tosses her head, barely concealing a smirk of delight at her own brilliance. She knows it isn't nice, but Mom is a long way away, and Dad and Stepmom don't care about that kind of thing. "I'm brilliant, me," she announces. "Now what about our bet?"
"Aww." Pierre thrusts his hands deep into his pockets. "But I don't have two million on me in change right now. Next cycle?"
"Huh?" She's outraged. "But we had a bet!"
"Uh, Dr. Bayes said you weren't going to make it this time, either, so I stuck my smart money in an options trade. If I take it out now, I'll take a big hit. Can you give me until cycle's end?"
"You should know better than to trust a sim, Pee." Her avatar blazes at him with early-teen contempt: Pierre hunches his shoulders under her gaze. He's only twelve, freckled, hasn't yet learned that you don't welsh on a deal. "I'll let you do it this time," she announces, "but you'll have to pay for it. I want interest."
He sighs. "What base rate are you —"
"No, your interest! Slave for a cycle!" She grins malevolently.
And his face shifts abruptly into apprehension: "As long as you don't make me clean the litter tray again. You aren't planning on doing that, are you?"
* * *
Welcome to the fourth decade. The thinking mass of the solar system now exceeds one MIPS per gram; it's still pretty dumb, but it's not dumb all over. The human population is near maximum overshoot, pushing nine billion, but its growth rate is tipping toward negative numbers, and bits of what used to be the first world are now facing a middle-aged average. Human cogitation provides about 1028 MIPS of the solar system's brainpower. The real thinking is mostly done by the halo of a thousand trillion processors that surround the meat machines with a haze of computation — individually a tenth as powerful as a human brain, collectively they're ten thousand times more powerful, and their numbers are doubling every twenty million seconds. They're up to 1033 MIPS and rising, although there's a long way to go before the solar system is fully awake.
Technologies come, technologies go, but nobody even five years ago predicted that there'd be tinned primates in orbit around Jupiter by now: A synergy of emergent industries and strange business models have kick-started the space age again, aided and abetted by the discovery of (so far undecrypted) signals from ETs. Unexpected fringe riders are developing new ecological niches on the edge of the human information space, light-minutes and light-hours from the core, as an expansion that has hung fire since the 1970s gets under way.
Amber, like most of the postindustrialists aboard the orphanage ship Ernst Sanger, is in her early teens: While their natural abilities are in many cases enhanced by germ-line genetic recombination, thanks to her mother's early ideals she has to rely on brute computational enhancements. She doesn't have a posterior parietal cortex hacked for extra short-term memory, or an anterior superior temporal gyrus tweaked for superior verbal insight, but she's grown up with neural implants that feel as natural to her as lungs or fingers. Half her wetware is running outside her skull on an array of processor nodes hooked into her brain by quantum-entangled communication channels — her own personal metacortex. These kids are mutant youth, burning bright: Not quite incomprehensible to their parents, but profoundly alien — the generation gap is as wide as the 1960s and as deep as the solar system. Their parents, born in the gutter years of the twenty-first century, grew up with white elephant shuttles and a space station that just went round and round, and computers that went beep when you pushed their buttons. The idea that Jupiter orbit was somewhere you could go was as profoundly counterintuitive as the Internet to a baby boomer.
Most of the passengers on the can have run away from parents who think that teenagers belong in school, unable to come to terms with a generation so heavily augmented that they are fundamentally brighter than the adults around them. Amber was fluent in nine languages by the age of six, only two of them human and six of them serializable; when she was seven, her mother took her to the school psychiatrist for speaking in synthetic tongues. That was the final straw for Amber: using an illicit anonymous phone, she called her father. Her mother had him under a restraining order, but it hadn't occurred to her to apply for an order against his partner ...
* * *
Vast whorls of cloud ripple beneath the ship's drive stinger: Orange and brown and muddy gray streaks slowly crawl across the bloated horizon of Jupiter. Sanger is nearing perijove, deep within the gas giant's lethal magnetic field; static discharges flicker along the tube, arcing over near the deep violet exhaust cloud emerging from the magnetic mirrors of the ship's VASIMR motor. The plasma rocket is cranked up to high mass flow, its specific impulse almost as low as a fission rocket but producing maximum thrust as the assembly creaks and groans through the gravitational assist maneuver. In another hour, the drive will flicker off, and the orphanage will fall up and out toward Ganymede, before dropping back in toward orbit around Amalthea, Jupiter's fourth moon (and source of much of the material in the Gossamer ring). They're not the first canned primates to make it to Jupiter subsystem, but they're one of the first wholly private ventures. The bandwidth out here sucks dead slugs through a straw, with millions of kilometers of vacuum separating them from scant hundreds of mouse-brained microprobes and a few dinosaurs left behind by NASA or ESA. They're so far from the inner system that a good chunk of the ship's communications array is given over to caching: The news is whole kiloseconds old by the time it gets out here.
Amber, along with about half the waking passengers, watches in fascination from the common room. The commons are a long axial cylinder, a double-hulled inflatable at the center of the ship with a large part of their liquid water supply stored in its wall tubes. The far end is video-enabled, showing them a real-time 3D view of the planet as it rolls beneath them: in reality, there's as much mass as possible between them and the trapped particles in the Jovian magnetic envelope. "I could go swimming in that," sighs Lilly. "Just imagine, diving into that sea ..." Her avatar appears in the window, riding a silver surfboard down the kilometers of vacuum.
"Nice case of wind-burn you've got there," someone jeers – Kas. Suddenly Lilly's avatar, hitherto clad in a shimmering metallic swimsuit, turns to the texture of baked meat and waggles sausage fingers up at them in warning.
"Same to you and the window you climbed in through!" Abruptly the virtual vacuum outside the window is full of bodies, most of them human, contorting and writhing and morphing in mock-combat as half the kids pitch into the virtual death match. It's a gesture in the face of the sharp fear that outside the thin walls of the orphanage lies an environment that really is as hostile as Lilly's toasted avatar would indicate.
Amber turns back to her slate: She's working through a complex mess of forms, necessary before the expedition can start work. Facts and figures that are never far away crowd around her, intimidating. Jupiter weighs 1.9 x 1027 kilograms. There are twenty-nine Jovian moons and an estimated two hundred thousand minor bodies, lumps of rock, and bits of debris crowded around them — debris above the size of ring fragments, for Jupiter (like Saturn) has rings, albeit not as prominent. A total of six major national orbiter platforms have made it out here — and another two hundred and seventeen microprobes, all but six of them private entertainment platforms. The first human expedition was put together by ESA Studios six years ago, followed by a couple of wildcat mining prospectors and a µ-commerce bus that scattered half a million picoprobes throughout Jupiter subsystem. Now the Sanger has arrived, along with another three monkey cans (one from Mars, two more from LEO) and it looks as if colonization is about to explode, except that there are at least four mutually exclusive Grand Plans for what to do with old Jove's mass.
Someone prods her. "Hey, Amber, what are you up to?"
She opens her eyes. "Doing my homework." It's Su Ang. "Look, we're going to Amalthea, aren't we? But we file our accounts in Reno, so we have to do all this paperwork. Monica asked me to help. It's insane."
Ang leans over and reads, upside down. "Environmental Protection Agency?"
"Yeah. Estimated Environmental Impact Forward Analysis 204.6b, Page Two. They want me to 'list any bodies of standing water within five kilometers of the designated mining area. If excavating below the water table, list any wellsprings, reservoirs, and streams within depth of excavation in meters multiplied by five hundred meters up to a maximum distance of ten kilometers downstream of direction of bedding plane flow. For each body of water, itemize any endangered or listed species of bird, fish, mammal, reptile, invertebrate, or plant living within ten kilometers —'"
" — of a mine on Amalthea. Which orbits one hundred and eighty thousand kilometers above Jupiter, has no atmosphere, and where you can pick up a whole body radiation dose of ten Grays in half an hour on the surface." Ang shakes her head, then spoils it by giggling. Amber glances up.
On the wall in front of her someone — Nicky or Boris, probably — has pasted a caricature of her own avatar into the virch fight. She's being hugged from behind by a giant cartoon dog with floppy ears and an improbably large erection, who's singing anatomically improbable suggestions while fondling himself suggestively. "Fuck that!" Shocked out of her distraction — and angry — Amber drops her stack of paperwork and throws a new avatar at the screen, one an agent of hers dreamed up overnight. It's called Spike, and it's not friendly. Spike rips off the dog's head and pisses down its trachea, which is anatomically correct for a human being: Meanwhile she looks around, trying to work out which of the laughing idiot children and lost geeks around her could have sent such an unpleasant message.
"Children! Chill out." She glances round – one of the Franklins (this is the twentysomething dark-skinned female one) is frowning at them. "Can't we leave you alone for half a K without a fight?"
Amber pouts. "It's not a fight; it's a forceful exchange of opinions."
"Hah." The Franklin leans back in midair, arms crossed, an expression of supercilious smugness pasted across her-their face. "Heard that one before. Anyway" — she-they gesture, and the screen goes blank — "I've got news for you pesky kids. We got a claim verified! Factory starts work as soon as we shut down the stinger and finish filing all the paperwork via our lawyers. Now's our chance to earn our upkeep ..."
* * *
Amber is flashing on ancient history, five years back along her time line. In her replay, she's in some kind of split-level ranch house out West. It's a temporary posting while her mother audits an obsolescent fab line enterprise that grinds out dead chips of VLSI silicon for Pentagon projects that have slipped behind the cutting edge. Her Mom leans over her, menacingly adult in her dark suit and chaperone earrings: "You're going to school, and that's that."
Her mother is a blonde ice maiden madonna, one of the IRS's most productive bounty hunters — she can make grown CEOs panic just by blinking at them. Amber, a towheaded-eight-year old tearaway with a confusing mix of identities, inexperience blurring the boundary between self and grid, is not yet able to fight back effectively. After a couple of seconds, she verbalizes a rather feeble protest: "Don't want to!" One of her stance daemons whispers that this is the wrong approach to take, so she modifies it: "They'll beat up on me, Mom. I'm too different. Sides, I know you want me socialized up with my grade metrics, but isn't that what sideband's for? I can socialize real good at home."
Mom does something unexpected: She kneels, putting herself on eye-level with Amber. They're on the living room carpet, all seventies-retro brown corduroy and acid-orange Paisley wallpaper, and for once, they're alone: The domestic robots are in hiding while the humans hold court. "Listen to me, sweetie." Mom's voice is breathy, laden with an emotional undertow as strong and stifling as the eau-de-Cologne she wears to the office to cover up the scent of her client's fear. "I know that's what your father's writing to you, but it isn't true. You need the company — physical company — of children your own age. You're natural, not some kind of engineered freak, even with your skullset. Natural children like you need company or they grow up all weird. Socialization isn't just about texting your own kind, Amber, you need to know how to deal with people who're different, too. I want you to grow up happy, and that won't happen if you don't learn to get on with children your own age. You're not going to be some kind of cyborg otaku freak, Amber. But to get healthy, you've got to go to school, build up a mental immune system. Anyway, that which does not destroy us makes us stronger, right?"
It's crude moral blackmail, transparent as glass and manipulative as hell, but Amber'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|