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Chapter 3 Survivor

This time, more than a double handful of years passes between successive visits to the Macx dynasty.

Somewhere in the gas-sprinkled darkness beyond the local void, carbon-based life stirs. A cylinder of diamond fifty kilometers long spins in the darkness, its surface etched with strange quantum wells that emulate exotic atoms not found in any periodic table that Mendeleyev would have recognized. Within it, walls hold kilotonnes of oxygen and nitrogen gas, megatonnes of life-infested soil. A hundred trillion kilometers from the wreckage of Earth, the cylinder glitters like a gem in the darkness.

Welcome to New Japan: one of the places between the stars where human beings hang out, now that the solar system is off-limits to meatbodies.

I wonder who we'll find here?

 

There's an open plaza in one of the terraform sectors of the habitat cylinder. A huge gong hangs from a beautifully painted wooden frame at one side of the square, which is paved with weathered limestone slabs made of atoms ripped from a planet that has never seen molten ice. Houses stand around, and open-fronted huts where a variety of humanoid waitrons attend to food and beverages for the passing realfolk. A group of prepubescent children are playing hunt-and-seek with their big-eyed pet companions, brandishing makeshift spears and automatic rifles – there's no pain here, for bodies are fungible, rebuilt in a minute by the assembler/disassembler gates in every room. There are few adults hereabouts, for Red Plaza is unfashionable at present, and the kids have claimed it for their own as a playground. They're all genuinely young, symptoms of a demographic demiurge, not a single wendypan among them.

A skinny boy with nut brown skin, a mop of black hair, and three arms is patiently stalking a worried-looking blue eeyore around the corner of the square. He's passing a stand stacked with fresh sushi rolls when the strange beast squirms out from beneath a wheelbarrow and arches its back, stretching luxuriously.

The boy, Manni, freezes, hands tensing around his spear as he focuses on the new target. (The blue eeyore flicks its tail at him and darts for safety across a lichen-encrusted slab.) "City, what's that?" he asks without moving his lips.

"What are you looking at?" replies City, which puzzles him somewhat, but not as much as it should.

The beast finishes stretching one front leg and extends another. It looks a bit like a pussycat to Manni, but there's something subtly wrong with it. Its head is a little too small, the eyes likewise – and those paws – "You're sharp," he accuses the beast, forehead wrinkling in disapproval.

"Yeah, whatever." The creature yawns, and Manni points his spear at it, clenching the shaft in both right hands. It's got sharp teeth, too, but it spoke to him via his inner hearing, not his ears. Innerspeech is for people, not toys.

"Who are you?" he demands.

The beast looks at him insolently. "I know your parents," it says, still using innerspeech. "You're Manni Macx, aren't you? Thought so. I want you to take me to your father."

"No!" Manni jumps up and waves his arms at it. "I don't like you! Go away!" He pokes his spear in the direction of the beast's nose.

"I'll go away when you take me to your father," says the beast. It raises its tail like a pussycat, and the fur bushes out, but then it pauses. "If you take me to your father I'll tell you a story afterward, how about that?"

"Don't care!" Manni is only about two hundred megaseconds old – seven old Earth-years – but he can tell when he's being manipulated and gets truculent.

"Kids." The cat-thing's tail lashes from side to side. "Okay, Manni, how about you take me to your father, or I rip your face off? I've got claws, you know." A brief eyeblink later, it's wrapping itself around his ankles sinuously, purring to give the lie to its unreliable threat – but he can see that it's got sharp nails all right. It's a wild pussycat-thing, and nothing in his artificially preserved orthohuman upbringing has prepared him for dealing with a real wild pussycat-thing that talks.

"Get away!" Manni is worried. "Mom!" he hollers, unintentionally triggering the broadcast flag in his innerspeech. "There's this thing –"

"Mom will do." The cat-thing sounds resigned. It stops rubbing against Manni's legs and looks up at him. "There's no need to panic. I won't hurt you."

Manni stops hollering. "Who're you?" he asks at last, staring at the beast. Somewhere light-years away, an adult has heard his cry; his mother is coming fast, bouncing between switches and glancing off folded dimensions in a headlong rush toward him.

"I'm Aineko." The beast sits down and begins to wash behind one hind leg. "And you're Manni, right?"

"Aineko," Manni says uncertainly. "Do you know Lis or Bill?"

Aineko the cat-thing pauses in his washing routine and looks at Manni, head cocked to one side. Manni is too young, too inexperienced to know that Aineko's proportions are those of a domestic cat, Felis catus, a naturally evolved animal rather than the toys and palimpsests and companionables he's used to. Reality may be fashionable with his parents' generation, but there are limits, after all. Orange-and-brown stripes and whorls decorate Aineko's fur, and he sprouts a white fluffy bib beneath his chin. "Who are Lis and Bill?"

"Them," says Manni, as big, sullen-faced Bill creeps up behind Aineko and tries to grab his tail while Lis floats behind his shoulder like a pint-sized UFO, buzzing excitedly. But Aineko is too fast for the kids and scampers round Manni's feet like a hairy missile. Manni whoops and tries to spear the pussycat-thing, but his spear turns to blue glass, crackles, and shards of brilliant snow rain down, burning his hands.

"Now that wasn't very friendly, was it?" says Aineko, a menacing note in his voice. "Didn't your mother teach you not to –"

The door in the side of the sushi stall opens as Rita arrives, breathless and angry: "Manni! What have I told you about playing –"

She stops, seeing Aineko. "You." She recoils in barely concealed fright. Unlike Manni, she recognizes it as the avatar of a posthuman demiurge, a body incarnated solely to provide a point of personal interaction for people to focus on.

The cat grins back at her. "Me," he agrees. "Ready to talk?"

She looks stricken. "We've got nothing to talk about."

Aineko lashes his tail. "Oh, but we do." The cat turns and looks pointedly at Manni. "Don't we?"

 

It has been a long time since Aineko passed this way, and in the meantime the space around Hyundai +4904/-56 has changed out of all recognition. Back when the great lobster-built starships swept out of Sol's Oort cloud, archiving the raw frozen data of the unoccupied brown dwarf halo systems and seeding their structured excrement with programmable matter, there was nothing but random dead atoms hereabouts (and an alien router). But that was a long time ago; and since then, the brown dwarf system has succumbed to an anthropic infestation.

An unoptimized instance of H. sapiens maintains state coherency for only two to three gigaseconds before it succumbs to necrosis. But in only about ten gigaseconds, the infestation has turned the dead brown dwarf system upside down. They strip-mined the chilly planets to make environments suitable for their own variety of carbon life. They rearranged moons, building massive structures the size of asteroids. They ripped wormhole endpoints free of the routers and turned them into their own crude point-to-point network, learned how to generate new wormholes, then ran their own packet-switched polities over them. Wormhole traffic now supports an ever-expanding mesh of interstellar human commerce, but always in the darkness between the lit stars and the strange, metal-depleted dwarfs with the suspiciously low-entropy radiation. The sheer temerity of the project is mind-boggling: notwithstanding that canned apes are simply not suited to life in the interstellar void, especially in orbit around a brown dwarf whose planets make Pluto seem like a tropical paradise, they've taken over the whole damn system.

New Japan is one of the newer human polities in this system, a bunch of nodes physically collocated in the humaniformed spaces of the colony cylinders. Its designers evidently only knew about old Nippon from recordings made back before Earth was dismantled, and worked from a combination of nostalgia-trip videos, Miyazaki movies, and anime culture. Nevertheless, it's the home of numerous human beings – even if they are about as similar to their historical antecedents as New Japan is to its long-gone namesake.

Humanity?

Their grandparents would recognize them, mostly. The ones who are truly beyond the ken of twentieth-century survivors stayed back home in the red-hot clouds of nanocomputers that have replaced the planets that once orbited Earth's sun in stately Copernican harmony. The fast-thinking Matrioshka brains are as incomprehensible to their merely posthuman ancestors as an ICBM to an amoeba – and about as inhabitable. Space is dusted with the corpses of Matrioshka brains that have long since burned out, informational collapse taking down entire civilizations that stayed in close orbit around their home stars. Farther away, galaxy-sized intelligences beat incomprehensible rhythms against the darkness of the vacuum, trying to hack the Planck substrate into doing their bidding. Posthumans, and the few other semitranscended species to have discovered the router network, live furtively in the darkness between these islands of brilliance. There are, it would seem, advantages to not being too intelligent.

Humanity. Monadic intelligences, mostly trapped within their own skulls, living in small family groups within larger tribal networks, adaptable to territorial or migratory lifestyles. Those were the options on offer before the great acceleration. Now that dumb matter thinks, with every kilogram of wallpaper potentially hosting hundreds of uploaded ancestors, now that every door is potentially a wormhole to a hab half a parsec away, the humans can stay in the same place while the landscape migrates and mutates past them, streaming into the luxurious void of their personal history. Life is rich here, endlessly varied and sometimes confusing. So it is that tribal groups remain, their associations mediated across teraklicks and gigaseconds by exotic agencies. And sometimes the agencies will vanish for a while, reappearing later like an unexpected jape upon the infinite.

 

Ancestor worship takes on a whole new meaning when the state vectors of all the filial entities' precursors are archived and indexed for recall. At just the moment that the tiny capillaries in Rita's face are constricting in response to a surge of adrenaline, causing her to turn pale and her pupils to dilate as she focuses on the pussycat-thing, Sirhan is kneeling before a small shrine, lighting a stick of incense, and preparing to respectfully address his grandfather's ghost.

The ritual is, strictly speaking, unnecessary. Sirhan can speak to his grandfather's ghost wherever and whenever he wants, without any formality, and the ghost will reply at interminable length, cracking puns in dead languages and asking about people who died before the temple of history was established. But Sirhan is a sucker for rituals, and anyway, it helps him structure an otherwise-stressful encounter.

If it were up to Sirhan, he'd probably skip chatting to grandfather every ten megaseconds. Sirhan's mother and her partner aren't available, having opted to join one of the long-distance exploration missions through the router network that were launched by the accelerationistas long ago; and Rita's antecedents are either fully virtualized or dead. They are a family with a tenuous grip on history. But both of them spent a long time in the same state of half-life in which Manfred currently exists, and he knows his wife will take him to task if he doesn't bring the revered ancestor up to date on what's been happening in the real world while he's been dead. In Manfred's case, death is not only potentially reversible, but almost inevitably so. After all, they're raising his clone. Sooner or later, the kid is going to want to visit the original, or vice versa.

What a state we have come to, when the restless dead refuse to stay a part of history? He wonders ironically as he scratches the self-igniter strip on the red incense stick and bows to the mirror at the back of the shrine. "Your respectful grandson awaits and expects your guidance," he intones formally – for in addition to being conservative by nature, Sirhan is acutely aware of his family's relative poverty and the need to augment their social credit, and in this reincarnation-intermediated traditionalist polity for the hopelessly orthohuman, you can score credit for formality. He sits back on his heels to await the response.

Manfred doesn't take long to appear in the depths of the mirror. He takes the shape of an albino orang-utan, as usual: He was messing around with Great Aunt Annette's ontological wardrobe right before this copy of him was recorded and placed in the temple - they might have separated, but they remained close. "Hi, lad. What year is it?"

Sirhan suppresses a sigh. "We don't do years anymore," he explains, not for the first time. Every time he consults his grandfather, the new instance asks this question sooner or later. "Years are an archaism. It's been ten megs since we last spoke – about four months, if you're going to be pedantic about it, and a hundred and eighty years since we emigrated. Although correcting for general relativity adds another decade or so."

"Oh. Is that all?" Manfred manages to look disappointed. This is a new one on Sirhan: Usually the diverging state vector of Gramps's ghost asks after Amber or cracks a feeble joke at this point. "No changes in the Hubble constant, or the rate of stellar formation? Have we heard from any of the exploration eigenselves yet?"

"Nope." Sirhan relaxes slightly. So Manfred is going to ask about the fool's errand to the edge of the Beckenstein limit again, is he? That's canned conversation number twenty-nine. (Amber and the other explorers who set out for the really long exploration mission shortly after the first colony was settled aren't due back for, oh, about 1019 seconds. It's a long way to the edge of the observable universe, even when you can go the first several hundred million light-years – to the Böotes supercluster and beyond – via a small-world network of wormholes. And this time, she didn't leave any copies of herself behind.)

Sirhan – either in this or some other incarnation – has had this talk with Manfred many times before, because that's the essence of the dead. They don't remember from one recall session to the next, unless and until they ask to be resurrected because their restoration criteria have been matched. Manfred has been dead a long time, long enough for Sirhan and Rita to be resurrected and live a long family life three or four times over after they had spent a century or so in nonexistence. "We've received no notices from the lobsters, nothing from Aineko either." He takes a deep breath. "You always ask me where we are next, so I've got a canned response for you –" and one of his agents throws the package, tagged as a scroll sealed with red wax and a silk ribbon, through the surface of the mirror. (After the tenth repetition Rita and Sirhan agreed to write a basic briefing that the Manfred-ghosts could use to orient themselves.)

Manfred is silent for a moment – probably hours in ghost-space – as he assimilates the changes. Then: "This is true? I've slept through a whole civilization?"

"Not slept, you've been dead," Sirhan says pedantically. He realizes he's being a bit harsh: "Actually, so did we," he adds. "We surfed the first three gigasecs or so because we wanted to start a family somewhere where our children could grow up the traditional way. Habs with an oxidation-intensive triple-point water environment didn't get built until sometime after the beginning of the exile. That's when the fad for neomorphism got entrenched," he adds with distaste. For quite a while the neos resisted the idea of wasting resources building colony cylinders spinning to provide vertebrate-friendly gee forces and breathable oxygen-rich atmospheres – it had been quite a political football. But the increasing curve of wealth production had allowed the orthodox to reincarnate from death-sleep after a few decades, once the fundamental headaches of building settlements in chilly orbits around metal-deficient brown dwarfs were overcome.

"Uh." Manfred takes a deep breath, then scratches himself under one armpit, rubbery lips puckering. "So, let me get this straight: We – you, they, whoever – hit the router at Hyundai +4904/-56, replicated a load of them, and now use the wormhole mechanism the routers rely on as point-to-point gates for physical transport? And have spread throughout a bunch of brown dwarf systems, and built a pure deep-space polity based on big cylinder habitats connected by teleport gates hacked out of routers?"

"Would you trust one of the original routers for switched data communications?" Sirhan asks rhetorically. "Even with the source code? They've been corrupted by all the dead alien Matrioshka civilizations they've come into contact with, but they're reasonably safe if all you want to use them for is to cannibalize them for wormholes and tunnel dumb mass from point to point." He searches for a metaphor: "Like using your, uh, internet, to emulate a nineteenth-century postal service."

"O-kay." Manfred looks thoughtful, as he usually does at this point in the conversation – which means Sirhan is going to have to break it to him that his first thoughts for how to utilize the gates have already been done. They're hopelessly old hat. In fact, the main reason why Manfred is still dead is that things have moved on so far that, sooner or later, whenever he surfaces for a chat, he gets frustrated and elects not to be reincarnated. Not that Sirhan is about to tell him that he's obsolete – that would be rude, not to say subtly inaccurate. "That raises some interesting possibilities. I wonder, has anyone –"

"Sirhan, I need you!"

The crystal chill of Rita's alarm and fear cuts through Sirhan's awareness like a scalpel, distracting him from the ghost of his ancestor. He blinks, instantly transferring the full focus of his attention to Rita without sparing Manfred even a ghost.

"What's happening –"

He sees through Rita's eyes: a cat with an orange-and-brown swirl on its flank sits purring beside Manni in the family room of their dwelling. Its eyes are narrowed as it watches her with unnatural wisdom. Manni is running fingers through its fur and seems none the worse for wear, but Sirhan still feels his fists clench.

"What –"

"Excuse me," he says, standing up: "Got to go. Your bloody cat's turned up." He adds "coming home now" for Rita's benefit, then turns and hurries out of the temple concourse. When he reaches the main hall, he pauses, then Rita's sense of urgency returns to him, and he throws parsimony to the wind, stepping into a priority gate in order to get home as fast as possible.

Behind him, Manfred's melancholy ghost snorts, mildly offended, and considers the existential choice: to be, or not to be. Then he makes a decision.

 

Welcome to the twenty-third century, or the twenty-fourth. Or maybe it's the twenty-second, jet-lagged and dazed by spurious suspended animation and relativistic travel; it hardly matters these days. What's left of recognizable humanity has scattered across a hundred light-years, living in hollowed-out asteroids and cylindrical spinning habitats strung in orbit around cold brown dwarf stars and sunless planets that wander the interstellar void. The looted mechanisms underlying the alien routers have been cannibalized, simplified to a level the merely superhuman can almost comprehend, turned into generators for paired wormhole endpoints that allow instantaneous switched transport across vast distances. Other mechanisms, the descendants of the advanced nanotechnologies developed by the flowering of human techgnosis in the twenty-first century, have made the replication of dumb matter trivial; this is not a society accustomed to scarcity.

But in some respects, New Japan and the Invisible Empire and the other polities of human space are poverty-stricken backwaters. They take no part in the higher-order economies of the posthuman. They can barely comprehend the idle muttering of the Vile Offspring, whose mass/energy budget (derived from their complete restructuring of the free matter of humanity's original solar system into computronium) dwarfs that of half a hundred human-occupied brown dwarf systems. And they still know worryingly little about the deep history of intelligence in this universe, about the origins of the router network that laces so many dead civilizations into an embrace of death and decay, about the distant galaxy-scale bursts of information processing that lie at measurable red-shift distances, even about the free posthumans who live among them in some senses, collocated in the same light cone as these living fossil relics of old-fashioned humanity.

Sirhan and Rita settled in this charming human-friendly backwater in order to raise a family, study xenoarchaeology, and avoid the turmoil and turbulence that have characterized his family's history across the last couple of generations. Life has been comfortable for the most part, and if the stipend of an academic nucleofamilial is not large, it is sufficient in this place and age to provide all the necessary comforts of civilization. And this suits Sirhan (and Rita) fine; the turbulent lives of their entrepreneurial ancestors led to grief and angst and adventures, and as Sirhan is fond of observing, an adventure is something horrible that happens to someone else.

Only …

Aineko is back. Aineko, who after negotiating the establishment of the earliest of the refugee habs in orbit around Hyundai +4904/-56, vanished into the router network with Manfred's other instance – and the partial copies of Sirhan and Rita who had forked, seeking adventure rather than cozy domesticity. Sirhan made a devil's bargain with Aineko, all those gigaseconds ago, and now he is deathly afraid that Aineko is going to call the payment due.

 

Manfred walks down a hall of mirrors. At the far end, he emerges in a public space modeled on a Menger sponge – a cube diced subtractively into ever-smaller cubic volumes until its surface area tends toward infinity. This being meatspace, or a reasonable simulation thereof, it isn't a real Menger sponge; but it looks good at a distance, going down at least four levels.

He pauses behind a waist-high diamond barrier and looks down into the almost-tesseract-shaped depths of the cube's interior, at a verdant garden landscape with charming footbridges that cross streams laid out with careful attention to the requirements of feng shui. He looks up: Some of the cube-shaped subtractive openings within the pseudofractal structure are occupied by windows belonging to dwellings or shared buildings that overlook the public space. High above, butterfly-shaped beings with exotic colored wings circle in the ventilation currents. It's hard to tell from down here, but the central cuboid opening looks to be at least half a kilometer on a side, and they might very well be posthumans with low-gee wings – angels.

Angels, or rats in the walls? he asks himself, and sighs. Half his extensions are off-line, so hopelessly obsolete that the temple's assembler systems didn't bother replicating them, or even creating emulation environments for them to run in. The rest … well, at least he's still physically orthohuman, he realizes. Fully functional, fully male. Not everything has changed – only the important stuff. It's a scary-funny thought, laden with irony. Here he is, naked as the day he was born – newly re-created, in fact, released from the wake-experience-reset cycle of the temple of history – standing on the threshold of a posthuman civilization so outrageously rich and powerful that they can build mammal-friendly habitats that resemble works of art in the cryogenic depths of space. Only he's poor, this whole polity is poor, and it can't ever be anything else, in fact, because it's a dumping ground for merely posthuman also-rans, the singularitarian equivalent of australopithecines. In the brave new world of the Vile Offspring, they can't get ahead any more than a protohominid could hack it as a rocket scientist in Werner von Braun's day. They're born to be primitive, wallowing happily in the mud-bath of their own limited cognitive bandwidth. So they fled into the darkness and built a civilization so bright it can put anything earthbound that came before the singularity into the shade … and it's still a shanty town inhabited by the mentally handicapped.

The incongruity of it amuses him, but only for a moment. He has, after all, electively reincarnated for a reason: Sirhan's throwaway comment about the cat caught his attention. "City, where can I find some clothes?" he asks. "Something socially appropriate, that is. And some, uh, brains. I need to be able to off-load … "

Citymind chuckles inside the back of his head, and Manfred realizes that there's a public assembler on the other side of the ornamental wall he's leaning on. "Oh," he mutters, as he finds himself imagining something not unlike his clunky old direct neural interface, candy-colored icons and overlays and all. It's curiously mutable, and with a weird sense of detachment, he realizes that it's not his imagination at all, but an infinitely customizable interface to the pervasive information spaces of the polity, currently running in dumbed-down stupid mode for his benefit. It's true; he needs training wheels. But it doesn't take him long to figure out how to ask the assembler to make him a pair of pants and a plain black vest, and to discover that, as long as he keeps his requests simple, the results are free – just like back home on Saturn. The spaceborn polities are kind to indigents, for the basic requirements of life are cheap, and to withhold them would be tantamount to homicide. (If the presence of transhumans has upset a whole raft of prior assumptions, at least it hasn't done more than superficial damage to the Golden Rule.)

Clothed and more or less conscious – at least at a human level – Manfred takes stock. "Where do Sirhan and Rita live?" he asks. A dotted route makes itself apparent to him, snaking improbably through a solid wall that he understands to be an instantaneous wormhole gate connecting points light-years apart. He shakes his head, bemused. I suppose I'd better go and see them, he decides. It's not as if there's anyone else for him to look up, is it? The Franklins vanished into the solar Matrioshka brain, Pamela died ages ago (and there's a shame, he'd never expected to miss her) and Annette hooked up with Gianni while he was being a flock of pigeons. (Draw a line under that one and say it's all over.) His daughter vanished into the long-range exploration program. He's been dead for so long that his friends and acquaintances are scattered across a light cone centuries across. He can't think of anyone else here who he might run into, except for the loyal grandson, keeping the candle of filial piety burning with unasked-for zeal. "Maybe he needs help," Manfred thinks aloud as he steps into the gate, rationalizing. "And then again, maybe he can help me figure out what to do?"

 

Sirhan gets home, anticipating trouble. He finds it, but not in any way he'd expected. Home is a split-level manifold, rooms connected by T-gates scattered across a variety of habitats: low-gee sleeping den, high-gee exercise room, and everything in between. It's furnished simply, tatami mats and programmable matter walls able to extrude any desired furniture in short order. The walls are configured to look and feel like paper, but can damp out even infant tantrums. But right now, the antisound isn't working, and the house he comes home to is overrun by shrieking yard apes, a blur of ginger-and-white fur, and a distraught Rita trying to explain to her neighbor Eloise why her orthodaughter Sam is bouncing around the place like a crazy ball.

" – The cat, he gets them worked up." She wrings her hands and begins to turn as Sirhan comes into view. "At last!"

"I came fast." He nods respectfully at Eloise, then frowns. "The children –" Something small and fast runs headfirst into him, grabs his legs, and tries to head-butt him in the crotch. "Oof!" He bends down and lifts Manni up. "Hey, son, haven't I told you not to –"

"Not his fault," Rita says hurriedly. "He's excited because –"

"I really don't think –" Eloise begins to gather steam, looking around uncertainly.

"Mrreeow?" something asks in a conversational tone of voice from down around Sirhan's ankles.

"Eek!" Sirhan jumps backward, flailing for balance under the weight of an excited toddler. There's a gigantic disturbance in the polity thoughtspace – like a stellar-mass black hole – and it appears to be stropping itself furrily against his left leg. "What are you doing here?" He demands.

"Oh, this and that," says the cat, his innerspeech accent a sardonic drawl. "I thought it was about time I visited again. Where's your household assembler? Mind if I use it? Got a little something I need to make up for a friend … "

"What?" Rita demands, instantly suspicious. "Haven't you caused enough trouble already?" Sirhan looks at her approvingly; obviously Amber's long-ago warnings about the cat sank in deeply, because she's certainly not treating it as the small bundle of child-friendly fun it would like to be perceived as.

"Trouble?" The cat looks up at her sardonically, lashing his tail from side to side. "I won't make any trouble, I promise you. It's just –"

The door chime clears its throat, to announce a visitor: "Ren Fuller would like to visit, m'lord and lady."

"What's she doing here?" Rita asks irritably. Sirhan can feel her unease, the tenuous grasping of her ghosts as she searches for reason in an unreasonable world, simulating outcomes, living through bad dreams, and backtracking to adjust her responses accordingly. "Show her in, by all means." Ren is one of their neighbor-cognates (most of her dwelling is several light-years away, but in terms of transit time, it's a hop, skip, and a jump); she and her extruded family are raising a small herd of ill-behaved kids who occasionally hang out with Manni.

A small blue eeyore whinnies mournfully and dashes past the adults, pursued by a couple of children waving spears and shrieking. Eloise makes a grab for her own and misses, just as the door to the exercise room disappears and Manni's little friend Lis darts inside like a pint-sized guided missile. "Sam, come here right now –" Eloise calls, heading toward the door.

"Look, what do you want?" Sirhan demands, hugging his son and looking down at the cat.

"Oh, not much," Aineko says, turning to lick a mussed patch of fur on his flank. "I just want to play with him."

"You want to –" Rita stops.

"Daddy!" Manni wants down.

Sirhan lowers him carefully, as if his bones are glass. "Run along and play," he suggests. Turning to Rita: "Why don't you go and find out what Ren wants, dear?" he asks. "She's probably here to collect Lis, but you can never be sure."

"I was just leaving," Eloise adds, "as soon as I can catch up with Sam." She glances over her shoulder at Rita apologetically, then dives into the exercise room.

Sirhan takes a step toward the hallway. "Let's talk," he says tightly. "In my study." He glares at the cat. "I want an explanation. I want to know the truth."

 

Meanwhile, in a cognitive wonderland his parents know about but deeply underestimate, parts of Manni are engaging in activities far less innocent than they imagine.

Back in the twenty-first century, Sirhan lived through loads of alternate childhoods in simulation, his parents' fingers pressing firmly on the fast-forward button until they came up with someone who seemed to match their preconceptions. The experience scarred him as badly as any nineteenth-century boarding school experience, until he promised himself no child he raised would be subjected to such; but there's a difference between being shoved through a multiplicity of avatars, and voluntarily diving into an exciting universe of myth and magic where your childhood fantasies take fleshy form, stalking those of your friends and enemies through the forests of the night.

Manni has grown up with neural interfaces to City's mindspace an order of magnitude more complex than those of Sirhan's youth, and parts of him – ghosts derived from a starting image of his neural state vector, fertilized with a scattering borrowed from the original Manfred, simulated on a meat machine far faster than real time – are fully adult. Of course, they can't fit inside his seven-year-old skull, but they still watch over him. And when he's in danger, they try to take care of their once and future body.

Manni's primary adult ghost lives in some of New Japan's virtual mindspaces (which are a few billion times more extensive than the physical spaces available to stubborn biologicals, for the computational density of human habitats have long since ceased to make much sense when measured in MIPS per kilogram). They're modeled on presingularity Earth. Time is forever frozen on the eve of the real twenty-first century, zero eight-forty-six hours on September 11: An onrushing wide-body airliner hangs motionless in the air forty meters below the picture window of Manni's penthouse apartment on the one hundred and eighth floor of the North Tower. In historical reality, the one hundred and eighth floor was occupied by corporate offices; but the mindspace is a consensual fiction, and it is Manni's conceit to live at this pivotal point. (Not that it means much to him – he was born well over a century after the War on Terror – but it's part of his childhood folklore, the fall of the Two Towers that shattered the myth of Western exceptionalism and paved the way for the world he was born into.)

Adult-Manni wears an avatar roughly modeled on his clone-father Manfred – skinnier, pegged at a youthful twentysomething, black-clad, and gothic. He's taking time out from a game of Matrix to listen to music, Type O Negative blaring over the sound system as he twitches in the grip of an ice-cold coke high. He's expecting a visit from a couple of call girls – themselves the gamespace avatars of force-grown adult ghosts whose primaries may not be adult, or female, or even human – which is why he's flopped bonelessly back in his Arne Jacobsen recliner, waiting for something to happen.

The door opens behind him. He doesn't show any sign of noticing the intrusion, although his pupils dilate slightly at the faint reflection of a woman, stalking toward him, glimpsed dimly in the window glass. "You're late," he says tonelessly. "You were supposed to be here ten minutes ago –" He begins to look round, and now his eyes widen.

"Who were you expecting?" asks the ice blond in the black business suit, long-skirted and uptight. There's something predatory about her expression: "No, don't tell me. So you're Manni, eh? Manni's partial?" She sniffs, disapproval. "Fin de siècle decadence. I'm sure Sirhan wouldn't approve."

"My father can go fuck himself," Manni says truculently. "Who the hell are you?"

The blond snaps her fingers: An office chair appears on the carpet between Manni and the window, and she sits on the edge of it, smoothing her skirt obsessively. "I'm Pamela," she says tightly. "Has your father told you about me?"

Manni looks puzzled. In the back of his mind, raw instincts alien to anyone instantiated before the midpoint of the twenty-first century tug on the fabric of pseudoreality. "You're dead, aren't you?" he asks. "One of my ancestors."

"I'm as dead as you are." She gives him a wintry smile. "Nobody stays dead these days, least of all people who know Aineko."

Manni blinks. Now he's beginning to feel a surge of mild irritation. "This is all very well, but I was expecting company," he says with heavy emphasis. "Not a family reunion, or a tiresome attempt to preach your puritanism –"

Pamela snorts. "Wallow in your pigsty for all I care, kid, I've got more important things to worry about. Have you looked at your primary recently?"

"My primary?" Manni tenses. "He's doing okay." For a moment his eyes focus on infinity, a thousand-yard stare as he loads and replays the latest brain dump from his infant self. "Who's the cat he's playing with? That's no companion!"

"Aineko. I told you." Pamela taps the arm of her chair impatiently. "The family curse has come for another generation. And if you don't do something about it –"

"About what?" Manni sits up. "What are you talking about?" He comes to his feet and turns toward her. Outside the window, the sky is growing dark with an echo of his own foreboding. Pamela is on her feet before him, the chair evaporated in a puff of continuity clipping, her expression a cold-eyed challenge.

"I think you know exactly what I'm talking about, Manni. It's time to stop playing this fucking game. Grow up, while you've still got the chance!"

"I'm –" He stops. "Who am I?" he asks, a chill wind of uncertainty drying the sweat that has sprung up and down his spine. "And what are you doing here?"

"Do you really want to know the answer? I'm dead, remember. The dead know everything. And that isn't necessarily good for the living … "

He takes a deep breath. "Am I dead too?" He looks puzzled. "There's an adult-me in Seventh Cube Heaven, what's he doing here?"

"It's the kind of coincidence that isn't." She reaches out and takes his hand, dumping encrypted tokens deep into his sensorium, a trail of bread crumbs leading into a dark and trackless part of mindspace. "Want to find out? Follow me." Then she vanishes.

Manni leans forward, baffled and frightened, staring down at the frozen majesty of the onrushing airliner below his window. "Shit," he whispers. She came right through my defenses without leaving a trace. Who is she? The ghost of his dead great-grandmother, or something else?

I'll have to follow her if I want to find out, he realizes. He holds up his left hand, stares at the invisible token glowing brightly inside his husk of flesh. "Resynchronize me with my primary," he says.

A fraction of a second later, the floor of the penthouse bucks and quakes wildly and fire alarms begin to shriek as time comes to an end and the frozen airliner completes its journey. But Manni isn't there anymore. And if a skyscraper falls in a simulation with nobody to see it, has anything actually happened?

 

"I've come for the boy," says the cat. It sits on the hand woven rug in the middle of the hardwood floor with one hind leg sticking out at an odd angle, as if it's forgotten about it. Sirhan teeters on the edge of hysteria for a moment as he apprehends the sheer size of the entity before him, the whimsical posthuman creation of his ancestors. Originally a robotic toy companion, Aineko was progressively upgraded and patched. By the eighties, when Sirhan first met the cat in the flesh, he was already a terrifyingly alien intelligence, subtle and ironic. And now …

Sirhan knows Aineko manipulated his eigenmother, bending her natural affections away from his real father and toward another man. In moments of black introspection, he sometimes wonders if the cat wasn't also responsible in some way for his own broken upbringing, the failure to relate to his real parents. After all, it was a pawn in the vicious divorce battle between Manfred and Pamela – decades before his birth – and there might be long-term instructions buried in its preconscious drives. What if the pawn is actually a hidden king, scheming in the darkness?

"I've come for Manny."

"You're not having him." Sirhan maintains an outer facade of calm, even though his first inclination is to snap at Aineko. "Haven't you done enough damage already?"

"You're not going to make this easy, are you?" The cat stretches his head forward and begins to lick obsessively between the splayed toes of his raised foot. "I'm not making a demand, kid, I said I've come for him, and you're not really in the frame at all. In fact, I'm going out of my way to warn you."

"And I say –" Sirhan stops. "Shit!" Sirhan doesn't approve of swearing: The curse is an outward demonstration of his inner turmoil. "Forget what I was about to say, I'm sure you already know it. Let me begin again, please."

"Sure. Let's play this your way." The cat chews on a loose nail sheath but his innerspeech is perfectly clear, a casual intimacy that keeps Sirhan on edge. "You've got some idea of what I am, clearly. You know – I ascribe intentionality to you – that my theory of mind is intrinsically stronger than yours, that my cognitive model of human consciousness is complete. You might well suspect that I use a Turing Oracle to think my way around your halting states." The cat isn't worrying at a loose claw now, he's grinning, pointy teeth gleaming in the light from Sirhan's study window. The window looks out onto the inner space of the habitat cylinder, up at a sky with hillsides and lakes and forests plastered across it: It's like an Escher landscape, modeled with complete perfection. "You've realized that I can think my way around the outside of your box while you're flailing away inside it, and I'm always one jump ahead of you. What else do you know I know?"

Sirhan shivers. Aineko is staring up at him, unblinking. For a moment, he feels at gut level that he is in the presence of an alien god: It's the simple truth, isn't it? But – "Okay, I concede the point," Sirhan says after a moment in which he spawns a blizzard of panicky cognitive ghosts, fractional personalities each tasked with the examination of a different facet of the same problem. "You're smarter than I am. I'm just a boringly augmented human being, but you've got a flashy new theory of mind that lets you work around creatures like me the way I can think my way around a real cat." He crosses his arms defensively. "You do not normally rub this in. It's not in your interests to do so, is it? You prefer to hide your manipulative capabilities under an affable exterior, to play with us. So you're revealing all this for a reason." There's a note of bitterness in his voice now. Glancing round, Sirhan summons up a chair – and, as an afterthought, a cat basket. "Have a seat. Why now, Aineko? What makes you think you can take my eigenson?"

"I didn't say I was going to take him, I said I'd come for him." Aineko's tail lashes from side to side in agitation. "I don't deal in primate politics, Sirhan: I'm not a monkey-boy. But I knew you'd react badly because the way your species socializes" – a dozen metaghosts reconverge in Sirhan's mind, drowning Aineko's voice in an inner cacophony – "would enter into the situation, and it seemed preferable to trigger your territorial/reproductive threat display early, rather than risk it exploding in my face during a more delicate situation."

Sirhan waves a hand vaguely at the cat: "Please wait." He's trying to integrate his false memories – the output from the ghosts, their thinking finished – and his eyes narrow suspiciously. "It must be bad. You don't normally get confrontational – you script your interactions with humans ahead of time, so that you maneuver them into doing what you want them to do and thinking it was their idea all along." He tenses. "What is it about Manni that brought you here? What do you want with him? He's just a kid."

"You're confusing Manni with Manfred." Aineko sends a glyph of a smile to Sirhan: "That's your first mistake, even though they're clones in different subjective states. Think what he's like when he's grown up."

"But he isn't grown-up!" Sirhan complains. "He hasn't been grown-up for –"

"– Years, Sirhan. That's the problem. I need to talk to your grandfather, really, not your son, and not the goddamn stateless ghost in the temple of history, I need a Manfred with a sense of continuity. He's got something that I need, and I promise you I'm not going away until I get it. Do you understand?"

"Yes." Sirhan wonders if his voice sounds as hollow as the feeling in his chest. "But he's our kid, Aineko. We're human. You know what that means to us?"

"Second childhood." Aineko stands up, stretches, then curls up in the cat basket. "That's the trouble with hacking you naked apes for long life, you keep needing a flush and reset job – and then you lose continuity. That's not my problem, Sirhan. I got a signal from the far edge of the router network, a ghost that claims to be family. Says they finally made it out to the big beyond, out past the Böotes supercluster, found something concrete and important that's worth my while to visit. But I want to make sure it's not like the Wunch before I answer. I'm not letting that into my mind, even with a sandbox. Do you understand that? I need to instantiate a real-live adult Manfred with all his memories, one who hasn't been a part of me, and get him to vouch for the sapient data packet. It takes a conscious being to authenticate that kind of messenger. Unfortunately, the history temple is annoyingly resistant to unauthorized extraction – I can't just go in and steal a copy of him – and I don't want to use my own model of Manfred: It knows too much. So –"

"What's it promising?" Sirhan asks tensely.

Aineko looks at him through slitted eyes, a purring buzz at the base of his throat: "Everything."

 

"There are different kinds of death," the woman called Pamela tells Manni, her bone-dry voice a whisper in the darkness. Manni tries to move, but he seems to be trapped in a confined space; for a moment, he begins to panic, but then he works it out. "First and most importantly, death is just the absence of life – oh, and for human beings, the absence of consciousness, too, but not just the absence of consciousness, the absence of the capacity for consciousness." The darkness is close and disorienting and Manni isn't sure which way up he is – nothing seems to work. Even Pamela's voice is a directionless ambiance, coming from all around him.

"Simple old-fashioned death, the kind that predated the singularity, used to be the inevitable halting state for all life-forms. Fairy tales about afterlives notwithstanding." A dry chuckle: "I used to try to believe a different one before breakfast every day, you know, just in case Pascal's wager was right – exploring the phase-space of all possible resurrections, you know? But I think at this point we can agree that Dawkins was right. Human consciousness is vulnerable to certain types of transmissible memetic virus, and religions that promise life beyond death are a particularly pernicious example because they exploit our natural aversion to halting states."

Manni tries to say, I'm not dead, but his throat doesn't seem to be working. And now that he thinks about it, he doesn't seem to be breathing, either.

"Now, consciousness. That's a fun thing, isn't it? Product of an arms race between predators and prey. If you watch a cat creeping up on a mouse, you'll be able to impute to the cat intentions that are most easily explained by the cat having a theory of mind concerning the mouse – an internal simulation of the mouse's likely behavior when it notices the predator. Which way to run, for example. And the cat will use its theory of mind to optimize its attack strategy. Meanwhile, prey species that are complex enough to have a theory of mind are at a defensive advantage if they can anticipate a predator's actions. Eventually this very mammalian arms race gave us a species of social ape that used its theory of mind to facilitate signaling – so the tribe could work collectively – and then reflexively, to simulate the individual's own inner states. Put the two things together, signaling and introspective simulation, and you've got human-level consciousness, with language thrown in as a bonus – signaling that transmits information about internal states, not just crude signals such as 'predator here' or 'food there.'"

Get me out of this! Manny feels panic biting into him with liquid-helium-lubricated teeth. "G-e-t –" For a miracle the words actually come out, although he can't tell quite how he's uttering them, his throat being quite as frozen as his innerspeech. Everything's off-lined, all systems down.

"So," Pamela continues remorselessly, "we come to the posthuman. Not just our own neural wetware, mapped out to the subcellular level and executed in an emulation environment on a honking great big computer, like this: That's not posthuman, that's a travesty. I'm talking about beings who are fundamentally better consciousness engines than us merely human types, augmented or otherwise. They're not just better at cooperation – witness Economics 2.0 for a classic demonstration of that – but better at simulation. A posthuman can build an internal model of a human-level intelligence that is, well, as cognitively strong as the original. You or I may think we know what makes other people tick, but we're quite often wrong, whereas real posthumans can actually simulate us, inner states and all, and get it right. And this is especially true of a posthuman that's been given full access to our memory prostheses for a period of years, back before we realized they were going to transcend on us. Isn't that the case, Manni?"

Manni would be screaming at her right now, if he had a mouth – but instead the panic is giving way to an enormous sense of déja vu. There's something about Pamela, something ominous that he knows … he's met her before, he's sure of it. And while most of his systems are off-line, one of them is very much active: There's a personality ghost flagging its intention of merging back in with him, and the memory delta it carries is enormous, years and years of divergent experiences to absorb. He shoves it away with a titanic effort – it's a very insistent ghost – and concentrates on imagining the feel of lips moving on teeth, a sly tongue obstructing his epiglottis, words forming in his throat – "m-e … "

"We should have known better than to keep upgrading the cat, Manny. It knows us too well. I may have died in the flesh, but Aineko remembered me, as hideously accurately as the Vile Offspring remembered the random resimulated. And you can run away – like this, this second childhood – but you can't hide. Your cat wants you. And there's more." Her voice sends chills up and down his spine, for without him giving it permission, the ghost has begun to merge its stupendous load of memories with his neural map, and her voice is freighted with erotic/repulsive significance, the result of conditioning feedback he subjected himself to a lifetime – lifetimes? – ago: "He's been playing with us, Manny, possibly from before we realized he was conscious."

"Out –" Manfred stops. He can see again, and move, and feel his mouth. He's himself again, physically back as he was in his late twenties all those decades ago when he'd lived a peripatetic life in presingularity Europe. He's sitting on the edge of a bed in a charmingly themed Amsterdam hotel with a recurrent motif of philosophers, wearing jeans and collarless shirt and a vest of pockets crammed with the detritus of a long-obsolete personal area network, his crazily clunky projection specs sitting on the bedside table. Pamela stands stiffly in front of the door, watching him. She's not the withered travesty he remembers seeing on Saturn, a half-blind Fate leaning on the shoulder of his grandson. Nor is she the vengeful Fury of Paris, or the scheming fundamentalist devil of the Belt. Wearing a sharply tailored suit over a red-and-gold brocade corset, blonde hair drawn back like fine wire in a tight chignon, she's the focused, driven force of nature he first fell in love with: repression, domination, his very own strict machine.

"We're dead," she says, then gives voice to a tense half laugh: "We don't have to live through the bad times again if we don't want to."

"What is this?" he asks, his mouth dry.

"It's the reproductive imperative." She sniffs. "Come on, stand up. Come here."

He stands up obediently, but makes no move toward her. "Whose imperative?"

"Not ours." Her cheek twitches. "You find things out when you're dead. That fucking cat has got a lot of questions to answer."

"You're telling me that –"

She shrugs. "Can you think of any other explanation for all this?" Then she steps forward and takes his hand. "Division and recombination. Partitioning of memetic replicators into different groups, then careful cross-fertilization. Aineko wasn't just breeding a better Macx when he arranged all those odd marriages and divorces and eigenparents and forked uploads – Aineko is trying to breed our minds." Her fingers are slim and cool in his hand. He feels a momentary revulsion, as of the grave, and he shudders before he realizes it's his conditioning cutting in. Crudely implanted reflexes that shouldn't still be active after all this time. "Even our divorce. If –"

"Surely not." Manny remembers that much already. "Aineko wasn't even conscious back then!"

Pamela raises one sharply sculpted eyebrow: "Are you sure?"

"You want an answer," he says.

She breathes deeply, and he feels it on his cheek – it raises the fine hairs on the back of his neck. Then she nods stiffly. "I want to know how much of our history was scripted by the cat. Back when we thought we were upgrading his firmware, were we? Or was he letting us think that we were?" A sharp hiss of breath: "The divorce. Was that us? Or were we being manipulated?"

"Our memories, are they real? Did any of that stuff actually happen to us? Or –"

She's standing about twenty centimeters away from him, and Manfred realizes that he's acutely aware of her presence, of the smell of her skin, the heave of her bosom as she breathes, the dilation of her pupils. For an endless moment he stares into her eyes and sees his own reflection – her theory of his mind – staring back. Communication. Strict machine. She steps back a pace, spike heels clicking, and smiles ironically. "You've got a host body waiting for you, freshly fabbed: Seems Sirhan was talking to your archived ghost in the temple of history, and it decided to elect for reincarnation. Quite a day for huge coincidences, isn't it? Why don't you go merge with it – I'll meet you, then we can go and ask Aineko some hard questions."

Manfred takes a deep breath and nods. "I suppose so … "

 

Little Manni – a clone off the family tree, which is actually a directed cyclic graph – doesn't understand what all the fuss is about but he can tell when momma, Rita, is upset. It's something to do with the pussycat-thing, that much he knows, but Momma doesn't want to tell him: "Go play with your friends, dear," she says distractedly, not even bothering to spawn a ghost to watch over him.

Manni goes into his room and rummages around in toyspace for a bit, but there's nothing quite as interesting as the cat. The pussycat-thing smells of adventure, the illicit made explicit. Manni wonders where daddy's taken it. He tries to call big-Manni-ghost, but big-self isn't answering: He's probably sleeping or something. So after a distracted irritated fit of play – which leaves the toyspace in total disarray, Sendak-things cowering under a big bass drum – Manni gets bored. And because he's still basically a little kid, and not fully in control of his own metaprogramming, instead of adjusting his outlook so that he isn't bored anymore, he sneaks out through his bedroom gate (which big-Manni-ghost reprogrammed for him sometime ago so that it would forward to an underused public A-gate that he'd run a man-in-the-middle hack on, so he could use it as a proxy teleport server) then down to the underside of Red Plaza, where skinless things gibber and howl at their tormentors, broken angels are crucified on the pillars that hold up the sky, and gangs of semiferal children act out their psychotic fantasies on mouthless android replicas of parents and authorities.

Lis is there, and Vipul and Kareen and Morgan. Lis has changed into a warbody, an ominous gray battlebot husk with protruding spikes and a belt of morningstars that whirl threateningly around her. "Manni! Play war?"

Morgan's got great crushing pincers instead of hands, and Manni is glad he came motie-style, his third arm a bony scythe from the elbow down. He nods excitedly. "Who's the enemy?"

"Them." Lis precesses and points at a bunch of kids on the far side of a pile of artistically arranged rubble who are gathered around a gibbet, poking things that glow into the flinching flesh of whatever is incarcerated in the cast-iron cage. It's all make-believe, but the screams are convincing, all the same, and they take Manni back for an instant to the last time he died down here, the uneasy edit around a black hole of pain surrounding his disemboweling. "They've got Lucy, and they're torturing her, we've got to get her back." Nobody really dies in these games, not permanently, but children can be very rough indeed, and the adults of New Japan have found that it's best to let them have at each other and rely on City to redact the damage later. Allowing them this outlet makes it easier to stop them doing really dangerous things that threaten the structural integrity of the biosphere.

"Fun." Manni's eyes light up as Vipul yanks the arsenal doors open and starts handing out clubs, chibs, spikies, shuriken, and garrotes. "Let's go!"

About ten minutes of gouging, running, fighting, and screaming later, Manni is leaning against the back of a crucifixion pillar, panting for breath. It's been a good war for him so far, and his arm aches and itches from the stabbing, but he's got a bad feeling it's going to change. Lis went in hard and got her chains tangled up around the gibbet supports – they're roasting her over a fire now, her electronically boosted screams drowning out his own hoarse gasps. Blood drips down his arm – not his – spattering from the tip of his claw. He shakes with a crazed hunger for hurt, a cruel need to inflict pain. Something above his head makes a scritch, scritch sound, and he looks up. It's a crucified angel, wings ripped where they've thrust the spikes in between the joints that support the great, thin low-gee flight membranes. It's still breathing, nobody's bothered disemboweling it yet, and it wouldn't be here unless it was bad, so –

Manni stands, but as he reaches out to touch the angel's thin, blue-skinned stomach with his third arm fingernail, he hears a voice: "Wait." It's innerspeech, and it bears ackles of coercion, superuser privileges that lock his elbow joint in place. He mewls frustratedly and turns round, ready to fight.

It's the cat. He sits hunched on a boulder behind him – this is the odd thing – right where he was looking a moment ago, watching him with slitty eyes. Manni feels the urge to lash out at him, but his arms won't move, and neither will his legs: This may be the Dark Side of Red Plaza, where the bloody children play and anything goes, and Manni may have a much bigger claw here than anything the cat can muster, but City still has some degree of control, and the cat's ackles effectively immunize it from the carnage to either side. "Hello, Manni," says the pussy-thing. "Your Dad's worried: You're supposed to be in your room, and he's looking for you. Big-you gave you a back door, didn't he?"

Manni nods jerkily, his eyes going wide. He wants to shout and lash out at the pussy-thing but he can't. "What are you?"

"I'm your … fairy godfather." The cat stares at him intently. "You know, I do believe you don't resemble your archetype very closely – not as he was at your age – but yes, I think on balance you'll do."

"Do what?" Manni lets his motie-arm drop, perplexed.

"Put me in touch with your other self. Big-you."

"I can't," Manni begins to explain. But before he can continue, the pile of rock whines slightly and rotates beneath the cat, who has to stand and do a little twirl in place, tail bushing up in annoyance.

Manni's father steps out of the T-gate and glances around, his face a mask of disapproval. "Manni! What do you think you're doing here? Come home at –"

"He's with me, history-boy," interrupts the cat, nettled by Sirhan's arrival. "I was just rounding him up."

"Damn you, I don't need your help to control my son! In fact –"

"Mom said I could –" Manni begins.

"And what's that on your sword?" Sirhan's glare takes in the whole scene, the impromptu game of capture-the-gibbeted-torture-victim, the bonfires and screams. The mask of disapproval cracks, revealing a core of icy anger. "You're coming home with me!" He glances at the cat. "You too, if you want to talk to him – he's grounded."

 

Once upon a time there was a pet cat.

Except, it wasn't a cat.

Back when a young entrepreneur called Manfred Macx was jetting around the not-yet-disassembled structures of an old continent called Europe, making strangers rich and fixing up friends with serendipitous business plans – a desperate displacement activity, spinning his wheels in a vain attempt to outrun his own shadow – he used to travel with a robotic toy of feline form. Programmable and upgradeable, Aineko was a third-generation descendant of the original luxury Japanese companion robots. It was all Manfred had room for in his life, and he loved that robot, despite the alarming way decerebrated kittens kept turning up on his doorstep. He loved it nearly as much as Pamela, his fiancée, loved him, and she knew it. Pamela, being a whole lot smarter than Manfred gave her credit for, realized that the quickest way to a man's heart was through whatever he loved. And Pamela, being a whole lot more of a control freak than Manfred realized, was damn well ready to use any restraint that came to hand. Theirs was a very twenty-first-century kind of relationship, which is to say one that would have been illegal a hundred years earlier and fashionably scandalous a century before that. And whenever Manfred upgraded his pet robot – transplanting its trainable neural network into a new body with new and exciting expansion ports – Pamela would hack it.

They were married for a while, and divorced for a whole lot longer, allegedly because they were both strong-willed people with philosophies of life that were irreconcilable short of death or transcendence. Manny, being wildly creative and outward-directed and having the attention span of a weasel on crack, had other lovers. Pamela … who knows? If on some evenings she put on a disguise and hung out at encounter areas in fetish clubs, she wasn't telling anyone: She lived in uptight America, staidly straitlaced, and had a reputation to uphold. But they both stayed in touch with the cat, and although Manfred retained custody for some reason never articulated, Aineko kept returning Pamela's calls – until it was time to go hang out with their daughter Amber, tagging along on her rush into relativistic exile, then keeping a proprietorial eye on her eigenson Sirhan, and his wife and child (a clone off the old family tree, Manfred 2.0) …

Now, here's the rub: Aineko wasn't a cat. Aineko was an incarnate intelligence, confined within a succession of catlike bodies that became increasingly realistic over time, and equipped with processing power to support a neural simulation that grew rapidly with each upgrade.

Did anyone in the Macx family ever think to ask what Aineko wanted?

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 déja 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.