/ Language: English / Genre:sf

Distress

Грег Иган


Dedication

Thanks to Caroline Oakley, Deborah Beale, Anthony Cheetham, Peter Robinson, Lucy Blackburn, Annabelle Ager, and Claudia Schaffer.

PART ONE

It is not true that the map of freedom will be complete

with the erasure of the last invidious border when it remains for us to chart the attractors of thunder

and delineate the arrhythmias of drought to reveal the molecular dialects of forest and savanna

as rich as a thousand human tongues and to comprehend the deepest history of our passions

ancient beyond mythology’s reach

So I declare that no corporation holds a monopoly on numbers

no patent can encompass zero and one

no nation has sovereignty over adenine and guanine

no empire rules the quantum waves

And there must be room for all at the celebration of

understanding

for there is a truth which cannot be bought or sold imposed by force, resisted or escaped.

Technoliberation Muteba Kazadi, 2019

1

"All right. He’s dead. Go ahead and talk to him."

The bioethicist was a laconic young asex with blond dreadlocks and a T-shirt which flashed up the slogan SAY NO TO TOE! in between the paid advertising. Ve countersigned the permission form on the forensic pathologist’s notepad, then withdrew to a corner of the room. The trauma specialist and the paramedic wheeled their resuscitation equipment out of the way, and the forensic pathologist hurried forward, hypodermic syringe in hand, to administer the first dose of neuropreservative. Useless prior to legal death—massively toxic to several organs, on a time scale of hours—the cocktail of glutamate antagonists, calcium channel blockers, and antioxidants would halt the most damaging biochemical changes in the victim’s brain, almost immediately.

The pathologist’s assistant followed close behind her, with a trolley bearing all the paraphernalia of post-mortem revival: a tray of disposable surgical instruments; several racks of electronic equipment; an arterial pump fed from three glass tanks the size of water-coolers; and something resembling a hairnet made out of gray superconducting wire.

Lukowski, the homicide detective, was standing beside me. He mused, "If everyone was fitted out like you, Worth, we’d never have to do this. We could just replay the crime from start to finish. Like reading an aircraft’s black box."

I replied without looking away from the operating table; I could edit out our voices easily enough, but I wanted a continuous take of the pathologist connecting up the surrogate blood supply. "If everyone had optic nerve taps, don’t you think murderers would start hacking the memory chips out of their victims' bodies?"

"Sometimes. But no one hung around to mess up this guy’s brain, did they?"

"Wait until they’ve seen the documentary." The pathologist’s assistant sprayed a depilatory enzyme onto the victim’s skull, and then wiped all the close-cropped black hair away with a couple of sweeps of his gloved hand. As he dropped the mess into a plastic sample bag, I realized why it was holding together instead of dispersing like barber’s shop waste; several layers of skin had come with it. The assistant glued the "hairnet"—a skein of electrodes and SQID detectors—to the bare pink scalp. The pathologist finished checking the blood supply, then made an incision in the trachea and inserted a tube, hooked up to a small pump to take the place of the collapsed lungs. Nothing to do with respiration; purely as an aid to speech. It was possible to monitor the nerve impulses to the larynx, and synthesize the intended sounds by wholly electronic means, but apparently the voice was always less garbled if the victim could experience something like the normal tactile and auditory feedback produced by a vibrating column of air. The assistant fitted a padded bandage over the victim’s eyes; in rare cases, feeling could return sporadically to the skin of the face, and since retinal cells were deliberately not revived, some kind of temporary ocular injury was the easiest lie to explain away the pragmatic blindness.

I thought again about possible narration. In 1888, police surgeons photographed the retinas of one victim of Jack the Ripper, in the vain hope that they might discover the face of the killer embalmed in the light-sensitive pigments of the human eye…

No. Too predictable. And too misleading; revival was not a process of extracting information from a passive corpse. But what were the alternative references? Orpheus? Lazarus? "The Monkey’s Paw?" "The Tell-Tale Heart?" Reanimator? Nothing in myth or fiction had really prefigured the truth. Better to make no glib comparisons. Let the corpse speak for itself.

A spasm passed through the victim’s body. A temporary pacemaker was forcing his damaged heart to beat—operating at power levels which would poison every cardiac muscle fiber with electrochemical by-products, in fifteen or twenty minutes at the most. Pre-oxygenated ersatz blood was being fed into his heart’s left atrium, in lieu of a supply from the lungs, pumped through the body once only, then removed via the pulmonary arteries and discarded. An open system was less trouble than recirculation, in the short term. The half-repaired knife wounds in his abdomen and torso made a mess, leaking thin scarlet fluid into the drainage channels of the operating table, but they posed no real threat; a hundred times as much blood was being extracted every second, deliberately. No one had bothered to remove the surgical larvae, though, so they kept on working as if nothing had changed: stitching and chemically cauterizing the smaller blood vessels with their jaws, cleaning and disinfecting the wounds, sniffing about blindly for necrotic tissue and clots to consume.

Maintaining the flow of oxygen and nutrients to the brain was essential but it wouldn’t reverse the deterioration which had already taken place. The true catalysts of revival were the billions of liposomes—microscopic drug capsules made from lipid membranes—being infused along with the ersatz blood. One key protein embedded in the membrane unlocked the blood-brain barrier, enabling the liposomes to burrow out of the cerebral capillaries into the interneural space. Other proteins caused the membrane itself to fuse with the cell wall of the first suitable neuron it encountered, disgorging an elaborate package of biochemical machinery to re-energize the cell, mop up some of the molecular detritus of ischaemic damage, and protect against the shock of re-oxygenation.

Other liposomes were tailored for other cell types: muscle fibers in the vocal fold, the jaw, the lips, the tongue; receptors in the inner ear. They all contained drugs and enzymes with similar effects: hijacking the dying cell and forcing it, briefly, to marshal its resources for one final—unsustainable—burst of activity.

Revival was not resuscitation pushed to heroic extremes. Revival was permitted only when the long-term survival of the patient was no longer a consideration, because every method which might have achieved that outcome had already failed.

The pathologist glanced at a display screen on the equipment trolley. I followed her gaze; there were wave traces showing erratic brain rhythms, and fluctuating bar graphs measuring toxins and breakdown products being flushed out of the body. Lukowski stepped forward expectantly. I followed him.

The assistant hit a button on a keypad. The victim twitched and coughed blood—some of it still his own, dark and clotted. The wave traces spiked, then became smoother, more periodic.

Lukowski took the victim’s hand and squeezed it—a gesture which struck me as cynical, although for all I knew it might have reflected a genuine compassionate impulse. I glanced at the bioethicist. His T-shirt now read CREDIBILITY IS A COMMODITY. I couldn’t decide if that was a sponsored message or a personal opinion.

Lukowski said, "Daniel? Danny? Can you hear me?" There was no obvious physical response, but the brain waves danced. Daniel Cavolini was a music student, nineteen years old. He’d been found around eleven, bleeding and unconscious, in a corner of the Town Hall railway station—with watch, notepad, and shoes still on him, unlikely in a random mugging gone wrong. I’d been hanging out with the homicide squad for a fortnight, waiting for something like this. Warrants for revival were issued only if the evidence favored the victim being able to name the assailant; there was little prospect of obtaining a usable verbal description of a stranger, let alone an identikit of the killer’s face. Lukowski had woken a magistrate just after midnight, the minute the prognosis was clear.

Cavolini’s skin was turning a strange shade of crimson, as more and more revived cells began taking up oxygen. The alien-hued transporter molecule in the ersatz blood was more efficient than hemoglobin—but like all the other revival drugs, it was ultimately toxic.

The pathologist’s assistant hit some more keys. Cavolini twitched and coughed again. It was a delicate balancing act; small shocks to the brain were necessary to restore the major coherent rhythms… but too much external interference could wipe out the remnants of short-term memory. Even after legal death, neurons could remain active deep in the brain, keeping the symbolic firing-pattern representations of recent memories circulating for several minutes. Revival could temporarily restore the neural infrastructure needed to extract those traces, but if they’d already died away completely—or been swamped by the efforts to recover them—interrogation was pointless.

Lukowski said soothingly, "You’re okay now, Danny. You’re in hospital. You’re safe. But you have to tell me who did this to you. Tell me who had the knife."

A hoarse whisper emerged from Cavolini’s mouth: one faint, aspirated syllable, then silence. My skin crawled with predictable monkey’s paw horror—but I felt an idiotic surge of exultation, too, as if part of me simply refused to accept that this sign of life could not be a sign of hope.

Cavolini tried again, and the second attempt was more sustained. His artificial exhalation, detached from voluntary control, made it sound like he was gasping for breath; the effect was pitiful—but he wasn’t actually short of oxygen at all. His speech was so broken and tortuous that I couldn’t make out a single word, but an array of piezoelectric sensors was glued to his throat, and wired to a computer. I turned to the display panel.

Why can’t I see?

Lukowski said, "Your eyes are bandaged. There were a couple of broken blood vessels, but they’ve been repaired; there’ll be no permanent damage, I promise. So just… lie still, and relax. And tell me what happened."

What time is it? Please. I better call home. I better tell them

"We’ve spoken to your parents. They’re on their way, they’ll be here as soon as possible."

That much was true—but even if they showed up in the next ninety seconds, they would not be allowed into the room.

"You were waiting for the train home, weren’t you? Platform four. Remember? Waiting for the ten-thirty to Strathfield. But you didn’t get on. What happened?" I saw Lukowski’s gaze shift to a graph below the transcript window, where half a dozen rising curves recording improved vital signs were extended by dashed computer projections. All of the projected curves hit their peaks a minute or so in the future, then swiftly declined.

He had a knife. Cavolini’s right arm began to twitch, and his slack facial muscles came to life for the first time, taking on a grimace of pain. It still hurts. Please help me. The bioethicist glanced calmly at some figures on the display screen, but declined to intervene. Any effective anesthetic would damp down neural activity too much to allow the interrogation to continue; it was all or nothing, abort or proceed.

Lukowski said gently, "The nurse is getting some painkillers. Hang in there, man, it won’t be long. But tell me: who had the knife?" The faces of both of them were glistening with sweat now; Lukowski’s arm was scarlet up to the elbow. I thought: If you found someone dying on the pavement in a pool of blood, you’d ask the same questions, wouldn’t you? And tell the same reassuring lies? "Who was it, Danny?"

My brother.

"Your brother had the knife?"

No he didn’t. I can’t remember what happened. Ask me later. My head’s too fuzzy now.

"Why did you say it was your brother? Was it him, or wasn’t it?"

Of course it wasn’t him. Don’t tell anyone I said that. I’ll be all right if you stop confusing me. Can I have the painkillers now? Please?

His face flowed and froze, flowed and froze, like a sequence of masks, making his suffering seem stylized, abstract. He began to move his head back and forth; weakly at first, then with manic speed and energy. I assumed he was having some kind of seizure: the revival drugs were over-stimulating some damaged neural pathway.

Then he reached up with his right hand and tore away the blindfold. His head stopped jerking immediately; maybe his skin had grown hypersensitive, and the blindfold had become an unbearable irritation. He blinked a few times, then squinted up at the room’s bright lights. I could see his pupils contract, his eyes moving purposefully. He raised his head slightly and examined Lukowski, then looked down at his own body and its strange adornments: the pacemaker’s brightly colored ribbon cable; the heavy plastic blood-supply tubes; the knife wounds full of glistening white maggots. Nobody moved, nobody spoke, while he inspected the needles and electrodes buried in his chest, the strange pink tide washing out of him, his ruined lungs, his artificial airway. The display screen was behind him, but everything else was there to be taken in at a glance. In a matter of seconds, he knew, I could see the weight of understanding descend on him.

He opened his mouth, then closed it again. His expression shifted rapidly; through the pain there was a sudden flash of pure astonishment, and then an almost amused comprehension of the full strangeness—and maybe even the perverse virtuosity—of the feat to which he’d been subjected. For an instant, he really did look like someone admiring a brilliant, vicious, bloody practical joke at his own expense.

Then he said clearly, between enforced robotic gasps: "I… don’t… think… this… is… a… good… id… dea. I… don’t… want… to… talk… any… more."

He closed his eyes and sank back onto the table. His vital signs were descending rapidly.

Lukowski turned to the pathologist. He was ashen, but he still gripped the boy’s hand. "How could the retinas function? What did you do? You stupid—" He raised his free hand as if to strike her, but he didn’t follow through. The bioethicist’s T-shirt read: ETERNAL LOVE IS A LOVEPET, MADE FROM YOUR LOVED ONE’S OWN DNA. The pathologist, standing her ground, screamed back at Lukowski, "You had to push him, didn’t you? You had to keep on and on about the brother, while his stress hormone index climbed straight into the red!" I wondered who’d decided what a normal level of adrenaline was, for the state of being dead from knife wounds but otherwise relaxed. Someone behind me emitted a long string of incoherent obscenities. I turned to see the paramedic, who would have been with Cavolini since the ambulance; I hadn’t even realized that he was still in the room. He was staring at the floor, his fists clenched tight, shaking with anger.

Lukowski grabbed my elbow, staining me with synthetic blood. He spoke in a stage whisper, as if hoping to keep his words off the soundtrack. "You can film the next one. Okay? This has never happened before—never—and if you show people a one-in-a-million glitch as if it was—"

The bioethicist ventured mildly, "I think the guidelines from the Taylor committee on optional restraints make it clear—"

The pathologist’s assistant turned on her, outraged. "Who asked you for an opinion? Procedure is none of your business, you pathetic—"

An ear-splitting alarm went off, somewhere deep in the electronic guts of the revival apparatus. The pathologist’s assistant bent over the equipment, and bashed on the keypad like a frustrated child attacking a broken toy, until the noise went away.

In the silence that followed, I almost closed my eyes, invoked Witness, stopped recording. I’d seen enough.

Then Daniel Cavolini regained consciousness, and began to scream.

I watched as they pumped him full of morphine, and waited for the revival drugs to finish him off.

2

It was just after five as I walked down the hill from Eastwood railway station. The sky was pale and colorless, Venus was fading slowly in the east, but the street itself already looked exactly as it did by daylight. Just inexplicably deserted. My carriage on the train had been empty, too. Last-human-on-Earth time.

Birds were calling—loudly—in the lush bushland which lined the railway corridor, and in the labyrinth of wooded parks woven into the surrounding suburb. Many of the parks resembled pristine forest—but every tree, every shrub was engineered: at the very least drought and fire resistant, shedding no messy, flammable twigs, bark or leaves. Dead plant tissue was resorbed, cannibalized; I’d seen it portrayed in time-lapse (one kind of photography I never carried out myself): an entire brown and wilting branch shrinking back into the living trunk. Most of the trees generated a modest amount of electricity—ultimately from sunlight, although the chemistry was elaborate, and the release of stored energy continued twenty-four hours a day. Specialized roots sought out the underground superconductors snaking through the parks, and fed in their contributions. Two and a quarter volts was about as intrinsically safe as electric power could be—but it required zero resistance for efficient transmission.

Some of the fauna had been modified, too; the magpies were docile even in spring, the mosquitoes shunned mammalian blood, and the most venomous snakes were incapable of harming a human child. Small advantages over their wild cousins, tied to the biochemistry of the engineered vegetation, guaranteed the altered species dominance in this microecology—and small handicaps kept them from flourishing if they ever escaped to one of the truly wild reserves, distant from human habitation.

I was renting a small detached unit in a cluster of four, set in a zero-maintenance garden which merged seamlessly with the tendril of parkland at the end of a cul-de-sac. I’d been there for eight years, ever since my first commission from SeeNet, but I still felt like a trespasser. Eastwood was just eighteen kilometers from the center of Sydney, which—although ever fewer people had reason to travel there—still seemed to hold an inexplicable sway over real-estate prices; I couldn’t have bought the unit myself in a hundred years. The (barely) affordable rent was just a felicitous by-product of the owner’s elaborate tax evasion schemes—and it was probably only a matter of time before some quiver of butterfly wings in world financial markets rendered the networks slightly less generous, or my landowner slightly less in need of a write-off, and I’d be picked up and flung fifty kilometers west, back to the outer sprawl where I belonged.

I approached warily. Home should have felt like a sanctuary after the night’s events, but I hesitated outside the front door, key in hand, for something like a minute.

Gina was up, dressed, and in the middle of breakfast. I hadn’t seen her since the same time the day before; it was as if I’d never left.

She said, "How was filming?" I’d sent her a message from the hospital, explaining that we’d finally got lucky.

"I don’t want to talk about it." I retreated into the living room and sank into a chair. The action of sitting seemed to replay itself in my inner ears; I kept descending, again and again. I fixed my gaze on the pattern in the carpet; the illusion slowly faded.

"Andrew? What happened?" She followed me into the room. "Did something go wrong? Will you have to reshoot?"

"I said I don’t want to—" I caught myself. I looked up at her, and forced myself to concentrate. She was puzzled, but not yet angry. Rule number three: Tell her everything, however unpleasant, at the first opportunity. Whether you feel like it or not. Anything less will be treated as deliberate exclusion and taken as a personal affront.

I said, "I won’t have to reshoot. It’s over." I recounted what had happened.

Gina looked ill. "And was anything he said worth… extracting? Did mentioning his brother make the slightest sense or was he just braindamaged and ranting?"

"That’s still not clear. Evidently the brother does have a history of violence; he was on probation for assaulting his mother. They’ve taken him in for questioning… but it could all come to nothing. If the victim’s short-term memories were lost, he could have pieced together a false reconstruction of the stabbing, using the first person who came to mind as being capable of the act. And when he changed his story he might not have been covering up at all; he might simply have realized that he was amnesic."

Gina said, "And even if the brother did kill him… no jury is going to accept a couple of words, instantly retracted, as any kind of proof. If there’s a conviction, it will have nothing to do with the revival."

It was difficult to argue the point; I had to struggle to regain some perspective.

"Not in this case, no. But there have been times when it’s made all the difference. The victim’s word alone might never stand up in court— but there’ve been people tried for murder who would never have been suspected otherwise. Cases when the evidence which actually convicted them was only pieced together because the revival testimony put the investigation on the right track."

Gina was dismissive. "That may have happened once or twice—but it’s still not worth it. They should ban the whole procedure, it’s obscene." She hesitated. "But you’re not going to use that footage, are you?"

"Of course I’m going to use it."

"You’re going to show a man dying in agony on an operating table—captured in the act of realizing that everything which brought him back to life is guaranteed to kill him?" She spoke calmly; she sounded more incredulous than outraged.

I said, "What do you want me to use instead? A dramatization, where everything goes according to plan?"

"No. But why not a dramatization where everything goes wrong, in exactly the way it did last night?"

"Why? It’s already happened, and I’ve already filmed it. Who benefits from a reconstruction?"

"The victim’s family. For a start."

I thought: Possibly. But would a reconstruction really spare their feelings? And no one was going to force them to watch the documentary, in either case.

I said, "Be reasonable. This is powerful stuff; I can’t just throw it away. And I have every right to use it. I had permission to be there—from the cops, from the hospital. And I’ll get the family’s clearance—"

"You mean the network’s lawyers will browbeat them into signing some kind of waiver in the public interest."

I had no answer to that; it was exactly what would happen. I said, "You’re the one who just declared that revival is obscene. You want to see it banned? This can only help your cause. It’s as good a dose of frankenscience as any dumb luddite could ask for."

Gina looked stung; I couldn’t tell if she was faking. She said, "I have a doctorate in materials science, you peasant, so don’t call me—"

"I didn’t. You know what I meant,"

"If anyone’s a luddite, you are. This entire project is beginning to sound like Edenite propaganda, Junk DNA! What’s the subtitle? The biotechnology nightmare?"

"Close."

"What I don’t understand is why you couldn’t include a single positive story—"

I said wearily, "We’ve been over this before. It’s not up to me. The networks won’t buy anything unless there’s an angle. In this case, the downside of biotech. That’s the choice of subject, that’s what it’s about. It isn’t meant to be balanced. Balance confuses the marketing people; you can’t hype something which contains two contradictory messages. But at least it might counteract all the hymns of praise to genetic engineering everyone’s been gagging on lately. And—taken along with everything else—it does show the whole picture. By adding what they’ve all left out."

Gina was unmoved. "That’s disingenuous. Our sensationalism balances their sensationalism. It doesn’t. It just polarizes opinion. What’s wrong with a calm, reasoned presentation of the facts—which might help to get revival and a few other blatant atrocities outlawed—without playing up all the old transgressions-against-nature bullshit? Showing the excesses, but putting them in context? You should be helping people make informed decisions about what they demand from the regulatory authorities. Junk DNA sounds more likely to inspire them to go out and bomb the nearest biotech lab."

I curled into the armchair and rested my head on my knees. "All right, I give up. Everything you say is true. I’m a manipulative, rabble-rousing, anti-science hack."

She frowned. "Anti-science? I wouldn’t go that far. You’re venal, lazy, and irresponsible—but you’re not quite Ignorance Cult material yet."

"Your faith is touching."

She prodded me with a cushion, affectionately I think, then went back to the kitchen. I covered my face with my hands, and the room started tipping.

I should have been jubilant. It was over. The revival was the very last piece of filming for Junk DNA. No more paranoid billionaires mutating into self-contained walking ecologies. No more insurance firms designing personal actuarial implants to monitor diet, exercise, and exposure to pollutants—for the sake of endlessly recomputing the wearer’s most probable date and cause of death. No more Voluntary Autists lobbying for the right to have their brains surgically mutilated so they could finally attain the condition nature hadn’t quite granted them…

I went into my workroom and unreeled the fiber-optic umbilical from the side of the editing console. I lifted my shirt and cleared some unnamable debris from my navel, then extracted the skin-colored plug with my fingernails, exposing a short stainless-steel tube ending in an opalescent laser port.

Gina called out from the kitchen, "Are you performing unnatural acts with that machine again?"

I was too tired to think of an intelligent retort. I snapped the connectors together, and the console lit up.

The screen showed everything as it came through. Eight hours' worth in sixty seconds—most of it an incomprehensible blur, but I averted my gaze anyway. I didn’t much feel like reliving any of the night’s events, however briefly.

Gina wandered in with a plate of toast; I hit a button to conceal the image. She said, "I still want to know how you can have four thousand terabytes of RAM in your peritoneal cavity, and no visible scars."

I glanced down at the connector socket. "What do you call that? Invisible?"

"Too small. Eight-hundred-terabyte chips are thirty millimeters wide. I looked up the manufacturer’s catalogue."

"Sherlock strikes again. Or should I say Shylock? Scars can be erased, can’t they?"

"Yes. But… would you have obliterated the marks of your most important rite of passage?"

"Spare me the anthropological babble."

"I do have an alternative theory."

"I’m not confirming or denying anything."

She let her gaze slide over the blank console screen, up to the Repo Man poster on the wall behind it: a motorcycle cop standing behind a dilapidated car. She caught my eye, then gestured at the caption: DON’T LOOK IN THE TRUNK!

"Why not? What’s in the trunk!"

I laughed. "You can’t bear it anymore, can you? You’re just going to have to watch the movie."

"Yeah, yeah."

The console beeped. I unhooked. Gina looked at me curiously; the expression on my face must have betrayed something. "So is it like sex, or more like defecation?"

"It’s more like Confession."

"You’ve never been to Confession in your life."

"No, but I’ve seen it in the movies. I was joking, though. It’s not like anything at all."

She glanced at her watch, then kissed me on the cheek, leaving toast crumbs. "I have to run. Get some sleep, you idiot. You look terrible."

I sat and listened to her bustling around. She had a ninety-minute train journey every morning to the CSIRO’s wind turbine research station, west of the Blue Mountains. I usually got up at the same time myself, though. It was better than waking alone.

I thought: I do love her. And if I concentrate, if I follow the rules, there’s no reason why it can’t last. My eighteen-month record was looming—but that was nothing to fear. We’d smash it, easily.

She reappeared in the doorway. "So, how long do you have to edit this one?"

"Ah. Three weeks exactly. Counting today." I hadn’t really wanted to be reminded.

"Today doesn’t count. Get some sleep."

We kissed. She left. I swung my chair around to face the blank console.

Nothing was over. I was going to have to watch Daniel Cavolini die a hundred more times, before I could finally disown him.

I limped into the bedroom and undressed. I hung my clothes on the cleaning rack, and switched on the power. The polymers in the various fabrics expelled all their moisture in a faint humid exhalation, then packed the remaining dirt and dried sweat into a fine, loose dust, and discarded it electrostatically. I watched it drift down into the receptacle; it was always the same disconcerting blue—something to do with the particle size. I had a quick shower, then climbed into bed.

I set the alarm clock for two in the afternoon. The pharm unit beside the clock said, "Shall I prepare a melatonin course to get you back in synch by tomorrow evening?"

"Yeah, okay." I stuck my thumb in the sampling tube; there was a barely perceptible sting as blood was taken. Non-invasive NMR models had been in the shops for a couple of years, but they were still too expensive.

"Do you want something to help you sleep now?"

"Yes."

The pharm began to hum softly, creating a sedative tailored to my current biochemical state, in a dose in accordance with my intended sleeping time. The synthesizer inside used an array of programmable catalysts, ten billion electronically reconfigurable enzymes bound to a semiconductor chip. Immersed in a small tank of precursor molecules, the chip could assemble a few milligrams of any one of ten thousand drugs. Or at least, any of the ones for which I had software, for as long as I kept paying the license fees.

The machine disgorged a small tablet, still slightly warm. I bit into it. "Orange-flavored after a hard night! You remembered!"

I lay back and waited for the drug to take effect.

I’d watched the expression on his face—but those muscles were palsied, uncontrollable. I’d heard his voice—but the breath he spoke with was not his own. I had no real way of knowing what he’d experienced.

Not "The Monkey’s Paw" or "The Tell-Tale Heart."

More like "The Premature Burial."

But I had no right to mourn Daniel Cavolini. I was going to sell his death to the world.

And I had no right even to empathize, to imagine myself in his place.

As Lukowski had pointed out, it could never have happened to me.

3

I’d seen a nineteen-fifties Moviola once, in a glass case in a museum. Thirty-five-millimeter celluloid traveled a tortuous path through the guts of the machine, moving back and forth between two belt-driven spools held up on vertical arms behind the tiny viewing screen. The whine of the motor, the grinding of the gears, the helicopter whir of the shutter blades—sounds coming from an AV of the machine in action, showing on a panel below the display case—had made it seem more like a shredding device than any kind of editing tool. An appealing notion. I’m very sorry… but that scene has been lost forever. The Moviola ate it. Standard practice, of course, had been to work only with a copy of the camera original (usually an unviewable negative, anyway)—but the idea of one slip of a cog transforming meters of precious celluloid into confetti had stuck in my head ever since, a glorious, illicit fantasy.

My three-year-old 2052 Affine Graphics editing console was incapable of destroying anything. Every shot I downloaded was burnt into two independent write-once memory chips—and also encrypted and sent automatically to archives in Mandela, Stockholm, and Toronto. Every editing decision that followed was just a rearrangement of references to the untouchable original. I could quote from the raw footage (and footage it was—only dilettantes used pretentious neologisms like byteage) as selectively as I wished. I could paraphrase, substitute, and improvise. But not one frame of the original could ever be damaged or misplaced, beyond repair, beyond recovery.

I didn’t really envy my analog-era counterparts, though; the painstaking mechanics of their craft would have driven me mad. The slowest step in digital editing was human decision-making, and I’d learned to get most judgments right by the tenth or twelfth attempt. Software could tweak the rhythms of a scene, fine-tune every cut, finesse the sound, remove unwanted passersby; even shift whole buildings, if necessary. The mechanics was all taken care of; there was nothing to distract from the content.

So all I had to do with Junk DNA was transform one hundred and eighty hours of real-time into fifty minutes of sense.

I’d filmed four stories, and I already knew how I’d order them: a gradual progression from gray to black. Ned Landers the walking biosphere. The HealthGuard actuarial implant. The Voluntary Autists lobby group. And Daniel Cavolini’s revival. SeeNet had asked for excess, for transgressions, for frankenscience. I’d have no trouble giving them exactly what they wanted.

Landers had made his money in dry computers, not biotech, but he’d gone on to buy several R&D-intensive molecular genetics corporations to help him achieve his personal transformation. He’d begged me to film him in a sealed geodesic dome full of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and benzyl compounds—me in a pressure suit, himself in swimming trunks. We’d tried it, but my face plate kept fogging up on the outside with oily carcinogenic residues, so we’d had to meet again in downtown Portland. Promising as the noxious dome had seemed, the immaculate blue skies of the state which was racing California to zero-emission laws for every known pollutant had turned out to be a more surreal backdrop by far.

"I don’t need to breathe at all if I don’t want to," Landers had confided, surrounded by a visible abundance of clean, fresh air. This time, I’d persuaded him to do the interview in a small, grassy park opposite the NL Group’s modest headquarters. (There were children playing soccer in the background—but the console would keep track of any continuity problems, and offer solutions to most of them with a single keystroke.) Landers was in his late forties, but he could have passed for twenty-five. With a robust build, golden hair, blue eyes, and glowing pink skin, he looked more like a Hollywood version of a Kansas farm worker (in good times) than a rich eccentric whose body was swarming with engineered algae and alien genes. I watched him on the console’s flatscreen, and listened through simple stereo speakers. I could have fed the playback straight into my optic and auditory nerves, but most viewers would be using a screen or a headset—and I needed to be sure that the software really had constructed a steady, plausible, rectilinear grid of pixels out of my own retinas' highly compressed visual shorthand.

"The symbionts living in my bloodstream can turn carbon dioxide back into oxygen, indefinitely. They get some energy through my skin, from sunlight, and they release any glucose they can spare—but that’s not nearly enough for me to live on, and they need an alternative energy source when they’re in darkness. That’s where the symbionts in my stomach and intestines come in; I have thirty-seven different types, and between them, they can handle anything. I can eat grass. I can eat paper. I could live off old tires, if I had a way of cutting them into pieces small enough to swallow. If all plant and animal life vanished from the face of the Earth tomorrow, I could survive off tires for a thousand years. I have a map showing all the tire dumps in the continental USA. The majority are scheduled for biological remediation, but I have court actions in progress to see that a number of them survive. Apart from my own personal reasons, I think they’re a part of our heritage which we owe to future generations to leave untouched."

I went back and intercut some microscope footage of the tailored algae and bacteria inhabiting his blood and digestive tract, then a shot of the tire dump map, which he’d displayed for me on his notepad. I played with an animation I’d been preparing, a schematic of his personal carbon, oxygen, and energy cycles, but I wasn’t yet sure where it belonged.

I’d prompted him: "So you’re immune to famine and mass extinctions—but what about viruses? What about biological warfare or some accidental plague?" I cut my words out; they were redundant, and I preferred to intrude as little as possible. The change of topic was a bit of a non sequitur as things stood, though, so I synthesized a shot of Landers saying, "As well as using symbionts," computed to merge seamlessly with his actual words, "I’m gradually replacing those cell lines in my body which have the greatest potential for viral infection. Viruses are made of DNA or RNA; they share the same basic chemistry as every other organism on the planet. That’s why they can hijack human cells in order to reproduce. But DNA and RNA can be manufactured with totally novel chemistry—with non-standard base pairs to take the place of the normal ones. A new alphabet for the genetic code: instead of guanine with cytosine, adenine with thymine—instead of G with C, A with Т—you can have X with Y,W with Z."

I changed his words after "thymine" to: "—you can use four alternative molecules which don’t occur in nature at all." The sense was the same, and it made the point more clearly. But when I replayed the scene, it didn’t ring true, so I reverted to the original.

Every journalist paraphrased his subjects; if I’d flatly refused to employ the technique, I wouldn’t be working. The trick was to do it honestly—which was about as difficult as imposing the same criterion on the editing process as a whole.

I cut in some stock molecular graphics of ordinary DNA, showing every atom in the paired bases which bridged the strands of the helix, and I color-coded and labeled one example of each base. Landers had refused to specify exactly which non-standard bases he was using, but I’d found plenty of possibilities in the literature. I had the graphics software substitute four plausible new bases for the old ones in the helix, and repeated the slow zoom-in and rotation of the first shot with this hypothetical stretch of Landers-DNA. Then I cut back to his talking head.

"A simple base-for-base substitution in the DNA isn’t enough, of course. Cells need some brand new enzymes to synthesize the new bases—and most of the proteins which interact with DNA and RNA need to be adapted to the change, so the genes for those proteins need to be translated, not just rewritten in the new alphabet." I improvised some graphics illustrating the point, stealing an example of a certain nuclear binding protein from one of the journal articles I’d read—but redrawing the molecules in a different style, to avoid copyright violation. "We haven’t yet been able to deal with every single human gene which needs translation, but we’ve made some specific cell lines which work fine with mini-chromosomes containing only the genes they need.

"Sixty percent of the stem cells in my bone marrow and thymus have been replaced with versions using neo-DNA. Stem cells give rise to blood cells, including the cells of the immune system. I had to switch my immune system back into an immature state, temporarily, to make the transition work smoothly—I had to go through some of the childhood clonal deletion phases all over again, to weed out anything which might have caused an autoimmune response—but basically, I’m now able to shoot up pure HIV, and laugh about it."

"But there’s a perfectly good vaccine—"

"Of course." I cut my own words out, and made Landers say: "Of course, there’s a vaccine for that." Then: "And I have symbionts providing a second, independent immune system, anyway. But who knows what’s coming along next? I’ll be prepared, whatever it is. Not by anticipating the specifics—which no one could ever do—but by making sure that no vulnerable cell in my body still speaks the same biochemical language as any virus on Earth."

"And in the long term? It’s taken a lot of expensive infrastructure to provide you with all of these safeguards. What if that technology doesn’t survive long enough for your children and grandchildren?" This was all redundant, so I ditched it.

"In the long term, of course, I’m aiming to modify the stem cells which produce my sperm. My wife Carol has already begun a program of ova collection. And once we’ve translated the entire human genome, and replaced all twenty-three chromosomes in sperm and ova… everything we’ve done will be heritable. Any child of ours will use pure neo-DNA—and all the symbionts will pass from mother to child in the womb.

"We’ll translate the genomes of the symbionts as well—into a third genetic alphabet—to protect them from viruses, and to eliminate any risk of accidental gene exchange. They’ll be our crops and our herds, our birthright, our inalienable dominion, living in our blood forever.

"And our children will be a new species of life. More than a new species—a whole new kingdom."

The soccer players in the park cheered; someone had scored a goal. I left it in.

Landers beamed suddenly, radiantly, as if he was contemplating this strange arcadia for the very first time.

"That’s what I’m creating. A new kingdom."

I sat at the console eighteen hours a day, and forced myself to live as if the world had shrunk, not to the workroom itself, but to the times and places captured in the footage. Gina left me to it; she’d survived the editing of Gender Scrutiny Overload, so she already knew exactly what to expect.

She said blithely, "I’ll just pretend that you’re out of town. And that the lump in the bed is a large hot water bottle."

My pharm programmed a small skin patch on my shoulder to release carefully timed and calibrated doses of melatonin, or a melatonin blocker—adding to, or subtracting from, the usual biochemical signal produced by my pineal gland, reshaping the normal sine wave of alertness into a plateau followed by a deep, deep trough. I woke every morning from five hours of enriched REM sleep, as wide-eyed and energetic as a hyperactive child, my head spinning with a thousand disintegrating dreams (most of them elaborate remixes of the previous day’s editing). I wouldn’t so much as yawn until eleven forty-five—but fifteen minutes later, I’d go out like a light. Melatonin was a natural circadian hormone, far safer and more precise in its effects than crude stimulants like caffeine or amphetamines. (I’d tried caffeine a few times; it made me believe I was focused and energetic, but it turned my judgment to shit. Widespread use of caffeine explained a lot about the twentieth century.) I knew that when I went off the melatonin, I’d suffer a short period of insomnia and daytime drowsiness—an overshoot of the brain’s attempts to counteract the imposed rhythm. But the side-effects of the alternatives were worse.

Carol Landers had declined to be interviewed, which was a shame—it would have been quite a coup to have chatted with the next Mitochondrial Eve. Landers had refused to comment on whether or not she was currently using the symbionts; perhaps she was waiting to see if he’d continue to flourish, or whether he’d suffer a population explosion of some mutant bacterial strain, and go into toxic shock.

I’d been permitted to speak to a few of Landers' senior employees— including the two geneticists who were doing most of the R&D. They were coy when it came to discussing anything beyond the technicalities, but their general attitude seemed to be that any freely chosen treatment which helped safeguard an individual’s health—and which posed no threat to the public at large—was ethically unimpeachable. They had a point, at least from the biohazard angle; working with neo-DNA meant there was no risk of accidental recombination. Even if they’d flushed all their failed experiments straight into the nearest river, no natural bacterium could have taken up the genes and made use of them.

Implementing Landers' vision of the perfect survivalist family was going to take more than R&D, though. Making heritable changes in any human gene was currently illegal in the US (and most other places)—apart from a list of a few dozen authorized repairs for eliminating diseases like muscular dystrophy and cystic fibrosis. Legislation could always be revoked, of course—although Landers' own top biotech attorney insisted that changing the base pairs—and even translating a few genes to accommodate that change—wouldn’t actually violate the anti-eugenics spirit of the existing law. It wouldn’t alter the external characteristics of the children (height, build, pigmentation). It wouldn’t influence their IQ, or personality. When I’d raised the question of their presumed sterility (barring incest), he’d taken the interesting position that it would hardly be Ned Landers' fault if other people’s children were sterile with respect to his own. There were no infertile people, after all—only infertile couples.

An expert in the field at Columbia University said all of this was bullshit: substituting whole chromosomes, whatever the phenotypic effects, would simply be illegal. Another expert, at the University of Washington, was less certain. If I’d had the time, I could probably have collected a hundred sound-bites of eminent jurists expressing every conceivable shade of opinion on the subject.

I’d spoken to a number of Landers' critics, including Jane Summers, a freelance biotech consultant based in San Francisco, and a prominent member of Molecular Biologists for Social Responsibility. Six months earlier (writing in the semi-public MBSR netzine, which my knowledge miner always scrutinized diligently), she’d claimed to have evidence that several thousand wealthy people, in the US and elsewhere, were having their DNA translated, cell type by cell type. Landers, she’d said, was merely the only one to have gone public—to act as a kind of decoy: a lone eccentric, defusing the issue, making it seem like one man’s ridiculous (yet almost Quixotic) fantasy. If the research had been exposed in the media with no specific person associated with it, paranoia would have reigned: there would have been no limit to the possible membership of the nameless elite who planned to divorce themselves from the biosphere. But since it was all out in the open, and all down to harmless Ned Landers, there was really nothing to fear.

The theory made a certain amount of sense—but Summers' evidence hadn’t been forthcoming. She’d reluctantly put me in touch with an industry source who’d supposedly been involved in gene translation work for an entirely different employer—but the source had denied everything. Pressed for other leads, Summers had become evasive. Either she’d never had anything substantial or she’d made a deal with another journalist to keep the competition away. It was frustrating, but in the end I hadn’t had the time or resources to pursue the story independently. If there really was a cabal of genetic separatists, I’d just have to read the exclusive in the Washington Post like everyone else.

I closed with a medley of other commentators—bioethicists, geneticists, sociologists—mostly dismissing the whole affair. "Mr. Landers has the right to live his own life, and raise his own children, any way he sees fit. We don’t persecute the Amish for their inbreeding, their strange technology, their desire for independence. Why persecute him, for essentially the same crimes?"

The final cut of the story was eighteen minutes long. In the broadcast version, there’d only be room for twelve. I pared away mercilessly, summarizing and simplifying—taking care to do a professional job, but not too worried by the loss of detail. Most real-time broadcasts on SeeNet served no purpose but to focus publicity, and to guarantee reviews in some of the more conservative media, Junk DNA was scheduled for eleven P.M. on a Wednesday; the vast majority of the audience would log on to the full, interactive version at their convenience. As well as a slightly longer linear backbone, the interactive would be peppered with optional detours to other sources: all the technical journal articles I’d read for my own research (and all the articles they in turn cited); other media coverage of Landers (and of Jane Summers' conspiracy theory); the relevant US and international statutes—and even trails leading into the quagmire of potentially relevant case law.

On the evening of the fifth day of editing—right on schedule, reason enough for minor jubilation—I tidied up all the loose ends, and ran through the segment one last time. I tried to clear away all my memories of filming, and all my preconceptions, and watch the story like a SeeNet viewer who’d seen nothing at all on the subject before (save a few misleading promotions for the documentary itself).

Landers came across surprisingly sympathetically. I’d thought I’d been harsher. I’d thought I’d at least given him every opportunity to damn himself with his earnest account of his surreal ambitions. Instead, he seemed far more good-humored than po-faced; he almost appeared to be sharing all the jokes. Living off tire dumps? Shooting up HIV? I watched, amazed. I couldn’t decide if there really was a faint undercurrent of deliberate irony, a hint of self-deprecation in his manner which I’d somehow missed before—or whether the subject matter simply made it impossible for a sane viewer to interpret his words any other way.

What if Summers was right? What if Landers was a decoy, a distraction, a consummate performing clown? What if thousands of the planet’s wealthiest people really were planning to grant themselves, and their offspring, perfect genetic isolation, and absolute viral immunity?

Would it matter? The rich had always cut themselves off from the rabble, one way or another. Pollution levels would continue to decline, whether or not algal symbionts rendered fresh air obsolete. And anyone who chose to follow in Landers' footsteps was no great loss to the human gene pool.

There was only one small question which remained unanswered, and I tried not to give it too much thought.

Absolute viral immunity… against what?

4

Delphic Biosystems had been too generous by far. Not only had they arranged for me to interview ten times as many of their Public Relations staff as I could ever have made time for, they’d showered me with ROMs packed with seductive micrographs and dazzling animation. Software flow-charts for the HealthGuard implant were rendered as air-brushed fantasies of impossible chromed machines, jet-black conveyor belts moving incandescent silver nuggets of "data" from subprocess to subprocess. Molecular schematics of interacting proteins were shrouded with delicately beautiful—and utterly gratuitous—electron-density maps, veils of pink and blue aurorae melting and merging, transforming the humblest chemical wedding into a microcosmic fantasia. I could have set it all to Wagner—or Blake—and flogged it to members of Mystical Renaissance, to play on a loop whenever they wanted to go slack-jawed with numinous incomprehension.

I slogged my way through the whole morass, though—and it finally paid off. Buried amongst all the technoporn and science-as-psychedelia were a few shots worth salvaging.

The HealthGuard implant employed the latest programmable assay chip: an array of elaborate proteins bound to silicon, in many respects like a pharm’s synthesizer, but designed to count molecules, not make them. The previous generation of chips had used a multitude of highly specific antibodies, Y-shaped proteins planted in the semiconductor in a checkerboard pattern, like adjoining fields of a hundred different crops. When a molecule of cholesterol, or insulin, or whatever, happened to strike exactly the right field and collide with a matching antibody, it bound to it long enough for the tiny change in capacitance to be detected, and logged in a microprocessor. Over time, this record of serendipitous collisions yielded the amount of each substance in the blood.

The new sensors used a protein which was more like a Venus flytrap with brains than an antibody’s passive, single-purpose template. "Assayin" in its receptive state was a long, bell-shaped molecule, a tube opening out into a broad funnel. This conformation was metastable; the charge distribution on the molecule rendered it exquisitely sensitive, spring-loaded. Anything large enough colliding with the inner surface of the funnel caused a lightning-fast wave of deformation, engulfing and shrink-wrapping the intruder. The microprocessor, noting the sprung trap, could then probe the captive molecule by searching for a shape of the assayin which imprisoned it even more snugly. There were no more wasted, mismatched collisions—no more insulin molecules striking cholesterol antibodies, yielding no information at all. Assayin always knew what had hit it.

It was a technical advance worth communicating, worth explaining, worth demystifying. Whatever the social implications of the HealthGuard implant, they could no more be presented in a vacuum, divorced from the technology which made the device possible, than vice versa. Once people ceased to understand how the machines around them actually functioned, the world they inhabited began to dissolve into an incomprehensible dreamscape. Technology moved beyond control, beyond discussion, evoking only worship or loathing, dependence or alienation. Arthur C. Clarke had suggested that any sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic—referring to a possible encounter with an alien civilization—but if a science journalist had one responsibility above all else, it was to keep Clarke’s Law from applying to human technology in human eyes.

(Lofty sentiments… and here I was peddling frankenscience, because that was the niche that had needed filling. I salved my conscience—or numbed it for a while—with platitudes about Trojan horses, and changing the system from within.)

I took the Delphic Biosystems graphics of assayin in action, and had the console strip away the excessive decoration so it was possible to see clearly what was going on. I threw out the gushing commentary and wrote my own. The console delivered it in the diction profile I’d chosen for all of Junk DNA's narration, cloned from samples of an English actor named Juliet Stevenson. The long-vanished "Standard English" pronunciation—unlike any contemporary UK accent—remained easily comprehensible across the vast Anglophone world. Any viewer who wished to hear a different voice could cross-translate at will, though; I often listened to programs redubbed into the regional accents I had most trouble following—US south-east, northern Irish, and east-central African— hoping to sharpen my ear for them.

Hermes—my communications software—was programmed to bounce almost everyone on Earth, while I was editing. Lydia Higuchi, SeeNet’s West Pacific Commissioning Executive Producer, was one of the few exceptions. It was my notepad that rang, but I switched the call through to the console itself; the screen was larger and clearer—and the camera stamped its signal with the words AFFINE graphics EDITOR MODEL 2052-KL, and a time code. Not very subtle, but it wasn’t meant to be.

Lydia got straight to the point. She said, "I saw the final cut of the Landers stuff. It’s good. But I want to talk about what comes next."

"The HealthGuard implant? Is there some problem?" I didn’t hide my irritation. She’d seen selections of the raw footage, she’d seen all my post-production notes. If she wanted anything significant changed, she’d left it too damn late.

She laughed. "Andrew, take one step back. Not the next story in Junk DNA. Your next project."

I eyed her as if she’d casually raised the prospect of imminent travel to another planet. I said, "Don’t do this to me, Lydia. Please. You know I can’t think rationally about anything else right now."

She nodded sympathetically but said, "I take it you’ve been monitoring this new disease? It’s not anecdotal static anymore; there are official reports coming out of Geneva, Atlanta, Nairobi."

My stomach tightened. "You mean Acute Clinical Anxiety Syndrome?"

"A.k.a. Distress." She seemed to savor the word, as if she’d already adopted it into her vocabulary of deeply telegenic subjects. My spirits sank even further.

I said, "My knowledge miners been logging everything on it, but I haven’t had time to stay up to date." And frankly, right now…

"There are over four hundred diagnosed cases, Andrew. That’s a thirty percent rise in the last six months."

"How can anyone diagnose something when they don’t have a clue what it is?"

"Process of elimination."

"Yeah, I think it’s bullshit, too."

She mimed brief sarcastic amusement. "Get serious. This is a brand new mental illness. Possibly communicable. Possibly caused by an escaped military pathogen—"

"Possibly fallen from a comet. Possibly a punishment from God. Amazing how many things are possible, isn’t it?"

She shrugged. "Whatever the cause, it’s spreading. There are cases everywhere now but Antarctica. This is headline news—and more. The board decided last night: we’re going to commission a thirty-minute special on Distress. High profile, blitz promotion, culminating in synchronous primetime broadcasts, worldwide."

Synchronous didn’t mean what it should have, in netspeak; it meant the same calendar date and local time for all viewers. "Worldwide? You mean Anglophone world?"

"I mean world world. We’re tying up arrangements to on-sell to other-language networks."

"Well… good."

Lydia smiled, a tight-lipped impatient smile. "Are you being coy, Andrew? Do I have to spell it out? We want you to make it. You’re our biotech specialist, you’re the logical choice. And you’ll do a great job. So…?"

I put a hand to my forehead, and tried to work out why I felt so claustrophobic. I said, "How long do I have, to decide?"

She smiled even more widely, which meant she was puzzled, annoyed, or both. "We’re broadcasting on May 24th—that’s ten weeks from Monday. You’ll need to start pre-production the minute Junk DNA is finished. So we need your answer as soon as possible."

Rule number four: Discuss everything with Gina first. Whether or not she’d ever admit to being offended if you didn’t.

I said, "Tomorrow morning."

Lydia wasn’t happy, but she said, "That’s fine."

I steeled myself. "If I say no, is there anything else going?"

Lydia looked openly astonished now. "What’s wrong with you? Prime-time world broadcast! You’ll make five rimes as much on this as on Gender."

"I realize that. And I’m grateful for the chance, believe me. I just want to know if there’s… any other choice."

"You could always go and hunt for coins on the beach with a metal detector." She saw my face, and softened. Slightly. "There’s another project about to go into pre-production. Although I’ve very nearly promised it to Sarah Knight."

"Tell me."

"Ever heard of Violet Mosala?"

"Of course. She’s a… physicist? A South African physicist?"

"Two out of two, very impressive. Sarah’s a huge fan, she chewed my ear off about her for an hour."

"So what’s the project?"

"A profile of Mosala… who’s twenty-seven, and won the Nobel Prize two years ago—but you knew that all along, didn’t you? Interviews, biography, appraisals by colleagues, blah blah blah. Her work’s purely theoretical, so there’s nothing much to show of it except computer simulations—and she’s offered us her own graphics. But the heart of the program will be the Einstein Centenary conference—"

"Wasn’t that in nineteen seventy-some thing?" Lydia gave me a withering look. I said, "Ah. Centenary of his death. Charming."

"Mosala is attending the conference. On the last day of which, three of the world’s top theoretical physicists are scheduled to present rival versions of the Theory of Everything. And you don’t get three guesses as to who’s the alpha favorite."

I gritted my teeth and suppressed the urge to say: It’s not a horse race, Lydia. It might be another fifty years before anyone knows whose TOE was right.

"So when’s the conference?"

"April 5th to 18th."

I blanched. "Three weeks from Monday."

Lydia looked thoughtful for a moment, then pleased. "You don’t really have time, do you? Sarah’s been prepared for this for months—"

I said irritably, "Five seconds ago you were talking about me starting pre-production on Distress in less than three weeks."

"You could walk straight into that. How much modern physics do you know?"

I feigned indignation. "Enough! And I’m not stupid. I can catch up."

"When?"

"I’ll make time. I’ll work faster; I’ll finish Junk DNA ahead of schedule. When’s the Mosala program going to be broadcast?"

"Early next year."

Which meant eight whole months of relative sanity—once the conference was over.

Lydia glanced at her watch, redundantly. "I don’t understand you. A high-profile special on Distress would be the logical endpoint of everything you’ve been doing for the last five years. After that, you could think about switching away from biotech. And who am I going to use instead of you?"

"Sarah Knight?"

"Don’t be sarcastic."

"I’ll tell her you said that."

"Be my guest. I don’t care what she’s done in politics; she’s only made one science program—and that was on fringe cosmology. It was good— but not good enough to ramp her straight into something like this. She’s earned a fortnight with Violet Mosala, but not a primetime broadcast on the world’s alphamost virus."

Nobody had found a virus associated with Distress; I hadn’t seen a news bulletin for a week, but my knowledge miner would have told me if there’d been a breakthrough of that magnitude. I was beginning to get the queasy feeling that if I didn’t make the program myself, it would be subtitled: How an escaped military pathogen became the 21st-century AIDS of the mind.

Pure vanity. What did I think—that I was the only person on the planet capable of deflating the rumors and hysteria surrounding Distress?

I said, "I haven’t made any decision yet. I need to talk it over with Gina."

Lydia was skeptical. "Okay, fine. Talk it over with Gina, and call me in the morning." She glanced at her watch again. "Look, I really have to go. Some of us actually have work to do." I opened my mouth to protest, outraged; she smiled sweetly and aimed two fingers at me. "Gotcha. No sense of irony, you auteurs. 'Bye."

I turned away from the console and sat staring down at my clenched fists, trying to untangle what I was feeling—if only enough to enable me to put it all aside and get back to Junk DNA.

I’d seen a brief news shot of someone with Distress, a few months before. I’d been in a hotel room in Manchester, flicking channels between appointments. A young woman—looking healthy, but disheveled—was lying on her back in a corridor in an apartment building in Miami. She was waving her arms wildly, kicking in all directions, tossing her head and twisting her whole body back and forth. It hadn’t looked like the product of any kind of crude neurological dysfunction, though: it had seemed too coordinated, too purposeful.

And before the police and paramedics could hold her still—or still enough to get a needle in—and pump her full of some high-powered court-order paralytic like Straitjacket or Medusa—they’d tried the sprays, and they hadn’t worked—she’d thrashed and screamed like an animal in mortal agony, like a child in a solipsistic rage, like an adult in the grip of the blackest despair.

I’d watched and listened in disbelief—and when, mercifully, she’d been rendered comatose and dragged away, I’d struggled to convince myself that it had been nothing out of the ordinary: some kind of epileptic fit, some kind of psychotic tantrum, at worst some kind of unbearable physical pain the cause of which would be swiftly identified and dealt with.

None of which was true. Victims of Distress rarely had a history of neurological or mental illness, and bore no signs of injury or disease. And no one had the slightest idea how to deal with the cause of their suffering; the only current "treatment" consisted of sustained heavy sedation.

I picked up my notepad and touched the icon for Sisyphus, my knowledge miner.

I said, "Assemble a briefing on Violet Mosala, the Einstein Centenary conference, and the last ten years' advances in Unified Field Theories. I’ll need to digest it all in about… a hundred and twenty hours. Is that feasible?"

There was pause while Sisyphus downloaded the relevant sources and scrutinized them. Then it asked, "Do you know what an ATM is?"

"An Automatic Teller Machine?"

"No. In this context, an ATM is an All-Topologies Model."

The phrase sounded vaguely familiar; I’d probably skimmed through a brief article on the topic, five years before.

There was another pause, while more elementary background material was downloaded and assessed. Then: "A hundred and twenty hours would be good enough for listening and nodding. Not for asking intelligent questions."

I groaned. "How long for…?"

"A hundred and fifty."

"Do it."

I hit the icon for the pharm unit, and said, "Recompute my melatonin doses. Give me two more hours of peak alertness a day, starting immediately."

"Until when?"

The conference began on April 5th; if I wasn’t an expert on Violet Mosala by then, it would be too late. But… I couldn’t risk cutting loose from the forced rhythms of the melatonin—and rebounding into erratic sleep patterns—in the middle of filming.

"April 18th."

The pharm said, "You’ll be sorry."

That was no generic warning—it was a prediction based on five years' worth of intimate biochemical knowledge. But I had no real choice—and if I spent the week after the conference suffering from acute circadian arrhythmia, it would be unpleasant, but it wouldn’t kill me.

I did some calculations in my head. Somehow, I’d just conjured up five or six hours of free time out of thin air.

It was a Friday. I phoned Gina at work. Rule number six: Be unpredictable. But not too often.

I said, "Screw Junk DNA. Want to go dancing?"

5

It was Gina’s idea to go deep into the city. The Ruins held no attraction for me—and there was far better nightlife closer to home—but (rule number seven) it wasn’t worth an argument. When the train pulled into Town Hall station, and we took the escalators up past the platform where Daniel Cavolini had been stabbed to death, I blanked my mind and smiled.

Gina linked arms with me and said, "There’s something here I don’t feel anywhere else. An energy, a buzz. Can’t you feel it?"

I looked around at the station’s black-and-white tiled walls, graffiti-proof and literally antiseptic.

"No more than in Pompeii."

The demographic center of greater Sydney had been west of Parra-matta for at least half a century—and had probably reached Blacktown, by now—but the demise of the historical urban core had begun in earnest only in the thirties, when office space, cinemas, theatres, physical galleries and public museums had all become obsolete at more or less the same time. Broadband optical fibers had been connected to most residential buildings since the teens, but it had taken another two decades for the networks to mature. The tottering edifice of incompatible standards, inefficient hardware, and archaic operating systems thrown together by the fin-de-siècle dinosaurs of computing and communications had been razed to the ground in the twenties, and only then—after years of premature hype and well-earned backlashes of cynicism and ridicule—could the use of the networks for entertainment and telecommuting be transmuted from a form of psychological torture into a natural and convenient alternative to ninety percent of physical travel.

We stepped out onto George Street. It was far from deserted, but I’d seen footage from days when the country’s population was half as much, and it shamed these meager crowds. Gina looked up, and her eyes caught the lights; many of the old office towers still dazzled, their windows decorated for the tourists with cheap sunlight-storing luminescent coatings. "The Ruins" was a joke, of course—vandalism, let alone time, had scarcely made a mark—but we were all tourists, here, come to gawk at the monuments left behind, not by our ancestors, but by our older siblings.

Few buildings had been converted for residential use; the architecture and economics had never added up—and some urban preservationists actively campaigned against it. There were squatters, of course—probably a couple of thousand, spread throughout what was still referred to as the Central Business District—but they only added to the post-apocalyptic mood. Live theatre and music survived, out in the suburbs—with small plays in small venues, or crowd-pulling colosseum bands in sports stadia—but mainstream theatre was performed in realtime VR over the networks. (The Opera House, foundations rotting, was currently predicted to slide into Sydney Harbor in 2065—a delightful prospect, though I suspected that some group of saccharine-blooded killjoys would raise the money to rescue the useless icon at the last moment.) Walk-in retailing, such as it was, had long ago moved entirely to regional centers. There were a few hotels still open on the fringes of the city, but restaurants and nightclubs were all that remained in the dead heart, spread out between the empty towers like souvenir stalls scattered amongst the pyramids in the Valley of the Kings.

We headed south into what had once been Chinatown; the crumbling decorative facades of deserted emporia still attested to that, even if the cuisine didn’t.

Gina nudged me gently and directed my attention to a group of people strolling north, on the opposite side of the street. When they’d passed, she said, "Were they…?"

"What? Asex? I think so."

"I’m never sure. There are naturals who look no different."

"But that’s the whole point. You can never be sure—but why did we ever think we could discover anything that mattered about a stranger, at a glance?"

Asex was really nothing but an umbrella term for a broad group of philosophies, styles of dress, cosmetic-surgical changes, and deep-biological alterations. The only thing that one asex person necessarily had in common with another was the view that vis gender parameters (neural, endocrine, chromosomal and genital) were the business of no one but ver-self, usually (but not always) vis lovers, probably vis doctor, and sometimes a few close friends. What a person actually did in response to that attitude could range from as little as ticking the "A" box on census forms, to choosing an asex name, to breast or body-hair reduction, voice timbre adjustment, facial resculpting, empouchment (surgery to render the male genitals retractable), all the way to full physical and/or neural asexuality, hermaphroditism, or exoticism.

I said, "Why bother staring at people and guessing? En-male, en-fem, asex… who cares?"

Gina scowled. "Don’t make me out to be some kind of bigot. I’m just curious."

I squeezed her hand. "I’m sorry. That’s not what I meant."

She pulled free. "You got to spend a year thinking about nothing else—being as voyeuristic and intrusive as you liked. And getting paid for it. I only saw the finished documentary. I don’t see why I should be expected to have reached some final position on gender migration just because you’ve rolled credits on the subject."

I bent over and kissed her on the forehead.

"What was that for?"

"For being the ideal viewer, above and beyond all your many other virtues."

"I think I’m going to throw up."

We turned east, toward Surry Hills, into an even quieter street. A grim young man strode by alone, heavily muscled and probably facially sculpted… but again, there was no way to be sure. Gina glanced at me, still angry, but unable to resist. "That—assuming he was umale—I understand even less. If someone wants a build like that… fine. But why the face, as well? It’s not as if anyone would be likely to mistake him for anything but an en-male, without it."

"No—but being mistaken for an en-male would be an insult, because he’s migrated out of that gender as surely as any asex. The whole point of being umale is to distance yourself from the perceived weaknesses of contemporary natural males. To declare that their 'consensual identity'— stop laughing—is so much less masculine than your own that you effectively belong to another sex entirely. To say: no mere en-male can speak on my behalf, any more than a woman can."

Gina mimed tearing out hair. "No woman can speak on behalf of all women, as far as I’m concerned. But I don’t feel obliged to have myself sculpted ufem or ifem to make that point!"

"Well… exactly. I feel the same way. Whenever some Iron John cretin writes a manifesto in the name of all men, I’d much rather tell him to his face that he’s full of shit than desert the en-male gender and leave him thinking that he speaks for all those who remain. But… that is the commonest reason people cite for gender migration: they’re sick of self-appointed gender-political figureheads and pretentious Mystical Renaissance gurus claiming to represent them. And sick of being libeled for real and imagined gender crimes. If all men are violent, selfish, dominating, hierarchical… what can you do except slit your wrists, or migrate from male to imale, or asex? If all women are weak, passive, irrational victims—"

Gina thumped me on the arm admonishingly. "Now you’re caricaturing the caricaturists. I don’t believe anyone talks like that."

"Only because you move in the wrong circles. Or should I say the right ones? But I thought you watched the program. There were people I interviewed who made exactly those assertions, word for word."

"Then it’s the fault of the media for giving them publicity."

We’d arrived at the restaurant, but we lingered outside. I said, "That’s partly true. I don’t know what the solution is, though. When will someone who stands up and proclaims, I speak for no one but myself get as much coverage as someone who claims to speak for half the population?"

"When people like you give it to them."

"You know it’s not that simple. And… imagine what would have happened with feminism—or the civil rights movements, for that matter—if no one could ever be permitted to speak on behalf of any group, without their certified, unanimous consent? Just because some of the current lunatics are like parodies of the old leaders, it doesn’t mean we’d be better off now if TV producers had said: 'Sorry Dr. King, sorry Ms. Greer, sorry Mr. Perkins, but if you can’t avoid these sweeping generalizations and confine your statements to your own personal circumstances, we’ll have to take you off the air."

Gina eyed me skeptically. "That’s ancient history. And you’re only arguing that position to try to squirm out of your own responsibilities."

"Of course. But the point is… gender migration is ninety percent politics. Some coverage still treats it as a kind of decadent, gratuitous, fashionable mimicry of gender reassignment for transsexuals—but most gender migrants go no further than superficial asex. They don’t cross right over; they have no reason to. It’s a protest action, like resigning from a political party, or renouncing your citizenship… or deserting a battlefield… but whether it will stabilize at some low level, and shake up attitudes enough to remove the whole reason for migration, or whether the population will end up evenly divided between all seven genders in a couple of generations, I have no idea."

Gina grimaced. "Seven genders—and all of them perceived as monolithic. Everyone stereotyped at a glance. Seven pigeon-holes instead of two isn’t progress."

"No. But maybe in the long run there’ll only be asex, umale and ufem. Those who want to be pigeon-holed will be—and those who don’t will remain mysterious."

"No, no—in the long run we’ll have nothing but VR bodies, and we’ll all be mysterious or revelatory in turns, as the mood takes us."

"I can’t wait."

We went inside. Unnatural Tastes was a converted department store, cavernous but brightly lit, opened up by the simple expedient of cutting a large elliptical hole in the middle of every floor. I waved my notepad at the entry turnstyle; a voice confirmed our reservation, adding, "Table 519. Fifth floor."

Gina smiled wickedly. "Fifth floor: stuffed toys and lingerie."

I glanced up at our fellow diners—mostly umale and ufem couples. I said, "You behave yourself, redneck, or next time we’re eating in Epping."

The place was three-quarters full, at least, but the seating capacity was less than it seemed; most of the volume of the building was taken up by the central well. In what was left of each floor, human waiters in tuxedos weaved their way between the chromed tables; it all looked archaic and stylized, almost Marx Brothers, to me. I wasn’t a big fan of Experimental Cuisine; essentially, we’d be guinea pigs, trying out medically safe but otherwise untested bioengineered produce. Gina had pointed out that at least the meal would be subsidized by the manufacturers. I wasn’t so sure; Experimental Cuisine had become so fashionable lately that it could probably attract a statistically significant sample of diners for each novelty, even at full price.

The tabletop flashed up menus as we took our seats—and the figures seemed to confirm my doubts about a subsidy. I groaned. "Crimson bean salad? I don’t care what color they are, I want to know what they taste like. The last thing I ate here that looked like a kidney bean tasted exactly like boiled cabbage."

Gina took her time, prodding the names of half a dozen dishes to view the finished products, and screens of data on the design of the ingredients. She said, "You can work it all out, if you pay attention. If you know what genes they moved from where, and why, you can make a fair stab at predicting the taste and texture."

"Go ahead, dazzle me with science."

She hit the CONFIRM ORDER button. "The green leafy stuff will taste like spinach-flavored pasta—but the iron in it will be absorbed by your body as easily as the haem iron in animal flesh, leaving spinach for dead. The yellow things which look like corn will taste like a cross between tomato and green capsicum spiced with oregano—but nutrients and flavor will be less sensitive to poor storage conditions and overcooking. And the blue puree will taste almost like parmesan cheese."

"Why blue?"

"There’s a blue pigment, a photoactivated enzyme, in the new self-fermenting lactoberries. They could remove it during processing, but it turns out we metabolize it directly into vitamin D—which is safer than making it the usual way, with UV on the skin."

"Food for people who never see the sun. How can I resist?" I ordered the same.

The service was swift—and Gina’s predictions were more or less correct. The whole combination was actually quite pleasant.

I said, "You’re wasted on wind turbines. You could be designing the spring collection for United Agronomics."

"Gee, thanks. But I already get all the intellectual stimulation I can handle."

"How is Big Harold coming along, anyway?"

"Still very much Little Harold, and likely to stay that way for a while." Little Harold was the one-thousandth-scale prototype of a projected two-hundred-megawatt turbine. "There are chaotic resonance modes turning up which we missed in the simulations. It’s starting to look like we’re going to have to re-evaluate half the assumptions of the software model."

"I can never quite understand that. You know all the basic physics, the basic equations of air-flow dynamics, you have access to endless supercomputer time…"

"So how can we possibly screw up? Because we can’t compute the behavior of thousands of tons of air moving through a complex structure on a molecule-by-molecule basis. All the bulk flow equations are approximations, and we’re deliberately operating in a region where the best-understood approximations break down. There’s no magical new physics coming into play—but we’re in a gray zone between one set of convenient simplifying assumptions and another. And so far, the best new set of compromise assumptions are neither convenient nor simple. And they’re not even correct, as it turns out."

"I’m sorry."

She shrugged. "It’s frustrating—but enough of it’s frustrating in an interesting way to keep me from going insane."

I felt a stab of longing; I understood so little about this part of her life. She’d explained as much as I could follow, but I still had no real idea of what spun through her head when she was sitting at her work station juggling airflow simulations, or clambering around the wind tunnel making adjustments to Little Harold.

I said, "I wish you’d let me film some of this."

Gina regarded me balefully. "Not a chance, Mister Frankenscience. Not until you can tell me categorically whether wind turbines are Good or Evil."

I cringed. "You know that’s not up to me. And it changes every year. New studies are published, the alternatives come in and out of favor—"

She cut me off bitterly. "Alternatives? Planting photovoltaic engineered forests on ten thousand times as much land per megawatt sounds like environmental vandalism to me."

"I’m not arguing. I could always make a Good Turbine documentary… and if I can’t sell it straight away, just wait for the tide to turn again."

"You can’t afford to make anything on spec."

"True. I’d have to fit it in between other shooting."

Gina laughed. "I wouldn’t try it. You can’t even manage—"

"What?"

"Nothing. Forget it." She waved a hand, retracting the comment. I could have pressed her, but I would have been wasting my time.

I said, "Speaking of filming…" I described the two projects Lydia had offered me. Gina listened patiently, but when I asked for her opinion, she seemed baffled.

"If you don’t want to make Distress… then don’t. It’s really none of my business."

That stung. I said, "It affects you, too. It would be a lot more money." Gina was affronted. "All I mean is, we could afford to take a holiday, or something. We could go overseas next time you have leave. If that’s what you wanted."

She said stiffly, "I’m not taking leave for another eighteen months. And I can pay for my own holidays."

"All right. Forget it." I reached over to take her hand; she pulled away, irritated.

We ate in silence. I stared down at my plate, running through the rules, trying to decide where I’d gone wrong. Had I broken some taboo about money? We kept separate accounts, sharing the rent fifty-fifty— but we’d both helped each other out, many times, and given each other small luxuries. What should I have done? Gone ahead and made Distress—purely for the money—and only then asked if there was anything we could spend it on together that would make it worthwhile?

Maybe I’d made it sound as if I thought she expected to dictate the projects I chose—offending her by seeming to have failed to appreciate the independence she allowed me. My head spun. The truth was, I had no idea what she was thinking. It was all too hard, too slippery. And I couldn’t imagine what I could say that might begin to put it right, without the risk of making everything far worse.

After a while, Gina said, "So where’s the big conference being held?"

I opened my mouth, then realized I didn’t have a clue. I picked up my notepad and quickly checked the briefing Sisyphus had prepared.

"Ah. On Stateless."

"Stateless?" She laughed. "You’re a burnt-out case on biotech… so they’re sending you to the world’s largest engineered-coral island?"

"I’m only fleeing Evil biotech. Stateless is Good."

"Oh, really? Tell that to the governments who keep it embargoed. Are you sure you won’t get thrown in prison when you come home?"

"I’m not going to trade with the wicked anarchists. I’m not even going to film them."

"Anarcho-syndicalists, get it right. Though they don’t even call themselves that, do they?"

I said, "Who’s they? It depends who you ask."

"You should have had a segment on Stateless in Junk DNA. Embargoed or not, they’re prospering—and all thanks to biotechnology. That would have balanced the talking corpse."

"But then I couldn’t have called it Junk DNA, could I?"

"Exactly." She smiled. Whatever I’d done, I’d been forgiven. I felt my heart pounding, as if I’d been dragged back at the last moment from the edge of an abyss.

The dessert we chose tasted like cardboard and snow, but we obligingly filled out the tabletop questionnaires before leaving.

We headed north up George Street to Martin Place. There was a nightclub called the Sorting Room in the old Post Office building. They played Zimbabwean njari music, multi-layered, hypnotic, pounding but never metronomic, leaving splinters of rhythm in the brain like the marks of fingernails raked over flesh. Gina danced ecstatically, and the music was so loud that speech was, mercifully, almost impossible. In this wordless place I could do no wrong.

We left just after one. On the train back to Eastwood, we sat in a corner of the carriage, kissing like teenagers. I wondered how my parents' generation had ever driven their precious cars in such a state. (Badly, no doubt.) The trip home was ten minutes—almost too short. I wanted everything to unfold as slowly as possible. I wanted it to last for hours.

We stopped a dozen times, walking down from the station. We stood outside the front door for so long that the security system asked us if we’d lost our keys.

When we undressed and fell onto the bed together, and my vision lurched, I thought it was just a side-effect of passion. When my arms went numb, though, I realized what was happening.

I’d pushed myself too far with the melatonin blockers, depleting neurotransmitter reserves in the region of the hypothalamus where alertness was controlled. I’d borrowed too much time, and the plateau was crumbling.

Stricken, "I said, I don’t believe this. I’m sorry."

"About what?" I still had an erection.

I forced myself to concentrate; I reached over and hit a button on the pharm. "Give me half an hour."

"No. Safety limits—"

"Fifteen minutes," I pleaded. "This is an emergency."

The pharm hesitated, consulting the security system. "There is no emergency. You’re safe in bed, and the house is under no threat."

"You’re gone. You’re recycled."

Gina seemed more amused than disappointed. "See what happens when you transgress natural limits? I hope you’re recording this for Junk DNA." Mockery only made her a thousand times more desirable—but I was already lapsing into microsleeps. I said dolefully, "Forgive me? Maybe… tomorrow, we could—"

"I don’t think so. Tomorrow you’ll be working till one a.m. And I’m not waiting up." She took me by the shoulders and rolled me onto my back, then knelt astride my stomach.

I made sounds of protest. She bent over and kissed me on the mouth, tenderly. "Come on. You don’t really want to waste this rare opportunity, do you?" She reached down and stroked my cock; I could feel it respond to her touch, but it barely seemed to be a part of me anymore.

I murmured, "Ravisher. Necrophiliac." I wanted to make a long earnest speech about sex and communication, but Gina seemed intent on disproving my whole thesis before I could even begin. "Talk about Bad Timing."

She said, "Is that a yes or a no?"

I gave up trying to open my eyes. "Go ahead."

Something vaguely pleasant began to happen, but my senses were retreating, my body was spinning off into the void.

I heard a voice, light-years away, whisper something about "sweet dreams."

But I plunged into blackness, feeling nothing. And I dreamed of silent oceanic depths.

Of falling through dark water. Alone.

6

I’d heard that London had suffered badly from the coming of the networks, but was less of a ghost town than Sydney. The Ruins were more extensive, but they were being exploited far more diligently; even the last glass-and-aluminium towers built for bankers and stockbrokers at the turn of the millennium, and the last of the "high tech" printing presses which had "revolutionized" newspaper publishing (before becoming completely obsolete), had been labeled "historic" and taken under the wing of the tourism industry.

I hadn’t had time, though, to visit the hushed tombs of Bishopsgate or Wapping. I’d flown straight to Manchester—which appeared to be thriving. According to Sisyphus’s potted history, the balance between real-estate prices and infrastructure costs had favored the city in the twenties, and thousands of information-based companies—with a largely telecommuting workforce, but the need for a small central office as well—had moved there from the south. This industrial revival had also shored up the academic sector, and Manchester University was widely acknowledged to be leading the world in at least a dozen fields, including neurolinguistics, neo-protein chemistry, and advanced medical imaging.

I replayed the footage I’d taken of the city center—swarming with pedestrians, bicycles and quadcycles—and picked out a few brief establishing shots. I’d hired a bicycle, myself, from one of the automated depots outside Victoria Station; ten euros and it was mine for the day. It was a recent model Whirlwind, a beautiful machine: light, elegant, and nearly indestructible—made in nearby Sheffield. It could simulate a pushbike if required (a trivial option to include, and it kept the masochistic purists happy), but there was no mechanical connection between pedals and wheels; essentially, it was a human-powered electric motorbike. Superconducting current loops buried in the chassis acted as a short-term energy store, smoothing out demands on the rider, and taking full advantage of the energy-reclaiming brakes. Forty k.p.h. took no more effort than a brisk walk, and hills were almost irrelevant, ascent and descent nearly canceling each other out in energy lost and gained. It must have been worth about two thousand euros—but the navigation system, the beacons and locks, were so close to tamper-proof that I would have needed a small factory, and a PhD in cryptology, to steal it.

The city’s trams went almost everywhere, but so did the covered cycleways, so I’d ridden the Whirlwind to my afternoon appointment.

James Rourke was Media Liaison Officer for the Voluntary Autists Association. A thin, angular man in his early thirties, in the flesh he’d struck me as painfully awkward, with poor eye contact and muted body language. Verbally articulate, but far from telegenic.

Watching him on the console screen, though, I realized how wrong I’d been. Ned Landers had put on a dazzling performance, so slick and seamless that it left no room for any question of what was going on beneath. Rourke put on no performance at all—and the effect was both riveting and deeply unsettling. Coming straight after Delphic Biosystems' elegant, assured spokespeople (teeth and skin by Masarini of Florence, sincerity by Operant Conditioning pie), it would be like being jolted out of a daydream by a kick in the head.

I’d have to tone him down, somehow.

I had a fully autistic cousin myself—Nathan. I’d met him only once, when we were both children. He was one of the lucky few who’d suffered no other congenital brain damage, and at the time he was still living with his parents in Adelaide. He’d shown me his computer, cataloguing its features exhaustively, sounding scarcely different from any other enthusiastic thirteen-year-old technophile with a new toy. But when he’d started demonstrating his favorite programs—stultifying solo card games, and bizarre memory quizzes and geometric puzzles that had looked more like arduous intelligence tests than anything I could think of as recreation—my sarcastic comments had gone right over his head. I’d stood there insulting him, ever more viciously, and he’d just gazed at the screen, and smiled. Not tolerant. Oblivious.

I’d spent three hours interviewing Rourke in his small flat; VA had no central office, in Manchester or anywhere else. There were members in forty-seven countries—almost a thousand people, worldwide—but only Rourke had been willing to speak to me, and only because it was his job.

He was not fully autistic, of course. But he’d shown me his brain scans.

I replayed the raw footage.

"Do you see this small lesion in the left frontal lobe?" There was a tiny dark space, a minuscule gap in the gray matter, above the pointer’s arrow. "Now compare it with the same region in a twenty-nine-year-old fully autistic male." Another dark space, three or four times larger. "And here’s a non-autistic subject of the same age and sex." No lesion at all. "The pathology isn’t always so obvious—the structure can be malformed, rather than visibly absent—but these examples make it clear that there’s a precise physical basis to our claims."

The view tilted up from the notepad to his face. Witness manufactured a smooth transition from one rock-steady "camera angle" to another—just as it smoothed away saccades: the rapid darting movements of the eyeballs, restlessly scanning and re-scanning the scene even when the gaze was subjectively fixed.

I said, "No one would deny that you’ve suffered damage in the same part of the brain. But why not be thankful that it’s minor damage, and leave it at that? Why not count yourself lucky that you can still function in society, and get on with your life?"

"That’s a complicated question. For a start, it depends what you mean by function."

"You can live outside of institutions. You can hold down skilled jobs." Rourke’s main occupation was research assistant to an academic linguist—not exactly sheltered employment.

He said, "Of course. If we couldn’t, we’d be classified as fully autistic. That’s the criterion which defines partial autism: we can survive in ordinary society. Our deficiencies aren’t overwhelming—and we can usually fake a lot of what’s missing. Sometimes we can even convince ourselves that nothing’s wrong. For a while."

"For a while? You have jobs, money, independence. What else does it take to function!"

"Interpersonal relationships."

"You mean sexual relationships?"

"Not necessarily. But they are the most difficult. And the most… illuminating."

He touched a key on his notepad; a complex neural map appeared. "Everyone—or almost everyone—instinctively attempts to understand other human beings. To guess what they’re thinking. To anticipate their actions. To… know them. People build symbolic models of other people in their brains, both to act as coherent representations, tying together all the information which can actually be observed—speech, gestures, past actions—and to help make informed guesses about the aspects which can’t be known directly—motives, intentions, emotions." As he spoke, the neural map dissolved, and re-formed as a functional diagram of a "third person" model: an elaborate network of blocks labeled with objective and subjective traits.

"In most people, all of this happens with little or no conscious effort: there’s an innate ability to model other people. It’s refined by use in childhood—and total isolation would cripple its development… in the same way as total darkness would cripple the visual centers. Short of that kind of extreme abuse, though, upbringing isn’t a factor. Autism can only be caused by congenital brain damage, or later physical injuries to the brain. There are genetic risk factors which involve susceptibility to viral infections in utero—but autism itself is not a simple hereditary disease."

I’d already filmed a white-coated expert saying much the same things, but VA members' detailed knowledge of their own condition was a crucial part of the story… and Rourke’s explanation was clearer than the neurologist’s.

"The brain structure involved occupies a small region in the left frontal lobe. The specific details describing individual people are scattered throughout the brain—like all memories—but this structure is the one place where those details are automatically integrated and interpreted. If it’s damaged, other people’s actions can still be perceived and remembered— but they lose their special significance. They don’t generate the same kind of obvious implications; they don’t make the same kind of immediate sense." The neural map reappeared—this time with a lesion. Again, it was transformed into a functional diagram—now visibly disrupted, overlayed with dozens of dashed red lines to illustrate lost connections.

Rourke continued, "The structure in question probably began to evolve toward its modern human form in the primates, though it had precursors in earlier mammals. It was first identified and studied—in chimpanzees—by a neuroscientist called Lament, in 2014. The corresponding human version was mapped a few years later.

"Maybe the first crucial role for Lament’s area was to help make deception possible—to learn how to hide your own true motives, by understanding how others perceive you. If you know how to appear to be servile or cooperative—whatever’s really on your mind—you have a better chance of stealing food, or a quick fuck with someone else’s partner. But then… natural selection would have upped the ante, and favored those who could see through the ruse. Once lying had been invented, there was no turning back. Development would have snowballed."

I said, "So the fully autistic can’t lie—or judge someone else to be lying. But the partially autistic…?"

"Some can, some can’t. It depends on the specific damage. We’re not all identical."

"Okay. But what about relationships?"

Rourke averted his gaze, as if the subject was unbearably painful—but he continued without hesitation, sounding like a fluent public speaker delivering a familiar lecture. "Modeling other people successfully can aid cooperation, as well as deception. Empathy can act to improve social cohesion at every level. But as early humans evolved a greater degree of monogamy—at least, compared to their immediate ancestors—the whole cluster of mental processes involved in pair-bonding would have become entangled. Empathy for your breeding partner attained a special status: their life could be, in some circumstances, as crucial to the passing on of your genes as your own.

"Of course, most animals will instinctively protect their young, or their mates, at a cost to themselves; altruism is an ancient behavioral strategy. But how could instinctive altruism be made compatible with human self-awareness? Once there was a burgeoning ego, a growing sense of self in the foreground of every action, how was it prevented from overshadowing everything else?

"The answer is, evolution invented intimacy. Intimacy makes it possible to attach some, or all, of the compelling qualities associated with the ego—the model of the self—to models of other people. And not just possible—pleasurable. A pleasure reinforced by sex, but not restricted to the act, like orgasm. And not even restricted to sexual partners, in humans. Intimacy is just the belief—rewarded by the brain—that you know the people you love in almost the same fashion as you know yourself."

The word "love" had come as a shock, in the middle of all that socio-biology. But he’d used it without a hint of irony or self-consciousness—as if he’d seamlessly merged the vocabularies of emotion and evolution into a single language.

I said, "And even partial autism makes that impossible? Because you can’t model anyone well enough to really know them at all?"

Rourke didn’t believe in yes-or-no answers. "Again, we’re not all identical. Sometimes the modeling is accurate enough—as accurate as anyone’s—but it’s not rewarded: the parts of Laments area which make most people feel good about intimacy, and actively seek it out, are missing. Those people are considered to be cold, aloof. And sometimes the reverse is true: people are driven to seek intimacy, but their modeling is so poor that they can never hope to find it. They might lack the social skills to form lasting sexual relationships—or even if they’re intelligent and resourceful enough to circumvent the social problems, the brain itself might judge the model to be faulty, and refuse to reward it. So the drive is never satisfied—because it’s physically impossible for it to be satisfied."

I said, "Sexual relationships are difficult for everyone. It has been suggested that you’ve merely invented a neurological syndrome which allows you to abdicate responsibility for problems which everyone faces, as a matter of course."

Rourke stared down at the floor and smiled indulgently. "And we should just pull ourselves together, and try harder?"

"Either that, or have autografts to correct the damage." A small number of neurons and glial cells could be removed from the brain without harm, regressed to an embryonic state, multiplied in tissue culture, then reinjected into the damaged region. Artificially maintained gradients of embryonic marker hormones could fool the cells into thinking that they were back in the developing brain, and guide them through a fresh attempt to build the necessary synaptic connections. The success rate was unimpressive for the fully autistic—but for people with relatively small lesions, it was close to forty percent.

"The Voluntary Autists don’t oppose that option. All we’re campaigning for is the legalization of the alternative."

"Enlargement of the lesion?"

"Yes. Up to and including the complete excision of Lament’s area."

"Why?"

"Again, that’s a complicated question. Everyone has a different reason. For a start, I’d say that as a matter of principle, we should have the widest possible range of choices. Like transsexuals."

That was a reference to another kind of brain surgery which had once been highly controversial: NCR. Neural gender reassignment. People born with a mismatch between neural and physical gender had been able to have their bodies resculpted—with increasing precision—for almost a century. In the twenties, though, another option had become feasible: changing the gender of the brain; altering the hardwired neural map of the body image to bring it into line with the existing flesh and blood. Many people—including many transsexuals—had campaigned passionately against legalizing NCR, fearing coercion, or surgery carried out on infants. By the forties, though, it had become generally accepted as a legitimate option, freely chosen by about twenty percent of transsexuals.

I’d interviewed people undergoing every kind of reassignment operation, for Gender Scrutiny Overload. One neural man born with a female body had proclaimed ecstatically—after being resculpted en-male—"This is it! I’m free, I’m home!" And another—who’d opted for NGR— had gazed into a mirror at her unchanged face and said, "It’s like I’ve broken out of some kind of dream, some kind of hallucination, and I can finally see myself as I really am." Judging from audience feedback to Gender, the analogy would attract enormous sympathy—if it was allowed to stand.

I said, "The endpoint of either operation on transsexuals is a healthy man or woman. That’s hardly the same as becoming autistic."

Rourke countered, "But we do suffer a mismatch, just like transsexuals. Not between body and brain but between the drive for intimacy and the inability to attain it. No one—save a few religious fundamentalists— would be cruel enough to tell a transsexual that they’ll just have to learn to live with what they are, and that medical intervention would be a wicked self-indulgence."

"But no one’s stopping you from choosing medical intervention. The graft is legal. And success rates are sure to improve."

"And as I’ve said, VA don’t oppose that. For some people, it’s the right choice."

"But how can it ever be the wrong choice?"

Rourke hesitated. No doubt he’d scripted and rehearsed everything he’d wanted to say—but this was the heart of it. To have any hope of winning support for his cause, he was going to have to make the audience understand why he did not want to be cured.

He said carefully, "Many fully autistic people suffer additional brain damage, and various kinds of mental retardation. In general, we don’t. Whatever damage we’ve suffered to Lament’s area, most of us are intelligent enough to understand our own condition. We know that non-autistic people are capable of believing that they’ve achieved intimacy. But in VA, we’ve decided we’d be better off without that talent."

"Why better off?"

"Because it’s a talent for self-deception."

I said, "If autism is a lack of understanding of others… and healing the lesion would grant you that lost understanding—"

Rourke broke in, "But how much is understanding—and how much is a delusion of understanding? Is intimacy a form of knowledge, or is it just a comforting false belief? Evolution isn’t interested in whether or not we grasp the truth, except in the most pragmatic sense. And there can be equally pragmatic falsehoods. If the brain needs to grant us an exaggerated sense of our capacity for knowing each other—to make pair-bonding compatible with self-awareness—it will lie, shamelessly, as much as it has to, in order to make the strategy succeed."

I’d fallen silent, not knowing how to respond. Now I watched Rourke waiting for me to continue. Though he appeared as awkward and shy as ever, there was something in his expression which chilled me. He honestly believed that his condition had granted him an insight no ordinary person could share—and if he didn’t exactly pity us our hardwired capacity for blissful self-deception, he couldn’t help but perceive himself as having the broader, clearer view.

I said haltingly, "Autism is a… tragic, disabling disease. How can you… romanticize it into nothing more than some kind of… viable alternative lifestyle?"

Rourke was polite, but dismissive. "I’m not doing any such thing. I’ve met over a hundred fully autistic people, and their families. I know how much pain is involved. If I could banish the condition tomorrow, I’d do it.

"But we have our own histories, our own problems, our own aspirations. We’re not fully autistic—and excision of Lamont’s area, in adulthood, won’t render us the same as someone who was born that way. Most of us have learned to compensate by modeling people consciously, explicitly—it takes far more effort than the innate skill, but when we lose what little we have of that, we won’t be left helpless. Or selfish, or merciless,' or 'incapable of compassion'—or any of the other things the murdochs like to claim. And being granted the surgery we’ve asked for won’t mean loss of employment, let alone the need for institutional care. So there’ll be no cost to the community—"

I said angrily, "Cost is the least of the issues. You’re talking about deliberately—surgically—ridding yourself of something… fundamental to humanity."

Rourke looked up from the floor and nodded calmly, as if I’d finally made a point on which we were in complete agreement.

He said, "Exactly. And we’ve lived for decades with a fundamental truth about human relationships—which we choose not to surrender to the comforting effects of a brain graft. All we want to do now is make that choice complete. To stop being punished for our refusal to be deceived."

Somehow, I whipped the interview into shape. I was terrified of paraphrasing James Rourke; with most people, it was easy enough to judge what was fair and what wasn’t, but here I was on treacherous ground. I wasn’t even sure that the console could convincingly mimic him—when I tried it, the body language looked utterly wrong, as if the software’s default assumptions (normally used to flesh out an almost-complete gestural profile gleaned from the subject) were being pumped out in their entirety to fill the vacuum. I ended up altering nothing—merely extracting the best lines, and setting them up with other material—and resorting to narration, when there was no other way.

I had the console show me a diagram of the segments I’d used in the edited version, slivers scattered throughout the long linear sequence of the raw footage. Each take—each unbroken sequence of filming—was clearly "slated": labeled with time and place, and a sample frame at the start and end. There were a few takes from which I’d extracted nothing at all; I played them through one last time, to be sure I hadn’t left out anything important.

There was some footage where Rourke was showing me into his "office"—a corner of the two-room flat. I’d noticed a photograph of him—probably in his early twenties—with a woman about the same age.

I asked who she was.

"My ex-wife."

The couple stood on a crowded beach, somewhere Mediterranean-looking. They were holding hands and trying to face the camera—but they’d been caught out, unable to resist exchanging conspiratorial sideways glances. Sexually charged, but… knowing, too. If this wasn’t a portrait of intimacy, it was a very good imitation.

Sometimes we can even convince ourselves that nothing’s wrong. For a while.

"How long were you married?"

"Almost a year."

I’d been curious, of course, but I hadn’t pressed him for details, Junk DNA was a science documentary, not some sleazy expose; his private life was none of my business.

There was also an informal conversation I’d had with Rourke, the day after the interview. We’d been walking through the grounds of the university, just after I’d taken a few minutes' footage of him at work—helping a computer scour the world’s Hindi-speaking networks in search of vowel shifts (which he usually did from home, but I’d been desperate for a change of backdrop, even if it meant distorting reality). The University of Manchester had eight separate campuses scattered throughout the city; we were in the newest, where the landscape architects had gone wild with engineered vegetation. Even the grass was impossibly lush and verdant; for the first few seconds, even to me, the shot looked like a badly forged composite: sky filmed in England, ground filmed in Brunei.

Rourke said, "You know, I envy you your job. With VA, I’m forced to concentrate on a narrow area of change. But you’ll have a bird’s eye view of everything."

"Of what? You mean advances in biotechnology?"

"Biotech, imaging, AI… the lot. The whole battle for the H-words."

"The H-words?"

He smiled cryptically. "The little one and the big one. That’s what this century is going to be remembered for. A battle for two words. Two definitions."

"I don’t have the slightest idea what you’re talking about." We were passing through a miniature forest in the middle of the quadrangle; dense and exotic, as wayward and brooding as any surrealist’s painted jungle.

Rourke turned to me. "What’s the most patronizing thing you can offer to do for people you disagree with, or don’t understand?"

"I don’t know. What?"

"Heal them. That’s the first H-word. Health."

"Ah."

"Medical technology is about to go supernova. In case you hadn’t noticed. So what’s all that power going to be used for? The maintenance—or creation—of health. But what’s health? Forget the obvious shit that everyone agrees on. Once every last virus and parasite and oncogene has been blasted out of existence, what’s the ultimate goal of healing? All of us playing our preordained parts in some Edenite natural order"—he stopped to gesture ironically at the orchids and lilies blossoming around us—"and being restored to the one condition our biology is optimized for: hunting and gathering, and dying at thirty or forty? Is that it? Or… opening up every technically possible mode of existence? Whoever claims the authority to define the boundary between health and disease claims… everything."

I said, "You’re right: the word’s insidious, the meaning’s open-ended—and it will probably always be contentious." I couldn’t argue with patronizing, either; Mystical Renaissance were forever offering to "heal" the world’s people of their "psychic numbing," and transform us all into "perfectly balanced" human beings. In other words: perfect copies of themselves, with all the same beliefs, all the same priorities, and all the same neuroses and superstitions.

"So what’s the other H-word? The big one?"

He tipped his head and looked at me slyly. "You really can’t guess? Here’s a clue, then. What’s the most intellectually lazy way you can think of, to try to win an argument?"

"You’re going to have to spell it out for me. I’m no good at riddles."

"You say that your opponent lacks humanity."

I’d fallen silent, suddenly ashamed—or at least embarrassed—wondering just how deeply I’d offended him with some of the things I’d said the day before. The trouble with meeting people again after interviewing them was that they often spent the intervening time thinking through the whole conversation, in minute detail—and concluding that they’d come out badly.

Rourke said, "It’s the oldest semantic weapon there is. Think of all the categories of people who’ve been classified as non-human, in various cultures, at various times. People from other tribes. People with other skin colors. Slaves. Women. The mentally ill. The deaf. Homosexuals. Jews. Bosnians, Croats, Serbs, Armenians, Kurds—"

I said defensively, "Don’t you think there’s a slight difference between putting someone in a gas chamber, and using the phrase rhetorically?"

"Of course. But suppose you accuse me of lacking humanity. What does that actually mean? What am I likely to have done? Murdered someone in cold blood? Drowned a puppy? Eaten meat? Failed to be moved by Beethoven’s Fifth? Or just failed to have—or to seek—an emotional life identical to your own in every respect? Failed to share all your values and aspirations?"

I hadn’t replied. Cyclists whirred by in the dark jungle behind me; it had begun to rain, but the canopy protected us.

Rourke continued cheerfully. "The answer is: any one of the above. Which is why it’s so fucking lazy. Questioning someone’s humanity puts them in the company of serial killers—which saves you the trouble of having to say anything intelligent about their views. And it lays claim to some vast imaginary consensus, an outraged majority standing behind you, backing you up all the way. When you claim that Voluntary Autists are trying to rid themselves of their humanity, you’re not only defining the word as if you had some divine right to do that… you’re implying that everyone else on the planet—short of the reincarnations of Adolf Hitler and Pol Pot—agrees with you in every detail." He spread his arms and declaimed to the trees, "Put down that scalpel, I beseech you… in the name of all humanity!"

I said lamely, "Okay. Maybe I should have phrased some things differently, yesterday. I didn’t set out to insult you."

Rourke shook his head, amused. "No offense taken. It’s a battle, after all—I can hardly expect instant surrender. You’re loyal to a narrow definition of Big H—and maybe you even honestly believe that everyone else shares it. I support a broader definition. We’ll agree to disagree. And I’ll see you in the trenches."

Narrow? I’d opened my mouth to deny the accusation, but then I hadn’t known how to defend myself. What could I have said? That I’d once made a sympathetic documentary about gender migrants? (How magnanimous.) And now I had to balance that with a frankenscience story on Voluntary Autists?

So he’d had the last word (if only in real time). He’d shaken my hand, and we’d parted.

I played the whole thing through, one more time. Rourke was remarkably eloquent—and almost charismatic, in his own strange way— and everything he’d said was relevant. But the private terminology, the manic outbursts… it was all too weird, too messy and confrontational.

I left the take unused, unquoted.

I’d gone on to another appointment at the university: an afternoon with the famous Manchester MIRG—Medical Imaging Research Group. It had seemed like too good a chance to miss—and imaging, after all, lay behind the definitive identification of partial autism.

I skimmed through the footage. A lot of it was good—and it would probably make a worthwhile five-minute story of its own, for one of SeeNet’s magazine programs—but it was clear now that Rourke’s own concise notepad demonstration had supplied all the brain scans Junk DNA really needed.

The main experiment I’d filmed involved a student volunteer reading poetry in silence, while the scanner subtitled the image other brain with each line as it was read. There were three independently-computed subtitles, based on primary visual data, recognized word-shapes, and the brain’s final semantic representations… the last sometimes only briefly matching the others, before the words' precise meanings diffused out into a cloud of associations. However eerily compelling this was, though, it had nothing to do with Lament’s area.

Toward the end of the day, one of the researchers—Margaret Williams, head of the software development team—had suggested that I climb into the womb of the scanner, myself. Maybe they wanted to turn the tables on me—to scrutinize and record me with their machinery, just as I’d been doing to them for the past four hours. Williams had certainly been as insistent as if she’d believed it was a matter of justice.

She said, "You could record the subject’s-eye view. And we could get a look at all your hidden extras."

I’d declined. "I don’t know what the magnetic fields would do to the hardware."

"Nothing, I promise. Most of it must be optical—and everything else will be shielded. You get on and off planes all the time, don’t you? You walk through the normal security gates?"

"Yes, but—"

"Our fields are no stronger. We could even try reading your optic nerve activity, via the scanner—and then comparing the data with your own direct record."

"I don’t have the download module with me. It’s back at the hotel."

She pursed her lips, frustrated—obviously dying to tell me to shut up, do as I was told, and get inside the scanner. "That’s a pity. And I suppose you’d have problems with the warranty if we improvised something—our own cable and interface…?"

"I’m afraid so. The software would log the use of non-standard equipment, and then I’d be in deep trouble at the next annual service."

But she still wasn’t ready to give up. "You were talking about the Voluntary Autists, before. If you wanted something spectacular to illustrate that… we could image your own Lament’s area—while you brought to mind a sequence of different people. We could record it all, and play it back for you. Then you could show your viewers a real-time working copy of the thing itself. Not some glossy animation: flesh and blood, caught in the act. Neurons pumping calcium ions, synapses firing. We could even transform the neural architecture into a functional diagram, calibrate it, identify trait symbols. We have all the software—"

I said, "It’s very kind of you to offer. But… what kind of tenth-rate journalist would I be, if I started resorting to using myself as the subject of my own stories?"

7

Two weeks before the Einstein Centenary conference was due to begin, I signed a contract with SeeNet for Violet Mosala: Symmetry’s Champion. As I scrawled my name on the electronic document with my notepad’s stylus, I tried to convince myself that I’d been given the job because I’d do it well—not merely because I’d pulled rank and begged for a favor. There was no doubt that Sarah Knight was inexperienced—she was five years younger than me, and she’d spent most of her career in political journalism. Being a self-confessed fan of Mosala might even have worked against her; no one at SeeNet would have wanted a gushing hagiography. But for all my alleged professionalism, I’d still only glanced at Sisyphus’s briefing, I still had no real idea what I was taking on.

The truth was, I didn’t care about the details; all that mattered was putting Junk DNA behind me, and running as far away from Distress as I could. After twelve months drowning in the worst excesses of biotechnology, the pristine world of theoretical physics shone in my mind’s eye like some anesthetized mathematical heaven, where everything was cool and abstract and gloriously inconsequential… an image which merged seamlessly with the white coral snowflake of Stateless itself, growing out into the blue Pacific like a perfect fractal star. Part of me understood full well that if I took these beautiful mirages to heart, I was certain to be disappointed—and I even struggled to imagine the most unpleasant ways in which I might be brought back down to Earth. I could suffer an attack of multiple-drug-resistant pneumonia or malaria, a strain to which the locals were immune. High-level pharms which could analyze the pathogenic organisms and design a cure on the spot would be unavailable, thanks to the boycott, and I’d be too weak for the flight back to civilization… It wasn’t an impossible scenario; the boycott had killed hundreds of people over the years.

Still, anything had to be better than coming face-to-face with a victim of Distress.

I left a message for Violet Mosala. I assumed she was still at her home in Cape Town, though the software which answered her number was giving nothing away. I introduced myself, thanked her for generously agreeing to give her time to the project, and generally spouted polite clichés. I said nothing to encourage her to call me back; I knew it wouldn’t take much real-time conversation to reveal my total ignorance of her life and work. Pneumonia, malaria… making a complete fool of myself. I didn’t care. All I could think of was escape.

I’d psyched myself up to be "forced to relive" Daniel Cavolini’s revival—but I should have known all along how absurd that was. Editing never re-created the past; it was more like performing an autopsy on it. I worked on the sequence dispassionately—and every hour I spent reshaping it made the job of imagining the responses of a viewer, seeing it all for the first time, more and more a matter of calculation and instinct—and less and less connected to anything I felt about the events myself. Even the final cut, superficially fluid and immediate, was for me a kind of post-mortem revival of a post-mortem revival. It had happened, it was over; whatever brief illusion of life the technology managed to create, it was no more capable of climbing out of the screen and walking down the street than any other twitching corpse.

Daniel’s brother, Luke, had been charged with the murder—and had already pleaded guilty. I logged on to the court records system and skimmed through footage of the three hearings which had taken place so far. The magistrate had ordered a psychiatric report, which had concluded that Luke Cavolini suffered from occasional bouts of "inappropriate anger" which had never quite put him far enough out of touch with reality to have him classified as mentally ill and treated against his will. He was competent, and culpable, and understood precisely what he’d done—and he’d even had a "motive": an argument the night before, about a jacket of Daniel’s which he’d borrowed. He’d end up in an ordinary prison, for at least fifteen years.

The court footage was public domain, but there was no time to use any of it in the broadcast version. So I wrote a brief postscript to the revival story, stating the bare facts: the charges laid, the guilty plea. I didn’t mention the psychiatric report; I didn’t want to muddy the waters. The console read the words over a freeze-frame of Daniel Cavolini screaming.

I said, "Fade-out. Roll credits."

It was Tuesday, March 23rd, 4:07 p.m.

Junk DNA was over.

I left a note in the hall for Gina and walked up to Epping to get myself inoculated for the journey ahead. Scientists on Stateless broadcast local "weather reports"—both meteorological and epidemiological—into the net, and despite all the other bizarre acts of political ostracism, the relevant UN bodies treated this data just as if it had emerged from a sanctified member state. As it turned out, neither pneumonia nor malaria shots were indicated—but there’d been recent outbreaks of several new strains of adenovirus—none of them life-threatening, but all of them potentially debilitating enough to ruin my stay. Alice Tomasz, my GP, downloaded sequences for some small peptides which mimicked appropriate viral surface proteins, synthesized their RNA, and then spliced the fragments into a tailored—harmless—adenovirus. The whole process took about ten minutes.

As I inhaled the live vaccine, Alice said, "I liked Gender Scrutiny Overload."

"Thank you."

"That part at the end, though… Elaine Ho on gender and evolution. Did you honestly believe that?"

Ho had pointed out that humans had spent the last few million years reversing the ancient mammalian extremes of gender dimorphism and behavioral differences. We’d gradually evolved biochemical quirks which actively interfered with ancient genetic programs for gender-specific neural pathways; the separate blueprints were still inherited, but hormonal effects in the womb kept them from being fully enacted—essentially "masculinizing" the brain of every female embryo, and "feminizing" the brain of every male. (Homosexuality resulted when the process went— very slightly—further than normal.) In the long term—even if we took an Edenite stand and refused all genetic engineering—the sexes were already converging. Whether or not we tampered with nature, nature was tampering with itself.

"It seemed like a good way to end the program. And everything she said was true, wasn’t it?"

Alice was noncommittal. "So what are you working on these days?"

I couldn’t bring myself to own up to Junk DNA… but I was just as afraid to mention Violet Mosala, in case my own doctor turned out to know more about Mosala’s TOE-in-progress than I did. It wasn’t an idle fear; Alice was obscenely well read on everything.

I said, "Nothing, really. I’m on holiday."

She glanced again at my notes on her desk screen—which would have included data from my pharm. "Good for you. Just don’t relax too hard."

I felt like an idiot, caught out in an obvious lie—but as I walked out of the surgery, it ceased to matter. The street was dappled with leaf-shadows, the breeze from the south was soft and cool. Junk DNA was over, and I felt as unburdened as if I’d just been granted a reprieve from a fatal disease. Epping was a quiet suburban center: a doctor, a dentist, a small supermarket, a florist, a hairdresser, and a couple of (non-experimental) restaurants. No Ruins; the commercial sector had been bulldozed fifteen years before and given over to engineered forest. No billboards (though advertising T-shirts almost made up for the loss). On rare Sunday afternoons when nothing else claimed our time, Gina and I walked up here for no reason at all, and sat beside the fountain. And when I came back from Stateless—with eight whole months to edit Violet Mosala into shape—there’d be more of those days than there’d been for a long while.

When I opened the front door, Gina was standing in the hall, as if she’d been waiting for me to return. She seemed agitated. Distraught. I moved toward her, asking, "What’s wrong?" She backed away, raising her arms, almost as if she was fending off an attacker.

She said, "Andrew, I know there’s no good time. But I waited—"

At the end of the hall were three suitcases.

The world drew itself away from me. Everything around me took one step back.

I said, "What’s going on?"

"Don’t get angry."

"I’m not angry." That was the truth. "I just don’t understand,"

Gina said, "I gave you every chance to fix things. And you just kept right on, as if nothing had changed."

Something odd was happening to my sense of balance; I felt as if I was swaying wildly, though I knew I was perfectly still. Gina looked miserable; I held out my arms to her—as if I could comfort her.

I said, "Couldn’t you tell me something was wrong?"

"Did I need to? Are you blind?"

"Maybe I am."

"You’re not a child, are you? You’re not stupid."

"I honestly don’t know what I’m supposed to have done."

She laughed bitterly. "No, of course you don’t. You just started treating me like some kind of… arduous obligation. Why should you think there was anything wrong with that?"

I said, "Started treating you… when? You mean the last three weeks? You always knew about editing. I thought—"

Gina screamed, "I’m not talking about your fucking job.'"

I wanted to sit down on the floor—to steady myself, to regain my bearings—but I was afraid the action might be misinterpreted.

She said coldly, "Please don’t stand there blocking the way. You’re making me nervous."

"What do you think I’m going to do? Take you prisoner?" She didn’t reply. I squeezed past her into the kitchen. She turned and stood in the doorway, facing me. I had no idea what to say to her. I had no idea where to begin.

"I love you."

"I’m warning you, don’t start."

"If I’ve screwed up, just give me a chance to put things right. I’ll try harder—"

"There’s nothing worse than when you try harder. The strain is so fucking obvious."

"I always thought I’d—" I met her eyes: dark, expressive, impossibly beautiful. Even now, the sight of them cut through everything else I was thinking and feeling, and transformed part of me into a helpless, infatuated child. But I’d still, always, concentrated, I’d always paid attention. How had it come to this! What signs could I have missed… when, how? I wanted to demand dates and times and places.

Gina looked away and said, "It’s too late to change anything. I’ve found someone else. I’ve been seeing someone else for the last three months. If you really didn’t know that… what kind of message did you need? Did I have to bring him home and screw him in front of you?"

I closed my eyes. I didn’t want to hear this; it was just noise that made everything more complicated. I said slowly, "I don’t care what you’ve done. We can still—"

She took a step toward me and shouted, "I care! You selfish moron! I care!" Tears were streaming down her face. Beneath everything I was struggling to understand, I just ached to hold her; I still couldn’t believe I was the reason for all her pain.

She said contemptuously, "Look at you! I’m the one who’s just told you I’ve been screwing someone else behind your back! I’m the one who’s walking out! And it still hurts me a thousand times more than anything will ever hurt you—"

I must have thought about what I did next, I must have planned it, but I don’t remember turning to the sink and hunting for a knife, I don’t remember opening my shirt. But I found myself standing by the kitchen doorway, carving lines back and forth across my stomach with the point of the blade, saying calmly, "You always wanted scars. Here are some scars."

Gina threw herself at me, knocking me off my feet. I pushed the knife away, under the table. Before I could get up, she sat on my chest, and started slapping and punching me. She screamed, "You think that hurts? You think that’s the same? You don’t even know the difference, do you? Do you?"

I lay on the floor and looked away from her, while she pummeled my face and shoulders. I felt nothing at all, I was just waiting for it to be over—but when she stood up and started to leave, making sniveling noises as she staggered around the kitchen, I suddenly wanted to hurt her, badly.

I said evenly, "What did you expect? I can’t cry on cue like you do. My prolactin level’s not up to it."

I heard her dragging the suitcases along the hall. I had a vision of following her out the door, offering to carry something, making a scene. But my desire for revenge had already faded. I loved her, I wanted her back… and everything I could imagine doing to try to prove that seemed guaranteed to hurt her, guaranteed to make everything worse.

The front door slammed shut.

I curled up on the floor. I was bleeding messily and gritting my teeth as much against the metallic stench, and a sense of helpless incontinence, as against the pain—but I knew I wasn’t cut deeply. I hadn’t gone insane with jealousy and rage and severed an artery; I’d always known exactly what I was doing.

Was I meant to feel ashamed of that? Ashamed that I hadn’t broken the furniture, disemboweled myself—or tried to kill her? I could still feel the sting of Gina’s contempt—and if I’d never really known her thoughts before, I’d understood one thing as she knocked me to the floor: because I hadn’t been overwhelmed by emotion, because I hadn’t lost control… in her eyes, I was somehow less than human.

I wrapped a towel around my superficial wounds, then told the pharm what had happened. It buzzed for several minutes, then exuded a paste of antibiotics, coagulants, and a collagen-like adhesive. It dried on my skin like a tight-fitting bandage.

The pharm had no eye of its own, but I stood by the phone and showed it our handiwork.

It said, "Avoid strenuous bowel movements. And try not to laugh too hard."

8

Angelo said glumly, "I’ve been sent."

"Then you’d better come in."

He followed me down the hall into the living room. I asked, "How are the girls?"

"Good. Exhausting."

Maria was three, Louise was two. Angelo and Lisa both worked from home—in soundproof offices—taking the childcare in shifts. Angelo was a mathematician with a net-based, nominally Canadian university; Lisa was a polymer chemist with a company which manufactured in the Netherlands.

We’d been friends since university, but I hadn’t met his sister until Louise was born. Gina had been visiting mother and daughter in hospital; I’d fallen for her in the elevator, before I had any idea who she was.

Seated, Angelo said cautiously, "I think she just wants to know how you are."

"I sent her ten messages in ten days. She knows exactly how I am."

"She said you stopped suddenly."

"Suddenly? Ten acts of ritual humiliation is all she gets, without a reply." I hadn’t meant to sound bitter, but Angelo was already beginning to look like a peace envoy stranded on a battlefield. I laughed. "Tell her whatever she wants to hear. Tell her I’m devastated… but recovering rapidly. I don’t want her to feel insulted… but I don’t want her to feel guilty, either."

He smiled uncertainly, as if I’d made a tasteless joke. "She’s taking it badly."

I clenched my fists and said slowly, "I know that, and so am I, but don’t you think she’d feel better if you told her…" I stopped. "What did she say you should tell me if I asked if there was any chance of her coming back?"

"She said to say no."

"Of course. But… did she mean it? What did she tell you to say if I asked if she meant it?"

"Andrew—"

"Forget it."

A long, awkward silence descended. I considered asking where she was, who she was with, but I knew he wouldn’t tell me. And I didn’t really want to know.

I said, "I’m meant to be flying out to Stateless tomorrow."

"Yeah, I heard. Good luck."

"There is another journalist who’d be willing to take over the project. I’d only have to make one call—"

He shook his head. "There’s no reason to do that. It wouldn’t change anything."

The silence returned. After a while, Angelo reached into a jacket pocket and pulled out a small plastic vial of tablets. He said, "I’ve got some Ds."

I groaned. "You never used to take that shit."

He glanced up at me, wounded. "They’re harmless. I like to switch off sometimes. What’s wrong with that?"

"Nothing."

Disinhibitors were non-toxic and non-addictive. They created a mild sensation of well-being, and increased the effort required for considered thought—rather like a moderate dose of alcohol or cannabis, with few of the side effects. Their concentration in the bloodstream was self-limiting—above a certain level, the molecule catalyzed its own destruction—so taking a whole bottle was exactly the same as swallowing a single D.

Angelo offered me the vial. I took out a tablet reluctantly, and held it in my palm.

Alcohol had almost vanished from polite society by the time I was ten years old, but its use as a "social lubricant" always seemed to be lauded in retrospect as unequivocally beneficial, and only the violence and organic damage it induced were viewed as pathological. To me, though, the magic bullet which had taken its place seemed like a distillation of the real problem. Cirrhosis, brain damage, assorted cancers, and the worst traffic accidents and crimes of stupefaction had been mercifully banished… but I still wasn’t prepared to concede that human beings were physically incapable of communicating or relaxing without the aid of psychoactive drugs.

Angelo swallowed a tablet and said admonishingly, "Come on, it’s not going to kill you. Every known human culture has used some kind of—"

I mimed putting the thing in my mouth, but palmed it. Screw every known human culture. I felt a momentary pang of guilt at the deception, but I didn’t have the energy for an argument. Besides, my dishonesty was well intentioned. I could imagine more or less what Gina had told her brother: Get him D’d, it’s the only way he’ll start talking. She’d sent Angelo here in the hope that I’d unburden myself, spill my guts, and be healed. It was a touching gesture—on the part of both of them—and the least I could do in return was reduce the number of lies he’d have to tell her to make her believe she’d done some good.

Angelo’s eyes glazed over slightly, as the chemical shut down various pathways in his brain. It occurred to me that James Rourke should have added a third disputed H-word to his list: honesty. Freud had saddled Western culture with the bizarre notion that the least considered utterances were always, magically, the truest—that reflection added nothing, and the ego merely censored or lied. It was an idea born more of convenience than anything else: he’d identified the part of the mind easiest to circumvent—with tricks like free association—and then declared the product of all that remained to be "honest."

But now that my words were chemically sanctified, and would at last be taken seriously, I got straight to the point. "Look: tell Gina I’m going to be okay. I’m sorry I hurt her. I know I was selfish. I’m going to try to change. I still care about her… but I know it’s over." I hunted for more, but there really was nothing else she needed to know.

Angelo nodded significantly, as if I’d said something new and profound. "I could never understand why you were always breaking up with women. I thought you were just unlucky. But you’re right: you’re a selfish bastard. All you really care about is your work."

"That’s right."

"So what are you going to do about it? Find a new career?"

"No. Live alone."

He grimaced. "But that’s worse. That makes you twice as selfish."

I laughed. "Really? Do you want to explain why?"

"Because then you’re not even trying!"

"What if trying is at other people’s expense? What if I’m tired of hurting people, and I choose not to do that anymore?"

This simple idea seemed to confound him. He’d taken up Ds late in life; maybe they addled his brain more than they did for someone who’d developed a tolerance for the drug in adolescence.

I said, "I honestly used to think I could make someone happy. And myself. But after six attempts, I think I’ve proved that I can’t. So I’m taking the Hippocratic oath: Do no harm. What’s wrong with that?"

Angelo gave me a dubious look. "I can’t exactly picture you living like a monk."

"Make up your mind: first I’m being selfish, then I’m being pious. And I hope you’re not impugning my masturbatory skills."

"No, but there’s one small problem with sexual fantasies: they make you want the real thing even more."

I shrugged. "I could always go neural asex."

"Very funny."

"Well, it’s always there as a last resort." I was already growing sick of the whole stupid ritual, but if I threw him out too soon there was the risk that he’d give Gina a less-than-satisfactory catharsis report. The details didn’t matter, he’d be allowed to keep them to himself—but he had to be able to say with a straight face that we’d kept on baring our souls right into the small hours.

I said, "You always claimed that you’d never get married. Monogamy was for the weak. Casual sex was more honest, and better for all concerned—"

Angelo laughed, but gritted his teeth. "I was nineteen when I said that. How’d you like it if I dug up a few of your wonderful films from the same era ?"

"If you’ve got copies… name your price." It seemed inconceivable, but I’d spent four years of my life—and thousands of dollars from assorted part-time jobs—making half a dozen terminally pretentious experimental dramas. My underwater butoh version of Waiting for Godot was perhaps the single worst creation of the digital video era.

Angelo stared at the carpet, suddenly pensive. "I meant it, though. At the time. The whole idea of a family—" He shuddered. "It sounded like being buried alive. I couldn’t imagine anything worse."

"So you grew up. Congratulations."

He glared at me angrily. "Don’t be so fucking glib."

"I’m sorry." He didn’t seem to be joking; I’d struck a nerve.

He said, "No one grows up. That’s one of the sickest lies they ever tell you. People change. People compromise. People get stranded in situations they don’t want to be in… and they make the best of it. But don’t try to tell me it’s some kind of… glorious preordained ascent into emotional maturity. It’s not."

I said uneasily, "Has something happened? Between you and Lisa?"

He shook his head apologetically. "No. Everything’s fine. Life is wonderful. I love them all. But…" He looked away, his whole body visibly tensing. "Only because I’d go insane if I didn’t. Only because I have to make it work."

"But you do. Make it work."

"Yes!" He scowled, frustrated that I was missing the point. "And it’s not even that hard, anymore. It’s pure habit. But… I used to think there’d be more. I used to think that if you changed from… valuing one thing to valuing another, it was because you’d learned something new, understood something better. And it’s not like that at all. I just value what I’m stuck with. That’s it, that’s the whole story. People make a virtue out of necessity. They sanctify what they can’t escape.

"I do love Lisa, and I do love the girls… but there’s no deeper reason than the fact that that’s the best I can make of my life, now. I can’t argue with a single thing I said when I was nineteen years old—because I don’t know better now. I’m not wiser. That’s what I resent: all the fucking pretentious lies we were fed about growth and maturity. No one ever came clean and admitted that love and sacrifice were just what you did to stay sane when you found yourself backed into a different kind of corner."

I said, "You really are full of shit. I hope you don’t take Ds at parties."

He looked stung for a moment, then he understood: I was promising to keep my mouth shut. I wasn’t going to throw a word of this back at him when he was sober.

I walked him to the station just before midnight. There was a warm breeze blowing, and ten thousand stars.

"Good luck with Stateless."

"Good luck with your debriefing."

"Ah. I’ll tell Gina…" He trailed off, frowning like an aphasic.

"You’ll think of something."

"Yeah."

I watched the train until it disappeared, thinking: She did help me, after all. I actually forgot about both of us, for a while. And she’ll survive. And I’ll survive. And tomorrow, I’ll be on a South Pacific island… trying to bluff my way through two weeks with Violet Mosala.

Backed into a different kind of corner.

What more could I have asked for?

PART TWO

9

The living, artificial island of Stateless was anchored to an unnamed guyot—a submerged, flat-topped, extinct volcano—in the middle of the South Pacific. At thirty-two degrees latitude, it lay outside the ocean resource zones of the Polynesian nations to the north, in uncontested international waters. (Laughable ambit claims by Antarctic squatters aside.) It sounded remote—but it was only four thousand kilometers from Sydney; a direct flight would have taken less than two hours.

I sat in the transit lounge in Phnom Penh, trying to unknot the muscles in the back of my neck. The air-conditioning was icy, but the humidity seemed to penetrate the building unchecked. I thought about wandering out into the city—which I’d never seen firsthand—but I only had forty minutes between flights, and it would probably have taken half that time to obtain the necessary visa.

I’d never understood why the Australian government was such a vehement supporter of the boycott against Stateless. For twenty-three years, successive Ministers of Foreign Affairs had ranted about its "destabilizing influence on the region"—but in fact it had acted to relieve tensions considerably, by accepting more Greenhouse refugees than any nation on the planet. And it was true that the creators of Stateless had broken countless international laws, and used thousands of patented DNA sequences without permission… but a nation founded by invasion and mass-murder (acts demurely regretted in a treaty signed two hundred and fifty years later) could hardly claim to be on higher moral ground.

It was clear that Stateless was being ostracized for purely political reasons. But no one in power seemed to feel obliged to make those reasons explicit.

So I sat in the transit lounge, stiff from a four-hour flight in the wrong direction, and tried to read the sections of Sisyphus’s physics lesson which I’d skimmed over the first time. They were highlighted in accusing blue, eyeball-track analysis gallingly right on every count.

At least two conflicting generalised measures can be applied to T, the space of all topological spaces with countable basis. Perrini’s measure [Perrini, 2012] and Saupe’s measure [Saupe, 2017] are both defined for all bounded subsets of T, and are equivalent when restricted to M—the space of n-dimensional para-compact Hausdorff manifolds—but they yield contradictory results for sets of more exotic spaces. However, the physical significance (if any) of this discrepancy remains obscure—

I couldn’t concentrate. I gave up, closed my eyes and attempted to doze off—but a siesta appeared to be biochemically impossible. I blanked my mind and tried to relax. Eventually, my notepad chimed and announced my connection to Dili—picking up the news from the room’s IR broadcast a few seconds before the multilingual audio began. I headed for the security gate—and, stepping through, recalled the scanner in Manchester, extracting poetry from a student’s brain. No doubt in twenty years' time, weaponless hijackers would have their intentions exposed as easily as any explosive or knife. My passport file carried details of my suspicious internal anomalies, to reassure nervous security officials that I wasn’t wired to explode… and maybe people who were plagued by unwanted dreams of running amok at twenty thousand meters would need analogous certificates of innocuousness in future.

There were no flights to Stateless from Cambodia. China, Japan and Korea were all pro-boycott, so Cambodia fell into line with its major trading partners to avoid causing offense. As did Australia—but its enthusiastic punishment of the "anarchists" went above and beyond the call of realpolitik. There were flights from Phnom Penh to Dili, though, and from there I could finally reach my destination.

It was no mystery why Sydney-to-Dili was out of the question. After Indonesia annexed East Timor in 1976, they’d split the profits—the Timor Gap oilfields—with their silent partner, Australia. In 2036, with half a million East Timorese dead, and the oil wells irrelevant—hydrocarbons being molecules which engineered algae made from sunlight, in any shape and size, for a tenth of the cost of milk—the Indonesian government, under pressure more from its own citizens than from any of its allies, had finally, reluctantly acceded to demands for autonomy for the province of Timor Timur. Formal independence had followed in 2040. But fifteen years later, the lawsuits against the oil thieves still hadn’t been settled.

I boarded through the umbilical, and took my seat. A few minutes later, a woman in a bright red sarong and white blouse sat down beside me. We exchanged nods and smiles.

She said, "You wouldn’t believe the rigmarole I’m going through. Once in a blue moon my people hold a conference off the nets—and they had to choose the most difficult place in the world to reach."

"You mean Stateless?"

She regarded me sympathetically. "You too?"

I nodded.

"You poor man. Where have you come from?"

"Sydney."

Her accent was almost certainly Bombay but she said, "I’m from Kuala Lumpur. So you’ve had it worse. I’m Indrani Lee."

"Andrew Worth."

We shook hands. She said, "Of course, I’m not giving a paper myself. And the proceedings will be on-line the day after the conference finishes. But… if you don’t turn up, you miss all the gossip, don’t you?" She smiled conspiratorially. "People grow so desperate to talk off the nets knowing there’ll be no record, no audit trail. By the time each face-to-face meeting comes around, they’re ready to tell you all their secrets in five minutes. Don’t you find?"

"I hope so. I’m a journalist—I’m covering the conference for SeeNet." A risky confession, but I wasn’t about to try imitating a TOE specialist.

Lee showed no obvious signs of disdain. The plane began its almost vertical ascent; I was in the cheap center aisle, but my screen showed Phnom Penh as it receded beneath us—an astonishing jumble of styles, from vine-covered stone temples (real and faux) to faded French colonial (ditto) to gleaming black ceramic. Lee’s screen began to display an emergency procedures audiovisual; my recent-enough spate of flights on identical planes qualified me for an exemption.

When the AV was over, I said, "Do you mind if I ask what your field is? I mean, TOEs, obviously, but which approach—?"

"I’m not a physicist. What I do is much closer to your own line of work."

"You’re a journalist?"

"I’m a sociologist. Or if you want my full title: I study the Dynamics of Contemporary Ideas. So… if physics is about to come to an end, I thought I’d better be on hand to witness the event."

"You want to be there to remind the scientists that they’re really just priests and story-tellers?" I’d meant that as a joke—her own comment had been tongue-in-cheek, and I’d tried to match her tone—but my words came out sounding like an accusation.

She gave me a reproving glare. "I’m not a member of any Ignorance Cult. And I’m afraid you’re twenty years out of date if you think sociology is some kind of hotbed for Humble Science! or Mystical Renaissance. In academia, they’re all in the History Departments now." Her expression softened to a kind of weary resignation. "We still get all the flak, though. It’s unbelievable: a couple of badly-framed studies from the nineteen eighties still get thrown in my face by medical researchers, as if I was personally responsible."

I apologized; she waved the offense away. A robot trolley offered us food and drink; I declined. It was absurd, but the first leg of my zig-zag path to Stateless had left me feeling worse than any non-stop flight across the entire Pacific.

As lush Vietnamese jungle gave way to choppy gray water, we exchanged a few pleasantries about the view—and further commiserations about the ordeal of reaching the conference. Despite my gaffe, I was intrigued by Lee’s profession, and I finally worked up the courage to raise the subject again. "What’s the attraction for you, in devoting your time to studying physicists? I mean… if it was the science itself, you’d be a physicist. You wouldn’t be standing back and watching them."

She shook her head in disbelief. "Isn’t that exactly what you plan to do, yourself, for the next fortnight?"

"Yes—but my jobs very different from yours. Ultimately, I’m just a communications technician."

She gave me a look which seemed to say I’ll deal with that one later. "The physicists at this conference will be there to make progress on TOEs, right? To trash the bad ones and refine the good ones. They’re only interested in the end product: a theory that works, that fits the known data. That’s their job, their vocation. Agreed?"

"More or less."

"Of course, they’re aware of all the processes they use to do this beyond the actual mathematics: the communication of ideas, the withholding of ideas; acts of cooperation, acts of rivalry. They could hardly fail to know all about the politics, the cliques, the alliances." She smiled, a proclamation of innocence. "I’m not using any of those words pejoratively. Physics is not debunked—as groups like Culture First continue to insist—just because some perfectly ordinary things like nepotism, jealousy, and occasional acts of extreme violence play a part in its history. But you can hardly expect the physicists themselves to waste their time writing it all down for posterity. They want to purify and polish their little nuggets of theory, and then tell brief, elegant lies about how they found them. Who wouldn’t? And it makes no difference, on one level: most science can be assessed without knowing anything about its detailed human origins.

"But my job is to get my hands on as much of the real history as possible. Not for the sake of dethroning physics. For its own sake, as a separate discipline. A separate branch of science." She added, in mock reproof, "And believe me, we don’t suffer from equation envy anymore. We’re due to outstrip them any day now. The physicists keep merging theirs, or throwing them out. We just keep inventing new ones."

I said, "But how would you feel if there were meta-sociologists looking over your shoulder, recording all your messy day-to-day compromises? Keeping you from getting away with your own elegant lies?"

Lee confessed without hesitation: "I’d hate it, of course. And I’d try to conceal everything. But that’s what the game’s all about, isn’t it?

"The physicists have it easy—with their subject, if not with me. The universe can’t hide anything: forget all that anthropomorphic Victorian nonsense about prising out nature’s secrets. The universe can’t lie; it just does what it does, and there’s nothing else to it.

"People are the very opposite. There’s nothing to which we’ll devote more time, and energy, and cunning, than burying the truth."

East Timor from the air was a dense patchwork of fields along the coast, and what looked like native jungle and savanna in the highlands. A dozen tiny fires dotted the mountains, but the blackened pinpricks beneath the smoke trails were dwarfed by the scars of old open-cut mines. We spiraled down over the island in a helical U-turn, hundreds of small villages coming into sight and then slipping away.

The fields displayed no trademark pigments (let alone the logos of fourth-generation biotech); visibly, at least, the farmers were refusing the temptation to go renegade, and were using only old, out-of-patent crops. Agriculture for export was almost dead; even hyper-urbanized Japan could feed its own population. Only the poorest countries, unable to afford the license fees for state-of-the-art produce, struggled for self-sufficiency. East Timor imported food from Indonesia.

It was just after midday as we touched down in the tiny capital. There was no umbilical; we walked across the sweltering tarmac. The melatonin patch on my shoulder, pre-programmed by my pharm, was nudging me relentlessly toward Stateless time, two hours later than Sydney’s— but Dili was two hours in the other direction. I felt jet-lagged for the first time in my life, physically affronted by the sight of the blazing midday sun—and it struck me just how eerily effective the patch ordinarily was, when I could alight in Frankfurt or Los Angeles without the slightest sense of violated expectations. I wondered how I would have felt if I’d had my hypothalamic clock slavishly synched to the local time zones, all the way along the absurd loop of my flight path. Better, worse… or just disturbingly normal, one part of my perception of time laid bare as the simplest of biochemical phenomena?

The single-story airport building was crowded—with more people seeing off, or greeting, travelers than I’d ever witnessed in Bombay, Shanghai, or Mexico City, and more uniformed staff than I’d seen in any other airport on the planet. I stood in line behind Indrani Lee to pay the two-hundred-dollar transit tax on the near-monopoly route to Stateless. It was pure extortion… but it was hard to begrudge the opportunism. How else was a country this size supposed to raise the foreign exchange it needed in order to buy food? I hit a few keys on my notepad, and Sisyphus replied: with great difficulty.

East Timor had none of the few exotic minerals which still needed to be mined to meet net global demand after recycling and it had been stripped long ago of anything which might have been useful to local industry. Trade in native sandalwood was forbidden by international law, and in any case engineered plantation species produced a better, cheaper product. A couple of electronics multinationals had built appliance-assembly factories in Dili, during a brief period when the independence movement appeared to have been crushed, but they’d all closed in the twenties, when automation became cheaper than the cheapest sweated labor. That left tourism and culture. But how many hotels could be filled, here? (Two small ones; a total of three hundred beds.) And how many people could make their living on the world nets as writers, musicians, or artists? (Four hundred and seven.)

In theory, Stateless faced all the same basic problems, and more. But Stateless had been renegade from the start—its very land built with unlicensed biotech. And no one went hungry there.

It must have been the jet-lag, but it only dawned on me slowly that most of the people in the airport weren’t there to greet friends, after all. What I’d mistaken for luggage and gifts was merchandise; these people were traders and their customers: tourists, travelers, and locals. There were a couple of stuffy-looking official airport shops in one corner… but the whole building seemed to double as a marketplace.

Still in the queue, I closed my eyes and invoked Witness; a sequence of eyeball movements woke the software in my gut, which generated the image of a control panel and fed it down my optic nerve. I stared at the LOCATION slot on the panel, which still read SYDNEY; it obligingly blanked. I mimed vertical one-handed typing, and entered DILI. Then I looked squarely at BEGIN RECORDING, highlighting the words, and opened my eyes.

Witness confirmed: "Dili, Sunday, April 4th, 2055. 4:34:17 GMT." Beep.

The Customs Department collected the transit tax—and apparently their hardware was down. Instead of our notepads dealing with everything via a brief exchange of IR, we had to sign papers, show our physical ID cards, and receive a cardboard boarding pass with an official rubber stamp. I’d been half expecting some petty harassment if the opportunity arose, but the Customs officer, a softly spoken woman with a dense Papuan frizz beneath her cap, gave me the same patient smile as she’d given everyone else, and processed my paperwork just as swiftly.

I wandered through the airport, not really looking to buy anything, just filming the scene for my scrapbook. People were shouting and haggling in Portuguese, Bahasa and English—and, according to Sisyphus, Tetum and Vaiqueno, local languages undergoing a slow resurrection. The air conditioning was probably working, but the body heat of the crowd must have almost balanced its effect; after five minutes, I was dripping with sweat.

Traders were selling rugs, T-shirts, pineapples, oil paintings, statues of saints. I passed by a stall of dried fish, and had to concentrate to keep my stomach from heaving; the smell was no problem, but however many times I confronted it, the sight of dead animals offered for human consumption still left me reeling, more than a human corpse ever did.

Engineered crops could match or exceed all the nutritional benefits of meat; a small flesh trade still existed in Australia, but it was discreet and heavily cosmeticized.

I saw a rack of what looked like Masarini jackets, on sale for a tenth of the price they would have fetched in New York or Sydney. I waved my notepad at them; it found one in my size, interrogated the tag in the collar, and chimed approval—but I had my doubts. I asked the thin teenage boy who was standing by the rack, "Are these real authentication chips, or…?" He smiled innocently and said nothing. I bought the jacket, then ripped out the tag and handed the chip back to him. "You might as well get some more use out of it."

I ran into Indrani Lee beside a software stall. She said, "I think I’ve spotted someone else who’s headed for the conference."

"Where?" I felt a mixture of excitement and panic; if it was Violet Mosala herself, I was still unprepared to face her.

I followed Lee’s gaze to an elderly Caucasian woman, who was arguing heatedly with a trader selling scarves. Her face was vaguely familiar, but in profile I couldn’t put a name to it.

"Who is that?"

"Janet Walsh."

"No. You’re joking."

But it was her.

Janet Walsh was an award-winning English novelist—and one of the world’s most prominent members of Humble Science! She’d first come to fame in the twenties with Wings of Desire ("a delicious, mischievous, incisive fable"—The Sunday Times), a story set among an "alien race," who happened to look exactly like humans… except that their males were born with large butterfly wings growing out of their penises, which were necessarily and bloodily severed when they lost their virginity. The alien females (who lacked hymens), were all callous and brutal. After being raped and abused by everyone in sight for most of the novel, the hero discovers a magical technique for making his lost wings grow back—on his shoulders—and flies off into the sunset. ("Gleefully subverts all gender stereotypes"—Playboy.)

Since then, Walsh had specialized in morality tales concerning the evils of "male science" (sic), an ill-defined but invariably calamitous activity—which even women could perform if they were led sufficiently astray, although apparently that was no excuse to change the label. I’d quoted her pithiest comment on the subject in Gender Scrutiny Overload: "If it’s arrogant, hubristic, dominating, reductionist, exploitative, spiritually impoverished, and dehumanizing—what else should we call it but male?"

I said, "Why! Why is she here?"

"Hadn’t you heard? But you were probably traveling; I saw it on the net just before I left. One of the murdochs hired her as a special correspondent to cover the Einstein Conference. Planet News, I think."

"Janet Walsh is going to report on progress in Theories of Everything?" Even for Planet Noise, that was surreal. Sending members of the British royal family to cover famines, and soap opera stars to cover summit meetings, didn’t come close.

Lee said drily, "Report may not be quite the word for it."

I hesitated. "Can I ask you something? I… never really had a chance before I left to look into the cults' response to the conference." Sisyphus would have picked up any relevant stories—but I’d requested a briefing pared down to the essentials. "I don’t suppose you’ve heard whether or not they’re… taking much interest?"

Lee regarded me with amazement. "They’ve been chartering direct flights from all over the planet for the past week. If Walsh is coming the long way, at the last minute, it’s only to keep up appearances for her employer’s sake—to maintain a veneer of non-partisanship. Stateless will be swarming with her supporters." She added gleefully, "Janet Walsh! Now that makes the trip worthwhile!"

I felt a stab of betrayal. "You said you weren’t—"

She scowled. "Not because I’m a follower! Janet Walsh is a hobby of mine. By day I study the rationalists. By night I study their opposites."

"How very… Manichean." Walsh bought the scarf and started walking away from the stall, not quite toward us. I turned so my face was hidden from her. We’d met once, at a bioethics conference in Zambia; it hadn’t been pleasant. I laughed numbly. "So this is going to be your ideal working holiday?"

Lee was puzzled. "And yours, too, surely? You must have been hoping desperately for something more than a few sleepy seminars to film. Now you’ll have Violet Mosala versus Janet Walsh. Physics versus the Ignorance Cults. Maybe even riots in the streets: anarchy comes to Stateless, at last. What more could you possibly ask for?"

* * *

Denied access to Australian, Indonesian and Papua-New-Guinean airspace, the (Portuguese-registered) plane headed southwest across the Indian Ocean. The waters looked wind-swept, gray-blue and threatening, though the sky above was clear. We’d curve right around the continent of Australia, and we wouldn’t sight land again until we arrived.

I was seated beside two middle-aged Polynesian men in business suits, who conversed loudly and incessantly in French. Mercifully, their dialect was so unfamiliar to me that I could almost tune them out; there was nothing on the plane’s headset worth listening to, and without a signal the device made a poor substitute for earplugs.

Sisyphus could reach the net via IR and the plane’s satellite link, and I considered downloading the reports I’d missed about the cult presence on Stateless—but I’d be there soon enough; anticipation seemed masochistic. I forced my attention back to the subject of All-Topology Models.

The concept of ATMs was simple enough to state: the universe was considered to possess, at the deepest level, a mixture of every single mathematically possible topology.

Even in the oldest quantum theories of gravity, the "vacuum" of empty space-time had been viewed as a seething mass of virtual worm-holes, and other more exotic topological distortions, popping in and out of existence. The smooth appearance at macroscopic lengths and human timescales was just the visible average of a hidden riot of complexity. In a way, it was like ordinary matter: a sheet of flexible plastic betrayed nothing to the naked eye of its microstructure—molecules, atoms, electrons, and quarks—but knowledge of those constituents allowed the bulk substance’s physical properties to be computed: its modulus of elasticity, for example. Space-time wasn’t made of atoms, but its properties could be understood by viewing it as being "built" from a hierarchy of ever more convoluted deviations from its apparent state of continuity and mild curvature. Quantum gravity had explained why observable space-time, underpinned by an infinite number of invisible knots and detours, behaved as it did in the presence of mass (or energy): curving in exactly the fashion required to produce the gravitational force.

ATM theorists were striving to generalize this result: to explain the (relatively) smooth ten-dimensional "total space" of the Standard Unified Field Theory—whose properties accounted for all four forces: strong, weak, gravitational, and electromagnetic—as the net result of an infinite number of elaborate geometrical structures.

Nine spatial dimensions (six rolled up tight), and one time, was only what total space appeared to be if it wasn’t examined too closely. Whenever two subatomic particles interacted, there was always a chance that the total space they occupied would behave, instead, like part of a twelve-dimensional hypersphere, or a thirteen-dimensional doughnut, or a fourteen-dimensional figure eight, or just about anything else. In fact—just as a single photon could travel along two different paths at once—any number of these possibilities could take effect simultaneously, and "interfere with each other" to produce the final outcome. Nine space, one time, was nothing but an average.

There were two main questions still in dispute among ATM theorists:

What, exactly, was meant by "all" topologies? Just how bizarre could the possibilities contributing to the average total space become? Did they have to be, merely, those which could be formed with a twisted, knotted sheet of higher-dimensional plastic—or could they include states more like a (possibly infinite) handful of scattered grains of sand— where notions like "number of dimensions" and "space-time curvature" ceased to exist altogether?

And how, exactly, should the average effect of all these different structures be computed? How should the sum over the infinite number of possibilities be written down and added up when the time came to test the theory: to make a prediction, and calculate some tangible, physical quantity which an experiment could actually measure?

On one level, the obvious response to both questions was: "Use whatever gives the right answers"—but choices which did that were hard to find… and some of them smacked of contrivance. Infinite sums were notorious for being either intractable, or too pliable by far. I jotted down an example—remote from the actual tensor equations of ATMs, but good enough to illustrate the point:

Let S = 1-1+1-1+1-1+1- …

Then S = (1-1) + (1-1) + (1-1) + … = 0 + 0 + 0 … = 0

But S = 1 + (-1+1) + (-1+1) + (-1+1) … = 1 + 0 + 0 + 0 … = 1

It was a mathematically naive "paradox"; the correct answer was, simply, that this particular infinite sequence didn’t add up to any definite sum at all. Mathematicians would always be perfectly happy with such a verdict, and would know all the rules for avoiding the pitfalls—and software could assess even the most difficult cases. When a physicist’s hard-won theory starred generating similarly ambiguous equations, though, and the choice came down to strict mathematical rigor and a theory with no predictive power at all… or, a bit of pragmatic side-stepping of the rules, and a theory which churned out beautiful results in perfect agreement with every experiment… it was no surprise that people were tempted. After all, most of what Newton had done to calculate planetary orbits had left contemporary mathematicians apoplectic with rage.

Violet Mosala’s approach was controversial for a very different reason. She’d been awarded the Nobel prize for rigorously proving a dozen key theorems in general topology—theorems which had rapidly come to comprise a standard mathematical toolbox for ATM physicists, obliterating stumbling blocks and resolving ambiguities. She’d done more than anyone else to provide the field with solid foundations, and the means of making careful, measured progress. Even her fiercest critics agreed that her mathematics was meticulous, beyond reproach.

The trouble was, she told her equations too much about the world.

The ultimate test of a TOE was to answer questions like: "What is the probability of a ten-gigaelectronvolt neutrino fired at a stationary proton scattering off a down quark and emerging at a certain angle?"… or even just: "What is the mass of an electron?" Essentially, Mosala prefixed all such questions with the condition: "Given that we know that space-time is roughly four-dimensional, and total space is roughly ten-dimensional, and the apparatus used to perform the experiment consists, approximately, of the following…"

Her supporters said she was merely setting everything in context. No experiment happened in isolation; quantum mechanics had been hammering that point home for the last hundred and twenty years. Asking a Theory of Everything to predict the chance of observing some microscopic event—without adding the proviso that "there is a universe, and it contains, among other things, equipment for detecting the event in question"—would be as nonsensical as asking: "If you pick a marble out of a bag, what are the odds that it will be green?"

Her critics said she used circular reasoning, assuming from the very beginning all the results she was trying to prove. The details she fed into her computations included so much about the known physics of the experimental apparatus that—indirectly, but inevitably—they gave the whole game away.

I was hardly qualified to come down on either side… but it seemed to me that Mosala’s opponents were being hypocritical, because they were pulling the same trick under a different guise: the alternatives they offered all invoked a cosmological fix. They declared that "before" the Big Bang and the creation of time (or "adjoining" the event, to avoid the oxymoron), there had been nothing but a perfectly symmetrical "pre-space," in which all topologies carried equal weight… and the "average result" of most familiar physical quantities would have been infinite. Pre-space was sometimes called "infinitely hot"; it could be thought of as the kind of perfectly balanced chaos which space-time would become if so much energy was poured into it that literally everything became equally possible. Everything and its opposite; the net result was that nothing happened at all.

But some local fluctuation had disturbed the balance in such a way as to give rise to the Big Bang. From that tiny accident, our universe had burst into existence. Once that had happened, the original "infinitely hot," infinitely even-handed mixture of topologies had been forced to become ever more biased, because "temperature" and "energy" now had a meaning—and in an expanding, cooling universe, most of the "hot" old symmetries would have been as unstable as molten metal thrown into a lake. And when they’d cooled, the shapes into which they’d frozen had just happened to favor topologies close to a certain ten-dimensional total space—one which gave rise to particles like quarks and electrons, and forces like gravity and electromagnetism.

By this logic, the only correct way to sum over all the topologies was to incorporate the fact that our universe had—by chance—emerged from pre-space in a certain way. Details of the broken symmetry had to be fed into the equations "by hand"—because there was no reason why they couldn’t have been utterly different. And if the physics resulting from this accident seemed improbably conducive to the formation of stars, planets, and life… then this universe was just one of a vast number which had frozen out of pre-space, each with a different set of particles and forces. If every possible set had been tried, it was hardly surprising that at least one of them had turned out to be favorable to life.

It was the old anthropic principle, the fudge which had saved a thousand cosmologies. And I had no real argument with it even if all the other universes were destined to be forever hypothetical.

But Violet Mosala’s methods seemed neither more nor less circular. Her opponents had to "fine tune" a few parameters in their equations, to take account of the particular universe "our" Big Bang had created. Mosala and her supporters merely described real experiments in the real world so thoroughly that they "showed the equations" the very same thing.

It seemed to me that both groups of physicists were confessing, however reluctantly, that they couldn’t quite explain how the universe was built… without mentioning the fact that they were there inside it, looking for the explanation.

Silence filled the cabin as we flew into darkness. Display screens blinked out, one by one, as passengers dozed off; everyone had had a long journey, wherever they’d started from. I watched the cloud banks behind us darken—a swift, violent sunset, metallic and bruised—then I switched to a route map as we headed northeast, just beyond sight of New Zealand. I thought of space probes on slingshot orbits to Venus via Jupiter. It was as if we’d had to take the long way round to build up enough velocity—as if Stateless was moving too fast to be approached any other way.

An hour later, the island finally appeared ahead of us, like a pale stranded starfish. Six arms sloped gently down from a central plateau; along their sides, gray rock gave way to banks of coral, which thinned from a mass of solid outcrops to a lacelike presence barely breaking the surface of the water. A faint blue bioluminescent glow outlined the convoluted borders of the reefs, enclosed by a succession of other hues—the color-coded depth lines of a living navigation chart. A small cloud of flashing orange fireflies was clustered in the nearest of the starfish’s armpits; whether they were boats anchored in the harbor, or something more exotic, I couldn’t tell.

Inland, a sprinkling of lights hinted at a city’s orderly grid. I felt a sudden rush of unease. Stateless was as beautiful as any atoll, as spectacular as any ocean liner… with none of the reassuring qualities of either. How could I trust this bizarre artifact not to crumble into the sea? I was accustomed to standing on solid rock a billion years old, or riding machines of a suitably modest human scale. In my own lifetime, this whole island had been nothing but a cloud of minerals adrift over half the Pacific—and from this vantage, it didn’t seem beyond belief that the ocean might surge in through a thousand invisible pores and channels to dissolve it all, reclaim it all, at any moment.

As we descended, though, the land spread out around us, streets and buildings came into view, and my insecurity faded. One million people had made this their home, staking their lives on its solidity. If it was humanly possible to keep this mirage afloat, then I had nothing to fear.

10

The plane emptied slowly. Passengers pressed forward, sleepy and irritable; many were clutching cushions and small blankets, looking like children up past their bedtime. It was only about nine p.m. here—and most people’s body clocks would have agreed—but we were all still dazed and cramped and weary. I looked around for Indrani Lee, but I couldn’t spot her in the crowd.

There was a security gate at the end of the umbilical, but no airport staff in sight, and no obvious device for interrogating my passport. Stateless placed no restrictions on immigration, let alone the entry of temporary visitors—but they did prohibit certain imports. Beside the gate was a multilingual sign which read:

FEEL FREE TO TRY TO BRING THROUGH WEAPONS. WE’LL FEEL FREE TO TRY TO DESTROY THEM.

STATELESS AIRPORT SYNDICATE

I hesitated. If my passport wasn’t read, and the seal of approval for my implants taken into account… what would this machine do to me? Incinerate a hundred thousand dollars' worth of hardware—and fry a large part of my digestive tract in the process?

I knew that was paranoid: I could hardly have been the first journalist to set foot on the island. And the message was probably aimed at visitors from certain privately owned South American islands—"libertarian havens" established by self-styled "political refugees" from the US gun law reforms of the twenties—some of whom had tried to bring Stateless around to their special way of thinking on a number of occasions.

Nevertheless, I stood back for several minutes, hoping that someone in uniform would appear to put my mind at ease. My insurance company had declined to offer me any kind of cover once I was on Stateless—and when my bank found out I’d been here, they wouldn’t be pleased; they still owned most of the chips in my gut. Legally, the risk wasn’t mine to take.

No one turned up. I walked through. The frame of the scanner was loose, and it shuddered slightly—my body pinning a tiny portion of the magnetic flux, dragging it forward, then releasing it to rebound like elastic—but no microwave pulses seared my abdomen, and no alarms went off.

The gate led into a modern airport, not much different from many I’d seen in small European cities, with clean-lined architecture, and movable seating which groups of people had arranged in inward-facing rings. There were only three airline counters, and they all displayed much smaller versions of their logos than usual, as if not wishing to attract too much attention. Booking passage here, I’d found no flights advertised openly on the net; I’d had to post a specific query in order to obtain any information. The European Federation, India, and several African and Latin American countries only enforced the minimal boycott of selected high technology which the UN demanded; these airlines were operating entirely within the laws of their home nations. Still, irritating the Japanese, Korean, Chinese and US governments— not to mention the biotech multinationals—would always carry a risk. Committing the offense discreetly wouldn’t conceal anything, but no doubt it acted as a gesture of obeisance, and lessened the perceived need for examples to be made of the collaborators.

I collected my suitcase and stood by the baggage roundabout, trying to get my bearings. I watched my fellow passengers drift away, some greeted by friends, some going on alone. Most spoke in English or French; there was no official language here, but almost two-thirds of the population had migrated from other Pacific islands. Choosing to live on Stateless might always be a political decision in the end—and some Greenhouse refugees apparently preferred to spend years in Chinese detention camps instead, in the hope of eventually being accepted into that entrepreneurial dreamland—but after seeing your home washed into the ocean, I could imagine that a self-repairing (and currently increasing) landmass might hold a special attraction. Stateless represented a reversal of fortune: sunlight and biotechnology playing the whole disaster movie backward. Better than raging at the storm. Fiji and Samoa were finally growing new islands of their own, but they weren’t yet habitable—and both governments were paying several billion dollars for the privilege, in license fees and consultants' charges. They’d carry the debt into the twenty-second century.

In theory, a patent lasted only seventeen years—but biotech companies had perfected the strategy of re-applying for the same coverage from a different angle when the expiration date loomed: first for the DNA sequence of a gene, and all its applications… then for the corresponding amino acid sequence… then for the shape and functionality (irrespective of precise chemical makeup) of the fully assembled protein. I couldn’t bring myself to simply shrug off the theft of knowledge as a victimless crime—I’d always been swayed by the argument that no one would waste money on R&D if engineered lifeforms couldn’t be patented—but there was something insane about the fact that the most powerful tools against famine, the most powerful tools against environmental damage, the most powerful tools against poverty… were all priced beyond the reach of everyone who needed them the most.

As I began to cross toward the exit, I saw Janet Walsh heading in the same direction, and I hung back. She was walking with a group of half a dozen men and women—but one man walked a few meters outside the entourage, with a practiced smooth gait and a steady gaze directed straight at Walsh. I recognized the technique at once, and the practitioner a moment later: David Connolly, a photographer with Planet Noise. Walsh needed a second pair of eyes, of course—she would hardly have let them put all that nasty dehumanizing technology inside her own body… and, worse, her own POV would have left her out of every shot. Not much point employing a celebrity journalist if she wasn’t onscreen.

I followed at a discreet distance. A group of forty or fifty supporters were standing outside in the warm night air, holding up luminescent banners—more telegenic in the relative darkness than they would have been inside—which switched in synch between HUMBLE SCIENCE!, WELCOME JANET! and SAY NO TO TOE! They cheered in unison as Walsh came through the doors. She broke away from her halo of companions to shake hands and receive kisses; Connolly stood back to capture it all.

Walsh made a short speech, wisps of gray hair blowing in the breeze. I couldn’t fault her skills with camera or crowd: she had the knack of appearing dignified and authoritative, without seeming stern or aloof. And I had to admire her stamina: she displayed more energy after the long flight than I could have summoned if my life had been in danger.

"I want to thank all of you for coming here to greet me; I really am touched by your generosity. And I want to thank you for undertaking the long, arduous journey to this island, to lend your voices to our small song of protest against the forces of scientific arrogance. There are people gathering here who believe they can crush every last source of human dignity, every last wellspring of spiritual nourishment, every last precious, sustaining mystery, under the weight of their intellectual progress'—grind us all down into one equation, and write it on a T-shirt like a cheap slogan. People who believe they can take all the wonders of nature and the secrets of the heart and say: 'This is it. This is all there is. Well, we’re here to tell them—"

The small crowd roared, "NO!"

Beside me, someone laughed quietly. "But if they can’t take away your precious dignity, Janet, why make such a fuss?"

I turned. The speaker was a… twentyish? asex? Ve tipped vis head and smiled, teeth flashing white against deep black skin, eyes as dark as Gina’s, high cheekbones which had to be a woman’s—except, of course, they didn’t. Ve was dressed in black jeans and a loose black T-shirt; points of light appeared on the fabric sparsely, at random, as if it was meant to be displaying some kind of image, but the data feed had been cut.

Ve said, "What a windbag. You know she used to work for D-R-D? You’d think she’d have snappier rhetoric, with credentials like that." Cre-den-tials was pronounced with an ironic (Jamaican?) drawl; D-R-D was Dayton-Rice-Daley, the Anglophone world’s largest advertising firm. "You’re Andrew Worth."

"Yes. How—?"

"Come to film Violet Mosala."

"That’s right. Do you… work with her?" Ve looked almost too young even to be a doctoral student—but then, Mosala had completed her own PhD at twenty.

Ve shook vis head. "I’ve never met her."

I still couldn’t pin down vis accent, unless the word I was looking for was mid-Atlantic: halfway between Kingston and Luanda. I put down my suitcase and held out a hand. Ve shook it firmly. "I’m Akili Kuwale."

"Here for the Einstein Conference?"

"Why else?"

I shrugged. "There must be other things happening on Stateless." Ve didn’t reply.

Walsh had moved on, and her cheer squad were dispersing. I glanced down at my notepad and said, "Transport map."

Kuwale said, "The hotel’s only two kilometers away. Unless that suitcase is heavier than it looks… it would be just as easy to walk, wouldn’t it?"

Ve had no luggage, no backpack, nothing; ve must have arrived earlier, and returned to the airport… to meet me? I had a serious need to be horizontal, and I couldn’t imagine what ve wanted to tell me that couldn’t wait until morning—and couldn’t be said on a tram—but that was probably all the more reason to hear it.

I said, "Good idea. I could use some fresh air."

Kuwale seemed to know where ve was going, so I put my notepad away and followed along. It was a warm, humid night, but there was a steady breeze which took the edge off the oppressiveness. Stateless was no closer to the tropics than Sydney; overall, it was probably cooler.

The layout of the center of the island reminded me of Sturt, an inland South Australian neopolis built at about the time Stateless was seeded. There were broad, paved streets and low buildings, most of them small blocks of apartments above shopfronts, six storeys high at the most. Everything in sight was made from reef-rock: a form of limestone, strengthened and sealed by organic polymers, which was "farmed" from the self-replenishing quarries of the inner reefs. None of the buildings was bleached-coral white, though; trace minerals produced all the colors of marble: rich grays, greens and browns, and more rarely dark crimson, shading to black.

The people around us seemed relaxed and unhurried, as if they were all out for leisurely strolls with no particular destination in mind. I saw no cycles at all, but there’d have to be a few on the island; tram lines stretched less than halfway to the points of the star, fifty kilometers from the center.

Kuwale said, "Sarah Knight was a great admirer of Violet Mosala. I think she would have done a good job. Careful. Thorough." That threw me. "You know Sarah?" "We’ve been in touch." I laughed wearily. "What is this? Sarah Knight is a big fan of Mosala… and I’m not. So what? I’m not some Ignorance Cult member here to do a hatchet job; I’ll still treat her fairly."

"That’s not the issue."

"It’s the only issue I’m willing to discuss with you. Why do you imagine it’s any of your business how this documentary’s made?"

Kuwale said calmly, "I don’t. The documentary’s not important."

"Right. Thanks."

"No offense. But it’s not what I’m talking about."

We walked on a few meters, in silence. I waited to see if keeping my mouth shut and feigning indifference would prompt a sudden revelatory outburst. It didn’t.

I said, "So… what exactly are you doing here? Are you a journalist, a physicist… or what? A sociologist?" I’d almost said: A cultist—but even a member of a rival group like Mystical Renaissance or Culture First would never have mocked the deep wisdom of Janet Walsh.

"I’m an interested observer."

"Yeah? That explains everything."

Ve grinned appreciatively, as if I’d made a joke. I could see the curved facade of the hotel in the distance, straight ahead now; I recognized it from the conference organizers' AV.

Kuwale became serious. "You’ll be with Violet Mosala… a lot, over the next two weeks. Maybe more than any other person. We’ve tried to get messages through to her, but you know she doesn’t take us seriously. So… would you at least be willing to keep your eyes open?"

"For what?"

Ve frowned, then looked around nervously. "Do I have to spell it out? I’m AC. Mainstream AC. We don’t want to see her hurt. And I don’t know how sympathetic you are, or how far you’re prepared to go to help us, but all you’d have to do is—"

I held up a hand to stop ver. "What are you talking about? You don’t want to see her hurt?"

Kuwale looked dismayed, then suddenly wary. I said, "Mainstream AC? Is that supposed to mean something to me?" Ve didn’t reply. "And if Violet Mosala doesn’t take you seriously, why should anyone else?"

Kuwale was clearly having grave second thoughts about me. I still wanted to know what the first ones had been. Ve said derisively, "Sarah Knight never agreed to anything—not in so many words—but at least she understood what was going on. What kind of journalist are you? Do you ever go looking for information? Or do you just grab an electronic teat and see what comes out when you suck?"

Ve broke away, and headed down a side street. I called out, "I’m not a mind-reader! Why don’t you tell me what’s going on?"

I stood and watched ver disappear into the crowd. I could have followed, demanding answers, but I was already beginning to suspect that I could guess the truth. Kuwale was a fan of Mosala’s, affronted by the planeloads of cultists who’d come to mock vis idol. And though it wasn’t, literally, impossible that an even more disturbed member of Humble Science! or Mystical Renaissance meant Violet Mosala harm… most likely it was all just Kuwale’s elaborate fantasy.

I’d call Sarah Knight in the morning; she’d probably had a dozen weird messages from Kuwale, and finally fobbed ver off by replying: Its not even my job anymore. Go pick on the arsehole who stole it from me, Andrew Worth. Here’s a recent picture. I could hardly blame her; it was a small enough act of revenge.

I continued on toward the hotel. I was dead on my feet, sleepwalking.

I asked Sisyphus, "So what does AC stand for?"

"In what context?"

"Any context. Besides alternating current."

There was a long pause. I glanced up at the sky, and spotted the faint row of evenly spaced dots, drifting slowly eastward against the stars, which still bound me to the world I knew.

"There are five thousand and seventeen other meanings, including specialist jargon, subcultural slang, and registered businesses, charities, and political organizations."

"Then… anything which might fit the way it was used by Akili Kuwale a few minutes ago." My notepad kept twenty-four hours of audio in memory. I added, "Kuwale is probably asex."

Sisyphus digested the conversation, rescanned its list, and said, "The thirty most plausible meanings are: Absolute Control, a Fijian security consultancy who work throughout the South Pacific; Asex Catholique, a Paris-based group which advocates reform of the policies of the Roman Catholic Church toward asex gender migrants; Advanced Cartography, a South African satellite data reduction firm…" I listened to all thirty, then thirty more, but the connections were all so ludicrous as to amount to nothing but noise.

"So what’s the meaning which makes perfect sense—but isn’t listed in any respectable database? What’s the one answer I can’t get out of my favorite electronic teat?"

Sisyphus didn’t dignify that with a reply.

I nearly apologized, but I caught myself in time.

11

I woke at six-thirty, a few seconds before my alarm sounded. I caught fragments of a retreating dream: images of waves crashing against disintegrating coral and limestone—but if the mood had been threatening, it was rapidly dispelled. Sunlight filled the room, shining off the smooth silver-gray walls of polished reef-rock. There were people talking on the street below; I couldn’t make out any words, but the tone sounded relaxed, amiable, civilized. If this was anarchy, it beat waking up to police sirens in Shanghai or New York. I felt more refreshed and optimistic than I had for a very long time.

And I was finally going to meet my subject.

I’d received a message the night before, from Mosala’s assistant, Karin De Groot. Mosala was giving a media conference at eight; after that, she’d be busy for most of the day—starting at nine, when Henry Buzzo from Caltech was delivering a paper which he claimed would cast doubt on a whole class of ATMs. Between the media conference and Buzzo’s paper, though, I’d have a chance to discuss the documentary with her, at last. Although nothing had to be concluded on Stateless—I’d be able to interview her at length back in Cape Town, if necessary—I’d been beginning to wonder if I’d be forced to cover her time here as just another journalist in the pack.

I thought about breakfast, but after forcing myself to eat on the flight from Dili, my appetite still hadn’t returned. So I lay on the bed, reading through Mosala’s biographical notes one more time, and rechecking my tentative shooting schedule for the fortnight ahead. The room was functional, almost ascetic compared to most hotels… but it was clean, modern, bright, and inexpensive, I’d slept in less comfortable beds, in rooms with plusher but gloomier decor, at twice the cost.

It was all too good, by far. Peaceful surroundings and an untraumatic subject—what had I done to deserve this? I’d never even found out who Lydia had sent into the breach to make Distress. Who’d be spending the day in a psychiatric hospital in Miami or Berne, while tranquilizers were withdrawn from one strait-jacketed victim after another, to test the effects of some non-sedative drug on the syndrome, or to obtain scans of the neuropathology unsullied by pharmacological effects?

I brushed the image away, angrily. Distress wasn’t my responsibility; I hadn’t created the disease. And I hadn’t forced anyone to take my place.

Before leaving for the media conference, I reluctantly called Sarah Knight. My curiosity about Kuwale had all but faded—it was sure to be a sad story, with no surprises—and the prospect of facing Sarah for the first time since I’d robbed her of Violet Mosala wasn’t appealing.

I didn’t have to. It was only ten to six in Sydney, and a generic answering system took my call. Relieved, I left a brief message, then headed downstairs.

The main auditorium was packed, buzzing with expectant chatter. I’d had visions of hundreds of protesters from Humble Science! picketing the hotel entrance, or brawling with security guards and physicists in the corridors, but there wasn’t a demonstrator in sight. Standing in the entrance, it took me a while to pick out Janet Walsh in the audience, but once I’d spotted her it was easy to triangulate to Connolly in a forward row—perfectly placed to turn from Walsh to Mosala with a minimum of neck strain.

I took a seat near the back of the room, and invoked Witness. Electronic cameras on the stage would capture the audience, and I could buy the footage from the conference organizers if there was anything worth using.

Marian Fox, president of the International Union of Theoretical Physicists, took the stage and introduced Mosala. She uttered all the words of praise that anyone would have used in her place: respected, inspirational, dedicated, exceptional. I had no doubt that she was perfectly sincere… but the language of achievement always seemed to me to crumble into self-parody. How many people on the planet could be exceptional? How many could be unique? I had no wish to see Violet Mosala portrayed as no different from the most mediocre of her colleagues… but all the laudatory clichés conveyed nothing. They just rendered themselves meaningless.

Mosala walked to the podium, trying to look graceful under hyperbole; a section of the audience applauded wildly, and several people rose to their feet. I made a mental note to ask Indrani Lee for her thoughts as to when and why these strange adulatory rituals—observed almost universally with actors and musicians—had begun to be followed for a handful of celebrity scientists. I suspected it was all down to the Ignorance Cults; they’d struggled so hard to raise popular interest in their cause that it would have been surprising if they hadn’t ended up generating some equally vehement opposing passions. And there were plenty of social strata where the cults were pure establishment, and there could be no greater act of rebellion than idolizing a physicist.

Mosala waited for the noise to die down. "Thank you, Marian. And thank you all for attending this session. I should just briefly explain what I’m doing here. I’ll be on a number of panels taking questions on technical matters, throughout the conference. And, of course, I’ll be happy to discuss the issues raised by the paper I’m giving on the eighteenth, after I’ve presented it. But time is always short on those occasions, and we like to keep the questions tightly focused—which, I know, often frustrates journalists who’d like to cover a broader range of topics.

"So, the organizing committee have persuaded a number of speakers to hold media sessions where those restrictions won’t apply. This morning it’s my turn. So if you have anything you’d like to ask me which you’re afraid might be ruled out as irrelevant at later sessions… this is your chance."

Mosala came across as relaxed and unassuming; she’d been visibly nervous in the footage I’d seen of earlier appearances—the Nobel ceremony, especially—but if she wasn’t yet a seasoned veteran, she was definitely more at ease. She had a deep, vibrant voice—which might have been electrifying if she ever took to making speeches—but her tone was conversational, not oratorial. All of which boded well for Violet Mosala. The awkward truth was, some people just didn’t belong on a living room screen for most of fifty minutes. They didn’t fit—and they emerged distorted, like a sound too loud or too soft to record. Mosala, I was sure now, would survive the limitations of the medium. So long as I didn’t screw up completely, myself.

The first few questions came from the science correspondents of the non-specialist news services… who diligently resurrected all the old non sequiturs: Will a Theory of Everything mean an end to science? Will a TOE render the future totally predictable? Will a TOE unlock all the unsolved problems of physics and chemistry, biology and medicine… ethics and religion?

Mosala dealt with all of this patiently and concisely. "A Theory of Everything is just the simplest mathematical formulation we can find which encapsulates all the underlying order in the universe. Over time, if a candidate TOE survives sustained theoretical scrutiny and experimental testing, we should gradually become confident that it represents a kind of kernel of understanding… from which—in principle, in the most idealized sense—everything around us could be explained.

"But that won’t make anything totally predictable. The universe is full of systems which we understand completely—systems as simple as two planets orbiting a star—where the mathematics is chaotic, or intractable, and long term predictions will always be impossible to compute.

"And it doesn’t mean an end to science. Science is much more than the search for a TOE; it’s the elucidation of the relationships between order in the universe at every level. Reaching the foundations doesn’t mean hitting the ceiling. There are dozens of problems in fluid dynamics—let alone neurobiology—which need new approaches, or better approximations, not the ultimate, precise description of matter on a subatomic scale."

I pictured Gina at her workstation. And I pictured her in her new home, recounting all her problems and small triumphs to her new lover. I felt unsteady for a moment, but it passed.

"Lowell Parker, Atlantica. Professor Mosala, you say a TOE is the simplest mathematical formulation of the underlying order in the universe. But aren’t all these concepts culturally determined? Simplicity? Order? Even the range of formulations available to contemporary mathematics?" Parker was an earnest young man with a Boston accent; Atlantica was a highculture netzine, produced mainly by part-time academics from east coast universities.

Mosala replied, "Certainly. And the equations we choose to call a TOE won’t be unique. They’ll be like… say, Maxwell’s Equations for electromagnetism. There are half a dozen equally valid ways Maxwell’s Equations can be written—constants can be shuffled around, different variables used… they can even be expressed in either three or four dimensions. Physicists and engineers still can’t agree as to which formulation is the simplest—because that really depends on what you want to use them for: designing a radar antenna, calculating the behavior of the solar wind, or describing the history of the unification of electrostatics and magnetism. But they all give identical results in any particular calculation—because they all describe the same thing: electromagnetism itself."

Parker said, "That’s often been said about the world’s religions, hasn’t it? They all express the same basic, universal truths—merely in a different manner, to suit different times and places. Would you concede that what you’re doing is essentially just a part of the same tradition?"

"No. I don’t believe that’s true."

"But you’ve admitted that cultural factors will determine the TOE we accept. So how can you claim that what you’re doing is any more objective than religion?"

Mosala hesitated, then said carefully, "Suppose every human being was wiped off the face of the planet tomorrow, and we waited a few million years for the next species with a set of religious and scientific cultures to arise. What do you think the new religions would have in common with the old ones—the ones from our time? I suspect the only common ground would be certain ethical principles which could be traced to shared biological influences: sexual reproduction, child rearing, the advantages of altruism, the awareness of death. And if the biology was very different, there might be no overlap at all.

"But if we waited for the new scientific culture to come up with their idea of a TOE, then I believe that—however different it looked 'on paper'—it would be something which either culture would be able to show was mathematically equivalent in every respect to our TOE… just as any physics undergraduate can prove that all the forms of Maxwell’s Equations describe exactly the same thing.

"That’s the difference. Scientists may start off disagreeing wildly—but they converge on a consensus, regardless of their culture. There are physicists at this conference from over a hundred different countries. Their ancestors three thousand years ago might have had twenty or thirty mutually contradictory explanations between them for any phenomenon you care to think of in the natural world. And yet there are only three conflicting candidate TOEs being presented here. And in twenty years' time, if not sooner, I’d bet there’ll only be one."

Parker appeared dissatisfied with this reply, but he took his seat.

"Lisbeth Weller, GninWeisheit. It seems to me that your whole approach to these issues reflects a male, Western, reductionist, left-brained mode of thought." Weller was a tall, sober-looking woman, who sounded genuinely saddened and perplexed. "How can you possibly reconcile this with your struggle as an African woman against cultural imperialism?"

Mosala said evenly, "I have no interest in surrendering the most powerful intellectual tools I possess, because of some quaint misconception that they’re the property of any particular group of people: male, Western, or otherwise. As I said, the history of science is one of convergence toward a shared understanding of the universe—and I’m not willing to be excluded from that convergence for any reason. And as for left-brained modes of thought, I’m afraid that’s a rather dated—and reductionist—concept. Personally, I use the whole organ."

There was loud applause from the fans, but it sounded plaintive as it died out. The atmosphere in the room was changing: becoming strained, polarized. Weller, I knew, was a proud member of Mystical Renaissance—and although most journalists here would have no cult affiliation, the minority with strong anti-science sentiments could still make their presence felt.

"William Savimbi, Proteus Information. You speak approvingly of a convergence of ideas which has no respect for ancestral cultures—as if your own heritage were of no importance to you at all. Is it true that you received death threats from the Pan-African Cultural Defense Front, after you publicly stated that you didn’t consider yourself to be an African woman?" Proteus was the South African branch of a large Canadian family company; Savimbi was a solid, gray-haired man, who spoke with casual familiarity, as if he’d been covering Mosala for some time.

Mosala struggled visibly to contain her anger. She reached into a pocket and took out her notepad, and began typing on the keyboard.

Without pausing, she said, "Mr. Savimbi, if you find the technology of your profession too daunting, perhaps you should look for something less challenging. This is the quote, from the original Reuters story, filed in Stockholm on December 10th, 2053. And it’s only taken me fifteen seconds to find it,"

She held up the notepad, and her recorded voice said: "I don’t wake up every morning and say to myself: I’m an African woman, how should this be reflected in my work? I don’t think that way at all. I wonder if anyone asked Dr. Wozniak how being European influenced his approach to polymer synthesis."

There was more applause—from more of the audience, this time—but I sensed a growing predatory undercurrent. Mosala was becoming visibly agitated, and however sympathetic the pack were—in principle—I had no doubt that they’d be overjoyed if she was provoked into losing control.

"Janet Walsh, Planet News. Ms. Mosala, perhaps you could clarify something for me. This Theory of Everything you keep talking about, which is going to sum up the final truth about the universe… it sounds absolutely wonderful to me, but I would like to hear exactly what it’s based on."

Mosala must have known who Walsh was, but she betrayed no sign of hostility. She said, "Every TOE is an attempt to find a deeper explanation for what’s called the Standard Unified Field Theory. That was completed in the late twenties—and it’s survived all experimental tests, so far. Strictly speaking, the SUFT is already a Theory of Everything: it does give a unified account of all the forces of nature. But its a very messy, arbitrary theory—based on a ten-dimensional universe with a lot of strange quirks which are difficult to take at face value. Most of us believe that there’s a simpler explanation underlying it, just waiting to be found."

Walsh said, "But this SUFT you’re trying to supplant—what was that based on?"

"A number of earlier theories which each, separately, accounted for one or two of the four basic forces. But if you want to know where those earlier theories came from, I’d have to recount five thousand years of scientific history. The short answer is, ultimately, a TOE will be based on observations of every aspect of the world, and the search for patterns in those observations."

"That’s it?" Walsh mimed happy disbelief. "Then we’re all scientists, aren’t we? We all use our senses, we all make observations. And we all see patterns. I see patterns in the clouds above my home, every time I walk out into the garden." She smiled a modest, self-deprecating smile.

Mosala said, "That’s a start. But there are two powerful steps beyond that kind of observation, which have made all the difference. Carrying out deliberate, controlled experiments, instead of only watching nature as it unfolds. And carrying out quantitative observations: making measurements, and trying to find patterns in the numbers."

"Eike numerology?"

Mosala shook her head, and said patiently, "Not any pattern, for the sake of it. You have to have a clear hypothesis to start with, and you have to know how to test it."

"You mean… use all the right statistical methods, and so on?"

"Exactly."

"But given the right statistical methods… you think the whole truth about the universe is spelled out in the patterns you can find by peering at an endless list of numbers?"

Mosala hesitated, probably wondering if the tortuous process of explaining anything more subtle would be worse than accepting that characterization other life’s work.

"More or less."

"Everything’s in the numbers? The numbers never lie?"

Mosala lost all patience. "No, they don’t."

Walsh said, "That’s very interesting. Because a few months ago, I came across a preposterous—very offensive!—idea that was being spread on some of the far-right-wing European networks. I thought it deserved to be properly—scientifically!—refuted. So I bought a little statistical package, and I asked it to test the hypothesis that a certain portion—a certain quota—of the Nobel Prizes since the year 2010 have been explicitly reserved on political grounds for the citizens of African nations." There was a moment of stunned silence, then a wave of outraged exclamations spread across the room. Walsh held up her notepad and continued, raising her voice over the outcry, "And the answer was, there was a ninety-five percent chance—" Half a dozen people in the fan club rows sprang to their feet and started shouting at her; the two men on either side of me began hissing. Walsh pressed on, with an expression of bemusement, as if she couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. "The answer was, there was a ninety-five percent chance that it was true."

A dozen more people stood up to abuse her. Four journalists stormed out of the auditorium. Walsh remained on her feet, waiting for a response, smiling innocently. I saw Marian Fox move tentatively toward the podium; Mosala gestured to her to stay back.

Mosala began typing on her notepad. The shouting and hissing gradually subsided, and then everyone but Walsh took their seats again.

The silence can’t have lasted more than ten seconds, but it was long enough for me to realize that my heart was pounding. I wanted to punch someone. Walsh was no racist, but she was an expert manipulator. She’d slipped a barb under everyone’s skin; if she’d had two hundred screaming, placard-waving followers at the back of the auditorium, she couldn’t have raised stronger passions.

Mosala looked up and smiled sweetly.

She said, "The African scientific renaissance has been examined in detail, in over thirty papers in the last ten years. I’d be happy to give you the references, if you can’t track them down yourself. You’ll find there are several more sophisticated hypotheses for explaining the sharp rise in the number of articles published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, the rates of citation of those articles, the number of patents awarded—and the number of Nobel Prizes for physics and chemistry.

"When it comes to your own field, though, I’m afraid you’re on your own. I can’t find a single study which offers any alternative explanation to the ninety-nine percent likelihood that, since its inception, a quota of Booker Prizes have been set aside for a clearly delineated, intellectually challenged minority: hacks who should have stayed in advertizing."

The auditorium exploded with laughter. Walsh remained standing for a few seconds, then took her seat with remarkable dignity: unrepentant, unashamed, unfazed. I wondered if all she’d wanted was for Mosala to hit back on the same level. There was no question that Planet Noise would find a way to twist the exchange into a victory for Walsh: SCIENCE PRODIGY, CONFRONTED WITH THE FACTS, INSULTS RESPECTED AUTHOR. But most of the media would report that Mosala had responded with great restraint to deliberate provocation.

There were a few more questions—all of them innocuous and mildly technical—then the session was declared at an end. I walked around to the back of the stage, where Karin De Groot was waiting for me.

De Groot was unmistakably ifem—a look which was not at all "halfway toward" androgynous; it was far more distinctive than that. While ufems and umales exaggerated well-established facial gender cues, and asexes eliminated them, the first ifems and imales had modeled the human visual system and found completely new clusters of parameters which would set them apart at a glance—without rendering them all homogeneous.

She shook my hand then led me toward one of the hotel’s small meeting rooms. She said quietly, "Go easy on her, will you? That wasn’t pleasant back there."

"I can’t imagine anyone handling it better."

"Violet’s not someone I’d want as an enemy; she never hits back without thinking it through. But that doesn’t mean she’s made of stone."

The room had a table and seating for twelve, but only Mosala was waiting there. I’d been half expecting a private security guard—but then, the fan club notwithstanding, she wasn’t quite in the rock star league. And Kuwale’s dire intimations notwithstanding, there was probably no need.

Mosala greeted me warmly. "I’m sorry we couldn’t do this earlier, but I’m afraid I hadn’t set aside any time for it. After all those meetings with Sarah Knight, I’d assumed the whole planning stage was over."

All those meetings with Sarah Knight? Pre-production should never have gone that far without SeeNet’s approval.

I said, "I’m sorry to put you through it again. There’s always some unavoidable duplication when a new director takes over a project."

Mosala nodded, distracted. We sat and went through the whole conference timetable together, comparing notes. Mosala asked not to be filmed at more than fifty percent of the sessions she attended. "I’d go mad if you were watching me all the time, catching me out whenever I pulled a face at something I disagreed with." I agreed, but then we haggled over the particular fifty percent—I definitely wanted reaction shots for all the talks where her work would be explicitly discussed.

We decided on three interview sessions, two hours each, the first on Wednesday afternoon.

Mosala said, "I still have some trouble understanding what your aim is with this program. If the subject is TOEs… why not just cover the whole conference, instead of putting the spotlight on me?"

"Audiences find the theories more accessible if they come packaged as something which a particular person has done." I shrugged. "Or so the network executives have convinced themselves—and probably convinced the audiences as well, by now." SeeNet stood for Science, Education and Entertainment Network, but the S-word was often treated as a source of embarrassment incapable of being intrinsically interesting, and requiring the maximum possible sugar-coating. "With a profile we can touch on some broader issues, though, in terms of the way they affect your day-to-day life. The Ignorance Cults, for example."

Mosala said drily, "You don’t think they get enough publicity already?"

"Yes—but most of it’s on their own terms. The profile could be a chance for people to see them through your eyes."

She laughed. "You want me to tell your audience what I think of the cults? You won’t have time for anything else, if I get started."

"You could stick to the big three."

Mosala hesitated. De Groot flashed me a warning look, but I ignored it. I said, "Culture First?"

"Culture First is the most pathetic. It’s the last refuge for people desperate to think of themselves as 'intellectuals'—while remaining complete scientific illiterates. Most of them are just nostalgic for the era when a third of the planet was controlled by people whose definition of a civilized education was Latin, European military history, and the selected doggerel of a few overgrown British schoolboys."

I grinned. "Mystical Renaissance?"

Mosala smiled ironically. "They start from such good intentions, don’t they? They say most people are blind to the world around them: sleepwalkers in a zombie’s routine of mundane work and mind-numbing entertainment. I couldn’t agree more. They say they want everyone on the planet to become attuned to the universe we’re living in, and to share the awe they feel when they confront the deep strangeness of it all: the dizzying length and time scales of cosmology, the endlessly rich complexities of the biosphere, the bizarre paradoxes of quantum mechanics.

"Well… all of those things inspire awe in me, too—some of the time—but Mystical Renaissance treats that response as an end in itself. And they want science to pull back from investigating anything which gives them a high in its pristine, unexplained state—in case they don’t get the same rush from it, once it’s better understood. Ultimately, they’re not interested in the universe at all—any more than people who romanticize the life of animals into a cartoon world where no blood is spilled… or people who deny the existence of ecological damage, because they don’t want to change the way they live. Followers of Mystical Renaissance only want the truth if it suits them, if it induces the right emotions. If they were honest, they’d just stick a hot wire in their brain at whatever location made them believe they were undergoing a constant mystical epiphany—because in the end, that’s all they’re after."

This was priceless; no one of Mosala’s stature had ever really let fly against the cults like this. Not on the public record. "Humble Science!?"

Mosala’s eyes flashed with anger. "They’re the worst, by far. The most patronizing, the most cynical. Janet Walsh is just a tactician and a figurehead; most of the real leaders are far better educated. And in their collective wisdom, they’ve decided that the fragile blossom of human culture just can’t survive any more revelations about what human beings really are, or how the universe actually functions.

"If they spoke out against the abuse of biotechnology, I’d back them all the way. If they spoke out against weapons research, I’d do the same. If they stood for some coherent system of values which made the most pitiless scientific truths less alienating to ordinary people… without denying those truths… I’d have no quarrel with them at all.

"But when they decide that all knowledge—beyond a border which is theirs to define—is anathema to civilization and sanity, and that it’s up to some self-appointed cultural elite to generate a set of hand-made life-affirming myths to take its place… to imbue human existence with some suitably uplifting—and politically expedient—meaning… they become nothing but the worst kind of censors and social engineers."

I suddenly noticed that Mosala’s slender arms, spread out on the table in front of her, were trembling; she was far angrier than I’d realized. I said, "It’s almost nine, but we could take this up again after Buzzo’s lecture, if you have time?"

De Groot touched her elbow. They leaned toward each other, and conversed sotto voce, at length.

Mosala said, "We have an interview scheduled for Wednesday, don’t we? I’m sorry, but I can’t spare any time before then,"

"Of course, that’s fine."

"And those comments I just made are all off the record. They’re not to be used."

My heart sank. "Are you serious?"

"This was supposed to be a meeting to discuss your filming schedule. Nothing I said here was intended to be made public."

I pleaded, "I’ll put it all in context: Janet Walsh went out of her way to insult you—and at the media conference you kept your cool, you were restrained—but afterward, you expressed your opinions in detail. What’s wrong with that? Or do you want Humble Science! to start censoring you!"

Mosala closed her eyes for a moment then said carefully, "Those are my opinions, yes, and I’m entitled to them. I’m also entitled to decide who hears them and who doesn’t. I don’t want to inflame this whole ugly mess any further. So would you please respect my wishes and tell me that you won’t use any of it?"

"We don’t have to sort this out immediately. I can send you a rough cut—"

Mosala gestured dismissively. "I signed an agreement with Sarah Knight, saying I could veto anything, on the spot, with no questions asked."

"If you did, that was with her, personally, not with SeeNet. All SeeNet have from you is a standard clearance."

Mosala did not look happy. "You know what I’ve been meaning to ask you? Sarah said you’d explain why you had to take over the project at such short notice. After all the work she put into it, all she left was a ten-second message saying: I’m off the profile, Andrew Worth is the new director, he’ll tell you the reason why."

I said carefully, "Sarah may have given you the wrong impression. SeeNet had never officially chosen her to make the documentary. And it was SeeNet who approached you and set things up initially—not Sarah. It was never a freelance project she was developing independently, to offer to them. It was a SeeNet project which she wanted to direct, so she sank a lot of her own time into trying to make that happen."

De Groot said, "But why didn’t it happen? All that research, all that preparation, all that enthusiasm… why didn’t it pay off?"

What could I say? That I’d stolen the project from the one person who truly deserved it… so I could have a fully paid South Pacific holiday, away from the stresses of serious frankenscience?

I said, "Network executives are in a world of their own. If I could understand how they made their decisions, I’d probably be up there with them myself."

De Groot and Mosala regarded me with silent disbelief.

12

TechnoLalia, SeeNet’s major rival, insisted on labeling Henry Buzzo "the revered guru of trans-millennial physics"—and frequently implied that he should retire as soon as possible, leaving the field open to younger colleagues who rated more dynamic clichés: wunderkinder und enfants terrible "surfing pre-space’s infinite-dimensional nouvelle vague." (Lydia dismissed TL as a guccione, "all hip and no brain." I couldn’t argue with that, but I often feared that SeeNet was heading for a similar fate.) Buzzo had shared the Nobel back in 2036, with the seven other architects of the Standard Unified Field Theory—but he, too, was now trying to demolish, or at least supersede, it. I was reminded of two early-twentieth-century physicists: J. J. Thomson, who’d established the existence of electrons as distinct particles, and George Thomson, his son, who’d shown that they could also behave like waves. It was an enlargement of vision, not a contradiction—and no doubt Buzzo was hoping to perform a similar feat in a single generation.

Buzzo was a tall, bald, heavily wrinkled man, eighty-three years old but showing no signs of frailty. He was a lively speaker, and he seemed to strike sparks off the audience of ATM specialists… but even his arcane jokes, which left them in stitches, went over my head. His introduction contained plenty of familiar phrases, and plenty of equations which I’d seen before—but once he started doing things with those equations, I was completely out of my depth. Every now and then he’d display graphics: knotted gray-white tubes, with green-gridded surfaces and bright red geodesic lines snaking across them. Triplets of mutually perpendicular arrowed vectors would blossom from a point, then move around a loop or a knot, tipping and twisting along the way. No sooner would I start to feel that I was making sense of these diagrams, though, than Buzzo would wave a hand at the screen dismissively and say something like: "I can’t show you the most crucial aspect—what’s happening in the bundle of linear frames—but I’m sure you can all picture it: just imagine embedding this surface in twelve dimensions…"

I sat two (empty) seats to the left of Violet Mosala, but I hardly dared glance her way. When I did, she kept her eyes on Buzzo, but her expression became stony. I couldn’t imagine what means she suspected I’d employed to win the contract for the documentary. (Bribery? Extortion? Sex? If only SeeNet could have been so divertingly Byzantine.) It didn’t really matter how I’d done it, though; the injustice of the end result was self-evident, regardless.

"So this path integral," said Buzzo, "gives us an invariant!" His latest crisp diagram of knotted tubes suddenly blurred into an amorphous gray-green haze—symbolizing the shift from a particular space-time to its generalization in pre-space—but the three vectors he’d sent to circumnavigate the simulated universe remained fixed. "Invariants" in an All-Topologies Model were physical quantities which could be shown to be independent of such things as the curvature of space-time in the region of interest, and even how many dimensions it possessed; finding invariants was the only way to make any kind of coherent physics emerge from the daunting indeterminacy of pre-space. I fixed my gaze on Buzzo’s steady vectors; I wasn’t entirely lost yet, after all.

"But that’s obvious. Now comes the tricky part: imagine extending the same operator to spaces where the Ricci curvature is nowhere-defined—"

Now I was lost.

I gave serious thought to calling Sarah again, and asking if she’d be willing to take back Violet Mosala. I could have handed her the footage I’d shot so far, smoothed out the administrative glitches with Lydia, and then crawled away somewhere to recover—from Gina’s departure, from Junk DNA—without having to pretend that I was doing anything but convalescing. I’d told myself that I couldn’t afford to stop working, even for a month… but that was a question of what I was used to, not a question of starvation—and without someone to share the rent, I was going to have to move house anyway. Distress would have kept me in leafy, tranquil Eastwood for a year or more—but whatever I did now, I was headed back to the outer sprawl.

I don’t know what stopped me from walking out of that incomprehensible lecture and away from Mosala’s justified distaste. Pride? Stubbornness? Inertia? Maybe it came down to the presence of the cults. Walsh’s tactics could only become uglier—but that only made it seem more of a betrayal to abandon the project. I’d given in to SeeNet’s demands for frankenscience in Junk DNA; this was a chance to atone, by showing the world someone who was standing up against the cults. And it wasn’t as if the rhetoric was about to give way to violence, Kuwale notwithstanding. This was arcane physics, not biotechnology, and even at the Zambian bioethics conference, where I’d last seen Walsh, it was God’s Image as usual—not Humble Science!—who’d pelted speakers with monkey embryos and doused unsympathetic journalists in human blood. No religious fundamentalists had bothered with the Einstein Centenary Conference; TOEs were either beyond their comprehension, or beneath their contempt.

Mosala said softly, "That’s nonsense."

I glanced at her warily. She was smiling. She turned to me, all hostilities momentarily forgotten, and whispered, "He’s wrong! He thinks he’s found a way to discard the isolated-point topologies; he’s cooked up an isomorphism which maps them all into a set of measure zero. But he’s using the wrong measure. In this context, he has to use Perrini’s, not Saupe’s! How could he have missed that?"

I had only the vaguest idea of what she was talking about. Isolated-point topologies were "spaces" where nothing actually touched anything else. A "measure" was a kind of generalization of length, like a higher-dimensional area or volume—only they included much wilder abstractions than that. When you summed something over all the topologies, you multiplied each contribution to the infinite sum by a "measure" of "how big" the topology was… a bit like weighting the worldwide average of some statistic according to the population of each country or according to its land area, or its Gross Domestic Product, or some other measure of its relative significance.

Buzzo believed he’d found a way of tackling the calculation of any real physical quantity which made the effective contribution of all the universes of isolated points equal to zero.

Mosala believed he was mistaken.

I said, "So, you’ll confront him when he’s finished?"

She turned back to the proceedings, smiling to herself. "Let’s wait and see. I don’t want to embarrass him. And someone else is sure to spot the error."

Question time arrived. I strained my limited grasp of the subject, trying to decide if any of the issues raised were Mosala’s in disguise—but I thought not. When the session ended and she still hadn’t spoken, I asked point blank: "Why didn’t you tell him?"

She became irritated. "I could be mistaken. I’ll have to give it more thought. It’s not a trivial question; he may have had a good reason for the choice he made."

I said, "This was a prelude to his paper on Sunday week, wasn’t it? Clearing the ground for his masterpiece?" Buzzo, Mosala and Yasuko Nishide were scheduled to present their rival TOEs—in strict alphabetical order—on the last day of the conference.

"That’s right."

"So… if he’s wrong about the choice of measure, he could end up falling flat on his face?"

Mosala gave me a long, hard look. I wondered if I’d finally managed to push the decision out of my hands: if she’d withdraw her cooperation entirely, leaving me with no subject to film, no reason to remain.

She said coldly, "I have enough trouble deciding when my own techniques are valid; I don’t have time to be an expert on everyone else’s work as well." She glanced at her notepad. "I believe that’s all the filming we agreed on for today. So if you’ll excuse me, I’m meeting someone for lunch."

I saw Mosala heading for one of the hotel restaurants, so I turned the other way and walked out of the building. The midday sky was dazzling; in the shadows of awnings the buildings retained their subtle hues, but in the glare of full sunlight they took on an appearance reminiscent of the oldest quarters of some North African cities, all white stone against blue sky. There was an ocean-scented breeze from the east, warm but not unpleasant.

I walked down side streets at random, until I came to an open square. In the middle there was a small circular park, some twenty meters wide, covered with luxuriant grass—wild and unmown—and dotted with small palms. It was the first vegetation I’d seen on Stateless, except for potted plants in the hotel. Soil was a luxury here; all the necessary minerals could be found in the ocean, in trace amounts, but trying to provide the island with enough topsoil for agriculture would have meant trawling several thousand times the area of water required for the algae-and-plankton-based food chain which met all the same needs.

I gazed at this modest patch of greenery, and the longer I stared, the more the sight of it unnerved me. It took me a while longer to understand why.

The whole island was an artifact, as much as any building of metal and glass. It was maintained by engineered lifeforms—but their wild ancestors were as remote to them as ancient buried ore bodies were to gleaming titanium alloy. This tiny park, which was really just an overgrown potted plant, should have driven that home mercilessly, puncturing the illusion that I was standing on anything but the deck of a vast machine.

It didn’t.

I’d seen Stateless from the air, spreading its tendrils out into the Pacific, as organically beautiful as any living creature on the planet. I knew that every brick and tile in this city had been grown from the sea, not fired in any kiln. The whole island appeared so "natural," on its own terms, that it was the grass and the trees which looked artificial. This patch of wild—"authentic"—nature seemed alien and contrived.

I sat on a bench—reef-rock, but softer than the paving beneath it; more polymer, less mineral?—half shaded by one of the (ironic?) palm-tree-shaped sculptures which ringed the edge of the square. None of the locals were walking on the grass, so I stayed back. I hadn’t regained my appetite, so I just sat and let the warm air and the sight of the people wash over me.

Unwillingly, I recalled my ludicrous fantasy of endless carefree Sunday afternoons with Gina. Why had I ever imagined that she’d want to sit by a fountain in Epping with me, for the rest other life? How could I have believed, for so long, that she was happy… when all I’d made her feel, in the end, was ignored and invisible, suffocated and trapped?

My notepad beeped. I slid it from my pocket and Sisyphus announced, "WHO epidemiology statistics for March have just been released. Notified cases of Distress now number five hundred and twenty-three. That’s a thirty percent increase in a month." A graph appeared on the screen. "There have been more new cases reported in March than in the previous six months combined."

I said numbly, "I don’t remember asking to be told this."

"August 7th last year. 9:43 p.m." The hotel room in Manchester. "You said, Let me know if the numbers ever really take off."

"Okay. Go on."

"There have also been twenty-seven new journal articles published on the topic since you last inquired." A list of titles appeared. "Do you want to hear their abstracts?"

"Not really."

I glanced up from the screen, and noticed a man working at an easel on the far side of the square. He was a stocky Caucasian, probably in his fifties, with a tanned, lined face. Since I wasn’t eating, I should have been making good use of my time by replaying Henry Buzzo’s lecture to myself, or diligently plowing through some relevant background material. After a few minutes contemplating this prospect, I got up and walked around to take a look at the work-in-progress.

The picture was an impressionistic snapshot of the square. Or partly impressionistic; the palms and the grass looked like patches of green light caught reflected on an uneven windowpane, through which the rest of the scene was viewed—but the buildings and pavement were rendered as soberly as they would have been by any architect’s computer. The whole thing was executed on Transition—a material which changed color under the influence of an electric stylus. Different voltages and frequencies made each type of embedded metal ion migrate toward the surface of the white polymer at a different rate; it looked almost like oil paint appearing from nowhere—and I’d heard that creating a desired color could be as much of an art as mixing oils. Erasure was easy, though; reversing the voltage drove all the pigments back out of sight.

Without pausing to glance at me, the artist said, "Five hundred dollars." He had a rural Australian accent.

I said, "If I’m going to get ripped off, I think I’ll wait for a local to do it."

He gave me a mock-wounded glare. "And ten years doesn’t qualify me? What do you want? Citizenship records?"

"Ten years? I apologize." Ten years meant he was practically a pioneer;

Stateless had been seeded in 2032, but it had taken almost a decade to become habitable and self-sustaining. I was surprised; the founders, and most of the earliest settlers, had come from the US.

I said, "My name’s Andrew Worth. I’m here for the Einstein Conference.

"Bill Munroe. Here for the light." He didn’t offer his hand.

"I can’t afford the picture. But I’ll buy you lunch, if you’re interested."

He looked at me sourly. "You’re a journalist."

"I’m covering the conference. Nothing else. But I’m curious about… the island."

"Then read about it. It’s all on the nets."

"Yes—and it all contradicts itself. I can’t decide what’s propaganda and what isn’t."

"So what makes you think anything I might tell you would be any more reliable?"

"Face to face, I’ll know."

He sighed. "Why me?" He put down his stylus. "All right. Lunch and anarchy. This way." He started to walk across the square.

I hung back. "You’re not going to leave this—?" He kept walking, so I caught up with him. "Five hundred dollars—plus the easel and the stylus—and you’re willing to trust people to leave it untouched?"

He glanced at me irritably, then turned and waved his notepad at the easel; it emitted a brief ear-splitting squeal. A few people turned to stare. "Don’t you have alarm tags where you come from?" I felt my face redden.

Munroe chose a cheap-looking open-air cafe, and ordered a steaming white concoction from the instant-serve display counter. It smelled nauseatingly fishy—although here that didn’t necessarily imply that it had once been the flesh of any vertebrate. Still, I lost whatever faint hint of an appetite I might have been working up.

As I thumbed approval of the payment for the meal, he said, "Don’t tell me: you’re deeply perplexed by our use of international credit as a means of exchange, the existence of free-enterprise eating establishments, my shameless attachment to private property, and all the other trappings of capitalism which you see around you."

"You’ve done this before. So what’s the stock answer to the stock question?" Munroe carried his plate out to a table which gave him a clear view of his easel.

He said, "Stateless is a capitalist democracy. And a liberal socialist democracy. And a union of collectives. And several hundred others things for which I have no name."

"You mean… people here choose to act as they would in those kinds of societies?"

"Yes, but it goes deeper than that. Most people join syndicates which effectively are those kinds of societies. People want freedom of choice, but they also want a degree of stability. So they enter into agreements which give them a framework in which to organize their lives—agreements which allow for release, of course… but then, most democracies permit emigration. If sixty thousand people in one syndicate agree to pay a portion of their income—subject to audit—into a fund used for health, education, and welfare, disbursed according to policies fleshed out in detail by committees of elected delegates… they may not have a parliament or a head of state, but that still sounds like a socialist democracy to me."

I said, "So freely chosen government isn’t forbidden. But—overall—are you anarchists, or not? Aren’t there universal laws here, which everyone is forced to obey?"

"There are a handful of principles endorsed by a large majority of residents. Basic ideas about freedom from violence and coercion. They’re widely promulgated and anyone who disagrees with them would be better off not coming here. I won’t split hairs, though; they might as well be laws.

"So are we anarchists, or not?" Munroe mimed indifference. "Anarchy means no ruler, not 'no laws'… but no one on Stateless loses any sleep contemplating ancient Greek semantics—or the writings of Bakunin, or Proudhon, or Godwin. Sorry, I retract that: about the same percentage of the population as you’d find in Beijing or Paris cares passionately about each of those subjects. But you’ll have to interview one of them, if you want their opinion.

"Personally, I think the word carries too much historical baggage to be salvaged. No great loss. Most of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century anarchist movements were bogged down, as much as the Marxists, by the question of seizing power from the ruling class. On Stateless that issue was dealt with very simply. In 2025, six employees of a Californian biotech company called EnGeneUity absconded with all the information they needed to make the seed. Much of which was their own work, if not their own property. They also took some engineered cells from various cultures, but too few to be missed. By the time anyone knew that Stateless was growing, there were a few hundred people living here in shifts, and it would have been bad PR to summarily sterilize the place.

"That was our revolution. Beats measuring out your life in Molotov cocktails."

"Except that the theft means you’re saddled with the boycott."

Munroe shrugged. "The boycott is a great pain. But Stateless under the boycott is still better than the alternative: a company island, every square meter privately owned. It’s bad enough when every decent food crop on the planet is licensed; imagine the ground beneath your feet being the same."

I said, "Okay. So the technology gave you a shortcut to a new society; all the old models were irrelevant. No invasion and genocide, no bloody uprising, no glacial democratic reforms. But getting there’s the easy part. I still don’t understand what holds the place together."

"Small invertebrate organisms."

"I meant politically."

Munroe looked baffled. "Holds the place together against what? The onset of anarchy?"

"Violence. Looting. Mob rule."

"Why bother traveling to the middle of the Pacific for something you can do in any city in the world? Or do you think we went to all this trouble just for a chance to play Lord of the Flies?"

"Not intentionally. But when it happens in Sydney, they send in the riot squad. When it happens in Los Angeles, they send in the National Guard."

"We have a trained militia, who have near-universal consent to use reasonable force to protect people and vital resources in an emergency." He grinned. "Vital resources. Emergency powers. Sounds just like home, doesn’t it? Except that the emergency has never arisen."

"Okay. But why hasn’t it?"

Munroe massaged his forehead, and regarded me as if I were an over-persistent child. "Good will? Intelligence? Some other bizarre alien force?"

"Be serious."

"There are some obvious things. People turn up here with a slightly higher than average level of idealism. They want Stateless to work, or they wouldn’t have come—give or take the occasional tedious agent provocateur. They’re prepared to cooperate. I don’t mean living in dormitories, pretending everyone’s your extended family, and going on work parties singing uplifting communal anthems—though there’s some of that about. But they’re willing to be more flexible and tolerant than the average person who chooses to live elsewhere… because that’s the whole point.

"There’s less concentration of wealth, and of power. Maybe that’s only a matter of time—but with so much power so heavily decentralized, it’s very hard to buy. And yes, we have private property, but the island, the reefs, and the waters are a commons. Syndicates which collect and process food trade their products for money, but they have no monopoly; there are plenty of people who feed themselves directly from the sea."

I looked around the square, frustrated. "Okay. You’re not all slaughtering each other or rioting in the streets, because no one’s starving, and no one’s obscenely rich—yet. But do you honestly think it’s going to last? The next generation won’t be here by choice. What are you going to do—indoctrinate them all with tolerance, and hope for the best? It’s never worked before. Every other experiment like this has ended in violence, been conquered or absorbed… or given up and turned into a nation state."

Munroe said, "Of course we’re trying to pass on our own values to our children—like everyone else on the planet. And with about as much success. But at least most children here are taught sociobiology from an early age."

"Sociobiology?"

He grinned. "More use than Bakunin, believe me. People will never agree on the details of how society should be organized—and why should they? But unless you’re an Edenite who believes there’s some natural, Gala-given Utopian condition to which we should all return, then adopting any form of civilization means choosing some kind of cultural response—other than passive acceptance—to the fact that we are animals with certain innate behavioral drives. And whether that response involves the most subtle compromise, or the most vehement opposition, it helps to know exactly what it is you’re trying to accommodate, or oppose.

"If people understand the biological forces acting on themselves and everyone around them then at least they have a chance of adopting intelligent strategies for getting what they want with a minimum of conflict… instead of blundering around with nothing but romantic myths and wishful thinking, courtesy of some dead political philosopher."

I let that sink in. I’d come across no end of detailed prescriptions for ludicrous "scientific" Utopias, and blueprints for societies organized on allegedly "rational" grounds… but this was the first time I’d heard anyone advocate diversity in the same breath as acknowledging biological forces. Instead of exploiting sociobiology to try to justify some rigid political doctrine to be imposed from above—from Marxism to the nuclear family, from racial purity to gender separatism—"we must live this way, because human nature requires it"—Munroe was suggesting that people could use the self-knowledge of the species to make better decisions for themselves.

Informed anarchy. It was an appealing notion—but I still felt obliged to be skeptical. "Not everyone’s going to let their children learn sociobiology; there must be a few cultural and religious fundamentalists, even here, who’d find it too threatening. And… what about adult migrants? If someone’s twenty years old when they arrive on Stateless, they’ll still be around for another sixty years. Plenty of time to lose their idealism. Do you really think the whole thing can hold together while the first generation grow old and disillusioned?"

Munroe was bemused. "Does it matter what I think? If you really care one way or the other: explore the island, talk to people, make up your own mind."

"You’re right." I wasn’t here to explore the island, though, or to form an opinion on its political future. I glanced at my watch; it was after one. I stood up.

Munroe said, "There’s something going on right now which you might like to see. Or even… try. Are you in a hurry?"

I hesitated. "That depends."

"I suppose you could call this the closest thing we have to a… ceremony for new residents." I must have looked less than thrilled; Munroe laughed. "No anthems, no oaths, no gilded scrolls, I promise. And no, it’s not compulsory—it just seems to have become the fashion for new arrivals. Mere tourists are welcome, too, though."

"Are you going to tell me, or do I have to guess?"

"I can tell you that it’s called inland diving. But you really have to see it to know what that means."

Munroe packed up his easel and accompanied me; I suspected he was secretly enjoying playing veteran radical tour guide. We stood in the doorway to catch the breeze, as the tram headed out toward the northern arm of the island. The track ahead was barely visible: two parallel trenches carved in the rock, the gray ribbon of superconductor running down the middle all but hidden beneath a layer of fine chalky dust.

By the time we’d traveled about fifteen kilometers, we were the only passengers left. I said, "Who pays for the maintenance of these things?"

"Fares cover some of it. The syndicates pay the rest."

"So what happens if a syndicate decides not to pay? To freeload?"

"Then everyone knows."

"Okay, but what if they genuinely can’t afford to contribute. What if they’re poor?"

"Most syndicate finances are public knowledge. By choice, but it’s viewed as odd if they’re kept secret. Anyone on Stateless can pick up their notepad and find out if the wealth of the island is being concentrated in one syndicate or being siphoned off-shore, or whatever. And act on that knowledge as they see fit."

We were clear of the built-up center now. There were buildings which looked like factories and warehouses scattered around the tram line, but more and more of the view was becoming bare reef-rock, flat but slightly uneven. The limestone appeared in all the hues I’d seen in the city, zebra-striping the landscape in distinctly ungeological patterns, governed by the diffusion of different subspecies of lithophilic bacteria. The ground here wouldn’t be amenable to rock farming, though; the inner core of the island was too dry and hard, too devascularized. Further out, the rock was much more porous, and suffused with calcium-rich water and the engineered organisms needed to replenish it. The tram lines didn’t run to the coast because the ground became too soft to bear the weight of the vehicles.

I invoked Witness and started recording; at this rate I’d have more private travelogue footage than material for the documentary, but I couldn’t resist.

I said, "Did you really come here for the light?"

Munroe shook his head. "Hardly. I just had to get away."

"From what?"

"All the noise. All the cant. All the Professional Australians."

"Ah." I’d first heard that term when I was studying film history; it had been coined to describe the mainstream directors of the nineteen seventies and eighties. As one historian had put it: "They possessed no distinguishing features except for their nationality; they had nothing to say, and nothing to do except foist a claustrophobic vocabulary of tired nationalist myths and icons onto their audience, while loudly proclaiming themselves to be defining the national character, and to represent, in person, a nation finding its voice." I’d thought this was probably a harsh judgment—until I’d seen some of the films. Most of them were stultifying horse operas—rural colonial melodramas—or sentimentalized war stories. The nadir of the period, though, was probably an attempted comedy in which Albert Einstein was portrayed as an Australian apple farmer’s son, who "splits beer atoms" and falls in love with Marie Curie.

I said, "I always thought the visual arts had grown out of that long ago. Especially in your mode."

Munroe scowled. "I’m not talking about art. I’m talking about the entire dominant culture."

"Come on! There is no dominant culture anymore. The filter is mightier than the broadcaster." At least, that was the net-swoon line; I still wasn’t sure I’d bought it.

Munroe hadn’t. "Very Zen. Try exporting Australian medical biotech to Stateless, and you’ll soon find out exactly who’s in control."

I had no answer to that.

He said, "Don’t you ever get tired of living in a society which talks about itself, relentlessly—and usually lies? Which defines everything worthwhile—tolerance, honesty, loyalty, fairness—as uniquely Australian? Which pretends to encourage diversity—but can’t ever stop babbling about its national identity? Don’t you ever get sick of the endless parade of buffoons who claim the authority to speak on your behalf: politicians, intellectuals, celebrities, commentators—defining and characterizing you in every detail… from your distinctive Australian sense of humor right down to your fucking 'collective subconscious iconography'… who are all, simply, liars and thieves?"

I was taken aback for a moment, but on reflection, this was a recognizable description of the mainstream political and academic culture. Or if not the mainstream, at least the loudest. I shrugged. "Every country has some level of parochial bullshit like that going on, somewhere. The US is almost as bad. But I hardly notice it anymore—least of all at home. I suppose I’ve just learned to tune it out, most of the time."

"I envy you, then. I never could."

The tram slid on, displaced dust hissing softly. Munroe had a point: nationalists—political and cultural—who claimed to be the voice of their nation could disenfranchise those they "represented" just as effectively as sexists who claimed to be the voice of their sex. A handful of people pretending to speak for forty million—or five billion—would always wield disproportionate power, merely by virtue of making the claim.

So what was the solution? Move to Stateless? Become asex? Or just stick your head in a Balkanized corner of the net, and try to believe that none of it mattered?

Munroe said, "I would have thought that the flight from Sydney was enough to make anyone want to leave for good. Physical proof of the absurdity of nations."

I laughed drily. "Almost. Being petty and vindictive with the East Timorese is understandable; imagine dirtying the bayonets of our business partners for all those years, and then having the temerity to turn around and take us to court. What the problem is with Stateless, though, I have no idea. None of the EnGeneUity patents were Australian-owned, were they?"

"No."

"So what’s the big deal? Even Washington doesn’t go out of its way to punish Stateless quite so… comprehensively."

Munroe said, "I do have one theory."

"Yeah?"

"Think about it. What’s the biggest lie the political and cultural ruling class tells itself? Where’s the greatest disparity between image and truth? What are the attributes which any self-respecting Professional Australian boasts about the most—and possesses the least?"

"If this is a cheap Freudian joke, I’m going to be very disappointed."

"Suspicion of authority. Independence of spirit. Nonconformity. So what could they possibly find more threatening than an island full of anarchists?"

13

We walked north from the terminus, across a plane of marbled gray-green, in places still imprinted with faint hints of stubby branched tubing: coral from the shores of a decade ago, incompletely digested. Knowing the time scale made the sight curiously shocking; it was a bit like stumbling across fossils of distinctive forties artifacts—clunky old-model notepads, quaint shoes which had been alpha fashion in living memory—converted into nothing but mineralized outlines. I thought I could feel the rock yielding beneath my feet more than the dense, cured paving of the city, but we left no visible imprints behind us. I paused and crouched to touch the ground, wondering if it would be palpably moist; it wasn’t, but there was probably a plasticized skin beneath the surface to limit evaporation.

In the distance, a group of twenty or so people were gathered around a gantry several meters high, with a large motorized winch beside it. Nearby was a small green bus with big, balloon-tired wheels. The gantry sprouted half a dozen bright orange awnings, and I could hear them snapping in the breeze. Orange cable stretched from the winch to a pulley suspended from the gantry, then dropped straight down— presumably into a hole in the ground, concealed by the circle of spectators.

I said, "They’re being lowered into some kind of maintenance shaft?"

"That’s right."

"What a charming custom. Welcome to Stateless, tired and hungry traveler… now check out our sewers."

Munroe snorted. "Wrong."

As we drew nearer, I could see that everyone in the group was gazing intently at the hole beneath the gantry. A couple of people glanced our way briefly, and one woman raised a hand in a tentative greeting. I returned the gesture, and she smiled nervously, then turned back to the hidden entrance.

I whispered (though we were barely within earshot), "They look like they’re at a mine disaster. Waiting to identify the bodies as they’re raised to the surface."

"It’s always tense. But… be patient."

From a distance, I’d thought people were just randomly, casually dressed, but close-up it was clear that they were mostly in swimming costumes, though some wore T-shirts as well. A few were in short-limbed wetsuits. Some peoples' hair looked distinctively disheveled; one man’s was visibly still wet.

"So what are they diving into? The water supply?" Ocean water was desalinated in specialized pools out on the reefs, and the fresh water pumped inland to supplement recycled waste.

Munroe said, "That’d be a challenge. None of the water arteries are thicker than a human arm."

I stopped a respectful distance from the group, feeling very much an intruder. Munroe went ahead and gently squeezed his way into the outer circle; no one seemed to mind, or to pay either of us much attention. It finally struck me that the awnings overhead were flapping and shuddering out of all proportion to the gentle wind from the east. I moved closer and caught the edge of a strong, cool breeze emerging from the tunnel itself, carrying a stale damp mineral odor.

Peering over people’s shoulders, I could see that the mouth of the tunnel was capped with a knee-high structure like a small well, built of dark reef-rock or heavy-duty biopolymer, with an iris seal which had been wrenched open. The winch, a few meters away, seemed monstrous now—far too large and industrial-looking to be involved in any light-hearted sport. The cable was thicker than I’d expected; I thought of trying to estimate its total length, but the sides of the drum concealed the number of layers wrapped around it. The motor itself was silent except for the hiss of air across magnetic bearings, but the cable squeaked against itself as it spooled onto the drum, and the gantry creaked as the cable slid over the pulley.

No one spoke. It didn’t seem like the time to start asking questions.

Suddenly I heard a gasping sound, almost a sobbing. There was a buzz of excitement, and everyone craned forward expectantly. A woman emerged from the tunnel, clinging tightly to the cable, scuba tanks strapped to her back, face mask pulled up onto her forehead. She was wet, but not dripping—so the water had to be some way down.

The winch stopped. The woman unhooked a safety line linking the scuba harness to the cable; people reached out to help her onto the lip of the well, and then the ground. I stepped forward, and saw a small circular platform—a coarse grid of plastic tubes—on which she’d been standing. There was also a twin-beam lantern fixed to the cable, about a meter and a half above the platform.

The woman seemed dazed. She walked some distance away from the group, almost staggering, then sat down on the rock and stared up at the sky, still breathless. Then she removed the tanks and mask, slowly and methodically, and lay down on her back. She closed her eyes and stretched out her arms, palms down, spreading her fingers on the ground.

A man and two teenage girls had separated from the others; they stood nearby, watching the woman anxiously. I was beginning to wonder if she needed medical attention—and I was on the verge of discreetly asking Sisyphus to refresh my memory on heart attack symptoms and emergency first aid—when she sprung to her feet, smiling radiantly. She began to speak excitedly to her family, in what I took to be a Polynesian language; I didn’t understand a word she said, but she sounded elated.

The tension vanished, and everyone began laughing and talking. Munroe turned to me. "There are eight people in the queue ahead of you but it’s worth waiting for, I promise."

"I don’t know. Whatever’s down there, my insurance doesn’t cover it."

"I doubt your insurance covers a tram ride, on Stateless."

A thin young man in bright floral shorts was putting on the scuba gear the woman had discarded. I introduced myself; he seemed nervous, but he didn’t mind talking. His name was Kumar Rajendra, an Indian-Fijian civil engineering student; he’d been on Stateless less than a week. I took a button camera from my wallet and explained what I wanted. He glanced over at the people gathered around the hole—as if wondering if he needed to ask permission of someone—but then he agreed to take it down. Fixing the camera to the top of the scuba mask, where it sat like a third eye, I noticed a faint chalky residue on the faceplate’s transparent plastic.

An elderly woman in a wetsuit came over and checked that the scuba gear was fitted properly, then went through emergency procedures with Rajendra. He listened solemnly; I backed away and checked the reception on my notepad. The camera transmitted in ultrasound, radio and IR—and if all those signals failed to get through, it had a forty-minute memory.

Munroe approached me, exasperated. "You’re crazy, you know. It won’t be the same. Why record someone else’s dive, when you could do it yourself?"

Just my luck; even on Stateless, I’d found someone who wanted me to shut up and do what I was told. I said, "Maybe I will; this way I get to see exactly what I’d be letting myself in for. Then again… I’m just a tourist, aren’t I ? So my experience of a ceremony for new residents would hardly be authentic."

Munroe rolled his eyes. "Authentic? Make up your mind: are you covering the Einstein Conference, or making Coming of Age on Stateless?"

"That remains to be seen. If I end up with two programs for the price of one… all the better."

Rajendra climbed onto the edge of the well, took hold of the cable, then stepped onto the platform; it tilted precariously until he managed to center himself. The breeze ballooned his shorts and sent his hair streaming comically upward, but the sight was more vertiginous than amusing; it made him look like a skydiver sans parachute, or some lunatic balanced on the wing of a plane. He finally attached the safety line—but the impression of free-fall remained.

I was surprised that Munroe was so enthusiastic about what looked to me like just one more bonding-through-bravery ritual, one more initiation-by-ordeal. Even if there was no real pressure to take part, and even if the dangers were minimal… so much for the island of radical nonconformists.

Someone started the winch unwinding. Rajendra’s friends, standing—and then kneeling—on the lip of the well, reached out and patted his shoulders as he descended, cheering him on; he grinned nervously as he disappeared from sight. I squeezed forward myself, and leaned over with the notepad to maintain line-of-sight communication. The button camera’s memory would probably be more than enough, but it was impossible to resist the lure of real-time. I wasn’t alone; people jostled to get a view of the screen.

Munroe called out from behind the crush, "So much for authenticity. You realize you’re changing the experience for everyone?"

"Not for the diver."

"Oh, right, that’s all that matters. Capture the last glimpse of the real thing—before destroying it forever. You ethnovandal." He added, half seriously, "Anyway, you’re wrong. It changes things for the diver, too."

The tunnel was about two meters wide, the walls about as cylindrical as the surface rock was flat—too good to be the product of any geological process, but too rough to have been machined. The morphogenesis of Stateless was a complex process which I’d never investigated in detail, but I did know that explicit human intervention had been required for many of the fine points. Still, whether this tunnel had formed unbidden at the intersection of certain levels of marker-chemical gradients, because lithophilic bacteria had noticed the cue and switched on all the right genes—or whether they’d had to be told more forcefully, by a person tipping a bucketload of primer onto the surface—it beat attacking the rock for a month or two with a diamond-coated drill.

I watched the twin reflections of the lantern beams slowly shrinking into the darkness, and the point-of-view image of pebbled gray-green rock sliding by. There were more hints of ancestral coral, and fleeting glimpses of the bones of fish trapped in the compacting of the reefs—and again, I felt an eerie sense of the compressed time scale of the island. The idea that subterranean depths belonged to inconceivably remote eons was so ingrained that it required a constant effort to remain prepared for soft drink bottles or car tires—predating Stateless, but perfectly likely to have drifted into the mix when this rock was being formed.

The decorative trace minerals began to fade, not to be wasted at a depth where they’d rarely be seen. Rajendra’s breathing accelerated, and he glanced up toward the surface; some of the people watching the screen called down to him and waved, their arms skinny silhouettes half eaten by the glare from the dazzling circle of sky. He looked away, and then directly down; the grid of the platform was no real obstruction, but neither lantern beams nor sunlight penetrated far. He seemed to grow calm again. I’d considered asking him to provide a running commentary, but I was glad now that I hadn’t; it would have been an unfair burden.

The wall of the tunnel grew visibly moist; Rajendra reached out and trailed his fingers through the chalky fluid. Water and nutrients penetrated every part of the island (even the center, although the dry, hard surface layer was thickest there). It didn’t matter that the rock here would never be mined—and the fact that the tunnel remained unhealed showed that this region had been explicitly programmed against regrowth. The lithophiles were still indispensable; the heartrock could never be allowed to die.

I began to make out tiny bubbles forming in the fluid clinging to the wall—and then, deeper still, visible effervescence. Beyond the edges of the guyot, Stateless was unsupported from below—and a solid limestone overhang forty kilometers long, strengthened by biopolymers or not, would have snapped in an instant. The guyot was a useful anchor, and it bore some of the load, but most of the island simply had to float. Stateless was three-quarters air; the heartrock was a fine, mineralized foam, lighter than water.

The air in the foam was under pressure, though: from the rock above, and—below sea level—from the surrounding water trying to force its way in. Air was constantly being lost to diffusion through the rock; the wind blasting out of this tunnel was the accumulated leakage from hundreds of square meters, but the same thing was happening, less dramatically, everywhere.

The lithophiles prevented Stateless from collapsing like a punctured lung, and sinking like a drowned sponge. Plenty of natural organisms were proficient at making gas, but they tended to excrete products you wouldn’t want wafting out of the ground in vast amounts, like methane or hydrogen sulphide. The lithophiles consumed water and carbon dioxide (mostly dissolved) to make carbohydrates and oxygen (mostly undissolved)—and because they manufactured "oxygen-deficient" carbohydrates (like deoxyribose), they released more oxygen than they took in carbon dioxide, adding to the net increase in pressure.

All of this required energy as well as raw materials; the lithophiles, living in darkness, needed to be fed. The nutrients they consumed and the products they excreted were part of a cycle which stretched out to the reefs and beyond; ultimately, sunlight on distant water powered everything they did.

Soon the surface was frothing and boiling, spraying calcareous droplets toward the camera like spittle. And it finally dawned on me that I’d been utterly mistaken: the dive had nothing to do with Edenite notions of "modern tribalism." Whatever courage it required was incidental; that wasn’t being valued for its own sake. The point was to descend through the palpable exhalation of the rock, and to see with your own eyes what Stateless was: to understand the hidden machinery which kept the island afloat.

Rajendra’s hand appeared at the border of the image as he fitted the mouthpiece and switched on the air supply. Of course: all this seeping liquid would build up at the bottom of the tunnel. He glanced down once, at what looked like a dark, sulphurous pool, boiling with volcanic heat; in fact, it was probably chilly and almost odorless. Munroe had been right about one thing: you really had to be there. What’s more… the tunnel wind would be weaker at this depth than at the surface, because much of the leaking rock contributing to the total airflow was now overhead. Rajendra would have no trouble noticing the difference—but the view, alone, of gas escaping at ever greater pressure, suggested exactly the opposite.

As the camera plunged beneath the surface, the image flickered and then switched to lower resolution. Even through the turbulent, cloudy water, I could still catch occasional glimpses of the tunnel wall—or at least the wall of bubbles streaming out of the rock. It was a weird, disorienting sight—it almost looked as if the water was so acidic that it was dissolving the limestone right before my eyes… but once again, that impression would have been instantly untenable if I’d been down there in person, swimming in the stuff.

The resolution dropped again, and then the frame rate fell; the picture became a series of stills in rapid succession as the camera struggled to maintain contact. Sound came through clearly enough, though I probably wouldn’t have recognized distortion in the noise of bubbles breaking against a scuba mask. Rajendra glanced down; the view showed ten thousand pearls of oxygen streaming up through opalescent water— and nothing more distant than his knees. I thought I heard him inhaling sharply, tensing himself in preparation for touching the bottom—and then I almost sent the notepad tumbling down after him.

One still showed a startled, bright red fish staring straight into the camera. In the next image, it was gone.

I turned to the woman beside me. "Did you see—?" She had, but she didn’t seem at all surprised. The skin tingled all over my body. How thick was the rock we were standing on? How long was the cable?

When Rajendra emerged from the underside of the island, he made a noise which might have expressed anything from exuberance to terror; with a plastic tube in his mouth, and all the other acoustic complications, all I could discern was a muffled choking sound. As he descended through the subterranean ocean, the water around him gradually became clearer. I saw a whole school of tiny, pale fish cross the lantern beam in the distance, followed by a gray manta ray at least a meter wide, mouth stretched open in a permanent, plankton-straining grin. I glanced up from the screen, shaken. This couldn’t be happening beneath my feet.

The winch halted. Rajendra looked up, back toward Stateless, tilting the lantern on its pivot, swinging it back and forth.

Milky water roiled in a layer that clung to the underside. Fine particles of limestone? I was confused; why didn’t they simply fall? Even from strobed stills, I could see that this haze was in constant motion, surging rhythmically toward the hidden rock. I could also make out bubbles of gas, dragged down a few meters in some kind of undertow, before finally escaping back into the haze. Rajendra played the beam back and forth, improving his control; the lantern was obviously difficult to manipulate accurately, and I could sense his frustration—but after a few minutes his persistence paid off.

A stronger-than-average surge mixed an updraft of clear water into the milky layer above, parting the curtain for an instant. Beam and camera transfixed the event, exposing lumpy rock sparsely populated with barnacles and pale, frond-mouthed anemones. In the next frame, the image was blurred—not yet obscured by the haze of white particles, but crinkled, distorted by refraction. At first, we’d seen the rock through pure water; now we saw it through water and air.

There was a thin layer of air constantly trapped against the underside, maintained by the steady stream of oxygen escaping from the foamed rock.

This air gave the water a surface which could carry waves. Every wave which crashed on the distant reefs would send a twin diving beneath the island.

No wonder the water was cloudy. The underside of Stateless was being constantly scraped by a vast, wet, jagged file. Waves eroded the shoreline, but at least that stopped at the high-tide mark. This assault was going on beneath dry land, all the way to the rim of the guyot.

I turned again to the woman beside me, one of Rajendra’s friends. "The limestone detritus… tiny particles like that, must lose all their oxygen, all their buoyancy. Why don’t they just… fall?"

"They do. The white comes from engineered diatoms. They scavenge calcium from the water, mineralize it—then migrate up and paste themselves into the rock when the waves dash them against it. Coral polyps can’t grow in the darkness, so the diatoms are the only repair mechanism." She smiled, hyperlucid; she’d been there to see for herself. "That’s what holds the island up: just a fine mist of calcium, fading away into the depths, and a few trillion microscopic creatures whose genes tell them what to do with it."

The winch started rewinding. No one was near it; there must have been a control button for the diver, which I’d missed, or maybe it was preprogrammed, the whole dive calculated in advance to limit the risk of decompression sickness. Rajendra put his hand in front of his face and waved to us. People laughed and joked as he began his ascent; it was nothing like the mood when I’d arrived.

I asked the woman, "Do you have a notepad?"

"In the bus."

"Do you want the communications software? You could keep the camera…"

She nodded enthusiastically. "Good idea. Thanks!" She went to fetch the notepad.

The camera had only cost me ten dollars, but the copy fee for the software turned out to be two hundred; I could hardly retract the offer, though. When she returned, I approved the transaction and the machines conversed in infrared. She’d have to pay for any more duplicates, but the program could be moved and erased for free, passed on to other groups of divers.

When Rajendra emerged he started whooping with joy. As soon as he was free of the safety line, he sprinted away across the plain, still carrying the scuba tanks, before doubling back and collapsing in a breathless heap. I didn’t know if he was hamming it up or not—he hadn’t seemed the type—but as he took off the diving gear, he was grinning like a madman in love, exhilarated, trembling.

Adrenaline, yes but he’d been diving for more than the thrill of it. He was back on solid ground… but it would never be the same, now that he’d seen exactly what lay beneath it: now that he’d swum right through the island’s tenuous foundations.

This was what the people of Stateless had in common: not merely the island itself, but the firsthand knowledge that they stood on rock which the founders had crystallized out of the ocean—and which was, forever, dissolving again, only enduring through a process of constant repair. Beneficent nature had nothing to do with it; conscious human effort, and cooperation, had built Stateless—and even the engineered life which maintained it couldn’t be treated as God-given, infallible; the balance could be disturbed in a thousand ways: mutants could arise, competitors could move in, phages could wipe out bacteria, climate change could shift vital equilibria. All the elaborate machinery had to be monitored, had to be understood.

In the long run, discord could literally sink the place. If it was no guarantee of harmony that nobody on Stateless wanted their society to disintegrate… maybe it helped focus the attention to realize that the land beneath their feet might do the same.

And if it was naive to think of this understanding as any kind of panacea, it had one undeniable advantage over all the contrived mythology of nationhood.

It was true.

I copied everything from the camera’s memory, to give me the scene in high resolution. When Rajendra had calmed down slightly, I asked for his permission to use the footage for broadcast; he agreed. I had no definite plans, but at the very least I could always smuggle it into the interactive version of Violet Mosala.

Munroe came with me, still shouldering his folded easel and rolled-up canvas, as I headed back for the terminus.

I said sheepishly, "I might try it for myself once the conference is over. Right now, it looks too… intense. I just don’t want to be distracted. I have a job to do."

He faked bewilderment. "It’s entirely your decision. You don’t have to justify anything to anyone, here."

"Yeah, sure. And I’ve died and gone to heaven."

At the terminus, I hit the call button; the box predicted a ten-minute wait.

Munroe fell silent for a while. Then he said, "I suppose you have all the inside information about everyone attending the conference?"

I laughed. "Not exactly. But I’m sure I’m not missing out on much. Soap operas staring physicists are just as dull as any other kind; I really don’t care who’s screwing whom, or who’s stealing whose brilliant ideas."

He frowned amiably. "Well, neither do I—but I wouldn’t mind knowing if the rumor about Violet Mosala has any substance."

I hesitated. "Which rumor did you have in mind? There are so many." It sounded pitiful even as I said it; I might as well have come right out and admitted that I had no idea what he was talking about.

"There’s only one serious question, isn’t there?"

I shrugged. Munroe looked irritated, as if he believed I was being disingenuous, and not just trying to conceal my ignorance.

I said candidly, "Violet Mosala and I aren’t exactly swapping intimate secrets. The way things are going, if I make it through to the end of the conference with decent coverage of all her public appearances, I’ll count myself lucky. Even if I have to spend the next six months chasing her between appointments in Cape Town, trying to flesh things out."

Munroe nodded with grim satisfaction, like a cynic whose opinions had just been confirmed. "Cape Town? Right. Thanks."

"For what?"

He said, "I never believed it; I just wanted to hear it put to rest by someone in a position to be sure. Violet Mosala—Nobel-prize-winning physicist, inspiration to millions, twenty-first-century Einstein, architect of the TOE most likely to succeed… abandons her home country— just when the peace in Natal is starting to look more solid than ever— not for Caltech, not for Bombay, not for CERN, not for Osaka… but to join the rabble on Stateless?

"Not in a million years."

14

Back at the hotel, climbing the stairs to my room, I asked Sisyphus:

"Can you name a group of political activists—with the initials AC—who might have taken an interest in Violet Mosala emigrating to Stateless?"

"No."

"Come on! A is for anarchy… ?"

"There are two thousand and seventy-three organizations with anarchy or a related word in their title, but they all contain more than two words."

"Okay." Maybe AC itself was shorthand, like US for USA. But then, if Munroe was to be believed, no serious anarchist would ever use the A-word.

I tried a different angle. "What about A for African, С for culture… with any number of other letters?"

"There are two hundred and seven matches."

I scrolled through the list; AC didn’t seem like a plausible abbreviation for any of them. One name was familiar, though; I replayed a section of the audio log from the morning’s press conference:

"William Savimbi, Proteus Information. You speak approvingly of a convergence of ideas which has no respect for ancestral cultures—as if your own heritage were of no importance to you at all. Is it true that you received death threats from the Pan-African Cultural Defense Front, after you publicly stated that you didn’t consider yourself to be an African woman?"

Mosala had put the quote in context—but she hadn’t answered the question. If a comment like that had been enough to result in death threats, what might rumors of "defection"—baseless or not—bring down on her?

I had no idea; I knew even less about South African cultural politics than I knew about ATMs. Mosala would hardly be the first prominent scientist to leave the country, but she would be one of the most celebrated—and the first to emigrate to Stateless. Chasing money and prestige at a world-class institution was one thing, but it would be hard to read a move to Stateless (which could offer neither) as anything but a deliberate renunciation of her nationality.

I paused on the landing, and stared at my useless electronic teat. AC? Mainstream AC? Sisyphus was silent. Whoever they were, Sarah Knight had managed to find them. I was beginning to feel an ache in the pit of my stomach every time I thought about what I’d done to her. It was clear that she’d prepared for this job meticulously, researching every issue surrounding Mosala—and coming from politics, where nothing on the nets was true, she’d probably gone out and talked to everyone in the flesh. Someone must have told her about the rumors, and put her on the trail which led to Kuwale—all off the record, of course. I’d stolen the project, walked in cold, and now I couldn’t even tell whether I was making a documentary about an emigrant anarcho-physicist in fear of her life… or whether I was jumping at shadows, and the only threat anyone on Stateless faced was being goaded into giving Janet Walsh some long overdue career advice.

I had Hermes call every hotel on the island, and inquire about a guest called Akili Kuwale.

No luck.

In my room, I turned up the windows' sound insulation, and tried to psych myself into doing some work. The next morning I was scheduled to film a lecture by Helen Wu, chief advocate of the view that Mosalas methodology verged on circular logic. Before letting Munroe talk me into filming the inland divers, I’d been planning to spend the whole afternoon reading Wu’s previous papers; I had a lot of catching up to do.

First, though…

I scanned the relevant databases (eschewing help from Sisyphus, and taking three times as long). The Pan-African Cultural Defense Front turned out to be a loose affiliation of fifty-seven radical traditionalist groups from twenty-three nations, with a council of representatives which met each year to decide strategies and issue proclamations. PACDF itself was twenty years old; it had appeared in the wake of a resurgence of the traditionalist debate in the early thirties, when a num ber of academics and activists, mostly in central Africa, had begun to speak of the need to "re-establish continuity" with the pre-colonial past. Political and cultural movements of the previous century—from Senghor’s negritude to Mobutu’s "authenticity" to Black Consciousness in all its forms—were dismissed as corrupt, assimilationist, or overly concerned with responding to colonialism and Westernization. The correct response to colonialism—according to the most vocal of the new traditionalists—was to excise it from history completely: to aim to behave, in its aftermath, as if it had never happened.

PACDF was the most extreme manifestation of this philosophy, taking an uncompromising and far from populist line. They decried Islam as an invader religion, as much as Christianity or Syncretism. They opposed vaccination, bioengineered crops, electronic communications. And if there was more to the group than a catalog of the foreign (or local, but insufficiently ancient) influences they explicitly renounced, they might have found it hard to differentiate themselves without such a hit-list. Many of the policies they advocated—wider official use of local languages, greater support for traditional cultural forms—were already high on the agenda of most governments, or were being lobbied for from other quarters. PACDF’s raison d'être seemed to consist of being greater purists than anyone else. When the most effective anti-malarial vaccine on the planet was manufactured in Nairobi—based on research carried out in that well-known imperialist superpower, Colombia—condemning its use as "a criminal betrayal of traditional healing practices" sounded like sheer fundamentalist perversity to me.

If Violet Mosala had chosen to emigrate to Stateless, I would have thought they’d be glad to be rid of her. She might have been a hero on half the continent, but to PACDF she could never have been anything but a traitor. And I could find no report of a death threat, so maybe Savimbi’s claim had been pure hype; the reality might have involved nothing more than an anonymous call to his news desk.

I plowed on, regardless. Maybe Kuwale’s mysterious faction had revealed themselves by taking part in the other side of the debate? There was certainly no shortage of vocal opposition to PACDF—from more moderate traditionalists, from numerous professional bodies, from pluralist organizations, and from self-described technoliberateurs.

Mismatched initials aside, I couldn’t quite see a member of the African Union for the Advancement of Science collaring journalists in airports and asking them to play unofficial bodyguard to a world-renowned physicist. And while the African Pluralists League organized worldwide student exchange programs, theatre and dance tours, physical and net-based art exhibitions, and lobbied aggressively against cultural isolationism and discriminatory treatment of ethnic, religious and sexual minorities… I doubted they had time on their hands to fret about Violet Mosala.

The late Muteba Kazadi had coined the term technoliberation, to mean both the empowerment of people through technology, and the "liberation" of the technology itself from restrictive hands. Muteba had been a communications engineer, poet, science writer—and Minister for Development in Zaire in the late thirties. I viewed some of his speeches, impassioned pleas for "the use of knowledge in the service of freedom"; he’d called for an end to the patenting of engineered crops, public ownership of communications resources, and a universal right of access to scientific information. As well as championing the obvious pragmatism of "liberation biology" (though Zaire had never gone renegade and used unlicensed crops), he’d spoken of the long-term need for African nations to participate in pure research in every area of basic science—an extraordinary stand at a time when such activities were deeply unpopular in the wealthiest countries on the planet, and unthinkable in terms of his own government’s immediate priorities.

Muteba had had his eccentricities, his three biographers concurred, with a leaning toward Nietzschean metaphysics, fringe cosmology, and dramatic conspiracy theories—including the old one that "El Nido de Ladrones," the bioengineered haven built by drug runners on the Peruvian-Colombian border, had been H-bombed in 2035 not because the modified forest was out of control and threatening to overrun the whole Amazon basin, but because some kind of "dangerously liberating" neuroactive virus had been invented there. The act had been an obscenity, thousands of people had died—and the public outrage it attracted had quite possibly helped to save Stateless from a similar fate—but I thought the more prosaic explanation was far more likely to be true.

Learned commentators from every part of the continent stated that Muteba’s legacy lived on, and that proud technoliberateurs were active across the face of Africa, and beyond. I found it difficult to pin down his direct intellectual descendants, though; hundreds of academic and political groups, and tens of thousands of individuals, cited Muteba as a source of inspiration—and many people who’d spoken out again