This is from Accelerando, by Charles Stross (CC by-nc-nd)
Sirhan stands on the edge of an abyss, looking down at a churning orange-and-grey cloudscape far below. The air this close to the edge is chilly and smells slightly of ammonia, although that might be his imagination at work–there’s little chance of any gas exchange taking place across the transparent pressure wall of the flying city. He feels as if he could reach out and touch the churning vaporscape. There’s no one around, this close to the edge–it’s an icy sensation to look out across the roiling depths, at an ocean of gas so cold human flesh would freeze within seconds of exposure, knowing that there’s nobody out there for tens of thousands of kilometers. The sense of isolation is aggravated by the paucity of bandwidth, this far out of the system. Most people huddle close to the hub, for comfort and warmth and low latency: posthumans are gregarious.
Beneath Sirhan’s feet the lily pad city is extending itself, mumbling and churning in endless self-similar loops like a cubist blastoma growing in the upper atmosphere of Saturn. Great ducts suck in methane and other atmospheric gases, apply energy, polymerize and diamondize and crack off hydrogen to fill the lift cells high above. Beyond the sapphire dome of the city’s gas bag, an azure star glares with the speckle of laser light; humanity’s first–and last–starship, braking into orbit on the last shredded remnant of its light sail.
He’s wondering maliciously how his mother will react to discovering her bankruptcy when the light above him flickers. Something grey and unpleasant splatters against the curve of the nearly invisible wall in front of him, leaving a smear. He takes a step back and looks up angrily. "Fuck you!" He yells. Raucous cooing laughter follows him away from the boundary, feral pigeon voices mocking. "I mean it," he warns, flicking a gesture at the air above his head. Wings scatter in a burst of thunder as a slab of wind solidifies, thistledown-shaped nanomachines suspended on the breeze locking edge-to-edge to form an umbrella over his head. He walks away from the edge, fuming, leaving the pigeons to look for another victim.
Annoyed, Sirhan finds a grassy knoll a couple of hundred meters from the rim and around the curve of the lily pad from the museum buildings–far enough from other humans that he can sit undisturbed with his thoughts, far enough out to see over the edge without being toilet-bombed by flocking flying rats. (The flying city, despite being a product of an advanced technology almost unimaginable two decades ago, is full of bugs–software complexity and scaling laws ensured that the preceding decades of change acted as a kind of cosmological inflationary period for design glitches, and an infestation of passenger pigeons is by no means the most inexplicable problem in this biosphere.)
In an attempt to shut the more unwelcome manifestations of cybernature out, he sits under the shade of an apple tree and marshals his worlds around him. "When is my grandmother arriving?" he asks one of them–speaking into an antique telephone in the world of servants, where everything is obedient and knows its place. The city humors him, for its own reasons.
"She is still containerized, but aerobraking is nearly over; her body will be arriving down-well in less than two megaseconds." The city’s avatar in this machinima is a discreet Victorian butler, stony-faced and respectful. No intrusive memory interfaces for Sirhan; for an eighteen-year-old, he’s conservative to the point of affectation, favoring verbal commands and anthropomorphic agents over the invisible splicing of virtual neural nets.
"You’re certain she’s transferred successfully?" Sirhan asks anxiously. He heard a lot about his grandmama when he was young, none of it complimentary. Nevertheless, the old bat must be a lot more flexible than his mother ever gave her credit for, to be subjecting herself to this kind of treatment at her age.
"I’m as certain as I can be, young master, for anyone who insists on sticking to their original phenotype without benefit of offline backup or medical implants. I regret that omniscience is not within my remit. Would you like me to make further specific enquiries?"
"No." Sirhan peers up at the bright flare of laser light, visible even through the soap-bubble membrane that holds in the breathable gas mix, and the trillions of liters of hot hydrogen in the canopy above it. "As long as you’re sure she’ll arrive before the ship?" Tuning his eyes to ultraviolet, he watches the emission spikes, sees the slow strobing of the low-bandwidth AM modulation that’s all the starship can manage by way of down-link communication until it comes within range of the system manifold. It’s sending the same tiresomely repetitive question about why it’s being redirected to Saturn that it’s been putting out for the past week, querying the refusal to supply terawatts of propulsion energy on credit.
"Unless there’s a spike in their power beam, you can be certain of that," City replies reassuringly. "And you can be certain your grandmother will revive comfortably."
"One may hope so." To undertake the interplanetary voyage in corporeal person, at her age, without any upgrades or augmentation, must take courage, he decides. "When she wakes up, if I’m not around, ask her for an interview slot on my behalf. For the archives."
"It will be my pleasure." City bobs his head politely.
"That will be all," Sirhan says dismissively, and the window into servantspace closes. Then he looks back up at the pinprick of glaring blue laser light near the zenith. Tough luck, Mom, he subvocalizes for his journal cache. Most of his attention is forked at present, focused on the rich historical windfall from the depths of the spike that is coming his way, in the form of the thirty-year-old starwhisp’s Cartesian theater: but he can still spare some schadenfreude for the family fortunes. All your assets belong to me, now. He smiles, inwardly. I’ll just have to make sure they’re put to a sensible use this time.
"I don’t see why they’re diverting us toward Saturn. It’s not as if they can possibly have dismantled Jupiter already, is it?" asks Pierre, rolling the chilled beer bottle thoughtfully between fingers and thumb.
"Why not you ask Amber?" replies the velociraptor squatting beside the log table. (Boris’s Ukrainian accent is unimpeded by the dromaeosaurid’s larynx; in point of fact it’s an affectation, one he could easily fix by side-loading an English pronunciation patch if he wanted to.)
"Well." Pierre shakes his head. "She’s spending all her time with that slug, no multiplicity access, privacy ackles locked right down. I could get jealous." His voice doesn’t suggest any deep concern.
"What’s to get jealous about? Just ask to fork instance to talk to you, make love, show boyfriend good time, whatever."
"Hah!" Pierre chuckles grimly, then drains the last drops from the bottle into his mouth. He throws it away in the direction of a clump of cycads, then snaps his fingers: another one appears in its place.
"Are two megaseconds out from Saturn in any case," Boris points out, then pauses to sharpen his inch-long incisors on one end of the table. Fangs crunch through timber like wet cardboard. "Grrrrn. Am seeing most peculiar emission spectra from inner solar system. Foggy flying down bottom of gravity well. Am wondering, does ensmartening of dumb matter extend past Jovian orbit now?"
"Hmm." Pierre takes a swig from the bottle and puts it down. "That might explain the diversion. But why haven’t they powered up the lasers on the Ring for us? You missed that, too." The huge battery of launch lasers in orbit around Jupiter’s innermost moon, which Amber had built on a tottering pile of alien contact derivatives and reputation futures leveraged against her father’s agalmic fortune, had powered the light-sail starship Field Circus for its first five years, until it arrived in orbit around the brown dwarf Hyundai +4904/-56. Then, for reasons unknown, they’d shut down, leaving it adrift in proximity to the alien artifact known as the Router. Amber and much of her crew–Boris was a conspicuous exception–had uploaded themselves via the Router, only to discover the howling virtual wilderness left behind by the demise of a transcended civilization: a wilderness dominated by feral corporate instruments that used human-equivalent intelligences as fungible currency. Only the stubborn intransigence of Amber’s pet robot cat, Aineko, had saved them from a short future as debt collateral. They’d escaped with the help of the Slug–an alien pyramid scheme of bizarre complexity that was on the run from its creditors–and tricked the Router into giving them a return beam.
But it seemed that nobody in the solar system was interested in talking to them now, other than to say "set course for Saturn, following thus-and-such orbital elements." It was, Pierre reflected, no more or less perplexing than any of the other incidents they’d weathered.
"Don’t know why are not talking." Boris shrugged. "Am telling you from beginning, though, turning entire solar system into computronium is real bad idea, long term. Who knows how far has gone already?"
"Hmm, again." Pierre draws a circle in the air. "Aineko," he calls, "are you listening?"
"Don’t bug me." A faint green smile appears in the circle, just the suggestion of fangs and needle-sharp whiskers. "I had an idea I was sleeping furiously."
Boris rolls one turreted eye and drools on the tabletop. "Munch munch," he growls, allowing his saurian body-brain to put in a word.
"What do you need to sleep for? This is a fucking sim, in case you hadn’t noticed!"
"I enjoy sleeping," replies the cat, irritably lashing its just-now-becoming-visible tail. "What do you want? Fleas?"
"No thanks," Pierre says hastily. Last time he’d called Aineko’s bluff, the cat had filled three entire pocket universes with scurrying gray mice: one of the disadvantages of flying aboard a starship the size of a baked bean can full of smart matter was the risk that some of the passengers could get rather too creative with the reality-control system. This cretaceous caffee klatsch was just Boris’s entertainment partition; compared to some of the other simulation spaces aboard the Field Circus, it was downright conservative. "Look, do you have any updates on what’s going on downwell? We’re only twenty objective days out from orbital insertion and there’s so little to see–"
"They’re not sending us power." Aineko materializes fully now, a large orange-and-white tabby cat with a swirl of brown fur in the shape of an @-symbol covering her ribs. For whatever reason, she plants herself on the table tauntingly close to Boris’s velociraptor-body’s nose. "No propulsion laser means insufficient bandwidth. They’re talking in Latin-1 text at 1200 baud, if you care to know." (Which was an insult, given the ship’s multi-avabit storage capacity–one avabit is Avogadro’s number of bits; about 1023 bytes, several billion times the size of the internet in 2001–and outrageous communications bandwidth.) "Amber says, come and see her now. Audience chamber. Informal, of course. I think she wants to discuss it."
"Informal? Am all right without change bodies?"
The cat sniffs. "I’m wearing a real fur coat," it declares haughtily, then blinks out a fraction of a second ahead of the snicker-snack of bandersnatch-like jaws.
"Come on," says Pierre, standing up. "Let’s see what Her Majesty wants with us today."
Welcome to decade seven, third millennium, when the effects of the phase-change in the structure of the solar system is finally becoming visible on a cosmological scale.
There are about eleven billion future-shocked primates in various states of life and undeath throughout the solar system. Most of them cluster where the interpersonal bandwidth is hottest, down in the water zone around old Earth. Earth’s biosphere has been in the intensive care ward for decades now, weird rashes of hot-burning replicators erupting across it before the world health organization can fix them–grey goo, thylacines, dragons. The last great transglobal trade empire, run from the arcologies of Hong Kong, has collapsed along with capitalism, rendered obsolete by a bunch of superior deterministic resource allocation algorithms collectively known as Economics 2.0. Mercury, Venus, Mars, and Luna are all well on the way to disintegration, mass-pumped into orbit with energy stolen from the haze of free-flying thermoelectrics that cluster so thickly around the solar poles that the sun resembles a fuzzy red ball of wool the size of a young red giant.
Humans are just barely intelligent tool users; Darwinian evolutionary selection stopped when language and tool use converged, leaving the average hairy meme-carrier sadly deficient in smarts. Now the brightly burning beacon of sapience isn’t held by humans any more–their cross-infectious enthusiasms have spread to a myriad of other hosts, several of them qualitatively better at thinking. At last count, there were about a thousand non-human intelligent species in Sol space, split evenly between posthumans on one side, naturally self-organizing AI’s in the middle, and mammalian nonhumans on the other. The common mammalian neural chassis is easily upgraded to human-style intelligence in most species that can carry a half-kilogram brain, and the descendants of a hundred ethics-challenged doctoral theses are now demanding equal rights. So are the unquiet dead; the panopticon-logged net-ghosts of people who lived recently enough to imprint their identity on the information age, and brought up in the ambitious theological engineering schemes of the Reformed Church of Latter-Day Saints (who want to emulate all possible human beings in real time, so that they can have the opportunity to be saved).
The human memesphere is coming alive, although how long it will remain recognizably human is open to question. The informational density of the inner planets is visibly converging on Avogadro’s number of bits per mole, one bit per atom, as the deconstructed dumb matter of the inner planets–except for Earth, preserved for now like a picturesque historic building stranded in an industrial park–is converted into computronium. And it’s not just the inner system. The same forces are at work on Jupiter’s moons, and those of Saturn, although it’ll take thousands of years rather than mere decades to dismantle the gas giants themselves. Even the entire solar energy budget isn’t enough to pump Jupiter’s enormous mass to orbital velocity in less than centuries. The fast-burning primitive thinkers descended from the African plains apes may have vanished completely or transcended their fleshy architecture before the solar Matrioshka brain is finished.
In the meantime, there’s a party brewing down in Saturn’s well.
Sirhan’s lily pad city floats inside a gigantic and nearly invisible sphere in Saturn’s upper atmosphere; a balloon kilometers across with a shell of fullerene-reinforced diamond below and a hot hydrogen gas bag above. It’s one of several hundred multi-megaton soap-bubbles floating in the sea of turbulent hydrogen and helium that is the upper atmosphere of Saturn, seeded there by the Society for Creative Terraforming, subcontractors for the 2074 Worlds Fair.
The cities are elegant, grown from a conceptual seed a few megawords long. Their replication rate is slow–it takes months to build a bubble–but in only a couple of decades exponential growth will have paved the stratosphere with human-friendly terrain. Of course, the growth rate will slow toward the end, as it takes longer to fractionate the metal isotopes out of the gas giant’s turbid depths, but before that happens, the first fruits of the robot factories on Ganymede will be pouring hydrocarbons down into the mix. Eventually Saturn–surface gravity a human-friendly eleven meters per second squared–will have a planet-wide biosphere with nearly a hundred times the surface area of Earth. And a bloody good thing indeed this will be, because otherwise Saturn’s no use to anyone except as a fusion fuel bunker for the deep future.
This particular lily pad is carpeted in grass, the hub of the disk rising in a gentle hill surmounted by the glowering concrete hump of the Boston Museum of Science. It looks curiously naked, shorn of its backdrop of highways and the bridges of the Charles River–but even the generous kiloton dumb-matter load-outs of the skyhooks that lifted it into orbit wouldn’t have stretched to bringing its framing context along. Probably someone will eventually knock up a cheap diorama backdrop out of utility fog, Sirhan thinks, but for now, the museum stands proud and isolated, a solitary redoubt of dumb matter in exile from the fast-thinking core of the solar system.
"Waste of money," grumbles the woman in black. "Whose stupid idea was this, anyway?" She jabs the diamond ferrule of her cane at the museum.
"It’s a statement," Sirhan says absently. "You know: we’ve got so many newtons we can send our cultural embassies anywhere we like. The Louvre is on its way to Pluto, did you hear that?"
"Waste of energy." She lowers her cane reluctantly and leans on it. Pulls a face: "It’s not right."
"You grew up during the second oil crunch, didn’t you?" Sirhan prods. "What was it like then?"
"What was it. . . ? Oh, gas hit fifty bucks a gallon, but we still had plenty for bombers," she says dismissively. "We knew it would be okay. If it hadn’t been for those damn’ meddlesome post-humanists–" Her wrinkled, unnaturally aged face scowls at him furiously from underneath hair that has faded to the color of rotten straw. "Like your grandfather, damn him. If I was young again, I’d go and piss on his grave to show him what I think of what he did. If he has a grave."
Memo checkpoint: log family history, Sirhan reminds a distinct part of himself. As a dedicated historian, he records every experience routinely, both before it enters his narrative of consciousness–efferent signals are the cleanest–and also his own stream of selfhood, against some future paucity of memory. But his grandmother has been remarkably consistent over the decades in her refusal to adopt the new modalities.
"You’re recording this, aren’t you?" she sniffs.
"I’m not recording it, grandmama," he says gently, "I’m just preserving my memories for future generations."
"Hah. We’ll see," she says suspiciously. Then she surprises him with a bark of laughter, cut off abruptly: "No, you’ll see, darling. I won’t be around to be disappointed."
"Are you going to tell me about my grandfather?" asks Sirhan.
"No. I know you posthumans, you’ll just go and ask his ghost yourself. Don’t try to deny it! There are two sides to every story, child, and he’s had more than his fair share of ears, the scumbag. Leaving me to bring up your mother on my own, and nothing but a bunch of worthless intellectual property and a dozen lawsuits from the mafia to do it with. He’s worthless trash, and don’t you forget it. Lazy idiot couldn’t even form just one start-up on his own: he had to give it all away, all the fruits of his genius."
While she rambles on, occasionally punctuating her characterization with sharp jabs of the cane, Pamela leads Sirhan on a slow, wavering stroll that veers around one side of the museum, until they’re standing next to a starkly engineered antique loading bay. "Should have tried real communism instead," she harrumphs: "put some steel into him, shake those starry-eyed visionary positive-sum daydreams loose. You knew where you were in the old times, and no mistake. Humans were real humans, work was real work. And then, when she went to the bad, that was all his fault too, you know."
"She? You mean my, ah, mother?" Sirhan diverts his primary sensorium back to Pamela’s vengeful muttering. There are aspects to this story that he isn’t completely familiar with, angles he needs to sketch-in so that he can satisfy himself that all is as it should be when the bailiffs go in to repossess Amber’s mind–
"He sent her his cat! Of all the mean-spirited, low, downright dishonest things he ever did, that was the worst part of it. That cat was mine, but he reprogrammed it to lead her astray. And it succeeded. She was only twelve at the time, an impressionable age, I’m sure you’d agree. I was trying to raise her right. Children need moral absolutes, especially in a changing world, even if they don’t like it much at the time. But Manfred never really understood childhood, mostly on account of him never growing up."
"I haven’t heard much about the cat," Sirhan says quietly. A glance at the loading bay doors tells him that they’ve been serviced recently; a thin patina of expended foglets have formed a snowy scab around their edges, flaking off like blue refractive candyfloss that leaves bright metal behind. "Didn’t it go missing or something?"
Pamela snorts. "When your mother ran away, it uploaded itself into her starwhisp and deleted its body. It was the only one of them that had the guts to do that–or maybe it was afraid I’d have it subpoena’d as a hostile witness. Or, and I can’t rule this out, your grandfather gave it a suicide reflex. He was quite evil enough to do something like that."
"So when my mother sent her ghost away to avoid bankruptcy, the cat . . . didn’t stay behind? Not at all? How remarkable." Sirhan doesn’t bother adding how suicidal. Any artificial entity that’s willing to upload its neural state vector into a one-kilogram interstellar probe and fire itself at an alien beacon three quarters of the way to Alpha Centauri with no backup and no clear way of returning home has got to be more than a few methods short in the object factory.
"It’s a vengeful beast." Pamela pokes her stick at the ground sharply, mutters a command word, and lets go of it. She stands before Sirhan, craning her neck back to look up at him. "My, what a tall boy you are."
"Person," he corrects, instinctively. "I’m sorry, I shouldn’t presume."
"Person, thing, boy, whatever–you’re engendered, aren’t you?" she asks, sharply, waiting until he nods reluctantly. "Never trust anyone who can’t make up their mind whether to be a man or a woman," she says gloomily. "You can’t rely on them." Sirhan, who has placed his reproductive system on hold until he needs it, holds his tongue. "That damn cat," his grandmother complains. "It carried your grandfather’s business plan to my daughter and spirited her away into the big black. It poisoned her against me. It encouraged her to join in that frenzy of speculative bubble-building that caused the market reboot that brought down the Ring Imperium. And now it–"
"Is it on the ship?" Sirhan asks, almost too eagerly.
"It might be." She stares at him through narrowed eyes. "You want to interview it, huh?"
Sirhan doesn’t bother denying it. "I’m a historian, grandmama. And that probe has been somewhere no other human sensorium has seen. It may be old news, and there may be old lawsuits waiting to feed on the occupants, but..." he shrugs. "Business is business, and my business is ruins."
"Hah." She stares at him for a moment, then nods, very slowly. She leans forward to rest both wrinkled hands atop her cane, joints like bags of shriveled walnuts: her suit’s endoskeleton creaks as it adjusts to accommodate her confidential posture. "You’ll get yours, kid." The wrinkles twist into a frightening smile, sixty years of saved-up venom finally within spitting distance of a victim. "And I’ll get what I want, too. Between us, your mother won’t know what’s hit her!"
"Relax. Between us, your mother won’t know what’s hit her," says the cat, baring needle-teeth at the queen in the big chair–carved out of a single lump of computational diamond, her fingers clenched whitely on the sapphire-plated arms–her minions, lovers, friends, crew, shareholders, bloggers, and general factional auxiliaries spaced out around her. And the slug. "It’s just another lawsuit. You can deal with it."
"Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke," Amber says, a trifle moodily. Although she’s ruler of this embedded space, with total control over the reality model underlying it, she’s allowed herself to age to a dignified twenty-something: dressed casually in gray sweats, she doesn’t look like the once-mighty ruler of a Jovian moon, or, for that matter, like the renegade bankrupt commander of an interstellar expedition. "Okay, I think you’d better run that past me again. Unless anyone’s got any suggestions?"
"If you will excuse me?" It’s Doctor Khurasani, the ship’s theologian and general eschatological attorney–short, dapper, perpetually worried-looking beneath his beard. "We have a shortage of insight here. I believe two laws were cited as absolute system-wide conventions–and how they convinced the ulema to go along with that I would very much like to know–concerning the rights and responsibilities of the undead. Which, apparently, we are. Did they by any chance attach the code to their claim?"
"Do bears shit in woods?" asks Boris, raptor-irascible, with an angry clatter of teeth. "Is full dependency graph and parse-tree of criminal code crawling way up carrier’s ass as we speak. Am drowning in lawyer gibberish! If you–"
"Boris. Can it." Amber snaps. Tempers are high in the futuristic throne room mapped out of her one-time receiving suite in the Ring Imperium. It started as a childhood jape turned medievalist exponential construction, then grew into a vast orbiting litigation and launch center on the back of the reputations-fortune Amber inherited from her father–now it’s gone, snapped out of existence like a stock-market bubble, light-lagged by relativistic flight and the accelerating pace of change. She didn’t know what to expect when she arrived home from the expedition to the Router, but bankruptcy proceedings weren’t part of it. Nor was being declared liable for debts run up by a renegade splinter of herself, her own un-uploaded identity that had stayed home to face the music, aged in the flesh, married, gone bankrupt, died–incurred child support payments? "I don’t hold you responsible for this," she added through gritted teeth, with a significant glace toward Sadeq.
"This is truly a mess fit for the prophet himself, peace be unto him, to serve judgment upon." Doctor Khurasani, Sadeq, looks as shaken as she is by the implications the lawsuit raises. His gaze skitters around the room, looking anywhere but at Amber–and Pierre, her lanky toy-boy astrogator and bedwarmer–as he laces his fingers.
"Drop it. I said I don’t blame you." Amber forces a smile. "We’re all tense from being locked in here with no bandwidth. Anyway, I smell mother-dearest’s hand underneath all this litigation. Sniff the glove. We’ll sort a way out."
"We could keep going." This from Ang, at the back of the room. Diffident and shy, she doesn’t generally open her mouth without a good reason. "The Field Circus is in good condition, isn’t it? We could divert back to the beam from the Router, accelerate up to cruise speed, and look for somewhere else to live. There must be a few suitable brown dwarves within a hundred light years...."
"We’ve lost too much sail-mass," says Pierre. He’s not meeting Amber’s eyes. There are lots of subtexts loose in this room, broken narratives from stories of misguided affections. Amber pretends not to notice his embarrassment. "We ejected half our original launch sail to provide the braking mirror at Hyundai +4904/-56, and almost eight megaseconds ago we halved our area again to give us a final deceleration beam for Saturn orbit. If we did it again we wouldn’t have enough area left to repeat the trick and still decelerate at our final target." Laser-boosted light sails do it with mirrors; after boost, they can drop half the sail and use it to reverse the launch beam and direct it back at the ship, to provide deceleration. But you can only do it a few times before you run out of sail. "There’s nowhere to run."
"Nowhere to–" Amber stares at him through narrowed eyes. "Sometimes I really wonder about you, you know?"
"I know you do." And Pierre really does know, because he carries a little homunculoid around in his society of mind, a model of Amber far more accurate and detailed than any pre-upload human could possibly have managed to construct of their lover. (For her part, Amber keeps a little Pierre doll tucked away inside the creepy cobwebs of her head, part of an exchange of insights they took part in years ago. But she doesn’t try to fit inside his head too often any more–it’s not good to be able to second-guess your lover every time.) "I also know that you’re going to rush in and grab the bull by the, ah, no. Wrong metaphor. This is your mother we are discussing?"
"My mother." Amber nods thoughtfully. "Where’s Donna?"
There’s a throaty roar from the back and Boris lurches forward with something in his mouth, an angry Bolex that flails his snout with its tripod legs. "Hiding in corners again?" Amber says disdainfully.
"I am a camera!" protests the camera, aggrieved and self-conscious as it picks itself up off the floor. "I am–"
Pierre leans close, sticks his face up against the fish-eye lens. "You’re fucking well going to be a human being just this once. Merde!"
The camera is replaced by a very annoyed blonde woman wearing a safari suit and more light meters, lenses, camera bags, and microphones than a CNN outside-broadcast unit. "Go fuck yourself !"
"I don’t like being spied on," Amber says sharply. "Especially as you weren’t invited to this meeting. Right?"
"I’m the archivist." Donna looks away, stubbornly refusing to admit anything. "You said I should–"
"Yes, well." Amber is embarrassed. But it’s a bad idea to embarrass the queen in her audience chamber. "You heard what we were discussing. What do you know about my mother’s state of mind?"
"Absolutely nothing," Donna says promptly. She’s clearly in a sulk and prepared to do no more than the minimum to help resolve the situation. "I only met her once. You look like her when you are angry, do you know that?"
"I–" For once, Amber’s speechless.
"–I’ll schedule you for facial surgery," offers the cat. Sotto voce: "It’s the only way to be sure."
Normally, accusing Amber of any resemblance to her mother, however slight and passing, would be enough to trigger a reality quake within the upload environment that passes for the bridge of the Field Circus. It’s a sign of how disturbed by the lawsuit Amber is that she lets the cat’s impertinence slide. "What is the lawsuit, anyway?" Donna asks, nosy as ever and twice as annoying: "I didn’t see that bit."
"It’s horrible," Amber says vehemently.
"Truly evil," echoes Pierre.
"Fascinating but wrong," Sadeq muses thoughtfully.
"Horrible, all the same!"
"Yes, but what is it?" Donna the all-seeing-eye archivist and camera manqué asks.
"It’s a demand for settlement." Amber takes a deep breath. "Damn it, you might as well tell everyone–it won’t stay secret for long." She sighs. "After we left, it seems my other half–my original incarnation, that is–got married. To Sadeq, here." She nods at the Iranian theologian, who looks just as bemused as she did, the first time she heard this part of the story. "And they had a child. Then the Ring Imperium went bankrupt. The child is demanding maintenance payments, backdated nearly twenty years, from me, on the grounds that the undead are jointly and severally liable for debts run up by their incarnations; it’s a legal precedent established to prevent people from committing suicide temporarily as a way to avoid bankruptcy. Worse, the lien on my assets is measured in subjective time from a point at the Ring Imperium about nineteen months after our launch time–we’ve been in relativistic flight, so while my other half would be out from under it by now if she’d survived, I’m still subject to the payment order. But compound interest applies back home–that is to stop people trying to use the twins’ paradox as a way to escape liability. So, by being away for about twenty-eight years of wall-clock time, I’ve run up a debt I didn’t know about to enormous levels.
"This man, this son I’ve never met, theoretically owns the Field Circus several times over. And my accounts are wiped out–I don’t even have enough money to download us into fleshbodies. Unless one of you guys has got a secret stash that survived the market crash after we left, we’re all in deep trouble." …