The woman from the bank apologised for keeping him waiting, although in fact it had been no more than minutes. Her name was Marjorie Hu, and she appeared genuinely keen to be of assistance, as if he’d caught her on a slow day where any break in routine was welcome.
‘I’m Geoffrey Akinya,’ he said, falteringly. ‘A relative of the late Eunice Akinya. Her grandson.’
‘In which case I’m very sorry for your loss, sir.’
‘Thank you,’ he said solemnly, allowing a judicious pause before proceeding with business. ‘Eunice held a safe-deposit box with this branch. I understand that as a family member I have the authority to examine the contents.’
‘Let me look into that for you, sir. There was some rebuilding work a while back, so we might have moved the box to another branch. Do you know when the box was assigned ?’
‘Some time ago.’ He had no idea. The cousins hadn’t told him, assum- ing they even knew. ‘But it’ll still be on the Moon?’
‘Almost certainly. And if that’s the case we can have it back here within six hours.’ Marjorie Hu wore a blouse and skirt in the Central African Bank’s corporate colours of yellow and blue. Ethnic Chinese, he decided, but with the long-limbed build of someone raised Moonside. ‘You haven’t come far, have you?’
‘Just up from Africa.’
He’d travelled like any other tourist, leaving the day after his meeting with the cousins. After clearing exit procedures in Libreville, he’d been put to sleep and packed into a coffin-sized passenger capsule. The capsule had been fed like a machine-gun round into the waiting chamber of the slug-black, blunt-hulled thread-rider, where it was automatically slotted into place and coupled to internal power and biomonitor buses, along with six hundred otherwise identical capsules, densely packed for maximum transit efficiency.
And three days later he’d woken on the Moon.
No sense of having travelled further than, say, China – until he took his first lurching step and felt in his bones that he wasn’t on Earth any more. He’d had breakfast and completed immigration procedures for the African-administered sector. As promised, there’d been a message from the cousins: details of the establishment he was supposed to visit. Nothing about the Copernicus Branch of the C AB had surprised him, beyond the fact that it was exactly like every other bank he’d ever been in, from Mogadishu to Brazzaville. Same new-carpet smell, same wood- effect furniture, same emphatic courtesy from the staff. Everyone loped around in Lunar gravity, and the accents were different, but those were the only indicators that he wasn’t home. Even the images on the wall, cycling from view to view, were mostly of terrestrial locations. Adverts pushed travel insurance, retirement schemes, investment portfolios. Marjorie Hu had asked him to sit in a small windowless waiting room
with a potted plant and a fake view of ocean breakers while she checked the location of the safe-deposit box. He had packed lightly for the trip, jamming everything he needed into a large black zip-up sports bag with a faded logo on the side. He kept the bag between his feet, picking at the terrestrial dirt under his nails until the door opened again and Marjorie Hu came in.
‘No problem,’ she said. ‘It’s still in our vaults. Been there for thirty- five years, which is about as long as we’ve had a branch in Copernicus. If you wouldn’t mind following me?’
‘I was assuming you’d want to screen me or something.’
‘We already have, sir.’
She took him downstairs. Doors, heavy enough to contain pressure in the event of an accident, whisked open at the woman’s approach. She turned her head to look at him as they walked.
‘We’re about to pass out of aug reach, and I don’t speak Swahili.’ From a skirt pocket she pulled out a little plastic-wrapped package. ‘We have earphone translators available.’
‘Which languages do you speak?’
‘Mm, let’s see. Chinese and English, some Russian, and I’m learning Somali and Xhosa, although they’re both still bedding in. We can get a Swahili speaker to accompany you, but that might take a while to arrange.’
‘My Chinese is O K, but English will be easier for both of us, I suspect. I even know a few words of Somali, but only because my nanny spoke it. She was a nice lady from Djibouti.’
‘We’ll shift to English, then.’ Marjorie Hu put the earphones away.
‘We’ll lose aug in a few moments.’
Geoffrey barely felt the transition. It was a withdrawing of vague floating possibilities rather than a sudden curtailment of open data feeds.
‘Anyone ever come in here that you couldn’t translate for ?’ Geoffrey asked.
‘Not since I’ve been here. Anyone speaking a language that obscure, they’d better have backup.’
Marjorie Hu’s tone of voice had shifted microscopically now that he was hearing her actual larynx-generated speech sounds.
A final set of pressure doors brought them to the vault. The morgue-like room’s walls were lined with small silver-and-orange-fronted cabinets, stacked six high, perhaps two hundred in all. Given the virtual impos- sibility of committing theft in the Surveilled World, there was no longer much need for this sort of safekeeping measure. Doubtless the bank regarded the housing of these boxes as a tedious obligation to its older clients.
‘That’s yours, sir,’ she said, directing him to a specific unit three rows up from the floor, the only cabinet in the room with a green light above the handle. ‘Open it whenever you like. I’ll step outside until you’re finished. When you’re done, just push the cabinet back into the wall; it will lock on its own.’
Marjorie Hu made a small, nervous coughing sound. ‘I’m required to inform you that you remain under surveillance. The eyes aren’t public, but we would be obliged to surrender captured imagery in the event of an investigation.’
‘That’s fine. I wouldn’t have assumed otherwise.’
She dispensed a businesslike smile. ‘I’ll leave you to it.’
Geoffrey put down his bag as she left the room, the door whisking shut between them. He wasted no time. At his touch, the cabinet eased out of the wall on smooth metal runners until it reached the limit of its travel. It was open-topped, with a smaller cream-coloured box resting inside. He lifted out the box and placed it on the floor. Even allowing for Lunar gravity, it struck him as unexpectedly light. No gold ingots, then. The box, stamped with the bank’s logo, had a simple hinged lid with no lock or catch. He opened it and looked inside.
The box contained a glove.
A glove, from a spacesuit. Fabric layers interspersed with plastic or composite plating, lending flexibility and strength. The fabric was silvery or off-white – hard to judge in the vault’s sombre lighting – and the plates were beige or maybe pale yellow. At the cuff-end of the glove was an alloy connector ring, some kind of blue-tinted metal inset with complicated gold-plated contacts that would presumably lock into place when the glove was fixed to the suit sleeve. The glove had been cleaned because, despite its apparent grubbiness, his hands stayed unsoiled.
That was all there was. Nothing clutched in the fingers, nothing marked on the exterior. He couldn’t see anything lodged inside. He tried pushing his hand into it, but couldn’t get his thumb-joint past the wristband.
Geoffrey didn’t know whether he felt disappointed or relieved. A bit of both, maybe. Relieved that there was nothing here to taint Eunice’s memory – no incriminating document linking her to some long-dead tyrant or war criminal – but subtly let down that there wasn’t something more intriguing, some flourish from beyond the grave, the fitting cap- stone that her life demanded. It wasn’t enough just to retire to Lunar orbit, live out her remaining days in the Winter Palace and die.
He started to put the glove back in the box, preparing to stow the box back in the cabinet.
And stopped. He couldn’t say why, save the fact that the glove seemed to merit more attention than he had given it. The one constant of Eunice’s life was that she was practically minded, scathing of sentiment and pointless gesture. She wouldn’t have put that glove there unless it meant something – either to her, or to whoever was supposed to find it after her death.
Geoffrey slipped the glove into his sports bag. He put an Ashanti F C sweatshirt on top, jammed his baseball cap on top of that, resealed the bag and placed the now-empty box back into the cabinet. He pressed the cabinet back into the wall, whereupon it clicked into place and the green light changed to red.
He opened the external door and stepped out of the vault.
‘All done,’ Geoffrey told the bank woman. ‘For now, anyway. I take it there’ll be no difficulties gaining access again?’
‘None at all, sir,’ Marjorie Hu said. If she had any interest in what he had found in the box, she was doing a good job of hiding it. This is a big deal for me, Geoffrey thought: family secrets, clandestine errands to the Moon, safe-deposit boxes with mysterious contents. But she must bring a dozen people down here every week.
With the glove still in his possession, he made his way to the under- ground railway station. Transparent vacuum tubes punched through the terminal’s walls at different levels, threading between platforms connected by spiral walkways and sinuous escalators. Everything was glassy and semitranslucent. There were shopping plazas and dining areas, huge multi-storey sculptures and banners, waterfalls, fountains and a kind of tinkling, cascading piano music that followed him around like a lost dog.
He strolled to a quiet corner of the concourse and voked a call to Lucas. When a minute had passed without Lucas picking up, he diverted the request to Hector. Three seconds later Hector’s figment – dressed in riding boots, jodhpurs and polo shirt – was standing in front of him.
‘Good of you to check in, Geoffrey. How’s your journey been so far ?’
‘Pretty uneventful. How’re things back home?’
‘You haven’t missed any excitement.’ Lunar time lag made it seem as if Hector had given the question deep consideration. ‘Now – concerning that small matter we asked you to look into? Have you by any chance—’
‘It’s done, Hector. You can pass the word to Lucas as well – I tried calling him, but he didn’t answer. Maybe his empathy shunt short- circuited.’
‘Lucas broke a leg this morning – had a bad fall during the match. What should I tell him?’
‘That there was nothing in it.’
Hector cocked his head. ‘Nothing?’
‘Nothing worth worrying about. Just an old glove.’
‘An old glove.’ Hector barked out a laugh. ‘Could you possibly be a little more specific, cousin?’
‘It’s from a spacesuit, I think – an old one. Can’t be worth much – must be millions like it still kicking around.’
‘She left it there for a reason.’
‘I suppose.’ Geoffrey gave an easy-going shrug, as if it was no longer his problem to worry about such things. ‘I’ll bring it home, if you’re interested.’
‘You’re at the premises now, right?’
‘No, I’m at the Copetown train terminal, on my way to Sunday. I couldn’t call you from the . . . premises – no aug reach.’
‘But the item is back where you found it?’
‘Yes,’ Geoffrey said, and for a moment the lie had emerged so effort- lessly, so plausibly, that it felt as if he had spoken the truth. He swallowed hard, sudden dryness in his throat. ‘I can collect it before I come back down.’
‘Perhaps that wouldn’t be a bad idea.’ Hector’s figment was looking at him with . . . something.
Naked, boiling contempt, perhaps, that Geoffrey had been so easily manipulated into doing the cousins’ bidding. Perhaps he should have shown more spine, talked up the offer even more. Maybe even told them to go fuck themselves. They’d have respected that.
‘I’ll bring it back. Seriously, though – it’s just an old glove.’
‘Whatever it is, it belongs in the family’s care now, not up on the Moon. How long before your train leaves?’
Geoffrey made a show of looking up at the destination board. ‘A few minutes.’
‘It’s a shame you didn’t call me from the premises.’ Hector chopped his hand dismissively, as if he had better things to do than be cross with Geoffrey. ‘No matter. Fetch it on the way down, and enjoy the rest of your trip. Be sure to pass on my best wishes to your sister, of course.’
‘While remembering what we said about this matter staying between the three of us.’
‘My lips are sealed.’
‘Very good. And we’ll see you back at the household. Ching home if you need to discuss anything in depth, but otherwise consider yourself on well-deserved vacation. I’m sure Memphis will be in touch if anything requires your immediate input.’
Geoffrey smiled tightly. ‘Wish Lucas well with his leg.’
The figment vanished. Geoffrey found the next train to Verne – they ran every thirty minutes – and bought himself a business-class ticket. Damned if he was slumming it when the cousins were picking up the tab.
He was soon on his way, sitting alone in a nearly empty carriage, digging through a foil-wrapped chicken curry, lulled into drowsiness by the hypnotic rush of speeding scenery. But all the while he was thinking about the thing inside his bag, now shoved in the overhead rack. But for the fact that he had sensed its bulk and mass inside his holdall as he made his way to the station, he could easily have imagined that he’d taken nothing with him after all.
Copernicus had been sunlit when Geoffrey arrived, but ever since then he had been moving east, towards an inevitable encounter with the terminator, the moving line of division between the Moon’s illu- minated and shadowed faces. They hit it just west of the Mare Tran- quillitatis, as the train was winding its way down from the uplands between the Ariadaeus and Hyginus Rilles. Geoffrey happened to glance up, and for an awful, lurching moment it looked as if the train was about to hurtle off the top of a sheer cliff into an immense sucking black sea below. Just as suddenly they were speeding over that sea, the train casting a wavering, rippling pool of light across the gently undulating ground which served only to intensify the darkness beyond it. Against the unlit immensity of the great sea the train appeared to be speeding along a narrow causeway, arrowing into infinite, swallowing night.
A few minutes into the crossing the cabin lights dimmed, allowing sleep for those who needed it. Geoffrey amped-up his eyes. He made out the occasional fleeting form in the middle distance, a boulder, escarpment or some other surface feature zipping by. And there were, of course, still communities out here, some of which were among the oldest in the Moon’s short history of human habitation. To the south lay the first of the Apollo landing sites, a shrine to human ingenuity and daring that had remained undisturbed – though now safely under glass – for nearly two centuries. Back when the idea of his visiting the Moon was no more than a distant possibility, Geoffrey had always assumed that, like any good tourist, he would find time to visit the landing site. But that pilgrimage would have to wait until his next visit, however many years in the future that lay.
He chinged Sunday.
‘Geoffrey,’ she said, her figment appearing opposite him. ‘There’s got to be something screwed up with the aug, because it’s telling me your point of origin is the Moon.’
‘I’m here,’ Geoffrey said. ‘On the train out of Copernicus. It was . . . a spur-of-the-moment thing.’
‘It would have to be.’
‘We’ve talked about it often enough, and after the scattering I just decided, damn it, I’m doing this. Took the sleeper up from Libreville.’ He made a kind of half-grimace. ‘Um, haven’t caught you at a bad time, have I?’
‘No,’ she said, not quite masking her suspicion. ‘I’m really glad you’ve decided to come and see us at long last. It’s just . . . a surprise, that’s all. It wouldn’t have killed you to call ahead first, though.’
‘Isn’t that what I’m doing now?’
‘I might be on a deadline here – up to my eyes in work, with no time even to eat, sleep or indulge in basic personal hygiene.’
‘If it’s a problem—’
‘It’s not, honestly. We’d love to see you.’ He believed her, too. She was clearly pleased that he was visiting. But he didn’t blame her for having a few doubts about the suddenness of it all. ‘Look, I’m guessing it’ll be evening before you arrive in the Zone, with all the tourist crap you have to clear first. Jitendra and I were going to eat out tonight – up for joining us? There’s a place we both like – they do East African, if you’re not sick of it.’
‘Call me when you get near the Zone and I’ll meet you at the tram stop. We’ll go straight out to eat, if you’re not too exhausted.’
‘Look forward to seeing you, brother.’
He smiled, nodded and closed the ching bind.
As the train sped on across the darkness of the Sea of Tranquillity, he delved into his bag again, reaching past the Cessna baseball cap and the Ashanti F C sweatshirt.
Geoffrey angled the reading light to get a better view into the glove through its wrist opening. The wrist and hand cavity were empty, as he’d thought, all the way down as far as he could see, but the fingers were still obscured by shadow. Then he thought of his pencil and sketchpad further down in the bag, shoved in on the off chance.
He drew out the sharpened 2B. Glancing up to make sure he was still unobserved, he probed the pencil down into the glove, jabbing around with the sharp end until he found the hole where the index finger began. He continued pushing until he met resistance. Hard to tell, but he didn’t feel that he had gone beyond the first joint after the knuckle. Something had to be wadded down there, jammed into the finger’s last two joints. Geoffrey drew out the pencil and tried the next finger along, finding that he couldn’t push the pencil down that one either. The third finger was the same, but the thumb and little finger appeared unobstructed.
He went back to the first finger, dug the pencil in again. Whatever it was yielded slightly then impeded further ingress. He tried forcing the pencil past the obstruction, so that he could somehow hook it out, but that didn’t work. He gave it a couple more goes then withdrew the pencil and returned it to his bag.
He took the glove and tried tapping it against the table, wrist end first, to loosen whatever was stuck in the fingers. That made too much noise, and in any case he could tell after the first few goes that it wasn’t going to work. He could feel nothing working loose, and if anything his poking and prodding had only rammed the obstructions further into the glove. Whatever it was would have to wait until he got home.
Or at least until he got to Sunday’s.
Certain he had exhausted its mysteries for now, Geoffrey pushed the glove back into his bag. He pulled his baseball cap out, jammed it onto his head with the brim forward, and dreamed of elephants.
‘This is your last chance,’ the Zone spokeswoman said. She was skinny, leather-clad, high-heeled, North African, with pink sparkles dusted onto her cheekbones and vivid purple hair, elaborately braided and sewn with little flickering lights. ‘From here on, the aug thins out to zilch. That bothers you, if that’s something you can’t deal with, now’s your chance to turn around.’
Stoic faces, pasted-on smiles. No one abandoned their plans, all having come too far not to go through with the rest of the trip, Geoffrey included.
‘Guess we’re set, then,’ the purple-haired woman said, as if she’d never seriously expected anyone to quit. ‘You’ve all got your visas, so hop aboard.’
The visa was a pale-green rectangle floating in his upper-right visual field, with a decrementing clock. It was the fourth of February now, and the visa allowed him to stay until the ninth. Failure to comply with the visa’s terms would result in forcible ejection from the Zone – and whether that meant literal ejection, onto the surface, with or without a spacesuit, or something fractionally more humane, was left carefully unspecified. It was a squeeze inside the tram, Geoffrey having to strap-hang. They were rattling down some dingy concrete-clad tunnel. Sensing a change in the mood of his fellow travellers, he formulated an aug query, a simple location request, and the delay before the aug responded was palpable. He waited a moment and tried again. This time there was no response at all, followed by a cascade of error messages flooding his visual field.
Simultaneously the babble of voices in the bus turned biblical.
Sensing the transition, some of the passengers reached languidly into pockets for earphone translators, or tapped jewelled ear-studs already in place. The babble quietened, lulled, resumed.
Geoffrey blinked away the few remaining error messages, leaving only the visa icon and a single symbol – a broken globe – to indicate that aug connectivity was currently impaired. The machines in his head were still functioning; they just didn’t have much to talk to beyond his skull. He sensed their restless, brooding disquiet.
The tram swerved and swooped along its shaft, dodging between the pupal carcasses of mothballed tunnelling machines. Ahead was a growing pool of light, a widening in the shaft. The tram picked its way between two rows of stacked shipping containers and came to a smooth halt next to a platform where people and robots waited. Geoffrey spotted his sister immediately. He truly felt as if it was only a few days since he’d last been in her company, even though it was years since they had been physically present with each other.
She waved. A very tall man next to her also waved, but awkwardly, his eyes shifting as if he wasn’t completely sure which passenger they were meant to be greeting. Geoffrey waved back as the tram’s doors huffed open and he stepped off. He walked over to his sister and gave her a hug.
‘Good to see you, brother,’ Sunday said, speaking Swahili. ‘Jitendra – this is Geoffrey. Geoffrey – this is Jitendra Gupta.’
Jitendra was about the same age as Sunday but easily a head taller, and very obviously a Lunar citizen: skinny, bald, boyishly handsome. Once Jitendra knew who to look at his smile warmed and he made a point of shaking Geoffrey’s hand vigorously.
‘Glad you made it!’ Jitendra declared. ‘Good trip?’
Around them robots fussed with suitcases, aiding those passengers who had arrived with non-locomotive luggage.
‘Uneventful,’ Geoffrey answered. ‘Can’t say I saw much from the train.’
‘You’ll have to come back during Lunar day. Some amazing places within easy reach of here, even if they’re not on the usual tourist maps.’ Jitendra’s Swahili was excellent, Geoffrey thought. He wondered if he’d made the effort just to impress Sunday.
‘How are you adjusting to life without the aug?’ Sunday asked. Geoffrey took off his baseball cap and jammed it into his sweatshirt pocket.
‘Just about holding it together.’
His sister nodded approvingly. ‘A day here, you’ll forget you ever needed it.’
He gave her another hug, but this time trying to gauge the warm, breathing form under the clothes.
‘It is you, isn’t it? Not another claybot? Without the tags I’m not sure I trust anything.’
‘It’s me,’ Sunday said. ‘The claybot’s still on Earth, being driven by someone else.’ She shifted impatiently. ‘Look, let’s not stand here all day – where are the rest of your bags?’
‘This is it,’ Geoffrey said, swinging the holdall off his shoulder. ‘Travel light, that’s my motto.’
‘Don’t travel at all, that’s mine,’ Sunday said. ‘Remember what I said about eating out tonight – are you still up for that?’
‘Of course he’s up for it,’ Jitendra said cheerily. ‘Who wouldn’t be?’
Actually, Geoffrey was ready to eat – the light meal on the express hadn’t done more than dent his appetite. But he slightly resented Jit- endra making that assumption for him. He eyed the other man warily, trying not to appear unfriendly but for the moment reserving judgement. Some kind of minor commotion was going on a little further down the tram platform. Geoffrey recognised one of his fellow passengers – a big white man with chrome-tinted hair and a padded, wide-shouldered suit that made him look overmuscled. The man was being pulled aside by local officials. There was a lot of shouting and raised voices. The man was trying to break free of the officials, his face reddening.
‘What’s going on?’
‘Don’t know,’ Sunday said, as if it really wasn’t that interesting.
But Geoffrey couldn’t stop rubbernecking. He’d seldom witnessed anything resembling civil disobedience. In the Surveilled World, it hardly ever reached the point where anyone was in a position to resist authority. That man would have been on the floor by now, dropped into quivering, slack-jawed compliance by the Mech’s direct neural intervention.
Now one of the officials was holding the man’s head in a tight double- handed grip while another shone a pen-sized device into his right eye. Words were exchanged. The man appeared to give up his fight and was soon being bundled back to the tram.
‘His eyes should have stopped recording when he crossed the border,’ Jitendra said. ‘Yours will have, unless you went to great lengths to get around that limitation.’
‘I didn’t,’ Geoffrey assured him.
‘He must have had additional recording devices installed, hoping they wouldn’t get picked up by our normal scans,’ Jitendra speculated. ‘Very naughty. He’s lucky to get off with simple deportation. They’d have been well within their rights to scoop his eyes out on the spot.’
‘We’re kind of touchy about privacy here,’ Sunday said.
The display of force had left Geoffrey rattled. He’d made no conscious efforts to break the Descrutinised Zone’s protocols, but what if that man had made an innocent mistake, forgetting about some function he’d had installed into his eyes years ago? The additional aug faculties that the clinic in Luanda had given Geoffrey . . . they couldn’t possibly be mistaken for anything in direct contravention of Zone regulations . . . could they? But with an effort of will he forced himself to stop worrying. He was in the Zone now. By its very nature, the amount of scrutiny he’d be subjected to from this point on would be minimal.
They left the tram station, part of a loose, straggling procession of travellers and greeters and robots. Sunday must have caught him craning his neck, looking for a view beyond these concrete and spray-sealed warrens. ‘No one bothers much with windows on the Moon,’ she told him. ‘Even above the ’lith. Too depressing at night – weeks of endless darkness – and too bright by day. You want to see Earth, or the stars, take a surface rover or suit, or ching your way to the far side. We came here for the social possibilities, not the scenery. You want scenery, stay in orbit, or go to Mars. That’s not what the Moon’s for.’
‘I didn’t know the Moon was for anything,’ Geoffrey said.
‘It’s a platform, that’s all. An event-space. A place to do interesting stuff. Think they’d tolerate the Zone anywhere else?’ Sunday was off on one of her rants now. ‘Sure, there are blind spots elsewhere in the system, but mostly that’s just because coverage gets patchy, not because people made it that way. This was on Earth, they’d have dragged some ancient clause out of the woodwork and sent in the tanks by now.’
‘I think they’d listen to reasoned persuasion first,’ Geoffrey said. ‘It’s not all tanks and guns down there – we do have something resembling peaceful global civilisation most of the time.’ Typical: he’d only been in Sunday’s presence for ten minutes and he was already acting like the defence counsel for the entire planet. ‘Were you born here, Jitendra?’ he asked brightly.
‘On the other side, Copernicus. That’s where you came in, isn’t it?’
‘Yes, although I didn’t see too much of it.’ They were walking along a level tunnel lined with concrete, the concrete overpainted with an impasto of oozing, flickering psycho-reactive graffiti. ‘Sunday told me you work in robotics.’
‘True-ish,’ Jitendra said. ‘Although at the more experimental bleeding edge of things. Something you’re interested in?’
‘I guess. Maybe. Doing some work on elephant cognition.’
Jitendra slapped his forehead absent-mindedly. ‘Oh, I get it now. You’re the elephant man!’
Geoffrey grimaced. ‘You make it sound like I’m some bizarre medical specimen, pickled in a bottle somewhere.’
‘I don’t know how many times I’ve told Jitendra what you do,’ Sunday said, with an exasperated air. ‘I mean, it’s not like I was talking about some obscure second cousin twice removed or anything.’
Around them the graffiti reconfigured itself endlessly, except for mouse-grey patches where the paint had failed or scabbed off. Graffiti was very quaint, Geoffrey thought.
‘So, anyway: elephant cognition,’ Jitendra said decisively. ‘That sounds pretty interesting. Where do you stand on Bayesian methods and the free-energy principle?’
‘If it’s free, I’m all for it.’
‘Not really a theoretician, our Geoffrey,’ Sunday said. ‘At least, theor- eticians don’t usually make a point of smelling like elephant dung, or flying around in two-hundred-year-old deathtraps.’
She wrapped an arm around his waist. ‘Wouldn’t want him any other way, of course. If it wasn’t for my brother, I’d feel like the only weird member of the family.’
She came to a stop next to a patch of wall where the muddy brown background coloration of earlier graffiti layers had been overpainted with a trembling, shimmering silvery form, like the reflection in water of some complex metallic structure or alien hieroglyph. Blocks and forms of primary colours were beginning to intrude on the silver, jabbing and harassing its margins.
Sunday pushed her finger against the wall and started reasserting the form, pushing it back out against the confining shapes. Where her finger pressed, the silver turned broad and bright and lustrous. ‘This is one of mine,’ she said. ‘Did it five months ago and it’s still hanging on. Not bad for a piece of consensus art. The paint tracks attention. Any piece that doesn’t get looked at often enough, it’s at the mercy of being encroached on and overpainted.’
She pulled back her finger, which remained spotless. ‘I can redo my own work, provided the paint deems itself to have been sufficiently observed. And I can overpaint someone else’s if it hasn’t been looked at enough. I’d hardly ever do that, though – it’s not really fair.’
‘So this is Sunday Akinya, literally making her mark,’ Geoffrey said.
‘I don’t sign this stuff,’ Sunday said. ‘And since I mostly work in sculpture and animation these days, there’s not much chance of anyone associating a piece of two-D abstraction with me.’
Geoffrey stood back to allow a luggage-laden robot to speed past.
‘Anyone could’ve seen you do it.’
‘Most wouldn’t have a clue who I am. I’m a small fish, even up here.’
‘She really is a struggling artist,’ Jitendra said.
‘And half the people who live here are artists anyway, or think they are,’ Sunday said, ushering them on again. ‘I’m not an Akinya here, just another woman trying to make a living.’
As they approached the end of the graffiti-covered corridor, Geoffrey sensed that it was about to open out into a much larger space, the acoustics shifting, the feeling of confinement ebbing. There was even a hint of a breeze.
They emerged high up on one side of a vast flat-roofed cavern. Easily two kilometres across, Geoffrey guessed. Bright lights gridded the slightly domed ceiling, drenching the entire cavern with what appeared to be a simulacrum of full planetary daylight.
Buildings crammed the space, tight as a box of skittles. Many of them reached all the way up to the ceiling and some even punched through. Towers and cupolas and spires, spiralling flutes and teetering top-heavy helices, baroque crystalline eruptions and unsettling brainlike masses, and everything shimmering with eyeball-popping colour, hues and pat- terns that flickered and shifted from moment to moment, as if the city was some kind of ancient computer system locked in an endless manic cycle of crash and reboot. The lower parts of the buildings, where they were accessible from street level or elevated walkways, were gaudy with layers of psycho-reactive graffiti. The upper levels carried active banners and flags or daubs of fluid, oozing neon, alongside tethered balloons with illuminated flanks.
‘Did you remember to book ahead ?’ Jitendra asked.
‘It’s a Thursday,’ Sunday said. ‘It won’t be heaving.’
Down in the congested lower levels Geoffrey made out bustling traffic, electric vehicles shuffling through near gridlock like neat little injection- moulded game pieces. There were cyclists and rickshaw drivers and piggyback robots. Human and mechanical motion, everywhere.
Sunday led them across a black ironwork bridge. It carried a wooden- floored promenade with perilously low railings, interrupted here and there by booths and stands with striped canvas awnings.
‘That’s the Turret,’ she said, indicating the structure at the other end of the bridge. ‘Best views of the cavern. Hope you’ve worked up a good appetite.’
Inside the Turret it was all organic pastel-coloured forms, enlivened with glass and porcelain mosaics set into umber-coloured stucco. Sunday had led them directly to a window alcove shaped like some natural cavity worn away by subterranean water erosion. Only after several minutes of dutiful observation was Geoffrey able to confirm that the view was creeping slowly past. Sunday told him that the machinery making the restaurant revolve had been repurposed from an abandoned centrifuge. The bearings were so icily smooth it felt as if the rest of the universe was doing the turning.
He was on one side of the table, Sunday and Jitendra on the other. Sunday had ordered a big bottle of Icelandic Merlot before Geoffrey had even put his bag down, wasting no time in charging their glasses. They made small talk over the appetisers, Sunday pushing him on his current romantic entanglements, or lack thereof, asking him if he had heard from Jumai lately. He told her that Jumai had chinged in on the day of Eunice’s death.
‘Sounds very exciting, what she’s doing. And quite dangerous,’ Sunday said.
‘They pay her well,’ Geoffrey said.
Ordinarily he’d have been uneasy talking about an old girlfriend, but at least it kept them off the one topic he didn’t want to go anywhere near.
‘More wine?’ Sunday asked, when the waiter came to take away their empty appetiser plates.
Jitendra levelled a hand over his glass. ‘Need a clear head tomorrow. Robot Wars.’
Geoffrey looked blank.
‘Jitendra’s a competitor,’ Sunday said. ‘It’s a thing he does. We’ll go out and see it tomorrow, the three of us.’
‘Something to do with free energy?’ Geoffrey asked, keen to latch on to a topic that would keep them off the real reason for his visit.
‘Something else entirely.’ Jitendra lowered his voice, as if he was in dread danger of being overheard by the other diners. ‘Although June Wing will be there, I think.’
‘You work for Plexus?’ Geoffrey asked, recognising the name.
‘I do work for them,’ he said, making the distinction plain. ‘They pay me to have interesting ideas, while at the same time recognising that I could never function in an orthodox corporate environment. They also give me far more creative latitude than I’d ever get working full- time in their labs. The upside is I don’t really have deadlines or deliver- ables. The downside is I don’t get paid very much. But we can afford to live where we do and I have a twenty-four-hour hotline to June that some people would kill for.’
‘So this . . . free-energy thing – is that a Plexus research programme?’
‘Not officially, because the whole point of free energy – at least in the sense that I’m interested in it – is to create human-level artilects. And that’s obviously a fairly major no-no, even now.’ Jitendra scratched at his dark-stubbled scalp. ‘But unofficially? That’s a different kettle.’
‘We found one once,’ Geoffrey said. ‘Near our home. It tried to take over Sunday’s mind.’
‘She told me about that. What you encountered was an abomination, a military intelligence. It was designed to be insidious and spiteful and inimical to life, and it wasn’t smart enough to have a conscience. But artilects could work for us, if we make them even cleverer.’
When the waiter arrived with their main courses there was the usual minor confusion over one of the orders. Geoffrey suspected that this reassuringly human touch was now firmly embedded in the service.
‘Maybe that’s not as easy as it sounds,’ he said, ‘making machines smarter.’
‘Depends where you begin.’ Jitendra was already tucking in. ‘Seems self-evident to me that the best starting point would be the human mind. What is it, if not a thinking, conscious machine that the universe has already given us, on a plate?’
A queasy image of a brain, served up with salad and trimmings, intruded into Geoffrey’s thoughts. He shoved it aside like an under- cooked entre´ e.
‘Animal cognition, there’s still work to be done. But the human brain? Isn’t that a done deal, research-wise?’
Jitendra pushed his food around with enthusiasm. ‘We know what goes on in a mind. We can track processes and correlate them at any resolution we care to specify. But that’s not the same as understanding.’
‘Until,’ Sunday said, ‘Jitendra comes along, with his world-shaking new ideas.’
‘I’d take credit for them if they were mine,’ Jitendra said. He inhaled a few hasty mouthfuls while holding up his knife to signal that he was not yet done talking.
Geoffrey decided that he rather liked Jitendra. And while Jitendra was talking, he didn’t have to.
‘Point is,’ Jitendra continued, swallowing between words, ‘I’m not just doing this out of some deluded sense that the world gives a damn about a theory of mind. What it cares about are practical applications.’
‘Hence the Plexus connection,’ Geoffrey said.
‘You’ve seen the claybot. That’s the physical edge of things. There’s also the construct, which Sunday has been involved with at least as much as me.’
‘Later,’ Sunday said, smiling.
‘And ultimately . . . there’s a point to all this?’ Geoffrey asked.
‘We need better machines. Machines that are as smart and adaptable as us, so they can be us – or go places we can’t,’ Jitendra said.
Geoffrey’s expression was sceptical.
‘Look, you’re going to meet the Pans at some point,’ Jitendra went on.
‘They’re our friends, and they have one point of view, which is that only people ought to be allowed to go into space. The flesh must inherit the stars; anything else is treason against the species. On the other side of the debate, you’ve got hard-line pragmatists like Akinya Space who will always send a machine to do a human’s work if it’s cheaper. That’s why you’ve got umpteen billion robots crawling around the asteroid belt.’
‘We’re having dinner in a restaurant on the Moon,’ Geoffrey said.
‘Isn’t it a bit late to be worrying about who gets to go into space?’
‘The reckoning’s not over, it’s just postponed,’ Jitendra answered. ‘But the Pans are growing in strength and influence, and the industrialists haven’t suddenly backed off from their dollar-eyed conviction that robots make the most sense. Sooner or later, heads are going to bash. Not around Earth or the Moon, maybe, but we’re pushing into deep space now – Trans-Neptunian, the inner boundary of the Kuiper belt, and we’ve even got machines in the Oort cloud. That’s where it gets stickier. If we’re going to do anything useful out there, we’ll need smart machines and lots of them. Machines that break right through the existing cognition thresholds, into post-artilect computation. Human-level thinkers that can live with us, be our equals as well as our workers.’
‘You’re not sounding any less scary than you were five minutes ago,’ Geoffrey said.
‘Look, in a thousand years, the difference between people and machines . . . it’s going to seem about as relevant as the difference between Protestants and Catholics: some ludicrous relic of Dark Age thinking.’ Jitendra gave a self-conscious shrug. ‘I’m not on the side of the machines or people. I’m on the side of the convergent intelligences that will supplant both.’
Geoffrey was leaning back in his seat, blasted by the G-force of Jit- endra’s conviction. ‘And this . . . free energy? It’s a way of making better machines?’
‘It may be,’ Jitendra conceded. ‘Don’t know yet. Too many variables, not enough data. The construct looks promising . . . but it’s early days and I don’t doubt we’ll take a few wrong turns along the way. All I know is that we’re unwinding two hundred years of orthodox robotics development and heading off in a completely different direction.’
‘Bet that’s what they really want to hear at the shareholder meetings,’ Sunday said.
Jitendra picked at something stuck between his teeth. ‘It’s harsh medi- cine. But June Wing, bless her, is at least slightly open-minded to new possibilities.’
‘Especially if there might be a dazzling commercial return at the end of it,’ Sunday said.
‘Businesswoman first, a scientist second,’ Jitendra said. ‘No sense in blaming her for that – she wouldn’t have her hands on the purse strings otherwise.’
‘Talking of purse strings,’ Sunday said, brushing crumbs from the napkin she’d tucked into her collar, ‘something I’ve been meaning to ask my brother: did the cousins cough up any more money?’
Geoffrey blinked, attempting to marshal his swirling, wine-addled thoughts into some semblance of clarity. The question had blindsided him.
‘The cousins?’ he asked.
‘As in Lucas and Hector. As in the men with the ability to end all your funding difficulties.’
Geoffrey poured some more wine and sipped before answering. ‘Why would they give me more funding?’
‘Because you showed up at the scattering, because you acted like a good little boy and didn’t get into any upsetting arguments.’
He smiled at his sister. ‘You showed up as well, and it’s not like they started showering you with benevolence, is it?’
‘I’m a lost cause; you’re not completely beyond salvation.’
‘In their eyes.’
Sunday nodded. ‘Of course.’
‘I think some more funds might be forthcoming,’ he said neutrally.
‘I obviously made a good case for the elephants. Now and then even hard-line Akinyas take a break from rabid capitalism to feel guilty about their neglected African heritage.’
‘For about thirty seconds.’
He shrugged. ‘That’s all it takes to transfer the funds.’
‘Reason I asked,’ Sunday said, stretching in her seat, ‘is that I wondered if you were up here for fund-raising purposes? It’s not like you come here very often, and the last time – if I’m remembering rightly – it was definitely cap-in-hand.’
‘I just thought it was about time I came up to see you. Are you going to throw a fit the one time I actually listen to you?’
‘All right,’ Sunday said, holding her hands up to forestall an argument.
‘I was just saying.’
Over coffee the conversation headed back into less treacherous waters: Sunday and Geoffrey trading stories about their childhood in the house- hold, encounters with animals, encounters with Maasai, funny things that had happened between them and Memphis, Jitendra putting on a good impression of being interested and inquisitive.
When Sunday had picked up the tab and they went out onto the restaurant’s circular roof, the air had cooled and with the dimming of the ceiling lights the nocturnal effect was complete. Not that there was any sense that the city was winding down for the night, judging by the continued traffic sounds, music, shouts and laughter billowing up from below.
Sunday pointed out landmarks. Older buildings, newer ones, places she liked and didn’t like, favoured restaurants, disfavoured ones, clubs and places neither she nor Jitendra could afford. Or rather, Geoffrey thought, places that she chose not to be able to afford, which was far from the same thing. Sunday had spurned Akinya money, but that didn’t mean the floodgates couldn’t be opened at a moment’s notice, if she ever changed her mind. All she would have to do is renounce her decadent artistic ways and agree to become a profit-sharing partner in the collective enterprise.
As, indeed, could he, just as easily.
‘We’re going that way,’ Sunday said, pointing to a wide semicircular hole in the far side of the cavern wall. She was, Geoffrey realised, much less intoxicated than either of her two companions. He began to wonder, with a sense of dim foreboding, whether she had been softening him up for interrogation.
At street level they came out into some kind of all-night souk, a place of winding, labyrinthine passages roofed over with strips of tattered canvas and latticed bamboo. Food, animals, garments, consumer goods, cosmetics, surgical services and robotics parts lined the lantern-lit stalls and booths. Huge muscled snakes like coiled industrial ducting extruded from lurid green and yellow plastics. Jewel-eyed seahorses, dappled with spangling iridophores. Tiny, dollhouse-sized ponies, pink and blue and anatomically perfect. Vendors selling what Geoffrey at first took to be sheets of black, brown and pink textiles – dress fabric, curtains, perhaps – until he realised that he was looking at custom skins, vat-grown flesh sold by the metre. New skin, new eyes, new organs, new bones. Most of these commodities, being illegal elsewhere, must have been fabricated in or around the Zone itself. There was industry here, as well as artistry and anarchy. Like Dakar or Mogadishu, a hundred or more years ago: the dusty, squabblesome past that every clean, ordered, glittering African city was trying hard to put behind it.
They jostled through the souk’s crowds. Jitendra spent several minutes digging cheerfully through plastic crates of salvaged robot parts, picking up a piece then discarding it, rooting out another, holding it up to the lantern light with narrowed, critical eyes.
‘Watch your bag,’ Sunday said as they waited for Jitendra to strike a deal. ‘Thieves and pickpockets abroad.’
Geoffrey swung the sports bag around, clutching it to his chest like an overpadded comfort blanket. ‘Really? I’d have thought most of your fellow citizens went through Mandatory Enhancement screening at birth, the way you and I did.’
‘That’s true,’ Sunday conceded, while Jitendra continued his haggling,‘but there isn’t some handy colour-coded brain module labelled “the impulse to commit crime”. What is crime, anyway? We might both agree that rape and murder are objectively bad things, but what about armed resistance to a despotic government, or stealing from the rich to feed the poor ?’
‘The last time I looked, there was a distinct shortage of both despotic governments and poor people.’
‘Crime has a social context. In the Surveilled World, you’ve engineered criminality out of society using mass observation, ubiquitous tagging and targeted neural intervention. Good luck with the long-term con- sequences of that.’
Geoffrey shrugged. ‘Locksmiths find another line of work.’
‘I’m talking about societal timescales. Centuries, thousands of years. That’s what we’re concerned with here; it’s not all about being crypto- anarchists and throwing wild parties.’
‘You think criminality’s a good thing?’
‘Who knows? Maybe the same clusters of genes that give rise to what we loosely label “criminality” may also be lurking behind creativity, the impulse to experiment, the urge to test social boundaries. We think that’s quite probable, even likely, which is why we’ve gone to such lengths to re-engineer the public space to make crime viable again.’
Sunday tapped a finger against her head. ‘There are Recrim clinics here where they’ll undo at least some of the work carried out by the Man- datory Enhancements. People who’ve been recrimmed can’t easily leave the Zone again, and if they do they’re treated like time bombs waiting to go off. But for some, it’s a price worth paying. I was deadly serious when I mentioned pickpockets. There are people around here who are not only fully capable of committing crimes, but who regard it as a pressing moral duty, like picking up litter or helping people when they trip over. No one’s talking about letting off nerve gas, or going on killing sprees. But a constant, low-level background of crime may help a society become more robust, more resilient.’
‘And there I was, thinking they hadn’t really got to you yet.’
‘It’s the Zone, Geoffrey. If it was exactly like everywhere else, there’d be no point having it.’
It was that same old spiralling argument, and again he didn’t have the energy to fight his corner. ‘When you put it like that, I guess it doesn’t sound too ridiculous.’
‘You’re just humouring me now.’
‘How could you tell ?’
After a moment, Sunday said, ‘Didn’t mean to put you on the spot back at the restaurant.’
‘You had a point. But I’m not here with a begging bowl.’
‘Well, good. Not that I wouldn’t like you to get more money, of course. And it’s nothing to do with Eunice?’
‘Why would it be?’
‘The small fact that she just died. Very near the Moon. And all of a sudden you just happen to drop by to visit your sister, when I’ve been inviting you for ages and you’ve never come. Until now. Forgive me if I can’t help wondering whether someone in the family has put you up to something.’
Geoffrey squinted, as if she’d used some out-of-coinage phrase. ‘Put me up—’
‘Just do one thing for me, brother. Tell me there’s nothing going on that I need to know about.’
At that awkward juncture, Jitendra turned away from the stall, bran- dishing hard-won trophies.
‘More junk,’ Sunday said with a sigh. ‘Because we don’t have nearly enough lying around as it is.’
Geoffrey reached into his sweatshirt pocket for the Cessna baseball cap. His fingers closed on air. The hat, it began to dawn on him, had been stolen. The feeling of being a victim of crime was as novel and thrilling as being stopped in the street and kissed by a beautiful stranger.
Things like that just didn’t happen back home.
This entry was posted on Friday, January 20th, 2012 at 12:06 pm and is filed under Alastair Reynolds, Extract, Science Fiction. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.