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Elector by Charles Stross
 

 

Sirhan walks, shrouded in isolation, through the crowds gathered for the festival. The only people who see him are the chattering ghosts of dead politicians and writers, deported from the inner system by order of the Vile Offspring. The great terraforming project is nearly complete, the festival planet dressed for a jubilee that will last almost twenty of its years–four pre-singularity lifetimes–before the Demolition. The green and pleasant plain stretches toward a horizon a thousand kilometers away, beneath a lemon-yellow sky. The air smells faintly of ammonia and the big spaces are full of small ideas: for this is the last human planet in the solar system.

"Excuse me, are you real?" someone asks him in American-accented English.

It takes a moment or two for Sirhan to disengage from his introspection and realize that he’s being spoken to. "What?" he asks, slightly puzzled. Wiry and pale, Sirhan wears the robes of a Berber goat-herd on his body and the numinous halo of a utility fog-bank above his head: in his abstraction, he vaguely resembles a saintly shepherd in a post-singularity nativity play. "I say, what?" Outrage simmers at the back of his mind–is nowhere private?–but, as he turns, he sees that one of the ghost pods has split lengthwise across its white mushroom-like crown, spilling a trickle of left-over construction fluid and a completely hairless, slightly bemused-looking Anglo male who wears an expression of profound surprise.

"I can’t find my implants," the Anglo male says, shaking his head. "But I’m really here, aren’t I? Incarnate?" He glances round at the other pods. "This isn’t a sim."

Sirhan sighs–another exile–and sends forth a daemon to interrogate the ghost pod’s abstract interface. It doesn’t tell him much–unlike most of the resurrectees, this one seems to be undocumented. "You’ve been dead. Now you’re alive. I suppose that means you’re now almost as real as I am. What else do you need to know?"

"When is–" The newcomer stops. "Can you direct me to the processing center?" he asks carefully. "I’m disoriented."

Sirhan is surprised–most immigrants take a lot longer to figure that out. "Did you die recently?" he asks.

"I’m not sure I died at all." The newcomer rubs his bald head, looking puzzled. "Hey, no jacks!" He shrugs, exasperated. "Look, the processing center. . . ?"

"Over there." Sirhan gestures at the monumental mass of the Boston Museum of Science (shipped all the way from Earth a couple of decades ago to save it from the demolition of the inner system). "My mother runs it." He smiles thinly.

"Your mother–" the newly resurrected immigrant stares at him intensely, then blinks. "Holy shit." He takes a step toward Sirhan. "Wow, you’re–"

Sirhan recoils and snaps his fingers. The thin trail of vaporous cloud that has been following him all this time, shielding his shaven pate from the diffuse red glow of the swarming shells of orbital nanocomputers that have replaced the inner planets, extrudes a staff of hazy blue mist that stretches down from the air and slams together in his hand like a quarterstaff spun from bubbles. "Are you threatening me, sir?" he asks, deceptively mildly.

"I–" the newcomer stops dead. Then he throws back his head and laughs. "You must be Sirhan. You take after your grandmother, kid."

"Kid?" Sirhan bristles. "Who do you think–" A horrible thought occurs to him. "Oh. Oh dear." A wash of adrenalin drenches him in warm sweat. "I do believe we’ve met, in a manner of speaking. . . ." Oh boy, this is going to upset so many applecarts, he realizes, spinning off a ghost to think about the matter. If grandfather is back, the implications are enormous.

The naked newcomer nods, grinning at some private joke. "And now I’m human again." He runs his hands down his ribs, pauses, and glances at Sirhan owlishly. "Um. I didn’t mean to frighten you. But I don’t suppose you could find your aged grandfather something to wear?"

Sirhan sighs and points his staff straight up at the sky. The rings are edge-on, for the lilypad continent floats above an ocean of cold gas along Saturn’s equator, and they glitter like a ruby laser beam slashed across the sky. "Let there be aerogel."

A cloud of whispy soap-bubble congeals in a cone shape above the newly resurrected ancient and drops over him, forming a kaftan. "Thanks," he says. He looks round, twisting his neck, then winces. "Damn, that hurt. Ouch. I need to get myself a set of implants."

"They can sort you out in the processing center. It’s in the basement in the west wing. They’ll give you something more permanent to wear, too." Sirhan peers at him. "Your face–" he pages through rarely used memories. Yes, it’s Manfred Macx, as he looked in the early years of the last century. As he looked around the time mother-not was born. There’s something positively indecent about meeting your own grandfather in the full flush of youth. "Are you sure you haven’t been messing with your phenotype?" he asks suspiciously.

"No, this is what I used to look like. I think. Back in the naked ape again, after all these years as an emergent function of a flock of passenger pigeons." His grandfather smirks. "What’s your mother going to say?"

"I really don’t know–" Sirhan shakes his head. "Come on, let’s get you to immigrant processing. You’re sure you’re not just a historical simulation?"

The place is already heaving with the re-simulated. Just why the Vile Offspring seem to feel it’s necessary to apply valuable exaquops to the job of deriving accurate simulations of dead humans–outrageously accurate simulations of long-dead lives, annealed until their written corpus matches that inherited from the pre-singularity era in the form of chicken scratchings on mashed tree pulp–much less beaming them at the refugee camps on Saturn–is beyond Sirhan’s ken: but he wishes they’d stop.

"Just a couple of days ago, I crapped on your lawn. Hope you don’t mind." Manfred cocks his head to one side and stares at Sirhan with beady eyes. "Actually, I’m here because of the upcoming election. It’s got the potential to turn into a major crisis point, and I figured Amber would need me around."

"Well you’d better come on in, then," Sirhan says resignedly as he climbs the steps, enters the foyer, and leads his turbulent grandfather into the foggy haze of utility nanomachines that fill the building.

He can’t wait to see what his mother will do when she meets her father in the flesh, after all this time.

Welcome to Saturn, your new home world. This FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) memeplex is designed to orient you and explain the following:

How you got here

Where "here" is

Things you should avoid doing

Things you might want to do as soon as possible

Where to go for more information

If you are remembering this presentation, you are probably re-simulated. This is not the same as being resurrected. You may remember dying. Do not worry: like all your other memories, it is a fabrication. In fact, this is the first time you have ever been alive. (Exception: if you died after the singularity you may be a genuine resurrectee. In which case, why are you reading this FAQ?)

How you got here: the center of the solar system–Mercury, Venus, Earth’s Moon, Mars, the asteroid belt, and Jupiter–have been dismantled, or are being dismantled, by weakly godlike intelligences. [NB: monotheistic clergy and Europeans who remember living prior to 1600, see alternative memeplex "in the beginning."] A weakly godlike intelligence is not a supernatural agency, but the product of a highly advanced society that learned how to artificially create souls [late twentieth century: software] and translate human minds into souls and vice versa. [Core concepts: human beings all have souls. Souls are software objects. Software is not immortal.]

Some of the weakly godlike intelligences appear to cultivate an interest in their human antecedents–for whatever reason is not known. (Possibilities include the study of history through horticulture, entertainment through live-action roleplaying, revenge, and economic forgery.) While no definitive analysis is possible, all the re-simulated persons to date exhibit certain common characteristics: they are all based on well-documented historical persons, their memories show suspicious gaps [see: smoke and mirrors], and they are ignorant of or predate the singularity [see: Turing Oracle, Vinge Catastrophe].

It is believed that the weakly godlike agencies have created you as a vehicle for the introspective study of your historical antecedent by backward-chaining from your corpus of documented works, and the back-projected genome derived from your collateral descendants, to generate an abstract description of your computational state vector. This technique is extremely intensive [see: expTime-complete algorithms, Turing Oracle, time travel, industrial magic] but marginally plausible in the absence of supernatural explanations.

After experiencing your life, the weakly godlike agencies have expelled you. For reasons unknown, they chose to do this by transmitting your upload state and genome/proteome complex to receivers owned and operated by a consortium of charities based on Saturn. These charities have provided for your basic needs, including the body you now occupy.

In summary: you are a reconstruction of someone who lived and died a long time ago, not a reincarnation. You have no intrinsic moral right to the identity you believe to be your own, and an extensive body of case law states that you do not inherit your antecedent’s possessions. Other than that, you are a free individual.

Note that fictional re-simulation is strictly forbidden. If you have reason to believe that you may be a fictional character, you must contact the City immediately. [ See: James Bond, Spider Jerusalem.] Failure to comply is a felony.

Where are you? You are on Saturn. Saturn is a gas giant planet 120,500 kilometers in diameter, located 1.5 billion kilometers from Earth’s sun. [NB: Europeans who remember living prior to 1580, see alternative memeplex "the flat earth–not."] Saturn has been partially terraformed by posthuman emigrants from Earth and Jupiter orbit: the ground beneath your feet is, in reality, the floor of a hydrogen balloon the size of a continent, floating in Saturn’s upper atmosphere. [NB: Europeans who remember living prior to 1790, internalize the supplementary memeplex: "the Brothers Mongolfier."] The balloon is very safe, but mining activities and the use of ballistic weapons are strongly deprecated because the air outside is unbreathable and extremely cold.

The society you have been instantiated in is extremely wealthy within the scope of Economics 1.0, the value-transfer system developed by human beings during and after your own time. Money exists, and is used for the usual range of goods and services, but the basics–food, water, air, power, off-the-shelf clothing, housing, historical entertainment, and monster trucks–are free. An implicit social contract dictates that in return for access to these facilities, you obey certain laws.

If you wish to opt out of this social contract, be advised that other worlds may run Economics 2.0 or subsequent releases. These value-transfer systems are more efficient–hence wealthier–than Economics 1.0, but true participation in Economics 2.0 is not possible without dehumanizing cognitive surgery. Thus, in absolute terms, although this society is richer than any you have ever heard of, it is also a poverty-stricken backwater compared to its neighbors.

Things you should avoid doing: Many activities that have been classified as crimes in other societies are legal here. These include but are not limited to: acts of worship, art, sex, violence, communication, or commerce between consenting competent sapients of any species, except where such acts transgress the list of prohibitions below. [See additional memeplex: competence defined.]

Some activities are prohibited here, but may have been legal in your previous experience. These include: willful deprivation of ability to consent [see: slavery], interference in the absence of consent [see: minors, legal status of ], formation of limited-liability companies [see: singularity], and invasion of defended privacy [see: The Slug, Cognitive Pyramid Schemes, Brain Hacking, Thompson Trust Exploit].

Some activities unfamiliar to you are highly illegal and should be scrupulously avoided. These include: possession of nuclear weapons, possession of unlimited autonomous replicators [see: gray goo], coercive assimilationism [see: borganism, aggressive], coercive halting of Turing-equivalent personalities [see: Basilisks], and applied theological engineering [see: God Bothering].

Some activities superficially familiar to you are merely stupid and should be avoided for your safety, although they are not illegal as such. These include: giving your bank account details to the son of the Nigerian Minister of Finance, buying title to bridges, skyscrapers, spacecraft, planets, or other real assets, murder, selling your identity, and entering into financial contracts with entities running Economics 2.0 or higher.

Things you should do as soon as possible: Many material artifacts you may consider essential to life are freely available–just ask the City, and it will grow you clothes, a house, food, or other basic essentials. Note, however, that the library of public domain structure templates is of necessity restrictive, and does not contain items that are highly fashionable or that remain in copyright. Nor will the City provide you with replicators, weapons, sexual favors, slaves, or zombies.

You are advised to register as a citizen as soon as possible. If the individual you are a resimulation of can be confirmed dead, you may adopt their name but not–in law–any lien or claim on their property, contracts, or descendants. You register as a citizen by asking the City to register you; the process is painless and typically complete within four hours. Unless you are registered, your legal status as a sapient organism may be challenged. The ability to request citizenship rights is one of the legal tests for sapience, and failure to comply may place you in legal jeopardy. You can renounce your citizenship whenever you wish: this may be desirable if you emigrate to another polity.

While many things are free, it is highly likely that you posses no employable skills, and therefore no way of earning money with which to purchase unfree items. The pace of change in the past century has rendered almost all skills you may have learned obsolete [see: singularity]. However, due to the rapid pace of change, many cooperatives, trusts, and guilds offer on-the-job training or educational loans.

Your ability to learn depends on your ability to take information in the format in which it is offered. Implants are frequently used to provide a direct link between your brain and the intelligent machines that surround it. A basic core implant set is available on request from the City. [See: implant security, firewall, wetware.]

Your health is probably good if you have just been reinstantiated, and is likely to remain good for some time. Most diseases are curable, and, in event of an incurable ailment or injury a new body may be provided–for a fee. (In event of your murder, you will be furnished with a new body at the expense of your killer.) If you have any pre-existing medical conditions or handicaps, consult the City.

The City is an agoric-annealing participatory democracy with a limited-liability constitution. Its current executive agency is a weakly godlike intelligence that chooses to associate with human-equivalent intelligences: this agency is colloquially known as "Hello Kitty," "Beautiful Cat," or "Aineko," and may manifest itself in a variety of physical avatars if corporeal interaction is desired. (Prior to the arrival of "Hello Kitty," the City used a variety of human-designed expert systems that provided sub-optimal performance.)

The City’s mission statement is to provide a mediatory environment for human-equivalent intelligences and to preserve same in the face of external aggression. Citizens are encouraged to participate in the ongoing political processes of determining such responses. Citizens also have a duty to serve on a jury if called (including senatorial service), and to defend the City.

Where to go for further information: Until you have registered as a citizen and obtained basic implants, all further questions should be directed to the City. Once you have learned to use your implants, you will not need to ask this question.

There’s a market specializing in clothing and fashion accessories about fifty kilometers away from the transplanted museum where Sirhan’s mother lives, at a transportation nexus between three lilypad habitats where tube trains intersect in a huge maglev cloverleaf. The market is crowded with strange and spectacular visuals, algorithms unfolding in faster-than-real time before the candy-striped awnings of tents. Domed yurts belch aromatic smoke from crude fireplaces–what is it about hairless primates and their tendency toward pyromania?–around the feet of diamond-walled groundscrapers that pace carefully across the smart roads of the City. The crowds are variegated and wildly mixed, immigrants from every continent shopping and haggling, and, in a few cases, getting out of their skull on strange substances on the pavements in front of giant snail-shelled shibeens and squat bunkers made of thin layers of concrete sprayed over soap-bubble aerogel. There are no automobiles here, but a bewildering range of personal transport gadgets, from gyro-stabilized pogo sticks and segways to kettenkrads and spiderpalanquins, jostle for space with pedestrians and animals.

Two women stop outside what, in a previous century, might have been the store window of a fashion boutique: the younger one (blonde, with her hair bound up in elaborate cornrows, wearing black leggings and a long black leather jacket over a camouflage Tee) points to an elaborately retro dress. "Wouldn’t my bum look big in that?" she asks, doubtfully.

"Ma cherie, you have but to try it–" The other woman (tall, wearing a pin-striped man’s business suit from a previous century) flicks a thought at the window and the mannequin morphs, sprouting the younger woman’s head, aping her posture and expression.

"I missed out on the authentic retail experience, you know? It still feels weird to be back somewhere with shops. ’S what comes of living off libraries of public domain designs for too long." Amber twists her hips, experimenting. "You get out of the habit of foraging. I don’t know about this retro thing at all. The Victorian vote isn’t critical, is it. . . ?" She trails off.

"You are a twenty-first century platform selling to electors re-simulated and incarnated from the Gilded Age. And yes, a bustle your derriere does enhance. But–" Annette looks thoughtful.

"Hmm." Amber frowns, and the shop window dummy turns and waggles its hips at her, sending tiers of skirts swishing across the floor. Her frown deepens. "If we’re really going to go through with this election shit, it’s not just the resimulant voters I need to convince, but the contemporaries, and that’s a matter of substance, not image. They’ve lived through too much media warfare. They’re immune to any semiotic payload short of an active cognitive attack. If I send out partials to canvass them that look as if I’m trying to push buttons–"

"–They will listen to your message and nothing you wear or say will sway them. Don’t worry about them, ma cherie. The naive re-simulated are another matter, and perhaps might be swayed. This your first venture into democracy is, in how many years? Your privacy, she is an illusion now. The question is, what image will you project? People will listen to you only once you gain their attention. Also, the swing voters you must reach, they are future-shocked, timid. Your platform is radical, should you not project a comfortably conservative image?"

Amber pulls a face, an expression of mild distaste for the whole populist program. "Yes, I suppose I must, if necessary. But on second thoughts that–" Amber snaps her fingers and the mannequin turns around once more before morphing back into neutrality, aureolae perfect puckered disks above the top of its bodice– "is just too much."

She doesn’t need to merge in the opinions of several different fractional personalities, fashion critics and psephologists both, to figure out that adopting Victorian/Cretan fusion fashion–a breast-and-ass fetishist’s fantasy–isn’t the way to sell herself as a serious politician to the nineteenth-century post-singularity fringe. "I’m not running for election as the mother of the nation, I’m running because I figure we’ve got about a billion seconds, at most, to get out of this rat-trap of a gravity well before the Vile Offspring get seriously medieval on our CPU cycles, and if we don’t convince everyone to come with us, they’re doomed. Let’s look for something more practical that we can overload with the right signifiers."

"Like your coronation robe?"

Amber winces. "Touché." The Ring Imperium is dead, along with whatever was left over from its early orbital legal framework, and Amber is lucky to be alive as a private citizen in this cold new age at the edge of the halo. "But that was just scenery-setting. I didn’t fully understand what I was doing, back then."

"Welcome to maturity and experience." Annette smiles distantly at some faint member: "You don’t feel older, you just know what you’re doing this time. I wonder, sometimes, what Manny would make of it if he were here."

"That bird-brain!" Amber says dismissively, stung by the idea that her father might have something to contribute. She follows Annette past a gaggle of mendicant street evangelists preaching some new religion and in through the door of a real department store, one with actual human sales staff and fitting rooms to cut the clothing to shape. "If I’m sending out fractional me’s tailored for different demographics, isn’t it a bit self-defeating to go for a single image? I mean, we could drill down and tailor a partial for each individual elector–"

"Per-haps." The door re-forms behind them. "But you need a core identity." Annette looks around, hunting for eye contact with the sales consultant. "To start with a core design, a style, then to work outward, tailoring you for your audience. And besides, there is tonight’s–ah, bonjour!"

"Hello. How can we help you?" The two female and one male shop assistants who appear from around the displays–cycling through a history of the couture industry, catwalk models mixing and matching centuries of fashion–are clearly chips off a common primary personality, instances united by their enhanced sartorial obsession. If they’re not actually a fashion borganism they’re not far from it, dressed head-to-foot in the highest quality Chanel and Armani replicas, making a classical twentieth-century statement. This isn’t simply a shop, it’s a temple to a very peculiar art form, its staff trained as guardians of the esoteric secrets of good taste.

"Mais oui. We are looking for a wardrobe for my niece here." Annette reaches through the manifold of fashion ideas mapped within the shop’s location cache and flips a requirement spec one of her ghosts has just completed at the lead assistant. "She is into politics going, and the question of her image is important."

"We would be delighted to help you," purrs the proprietor, taking a delicate step forward: "perhaps you could tell us what you’ve got in mind?"

"Oh. Well." Amber takes a deep breath, glances sidelong at Annette: Annette stares back, unblinking. It’s your head, she sends. "I’m involved in the accelerationista administrative program. Are you familiar with it?"

The head coutureborg frowns slightly, twin furrows rippling her brow between perfectly symmetrical eyebrows, plucked to match her classic New Look suit. "I have heard reference to it, but a lady of fashion like myself does not concern herself with politics," she says, a touch self-deprecatingly. "Especially the politics of her clients. Your, ah, aunt said it was a question of image?"

"Yes." Amber shrugs, momentarily self-conscious about her casual rags. "She’s my election agent. My problem, as she says, is there’s a certain voter demographic that mistakes image for substance and is afraid of the unknown, and I need to acquire a wardrobe that triggers associations of probity, of respect and deliberation. One suitable for a representative with a radical political agenda but a strong track record. I’m afraid I’m in a hurry to start with–I’ve got a big fund-raising party tonight. I know it’s short notice, but I need something off the shelf for it."

"What exactly is it you’re hoping to achieve?" asks the male couturier, his voice hoarse and his r’s rolling with some half-shed Mediterranean accent. He sounds fascinated. "If you think it might influence your choice of wardrobe. . . ?"

"I’m running for the assembly," Amber says bluntly. "On a platform calling for a state of emergency and an immediate total effort to assemble a starship. This solar system isn’t going to be habitable for much longer, and we need to emigrate. All of us, you included, before the Vile Offspring decide to reprocess us into computronium. I’m going to be doorstepping the entire electorate in parallel, and the experience needs to be personalized." She manages to smile. "That means, I think, perhaps eight outfits and four different independent variables for each, accessories, and two or three hats–enough that each is seen by no more than a few thousand voters. Both physical fabric and virtual. In addition, I’ll want to see your range of historical formalwear, but that’s of secondary interest for now." She grins. "Do you have any facilities for response-testing the combinations against different personality types from different periods? If we could run up some models, that would be useful."

"I think we can do better than that." The manager nods approvingly, perhaps contemplating her gold-backed deposit account. "Hansel, please divert any further visitors until we have dealt with madam. . . ?"

"Macx. Amber Macx."

"–Macx’s requirements." The manager shows no sign of familiarity with the name. Amber winces slightly; it’s a sign of how hugely fractured the children of Saturn have become, and of how vast the population of the halo, that only a generation has passed and already barely anyone remembers the Queen of the Ring Imperium. "If you’d come this way, please, we can begin to research an eigenstyle combination that matches your requirements–"

Welcome to decade the eighth, singularity plus one gigasecond (or maybe more–nobody’s quite sure when, or indeed if, a singularity has been created). The human population of the solar system is either six billion, or sixty billion, depending on whether you class forked state vectors of posthumans and the simulations of dead phenotypes running in the Vile Offspring’s Schrödinger boxes as people. Most of the physically incarnate still live on Earth, but the lilypads floating beneath continent-sized hot hydrogen balloons in Saturn’s upper atmosphere already house a few million, and the writing is on the wall for the rocky inner planets. All the remaining human-equivalent intelligences with half a clue to rub together are trying to emigrate before the Vile Offspring decide to recycle Earth to fill in a gap in the concentric shells of nanocomputers they’re running on. It’s a nested Matrioshka doll of Dyson spheres that darkens the skies of Earth and has caused a massive crash in the planet’s photosynthetic biomass, as plants starve for short-wavelength light.

Since decade the seventh, the computational density of the solar system has soared. Within the asteroid belt, more than half the available planetary mass has been turned into nanoprocessorstied together by quantum-entanglment, into a web so dense that each gram of matter can simulate all the possible life-experiences of an individual human being in a scant handful of minutes. Economics 2.0 is itself obsolescent, forced to mutate in a furious survivalist arms race by the arrival of the Slug, an extraterrestrial parasite that preys on new posthuman intelligences by subverting their value systems. Only the name remains as a vague shorthand for merely human-equivalent intelligences to use when describing interactions they don’t understand.

The latest generation of posthuman entities is less overtly hostile to humans, but much more alien than the generations of the forties and sixties. Among their less-comprehensible activities, the Vile Offspring are engaged in exploring the phase space of all possible human experiences from the inside out. Perhaps they caught a dose of the Tiplerite heresy along the way, for now a steady stream of resimulant uploads is pouring through the downsystem relays in Titan orbit. The Rapture of the Nerds has been followed by the Resurrection of the Extremely Confused, except that they’re not really resurrectees–they’re simulations based off their originals’ recorded histories, blocky and missing chunks of their memories, as bewildered as duckings as they’re herded into the wood-chipper of the future.

Sirhan al-Khurasani despises them with the abstract contempt of an antiquarian for a cunning but ultimately transparent forgery. But Sirhan is young, and he’s gfot more contempt than he knows what to do with. It’s a handy outlet for his frustration. He has a lot to be frustrated at, starting with his intermittently dysfunctional family, the elderly stars around whom his planet whizzes in chaotic trajectories of enthusiasm and distaste.

Sirhan fancies himself a philosopher-historian of the singular age, a chronicler of the incomprehensible, which would be a fine thing to be except that his greatest insights are all derived from the family’s antique robot cat. He alternately fawns over and rages against his mother–Amber Macx, one-time queen of the Ring Imperium and now a leading light in the refugee community–and honors (when not attempting to evade the will of) his father–Sadeq al Khurasani, sometime Islamic scholar, theist heretic, and lately a rising philosophical patriarch within the Conservationist faction. He’s secretly in awe (not to mention slightly resentful of) of his famous grandfather, Manfred Macx, who usually manifests in the shape of a flock of passenger pigeons, a rain of snails, or something equally unconventional. In fact, Manfred’s abrupt reincarnation in the flesh has quite disconcerted Sirhan. And he sometimes listens to his step-grandmother Annette, who has reincarnated in more or less her original twenty-twenties body after spending some years as a great ape, and who seems to view him as some sort of personal project.

Only right now, Annette isn’t being very helpful, his mother is campaigning on an electoral platform calling for a vote to blow up the world, his grandfather is trying to convince him to entrust everything he holds dear to a rogue lobster, and the cat isn’t talking.

And you thought you had problems?

They’ve transplanted imperial Brussels to Saturn in its entirety, mapped tens of megatons of buildings right down to nanoscale and beamed them into the outer darkness to be reinstantiated down-well on the lilypad colonies that dot the stratosphere of the gas giant. (Eventually, the entire surface of the Earth will follow–after which the Vile Offspring will core the planet like an apple, and dismantle it into a cloud of newly formed quantum nanocomputers to add to their burgeoning Matrioshka brain.) Due to a resource contention problem in the Festival committee’s planning algorithm–or maybe it’s simply an elaborate joke–Brussels now begins just on the other side of a diamond bubble-wall from the Boston Museum of Science, less than a kilometer away as the passenger pigeon flies. Which is why, when it’s time to celebrate a birthday or nameday–meaningless though those concepts are, out on Saturn’s synthetic surface–Amber tends to drag people over to the bright lights in the big city.

This time, she’s throwing a rather special party. At Annette’s canny prompting, she’s borrowed the Atomium and invited a horde of guests to a big celebration. It’s not a family bash–although Annette’s promised her a surprise–so much as a business meeting, testing the water as a preliminary to declaring her candidacy. It’s a media event, an attempt to engineer Amber’s re-entry into the mainstream politics of the human system.

Sirhan doesn’t really want to be here. He’s got far more important things to do, like cataloging Aineko’s memories of the voyage of the Field Circus. He’s also collating a series of interviews with re-simulated logical positivists from Oxford, England (the ones who haven’t retreated into gibbering near-catatonia upon realizing that their state vectors are all members of the set of all sets that do not contain themselves), when he isn’t attempting to establish a sound rational case for his belief that extraterrestrial intelligence is an oxymoron and that the vast network of quantum-entangled Routers that orbit the brown dwarfs of the Milky Way galaxy is just an accident, one of evolution’s little pranks.

But Tante Annette twisted his arm, and promised he was in on the surprise if he came to the party. And despite everything, he wouldn’t miss being a fly on the wall during the coming meeting between Manfred and Amber for all the tea in China.

Sirhan walks up to the gleaming stainless steel dome that contains the entrance to the Atomium, and waits for the lift. He’s in line behind a gaggle of young-looking women, skinny and soigné in cocktail gowns and tiaras lifted from 1920’s silent movies. (Annette declared an Age of Elegance theme for the party, knowing full well that it would force Amber to focus on her public appearance.) Sirhan’s attention is, however, elsewhere. The various fragments of his mind are conducting three simultaneous interviews with philosophers ("whereof that we cannot speak we cannot know" in spades), controlling two bots that are overhauling the museum plumbing and air-recycling system, and he’s busy discussing observations of the alien artifact orbiting the brown dwarf Hyundai +4904/-56 with Aineko. What’s left of him exhibits about as much social presence as a pickled cabbage.

The elevator arrives and accepts a load of passengers. Sirhan is crowded into one corner by a bubble of high-society laughter and an aromatic puff of smoke from an improbable ivory cigarette holder as the elevator surges, racing up the sixty-meter shaft toward the observation deck at the top of the Atomium. It’s a ten meter diameter metal globe, spiral staircases and escalators connecting it to the seven spheres at the corners of an octahedron that make up the former centerpiece of the 1950 World’s Fair. Unlike most of the rest of Brussels, it’s the original bits and atoms, bent alloy structures from before the space age shipped out to Saturn at enormous expense. The lift arrives with a slight jerk. "Excuse me," squeaks one of the good-time girls as she lurches backward, elbowing Sirhan.

He blinks, barely noticing her black bob of hair, chromatophore-tinted shadows artfully tuned around her eyes. "Nothing to excuse." In the background, Aineko is droning on sarcastically about the lack of interest the crew of the Field Circus exhibited in the cat’s effort to decompile their hitch-hiker, the Slug (an alien entity, or financial instrument, or parasitic pyramid scheme, or something) who had returned to the solar system with them, in return for helping them break free from the feral economic fragments that had captured them in the demilitarized zone on the far side of the Router. It’s distracting as hell, but Sirhan feels a desperate urge to understand what happened out there. It’s the key to understanding his not-mother’s obsessions and weaknesses–which, he senses, will be important in the times to come.

He evades the gaggle of overdressed good-time girls and steps out onto the lower of the two stainless steel decks that bisect the sphere. Accepting a fruit cocktail from a discreetly humanoform waitron, he strolls toward a row of triangular windows that gaze out across the arena toward the American Pavilion and the World Village. The metal walls are braced with turquoise-painted girders, and the perspex transparencies are fogged with age. He can barely see the one-tenth scale model of an atomic powered ocean liner leaving the pier below, or the eight-engined giant seaplane beside it. "They never once asked me if the Slug had attempted to map itself into the human-compatible spaces aboard the ship," Aineko bitches at him. "I wasn’t expecting them to, but really! Your mother’s too trusting, boy."

"I suppose you took precautions?" Sirhan’s ghost murmurs to the cat. That sets the irascible metafeline off again on a long discursive tail-washing rant about the unreliability of Economics 2.0-compliant financial instruments. Economics 2.0 apparently replaces the single-indirection layer of conventional money, and the multiple-indirection mappings of options trades, with some kind of insanely baroque object-relational framework based on the parameterized desires and subjective experiential values of the players, and as far as the cat is concerned, this makes all such transactions intrinsically untrustworthy.

Which is why you’re stuck here with us apes, Sirhan-prime cynically notes as he spawns an Eliza ghost to carry on nodding its head politely at the cat while he experiences the party.

It’s uncomfortably warm in the Atomium sphere–not surprising, there must be thirty people milling around up here, not counting the waitrons–and several local multicast channels are playing a variety of styles of music to synchronize the mood swings of the revelers to hardcore techno, waltz, raga. . . .

"Having a good time, are we?" Sirhan breaks away from integrating one of his timid philosophers and realizes that his glass is empty and his mother is grinning alarmingly at him over the rim of a cocktail glass containing something that glows in the dark. She’s wearing spike-heeled boots and a black velvet cat suit that hugs her contours like a second skin, and she’s already getting drunk. In wall-clock years, she is younger than Sirhan; it’s like having a bizarrely knowing younger sister mysteriously injected into his life to replace the eigenmother who stayed home and died with the Ring Imperium decades ago. "Look at you, hiding in a corner at my party! Hey, your glass is empty. Want to try this caipirinha? There’s someone you’ve got to meet over here–"

It’s at moments like this that Sirhan really wonders what in Jupiter’s orbit his father ever saw in this woman. (But then again, in the world-line this instance of her has returned from, he didn’t. So what does that signify?) "As long as there’s no fermented grape juice in it," he says resignedly, allowing himself to be led past a gaggle of conversations and a mournful-looking gorilla slurping a long drink through a straw. "More of your accelerationista allies?"

"Maybe not." It’s the girl-gang he avoided noticing in the lift, their eyes sparkling, really getting into this early twen-cen drag party thing, waving their cigarette holders and cocktail glasses around with wild abandon. "Rita, I’d like you to meet Sirhan, my other fork’s son. Sirhan, this is Rita. She’s a historian too. Why don’t you–"

–Dark eyes, emphasized not by powder or paint but by chromato-phores inside her skin cells: black hair, chain of enormous pearls, slim black dress sweeping the floor, a look of mild embarrassment on her heart-shaped face: she could be a dark-haired Audrey Hepburn in any other century– "Didn’t I just meet you in the elevator?" The embarrassment shifts to her cheeks, visible now.

Sirhan flushes, unsure how to reply. Just then, an interloper arrives on the scene, pushing in between them. "Are you the curator who reorganized the Precambrian gallery along teleology lines? I’ve got some things to say about that!" The interloper is tall, assertive, and blonde. Sirhan hates her from the first sight of her wagging finger.

"Oh shut up, Marissa, this is a party, you’ve been being a pain all evening." To his surprise, Rita-the-historian rounds on the interloper angrily.

"It’s not a problem," he manages to say. In the back of his mind, something makes the Rogerian puppet-him that’s listening to the cat sit up and dump-merge a whole lump of fresh memories into his mind–something important, something about the Vile Offspring sending a starship to bring something back from the Router–but the people around him are soaking up so much attention that he has to file it for later.

"Yes it is a problem," Rita declares. She points at the interloper, who is saying something about the invalidity of teleological interpretations, trying to justify herself, and says, "Plonk. Phew. Where were we?"

Sirhan blinks. Suddenly everyone but him seems to be ignoring that annoying Marissa person. "What just happened?" he asks cautiously.

"I killfiled her. Don’t tell me, you aren’t running Superplonk yet, are you?" Rita flicks a location-cached idea at him and he takes it cautiously, spawning a couple of specialized Turing oracles to check it for halting states. It seems to be some kind of optic-lobe hack that accesses a collaborative database of eigenfaces, with some sort of side-interface to Broca’s region. "Share and enjoy, confrontation-free parties."

"I’ve never seen–" Sirhan trails off as he loads the module distractedly. (The cat is rambling on about god modules and metastatic entanglement and the difficulty of arranging to have personalities custom-grown to order somewhere in the back of his head, while his fractional-self nods wisely whenever it pauses.) Something like an inner eyelid descends. He looks round: there’s a vague blob at one side of the room, making an annoying buzzing sound. His mother seems to be having an animated conversation with it. "That’s rather interesting."

"Yes, it helps no end at this sort of event." Rita startles him by taking his left arm in hand–her cigarette holder shrivels and condenses until it’s no more than a slight thickening around the wrist of her opera glove–and steers him toward a waitron. "I’m sorry about your foot, earlier, I was a bit overloaded. Is Amber Macx really your mother?"

"Not exactly, she’s my eigenmother," he mumbles. "The reincarnated download of the version who went out to Hyundai +4904/-56 aboard the Field Circus. She married a French-Algerian confidence-trick analyst instead of my father, but I think they divorced a couple of years ago. My real mother married an imam, but they died in the aftermath of Economics 2.0." She seems to be steering him in the direction of the window bay Amber dragged him away from earlier. "Why do you ask?"

"Because you’re not very good at making small talk," Rita says quietly, "and you don’t seem very good in crowds. Is that right? Was it you who performed that amazing dissection of Wittgenstein’s cognitive map? The one with the pre-verbal Gödel string in it?"

"It was–" he clears his throat. "You thought it was amazing?" Suddenly, on impulse, he detaches a ghost to identify this Rita person and find out who she is, what she wants. It’s not normally worth the effort to get to know someone more closely than casual small talk, but she seems to have been digging into his background and he wants to know why. Along with the him that’s chatting to Aineko that makes about three instances pulling in near-realtime resources. He’ll be running up an existential debt soon if he keeps forking ghosts like this.

"I thought so," she says. There’s a bench in front of the wall and somehow he finds himself sitting on it next to her. There’s no danger, we’re not in private or anything, he tells himself stiffly. She’s smiling at him, face tilted slightly to one side and lips parted, and for a moment a dizzy sense of possibility washes over him: what if she’s about to throw all propriety aside? How undignified! Sirhan believes in self-restraint and dignity. "I was really interested in this–" She passes him another dynamically loadable blob, encompassing a detailed critique of his analysis of Wittgenstein’s matriophobia in the context of gendered language constructs and nineteenth-century Viennese society, along with a hypothesis that leaves Sirhan gasping with mild indignation at the very idea that he of all people might share Wittgenstein’s skewed outlook– "what do you think?" she asks, grinning impishly at him.

"Nnngk." Sirhan tries to unswallow his tongue. Rita crosses her legs, her gown hissing. "I, ah, that is to say–" At which moment his partials re-integrate, dumping a slew of positively pornographic images into his memories. It’s a trap! they shriek, her breasts and hips and pubes–clean-shaven, he can’t help noticing–thrusting at him in hotly passionate abandon, mother’s trying to make you loose like her! and he remembers what it would be like to wake up in bed next to this woman who he barely knows after being married to her for a year, because one of his cognitive ghosts has just spent several seconds of network time (or several subjective months) getting hot and sweaty with a ghost of her own, and she does have interesting research ideas, even if she’s a pushy over-westernized woman who thinks she can run his life for him– "what is this?" he splutters, his ears growing hot and his garments constricting.

"Just speculating about possibilities. We could get a lot done together." She snakes an arm round his shoulders and pulls him toward her, gently. "Don’t you want to find out if we could work out?"

"But, but–" Sirhan is steaming. Is she offering casual sex? he wonders, profoundly embarrassed by his own inability to read her signals. "What do you want?" he asks.

"You do know that you can do more with superplonk than just killfile annoying idiots?" she whispers in his ear. "We can be invisible right now, if you like. It’s great for confidential meetings–other things, too. We can work beautifully together, our ghosts annealed really well. . . ."

Sirhan jumps up, his face stinging, and turns away. "No thank you!" he snaps, angry at himself. "Goodbye!" His other instances, distracted by his broadcast emotional overload, are distracted from their tasks and sputtering with indignation. Her hurt expression is too much for him: the killfile snaps down, blurring her into an indistinct black blob on the wall, veiled by his own brain as he turns and walks away, seething with anger at his mother for being so unfair as to make him behold his own face in the throes of fleshy passion.

Meanwhile, in one of the lower spheres, padded with silvery-blue insulating pillows bound together with duct tape, the movers and shakers of the accelerationista faction are discussing their bid for world power at fractional-C velocities.

"We can’t outrun a collapse of the false vacuum," insists Manfred, slightly uncoordinated and slurring his vowels under the influence of the first glass of fruit punch he’s experienced in nigh-on twenty realtime years. His body is young and still relatively featureless, hair still growing out, and he’s abandoned his old no-implants fetish at last to adopt an array of interfaces that let him internalize all the exocortex processes that formerly he ran on an array of dumb Turing machines outside his body. He’s standing on his own sense of style and is the only person in the room who isn’t wearing some variation of dinner jacket or classical evening dress. "Entangled exchange via Routers is still slower-than-light in absolute terms–any phase change will catch up eventually, the network must have an end. And then where will we be, Sameena?"

"I’m not disputing that." The woman he’s talking to, wearing a green-and-gold sari and a medieval maharajah’s ransom in gold and natural diamonds, nods thoughtfully. "But it hasn’t happened yet, and we’ve got evidence that superhuman intelligences have been loose in this universe for gigayears, so there’s a fair bet that the worst-catastrophe scenarios are unlikely. And looking closer to home, we don’t know what the Routers are for, or who made them. Until then. . . ." She shrugs. "Look what happened last time somebody tried to probe them. No offense intended."

"It’s already happened. If what I hear is correct, the Vile Offspring aren’t nearly as negative about the idea of using the Routers as we old-fashioned metahumans might like to believe." Manfred frowns, trying to recall some hazy anecdote–he’s experimenting with a new memory compression algorithm, necessitated by his pack-rat mnemonic habits when younger, and sometimes the whole universe feels as if it’s nearly on the tip of his tongue. "So, we seem to be in violent agreement about the need to know more about what’s going on, and to find out what they’re doing out there. We’ve got cosmic background anisotropies caused by the waste heat from computing processes millions of light years across–it takes a big interstellar civilization to do that, and they don’t seem to have fallen into the same rat-trap as the local Matrioshka brain civilizations. And we’ve got worrying rumors about the Vile Offspring messing around with the structure of spacetime in order to find a way around the Bekenstein bound. If the VO are trying that, then the folks out near the supercluster already know the answers. The best way to find out what’s happening is to go and talk to whoever’s responsible. Can we at least agree on that?"

"Probably not." Her eyes glitter with amusement. "It all depends on whether one believes in these civilizations in the first place. I know your people point to deep-field camera images going all the way back to some wonky hubble-bubble scrying mirror from the late twentieth, but we’ve got no evidence except some theories about the Casimir effect and pair production and spinning beakers of helium-3–much less proof that a whole bunch of alien galactic civilizations are trying to collapse the false vacuum and destroy the universe!" Her voice drops a notch. "At least, not enough proof to convince most people, Manny dear. I know this comes as a shock to you, but not everyone is a neophiliac posthuman body-surfer whose idea of a sabbatical is to spend twenty years as a flock of tightly networked seagulls in order to try and to prove the Turing oracle thesis–"

"–Not everyone is concerned with the deep future," Manfred interrupts. "It’s important! If we live or die, that doesn’t matter–that’s not the big picture. The big question is whether information originating in our light cone is preserved, or whether we’re stuck in a lossy medium where our very existence counts for nothing. It’s downright embarrassing, to be a member of a species with such a profound lack of curiosity about its own future, especially when it affects us all personally! I mean, if there’s going to come a time when there’s nobody or nothing to remember us, then what does–"

"Manfred?"

He stops in mid-sentence, his mouth open, staring dumbly.

It’s Amber, poised in black cat-suit with cocktail glass. Her expression is open and confused, appallingly vulnerable. Blue liquid slops, almost spilling out of her glass–the rim barely extends itself in time to catch the drops. Behind her stands Annette, a deeply self-satisfied smile on her face.

"You." Amber pauses, her cheek twitching as bits of her mind page in and out of her skull, polling external information sources. "You really are–"

A hasty cloud materializes under her hand as her fingers relax, dropping the glass.

"Uh." Manfred stares, at a complete loss for words. "I’d, uh." After a moment, he looks past her. "Why don’t you explain?" he asks.

"We thought you could use the good advice," Annette speaks into the awkward silence. "And a family reunion. It was meant to be a surprise."

"A surprise." Amber looks perplexed. "You could say that."

"You’re taller than I was expecting," Manfred says unexpectedly.

"Yeah?" She looks at him, and he turns his head slightly, facing her. It’s an historic moment, and Annette is getting it all on memory diamond, from every angle. The family’s dirty little secret is that Amber and her father have never met, not face-to-face in physical meat-machine proximity. She was born more than a year after Manfred and Pamela separated, decanted pre-fertilized from a tank of liquid nitrogen to play a pawn’s role in a bitter game of divorce chess–promoted to queen by her own initiative in high orbit around Jupiter, extricated from her mother’s stifling grip by a legal instrument Manfred smuggled to her inside his cat’s brain, but this is the first time either of them have actually seen the other’s face without electronic intermediation. And while they’ve said everything that needed to be said on a businesslike level, anthropoid family politics is still very much a matter of body language and pheromones. "How long have you been out and about?" she asks, trying to disguise her confusion.

"About six hours." Manfred manages a rueful chuckle, trying to take the sight of her in all at once. "Let’s get you another drink and put our heads together?"

"Okay." Amber takes a deep breath and glares at Annette. "You set this up, you get to clean up the mess."

Annette just stands there, smiling at the confusion of her accomplishment.

Be sure to read the
exciting conclusion in
our September issue,
on sale now!

Charles Stross’s previous novelette in this series, "Nightfall," made the 2004 Hugo final ballot, as did his novel Singularity Sky. His most recent SF novel, Iron Sunrise (a sequel to Singularity Sky), was published by Ace books in July, and his next novel, A Family Trade, is due out from Tor at the end of September. This novella, along with the other stories in this series, will be published by Ace as Accelerando in July 2005.

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Copyright

"Elector" by Charles Stross, copyright © 2004, with permission of the author.

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