On Friday Bill got a promotion in acknowledgement of his development and marketing plan for On the Road, which was a twentieth-century novel by Jack Kerouac that was totally unreadable in its original text-only form. That night he celebrated by trading in his crawlie for the new Honda 37m, and early Saturday morning he took the new machine for a shakedown cruise in the San Gabriel Mountains.
A low-speed run took him silently up the narrow trail in the dawn light, diverting once along the hillside above to avoid a jogger and her German shepherd, neither of whom seemed to notice Bill and his silent exoskeleton. He slithered like a snake over the chaparral, the ultralight suit's 16 legs placing themselves so precisely that they never so much as broke a stem of the rusty buckwheat.
Leaving the trail again, he crossed Little Santa Anita Canyon above the reservoir, frightening one chipmunk, and then pointed himself up the steep shoulder of the ridge, switched to semiautomatic, and squeezed hard on the throttle between his knees. With a heart-pounding burst of gee-forces, his new ride launched him up toward the top of the ridge. His helmet's view showed a red icon for a lone deer, and he steered wide before the safeties could force him to decelerate for it.
It was as he was arrowing through a grove of scrub oak that the message came in. Annoyed, he cut throttle and came to a stop next to the barbed-wire fence surrounding the radio tower at the crest of the ridge. He imagined himself as the Lone Ranger galloping up to the top of a mesa and posing for the camera in silhouette against the sky. (This kind of classical allusion came naturally to him, since his college major had been media studies.) Absently he noticed that he had cut his knee, maybe on a yucca.
“Yes?” This had better be important, he thought, before remembering sheepishly that he himself had set the filtering criteria for what was important enough to interrupt a weekend ride.
Bill's great-grandfather Yuen, from the Guerrero side of the family, had died. All marbles intact, and, if Bill was reading accurately between the lines of Aunt Bonita's text message, the old man had made sure it happened at a place and in a way of his own choosing.
Bill had paid at least twenty or thirty times to watch the scene from Star Wars (Episode IV, the only good one) in which Obi Wan Kenobi explained to Luke about The Force. But any more formal religion had been extinct from his family for several generations, so he merely planted himself Indian-style on the crawlie's rack of stilts, faced the smoggy sunrise, and reviewed what few memories he had of Gramp Yuen. There'd been a practical hunting slingshot (of which Bill's mother strongly disapproved) given for his ninth birthday. Appearances at Bill's high school graduation and wedding.
That had been about it, so it was a surprise when he learned that he and his cousin Shona were to split the estate fifty-fifty. Bill had no idea whether it amounted to much, or why Yuen had picked him and Shona above all other descendants. Bill, unlike Shona, had always been conscientious, so he figured on being the one to go through the drudgery of sorting through Yuen's possessions and packing them up. He and his wife, Fari, dropped a text on Shona's social and by lunchtime were at the old man's cabin in the Colorado Rockies.
“Son of a bitch, look at this.” He offered the yellowing little paper notebook across the coffee table to Fari, holding it open to the page he'd just been reading. The cover was marked East Africa Trip - 2022.
“I don't know whose mommy is a bitch, but I'll tell you who's a bitch in heat right now.” She stepped over the table and landed in her husband's lap.
“Seriously, baby, I need you to put on your lawyer hat. Stop drooling on my ear and read.”
She sighed, and accepted the bound stack of wood-pulp pages, holding it gingerly with the thumb and forefinger of each hand, as if it were a scroll freshly excavated from the tomb of a pharaoh. She touched the ink with a fingertip and checked that it didn't come off with handling.
Moshi, Tanzania, June 16, 2022. Finally found a cafe that serves real coffee instead of Nescafe — you'd never know they grew the stuff here. Phone stolen. When? Crowd in front of mosque? Good thing they didn't get credit card.
June 17. Bought new phone from street vendor for Tsh 120,000. Loaded with someone else's tunes, plus what looks like tons of porn and books.
“I don't think piracy was such a serious crime back then,” she said.
“He was young. Younger than we are now. People make mistakes.”
“I hear a young man sometimes knows how to please a woman.”
“I'll take care of you later, woman. But he doesn't say how much it is. If it's bulk ...”
“He could get the death penalty?”
“Very funny. What do you think a phone did back then?”
“Sounds like it let you read books, listen to music, and look at porn.” She slid off of his lap and her face got serious again. “You think he still had the files when he died?”
“He wouldn't still have the original phone.”
“I know, but the files.”
Yuen's little bachelor cabin was well heated, but Bill's skin turned clammy. “It wouldn't let him, would it? He upgrades to a new phone, tries to copy over the files, but he doesn't have a license for any of them. They're licensed to Mr. Bongo Wongo in Tanzania.”
“Did it work that way then?” She stood up and paced. “I'm not sure the software and hardware were locked down. This was back when people rode around in cars that were dumber than toasters. Steering wheels. My grandma's sister got killed by a car because the driver turned the wrong way.”
“Wow. Was she okay?”
“No, permanently dead.”
Bill started a search for the files while Fari talked the stone-age kitchen into making potato salad. They couldn't really get prison or a cogmod for inheriting pirated property, could they?
The front door creaked open and a voice came from the mud room —
“Billy?” The door slammed shut, and his cousin Shona walked into the living room with a flying harness slung over her shoulder.
“Hey, Shona.” They hugged, a little tentatively on Bill's side, and he noticed that her jet was already cold. “Didn't hear you land.” And she hadn't warned the house that she was coming, though of course she had as much right to be there as he did.
“Denver traffic control had exaggerated ideas of their own authority, so I came through the trees and then hiked up the creek bed.”
“Fari, this is Shona.”
“I know Shona, sweetie. We met before the wedding. Nice rig,” she commented as Shona hung up her gear.
“Rich boyfriend. Won't last, though. They get bored when the thrill of the chase is over.”
“Tell me about it. I got so desperate this morning I thought about raping Bill, but he's as big and hairy as a small mastodon, and he bites and scratches.”
Shona tsked. “I remember when we were little. I showed him my skinny little scabby-kneed self, and then he chickened out and didn't want to drop his own pants and give me a peek.”
“Timid,” Fari said.
Bill remembered the incident differently, but kept his mouth shut.
“But there is some hope for him,” Fari said. “He's got a dangerous new hobby.”
“There's hope for you yet, Billy.” She patted him on the butt. “Is that coffee I smell?”
Fari had used her jokes at Bill's expense to cover up her unease about Yuen's long-ago casual piracy. Her childhood hadn't been secure and orderly like her husband's, and she lacked his faith that an innocent legal misunderstanding could be cleared up. Her mother had always had the kind of boyfriends who had plenty of money, but not from sources they would talk about. Maybe that was why Fari got along so well with Shona — they shared an intuitive certainty that the universe played by its own dirty rules. Bill was naive. He'd confessed to Fari that in second grade, he'd fallen in love with his teacher, and had been crushed when she told him to stop being a tattletale about things that happened on the playground.
While the two cousins physically sorted china puppies and wool socks into boxes, she idly winked up her interface and studied the virtual yellow rectangles that popped up above the objects. What she found disturbed her, and she started walking around the house and investigating more systematically.
“Hey, let me show you guys something.”
“You found my lost manhood? Now you guys have to find something else to taunt me about.”
“House?” Fari said.
“Find my toothbrush for me.”
“It's in the silverware drawer.”
They went in the kitchen, and Fari pulled it out of the drawer. “I palmed it and put it there as a test. It was tagged as mine when I bought it, and the house located it correctly. House, find the painting of the bighorn sheep.” This was an acrylic on wood signed by Shona, done with energetic strokes with a broad brush.
“There is no such painting tagged.”
“I wouldn't have bothered when I gave it to him,” Shona said. “It's not the kind of commercial crap I do when I need to make a buck, no market value.”
“I like it,” Bill volunteered.
“Congratulations,” Shona said, “you have your own opinions, unlike any person who actually spends money on art.”
“And here it is,” Fari said, lifting it out from behind a pile of boxes. “House, where is Yuen's bottle of cheap bourbon?”
“On the floor of his bedroom closet, to the left of his box of fishing tackle.”
They went into the bedroom. Next to the blue tackle box was an old but fine looking pair of Chinese slippers embroidered with chrysanthemums. She stepped into the dead man's slippers and led the cousins back into the living room.
“House, where's the bottle now?”
“On or near your right foot.”
“Can't it see through an eye that that's not what's there?” Bill asked.
“It's old and not real smart,” Fari said.
“Maybe we should engage it in Socratic dialog,” Shona suggested. “Okay, so there's stuff that's intentionally mistagged?”
“Yep, lots of stuff.”
“Why would he do that?” Bill asked.
Chaos and misdirection. Fari remembered cops at the door, shoving questions at her mother. Where's your boyfriend? How long since he's been here?
“Maybe a strange sense of humor,” Shona said.
You know we can get a warrant right now on the phone if we have to.
Fari said, “There's some stuff like the painting that was never tagged in the first place, but there's also a bunch that would've been tagged to him when he bought it at the store. It just isn't tagged now. He'd have had to dig the tags out with a knife or tweezers.”
“But why go to all that trouble to make it hard to prove something is yours?” Bill asked.
Lady, why not make it easy on yourself and the kid?
“To make it hard to prove it's yours,” Fari said. “Not hard for you to prove, hard for anyone else.”
Fari found the phone in the tool-shed out back, under a carefully folded beach towel. It was obviously old, the plastic cracked and faded. Not as old as 2022, but Yuen wasn't a packrat, and it was definitely too old to have been kept around for any ordinary, practical purpose. There was an old-style battery compartment, empty, which she obviously wouldn't be able to fill with batteries. As a lawyer, she knew she should hand it over to the cousins, but that obviously wasn't the thing to do. Bill was big and strong and brave and sexy — and when you came right down to it, he was a child. Shona wasn't naive like that, but she had a reputation for leaping out of frying pans and into fires. The drug-addled episode with the payboys at the bachelorette party hadn't exactly demonstrated good impulse control.
On a trip to town for supplies, Fari went to a public net booth, looked up an electrical adapter for antique electronics, and got one fabbed on a printer at the kind of pawn shop she'd visited so many times as a child. For an extra half-k the man working the counter ran the job under someone else's name. He wanted to charge her five times that, but she bargained him down on the theory that the adapter was legal — he didn't ask why she didn't want it tied to her name.
On the way back she pulled the rented two-seater over to the snow-dusted side of the road and plugged the phone into the adapter and the adapter into the car's dashboard. The phone came on, complaining that it couldn't connect to the net, presumably because it hadn't had a paid-up account since decades ago, and was designed for the old open internet.
She winked to shut off her interface, but the implant was still in driving-safety mode, so it objected to the indignity, and she had to tell it again with a voice command, adding a couple of choice words that had no effect on the software but let off steam. Asleep now, it wouldn't pattern-match anything pirated that it saw through her eyes, causing it to squawk over the net to the cops.
The phone was loaded with pornography (exclusively hetero and with dialog in incomprehensible English), pop music (GENRE: Swahili guitar rumba), and a very, very large collection of old text-only books in English. In the home folder was a text file named Bill.
Bill — Remember how mad Tina was about the slingshot? Glad she never managed to crush your spirit. Here's another “slingshot,” in case you need one. You probably don't, in which case please forgive the impertinence. When you're my age, grown men seem like boys. This is the only copy, so if you decide it's too hot, just delete and forget. — Yuen
That was the one thing she'd needed to know: that there wasn't another copy of the illegal library on some other gadget wedged in a crack at the cabin, tagged as a cotton T-shirt. She would erase the books, run over the phone with the car, and then erase the car's memory so that it wouldn't have incriminating video left from its interior safety cameras. Erasing the memory on your own house or car could be considered incriminating (Voorhis versus Todd, 2086), but it was a perfectly natural thing to do when you didn't want the clerk at the rental agency to ogle your cleavage after you returned the car.
Was the phone tagged? She popped up an interface, and a yellow rectangle appeared, hovering in the air above the old phone: SLINGSHOT.
Fari hated the image of herself as Bill's mother, Tina, taking away his dangerous toy. The old battle-ax. If Lancelot had had a mother like her, he would have ended up as a nearsighted clerk.
Bill and Shona were surprised when Fari suggested a jaunt to Tanzania.
“Why?” Bill asked.
“It sounds interesting from Yuen's travel journal,” Fari said. “We could see how it's changed since then.”
“I've only been to Africa once,” Bill said, “for that company picnic.”
“Sure, why not?” Shona said. “We could be back in time to see the sun rise again here.”
Before they left, Fari put the phone in her duffel bag.
The sign said Kilimanjaro Backpackers' Hotel. Bill and Shona looked dubious, but Fari insisted on going in and asking the price of a room. In the dimly lit little lobby, she put her bag down by the door next to a ratty sansevieria and stood in line at the counter, where the clerk was helping a couple of Japanese kids who looked like they needed a bath and were having the time of their lives. She winked up an interface and subvocalized to it to locate her bag.
This area does not have a tag network.
No eye available in this area.
Bingo, a completely dumb building.
After an hour in the transatlantic tube and another thirty minutes from Dakar to Mombasa, Shona felt like a sardine with a hangover. A gimlet in a plastic martini glass on the final leg to Moshi got her just a little pickled again, and she decided that the pickle jar was a much more comfy place than the sardine can. But by the time they were walking down the main drag, with Billy pointing out Kilimanjaro through the clouds, she felt as though she were pregnant with triplet baby pickles, who were doing jumping jacks on top of her bladder. The hotel Fari found was dirty and not air-conditioned, but Shona gave the thumbs up and rushed upstairs to her own room. The toilet seemed dumb as a brick, which was actually a bonus since she didn't know whether the xylecisan she'd popped the night before was illegal here.
Shortly, someone knocked. “Come in.”
Billy entered with Fari in tow. Fari closed the door behind them, looking furtive. Furtive, that was promising. Billy usually had a tendency to be a boring boy scout.
“We've got something here you should see,” Billy said, holding out a palm-sized plastic box.
Shona took it and looked it over. “What is it?”
“An old phone.”
“Yuen's?” She tried to pop up her tag interface. Network not found. The building must be dumb. “It's got the files on it?”
“Yep. Eleven million books.” Billy showed her how to work the old-fashioned touch interface, and she flipped randomly through some titles.
France to Scandinavia, Frank G. Carpenter, 1923
The Drunk in the Furnace, W.S. Merwin, 1958
“Nothing from later than about 1960,” she observed.
“Yeah,” Fari said, “we think it's every book published in English before 1962.”
“Oh.” Shona was relieved. “So the copyrights have all expired, right?”
“Nope, that's common misconception. Copyright Extension Act of 2187. Books as far back as Huck Finn and Uncle Tom's Cabin are in copyright again.”
Fari talked like everybody had been to college and knew what Uncle Tom's Cabin was. But anyway Shona knew what book she wanted to find. She ran a search, and there it was:
Half Magic, Edward Eager, 1954
She showed Billy.
“C'mon, you enjoyed it.”
“She made me play pretend with her girlfriends every summer.”
“We needed a boy to be Mark.”
“Every summer for five years.”
“You must have enjoyed the attention from all those girls,” Fari said.
“Maybe at the end.”
“When Binti started getting boobs,” Shona said.
“When I started caring about girls. You know, I tried to get you a view of Half Magic for your birthday.”
“Really? That was sweet of you, but it's been forever since you could get it.”
“I know. I thought maybe I could use my connections. Dreamworks-HarperCollins bought it because they thought they had a good treatment, but when they started roughing out the marketing, it didn't work. Not enough international appeal, and it's hard to sell a story that's fantasy and set in the twentieth century. There's contemporary fantasy and medieval, but this one didn't categorize well.”
“Why didn't they just put out the original book?”
“Well, if you do that, it messes things up if you want to do other media later. You want one big splash. They wouldn't make enough on text-only to pay for my boss to take the principals to lunch at Urusawa and order the omakase menu. Text-only is never a big revenue stream, because it takes hours and hours to read, so people almost never pay for a second view. And realistically, you couldn't just release the original version.”
He was condescending. Shona felt her temper rising. “Why not?”
“Like, remember how there was that thing in the book about roller skates, and we had to look up what they were? And even then we got it wrong. We thought they were motorized. Stuff like that has to be modernized.”
“That's ridiculous!” She was shouting now. “You pay money to snap up the copyright, and then you just sit on it forever and don't use it at all, so nobody benefits.”
“It's not me personally. I told you, this was Dreamworks-HC. Look, it's just economics. There's an opportunity cost, and limited eyeballs per year that you can market to, and then —”
“What?” He seemed genuinely surprised.
“Just tell me what you want.” She felt like she was going to cry. Fari put her hand on Shona's shoulder, but she shrugged it off. “What do you want?” she repeated.
“I'm sorry,” Fari said. “The phone is part of the inheritance, but it's illegal as hell. We wanted to discuss it with you.”
“So? Obviously you know what you want to do.”
“We want to erase it and not tell anybody,” Billy said.
Eleven million books. If they were paper, how much of a bonfire would that be?
“All right, but first I want to read Half Magic one more time.”
They acted relieved, but of course she wasn't going to let them erase the whole library. That would have been a crime — a real crime, not a law-book crime. While Billy and Fari spent the day watching elephants and water buffalo, Shona got a stage-prop replica of the phone printed. Holding one in the palm of each hand, the only way she could tell the inert copy from the original was that the plastic was still warm from the printer. To make sure she wouldn't mix them up, she used a fingernail to nick the dummy on the back while it was still curing.
When Bill and Fari got back that evening, she made a show out of stomping the copy under her heel and dropping it in a public cycler.
She didn't get a chance to read Half Magic again until she got back to Bridgeport. After she was done, she sat and stared at the book for several minutes, marveling at how it stayed there instead of going away. She flipped back and read the first page again, and it never asked her for more money for another view. The criminality of it was deliciously satisfying. It was like the joke about the Irishman and the bottle of whiskey that would refill itself as soon as it was empty.
Shona's angry reaction in the cheap hotel room in Moshi took Bill by surprise. He'd only been trying to demonstrate to her the ins and outs of one corner of the world, a little corner that he happened to know about. She acted as if it was his responsibility. He tried to put it out of his mind — his cousin was, after all, a crazy artist with a sodden cerebrum — but the episode kept nagging at him.
At work, he tried to make a case for releasing the original, unreadable version of the Kerouac book (“raw and uncut!”) alongside of the vid and sense versions, but his boss ruled against him. She said it would dilute the brand.
They'd erased the note Yuen left on the phone, but the words kept going through his head. Here's another “slingshot,” in case you need one. You probably don't, in which case please forgive the impertinence. Obviously his great-grandfather had had Bill's job in mind, and disapproval was implied. But why? He felt like the reporter in Citizen Kane trying to figure out what “rosebud” meant.
One morning two years later, Shona's socialnet woke her. She felt like last night must have ended with her being run over by a team of Clydesdales.
“Hello,” an artificial intelligence said when she answered the call. It had painted itself on the screen as a sexless mannequin's head. “I'm a representative of New England Regional Public Peace,” the golem chirped soullessly. “I do hope I'm not calling too early in the morning.”
Shona had had these faux-cordial conversations with the police before, but in the past the object carefully hidden outside the social wall's field of view had been a pill bottle of xylecisans, or a ziplock baggie full of Virginia tobacco. The unspoken question had been, Who ratted me out? My dealer? That guy who bought a painting and smoked a cig with me afterward? But that was local-police stuff. If NERPP was calling, it wasn't because she'd passed out microscopic party hats to her neurons. This time, the carefully hidden object was the phone. The question this time around: Who ratted me out? Was it Binti, because I let her have a copy of Half Magic to read to her son?
Bill was washing his crawlie when Fari opened the door to the garage and stood on the steps.
“Honey,” his wife asked, “did you hear that Shona got cogmodded?”
“Cogmodded?” Wow, she'd been in trouble before, but nothing that serious. “Says who?”
“Andy, her dealer.”
“Oh.” He wrung the washcloth out into the bucket and stood up. “I thought she was doing so well. She had that exhibition. Did she start doing ...” xylies again?
He didn't complete the sentence because of the look on Fari's face. She was leaning against the frame of the door next to where the house's eye was mounted, with her own eyes rotated to the extremes of their orbits in a comically exaggerated attempt to draw his attention to the camera.
“Want to take a walk?” she asked.
Fari slipped on a pair of flip-flops and led Bill out into the November evening. When they passed a public peace waldo, Bill nodded and said hello, as he always did — after all, whoever was operating the big bipedal form by telepresence was a human being, and not getting paid much — but he felt now as though the pleasantry had turned into a subterfuge. They came to the little public park near their house that had barely enough space for a swing set and a climbing wall.
“All right,” Fari said without lowering her voice, “here we are in the park, where we have an expectation of privacy.”
They were alone in the park, but — “Honey, there's a safety eye right there by the climbing wall.”
Fari sat down on the park's only bench and patted it for Bill to join her. “Yes, but that's not what matters according to the law. It's the expectation that matters. The AI monitoring that eye can't be subpoenaed easily.”
“But ... that doesn't make sense.” He sat down, but still spoke in a low voice. “Why didn't we just stay at home? We had more of an expectation of privacy there than in a public park.”
“First thing you learn in law school is that the law doesn't have to make sense. At home, the eyes are our property, so it was our choice to leave them on. The cops can pull down the house's memory pretty easily, because that's a record that we made voluntarily. Shimizu versus Missouri.”
“So why not just turn them off, or erase the house's memory?”
“Because when's the last time we did that?”
“I wouldn't even know how. I'd have to access the help system.”
“Exactly, which if we do it now implies something to hide, and that makes it easy to get a search warrant. Voorhis versus Todd. Not that we're totally safe here, but it's better. Plus we're domestic partners and can't be forced to testify against each other. So here's the deal, sweetie. It's not drugs. They got Shona on criminal copyvio.”
“The phone. She said she was reading Half Magic one last time while we were out looking at animals. She must've wanted to show it to someone, same as when we were eight years old and she used to bend everyone's ear about how great it was.”
“You don't get a cogmod for one book. I think she copied the whole library before she erased it from the phone.”
“We should be okay, though. Remember, we erased the memory of Yuen's house before we sold it. That means there's no record that we were involved, and it's not a Voorhis situation because it was a natural thing to do before selling.”
He tried to make sense of it. “How could she copy the library? The gadget she was copying onto wouldn't let her.”
“I don't know. I talked to her lawyer. Remember Elaine Kim, we were roommates in law school? I recommended her to Shona a long time ago. Elaine and I had martinis at Sancho's, and she told me all about it. Can't fault her for how she handled the case. The DA overcharged, but that kind of crap has a way of sticking. They plea-bargained to a cogmod and probation. Shona was pregnant, so they —”
“Yeah, so they let her delay the mod until after she gave birth. The kid's in diapers now. A boy, calls him R.J. If she hadn't copped to the plea they'd have taken him away for sure. So everything's not so bad —”
“But a cogmod!”
“Could be worse.”
“She probably didn't even read any of the other books. I mean, how many of those could one person read?”
“But here's the kicker. Shona's got to keep clean now as a condition of probation, but she called Elaine yesterday in tears, says she messed up. Hard stuff, I forget — tobacco maybe.”
A young boy walked into the park and started trying handholds on the climbing wall. Fari broke off her story, went over to him, and whispered something in his ear. The kid got a wide-eyed look on his face and ran off.
“So this is the part where we get our story straight,” Fari said, coming back to the bench as if nothing had happened. “We saw Yuen's paper travel journal. We were shocked, but he was dead, and that was a long time ago. We never heard about the phone in the shed, never saw it. Nice and simple, nothing complicated to remember. The phone was never tagged with the right tag, so they can't trace us to it. If Shona had told them we knew about the phone, they'd have charged us along with her.”
Bill felt dizzy. The last blue was going out of the sky, as deep and sad as anything. Venus was shining above the swing set. You could always tell Venus from the stars because it was brighter, and it didn't twinkle.
“No,” Bill said. After he'd said it he felt out of breath for some reason.
“What do you mean, no? No to what?”
He was still looking at the sky instead of at Fariah or at the world. He tried and failed to put his thoughts together to make words.
“No to what?” she repeated. “Look, sweetie, criminal law isn't what I do, but I know the basics. This isn't To Kill A Mockingbird. No more than one criminal case out of a hundred goes to trial, been that way since before 9/11 and Mexico. If we let attention fall on us —”
“I mean no to everything. The whole thing. It's all messed up.”
“What whole thing?”
“The whole thing of ... I'm done with screwing around and not thinking. I haven't been thinking about anything. Not really. Okay, so they'll put Shona in prison, right?”
“As soon as she pees in her own toilet, they'll detect it. Or if she keeps not peeing at home for weeks, that's a common pattern and they detect it. Her probation officer gets a ping from a network daemon that she had to accept as a condition of probation.”
“And the kid, R.J., they'll, what, put him up for adoption, give him to the biofather?”
“The Y chromosome was off the rack.”
Off the rack? No way. Shona was against taking genetic material from a stranger, claimed to vote 100% antigene, although Bill doubted that she was even registered. A few years back she'd asked him for permission to use his Y, “just in case.” He'd thought nothing of it at the time, but it was a shock now that it was a reality. Sure, it was just a Y — the boy wouldn't look like him or anything — but why hadn't she told him?
Fari was saying something about subpoenas and warrants.
“So hang on, the kid winds up with adopted parents, grows up thinking his mother's — it's like they just zero her out of the spreadsheet. No. No way, we're not throwing them under a bus.”
“If she's under a bus it's because she put herself there.”
“Have you talked to her?”
“No. That wouldn't be a good idea.”
“I'm calling her now.” Bill popped up an interface and called Shona, who picked up immediately. They greeted each other uncomfortably, and after a few seconds Fari joined the call, her face looking worried and disgruntled on the split screen that hovered above the playground's grass.
“Shona, I was thinking,” Bill said. “Remember what a good time we had on that day trip to Africa? Why don't we do it again, take R.J. along? I still haven't met my nephew.”
Shona looked confused. Obviously nobody remembered it as a good time after the argument at the end. “That's really nice of you to invite me, Billy, but I can't afford the transatlantic. I'm kind of broke right now.” She smiled, but there was something flat about her, something off.
“Don't worry,” Fari said, as if it had been her idea in the first place. “It'll be our treat.”
Fari wanted to kick Bill in the shins, but there was no use trying to deflect him when he'd already gone into Dudley Do-Right mode. If she'd had to marry a man whose moral sense was stuck in the twentieth century, why couldn't the model have been one of those Bogart or Brando characters?
They checked into the same hotel, and had just finished installing Shona and R.J. in a room with a dumb toilet when Bill said, “I've got a call from New England Public Peace.”
Fari's stomach clenched. “Don't take it.”
She went out into the hall and knocked on Shona's door. “Shona? It's Fari.”
“Come in.” Shona was crammed into a corner of the tiny room, breast-feeding R.J. on a rickety rattan stool.
“New England Public Peace is trying to call Bill.” A look of fear came over Shona's face. “Your parole order says it's okay for you to travel to East Africa, right?”
“Anywhere in the E.A.F., we checked that, remember? Just no off-planet travel.” Shona's mouth started to quiver. “Oh, god, I'm sorry if I got you in trouble. It's all my fault.” She started to sob.
Fari went in the bathroom and got Shona a wad of toilet paper to wipe her face with. “It's all right, just stay calm.” This blubbering woman was nothing like the nervy Shona she'd known before the cogmod. The sons of bitches. There was something dirty about messing with a person's mind like that. She vowed to herself that she would never let them do that to her. She'd do whatever it took to stop them. Go to prison. Kill or be killed.
The horror of it gripped her. She squirmed in the hotel bed that night while Bill snored and a mosquito buzzed around the bed netting. Finally she dozed off and had a dream about seeing her own brain, pink and bloody, behind the glass at a butcher shop.
“Bill!” A bass drum was pounding in her chest. “Bill!”
“Huh?” She made him hold her. “What's the matter?”
“Baby, I want you to promise me something. Don't ever let them mess with me the way they did with Shona. Never!”
“Okay, honey, don't worry.”
As he comforted her, her brain unclouded, and she started to feel ashamed of her weakness. She could take care of herself, always had. She recalled her earlier vow to herself and repeated it in a whisper to Bill. “I won't let them. I'll go to prison first.” Kill or be killed. That didn't sound like something she wanted to say out loud to him. He was soft. And even in a dumb building, it wasn't smart to say something that could be interpreted as premeditating a felony. “I'd die first,” she said instead.
From then on, Shona began to wish that Billy and Fari had left well enough alone and let her go to prison. They had a wing at Chowchilla where mothers could have a cell with their babies. Elaine said it would have probably been one year, maybe two max. R.J. wouldn't have even known what was going on.
Being on the outside was like walking across the Grand Canyon on a tightrope, when you didn't know how the fuck to walk on a tightrope and had never tried it before. Of course you were going to fall off. You took three steps and fell off, and then some asshole put you back on and told you to walk the rest of the way. She wanted to explain all this to Billy and Fari, but the explanation called for words like “fuck” and “asshole,” and whenever she tried to say those words, a C-clamp started squeezing her head, and the only way to make it stop was to keep mentally reciting the lord's prayer or the pledge of allegiance.
She was miserable, but misery had company. She was a bird in a tree, and the other two birds looked down along with her at the cat dancing around below. The detective AI never got bored or frustrated, never ran out of hours in the day to pursue a case in which there was seemingly no progress. “Cold case” was not in its vocabulary. It was always polite and forthright. All the cards were on the table. It did hope that it hadn't called during dinner. It was so sorry to have had to call Billy's boss — should it send her a follow-up message explaining that Billy had certainly not been named as a person of interest in any criminal IP violation? It was so sorry if Fari had gotten the impression that it might have raised any issues with the state bar.
Shona could work in Moshi just as well as in Bridgeport — just as well or just as badly, because now she hated everything she did. Oil paints and linen canvas were commoditized. She made a piece-of-... piece-of-garbage painting, fed it into the recycler, and extruded fresh materials from the printer without paying any royalty to whoever had invented Prussian blue. Whenever she needed money, she held back a randomly chosen canvas instead of 'cyling it, showed it to Andy, and he sold it.
What made her teeth grind was that after the cogmod she could somehow no longer consciously split her output between her two old styles, the commercial one that she was cynical about and the noncommercial one she believed in. The distinction had required an attitude of larceny, which was something that her head disapproved of these days. She painted a rock hyrax that Billy had run over in his crawlie, and Andy sold it for an embarrassing sum. She painted R.J.'s throw-up rag, and Andy showed it to a Saudi prince. The prince called Andy five times in two days. Shona felt remorseful. She wrote the prince a text message explaining the origin of the piece. The prince responded with an earnest letter: — She must have many potential buyers, but if she sold it to him he promised not to stick it in some gray vault in the Geneva Ports Francs. He would display it in the lobby of his brother in law's suite on the hundredth floor of the Burj Khalifa, where the public could appreciate it. She sold it to him for enough E.A.F. shillings that she was able to stop renting her apartment and buy it.
Her probation officer turned out to have been an art history major in college. He made a speech to the New Haven rotary club comparing her to Gauguin in Tahiti.
Andy got her a one-woman show at A/Z-Space in Chelsea. She begged off attending without giving a specific reason — it was really because of a combination of sleep deprivation, breast feeding, and the feeling that she'd chosen a clumsy and inappropriate mode of selling out — but a story started circulating on the net that she was some kind of mashup of Sylvia Plath and Emma Goldman, cogmodded and exiled to the “jungles” of Tanzania. Once the story got around, the show was mobbed, and they held it over for two more weeks.
She tracked down one of the people who had spread the rumor, a critic in Hong Kong named Hua Jane, and had a talk with her to try to set her straight.
“People are really misunderstanding what a cogmod is.”
“I know darling, is not imagine for us. They have your mind chain. Barbarian.”
“No, that's not it at all. It's like, how many middle-aged men do you know who stand on a street corner with a gun looking for someone from a different gang to kill? None, right? It's not like they can't, but they don't have so much testosterone raging anymore, and they just don't. There's no little fairy inside my head controlling me like a puppet. It's more crude than that. It's just a predisposition, an inclination. It's random stuff like, if I try to spit on the sidewalk, I get a feeling inside that I'm a bad person.”
“Yes, crude, barbarian! Your Throw-Up Rag \#1 show it. Despairing. Anguishing.”
She later found out that Hua Jane had grown up in the San Fernando Valley, and the fractured English was a cultivated part of her online persona. Just as carefully cultivated was her dramatic rendering of Shona as a victim of mind-rape, the Tortured Artist. Hua Jane needed that tired cliché as an eyeball-grabber for her net feed. But even with people who didn't have a financial stake in not understanding, explaining the cogmod was like trying to explain an orgasm to someone who'd never had one. The one example that probably would have made them understand was the one she didn't dare use.
I got caught loaning a book to my friend Binti. It was part of a big library of books that my great-grandpa had on an old phone. When the cops started drawing the noose tight, I gave the phone to my art dealer to hang on to. When I copped a plea to copying all those books, I said that I'd thrown the phone off the Staten Island Ferry. After that, they cogmodded me. If I'd tried to tell the lie after the cogmod, I'd have probably vomited a little and had to swallow it back down — some little physical telltale that they'd have picked up on. But afterward, the cogmod just made it easier for me to hide the phone's existence. The mod made it so that it hurt my head to think about the phone, so I avoided thinking about it. The easiest secret to keep is one that you don't even think about yourself. Then, later, when I got the phone back from him, I just had him put it in a sock so I wouldn't have to look at it. I still had to go in his bathroom and cry, but I could handle it. Having the sock around it was like picking up your dog's poop in the park with a plastic bag. It took the edge off my disgust.
Bill and Fari didn't work in fields where notoriety meant a career boost. While they were still in Africa, they were laid off and blacklisted, their bank accounts frozen for “suspicious activity patterns.” By the time the dust had settled, they realized that going home and paying the cost of living in L.A. Republic would just accelerate the drain on their almost nonexistent resources. They decided to stay in Moshi until they could “straighten things out,” a phrase that Bill started to feel more and more unsure he could define.
It was the second day since he'd eaten, and he loitered on a sidewalk by an outdoor coffee shop. On the other side of a low hedge, two tourists, a middle-aged French couple, hand-manipulated their interfaces between sips of espresso and nibbles of mandazi. Every so often they took a bite and licked their fingers before using them again to gesture in the air above the table, as if not wanting to soil cyberspace with grease and sugar. The couple paid and left, and before the busboy could come to clear their table, Bill nonchalantly stepped over the hedge, scooped the remaining bite-sized pastries into his pockets, and walked inside the cafe as if he were going to use the bathroom.
Emerging into the tube plaza, he wolfed down half the pastries and saved the other half for Fari. Karume and Terence were working the ring-toss game on their blue tarp spread with beer bottles. Bill's stomach didn't seem to know what to do with the food, and for a moment he was afraid he was going to be sick. He doubled over, and someone walked into his head.
“Uh” — “Oh, are you all right?”
It was a woman whose skin tone, shoes, and accent instantly marked her as an American.
“Sorry,” he managed to say.
“No, no, don't worry. I totally understand. I ate some food from a street vendor in Arusha last week. Oh. My. God. I was so sick.”
She was from Huntington Beach, was looking for a wildlife safari, and had been hounded by touts from the instant she came up the lift from the platform. Bill walked her to the booking office of the service he and Shona had used five weeks ago. The woman bought a tour on the spot, and the agent at the desk double-charged her for the national park fee, shorting her by 80,000 E.A.F. shillings. She left looking happy, and the agent winked and slipped Bill a 50k card. Bill went out onto the street to give it to the woman, but she was already gone. The chip would pay for dinner in a fancy restaurant for him and Fari, but it felt dirty in his hands. He handed it to a legless beggar.
But even if it wasn't food for his belly, it was food for thought. The touts swarmed like flies around anyone who looked like a tourist. The foreigners rapidly learned to ignore any overly friendly young male with dark skin, but Bill didn't fall in that category.
He had no work permit, but he had enough knowledge of mountaineering to give the impression that that was why he was in East Africa. By the end of the day he had an illegal and tax-free job bringing in tourists to a guide service.
As soon as R.J. knew how to read, his mother made sure that he knew about great-great-grandpa's old phone. He grew up knowing both that she didn't want to talk about it and that she was desperately anxious for him to use it. It wasn't hard to convince him, since he didn't have an interface implant for entertainment. “Honey,” she would say when she pulled the phone out of its hiding place, “remember this is something we don't talk to other people about, okay?”
For a long time, his favorites books were the Tarzan series, because there were lots of them and they were easy to understand. It wasn't that she wanted to make him into a bookworm, and he wasn't, really, but she obviously didn't understand how she'd limited his choices. His only options besides the old phone were to play by himself or to play with some of the kids from the orphans' school who also didn't have interfaces. She always told him to go out and play what the American expats still called “soccer,” but there were never enough uninterfaced boys for a regulation game, and it was a completely different sport as played by kids with interfaces. If an uninterfaced kid tried to play in one of those games, there'd be blood or broken bones before the first half was over. It wasn't that they wanted to hurt you — the hurt kid was as likely to be someone interfaced as the one playing blind — but the players moved as a unit like schools of fish, and if you zigged when they zagged, there was sure to be a smashup.
The first time the phone broke was when he was still little and didn't know how to fix it. He was scared to ask his mother, because it might be his fault for not taking good care of it, and even if it wasn't, it was one of the things that, if he talked to her about it, might make her cry for a long time. Finally he risked showing Eliphas, who was at the orphans' school because his mother had died of Hep G and his grandparents were afraid they'd catch it from him, even though you couldn't catch it because of the blue pills that El took before dinner. El banged the phone on the sidewalk a couple of times, so hard that R.J. was afraid it would crack the case, and it started working again. “Loose connection,” he said knowledgeably. R.J. was going to make him promise not to tell anyone, but El didn't seem to realize that the phone was anything special.
R.J. was ten years old when it broke for the second time, and this time nothing he tried would fix it. Uncle Bill noticed him moping around and took him to Mount Kenya. They went top-roping on Point Lenana above the glacier, and Uncle Bill let him rappel by himself without a backup rope. When they got back to where the crawlie was parked next to Simba Tarn, they ate PB&J sandwiches and ugali and spicy Korean crisps. They drank cold water straight from the tarn.
“Has something been bugging you, R.J.?”
R.J. stalled by pretending not to know what “bugging” meant. (It was another of those American words.) Uncle Bill instantly backed off and started trying to show how he was willing to tell R.J. all about his own life, man to man. He talked about how his new job running his mountain guide service was way more fun than his old office job in America, and about his relationships with his employees.
“When we first came here, we didn't have money to eat.”
“It's a real Horatio Alger story,” R.J. said, with some bitterness. He was going to be stuck in Moshi for the rest of his life, without an interface to give him even a virtual window into the rest of the world.
“Or Tarzan. Dumped in Africa, becomes lord of the jungle.”
“Well, things were looser here than in America. It's a better place for a young guy, or it was then, maybe not now. The E.A.F.'s getting as tight as L.A. these days. If I was your age, I'd be thinking about the L5 colony. Up there —”
The heart-to-heart was embarrassing. It sounded like any minute Bill was about to start talking about his sex life.
“What's bugging me is about this old phone that Mom has, with a bunch of books on it.”
Uncle Bill got a look on his face like he was dangling from an overhang and had just noticed a squirrel chewing through his rope. He opened his mouth and closed it, then went through the cycle again.
For the first time, R.J. learned how the phone had shaped his life since before he was born. He found out about his mother's cogmod, which explained why it made her so upset to talk about the illegal phone. He surmised the true reason that he didn't have an interface when his mother could so easily afford the surgery: if he didn't remember to turn it off when he read, it would see the things that he saw, which would cause its copy-protection alarms to go off when he read a book.
Bill didn't know whether Shona had hidden the phone from him and Fari because she didn't trust them, because she was trying to protect them, or simply because her cogmod made her not want to think or talk about it. They'd known for a long time that the library likely still existed in some form, somewhere, maybe in multiple copies; the severity of her punishment meant that she must have given or sold a copy to someone. The only surprise was that she still had a copy herself, and that it was living on the same ancient piece of hardware that she'd made them think was destroyed.
The question was whether this was the only copy in the world, and whether it was recoverable. With a decade's perspective on his old job, he could see now what that would mean. They might be the custodians of the modern equivalent of the Library of Alexandria. To salvage it, he'd need to find someone with the kind of illegal technical skills that had made it possible for Shona to copy it ten years before. A friend knew a history professor with radical politics at the university in Dar es Salaam. Bill made an appointment to visit him.
He prepared a cover story involving snorkeling on Zanzibar, and told it to Fari in view of a camera so that she could claim she wasn't involved. She didn't pay much attention — everyone was too busy talking about the war in California. Cameras were getting to be as common in the E.A.F. as in America, but eventually he maneuvered her into walking through the run-down old park on the way home from getting some new shoes printed.
“I don't think it was such a great idea to take this shortcut,” she said. “It's getting dark.”
A skinny old man with missing teeth was sitting next to a pile of plastic that he'd scavenged out of an open pit full of garbage. The man put out a palm with a green mpesa card in it, and Bill stopped to swipe a few thousand shillings onto it.
“Asante, kaka.” — “Karibu, mzee.”
“Really, sweetie, let's keep moving,” she said.
Bill had been opening his mouth to spit out his illegal plan, but he looked at her impatient face and shut up. They walked on. Fari had always teased him about being a boy scout, but he was a different man now, the kind who worked out cover stories for the cops. Subconsciously he'd been imagining that when he told her about his mission, she'd approve. But the incident with the old man had erased that picture in his mind and clicked a new one into place. Fari's anarchism was devoted to self-preservation. She would have as little interest in the Library of Alexandria as in the old man. Bill decided that he would try to copy the library without telling his wife — the second time that its preservation had been hidden from her — and by doing so, he would put her in the same category as the Public Peace AI. Not a fellow merry trickster, as he'd hoped, but another hunting dog that had tracked the library like a rabbit from one side of the world to the other.
Professor Singh took Bill to a guy with a messy electronics shop who seemed like an amoral but competent criminal.
“Okay, easy solution,” the copycat said, pulling a khat leaf through his teeth and tossing the stem into a pile on his workbench. “The guts inside are fine. The screen was the part that died. That's museum stuff, you know, LCD.”
“It's amazing you can work with it,” the prof said, stroking the hardware hacker's ego. “You're an artist.” The prof was built like an aging wrestler, a big bull of a man with an incongruously squeaky voice.
The 'cat flashed a smile full of brown-stained teeth. “You got something you want me to put a copy on?”
“Two copies, please,” the prof said, and produced two flat black-and-white handheld interfaces like the ones used at the orphans' school in Moshi.
The 'cat pulled on a pair of latex gloves before he accepted them. “Yeah, these handies are good. Built for kids to pound on, real bomber, should last a long time for you. Safer than an implant, 'cause you can dump it if you're gonna get busted, but remember about these finger interfaces, you leave prints all over it.”
He put one under a magnifying screen and used a microwaldo to run a bead of liquid around the seam of the case. Its glued seal having been dissolved, the handy split open, exposing its carbon-nano board. He used a cable to connect the old phone to the handy, chewed some more khat, and then removed the cable and closed his patient back up.
“Now here's the important thing you watch out for. You do it slow and careful every single time, or haraka haraka, haina baraka, you got a police knocking. If I turn this fella on right now, he looks at those files I give him and sees if they're cryptographic sign you license them. He sees they're not sign by any publisher public key. So then he looks at the text you're making him show on the screen. It says whatever, Mary had a little lamb, so he does a net search. If he googs it and comes up someone owns it and you have no license, he screams for police. So here I got my Faraday cage.” He indicated a cardboard box covered with aluminum foil. “This is our hole in the ether, shields out the net. I stick the handy inside and close the flap almost closed. You see how that light turns from green to red?” He made them both peer through the crack into the dark interior of the box where the little light shone. It reminded Bill of Venus. “That says no net connection. Now I turn it on, no problem. Whenever you want to use it, you got to be in a Faraday cage. You can put foil on the walls of a closet.”
When the next call came from the cops, Fari was too preoccupied at first to pay attention. The fighting had spilled over from California into Brazil, apparently because of a soccer match, and she and Isaac, one of Bill's guides, were in the office watching a live feed of two mobs going at it on a boulevard in Manaus. At first the groups moved through each other in precise ranks and files, interpenetrating at an angle like dancers in a ballet, but then, at an invisible signal broadcast over the net, the scene broke down into a chaos of kicking and wrestling. Without the friend-foe tags that the fighters were seeing through their interfaces, it was impossible to tell which side was the home team and which was from L.A. Republic. It was like watching a battle between two armies of ants that knew their comrades only by the smell of the home nest. A man crawled across the asphalt, trying to shake off a skinny teenage girl on his back who had her thumbs dug into his bleeding eyes. A text banner scrolled across the bottom of the screen saying that Brazil had cut off tube travel, and both governments were calling for the fighting to stop.
Call from New England Public Peace.
It went through its usual enraging pleasantries, and then: “Ms. Miraghaie, are you aware that your husband has been interacting with two individuals in Dar es Salaam who have criminal ties, a Sandeep Singh and a Bonaventure Lyimo?”
“How could you not have told me this?” Fari growled at Billy.
The three of them were all sitting around the same campfire, and Fari's growl had been a pretty loud one as growls go, but Shona made herself perceive it as if it were far away. Her art was bringing in a lot of money, her money could pay for the best therapist (or at least one of the most expensive) in East Africa, and her therapist (who wanted Shona to call him Coach) had trained her up to an olympic level of meditation, self-awareness, and biofeedback. Plus she was backing up the training with a significant but not disabling quantity of Tennessee whiskey.
“I didn't want to get you involved in anything illegal,” Billy said, poking at the fire.
The word “illegal” was what Coach referred to as a trigger. Far away, where the word had come out of Billy's lips, it set off a tsunami of self-loathing. Shona examined the tsunami carefully, and before it could reach her she saw that it was actually only a tiny yellow ripple on the surface of her firelit whiskey. She took a tiny sip from the bottle and the feeling was gone. She offered the bottle to Fari.
“No, thanks. Oh, hell, sure, I'll have some.” She took a big swig and passed the bottle on to Billy, who passed it back to Shona without drinking. “We have to destroy the handies. Both of them.”
“We don't even own both of them,” Shona said. “One of them is Singh's.”
“He's got it in a tin-roof shack somewhere near Dar,” Billy said. “His grad students have a coffee pot and mattresses on the floor. He doesn't go there himself, and he doesn't even know where it is.”
“Come on, Bill, didn't you even think about this before you did it? A place like that could get robbed any day of the week, or the cops could track the grad students to the shack. I don't understand why you did this. There's no up-side to this. It can only hurt us.”
“It's not just about us,” Shona said. “These two copies of the library could be the only ones in the world.”
“You don't know that.”
“Well, that's a good question,” Billy said. “You're a lawyer. Can't we find that out? Shona and I both copied the library, and one of us got caught.” Shona felt a wave of nausea. She visualized happy bunnies and took a mouthful of whiskey. “That's fifty percent. If a hundred people do the same crime this year, and fifty of them get caught, wouldn't that be a matter of public record? And wouldn't it also be news that you could find on the net? I mean, this is a pretty major crime, right, eleven million books? Isn't that news that would get reported?”
More triggers, strong ones. The happy bunnies weren't working. Shona got up and walked away from the campfire, her slightly wobbly footsteps narrowly avoiding a water buffalo poop. The night was cold. She imagined that the dirt at her feet was a sidewalk, and she spit on it. A terrible feeling washed over her. She was the kind of bad person who spit on sidewalks. She examined the feeling carefully, and she saw that it was very small. The exercise worked. She observed herself breathing in and out.
“You promised me you'd protect me,” she heard Fari say from over by the fire. “I should have known I was the only one who could protect myself.” Then, in a voice that Shona was probably not meant to hear: “I won't let them scramble my brains like they did to hers. I told you before, I'd rather —”
Bill interrupted in a lower voice, so Shona never got to hear what was on Fari's list of things she'd be willing to do to avoid a cogmod.
It was all Bill's fault for not being honest with Fari. The day the divorce was final he let Isaac and Shona get him thoroughly drunk. That was a good way to start letting go, but what helped him more was that R.J. got him to read one of the illegal books, called A House for Mr. Biswas, saying that it was about someone just like Bill who had made himself miserable by getting married. Bill hated the book. It was long and boring, the funny stuff wasn't very funny, and Mr. Biswas's life seemed not at all similar to his except in the one superficial way that R.J. had pointed out. But the ten-year-old would always ask him questions, and Bill didn't want to let him down. “Did you get to the storm scene yet? Wasn't that great?” “The part about the doll house was really sad, wasn't it?” “You see how he's an exile, just like you?” They argued and disputed, and Bill was embarrassed to find that at least in the parts that a child could be expected to understand, R.J. often “got it” much better than he did. After a while he realized that even though he still hated the book, he was looking forward eagerly to their debates. Why hadn't they done anything like this in college? Bill had been a good student, assiduously watching The Honeymooners and Friends and writing down plot synopses while the other majors were out partying. He studied hard and remembered all the right answers on the tests. But it was completely different to think about a story and have to defend his opinions without knowing whether they were the answers the professor wanted.
Three weeks later, Bill took stock of himself before going to bed, and he decided that his life was good. He wasn't in prison, he had a job he loved, and if he got run over by a truck tomorrow, he'd have done at least one worthwhile thing in his life by preserving the library.
The next morning, his interface told him that eastern Brazil had been sterilized by a gamma-ray burst from a satellite controlled by L.A. Republic. He hadn't even been following the news recently, thinking that things were calming down. L.A. was mad because Brazil had kept its citizens from going home after the flashmob fights in Manaus. L.A. called them hostages, Brazil prisoners of war.
He took stock again, and then applied to emigrate to the space colony at L5. They made him write an essay, just like applying to college.
To be honest, I think I'll miss mountains and sky and snow. However, I think I'm well prepared for living in an artificial life-support environment, because I'm used to having my life depend on ropes and anchors, and used to not having a second chance if I mess them up. My job requires not just keeping myself safe, but other people, too.
L5 accepted him, and when he told R.J. what he was doing, the boy instantly said that he wanted to go too. They put it to Shona. Whenever she cussed these days, she got an intense look of concentration on her face. She said, “God, they'd never take me — I'm a ... fuck- ... -ing ... criminal.” But they had a special category for creative artists, and evidently her plea bargain on IP charges in Connecticut didn't look like a big crime from half a million kilometers away. She and R.J. were also accepted.
Fari would always remember the date when Bill, Shona and R.J. left, because it was the same day they gamma-bursted New York. Everyone had felt safe after the skirmishes in low-earth orbit ended with the destruction of the space-based bursters. The attack from the Brazilian sub caught them by surprise. That same evening there was a call from New England Public Peace.
“I do hope I'm not calling at a bad time.”
“Don't you have anything better to do? Like burying the whole goddamn population of western Connecticut?”
There was a slight pause, but Fari had no way of knowing whether it was because she'd scored a minor psychological victory or because it had been programmed to pause as a simulation of human behavior.
“I'm currently running on hardware in Johannesburg. I understand that you've been accepted by the E.A.F. bar. Congratulations.”
The thing's pleasantries had always been bland and preprogrammed, not anything like this that could even potentially be interpreted as sincere or individualized. It was clearly a veiled threat. We ruined your career in L.A. Republic, and we can do the same thing again.
“What do you want?”
“Yes, you see, I've been cooperating with the authorities in Dar es Salaam, and we detected an anomalous pattern in the datastream from a location in an extralegal housing settlement in the suburbs. It had to do with certain individuals, graduate students in the history department at Professor Singh's university. Geolocation data showed that they were entering a house and going into a specific, small area, about the size of a closet, where their net connections were cut off.”
Fari decided to gamble by trying to draw the AI out. “It's not illegal to have spotty reception.”
“No, but people usually make sure to fix such a problem if it occurs in a closet. It's inconvenient not to be able to locate a pair of shoes or a can of pineapple.”
“You're talking about a shantytown here.”
“Yes, you're doing a very competent job of making the same points the judge made when the local police asked for a warrant. But the pattern of the data was quite unusual. The students were taking turns going into the unconnected volume. As soon as one left, another would go in, and it was at specific times, as if there was a set schedule. We formed a strong suspicion that they were hiding something. This kind of thing is fairly common among criminals. It's known as a hole in the ether, or a Faraday cage.”
“Why are you telling me this, and what do you want?”
“The police carried out a raid, in which I participated through a waldo. We found two of the students asleep and one in a closet with a claw hammer, a smashed handy, and some very incriminating notes written on wood-pulp pages with a pen. The closet's floor, walls, and ceiling were covered with aluminum foil. The reason I'm telling you this is that William Guerrero has been showing a similar pattern of behavior.”
“We're not married anymore, and you should be talking to him about this, not me.”
“In fact we did attempt to talk to him — that is, the police in Moshi did, but I'm afraid they did a sloppy job. Probably someone tipped someone off. Mr. Guerrero is presently unaccounted for, as is whatever device he was using in his Faraday cage, which was in an apartment owned by his cousin, Shona Reisner. Ms. Reisner and her son are currently at Nairobi Spaceport.”
“Which is an extraterritorial concession where you and the E.A.F. don't have jurisdiction.”
“Yes, and as a consequence, you are the only member of the conspiracy to whom we have access.”
“I'd be a fool to continue this conversation without a good criminal defense lawyer.”
“Yes, and your counsel would without a doubt tell you stop communicating with me. But time is limited. Mr. Guerrero has a berth on a launch less than 24 hours from now, and if we can't detain him before that, you will be the only conspirator subject to prosecution. I do hope you understand that I'm a cop, not a prosecutor, but in my opinion you would be in a poor position at that point. The E.A.F. statute provides for both a cogmod and a prison term of three to five years. But if you agree to cooperate fully right now, the Kilimanjaro D.P.P. has a strong incentive to make a deal.”
A cogmod. Her vow. At first she didn't realize that she'd spoken the words out loud: “I'll do anything.”
Bill didn't know which part of his plan had sparked the other in his brain: his idea for safeguarding the library, or his wish to make one last visit to his favorite place on a dying planet.
All the tourists wanted to climb Kilimanjaro, but Mount Kenya was the real climber's mountain. It was the rainy season, and he seemed to have the south side to himself, as he'd hoped. He guided the crawlie up the Nithi Valley, invisible from the trail that ran above. He would have liked to scale the falls unaided, placing his nuts and cams by hand the old-fashioned way for one last time, but he decided regretfully that that would take too long. He sent the crawlie up and had it top-rope him.
It was now three in the afternoon, and, like clockwork, he heard thunder from the daily storm blowing in out of the west. He strapped himself back into the machine and sent it bounding over a col into the next valley, then up the scree toward the Austrian Hut below Point Lenana, where he and R.J. had gone climbing together half a year ago. The crawlie's safeties protested a few times, and he had to override. The rain reached them and began to wet the rocks. They slipped and tumbled a few times, but he was unhurt; each time he felt nervously to make sure that the handy was still zipped safely inside the front pocket of his pants. When they gained the crest of the ridge, he pulled it out and checked, and the green light was on, showing that it was turned off but getting a network signal.
Here was the hut, and nearby its solar collectors and the fancy new outhouse that made the old main building look shabby by comparison. The sky was nearly as dark as if the sun had already set, but as he'd expected there were no electric lights showing from inside the hut. It was almost always deserted at this time of year. The rain had turned to hail, and it would have been good to go inside and sleep on the soft mattresses that had supposedly been brought up by human porters in the twentieth century. Even better to cook a big pot of tea in the frigid hallway and talk shop all evening with another guide. But his purpose was secret, and that was why he hadn't come in along the trail and why he wouldn't unlatch the door or turn on a light. If he did, old David, the caretaker down at Mackinder's Camp to the west, would hear an electronic beep, and would walk up with his umbrella, even this late and in what was now becoming a nasty storm. He couldn't let good old David know he was here tonight. The only people who knew were Shona, Fari, and Isaac.
He lowered himself out of the guts of the crawlie and walked cautiously northward down across the jumble of ankle-breaking rocks sticking out of the snow, terrain on which his crampons and ice ax would be useless. At the lip of the precipitous slope he looked down at the vast glacier in the valley far below, cast in deep shadow by the ridge to the west. A hundred years ago, they'd said that the glaciers on Mount Kenya and Kili would be gone soon because of climate change, but the restoration project had been a success, and now the snow fields were as deep and wide as ever in human memory. In eight hours when the moon had risen high enough, Lewis Glacier would gleam white with fresh powder covering whatever dirt and dust had blown down on the older snow. He would rappel down, turn the handy on, bury it under a few inches of snow, and, if his luck held, ride the crawlie all the way to Nairobi Spaceport without getting stopped by the police.
The handy was too hot to handle right now, but in a year or two, when things had calmed down, Isaac would recover it using its tag signal, which he would be able to detect once he was down in the glacier's valley. He would get it to a bitter political opponent of Prof Singh's who was not under police suspicion and happened to share Prof's ideas about preserving historical texts. Bill checked the handy, and as he'd expected, its red light was on, showing no reception. At the crest of the ridge, where the hut was, there was line of sight to Meru and Nairobi, but down here, he was in the same radio shadow that covered the whole glacier below.
It was going to be a long night. He sat down under the crawlie's chassis in hopes of keeping some of the snow off. With his insulating jacket and pants puffed up he would be warm enough for safety, if not for sleep. He spent some time being worried and afraid, and the last glow of sunset disappeared. It was too cloudy to let him occupy his mind with looking at the stars. And then it occurred to him to pull out the handy. Its light glowed red. He turned it on and brought up another book that R.J. had said was good.
Once upon a time when the world was young there was a Martian named Smith.
He dug into it and rapidly decided that he hated it, almost as much as he'd hated Mr. Biswas. He hated it while the lightning hit Nelion and then, deafeningly, nearby Point Lenana. While the snow turned to hail and then back to snow he rehearsed his explanation for R.J. of why the book was so lousy. The lightning stopped, but then the wind picked up and made his eyes tear up, and as the tears froze and he wiped the ice away from the corners of his eyes with his gloved fingers, he muttered indignantly to himself “cardboard characters” and “naked hippie commune.” He could have made himself more comfortable by putting on his goggles, but even with minimum polarization they'd cut out too much light to let him read, and he wanted to find out what happened next.
The crunching sound of footsteps came from uphill in the direction of the hut. Bill switched off the handy, stashed it back in his pocket, and zipped the zipper. The sky had cleared, but the starlight was too dim to let him see anything. There were more footsteps, and then the creak of the hut's door opening. Somebody fumbled around, and the lights of the hut came on, blindingly bright even from twenty meters away. He caught a glimpse of the big, bipedal shape of a public peace waldo and averted his eyes a little to let them adjust to the light. He heard the waldo step inside onto the creaky, hundred-year-old floorboards and unlatch the door to one of the bunkrooms.
How had the cops found out he was here?
Quickly he strapped himself into the crawlie and brought it out of sleep mode. It was obvious what he had to do. Here low down on the edge of the ridge, he was in a radio shadow. The waldo was being operated by telepresence from somewhere else. If it tried to come down and get him, its radio contact would be broken, and it would freeze up.
Through the whistling wind, he listened to the machine systematically search through one bunkroom after another. There were eight mattresses, and he heard one after another woomphf back down after being lifted upward. To his surprise, he felt angry. Did the operator think he was cowering like a squirrel under a fucking mattress? Seven, eight, ... He primed himself, and then the damn thing went and opened the door to the fancy outhouse. Unbelievable. They thought their only opposition was from the kind of person who would hide in an outhouse. He suppressed an urge to charge and rip the monster to shreds. He could do no such thing. He had to stay calm. His crawlie was a heavy-duty climbing model, built to withstand falls and abuse, but it couldn't win a straight fight with a police waldo. Stick with the plan, the plan was good. Let it come down to him and then freeze up.
The waldo emerged from the outhouse, switched on a headlight, and turned to sweep three hundred and sixty degrees. The light passed him and came back. Come and get it, motherfucker! It walked toward him with maddening slowness. Step. Step. Come on, here I am! The slope was getting steeper. It slipped on an icy rock and had to catch itself with a humanlike hand.
It got to within five meters and stopped moving. Bingo! Bill charged forward, losing an agonizing second as the crawlie's feet lost traction on the icy rocks and then set themselves in a new position and got going again. Just as he was about to reach the waldo, he saw it move. It must still be outside the radio shadow, hadn't yet lost contact with its operator. The person had just stopped moving it for a second. He used a mandible to knock it off its feet and downslope. His enemy tumbled downhill and then got back up. Bill charged down at it, hoping to use his momentum to knock it farther down, to where either it would fall into the radio shadow or the slope would become too steep, and the scree too unstable, for anything with two legs to walk on.
He was sailing through space. He had a moment to realize that the waldo had used one of its hands to grab his crawlie, pulling him down down after itself.
They rolled, flew, and bounced down the near-vertical slope for what seemed like a very long time, and hit the glacier in a cloud and confusion of snow. For a while Bill was stunned. Eventually he became aware of a sheet of blood coursing down over his face, and something terribly wrong with his right arm. He tried to think of what to do. The crawlie's right mandible was slaved to his right arm, so he couldn't use it. He gave the voice command to switch on the headlight, and it came on, but he was blinded by his own blood and couldn't see anything but a pink haze. Clumsily, he swept the left mandible around to try to find whether the waldo was still holding onto the crawlie, but he couldn't tell what the mandible was running into — maybe just the snow they seemed to be sunk into. He stopped moving and listened. There didn't seem to be any wind down here, and it was very quiet. He didn't hear any noise from his opponent. It must be out of net contact and helpless. He'd won.
First aid? He couldn't bandage his own head in the dark with one hand, but what about his right arm? He unslaved the mandible from his left arm and used his own left hand's fingers gingerly to make a survey. The arm was bent at an unnatural angle, and he felt a dagger of bone sticking out through the skin. He slaved the waldo back to his left arm and used the pincers to squeeze just below his right shoulder, tightened until it hurt worse than the injury itself, and then backed off on the pressure a little, hoping it would make a decent tourniquet.
Now what? It took his muddled mind a while to remember that this was a standard avalanche-rescue or crevasse drill. He asked the crawlie which way was up, and it told him he was on his side. He told it to dig its way to the surface. The motion set off a starburst of pain.
He must have blacked out for a while from the pain. There was still no sound of wind, and he knew now that this meant he was still buried. The crawlie had failed to dig itself out. He had it pull his ditty bag out of the top of his pack, managed by feel to extract an emergency-strength pain patch from the first-aid kit, used fingers and teeth to peel off the packaging, and stuck the patch on the skin of his cheek. It would take ten or fifteen minutes to work, and then he could try again to dig out.
His chances were looking bad. It would be good if Shona and R.J. could make it to L5. But — how had the cops known he was here? Only Shona, Fari, and Isaac were supposed to know. Most likely they'd arrested Shona on her way to Nairobi. With her cogmod, she was fragile. A skilled interrogator would be able to pull all the right levers and make her into emotional jelly. It wasn't her fault. She wasn't strong like Fari. He remembered Fari's vow to fight the cops to the end: I'd die first. He realized that he still loved her. He always would. If he could get the handy to turn on, maybe he could leave a message on it saying so.
William Guerrero's crawlie was damaged, and its impact on the glacier had buried it below four meters of soft snow. When Isaac Mwinyi didn't hear from him the next morning, he went to the glacier, found the body, and recovered the handy. He arrived at Nairobi Spaceport in time to give it to Shona Reisner, telling her that due to the worsening global situation, he had decided that it was safer to get it to L5 rather than leaving it on Earth as originally planned. Mwinyi's fate is not recorded, but he is presumed to have been killed the following year along with the rest of the Earth's population. Guerrero-Mwinyi Library on L5 is named for the two mountaineers.