Sat
May 5 2012 1:00pm

Existence (Excerpt)

David Brin

The latest from David Brin check out this excerpt of Existence, out on June 19:

Bestselling, award-winning futurist David Brin returns to globe-spanning, high concept SF with Existence.

Gerald Livingston is an orbital garbage collector. For a hundred years, people have been abandoning things in space, and someone has to clean it up. But there’s something spinning a little bit higher than he expects, something that isn’t on the decades’ old orbital maps. An hour after he grabs it and brings it in, rumors fill Earth’s infomesh about an “alien artifact.”

Thrown into the maelstrom of worldwide shared experience, the Artifact is a game-changer. A message in a bottle; an alien capsule that wants to communicate. The world reacts as humans always do: with fear and hope and selfishness and love and violence. And insatiable curiosity.

The Shelter of Tradition

 

The marchers were protesting something. That much Mei Ling could tell, even without virring. But what were they complaining about? Which issue — from a worldwide collection of grievances more numerous than stars — concerned them?

Carrying no placards or signs, and dressed in a wild brew of styles, the mostly-youthful throng milled forward, in the general direction of the Shanghai Universe of Disney and the Monkey King. Each individual pretended to be minding his or her own business, chattering with companions, window shopping, or just wandering amid a seemingly random throng of visitor-tourists. Cameras were all over the place of course, atop every lamp post and street sign or pixel-painted onto every window-rim. Yet nothing was going on that should attract undue attention from monitors of state security, or the local proctors of decent order.

But there were coincidences too frequent to dismiss. For example, they all wore pixelated clothing that glittered and throbbed with ever-changing patterns. One girl had her tunic set to radiate a motif of waving pine trees. A boy’s abstract design featured undulating ocean waves. Only when, as Mei Ling watched, the two bumped briefly against each other, did the two image-displays seem to merge and combine across their backs, lining up to convey what her eye — but possibly no ai — briefly recognized as a trio of symbols.

Seek Urban Serenity.

The youths parted again, erasing that momentary coalescence of forest and sea. Perhaps the two of them had never met before that terse, choreographed rendezvous. They might not ever meet again. But soon, amid the throng, another seemingly chance encounter created a different, fleeting massage that caught Mei Ling’s built-in, organic pattern recognition system, still more subtle than anything cybernetic, inherited from when her distant ancestors roamed the African tall grass, sifting for signs of prey. Or danger.

Responsible Leadership is Appreciated.

No doubt about it. That’s what the shimmer of fleeting characters said.

Passersby and shoppers were turning to notice, nudging their neighbors and waggling their hands to toss virt-alerts down the street. Crowds of onlookers formed in time to catch the next flicker-pronouncement, as a fat man sidled next to a broad-shouldered woman with orange-striped hair. Their combined pixel-garments proclaimed —

The Tang Emperors Encouraged Creativity.

Watching from a niche between a hair salon and a stall offering pungent chicktish meat, Mei Ling reflexively rocked the baby in his sling-carrier, while wondering. Why did these young people go to such lengths to stay disconnected from their messages, preserving their ability to deny responsibility, when the meanings seemed so innocent? So harmless?

Oh, she realized, the real essence must lie elsewhere. In vir-space.

Mei Ling pulled out the set of cheap Augmented Reality Spectacles that she had purchased from a vendor, just a little while ago. It seemed a reasonable use of cash, in an era when so much of the world lay beyond sight of normal eyes. Especially with Bin gone on his strange adventure beyond the sea. So long as he had a job, she had a little money trickling into a mystery card in her pocket. Enough to pay off some repairs to their salvaged shorestead home and even take little Xie Xie on an early morning shopping expedition into the bustling city, where giant arcology pyramids loomed upward to block half the sky, proclaiming the greatness of the world’s new superpower.

Mei Ling had chosen this time because such a large portion of the planet’s population was watching proceedings at the Artifact Conference in America – entranced by the possible stone-from-space — that she figured the streets would be largely empty. But it turned out that the event was in recess for several hours, which meant people poured outdoors, to do important shopping or business, or just to get a little air. It made the boulevards especially crowded — and ideal for this kind of youth demonstration.

Slipping on the wraparound goggles, Mei Ling felt acutely aware of how long it had been since she and Bin moved out to the tidal flats and ruined shoreline of the Huangpo Estuary, where the world had only one “layer” — gritty-hardscrabble reality. That made her several tech-generations out of date. The ailectronics salesman had been helpful, patient... and a little too flirtatious... while tuning the unit to her rusty GIBAAR skills. It was difficult to rediscover the knack, even with his help. Like remembering how to walk after too long a convalescence in bed.

Gaze. Interest. Blink. Allocate Attention. Repeat.

The most basic way to vir, if you don’t have any of the other tools.

She had no fingernail tappers. No clickers and scrollers, planted in the teeth. No subvocal pickups, to read the half-spoken words shaped by throat and mouth. Not even an old-fashioned hand-keyboard or twiddler. And certainly none of the fancy-scary new cephalo sensors that would take commands straight off the brain. Without any of that, she had to make do. Choosing from a range of menus and command icons that the spectacles created across the inner surface of both lenses, seeming to float in front of the real-life street scene.

The specs laid faint lines across the real world, bordering the pavement and curb, the fringe of each building and vendor stall — anything real that might become a dangerous obstacle or tripping hazard to a person walking about. Also outlined — the people and vehicles moving around her. Each now carried a slim aura. Especially those heading in her direction, which throbbed a little in the shade collision-warning yellow.

As for the rest of visual reality, the textures, colors and backgrounds? Well, there were a million ways to play with those, from covering all the building walls with jungle vines, to filling the world with imaginary water, like sunken Atlantis, to giving every passerby the skin tones of lizard-people from Mars. You name it, and some teenager or bored office worker or semi-autonomous cre-AI-tivity drone must have already fashioned an overlay to bring that fantasy cosmos into being.

Mei Ling wasn’t trying for any of those realms. Instead, she tried simply stepping up through the most basic levels, one at a time — first passing through the Public Safety layers, where children or the handicapped could view the world conveniently captioned in simple terms, with friendly risk-avoidance alerts and helpful hands, pointing toward the nearest sources of realtime help.

Then came useful tiers, where all the buildings and storefronts were marked with essential information about location, products and accountability codes. Or you could zoom-magnify anything that caught your interest. On Strata Twelve through Sixteen, everyone in sight wore basic nametags, or ID badges identifying their professions. Otherwise, reality was left quite bare.

Do people really live like this all the time? Wading through the world, immersed in pretend things?

At level forty, a lot of walls disappeared. Most of the buildings seemed to go transparent, or at least to depict animated floorplans concocted from public records. These ranged from detailed inner views — of a nearby department store — with every department and manequin appearing eager to perform, all the way to many floors and offices that were blocked by barriers, in many shades of gray, some of them with glowing locks.

Stratum ninety offered her discreet, personalized discounts on baby formula and inexpensive shoes, plus a special on a massage/makeover in that shop over there, at a price so reasonable, she could nearly afford it! The proprietor would even fetch a nanny-grandma in five minutes to watch the baby.

But no. I recall that Stratum Two Hundred and Fifty was for street gossip. It took just a squint and wink to hop to the level she wanted, where voice, text and vid twips kept zooming in, attaching themselves to the youthful demonstrators, sent by anonymous bystanders.

smart aleck kids, one note commented. as if their generation knows a thing about struggle and revolution

Another groused.

back in 2025 I was in the New Red Guards we really knew how to light up a street ruckus! wore masks that screwed facial recog cams...

Yep. Street gossip. Finally, Mei Ling found something related to her interest — a simple query-note.

WHAT are they demonstrating about?

Which had an even simpler comment-addendum attached to it, anonymously recommending a clickover to:.

0847lals0xldo098-899as0004-hahd-dorad087

She blinked her way to that address... and found the street scene transformed once again.

The young people now wore costumes in seventeenth century Shun Dynasty style, like followers of the great rebel leader Li Zicheng. Mei Ling recognized the Peoples’ Militia fashion from a historical romance she had watched. Because he sought to free the masses from feudal oppression, Li Zicheng was officially proclaimed a “hero of the Chinese masses” by Chairman Mao himself.

Up and down the street onlookers and pedestrians were also transformed with shabby peasant clothing from the 1600s. She got the implied message. We’re all clueless plebians. Thanks a lot.

Anyway, she could finally see the answer to her question. Over the demonstrators’ heads, there now floated huge banners that matched their gaily-colored costumes.

 

That Which Is Not Specifically Forbidden*

is Automatically Allowed!

 

Mei Ling had heard that phrase before. She strained to remember — and that effort apparently triggered a search response from the mesh-spectacles. She winced as a disembodied voice started lecturing.

“EIGHTEEN YEARS AGO, HUMAN RIGHTS GROUPS DEMANDED THAT THIS PRINCIPLE BE ENSHRINED IN THE FAMOUS INTERNATIONAL BIG DEAL, FIRMLY AND FINALLY REJECTING THE OPPOSITE TRADITION LONG-HELD BY A MAJORITY OF HUMAN SOCIETIES, THAT ANYTHING NOT SPECIFICALLY ALLOWED MUST BE ASSUMED TO BE FORBIDDEN.

“ACTIVITISTS CALLED THIS CHANGE IN TENETSEVEN MORE IMPORTANT AND FUNDAMENTAL THAN FREEDOM OF SPEECH. SOME SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGISTS HAVE SINCE DEEMED THE REFORM FUTILE, SINCE IT CONCERNS A DEEPSEATED CULTURAL ASSUMPTION, RATHER THAN A POINT OF LAW.

“IN RETURN FOR GRANTING THIS PRINCIPLE, THE WORLD’S PROFESSIONAL GUILDS AND ARISTOCRATIC POWERS WERE ABLE TO WIN FORMAL ACCEPTANCE OF THE ESTATES...”

 

Of course, she could link an infinite sea of definitions, explanations, and commentaries, even suitable for a poorly educated woman. So, was the demonstration meant to lure onlookers into study? Or might all this vagueness be the real point of the youths’ demonstration? Messing with peoples’ heads, aggravating their elders with the ever-elusive obscurity of their protest?

Whatever the answer — Mei Ling had lost patience. Chinese people used to be forthright, known for saying what we mean and meaning what we say. Only now that we are the world’s greatest power, are we slipping into more classic Asian ways? Masking our motives and goals behind layers of tiresome symbolism?

Anyway, she thought with some satisfaction, people will forget about these kids just as soon as the Artifact Conference resumes.

Moving against the nearest building wall, she concentrated on blink-navigating away from this weird vir level, aiming for the blessed simplicity of Stratum Ten, where a friendly yellow arrow might start guiding her back to the sea wall separating these rich Shanghai citizens from the dark, threatening tides. And from there to the water taxi dock, where she might hitch a ride —

Abruptly, something popped into her foreground. A beckon-symbol, informing her that a live-message was coming in. It flashed with urgency... and the striped colors that denoted official authority.

With sinking realization, she thought – it is the Police. Or much worse.

 

***

 

A bit nervously, Mei Ling looked toward the pulsating icon, and winked to accept the phone call. What then ballooned, just above the surrounding traffic and pedestrians, was a face and upper torso — stern-looking and male — wearing a uniform.

“Piao Mei Ling, I am Jin Pu Wang of state security. I had to exert some time and effort to locate you.”

It came across as a rebuke.

“Fortunately, I was able to lay a sift-mesh that found your iris pattern once you began using this pair of Overlay Spectacles. It is important that we meet right away, to discuss your husband.”

Mei Ling felt her throat catch and she stumbled. Little Xie Xie, who had drifted off to sleep, grunted in his sling carrier and clenched his little fists.

“What... what has happened?”

She had to utter the words loudly, in order to be certain the specs would hear. A couple of passersby glanced at her in surprise, clearly miffed that anyone would be so rude. Holding a phone conversation loud enough to bother others in a public place? Outrageous!

Lacking even a throat microphone, however, Mei Ling had little choice.

“What news do you have of him?”

“No news,” the official answered. “I want to discuss with you ways to rescue him from the bad company he has fallen into. How to return him to the embrace of his beloved nation.”

Mei Ling felt a wave of relief, having feared they had bad tidings. Moving to face the nearest wall of grimy bricks, she answered in a lower tone of voice.

“I... already told your other officers everything I know. They verified my truthfulness with machines and drugs. I don’t see what I could possibly add.”

Mei Ling said it with no sense of regret or betrayal. Bin had said that it would be best to cooperate fully, if authorities came asking questions. Nothing she knew should enable them to find him, after all. Anyway, at the moment of his departure with the penguin-robot there had been no reason to believe that he was doing anything against the law.

“Yes, well...” the man looked briefly to one side, nodded, and looked back toward Mei Ling. Making her wonder what viewpoint he was using to see her. Though his image appeared on the inner surface of the specs, he was probably using a pennycam on that lamp post over there.

“We would like to speak to you again,” he explained. “It should only take a few minutes to clear up one or two discrepancies. After that is done, we will provide you with a ride to your home, courtesy of the state.”

Well. That actually made the prospect rather tempting, instead of trudging across East Pudong District carrying both her purchases and an infant who seemed to grow heavier with each passing moment.

“I have the contact code for Inspector Wu, who interviewed me last time. Shall I call her to arrange an appointment?”

Jin Pu Wang shook his head. “No. My department cannot spare the time to go through local officials. These questions are relatively minor, but they must be clarified at once, on orders from the capital.”

Mei Ling swallowed hard.

“Where do you want me to go?”

“Let me give you the coordinates of a nearby police station. The officers will put you in a comfortable meeting room with refreshments. I will send my holvatar to meet you. Then a car will take you home.”

Her specs immediately reset to Stratum Fifteen. Some code numbers quickly scrolled by and a virtual arrow materialized in front of Mei Ling, indicating that she should proceed to the end of this block and then turn left.

“I hope that Inspector Wu was not unhappy with my level of cooperation,” she said, while starting to walk in that direction.

“Do not worry about that,” the policeman reassured her. “I will see you soon.” His face vanished from her view.

For some distance Mei Ling followed the guide arrow automatically, steeped in lonely gloom. It was not a good thing to draw attention from the mighty authorities — even though Inspector Wu and her technicians had been polite and unthreatening during the questioning session, with their big, shiny hovercraft bobbing next to the little shorestead she had built with Xiang Bin.

Of course, they wanted to know all about the glowing stone. The one so similar to the emissary artifact in Washington. When asked why her husband’s discovery wasn’t reported to the government, Mei Ling explained with complete honesty, they feared what happened to the crystal’s earlier owner.

“Lee Fang Lu fell victim to the paranoia and corruption of that time,” Inspector Wu had conceded. “But those who executed him later suffered the same fate during the reforms that followed the Zheng He disaster and the Big Deal. It’s too bad your husband did not take that into account and bring his find to us, and benefit the nation.”

When Mei Ling protested that she and Xiang Bin had nothing but love and reverence for the great homeland. Inspector Wu seemed mollified. “It’s all right. We’ll find him, I’m sure. He will have ample opportunities to demonstrate his loyalty.”

With that reassurance the police investigators departed, leaving Mei Ling woozy from drugs and neural probing. They even let her keep the penguin-robot’s stipend, the modest comfort and freedom from want that Bin’s absence had earned.

Might other officials, even higher, feel differently? Mei Ling felt her nerves fray as she drew near the assigned coordinates. But what choice did she have, other than to do as authorities asked? They knew where she lived. They could cancel the shorestead contract, costing the small family everything.

The guide arrow indicated another turn — to the right, this time — through a little retail alley. Responding to her skeptical squint, the spectacles presented a map overlay showing it to be a shortcut to the Boulevard of Vivacious Children’s Mythology, famous for its robotic sculptures of characters from Journey to the West, to Snow White, to Fengshen Bang.

Perhaps I will get to glimpse Pipi Lu or Lu Xixi or Shrek, along the way, Mei Ling hoped. But first, to get there…

She peered down the dim passage where old fashioned, open-faced shops seemed to drop back in time, to an era when this sort of street could be found in every village and town. Especially before the Revolution, when four generations of a family would toil alongside each other, sharing cramped quarters over their store, while scrimping for one of the sons to get ahead. A traditional eagerness for advancement that she once heard cynically satirized in an ancient proverb.

 

First generation - coolie; save money, buy land

Second generation - landlords

Third generation - mortgages the land

Fourth generation - coolie

 

Weren’t those nasty cycles supposed to be over by now? Finished certainly by the Revolution’s centennial year? Mei Ling coughed into her fist, knowing one thing for certain. Her son would be smart, educated, and she would teach him to be wise! If we can get past trying times...

She started forward into the narrow street — when a voice interrupted.

“Honored mother, you should not go there.”

Mei Ling stopped, glanced to both sides, and realized that she was the only clearcut mother in sight. Peering toward where the words had come from, she found a figure sitting deep within a shadowed doorway. Her cheap specs tried to do image enhancement — though not very well — revealing a child perhaps twelve years old, wearing a faded green parka and some glasses that had been repaired with wire and generous windings of tape.

“Were you talking to me?”

Something about the youngster was odd. He rocked back and forth slightly and, while staring toward Mei Ling, his gaze slipped past hers, as if his eyes kept focusing on some far horizon.

“Mothers are the source of all problems and all answers.”

Spoken in flat tones, it sounded like some kind of aphorism or saying. She now saw that he had bad teeth, a serious underbite, plus a rash along one side of his neck that looked ongoing. Clearly something was wrong with the boy.

“Um... pardon me?”

He stood and shuffled closer, still not looking directly at her face.

“Jia-Jupeng, your mother wants you to come home to eat.”

Now that expression she had heard before. Something her parents’ generation used to say to one another, to get a laugh, though Mei Ling never understood what was funny about it. Suddenly, she realized — this child must be a product of the autism plague. In other words, a modern parent’s nightmare. Reflexively she turned a hip, moving her body to protect little Xie Xie, even though the defect wasn’t contagious.

Maybe not the disease. But luck can be.

She swallowed. “Why did you say that I shouldn’t go down the alley?”

The boy reached toward her with both hands. For a second Mei Ling thought that he wanted to be picked up. Then she realized — he wants my spectacles.

Mei Ling felt one part of her try to pull away. After all, the policeman was someone she did not want to make impatient. Yet something about the boy’s calm, insistent half-smile made her instead bend over, letting him take the cheap device off her head. The smile broadened and his eyes met hers for less than a second — apparently as much human contact as he could stand at a time.

“The men,” he said, “aren’t here to buy soysauce.”

“Men?” She straightened, glancing around. “What men?”

Appearing to ignore the question, he turned the specs around, examining them, taking evident care not to let the scanners look closely at his own face. Then, with a laugh, he tossed them into a nearby garbage bin.

“Hey! I paid good —”

Mei Ling stopped. The boy was offering his own pair of glasses, with stems repaired by wire and tape.

“See them.”

She blinked. This was crazy.

“See who?”

“Men. Waiting for a mother.”

Without specs, he seemed to have a pronounced squint. The voice barely rose or fell in tone. “Let them wait. Mother won’t come. Not today.”

She didn’t want to reach for the glasses. She didn’t want to take them, or to turn them around, or to slip the stems over her ears. Especially Mei Ling did not want to find out who or what the child meant by “the men.”

But she put them on and saw.

Now the alley was illuminated, down a tunnel that seemed to penetrate through the sunless gloom, pushing by several shops where tinkerers reforged metal jewelry, or made garments out of real (if illicit) leather, or where one family bred superscorpions for both battle and the table. The glasses had looked simpler and more primitive than hers. They weren’t. She could make out the texture of the jujube fruits that a baker was slicing for a pie, and somehow their smell as well..

Symbols swirled around the tunnel’s rim — many of them Chinese, but not all. They arrayed themselves not in neat rows or columns, but spirals and surging ripples. She tried to look at them. But this view was not hers to control.

Perspective suddenly jumped, flicking to some pennycam that was stuck to a wall halfway down the alley, just above a little, three-wheeled tuktuk delivery van. The camera zoomed past the truck, whose motor was running, into a small shop where Mei Ling saw an elderly woman hand-painting designs on half finished cloissone pottery. The artist seemed nervous, trembling and biting her tongue as she bent over her work. Dipping her brush into a pot of red, it came out shaking. Droplets fell as the brush approached a fluted carafe she was working on.

Now the cam-view shifted again. Mei Ling suddenly found herself looking through the very specs that the old woman wore, seeing what she saw.

At first, that was only the tip of the paintbrush, filling in the tail of a cartoon lobster — the ancient Disney character who was a favorite companion of the Little Mermaid. Though confined by cloissone copper wire, the red paint spread a bit too far, unevenly. Mei Ling heard a muttered curse as the artist dabbed at the spillover... and glanced jerkily upward for just a moment.

Toward the small van, parked just outside with its smoky exhaust pipe — the driver was sitting idle with the door open, smoking a cigarette. A bundle of twine on his lap.

A jittery glance again at the paintbrush, as it dipped into the red again. Then, the camera view jerk-shifted to the left, only briefly, but long enough for Mei Ling to glimpse a second man, burly and muscular, standing well back in the shadows, shifting his weight impatiently.

Without her bidding them to, the child’s specs froze that image, amplified and expanded it, showing what the big fellow held in his hands. One clutched a bundle of black fabric. The other, a hypo-sprayer. Mei Ling recognized it from the crime-dramas she often watched. They were used by cops to subdue violent criminals. And also... by kidnappers.

The view then returned to that seen by the elderly pot-painter. The old lady was looking at the carafe again. Only now her brush tip was defacing the gay, underwater scene with a single character in blood red. Mei Ling gasped when she read it.

Run

Mei Ling tore off the specs, suddenly sweating, her heart beating in terror, certain beyond any doubt that this trap had been lain for her. But why? She was cooperating. Coming in of her own free will!

The answer struck home as obvious. There was no appointment at the nearest police station. That had been a ruse, with one aim — getting her to go down this alley.

Her mind whirled. What to do? Where to go? Maybe, if she went the other direction... kept to busy streets... tried phoning Inspector Wu.

“Mother comes this way,” said the boy. He took her hand, tugging. “Cobblies are all over the place and bad men too. In thirty-eight seconds they will know and give chase from all sides. But we know how to take care of mothers.”

She stared at him, resisting. But the child smiled again, making another flicker-brief eye-contact. “Come,” he insisted.

“Time to run.”

Then the moment of decision was in her past. They hurried together, away from that alley of danger, along a street that only a short time ago had seemed full of fantasies. Only now — she knew — it also contained dangerous eyes.

 

***

 

Of course they should be able to track her every movement. The men who were pursuing Mei Ling obviously knew their way around the mesh. It would take little effort or expense to assign software agents — pattern sifters and face-recognizers — to go hopping among the countless mini-lenses, stuck on every doorpost, lintel and street sign, searching for a poorly-dressed young woman with a baby, dragged through prosperous Pudong by a strange little boy.

From the start, she expected them to catch up at any moment.

Only... what will they do if they corner us on a busy street? Grab me in front of hundreds of witnesses? Perhaps that is why I’ve been free to run for a while. They are only awaiting the right moment.

At first, while fleeing, she kept turning her head and darting her eyes, scanning for pursuers or suspicious-looking men... till the child told her to stop in his oddly flat and rhythmic voice. Instead, he recommended looking in shop windows in order to keep her face averted from the street full of ais. Sensible — but she knew that wouldn’t help for long.

Vidramas were always portraying manic chase scenes through urban avenues. Sometimes the poor fugitive would be chased by tiny robots, flitting from wall to wall like insects. Or else by real insects, programmed to home in on a certain person’s smell. Spy satellites and strato-zeps were called upon using telescopic cams to zoom in from high above, while sewer-otters spied from below, scrambling along the storm drains to stick out their twitching muzzles, reporting on the hapless runaway.

That ottodog, over there, routinely sniffing for illicit drugs... might he turn suddenly and nip at your ankle, injecting it with anesthetic from a pointy, hollow tooth? She had seen that happen in a recent holo-ainime. There were no limits to the schemes concocted by fantasists — millions of them — equipped with 3-D rendering tools, free time, and lots of paranoia. Anyway, technologies kept changing so fast that Mei Ling had no idea where the borderline was between realistic tools and science fiction.

While the child seemed confident, pulling her along through back alleys, she still couldn’t help glancing left and right, scanning reflections in shop windows, looking for bugs, wary of all the eyes that she could spot... and those she couldn’t.

Early in the chase, she thought about simply calling for help. That nice Inspector Wu had been both sympathetic and professional when the police came to interview Mei Ling at the little shorestead, asking about Xiang Bin and his mysterious, glowing stone. The same stone that these other men probably wanted as well.

Making that call seemed a good idea... only then Mei Ling realized she had no easy means to do so! The child had thrown away her new pair of overlay spectacles — they were identified and trackable, after all — just before tugging her on this zigzag chase through the back streets, ducking under one store-awning after another. But weren’t there other ways to phone the authorities? Couldn’t she just stop any passerby, and ask that person to do it for her?

Or... she realized later, when it was too late... shouldn’t it be possible to just stand in front of any city traffic light or utility pole and say “I have a matter of state security to report?”

But no. Mei Ling didn’t want to come between powerful groups. What if this was all a fight between two factions of the government or aristocracy? Such things happened all the time, and when dragons battle each other, peasants are better off ducking out of the way.

Anyway, that was exactly what the child with the shifting eyes seemed to know how to do.

First, he led her to the back door of a tourist restaurant and through the steamy, aromatic kitchen. Most of the cooks ignored them, though one shouted a question as they darted through a pantry that led to a store-room that led past a bustling loading dock to a set of stairs that continued to a makeshift bridge over an alley into the next block where they then scurried through a fab-factory that was churning out Grow-Your-Own-Goofy kits for sale at the nearby theme park.

One vast loft filled with busy people confused Mei Ling – all the workers were plugged into action suits, moving an pantomiming some kind of activity that was mirrored on nearby holoscreens. From their actions – reaching out, grabbing at mid-air and clutchin non-objects, or nobjects — these were workers were clearly building something. Only at the last moment, as she followed her guide out the other end, did she realize, they are constructing molecules! Atom by atom.

Mei Ling had heard of this. Somewhere, perhaps in the glass towers across town, or else on a rich Brazilian kid’s bedroom, or at an African university, some new kind of material or device was being computer-designed, to be fabricated by a desktop prototyping machine — translating imagination into something entirely new. Only there were certain problems that the AI couldn’t handle as well – or cheaply – as a room full of poor piece-working human beings with good stereo vision and shape-sensing instincts that went back a million years.

Another rickety bridge and another fab-shop — this one making pixelated hats that flared with rocket ship images, superimposed upon Chinese flags — allowed them to emerge into a third floor hallway lined with offices — a lawyer, a dental implaint specialist, a biosculpt surgeon....

He’s evading all the cameras on the street, she realized. Though of course there were cams indoors, as well. They were just harder for outsiders to access via the mesh. According to the tenets of the Big Deal, even the state had to ask permission to access them — or get a court order. That could take several minutes.

Down another rickety set of stairs they ran, through a curtained niche near the back of a second hand clothing shop that catered to low-level union workers. Moving quickly along the shelves, her young guide soon pulled down a bundle and showed it to Mei Ling. She recognized the garb of a licensed nanny — a member of the Child-Care Guild.

A good choice, she thought. Nobody will think twice about my carrying little Xie Xie.

But if I pay for them, even with cash, the purchase register will post my face on the mesh, and all that dodging about will be for nothing.

An answer to that was forthcoming. While she crouched in a corner, giving her baby a suckle, the boy busied himself with a small device, scanning all over the two piece uniform before deftly plucking out a few hidden specks — the product ID chips.

“Anybody can find them,” he said, performing some kind of incantation made up of whispers and blurry fingertips, then putting the nearly invisible specks back where they came from. “But it’s another thing to time ‘em. Rhyme ‘em. Redefine ‘em.”

Mei Ling wasn’t sure she understood, but he did make shoplifting — supposedly impossible — look easy.

The boy offered another brief moment of eye contact, accompanied by a fleeting smile that seemed labored, painful, though friendly nonetheless, as if the mere act of connecting with her took heroic concentration.

“Mother ought to trust Ma Yi-Ming.”

The name could be interpreted to mean “horse one utter...” where “ma” or horse was traditionally symbolic of great power. Shanghainese, especially, liked names that were brash, assertive, the bearer of which might turn out confident and accomplished. Someone who stands out from the crowd, heroic despite handicaps. It struck Mei Ling as ironic.

“All right... Yi-Ming,” she answered. At least that part of the name stood for the people. Another irony?

“I do trust you,” she added, realizing, as she said it, that it was true.

Little Xie Xie grumbled over being denied the nipple, wanting to keep sucking after Mei Ling judged him to be fed. Still, the infant was well taught and made no fuss while she changed him.

Then Mei Ling ducked into the nearby alcove to change into the new garments. Meanwhile Yi-Ming busied himself with her shabby old clothing. But why? Surely they would be abandoned.

Certain that something would go wrong during all of this, Mei Ling peered over the curtain nervously as she fumbled with the clasps. Sure enough, as she stepped out wearing the stiffly starched uniform, one of the store clerks glanced over and started toward them. “Here now, I didn’t see you —”

At that moment, while Mei Ling’s heart pounded, there came a crash from the other side of the store. A large, hunch-shouldered man — clearly the janitor — was backing away from a shop mannequin, moaning and using his mop to defend himself as the clothes-modeling puppet sputtered and squealed, waving animated plastic arms, tossing sweaters, acti-pants and e-sensitized tunics at him. Every member of the sales staff hurried in that direction... and the little autistic boy murmured.

“Mother has changed clothes. Now face.”

He pulled Mei Ling to the back door, in the blind spot between store and alley, and motioned for her to bend over. Drawing out a pen of some kind, he used his left hand to grip the back of her neck, holding her head still with uncanny strength as he drew across her cheeks and forehead with rapid strokes. When he let go, Mei Ling sagged back with a sigh that was equal parts anger and wounded pride.

“How dare you —” she began. Then she stopped, upon glimpsing herself in the changing area mirror. He had drawn just a dozen or so lines. Their effect was bizarre and clownish — when looked at straight on. But who viewed other people that way, out on the street? When Mei Ling diverted her gaze, even slightly, the effect was astounding. She saw a woman at least twenty years older, with gaunt cheeks and a much lower brow... a pronounced chin, a snub nose and eyes closer together.

“Facial recog won’t recog.” The boy nodded approvingly and held out his hand for her to take. “Next stop now... a safe place for mothers.”

 

A Smiling Face

 

After another hour spent dodging in and out of buildings, across upper story bridges, through warehouses and workshops and university classrooms, they found themselves standing in front of a place that Mei Ling had always dreamed of visiting someday with her own eyes.

“It... it is wonderful,” she sighed, shifting Xie Xie’s sling so that he could see. The baby stopped his fussing, joining her in staring at the marvelous portal to another world whose only boundary was that of imagination.

The Shanghai Universe of Disney and the Monkey King loomed straight ahead across a broad plaza, its artificial mountain lined with cave-rides and fabulous fortresses, with fabled beasts and impossible forests that were always shrouded in glorious, perfumed mists. Here one might find the sort of fantastic things that you only saw on wild layers of virspace, only made palpable and solid! A mix of imagination and solidity that could only have been brought into being by wondrous blendings of art, science, engineering and astronomical amounts of cash.

In the foreground, just ahead, loomed those famous, wide-welcoming gates of shimmering Viridium that were topped by giant, holomechanical characters who preened and posed with theatrical exaggeration. She recognized Snow White and Pocahontas and beautiful Princess Chang’e. There was wise old Guanyin, accompanied on his epic westward journey by the mischievous Zhu Bajie and his brothers, the Three Little Pigs. A flying elephant with flapping ears flew joyous circles in an overhead dance with the wondrous dragon-horse. And everyone’s favorite, Sun Wukong, the Monkey himself, capered up and down a tower decked with pennants that seemed as colorful as they were impossibly long, playing catch-me-if-you-can with lumbering King Kong.

All of those familiar figures lined the storied battlements. The central figure, topping the gate itself, was a friendly-faced icon with immense black ears and a winning smile-of-confident-destiny, flanked on either side by active sculptures of the two real-life visionaries who imagined so much wonder and gave such dreams to the world: Uncle Walt and Scholar Wu. That pair — one of them dressed in an old-fashioned western suit and the other in the Ming dynasty robes of a Confucian teacher — seemed to look right at Mei Ling, beckoning her personally, with grins and open arms.

Xie Xie cooed with delight and Mei Ling felt herself drawn... except that the vast plaza of concrete and iridescent tile seemed so dauntingly open and exposed. No place on Earth was under scrutiny by more cameras than this.

Surely they are watching this place.

But there was another tug on her hand.

 

Yi-Ming did not bother to speak, this time. His urgent meaning was clear. If they were going to cross, it had to be quickly. Now.

Mei Ling’s sense of danger mounted as they headed straight for the portal. Suddenly her new clothes and ai-fooling makeup seemed wholly inadequate, especially since there were so few people around!

“Where is everybody?” she wondered, aloud, mostly to hear someone speak words. “I know it is a weekday. But there should be more tourists, children, visitors....”

Indeed, only a few hundred people seemed to be crossing the barren plaza, coming to or from the underground train station and parking garage. The sparseness seemed eerie, since it was still early in the afternoon. Though it feels like days since I last slept in our little shorestead. To be honest she missed the solitude. The constant lapping of the Huangpo tides against her home’s rotting timbers.

“All indoors,” Yi-Ming explained. “Almost two-thirds of all the normal people. Twelve billion, three hundred and forty two million eyes, feeding impressions to twelve billion, three hundred and forty two million cerebral hemispheres, locked inside half that many skulls —“ he ran out of breath and had to inhale. “All watching space rocks that rock space. All curious about living forever. Even cobblies want to know.”

Mei Ling only grasped part of it, but the explanation sufficed. The whole world — or nearly — had gone into immersion-mode, watching entranced whatever was going on in America. The interview with the Artifact Aliens. An event meriting worldwide greedy interest was happening — perhaps even something wonderful. Yet Mei Ling wished it had never been found and that Peng Xiang Bin had left his own discovery in the bottom of the muddy estuary.

“So many spacey stones from stoned space,” the boy intoned. He always seemed to be experimenting with possible rhymes or songs. It must be one of those unbearably strong compulsions that drove so many young people with the Disorder. Only now he also sounded sorrowful, empathizing with lost mineral messengers, perhaps more than he would with flesh and blood.

“Those buried at sea can’t see! Thousands, trapped underground, try to make a sound! Many more in space can barely make a trace. Others, locked in vaults and graves, hoping to be saved — so sad. So bored! They chose their fate, now it’s too late.”

He seemed genuinely moved by the tragedy of it all.

“Wait a minute!” She halted, abruptly. “Let me get this straight. You mean there are many of the shining, speaking stones?”Her heart whirled with hope. If it were true, then perhaps no one would be desperate, any longer, to seek her husband.

“Yes Many - numerous, multitudinous... Shining— luminous numinous... Stones — crystalline serpentine olivine...” he tugged at her and skipped along gaily. “But only a rare-pair Speak!”

Hurrying to keep up, Mei Ling wondered. Only two speak? The one in Washington... and Bin’s? Then powerful people will still hunt for him. Or use me to help find him.

But... how would the child know?

A backward glance confirmed her worst fears. Several black vans had just pulled up onto the plaza, as close to the pedestrian barriers as they dared, and men piled out. One of them pointed and they started straight toward her at a rapid clip.

No sense in pretending, anymore, to be strolling along — a nanny escorting two children to the park. Now Mei Ling and Yi-Ming ran! Though she wondered, what will we do when we get there?

Despite there being so few visitors, the line at the ticket window was way too long. Even if she could afford the steep entrance fees, those men would arrive long before she could pay and then reach the gate. That assumed the Disney guards would not simply stop her when the pursuers shouted. After all, they had to be from some state agency. How else could they be acting like this in broad daylight? In China?

Yi-Ming cleared part of Mei Ling’s perplexity by steering her past the ticket booth and straight toward the broad, Viridium portal, right under the shadow of scholar Wu Cheng’en. who wrote the great national classic adventure tale Journey to the West. Though five centuries had passed, it was still easily a match, in culture and excitement, for more recent stories about talking ducks and dogs and mice.

Stopping abruptly, the boy turned and dashed over to a well-dressed couple who were just leaving the park with a little girl who wore a cute, if retro, silken costume copied from the classic Sailor Moon. Her mouth was stained from sucking at the neck of a candy victim from the featured ride Vampires of the Adnauseam. Evidently both tired and spoiled, in an era that much favored girls over boys, she gaped suspiciously with sugary “blood” oozing down her jaw, as Yi-Ming planted himself in front of the family, chattering in a friendly manner.

None of his words made sense, at least not to Mei Ling or to the parents. But for a moment their surprise was such that they allowed him to take their hands and pat them while continuing to babble away. The girl recovered first, swiftly snarling at him with red-stained teeth.

What’s he doing? Mei Ling wondered.Does he suddenly find the situation hopeless? Is he abandoning me here and picking someone else to guide around town?

The pursuers had made it halfway across the square. Mei Ling started eyeing alternative escape paths. None of which looked at all likely while schlepping a baby. Perhaps down the escalator to the train station...

The tourist couple had finally had enough. They yanked their hands away and, egged on by the girl’s screech, the father pushed at Yi-Ming — who simply laughed, spun about three times, and then hurried over to Mei Ling.

“Mother. Hand.”

As the rich family hurried off, she felt him take her wrist — and suddenly the boy was scribbling on the back of her left hand with the same pen that he had used upon her face an hour or so ago. There was no apparent pattern at first, just a rapid series of dots that pricked and hurt a little, even on her calloused skin. The specks were all constrained within a square area, perhaps three centimeters on a side.

Oh, she thought, could it be? Can a mere person do this?

The men were closer now. Yi-Ming let go of her hand and started doing the same thing to the back of his own. The right hand, making Mei Ling realize that he was a lefty. Somewhere she recalled reading that it was a trait that showed up more often among autistics. The same could be said of the boy’s misaligned teeth, his poor skin and strange gait. Though she found none of those as disconcerting as she originally did.

I saw worse among the drooling oldtimers at the hospice.

“We had better —” she urged, doubting this would work.

“Yes mother, now,”

They turned together, walking as quickly but nonchalantly as they could, while still seeming like a nanny escorting a child and a baby toward the portico where arrivals were automatically checked for tickets. Tickets in the form of temporary, coded tattoos.

Mei Ling made sure that her left hand was open to view, though she never saw the beam that scanned it. To her great surprise, no Disney guards or robots pounced on them. Instead a voice crooned downward, as if from Heaven.

Welcome back, Mrs. Chu and darling little Lui. My, it did not take you long to change your clothes and return from your hotel.

Of course, your VIP pass is still valid. A robo-carriage awaits you, down the Avenue of Pandas, on your left.

If Mr. Chu comes later, we’ll bring him to you with courteous haste.”

Hurrying onward, she and Yi-Ming crossed over the boundary, demarked by a line of tiles that gleamed Imperial Yellow, well before their pursuers reached the security cordon. There, the large men fumed and stomped, knowing how futile it would be to try entering without a pass — let alone armed. It might, in all likelihood, bring down upon them, from nearby hidden places, more swift force than they could possibly deal with. At least not without a fistful of lawful writs, signed by several courts and by many powerful men. Nor even then.

Mei Ling drew a rush of luscious satisfaction, glancing over her shoulder at their frustration, before turning all of her attention the other way, toward a cascade of wonders. Ahead of them lay a boulevard of shops and rides, buildings that seemed to be alive and playful robotic characters who bowed or danced with pleasure when you looked their way. Little Xie Xie was charmed instantly, and so was she. Though Yi-Ming kept shaking his head, murmuring something about cobblies... cobblies everywhere.

Well, anyway. This certainly beat wearing puny vir-spectacles that merely painted fantasy overlays upon a mundane city street. Nor could any full-immersion game match it. For, in this enchanted place, where every flower looked ten times its normal size and even the Shanghai smog vanished under aromatic mists, all the disadvantages of real life seemed to be gone, even down to pebbles one might trip upon — and yet, the richness of reality lay all around her. It was nothing less than the world re-made!

With a VIP pass as well? Mei Ling wondered what that meant. Feeling a growl in her stomach, having missed lunch while fleeing across half of East Pudong, she hoped it would turn out to be something good, as she carried her baby and followed her strange young guide under the beaming, beneficent smile of Mickey Mao.

Existence © David Brin 2012

3 comments
Stefan Jones
1. Stefan Jones
I read an early draft of Exisitence. It's thoughtful and fun and provacative.
Stefan Jones
2. Patricia Mathews
Nice - and a good look at being poor in an age when technology upgrades come along faster than commuter trains.

Of course, the "oppressive Chinese government" trope has such long gray whiskers on it, most Westerners think thephrase is one word, but OTH, that surely has roots in reality. How near-future is this?
Beth Meacham
3. bam
Existence is set in 2050, so mid-range future.

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