Jul 18 2012 12:00pm
Rapture of the Nerds (Excerpt)
We’re going to take a look at Cory Doctorow’s upcoming novels this week! Let’s start with a joint work between him and Charles Stross, out on September 4 -Rapture of the Nerds:
Welcome to the fractured future, at the dusk of the twenty-first century.
Earth has a population of roughly a billion hominids. For the most part, they are happy with their lot, living in a preserve at the bottom of a gravity well. Those who are unhappy have emigrated, joining one or another of the swarming densethinker clades that fog the inner solar system with a dust of molecular machinery so thick that it obscures the sun.
The splintery metaconsciousness of the solar-system has largely sworn off its pre-post-human cousins dirtside, but its minds sometimes wander…and when that happens, it casually spams Earth’s networks with plans for cataclysmically disruptive technologies that emulsify whole industries, cultures, and spiritual systems. A sane species would ignore these get-evolved-quick schemes, but there’s always someone who’ll take a bite from the forbidden apple.
So until the overminds bore of stirring Earth’s anthill, there’s Tech Jury Service: random humans, selected arbitrarily, charged with assessing dozens of new inventions and ruling on whether to let them loose. Young Huw, a technophobic, misanthropic Welshman, has been selected for the latest jury, a task he does his best to perform despite an itchy technovirus, the apathy of the proletariat, and a couple of truly awful moments on bathroom floors.
Huw awakens, dazed and confused.
This is by no means unusual, but for once Huw’s head hurts more than his bladder. He’s lying head down, on his back, in a bathtub. He scrabbles for a handhold and pulls himself upright. A tub is a terrible place to spend a night. Or a morning, come to think of it—as he blinks, he sees that it’s midafternoon, and the light slanting in through a high window limns the strange bath- room’s treacly Victorian fixtures with a roseate glow.
That was quite a party. He vaguely remembers the gathering dawn, its red light staining the wall outside the kitchen window as he discussed environmental poli- tics with a tall shaven-headed woman with a blue fore- lock and a black leather minidress straight out of the twentieth century. (He has an equally vague memory of her defending a hard-core transhumanist line: Score nil–nil to both sides.) This room wasn’t a bathroom when he went to sleep in it: Bits of the bidet are still crawling into position, and there’s a strong smell of VOCs in the air.
His head hurts.
Leaning over the sink, Huw twiddles the taps until they begin to dribble cold water. He splashes his face and runs his hand through his thinning hair, glances up at the mirror, and yells, “Shit!”
There’s a spindly black biohazard trefoil tattooed on his forehead. It wasn’t there when he went to sleep, either.
Behind him, the door opens. “Having a good morning?” asks Sandra Lal, whose mutable attic this must therefore be. She’s playing with a small sledgehammer, tossing it into the air and catching it like a baton-twirler. Her grotesquely muscled forearm has veins that bulge with hyperpressured blood and hormones.
“I wish,” he says. Sandra’s parties tend to be wild. “Am I too late for the dead dog?”
“You’re never too late.” Sandra smiles. “Coffee’s in the kitchen, which is on the ground floor today. Bonnie gave me a subscription to House of the Week and today’s my new edition—don’t worry if you can’t remember where everything is, just remember the entrance is at ground level, okay?”
“Coffee,” Huw says. His head is pounding, but so is his bladder. “Um. Can I have a minute?”
“Yes, but I’d like my spare restroom back afterwards. It’s going to be en suite, but first I’ve got to knock out the wall through into the bedroom.” She hefts her sledgehammer suggestively.
Huw slumps down on the toilet as Sandra shuts the door behind her and bounces off to roust out any other leftover revelers. He shivers as he relieves himself: Trapped in a mutating bathroom by a transgendered atheist Pakistani role-playing critic. Why do I keep ending up in these situations? he wonders as the toilet gives him a scented wash and blow-dry: When it offers him a pubic trim, he hastily retrieves his kilt and goes in search of coffee.
Sandra’s new kitchen is frighteningly modern—a white room job that looks empty at first, sterile as an operating theater, but that oozes when you glance away, extruding worktops and food processors and fresh cutlery. If you slip, there’ll be a chair waiting to catch your buttocks on the way down. There are no separate appliances here, just tons of smart matter. Last night it looked charmingly gas-fired and Victorian, but now Huw can see it as it truly is, and he doesn’t like what he can see. He feels queasy, wondering if he ate anything it had manufactured. But relief is at hand. At the far end of the room there’s a traditional-looking dumb worktop with a battered old-fashioned electric cafetière sitting on it. And some joe who looks strangely familiar is sitting there reading a newssheet.
Huw nods at him. “Uh, where are the mugs?” he asks.
The guy stares at Huw’s forehead for an uncomfortable moment, then gestures at something foggy that’s stacked behind the pot. “Over there,” he says.
“Uh, right.” The mugs turn out to be glassy aerogel cups with walls a centimeter thick, light as frozen cigar smoke and utterly untouched by human artistry and sweat. There’s no sign of the two earthenware mugs he made Sandra for her birthday: bloody typical. He takes the jug and pours, hand shaking. He’s got the sweats: What the hell did I drink? he wonders as he takes a sip.
He glances at his companion, who is evidently another survivor of the party: a medium-height joe, metabolism pegged somewhere in his mid-thirties, bald, with the unnaturally stringy build that comes from overusing a calorie-restriction implant. No piercings, no scars, tattoos, or neomorphisms—apart from his figure—which might be natural. That plus his black leather bodysuit means he could be a fellow naturalist. But this is Sandra’s house, and she has distressingly techie tastes.
“Is that today’s?” he asks, glancing at the paper, which is lovingly printed on wood pulp using hot lead type by the historic reenactors down the other end of the valley.
“It could be.”The fellow puts it down and grins oddly. “Had a good lie-in?”
“I woke up in the bathroom,” Huw says. “Where’s the milk—?”
“Have some freshly squeezed cow juice.” He shoves something that resembles a bowl of blue ice cubes at Huw. Huw pokes at one dubiously, then dunks it in his mug.
“This stuff is organic, isn’t it?”
“Only the best polymer-stabilized emulsions for Sandra,” the joe says sardonically. “Of course it’s organic—nothing but carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, and a bit of phosphorous and sulfur.” Huw can tell when he’s being wound up: he takes a sip, despite the provocation. “Of course, you could say the same about your kilt,” adds the stranger.
“Ah.” Huw puts the mug down, unsure where the conversation’s leading. There’s something disturbing about the joe: A sense of déjà vu nagging at the edges of his mind, as if—
“You don’t remember me, do you?”
“Alcohol has this effect on me at times,” Huw says in a grateful rush. “I’ve got an awful memory—”
“The name’s Bonnie,” says the man. “You spent most of the early hours trying to cop a feel by convincing me that Nietzsche was responsible for global cooling.” Huw stares at him and feels something in his head do an uneasy flip-flop: Yes, the resemblance is clear, this is the woman he was talking to last night.
“ ’S amazing what a good bathroom can do by way of gender reassignment surgery these days, you know?” the bald guy—Bonnie?—continues. Then he winks at Huw with what Huw realizes, to his horror, is either lascivious intent or broad and filthy-minded humor. “How’s your hangover? Are you up to picking things up where we left off?”
“Aaaugh,” says Huw as the full force of the postparty cultural hangover hits him between the eyes, right beneath the biohazard trefoil, and the coffee hits his stomach. “Need fresh air now . . .”
Huw makes sure to wake up in his own bed the next morning. It’s ancient and creaky, the springs bowed to conform to his anatomy, and he wove the blankets himself on the treadle-powered loom in the back parlor that Mum and Dad left him when they ascended, several decades before. (Huw is older than he looks, thanks to an unasked-for inheritance of chromosomal hackery, and has for the most part become set in his ways: incurious and curmudgeonly. He has his reasons.) His alarm clock is a sundial sketched on the whitewashed wall opposite in bold lines of charcoal, slightly smudged; his lifestyle a work of wabi in motion.
He yawns and sits up, pauses for a moment to get his bearings, then ventures down the comfortably unchanging stairs to retrieve his post. There is no email. He doesn’t even have electricity in the house—not since he ripped the wiring out and plastered over the wounds in the walls. The dusty tiles in his vintage late-nineteenth-century terraced home are cold beneath his bare feet. A draft leaks around the ill-fitting outer door, raising gooseflesh on his bare legs as he picks up the dumb paper.
Two-thirds of the mail is spam, which goes straight onto the compost-before-reading pile, but there’s also a genuine letter, complete with a hand-drawn bar code— what they used to call a stamp—on the envelope. Someone took the trouble to communicate with him personally, putting dumb matter in motion to make a point. How quaint, how formal! Huw approves.
He rips the envelope open with a cracked fingernail. He reads: Your application for international triage jury service has been provisionally accepted. To activate your application, present this card in person to . . .
He carries the notice through into the kitchen, puts it on the table so he can keep an eye on it as he eats. He barely notices the morning chill as he fiddles with the ancient Raeburn, loading kindling and peat and striking a fire to heat the Turkish coffeepot and warm his frying pan. Today is Huw’s big day. He’s been looking forward to this day for months.
Soon, he’ll get to say what he thinks about some item of new technology—and they’ll have to listen to him.
Welcome to the fractured future, the first century following the singularity.
Earth has a population of roughly a billion hominids. For the most part, they are happy with their lot, living in a preserve at the bottom of a gravity well. Those who are unhappy have emigrated, joining one or another of the swarming densethinker clades that fog the inner solar system with a dust of molecular machinery so thick that it obscures the sun. Except for the solitary lighthouse beam that perpetually tracks the Earth in its orbit, the system from outside resembles a spherical fogbank radiating in the infrared spectrum; a matryoshka brain, nested Dyson spheres built from the dismantled bones of moons and planets.
The splintery metaconsciousness of the solar system has largely sworn off its pre-posthuman cousins dirtside, but its minds sometimes wander nostalgiawise. When that happens, it casually spams Earth’s RF spectrum with plans for cataclysmically disruptive technologies that emulsify whole industries, cultures, and spiritual systems.
A sane species would ignore these get-evolved-quick schemes, but there’s always someone who’ll take a bite from the forbidden fruit. There’s always someone who unaccountably carries the let’s-lick-the-frozen-fence-post gene. There’s always a fucking geek who’ll do it because it’s a historical goddamned technical fucking imperative.
Whether the enlightened, occulting smartcloud sends out its missives as pranks, poison, or care packages is up for debate. Asking it to explain its motives is about as productive as negotiating with an ant colony to get it to abandon your kitchen. Whatever the motive, humanity would be much better off if the cloud would evolve into something uninterested in communicating with meatpeople—or at least smart enough to let well alone.
But until that happy day, there’s the tech jury service: defending the Earth from the scum of the post-singularity patent office.
After breakfast, Huw dresses and locks the front door carefully behind himself and tells his bicycle—his one truly indispensable piece of advanced technology—to unbolt itself from the rusting red drainpipe that stains the brick side of his house with green moss. He pedals uncertainly to the end of the road, then eases out into traffic, sneering as the omnipresent web of surveillance routes the peoplemovers around him.
Safe cycling is one of the modern conveniences that irritate him most. Also: polite youngsters with plastic smiles; overemotional machines; and geeks who think they understand technology. Geeks, the old aristocracy. He’ll show them, one of these days. Huw wobbles along the side of the main road and pulls in beside the door of the Second Revolutionary Libyan consulate.
“Sayyid Jones? I am pleased to meet you.” The young man behind the desk has a plastic smile and is far too polite for Huw’s taste: Huw grunts assent and sits down in the indicated seat. “Your application has been forwarded to us and, ah? If you would be pleased to travel to our beautiful country, I can assure you of just one week’s jury service.”
Huw nods again.
The polite man fidgets with the air of someone trying to come up with an inoffensive way of saying something potentially rather rude. “I’m pleased to inform you that our ancient land is quite tolerant of other cultures’ customs. I can assure you that whatever ISO-standard containment suit you choose to bring with you will be respected by our people.”
Huw boggles. “What huh?”
“Your, that is, your—” The smiler leans across his desk and points at Huw’s trefoil-marked forehead. The finger he points with meets resistance. A plastic sheet has hermetically sealed Huw’s side of the room off from the rest of the consulate. It is so fantastically transparent that Huw doesn’t even notice it until the smiler’s finger puckers a singularity in its vertical run, causing it to scatter light at funny angles and warp the solid and sensible wood-paneled walls behind the desk into Escheroid impossibilities.
“Ah,” Huw says. “Ah. No, you see, it’s a joke of some sort. Not an official warning.”
“I’m very glad to hear it, Sayyid Jones! You will, of course, have documents attesting to that before you clear our immigration?”
“Right,” Huw says. “Of course.” Fucking Sandra. Whether or not she is directly responsible for the tat is beside the point: It happened on her premises. Damn it, he has errands to run before he catches the flight! Tracking her down and getting her to remove the thing will take too long.
“Then we will see you soon.” The smiler reaches into a desk drawer and pulls out a small tarnished metal teapot, which he shoves gradually through the barrier. The membrane puckers around it and suddenly the teapot is sitting on Huw’s side of the desk, wearing an iridescent soap bubble of pinched-off nanohazard containment. “Peace be with you.”
“And you,” says Huw, rising. The interview is obviously at an end. He picks up the teapot and follows the blinkenlights to the exit from the consulate, studiously avoiding the blurred patches of air where other visitors are screened from one another by the utility fog. “What now?” he asks the teapot.
“Blrrrt. Greetings, Tech Juror Jones. I am a guidance iffrit from the Magical Libyan Jamahiriya Renaissance. Show me to representatives of the Permanent Revolutionary Command Councils and I will be honored to intercede for you. Polish me and I will install translation leeches in your Broca’s area, then assist you in memorizing the Koran and hadith. Release me and I will grant your deepest wish!”
“Um, I don’t think so.” Huw scratches his head. Fucking Sandra, he thinks darkly; then he packs the artifact into his pannier and pedals heavily away toward the pottery. It’s going to be a long working day—almost five hours—before he can sort this mess out, but at least the wet squishy sensation of clay under his fingernails will help calm the roiling indignation he feels at his violation by a random GM party prankster.
Two days later, Huw’s waiting with his bicycle and a large backpack on a soccer field in a valley outside Monmouth. It has rained overnight, and the field is muddy. A couple of large crows sit on the rusting goalpost, watching him with sidelong curiosity. There are one or two other people slouching around the departure area dispiritedly. Airports just haven’t been the same since the end of the Jet Age.
Huw tries to scratch the side of his nose, irritably. Fucking Sandra, he thinks yet again as he pokes at the opaque spidergoat silk of his biohazard burka. After work yesterday he went round to remonstrate with her, but her house has turned into a size 2,000 Timberland hiking boot, and the doorknob in the heel said Sandra is wintering in Fukushima this year. He can tell a brush-off when he hears one. A net search would probably turn her up, but he isn’t prepared to expose himself to any more viruses this week. One is more than enough—especially in light of the fact that the matching trefoil brand on his shoulder glows in the dark.
A low rumble rattles the goalpost and disturbs the crows as a cloud shadow slides across the pitch. Huw looks up, and up, and up—his eyes can’t quite take in what he’s seeing. That’s got to be more than a kilometer long! he realizes. The engine note rises as the huge catamaran airship jinks and wobbles sideways toward the far end of the pitch and engages its station-keeping motors, then begins to unreel an elevator car the size of a shipping container.
“Attention, passengers now waiting for flight FL-052 to North Africa and stations in the Levant, please prepare for boarding. This means you.”
Huw nearly jumps out of his skin as one of the customs crows lands heavily on his shoulder: “You listening, mate?”
“Yes, yes, I’m listening.” Huw shrugs and tries to keep one eye on the big bird. “Over there, huh?”
“Boarding will commence through lift BZZT GURGLE four in five minutes. Even-numbered passengers first.” The crow flaps heavily toward the huge, rusting shipping container as it lands in the muddy field with a clang. “All aboard!” it caws raucously.
Huw wheels his bike toward the steel box then pauses as a door opens and a couple of confused-looking Australian backpackers stumble out, leading their telltale kangaroo-familiars. “Boarding now!” adds the crow.
He waits while the other three passengers step aboard, then gingerly rolls his bike inside and leans against the guardrail spot-glued to the wall. “Haul away lively, there!” someone yells above, and there’s a creak of ropes as the cargo container lurches into the air. Even before it’s clear of the goalposts, the huge airship has cut the station-keepers and is spooling up to its impressive fiftyknot cruising speed. Huw looks down at the town and the medieval castle unrolling beneath him and takes a deep breath. He can tell this is going to be a long trip.
His nose is itching again.
Air travel is so slow, you’d almost always be faster going by train. But the Gibraltar bridge is shut for repair this week, and the Orient Express lacks appeal: last time Huw caught a TGV through the Carpathians, he was propositioned incessantly by a feral privatized blood bank that seemed to have a thing for Welsh T helper lymphocytes. At least this tramp floater with its cargo of Christmas trees and chameleon paint is going to give Huw and his fellow passengers a shortcut around the Mediterranean, even if the common room smells of stale marijuana smoke and the other passengers are all dubious cheapskate hitchers and netburn cases who want to ship their meatbodies around instead of doing the decent (and sanitary) thing and using telepresence instead.
Huw isn’t dubious; he’s just on jury service, which requires your physical in-the-flesh presence to prevent identity spoofing by imported weakly godlike AIs and suchlike. But judging from the way the other passengers are avoiding him, he looks dubious: it’s probably the biohazard burka and the many layers of anti-nanophage underwear he’s trussed up in inside it. There has got to be a better way of fighting runaway technology, he tells himself on the second morning as he prepares to go get some breakfast.
Breakfast requires numerous compromises. And it’s not just a matter of accepting that, when he’s traveling, natural organic wholefoods are rare enough that he’ll have to subsist on synthetic slop. Most of the airship’s crew are uplifted gibbons, and during their years of plying the skyways over North Africa and parts east, they’ve picked up enough Islam that it’s murder getting the mess deck food processors to barf up a realistic bacon sandwich. Huw has his mouth-lock extended and is picking morosely at a scrambled egg and something that claims to be tempeh with his fork when someone bounces into the seat beside him, reaches into the folds of his burka, and tears off a bite of the sandwich.
The stranger is a disreputable backpacker in washn-wear tropical-weight everything, the smart-wicking, dirt-shedding, rip-stopping leisure suit uniform of the globe-slogging hostel-denizens who write long, rambling HOWTOs online describing their adventures living in Mumbai or Manhattan or some other blasted corner of the world for six months on just five dollars. This one clearly thinks himself quite the merry traveler, eyes a-twinkle, crow’s-feet etched by a thousand foreign sunsets, dimples you could lose a fifty-dollar coin in.
“’Ello!” he says around a mouthful of Huw’s sandwich. “You look interesting. Let’s have a conversation!”
“You don’t look interesting to me,” Huw says, plunking the rest of his food in the backpacker’s lap. “Let’s not.”
“Oh, come on,” the backpacker says. “My name’s Adrian, and I’ve loads of interesting anecdotes about my adventures abroad, including some rather racy ones involving lovely foreign ladies. I’m very entertaining, honest! Give me a try, why don’t you?”
“I really don’t think so,” Huw says. “You’d best get back into your seat—the monkeys don’t like a disorderly cabin. Besides, I’m infectious.”
“Monkeys! You think I’m worried about monkeys? Brother, I once spent a month in a Tasmanian work camp for public drunkenness—imagine, an Australian judge locking an Englishman up for drunkenness! There were some hard men in that camp, let me tell you. The indigenes had the black market liquor racket all sewn up, but the Maori prisoners were starting up their own thing, and here’s me, a poor, gormless backpacker in the middle of it all, dodging homemade shivs and poison arrows. Went a week without eating after it got out that the Maoris were smearing shit in the cook pots to poison the indigenes. Biowar, that’s what it was! By the end of that week, I was hallucinating angels and chewing scrub grass I found on work details, while the prisoners I was chained to shat themselves bloody and collapsed. I caught a ballistic out of there an hour after I’d served my sentence, got shot right to East Timor, where I gorged myself on gadogado and rijsttafel and got food poisoning anyway and spent the night in the crapper, throwing up chunks of me lungs. So don’t you go telling me about monkeys!” Adrian breaks off his quasi-racist monologue and chows down on the rest of Huw’s lunch.
Fuck you too, Huw manages to restrain himself from saying. Instead: “Yes, that’s all very disgusting. I’m going to have a bit of a nap now, all right? Don’t wait up.”
“Oh, don’t be a weak sister!” says Adrian. “You won’t last five minutes in Libya with an attitude like that. Never been to Libya, have you?”
“No,” Huw says, pointedly bunching up a fold of burka into a pillow and turning his head away.
“You’ll love it. Nothing like a taste of real, down-home socialism after dirty old London. People’s this and Popular that and Magical Democratic the other, everyone off on the latest plebiscite, holding caucuses in the cafés. It’s fantastic! The girls too—fantastic, fantastic. Just talk a little politics with them and they’ll bend your ear until you think you’re going to fall asleep, and then they’ll try to bang the bourgeois out of you. In twos and threes, if you’re recalcitrant enough. I’ve had some fantastic nights in Libya. I can barely wait to touch down.”
“Adrian, can I tell you something, in all honesty?”
“Sure, mate, sure!”
“You’re a jackass. And if you don’t get the fuck back to your own seat, I’m going to tell the monkeys you’re threatening to blow up the airship and they’ll strap you into a restraint chute and push you overboard.”
Adrian rears up, an expression of offended hauteur plastered all over his wrinkled mug. “You’re a bloody card, you are!”
Huw gathers up his burka, stands, climbs over Adrian, and moves to the back of the cabin. He selects an empty row, slides in, and stretches out. A moment later, Adrian comes up and grabs his toe, then wiggles it.
“All right, then, we’ll talk later. Have a nice nap. Thanks for the sarnie!”
It takes three days for the tramp freighter to bumble its way to Tripoli. It gingerly climbs to its maximum pressure height to skirt the wild and beautiful (but radioactive and deadly) Normandy coastline, then heads southeast, to drop a cargo of incognito Glaswegian gangsters on the outskirts of Marseilles. Then it crosses the Mediterranean coast, and spends a whole twenty-two hours doodling in broad circles around Corsica. Huw tries to amuse himself during this latter interlude by keeping an eye open for smugglers with micro-UAVs, but even this pathetic attempt at distraction falls flat when, after eight hours, a rigging monkey scampers into the forward passenger lounge and delivers a fifty-minute harangue about workers’ solidarity and the black gang’s right to strike in flight, justifying it in language eerily familiar to anyone who—like Huw—has spent days heroically probing the boundaries of suicidal boredom by studying the proceedings of the Third Communist International.
Having exhausted his entire stash of antique dead-tree books two days into a projected two-week expedition, and having found his fellow passengers to consist of lunatics and jackasses, Huw succumbs to the inevitable. He glues his burka to a support truss in the cargo fold, dials the eye slit to opaque, swallows a mug of valerianlaced decaf espresso, and estivates like a lungfish in the dry season.
His first warning that the airship has arrived comes when he awakens in a sticky sweat. Is the house on fire? he wonders muzzily. It feels like someone has opened an oven door and stuck his feet in it, and the sensation is climbing his chest. There’s an anxious moment; then he gets his eye slit working again, and is promptly inundated with visual spam, most of it offensively and noxiously playing to the assumed orientalist stereotypes of visiting Westerners.
Hello! Welcome, effendi! The Thousand Nights and One Night Hotel welcomes careful Westerners! We take euros, dollars, yen, and hash (subject to assay)! For a good night out, visit Ali’s American Diner! Hamburgers 100 percent halal goat here! Need travel insurance and ignorant of sharia banking regulations? Let the al-Jammu Traveler’s Assistance put your mind to rest with our—
Old habits learned before his rejectionist lifestyle became a habit spring fitfully back to life. Huw hesitantly posts a bid for adbuster proxy services, picks the cheapest on offer, then waits for his visual field to clear. After a minute or two he can see again, except for a persistent and annoying green star in the corner of his left eye. Finally, he struggles to unglue himself and looks about.
The passenger lounge is almost empty, a door gaping open in one side. Huw wheels his bicycle over and hops down onto the dusty concrete apron of the former airport. It’s already over forty degrees in the shade, but once he gets out of the shadow of the blimp, his burka’s solar-powered air-conditioning should sort that out. The question is, where to go next? He rummages crossly in the pannier until he finds the battered teapot. “Hey, you. Iffrit! Whatever you call yourself. Which way to the courtroom?”
A cartoon djinni pops into transparent life above the pot’s nozzle and winks at him. “Peace be unto you, O Esteemed Madam Tech Juror Jones Huw! If you will but bear with me for a moment—” The Iffrit fizzles as it hunts for a parasitic network to colonize. “—I believe you will first wish to enter the terminal buildings and present yourself to the People’s Revolutionary Airport Command and Cleaning Council, to process your entry visa. Then they will direct you to a hotel where you will be accommodated in boundless paradisaical luxury at the expense of the grateful Magical Libyan Jamahiriya Renaissance! (Or at least in a good VR facsimile of paradise.)”
“Uh-huh.” Huw looks about. The airport is a deserted dump—literally deserted, for the anti-desertification defenses of the twentieth century, and the genetically engineered succulents frantically planted during the first decades of the twenty-first, have faded. The Libyan national obsession with virtual landscaping (not to mention emigration to Italy) has led to the return of the sand dunes, and the death of the gas-guzzling airline industry has left the airport with the maintenance budget of a rural cross-country bus stop. Broken windows gape emptily from rusting tin huts; a once-outstanding airport terminal building basks in the heat like a torpid lizard, doors open to the breeze. Even the snack vendors seem to have closed up shop.
It takes Huw half an hour to find the People’s NeoRevolutionary Airport Command and Cleaning Council, an old woman who has her booted feet propped up on a battered wooden desk in the lobby beneath the International Youth Hostelling sign, snoring softly through her open mouth.
“Excuse me, but are you the government?” Huw asks, talking through his teapot translator. “I have come from Wales to serve on a technology jury. Can you direct me to the public transport terminus?”
“I wouldn’t bother if I were you,” someone says from behind him, making Huw jump so high, he almost punches a hole in the yellowing ceiling tiles. “She’s moonlighting, driving a PacRim investment bank’s security bots on the night shift. See all the bandwidth she’s hogging?”
“Um, no, as a matter of fact, I don’t,” Huw says. “I stick to the visible spectrum.”
The interloper is probably female and from somewhere in Northern Europe, judging by the way she’s smeared zinc ointment across her entire observable epidermis. Chilly fog spills from her cuffs at wrist and ankle and there’s the whine of a Peltier cooler pushed to the limit coming from her bum-bag. About all Huw can see of her is her eyes and an electric blue ponytail erupting from the back of her anti-melanoma hood.
“Isn’t it a bit rude to snoop on someone else’s dreams?” he adds.
“Yes.” The interloper shrugs, then grins alarmingly at him. “It’s what I do for a living.” She offers him a hand, and before he can stop himself he’s shaking it politely. “I’m Dagbjört. Dr. Dagbjört.”
“I specialize in musical dream therapy. And I’m here on a tech jury gig too. Perhaps we’ll get a chance to work on the same case?”
At that moment the People’s Second Revolutionary Airport Command and Cleaning Council coughs, spasms painfully, sits up, and looks around querulously. I’m not working! Honest! She exclaims through the medium of Huw’s teapot translator. Then, getting a grip: “Oh, you’re tourists. Can I help you?”
Her manner is so abrupt and rude that Huw feels right at home. “Yes, yes,” he says. “We’re jurors and we need to get to a hotel. Where’s the light rail terminal or bus stand?”
“Are no buses. Today is Friday, can’t you read?”
“Yes, but how are we to our hotel to ride?” asks Dr. Dagbjört, sounding puzzled.
“Why don’t you walk?” The Council asks with gloomy satisfaction, “Haven’t you got legs? Didn’t Allah, the merciful, bless you with a full complement of limbs?”
“But it’s—” Huw consults his wrist-map and again does a double take. “—twelve kilometers! And it’s fortythree degrees in the shade!”
“It’s Friday,” the old woman repeats placidly. “Nothing works on Fridays. It’s in the Koran. Also, union regs.”
“So why are you working for a Burmese banking cartel as a security bot supervisor?” Dagbjört asks.
“That’s—!” The Council glares at her. “That’s none of your business!”
“Burma isn’t an Islamic country,” Huw says, seeing which direction Dagbjört is heading in. Maybe Dagbjört’s not a fucknozzle after all, although he has his doubts about anyone who has anything to do with dream therapy, much less musical dream therapy—unless she’s in it only for purely pragmatic reasons, such as the money. “Do you suppose they might be dealing with their demographic deficit by importing out-of-time-zone Gastarbeiters from Islamic countries who want to work on the day of rest?”
“What an astonishing thought!” snarks Dagbjört. “That must be illegal, mustn’t it?”
Huw decides to play good cop/bad cop with her: “And I’m sure the union will have something to say about moonlighting—”
“Stop! Stop!” The People’s Second Revolutionary Airport Command and Cleaning Council puts her hands up in the air. “I have a nephew, he has a car! Perhaps he can give you a ride on his way to mosque? I’m sure he must be going there in only half an hour, and I’m sure your hotel will turn out to be on his way.”
The car, when it arrives, is a gigantic early-twenty-first-century Mercedes hybrid with tinted windows and air-conditioning and plastic seats that have cracked and split in the dry desert heat. A brilliantly detailed green and silver miniature temple conceals a packet of tissues on the rear parcel shelf and the dash is plastered with green and gold stickers bearing edifying quotations from the hadith. The Council’s nephew looks too young to bear the weight of his huge black mustache, let alone to be directing this Teutonic behemoth’s autopilot, but at least he’s awake and moving in the noonday furnace heat.
“Hotel Marriott,” Dagbjört says. “Vite-schnell-pronto! Jale, jale!”
The Mercedes crawls along the highway like a dung beetle on the lowest step of a pyramid. As they head toward the outskirts of the mostly closed city of Tripoli, Huw feels the gigantic and oppressive weight of advertising bearing down on his proxy filters. When New Libya got serious about consumerism they went overboard on superficial glitz and cheesy sloganizing. The deluge of CoolTown webffiti they’re driving through is full of the usual SinoIndian global mass-produced crap, seasoned with insanely dense technobabble and a bizarrely Arabized version of discreet Victorian traders’ notices. Once they drive under the threshold of the gigantic tinted geodesic dome that hovers above the city, lifted on its own column of hot air, Huw finally gets it: He’s not in Wales anymore.
The Council’s nephew narrates a shouted, heavily accented travelogue as they lurch through the traffic, but most of it is lost in the roar of the air conditioner and the whine of the motors. What little Huw can make out seems to be pitches for local businesses—cafés, hash bars, amusement parlors. Dr. Dagbjört and Huw sit awkwardly at opposite sides of the Merc’s rear bench, conversation an impossibility at the current decibel level.
Dr. Dagbjört fishes in her old-fashioned bum-bag and produces a stylus and a scrap of scribable material, scribbles a moment, and passes it over: DINNER PLANS?
Huw shakes his head. Dinner—ugh. He’s gamy and crusty with dried sweat under his burka and can’t imagine eating, but he supposes he’d better put some fuel in the boiler before he sleeps.
Dagbjört scrolls her message off the material, then scribbles again: I KNOW A PLACE. LOBBY@18H?
Huw nods, suppressing a wince. Dagbjört smiles at him, looking impossibly healthy and scrubbed underneath her zinc armor.
The Marriott is not a Marriott; it’s a Second Revolutionary Progress Hostel. (There are real hotels elsewhere in Tripoli, but they all charge real hotel bills, and what’s left of the government is trying to run the tech jury service on the cheap.) Huw’s djinni delivers a little canned rantlet about Western imperialist monopolization of trademarks, and explains that this is the People’s Marriott, where the depredations of servile labor have been eliminated in favor of automated conveniences, the maintenance and disposition of which are managed by a Residents’ Committee, and primly admonishes him for being twenty minutes late to his first Committee meeting, which is to run for another two hours and forty minutes. It is, in short, a youth hostel by any other name.
“Can’t I just go to my room and have a wash?” Huw asks. “I’m filthy.”
“Ah! One thousand pardons, madam! Would that our world was a perfect one and the needs of the flesh could come before the commonweal! It is, however, a requirement of residence at the People’s Marriott. You need to attend and be assigned a maintenance detail, and be trained in the chores you are to perform. The common room is wonderfully comfortable, though, and your fellow committee members will be delighted to make you most very welcome indeed!”
“Crap,” Huw says.
“Yes,” the djinni says, “of course. You’ll find a WC to your left after you pass through the main doors.”
Huw stalks through both sets of automatic doors, which judder and groan. The lobby is a grandiose atrium with grimy spun diamond panes fifteen meters above his head through which streams gray light that feeds a riotous garden of root vegetables and tired-looking soy. His vision clouds over; then a double row of shaky blinkenlights appears before him, strobing the way to the common room. He heaves a put-upon sigh and shambles along their path.
The common room is hostel-chic, filled with sagging sofas, a sad and splintery gamesurface, and a collection of random down-at-heel international travelers clutching teapots and scrawling desultorily on a virtual whiteboard. The collaborative space is cluttered with torn-off sheets of whiteboard covering every surface like textual dandruff. Doc Dagbjört has beaten him here, and she is already in the center of the group, animatedly negotiating for the lightest detail possible.
“Huw!” she calls as he plants himself in the most remote sofa, which coughs up a cloud of dust and stale farts smelling of the world’s variegated cuisines.
He lifts one hand weakly and waves. The other committee members are sizing him up without even the barest pretense at fellowship. Huw recognizes the feral calculation in their eyes: he has a feeling he’s about to get the shittiest job in the place. Mitigate the risk, he thinks.
“Hi, there, I’m Huw. I’m here on jury duty, so I’m not going to be available during the days. I’m also a little, uh, toxic at the moment, so I’ll need to stay away from anything health-related. Something in the early evening, not involving food or waste systems would be ideal, really. What fits the bill?” He waits a moment while the teapots chatter translations from all over the room. Huw hears Arabic, Farsi, Hindi, Spanish, French, English, and American.
Various whiteboards are reshuffled from around the room, and finally a heroically ugly ancient Frenchman who looks like an albino chimp squeaks some dependencies across the various boards with a stylus. He coughs out a rapid and hostile stream of French, which the teapot presently translates. “You’ll be on comms patrol. There’s a transceiver every three meters. You take spare parts around to each of them, reboot them, watch the Power-On Self-Test, and swap out any dead parts. Even numbered floors tonight, odd floors tomorrow, guest rooms the day after.” He tosses a whiteboard at Huw, and it snaps to centimeters from his nose, acrawl with floorplans and schematics for broadband relay transceivers.
“Well, that’s done,” Huw says. “Thanks.”
Dagbjört laughs. “You’re not even close to done. That’s your tentative assignment—you need to get checked out on every job, in case you’re reassigned due to illness or misadventure, or the total quality management monitor thinks you’re not pulling your weight.”
“You’re kidding,” he says, rolling his eyes.
“I am not. My assignment is training new committee members. Now, come and sit next to me—the Second Revolutionary Training and Skills-Assessment subcommittee is convening next, and they want to interview all the new arrivals.”
Huw zones out during the endless subcommittee meetings that last into early evening, then suffers himself to be dragged to the hotel refectory by Doc Dagbjört and a dusky Romanian Lothario from the Cordon Bleu Catering Committee who casts pointed and ugly looks at him until he slouches away from his baklava and dispiritedly climbs the unfinished concrete utility stairway to sublevel 1, where his toil is to begin. He spends the next four hours trudging around the endless sublevels of the hotel—bare concrete corridors optimized for robotic, not human, access—hunting buggy transceivers. By the time he gets to his room, he’s exhausted, footsore, and sticky.
Huw’s room is surprisingly posh for what is basically an overfurnished concrete shoe box, but he’s too tired to appreciate the facilities. He looks at the oversized sleepsurface and sees the maintenance regimen for its control and feedback mechanism. He spins around slowly in the spa-sized loo and all he can think about is the poxy little bots that patrol the plumbing and polish the tile. The media center is a dismal reminder of his responsibility to patrol the endless miles of empty corridor, rebooting little silver mushrooms and watching their blinkenlights for telltale reds. Back when it was a real hotel, the Marriott employed one member of staff per two guest rooms: these days, just staying here is a full-time job.
He fills the pool-sized tub with steaming lavenderand eucalyptus-scented water, then climbs in, burka and all. The djinni’s lamp perches on the tub’s edge, periodically getting soaked in the oversloshes as he shifts his weight, watching the folds of cloth bulge and flutter as its osmotic layers convect gentle streams of water over his many nooks and crannies.
“Esteemed sir,” the djinni says, its voice echoing off the painted tile.
“Figured that one out, huh?” Hew says. “No more madam?”
“My infinite pardons,” it says. “I have received your jury assignment. You are to report to Fifth People’s Technology Court at 800h tomorrow. You will be supplied with a delicious breakfast of fruits and semolina, and a cold lunch of local delicacies. You should be well rested and prepared for a deliberation of at least four days.”
“Sure thing,” Huw says, dunking his head and letting the water rush into his ears. Normally the news of his assignment would fill him with joy—it’s what he’s come all this way for—but right now he just feels trapped, his will to live fading. He resurfaces and shakes his head, unintentionally spattering the walls with water that’s slightly gray. Dismal realization dawns: That’s another half hour’s cleaning. “How far is it to the courthouse?”
“A mere two kilometers. The walk through the colorful and ancient Tripoli shopping mall and souk is both bracing and elevating. You will arrive in a most pleasant and serene state of mind.”
Huw kicks at the drain control, and the tub gurgles itself empty, reminding him of the great water-reclamation facilities in the subbasement. He stands and the burka steams for a moment as every drop of moisture is instantly expelled by its self-wringing nanoweave. “Pleasant and serene. Yeah, right.” He climbs tiredly out of the tub and slouches toward the bedroom. “What time is it?”
“It is two fifteen, esteemed sir,” says the djinni. “Would sir care for a sleeping draft?”
“Sir would care for a real hotel,” Huw grunts, momentarily flashing back to the hotels of his childhood, during his parents’ peripatetic wandering from conference to symposium. He lies down on the wide white rectangle that occupies the center of the bedroom. He doesn’t hear the djinni’s reply: he’s asleep as soon as his head touches the pillow.
A noise like cats fucking in a trash can drags Huw awake most promptly at zero-dark o’clock. “What’s that?” he yells.
The djinni doesn’t answer: it’s prostrate on the bedside table as if hiding from an invisible overhead ax blade. The noise gets louder, if anything, then modulates into chickens drowning in their own blood, with a side order of Van Halen guitar riffs. “Make it stop!” shouts Huw, stuffing his fingers in his ears.
The noise dies to a distant wail. A minute later it stops and the djinni flickers upright. “My apologies, esteemed sir,” it says dejectedly. “I did not with the room sound system mixer volume control interface correctly. That was the most blessed Imam Anwar Mohammed calling the faithful to prayer, or it would have been if not for the feedback. The blessed Imam is a devotee of the antique Deutsche industrial school of backing tracks and—”
Huw rolls over and grabs the teapot. “Djinni.”
“Yes, O Esteemed Sirrah?”
Huw pauses. “You keep calling me that,” he says slowly. “Do you realize just how rude that is?”
“Eep! Rude? You appear to be squeezing—”
“Listen.” Huw is breathing heavily. He sits up and looks out the window at the sleeping city. Somewhere, 150 gigameters beyond the horizon, the sun might be thinking about the faint possibility of rising. “I am a patient man. But. If you keep provoking me like this—”
“This hostel. The fucking alarm clock. Talking down to me. Repeatedly insulting my intelligence—”
“—I’m not insulting!—”
“Shut up.” Huw blows out a deep breath. “Unless you want me to give you a guided tour of the hotel waste compactor and heavy metal reclamation subsystem. From the inside.”
“Ulp.” The djinni shuts up.
“That’s better. Now. Breakfast. I have a heavy day ahead and I’m half starved from the sandwiches on that fucking airship. I want, let’s see . . . fried eggs. Bacon rashers. Pork sausages. Toast with butter on it, piles of butter. Don’t argue, I’ve had a gray market LDL anticholesterol hack. Oh yeah. Black pudding, hash browns, baked beans, and deep-fried bread. Tell your little friends in the canteen to have it waiting for me. There is no ‘or else’ for you to grasp at, you horrible little robot. You’re going to do this my way or you’re not going to do very much at all, ever again.”
Huw stands up and stretches. His bicycle notices: it unlocks and stretches too, folding itself into shopping mall mode. Memory metal frames and pedal-powered microgenerators are some of the few benefits of high technology, in Huw’s opinion—along with the ability to eat seven different flavors of grease for breakfast and not die of a heart attack before lunchtime.
“I told them, but they say these Turkish food processors, they don’t like working with non-halal—”
The djinni shuts up at Huw’s snarl. Huw picks up the teapot, hangs it from his bike’s handlebars, and pedals off down the hotel corridor with blood in his eye.
I wonder what my chances are of getting a hanging judge?
After breakfast, Huw rides to the end of the hotel’s drive and hangs a left, following the djinni’s directions, pedals two more blocks, turns right, and runs straight into a wall of humanity.
It’s a good, old-fashioned throng. From his vantage point atop the saddle, it seems to writhe like an explosion in a wardrobe department: a mass of variegated robes, business attire, and exotic imported street fashions from all over, individuals lost in the teem. He studies it for a moment longer, and sees that for all its density it’s moving rather quickly, though with little regard for personal space. He dismounts the bike and it extrudes its kickstand. Planting his hands on his hips, he belches up a haram gust of bacon grease and ponders. He can always lock up the bike and proceed afoot, but nothing handy presents itself for locking. The djinni is manifesting a glowing countdown timer, ticking away the seconds before he will be late at court.
Just then, the crowd shits out a person, who makes a beeline for him.
“Hello, Adrian,” Huw says once the backpacker is within shouting distance—about sixty centimeters, given the din of footfalls and conversations. Huw is somehow unsurprised to see the backpacker again, clad in his travelwear and a rakish stubble, eyes red as a baboon’s ass from a night’s hashtaking.
“Well, fancy meeting you here!” says Adrian. “Out for a bit of a ride?”
“No, actually,” replies Huw. “On my way somewhere, and running late. Are there any bike lanes here? I need to get past this mob. . . .”
The backpacker snorts. “Sure, if you ride to Tunisia. Yer bike’s not going to do you much good here. And don’t think about locking it up, mate, or it’ll be nationalized by the Popular Low-Impact Transit Committee before you’ve gone three steps.”
“Shit,” grunts Huw. He gestures at the bike and it deflates and compacts itself into a carry-case. He hefts it—the fucking thing weighs a ton.
“Yup,” Adrian agrees. “Nice to have if you want to go on a tour of the ruins or get somewhere at three a.m.— not much good in town, though. Want to sell it to me? I met a pair of sisters last night who’re going to take me off to the countryside for a couple days of indoctrination and heavy petting. I’d love to have some personal transport.”
“Fuck,” says Huw. He’s had the bike for seven years; it’s an old friend, jealously guarded. “How about I rent it to you?”
Adrian grins and produces a smokesaver from one of the many snap-pockets on his chest. A nugget of hash smolders inside the plastic tube, a barely visible coal in the thick smoke. He puts his mouth over the end and slurps down the smoke, holds it for a thoughtful moment, then expels it over Adrian’s head. “Lovely. I’ll return it in two days, three tops. Where’re you staying?”
“The fucking Marriott.”
“Wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. Here, will half a kilo chiseled off the side of this be enough?” He hands Huw a foil-wrapped brick of Assassin-brand hash the size of a paving stone. “The rest’ll be my deposit. The sisters’re into hashishim-revival. Quite versatile minds, they have.”
Huw is already copping a light buzz from the sidestream Adrian’s blowing his way. This much hash would likely put him in a three-day incontinence coma. But someone might want it, he supposes. “I can work with that. Five hundred grams, and you can have the rest back in return for the bike. Four days’ time, at the Marriott, all right?”
Adrian works his head from side to side. “Sure, mate. Works for me.”
“Okay. Just bloody look after it. That bike has sentimental value, we’ve come a long way together.” Huw whispers into the bike’s handlebars and hands it to Adrian. It interfaces with his PAN, accepts him as its new erstwhile owner, and unfolds. Adrian saddles up, waves once, and pedals off for points rural and lecherous.
Huw holds the djinni’s lamp up and hisses at it.“Right,” he says. “Get me to the court on time.”
“With the utmost of pleasures, sirrah,” it begins. Huw gives it a sharp shake. “All right,” it says aggrievedly, “let me teach you to say, ‘Out of my bloody way,’ and we’ll be off.”
Rapture of the Nerds © Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross 2012