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Four time Hugo Award winner Vernor Vinge has taken readers to the depths of space and into the far future in his bestselling novels A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky. Now, he has written a science-fiction thriller set in a place and time as exciting and strange as any far-future world: San Diego, California, 2025.
Robert Gu is a recovering Alzheimer's patient. The world that he remembers was much as we know it today. Now, as he regains his faculties through a cure developed during the years of his near-fatal decline, he discovers that the world has changed and so has his place in it. He was a world-renowned poet. Now he is seventy-five years old, though by a medical miracle he looks much younger, and he's starting over, for the first time unsure of his poetic gifts . Living with his son's family, he has no choice but to learn how to cope with a new information age in which the virtual and the real are a seamless continuum, layers of reality built on digital views seen by a single person or millions, depending on your choice. But the consensus reality of the digital world is available only if, like his thirteen-year-old granddaughter Miri, you know how to wear your wireless access-through nodes designed into smart clothes-and to see the digital context-through smart contact lenses.
With knowledge comes risk. When Robert begins to re-train at Fairmont High, learning with other older people what is second nature to Miri and other teens at school, he unwittingly becomes part of a wide-ranging conspiracy to use technology as a tool for world domination.
In a world where every computer chip has Homeland Security built-in, this conspiracy is something that baffles even the most sophisticated security analysts, including Robert's son and daughter-in law, two top people in the U.S. military. And even Miri, in her attempts to protect her grandfather, may be entangled in the plot.
As Robert becomes more deeply involved in conspiracy, he is shocked to learn of a radical change planned for the UCSD Geisel Library; all the books there, and worldwide, would cease to physically exist. He and his fellow re-trainees feel compelled to join protests against the change. With forces around the world converging on San Diego, both the conspiracy and the protest climax in a spectacular moment as unique and satisfying as it is unexpected. This is science fiction at its very best, by a master storyteller at his peak.
MR. RABBIT VISITS BARCELONA
Within the intelligence services of the Indo-European Alliance, there were a handful of bureaucratic superstars, people such as Gunberk Braun of the EUIB. Hopefully, their identities were unknown - or a mass of contradictions - to the general public. The superstars had their own heroes. In particular, when people like Gunberk Braun were confronted with the most desperate problems, there was a place to get help. There was a certain department in India's External Intelligence Agency. It didn't show up in EIA organization charts, and its purpose was happily undefined. Basically, it was whatever its boss thought it should be. That boss was an Indian national known (to those very few who knew of him at all) as Alfred Vaz.
Braun took his terrifying discovery to Vaz. At first, the older man was as taken aback as Braun himself had been. But Vaz was a fixer. "With the proper human resources, you can solve almost any problem," he said. "Give me a few days. Let's see what I can dig up."
In downtown Barcelona, three days later:
The rabbit hopped onto the unoccupied wicker chair and thence to the middle of the table, between the teacups and the condiments. It tipped its top hat first at Alfred Vaz and then at Gunberk Braun and Keiko Mitsuri. "Have I got a deal for you!" it said. Altogether, it was an unremarkable example of its type.
Alfred reached out and swiped his hand through the image, just to emphasize his own substance. "We're the ones with the deal."
"Hmph." The rabbit plunked its ass down on the table and pulled a tiny tea service out from behind the salt and pepper. It poured itself a drop or two - enough to fill its cup - and took a sip. "I'm all ears." It wiggled two long ones to emphasize the point.
From the other side of the table, Gunberk Braun gave the creature a long stare. Braun was as ephemeral as the rabbit, but he projected a dour earnestness that was quite consistent with his real personality. Alfred thought he detected a certain surprised disappointment in the younger man's expression. In fact, after a moment, Gunberk sent him a silent message.
Braun --> Mitsuri, Vaz: This is the best you could recruit, Alfred?
Alfred didn't reply directly. Instead, he turned to the creature sitting on the table. "Welcome to Barcelona, Mr. Rabbit," he said. He waved at the towers of the Sagrada Familia, which soared up and up from just across the street. The cathedral was best seen without virtual elaboration; after all, the reality of Gaudi; architecture was gaudy beyond the imagination of modern revisionists. "Do you have any idea why we selected this location for our meeting?"
The rabbit sipped its tea. Its gaze slid in a very un-rabbity way to take in the noisy crowds that swept past the tables, to scan the costumes and body-plans of tourists and locals. "Ah, is it that Barcelona is a place for the beautiful and the bizarre, one of the few great cities of the twentieth century whose charm survives in the modern world? Could it be that on the side, you and your families are taking touchy-feely tours through Parc Guell and writing it all off on your expense accounts?" He stared at Braun and at Keiko Mitsuri. Mitsuri was frankly masked. She looked a bit like Marcel Duchamp's nude, built from a shifting complex of crystal planes. The rabbit shrugged. "But then again, maybe you two are thousands of kilometers away."
Keiko laughed. "Oh, don't be so indecisive," she said, speaking with a completely synthetic accent and syntax. "I'm quite happy to be in Parc Guell right now, feeling reality with my very own real hands."
Mitsuri --> Braun, Vaz: In fact, I'm in my office, admiring the moonlight on Tokyo Bay.
The rabbit continued, ignorant of the silent-messaging byplay: "Whatever. In any case, the real reasons for meeting here: Barcelona has very direct connections to wherever you're really from, and modern security to disguise what we say. Best of all, it has laws banning popular and police snooping... unless of course you are the EU Intelligence Board."
Mitsuri --> Braun, Vaz: Well, that's one-third of a correct guess.
Braun --> Mitsuri, Vaz: Mr. Rabbit himself is calling from some distance. An EU real-time estimate hung in the air above the little creature's head: seventy-five percent probability that the mind behind the rabbit image was in North America.
Alfred leaned toward the rabbit and smiled. As the agent with physical presence, Vaz had limitations - but some advantages, too. "No, we're not the secret police. And yes, we wanted some secure communication that was a bit more personal than text messaging." He tapped his chest. "In particular, you see me physically here. It builds trust." And should give you all sorts of invalid clues. Vaz waved to a waiter, ordered a glass of Rioja. Then, turning back to the creature on the tablecloth: "In recent months, you have bragged many things, Mr. Rabbit. Others brag similarly nowadays, but you have certificates that are difficult to come by. Various people with notable reputations have endorsed your abilities."
The rabbit preened. This was a rabbit with many implausible mannerisms. Physical realism did not rank high in its priorities. "Of course I am highly recommended. For any problem, political, military, scientific, artistic, or amorous - meet my terms, and I will deliver."
Mitsuri --> Braun, Vaz: Go ahead, Alfred.
Braun --> Mitsuri, Vaz: Yes, the minimal version of course. Nothing more till we see some results that we couldn't make for ourselves.
Alfred nodded as if to himself. "Our problem has nothing to do with politics or war, Mr. Rabbit. We have only some scientific interests."
The rabbit ears waggled. "So? Post your needs to the answer boards. That may get you results almost as good as mine, almost as fast. And for certain, a thousand times cheaper."
Wine arrived. Vaz made a thing of sniffing the bouquet. He glanced across the street. The bidding on physical tour slots to the Sagrada Familia was closed for the day, but there was still a queue of people near the cathedral entrance, people hoping for no-shows. It proved once again that the most important things were those you could touch. He looked back at the gray rabbit. "We have needs that are more basic than picking the brains of a few thousand analysts. Our questions require serious, um, experimentation. Some of that has already been done. Much remains. All together, our project is the size you might imagine for a government crash research program."
The rabbit grinned, revealing ivory incisors. "Heh. A government crash program? That's twentieth-century foolishness. Market demands are always more effective. You just have to fool the market into cooperating."
"Maybe. But what we want to do is..." The hell of it was, even the cover story was extreme. "What we want is, um, administrative authority at a large physical laboratory."
The rabbit froze, and for an instant it looked like a real herbivore, one suddenly caught in a bright light. "Oh? What kind of physical lab?"
"Globally integrated life sciences."
"Well, well, well." Rabbit sat back, communing with itself - hopefully with itself alone. EU Intelligence set a sixty-five percent probability that Rabbit was not sharing the big picture with others, ninety-five percent that it was not a tool of China or the U.S.A. Alfred's own organization in India was even more confident of these assumptions.
The rabbit set down his teacup. "I'm intrigued. So this is not an information-provision job. You really want me to subvert a major installation."
"Just for a short time," said Gunberk.
"Whatever. You've come to the right fellow." Its nose quivered. "I'm sure you know the possibilities. In Europe there are a scattering of top institutions, but none is totally integrated - and for now they remain in the backwash of sites in China and the U.S.A."
Vaz didn't nod, but the rabbit was right. There were brilliant researchers the world over, but only a few data-intensive labs. In the twentieth century, technical superiority of major labs might last thirty years. Nowadays, things changed faster, but Europe was a little behind. The Bhopal complex in India was more integrated, but lagging in micro-automation. It might be several years before China and the U.S.A. lost their current edge.
The rabbit was chuckling to itself: "Hm, hm. So it must be either the labs in Wuhan or those in Southern California. I could work my miracles with either, of course." That was a lie, or else Alfred's people had totally misjudged this fine furry friend.
Keiko said, "We'd prefer the biotech complex in San Diego, California."
Alfred had a smooth explanation ready: "We've studied the San Diego labs for some months. We know they have the resources we need." In fact, San Diego was where Gunberk Braun's terrible suspicions were focused.
"Just what are you planning?"
Gunberk gave a sour smile. "Let us proceed by installments, Mr. Rabbit. For the first installment, we suggest a thirty-day deadline. We'd like from you a survey of the San Diego labs' security. More important, we need credible evidence that you can provide a team of local people to carry out physical acts in and near those labs."
"Well then. I will hop right on it." The rabbit rolled its eyes. "It's obvious you're looking for an expendable player, somebody to shield your operation from the Americans. Okay. I can be a cutout. But be warned. I am very pricey and I will be around to collect afterwards."
Keiko laughed. "No need to be melodramatic, Mr. Rabbit. We know of your famous skills."
"Quite right! But so far you don't believe in them. Now I'll go away, sniff around San Diego, and get back to you in a couple of weeks. I'll have something to show you by then, and - more important for me - I'll have used my enormous imagination to specify a first payment in this installment plan that Mr. So-German-Seeming has proposed." He gave a little bow in Gunberk's direction.
Mitsuri and Braun were radiating bemused silence, so it was Alfred who carried on the conversation. "We'll chat again then. Please remember that for now we want a survey only. We want to know whom you can recruit and how you might use them."
The rabbit touched its nose. "I will be the soul of discretion. I always know much more than I reveal. But you three really should improve your performances. Mr. So-German is just an out-of-date stereotype. And you, señora, the work of impressionist art reveals nothing and everything. Who might have a special interest in the San Diego bio labs? Who indeed? And as for you - " Rabbit looked at Vaz. "That's a fine Colombian accent you're hiding."
The creature laughed and hopped off the table. "Talk to you soon."
Alfred leaned back and watched the gray form as it dodged between the legs of passersby. It must have a festival permit, since other people were evidently seeing the creature. There was no poof of vanishment. The rabbit remained visible for twenty meters up Carrer de Sardenya, then darted into an alley and was finally and quite naturally lost to sight.
The three agents sat for a moment in apparently companionable silence, Gunberk bent over his virtual wine, Vaz sipping at his real Rioja and admiring the stilted puppets that were setting up for the afternoon parade. The three blended well with the normal touristy hurly-burly of the Familia district - except that most tourists paying for cafe; seating on C. de Sardenya would have had more than a one-third physical presence.
"He is truly gone," Gunberk said, a bit unnecessarily; they could all see the EU signals analysis. A few more seconds passed. The Japanese and Indian intelligence agencies also reported in: Rabbit remained unidentified.
"Well that's something," said Keiko. "He got away clean. Perhaps he can function as a cutout."
Gunberk gave a weary shrug. "Perhaps. What a disgusting twit. His kind of dilettante is a cliche; a century old, reborn with each new technology. I wager he's fourteen years old and desperately eager to show off." He glanced at Vaz. "Is this the best you could come up with, Alfred?"
"His reputation is not a fraud, Gunberk. He has managed projects almost as complex as what we have in mind for him."
"Those were research projects. Perhaps he is a good - what's the term? - ‘weaver of geniuses.' What we want is more operational."
"Well, he correctly picked up on all of the clues we gave him." There had been Alfred's accent, and the network evidence they had planted about Keiko's origin.
"Ach ja," said Gunberk, and a sudden smile crossed his face. "It's a bit humiliating that when I am simply myself, I'm accused of overacting! Yes, so now Mr. Rabbit thinks we are South American drug lords."
The shifting crystal mists that were Keiko's image seemed to smile. "In a way, that's more plausible than what we really are." The heirs of drug wars past had been in eclipse this last decade; access to "ecstasy and enhancement" was so widespread that competition had done what enforcement could never accomplish. But the drug lords were still rich beyond the dreams of most small countries. The ones lurking in failed states might be crazy enough to do what they three had hinted at today.
Gunberk said, "The rabbit is manageable, I grant that. Competent for our needs? Much less likely."
"Having second thoughts about our little project, Gunberk?" This was Keiko's real voice. Her tone was light, but Alfred knew she had her own very serious misgivings.
"Of course," said Gunberk. He fidgeted for a moment. "Look. Terror via technical surprise is the greatest threat to the survival of the human race. The Great Powers - ourselves, China, the U.S. - have been at peace for some years, mostly because we recognize that danger and we keep the rest of the world in line. And now we discover that the Americans - "
Keiko: "We don't know it's the Americans, Gunberk. The San Diego labs support researchers all over the world."
"That is so. And a week ago I was as dubious as you. But now... consider: The weapons test was a masterpiece of cloaking. We were incredibly lucky to notice it. The test was a work of patience and professionalism, at the level of a Great Power. Great Powers have their own inertia and bureaucratic caution. Field testing must necessarily be done in the outside world, but they do not run their weapons development in labs they do not own."
Keiko made a sound like faraway chimes. "But why would a Great Power plot a revolution in plague delivery? What profit is there in that?"
Gunberk nodded. "Yes, such destruction would make sense for a cult, but not for a superpower. At first, my conclusion was a nightmare without logic. But my analysts have been over this again and again. They've concluded that the ‘honeyed-nougat symptom' was not simply a stand-in for lethal disease. In fact, it was an essential feature of the test. This enemy is aiming at something greater than instant biowarfare strikes. This enemy is close to having an effective YGBM technology."
Keiko was completely silent; even her crystals lost their mobility. YGBM. That was a bit of science-fiction jargon from the turn of the century: You-Gotta-Believe-Me. That is, mind control. Weak, social forms of YGBM drove all human history. For more than a hundred years, the goal of irresistible persuasion had been a topic of academic study. For thirty years it had been a credible technological goal. And for ten, some version of it had been feasible in well-controlled laboratory settings.
The crystals shifted; Alfred could tell that Keiko was looking at him. "Can this be true, Alfred?"
"Yes, I'm afraid so. My people have studied the report. Gunberk's luck was extraordinary, since this was really a simultaneous test of two radical innovations. The honeyed-nougat compulsion was far more precise than needed for a test of remote disease triggering. The perpetrators knew what they were coding for - consider the cloaking advertisement for nougats. My analysts think the enemy may be capable of higher semantic control in as little as a year."
Keiko sighed. "Damn. All my life, I've fought the cults. I thought the great nations were beyond the most monstrous evils... but this, this would make me wrong."
Gunberk nodded. "If we are right about these labs and if we fail to properly... deal... with them, that could be the end of history. It could be the end of all the striving for good against evil that has ever been." He shook himself, abruptly returning to the practical. "And yet we are reduced to working through this damned rabbit person."
Alfred said gently, "I've studied Rabbit's track record, Gunberk. I think he can do what we need. One way or another. He'll get us the inside information, or he'll create enough chaos - not attributable to us - that any evil will be clearly visible. If the worst is true, we'll have evidence that we and China and even the nonculpable parties in the U.S.A. can use to stamp this out." Suppression attacks on the territory of a Great Power were rare, but there was precedent.
All three were silent for a moment, and the sounds of the festival afternoon swept around Vaz. It had been so many years since his last visit to Barcelona.... Finally, Gunberk gave a grudging nod. "I'll recommend to my superiors that we proceed."
Across the table, Keiko's prismatic imagery shimmered and chimed. Mitsuri's background was in sociology. Her analyst teams were heavily into psychology and social institutions - much less diversified than the teams working for Alfred, or Gunberk. But maybe she would come up with some alternative that the other two had missed. Finally she spoke: "There are many decent people in the American intelligence community. I don't like doing this behind their back. And yet, this is an extraordinary situation. I have clearance to go ahead with Plan Rabbit - " she paused " - with one proviso. Gunberk fears that we've erred in the direction of employing an incompetent. Alfred has studied Rabbit more, and thinks he's at just the right level of talent. But what if you are both wrong?"
Gunberk started in surprise. "The devil!" he said. Alfred guessed that some very quick silent messaging passed between the two.
The prisms seemed to nod. "Yes. What if Rabbit is significantly more competent than we think? In that unlikely event, Rabbit might hijack the operation, or even ally with our hypothetical enemy. If we proceed, we must develop abort-and-destroy plans to match Rabbit's progress. If he becomes the greater threat, we must be prepared to talk to the Americans. Agreed?"
Keiko and Gunberk stayed a few minutes more, but a real cafe; table on C. de Sardenya in the middle of the festival was not the proper place for virtual tourists. The waiter kept circling back, inquiring if Alfred needed anything more. They were paying table rent for three, but there were crowds of real people waiting for the next available seating.
So his Japanese and European colleagues took their leave. Gunberk had many loose ends to deal with. The inquiries at CDD must be gracefully shut down. Misinformation must be layered carefully about, concealing things both from the enemy and from security hobbyists. Meantime, in Tokyo, Keiko might be up the rest of the night, pondering Rabbit traps.
Vaz stayed behind, finishing his drink. It was amazing how fast his table space shrank, accommodating a family of North African tourists. Alfred was used to virtual artifacts changing in a blink of the eye, but a clever restaurateur could do almost as well with physical reality when there was money involved.
In all Europe, Barcelona was the city Alfred loved the most. The Rabbit was right about this city. But was there time to be a real tourist? Yes. Call it his annual vacation. Alfred stood and bowed to the table, leaving payment and tip. Out on the street, the crowds were getting rather extreme, the stilt people dancing wildly about among the tourists. He couldn't see the entrance of the Sagrada Familia directly, but tourism info showed the next certain tour slot was ninety minutes away.
Where to spend his time? Ah! Atop Montjui;c. He turned down an alley. Where he emerged on the far side, the crowds were thin... and a tourist auto was just arriving for him. Alfred sat back in the single passenger cockpit and let his mind roam. The Montjui;c fortress was not the most impressive in Europe, and yet he had not seen it in some time. Like its brethren, it marked the bygone time when revolutions in destruction technology took decades to unfold, and mass murder could not be committed with the press of a button.
The auto navigated its way out from the octagonal city blocks of the Barcelona basin and ran quickly up a hillside, grabbing the latch of a funicular that dragged them swiftly up the side of Montjui;c. No tedious switchback roadway for this piece of automation. Behind him, the city stretched for miles. And then ahead, as they came over the crest of the hill, there was the Mediterranean, all blue and hazy and peaceful.
Alfred got out, and the tiny auto whipped around the traffic circle, heading for the cable-car installation that would take its next customer in an overflight across the harbor.
He was at just the spot he had ordered on the tourist menu, right where twentieth-century guns faced out from the battlements. Even though these cannon had never been used, they were very much the real thing. For a fee, he could touch the guns and climb around inside the place. After sundown there would be a staged battle.
Vaz strolled to the stone barrier and looked down. If he blocked out all the tourism fantasy, he could see the freight harbor almost two hundred meters below and a kilometer away. The place was an immensity of freight containers rambling this way and that, chaos. If he invoked his government powers, he could see the flow of cargo, even see the security certificates that proclaimed - in ways that were validated by a combination of physical and cryptographic security - that none of the ten-meter boxes contained a nuke or a plague or a garden-variety radiation bomb. The system was very good, the same as you would find for heavy freight anywhere in the civilized world. It had been the result of decades of fear, of changing attitudes about privacy and liberty, of technological progress. Modern security actually worked most of the time. There hadn't been a city lost in more than five years. Every year, the civilized world grew and the reach of lawlessness and poverty shrank. Many people thought that the world was becoming a safer place.
Keiko and Gunberk - and certainly Alfred - knew that such optimism was dead wrong.
Alfred looked across the harbor at the towers beyond. Those hadn't been here the last time he visited Barcelona. The civilized world was wealthy beyond the dreams of his youth. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, the rulers of modern states realized that success did not come from having the largest armies or the most favorable tariffs or the most natural resources - or even the most advanced industries. In the modern world, success came from having the largest possible educated population and providing those hundreds of millions of creative people with credible freedom.
But this utopia was a Red Queen's Race with extinction.
In the twentieth century, only a couple of nations had the power to destroy the world. The human race survived, mostly by good luck. At the turn of the century, a time was in view when dozens of countries could destroy civilization. But by then, the Great Powers had a certain amount of good sense. No nation-state could be nuts enough to blow up the world - and the few barbaric exceptions were Dealt With, if necessary with methods that left land aglow in the dark. By the teens, mass death technology was accessible to regional and racial hate groups. Through a succession of happy miracles - some engineered by Alfred himself - the legitimate grievances of disaffected peoples were truly addressed.
Nowadays, Grand Terror technology was so cheap that cults and small criminal gangs could acquire it. That was where Keiko Mitsuri was the greatest expert. Even though her work was hidden by cover stories and planted lies, Keiko had saved millions of lives.
The Red Queen's Race continued. In all innocence, the marvelous creativity of humankind continued to generate unintended consequences. There were a dozen research trends that could ultimately put world-killer weapons into the hands of anyone having a bad hair day.
Alfred walked back to the nearest cannon, paying the touch fee with a wave of his hand. He leaned against the warm metal, sighting out over the blue mediterranean haze, and imagining a simpler time.
Poor Gunberk. He had the truth exactly backwards. Effective YGBM would not be the end of everything. In the right hands, YGBM technology was the one thing that could solve the modern paradox, harnessing the creativity of humankind without destroying the world in the process. In fact, it was humankind's only hope for surviving the twenty-first century. And in San Diego, I am so close to success. He had insinuated his project into the bio labs three years earlier. The great breakthrough had come less than a year ago. His test at the soccer match had proven the delivery system. In another year or so, he'd have developed higher semantic controls. With that, he could reliably control those immediately around him. Much more important, he could spread the new infection across whole populations and engineer a few universally viewed transmissions. Then he would be in control. For the first time in history, the world would be under adult supervision.
That had been the plan. Now incredibly bad luck had jeopardized it. But I should look at the bright side; Gunberk came to me to fix the problem! Alfred had spent a lot of effort digging up "Mr. Rabbit." The fellow was clearly inexperienced, and every bit the egotistical fool that Gunberk believed. Rabbit's successes were just barely impressive enough to make him acceptable. They could manage Rabbit. I can manage Rabbit. From inside the labs, Alfred would feed the Rabbit just the right misinformation. In the end neither Rabbit nor Alfred's colleagues in the Indo-European Alliance would realize they had been fooled. And afterward, Alfred could continue undisturbed with what might well be the last, best chance for saving the world.
Alfred climbed into the gun turret and admired the fittings. The Barcelona tourist commission had spent some real money on rebuilding these artifacts. If their mock battle this evening meshed with this physical reality, it would be very impressive. He glanced at his Mumbai schedule - and decided to stay in Barcelona a few more hours.
Copyright © 2006 by Vernor Vinge
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