Features & Columns

Existence, Part One, Chapter 3

Sky Light
existence Illustration by Patrick Farley

A micro-typhoon—a brief howl of horizontal rain—blew in from the Catalina Vortex before dawn. Hours later, pavements glistened as pedestrians stepped over detritus—mostly seaweed, plus an unlucky fish or two that got sucked into the funnel. Just the usual, light stuff. None of the boats or surfers that gloomcasters expected, when the phenomenon began.

Folks will say anything for ratings. Pessimists keep overplaying the bummer-effects of climate change without mentioning any good stuff. Tor sniffed, relishing a fresh, almost-electric breeze, washed clean of pollutants from Old Town.

Others felt it, too. Her VR spectacles, tuned to track overt bio signs, accentuated the flush tones of people passing by. Grinning street vendors stepped out from their stalls, murmuring in a dozen refugee tongues—Russian, Farsi, Polish. When they saw that she didn't understand—her translator-earpiece hung detached—they switched to gestures. One portly shopkeeper used theatrical flourishes, like a stage magician materializing bouquets of imaginary flowers, all to draw her glance toward a patch of open space, his virtisement display.

But Tor wasn't shopping, though her eyes flick-examined several overlayers, trolling for correlations and news stories at street level. A pastime that became a vocation, till her cred scores vaulted over all the hungry amateurs and semi-pros out there, scratching to be noticed. No more of that for me. Now it would be office towers and arranged enterviews. Politicians. Celebrighties. Enovators. Luminatis. All sorts of newlites, no flashpans or sugar-coat surrogates.

All because I sniffed some clues and called a posse. Burst a local scandal that went global in farky ways. Till Mediacorp called—said I'm ready for center-frame!

Plenty more hot stories loomed—like signs of fresh volcanism in Wyoming. Or the drowning of South Carolina. (Were corrupt sea-wall contractors to blame?) Or Senator Crandall Strong's crazed rant during yesterday's campaign stop.

Why don't the media mavens unleash their new aice reporter on stuff like that, instead of sending me on an extended "human interest" tour? Could they still be unsure of me?

No. Don't go there. One thing the public valued more than veracity, Tor knew, was confidence. Assume you're worthy. Take it for granted.

Still, with her bags stowed for stage one of her trip across the continent, Tor hankered to prowl the walks and spider-bridges one last time. Scanning Sandego—the Big S—for something newsworthy. A story in-pocket before starting her roundabout journey to Rebuilt Washington. A distraction, to avoid chewing the active elements off her manicure till the embarkation whistle blew—a throaty moan beckoning passengers to board the ponderously graceful skyship Alberto Santos-Dumont.

The store owners soon realized that Tor had her specs tuned to omit adverts. Still, they grinned as she passed, crooning compliments in pan-Slavic or Tagalog or broken English.

Tor couldn't help doing a quick self-checkout, murmuring "tsoosu." Subvocal sensors in her collar translated—To See Ourselves as Others See Us—and the inner surface of her specs lit with glimpse-views of her, from several angles, crowding the periphery of her percept, without blocking the center view Tor needed to walk safely.

One image—from a pennycamera someone stuck high on a lamp post—looked down at a leggy brunette walking by, her long-dark hair streaked with tendrils of ever-changing color: the active-strand detectors and aiware that Tor could deploy if something newsworthy happened.

Another tsoosu-vista showed her from ground level, smiling now as she passed a kiosk selling gel-kitties—(good as mouse catchers, good to play-with, good to eat, Humane Society approved, in twelve flavors). This image evidently came from the shop owner's specs, watching her pass by. It started with Tor's oval face, lingered briefly over her white smile, then caressed downward, appreciating every curve, even as she strolled away.

Well, it's nice to be noticed, in a friendly way. Would she have chosen to be in News, if it didn't involve admiration? Even nowadays, when a person's looks were subject to budget and taste, it felt good to make heads turn.

Anyway, Tor was depriving no one, by moving away. Ever since Awfulday hit Sandego and a dozen other cities, more gen-bees and immigrants flooded in. Exiles who didn't mind radioactivity a tad above background—not when compensated by sun, surf and exciting weather that sometimes dropped fish out of the sky. Throw in bargain-rate housing. It beat watching snowdrifts grow into glaciers outside Helsinki or Warsaw, or sand dunes cover sucked-dry oil wells in the Near East.

Enough narcissism. She click-erased the tsoosu-views, accessing other eyes. First a satellite down-pic of this area, with the Alberto Santos-Dumont bobbing huge at the nearby zep port. Arsenal ships at the nearby Shelter Island Naval Base appeared fuzzy, according to security protocols. Though you could zoom the vessels from three million, four hundred and seventy thousand, five hundred and thirteen other points of view that HomSecur didn't control.

One of those POVs—a cam stuck high above the chewing gum—won a brief auto-auction to sell her a panorama, stretching from bay to marketplace, for five milli-cents. Remarkable only because her stringer-ai was programmed to inform her when pic prices hit a new low. Omnipresence spread as the lenses bred and proliferated like insects.

All this camera overlap changed news biz, as lying became damn near impossible. The next gen will take it for granted, Tor pondered. But at twenty-eight, she recalled when people tried every trick to fabricate images and fancy POV-deceits, faking events and alibis—scams made impractical by the modern solution of more witnesses. Or so went the latest truism.

Tor distrusted truisms. Optimists keep forecasting that more information will make us more wise. More willing to accept when facts prove us wrong. But so far, all it's done is stoke indignation and rage. As Senator Strong illustrated, yesterday.

Another truism came to mind.

You screen,

I screen

We all screen

For my scream

Immigrants stirred things—the Big S music scene was raki and manic arts flourished, encouraged by a faint glow surrounding old downtown at night—if you set your specs to notice beta rays. Even morning on the quay was lively as three sailors haggled with a smoke artist whose delicate portraits couldn't be reproduced by nanofax or shipped by omail. They forked over cash and watched her puff a gel-hookah, adding clots of fast-congealing haze. A cloudy caricature of fresh-faced sailors took shape while onlookers sighed.

It made Tor think of Wesley, though his air-sculpts dealt with surf and waves and rising tides. Adamant forces, implacably changing the world. And cued by her subvocal thoughts, a pict image of him played in the upper left part of her percept, recorded by her specs just a few hours ago—shaggy blond hair sodden as they rushed to escape the horizontal storm. Laughing, but with tension, a gulf between them. The dilemma of a long-distance relationship unresolved—and likely never to be.

The lovemaking that followed had been more intense—and tense—than ever, with a clutching fury of knowing it could be the last ... till one of them improbably relented.

Tor shook herself. This wasn't like her—moodily strolling instead of s-trolling. Contemplating, not templating to amuse her fans. Musing, instead of sifting for stories along her beat, the ten million blocks of Camino Unreal.

Every cubic centimeter above these sidewalks swarmed with position-tagged information, notifications and animations that existed only on the high-planes of IP9 cyberspace. Viewing the world through some virt overlayers, you might see the city transformed into fairy-tale castles with leering gargoyles lining the roofs. Or everyone overpainted with cartoon moustaches. On one coded level, all clothing would magically seem to vanish, replaced by simulated flesh, while supplying unsuspecting pedestrians with exaggerated "enhancements," all by the design of some prurient little snot. On another, post-it tags reported tattle-tale rumors about any person who walked by—a rich source of leads, if you had good AI to help sift out swill and slander.

Anyway, who had time for kid-stuff? Tor's ersatz reality-stack was practical, concentrating on essentials—the world's second stratum of texture, as important now as the scent of food and water might have been to distant ancestors. The modern equivalents to a twig cracking. Hints of predator and prey.

Tor paused at a shop selling vat-grown walking sticks—these could perform a variety of strides and even break into a jog. An out-of-towner—(you could tell because he wore lead-lined underwear)—haggled over a bulk order. "For my sister's store in Delhi," said the tourist, unaware that metal briefs altered the display pattern of his pixel-fiber jumpsuit, making him a pot-bellied satire of Superman. Underpants on the outside.

Waggling fingers and clicking teeth, the shopkeeper quick-scanned the sister's business and credit, then offered his hand. "I'll ship in ten days."

The men shook. Their specs recorded. As in villages of old, reputation mattered more than any contract. Only this "village" spanned a globe.

There are times when it's too big. Like when two ambitious people want to remain close, while chasing ambitions a continent apart.

Soon after the lovemaking, Wesley offered a solution—swapping remote-controlled sexbots—to be with each other by proxy, across thousands of kilometers. When Tor called it a rotten joke and said not to see her off, he agreed, with a readiness that stung.

Should I call? Say to come, after all? Lifting a hand, she prepared to twiddle his code ...

... as a low whistle made the smoke sculptures quiver, beckoning from the Lindbergh-Rutan Skydock. Boarding call, she realized. Too late. Tor sighed, then turned to go.

Her reaction to the whistle did not go unnoticed. One nearby vendor tapped his specs, smiled and bowed. "Bon voyage, Miss Tor," he said, in a thick Yemeni accent. He must have scan-correlated, found her on the Santos-Dumont passenger list and noted her modest local fame. Another shopkeeper, grinning, pressed a cluster of fresh flowers into her hand as she passed.

A ripple of e-lerts flowed just ahead of Tor—like fluttering glow-moths—and she found herself walking along a corridor of evanescent goodwill, arms filling with small, impulsive gifts and her ears with benedictions in a dozen languages. Half-buoyed by a wave of sentiment for the town she was leaving behind, she made her way toward the terminal where a mighty zeppelin strained skyward.

Tor—despite the perceptiveness of all her surrogate guardians—never realized that she was being followed all that time. Indeed, there was no reason that she should. For it was a ghost that made its way close behind, stalking her through familiar, neighborly paths of a global village.

But outside the village ... beyond its forest of tame overlays ... murmured a jungle that her natural eyes could never see.

Copyright 2012 by David Brin