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Excerpt from Schild's Ladder:

She didn't need to wash, or purge herself of wastes. From the moment she'd arrived, as a stream of ultraviolet pulses with a header requesting embodiment on almost any terms, the Mimosans had been polite and accommodating; Cass had been careful not to abuse their hospitality by pleading for frivolous luxuries. A self-contained body and a safe place to sleep were the only things she really needed in order to feel like herself. Being hermetically sealed against the vacuum and feeding on nothing but light took some getting used to, but so did the customs and climate of any unfamiliar region back on Earth. Demanding the right to eat and excrete here would have been as crass as insisting on slavish recreations of her favourite childhood meals while a guest at some terrestrial facility.


Excerpt from Schild's Ladder:

Cass dated the advent of civilisation to the invention of the quantum singleton processor. The Qusp. She accepted the fact that she couldn't entirely avoid splitting into multiple versions; interacting with any ordinary object around her gave rise to an entangled system - Cass plus cloud, Cass plus flower - and she could never hope to prevent the parts that lay outside her from entering superpositions of different classical outcomes, generating versions of her who witnessed different external events.
Unlike her hapless ancestors, though, she did not contribute to the process herself. While the Qusp inside her skull performed its computations, it was isolated from the wider world - a condition lasting just microseconds at a time, but rigidly enforced for the duration - only breaking quarantine when its state vector described one outcome, with certainty. With each operating cycle, the Qusp rotated a vector describing a single alternative into another with the same property, and though the path between the two necessarily included superpositions of many alternatives, only the final, definitie state determined her actions.
Being a singleton meant that her decisions counted. She was not forced to give birth to a multitude of selves, each responding in a different way, every time she found her conscience or her judgement balanced on a knife-edge. She was not at all what Homo sapiens had actually been, but she was close to what they'd believed themselves to be for most of their history: a creature of choice, capable of doing one thing and not another.


Excerpt from Schild's Ladder:

As he crossed the final walkway, Tchicaya asked the ship for a view of the entrance to the shuttle. There was no one visible, no one standing guard. He was on the verge of asking for a sequence of images covering the entire remainder of his journey when he spotted a group of people with his own eyes, ahead of him on the walkway. Four of them hung back while a fifth approached, carrying a long metal bar.
Tchicaya slowed, then halted. The rebel kept walking toward him, briskly and purposefully. Tchicaya's Mediator could detect no signature, but the ship put a name to the face: Selman.
Tchicaya caught his breath, then called out amiably, "Talk to me. Tell me what you want." Selman continued towards him in silence. His face was even more damaged than Santos's; there was a ridge of scarlet running along the side of his nose and a massive edema around the eye socket. His four companions were similarly marked. If this was a sign of internal disputation, the whole group should have torn itself to shreds weeks ago.
Suddenly, Tchicaya understood. Selman wasn't withholding his signature as a gesture of hostility, or in an attempt to conceal his identity. He had no signature, and no Mediator to send it. He had no Exoself. He had no Qusp. The rebels had improvised some kind of crude surgical tool and plucked each other's digital brains out.
Tchicaya said, "Talk to me and I'll find the right translator! We still have all the old languages." He wasn't expecting to be understood, but he could still provoke a response - assuming Selman hadn't lost the power of speech entirely. Tchicaya didn't know how much neural tissue a Homo sapiens needed in order to be fully functional. Bodies like the Rindler's had plenty of neurons in reserve, since the precise delegation of tasks between the digital components and the central nervois system varied widely from culture to culture. He suspected that even this reserve was less than the size of a complete ancestral brain, but a careful redesign might still have packed everything in.
With ten or twelve metres remaining between them, Selman stopped and spoke. Tchicaya couldn't even parse the speech into separate words; to his untrained ear it sounded like a continuous flow. This was the first time in his life that he'd begun a conversation with a stranger without the ground being prepared in advance, without two Mediators conspiring to bridge the gap. A moment after the utterance was complete, though, he recalled the sounds and understood them.
"Turn around and go back, or I'll beat you to a pulp."
Tchicaya replied in the same tongue, or what he hoped was near enough to be comprehensible. His Mediator had traced Selman's words back to a language from twenty-third century Earth, but it was compensating on the fly for the kind of variations that could arise over millennia in an isolated population of the original speakers.
"As opposed to what? Turn around and go back and fry with the ship?"
Selman said, "If the builders are willing to take the ship away from the border, no one has to fry."
Tchicaya shrugged. "Free or fry, it's all the same to us. The only thing at stake is access to the border, so every choice that would put an end to that is equivalent. You can fly us all the way to Earth, or you can crack our heads open one by one, but don't expect to get any more cooperation from one alternative than another."
Selman said, "Spare yourself the pain, then. Or the mess, if pain is beneath you." He stepped forward, swinging the bar. Tchicaya had no knowledge of martial arts; he delegated the problem to his Exoself and watched the interaction as a detached observer until he was standing with one foot on the back of Selman's neck and holding the bar himself.
"That wasn't even you, you bloodless worm!" Selman hissed.
"Oh, you noticed?" The other four were approaching; two of them were hefting large potted plants, a choice of weapon more alarming for its strangeness than its bulk. "None of this was necessary," Tchicaya said. "Whatever grievance you had, we would have given you a hearing."
"We gave our arguments peacefully," Selman replied. "Hours ago."
"What arguments? Evolutionary imperatives and winning back territory? We're the ones who've lost two thousand systems. You haven't lost a single ship."
"So you expected us to sit back and do nothing? While you betrayed your own species, and wiped out the last vestiges of humanity?"
Tchicaya was still struggling to come to terms with the rebels' origins. To pass as ordinary travellers at all, they must have translated themselves into versions that ran on their Qusps, as well as their Trojan-horse brains. Lying in wait, impotently watching their other halves act, must have been a deeply unpleasant experience. The neural versions would not have been able to follow much, if any, of what was spoken around them - even when the words passed through their own lips - so the Qusp versions would have had to brief them later, whispering in private in their native tongue. Coming prepared to survive their own pre-emptive digital lobotomies had been prescient, though. Tchicaya was almost certain now that the builders possessed halt switches for all the ship's Qusps; that would have been the method they'd hoped to use against the rebels heading for the hub, before changing their mind and sending Rasmah and the others in pursuit.

Health and humanity

Excerpt from Distress:

Rouke said, 'You know, I envy you your job. With VA, I'm forced to concentrate on a narrow area of change. But you'll have a bird's eye view of everything.'
'Of what? You mean advances in biotechnology?'
'Biotech, imaging, AI... the lot. The whole battle for the H-words.'
'The H-words?'
He smiled cryptically. 'The little one and the big one. That's what this century is going to be remembered for. A battle for two words. Two definitions.'
'I don't have the slightest idea what you're talking about.' We were passing through a miniature forest in the middle of the quadrangle, dense and exotic, as wayward and brooding as any surrealist's painted jungle.
Rourke turned to me. 'What's the most patronising thing you can offer to do for people you disagree with, or don't understand?'
'I don't know. What?'
'Heal them. That's the first H-word. Health.'
'Medical technology is about to go supernova. In case you hadn't noticed. So what's all that power going to be used for? The maintenance - or creation - of "health". But what's "health"? Forget the obvious shit that everyone agrees on. Once every last virus and parasite and oncogene has been blasted out of existence, what's the ultimate goal of "healing"? All of us playing our preordained parts in some Edenite "natural order"' - he stopped to gesture ironically at the orchids and lilies blossoming around us - 'and being restored to the one condition our biology is optimised for: hunting and gathering, and dying at thirty or forty? Is that it? Or... opening up every technically possible mode of existence? Whoever claims the authority to define the boundary between health and disease claims... everything.'
I said, 'You're right: the word's insidious, the meaning's open-ended - and it will probably always be contentious.' I couldn't argue with 'patronising', either; Mystical Renaissance were forever offering to 'heal' the world's people of their 'psychic numbing', and transform us all into 'perfectly balanced' human beings. In other words: perfect copies of themselves, with all the same beliefs, all the same priorities, and all the same neuroses and superstitions.
'So what's the other H-word? The big one?'
He tipped his head and looked at my slyly. 'You really can't guess? Here's a clue, then. What's the most intellectually lazy way you can think of, to try to win an argument?'
'You're going to have to spell it out for me. I'm no good at riddles.'
'You say that your opponent lacks humanity.'
I'd fallen silent, suddenly ashamed - or at least embarrassed - wondering just how deeply I'd offended him with some of the things I'd say the day before. The trouble with meeting people again after interviewing them was tht they often spent the intervening time thinking through the whole conversation, in minute detail - and concluding that they'd come out badly.
Rourke said, 'It's the oldest semantic weapon there is. Think of all the categories or people who've been classified as non-human, in variou cultures, at various times. People from other tribes. People with other skin colours. Slaves. Women. The mentally ill. The deaf. Homosexuals. Jews. Bosnians, Croats, Serbs, Armenians, Kurds-'
I said defensively, 'Don't you think there's a slight difference between putting someone in a gas chamber, and using the phrase rhetorically?'
'Of course. But suppose you accuse me of "lacking humanity". What does that actually mean? What am I likely to have done? Murdered someone in cold blood? Drowned a puppy? Eaten meat? Failed to be moved by Beethoven's Fifth? Or just failed to have - or to seek - an emotional life identical to your own in every aspect? Failed to share all your values and aspirations?'
I hadn't replied. Cyclists whirred by in the dark jungle behind me; it had begun to rain, but the canopy protected us.
Rourke continued cheerfully. 'The answer is: "any one of the above". Which is why it's so fucking lazy. Questioning someone's "humanity" puts them in the company of serial killers - which saves you the trouble of having to say anything intelligent about their views. And it lays claim to some vast imaginary consensus, an outraged majority standing behind you, backing you up all the way. When you claim that Voluntary Autists are trying to rid themselves of their humanity, you're not only defining the word as if you had some divine right to do that... you're implying that everyone else on the planet - short of the reincarnations of Adolf Hitler and Pol Pot - agrees with you in every detail.' He spread his arms and declaimed to the trees, 'Put down that scalpel, I beseech you... in the name of all humanity!'