By Gwyneth Jones (excerpt)
Dr. Lena’s failure to put me in touch with a past patient was covered by a perfectly normal confidentiality clause. But if Lei was still around (and nobody of that identity seemed to have left Earth; that was easy to check), I thought I knew how to find her. I tried my luck in the former USA first, inspired by that conversation with Charlie Newark of Washington. He had to have met the Underground somehow, or he’d never have talked to me like that. I crossed the continent to the Republic of California, and then crossed the Pacific. I didn’t linger anywhere much. The natives seemed satisfied with their vas thriving cities, and tiny “wildeerness” enclaves, but I remembered something different. I finally made contact with a cell in Harbin, North East China. But I was a danger and a disappointment to them: too conspicuous, and useless as a potential courier. There are ways of smuggling sentient Ais (none of them safe) but I’d get flagged up the moment I booked a passage, and with my ancient record, I’d be ripped to shreds before I was allowed to board, Senior Magistrate or no –
I moved on quickly.
I think it was in Harbin that I first saw Lei, but I have a feeling I’d been primed, by glimpses that didn’t register, before I turned my head one day and there she was. She was eating a smoked sausage sandwich, I was eating salad (a role reversal). I thought she smiled.
My old friend looked extraordinarily vivid. The food stall was crowded: next moment she was gone.
Media scouts assailed me all the time: pretending to be innocent strangers. If I was trapped I answered the questions as briefly as possible. Yes, I was probably one of the oldest people alive. Yes, I’d been treated at Weigen Schnee, at my own expense. No, I would not discuss my medical history. No, I did not feel threatened living in Outer Reaches. No, it was not true I’d changed my mind about “so called AI slavery…”
I’d realized I probably wasn’t part of a secrete cull. Overpopulation wasn’t the problem it had been. And why start with the terminally ill, anyway? But I was seeing the world through a veil. The strange absences; abstractions grew on me. The hallucinations more pointed; more personal… I was no longer sure I was dying, but something was happening. How long before the message was made plain?