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( ( ( 8 ) ) )

Natch’s forefather Hundible was an acquaintance of Sheldon Surina and one of the earliest investors in bio/logics. He was a gambler, a teller of tall tales, a drifter of unknown origin and unsavory character.

But above all else, Hundible was a poor financial planner. His get-rich-quick schemes sank like leaky boats, leaving him constantly floundering in a sea of fathomless debt. Where he found the money to invest in bio/logics, no one knew. Human biological programming seemed an unlikely venture for Hundible; Surina himself, with his prudish ways and supercilious attitude, seemed an unlikely partner. Naturally, everyone assumed the new discipline was destined to fail.

Yet it was Hundible who had the last laugh. His partner, the skinny Indian tinkerer with the big nose, went on to revitalize science and revolutionize history. The gambler’s modest investment ballooned a thousandfold and generated a large fortune. Hundible retired at the seasoned age of thirty-three, took a high-society companion, and slid contentedly out of history. If he had any interest in the great flowering of science that his investment helped bring to fruition, there was no record of it.

Hundible eventually passed on. His wealth endured, for a while.

Natch’s ancestor was not the only one to stumble serendipitously onto Surina riches. A host of rogues, early adopters, and cutting-edge investors were handsomely rewarded for their early backing of bio/logics. Lavish mansions and villas sprouted up around the globe to serve their owners’ whims—places where they could escape the harsh moral strictures that had kept order since the Autonomous Revolt. The bio/logic entrepreneurs sought cities that had largely escaped the havoc of the Revolt: Omaha, Melbourne, Shenandoah, Madrid, Cape Town. Cities that yearned for the greatness of antiquity, cities whose local governments could be easily bought.

This change in the political landscape did not escape the attention of the old nation-states. The old governments might have been dilapidated and their halls of power decaying, but they still had plenty of resources at their disposal to fight this territorial encroachment. They vested much of their power in a centralized Prime Committee. The Committee turned around and bestowed ultimate martial authority on a single Defense and Wellness Council. Crusading high executives of the Council like Tul Jabbor and Par Padron made reining in the excesses of the bio/logic entrepreneurs their top priority.

Thus the battle was joined. Society split along ideological fault lines: governmentalists who favored central authority versus libertarians who sought power for local civic groups. By the time Natch’s fiefcorp ascended to number one on Primo’s, this dichotomy had come to seem like the natural order of things.

Hundible’s descendants grew fiercely protective of their fortunes. Not only were they fending off the Committee and the Council, but they were also under siege by an even greater enemy: time. The bio/logic entrepreneurs knew that theirs was not the immutable wealth of the Lunar land tycoons. Their money was not a tangible thing like terraformed soil that they could stick their hands into. No, for better or worse, the fates of the bio/logic entrepreneurs were tied to the bio/logic markets.

And markets, like all living things, are mortal.

* * *

Natch’s mother Lora was fourteen when the Economic Plunge of the 310s hit.

Lora was schooled in the best hives, with the children of important diplomats and capitalmen. Her proctors were crisp, disciplined citizens who saw the hive as a petri dish in which to experiment with the latest academic fashions. Lora and her hivemates yo-yoed between pedagogical theories, learning much about politics but very little about government, finance, engineering, or programming.

But what did it matter? When Lora looked into the future, she saw nothing but the comfortable track her parents had laid out for her, with scheduled stops at initiation, loss of virginity, career, companionship, and motherhood. There would be plenty of time along the way to pick up any other skills she needed.

In the meantime, Lora worked diligently to become a Person of Quality. She developed a keen fashion sense and an eye for good beauty enhancement programming. She sharpened her social skills at the regular charity balls held in the Creed Élan manors. She dipped her toes in the Sigh, that virtual network of sensuality, and learned a thing or two about the pleasures of the flesh. And when holidays rolled around, she retreated to her cavernous family mansion to dally with servants whose parents had not been blessed with the money for a hive education.

Then, one gloomy spring day, Lora and her hivemates awoke to find all the proctors riveted to news feeds off the Data Sea. Marcus Surina has died, they said. An accident in the orbital colonies. A few of the proctors wept openly.

For a while, Surina’s death seemed like a distant event that had little connection to the girl’s carefully structured hive existence: a supernova in a remote galaxy, visible only through powerful refractive lenses. Surina had been the master of TeleCo, a big and powerful company. He was a direct descendant of Sheldon Surina, the inventor of bio/logics. His death had been a terrible tragedy. What else was there to say?

But from that day forward, everything changed.

Lora’s friends began checking out of the hive and disappearing, nobody knew where. One by one, Lora’s parents cut back on subscriptions to the programs that gave her eyes that china-doll sparkle and her hair that reflective luster. The servants were let go. Nameless fears escaped from the demesne of adulthood and roamed the hive at night with impunity, whispering words the children did not understand.

Six months after Marcus Surina’s death, Lora’s parents unexpectedly showed up at the hive and told her to pack her things. They gave her a single valise and told her to take as many of the precious knickknacks and gewgaws lining her shelves as she could carry.

Where are we going? she asked.

To Creed Élan, they replied.

The last time Lora had seen the great ballroom at the Élan manor, its railings had been festooned with purple flowers, and its marble floors lined with elegant revelers in formal robes. Now the ballroom was a shantytown of clustered cots and frightened children. Lora’s parents deposited her on an empty bunk and kissed her good-bye.

There’s an opportunity in the orbital colonies that we can’t pass up, but it’s much too dangerous for children, they said. Don’t worry, Creed Élan will take good care of you, and the family will be back on its feet in no time. Just wait here and we’ll send for you.

They never did.

During the next few months, Lora managed to string together what had happened from scraps of overheard conversation and bits of news footage on the Data Sea. Her parents had invested heavily in TeleCo, as had all of the absentee parents of the boys and girls moping the hallways at Creed Élan. It had seemed like a safe bet. No less an authority than Primo’s had heralded teleportation as the Next Big Thing. And why wouldn’t it be? The master of TeleCo was a Surina. Sheldon Surina’s invention of bio/logics had propelled the entire world from chaos to a new era of prosperity and innovation. The emerging science of teleportation would surely do the same, with a handsome and brilliant and urbane pitchman like Marcus Surina at the helm. Yes, the economics were fuzzy and the technical challenges daunting, but TeleCo would figure it all out in time.

And that might have happened, if Marcus and his top officers had not been charred to ash by a ruptured shuttle fuel tank.

Marcus Surina’s successors at TeleCo tried to pick up the pieces of his work, but it was a Herculean task. They soon discovered that the economics of teleportation weren’t merely fuzzy; they were disastrous. The company quickly scaled back its ambitions from Marcus Surina’s pie-in-the-sky dreams to more sober and subdued goals. TeleCo supplicated the Prime Committee for protection from its creditors, and soon all the manufacturers and distributors that had anticipated a teleportation boom went belly-up. The ripples spread far and wide, leaving dead companies floating in their wake. Eventually, the ripples touched even Creed Élan, that last bastion of noblesse oblige.

Years later, Lora wondered how much of a fight the rank and file put up when the bodhisattvas of Creed Élan decided to let the children go. The girl found herself shunted off to a small, private institution that was obviously destined for bankruptcy.

Within the space of two years, Lora had gone from a promising young debutante to a penniless member of the diss. Her quest to become a Person of Quality would have to be put on hold.

After exhausting the generosity of her family’s remaining acquaintances and selling all her trinkets, Lora found shelter on the thirty-fourth floor of a decaying Chicago office tower. The furniture had long ago been stripped away, and the windows had no glass. Every few years, one of these buildings falls down and kills everyone inside, cackled one of the neighboring women, a wretched old hag who had never experienced high society and resented Lora for her all-too-brief tenure there. Maybe this one will be next.

Lora learned to do the Diss Shuffle, that ungainly two-step that had her feigning malnutrition on the bread lines one day and faking job experience during interviews the next. Employment was almost impossible to come by for a woman with no marketable skills, no work experience, and no references. She tried the sacred totems that had opened doors for her in the past—the name of her hive, the names of her parents, the name of the fashionista who had designed her ball gowns. But in this new world, those names had lost their magic.

And so several years slipped by in slow motion. Down in the realm of the diss, nothing changed. The same expressionless faces meandered down the street, day after day, neither angry nor frightened nor scared nor hurt, but just there: zombies of the eternal now chewing synthetic meats grown in tanks. The beneficent forces of government sent bio/logic programming code raining down from the skies, containing chemical nourishment and protection from disease. Black code sprouted up from the lower realms, programs to stir the sludge of neural chemicals in their skulls and relieve the boredom.

Sometimes she had real flesh sex with strangers in trashed-out buildings. Other times, she and her roommates embarked on errands of violence against the crumbling city. Bio/logics had made it very difficult to seriously injure someone with a pipe or a rock. But buildings… buildings followed the natural laws of entropy, and could eventually be beaten down into dust.

And then one day, the rumors began. Len Borda, the young high executive of the Defense and Wellness Council, was giving out money to the bio/logic fiefcorps. It’s a massive program of military and intelligence spending designed to end the Economic Plunge, they said. Jobs will be returning soon.

Lora had not hunted for work in nearly two years. She had rarely even made it around the block in that time. But the rumors stirred memories of her old life, of the comfortable track that prescribed career, companionship, and motherhood. Lora left the Chicago slums and tubed to the metropolis of Omaha in search of work.

Within a few weeks, Lora’s search brought her to the attention of Serr Vigal.

* * *

Vigal had matriculated in one of the great Lunar universities and discovered an innate passion for neural programming. He settled in Omaha the same week that High Executive Borda defied the Prime Committee and began handing out massive defense subsidies. Vigal founded a company devoted to the study of the brain stem, and went to the Defense and Wellness Council for funding. They approved his request almost without question.

The young neural programmer decided to incorporate as a memecorp instead of a fiefcorp. Vigal had to spend much of his time pleading for public funding from a patchwork of government agencies, but he felt this was time well spent if his employees were insulated from the pressures of the marketplace.

His choice of company structure also allowed him to make unconventional hiring decisions.

Lora was his first such decision. Vigal could see her qualifications were slim, yet her scores on the logic quizzes he routinely gave to applicants were astronomical, far higher than most of his pedigreed apprentices. Clearly the woman was full of untapped potential, and Vigal was intrigued. The field of neuroscience had moved far beyond the basic mechanics of forming neurons and positioning dendrites. If he was to succeed in this field, Vigal knew he would need creative thinkers to help decipher the hidden electrical order in the brain. He hired Lora.

Unfortunately, Vigal’s first controversial decision sparked his first major conflict. Lora was a quick learner, but the work was difficult and the rest of the team unforgiving. Mistake piled on top of mistake while the apprentices were crunching to hit major deadlines. Once the project was completed, a group of Lora’s fellow apprentices approached Vigal and demanded her dismissal. It’s impossible to work under these conditions, they said. We have friends with much better credentials who are still out there in the ranks of the diss.

Vigal refused to terminate her contract, but he had selfish reasons.

He had fallen in love with her.

Over the next year, Lora found a place in the company as Vigal’s muse. The very sight of her fierce brown eyes inspired flights of fancy, flights that glided Vigal over distant mathematical lands few had seen. And yet, one touch of her hand on his shoulder was enough to ground him and bring a sense of direction to his wandering intellect.

The memecorp began to experience great success. Soon, Serr Vigal had become one of the world’s preeminent neural programmers, a fixture on the scientific lecture circuit, and a much-sought-after expert on brain stem issues. The other apprentices in the company suspected that Vigal and Lora were lovers, but they looked at the company’s accomplishments and decided to give their master some leeway.

Lora frequently accompanied Vigal to scientific conferences and fundraising pitches. One month, Vigal sent her to the remote colony of Furtoid to prepare for such a conference. Two days later, the entire colony was quarantined with a sudden epidemic. Whether the virus was deliberately engineered or simply an evolutionary fluke was never determined.

Portions of Furtoid remained quarantined for months. Four hundred forty-seven people died in those sections of the colony.

Including Lora.

* * *

Vigal went into a deep depression when he heard the news. The future had seemed so bright and his own ambitions so limitless. He was just starting to notice the void in his heart that men often discover in their thirties, a void that neither career nor accomplishment can fill. Lora had filled that void for Vigal. Now that she was gone, life seemed bleak and purposeless.

But when Vigal arrived at distant Furtoid to claim her body, he had a surprise waiting for him. Lora had left behind a child, ex utero, at the colony’s hiving and birthing facility. The child had been there in the gestation chambers since soon after conception. Rumors abounded that Lora had taken a lover, but the hive had been unable to locate a father.

Suddenly, Vigal found himself standing on Lora’s track, looking straight ahead at that long stretch of open country after the scheduled stop at career and before the end of the line. The distance seemed unimaginably vast. To Vigal, it was part of the natural order of things for a man to travel such a long distance alone.

When the boy emerged from gestation, the neural programmer had himself appointed legal guardian. Then he transferred the child to a hive facility back on Earth, in Omaha.

He named the child Natch.

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