Welcome to the fractured future, the first century following the singularity.
Earth has a population of roughly a billion hominids. For the most part, they are happy with their lot, living in a preserve at the bottom of a gravity well. Those who are unhappy have emigrated, joining one or another of the swarming densethinker clades that fog the inner solar system with a dust of molecular machinery so thick that it obscures the sun. Except for the solitary lighthouse beam that perpetually tracks the Earth in its orbit, the system from outside resembles a spherical fogbank radiating in the infrared spectrum; a matryoshka brain, nested Dyson spheres built from the dismantled bones of moons and planets.
The splintery metaconsciousness of the solar system has largely sworn off its pre-posthuman cousins dirtside, but its minds sometimes wander nostalgiawise. When that happens, it casually spams Earth's RF spectrum with plans for cataclysmically disruptive technologies that emulsify whole industries, cultures, and spiritual systems.
A sane species would ignore these get-evolved-quick schemes, but there's always someone who'll take a bite from the forbidden fruit. There's always someone who unaccountably carries the let's-lick-the-frozen-fence-post gene. There's always a fucking geek who'll do it because it's a historical goddamned technical fucking imperative.
Whether the enlightened, occulting smartcloud sends out its missives as pranks, poison, or care packages is up for debate. Asking it to explain its motives is about as productive as negotiating with an ant colony to get it to abandon your kitchen. Whatever the motive, humanity would be much better off if the cloud would evolve into something uninterested in communicating with meatpeople — or at least smart enough to let well alone.
But until that happy day, there's the tech jury service: defending the Earth from the scum of the post-singularity patent office.
After breakfast, Huw dresses and locks the front door carefully behind himself and tells his bicycle — his one truly indispensable piece of advanced technology — to unbolt itself from the rusting red drainpipe that stains the brick side of his house with green moss. He pedals uncertainly to the end of the road, then eases out into traffic, sneering as the omnipresent web of surveillance routes the peoplemovers around him.
Safe cycling is one of the modern conveniences that irritate him most. Also: polite youngsters with plastic smiles; overemotional machines; and geeks who think they understand technology. Geeks, the old aristocracy. He'll show them, one of these days. Huw wobbles along the side of the main road and pulls in beside the door of the Second Revolutionary Libyan consulate.
"Sayyid Jones? I am pleased to meet you." The young man behind the desk has a plastic smile and is far too polite for Huw's taste: Huw grunts assent and sits down in the indicated seat. "Your application has been forwarded to us and, ah? If you would be pleased to travel to our beautiful country, I can assure you of just one week's jury service."
Huw nods again.
The polite man fidgets with the air of someone trying to come up with an inoffensive way of saying something potentially rather rude. "I'm pleased to inform you that our ancient land is quite tolerant of other cultures' customs. I can assure you that whatever ISO-standard containment suit you choose to bring with you will be respected by our people."
Huw boggles. "What huh?"
"Your, that is, your — " The smiler leans across his desk and points at Huw's trefoil-marked forehead. The finger he points with meets resistance. A plastic sheet has hermetically sealed Huw's side of the room off from the rest of the consulate. It is so fantastically transparent that Huw doesn't even notice it until the smiler's finger puckers a singularity in its vertical run, causing it to scatter light at funny angles and warp the solid and sensible wood-paneled walls behind the desk into Escheroid impossibilities.
"Ah," Huw says. "Ah. No, you see, it's a joke of some sort. Not an official warning."
"I'm very glad to hear it, Sayyid Jones! You will, of course, have documents attesting to that before you clear our immigration?"
"Right," Huw says. "Of course." Fucking Sandra. Whether or not she is directly responsible for the tat is beside the point: It happened on her premises. Damn it, he has errands to run before he catches the flight! Tracking her down and getting her to remove the thing will take too long.
"Then we will see you soon." The smiler reaches into a desk drawer and pulls out a small tarnished metal teapot, which he shoves gradually through the barrier. The membrane puckers around it and suddenly the teapot is sitting on Huw's side of the desk, wearing an iridescent soap bubble of pinched-off nanohazard containment. "Peace be with you."
"And you," says Huw, rising. The interview is obviously at an end. He picks up the teapot and follows the blinkenlights to the exit from the consulate, studiously avoiding the blurred patches of air where other visitors are screened from one another by the utility fog. "What now?" he asks the teapot.
"Blrrrt. Greetings, Tech Juror Jones. I am a guidance iffrit from the Magical Libyan Jamahiriya Renaissance. Show me to representatives of the Permanent Revolutionary Command Councils and I will be honored to intercede for you. Polish me and I will install translation leeches in your Broca's area, then assist you in memorizing the Koran and hadith. Release me and I will grant your deepest wish!"
"Um, I don't think so." Huw scratches his head. Fucking Sandra, he thinks darkly; then he packs the artifact into his pannier and pedals heavily away toward the pottery. It's going to be a long working day — almost five hours — before he can sort this mess out, but at least the wet squishy sensation of clay under his fingernails will help calm the roiling indignation he feels at his violation by a random GM party prankster.
Excerpted from The Rapture of the Nerds by Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross. Copyright 2012 by Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross. Excerpted by permission of Tor Books.