semantics

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It was sunny in the Pacific and there was nothing but ocean in all directions. A full circle of booths opened onto a broad viewing platform with unobtrusive holographic displays showing where the islands had once been. The tiny former nation of Tuvalu, the first country destroyed in the Water Wars, had a special place in the history of the twenty-first century. Where some had fallen in armed conflicts and others had crumbled from within, Tuvalu had simply vanished beneath rising seas. Clair had learned about it in high school but I guessed it was far from her primary concern right then.

There were people around her, tourists and some grandchildren of the disenfranchised Tuvaluans. I could see them through the platform's security feed. Clair was as disconnected from them as she was from me. She couldn't discover anything about them by reading their public profiles, just as she couldn't access the platform's multimedia options, metadata tags or even muzak. She couldn't talk to her parents, her friends, anyone. The world was entirely cut off from her, and she from it. She might as well have been invisible.

I hoped. She was very nearly safe.

Nearly, unfortunately, wasn't good enough. I could sense vast, invisible machinery sweeping around the world, tracing her in ways I'd never had cause to imagine before. The law of conservation of data was working against me now: where Clair went, she trailed a faint wake of information behind her, even with her media disconnected from the Air. Just going through d-mat left a trace. There was no disguising DNA, after all.

Maybe I had been approaching the problem all wrong, I thought. Maybe hiding Clair wasn't the solution. And maybe there was something to the idea of nicknames that might be useful. What had once confused me was now looking like it could help me help Clair survive.

First, though, I had to warn her, and I couldn't do that while she was disconnected. Luckily, there were other ways. I picked a tourist at random, a large woman in a floral dress, and hacked into her media the same way I had hacked into Clair's. They were all wearing lenses and ear rings. Even Abstainers used them. Through such devices, I could have spoken to every person on the planet at once, had I needed to.

One was sufficient. She was wary at first, but once I explained that my friend was running from an abusive partner, she became positively eager to help.

"Is there a Clair here?" she said to the platform at large.

Clair jerked out of her thoughts.

"Maybe," she said. "Why do you want to know?"

"Your friend asked me to tell you something," the woman said, putting a kindly hand on her arm. "'He is still coming.'"

"What?"

"That's what she says. 'He is still coming.' Do you know what it means?"

Clair cupped the base of her skull with one hand and bunched up her hair. She nodded.

"Does, uh, the person who called you say where to go?"

The woman shook her head. Her eyes tracked up and then to the left, checking a menu. I wasn't sticking around to chat. I had complicated preparations to make.

"She's gone. I'm sorry, dear. Are you going to be all right?"

"Yes. Thanks."

Clair brushed off the woman's concern. Picking a booth at random, she stepped inside and asked for Melbourne. That was where Jesse's mother's family had come from, and where he said he had dreamed of going, one day. The crippling mistrust of d-mat that his father had given him made it well-nigh impossible, however. Some luxury cruise-ships still operated, but few berths were given to the sons of suspected terrorists.

Clair let the mirror-wall behind her take her weight. She looked very tired.

ssssssss

The booth was working, and so was I. Frantically, but with utmost care, I took her pattern and unwove everything from it that said Clair Hill. Not on the physical level, but the semantic. Between booths she was made only of data, and that data was labelled with words—my specialty. Words could be changed.

This was something concrete that I could do to help her.

Clair arrived, blinking as though in a bright light. Her lenses were gone, and so were the rings in her ears. She was more than just disconnected now. She was living in the Stone Age.

I had given her an old-fashioned earpiece because I felt I owed her some kind of explanation.

"Don't say or do anything," I said. "I am masking your identity to avoid detection. Your new name is 'Pallas Diana Hughes'."

The door to the d-mat booth didn't open. It didn't matter where she was, anyway, because she wasn't staying there. The machinery was already cycling for another transfer.

ssssssss

"Your name is now 'Rebecca Watts-Veldhoen'."

Clair stared up at the ceiling with fright in her eyes.

ssssssss

"Your name is 'Shun Fay Anderson Wong'."

ssssssss

She edged into a corner.

ssssssss

"Your name is 'Clair Hill'," I told her at last, "and you are safe."


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