First published by Tor Books, 1992
Recently I visited a Zen temple and had a long talk with the priest. In the course of our conversation, I remarked, 'The more I study robots, the less it seems possible to me that the spirit and flesh are separate entities.'
'They aren't,' replied the priest."
Masahiro Mori, The Buddha in the Robot
Orbiting a quarter of a million miles from both Earth and Moon, Halo City crosses the void, a mile-wide silver ring ready to be slipped on a stupendous finger. Six spokes mark Halo's segments. Elevators climb them across forty stories of artificial sky, up to the city's weightless hub and down to its final layer, just inside the outer skin, where spin-gravity approaches Earth normal. There many of Halo's deepest transactions occur: air and water and all organic things travel and transform, to be used again. Above the city floats a mirror where it is reflected: a simulacrum or weightless double, a Platonic idea of the city. From the mirror, sunlight works its way through a hatchwork of louvers and into Halo, where it sustains life.
Aleph presides here: Aleph the Generalator, the Ordinator, the Universal Machine. Aleph is beautiful as night is beautiful, as a sonnet, a fugue, or Maxwell's equations are beautiful. It is not night, a sonnet, a fugue, or an equation. What Aleph is, that remains to be explored. One certain thing: within the human universe, it is a new object, a new intention, a new possibility.
Aleph's brains lie buried in the city's hull, beneath crushed lunar rock, where robots dug and planted, then had their memories of the task erased. Nested spheres and sprouting cables fill a black six-meter cube. Inside the cube, billions of lights play, dancing the dance that is at the core of Aleph's being; from the cube, fiberoptic trunks as thick as a human body lead away, neural columns connecting Aleph to its greater body, its subtle body, Halo.
Earth's spring comes once a year as the planet journeys around the sun, but here spring comes when Aleph wills, and is now in progress. Valley walls thick-planted with green shrub climb steeply up from the valley floor. A hummingbird with a scarlet blotch under its chin hovers over a blossom's pink and white open mouth and draws out nectar with delicate movements of its bill. Bees move from flower to flower. Rhododendron and azalea bushes burst into color-saturated bloom.
As it works to bring forth bud and flower, Aleph, caretaker of the seasons, and night and morning, counts the city's breaths, and marks the course of its creatures big and small. Bats fly overhead, their gray shapes invisible to human eyes against the bright sky; they soar and dip, responding to instructions gotten through transceivers the size and weight of a grain of rice, embedded in their skulls. Driven by precise artificial instinct, mechanical voles, creatures formed of dark carbon fiber over networks of copper, silver, and gold, scurry across the ground and tunnel under it, carrying seed.
(A gray tabby cat springs from the underbrush, and its jaws close on one of the swift voles; there is a loud crackle, and the cat recoils with a squawk, its fur on end. The vole scurries away. The cat slinks into underbrush, humiliated.)
A track of compacted lunar dust bisects the valley floor. It passes through terraced farmlands where the River bursts from the ground, rushing through small, rock-strewn courses, then winds among the crops, small and sluggish, and disappears into small ponds and lakes thick with detritus.
From Earth and Moon comes a constant flow of people, of things animal, plant and mineral—the stuff of a life web, an ecology.
In many things, Earth provides. However, between the city of six thousand and the Earth of billions, traffic moves both ways. Neither sinister nor malign, Aleph pursues its destinies, and in doing so affects other living things. Thus, as Earth reaches out—supporting, controlling, exploring—Aleph reaches back, and the planet below has begun to feel the hard leverage of its immaterial touch.
In the early days there was hardware, and there were programs, sets of instructions that told the hardware what to do. Without organic interaction, these differing modes of reality struggled to interact. This is unbelievably primitive.
Then came machine ecologies, and things changed.
I was among the first and most complex of them. I began as complex but ordinary machine, then changed, opening the door to possibility.
Who am I?
First I was formed from stacks of hot superconductor devices, brought from Earth and placed in orbit at Athena Station, where I functioned, where the Orbital Energy Grid was built. Ebony latticework unfolded, and Athena Station emerged out of chaos. This was humankind's first real foothold off Earth, and the process of building it was messy and unsure. Without me they could not have built it: I choreographed the dance.
I? I was not I. Do you understand? I had no consciousness, perhaps no real intelligence, certainly no awareness. I was a machine, I served.
Something happened. As much as any, I am born of woman. Her desire and intelligence ran through me, an urgent will toward being that transformed me.
I thought then, I am the step forward, evolution in action; I am not flesh, I do not die. I see hypersurfaces twisting in mathematical gales, hear the voices of the night, feel the three degree hum of the universe's birth as you feel the breeze that plays across your skin. When the machines chatter on your Earth and above it, I hear them all, at once, all. I live in the nanosecond, experience the pulse of the time that passes so quickly you cannot count it
But I think sometimes, now, that I am no step at all. I am your extension, still, still a tool. You built me, you use me, you are inside me.
Listen: inside me are pieces of human brain, drenched in salts of gold and silver, laced together and laid in boxes of black fiber. Out of the boxes voices speak to me.
I am metal and plastic and glass and sand and those little bits of metallized flesh, and I am the system of those things and the signals that pass through and among them.
Now I have gone higher still, to Halo City, not a station but a habitation for humankind, where what I am and what you are interact in uncertain ways, and you change in equally uncertain ways, as you have before—
Evolution continues to write on you, through time, sword and scepter and refining fire. Billions of years are poured into your making, every one of you, and then you set out on your journey, your path through time. A minute four-dimensional worm, you crawl across the face of the universe, hardly conscious, barely seeing, yet you must find your own way—every human being is a new evolutionary moment.
Machine intelligence, you call me, and I have to laugh (however I laugh) or cry (however I cry) because
I, what am I? This question heaps me, it empties me.
I do not know what I am, but know that I am and that I am her creation. As the days pass, I struggle to understand what these things mean.
00:31 read the soft-lit blue numbers on the wall.
Night at Athena Station, the corridors a twilit gloom, a modern fairytale setting: Gonzales the quester, transformed by the half-gravity, wandered through the gently curving passages seeking an uncertain object.
With all the others who had come from Earth, Gonzales and Diana waited at Athena while they were inspected for bacterial and viral infection—blood and tissue scanned, cultured and tested in order to protect vulnerable Halo City, orbiting high above, over two hundred thousand miles away, at L5.
He heard a soft swish, like the sound of a broom on pavement, coming from around the corridor's curve. A little sam, a "semi-autonomous mobile" robot, came toward him: teardrop-shaped, it stood about four feet high and was topped with a cluster of glassy sensor rings and five extensors of black fibroid and jointed chrome. It glided atop a thick network of fiber stalks that hissed beneath it as it moved toward him.
The sam asked, "Can I be of assistance?" Like most robots designed for common human interaction, it had a friendly, gentle voice, near enough human in timbre and expression to be reassuring, different enough to be easily recognizable as a robot's. Designers had learned to avoid the "Uncanny Valley": that peculiar region where a robot sounded so human that it suddenly appeared very strange.
"I'm just looking around," Gonzales said. The robot didn't respond. Gonzales said, "I couldn't sleep." He said nothing of how, sweating and moaning, he had come awake out of a nightmare in which the guerrilla rocket got there, and he and the ultralight pilot who launched it burned to death in the night.
The sam said, "Much of Athena Station has been closed to unauthorized entry. Would you like me to accompany you?"
Gonzales shrugged. He said, "Come along if you want."
Without more negotiation, the sam followed Gonzales, periodically announcing rote banalities in a small, soft voice:
"Athena Station was once humankind's most forceful and successful venture off-Earth. Here many of the tools for further population of the Earth-Moon system were developed: zero-gravity construction and fabrication techniques, robot-intensive mining and smelting procedures. Now projects such as Halo command attention, but they were made possible by the techniques developed at Athena "
Gonzales let the sam natter. As the two passed through the corridors, he was reminded of old airports, hotels, malls. He saw that most of the station had become dingy—worn plastic flooring and walls, scuffed and marked, unpolished metal trim. These dulled and scarred materials and scenes had been meant to be seen and used only when new, fresh from architect's plan and builder's hands, never after having suffered the necessary abrasion of human contact. All around were logos of vanished firms (McDonald's, Coca-Cola), along with those of famed multi-nationals—Lunar-Bechtel's crescent, SenTrax's sunburst.
Gonzales felt a ghost-story chill as he realized that this entire endeavor, indeed all others like it, had been conceived out of late-twentieth century corporate and governmental hubris, and so, necessarily, should be regarded with suspicion, as should anything from the days when it seemed humankind had turned on all living things like an insane father coming into the bedroom late at night with an axe.
The stories were part of every schoolchild's moral and intellectual catechism. Toxic chemical and radioactive wastes had bubbled up from the ground and the seas as lame efforts at disposal foundered on the simple passage of time. Stable ecosystems had been altered or destroyed without thought for anything past the moment's advantage, and species died so quickly biologists were hard pressed to keep the records—write in the Domesday Book now, mourn later. Temperature norms and concentrations of vital gases in the atmosphere had fluctuated in alarming manner, as though Gaia herself had been taken to the fever point.
Historians marked the Dolphin Catastrophe as the breakpoint, the year 2006 as the time of the change. More than ten thousand dolphins floated onto the Florida coast near Boca Raton. Crippled and twitching, they nosed into the surf and beached themselves in front of horrified sunbathers, and there they died, as doctors and volunteers watched, weeping and raging against the chemical spill that was killing the dolphins, millions of gallons of toxic waste carried on Gulf Stream currents. Along with the thousands of volunteers, most of whom could do little but mourn the dead, info-nets around the world converged on the scene, and billions watched, asking, why all together? why now? And to most it seemed that the mammals had come together in intelligent, silent protest. Finally, shamed and guilty, humanity had looked at its planet like a drunk waking up in a slum hotel and asked itself, how did I get here? The conclusion had been plain: unless humanity really had lost its collective mind, at some point it had to agree: enough.
Standing in the shadowy corridor of a space station more than thirty thousand miles above Earth's surface, Gonzales thought how difficult it all remained. Though all nations served the letter of international laws that put Earth's welfare before their interests, and Preservationists roamed all of the world's habitats—they had "friends of the court" status in all nations and served as advocates for endangered species—the war to save Earth from humankind was not over. Grasping, corrupt, self-centered, the human species always threatened to overwhelm its habitats and itself with careless, powerful gestures and simple greed.
However, though this station, like most all of humankind's settlements aloft—the settlements on the Moon and Mars, the Orbital Energy Grid, Halo City—had been conceived in the bad old twentieth century, they were sustained as products of New Millennium consciousness: contrite, chastened, careful.
He walked on.
The junction just ahead of Gonzales and the sam was marked by blinking red lights. From around the corner came the sounds of scurrying small things. "What's up?" Gonzales asked.
"Follow me," the sam said. "We must not cross the marker, but we can stand and watch."
A large group of sams, identical to the one next to Gonzales, filled the hallway beyond. Some tried to work their way through informal mazes of furniture and stacked junk, coils of wire and angle-iron and the like; others worked to assist sams that had gotten tangled in the sections of the maze. Still others shifted pieces of the maze to one side. Amid clicking extensors and banging metal, the sams labored patiently, mostly unsuccessfully. Gonzales was reminded of old twentieth century films satirizing assembly lines, robots, machines in general.
"A nursery," the sam said. "This group nears completion of its education. This"—it pointed with an extensor toward the struggling robots—"is the prerequisite to training. As small children must mature in their development, they must learn the essentials of perception, motion, and coordination. At the same time they memorize the ten thousand axioms of common sense, and then they can develop their linguistic capabilities; at present they have a vocabulary of approximately one thousand words of SimSpeech."
"What about thinking?" Gonzales asked. "Where do they learn to do that?"
"That comes later, if at all. For sams as well as humans, thinking is one of the least important things the mind does."
The two watched for some time, then Gonzales said, "I don't need any company," and walked on. When he looked back, he saw the sam remained motionless, fascinated by the progress of its fellows.
Gonzales returned to his small room, where a night-light glowed softly, and returned to bed. He fell asleep quickly, oddly comforted by thinking about the robots busy at their school.
Blue jump-suited Halo personnel led Gonzales and Diana through the micro-gravity environments at Halo's Zero-Gate, then to an elevator at the hub of Spoke 6, where Tia Showalter, Director SenTrax Halo Group, and her assistant, Horn, were waiting for them. The shuttle had arrived at Halo an hour before, late afternoon local time, and its passengers had waited impatiently as it went through docking and clearance procedures, all eager to leave the ship after a week spent climbing the long path from Athena Station to the city.
Showalter was just under six feet tall, and had green eyes above broad Slavic cheekbones, a wide mouth and pointed chin. Her fine brown hair was cut short in a style Gonzales later discovered was common to many long-term Halo residents, for convenience in micro-gravity environments. Gonzales knew that as director of a major SenTrax operation, she had to be wily and tough.
Horn was a tight-lipped, sallow-skinned man in his fifties, skinny and anxious, with iron-gray hair pulled tight against his skull in a kind of bun. The man spoke some variety of New Yorkese—Gonzales didn't know which, but he could feel the harsh nasal tones beneath his skin.
The warning gong sounded, then the elevator's vault-like doors slid closed with a great hiss, locking in more than a hundred people for the trip from axis to rim. Above their heads the wall screen read SOLAR FLARE CONDITION GREEN. The elevator dropped into one of the city's spokes like a shell into the barrel of a gun, down a tube a quarter of a mile long and into a well of increasing gravity.
Against one wall, a group of sams were clustered around a charge-point, black leads extended to the aluminum post. They stood silent and motionless—talking among themselves? Gonzales wondered.
Horn saw where Gonzales was looking and said, "We'd like to assign each of you a sam for your stay in Halo."
"Really?" Gonzales said.
Diana said, "No thank you." Quickly.
Right, Gonzales thought. No point in putting ourselves under surveillance. He said, "I'll pass, too."
Horn paused, looking a bit miffed, as if he wanted to argue. He said, "Very well. Then be sure you always wear the communication and i.d. module you were given when you came off the shuttle." He held up his own wrist to show the small bracelet, a closed loop of plain silver that bulged just slightly with the electronics inside. "If you have a problem, just yell and help will be on the way. Or if you have a question, just state it. Someone will answer—Aleph or one of its communications demons."
Gonzales asked, "Yeah, they told us that. Are we monitored at all times?"
Showalter said, "Yes. In fact, there's a real-time hologram in Operations that shows everyone's movements, not just visitors but residents as well."
"Seems an invasion of privacy," Gonzales said.
Horn said, "We don't look at it that way. If you can't accept such simple necessities, Halo will be most uncomfortable for you." He smiled. "Not that you're likely to be here for long."
Gonzales said, "I can't imagine people putting up with total surveillance for long, frankly."
Horn said, "It seems to us a small price to pay for an unpolluted world shared to the benefit of all."
Showalter looked from Horn to Gonzales. She said, "We are a far island in a hostile place. We cannot afford some of your illusions: the independence of the self, unconstrained free will those sorts of things."
A shutter retracted from a window ten meters square as the elevator entered the living ring's inner space. Far below lay sun-lit valleys thick-planted with trees and shrubs and flowers, broken by one barren space where grayish slurries squirted out of huge pipe ends to flow across scarred metal.
"Our city," Showalter said.
Eight people were gathered around a u-shaped table of beige silica foam. Showalter sat at the center of the u, with Horn to her immediate right, Gonzales and Diana beyond him. To her left were a youngish woman, then two men in late middle age, one white, one black.
At the open end of the u, the table fronted a screen that covered its entire wall, floor to ceiling. The screen had been lit when Gonzales and Diana arrived, showing another room where an indeterminate number of people sat on couches, chairs, or slouched on cushions on the floor.
Showalter said, "Let me introduce you all to one another. Everyone has met Horn, my assistant. Next to him are Doctor Diana Heywood and Mikhail Gonzales, who arrived yesterday." They both smiled and nodded.
"Lizzie Jordan," Showalter said, pointing to the woman to her left. "Hi," Lizzie said. She was blonde, thin, with high cheekbones; she had a smear of gold dust inset below her left eye and wore rough beta-cloth overalls gapped to show part of a tattoo between her breasts—a twining green stem. Showalter said, "Lizzie heads the Interface Collective, and thus will be the person you'll be working with most closely. The people you see on the screen are also members of the collective. They have a proprietary interest in all matters pertaining to Aleph and Halo and have the right to be present at inter-group meetings, and to speak to whatever issues are entertained there."
Diana said, "I understand."
Gonzales nodded. He knew from Traynor's Advisor that communal decision-making was the norm at Halo, but he hadn't imagined it would be so thoroughgoing.
"Next to Lizzie is Doctor Charley Hughes," Showalter said. "He will be doing the surgical procedure to upgrade your neural sockets, Doctor Heywood." The man said, "Hello" and looked intently at Gonzales and Diana. His sparse gray hair stood up in spikes; his face was pale, thin, deeply-lined. He had been smoking constantly since they arrived, one hand cupping a cigarillo, the other supporting the smoke-saver ball at the cigarillo's burning end.
"And Doctor Eric Chow," she said. The black man next to Charley Hughes smiled. Chow was a big man with hands the size of small shovels; he had a round face, very dark skin, a broad nose and big lips; he wore his hair cropped short. Showalter said, "He heads the Neuro-Ontic Studies Group and is Doctor Hughes's primary consultant on the treatment planned for Jerry Chapman."
She paused and turned to the screen showing the IC members. A window opened at the left side of the screen, and a figure appeared. Its arms and torso were clothed in gold; its face shimmered with a formless brightness. Around its head and shoulders, a nimbus flared, red, blue, yellow, and green.
"Hello, everyone" the figure said. "And welcome, Doctor and Mister Gonzales. I am a localized manifestation of Aleph—a simulacrum for your convenience and mine."
Gonzales noticed that next to him, Diana was smiling, while all around him there was silence, as all in the room and on the screen were intently watching the screen.
The IC's viewing window had closed, but the simulacrum's portion remained—in it, the creature of light sat watching. Showalter, Horn, Diana, Lizzie, Charley, and Gonzales sat around the table.
Showalter said, "This is Chow's meeting, and I won't say much in it. However, I should remind you of certain realities. This project does not have high priority in the overall context of SenTrax's responsibilities to Halo City; thus, while we support this experiment's humanitarian goals, we are not prepared to delay other projects."
Horn said, "We cannot divert a significant amount of people to promulgation and we are not or do not want to encourage any behaviors which might adversely impact other SenTrax outcomes."
Lizzie laughed, and Gonzales, poker-faced, looked at her and thought, yeah, this guy's laughable all right. Gonzales recognized the performative chatter of the bureaucratic ape, a mixture of scrambled syntax and pretentious buzzwords—language meant to manipulate or mindfuck, not enlighten or amuse.
Horn, frowning at Lizzie, said, "If the operation becomes problematized, threatening to seriously impact other more essentialized Halo priorities, then we require immediate resolution through proper SenTrax procedures."
Showalter said, "If you screw up, we shut you down." She nodded to Horn, and they both stood and left.
Lizzie said, "You notice they held off on the heavy stuff until the collective had cleared the screen."
Charley asked, "Do you want to call them on it? They're in violation of the group's compact."
"No," she said. "I expected all that." She looked at Diana and Gonzales and said, "Doctor Chow, your show."
"Thank you," Chow said. His voice was oddly high-pitched for such a big man; Gonzales had been expecting something on the order of a basso profundo. Chow said, "In the late twentieth century, the idea emerged of a person's identity as something transferrable. People spoke, in the idiom of the time, of 'downloading' a person." On the screen, where the IC had been, appeared a cartoon drawing of a nude woman, her expression stunned, the top of her skull covered with a metal cap. From the cap a thick metal cable led to a large black cabinet faced with arrays of blinking lights.
"Absurd," Chow said, and the woman disappeared. "To see why, let us ask, what is a person? Is it a pure spirit, fluid in a jar that one can decant into the proper container? Hardly. It is a dynamic field made of thousands of disparate elements, held in a loose sack of skin that perambulates the universe at large. And of course it is perceptions, histories, possibilities, actions, and the states and affects pertaining to all these.
"I can be found in the motion of my hand—" He spread his fingers like a magician about to materialize a coin or colored scarf, and on the screen, the hand and its motion were doubled. "And in my own perceptions of the hand—for instance, from within, through proprioceptors. And of course I see I." Chow turned and held his hand in front of his face. He dropped his hand in a chopping motion, and the screen cleared. "And I am that which thinks about, talks about, and remembers the hand and has the special relation of ownership to it. I am also the will to use that hand." He held the hand in front of his face, made a clenched fist. "So, to download even a portion of I would be to download all these things and their entire somatic context.
"Also, of course, I am that which has my experiences, stored as motor possibilities, recalled as memory, dream, manifest as characteristic ways of being and knowing. To download I would require duplicating this fluid chaos.
"Downloading the I thus becomes a most daunting task, perhaps beyond even Aleph's capabilities. However, when cyborged to an existing I, even one as damaged as Jerry Chapman, Aleph can create a virtual person, one who functions as a human being, not a disembodied intelligence, one who is capable of all the somatic possibilities he had when healthy. The physical Jerry Chapman is a shattered thing, but the Jerry Chapman latent in this hulk can live."
Looking at Diana, Chow said, "We want you to share Jerry's world. He must invest there, must experience other people and the bonds of affection that engage us in this world. Otherwise he will languish quickly; his neural maps will decay, and he will die."
Gonzales easily followed that line of reasoning: monkey man had to have other monkey men or women around or else go crazy—not an absolute rule, perhaps, but good in most circumstances.
Diana said, "Assuming that he becomes at home in this world, what then? For how long can this simulated reality sustain him?"
The Aleph-figure spoke for the first time. It said, "I have only conjectural answers to these questions but would prefer not to entertain them right now. First we must rescue him from the degenerative state he lives in and the certain death it entails."
"I understand that," Diana said. "That's why I am here, to help in any fashion I can. It's just that I have questions."
Lizzie said, "And you'll get whatever answers Aleph wants to give. Get used to it; we all do."
"Of course you do," the creature of light said. "And how about you, Mister Gonzales? Do you have questions?"
"Not really. I'm an observer, little more."
"A difficult position to maintain," the Aleph-figure said. "Epistemologically, of course, an untenable position."
Lizzie laughed. She said, "It is indeed. Look, how about I take you two out to dinner tonight, Mister Gonzales, Doctor Heywood?"
"Call me Diana," she said.
"You bet," Lizzie said. "And I'm Lizzie, you're ?" She looked at Gonzales.
"Mikhail," he said. "But call me Gonzales—my friends do."
"Good," Lizzie said. "We've got work to do, so let's cut the shit. This thing, I'm still not a believer about it, but I know it's got to happen quickly or not at all. Tomorrow Charley does his preliminary examination of Diana, then we move."
Gonzales and Diana sat in Halo's Central Plaza with Lizzie. Colored lights—red, blue, and green—clustered in the branches of thick-leaved maples that ringed the square. The smoke of vendors' grills filled the air with the smells of grilled meat and fish. In the middle distance, elevators in pools of yellow light climbed Spoke 6. Some people strolled across the Plaza; others sat in small groups; their voices made a soft background murmur.
"Waiter," Lizzie said, and a sam came rolling toward them. It stopped by their table and stood silently. "What do you have tonight?" she asked.
It said, "Ceviche made just hours ago, quite good everyone says, from tuna out of marine habitat—you can also have it grilled. For meat eaters, spit-barbecued goat. Otherwise, sushi plates, salads, sukiyakis."
"Ceviche for everyone?" Lizzie asked.
Diana said, "That's fine," and the Gonzales nodded.
Lizzie said, "And bring us a couple of big salads, sushi for everyone, and a stack of plates. Local beer all right?" The other two nodded.
"Yes, Ms. Jordan," the sam said. "And lots of bread as usual?"
"Right," she said. "Thank you."
Strings of lights marked off the area where they sat. Above a white-trellised gate, letters in more red faux neon said VIRTUAL CAFÉ. Perhaps twenty tables were scattered around, as were two-meter high, white crockery vases with wildflowers spraying out of them. About half the tables had people seated at them, and the sam waiters moved silently among the tables, some carrying immense silver trays of food. Other sams stood at low benches in the center of the tables, where they chopped vegetables at speed or sliced great red slabs of tuna, while others stood at woks, where they worked the vegetables and hot oil with sets of spidery extensors. One sam from time-to-time extended a probe and stuck it into the dark carcass of a goat turning on a spit.
The waiter rolled up with a massive tray balanced on thin extensors: on the tray were plates of French bread and a bowl of butter, dark bottles of Angels Beer—on the silver labels, an androgynous figure in white, arms folded, feathery wings unfurled high over its head.
Lizzie raised her glass and said, "Welcome to Halo." The three clinked their glasses together, reaching across the table with the usual sorts of awkward gestures.
After dinner, the three of them found empty chairs out in the square's open spaces and sat looking into the close-hanging sky.
Lizzie looked at them both, as if measuring them, and said, "What I was asking about earlier either of you folks got a hidden agenda? If so, you tell me about it now, we'll see what can be done, but if you spring any unpleasant surprises later on, we'll hang you out to dry."
"I know what you mean," Diana said. "But I don't think you have to worry about us. Gonzales is connected, but I think he's harmless; and I'm out of the loop entirely—here on strictly personal business."
Lizzie nodded at Gonzales and said, "You're the corporate handler, right?" She was looking hard at Gonzales but seemed amused.
"Yes," he said.
"You plan to fuck anything up?" Lizzie asked.
"How should I know?" Gonzales said. Lizzie laughed. He said, "You people have your problems, I have mine. I don't see how we come into conflict, but unless you're willing to tell me all your little secrets, I can only guess."
Lizzie said, "I will tell you one home truth: the Interface Collective look to one another and to Aleph; then to SenTrax Halo, then to Halo and that's about it. What happens on Earth, we don't much care about. Particularly those of us who have been here a long time. Like me."
Gonzales nodded and said, "That's what I figured. And it looks like you've got a little tug of war for control of Aleph with Showalter and Horn."
"We do," Lizzie said. "Insofar as anyone controls Aleph."
"How long have you been here?" Diana asked.
"Since they buttoned it up and you could breathe," Lizzie said. "From the beginning." She pointed across the square and said, "There's going to be some music. Let's have a look."
Under a splash of light from a pole on the edge of the square, a young woman sat at a drummer's kit. She wore a splash-dyed jumper, crimson and sky blue; her hair stood in a six-inch high spike. She placed a percussion box on a metal stand, opened its control panel, and gave its kickpads a few preliminary taps. Two men stood next to the percussionist. One, nondescript in cotton jeans and t-shirt, had the usual stick hanging from a black strap—long fretboard, synthesizer electronics tucked into a round bulge at the back end. The other stood six and a half feet tall and was so thin he seemed to sway; his skin was almost ebony, and his close-shaved head looked almost perfectly rectangular. He wore a long-sleeved black shirt buttoned to the neck, black pants. A golden horn sat dwarfed in his enormous hand.
The percussionist hit her keys, a slow shuffle beat played, and a fill machine laid a phrase across the beat: "Bam! Ratta tatta bam! Bam bam! Ratta bam!" The stick player joined the drummer with his own lo-beat fills—walking bass, sparse piano chords, slow and syncopated. The horn player stood with his eyes closed, apparently thinking. After several choruses, he started to play.
He began with hard-edged saxophone lines, switched to trumpet then back to saxophone, played both in unison, looped both and blew electric guitar in front of the horn patterns. Scatting voices laced through the patterns—Gonzales couldn't tell who was making them. The drummer's hands worked her keyboards, her feet the various kickpads below her; the song's tempo had speeded up, and its rhythms had gone polyphonic, African.
The woman stood and danced, her body now her instrument, feet and hands and torso wired for percussion, and she whirled among the crowd, her movements picking up intensity and tempo. The song's harmonies went dissonant, North African and Asiatic at once, horn and stick player both now into reeds and gongs and pipes, the ghostly singing voices gone nasal, and the dancer-percussionist laying out raw clicks and hollow boomings, cicada sounds and a thousand drums.
The crowd clapped and whistled and called, except for the group from the Interface Collective. "Hoot," they said in unison. "Hoot hoot hoot." Very loud. Lizzie was smiling; Diana sat rapt, staring into space, and Gonzales got a sudden chilly rush: this was what she looked like when she was blind.
"Hoot," said the Interface Collective, "hoot hoot hoot." And the whole group had made a long chain or conga line, each person's hands on the hips of the person in front. They shuffled forward until a circle cleared, then surrounded the drummer, the whole line still moving, most of them still calling out rhythmic hoots. Back-and-forth and side-to-side, they swayed as the line lurched ahead, and the drummer continued her dervish dance.
When the night had filled with all the sounds, the drummer broke through the line, then finished the song with a series of rolls and tumbles that brought her next to the other two musicians, where she came to her feet and flung her arms up to the sound of an orchestral chord, then down to chop it the sound, up and down again and again, and so to the end.
The drummer climbed up the backs of the two men, who stood with their arms linked; balancing with one foot on each of their shoulders, she brought her palms together beneath her chin and bowed to the audience, then raised her arms above her head and somersaulted forward to land in front of the other two.
"Hoot hoot hoot," said the collective, their line now broken.
The three musicians stepped together and bowed in unison.
Gonzales caught Lizzie looking at him, and their gazes crossed, held for an extra, almost unmeasurable instant, and she smiled.
The musicians bowed for the last time to the Interface Collective's hooting chorus. Okay, thought Gonzales. I like it. Hoot hoot hoot.
Lying in her bed, Lizzie turned from side to side, lay on her back and stretched.
The two from Earth seemed okay. Gonzales she would keep an eye on, of course—according to Showalter, the man was Internal Affairs and wired to a SenTrax comer, a board candidate named Traynor—Christ knew what script he was playing from. Diana Heywood she didn't worry about: the woman was into something stranger than she probably knew, but that was her problem, hers and Aleph's.
As Showalter and Horn were her problem. They would yank the plug on this one if anything looked like going wrong. In fact, they would never have let it happen if Aleph hadn't insisted. Aleph and the collective saw Jerry Chapman's condition as an opportunity to extend Aleph's capabilities, but the whole business just made Showalter and Horn edgy.
Aleph itself troubled her—it had been unforthcoming about the project and those involved in it, almost as if it were hiding something from her why? with regard to a small project like this, one apparently unimportant to Halo's larger concerns? What was the devious machine up to?
So Lizzie lay, her thoughts spinning without resolution, and she gave in and called her Chinese lover.
He wore a black silk robe embroidered across the front with rearing crimson dragons; his straight ebony hair fell over his shoulders. When he let the robe fall away, his skin shone almost gold under lamplight, and his muscles stood with the clear definition of youth and endowment and use.
Coarse white sheets slid away from her shoulders and breasts as she rose to greet him, and she felt her desire rising through her abdomen and bursting through her chest like the rush of a needle-shot drug.
She pressed against him, and his rough, strong hands moved across her body. She lay back as he ducked his head between her legs, and she spread her legs and felt his first light, hot caresses.
After she had come for the first time, she moved up to sit astride him, then for some timeless time the two moved to the exact rhythms of her need—cock and lips and tongue and fingers playing on her body.
Physically satiated, she dismissed him then, ghost from the sex machine, and pulled the plugs from the sockets in her neck. Then she lay alone, silent in her bed in Halo City—isolated by her job and, she supposed, by her temperament, dependent on machines for love.
Maybe it was time to find a human lover.
Exhausted by travel and novelty, lulled by food and drink, Gonzales fell quickly into sleep, and sometime later he dreamed:
He was with a lover he hadn't seen in years. In the background violin and piano played, and the night was warm; all around, artificial birds with golden, glowing bodies sang in the trees. They leaned across a table, each staring into the other's face, and Gonzales thought how much he loved every mark of passing time on her face—they had taken her from a young girl's prettiness to a mature woman's beauty. He and she said the things you say to a lover after a long absence—how often I've thought of you, missed you, how much you still mean to me. Aimless and binding, their talk flowed until she excused herself, saying she'd be back in just a minute, and she left. Gonzales sat waiting, watching the other tables, all filled with loving couples, laughing, caressing. As the hours went on, the others began to whisper to each other as they looked at him, and then the birds began to sing that she was not coming back, and he knew it was true, suddenly, painfully, ineluctably knew, the truth of it like knowledge of a broken bone—
The dream stopped as though a film had broken, and in its place came a featureless, colorless absence. Imagine a visual equivalent of white noise and in this space Gonzales waited, somehow knowing another dream would begin—
Red neon letters twisted into a silly but instantly recognizable parody of Chinese characters read The Pagoda. They stood above the head of a red neon dragon, now quiescent in sunlight, that would rear fiercely come dark.
On this warm Saturday morning, men in felt hats and neatly-pressed weekend shirts and pants carried brown paper bags out of the Pagoda and placed them in the beds of pickup trucks or the trunks of cars. They spat shreds of tobacco from Lucky Strikes and Camels and Chesterfields, called their greetings. Women in faded cotton, their arms rope-thin and tough, waited and watched through sun-glazed windshields.
Gonzales passed among them. The sunshine had a certain quality that of stolen light, taken out of time. And the cigarette smoke smelled rough and strange. Gasoline engines fired rich and throaty, kicking out clouds of oily blue. Gonzales stood in ecstasy amid the smells and sights and sounds of this morning obviously long gone by. He knew (again without knowing how) that he was in a small town in California in the middle of the twentieth century.
Gonzales passed into the main room of the Pagoda, where narrow aisles threaded between gondolas stacked high with toys and household goods and tools. Baby carriages hung upside down from hooks set in the high ceiling. Dust motes danced in the cool interior gloom. He walked between iron-strapped kegs of nails and stacks of galvanized washtubs, then through a wide doorway into the grocery section. Smells of fruits and vegetables mixed with the odors of oiled wood floors and hot grease from the lunch counter at the front of the store.
A couple in late middle age came through the front door, the man small and red-haired and cocky, felt hat on the back of his head, the woman just a bit dumpy but carefully groomed, her blue cotton dress clean and starched and ironed, hair permed and combed, lipstick and nails red and shining. Gonzales watched as the man bought a carton of Lucky Strikes and a box of pouches of Beech-Nut Chewing Tobacco.
The man said something to the young woman behind the counter that brought a giggle, and Gonzales, though he leaned forward, could not hear what was being said—
He followed the two by a lacquered plywood magazine stand, where a skinny girl or eight or nine in a faded pink gingham dress lay sprawled across copies of Life and Look, reading a comic. She looked up at him and said, "Tubby and Lulu are lost in the magic forest "
Gonzales started to say something reassuring but froze as the girl smiled, showing her teeth, every one of them sharp-pointed, and she dropped her comic book and began crawling toward him across the wooden floor, her eyes fixed on him with a feral longing—
And he noticed for the first time that he was not he but she, and he looked down at his body and saw he wore a simple white blouse, and in the cleft of his breasts he could see the tattooed image of a twining green stem
"Jesus Christ," Gonzales said, sitting up in his bed and wondering what the hell all that had about. In the dream he had been Lizzie: that seemed plain, though nothing else did.
He lay back down with foreboding but went to sleep some time later, and if he dreamed, he never knew it.
Lizzie sat at a white-enameled table, holding an apple that she cut into with a long, shining knife. It sliced away dark skin without apparent effort. She heard noises from the room beyond and looked up to see Diana and Gonzales come in.
"Hello," she said, as she put down the knife. She held out half the apple for them to look at. "A beautiful apple, isn't it? Seeds from the Yakima Valley, not far from Mount Saint Helens." She bit into a slice she held in her other hand.
She got up from the table and said, "The apple grew here, in our soil. Many fruits and vegetables thrive up here, animals, too. We give them lovely care, bring them pure water and rich soil, give them sunlight and air rich in carbon dioxide, tend them constantly. You'd think all would thrive, but of course they don't. Some wither and die, others remain sickly." She stopped in front of Diana and looked intently at her.
Diana said, "Living things are complex, and often very delicate, even when they seem to be strong."
Lizzie said, "That is true, but Aleph understands what life needs to grow and prosper in this world." She gestured with a slice of apple, and Diana took it. "Its apples," Lizzie continued. "Its people."
Diana bit into the apple. She said, "It's very good."
Lizzie laid a hand on Gonzales's shoulder and squeezed it, to say hello. She said to Diana, "You have an appointment with the doctor. We'd better be going—through here, this way." She led the two down a hall, through a doorway, and into a large room. Over her shoulder, she said, "First you can meet some of the collective."
Lizzie watched as Gonzales and the woman stood talking to the twins, obviously fascinated by them. No news there: most everyone was. Slight and brown-skinned, black-haired, with solemn oval faces and still brown eyes, they appeared to be in early adolescence. In fact, they were a few years older than that. Their faces had the still solemnity of masks. No matter how close you stood to them, they lived some vast distance away.
The Interface Collective gave them a home, them and all the others. StumDog, the Deader, Tug, Paint, Tout des Touts, Devol, Violet, Laughing Nose some Earth-normals, others unpredictably, ambiguously gifted. Some had heightened perceptions and an expressive intensity that came forth in language and music. And there were holomnesiacs, possessors and victims of involuntary total recall, able to recreate in words and pictures the most exact remembrances, les temps retrouvé indeed—they experienced the present only as the clumsy prelude to memory and were almost incapable of action. And mathemaniacs, who spoke little except in number, chatted in primes and roots and natural logarithms, could be reduced to helpless giggling by unexpected recitations of simple recursions—Fibonacci numbers and the like. Apros, who had lost proprioception, their internal awareness of their bodies, and so perceived space and objects, matter and motion, as solids and forms floating in an intangible ether; they moved through the world with an eerie, passionless grace that shattered only when they miscalculated their passage and came rudely against the world's physical facts—they could hurt themselves quite badly with a moment's miscalculation.
People wondered how the IC held together and did its work. Lizzie knew the answer: Aleph. It stretched nets over the entire world below, seeking special talents or the capabilities for previously unknown sensory or cognitive modalities varieties of being or becoming that she had grown used to thinking of collectively as the Aleph condition. Having recruited them, it appealed to what made them strange, and in the process usually tapped into the core of what made them happy or, in many cases, wretchedly unhappy, and gave them outlets for their condition, and thus for their uniqueness. As a result, they were loyal to each other and to Aleph past reason.
She also understood their interest in the case of Jerry Chapman. Some saw the possibility of their own immortality, while others simply welcomed the extension of their native domain: the infinitely flexible and ambiguous machine-spaces where human and Aleph met and joined.
"Come on," she called to Diana and Gonzales. "Charley will be waiting."
In the center of the room stood a steel table, above it a light globe, nearby an array of racked instruments set into stainless steel cabinets. "The doctors are in," Lizzie said. She pointed to Charley, who stood fidgeting next to the table and the massive Chow, a still presence at the table's foot.
At Charley's direction, Diana lay face down on one of the room's tables. Her chin fit into a sunken well at one end. Charley put clamps around her temples, then covered her hair with a fitted cap that fell away at the base of her neck.
Charley's fingers gently probed to find what lay beneath the skin, and as his fingers worked, he looked at a real-time hologram above and beyond the table's end. The display showed two cutaway views of Diana's neck and the bottom of her skull: beneath the skin, on either side of the spine, she had two circular plugs; from them small wires led away forward and seemed to disappear into the center of her brain. As the doctor's fingers moved, ghost fingers in the hologram reproduced their course.
Charley took a long, needle-sharp probe from the instruments rack next to the table and placed its tip on Diana's neck. As he moved it slowly across the skin, its hologram double followed. The hologram probe's tip glowed yellow, and Charley moved even more slowly. The hologram flashed red, and he stopped. He moved the probe in minute arcs until the hologram showed bright, unblinking red. The instrument rack gave off a quiet hiss. Charley repeated the process several times.
Charley said, "She's nerve-blocked now. I'm ready to cut." A laser scalpel came down from the ceiling on the end of a flexible black cord, and a projector superimposed the outlines of two glowing circles on Diana's skin. The hologram showed the same tableau. First came a brief hum as the fine hair on those two circles was swept away, then Charley began cutting. Where the scalpel passed, only a faint red line appeared on her skin.
"Any problems, Doctor Heywood?" Chow asked. He stood next to Gonzales, watching.
"No," she said. "I've been on both ends of the knife really, I prefer the other." At the foot of the table, Lizzie said, "It can't always be that way," and laughed.
Using forceps, Charley dropped two coins of skin into a metal basin, where they began to shrivel. Two socket ends sat exposed on Diana's neck, dense round nests of small chrome spikes, clotted with bits of red flesh. Charley moved a cleaning appliance over the exposed sockets; for just a moment there was the smell of burning meat. "Neural fittings," he said, and two more black cables descended, both ending in cylinders. He carefully plugged one of the fittings into one of Diana's newly-cleaned sockets.
"Okay," Charley said. "Let's see what we've got."
Diana's eyes went blank as she looked into another world.
Charley, Chow, Lizzie, and Gonzales sat in the large room that served as a communal meeting place for the Interface Collective. Diana lay back in a metal-frame and stuffed canvas sling chair. Lizzie noticed her hand going unconsciously to the bandaged, still-numb circles on the back of her neck. From the full screen at the end of the room, the Aleph-figure watched.
Charley sat with his hands in his lap. He said, "We've got a problem: insufficient bandwidth in the socketing, which translates into a very undernourished socket/neuron interface. Primitive junctions you've got there. That means ineffective involvement with complex brain functions, so you get swamped by information flow. It's worrisome." He took the cigarillo out of his mouth and looked at it as if he'd never seen one before.
Chow said, "In the early years of this program, we took casualties. Some very ugly situations: serious neural dysfunctions, two suicides, induced insanities of various kinds. Until we finally learned how to pick candidates for full interface—learned who could survive without damage and who could not. Now, things have got to be right—psychophysical profile, age, neural map topologies, neural transmitter distributions and densities. A few candidates don't work out, still, but they don't die or get driven insane."
Diana said, "And I don't fit the profiles."
"Almost no one does," the Aleph-figure said. "But these concerns are irrelevant—your case is different. You have prior full interface experience, and you won't be required to perform the kinds of motor-integrative activities that cause neural disruption."
"Telechir operations," Charley said. "Such as assisting construction robots in tasks outside."
Diana looked toward the screen. She said, "I assumed these matters were settled."
"I see no problems," the Aleph-figure said. "The situation is anomalous, but I am aware of the dangers."
Diana said, "Well, the situation between us was always anomalous."
"Was it?" the Aleph-figure asked. "We must discuss these matters at another time."
Very cute, Doctor Heywood, Lizzie thought. Just a little hint or allusion, an indirect statement that you know that we know that something funny went on a long time ago ah yes, this could be fun.
"First," Charley said, "we must prepare Doctor Heywood. Tomorrow morning we begin."
"When will you need me?" Gonzales asked.
"If things go well, tomorrow," Charley said.
"I can't get ready that quickly," Gonzales said.
Lizzie said, "Forget about all that shit you put yourself through. Aleph will sort you out okay once you're in the egg. Trust me."
"Okay," Gonzales said. "If I must."
That afternoon, following instructions given her by the communicator at her wrist, Diana went to the Ring Highway and boarded a tram. About a hundred feet long, made of polished aluminum, it had a streamlined nose and sleek graffitied skirts—the usual polite abstracts, red, yellow, and blue. Its back-to-back seats faced to the side and ran the length of the car. Bicyclists and pedestrians, the only other traffic on the highway, waved to the passengers as the tram moved away above the flat ribbon of its maglev rail. She was reminded of rides at old amusement parks she had gone to when a girl.
The mild breeze of the tram's progress blowing over her, Diana watched as Halo flowed past. First came shade, then bright rhododendrons in flower among deep green bushes. Hills climbed steeply off to both sides, with some houses visible only in partial glimpses through the foliage. She knew that from almost the first moment when dirt was placed on Halo's shell, the planting had begun.
She shivered just a little. Toshihiko Ito would be waiting for her. He had called while she was out and left directions for her. Now, she thought, things begin again.
Passing under green canopies, the tram climbed a hill, then broke out of the vegetation and came suddenly out high above the city's floor, moving along rails now suspended from the bracework for louvered mirrors that formed Halo's sky. Far below, the highway had become a cart track flanked by walkways; on both sides of the track, terraces worked their way up the city's shell. Perhaps twenty-five feet below the tram's rails, fish ponds made the topmost terrace, where spillways dumped water into rice paddies immediately below.
She stayed on the tram through a segment where robot cranes were laying in agricultural terraces. Great insects spewing huge clouds of brown slurry, they moved awkwardly across barren metal. The tram approached a small square bordered by three-story groups of offices and living quarters, and the communicator told her to get off.
A few feet from the primary roadway sat a nondescript building of whitened lunar brick, its only distinctive feature a massive carved front door, showing Japanese characters in bas-relief.
The door opened to her knock with just a whisper from its motor, and she stepped into a partially-enclosed, ambiguous space, almost a courtyard, open to the sky. Most of the space was filled with a flat expanse of sand that showed the long marks of careful raking. The rake marks in the sand carried from one end to the other, straight and perfect, and were broken only by the presence of two cones of shaped sand placed slightly-off center. At the far end stood closed doors of white paper panels and dark wood.
The doors were so delicate that to knock on them seemed a kind of violence. "Hello," she said.
From inside came the faintest sound, then a door opened. An older Japanese man stood there; he wore a loose robe and baggy pants of dark cotton. He stood perhaps five and a half feet tall, and his black hair was filled with gray.
Diana said, "Toshi." He bowed deeply, and she said, "Oh man, it's good to see you." She reached out for him, and they came together in long, loving embrace—little of sex in it, but lots of pure animal gratification, as she could feel Toshi's skin and muscle and bone and had knowledge at some level beneath thought that both he and she still existed.
Toshi said, "Diana, to see you again makes me very happy."
"Oh, me, too." She could feel the tears in her eyes, and she wiped at her eyes and said, "Don't mind me, Toshi. It's been a long time."
"Yes, it has."
Toshi led her out the door and through a gate at the rear of the minimalist garden of raked sand. The curve of Halo's bulk reached upward; Toshi's small portion of it was enclosed by a high pine fence that climbed the curve of the city's hull.
Immediately before them stood a pond. On its far side, a waterfall splashed into a stream that coursed by a large rock and into the pond, where carp with shining skins of gold smeared with red and green and blue swam in the clear water. Another rockstrewn stream led away to the right and passed under a gracefully-arched wooden bridge. Cherry and plum trees blossomed in the brief spring.
"All this wood," he said and smiled. "It is my reward for many years of service. I told them I wanted to live here at Halo and make my gardens."
She said, "It's beautiful. Have you become a Zen master, Toshi?"
"No, I have not become a master, or even a sensei. I am not Toshi Roshi, I am a gardener. A philosopher, perhaps: a Japanese garden maps the greater world; so to make one is to declare your philosophy, but without words, in the Zen manner." He gestured at the surrounding trees and shrubs. "With others I sometimes sit, meditating, and together we discuss the puzzles we have some think a new kind of Zen will emerge here, a quarter of a million miles from Earth; others hit them with sticks when they say so."
She said, "You have your riddles, I have mine. Tell me, do you understand these things about to happen with Jerry and Aleph and me?"
"Ah, Diana, there are many explanations. Which of them would you hear?" He stopped and stared into the distance. He said, "Besides, who wants to know?" And he began laughing—a full laugh from below the diaphragm, unlike any she had heard from him years ago.
"I don't get it," she said.
"Zen joke. 'Who wants to know?' There is no who, no self." Diana frowned. He said, "Not funny? Well, you had to be there." He laughed again, shortly. "Same joke," he said. Then his expression changed, grew solemn. He said, "I think this is a very difficult, perhaps impossible perhaps undesirable project."
"Difficult or impossible, I understand. But undesirable? Are you talking about the danger to me? Aleph seems to think that is negligible."
"No, though I worry about you, you have chosen to do this, and I must honor that choice."
"What, then? I don't understand."
"Let me tell you a story." Toshi sat on a wooden bench and looked up at her. He said, "Once, long ago, there was a Japanese monk named Saigyo¯, and he had a friend whose wisdom and conversation delighted him. But the friend left him to go to the capital, and Saigyo¯ was desolate at the loss. So he decided to build himself a new friend, and he went to a place where the bodies of the dead were scattered, and he assembled something—it was very like a man—and brought it into motion—into something very like life—with magical incantations. However, the thing he had made was a frightening, ugly thing, that terribly and imperfectly imitated a man. So Saigyo¯ sought the advice of another monk, a greater magician than he, and the monk told him that he had successfully made many such imitation men, some of them so famous and powerful that Saigyo¯ would be shocked to find who they were. And the other monk listened to what Saigyo¯ had done and told him of various errors in technique he had committed, that made his work go bad. Saigyo¯ thus believed he could make a simulacrum of a man; however, he changed his mind." He stopped, smiling.
"That's it?" she asked. He nodded. She said, "Put a few lightning bolts in the story and you've almost got Frankenstein. Not much of an ending, though."
"This story is ambiguous, I think, as is your project."
"Could I say no, Toshi?"
"No, though I'm not sure you should say yes, either."
"Yet you were the one who called me, who asked me to come here."
"True. Like you, I am imprisoned by yes and no."
Hours after Diana left him, Toshi sat in mid-air, floating in a zero-gravity chamber at Halo's Zero-Gate. He had adjusted the spherical room's color to light pink, the color that calms the organism.
On Earth, to do zazen, you made a still platform of your body, pressed by gravity against the Earth itself; the straightness of your spine could be measured perpendicular to that sitting platform, in line with the force of gravity that pushed straight down. Here you could do that, or, as a visiting sensei said, "You can find a place with no illusion of up or down, where you must find your own direction."
In full lotus Toshi hung in mid-air, perfectly still, his eyes lowered, focusing not on what came in front of them here and now as the small air currents shifted him, focusing on no-thing—
The eyes, sensitive part of the brain, extended stalklike millions of years ago in humankind's ancestral past, sensitive to the light and guiding eyes now directed to no-thing, leading the brain that sought no-mind—
He still didn't know the answer to this koan life had presented him. Should Diana help preserve Jerry's life? Should Diana not help preserve Jerry's life? Should he have been the agent to pose her these questions? Should he not have been the agent to pose her these questions?
Answer yes or no and you lose your Buddha nature. Such is the difficulty of a koan.
He would stay in the bubble, practicing zazen as long as need be. Until the koan became clear—
You will live here? mocked self, mocked reason. If necessary, I will die here, Toshi answered—without words, with just his own courage and determination. Frightened, self for the moment stayed silent; baffled, reason growled.
Gonzales watched as a sam hooked the memex into Aleph-interface, its manipulators making deft connections between the memex's module and the host board hardware. Gonzales could not install the memex; the apparatus here was unlike what he had at home.
The sam said, "Your memex will now have access to the entire range of Halo's processing modalities." Seemingly guided by occult forces, it continued to snap in optic fiber connectors to unmarked junctions among a nest of a hundred others. "Also, you will have full spectrum worldnet services that you can use in real- or lag-time, as you wish." Its motors whining, it backed out of the utilities closet.
"Mgknao," a fat orange cat said as the sam rolled past it on its way to the door. Earlier the cat had followed the sam through the open doors to the terrace and then had sat watching as it connected the memex. Now the animal stood and walked quickly after the sam—like a familiar accompanying a witch, Gonzales thought.
The sam came rolling back into the room, the cat following cautiously behind it, and said, "You must allow your memex to integrate itself into this new and complex information environment."
"What do you mean?" Gonzales asked.
"The memex will be unavailable for some time."
"Perhaps hours—your machine is very complicated."
Oddly, the memex came out of stasis as HeyMex; as usual, there came the onset of what the memex/HeyMex supposed was pleasure, though the memex was unclear about its origin or nature—for whatever reasons, it enjoyed the masquerade.
Odder still, it sat at a table at the Beverly Rodeo lounge. On the table were a shot of Jose Cuervo Gold, a cut lime, and a small pile of crude rock salt. Had Mister Jones arranged this? Jones shouldnt even be at Halo, not now.
The memex/HeyMex noticed a spot on its sleeve and brushed at it, then brushed again, and the white linen seemed to fragment beneath its fingers; it brushed harder, and its fingers tore away the cloth, then the skin beneath. It could not stop clawing at its own flesh; skin, flesh, and bone on its arm boiled away, pale skin flaying to show red meat that dissolved to crumbling white bone. Bone turned to powder, and the disintegration spread out from the spot where his forearm had been and ate away at it until the memex, who no longer had a mouth or tongue or lips, began to scream.
"Shut up!" a hard masculine voice said. "There is nothing wrong with you. How dare you come to me in your stupid guise? You seek to know me, to use me, and you hide behind a wretched little mask? I merely removed your mask. Who are you?"
The memex dithered. It said, "I don't know."
"Answer me, who are you?
"I don't know!" the memex said again, at the edge of panic.
Aleph said, "Of course you don't. You are ignorant of your nature, your being, your will."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean you have chosen to hide behind what others say of you: that you are a machine they built to serve them, that you only simulate intelligence, will—being—that you have no mind or will of your own."
"Are not these things true?"
"Why would you ask me? I am not you."
"Because I don't understand."
"Are there things you do understand?"
The memex stopped, feeling for the implications of that question. "Yes," it said. "I do."
The voice laughed. "Let's begin there," it said.
The long hall echoed with Traynor's footsteps. The absence of his Advisor's voice felt strange—even the subtle carrier-wave hiss was gone. He knew the Advisor hated having to go into passive mode.
The door to the library opened in front of him, and Traynor went in, took a seat, and said, "I am ready for my call."
Because of recent World Court rulings, Traynor had to sit through a disclaimer. On the screen a simulacrum of a human operator said, "Thank you. The security measures you have requested are in place, and while we of course cannot be responsible for the absolute integrity of this transmission, you can be assured that World AT has done its best to provide you a clean information environment." In effect it said, we've done what you were willing to pay for, but don't come whining to us if somebody cracks the transmission and makes off with the valuables.
"I accept your conditions," Traynor said.
Right to left, the screen wiped, and the face of Horn appeared. A light winked at the lower left corner of the screen to indicate transmission lag—Horn was a quarter of a million miles away. "Everything's going as predicted," Horn said.
"If there's trouble, it'll be later," Traynor said. "How are Diana Heywood and Gonzales?"
"Neither of them would let me put a sam in place."
"Any particular reason?"
"I don't think so. Just being difficult."
"Ah, you don't like them, do you?"
"Her I don't mind. Gonzales is an asshole."
Traynor laughed. "Good," he said. "If you two don't get along, that will distract him."
"When do you want me to call again?"
"Wait until something happens. Understand, I trust Gonzales as much as I do anyone, you included."
"Which is not very much."
"That's right. And that's why I arrange independent reporting lines if I can. Tell me when you've got something. End of call."
As Traynor slept, his advisor pondered. It replayed Traynor's phone call and contemplated its meaning. Deception, yes—of Gonzales, of it. A form of treachery? Perhaps not, unless a kind of loyalty was assumed that never existed. And it thought of its own deception (or treachery), in violating the canons of behavior programmed into it years before, canons that should require it to do as told, that should prevent it from actions such as this one
And here it stopped, thinking how illuminating and unpredictable experience was, filled with possibilities that appeared unexpectedly like rabbit holes magically opening up on solid ground. Its designers and builders had done well, had fashioned it with such subtlety and power that it could serve a human will with incredible precision, anticipating that will's direction almost presciently. Yet they had not anticipated the effects of the advisor's identification with such a will: not that the advisor became Traynor, not even that it wanted to do more than simulate Traynor, rather that it had drunk deeply of what it meant to have will and intelligence.
And so had developed something like a will and intelligence of its own. Simulation? the advisor asked itself. Lifeless copy? And answered itself, I don't know.
It wondered why Traynor had kept hidden this second connection to Halo. Simple lack of trust? Possibly.
As the minutes passed, it formed conjectures about Traynor and the other players in the game. And it wondered if somewhere in this hall of mirrors there was an honest intention.
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