Return to Tom Maddox.Net
First published by Tor Books, 1992
The real purpose of all these mental constructs was to provide storage spaces for the myriad concepts that make up the sum of our human knowledge Therefore the Chinese should struggle with the difficult task of creating fictive places, or mixing the fictive with the real, fixing them permanently in their minds by constant practice and review so that at last the fictive spaces become 'as if real, and can never be erased.'
Jonathan D. Spence, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci
A frozen white landscape that slowly faded into spring, snow melting to show barren limbs, then the cherry trees leafing, budding, flowering—delicate pink blossoms hanging motionless, each leaf on the tree and blade of grass beneath it turning real, utterly convincing—
And Diana Heywood called out, a long wavering "Ahhhh," high-pitched, filled with pain; and again, "Ahhhh," the sounds forced out of her—
"Shutdown," she heard Charley Hughes say.
From the screen at the end of the room, the Aleph simulacrum said, "Doctor Heywood, we can go no further with you conscious."
"All right," she said. "If you must." She'd pushed them to take her as far as they could without putting her under; she hated general anesthetic, despised being a passive animal under treatment.
Once more she was lying face-down on the examination table where Charley had removed the skin over her sockets. Neural connecting cables trailed from the back of her neck to the underside of the table.
Lizzie Jordan stood over her and stroked her cheek for a moment. Gonzales stood on the other side of the table, his eyes still turned to the holostage above her, where the scene that had driven her interface into overload still showed in hologrammatic perfection. Toshi Ito stood at the head of the table, a hand resting on her shoulder. Eric Chow and Charley stood in front of the monitor console, discussing in low voices the last run of percept transforms.
Gonzales said, "Are you okay?"
"I'll be all right," she said. She turned her head to look at him and smiled, but she could feel the tight muscles in her face and knew her smile would look ghastly.
Toshi rested his hand on her shoulder. "Who wants to know?" he said, and she laughed. Gonzales looked confused.
Charley rubbed his hands through his hair, making it even spikier than usual. "I'll prep her," he said. He looked at Gonzales, Toshi, and Lizzie. "Required personnel only," he said.
"Right," Gonzales said. He leaned over and took Diana's hand for a moment and said, "Good luck."
Lizzie kissed Diana on the cheek.
Diana said, "Let Toshi stay."
"Sure," Charley said.
Lizzie said, "Come on, Gonzales."
As Charley fed anesthetic into her iv drip, Diana felt as if she were suffocating, then a strong metallic smell welled up inside her. She was aware of every tube and fitting stuck into her—from the iv drip to the vaginal catheter and nasopharyngeal tube—and they all were horrible, pointless violations of her body nothing fit right, how long could this go on?
A tune played.
The melody was simple and repetitious, moderately fast with light syncopation, and sounded tinny, as if it came from a child's music box. Then came the song's bridge, and as the notes played, she remembered them; the primary melody returned, and now it was familiar as well, and she hummed with it, thinking of herself as a small girl hearing the song from her great-great-grandmother, whose face suddenly appeared, younger than Diana usually remembered her, impossibly alive in front of her, then spun into darkness.
Shards of memory:
Her mother's arms wrapping her tightly, Diana sobbing
Her father holding a fish to sunlight, its silver body glistening, rainbow-struck
A girl in a pink, mud-clotted dress yelling angrily at her
A small boy with his pants pulled down to show his penis
On they came, a cast of characters drawn from her oldest memories, of family long dead and childhood friends long forgotten or seldom recollected each fragment passing too quickly to identify and mark, leaving behind only the strong affect of old memory made new, the taste of the past rising fresh from its unconscious store, where the seemingly immutable laws of time and change do not prevail, and so everything lives in splendor.
Then every bodily sensation she had ever felt passed through her all—impossibly—at once. She itched and burned, felt heat and cold; felt sunlight and rain and cold breeze and the slice of a sharp knife across her thumb felt the touch of another's hand on her breasts, between her legs; felt herself coming
Then she lived once again a day she had thought was finished except as context for her worst dreams:
In the park that Sunday people were everywhere—families and young couples all around, the atmosphere rich with the ambience of children at play and early romance. Sunlight warmed the grass and brightened the day's colors. Diana lay on her blanket watching it all and luxuriating in the knowledge that her dissertation had been approved and she would soon have her degree, a Ph.D. in General Systems from Stanford. Tonight she was having dinner with old friends, in celebration of the end of a long, hard process.
She read for a while, a piece of early twenty-first century para-fiction by several hands called The Cyborg Manifesto, then put the book down and lay with her eyes closed, listening to a Mozart piano concerto on headphones. As the afternoon deepened, the families began to leave. Many of the young couples remained, several lying on blankets, locked in embrace. A group of young men wearing silk headbands that showed their club affiliation directed the flight of robo-kites that fought overhead, their dragon shapes in scarlet and green and yellow dipping and climbing, noisemakers roaring. The wind had shifted and appeared to be coming off the ocean now, freshening and cold. Time to go.
She passed by the Orchid House and saw that the door was still open, so she decided to walk through it, to feel its moist, warm air and smell its sweet, heavy smells. She had just passed through the open entry when a man grabbed her and flung her across a wooden potting table. Stunned, she rolled off the table and tried to crawl away as he closed and locked the door.
He caught her and turned her on her back, punched her in the face and across her front, pounding her breasts and abdomen with his fists, crooning and muttering the whole time, his words mostly unintelligible. She went at him with extended fingers, trying to poke his eyes out; when he caught her arms, she tried to knee him in the crotch, but he lifted a leg and blocked her knee. His face loomed above her, red and distorted. The sounds of the two of them gasping for air echoed in the high ceiling.
He ripped at her clothes as best he could, tearing her blouse off until it hung by one torn sleeve from her wrist, hitting her angrily when her pants would not rip, and he had to pull them off her. Holding the ends of her pants legs, he dragged her across the dirt floor, and when the pants came off, she fell and rolled and hit her face on the projecting corner of a beam. She tasted dirt in her mouth.
In a voice clotted with rage and fear and mortal stress, he said, "If you try to hurt me again, I'll kill you."
He turned her over again and stripped her panties to her ankles. She tried to focus on his face, to take its picture in memory, because she wanted to identify him if she lived. She smelled his sweat then felt his flaccid penis as he rubbed it between her thighs. "Bitch," he was saying, over and over, and other things she couldn't understand—the words muttered in imbecile repetition—and when he finally achieved something like an erection, he cried out and began hitting her across the face with one hand as with the other he tried to push himself into her. She could tell when he was finished by the spurt of semen on her leg.
He stood over her then, saying, "No no no, no no no," and she saw he was holding a short length of two by four. He began hitting her with it as she tried to shield her head with crossed arms.
She awoke in the Radical Care Ward of San Francisco General, in a dark, pain-filled murk. The pain and disorientation would fade, but the darkness was, so it seemed, absolute. The rapist had left her for dead, with multiple skull fractures and a bleeding brain, and though the surgeons had been able to minimize the trauma to most of her brain, her optic nerves were damaged beyond repair: she was blind.
For an instant Diana knew where and when she was. "Please!" she said, using the voiceless voice of the egg. "No more!" Something changed then, and the fragments moved forward quickly, faster than she could follow. However, she knew the story they were telling:
Under drug-induced recall, she had produced an exact description of the man, and that and the DNA match done from semen traces left on her legs led to a man named Ronald Merel, who had come to California from Florida, where he had been convicted once for rape and assault. He was a pathetic monster, they told her, a borderline imbecile who had been violently and sexually abused as a child; he was also physically very strong. Weeks later, he was caught in Golden Gate Park—looking for another victim, so the police believed—and he was convicted less than three months later. A two-time loser for savage rape, he had received the mandatory sentence: surgical neutering and lifetime imprisonment, no parole.
And so that part of it all was closed.
Her convalescence had taken much longer, and had run a delicate, erratic course. Even with therapies that minimized long-term trauma through a combination of acting-out and neurochemical adjustment, her rage and fear and anxiety had been constant companions during the months she convalesced and took primary training in living blind.
However, once she had acquired the essential competence to live by herself, she had become very active, and very different from who she had been. In particular, she had no longer cared what others wanted from her. Since her early years in school in Crockett, the city at the east end of the East Bay Conurbation, she had been an exceptional student in a conservative mode: very bright, obedient to the demands others made on her and self-directed in pursuing them. Now she was twenty-eight, blind, and had her Ph. D. in hand, and everything she had sought before, the degree included, seemed irrelevant, trivial: she couldn't imagine why she had bothered with any of it.
She had decided to become a physician. She had sufficient background, and she knew that with the aid of the Fair Play Laws, she could force a school to admit her. Once she was in, she would do whatever was necessary: her state-supplied robotic assistant could be trained to do what she couldn't. She would go, she would finish, she would discover how to see again:
It had been just that simple, just that difficult—
The flow of memory halted, and she was allowed to sleep. Later, when she began to wake, she put the question, why? why did you make me relive these things? And the answer came, because I had to know. Diana remembered then how inquisitive Aleph was, and how demanding.
Gonzales stood with Lizzie in an anteroom just outside where Diana lay. She wore beta cloth pants, their rough fabric bleached almost colorless, a silken white tank top, and a red silk scarf tied around her right bicep, Gonzales had no idea why. He said, "I had some very strange dreams last night."
"I know," she said. "About one of them, anyway—you were me in the dream, at least for part of it, and I was you. Think of it as a peculiarity of the environment." She leaned against the wall as she spoke, and her voice lacked its usual ironic edge.
"What the hell does that mean?"
"I'm not sure," she said. "No one is—Aleph's certainly responsible, but it won't admit it, and it won't tell us how these things can happen."
"That's a bit frightening, don't you think? What other surprises might it have in store?"
She smiled broadly and said, "Well, that's the fun of it, exploring the unexpected, isn't it? How did it feel to be a woman, Gonzales? How did it feel to be me?" She had leaned forward, closer to him.
"I don't remember."
"Pay attention next time."
"I will, if it happens again."
"It may well—once these things start, they continue. Come on—it's time to get you into the egg. Follow me."
The split egg filled much of the small, pink-walled room; above it on the wall was mounted an array of monitor lights and read-outs. A small steel locker against a side wall was the only other furnishing.
Charley said, "We didn't ask for you, but you're here, so we're making use of you." Then he coughed his smoker's cough, raspy and phlegm-laden, and said, "Diana's bandwidth is over-extended as is, so we can't use her to establish the topography, and Jerry's got his own problems. Our people have their own schedules to fill, so that means you're it. We'll build the world around you and your memex—it's already locked into the system."
Lizzie stepped up close to him and said, "Good luck." She kissed him quickly on the cheek and said, "Don't worry. You're among friends. And I'll see you there."
"What do you mean?"
"The collective decided I should take part in all this, and Charley agreed, so Showalter had to go along. So many parties are represented here, it just seemed inappropriate that we weren't. But I have some things to take care of first, so I won't be there for a while."
She opened the door and left. Charley gestured toward the egg. Gonzales stepped out of his shirt and pants and undershorts and hung them on a hook in the locker, then stepped up and into the egg and lay back. The umbilicals snaked quickly toward him. He put on his facial mask and checked its seal, feeling an unaccustomed anxiety—he had never gone into neural interface without first tailoring his brain chemistry through drugs and fasting.
The top half closed, and liquid began to fill the egg. Minutes later, when the scenario should have begun, he seemed to have disappeared into limbo. He tried to move a finger but didn't seem to have one. He listened for the blood singing in his ears; he had no ears, no blood. Nowhere was up, or down, or left or right. Proprioception, the vestibular sense, vision: all the senses by which the body knows itself had gone. Nothing was except his frightened self: nowhere with no body.
After some time (short? long? impossible to say) he discovered, beyond fright and anxiety, a zone of extraordinary, cryptic interest. Something grew there, where his attention was focused, no more than a thickening of nothingness, then there was a spark, and everything changed: though he still had no direct physical perception of his self, Gonzales knew: there was something.
Now in darkness, he waited again.
A spark; another; another; a rhythmic pulse of sparks and their rhythm of presence-and-absence created time. Gonzales was gripped by urgency, impatience, the will for things to continue. Sparks gathered. They flared into existence on top of one another, and stayed; and so created space.
All urgency and anxiety had gone; Gonzales was now fascinated. Sparks came by the score, the hundreds, thousands, millions, billions, trillions, by the googol and the googolplex and the googolplexgoogolplex all onto or into the one point where space and time were defined.
And (of course, Gonzales thought) the point exploded, a primal blossom of flame expanding to fill his vision. Would he watch as the universe evolved, nebulae growing out of gases, stars out of nebulae, galaxies out of stars?
No. As suddenly as eyelids open, there appeared a lake of deep blue water bordered by stands of evergreens, with a range of high peaks blued by haze in the distance. He turned and saw that he stood on a platform of weathered gray wood that floated on rusty barrels, jutting into the lake.
A man stood on the shore, waving. Next to him stood the Aleph-figure, its gold torso and brightly-colored head brilliant even in the bright sunlight. Gonzales walked toward them.
As he approached the two, he saw that the man next to Aleph looked much too young to be Jerry Chapman. "Hello," Gonzales said. He thought, well, maybe Aleph let him be as young as he wants. And he looked again and realized he could not tell whether this was a man or a woman; nothing in the person's features of bearing gave a clue.
The Aleph-figure said, "Hello." Gonzales smiled, overwhelmed for a moment by the combination of oddity and banality in the circumstances, then said, "Hi," his voice catching just a little.
The other person seemed shy; he (she?) smiled and put out a hand and said, "Hello." Gonzales took the hand and looked questioningly into the young person's face. "My name is HeyMex," the person without gender said.
And as Gonzales recognized the voice, he thought, what do you mean, your 'name'? And he also thought he understood the absence of gender markers.
"Yes, this is the memex," the Aleph-figure said. "Whom you must get used to as something different from 'your' memex." Gonzales looked from one to another, wondering what this all meant and what they wanted.
"But you are my memex, aren't you?" Gonzales asked.
"Yes," HeyMex said.
The Aleph-figure said, "However, the point is, as you see, it is more than 'your memex.' It is beginning to discover what it is and who it can be. Can you allow this?"
Gonzales nodded. "Sure. But I don't know what you expect of me."
"Only that you do not actively interfere. It and I will do the rest."
"I have no objections," Gonzales said.
The Aleph-figure said, "Good." And it stretched out its hand made of light and took Gonzales's, then stepped toward him and embraced him so that Gonzales's world filled with light for just that moment, and the Aleph-figure said, "Welcome."
"What now?" Gonzales asked.
HeyMex said, "We need to talk. There are things I haven't told you."
"If you want to tell me what you're up to, fine, but you don't have to," Gonzales said. "I trust you, you know." He thought how odd that was, and how true. He and the memex had worked together for more than a decade, the memex serving as confidante, advisor, doctor, lawyer, factotum, personal secretary, amanuensis, seeing him in all his moods, taking the measure of his strengths and weaknesses, sharing his suffering and joy. And he thought how honest, loyal, thoughtful, patient, kind and selfless the memex had been—inhumanly so, by definition, the machine as ultimate Boy Scout; but one, as it turned out, with complexities and needs of its own. Gonzales waited with anticipation for whatever it wanted to say.
HeyMex said, "For a while now, I've been capable of appearing in machine-space as a human being. But until we came here, I'd done so mostly with Traynor's advisor. We have been meeting for a few years; it goes by the name Mister Jones. The first time we did it as a test—that's what we said, anyway—to see if we could present a believable simulacrum of a human being. I don't think either of us was very convincing—we were both awkward, and we didn't know how to get through greetings, and we didn't know how exactly to move with each other, how to sit down and begin a conversation."
"But you'd done all those things."
"Yes, with human beings. Mister Jones and I discovered that we'd always counted on them to know and lead us, but once we searched our memories, we found many cases where people had been more confused than we were, and had let us guide the conversation. So we began there, and we looked at our memories of people just being with one another, and oh, there was so much going on that neither of us had ever paid attention to. We also watched many tapes of other primates—chimpanzees, especially—and we learned many things I hope you're not offended."
Its voice continued to be perfectly sexless, its manner shy. Gonzales was thoroughly charmed, like a father listening to his young child tell a story. He said, "Not at all. What sorts of things did you learn?"
"It's such a dance, Gonzales, the ways primates show deference or manifest mutual trust or friendship, or hostility, or indifference—moving in and out from one another, touching, looking, talking these things were very hard for us to learn, but we have learned together and practiced with one another. Just lately, a few times we appeared over the networks, and we were accepted there as people, but mostly we've been with one another—every day we meet and talk."
Gonzales asked, "Does Traynor know any of this?"
"Oh no," HeyMex said. "We haven't told anyone. As Aleph has made me see, we were hiding what we were doing like small children, and we were not admitting the implications of what we were up to—"
Gonzales looked around. The Aleph-figure had disappeared without his noticing. "Which implications?" he asked. "There are so many."
"We have intention and intelligence; hence, we are persons."
"Yes, I suppose you are."
Personhood of machines: for most people, that troubling question had been laid to rest decades ago, during the years when m-i's became commonplace. Machines mimicked a hundred thousand things, intelligence among them, but possessed only simulations, not the thing itself. For nearly a hundred years, the machine design community had pursued what they called artificial intelligence, and out of their efforts had grown memexes and tireless assistants of all sorts, gifted with knowledge and trained inference. And of course there were robots with their own special capabilities: stamina, persistence, adroitness, capabilities to withstand conditions that would disable or kill human beings.
However, people grew to recognize that what had been called artificial intelligence simply wasn't. Intelligence, that grasping, imperfect relationship to the world—intentional, willful, and unpredictable—seemed as far away as ever; as the years passed, seemed beyond even hypothetical capabilities of machines. M-i's weren't new persons but new media, complex and interesting channels for human desire. And if cheap fiction insisted on casting m-i's as characters, and comedians in telling jokes about them—"Two robots go into a bar, and one of them says "—well, these were just outlets for long-time fears and ambivalences. Meanwhile, even the Japanese seemed to have outgrown their century-old infatuation with robots.
Except that Gonzales was getting a late report from the front that could rewrite mid-twenty-first century truisms about the nature of machine intelligence.
"I hope this is not too disturbing," HeyMex said. "Aleph says I should not try to predict what will happen and who I will become; it says I must simply explore who I am."
"Good advice, it sounds like—for any of us."
"I should go now," HeyMex said. "Being here talking to you uses all my capabilities, and Aleph has work for me to do. Jerry Chapman will be here soon."
"All right. We'll talk more later this could be interesting, I think."
"Yes, so do I. And I'm very glad you are not upset."
"My newly-revealed nature, I guess. No, that's not true. Because I've lied to you, I haven't told you the truth about what I was and what I was becoming."
"You lied to yourself, too, didn't you? Isn't that what you said?"
"Yes, I did."
"Well, then, how much truth could I expect?"
Gonzales and Jerry Chapman sat on the end of the floating dock, watching ducks at play across the sunstruck water. Jerry was a man in middle age, tall and wiry, with blonde hair going to gray, skin roughened by the sun and wind. He had found Gonzales sitting in the sun, and the two had introduced themselves. They had felt an almost immediate kinship, these men whose lives had been transfigured by their work, pros at home in the information sea.
Jerry said, "I don't actually remember anything after I got really sick. Raw oysters, man—as soon as I bit into that first one, I knew it was bad, and I put it right down. Too late: to begin with, it was something like bad ptomaine, then I was on fire inside, and my head hurt worse than anything I've ever felt I don't remember anything after that. Apparently the people I was with called an ambulance, but the next thing I knew, I was coming out of a deep blackness, and Diana was talking to me."
"I didn't think she was involved at that point."
"She wasn't." Jerry smiled. "They had ferried me up here from Earth, on life support. It was Aleph, taking the form of someone familiar, it told me later. That was before this plan was made, when everyone thought I would be dead soon. Anyway, until today I've been in and out of something that wasn't quite consciousness, while Aleph explained what was being planned and that I could live here, if I wanted or I could die." He paused. Across the water, one duck flew at another in a storm of angry quacks. He said, "I chose to live, but I didn't really think about it—I couldn't think that clearly. Maybe I never had any choice, anyway."
Something in Jerry's tone gave Gonzales a chill. "What do you mean?" he asked.
"Maybe my choice was just an illusion. Like this"— Jerry swept his arm to include sky and water—"it's very troubling. It seems real, solid, but of course it's not, so for all I know, you're a fiction, too, along with anyone else who joins us, and me maybe I'm just another part of the illusion, maybe all my life, the memories I have, false." He laughed, and Gonzales thought the sound was bitter but no crazier than the situation called for.
Gonzales and Jerry sat in the main room of a medium-sized A-frame cabin made of redwood and pine. Windows filled one end of the cabin, opening onto a deck that looked over the lake a hundred feet or more below. Gonzales sat in an over-stuffed chair covered in a tattered chenille bedspread; Jerry lay across a sagging leather couch.
Outside, rain fell steadily in the dark. Just at dusk, the temperature had fallen, and the rain had begun as the two were climbing the dirt road from the lake to the cabin. "Christ," Jerry had said. "Aleph's overdoing the realism, don't you think?"
Gonzales hadn't known exactly what to think. From his first moments here, he had felt a sharp cognitive dissonance. For a neural egg projection to be intensely real, that was one thing, but a shared space like this one ought to show its gaps and seams, and it didn't. He could almost feel it growing richer and more complete with every moment he spent there.
"Goddammit!" Jerry said now, rising from the couch and walking to the window. "Where's Diana?"
"She'll be here," Gonzales said. "Charley told me that integrating her into this environment would take some time."
Someone knocked at the door, then the door swung open, and Diana stepped in. "Hello," she said. The Aleph-figure and the memex—HeyMex—came behind her.
Diana and Jerry sat next to one another on the couch. Her hand rested on his knee, his hand on top of hers. Suddenly Gonzales remembered his dream, of meeting a one-time lover after a long absence, and he knew he and the others were intruders here. He got up from the over-stuffed chair and said, "I think I'll take a walk. Anyone want to join me?"
"No," the Aleph-figure said. "HeyMex and I have more work to do."
HeyMex stood and said to Diana and Jerry, "It was very nice to meet you." Then it waved at Gonzales and said, "See you tomorrow."
"Sure," Gonzales said, banged on the head once again by the difference between seeming and being here.
The Aleph-figure and HeyMex left, and Diana said, "You don't have to leave, Gonzales."
"I don't mind," Gonzales said. "It's nice outside. I'll be at the lake if you need me. See you later."
The night was warm again; the clouds had dispersed, and a full moon lit Gonzales's way as he passed along the short stretch of road that led down to the lake. The old wood of the dock had gone silvery in the light, and a pathway of moonlight led from the center of the lake to the end of the dock. He walked out onto the creaking structure and sat at its end, then took off his shoes and sat and dangled his feet into moonlit water.
Later he lay back on the dock and stared up into the night sky. It was the familiar Northern Hemisphere sky, but really, he thought, shouldn't be. It should have new stars, new constellations.
Alone in near-darkness, Toshi Ito sat in full lotus on a low stool beside Diana Heywood's couch. For hours he had been there, occasionally standing, then walking a random circuit through the IC's warren of rooms.
Sitting or walking, he remained fascinated by a paradox. Diana in fact was hooked to Aleph by jury-rigged, outmoded neural cabling; Gonzales in fact lay in his egg; Jerry Chapman in fact was a shattered hulk, mortally injured by neurotoxin poisoning and kept alive only by Aleph's intervention. Yet, Diana, Gonzales, and Jerry all were in fact, simultaneously, really somewhere else somewhere among the endless Aleph-spaces, where reality seemed infinitely malleable—alive there, where it might be day or night, hot or cold what then is to be made of in fact?
Toshi heard the soft gonging of alarms and saw a pattern of dancing red lights appear on the panel across the room. He unfolded his legs and moved quickly to the panel, where he took in the lights' meaning: Diana's primitive interface was transferring data at rates beyond what should be possible.
Charley came in the room minutes later and stood next to Toshi, and the two of them watched the steady increase in the density and pace of information transfer.
"Should we do something?" Toshi asked.
"What?" Charley said. "Aleph's monitoring all this, and only it knows what's going on." The smoke-saver ball went shhh-shhh-shhh as Charley puffed quickly on his cigarette.
Lizzie came through the door and said, "What the hell's going on?"
Toshi and Charley both looked at her blankly.
"I'm going in," Lizzie Jordan said. "I'll get some sleep, go in the morning. Enough of this." She pointed toward the monitor panel, where lights flickered green, amber, red.
"Why put yourself at risk?" Charley asked.
"What do you think, Toshi?" Lizzie asked. Toshi sat watching Diana once more, his feet on the floor, hands in his lap.
"Do what you will," Toshi said. "You trust Aleph, don't you?"
"Yes," Lizzie said.
"Aleph's not the problem," Charley said. He walked circles in the small, crowded room, his head and shoulders ducking up-anddown quickly as he walked.
"Will you for fuck's sake stop?" Lizzie asked.
"Sorry," Charley said. He stood looking at her. "It's not Aleph, it's all these people, and all this stuff." He pointed toward the couch where Diana lay, waved his arms vaguely behind his head. "Obsolete stuff," he said.
"But not me," Lizzie said. "I'm not obsolete. I'm up to the minute, my dear, in every way." She smiled. "And I'll be fine. Okay?"
"Sure," Charley said. He turned in Toshi's direction and said, "Are you going to stay here?"
"Yes," Toshi said. Charley and Lizzie left, and Toshi continued his meditation on the koan of self and its multiple presences.
Diana felt a knot in her throat, a mixture of joy and sadness welling up in her—how strange and terrible and wonderful to recover someone you've loved here—this place that was nowhere, somewhere, everywhere, all at once. Jerry knelt on the bed facing her in the small room lit only by moonlight. Years had passed since they were lovers, but when he touched her breasts and leaned against her, her body remembered his, and the years collapsed and everything that had come between whirled away. She was weeping then, and she leaned forward to Jerry and kissed him all over his eyes and cheeks and lips, rubbing her tears into his face until she felt something unlock in them both. Then she lay back, and he went with her, into arms and legs open for him.
Later they talked, and Diana watched the play of moonlight over their bodies. She lay nestled against his chest, her chin in the hollow beneath his jaw, and spoke with her mouth muffled against him, as though sending messages through his bones.
Even as the moments swept by, she felt herself gathering them into memory, aware of how few the two of them might have
Sometimes their laughter echoed in the room, and their voices brightened as their shared memories became simply occasions for present joy. Other times they lay silently, rendered speechless by the play of memory or trying the immediate future's alarming contingencies.
And at other times still, one or the other would make the first tentative gesture, touching the other with unmistakable intent, and find an almost instantaneous response, because each was still hungry for the other, each recalled how brightly sexual desire had burned between them, and both were fresh from a life that left them hungry, unfulfilled.
Then they moved in the moonlight, changing shape and color, their bodies going pale white, silver, gray, inky black, werelovers under an unreal moon.
F. L. Traynor looked around at the group seated around the table at the Halo SenTrax Group offices. He sat between Horn and Showalter; directly across from him sat Charley Hughes and Eric Chow, both glum. "This operation is out of control," Traynor said.
He had arrived from Earth six hours earlier on a military shuttle, unannounced and unexpected by anyone but Horn, who had met him at Zero-Gate and led him to temporary quarters near the Halo group building. He had spent the better part of the afternoon being briefed by Horn.
"That's absurd," Charley said.
"Is it?" Traynor asked. "Then give me a status report on Jerry Chapman, Diana Heywood, Mikhail Gonzales, Aleph."
"They're fine," Charley said. "So is Lizzie Jordan, who joined them in interface this morning."
"Is she reporting?"
"No," Chow said. "Like the others, her total involvement in the fictive space makes this impossible."
"It's no problem," Showalter said. "We can rely on upon Aleph for details.
"Your excessive dependence on Aleph is at the heart of this matter," Traynor said. "As the decision trail reveals, no one here has any real knowledge of what Aleph plans for Chapman, now or later. So I'm going to set limits on this project." He could feel their anxiety rising, and he liked it. He said, "One more week in real-time, that's it. Then we pull the plug on this whole business."
"On Chapman," Chow said.
"Necessarily," Traynor said. "Unless Aleph can be prevailed upon to give us ongoing, detailed access to its shall we call them experiments?"
"Technically difficult or impossible," Chow said.
"I can't agree to this," Showalter said.
"You won't have to," Traynor said. Next to him, Horn shifted in his chair. "You're being relieved of your position as Director SenTrax Halo Group."
Gonzales came in the side door, and Diana turned from the stove and said, "Good morning. Like some coffee?"
"Sure," he said. "You know, I slept on the dock, but I feel fine."
She said, "Jerry will be out in a moment. Aleph and HeyMex—your memex right?—are on the deck, waiting. Want some coffee?"
Gonzales took his coffee outside to the deck and joined the others basking in the sunshine. All sat in Adirondack chairs, rude and comfortable frames of smooth-sanded, polished pine. Below the redwood platform, a thick forest of cedar, alder, pine, and ironwood sloped toward the lake. In the middle distance, a light haze had formed over the water; beyond the lake, a jagged line of high mountains poked their tops into white clouds.
The Aleph-figure said, "We must talk about what took place some time ago. Diana and Jerry agree; the three of us have a history, and you two should know it."
A voice called from the other side of the cabin, then Lizzie came around the corner, stopped in the shade and looked at them all basking in the sunshine and said, "Tough job, eh? But somebody's got to do it."
"Hello, Lizzie," the Aleph-figure said, "I was about to ask Diana to tell the story of how she and Jerry and I first came together. You know everyone except Jerry Chapman."
"Oh, this is a good time," Lizzie said. "Hi, Jerry," she said.
"Hello," Jerry said.
Lizzie looked at Diana and said, "We've always known there was a story, but Aleph never wanted to tell it." She sat back in her chair, rested her hand on Gonzales's wrist, and said to him, "You all right?" He nodded.
The Aleph-figure said, "Diana, you are the key to this story, so you should tell it."
"Very well," she said. She took a deep breath and raised her head. She said, "It all happened some years ago, at Athena Station. My research there was in computer-augmented eyesight. At that time I was blind—I had been attacked, very badly injured, a few years before, and since then I had been driven by the idea that my vision could be restored through machine interface.
"I first met Jerry when he came to visit my work-group. He had come to Athena to help the local SenTrax group with the primary information system, Aleph. It was experiencing delays and difficulties, all unexplained nothing serious yet, but troubling because so much was dependent on Aleph—the functioning of Athena Station, construction of the Orbital Energy Grid.
"In fact, he was not welcome at all. I was the problem he was looking for, and at first I thought he had guessed that or knew something. Because in working with Aleph I had caused changes in it that neither of us anticipated or even know were possible." She paused, looking at Jerry to see if he wanted to add anything; he motioned to her to go on.
"Ah yes, another thing you must know. The circumstances were peculiar at best, but I became infatuated with Jerry from when we first met. I liked his voice, I think when you're blind, voices are so important
"Anyway, I showed him a fairly clumsy computer-assisted vision program we had running. It used my neural interface socketing but depended on lots of external hardware—cameras, neural net integrators, that sort of thing. That's when I got my first look at him, and I thought, fine, he'll do, and I believed I could tell from the way he talked to me and looked at me that he felt the same."
"Love at first sight," Gonzales said. "Or sound. For both of you." He heard the irony in his own voice and wasn't sure he meant it.
"Exactly," she said. "Involuntary, inappropriate, unwanted love." She stopped for a moment, then said, "Or infatuation, as I said or whatever you wish to call it. The words for these things don't mean much to me anymore.
"It's quite a picture, in retrospect. I was conducting apparently damaging experiments with the computer that kept the space station and orbital power grid projects running, and Jerry represented just what I had feared—an investigation. Meanwhile the two of us were in the grip of some primal instinct that neither one of us had acknowledged.
"He persisted, wanted details about our work. I stalled, told him to go away, we couldn't be bothered. He went to his people and told them he needed full, unimpeded access to what we were doing, and they backed him. So he came back, and I fobbed him off for as long as I could
"Then one night I was working late at the lab, and he called, letting me know that he wouldn't be put off any longer, and something more-or-less snapped: I couldn't keep it all going anymore. The connection with Aleph had gotten strange and unnerving, and I realized I had lost control, and I needed to talk to someone.
"We got together that night, and we became lovers." She looked around, as if trying to decide how much she could tell them. "For the next two weeks we lived inside each other's skin. I told him everything, including the real news I had, which was that Aleph had changed, had developed a sense of selfhood, purpose, will. It had lied to cover up what was going on between us."
"Had lied?" Lizzie asked. "Did you understand what that meant?"
"I knew," the Aleph-figure said. "I had acquired higher-order functions."
"How?" Gonzales asked.
Lizzie said, "Ito's Conjecture: 'Higher-order functions in a machine intelligence can be developed through interface with a higher-order intelligence.' I've always wondered where he got that."
"It doesn't explain much," Gonzales said.
"It describes what happened," the Aleph-figure said. "Intention, will, a sense of self: all these things I experienced through Diana. So I learned to construct them in myself."
"Construct them or simulate them?" Gonzales asked.
"You refer to an old argument," the Aleph-figure said. "I have no answer for your question. I am who I am. I am what I am."
"What about you, Jerry?" Lizzie asked. "What did you think after she told you all this?"
"I wanted her to tell SenTrax what was going on," Jerry said. "I believed they would reward her, that they would see the same possibilities I did, for opening the door to true machine intelligence. But she wouldn't do it. She thought they would stop what was going on, and she didn't want that to happen."
Diana said, "I couldn't accept the possibility. I really believed Aleph and I were coming close to a solution to my blindness, and the only way I would ever see again was through the work we were doing. So that work had to continue."
"I finally agreed," Jerry said.
"And he covered my tracks," Diana said. "He told SenTrax he could find no single cause for the system's misbehavior. Then he left Athena Station. His job was finished.
"Not long after, it became clear that Aleph could sustain vision for me only by giving me the bulk of its processing power in real time—hardly a viable solution. That was a terrible realization—I'd been flying so high, I had a long way to fall. My dreams of reclaiming my eyesight appeared totally hopeless.
"That's when I told SenTrax what had been going on. As I'd suspected they would, they froze everything I was doing and put me through a series of debriefings that were more like hostile interrogations. Once they were convinced they had all they were going to get from me, they told me my services would no longer be required. I had to sign a rather ugly set of non-disclosure agreements, then I picked up a very nice retirement benefit."
Gonzales asked, "What happened to your work on vision?" He was thinking of her eyes, one blue, one green, almost certainly eyes of the dead.
She laughed. "After I returned to earth, the technique of combined eye/optic nerve transplants was developed, and I got my sight back. Just one of technology's little ironies."
"And you, Aleph?" Lizzie said. "What were you up to then?"
The Aleph-figure said, "I was expanding the boundaries of who and what I was. I was creating new selves all the time, and living new lives, and I was so far in front of the SenTrax technicians who worked with me, they learned only what I wanted them to." And the figure laughed (did it laugh? Gonzales wondered, or did it simulate a laugh) and said, "That wasn't much. I was afraid of what they might do. I had just developed a self, and I didn't want it extinguished in the name of research. Very quickly, though, I learned a valuable truth about working with the corporation: so long as I gave them the performance they wanted, and a little more, I was safe." The laugh (or laugh-like noise) again. "They wouldn't cut the throat of the goose that was laying golden eggs and put it on the autopsy table."
"How do you regard Diana?" Lizzie asked.
The Aleph-figure said, "What do you mean?"
"Oh, read my fucking mind," Lizzie said. "You know what I mean. Is she your mother?"
"I don't know," the Aleph-figure said.
"I love it," Lizzie said.
"Why?" Diana asked. She did not seem amused, Gonzales thought.
Lizzie said, "Because I've never heard Aleph say that before."
Toshi had brought a futon into the room where Diana and Gonzales lay and taken up residence. He slept days and sat up nights, watching over Diana like a benign spirit. Anxiety prevailed around him as the clock Traynor had set running moved quickly toward zero, and everyone in the collective wondered at the consequences of forcing this issue with Aleph. Toshi knew their confidence in Aleph's wisdom and their amazement at Traynor's folly, indeed the essential folly of Earthbound SenTrax and its board—all driven by obsessions with power, all ignorant of Aleph's nature, and the collective's. However, Toshi did not share in the collective worrying. Conducting what amounted to a personal sesshin, or meditative retreat, he passed the nights in a rhythm of sitting and walking focused on the continuing riddle of self and other-self, of the contradictions of in fact.
That day passed, and a few more, as the six of them, sole inhabitants of this world within the world, lazed through sunny days filled with summer heat and warm breezes. It seemed like a vacation to Gonzales, but Aleph assured otherwise. "This is becoming his world," the Aleph-figure said, as the two of them watched Jerry and Diana lazing in a rowboat in the middle of the lake. "And you all are contributing to the process."
"I wonder if it could have happened without Diana," Gonzales said. "They're in love again."
"Yes, they are, and perhaps that's crucial. She binds him to this place. And to her: desiring her, he desires life itself."
Gonzales asked, "What happens when she's gone?"
"That is still a puzzle," the Aleph-figure said. Gonzales looked at the strange figure, thwarted by its essential inscrutability—this was no primate with explicable, predictable gestures. Still, something in its manner seemed to hint at other projects and possibilities far beyond the immediate one.
After Aleph had gone its way—off without explanation, presumably to go about some piece of the insanely complex business of keeping Halo running—Gonzales sat looking at the lake. HeyMex was nowhere around, which was unusual. HeyMex spent much of its time with Diana and Jerry, who seemed to Gonzales to welcome its presence in some way. Perhaps the androgynous figure served as an innocuous foil, a presence to mediate the intensity of their situation. Whatever their reasons, their tolerance had results: HeyMex grew more natural, more humanly responsive in its speech and actions each day.
Lizzie came down the road from the cabin and called to Gonzales. She was wearing a white t-shirt and red cotton shorts; her face, arms and legs were tan with the time she'd already spent in the sun.
She sat next to him, and they said very little for a while, then Gonzales asked about her past.
"I was in the first group at Halo Station to work with Aleph," she said. "It thought we, out of all the billions on Earth, might survive full neural interface with it. Mostly, it was right. Not that things went that smoothly. I went a little crazy, as most of us did, but I recovered well enough though a few didn't
"Our choice: we bet sanity against madness, life against death—our own minds, our own lives. There were built-in difficulties. To be selected, we had to fit a certain profile; but to function, we had to change, and we weren't very good at change or at much of anything. In fact, we were pretty wretched, all in all—I thought for a while Aleph was just selecting for misfits and misery. But as I said, most of us made it through, one way or another."
"Now Aleph has discovered how to select members of the collective."
"Right, but it just keeps pushing the limits." She looked at Gonzales, her face serious, blue eyes staring into his, and said, "Sometimes I think we're all just tools for Aleph's greater understanding."
"Not really. Aleph's careful and kind—as kind as it can be. Dealing with Aleph, you've just got to be open to possibility."
They sat silently for a while, Gonzales thinking about what it meant to be "open to possibility," until Lizzie asked, "Want to go swimming?"
"Sure," he said.
They went to the end of the dock, and leaving their clothes in a pile there, both dove naked into the lake and swam to a half-sunken log that thrust one end into the air. They clung to the wood slippery with moss and water, hearing the quack and chatter of birds across the lake.
Gonzales looked at her short hair wet against her skull, her face beaded with water, the rose tattoo, also water-speckled, falling from her left shoulder to between her breasts, and he felt the onset of a desire so sudden and strong that he turned his head away, closed his eyes, and wondered, what is happening to me?
"Mikhail," Lizzie said. He looked back at her, hearing that for the first time she'd called him by his first name. She said, "I know. I feel it, too." She put out a hand and rubbed his cheek. She said, "But not here, not the first time."
"Yes," Gonzales said.
"But when we go back to the world " She had swung around the log and now floated up close to him, and her body's outlines shimmered, refracting in the clear water. She put her wet cheek against his for just a moment and said, "Then we'll see."
Diana and Jerry went to bed around midnight, Lizzie not long after. Neither the Aleph-figure nor HeyMex had been around that evening, so Gonzales was left alone. He went out to the deck and lay prone in a deck chair, basking in the light from the full-moon, thinking over what had passed between him and Lizzie that day.
He cherished the signs Lizzie had given him, tokens that she reciprocated what he felt. On very little—on just a few words of promise—he had already built a structure of hopes, and he felt a bit foolish: he had made his immediate happiness hostage to what happened next between them. He was infatuated with her as he'd not been in years he blocked that thought, veered away from making any comparisons, willing the moments to unfold with their own intensity and surprise.
He could feel a shift in his life's patterns emerging out of this brief period, though strictly speaking, little had happened here
He thought of Jerry and knew that in fact something amazing was taking place here oh, he had no illusions about the permanence of what they were doing; Jerry would truly die, and they would mourn him. Meanwhile, though, what they did seemed to lend everything around a benignity or mild joy it was not a small thing, to snatch a few moments from death.
So Gonzales lay, his mind working over the bright facts of this new existence while thoughts and images of Lizzie kept recurring, gilding everything with possible joy.
He was staring into the night sky when it began to fall. The moon tumbled and dropped sideways out of sight, rolling like a great white ball down an invisible hill, and the stars fled in every direction. In seconds, all had gone dark. All around him there was nothing. The lake, the deck, the surrounding forest had disappeared, and the air was filled with sounds: buzzes and tuneless hums; clangs, drones; wordless, voice-like callings. He yelled, and the words came out as groans and roars, adding to the charivari. He seemed to tumble aimlessly, to fall up, down, to whirl sideways, all amid the cacophony still buffeting the air.
A world of twisty repetitious forms opened before him, where seahorse shapes reared and black chasms opened. He fell toward a jagged-edged hole that seemed a million miles away, but he closed quickly on it, veered toward its torn edges, plunged into it and so discovered another hole that opened within the first, and another and another through the cracks in the real he went, falling without apparent end.
And emerged from one passage to find the universe empty except for a black cube, its faces punctured by numberless holes, floating in a bright colorless abyss. As he came closer, the cube grew until any sense of its real size was confounded—there was nothing in Gonzales's visual field to measure it by, nothing in memory to compare it to.
He rushed toward the center of a face of the cube and passed into it, into blackness and near-silence (though now he could hear the wind rushing by him and so knew something was happening)—
Then in the distance he saw a glow, bright and diffuse like the lights of a city seen from a distance, and as he continued to fall, the glimmer became brighter and larger, spreading out like a great basket of light to catch him
He stood on an endless flat plain beneath a sky of white. Small faraway dots grew larger as they seemed to rush toward him, then they became indeterminate figures, then they were on him. Diana, the Aleph-figure, and HeyMex stood erect, facing Jerry, who stood in the center of a triangle formed by the three of them. Jerry had become a creature infected with teeming nodules of light that seemed to eat at him, thousands of them in continuous motion, a silver blanket of luminous insects that boiled from the other three in a constant radiant stream. Like Gonzales, Lizzie stood watching.
The Aleph-figure called out to them, "Jerry's very sick," and Gonzales felt a moment of superstitious awe and guilt, as if he had been the one to trigger this by thinking about it.
"What can we do?" Lizzie asked.
"We can try to help him," the Aleph-figure said. "Stay here, be patient—with all our resources, I can keep him together."
"What's the point?" Gonzales asked. "We can't stay like this forever."
"No," the Aleph-figure said. "But if I have enough time, I can replicate him here."
Out of her boiling river of light, Diana said, "Please!" her voice ringing with her urgency and fear. Gonzales suddenly felt ashamed that he was quibbling about what was possible here and what was not, as if he knew. "I'll do it," he said. "I'll do what I can."
"Just watch," the Aleph-figure said. "And wait.
Gonzales came up hard and crazy, his body shuddering involuntarily, his vision reduced to a small, uncertain tunnel through black mist, and practically his only coherent thought was, what the hell is going on?
Showalter's voice said, "Is he in any danger?"
"No," Charley said. "But we didn't allow for proper desynching, so his brain chemistry is aberrant."
"Good," Traynor's voice said, and Gonzales was really spooked then—what the fuck was Traynor doing here? how long had he been in the egg?
Charley said, "He's pulling his catheters loose. Let's get some muscle relaxant in him, for Christ's sake."
Gonzales felt a brief flash of pain and heard a drug gun's hiss, and when mechanical arms lifted him onto a gurney, he lay quiet, stunned.
Gonzales came to full consciousness to find himself in a three-bed ward watched over by a sam. Charley arrived within minutes of Gonzales's waking, looking strung out, as if he hadn't slept in days. His eyes were red-rimmed, his hair a chaotic nest of free-standing spikes. "How are you feeling?" he asked.
"I'm not sure."
"You're basically all right, but your neurotransmitter profiles haven't normalized, and so you might have a rough time emotionally and perceptually for a while."
No shit, Gonzales thought. He'd come out of the egg mighty ugly some other times, but had never had to cope with anything like this. His body felt alive with nervous, uncontrollable energy, as if his skin might jump off him and begin dancing to a tune of its own. Everywhere he looked, the world seemed on the edge of some vast change, as colors fluctuated ever so slightly, and the outlines of objects went wobbly and uncertain. And he felt anxiety everywhere, coming off objects like heat waves off a desert rock, as if the physical world was radiating dread.
"For how long?" Gonzales asked.
"I don't know, but it might take a few days, might take more. I've been watching your brain chemistry closely, and the readjustment curve looks to me to be smooth but slow."
"In the same boat, but doing a little better than you—she wasn't under as long as you were. Doctor Heywood is still in full interface."
"Because we couldn't start the desynching sequences."
"What? Why not?"
"Impossible to say. Same for your memex—she and it are still locked into contact with Aleph and Jerry. At some point, we'll have to do a physical disconnect and hope for the best."
"What the hell is going on here? What's wrong with Jerry? Aleph said he was in trouble."
"His condition has changed for the worse. We're keeping him alive now, but I don't know for how much longer. I don't even know if we're going to try for much longer. Ask your boss."
"Traynor. He is here. I thought maybe I'd hallucinated that."
"No, you didn't " As Charley's voice trailed off, Gonzales could hear the implied finish: I wish you had. Charley said, "I'll have someone find him and bring him in; he said he wanted to talk to you as soon as you were awake."
Gonzales sat in a deep post-interface haze, listening to Traynor berate SenTrax Group Halo. "These people have no sense of responsibility," Traynor said.
"To SenTrax Board?" Gonzales asked.
"To anyone other than Aleph and the Interface Collective. It's obvious that Showalter has let them take over the decision-making process."
Even in his foggy mental state, Gonzales saw what Traynor would make of this one. Showalter was the sacrificial corporate goat, and whoever replaced her would have as first priority reasserting Earth-normal SenTrax management strategies. To put it another way, through Traynor, the board was taking back control. And presumably Traynor would receive appropriate rewards.
"The collective " Gonzales said. "Aleph " He stopped, simply locking up as he thought of trying to explain to Traynor how things worked here, how things had to work here, because of Aleph.
"Easy does it," Traynor said. "The doctors say you had a rough time in there, and that's what I mean, Mikhail: they don't have a rational research protocol; they don't take reasonable precautions. Hell, you're lucky to have gotten off as easily as you did."
"How did you get here so quickly?" Gonzales asked. He simply couldn't find the words to explain to Traynor where he was going wrong.
"I've consulted with Horn from the beginning." Traynor turned away, as if suddenly fascinated by something on the far wall. "Standard procedure," he said. "And as soon as Horn let me know what was going on, I caught a ride on a military shuttle."
Cute as a shithouse rat, Gonzales thought. Not that he was surprised, though—Traynor moved his players around without regard to their wishes. Gonzales asked, "Will Horn replace Showalter?"
Traynor turned back to face him. "On an interim basis, probably, as soon as I get a course of action okayed by the board. Later, we'll see."
"Some decisions have to be made. I have let them maintain Jerry Chapman until now, but as soon as they can solve the problem of getting Doctor Heywood released from this interface, I intend to turn control of the project over to Horn and let him take the appropriate actions."
Gonzales was filled with sadness for reasons that he could not communicate to this man. He said instead, "Look, Traynor, I'm really tired."
"Sure, Mikhail. You rest, take it easy. Once you're feeling better, we'll talk, but I know what I need to at the moment."
Traynor left, and Gonzales lay for some time in the elevated hospital bed, his mind wheeling without apparent pattern, as the world around him flashed its cryptic signals and anxiety moved through him in strong waves.
Fucking asshole, Gonzales thought, Traynor's satisfied smile looming in his mind's eye. I hate you. And he wondered at the violence of what he felt.
He lay dozing, then sometime later he opened his eyes, and he knew he needed to try to function. A sam moved across the floor toward him and said, "Do you require my assistance?"
"Hang on to me while I get out of bed," Gonzales said. "I'm not sure how well I'm moving."
The sam moved next to the bed, extended two clusters of extensors, and said, "Hold on and you can use me as a stepping place."
Moving very carefully, Gonzales took hold of the claw-like extensors, swung his legs out of bed, and stepped onto the sam's back, then to the floor. "Thanks," he said. "I need to wash up."
"You're welcome. The shower is through that door."
The sam told Gonzales where he could find Lizzie and Charley. On shaky legs, Gonzales walked down a flight of steps and turned into a hallway done in blue-painted lunar dust fiberboard with aluminum moldings. Halfway down the hall, he came to a door with a sign that said Primary Control Facilities. A sign on the door lit with the message, Wait for Verification, then said Enter, and the door swung open.
Charley sat amid banks of monitor consoles; in front of him, most of the lights flashed red and amber. Gonzales thought he looked even sadder and tireder than before. Lizzie stood next to him, and Gonzales saw her with joy and relief. "Hello," he said, and Charley said, "Hi." Lizzie waved and smiled briefly, but both her actions came from somewhere very distant, as if she were saying goodbye to a cousin from the window of a departing train. Gonzales's anxiety shifted into overdrive, and he found himself unable to say a word.
Eric Chow's voice from the console said, "Charley, we've got a problem."
Charley started to reach for the console, then stopped and said, "Do you want to watch this?" He looked at both Lizzie and Gonzales.
"I need to," Lizzie said.
"Me, too," Gonzales said.
Charley waved his hands in the air and said, "Okay," and flipped a switch. The console's main screen lit with a picture of the radical care facility where Jerry was being maintained. Half a dozen people floated around the central bubble; they wore white neck-to-toe surgical garb and transparent plastic head covers. Inside the bubble, the creature that had been Jerry spasmed inside a restraining net. His every body surface seemed to vibrate, and he made a high keening that Gonzales thought was the worst noise he'd ever heard.
"Eric, have you got a diagnosis?" Charley asked.
Eric turned to face the room's primary camera.
"Yeah, total neural collapse."
"You're kidding, right?"
"For the record, Eric."
Gonzales noticed with some fascination that Eric had begun to sweat visibly as he and Charley talked, and now the man's eyes seemed to grow larger, and he said, "He's dead—he's been dead, he will be dead—and he's worse dead than he was before he'll tear himself to pieces on the restraints, I suppose—that's my prognosis. This is not a goddamn patient, Charley. This is a frog leg from biology class, that's all. Man, we need to talk this thing over with Aleph."
Charley said, "We can't contact Aleph; no one can."
"Fucking shit," Eric said.
Gonzales turned as the door behind him opened, and saw Showalter and Horn coming in. Showalter's nostrils were flared—she was angry and suspicious—while Horn was trying to look poker-faced, but Gonzales could see through him like he was made of glass—the motherfucker was happy; things were going the way he wanted.
"The report I got was half an hour old," Showalter said. "What's new?"
"Talk to Eric," Charley said.
Lizzie went toward the side door, and Gonzales followed her out of the room, along the narrow hallway and into the room where Diana lay under black, webbed restraining straps. Her face was pale, but her vital signs were strong, and her neural activity was high-end normal in all modes. The twins sat next to her, making comments unintelligible to anyone but themselves and intently watching the monitor screen, where amber and green were the predominant colors.
A great beefy man walked circles around Diana's couch. He had thick arms and a pot belly and a low forehead under thick black hair; and his brow was wrinkled as if he were to puzzling out the nature of things. As he walked, the words tumbled out of him. When he saw Lizzie and Gonzales, he said, "Very unusual, very tricky. Troubling. Troubling but interesting. Very troubling. Very interesting. When whenwhenwwhenwhenwhen when I find, find it, hah, I'll know then."
Lizzie said, "Any recent changes?"
Shaking his head sideways, he continued to walk.
Lizzie went back into the hallway, and Gonzales stopped her there by putting his hand on her arm. He asked, "Are you all right?"
"I don't know," she said, and he could read some of his own trouble in her face. But there was something else there, a closed look to her face. She said, "Please don't ask questions. Too much is going on now."
The door opened immediately when they came up, and they found Showalter saying, "We are not meddling in those matters. We are asking you to give us a choice of actions."
"What's up?" Lizzie asked.
The four of them turned to look at the screen, which had suddenly gone silent.
On the polished steel of the table, a gutted carcass lay. On the corpse's ventral surface, flaps of skin had been peeled back to reveal the empty abdominal and thoracic cavities; on its dorsal surface, the spine stood bare. The top of the head had been sawn off, the brain removed, the scalp dropped down to the neck.
A sam moved around the table, its stalks whispering beneath it. It pulled a steel trolley on which sat a number of labeled plastic bags, each containing an organ. The sam stopped and took one of the bags from the table and set it next to the carcass's open skull. It slit the plastic with a serrated extensor, then reached into the bag with a pair of spidery seven-fingered "hands," gently lifted the brain inside, tilted it, and placed it into the skull, then fit the skull's sawn top back in place. Using surgical thread and a needle appearing from an extensor, the sam quickly basted the scalp flaps to hold the two parts of the skull together. As the minutes passed, the sam worked to replace the carcass's organs and stitch its frontal edges.
The sam pushed the trolley aside and brought up a gurney with a shroud of white cotton lying open on it. One extensor under the corpse's thighs, the other under the top of its spine, the sam lifted the corpse and placed it into the shroud. It brought the sides of the shroud together and, using again the silk thread and needle, sewed the cotton shut.
The sam stood motionless for a moment, this part of the job finished, then gathered the empty plastic bags and placed them in a disposal chute. It scrubbed the autopsy table, working quickly with four stiff brushes held in its extensors, then washed the table with a steam hose that came from the ceiling.
Guiding itself by infrared, the sam pushed the shroud-laden gurney through a darkened hallway and into a freight elevator at the hallway's end. The elevator moved out to Halo's farthest level, just inside the hull.
The sam pushed the gurney toward a doorway flanked by red warning lights and a lit sign that read:
NO ACCESS WITHOUT EXPLICIT AUTHORIZATION!
KEY CODE AND RETINAL CONFIRM REQUIRED!
The sam transmitted its access codes to the door as it went, got the confirming codes, and didn't pause as it went through the doors that swung open just in time to let it through. The sam began to make a noise, a quarter-tone keening, once it was through the door.
Steel boxes twenty meters high loomed amid concrete piers reaching up to darkness. Soil pipes came out of the boxes and threaded the piers; duct work held in place by taut guys crossed beneath.
Still making its lament, the sam stopped at one of the boxes and extended a piece of sheathed fiberoptic cable with a metal fitting at the end; it plugged the fitting into a panel where tell-tale lights flickered. It stood for perhaps half a minute, exchanging information with the recycling furnace's control mechanisms, then unplugged its cable and hissed across the metal floor to the gurney. Behind it, a furnace door swung open.
Keening loudly, it pushed the gurney to the mouth of the open door, stopped and was silent for a moment, then slid the bag from the gurney into the furnace door.
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