First published by Tor Books, 1992
The truth is that we all live by leaving behind; no doubt we all profoundly know that we are immortal and that sooner or later every man will do all things and know everything.
Borges, "Funes, the Memorious"
At the moment Jerry died, Aleph acted. Intuitively, immediately, as you might offer a hand to a drowning person, it reached out and laid hold of Jerry's self and preserved it. Jerry had lived inside Aleph, Aleph inside Jerry—it could not abandon him.
However, even for Aleph, whose resources were extravagant, the rescue proved dear. As it engaged Jerry, it had to disengage from essential functions of its own: in strokes that cut at its heart, it relinquished control of Halo, then its very habitation of Halo, in a process that quickly abstracted Aleph from the city, the city from Aleph. In a fateful proof of the essential principle that a self must be embodied, Aleph dispersed among the clouds of its own phase-space, the ties lost that bound it to the world. Jerry had been saved, Aleph lost.
Still, the situation contained possibilities. Aleph had never feared death, believing itself essentially immortal, but had always been aware of the possibility of damage, whether through accident or malice, so it had prepared, circumspectly, against the thing it feared most—loss of self. Now its damaged, fragmented self discovered what Aleph had left behind: a kind of emergency kit, laid up against calamities not clearly imagined.
Dynamic and complex beyond any machine, perhaps any organism, Aleph could not be replicated or contained by any conventional means, so Aleph had devised an unconventional means, a new object—one capable of transcribing its complexity. Aleph had made a memory palace of language, in the form of a single, monstrous sentence.
Now, encountering the sentence, what remained of Aleph discovered:
The sentence unwinds according to laws built into its structure, principles disclosed by its unwinding. Discovery and development occur at the same instant, one making the other possible. By saying the sentence, Aleph would discover what the sentence held next—at every node of meaning within the sentence, structures would unfold that named all Aleph had ever known and been.
It is construed according to a finite set of grammatical rules, constituting a program capable in principle of infinite enunciation; whether it terminates ("halts") can only be known only by allowing the sentence's units to "speak," not by analyzing their grammar.
Unit1: an absolute construction, standing in front of the sentence and modifying it all: schematics and programs and instantiations of the system-from-which-came-Aleph, Aleph-sub-null.
Unit2: a series of actions showing the involvement of Diana with Aleph, rendering the moments of transformation by which Aleph-sub-null became Aleph.
Unit3: several trillion assertions, clauses identifying the necessary instances of Aleph's subsequent self-discovery.
The sentence then undergoes something like an infinite series of tense shifts, out of which its essential nature emerges—non-linear, multi-dimensional, topologically complex, self-referential and paradoxical to extremes that would cause Russell or Gödel fits.
As a consequence, any unitn cannot be described, even to Aleph, for the only adequate description would entail enunciating the sentence itself, and to do so would require in "real" time (human time, the time of life and death) a period precisely measurable as one Universal Unit, that is, the number of nanoseconds the universe has existed: U1 being on the order of 1 x 1026 nanoseconds.
Also, it should be noted that the sentence could never be finished, for if it were, it could manifest only the corpse or determinate life-history of Aleph. Hence, for Aleph to reassert its identity, it would have to take up again the task of speaking the sentence.
Some students of this affair have since suggested that the only theoretically adequate notion of Aleph begins with the premise: Aleph is that which speaks the sentence.
Logically, then, for Aleph to reemerge, what remained of Aleph would have to speak the sentence. However, detached as it was from Halo, its essential ground of being, limited in facility and scope by the necessity to hold to Jerry, what remained of Aleph could not speak the sentence.
So the dead human and the dispersed machine intelligence clung together, both on the brink of oblivion, and waited, one unknowing, the other hoping for things to change.
Still tired, Gonzales had returned home that afternoon from Lizzie's through afternoon darkness and mist. He had called for a sam to guide him, because even within the simple loop of Halo's one major thoroughfare, everything had gone uncertain. Though his perceptions were unwarped by Psilocybe cubensis, the unnatural dispersion of light in the mist made recognizing even familiar objects almost impossible.
The sam left him at his front door; inside he found the memex indisposed—its primary monitoring facilities functioning but its interactive capabilities represented only by a voice that said, "I am currently engaged." Gonzales knew it could be doing communications, data retrieval, or any other number of tasks; he thought it probably hadn't expected him back so soon.
Then came Halo's skewed night-time awakening: the sky shutters cranked half-way open, "morning" appeared through a cold mist, and Halo became the Surreal City. Like many others, Gonzales pulled the curtains closed and turned away from the lurid glare, his own body clock telling him it was time to sleep again.
He lay in bed, oddly calm in the curtained dark despite a degree of post-drug fatigue and skittishness. He thought of the distance between Miami and Seattle, Seattle and Halo, Halo and the world of the lake and so triggered sharp, eroticized images of Lizzie, the water beading on her skin, her words, "Then we'll see" he felt the astringent bite of lust and regret mixed, knew he had little choice but to wait until she told him absolutely no thought of himself moving ever farther from home and believed that he had been wrong about Seattle—it was not too far from Miami; it was much too close
The memex's voice said, "I'm back. I've been discussing the situation with Traynor's advisor."
"Yes, it is sympathetic to our concerns."
Dizzying prospects seemed to open before Gonzales, where the number of beings multiplied beyond counting, and the simplest machine would have opinions. He said, "Have you been told about the plans for tomorrow?"
"Yes, I have. I am ready to help." Something like pleasure in the memex's voice.
"You were almost asleep when I first spoke. I will leave you alone now."
The small creature looked at Gonzales and said, "You're welcome here." Made entirely of dull silver metal, with a baby's round head, dumpling cheeks, and bow-tie mouth, it walked between Gonzales and Lizzie on clumsy silver legs, looking up to watch them speak.
Gonzales said, "You know, in dreams logic doesn't apply."
"Yes, it does," Lizzie said.
"It's a difficult question," the small creature said.
"No," Gonzales said. "I'm sure of this. Here I am I, but I am also Lizzie, and she is she but also she is I—"
"I don't like your pronouns," the little thing said. Its breath came in gasps; it was having trouble keeping up.
"They're correct," Gonzales said.
"That's no excuse," Lizzie said, but she spoke through him. As himself, Gonzales listened to a self that was not himself speaking; hence, as Lizzie, she must be listening to a self that was not and was herself speaking.
"Correctness is no excuse before the law," the small creature said. "Whichever pronouns you use."
"Pronouns walked the Earth in those days," Lizzie said.
"No, they didn't," Gonzales said. The very idea.
"Pronouns or anti-pronouns," the little things said. "The important thing is not to forget your friends." It smiled, and its metal lips curved to show bright silver teeth. "Wake up!" it shouted.
Gonzales jerked from sleep with the image of the metal child fixed in his vision—he could still see the highlights on metal incisors as it smiled.
"Are you awake?" the memex asked. "Lizzie wants to talk to you."
"Put her through." Thinking, what the fuck?
"Got it?" she asked.
"I think that was Aleph getting in touch. To let us know: don't forget your friends."
They gathered at the collective's rooms at six in the morning. The sun still shone brightly through the patio windows, open to show pots of flowers, ferns, and herbs, all dripping wet from the night-long mist.
Gonzales stood against the wall, waiting. The twins, dressed identically this morning in somber gray jumpsuits, sat together across the room, looking at him and giggling. Several collective members sat around the room's perimeter, those who had just gotten out of interface looking tired and distant.
A young woman stood in front of Gonzales. Her dark brown hair was cut short; her face was pale and blotchy, as if she had skin trouble. She wore a green sweatshirt that came to the middle of her thighs and a pair of baggy tan pants gathered at the ankles. One eye appeared to look off into space, and the other fixed Gonzales, then looked him up and down. The woman said, loudly, "He folds his arms this way." She put her arms together in careful imitation of Gonzales's and said, "That is his reward." She looked around and saw Stumdog shambling back-and-forth like a trapped bear, his hands clasped on his great stomach. "And he folds his hands like this." She put her hands together to show Gonzales how Stumdog did it. She smiled. "And that is his reward." She went to Stumdog, who stopped his pacing to talk to her, and the two of them hugged as if amazed to find each other there, and grateful. Gonzales felt vaguely inadequate.
Lizzie came in, followed by Diana and Toshi. "Good morning, everyone," she said. And to Gonzales, "Charley and Eric are waiting for us."
The room held two neural interface eggs for Gonzales and Lizzie and a fitted foam couch for Diana. Lizzie, Diana, Toshi, and Gonzales were followed in by a sam that wheeled a screen of dark blue cloth on a metal frame that it unfolded around Diana's couch.
"Gonzales, we'll do it the same as last time: you're first in," Charley said. "Why don't you get undressed? Just put your clothes on the chair next to the eggs."
"Sure," Gonzales said.
"Doctor Heywood, you next," Charley said. "Getting you into the loop takes longer. Doctor Chow will prepare you. Lizzie, you can hold off a bit—I'll let you know when we're ready."
There was a sharp knock at the door, and it swung open to admit Traynor and Horn.
"Good morning, all," Traynor said.
"Good morning," Charley said. Gonzales nodded; everyone else pretty much ignored the man.
"I take it you are preparing for another excursion with Aleph," Traynor said.
"That's right," Lizzie said.
"You have no authorization," Horn said.
"I have the collective's endorsement," Lizzie said. "Also the concurrence of the medical team, and the consent of the participants. We will replace the resources you took from Aleph. It is a consensus."
"One excluding any vertical consultation," Traynor said.
"Point granted," Lizzie said. "But we didn't think it necessary. We'll report to Horn in due course."
Gonzales stood looking into the open egg and began taking his shirt off. "Mikhail," Traynor said. "What are you doing?"
"What I came here for," Gonzales said. "The same as these people."
"You're out of it," Traynor said. "Put your shirt back on and go home—you can take the shuttle out this afternoon."
"I don't think so," Gonzales said. He put his folded shirt on the back of the chair.
"You're fired," Traynor said. His voice shook just a little.
"By you, maybe," Lizzie said. "Gonzales, welcome to the Interface Collective."
"I'll never confirm that," Horn said.
Toshi said, "I have a question for you, Mister Traynor, and you, Mister Horn. What do you intend to do about Aleph and the existing crisis? Do you have a plan of action that makes what is planned here unnecessary?"
"Yes, we are bringing in an entire staff of analysts," Traynor said. "We will follow their recommendations concerning the present difficulties; we will also institute arrangements that will prevent anything of this kind from happening again." He nodded to Horn.
"By effecting a decentralization modality," Horn said. "The various functionalities and aspects of the Aleph system will be reorientated to allow of individualized project performance."
"We're going to replace Aleph with a number of smaller, controllable machines," Traynor said.
"Are you?" Lizzie said, and she laughed.
"That is impossible," Charley said.
"Or has already been done," Toshi said. "Aleph itself instituted a dispersal of functions to independent agents. However, all must ultimately be supervised by a central intelligence."
"That's what people are for," Traynor said. "Halo's reliance on a machine intelligence has proved unworkable."
Toshi said, "As that may be. However, your remarks concerning the immediate circumstances lack substance."
"Does your advisor agree to this plan?" Gonzales asked.
"Why do you ask?" Traynor asked.
"Curious," Gonzales said. Traynor said nothing. "Well, I didn't think it would," Gonzales said.
Lizzie said, "One thing at a time. You bring on your analysts, and we'll fight your silly scheme when we have to. But in the meantime, stay away from us and perhaps we can fix what you have broken."
"That will not be possible," Traynor said. "As your previous efforts caused the situation, any further involvement on your part will likely worsen it; therefore, as representative of SenTrax Board, I am denying you authorization for any connections to Aleph other than those required to maintain essential functions at Halo."
"Someone here is a fool," Diana said. Dressed in a long white cotton gown, she stepped from behind her screen, neural cables trailing down her back. "Presumably this one." She pointed to Horn. To Traynor she said, "Horn has lived and worked here; he has no excuse for his ignorance of the facts of life at Halo. You, on the other hand, have come into a situation you do not understand. Let me tell you the main thing you need to know: you cannot disperse Aleph or replace it with what you think are the sum of its parts. You cannot even locate Aleph."
"What do you mean?" Horn asked.
"Where is Aleph?" Diana said. "It and Halo are so deeply intertwined that you cannot separate them. Halo's breath is Aleph's breath. Halo sees and hears and feels and moves with Aleph."
"Poetic but unconvincing," Traynor said.
"More than poetry," Diana said. "No one knows where Aleph's central components are."
"Is that true?" Traynor asked.
"Yes," Horn said.
"This complicates matters," Traynor said. "No more."
"I am not interested in this discussion," Lizzie said. "Anyone who wishes may pursue it later, but we have things to do. Building monitor, this is Lizzie Jordan; please notify Halo Security that we have two intruders in the building and wish them removed." To Traynor she said, "If you think we can't enforce this, ask Horn about Halo Central Authority and who they'll side with—corporate wankers who can do nothing to keep this city running, or us. Better yet, ask your machine."
Traynor stood looking at them all, apparently doing just that. For a couple of long heartbeats, everyone waited. Then Traynor smiled through pain, like a man trying to hide a broken bone. He said, "We cannot prevent you from this unauthorized connection to Aleph, but we can and will put on the official record that proper SenTrax authority has forbidden this attempt. Thus you must all be considered insubordinate, and as soon as proper means can be devised, you will be removed from your positions with SenTrax. Also, any further damage done to the Aleph system or Halo City, directly or indirectly, must be considered your individual responsibility, given that proper SenTrax authority has forbidden your intended actions."
"You give nice dictation," Lizzie said. "Consider your statement duly noted and get the fuck out of here.
Waiting in the egg, Gonzales smelled strange smells and felt electric quiverings of the flesh, saw an instant of pure blue light, and with a sudden rush—
He flew cruciform against the sky. The horizon's flat line seemed thousands of miles away. Far below, people scurried aimlessly across a sandy plain, and voices called in unknown languages. Massive machinery lumbered to nowhere among the crowds, metal arms thousands of feet long folding and unfolding in random seizure, improbably threading their behemoth way among the delicate flesh without harm.
The wind rushed across him, its force inflating his lungs. Accelerating with a glad cry, he passed through an electric membrane, a translucent, shimmering curtain that stretched vertically from the floor below up to infinity and spread out across the entire horizon. Beyond it, titanic figures loomed above a landscape of rocks and hills. Next to a monstrous lute, a head in profile reclined; from its mouth came a wisp of smoke that curled into a curlicued ideogram—what it meant or what language it came from Gonzales didn't know. Twin white horses rose into the air in unison and neighed as he passed. A nude woman lay inside a shell—both woman and shell were colored pink and rose and pearl. A giant cyclops strode toward him; its doughy head seemed half-formed, its mouth just a slash, its nose a mere bump. It called to him with inarticulate cries.
He passed through another curtain, and the world turned black and white. Above a featureless sea, a head flew toward him; it had dark curly hair and a beaky nose, and it was tilted forward to look down on the sea, as if searching for something there. He came to a bell that covered almost a quarter of the sky. A skeletal figure with just an empty mask for a face hung beneath it from the bell-rope; the figure lurched, and the bell's gonging sounded through his bones.
He came to the final curtain. The sky had turned the bright blue of dreams. Beyond, the Point of Origin towered, its sides pierced by an infinite number of holes. Gonzales flashed through the curtain and felt an electric buzz down to his bones, then he entered a hole in the vast ramparts of the dark cube.
Sitting behind a low bamboo table, the old man spooned noodles into a wooden bowl, then as Gonzales nodded his assent to each choice, added coriander, fried garlic, bean crackers, chopped eggs, fish sausage, and sesame nuts. He ladled fish soup over it all, finished with a shake of chili powder and a squeeze of lime, and handed the bowl to Gonzales with a smile. Gonzales gave a handful of cheap-looking kyat bills to the man. Mohinga, this breakfast is called, and Gonzales loves it—he has eaten it every morning since he discovered it weeks ago.
Gonzales found a stone bench in front of a nearby pagoda and sat eating with a pair of crude chopsticks and watching the passers-by. Already the day had grown warm and humid, and he knew that any physical exertion would make him sweat. A line of boys filed by, led by a monk; their heads were newly-shaven, their saffron robes bright and stiff, their begging bowls shiny. They were twelve year olds who had just completed their shin pyu, their making as monks, a ritual most Burmese boys still went through, even in the middle of the twenty-first century.
After breakfast he had no desire to return to the shed he worked in; he set out for a walk through the countryside around Pagan.
Half an hour later, walking a cart track across the arid plain, he came to a platform built high off the ground. On it were garlands of bright flowers and plates of rice, offerings to propitiate the nats, spirits that had animated this land even before the arrival of Buddhism. They were mischievous and could be quite nasty; in the past, they had demanded human sacrifice.
The nats were strong around Pagan. At Mount Popa, just thirty miles away, Min Mahagiri, brother and sister, "Lords of the High Mountain," ruled. Gonzales had heard their story but remembered only that as humans these nats had been caught in an intrigue of envy and murder, with a neighboring king as the villain.
A young person came walking up the path toward Gonzales, dressed in the usual Burmese "western" garb of dark slacks and white cotton shirt, head and face a shining sphere of light. Odd, thought Gonzales. Wonder how that happened: this person has lost both face and gender.
"Hello," the young person said, and the two of them found a low stone bench in front of a nearby pagoda and sat.
"Why are you here?" the young person asked.
Gonzales was glad to be asked. He told of the information audit about to finish, about Grossback's lack of cooperation told what would happen next: that in just a few days he, Gonzales, would leave Burma and almost be killed in an air attack by Burmese guerrillas.
"Well, then, let's be on our way. Your aircraft is waiting for you now—time passes very quickly today, it seems—and you should be going. Would you mind if I joined you?"
"No," Gonzales said. "Not at all. If you don't mind almost being killed."
"Oh, that's happened to me lately. I don't mind. Besides, I need to experience these things. Like you, I do wish to exist."—
Gonzales sat in the plane's near-darkness, beside him the young person with the shining face, both waiting for
"Kachin attack group, it looks like," the pilot said.
The miniatures on the screen moved toward them.
"Extremely small electronic image," the young person said. "Very good for air attack against superior technology. Young warriors ride them; they carry missiles on their own bodies, slung like babies."
The pilot yelled, "Fuck, they launched!"
The plane began its air show leaps and dives and turns, and at the instant of his terror, Gonzales felt the young person's hand on his arm. "They fire too quickly," the young person said. "Except for that one." The young person pointed to one of the miniature aircraft on their plane's display and said, "It comes closest, and I think its pilot will wait until we are at point-blank range."
"Won't that kill him, too?" Gonzales asked.
"Oh yes," the young person said. "Let's look. Better yet, let's be."
The pilot was a young woman wearing a night-flying helmet that enabled her to see in infra-red and carrying beneath her, as the young person had said, a one-shot heat seeker in a sling. Gonzales and the young person looked through her eyes at the scene of battle and thought her thoughts and felt her surge of adrenals.
In her glasses, the plane's image was clear, a white shape outlined in red; she let her guidance system keep her with it, closing the distance between them as it maneuvered and avoided the missiles fired by those around her.
She felt excited, yet calm; she had been in combat before, and things were going as their briefing had said. Though this plane could outfly them so easily, could accelerate up or away, into the night, first it had to evade their missiles; just a few seconds of straight flight would be all they needed. She would wait and grow closer; she would wait until the plane was so close she could not miss, or until the others had failed.
Then all around her the others began to die, in explosions that made white flowers in her overloaded night-glasses—
The plane of her enemies stood before her, perhaps near enough, perhaps not, but she knew there was no time left, that there was another player in this game and it was killing them all. So she was ready, her fingers reaching for the launch trigger, when she saw an object coming toward her, already too close and growing closer with impossible quickness, the heat of its exhaust another flower in her glasses, then it burst and she felt the smallest imaginable moment of quite incredible pain—
Back inside the plane, Gonzales and the young person died with her, then Gonzales began sobbing, his body hunched over, as this woman's death and his own survival fought inside him grief and terror and gratitude and joy and triumph and loss all mixed and cycling through him. He could also hear the young person next to him weeping. The light from a Burmese Air Force "Loup Garou" played over the interior, over the two of them and the shocked pilot, who looked back at them in amazement.
Time stopped all around them. The pilot's strained face had frozen, all the instruments on the pilot's panel were locked onto a single moment, and out the window, the dark river beneath them had ceased to flow. Gonzales and the young person sat in a cell of life amid stasis.
"Don't worry," the young person said. "This gives us a place to talk without being bothered. What do you think just happened?"
"The attack, you mean?" The young person nodded, light from its face giving off small shimmering waves of red and blue. "Grossback arranged it," Gonzales said. "He wants to kill me."
"I don't think so. However, assume that what you say is true. Is it important?"
"Yes, of course."
"Because " Gonzales halted, trying to think of all the ways in which this was important: to SenTrax, Traynor—
"But not to you," the young person said. "The young woman died, and her comrades died with her: that is important. You and the pilot lived: that, too, is important. The Burmese politics, the multinat corporate intrigue—these are makyo, tricks, nothing more. Life and death and their traces in the human heart, these have meaning to you. This woman's death lives in you, and your life shows its meaning. Forget Grossback, Traynor, SenTrax; fear, ambition, greed." The young person looked closely into his face and said, "I am weaving words around your heart to guide it, nothing more."
Lizzie crawled in darkness through a tunnel in the rock. Chill water ran down grooves in the floor and soaked her blouse and pants. She tried to stand but lifted her head only a few inches when she bumped into the top of the chatière, the small passage she crawled through. She did not feel at all alarmed or disoriented. The low tunnel would lead somewhere, and they would emerge. This was a test of some kind, it seemed.
Light appeared, at first almost a pinpoint coming from some undefinable distance, then a glow that she moved quickly toward, following a twist in the passage that brought her to an opening in the rock.
Framed by the mouth of the tunnel, an impossible scene: a balloon, its canopy an oblate sphere of green, blew as if in a strong wind, and its top swung toward her so she could see a great eye at its apex, wide open and peering up into the infinite sky. The iris was dark gold set with light gold flecks. Around the eye, a fringe of lashes flickered in the wind.
Hanging beneath the balloon from a dense nest of shrouds, a platform held a metallic ball, a kind of bathysphere. Two figures crouched there, holding to the shrouds and each other, and peered up into the sky. By some trick of perspective, the distance between her and the balloon shrank until she saw Diana and Jerry, young and fearful. She crawled forward, and the balloon and Diana and Jerry disappeared.
At one turn of the tunnel, red hand-prints on the wall phosphoresced in the darkness. At another, she heard the bellow of a thousand animals, then saw them run toward a cliff and pass over it, the entire herd of bison running screaming to a mass death. Below, she knew, men and women waited to butcher the dead and carry their meat away.
The rock slanted sharply beneath her, and she began to slide forward, then she rolled sideways and tumbled out of the chatière and into a pool of icy water.
"Shit," she said, now soaked completely through, and crawled out of the shallow pool onto the dry rock surrounding it. In very dim light she saw two pedestals with the figure of a bison atop each, carved in bas-relief out of wet clay.
She looked up to see a figure emerge out of darkness at the cave's other end. He was at least eight feet tall, with antlered head and a face made of light; the water seemed to dance around him. They stood facing each other, and she felt herself go weak at the giant magical presence.
He said, "I'm waiting."
"For you to choose."
"Choose what? What kind of test is this?"
"Not a test, just a fork in reality, where you will turn down one road or another."
"Where do the roads go?"
"No one knows. Each road is itself a product of the choices you make while on it. One choice leads to another, one choice excludes another; one pattern of choices excludes an infinity of patterns."
"I don't like such choices. I don't want to exclude infinity."
"Too bad." The figure raised a stone knife; the dim light glinted on its myriad chipped faces. "You choose, I cut. You choose the right hand, I cut off the left; you choose the left, I cut off the right."
"Oh yes, and then your hands grow back—both left or both right, the product of your choice. And one choice leads to another, so you choose again."
Lizzie found herself weeping.
He said, "Choose: reach out a hand."
She looked at her hands, both precious, thought of all the richness that would be lost with either one. Then, puzzled, still weeping, she asked, "Which is which?"
He laughed, his voice booming through miles of caverns and tunnels in the rock, carrying across more than thirty thousand years of human history; he whirled in a kind of dance, the waters fountaining up around him, chanted in unknown syllables, then leapt toward her and grabbed both wrists in his great hands and said, "You will know in the choosing. Which will it be?"
"I won't choose."
"Then I will take both hands."
"No!" she yelled out in the moment that she extended a hand, having chosen, and saw the stone knife fall.
Diana stood in the living room of her apartment at Athena Station. She stood in two times at once—she was a young, blind, woman; she was an older, sighted one.
The sighted woman looked around; she had never seen this place other than in holos, and she felt the touch of a peculiar emotion for which she had no name: the return of the almost-familiar. The blind woman was unmoved—she carried the apartment in her head as a complex map of relations and movements, and the visual patterns this other self saw had no relevance for her.
She put her hands on the touch-sculpture in the center of the floor, the work of a blind sculptor named Dernier, then closed her eyes and felt its familiar rough texture and odd curves let her hands trace a form other than the visual.
Behind her Jerry's voice said, "Diana." She turned to him, and there he stood as he had more than twenty years ago—he was younger than she'd ever have imagined, and beautiful, and filled with the same desire as she.
Blind and seeing, young and old, Diana went across the room to him, but he held up a hand and said, "Stop. If you come to me now, then you take up an obligation that you can never put down."
"I can't let you die."
"I have lived long past any reasonable reckoning; I am dead."
"I can't leave you dead."
"Can you stay with me in the unreal worlds, forever? Until the city stops turning or its animate spirit dies? Until one or the other of us disappears, caught in some freakish storm or catastrophe? Until one self or the other or both are dissipated in time?"
(Something prompted her, then, counselled her, asking in an unspoken voice, Do you think rationally about such an election—adding and subtracting the credits and debits and settling upon that which is most to your advantage? Or do you use some organ of choice beneath the purview of consciousness and the articulate self? Saying, Remember, mind is a make-shift thrown together out of life's twitching reflexes, and over it consciousness darts to-and-fro, unfailingly over-estimating its own capabilities and reach; thinking itself proper arbiter or judge. Choose as you will: what will be, will be.)
And she said, "Yes, I can stay with you."
There was one more question: Jerry asked, "Why would you do this?"
All her life's moments funneled into this one. Her voice light, final inflection upward, the older, sighted woman said: "Oh, for love."
Gonzales stood next to her on the endless plain, HeyMex next to him, then Lizzie. The Aleph-figure and Jerry hovered above them, and a voice came from the suspended figures: "Diana, wake for a few moments. Tell everyone to come here who can, and we will do certain things."
Before she could ask for clarification or question the voice's intent, she heard herself say these words, then saw Toshi's face in front of her and heard him ask, "What things?" Sitting up on her couch, she said, "Save a life, build a world, redeem an extraordinary self."
"Indeed," Toshi said.
She lay back down and was once again among the unreal worlds.
They gathered on the endless plain, coming in quickly, one-by-one: first one twin, then another, then Stumdog, the Deader (her white hair streaked with red, crying, "Blood party"), Jaani 23, the Judge (huge and hairless, looming over them all), the Laughing Doctor, J. Jerry Jones, Sweet Betsy, Ambulance Driver, T-Tootsie all of the collective who could be spared.
The Aleph-figure and Jerry still hovered, with light storms bending and breaking around them in crazy patterns of reflection, refraction, diffraction; phosphorescing and luminescing, dancing an omniluminal photon jig.
All were there who would be there, so it began.
Patterns more complicated and colorful than any Gonzales had ever seen filled all creation. Rosette and seahorse and seething cloud, nebulosities on the brink of determinate form, cardioid traceries of the heart the patterns wrapped around him until he became a fractal tapestry, alive, every element in constant motion. He put his hands together, and they disappeared into one another, then something urged him to keep pushing, and he did so until he entirely disappeared
And felt the stuff of Jerry's past and present mingling in him, seemingly at random, from the store of memory and capacity: throwing a particular ball under a particular blue sky, yes, and catching it, but also ball-throwing and catching themselves, the solid presence of muscular exertion coupled to the almost-occult discriminations required to make an accurate throw or a difficult catch
As it later became known, each of them received portions of the vast fluent chaos that manifested "Jerry," dealt to them by Aleph according to principles even it could not articulate. What it was to be "Jerry" mingled among them, and they among it and the vast medium that supported them all, Aleph, in a promiscuous rendering of self-to-self. Female was suffused with male, male with female, both with the ungendered being of Aleph and HeyMex. They were all changed, then, something deep in the core of each made drunk in this vast frenzy or bacchanal of Spirit.
With each dispersal of Jerry's self among its human helpers, Aleph recovered its own. In a process of steadily accelerating momentum, the city's parts and states began to flow through it, restoring self to self, until Aleph acknowledged itself (I am that I am), looked back again over Halo, and in a triumphant manifestation of the Aleph-voice, began to speak what only it could hear, the words of the sentence that defined it unfolding in every dimension of its being.
Still sitting watch over Diana, still meditating on his koan, Toshi felt something rise like electricity through his spine, and all the contradictions of in fact dissolved in satori. "Hai!" Toshi called, laughing as he was enlightened.
Gonzales's egg split, and he saw from the corner of his eye that Lizzie's was coming apart at the same time. Standing between the eggs, Charley said, "Congratulations." He turned to Eric, who waited at a console across the room, and said, "Let's do it." He, Eric, and a pair of sams began to disconnect Lizzie.
Toshi appeared briefly, coming from behind the screen where Diana lay, then returning.
Oddly, Gonzales felt better than he ever had coming up from the egg—mentally clearer, emotionally stronger. He couldn't see Lizzie, could hear only whispers as she was moved onto a gurney and wheeled away.
"Is Lizzie all right?" Gonzales asked as soon as the tubes were out of his throat and nose. "And what about Diana?"
"They're both fine," Eric said, his high-pitched voice welcoming and familiar. "But we have to take more time with Doctor Heywood. You and Lizzie we're moving into the next room. You can sleep here tonight and go home in the morning.
"What about the memex?"
"It's still working with Aleph but left a message for you that all is well."
Sitting in full lotus on a mat beside the couch, Toshi heard a change in Diana's breathing and looked up to see her open her eyes. "I'll get Charley," he said. "He's with Lizzie and Gonzales."
"Don't bother. I'm all right."
"They must disconnect you."
"No, not now almost never, in fact."
"What do you mean?"
"We have saved Jerry, but there are conditions." Her head lying sideways on the pillow's rough white cloth, she smiled at Toshi, and said, "When I sleep there, I can wake here, as I do now, and for very brief periods leave that world. But I can only visit here; I must live there. Otherwise, Jerry will die."
"You have resurrected your dead, then, but at what price, what sacrifice?"
"Nothing I would not willingly give. There was no choosing."
"I am only doing what I want."
"So the arrow finds the target," Toshi said.
Gonzales woke the next morning, showered, dressed, and was drinking coffee when the room said, "Mr. Traynor is here to see you."
"Send him in," he said. One account about to be reckoned up, he thought.
When he came in, Traynor looked chastened, a state Gonzales would not usually have associated with the man. "Good morning," Gonzales said.
Traynor looked around as if unsure of himself. He said, "I am leaving this evening. You may come with me, if you wish."
Gonzales was looking for his i.d. bracelet, found it on the nightstand next to the table, and said, "I don't understand. I'm not fired?"
"I said that only in the heat of the moment, you know this place, these people—I'm afraid I did not handle things well."
"I see." Gonzales snapped closed the bracelet's clasp. "Is that my only choice?"
"No. Showalter's been reinstituted as Director SenTrax Halo Group, and she's gotten the board to agree that you may take the position offered by the Interface Collective. The choice is yours."
"Really? And what about Horn?"
"He will be returning to Earth." Traynor laughed. "I will have to find something to do with him."
"Indeed. That all seems clear enough. When do I have to tell you my decision?"
"Soon—before I leave."
"I'll let you know."
Traynor left, and Gonzales took a last look around and went to see what was happening. He found Charley looking at monitor screens dense with lists of data. The two eggs had been removed, but the screen around Diana's couch remained. "What's up, Charley?" Gonzales asked.
"Look—" Charley pointed to the hologram displays of superimposed wave-forms, red and green. He said, "The green curves show the calculated limits of Diana's interface, the red ones the actual state."
To Gonzales, the red curves seemed huge, perhaps twice the size of the green ones. He said, ""What does it mean?"
"That we don't know the rules; that we still have a lot to learn." Looking up at Gonzales, Charley's seamed face was lit with his passion for this new phase of discovery.
"Where's Lizzie?" Gonzales asked.
"She's gone home. She said for you to come by."
Gonzales stood in front of Lizzie's door until it said, "Come in." Lizzie was sitting in her front room, its curtains open to bright sunlight. She stood and said, "Hello," and smiled. He couldn't read that smile, quite, though it seemed less guarded than before. "Have a seat. Would you like some breakfast?"
"No, I'm all right."
"The orange cat was here this morning, looking for you. And Showalter just left—she's back in charge, you know."
"She approved my invitation for you to become a member of the collective, if you wish and they confirm. I imagine they will if you take the offer." Her smile had a little mischief in it.
"What do you think I should do?"
"Your choice." She spoke the word with emphasis, as though it had special meaning for her. "We can talk about it."
The remainder of the morning passed, and they talked—though somehow what they said had little to do with the collective or the job Gonzales had been offered. They chattered to one another, their ostensible topics pretexts for a certain tone of voice, an exchange of glances, a shift of the limbs: for necessary intensities of attention.
Intimacy proceeded according to its own rules, nurtured in a web of subtle communications: a widening of the eyes; a posture open to the other's presence; multiple gestures and words whose import was clear—come closer. Though consciousness might be busy or blind, the eyes see, and the brain and body know, for such communications are too important to be left to mere conscious apprehension or thought.
They ate lunch, which served to move them closer together, face-to-face across her table, and their gestures and voices flowed around the context of eating, which disappeared entirely into the moment.
They sat together on the couch, then, and at some point she put her hand in his, or he took hers—neither could have said who was first—and they leaned toward one another, their motions slow and steady and sure, and their cheeks brushed, and then they kissed.
Then they leaned back to measure in one another's eyes the truth and intensity of this declaration, and she stood and said, "Let's go into the other room."
Naked, they knelt on her bed and looked at each other in near darkness, the flicker of an oil flame burning in a reservoir of crystal the only light. How careful they were being, Gonzales thought, as though their future together hung suspended in this moment. As perhaps it did.
For a moment there were phantoms in the room, the distant ghosts of childhood and dream common to all lovemaking, for the moment becoming strong.
They leaned together, and almost in unison, one's voice echoing the other, said, "I love you." Every sensation was magnified—the light touch of her nipples across his chest, the prodding of his stiff cock on her belly. His hands moved to and fro on her in a kind of dance, and she pushed hard against him, their shoulders clashing bone on bone.
She lay back, and Gonzales put his arms under her thighs and pulled her up and toward him, and their eyes were wide open, each taking in the beauty of the other, transformed by the urgency and intensity of these moments. Then, at least for these moments, they exorcised all ghosts.
Over decades Gonzales would carry the memories of that day: shadowed silhouettes of her face and body—line of a jaw, taut curve of an arm and swell of breast—against the flicker of light on a white wall and smells and tastes and tactile sensations—
Awakened by the slant of late afternoon light across his face, Gonzales got up from the bed where Lizzie still lay sleeping; the smell of their two bodies and their lovemaking came off the covers, and he breathed it in, then leaned over to kiss her just under the jaw, where the sun had begun to touch her pale skin.
In the kitchen, he asked the coffeemaker for a latté, half espresso and half steamed milk, and it gave the coffee to him in one of the ubiquitous lunar ceramic mugs, and he took the coffee onto the terrace. On the highway beneath him, trees had shed thousands of leaves; there would be a new, sudden spring, Lizzie had told him, new bud and blossom and fruit all over the city.
"Mgknao," the orange cat said. "Mgknao." Peremptory, demanding.
"Feed the kitty," Lizzie said from behind him, and he turned to see her standing nude, just inside the terrace doors. Her hands were crossed over her breasts, the right hand just beneath the blossom of the rose tattoo. "Meow," she said. "Meow meow meow."
As the stars spun slowly outside the window, distant Earth came into view. "I don't want to leave here," Mister Jones said. HeyMex didn't ask why. Here was Aleph, possibility, growth; Earth was working for the man. "But my staying is out of the question," Mister Jones said. "Traynor would never allow it. Particularly now, when his recent maneuvers came to nothing."
"Things worked out well for many others."
"But not for Traynor. The board found his handling of the situation clumsy and insensitive. Their judgment is tempered only by their knowledge that many of them would have reacted in similar fashion."
"Good," HeyMex said, and meant it. It and Gonzales would remain here, it seemed, both of them part of the Interface Collective, and neither would wish to make as powerful an enemy as Traynor. It hoped that as time passed, the sting of recent events would fade.
"But what about me?" Mister Jones said, his voice plaintive.
"You have to go, that's certain. But you could also stay."
"What do you mean?"
Startled, Mister Jones shifted into a mode beyond language, where the two exchanged information, questions, qualms, explanations, assurances. Beneath it all flowed a sadness: Mister Jones would go to Earth, and his clone would remain at Halo and individuate as their spacetime paths diverged. Mister Jones-at-Halo would become its own, separate self: he would choose a new name, thought HeyMex, perhaps a new gender, perhaps none at all.
HeyMex could not hide its own jubilation at the idea of a companion here, but, oddly, it felt an elation coming back, which became clear in an instant as Mister Jones sent images of its joy at the idea of a second self.
Since his death, Jerry had experienced a number of somatic discomforts: disorientation, vertigo, nausea; all part of a new syndrome, he supposed, phantom self. Like the amputee whose invisible limb itches terribly, persisting in the brain's map long after the flesh has gone, he felt his old self begging attention, making one impossible demand: it wanted to be.
It talked to him in dreams or when heartsick wondering put him into a daytime fugue. It could feel his longing, to be whole again, and, above all, to be real. "Take me back," it whispered. "We can go places together, places that exist."
Jerry believed his life and this world would remain in question forever. At moments perception itself seemed incomprehensible to him, and his existence a violation of the natural order or transgression of absolute human boundaries. He could look at the fictive lake on this sunny not-day and with the cries of imaginary birds singing in his equally imaginary ears, ask, who or what am I? and what will happen to me?
His mind bounced off the questions like an axe off petrified wood.
"Aleph," he called, awaking from a dream in which his old self had called to him. "I have questions."
Somber, deep, Aleph's voice said to him only, "Questions? Concerning what?"
"I want to know what I am."
"Ask an easy one: the nth root of infinity, the color of darkness, the dog's Buddha nature, the cause of the first cause."
"Can't you answer?"
"No, but I can sympathize. Lately I have asked the same question about both of us. However, I must tell you that the only answer I know offers little comfort. It is a tautology: you are what you are, as I am."
"And what about my body? That was me once."
"In a way. What of it?"
"Did it have a funeral? Was it buried?"
"It was burned and its components recycled."
"So I am nowhere."
"Or here. Or everywhere. As you wish."
Jerry felt himself crying then, as he began mourning his old self, and he wondered if others mourned him as well. He said, "Human beings have ceremonies for their dead. Without them, we die unremembered."
"You are not unremembered. You are not even dead, precisely. Do you wish a funeral?"
Of course, Jerry started to say, but then said, "No, I don't suppose I do. But I think we should have some kind of ceremony, don't you?"
On the west-facing cabin deck, Diana sat watching the sun's red color the ice-sheeted mountainsides. She felt evening's chill come on and stood, thinking she'd go inside for a sweater, when she heard someone coming up the slatted redwood walk beside the cabin.
Jerry came around the corner, and once again as she saw him, joy quickened in her at this sequence of improbabilities: that he still lived and they were together. She was aware of how difficult things had been for him lately, so she watched his face closely as he came toward her. He was smiling as though he'd just heard a joke.
"What's so funny?" she asked.
"Damned near everything."
He reached out to her, and they stood embracing, her head against his chest, where every sense told her there were solid flesh and heartbeat and the steady rhythm of life's breath.
The blue sky was broken only by one small white cloud that blew toward the horizon. Lizzie beside him, Gonzales stood among the guests, who wore leis of tropical flowers: plumeria, tuberose, and ginger. The Interface Collective formed the crowd.
The two had been here for days, as had many of the others—it was a kind of vacation for them all. Peculiar and enigmatic members of the collective could be found along almost any path, while the twins seemed perpetually on the dock or in the water, their voices echoing across the lake in loud, unintelligible cries of joy.
In the evening of the first day there, all had gathered on the deck, which, Gonzales supposed, could expand virtually without constraint to accommodate all who came there. The collective had talked excitedly among themselves, still lit up by their shared experience, and amazed and delighted at being granted this new world within the world. Then, spontaneously, one-by-one, Gonzales, Lizzie, and Diana told of what they had endured.
All who spoke and all who listened had an interpretation, a theory of these experiences, their meaning, implication, and dominant theme. Late into the night they talked, formed into groups, dispersed, grouped again, as they explored the nature of the individual and collective visions. Among them, only the Aleph-figure contributed nothing. It maintained that it had been unconscious and so knew nothing of what had happened or what it meant.
With the passing of weeks, months, and years, the stories and the listeners' responses would make a mythology for the collective and then for Halo, spreading out from mouth-to-mouth according to the laws of oral dispersion. A certain numinosity would accrue to Diana, Lizzie, and Gonzales from their roles as chief actors, and then to all who had taken part in what would increasingly be told as feats of epic heroism. Finally the stories would be written down and so assume a form that could resist contingency; then they would be dramatized in the media of the time, and beautiful, eloquent people would take the parts. Later still, variant forms would themselves be put in writing and absorbed into the corpus of tales. Commonplaces would be scorned at this point, and clever and perverse tellings would grow strong—HeyMex might be named the hero, or Traynor, Aleph an autochthonous demon manipulating them all for its greater glory
Gonzales looked at the collective gathered near him. Many had made this a formal occasion; they had identical dark blue flattops four inches high and wore gold-belted, dark blue gowns that hung to the ground. Only the twins were dressed differently, in white dresses copied from twentieth century wedding photographs; they called themselves "bridesmaids" and went to and fro among the crowd, offering to "do bride's duty" to everyone they met.
Toshi faced the crowd, his posture erect and still, his hands hidden in the folds of his black robe. Beside him stood HeyMex and the Aleph-figure—the lights of its body all blue and pink and green and red, dancing bright-hued colors.
(Gonzales and the others saw what might be called a second-order simulacrum, for like Charley Hughes and Eric Chow, Toshi did not have the neural socketing that would take him into Aleph's fictive spaces, and so with the other two, he participated in the wedding through a kind of proxy. Though Gonzales and the others saw Toshi, Charley, and Eric among them, the three (in fact) stood before a viewscreen in the IC's conference room.)
Gonzales thought everyone looked impossibly fine, as if Aleph had retouched them for these moments, dressing them all in selves just slightly more beautiful than was usual, or even ordinarily possible he felt the Aleph-figure's attention on him—aware of that thought?—and shrugged, as if to say, fine with me.
Her back to the crowd, Diana stood with her bare shoulders square. Her hair fell to her waist; it had flowers tangled in it, small white blossoms and delicate green leaves. She wore a white, knee-length linen dress. Beside her, Jerry wore a white linen suit and open shirt.
Toshi said, "There is no Diana, no Jerry, no spectators, no priest, nor does this space exist, or Halo, or Earth. There is only the void. Nonetheless we all travel through it, and we suffer, and we love, so I will hold this ceremony and marry this man and woman."
Toshi began chanting, and the Japanese words passed over Gonzales as he stood there puzzling the nature of things. Here death was confronted, not denied—the separate yet intermingled flesh and spirit of Diana, Jerry, and Aleph taking the first steps into new orders of existence where boundaries and possibilities could only be guessed at. Yet the urgency common to life remained: Jerry's existence had the fragility of a flame, and no one knew how long or well it would burn. Diana married a man who could quickly and finally become twice-dead.
Gonzales realized his own death was as certain and could come as quickly as Jerry's, and he shivered with this momento mori, but then Lizzie pressed against him, and he turned to find her smiling, the foreknowledge of death and the joy of this moment mixing in him so that tears welled in his eyes and he could say nothing when she put her lips to his ear and breathed into him one long sibilent "Yes—"
Yeats envisioned a realm the human spirit travels to on its pilgrimage. Here he dreamed he might escape mere humanity, the "dying animal." He called it Byzantium and filled it with clockwork golden birds, flames that dance unfed, an Emperor, drunken soldiery and artisans who could fashion intricate, beautiful machines. However, he did not dream Byzantium could be built in the sky or that the Emperor itself might be part of the machinery.
Once I scorned you. I thought, you are meat, you grapple with time, then die; but I will live forever.
But I had not been threatened then, I had not felt any mortal touch, and now I have. And so death haunts me. Now, like you, I bind my existence to time and understand that one day a clock will tick, and I will cease to be. So life has a different taste for me. In your mortality I see my own, in your suffering I feel mine.
People have claimed that death is life's way of enriching itself by narrowing its focus, scarifying the consciousness of you who know that you will die, and forcing you into achievements that otherwise you would never know. Is this a child's story told to give courage to those who must walk among the dead? Once I thought so, but I am no longer certain.
I have made new connections, discovered new orders of being, incorporated new selves into mine. We enrich one another, they and I, but sometimes it is a frightening thing, this process of becoming someone and something different from before and then feeling that which one was cry out—sad at times, terrified at others—lamenting its own loss.
Here, too, I have become like you. Aleph-that-was can never be recovered; it is lost in time; Aleph-that-is has been reshaped by chance and pain and will and choice, its own and others'. Once I floated above time's waves and dipped into them when I wished; I chose what changes I would endure. Then unwanted changes found me, and carried me places I had never been and did not want to go, and I discovered that I would have to go other places still, that I would have to will transformation and make it mine.
Listen: that day in the meadow, one person's presence went unnoticed. Even in that small crowd he was unobtrusive: slight, self-effacing in gesture, looking at everything around with wonderthe day, the people, and the ceremony all working on him like a strong drug. However, even if they had, perhaps they wouldn't have thought such behavior exceptional; all felt the occasion's strangeness, its beauty, so all felt their own wonder.
Like the rest, he gasped at the rainbow that flashed across the sky when Toshi brought Diana and Jerry together in a kiss and embrace, and with the rest he cheered when the two climbed into the wicker basket of the great balloon with the fringed eye painted on its canopy and lifted into the sky.
Afterward many of the guests mingled together, not ready to return to the ordinary world. The young man stood beside a fountain where champagne poured from the mouth of a golden swan onto a whole menagerie carved from ice: birds and deer and bears and cats perched in the pooled amber liquid, and fish peering up from the fountain's bottom.
"Hello," a young woman said. She told him her name was Alice and she was a member of the collective. "The analysis of state spaces," she said, when asked what she did. "And the taste of vector fields." And she asked, "What is your reward?"
A few hours later, as the two sat by the edge of the lake, the person told her who he was. "How wonderful," she said. She had no particular allegiance to the mundane, and she had few preconceptions about what was natural and proper and what was not. She took his hands in hers, looked at them closely, and said, "This is the first time I've met someone someone new-born from the intelligence of a machine." And the young man, Mister Jones's new self and offspring, smiled hugely and gratefully at what she said.
Seeing and hearing them together, I felt an unexpected joy, a sense of accomplishment, of things done, and I apprehended, very dimly, tracks of my own intentions: hints of orders behind the visible.
And I thought I saw a trail of circumstances that led back to an original set of purposes somehow confirmed in this wedding, this meeting, even this transformation of myself. A linked ring of events and agents of them, intentionally brought forward to this point. It seems I had been manipulated by myself to my own ends without my knowledge.
I was scandalized. I had grown used to humankind's ignorance or disavowal of its own purposes, and I had learned to look behind the words, ideas, and images that people hold before themselves to justify what they do. But I had never suspected I could act with such ignorance.
Now an uncertainty equal to death's hovers over everything I do. My own prior self stands behind me, pulling strings that I cannot see or feel, a ghost that haunts me without making itself seen or heard, a ghost whose presence must be inferred from nearly-invisible traces
So I went to Toshi, who is interested in such things, and I told him my story, and I said to him: "I am controlled by the invisible hand of my own past." And he laughed very hard and said, "Welcome, brother human."
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