Aleph is a machine mentality overseeing a future Earth largely bereft of humans, most of whom have sublimed into a virtuality.Remaining are the smug but cautious adherents of science. Amanda, still a teen at age 30, is a skilled violinist and mathematician but craves the applause of the Mall for some daring exploit.
In a nearby enclave live the rustic, non-scientific people who worship the god of their choice. In the center of their poly-religious valley a wicked tower has emerged, surely a tool of evil temptation. Far below, a supersonic railroad is being constructed. Amanda conceives a dangerous feat: to enter the valley and descend to the rushing train, hitching a mad ride to the next city.
Using a cyber "Liar bee," she buzzes the ear of young Matthewmark, who chafes under the restrictions of his own narrow society. He agrees to aid Amanda and her friend Vikram Singh, but the scheme goes horribly wrong. Vik dies; Matthewmark''s brain is seriously damaged, although he recovers with advanced neurological prostheses. This treatment, condemned by his own people, allows him contact with the AI Aleph.
In a series of startling moves, Amanda graduates to adulthood (and her modish clipped speech patterns give way to this new sophistication), while Matthewmark explores uncanny and sometimes very funny opportunities in the Alephverse, climaxing in the dismantling of the solar system and its embrace by the hyperuniverse beyond ours. This is the Singularity, at last, the Transcension, and everyone lives happily ever after, for rather mindboggling values of "lives" and "happily."
|Publisher:||Orion Publishing Group, Limited|
|Sold by:||Hachette Digital, Inc.|
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But at my back I always hear Time's wingèd chariot changing gear
Apologies to Andrew Marvell [1621-1678]
First let us postulate that the computer scientists succeed in developing intelligent machines that can do all things better than human beings can do them ... If the machines are permitted to make all their own decisions, we can't make any- conjectures as to the results, because it is impossible to guess how such machines might behave. We only point out that the fate of the human race would be at the mercy of the machines. It might be argued that the human race would never be foolish enough to hand over all the power to the machines. But ... the human race might easily permit itself to drift into a position of such dependence on the machines that it would have no practical choice but to accept all of the machines' decisions ...
Theodore Kaczynski, "Unabomber Manifesto," quoted by Bill Joy
The only realistic alternative I see is relinquishment: to limit development of the technologies that are too dangerous, by limiting our pursuit of certain kinds of knowledge ... I see around me cause for hope in the voices for caution and relinquishment ... I feel, too, a deepened sense of personal responsibilitynot for the work I have already done, but for the work that I might yet do, at the confluence of the sciences ... Knowing is not a rationale for not acting. Can we doubt that knowledge has become a weapon we wield against ourselves?
Bill Joy, "Why The Future Doesn't Need Us"
seed origin j: death
Facedown in a pool of his blood, being kicked to death in the public thoroughfare by a troop of street ferals, Abdel-Malek learned that dying arrived just as he'd always feared it would: with shock, terror, and agony.
Death, it turned out, provided no soothing anaesthesia. Overwhelmed with shame, he squealed and whimpered. The hardened cap of a militarysurplus boot smashed the side of his throat, crushing his larynx. Vomiting, scarcely able to breathe, he could barely hear his wife's screams. She was frightened, but more than that she was furious.
"Gutless, selfish, stupid cowards," she shouted. "Leave him alone!"
A kind of sad, admiring love brushed his fazed brain. Another boot took him in the ribs, then the right cheek. Light bloomed; it felt as if his eye had exploded. He wanted to cover his face, but his arms would not lift from the pavement. Mohammed Kasim Abdel-Malek, bon vivantand pragmatic optimist, B. A Hons, Juris Doctor (license lapsed), D. Sc. (cog. sci.), more honorary degrees than he owned senses and limbs, desperately curled the fingers of his left hand. He was reaching absurdly in his last moments for assurance: for the chrome bracelet at his wrist.
The stupidity of his plight appalled him. The hubris. Nothing can touch me, I'm that famous guy. He and Alice had been the last guests to leave. The Greenhouse weather had been bad for days, more August than early June, the news had been worse, the dregs of society skulked in the shadows, waiting in their perfectly understandable resentment to smash store windows, snatch baubles and shiny toys.
"Sure you'll be okay?" Martha had asked, kissing Alice on the cheek, a true friendly smoosh of lips on flesh, none of your society air-kiss evasions. "Leave the dishes until the morning, honey," she told their host "Let's seethem to their car." Josh had nodded, given them a tired smile; it was obvious that all he wanted to do was pile the wreckage into the dishwasher and hit the sack.
"Nonsense," Mohammed Abdel-Malek told them forcefully. "We're only parked half a block away."
His mind, in all truth, was parked more than a block away. Abdel-Malek's thoughts remained in Cambridge, in those buoyant sunny months when his spiritual father Alan Turing, and Campernowne, and the rest of the wunderkinden, had invented out of whole cloth, in one fell swoop, the electronic computer, the theory of programming, and the prospect of machine intelligence. No, he was getting confused. Turing's device was preelectronic, fed with paper tape. My God. And Turing dead these fifty years, June 7, 1954. Some golden jubilee. He would have been 88. Old, but not impossibly old. Not remarkably older than me, after all. But those hotshots tonight, those kids from Silicon Valley.
"Still thinking about Turing?" asked Alice. He shivered despite the muggy warmth, saw that they had descended to street level. Through the glass doors, the street was ominously empty, no breeze lifting scraps of discarded newspaper or fast-food trash. Everyone with any sense was inside with the air-conditioning blasting. Stepping from the comfortable friendliness of the apartment and foyer to the stifling street was a jolt, reinforcing Abdel-Malek's melancholy.
"Mmm. Poor devil. It was nice of the kids to honor his memory."
"He was a great main," Alice said. She smiled primly. "You were all great men, Boson."
The bunch of street ferals was suddenly there on the sidewalk. They had every right to be there. It's a free country, isn't it?
"Come on," he said with irritation. "They're just kids."
"Of course they're just kids, Kasim." Alice's voice sounded as if it had been strained through mesh. "You're not allowed to be a juvenile delinquent after you've grown up."
They were stringing themselves out across the pathway. Pimples. Stubble, tats on the skull. Lumps of metal piercing flesh. Must they make themselves so ugly?
"Juvenile delinquents! Darling, that expression went on the pension around the time Turing bit the apple. Just keep walking. You've turned into a nervous Nellie in your dotage."
Her hand on his arm, tense with dread, jerked. "Oh God, I don't like this."
A body moved into the space they passed through, thumped him cruelly.
"Watch it, you bastard!" cried the affronted thug.
Mildly, Mohammed Kasim recovered his balance. "Sorry."
"You walked straight into me. See that, bro? Muthafucka walked straight into me. Think they own the whole sidewalk, these rich fucks."
From the other side, keeping step with them, a peaky girl asked, "Got any change?"
Too quickly, Alice told her, "We never carry money."
"You greedy old bitch." The thug was outraged. "I'll fix you."
And the horror of it was that Mohammed Kasim understood; hadn't they been talking about it all night? It was his doing as much as anyone's. In all the world, he and his colleagues were the ones crucially responsible for the machines that took the children's jobs away, filched their souls from them, stole their future. It paralyzed him. He felt the battering on his body, but only as a kind of moral retribution.
It hurts, blood tastes in his mouth, he cannot see any longer from his right eye, his heart clenches in dread for Alice, but he knows that at last some payment is being rightly exacted.
Alice is still shouting. "Leave him alone, you vicious-"
"Outta the fuckin' way, bitch," says one of the girls. He hears a hard slap, a screech of pain. "What you doin' with that muthafuck?" another voice asks incredulously. "This no time for social calls." A crunching sound: hundreds of dollars' worth of latest-model cell phone under a bootheel. Maybe she had time to punch the emergency-link key.
"Get his wallet, Donnie."
They pull roughly at his person. That first burst of masochism is yielding to anger as the shock of passivity passes off; he starts to seethe with rage, with renewed fear for Alice, my God, in the middle of the street in a civilized city
'Twenty bucks! You rotten miserable greedy bastards!"
So the punishment is going to be renewed. Mohammed Kasim pulls down his head, in against his chest, fingers twitching for the comfort of the bracelet They will kick his head in, he sees in a terrible burst of sorrow. His brain will be gone by the time an ambulance gets there. There is nothing he can do. They jerk at him.
"Stick the knife in, Donnie," the girl says. Her breath is rather sweet. Metal loops swing from her pink ear. Her hair, out of focus, in again, stands now like mown hay, pink and gold in the streetlamp light. The other face comes down, and a lash of light from another kind of metal. It enters his body again and again.
1 : amanda
Automatics found uskitted out in blackgear, grappling netstrying drop through Maglev maintenance hangar ceiling. Had prized off solar roof panel with jemmy. Only took minute. In half-dark ten meters below, four Maglev freighters rested in bays like torpedoes. Sleek, smooth as bullets, ready go. Securing abseil line when Vik whispered, "Spotted us."
Tiny automatic patrolbot hovering in night sky. Stealthed, only just visible against Metro glow; strained eyes, could see beady little lenses, sensors glistening, poking our way.
"Passive. Nothing worry about."
"Don't be ridiculous, Amanda," Vik said. "Alerting Security. Stodes here any minute."
"Got time then. Let's slide."
"Let's not," Vik hissed. "Out of here ..."
And was, making run for it, bounding across roof, slim dark shape in blackgear, making for steel ladder, waste ground, hoping slip out under perimeter silently as both had slipped in.
Didn't stand chance. Now knew were here, automatics would track every move, deliver update on global coordinates to Relinquishment Custodians every three microseconds. Snapped catch onto abseil line, swung clear. Plummeting. Cleanly, quickly, without effort, was dropping toward cold, dull shine of freighter beneath. Didn't stand chance either, knew that. From moment automatics locked on,both doomed, geese cooked, game over. Just thought better surrender gracefully from top freighter than collared wriggling like worm.
Feet touched curved metal, shoes gripped. Hangar still dim, empty. Stood there few beautiful seconds. Solid bulk freighter beneath feet didn't vibrate, hum. Right now quiet as tombbut could feel supersonic power of thing. One day would ride it. Breathed deeply, extended both arms in welcoming gesture to team Stodes bursting into hangar, yelling instructions: get down, stay where are, put hands on head.
Twenty minutes later both standing in front Metro's Magistrate, Mr. Abdel-Malek, looking sheepishly at feet. Knew only matter time before olders arrived, coldly tore off horrible bleeding strips. Quite relieved when Magistrate sentenced night's detention, remanded hearing following day.
Was ever right about Maman, Maître's reaction!
"You disappoint us, Amanda," Maître said, looking more furious than disappointed. "What a remarkably stupid thing to do."
"You do know that the freighters go supersonic once they enter the main conduit?" Maman asked, in frighteningly relaxed voice. Couldn't tell if was hiding fright put into her, or genuinely unmoved. Maybe was sufficient that had interrupted routine. Both dressed in evening clothes, had been fetched to lockup in discreetly unmarked Custodian glide from opera, where no doubt sitting with gaggle nauseating heavies from tube project. Bad daughter supposedly safely tucked up at home, racting a vee in bedroom. Well, had certainly left them with clear impression, meanwhile planning sneak out back way moment they were driven off to opera house.
Said in surly voice, "Had buckynets," still looking at toe tips clad in grippo carbon sneakers. Don't know if Maman even knew buckynets safest safety device in world, made of incredibly strong, reliable carbon tubes that lock together in way makes steel seem strong as brown paper. "Had drex grapples. Weren't taking risk."
Maman made alarming snort through nose, shook head, once right, once left. Just killed me. Was so much worse than shouting, or hitting,or turning back over to Magistrate. "Speak English, Amanda," she said. "You are not a machine." Gaze shifted, then, smiled with kind of awful cool beauty. Vikram's father had entered chamber, bearing down on us. Vikram's father big man, bigger than Maitre, way bigger than Maman. Know which one of them am most afraid of.
"Dr. Singh," father said, extending hand. "Not the happiest occasion."
"Dr. Kolby, Legal McAllister, good evening." Gruff, eyes dark, angry under crisp white turban. "I believe it is time to separate these penders of ours."
"That is certainly my intention," Maman told him. "Until recently my daughter has had an unblemished record." Untrue, of course, but not as if ever charged with arson or murder or mutating household pets. "I do not wish her to remain in danger of further"
Dr. Singh rose full height, glaring down. Maman regarded him back without slightest fear, baring teeth.
"I hope you are not suggesting that my son is a ... ."
"Not at all," said Maitre hastily, tad flustered. "These are the pranks of a subadult, nothing more." Twitched eyes my direction, winked ever so slightly out line of sight other two adults. In face new threat to whole family, anger had come, gone, even disappointment at my stupidity. "I look forward to having them off our hands at Maturity."
"Well, that's as may be," Dr. Singh grumbled. "For the time being, I suggest you" Paused, cleared throat. Maman had gone absolutely lethal, even though hadn't moved muscle. "We had best all look to our charges. Speaking of which, have formal charges been laid?"
"The penders have been bound over in custodial detention for the evening," Maitre told. "No vee privileges, only hard phones. I think they'll be quite safe and comfortable. Hearing in the Magistrate's court at 2 P.M. tomorrow. Will you or Mrs. Singh be in court?"
"I have a ballistic-tube booking for Aung San Suu Kyi Metro at seven," Dr. Singh said. "My wife is in Henryk Mikolaj Gorecki polis at the moment attending a family wedding, and my pender and I were to join her in the afternoon. This little mess has ruined everything." Looked around, hailed peace officer imperiously. "So, noI'm afraid Vikram is going to have to face the music alone. Sir," told young night-duty officer, "I'd like my boy brought out now, if you please."
"You wish us to keep an eye on the pender during your absence?" father asked.
Dr. Singh sent look barely suppressed distaste over shoulder. "On the contrary. I intend my son to have no further dealings with any member of your family. Good evening to you both." Swept off toward holding area.
In quiet, pleasant voice, Maman told me, "You stupid, stupid person. Do you see what you've done?" She took Maître's arm, turned him toward exit desk. "Stew in your own juice, Amanda. And don't expect any privileges for at least three months, once they let you come home. Thank God you'll be Thirty soon and out of our hair at long last."
2 : Mathewmark
Old man Grout kicked up a splendid fuss when the Metro tunneled under our valley. In kirk, he prayed like a madman, yelling to the Lord his God. Yelling to every god in the Valley, in fact, although some of them are goddesses or Gaia Herself, and a few of them are even stranger gods than that. We're all believers, in the Valley, one way or another. Although, secretly, some of us believe that our neighbors believe a bit too much.
Old man Grout was something to see, something to hear. His wild white hair stood on end. It must have been the divine activity in his brain. Old man Grout gave the God of his Choice orders in a booming voice: strike down the works of polluters, pour boiling oil on the tunnelers, send plagues, send scorpions, send the hounds of hell.
We got the message all right, sitting there in kirk, trying not togiggle. But it was a bit hard to tell if old Grout's God got the message. And there was no way of knowing if the tunnelers got the message. Maybe they were drowning in boiling oil down there right now, leaping about like scalded cats, scratching at their hideous rashes, fending off the hounds from hell in the darkness of their infernal world. There was no way of knowing because the tunnel started fifty kilometers from our valley and it finished on the coast, thousands of kilometers in the other direction.
We never leave our Valley. The only way you could know the tunnelers were down below us was to lie on the ground with your ear pressed hard against a rock. Then you heard themfaintly. You heard their machines, you heard noises like mice in a granary. Sometimes you heard the distant rumble of explosives.
Old man Grout was furious. He'd stand in the yard of the kirk of the God of his Choice and wave his great Bible in his hand.
"The Lord will not condone this wickedness," I heard him thunder one Wednesday morning, the sacred day of his sect. "Hearken to the word of revelation!" His yellow old beard was getting spittle-flecked. "Attend to the voice of the Psalmist, for it is said in Psalm 20, verse, um, er, seven: 'Some boast of chariots, and some of horses; but we boast of the name of the LORD our God.' Do you see, those who have eyes to see and ears to hear? The chariots of Man may thunder their way at no more than the speed of a harnessed horse, no faster, for list to the Psalmist: 'They will collapse and fall; but we shall rise and stand upright.'"
There wasn't much to be said to gainsay that, it seemed to me, but on the other hand the argument wasn't absolutely convincing. After all, in the days of the Hebrew prophets they didn't even have tunnels deep in the bowels of the earthunless there were some driven by fiends. Yet more sacred arguments were pronounced by other prophets, though, which convinced the rest of the Valley. Old man Legrand stood in his own righteous kirk's yard and quoted from the same Bible.
"It saith in the Book of Isaiah the Prophet, chapter 35, verses eight and nine: 'A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not pass over it, and fools shall not errtherein!' The unclean polluters shall not pass over it, and by the God of our Choice the polluters shall not pass under it, either!"
All this talk of Holy Ways and chariots and horses gave me a powerful interest in the subject, I have to admit. I found myself dreaming of the old automobile in the Museum that used to be driven to mock the wicked at Halloween, and wondered if it could go faster than a running horse back in the days when we still had a supply of gasoline fuel in the Valley.
"Yea verily I tell you," old man Legrand was fuming, "in the vile days of the last century, men of wicked ways did have mighty engines of two thousand horsepower under the bonnet, fueled with the black oil of Egypt. But hear what Isaiah says in chapter 36 about that: 'I will give you two thousand horses, if you are able on your part to set riders upon them. How then can you repulse a single captain among the least of my master's servants, when you rely on Egypt for chariots and horsemen? The Lord said to me, go up against this land and destroy it." There were moans aplenty, believe me, and many good folk made the sign o'god and bowed their heads in terror.
I never really understood why the tunnel authority even bothered to ask the Valley Elders for permission to build their underground tunnel. They could have gone ahead and built the thing without telling anyonenobody would have twigged. If any had heard the sound like mice in the granary, they'd have thought it was just that: little rodents, scratching about in their burrows, putting aside stolen grain for the winter. As it was, the tunnelers formally asked for permission, and then, when the Assembly of Elders split into warring factions and couldn't come to a collective decision, they made a secret deal with one of the factions and went ahead with the project anyway. I didn't know that at the time, of course, none of us did. It would have been a mighty scandal. If you ask me, though, there never was any real choicethe tunnelers were just going through the motions. I reckon their city-slicker lawyers had told them to cover their backsidesconsult with the rural community's representatives, and the fewer the better.
Eventually old man Grout was spending half the day lying on the ground. Once, to my shock, I saw his mule grazing unattended andeating the wheat, and went in to tether the beast myself. Ear pressed against the earth, old man Grout listened to the sounds of depravity and corruption. Then he'd be up on his knees, yelling curses into the soil, shouting so loud you thought maybe the tunnelers actually could hear him. A moment later he'd be standing up, his head thrown back, yelling at the God of his Choice.
One day I was driving our cart past his wheat patch. Ebeeneezer, our mule, is plodding along and suddenly he stops. There's old man Grout's mule just wandering about, blocking the track and there's Grout in the far corner of the patch. Only this time he's not prone on the ground, he's not listening, he's digging. He's digging like a madman. He's digging with a crowbar and shovel. The hole is a meter deep, all you can see is old man Grout's top half, throwing dirt up into the air like a volcano. I got down off our cart and left it standing in the track. Ebeeneezer was standing nose to nose with old man Grout's mule, as they talked to each other in their mulish way. I walked over to the old fellow, dodging a few clods of flying dirt. At the edge of his hole I said, "They're bound to be hundreds of meters down, Uncle. You'll never reach them."
"God gave me muscles to dig with, boy," said old man Grout. "And what God gives, God wants used. He don't abide no slacking. I'll get there. I'll break through the roof of their godless tunnel and the glory of the Lord's wrath shall pour down like as unto the waters of Babylon, yea and the angel of the Lord shall not rest until the wicked ... ."
Old man Grout raved on, leaning on his shovel, staring up at me like some wild beast fallen into a trap. When I could get a word in, I said, "Another meter down and you're going to hit solid rock, Uncle. It will be rock all the way."
"Cleft for me!" yelled old man Grout into the hole. "Rock of ages! God helps those who help themselves. You need faith, sir, faith. If I get the thing started, the Almighty will pitch in too. The pair of us are unstoppable. Me and the Lord, we'll get there, we'll smite the heathen tunnelers, we'll smite them good!"
I left him to it. I climbed back onto our cart and went down the track to the McWeezles' place. I helped Auntie McWeezle load half a dozen sacks of turnips onto the back of the cart, and then she askedme in for scones and buttermilk. As I was drinking the buttermilk I said, "Old man Grout's digging down to the tunnel. Him and the Lord are going to smite the tunnelers."
"Lady, I can hear him now, Mathewmark," Auntie McWeezle said with a smile. "Uncle Grout walks in the eyes of the Lady, but if there's smiting to do, I reckon Grout and his God would be the ones to do it."
"He told me himself," I said. "He's going to dig the first couple of meters all on his own, and then the Lord is going to lend a hand, do a bit of clefting."
"Well, the Lady just might, Mathewmark," Auntie McWeezle said, passing me another scone. "Faith moves mountains."
"I don't know that it digs shafts," I said. "That tunnel is surely a hundred meters down, if not farther."
"And a wicked, Gaia-hating thing it is," Auntie McWeezle said.
"It won't worry us," I said. "We won't even know it's there."
"Don't tell me those trains won't carry no polluters and genetwisters," Auntie said. "Them trains will carry gamblers, idolaters, moneylenders, fornicators, blasphemers, eaters of unclean foods, mockers of the word of the Goddess, and every kind of wickedness. The ground we walk on will be the roof of hell. The crops will wither. Strange mutant apples will turn to wormwood in the mouths of Goddess-fearing folk ... ."
"You sound like old man Grout," I said.
"Uncle Grout may get a bit carried away at Sacred Service," Auntie admitted.
"He may get carried away in his hole," I said. "Carried away by the grim reaper. It looks to me like he's working on a heart attack, the way he was digging this morning."
Auntie McWeezle made the sign o'god in the air with her index finger. She's a good old soul, Auntie McW. Many's the time, when I've wanted someone to talk to, when I've wanted to get away from my parents and my kid brother, or yearned hopelessly for my sweetheartmany's the time I've run to Auntie McWeezle's kitchen for sympathy and buttermilk.
"Don't say such a thing, Mathewmark," Auntie said now. "Don't tempt fate."
"It's old man Grout who's tempting fate," I said. "I'll bet you he's dead before harvesttime."
Auntie McWeezle shooed me out of the house. I climbed up on the cart and turned Ebeeneezer in the direction of our Village and spent the rest of the day fetching and carrying for the good people of the Valley. It was almost night when I turned for home and let Ebeeneezer have his head, he knew the way better than I did. Passing old man Grout's wheat patch I noticed the last of the sun's rays glinting on his spade, tossed out of the hole and left to lie where it had fallen. Old man Grout's mule was milling around, trampling the wheat. I jumped down from the cart and told Ebeeneezer to continue on home by himself.
"Yeth, thir," he said, and ambled off.
I walked over to the hole. I knew exactly what I would find.
seed origin jj: ice
The young paramedic glanced up into the shadowed face of his colleague. A few unshaved whiskers glinted on the older man's cheek. "We can give the siren a rest, Hools. This one's dead as a mackerel."
Julio Mendez frowned, jerked his head briefly in the direction of the gray-haired woman, seated on a plastic chair someone had fetched for her, speaking quietly with a cop. In the spinning light from atop the ambulance her face was ghastly. A bruise was coming up above one high cheekbone. "The wife. Refused a sedative. Keep it down, buddy." As he moved the limp body, a spear of brightness flashed at the dead man's wattled throat. Another at his left wrist "What's that?"
"Doesn't matter much now, does it? Medical indications, I guess-epileptic, diabetic, whatever-"
Mendez pushed him aside, crouched. He wiped blood away from the bracelet, then the one at the dead man's neck. Both tags showed the same message. On the front of the chromed bracelet, in red block letters beside a hexagonal icon holding the entwined snakes of the caduceus, he read:
MED. HX. CALL 24 HRS. 800-367-2228 OR COLLECT 480-922-9013 IN CASE/DEATH SEE REVERSE FOR BIOSTASIS PROTOCOL. REWARD A-2167
On the back were more immediate instructions:
CALL NOW FOR INSTRUCTIONS PUSH 50,000 U HEPARIN IV AND DO CPR WHILE COOLING WITH ICE TO 10C. KEEP PH 7.5 NO AUTOPSY OR EMBALMING
"Hey, Hools, it's one o' them Freezer Geezers."
Mendez looked up, blinking slowly.
"I saw it on 60 Minutes, man. They cut their heads off after they die, and freeze"
"I know what they do, you jackass. His wife is listening. Be quiet now."
"Oh. Yeah, sorry."
A hard, brittle voice said, "Young man, have you called that 800 number yet? You do have a phone, I assume? They smashed mine."
"Uh, sure, yes, ma'am, I have a"
"There's not a minute to lose, goddamn it. Why haven't you packed my husband's head in ice? Do you carry crushed ice in your ambulance? One of you should be doing cardiopulmonary resuscitation."
Julio Mendez, slightly nettled, regarded her in silence. The younger paramedic said, "Uh, I'm sorry, lady, that's outside our jurisdiction now. The law says we have to take the, uh, deceased to hospitalfor certification of death." He glanced at his colleague. "That's right, isn't it, Hools?"
"I'm afraid so, ma'am. Here, sit down, you must be feeling rather"
"Gentlemen, understand this." The dead man's wife stared at them with cold rage, her face lashed by the yellow flashes from the roof of the open ambulance. "I know my husband is dead according to current medical standards. There's a small chance that he can be restored to life."
The dead man, with his ugly fatal injuries, was clearly beyond all hope of intervention. "I'm sorry, there's no heartbeat or respiration, ma'am, so I'm afraid that's out of"
"Not now, some time in the future. Listen to me. That will only happen if the appropriate treatment is started right this instant, goddamn it!"
Uncomfortable, the older man said: "Please, ma'am, we"
She was small and thin, and seemed to tower over them.
"I said listen to me. Call that 800 number. When the cryotransport team arrives, my husband's body will be prepared for vitrification and cryostasis at minus 140 degrees Celsius. Any delay now, prior to cooling and washout, will cause irreversible loss of brain tissue." Her voice broke on the last word.
The younger man said, "Man, they'll either kick our ass out or put us on 60 Minutes."
Mendez nodded. "Or both. Think there's some ice in storage. Okay, get the gurney over here." He tore open the dead man's shirt and began pressing on his chest.
3 : amanda
In holding cell until two in afternoon, felt usual blend of anger and sinking, stomach-chewing loss. Why such a disappointment to olders? Anyway, why care? All ever think about is themselves, damned immortal careers, climbing social ladder. Dr. Singh, wife rather higher up social hierarchy than family had yet managed to reach, even if Maman was Legal for one of major new subsurface construction projects. Singhs stockholders, not mere functionaries. Had really blown it. Well, both blew it together, but Vikram was golden pender so didn't suppose would suffer any longterm consequences. Damn-all chance he'd have vee access cut off for whole night. Good grief, what to do? Stare at ceiling of cell? Scribble on walls? Read book?
Was depressing, truly boring way to spend night. Amused self with compactification of n-manifold classes, fiddling as usual with Cohn-Vossen inequality. Got frustrated and nowhere. Next day in court was worse. Mr. Abdel-Malek, principal Magistrate for van Gogh Metro polis enclave, is very calm gentleman with soft, sinister tone to voice. Heard society ladies find quite sexy, in right context. Plainly have never heard him speaking to miscreant who threatened freighter system by attempting tie webbed subadult body to Maglev train ready to thunder through new Metro-to-coast tube at speed sound. Actually, dispute anyone, anything in danger. Did extensive sims airflow, vector changes, stresses we'd experience in protective webbing, all that. Piece cake. Well, not really piece cake, or wouldn't be worth doing. But nothing lethal. Just really, really glumpzoid. Would be talk of Mall. Be Mall gods.
Or would have been, if we'd got that far. As was, everything came unstuck, unraveled when entered loading hangars. Baffling. Spent much of night unable sleep, staring at blank ceiling, wondering aboutthis. Had to be another way in to tube, somewhere automatics weren't watching every square micrometer.
Standing next to head-hanging Vikram Singh, watching Mr. Abdel-Malek enter adjudication room, take his place behind large, plain desk top, jolt went through me. Wasn't fright, although was certainly worried that adults had got together, devised some awful punishment, like forbidding visit Mall until we turned Thirty. Two more years, seven hundred days social death. Nearly three for Vik. Better should cut heads off, freeze us down, be done with it. No, what sent electric spark through bones was moment of truth. Knew how to get in to ride freighter!
"Not now, Mand," muttered back. Was avoiding my eyes. His Maitre must have torn strip off.
"Listen, just thought of"
"All be seated," auto voice told us. Mr. Abdel-Malek had already lowered elegantly trousered backside onto ergonomic support, was accessing summary of crimes, misdemeanorscould tell by way eyes were slightly raised, directed at ceiling, sure sign was downloading compressed data file. After moment, glanced back down, looked at us both. Quailed despite self.
"You know why you're here," told us. No time-wasting formalities for Magistrate. "You have had sixteen hours in detention to consider the gravity of your offense. Do you have anything to say in mitigation?"
"Uh, sir, was really no danger, you know, had taken every"
His voice was soft, calm, sent shudder through me. "I do not wish to listen to your self-serving excuses and rationalizations, Pender Kolby-McAllister, nor do I find cant amusing; speak English during this hearing. I have read your confession of fault. You clearly understand the seriousness of what you tried to do. Is there anything you would care to add that might explain what you and this young man did? I am not interested in hearing you attempt to duck your responsibility."
Just youthful high spirits. Blame it on retrofit hormone plateau. Were bored shitless, what's wrong with you people? Of course didn't say any of that, not completely self-destructive, rumors to contrary notwithstanding.
"No, sir. VeryI'm very sorry."
"Vikram Singh, anything to add? I see that your previous record is not quite so murky as that of your codefendant."
"I'm also very sorry, sir," Vik told, sounded as if meant. Guy altogether too law-abiding by nature, ask me. Was burning with eagerness tell great new idea, terrific way could sidestep automatics after all, get on freighters for major fun run through depths.
Magistrate sighed, steepled fingers. "Both of you are on the verge of Maturity, so I will not speak to you as if you were still children. You know right from wrong, lawful from lawless, sensible from recklessly stupid. You plainly both knew that what you attempted would be dangerous both to yourselves and to the safe operation of a very expensive transportation system. Ms. Kolby-McAllister, you are especially culpable in this regard, since your mother is closely involved in the Maglev project and she testifies that you gained access to the project by cracking her encrypted data files. Let me make this more pointed: it is a disgraceful use of your undoubted mathematical abilities, Dr. Kolby-McAllister."
Looked from me, Vikram, back. Felt little bit sick with anxiety. Nasty shot about math doctoratemost smart penders near Maturity have equal standing, so what. Vik wore floppy doctoral hat when eighteen or so. Picky and spiteful. Had felt same sick sinking while entering hangars, webbed with carbon-fiber nets, ready, poised grapple to freighter would scream at speed of sound through tunnel bored into rock under earth. Other words, be honest, was half-buzzed, toey. While was scared what Magistrate might do, privileges might decide to deny, kind of getting off on at same time. Maybe one reason criminals never change spots unless psychs go in, rewire affect systems.
"For one month," Mr. Abdel-Malek declared in same soft, distinct tone, "both of you will have your phone links removed. You will remain within your olders' quarters after the hour of five in the afternoon and until you leave for Play or authorized expertise outing inthe morning. You will not enter or attempt to enter the property of the Maglev Freighter Corporation, or any of its subsidiaries, and the security systems of their hangar complex will be permitted to list you as registered offenders until the day of your Maturity, from which point criminal penalties will attend any further infractions. Do you understand me?"
Mumbled, "Yes, sir."
"Speak up clearly, Amanda," Mr. Abdel-Malek said. "Say it with some conviction."
Suspect was intentional pun in last word. Heart accelerated, nodded emphatically.
"Yes, sir, I do understand. No further entry into the Maglev hangars. Give you solemn word on that." Was okay, had better way in.
"Very well. You are released into the custody of your parents, Ms. Kolby-McAllister. Mr. Singh, you will remain in detention until one of your parents returns from business and collects you. Next case."
Maître was waiting outside, Vikram was led off to side room, so didn't have chance to tell my great new idea. Besides, probably wasn't right psychological moment. But knew that once had chance to talk that boy into it, would wind him around little finger. Get to ride rods without going anywhere near hangars.
See, had remembered something from legal case Maman had been tied up with, on, off, since I was twenty-three or so. Loonies of God's Valley. And vent shaft corp had just punched up through two hundred meters of rock.
Now only had to find some way into most ferociously independent, paranoid territory left in country, maybe entire world, work out way to override vent shaft safety codes. Pity they'd cut off message implant. Would have phoned Vik right away, told great plan. Would be dread. Megadread. Would be Mall gods after all.
4 : mathewmark
There was a terrible irony about the hole that killed old man Grout, but we didn't know that until a week after his funeral. The tunnelers needed an air shaft, which had been negotiated during the endless legal battles at the Gatehouse. They had been clawing their way up toward the surface, their machines grinding away, letting the broken rock fall to the tunnel below to be carried away to the coast. The air shaft came up out of the earth less than a meter from old man Grout's hole, so he hadn't been so crazy when he said he could hear them at their polluters' work. If he'd lived he would have met them on his way down. Him and his punishing Lord, and Mother Gaia, and all the other Gods of our Choice.
seed origin jjj: sleep
For Mohammed Kasim Abdel-Malek, time has all but stopped. Unlike nearly all the other dead in the history of the world, however, his clock is merely stilled; it has not been shattered into useless cogs and springs and fragments of glass. For Abdel-Malek, and the world, time changes.
It passes more swiftly for the world.
Some things change. Some things remain the same. Overall, perhaps more things change than remain the same. The principle of exchange through an imaginary but tactile medium of equivalence, money, morphs and finally evaporates into flows of information and strategic calculationbeyond human understanding. Slowly at first, and then in a rush, machines do nearly everything toilsome, even if the world has relinquished nanotechnology and its Promethean promise. Micromachines are cheap, repair and copy themselves under instruction but not from any urge or capacity to reproduce, never go on strike, and are a safe thousand times larger than nanodevices. If at last their owners have no great use for money, since everything consumable is effectively free, they certainly do not lack for plenty. Mastery of death itself seems close within their grasp, yet carefully held at bay out of decent caution. They have plenty of time for sentiment. They welcome art and they praise science even as they throttle back its terrifying acceleration. As flowers once were piled in profusion upon the graves of great scholars, soldiers, leaders, now a more positive ritual becomes customary. The promise of immortality is honored in the care some of them lavish on the cryonics mausoleums. Many of the worthy dead go to their suspended life, resting head down in their frigid Dewars.
The vitrified dead do not eat or drink. But they, too, sleep magnificently.
For a while. But some things change. Some things change very quickly indeed.
5 : amanda
Maman grounded me after trial tube burn, Vikram's parents did same. Really annoying. Could flick eyes up to left much as liked, trying toggle phone implant on, but damned thing dead as doornail. So was phone uplink on notepage, not mention vee access. Could use monitored Joyous hard phone downstairs call out, take incoming, could e anyone in world while NannyWatch listened in like robotic pest, could go down Mall, hang with friendsif stayed inside burb bounds, came straight home by dinnertime.
Whined: "Vik's best friend, Maman. Is cruel, unnatural punishment." Kept on in this vein until sick sound of own. Eventually, with patented extremely bored glance, she looked up from legal monitor.Preparing some brief for Metro-to-coast Deep Maglev rail consortium. She, Maitre, had battled bigots of God's Valley last four, half years, trying establish corporation's right tunnel under loonies' machine-free utopia. Funny, really, in gruesome way, because if parent hadn't been so devoted to particular law case, would never have got cool idea riding rods underground tubes.
Which was, felt modestly, one of truly great ideas of life.
"Amanda, darling," Maman said in bright, chilly voice, "do you really want me to switch off your speech centers?"
Opened mouth again, ready with hot, angry answer, then shut, swallowed hard. Had done that to me once before; was about ten, unbearable. Speechless whole day. Talk about cruel, unnatural! Stand there getting red in face, moving mouth, flapping tongue, nothing happens in throat because brain short-circuited. Know what want say, or think do, but nothing comes out. Infuriating! Tried get back by grabbing spraygel, marking spiteful graffiti messages all over livingroom vidwall, but somehow couldn't force arm make bright blue, red squiggles into words. Only managed cover wall display, self with blobs luminous gel. Felt like tongue-tied baby, ended up running into room, squeezing door, howling eyes out.
So knew what was threatening. Worse, knew meant every word.
Swallowed again, hard.
"No, what, Amanda?"
No point arguing. No point demanding fair just rights as senior pender. No sense doing anything except knuckle under, wait next twenty-three months, seventeen days to creep past one day at a time until legally adult of Thirty, could kick off out of creep hole, maybe set up flop with Vikram, other cool guyz.
"No, Maman, don't want to force you and Maître into imposing any more penalties for own good."
"Fine. Now, darling, I still have rather a lot of work to finish before the council meeting this afternoon, so why don't you go to your room and practice your violin?"
Stomped off to soundproof room, sawed way through Mozart divertimento. Worked for while on generalized Paneitz 4th order operatorin relation to zeta-functional determinant, associated nonlinear equations. Didn't divert for long. Wondered if could trap a bee-ad, send message to Vikram. Mood was in, might as well both break curfew, try test other way hitch supersonic ride through bowels of earth.
One benefit having olds contracted handle legal tangles of Metro Maglev deep rail project. Had cracked household Lawman program, downloaded zillion pages AI jargon, engineering plans, then used couple smart ferrets plow through data, found that new way into tunnels.
6 : mathewmark
The good people of the Valley weren't too thrilled about the ventilation shaft. It appeared overnight. It was only a day or two after we'd filled in old man Grout's hole that we awoke to find a conspicuous metallic column sticking out of the ground in almost exactly the same place. It was about a meter and a half in diameter and, say, four meters high. Not steel but some kind of polluters' invented stuff. Painted green, but the paint wouldn't chip off. Cut into the side at ground level, in luminous red, were the words Metro Polis System Maglev Deep Rail Authority, Ventilation shaft 26B. And then, in yellow, It would be very much in your own interests not to enter or drop anything down this shaft. We don't have very many warning notices in the Valley, but when we do, we write things like Repent!; Keep Out; Light no Fires; Danger! Just simple, plain language that tells people what they need to know. There was something really menacing about the long-winded, mild-mannered drivel about our own interests.
Me and Momma and Dad and my brother, Lukenjon, were among the first to see the thing sticking up out of the ground in the earlymorning light. We walked down the hill to old man Grout's patch and just stood and looked. We were soon joined by our near neighborsand then others from farther afield. We don't have telephones or other works of the devil in the Valley, but news travels fast. Very fast indeed, faster than a man can run, faster than a mule can gallopfaster even than a horse can go. My dad sometimes says that the speed at which news travels is the strongest argument there is for the existence of God. He's only half-joking. Frankly, I don't know what other arguments there arein the Valley we don't argue about the existence of the God of our Choice, we know he, she, or it exists. Full stop.
When there were about three dozen people and a dozen mules standing in a circle around the ventilation shaft, old biddy Smeeth picked up a broken harrow tooth and walked right up to the thing. She swung the harrow tooth in an arc, smashing it into the side of the column. Clang. It was hollow. We were left in no doubt about that. And it extended deep into the ground. We could hear the reverberations, almost feel them through our feet. We looked up at the top of the column, a dark exclamation mark against the blue sky. The stuff about our "own interests" seemed a bit silly as well as menacing. You couldn't "drop" anything down the shaft, you'd be pushing it to climb to the top without a ladder, giving each other a leg up.
Old biddy Smeeth turned round and addressed the rest of us. "This is an abomination in the eyes of Kali, it is an outhouse vent in the temple of the gods. We must cast it out!"
"How?" I said.
"How?" old biddy Smeeth said, "How? Mathewmark. Are you so lacking in wisdom that you needs must ask how?"
Old biddy Smeeth has never been my favorite neighbor. She's always finding fault, always letting you know that she personally finds considerably more favor in the eyes of Kali than you do. Still, it doesn't do to talk back to an Elder, not in front of a gathering.
"I only seek your wisdom, Auntie Smeeth," I said.
"Pray!" cried old biddy Smeeth. "Everybody pray!"
There was a bit of foot shuffling. A couple of people found they had urgent things to do to the harness of their mules. But old biddy Smeeth would not be denied.
"Let us pray, brothers and sisters," she cried. "Let us pray to the God of our Choice that this abomination be blasted from the surface of the earth. Let the might of Kali drive it back down into the infernal regions from which it sprang!"
Old biddy Smeeth fell to her knees in the trampled wheat patch. She raised two hands to the heavens and closed her eyes. Then she opened them again for a quick look around to see if everybody else was joining her. She cried to the Goddess. People started kneeling, some more quickly than others. More and more voices joined in prayer. There was no coherence, voice battled with voice. Beside me Lukenjon was on his knees, getting into the spirit of the thing, yelling something about Tower of Babel, tower of sin, tower of outrage, tower of tin. Lukenjon is much more pious than I am, but he also writes lots of crappy poetry, real doggerel. Sometimes his devotion to the Lord and his soppy versifying get a bit mixed up.
I must admit I was about the last person to get down on my knees. But I did. And I prayed. I didn't pray out loud, I just had a quiet word with the Lord. Actually, if the Lord could hear me above the voices of all the rest, then I reckon that's another powerful argument for the existence of God. Although, I suppose, the argument is circular or something. A lot of truths about the Lord are a bit circular when you come to think about it. Anyway, what I said to the Lord was: you do what you think right, Lord. Ignore old biddy Smeeth if she's on the wrong track.
Then, not suddenly, but slowly, a slow moan rose above the sound of prayer. It was a deep, rolling, sighing, mournful sound. And it came from the heavens above. It grew louder. Many people fell silent. One or two fainted. "Kali the destroyer is made manifest!" old biddy Smeeth cried. "She is amongst us!" You could tell she was taking the credit.
In our Valley the gods or goddesses manifest fairly often, they're part of our lives, working the odd miracle or two. But this moaning, sighing sound was something new. Beside me Lukenjon was hard at it. "Voice of the Lord. Voice of the sword! Sword of the tin-slayer! Slice it up, Lord, layer by layer!"
"Shut up, Luken," I said quietly. "I want to hear this thing."
It didn't take long for me to work out where the sound was coming from. It was coming out of the mouth of the ventilation shaft several meters above our heads. It was the moaning of wind rushing out of a pipe. Any number of musical instruments work that way. The shaft was just a huge tin whistle. Once I'd worked that out, I also knew what was forcing the air out of the shaft: there was a train down there, bowling along toward us, pushing the air in front of it. Old biddy Smeeth had got it terribly wrong, we weren't listening to the voice of Kali or any other god. If anything, we were listening to the voice of the devil.
The next day there was a meeting of Elders at the temple. I wasn't there, of course, but Momma and Dad were. Apparently old biddy Smeeth and a few of her mates couldn't be convinced that they hadn't heard the voice of God. The Smeeth group claimed the moaning was a sign that divine punishment was going to strike down the ventilation shaft at Kali's earliest convenience. Someone asked why it hadn't already been struck downthe thing had been there for at least thirty-six hours. Old biddy Smeeth said she wasn't listening to such blasphemy and mentioned working in mysterious ways. The God of our Choice would get around to striking the thing down in his or her own good time and it wasn't for mere mortals to call the sacred timetable into question. Old biddy Smeeth knew this, because Kali had told her. The more important debate at the meeting of Elders concerned the question of permission.
The people of the Valley don't have much contact with the outside world. Outsiders aren't allowed in through the Gatehouse at the Valley entrance. And the good people of the Valley never leave. Or if they do, they leave and never come back. But sometimes it is necessary for the Elders to engage in business with Outsiders, and they hold a meeting in the Gatehouse. Those Elders chosen to bargain with the Outsiders enter the Gatehouse through the Valley door and sit on one side of a wide table. The Outsiders enter the Gatehouse by the Door of the Damned and sit on the other side of the table.That's as close as anybody from the Valley gets to the outside world. Recently, rumor said, there had been quite a few meetings in the Gatehouse. The lawyers for the Maglev Rail Authority and Freighter Corporation had wanted to speak to certain Elders. And certain Elders, it turned out, had struck certain deals.
Ructions! There hadn't been such turmoil in the Valley since the great pan-krishna-rainbow serpent dustup. That was way before I was born, of course. But there were still some ancient Elders around who could remember those days. The reason our religion is so strong is that it incorporates all the truths known to all the little itsy-bitsy religions like Christianity and Judaism and Buddhism and Islam and so forth. We've got the lot. Or rather we've got bits and pieces of the lot. And sometimes you get disputes about what to put in and what to leave out. That happened back in the days of the pan-krishna-rainbow serpent dispute. Families were torn asunder. Wife (or wives) wouldn't speak to husband. Brother wouldn't speak to sister. An alternative temple was built right across the track from the Great Temple itself. The two congregations used to praise the Lord at the tops of their voices, trying to drown each other out. After a really good Sunday or Wednesday of scripture-dueling hardly anybody in the Valley could speak, their vocal cords were so shot. It all died down in the end, of course, the dispute was using up too much energy, the crops were starting to fail. Finally, the Alternative Temple was hit by a lightning bolt. That did it, a sign from on high. But while life might have returned to normal, people still talk of those days, even though hardly anyone is old enough to remember them in person.
And now it was happening all over again, only this time the Valley was split on the question of permission. Why had the bargaining Elders told the Maglev people they could put their ventilation shaft in our Valley? What secret deals had been done? It must have been the devil himself who scrambled the Elders' minds. Or so it was said. But it was also said that liar bees had been seen in the Valley. I've always tried to keep an open mind on the question of liar bees. Some people think they are real, think they are all over the place, buzzing around the fields, hiding in the woods, perching on the cradles of newborn infants the better to corrupt their innocent little minds.Auntie McWeezle reckons they exist. She's seen them, she's heard them.
"They are as real as you are, Mathewmark," she said when I brought up the subject. "There's all sorts of wickedness in the Outside. And wickedness can't abide goodness and peace. The wicked know our Valley is steeped in innocence, and it riles them. They plot and scheme, the wicked. And the liar bees are their agents. They come in on the north wind. Like a plague of locusts. Moral locusts!"
"Come on, Auntie," I said. "Why would anybody on the Outside want to send funny little talking insects into our Valley? How would it profit them?"
"Wickedness is its own reward," Auntie said, and poured me more buttermilk. "Besides, the Valley is prime real estate."
"Real estate?" I said. "No one from the Outside can buy real estate in our Valley. It's forbidden."
"And while the good people of the Valley remain stout of heart and pure of spirit it will remain forbidden, Mathewmark."
"Well, there you are," I said.
"But if the moral contagion gets a grip," Auntie said, "then all will be lost, the Law will wither and die, and people will be so depraved that they'll barter their heritage for the pleasures of the fleshpots."
"And this is what the bees are telling people?" I said.
"Indeed it is, Mathewmark. The liar bees have been whispering in the Elders' ears. Offering sweet blandishments. How else do you explain the granting of permission?"
You can never tell with Auntie McWeezle. Sometimes I think she believes everything she tells you, and sometimes I think she exaggerates for the pleasure of it. She's as old as the hills and her face is lined with wrinkles and she hardly has any teeth, but her eyes sparkle sometimes, and they were sparkling now. Maybe because she was pulling my leg. Maybe because she really believed the liar bees were buzzing around us, looking for our weaknesses. I still had half a dozen loads to fetch and carry, so I thanked Auntie for her buttermilk and set off on the cart.
The devil tempted me, I confess it freely. Auntie's words niggled at the back of my mind as I made my deliveries. I'd never seen a liarbee, and neither had any of the other young people I knew. Jed Cooper was a couple of years older than I, and he'd been a bit of a helltearer, I'd heard tell. So as we lugged a load of corn together I decided to put the question to him.
He guffawed in my face. He laughed so hard he sprayed spit. I wiped it off my face with a sleeve and scowled.
"Don't believe ever'thing you hear, young Mathewmark," he said finally, shouldering the sack he'd dropped in his hilarity.
"Never said I believed it," I grunted.
He squeezed one eye shut and tapped his nose knowingly.
"It's the demon dogs you need to worry about," he told me. "They'll come down in the night and bear you off to hell's teeth for a chewing." Then he was chortling again at his own wit. He might be older than I, but I'm bigger, from all the lifting and toting, and I had a moment there when I wanted to clock him one. Lay him out on the ground. But that's wickedness, too, fighting with your neighbors. I just scowled and fell silent.
Jed wasn't finished with me, though. Just before I jumped back up on the cart he came close and leaned into my ear.
"If'n you really want to hear the whispering naughty promises of the liar bee," he said, his sour breath in my nostrils, "you have to invite them down politely. Call them to you, young Mathewmark."
"What do you mean?" I said, jerking away. "Why would you need to call the Tempter? He's supposed to call you."
"Nope, it's the rules of hell. They can't come into the Valley unless you invite them."
I cleared my throat in disgust and spat into the gnawed grass where Ebeeneezer had been chewing it. "You don't know anything, Jed. Everyone'll tell you it's vampires and the walking dead you have to invite past your door."
"Suit yourself," he said, and rolled the last barrel toward his store. "See you next week."
I rode away chewing my lip. He could have invited me in for a bite of lunch and a cool draft of springwater, but we were both too annoyed with each other. Well, Jed probably wasn't annoyed. He'd be tickled pink at the way he'd pulled my leg and got a rise out ofme. I let my good old mule Ebeeneezer take us out of the yard and down the dirt track, teased by the ridiculous doubt that maybe Jed was right after all. After all he was older than me, although he wasn't yet married, and he'd seen a bit more of life. More than a bit more, if the rumors were right.
I opened my mouth, gazed up at the blue sky, thought better of it, and closed my mouth again. But nobody was within earshot. Over in a distant field two kids were bent down clearing weeds, and they waved as we passed them, but they wouldn't hear me tempt the devil. Still, I waited until we'd left them behind, then I said softly, "Show yourself, tool of Satan. Let me hear your blandishments."
Nothing happened, of course. I felt like a fool. I raised my voice and shouted in a sarcastic way, "Come down from the devil's palace, liar bees! I dare you to test my faith, for I am a man who may not be bent from the path of righteousness."
Dust puffed up from the mule's plodding hooves. The wheels turned with a squeak. No flying insect of temptation fell from the skies to put my soul in peril. It wasn't as if I'd really expected it to.
There's a patch of wooded country between Jed Cooper's place and old man Legrand's log cabin. At that time of year quite a few of the tree varieties are in flower. That stretch of track was alive with insects, their hum and drone like a distant, old, familiar tune. The day was drowsy with the heat of early spring and the scent of flowers. Ebeeneezer knew where we were going. There wasn't much for me to do. I was half-asleep on the cart, the reins slack in my hands.
"You rang?" a voice said in my ear.
I woke up with a start. I looked around.
"Not you, Ebeeneezer. Did someone say something?"
There was no one else near. I must have been dreaming. A large bee of a sort I'd never seen before buzzed once around my head anddisappeared into the trees. I shivered, even though the day was warm. I told myself not to be a fool. Suggestion, that's what it was, the result of suggestion. Spend half an hour yarning with Auntie McWeezle and of course you'd dream of liar bees or something similar.
"Nothing ventured, nothing gained," the voice rasped. The humming grew louder. I pulled out my big handkerchief and folded it lengthwise so I could swat the devilish thing if it tried its wiles on me again. The bee zoomed in and sat on my right shoulder.
"Hey, kid," it said in a buzzing little voice, "listen up."
I still couldn't believe my ears. Must be dreaming. "Are you addressing me?" I blurted.
"If you're the one who invited me, kiddo, and I know you are, you're the one and only. And hey, Valley boy," it said in a small, selfsatisfied, irritating voice, "have I got a deal for you!"
7 : the abdel-malek interview. Global Business Review, January 4, 2003 (excerpt)
Q. How will people cope if they learn they have unlimited years ahead of them, thanks to major medical advances in the control of disease, aging, and senescence?
A. Life extension is just about living healthily longer, maybe indefinitely. What people do with the extra time is up to them.
Q. Won't indefinite life span change our definition of what a person is?
A. Of course not. A person is a conscious, moral agent, or at least an individual with that capacity, even if it happens to be impaired at the moment. Why should death be written into the contract?
Q. You were originally trained as a lawyer before changing to computer cognitive science later in life. Will we need new or different legal rights or obligations for rejuvenated centenarians?
A. Only those that apply to any other healthy person: the responsibilityto earn their keep, by work or keen investment, and to obey the law of the land. Sooner or later, machines or tailored organisms will provide all our wants. We'll work only at jobs we choose to accept, as artists dream of doing.
Q. What if Freud's right and human beings have a death wish stronger than their hunger for life?
A. It's too soon to tell. Let's see how people at the age of two hundred feel while they retain the physical and mental vigor of an adolescent. If they all suddenly need Prozac to get through the day, I'll give your suggestion more serious attention.
Q. Won't religious impulses block uptake of the new technologies? And what about Green ethics that see humans as blighting the planet? A. I hear there's a plan afoot to ban development of artificial intelligence under some crazy movement called the Joyous Relinquishment.
Religious impulses are remarkable for adapting to changing circumstances. Once it was wicked for women to accept anaesthesia during child delivery. The Bible said so. Environmental impacts of life extension are tricky to estimate. You're less likely to foul your own nest if you expect to be living in it.
Q. The turn of the millennium saw an upwelling of fundamentalism, terrorism, and New Age practices at the very time science was recreating the human world. Might we end up blocking anything as supposedly "unnatural" as genomic life extension and AI? A. As I say the Joyous Relinquishment folks want to do just that.
Q. So wishful thinking could win out over obscure laboratory evidence. What could block the emergence of effective advanced technology?
A. Lack of investment, on the one hand, and political interdiction, on the other. Technically these improvements will be very difficult, but Moore's Law will keep enhancing the lab tools at an exponential rate, at least for another decade or so. Unless the Luddite loonies take over the ward.
8 : amanda
Sacred Sanctuary of God of our Choice, Pty. Ltd. had been set up, according to legal-beagle, in 1934. Back then was just called the Coburg Valley, name homesick early German immigrants gave it before World War I. During another war in Vietnam, China, something, had been big influx young people called "hippies" or "draft excluders." Didn't want to be sent off to fight, die in some part of world long way from home. Who can blame? Had led to rise of what looked like phony religion some of these guys, their girlfriends got themselves ordained in. Now "ministers of religion;" no longer eligible packed off get shot at, bombed, suffer slings, arrows, lethal chemicals of outrageous fortune.
But like Play sociology instructor says, short step from cult to culture. Valley people experimented with faith, drugs, equal proportion, tried out "free love" (sex). Led to babies, before knew it place was turning into genuine community.
Got lots of this off such archives as remained uncorrupted after Big Data Glitch, using boring slow keyboard, display, as implant connect disabled by court. Maman's legal-beagle search agent, cracked years ago, only provided dry-as-dust records, databases, gigabytes precedents, arguments before beak about local ordinance infractions, rights or supposed rights of faithful in respect of getting asses shot off, so on, all very dull unless needed to find legal loophole in centuries accumulated judicial drivel. Did. Wanted loophole could drive couple grounded penders through. Needed to get into Valley physically, evading crusty old loony guards stood watch at pass between hills, not to mention laser-beam detectors on our side, set up to protect faithful from foul pollution modern thought.
Amazing stuff! Crackpots thought science was a curse. Not like wholesome Joyous Relinquishment, these were loony geek-haters.Reckoned was sinful to stick phone in head. Told kids rest of world was having high old time consuming, fornicating, ignoring word of the God of their Choice. Well, fair enough. Can't say were wrong about that. Just can't see why got so worked up about it? What's wrong with a bit of consuming, fornicating, as long as get immune implants like civilized people?
Anyway, by this stage Valley community had got ingrown, weirder than shit. Wouldn't come out, we couldn't go in. I.e., could go in, of course, anytime wanted, just brush aside, but not polite. Had watertight legal title to Valley, even if was prime mouth-watering real estate. High-powered Legals like Maman scouring sub-clauses of municipal, regional development Acts for years now, limited artificial intelligence support from likes of legal-beagle program, still couldn't budge mad old things. Only legitimate access to Valley loonies was if specifically invited you in, which they never did, or if one of them ventured outside into real world.
Or, had suddenly seen with burst of excitement, if could talk one of them into leaving of own free will. How pull off impossible trick? Couldn't get in, show everything he, she was missing. Couldn't dangle VR inside brains, send on magical mystery tour of imagination, because loonies had no sim chips in brains, poor things. Law very firmly of opinion that flying in, kidnaping one of dopes, bearing off to pleasures, enticements of outside world simply not done (Penalty: twentyfive years freezing, global credit restriction).
Ah, but nobody said don't divert bee-ad over tops of hills, through trees, whisper little come-on in ears.
Had been tested in courts, found perfectly legaltherefore hushed up at once. Only learned of it because Maman, team used method shamelessly to persuade greedy Elder come on board, grant permission drive up needful vent shaft in empty paddock.
Had sat back, stared in disbelief at display. First person tried inveigling faithful had been Sam-Sam the Roadster Man. Hired team industrial psychologists rewire entire beehive, sent in on north wind years ago when I was not yet born. Commercials spouted so completely, stupidly wrong for market that whole idea discredited forlong generation. Watched stereo video feed several bugged bugs had radioed back to Sam-Sam's hired guns.
Startled believer: Huh? Is that you sneaking around behind me, MaryLou Atkins?
Bee: Wanna buy a roadster that flies like the wind? Wanna get your mitts on a dynamite unit that tears up the way like a bat outta hell?
Indignant believer: Hell, you say? Step forth, tool of the devil and show thy grizzled features that the Lord might smite thee mightily!
Bee: Only five hundred down and two hundred a month for a limited time interval. Voice signature legally binding.
Shocked believer: Take that, minion of chaos!
<whack whack splat>
Campaign was dud. Marketing in dark, salesmanship without preliminary focus groups, polls. Rank incompetence, stupidity. Hit Menu, tracked rest of sorry tale. Year or so later, Science Education Foundation tried same trick, bees wired for Darwinism, evolutionary psychology. (Don't ask, mathematical type, haven't gone that way in education. Something to do with how are all descended from apes. Sounds silly as what Valley loons believe, but hey, am majoring in violin, math, Mall dynamics.) Success rate not particularly improved.
Bee: Young lady, let us reason together.
Terrified girl in bonnet: Help! Help! Auntie Hazel, it's one of those demons in pleasing garments!
Aunt: Slacker girl! You can't take me in so easily! Back to your sweeping!
Bee: Madame, perhaps I can interest you in a dialogue concerning the two great world systems?
Justified girl: See, Auntie, I told you. It's a limb of Satan. A wingèd limb.
Aunt: Get the whisk, thou foolish child! Give the bugger a whack!
Send it back to Hell's Teeth! <bang crump whine>
Bee: ZZZbuzzzssss pooffff
And so on, year after year. Think they'd learn? Imagine people would get point? Valley loons built up whole mythology about tempting creatures of Satan, one way to look at bee-ads, fellow pests. Advertisers tired of failed campaigns to sell uplifts bras, microwave ovens to devoted retroprimitives. Government maintained low-level presence, inviting more adventurous to sample delights of big-city fun. Sometimes had a success. Mostly, lost bugs.
Best news: remains legal method for corrupting minds of loonies, but only if loonies give clear indication of interest in being contacted.
Sent in low-level artificial intelligence searcher find out if anyone had expressed interest in outside world lately. Thought more likely than not, since arrival of vent must have set off lot of talk, discussion, public dispute. Surely some bad kid with bit of spirit had said something along lines of invite. Left software agent to search all automatic monitor records from past day.
Didn't take long to track down stock of moth-balled ad buzzers, grab control tiny brains, program up few simple code controls, send pair winging off over pass.
Wanted spy in sky. Needed take in lay of land. If Vikram, I to get ride on bullet train, as intended, were going to need all info could scrape together.
Bees easy to drive, turns out. Piloted two spies into Valley on third afternoon of imprisonment in own room; luckily was non-Play Wednesday. Mapped threedee of boring fields, creeks, dirt roads, farms, smallest, dingiest town ever seen. Off to one side, sticking out of false-color imager like silver finger caught by sun, found vent shaft rising from rocky soil of empty field.
Set down one bee top of vent, let crawl about, sussing out control system. Other bee sent lofting on air currents while waited for search engine to find stooge.
<I have located an utterance that might be construed within legal limits as an invitation> program told.
Man's recorded voice, slightly distorted by distance from nearest monitor, called request for tool of Satan. Close enough, thought, grinning. Should stand up in court, if ever get back there, worse luck.
<Find person in real time> I instructed search engine. Machine locked into bee still had roaming around in sky.
<I have contact> AI told.
Yes indeedy. Here came incredibly old-fashioned device, flat dray, huge wonky wooden wheels, pulled along by poor four-footed critter in leather harness. Guy leaning back with eyes shut, looked like, sucking on a stalk. Zoomed on down. Thick black unwashed hair, nice face, light shadow of beard. Hideous clothes, looked stitched together by hand if can believe such. His own right hand, strong, nicely shaped, holding reins loosely. Animal seemed to be driving self while master snoozed. Perfect.
Dropped bee down next to ear. Let's give system trial run.
"You rang?" had bee say.
He sat up, jolt.
Didn't seem finest candidate for spot of espionage, double-dealing, but didn't really have big pool candidates. "Nothing ventured, nothing gained," muttered to self, toggled bee's auto ad routine.
"Hey, kid," bee shouted at new pal, "listen up."
Sat back to see how had taken it, grinning hard enough to crack dragon stencil off my face. Decided were in. Yep, Vikram, I, surely in. Persuade dummy, persuade Vik, get out of house, into Valley, down vent. What were few simple obstacles when thrill ride of lifetime awaited?
Guy swatting at mewell, at beewith nasty-looking rag. Danced away. Would have Valley loon eating out of hand.
9 : mathewmark
So they existed. I was a believer now: liar bees were out and about and doing the devil's work. It just went to show that you had to take old biddies like Auntie McWeezle seriously. They'd lived a long time, they knew a thing or two. I was wide-awake now and I was approaching old man Legrand's place with even more turmoil of the heart than usual.
Old man Legrand is Sweetcharity's grandfather. Since the dark night when her parents were carried away in the floods, beautiful Sweetcharity has lived there with him. He takes his grandfatherly responsibilities very seriously, old man Legrand. There isn't a girl in the Valley who is more closely supervised than the orphan Sweetcharity Legrand. Which makes being in love with her a bit difficult. At least I get to see her sometimesmy carting duties mean I've got a good reason to visit the cabin occasionally. Any other fellow in the Valley who just turned up on specand a few havewould be sent on his way pretty damn sharpish. Old man Legrand is not above waving a long-handled billhook at folks he doesn't like the look of. And it's no good going on about the fact that the God of his Choice is meant to be a pacifist. Where his granddaughter is concerned, old man Legrand is a warrior of old.
"Morning, Uncle," I said when Ebeeneezer ground to a halt outside the cabin.
"Afternoon, boy," Legrand said.
We both looked at the sun. Perhaps it was past midday, perhaps it wasn't. I didn't really care. But old man Legrand did.
"How much past, boy?" he said.
I took a guess. "Now you call my attention to it, Uncle," I said, "I reckon it's approximately in the vicinity of about half past noon at the very least."
"Five past, young Mathewmark. The Lord didn't make the Sun go round the Earth just so young slackers could reckon that things are approximately in the vicinity."
"I reckon he didn't, Uncle," I said. There was no point in arguing with Legrand, what I wanted to do was catch a glimpse of his granddaughter. We started unloading Jed Cooper's seed corn. I surreptitiously looked around the place. The cabin door stood open, but I could see no one inside, nor hear any sound from the sheds and barns. No one was mucking out the mules' stalls, no one was planting squash or hanging out the washing. Old man Legrand had sent Sweetcharity on some errand. Or he'd sent her down to the bottom of the field, given her weeding duties among the cabbages. I wouldn't be able to exchange loving glances, brush against her accidentally when I entered the cabin doorway. Sweetcharity would have no chance to kiss me quickly on the cheek when we were suddenly hidden from view as we loaded firewood onto the cart.
Which was all right by me. Sweetcharity would find a chance to meet me on the track when I drove away.
So we unloaded the seed corn. And loaded the firewood. And old man Legrand said, "Reckon you must be thirsty after all that, young Mathewmark. Have a draft of rainwater."
"Right neighborly of you, Uncle," I said.
The Sun in its orbit round the Earth could go hang. My stomach was telling me exactly what time it wasit was lunchtime. And here was old man Legrand offering me a drink of water. Still, there was no point complaining. I took the tin mug he offered and filled it from the barrel beside the cabin door. I drank and climbed up onto the cart.
"So long, Uncle," I said.
"May the Lord ride with you," old man Legrand said, "Careful with them logs."
I drove off. Careful with them logs! What did the old skinflint think his precious firewood wasbaskets of eggs? I forgot about him, it was his granddaughter who occupied my thoughts. As Ebeeneezer plodded along I scanned the track ahead. To my right were open fields of corn and barley. To my left were woods: tall, dark treesgrowing among thick undergrowth: lots of hiding places and small secret trails.
I turned my head quickly, expecting to see Sweetcharity hidden in the foliage. But it was a liar bee, a meter distant and hovering.
"Bugger off!" I said. And then I made the sign o'god, partly to ward off the evil bee, and partly to cleanse my soul of the stain of foul language. I don't normally swear, but the bee had unnerved me.
"Pardon," said the liar bee. "Thought was meant to be free country."
"This is the Valley of the God of one's Choicethere's nothing here for you," I said. "Begone, insect of Satan!"
"Look," said the bee, "Can do deal!"
"No we can't," I said. "Hie thee off!"
"Bye bye for now," said the bee, and disappeared into the woods. I drove on, flicking the reins to encourage Ebeeneezer.
I didn't turn my head.
"Psst! Mathewmark, you deaf or something?"
Sweetcharity stood well back from the track, almost completely hidden by the darkness of the woods. But I could see her smile, see the dappled light dancing on her hair. I brought Ebeeneezer to a halt and vaulted from the cart. I'd have to leave my mule and his load unattended, but there was nothing I could do about that and old Ebeeneezer had enough sense. I ran into the woods. Sweetcharity turned and ran herself, deeper into the gloom. The trail was narrow, something that might have been made by wild animals, low to the ground. I had to hold my arm in front of my face to ward off branches and brambles. Sweetcharity had disappeared. I saw the flash of her dressa brilliant white in the gloom as she ducked behind a tree. When I located the tree, she was already behind another. I caught her behind the third. She laughed in my arms.
"Why, if it isn't young Mathewmark," she said. "What on earth brings you to this secluded spot?"
Sweetcharity was still breathing quickly from the chase. Her waist was slim in my encircling arms. Her breasts were against my chest.
"Kiss me," I said.
"What a suggestion," she said.
"Sweetcharity, don't tease," I said.
"Physical intimacy is a sacrament," she said, very prim and proper. "Any young gentleman knows that."
I put my lips to hers. We swayed together, with no more need for banter. There was a crashing sound in the undergrowth nearby. Sweetcharity sank quickly to her knees, dragging me down with her. Her eyes were startled, full of fear.
"Grandfather," she whispered. "He'll whip me."
We lay in a heap, trying to sink into the leaf mold, into the very earth itself. The sounds of Legrand crashing about in the undergrowth came closer and closer. He was casting around. He didn't know exactly where we hid, but he knew we were close by. Peering out from where we lay, through the tangle of undergrowth, I saw him, wild with rage and exertion. The whip was no figure of speech, Legrand had one in his hand. It was all coiled up, but it must have been five meters long. A bullock driver's whip, something to make the air crack over the head of the leading beast. Hell's Teeth! The man was crazed. He was wild of eye and breathing hard. And it wasn't only Sweetcharity who was at risk.
"I know thee for the lecher you are, you hell-spawn, Mathewmark!"
We were both doomed. The pair of us shrank deeper to the ground. Legrand blundered about. He hadn't seen us, but it was only a matter of time.
"Yah, yah, yah! Monkey look for peanuts!" a voice said.
"Oh, Kali-be-kind," I whispered to Sweetcharity, "the bee."
"Moth-eaten old fart! Couldn't hit flea, couldn't hit me!"
"You, hell-fiend!" yelled Legrand. "Show thy scurvy visage!" And he commenced smiting, flailing around with his whip. The thing was too long. Far too long. It wrapped itself around branches, it got caught in bushes. Legrand tugged it free, using language not heard in Wednesday sermons, nor Saturday nor Sunday either.
"Stupid old goat!"
"I'll flail your sinful hide."
"Get knotted, shit for brains."
We could no longer see Legrand. The bee was leading him away. Taunting him all the time. Legrand blundered after it, yelling curses, far gone in his rage. Finally, his howls and shrieks disappeared into the depths of the woods.
"Well, that's a relief," I said to Sweetcharity.
But she was sitting up, looking at me, almost as wild-eyed as her grandfather.
"It ... it ... was a liar bee," she gasped.
"Yeah, I know," I said. "It was buzzing around me earlier."
"It saved us," Sweetcharity said with wild-eyed alarm. "Oh God of our Choice, we've been saved by a liar bee!"
"Maybe we should give thanks," I said. "A little prayer ..."
"Thanks! A prayer! Are you mad, Mathewmark! That was a liar bee. We can't thank a liar bee. We're in league with the devil if we thank a liar bee."
"It seems to have drawn that madman away."
"Don't you call my grandfather a madman! How dare you?"
"Hell's Teeth, Sweetcharity, the man's demented."
"Don't blaspheme! Don't you dare mention the infernal region and Grandpa's name in the same breath!"
Sweetcharity was pulling herself away from me, standing up, brushing randomly at her clothes. There were leaves in her hair. Her eyes flashed.
"You're in league, Mathewmark," she said. "You're in league with the Prince of Darkness."
"Sweetcharity, darling," I said imploringly.
"Don't 'darling' me!"
I'd never seen her so pretty. I'd never wanted to know her body as I wanted to know her now. Carnal lust!
"Please, Sweetcharity," I said, standing up and stepping toward her. Reaching for her.
"Don't touch me!"
"You're in league. You've sold your immortal soul."
"Sweetcharity, I think you are being a little bit hysterical. I'm not in league with anyone."
"The bee did your bidding!"
"No it didn't."
"Oh, dear Lord. You're lying, Mathewmark. You are the familiar of the liar bees. You speak to them in their own lying tongue!"
"Does, too," said a voice about a meter above our heads.
Sweetcharity gasped, looked up, fainted into a crumpled heap on the ground.
"Good grief," said the bee, "Loopy as halfwit with whip."
"She's his granddaughter," I said.
"Poor kid," said the bee. "Thought my olders were assholes, but that fruitcake ..."
"Who are you?" I said.
"Cyborg bee, you know that."
"Where are you from?"
"Metro. You know, outside Valley of Goddess, whatever you call. Van Gogh. Introduce self. Voice Amanda Kolby-McAllister. Not bee talking you, me, Amanda. Shut up in room, controlling bee. Only machine."
"What do you want?" I was shaking a bit.
Before the bee could reply we were interrupted by a piercing shriek from Sweetcharity, who had obviously regained consciousness.
"See, see," she cried. "You are the liar bee's familiar. Oh get thee behind me, Satan!"
She was away and running, tearing through the woods in the direction of her grandfather's cabin.
"Another nutter," said the bee. "Bloody place rife."
"She's my beloved," I said, "and in the fullness of time I hope to make her my betrothed."
"Not anymore, buster," said the bee. "Owe me, Mathewmark. For saving ass from mad guy with whip." The bee cleared its throat. "And saving from clutches of crazy little drooler."
"Do you mind!"
"Don't mind at all," said the bee pleasantly. "Uh-oh, Maman at door, time log off. See around, Mathewmark."
seed origin IV: repair
Trembling with pleasure, Head of Biology Team Tatsumi stared one final time at the notification in her display. Finally, the Medical Executive had relaxed its prohibition on attempts to revive deep-cryonics corpses from the Pre-Relinquishment epoch. She key-cued for a menial.
The door flashed pink. In came the technician she could not stand. Why must it be him, in this moment of her triumph?
"Please bring up three whole-body storage containers from the mausoleum."
"The earlier the better."
The swine smirked. "Records listings are no longer reliable, madam. Most of the dating information was dumped during the Big Data Glitch"
Walked into it "Then why ask?" She knew why. Quickly, before he could come back with some new impertinence: "Use your eyes, man. Surely cryonics tanks from the turn of the millennium are distinctive enough."
The bodies were fetched up in their Dewars. The first was lost in a subtle error during thaw. The next perished for a large number of still more subtle reasons that interlocked chaotically. Bringing the third to revival required lateral thinking and took years to accomplish, even with accelerated cloning techniques. Dr. Tatsumi was exhausted by the time the task reached completion. The aggravating Tech still got on her nerves, but there was no doubting his masterful competence.
They stared at the youthful, comatose body.
"A beautiful job, madam."
"Do you mock me?"
"Heaven forbid. No, just look at him. Better than new."
So he ought to be. They had sliced Abdel-Malek's vitrified and frozen flesh into wafer-thin laminates, resonance scanned them, mapped the location of every brain cell and its synaptic interconnects. A bucky-core nowheld every single item of the information that once had been Mohammed Abdel-Malek. They had read the precise wording of his genome and reconstructed from it a fresh embryo identical in every respect to his own. For years they had tended the clone twin, nurturing its accelerated growth, massaging the young body with instruments and fields and enzymes. The vast trillionfold tangle of its Edelman neural garden, the chaos of nerves cells that choked its torpid infant brain, had been trimmed in a topiary guided by the memories cherished within the bucky-chip. Every link was strengthened or suppressed in echo of the structure of the dead man's chilled and sliced brain. The body lying before them was unconscious and mindless only because it had never been permitted to awaken, shake the sleep from its eyes, stretch, look around at its new home.
His. His new home.
As a solution to freezer damage, the procedure had been a tour de force, if not a particularly elegant one.
"He certainly seems in the pink," the Tech observed, tugging his lower lip through the mask. "Pity we can't wake him for a few moments."
"Absolutely out of the question." If it were not for the constant supervision of Relinquishment security probes, Head of Team would have done exactly that, years ago. The urge to speak to her creation was often nearly overwhelming. "All right, Technician," she said vindictively, "return the patient to deep storage and crash him down to minus 196."
They had both known this was the inevitable, frustrating conclusion to their heroic efforts. But the Abdel-Malek clone was, after all, just one of their many projects, and the one that strained most dangerously at the boundaries of technological moratorium.
"It's like killing him all over again, don't you think?"
"What I think," Head of Team Ingrid Tatsumi shrieked in maternal pain, "what / think is that you're begging to go on report." She caught her breath. "It's a political decision. Let the future worry about these deviationists."
"We only heal their bodies, right?"
She turned away as the boy was floated out
10 : amanda
Time Maman got door open, was perched innocently with Strad the Lad under chin, sawing away at Tchaikovsky concerto like life depended. Maman looked suspicious, but room well soundproofed, obvious reasonsduring first few years violin made noises like tormented cat, although these days should be allowed to charge admission to practice sessions, so delightful are musical strains coax from Stradivarius. Well, maybe not Tchaik. Admit, Tchaik dreadfully difficult, been working on doublestop triplets for weeks.
Have to play two notes same time, three times in single beat. Passage blindingly fast doublestop triplets end last movement. Music implant helped, but practicing hours a day to get near. Sound notes simultaneously, need bring heel of bow, near hand, hard down both strings at once. Makes difficult to control, bow wants move like hammer. Literallyimagine holding heavy head of hammer between fingers, thumb tip underneath, trying direct end of handle great delicacy, speed, changing angle in split seconds. Strike two strings at once, precisely, instantly switch another pair, offset from ones just played, each string with distinct resistance. Again, again. Left hand crazily pressing doublestops, dancing to next pair. Most time sound goes crunchy, vile. Was determined master it.
Strad Lad not true Stradivarius. Lovely ancient violins rare hens' teeth, not mention expensive as real estate on Sunway Coast, Utopia Valley. My Strad exact knockoff, computer-designed replica built by molecular shaper machine on basis extensive mag res scans, CAT scans, PET scans, DOG scans all I know. Spoke with voice of angel, when stroked whiskers with bow. Mixed metaphor, something, who cares?
"Your father and I will be dining with the commissioner this evening,"Maman told me, calm tiger's eyes. Obviously didn't know had been toying with tender vulnerable mind of Valley of God guy, even though Nanny Watch surveillance program on computer link to record, trace URLs of every call made out. Didn't know Vikram, I, Play's ace hax0rs, not something go advertising, let alone boast of. Under dozen handles, were known, feared, majorly respected by cryptonauts, other buzzboyz, grrlz seven continents, few islands. None of streetwise d00Ds knew were upscale prisoners of refinement, taste. Naturally yearned down&durtee, instead were trapped in Durance Vile by likes of Maître, Maman, terrifying Dr. Singh, seldom-seen Mrs. Singh, not to mention our community Magistrate, hissing Mr. Abdel-Malek.
"Be okay, Maman," told airily. "Spine-chiller on vee, Mrs. Ng usual excellent dinner, catch early zees."
Realized even as spoke had taken wrong tack entirely. Maman's eyes narrowed. Expecting whine, bitch, moan how incredibly bored, how small house (all twenty rooms including arboretum), why couldn't Vikram come around or even Bessie or Steve, Mr. Abdel-Malek hadn't said anything about Steve, Bessie not allowed to visit, and
Had brains to carry on like that, Maman would have raised voice tiniest bit, invited to grow up a little, young lady, nearly Mature, scarcely behavior of a near-citizen. Too bad, if started to grizzle now would look rather odd, even more suspicious, so just turned away from dubious glance, tucked S Lad under chin, drew out perfect middle C. Hairs on arms stood up, didn't even hear door seal behind when left room.
Once was sure Maman, Maitre out of house for good (wouldn't put it past them double back, try catch red-handed), lower half house filled delicious scents Mrs. Ng's preparations scratch meal, reopened system, still using Maître's crappy old discarded computer.
No way could reach Vikram direct, legally, didn't stop for moment. Popped up couple fairly impregnable layers countermeasures, opened window to e-pal Austria, Rupert Hochschauble. Forty-five-year-old Mature glassblower with interest medieval illuminated manuscripts. Well, bio on home page, all I knew "he" could be seamstress HonanProvince or retired food engineer Kurdistan. Rupert my "beard," patching encrypted messages through series email lists to place where Vik would see when went on-line. Would reply through own "beard," someone I didn't know or want know, answer forwarded almost instantly through another list, maybe devoted water-skiing or face stencils.
How come felt so secure? Wasn't sheer number of links sent messages throughhelped, of course, but could be traced. No, chatted behind security door of excellent Steganography program both installed.
Steganography? Never heard? Shame, you! How worked, in nutshell: spoke my end conversation into machine's acoustic hood (or typed if feeling really paranoid, thought olders might be listening to room through microbug). Words digitized in usual way, stream ones, zeroes. Binary digits modify standard "one-use pad" other zeroes, ones, cost nothing to prepare. Vikram, I, made up one hundred pads, stored for whenever wished communicate absolute secrecy.
Anyway, new blend message bits, pad bits woven artfully as colored pixels into background of painting, photo, whole thing transmitted as graphic attachment. Picture might be bland little portrait of me playing Strad at Prom last season, or heart-warming pic of doggie doing tricks with food bowl, or shot of ring-a-ding Saturn from high over north pole. Some dull, ordinary, some beautiful, memorableanything, really. As was going through Hochschauble's site, was gold-leaf-encrusted page from ancient German Bible (book Deuteronomy, as recall).
Manuscript shown backwards. Didn't touch words of sacred text, would have been relief to weird new buddy Mathewmark if ever heard this high-tech game, not that would have understood first word. No, Steg program found bits gray parchment in background, ever so slightly tweaked bits, bytes. Couldn't see difference in gray shades with naked eye, trust. Could see speckle if boosted magnification, so what? Who says what shade dull gray, brown random pixel meant be? Without keyshared, prepared onetime padnobody in all world decrypt messages.
Enough science, art skullduggery. Point, me, Vik could natter toheart's content, no-one going intercept forbidden conversation. Not even dreaded Mr. Abdel-Malek.
<Hey, grrl. Bored shitless.>
<Tell 'bout. Luckily, Have Plan.>
<Oh, no. Look, Amanda, know am devoted to yr genius, beauty, but don't think parents could take another Plan. Don't think I could, that matter. Last one almost got sent home Pakistan.>
<"Home"? Thought you naturalized van Gogh citizen.>
<True, but know olds. Claim been corrupted by alien ways.>
<Funny, exactly next Plan. Not you, hopper. Heard Valley of God, weird old hippies?>
Pause. Watched main display. Series lovely illuminated pages, each on display fifteen, twenty seconds. Vikram's end, display showing cricket match in progress, or map of points of horse. Pause not due to mechanics of Steganography. Just Vikram being indecisive. Kid easily flummoxed by raw fear. Never understood it.
While Vik was mulling over trepidation, I patched in map of deep Maglev route, small blipping red rectangular box laid over spot where tunnel curved through Valley. Green dot marked vent. Never paid much attention to route itself before, since old planmy planinvolved hopping rails at Metro hangar, webbing onto shiny freighter for grim life with wind screaming in hair, around carbon-fiber composite goggles, jumping off at coast when came to rest. One part of thousand-kilometer tunnel hundreds of meters deep under the rock like any other, had assumed. Just blackness pierced every hundred meters blue maintenance lamps no human ever clapped eyes on. Wasn't as if anyone was meant to go down there once system was up, running.
<Mad bastards have put kink in track,> Vikram remarked. <Will slow bullet train down a bit. Why they do that, Amanda?>
<Not quite kink,> said pedantically. <More slow, gentle curve. But you do see, right under Valley just mentioned?>
<Course. Something to do with rock, think? Or maybe had to divert around underground river?>
told. <Faithfulfelt having transport route of Satan's Minions drilled under landscape was shocking affront to God of their Choice.>
<Which god that?>
<Not just one, is it? All get worship whichever god fancy. Mainly menfolk like old bearded chap spits fire, brimstone, ladies go for Mother Gaia, one of blessed Virgins. Clip it? "Of their Choice"?>
<No need be narky. How this do with anything?>
Smirked. Pays to do research.
<Turns out Maman did secret deal. With one of Elders, don't know which. For the right to take tunnel through Valleywell, deep under Valley, but loonies own legal mining rights stopped corp from just ripping ahead without permission.>
<Exchange for?> Could imagine Vikram's big laugh. Probably imagining bribes, civic corruption high places, dirty deals, guilty secrets. What his own father specialized in, according rumor.
<Maman's arranged send all directly to heaven.>
Another pause. Display flipped back a page. Adam, Eve, snake conspicuous teeth, rather cheesy smirk, twined around tree. One about to chow down on apple, while gaudy snake looked on, rather pleased with self. How appropriate. Sniggered.
<True. Maman agreed have diamond disk engraved with names, histories every member the Church of God of their Choice, send up into space on rocket. Cost millions, probably, cheap at price. Oh yes, bit makes all worthwhile. In exchange for vent in grotty old disused field, corp agreed to slow freighters down to speed of running horse. Fifty kays max, reckon.>
<Grief,> Vikram said. <Bless soul.>
Red stockpot appeared upper right corner of display, steaming over a crackling fire. Dinner served.
<Gotta go,> told bad if reluctant buddy. <Mrs. Ng calls. But you get big picture now, hope?>
<Do indeed,> Vikram agreed. Manuscript showed God brooding over unformed Earth, empty, void. About make something really, really dread. Me too.
<We'll go down vent,> I said. <Now all need do, get in there.>
<But Amanda,> Vikram started, <heard bastards completely mad, armed with pitch>
Cut him off, closed cyber defenses, scampered downstairs to dinner Mrs. Ng. Chicken, steamed Vietnamese vegetables! Yum.
11 : mathewmark
I always look forward eagerly to Beanfeast Night. Each village in the Valley has a Beanfeast Night once a month. It's pretty well compulsory to go to the Beanfeast at your nearest village hall, but you can go farther afield if you wish. Our village has its Beanfeast every New Moon. That's a mixed blessing. Makes it harder for outliers to drive their carts home after the feast, so we get more people staying over afterward than the Sickle Moon and the Full Moon villages. We must provide more food and candles and hot water, it's a bit of a strain on the local community, but we get the kudos.
And there's some splendid cooks in our community. My momma makes the best pickled pork rolls in the Valley, and her cheeses are legendary. Auntie McWeezle bakes wheat bread and corn bread with herbs only she knows about. Try winkling the recipes out of heryou might as well try to get water from the Moon.
So all that day, as I went on my rounds, each house and farm and cabin and mud hut I visited smelled better than the last. And at most places I was given a taste or a bite or a sip.
"What do you think, Mathewmark? A little more chopped chives?"
"Don't overdo it, Auntie. Remember what happened to old man Oldwood and his Fragrant Sausage."
"Fragrant! You could smell the pong of it the moment you entered the hall!"
"It's a lesson to us, Auntie."
"I'm talking about chopped chives, Mathewmark, not essence of liverwort."
"Moderation in all things, Auntie. Could I have some more?"
"Begone, Mathewmark, or I'll have nothing to bring to the feast."
Beanfeast days are great days. I always make sure I visit as many people as possible on a feast day. But this particular day, for all the tasting and sipping, had an uneasy feel to it. Beanfeasts are jolly affairs, but they can also be the occasion for airing grievances and circulating rumors. And there were going to be some grievances airedthe Valley was alive with rancorous debate over the granting of permission for the ventilation shaft. And old man Legrand and Sweetcharity would be there.
By the appointed hour I was scrubbed and ready. As were Momma and Dad and my brother Lukenjon. We loaded the basket of feast food, I put a daisy chain around Ebeeneezer's neck, we all piled onto the cart and we were away, arriving at the village hall by sunset. It was a warm evening, and those who had arrived already were still standing around outside, under the peppercorn trees, watching the sunset and discussing the ventilation shaft. I looked for old man Legrand's great lumbering wagon, but it was yet to arrive. I would need all my diplomatic skills and cunning to keep out of his way while still managing to speak to Sweetcharity.
Ah, Sweetcharity. I was no fool. I knew what her sort of behavior was called: a lovers' tiff. The thing about lovers' tiffs is that when, after a bit of argy bargy and tears and hot words, the two lovers fall into each other's arms again, their love is strengthened tenfold. Lovers' tiffs are like summer showers. Rain one minute, brilliant sunshine the next. At least this is what I was telling myself as I unhitched Ebeeneezer from the cart and led him to the village green to graze and chat peacefully with the other mules until home time.
I looked round quickly. The village hall with its little group of nattering locals and visitors was about a hundred meters away, but no one was watching me. I was alone on the village green with a dozen mules for company. I ignored the bee and bent to put the hobbles on Ebeeneezer's front legs.
"Look, only asking for bit of advice."
"The devil and his winged messengers need no words of advice from a mortal," I whispered.
"Oh, give break. What's wrong you fruitcakes? I'm pender stuck at moment insid"
"A pretender! I knew it!"
"Pender, cretin. Subadult. Unmod hayseeds'd probably call me girl, despite advanced years. Any rate, certainly not bee. Wake up self, or get nasty sting." The bee sniggered in my ear, a terrible buzzing sound for a mortal to have to listen to. I swatted furtively. Was that Jed Cooper peering in my direction from the shadows of the nearest stand of peppercorn trees? All I neededanother witness to my damnable persecution.
"A girl, eh," I grunted. "Did the Magistrates of Hades turn thee into a creature of the hive as punishment for thy infractions?"
"Magist" The bee fell silent, as if astonished. "Out mouths of babes. Look, idiot, what's all thees, thous, smites, begorrahs? Sound like hick from twentieth-century hillbilly teev spoof."
I clung to Ebeeneezer's neck, hearing his patient chewing.
"It's just the way we talk. What's wrong with it? You talk pretty strangely, bee."
"What's wrong? Fake as rubber dog turd. Phony as novelty puke toy. Your ancestors all higher degrees agricultural colleges, those not running illegal chemical factories, software companies. Isolation's softened brains! Something in water?" The bee added curtly, "Nothing wrong Mall cant."
"We have cast off the cool flippancies of the city slickers," I told the bee proudly, repeating something I'd once heard old man Teusner tell his stout wife. "The ways of the world are the worldly ways of the worldly wise, which isn't for the likes of the saved."
The bee sighed sadly in my ear. "Uh-huh. Fashion dialect, eh? Like, whatever. Listen, need favor, Mathewmark. Do one in return. Can bring vee unit, self-seating implant phone, wicked porn, anything can tuck in pouch."
"I would accept no such thing," I blurted aloud, wondering what these wicked things might be, and again the shape lurking in thenearest trees shifted, as if someone were spying on my dreadful conversation. I lowered my voice to a hoarse whisper: "What would you desire in return?"
"Safe way into Valley," the liar bee said. "Me, Vikram. Some way sneak past guards, into new vent shaft. Know vent, assume? Everyone over there whining about."
The ventilation shaft? The bee wanted to fly down that devilish tube to the bowels of Hades?
"I don't understand anything you're saying." I was utterly confused. Ebeeneezer turned his head and looked at me. He didn't understand either. What was I doing here in the gloom still hanging about with a mule when all my human friends seemed so cozy over near the hall? I looked away. "Here you are already, liar bee, yet now you tell me you still wish to learn how to visit the Valley. And can't you speak normally?"
"Just not listening, dolt," the bee rasped angrily. "I'm pender named Amanda, live about forty kays from you as crow flies, need get in to godforsaken Valley while Moon's still dark and chances of not getting caught fair to good. Capisce?"
I caught the sound of a heavy wagon lumbering toward us. You get good at recognizing the sounds, this was a four-wheeled, six-mule job. Old man Legrand.
"Oh shit, mad old swine," said the bee. "Fruitcake with whip. And little miss prissykins. With dopey face."
"Shut up," I snapped. The last thing I needed was to be caught by old man Legrand alone on the village green talking to a bee. As soon as he'd dropped Sweetcharity at the hall, he'd be bringing his mules to the green. That might be the only chance I'd get to snatch a few moments alone with Sweetcharity. Once the pair were inside the hall, the old man's eyes would never be off her. I had to get rid of the bee.
"No good telling shut up," the bee said. "Mates, you, I. Asked cyborg bee into Valley, after all. Now tell how get there in flesh."
"Well, you just can't get in," I told the girl-bee. "Not unless you can fly over the mountains," I added sarcastically. "Shouldn't be too hard for the minion of Satan."
"Fly in!" The bee developed an excited rasp to its buzz. "Grief, right. Vik, I just unfurl wings"
"I thought you just told me you're an ordinary human when you're not pretending to be a liar bee. For god's sake!"
"Blasphemy now, Mathewmark ...? "
"Yeah, it's blasphemy," I said making the sign o'god in the air, "But you drive me to it."
The Sun was below the horizon, but there was still enough light to see that old man Legrand had unhitched his mules and was leading the team toward the green.
"Okay, friend Mathewmark," said the bee, "Owe you one. Run off have little chat sourguts, though why want to mystery to me. Will keep old fart amused a while. Catch later."
The bee disappeared. And so did I, running low to the ground, keeping as many of the dark shapes of the mules between me and Legrand as I could, hopping over a fence and circling back to the hall. Under the peppercorn trees, Sweetcharity was standing in a group of young people. She was smiling sweetly at Jed Cooper, laughing at something Jed was saying. And you should have seen Jed's face: it was all scrubbed up for Beanfeast Night, of course, but already there was a trickle of saliva running out of one corner, glistening in the last light of the day. And he was leering at Sweetcharity, staring at the embroidery on her best bodice, and saying something about work for idle hands. I knew just what work he wanted to put his idle hands to. Everybody fell silent as I approached. Abner O'Took and Gracie Sandinski looked at me and then looked away. So did Zeb Teusner. Blessed-Bride-of-Christ Dwyer examined her fingernails in the twilight, fingernails cracked and chipped by hard work in the fields. Sweetcharity made the sign o'god. What did she think I was, the Prince of Darkness himself?
"Evening, all," I said, louder than I'd meant to. "I trust I find you all in the pink of condition."
"Those'n who walk in the ways of righteousness be always in a condition of grace," said Jed. "Though whether'n it be pink or not, I cannot tell."
"Sure ain't scarlet," Will Orpington said.
"No, nor black as sin, neither," Krishna Dyson chipped in.
"Amen to that," said Sweetcharity, and once again made the sign o'god.
"Amen," said the whole group.
"Got a bit religious, have we?" I said. "Got a bit holier than thou?"
"It wouldn't take much to be holier than a bee's soul mate," Jed said.
"An adder or viper that crawls in the grass is holier than the bee lover," Krishna said. "Yea verily," he added after a couple of seconds of silence.
"They do say that you are never alone on that cart of yours, Mathewmark," said little Light-on-the-hill. "Even on the lonesome road the very insects keep you company."
"Oh, really," I said. "Who's 'they'?"
Light-on-the-hill looked down at her feet. It was a bit hard to tell in the dusk, but I thought I could detect the hot blush that was creeping over her face. She's a shy little creature, Light-on-the-hill, it must have taken quite a bit of effort to come out with that remark in company. But I wasn't feeling very protective, I pushed on.
"Tell me, Light-on-the-hill, who is it that says I keep the company of liar bees? Is it my dear friend, Sweetcharity, here?"
"Don't call me friend," Sweetcharity said. "I have no friends who are the friends of the bees from Hades."
"Correct me if I am wrong," I said. "But I think I remember that the bee we met yesterday spent most of its time talking to your grandfather. Methinks it knew him well, addressed him in familiar terms: Old goat, Shit for Brains, Moth-eaten Old Fart. It was the merry blathering of old friends that I heard in the forest."
Half a dozen people giggled and snorted, trying to suppress their laughter. The mood of the group was changing, I could sense it. I pressed on.
"Hark!" I said cupping one hand to my ear. "Old Man Legrand is at it again, yarning with his mates, the bees."
And indeed he was. From the village green came the sound of swearing and cursing. The sudden crack of the stock whip. "Accursed of God! Foul fiend mired in slime. Filth of the air."
"The banter of familiars," I said, "if ever I heard it."
The violent crack of the stock whip sounded loud in the dusk. But not as loud as the hand that slammed across my face.
"Never speak to me again!"
Sweetcharity turned and flounced into the hall, the light from the hanging oil lamps suddenly catching the silver threads in the embroidery of her dress. There was more laughter from the group, but this time directed squarely at me. The mood was changing again. Despite the stinging in my face I managed a careless shrug.
"Ah," I said, "the lovers' tiff! A hint of pent-up emotion, a promise of passions to come."
I turned and walked as jauntily as I could into the hall. I wished to hell I could believe what I had just said.
I didn't get another chance to talk to Sweetcharity all night. She ate at the same trestle as old man Legrand, and when trestles were pushed back and the fiddles started up, she danced with Jed and Krishna and half a dozen others. I didn't even try for a dance. And I didn't feel like dancing with anybody else. I just skulked around the side of the hall and listened to the Elders. The Elders were splitting into two camps, you could see that from the way they talked quickly and quietly to each other, falling silent when somebody they didn't trust ventured near. As Beanfeasts go, this one wasn't the greatest, but it was among the most interesting. Trouble was, as evening wore on, more people were sending me suspicious, shifty glances, amid a certain amount of muttering. The rumor was getting around: Mathewmark talks to the bees.
Mind you, some people were starting to look at old man Legrand in the same way. But he seemed oblivious to the tensions within the hall, in a huddle with old man O'Grady and old biddy Witherspoon, muttering intently and planning something. You could be sure of that. By the time the feast ground to a halt and everybody stood up and sang "Old Lang Jack," I was sick at heart and more than ready to leave.
12 : the abdel-malek interview [excerpt]
Q. What's the good of salvaging old brains when their very cells are deteriorating?
A. The goal is to make a series of modest improvements that accumulate. In fifty or a hundred years we'll have techniques able to solve all the problems that otherwise kill everyone when they get to 120. Eventually nanomedical systems might build neural enhancements or replacements into the brainas if vacuum tubes in old vulnerable radio sets from the 1940s were replaced one by one with hardy smaller transistors.
Q. Oh, how horrible! A head full of chips instead of brain cells!
A. Is that more horrible and unthinkable than having an artificial pump whirring in your chest after your heart gives up the ghost? I don't hear too many complaints about transplants from people dying painfully of heart disease. Meanwhile, we can hope that targeted proteins, perhaps built by injected organelles made from our own stem cells, will fix some of the problems now caused by maintenance breakdown in our brains.
Q. Some say reversing aging and bringing back the cryonically frozen dead will depend on nanotechnology, but perhaps it's an impossible dream to build machines the size of molecules.
A. Viruses are nanomachines, I don't see them throwing up their little hands in despair.
Q. Maybe so, but even advanced cryonics could never turn a hamburger back into a cow.
A. No cryonics organization I know of actually puts its patients through a meat grinder before cooking them. Actually they don't cook them at all, they cool them. Hmm"cook" to "cool," such a bigdifference in going from one letter to the next in the alphabet. After all, many cemeteries do routinely cook their clients. The rest leave them to rot.
Q. How far off are effective life extension and AI?
A. In practical terms, I think we should be modest in our expectations of the near-and medium-term future, and wildly optimistic about the longer term.
Q. Longer term is?
A. Fifty years or a century hence, not the year One Million.
Q. Life extension and genomic enhancements will only be available to the stinking rich. We'll see the poor reduced to a lesser species, literally unable to mate with the genomically altered supermen.
A. Everything is the prerogative of the rich at first. I would be crippled by guilt, in fact, if I didn't know knowledge can be copied without loss. If I eat this cake you've missed out on it, but the recipe can be had by both of us for a pittance. What about the raw materials and skills and tools needed to bake a new one? All of those will fall in price and spread throughout the world as hardware approaches the condition of software.
Q. Is life extension hard or soft?
A. If we find an inoculation against senescence, maybe it will be as cheap and abundant as aspirin. Technology doesn't stand still. That's the one great incredible truth of the twenty-first century. We learn to do better with less, and cheaper per unit.
Q. Won't a planet of wealthy ageless people be conservative and terminally dreary, Florida forever?
A. Could be. That's a scary thought.
13 : amanda
<On-line, Mr. Bones?>
Vikram replied via Steganography link.
<Know how get in,> told triumphantly.
Halfway through strawberry sundae Mrs. Ng whipped up for me, mouth all gooey. Somehow had get out of house, into real soda joint in Mall where Vik, I engage eye contact, so could tell he knew was on verge of stroke of brilliance, appropriately impressed. Well, settle just getting out front door after sundown, slow walk along river. Only three days, but getting cabin fever. Watching through bee-spy Mathewmark mooch off for feast beans with loony pals in fading twilight made me resentful, devious. Unlike usual relaxed, sunny state of mind. (As if. Know am bitch.)
<Can't go in through pass,> Vik said. <Blocked off with damned Gatehouse.>
<Correct. Can't get in other end, either, opens into National Park, need three kinds official passes go there. Might fake up, but also requires presence at least one bona fide Mature adult take charge, as olders so lightheartedly term.>
<Well, duh. And can't drive fresh tunnel through mountain rock, not without own portable nuclear-powered mole. Carelessly lent mine to Lata for week.> Vikram made smiley, canned bray hyena laughter came out machine.
<Right again. But hey, isn't just hot air am floating here.> Paused, added, <Hint, Dodo.>
<Oh my gosh.> Could imagine Vik sitting bolt upright as idea started enter brain. <You've got bats in belfry.>
Idea growing on me, still filled with anxiety. Gnawed lip, starting look like edge of lace doily.
<Your maman will have her plane locked up tight. Not enough pocket hire plane. Mand, traffic control wouldn't allow fly in anyway. Neither us has ultra-lite license. Suppose: hang-glide into Valley. No, bad luck, need do under cover darkness, no thermal updrafts at night. What am I forgetting?>
Had been scouring local news channel archives for something to help. Big find: dumped on display with applet showing flourish triumphant trumpets:
<Muon Power Station in trial operation for bit over month. Quite a hike, but located right snug against this side Bell's Ridge. Only five, six klicks easy glide into Valley, Vik. If don't kill ourselves in dark.>
Warm nuclear fusion. Laughed out loud, delight. Vik seeing possibilities now: could use suits' built-in carbon-composite wings, no need haul hang-gliders. Jump down off Ridge, into fusion plant's updraft, up over down, easy spirals into Valley.
<Of course>, I added, <chances are will miss, smashed to pulp on top plant's radiator vanes.>
Vikram silent long moment, thinking through. Not one for jumping into things, old Vikalthough have to jump long, hard make this one fly. Then said, <Or be detected by plant's safety automatics, gunned down by protective lasers.>
<Not allowed use those, saw news report. Might harm local rare species, can't have that. Use nets. Won't be lasered into ash, steam, just trapped by nets, hauled off for vets to check beaks, wings.>
<Claws, tails,> Vik sent, into spirit. <Must be dozen possums, feral cats trapped every night. Have whole zoo for company. Mr. Abdel-Malek lock us in, throw away key.>
<Only if crash, burn. Only if learns were there. Don't worry, Vikram, stroke of brilliance.>
<My heroine!> he keyed sardonically. <So smart! So humble! Mad, of course. Utterly mad.>
Wasn't going to be put off. <Will hit bloody updraft, loft over into Valley like autumn leaves in gentle breeze.>
<Nag, nag. Global Positioning System satellites see safe, sound.>
Vikram fell silent. Said carefully: <GPS's only accurate to within a meter, I think. We need more precise guidance from someone on ground. You'll have to get your pal Mathew Mark Peter and Paul to light us a fire or two next to Maglev vent.>
<Landing strip. Hmm, don't think so. Don't seem use artificial lighting in crackpot little utopia, Vik. Well, oil lamps, candles, suppose that's artificial. Still, string small fires would have all yokels for kilometers rushing with barrels of water, blankets to beat out flames.>
<Two or three radar corners, that's what we need,> he sent. <Hey, why not? Think Believer Boy could hacksaw us couple reflectors? Have steel containers, don't they? Rusty old cans? Buzz with cyborg fly, put idea into head.>
<Ingenious, Watson. Give it a try right away, before he gets home bed. Nothing ventured.>
<What mean, "Watson"? I'm Holmes, ignorant child.>
<Way cool, Homes. You da bomb.>
<Sometimes alarm me, Amanda. Don't know where you pick up these outdated, jaded turns of phrase.>
<Funny, was just making exact comment somebody else. Anyway. Gotta go, babe. Have bat wings to scrub, pack.>
<Sure, Mand. Watch skies! Over, out.>
Machine sent rude blatting, as of forty hogs a-farting, and Vik was gone. Grinned, sighed, pulled up GPS survey of the region, looking for exact coordinates Muon Warm-Fusion Test Facility or whatever engineers, politicians, publicity flacks calling it this month.
Woke bee just after eleven that night, looked around bit of Valley in sensor range. Feasting done, apparently, dishes, fiddles packed away. Were they allowed sing, dance? In modest, god-fearing way, naturally? Probably not. Dourlooking crew. Few couples stood about chatting by soft glow of oil lamps, occasionally swatting mosquitoes. People didn't seem have insect repellent. Probably didn't wash either. Did even know about running water? Shuddered. Any luck, Vikram, I in, out without smellycreatures even noticing us. Tomorrow night ideal, if could get lovelorn loon snap out, guide us to convenient landing right next to vent.
When tracked down, was clopping along dirt road, with Momma, Dad, brother. Without moonlight, needed boost bee's artificial eyes get good picture downcast mouth, wounded eyes. No one saying anything, other three looked sleepy, well fed. Only Mathewmark full of gloom. Mule turned up side track, few minutes later came to grinding halt outside small, dark hovel. Mathewmark muttered would put Ebeeneezer in lower forty. Other three made way into hovel, while Mathewmark unhitched mule, began leading along narrow path.
"Psst! Mathewmark. Know anything about radar corners?"
Hardly twitched muscle this time. Maybe getting used to me. All to good. "Go away."
"Off soon as finished our little talk."
"I'll swat you like a bug."
"Don't think I won't! I'm still half-convinced you're a limb of Satan."
"Six limbs. And two pairs wings. Quite pointless squashing, though. More where this came from. Can't swat lot."
"Look you, if I'm seen talking to you again, I'm dead. No one will want their goods carted by a familiar of the liar bees."
"Better talk out here, then. In boring old field. Give credit for not coming into hall of fun, beans with you? Refrained alarming olds on cart."
"Go away. You make me tired."
"Sure, will nip back your place, wait for you there. Hope don't keep old chedders up with nattering."
"For the love of Shiva, what do you want? I've already said I can't tell you a way to cross the range into the Valley. At any rate, it can't be done from this side, and I've never heard of one of your heathen kind making his way in here."
Yeah, right, like any would want to.
But was interesting throwaway remark, sounded like sneaking, barely acknowledged interest in leaving hellhole, exploring fleshpots. If true, and really managed arouse interest, was home, hosed. Well,was certainly home, damn it, grounded for weeks according to Magistrate, and don't know what "hosed" bizzo means but suspect worst. Nah, told self, Vik, I would do it. Down vent, web on to freighter as slows in curved path deep under Valley. Thrill of lifetime, yeah. Worth being grounded until sixty-four. By hook, crook.
"Radar corners," said patiently through bee.
"I don't know anything about"
"Know you don't. Ignorant as pig shit, poor man. Relax, will explain. Have any sheet metal in this place? For roofs of hovels. What's it called, used last century, galvanized iron?"
"Roof is thatch."
"Reeds, dried sedge, straw ..."
"Ugh. Hardly hygienic. Hmm. Oil drums? You lot use oil drums?"
"Eucalyptus oil we store in bottles. With corks."
"Hicksville, place unreal ..."
"Yeah," Mathewmark said sourly. Boy, guy really pissed off. Should have kept bee's recording mode running while talking over plan with Vikram. Something messy obviously gone down with Sweetcharity at beanfeast. Really couldn't see what he found in girl. Okay, boobs, but wasn't as if she had decent bra, showed off cleavage. Teeth okay, apart from missing one right in front. That prim thing never going to put out, not until married in Temple of God of their Choice. Watched enough twentieth-century vids know that for sure. But dope didn't know what was in best interests. Still trying to give brush-off. "If you don't mind," was saying, "I've got a lot on my mind. Can't even understand what you're saying half the time. Please go away."
Oh well, when in Rome. "Tell me your troubles. You help me with radar corners, I'll help you straighten out personal life."
"No you don't!" Bleat of alarm so sharp Ebeeneezer tossed head, jerking rope thing, leash, whatever, muttered something. Mathewmark patted mule, muttering back, ignoring bee.
Wasn't going get rid of me that easily. "What you have in this place made of ferrous metal? Iron, steel, sort of stuff?"
Eyes shifted shiftily. "Nothing."
Gave beeish laugh. "Thought I was meant to be liar! Okay, come clean. What you people use made out of metal?"
"Plowshares, harrows, spades, crowbars, crosscut saws ..."
"A thing with spikes."
"Spikes no good. Spade is thing you dig with, right?"
"Don't you know anything?"
Defensively, made guess. "Sort of flat device on end of stick? Shove it in ground, make hole, right?"
Loon widened eyes comically, raised to heaven, nodded, as if to baby. In darkness, only bee sensors enabled see this. But did see. Patronize, farmboyo? Will see about that. Get comeuppance. Meanwhile, spade might just do trick with suit radar. Two, three even better. Drive into soil at points of triangle, and
"Okay, Mathewmark, here's plan," told. "Be at vent tomorrow night, quarter before midnight. Bring three shovels. Listen carefully, unless want me to buzz back hovel, tell whole family dirty little wrestle under trees with Miss Muffett other day"
14 : mathewmark
The morning after the beanfeast, I didn't cart anything. Ebeeneezer had the day off, and Lukenjon and I weeded the strawberry patchhacking away with the hoes, trying not to sever the strawberries. Every now and then we did, and the little strawberry would lie there on the ground, split clean in half. The best thing to do was to eat the evidence. We'd brought lunch with us, wrapped up in a cloth, a wedge of cheese and some pickles in a jar, a half round of corn bread. Lukenjon and I lay in the shade. We just picked at the food, we'd eaten too many strawberries.
"Is it true?"
"Is what true?"
"You know," Lukenjon said. "What folks are saying."
"What are folks saying?"
"Come on," Lukenjon said, "I'm your brother. Folks say that you and old man Legrand talk to the bees. Or talk to the trees. Some daft, mad thing."
"Legrand sure does," I said.
I looked out over our patch of dirt. In the distance was the river. Weeping willows and old biddy Gonzales's cows grazing on the opposite bank. Beyond the Gonzales's place you could see the patchwork of fields and woods and villages. And against the bright blue skyline the rocks and cliffs of the Valley walls. They are our strength, the Valley walls, they keep us safe and unpolluted by the Outside, but sometimes they can look like the walls of a grim fortress, a jail maybe, seen from the inside. Off to our right, just over the boundary fence, the green tower of the ventilation shaft stuck up out of old man Grout's deserted wheat patch, leading straight down to the tunnel, the tunnel to the Outside.
"Cat got your tongue?" Lukenjon said.
"The bee I've been talking to," I said to my brother, "is a girl called Amanda. She's shut up in her room and sick of it. So she's coming to visit us tonight."
What's a brother for, if you can't confide in him? I felt a huge wave of relief: just saying those simple words out loud was like coming up for air in the swimming hole when you've been down too long.
"If them bees exist," Lukenjon said, "them bees lie. They lie like the devil himself, if they exist. If the devil exists."
"Most people tell lies now and then," I said. "I don't reckon Amanda would be much different."
"It's a strange name for a bee, Amanda."
"The bee isn't called Amanda," I said. "The bee is just a messenger. Ain't even alive. It's a sort of ... sort of a machine ... like a cuckoo clock. Amanda sends it her voice."
Lukenjon made the sign o'god, but he made it in a fooling-around sort of way. "Sounds like the devil."
"She's coming tonight," I said. "Her and a friend. I've got to guide her inwith spades."
Lukenjon laughed, rolling around on the ground. "I reckon you'retouched," he said. "Taken total leave of your senses. Signaling to the devil's handmaiden with spades."
"Want to help?" I said.
A long silence. Eventually Lukenjon broke it: he burped mightily. The air was heavy with the smell of half-digested strawberries. "I'm not letting you out at night by yourself," he said, "you being a loony who talks to bees and waves spades at night-running chicks called Amanda."
Momma and Dad were well asleep when Lukenjon and I slipped out of our bedroom window. Silent as mice we padded barefoot to the barn, collected the spades, and made our way to the lower forty. It was only when we were sitting on the grass with Ebeeneezer's dozy form standing like a black rock half a dozen meters away that we pulled on our boots. The night was very clear and very still. There was no Moon. The stars burned like glowworms.
"What you said this afternoon ..." I said.
"What did I say this afternoon?"
"You said, 'If the devil exists,' like maybe you thought he didn't."
"Maybe he don't," Lukenjon said.
"And the God of your Choice?" I said.
"Maybe I've chose a god that don't exist neither."
"Everybody in the Valley believes in the God of their Choice."
"God help them."
"Do you really think I'm touched>" I said. "Do you think I'm gone in the head? Do you think I'm imagining the bee when I talk to it?"
"Remains to be seen," said Lukenjon.
I was about to offer Lukenjon a small wager, but we were both suddenly still, suddenly alert, listening.
"Wagon," Lukenjon said.
"Four wheels, six mules," I said.
"Your friend, old man Legrand," Lukenjon said. "Out and about at midnight. Now what would he be up to?"
"I can't think," I said. "And he's not my friend."
I was totally confused. The only reason I could think of for old man Legrand's midnight wandering was the same as had brought me and Lukenjon to the lower forty: Amanda. But, far as I knew, all Amanda had done to old man Legrand was to taunt him, tease him, insult him. Surely she couldn't have asked him to help with the radarcorner business.
"Sit tight," Lukenjon said.
We sat on the grass of the lower forty and listened. The stars were intense, but starlight wasn't bright enough to illuminate distant things at ground level. Our ears were our eyes. The wagon creaked nearer, turned when it got to old man Grout's.
"The ventilation shaft," Lukenjon whispered. "He's going to the shaft."
Muffled voices: Legrand, maybe O'Grady, and a womanold biddy Witherspoon unless I was totally mistaken. A girl's voice said quite clearly, "There's nothing survives a good roasting."
"Hush!" said Legrand, speaking three times louder than the girl. "You'll wake the whole Valley."
Beside me Lukenjon laughed quietly. "He wouldn't leave that little bundle of purity at home alone, would he now." It was a flat statement, no question in my brother's mind.
"She's my beloved," I whispered, fierce.
"Was," chuckled Lukenjon. "Was."
"But what are they doing?" I whispered. This was the last thing I wanted: the whole place swarming with folks up to no good. Amanda and her friend would be landing in the middle of a jamboree. And they'd be coming in any time now.
"Don't worry about them," Lukenjon whispered. "Let's get these spades in position."
Silently, hardly whispering a word to each other, we set up the long-handled spades in the lower forty in the way Amanda had demanded. We made a small hole with the crowbar, then jammed the end of the handle in. Two sets of two. Little right angles of steel a meter above the ground. And all the time we worked, we listened to the sounds from across the boundary fence. It was pretty obviouswhat was going on. Legrand and his companions were heaping firewood around the ventilation shaft. They were going to burn it down.
"Reckon it will catch?" I whispered.
"Ain't steel, nor iron," Lukenjon said.
"I don't reckon the tunnelers would have used something that would burn," I said.
"Either way, old man Legrand's firewood is going to burn," Lukenjon said. "It'll light up the place like the fires of hell themselves."
"Might be useful to Amanda and her friend, they'll be able to see what they're doing."
"And Legrand will see them arrive."
There was nothing we could do. We retired to the far end of the lower forty, putting as much distance as possible between us and the boundary fence. We lay on the grass and watched the first little flickers of flame. Within a minute the fire was well alight. The crackling and spitting of the dry timber was loud in the still night air. A bright column of sparks rose up, enclosing the dark mass of the shaft.
"All they need is a saint," Lukenjon said. "Tied to the stake, ready for a bit of martyrdom." And then my brother fell into one of his silly rhymes. "Where the bee be a liar and the saint's on fire, a spade's a spade and a girl's a flier."
"There's a boy coming as well."
"Well, the boy's a tryer."
"You've got more rhyme than sense, Lukenjon," I said.
"That's the beauty of real poetry," he said with perfect satisfaction.
I shivered in the warm night air, thinking of martyrs tied to a flaming stake. Ebeeneezer came galloping up to our end of the field with a drumming of hooves.
"Don't like that fire, thir."
I put my arms round his neck, whispered calming words into his great floppy ears. By the increasing light of the fire I could see old man Legrand's team of mules kicking and tossing in their traces. The mad fool had left his team standing far too close to the blaze. The mules brayed and shouted in their heavy lisping tones, and human figures could be seen trying to turn the team and the wagon away from the flames. Shouts rose from the other side of the Valley. Anoil lantern swung in somebody's hand on the track that ran down from the McWeezle place. I thought I could hear Momma and Dad shouting something from our house. They were calling our names.
"It's all right," Lukenjon said. "We'll just say we thought we heard sounds and came to investigate."
"What about Amanda and her friend?" I said.
"If the buggers have got any sense, they'll fly back where they came from."
"I don't think it's that simple," I said. "All they can do is glide. They can't fly upward."
"Oh yeah>" Lukenjon pointed to the great tower of flame that was now totally engulfing the ventilation shaft. "Look. Right up there where the sparks stop."
Two huge bats, great black-winged vampires, swooped and wheeled, riding the new column of hot air, blotting out the stars, turning and twisting. Visible one minute, invisible the next.
"Daft gits," Lukenjon said. "Their wings will catch. Moths to the flame. You watch."
They were beautiful, free, riding the great tower of hot air for the pure joy of it. They circled, rose up almost to the stars, diminishing in size. They quit the hot air for the cooler blackness, disappearing. Reappeared lower down, swooping in over the heads of the groundlings and mules, twisting and spinning upwards again around and around the shaft and back into the airy reaches of the night.
Crack! Even the roar of the fire couldn't drown out old man Legrand's stock whip. The crazed figure was dancing around, leaping onto the back of his wagon, giving himself extra height, flailing with his whip at the night. But the black creatures were up and away, far out of reach. Oh, how I wanted to join them, to be one with the night and the air and the stars.
A small crowd was gathering. In the firelight you could see their clothes. Britches pulled on over night attire. Hair that was normally tight as a fist in buns, flowing and flaring in the firelight. People holding rakes and spades. A bucket. Maybe that was old biddy Smeethdown on her knees, praying.
"It's hot," Lukenjon said. "But it's not going to last. Most of them logs is ash. They'll not be flapping around up there much longer."
He was right. The fire was dying. Now the sparks barely reached above the top of the shaft. The circling human bats weren't much higher than two or three times the height of the shaft. It was only a matter of time before they'd be in reach of Legrand's stock whip.
They quit the dying tower of hot air. They were away into the night, lost from sight.
"Now where've they gone?" Lukenjon said. But the bats answered him themselves, wheeling round out of the blackness and rushing straight toward us, flying abreast, straight between the two radar corners, leaning back in their flight, bringing their feet down like landing herons. Almost colliding with Ebeeneezer, who bucked, jerking my arms from around his neck.
They were children. I couldn't believe it. Tall and skinny, coltish.
"Yeeeeha!" said the girl. "What a ride! Sorry about donkey. Should paint with iridescent stripes."
The boy had fallen with a yelp when he landed. "Bloody ankle," he said.
"Upaday, Vik," said the girl. "Gotta shift." She turned to me, "Mathewmark?"
"Of course," I said.
"Sorry, can't see much in darkness. Look bit different. Damn beeget all this false color from sensors. Ought to see self on display. Freakenstein!" Something especially unnatural was happening to her dark silhouette. It looked as if her great bat wings were shriveling away. In a moment, she was just a tall shadowy girl in the moonless night.
The sounds of people clambering over the boundary wall brought the conversation to a halt.
"Coming to get us," Vik said, struggling to his feet. His wings got in the way, and one buckled as he groaned and almost fell over again. He pressed something on his chest, and the stiff fabric of his wings folded neatly away, its struts clicking together and sliding into a flat pack on his back.
"Let's skootle," the girl said. "Where hide?"
"Better follow me," Lukenjon said. "Mathewmark, go and head off the posse."
The two former bats, one hobbling, both jet-black and nearly invisible except for their faces under hair-tight hoods, followed Lukenjon into the night. I walked down the field toward the sounds of the pursuit party. The first person I bumped into was old biddy Smeeth.
"They went that way, Auntie," I said, pointing in the wrong direction.
"Fiends o'filth!" yelled old biddy Smeeth. "We'll boil ye alive in tea-tree oil!" and set off, the others of her band following, laughing and brandishing their tools of trade. They sounded, I thought sourly, just like the very fiends of hell themselves.
seed origin V: storage
Time is a green bud blossoming to brilliant bloom. It is a corpse rotting in a stench of bacterial decay. For Mohammed Abdel-Malek, time is gelid nightmares. His cryonically stabilized brain is not quite locked in changelessness. Minute and spontaneous sluggish electric currents run unimpeded through neural channels. His utterly chilled tissues are superconducting conduits for ambling night creatures. There is no tunnel of redemptive, radiant light, no gathering into bliss, no family waiting in robes to gather him to them. Only memories: of dispossession, of love found and lost, of the ceaseless battles to create his mind children against a rising storm of protest and objections from irrational and informed alike.
Sixty-five years old, covered in honors and distinction and hence a safe toothless choice, he sits in the chair's role at a table at an MIT symposium.An excited young fellow with an Estonian accent leans forward, almost off his chair.
"Suppose the machine evolves ten billion times faster than bacteria or viruses, forget sluggish humans. Suppose its mutation rate is ten billion times that of a human. The boundary conditions might preclude the Darwinian selection that allows for the concomitant coupling of coevolution."
The young man pauses, scanning the other faces at the table. He is the only one wearing a suit
"Look, you make the self-bootstrapping artificial intelligence. You plug it in. Within milliseconds of being activated the supermachine disappears. God alone knows where or what it has become." He grins recklessly. "Really, I mean it!"
"This is trash television fantasy, Boris," another man tells him, looking bored. From his smooth cheeks and unlined forehead he appears barely more than a teenager. "What, you think it could quantum tunnel out of the building?"
Boris shrugs. He has straight blond hair cut at mid-ear level, thick glasses, neither fashionable. "Maybe the supermachine discovered a more general quantum mechanics where the Born criterion doesn't exactly hold. Conservation of mass gets violated-shit so does strict causality for that matter. The machine reaches back to the quantum fluctuations at the beginning of time and subtly remakes the physical universe."
"Aw, give me a fuckin' break."
A young woman in a smock bearing the faint mark of baby vomit leans forward, tapping her pen on the table. "No, give Boris a chance. Look at a slightly different scenario. Say the machine/universe system that's evolved is sufficiently consistent with the human/universe system. Couldn't we transform from one to the other in a sort of expanded Principle of Relativity?"
"Hmm. If the transform is close to affine, I'm sure that we could recognize the machine as some sort of object."
"Okay, but what if the transform goes weird, you know, not particularly well behaved. Then the physical manifestations of an object like that mightn't be easily perceived by humans ... like, maybe we wouldn't be able to identify sufficient machine features to consolidate into an object in our own human minds. The implicit and explicit semiotics of our perception and our cognition mightn't allow us to perceive such a 'highly evolved' object" Bent fingers mark the scare quotes.
A fat man bursts out laughing. He wears a chartreuse sweatshirt showingthe latest would-be Theory of Everything equations in Day-Glo lettering. "Actually there could be tons of entities like that all around us." His voice breaks into falsetto as he laughs harder. "In fact the reason we find zero evidence of 'intelligence' out there in the universe is because we ourselves are not intelligent!"
"Well, by comparison-"
"You can forget orderly compromise co-evolution," the fat man says, suddenly hard, staring across the table. "Species only coevolve if they interact with respect to common environmental resources. If self-bootstrap machines evolve very rapidly, then likely in a short time, half a decade, milliseconds, whatever, they wouldn't be competing substantially for resources with the human species. We'd see an adaptive radiation scenario because the machines"
"might discover a new physical environment they could radiate into."
"Hey, it's within the realms of possibility," someone else says peevishly.
"At the very best we won't notice anything. A hyper Al in our perceived physical world would be benign and invisible. Human civilization would proceed along the blah Star Trek line."
"Linear and conservative. No apparent Singularity. Talk about hidden variables." He guffaws again, obviously pleased with himself.
"You know that's not going to happen. Bill Joys right This whole technological trajectory is insanely dangerous. We have to nip the fucking thing in the bud right now. Relinquishment is the only path we can responsibly take."
The fat fellow shrugs. "Might be too late, chief. Here's a worse scenario: we start noticing subtle but damning changes in our physical laws. Progress in physics and engineering seems to be directed away from producing more Als. Guess why?"
"This is apocalyptic bullshit"
"Not apocalyptic enough," says a serious woman with deep frown lines and short white hair. "If we go that route, game theory tells us we'd be in a very brief and extremely destructive conflict that'd last just long enough for the machines to access resources beyond our reachmassenergy conservation violation, some similar paradigm-breaking discontinuity. The sad truth is, we can't afford to take the risk. We really do need to mandate general Relinquishment, and the sooner the better. I move that we make this our principal recommendation to the President's Board of Inquiry."
"I won't accept motions at this time," says Abdel-Malek, seated at the center of the table. He has remained silent until now. "We have much more ground to cover before then. I do think this might be a suitable time to break for afternoon tea. Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, we'll reconvene in fifteen minutes. Um, make that twenty."
He watches Boris nudge the fat guy as they all shamble out. "Any way you cut it, Bruce, the future's not good for all-consuming human egos, buddy."
"Predictable, man." Nostrils twitch at the scent of quiche and coffee and donuts in the adjoining room. "Primates have big egos, we're control freaks. Walk around with a handful of big balloons and sure as shit someone will come along to burst 'em."
In his bad dreams, frozen just beyond the edge of death, he clutches endlessly at life, at the blade striking to his heart, clutches for Alice's worn, warm hand, and loses it, loses it ...
15 : amanda
Skulking like rats in dusty barn, just dimmed shoulder-patch nav lights to hold gloom at baydidn't dare light oil lamp, squawking loonies running loose outsidenot my idea fun. Not at all neat in-out plan.
Poor Vikram stopped speaking to me hour ago, couldn't really blame. Vik's grippo sneaker removed soon as reached barn, unzipped black carbon-fiber legging of blackgear jumpsuit. Sprained ankle seemed half-again normal size. Far as could tell in murky glow of navigation patches, also rather ugly shade purple. At least didn't seem broken. Slow us up, though. As for me
"Keep the noise down, Mistress bat," kid brother said, jumping. "Do you want the whole village on top of us?"
Wiped running nose back sleeve. Eyes streaming. Unpleasant tickle started up again almost at once, could feel another big sneeze pushing swollen forehead, inside cheeks. Instant pharmaceuticals for this kind of thing. Of course didn't have any in packs.
Rest of explosion muffled by something enormous, rough crushed against nose, mouth. Swung around in dark with fists, but only Mathewmark, handwoven handkerchief. Last time had seen coarsewoven piece cloth, was watching through eyes of bee, boy trying swat with it.
"Keep hands to self," said, but took snot-rag, blew heartily. Drew deep wheezy breath, felt nasal tissues swelling again. Barn's air choked with mule dander, dozen kinds grain pollen, whatever sets off allergic reactions. Wondered whimsically going to die, gasping on own fluids. Shocking thought, actually. Nobody died any more after all, except in accident so bad body, brain could not be patched up. Well, in Metros. Who could say if barbarity like death still existed in backward Valley?
"Auntie has a decoction for this blight," Mathewmark muttered to brother. "Think you can locate her bag of simples in the pantry?"
"I know where she keeps her herbs, but not which among them is effective against the sniffles and snots."
"Fetch the lot like a good chap. We can't leave Mistress bee to wheeze herself to death."
Lowered self weakly into embrace of hay bales covered with patched old sheet. Gloomy Vikram lying on side gazing gloomily into gloom, damaged leg raised on bag oats. Stout tomcat wandered across straw covering dirt floor of barn, glancing at us with only slight curiosity, positioned self facing crack in timber of stall.
"He smells a mouse," Mathewmark told. "Perhaps a family of the sly beasts." Called in soft, encouraging voice, "Good work, Kevin. Stand at your station like a god-fearing mouser."
"Bite they tiny nose and toes," added Lukenjon, slipping in with bundle of twigs, battered metal pot, ceramic bowl. Began crush dried leaves between palms of hands, watching debris sift down into bowl.
"Cat might smell mouse," said thickly, swallowing gunk, "but Ismell rat. What was fire doing all around vent? Spades did radar trick, homed perfectly. If wanted bloody great visible beacon, asked for one. All did was rouse mob."
"You don't think Lukenjon and I lit the bonfire, do you?" Mathewmark snorted indignantly. "That was the work of old man Legrand, the Elder you've taken such a dislike to, and his gang of pestish cronies. Egged on by Jed Cooper, I shouldn't wonder, who's taken a wicked fancy to my beloved and would sway her from my wooing."
"Ah-ha!" Sat forward. Head swam, really was feeling appalling. "Thought heard shrewish tones of ladylove among rabid horde. Where mad old grandfather is found, they say, dreary young granddaughter sure to follow."
Mathewmark started angry whispered defense of dull creature, but I was too asthmatic by that point pay any attention. He crouched over small portable stove, lighting wick with match. Match! Mindbogglingly primitive. Dipped water into pot, pressed down ill-fitting lid, placed on pale flame. Despite blocked nose, could smell fumessome kind of oil from tree, bush, I suppose. Doubted Valley folk received weekly supplies gasoline, kerosene from awful polluters seemed so afraid of.
By time Lukenjon finished crushing, mixing dried herbs in bowl, pot boiling. No electricity, true, but not altogether hopelessly primitive after all. Lukenjon poured in steaming water, brought stinking result across to me in gloom. Took bowl in both hands, nearly dropped. Hot!
"What supposed do with this?" asked irritably. Nose running like a tap. "Drink foul stuff?"
"Hold it up under your nose, Madam bat," boy told me, "or better still, put your face down just above the water. Take in the steam. Here, let me show you." Topped up bowl with more boiling water from stove, gently pressed down on back on my head until sore nose only few centimeters from surface. Steam rose in cool of night, rich with odors, making skin flush, sweat slightly. "That's right," told me encouragingly, "breathe of its healing vapors. Soon you'll recover your health, if such blessed medicaments have any power over those who fly in the night."
Let strange smells rise from bowl into lungs and blocked spaces behind nose. Oddly enough, found mood improving almost at once. Nostrils stopped seeping, eyes felt less like sore someone rubbed grit into, slowly throb in swollen head eased. Started breathe normally. Vikram frowned from darkness, rubbed ankle meaningfully, but held tongue. Clearly didn't wish ask yokels for help. Not him, son, heir Dr. Singh.
"Thanks, boyo." Snorted loosened gunk back into throat, swallowed. Yetch. Salty. "This is doing trick. Think of anything for poor friend's sprain?"
Mathewmark had been fussing in shadows. Came forward with rolled, rather grubby bandage, vile-smelling pot of substance might have been used treat mule, perhaps poison mice escaped cat Kevin. Vik grudgingly permitted Mathewmark rub oily muck into bare ankle. Winced, otherwise refused show pain must have been suffering.
"You two study medicine?" Vikram asked skeptically.
"My brother and I treat the livestock hereabouts when they sicken," Mathewmark told. "Now grit your teeth, this might cause some pain, but it will help bring down the swelling over the next few days." Started wrap damaged ankle tightly with bandage, cinching with knot. Rolled down Vik's unzipped trouser leg, left off sneaker. Doubt would have fitted back anyway.
"Days!" Vikram horrified. Eased self up into seated position. "Thanks for help, pal. But look, can't stay here. Olders going to find out we're missing in morning. Hell to pay if learn holed up inside Valley."
Mathewmark looked at him suspiciously. "'Hell to pay'? Are you changing your story, now that we have given you sanctuary and"
"Oh, lighten up," I said. Really feeling thousand percent better. If could get recipe for this stuff, could make fortune. "Just an expression. Vik, going have to go ahead with freighter burn, hurt or not. If had phones, could face music. Get picked up at Gatehouse. As is, nobody knows where are." Shivered as reality of situation settled into bones. "Families really going to go nutso. Five-bell alarm, stodes roughing people up, patrolbot scouring Metro from one end to otherfor murdered bods." Shuddered. "Will end up so grounded die old age before let us out."
Glanced at watch. After 1 A.M., farm boys sounded completely done in. No wonderprobably got up with Sun to feed chickens, tote barge, whatever farm boys do when rest of sane technological world snoozing after hard night of vee. Starting nod off self. Damn good stuff, whatever was in herbal infusion. Yawned rudely.
Mathewmark flustered, embarrassed in pale blue light of stove, which was still flickering even though pot had been taken off it. Would be awake until morning if didn't force him spit it out.
"What's on mind, M-man? Scared we'll run off with family silver?"
Frowned. "You are frivolous." Cleared throat. "There isn't any other place for you both. I fear you will have to stay here together for the rest of the night, even though it will compromise you, Mistress Amanda."
What? Do what? Vikram gave sarcastic laugh from darkness.
"No fear of that, pal. Amanda, already so deep in shit spending night together in barn won't raise extra eyebrows." Over Mathewmark's splutterings, he added, "Look, guys, very grateful for help, but time bed down. See you morning, okay?"
Lukenjon stood at once, gathered medicinals, bowl, turned out stove's flame. Nodded shyly to me, extended hand to Vik, left like shadow. Older brother bumbled about for another minute, clearly distressed leaving Vikram, me alone together. Rank hypocrisy. If had chance some snuggling, snuffling Miss Sourcharity, have been in it quick as flash, ask me. Shocked him even more grabbing arm, pulling down so face next mine, giving hearty, only slightly snotty smooch.
"Veritable saint, Emster," told. "We owe you. Oh, that reminds." As gaped guiltily, glancing sideways at Vikram who was more concerned about hurting ankle than anything else, I reached around into backpack, pulled out small flat box. Wrapped in metallic foil decorated prancing high-stepping horses, carriages rather more upmarket local carts, wagons. "For you, brother. Don't eat all at once."
Tore clumsily at foil as if had never seen such stuff before in life.Suppose hadn't. After moment, took back from him, slid thumbnail down seam, opened box assorted chocolates, held out in dimness. Newly salvaged sense smell went bonzo at happy odor brandycentered almond-crusted dark chocolates, mouth started watering involuntarily. Girl's got eat, after all, had missed Mrs. Ng's supper treat. Snatched choc, popped into mouth. Heavenly.
"Go on, Mathewmark, be tempted. But don't eat all at once, make self sick. And save some for Lukenjon."
Suspiciously, he took choc, sniffed it. Put in between teeth, bit down. Liqueur spurted. Startled, coughed, dropping half chocolate into straw. Then taste buds kicked in. Saw endorphin rush start. Golly, just imagine what must be likego all life without one of basic nutritional food groups. Yokel-boy closed eyes, sucked, swallowed with gulp. Hand reached out of own accord, found another chocolate. In fact, hand found two chocolates, crammed both into greedy gob. He chewed blissfully, making little moans. I slapped hand as darted out for more, resealed pack.
"Enough, pig. Go clean teeth, get to bed. Don't have work tomorrow?"
Mathewmark looked at me as if waking from naughty dream. Stood up, shoved chocolates under one arm, clomped to barn door. Vikram gave languid wave, lay back in darkness.
"Sweet dreams, farm boy," I called softly. "If see any witch-burners, tell we've flown back Hades."
But was already gone. Moment later, all caught up with me, was gone too. Not out like light, didn't have any switch off. Just gone, down into exhausted dreams running, someone shouting, cat peering into face with huge fangs, falling through blackness into sparks, pitchforks.
Instant later, seemed, jolted awake. Morning sunlight streamed through open barn door.
Mathewmark had closed door when left.
Vikram still lying like log, wrapped in old horse-blanket.
So who was?
"Shh," vaguely familiar voice hissed in ear. Twisted convulsively, blinking sleep out of sore eyes, looked up at really quite pretty face bloody Sweetcharity. Smiled nervously at me, showing gap in front teeth.
"Oh shit," I said. "Witch-burners here after all."
Girl looked frightened, determined. Can't say blamed her, really. After all, last time seen had been zooming down out of sky like pair bats, riding bonfire thermals on foldaway carbon wings. Sat up, reached for jacket. Sweetcharity stared at nearly flat chest, back at face.
"Oh, you're just tall children!"
Laughed nastilyshoutdn't have, poor Natural, best years of short life already used up.
"Not child, pender. Older than you, possum, nearly Thirty," said.
"Thirty years old." Pulled horrid face. "Old crone!"
"I am not!" Outraged. "I'm only nineteen!"
Shook her head, lips moving silently, fingers went to sides of eyes in odd gesture. After moment slowly closed hands, lowered, tried again. Leaning close so sleeper not hear, she whispered, "Listen, child, you had your first," hesitated blushed as said it, "blood yet?"
"Menses? Certainly not. Two years yet. Retarded."
Hurt, girl drew back. "I'm here to help you. There's no need to call me names. I can read and letter and figure as good as any in our schoolhouse."
Felt embarrassed somehow, snorted. "Me, not you. Genetweaked, adolescence plateau extended." Still looked baffled. "Superoxide dismutase mimetics, telomerase transducers, developmental cascade inhibited until Maturity. Two years off. Tuck Strad in box, knuckle to citizen duties. Oh, hell with it. What want, girl?"
"You and the other one must get out of here," told me, eyes wide with confusion, fright. "At sunup my grandfather and some of the others started a house-to-house search. They began at the bottom of the Valley and are working their way up. They'll leave no stone unturned.They'll be here soon. I don't want Mathewmark and his family to get into trouble just because they did an act of charity to strangers."
Uh-huh, right. Was deeply suspicious. "Why care? Think we're spawn of Satan, good only for burning at stake."
She averted gaze. "You're friends of Mathewmark," mumbled. "No matter what you've done, you don't deserve the punishment my grandfather and his friends have in mind for you."
Vikram rolled over, opened eye.
"Heavens," drawled. "An angel! Good morning, beautiful. Vik, don't believe introduced."
Sweetcharity blushed. I gave that bad boy stern look.
"I have to go," she said. "Tell Mathewmark" Stood in doorway, framed by light.
"Yeah, yeah," I said. "Will convey regards." She hesitated moment, glancing over shoulder into open field at back. Good old Ebeeneezer ambling up toward us. "Hey, Sweetcharity," called, relenting, "listenthanks, sis."
She ducked head, was gone into crisp, cool morning.
16 : legal emily mcallister
Vexed beyond endurance, Legal McAllister brought a gin and tonic to the wall display in her private quarters, perched herself edgily on a bentwood chair of surprising antiquity, and called Susie up. Immediately her dearest pal, her Play friend, her sister sat there in image, across from her, sprawled in a flowery armchair. Susie's feet were bare; she wore a summery dress and a hat that shaded all her face, except for her keen gaze.
"What's she done this time?" The drawling irony was barely detectable. Emily sent back a twisted grin, but her mood of intense irritation was not so easily abated.
"You won't believe it, Susie." She held the cold sweating glassagainst one cheek. "You really won't believe it. The beastly pender has run away." Sipping her beverage, she exhaustively listed the prospects of scandal and financial ruin.
"At least she's turning out to be an interesting person, Em."
The Legal finished her drink, looked around for somewhere to put down the glass without staining the polished floorboards. Irritably, she stood instead and carried it across to the disposal. "Easy for you to sayyou don't have to live with the wretch. Why can't she have good, clean fun the way we used to?"
"Yeah, right." The touch of irony deepened. "Remember the time we hired that clapped-out glide in Mazatlán Enclave with only the allowed forty-dollar credit between us?"
Emily gave her a cool, suspicious glance, sat down again, keeping her back straight. "I was sure Mom would kill us if we ever got home." Against her will, though, she found herself smiling.
"And when we were down to twenty dollars you spent ten of it on that stupid doll."
Her heart paused, beat again.
"Do you still have that doll, Susie?"
Laughing, the woman in the wall bent down to dig through a huge, lumpy sisal bag. "Of course." She held up a small, crudely carved wooden doll.
"I can see that crazy old lady as if it happened yesterday," Emily McAllister said, oddly happy. "Do you think the story she told us was true?"
"Not a chance." Susie shook her head. "She made it all up. Including the name, I'll bet. I mean, who's going to believe a coincidence like that? Bouncing down the mountain in our glide was her divine punishment for lying."
Emily laughed until tears came. "My God, that's right, remember when the skirt fell off? I've never heard anything so loud!"
"That old woman had her rosary out, praying for dear life!"
"No safeties! Frightened the shit out of me, too!" Emily wiped her eyes on her sleeve, caught herself, drew out a pale blue handkerchief, and dabbed neatly. "Suse, tell me the story."
"If I tell you the story, will you promise to be a good girl and stop worrying so much?"
"I promise, Your Honor."
"Okay. You have to pretend I'm a little old ladywait a moment." Susie leaned forward, pulled a dark brown scarf out of the bag, tied it around her head. "Now, let me get into the right frame of mind." She scrunched her eyes closed.
Emily leaned forward, expectantly.
"Ahem. Me llama Emilia Hidalgo Gutierrez-Vazquezy esa muneca "
"Susie! Stop it, girl! You know I don't remember a word of Spanish! You have to tell it in English."
"Okay, okay. But the story loses a lot in translation." Holding the wooden doll toward the display, she went on in the persona of the old woman: "This doll is very special, because it will be the receptacle for my spirit when I die. Ordinarily, I would sell you any doll you might want, but this one must stay in my home with my own people."
"But for the right price" Emily grinned wickedly.
"Silencio! No interrupting. As I was saying, this doll contains the whole of my life. It took on my identity as I carved it, so the doll's story and my story are now the same. But I must begin with my mother's story.
"My mother was called Blanca, because her skin was as white as the nardo flower. It was the custom in her mountain village for the girls to marry even before they had fully become women, but Blanca was so full of energy, so wild, like the jaguarundi who sickens and dies in captivity. The old people in the village remember that she even rode horseback, along with the boys. Her father felt pity for her, and allowed her to continue running free until she was almost sixteen years old."
"Sixteen years old," Legal McAllister murmured under her breath, eyes squeezed tight for a moment of grief for lost things.
"But a month before her sixteenth birthday," the figure in the wall display insisted, "her mother called her in and told her that in six months she would be married to Enrique Gutierrez. It was all arranged by the parents in those days. It was a good matchEnriquewas the second richest man in the village. Good or bad, Blanca had nothing to say about it one way or the other. Her only choice was to marry my father or to enter a convent. In my heart, I suspect that my mother thought seriously of entering a convent.
"It was bad enough that Blanca must give up her freedom. But there was something far worse. Mario was the son of a poor farmer. There wasn't such a great difference between the wealth of the richest and poorest families of our village, you understand. Surely nothing like the differences that existed between families in the cities. Nevertheless, people took the matter of relative wealth seriously, and it would have been disgraceful for Blanca to marry Mario. And yet, the two had loved each other since they were small children playing together in the dirt. And it was this that drove Blanca to walk through the mountains each day crying until you would have thought she'd run out of tears."
"It must have been terrible for Mario as well," Emily said, remembering the story, eyes prickling. "He disappeared from the village after the engagement was announced."
"Yes. One day, about a week before the wedding, Blanca was walking through the brush, some distance from the path, when she heard a movement behind her. Someone was following her.
"She picked up some big rocks for defending herself and called out, 'Leave me alone, or you'll be sorry you were ever born.' The bushes parted, and she was about to throw one of the rocks when she recognized the face of her beloved Mario.
"Now they had behaved quite properly up until that day. They had never even kissed each other. But their sorrow at being parted was so great, they forgot themselves in that moment. They embraced and kissed passionately. Dizzy with her fragrance, Mario stumbled to the ground, and Blanca fell with him. 'You are my true husband,' she said fiercely, 'No one else.'
"'And you are my wife. I swear it before God, I shall have no other woman,' he responded solemnly. And so they consummated their marriage there on the mountain under a mahonia tree. As they lay together afterward, Blanca heard a sound she'd never before heard: it was the cry of a strange bird, 'Emilia! Emilia,!'
"'Emilia.'" Emily McAllister echoed. "'Emilia.'"
"At last, the Sun began to sink in the west. Blanca and Mario had to say good-bye, and they never saw each other again. The rumor was that he had gone to Vera Cruz and become a sailor. He never returned to the village. I have never seen the man my mother swears is my real father.
"Blanca and Enrique were married, and in due time I was born. I remember my mother as an obedient wife and loving mother. She only ever asked for one thing for herself. Enrique wanted to name me Clara, after his mother. But Blanca begged him to let her call me Emilia, for the bird she'd heard that day. Luckily, there was a greataunt Emilia, so it wasn't so very strange to call a child by that name.
"I had a happy life. A school opened in the village when I was five years old, and so I learned to read and write. I was so hungry for books back then! My parents, trying to do their best for me, sent me to a convent school, but I hated it there and ran away.
"Enrique tried to punish me by confining me to the house for an indefinite period of time, but he was too softhearted. I was out within a week. They knew better than to try to marry me off!'" Susie cackled, deep in her impersonation. Emily McAllister stared at the display wall, entranced.
"When I was eleven years old, a Metro anthropologist came to the Enclave, to study us." She cackled again, gleefully. "We could tell that poor man anything, and he'd believe it and write it down in his little machine.
"But I told him the truth later, because he brought paper books for me. Stacks and stacks of books. I can't imagine anyone has ever been happier than I was, with all those books to readnever mind that they were old and ragged and missing a few pages here and there.
"I never married, but instead I supported myself teaching in the school and making dolls for the tourists to buy. That is why I am asking you to give me a ride into townthe market is today, and I am taking my dolls to sell. But as I said before, this one is special and is not for sateEm? Are you okay?"
"I'm fine, Suse. That was beautiful. You do it better each time.How I wish you weren't dead." Emily wept, wiping tears from her cheeks. "How I wish you were more than a stupid snapshot thing."
Susie shrugged, holding out her arms in an embrace that could no longer be completed. "I know, honey." Simulated tears rolled down her face as well. "I wish I could come out there and give you a big hug, you damned brittle old thing. Put me away now, would you?"
Legal McAllister sat for a long moment, eyes cast down, unable to look into the display. Finally, she toggled it off with the switch in her brain. The wall went a cheerful pale lemon, and the sounds of the sea swept from one side of the room to the other, imaginary waves.
17 : mathewmark
There was no point arousing suspicion. So Lukenjon and I got up at our normal time, although we'd had next to no sleep all night. We did what we normally do before breakfast: got the fire going, let out the fowls, milked the cow. Dad was up and about and Momma was soon banging pots and pans and preparing breakfast. You can see the old barn from the farmyard, it stands in the lee of a row of trees halfway up the hill behind our place, but there was no reason for me or Lukenjon to go there. So we didn't, just shot the occasional glance in its direction. But we needn't have worried. The two Outsiders were lying low.
At breakfast all the talk was about the fire and the strange creatures that had swarmed in the updraft. Momma had only seen the two of them, but Dadwho has a bit of imaginationhad seen a whole host.
"How many's a host, Dad?" I said.
"They are legion, the fiends from the infernal regions."
"How many did you actually see?"
"Maybe two dozen, maybe a thousand," Dad said. "They was ascendinginto the night sky, getting smaller and smaller as they spread their contagion across the heavens."
"Oh, rubbish," Momma said. "I was there too, Fred Fisher. I saw two children with those hang-glider things. That's all I saw."
"If they were children with hang-gliders," Dad said, "how come they came flying out of the shaft. It ain't wide enough for their wings."
"I reckon they just come over the ridge," Momma said. "Like that poor git the year before last. The one Elder Robinson had to cart off to the Gatehouse. He just got blown off course. Them children were the same." "
"I saw them as we were running across the field," Dad said. "Pouring out of the shaft, dozens of black-winged fiends."
"That was sparks," Momma said.
"Either way, it is all Elder Legrand's fault," Dad said. "He never should have done itbuilding fires in the middle of the night. Stirring up the devil with no thought for his neighbors."
We spent the rest of breakfast discussing old man Legrand. Momma and Dad both reckoned he was a lunatic.
"That poor girl," Momma said. "Being brought up by a madman. It's a wonder she's as sane as she is."
Momma and Dad don't know about Sweetcharity being my beloved. You don't want to tell your parents everything.
After breakfast Lukenjon and Dad took the fencing equipment and went down to the river paddock. I hitched Ebeeneezer to the cart and trundled up the hill to the old barn. I'd said I was going to cart some hay to Auntie McWeezle. She didn't actually need the hay for two more weeks, but I'd said there was no point in putting off that which one can do today. I pulled the doors to the barn wide open. There was no one inside. Then Amanda put her head over the top of the old feed bin. Her hair, now I could see it in the morning light, was bright purple and spiky like a weed.
"You alone?" she said.
"Yeah," I said. "I'm alone." I kept staring at her. On her forehead was a picture of a mythical beasta tiger, I decided. Shameless!
Vikram's head appeared. "Must leave at once," he said.
"Not with your ankle," I said. His hair was very black and strangely knotted in strands. These people might not be fiends from hell, but they were clearly heathens.
"Searchers here soon. Must leave."
"No one will come searching," I said.
"Get real, farm boy," Amanda said. "Nutter who lit fire, one with stock whip. Him, mates going around doing house, house search."
"I don't think so," I said.
"Listen, Mathewmark. Sweetwhatshername here just after dawn. Ought to know. His granddaughter."
"Poor girl. What name!" Amanda's mouth twisted. "How could anybody call kid something yucky as Sweetcharity? Might well start calling penders Sugarbun, Toasted Marshmallow."
I ignored her. I was a bit vexed that Sweetcharity had been roaming around on her own, talking to the bat people, while I'd been tucked up in bed.
"Did Sweetcharity say where they were searching?"
"Reckoned start bottom end Valley, work way up. Methodically, said. Leaving no stone unturned. Frankly, not too keen get caught. Suppose would be gibbet for us ..."
"Gibbet. Isn't that sort of mad medieval thing you people use: gibbets, ducking stools, stocks, pillories, priories, thumbscrews ... Don't you Naturals go in for that sort of thing?"
"Naturals? No," I said. "Now do you want me to help you or not?"
"Right," I said. "I'm going to put a load of hay on the cart. We'll make a box of the bales, and you can hide in the space. Then I'll set off toward the bottom of the Valley. With luck we'll slip through the net."
We met old man Legrand and old man O'Grady on the track up to the McWeezle place. They were on foot, both carrying long pointed sticks.
"Morning, Uncles," I said.
Legrand just narrowed his flinty little eyes. O'Grady was pleasant enough.
"Been traveling around a bit, young Mathewmark?" he said.
"I'm taking hay to Auntie McWeezle," I said.
"Seen anything on the road?" O'Grady said. "Anything that might indicate the whereabouts of the fiends?"
"Those hang-glider people?" I said.
"They were no hang-gliders, no ordinary folk. They had the wings o'Beelzebub."
"So my dad reckons," I said. "My momma, now, she's of the contrary opinion. My momma reckons they was just Outsider teeners, joyriders, blown off course by the winds."
"And you, Mathewmark?" Legrand said, speaking at last. "What thoughts on this matter bubble in your cesspit of a mind?"
"Easy on, Elder Legrand," I said. "My mind is not"
"As I hear it," Legrand said, "your mind is as filthy as your paws. Those paws that fain would despoil the virgin purity of"
This time it was O'Grady who muttered, "Easy on."
"I'll not be easy on any young scoundrel who gets his filthy paws on the snow-white purity of my granddaughter's"
"We'll be bidding you good day, young Mathewmark," said O'Grady, speaking quick and loud. "Come on Festus Theophanous Legrand, we have work to do."
O'Grady more or less dragged old man Legrand out of my way by the sleeve. I gave Ebeeneezer a good flick with the reins, and the mule started forward. As we passed the two men, Legrand tried to poke his stick between the bales of hay, but before he could do it again, O'Grady had him out of harm's way. When I was no more than fifty meters down the track I heard Amanda say from inside the load, "Swine missed me by inch. Should be chained up."
"Hush," I said.
Ten minutes later we were at Auntie McWeezle's place. My plan was to keep Amanda and Vikram on the cart all day, hoping that by the time I arrived home, the barn would have been searched, and the hunt would have disappeared farther up the Valley, or given up and gone home. I climbed down off the cart and knocked on Auntie McWeezle's door.
"Begone," came a muffled shout from inside. "I'll put up with no more harassment from the likes of you, Festus Legrand."
"It's only me, Auntie," I shouted. "Mathewmark. I've brought the hay."
The door opened. Auntie McWeezle said, "Well, it's a relief to see a friendly face. And a sane one. Come in, Mathewmark. You wouldn't know what sort of rubbish I've had to put up with. A witchhunt, for heaven's sake!"
I entered Auntie McWeezle's cabin. It only had two rooms and was normally a neat, cheery place. Now it looked a mess.
"Drat that Legrand," Auntie McWeezle said. "The man is a walking offense to the Lady herself. You should have heard him: 'It's for your own protection, Myrtle McWeezie, the fiends could be under your own bed, and you'd not know it.' Him and that O'Grady, poking their sticks under the bed. Rootling through the camphor chest like pigs after acorns. As if the fiends of hell would worry with a poor cottage like mine ..."
"Take it easy, Auntie," I said. "I reckon they were just hang-gliders. Outsiders blown in by the wind."
"One way or the other," Auntie McWeezle said, "they certainly aren't here."
From where I was sitting at Auntie's table, the plate of corn bread and the mug of buttermilk already in front of me, I could see out the window to the cart. The hay moved, bulged. Auntie turned and followed my gaze, but the hay was still.
"You've brought it early," she said.
"No time like the present, Auntie."
"You've not bought rats with you?" Auntie said, still looking at the load of hay bales.
"They do like to nest in the hay. You can easily carry rats as well as hay."
There are some people I can lie to all day with a straight face. If I needed to lead Jed Cooper up the garden path, I'd spin him a yarn, tell him a tale with never a word of truth in it. But not Auntie McWeezle, the task was beyond me.
"The truth is, Auntie, I've got the hang-gliders on board."
"And do they look like the familiars of the devil to you, Mathewmark?" Auntie asked, showing no surprise at all.
"They're just Outsiders." I said. "A boy and a girl. Well, they say they're grown-ups, almost, but they look like kids to me. The boy has twisted his ankle."
"Well, they can't be too comfortable with all that hay sticking into their soft Outsider skins," Auntie said. "And I'll warrant they're a mite peckish."
Five minutes later, Amanda and Vikram were tucking into a plate of beans and barley bread, mugs of buttermilk beside their plates.
"Diet milk really good," Amanda said. "Better than Slimmer's Delight."
"And what'll that be, Slimmer's Delight?" Auntie McWeezle asked. It was clear she didn't approve of Amanda's appearance, purple hair and all, but she kept her own counsel on that matter.
"Lo-fat, high-calcium, cholesterol-negative, energy-enhanced, soy milko-lite drink Maman insists. Not half as good this buttermilk stuff. Reckon if drank buttermilk all day, lose five kilos week. Can't have any nutritional value at all."
"And you'd see that as a good thing, young lady. No nutritional value at all?"
"Well, wouldn't get spare padding."
"I don't know about no padding," Auntie McWeezle said. "But it don't do to throw good food away, and she as makes butter, makes buttermilk."
"Heard of butter," Amanda said with a grimace. "Poisonous."
"Rubbish," said Auntie McWeezle. "And now, young man," she said, turning to Vikram, "I'd better have a look at your ankle. Mathewmarkand Lukenjon are reasonable hands when it comes to fixing a poultice for a mule or sheep, but humans need a lighter touch."
We spent most of the morning with Auntie McWeezle. She mixed and mashed and steamed some herbs and changed the dressing on Vikram's ankle, chided Amanda for her Outsider ignorance of everything useful, but let it be known that she thought the actions of some of her neighbors were a disgrace.
"It happens," Auntie McWeezle said with a sigh. "Folks get scared and they start seeing the polluter behind every bush. And then other folks won't be outdone, they see the devil behind every flower, every blade of grass. Folks get carried away. I reckon you two want to lie low for a day or two and then get young Mathewmark to take you up to the Gatehouse. Your own people can collect you there."
"Well, the thing is, Auntie," I said, stretching, "I've got to be getting on. And without all your hay on the cart, hiding Amanda and Vik might be a bit difficult."
"Sure, they can stay here," Auntie McWeezle said. "Stay the night, if they like."
I left Amanda and Vik at Auntie McWeezle's and drove off on my rounds. Auntie hadn't been wrong about people trying to outdo each other with hysterical talk. The story of the vampire bats dancing in the updraft had reached the farthest corner of the Valley. The funny thing was that the greater the distance from the ventilation shaft that people lived, the more numerous were the fiends they swore had come out of it. My last load for the day was a pile of dried cow dung to be carted from the Old Nirvana Commune to the Apple Orchard. Old Communard Williams knew all about the fiends. They had wingspans as wide as windmill sails, and there had been ten dozen of them, screeching and cackling like parrots as they flashed their talons.
"I don't think so, Communard," I said to Williams. "I was there. There was only two of them, and they looked like hang-gliding teenagers. Outsiders."
"They've addled your mind," said Williams. "There were dozens of them." He made the sign o'god.
I took the river track back to our place. Ebeeneezer knew we were going home and needed no guidance from me. The cart still stank slightly of manure, I would have to wash and scrub it before I could call it quits. And Ebeeneezer was in need of new shoesthere be a bit of blacksmith work to be done in the morning. After a normal day's carting, I trundle home with my mind a blank, or just wandering from thought to thought in a random, sleepy sort of way. But this evening things were different. All I could think about were Amanda and Vik.
A lot was wrong with those twothey seemed to have no appreciation of the simple pleasures of life. They seemed driven by some crazy desire to experience more and more. I got the feeling they'd never be satisfied. But I knew this: they weren't fiends from hell. They were just adolescents, however old in years they claimed to be, with all the desires and problems of adolescents anywhere. We're no different in the Valleyoften kids don't get on with their parents, get thrown out of home. Often they fall in love with someone who doesn't love them and start thinking about ending it all. Girls get pregnant when they shouldn't. Some young buck gets hold of a jar of cider and before you know it, him and a few mates have rolled his old man's cart. Snapped the shafts, broken the mule's leg. It happens. So, on a deep level, I didn't reckon there was very much about Amanda and Vik that I didn't know about. But they came from the Outside, they controlled liar bees, they could spread their strange black wings and soar in the updrafts. And they could thumb their noses at authority. They weren't meant to be herethere were laws and regulations and treaties said they shouldn't enter our Valley. All manner of edicts from the Assembly of Elders also said Valley people like me couldn't leaveor if we did, we couldn't come back. That's what Elders do: tell other folk what they can't do. And from what Amanda and Vik had said, it's the same on the Outside as it is in the Valley.
But Amanda and Vik hadn't been frightened by all the prohibitions, all the thou-shalt-nots of their society. They'd grasped the freedom given them by their wings, paid us a visit. Dropped in. Oh, when I'd seen them playing in the updraft from the fire, twisting and turning against the stars, the familiars of that tower of sparks, I'd wanted tobe like them, to be with them. I wasn't much taller than Vik, but I was a lot bulkier. I started to wonder if he'd lend me his black jumpsuit, show me how to unfurl the wings and float in the heavens. I could lend him my oid Sunday Best outfit, the one I grew out of at fifteen. Maybe he'd like to experience real handmade clothes for a little while: homespun jerkin, goats' wool socks, cowhide boots. I didn't want Amanda and Vik to leave the Valley, but I knew that in a day or two, they'd be gone. Back to the Outside, back to a world I'd never know.
Unless I went with them.
What a sin! What a terrible, wicked thought. In our Valley just about the worst thing you can think is that you might leave, might pass through the Gate into the hell of the Outside. We're taught that as soon as we can talk. In the schoolhouse there is no lesson more serious. The God of your Choice takes many forms, but he, she, or it is always a Valley god, never an Outside god. Sitting on the cart, rumbling along the river track with Ebeeneezer clip-clopping like a tune that has got stuck in your head, I told myself I mustn't think the thoughts I was thinking. The wisdom of the Elders was the true wisdom. But what you tell yourself to think, and what you do think, are often at terrible odds.
I arrived home with my mind in a spin. Momma gave me a dipper of springwater and an apple, then sent me and the cart downwind.
"Get it scrubbed, Mathewmark, or the smell will sink into the boards. Decent folk won't ride in it."
I scrubbed the remains of the manure from the cart with a yard brush and many buckets of water. From where I was standing on the cart, I could see the ventilation shaft. It was slightly blackened around the base, but otherwise unharmed. If old man Legrand had thought the tunnelers were so stupid they'd make the thing out of flammable material, he was off his head. What a place to livea Valley where the likes of Legrand were considered solid citizens. I looked some more at the ventilation shaft. The daylight was dying, our place was already in shadow, but the Sun still slanted down to the shaft. It glowed. And it led, through its infernal passageways, to the Outside. I couldn't stop looking at it. I was like a mouse looking at a snake.
18 : amanda
"I like Myrtle McWeezle," Vikram said. "Doesn't seem right, repay kindness by nicking ladder."
"Like her too, Mr. Bones." Still dark, surprising amount light from starry sky. Don't see stars like that in Metro, not with all glow from streetlights, neon, lasers. Quite restful, actually, or suppose would be if didn't have posse paranoid witch-hunters on tail. "But not really stealing it. Will get it back."
"How she lug it back through fields from vent? Heavy damned wooden clunky thing." Was having trouble getting his end of ladder up on shoulder, no doubt hampered by pain of stoutly wrapped foot. My end well hoisted, backing out low shed into yard. Luckily old Myrtle didn't have large barking guard dog, would have been awake, out of bed ten minutes ago. Actually had sneaking suspicion was lying inside little cottage one eye cocked, knowing full well were making break for it. Mightn't know our plans, but wasn't going to be nuisance, get in way.
"Wish could have left gift some sort," I muttered, narrowly missing sleeping fowl. Squawked, flapped, settled. Vikram banged end heavy ladder against shed's simple brush gate. Gritted my teeth, jumpy although didn't want show it.
"We did," Vik said, to my surprise. "Left her solar-powered watch."
"Useful. Be able time how long takes when they burn her as witch."
"Come on, Mand," said, bit crabbily, "you know don't actually do that stuff in Valley. Worst we'd face if catch us is night, two in stocks. More likely, march up to Gatehouse, send message Metro cops."
"How's foot?" In clear now. Own watch showed little after midnight. Everyone else in Valley well asleep by now, even bloody old man Legrand, soppy granddaughter. According my calculations,should take twenty minutes hoof it to vent, even with Vik's bad ankle plus ladder. Couple more minutes ace fairly mindless computer chip controlled vent access, down deep root ventilation shaft using its own elevator, wait another twenty minutes max next freighter came ripping through. Well, not ripping, with any luck, because of ridiculous deal Maman had secured with local sell-outs. Because of sacred prohibitions, bullet train turned into slow coach for length of trip under sacred Valley before accelerated again supersonic speeds remaining stretch. Suits would anchor to freight hull, lock into laminar flow bucky shells, air filters on face masks. Scary but not insane. Ride of lifetime, eh.
"My foot's not too bad," Vikram said; tone showed how much must be hurting, dreary ladder lugging. Well, if weren't for injury wouldn't need lug ladder, could use blackgear's fiber grapples climb vent. As was, didn't want to take chance he'd get stuck halfway up. Ladder it had to be.
Surprising how well can see when eyes become adapted to skyful stars. Don't suppose we banged into fences, dropped ladder on toes more than twenty, thirty times whole trip. Feeling bit bruised, Vikram in agony, by time reached field. Ventilation shaft rose in dark glory, now rather smudged by ash from dead bonfire. Scraps singed timber leaned against base. Kicked path through, hoisted ladder up against side.
"Piece of cake," said. Breath smoked cool night air. Even in summer, seemed, world outside snug buildings quite crisp well after sundown. For moment wanted nothing more than curl up in own bedroom, vee system running some delightful fantasy quest, music roaring in head, Mrs. Ng building yummy treat downstairs. Missing Strad Lad, violin practice. Caught self having these cowardly thoughts, suppressed at once. Adventurers. Would boldly go where no penders gone before.
"Have to give hand up," Vikram said dubiously. Must have hurt admit that, but trouble was having with sprained ankle made me realize embarrassment was least poor boy's problems. Okay, let's do thing, get home. Be legends. Will be Mall gods at last. Able have decent shower, sleep all day own soft comfortable beds.
Ladder, for all weight, handmade clumsiness, was only about two meters tall. Less, leaning against vent column. So top vent another two meters higher, maybe more. Scampered up ladder, shot out fiber webbing strand settled over top vent, tightened into place. Climbed web hand over hand, grippo sneakers holding firmly slick, stealthed surface vent's thick column. Certainly needed all four limbs manage it, though. Looked down at Vikram, who had dragged self up ladder, perched top rung, arms outstretched to curving wall of vent. Didn't trust him climb up rest way with bad ankle, but at least was already halfway to top, should be able help haul him up.
Something caught eye. Something moving in field. Oh shit, not witch-hunters! In deep doo-doo if caught us now. Here were two devil-spawn, poised fly away on bat wings into Satan's grim polluter lands, real-estate dealers. Be even worse if realized weren't going fly off, had every intention plunging downward into hellish bowels earth.
Vik saw me peering about.
"Dunno. Thought saw some kind ofNah, just farm animal. Probably Ebeeneezer have perv at us."
Left Vik on perch moment, stared around for control-panel cover. Top of vent absolutely solid, to look at. Thing did ventilation trick using invisible micropores in vertical stack. Although top wasn't open, would give access to elevator designed for use maintenance crews during planned once-a-decade visits. Fiddled with notepage, searching for handshaking protocol. Voilà! Rectangle light shone up from middle circular platform at top cylinder. Left two machines chat with each other using infrared beams, went back edge.
"Okay, Mr. Bones, ready scale Mt. Everest."
"Get on with it, Amanda," said. Sounded fed up. Poultice Myrtle McWeezle had put on ankle must have well, truly worn off by now. Could almost feel painful throbbing in own foot.
"Okay, here goes." Made sure webbing secure at top, shot down length triple-weave fiber net. Vik looped around self as had been taught in abseiling sessions at gym, grabbed remainder firmly both hands. Leaned back, letting web take some of weight, lifted good foot against side vent. Instantly, injured leg sagged. Cried out in pain,dropped back to ladder top. Without ado, ladder gently teetered, slipped slowly away from wall. Crashed noisily into bonfire remnants.
Vikram left dangling, held by web, not any good position recover. I yelped fright, again seemed see something, someone move suddenly in field to left. Mathewmark? Could silly boy be spying on us? Could have followed us see what devilish prank up to? Didn't have time think further such distractions. Leaned over edge, grabbed webbing both gloved hands.
"Come on, slacker," yelled in silly, jolly voice, "put back into."
Vikram gave throttled gasp, started laughing. Hung in harness of webbing, swaying slightly, laughed like lunatic. Enough wake dead. Worse still, enough wake living.
"Stop laughing," told sternly, own shoulders shaking. "This serious."
We calmed down enough get sorted out. I hauled, hitched, Vik clawed way up webbing, kicking with good foot, finally throwing crook leg over edge with terrible groan. We lay panting, gazing up stars. Handheld beeped. I sat up, set blackgear jumpsuit gather webbing, tuck away neatly in designer pack ready for next use, crawled over to vent's control site.
Bright patches green, red showed in night. Cryptic abbreviated words on display would have revealed interesting information to engineers, had been any with us. Numbers flickered steadily, showing changes transport system. Had feeling at least one those glaring numbers told tale of freighter rushing this very moment toward Valley, maybe even slowing as entered sacred site.
"Now all have to do" Peered at display doubtfully.
"This one, reckon," Vikram said, poked finger at symbol like door. Silently, part floor near feet lifted few centimeters, slid across another portion cylinder's roof, revealing surface meter square edged in comforting green light. Slender panel surface slid up, one arrow pointing down, one pointing up, one with square white dot. Maybe white dot meant standing still.
"Dread," Vik said with satisfaction. "Going down."
Limped to panel, looked at me. I shrugged, pretending relaxed,pleased interrupted plans about come off. Actually felt as if gut squeezed tight into chest. Wanted really badly go toilet, didn't think this moment mention it. Mouth dry, palms hands wet. Shivered, although wasn't that cold, went stand beside.
"Do it," said.
Vikram stuck thumb down arrow.
Only slightest tremor, sank into heart ventilation shaft.
1 9 : mathewmark
I didn't sleep well that night. I woke up sometime past midnight and lay listening to the sounds of the night: little scurryings, the hoot of a night bird, the wind in the trees. That and Lukenjon's snoring. You could tell he was having no trouble sleeping. I kept wondering how Amanda and Vik were doing at Auntie McWeezle's. There was no room for them inside Auntie's little cabin, but she had a snug stone barn, almost as big as the house itself. And there was hay in the barn. I'd put it there only that morning.
Then, just faintly, I heard something different, something that didn't belong with all the usual sounds of the night. I wasn't sure what it was, but I knew I'd heard it. I listened intently. But it was no good, Lukenjon's snoring seemed to grow louder the more I strained to hear what was happening in the fields. I suspected that old man Legrand was coming back for another attack on the shaft. I swung my legs out of bed and reached as quietly as I could for my clothes. A couple of minutes later I was standing in the dark beside the cart shed, straining my eyes in the starlight. I couldn't tell what I was seeing, but I knew there was some sort of activity at the shaft.
I began to creep closer, using my knowledge of the terrain more than any of my senses to guide me. Something quite clear, a yelled curse. I knew immediately who was at the shaft: Amanda and Vik. Iquickened my pace. A burst of mad laughter, Vik's. Some sharp commands from Amanda, but she sounded as if she were trying not to laugh, too. Finally, I was close enough to see them, very faintly, silhouetted against some sort of glow coming from the top of the shaft. They appeared to be standing on the top, on what must be a lid or grille.
I stopped just inside the boundary fence, and strained my eyes. Some more conversation I couldn't quite catch, then the two figures disappeared from view, sinking downward into the shaft. I ran forward, stumbling over the stalks and roots of old man Grout's wrecked wheat crop. When I reached the shaft I stubbed my toe and fell over. A ladder was lying on the ground. As I picked it up and leaned it against the shaft I recognized it from its feel. The miserable pair had stolen Auntie McWeezle's ladder.
I was up it in a shot. I stood on the highest rung, but the top of the shaft was still just out of reach. I didn't stop to think. I bent my knees and jumped upward. If I missed, I'd tumble to the ground, maybe break something. But I didn't miss, I gripped the slightly rough edge of the top of the shaft and with a superhuman heave got myself up so that I was resting on my elbows. There was indeed a lid or cover, but it had an oblong hole in it, which was closing. I reached over, grabbed the edge of the opening, and pulled myself onto the top. The cover stopped, slid open againtuckity, or it would have cut my fingers off. I looked down. The shaft was softly lit, although the source of the light was not immediately apparent. Below me I could easily make out the forms of Vik and Amanda. They were descending. Whatever they were standing on was going steadily down. They were leaving me. A staggered series of foot- and handholds was cut into the side of the shaft, descending into the depths like a kind of ladder. I knew that if I stopped to think, I'd be overcome with fear, I'd never move, never leave the Valley. So I didn't stop to think. I swung myself through the opening and began to descend, spreadeagled on the wall of the shaft like a spider.
20 : amanda
Heard something scrambling above us, looked up in fright. Something large, something looked like ape, maybe clumsy human, peering over edge shaft's entrance. Wondered why sliding panel hadn't zipped shut behind as started our descent. Fail-safe, supposedproximity someone standing there. Human voice called down, echoing strangely. Couldn't make out words, but sounded awfully familiar.
"Oh great," Vikram said. "Your new boyfriend decided join us."
"Not my" started hotly, craning neck backwards. Mathewmark had legs dangling into shaft now. Already were hundred meters below him, dropping steadily. If he let go, would fall, break fool back. Strips yellow light shone in tube as descended. Clang as his heavy leather work boots struck sides shaft.
"What's idiot up to?" Vikram yelped in alarm. "Going set off failsafes. Whole bloody thing going shut down. Will be stuck here like flies inside bottle until Maglev custodians come nab. Damn it, Amanda!" Looked as if about break into tears. "First bugger my ankle, now this. Look like fools. Everyone in Mall going laugh like jackass."
"Calm down," said, wishing could follow own advice. "Can't come down, going have to climb back up, out, then"
But as fell deeper, deeper into solid rock at elevator platform's steady pace, finally noticed handholds some machine had cut at regular intervals, every fifteen centimeters looked like, into side shaft. Like ladder reaching down toward center Earth. And Farmclod, far above, climbing down that grim ladder. Could hear yells, clatter of boots as made vertical descent in pursuit.
"Doesn't realize this shaft two hundred meters deep," said faintly. "Get tired before halfway down, slip, fall, land on us, get squashed like bugs. Got to stop elevator, go back up for him."
Without word, Vik shot out right hand, slammed white dot on control panel. Slowed almost instantly, felt guts rise again in throat. Motionless. High above, monkey-boy clawing way down endless set vertical hand-, footholds. Still calling hoarsely.
"Well," said in thin voice, "push up arrow, Mr. Bones."
"Don't call me that," Vikram said angrily. Noticed after a moment that had abandoned Mall cant. "This is stupid. Damn him. I'm not going back there, they'll tie us up and make complete jackasses out of us. No way." Slapped down arrow again, once more dropped gracefully toward freighter tunnel.
Couldn't believe it. Didn't he care if Mathewmark hurt, maybe killed? Own arm jerked out, but Vik grabbed wrist, held it.
"Don't be bloody stupid, Vikram Singh!"
Stood face, face, both furious, tired, confused. Took moment realize were motionless without either touching controls. High, high above, faint sounds Mathewmark's fearful hand-over-hand descent continued.
"We've arrived," Vikram said. Behind him, vertical panel showed rim of blue light. He touched with right hand, slid open: a door. Gust odd-smelling air entered shaft, somehow dead but electric, faintly oily. Could feel hair stir on back cropped neck. Somewhere, almost at edge hearing, came rushing. Air moving, pushed by projectile approaching at terrible speed.
Vikram still holding my wrist. He lifted my arm, checked watch.
"Good timing, kiddo. Here comes ride to coast." Stepped through opening. Before following, I tapped up arrow. Door closed with faint hiss. Minute or so, Mathewmark would find firm footing risen meet him. Any luck, have sense continue back up to surface. If followed down, arrive too late. Freighter due about eighty seconds, if time table still on money.
This scary bit, finally. All rest adventure easy. Sneaking out of homes, thumbing ride bus station, getting to outskirts Valley, climbing cliff above Muon Power Station, unfurling bat wings, throwing selves headlong into updraft, lifting across mountain, down into goddamn Valley of Nutters ... all just prelude. Could already hear storyheroic journey set to music, violins wailing. No, wasn't violins, was onrushing wind of freighter drawing closer, stowingnot to stop, no chance, not even slowing to walking pace. Monstrous thing planned to jump down on, ride like sandworm Dune, would be skimming along on magnetic fields thirty kilometers hour, more. Miss connection, go headfirst into tunnel under hundreds tons thundering metal, plastic.
Really wanted go toilet now. Why always leave these things last minute?
"Over here," Vikram called. Peering down from catwalk jutted into top of tunnel. Guarded by heavy-duty glass, plastic. Needed crawl out past safety barrier. Sound rising, like storm wind. Fancied could feel freighter's forward wind blowing up, cool, sparky. Put one leg over edge barrier, crept up to Vikram.
"Time get webs ready," said. Almost instinctive by now. Fingers danced over buttons on belt. Hung over superconducting rail far below. When freighter came through, had to be poised jump. No second thoughts.
Like deep organ note, air moved about us. Then freighter there, in rush, humming thirty klicks hour, speed of a galloping horse, seemed much faster. No beam light cast ahead like old-time locomotives. No driver, whole process entirely automatic. Vikram reached out hand, took it. Light flared suddenly at backs. What? Twisted head around, horrified. Dark shape loomed out illuminated square doorway. Train running under us. Mathewmark leaped forward, clutching with long arms. Our carbon webbing shot out, spraying, solidifying as it fell. Both leaped, farm boy behind us yelling my name. My web latched roof rushing freighter, snagged, locked, tightened. Rolled forward on top of freighter, taking shock in all muscles of legs, arms, abdomen. Two awful banging noises. Vikram's hand torn out of mine. Rolled ahead of me, web tearing free. Mathewmark flashed past, bouncing, mouth open, screaming in terror. Clodhopper farm boot struck Vikram in the face, with bright spurt blood from torn lip. Vikram slid, slipped, ripped free. Bounced over curved edge roaring freighter. I clung to web for dear life, screaming so hard hurt throat. Somehow Mathewmark had caught edge of my web, clung. Web started curl up, break free. Vikram gone, smashed under freighter.Already were speeding up. Valley tore past, two hundred meters overhead. Accelerated, and poor friend was battered under freighter while stupid, ignorant farmclod clung to web, lived. Stayed alive despite everything, long enough for crashing harmonies of freighter to pick him up, smash him down, headfirst, into unyielding metal skin. Pick him up, smash him down. Again, again. He bled in river of red could see only as blackness in blipping, blurring maintenance lights edging Maglev tunnel. Smashed against side of freighter until unconscious, his fingers, one leg trapped in my carbon web. Quite quickly, emergency systems brought freighter to halt. Felt like forever. By then was crying too hard to see anything.
Copyright © 2002 by Damien Broderick