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Permutation City. 5

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The old man opened his eyes.

Thomas shouted, "Freeze!" He was sweating, and nauseous, but he made no move to banish the unnecessary symptoms. He wanted catharsis, didn"t he? Wasn"t that the whole point? The subtitles gave only a crude hint of what the clone was experiencing. Much greater clarity was available; the recording included traces from key neural pathways. If he wanted to, he could read the clone"s mind.

He said, "Let me know what he"s thinking, what he"s going through." Nothing happened. He clenched his fists and whispered, "Restart."

The library vanished; he was flat on his back in the hospital bed, staring up at the ceiling, dazed. He looked down and saw the cluster of monitors beside him, the wires on his chest. The motion of his eyes and head was wrong-intelligible, but distressingly out of synch with his intentions. He felt fearful and disoriented-but he wasn"t sure how much of that was his own reaction and how much belonged to the clone. Thomas shook his own head in panic, and the library-and his body-returned.

He stopped the playback, and reconsidered.

He could break free any time he wanted to. He was only an observer. There was nothing to fear.

Fighting down a sense of suffocation, he closed his eyes and surrendered to the recording. + + +

He looked around the room groggily. He wasn"t the Copy-that much was certain. And this wasn"t any part of the Landau Clinic; as a VIP shareholder and future client, he"d toured the building too many times to be wrong about that. If the scan had been postponed for some reason, he ought to be back home-or on his way. Unless something had gone wrong requiring medical attention which the Landau was unable to provide?

The room was deserted, and the door was closed. He called out hoarsely, "Nurse!" He was too weak to shout.

The room controller replied, "No staff are available to attend to you, at present. Can I be of assistance?"

"Can you tell me where I am?"

"You"re in Room 307 of Valhalla."

"Valhalla?" He knew he"d done business with the place, but he couldn"t remember why.

The room controller said helpfully, "Valhalla is the Health Dynamics Corporation of America"s Frankfurt Hospice."

His bowels loosened with fright; they were already empty. [Thomas squirmed in sympathy, but kept himself from breaking free.] Valhalla was the meat-rack he"d hired to take care of his comatose body until it expired, after the scan-with the legal minimum of medical attention, with no heroic measures to prolong life.

He had been scanned-but they"d fucked up.

They"d let him wake.

It was a shock, but he came to terms with it rapidly. There was no reason to panic. He"d be out of here and scanned again in six hours flat-and whoever was responsible would be out on the street even faster. He tried to raise himself into a sitting position, but he was too dizzy from the lingering effects of the drug infusion to coordinate the action. He slumped back onto the pillows, caught his breath, and forced himself to speak calmly.

"I want to talk to the director."

"I"m sorry, the director is not available."

"Then, the most senior member of staff you can find."

"No staff are available to attend to you, at present."

Sweat trickled into his eyes. There was no point screaming about lawsuits to this machine. In fact... it might be prudent not to scream about lawsuits to anyone. A place like this would be perfectly capable of responding by simply drugging him back into a coma.

What he needed to do was let someone outside know about the situation.

He said, "I"d like to make a phone call. Can you connect me to the net?"

"I have no authority to do that."

"I can give you an account number linked to my voiceprint, and authorize you to charge me for the service."

"I have no authority to accept your account number."

"Then... make a call, reversing all charges, to Rudolf Dieterle, of Dieterle, Hollingworth and Partners."

"I have no authority to make such a call."

He laughed, disbelieving. "Are you physically capable of connecting me to the net at all?"

"I have no authority to disclose my technical specifications."

Any insult would have been a waste of breath. He lifted his head and surveyed the room. There was no furniture; no drawers, no table, no visitor"s chair. Just the monitors to one side of his bed, mounted on stainless steel trolleys. And no terminal, no communications equipment of any kind-not even a wall-mounted audio handset.

He probed the needle in his forearm, just below the inside of the elbow. A tight, seamless rubber sleeve, several centimeters wide, covered the entry point; it seemed to take forever to get his fingernails under the edge-and once he"d succeeded, it was no help. The sleeve was too tight to be dragged down his arm, and too elastic to be rolled up like a shirt sleeve. How did anyone, ever, take the thing off? He tugged at the drip tube itself; held in place by the sleeve, it showed no sign of yielding. The other end vanished inside the drug pump.

[Thomas began to wonder if the immovable needle, on top of the Kafkaesque room controller, would make the clone suspicious-but it seemed that the possibility of some future self waking the scan file a second time was too convoluted an explanation to occur to him in the middle of a crisis like this.]

He"d have to take the pump with him. That was a nuisance-but if he was going to march through the building wrapped in a sheet, looking for a terminal, it could hardly make him more conspicuous than he would have been anyway.

He started to peel the electrodes from his chest when a pulse of numbing warmth swept through his right arm. The pump beeped twice; he turned to see a green LED glowing brightly in the middle of the box, a light he hadn"t noticed before.

The wave of paralysis spread out from his shoulder before he could react-crimp the tube? He tried to roll himself out of the bed but if his body responded at all, he couldn"t feel it.

His eyes fluttered closed. He struggled to remain conscious-and succeeded. [The script guaranteed the clone several minutes of lucidity-which had nothing to do with the opiate"s true pharmacological effects.]

There"d be a computer log of his EEG. Someone would be alerted, soon, to the fact that he"d been awake... and they"d understand that the only humane thing to do would be to revive him.

But someone should have been alerted the moment he woke.

It was far more likely that he"d be left to die.

[Thomas felt ill. This was sadistic, insane.

It was too late for squeamishness, though. Everything he was witnessing had already happened.]

His body was numb, but his mind was crystalline. Without the blur of visceral distractions, his fear seemed purer, sharper than anything he"d ever experienced.

He tried to dredge up the familiar, comforting truths: The Copy would survive, it would live his life for him. This body was always destined to perish; he"d accepted that long ago. Death was the irreversible dissolution of the personality; this wasn"t death, it was a shedding of skin. There was nothing to fear.

Unless he was wrong about death. Wrong about everything.

He lay paralyzed, in darkness. Wishing for sleep; terrified of sleep. Wishing for anything that might distract him; afraid of wasting his last precious minutes, afraid of not being prepared.

Prepared? What could that mean? Extinction required no preparation. He wasn"t making any deathbed pleas to a God he"d stopped believing in at the age of twelve. He wasn"t about to cast aside seventy years of freedom and sanity, to return to his infantile faith. Approach the Kingdom of Heaven as a child, or you won"t get in? That very line was one which had helped him see through the crude mechanics of entrapment; the translation was all too obvious (even to a child): This bullshit would insult any adult"s intelligence-but swallow it anyway, or you"ll burn forever.

He was still afraid, though. The hooks had gone in deep.

The irony was, he had finally come to his senses and abandoned the whole insane idea of having himself woken, intentionally. To confront his mortality! To purge his Copy of guilt! What a pathetic fucking joke that would have been. And now the supposed beneficiary of the fatuous gesture would never even know that it had happened, anyway, by accident.

The blackness in his skull seemed to open out, an invisible view expanding into an invisible vista. Any sense of being in the hospice bed, merely numb and sightless, was gone now; he was lost on a plain of darkness.

What could he have told the Copy, anyway? The miserable truth? I"m dying in fear. I killed Anna for no reason but selfishness and cowardice-and now, in spite of everything, I"m still afraid that there might be an afterlife. A God. Judgement. I"ve regressed far enough to start wondering if every childish superstition I ever held might yet turn out to be true-but not far enough to embrace the possibility of repentance.

Or some anodyne lie? I"m dying in peace, I"ve found forgiveness, I"ve laid all my ghosts to rest. And you"re free, now, to live your own life. The sins of the father will not be visited upon the son.

Would that have worked, would that have helped? Some formula as inane as the voodoo of Confession, as glib as the dying words of some tortured soul finding Hollywood redemption?

He felt himself moving across the darkness. No tunnels of light; no light at all. Sedative dreams, not near-death hallucinations. Death was hours or days away; by then he"d surely be comatose again. One small mercy.

He waited. No revelations, no insights, no lightning bolts of blinding faith. Just blackness and uncertainty and fear. + + +

Thomas sat motionless in front of the terminal long after the recording had finished.

The clone had been right: the ritual had been pointless, misguided. He was and always would be the murderer; nothing could make him see himself as the innocent software child of the dead Thomas Riemann, unfairly burdened with the killer"s guilt. Not unless he redefined himself completely: edited his memories, rewrote his personality. Sculpted his mind into someone new.

In other words: died.

That was the choice. He had to live with what he was in its entirety, or create another person who"d inherit only part of what he"d been.

He laughed angrily and shook his head. "I"m not passing through the eye of any needle. I killed Anna. I killed Anna. That"s who I am." He reached for the scar which defined him, and stroked it as if it were a talisman.

He sat for a while longer, reliving the night in Hamburg one more time, weeping with shame at what he"d done.

Then he unlocked the drinks cabinet and proceeded to make himself confident and optimistic. The ritual had been pointless-but if nothing else, it had rid him of the delusion that it might have been otherwise.

Some time later, he thought about the clone. Drifting into narcosis. Suffering a crudely modeled extrapolation of the disease which had killed the original. And then, at the moment of simulated death, taking on a new body, young and healthy-with a face plucked from a photograph from Christmas, 1985.

Resurrection-for an instant. No more than a formality. The script had frozen the young murderer, without even waking him.

And then?

Thomas was too far gone to agonize about it. He"d done what he"d done for the sake of the ritual. He"d delivered the clone into Durham"s hands, to grant it-like the flesh-and-blood it believed itself to be-the remote chance of another life, in a world beyond death, unknowable.

And if the whole thing had been a mistake, there was no way, now, to undo it.
<dd><br><dd>PART TWO <dd><br><dd>Permutation City

Maria woke from dreamless sleep, clearheaded, tranquil. She opened her eyes and looked around. The bed, the room, were unfamiliar; both were large and luxurious. Everything appeared unnaturally pristine, unsullied by human habitation, like an expensive hotel room. She was puzzled, but unperturbed; an explanation seemed to be on the verge of surfacing. She was wearing a nightdress she"d never seen before in her life.

She suddenly remembered the Landau Clinic. Chatting with the technicians. Borrowing the marker pen. The tour of the recovery rooms. The anesthetist asking her to count.

She pulled her hands out from beneath the sheet. Her left palm was blank; the comforting message she"d written there was gone. She felt the blood drain from her face.

Before she had a chance to think, Durham stepped into the room. For a moment, she was too shocked to make a sound-then she screamed at him, "What have you done to me? I"m the Copy, aren"t I? You"re running the Copy!" Trapped in the launch software, with two minutes to live?

Durham said quietly, "Yes, you"re the Copy."

"How? How did you do it? How could I let it happen?" She stared at him, desperate for a reply, enraged more than anything else by the thought that they might both vanish before she"d heard the explanation, before she understood how he"d broken through all of her elaborate safeguards. But Durham just stood by the doorway looking bemused and embarrassed-as if he"d anticipated a reaction like this, but couldn"t quite credit it now that it was happening.

Finally, she said, "This isn"t the launch, is it? This is later. You"re another version. You stole me, you"re running me later."

"I didn"t steal you." He hesitated, then added cautiously, "I think you know exactly where you are. And I agonized about waking you-but I had to do it. There"s too much going on here that you"ll want to see, want to be a part of; I couldn"t let you sleep through it all. That would have been unforgivable."

Maria disregarded everything he"d said. "You kept my scan file after the launch. You duplicated it, somehow."

"No. The only place your scan file data ever went was the Garden-of-Eden configuration. As agreed. And now you"re in Permutation City. In the TVC universe-now commonly known as Elysium. Running on nothing but its own laws."

Maria sat up in bed slowly, bringing her knees up to her chest, trying to accept the situation without panicking, without falling apart. Durham was insane, unpredictable. Dangerous. When was she going to get that into her skull? In the flesh, she could probably have broken his fucking neck if she had to, to defend herself-but if he controlled this environment, she was powerless: he could rape her, torture her, do anything at all. The very idea of him attacking her still seemed ludicrous-but she couldn"t rely on the way he"d treated her in the past to count for anything. He was a liar and a kidnapper. She didn"t know him at all.

Right now, though, he was being as civilized as ever; he seemed intent on keeping up the charade. She was afraid to test this veneer of hospitality-but she forced herself to say evenly, "I want to use a terminal."

Durham gestured at the space above the bed, and a terminal appeared. Maria"s heart sank; she realized that she"d been hanging on to the slender hope that she might have been human. And that was still possible. Durham himself had once been memory-wiped and fooled into thinking he was a Copy, when he was merely a visitor. Or at least he"d claimed that it had happened, in another world.

She tried half a dozen numbers, starting with Francesca"s, ending with Aden"s. The terminal declared them all invalid. She couldn"t bring herself to try her own. Durham watched in silence. He seemed to be caught between genuine sympathy and a kind of clinical fascination-as if an attempt to make a few phone calls cast doubt on her sanity; as if she was engaged in some bizarre, psychotic behavior worthy of the closest scrutiny: peering behind a mirror in search of the objects seen in the reflection; talking back to a television program... or making calls on a toy phone.

Maria pushed the floating machine away angrily; it moved easily, but came to a halt as soon as she took her hands off it. Patchwork VR and its physics-of-convenience seemed like the final insult.

She said, "Do you think I"m stupid? What does a dummy terminal prove?"

"Nothing. So why don"t you apply your own criteria?" He said, "Central computer," and the terminal flashed up an icon-studded menu, headed permutation city computing facility. "Not many people use this interface, these days; it"s the original version, designed before the launch. But it still plugs you into as much computing power as the latest co-personality links."

He showed Maria a text file. She recognized it immediately; it was a program she"d written herself, to solve a large, intentionally difficult, set of Diophantine equations. The output of this program was the key they"d agreed upon to unlock Durham"s access to the other Copies, "after" the launch.

He ran it. It spat out its results immediately: a screenful of numbers, the smallest of which was twenty digits long. On any real-world computer, it should have taken years.

Maria was unimpressed. "You could have frozen us while the program was running, making it seem like no time had passed. Or you could have generated the answers in advance." She gestured at the terminal. "I expect you"re faking all of this: you"re not talking to a genuine operating system, you"re not really running the program at all."

"Feel free to alter some parameters in the equations, and try again."

She did. The modified program "ran" just as quickly, churning out a new set of answers. She laughed sourly. "So what am I supposed to do now? Verify all this in my head? You could put any bullshit you liked on the screen; I wouldn"t know the difference. And if I wrote another program to check the results, you could fake its operation, too. You control this whole environment, don"t you? So I can"t trust anything. Whatever I do to try to test your claims, you can intervene and make it go your way. Is that why you wanted my scan file, all along? So you could lock me in here and bombard me with lies-finally "prove" all your mad ideas to someone?"

"You"re being paranoid now."

"Am I? You"re the expert."

She looked around the luxurious prison cell. Red velvet curtains stirred in a faint breeze. She slipped out of bed and crossed the room, ignoring Durham; the more she argued with him, the harder it was to be physically afraid of him. He"d chosen his form of torture, and he was sticking to it.

The window looked out on a forest of glistening towers-no doubt correctly rendered according to all the laws of optics, but still too slick to be real... like some nineteen twenties Expressionist film set. She"d seen the sketches; this was Permutation City-whatever hardware it was running on. She looked down. They were seventy or eighty stories up, the street was all but invisible, but just below the window, a dozen meters to the right, a walkway stretched across to an adjacent building, and she could see the puppet citizens, chatting together in twos and threes as they strode toward their imaginary destinations. All of this looked expensive-but slowdown could buy a lot of subjective computing power, if that was the trade-off you wanted to make. How much time had passed in the outside world? Years? Decades?

Had she managed to save Francesca?

Durham said, "You think I"ve kidnapped your scan file, and run this whole city, solely for the pleasure of deceiving you?"

"It"s the simplest explanation."

"It"s ludicrous, and you know it. I"m sorry; I know this must be painful for you. But I didn"t do it lightly. It"s been seven thousand years; I"ve had a lot of time to think it over."

She spun around to face him. "Stop lying to me!"

He threw his hands up, in a gesture of contrition-and impatience. "Maria... you are in the TVC universe. The launch worked, the dust hypothesis has been vindicated. It"s a fact, and you"d better come to terms with that, because you"re now part of a society which has been living with it for millennia.

"And I know I said I"d only wake you if Planet Lambert failed-if we needed you to work on the biosphere seed. All right, I"ve broken my word on that. But... it was the wrong promise to make. Planet Lambert hasn"t failed; it"s succeeded beyond your wildest dreams. How could I let you sleep through that?"

An interface window appeared in midair beside her, showing a half-lit blue-and-white world. "I don"t expect the continents will look familiar. We"ve given the Autoverse a lot of resources; seven thousand years, for most of us, has been about three billion for Planet Lambert."

Maria said flatly, "You"re wasting your time. Nothing you show me is going to change my mind." But she watched the planet, transfixed, as Durham moved the viewpoint closer.

They broke through the clouds near the east coast of a large, mountainous island, part of an archipelago straddling the equator. The bare surface rock of the peaks was the color of ochre; no mineral she"d included in the original design... but time, and geochemistry, could have thrown up something new. The vegetation, which covered almost every other scrap of land, right to the water line, came in shades of blue-green. As the viewpoint descended, and the textures resolved themselves, Maria saw only "grasses" and "shrubs"-nothing remotely like a terrestrial tree.

Durham zeroed in on a meadow not far from the coast-a few hundred meters back, according to the scale across the bottom of the image-and about what she would have guessed from cues in the landscape, unexpectedly validated. What looked at first like a cloud of wind-borne debris-seeds of some kind?-blowing above the grass resolved into a swarm of shiny black "insects." Durham froze the image, then zoomed in on one of the creatures.

It was no insect by the terrestrial definition; there were four legs, not six, and the body was clearly divided into five segments: the head; sections bearing the forelegs, wings, and hind legs; and the tail. Durham made hand movements and rotated the view. The head was blunt, not quite flat, with two large eyes-if they were eyes: shiny bluish disks, with no apparent structure. The rest of the head was coated in fine hairs, lined up in a complex, symmetrical pattern which reminded Maria of Maori facial tattoos. Sensors for vibration-or scent?

She said, "Very pretty, but you forgot the mouth."

"They put food into a cavity directly under the wings." He rotated the body to show her. "It adheres to those bristles, and gets dissolved by the enzymes they secrete. You"d think it would fall out, but it doesn"t-not until they"ve finished digesting it and absorbing nutrients, and then a protein on the bristles changes shape, switching off the adhesion. Their whole stomach is nothing but this sticky droplet hanging there, open to the air."

"You might have come up with something more plausible."

Durham laughed. "Exactly."

The single pair of wings were translucent brown, looking like they were made of a thin layer of the same stuff as the exoskeleton. The four legs each had a single joint, and terminated in feathery structures. The tail segment had brown-and-black markings like a bull"s-eye, but there was nothing at the center; a dark tube emerged from the bottom of the rim, narrowing to a needle-sharp point.

"The Lambertians have diploid chromosomes, but only one gender. Any two of them can inject DNA, one after the other, into certain kinds of plant cell; their genes take over the cell and turn it into a cross between a cyst and an egg. They usually choose a particular spot on the stems of certain species of shrub. I don"t know if you"d call it parasitism-or just nest-building on a molecular level. The plant nourishes the embryo, and survives the whole process in perfect health-and when the young hatch, they return the favor by scattering seeds. Their ancestors stole some of the control mechanisms from a plant virus, a billion years ago. There are a lot of genetic exchanges like that; the "kingdoms" are a lot more biochemically similar here than they were on Earth."

Maria turned away from the screen. The stupidest thing was, she kept wanting to ask questions, press him for details. She said, "What"s next? You zoom right in and show me the fine anatomical structure, the insect"s cells, the proteins, the atoms, the Autoverse cells-and that"s supposed to convince me that the whole planet is embedded in the Autoverse? You unfreeze this thing, let it fly around-and I"m meant to conclude that no real-world computer could ever run an organism so complex, modeled at such a deep level? As if I could personally verify that every flap of its wings corresponded to a valid sequence of a few trillion cellular automaton states. It"s no different than the equation results. It wouldn"t prove a thing."

Durham nodded slowly. "All right. What if I showed you some of the other species? Or the evolutionary history? The paleogenetic record? We have every mutation on file since the year zero. You want to sit down with that and see if it looks authentic?"

"No. I want a terminal that works. I want you to let me call my original. I want to talk to her-and between us, maybe we can decide what I"m going to do when I get out of this fucking madhouse and into my own JSN account."

Durham looked rattled-and for a moment she believed she might finally be getting through to him. But he said, "I woke you for a reason. We"re going to be making contact with the Lambertians soon. It might have been sooner-but there"ve been complications, political delays."

He"d lost her completely now. ""Contact with the Lambertians?" What"s that supposed to mean?"

He gestured at the motionless insect, backside and genitals still facing them. "This is not some species I picked at random. This is the pinnacle of Autoverse life. They"re conscious, self-aware, highly intelligent. They have almost no technology-but their nervous system is about ten times more complex than a human"s-and they can go far beyond that for some tasks, performing a kind of parallel computing in swarms. They have chemistry, physics, astronomy. They know there are thirty-two atoms-although they haven"t figured out the underlying cellular automaton rules yet. And they"re modeling the primordial cloud. These are sentient creatures, and they want to know where they came from."

Maria turned her hand in front of the screen, bringing the Lambertian"s head back into view. She was beginning to suspect that Durham actually believed every word he was saying-in which case, maybe he hadn"t, personally, contrived these aliens. Maybe some other version of him-the flesh-and-blood original?-was deceiving both of them. If that was the case, she was arguing with the wrong person-but what was she supposed to do instead? Start shouting pleas for freedom to the sky?

She said numbly, "Ten times more complex than a human brain?"

"Their neurons use conducting polymers to carry the signal, instead of membrane action potentials. The cells themselves are comparable in size to a human"s-but each axon and dendrite carries multiple signals." Durham moved the viewpoint behind the Lambertian"s eye, and showed her. A neuron in the optic nerve, under close examination, contained thousands of molecules like elaborately knotted ropes, running the whole length of the cell body. At the far end, each polymer was joined to a kind of vesicle, the narrow molecular cable dwarfed by the tiny pouch of cell membrane pinched off from the outside world. "There are almost three thousand distinct neurotransmitters; they"re all proteins, built from three sub-units, with fourteen possibilities for each sub-unit. A bit like human antibodies-the same trick for generating a wide spectrum of shapes. And they bind to their receptors just as selectively as an antibody to an antigen; every synapse is a three-thousand-channel biochemical switchboard, with no cross-talk. That"s the molecular basis of Lambertian thought." He added wryly, "Which is more than you and I possess: a molecular basis for anything. We still run the old patchwork models of the human body-expanded and modified according to taste, but still based on the same principles as John Vines"s first talking Copy. There"s a long-term project to give people the choice of being implemented on an atomic level... but quite apart from the political complications, even the enthusiasts keep finding more pressing things to do."

Durham moved the viewpoint out through the cell wall and turned it back to face the terminal end of the neuron. He changed the color scheme from atomic to molecular, to highlight the individual neurotransmitters with their own distinctive hues. Then he unfroze the image.

Several of the grey lipid-membrane vesicles twitched open, disgorging floods of brightly colored specks; tumbling past the viewpoint, they resolved into elaborate, irregular globules with a bewildering variety of forms. Durham swung the angle of view forward again, and headed for the far side of the synapse. Eventually, Maria could make out color-coded receptors embedded in the receiving neuron"s cell wall: long-chain molecules folded together into tight zig-zagged rings, with lumpy depressions on the exposed surface.

For several minutes, they watched thousands of mismatched neurotransmitters bounce off one receptor, until Durham became bored and pleaded with the software, "Show us a fit." The image blurred for a second, and then returned to the original speed as a correctly shaped molecule finally stumbled onto its target. It hit the receptor and locked into place; Durham plunged the viewpoint through the cell membrane in time to show the immersed tail section of the receptor changing its configuration in response. He said, "That will now catalyze the activation of a second messenger, which will feed energy into the appropriate polymer-unless there"s an inhibiting messenger already bound there, blocking access." He spoke to the software again; it took control of the viewpoint, and showed them each of the events he"d described.

Maria shook her head, bedazzled. "Tell me the truth-who orchestrated this? Three thousand neurotransmitters, three thousand receptors, three thousand second messengers? No doubt you can show me the individual structures of all of them-and no doubt they really would behave the way you claim they do. Even writing the software to fake this would have been an enormous job. Who did you commission? There can"t be many people who"d take it on."

Durham said gently, "I commissioned you. You can"t have forgotten. A seed for a biosphere? A demonstration that life in the Autoverse could be as diverse and elaborate as life on Earth?"

"No. From A. hydrophila to this would take-"

"Billions of years of Autoverse time? Computing power orders of magnitude beyond the resources of twenty-first century Earth? That"s what Planet Lambert needed-and that"s exactly what it"s been given."

Maria backed away from the screen until she could go no further, then slid down against the wall beside the red-draped window and sat on the plushly carpeted floor. She put her face in her hands, and tried to breathe slowly. She felt like she"d been buried alive.

Did she believe him? It hardly seemed to matter anymore. Whatever she did, he was going to keep on bombarding her with "evidence" like this, consistent with his claims. Whether he was deliberately lying or not-and whether he was being fooled by another version of himself, or whether the "dust hypothesis" was right after all-he was never going to let her out of here, back into the real world. Psychotic liar, fellow victim or calm purveyor of the truth, he was incapable of setting her free.

Her original was still out there-with the money to save Francesca. That was the point of the whole insane gamble, the payoff for risking her soul. If she could remember that, cling to that, maybe she could keep herself sane.

Durham pressed on-oblivious to her distress, or intent on delivering the coup de grace. He said, "Who could have engineered this? You know how long it took Max Lambert to translate a real-world bacterium. Do you honestly believe that I found someone who could manufacture a functioning-novel-pseudo-insect out of thin air... let alone an intelligent one?

"All right: you can"t personally check macroscopic behavior against the Autoverse rules. But you can study all the biochemical pathways, trace them back to the ancestral species. You can watch an embryo grow, cell by cell-following the gradients of control hormones, the differentiating tissue layers, the formation of the organs.

"The whole planet is an open book to us; you can examine whatever you like, scrutinize it on any scale, from viruses to ecosystems, from the activation of a molecule of retinal pigment to the geochemical cycles.

"There are six hundred and ninety million species currently living on Planet Lambert. All obeying the laws of the Autoverse. All demonstrably descended from a single organism which lived three billion years ago-and whose characteristics I expect you know by heart. Do you honestly believe that anyone could have designed all that?"

Maria looked up at him angrily. "No. Of course it evolved; it must have evolved. You can shut up now-you"ve won; I believe you. But why did you have to wake me? I"m going to lose my mind."

Durham squatted down and put a hand on her shoulder. She started sobbing drily as she attempted to dissect her loss into parts she could begin to comprehend. Francesca was gone. Aden was gone. All her friends. All the people she"d ever met: in the flesh, on the networks. All the people she"d ever heard of: musicians and writers, philosophers and movie stars, politicians and serial killers. They weren"t even dead; their lives didn"t lie in her past, whole and comprehensible. They were scattered around her like dust: meaningless, disconnected.

Everything she"d ever known had been ground down into random noise.

Durham hesitated, then put his arms around her clumsily. She wanted to hurt him, but instead she clung to him and wept, teeth clenched, fists tight, shuddering with rage and grief.

He said, "You"re not going to lose your mind. You can live any life you want to, here. Seven thousand years means nothing; we haven"t lost the old culture-we still have all the libraries, the archives, the databases. And there are thousands of people who"ll want to meet you; people who respect you for what you"ve done. You"re a myth; you"re a hero of Elysium; you"re the sleeping eighteenth founder. We"ll hold a festival in honor of your awakening."

Maria pushed him away. "I don"t want that. I don"t want any of that."

"All right. It"s up to you."

She closed her eyes and huddled against the wall. She knew she must have looked like a petulant child, but she didn"t care. She said fiercely, "You"ve had the last word. The last laugh. You"ve brought me to life just to rub my nose in the proof of your precious beliefs. And now I want to go back to sleep. Forever. I want all of this to vanish."

Durham was silent for a while. Then he said, "You can do that, if you really want to. Once I"ve shown you what you"ve inherited, once I"ve shown you how to control it, you"ll have the power to seal yourself off from the rest of Elysium. If you choose sleep, then nobody will ever be able to wake you.

"But don"t you want to be there, on Planet Lambert, when we make first contact with the civilization that owes its existence to you?"
<dd><br><dd>24 <dd><br><dd>(Rut City)

Peer was in his workshop, making a table leg on his lathe, when Kate"s latest message caught his eye: You have to see this. Please! Meet me in the City.

He looked away.

He was working with his favorite timber, sugar pine. He"d constructed his own plantation from a gene library and plant cell maps-modeling individual examples of each cell type down to an atomic level, then encapsulating their essential behavior in rules which he could afford to run billions of times over, for tens of thousands of trees. In theory, he could have built the whole plantation from individual atoms-and that would have been the most elegant way to do it, by far-but slowing himself down to a time frame in which the trees grew fast enough to meet his needs would have meant leaving Kate far behind.

He stopped the lathe and reread the message, which was written on a poster tacked to the workshop"s noticeboard (the only part of his environment he allowed her to access, while he was working). The poster looked quite ordinary, except for an eye-catching tendency for the letters to jump up and down when they crossed his peripheral vision.

He muttered, "I"m happy here. I don"t care what they"re doing in the City." The workshop abutted a warehouse full of table legs-one hundred and sixty-two thousand, three hundred and twenty-nine, so far. Peer could imagine nothing more satisfying than reaching the two hundred thousand mark-although he knew it was likely that he"d change his mind and abandon the workshop before that happened; new vocations were imposed by his exoself at random intervals, but statistically, the next one was overdue. Immediately before taking up woodwork, he"d passionately devoured all the higher mathematics texts in the central library, run all the tutorial software, and then personally contributed several important new results to group theory-untroubled by the fact that none of the Elysian mathematicians would ever be aware of his work. Before that, he"d written over three hundred comic operas, with librettos in Italian, French and English-and staged most of them, with puppet performers and audience. Before that, he"d patiently studied the structure and biochemistry of the human brain for sixty-seven years; towards the end he had fully grasped, to his own satisfaction, the nature of the process of consciousness. Every one of these pursuits had been utterly engrossing, and satisfying, at the time. He"d even been interested in the Elysians, once.

No longer. He preferred to think about table legs.

He was still interested in Kate, though. He"d chosen that as one of his few invariants. And he"d been neglecting her lately; they hadn"t met in almost a decade.

He looked around the workshop wistfully, his gaze falling on the pile of fresh timber in the corner, but then he strengthened his resolve. The pleasures of the lathe beckoned-but love meant making sacrifices.

Peer took off his dustcoat, stretched out his arms, and fell backward into the sky above the City.

Kate met him while he was still airborne, swooping down from nowhere and grabbing his hand, nearly wrenching his arm from its socket. She yelled above the wind, "So, you"re still alive after all. I was beginning to think you"d shut yourself down. Gone looking for the next life without me." Her tone was sarcastic, but there was an edge of genuine relief. Ten years could still be a long time, if you let it.

Peer said gently, but audibly, "You know how busy I am. And when I"m working-"

She laughed derisively. "Working? Is that what you call it? Taking pleasure from something that would bore the stupidest factory robot to death?" Her hair was long and jet black, whipping up around her face as if caught by the wind at random-but always concealing just enough to mask her expression.

"You"re still-" The wind drowned out his words; Kate had disabled his aphysical intelligibility. He shouted, "You"re still a sculptor, aren"t you? You ought to understand. The wood, the grain, the texture-"

"I understand that you need prosthetic interests to help pass the time-but you could try setting the parameters more carefully."

"Why should I?" Being forced to raise his voice made him feel argumentative; he willed his exoself to circumvent the effect, and screamed calmly: "Every few decades, at random, I take on new goals, at random. It"s perfect. How could I improve on a scheme like that? I"m not stuck on any one thing forever, however much you think I"m wasting my time, it"s only for fifty or a hundred years. What difference does that make, in the long run?"

"You could still be more selective."

"What did you have in mind? Something socially useful? Famine relief work? Counseling the dying? Or something intellectually challenging? Uncovering the fundamental laws of the universe? I have to admit that the TVC rules have slipped my mind completely; it might take me all of five seconds to look them up again. Searching for God? That"s a difficult one: Paul Durham never returns my calls. Self discovery-?"

"You don"t have to leave yourself open to every conceivable absurdity."

"If I limited the range of options, I"d be repeating myself in no time at all. And if you find the phase I"m passing through so unbearable, you can always make it vanish: you can freeze yourself until I change."

Kate was indignant. "I have other time frames to worry about besides yours!"

"The Elysians aren"t going anywhere." He didn"t add that he knew she"d frozen herself half a dozen times already. Each time for a few more years than the time before.

She turned toward him, parting her hair" to show one baleful eye. "You"re fooling yourself, you know. You"re going to repeat yourself, eventually. However desperately you reprogram yourself, in the end you"re going to come full circle and find that you"ve done it all before."

Peer laughed indulgently, and shouted, "We"ve certainly been through all this before-and you know that"s not true. It"s always possible to synthesize something new: a novel art form, a new field of study. A new aesthetic, a new obsession." Falling through the cool late afternoon air beside her was exhilarating, but he was already missing the smell of wood dust.

Kate rendered the air around them motionless and silent, although they continued to descend. She released his hand, and said, "I know we"ve been through this before. I remember what you said last time: If the worst comes to the worst, for the first hundred years you can contemplate the number one. For the second hundred years you can contemplate the number two. And so on, ad infinitum. Whenever the numbers grow too big to hold in your mind, you can always expand your mind to fit them. QED. You"ll never run out of new and exciting interests."

Peer said gently, "Where"s your sense of humor? It"s a simple proof that the worst-case scenario is still infinite. I never suggested actually doing that."

"But you might as well." Now that her face was no longer concealed, she looked more forlorn than angry-by choice, if not necessarily by artifice. "Why do you have to find everything so... fulfilling? Why can"t you discriminate? Why can"t you let yourself grow bored with things-then move on? Pick them up again later if you feel the urge."

"Sounds awfully quaint to me. Very human."

"It did work for them. Sometimes."

"Yes. And I"m sure it works for you, sometimes. You drift back and forth between your art and watching the great Elysian soap opera. With a decade or two of aimless depression in between. You"re dissatisfied most of the time-and letting that happen is a conscious choice, as deliberate, and arbitrary, as anything I impose on myself. If that"s how you want to live, I"m not going to try to change you. But you can"t expect me to live the same way."

She didn"t reply. After a moment, the bubble of still air around them blew away, and the roar of the wind drowned the silence again.

Sometimes he wondered if Kate had ever really come to terms with the shock of discovering that stowing away had granted them, not a few hundred years in a billionaires" sanctuary, but a descent into the abyss of immortality. The Copy who had persuaded David Hawthorne to turn his back on the physical world; the committed follower-even before her death-of the Solipsist Nation philosophy; the woman who had needed no brain rewiring or elaborate external contrivances to accept her software incarnation... now acted more and more like a flesh-and-blood-wannabe-or rather, Elysian-wannabe-year by year. And there was no need for it. Their tiny slice of infinity was as infinite as the whole; ultimately, there was nothing the Elysians could do that Kate couldn"t.

Except walk among them as an equal, and that was what she seemed to covet the most.

True, the Elysians had deliberately set out to achieve the logical endpoint of everything she"d ever believed Copies should be striving for-while she"d merely hitched a ride by mistake. Their world would "always" (Elysian instant compared to Elysian instant) be bigger and faster than her own. So "naturally"-according to archaic human values which she hadn"t had the sense to erase-she wanted to be part of the main game. But Peer still found it absurd that she spent her life envying them, when she could have generated-or even launched-her own equally complex, equally populous society, and turned her back on the Elysians as thoroughly as they"d turned their back on Earth.

It was her choice. Peer took it in his stride, along with all their other disagreements. If they were going to spend eternity together, he believed they"d resolve their problems eventually-if they could be resolved at all. It was early days yet. As it always would be.

He rolled over and looked down at the City-or the strange recursive map of the City which they made do with, buried as they were in the walls and foundations of the real thing. Malcolm Carter"s secret parasitic software wasn"t blind to its host; they could spy on what was going on in the higher levels of the program which surreptitiously ran them, even though they couldn"t affect anything which happened there. They could snatch brief, partial recordings of activity in the real City, and play them back in a limited duplicate environment. It was a bit like... being the widely separated letters in the text of Ulysses which read: Peer and Kate read, "Leopold Bloom wandered through Dublin." If not quite so crude an abridgment.

Certainly, the view from the air was still breathtaking; Peer had to concede that it was probably indistinguishable from the real thing. The sun was setting over the ocean as they descended, and the Ulam Falls glistened in the east like a sheet of amber set in the granite face of Mount Vine. In the foothills, a dozen silver needles and obsidian prisms, fanciful watchtowers, caught the light and scattered it between them. Peer followed the river down, through lush tropical forests, across dark plains of grassland, into the City itself.

The buildings on the outskirts were low and sprawling, becoming gradually taller and narrower; the profile swept up in a curve which echoed the shape of Mount Vine. Closer to the centre, a thousand crystalline walkways linked the City"s towers at every level, connections so dense and stellated as to make it seem possible that every building was joined, directly, to all the rest. That wasn"t true-but the sense that it might have been was still compelling.

Decorative crowds filled the streets and walkways: mindless puppets obeying the simplest rules, but looking as purposeful and busy as any human throng. A strange adornment, perhaps-but not much stranger than having buildings and streets at all. Most Elysians merely visited this place, but last time Peer had concerned himself with such things, a few hundred of them-mainly third-generation-had taken up inhabiting the City full-time: adopting every detail of its architecture and geography as fixed parameters, swearing fidelity to its Euclidian distances. Others-mainly first-generation-had been appalled by the behavior of this sect. It was strange how "reversion" was the greatest taboo amongst the oldest Elysians, who were so conservative in most other ways. Maybe they were afraid of becoming homesick.

Kate said, "Town Hall."

He followed her down through the darkening air. The City always smelled sweet to Peer; sweet but artificial, like a newly unwrapped electronic toy, all microchips and plastic, from David Hawthorne"s childhood. They spiraled around the central golden tower, the City"s tallest, weaving their way between the transparent walkways. Playing Peter Pan and Tinkerbell. Peer had long ago given up arguing with Kate about the elaborate routes she chose for entering the reconstruction; she ran this peephole on the City out of her own time, and she controlled access to the environment completely. He could either put up with her rules, or stay away altogether. And the whole point of being here was to please her.

They alighted on the paved square outside the Town Hall"s main entrance. Peer was startled to recognize one of the fountains as a scaled-up version of Malcolm Carter"s demonstration for his algorithmic piggy-back tricks: a cherub wrestling a snake. He must have noticed it before-he"d stood on this spot a hundred times-but if so, he"d forgotten. His memory was due for maintenance; it was a while since he"d increased the size of the relevant networks, and they were probably close to saturation. Simply adding new neurons slowed down recall-relative to other brain functions-making some modes of thought seem like swimming through molasses; a whole host of further adjustments were necessary to make the timing feel right. The Elysians had written software to automate this tuning process, but he disliked the results of the versions they"d shared with each other (and hence made accessible to him), so he"d written his own-but he"d yet to perfect it. Things like table legs kept getting in the way.

The square wasn"t empty, but the people around them all looked like puppets, merely strolling past. The City"s owners were already inside-and so Kate"s software, which spied on the true City and reconstructed it for the two of them, was carrying most of the burden of computing the appearance of their surroundings, now officially unobserved. He took Kate"s hand-and she allowed it, though she made her skin feel as cold as marble-and they walked into the hall.

The cavernous room was about half-full, so some eight thousand Elysians had turned up for the meeting. Peer granted himself a brief bird"s-eye view of the crowd. A variety of fashions in clothing-or lack of it-and body type were represented, certainly spanning the generations, but most people had chosen to present in more or less traditional human form. The exceptions stood out. One clique of fourth-generation Elysians displayed themselves as modified Babbage engines; the entire hall couldn"t have held one of them "to scale," so portions of the mechanism poked through into their seating allocation from some hidden dimension. Ditto for those who"d turned up as "Searle"s Chinese Rooms": huge troupes of individual humans (or human-shaped automatons), each carrying out a few simple tasks, which together amounted to a complete working computer. The "components" seated in the hall were Kali-armed blurs, gesticulating at invisible colleagues with coded hand movements so rapid that they seemed to merge into a static multiple exposure.

Peer had no idea how either type of system collected sound and vision from its surroundings to feed to the perfectly normal Elysians these unwieldy computers were (presumably) simulating, as the end result of all their spinning cogs and frantic hand movements-or whether the people in question experienced anything much different than they would have if they"d simply shown that standard physiological model to the world.

Pretentious fancy dress aside, there were a smattering of animal bodies visible-which may or may not have reflected their inhabitants" true models. It could be remarkably comfortable being a lion, or even a snake-if your brain had been suitably adapted for the change. Peer had spent some time inhabiting the bodies of animals, both historical and mythical, and he"d enjoyed them all-but when the phase was over, he"d found that with very little rewiring, he could make the human form feel every bit as good. It seemed more elegant to be comfortable with his ancestral physiology. The majority of Elysians apparently agreed.

Eight thousand was a typical attendance figure-but Peer could not have said what fraction of the total population it represented. Even leaving out Callas, Shaw and Riemann-the three founders who"d remained in their own private worlds, never making contact with anyone-there might have been hundreds or thousands of members of the later generations who"d opted out of the core community without ever announcing their existence.

The ever-expanding cube of Elysium had been divided up from the outset into twenty-four everexpanding oblique pyramids; one for each of the eighteen founders and their offspring, and six for common ventures (such as Permutation City itself-but mostly Planet Lambert). Most Elysians-or at least most who used the City-had chosen to synch themselves to a common objective time rate. This Standard Time grew steadily faster against Absolute Time-the ticking of the TVC cellular automaton"s clock-so every Elysian needed a constantly growing allocation of processors to keep up; but Elysium itself was growing even faster, leaving everyone with an ever-larger surplus of computing power.

Each founder"s territory was autonomous, subdivided on his or her own terms. By now, each one could have supported a population of several trillion, living by Standard Time. But Peer suspected that most of the processors were left idle-and he had occasionally daydreamed about some fifth-generation Elysian studying the City"s history, getting a curious hunch about Malcolm Carter, and browbeating one of the founders into supplying the spare computing resources of a near-empty pyramid to scan the City for stowaways. All of Carter"s ingenious camouflage-and the atom-in-a-haystack odds which had been their real guarantee against discovery-would count for nothing under such scrutiny, and once their presence was identified, they could easily be disinterred... assuming that the Elysians were generous enough to do that for a couple of petty thieves.

Kate claimed to believe that this was inevitable, in the long term. Peer didn"t much care if they were found or not; all that really mattered to him was the fact that the City"s computational infrastructure was also constantly expanding, to enable it to keep up with both the growing population, and the ever-increasing demands of Elysian Standard Time. As long as that continued, his own tiny fraction of those resources also steadily increased. Immortality would have been meaningless, trapped in a "machine" with a finite number of possible states; in a finite time he would have exhausted the list of every possible thing he could be. Only the promise of eternal growth made sense of eternal life.

Kate had timed their entrance into the replay perfectly. As they settled into empty seats near the back of the hall, Paul Durham himself took the stage.

He said, "Thank you for joining me. I"ve convened this meeting to discuss an important proposal concerning Planet Lambert."

Peer groaned. "I could be making table legs, and you"ve dragged me along to Attack of the Killer Bees. Part One Thousand and Ninety-Three."

Kate said, "You could always choose to be glad you"re here. There"s no need to be dissatisfied."

Peer shut up, and Durham-frozen by the interruption-continued. "As most of you will know, the Lambertians have been making steady progress recently in the scientific treatment of their cosmology. A number of teams of theorists have proposed dust-and-gas-cloud models for the formation of their planetary system-models which come very close to the truth. Although no such process ever literally took place in the Autoverse, it was crudely simulated before the launch, to help design a plausible ready-made system. The Lambertians are now zeroing in on the parameters of that simulation." He gestured at a giant screen behind him, and vision appeared: several thousand of the insect-like Lambertians swarming in the air above a lush blue-green meadow.

Peer was disappointed. Scientific treatment of their cosmology sounded like the work of a technologically sophisticated culture, but there were no artifacts visible in the scene: no buildings, no machines, not even the simplest tools. He froze the image and expanded a portion of it. The creatures themselves looked exactly the same to him as they"d looked several hundred thousand Lambertian years before, when they"d been singled out as the Species Most Likely to Give Rise to Civilization. Their segmented, chitinous bodies were still naked and unadorned. What had he expected? Insects in lab coats? No-but it was still hard to accept that the leaps they"d made in intelligence had left no mark on their appearance, or their surroundings.

Durham said, "They"re communicating a version of the theory, and actively demonstrating the underlying mathematics at the same time; like one group of researches sending a computer model to another-but the Lambertians don"t have artificial computers. If the dance looks valid it"s taken up by other groups-and if they sustain it long enough, they"ll internalize the pattern: they"ll be able to remember it without continuing to perform it."

Peer whispered, "Come back to the workshop and dance cosmological models with me?" Kate ignored him.

"The dominant theory employs accurate knowledge of Autoverse chemistry and physics, and includes a detailed breakdown of the composition of the primordial cloud. It goes no further. As yet, there"s no hypothesis about the way in which that particular cloud might have come into existence; no explanation for the origin and relative abundances of the elements. And there can be no explanation, no sensible prior history; the Autoverse doesn"t provide one. No Big Bang: General Relativity doesn"t apply, their space-time is flat, their universe isn"t expanding. No elements formed in stars: there are no nuclear forces, no fusion; stars burn by gravity alone-and their sun is the only star.

"So, these cosmologists are about to hit a brick wall-through no fault of their own. Dominic Repetto has suggested that now would be the ideal time for us to make contact with the Lambertians. To announce our presence. To explain their planet"s origins. To begin a carefully moderated cultural exchange."

A soft murmuring broke out among the crowd. Peer turned to Kate. "This is it? This is the news I couldn"t miss?"

She stared back at him, pityingly. "They"re talking about first contact with an alien race. Did you really want to sleepwalk right through that?"

Peer laughed. "First contact?" They"ve observed these insects in microscopic detail since the days they were single-celled algae. Everything about them is known already: their biology, their language, their culture. It"s all in the central library. These "aliens" have evolved on a microscope slide. There are no surprises in store."

"Except how they respond to us."

"Us? Nobody responds to us."

Kate gave him a poisonous look. "How they respond to the Elysians."

Peer thought it over. "I expect someone knows all about that, too. Someone must have modeled the reaction of Lambertian "society" to finding out that they"re nothing but an experiment in artificial life."

An Elysian presenting as a tall, thin young man took the stage. Durham introduced him as Dominic Repetto. Peer had given up trying to keep track of the proliferating dynasties long ago, but he thought the name was a recent addition; he certainly couldn"t recall a Repetto being involved in Autoverse studies when he"d had a passion for the subject himself.

Repetto addressed the meeting. "It"s my belief that the Lambertians now possess the conceptual framework they need to comprehend our existence, and to make sense of our role in their cosmology. It"s true that they lack artificial computers-but their whole language of ideas is based on representations of the world around them in the form of numerical models. These models were originally variations on a few genetically hardwired themes-maps of terrain showing food sources, algorithms for predicting predator behavior-but the modern Lambertians have evolved the skill of generating and testing whole new classes of models, in a way that"s as innate to them as language skills were to the earliest humans. A team of Lambertians can "speak" and "judge" a mathematical description of population dynamics in the mites they herd for food, as easily as prelaunch humans could construct or comprehend a simple sentence.

"We mustn"t judge them by anthropomorphic standards; human technological landmarks simply aren"t relevant. The Lambertians have deduced most of Autoverse chemistry and physics by observations of their natural world, supplemented by a very small number of controlled experiments. They"ve generated concepts equivalent to temperature and pressure, energy and entropy-without fire, metallurgy or the wheel... let alone the steam engine. They"ve calculated the melting and boiling points of most of the elements-without ever purifying them. Their lack of technology only makes their intellectual achievements all the more astounding. It"s as if the ancient Greeks had written about the boiling point of nitrogen, or the Egyptians had predicted the chemical properties of chlorine."

Peer smiled to himself cynically; the founders always loved to hear Earth rate a mention-and all the better if the references were to times long before they were born.

Repetto paused; he grew perceptibly taller and his youthful features became subtly more dignified, more mature. Most Elysians would see this as no more manipulative than a change in posture or tone of voice. He said solemnly, "Most of you will be aware of the resolution of the Town Meeting of January 5, 3052, forbidding contact with the Lambertians until they"d constructed their own computers and performed simulations-experiments in artificial life-as sophisticated as the Autoverse itself. That was judged to be the safest possible benchmark... but I believe it has turned out to be misconceived, and completely inappropriate.

"The Lambertians are looking for answers to questions about their origins. We know there are no answers to be discovered inside the Autoverse itself-but I believe the Lambertians are intellectually equipped to comprehend the larger truth. We have a responsibility to make that truth known to them. I propose that this meeting overturns the resolution of 3052, and authorizes a team of Autoverse scholars to enter Planet Lambert and-in a culturally sensitive manner-inform the Lambertians of their history and context."

The buzz of discussion grew louder. Peer felt a vestigial twinge of interest, in spite of himself. In a universe without death or scarcity, politics took strange forms. Any one of the founders who disagreed with the way Planet Lambert was managed would be perfectly free to copy the whole Autoverse into their own territory, and to do as they wished with their own private version. In inverse proportion to the ease of such a move, any faction would have a rare chance here to demonstrate their "influence" and increase their "prestige" by persuading the meeting to retain the ban on contact with the Lambertians-without provoking their opponents into cloning the Autoverse and pushing ahead regardless. Many of the first generation still chose to value these things, for their own sake.

Elaine Sanderson rose to her feet, resplendent in a light blue suit and a body which together proclaimed: 7972 to 2045 a.d., and proud of it (even if she only wore them on official occasions). Peer let himself time-trip for a second: in his late teens, David Hawthorne had seen the flesh-and-blood Sanderson on television, being sworn in as Attorney General of the United States of America-a nation whose constituent particles at the time of that oath might well overlap with some portion of Elysium at this very instant.

Sanderson said, "Thank you, Mr. Repetto, for giving us your perspective on this important matter. It"s unfortunate that so few of us take the time to keep ourselves up to date with the progress of the Lambertians. Although they have come all the way from single-celled lifeforms to their present, highly sophisticated state without our explicit intervention, ultimately they are in our care at every moment, and we all have a duty to treat that responsibility with the utmost seriousness.

"I can still recall some of the earliest plans we made for dealing with the Autoverse: to hide the details of life on Planet Lambert from ourselves, deliberately; to watch and wait, as if from afar, until the inhabitants sent probes to their system"s other worlds; to arrive as "explorers" in "space ships," struggling to learn the language and customs of these "aliens"-perhaps going so far as to extend the Autoverse to include an invisibly distant star, with a "home world" from which we might travel. Slavish imitations of the hypothetical interstellar missions we"d left behind. Bizarre charades.

"Mercifully, we abandoned those childish ideas long ago. There will be no sham "mission of discovery"-and no lying to the Lambertians, or to ourselves.

"There is one quality of those early, laughable schemes which should still be kept in mind, though: we always intended to meet the Lambertians as equals. Visitors from a distant world who would stretch their vision of the universe-but not subvert it, not swallow it whole. We would approach them as siblings, arguing our viewpoint-not Gods, revealing divine truth.

"I ask the meeting to consider whether these two equally laudable aims, of honesty and humility, could not be reconciled. If the Lambertians are on the verge of a crisis in understanding their origins, what patronizing instinct compels us to rush in and provide them with an instant solution? Mr. Repetto tells us how they have already inferred the properties of the chemical elements-elements which remain mysterious and invisible, manifesting themselves only in the elaborate phenomena of the natural world. Clearly, the Lambertians have a gift for uncovering hidden patterns, hidden explanations. How many more centuries can it be, then, before they guess the truth about their own cosmology?

"I propose that we delay contact until the hypothesis of our existence has arisen naturally amongst the Lambertians, and has been thoroughly explored. Until they have decided for themselves exactly what we might mean to them. Until they have debated, as we are debating right now, how best they might deal with us.

"If aliens had visited Earth the moment humans first looked up at the sky and suffered some crisis of understanding, they would have been hailed as Gods. If they"d arrived in the early twenty-first century-when humans had been predicting their existence and pondering the logistics of contact, for decades-they would have been accepted as equals; more experienced, more skilled, more knowledgeable, but ultimately nothing but an expected part of a well-behaved, well-understood universe.

"I believe that we should wait for the equivalent moment in Lambertian history: when the Lambertians are impatient for proof of our existence-when our continued absence becomes far harder for them to explain than our arrival would be. Once they begin to suspect that we"re eavesdropping on every conversation they hold about us, it would be dishonest to remain concealed. Until then, we owe them the opportunity to find as many answers as they can, without us."

Sanderson resumed her seat. Portions of the audience applauded demurely. Peer lazily mapped the response and correlated it with appearance; she seemed to have been a big hit with the third-generation mainstream-but they had a reputation for gleefully faking everything.

Kate said, "Don"t you wish you could join the discussion?" Half sarcasm, half self-pity.

Peer said cheerfully, "No-but if you have strong views on the matter yourself, I suggest you copy the whole Autoverse, and make contact with the Lambertians personally-or leave them in unspoilt ignorance. Whichever you prefer."

"You know I don"t have room to do that."

"And you know that makes no difference. There"s a copy of the original biosphere seed, the entire compressed description, in the central library. You could copy that, and freeze yourself until you finally have the room to unfold it. The whole thing"s deterministic-every Lambertian would flutter its little wings for you in exactly the same way as it did for the Elysians. Right up to the moment of contact."

"And you honestly believe that the City will grow that large? That after a billion years of Standard Time, they won"t have trashed it and built something new?"

"I don"t know. But there"s always the alternative: you could launch a whole new TVC universe and make all the room you need. I"ll come along, if you want me to." He meant it; he"d follow her anywhere. She only had to say the word.

But she looked away. He ached to grant her happiness, but the choice was hers: if she wanted to believe that she was standing outside in the snow-or rather, bricked into the walls-watching the Elysians feast on Reality, there was nothing he could do to change that.

Three hundred and seven speakers followed; one hundred and sixty-two backed Repetto, one hundred and forty supported Sanderson. Five waffled on with no apparent agenda; a remarkably low proportion. Peer daydreamed about the sound of sandpaper on wood.

When the vote finally came-one per original attendee, no last-minute clonings accepted-Sanderson won by a ten percent margin. She took the stage and made a short speech thanking the voters for their decision. Peer suspected that many of the Elysians had quietly slipped out of their bodies and gone elsewhere, by now.

Dominic Repetto said a few words too, clearly disappointed, but gracious in defeat. It was Paul Durham-presumably his mentor and sponsor-who showed the slightly vacuous expression of a model-of-a-body with its facial muscles crudely decoupled from its model-of-a-brain. Durham-with his strange history of brief episodes as a Copy in different permutations-seemed to have never really caught up with the prelaunch state of the art, let alone the Elysian cutting edge; when he had something to hide, it was obvious. He was taking the decision badly.

Kate said coldly, "That"s it. You"ve fulfilled your civic duty. You can go now."

Peer made his eyes big and brown. "Come back to the workshop with me. We can make love in the wood dust. Or just sit around and talk. Be happy, for no reason. It wouldn"t be so bad."

Kate shook her head and faded away. Peer felt a pang of disappointment, but not for long.

There"d be other times.

Thomas crouched in the bathroom window frame, halfway out of Anna"s flat. He knew that the edges of the brickwork would be sharper than razors, this time. He made his way across to the neighbor"s window, repeating the familiar movements precisely, though his hands and forearms wept blood. Insects crawled from the wounds and swarmed along his arm, over his face, into his mouth. He gagged and retched but he didn"t falter.

Down the drain pipe. From the alley below, he returned to the flat. Anna was by his side on the stairs. They danced again. Argued again. Struggled again.

"Think fast. Think fast."

He knelt over her, one knee to either side, took her face in his hands, then closed his eyes. He brought her head forward, then slammed it back against the wall. Five times. Then he held his fingers near her nostrils, without opening his eyes. He felt no exhalation.

Thomas was in his Frankfurt apartment, a month after the murder, dreaming. Anna stood by the bed. He reached out from beneath the blankets into the darkness, eyes closed. She took his hand in hers. With her other hand, she stroked the scar on his forearm tenderly, then she pushed one finger easily through his brittle skin and liquefying flesh. He thrashed against the sheets, but she wouldn"t let go; she dug with her fingers until she was gripping naked bone. When she snapped the ulna and radius, he convulsed with pain and ejaculated suddenly, everything his corrupt body contained departing in a single stream: dark clotted blood, maggots, pus, excrement.

Thomas was in his suburban mansion, sitting naked on the floor at the end of the hallway, startled. He shifted his right hand, and realized he was clutching a small vegetable knife. And he remembered why.

There were seven faint pink scars on his abdomen, seven digits, still legible, right-way-up as he gazed down at them: 1053901. He set to work recarving the first six.

He didn"t trust the clocks. The clocks lied. And although every incision he made in his skin healed perfectly, given time, for a long time it seemed he had managed to repair the numbers before they faded. He didn"t know what they measured, except their own steady ascent, but they seemed like a touchstone of something approaching sanity.

He recut the final digit as a two, then licked his fingers and wiped the blood away. At first it seeped back, but after five or six repetitions, the fresh wound stood clean and red against his pale skin. He pronounced the number several times. "One million, fifty three thousand, nine hundred and two."

Thomas climbed to his feet and walked down the hall. His body knew only the time he carved upon it; he never felt tired, or hungry, or even unclean-he could sleep or not sleep, eat or not eat, wash or not wash; it made no perceptible difference. His hair and fingernails never grew. His face never aged.

He stopped outside the library. He believed he"d methodically torn all the books to shreds several times, but on each occasion the debris had been cleared away and the books replaced, in his absence.

He walked into the room. He glanced at the terminal in the corner, the object of his deepest loathing; he"d never been able to damage it-smash, chip, bend or even scratch any part of its visible form. Indestructible or not, it had never functioned.

He wandered from shelf to shelf, but he"d read every book a dozen or more times. They"d all become meaningless. The library was well-stocked, and he"d studied the sacred texts of every faith; those few which, by some stretch of poetic licence, might have been said to describe his condition offered no prospect for changing it. In the distant past, he"d undergone a hundred feverish conversions; he"d ranted to every deity which humanity had ever postulated. If he"d stumbled on the one which existed-the one responsible for his damnation-his pleas had been to no avail.

The one thing he"d never expected after death was uncertainty. It had worried him deeply, at first: being cast into Hell, without so much as a glimpse of Heaven to taunt him, and a smug I-told-you-so from the faithful on their way up-let alone a formal trial before the God of his childhood, in which every doctrinal assertion he"d ever doubted was proclaimed as Absolute Truth, and every theological debate was resolved, once and for all.

But he"d since decided that if his condition was eternal and irreversible, it hardly mattered what the God who"d made it so was named.

Thomas sat cross-legged on the floor of the library, and tried to empty his mind.

"Think fast. Think fast."

Anna lay before him, bleeding and unconscious. Time slowed down. The moment he was approaching seemed impossible to face, impossible to traverse yet again-but he inched toward it, and he knew that he had no power to turn away.

He"d come to understand that all the visions of his own decay and mutilation were nothing but elaborate gestures of self-loathing. When his flesh was torn from his body it was a distraction-almost a relief. His suffering did not illuminate his crime; it drowned his thoughts in an anesthetic haze. It was a fantasy of power, a fantasy of retribution.

But here there was no balm of self-righteous pain, no pretence that his baroque tortures were working some alchemy of justice. He knelt over Anna, and could not weep, could not flinch, could not blind himself to the measure of what he"d done.
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