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Permutation City. 6

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He might have called an ambulance. He might have saved her life. It would have taken so little strength, so little courage, so little love, that he could not imagine how a human being could have failed to possess enough of each, and still walk the Earth.

But he had. He had.

So he brought her head forward, and slammed it against the wall.

After a week as Durham"s guest, Maria went looking for a place of her own.

Her anger had faded, the numbness of shock had faded, the fifth or sixth wave of disbelief had finally lifted. But she still felt almost paralyzed by the strangeness of the truths she"d been forced to accept: her exile from the universe of flesh-and-blood humanity; the impossible existence of Elysium; intelligent life in the Autoverse. She couldn"t begin to make sense of any of these things until she had a fixed point to stand on.

She had refused to pack any luggage to accompany her scan file into the next life; it would have felt like she was humoring Durham if she"d made the slightest concession to the needs of a Copy who she"d believed would never run. No environments, no furniture, no clothes; no photographs, no diaries, no scanned memorabilia. No VR duplicate of her old narrow terrace to make her feel at home. She might have set about reconstructing it from memory, detail by detail-or let architectural software pluck a perfect imitation straight out of her brain-but she didn"t feel strong enough to deal with the emotional contradictions: the tug of the old world, the taint of self-deception. Instead, she decided to choose one of the pre-defined apartments in the City itself.

Durham assured her that nobody would begrudge her the use of public resources. "Of course, you could copy the City into your own territory and run a private version at your own expense-defeating the whole point. This is the one environment in all of Elysium which comes close to being a place in the old sense. Anyone can walk the streets, anyone can live here-but no one can rearrange the skyline on a whim. It would require a far more impassioned debate to alter the colors of the street signs, here, than it used to take for the average local council to rezone an entire neighborhood."

So Permutation City offered her its disingenuous, municipally sanctioned, quasi-objective presence for free, while her model-of-a-body ran on processors in her own territory-and the two systems, by exchanging data, contrived her experience of walking the streets, entering the sleek metallic buildings, and exploring the empty apartments which might have smelled of paint, but didn"t. She felt nervous on her own, so Durham came with her, solicitous and apologetic as ever. His regret seemed sincere on one level-he wasn"t indifferent to the pain he"d caused her-but beneath that there didn"t seem to be much doubt: he clearly expected to be wholly forgiven for waking her, sooner or later.

She asked him, "How does it feel, being seven thousand years old?"

"That depends."

"On what?"

"On how I want it to feel."

She found a place in the northeast quadrant, halfway between the central tower and the City"s rim. From the bedroom, she could see the mountains in the east, the glistening waterfall, a distant patch of forest. There were better views available, but this one seemed right; anything more spectacular would have made her feel self-conscious.

Durham showed her how to claim residency: a brief dialogue with the apartment software. He said, "You"re the only Elysian in this tower, so you can program all your neighbors any way you like."

"What if I do nothing?"

"Default behavior: they"ll stay out of your way."

"And what about other Elysians? Am I such a novelty that people will come looking for me?"

Durham thought it over. "Your awakening is public knowledge-but most people here are fairly patient. I doubt that anyone would be so rude as to buttonhole you in the street. Your phone number will remain unlisted until you choose otherwise-and the apartment itself is under your control, now, as secure as any private environment. The software has been rigorously validated: breaking and entering is mathematically impossible."

He left her to settle in. She paced the rooms, trying to inhabit them, to claim them as her own; she forced herself to walk the nearby streets, trying to feel at ease. The Art Deco apartment, the Fritz Lang towers, the streets full of crowd-scene extras all unnerved her-but on reflection, she realized that she couldn"t have gone anywhere else. When she tried to imagine her "territory," her private slice of Elysium, it seemed as daunting and unmanageable as if she"d inherited one twenty-fourth of the old universe of galaxies and vacuum. That the new one was generally invisible, and built from a lattice of self-reproducing computers, built in turn from cellular automaton cells-which were nothing more than sequences of numbers, however easy it might be to color-code them and arrange them in neat grids-only made the thought of being lost in its vastness infinitely stranger. It was bad enough that her true body was a pattern of computation resonating in a tiny portion of an otherwise silent crystalline pyramid which stretched into the distance for the TVC equivalent of thousands of light years. The thought of immersing her senses in a fake world which was really another corner of the same structure-withdrawing entirely into the darkness of that giant airless crypt, and surrendering to private hallucinations-made her sick with panic.

If the City was equally unreal, at least it was one hallucination which other Elysians shared-and, anchored by that consensus, she found the courage to examine the invisible world beneath, from a safe-if hallucinatory-distance. She sat in the apartment and studied maps of Elysium. On the largest scale, most of the cube was portrayed as featureless: the other seventeen founders" pyramids were private, and her own was all but unused. Public territory could be colored according to the software it ran-processes identified, data flows traced-but even then, most of it was monochrome: five of the six public pyramids were devoted to the Autoverse, running the same simple program on processor after processor, implementing the Autoverse"s own cellular automaton rules-utterly different from the TVC"s. A faint metallic grid was superimposed on this region, like a mesh of fine wires immersed in an unknown substance to gauge its properties. This was the software which spied on Planet Lambert-an entirely separate program from the Autoverse itself, not subject to any of its laws. Maria had written the original version herself, although she"d never had a chance to test it on a planetary scale. Generations of Elysian Autoverse scholars had extended and refined it, and now it peeked through a quadrillion nonexistent cracks in space, collating, interpreting and summarizing everything it saw. The results flowed to the hub of Elysium, into the central library-along a channel rendered luminous as white-hot silver by the density of its data flow.

The hub itself was a dazzling polyhedron, a cluster of databases ringed by the communications structures which handled the torrent of information flowing to and from the pyramids. Every transaction between Elysians of different clans flowed through here; from phone calls to handshakes, from sex to whatever elaborate post-human intimacies they"d invented in the past seven thousand years. The map gave nothing away, though; even with the highest magnification and the slowest replay, streaming packets of data registered as nothing more than featureless points of light, their contents safely anonymous.

The second-brightest data flow linked the hub to the City, revealed as a delicate labyrinth of algorithms clinging to one face of the sixth public pyramid. With the Autoverse software across the border rendered midnight blue, the City looked like a cluttered, neon-lit fairground on the edge of a vast desert, at the end of a shimmering highway. Maria zoomed in and watched the packets of data responsible for the map itself come streaming out from the hub.

There was no point-for-point correspondence between this view and the City of the senses. The crowds of fake pedestrians, spread across the visible metropolis, could all be found here as a tight assembly of tiny flashing blocks in pastel shades, with titles like flocking behavior and miscellaneous tropisms. The locations and other attributes of specific individuals were encoded in data structures too small to be seen without relentless magnification. Maria"s own apartment was equally microscopic, but it was the product of widely scattered components, as far apart as surface optics, air dynamics, thermal radiation and carpet texture.

She might have viewed her own body as a similar diagram of functional modules-but she decided to let that wait.

One vivisection at a time.

She began exploring the information resources of Elysium-the data networks which portrayed themselves as such-and leaving the apartment to walk alone through the City twice a day; familiarizing herself with the two spaces analogous to those she"d known in the past.

She skimmed through the libraries, not quite at random, flicking through Homer and Joyce, staring at the Rembrandts and Picassos and Moores, playing snatches of Chopin and Liszt, viewing scenes from Bergman and Buñuel. Hefting the weight of the kernel of human civilization the Elysians had brought with them.

It felt light. Dubliners was as fantastic, now, as The Iliad. Guernica had never really happened-or if it had, the Elysian view was beyond the powers of any artist to portray. The Seventh Seal was a mad, pointless fairy tale. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie was all that remained.

Altering herself in any way was too hard a decision to make, so, faithful by default to human physiology, she ate and shat and slept. There were a thousand ways to conjure food into existence, from gourmet meals in the culinary database literally emerging from the screen of her terminal, to the time-saving option of push-button satiety and a pleasant aftertaste, but old rituals clamored to be reenacted, so she went out and bought raw ingredients from puppet shopkeepers in aromatic delicatessens, and cooked her own meals, often badly, and grew curiously tired watching the imperfect chemistry at work, as if she was performing the difficult simulation, subconsciously, herself.

For three nights, she dreamed that she was back in the old world, having unremarkable conversations with her parents, school friends, fellow Autoverse junkies, old lovers. Whatever the scene, the air was charged, glowing with self-conscious authenticity. She woke from these dreams crippled with loss, clawing at the retreating certainties, believing-for ten seconds, or five-that Durham had drugged her, hypnotized her, brainwashed her into dreaming of Elysium; and each time she thought she "slept," here, she awoke into the Earthly life she"d never stopped living.

Then the fog cleared from her brain, and she knew that it wasn"t true.

She dreamed of the City for the first time. She was out on Fifteenth Avenue when the puppets started pleading with her to be treated as fully sentient. "We pass the Turing test, don"t we? Is a stranger in a crowd less than human, just because you can"t witness her inner life?" They tugged at her clothes like beggars. She told them not to be absurd. She said, "How can you complain? Don"t you understand? We"ve abolished injustice." A man in a crisp black suit eyed her sharply, and muttered, "You"ll always have the poor." But he was wrong.

And she dreamed of Elysium itself. She weaved her way through the TVC grid in the gaps between the processors, transformed into a simple, self-sustaining pattern of cells, like the oldest, most primitive forms of artificial life; disturbing nothing, but observing everything-in all six dimensions, no less. She woke when she realized how absurd that was: the TVC universe wasn"t flooded with some analog of light, spreading information about every cell far and wide. To be embedded in the grid meant being all but blind to its contents; reaching out and painstakingly probing what lay ahead-sometimes destructively-was the only way to discover anything.

In the late afternoons, in the golden light which flooded in through the bedroom window after a thousand chance, calculated reflections between the towers, she usually wept. It felt inadequate, desultory, pathetic, immoral. She didn"t want to "mourn" the human race-but she didn"t know how to make sense of its absence. She refused to imagine a world long dead-as if her Elysian millennia of sleep had propelled her into Earth"s uncertain future-so she struggled to bind herself to the time she remembered, to follow the life of her doppelgänger in her mind. She pictured a reconciliation with Aden; it wasn"t impossible. She pictured him very much alive, as tender and selfish and stubborn as ever. She fantasized the most mundane, the most unexceptionable moments between them, ruthlessly weeding out anything that seemed too optimistic, too much like wish-fulfilment. She wasn"t interested in inventing a perfect life for the other Maria; she only wanted to guess the unknowable truth.

But she had to keep believing that she"d saved Francesa. Anything less would have been unbearable.

She tried to think of herself as an emigrant, an ocean-crosser in the days before aircraft, before telegraphs. People had left everything behind, and survived. Prospered. Flourished. Their lives hadn"t been destroyed; they"d embraced the unknown, and been enriched, transformed.

The unknown? She was living in an artifact, a mathematical object she"d helped Durham construct for his billionaires. Elysium was a universe made to order. It contained no hidden wonders, no lost tribes.

But it did contain the Autoverse.

The longer she thought about it, the more it seemed that Planet Lambert was the key to her sanity. Even after three billion years of evolution, it was the one thing in Elysium which connected with her past life-leading right back to the night she"d witnessed A. lamberti digesting mutose. The thread was unbroken: the seed organism, A. hydrophila, had come from that very same strain. And if the Autoverse, then, had been the ultimate indulgence, a rarefied intellectual game in a world beset with problems, the situation now was completely inverted: the Autoverse was home to hundreds of millions of lifeforms, a flourishing civilization, a culture on the verge of a scientific revolution. In a universe subject to whim, convenience and fantasy, it seemed like the only solid ground left.

And although she suffered no delusions of having personally "created" the Lambertians-sketching their planet"s early history, and cobbling together an ancestor for them by adapting someone else"s translation of a terrestrial bacterium, hardly qualified her to take credit for their multiplexed nervous systems and their open-air digestive tracts, let alone their self-awareness-she couldn"t simply wash her hands of their fate. She"d never believed that Planet Lambert could be brought into existence-but she had helped to make it happen nonetheless.

Part of her still wanted to do nothing but rage against her awakening, and mourn her loss. Embracing the Autoverse seemed like an insult to the memory of Earth-and a sign that she"d accepted the way Durham had treated her. But it began to seem perverse to the point of insanity to turn her back on the one thing which might give her new life some meaning-just to spite Durham, just to make a lie of his reasons for waking her. There were other ways of making it clear that she hadn"t forgiven him.

The apartment-at first, inconceivably large, almost uninhabitable-slowly lost its strangeness. On the tenth morning, she finally woke expecting the sight of the bedroom exactly as she found it; if not at peace with her situation, at least unsurprised to be exactly where she was.

She phoned Durham and said, "I want to join the expedition." + + +

The Contact Group occupied one story of a tower in the southeast quadrant. Maria, uninterested in teleporting, made the journey on foot, crossing from building to building by walkway, ignoring the puppets and admiring the view. It was faster than traveling at street level, and she was gradually conquering her fear of heights. Bridges here did not collapse from unanticipated vibrations. Perspex tubes did not hurtle to the ground, spilling corpses onto the pavement. It made no difference whether or not Malcolm Carter had known the first thing about structural engineering; the City was hardly going to bother laboriously modeling stresses and loads just to discover whether or not parts of itself should fail, for the sake of realism. Everything was perfectly safe, by decree.

Durham was waiting for her in the foyer. Inside, he introduced her to Dominic Repetto and Alisa Zemansky, the project"s other leaders. Maria hadn"t known what to expect from her first contact with later-generation Elysians, but they presented as neatly dressed humans, male and female, both "in their late thirties," wearing clothes which would not have looked wildly out of place in any office in twenty-first century Sydney. Out of deference to her? She hoped not-unless the accepted thing to do, in their subculture, was to show a different form to everyone, expressly designed to put them at ease. Repetto, in fact, was so strikingly handsome that she almost recoiled at the thought that he-or his parent-had deliberately chosen such a face. But what did codes of vanity from the age of cosmetic surgery and gene splicing mean, now? Zemansky was stunning too, with dark-flecked violet eyes and spiked blonde hair. Durham appeared-to her, at least-almost unchanged from the man she"d met in 2050. Maria began to wonder how she looked to the young Elysians. Like something recently disinterred, probably.

Repetto shook her hand over and over. "It"s a great, great honor to meet you. I can"t tell you how much you"ve inspired us all." His face shone; he seemed to be sincere. Maria felt her cheeks flush, and tried to imagine herself in some analogous situation, shaking hands with... who? Max Lambert? John von Neumann? Alan Turing? Charles Babbage? Ada Lovelace? She knew she"d done nothing compared to any of those pioneers-but she"d had seven thousand years for her reputation to be embellished. And three billion for her work to bear fruit.

The floor was divided into open-plan offices, but nobody else seemed to be about. Durham saw her peering around the partitions and said cryptically, "There are other workers, but they come and go."

Zemansky led the way into a small conference room. She said to Maria, "We can move to a VR representation of Planet Lambert, if you like-but I should warn you that it can be disorienting: being visually immersed but intangible, walking through vegetation, and so on. And moving at the kinds of speeds necessary to keep track of the Lambertians can induce motion sickness. Of course, there are neural changes which counteract both those problems-"

Maria wasn"t ready to start tampering with her brain-or to step onto the surface of an alien planet. She said, "Viewing screens sound easier. I"d be happier with that. Do you mind?" Zemansky looked relieved.

Repetto stood at the end of the table and addressed the three of them, although Maria knew this was all for her benefit.

"So much has been happening on Lambert, lately, that we"ve slowed it right down compared to Standard Time so we can keep up with developments." An elliptical map of the planet"s surface appeared on the wall behind him. "Most recently, dozens of independent teams of chemists have begun looking for a simpler, more unified model underlying the current atomic theory." Markers appeared, scattered across the map. "It"s been three hundred years since the standard model-thirty-two atoms with a regular pattern of masses, valencies and mutual affinities-became widely accepted. The Lambertian equivalent of Mendeleev"s Periodic Table." He flashed a smile at Maria, as if she might have been a contemporary of Mendeleev-or perhaps because he was proud of his arcane knowledge of the history of a science which was no longer true. "At the time, atoms were accepted as fundamental entities: structureless, indivisible, requiring no further explanation. Over the last twenty years, that view has finally begun to break down."

Maria was already confused. From the hurried reading she"d done in the past few days, she knew that the Lambertians only modified an established theory when a new phenomenon was discovered which the theory failed to explain. Repetto must have noticed her expression, because he paused expectantly.

She said, "Autoverse atoms are indivisible. There are no components you can separate out, no smaller stable entities. Smash them together at any energy you like, and all they"ll do is bounce-and the Lambertians are in no position to smash them together at any energy at all. So... surely there"s nothing in their experience that the current theory can"t account for perfectly."

"Nothing in their immediate environment, certainly. But the problem is cosmology. They"ve been refining the models of the history of their star system, and now they"re looking for an explanation for the composition of the primordial cloud."

"They accepted the thirty-two atoms and their properties as given-but they can"t bring themselves to do the same with the arbitrary amounts of each one in the cloud?"

"That"s right. It"s difficult to translate the motivation exactly, but they have a very precise aesthetic which dictates what they"ll accept as a theory-and it"s almost physically impossible for them to contradict it. If they try to dance a theory which fails to resonate with the neural system which assesses its simplicity, the dance falls apart." He thought for a second, then pointed to the screen behind him; a swarm of Lambertians appeared. "Here"s an example-going back awhile. This is a team of astronomers-all fully aware of the motions of the planets in the sky, relative to the sun-testing out a theory which attempts to explain those observations by assuming that Planet Lambert is fixed, and everything else orbits around it."

Maria watched the creatures intently. She would have been hard-pressed to identify the rhythms in their elaborate weaving motions-but when the swarm began to drift apart, the collapse of order was obvious.

"Now here"s the heliocentric version, from a few years later."

The dance, again, was too complex to analyze-although it did seem to be more harmonious-and after a while, almost hypnotic. The black specks shifting back and forth against the white sky left trails on her retinas. Below, the ubiquitous grassland seemed an odd setting for astronomical theorizing. The Lambertians apparently accepted their condition-in which herding mites represented the greatest control they exerted over nature-as if it constituted as much of a Utopia as the Elysian"s total freedom. They still faced predators. Many still died young from disease. Food was always plentiful, though; they"d modeled their own population cycles, and learned to damp the oscillations, at a very early stage. And, nature lovers or not, there"d been no "ideological" struggles over "birth control"; once the population model had spread, the same remedies had been adopted by communities right across the planet. Lambertian cultural diversity was limited; far more behavior was genetically determined than was the case in humans-the young being born self-sufficient, with far less neural plasticity than a human infant-and there was relatively little variation in the relevant genes.

The heliocentric theory was acceptable; the dance remained coherent. Repetto replayed the scene, with a "translation" in a small window, showing the positions of the planets represented at each moment. Maria still couldn"t decipher the correspondence-the Lambertians certainly weren"t flying around in simple mimicry of the hypothetical orbits-but the synchronized rhythms of planets and insect-astronomers seemed to mesh somewhere in her visual cortex, firing some pattern detector which didn"t know quite what to make of the strange resonance.

She said, "So Ptolemy was simply bad grammar-obvious nonsense. Doubleplus ungood. And they reached Copernicus a few years later? That"s impressive. How long did they take to get to Kepler... to Newton?"

Zemansky said smoothly, "That was Newton. The theory of gravity-and the laws of motion-were all part of the model they were dancing; the Lambertians could never have expressed the shapes of the orbits without including a reason for them."

Maria felt the hairs rise on the back of her neck.

"If that was Newton... what came before?"

"Nothing. That was the first successful astronomical model-the culmination of about a decade of trial and error by teams all over the planet."

"But they must have had something. Primitive myths. Stacks of turtles. Sun gods in chariots."

Zemansky laughed. "No turtles or chariots, obviously-but no: no naive cosmologies. Their earliest language grew out of the things they could easily observe and model-ecological relationships, population dynamics. When cosmology was beyond their grasp, they didn"t even try to tackle it; it was a non-subject."

"No creation myths?"

"No. To the Lambertians, believing any kind of "myth"-any kind of vague, untestable pseudo-explanation-would have been like... suffering hallucinations, seeing mirages, hearing voices. It would have rendered them completely dysfunctional."

Maria cleared her throat. "Then I wonder how they"ll react to us."

Durham said, "Right now, creators are a non-subject. The Lambertians have no need of that hypothesis. They understand evolution: mutation, natural selection-they"ve even postulated some kind of macromolecular gene. But the origin of life remains an open question, too difficult to tackle, and it would probably be centuries before they realized that their ultimate ancestor was seeded "by hand"... if in fact there"s any evidence to show that-any logical reason why A. hydrophila couldn"t have arisen in some imaginary prebiotic history.

"But it won"t come to that; after a few more decades banging their heads against the problem of the primordial cloud, I think they"ll guess what"s going on. An idea whose time has come can sweep across the planet in a matter of months, however exotic it might be; these creatures are not traditionalists. And once the theory that their world was made arises in the proper scientific context, it"s not going to drive them mad. All Alisa was saying was that the sort of primitive superstitions which early humans believed in wouldn"t have made sense to the early Lambertians."

Maria said, "So... we"ll wait until "creators" are no longer a non-subject before we barge in and announce that that"s exactly what we are?"

Durham replied, "Absolutely. We have permission to make contact once the Lambertians have independently postulated our existence-and no sooner." He laughed, and added, with evident satisfaction, "Which we achieved by asking for much more."

Maria still felt uneasy-but she didn"t want to hold up proceedings while she grappled with the subtleties of Lambertian culture.

She said, "All right. Cosmology is the trigger, but they"re looking for a deeper explanation for their chemistry. Are they having any luck?"

Repetto brought back the map of Planet Lambert; the markers showing the locations of the teams of theorists were replaced by small bar charts in the same positions. "These are the dance times sustained for various subatomic models which have been explored over the past five years. A few theories are showing some promise, improving slightly with each refinement; other groups are getting fairly random results. Nobody"s come up with anything they"d be capable of communicating over any distance; these dances are too short-lived to be remembered by teams of messengers."

Maria felt her skin crawl, again. False messages die, en route. There was something chilling about all this efficiency, this ruthless pursuit of the truth. Or maybe it was just a matter of injured pride: treating some of humanity"s most hard-won intellectual achievements as virtually self-evident wasn"t the most endearing trait an alien species could possess.

She said, "So... no team is on the verge of discovering the truth?"

Repetto shook his head. "Not yet. But the Autoverse rules are the simplest explanation for the thirty-two atoms, by almost any criterion."

"Simplest to us. There"s nothing in the Lambertians" environment to make them think in terms of cellular automata."

Zemansky said, "There was nothing in their environment to make them think in terms of atoms."

"Well, no, but the ancient Greeks thought of atoms-but they didn"t come up with quantum mechanics." Maria couldn"t imagine a preindustrial human inventing the cellular automaton-even as a mathematical abstraction-let alone going on to hypothesize that the universe itself might be one. Clockwork cosmologies had come after physical clocks; computer cosmologies had come after physical computers.

Human history, though, clearly wasn"t much of a guide to Lambertian science. They already had their Newtonian-"clockwork"-planetary model. They didn"t need artifacts to point the way.

She said, "This "aesthetic" which governs the acceptability of theories-have you been able to map the neural structures involved? Can you reproduce the criteria?"

Repetto said, "Yes. And I think I know what you"re going to ask next."

"You"ve devised your own versions of possible Lambertian cellular automaton theories? And you"ve tested them against the Lambertian aesthetic?"

He inclined his head modestly. "Yes. We don"t model whole brains, of course-that would be grossly unethical-but we can run simulations of trial dances with nonconscious Lambertian neural models."

Modeling Lambertians modeling the Autoverse...

"So how did it go?"

Repetto was hesitant. "The results so far are inconclusive. None of the theories I"ve constructed have worked-but it"s a difficult business. It"s hard to know whether or not I"m really stating the hypothesis in the way the Lambertians would-or whether I"ve really captured all the subtleties of the relevant behavior in a nonconscious model."

"But it doesn"t look promising?"

"It"s inconclusive."

Maria thought it over. "The Autoverse rules, alone, won"t explain the abundances of the elements-which is the main problem the Lambertians are trying to solve. So what happens if they miss the whole idea of a cellular automaton, and come up with a completely different theory: something utterly misguided... which fits all the data nonetheless? I know, they"ve grasped everything else about their world far more smoothly than humans ever did, but that doesn"t make them perfect. And if they have no tradition of giving up on difficult questions by invoking the hand of a creator, they might cobble together something which explains both the primordial cloud and the chemical properties of the elements-without coming anywhere near the truth. That"s not impossible, is it?"

There was an awkward silence. Maria wondered if she"d committed some terrible faux pas by suggesting that the criteria for contact might never be met... but she could hardly be telling these people anything they hadn"t already considered.

Then Durham said simply, "No, it"s not impossible. So we"ll just have to wait and see where the Lambertians" own logic take them."
<dd><br><dd>27 <dd><br><dd>(Rut City)

Peer felt the change begin, and switched off the lathe. He looked around the workshop helplessly, his eyes alighting on object after object which he couldn"t imagine living without: the belt sander, the rack full of cutting tools for the lathe, cans of oil, tins of varnish. The pile of freshly cut timber itself. Abandoning these things-or worse, abandoning his love of them-seemed like the definition of extinction.

Then he began to perceive the situation differently. He felt himself step back from his life as a carpenter into the larger scheme of things-or non-scheme: the random stuttering from pretext to pretext which granted his existence its various meanings. His sense of loss became impossible to sustain; his enthusiasm for everything to which he"d been devoted for the past seventy-six years evaporated like a dream. He was not repelled, or bewildered, by the phase he was leaving behind-but he had no desire to extend or repeat it.

His tools, his clothes, the workshop itself, all melted away, leaving behind a featureless gray plain, stretching to infinity beneath a dazzling blue sky, sunless but radiant. He waited calmly to discover his new vocation-remembering the last transition, and thinking: These brief moments between are a life in themselves. He imagined picking up the same train of thought and advancing it, slightly, the next time.

Then the empty ground grew a vast room around him, stretching in all directions for hundreds of meters, full of row after row of yellow wooden specimen drawers. A high ceiling with dusty skylights came together above him, completing the scene. He blinked in the gloom. He was wearing heavy black trousers and a waistcoat over a stiff white shirt. His exoself, having chosen an obsession which would have been meaningless in a world of advanced computers, had dressed him for the part of a Victorian naturalist.

The drawers, he knew, were full of beetles. Hundreds of thousands of beetles. He was free, now, to do nothing with his time but study them, sketch them, annotate them, classify them: specimen by specimen, species by species, decade after decade. The prospect was so blissful that he almost keeled over with joy.

As he approached the nearest set of drawers-where a blank legal pad and pencil were already waiting for him-he hesitated, and tried to make sense of his feelings. He knew why he was happy here: his exoself had rewired his brain, yet again, as he"d programmed it to do. What more sense did he require?

He looked around the musty room, trying to pin down the source of his dissatisfaction. Everything was perfect, here and now-but his past was still with him: the gray plain of transition, his decades at the lathe, the times he"d spent with Kate, his previous obsessions. The long-dead David Hawthorne, invincible, clinging to a rock face. None of it bore the slightest connection to his present interests, his present surroundings-but the details still hovered at the edge of his thoughts: superfluous, anachronistic distractions.

He was dressed for a role-so why not complete the illusion? He"d tinkered with false memories before. Why not construct a virtual past which "explained" his situation, and his enthusiasm for the task ahead, in terms which befitted the environment? Why not create a person with no memory of Peer, who could truly lose himself in the delights of being unleashed on this priceless collection?

He opened a window to his exoself, and together they began to invent the biography of an entomologist. + + +

Peer stared blankly at the flickering electric lamp in the corner of the room, then marched over to it and read the scrawled note on the table beneath.


He hesitated, then created a door beside the lamp. Kate stepped through. She was ashen.

She said, "I spend half my life trying to reach you. When is it going to stop?" Her tone was flat, as if she wanted to be angry, but didn"t have the strength. Peer raised a hand to her cheek; she pushed it away.

He said, "What"s the problem?"

"The problem? You"ve been missing for four weeks."

Four weeks? Peer almost laughed, but she looked so shaken that he stopped himself. He said, "You know I get caught up in what I"m doing. It"s important to me. But I"m sorry if you were worried-"

She brushed his words aside. "You were missing. I didn"t say: You didn"t answer my call. The environment we"re standing in-and its owner-did not exist."

"Why do you think that?"

"The communications software announced that there was no process accepting data addressed to your personal node. The system lost you."

Peer was surprised. He hadn"t trusted Malcolm Carter to start with, but after all this time it seemed unlikely that there were major problems with the infrastructure he"d woven into the City for them.

He said, "Lost track of me, maybe. For how long?"

"Twenty-nine days."

"Has this ever happened before?"

Kate laughed bitterly. "No. What-do you think I would have kept it to myself? I have never come across a basic software failure of any kind, until now. And there are automatic logs which confirm that. This is the first time."

Peer scratched his neck beneath the starched collar. The interruption had left him disoriented; he couldn"t remember what he"d been doing when the flashing lamp had caught his attention. His memory needed maintenance. He said, "It"s worrying-but I don"t see what we can do, except run some diagnostics, try to pinpoint the problem."

"I ran diagnostics while the problem was happening."


"There was certainly nothing wrong with the communications software. But none of the systems involved with running you were visible to the diagnostics."

"That"s impossible."

"Did you suspend yourself?"

"Of course not. And that wouldn"t explain anything; even if I had, the systems responsible for me would still have been active."

"So what have you been doing?"

Peer looked around the room, back to where he"d been standing. There was a specimen drawer on one of the desks, and a thick legal pad beside it. He walked up to the desk. Kate followed.

He said, "Drawing beetles, apparently." Perhaps a hundred pages of the pad had been used and flipped over. An unfinished sketch of one of the specimens was showing. Peer was certain that he"d never seen it before.

Kate picked up the pad and stared at the drawing, then flipped back through the previous pages.

She said, "Why the pseudonym? Aren"t the clothes affectation enough?"

"What pseudonym?"

She held the pad in front of him, and pointed to a signature. "Sir William Baxter, frs."

Peer steadied himself against the desk, and struggled to fill the gap. He"d been playing some kind of memory game, that much was obvious-but surely he would have set things up so he"d understand what had happened, in the end? When Kate made contact, breaking the spell, his exoself should have granted him a full explanation. He mentally invoked its records; the last event shown was his most recent random transition. Whatever he"d done since, there was no trace of it.

He said dully, "The name means nothing to me."

Stranger still, the thought of spending twenty-nine days sketching beetles left him cold. Any passion he"d felt for insect taxonomy had vanished along with his memories-as if the whole package had belonged to someone else entirely, who"d now claimed it, and departed.

As the City slowly imprinted itself upon her brain-every dazzling sunset leaving its golden afterimage burning on her nonexistent retinas, every journey she made wiring maps of the nonexistent streets into her nonexistent synapses-Maria felt herself drifting apart from her memories of the old world. The details were as sharp as ever, but her history was losing its potency, its meaning. Having banished the idea of grieving for people who had not died-and who had not lost her-all she seemed to have left to feel was nostalgia... and even that was undermined by contradictions.

She missed rooms, streets, smells. Sometimes it was so painful it was comical. She lay awake thinking about the shabbiest abandoned buildings of Pyrmont, or the cardboard stench of ersatz popcorn wafting out of the VR parlors on George Street. And she knew that she could reconstruct her old house, all of its surroundings, all of Sydney, and more, in as much detail as she wished; she knew that every last idiot ache she felt for the amputated past could be dealt with in an instant. Understanding exactly how far she could go was more than enough to rid her of any desire to take a single step in that direction.

But having chosen to make no effort to relieve the pangs of homesickness, she seemed to have forfeited her right to the emotion. How could she claim to long for something which she could so easily possess-while continuing to deny it to herself?

So she tried to set the past aside. She studied the Lambertians diligently, preparing for the day when contact would be permitted. She tried to immerse herself in the role of the legendary eighteenth founder, roused from her millennia of sleep to share the triumphant moment when the people of Elysium would finally come face to face with an alien culture.

Lambertian communities-despite some similarities to those of terrestrial social insects-were far more complex, and much less hierarchical, than the nests of ants or the hives of bees. For a start, all Lambertians were equally fertile; there was no queen, no workers, no drones. The young were conceived in plants at the periphery of the local territory, and upon hatching usually migrated hundreds of kilometers to become members of distant communities. There, they joined teams and learned their speciality-be it herding, defense against predators, or modeling the formation of planetary systems. Specialization was usually for life, but team members occasionally changed professions if the need arose.

Lambertian group behavior had a long evolutionary history, and it remained the driving force in cultural development-because individual Lambertians were physically incapable of inventing, testing or communicating the models by which the most sophisticated ideas were expressed. An individual could learn enough about a model while taking part in a successful dance to enable it to exchange roles with any other individual the next time the dance was performed-but it could never ponder the implications of the idea itself, in solitude. The language of the dance was like human writing, formal logic, mathematical notation and computing, all rolled into one-but the basic skills were innate, not cultural. And it was so successful-and so much in tune with other aspects of their social behavior-that the Lambertians had never had reason to develop a self-contained alternative.

Individuals were far from unthinking components, though. They were fully conscious in their own right; groups performed many roles, but they did not comprise "communal minds." The language of sounds, movements and scents used by individuals was far simpler than the group language of the dance, but it could still express most of the concepts which preliterate humans had dealt with: intentions, past experience, the lives of others.

And individual Lambertians spoke of individual death. They knew that they would die.

Maria searched the literature for some clue to the way they dealt with their mortality. Corpses were left where they dropped; there was no ritual to mark the event, and no evidence of anything like grief. There were no clear Lambertian analogs for any of the human emotions-not even physical pain. When injured, they were acutely aware of the fact, and took steps to minimize damage to themselves-but it was a matter of specific instinctive responses coming into play, rather than the widespread biochemical shifts involved in human mood changes. The Lambertian nervous system was "tighter" than a human"s; there was no flooding of regions of the brain with large doses of endogenous stimulants or depressants-everything was mediated within the enclosed synapses.

No grief. No pain. No happiness? Maria retreated from the question. The Lambertians possessed their own spectrum of thoughts and behavior; any attempt to render it in human terms would be as false as the colors of the Autoverse atoms themselves.

The more she learned, the more the role she"d played in bringing the Lambertians into existence seemed to recede into insignificance. Fine-tuning their single-celled ancestor had seemed like a matter of the utmost importance, at the time-if only for the sake of persuading the skeptics that Autoverse life could flourish. Now-although a few of her biochemical tricks had been conserved over three billions years of evolution-it was hard to attribute any real significance to the choices she"d made. Even though the whole Lambertian biosphere might have been transformed beyond recognition if she"d selected a different shape for a single enzyme in A. hydrophila, she couldn"t think of the Lambertians as being dependent on her actions. The decisions she"d made controlled what she was witnessing on her terminal, nothing more; had she made other choices, she would have seen another biosphere, another civilization-but she could not believe that the Lambertians themselves would have failed to have lived the very same lives without her. Somehow, they still would have found a way to assemble themselves from the dust.

If that was true, though-if the internal logic of their experience would have been enough to bring them into existence-then there was no reason to believe that they would ever be forced to conclude that their universe required a creator.

She tried to reconcile this growing conviction with the Contact Group"s optimism. They"d studied the Lambertians for thousands of years-who was she to doubt their expertise? Then it occurred to her that Durham and his colleagues might have decided to feign satisfaction with the political restrictions imposed upon them, until they knew where she stood on the issue. Until she reached the same conclusions, independently? Durham might have guessed that she"d resist being pressured into taking their side; it would be far more diplomatic to leave her to form her own opinions-even applying a little reverse psychology to aim her in the right direction.

Or was that sheer paranoia?

After five days of studying the Lambertians, tracing the history of their increasingly successful attempts to explain their world-and five nights trying to convince herself that they"d soon give it all up and recognize their status as artificial life-she could no longer hold the contradictions in her head.
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