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Authors: Gregory Benford

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BOOK: Beyond Infinity
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Not that her friends felt that way. “You have to think precisely,” one of them said, “or life’s just a muddle.” But at the time Cley sensed life as swampy and sexy, so muddle seemed about right.

She had avoided the company of most young women in her Meta. They seemed more attached to the trappings of the world, most of them on their way to being trapped into an attachment, already approved and ordained by the Meta. For Meta reasons, of course: Types naturally attracted one another, as the conventional wisdom had it.

But Cley never got much of a buzz from the men of her supposed type. Nor from those in the nearby classes of human. She had an arranged meeting with a man of the Sigmas, once, which stood in her mind for the whole round-Cley-square-men puzzle. Sigmas were a rare intermediate rank of human who usually went nude. As she bandied nonsense with this one, she noticed that he had no apparent genitalia. There was nothing there at all, not even hair.

He caught her glance and said blandly, “It’s inside.”

“It?”

“The ancient apparatus had several parts, true, but ours is integrated into one shaft.” He smiled, as if describing a mildly interesting toy. “The Original design was not elegant. Um,
is
not…and the danger!” His eyebrows shot up.

“I thought the, uh, older gadget had at least two uses.”

“Of course, but we do not excrete through ours.”

“Uh, you…”

“Use the rear exit for both.”

Demurely put, she thought. “And the machinery comes out to play only at recess?”

He laughed quite easily. She was blushing and wished she could stop it, but such control was not available to Originals. “Only as needed, to prevent damage. The shaft generates the semen as well.”

She kept her eyes resolutely on his. “No need to have those messy add-ons dangling out in the air?”

“In you Originals that was a design feature to keep the semen cool. We simply adjust our blood flow, lowering the internal temperature in their vicinity.”

She kept a purely dispassionate expression on her face, afraid to let her lips move for fear they would lapse into a deranged leer, an O of astonishment, or something even worse. Shouting,
Show me your plumage!
for example. Or,
Design feature? Seems more like a bug.
But firmly fixing her face, she said instead, “Is it the same…otherwise?”

For the first time he displayed a knowing grin. “Larger.”

“Where have I heard that before?” Though in fact she hadn’t.

“To give us an advantage.”

“At?”

“Social and biological.” His tone was bland, but the grin stayed put.

“I’m just all atwitter.”

Absolutely flat: “You should be.”

“You’re too sure of yourself.”

“And you, too unsure.” With that he evaporated, turning away and into the spongelike crowd.

She felt put down, and also lucky, not to know what his next line was.

So it came to be with the other classes and orders of greater-than-thou humans. They were almost jaunty in their arid certainty that their variation on the grand theme was the best, or at least better than the first. Their men plainly felt that she should be bowled over by the chance to enjoy their obliquely referred-to talents, endowments, or superior wiring diagrams. Their women twisted luscious true-red mouths (no cosmetics!) in sour amusement, sure that she was an upstart tart who had wandered out of her rightful level.

Even if they were all scrupulously correct and had pots of advanced abilities, charm was not one of them. The best aspect of their company was that at least it was not addictive.

3
FIRST LOVE, OF SORTS

F
OR A LONG
time she was terribly aware that everyone knew.

They knew
, she imagined, that she, as an Original, was going through the primordial fever pitch of oncoming sexual urges and could do nothing about it. Helpless, swept down the hormonal river.

Plenty of Supra art suggested that they thought Naturals lived close to the deep, musky human sources. Cley didn’t feel all that swept away. Mostly the idea just embarrassed her.

Other times, she was proud of it. She wanted to shout in crowded rooms, “I’m following Nature! Watch!”—and then do nothing, just stand there brimming with primitivo life.

She never did that, of course.

What she did was an intellectual version, in a way, of declaring her Naturalness. Her Originality was steeped in ancient times, so she sought out and took an underling position at the Library of Life. In the Vaults.

They deserved the capital letter—vast, forbidding underground repositories of human history. Though the continents continued to grind and shove away at one another, the Ancients (a collective noun covering more time than linear thinking could encompass) had chosen belowground burial for their legacies. An unconscious repetition of the habit of burying the dead, probably. Primitivo.

And there, amid the claustro-corridors far from sunlight, she met Kurani. He loomed large—physically, mentally, in sheer presence.

Their first job was to unearth a slab that carried intricate data encoded in nuclear spins—a method Kurani termed “savage nouveaux.” The team of eight trained bright beams upon the flinty surface, and machines tracked across the slab, clicking, measuring, sucking up history.

As Kurani passed before one of the spotlights, she felt herself momentarily eclipsed by his shadow, a chill stealing over her suddenly prickly skin. He was, of course, bigger than anybody else in the team, his gait gliding. They had just opened a new Vault, and technology hovered in the air like flies. These microreaders would snap up any data dust that escaped the slab. Amid the buzz he skated on rippling legs, the Supra carriage gliding smooth and sure. Level, hydraulic, supple. “Are the indices noted?” he asked of the air.

Nobody seemed sure who was addressed, so she said, “Done already. Dates unclear—”

“A specialty scheme?”

“It seems so,” she managed.

He orbited toward her, his size bringing full night to shroud her. Craggy, heavy-eyed, the planes of him flat and solid. She wondered how they would rest against anything soft and comforting, and—and did not let herself think any further. “Why did so many of the Ancients think they should redate everything? That some birth or death or collapse of a civilization was so important?”

She ventured, adding to his sentence, “That of course, all human history would ever after be marked from that time.”

“Exactly.” His smile brought the sun back to her shadowed self.

“So what all those eras have in common is the automatic assumption that they are special.”

“Our fault as well.” He smiled slightly, turning his full-bore gaze upon her, and it was like a second spotlight in the narrow Vault.

“You think time begins with you?” It was not a very bright comment, but she had to say something—his eyes were not letting her slide away from them.

“When we meet people, we can’t see them—because we are so busy looking at ourselves to be sure we look all right, in case this should be an important somebody we are just meeting.” He smiled with one raised eyebrow, a common Supra signal that meant
idea jump coming up
. “The same with meeting deep history.”

To this avalanche of astonishing self-revelation (or was it, with the “we”?), she shot back, “Me, too. I’m thinking that I really suddenly
see
this person, when what I’m seeing is me reflected in their eyes. Me, proving yet again that I am quick and fascinating and that I
can
.”

And then, of course, she saw that he had been speaking aloud what he had noticed in her. Very Supra. But still…

He laughed, sunrise again. “So you almost envy people who are meeting you? Because they’re getting the full you?”

She nodded furiously, not giving herself enough time to see that she was sledding downhill without a clue. And picking up speed. Supras were notorious for jumping from public to personal and back again without warning, but this was over the top.
Okay, then…
“I keep wanting to meet somebody who is completely on, the way I can be maybe five minutes in a year.”

He turned just slightly, as if a shot had nearly winged him. “The way you are right now.”

How could he know so much? “Oh, this is just warming up.”

A lie, and his quizzical lift of a lip conveyed that he knew it. She was not just downsloping now, but plunging. Maybe big, black rocks up ahead, but…it felt glorious.

Still, she couldn’t let him have the last word, even an unspoken one. “I always wanted to be somebody,” she said. A pause. “Maybe I should have been more specific.”

To his credit—even if he did have a huge account with her already—he laughed. Loudly. Big.

The trick in talking to Supras, she saw, was to have anything to talk about that was wholly hers. To dress up the dumb stuff she had believed or done, to make it seem at least ardent and naive, not just boneheaded and Original.

Then, too, there was the toiling, earnest quality to every conversation. Some elegant Supras, far over the horizon somewhere, might spend their vast days on haute fluff, yes. But here in the Library all was earnest. This was the whole human heritage, after all. Even laughter had a purpose: relieving stress.

From him, weirdly, she learned to relax. To smooth the stress, at least. Her nerves jumped; she talked too fast, eyes darting. An Original working among Supras was a mouse foraging for seeds among elephant feet.

And there were the elephants. They supervised a lot of the heavy manual work. More supple than machines, savvy in the ways living things carried in their guts, they worked joyously, singing, dancing late into the night. Their conversations were a bit, well, ponderous. She worked with them and thought they were an excellent, unlikely creation. She was astonished to find that they were more ancient than humans, and not invented at all.

The team even went to an elephant dance, and there unwound. Kurani had methods of soothing the jangled nerveworks. Technical ones: inboards, flex triggers to the neuromusculars—tricks even the Supras found necessary. She was shocked to find he did not even know the chemical Original methods, some as ancient as alcohol. Those particular molecules locked agreeably into his receptors, he found, with a sizzle and a shake.

This broke the ice between them, and then the pattern was straightforward. Flirting became a second language between them. The inevitable came. Between breeds and castes there is always a certain fascination, longing looks cast both up and down the staircase of genetic gradient. He was the primary, she the satellite. He knew centuries; she was not full-grown. She learned to relax even more.

Right away he took command of the situation, of her. A Supra utterly at ease, a king. Deep bass words that rang like bells in her hollow heart. His face, a smile in it somewhere. So many nuances crowded into that classic expression, it was hard for her to make out the significance of a slightly arched eyebrow, the flashing of his earlobes as they recorded her image, smell, glandular secretions—all for a processor sitting somewhere maybe on the other side of the world, but feeding Kurani all he needed to know to assess the situation. To assess her.

He had her. They both knew it. So they then filled the rest of their first intimate meeting, and then a drink, and then a meal, with fodder talk. Facts, data, life trajectories sketched out in names of cities and schools and Meta connections. Sniffing.

All through it she felt as if he were saying something else, or rather
more
—that subtext flitted through his words like birds, lofty and quick, beings of the moment, gone if not glimpsed.

Uneasily and yet, she supposed, quite naturally, she sensed that he had arranged all this. Had stalked her, maybe. But in an offhand fashion, seemingly without effort, invisibly—and she knew then that he would have her.

In that moment she felt another fraction of her virginity inventory vanish, though there had been not a jot of the physical, no act beyond a lifted corner of his ample mouth. She could not take her eyes off that mouth.

He knew it, too. He reached across the table to take her hand. “Simple fingers.” His voice resonated deep notes down to her toes.

She blushed—another Natural response she made a note to get edited out immediately, if possible. She extended three of her tool augmentations through her two shortest fingers, saying lightly, “Not entirely.” The web sensors that wrapped around her thumbs went without saying.

“Do they feel as supple?” He watched her eyes, not the finger display.

“As…? How would I know?”

“You could try a repcant, you know. Experience what the higher adaptations are like.”

Yes, he had actually said “higher,” even though it was very rude. Or maybe because it was.

After the meal they walked the corridors, made narrow by Kurani. Their boots rang against the walls like snapped fingers, calling her to attention. The Library air hung clammy with time beyond knowing, humid with the pungent breath that she couldn’t quite get enough of. With him beside her the long avenues shrank, as though seen down the wrong end of a telescope. When he stopped and drew her to him, it was entirely like being gathered up. She felt herself blown up a mountainside, driven by an overpowering wind.

“Wait,” she said, and instantly disliked herself.

So much of him, so little of her. With a rich, velvety sound he slid his hand down her back. He asked where she lived, but it was a formality, of course. He could get it in an eye flick from his inboards. But she whispered the truth back to him in words gone moist. When they got to her spare, scrupulous room, she was paralyzed with dread and hope and fever dreams.

She sent a quick spurt to turn on the lights—dim—and he caught it, said no, and countered her signal to the room with an electromagnetic tweak. A command from the king.

His pushing through the door into the next room, into her private spaces, sent her fever rising thick and warm into her throat. He reached down and unslipped the side of her suit. It peeled off, and she said, “Prehistoric,” hoping it would come over as a joke, but as the word left her, she meant it.

BOOK: Beyond Infinity
12.45Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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