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Authors: Gregory Benford

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BOOK: Beyond Infinity
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“So you are,” he answered, moving all over her.

Stress fell away like a filmy dress. As if she had one on.

The next thing she felt was his hot breath between her legs, and an answering “Oh” from inside her.
Oh, oh, oh, yes, yearning to be a zero. I’ll be O and you be…

A fraction, soon gone. Well spent.

4
THE SEMI-INFINITE LIBRARY

S
HE WENT TO
work in his division. There was a useful role even for Originals.

The essential trait all types of humans relied on was time binding. To work in the Library meant laboring in the shadow of time itself, after all. So to get a grasp at alltook knowing how humans saw the word. Humans of whatever vintage.

Her days passed in an aura of sultry air, short of breath, high, excited trills echoing in her. The work was good. At meals she ate with many varieties of humans, though here they were mostly Supras. She enjoyed the food and the talk, and sometimes she was allowed to speak.

She caught fragments of the unspoken, which seemed to comprise most of what was getting said. She caught the phrase “…manages to be naked with her clothes on…” About
her
, the verb signifier said. It came with clear Supra uptones but was obliquely a compliment. Or she took it so.

So she worked to fit in. This was easier than she had expected.

The span of a single life was quite great, taking into account the contacts with the old and young, who extended one’s reach fore and aft in time. Even among the ancients, in fragile bodies unaided by technology, the span was a few centuries.

Now it was many millennia. Prehistory, back when life was astonishingly short—a few decades!—still had spanned ten thousand generations. In years, that was not much. In generations, it was respectable, comparable to the lifetimes of the advanced societies, where people lived for eons and had plenty of time to get bored with their relatives. With their friends. With, sometimes, everything—exit, stage left, in haste.

Prehistory had been the great shaping time of primordial, first-form humanity—the Naturals. No surprise, then, that Naturals’ own opinions about what was important in life had been molded far more by prehistory than by their trivial experience of early, simple civilization.

From that vast early era Naturals got their basic perceptions. Their leaders, who understood this, rang down through their history. Naturals felt best in groups of a hundred or so, and better if only a few dozen were involved. Hunting parties had been about that size, for the long-extinct big game. Many important institutions were of the same rough scale: the ancient village, governing councils of nations, commanding elites of vast armies, teams playing games, orchestras, family fests. All human enterprises that worked were of that size, and nearly everything that failed was not.

So the Library had to be organized using this bedrock wisdom. Otherwise, it would fail.

Civilization had long maintained the appearance of such communal closeness, in small units people could manage. Societies had evolved that could stack such social nuggets into vaster, larger arrays. A squad of ten worked well together and, united with ten other squads, could do far more. Those ten who commanded squads could then meet in a room and make up a squad themselves, and so on up a pyramid that could sum the labors of billions.

All this was built on the firm foundation of primate bonding patterns. If the pattern broke down at the bottom, it made a rabble. Loss of scale at the top led to dictators, who always fell in the long run. Democracy emerged and worked because it let people form groups they could actually manage and like.

The Library was democratic, but… After all, there were dozens of variations on the great human theme in the staff. The Library needed them all because their forms had all contributed to the Library. Fathoming what Library records meant demanded intense cooperation. Every form of human had to be respected. Acknowledged.

Democratic, but… The Supras were still, everybody agreed, the very best.

She started working in serial languages. Easy stuff, suitable for Originals. She could almost hear Kurani thinking that.

Serial writings were a persistent human tradition. Many Library workers felt them to be somehow more authentic than the later methods that directly integrated with the nervous system. Cley had little experience with serial writings, though. How quaint, she thought at first, even for a Library: to set down symbols one after another and make the eyes (or in one case, the fingers, and in another, the nose) manufacture meaning from them, seen one at a time. Piecework.

Nobody did that anymore, though of course, speech was still serial. No subspecies had ever tried to make the throat and vocal cords perform in the way the eyes could, ferrying vast gouts of information at a glance. Making sound waves do that faced both a bandwidth problem and a fleshly one.

The throat was a stringed instrument, resonant but limited. Humans could not drink and speak at the same time—a design flaw not shared by the other ancient primates. Yet it was one that nobody had ever overcome. People still strangled at banquets, and were appropriately dressed in their formal best for their funerals—all due to a faulty collaboration between eating and speaking.

Not Supras, of course; they had bigger, supple tracheae, to slip food by the windpipe. Inevitably, Originals made up a dirty joke about the
real
purpose.

She got interested in serial writings and delved back into the very earliest. The most ancient, the Arbic, notation had a mere twenty-six letters, whereas even the ancients knew that something around forty speech-sounds and phonemes was optimum. The earliest forms even used something she had to struggle to understand: letters with two cases, big and small, with almost no value added to the doubling of symbols.

Later languages dropped these cultural carbuncles. Down through the myriad millennia, letters assumed shapes to show the position taken by the vocal organs (which varied) in articulating the sounds. Those quickest to draw evoked the most frequent sounds.

She got the idea of serial writing right away. Humans liked the step-by-step nature of stories, of narrative momentum, and sentences carried one forward in a pleasurable way.

Still, she was glad to get back into the hohlraum. It was a wondrous tool that shaped itself to her (in)abilities. Supple, subtle, sly. Deftly it brought her intense, layered knowledge. After reading the serial languages, the hohlraum was like the experience of
having read.
The memories of the serial texts were there, but reachable instantly at many levels.

The hohlraum flew like a bird over a rumpled landscape, spying all. It could see the geological layers beneath that bore in massive strata the assumptions, histories, and worldviews that slumbered beneath the surface text. It could sense the warp and weave of time, as well. Like conceptual lava, information flowed up to the surface, seeping hot and new, there to cool and congeal into ravines of reasoning and mountains of conclusion. In the long sweep of time those peaks and valleys would in turn crumble, their continental wisdoms collide, rumbling into dust.

All this came into her mind in the slow pace of gravid change, its majesty impressing her. This was the lot of being human over the long eras, in which whole grand cultures were mere mayflies.

5
GROWING UP FAST

S
HE TAUGHT HERSELF
not to mind when he vanished for days. Supras did that.

It was as if, on leaving, he turned out the light. Supra-style sex, having come rushing to her out of nowhere, rushed away. So she worked.

Then he would return, send her a quirky smile. His tide came roaring back in.

Supras had other concerns, matters lying well beyond her conceptual horizons. Yes, yes, she understood that. But…

She understood that her father fascination was a bump in the roadway of life, and Kurani’s absences called up deep resonances of being left behind. So much for conscious knowledge. For the first time she got it that conscious understanding—the kind that came from her Meta upbringing—had to be used to overpower the blindsiding emotional lurches of life. Or so the litany went.

Still, when he reappeared, it was always first things first. First, as in Original. Was this his first affair with an Original? He seemed to savor the simplicities of her body.

With him, she felt less like a verb in his vocabulary, more a noun. An object for his attentions, even at work. When they were discussing some fine point of translation—his voice low and precise, hers skittering higher, quicker—and his hand drifted over her leg, she did not know what to do with this reference to their other life together. Except that the wry joke of the gesture, touch tasking them to the basics of their species, made her smile.

She liked his taste, and not merely his skin. He had kept the Original cock, a handsome wick indeed. No efficient Supra rig for him, no. Nor the off-putting earlier Sigma engineering, which she—though not some of her stunned girlfriends—had avoided.

She had seen it all before, of course, literally. There was to the entire act, up close, the quality of being attacked by a giant, remorseless snail. The whole arrangement seemed on the face of it unlikely, a temporary design that had gotten legislated into concrete.

But it worked. Somehow. Wisdom of the ancients. Snail and swamp, who could have guessed?

Kurani paid attention to site selection for their trysts, too. Nothing was more Original than what humans of all brands called, with unthinking arrogance, “the out of doors”—as if all creation were defined by its location just outside where we lived. Amazing, when you recognized the meaning.

Kurani never used the term, but he certainly used the feelings.

He liked weather—the more, the better. They always slept with his room opened to the outside when a storm of swollen, angry purple clouds came muscling over the horizon. As the heavens tore at each other, so did the humans. One powerful night, the thunder and lightning came closer and closer together, each booming roar like a commandment, which they followed to the letter. Afterward they lay exhausted and warm and delightfully sweaty, listening to the storm shoulder its way off into the mountains to command someone else. A cleansing rain began to patter down on the balcony outside with the indescribable rich aroma a good rain brought to a fine moment. She close-upped her vision and watched the teardrops plunge to their deaths, pearly in the fine light.

“Whoosh! Enough to make you believe in God,” he said.

As if anybody did, except maybe Originals. She whispered, “Or that we and the weather are geared together.”

“Same thing.” He grinned.

It wasn’t all about sex, either.

She firmly believed that people had, as a species, an innate drive to mesh with others—that the sense of self emerged from a web of intimate relations. The Supras seemed to feel that all humans were the outcome of impersonal drives like sex and envy, plus others they could not speak about very well. Maybe they didn’t want to reveal too much, to keep the Supra nature shadowy. Kurani sometimes shrugged, that most hallowed of gestures, as if to convey the gulf between them.

She clung to the precipice of that gulf and sometimes threw herself across. Or tried.

Yet she knew already that love could fade. Not so much on its own, but from the efforts of the people experiencing it—so intensely as to, well, to kill it. Love made many naked, unsettled by longing. The pressure was always there. And oppositely, some felt too safe in a relationship and fantasized about something more racy. It was terribly confusing.

Famously, Naturals longed for the touch of Arts, the earliest artificial forms. She felt some of this herself: the lure of the Primitivo. The earliest human artifice lay in self-decoration—the attraction of the human assembly. Kurani termed this the allure of simple skin. She had always been tantalized by the externals, particularly the styles of cocks, but rumor had it among her Meta that the internals were the truly amazing portion of Art anatomy.

The longest-running human game lay not in self-ornamentation but in relationships. Kurani taught her a calmer way of looking at these things. This was his way of explaining what Cley and he were about under the covers.

In his view, the true deep human fantasy was the conviction of safety. Men believed their women were devoted; wives felt that their men were dependable. Both ignored contrary evidence. Each acted to fulfill the other’s belief. When the whole collusive contrivance collapsed, each cried, “This is not the person I thought!” They had merely gotten trapped in the quicksand of protective gray that each laid to trim the rampaging velocity of romantic love.

Even sex could develop this deadening, out of self-defense. Without a dull patina it was too vivid to sustain for long—dragging one into surrenders, losses of self, immersion in the rhythms and sensations of another. “Same reverse twist for aggression,” he added cryptically.

She nodded. Love scared anyone. Primates reacted to threat with anger, so they got into fights without knowing why. Or just ran away.

Cley countered this with her simple sense that the inscrutable other should be an ideal mate. She felt better when she let herself see Kurani as more handsome and valuable than others thought him to be. Her dream man, personified in Kurani, would not let time or routine lessen the intensity of authentic experience: “You keep building sand castles even though you know the tide’s coming in.”

Their days were simple: work, study, love, sleep, then back to work. Sometimes love came right after work, even before dinner. And sometimes she thought that her need for love was really a mask over her desire for, well, sex.

But when she was in that moment, it was not so much like lust as it was like worship. Maybe what she sought in love was only symbolized by sex, and at the same time made real—something far more powerful: completion.

Whether Kurani saw the emotional landscape this way, she was unsure. Most people routinely lived for several centuries, and Kurani was even older. He had literally forgotten more than she knew.

BOOK: Beyond Infinity
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