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Authors: Gregory Benford

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BOOK: Beyond Infinity
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“Rin!” the woman called, and ran toward them. “We have lost a phylum.”

Rin’s stern grimace stiffened further. “Something minor, I hope?”

“The Myriasoma.”

“The many-bodied? No!” Creases of despair flitted across his face.

Cley asked, “What are they?”

Rin stared grimly into the distance. “A form my own species knew, long ago. A composite intelligence which used drones capable of receiving electromagnetic instructions. The creature could disperse itself at will.”

Cley looked at the woman uneasily, feeling an odd tension playing at the edge of her perceptions. “I never saw one.”

“We had not revived them yet,” Rin said. “Now they are lost.”

Seeker said, “Do not be hasty.”

“What?” He cast Seeker an irritated glance.

“This is not the only place where life brims.”

Rin ignored it, his gaze boring into the tall, stately woman. “You are sure we lost all?”

The woman said, “I hoped there would be traces, but…yes. All.”

Cley heard the woman and simultaneously felt a deeper, resonant voice sounding in her mind. The woman turned to her and said slowly, enunciating the words so that they came through the echoes in her mind’s ear, “You have the Talent, yes. Hear.”

This time the woman’s voice resounded only in Cley’s mind, laced with strange, strumming bass notes:
We—or as you would say, I—I am Kata, a Supra who shares this.

“I, I don’t understand,” Cley said. She glanced at Seeker and Rin but could not read their looks.

We Supras recreated you Ur-humans from the entries in this Library. We further augmented you so that you could understand us through this direct Talent. Your skull contains a processor that receives compressed, filtered messages from my own mind’s speech center.

“But Rin didn’t—”

He is of Sonomulia and thus lacks the Talent.

She raised one finger as a prompt. Her small smile played briefly. Here…

Cley staggered. She took in an assault of images, side paths, ideas, histories, jokes and puns, and a strange sadness.

She had no choice. It demanded that she swim in a torrent hot off the heart, flooding through her. She could not even tell if these were ideas, emotions, or something beyond that. Moods came surging up from something deeper that sponsored them—currents from the woman Kata’s depths. Cley felt sliced moments slip through her, entries being lodged in her memories. She was swimming, trying to breathe through a deluge. Darting, fevered chunks of knowledge glanced off her, unable to penetrate—and then more, slanting in, slamming into her mind like silver shards.

She gasped. “Stop!”

Sorry. We presume too much. You are, after all, Ur-human…

She tried to think simply, to get her footing again. “You say ‘we,’ not ‘I’—”

We use “we” because we are linked, and so share.

“How?”

Only we from Illusivia have the threads of microwave-active magnetite laid down in skull and brain. They twine among your—and our—neurological circuitry. When stimulated electrically, these amplify and transmit our thoughts.

The linear sentences were clear, but the rushing river of other sensations drowned her again. A mere moment of direct contact filled her to the brim.

She gasped, the world’s whirl slowed, and she grasped the layers below the simple sentences.
This
was how the Supras thought? She felt the yawning gulf beneath her feet.
They lived so intensely.
Deeper than her Original verve, more somber. How should she respond?

Kata took Cley’s hands and held them up, palms facing together, then slowly brought them to Kata’s temples. Cley felt the voice strengthen.
I am antenna and receiver, as are you.

So I am
! Cley sent back.

“I could never do this before!” Cley said loudly, joyously, as if the new Talent made her doubt her older voice.

The Talent must be stimulated first, since it is not natural to Ur-humans.
Kata smiled sardonically.
It might have helped your species overcome your drawbacks in your first, Original age. We of Illusivia have it because for so long we lived for the whole, for our community. This knits us together.

“And Rin?” She felt dizzy. Asking a simple question was all she could manage. Around them swirled work, noise, scents, a clamor of purpose. Yet within this strange, enclosed space of the mind, she could carry on a cool conversation.

His city, Sonomulia, is the vast master of urban mechanism. Mine, Illusivia, championed verdant wooded majesty. Their art escapes boundaries through abstraction, while ours sings of our time and community. Sonomulia rejected the enveloping intimacy of the Talent, though it is an unending pleasure. And we of Illusivia pay the price of mortality for this.

“This Talent…kills you?”

Kata smiled wearily.
Yes. Stressed so, inevitably the brain loses structure, substance. Diseases find a foothold. Unfixable. This defect of finiteness we share with you Ur-humans. Your form is hopeless, alas.

Cley staggered, reeling with this assault of knowledge.

Rin and the others have elected to omit this Talent, and thus live far longer.

Of course Originals knew they were mortal, although to a young woman, the Original span of several centuries seemed ample. But to encounter an immortal Supra who gave it up for this method of intense communication—she could not get her equilibrium, before such an avalanche of facts. Her feet were stumps, her body a log balanced on them, her head wobbly.

She panted, managed to get out, “I—this means that Kurani—he did not have this Talent, either. He used technology for something like this, though—his inboards, to get and send data, and for other communication. He was always connected to other Supras through that. You aren’t?” She felt safer, sticking to acoustic voice.

True. We reject some capabilities that so many have amassed in human history. No one soul can bear them all. To live is to select. To edit from the past.

“There’s…so much. Hard to get my bearings.”

Do not struggle to know all this too soon. You are only an Ur-human—honored, but limited.

“Yeah, no kidding.” Her breath came fast and hard.

You will come to terms with it in time.

“Uh…right.” Cley knew that she was speaking with one of those who had brought her kind back into the world, yet she could not decide whether to be angry or grateful. They were
so
sure of themselves. “Then why give it to us, if we did not have it before…before you cooked us up from your Library?”

Did a quick flicker of caution pass in the tightening of Kata’s lips?
For now, let me simply say that we know you well enough to savor your kinesthetic joys, your quick and zesty sense of the world. That we lost in Illusivia.

Cley thought, carefully shaping it through her speech center:
Lost because of this Talent?

Kata blinked, and Cley knew she had been understood. And the thought had registered as something like an insult in this strange medium.

Cley had a sudden, shooting memory: of being a child, on a Mom’s lap, gazing at a simple illoed story.
Mother—
Cley felt a pang she had been suppressing, the abyss of loss of that warm, loving presence, the center of her Meta life. All her Moms—gone now, leaving her alone, alone…

And that memory wrapped around another. She was suddenly
there,
beneath the big fern fronds rustling, making the golden light dance across the sheet where the story unfolded. Her Mom’s voice murmured; time stood still…

She must have been two years old. The moment hung solid and timeless for her, when she looked down at the images and saw in the framed air beside them a notation. She had just been learning to read. Hanging there was the assent symbol, coming in color from a woman character. Suddenly, the two-year-old said aloud, “Yes. Yes, yes, yes!” And her Mom nodded, murmuring praise. In a single astonished moment it came into her that these incomprehensible marks near the characters were
words,
and the woman was saying
yes. S
o all the symbols around her, hanging in the soft moist air,
meant something—
if she could only learn how to figure them out.

The moment stood transfixed in memory because then the power of symbols came full force. The whole world was alive with messages. She had ignored their meaningless scribbles until then, but now they promised everything. They would tell her what the world meant. A desire had flooded her then, a hot yearning to know what the world was trying to tell her.

And now here was a new, sweeping possibility, huge and full of fresh meaning. She could venture not merely into symbol-spaces but into minds, could know them fully.

She gasped with the power and freedom of it, struggling to keep her face from giving way. The Talent was like reading—a doorway to a new world.

Yet around her the routine world went on, clanking and working as though this were an ordinary passing moment, and—

Somberly Kata said, carrying on their conversation as if nothing had happened,
We believed the great lie about invaders, yes. Some say that is why we are so named. Sonomulia and Illusivia alike—we slept.

“I… I… Invaders?” She steadied her breathing.
Calm yourself.
Using this new Talent was labor, and Cley found speaking a relief.

Once both Sonomulia and Illusivia believed that humanity fled the stars, before a horde. But the fact—uncovered by Rin as he ventured out from Sonomulia, to Illusivia and beyond—is that humanity retreated before the knowledge of greater minds. Constructed intelligences. Not merely among the stars, but beyond.

Cley frowned. “What’s beyond the stars?”

Spaces, geometries—beyond infinity, in a way.

Cley sent,
Beyond our universe?

Other dimensions, other…surfaces, in those dimensions. Membranes. It is difficult to explain without training in the topologies of space-time.

Cley had gotten used to being told there were huge areas she knew nothing about, and by now was not even irked at the mild, unintended insult. Supras never even knew they were doing it, as far as she could tell. “Okay,” she said aloud, “what did you do about it?”

We tried to evolve even vaster forces, minds free of matter itself. And succeeded. But the struggle was too much. Exhaustion and fear drove us into a wan recessional as cities died and hopes faded.

An immense sadness ran through these thoughts, long, rolling notes that held in Cley’s mind like a soulful dirge. These chords were all counterpointed by the pressing world around her—a medley of crackling distant fires, the acrid tang of oily smoke, the hoarse shouts of orders, the grim grinding of heavy machines, a quiet sobbing somewhere nearby.

“And Rin, his role?” She sent this mentally, but found she had voiced it as well. This method required practice.

She realized Rin was studying her with interest; she had spoken his name. Immediately she had a sense of the chasm that had opened between her and anyone who could not catch the silky speed of this Talent, its filmy warmth and cloaked meanings. They were well worth the effort. But the chasm was their price.

And the Talent brought more still—pure, unbidden sensation. Kata turned to give a spoken order to a machine, and Cley felt an echo of the woman’s swivel, the catch of indrawn breath, minute pressures and flexes. Still deeper in Kata burned a slow, sensual fire. The heat smoldered but could be summoned either by setting or by will. Power over emotion. This was a startling capability Cley did not have, and she could not immediately imagine its use. She guessed that the folk of Illusivia had kept the roiling passions of early humanity, the carnal joy and longing that flushed the mind with goaty rut, calling up the pulsing urgencies laid down in reptile brains on muddy shores. They were closer to her forms, the rudimentary Ur-humans, than Rin’s more cerebral sorts were. Yet they also ruled their emotions, holding them like caged lions, ready to release.

Kata was an adult in a way Rin would never be. She ruled herself profoundly. Neither way was wrong or right; each subspecies had chosen profoundly different paths. But the effect was staggering when the gap between them spanned the myriad genetic choices of a billion years.

“Ah, yes,” Cley made herself say, jerking her mind out of the hot, cloying satisfactions of this Talent.
To read another truly
…“I, I…”

“You need say nothing,” Rin said aloud, smiling. “I envy you. More, I need you.”

She began to stutter a reply, but noise engulfed them. Ranks of tractor-driven bots roared by them, making talk impossible, slinging pebbles high in the air. Gravel spat over her bare skin, stinging. Seeker nervously shuffled back and forth, eyeing the gargantuan machines. It now had the look of an animal in strange surroundings: wary and skittish. Cley was concerned for it, but she knew she could do nothing for Seeker without the approval of the Supras.

“Need me?” she asked finally. “For what?”

Rin said smoothly, “You are a rarity now. That was why I searched.”

“The lightning sought out Ur-humans,” Kata put in. “Rin himself volunteered to look for the survivors, but…”

Cley glanced from Rin to Kata, acutely conscious of their casual ease. They were half again as large as she, their chocolate skins vibrant with health. Cley felt rustic with her thicker, reddened skin bared. Kata, though, showed lines in her face, which gave it a grave, crinkled geometry. The Supras’ clothes rippled to accommodate each movement. An air of unconscious well-being hovered around their sleek resilience. She glanced down at herself: nude, bruised from her injuries, scratched by bushes, skin creased and scabbed and dirty.

She felt a flickering burst of embarrassment.

I am sorry,
Kata sent with concern.
That was an overlap of my own emotion. Nakedness carries sexual and social signals in Illusivia.

Cley asked wonderingly, “The simple baring of skins?” Her people enjoyed the rub of the world on their flesh, but it meant nothing more. For her, passion rose from context, from people, not attire.

BOOK: Beyond Infinity
9.77Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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