Authors: Greg Egan
Tags: #Science Fiction
Perhaps the hottest and fastest-rising new writer to debut in SF in the nineties, Australian Greg Egan is poised on the verge of being recognized as one of the genre's Big Names. In the last few years, Egan has become a frequent contributor to
Asimov's Science Fiction,
and has made sales as well to
Pulphouse, Analog, Aurealis, Eidolon,
and elsewhere. Several of his stories have appeared in various best-of-the-year series, including this one; in fact, he placed two stories in both our Eighth and Ninth Annual Collections—the first author ever to do that back-to-back in consecutive volumes. He has also had stories in our Tenth, Eleventh, and Twelfth Annual Collections as well. He was on the Hugo Final Ballot in 1995 for his story "Cocoon," which won the Ditmar Award and the
Readers Award. His first novel,
appeared in 1992, to wide critical acclaim, and was followed by a second novel in 1994,
which won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. His most recent book is a collection of his short fiction
Upcoming are two new novels,
Here he launches an intrepid attack on the most abstract realms of Higher Mathematics with a computer made entirely of light—with potentially disastrous results for the entire universe when those abstract realms start to strike back . . .
I woke, disoriented, unsure why. I knew I was lying on the narrow, lumpy single bed in Room 22 of the Hotel Fleapit; after almost a month in Shanghai, the topography of the mattress was d
pressingly familiar. But there was something wrong with the way I was lying; every muscle in my neck and shoulders was protesting that nobody could end up in this position from natural causes, however badly they'd slept.
And I could smell blood.
I opened my eyes. A woman I'd never seen before was kneeling over me, slicing into my left tr
ceps with a disposable scalpel. I was lying on my side, facing the wall, one hand and one ankle cuffed to the head and foot of the bed.
Something cut short the surge of visceral panic before I couldn't start stupidly thrashing about, instinctively trying to break free. Maybe an even more ancient response—catatonia in the face of danger—took on the adrenaline and won. Or maybe I just decided that I had no right to panic when I'd been expecting something like this for weeks.
I spoke softly, in English. "What you're in the process of hacking out of me is a necrotrap. One heartbeat without oxygenated blood, and the cargo gets fried."
My amateur surgeon was compact, muscular, with short black hair. Not Chinese, Indonesian, maybe. If she was surprised that I'd woken prematurely, she didn't show it. The gene-tailored hepatocytes I'd acquired in Hanoi could degrade almost anything from morphine to curare; it was a good thing the local anaesthetic was beyond their reach.
Without taking her eyes off her work, she said, "Look on the table next to the bed."
I twisted my head around. She'd set up a loop of plastic tubing full of blood— mine, presumably—circulated and aerated by a small pump. The stem of a large funnel fed into the loop, the inte
section controlled by a valve of some kind. Wires trailed from the pump to a sensor taped to the inside of my elbow, synchronizing the artificial pulse with the real. I had no doubt that she could tear the trap from my vein and insert it into this substitute without missing a beat.
I cleared my throat and swallowed. "Not good enough. The trap knows my blood pressure profile exactly. A generic heartbeat won't fool it."
"You're bluffing." But she hesitated, scalpel raised. The hand-held MRI scanner she'd used to find the trap would have revealed its basic configuration, but few fine details of the engineering—and nothing at all about the software.
"I'm telling you the truth." I looked her squarely in the eye, which wasn't easy given our awkward geometry. "It's new, it's Swedish. You anchor it in a vein forty-eight hours in advance, put yourself through a range of typical activities so it can memorize the rhythms . . . then you inject the cargo into the trap. Simple, foolproof, effective." Blood trickled down across my chest onto the sheet. I was suddenly very glad that I hadn't buried the thing deeper, after all. "So how do you retrieve the cargo, yourself?" "That would be telling."
"Then tell me now, and save yourself some trouble." She rotated the scalpel between thumb and forefinger impatiently. My skin did a cold bum all over, nerve ends jangling, capillaries closing down as blood dived for cover. I said,
gives me hypertension."
She smiled down at me thinly, conceding the stalemate—then peeled off one stained surgical glove, took out her notepad, and made a call to a medical equipment supplier. She listed some devices, which would get around the problem—a blood pressure probe, a more sophisticated pump, a suitable computerized interface— arguing heatedly in fluent Mandarin to extract a pro
ise of a speedy delivery. Then she put down the notepad and placed her ungloved hand on my shoulder. "You can relax now. We won't have long to wait."
I squirmed, as if angrily shrugging off her hand—and succeeded in getting some blood on her skin. She didn't say a word, but she must have realized at once how careless she'd been; she climbed off the bed and headed for the washbasin, and I heard the water running. Then she started retching.
I called out cheerfully, "Let me know when you're ready for the antidote." I heard her approach, and I turned to face her. She was ashen, her face contorted with nausea, eyes and nose strea
ing mucus and tears. "Tell me where it is!" "Uncuff me, and I'll get it for you."
"No! No deals!"
"Fine. Then you'd better start looking, yourself."
She picked up the scalpel and brandished it in my face. "Screw the cargo.
;r!" She was shivering like a feverish child, uselessly trying to stem the flood from her nostrils with the back of her hand.
I said coldly, "If you cut me again, you'll lose more than the cargo."
She turned away and vomited; it was thin and gray, blood-streaked. The toxin was persuading cells in her stomach lining to commit suicide
"Uncuff me. It'll kill you. It doesn't take long."
She wiped her mouth, steeled herself, made as if to speak—then started puking again. I knew, first-hand, exactly how bad she was feeling. Keeping it down was like trying to swallow a mixture of shit and sulphuric acid. Bringing it up was like evisceration.
I said, "In thirty seconds, you'll be too weak to help yourself—even if I told you where to look. So if I'm not free ..."
She produced a gun and a set of keys, uncuffed me, then stood by the foot of the bed, shaking badly but keeping me targeted. I dressed quickly, ignoring her threats, bandaging my arm with a miraculously clean spare sock before putting on a T-shirt and a jacket. She sagged to her knees, still aiming the gun more or less in my direction—but her eyes were swollen half-shut, and bri
ming with yellow fluid. I thought about trying to disarm her, but it didn't seem worth the risk.
I packed my remaining clothes, then glanced around the room as if I might have left something behind. But everything that really mattered was in my veins; Alison had taught me that that was the only way to travel.
I turned to the burglar. "There is no antidote. But the toxin won't kill you. You'll just wish it would, for the next twelve hours. Goodbye."
As I headed for the door, hairs rose suddenly on the back of my neck. It occurred to me that she might not take me at my word—and might fire a parting shot, believing she had nothing to lose.
Turning the handle, without looking back, I said, "But if you come after me—next time, I'll kill you."
That was a lie, but it seemed to do the trick. As I pulled the door shut behind me, I heard her drop the gun and start vomiting again.
Halfway down the stairs, the euphoria of escape began to give way to a bleaker perspective. If one careless bounty hunter could find me, her more methodical colleagues couldn't be far behind. Industrial Algebra was closing in on us. If Alison didn't gain access to Luminous soon, we'd have no choice but to destroy the map. And even that would only be buying time.
I paid the desk clerk for the room until the next morning, stressing that my companion should not be disturbed, and added a suitable tip to compensate for the mess the cleaners would find. The toxin denatured in air; the bloodstains would be harmless in a matter of hours. The clerk eyed me suspiciously, but said nothing.
Outside, it was a mild, cloudless summer morning. It was barely six o'clock, but Kongjiang Lu was already crowded with pedestrians, cyclists, buses—and a few ostentatious chauffeured limo
sines, ploughing through the traffic at about ten kph. It looked like the night shift had just emerged from the Intel factory down the road; most of the passing cyclists were wearing the o
ange, logo-emblazoned overalls.
Two blocks from the hotel I stopped dead, my legs almost giving way beneath me. It wasn't just shock—a delayed reaction, a belated acceptance of how close I'd come to being slaughtered. The burglar's clinical violence was chilling enough— but what it implied was infinitely more di
Industrial Algebra was paying big money, violating international law, taking serious risks with their corporate and personal futures. The arcane abstraction of the defect was being dragged into the world of blood and dust, boardrooms and assassins, power and pragmatism.
And the closest thing to certainty humanity had ever known was in danger of dissolving into quicksand.
It had all started out as a joke. Argument for argument's sake. Alison and her infuriating heresies.
"A mathematical theorem," she'd proclaimed, "only becomes true when a physical system tests it out: when the system's behavior depends in some way on the theorem being
true or false."
It was June 1994. We were sitting in a small paved courtyard, having just emerged yawning and blinking into the winter sunlight from the final lecture in a one-semester course on the philosophy of mathematics—a bit of light relief from the hard grind of the real stuff. We had fifteen minutes to kill before meeting some friends for lunch. It was a social conversation—verging on mild flirt
tion—nothing more. Maybe there were demented academics lurking in dark crypts somewhere, who held views on the nature of mathematical truth that they were willing to die for. But we were twenty years old, and we
it was all angels on the head of a pin.
I said, "Physical systems don't create mathematics. Nothing
mathematics—it's timeless. All of number theory would still be exactly the same, even if the universe contained nothing but a single electron."
Alison snorted. "Yes, because even
plus a space-time to put it in, needs all of quantum mechanics and all of general relativity—and all the mathematical infrastructure they e
tail. One particle floating in a quantum vacuum needs half the major results of group theory, fun
tional analysis, differential geometry—"
"Okay, okay! I get the point. But if that's the case ... the events in the first picosecond after the Big Bang would have 'constructed' every last mathematical truth required by
physical system, all the way to the Big Crunch. Once you've got the mathematics that underpins the Theory of Ev
rything . . . that's it, that's all you ever need. End of story."
"But it's not. To
the Theory of Everything to a particular system, you still need all the mathematics for dealing with
which could include results far beyond the mathema
ics that the TOE itself requires. I mean, fifteen billion years after the Big Bang, someone can still come along and prove, say . . . Fermat's Last Theorem." Andrew Wiles at Princeton had recently announced a proof of the famous conjecture, although his work was still being scrutinized by his colleagues, and the final verdict wasn't yet in. "Physics never needed
I protested, "What do you mean, 'before'? Fermat's Last Theorem never has
and never will
have anything to do with any branch of physics."
Alison smiled sneakily. "No
But only because the class of physical systems whose behavior depends on it is so ludicrously specific: the brains of mathematicians who are trying to validate the Wiles proof.
"Think about it. Once you start trying to prove a theorem, then even if the mathematics is so 'pure' that it has no relevance to any other object in the universe
. . .
you've just made it relevant to
You have to choose
physical process to test the theorem
whether you use a computer, or a pen and paper
. . .
or just close your eyes and shuffle
There's no such thing as a proof that doesn't rely on physical events
and whether they're inside or ou
side your skull doesn't make them any less real."