THE STATIC REALM
By The Teafaerie
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Special Agent Ellen West stared fixedly into the center of the Chrysanthemum and tried not to give way to astonishment. This was the last suggestion that they had offered her before activating the machine, but she had not taken their meaning at the time and now she found herself unable to take their advice.
She'd been told what to expect, of course. The Foundation kids had gone on and on about it until everything they said had begun to sound equally meaningless to her overwhelmed ear. A million-petaled flower as big as the sky. The “Upload Experience.” Sure. What could warren-borns know about the size of the sky? She'd listened to their descriptions without ever having made a real effort to imagine it, not because she was impressed by their insistence that it was impossible, but because it hadn't seemed important to her. Her mind had been on the meeting ahead, and their Waver vernacular and giddy pseudo-philosophical babble reminded her too uncomfortably of Danny. Now the portal was before her, bigger than life, and she knew for the first time that she'd had no idea at all what she was getting herself into. She was either laughing hysterically or crying her heart out, though she could not have said how she knew it with her body still offline.
Perhaps she had died! Even as the idea registered, she remembered that this was a common misperception. She was supposed to acknowledge it and let it go. If she panicked on the upload she might have to be reset. Of course she was still very much alive and under the care of experts in friendly blue-walled Access Room Three back there at the Foundation. Here at the Foundation. Real death could not possibly be this magnificent any more than real life could be. This was not the pearly gate spinning before her, though it shamed all previous artist's conceptions of heaven's door. Then again the world would never know what Michelangelo might have done with MindCommand. The world didn't know what Phoenix Starr had done with it for that matter, and now of course it never would. Guilt apparently could not reach her yet either, so she surrendered to aesthetic arrest.
It was as if she were suspended in the center of an immense sphere of perfect diamond floating in an absolute and formless void. It was inconceivably vast and appeared to be lit sourcelessly from within. (Or was she herself somehow the light?) Gazing into it, or rather out of it, was like an ecstatic blindness. Every point within it sparkled with shifting prismatic fire, and yet it retained its sense of crystalline transparency. She understood that this was just Oneiros assimilating her imaging data, checking that it could simulate or stimulate any color at any distance according to her own unique perception code. Nevertheless, it was without a question the most sublimely lovely sight Ellen had ever seen and she had lived on the surface for twenty-five years as a girl.
Because she had been lying down where her memories left off in the access room, at first the portal seemed to be taking shape above her. As she looked on in wonder, the twinklings of the shattered rainbow that surrounded her began to thin out in the foreground and increase in concentration farther off. Brilliant static soon opaqued the sphere, encrusting the inner surface with infinitesimal gems. After a moment hypnotic patterns started rippling down from the highest point to play along the insides of the visible hemisphere.
She wondered if there was another center at the opposite pole, but found that she was unable to direct her vision 'below' her. She could not look away at all, in fact. Trying to close her eyes accomplished nothing. Presently an image began to resolve. At first it was merely a suggestion, easily mistaken for a hallucination by a mind aware of it's own eagerness to superimpose apparent order over chaos. A glittering figure seen for an instant to stand out against a glittering background. Then, all at once, it was there! The three-dimensional spiraling floral mandala that devotees called the Concave Chrysanthemum.
Each one of its innumerable curving petals flashed with a different color and texture, straining the true limits of perception. Some of them were pearly indeed, and some looked made of liquid metal and some were iridescent or translucent or aflame. Against all ravings to the contrary she had been anticipating something like a giant hologram. These hues were so rich that they seemed impossibly more real than reality itself. There was at least one new color, as advertised. It hurt her mind to look at it and she would later be unable to recall it at all, except in dreams.
With the start that accompanies the abrupt realization of the obvious, Ellen's local vertical shifted and she decided that she was hanging upright in space, facing the enormity centered in front of her. It was monstrous. It's terrible beauty rent her to the core. Each petal rippled with life like a tongue of fire. The velvety purple in the center of a violet. The shimmering blue of a topical sea. Starlight.
She had been well prepared. She had been ready to face down her adversary, the adversary of all of humanity, and compel him to submit to the government's demands. She had been ready to bargain and threaten and lie and coerce. She had even been ready to sacrifice her own son. What she had not been ready for, what they could not possibly have prepared her for, was the reawakening of her own spirit.
The sound check that she had been warned about could be heard now; working it's way up from below the audible frequencies in an all-pervading hum that ushered in another change of perception. The center of the Chrysanthemum was dilating and a rainbow wormhole was beginning to unfurl at its core. She was being drawn inside. She was falling helplessly down into the thing from above and had been for some time. It had her. This was it! Her silent scream conflated with the rising howl as she hurtled towards the eye of the mystery, peaking in a whining crescendo as she the passed through the lens into Phantechnica.
Utter darkness. She had been shaken, alright. For a timeless time she lay still, waiting for the illusion of her pounding heart to pump away the chemical biproducts of rapture and fear that seemed to be raging through her now physicalised being.
Ellen knew that for all practical purposes she had become a brain in a jar, or rather a brain in a cast-off crash coffin, since she had refused to enter one of the supposedly superior ‘Nutshell’ modules that the Foundation had developed on its own. Onieros kept track of brain commands sent out in vain to her suspended body and could trick her into thinking that they had been carried out, resulting in the illusion of a nervous system. Supposedly a lot of psybernauts customized their 'glandular effects' or even turned them off. The concept of thought without feeling struck Ellen as dangerous and obscene. Feelings might distort her logic, but they were a part of the seamless fabric of her selfhood. She had insisted upon absolute fidelity, and now she’d have to live with it.
When she had recovered herself she found that she was neither warm nor cold, lying on something neither hard nor soft under what felt like the normal one gee. She'd made it! This must be her private chamber. Everything was going according to plan.
Light, she thought to herself, picturing the word written for greater clarity. Instantly the omnivorous blackness was replaced with brilliance, revealing her body as it looked on the day it was scanned and absolutely nothing else at all in any direction. That was worse than the darkness had been. Back, she almost shouted, returning herself to the womb. But now she had looked upon the awful void that surrounded her and even blindness gave no comfort.
She pressed her tongue against the back of her bottom teeth and blinked twice for the menu. Of course it wasn't her real tongue or her real teeth or her real eyes. The menu was triggered by the impulse that would tell the eyes to blink, not the act of blinking itself.
Columns of possibility flickered and scrolled, resolving as she reminded herself what she was looking for into a short list of preset programs. Training, Playground, Lotus, Flysky, Wonderland. Each one flared momentarily as she scanned it with her mind's eye. Ellen carefully selected Training with her gaze and gave another blink. No change. She reset her tongue and tried again.
This time she felt something click and the nothingness became the interior of a large, bright, comfy playpen adrift in a sea of stars. Several oversized objects associated with childhood were near at hand: a ball, a blanket, a bear, a bottle, a block. If the training program worked the way she'd been given to understand, she'd be able to change these things at will but the playpen itself would remain set no matter what. Apparently people tended to panic if they started out in Flow Mode right away. "It's good to have something underneath you when you're trying to get used to a new universe," her cheerful councilor Seth had told her. Newbies couldn't expect to keep their feet (literally!) without a bit of practice.
She stood up carefully and peered over the rail. What she saw wasn't like the night sky as it had been seen from Earth, but a stylized fantasyscape complete with nearby planets and moons. A wormhole could be seen blossoming in the distance. Did it lead back through to the Chrysanthemum? It was a meaningless question. Or was it? Once again she was gripped by the artist's use of immensity. Her mind simply could not process it. How must it be for the warren-borns?
Inside of the enclosure there was gravity and air, or anyway she stuck to the floor and didn't feel like she was asphyxiating. Her command of her body was fairly spontaneous, but if she concentrated on it something tactile was missing or intermittent like in a dream. She tried to wave her hand in front of her face and sure enough it waved, leaving a bit of an afterimage that was supposed to stop happening after she'd been logged on for a few days. The calibration process would continue indefinitely, she was told, but most of the distortion should be cleared up within a week. She almost wished she had a week to spend there before the Foundation was shut down for good. A wave of nauseated horror accompanied the thought. Even she wanted to stay! So seductive a technology could not be allowed to exist. The race could not survive its impact. Maybe someday far in the future, but not now. Not yet. Not with so much work left to be done.
"Hi, Ellen! My name is Gigosan. Do you want to play a game?" The giant teddy bear was addressing her. Extending a paw. Coming closer...
"Don't be afraid. I'm here to help you learn to use MindCommand." Gigosan was three feet tall and covered with shaggy blue fur.
"Yes. Hello Gigosan. I was expecting you, but I'd forgotten. I'm sorry. I'm entirely new at this." Already she was apologizing to the AI. The river that separated the real and the unreal was just a trickle of muddy water here. She closed her eyes and they seemed to close. Wonderful.
She looked up to see the ball already in the air. Instinctively, she caught it. It was a little smaller than her head, white and warm to the touch. It felt like it weighed about three pounds. She hefted it wonderingly. A miracle.
"Try to change the color," Gigosan suggested, gesturing encouragingly with his paws.
Ellen slid down the padded corner to the floor and held the thing in her lap. Now she'd find out if she had any natural talent. Some people apparently picked it up quickly, while others couldn't seem to think of things in a concrete enough way or didn't have the right sort of concentration.
It had been made very clear to Ellen from the beginning that nobody was to be inducted who had not completed the entire preparatory procedure. It didn't matter who you worked for, or, she was especially surprised to discover, how much money you offered as a bribe. She'd spent months wearing an uncomfortable calibration suit just to make this one opportunity possible. Hundreds of required hours looking at everything through image relay goggles so the computer could know exactly what she was seeing and how it registered in her brain. She’d had to push buttons every time she was angry, which was often, or exhilarated or horny or whatnot. Then there had been all the lab work at the Foundation. Reading dozens of pages aloud, tasting a battery of flavors, looking at images and thinking intently of numbers and colors and motion. The linear filter machine, the trampoline, the centrifuge. Not to mention the initial surgery, which had been psychologically repugnant if not painful.
After all of that, she thought she could be forgiven for wanting to be able to at least operate the damn thing, if only for a moment. She hadn't really done so badly when she trained with HoloCommand, which was supposed to be analogous if inexpressibly different.
"Red!" she shouted, trying hard to think red thoughts.
To her complete astonishment the ball turned red at once! It swirled with a thousand different shades of red in fact, flecked with red sparkles. When she focused on a section of color and blinked with her tongue set, the whole thing became the hue that she had chosen and stayed that way. So excited was she by this little victory that she slapped herself on the forehead in an unconscious gesture of disbelief.
Without warning the playpen went away, as did the spacescape. She'd dumped herself into Flow Mode. Stupid. She cursed, and in so doing sketched an obscenity on the blackness, which quickly faded. Her thoughts projected around her, too fleeting to make out mostly, and all sliding unaccountably upwards giving her the impression that she was falling again. With the impression came the sensation. Drop sickness. Menu. Menu! She closed her eyes but it wasn't there. You don't read clearly when you panic, they'd kept reminding her.
Floor. Floor! A floor appeared below her. Her kitchen tile. No! Wrong! Carpet for an instant, then wood. Her childhood dance studio. If she concretized it would it hurt when she hit it? Blink to set? She chickened out and slid right through it. Jagged rocks and spikes loomed up at her from far below. Her fear taking over. She had to fight it, had to hold herself together. No, not fight it. Relax. Couldn't she just this once stop imagining the worst possible outcome, now when absolutely everything depended on it? She thought of Danny and he appeared everywhere, surrounding her in a confusion of momentary fragments, rising away.
"Help! Help! Can anybody hear me?!" Who could possibly hear her? Was she screaming in the access room? Would they disconnect her? Was Oneiros listening?
Suddenly the entire universe was filled with a familiar face, laughing. The man that she had come here to see. Was this really the Spacemaster himself breaking in to rescue or ridicule, or another projection of her terrified mind? He disappeared again, leaving a visual echo on the abyss.
"Phoenix! Phoenix Starr! Help me!" The name of her enemy lit up on a menu button behind her eyelids. Yes! Yes! Blink! A circle of fire appeared directly below her and she threaded it like a needle. Then everything changed yet again.
Now she was zipping along through a slippery golden tunnel. The Toob. Ellen was between worlds, waiting for the computer to Match and Map.
"Everybody's universe is effectively encrypted, because everybody’s mind is so unique," Seth had explained to her. "An image can only be read directly by the brain that created it. Oneiros can sort of translate it for you if both parties contribute their perception codes, but it has to run a huge calculation the first time to set up the interface. So you get to play on the Toob while you wait."
That no outsiders had access to anything written with Mind Command was a frustrating but inescapable fact. Even Oneiros couldn't provide a meaningful synopsis of the content, not having a brain to view it through. They'd tried at first to bust the Foundation on 'cryp charges, but the damn High Court ruled in its favor. Inherent to the technology, they said. Was it the Foundation's fault that you had to be wired yourself to read any of it? All were welcome to drop in anytime, of course. Phoenix bought that judge and she'd prove it someday. Nobody who had the best interest of humanity at heart could have just let him go. Not when she had him right there in her hand.
Something like gold mercury coated the entire inner surface of the Toob and the walls curved away upwards as often as down, spinning her in nauseating corkscrews that defied traditional physics. Then with startling discontinuity she found herself standing motionless before a ring of fire exactly like the one she had fallen through. This must be the entrance to Phoenix Starr's private chamber!
Remembering the training manual, she placed her index finger on the near edge of the circle. Tingle, but no burn. Next she raised it up over her head and hesitated for a moment, unable to remember if she was supposed to turn to the right or the left. Right. She stepped into the hoop with a spin and dropped her finger back down to the ring. The flame disappeared and her hand touched down on mossy soil.
She looked up all at once, expecting to see something incredible. Even so, it stunned her to the quick. This was too much. Too much! Designed intentionally to be too much; to blow the mind of whoever dared to seek an audience with its creator.
She was standing at the base of a tree as tall as a skyscraper remembered from girlhood and as big around as a city block. The Mothertree, apparently, of the entire jungle faerieland that she had just been transported into. The wood was like redwood, but it spread itself more like a banyan, dropping down creepers from the dense canopy above that became additional trunks where they met with the loam below. It was so real that she could literally smell the fertile earth, and so unreal that she was forced to apprehend it with dream logic. The little mushrooms at her feet turned out to be made up of precious gems, as did the flowers of all colors and sizes that glimmered everywhere. Up above some were as big as residential cubes, refracting something that looked like sunlight into multicolored beams that streaked down to enchant the forest floor. Some kind of birds or monkeys inhabited the air, chittering to each other as they darted around too quickly for her eye to follow. They left tracers.
Ellen had been a fan of Phoenix's work for years. Hell, nearly everybody alive had at least a few of his old holos somewhere. The ones with biological themes had always been too much for her, though, as they had been too much for most of the Crashers. Imaginary tears trickled down her cheeks.
Above her there was some commotion amongst the tree-things. She looked up just in time to see him descend through the canopy. With his arms outstretched in a golden sunbeam he looked like an angel or a god, his naked body obviously altered to reflect the male ideal. It was his original face, though. She met his bright green eyes and felt a shock of connection. Eye contact. Was that possible? It must have been her imagination. He floated slowly in her direction, touching down gracefully a few feet away and regarding her with interest.
"Welcome to Phantechnica, Ellen West," he said. "My name is Phoenix Starr. How may I be of service to you?" His voice was warm, rich and resonant. He'd changed that too, she knew.
"How is it that you know who I am?" she asked.
"You dialed me up," he said simply. "I wasn't expecting you for hours yet. You didn't care for the training program? I would have thought you'd have wanted to get your mind wet before charging in here with an ultimatum."
None of this was going the way she had envisioned it. "I wanted to get right down to business," she clipped, hoping he'd buy it.
If he didn't, he said nothing. It had been a long while since Ellen had seen a naked man in person. Since her husband died. Was this in person? His chest rose and fell as if with breath. Why? She found herself unexpectedly aroused at the sight of him standing there like some sort of an elf lord in this magical fantasyland he'd created, and it annoyed her.
He seemed to pick up on her thoughts. "So, are you a beautiful woman in the Static Realm, or did you alter yourself up to distract me?" It was flattery, of course. The idea had been bandied about at the Intelligence Bureau in fact, but since her image could only be changed with HoloCommand it was deemed impractical. In the end she had just been made up a bit before she was scanned. She was old enough to be his mother.
"The real world isn't static, Phoenix," she said. "It just changes very slowly. Most of the time." She stood up and gestured around her. "This is the static realm, made up of bits of scrambled light in a computer somewhere, communicating nothing."
"This doesn't communicate to you?" he asked.
"It doesn't communicate to my species." They stood facing each other for a time, both aware, perhaps, of their moment in history.
Ellen broke the silence. "But it is the damndest thing I've ever seen." The tears came again, uncontrollable and humiliating. It had been too much too fast, and the pressure was too great. She should never have volunteered for this mission. She had been so stubborn, unwilling to put Danny's life in anyone else's hands. And now, when it came right down to the line, she was letting him down. Again.
Phoenix stepped forward to put his hand on her shoulder and she pushed him away, suddenly afraid. Would it be rape if he took her here, now?
Again as if in response to her thought he was instantly fully clothed. He now wore a calibration suit like the one she had spent so many hours in. Like the one Danny was wearing the last time she saw him. "I'm sorry, Ms. West," he said. "Are you alright?"
After practicing so many lies, she was surprised to hear herself telling the truth. "No. No, I'm not alright! I think you're the most brilliant artist that ever lived and I hate you with all of my heart, and if I'm not able get through to you my son is going to die! And I haven't smelled the woods in forty years."
Phoenix smiled. "Don't rush yourself. We have plenty of time. Compressed, you know." Subjective time in Phantechnica was supposed to be about four times slower than it was in real life. Maybe only a minute or two had gone by for her body since activation. Dreamtime. She'd forgotten about that. "I know that you're an intelligence agent here to threaten me with a monopoly suit, and I think we can cut a deal that will be mutually satisfactory. It's not the end of the world, as they say. Now tell me who your son is and how he got mixed up in all this. There’s no need for talk about anybody dying, I'm sure."
So that's what he thought. It made sense. All of the monopoly research had been done on the computer and was public. But how had he accessed it? "My son's name is Danny, if you care to know. He started training at your Foundation on the day he turned old enough to legally defy me. He signed up as a monk in your so-called Order three months ago. And if you don't accept the government’s terms, he's going to die along with you and the rest of the best and brightest about a minute after I return. Terrible mishap at Main Power. Half of Section Nine blacked out and everybody on life support dead, which means you and yours and mine and a hospital down the line, too. We have no choice, Phoenix. You want to drain the vitality out of the human race and we can't let you do that. We can't just stand by and watch our children disappear into a black hole!"
"You're Danny West's mother?" He seemed to be seeing her for the first time. "I know Danny. His father was Daniel West, right? The Engineer?"
Daniel had been a part of the first skeleton crew in the warren and had helped design the original plans. They had been very much in love, but in spite of that, or perhaps because of it, he chose to keep her in suspended animation for a long time while he worked to set the stage for life underground. By the time they brought her back she hardly recognized him. She was still a young woman with the crash fresh in her mind, and he seemed to have aged twenty years instead of ten. He was a good man, and they had loved each other again in their way. Most of the first crew made the same decision, thinking to save both air and suffering by not reviving their partners until the warren was hospitable, forging on alone in penance. The few families that had been allowed to preserve one child tended to wait even longer, until there were basic facilities in place and a peer group of warren-borns had caught up in age. Danny had been born the year 20, smack in the middle of the baby boom that the media dubbed the Wave.
Phoenix's own father, everybody knew, had been an engineer, too. A brilliant nano-technician, he had been working on something that might even have made a difference, but too slowly. Jeffery Starr had been cruelly murdered along with several colleagues by a mob of non-selectants; angry that scientists should be saved when they themselves were sure to die. His mother, Diandra, had been on the list because the Committee had designated Jeffery an indispensable specialist, eligible for two places. Nobody had the heart to strike out her name after her husband was killed, and somehow she got shuffled through the process.
She'd probably be in suspended animation still, along with the rest of the thousands still waiting for cubic, but at the last minute she announced that she was pregnant and couldn't safely be put on hold. Phoenix Starr was the only child in the warren for upwards of a decade, a symbol of the collective hope and guilt of humanity. Copies of his toddler scribblings had hung on thousands of refrigerators, and when he emerged as a talented holowright nearly everyone bought discs of his work. He was richer before puberty than her husband had been in his life.
"I don't believe the part about the little accident," Phoenix said. "The government needs ten thousand martyrs like it needs another subcommittee. You don't want me dead, you just can't stand it that you can't get hold of my money. That's the black hole you're really so concerned about, isn't it? No need for high pretensions here. Nobody’s watching. Come on. Let's go up to my office and we'll talk about it." He extended his hand.
Not knowing what else to do, she took it. It was warm. Phoenix made a small gesture with his fingers and they began rising slowly together towards the treetops. "You'll find that I'm a reasonable man," he said. "But don't insult me by asking me to break my vow. I will not leave Phantechnica until the Interim Nanotechnology Bill or something very like it is signed. I could not, even if what you said were true. I'll never betray my people." Her heart sank in her chest even as she rose into the sky. Was there no hope, then?
"You're betraying your people by stealing the future!" Ellen fairly shrieked. "How can you not know that?"
They stopped in midair and he spun her roughly to face him. "Madam," he said in a savage whisper, "I'm not the one who stole the future." Then, more kindly, "I'm the one who’s giving it back."
He turned away again and they continued their ascent. When they passed through the canopy she cried out in surprise. The emerald sea below her stretched away in every direction as far as the eye could see. The light, she discovered, was not coming from a sun but from a flying saucer as big as a city spinning lazily overhead. It was high noon at the Mothertree, fading off towards evening around the edges. A world ringed in sunset. On the horizon, the first stars twinkled.
Gigantic gemstone blossoms sparkled everywhere, but the diamond lotus directly beneath the ship was obviously the centerpiece. He set her down gently in it's lushly cushioned middle and stood silently for a moment while she took in the view. She suspected that he was rather enjoying this. How could she make him understand?
"Well," he said finally. "Let's get down to business then, if you're in such a rush." He gestured for her to seat herself opposite him and made himself comfortable. "Would you care to co-create?" he asked her. "We find that it helps us to communicate more clearly."
"No, thank you." The last thing she needed was her thoughts piling up around her, broadcasting her every anxiety to her smirking nemesis.
"Suit yourself. Tea?" He looked at her expectantly but it took her a second to get that it was a question.
"Oh, uh, I... can you really?"
He lowered his lashes and she could see his eyeballs moving around in their sockets. A moment later four of the arboreal creatures arrived with a pot and two teacups on a silver salver. Up close they looked mechanical, like some kind of bejeweled self-transforming machine elves. They disappeared as quickly as they had come, trailing rainbows. Phoenix poured the tea. Earl Grey.
"Let me make a little speech," he began, "and save you a lot of trouble."
"Fine. You first," she said, glad for the chance to get her bearings.
"Thank you." He pulled a joint out of his calibration suit pocket and lit it with his palm, taking a long slow puff and watching the smoke dance away appreciatively before going on. "So,… the way I have it set up right now, the Athanor Foundation is effectively a monopoly. I'll give you the benefit of the doubt and suggest we both know that this is the opposite of a problem. If other groups got up the wherewithal to accomplish the same thing, the government's troubles would increase exponentially. Nobody wants to see that. I made sure it would be a monopoly from the very beginning, which I think was extremely considerate of me." He waved the joint in her direction and she shook her head. He shrugged.
"When I agreed to submit to their untried surgery, the HoloCommand people were more than happy to sign an exclusive use contract. For a limited time, of course. The day after the first trials, I bought up 51 percent of the company and I threw the rest of my fortune into research. I then perfected HoloCommand and used it to make money as a Spacemaster so I could afford to develop MindCommand. You see, I postulated that if you could translate your imagination to a computer, the reverse must also be true. A computer ought to be able to bring up an image in your mind!”
Phoenix had coined the designation 'Spacemaster'. It referred, she had learned from her son, to the person who commanded the live holography at one of the big dance parties that defined the Waver social scene. It was he who had originally popularized the notion of High Tide, the now infamous warren-wide web of holographicly interconnected parties that took place on every unseen full moon. Appearing as the Spacemaster Hipgnosis, he had operated both the sound and imagery controls at the same time with his mind, a trick still rarely attempted and never successfully imitated. The HoloCommand machines didn't even go on sale until he had been performing for over a year. He made a killing. Then he went and made another killing selling rigs to would-be imitators. Rigs that coincidentally required the same brainjack as MindCommand. Danny, like countless others, had spent his whole savings on one.
"But obviously it would be even better than the imagination," Phoenix continued, "Because you could pause it and rewind it and save it and share it. You could put your finger on it, so to speak. It would be a tool of connectivity and self-discovery. It would hold out the hope of a frontier." He looked away for a moment towards the perpetual sunset and took another toke. "This idea reset the compass of my life. I knew from the beginning that this was the future, and I was its servant. Its catalyst. This is what I was born for. Have you ever had a calling, Ellen West? Were you born to work for the Intelligence Bureau?" He flicked his fingers and the remains of his joint vanished.
"I went to work for the I.B. to make ends meet after Daniel died," she told him. About what she was born for, she said nothing. Perhaps it was only to be here now, having this conversation.
"I hold all the basic patents on MindCommand technology, hardware and software. All science may be monitored, but the entertainment industry was a big enough blind spot to work unnoticed in. By the time anybody else realized computer-mediated imagination was even possible, I had a working prototype. Competition never had a chance, and frankly even if there was another outfit, nobody would use it. Phantechnica is where it's happening. You know that, right?"
Ellen nodded. This was all well worn ground at the Bureau.
"My partner, Jack Harper, thinks that we can beat your little monopoly rap like we beat the encryption charge. I tend to trust Jack, if trust is the word. He's an absolute jackal of a human being but he's an excellent businessman. On the other hand, I can't afford to lose. More importantly I can't afford to be subpoenaed. I was expecting someone like you sooner or later. Sooner, actually."
Jack Harper just happened to be the owner of most of the HoloCommand stock when Phoenix came along. Now he was vice president of Psybernautics Incorporated and the second richest man alive. He had rabid pet lawyers and the current analysis was that he would probably prevail if the Athanor Foundation contested, which was a moot point. Forcing Phoenix to appear in court was the real objective. Now that an agent was wired they could serve him with papers. Imaginary summonses, signed in triplicate.
"Psybernautics Incorporated is the most successful business in the warren. I'm paying a fortune in taxes on the HoloCommand stuff and I'm employing thousands of would-be troublemakers. MindCommand itself is rather expensive by the minute as you know, and you're getting a big piece of that, too. "
"You milk them for all they’re worth and then offer it to them for free, but only if they give up everything else in exchange."
Phoenix continued as if he hadn't heard her. "What infuriates the government is that because of the Religious Freedoms Act, I pay no taxes on contributions from the faithful. Which in the case of the monks and nuns is whatever they own."
"It's true that the fake religion scam doesn't exactly endear you to the Tax Board," Ellen said dryly.
"Fake!" He drew himself up with the mock air of someone greatly offended. "I'll have you know that The Order of Chaos is entirely in earnest, nomenclature notwithstanding. MindCommand is the most important advance in spirituality since drugs. Technically speaking, anyway, and all progress is essentially technical." Now he was wearing flowing ceremonial robes that slowly changed color. "For starters you can turn off all glandular effects," he said. "If you're in a Nutshell. You can turn off all sensory input whatsoever. Or you can turn it all on." He snapped his fingers and the sky became a storm of kaleidescoping fractals. It was apparently a part of the ritual for trainees to indulge in all manner of excess so as to build up a rich catalog of computer-analyzed experiences before they Immersed. Fake calibration suits were flying off the racks. “Sensory impressions can even be shared, but it’s still pretty rough yet. Eventually I think we’ll be telepathic. It's also a terrific meditation feedback device."
Phoenix touched his hand to his head and everything went away but the lotus. He had put the chamber into Flow Mode, but his 'office' itself stayed mercifully set like the playpen. For a moment the air was full of competing imagelets. A few were explicitly sexual and she wondered for the first time (but not the last) what it was like in there when Phoenix was alone. Over the course of about thirty seconds the entire space became filled with a pure white light, only occasionally marred by a squiggle of imagery. Then he snapped his fingers again and returned them to the jungle eyrie.
"The best part is that here you have the advantage of knowing it's all true! I mean, here you know without a doubt that everything you experience is just a projection, so it gives you that extra little boost of confidence that makes all the difference. Like when you meditate in dreams."
"Do you still dream?" Ellen asked.
"Oh yes! It's mainly the dreaming part of the brain that's used. Even in suspension it turns out you get cyclic periods of random imagery. Beginners make their best stuff that way, because your dreaming mind visualizes more clearly. And of course you can save them all and review and change things. Amazing psychoanalytic tool. But I was talking about religion. Have you checked out any of our philosophical literature?"
"No," she admitted. "I've heard a little bit about it from Danny. It wasn't exactly our best subject." It had been terrifying to watch her son being drawn into a cult, and their last months together were bitter. "I do recall something softheaded about aesthetic morality."
"Heading towards the most aesthetically satisfying future, yes. Because of the good the true and the beautiful, only one is easy to identify. And all values come down to aesthetics in the end, anyway. It goes deeper than that, though: A biosphere rises up on a planet and then crashes itself, leaving behind creatures who can do this." Phoenix spread his arms to take in everything around them. "Maybe that’s what's supposed to happen! Maybe Gaia is just the larval stage, or the placenta. Human beings are supposed to be God's children, right? But the child of a sheep grows up to be a sheep and the child of a human being grows up to be a human being. I think we can be most truly in resonance with our creator, if any, by freeing our will from restrictions of expression. We'll find out what man truly is! Manifestation in the Static Realm is slow and awkward because there’s so much momentum. Problematic. With the bandwidth soon to be available, everybody in the world can have a whole universe inside of them that responds instantaneously to their whim." He beamed, apparently satisfied with himself. "It's a step in the right direction, anyway."
"Do you have any idea at all how much of a megalomaniac you are?" Ellen was incredulous.
"Here's what it comes down to," he said, leaning forward conspiratorially. "If you serve me with your little subpoena I will fail to appear in court. This, as you no doubt intend, will give you the leverage you need to shut me down. And then there will be demonstrations in every section that will last for weeks and cost lives. Mark my words, lady. You're going to have quite a riot on your hands."
"They're rioting out there already! Did you know that? Imagine you're the government, okay? A whole generation's biggest superstar disappears, promising never to return unless the constitution is amended to allow atrocities! What would you do?"
"Imagine you're the worlds biggest superstar and the government tries to assassinate you! That was the I.B., right? Just tell me and I won't have to question you in Flow. Tell me that I'll survive a month out there if I agree to return. " Ellen looked away. "I needed a safe place to hide. Anyway, I figured it wouldn't be long. The Wave starts turning voting age next year. Unless you raise it again."
"Damn it, we're not ready for nanotechnology! You don't know! You weren't there! We destroyed everything!" She threw her teacup in rage and it shattered on the diamond petals of the lotus. "Homo Sapiens has lost its privileges with nanotech. We're not wise enough. We're not capable enough."
"Homo Sapiens died with the plankton," Phoenix spat. "And maybe we've lost our privileges in the Real, if you want to get into that kind of thinking. Maybe we're only safe in our imaginations, where we can't blow ourselves up. I'm willing to concede the possibility, and now at least we have an option. But at this point there is still a chance that we could have the best of both worlds, and as long as that chance exists I believe it's my sacred duty to fight for it. Every year we waste now adds at least five years to the time it will take to repair the biosphere. In as little as fifty years it could be too late!"
"It's already to late! Everybody knows that! You're cruel to offer your followers false hope. It's been too late since twenty years before the crash!"
"No it isn't. No it isn't! Listen, Ellen, listen!" He looked her straight in the eyes, and again she felt a channel open between them. "Listen. There is a chance and I know it as a fact. A good chance. I've analyzed my father's research and I've been working with the best nanotechnologists alive! I swear to you on my honor that we might still be able to save the world. We could even bring some the animals and plants back with everything we've got on ice. But the absolute only hope requires immediate diversion of resources towards the development of nanoreplicators. I've been publicly committed to this cause for more than five years, but I've only just now gotten the evidence to confirm my theories."
"Evidence! What evidence? There aren't any nanotechnologists. Nanotechnology is against the law!"
"Nanotechnology is everywhere!" he shouted. "It's just called something else. You can't keep ingenuity down. To try is to cripple an already damaged human spirit. You passed a bill in the year Three that loosened the restrictions on computer scientists because half the equipment in every home and office was technically illegal. Hell, now that the Crashers have started to wear out, you're even letting the doctors do their jobs. My mother died of Leukemia. Did you know that nobody dies of Leukemia anymore? They've found a cure. A very small cure. But not back in 13, because you were busy slamming on the brakes right when we needed to hit the gas!"
She was surprised that he knew the metaphor. "Well, obviously the law was never intended to impede medicine. It was intended to prevent people from making little machines that could make copies of themselves and spread out of control!"
"But that's exactly what we need!"
"I don't believe that."
"Well what if you're wrong?" he challenged. "What if it turns out we could have done it and we let it go out of cowardice? Alright, we screwed up! Do we retreat in shame, or do we throw everything we've got into our last best hope?"
"I can't even consider the possibility, Phoenix," Ellen said. "I think maybe I just really can't. You can't lose all hope more than once, or if you can I don't think I could bear to find out about it."
Phoenix only nodded. "That's the reason I'm splitting my bet. With the improvements in medical technology, Crashers will hold all of the lifetime posts for another forty years at least, barring accident. You've all given up hope, but children are born with hope, and I've given that hope a couple of realistic vectors. If it turns out we can work on a solution together, great, I'd love that. Maybe those crazy kids really will get that bill passed. What I'm expecting is that they'll fail and give up on you."
"And then you would take them all. Like the pied piper. But we've paid and paid and paid! How could you do that to us?"
"This isn't about you," he said. "This is about the future. You're a historical curiosity. Unless you care to join us. Quite a few Crashers have, you know." She hadn't known. "I do appreciate your tragedy from an artistic perspective, but still it's entirely up to you."
"None of this matters!" All at once she remembered what she'd come there for. "You're either going to agree to unplug yourself and co-operate, or I'm going to tell them that you didn't and you'll die. If I don't come back, you die. If I come back with a hole in my memory, you die. I wasn't supposed to tell you this except as a last resort, but I already did anyway and I swear to you that it's the truth. So this whole conversation is pointless! The only choice you have is to return with me at once."
He actually laughed. "You haven't even heard my offer yet." He poured himself another cup of tea. "You can dispense with the threats, Ms. West. I already told you, I'm not buying it. Don't worry, I knew my non-profit status couldn't last forever. How about I agree to discreetly pay taxes on all Foundation assets and you call off the monopoly charade. Everybody goes home happy. Didn't think I'd just say yes to that, did you? See, problem solved." He shrugged. "I needed every credit I could lay my hands on, you understand, or I wouldn't have risked crossing the Tax Board in the first place. You wouldn't believe what it cost me to set all this up! Plus I'm offering an expensive benefits package; lifetime Virtuversity, body care, automatic upgrades..."
"You completely don't get it!" she exploded. " It doesn't matter about the taxes. There isn't going to be any Foundation to pay them. Phantechnica is over! It's a done deal! Can you hear me now?"
She watched it sink in in stages. Either his glandular effects were turned on, or faces still do that.
He studied her for a long moment before he spoke. "You'd honestly rather see your son dead than living in a world of his own devising? Why don't you want him to have this? I'm giving them all the life you couldn't give them! I'm giving them themselves, and each other, and an infinite space to explore. A status as pioneers and a triumphant place in history. What do you have to offer?"
"Real life!" This time it was she who held him with her eyes. "Real people. The human enterprise. You can't just escape from it. You have to face it and work with it and make it better. Life on Earth has carried on through millions of generations of striving and suffering, and all it's come down to is us. And if we drop the ball then it's all come down to nothing. To me that’s ...unaesthetic!"
"I couldn't agree more," he said. "I think you and I are on the same team. We just have different notions about reality. What I don't get is where the I.B. is coming from. Don't tell me that they've suddenly started spouting philosophy."
"Phoenix, think about it. You're stealing a generation."
"That's the part I don't understand! They rightfully hate you, you know. Soon they'll outnumber you. You can only keep them down with drugs for so long. They're starting to wise up. They're about to reach their majority and they're angry and they're smart. An entire generation with nothing to explore. Not even in the sciences, thanks to that ridiculous law. You hogged it all up and there’s nothing left. You let it run down in your hands while you wallowed in the most decadent lives imaginable. Whole nations full of Roman Emperors! And every single one of them knows it. Frankly I would think the government would be thrilled to be rid of them."
Most of Ellen's colleagues would be only too happy to ship a bunch of them off to war, if only there were still such a thing, but they couldn't afford to lose them all. "Well, who do you suppose is going to take over the infrastructure of the warren when we retire? Did you ever consider that?"
She could tell from his expression that he hadn't. "Robots?"
"Ah. Robots. But who's going to program those robots?"
He got it. She could see him get it even as he cast desperately around for an escape that wasn't there. Civilization such as it was would collapse unless the Wavers assumed their places as the inheritors of the world that the Crashers had carved out for them.
"You need them to take care of you," Phoenix said at last. "I don't know what disturbs me more, the irony or your outrageous arrogance."
"If none of you reproduce, the whole game will be over," Ellen said, sure that this much was true. "Even if the unimaginative remained behind to breed the race would suffer catastrophic trauma. Talk about arrogance! It's not enough to reject everything we've built for you. You have to reject your very humanity! We Crashers didn't start the fire, you know. We just took all the heat. Our parents and our grandparents caused most of the damage and we were the ones who got stuck with the bill. Do you think we didn't hate them?"
"At least you had grandparents. Half the Wavers don't even know what the word means."
"The point is we got shafted too, okay? But we didn't run away. We did what we had to. Not for ourselves, but for the future. For our children, because that's what humans do. We propel ourselves further into time at all costs. You're about to let everyone who’s ever lived down, and I, for one, won't let you. The show must go on!
"Well said!" Phoenix tossed his own teacup onto the diamond with a salutatory gesture. "Yes. And it will. On and on. For each of us. Compression is only getting better, you know. And of course we'll have children and they'll be better at this than we are. I never intended to stay in Phantechnica forever. Even the monks only sign up for a year at a time. Most of them would share my vow in solidarity if I'd let them, but I'm not even sure that it's safe yet. We'll have to run tests on the first batch to make sure they're not permanently adapting. Even if we missed the window for saving the biosphere, we would want to come out when the Crashers retire and there’s some power to be had. Some of us. On rotation. Our bodies have to be maintained, for one thing."
"If you've messed up my kid's head, I'll kill you myself." Danny had not told her about the one year limit.
"Calm down, Ms. West. Preliminary testing is extremely encouraging. I promise you that MindCommand doesn't rot your brain. It makes you smarter. I just want to make sure it doesn't erode our connection to the biological matrix that we're founded in. I'm probably going to end up re-enlisting people with a clause that they have to spend at least three months every year in the Static Realm, broken up any way they want. And of course they'll be maternity and paternity leave. I can't wait to see what little kids come up with! I don't suppose the current administration will ever approve the surgery for minors, but the next one will. And we'll all still be young thanks to the miracle of suspended animation! People will always want to have sex, I assure you. It loses something in the translation. Same goes for dance. Messing with the gravity is fun, but there’s nothing like the good old meatbody for some things."
"But how do you know they'll raise kids if they're not scared of death?" Ellen's voice betrayed her agony.
Phoenix seemed to find the question odd. "Every generation must seem like a new species to the one that came before," he mused. "It's true that the gap has never been so wide, and MindCommand will only make it wider. They don't identify with you, they don't respect you, they don't absorb your media, they don't speak your language. But they're not a different genus, I'm certain of it! The genetic imperative isn't about to be supplanted by a machine. Besides, we're not immortal, we're just very long-lived. Join us and the odds are you'll survive to see the worlds your great, great, great-grandchildren design."
Could what he was saying be true? Once enunciated, it sounded obvious. What if she were about to pull the plug on paradise? For months she had nursed her arguments and rehearsed them until they had become her personal mantras. Now, doubt.
He caught her at it and pounced. "You're not so sure now, are you? Please, Ellen, for Danny's sake listen to both sides before you pass judgement. You owe that much to your son. It's not extinction that the Bureau is worried about. They're worried about who's going to pamper their withered asses and program their holovids."
"The decision has already been made. I'm just the messenger. " A cold feeling began to spread in the pit of her stomach. Did Phoenix still get that?
He glanced around like a trapped animal, and then appeared to come to a decision. “I’m going to show you something as a mother,” he said, “and not as an intelligence agent.”
Without warning a swarm of small silvery machines poured out of an opening in the spaceship and encircled the lotus.
"What the hell are those?!" Ellen gasped.
"They're nanites," Phoenix replied. "Blown up big enough to work with. Your son designed some of them, in fact. It's the best kept secret in Phantechnica, and the only hope for the planet."
Danny? An engineer? For an instant she felt a rush of pride. "This is illegal," she said, shaking her head in disbelief.
"Yes. This is the only place we could do it without being monitored. Also the only place it could be done safely at present. If anything gets out of hand all we have to do is delete it. We imported holo-scans that go down to the atomic scale from the University so it's easy enough to sim whatever we want. When forty years have passed for you, we will have conducted upwards of two hundred years worth of compressed research and run millions of high-speed simulations. We're a generation cocooning, and when our time comes, we'll be ready."
"Ready?" Her mind buzzed and spun like the things in the sky. Weapons of mass destruction in the hands of children. "How could you possibly know that for sure? How could you dare without knowing?"
"We're testing as rigorously as time will allow. It's the same thin margin that we've always had. Primates don't deliver until they're cornered. What if you'd been forbidden to develop suspension tanks? The future belongs to the Wavers as much as it does to you. More, because they have longer to live with it and they have to present it to their children as the best they could do, and face their judgment. The decision should rightly belong to them. You've invented a new sin by robbing everyone who comes after you. If you commit it again, it will not be forgiven." With a nod he dismissed the nanites and they flew off towards the ship. "I'm offering you a second chance."
The magnetic poles that defined her moral vertical wobbled nauseously, threatening to switch and bring down her universe. Seen through Phoenix's eyes the bureaucrats who had sent her on this mission became the worst imaginable parasites, sucking up all possibility in every direction. It was the truth that many of them weren't pleasant people, but surely they had the best interest of the species at heart. They'd warned her that Phoenix was a master manipulator. His words made her want to believe in his dream. The whole production was subtly designed to wow the visitor into collusion with its basic deception. He could make suicidal technologies sound like universal panaceas. He could make kids spending most of their lives in coffins sound like the natural thrust of evolution. It was obvious that he believed every word of it. What he lacked was a grasp of the human factor.
"Even if you ran a billion simulations," she said miserably, "you couldn't account for human folly. The replicators and even the programs might be perfect, but the operators still won't be. Greed is what destroyed the Earth, not nanites or plutonium. If a machine can't dissuade us from breeding, I doubt that it can keep us from fighting, either. I wish it were otherwise."
"I honestly think that you're wrong," Phoenix replied. "I pray that you are. For one thing the crash culled a lot of killer genes because they needed mostly scientists. The only violent deaths in years have been suicides. In Phantechnica, we’ve mastered our glands. We've solved our real estate problem and soon we'll have the resource shortage licked in realspace. That's even if we can't repair the surface. If we can, we'll have the best of all possible scenarios. An infinite space for each of us within and a living world to share for sex and dancing. "
Ellen West hugged her knees, unable to speak. Her thoughts were a vertiginous swirl of conflicting imperatives, too complex to sort. If Phoenix was right she had become the angel of death. If he was wrong, she was saving the world. She desperately needed for him to be wrong. Those goons would push the button if she failed. If he emerged he would die just as surely, and his dream with him. Yet she could not bear to face the inevitable without moral conviction.
"I wish," she said. " Now that I've seen this, I wish there were a way. I wish we could co-exist. You've got to believe me that there’s nothing that I can do. Maybe if you just came out and explained all this yourself..."
"I repeat to you: I'll not break my vow. I'd rather die than betray the collective vision." His voice was husky with passion and solemn despair.
"Would you make that same choice for your people? For my son? Is love one of the effects you can just turn off here?" The dam broke within her and she wept. "As a mother I beg you to spare all their lives! Don’t let them be destroyed just to spite us. They're some of the best... Danny's the best kid in the world and he believes in you with all of his... Please! I never got to say good bye!" She put her face into her hands and sobbed.
When she raised her head again Danny was standing right in front of her. He was everywhere she looked but he wouldn't hold still. Either she'd accidentally activated the co-creation software or Phoenix had put her on Flow. The treetop ocean was still there, but the air was full of confusion. She tried to pull herself together but she only cried harder.
"Don't fight it, Ellen. Watch it." Phoenix's voice sounded far away.
She lay back and saw her mind spread out through distorting tears. Mostly there was Danny everywhere at every age. He had been her life for as long as she could remember and she missed him more now than she had ever missed her husband when he died. There was Daniel, sad and kind. Men at the Bureau. Kids at the Foundation. She saw snatches of her childhood home and thought her chest would cave in from grief. There was Danny playing on a beach somewhere, tan and smiling. Impossible. Then the ocean filled with corpses. The terror of the crash came flooding back to her. She saw rows of waiting suspension tanks and the doomed masses that had tried to destroy them. Through the windows children's faces stared with blank, accusing eyes.
She felt Phoenix take her hand and she let him. They had both lost everything now. She glanced over and saw that he was crying, too. With his other hand he touched his forehead and gestured back to the sky. The antique crash coffins were replaced with Foundation Nutshells standing on their bottom ends like refrigerators. A row of girls and boys in black and white stepped forward and entered them, then the backsides swung open like trick wardrobes and they emerged in full color to run off laughing. The Nutshells turned to face them and through their open doors she could see yellow brick roads and sunshine. Then they were burning. Her boss was laughing, rubbing his swollen gut. She lashed out at him and he caught fire, too. How much of this was her and how much of it was Phoenix Starr?
A mob of non-selectants pounded vainly on a thick steel door smeared with blood. As she watched, they morphed into aging Crashers, throwing themselves against an enormous locked Nutshell. It opened up to embrace them. That was his doing. All but a few ran away in shame and horror. Her again? They threw bombs at the Nutshell from afar as they began to decay into bones.
Slowly the walls of the Nutshell became transparent and Danny appeared inside, clutching a golden gift to his chest. Or was it coming out of his heart? The ribbons grew longer and longer. They seemed to be searching vainly for a way out of the box. Hologear grew out of Danny's back and plugged itself into his head. Above the Crashers a golden heart took form and dissolved, raining shining droplets down on their skeletons and returning them to life. If only. If only. She squeezed Phoenix's hand.
"That's it!" their shared hallucination froze in mid movement and he leapt to his feet, pointing. "I got it! You got it! He picked her up and swung her around. "Ellen West, you're a genius! I'd never have thought of it on my own but it was staring me straight in the face. You've won yourself a lifetime membership, Lady. I think you just saved all our lives!"
"I don't understand," Ellen shook herself out of the trance. "What are you talking about?"
"This!" He banished all the frozen images but Danny. "The HoloCommand gear in Phantechnica. It's brilliant. Of course we could do that. It uses the same jack. Everybody already has the software installed, in fact. We use it to view holo that we've imported from outside."
"You can do that? I wondered when you said that you got scans from the University. I thought holography and MindCommand were incompatible."
"Oh, no, we get holo or your body couldn't have been scanned in at the Foundation. We import it through HoloCommand, which can bring up an image here. We have full Net access. We just don't bother with it much because the quality is vastly inferior. It's MindCommand that doesn't translate into holo. HoloCommand is so simple you can operate it while conscious. It runs like a minor application here, see?" With a gesture a few hundred Wavers appeared in miniature, shouting and brandishing signs. The news. He waved it away again. "But I only have it set up on view mode. Stupid! I guess I was having too much fun disappearing. I can't believe I almost blew everything because I wanted to be missed. How many hours a week do you think they'll accept? We have important work to do for ourselves, as you've seen."
She couldn't quite parse what he was saying, but she grasped at his contagious excitement. Anything that might offer a way out of her untenable position. "I still don't see what you mean. How many hours of what will who accept?"
"Labor! We can do it from here! All I have to do is hack an exact sim of HoloCommand that we can use from inside. Something that that writes in a language that Oneiros can understand! It would be simple enough to export. Almost everyone just holos their work in anyway. I could even be a Spacemaster again!" He seemed to light up from within. "Every dance floor in the warren is already tricked out with holocameras,
and now I can watch them all at once." He raised his fingers to his brow and for a moment the treetops became a sea of wavers dancing wildly in slow motion. "And because of the time differential my output will be four times richer than anything they've ever seen on holo. To say nothing of the music. Can you imagine it? And now, Phoenix Starr, live from Phantechnica! Oh, I'm so looking forward to the next High Tide!"
"Aren't you still a Spacemaster here?" she asked, confused.
"Yes, of course, and it's all that I dreamed it would be, but nobody here is a superstar. Once you've scaled the learning curve it becomes much more fun to create than to consume. And the most fun is to do it together! You're not so bad at it yourself, you know. That was terrific with the golden heart bit."
Ellen was shocked. "Oh, that wasn't me. I thought it was you."
He looked thoughtful. “Well, call it a synthesis. I wouldn't be surprised if the computer had something to do with it, too. Old Onerous is waking up, you know. I'm almost sure. He's still just a baby, though. He's only interfaced with a few thousand minds so far. I can't wait to see what happens! We'll all grow up together, maybe." He put his finger to his lips and whispered. "Don't tell."
"I won't." How had she found herself wanting to keep this place's secrets? "That is if... Oh, Phoenix!" Tears again.
"Listen." he said. "Here’s what you're going to tell them. Say I agreed to drop the non-profit status and all new applicants will have to sign a work agreement. Ten hours a week standard time. That's forty to us. I feel like I'm selling my people into indentured servitude, but I don't see a choice and it's not for too long. Tell them we'll buy out the rest of the caskets, too. They'll have a lot to get rid of because with so many Wavers gone there’ll be cubic to spare for the first time. I'll donate it all to the Commonwealth for the establishment of persons still waiting in stasis from the crash! There’s only room for so many people in the warren right now. Why should the ones that don't fit represent idle cycles? What do you think? Will they go for it? I guarantee that if everyone in Phantechnica dies upon your return there'll be far more backlash than they can handle. What you're contemplating is an act of war."
The Bureau had anticipated millions of credits worth of damage and hundreds of suicides in the event that Phantechnica had to be destroyed. Almost everyone was praying that Phoenix would see reason and come out. Ellen wasn't the only agent with a child in the Order of Chaos. What they had planned was an act of desperation. Given the choice between an absent generation and an enraged one, Phantechnican Wavers might just come to look like the ideal workforce.
"All of the labor will be absolutely free, of course. Our tribute and our contribution to the life from which we have emerged. You gave your all to prepare a space in which Phantechnica could cohere. We owe you a debt of gratitude. Besides which, you leave us with no choice. Let us now make a covenant between our species. We owe you our lives, and I promise that we’ll not abandon you. All we ask in return is our birthright. The chance to solve our own problems and to live as we see fit. You carried the torch through the most difficult passage, and now it's come time to let go."
Phoenix was naked again. He appeared before her as himself; skinny and awkward and pale as he'd been in the warren. "I know we could blow it," he said in his own voice. "I do know. But from here on out, each and every generation will inherit that risk. It's too late to reverse that now. We have to learn to have faith, Ellen. Faith in ourselves, which is the hardest, and in each other and in the future. I honestly believe that we do manifest." He stared into her soul through a billion unseen wires.
. "I believe we can manifest the most aesthetic possible future right now, here together, you and I. What do you say? Will the Bureau accept our first treaty? Say yes and I will know that it is so and not be afraid."
She stared back for what could have been a moment or a year, letting the pieces fall into place. All of what had come before seemed to her then to have been predestined; part of a play they were acting out, and yet somehow more real than the life she'd been living. A trick of this dreamworld with its colors and its time and changes. They would accept the agreement. She saw it with a clear certainty that took her by surprise, and she began to convulse with grief and relief at the same time. "Yes," she said at last. "God help us."
"Amen." He bowed his head. "I wouldn't tell them about the nanotech if I were you. It will only complicate the matter."
"I think I'm going to try as hard as I can to forget about that myself. I can't believe Danny is..." Then, after a moment, "His father would be proud."
"You should be, too," he said. "I know that he'll be proud of you when he hears what you've done today. Shall we dial him up and tell him?"
After everything else this was too much. Her head swam. How was it that she hadn't even considered the possibility? All she'd ever wanted was to know what he was thinking. Now, perhaps, she would have a second chance. But not today. "I think I've had enough excitement this time," she said, trembling. "Thank you. I have to get back and call off the massacre." She started to laugh, but managed to get it under control before it was too late. It was time to go home.
"Well, there’s no hurry. I was serious about that membership."
"How do I get back?"
"Just dial me up. Oh. Back to the Static Realm, you mean. Go the menu and choose Exit. You'll love it."
She stood awkwardly for a moment, uncertain. Everything had happened so fast. "Will you give Danny something for me? Can you turn me back on for a second?"
Ellen placed one cupped hand over the other and visualized a golden heart. A small one that she had worn on a chain as a girl, lost before the crash. When she lifted the top hand to peek it was there, just as she'd pictured it. With a blink it was set. She held it out to Phoenix, who took it. Then he took her in his arms.
"You did record a kiss, didn't you?"
She blushed, if one still did. "I, uh, wasn't exactly expecting it to come up."
"That's alright. You can borrow one of mine." He kissed her soundly on the lips and she felt a warm tingle, at once alien and familiar. A translated memory. She wondered with surprising jealousy with whom he'd shared the original.
"I suggest you recalibrate while you're out there," he said. "Everybody needs to have kisses."
She nodded. "Thank you."
"Thank you, Ellen West. I make you my ambassador. Go and tell them that you've bridged the gap." He held up the token she’d condensed. “When next I see Danny, I’ll tell him his mother stopped by.”
“Give him my love.” She swallowed hard.
"He has it already. Go give him his dreams."
She looked around her at the improbable jungle, at the spaceship, at the sky. She glanced again at Phoenix Starr and he winked at her and grinned.
She set her tongue and prepared herself for the unexpected. A leap of faith.
“Menu,” she said, and then “Exit,” and moved on.
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