Maria gave in and learned how to use a mind"s eye control panel to switch between her Elysian body and her Autoverse telepresence robot. She stretched the robot"s arms and looked around the glistening flight deck of the Ambassador. She was lying in an acceleration couch, alongside the other three members of the crew. According to the flight plan, the robot was almost weightless now-but she"d chosen to filter out the effects of abnormal gravity, high or low. The robot knew how to move itself, in response to her wishes, under any conditions; inflicting herself with space sickness for the sake of "realism" would be absurd. She was not in the Autoverse, after all-she had not become this robot. Her entire model-of-a-human-body was still being run back in Elysium; the robot was connected to that model in a manner not much different from the nerve-induction link between a flesh-and-blood visitor to a VR environment, and his or her software puppet.
She flicked a mental switch and returned to the cloned apartment. Durham, Repetto and Zemansky sat in their armchairs, staring blankly ahead; little more than place markers, really. She went back to the Ambassador, but opened a small window in a corner of her visual field, showing the apartment through her Elysian eyes. If she was merely running a puppet in the Autoverse, she wanted to be clear about where her "true" body was supposed to be located. Knowing that there was an unobserved and insensate shop-window dummy occupying a chair on her behalf was not quite enough.
From the acceleration couch, she watched a-solid-display screen, high on the far wall of the flight deck, which showed their anticipated trajectory, swooping down on a shallow helical path toward Planet Lambert. They"d injected the ship through the border at the nearest possible point-one hundred and fifty thousand kilometers above the orbital plane-with a convenient preexisting velocity; it would take very little fuel to reach their destination, and descend.
She said, "Does anyone know if they ever bothered to rehearse a real landing in this thing?" Her vocal tract, wherever it was, felt perfectly normal as she spoke-but the timbre of her voice sounded odd through the robot"s ears. The tricks being played on her model-of-a-brain to edit out the growing radio time lag between her intentions and the robot"s actions didn"t bear thinking about.
Durham said, "Everything was rehearsed. They recreated the whole prebiotic planetary system for the test flights. The only difference between then and now was that they could materialize the ship straight into the vacuum, wherever they liked-and control the puppet crew directly."
Violating Autoverse laws all over the place. It was unnerving to hear it spelled out: the lifeless Autoverse, in all its subatomic detail, had been a mere simulation; the presence of the Lambertians had made all the difference.
A second display screen showed the planet itself, an image from a camera outside the hull. The view was no different from that which the spy software had shown her a thousand times; although the camera and the robot"s eyes were subject to pure Autoverse physics, once the image was piped into her non-Autoverse brain, the usual false-color conventions were employed. Maria watched the blue-and-white disk growing nearer, with a tightening in her chest. Free falling with the illusion of weight. Descending and staying still.
She said, "Why show ourselves to the Lambertians, immediately? Why not send Mouthpiece ahead to prepare the ground-to make sure that they"re ready to face us? There are no animals down there larger than a wasp-and none at all with internal skeletons, walking on their hind legs. Humanoid robots one hundred and eighty centimeters tall will look like something out of their nightmares."
Repetto replied, "Novel stimuli aren"t disabling for the Lambertians. They"re not going to go into shock. But we"ll certainly grab their attention."
Durham added, "We"ve come to reveal ourselves as the creators of their universe. There"s not much point being shy about it."
They hit the upper layers of the atmosphere over the night side. Land and ocean alike were in almost perfect darkness: no moonlight, no starlight, no artificial illumination. The ship began to vibrate; instrument panels on the flight deck hummed, and the face of one display screen audibly cracked. Then radio contact was disrupted by the cone of ionized gas around the hull, and they had no choice but to return to the apartment, to sit out the worst of it. Maria stared at the golden towers of the City, weighing the power of their majestic, self-declared invulnerability against the unassailable logic of the buffeting she"d just witnessed.
They returned for the last seconds of the descent, after the parachutes had already been deployed. The impact itself seemed relatively smooth-or maybe that was just her gravity filter coddling her. They left their acceleration couches and waited for the hull to cool: cameras showed the grass around them blackened, but true to predictions the fire had died out almost at once.
Repetto unpacked Mouthpiece from a storage locker, opening the canister full of robot insects and tipping them into the air. Maria flinched as the swarm flew around aimlessly for several seconds, before assembling into a tight formation in one corner of the deck.
Durham opened the airlock doors, outer first, then inner. The robots didn"t need pneuma of any kind, but the Ambassador"s designers must have toyed with the possibility of mapping human biochemistry into the Autoverse-actually creating "aliens" who could meet the Lambertians as equals-instead of playing with elaborate masks.
They stepped out onto the scorched ground. It was early morning; Maria blinked at the sunlight, the clear white sky. the warmth on her robot skin came through loud and clear. The blue-green meadow stretched ahead as far as she could see; she walked away from the ship-a squat ceramic truncated cone, its white heat shield smoke-darkened in untidy streaks-and the highlands to the south came into view behind it. Lush vegetation crowded the slopes, but the peaks were bare, rust-red.
A chorus of faint chirps and hums filled the air. She glanced at Mouthpiece, but it was hovering, almost silently, near Repetto; these sounds were coming from every direction. She recognized some of the calls-she"d listened to a few of the nonsentient species, in a quick tour of the evolutionary history leading up to Lambertian communication-and there was nothing particularly exotic about any of them; she might have been hearing cicadas, bees, wasps, mosquitoes. When a faint breeze blew from the east, though, carrying something which the robot"s olfactory apparatus mapped to the scent of salt water, Maria was suddenly so overwhelmed by the modest cluster of sensations that she thought her legs might give way beneath her. But it didn"t happen; she made no deliberate attempt to swoon, so the robot just stood like a statue.
Durham approached her. "You"ve never been on Lambert before, have you?"
She frowned. "How could I?"
"Passively. Most Autoverse scholars have done it." Maria remembered Zemansky"s offer of a VR representation, when she first met the Contact Group. Durham bent down and picked a handful of grass, then scattered the blades. "But we could never do that before."
"Hallelujah, the Gods have landed. What are you going to do if the Lambertians ask for a miracle? Pluck a few leaves as a demonstration of your omnipotence?"
He shrugged. "We can always show them the ship."
"They"re not stupid. The ship proves nothing. Why should they believe that we"re running the Autoverse, when we can"t even break its laws?"
"Cosmology. The primordial cloud. The convenient amounts of each element." She couldn"t help looking skeptical. He said, "Whose side are you on? You designed the primordial cloud! You sketched the original topography! You made the ancestor of the whole Lambertian biosphere! All I want to do is tell them that. It"s the truth, and they have to face it."
Maria looked about, at a loss for words. It seemed clearer than ever that this world was not her creation; it existed on its own terms.
She said, "Isn"t that like saying... that your flesh-and-blood original was nothing but a lunatic with some strange delusions? And that any other, better explanation he invented for his life had to be wrong?"
Durham was silent for a while. Then he said, "Elysium is at stake. What do you want us to do? Map ourselves into Autoverse biochemistry and come here to live?"
"I"ve seen worse places."
"The sun"s going to freeze in another billion years. I promised these people immortality."
Repetto called out to them, "Are you ready? I"ve spotted the team; they"re not far off. About three kilometers west." Maria was baffled for a moment, until she recalled that he still had access to all of the spy software. They were, still, outside the Autoverse looking in.
Durham yelled back, "Ten seconds." He turned to Maria. "Do you want to be part of this, or not? It has to be done the way I"ve planned it-and you can either go along with that, or go back."
She was about to reply angrily that he had no right to start making ultimatums, when she noticed the tiny window with its view of the apartment, hovering in the corner of her eye.
Elysium was at stake. Hundreds of thousands of people. The Lambertians would survive the shock of learning their "true" cosmology. Elysium might or might not survive the invention of an alternative.
She said, "You"re right; it has to be done. So let"s go spread the word."
+ + +
The team was hovering in a loose formation over the meadow. Maria had had visions of being attacked, but the Lambertians didn"t seem to notice their presence at all. They stopped about twenty meters from the swarm, while Mouthpiece went forward.
Repetto said, "This is the dance to signify that we have a message to convey."
Mouthpiece came to a halt in a tight vertical plane, and the individual robots began to weave around each other in interlocking figure eights. The Lambertians responded immediately, aligning themselves into a similar plane. Maria glanced at Repetto; he was beaming like a ten-year-old whose home-made shortwave radio had just started to emit promising crackling noises.
She whispered, "It looks like they"re ignoring us completely... but do they think they"re talking to real Lambertians-or have they noticed the differences?"
"I can"t tell. But as a group, they"re reacting normally, so far."
Zemansky said, "If a robot greeted you in your own language, wouldn"t you reply?"
Repetto nodded. "And the instinct goes far deeper, with the Lambertians. I don"t think they"d... discriminate. If they"ve noticed the differences, they"ll want to understand them, eventually-but the first priority will still be to receive the message. And to judge it."
Mouthpiece began to drift into a more complex formation. Maria could make little sense of it-but she could see the Lambertians tentatively begin to mimic the change. This was it: Durham and Repetto"s cosmological package deal. An explanation for the primordial cloud, and for the deep rules underlying Autoverse chemistry: a cellular automaton, created with the cloud in place, five billion years ago. The two billion years of planetary formation which strictly hadn"t happened seemed like a forgivable white lie, for the moment; messy details like that could be mentioned later, if the basic idea was accepted.
Durham said, "Bad messages usually can"t be conveyed very far. Maybe the fact that Mouthpiece clearly isn"t a team for a nearby community will add credence to the theory."
Nobody replied. Zemansky smiled sunnily. Maria watched the dancing swarms, hypnotized. The Lambertians seemed to be imitating Mouthpiece almost perfectly, now-but that only proved that they"d "read" the message. It didn"t yet mean that they believed it.
Maria turned away, and saw black dots against the sky. Persistence of vision was back in Elysium, in her model-of-a-brain. She remembered her dissatisfaction, clutching Autoverse molecules with her real-world hands and gloves. Had she come any closer to knowing the Autoverse as it really was?
Repetto said, "They"re asking a question. They"re asking for... clarification." Maria turned back. The Lambertians had broken step with Mouthpiece, and the swarm had rearranged itself into something like an undulated black flying carpet. "They want "the rest of the message"-the rest of the theory. They want a description of the universe within which the cellular automaton was created."
Durham nodded. He looked dazed, but happy. "Answer them. Give them the TVC rules."
Repetto was surprised. "Are you sure? That wasn"t the plan-"
"What are we going to do? Tell them it"s none of their business?"
"I"ll translate the rules. Give me five seconds."
Mouthpiece began a new dance. The waving carpet dispersed, then began to fall into step.
Durham turned to Maria. "This is better than we"d dared to hope. This way, they reinforce us. They won"t just stop challenging our version; they"ll help to affirm it."
Zemansky said, "They haven"t accepted it yet. All they"ve said is that the first part of what we"ve told them makes no sense alone. They might ask about real-world physics, next."
Durham closed his eyes, smiling. He said quietly, "Let them ask. We"ll explain everything-right back to the Big Bang, if we have to."
Repetto said, puzzled, "I don"t think it"s holding."
Durham glanced at the swarm. "Give them a chance. They"ve barely tried it out."
"You"re right. But they"re already sending back a... rebuttal."
The swarm"s new pattern was strong and simple: a sphere, rippling with waves like circles of latitude, running from pole to pole. Repetto said, "The software can"t interpret their response. I"m going to ask it to reassess all the old data; there may be a few cases where this dance has been observed before-but too few to be treated as statistically significant."
Maria said, "Maybe we"ve made some kind of grammatical error. Screwed up the syntax, so they"re laughing in our face-without bothering to think about the message itself."
Repetto said, "Not exactly." He frowned, like a man trying to visualize something tricky. Mouthpiece began to echo the spherical pattern. Maria felt a chill in her Elysian bowels.
Durham said sharply, "What are you doing?"
"Just being polite. Just acknowledging their message."
"You may not want to hear it."
"I can find out for myself, if I have to." He took a step toward Repetto, more a gesture of impatience than a threat; a cloud of tiny blue gnat-like creatures flew up from the grass, chirping loudly.
Repetto glanced at Zemansky; something electric passed between them. Maria was confused-they were, unmistakably, lovers; she"d never noticed before. But perhaps the signals had passed through other channels, before, hidden from her. Only now-
Repetto said, "Their response is that the TVC rules are false-because the system those rules describe would endure forever. They"re rejecting everything we"ve told them, because it leads to what they think is an absurdity."
Durham scowled. "You"re talking absurdities. They"ve had transfinite mathematics for thousands of years."
"As a formality, a tool-an intermediate step in certain calculations. None of their models lead to infinite results. Most teams would never go so far as to try to communicate a model which did; that"s why this response is one we"ve rarely seen before."
Durham was silent for a while, then he said firmly, "We need time to decide how to handle this. We"ll go back, study the history of the infinite in Lambertian culture, find a way around the problem, then return."
Maria was distracted by something bright pulsing at the edge of her vision. She turned her head-but whatever it was seemed to fly around her as fast as she tracked it. Then she realized it was the window on Elysium; she"d all but banished it from her attention, filling it in like a blind spot. She tried to focus on it, but had difficulty making sense of the image. She centered and enlarged it.
The golden towers of Permutation City were flowing past the apartment window. She cried out in astonishment, and put her hands up, trying to gesture to the others. The buildings weren"t simply moving away; they were softening, melting, deforming. She fell to her knees, torn between a desire to return to her true body, to protect it-and dread at what might happen if she did. She dug one hand into the Lambertian soil; it felt real, solid, trustworthy.
Durham grabbed her shoulder. "We"re going back. Stay calm. It"s only a view-we"re not part of the City."
She nodded and steeled herself, fighting every visceral instinct about the source of the danger, and the direction in which she should flee. The cloned apartment looked as solid as ever... and in any case, its demise could not, in itself, harm her. The body she had to defend was invisible: the model running at the far end of Durham"s territory. She would be no safer pretending to be on Planet Lambert than she would pretending to be in the cloned apartment.
The four of them stood by the window, speechless, as the City rapidly and silently... imploded. Buildings rushed by, abandoning their edges and details, converging on a central point. The outskirts followed, the fields and parks flowing in toward the golden sphere which was all that remained of the thousand towers. Rainforest passed in a viridian blur. Then the scene turned to blackness as the foothills crowded in, burying their viewpoint in a wall of rock.
Maria turned to Durham. "The people who were in there... ?"
"They"ll all have left. Shocked but unharmed. Nobody was in there-in the software-any more than we were." He was shaken, but he seemed convinced.
"And what about the founders with adjoining territory?"
"I"ll warn them. Everyone can come here, everyone can shift. We"ll all be safe, here. The TVC grid is constantly growing; we can keep moving away, while we plan the next step."
Zemansky said firmly, "The TVC grid is decaying. The only way to be safe is to start again. Pack everything into a new Garden-of-Eden configuration, and launch Elysium again."
Repetto said, "If that"s possible. If the infinite is still possible." Born into a universe without limits, without death, he seemed transfixed by the Lambertians" verdict.
A red glow appeared in the distance; it looked like a giant sphere of luminous rubble. As Maria watched, it brightened, then broke apart into a pattern of lights, linked by fine silver threads. A neon labyrinth. A fairground at night, from the air. The colors were wrong, but the shape was unmistakable: it was a software map of the City. The only thing missing was the highway, the data link to the hub.
Before Maria could say a word, the pattern continued to rearrange itself. Dazzling pinpricks of light appeared within a seemingly random subset of the processes, then moved together, clustering into a tightly linked core. Around them, a dimmer shell formed by the remaining software settled into a symmetrical configuration. The system looked closed, self-contained.
They watched it recede, in silence.
Peer turned and looked behind him. Kate had stopped dead in the middle of the walkway. All the energy seemed to drain out of her; she put her face in her hands, then sank to her knees.
She said flatly, "They"ve gone, haven"t they? They must have discovered us... and now this is their punishment. They"ve left the City running... but they"ve deserted it."
"We don"t know that."
She shook her head impatiently. "They will have made another version-purged of contamination-for their own use. And we"ll never see them again." A trio of smartly dressed puppets approached, and walked straight through her, smiling and talking among themselves.
Peer walked over to her and sat cross-legged on the floor beside her. He"d already sent software probes hunting for any trace of the Elysians, without success-but Kate had insisted on scouring a reconstruction of the City, on foot, as if their own eyes might magically reveal some sign of habitation that the software had missed.
He said gently, "There are a thousand other explanations. Someone might have... I don"t know... created a new environment so astonishing that they"ve all gone off to explore it. Fashions sweep Elysium like plagues-but this is their meeting place, their center of government, their one piece of solid ground. They"ll be back."
Kate uncovered her face and gave him a pitying look. "What kind of fashion would tempt every Elysian out of the City, in a matter of seconds? And where did they hear about this great work of art which they had to rush off and experience? I monitor all the public networks; there was nothing special leading up to the exodus. But if they"d discovered us-if they knew we were listening in-then they wouldn"t have used the public channels to announce the fact, would they?"
Peer couldn"t see why not; if the Elysians had found them, they"d also know that he and Kate were powerless to influence the City-let alone its inhabitants-in any way. There was no reason to arrange a secret evacuation. He found it hard enough to believe that anyone would want to punish two harmless stowaways-but it was harder still to accept that they"d been "exiled" without being dragged through an elaborate ritual of justice-or at the very least, publicly lambasted for their crime, before being formally sentenced. The Elysians never missed the opportunity for a bit of theater; swift, silent retribution just didn"t ring true.
He said, "If the data link to the hub was broken, unintentionally-"
Kate was scornful. "It would have been fixed by now."
"Perhaps. That depends on the nature of the problem." He hesitated. "Those four weeks I was missing... we still don"t know if I was cut off from you by a fault in the software at our level-or whether the problem was somewhere deeper. If there are faults appearing in the City itself, one of them might have severed the links to the rest of Elysium. And it might take some time for the problem to be pinned down; anything that"s taken seven thousand years to reveal itself could turn out to be elusive."
Kate was silent for a while, then she said, "There"s an easy way to find out if you"re right. Increase our slowdown-keep increasing it-and see what happens. Program our exoselves to break in and switch us back to the normal rate if there"s any sign of the Elysians... but if that doesn"t happen, keep ploughing ahead into the future, until we"re both convinced that we"ve waited long enough."
Peer was surprised; he liked the idea-but he"d imagined that Kate would have preferred to prolong the uncertainty. He wasn"t sure if it was a good sign or not. Did it mean she wanted to make a clean break from the Elysians? To banish any lingering hope of their return, as rapidly as possible? Or was it proof of just how desperately she wanted them back?
He said, "Are you sure you want to do that?"
"I"m sure. Will you help me program it? You"re the expert at this kind of thing."
"Here and now?"
"Why not? The whole point is to save ourselves from waiting."
Peer created a control panel in the air in front of them, and together they set up the simple time machine.
Kate hit the button.
Slowdown one hundred. The puppets using the walkway accelerated into invisible streaks. Slowdown ten thousand. Night and day chugged by, then flashed, then flickered-slowdown one million-then merged. Peer glanced up to watch the arc of the sun"s path slide up and down the sky with the City"s mock seasons, ever faster, until it smeared into a dull glowing band. Slowdown one billion. The view was perfectly static, now. There were no long-term fake astronomical cycles programmed into the virtual sky. No buildings rose, or crumbled. The empty, invulnerable City had nothing to do but repeat itself: to exist, and exist, and exist. Slowdown one trillion.
Peer turned to Kate. She sat in an attentive pose, head up, eyes averted, as if she was listening for something. The voice of an Elysian hyperintelligence, the endpoint of a billion years of self-directed mutation, reaching out to encompass the whole TVC grid? Discovering their fate? Judging them, forgiving them, and setting them free?
Peer said, "I think you"ve won the bet. They"re not coming back." He glanced at the control panel, and felt a stab of vertigo; more than a hundred trillion years of Standard Time had elapsed. But if the Elysians had cut all ties with them, Standard Time was meaningless. Peer reached out to halt their acceleration, but Kate grabbed him by the wrist.
She said quietly, "Why bother? Let it climb forever. It"s only a number, now."
"Yes." He leaned over and kissed her on the forehead.
"One instruction per century. One instruction per millennium. And it makes no difference. You"ve finally got your way."
He cradled Kate in his arms, while Elysian aeons slipped away. He stroked her hair, and watched the control panel carefully. Only one number was rising; everything but the strange fiction of Elapsed Standard Time stayed exactly the same.
No longer tied to the growth of the Elysians, the City remained unchanged, at every level. And that meant, in turn, that the infrastructure which Carter had woven into the software for them had also ceased to expand. The simulated "computer" which ran them, composed of the City"s scattered redundancies, was now a finite "machine," with a finite number of possible states.
They were mortal again.
It was a strange feeling. Peer looked around the empty walkway, looked down at the woman in his arms, feeling like he"d woken from a long dream-but when he searched himself for some hint of a waking life to frame it, there was nothing. David Hawthorne was a dead stranger. The Copy who"d toured the Slow Clubs with Kate was as distant as the carpenter, the mathematician, the librettist.
Who am I?
Without disturbing Kate, he created a private screen covered with hundreds of identical anatomical drawings of the brain; his menu of mental parameters. He hit the icon named CLARITY.
He"d generated a thousand arbitrary reasons to live. He"d pushed his philosophy almost as far as it would go. But there was one last step to take.
He said, "We"ll leave this place. Launch a universe of our own. It"s what we should have done long ago."
Kate made a sound of distress. "How will I live, without the Elysians? I can"t survive the way you do: rewiring myself, imposing happiness. I can"t do it."
"You won"t have to."
"It"s been seven thousand years. I want to live among people again."
"Then you"ll live among people."
She looked at him hopefully. "We"ll create them? Run the ontogenesis software? Adam-and-Eve a new world of our own?"
Peer said, "No. I"ll become them. A thousand, a million. Whatever you want. I"ll become the Solipsist Nation."
Kate pulled away from him. "Become? What does that mean? You don"t have to become a nation. You can build it with me-then sit back and watch it grow."
Peer shook his head. "What have I become, already? An endless series of people-all happy for their own private reasons. Linked together by the faintest thread of memory. Why keep them spread out in time? Why go on pretending that there"s one "real" person, enduring through all those arbitrary changes?"
"You remember yourself. You believe you"re one person. Why call it a pretence? It"s the truth."
"But I don"t believe it, anymore. Each person I create is stamped with the illusion of still being this imaginary thing called "me"-but that"s no real part of their identity. It"s a distraction, a source of confusion. There"s no reason to keep on doing it-or to make these separate people follow each other in time. Let them all live together, meet each other, keep you company."