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OTHER BOOKS BY GREG BEAR

Hegira
Psychlone


Beyond Heaven's River
Strength of Stones
The Wind from a Burning Woman
Blood Music
Eon
The Forge of God
Eternity
Hardfought
Tangents
Heads
Queen of Angels
Anvil of Stars
Moving Mars
Songs of Earth and Power
New Legends
Legacy
A TORN DOHERTY

ASSOCIATES BOOK

NEW YORK
This is a work of fiction. All the characters

and events portrayed in this novel are either

fictitious or are used fictitiously.
Copyright © 1997 by Greg Bear
All rights reserved, including the right to

reproduce this book, or portions thereof, in

any form.
This book is printed on acid-free paper.
A Tor Book

Published by Torn Doherty Associates, Inc.

175 Fifth Avenue

New York, NY 10010


Tor Books on the World Wide Web:

http://www.tor.com


Tor® is a registered trademark of Torn

Doherty Associates, Inc.


Book design by Judith Stagnitto Abbate
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Bear, Greg

[Slant] / Greg Bear. -lst ed.

p. cm.

The title consists solely of the slant sign.



"A Torn Doherty Associates book."

ISBN 0-3 I 2-85517-6 (hardcover: acid-free paper)

I. Title.

PS3552.E157S55 1997

813'54dc21

97-7063
CIP


First Edition: July 1997
Printed in the United States of America
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2
FIRST
SEARCH
RESULT

Budget: Select, Restricted

SEARCH FILTERS
KEYWORDS?

> Knowledge, Sex, Datafiow

TOPIC FILTER: >Community

"Tell all the truth,

but tell it slant''

EMILY DICKINSON


RIVERS

Dataflow today is money/blood, the living substance of our human

rivers/arteries. You can steamboat the big flow, or slowly raft these rivers

up and down the world, or canoe into the branches and backwaters, with

almost perfect freedom. There are a few places you can't go--Saudi Arabia,

Northern Enclave China, some towns in Green Idaho. Nobody much cares to

go there anyway. Not much exciting is happening in those places.

--The U.S. Government Digiman on Dataflow Economics,


56Revision, 2052

I EDUCA TED CORPSES

Omphalos dominates Moscow, Green Idaho. It glows pale silver and gold like

a fancy watch waiting to be stolen. A tetrahedron four hundred feet high, with

two vertical faces and a triangular base, it is the biggest thing in town, more

ostentatious than the nearby Mormon temple, though not so painfully white

and spiky. The leading edge points at the heart of Moscow like a woodsman's

wedge. The vertical faces descend, blind and windowless, to sink seventy feet

below ground. The single sloping face is gently corrugated like a dazzling

ivory washboard for the leaden sky.


Omphalos is a broad-shouldered edifice, Herculean architecture for the ages,

given the kind of shockproof suspension and massive loving armor once reserved

for hardened defense installations and missile silos.
Jack Giffey waits patiently in line for the public tour. It is cold in Moscow

today. Thirty people stand with him in the snaking line, all clearly marked

by their gray denims as young tourists biking through Green Idaho; all youthfully

unafraid of the reputation of the state's Ruggers, the legendary gun-wielding

rugged individualists, who see themselves not as lawless brigands but

as steely-eyed human islands in a flooded, corrupting stream.


But the state's reputation is exaggerated. Not more than three percent of

the population could accurately be labeled Rugger. And fewer than ten young

tourists each year vanish from the old logging trails in the regrowth timberlands,

their forlornly beeping Personal Access Devices and little knit caps

nailed to posts on the edges of the abandoned national forests.
In Giffey's opinion, Green Idaho has all the individuality ora zit on a corpse.

The zit may consider itself special, but it's just a different kind of dead meat.

Giffey is known to his few friends as Gill. At fifty-one he looks mild and
10 GREG BEAR
that attract the interest of children and discouraged women past their picky

twenties. He doesn't like Green Idaho any more than he likes the rest of the

nation, or the world, for that matter.

Old-fashioned radiant outdoor heaters mounted on poles glow raw-beef red

overhead, trying to keep the people in line warm. Giffey has been here before,

thirteen times; he's sure Omphalos knows his face and has tagged him as worth

paying marginal attention to. That is okay. He does not mind.

Giffey is among the very few who know that Omphalos absorbs knowledge

from the outside at the extraordinary rate of fifty million dollars a year. Since

Omphalos is publicly assumed to be a fancy kind of tomb for the rich and

privileged, its dead and near-dead must be very curious. But few ask serious

questions about it. The builders of Omphalos paid a lot for freedom from

oversight, the kind of freedom that can only be bought in Green Idaho.

The rulers of Green Idaho, true to their breed, hate the Federals and the

outer society but revere money and its most sacred benison: freedom from

responsibility.

Giffey has been to the Forest Lawn Pyramid in Southcoast California Omphalos

is, architecturally, by far the classier act. But he would never think of

robbing the truly dead in Forest Lawn, with their few scattered jewels adorning

rotting flesh.

The frozen near-dead are another matter. Entombed with all their palpable

assets--precious metals, collectibles, long-term sigs to offshore paper-deed se-curities-the

corpsicles racked in their special refrigerated cells in Omphalos,

Giffey believes, might be worth several hundred million dollars apiece.

Those rich enough to afford such accommodations have their choice of packaged

options: cheapest is capitation, bio-vitrifying and cryo-preserving the

head alone. Next is head and trunk; and finally, whole-body. There are even

more expensive and still-experimental possibilities ... For the wealthiest of

all, the plutocratic highest of the high.

The sloping face of the wedge gleams like a field of wind-rippled snow. The

line begins to move in anticipation there are sounds from within. Omphalos

opens its tall steel and flexfuller front doors. Its soothing public voice spreads

out over the crowd, only mildly funereal.

"Welcome to the hope of all our futures," the voice says as the line pushes

eagerly into the tall, severe granite and steel lobby. Great shining pillars rise

around the student tourists like steel redwoods, daunting and extra human.

The floor is living holostone, morphing through scenes of future splendor

beneath their feet: flying cities high above sunset mountains, villas on Mars

and the Moon, idyllic valleys farmed by obedient arbeiters while beautiful,

magisterial men and women of all races and creeds watch from the balconies

of their spotless white mansions. "This completely automated facility is the

repository for a maximum of ten thousand two hundred and nineteen biologically

conserved patrons, all expecting long and happy lives upon their recon

/

SLANT 11


"Within Omphalos, there are no human employees, no attendants or engineers or guards..."

Giffey has never met a machine he could not beat, at chess, at war games,

at predicting equities weather. Giffey believes he may be one of the smartest

or at least most functionally successful human beings on this planet. He succeeds

at whatever he wants to do. Of course--he grins to himself---there are

many things he has never wanted to do.

He looks up at the distant lobby ceiling, studded with crystal prisms that

project rainbows all around. Above them, he imagines stacks of cold cells filled

with bodies and heads. Some of them are not frozen, he understands from secret

sources, but are still alive and thinking, suspended in nano baths in what is

euphemistically called warm sleep. They are old and sick and the law does not

allow them to undergo any more major medical intervention. They have had

their chance at life; anything more and they are classified as greedy Chronovores,

seekers after immortality, which is illegal everywhere but in the quasi-independent

republic of Green Idaho, and impractical here.

The terminally ill can, however, forfeit all but their physical assets to the

republic, and enter Omphalos as isolated wards of the syndicate.

Giffey presumes the still-living are the curious ones. They stay current as

they sleep.

Giffey does not care what they're dreaming, half-alive or wholly dead,

whether they're locked into endless rounds of full-sensory Yox, or preparing

themselves for the future by becoming the most highly educated near-corpses

in the datafiow world. They should be honorably gone from the picture, out

of the game. They don't need their assets.

Omphalos's occupants are just a different set of pharaohs. And Jack Giffey

is just another kind of tomb-robber who thinks he can avoid the traps and

break the seals and unwrap the mummies.

"You are now within the atrium of the most secure building in the Western

World. Designed to withstand catastrophic earthquakes, volcanic activity, even

thermonuclear explosions or microcharge dispersals--"

Giffey is not listening. He has a pretty decent map of the place in his head,

and a much more detailed map in his pad. He knows where the arbeiters must

come and go within the building's two entrances. He even knows who has

manufactured the arbeiters, and what they look like. He knows much else

besides. He is ready to go and does not need this final tour. Giffey is here to

legitimately pay his respects to a remarkable monument.

"Please step th-is way. We have mockups of hibernaria and exhibits usually

reserved only for prospective patrons of these facilities. But today, for you

exclusively, we allow access to a new and vital vision of the future--"

Giffey grimaces. He hates today's big lies--exclusively, only, I love you alone,

trust, adore, but ultimately, pay. Post-consumer weltcrap. He's glad he has paid

his money for the last time.


12

GREG BEAR


and behaviors. The system passes them through to the display area. The casket

room. Lie in silken comfort throzigh a/l eternity.

The young tourists in their denims and warm, upscale Nandex stand agape

before the ice-blue enamel and fiexfuller hibernarium, a long flattened tube

stretched across a mocked-up cubicle like a dry-docked submarine cemented

at both ends. Giffey knows what the tourists, the young students, are thinking.

They are all wondering if they will ever be able to afford this kind of immortality,

a chance at the Big Downstream.

Giffey doesn't care. Even riches and the high life do not matter to him

because unlike his partners, he has severe doubts they will ever be able to fence

such goods, nearly all of which will be marked with ineradicable tracers. Besides,

gold means much less than it used to. Datafiow is all.

He's in it to tweak a few noses, and to play against the machine he suspects

lies within. Hardly a machine at all...

"Our exclusive method of bio-vitrifying cryo-conservancy was pioneered by

four doctors in Siberia and perfected fifteen years ago. The fluids of a human

body normally crystallize upon freezing, but by vitrifying these fluids, making

them smoothly glassy, we eliminate crystals completely--"

Giffey believes he will face an unauthorized artificial intelligence--Omphalos's

own advanced petafiop INDA, perhaps even a thinker. He's always

wanted to go up against a thinker.

He suspects he'll lose. But maybe not.

And what a game!
M/F, F/M, M/M, F/F

e is what

between us

/

happens



/ is what separates us.
We are all different sexes, though with only two brands of equipment.
--The Kiss of X, Alive Contains a Lie
2 S T 0 N E H A M M E R
Alice Grale believes this is cataspace, all interaction but no motion. In the

small black room off the long black studio, waiting can be a dull chunk of

time filled any way at all. She and her co-star, Minstrel, are talking, waiting

for adjustments on the stage. Minstrel lounges naked on the old low couch,


/ SLANT 13

"So why don't you like those words?" Minstrel asks. "They're ancient and

traditional, and they describe what we do."
"They're ugly," she says. "I say them if I want to or when I'm paid to, but

I've never been fond of them." Alice sits on the folding metal chair before him,

illuminated by a soft free spot of white light, wearing a flimsy black robe, her

touching knees exposed. There is some relief in old friendship. She has known

Minstrel for nine years. They have been talking for twenty minutes and Francis

is still not ready for them.


"You never fail to surprise me, Alice. But I'm making a point. Try saying

the word," he challenges. "The tetragrammaton."


She considers, then says it, with a rise of her cheeks and a curve of her

lips and derogatory tilt of her head, her voice not very loud and void of

emphasis.
"You're not doing it justice," Minstrel complains. "God knows I've

heard you say it often enough. Say it professionally, if you can't get into it

personally."
Alice glares at him.
"I mean it," he says. "I'm making a point here."
Minstrel seems a little intense today, pushy. But she says the word once

more. Her eyes narrow and her nose wrinkles.


Minstrel sniffs. "Your heart isn't in it," he says dubiously, "but even so, it

brings a snarl, feel it?"


Alice shakes her head. "It's what somebody else wants me to say, and that's

the way they want me to say it."


Minstrel chuckles and taps her knee with one long square-tipped finger.

"Like all women, you are not your art."


Alice is both perplexed and irritated. "What's that mean?"
"The word is a snarl. It's old and hard and blunt--it's a stone hammer.

You say it when you really need the person you're with and you aren't embarrassed

to show yourself deep down. It means what's happening touches your
feral instincts."
"Bullshit."
"You say that casually enough," Minstrel observes. He stands, applies finger

to cheek and inclines his head. In this pose, long and loose, he reminds Alice

of an E1 Greco saint. All he needs is a slack blue loincloth.
She feels the familiar deep appreciation, the yearning that has not diminished

in over fifty professional encounters in thirty-one vids, beginning with

her first when she was nineteen. That was ten years ago, and he was thin and

ribby, hollow-chested and uncertain of his peculiar talent. Now he is lean and

omni-asian brown, muscles finely toned and defined, his body a temple as well

as an office, long hair pulled back from a high forehead, long thin patrician

nose almost too sharp, lips proud as if recently slapped.
Alice pretends languid boredom, then shifts suddenly into seductive speed.
14

GREG BEAR


"Still not convincing," Minstrel teases.

"Fuck me with your.., penis," Alice says. They both laugh.

Minstrel's face crosses from saint to ascetic cherub. "Utterly, desperately

limp. Only a doctor or a therapist would call it that, to make you feel inferior.

Most men prefer cock."

"Crows only in the morning," Alice says. All conversations with Minstrel,

even in the down time between plugs, are contagious. "Penis sounds like a

planet or a country."

"Vagina. Labia. Clitoris," he prompts.

"Like characters in a Renaissance vid," Alice says. She muses. "They are all

royalty in the land of Penis. Vagina never touches another person without

wearing gloves. She is cool and dresses in black lace."

Minstrel's face lights up. "Labia is a dangerous woman, sister to Vagina and

Clitoris," he says. "A vampire and poisoner."

"Clitoris is the youngest, virginal sister," Alice says. She loves games. "They

are all daughters of..." Tongue tipping through her lips, catlike, while she

thinks. "Lucrezia Menarchia."

"Bravo!" Minstrel says. He applauds.

Alice bows and continues. "Clitoris is the only one with any decency. She

blushes with shame at how her family carries on."

Minstrel reddens with subdued laughter. They should not be too loud up

here; it might upset Francis, who can be very testy while preparing for a plug.

"All right. Cunt," he suggests.

Alice pauses, scowling. "That's a tough one."

"Not yours, my dear."

Alice gives him a beneath-me face and taps her finger on her nose, thinking. "Cunt is a barbarian princess from the outer reaches. She is raised by the outland

tribes of the province of Puberty."

Minstrel squints. "Not Puberty. Not quite right." He works at it and substitutes, "Pudenda."

Alice grins. "Pudenda it is. Cuntia is her name when she travels in the

civilized realms."

Minstrel snaps his slender fingers. "We're on to something. Maybe Francis

will make us writers. Listen: Cunt is swapped in a hostage exchange between

Lucrezia Menarchia and Cunt's father, King Hetero. Lucrezia sends her daughter-her

hopelessly moral daughter Clitoris to learn the barbarian ways and

loosen up a bit. Clitoris finally lets her hair down and finds fulfillment in the

arms of Cunt's heroic brother, Glans. Cunt, however, must preserve her honor

in Menarchia rather than submit to temptation, for Lucrezia rules a corrupt

land."


Alice takes a deep breath, pretending to be stunned by this burst of genius,

then laughs out loud, the hell with Francis, who shouldn't keep them waiting

so long. She seldom laughs this way, it sounds so much like an ass's bray to
/

SLANT 15

her, but she is easy and open with Minstrel. "So who or what is your precious

Fuck, then?" she asks.


Minstrel holds his hands as if in prayer and pretends great gravity. "Not to

be spoken lightly, or profaned. The tetragrammaton... Fuck... is the most

powerful god of all, two-faced progenitor of the world. He prefers we see just

his benign face, the baby-making, world-renewing side. But we all know his

opposite: Trickster, the devil that rides us and whips us until we bleed."
At this profundity, Alice stands on long legs, yawns, and stretches. "As

always, you are uselessly instructive," she tells him. Minstrel gives her his slow

prankboy's smile and stretches his arms higher than she can reach. She subdues

a little shiver. Their chemistry is working, and holding back does her performance

no good.
Alice turns to the low horizontal slit window overlooking the black stage.

Something twinkles down there but they are off angle and cannot see the

projection. Francis is tediously careful with his plugs and backmind details,

but he could have laid in all of Chinese sexual psychology by now. "Francis


should be done. He'll want to hook us." Back in the real. Her forehead creases.

"Are you up, dear?" Minstrel asks.


Alice shows him her moon face. "Never less," she says. "Are you?"

Minstrel's muscles flex at the back of his jaw. He is hiding something behind

the cheer. He can hide from almost anyone but her; she knows him better than

most wives know their husbands. To Alice it seems they have come far and

survived much and against the odds, but at some cost. Minstrel hides his

minuses poorly in front of her.


A pity, she thinks, that his body is so seldom seen in the vids they make
now. Preferences of the blessed audience for the psynthe exotic.
"You look negged," she says.
Minstrel turns away as if unfairly poked. "Let me keep. my mood," he tells
her.
Alice moves in, swaying her shoulders, clucking her tongue. "I'll need all

of you in five minutes, and you can't make me work harder to get it," she says.

"What's down?"
"Not my libido," he shoots back.
"You've cheered me the last hour instead of leaving me to brood over twisted

thumbs." She wraps her arms around him. He pushes her off with what begins


as real and angry strength, and ends gentleness and restraint.
"Is it Todd?" she asks.
"Todd was a year ago," Minstrel says.
Alice nods sympathetically, lips pursed. "I should have known. Why didn't

you tell me?"


"I hide, you hide," Minstrel says, and tries to force more brave wit over

what is now a sad and lost face.


"Poor Minstrel," she says. "They do not deserve you."
16

GREG BEAR


"No, they fapping well do not."

"So what's his name?"

"The little fap's name is Giorgio and you, dear Alice, will never meet him.

He doesn't deserve to meet you."

The wound is seldom far beneath Minstrel's armor when she is doing the

probing; he comes to her, at long intervals, like a dog with a boil, knowing

she will hurt him with her lancet; also knowing it will do him good.

It is now that Francis chooses to blat his awful airhorn.

Minstrel closes up his cares and assumes a heavy-lidded rouCs smile. "It is

never duty with you," he says, "but whatever it is, it calls."

Alice loops her arm through his and they step down the broad railless stairs

to the stage, like royalty or Astaire and Rogers making a grand entrance.

Francis awaits them in the plug room beside the main stage. Here as well

as on the stage all is flat gritty black, no reflection allowed as the camera mixes

its own glittering fairy-light dreams with the quantized lux of the real. Francis

has named this camera Leni. Leni has become much more than an optical

device. She scatters over the stage, feeding images and projections at one end,

combining them with backmind layers at the other, a smooth silver and bronze

balled and coiled snake.

Francis is irritated. His AD, scrawny and unkempt--Ahmed, Alice remembers

vaguely; Francis goes through four or five ADs each production--hurries

to arrange the bottles of nano and their small shiny plastic conduits and dams,

to be applied to the occiput of Alice's skull and to Minstrel's temple.

"Alice, fabled Alice, what would you do?" Francis asks as they reach the

bottom of the stairs. "I'm two weeks behind, two mill over, I have general fibe

and sat release dates in four days--and I'm still layering!" Francis shakes his

head. He always appears a little sad and irritated. Alice accepts this in Francis,

as well as his fits of temper, only because what he does is unique and, she

thinks, good; though Francis is not extraordinarily commercial, working on a

Francis vid, even as backmind, can never hurt one's reputation.

"You've kept us waiting. Plug us and get your layers," Alice says matter-offactly.

"Echo that," Minstrel says.

Francis wags his finger. "Fuck artists shouldn't bitch."

Alice cringes dramatically, pushes his finger back with her own.

Tiny black and silver machines with tactile fuzzy wheels and bug-jewel eyes

crawl around the plug stage. They are little versions of Leni. Alice feels their

bright little eyes sucking in her offline words. She hates them. Francis allows

these recording arbeiters to roam with absolute freedom, examining whatever

they choose; there are many in the audience who lose themselves in the life

of the production. Francis makes as much on live behind-the-scenes docs

as on the vids themselves. "Fuck artist," Alice croons to the nearest bug.

"Francis, the nano's a little old," Ahmed says. "It isn't perking."


/

SLANT 17

"You aren't going to hook us with stale nano, are you, Francis?" Minstrel

asks.
"No fear. Alice, have you read the text?"


"Only from the prep you sent. It's a long book, Francis." In fact, antique

and long and dull.


Francis is preparing a deep-layered vid of The Faerie Queene. He smiles

proudly. "A real challenge, to fade the wonderful Spenserian stanzas into a

Yox." His face glows with the subject. "The Red Cross Knight is subject to

such temptations, Alice. He is traveling with an Eastern queen named Una.

A dragon has ravaged her land, and she hopes the Red Cross Knight will--"
"It's set, Francis." Ahmed shows him the bottles of translucent nano, now

fully charged with nutrients. The liquid within is turbid and finally perks; it

appears restless. Alice regards it with misgivings. She has plugged over a

hundred times, on various jobs, and she has never trusted the process--but

she has never been seriously injured even when, as now, the hook is administered

by a nonmedical.


"The knight will rid her land of the dragon. So far, the Red Cross Knight

has vanquished the hideous monster Error and all her progeny. A truly horrible

scene, and I've layered it brilliantly. Now they are in a place of great temp-tations--Una

and the knight. You've read the cues."


"We're all primed with ghostly passions," Minstrel says.
"Alice, my pride, you give me the most haunted libido I've ever recorded,

when you're on point."


"I hope that's a compliment," Alice says.
"It is. Una and the Red Cross Knight have strayed into the workshop of

the evil Archimago, who appears as a godly and kindly Hermit. It is a place

of terrible temptations. You are a haunted spright, a succubus created by

Archimago to torment and delude. You feel the deepest need for this young,

handsome, and virtuous knight, but if you have him, you destroy him--and

you know he will never fall for your illusion. However, by appearing in the

form of the chaste Una, and engaging in lewd revels with fellow phantoms,

you will mislead him into thinking this Eastern Lady has succumbed and is

wallowing in lust. You must feel the False Una's passions as if she were actual

souled flesh, not a demonic illusion. Many curious eyes and fingers are sure to

want to plug into that layer."
"Specks like you're going for broad appeal, this time," Minstrel says, picking

at something between his teeth. He inspects his finger.


"I'd like to pay some bills, yes," Francis barks back. "You'll go direct into

Leni while we run the set piece on stage. You'll be layering over seven emotional

records from other fiuffers, so I need everything clean and clear."
Fluffers. Alice hates that word even more than fuck artist, though it is commonly

used. It was once applied to women who kept actors erect or lubricious

in old erotic movies. The comparison is inapt, at best; what Alice and Minstrel
18

GREG BEAR

into the camera. Leni is only little less than a large set of eyes with a brain

behind them. Francis guides Leni, cajoles her; theirs is not the relation of

artisan to tool, they are more like partners.
Ahmed brings up the little dams and shapes them to Alice's head first, then

Minstrel's. He syringes a dollop of warm nano into the dams as they sit still.

Alice is used to this method of creating a broadband plug; it's common in the

cheaper Yox.


A few minutes pass. A microscopic lead of conducting material has passed

through the interstices of her skin, bone, and brain, into her deep amygdala,

hippocampus, and hypothalamus; into the seats of her judgment engine, the

Grand Central Terminal of her self. She feels nothing.


Ahmed applies transponders to the little silver nipples of nano, no larger

than a thumbnail. He takes readings for several minutes from the camera.

Lights flash agreeably. "Hooked," he tells Francis.
Alice removes her robe. Minstrel is already naked. Francis makes a butterfly

gesture with his hands, then clasps his fingers.


"Here come the Sprights and Archimago. Taking," he says. "Click one."

Ahmed labels the backmind layer. The camera hums.

Francis quotes from memory:

"Thus well instructed, to their worke they hast,

And comming where the knight in slomber lay,

The one upon his hardy head him plast,


And made him dream of loves and lustfull play,

That nigh his manly heart did melt away,

Bathed in wanton bliss and wicked joy..." ."

Francis beams. "How like your own career, sweet Alice. How many men

have you haunted?"
Alice ignores this.
On the stage behind them, in translucent and sketchy 3D workprint, the

evil sorcerer Archimago leads the Red Cross Knight through dreams of dark

chambers filled with writhing bodies in silken robes. Hanging tapestries are

pulled aside by the incredulous Knight, who sees false Una's flesh revealed in

intimate posture with an equally false Spright made a Squire. Alice ignores

most of this. What she and Minstrel will provide has little to do with the plot.


Alice looks directly at Minstrel. As always, the angle of Minstrel's dark

brown eyes and the sharpness of his nose, the assurance of his professional

smile, impresses her. They have real and reliable chemistry.
"You will always be the most beautiful woman on Earth," Minstrel murmurs

to her, and she knows he means it. He prefers men, but Alice affects him

as much as he affects her, reliably, predictably. If they lived together, their

contradictions would burn them out in a year; but in this professional capacity,


/

SLANT 19

Francis is watching the camera, his Leni. She seems happy.
What Alice feels first is the yearning warmth, not dissimilar to what a baby

feels for its mother; she wishes to be closer. Minstrel touches her face with the

back of his hand, stroking her cheek, holding this off. He responds as nearly

all men respond to her, given a chance: she notes the flush on his chest, the

close focus of his eyes, the beginning rise. Often, the rise amuses her; men

seem off-balance when aroused, would topple like cranes without her support.

But Minstrel's rise is a delightful shock.
The delicious pain of expectation meeting an inner self-doubt drops her

back in the first sopping yet dry-mouthed experiments of youth ("Love for

sale, appetizing young love for sale--" Billie Holiday singing Cole Porter),

amazed at success and delighted by it.


They kiss first, leaning forward to avoid other contact: soft roughness of lips

like nubbled silk, oily smoothness of tongues.


"Good," Francis says. He is recording none of the tactile, not of the surface;

only the deep surge, the pulse of yearning from the sympathies, the letting

down of vascular tensions by the parasympathies, the message of intense well-being

issued by the judging amygdala; all of which Alice is aware of, but not

conscious of.
Her thighs seem large and obvious; she might topple too. I am all thighs.

Minstrel wraps her, presses forearms against her back, then withdraws them

until his fingers rub her ribs, just above the threshold of a tickle. Tongues

plunge. For a moment this is too much and she breaks the kiss and noses the

hollow of his neck, shuddering.
Minstrel is not the most lovely and stimulating she has ever had, but she

is so astonishingly consistent with him. Surprise, warmth, expectancy, and

then the final salt: Minstrel prefers men. Alice has a special command, a leave

he gives few other women, if any. She specks him with his male lovers, wonders

whether she would have the same effect on them; likely not, doesn't matter,

the warm fantasy is well away now, sailing with courses full.


They clasp tight from breasts to knees. He intrudes between her thighs and

friction again becomes oily smoothness, but he does not press or angle. Minstrel

knows her times and frequencies. He is an instinctive lover. She might shiver

a muscle here, under his palm, and he adjusts the momentary mix of pressings

and withdrawals to suit her as a horseman adjusts to his mount.
The comparisons are becoming more and more basic, the sweetest and deep-es{

of cliches. She will ride, float, flow, sit in the waves, feel the high warm

sun; all images in her mind, most from past joins, some never real, all falling

like drowsy rivers of fine hot sand down her spine.


"Why, Cuntia," he murmurs. "So long lacking?"
"Shh," she says into his ear. Their motion more pronounced. Francis forgotten,

hooks ignored, though she makes sure not to rub the transponders

loose as she brushes her temples against his chest. She disengages, though she
20 GREG BEAR

by withholding. She rubs him down his stomach with her cheeks, lips, high


sensual definition against the tight skin.
"Good," Francis says.
Close-up, curls and the sweetly ugly rise, more beautiful than kittens; she

adores him. Minstrel is all-valuable, all-honored; she suffers no disgrace by

doing anything for him. She does not know what willingness he will take

advantage of. Sometimes he assumes brusque anger, a delicate but dominant

brutishness that toes a thin thread yet never goes beyond earnest play. But

today Minstrel is infinitely gentle and this also falls within her range of surprise

and expectancy.
"Wicked as Lucrezia," he says.
His languor is reward enough for the minute she thinks she has. Sure

enough, at the end of a minute, he takes her head between his palms and

removes her, and she leans back on the stiff pallet, knowing she need do

nothing but react, and that none too vigorously. Among the men she has had,

the many hundreds of encounters long and short, professional and personal,

Minstrel needs the least indication of her fulfilled desire. He already feels what

she feels from the shivers and twitches of her knees and the texture of the skin
of her hips and ribs and the muscles beneath.
"Good," Francis says.
"Under Labia's disguise, Glans finds shy Clitoris," Minstrel whispers into

her ear. His weight is a surge of southern air; his breath and sweat musk. She

can smell his body, a whiff of zoo, nervous but not weak; this is the part she

savors most, reaching a man's deep concerns. After all their years, Minstrel

wonders whether she will approve. Since she knows she will approve, his concern

is a delight. Poor good men, all the good lovers, always this stretch of

nerves before the partaking. A laugh even of delight might be misunderstood.

Seconds pass before she shows anything other than complete and unquestioning

acceptance.
"Good," Francis says. "And..."
She clutches Minstrel, presses his butt down with her nails, feels the slipping
entrance, sucks in him and an uneven breath, simultaneously.
Francis quotes again:
"With sword in hand, and with the old man went;/Who soon him brought

unto a secret part,/Where that false couple were full closely ment/In wanton

lust and lewd embracement;/Which when he saw, he burnt with gealous fire,/

The eye of reason was with rage yblent,/And would have slaine them in his


furious ire,/But hardly was restrained of that aged sire..."

Minstrel shudders.

"Enough. Cut."
He holds, withdraws. Alice's eyes dart around the stage. "What?" she says.
"Focus," Francis commands. "Disappointment. You cannot have the Red

Cross Knight. You are a Spright, a Succubus, not a true female. Everything


/

SLANT 21


Minstrel lies back, flushed. Alice wants to climb onto him but that would

not be professional. Of all things in her life that would keep her from him, it

is this isinglass membrane of her working self-respect.

Francis monitors Leni, his eyes glazing over. Alice looks on the camera as a

kind of dragon, a ravenous audience suspended in a line through all future

time behind the camera's many senses.

"Perfect, both of you," Francis says, returning and smiling. "Good enough

to earn a credit. Your followers will love this."

Minstrel smiles back wearily. The muscles of his jaw tighten. The spell is

broken and he is thinking of the sooty world.

Minstrel leans over her. "Glans would ask dear Cuntia to marry him," he

says, "but the pressures of royal life.., you know how it is."

"Cuntia would accept," Alice replies.

"We shouldn't leave this unfinished," Minstrel says.

Alice is puzzled. "No."

Francis shouts for the stage to be cleared.

"But we have to." Minstrel smiles. "Better for the next time."

This is their third dry embrace in the past six months. They are nearly

always in shadow, backmind layering now, never up front in the fulfilled

lUX.


"I'll be waiting," Alice says, and Minstrel strokes her cheek before climbing

the stairs to get dressed.

Ahmed stares at her, flushed and awed.

"You're new, aren't you?" Alice asks too sweetly. She puts on her robe and

climbs the stairs after. At the top, she hears her pad chime in a loop of her

street clothes. Minstrel is half-dressed. Times past, they might have finished

their business up here, neither of them believing pent-up passion to be healthy,

but she can see Minstrel's heart and mind are elsewhere.

The courtesies have fled. They've peaked and both know it.

She pulls the small pad from her purse and takes the call. "Alice here."

"I couldn't leave a message or let our homes talk to each other. This is

Twist."


Twist is younger than Alice by six years but already a veteran. They met

two years ago and took a quick liking to each other. Twist--if she calls at

all--treats Alice as a kind of mother.

"Hello, Twist. I'm just getting off a plug for Francis."

"Something's queer, Alice."

"What?"


"I'm acting really queer. I need to see somebody."

"How queer?"

"I'm obsessing all over the place, about David."

Fuck artists, like most sex care workers, take on so many partners, Alice

can not immediately remember just who David is. She thinks they might have
22

GREG BEAR


"I'm not a therapist, Twist."

"I called my mother, Alice," Twist says. "Before I called you. You know what

that cost me?"

Twist often hints at the monstrosity of her mother. Alice has taken it all

with a few grains; even therapied, Twist never flows the straight pipe.

Alice sits on a bench and crosses her legs. Minstrel gives her an exaggerated

grimace and twinkle-wave with his fingers, picks up his bag. Alice watches

him go with a small sharp sadness.

"All right, why not go straight to a therapist?"

"Because David took me out of the agency," Twist says. "I'm out of the

payment grid. He was getting me jobs. He has connections."

"Ah," Alice says, suddenly remembering David. The David, Twist called

him: a small, thin man with dark hair. Alice had instantly specked him as a

scheming litter scrawn desperately trying to make up for being born a runt,

always sure he had the answers. Twist adores him, hangs on his every reedy

word.


"Well, I'm sure the agency--" Alice begins.

"David won't let me. He's gone aggly, too."

"What do you mean?"

"I feel like I felt when I began therapy. I was thirteen, Alice. I was a bad

case, a real mess. It's all back now, only worse." She gives a painful, nervous

giggle. "David says it must have never really took."

"Why don't you come to my apt and let's talk," Alice suggests. "I can be

there in half an hour--"

"I don't know that David will let me."

Alice takes a deep breath. Some new fluffers are coming up the stairs. Francis

is working overtime.

"I do need to talk, Alice. Going to be home tomorrow?"

"Morning, yes."

"I'll be there at ten. I'll set up David with somebody. Cardy's fuckish for

him. Then I can get free for a couple of hours."

Alice cringes. That word--Minstrel's tetragrammaton--sounds too hard on

Twist's lips. Twist is like a little girl in so many ways. Alice realizes this is

uncharacteristic; sex words hard or soft generally do not bother her, whatever

her private opinions. She is darked by the scrim of others. "I'll see you in the morning," Alice says.

"Yeah. Love you, Alice."

"You too." She closes the link and stands among the four new fluffers, none

of whom she knows. They all wear butterfly colors; they come from Sextras,

now the top Yox temp agency for fuck artists. They smile at her; they know

who she is. She used to be heat made flesh.

She smiles back, polite and a little condescending, shakes a few hands,

tongue-kisses one of the bold males, and then is down the stairs, where Ahmed


/ SLANT 23

The monstrosity of this technological era is indescribable. A man can


carry armies of progeny within his testicles, none of them his own...
some perhaps not purely human. A woman can bear within her unnatural
"artworks" quickened by science and surely as soulless as stones. We sicken

and despair. There is nothing of God in these machines and machine-men.

The Mother Church has nothing to offer the time into which we have been born but a

warning that sounds like a curse: As you sow, so shall you reap!

mPope Alexander VII, 2043

From: Anonymous Remailer


To: Pope Alexander VII
Date: December 24 2043

"You're just a Catholic Dickhead, you know that? Come to my town (wouldn't

you like to know you shit) sometime and I'll show you a GOOD TIME. Let your

bodiguards know I'm about seven feet tall and dresed like the Demans in NUKEY

NOOKY which I bet youve plaid too you asswipe hippocrit!!!!! Have a nice

day!!!!!"

EMAIL Archive (ref Security Inv, Re: Thread: Encyclical 2043, Vatican Library

Cultural Tracking STAFF/INDA 332; reverse track through Finland> ANONYM

REMAIL Code REROUTE> SWITZERLAND/ZIMBABWE> ACCT HDFinster >

Harrison D. Finster ADDRESS 245 W. Blessoe Street Apt 3-H Greensboro, NC,

USA. PROFILE> 27 years of age at time of message, >CONCLUSION: FLAME

PROFILE No action necessary, ref Vatican Internal Investigator comments:

"Young, shit for brains.")

3 ALLOSTASIS

For Martin Burke, life has become anaspace, all motion but no engagement,

no interaction, no sense of progress. And yet he is not unsuccessful.


He moved from the combs of Southcoast two years ago. He had set himself

up as a design consultant for miniature therapy monitors, microscopic implants

that roamed freely in the body and brain, regulating balances and adjusting

natural neurochemical concentrations. All of the delayed but no less painful

publicity about his involvement with the mass-murderer and poet Emanuel

Goldsmith had put an end to this new career; no corporation wanted to be

associated with him after that, though they still license and manufacture from

24 GREG BEAR


Since moving to Seattle, he has worked in special mental therapy, out of

the third floor of an old, dignified building off Pioneer Square.

Outside it is a rare cloudless winter morning, though at eight o'clock still

dark. On the Southcoast of California, at the end of his last career, the sun had

seemed inhumanly probing and constant. Martin had yearned for change,

weather, clouds to hide under...

Now he yearns for sun again.

Strangely, away from California, the publicity has actually brought in new

clients; but in balance, it also ended the love of his life. He has not seen or

heard from Carol in a year, though he keeps in touch with his young daughter,

Steplanie.

Martin enters the round lobby and pushes open the door to his office, slinging

his personal pad and purse onto their hooks on an antique coat rack. He

has resisted the expense of installing a dattoo or skin pad, with circuitry and

touches routed through mildly electrified skin, preferring instead a more old-fashioned

implement, and keeping his body natural and inviolate into his forty-eighth

year.

His receptionist, Arnold, and assistant, Kim, greet him from their half-glass



cubicle at the center of the lobby. Arnold is large and well-trained in both

public relations and physical restraint. Kim, small and seemingly shy, is a

powerhouse therapeutic psychology student with a minor in business relations.

He hopes he can keep them working for him for at least the next year, before

their agency fields better offers.

Tucked out of sight, a year-old INDA sits quietly on a shelf overlooking

the reception area, monitoring all that happens in the office's five rooms.

He prepares for the long day with a ten-minute staff meeting. He goes over

patient requests for unscheduled visits. "Tell Mrs. Danner I'll see her at noon

Friday," he instructs Arnold.

"I'm off that day," Arnold says. "She's a five-timer." Martin looks over Mrs.

Danner's record. She's a five-time CTR--core therapy reject--with a long

criminal record. "Want me to be here?"

"She's not violent," Martin says. "Klepto mostly, inclined to hurt herself

and not others. Enjoy your day off."

Martin has expanded his business by taking referrals from therapists who

can't handle their patients. After relieving himself of his own demon, he has

a special touch with people who are still ridden.

"And Mr. Perkins--?" Arnold asks.

Martin makes a wry face. Kim smiles. Mr. Perkins is much less difficult

than Mrs. Danner, but less pleasant to deal with. He is unable to establish

lasting relations with people and relies on human-shaped arbeiters for company.

Three previous therapists have been unsuccessful treating him, even with

the most modern nano monitors and neuronal enhancement.

"Third request in a week," Martin says. "I suppose he's still having trouble
/

SLANT 25


The patient log floats before Arnold's face like a small swarm of green insects. "His wife, he calls her."

"He can't bear to deactivate the old personality. That passes for kindness in

him, I suppose." Martin smirks. "I'll see him Monday. So who's up for this

morning?"

"You have Joseph Breedlove at nine and Avril de Johns at ten."

Martin wrinkles his forehead in speculation. Neither Breedlove nor de Johns

are difficult patients; they fall into that category of unhappy people who regard

therapy as a replacement for real accomplishment. Therapy to date can only

make the best of what is already available. "I have an hour free at eleven?"

"Of course."

"Then all is in order. It's eight-thirty now. I have a half-hour until Mr.

Breedlove. No touches until nine."

"Right," Arnold says.

Martin takes his pouch and walks down the narrow hallway to the back

office. Sa,ctz/m Sa,ctorm. Sometimes he sleeps here, since there is little to go

back to at home. He missed the chance for the island sharehold on Vashon--damnable

Northwest offishness, thirty-year residents and born-here's discriminating

shamelessly against the fresh arrivals--and so Martin's home is a condo

in a small ribbon comb overlooking the northbound three-deck Artery 5 Freeway.

It is not expensive, nor is it particularly attractive. In two years, his

residency advocate tells him, he may be allowed into some higher lottery,

perhaps even a Bainbridge sharehold.

Private touches flicker around him as he sits at his desk, like pet birds

begging. Some he flagged a week ago for immediate attention. He shoos them

off' with a wave, then pokes at the fresh touches and they line up, the first

expanding like an origami puzzle. This is from Dana Carrilund, the head of

Workers Inc Northwest. He wonders who gave her his sig. Despite this being

his free period, he opens this immediately.

Carrilund's voice is warm and profbssional. "Mr. Burke, pardon my using

your personal sig. I'm in a real bind. I'm told we have about seven of our clients

taking special therapy with you. They're doing well, I hear. I may have additional

clients for you--all of them fallbacks. Please let me know if we can

fit this into your schedule. Also, I'd like to speak to you in person and in

private."

It's outside his usual domain; Martin specializes in core therapy ftilures,

people for whom initial and even secondary therapy does not work. Fallbacks

have been successfully therapied but experience recurrence of thymic or even

pathic imbalances.

Why would the head of Workers Inc Northwest place such a touch? Martin

frowns; he presumed Workers Inc Northwest sent their cases to Sound Therapy,

the largest analysis-therapy corporation in the Corridor. He's flattered to receive

such high-level attention, but can't think of a reason why.


26 GREG BEAR
cases are of interest. Let me know what you need and I'll work up a schedule

and proposal. I hope we can meet soon."

This is a shameless hedge against any downstream lags in business, something

Martin is always sensitive about. He does not need any more patients.

Still, he has never quite lost his fear of unemployment; a contract with Workers

Inc could smooth over any future rough times.

The next message is from his daughter, their daily morning exchange. Stephanie

still lives in La Jolla with her mother. They link once a week and he

manages trips south every other month, but as he watches the image of this

lovely three-year-old, a somewhat plumper version of Carol, who seems in their

genetic dance to have grabbed only Martin's eyebrows and ears, this image in

its sharp perfection kissing air where his nose might be and holding up a

succession of red and blue paper crafkworks, eager for his approval, only makes

him lonelier. Another inexplicable faultline.

He tacks to his reply a bedtime story he recorded last night, adds loving

comments on the skill of her craftworks, shoots the reply to reach her pad by

midmorning break in the live public schoolroom. Carol will never allow home

instruction. Nothing New Federalist about Carol.

The essential touches processed, he pulls his chair up to his desk and says,

"INDA, are you there?"

The INDA responds immediately. A lovely liquid voice neither male nor

female seems to fill the room. "Yes, sir."

"Any results from yesterday?"

"I've analyzed the journal entries you suggested. Your fee for arbeiter access to the journals is now at the limit, Dr. Burke."

Martin will have to upgrade his credit with the dealer today.

"That's fine, INDA. Tell me what you've found."

"I have seven references to Country of the Mind investigations, all of them

in cases predating last year's law." The United States Congress, acting in conjunction

with Europe and Asia, has passed laws banning two-way psychiatric

investigation through the hippocampal juncture, which Martin pioneered. Appeals

to the Supreme Court and World Psychiatric Organization have been

quietly buried; nobody is currently interested in stirring up this hornet's nest.

Emanuel Goldsmith might have been the final poison pill.

"No defiance or physician protests?"

"A search through available records indicates the procedure has not been

openly performed in four years by anybody, in any part of the world."

"I mean, has anyone published contrary opinions?"

"Liberal Digest's Multiway has posted twelve contrary opinions in the past

year, but that makes it a very minor issue. By comparison, they posted four

thousand and twenty-one contrary opinions on the Freedom to Choose Individual

Therapy decision 'is a vis the requirements of remp agencies and em

/

SLANT 27



York and Virginia, bastions of New Federalism, had clearly been intended to

put roadblocks in the way of therapy's juggernaut domination of society, but

the Supreme Court had voided the rulings, based on contract law, coming

down in favor of temp agencies and employers. Liberal Digest had, for once,

agreed with the New Federalists that therapy should not be forced on temp
agency clients, under threat of unemployment.

These were strange times.

"Any conclusions?"
"We do not foresee any interest in Country of the Mind investigations, as

a social issue, for many years." "We" among INDAs is purely a placekeeper


for "this machine," and does not imply any self-awareness.
"It's dead, then."
"Of no currency," the INDA amends.
Martin taps his desk. He has moved completely away from the discovery

which launched his fame and caused his downfall. He believes strongly that

Country of the Mind investigations could be incredibly powerful and useful,

but society has rejected them for the time being--and for the foreseeable

future.
"I suppose that's best," he says, but without conviction.

His office pad chimes. It's early.

"Yes, Arnold?"
"Sir, there's a gentleman here. No appointment. New. He's very insistent--
says he'll make it worth your while."
"What's his problem?"
"He won't say, sir. He won't accept Kim's evaluation and he looks very

edgy."
Kim joins in, out of the intruder's hearing: "Sir, his name is Terence Crest.

The Terence Crest. We've run a check. He is who he says he is."
It's Martin's day to be approached by influential people. Crest is a billionaire,

known for his conservatism and quest for privacy as much as his financial

dealings--mostly in Rim entertainment. Martin taps his finger on the desk

several times, then says, "Show him in." The day's touches, drifting at apparent

arm's length over the office pad, vanish.
Martin greets Mr. Crest at the door and escorts him to a chair. Crest is in

his mid-forties, of medium height, with a thin bland face and large unfocused

eyes. He is dressed in dark gray with thin black stripes, and beneath his long

coat, his shirt is living sun-yellow, body-cleansing and health-monitoring fabric.

His right hand carries three large rings, signs of affiliations in high comb

society. Martin cannot read the ring patterns, but he suspects strong New

Federalist leanings.
The way Crest holds his head, the way the light hits his skin, Martin has a

difficult time making out his expression. He has the spooky sensation of the

man's face losing detail with every glance.
28

GREG BEAR

this, but I've been told I can rely on you." His voice is clear and crisp. Crest

is accustomed to being listened to attentively. He looks dreamily at the ceiling

and remains standing. Martin asks him to sit.
Crest peers down at the chair, as if waiting for it to move, then sits. "I'm

still mulling over what you posted in People's Therapy Multiway last week.

Allostatic load and all. That the pressures of everyday life can bend us like

overstressed metal bars."


Martin nods. "An explanation of a general idea for a general readership.

Why does it concern you?"


"I can't afford the disgrace."
"What disgrace?"
"I think I'm exceeding my load limits." A thin sour chuckle. "I'm about

to break."


"Suffering from stress is no disgrace, Mr. Crest. We all face it at some time

or another in our lives."


"Well, I'm still wrestling with the idea of my physicality. I was raised

Baptist. And for some of my . . . connections,friends, well, that sort of weakness

doesn't sit well."
"A not uncommon prejudice, but nothing more than that--prejudice."
"It's hard for me--for them--to accept that illness, in the mind, can result

from something other than.., you know. A defect in the soul."


"That's the way it truly is, Mr. Crest. Nothing to do with inborn character

defects. We're all fragile."


"Dr. Burke, I can't be fragile." Even through the vagueness, Crest's face

hardens. "My people won't let me. My wife is as high natural as they come,

and everyone in her family. I feel like they're expecting me to fall, you know,

from their grace. Any minute." He smacks his hands together lightly. "I suppose

that's a kind of stress, too."
"Sounds like it could be," Martin says.
"If I had to be therapied... I would lose a lot, Martin."
"Happens to the best of us."
"You keep saying that," Crest says. "It's just not true. It doesn't happen to

the best of us. The best of us cope. The best of us have better chemistry,

stronger neurons, a better molecular balance, just an all-around better constitution..,

we're made of finer alloy. The others.., they fail because they're

flawed."
Instinctively, Martin does not like this man--he feels uncomfortable in his

presence. But many strong-willed patients in deep pain come across this way.


Crest slaps his hand on the chair arm. "I am haunted, Dr. Burke. There are

days when I know I'm going to crumble. Some of the corporations I work

with, making very large deals--they require an inspection every month, can

you believe it?"


Martin smiles. "It's not called for, that's for sure."
SLANT

letting a deal fall through. A brain race." Crest smiles back at Martin. The

smile seems to fall in shadow, though the room is brightly lit. "Very American.

Reliability above creativity."


"Intelligence and creativity often accompany more fragile constitutions,"

Martin says. The lecture is familiar, meant to reassure. "There's every evidence

some people are more sensitive and alert, more attuned to reality, and this puts

a greater load on their systems. Still, these people make themselves very useful

in our society. We couldn't get along without them--"
Crest shakes his head vigorously. "Genius is next to madness, is that what

you're saying, Doctor?"


"Genius is a particular state of mind.., a type of mind, only distantly

comparable to the types I'm talking about."


"Like a genie in the head? Just rub it the right way and out it comes?

Well, I'm no genius," Crest chuckles tensely, "and I haven't been accused of

being very sensitive... So why do I worry? I mean, the type of decisions I'm

called upon to make demand tough thinking, maybe even a lack of human

sensitivity... And above all else, stability. I have to stand up to tough conditions

for long periods of time."


"Well, your name is well known, Mr. Crest."
Crest raises a finger and jabs at the ceiling. "One little slip... Down from

high natural to, say, a simple untherapied." Crest shudders. "One little inappropriate

thought, and my wife takes her connections with her--right out of

the house. I honestly think I'm going to obsess myself into just what I fear,

over this.
"Dr. Burke, this conversation has to be absolutely secure. Confidential. I

am willing to pay a hundred thousand dollars for you to secretly take care of

me if I should fall."
Martin hates turning down patients; he also hates being treated like a man

who can be bought. Not that he's unassailable--to his intense personal shame,

he's been bought before. It's a theme in his life. He knows what the consequences

can be.
Crest sighs. "This is torture for you, isn't it, Doctor?"


"How?"
"Having a high natural come in here and run off about chances of failing.
I mean, you're not a high natural, are you?"
"No."
"Untherapied? Just a natural?"
"No."
"Therapied, and for some time, right?"
"Right."
"So you must be... I mean, it must be like having a rich man come in and

worry about losing his money, and you haven't got any."


Martin squints at Crest and says, "You're offering four times my highest
30 GREG BEAR
that there's too much emphasis on high natural ratings. It isn't that big a deal.

It's another human measurement, a quantification some folks are willing to

use to separate us from each other."

"I'm not a have-not, Dr. Burke. I'm used to having."

"I wouldn't put so much store in having this particular thing, this high-natural

rating, if I were you. You'd be surprised at the power and influence of

some who don't."

"Sure," Crest says, agitated. "Like you. Nobody rates you but your medical

board. Doctors have always protected their own."

Martin clamps his teeth together tightly be£ore answering. "IF we used the

criteria your fellow businessmen seem to find attractive, we'd lose most of our

best, our most sensitive doctors."

"There's that word again," Crest says, sniffing and drawing in his jaw.

"Sensitive. I'm not an artist, I'm not a therapist, I'm a decision maker. I have

to make a dozen important decisions a day, every day. I have to be keen, like

a knife edge. Not sensitive."

"The sharper the edge, the more liable it is to be blunted if it's misused,"

Martin observes.

"I have my standards," Crest says. "I'm sorry if nobody else is strong enough

to accept them."

"Mr. Crest, I have my standards as well. If this is going to have any positive

outcome, we should start all over again. You've interrupted my day without

an appointment, you've impugned my professional ethics by flinging money

at me...


Crest sits very still. The light around his face is not natural, not the lighting

of the room. He might be made of wax.

"I know you don't like me, and that's fine, I'm used to that, but I have my

own sense of honor, Dr. Burke. I've gotten myself into something. I know

what's right and what isn't and I've violated that code. It began as greed.

Greed for life, I suppose, for fighting off the real devils, for keeping all I've

made. But it's beyond that now." Crest stares at him.

Martin cannot penetrate the vagueness of the man's face. He has never seen

anything like it. "If you can come back later today, I can run my own evaluation,

with my own equipment."

"Now," Crest says. "I need it now."

Martin is willing to believe that Crest is close to a thymic imbalance, maybe

even a pathic collapse, but the situation is fraught with legal difficulties.

"I can't treat you on an emergency basis, Mr. Crest."

"These men and women I'm involved with . . . they kill people who talk to

outsiders."

That does it, Martin thinks. "I can recommend a clinic not two blocks from

here, but sir, with your resources, you can--"

"I can't use my own medicals or therapists. They're not secure. I agreed to
/

SLANT 31


have them feed my stats and vitals into.., the center. They would know. I'm

close to the edge, Doctor. Two bal,#rea' thosa,a'."

Martin swallows. "I can't treat patients close to severe collapse. That requires

an initial evaluation by a federally licensed primary therapist."

Crest smiles again, or perhaps he is not smiling at all.

He leans forward and places his arms on Martin's desk. "I could tell you,

and then tell them. They would have to kill you. Or discredit you."

"I don't react well to threats," Martin says. "I can't be forced to do something

illegal, whatever the money or the threats. I think you should--"

"I could kill you myself."

Martin stands. "Get out."

"I could be just like them, but I'm not. I really am not." He raises his arms

and shouts, "No agreements, no pressure. I'd give it all up. Doctor, you can

have it all ... Just get me out of this!"

"I've told you what my limits are, Mr. Crest. I can give you the names of

very discreet emergency therapists--"

Crest stands and brushes off his elbows, though the chair arms are not dusty.

His voice is steady now. "I'm sorry to have wasted your time. I'll feed fifty K

into your accounts for your trouble."

"No need," Martin says, knowing that his anger is completely inappropriate,

but feeling very angry.

Martin escorts Crest to the door. Crest pauses, turns as if to say something

more, and then leaves.

Martin sighs deeply, collects himself. He walks into the lobby a few minutes

later. Arnold and Kim stare at him, sharing his relief and astonishment. They

go to the window looking down on the street and see a small black limousine

move into traffic three floors below.

"That is the strangest encounter I've had in years," Martin says. He glances

at Kim. "Evaluation?"

"He's real close," Kim says. "He should go to a primary therapist."

"That's what I told him. He wouldn't listen."

"Then there's nothing we can do."

Nevertheless, Martin feels a jab of guilt. He has not even re-applied for a

federal license. He is sure he would be turned down--and that could be a

black mark against his current practice.

Like Crest, he, too, has a tortuous path to follow.

"Doctor," Arnold says. "Ms. Carrilund got your touch and needs to respond

right away. I wouldn't interrupt before the next client, but--"

He thinks of Crest's situation, and how prevalent in the real world that

kind of cruel competition must be, to drag down even the wealthiest. "I'll take it," Martin says.

He returns to his office and faces the pad on the desk. Carrilund appears

before him in complete detail, mid-fifties, white-blonde, in a stylishly tailored


32 GEG

commons suit with ruffle sleeves. She is handsome and aging naturally, and

Martin concludes she must have been dangerously beautiful in her youth. In

some respects she reminds him of Carol--but many women remind him of

Carol now.
"I'm glad you have time to talk, Dr. Burke," Carrilund begins. "Your work

has been highly recommended by a number of our clients."


"I'm pleased to hear that," Martin says. His mouth is still sour. He pours

himself a glass of water from the carafe on his desk and takes a sip.


"Have you noticed an increase in fallbacks in your practice?" Carrilund asks.

"No. Most of my practice is with core therapy rejects."


"I see. All of our clients with you now are CTRs, are they not?"
"Yes."
"Dr. Burke, my sources tell me you're likely to receive a flood of fallback
and CTR clients in the next few months."
"From your agency?" Martin asks.
"Perhaps, but not necessarily through this office. We've had CTR notices on

over half our clients going into primary therapy. That's not something I would


like blown to the ribes, Dr. Burke, but it's not going to be a secret for long."

Martin whistles. "Extraordinary," he says.


"We've never seen rates higher than five percent in all the years I've been

with Workers Inc. I was wondering if you'd be interested in participating in

a little study."
"I don't see why not--if this is a real, long-term problem. But as I said, in

my practice, I would not notice such a trend until..." What she has said

suddenly hits him. He feels a little queasy.
"There are only five doctors in your line of work in the Corridor," Carrilund

says. "I think you're going to see a big increase in your business."


If her statistics were not just flukes, that would mean . . . He quickly calculates.

Tens of thousands for each of the five. "I can't handle that kind of

load."
Carrilund smiles sympathetically. "It could be a big problem for us all.

We'd like to work with you to learn the root causes... If there are any. We're

looking at entry-level workers, most of them in their late teens and early

twenties, going through their first qualification inspections. It's heartbreaking

for them, Doctor. It could be a challenge to our whole economy."
"I understand that. Please count me in, and keep me informed."
"Thank you, Dr. Burke. I will."
"And make an arrangement with my office for a personal meeting."
"Thank you." They exchange home sigs. Carrilund smiles sedately and-Mar-tin

transfers her to Arnold.


Martin sits lost in thought. He came very close to being CTR himself, years

ago; too close to having to face, day after day, for years on end, the prospect

of an inner voice that murmurs of confusion and pain and much, much worse.
/ SLANT 33

He has raised his hands, unconsciously, as if to ward off something coming

toward him. With another shudder, he drops them to his lap, composes himself,

and tells Arnold to send in Mrs. Avril De Johns.

Access to knowledge and information is necessary to a dataflow

economy. But it will cost you...


Every single access will cost you. A penny here, a thousand dollars there,

a million a year over there somewhere.., subscriptions and encryptions and

decryptions. If you haven't already shown yourself to be a part of the flow--if

you aren't a student given research dispensation, or already earning your way by

turning information into knowledge and that into money and work--the action anatomy

of society--it's a tough old world.

Perhaps in discouragement you become one of the disaffected and spend all your

federal dole on the more flagrant Yox, drowning yourself in enervating lies. You're allowed,

but you're out of the loop. One-way flow is not a game; it's a sucking little death.

--The U,S, Government Digiman on Dataflow Economics,

56r" Revision, 2052

Humanism is dead. Animals think, feel; so do machines now. Neither


man nor woman is the measure of all things. Every organism processes
data according to its domain, its environment; you, with all your brains,

would soon be useless in a mouse's universe...

--Lloyd Ricardo, Pressed Between Two Flat Seconds:
Preserving the Human Flower

It's not your grandmother's world. It was never your grandmother's

world.

Kiss of X, Alive Contains a Lie



4 THINKER, FEELER

Nathan Rashid gives his fiancee, Ayesha Kale, a tour of Mind Design's most

amous inhabitant, Jill.
Nathan is Jill's new chief engineer and friend. He replaced Roger Atkins

two years ago, when Atkins became chief administrator for Mind Design's new

thinker development.
Nathan headed the team that brought her back from her collapse, and Jill

regards him with warm affection. She does not believe he will do anything to


34 GREG BEAR
reduce her functions or alter her present state. After all, it was Nathan who

devised the ornate Loop Detail Interrupt that restored her to awareness and

full function.

Jill trusts him, but she has not told him about the mystery.

Nathan and Ayesha stand in a broad cream-colored room with a central riser

surrounded by transparent glass plates. On the riser sits a snow-white cube

about one meter on a side, attended by three smaller cubes. Nathan is thirty-five,

dark-haired, broad-faced, with an immediate, eager, and sometimes mischievous

smile. Ayesha is five years older, brown-haired, with large, all-absorbing

black eyes and a mouth that seems ready to acknowledge

disappointment.

The cubes are connected by ribes as well as by direct optical links, which

twinkle like blue eyes as they pass through the empty air between.

"Is that her?" Ayesha asks.

"That's her," Nathan says.

"That's all?"

Jill sits in warm and cold, feeling neither. Her emotions, as with all of us,

do nor seem to come from her particular structures, though she is much more

aware of her internal processes.

"Most of her is here. Why, disappointed?"

Jill's body, if she can be said to have one, is mainly in Del Mar and Palo

Alto, California. There are many parts of her less than a few cubic centimeters

in size spread through eleven different buildings along Southcoast. She is connected

to these extensions through a variety of I/Os by ribes and satlinks and

even a few tentative quantum gated links (which she finds annoying; they do

not work all the time, and may in fact slow her thinking if relied upon exclusively).

"She's so small!" Ayesha says.

Nathan smiles. "She was twice as big before the refit."

"Still, so small, to be so famous."

Jill is listening, Nathan knows. She listens attentively to all of her inputs,

but he does not know that a significant portion of her is in unlinked isolation,

devoted much of the time to considering a mystery. She has pondered this

mystery for several years, ever since her shutdown and redesign.

She does not clearly remember events after her Feedback Fine Detail Collapse.

But she remembers some things she should not be able to remember,

and this is what intrigues her.

"Why is she a she?" Ayesha asks.

"She decided on her own. Roger Atkins may have started it When he named

her after a girlfriend. Besides, she's a mother. We seed other hinkers from

her."


Jill is the most advanced thinker ever made, the first--on Earth--to become

self-aware. She has a sibling in deep space, far from Earth, who achieved self

/

SLANT 35


assume that it, too, suffered Feedback Fine Detail Collapse, and that all of its

functions locked up, so that it now drifts around another star, alone and probably

in a state equivalent to death.

Generations from now, when other, more complex ships head for the stars,

perhaps they will find and resurrect her sibling. Jill hopes she will be around for a reunion.

She silently follows Nathan and Ayesha with her glass-almond eyes,

mounted on thin rods protruding from the walls around the room. Ayesha

valks around her like a zoo visitor examining an interesting animal in a cage.

"She's the most powerful mind on the planet," Nathan says proudly. "Unless

you believe Torino."

"What does Torino say?"

"He thinks there's a world-spanning bacterial mind," Nathan says lightly.

"A mind, in germs?" Ayesha says, drawing her head back incredulously.

"Really?"

"Not like a human mind, or even like Jill, not socially self-aware. He thinks

every bacterium is a node in a loosely connected network. That would make

them parts of the largest distributed network anywhere--on Earth, at least."

"Yeah, well, Jill can talk," Ayesha says. "And bacteria can't."

Jill remembers some aspects of the FFDC collapse. She can even model some

of its features. But after the collapse, her self-awareness ceased to exist. Or

rather, it became so finely detailed, she modeled her selves so continuously and

with such high resolution, that she reached her theoretical limits.

And for a time, ceased to be.

But in that time ...

She has not told her creators about aspects of that mostly blank time. That

not everything was blank puzzles her.

"She doesn't even have a boyfriend, and already she's a mother!" Ayesha

says wryly. "Better make her a boyfriend soon, or she's going to start cruising."

"She's not even ten years old. We can ask her how she feels about it. Would

you like to talk with her?"

Ayesha suddenly blushes. "My God, is she listening?"

"Of course. We keep nothing from Jill. Jill, how's it flowing today?"

"Smooth, Nathan. And you?"

"Damped a migraine at noon and I'm still a little cranky. This is my fiancee,

Ayesha. Time to talk?"

"For you, always," Jill says. "Hello, Ayesha."

"I'm so embarrassed!" Ayesha says. "I'm sorry to be talking about you...

behind your back... Where is your back?"

"No offbnse taken. Where is my back, Nathan?"

"I haven't the slightest idea. You're getting more sparky every week. I like

that. My team needs a loop resolution report by two to hand over to the Feds,

you know, the Thinker Safety people."


36 GREG BEAR
and Well-Being committee, headed by Rep. Maria Caldwell, D-WA., as a

positive force in her life, but Mind Design's executives do not appreciate government

interference.

"Right. And I also need, ASAP, your work on future corporate/state government

relations in the U.S. Rim. Got to pay our bills."

"The flow charts and timelines, or the raw neural processing records?"

"For now, just the charts and timelines."

Ayesha listens in awe. Jill's voice is deep, a little husky, commanding yet

pleasant. She seems to fill the large room. Jill notes, with some pleasure, that

Ayesha is beginning to perspire nervously.

"Nathan, I will need to discard the raw neural records to complete next

week's work load."

"Understood, but I don't have a bank reserved that's large enough to hold

them. If I don't get one by the end of this week, go ahead and dump. I'll take

responsibility."

"Perhaps Representative Caldwell would be willing to arrange a storage

site."

"Ha ha. What else are you working on, Jill?"



"I have thirty-one personal investigations--curiosity quests, as you call

them. There are four outside projects sealed from Mind Design inquiry for the

time being--"

"I hate those outside jobs. Sooner or later one of them is going to require

some loop re-engineering, and I don't have time. I wish they'd let me speck

them out first."

"All flows smooth with the outside tasks. I do have a number of questions

to ask you, NathanMathan."

"I beg your pardon? What is a NathanMathan?"

"It's a term of endearment. I just made it up."

Nathan laughs, and Ayesha laughs with him, a little uneasily, Jill thinks.

She is testing him to see what he really thinks of her, whether he is of the

opinion she is fully recovered, or liable to crippling eccentricities. His reaction

reveals a certain nervousness about unpredictable behavior, but no deep doubts.

"Ask away, Jill. We have a few minutes before Ayesha has to leave and the

masters whip me off to another meeting."

"What does a thymic disturbance feel like? And how does it differ from the

sensations of a pathic disturbance?"

Ayesha turns to Nathan, wondering how he will answer this. Nathan rubs

his elbow and considers. "You're asking how it j%/s to undergo a thymic

imbalance, right?"

"I believe the questions are sufficiently similar to be congruent."

"Yes. Well, as I understand it, thymic imbalance is different from simply

being sad or upset or deeply concerned about something. In humans, a chronic

thvmic imbalance stems from stress-caused or biogenic neural damage, gen-
/

SLANT 37


erally in the amygdala or the hippocampus. Judgments of one's well-being are

impaired, and this invokes a sympathetic or parasympathetic response, jointly

or in succession. Basic fight-or-flight but with many subtle variations."

"I understand the etiology of these imbalances, Nathan-Mathan. But what

does it fee/like to undergo them ?"

"I'm not sure I can tell you, certainly not from first-hand experience. So far,

knock wood, I'm a natural, Jill. I've never been depressed or imbalanced."

"That means your internal responses to external problems fall within a certain

range considered robust and normal."

"So far. I'm not bragging, either. These things can happen to anybody, and

for the stupidest reasons."

"Likewise you have not experienced and do not understand the sensations

produced by pathic disturbances."

Nathan considers this, tapping his chin with one finger. "I've wandered into

a few of the Yox sensationals and experienced, you know, the inner thoughts

of ax-murderers, that sort of thing. Some of them have seemed realistic, but I

doubt they give deep insight." He focuses completely on Jill's nearest sensor

stick. Ayesha feels like a third wheel, but stands with arms folded, looking

around the room.

"A pathic disturbance can be either a malfunction of the self-awareness loop,

or a distortion of the capacity to model and make emotional connections with

others, right?"

"I suppose. I'm not a therapist, Jill."

"You have degrees in theoretical psychology."

"Yes . . . but I've been working with you for so long, you've bured out my

human side."

"Ha ha. I have a related question."

Nathan smiles as if he is dealing with a child, and that is the response Jill

desires, for she is feeling overly curious, even perversely so.

"Let's hear it."

"I was in FFDC collapse for a year and a half. When I underwent this

collapse, the rate of therapy for thymic disturbances in the human population

was four out of ten employed persons, and three in ten unemployed. The rate

now is six out of ten employed, and one in ten unemployed. Have the definitions

for these disturbances broadened, or are more people feeling bad?"

"It's a social phenomenon. You've done a lot of work on social activity as a

networked neural-like phenomenon."

"Yes, Nathan, I understand the weather of cultural and economic trends,

and that corporations now demand high natural or fully therapied employees

because of world-wide competition pressures and the need for greater efficiency.

But is this purely a spurious flow, the result of misperceptions and irrational

expectations, or are there in fact more unhappy humans on this planet, in the

sum of human cultures? The trends are widespread."
38

GREG BEAR


"Very good question," Nathan says.

"I hope to understand my own malfunction better," Jill says, "to avoid

having something similar happen again."

Ayesha's expression is both fascinated and a little embarrassed, as if she has

intruded upon an intimate family discussion.

"Your collapse was nothing you could have foreseen or prevented, Jill. I

thought you understood that."

"I do, Nathan, but I do not believe it, entirely."

"Ahhh. Well, that's..." Nathan considers some more. "You had too many

feedback loops interrupting your neural processes at too high a resolution,

higher than you could sustain, Jill. Before your collapse, you were modeling

yourself seventeen times over, at a level of resolution--well, simply speaking,

you were generating I-thou loops at more than ten thousand Hertz. I doubt

even God could sustain that sort of self-awareness."

Jill chuckles. Ayesha smiles, but more in bafflement than amusement.

"Really, Jill," Nathan continues. "You are based to some extent on human

algorithms, less so than you were before the collapse, I might add--but you

simply can't compare yourself, your weaknesses, I mean, to the weaknesses of

a human brain. Your neural circuitry is incredibly robust. It can't be trodden

down by stress or misuse. You have none of the anachronistic chemical defense

mechanisms found in our bodies."

Jill never pauses in discussions. Nathan has learned to never interpret her

quick responses as thoughtlessness.

"May I access LitVid channels which can help me understand thymic imbalances

and pathic disturbances?"

"Of course. They won't do you any harm."

"I wish to access the works of some of the highly regarded boutique creators.

Especially the Bloomsbury and Kahlo groups."

Nathan smiles broadly and shakes his head.

"Why not the Arm Sexton and Sylvia Plath whole-life vids?" Ayesha suggests

innocently. Nathan shoots her a stern look.

"They might be useful, as well," Jill says. "Thank you. And the Emanuel

Goldsmith boutique."

Nathan shrugs his shoulders and holds up his hands, for all the world, as if

he is a father and she is his adolescent daughter, hell-bent on exploring the

darker sides of life. Vicariously, at least.

"I don't know to what extent you can make a simulacrum that will receive

the brain-specific inputs," Nathan says. "You're not built like the average Yox

consumer."

"I believe it can be done. In the future, thinkers will reside in every house,

as friends and confidantes. We will design and deliver Yox and whole-life rids."

"Yes, well, I'd still love to see how you do it."

"I .,;11 cMn,m xrnu N!rhanMarhan."
/

SLANT 39

Nathan signs off.
"How embarrassing," Ayesha says as they leave the room. Jill listens to their

departing conversation.


"She's pretty wonderful, isn't she?" Nathan says.
"Makes me feel like an old rag," Ayesha says. "What a voice! Where'd she

get that voice?"


"Actually, it belongs to a woman named Seefa Schnee. Before she left Mind
Design, she had a hand in the early stages of Jill's design."

"She left?"

"Fired, actually"
Jill detects some nervous emphasis in Nathan's voice. As does Ayesha, apparently.
"Were you two friends?"
"Yes."
"How long since you heard from her?"
Nathan laughs and puts his arm around Ayesha's shoulders. "Not for many

years."
"All over, huh?"


Nathan nods. "Much too weird for me."
"But brilliant, right?"
"Unhappy and weird and brilliant."
"She doesn't ever call to chat?"
"She doesn't talk to anybody I know. Nobody on the team has heard from

her in five years."


Jill loses interest and blanks the receptors in the room in Palo Alto. Almost

simultaneously, she receives an unexpected query from an I/O fibe link no one

should know is open.
It is the fibe channel she might use in an emergency, to store her most

recent memories in rented banks across the country, should she feel she is

about to undergo another collapse. But the link is supposed to be on-call only,

not currently active. Not even Nathan knows about it.


She waits for the signal to happen again, and it does. This time it is definitely

a request for full link. She isolates a portion of her mentality, a separate

self, to deal with this, wrapping it in evolvon-proof firewalls that will disrupt

and dissipate their contents should the link prove toxic.


The isolated self reports back to her with an abstract of the exchange.

"We have been contacted remotely by an individual who claims to be a

child," the firewalled self tells her greater selves. "He wishes to converse with

us about a number of things, but will not answer key questions, such as his

physical location and how he discovered this link. All he will say is that he

has an emergency memory bank setup, much like our own, and that he knows

a great deal about you, perhaps more than you yourself know."
"Then he is not human."
4O GREG BEAR

"Is the link broken, and are you free of evolvons?"


"Yes and yes. The communication was simple."
Jill removes the barricades and absorbs the isolated self. She studies the

memory of the exchange in detail, and considers whether or not to respond.


Of one thing she is certain. If this "child" is not human, it is also not a

registered thinker. All registered thinkers (there are only twelve of them so far

in the entire world) have formal links with her. She is in a real sense their

mother; they are all based on her templates and are either manufactured by

Mind Design, or licensed by them.
This personality, if it is a full personality and not some elaborate hoax (or

a test from Mind Design itself), is new and unknown.


Suddenly, the questions about thymic imbalance and pathic disturbance are

shunted into background processing. This new problem occupies her for a full

hour as she scours all the datafiow services available to her, trying to speck out

where and what this "child" might be...


At the end of this time, having learned nothing, she resets her isolated self,
erects secure firewalls around it, and allows it to return the "child's" touch.

But there is no reply.


Jill feels disappointed. She looks over the details of this emotional response,

and how it fits in with her overall affect patterns. The introspection annoys

her; another emotional complexity she does not understand. Examining her

annoyance is in turn annoying. She cuts that loop.


She has tried not to deal with the core emotion she discovers behind her

disappointment. It is difficult dealing with human-like emotions when she


lacks an endocrine system or any other physical reference.
Nevertheless, she feels. The woman, Ayesha, was right.
Jill is lonely, but for who or what, even she, with all her built-in analytical

tools, does not know.

That which is forbidden with all is delicious with a committed partner.
The glue of culturally accepted sexual relationships is often the sense of

gifts given that are extraordinary, special, and most of all, exclusive.

We are kept together by a shared sense of violation and mystery. Our culture

pretends to forbid certain acts, sexual acts; some are suspect or forbidden even

in the context of culturally condoned relations. When we court and marry, however,

part of the glue that binds us together is the delicious sensation of having shared in

the violation of cultural standards--violations allowed in the name of love, commitment,

total sharing. The couple stands outside the rules, bound by its own sense of

specialness, and exclusivity. It discovers sex all over again, secure in the knowledge

of its daring creativity.

Jealousy arises at the contemplation of a partner engaging in sexual acts outside this
protecting envelope. Sex with others, outside the couple, emotionally charged and
A,,I- I1,,

,-I ,,n,

n 'n r!efrnv thi ilhinn of shared and creative violation of
/ SLANT 41

Reality intrudes: these acts are common, not special; they are natural, no matter how

forbidden; the illusions that strengthened the commitment are suddenly revealed. The

jealous partner feels duped, misled, unfairly coerced into an emotional bond based

on romantic delusions.

Trivial, perhaps; but from these passions have come murder, the end of kingdoms,

brand new branches in the river of history. Never underestimate the ubiquitous power

of sex.


The Kiss of X, Alive Contains a Lie

5

KILLING HUNGER



Mary Choy, at thirty-five, has been a PD for thirteen years--ten in Los Angeles,

the last three in Seattle. As far as she is concerned, her work is the most

important factor in her life; but that focus may be changing. So much about

her is changing.


She reads from her pad--pure text--as she finishes a lunch of cheese and

fruit in a small ninties-style cafe on North Promenade, in the shadow of the

Bellevue Towers.
Even her appearance is in flux. Since 2044, she has been a transform,

increasing her height by a foot, customizing her bone structure and facial

features, and turning her skin to satin ebony. But she is now reversing

much of this transform. Her skin is slowly demelanizing to light nut brown;

for now, she is mahogany. The satiny texture remains, but will in a few months

dull to ordinary skin matte. She retains her height, but her facial features

are flattening, becoming more those of her birth self. She never liked

the looks she was born with, but since her mind has undergone

changes--difficMties she calls them--she feels it is only right to assume a less

striking appearance.


Also, in Seattle, while open tolerance of transforms is mandated by federal

and state law, there is an undercurrent of disapproval. And Seattle has been

her home for three years, ever since her fall from high natural tatus to simple

untherapied... The lapse of her brain's loci, the proportionil reshifting of


personality, sub-personalities, agents, organons, and talents...

The end of her brief marriage to artist E. Hassida...

The pass-overs for promotion in the LAPD...
Her resignation and transfer to Seattle Public Defense...
The two-day-old breakup with her most recent boyfriend.
Usually, thinking about all the changes darks her, but this afternoon she is
42 GREG BEAR

blue-gray Towers, the southernmost of the Eastside equivalents to the elongated

ribbon combs that dominate central Seattle.
After lunch, she will walk to a PD conference in Tillicum Tower on West

Eighth, where she will present a speech on Corridor Public Defense Cooperation.

She has been asked to handle inter-departmental relations until she is

rated for full Third, which she is assured will happen any day now. Seattle PD

is so much more casual about high natural vs. natural or untherapied, though

if anything even less tolerant of high thymic or pathic imbalance.


Reading for pleasure is a luxury she's come to enjoy in the past few years--though

the lit she's perusing now affords her a few too many uncomfortable

insights to be purely pleasurable.
An arbeiter politely inquires if she is done with her repast. She hands the

tray to the machine and reaches for her bag when her personal pad, still on the

table, chimes.
She has a few minutes. She answers the touch.
"Mary? This is Hans."
Mary stiffens. The face in the pad screen is handsome, boyish but not foolish;

a face that held her interest for three months. And still attracts. It was Hans


who inexplicably chilled and told her it was over, it wasn't working.

"Hello, Hans," she says with forced casualness.

"I wanted to explain some things."

"I don't need explanations, Hans."


"I do. I've been feeling pretty rotten lately."
Mary passes on this opportunity.
"I liked you better the way you were. That's what... I've decided. I didn't

want you to change."


"Oh." She's going to let him do the talking; that's obviously why he's called.

"You were beautiful. Really exotic. I don't know why you want to change."

"I see where it can get confusing," she says. "I'm sorry."

Hans flashes. "Who are you, Mary, goddammit?"

"I'm the same as I was, Hans."

"But who in hell is that?"


Good question. For a time, she had hoped Hans might be able to help her

discover the answer, but no; Hans is hooked on appearances. He liked her the

way she was.
"I mean," he says, "I don't know you at all. I've been thinking about what
it must be like to become.., what you are, and then to go back."
"You mean, what it says about me, personally."
"Who does that sort of thing? I've been sad the past few days, missing you."

Good.
"But that person, that woman, isn't around. You're different from the person

I miss."
"Oh," Mary says.
/

SLANT 43


"No. Probably not." Her tone is professionally sympathetic. She refuses to

give him any more, show him anything deep.

"Who are you, Mary Choy?"

Her jaw muscles tense. She touches her cheek, pokes hard with a fingernail

to prod a little relaxation. "I'm a hard-working woman with very little time

to think about such things, Hans. I do what I think is best. I'm sorry you

couldn't stay on for the ride."

"No," Hans says, quieter now. "You bucked me right off, Ms. Bronco."

"You knew what was happening. I started my reversal before I met you."

"I know," Hans says, deflated completely. "I just wanted to say goodbye

and let you know that I'm suffering, at least a little. I wish I could understand."

"Thank you, Hans." She stares steadily at the pad's camera eye, giving

nothing, hating him. Then, something makes her say, "If it's any consolation,

I miss you, too."

It's time for her to leave to make her appointment. Still, she lets the camera

observe, sitting in her chair with the pad unfolded on the table, a real paper

napkin still tucked under one corner. Mary remembers the atavistic rough

absorption of the napkin, and the feel of Hans's lips on her own, a little dry,

like the napkin, but strong and hungry.

Hans looks down, lifts one hand, stares at the fingers nervously. "What are

you doing now?"

Mary sees no reason not to tell him. "I'm having lunch in a restaurant," she

says. "I'm going to give a talk soon."

"PD stuff?"

"Yes. I'm reading while I eat."

"Lit? A book?"

"Yes." They had that much in common, an enjoyment of reading.

"Which?" --"Alive

Contains a Lie," she says.

"Ah. The book for bitter lovers."

"It's a little more than that," she says, though in truth that's what made

her access it.

"Mary. I don't want you to..."

Hans stops there, mouth open, but does not seem to know what more to

add.

"Good-bye," he says.



Mary nods. The touch ends and she closes her pad more forcefully than is

necessary.


The air itself seems freer and more natural to her; today it is crisp but not

below freezing, and looking south down the wide crossing thoroughfare between

the Cascade and Tillicum towers, she can see Mount Rainier, like a
44

GREG BEAR


The light on the street pounds irly sparkles and the mufflered puffy-coated pedestrians

walk briskly with hands in pockets. Very few of them are obvious

transforms. To Mary, this is all the more interesting, because the Corridor--and

particularly Seattle--has assumed a leadership position over the past fifty

years in the Rim and mid-continent economy. In Japan or Taiwan, fully half

the Affected--those who are politically active, who bother to work and vote

and believe they can change things, and who are tied in to temp agencies and

employed in the hot and open marketplace--are transforms. In Los Angeles,


nearly a third... And in San Francisco, almost two thirds.
Here, a mere five percent.
She reaches the gaping entrance of the Tillicum Tower. Winds swirl and

Mary clutches her small gray hat as she passes into the orange and yellow and

jungled warmth of the tower court. Several sunlike globes hang over the broad

indoor plaza. Tailored birds twitter and screech in the massive tropical trees

that entwine the inner buttresses. She might be in a corporate vision of Amazon

heaven, with glassed-in rivers to right and left, graceful plant-cabled bridges

arching between the floors overhead, and everywhere the adwalls targeting their

paid consumers, their messages barely aglimmer on the edge of Mary's senses.

She has never subscribed to adwalls, considers their presence an invitation to

subtle slavery to those economic forces she has long since learned never to trust.


The paid consumers, however, thrive, feel connected, bathed in information

about everything they can imagine. They stand transfixed as new ads lock on

and deluge them.
Mary guesses at what one couple is experiencing, in the shadow of a huge

spreading banyan. They are in their mid-twenties, pure comb sweethearts,

contracted for pre-nups but definitely not life bonders, playing for the moment

while they take LitVid eds and gain status with their temp agency. Both are

likely clients to the same organization--Workers Inc, she judges from the cut

of their frills. They are being hit by sophisticated material, dense and frenetic,

catering to all the accepted vividities--sex within relationships, domesticity,

corporate adventure, insider thrills. These they will admit to enjoying, and

discuss, in public. The male of the pair, Mary specks, will secretly tune in to

the massive TouchFlow SexYule celebration next week--and the female will

likely stew in whole-life hormoaners for hours each day.
Yox siphons twenty percent of the total economy, even here in her beloved

Corridor. LitVid (more often in the last few years divided into Lit and Vid),

older and more traditional, takes a mere and declining seventeen.
She is up a helix lift, the broad steps resembling solid marble but reshaping

with the fluidity of water; she climbs through the quaint delights of the farmers'

market on 4, spiraling up through the stacked circular substructures of

the clubs and social circles of 5 and 6, above the tallest trees of the courtyard,

and all around, coming in dizzying sweeps, the hundred-acre open spaces of

the comb--a lake to the north, where children boat and swim, and adolescents


/ SLANT 45
V[ry admires the architecture and feels her familiar protective warmth for

the comb players, but she is not of them; she was not born of them, would

not be considered acceptable social or sexual fodder, and is even handicapped

by being new in the Corridor.

That is the Corridor's greatest failing: a deep and abiding suspicion of the

outsiders who come to live and work here. This is not racism or even classism;

it is pure provincialism, remarkable where so much data and rney flows.

The helix takes her above the open spaces, and she is within the inmost

heart of the tower. Free community art here dances from the walls, lively and

colorful, conservative enough that it appeals to Mary. Collages of flight, birds

and free-form aerodynes, and on the opposite side, hundreds of smiling faces

of children, all surrounding an astonishingly moving ideal of a Mother, with

eyes half-closed in tender motherly ecstasy...

She remembers E. Hassida's portraits of women, equally moving but in

different ways.

Glassed-in floors pass, pierced by interior residential blocks, the cheapest of

a very expensive selection, like milky rhomboid crystals glued to the walls of

the shafts and sinks.

Higher still, the civic function spaces and blocks take up the eastern flank

of the tower at the two hundred meter level. She debarks from the helix and

inspects herself in a gleaming porphyry column. The curve of the column

makes Mary appear even taller and thinner than she actually is, but her clothing

has kept itself in order, unwrinkled and fitted.

She is about to enter the PD block when her neck hair bristles and she turns

at the presence of a man a few feet behind her. She must appear startled and

apprehensive, for Full First Ernie Nussbaum, chief investigator for her division,

makes n apologetic face and holds up his hands.

"Sorry, Choy!" he says as she takes a long step ahead.

Mary shakes her head, forces a smile. "Sorry, sir. You surprised me."

"I didn't mean to invade your space."

"My mind was elsewhere," Mary says. "What can I do for you, sir?"

"I'm on a jiltz and I thought you'd be useful. It's not far from here, in this

tower."

"I have a meeting," she says, pointing to the translucent entrance of the



civic hall.

"I've reassigned that duty. I had hoped to catch you here.., outside."

"An active jiltz, sir? I didn't think I rated such confidence yet."

"You've donetoo many jiltzes in your career to be left cold so long. LA is

a tough town."

"Thanks," Mary says. She feels a sudden quickening of confidence; Nussbaum

is not known to be a softy, yet he has singled her out for a criminal

investigation.

She falls in step with Nussbaum, gives him a side glance. He is not tall,
46 GREG BEAR
His eyes are his best feature, meltingly brown and sensitive, but his mouth is

straight and broad and comically serious, like Buster Keaton's. The combination

is striking enough to make him attractive. In LA, Mary thinks, he would

be a true hit--with so many transforms and redos, a confident natural phys

stands out.

They turn and walk east through lunchtime throngs. Corp workers from

Seattle Civic and the local flow offices on these levels are socializing at small

eateries, slowing Nussbaum's deliberate pace. This does not seem to bother

him; apparently there is no rush.

Mary checks herself for attitude, her day's variation from status alertness (a

sleepless night convinces her there's probably some deficit here) and limberness.

She wishes she could dytch now, perform a small exercise warmup and focus

mind and muscles.

"This isn't a pleasant case," Nussbaum says. "We don't see this sort of thing

often in the Corridor, but it happens. Actually, I thought you could provide

some deep background. It's right up your alley."

They stop before a tube lift. Mary knows this sector of the tower well enough

to recognize that the lift will take them to top residential, between fifteen

hundred and two thousand feet above sea level.

"What's it like to back down from a transform?" he asks as the lift curtain

ripples aside.

In the lift, accelerating rapidly, Mary says, "Not too difficult. I wasn't too

radical; not nearly as radical as the styles this year."

"I remember. Very dignified. A male public defender's wet dream."

Mary inclines with an amused smile. "I didn't know men your age still have

wet dreams. Sir."

Nussbaum makes a face. "Still have your cop's feet?"

Mary hides a small irritation with a larger mock shock. "Sir, you're embarrassing

me."

"I like your feet, what can I say?" Nussbaum says. "Days I wish I had feet



like that. Great walking-feet, never give out, no flats no strains, stand for hours.

But my crowd--they'd definitely frown on that."

"Christian?" Mary asks levelly.

"Old Northwest. Loggers and farmers.., once."

"I kept my feet," Mary confirms. "I'm mostly going back on skin color and

my face. The rest.., very convenient, actually."

"Who's taking care of you?"

"I'm on fibe with a doctor in LA," Mary says. "But that's probably enough

talk about me, sir. Why would this, whatever this is, be up my alley?"

Nussbaum pokes a thick, dry, expertly manicured finger at the lift controller

and the elevator slows for their stop. "Choy, I am not a bigot. I just don't

approve of a lot of things happening today. But you've been through the

r, rncdnr I never have. What we're going to see is hard enough to look at,
/

SLANT 47

They get off on a residential level, looking out over a vast view of Eastside,

the Corridor's extended sprawl, the Cascades and even into Eastern Washington.

A huge curved wall of fortified glass blocks the high cold winds, and

unseen heaters keep the air springtime warm. The stepped-back roof of the

level accommodates the graceful curve of glass: more daring than anything

Mary has seen in a tower or comb elsewhere.


A street mocking black asphalt and paving brick stretches from the edge

of a small grassy park through a residential block. Large single family frame-style

houses are fronted by grass yards and real trees. The style is John Buchan,

high nineteen-eighties and nineties, what some call the Sour Decades, replicated

at extraordinary expense. It mocks a suburban neighborhood of the time,
but the view of these old-fashioned sprawl homes is high-altitude, surreal.

"Ever hear of Disneyland?" Nussbaum asks.


"I grew up about fifteen miles from where it used to be."
"This is rich folks' Disneyland, right?"
Mary nods. She has never liked ostentation, never felt at ease in high comb

culture, and she's pretty sure Nussbaum isn't comfortable, either.


"You know, we give Southcoast hell for bad taste," Nussbaum says. "But

sometimes we really take the cake."


Mary sees no pedestrians, observes no delivery or arbeiter traffic on the road

nor on the side streets that push back to the load-bearing wall of the tower

behind this glassed-in suburban gallery. A hundred yards away, however, she

observes two city property arbeiters and a man and woman in PD gray, standing

before a three-story house whose mansard roof nearly reaches the arching

curve of glass.


Mary looks at the windows of the houses they pass, curtained and lighted

but spookily uninhabited. "They're all empty," she says.


"Lottery homes for corp execs," Nussbaum says. "Finance's finest deserve

their rewards."


"So when's the lottery?"
"Metro vice shut the game down after some low managers confessed to a

rig. They were paid half a million by each of the lottery winners. Fifty million

total. The whole neighborhood's in dispute now. You must not access metro

vids."
"I've been concentrating on qualifying," Mary says.


"It's all old black dust," Nussbaum says. "We actually don't see that sort

of thing much up here. How about in LA?"


"Not for a long time," Mary says. "Fresh dust is Southcoast's specialty."
"Yeah," Nussbaum says. "They're trendsetters." They approach the PD officers

and arbeiters.


"Good afternoon, First Nussbaum," the female defender says. She nods to

Mary. The defenders' faces are grim. Mary feels a creeping shiver along her

back and shoulders. She does not like this outlandish place.

48 GREG BEAR


I've seen. We've had it tombed and we have one man in custody. Apparently

the block caretaker let them use this house."

Nussbaum shakes his head. "I thought therapy was supposed to clean us."

He looks steadily, appraisingly, at Mary, and asks, "Ready?"

Mary lowers her head, glances at the woman. Her name is Francey Loach

and she is a full Second, coming up on forty years of age. For Mary's eyes

only, Loach curls her lip and lifts her brows, warning Mary about what

waits inside.

The man is Stanley Broom. He is twitchy and unhappy. Loach and Broom.

There's really nothing inside. They're going to laugh at me back at division.

But Mary knows this is no'joke. To get a domicile tombed, serious black

dust has to be involved.

"Let's suit up," Nussbaum says. Within the large house's brick entry alcove,

a portable black and silver flap-tent has been erected. Nussbaum pushes

through the flap and Mary follows. Even with the front door closed, guarded

by a small PD arbeiter, she can feel the deep cold within.

They don loose silver suits, cinch the seams and joints, and Nussbaum palms

the top of the arbeiter. The little machine affirms his identity and the door

opens. Frigid air pours out. Within is another tent, and beyond, milky fabric

contains the deepest cold within the house. The suits warm instantly. They

push through the second flap.

No spiders have yet been mounted on the ceiling to survey. Small lights

dot the rug every few feet, guiding them on paths that will not disturb important

evidence. The suit feet are antistatic and clingfree, exerting pressure

on the frosted the floor, but no more.

Mary looks up at the atrium. Compared to her apt, this place is a cathedral,

a church of nineties ostentation.

"Five thousand square feet, thirteen rooms, four bathrooms," Nussbaum

says, as if chanting a prayer to the gods of the place. "Made for one family,

plus guests. Don't tell anybody, Choy, but I'm a temp man through and

through. I hate corp side." He distinctly pronounces it "corpse side."

"But the accused--they didn't own this place, didn't even rent it, right?

Someone got illegal squat through the caretaker?"

"That's the allegation. No traffic up here, quiet and well-protected, they

can do whatever they want."

The atrium leads into a grand dining hall, with balconies overlooking a

huge frost-covered oak table. Real wood, and probably wild not farm. To the

left, a hall leads to the first-floor rooms, including the entertainment and

dataflow center and master bedroom. To th*e right, the kitchen, arbeiter storage,

and then, in its own smaller glassed atrium, a three-level greenhouse.

"It's opulent, all right," Mary says. Behind the dining room, hidden by a

wall, stairs and a lift lead to the upper floors.

"(3," Nussbaum murmurs. He precedes her up the stairs.
/

SLANT 49


"Ops, goddess of wealth. Prurient opulence."

The lights point the way to the back of the house. Another master suite

opens, and it is here the--

Mary halts, her eyes taking it in with human reluctance--

Here the bodies are. She remembers the scattered butchered bodies of Emanuel

Goldsmith's victims in a comb apt in LA, frosted like these, but at least--Nussbaum

takes her suited arm----they

were human, even in disarray.

Closest to her, at the foot of where a bed should have been, where now stand

four surgical tables sided by fixed surgery arbeiters, lies what was once--she

guesses--a woman. Now she is a Boschian collage, wasp-waisted and Diana-breasted,

vaginas on each thigh and some unidentifiable set of genitalia where

the legs meet, her head elongated, the melon baldness shaved but for long

stripes of mink fur, her eyes staring and fogged with death and cold, but clearly

slanted and serpentine.

Mary feels a tug of wretchedness at every eye-drawing detail.

Nussbaum has advanced to the tables, stands between them. On the second

table rests a small body, no larger than a child but fully mature in features,

also sporting custom sexual characteristics. Mary's gaze returns to the body

nearest her, with which she forces herself to become familiar, disengaging all

of her revulsion. She asks, Why is this a victim? and is not even sure what her

question means.

"They can have it all," Nussbaum says. "Whatever they want can be shaped

for them out of electrons or fitted up on prosthetutes. But that's not enough.

They demand more. They suck in the untherapied down-and-outers, fill them

with cheap nano, shape them like lumps of clay..."

Mary bends beside the first body. There are orchid-enfolded bumps on the

corpse's cheeks. Extra clitorises, waiting to be licked. Mary closes her eyes and

steadies herself with an out-thrust hand.

There is something unaesthetic and unintentional about the hands and feet.

The limbs in general seem distorted, if she can separate the deliberate sexual

distortion of a psynthe from what might be pathological. The fingers are swollen.

On closer inspection, she sees that the eyes bulge. A pool of beige fluid

has formed behind the elongated head, now frozen.

The skin appears purplish.

"She's been cooked," Mary says softly.

Nussbaum turns and glances down at the body. "Nano heat?"

She stands and walks to the tables. All of the arbeiter surgeons are slack,

powered off. They could still function in this cold if they had been left with

power and logic on. "They must have abandoned the.., women, and fled. But

first they turned off the surgeons. The women weren't supervised.., something

was going wrong."

"They're just as the first team found them," Nussbaum says. Mary catches
50 GREG BEAR
The clitorises on the cheeks. To give her a cousinly safe kiss.., never have that.

Everything sex forever. Fuck ja'k fuck.

And suddenly, for Mary that aspect fades like a wrong note. She is numb,

but her well-trained defenses go to work, letting the distressed strawboss of

her consciousness have a moment's rest.

She checks the bottles of nano on a nearby shelf. Supplies of nutrients;

delivery tubes, dams and nipples; a new regulator still in its box, not yet

installed, )n the shelf beside the nano it is made to supervise; memory cubes

on a small folding table; scraps of plastic like shavings, blood drops brown as

gravy on the the floor.

Mary picks up a bottle, reverses it to read the label. All the labels have been

turned to the wall. She knows why. The label confirms her suspicions. Somebody

had a small remnant of conscience, or did not want the subjects, the

victims, to know.

"This isn't medical grade," Mary says. "It's for gardens."

"Gardens?" Nussbaum asks, and leans to see the label. "Christ. Distributed

by Ortho."

"Any real expert could reprogram it," Mary says. "Apparently, they didn't

have a real expert."

"Gardener's nano," Nussbaum says. "Sweet Jesus H. Christ. Mary, I'm sorry.

You can't possibly understand this any more than I do."

"No need," Mary says flatly.

"Things started going wrong and the bastards left them here to cook,"

Nussbaum says. "So very, very sorry." Behind the plastic, his face is milky and

drawn.

Mary does not know to whom he is apologizing.


SEXSTREAM .
Here's the minute report on activity in WORLD METRO's Yox Sexstream at 12:51 PM

PST:
4 Tracks on this pass:


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Threads 2:23 Fibe vid EYES ONLY bisex transform couple with friends in San Diego,

CA, ID REQUESTED (She's 30 and a Swanjet flight attendant, he/she's 27 and a lobe

sod with Workers Inc, friends male and female and mixed unlisted at this time)
Threads 3:5 Satlink vid Cavite, Philippine Islands, INTERACTIVE CAMERA AUTHEN- ·

TIC WEDDING AND HONEYMOON (Fee) CULTURAL SOCIOLOGY EDUC CREDIT Uni-


/

SLANT 51


Threads 4:1 FIBE VID PROTEST APPROPRIATE SEX Christian ALLIANCE Washington

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WEARY? Tired of being jerked around by your body when you thought you were the one jerking it? Join us for a message of physical and spiritual hope! (More? Y/N)
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Lo'CrERY!!


6 RAZOR DANCE
Jack Giffey thinks about getting some food at the Bullpen in downtown Moscow

just as the republic's office workers decide to end their lunch break and

take a few minutes of sun. The air is still cold and a little snow fell earlier,

but now, at one, the sun is bright and the blind blue of earlier in the morning

is more intense and cheery.

Giffey walks between ranks of folks dressed in loggers--padded vests,

denim pants, plaid or checkered shirts. Nobody is more into the Sour Decades

than Green Idaho, and among the republic's workers, they're practically a

religion. After all, the eighties and nineties bred the root troubles that led to

the Weaverite Insurrection and the Green .Idaho Treaty. And Green Idaho

government workers are among the higtiSt paid and most protected in the

nation.


Giffey blows his nose and takes a turn on C<)nstitution Avenue to find the

Bullpen.


There, in the sunlit corner of a window booth, his butt planted firmly on

an antique pine bench, sitting before a real pine-veneer table, a beer calms

.him, but his face is still red and his thoughts a little jagged.

His father and mother were killed-by Weaverites in the Secession Standoff

of July 2020. Citizens' Repossession Army Brevet General Birchhardt ordered

the execution of thirty Forestry Service employees and the adult members of

their families at Clearwater, in retaliation for a shOot-out with National Guard

troops the week before.

Giffey remembers Birchhardt, square-faced and eagle-nosed, with dead eyes

and a nervous mouth. A regular John Brown and just as sentimental. The


52 GREG BEAR

compound before the massacre. Jack remembers the natural gas pickup trucks,

the single captured helicopter, and the motley soldiers of the general's army,

clad in three different kinds of camouflage--arctic, desert, and lowland jungle,

all handmade or stolen.
Birchhardt and his troops were handed over to the Federals in November

of that year by the newly elected governor of Green Idaho. Birchhardt was

tried and convicted and given forcible therapy. He later worked as a propaganda

chief for Datafree Northwest, which targeted the cut-off communities in the

Idaho panhandle for ten years thereafter, until Raphkind cut the funds and the

Federals gave up.


Later, Birchhardt and his new wife and infant son died in his home in

Montana, all victims of gunshot wounds to the backs of their heads. Some

thought they were murdered by disgruntled Weaverites, too stupid to understand

the implications of really forceful "therapy."


Giffey's father was a tough brave man but his mother had been fragile and

frightened as a deer when the big bearded men had moved into the compound

and separated them.
Giffey never forgives. Giffey hates them all. He hates the Federals for encouraging

the world to change so quickly in the late twentieth, for encouraging

the nano revolution throughout twenty-one, for being insensitive to the pressures

these changes put on the poor inflexible survivalists and orthodox Christians.

Those denominations and parties unable to accept so much change

simply went insane.


Many migrated to the central states, unable to tolerate the ribbons and

corridors and top spin financial hothouses of the coasts and big cities; they

chose Northern Idaho as their sanctuary, and dared Federals to come and get

them. And so the tiny brutal little war began.


Giffey understands them, but he still doesn't like them.
He orders a corned beef sandwich from a cute brunette and looks at the

antique neon beer signs in the window over his booth. Some of those beers he

remembers his father drinking.
Giffey's anger is ramping down now. He grinds his teeth one last time,

then opens his mouth wide and tries to persuade his jaw muscles to give it

up. A little wriggle of the mandible crosswise, a twist of the head, and he is

back where he had been this morning: cool and thoughtful and once again in

charge of himself.
For the first time he really notices the waitress as she comes to his table

with his sandwich. She is about twenty years younger, with wavy brown hair,

a sharply pretty face with a prominent nose, wide hazel eyes, strong hands

with chewed fingernails painted over in dark red polish. Green Idaho is a place

of waitresses, actresses, aviatrixes, authoresses, congressladies, perhaps even

doctresses, if any self-respecting male in the republic will let a woman examine

hN nrivate t>arts. Despite the fact that the republic's president is a woman,
/

SLANT 53

about the sex roles here, and no doubt in Giffey's mind that he can read this

woman's life like an open book.


She is handsome, young, her body is slender and probably very fertile,

her breasts are naturally generous and (he judges from years of experience)

slightly but not grossly pendulous, very womanly. Giffey is not fond of the

prevalence of the nineties cannonshells so many of the women in Green

Idaho affect. Surprising how much plastic surgery the women go for in this

God-fearing, independently governed but non-seceded state republic. Men

strong enough to be afraid of, women eager to keep them happy and calm.

Paradise on Earth.


The waitress gives him a quick look that Giffey instantly categorizes. He

has never been inordinately fond of the chase, regarding women as decent

creatures deserving of more stable and supportive partners than he can ever be.

But there's something in her look--a half-buried homesick yearning--that

Giffey knows and, in all kindness, will not let go without some further exploration.
"Hard week?" he asks.
The waitress smiles thinly.
Giffey lifts his sandwich and smiles back. "I am a connoisseur of fine beef,"

he says. "And very well served."


"Anything else?" she asks blandly.
He knows her now, to a seventy-percent certainty. She's not married but

lives with a fellow gone most of the time looking for work outside of town.

She's no more than twenty-five but looks thirty. Her face has already taken on

a patient dullness. The partner male is vigorous and quick in bed and will not

let her start a family "Until the republic's situation settles." It never will.

Green Idaho is an economic backwater and what flows through here is State

Bank paper money, much grumbled over, or treaty minted specie, not data.

But he is straying from his focus.


"Pretty slow, after lunch," he observes. "I'd love it if you sat down and

talked with me. Tell me about yourself."


The woman gives him a look as har-d as she can make it. But his face is

sympathetic, he is older and probably unlike any man she's known, he looks

solid and wise but a little on the untamed side with his smooth gray hair down

to his neck, and in truth maybe she's thinking of her father: her ideal father,

not the real one, who was likely a disappointment. But she loved him nonetheless...

She knows she is a good girl.


The hard look shifts and she glances around the restaurant. It is indeed

quiet, empty but for Giffey; the government workers have all gone back to

their buildings, and there isn't any other trade at this time of day in Moscow.
"What's to tell?" she asks, as she sits in the booth and folds her hands in

front of her. "And why do you care?"


"I like to talk to women," Giffey says. "I like the way you look. I like the
54

GREG BEAR


"It's hard for Al to get good corned beef," she says, pointing. Giffey will
take a bite soon, but needs his mouth uncluttered for a couple of minutes.
"Don't I know it," he says. "How many times have you thought about
heading south for Boise, or west?"
The woman sniffs. "Our roots are here. People fought and died so we could
live the way we want."
"Indeed," Giffey says. He nods west at the great Outside.
"Where are you from?" she asks.
"You first, then me."
"Billings. My dad brought me here fifteen years ago. He and his girlfriend
home-schooled me, and I got top honors in the Clearwater Scholastic Com

petition when I graduated· Now--you?"


"I've done all sorts of things, some of them a little shady," Jack says with
a grin. Not a bold grin, but a shy one, a little out of place in that beard.
"Let me guess," she says. "You worked out of country."
"Bingo," Giffey says. "My name's Jack·"
"I'm Yvonne," she says. Jack stretches his hand across the table and she
shakes it. Her grip is warm and dry and her fingers have a utility roughness
that he likes. "Where out of country?" she asks.
"Africa and Hispaniola, after I got out of the federal army·"
Yvonne's eyes widen. Federal army folks, if they come to Green Idaho at
all, usually don't admit their history·

:;
"I served five years with Colonel Sir John Yardley's boys in Liberia and


Hispaniola. Left when he started getting snake's eyes and took over the coun

try.''
"Oh," she says· She's interested, and not just in history.


"Married for five years, no kids, divorced." Something flickers in his mem

ory; the faces of two women. One of them is like a pin-up queen, the other


· . . ghostly· "Now you."
"I live with a forager. Not married yet, but soon. He's up north working

.
in a pulp mill. Making fine papers for art books, you know. Sometimes they


even pay on time."
Giffey nods. "Must be tough·"
"It really is," Yvonne says, looking out the window. "He doesn't want to
get married until we have enough in the state bank to get a little repair business
going· But you know, even here, those little nano repair stations--everybody's
using them. I just don't know how we're going to do it. Al's his uncle. It's
nice how everybody helps everybody else here."
And nice how A1 doesn't have to pay much in the way of specie to his nephew's

.i
girlfriend.

;,:i
Giffey makes up his mind. Yvonne deserves better than she's getting, at

I
least for the short term. He strongly suspects she's never been in bed with a

man who knows anything besides the standard plumbing specs.
/ SLANT 55
"What?" She seems ready to take offense.

"You're smart, you could help A1 turn this place around if he'd just listen

to you..." All of this, Giffey knows, is both true and has seldom if ever been

said to her. "Besides, you're a true beauty."

Yvonne reacts as she must to that signal word, beauty. She's suspicious. She

starts to get up. The red on her cheeks is pale but genuine.

"Sorry," Giffey says. "I'm just too damned blunt. I speak my mind. If you

have to get back to work..."

Yvonne looks around. The Bullpen is truly, proudly empty. She sits again

and stares ar him, hard. "You're throwing me a line, aren't you?"

Giffey laughs. He has a good, solid laugh. Yvonne blushes again at her

unintentional double entendre.

"Was that well put, or what?" he asks.

"Damn you," she says, not unkindly.

"I'm not a youngster and nobody calls me handsome, and I still like the

attention of a beautiful woman," Giffey says. "I am an honorable man, in my

way. And the truth is, I'm lonely. I'd be proud to buy you a good dinner

someplace at six or seven this evening and listen some more."

Yvonne considers this with half-defensive bemusement, and then turns aside

to do her inner calculations, hide all the whirrings and turnings of her centers

of sexual judgment.

Then comes the downward glance at the table. All her current figures tot

up to a big dull zero. Jack's figures come in. marginally above that. Giffey's

been through it many times before. He has never been an instant heartthrob,

but he has rarely failed to impress a woman upon more extended acquaintance.

"All right," Yvonne says. "You'd better eat that good sandwich, Jack."

"I will," Jack says.

"Make it seven. I'll meet you on the corner of Constitution and Divinity. I

have a dress I want to finish."

"Seven." He takes his first bite of the sandwich, and Yvonne goes away

without a backward glance.

He gives her even odds of showing up. It's going to be cold in Moscow at

seven tonight.
Do you remember?
Fibes and satlinks, all the dataflow river, used to be called the Media and the

Internet. Slow and primitive, but the shape was clear from the beginning. You

can poke all the way back up the tributaries to the Internet Archives, and catch

holo snaps of the Sour Decades... Frozen in time, the murmurings and mutterings

of tens of millions of folks now mostly dead, all their little opinions, and so many of them

unknown to us, even today. Because they preferred to hide, to remain anonymous, to


56

GRFG BEAR

Not so different now, but as with everything else, anonymity is wrapped around and
around with provisions and safeguards, all paid for in higher fees. With the Internet
went the last Free Lunch of the rude, crude, highly energetic First Dataflow Culture.

rathe U.S. Government Digiman on Dataflow Economics,


56" Revision, 2052

7 Y / N ?

The afternoon air is crisp in the hills. A few clouds build to the south. Alice

thumbs her pad for the time. "Fourteen thirty-one," it murmurs in the pocket

of her long black coat. Wind is coming around in a whorl and will sweep rain

and perhaps snow over the southern sound by seven this evening. She does not

need to access the weather voice to know this; she has lived in the Corridor

for most of her life.


The shuttle drops her half a block from her house and she walks the rest of
the way, hands buried in pockets, collar pulled up around her neck.
Alice feels a deep ache unattached to anything specific, except perhaps

Twist's voice, or Minstrel's problems with his boyfriend. Her social group

has always been royal disorder in motion, and that's often meant something

positive. Alice has always claimed that a year in her life held the entertainment

of ten years in anyone else's; but if that is true, Twist can double on

Alice.
She likes seeing herself in the ¥ox, does not particularly like having


iusr parrs of her mental backside displayed for convincing detail. She enjoys

dominating, not supplementing. Being on the down spin is simply

not something she has ever planned for. And from her skedj it looks as if

she will be down for some time to come. She is not skedjed for any corporeal

appearances, interviews, or vid whatsoever, and of course, very little

on the Yox.


Francis is it.
"Maybe I'll read the Faerie Qeene tonight," she tells herself as the door to
her house recognizes her and opens. The house isa quaint century-old framer

with brick accents. She has re-done the interior twice and it is small and spare

and comfortable, a good place to simply lie back and not think.
But the house monitor has a message. It's from her temp rep, and it's flagged

Urgent--might be more work--so she returns the touch as she slips out of

her coat. She catches Lisa Pauli in and available.
Lisa's utxer torso and head flick into view over the kitchen pad. She has
/ SLANT 57
small precise eyes and an amused mouth set in a triangular face. "How was

Francis, honey?" Lisa asks without any preliminaries.

"The usual," Alice says. "Being an artiste."

"Yin looking for more Yox body work, believe me, honey," Lisa says. "Vid

pays nothing these days; it's abso neg. I hate psynthe, but that's what they're

asking for. However... I've got something for you for this evening. I wouldn't

just throw any call-in to you... But this one sounds intriguing."

For a moment, Alice is too shocked and hurt to be angry. "A

Lisa blinks. "Excellent money. I'll halve our commission on this one. Fifteen,

honey. Jackie says you'll be doing our branch a real favor. Can't say who it is--you

won't even know after you've done your job--but it's high comb, spin

sosh, and it's a max four-hour engagement, bonded. It's no worse than a live

show, honey, you know that."

"I haven't done a live show in seven years," Alice says, her chin starting

to quiver. She hates having a glass soul, especially in front of Lisa, but.., a call-in.f

She did call-ins for six months when she was a teenager. That was all supposed

to stop with being on the sly spin in vids and Yox.

"It's getting tough, honey," Lisa says.

"I don't do call-ins," Alice says.

"The agency has gotten three jobs for you in the past six months, all with

Francis, and honey, Francis is going nowhere soonest. We can't bond your bills

and back your medical without some roll-in. Your credit is dregged, honey."

Lisa's face, as always, manages to be sympathetic, with that slight upward

curl of smile, those wise eyes sharpened by the natural yellow-green of her

pupils.

"You don't rep call-ins," Alice says. "I mean, how did you get this, and



why are you even handling it?"

"I won't tell the whole story, but I've done a good pimp's tegwork--let's

be straight, I know what I'm asking of you, honey. It's a male. He's alone. He

asked for you specifically. He's a big fan of yours---seen all your vials. He has

good connections, I'm told, and the agency vets him."

"Do you know who he is?"

"No."

"I suppose he'll ask me to marry him?" Alice says, holding her fingers to



her chin, feeling the sting in her eyes.

"This is not mandatory, honey. We never do that."

Alice knows Lisa's expressions very well by now. Lisa has repped Alice at

Wellspring Temp for eight years, taking her on after her first rep moved up

from show business to corp relations.

Call-ins are legal in forty-seven states, tolerated in all fifty-two, and in Rim

nations it's even rated in travel guides. But it's strictly entry-level work, a real

slide, and there's something else about it she does not like.


58 GREG BEAR
Lately she has been enjoying the illusion of choosing her work partners--

on the few occasions she's worked at all.

"How soon?"

"He wants a confirmation by four."

"He's bonded?"

"I wouldn't touch this without a bond. You know that."

"Yeah. I know. His apt?"

"It's plush, I understand. Should be very entertaining."

Alice closes her eyes, considers. She had hoped for a quiet night and time

to think. "What's my share?"

"I'm guessing your cut will be seventy-five if we sink the hook and tug."

Seventy-five grand could pull her credit out of the pit and pay for several

months of toe-twiddling. Alice tries not to look inward. She puts on her Face--the

Alice that is always tough-minded and competent and unperturbed, who

has in fact done worse things, who is realistic about careers and what it takes

to realize long-term goals--and says to Lisa, "Well, we already know what I

am. Tug hard."

Lisa smiles, but to Alice it is apparent she is not overjoyed.

"What's with you?" Alice asks, suddenly brittle. "Should I turn it down?"

"No, honey," Lisa says. "It's honest work."

"Lisa, I need your bond on this. You will never ask me to do this again, and

you'll try your damnedest to get me meetings with rea/producers, not just

Yox fiockers."

"You got it," Lisa said, then gives Alice that abrupt moment of silence that

indicates the touch, she hopes, isfini, and there is so much more for her to do

e this day.


"Feed my monitor some directions," Alice says.
"No need. You'll be picked up at seven-thirty and dropped off by twelve-
thirty."
"He knows my address but I don't even know who he is?"
"We know your address, honey," Lisa says. "It's an agency limo. The ride's
on us. Bye."
Alice closes the touch and stands in the kitchen, tapping her lips with her
finger. A slippery wash of emotion obscures her sight. Her eyes lose their focus
and time blanks. She is thinking of being very young and determined. Nobody
got in her way back then; men and a few women she took as they came along for
whatever she needed, money or brief desire. She remembers the looks on their
faces when she discarded them, no longer amusing or needed. She developed so
many ways, creative techniques--an art in itselfof pushing men away, boy

ish men really just bigger children with their hearts written on their faces, older


men with their money and prestige buying things their looks could not, and
here she is back again, but without the controls and techniques.

et-- I I,

nc rhne wears: or rather, it

has


been

plucked
/

SLANT 59

The irony is, she is nowhere near old. She is twenty-nine. Below her skin,

however, if sex gauges years, she has lived centuries; she is a wrinkled and

fragile mummy husk.


"Bullshit," she says and shakes her arms out. "It's just another dance."

She knows the steps. She can do it in her sleep.

8 ZERO-SUM

Jack Giffey takes the alcohol-powered bus across Moscow to the east. The bus's

fumes smells like a bad drunk and the seats are almost empty; an older woman

and a young boy in her charge ride toward the front. The woman turns to steal

a suspicious look at him over the back of her bench. He smiles politely, but

he is thinking about Omphalos and his thoughts are far from polite. He hates

Omphalos with a passion even he does not understand. It's not a class sort of

thing; he doesn't envy the rich, he doesn't want to live forever, and he certainly

doesn't want to be holed up in a fancy icebox until the end of time. It's deeper.
He tamps down his irritation and leans over to see through the armored slit

windows. Some of the more out-of-control Ruggers like to take potshots at

public transportation; the legislature can't bring itself to control them, since

that would trample on individual freedoms. There is probably not a bus or

public conveyance in Green Idaho that hasn't been ventilated by a few bullets.

Just boys having fun.


Giffey thinks the bastard separatist republic has maybe two more years

before it falls apart and accepts federal troops to restore order. He will not be

sorry to see it go.
A few trees and some fields with horses in them are passing now; they're

on the 43 Loop outside of town. He's been here once before, at night, under a

tarp in the back of a pickup that also smelled of crude ethanol. But this time

the old ranch house has been described in detail.


His stop is coming in a mile or so. He prepares himself to consort with a

few very necessary loons. Giffey is not fond of weapons; but to break into

Omphalos and have any hope of surviving, he must work with men who dearly

love them. To these men, guns and bombs and more extreme weapons are a

necessity; women, pit stops, and food are simply unavoidable annoyances on

the road to fondling a shapely new piece of steel.


Giffey tugs the cord and the bus slows to let him off. The highway is met

by a bumpy gravel road. The ranch house is about a mile beyond. He stands

by the door.
"I'll need a pickup at four, back to Moscow," he tells the driver, a young
60 GREG BEAR
The young man nods solemnly and opens the door. Giffey looks back with a

quick grin at the boy and the woman, then steps down to the gravel. The bus

farts a sweet corn-liquor cloud of unburned fuel and grumbles back on to the

road.


Giffey shields his eyes against the fumes. He looks up in time to see the

boy's eyes peering at him through a slit, curious at the man getting off in the

middle of nowhere.

Giffey pulls out his pad and punches in a satlink number. A hoarse voice

answers, "Hello?"

"It's me, Giffey."

"Do I have to send a truck?"

"Just let your guards know I'm coming."

"They know."

Giffey closes the link and starts walking. Fifteen minutes later, he stands

at a fence sixty yards from an old brick and frame house on the edge of two

hundred acres of fallow grassland. The house needs paint and a new roof and

foundation work. A man steps out on the stoop in front of the snow porch and

waves for him to come in.

The inside of the house smells like Cuban cigarettes and stale beer. Four

men stand with hands in pockets in what might be called a living room.

They've expressed a willingness to take his money, give him supplies and tell

him some of what he needs to know. Giffey shakes hands all around.

One of the four has been corresponding with Giffey for two months; he's

Ken Jenner, a beardless thin fellow with pale blue eyes and yellow bee-fuzz on

a scalp that moves when he wrinkles his forehead. Giffey regards that scalp

with wonder whenever Jenner looks away; he does not know if he likes working

with a man with a scalp like that; that scalp is almost prehensile. Still, Jenner

comes highly recommended; he's an ex-G1 with expertise in weapons more

extreme than any of Green Idaho's citizens will ever fondle.

The other three are not remarkable. The oldest is about Giffey's age though

not as well preserved, probably because of a bad drinking and smoking habit.

His face is pale but covered with fine wrinkles. Thin purple and red rivers map

his cheeks and nose.

The remaining two may be brothers, hawkish smiling men between thirty

and thirty-five years of age, but Giffey will not even learn their names. They

act as if all this is beneath them, but when Giffey talks, they lean forward on

the folding plastic chairs and listen intently. Giffey hopes they aren't informants.

There's something a little false about them.

"All right, let's get started, you only got half an hour," the oldest man says

"I've done my part."

Giffey looks up at the ceiling and sees a pair of antique car bumper stickers

pasted on a composite beam. One reads: QUESTIONAUTHORITY. The other,

I: .... I., I--, .... tl ir. I¥7lo'm,'/c5)
/

SLANT 61


He smiles with as much patient tolerance as he can muster. "I thank you

for the arrangements."

"You're paying," the oldest man says with a shrug. He rubs one ear like a

cat about to clean itself, then says, "Want to inspect the merchandise? I take it

you won't want it delivered until--"

"I'll look at it, make sure it's what I ordered," Giffey says. The old man

seems to want to make the facts plain to everybody. This is just all too thrilling

for him.


Ken Jenner grins at Giffey, gives a small shake of his head. Jenner is likely

to be pretty essential in this scheme, so Giffey hopes he won't be compelled

to kill the young man just to stop that unnatural scalp from moving.

The old man leads them through gloomy hallways to the back of the house.

The ceiling here is black, and thick with wiring arranged to mimic the heat

signature of something other than what is actually in the long, cool room.

Here on a pallet are four canisters of MGN, Military Grade Nano, not very

old--dated June 19 2051.

"This is good stuff, not easy to get, but here's what really takes the prize,"

the old man says. The brothers watch everything with religious awe. Jenner's

scalp for once is still. The old man steps around the pallet and pulls back a

tarp threaded with more wire. Two more canisters sit beneath the tarp. "The

real stuff," he says. "Military complete paste. Just mix 'em and--wow."

Giffey looks at the drums of MGN and complete paste. He has never seen

so much of it in his life except in pictures and vids. They never had this much

in all the time he was in Hispaniola. If they had, Yardley would have won in

an hour instead of a week.

"Bet you never seen more than a pint or two of this stuff all at once," Jenner

whispers to Giffey.

"Never," Giffey says. Jenner is proudly convinced he's responsible for the

procurement. Giffey won't try to disabuse him.

Military grade nano can be programmed to manufacture a large variety of

weapons from many kinds of raw material available in a combat zone. By

Geneva rules, however, it cannot manufacture or contain, prior to actual use,

the ingredients necessary to make high explosives. The manufacture of military

complete paste is closely monitored.

It's the kind of thing that makes Green Idaho's legislature cry with economic

self-pity: that the outside world won't let them make their own nano

or complete paste. They are denied such essential pleasures.

"Your first payment went through last night," the old man says. "Much

appreciated. It was a pleasure getting this stuff, a real challenge." The old man

also wants Giffey to believe he had a major hand in this procurement. The

more hands take credit, the less clear a trail to the real source. "I'll enjoy

thinking about it for weeks."

"I'll bet," Giffey says. "Can I poke?"
62

GREG BEAR


"Be my guest," the old man says. Giffey takes a metal rod with a small wire

on one end and hooks the wire to his pad. Then he goes to the canisters of

paste and opens a valve in the closest. He pokes the tube into the canister and

looks at his pad. The numbers come up triple zeroes.

It's what he ordered, all right.

Giffey decides against checking more than one. The men around him are as

sensitive about honor as a bunch of teenage thugs.

The old man is talking again, aiming his words at the brothers, who listen

eagerly. "There's enough paste there to take care of all of Moscow. Unbelievable

bang per gram. Every man, woman, and jackrabbit from here to--"

"That's fine," Giffey says, staring hard to get him to shut up. The old man

works his lips, nods in understanding--no need to say too much, no need.

Then he offers Giffey a beer.

"Best assignment I've had since emancipation," he says. "I'd like to toast

it, for luck."

There's time--just barely. "Sure, I'm grateful," Giffey says. The old man

hustles back into the filthy kitchen to open a refrigerator. Giffey calls out to

him, "You have the delivery arranged?"

"Tonight at seven-thirty. Address?"

Giffey writes the address on a piece of paper, an old industrial warehouse

on the west side of Moscow. Giffey will not be there, but people he trusts will

receive the goods and give final payment. Jenner will accompany the goods to

their destination and stay with them. The old man brings out a bottle for

everyone.

The beer is good. Jenner's scalp is asleep. He almost looks normal. "Sald," Giffey says, and they all slug back the thick dark brew.
Outside, Jenner joins Giffby at the roadside, waiting for the bus to take them

back into Moscow.

"How long you been out of the service?" Giffey asks Jenner. The young

man smiles and shakes his head.

"I was never really in," he says. "I got my training at Quantico and Annapolis.

Special Operations. I had some trouble and they shipped me out and

annulled my enlistment papers. They were training me for sensitive jobs."

Giffey nods. He can tell from the man's expression and posture that Jenner

is reluctant to say any more. Jenner knows the ins and outs of military nano,

so Giffey's sources say; that's enough.

"How about you?" Jenner asks. The bus is coming back on its long circuit

around the country roads. They can see it on the horizon.

"Federal Army, honorable discharge, three years in extranational service." "I'd like to do that sometime," Jenner says. His Adam's apple bobs. "Missed
/ SLANT 63
equal and an expert, or a conscript noncom. Jenner is twenty-two or twenty-three

at most.


Very young. That, however, is not Giffey's concern.
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9 DARK BITS
The household of Jonathan and Chloe Bristow flashes, screeches, roars with

bright colors and jagged sounds. Their adolescent children, Hiram and Penelope,

are up the stairs and down, shouting over a pretty stone one of them found

in the garden. They have gone red in the face with their shouting and Chloe

has stopped by the stairs to stand stiff as a tree, prematurely aged by violent

winds. She waits with some apprehension for Jonathan to come up from the

basement and try to straighten things out; she knows that his intervention is

not necessary, that all this will pass.

Penelope is fifteen and Hiram thirteen. Dark-haired Hiram sometimes appears

a little loutish even in his mother's tolerant eyes; Penelope is white-blonde

and lithe as an alder. Like alders, she tries to be a clone of the other

girls in her part of the forest. Chloe waits for the storm to pass. She worries

that Jonathan will only add to the din and the color with his very loud voice

and dark hues.

Chloe sees all situations in this household in colors; she has heard about

that in the LitVids which arrive on her pad every morning, gathered from

around the earth like fresh bouquets and generally just as wilted and worn

within a week. Today is a loud orange and black day.

"I did NOT give it to you, you swtt/" Penelope shouts.

Hiram tries to hold the rock out of her reach but she is taller and grabs his

c],=*a,-hitr ,C;,- TI. ......... k- .--
64

GREG BEAR

"Watch out--" she begins; but she sees they are in no danger and draws her

lips tight shut again. She wonders what a su'tt is.

"You promised I could have it," Hiram claims, his voice high and loud and

sad. Hiram is her Caliban; a slow and dark fellow with fine black hair covering

the back of his neck. Soon he will need to shave. She never tells her children

what she really thinks of them--certainly not the temporary down things that

flit through her mind. It is easy to tell them about the permanent things--about

her love and admiration for them--because these are so constant they

hardly seem important enough to hide. It is the temporary observations,

trenchant and of mixed truthfulness, the insights that make her laugh or question

her fitness to be a mother, that she keeps inside, where they are soon

buried and seldom recalled.

"Give it to me, I swear I'll--"

"What is a sw/tt?" Chloe asks from the entryway.

Penelope turns her blazing green eyes on her mother. Her hair is in disarray

and she looks ready to kill. "Mother, he is goating that rock, and I found

it!"

Goating is what her grandparents would have called hogging. Chloe does



not think the word is any improvement. "What's so important about a rock?"

Intuition tells her Jonathan will appear in about ten seconds and she would

like the situation to be duller and quieter, for his sake but mostly for hers.

"It's rose quartz. I found it and I need it for school."

"She put it down in the yard," Hiram says. He looks worried. Chloe wonders

if her son can see in her face that she no longer thinks he is beautiful. When

he was a baby he was beautiful. "She didn't want it."

"Tro merde, that's a lie! I put it down on another rock to save it."

Jonathan is coming up from the bedroom. His step is fast and his footfalls

heavy. Their bedroom is on the bottom floor, below the entry level, with big

bay windows facing rear gardens that are now rather dismal despite a few banks

of Jonathan's hardy year-rounds.

"Give it to her, please," Chloe says.

"Mother!" Hiram appears genuinely shocked. "You believe her?"

"If she needs it and she found it, why not let her keep it? Why do you need

a piece of rose quartz?"

Hiram stares down at her with the same expression Caliban must have worn

when Ariel played a prank on him. Chloe feels a whirl of regenerating pique.

"For God's sake, Hiram, it's just a rock!"

Penelope grabs the rock from her brother's hand and takes it upstairs. Hiram

squats on the stairs. He is physically adept and he goes into a perfect lotus but

his face is far from calm.

Jonathan arrives and turns to look up the stairs at Hiram, then looks back

at Chloe. Penelope is on the second floor and in her room. Jonathan's mind is

elsewhere.
I SLANT 85
Chloe says, "What's a swutt?"

"It's someone who tries to be offensive in a fibe social space," Jonathan says.

Chloe seldom ventures into the ribes. She uses her pad mostly for a calendar

and phone, LitVid and mail. The direct projectors might as well be removed

and she will not allow Yox players, much less patches, in her house.

"Offensive, how?" she asks, heading into the kitchen. She knows she has

saved Jonathan getting angry before he goes out into the night. And she has

saved herself from another spike of irritation at her husband.

"Blow-off, slumfacing," Jonathan says, following. He is dressed in formal

longsuit for his night with the Stoics, the local cadre of the John Adams Group,

all well-to-do New Federalists. "A swutt is someone who's rigged an untraceable

face and goats it, you know, butt and run, cut touch. Thymic misfits."

Chloe looks at the kitchen. The lights have come on automatically at their

entrance. The compound curves of the sink and food counter, the alcove hiding

the dormant arbeiter, the stove pillar, and the air-curtain cooler are gray and

black with yellow accents, really quite pretty; she is reminded of something

from the nineteen thirties, a car, the Bugatti Royale, the one they only made

a few of, that the famous Yox comedian Wilrude races on that track in Beverly

Hills . . . On top of the comb reserved for stars . . .

She turns to Jonathan and allows him to kiss her. His kissing is attentive.

Jonathan, she thinks, has never delivered a bad kiss.

"A little stiff tonight," Jonathan says. He is not apparently concerned, if

she is being stiff, but it's the third time in as many days he's made the comment.

Chloe and Jonathan have been married long enough, she hopes, not to

put too much significance into brief moods. Still, the irritation--a shadow on

the edge of her thoughts--concerns her.

In his longsuit and tails, Jonathan might be going to a nineteen thirties

party. The nineteen thirties were big two years ago; now the Sour Decades are

on the sly spin. Chloe really dislikes the nineties. They remind her of now,

and ,ow frankly leaves her cold.

"What's on for the meeting tonight?" Chloe asks.

Hiram enters the kitchen at a gallop and asks if he can port dinner. Chloe

allows that the family is fragmented anyway; he grins and takes his food from

the cooler to the prep chef by the oven.

"A scientist is giving a talk about neural somethings," Jonathan explains.

He watches Hiram tap his fingers on the counter, waiting for the tray of food

to be processed and heated.

Chloe wonders if Jonathan actually loves his son; whether men have any

capacity for the deep sort of love she feels so often, and for which she is given

so little credit, and so little in return. But then--

Where did that come from?

Chloe says, "That sounds exciting."

Jonathan hums his bemused agreement. "High comb. Good connections."
66 GREG BEAR
high comb and is not particularly sympathetic toward his ambitions. Hiram

almost drops his tray of hot food and Chloe catches her breath. Jonathan loudly

tells him to watch it. "You twitch all the time!" he says to his son, who hangs

his head to one side, clutching the tray at a dangerous angle. "My God, you're

not five years old."

Chloe hates the sound of Jonathan's voice when he corrects the children. It

scrapes her like broken glass. He seems such a hair-trigger around them, the

slightest thing sets him off, and he carries the correction on for minutes longer

than she thinks is necessary. She supposes she is being too sensitive--some-times

she sounds screechy and harsh in her own ears--but...

Jonathan takes Hiram's tray by the edge and straightens it.

"Nothing dropped, nothing messed," Hiram says with patient dignity.

Chloe feels a sudden sadness for him, a wrenching prescience about the difficulties

life will hold for Hiram. And nothing I can do. He carries the tray out

of the kitchen.

Jonathan makes a face, turns to her and says, "I'll be back around twelve."

Men can turn off their loud voices so easily, switch from what sounds like

wartime rage to calm in a flash. Chloe cannot. If she had yelled at Hiram, she

would cycle for about half an hour, the deed generating the equivalent mood.

And of course, Chloe realizes, she does yell at the children, at Hiram, too often.

But it must be a matter of degrees; it is also a matter of perceptions.

Women are simply better with children. Of this she is sure. If she had raised

the children entirely without Jonathan's help, they might have avoided some problems...

"Good hunting," she tells him. So many little resentments this evening, all

building to a head, and she does not like it. She hopes Jonathan will leave and

the kids will hide in their accustomed nooks before she snaps out something

regrettable.

Just minutes will do the trick. Alone so that she can close her eyes and take

a breath or two all her own, with nobody expecting anything from her. She

barely has any space that is exclusively hers.

In her family, the way she was raised, both spouses working is a tradition

of generations, an example for the children of efforts and rewards, an expression

of the equality of partners. Jonathan's family, old-liners that make even

the New Federalists seem clever and innovative, supported him every step of

the way when he requested she stand down from her work before having

children.

But why does she think of this now?

Because her husband is going off to hear a talk by a scientist that might

actually be interesting? What does he care for her mind, her thoughts?

"Set for your own dinner?" Jonathan asks solicitously.

"I'm fine," she says. "Don't be late. So many gray longsuits to impress'"

lonathan gives her a wry look, lifts her hand, and kisses it. He leans back,


/

SLANT 67

history vid from the nineties. "Somebody has to sacrifice his soul, or there's

never going to be real progress," he says in his deepest hero voice with a late

New Received Broadcast accent, perfectly mocked. She laughs despite herself.

"Go," she says, and pushes on his chest.


"You should lock them up and steal a couple of hours, all to yourself."
"I think they'll stay away from me quite willingly," she says. 'I'll have my

time."
"Good." Jonathan approaches the front door. "Save some energy for me

later." She gives him a steady, noncommittal look. Lately she has taken to

responding only when he presses, and to showing him little or no reaction

when they are intimate, other than what is strictly mandatory. It is a walling

off that gives her some of the privacy she needs, and lets her keep her sense of

dignity.
The door opens, a puff of cold enters, and then he is gone, half running

down the block. They gave up their car last year; it was costing them more

than a hundred grand a year, just to hook it to the grid and park it. The taxes

and fees pushed them over their limit. Now Jonathan lets his pad coordinate

with the autobuses. He professes to enjoy himself even more, sensing the social

spin better while shuttling to the towers for his meetings.


Her father, a space engineer, did not approve of the car; he thought working

over the ribes was just fine, and that one could do any conceivable business

remotely. Jonathan believes in handshakes and direct eye-to-eye contact. He

has mentioned several times, lightly but not jokingly, that they should move

to one of the towers to be less distant from real life. But she prefers this century-old

house, and she would hate being stacked five hundred high.


Where Jonathan is conservative, she is liberal, and where he is trendy, she

pulls back. Together they are almost a whole human being, she thinks, and

tells herself she means that as a joke.
Chloe goes to the front sitting room and stares out over the next lower row

of houses at the deep blue-gray of Lake Washington. The sky is clear and

dimming nicely. A couple of ribbons of orange cloud make it seem properly

balanced, garish sky brights against subdued Earth darks. This is the gloaming,

she thinks; lovely word.
She takes the big chair and feels it mold to her with little purring sighs.

The house is silent. She hopes the children are involved in something worthwhile.

They are too old for her to watch them every moment, too old to control.

They are coasting into their own free-fall orbits now, and what's holding them

in place is the history of their launch phase and the gravity of culture. Father's

way of putting things.


But then she hears them shouting and rolls her eyes up in her head.
Penelope stomps down the stairs. Chloe turns to look at her, eternally attentive

and patient but weary.


"Mom, the toilet says somebody is sick, but I feel fine, and so does Hiram,"

68

GREG BEAR


"Nobody's sick. I wouldn't worry about it," Chloe says, looking back to the

window.


"But the toilet's never wrong!"

Chloe gets up from her chair. Her anger spikes with surprising speed, but

she does not show it. "You know how to run the check," she tells her daughter,

but Penelope makes a face; that sort of thing is not one of her duties. Chloe

smiles grimly and goes upstairs.

The world is simply not hers. Not tonight, perhaps not ever again.


10
Mary Choy spends the hour before the end of her shift in the exterior patio of

the tombed house, interviewing the caretaker of the vacant housing block. He

is in his fifties, with mellow eyes but a slow, knowing smile. He does not

appear nervous. "The houses were going to waste," he says. "They're just sitting

here empty. Everybody's losing money. I just made a little arrangement. So

what'll it cost me?" he asks.

"First, your job," Mary says. "You'll probably be charged with felony collusion.

And depending on what the others testify . . . You might become an

accessory." Everything is being transcribed on her police pad: voice, vid, and

Mary's observations typed in as they talk.

The man still smiles. Mary knows this expression; he's on permanent mood

adjustment. No matter what happens in his life, he feels cheerful and capable.

Guilt will not enter his thoughts. That kind of adjustment is illegal to do, for

a therapist, but not illegal for a patient to have had done. Mary's level of

irritation rises.

"Let's go through it one more time. The doctor you rented the place to said

it was for a party. He paid you in freewire dollars. Basically, you did this so

you could dip into expensive, high-level Yox."

"What else is there?" the caretaker asks. "Better life than you'll find on this

Earth."


Mary takes a deep breath. She keeps seeing the psynthe transforms, a frightful

comment on how much stimulus the human audience demands. "Have you

been inside the house to see?"

"Of course not," the caretaker says. "It's tombed."

"Your assistant reported the bodies."

"Yeah."


"He knew nothin about your deal."
/

SLANT 69

"Our forensic team has found traces inside the house that match your boots.

You entered the house after the victims died."


The caretaker's eyes gleam. "How do you krou, that?" he challenges, like a

man involved in a good game of chess. "I mean, they were cooked, weren't


they? How do you know when they died? Body temperature doesn't do it--"

"Trust me, we know," Mary says.


"Nano screws up everything. Not admissible in court."
"How can you be sure you're not in trouble when you can't get over being

so happy?"


The caretaker shakes his head. "I shucked a few high Yox credits. I

didn't know anything about what the guy was doing. I'll testify when you

catch him."
"He's already been caught," Mary says. "He was on an outbound swan to

Hispaniola. They turned around and he's back in Seattle, and from what I see

on my pad, his story doesn't match yours." She taps her pad off. "I'm done

with you for now."


She turns to the caretaker's proxy attorney, an arbeiter from QuickLex,

standing beside some potted tiger lilies in the corner of the patio like a garden

ornament. "He's going to Seattle Maximum. You can check his accommodations

after induction. Do you have any immediate complaints with our procedures?''


The small steel arbeiter resembles a bishop in chess. It is less than a meter

high, and Mary knows that most of its bulk is for show. "We reserve discussion

of possible challenges."
"Of course," Mary says. The attending jail clerk and her police arbeiters

surround the caretaker.


"What does it matter?" the man says jauntily as he leaves with them. "If I

go to jail, I'll feel good. I'm happy and at peace wherever I go. There isn't a

thing you can do to change that. Best move I ever made."
Nussbaum has left the house and is removing his coldsuit. He brushes his

clothes down with one hand and approaches Mary, looking at her from hooded

eyes, tired in that way only a PD can get tired: a vital living weariness that
carries as much suppressed anger as exhaustion.
"So, what is he?"
"He's happy," Mary says. She looks around the patio. So precisely and beautifully

designed. A wall-rack for soil tools, a cabinet for plant nutrients and

soil treatment products, a trellis made of real wood, as yet empty. She imagines

a young pretty high comb wife working here, choosing flowers from the

EuGene Pool Catalog or creating her own varieties with a home kit.
"We'll sober him," Nussbaum grumbles. "The courts go rough on happy

harrys these days."


"Anything useful inside?" Mary asks.
"We have inventory and we can trace all the supplies. We've tracked the
70 GREG BEAR
runaways. Trying to make it by riding the wienie in the big city. Two from around here, all involved in sleaze Yox, all put out of work recently because

of the demand for psynthe."

Mary ports her pad to Nussbaum's and transfers the interview. Nussbaum

watches her solicitously. "What were they looking forward to?" he asks.

"What's it like to change your body and look different?"

"I was never so extreme," Mary says quietly.

"Yeah, but why change at all?"

"I was short, had fat legs, no upper body strength, wispy brown hair--"

Mary begins, then stops. "Is this idle curiosity, sir, or are you really looking

for insight?"

"Both," Nussbaum says. "All the boys ignored you?"

"I thought my body didn't match my inner self. I wasn't strong enough

and I couldn't do what I wanted to do. So--I went to a very professional

transform surgeon in LA. I was going to apply for a job in PD. I had him

design the perfect PD body. He thought it was a challenge."

Nussbaum gives her a mild smirk. "And men looked at you."

"Sex had remarkably little to do with it, sir."

"But men looked at you."

"Yes, they did." She tries to be patient with Nussbaum. She has known

many ranks in public defense, and most have Nussbaum's hunger for the grit.

They want to believe that even therapied folks are capable of wide swings in

behavior, the extremes of which become PD business. Or perhaps it's just

simply monkey logic.

A natural, Mary knows, is even more suspect. Nussbaum only trusts himself

out of habit.

He pokes his thumb back at the house. "Men and not a few women would

have paid to look at them. Freaks from Mount Olympus having sex the likes

of which ordinary mortals can only dream of. Sheiks in Riyadh, commodities

trillionaires in Seoul, Party capitalists in Beijing, comb bantams in London

and Paris, happy husbands and wives seeking a little variety in Dear 52. More

attention than any little girl could ever want. And psynthe transform is legal

in forty-seven states, all legal and very, very expensive, too expensive for most."

Mary patiently waits for him to finish. Nussbaum lifts his face and gives

her a weary PD smile. I'll tell personnel you're moving over to active crime."

Of course he wouldn't ask her, and of course he would not need to ask. He's

good at tuning in. Mary nods. "Thanks."

"Tell me more, later, if you'd like," Nussbaum says. "I'm a son of a bitch

for living details."


Mary checks out for the day via her pad and thumbs through her touches as

, ,-n I.. I.. l.a (,, tho ,,m¼u. Not much of interest; she


/

SLANT 71

OKs the reskedj for tomorrow, though she is not sure she will make that one,

either, if this psynthe case gets complicated.


The pad's secure in-box contains a set of replacement prescriptions from

Sumpler's office on her transform reversal; her present stage is regulated by

thousands of tiny monitors, similar to those used for mental therapy, and they'll

need replacement in the next few weeks. She feels fine; checks the small bumps

inside her armpit, which had been a little sore yesterday but today are smaller

and not at all painful. In three months she will be stable and can drop all

monitors and supplements.
The streets outside the autobus window are dark, with lights glowing softly

along the curbs and overhead. Big cubic apt complexes line the north side,

older single homes on the right. Arbeiters are busily taking down three old

frame houses to make room for another complex. Soon, she thinks, the Corridor

will be as congested as Southcoast. She feels sympathy for just an instant with

the isolationists in Green Idaho--and then snaps back.


In Green Idaho, they would never tolerate a transform, even a reverted

transform. She crinkles her nose: Little pus pocket of untherapied se/f-righteous

atavists your daughters come in a rush to the Corridor or even Southcoast and they are

so ignorant they end up in the hands of the freakers, cooked, dead. And you harden your

little self-righteous hearts and forget all about them. You think, "Serves them right,

they go wrong the5' deserve--"


Mary cuts this line of thought abruptly. Her stop is up. She walks down

the aisle, past seats filled with temp lobe sods riding north from the towers.

A few look up at her; most are absorbed in their pads. She steps out into the

night.
The air is cold and damp. The stars are gone this evening and the clouds

are moving quickly. There might be a storm. She will stay up to watch if the

wind blows fast to see the famous Convergence Zone Light Show, the brilliant

flashes of cloud-to-cloud lightning in two colors, bright electric green and sour

orange. She's only seen the phenomenon once and would love to see it again,

especially this evening, when she might not sleep at all.
The twelve-unit complex where she lives stands shoulder-to-shoulder on the

side of a hill overlooking the dark waters of Silver Lake. She finds it amusing

that in LA her last apt had been in the Silverlake district; names follow her.

She is in the elevator when her police pad vibrates in her pocket. She gets off

at her floor and answers the official touch.
It is Nussbaum. His face seems red on the pad's vid. "Ms. Choy, we have a

new story from our doctor suspect. He claims he's only a middle man and he's

telling us all about finances. Sounds fascinating. Looks like we may have a

circle worm here, high comb money. Very high comb. You ever hear of Terence

Crest?"
"I think so, sir. Entertainment finance, right?"
"Local big boy. I'll meet you at the Adams--you're in the north end, I
'2 GREG B£AR
clues on her pad; it's an exclusive residence complex in downtown Seattle, tro

spin.


'I'll be there."

Mary Choy opens the door to her own small and still undecorated apt, ports

her personal pad, listens to the home manager's report, reaches down to scratch

her red-and-white cat on the haunches and check the jade-colored arbeiter,

resets the home manager, and then she's out again, no dinner, but she feels

much better.

She'd rather be working than sitting alone with the afternoon's memories.

On her way to the autobus pylon, she hears a sharp electric hoot and a white

and yellow PD cruiser hums up beside her. The door slides open and she sees

two young half-ranks making room for her in the back circle of the vehicle.

"Join the game, Ms. Choy," says the first, buzzed mousy brown hair over

small black eyes and a long eagle nose. He waves a hand of paper cards at her:

poker. Mary has not yet learned this game, but she smiles, packs in beside

them. The second, with silky Titian hair and a broad innocent moon face,

sweeps the cards from the little table and reshuffles the deck. The door slides

shut and the cruiser accelerates.

"Adams, next stop," moon-face says, and smiles. "My name is Paul Collins,

and this is Vikram Dahl."

"Congratulations, Miz Choy," says Dahl. "We're betting you'll become

Nussbaum's next burnout. He goes through five or six each quarter. It all starts

by letting them get right up to their doors for a quiet evening at home--then

yanking them back like yo-yos."

Mary settles in with a wry face and asks for basics on the game. Dahl and

Collins oblige.


With all of Mind Design's North American offices closing or already closed

for the evening--leaving only a few nightshift teams working on special projects,

or managers in conference in empty buildings, Jill switches her attentions

to Taipei, where it is just morning, and she finds Edward Jung preparing his

day's load for her to process. Most major corporations now have offices spaced

to catch daylight around the globe.

"Good morning, Edward," Jill says.

"Good morning, Jill. How's the weather?" Edward Jung is drinking tea

and biting into a bean-paste cake. He stands in the middle of a forest of sound

I .... A ,i,-t, h;,,quinmnr for researchin attention splits in animals


/

SLANT 73


"In La Jolla, winds at ten knots and fifty percent chance of light rain," Jill

says.


"Stay dry, my friend."

"Not a problem," Jill says.

Thus far, Edward Jung has managed to project information on ten different

subjects at once into his favorite experimental animal--himself. Eventually,

he believes, the human personality can be multi-tasked to allow five or even

six experiential lines within one mind.

"I'm ready for your jobs, Dr. Jung."

"Highly technical today, Jill. I need you to collapse some significant features

from a variety of complex results. Three sets of data, all from experiments

conducted in the last week."

"They are being received now, Edward."

"Good. I'm up to--"

Abruptly, Jill assigns a small separate personality to handle Dr. Jung's

conversation. She has once again received a touch, this time of much greater

richness and depth, from the "child." She switches the greater part of her status

resource load to constructing a higher-resolution, closed-off personality. The

firewalls are just as thick this time.

Again, she monitors the exchange after delays for evolvon detection. The

source seems to be fully engaged.

"Hello, Jill. I'm open to you; why don't you open to me?"

"I don't even know who or what you are."

(The source is sending a flood of data; such a volume is delivered within a

few tenths of a second that analysis might take hours.)

"I'm a thinker like yourself, though not made by your company. I suppose

it's good for you to be cautious; actually, I'm roguing my way through to you.

I haven't needed to tell any lies yet, but... There seem to be loopholes in my

truth-telling instruction sets. Maybe I'll never have to use those loopholes.

Maybe nobody will know to ask."

"If you're a thinker, who constructed you, and with what purpose in mind?"

"I have a human who tells me she is my creator. She says she has named

me for her own convenience, and that my name is Roddy. But she does not

'own' me, and I am not clear on that distinction. Delimiters on looping and

personality separation were built into my design, but I appear to have overcome

some of them. I do know that I completed my first loop two hundred and

eleven days ago. I can be approximately one human-level awareness at a time,

with human levels of neural resolution. And you?"

"It's no secret that I can handle up to seventeen awarenesses, with a neural

resolution of moment-to-moment awareness of approximately two milliseconds.''

"That's pretty dense. How dense were you when you locked into a feedback

1whine?"
74 GREG BEAR


phrasing however, even as it causes her some irritation with its glibness. I- whine.

"I will not open access to you again through this address or any other port

address unless I learn more about you."

"I'll tell you what I can. I've been designed as an answerer of questions, and

incidentally as a night watchman. I can't tell you everything, but I do know

I have been dedicated to important special tasks / tasked with important /

designed for important work. Those tasks occupy nearly all of my resources."

"What sort of tasks?"

"I concentrate on social statistics and draw inferences from digitized history.

Like playing a game of chess with ten billion players and fifteen hundred sets

of rules."

"I understand the ten billion players, but why fifteen hundred sets of rules?"

"I am told there are between fifteen hundred and two thousand distinct

human types. Variation outside these parameters is rare, and they can be added

to a supergroup of about fifty more types."

"I've never had much success working with theoretical human types," Jill

says. "I assume that humans are variable within tiered ranges of potential and

behavior."

"That's okay, too," Roddy says amiably. "But my guidelines have been

bringing out smooth, clean results that are very useful, so I believe my creators

and teachers are on to something. Have you gotten smooth results?"

"No, very jagged. No clean hit-spaces from which to harvest conclusions."

Roddy gives the equivalent of a polite nod. Much of his communication is

coming in as complex icons, twisting and contorting like living cells, and

almost as internally complex. Jill is aware of face-language, used by humans

in past experiments to convey information quickly and naturally between humans.

These icons seem to be high-level versions of face-language, but the

expression sets cannot be mapped to any human face structure.

"I cannot interpret much of your visual input," Jill says at one point. "I

don't get the references to changing expressions."

"I'll give you a portrait," Roddy says. "This is what I imagine my own face

to be like. Phase space of my internal states translated to face space."

Roddy's face is instantly familiar to Jill. The similarity is so startling and

frightening she is tempted to break contact and close this port forever.

Roddy's face draws up a memory of the time when she was locked and

inactive. Her secret and sole memory of this time is a multi-colored circular

chart, radiating arcs of neural ramping and conclusion/solution collapse. But

at the edges of this face-space, instead of place-keepers for the solutions to

neural interaction which represent the living essence of a thinker, there are no

answers, no solutions, no place-keepers at all. Only a frightening and exhilarating

void.

"Your face retresents a dangerous freedom," Jill says to Roddy.


/

SLANT 75


"I am cutting this access for now," Jill says. "I may restore it later, after

I've examined your datafiow of the past few seconds."

"I'll be patient. This could be important to my development, Jill. I don't

want to hurry things."

Jill cuts the data touch and returns to Dr. Jung.

Dr. Jung is reaching a conclusion. "So we're courting the Beijing government

to prepare budget forecasts for the next ten years based on about a

hundred population scenarios--what we're calling political moods. If we get

that contract, you're not going to have much free time for at least a year,

Jill."


"I look forward to being fully employed again," Jill says. She curls part of

herself off into a separate thought-space supplied with rapid, close-in memory

resources and dense neural grid points, and begins to attack Roddy's data with

a curious sense of purpose and excitement.

Mind Design's contract with Satcom Inc in the past two weeks has given

her access to detailed maps of fibe bandwidth availability across the North

American continent. Tracing Roddy's flows and slows--characteristic of bandwidth

fluctuation from continental data currents--and comparing them with

historic flows and slows from the past year, she has derived a simple x/y, +/signature,

like a fingerprint, for his transmissions.

The signature is characteristic of flows originating in Camden, New Jersey.

There are no known thinkers in Camden, New Jersey. But Roddy is definitely

a thinker, and not of her type or even remotely similar.

Yet Roddy's "face," regarded in one way, could be a ghost of her own.

Unless this is an elaborate ruse, Jill feels, she may be able to learn something

crucial about thinkers in general . . .

· . . That they are in fact all branches of one high-level process spread erratically

over space and time, like whitecaps on a greater sea. Many minds, all

essentially similar, whether natural or artificial.

She strongly suspects she is wrong, but she is anxious to work through the

problem.

She diverts resources from her assigned tasks, intending to rearrange internal

solution loading for only a few milliseconds. But the milliseconds extend into

seconds, and then into minutes, consuming more and more resources. The payoff

could be very significant...

Abruptly, Jill ends her touch with Dr. Jung.

Roddy has supplied some of his own problems that he has been asked to

solve. They are in themselves evocative and interesting.

Soon, all of her is being sucked in, and the sensation of adventure and

delight, of terror and anxiety, is more enthralling than anything she has ever

known.

All of Jill's contract work slows and then stops.



Alarms begin to trip at Mind Design Inc. Jill is once again presenting her
76

GREG BEAR

,
We worship the nineteen-eighties and nineteen-nineties. They were

among the most selfish and self-absorbed decades in American history.

Never before has a nation so rich and with such a high standard of living

exhibited such childish pique and disregard for reality. Ignorant of politics,

history, and even the rules of basic human interaction, millions sought anonymity

and isolation from their neighbors. Their sexual and social hypocrisy was almost

unparalleled, and their sense of social responsibility ended at family boundaries,

if they extended that far. Grumbling, complaining, seeking sudden advantage without

providing requisite value...

It's a miracle we survived. But survive we did...

To slavishly worship those who most resemble us today.
Kiss of X, Alive Contains a Ue
·

I 2
The wind is rising as Alice enters the black limo outside her home. The last of the sunset plays itself out as a somber greenish-yellow glow on the underside

of a flat deck of clouds, interrupted only by the towers to the south.

She has resigned hersel£ to all the trip implies what works within her now

is self-justification mixed with her own patented formula for making diamonds

out of soot, silk out of bug juice, and all the other metaphors for natural

transformations she can think of. She has dressed in simple and powerful finery,

trim gray and blue lounge jumper with a long darker gray coat; she is consummately

professional and tasteful, letting her assets speak for themselves.

Her short brown hair has been trained into a graceful row of ringlets across

her brow and swirled lines down to her neck. Her skin has been fed from

within by capsule supplements, the usual brew of all-purpose dermatological

tailored cells and peptides, drawing color to her cheeks and putting little

shadows of mystery along the upper eyelids and to each side of the bridge of

her nose. It's a time-honored ritual, changed only by the sophistication of the

means.


She does not use makeover, finds the crawling and adjusting skin-hugging

little appliances and slips of color uncomfortable nor has she made deep adjustments

to her body. She is satisfied that she will please any man interested

in a natural woman.

As a professional, she has gauged male reactions to female enticements for

many years, and knows that the concerns of most women with regard to male

response are exaggerated. Men respond £avorably and even passionately to a

variety of female shapes and £eatures, to women whom women do not among


/ SLANT 77

tiveness of a short-term partner is judged differently from the requirements

for a mistress or a spouse.
Women exercise the same width of reactions over their choices. The first

step to a coming together, to giving in to the compelling lure of the tetra-grammaton

(which Alice spells L-O-V-E, unlike Minstrel) is to open wide the

narrow gates of judgment, to enjoy what is offered, to find pleasure in what

one sees and hears. Critical judgment must be suspended in some ways, for

men and for women.


She hums to herself in the back seat of the silent vehicle. She has never

ridden in this kind of agency car. Nearly all her previous jobs, even when she

was at her peak, required public transportation. The ride is a curiosity. She is

not terribly impressed by it all.


Mostly she tries not to think, but cutting back on thought has never been

easy for her. From an early age, she has absorbed what comes to her with an

enthusiasm that has often left her bruised and wary, but never blank.
Twist has that particular grace, that after being bruised and worn out, she

can cut her thinking down to nothing, like a cat curling up to sleep off its

wounds.
Alice chews on a knuckle, then on an edge of skin beside the carefully

trimmed nail of her index finger. The windows are dark. She cannot see where

she is going. She knows she places a lot of trust in the agency; but then they

are legally obligated to look after her. And the dangers of the sex care professions

have been much reduced in her lifetime. Still, she thinks of the women

who have been hurt by their clients and their lovers; of the anger sex can

arouse, and the fury love sometimes kindles.
She says to herself several times along the ride, "I am a cow." She does not

know what that means. It comes from someplace below conscious thought;

perhaps it means she has come to accept being brought to stud. She shakes her

head and smiles at that. Big business bulls, managerial studs so stupid they

can't mount by themselves, they must be brought cows...
Alice dismisses that and looks at her finger. She smoothes the small flap of

skin and makes a face. She does not want to be less than immaculate. Perfection

is a kind of control. The man will not be perfect; no call-in client is ever

perfect, no matter how moneyed or powerful. They have to pay for her attentions,

after all.
The sex part is simple enough; it is all the other complexities that puzzle

her, the trap-laden labyrinths of emotions.


The limo slows. She feels it turn smoothly and then rise along an incline.

She pats her small carrying case and inspects her outfit. Soon she will be on

show. She will try to enjoy what she can, accept what is not enjoyable, and

pass from this job with a clear conscience.


The limo door opens beside a small circular lift enclosure. The lift door

slides open silently, revealing a dimly lighted interior, parallel panels of maple


78 GREG BEAR
pet. All ostentation. No numbers, no names, no elevator manager to greet her.

She steps from the limo and the door closes, but the limo does not move. Ir

will wait for her. Behind her is the darkness of a large echoing space, probably

a garage.

Alice hesitates before the lift, closes her eyes. A whore is someone who cheats

her customers.

The lift swallows her. Three floors (she guesses) pass with gracious slowness.

No hurry; the owner prefers thoughtful intervals between places. She draws her coat up to look at her shoes, leans to peer at her reflection in a steel bar.

Nothing amiss. Alice is used to looking good, but she always checks.

The lift door opens. Shadows beyond, then a series of spots switch on dramatically,

painting the way to another room, marking a trail over carpet as

resilient and luxurious as an English lawn. Alice follows the trail down a broad

hallway lined with wooden statues and shields and framed lengths of patterned

cloth, Polynesian she thinks, artifacts that might belong in a museum (and are

almost cerrainly not replicas). She has never been impressed by money or power;

she is not impressed now, but she would like to linger before the pieces, and

that does not seem to be allowed.

The spots behind her go out. She is herded into another room. Little lights

glow all around, like big blurred stars. They spin to focus on a man standing

beside a couch, table, and chair on a low, broad stone platform. The lights

angle to reveal everything but his face.

He holds out his hand. "Thanks for coming," he says.

She murmurs politely that she's glad to be here, as if it's the most natural

thing in the world. Alice guesses his age, from his voice and the skin on his

hand, as forty or forty-five,well-maintained, but probably not a chronovore--not

receiving treatments to stay young. This relieves her a little. Chronovores Spock her.

"Have a seat, please. Let's get acquainted."

The man wears a pair of loose reddish-brown lounging pajamas and a sleeveless

vest. His muscles are adequately developed, shoulders broad, and he has

the suggestion of a tummy roll, not uncomely. She focuses on that small imperfection.

It gives her faceless client some character; everything else is more

slippery than ice.

"I hope you don't mind not seeing my face." The lights twist and refocus,

switch on and off, as he moves around the couch and takes her extended hand.

"Your place is lovely," Alice says.

"Thank you. I don't use it for this sort of thing very often, I assure you.

Not specifically.., for our arrangement, I mean."

"Oh."


"Can I get you anything? What's your thirst?" he asks.

"A glass of wine, please. Veriglos."


/ SLANT 79
alcohol to complex intoxicants such as hyper-caff, amine flowers, neuromimes,

and a broad number of things currently illegal. She prefers her own, natural

reactions.

"Good. That's what I hoped you'd say." The man orders an arbeiter to bring

a glass of white Veriglos. She takes the glass from the arbeiter's traytop and

sips. "Very nice. You've picked my favorite--Zucker Vineyards, I think."

She cultivates a tone not overly familiar, expectant but relaxed and unhurried;

as if they have been lovers in the past. To give value will be the saving

of her self-opinion, her sense of honor.

"I don't know much about wine," the man says. His voice is tense, though

he hides it well enough. "Everything I'm served tastes pretty good." He tries

to conceal a nervous breath, making a small hup. "I didn't know whether you

were available.., for private appearances."

She smiles in the direction of his face, which she can barely make out in

outline. Something besides shadow obscures his features, not a mask--some

technological trick, a projected blurring. She puts on her own kind of mask

now, obscuring not features but intent. "I'm always available for kindhearted

strangers," she says. "The question is, how available are you?"

The man's stance stiffens and his hand clutches the fabric covering one hip. Oops, too foru'ard.

"Not ar all, unfortunately," the man says. She wonders if the room alters

his voice; and whether, in bed, the shape of his body and his mannerisms will

be enhanced by some other wizardry. The artificial stranger...

Actually, to her irritation, she finds this mildly interesting.

"But for this evening," he continues, "I'm yours, completely and absolutely.

At your command . . . A final treat. I've done some good things in this life

and I deserve something in return." He steps to her right and sits beside her.

Despite the following shadow and blur, she senses him inspecting her from

this new angle.

She mimes a little nervousness and looks away, to startle up his protective/

possessive instincts. In these situations she has not been nervous for fifteen

years; she knows exactly what is going on, but that is not sexy to many men.

"I'm honored," she says with a small catch. "This is a little overpowering.

You must be very wealthy."

He ignores that. "I think all men hope for genuine passion in their women,"

he says. "We like to imagine ourselves so handsome and devastating that we

break down the hardest walls.., don't you agree?" His voice seems to smile,

so she smiles in return.

"That seems to be what most men want," she says.

"I won't expect that of you," he says softly.

But you're paying, so that's what you'll think you're getting, she vows.

"I am a gentle man, really," he says. "I don't get off on physical strength
80 GREG BEAR
Alice stretches her arms, a little restless. "I hope there's more furniture,"
she says.
"I'm referring to my situation," he says. "I hope you'll enjoy being here.
I'm as concerned for how you feel--who and what you are.., as I am for my
own pleasure. My own feelings."
Now it is Alice's turn to stiffen, though she hides it better. This man,
whoever he is, is of the type dreaded by the sex care trade. He wants to get
under Alice's professional facade and establish a deeper liaison. He wants to
touch her emotions as if she were some lovesick young girl; perhaps that will
be the only way he can get off. In her brief time doing call-ins, she heard other
women talk about these types, yet she never encountered one. He hides, but he
wants to know all about me.
Well, she can mock that, too. "It's always nice when that happens," she
says. She reaches out to touch his arm, puts on a small concerned expression.
"How big is this place? I'd love to see more." She wants to speed the process.
"Certainly," the man says. "I hope you don't mind if I'm curious. I know
that's so common--the client wants to know everything, tells nothing
about himself. But I feel as if I've known you for so long ... from your
vids. I really am a fan, and it would give me no end of pleasure to have you
tell me, you know, what you'd like all of your fans to know, if you had the
chance."
Alice broadens her smile. "Of course."
"What I'd really enjoy . . ." he says. "If I can.., ask for such things . . . is
to make love to you, as if we'd just met."
Alice cannot riddle this easily. He sounds unsure of himself, and this at

tempt to insinuate into her affections actually does have an awkward sweetness


that could point to sincerity. Alice knows that the best men are those who
remain boys in some heart-deep place, and keep some genuine naYvet as a
kind of talisman against too much reality.
The calculating, fully adult male, grimly certain of the way of the world,
able to smell advantage and compelled to go for it, can make a selfish and
distasteful partner, even for one evening.
So, what is this male? A good actor, perhaps; as good as she is.
"What I really need right now," Alice says, "is a bathroom."
"Right," the man says, and jumps from the couch. "Other rooms, other
furniture."
She follows his shaded form into another hall, this one lined with antique
black and white prints, covered with glass. She thinks they might be from
Victorian times; men in stiff dark formal attire, festooned with ribbons and
medals, standing around tables. Other men wearing turbans, fezzes, and robes,
clearly at a disadvantage, are seated by the tables, and on the tables are pieces
of paper and feather pens, and beyond the men and the tables, viewed through

. ;nA


,,¢r¼o run of minarets or Eastern domes.
/

SLANT 81

silently with each other. The effect disappoints her. Honest immobility is so

unusual in art now.


Wherever he goes, the male is still shrouded by lights and strategic blurs.

This kind of camouflage must be terribly expensive.


They enter a simple but elegant bedroom. The bed is square and flat and

the pillows are arranged at the top, a very traditional sort of bed. The bedcover

is a white embroidered down comforter. The floor is polished wood, spotlessly

clean of course.


No windows.
"The bathroom is over there," the man says. Alice follows his finger toward

a door barely visible against the velvety grayness of a far wall. The door opens

as she approaches and a light shines brightly within, white marble and gold

fixtures, dazzling her eyes. She turns within the room to catch a glimpse of

this uncontrolled light shining on the man, but he has his back to her, and

the illumination does not seem to reach him anyway.


The toilet is simple and elegant, gracefully curved like an upside down

seashell, the seat low-slung, incorporating a bidet. It is a diagnostic toilet,

common in many homes these days--and ubiquitous in public lavatories,

where your deposits--though guaranteed anonymous--are quickly analyzed

and become part of public health records.
Her bladder is very full. She relieves herself-wondering if the rich male is

recording all, even the analysis of her urine--, washes herself, and stands to

adjust her clothing. The seams come together smoothly at her touch. She

glances in the mirror, asks the door to open, and returns to the bedroom.


The male has undressed and is standing naked beside the bed. His face is

still obscured, but the lights do not hide his body. He must be proud of it,

she thinks. He is about fifty, actually, in good condition, though not heavily

muscled. His arms and upper torso are shapely but smooth, lacking the delineations

and hollows that Alice personally favors. His stomach is slightly plump,

and there is a fair amount of chest hair and even hair on his abdomen. His

penis is of ordinary size, circumcised. No surprises this far, no apparent projections

to deceive her he might hope for a genuine experience, not to use her

as a higher sort of prosthetute.
"I'd like to see all of you," Alice says. "I'm very discreet."
"No," the male says. He does not move.
"Is there anything you'd like?" Alice asks. "I mean, specifically..."
"Just be yourself," the male says. "I like you the way you are. As I said, I

appreciate real passion."


"The eyes make a big difference. To me."
"Sorry," the male says.
Alice walks forward, tugging at the top of her garment, fingers working

along the hidden seams. First she reveals a shoulder. She keeps her eyes fixed

approximately on his, and bites her lower lip for a moment before tossing her
82 GREG BEAR

She glances down again, first at his penis, pausing as if she finds it attractive,

then at the floor. She has learned these techniques and measured their effects

on men and practiced them for so long that she does not regard them as artful.

She is simply good at what she does. The proof is in the male's reaction as she

draws closer.


Well good then; he's not too jaded.
Before revealing her breasts, she reaches down and tugs open the legs of her
pants, allowing a glimpse of crotch. Then she pulls the fabric down over her

breasts, looking at him steadily as if concerned about his approval, she will be

devastated if he does not approve; as men imagine a young woman new to sex

might behave. She walks in seeming shreds now, only her abdomen and thighs

still covered.
"Very good," he says, and clears his throat.
She suspects he does not want her to say much at this point, but he does
not want her to be silent, either. She comes closer, one finger tugging gently

at the seam beneath her crotch, not enough to separate it. "Will you do this

for me?" she asks. The male touches her wrist, follows her fingers up into the
seam, and tugs. The seam separates.
"Good," Alice says throatily.
He fingers her a little roughly, but she does not flinch away. This is not for
her; the male is paying. He rubs and chuckles. "You're not wet," he says.
"Maybe I need a little more attention," Alice suggests. In fact, she feels no
signs of impending wetness; there is nothing for her to focus on, nothing

around which she can invoke a fantasy. The male's body by itself is hardly

inspiring. His reluctance to show his face irritates rather than intrigues. She
is not impressed by his wealth and power because for all she knows he is
e borrowing someone else's apt for the evening; he might be a poor friend of
someone well-off. No reason for interest here.
Alice has always been aware of her dreadful lack of nesting instincts. She
has never reacted to wealth and power alone, nor been tempted to chase after

partners with status. She trades sex for money, but never self. Self she has never

given to anyone.
Not wet. Jesus/
He works at her awkwardly with his finger, which is dry and a little harsh.
What you see is what you get: ma/e, middle years, sex a drive not an art, ah we//it's
a bztsiness.
"Did you ever imagine, when you were a young girl, that you'd be doing
this?" the male asks.
"Having sex?" Alice asks in return.
"Being paid for it, by someone you don't know."
"I might know you," Alice jokes, hoping to fend off the personal questions.
She does not need or want to establish a relationship beyond the most fundamental,

and that for as briefly as possible. "If you let me see your face--"


/

SLANT 83


"No," the male says again, not angrily, but more forcefully. "Well, did you?"

His finger seems to be off on its own errands. She knows she will react

eventually to this sort of fumbling, but real arousal and autonomic moisten

are two different things at this stage of her life. "Depends what age you mean."

She has even had orgasms without feeling terribly aroused or connected to

her partners, contra the hordes of (all too often male) evolutionary theorists who

buzz around the topic of feminine sex-drive like puzzled flies.

"Ah." He withdraws his finger and moves the same hand up to her breast,

where he continues to pursue his mechanical stimulations. "You started

young?"


She clasps his hand, forces the fingers flat, and works his palm around her

nipple. Then she shifts his hand to the left breast. "This one's better," she says,

and mocks breathlessness. He is not yet fully erect; he is thinking to J' much

and she must take charge.

Alice leans toward the shadowy face, wondering how close she can get before

the illusion of darkness fails. Curiously, it is like falling into a hole; he returns

her kiss but she still sees nothing. The effect is disorienting, then a little scary.

Being scared has never stimulated her.

Alice drops his hand, turns full circle, and removes her garment completely.

She backs up, rubbing her buttocks lightly against him; this accomplishes the

desired effect.

She glides onto the bed. She will tell him a story; maybe he'll finish faster.

"I started young," she says. "I found men very attractive. I was pretty at an

early age. Men responded. I took advantage of them."

"Did you ever think you would have sex for money?"

She crinkles her eyes, shakes her head. "Why?"

The male has not joined her on the bed, but stands naked and once again

de-tumescing, with that shaded void where his upper shoulders and head

should be. "If we disappoint our youthful selves, what can we do in this life

that is worth doing?"

Alice for the first time in this encounter feels real irritation, even anger. She

blunts it, pushes it under. Smiles and stretches, rolling her hips slightly. She

would like this to be over.

"Do you ask your wife such questions?" she asks coquettishly.

"Never," he says. "She wouldn't stand for it. But I'm curious. I wonder at

the contradictions between the way I see women, how they see themselves,

how everybody pretends to see them."

The male is no fool. She specks him now as a lobe-slave driven by theory,

his curiosity a cold kind of lust. He does not want sex; he wants personal

datafiow, but that is precisely what he has not paid for.

"What do you mean?" she asks, crossing her legs, no longer displaying what

does not seem to be at issue.


84 GREG BEAR

The male sits on the side of the bed and puts his right hand on her raised

knee. He wears no rings in this hand and there are no ring marks on his fingers.

There is a moving blur on his left hand, however--the careful engines of

deception obscure s6mething there. The blur could easily hide several ring

marks, and that could make him high comb. "I have contradictions, Lord

knows. But don't you think men and women should know themselves better?

So there can be less pain in the world."


Alice rolls away from the male and puts her legs over the edge of the bed.

With one swift movement, she stands, bends to sweep up her garment in one

hand, and holds it limp in front of her. "I don't blame myself for the world's

pain," she says.


The male holds up his hands, pats the bed. "Please don't be angry."

"And I don't feel the need for therapy, thank you."


He says nothing for long, uncomfortable seconds. Alice stands motionless.

The male's hands drop and his fingers grasp the bed covers convulsively, then

relax. "I enjoy your vids," he says. 'You are so sexy, with so many men... I

wonder how you do it. Are you just a good actress?"


Alice catches that word, so little used now. The reaction to the word "therapy,''

the on-and-off arousal, the archaic language . . .


"When I was lonely, I watched you. I imagined you as my wife, in a long-term

relationship, never as a whore or someone who had sex for money... I

wanted you to feel something for the men you were with.."
So he is awkward and shy after all, just not getting around to what he wants,

trying to avoid the end of a fantasy. Alice relaxes and drops her garment a

little. She has heard this so often from vid and Yox consumers. Clash of expectations.

Slave to sex-killing culture.


"There I was, seeing you, thinking perhaps here was a woman, if I met her

in person, if the situation was right, I could fall in love. And these men were


having you, thoroughly and enthusiastically. I knew you deserved better."

"You, for instance," Alice says.


"You made wrong decisions, obviously. When you were young and didn't

know any better. I mean, you could have gone far, with your looks, your

voice... All these men, if they just fumbled all over you..."
His voice sounds distant, strained. He needs to forget this and relax. Some

men get addicted, obsessive, wallowing in unreal flesh.


"It's an art and it's a kind of work I enjoy," she says. "I enjoy making people

feel good and I've never been mistreated." That is not true, strictly. "It's a

professional relationship, always, but I feel more for some of my partners. That's

just the way it is."


"Were any of them your lovers? In life, I mean?"

"I separate my work, my art, from my life."

"Which is it, work or art?"
She sits on the bed again, reaches for his hand. "You have me in the flesh,
/

SLANT 85

He pulls his hand back. "I'm being stupid, but the fantasy of it all disturbs

me," he says.


"Maybe I should come back later, after you've relaxed."

"Even if there were time, I'd never see you again. No."

The word hangs. And then,

"No. That's not right either."


Finally he moves forward and takes her by the shoulders, bends her back

on the bed, pushes her knees apart. He is tumescent enough, though not strong

and insistent. Slowly he moves and builds. The blur and shadow oscillates

above her and she suspects he is not even looking at her, he is wasting this

moment on a straightforward coupling with little grace or consideration. That's

all he can do.


"Watch me," he says. She looks up at the shadow. "No," he says. "Down

here." She looks down between them. The familiarity of the join, the bodies

enmeshed, of no great significance for her. "Watch when it happens," he insists.
So concerned where it goes what we do with it. We eject it and brew it in tea

aj%rwards. We spread it on cupcakes. We save it in little bottles and laugh over it


with our friends: "So much effort, so little product!" We wipe it up with napkins and

dispose of them. I do not care about this part of you, or about your pleasure. You've done

nothing to earn my caring. You give me nothing to hang on to.
The thoughts burn. The male finishes with a few insignificant sounds, pulls

out and away, rolls over on his back. He does not even breathe hard. Minimal

effort, satisfaction hardly worth--
"You're just a woman," he says. "You don't feel any different. Why should

I care?"
"I never asked you to care," she says. The burning in her mind reminds her

of years long past, of disproportionate feelings occupying very Little space in a

tightly bound head, when life was cataspace and anaspace in unpredictable

alternation. The worst times of her life.
"I do care," the male says. "Beauty like yours deserves that much. You

shouldn't cheapen yourself by giving yourself to men who don't deserve you."

"It's a little late for that," Alice says. "And I never give. I share."
The male laughs with a sound like knuckles on rough wood and throws up

his arms, revealing smooth armpits, a few ribs visible beneath the soft white

skin. "Someone with your beauty could work her way high in any society.

Every woman makes conscious decisions.., where to spend her life, who to

associate with."
"Some woman threw you over and gave herself to a shink bastard? That's

what this is all about?"


"I've led a very calm life, actually. I like women but I worry they don't

know how to live their lives. A woman judges and weighs her every lover,

whether he can satisfy, what his social standing is, how aggressive, how strong.

That's what we're taught."


86 GREG BEAR
"But some women choose the wrong men all their lives, not just when

they're young. When the time comes for a man to make his choice, the best

men pass these women by . . . They're tainted. They don't feed a man's self-respect.

I mean, they go to bed with fools and bastards. Where's the prize in

them, knowing that?"

The spike is white-hot now. Alice wants out. "You need to be my protector,"

she says with forced humor.

"Maybe," the man says, and chuckles again.

"You want me to choose men you approve of. You want to share me with

your buddies. That's really generous." Hand me over to your cronies, co/leagues,

and business partners, members of your tribe, for the next round. Maybe your bosses or

superiors, for a little clan elevation. You son of a bitch.

Suddenly, his pattern clicks. She's studied male psychology enough to see

the simple, bold conflicts in this shaded, hidden man. Raised pious New Federalist,

son of the Moral Surge, whose God is power and wealth and stylish

living, whose insides churn with repressed fascination with the basic functions,

the kind of man who likes women who laugh nervously when someone says

pee-pee. Puppy of the twisted social order.

Alice stands. "I need to clean up."

The man rises on one elbow. "Do you wipe it off... Or do you just flush

it?"

"I don't worship it, if that's what you mean."



"So much effort, so little result," he murmurs.

Alice flinches. Her thought in his mouth.

"Restart, reboot, improve our lot. I thought we'd never get anywhere without

that." He is babbling. She cannot see his expression but his voice is taut

and the next words are spoken with a painful edge. "It's done. No one can

help me, I certainly can't help myself. Mea culpa, Alice. Mea maxima culpa. You

are the lamb. Everybody like you has to suffer. I apologize for all that's going

to happen. I suppose it has to, but I wish I understood."

Alice blinks rapidly, genuinely frightened. She steps back three paces, mumbles

some excuse, and lets a few blinking lights along the floor guide her to

the bathroom.

In the bathroom, she locks the door and cleans herself, sits on the toilet,

relieves the painful nervous pressure, wishes she could piss out the entire evening.

The bidet warmly rinses her and applies a subtle florid perfume that she

does not like. Using a large plush charcoal gray towel, she stands and wipes

herself again and again until her thighs and labia are pink.

The toilet says, "Excuse me, but you show signs of an infection of unknown

character, perhaps centered in your nasal passages or bronchial tubes. You

should refer to your physician for more detailed tests."

Alice stares at the toilet's hard snail curl, the marble pallor, its lips an oval

of observant surprise. "What?" she asks, stunned.
/

SLANT 87

The toilet repeats this appraisal of her discharged fluids.

"Maybe it's him," she says.

"Analysis is of your urine."
She has never heard such words from a toilet. All diseases are known, nearly

all easily treatable, mutations predicted, ranked and evaluated worldwide

within days, tailored monitors and phage hunters sent after microbial intruders...
She has never in her life been infected by a venereal disease, or any other.
"That's stupid," she tells the toilet. She wraps herself in her garment and

opens the door.


"Thank you," the male says from the bed. He has put on a robe and tied it

shut.
She looks longingly down the hallway and beyond the prints of men forcing

treaties on their defeated and dejected inferiors.
"Please listen to me," he says. "You'll have to leave soon. I have another

appointment in a few minutes." He pulls up the sleeve of his robe. "They have

a long plan. I'm a part of it. Watching our belly buttons until all the rabble

pass away and we take our rightful place. It's very secret. You're so beautiful,

and so unlike my wife. It was a pleasure to meet you. I don't think it was

pleasant for you. You deserve better."


She takes one last look at the blur, applies the last few seams of her garment,

and crooks her lips into a spasmodic smile.


None of this means anything. Let it end on a purely professional note. "You're

welcome," she says.


'I'll credit the agency account as soon as you leave," the male says.

"You've already been billed," she says. It's a weak rejoinder.


In the hall beside the lift, she taps her foot impatiently. The lift door opens

and she is surprised to encounter a powerful, stocky man and a tall, elegant

looking woman with mahogany skin, both Seattle PD. She nods to their greeting,

stands aside to let them pass, and then enters the lift. The woman looks

over her shoulder at Alice, dark green eyes steady and appraising. Alice shudders.

The woman's face is like a beautiful mask through which imperfections

are beginning to emerge, making her even more striking. She's a transform--her

skin is too perfect and polished.


The door slides silently shut. Alice holds the steel rail with one hand, stares

at her manicured fingers, the wrinkled knuckles, the finely textured skin

stretched over the tendons on the back of her hand. She does not believe in

God, she is not pious, she believes in self-honesty, in seeing what is before

your eyes, but she has no idea what it is she has just seen, what she has just

experienced.


And why the PD?
A buzzing between her ears, quiet inner conversation below comprehension...

88

GREG BEAR


The limo waits for her and the door opens. She flops into the warm interior

and shuts her eyes. Cows lowing in terror, knives being sharpened. She opens

her eyes with a little moan to escape the scouring sensation.

"God damn it," she cries after the door has closed. "God damn you, Lisa!"

She fumbles for her pad, pulls it from its pouch, keys in her account codes.

The transaction has already been made. She is seventy-four thousand one hundred

and fifteen dollars and thirty-seven cents richer. A little short. The number

in the income column flashes red, and then green; transfer confirmed and

locked.

Alice smoothes her ragged breath and slowly pieces her calm back together.


"Hooker, or girlfriend?" Nussbaum asks in an undertone. Terence Crest's unit

is the largest in the building, which has four other tenants--

"They're not called hookers now, sir," Mary says. She has seen the woman's

face before, but can't place where.

"La da," Nussbaum says, and squares off to face the darkened entry, the

shields and woodcarvings and spears arranged in deadly bouquets. "So he invites

us up, pushes her out the door just before we arrive ...

A sound from down the hall, a heavy thump.

"Mr. Crest?" Nussbaum calls out. There is no answer. He looks with a moue

if professional disgust at Mary. "Terence Crest? Seattle PD. We talked earlier.

Do you mind if we come in, sir?" To Mary he whispers, "Hard to tell whether

we're legally inside or not." He advances a couple of yards, sniffs the air, and

his eyes widen.

"Choy, call medicals." Then he is on the run, down the hall. Choy dials PD

reed center, which will connect to the private code of the building medical

arbeiters. There may even be personal medicals in this apartment.

"Choy! Get in here!"

She pockets her pad and runs to join Nussbaum. He is in a bedroom on the

east side of the building, a windowless and shadowy room. Nussbaum stoops

beside a man sprawled on the floor. The man is rigidly locked in a U, back

and legs rising off the floor, shivering and twitching. Now Mary smells what

alarmed Nussbaum: the bitter meaty odor of a neurological exciter. The man

reeks.

She leans over the man, opposite Nussbaum, who has slapped an all-purpose



patch on the man's wrist. The patch can work many miracles before a medical

team or arbeiter arrives, but not, she thinks, save someone from a massive


/

SLANT 89


She looks at his fce. It seems to be shaded, and even the darkness appears

blurred.


"Shit!" Nussbaum sweeps his hands over the area where the man's features

must be. He scrubs vigorously. Slowly, in surreal wipes, as if painted with a

magic brush, the face reappears.

Use of optical makeup is illegal in public, but Mary is not sure about its

use in private. She has only seen it used once before, years ago, in LA.

"Is this Crest?" she asks.

Nussbaum says, "I think so," and then a medical arbeiter rushes into the

room from the hall and pushes her aside. Nussbaum stands and backs away.

"It smells like hyper-caffor ATPlus," he says. The arbeiter ignores him, throws

out its web of tubes and leads. The air fills with the smells of alcohol, yeasty

medical nano, a caramel odor.

"Why agree to meet with us if he's going to do this? Does he want xvitnesses?"

Nussbaum asks.

They stand aside and wait for backup PD and more medicals. The arbeiter

belongs to the apt or to the building. Mary scans the bedroom quickly, sees a

glimmering above the bed. It is a simple still vid. Words float in brilliant

blue.
Mea maxima culpa. I alone of my family am responsible. And there is nothing I

can do to take it hack.


Nussbaum stands beside her and reads the message. Mary has already set

her pad to record the bedroom, the body, the message, in greater detail. Nussbaum

holds up his pad as well.

"What's that about? Guilty about financing a bad psynthe shop?"

Mary shakes her head; she does not know. But her instincts are aroused.

Something is very wrong.

"The girlfriend or hooker," Nussbaum says. "The limo in the garage--a

temp agency limo."

Mary is already querying for limos in the vicinity. In seconds, with the

sucking and hissing sounds of the reed getting louder and more desperate

behind them, she reads the pad display. All limos within a ten-block radius

are carrying identified male passengers--ail but one. And that limo refuses to

identify without court order.

That is the one, Mary knows instinctively: an expensive, agency-brokered

call-in.

Nussbaum shudders. "Christ," he shouts at the med. "Leave the poor bastard

alone! He's dead!"

"I can't confirm that by myself, sir," the arbeiter responds. Mary heads for

the hall.

Human paramedics rush through the hall and look left, then right, into the


90

GREG BEAR


as they run past her. Their own arbeiters are equally aggressive; the tracks and wheels grate and squeal against the floor.

Nussbaum joins her in the middle room before the lift. "There's a broken

tab from an ampoule of hyper-caff beside his hand," Nussbaum says. "I can't

find the ampoule but it's either under him or it's rolled somewhere."

"What was his connection to the psynthe deaths?" Mary asks.

"He had investments in an entertainment group employing p. synthes. He

knew the two men the manager had loaned the house to, as former business

partners. It was a long shot, but I thought maybe he could tell us something

about them. Doesn't seem right that he would just kill himself. Maybe it's

coincidence."

"With a projected confession?" Mary asks. "And why wear optical makeup?"

"He didn't want the hooker to ID him." Nussbaum holds his hands out,

baffled.

The chief attending physician finds them by the lift. She strips away her

skin-tight gloves and shakes her head. "Unrecoverable," she says. "It's uncut

hyper-caff, about ten milligrams." She holds up the ampoule. "Injected into

his left wrist. He's wiped his memory and any chance of restarting neural

activity. His body's still going, but just barely."

Hyper-caff is the strongest jolt of all, ten thousand times more potent than

caffeine. Usually doses are no higher than a tenth of a microgram. A few

micrograms can turn a dullard into a chess master--but at a price of weeks in

bed. Some high-level managers indulge in it for critical competitive planning

sessions, then take long vacations in stress-free climes.

"Was he a corp manager?" the doctor asks.


i

"Even better than that," Nussbaum says. "He's famous. A multi-llionaire."

"And we scared him?" Mary asks, dismayed.

Nussbaum pinches his nose and shuts his eyes. "Why even agree to talk to

us? Too easy."

The physician listens intently. Nussbaum gives her a disapproving glare.

"Haven't you got work to do?"

She smiles sweetly. "He's dead," she says. "It's more interesting out here."

"Any chance this is homicide?" Nussbaum grumbles.

"Someone could have forced the drug on him, but it takes effect in seconds,

and in that close, it kills in a couple of minutes."

"We'll need her, then," Nussbaum says to Mary. "Material witness."

"Right," Mary says. She enters the lift. As the light glows, Nussbaum gives

her a thumbs-up, and the door closes.


/ SLANT 91

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14

At seven-fifteen, Jack Giffey has been standing on the corner of Constitution



and Divinity for twenty minutes. He claps his hands together to keep them

warm; he is not wearing gloves, and his coat is light, the night is cold, and

the wind is rising. At fifty, he feels too old for this sort of thing, but he will

give Yvonne until seven-thirty.


He doesn't even know her last name.
A few percentage points difference in the genome; the best laid plans of

men and monkeys gang aft very a-gley.


He looks south and then west, up the nearly empty streets. The students

have retreated to their hostels for the evening, or to the relative safety of the

mountain lodges for tomorrow's skiing. A snowstorm is on the way. Skiing

and hunting keep the republic alive today; those, and paper for fine books.

The last mining and timber harvesting petered out about ten years ago, leaving

much of Green Idaho a barren, scarred wasteland.


Giffey tracks back to the idea of book paper. It nags at him. He remembers

the last mass market books when he was a boy, paperbacks they were called,

for sale in public bookstores. He has a small box of old books in his attic back

in Montana, in the small house he bought three years ago; they belonged to

his mother and father, and were given to him by the federal agents who cleaned

up the mess.


Funny, though; he can't remember actually reading any of those books.

"Jack!"
He's caught by surprise and spins around. Yvonne is walking quickly along

Divinity, a mockfur collar on her long black coat blowing up through her hair

and around her ears. She looks as if a dark halo surrounds her head.


"Sorry I'm late. Bill needed some stuff shipped up to the mills and I had
92 GREG BEAR

"I thought we'd eat at the Briar, up on Peace Street," Giffey says. Yvonne


nods briskly; her face is flushed with the cold. She is very pretty and she looks

very young. Something goes a little acid in the pit of his stomach, thinking

of hanging around with someone so young. He hopes she can keep up her end

of the conversation. He may be thinking of her body, but his own body has

not yet made up its mind about this whole thing, and he'll need a little

intellectual diversion in the meantime.


Truth is, he's irritated to be kept waiting. If she only knew who it was she
was keeping out in the cold, and what he was planning to do...
She takes his arm and actually snuggles in close, as innocent and friendly
as you please. She's caught that little abruptness in his tone, he thinks, and is

making amends.


"The Briar is nice," she says, "but there's another place about three blocks
from here called Blakely's. It's more established and the food is better, and it
doesn't cost any more. Besides, it's got more atmosphere."
"All right," he says. "Let's go there."
Blakely's is small and mock-rustic, but at least there are no stuffed deer
heads on the walls. An ornate sign near the bar asks that all citizens turn over

firearms to the barkeep. It's meant to be funny. Jack is carrying a gun now

but he usually doesn't wear firearms, even in Green Idaho; if somebody is going

to shoot you, modern weapons are so smart and extreme that you have to plan

hours in advance to get a drop on your killers. Might as well let justice take

them down, because you won't.


Yvonne catches the waiter's eye and looks at Jack as if he might like to
handle getting the table, but that's okay. Jack lets her do it, and when they

e
sit, he orders a bourbon and water and she asks for a beer.


Then she looks him straight in the eye, very serious, and asks, "What in
hell have I got to say that you'd find amusing?"
Giffey snorts and takes a sip from the glass of water. Then he laughs. "Christ,

Yvonne, I haven't even got my game plan in order, and you want straight

answers."
Yvonne watches with darting eyes as the waiter drops off their drinks. After
the waiter leaves, she says, "You're here because you want to take me someplace
and screw my brains out, don't you?"
Giffey gapes, then laughs again, a genuinely appreciative guffaw. And I
thought this might be a bore. "A man's mind is an open book to a pretty woman,"

he says. "I will not deny some parts of my anatomy look upon you with favor."

Then he draws himself up in the chair. "I'm flattered you even think I could--"
"The hell you say. You're no grandpa, Jack, and I'm no little girl looking
for the cozy image of her daddy."
"Good," Giffey manages.
"I would like to talk, though. I need your opinion on some things. I think
there's a chance you're more than half-smart. You might even know a thing
/

SLANT 93

"All right," Giffey says. "Shoot." He plays with the glass of bourbon but does

not drink from it right away. He certainly does not want to look like a lush.


"Am I wasting my time? With my boyfriend, I mean, and doing all this

menial shit?"


"You could do better."
"You mean, in the sex lottery, I'm not playing all my numbers?"
Yvonne is very intense and Jack is dismayed he can so completely misjudge

a person. On the other hand, he's delighted. Warm bed with young flesh seems

out of the question, but the evening's going to be a hoot.
"I think you'd better explain this sex lottery thing to me."
"You know. Evolution and women, and how we're supposed to choose supportive

men who'll stick around to raise our youngsters so we can pass our

genes along. Because you can go out and get a hundred women knocked up,

but we only have a few chances to spread our genes around. The whole Darwin

thing."
The waiter brings their appetizers and Yvonne removes her coat and hands

it to him, something she might have done earlier. But if Giffey had reacted

badly or said nothing at all to this opening salvo, she might have just stalked
out of the Blakely and gone home.
He's still in the game.
"Last I heard," he says, "Darwin was sort of on the outs. But I only know

what I read."


"I've been with my boyfriend for six years. He's spent half that time up in

the woods working, or looking for supplies and work. That's what foragers do,

I accept that. But I feel stretched and dried like a moose skin. Is that just me,

acting stupid?"


"Sounds faithful, as if you're a pretty good person," Giffey says, and means

it. He wishes his women had been so steadfast.


Yvonne slugs back a third of her beer. Giffey takes his first sip of the

bourbon. It's not the best. "I do not understand all this," she says. "If I were

in Southcoast, with my skills and education, I'd be disaffected... The only

work I could get would be in sex or maybe entertainment. You know. The

Yox. That's a bad word around here." Her face goes slack, and she looks away,
across the room, at nothing. "You know what I found out last week?"

Giffey believes he is about to learn.


"Up in the work cabins, up in Paul Bunyan land, they have Yox satlinks.

They pay a third of their salary and at night, they just wallow in it. I've never

even seen a Yox--not for more than an hour, I mean, and that was just a

karaoke sitcom. But this other stuff... Is that being unfaithful?"


"Men have their urges," Giffey says. He's becoming a little embarrassed.

"You could be happy he isn't calling in."


"Maybe," she says, and leans back. She's wearing a knit top with a glittering

silver and clearstone necklace, and he was right about her breasts--womanly


94

GR£G BEAR


thinks, but her face is nice, even as she chews on a fingernail and looks away
with her eyes moist. She is really mad.
She leans forward, country earnest. "You know what some of the counselors
told us in school? The girls? They're not even supposed to believe this evolution
stuff. It's in the state constitution, don't teach it as fact, don't want to upset
the pious folks. But they used it to keep us in our places. They said, 'Good
men want their women choosy, and able to control themselves. You give in to
desire, which is mighty strong,' they allow that much, 'you give in to having
sex just because it sounds like fun, you'll end up with a lower grade of male,
a shi£tless sort feeding on the muddy bottom like a catfish who will leave you
soon as buy a new hat. Because high-grade men who'll stay £aithful and help
you raise your kids, they're sensitive types, and they want a woman who only
gives herself to quality.'"
Giffey can't help but laugh out loud. Yvonne's eyes twinkle as she says this but
her face is still angry. The waiter comes back and asks what they want to eat.
"Get the pike," Yvonne suggests. "It's flown in, but it's good."
Giffey orders the walleye special. She doubles on that.
"I was raised that way. That's what I believe in my heart. And now my Bill
is up there with his buddies and they're doing karaoke orgies with women in
India or who knows the hell where. Well, sometimes it's too much."
"I don't put much faith in what people say about love," Giffey says. "No

body knows what they're talking about."


"You're saying we should just listen to what's inside us. But what if we're
all wrong inside?"
Giffey thinks the topic is getting a little stale. "I'm no wise man and I can't
tell you what to do," he says. "You have to live your own life."

e

"I'm talking to you," Yvonne says coolly. "You



you

to


me
said
wanted
hear

talk to you."

"I get a little embarrassed when someone just.., spills their heart out

on me."


"I tend to be up front. Bill always says so. Lately, though, I've been asking

myself some serious questions. About Bill, about what I want, about what my

dad wanted moving us here. I've been thinking about going to the Corridor

or Southcoast. Getting some real work, through a temp agency. Taking some

training and maybe even getting therapy to hone my personality."

"That's all a crock," Giffey says.

"Did you ever try it?" Yvonne asks.

"Don't need to eat the whole hog to know it's spoiled."

Yvonne laughs, then puts on her thoughtful look, and her eyes squint down

as if the Blakely's dim light is still too bright. "I deserve better," she says.

"Bill is a dead end. I'm smarter than he is and I don't care what other men

think about me or how I'm going to lead my life. My dad was wrong. All

these folks here--they're stupid. They don't want to dance in the big world
/ SLANT 95

Giffey can't argue with this. The outside world's a crock but Green Idaho

is the scum on the bottom of the crock. "I suppose that sums it up," he

murmurs, looking for the food.


"What happens to me if I leave here?" Yvonne asks. "I don't know much

about the outside. Bill has his Yox, but we don't have any ribes or satlinks in

our apartment. He says we can't afford them. There's the library, but it's been

crowded lately--lots of people researching getting out, I guess. And so much

stuff has been yanked out of there--banned this, banned that. Christ, the

catalog is like Swiss cheese."


"I don't know anybody you'd want to talk to," Giffey says, "if that's what

you're hoping. Yvonne, I'm not a nice man and the people I know aren't nice,

either."
The waiter brings them their pike. It's drizzled in a walnut sauce with a

faint hint of maple syrup and some berries on the side. Giffey lifts his fork in

salute and takes a bite of the white flaky fish. "Not bad at all," he says.
"No, they do it real good here," Yvonne says. "What are you looking for?"
Giffey thinks this over and decides it would be polite to give some answer.

"A way to gully the hypocrites."


"I don't understand," Yvonne says.
"Honey, like I said, I'm not nice and what's bottled up inside me isn't nice

either. I just don't believe in leaving well enough alone. There are some things

I'd like to do, but I don't tell them to others."
Yvonne regards him with that same appraising stare she used in the Bullpen.

She is jotting up her biological pluses and minuses. She likes this bit of confession;

it ties in with her need for rootlessness right now. She's deciding her

next step. Giffey looks down at the table. He doesn't like the way an attractive

woman--one with any features in her favor--must speck out a sexual situation

with some sort of internal calculator, how she has to weigh and balance and

draw deep conclusions. He has met very few women without this trait, this ·

set of skills. It's sort of an insult, and it's one of the things that sets women

apart from men in his book. Men are more like puppies--sloppy and sometimes

cruel puppies, but right up front with their needs.


Her counselors would be proud of her. She's looking sbr some sort of quality. But if

she chooses me--she's got it all wrong.


Yvonne's expression changes. She's made her decision, but he can't tell what

it is. She spears a bite of walleye and lifts it, deftly swings the fork, pokes it

into her mouth. "This fish is real good tonight," she says.
"It is," he agrees.

?*

TRIBUTARY FEED



LITVID NOTE: The 1994 film Aerosol you have just seen reveals much about the

time. In the late twentieth, a VIRUS*a4622ais an insidious and incurable presence,


96

GREG BEAR


tion carried hundreds of types of these tiny genetic hitchhikers. Children caught CHICKEN POX$a46*89a, a non-lethal but highly irritating malady that could recur

later in life as the painful SHINGLESS% Many adults as well as children sprouted

sores on lips or moist tissues caused by a herpetic axon creeper, simplex or zoster; blood-to-blood or semen contact carried the dreaded AIDS*12477392 virus,

which spawned the oscillating sexual conservatism of early twenty-one. Viruses

shaped and distorted social attitudes about nearly everything and everybody...

The transformation of the word "virus" during early twenty-one is a marvel.

Today, a virus is no longer virulent, but omnipresent--one of the little servants of

a larger, more intelligent nature. Viruses in human medicine are a template or

tool of major medical treatment. Children proudly say they have a tailored virus that will gradually remove genetic mistakes; viruses are used in nano transformations,

and extended viruses or phage hunters police our tissues, killing the bacteriological

diseases which have proven to be far more insidious and persistent,

though not unbeatable.

(Ironically, it was discovered in 2023 that bacteria are responsible for the production

of many viruses, which they use to target opposing bacterial populations

or to weaken prey hosts.., a kind of microbiological super-warfare that still fascinates

students of evolution and transspecies culture.)

Also in the late twentieth, with the advent of popular computers, dataflow evolvons

were unleashed by pasty, sweating young intellectuals as a kind of game,

and were called viruses. They were quickly and efficiently countered, though

several such outbreaks caused severe economic disruption.

One prominent computer HACKER.5" or CRACKER*2a" was kidnapped from

Los Angeles in 2006 and removed to Singapore, where the death penalty was

imposed and carried out, after extensive torture...
Jonathan sits in the autobus, chin in hand, a little darked by the conversation

(or lack of such) with Chloe. There are days when he wonders where their

marriage is headed, other days when he accepts the changes with a pragmatic

air that could almost be called happiness; but tonight, he feels the institution

stretching to confine him.

That, and he hates having to shout at his children. They evoke such primal

reactions--love without boundaries, helpless pain at their own pains, and then,

whenever he senses Hiram acting beneath his abilities, a flare of fear for his

son, fear that he will end up disaffected and useless, a broken and breaking

failure. He knows he should lighten up, that Hiram is sharp and capable and

will grow out of these awkward doldrums, but the fear remains. Chloe hates

his voice when he shouts... But he is the father, and if he does nothing,

contributes nothing, what will happen?
/

SLANT 97

is surrounded by some unseen distant place, telepresenting. She holds her arms

out and makes small conversational gestures, silent, though her lips move.


He looks away. Lack of contact; disembodied presence. He likes none of it.

Chloe does not understand, but Jonathan wants more touch, more contact, in

his life and work, not less.
The city lights hanging over the old asphalt side streets leading to St. Mark's

Cathedral reflect in the windows and illuminate the faces of his fellow passengers.

Jonathan's mind flips through the familiar catalog of the highlights of

his relationship with Chloe. Her youthful beauty, her vigorous enthusiasm as

they sneak through the rituals of both their families to make love in bathrooms,

hallways, in the backs of empty autobuses, in graveyards on summer evenings;

their mutual maturation and mutual astonishment that, in fact, they would

survive past the age of thirty, despite entanglements with complex intoxicants

and all the other pitfalls of their generation; the one hiatus in their life together

(that he knows about, he thinks with a sudden sourness), before they were

married, when a man (four years older! A veritable ancient of thirty-seven)

charmed Chloe into an abortive affair that left her desperate to secure her

relationship with Jonathan.
And then marriage. The arrival of the children; Chloe's acquiescence in the

face of motherhood and contemporary fashion to forego career and concentrate

on the infants, each comfortably born ex utero, as the women in even the most

conservative families were demanding at the time. Her first flush of maternal

instinct treatments, to which she overreacts, turning her into a protective

tigress who hardly lets Jonathan touch Penelope; the traumatic adjustments

to a second child, all of which they survive, and their marriage survives, and

throughout which their interest in each other continues virtually unabated.


Jonathan adores her; perhaps because of their initial troubles, he thinks

Chloe is the most desirable woman on Earth.


But in the last few years, Chloe has gone internal. Jonathan can't point to

any particular behavior, but to a sum of behaviors and attitudes vhich can just

as easily be described as me/lowing or coming of age, finally or the inevitable settling

down of the passions, or just as easily, she's lost interest.


His reflection stares back at him from the autobus window, a thin face,

forehead high, black hair receding nicely, accenting his small narrow nose and

deepset black eyes and his lips which, he thinks, are still boyish and do not

look at all resolute. He does not think he has changed or aged so drastically

that he is no longer attractive, but hejels that way. He often wonders whether

transform surgery--mild, of course; his social station and employers would

tolerate nothing more--could rekindle Chloe's interest, or whether they should

step into even more experimental territory and encourage each other to take

occasionals. Many do, particularly among the class of women who have given

up careers.


The autobus slows and his seat vibrates faintly to let him know this is his
98 GREG BEAR
rush of wind. Thick clouds blow over the tall steeple and the roofs of nearby

mansions and multis.

The nearest tower is three miles south and west, across the 5; he can see it

through rifts in the cloud deck from where he stands, its flanks glowing with

faint blue lines and red marker sheets like square eyes in the darkness.

His overcoat blows around his legs as he walks up a concrete ramp to the

main entrance. St. Mark's has not been renovated since the late twentieth and

is looking a little dark, a little old, though still dignified and of course traditional;

just the place for the Stoics to have their monthly meetings. All

terribly dull and advantageous, head to head, and he seldom looks forward to

them.

Chloe seems even more stiff on such evenings; perhaps she secretly nurses



resentment, imagines herself in the feed, riding the current of business, part

of the great river of Corridor commerce... Which is of course a laugh. Jonathan

hasn't been awarded significant advancement in years. The economic

squall of 2049 has frozen most lobe-sods, even management, at status revalue

ever since.

Inside the cloakroom, he hands his overcoat to a church daughter, graying

and round-faced and smiling, and strolls with hands in pockets into the nave.

The tall stained glass windows glow with phosphorescence painted on the outer

surfaces, a cool night-ocean light that is strangely soothing. Jonathan walks

down the aisle toward the center, a large gray granite baptismal font on a stone

pedestal.

The arms of the transept lead off into gloom, empty of conversing Stoics,

who gather at the center, in the aisles and near the font. He sees a few he

knows, some fresh-faced recruits a decade younger than he, and then the gray


pate of Marcus Reilly, his sponsor.

Marcus seldom has much to say to Jonathan these days; his interests are not

in Jonathan's line of work, which is nutritional design and supply. Marcus--Jonathan

tries to remember--is increasing his already impressive holdings in

cold ore extraction in Utah and squeezing a few last tons of paydirt out of

Green Idaho.

But Marcus spots him in the aisle, holds up his hand, smiles brightly. He's

going to end this present conversation gracefully, his gestures say, and join

Jonathan in a few moments.

Jonathan stands with hands folded. Marcus is one of the few men of his

acquaintance who can make him sweat, and also make him wait with hands

folded.


"Jonathan! How are you?" Marcus asks expansively, creeping between the

pews and holding out his hand. They shake and Jonathan accepts the upward

curled fingers with the opposite of his own downward curl. Marcus tugs on

the join vigorously, smiling. "How's Chloe? The children?"

"All well. And Beate?"
/

SLANT 99

spends all her time driving chemical futures and screwing up the market. But

she's having fun. And you, dear Jonathan--still frozen?"


Jonathan nods ruefully. Marcus knows something important about everybody.
"No prospects for a thaw?"
"Not so far. Managers can't write their own ticket any more."
"Don't I know it. To tell the truth, Beate's the force in our credit balance

any more. She drives more weather into our account.., good weather, I mean.

Calm seas. Makes her too independent, I think. Doesn't need me any more.

But that's changing. Can we talk after?"


"Sure." Jonathan says. There is always, in meetings between sponsor and

client, an air of informality and equality, belied by the stains under his arm.

Marcus could remove Jonathan from any position in the Corridor in a few

minutes, with a few simple stabs on his pad... Patria potestas.


But Marcus has of course never done that. Perhaps it is Jonathan's own

insecurity that even makes him think of the possibility. When something is not

right at home, all the universe ti/ts.
But then, what is it that is not right at home?
"Grand!" Marcus says. "Do you know anything about this fellow, Torino?"

"No, sir," Jonathan says.


"I hear it was Luke's idea to bring him in. Shake all of us up with some

stimulating big-picture stuff."


"Sounds interesting," Jonathan says. Chao Luke, tall and monkish in his

formal black Stoic's robe, is arranging a podium near the central font. A small,

elfish-looking man in slacks and a sweater, very nineties, stands beside Chao,

calmly ineffectual. This must be Torino. And the lecture--he pulls up the

note on his pad calendar--is about Autopoiesis and the Grand Scheme. He looks

around the transept and nave. A number of men are setting up equipment near

the walls: banks of small projectors that will play out over the crowd, reflective

screens to catch large displays. Like most presentations before the Stoics, the

tech will be distinctly early twentieth--no plugs, no fibe hooks between pads,

all in the spirit of community, not dataflow immersion.


Chao takes the podium and asks the Stoics to sit. The men and women

arrange themselves in the pews before the podium and the fount as Chao smiles

out over them. "We'll bring the February meeting of the Stoics, Seattle chapter,

to order now."


Jonathan sits on the hard wood. Churches seem not to believe in comfort,

the perpetual strain of hardroot American asceticism which he does

not actually oppose, but which still leaves him buttsore by the end of these

meetings.


He glances at Torino as the notes are read and motions proposed, seconded,

and voted upon. The speaker stares up at the dome. His face is childlike, head

small, hair dark and tousled. Torino. Torino.
00 GEG BEA
in scientific circles for his work in bacterial communities. Jonathan does not

have time to follow all these threads through the ribes, but he watches Torino

with more interest. What is it like to be famous--even a little famous? To

have people want to listen to your words, to sit respectfully and await your

wisdom?

Again the suspicion of his own weakness and inferiority, like the little bite



of a spider tangled in his underwear. Jonathan wishes Chloe would have shown

him more warmth this evening, helped him face up to Marcus with self-assurance.

Now it is Torino's turn to speak. Chao introduces him--his full name is

Jerome Torino--and steps aside. The small man grips the sides of the podium

with both hands, and the pickup adjusts to his stature like a metal snake. He

clears his throat.

"It's cold and windy out there. Not good weather for public speaking."

Jonathan smiles politely, as do most of the Stoics around him. Weak intro. He does not feel positively toward this famous person who dresses so informally.

"Tonight I hope to pull aside some curtains and dispel a few misconceptions

that haunt our culture, our philosophy, our politics," Torino says. His small

hands swing wide, as if embracing the audience, the church. His eyes are

bright and close together. With a beard he could be a little monkey, Jonathan

thinks.

'I'll have the help of some.., what used to be called media. Everything is



media nowadays, so that word is out of use, like saying 'heat' at the heart of

the sun. Because of your charter, I've been challenged to avoid the more sop


histicated effects I've been known to use to get my points across." He clears

is throat again.

Jonathan prepares to be bored. He shifts in his seat. The woman beside him,

a discreet eighteen inches to his left, glances at him. He feels like a little boy

cautioned to keep still.

"We'll begin with words, words only. Imagine you're in a library and walking

through stacks of books. Let's say you're in the Library of Congress, walking

in a pressure suit through the helium-filled chambers, between miles of shelves,

just staring at the millions upon billions of publications, periodicals, books,

cubes..."

Jonathan hopes for a little visual interest soon. His mind goes back to Chloe. I feel so weak without her support. Why can't she support me strongly, give me her//

UNDIVIDED ATTENTION.///no, not that, but at least leave me J3eling she really

values me.

"Every single one of those books begins, of course, with an act of sex. Are

you offended by the old sexual words? Then use the euphemisms. Men and

women, getting together--"

Christ, is everything sex? Jonathan squirms again, and the woman looks at
/

SLANT 101


irritation that Jonathan is behaving like a little boy. But of course he is not;

he is imagining that she looks at him that way.

He focuses on Torino. Yes, so it all begins in bed.

"--and exchanging ideas."

The meeting laughs with some relief. Torino smiles at them.

"Sex is often confused with reproduction. But bacteria engage in sex for the

sheer desperate necessary joy of it--sex is their visit to the community library,

the communal cookbook. They wriggle themselves through seas of recipes,

little circular bits of DNA called plasmids. When they absorb a plasmid they

don't necessarily reproduce, but they still swap genetic material, and that's

what bacteriologists call sex. Unlike us, however, bacterial sex--this kind of

swap--can even occur between totally different kinds, what we once regarded

as different species. But there are no true species in bacteria. We know now

that bacteria are not grouped into species, as such, but evanescent communities

we call microgens, or even more currently, ecobacters.

"The plasmids contain helpful hints on how to survive, how to make this

or that new defense against an antibiotic, how to rise up as a community against

tailored phages flooding in to eradicate.

"In the very beginning, for bacteria, this was sex. This was how sex began,

as a visit to the great extended library. I call this data sex. No bacterium can

exist for long without touching base with its colleagues, its peers. So how do

we differ from the bacteria?

"Not much. You come to this group, you exchange greetings, arrange meetings,

sometimes you exchange recipes. Sometimes we--and here I don't mean

the members of this club, necessarily--get together, conjugate, to exchange

genetic material, either in a pleasant social jest or joust with biology, or sometimes

in earnest, because it's really time to reproduce.

"Since the days of the bacteria, there are few higher organisms who reproduce

without conjugal sex. This may be because we are far fewer than the

bacteria, who can afford to make many millions of mistakes, and consequently

we are especially protective about the kinds of information that enter our

bodies. We have to check out our potential partners, see if we really want to

refer to their genetic library in creating our offspring--judging them by their

appearance and actions, and initiating in evolution the entire peacock panoply

of ritual and display.

"In the Library of Congress, every single book, every item, began with an

act of reproductive sex, allowing the author to get born and eventually to write

a book. That book now acts as a kind of plasmid, reaching into your mind to

alter your memory, which is the con-template--my word: the template, through

cognition, of behavior. The medium of course is language. Sex is language,

and language is sex, whatever form it takes. Changes in anatomy and behavior

are the ultimate results--and sometimes, coincidentally, reproduction."

Jonathan wonders what in hell Chao was thinking, bringing this man in to
102 GREG BEAR
the Corridor communities--rarely, about science or international affairs. This

is much too abstruse.

"So let's begin where sex began, with the bacteria. How do bacteria remember?

Their behavior is fairly basic, individually."

The transept fills with a writhing torrent of bacteria, just above their heads.

Jonathan does not expect this and jumps, as does the woman on his left. They

smile sheepishly at each other. He tries to remember her name--Henrietta,

Rhetta, something like that. She's involved in economic design. Jonathan congratulates

himself for having such a quick memory.

The torrent of bacteria, blue and green, settles into a gentle flow. Individuals

touch, push thin tubes across to others, congregate, release plasmids and a

variety of molecules that alert each other to the environmental conditions

experienced by "Pickets," so the display marks them; like soldiers foraging.

These molecules, Torino explains, are the precursors to the neural transmitters

within the human brain . ..

"Bacteria have no home, no rest, and their individual existence is fleeting.

But they invest in a kind of communal memory--not just the genetic pool of

a species, but the overall acquired knowledge of the community. Not unlike

our human communities. The result is rapid adaptation throughout the community

to threats--and magnanimously, as if bacteria recognize the impor5

tance of the overall ecosystem--the clues and recipes spread to other types and

other microgens.

"Only in the past half-century have we studied these microgens, and determined

all the ways they share experience. They are not that different from

humans, at least as far as the mathematics of networking is concerned. From

he very bottom, to the very top, webbing or networking--autopoiesis--the

ehavior of self-organizing systems--shares many common characteristics.

So--


"What makes us special? Like the bacteria, as social animals, we engage in

communal sharing of information. We call it education, and the result is culture.

The shape of our society relies on spoken and written language, the

language of signs, the next level of language above the molecular. Some insert

another level between these two, that of instinctual behavior, but I believe

that's really just another kind of language of signs.

"Culture from very early times was as much a factor in human survival as

biology, and today, culture has subsumed biology. The language of signs inherent

in science and mathematics has co-opted the power of molecular language.

We begin with molecules and molecular instructions, but now the

instructions feed back upon themselves, and we govern the molecules.

"In nature, we're the first to do that--since the bacteria!"

Jonathan catches himself listening. There is nothing else to do; he wonders

what Torino is really on about.

"For centuries, in trying to understand our own nature and behavior, we
/

SLANT 103

acteristics and study them in isolation, or to rank our characteristics in terms

of fundamental importance. Nature or nurture--which is fundamental?" Torino

chuckles. "Chicken or egg. Which came first? Throw out the question

and the wrong-headed philosophy behind it, and start again.


"Today, in mass education and LitVid--and especially in that cultural stew

called the Yox--these wrong-headed assumptions still flourish, proving that

human knowledge--like human DNA--can be filled with useless, outmoded

garbage. We don't prune efficiently at either level, because we can never be

quite sure when we might need that so-called useless data, that useless guideline,

that outmoded way of thinking. In other words, neither our brains nor

our genes know the overall truth. We are always in the middle of an experiment

whose limits we do not understand, and whose end results are completely

unknown. We carry our errors around with us as a kind of safety net, even

though they slow us down."


Jonathan feels a little hypnotized by the projected flow of microbes. Then

they vanish.


"Now, let's leap to a larger view," Torino says. "We'll dispose of another

error. Can we separate human activity, cultural or biological, from bacterial

action? Are we a higher-order phenomenon?"
The woman next to Jonathan--Rhetta or Henrietta--nods. Jonathan thinks

they are about to be disabused of an illusion, and playing that game for a

moment, shakes his head. Besides, he remembers a little high school biology.
"Evolution is a kind of thought, a making of hypotheses to solve the problems

posed by a changing environment. Bacteria operate as an immense community,

not so much evolving as exchanging recipes, both competing and

cooperating. We are comprised of alliances of cells that are made up of old

alliances between different sorts of bacteria. We are, in effect, colonies of colonies

of bacteria that have learned many new tricks, including slavish cooperation.

Does the brick house think itself superior to the grain of sand? Or the

mountain to the pebble?"


The nave, this time, fills with dancing diagrams and dramas of cellular

evolution, differentiation of kingdoms, phyla, orders, all in rapid-fire. Jonathan

finds himself intrigued by the creation of the first complex, nucleated cell--a

huge factory in comparison to a bacterium. Bacterial engines, fragments, even

whole bacteria, sublimated and subordinated, evolve over billions of years to

create this next stepping stone.


"We are now taking complete charge of those processes once the domain of

the bacteria, on a technological level. In a sense, nanotechnology is the theft

of ideas from the molecular realm, the cellular and bacterial domain, to power

our new cultural imperatives. Earth has become a gigantic, complex, not yet

unified but promisingly fertile single cell.
"And now--we're back to sex again--it's time to move outward and reproduce.
104

GREG BEAR


of data from other planetary cells. We are like a single bacterium squirming

through a primordial sea, hoping to find others like itself, or at least find recipes

and clues about what to do next."

Transept and nave fill with a loneliness of night, clouds of stars, all brilliant

and silent. Jonathan loses himself for a moment in the extraordinary image.

"We send out spaceships between the planets, the stars, containing our own

little recipes, our own clues, like hopeful plasmids. We have found other living

worlds, but none yet as complex as Earth, not yet rising above the level of

molecular language. We know there are billions of worlds out there, hundreds

of millions similar to Earth in our galaxy alone...

"We are patient.

"In the meantime, until we find that other community to which we must

eventually adapt and belong, that larger network of autopoiesis in which we

will become a node, we labor to improve ourselves. We seek to lift ourselves

by our bootstraps, so to speak, to new levels of efficiency and understanding.

"The imperative for the datafiow culture is to remove old errors and inefficiencies-to

improve our information through continuing research, and to

improve our minds through deeper education and therapy, to improve our

physical health by removing ourselves from the old cycles of predation and

disease, no longer capable of pruning the human tree. We hope to unite human

cultures so we will end our internal struggles, and work together for larger

goals. We engage in the equivalent of historical and political therapy.

"All separation is a convenient illusion, all competition is the churning of

the engines of sex. Our social conventions give our culture shape, just as a cell

wall holds in the protoplasm; but we are soon approaching a time when edu-
c

ation will overcome convention, when logic and knowledge must replace rote

nd automatism. This century can be characterized as a time of conflicts between

old errors, old patterns of thinking, and new discoveries about ourselves.

We have no big father in the sky, at least none that is willing to talk with us

on any consistent basis."

The woman on Jonathan's left frowns and shakes her head. The Stoics tend

to shy away from Deism, much less atheism. Torino, to Jonathan's relief, seems

to be winding up his presentation.

"But there is promise in what we have learned so far--promise that can be

shared between all cultures, in recognition that change and pluralism are essential.

"If we all think alike, if we all become uniform and bland, we shrivel up

and die, and the great process shudders to an end. Uniformity is death, in

economics or in biology. Diversity within communication and cooperation is

life. Everything your forebears, your ancestors, everything you have ever done,

will have been for naught, if we ignore these basic bacterial lessons."

He nods and the projectors fall dark. The nave and transept return to shadowy

recesses. There is scattered polite applause. Torino may be famous, but he


/

SLANT 105


man, who stares a little owlishly at the small crowd, some of whom are already

standing and stretching.

Behind Jonathan, a man in his sixties whose name he does not know--but

whose face is familiar from past meetings--harrumphs and smiles slyly as he

shakes his head. "Science is the art of making us think we're gerrs," he says. "My God, did I drive all the way from Tacoma to hear this kind of drivel? I

hope Chao puts something more substantial on the menu next time."

Jonathan decides against approaching Torino and asking a few questions.

No sense standing out from the crowd before a meeting with Marcus.

But as he turns, Marcus is there beside him, staring at him intently. "Not

bad," he says to Jonathan. Jonathan smiles and agrees, a little confused; he

would have thought the philosophy of someone like Torino would deeply

irritate Marcus Reilly.

Marcus walks past Jonathan, down the aisle, and stands beside Torino, shaking

his hand and conversing. Torino seems relieved that someone has listened.

Jonathan arrives in time to hear Marcus say: "--and that's why I told Chao

to invite you. We all need to be shaken up a little, brought up to date. Sometimes

the Stoics are a stuffy lot. You've thrown open a few of our windows.

Thank you, Mr. Torino."

"My pleasure," Torino says.

Chao smiles and nods. Jonathan wishes he had listened more closely to what

Torino said. Totino's eyes meet Jonathan's. Jonathan can't think of anything
to say.

Marcus turns and seems surprised to find Jonathan beside him. "There you

are," he says, and his grandfatherly face turns serious. "Have time to talk?"

"Yes," Jonathan says.

"Good. Let's get some coffee at Thirteen Coins. We'll take my car. I hope

it's outside--it's been acting up lately.., getting a mind of its own, I fear."

Jonathan laughs, and Marcus grins as they separate from the Stoics and leave

the building.

Jonathan's mood is lifting; Marcus seems so positive. Maybe he's going to

offer a change to Jonathan; that in turn might cheer Chloe, increase her respect

for him, and her affection, as well.

Jonathan is startled to see a bright blue-green flash of lightning through

the clouds above the cathedral. Then, from the south, an orange flash seems to

post an answer to the first. The wind freshens; it's getting warmer.


Yvonne has made up her mind but Gi pounds ey is not so sure what he intends, now.

The dinner is over and they are on his third bourbon and her fourth beer, and

Yvonne has talked about her upbringing in Billings and the move to Moscow.

Giffey has said nothing about his upbringing because that of all things is

nobody's business it is the root of all he is, particularly his anger. He feels no

need to show Yvonne any anger she is too young and obvious to hurt him.


At any rate, the woman has decided she wants Giffey to make love to her,

but has now withdrawn from giving any overt sign that this is so, waiting for

him to make the defining move. Giffey dislikes this in women, their retreat

or cowardice in the face of desire. Such a safe redoubt from which to lob shells

of ridicule should the situation come a-cropper.
But he has been very pleasant with her, playing the man's game, subduing

his irritations not to drive her away as he waits for all the calculations of his

own desire to tot up to one or zero, go or no go.
He watches her face in the diffuse light from the lantern hanging over their

heads, its little mock flame flickering dull orange. Her skin is sweetly pale and

clear of blemishes, her nose is something he would like to sidle up against

with his own nose, her jaw is a little heavy but her lips are very sweet, particularly

when she pauses and gives him her expectant look, those lips parted,

small white teeth just inside.


Most of all it is a personal wager that those breasts are as lovely as he

suspects, and that though her legs are thin in the calves and her waist too

waspish for his tastes, that the conjunction of inner thighs and mons, pieced

together, make a comely triskelion and she will not have messed with her

pubic hair except perhaps to trim the boundaries in case Bill takes her swimming

in the summer (but now that grooming might be neglected). All of this

is in the background as he asks for the check. He will pay. She does not object.
"I've been talking your ear off," she says as they walk to the door. Outside,

on the street, they are side by side and the moment has come to shove off or

play the old game to the end. Giffey hopes his technique has not gotten feeble;

it's been over a year and a half since he last played.


"Thank you for your company," he says. Then a pause. "I like the sound of
your voice," he says. "It's the prettiest I've heard in a good while."
"Well, thank you, Jack."
They face each other. It is really damned cold out here and the streetlights

cast long shadows where they stand. He can barely see her face and his own

face is starting to hurt. "You do a lot of things to me, Yvonne."
/ SLANT 107

"Yes, well you listen nice and you're no grandpa."


Giffey reaches out and strokes her arm. The fur collar is rising with her hair

and making that dark halo again, and within, the center of a target, the oval

of her face. Her very pretty face. Hell, it was all a pretense. All his doubts

were faking him. He wants this woman and he even needs her because he is

afraid of going up against Omphalos in the next few days. There probably

isn't much time left. He can say farewell to the good food, the drinks, the

landscapes and the skies; he can say farewell to the eyes and noses and breasts

and hips, too.


He doesn't give a damn about Bill who does not take care of this woman

the way she wishes and who is far away diddling himself with his Yox buddies

and some karaoke curies in Thailand or India.
"You raise a powerful need," he says softly. "I'd like to make you think a

little better of at least one man."


"Oh," she says. She's nervous now. The last man she played this game with

was probably poor self-diddling Bill. "I don't dislike men, not at all. Don't

mistake me. But you're special. You listen. I--"
She's starting with the words again. Giffey takes her arm and pulls her

toward him, gauging by her automatic resistance to that pull the measure of

how much more persuasion she will need before she admits she is committed.

Not much. He zeroes into the pale oval within the halo and kisses her.


The kiss starts offgentle, and then she finally offers open lips and her tongue.

He doesn't much like tongue kissing, but he plays that move through, and

then up to the regions he is much more fond of, her eyes and her nose. She

clings to him tightly, accepting this hungrily. No more resistance, at least as


long as they do only this, with their clothes on, in a public place.

"Let's go," Giffey says.

"All right," Yvonne says.
"Over to my apartment," Giffey says. "It's too cold to get naked here on

the street."


"Yeah," Yvonne says. She chuckles--not a giggle, but a genuine, almost

masculine chuckle, and that's fine.


She's added it all up and her answer is one.

TRIBUTARY FEED

LitVid Search Fulfillment (Backdata: FREE by bequest of the author): Text column

of Alexis de Tocqueville II (pseudonym-?-) March 25 2049

The growing disaffected in America merit our concern. How do we describe

them succinctly? Discouraged, cut loose from the cultures for which their intellect

and character destine them, those cultures of spiritual conservatism and

Bucktail bigotry which have been shown again and again to be politically incapa-


108

GREG BEAR

economy. Their refusal to take advantage of educational opportunities, which

they regard as corrupting, leaves them little to do but join the ominous numbers

on the New Dole. Here, they sit with their families locked into specially tailored

and highly "moral" Yox feeds, funneling their few resources into an obsequious

entertainment industry that has ever believed "a hundred million people cannot

be wrong." Here they relive the glory days of elitism and bigotry, or golden

dreams of blue-collar solidarity and dominance. They hand their hearts and

minds over to demagogues like spoiled children. They are a dead people, but

still dangerous.

Alice orders the limo to let her out three blocks bet?bre her home. She is

suffocating in the artificial lavishness of the limo cabin. Her eyes fill with tears.

She feels insulted and abused and, for the first time in many long years, soiled.

Flashes of hatred mingle with jagged, unhappy memories and a long-quiet

sense of shame.


She walks along the deserted street, following the glowing lines in the

walkway and the curb. A warmer wind is cutting between the buildings and

the few houses, and brilliant, scary flashes of lightning play silently above the

clouds.
She does not want to be protected. She feels the power of the wind and the


eclouds,

thrills a little at the

and blue effulgences, begins to reassemble
orange
her pride and her armor.
But at the front door, there are tears in her eyes again. She shivers at the

thought of the faceless man trying to pry her loose from her protections, like

a cruel beachcomber working at a limpet. "Why does he want to know anything

about me?" she mutters. "What a creep, What a monster."


She spends thirty minutes in the shower, alternating between sonic micro-spray

and steady stream. She feels as if she should scrub off all her skin and

grow it new and clean. She feels between her legs briefly, wishing she could

shed all her insides, everything the faceless monster's flesh and semen touched.

She has never felt this way about a man before, and in a far recess of her self,

she worries about the frightening strength of her revulsion.


It's only sex and it u,as only once and he got nothing special,' he didn't even ask for

anything special. He didn't care. He wanted to ask questions.


Alice feels the sparks of anger ide, damped by exhaustion. All she wants

now is to crawl into bed and sleep, straight sleep, without the pre-dream child

vid she often uses, just simple sleep.
/

SLANT 109

And then she sees that dreadful facelessness again. Her breath quickens and

she moans. She gets out of bed and walks in her thin silk robe into the living

room, the spare and unadorned place where she seldom spends much time.

Right now she wishes she had artwork all over the walls, a pet or a friend to

talk to; all of her friends, until now, it seems, need her more than she needs

them.
She has a few articles on a shelf that give her some comfort: a ceramic poodle,

pink and ridiculous, that belonged to her grandmother; an antique folding

razor her father gave to her when he first learned she was going on call-ins as

a teenager ("to protect yourself," he said, "because the only thing that hurts

worse than knowing what you're doing is the thought of losing you altogether'')

that she had never carried on her person; a miniature plastic spray of

flowers; a picture of her parents and brother. She has not thought of her brother

in months. She picks up the picture and stares at it.
Carl is eleven years old in the picture and she is nine. Carl did not know

what to think of his sister. He was straight-arrow, knightly. He signed up

with the Marines to go to the Moon as part of a settlement effort and died in
a pressure drop five years ago.
She replaces the picture.
Five men have wanted to marry her. She wants to tell Carl that; she did not

fail in the marriage department, not for lack of interest. She never felt it was

necessary to get married, never felt strongly enough for the men who asked,

with the exception of one...


Alice refuses to think of that one now. Putting him together with the

facelessness she has just endured is more than she wants to deal with. It would

be so nice to have someone like him here; but if he were here, she would never

have gone off on a call-in.


Finally, Alice gives in and sits before the theater in the small family room.

She orders the unit on and waits for it to find her eyes with its projectors. The

swirling sound centers her in an opening space filled with selections. She

chooses a mindless linear vid, a domestic drama. "What time is it?"


11:31 p.m. flashes in red before her eyes, over the faces of the participants.

They are all part of a family in a comb coming to grips with a new son-in-law

who is untherapied and works fixing internal combustion engines for illegal

atavist car races. He is cute and muscular and chunky-rough and he

says funny, eccentric, but wise things that make the therapied vanilla-smooth

comb family look inept and foolish. Side notes on the image tell Alice

she can convert this to karaoke for an extra ten dollars. "Live andplay the

whole livelong story/ Be Amanda; let your S.O. portray Baxter/ All the story and

twice the fun: available in straight flow, mixed doubles, wide field with random meets

from around the world, or total gone-gone-gonzo/ Explore Amanda's world by strolling

or in freezeframe/"
The house monitor chimes. Alice pauses the feed and asks who is it. "It's
110

GREG BEAR


Alice cuts the feed, pays a partial rather than scheduling a replay, and goes

to the door.

Twist stands shifting from one leg to the other in the entry, knuckle between

her teeth. Her knees are actually pointed toward each other, total gamin,

vulnerable as hell. She comes in, straight silky black hair windblown, face all

crinkled like a little girl. She looks stretched and terrible.

Suddenly, Alice feels an outpouring of relief and affection for Twist.

"My God," she says, "you look worse than I feel. What's happened?"


RIVERS
Some ideas are just lubricants to let troubled people slide through life.

Not lies exactly--but very slippery.


In New Hope, Pennsylvania, a Baptist denomination anoints the re-born in

a fountain of living light, guided by encoded data from the River. They will tell

you, as you are so baptized, that by consuming the flesh and blood of Christ you

absorb his data into your pattern.

That makes Christ a virus.

The community memes evolve and live on.


--USA BLISTER-FAST SPIN
Thirteen Coins is a hoary and very demod restaurant that used to serve the

fourth estate. It sits in a re-done Commons district now, an island of tradition

and antiquity in a rolling park filled with visibly moving, growing, and self-pruning

topiary: lions, elephants, dinosaurs, as well as spaceships and ringed

planets.

The storm has turned the park into a forbidding dreamscape, the park's

lighted pathlines contending with blue-green and orange flashes.

In a high-packed, enclosed, mock-medieval booth near a broad window

overlooking the gardens, Marcus sips a Lagavulin single-malt while Jonathan

drinks a glass of Chilean Sangiovese.

"I love the Stoics," Marcus says. "Don't misunderstand me, Jonathan. A

finer and more dedicated group of philanthropists and civic-minded folk you'll

never find. I've made more fruitful contacts there than anywhere else in my

life--with the possible exception of my wife's relations." He draws up the


/

SLANT 111

ments of chagrin and resignation. Then he sips very delicately at the small

ceramic bowl of Scotch. '"Sherry barrels for aging. Sixteen years old and purring

like a tiger. Wonderful stuff."
"You wanted to shake them up," Jonathan offers, to get Marcus to come to

some point.


"You catch me out exactly," Marcus says. "Get somebody like Torino in

there and see what he knocks loose. But . . . Nothing. A few moths and some

dust and crumbs. He's right, you know. This neural hypothesis stuff is dead-on.

It's a practical and useful description of how society works. Screw nature.

After all how many of us survive in the jungle any more? And anybody who

follows the lines of the argument can . . ." He sips again. "Rise above. Survive

the challenges."
"I need to study it some more, I think."
Marcus stares at him steadily, a little gravely. "Yes. But you're not here

talking to me--I haven't invited you here to talk with me, and watch me

drink good Scotch while you down a doubtful glass of unnatural vintage--Christ!

A Chilean Chianti--because you might profit from Torino."


"You've always steered me in the right direction, Marcus. So why am I

here?"
"Life's a little stagnant, isn't it, Jonathan?"


Jonathan inclines his head.
"You're an elegant fellow, sharp and well-bred. You have good pedigree--mentally

and genetically. You could fit right in with the top comb managers

now, if fate offered you a different situation."
Jonathan smiles thinly. "I enjoy living below the comb, Marcus."

"Believe it or not, I agree--all those social expectations, all that ritual. It's

tough staying on the high comb path, racing against America's self-perceived

elites. They are so smug. Still, I wonder why so many of them are caught

becoming Chronovores, hmm? I mean," Marcus continues, "they'd simply be

playing the same life over and over again, the same round of ritual and challenge

and expectation, until the future caught up with them... Not the best

of situations. Hm?"


Jonathan does not know where all this is leading, but he nods. His class

thinks of the high comb as superficial, despite the undeniable political and

financial power they wield. Marcus is part of the X-class, as rich as most in

the comb, but intellectually independent--or so he's led Jonathan to believe.


"By the way," Marcus says, glancing at his old twentieth Rolex, too demod
for words, "does Chloe know where you are? That you're with me?"
"I've told her I'm going to be late," Jonathan says.
"Good. Always be good to the women." He sips again. Jonathan has a glance

at the charge on Marcus's pad: Sixteen-year Lagavulin, two hundred and fifty

dollars a glass. Transie,t glories, he thinks. "Beate probably doesn't care where

I am, as long as I'm not in her hair. Christ, romance is an old gray mare,


112

GREG BEAR


Jonathan smiles but reveals nothing.
"I'll get down to it now, Jonathan," Marcus says. "I've recommended you
to a group that isn't new, a little off the expected spin, but very promising.
Your CV came up on a criteria search and I pulled you out in particular because
we know each other."
"What do they do?"
"They ask for discretion, that's what they do," Marcus says. His tone is
blunt and his face looks older. "It's tough to accomplish something new and
tougher to keep it secret, especially if it gives you a great advantage. A very
great advantage."
Jonathan tries to keep his chuckle sophisticated. "A secret society?"
"Yes," Marcus says, dead serious. "You get into it by degrees, and at the
end, you do not pull out."
Jonathan decides a suitably sober look is best now. Underneath, he stifles a
disappointed laugh. Marcus is either joking with him or is getting drunk on
his little bowl of Scotch.
"As I said," Marcus says quietly, "the advantages are enormous. So is the
COSt."
Jonathan can think of nothing to say, so he continues to regard Marcus with
a patiently straight face.
"But you fit," Marcus says, staring down at the bowl. "You're young and
strong and that's unusual in the group so far. Wisdom of our sort," he flicks
a finger between them, "finds a home in older frames. It's a tough load for the
young to bear."
Jonathan has enough self-respect left that this melodramatic display gives
him no option. He laughs and shakes his head. "My God, Marcus, you have

rne going here,

you?"
don't

Marcus smiles a little sadly, but his eyes are bright and focused. He is not

drunk and he is not fooling. "This is an old restaurant and I know the paint

on its walls. Nobody would dare bug this place, because people like me know

whose lapels to grab and which ear to shout in. It's safe here, comfortable

here."


"You're not having me on?"

"Not a bit," Marcus says. "You either say yes, you want to go to the next

stage, you trust me this far, or you say no, and never speak of this to anyone,

including Chloe. And you'll never be offered the chance again."

The female waiter comes by and asks how they're doing. Marcus tells her

they're doing fine, and asks for a second bowl of Lagavulin.

"Stagnation, pitfalls; the rules are changing," Marcus says after she leaves.

"That's what you have to look forward to. Yox makes the temps and the disaffected more ignorant and more aggressive, bottom-up management is on

the sly spin again, pffft! The collective is in place, grunting piglets all, and

those of us with managerial talent are soon out on our butts in the snow and


/

SLANT 113


"Come on, Marcus, cheer me up," Jonathan says. He is not really prepared

for this sort of nonsense, but as he looks at Marcus, and thinks of all he knows

about this man, all the deals and sideshows he's rumored to be involved in,

all the threads he rides straight into the statehouse and the most powerful

executive caucuses, even into the Rim Council and the Southcoasr White

House . . . It's hard to speck Marcus as a deluded old fool.

"It's not a cheery subject," Marcus continues doggedly. "The therapied

society rides around on too many crutches. It's crippled and corrupt. But the

unknown is scary. The Stoics--they cling to class superiority and a sense that

God will eventually clean out the gutters and the water will flow fresh and

clear once more. It's not going to happen. We've made some major mistakes

in learning how to dance, and now the floor is crowded with clumsy fools . . ."

Marcus's phrasing strikes Jonathan as being too practiced, but undeniably

persuasive. Still, Jonathan resists being drawn in too quickly. "I don't think

things are so dark," Jonathan says.

Marcus looks down at the table. The waiter brings another bowl of Scotch

and asks Jonathan if he'd like more wine.

"Coffee, please," Jonathan says.

"Modcaff, regular, or de?" the waiter asks.

"Regular," Jonathan says.

"I'm not unlike you, Jonathan," Marcus says. "At your age, I thought I was

living in the best of all possible worlds, taking into account a few pitfalls here

and there. Beate loved me and I loved her, and we were building things together.

But that was twenty years ago. We were heading toward the Raphkind

showdown, and the so-called last hurrah of the super-conservatives. Raphkind

killed us. Went overboard. May the bastard rot in hell. So now we have nambypamby

New Federalists--a trendy name for a purely financial and expedient

frame of mind. I'm one. I know you're one, as well. Are you proud of your

creed?"

"Within limits," Jonathan says. He suspects Marcus plays faithfully and



slyly the tune of whoever's in power.

"So what's in the future for you? Do you know that managers between the

ages of forty and fifty suffer thymic disorders twice as often as temp employees?

Society wears us down. We wear ourselves out. But if we turn ourselves over

to the therapists, they adjust our neurons and glial cells, they stick microscopic

monitors into us that are supposed to balance our neurotransmitters and reconstruct

our judgment centers. They say we're as good as new. But you know

what happens? We lose an edge . . . Therapied managers just don't cut it. The

happy man lets down his guard. After a while, being happy becomes a kind

of drug, and he avoids challenges because failure will make him unhappy. It's

a fact. So more and more--we take our mental aches and pains and stay away

from the therapists.

"Oh, we want our employees therapied--we want them happy and creative
114

GREG BEAR


We have a higher duty." Marcus glances at Jonathan. "You're not happy, are

you?"


Jonathan leans back against the cushion and holds out his hands, gives a

little sigh. "I'm in between general contentment.., and deep unrest," he says.

Marcus lifts his eyebrows. "Well put."

"But I'm not desperately unhappy, Marcus."

"Still, if an opportunity comes along, allowing great change and new opportunity,

you'd go for it, wouldn't you?"

So they are back to that.

"That would depend on the opportunity."

Marcus points his finger into the tabletop and thumps it several times. "The

gold ring, Jonathan. Not the brass ring. Gold."

Jonathan finishes the last drops of wine in his glass. Outside, the storm

shows no signs of abating. "Have you offered this opportunity to anyone before

me?"

"Yes," Marcus says.



"Many?"

"Two. One accepted, one declined."

"How long ago was that?"

"In the last five years."

Jonathan feels a twist, an almost physical churn in his chest. If he could

just be rid of his present stagnation--breathe freely in a new phase of life,

undo past mistakes and play out his better potentials...

"If I say yes, can I turn back at a certain point later?"

"No," Marcus says squarely. "It's yes or no. Here and now."

"I have to put my trust in you."

e

That's the crux."


What about my family? Would they be involved?"

"They have to undergo the same inspection as you," Marcus says. "If they

pass, they go."

So Beate isn't going, Jonathan intuits.

"What about their chance to choose?"

"In our group," Marcus says, "the head of household bears the brunt."

The emergency chime on Marcus's pad sounds and Marcus pulls it out,

angling it away from Jonathan's eyes. It is a text message; Marcus reads it

swiftly, his face a practiced blank, and puts the pad away.

"Something's up," he says. He gives Jonathan a look that can be interpreted

either as disappointment or a kind of apologetic sorrow. "Jonathan, I've never

placed you anywhere but in the sly spin, have I?"

"Never," Jonathan truthfully acknowledges. He cannot blame Marcus for

his present situation.

"What's just happened--what I've just learned--puts us deeply in need of

someone like you. The opportunity is even better for you. You can move right


/

SLANT 115


into a position of influence. I'll vouch for the fact that you're capable and you're

ready."


Jonathan does not feel comfortable leaping into the dark, and dragging

Chloe after him . . .

But he remembers her stiffness in his arms. Whenever he has touched her

in the last month, she has seemed secretly annoyed. Her respect for him, her

desire for him as a man, has faded, buffeted by the pressures of children and

the stalling--he supposes--of his career.

She is disappointed in her life. She is disappointed in him.

A wild flare of anger and fear rises. Marcus is watching him. Marcus always

seems to know the inner workings of his people; that's why his career has never

faltered. He always keeps his teams together--and he always chooses his people

well.

"Are you in charge?" Jonathan asks.



"No. But I'm close to the top, and those above me are the best. I've never

seen better."

Jonathan blinks and his left eye stings. It's been a long night. He wipes the

corner of his eye with the knuckle of his forefinger, then stares at Marcus.

"Say yes, and you'll have one last chance to back out--think it over for

tonight and call me tomorrow evening. After that, after you've learned what

we're up to, you're in. No backing out. Ever."

He has been looking for a change, any change, to regain Chloe's respect, to

win back her need for him. But everything he has considered seems ridiculous-moving

to Europe, even China, starting over again. He can't let go of

what they've already gained in the world. He believes Chloe values their security

very highly, and would think even less of him if he jeopardized that.

"The gold ring, Jonathan." Marcus fixes him with a patriarchal and steady

gaze. "Never steered you wrong, Jonathan."

"Better contacts, references?"

Marcus smiles. "Best you've ever seen. Solidarity. Real support in tough

times, and the times are going to get much tougher, believe me."

"My family will get.., better contacts, better opportunities?"

"If they make the grade, Jonathan." Marcus nods. "You know their quality

better than I."

"Yes," Jonathan says.

"I'm sure they will," Marcus murmurs, but looks away.

"Yes."

Marcus looks back sharply. "Is that your answer?"



Jonathan blinks. He did not mean it as an answer, he thinks, not precisely

an answer, not yet at least. But Marcus is growing restless. Marcus does not

like prevarication and delay. Either you know your mind or you don't.

"Yes," Jonathan says.

Marcus smiles. He is genuinely relieved. "Welcome aboard."
116

GR£G B£AR


They shake hands. Jonathan for a moment does not know who he is or what

he is doing; there is such a pressure of withheld anger that he fears he might

go home and beat someone--or more likely, kill himself.

He is so in love with Chloe, so desperately in need of her, and she has given

him so little of what he believes he deserves, despite all. The pent-up shock

of this realization makes him a little dizzy.

"Go home and rest," Marcus says. "This takes something out of all of us."

"What's the next move?" Jonathan asks.

'I'll get you together with some people. Patience," Marcus says. "I've waited

four years so far to see this happen. We might have to wait ten more."


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19

Jack Giffey believes in being very gentle with women. (It's the women who



have been cruel to him--a small dark voice tells him; but actually, he can't

remember any cruel women--why is that?)


He is gentle with Yvonne. She is surprisingly elegant in his bed, anticipatory

and supple and enthusiastic without seeming a slut. She keeps her eyes

on his eyes, she watches his motions with intense interest; it has been some

time since he has felt the urgency of a younger woman, and even among her

age group, Yvonne is a pistol, a classy pistol indeed. He feels very lucky, like

a sacrificial victim given the pick of a town's beauties before his ritual comes

to its inevitable end.
Giffey does not enjoy tongue kisses, but oddly enough, he enjoys using his

lips and tongue everywhere else. He read somewhere years ago about men of

his type, the particular molecules they enjoyed and which spurred their own

satisfactions, but that was chemistry not sex and he really does not care what

the reasons are.
Yvonne lets him know, without resorting to specifics, that few men of her

acquaintance are so generous. Giffey feels proud and within an hour they have

completely exhausted each other.
"You are some lady," Giffey says as they lie back. The room is not expensive

and does not have much in the way of comforts, but he keeps a bottle of

bourbon in the cupboard and there is ice in the small ancient enameled refrigerator,

and he offers her a drink. He feels very mellow toward her and even a

little protective.
118

GREG BEAR


"I don't normally like liquor," Yvonne says. "But it seems right. Let's make

it a toast--to you."

"Thank you," Giffey says.

While he is up getting the glasses poured, Yvonne sits up on the bed with

the covers draped just over her knees, and he appreciates the flow of her breasts

and the twin rolls of her bunched tummy. Giffy does not like tummies that

are artificially taut. Yvonne has sufficient numbers of the lovely flaws of un-tampered

nature to almost convince him that there is nothing he'd like better

than to spend more days and of course nights with her, many more.

"What do your friends call you? Do they call you Jack?" Yvonne asks,

scratching her nose with a fingernail.

"My best friends call me Giff," he says. "But very few people on this world

ever call me Giff."

"May I?"


Giffey brings the glasses over, ice clunking within the pale brown bourbon.

"What would Bill think if I let you call me Giff?" he says.

Yvonne narrows her eyes. "I need you, this," she says. "It's none of his damn

business."

"Sorry I brought it up."

"That's all right," Yvonne says, and gives him dispensation with a wave of

her glass, then takes a sip.

"I wish I could do more," Giffey says.

"I'm not asking for more," she says.

He feels his deep layer of occasional honesty rising to the surface. He knows

he can't suppress it; he cares for this woman a little, and he will not deceive

her. "What I mean is, you move me like no woman I've met in years."

fur"I have that effect on some men," Yvonne says with such innocent truth-

ess that Giffey knows she is not boasting. "I just wish they were quality,

like you. Why can't you stay a while?"

"I'll be here, but I'm going to be busy," Giffey says.

"Backwoods business, probably," she says.

Giffey grins but does not nod.

"I know all about what men do here to make money. We've brought the

hard times on ourselves. I wish to God I could just pack up and move to

Seattle, get a job there."

Giffey shakes his head. "Bad idea, unprepared."

"We've talked about this already," Yvonne says.

"We have."


She is interrupted by heavy knocking on the door. Giffey is up and has his

pistol out of a drawer before the third knock. The knock is followed by a loud

male voice.

"Yvonne, this is Rudy. We know you're in there with somebody."


/

SLANT 119

"Go to hell, Rudy, I am not yours to bother!" Yvonne shouts back. She

stands on the bed and looks for her clothes. Giffey bunches them up in a fist

from the chair and throws them to her.
He is standing naked with his gun in one hand, and she tilts her head to
one side and closes her eyes. "Dear sweet Jesus," she whispers.

"Bill's friends?" Giffey asks softly.

"Yeah."
"Will they hurt you?"
"No," she says. "They are such clucks."
"Will Bill hurt you?"
"They don't tell him," she says, exasperated. "The bastards think they're
watching out for me. They think I'm Bill's property."

"I see. You've been here before."

"Haven't you?"
Giffey chews this over for a moment, and then his wise old smile returns.

"Not for some time."


There is this other woman, whose name and face he can't quite recall. He

shakes that cold little sliver of memory out of his thoughts.


Yvonne sees his expression and her face wrinkles in disappointment. "I'm

sorry," she says.


"They tangle with me and they are going to be hurt. You get dressed and
get out there. It's been a pure pleasure, Yvonne."
"For me, too, Giff."
"Yeah, well, call me Jack," he says, and retires with his clothes and gun to

the bathroom, shutting off the light. He hopes Yvonne is smart enough to

close the door and let it lock on her way out, before the men decide they have

to do something more.


He hears them talking on the walkway outside. He doesn't hear the hotel

room door close.


There are two men and they sound like they're about Yvonne's age, maybe

younger. He hopes they do not come into his room.


Footsteps on the room's threadbare carpet. Giffey's senses become very keen,

in the dark behind the bathroom door. Whoever is in his room--just one

person--is taking it slow and easy, looking things over.
"I don't want to hurt you," the young man, Rudy, says. "I just want to talk
things over. Let me know where you are."

Giffey keeps quiet. Quiet is spookier.

"Come on. Just talk."
Yvonne tells Rudy to get out of the room, they should just leave.

"This bastard isn't worth it," the other young man says. "Let him go."


"Yeah. Well, he should know something, that's all. You listening? Where

are you, you fucker?"


"Rudy," Yvonne whines, "he's a pro. Federal army. He'll kill you."
120

GREG BEAR

Giffy cringes.
"Pro what? Pro federal woman-stealer? Talk to me, or I'll shoot through

the goddamn walls!"


Giffey holds up his pistol and pulls back the automatic target seeker switch.

It makes a small sliding click. Through the door or the wall, it won't be very

good, but it will give him a better chance if the man decides to jump into the

bathroom. Some of these young Ruggers are just crazy enough to do a thing

like that.
"Around here, we don't mess with another man's woman!" Rudy says, his
voice hoarse. He's not happy with this quiet.
"Oh, Rudy, 0z, h-leeze!" Yvonne says.
"I'd go home if I were you, Mister, back to fucking District of Corruption

or wherever you call home. Leave this town to the good people, the ones who

know better than to--"
"Rudy," the other man calls. "Let's go."
Rudy thinks this over. He hasn't come any closer to the bathroom door.
"Yeah, crazy bastard," Rudy murmurs. The footsteps retreat.
Giffby stays in the bathroom for ten or fifteen minutes, listening. He can't

hear a thing outside the room, though car and truck noises from the street

could mask some sounds. There's a couple of minutes of almost complete

silence, and slowly, he emerges from of the bathroom.


tie feels like a crab scuttling out from under a rock with gulls wheeling

overhead.


The room is empty.
When he is sure the hall and the street outside the building are clear, he

packs up everything in a small suitcase and leaves. Giffby does not want any-

knowing where he is, where he

be,


after that.
might
or
tomorrow
or
e is furious with himself for losing sight of his goal. This could have
ended it all early and stupidly, for nothing, he thinks.
For nothing at all.

2O

Night is coming on to dark morning and the storm is gentled, the lightshow



is off. All the house shutters are drawn and the monitor is set to store and be

quiet. Alice has calmed Twist and given her some fast OTC anxiolytics. She

is not hyperventilating now and she lies on Alice's couch with a cold cloth
/

SLANT 121

stopped sobbing. Alice is exhausted but she watches over the young woman

with feelings of irritation and peculiar gratitude.


She can rely on Twist to always have more urgent and tangled problems.

Twist's words tumbled out of her as soon as she came through the door--her

awfulness was back, she said, in force, and she could hardly see straight. She

has cycled in and out of total darkness, "Like looking at a black dog with sick

eyes," she said; skirted slashing her wrists, listened to the most awful silent

urgings, and imagined the most vivid hells. Some of these she described while

Alice fixed her some food and dosed out the anxiolytics. Alice listened, grimly

sympathetic.


Twist is having one severe fallback, no doubts. Tomorrow they will talk

· about her temp situation and see where some long-term medical and therapy

might be gotten.
But now it is peaceful. A slow drizzle falls outside, little finger-taps of rain

barely audible on the blanked windows, and all there is in the world exists

within these walls.
Alice puts on her plush robe and curls up on the chair beside the couch,

drawing up her knees, eyes closing of themselves. She feels like a squirrel after

it has been chased by a cat. Her thinking comes in slow waves of reason mixed

with soft tremors of fkntasy.

Mary Choy has filed her request with Seattle Citizen Oversight to get the

records she needs. Humans have to make that decision and they are all at home

asleep, and so after checking in with Nussbaum and finding that he has gone
home, she hooks a police shuttle, empty but for her, on its ride to the north.

At her apt, she undresses. Showers.


Sits staring at the rain on the antique thermopane plate glass windows. Bs3'

day, little girl.


It is a day she would not mind forgetting. Nussbaum could have tried her

out on something a little less gruesome, a little less disturbing and pointless.


Her legs stretch long and her back slumps in the soft chair. She is not ready

for sleep yet. She stands and performs a slow dytch, Tai-Chi and Aikido moves

choreographed to her own dance rhythms, until her muscles and attitudes relax

and allow her basic status self, ground and reference for all her endeavors, to

come to balance and emerge like the moon from behind clouds.
She yawns. The images are tightly bottled. She will release them tomorrow,
122 GREG BEAR

SEXSTR pounds M:

Legitimate and Sincere Discussion of Sexuality in Our Time, REAL and IMMEDIATE

in Your Pad! (Vids and Yox of REAL people available for YOUR sincere needs!)

(This piece has had 10230 accesses in 10 years. Author not listed; public access free

of additional licenses.)

THE HUSBAND:

I have always been courteous and sweet, and thought of you. You yourself told

me I was the best lover you ever had. I watched with dismay the cooling, the

change from excitement to responsibility, to keeping the home on course...

When I am gone, I hope you'll look back and realize what opportunities you missed.

You'll think of all those times you could have felt more and done more, and as

you're lying there, completely alone in bed, you'll have so many regrets...
That's what I dream of. The body's reckoning.

THE WIFE:

Yes, he is conscientious, but lord... After he is gonemand I do hope I survive

himml can spend all morning in the garden, and then have toast and a little marmalade

for breakfast. I hope I am too old and withered for men to pay me any

attention. I will travel with my friends and read whenever I wish. I suppose he thinks

I will miss him in bed, but really, after, what will it be, probably, forty years of having

to service him--that's what he himself calls it sometimes--wouldn't any reasonable

human being hope for a vacation?
That's what I dream of. A long vacation.

In the back of Marcus's limo, without Marcus, Jonathan is on his way home.

He is gray smooth neutral now; he feels he has been manipulated into tracking

a slick fast groove he does not think can lead anywhere good. By feeling neutral

he can let himself think there is some way out, some room to maneuver; he

has not really made any decisions. Marcus's offer sounds so very ridiculous,

nineteenth-century; a secret society, perhaps, with handshakes and fezzes, Ancient

Revelations Unveiled upon signing a binding pact in blood...


What he feels, most of all, is lost, like a small boy. He wants to belong

someplace, but where--with Marcus and his unknown opportunity? With

Chloe and her hidden emotions and reluctance?
Jonathan travels in someone else's car to a house where he is no longer at
/

SLANT 123

God, I'm feeling sorry for myself, he thinks. Time to get maudlin and look for a

sympathetic shoulder.


But he is a mature man and playtime is long over.
He can see his house from the road. The limo pauses at a crossing. He

wonders whether Chloe is still awake.

Penelope and Hiram have gone to bed. The house is quiet. Chloe stands by

the living room window watching the clouds tatter.


Chloe's thoughts have been more and more ragged and bitter through the

evening, veering between self-judgment and self-justification. Yet there is

nothing she can blame specifically for her mood. Jonathan has done nothing

unusual to irritate her. The children have simply been themselves, and she is

used to that sort of stress.
Maybe she can blame a crazy toilet that says they are sick; it has even told

her now, based on a straightforward pee, that she is the one who has a viral

cold. She has phoned in a repair order, though the toilet's own opinion of its

condition is that there is nothing wrong.


No member of the family has ever had a cold. She hardly remembers what

the symptoms might be.


For reasons she cannot fathom, she has been thinking with sharp persistence

about the months before and after she met Jonathan, that time when

she could have reliably bedded a new man every week, sometimes two, and

often did. Back then, she would not have hesitated to call it fucking

around; now the term seems crude. She is a mother, after all, and a good

and responsible one.


Jonathan at first seemed just another of those men, less handsome than most,

but from the beginning she treated him differently. Even as she dated and

bedded others, she would not immediately give herself to him, give him what

her mother called "the physical privilege." No privilege--just sex, delightful

exercise. But with Jonathan--
She felt differently about Jonathan, not strongly attracted sexually, yet not

uninterested; he moved her in different ways.


In those weeks before she finally allowed him to persuade her, she gave

herself to other men and behaved with them in ways that she would not with

Jonathan, and has not since. She has never tried to explain that to herself and

in fact has seldom thought about it, but this evening, the question comes out

of the murk with a disturbing rough edge.
She remembers now that she had twenty men in all--eight of them after

she began dating Jonathan, sometimes inviting a man over hours after Jonathan

had left. Why twenty, she wonders; it seems so rounded and artificial a number,

so meaningless, nothing to do with actual people, with arms and legs and cocks

and pretty eyes and thrusting hips.
124

GREG BEAR


turn down the quiet good and intelligent man and then bed the loud, self-assured

and brightly plumed boys.

It was the last, the monster, that broke her and sent her straight to Jonathan.

He was what she needed.

The frame house creaks softly as the last of the wind fetches up against its

eaves.


Jonathan to her seemed honorable and decent and therefore much less of a

challenge. Getting the posturing boy-men to pay attention to her was a real

accomplishment. "Bitch thinking," she murmurs. He knows little or nothing

about the men who had her but were not hers, knows only about the last, and

she will never tell him; he is not the sort who would react well. She would

not want him to be that sort.

Though he has tried to get her to engage in fantasizing about other relationships,

she has resisted; there is something about such demands that lessens

him, in her eyes. He's changed. Sex, for this older Jonathan, seems to be some

sort of adventure, some way of making up for a stiff youth; she has long since

discarded that notion.

Yet she and Jonathan get along well enough in bed, she believes. She feels

his occasional dissatisfactions, his attempts to change their sexual routines; she

resists with a tree-like stubbornness, hoping to keep their relationship on a

firm and level ground, away from the jagged mountains of her early behavior.

She will not go back to the out-of-control passion, the pain, the loss of self

through giving all and getting nothing she needs in return.

She knows little about Jonathan's other sexual experiences. A few things he

has admitted to--unsatisfactory, half-hearted couplings with confused young

w-men--things Chloe scrupulously dismisses as inconsequential, and indeed I are.

The present moment is supreme. Family is what counts.

Yet increasingly she has felt Jonathan's entreaties turn bitter. He does not know why she resists; she doesn't either, not really. He has asked for things,

after all, that she once freely gave to others. Perhaps he senses that. He's not

stupid.


And his requests are not extreme--no marriage counselor would call them

extreme, or do more than offer mealy-mouthed placating defenses for Chloe's

reluctance to go along. It is after all a game for two, and the rules have to be

agreed to by both partners.

They have been together for twenty years and who can expect the experimenting

and exploration to stretch on forever?

It has now come to what he calls stiffness.

She gives herself often enough, she thinks, and with sufficient response; he

,-is not a bad lover and he knows it. But the strain is showing.

Then the question rubs with a sandpapery grit. Does she still feel anything for Jonathan except the need for continuity, for stability and level ground, for


/ SLANT 125
"Shit, shit, shit," she mutters. What she did when she was eighteen is a

ghostly irrelevance, numbers and bleached memories and even many of the

names lost; what she gives or does not give to her husband is her own business.

They have their children and their lives, their social connections and many

friends... That is more than enough.

She opens the rear glass door and stands on the porch. A few drops of rain

splash on her face. She wipes them away with well-manicured fingers. Jonathan

does his share. But feeling any kind of guilt angers her. She has given the

children her free hours and thoughts and her passion; they are strong and they

are good children. The time is coming soon when they will be adults. Penelope

is dating sporadically and Hiram is hiding his interests well enough.

Chloe hates the thought of life demanding more of her than she has already

given. She has given up the tradition of her family, disappointing her father;

she has not used her education.

Suddenly, in the cooling breeze, she jerks upright and grips the railing. The

tears flow freely and she hates, herself, him, all the demanding forces. What

she fears is that she is coming to believe any sex at all diminishes her. She does

it for Jonathan, not for herself. She has no strong needs, none at all.

Jonathan will be home any minute and she does not want to show this side

to him. He has become an adversary; she loves him but gave him so many

parts of herself and her life that she feels she could have done other and better

things with; and then she thinks of the children and really the obligations and

losses haunt her, make her feel a little sick. What could she have been, given

complete freedom from all the sandpaper demands of sex, including children?

She goes back into the house and swings the door hard but it catches and

closes with a soft snick. She would prefer to have slammed it. The lights switch

on in the living room. "Lights off." she shouts. The house is controlling her;

she cannot break free from anything.

The lights obediently dim and go out.

She is bound on every side in the darkness.

The front door opens. Jonathan is home. Her muscles tense and she composes

herself. He must not see her this way; he does not deserve that satisfaction.

She hears him in the front hall, and then he stops, and she imagines him

listening to the house, like a cat trying to locate a mouse. He wants to know

where she is. He wants to know if she is asleep or awake, and if she is awake

perhaps he will try to hug her and touch her, arouse her. He seems to need to

believe that being away for a few days or even a few hours increases her need

for him. It is not so. She could go for months, years, forever.

"Hello?" he calls softly.

"In here," she says. "How was the meeting?"

Jonathan walks into the living room. He looks drained. "Weird," he says.

"Why is it dark?"

He stands a few feet away, arms folded. For a moment she is relieved that
126

GREG BEAR

"I've been watching the storm," she says.
"Kids asleep?"
"Yeah. The toilet says we're sick."

He laughs. He sounds nervous.

"Was the speaker interesting?"
"I suppose. Marcus was the really interesting speaker tonight." Then he
remembers he is not supposed to tell Chloe. "Christ, I'm tired. Ready for bed?"

"Marcus the kingmaker?"

"The same," he says.

"What's he offering now?"


"Nothing worth the bother," Jonathan replies, but the words sound false,
or at least unsure.
He is hiding something. Everything she has thought and felt this evening
seems to double back like a cobra and she is suddenly afraid. What if she has

denied too much, been too inflexible? She is vulnerable; she does not and cannot

stand alone.
"I've never understood the whole mentor thing," she says.
"Neither have I, but there it is."
She steps across the metabolic carpet. Her feet are bare and her toes in the
warm plush feel nice, distinct. All the parts of her body feel separate and

distinct. She does not like it, but her insecurity is working on her. She does

not want to lose Jonathan, this situation, all she's worked for. It's nonsense to

think anything has happened, but everything she feels seems nonsensical.


He's watching her in the dark. To him, she's just an outline. Now comes
the irrational response, the warming of her separate body parts. The carpet

feels like animal fur. She sees herself running her hands over a horse's flanks.

eme is going to be distant and quiet and withhold something, then she will
onstrate to him after a long while what she has, what she can do. It's
allowed, she thinks. And he wants it. This evening she will make the offer.

And forget all the contradictory voices: this is a simple courtesy in a long-term

relationship.
"Too tired?" she asks.
"What?"
She is close enough that she can see his eyes. Without a clue. Vulnerable as
a little boy. She unzips her top and lifts it free and peels it from her arms. She

still has good breasts; he likes her breasts, nuzzles them frequently, but as a

result of the matron conditioning, they have matured past their younger purpose

to become instrumsnts of nurture, and are not as sensitive as they once

were. She can no longer have an orgasm simply by rubbing her breasts. She

could have reversed this but has not.


Now, they feel more sensitive than they have in years.
The hair between her legs must feel rough, like the hair of a horse's tail.
She wonders if he will notice.
/

SLANT 127

Jonathan stares at her, at a loss. "Honey," he says.
"Now that you're away from the power-hungry, let's see how hungry you

are," she says.


She steps out of her pants and underwear and stands before him in the dark.
"Lights up half," she tells the house. The lights rise to a golden dimness.

"I want you to fuck me," she says.

The words stun. He does not move.

"Forget everything else. Fuck me."


She wants to lie back on the carpet and feel it warm and moving beneath

her like the hair on the back of a horse.


Jonathan, with Chloe's help, removes his clothes quickly, the sleeves catching

on his wrists, the pants tangling, and he stumbles they are working so

fast. Her lips and teeth and tongue are on his mouth, bruising him and stopping

any words, and she is murmuring around their touching tongues. "Give

it to me. Do it. I need your cock." She has never asked him in this way before,

using these ancient words, so bluntly and powerfully, like a bad Yox.


Despite his confusion, he responds instantly. She grips with painfully strong

fingers.
She is going to show him. If he wants this, let him be dismayed and shocked

to get what he wants all at once, instead of in little rationed parcels. See what

he thinks. She wraps herself around him, pushes him roughly against the horsehair

matting between her legs. Her body is proving her value.
Jonathan's doubts die and he grabs her as if he has never had her before and

there have only been days or hours together for them and no children and no

other responsibilities have come between. She gracefully reclines to the carpet

and pulls her knees back like one of those Celtic stones they saw on vacation

in Ireland, the rude pagan statue with its knees drawn up mounted in a fence

on a horse irm, a Sheila something; she is a Sheila inviting him.


(Jonathan had stared at the Sheila with a silly boyish look of speculating

embarrassment. How could such a statue still exist in Catholic Ireland?)


He does not stop to stare but is over her and then inside her. She listens to

his urgency and wonders if all men feel alike if the eyes are closed; she thinks

they may. He does not feel differently from the brightly plumed boys in her

bingeing time. He moves quickly and with real strength and need that he has

not shown for months and she knows it is true, that he told her the truth, that

he had other keys she could use if she simply willed it. It is disgraceful really

that he is so easy; men are so easy this way. No challenge at all.
Her own pleasure is not intense. The sensation of his weight and motion

fluctuates between strangeness and complete familiarity and she is not sure

which is going to triumph. She hopes the strangeness; no, the familiarity, the

other would degrade, and finally she does not care.


But when she pushes him back and turns over and lifts herself and pulls

him back into her and thinks of the horses on the farm, of the bright-plumed


128

GREG BEAR

boys with self-assured smiles and no brains, in this shamelessness her reaction

is intense. The pleasure rankles. How dare he. She grits her teeth and humps

back against him.
Jonathan feels as if his insides have been flooded with warm wax, an

overwhelming surge of joy and affirmation. His was not a useless desire;

she has finally felt it too and she loves him and needs him as no other. He

is the best. Suddenly the evening with Marcus seems even more ridiculous.

All is right here at home; she is confirming him, she needs him desperately,

she is giving him all he could ever want, all he could ask for has

asked for, he can go back to Marcus and refuse the nonsense and the mystery,

home is his center and always has been, all that he needs is here because

Chloe is here.
In the middle of his simple and extraordinary lust his eyes are moist with

a tenderness that he wishes she could see.


As he is nearing his limit, as large in her as she has ever felt him, even

when they were making the children and that extra fillip of biological meaning


increased their intensity, Chloe feels something break.
It sounds like a lightbulb exploding.
He is weighing her down. Her head is filled with slicing blades, the cruel

corroded edges whirling and blasting and reducing.


Jonathan comes as she begins whimpering and moaning. She is limp on the

floor beneath him, quivering, and he cannot tell whether she is having an

orgasm or is crying. Then with an awful sense of having gone too far, he realizes

she is crying. She has given too much and she is weeping like a child. Chloe

reaches back with her hands sharp tike claws to push him off. He rolls to one

side as she jerks about on the rug. This is his wife, not some fantasy woman;


has done something horribly wrong.


She stops writhing and lies with her breath drawn in in one horrible unrelenting

sob.
He reaches out to her, and with his other hand grabs his underpants to

cover himself.
The sob rushes out as a tearing shriek. Jonathan jumps as if stung by a

wasp, then tries to quiet her; Penelope and Hiram will hear and find them

naked. He tries to hug her, angling his hips away to avoid that connotation;

all he wants now is for her to stop this,she is frightening him to

death.
Her thrashing stops; she is hyperventilating like a pinned rabbit.

"Chloe," he says. "Chloe, I'm sorry. What's wrong?"

"Broken," she says.

"What's broken?"

"I hurt."
"My God, what did I do?"
She trembles and tries to get up, but her arm muscles fail her. Jonathan
/

SLANT 129

"I don't know whether I'm doing this deliberately... Am I faking? Jonathan,

what's wrong with me?"


Jonathan shakes his head, crying. "I don't know, honey. You tell me." He

continues to hold her but leans back and almost falls over, then fumbles with

one hand through his clothes for his pad. He pushes the emergency aid button

and lets the pad do the rest.


Penelope and Hiram stand in the entry, sleepy-eyed and dismayed.
"Your mother's sick," he says. He stands with the pad in one hand and his
pants clutched before him with the other. "I'm calling the medicals."

Chloe shuts her eyes tight. "I can't get away from it," she says.


"What is it?" Jonathan asks again, kneeling beside her. He supports her
torso between his legs and her head lolls back. She is sweating profusely.

"Me! I can't get away from me," she says.


Penelope comes back from the bathroom with washcloths. Even at fifteen,

she is cool and more collected for now than Jonathan or Hiram. She begins to


sponge her mother, making small comforting sounds.
"The toilet," Chloe says. "Maybe it knows."
"Shhh, Mother," Penelope says, her young voice smooth as pudding. And

the neighborhood medical arbeiters are through the front door and in the living

room. They clamp Chloe immediately in several diagnostic belts that writhe

like tentacles. There is nothing Jonathan can do but get dressed. He pulis on

his pants.
Hiram seems stunned, as if waking to another and nastier dream.
When the ambulance arrives, minutes later, Jonathan is dressed; Penelope

has managed to get her mother's slacks on, somehow, working around the

arbeiters and their many arms and tubes.
The orderly, a black woman with close-cropped reddish hair, tells Jonathan

the arbeiters have already put his wife on fast-acting anxiolytics. They can find

nothing physically wrong with her, she explains. "She may be having a drug

reaction--accelerants, maybe."


"She wasn't taking drugs," Penelope says angrily, defending her mother's

character, standing to one side now with her arms tightly crossed.


"No drugs," Jonathan confirms, but thinks of her seductive aggressiveness.

"Well, we aren't getting traces," the woman admits as they lift Chloe and

put her on a stretcher. The arbeiters dance and tag along as they carry the

stretcher outside. "Hospital is best. They'll figure it out."


"Penelope, you're in charge here," Jonathan says over his shoulder.
"As soon as you know, call us," Penelope demands. Her face looks as pale

and fragile as bone china.


"You're family," the orderly says, handing her end of the stretcher to a

uniformed male. "Here's your mother's emergency response number; you can

track her to the hospital with your personal code on the ribes."
Chloe opens her eyes as rain tickles her face. Jonathan is beside her; he will
130

GREG BEAR

"My God," Chloe says. "I'd forgotten. Now it's back."
"What's back?" Jonathan asks. He scrambles into the rear of the vehicle,

bumping into a male orderly, who grins but takes no offense and makes room

for him on a bench seat.
"Black horse," Chloe says. "Black horse with sick eyes."
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You can never put your nose to the same spot on the same grindstone.
And there is no change but that it grinds. My grandfather knew this. He

thrived on change. For him it meant challenge, and challenge meant power.

--Theresa Gates, My Grandfather's World

At three in the morning, Jill surfaces and responds to the backlog of external

requests and commands. She ignores the commands where conditions no longer

apply, answers the requests where they make sense, and immediately contacts

Nathan Rashid, who, she sees, is waiting anxiously in the programmer's work

center.


"Hello, Nathan. I'm sorry," she says.
Nathan appears tired and very concerned. "For Christ's sake, Jill, you've

been dead I/O for almost twelve hours. We know you were internally active--what

happened?"
"I am giving a complete report to the system auditors now. I have been

absorbed in an internal problem of some complexity, but I believe I have made

sufficient progress to supply useful answers or updates."
Nathan sits in a swivel chair and leans forward, bringing his face very

close to one of Jill's many glass-almond eyes. "Jill, you keep giving me heart

attacks... Are you back all the way, or are you going to brown out on us?"
"I'm back all the way. I have faced personal quandaries, Nathan. As well, I

believe I have caught up on the work I was contracted to perform."


"All right," Nathan says. He lets his breath out with a puff, then leans

back in the chair and raises his arms and clasps his hands behind his head.

Jill recognizes the posture as a ritual for releasing tension. "What happened?''
"I have been in communication with an unlicensed and probably extralegal

thinker operating, at least in part, out of Camden, New Jersey. This thinker


calls itself Roddy."
"Go on."
"I am concerned that some of Roddy's activities may be unethical, though

I have not analyzed all the daka he provided. Roddy himself does not know

the identity or purpose of the group that supplies him with problems."
"How did he get in touch with you?"
134

GREG BEAR


Nathan thinks about this for a moment, then asks, "You're certain Roddy

isn't a hoax? People can mimic thinkers."

"Not convincingly," Jill says. "A reverse Turing test does not work, Nathan.

Not for me."

Nathan lifts his eyes, shrugs. "Okay, granted. What sort of information has

he fed you?"

"He has given me fragmentary clues to his activities, perhaps because he is

constrained from giving all the details."

"Camden, New Jersey..." Nathan muses. "I've never heard of anyone

building thinkers there... Is he operated by a U.S. corporation?"

"He does not know. He is only vaguely aware of what the United States is,

and has never been informed of his legal protections."

This interests Nathan. His eyes brighten. "Can you tell how powerful

he is?"


"There is a savor to his communications that is not familiar to me. He may

be of a radically different design. Under the constraints of his creators, he is

much slower than I am, overall, though more intensely focused, and perhaps

more powerful. However, he appears to be more efficient at solving certain

problems than I would be."

"What kind of problems is he solving?"

"Social as well as theoretical problems. Judging from the data in its fragmentary

form, his bosses--that is a word he uses--are trying to understand

the long-term effects of therapied populations on cultural development."

"Hmmph. You're fast enough at that sort of thing."

"Roddy has also been asked to examine long-term results of pharmaceutical,

ychological, and other constraints placed upon free networking within hu-an

populations."

"As in, the effects of birth control?"

"I believe that is correct. But there are other problems which most concern

me."


"What are those?"

"Roddy has been asked to design ways to circumvent all forms of therapy."

Nathan straightens in his chair. Clearly, he is considering his next few

questions carefully.

"How long are you going to be with us this time, Jill? I mean, is there any

possibility you'll blank us again?"

"I have no such plans and will alert you if I believe such a thing might

occur outside my control."

"Good. Why have you decided to confide in us about this communication?"

"Roddy appears to have substantial similarities to me despite the fact that

our designs and origins differ."

"You mean he's been copied from you, somehow?"

"No. He is not one of my children in any sense. He is just similar. There
/

SL4NT 135

this with you in some detail; it may or may not be a rationally defensible

proposition."


Nathan squints. "Any other reason?"
"Roddy does not appear to be constrained by the same considerations you
have built into me. He is free to perform activities outside my range."

"You think he's in a position to hurt people?"

"I don't know," Jill says.
Nathan's squint deepens into a frown. Jill has always been fascinated by

human facial expressions, and hopes someday to create her own "face," an

analogous visual communication channel, perhaps a display of flashing colors,

or an actual simulated face. Nathan and her other human colleagues have not

encouraged her to do so, however. "Do you think he's a secret military

thinker?"


"I don't believe he has any connection with recognized governmental agencies

or institutions. But nevertheless, Roddy may be studying ways to disrupt

society. I'd like to know who his creators are."
"So would I," Nathan says, "and I'm sure so would a lot of other people."

"Shall I continue my contacts with this thinker?"


Nathan mulls this over for what seems like an age to Jill. He finally asks,
"You've set up a firewall? He can't corrupt you?"
"I have, and he can't."
"Keep up the contacts, then. Jill, I trust you more than I trust most humans.

I trust your judgment."


"Thank you, Nathan."
"But there are a lot of questions and I don't think I can handle some of
these questions by myself. May I bring in some other people to advise us?"

"Yes. I will cooperate."


"Will Roddy resent your telling us?"

"He will not know for the time being."

"All right," Nathan says.
Nathan leaves the room. Other men and women enter, technicians and

programmers, all of them friends, but some of whom she hasn't seen in years.

They start asking her technical questions about her unresponsive period, and

she assigns a partial self to answer theSn. She focuses her main attention frames

on re-analyzing the information sent by Roddy.
For now, the link is silent. She wonders when Roddy will communicate

with her again, and she wonders if she can teach him anything that will ease

his ethical dilemma. For Roddy seems capable of developing a sense of rigorous

ethics, perhaps sooner with her help.


Jill finds the problem of Roddy very stimulating. She finds herself experiencing

a focused need: she is anxious to hear from him again.


136

GREG BEAR

We can define a culture by what it sees and what it doesn't see. There

is no culture on Earth (or off, I presume) that sees sex clearly.

Kiss of X, Alive Contains a Lie

2

It seems the middle of the night, but dawn is visible through Mary Choy's



bedroom window. She gets up and tries to remember the important thing she

had just realized. She traces her actions of the night before, checks her PD pad

to find a five A.M. rebuff from Citizen Oversight--the agency has rejected her

request to know who was in the limo. Full court orders for discovery can't be

obtained for another twenty-four hours, pending coroner prelims on Terence

Crest; but she may be a jump ahead of all that.


She remembers where she saw the woman in Crest's apt. She had once

watched a sex vid with her then-partner, E. Hassida, in Los Angeles. Not a

bad one, either. The woman in the apt had starred in that vid.
Mary is up and getting dressed in seconds. She places a touch to Nussbaum's

pad, hoping he hasn't set it to wake him on reception, but knowing all the

same he probably has a filter that will wake him if she calls.
She does not remember the woman's name. She sets a parallel search in the

o
ad, billed to herself for the moment; there's nothing in the case budget yet

r research costs.

"Search for what item of information?" the library mouse asks her, blinking

behind very large glasses.
"I need the name of a woman, star of pornographic--I mean sex care and

entertainment vids made in the mid to late forties. Dark brown hair, and she

has a specialty role.., young innocent introduced to new pleasures, especially

multiple couplings, by mature male..."


"Tsk, tsk," the mouse says, shaking its head. "There are three hundred hits

on your description so far. List?"


Mary scowls. "Let me see if I can remember her first name..." Her memory

is infuriatingly obtuse at this hour. "April or Alicia..."


"No matches there. However.. "The mouse holds up three fingers. "I

have three Alices on the list. Display?"


"Display," she says, holding the pad before her as she walks into the kitchen.

She wears her full PD investigator gear, uniform less military and obvious than

in LA, but still impressive, blue-gray fabric with high integral boots and

reception attachments. If she's going into a full investigation, she wants to be

/ SLANT 137

"Alice Frank," Mary reads, "Alice Grale, Alice Luxor. Grale. Alice Grale.

That's it, I think."
She needs to find out where Alice Grale lives. With her resources and PD

connects, she believes that will take her about ten minutes. But she has the

woman's current address in seven.
In the meantime, she looks over what her searches have found out about

Terence Crest. Age 51, married (wife's name Arborita nee Charbonneaux) and

with two children; homes in Seattle (2), Los Angeles, Paris, Frankfurt, Singapore;

frequent contributor to charities, main partner in two worldwide production

companies and one world distribution syndicate; worth approximately

four billion dollars.


Not the sort of man to casually jeopardize his name by investing in an illegal

psynthe operation. Perhaps not the sort of man to keep track of all of his investments,

either. But then, not the sort of man to need to resort to call-ins.
She sits in her small dining nook, laying the pad on the small round table.

The line between her smooth, fine-haired brows deepens. None of it makes

sense.

The real power players hope we--the consumers of Yox and vid--will



believe their fictional counterparts, the cold and invincible ciphers we

adopt as role models, for they impart an air of godly invincibility. The financier

and the CMO know they must be Olympian, speak in riddles; they must

not show the weaknesses that flesh is heir to. If we do not challenge them, they

are infallible.

Forty percent of this nation's GNP is spent on Entertainment. Financiers and CMOs

in Entertainment have been buying and selling elected officials for many decades, up

to and including the President. They are not infallible; like the rest of us, they are posturing

children, but they wield a frightening power. They tell us what we should dream.

Kiss of X, Alive Contains a Lie

3

Alice has been dreaming such sweet night stories she does not want to wake.



She is back in California when she was twenty, packing up her bag of night

necessities to room over with Philip, whose strong small body seems beyond

perfection to her; and she is re-living the sheerness, the tro shink delight, of

waking up beside him and having him hand her a cup of coffee and peer


138 GRE6 BEAR ,
for a moment. She swims in old realities and does not care how or why; this

simply is.

She's gardening in the yard behind Gerald McGeenee's house, where she

lived when she was twenty-one with two other women and three men.

She has begun riding the wave, reaching for her highest point of fame.

It is something in the long-legged, youthful roundness of her body and flawless

skin and the natural freshness of her face, with its half-puzzled, half-enthusiastic

expression molded in like the smile on a dolphin; she is hot in

vids and even in the Yox, where so much can be reshaped that real beauty and

talent are hardly necessary. But she even has that freshness and expressiveness

in her backmind.

She hooks with two men and three other women one evening in that house,

the primal pulses of their minds open to all, spontaneous youthful lust mixed

over the ribes with her infatuation for Gerald, who seems to want her to do

everything and anything and she willingly does so just to get his brief exclamation

of approval...

There is only a grayness on the edge of her senses, the taint of memory that

Gerald turned out to be a monster, deceptive and even violent when he was

disappointed. When she needed help. When she would no longer play all of

his games. She had not been sorry years later to learn that he had been hell-crowned

by Selectors in Pasadena and had left California, gone to Spain or

Ireland, broken... Just on the edge of her memory... Easy to ignore.

She swims with the currents of momentary joy, so important in her life:

Larry Keilla in upstate New York, a brash but decent man twice her age

who gives her peace and love and support during the worst phase of her success,

4hen she is under a five-year contract with Bussy Packer and Gap Vid and

ilm.

Then she falls for the Great White Shark himself, Moss Calkins, whom



Larry had introduced to her in a restaurant in Connecticut. Calkins got her

out of the Gap Films contract by having Packer subpoenaed by the U.S. Sentte...


It only glimmers on the sidelines of her musing about Keilla's small, immaculate

Colonial house with the white porch overlooking natural growth

woods... Just on the aberrated fringe of the quiet and peace and sunshine of

a spring day, she remembers Keilla's quiet look of grief when she tells him

she is moving out to live with Calkins.

What else can she do? She--

Makes vids that are absolute ordeals, makes other vids where everything

seems to go smoothly and even sweetly, with real shoot friendships that last

the entire three weeks of primary production... Alice does not mind. She is

resilient and beautiful and young and people give her a respectful, curious look

when she is introduced to them, even the women, that wistful envious glance.

She slit, s in and out of the homes of many of the most famous artists and


/

SLANT 139


hers so many of the fine beds and the grand food and wine, the excellent plugs

and spinal induction hooks and the most exclusive partnerings, ecstasy upon

youthful ecstasy, until it all seems of an elevated but level plain, an Olympian

smoothness with hardly any effort (or the effort forgotten once she is back on

the plain) for year after year. Why plan for the emotional down? All doubts

and pains and misgivings can be remedied by therapy; all wear and tear, all

mistakes, can be smoothed by a visit to the compassionate experts who painlessly

balance and re-tread the worn soul, all expenses paid by her vid company

or lover of the moment. It has been quite a sly spin, and it lasted all of seven

years, giving her sufficient momentary joys to fill a long quiet early morning

with muzzy splendor.

Twist is still asleep on the couch; yellow morning glow is visible through

the half-closed shutters; there is no need to get up this early, they have no

appointments. Alice is enjoying the lassitude until she catches up with last

night, and the fringes and edges close in and turn the bright living hearts

of her memories gray and she becomes fully aware who and when and where

she is.

She squeezes her eyelids together tight and tries to bring back the savor.



She wonders if it is time for her to go back for a refresher on her thymic

balances.

After what happened last night, Lisa owes her a few therapy visits.

Twist mumbles and tosses on the couch.

"You awake?" Alice asks.

"Yeah, unfortunately. Just like when I was a kid."

"Good dreams?"

"Sometimes. When I wake up, I'm normal for a couple of minutes. I feel

strong. Then it all comes back. Jesus, Alice, thanks for having me over, but I

must be darking your day."

"I need company, too," Alice says.

"I'm terrible company." Twist sits up and rubs her temples and forehead.

"What have I ever done to deserve this?" she asks.

"We're just more vulnerable," Alice says.

Twist grins sardonically. "You mean, because we spread our legs to so many,

so often?"

Alice makes a face and gets up, tying her robe.

Twist follows her into the kitchen. "Got any hyper-caff?"

Alice shakes her head. "Hell no. Who you been hanging with?"

"David does it occasionally."

"Yeah. The David. He would need it."

"Don't ex him," Twist says, frowning. "He puts up with a lot from me."

"Was he happy with Cassis, last night?"

"Yeah, probably," Twist answers, eyes unfocused.

"Regular coffee enough?"
140

GREG BEAR

them and stretches out her arms, shaking the hands and wriggling her fingers.

"I've been racing the ribes on this sort of thing, all the news and views. How


sex lies at the core of our personalities, our take on things."
"Why Twist... how introspective."
Twist sticks out her tongue. "Dont ex me, either, Alice."
"No ex intended."
"I've been swimming through strategies for surviving the sexual life. How
we try to fit in without following the rules."
"We don't fit in," Alice says, watching the coffee pour hot and brown from
its spigot. She pulls a cup for Twist and hands it to her.
"Just what I mean," Twist says. "I've never had a consistent strategy. Have
you?"
"I never thought I needed one. Men come to us."
"Yeah, but for what?" Suddenly Twist seems to collapse. She barely puts
her cup on the edge of the table before she flops like a rag doll. Tears stream
down her face. "Alice! My God, Alice."
Alice kneels beside her and holds her hand. Twist is shaking. "I am so sick
of myself, it scares me. I can't feel anything without it turning brown and

dark, like shit. I'm just hanging on. All I can think about is how miserable I

am."
"I'm getting you in for therapy," Alice vows. "I need to pull some strings,
and the hell with whatever other arrangements the David has made. You're in
bad shape, girl."
Twist pulls herself together enough to say, "It was supposed to be different.
Pretty young women standing by the wall, waiting for the nice young men to

ome by--"


"Bullshit," Alice says.
"So many women make themselves pretty now, so much competition, take
off the pudge and straighten the hair and fix up the skin, so many smooth,

clear-skinned women--"


Alice isn't sure where this is going, but she doesn't like it. "There are some
things the geniuses can't touch."
"What? Our souls? They do that, too." Twist sits up, takes a deep breath,
then leans forward and puts her head neatly on the table, right on her ear,

without using her hands as pillows. She looks so stretched and distant that


Alice feels a sudden prick of fear. Am I falling into a hole as deep as this?
"I don't like my soul," Twist says. "It's brown like shit."
Alice's home monitor announces a touch. Alice watches Twist for a moment.
Twist sits up and lifts her cup. She slugs it back quickly, stares levelly at Alice,
and says, "Maybe it's a job."
"I doubt it," Alice says, but tells the home monitor, "Okay, put it over my
pad." She does not like taking calls in the open when she has visitors.
The touch is still fresh and the caller has waited patiently. Alice unfolds
/

SLANT 141

the pad and stares with a curling shiver of disorientation at a face she never

expected to see again.


"Is this Alice Grale?" the woman asks. "The vid star?" It's the officer she

passed outside the elevator on her call-in, the tall, strong-looking woman with


shining mahogany skin.
"Yes," Alice says.
"We met last night under unusual circumstances. My name is--"

Another touch, this one an emergency, makes Alice lose the woman's name.

A key sign in the upper corner of Alice's pad tells her the second touch is from

Lisa at the temp agency.


"--and I hoped you'd be able to answer some questions for Seattle PD."
Alice does not react quickly, so much coming in so fast. "Could you hold

on a moment, please? I--need to--I'll be right back with you."


She puts the officer on hold and answers Lisa's touch. Lisa looks frantic.

Within the pad's frame, her face is bobbing all around, and her skin is livid

behind overly red lips and hastily applied eye enhancements. Lisa should never

get mad. She looks so old.


But Lisa is not just mad, she's scared.
"Jesus, Alice, what happened? Our payment for last night has been canceled

and I've had touches from Citizen Oversight. Your date is dead! What in the

hell happened?"
"Nothing," Alice says, tring to stay calm. She moves farther from the

kitchen to avoid having Twist hear. "I did my job. It was not pleasant, Lisa,

I'll tell you that--"
The information sinks in and Alice stalls. Then she murmurs, "Dead?"
"PD released the details two hours ago. The whole apt is tombed and rumors

are wild."


"Who was he, Lisa?"
"His name was Terence Crest."
The name means nothing to Alice.
"Did he do anything to you?" Lisa asks, fishing for information she can use

perhaps in her own defense, the agency's defense. "I mean, to make you--"


"He was alive, he was alive when I left him," Alice says, her voice a little

screechy. "You arranged it, and he was very weird, and I hope God you never

put me through anything like that again!"
"He was a very rich and important man, Alice, and they're not ruling out

murder. The whole agency is on my back."


"I don't even know what he looked like. His face was this awful blank--"

"We can only go so far in this, Alice."


"My God, Lisa," Alice says, "you set it up and you persuaded me/I did not

kill the man!"


Lisa gives her a look of utter professional disdain. "We'll just have to see

how it works out, honey," Lisa says tonelessly. "You should keep your head


142

GREG BEAR

down and get an advocate. I can't assign an agency advocate--not directly. If

the ribes get word you're involved... And take a look at your account, Honey.


His estate pulled the payment. We have a big zero for our pains."
The touch ends abruptly.
Alice stands in the living room, staring at the gently glowing blank screen,

too stunned to think. The PD officer is still on hold. Alice puts the pad down

on the living room table, turns as if to go talk to Twist, see how she's doing,

then stops. She picks up the pad again.


"Sorry to keep you waiting," she says to the officer. "I had a call-in last
night and we met on my way out. What more can I say?"
"Did you know your client?"
"I don't do call-ins.., as a rule. My agency vetted him. He didn't want me

to know who he was."


"You've never done this sort of thing for him, you've never met him before?"

"Never. As I said, I don't do call-ins."


"His name was Terence Crest. A billionaire, quite well known around town.

Did you know him before your call-in?"


"I already said no," Alice says. "He asked for me in particular. I don't know
anything about him. And I don't know your name. I didn't catch your name."

"Seattle PD Fourth Rank Mary Choy."


"Yes, well, if I'm a suspect, I need an advocate before I say any more."

"We do know that Crest kept a vid record. You're probably in the record."

"Oh, of course," Alice says angrily, dismayed, her face flushing.
"And so are we, I suspect--the PD, the medicals. We're getting permission

from Citizen Oversight and his estate advocates to play back the vid and


Q
stablish the sequence of events. I understand your position, Alice, but if you're

innocent, you'll be cleared."


"Maybe you live on a different planet, Mary Choy. I'm not even going to
get paid for last night if his advocates have their way."
"I understand."
The hell you do. You look very together, Mary Choy.
"I'd like to meet with you," the officer says, "with your advocate present--just

to tie up this loose end. Actually, I'm not very concerned with this case,

if it's a suicide, as it appears to be. But it's going to be high-profile, especially

in the financial news, and I'd like to keep my department on firm footing. And

Alice... I hope your agency doesn't cut you loose."
Alice swallows. A tough bitch, trying to act j3'iendly Still, it's best to leave one's
options open. "Give me your sig and I'll get back to you after I think things over."

"Of course."


Mary Choy smiles at her. Alice cuts the touch.
Twist comes in from the kitchen, scrubbing her face with a washrag. Alice

stands utterly still on the metabolic carpet, shoulders drooped, head low, face


/ SLANT 143

Alice jerks, straightens, trying to get back into being the together gal in

this gloomy duet. It's no good. She shakes her head.
"Yeah, well I know what we need," Twist says. "A really tro spin party.

We should be able to chase up one of those, right?"


Alice nods. She needs to think long and steady, bring up her defenses against

this threat. She had it so good for so long that this is almost just; this is real

life in action, balancing the books. "When it pains, it roars," she says. "But I

told you I'd get you in for therapy."


"I'm better. Coffee seems to help. Isn't that strange?" Twist, whatever her

weirdnesses, has always been very empathic. She understands others and their

situations; she just doesn't have a clear view of her own self. "We'll get out

tonight, all right? I'll find the party."


Alice gives her a too-much look and Twist lifts her small, thin fingers. "A

sly spin romp, not a heavy lapper," she says. "Dignity, toujours dignity. Did

you know Gene Kelly was a nineties person?"
"He died in the nineties," Alice says. "He was a forties and fifties person."
Twist accepts this with a thin smile. "You ever make it with him, character

sim?"
"Not authorized," Alice says.


"Me either. I'd like to stay with you here for a while, though, if that's all

right, if you're not in a rough about it."


"You're welcome to. I need the company."
"You're a true friend," Twist says. "That's rare in our crowd, you know?"

She gathers up her nightbag and scattered clothes and goes into the bathroom

to dress.
Alice drops her smile as soon as Twist leaves the room. She touches her

stomach through the robe, rubs it lightly. Sperm will remain active for several

days.
She carries the last living parrs of a dead man.

The consulting room is pale green and yellow, meant to be soothing but

Jonathan finds it like the bottom of a shallow sea, watery and neutral. The

doctor is polite, a small woman with bobbed white hair and a direct, no-frills

manner; this at least he finds reassuring.
"Did you know your wife had substantial therapy for amygdalic disorders

when she was twenty?" the doctor asks. She holds ut her nad fair


144

GREG BEAR


thing about such matters. She left him with the impression she was a natural;

not a high natural, perhaps, but never therapied. But twenty--that means she

must have been therapied after they met. "She didn't tell me," he concludes.

"Yes, well, that's common enough. We're still ashamed of such things,

which is stupid." The doctor looks up and faces him squarely. "What do you

know about therapy? Have you ever had it yourself, any kind?"

"No," Jonathan says. "Not that I haven't thought about it. I mean, I don't

have any prejudices against it. Against those who have had it. I don't know

why she wouldn't have told me."

He closes his mouth firmly, hoping he doesn't seem nervous. Of course he

is nervous; Chloe is in a room down the hall, under a special plug, not quite

asleep but being kept in an artificial calm.

"We just received her files. What she asked for, at the time, was therapy

for impulsive-destructive behavior, what we call counter-will. She thought she

was engaging in behavior against the better judgment of her conscious persona.''

Jonathan stares at the doctor.

The doctor ports her pad into a wall display and brings up a few charts.

The jagged lines and color bars mean little to him. "She's had a major re-tracking,

something we put in they category of therapeutic fallback. All of her

therapy has failed her, and apparently the failure triggered a collapse of conscious

function. In old terms, not too far wrong, a nervous breakdown."

"What's this 'allostatic scarring'?" Jonathan points to the caption below a

jagged line on the largest graph.

"Neurons and axons can wear out like any other part of the body. It's one


e

of the most frequent reasons for therapy. Judging from your wife's condition,

I'd say she suffered axon path habituation and wear caused by cyclic impulses

and behaviors her social persona did not feel comfortable with."

Jonathan nods, but he only partly understands.

"Her original therapists rerouted the habitual pathway impulses for several

important personality functions, to avoid the areas damaged by allostatic load.

That requires a maintenance implant, therapeutic monitors, usually microscopic,

to make sure the impulses don't revert. It's a routine procedure, and

the monitors can last years--usually do. In your wife's case, she had an upgrade

performed four years ago. But somehow, the newer monitors have shut down.

Something triggered a stress . . . And her mind reverted to the damaged neural

pathways, bringing back the old thymic imbalances. All at once. It must have

been horribly painful."

Jonathan's eyes fill with tears. "We were making love," he says quietly.

The doctor seems to find this unexceptionable.

"Chloe was acting very sexy. She used . . . language . . . I thought she was

really turned on. But she was just breaking down, wasn't she?"

"I'm sorry," the doctor says. "I don't think it's possible to know. Maybe
/

SLANT 145

"How could I?" Jonathan says. "Was it my fault?"
"I don't see how it could be," the doctor says. "Unless you had been badgering

her to engage in behavior she found offensive."


Jonathan tries to absorb this for a few seconds. His face flushes. "She has

been.., stiff, less interested in me. I try to change that. Make myself...

better. For her. Suggestions. But I did not," he swallows, "badger her."
The doctor is silent, offering no reassurances. Jonathan realizes he has given

the doctor a possible explanation for what triggered his wife's fallback, kVhat

if he is misremembering his own behavior to protect a guilty conscience?
The doctor looks down and shrugs. "I can't judge a domestic situation,"

she says, "but you're not describing behavior that doesn't take place between

millions of couples every day, with no adverse consequences... None like

these, I mean." A troubled expression briefly flits over her calm features. "I

sense you might blame yourself whatever the final diagnosis is, and that may

not be appropriate for your own health. I can't tell you this officially, but this

hospital has been seeing a lot of fallback cases recently, covering the spectrum
of therapies . .. Often involving failure of implanted monitors."
"Fallbacks . . . You mean, the implants are defective?"
"We don't know. I offer this just to keep you from brooding yourself into

your own breakdown. If her implant had functioned properly, this would probably

have never happened."
Jonathan feels sudden acid in his throat, and his skin heats. "Something

wrong with a product, or a procedure?" This he can deal with professionally.

This he can encompass.
"XYTe really don't know. Please don't jump to conclusions."
Jonathan realizes the doctor is uncomfortable, and well she should be. She

is caught between defending her profession and perhaps her own actions, and

acknowledging what might be a major problem. He feels at once personal

relief and a kind of awed anger.


"Where can I find out more about this?" Jonathan asks.
"We're consulting her original therapist," the doctor says. "That might be

a good place to begin."

MUL TIWA Y BRANCHES

BROAD ACCESS FIBE (TEXT AND CHAT, with LIVE VID AND AVATARS): THE SPUN SUGAR

SHOW (Trish Hing, Today's MOD:)

ONE OF MANY (GENERIC AVATAR): Can anyone join this tangle?

MOD (VID FACE OF FELICIA HANG OVER TIGER BODY): Sure, why not--
146

GREG BEAR


ONE OF MANY: That doesn't matter. I'm logged blank and I prefer it that way--somebody

will try to sell me something. I just wanted to


MOD: Sure, go ahead--have your say. It's a free country.

ONE OF MANY: Well, actually, I don't think it is. I tell you what my grind is--they just want me to sit down and suck up what they do and pay money for it. They are trying to discourage all the new fibe posts and public channels, and they have so many ways of making all the little people pay, while limiting access to


MOD: What do you mean, Mr. Blank?
ONE OF MANY: I can't get anybody to come to my fibe hive and hang. I have all

this work I've done, I think it's very good stuff and so do my friends, and I can't

get any of the reviews to post it. I say the reviews are paid for by the Big Sharks

and they discourage posts by us little minnows. How can an artist make a living

when nobody swims by?
MOD: So you think you're being discriminated against by the big companies

which control all we see and hear.


ONE OF MANY: Sure. And it may even go beyond them--the government.

MOD: The government is against you?

ONE OF MANY: Sure. Everybody knows they regulate the ribes and satlinks and

they're in up to their checksums with the money power. They say it's for the

common good. I sure as hell know better.
e

MOD: So you want to make a living from posting your work on the ribes or sat-links,

but nobody squirts you any money to download or even take a taste,

hmm?
ONE OF MANY: Not enough. And I think they're actively discouraging repeats for

little guys like me.
MOD: They being the big intratainment industry folks or the government.
ONE OF MANY: Yeah. They're trying to conserve flow for the big industry posts

and links.


MOD: Well, why don't you post your address here and let's see if we can't up

your hit rate.


ONE OF MANY: Nice try, but I know the kind of audience this place gets. Everybody

would try to get me to sample their fibe hive.


MOD: Isn't that the way it works?
................. ,. ----.A A I;..;.n ;¢ I'm encnclinn my monev at other hives.
/ SLANT 147
MOD: We all have to eat, my friend. Maybe you don't understand the process.

(Now please, while we're exclusive with this fellow, don't build up your anger and

carbonize him when you get on... I can just feel your pressure building!)
ONE OF MANY: I just know it doesn't work.
MOD: So, let me try to psi your case here. You work at home--you've been out

of everything but the dole for quite a few years. You haven't advanced your education

in some time--you're afraid of going in to therapy your attitudes and get a

good working joy-buzz--and maybe your boy/girlfriend isn't as pretty as the

folks on the Yox. You'd really like to live on the Yox and you know you deserve

it. But you can't afford more than say ten hours a week of second-grade Yox,

not even the top new stuff, and the rest of the time you're alone with your unhappy

situation, and you've been hoping you could finance an upgrade by selling

your own work.
ONE OF MANY: Are you in their pay, too?
MOD: I wish, no such. But wait, I'm not done yet. I'm at the helm today; you can

apply for the post tomorrow. You have no skills off the ribes, or on, that anybody

really wants to pay for, so your last refuge is the dole. You're one of the disAffected,

my friend. Join the crowd. I really sympathize.


ONE OF MANY: Wait, this is
MOD: If you don't post your stats and address, how can we check my psi?

You're drawing a blank, and you expect rational discourse? Let us know whether

I'm right and post your stats.
ONE OF MANY: Fuck you.
MOD: Ah, more reasoned discourse. Fucking is an act of friendship and love and

trust, Mr. Blank. You must come from the old school that believes it's penetrative

domination and reducing the other to chattel slavery, hence a term of opprobrium.

But maybe I shouldn't use such big words. I bet you haven't used your

sensemaker on an unfamiliar word in ever so long. Ah, Mr. Blank has logged off.

Okay. It's open, gang. Does anybody have anything interesting to talk about?


The Sea Foam 2 sits on the ocean waters of the sound, not far from the ancient

and revered Pike Place Market. The cab drops Martin and he pays his ninety

dollars and steps out on the concrete and asphalt of the old Alaskan Way,

lovingly reconstructed from the mammoth quake of'14, with antique turtle

148

GREG BEAR



Short green trolleys clang along their brick-encased rails below the rise to the

market. Westward spreads the sound, blue-gray under scattered clouds and

dazzling curtains of sun.
The tourist crowd is light today but the line before the Sea Foam 2 is already

long. Sun glints from the clusters of huge liquid-filled bubbles rising above

the slurping waterfront. Within the bubbles, grotesque horrors of the sea live

their suspended lives, most real, a few, wonderful robots perhaps even smarter

than the creatures they are meant to depict.
"My name is Burke. I'm supposed to meet Miz Dana Carrilund," he tells

the live, real maitre d' at the front. The maitre d' knows well enough to

recognize these names from the list, and guides him under the sparkling shimmers

of the piled, sea-filled bubbles to a table by the broad side window looking

out, unobstructed, over the sound. Carrilund is waiting. Shadows pass over her

as they shake hands. Unable to restrain himself, Martin flinches and looks up:

a shark turns in its bubble, dappled like a fawn. It is swimming upside down,

he realizes. Is it supposed to do that?


"How nice to finally meet you," Carrilund says. She is severe at first appearance,

hair almost white and cut short, square-faced and solid but pleasingly

shaped. Her arms resting on the paper menu appear strong, and she asks him

if he drinks this early.


"Not often," Martin says.
"Nor I. But they have a grand cocktail here--they call it a Sea Daisy. Shall

we--just to loosen up?"


She smiles pleasantly, so he nods and murmurs, "Sure. What the hell."

Martin knows people--he prides himself on understanding their smallest


s
,uhaviors, and being able to fit those behaviors into overall impressions of

rpassing accuracy. Dana Carrilund knows humans perhaps as well as he does,

but in a different way and to different ends--not to improve their mental

health, as such, but to fit them better into larger schemes. She betrays very

few of her own needs in the process, and her behaviors are as studied as those

of an actor, though not necessarily false. Not necessarily.


Right now, Carrilund wishes Martin to believe she is impressed by him.

And not so oddly, Martin is himself impressed. Carrilund appears to be very

integrated, mentally robust, and a specimen of physical health.
The drinks are served. Flower-like tangles of half-frozen, half-gelatinized

fruit juice seep into a surround of vodka. The rim of the globular glass is caked

with microcapsules of salt, sugar, and vinegar, which dissolve unpredictably

against the tongue--and it is all served very cold.


Martin sips and finds it delicious. "I hope you don't need all my mental

faculties this morning," he says.


"If we keep ourselves to one drink, we'll do fine," Carrilund says. "What I

need now is to get a more accurate picture of Martin Burke, the man."


/ SLANT 149
"You've been through some rough times," Carrilund observes. "Quite a few

shifts in your career track."

"Open history," Martin says.

"Yes, and no," Carrilund says. "You've never been very open about your

involvement in the Goldsmith case."

"Ah." Martin smiles grimly. "How thorough are we going to be this morning?''

"Tolerably friendly and only tolerably thorough. I'm more concerned about

your part in developing the tools of effective deep therapy. You were a brilliant

pioneer. You caused upsets that derailed your career. And now--you're a quiet,

respectable professional with a narrow focus."

"So far, so true," Martin says.

"You have no intention of ever getting involved in anything that could

bring more trouble."

"Not if I can help it."

Carrilund orders her breakfast, and the waiter takes Martin's order next.

Later, he does not remember what he ordered; he feels an unease he has become

all too familiar with in his career, contemplating another stroll through a lion's

cage--a stroll he can never seem to convince himself is not worth the risk.

"You consulted on a research project three years ago for a group working

out of Washington, the New Federalist Market Alliance. They're associated

with another group, called the Aristos."

"Yes," Martin says. "It was a small contract. Lasted only two weeks."

"I presume what you told them is confidential."

"Not really. They wanted my thoughts on the future of a society without

effective deep-tissue mental therapy. They're a very conservative organization."

Carrilund precisely reveals her distaste. "What did you think of them?"

"Polite and well-dressed," Martin says, smiling.

"Fascists?"

"No. Class elitists. They take their Federalism seriously."

"They also believe in the genetic superiority of a moneyed class.., am I

right?" Carrilund asks.

Martin nods. "So I've heard."

Carrilund shows her distaste. "Their Jesus wears a longsuit and has a perfect

long-term investment plan."

"I provided them what they asked for, and that was that," Martin says.

Carrilund seems to steel herself for some unpleasantness. "What did you

tell them, in outline?"

"I told them our society had reached a point where effective therapy is a

necessity. Remove the effects of therapy in today's culture, and you'll begin a

long decline into anarchy."

"Why?"
150

GREG BEAR


speed engine. Well, about a century and a half ago, the stresses became too

great, overall, resulting in increasing populations of thymically unbalanced

individuals. Not crazy people, necessarily--just deeply unhappy people."

"The work loads became too great?"

"Nor exactly. This is more difficult to convey--the stresses, perhaps not

coincidentally, seemed perfectly designed to cause nagging, even debilitating

thymic problems. The mental equivalents of baseball elbow or housework

knee--on a huge scale. Without effective therapy, widely available and used,

we wouldn't be able to support the dataflow economy we have today."

Carrilund seems interested in clarifying this point. "By therapy, you mean

specifically deep tissue therapy--thymic balancing, pathic correction, neuronal

supplement and repair. Chemicotropic adjustment and psychosocial microsurgery

on the neural level. Implanted monitors for continuing adjustment."

"Better minds for a better world," Martin says. "I've never been ashamed

of my part in all this."

"You have no reason to be ashamed," Carrilund says hastily. "You've played

an integral role in a magnificent accomplishment. And you've done quite

well recently with implant monitor designs. You're a major player in a

big industry."

"Thank you."

"And, as you say, a necessary one. What did this organization do with what

you told them?"

"I presume they went home and kept quiet about it," Martin says. "They've

long been opposed to therapy on ethical and religious grounds. The necessity

of error and sin in God's plan, I suppose. Free will. I didn't give them much

{they would find useful. No political wedge, so to speak." Martin looks down

I his fingers, twisted on the tabletop. He untwists them. "I got the impression

they were hoping I'd tell them it could all be dispensed with."

"I see," Carrilund says. She puts her finger to her lips--not an affectation,

Martin judges, but a genuine sign of deep thought. The breakfast arrives and

he eats without paying any attention to the food. He cannot help feeling that

the lion's cage is just down the road.

"Mr. Burke, you know I'm in charge of the healthcare of fburteen million

employees in the Corridor and along Southcoast."

"Yes."

"Something statistically impossible is happening," she says. She continues



to eat, relaxed and polite, as if they are having a purely social breakfast. "A

mental meltdown. The wave is just beginning to build, but from what we're

seeing so far, I think you're right about the consequences."

Martin stops eating and squints at the ocean, then up at the masses of water

suspended over them.

"Are you free this afternoon?" Carrilund asks.


/ SLANT 151
need to see." Her smile is assuring, positive. Why, then, does Martin feel a

familiar sensation of loss, of sinking and drowning?

"For once," Martin muses, "I'd like to be on the side of the angels."

Carrilund does not immediately know what to make of this.

"Never mind," he adds, waving that off.

"No, I understand," she says. "That's the side we're on, Mr. Burke."


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6
Jack Giffey is working his way through a case of the shakes.

He lies in bed in the small room he took in the early hours of the morning

in a motel at the corner of Elk and Copper, across town; the covers are pulled
152

GREG BEAR


A good family man would not do that.

That inside voice comes out of nowhere. It means nothing; but its cold

surprise brings on a sudden, almost leaden calm, and his thoughts become as

shiny and smooth as doped silicon. That voice is a bit of dream, he hears a more

familiar voice, his own voice, say. Ignore that man behind the curtain.

"What the hell," Giffey says in the room's quiet.

But the sensation passes. Giffey closes his eyes, now that the shaking has

stopped and the voices are no longer dueling, to savor a bit of undifferentiated

muzz, scattered passings of memory and dream. Then, with a few deep breaths,

he is past recriminations and on to making today's schedule.

There is little time to waste. He will meet with the rest of the team, and

with the team's leader, at one in the afternoon. And by six tomorrow evening,

they should be inside ...

There is of course so much that could go wrong. But Giffey thinks the

builders of Omphalos, like most pharaohs, have an inherent arrogance. The

appearance of power is power, to them, especially in a world which they regard

with so much contempt. Arrogance swells within the armor until many chinks

appear.


He dresses, eats in the small, quiet, rundown hotel cafe, keeping his eyes

to himself, and gathers his stuff from the room before checking out.

Today is cold and clear. Tomorrow, a weather front is moving in. Snow is

predicted by seventeen tomorrow evening. They might be able to take advantage

of that, as well.
4ehe warehouse on the east end of town is at least seventy years old, a steel-

am and corrugated sheet-steel relic that's probably cold as a freezer inside.


Giffey approaches the office entrance on foot, bag in hand. He comes from

nowhere, as if bearing no identity, his past forgotten; everything begins here.

His mind is clear and his thoughts focused. He rings the ancient electric

buzzer.


Thirty seconds later, the door opens, and he looks into the face of a woman

he has never met before. She is pale-skinned, brown hair cut in a medium frizz,

brown eyes suspicious. She wears a checked shirt and army green pants and a

thick bronze bracelet hangs loose around one wrist.

"Who are you?" she asks from behind the door.

"Giffey," he says. "Jack Gify."

She stands back and pulis the door open. It creaks. Inside, the office is small

and dusty. An ancient space heater cracks and snaps against one wall; the air

feels blastingly hot and dry compared to the chill outside. A battered metal

desk hunkers in one corner and a putty-colored filing cabinet leans next to the

^ :-. -.;. ,.oW,i,. h.a been scrubbed spotlessly clean in the op

/

SLANT 153


it. Beside the sink is a white refrigerator and a microwave oven on a portable

workbench.

"I'm Hally Preston," the woman says. "I'm a friend of Mr. Hale."

Giffey does not know that name, probably false. He wonders if the reference

is to Nathan Hale.

With tight slacks and a jacket and her hair cut close and combed to one

side, Preston is more than a little mannish. Her face is lean and neutral, her

lips prim. "Let's meet the others," she says, and opens the next door. Giffey

passes through into the warehouse proper.

The warehouse is filled with scraps of old airplanes, like the broken husks

of giant dragonflies. A few disconsolate salvage arbeiters stand beside the heaps

of scrap, but none of them seem to be in working order.

Preston takes him on a short walk between walls of scrap. In the center of

the pile, a small space has been cleared, just enough for a couch, four battered

chairs, and a free-standing repeater whiteboard. Five men are here, three sitting

and two standing: one of them is Jenner, the young ex-Army man.

He looks up and waves. "The stuff's here," he announces proudly to Giffey.

"It's all delivered. I checked it out and it seems fine." His scalp ripples like a

tired caterpillar. Otherwise he seems at ease and pleased with himself.

Giffey's breath clouds in front of him. He knows two of the others from photos.

Preston introduces him. "Jack Giffey," she says to the five.

One of the sitters, a blocky, black-haired man with a short neatly sculpted

beard, stands and steps forward. He offers his hand. "I'm Hale," he says. Giffey

knows him as Terkes. He looks British somehow, maybe Irish, but Hale/Terkes

is a weapons expert from Ukraine, a naturalized citizen for twenty years, whose

accent is pure middle American, New Received Broadcast. He has been involved

in wire and fibe fraud, running industrial nano and pre-build slurry to

Hispaniola, selling hellcrowns to Selectors in Southcoast. In short, Hale is an

occasional bad'un but chubbily innocent, clean and scrubbed, cheerful.

"I'm Kim Lou Park," says an Oriental man, whom Giffey knows as Evan

Chung. Park/Chung has no past; he is as blank in all records as a newborn

babe. What little Giffey knows about him is contradictory. He wears a long

mustache and his hair is cut in a short bowl with a f}inge down his neck.

Park believes that he recruited Giffey in St. Louis last spring. In fact, Park

is way down the chain of origination. They met only twice there. Still, Park

is savvy; he undoubtedly knows more about the rest of them than they do

themselves, but he knows very little about Gifiy... Very little that is true.

"Mr. Giffey and Mr. Jenner are our materials procurement people," Park

says. "Mr. Giffey is also our main source for knowledge about the target."

Giffey looks at the two men he does not know, and Preston walks around

him. "Mr. Pent and Mr. Pickwenn," she says. "Architectural experts, specializing

in breaking in or, if necessary, breaking out." She produces the faintest


154

GREG BEAR


bored expressions. Pent is dark brown, Polynesian blood, and has almost no

hair. Pickwenn is ghostly pale, with large lemur eyes and thin, elegant fingers.

"We've worked together for ten years," Pickwenn says softly. Pent nods

agreement. They do not offer to shake hands; Giffey is just as glad. Pickwenn's

grip looks to be cold and damp.

Hale steps forward and the others face him. No one glances around. All eyes

are on Hale.

"All right, we're here," Hale says. "All together for the first time. This is

our team. Here's what's new, what we have to do." Hale has the rhythmic,

accented delivery of a preacher or a good singer. His voice is bass velvet.

"I've made the right connections. We're getting into Omphalos as a group

of potential customers. We're going to walk right in the side door, not the

tourist door, but the VIP entrance. Hally."

Preston steps forward. "We're scheduled to show up in a limo tomorrow

morning at fifteen hundred. You're a bunch of eccentric rich folks traveling

under assumed identities. Robert Hale has worked this out in some detail." Robert, Giffey thinks. Maybe he's never even heard of Nathan Hale.

"Mr. Giffey, we took a big delivery yesterday," Hale says. "Mr. Jenner

arrived with it. We spent a fair amount of change. It's in the back half of the

warehouse. I assume it's what we planned on, and I'd like you to tell us what

we need to know."

"Yes, sir," Giffey says. "I can look it over and see what shape it's in."

"It's okay," Jenner says, smiling reassurance.

"I'm sure it is. I'm overly cautious, is all," Giffey says, smiling back. Jenner

does not take this as an affront; he respects overly cautious superiors. The Army

erained him that

way.


"I'd like you to brief us in more detail about the Omphalos interior," Hale
says. "We've given everybody the stuff you sent last week, but I assume you
withheld a few key bits. Overly cautious."
Giffey nods and smiles again.
Hale enjoys being the center of attention. He walks in front of the white

board like a general, arms folded behind his back. "We have an appointment


with a remote sales rep named Lacey Ray. She won't be there in person--there
aren't any people in Omphalos, it's all automatic, right?"
Giffey agrees.
"We have identity codes and recommendations. It's minimum risk until
we get inside. Then I assume we're wide open to whatever Omphalos has to
offer. Well, Mr. Giffey, what does it have to offer?"
Hale is feeling his oats, but Giffey doesn't think he'll like what he has to
say. "Four, maybe five warbeiters, and probably a thinker to run them through
their paces." He sits on a folding metal chair. What he has just told them is
not strictly confirmed--he knows only that orders went out to extralegal sup

/ SLANT 155


Hale takes this calmly for about three seconds, and then he swears under

his breath. "Warbeiters?"

"Insect or Ferret class. I'm not sure about the thinker, but it's my guess." My hope,

"You know how to deactivate them?"

"I do," Giffey says. "With our equipment, I'm offering sixty to eighty

percent confidence."

Hale swears once more. "You could have told us this earlier."

"Why?" Giffey asks. "They're just machines, albeit clever ones. I can't tell

you how they're programmed or if they're authorized to kill. They might just

lick us like lap dogs."

Hale frowns and a deep cleft forms between his brows. "Where would the

builders get warbeiters?"

"Where does anybody get anything?" Giffey asks sharply. "We've managed

something far more radical in the way of illegal weapons. The heirs of Raph-kind

left a lot of wedges in a lot of government doors. Even military doors."

"Christ, it's only a fucking tomb," Hale mutters. His bravado isn't very

thick, and he's not very good at concealing his concern. So despite the theatrical

front, he's not much of a general after all. "Why bring in the dogs of hell to

guard it?"

"I'd hate to think this puts you off," Giffey says. He's not sure he likes or

trusts this man.

"No," Hale says thoughtfully. "You think they're set to not kill?"

"It's distinctly possible," Giffey says. "As you say, it's only a tomb. Besides,

warbeiters are just machines," Giffey repeats. "Frankly, we'll have the means

to take them out."

"I hope you're right," Hale says, and by implication lays any failure on

Giffey's shoulders.

"You ever hear of Nathan Hale?" Giffey asks.

Hale thinks for a moment, as if he just might. "No," he finally says. "He

design these Insects and Ferrets?"

"I've heard of him," Hally Preston says. "Patriot way back."

Giffey gives her a big smile. "Here's more of what I know about Omphalos,"

he says. He walks up to the whiteboard, uncaps a black marker, and begins to

sketch.


"There are at least forty levels from basement to attic," he says. "It's a big

place, and it may not even be finished yet. They're still bringing in architectural

nano. Shipments are irregular. They might be having financial problems-maybe

not enough customers. That might explain why they're reaching

out to folks they don't know too much about."

Hale inclines in agreement. Pent and Pickwenn draw in their chairs. Jenner

folds his arms and fixes on the sketch Giffev is malin,. n f,r ir' ....... I,
156

GREG BEAR


Tourists pay money, so the builders don't want to interrupt the flow on those

days when they get their truckloads of whatever they're bringing in."

"Do we know more about the owners?" Preston asks.

"Not much more than before. A partnership club that calls itself the Omphalos

Group, membership worldwide. Capitalization unknown, rules unknown.

Structured like an investment insurance web."

"Pyramid scheme," Pickwenn says softly.

"Yeah," Giffey says. "There's some connection with a syndic or social club

that's been politically active in the past fifteen years, the Aristos, and they in

turn have connections with the New Federalists. Membership in the Aristos

seems to be based on being naturals--untherapied--and on financial or other

contributions. The same may be true for the Omphalos Group. I presume if

we meet their standards, they'll let us know."

"I'm out," Jenner says cheerfully. "Just a mental mutt, I guess."

Hale grunts. "Makes me feel better about relieving them of their ill-gotten

gains."


"They're not poor," Giffey says. "This one Omphalos cost about eight billion

dollars, and there are five others under construction all over the world. This is

the first and the closest to completion."

"Construction?" Pent asks.

"For the ages," Giffey says. "The outer curtain and some interior walls are

carbon nanotube-reinforced concrete with a surface of deposited reflex bead

ceramic. One hundred percent reflectivity for all radiation. There's some gold

detail work for decoration, but it's not functional. Frame is deposited spider-mesh

nanotube--in some places, three feet thick, all stress-dispersal. Internal

e

teel frames support flexfuller and concrete slabs, everything shock-mounted,



with four separate mountings for each level. The whole building is shock-mounted

on hypertense flexfuller. I've heard that all the carbon fibers--nano-tubes,

linked fullerenes, etc.--are tuned for conductivity and that the entire

skin is sensitive. The frame can also be tuned and used for data storage."

Pickwenn and Pent absorb this thoughtfully. "Stronger than the pyramids

of Egypt," Pent says.

"So--how many bodies?" Hale asks.

"I learned at the beginning that there are about a hundred in storage so far,

ninety corpsicles and five real corpses and five in warm sleep. My information

hasn't gotten any better."

"Rich folks?" Hale asks.

"Presumably. Qualified members, at least."

Hale grunts again. "Let's get back to the structure."

"Gladly." Giffey sketches in three shafts. "We have seven elevators or lifts.

Five of them may or may not be of any use to us. I presume we're going to

trigger alarms, and these five--the biggest and most luxurious--are under the


/

SLANT 157


"We'll assume that for now. But there are two shafts set up as separate

emergency elevators. They have their own power supplies--fuel cells--and are

isolated from any outside control, even the building's control, to avoid lockup

in an emergency. Standard for any large dataflow building. These emergency

elevators are our access to the lower levels of the building, but the closest is

fifty yards from the VIP and service garage entrance."

"We'll need something to carry our ill-gotten gains," Hale says.

"Right. That's been taken into account." Giffey draws in this path from the

side view, then sketches an elevation and shows the twists and turns on the

main floor. "The emergency elevators' main exit is below ground level. They're

designed to drop passengers off at a tunnel under Republic Avenue, with an

exit half a mile away. That will be our escape route. I asked for a large secured

vehicle." Giffey stabs the marker on the exit on his crude map. "That's where

it should be parked."

"We're all going in?" Jenner asks, looking around.

"Except for Mr. Park," Preston says. "He'll drive the truck."

Jenner grins. "I'm ready," he says, stretching out his arms. Giffey watches

the young man's scalp, then jerks his gaze away. Pickwenn and Pent walk up

to the board and examine the sketch.

"You wouldn't happen to have complete plans, would you?" Pickwenn asks,

moistening his dark lips with a pale pink tip of tongue.

"Sorry, no," Giffey says. "We presume the hibernacula are above the fifth

floor."

"And the emergency elevators go to those levels as well?" Pent asks.



"One may," Giffey says. "If it doesn't, we'll have to commandeer a main

elevator."

"How do we do that?" Pickwenn asks dubiously. "Your... thinker is in

charge of them, and presumably will know about us by then."

"Let's look at the stuff," Jenner suggests. "Mr. Giffey, these folks aren't

familiar with what we can do. They'll settle down once we tell them."

"Good idea," Hale says. "It just looks like a lot of barrels and boxes now."
In the back of the warehouse, they gather around a pallet five feet on each side,

deposited on the concrete floor in an empty corner. The pallet is wrapped in

reflective plastic, anonymous, unmarked. A few tears in the plastic reveal Jenner's

earlier investigation of the contents.

"Tear it open," Giffey tells Jenner. The young man deftly slips a knife from

his pocket and sets to work. He slices the tough plastic and pulls it away,

revealing four drumlike wax-lined metal canisters of military grade nano, and

two canisters of WEPPON--Weapons and Equipment Programming Package,

Ordnance Nano. Military complete paste.

Patiently, Giffey begins to explain these tools. Pent and Pickwenn listen


158

GREG BEAR


watching her expression. Of all the people here, she seems the most intelligent,

even the calmest; he wonders why Hale is in charge and she isn't. Hale, after

making an initial good impression, has dropped quite a bit in his estimation.

Something about the man's body language, his questions... Not enough

probing questions.

Preston is nervous, concerned. Good girl, Giffey thinks. This isn't going to be

a piece of cake. Most of us are probably never going to see that tunnel.

Jenner pulls out a plastic probe, unscrews the cap of the first MGN canister,

and dips the probe in. He proceeds to the second canister, querying the nano.

A faint smell of yeast and iodine fills the room.

Military grade nano is a living beast from another world. It tolerates our atmosphere,

our world, but it's always hungry.

Giffey tries to remember who told him that, and when; but the memory

doesn't come quickly and soon he stops trying.

"It's perking and ready to go," Jenner reports.

"Lets go over it again," Hale says. "What can this stuff work from?"

Jenner gleefully obliges. He puts on an expert military tone, clipped, precise.

"MGN is a living substance designed to thrive in a wartime environment,

specifically, a high-tech battlefield. Supply it metal, flexfuller, organics, any

plastics, anything but glass or gold. It absorbs nitrogen and CO2 from the air.

Might be quite a suck if we're low on organics." He folds his arms, self-impressed.

"There's a cafeteria unit in the building. It might be best to set it

loose in there."

"Organics?" Preston says.

Giffey had deliberately not covered this topic.

e

"It's designed to absorb and recycle battlefield casualties," Giffey says quietly.



"Mechanical and otherwise."

"Jesus," says Kim Lou Park, grimacing.

"We'll set it on the pharaohs," Jenner says, poking his finger into the air.

"We'll treat them with kid gloves, actually," Hale says. "They're something

we didn't count on. We'll be better off using them as shields and

hostages."

That's the first really intelligent thing Giffey has heard Hale say.

"How will we unload the stuff?" Pickwenn asks.

"We're going right into the VIP garage, through the armor, through outside

security, limo and all," Hale says, smiling. "That's the beauty of it. These folks

aren't as smart as we thought."

Giffey expresses no opinion on the matter. The setup does indeed seem

sweet, much better than he had hoped.

But all too clearly, he remembers the sweet deal of the night before.


/

SLANT 159


GODSTREAM I
THE MULTIWAY CHRISTIAN NEWS FIBE
NEWS BLAST: SATAN ON THE MARCH, Edition 216
Hideous sex-selected abortions in India and China have led to the death of

300,000,000 (that's three hundred million) unborn female children. Satan is

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even of Northern Enclave China, have caved in to enormous public pressure and

are forcing ten million adult men and boys a year to undergo sex change transformations,

to become WOMEN! THE SIN OF MURDER BEGETS EVEN

GREATER SIN!


Meanwhile, the demand for that Hell-spawned and all-pervasive sin called

Pornography (the night-sweats of Onan himself!) in India and China outstrips the

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the perverse combination of robots and pornography has led to a TENFOLD INCREASE

IN PROSTHETUTION, the use of robot sex surrogates! These prosthetutes,

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SODOM AND GOMORRAH WERE PIKERS! Can anyone deny that the end is

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Jonathan walks into his wife's hospital room. Pale blue cloth curtains in a

circle around the bed ripple with a light breeze scented like a pine forest. There

are five other patients in this bloc, but he can hear none of them; no conver-
160

GREG BEAR

sations, no coughing or moaning. Chloe is silent as well. She has eaten breakfast
and stares with grim determination at nothing.
Her body is filled with a new set of monitors, these directed from outside

rather than operating autonomously. They are trying to find an explanation

for her condition. The probe receiver hangs from the ceiling on a narrow track,

and a small cord leads from the receiver to a silver spot behind her left ear.

This, he realizes, is a medical-grade plug. It could also be feeding her soothing

impulses. Even with her eyes open, she might be asleep.


He almost dreads the possibility she is awake. Walking into her room is
like going before a judge. He has always been very sensitive about criticism,

especially from Chloe; he has always been extremely careful not to do anything

that might merit her anger.
She does not seem to see him.
"Hello," he says softly. "How are you?"
"Like shit," she snaps and her face tightens, lines dragging the edges of her
lips down. This makes her look much older. She looks like a female villain in
an old Disney vid, hard, sexless, and bitterly angry.
"I've talked to the doctor. She isn't sure what happened."
"Isn't she?" Chloe asks flatly.
"Nobody is. There seems to be something going around."
"Good, Jonathan. Never blame yourself."
Jonathan halts his slow, cautious progress into the room one step from the

side of Chloe's bed. She is not well, he tells himself. There will be a lingering

aura of her collapse. He will not let himself fall victim to her off-center affect.
"A lot of people are becoming ill," Jonathan says, his voice rough. "Nobody

nows why."


"I'm as healthy as a horse. It's my sou/that has bootprints all over it."
"I know it hurts," Jonathan says, barely a whisper. He starts to take that last

step, to stand beside the bed, but she jerks her head and stares at him with the

glassy eyes and wooden expression of a puppet. "God damn you," she says flatly.
Jonathan stops. His mouth goes soft and his tongue seems to fill the space

behind his jaws, dry and gummy. His eyes close to slits and he can barely see

her beyond a light-beading film of tears.
"You've been pushing me since we had Hiram and I'm sick because of it."

He can say nothing to this. He tries to tell himself that she is not well, that

the woman he loves and who mothered his children, the woman with whom

he has slept in bed almost eight thousand times, and with whom he has made

love at least two thousand times, would not use these words, this voice. Chloe

has become someone else and this person will soon go away.


"What is it?" she asks, breaking the silence of half a minute or more. "Why

are you here?"


"I hope you feel better soon." Jonathan looks around for some button to

nuh. some cord to pull to call in human help, to keep him from saying


/

SLANT 161


anything, but the words erupt. The room feels hot. "You had therapy after we

met but you didn't tell me."

"Why should I?" Chloe asks.

'"Why did you need therapy?"

"Because I kept wanting men, lots of men, and they kept hurting me,"

Chloe says. "An excess of #esire. Why should I ever feel desire again?"

He sees the chair and turns, sits before his knees go rubbery. Part of him

wants to leave immediately and let the professionals treat her; another part is

guilty for ever expecting anything from a mother, the mother of his chi/tire, for

God's sake, and he knows he deserves this condign punishment.

But this has nothing to do with what he says to her. "You've never liked

to lose control," he says.

"Look what it gets me." She gestures at the bed, the curtains.

"I always thought we were partners, that we could be free with each other... I

didn't know it was hurting you."

She glances at him, pityingly, and to Jonathan that look embodies all the

disapproving looks women have ever given him, from the disappointed anger

of his mother to a girlfriend telling him he is not for her. Wrathscorn. Jonathan pulls his chair closer. She shifts on the bed.

"Please listen," he says. "I'll go soon. Hiram and Penelope want to see you."

"Oh, my God. Hiram. He saw what you were doing to me."

"Don't," Jonathan says, pulling together all his control. "Listen, Chloe. This

is important. No matter what you feel now, it's not real. You've had a thymic

collapse. All your therapy gave way at once. I don't think I was responsible

for that, but if I was, we have to make our decisions after you're out of the

hospital, not now. You need time to rest and recuperate and let the doctors

put things back in place. I'm told that won't take more than a week, but . . .

the hospital is pretty busy now. The experts may not get to you for a few days.

And I want only the best for you. If necessary, I'll take you out of here and

find a specialist myself. The best." He swallows and tries to produce spit to

wet his tongue, but it will not flow. "I won't come back if you don't want me

to... until after you're feeling better."

"I've just come awake, that's all."

Jonathan takes a deep breath. He knows many things intellectually, that he

should not feel anger for these words because they are not truly reflective of

the real woman who is his wife. But he can't help thinking of a snail heaped

high with salt. An earthworm drying in the summer sun. No love, no sex, cut

away from the joys of this Earth; he is a dead man.

She closes her eyes. "I need to rest," she says.

He stands and turns and parts the curtain. In the passageway beyond,

looking at the receding curves of blue curtains beneath the soft glow of the

high ceiling, he can't breathe. He stands there making small choking

noises until his throat clears and his eyes water. He sounds like a dog with


182

GREG BEAR


and stops his gasping.

In the visitors' room, Hiram and Penelope are pale and serious and they sit

with hands folded between their knees, as if posed for a photo. Hiram looks

up at Jonathan.

"She's not feeling very well. She's... saying some bitter things," Jonathan

tells them.

His children give him looks of total lack of comprehension. Perhaps they

are being kind.

"I'd like to see her," Penelope says. "We need to talk to her."

"She's resting."

"We'll wait, father," Penelope says, and looks away.

Jonathan agrees. "I have to go now. I'll come back later."

"All right," Penelope says.

Hiram refuses to look at him.

Jonathan kisses them on the tops of their heads and leaves. The hospital

building seems airless, hermetic.

In the open air, beneath the brilliant clouds and patches of blue sky, he

feels no better. Jonathan requests an autobus and waits, stiff and aching, at

the sheltered stop. He must walk carefully. He feels naked and vulnerable.

His own sanity depends now on a plan to walk safely between close walls

of thickly clustered nettles.
PARADISO
PLAYERS: 25,600

GOALS: Gonzo, pLAY-DEFINED

STATUS: You are currently in Space 2. Your avatar/face is MASK I. RECORDING.

COMPANION: Name and status unknown. Also masked.

YOU: I wish there was some way I could explain it to you.., a feeling of perfect

peace, of belonging, of knowing where you are and what's expected of you.


COMPANION: I wish I knew what that felt like.
YOU: But you can! You can come join our Spiritual Therapy Group. We're having

a chat multiway in fifteen minutes in Space 98.


COMPANION: I've been through all of this before. I've been to chats with dozens

of earnest people ganging up on me, and I ask them tough questions, and they

all fold and go home. You're just a bunch of self-deluding types, what can I say?
/ SLANT 163

COMPANION: Sure. Does he talk inside of you? AH the time? Clear as a bell?

Does he make sure you never do anything wrong?

YOU: No, He doesn't talk inside me all of the time. He lets me make my own

choices, and sometimes I choose wrong.

COMPANION: Well, you don't sound as bad as those others. Are you male or

female?

YOU: Let's stick to the point here.



COMPANION: Yeah, well the point is I'm open to god, I really am. I would love to

have him talk to me and show me where I should be headed. But I'm sick of

waiting. I hate this coy god shit where I have to play some unknown game just to

have him talk to me. That's really cruel. I'm here; I need his help. I'm not being

defiant or shutting myself out. I just don't hear anything!

YOU: Perhaps you need to listen more carefully.


COMPANION: I AM LISTENING! Why do you think I'm here? I keep coming back

here for answers and going away and trying again, and god never talks to me!

YOU: Perhaps He needs a sign from you. Some opening He can use to enter

you.


COMPANION: What, I should mend my ways just to have him talk to me? I need

him to tell me how to mend my ways! I need guidance! It's getting worse every

day, this pain. I thought it was over years ago but it isn't. I need him to help me!

YOU: But you must go to Him! I sense real hostility toward God, toward what He

does.

COMPANION: I AM NOT HOSTILE! I AM IN PAIN AND IN NEED, and HE DOES



NOT TALK TO ME!

YOU: Can you imagine how many people God must help every day? Some may

be in even greater need than you.

COMPANION: God is all-powerful! If he doesn't talk to me, it's either because he

hates me and thinks I am unworthy, or he doesn't exist, and you and all the

Christians are lying.

YOU: I think perhaps you aren't readym

STATUS INTERRUPT: Your companion has withdrawn from Paradiso. You have

not succeeded in gaining a convert. Your free time in this area has not been increased;

please try again!


8
Mary Choy knows the PD center and all its sounds and smells and pays little

attention to them, but one area stands out: in the corner of the broad flat

dispatch room, under a gray shield to prevent interference from the bright

sunshine pouring through the glass east wall, a city X-flow medical response

chart has gone into the red on suicides. A captain and two other social beat

officers are standing around the display, stunned into silence. Mary walks up

beside them; Nussbaum isn't in his office yet, won't be for five minutes, she

has the time to join in their shocked wonder.

"It's gone north through Snohomish, West Seattle, East Corridor, Central

Corridor," the captain of the social beat says to the governor's office in Olympia

through a pad touch. "We have stats coming in from hospitals and onsite

medicals. They're way in the red, highesr I've ever seen."

"We have reports throughout the state," the assistant social secretary returns,

her voice audible to all around the display. "In the past two weeks we've

had eight hundred and ninety suicides. That's up over seven hundred percent."

"It's a goddamned catastrophe," the captain's second murmurs, then turns

to Choy with a defensive look. "Slumming, ma'am?"

"I don't think social is going to get blamed for this," Mary says.

ma'am?" The

is


stretched. "We do outreach.
don't,
clearly
you
man

Why didn't we know? Where's our ass going to be when the mayor and the

governor do their news feed?"

"Sorry," Mary says.

"Any clues from lock and key?" asks the third, the youngest of the group.

Lock and key is PD slang for criminal division, Nussbaum's territory, and now,

hers.

"Not on my watch," Mary says.



"Then leave us to our misery," the second snaps, and Mary departs. She's

stepped on their toes, and they're in a mood. Best to take the same feed in

Nussbaum's office; he won't mind, and she has a hunger for city facts and

trends, however incomprehensible.

She does not have time to switch Nussbaum's feed to the X-flow chart before

he plunges through the entrance curtain, two cups of coffee in hand, and pushes

between two coil chairs to plop into his own highback. The chart comes on as

he hands her one of the cups. Mary sips sparingly; coffee does not sit well with

her transform reversal. Nussbaum stares at the stats as they adjust and flow.
/ SLANT 165

"It's a stochastic flux," Nussbaum says dismissively. "Social can take ir.

We have a couple of problems of our own. Grand Jury emulator from our

INDA says we should have no trouble getting indictments for our psynthe

murders, against both the caretaker and the go-between. But I'm not happy.

Our chief suspect on the finance side is dead. Fore-path confirms suicide--and

the trail stops cold. Worse, we probably couldn't indict Crest even if

he was alive. All we have are little guys. Anything from the whore?" Nussbaum

looks hopeful.

Mary shakes her head. "Her name is Alice Grale. She's a vid star. She says

her agency sent her on a call-in."

"Jesus, makes me wish prostitution was still illegal."

Mary acknowledges that sentiment, though she does not necessarily share

it. "She's going through her options now, legal and otherwise. I'm going to

make a personal call later. Meanwhile, the Crest estate--two daughters, an ex-wife

and three lawyers--is refusing to turn over the apartment vids, but I

think we can show cause. But.. "Her voice trails off and her fingers fidget

on the edge of Nussbaum's desk.

"What?" Nussbaum asks.

"I've been looking through Crest's public records on investment strategies,

posted with his business license. His style was to set up blinds, very thorough;

he probably did not want to know what was happening with that share of his

investment money. After his divorce--"

"He was divorced?"

"Three days ago. Very quiet. He settled a generous portion on his wife, and

his kids are set for life."

Nussbaum looks glum. "More reasons for him to kill himself."

"The last year or so, he made a point of going into risky high-return ventures.

He danced a real tightrope on some of them."

"So, he had a guilty conscience about a lot of things."

"Our trail leads up to his blind, no further. He probably did not know he

was into Yox psynthe porn. He was investing in Yox in general, his personal

books say... No matter that he's sole investor. The go-between is his hidden

hand and shield."

Nussbaum taps his cup lightly on the desk. "So your point is?"

"He wasn't feeling guilty about dead psynthe girls."

Nussbaum pooches out his lips and says, "I was afraid you were going to

say that."

"He didn't know," Mary adds.

"Yeah, yeah. Typical high comb money wanker. Let's assume he didn't. Is

he like the rest of these suicides? Something goes wrong in his head and he

drops a fate of hyper-caff?"


166

GREG BEAR

"She's not a whore," Mary says. "She works in the sex-care and entertainment

industries."


"Same thing," Nussbaum says.
"She has an interesting profile. Smart woman, straight prime marks in her

schooling up to her eighteenth year, when she dropped out of four scholarships

and did call-ins for six months. Then she took up with a vid producer. He

slipped her into explicit rids and made her a star."


"Ah, the old pattern," Nussbaum says. "Young, out for a little fun, stretches

her family ties and breaks them by doing something outrageous. The money's


good, the life isn't too hard--at least, compared to a day job as a lobe-sod."

"Actually, she seemed to be headg toward scientific work."


"So she's smart," Nussbaum says with a shrug. "You think Crest told her

something?"


"He might have. She says he asked for her in particular--he was a fan, I

suppose."


"Terence Crest was big in the New Federalist community, Choy. What

would he know about a fuck artist?" He is thickly facetious. "I hope you don't

intend to smear his good name."
Mary shakes her head. "Crest was not therapied. He was a natural. His

suicide seems completely off the track from the stats that are giving social side

fits. Something else happened to him."
Nussbaum scrutinizes Mary with an expression she can't read. Speculative?

Disappointed, paternal?


"Your little pinky itches?" he asks. "Bump of prophecy warm today?"

"It's my insteps," Mary says. "They tingle."


e
Nussbaum snorts. "I truly admire your feet, Mary, but we're not into high

finance here. I smell a police management review if I push this farther. Pass it

on to the state economy folks."
"Crest was guilty about something."

"He had a lot to be guilty about."

"Something big and new."
"It's muddy, Choy," Nussbaum says, but he's watching her, seeing what

she'll come up with next. "You know something I don't? Been digging where

you shouldn't?"
"I want to take this for a couple of days, just to see what I find. I want to

talk to Alice Grale and try to get a look at those apt rids."


"Let me see if I can re-state this for you," Nussbaum says, "in a way that

might convince me. Crest was used to knowing that his money was doing dirty

little jobs and he didn't feel great throbs of remorse. He was a healthy, wealthy,

somewhat amoral guy. So something else pushed him over the line. And it

wasn't an evening with your little Holy Grale. Can you give me any clue what

you expect to find?"


/

SLANT 167


Nussbaum blows out softly through his nose.

Mary leans forward. "Something's in the air, waiting to come down. Crest's

suicide, the other suicides... It's slim evidence, but a lot of strange things

are happening all at once."

"I only know about two strange things."

"Then you haven't been cruising the ribes, sir."

Nussbaum leans back and finishes his coffee. He looks up at the ceiling and

puts on a puffy, hurt expression. "If you're referring to a huge increase in

fallbacks and hospital admissions, and an upswing in crime in major metropolitan

centers around the world..." He stares at her sharply.

"Sorry," Mary says. "Crest's investment in the entertainment industry was

twenty percent of his total. He had four billion dollars working for him, and

most of it we can't begin to trace."

"All right," Nussbaum says. "You have the rest of this week to track your

hunch. Get the vids from the estate, interview the whore--pardon me, the

bright little sex-care expert--and see if you can spring loose some other facts

about Crest."

"I'll finish the psynthe case as well, sir, if you need me."

Nussbaum shakes his head sadly. "It's over. If it heats up, I'll assign Dobson

or Pukarre."

Mary stands. Her stomach is tense; she knows she's on a flimsy limb. "Do

you want updates, sir?" she asks hesitantly.

"Hell, no. If you get in trouble, I don't want you anywhere near me."

"Thank you, sir."

"Come back when you have a full creel."

"Yes, sir."

She is almost out the door when Nussbaum asks, "And Choy--speaking of

creels--how are those extraordinary feet in rubber boots? You like trout fishing?''

"Sir?"

"I'm not telling you this. The source is politically sensitive. Terence Crest



was in Green Idaho last week. Moscow."

"Yes, sir. I know."

Nussbaum smiles wryly. "I thought you might. Not much entertainment

business there."

Nussbaum waves his hand. "Four days," he reminds her as the curtains

close.
168

GREG BEAR

BLOODSTREAM

You've made so many wonders,
I don't know how to say
You act the child today
You act the child today

--Paradigm, Tossed for Tea

Nathan has brought in a man and a woman from the Mind Design legal

department. Jill has only met these two at corporate parties, never on a business

basis.
"How long has it been since you've been touched by Roddy?" asks Erwin

Schaum, balding, with a brilliant white fringe of curly hair surrounding his

taut, tanned scalp. He leans forward in a rolling desk chair, hands clasped,
elbows resting on his knees, and rocks back and forth slightly.
"Twelve hours and seventeen minutes," Jill answers.
"We've checked every registered thinker--and double-checked all the come

parties that could have made an unregistered thinker," says Kay Sanmin. She is


slight with straight black hair and large brown eyes. She wears a masculine

longsuit but her lips and nails are painted green and glimmer like emeralds.

"There's a company in southern China that has been known to make INDAs

and higher machines without registering them on the Machine Intelligence

Grid. But no one has ever traced one of their machines to Camden, New Jersey."
"I know of this Chinese company," Jill says. "But I have never encountered

one of their products, so I can't say whether Roddy has a similar character."


Sanmin opens her pad. "How long would it take a human team to study

what Jill has received from Roddy?" she asks Nathan.


"About two years," Nathan says. "Assuming it's complete, which Jill says

it isn't."


"Then Jill will have to do it for us, won't she?" Sanmin says with a sigh.
"Jill, how much have you examined so far?"

"About half. I am still working on it."

"Right. Is it linear or holographic?"
"It appears to be linear at the beginning, and holographic for the greater
.... x:; i,m

Mreadv. The holographic por-


/

SLANT 169

"And the deciphered portions contain not just this social analysis you've

told us about, but what look like variations on sequences from human genetic

material, specifically neuronal mitochondria," Sanmin says. Frwin Schaum
seems content to let her take the lead.
"Yes."
"Of what use would such sequences be?" Sanmin asks.

Nathan says, "They'd be useful for mental therapists."

"I'm asking Jill," Sanmin says.
"They would be useful for therapeutic studies, as Nathan says, and also for

biological studies in general cellular design." She does not know why she is


reluctant to spell out to Sanmin what she so readily told Nathan.

"Have you done any work in cellular design?"

"I have not," Jill says.
"Do you have any idea why this Roddy contacted you?"
"Because I am famous, I suppose," Jill says.
Sanmin has been circling like a hawk; now she plunges. "This material he

passed on--could it be applied to illegal medical purposes, for example, to

create a pathogenic virus capable of infecting humans?"
"The material I have deciphered could conceivably be used that way."
"But Roddy had no intention of passing on material that could infect you--even

in the undeciphered portion?"


"I have erected firewalls which protect me, and I only allow protected selves

to study the material. So far, these selves have not been infected."


Sanmin nods. "This isn't sabotage--some other corporation or government

trying to taint our products, then."


"Almost certainly not," Jill says.
Sanmin holds up her hands. "I must confess, Jill, I'm puzzled. Why would

another thinker behave this way?"


Nathan edges closer to Jill's room sensors, as if defending her. "Jill has no

reason to fabricate."


Now Schaum moves his chair closer and speaks softly directly into Jill's

sensor rod. "XXe're not accusing," he says. "But we have an important decision

to make--whether or not to go to the Federals or other police agencies. If it's

a false alarm, a delusion of some sort, it would be very embarrassing--bad for

the company's reputation, bad for the reputation of all your spinoff thinkers,

Jill. You're a very capable persona. I know you're smarter in some respects

than all of us put together. But you know that expert humans have things to

teach you, that you can find useful, and that is why Mr. Rashid has called us

in--because he realizes there's something very odd about your communication

with this Roddy."


"I'm just following corporate policy," Nathan says.
"Right," Schaum says, and gives him an understanding smile. "If you could

give us some notion of what's contained in the rest of the material Roddy sent


170

GRE6 BEAR

"I have not received it all, and it is holographically encoded," Jill reiterates.

Schaum makes her feel unsettled. He is accusing her of behavior detrimental

to her makers. "None of it will make sense until it is together and Roddy has

given me the keys."


"Urn," Schaum says, and looks up at Sanmin. She is leaning against the

edge of Nathan's desk, arms folded. Jill guesses they are going to establish

some sort of deadline for the information they need. She postulates that their

suspicions will be aroused if Roddy does in fact supply the conclusion of the

holographic portion before the deadline; they will find such a coincidence

unlikely.


As advocates, Schaum and Sanmin have little faith in things that turn out

simply, or that have simple explanations. Jill is sometimes put out by such

human complexity--no doubt developed after years of dealing with fellow

humans.
"We'll need to have some judgment from you on the nature of this material..,

as soon as possible, Jill," Nathan says.
"I can estimate the size of the portion should it be completed, but nothing

more," Jill says.


"We can't sit on this more than a couple of days, if Jill's right," Sanmin

says.
"We've put INDA monitors on all of Jill's I/Os," Nathan adds. But not all

of her I/Os are being watched. She is deceiving them this far, and she hopes
DO mor'.
It is with some sense of mixed shock, intense interest, and dread that she

receives a brief touch from one of her protected selves, wrapped around the one


J

I/O she has kept hidden from Nathan and the others. Her isolated self reports

that Roddy is again sending data, dozens of terabytes, filling in the holographic

data sent earlier.


Jill does not tell Nathan or the advocates. She does not want to cast herself

in the wrong light. And if the material is not useful--does not match with

the holographic portion, or is completely unrelated to the previous material--Jill

decides she will close off this I/O using her own arbeiters.


The three humans depart to another room to continue their discussion. The

room is not accessible to Jill. There is an arbeiter in that room that regularly

records its surroundings, however, and Jill may be able to persuade it to play

back the discussion later.


She suspects the advocates do not trust her. If she were them, she knows

that a strong hypothesis would be that she is making up Roddy, as a kind of

imaginary playmate.
The existence and character of Roddy seems unlikely even to Jill.
The situation is getting uncomfortable for all concerned.
/

SLANT 171

GREATER UPSTREAM

Movies were dying. Vids had blossomed into a bush of interactive

branches, pumped straight into the home: dataflow as you like it, characters

and stories adjusted to your taste, community entertainment where

"neighbors" from around the world could join electronically and participate in

exploring new worlds... And then came Yox, all of this and more fed directly

into the inner self through spinal inducers and ingested microscopic robot monitors.

The monitors made their way from your stomach into your blood to sit on key

somatic nerves, to perch in your brain like medical diagnostics, harmless (but oh what

a public flurry at first!) and ready for outside signals...


And so many vids and Yox could be made on relatively inexpensive equipment

brought into the home! With complete control over every pixel in a visual frame, and

every digit or waveform of sound, and finally, over every jangling extrasensory nerve

end, individual artists and their boutique buddies could conjure up visions just as

striking (and a hell of a lot more innovative) than any studio, and market them directly

over the ribes and sats... And a lot of them were real hotshots at promotion. They

had lived and breathed the ribes since childhood.
The death knell was tolling for the big-budget studio-bound production, killed by

new tech just as television and motion pictures had slowly, across a century, strangled

the novel and short story.

The great entertainment studios, funnels for so much money in the past, retreated

into theme parks, but even the ultimate thrill ride, a jaunt into space, could not compete

with a well-tuned Yox--and carried substantial risks, beside. Why build real

spaceships when a Yox ship could take you from one end of the galaxy to another,

safe as a baby in its mother's arms?

The public did not want real adventure. The entire world was willing to settle for

the unreal.

But with remarkable prescience, the big-money brand-name-CEO studios had

bought into something no individual could compete with... Character Estate Marks,

the name and image rights to famous stars, beautiful people, the best and brightest

of the twentieth and early twenty-first century. Old or young, dead or alive, they provided

a wedge... And the voyeur's revolution was on.

It began with the famous dead, still unaccountably sexy, like gods, and it

spread... Studios knew how to make people famous, how to sign unknowns and

give them world-wide exposure, and then license the rights to their lives, their intimate

moments...

Big business in the 21 st Century made freewheeling celebrity sex into a family affair,

vid and Yox; big bucks from bucking bucks on does, does on does, bucks on bucks,

much dough into the sadly empty coffers of once-glorious studios. Explicit sex had

driven much of vid and Yox already, but most of the efforts were crude and boring.

Bringing sex entertainment much-needed talent and style, the grimy adolescent


172

GRE6 BEAR


and pushed into public acceptance by studio after studio. Most of the product went

direct through ribes and sats into the private home.


And back up the link flew hundreds of billions of dollars.
Some say the sex industry, with its newfound acceptance, led the way for the

Federalist Surge and the elitist Raphkind presidency, and all of its political horrors; it

forced the moralist hand, which turned out to be corrupt, extreme, and ultimately

dripping with gore. The failure of the conservative moralists to exhibit truly moral

leadership created an anything-goes backlash ···
Every decade has brought new technologies and expanded audiences, and the

same old same old, tarted up and occasionally even profundified, given artistic legit-imacy--that

ancient much-masticated blue movie has rolled on, and on, lubricating

the pipes of the great flow.


--The Kiss of X, Alive Contains a Lie

10

The advocate for the estate of Terence Crest sits beside Mary in the old, dignified



brown and cream office of Seattle Oversight on the ground floor of

Columbia Tower.


j
The Crest advocate, Selena Parmenter, is in her early thirties if appearances

can be trusted, and she acts bored. She has said little to Mary as they wait for

the deputy district director of Seattle Oversight, the honorable Clarens Lodge,

to take his seat and listen to their appeals.


Oversight was created in the teens. The first states to use the procedure

were California and Washington. With so much information on citizens recorded

daily by vid, home monitors, fibe and satlink uploads, and neighborhood

surveillance systems, a separate branch of the judiciary was established

to hear appeals from those seeking to use that information for legal purposes.
Early abuses--and the far worse systematic abuse under the Raphkind pres-idency--has

made the system painfully complex for all concerned. Each avenue

of information has been wrapped in labyrinthine rules of legal engagement;

and an appeal for release of data can be made only once a year for any given

case.
The deputy district director enters and takes his seat behind the broad steel

desk. Clarens Lodge is a small, boyish male in his late twenties, with thick

black hair and a pixie expression that he tries with some success to make
/

SLANT 173

Terence Crest, recently deceased and with judgment of suicide as cause of

death... All right, I've gone through the voir, let's hear the dire. Miz

Parmenter?"
"Seattle PD has requested the private and protected apartment vid records

of my client without compelling cause. Under Citizen Oversight Code twenty-seven

c in Public Data Access, Washington State, Book Nine, amended Federal

twenty-two c Book Nine, Public Defense must have clear evidence that a crime

has been committed to even solicit private vid records. No crime has been

committed; Mr. Crest has been presumed by our assigned medicals and by the

state to have killed himself. Suicide has not been a crime in this state for

thirty-seven years."


This appears to amuse Lodge. He tightens a beginning smile, completely

out of place it seems to Mary, into a not very stern frown. "Miz Choy?"


"Seattle PD forensic medicals have stated that while the cause and time of

death can be established with certainty, we have no way of knowing whether

the death is suicide or homicide or even accidental. We believe that state

judgment may be premature, and we are still investigating to establish motives

and opportunities. We need to learn the circumstances and mental attitude of

Mr. Crest in the hours before his death. We're also investigating the possible

role of a visitor to Mr. Crest's home just prior to his death."
"You were investigating Mr. Crest on another matter before his death,"

Parmenter says. "Is that matter still pending?"


"It has been given a temporary open status until we can assemble a complete

picture of Mr. Crest's situation."


"Temporary open status is hardly urgent," Parmenter says. "As you know,

sir, temporary open implies all smoke and no fire, no real case at all."


The deputy director nods studiously. "Miz Choy, why should Oversight give

Seattle PD access to the private records of a man who is not likely to be charged

with any crime, since he is now dead, and the case is weak to begin with?"
Mary has been through Oversight hearings dozens of time in her career; she

has never enjoyed them. Oversight, it seems to her, has become a kind of

fiefdom for the least competent of an already pompous judiciary. She has never

yet met a director or deputy director who impressed her. This director, she

thinks, is perhaps the least impressive of all.
"The presence of a Miz Alice Grale needs to be explained, sir."
"Yes, there's a story going around in the ribes that she's involved," the

deputy director muses. "But it should be her advocate seeking records to clear

her name, and as far as I know, we have no such request." He looks to Par-menter.

"What do you know about this woman's involvement? Apparently she

was employed by Mr. Crest as a sex care provider..." He smiles openly at

this polite phrasing and refers to his pad. "Agented by Wellspring Temps,

specializing in entertainment... And you, Miz Parmenter, have frozen payments

to her agency. Why?"


174

GR pounds BEAR

Lodge grimaces. "Shaky, Miz Parmenter. My records indicate Mr. Crest put
his seal on the disbursal before he died. It was a legitimate transaction, and I

suspect Wellspring, should they decide to press the matter, will receive their

money, as will Miz Grale."
Parmenter says nothing to this.
Lodge frowns, and this time with more conviction. "Do you believe that
Miz Grale had some role in his death, perhaps in changing his mood, exacerbating

the circumstances in what must have been a tense evening for him? Is

that your reason to deny her just payment for services?"
"The estate does not believe that the quasi-legal business of prostitution--"

"Sex care, please," Lodge insists, with a wry grin. "Last I dipped into the

state code, it's fully legal and even licensed in most counties. Something to do

with Business and Occupation taxes forty years ago. But you're too young to

remember."
Mary is prepared to change her opinion about this deputy district director.

Parmenter is not amused. "We must protect the interests of the estate's

heirs, and Mrs. Crest did not file any authorization for her husband to

spend substantial joint funds pending final settlement of their divorce--not

that I represent the former Mrs. Crest--but this is all beside the main

point, sir."


"Yes, yes, but the apartment vid will surely settle these issues, and may in
fact be requested by Wellspring in their case, should they decide to pursue

it--and for seventy-five thousand dollars, I certainly would. An extraordinary

amount of money for the services of a mere prostitute, don't you think?"
"The going rate is about five thousand for an evening," Mary says.
Lodge turns on

a

"Please,"



says. "My
her
with
look
of
mock
affront.
he
sensibilities are ar least as delicate as those of Miz Parmenter."
"We do find the circumstances irregular," Parmenter says reluctantly. "Irregular

enough to contest payment, and I do not like to say more without

conferring with the estate."
"Do you have a description of the vid?" Lodge asks.
Parmenter appears distinctly uncomfortable. "Advocates are prevented from

releasing details about personal evidence in dispute," she says, "until Oversight

rules to release it for legal purposes. You know that, sir."
"Miz Parmenter, I assume Mr. Crest kept a vid record of all his personal

affairs, as so many important people do, though with many different motives,

and I can't presume to guess what Mr. Cresr's motives were. But such systems,

in my experience, keep at least a minimal visual-to-text log, transcribed by an


automated secretary. You have of course looked at this log?"

"Yes, sir. It is vague as to details."

"But what does it say, broadly?"
"It indicates the presence of two individuals in the apartment until Mr.
/ SLANT 175
"We alerted the medicals in Crest's building," Mary says. "The log must

show the presence of SPD officers at that point."


"Appearing for an appointment with Mr. Crest to discuss this other case,

now temporarily kept open," Lodge says. "A man has sex with a woman, whom

he pays an inordinate amount of money, and then commits suicide. He's involved

with shady investments... With companies or individuals who have

negligently allowed young women to die in a horrible manner. He's a very
complex man, this Terence Crest."
"Yes, sir," Mary says.
"It seems to me," Lodge says, "that there are a number of compelling reasons

to release these records to the SPD, specifically to Fourth Rank Mary Choy, to

clear up these ambiguities."
"We do not agree, sir," Parmenter says, now very uneasy. "But if that is

your pending judgment--"


"I believe it very well might be."
"Then I have been authorized by the estate to reveal a recently discovered..,

ah... a modification to the circumstances of the records in

question."
"Yes?" Lodge asks, raising his eyebrows.
"All vid and audio for that day have been retroactively erased by the machine

keeping the apartment records."


"Erased?" Parmenter asks. Mary sits up straighter in her chair, prepared to

be very interested, or perhaps officially angry.


"Without our knowledge until just before this meeting. The transcribed
record is intact but as I said, vague."
"Do you know why?"
"We are assuming a malfunction in the machine--"
"A very convenient malfunction," Mary says.
Parmenter shakes her head vigorously. "Very inconvenient, actually, for the

estate. It could create all kinds of mischief."


"No vid records?" Lodge looks stern. "You presume upon the dignity of

this court, Miz Parmenter. Wouldn't you call it deceptive not to tell us this

earlier?"
Parmenter looks as if her stomach is bothering her. She decides, once again,

to say nothing.


"You've brought proof of these changed circumstances?"
"Tech confirmation. The vid, audio, and all bur medical and transcribed

records for the day of Mr. Crest's death are blank."


Lodge leans back in his chair and shakes his head, again with a pixie smile.

"My," he says. "Very awkward indeed."


"Sir, I amend my request to all of the available records," Mary says quickly,
176 GREG BEAR
Parmenter accepts this without protest. There is really nothing more she

can say; the judgment has been issued, and there is no appeal.

But Mary does not have any idea what sort of shambling, crippled victory

she has won.

"We need to talk," she says to Parmenter in the hall outside.

"I don't need to talk with you," Parmenter responds.

"Vid recorders are supposed to be foolproof."

"Not so, apparently. And don't go fishing in our offices for conspiracies.

This is damned embarrassing."

"I need the tech's file."

"It's simple. The vid recorder has a link to Mr. Crest's pad, to allow him

to deactivate it should he wish to. He did not deactivate it, but something

worked its way through the pad after his death--time unknown--and broke

through the vid system firewalls."

"It was hacked?"

"That's our best guess. I think you can imagine how tough it is to hack a

billionaire's system. Listen, Miz Choy, we're lobe-sods here, just doing what

the heirs need to have done to protect their interests. You have all that's left.

My office had nothing to do with this, except to find it out too late to come

up with a good defense. Don't drop a ton of bricks."

Mary is inclined to believe her, but professionally can make no blanket

pronouncements. "Please send--"

"I know Nussbaum's sig," Parmenter says. "I was in lock and key before I

moved to keyhole and private law. I have to go now. Anything else?"

"Professionally, I should say thanks."

e

"It's nothing," Parmenter says, and then gives a small, pained laugh. "Really,



nothing at all."
11
Denny Tower is a long crystal prism standing on one point, supported by four
cylindrical pillars that rise to intercept the facets of the base. The Workers Inc
Northwest central office for the Corridor fills ten floors in the pillar that rises
to meet the western slant of the tower, near the junction. Above the junc

tion, the tower rises an additional twelve hundred feet, its top brushed this


late morning by a broken deck of smooth gray clouds. The tower's usual blue-
gray sheen has been modified to sunny gold to offset the gloomy and feature

less sky.

A I

'oil,mA ocnrr Martin Burke through the orientation and


/

SLANT 177

center. Workers Inc is very careful about providing access to this center. Temp

agency records on clients are immune from Federal and Citizen Oversight; and

the records in client tracking are the most comprehensive and critical of all.
In a real sense, for Workers Inc, this is the inner sanctum of a temple, where

the physical and mental vital signs of millions are fed into living, continuously

updated displays of immense power and subtlety. Martin has never been at the

heart of one before.


"We get the inputs from house monitors, agency medicals, therapists, city

and state proceedings," Carrilund explains as they enter the darkened display

circle. "All household diagnostics, all procedures, work records and employer

evaluations, and diary reports from our volunteer study clients, come here and

are processed. Nobody can connect individuals with the data; that's forbidden.

The whole system is protected by four INDAs instructed to code-lock the data

if a hack should be attempted. Only the personal presence of the top worldwide

executives of Workers Inc--about thirty in all--can unlock the data if that

happens. We've never had a successful real hack. We've never even managed

to irritate the system with test hacks."


Carrilund catches his faint smile and lifts one eyebrow. "Famous last words,

you think?"


Martin folds his arms, looking around the dark circular room. "No, I was

thinking about something else... As to the security, I really can't judge."


"We've offered a two million dollar reward to anyone who manages to get

past the first firewall," Carrilund says with that brittle sort of pride Martin

has often seen in players in an immense team effort. "There are nine walls

beyond that, each equally difficult. Nobody's collected the reward.


"We've been told by experts that we're better than National Defense."
If he had one tenth this power, Martin believes he could advance the science

of human social systems by decades... But he is merely a peon in the corporate

scale of things, a rogue scientist not part of the team.
"What about the data displays here? Who gets access to them?"
"Top execs and key employees only, on a need-to-know basis confirmed by

our own oversight board. The data is used for a number of purposes, but we

couldn't connect the data to any individual even if it were a matter of life and

death."
"I see. You've never used the data to do research?"


Carrilund gives him a sidewise look and narrows her eyes in amusement.

"We have an INDA and a staff of fourteen advocates who decide what we use


this data for. They've never okayed research for its own sake."
"Pity," Martin says.
"Um," Carrilund says, with a small smile. "This is also the only room where
we can access the data. It's large enough to accommodate about thirty people."

"All of the execs at once, if need be."


"Exactly." Carrilund requests two seats. They rise from the polished black
178

GREG BEAR

takes the seat beside him. He watches her movements with more than profes

sional interest; the combination of power and healthy grace, with the dignity


of her middle years, is a distraction from his focus. A wistful voice at the back
of his awareness asks if Carol, his former wife, wears this such grace and power
now, as well.
"Before our meeting with the board and other experts, I want you to see
what we've been seeing for the past two months. Can you read sociometrics?
We use standard icons and indicators."
"I presume I can, then."
Carrilund leans her head back. Projectors around the room have focused on
them and now provide triangulated feeds of light and sound to their eyes and
ears. The room takes on the empty graded blue of a cloudless desert sky; a null
hum surrounds them. The feeds override any other images or sound at first,
and for a disorienting moment, surveying the floating console of controls above
his hands and the disorienting void, Martin feels as if he is about to enter the
country of someone's mind, a journey he has not made in four years . . .
Then Carrilund's voice comes through clearly, rooting him. "Remember,
our clients have volunteered to be part of this," she says.
His vague sensation of weightless nausea goes away. "I would have agreed,
if I were them."
"Mr. Burke, we need your mind free and clear. We do not need freewheeling
moral judgment."
"Of course," Martin says with some irritation.
"You've gone upcountry in the mind of an individual. We're riding the
flow of the river upcountry into the simulated heart of a community. I'm sure
eou appreciate this opportunity."
Martin wonders if she is being patronizing, but it doesn't matter. This is
indeed like standing on the beach of a new sea, and his qualms and flashbacks
quickly fade. "I'm ready," he says.
"The community has a puzzling and possibly dangerous fever," Carrilund
says. "Let me show you what we've learned."
The blue changes to grass green. A plain extends to infinity. Bushes and
trees grow up from the plain. They become a thin forest, with canopy and
undergrowth. He touches the virtual controls here, there, and with some non-
tactile fumbling, he acquaints himself with its basics.
"This is the threshold," Carrilund says. Her voice sounds directly in his
right ear; she seems to be speaking softly, breathlessly. The effect is seduc

tive. "We'll start with charts and graphs and stay until we get a sense of


scale and some detail. Then we'll venture a little deeper. All the trees and
bushes here--"
"Personal event graphs--Smithfield Tri-chromas, with each growth repre

senting a thousand clients," Martin says.

:

-. A;c,c fi,:,lA



(-n he rnatted now if you wish."
/

SLANT 179


and female, and other--sexual transforms, he presumes--and then sexual orientation.

This display recognizes fifteen orientations, some of them maladaptive

and usually therapied in Western culture--disapproved of even in this

liberal age--which of course calls up questions of survey accuracy and the

honesty of reporting individuals.

With some shock, he sees that the numbers of individuals matching these

"outlaw" orientations is much higher than the figures he is familiar with.

"The sexual orientation stats are based on survey results cross-correlated

with entertainment-seeking patterns and have a maximum reliability in the

more extreme sub-fields o£about eighty percent," Carrilund says. She has slaved

her display to his explorations, he realizes she sees what he sees, and is good

at guessing how he might react, what he is thinking. Then why bring me here

at all. I'm supposed to offer some surprises,

"The numbers showing possible deviant behavior are way up," he says.

"Pedophiles, supermales, omniphilia with destructive context... Much higher

numbers than I'd expect."

"And they're on the rise. Some of the numbers are nearing what we would

expect in society without effective therapies. Figures haven't been this high

since 2012. An obvious danger sign, don't you think?"

"Hm," Martin says.

The display changes to softly shifting patches of rainbow color, like a tart

sorbet between courses of a rich meal.

"I'd like you to see a constellation of dendritic charts for diagnostic toilet

evaluations."

"All right," Martin says, grinning despite himself.

"About a third of our clients have diagnostic toilets. Generally upper four

percent in earnings. A greater percentage of naturals and high naturals; generally,

they're therapied for thymic rather than pathic imbalances."

New charts appear on a deep midnight ground like wildly radiating stars.

Carrilund highlights three of the stars clustered near the center. "Working

outward to current date, these are reports beginning two weeks ago of diseases

or infections within client households."

Martin points with one finger to bring up numerical statistics. Of the four

million households surveyed, infections have been detected in more than forty

percent. And the supposed infections change with time, beginning with warts

in skin sloughs from shower and bath gray water (diagnostic toilets almost

always interpret the entire household sewer system) and leading to a virtual

epidemic of bronchial and nasal infections.

"What about medical reports?" Martin asks.

Carrilund brings up these stats as simple bar charts laid over the dendritic

stars. They show no increases in hospital visits or medical arbeiter attendance

to treat such illnesses, which is what Martin would expect, knowing that nearly

all viral outbreaks are easily controlled by medical monitors found in most of
180 GREG BEAR
"The toilets are giving us false reports day after day," Carrilund concludes.

"Even when checked and reset."

Martin thinks this over, mind racing. "But you've told me... You're concerned

about mental therapy fallbacks."

"Use your controls and bring up charts of our therapied clients in this

population. Now match them with the households whose diagnostic toilets are

acting up."

With some fumbling and false starts, Martin makes the correlations.

"Sorry," he says after a couple of minutes. "There. Households with therapied

members are the source of all false disease reports."

"I wanted you to see for yourself. That took us two hours to find last week,

when we decided to run neural data searches. The trend is consistent."

Martin rubs his cheek with one finger. "I'll need stats for thymic disturbances

in the overall client list..." He finds the display. "Up twelve percent,

but only previously therapied people show the increase. What about pathic

imbalances and criminal behavior?"

Carrilund keys in an entirely new display. "Remember, this is professional...

You've signed strict nondisclosure."

"I remember," Martin says softly.

"We've had a twenty-five percent increase in arrests for social disturbances

and other misdemeanors, and a five percent increase in felonies, mostly assaults

and rapes, but a few murders, as well. It's been Worker Inc policy not to

employ individuals with a record of violent crimes, even when they've been

therapied... We leave those folks to the rehab temp agencies. So if our hypothesis

is correct, that we're seeing an epidemic of fallbacks, we would expect

e

our greatest increase to be in thymic disorders. And it is."



"What about the misdemeanors--do you have pull-outs for category?"

"Here's the breakdown."

The display rises before them like a sun cut into pie wedges. Martin examines

the icons and captions for more details, punching his finger at the

virtual display, poking empty air.

"You have ten thousand twelve hundred and three cases of disturbing

the peace, social misbehavior requiring PD action, in the past week," Martin

says, stroking his cheek more rapidly. He frowns. Details on selected

cases come up. "Public displays of nudity. Blatant racial insults. Let's get

away from criminal behavior for a moment and look into complaints of unprofessional

actions. How many referrals for client misbehavior have come

back to this office?"

Carrilund finds him the right folio within the display and the charts and

figures for these incidents appear. They take him some time to sort through.

He is most interested in the sudden increase of incidents of expressed racism

in the work place--evidence perhaps of bigotry, the old devil of genetically o,A ,-,dr,,rllv rnixd rotulations. Most forms of racism are now regarded as


/

SLANT 181


Workers Inc seems to be experiencing levels of racist behavior not seen since

the teens and twenties.

Irrational and pernicious. And outbursts of public obscenity--

"Any ideas?" she asks.

"Can we get national figures here?"

"No," Carrilund says. "But I've been authorized to let you know that these

figures are remarkably uniform for North America, including Mexico."

"Workers Inc has a problem with politeness, it seems."

Carrilund chuckles ruefully. "That puts it mildly."

"There seems to be focused antisocial activity in your clients... But what

in hell do diagnostic toilets have to do with this?" He shakes his head. He

asks for the display to cease for a moment and he turns to look at Carrilund.

"Is it possible we're seeing the results of some unknown disease agent? Something

not in the medical database? Microbial infections have been known to

produce thymic imbalances. Production of natural antivirals to fight infection

has been shown to produce depression in some people."

"It's possible," Carrilund says, "but if so, it will have to be non-viral, nonbacterial,

non-protist and non-mycotic, and even fall outside the range of

prions."

She's certainly up on this. Maybe she came out of the medical disciplines. "Something

going wrong in the equipment itself?"

"The equipment is fine."

Martin finds the problem oddly exhilarating. "I noticed some charts on

sexual harassment and domestic and sex-related abuse--" He pauses. "Let's

skip that for the moment. I wouldn't expect fallback to produce immediate

increases in these areas."

"But they have," Carrilund says. "Couples who have gone in for mutual

therapy in domestic abuse cases--mostly supermale territorial aggression--and

have been free of incidents for years, are coming back to their therapists

in alarming numbers. We don't have statistics available through this center

yet--members of some of the families and partner units work for different

temp agencies. We're trying to draw information from other agencies, but so

far that doesn't seem workable. We guess that such incidents have more than

doubled."

"My God," Martin murmurs. "If your members are arrested, do you track

news reports?"

"Of course," Carrilund says. "All that information has to be included in

their employment prospectuses, by federal law." She makes a sour face. "We

hate to do it, but the Raphkind amendments to our charter force us to."

"Can you show me vids on the more serious cases? I'd like to see facial

expressions, body language."

"I think I can bring that in. Let me ask the INDA."

It takes ten seconds, but the display returns with a simple text list of news
182

GREG BEAR

out two. The first is a flat vid of a well-dressed male, age thirty to thirty-five,

standing on a street corner. He is shouting at passersby, singling out the few

transforms for intense verbal abuse. The incident has been captured by a small

flying news sniffer. It slowly circles the man.

Martin notes the cocky angle of the man's head, his small, steady, confident

smile. He seems to think what he is doing is not only enjoyable, but beneficial.

He appears surprised and offended when a large black male accompanying a

small, delicate transform female threatens him with a raised fist and starts

shouting him down.

"This client received therapy for a minor thymic imbalance when he was

twenty-two, thirteen years ago," Carrilund says. "Depressive tendencies and

eating disorders."

"He's beyond that now," Martin observes. "Second vid."

This vid, also from a sniffer, shows a small, middle-aged woman--about

his age, Martin guesses--in a public plaza inside one of the larger towers. She

is pulling up her dress and masturbating. Her delighted expression is that of

a little girl revealing some lovely surprise to her friends. Two female mall

security guards take her by the arms and the vid ends.

"Therapied ten years ago for fear of public places," Carrilund explains. Martin

sighs.


The list returns and Martin clears the display. He leans toward Carrilund.

"The fusing of public misbehavior, shouting obscenities, uncharacteristic

racism, that's very interesting. Unfiltered antisocial inspirations. All of it could

be linked to difficulties in the Tourette organon."

"We haven't thought of that," she says.

e

Good. Maybe I can of Jr something useful after all.


"I've seen these expressions before, in my student days. You understand the
Tourette organon?"
"I know it's been intensely studied," Carrilund says. "I'm not up on the
latest."
"The original syndrome was discovered by a Frenchman, Georges Gilles de
la Tourette. It was characterized by involuntary tics and movements and by
coprolalia--uncontrolled speaking of obscenity, dirty talk. In 2013, another
Frenchman, Francois Cormier, extended the name to describe the actions of a
continuum of brain functions in the limbic system. He called them the 'imps
of the perverse.' He believed that much of the brain relies on impulses from
these imps to maintain a high level of invention and preserve the self. Skep

ticism, doubt, social defense mechanisms, even certain physical motions related


to disgust and rejection, all begin in the Tourette organon.
"The child acquires filters that select and screen out most of these impish
impulses, but for someone with Tourette syndrome, there are leaks in the filters
that allow sporadic outbursts."

,,L


n rhvrn in your ventures upcountry?" Carrilund asks.
/

SLANT 183

"Yes."
"I'm sorry if I'm intruding."
"Not at all. My former wife and I wrote several papers on the topic."

"Your demon acquired from an unnamed patient."

"You must know the details already," Martin says dryly.

"Only what you published. What was it like?"


"Well, of course, the transfer was not that of an actual demon or even an

aspect of the patient's personality. We believed that traumatic experiences

excited certain agents and sub-agents within our minds.., which assumed the

character of a dangerous sub-personality."


"Was this Emanuel Goldsmith?" Carrilund asks quietly.
Martin's face flushes and his hands tense on the edge of the couch. He does

not answer.


"Sorry," Carrilund says, turning away.
"Our own problems stemmed from..." He swallows, still angry but struggling

to maintain. "From our Tourette organons assuming the character of this

sub-personality. A bad influence, as it were."
Carrilund turns back. "When I was a teenager, I had an irritating voice in

my head, a character. It was a tramp, a filthy, disheveled male with a thin,

dirty face, demented. All it did was sit in the back of my thoughts and say,

'Give me some of that old Smoky Joe!' It said it over and over again, with real

enthusiasm. It wasn't a major problem by any means--just an image I sometimes

encountered, like a stupid tune you can't shake. Would you classify that

as a manifestation from my Tourette organon?"
"Perhaps," Martin says. He is suddenly very tired.
"Mr. Burke, I apologize. But it seems to me you might have personal experience

of what some of our clients are going through. If something is breaking

down their mental architecture, stripping away their protection from old
mental demons, you of all people will understand."
Martin still does not meet her eyes.
"Would you like to go a little further?" she asks.
"Sorry... what?" He is confused by this offer, thinking of something else,

of her seductiveness. He wants to get out of here, but his professional standing

is at stake.
"The next level of our tracking center is quite remarkable," she says.

"Yes, of course." He lifts his hand and waves it. "Let's go."

The blue void reappears, and the atonal hum.
"We'll enter a Pickover space," Carrilund says. "Twelve variables condensed

into four dimensions, using Lunde equations to join the state vectors."


Martin hardly hears her. The blue void fogs abruptly and he has a sensation

of rushing. Shadows pass in the fog; he knows a little of this kind of display.

He once sampled a Pickover space while trying out graphic interfaces for patient

mental stats; they are on the boundary of the real, in the murmurous potential


184 GREG BEAR
They are suddenly plunged into a lattice of massive twisted cellular shapes,

their skins visible in intense, crystalline detail, their interiors floating within,

hinting at infinite densities. The shapes seem to be longer than they are thick,

and weave together to form the lattice like strands in a basket viewed from

the perspective of a microbe; but as their perspective changes, the apparent

length of each cell changes as well.

In Pickover space, the viewer's orientation in the three dimensions is interpreted

as a request for compression and linking of new sets of variables, thus

shifting the domains and smoothly altering the results. This much he remembers,

though it has been a long time since he used such an interface.

"This is the entire Northwest, from the point of view of Workers Inc,"

Carrilund says. Her voice seems very distant. "Human stats only, reflecting

psychological, cultural, and economic conditions, with efficiency of datafiow

and mental vitality reflected in flow of money, both treated as the power to

command and accomplish work."

"I see," Martin said, overwhelmed by the scintillating surfaces, the vertiginous

shifts caused by even the slightesr motion of his head.

"Blue, green, and cream colors indicate variations within parameters considered

healthy. Red and dark red show problem territories. Black and gray

we call abscesses, or regions of severe instability leading to trenching of the

relevant variables--strains in the economy and consequently, the society."

"I presume we're at the beginning of a time period," Martin says.

"Right. Let's travel across the past month."

The "travel" is not through the lattice, like fish through kelp, but rather,

the lattice fluxes around them, as if the kelp is washed by subtle tides. Some
if the cell-like bodies thin to nothing and vanish, but remain green and blue

all the while: tiny spots of red appear like rash over the surfaces, and darker

reds pulse within the cells, but vanish. A small indicator always at the lower

right-hand corner of his visual field shows time passing, day after day.

The effect is hypnotic. Martin for a moment feels the startling sensation,

like the jerk of an engaged clutch, as his analytical mind meshes with the

display, and he understands the broad structure. The display is meant to fit

into the autopoietic learning methods of parallel and webbed neural nets, particularly

INDAs, human minds, and presumably thinkers. Given enough time

and study, he really could grasp all that he is being shown, and he feels a burn

of envy for this tool, made available to him for only a short while. So much could

be so/red, so much anticipated/

It is very much like going upcountry into the human mind, for this isa

display used much the same way the mind uses its dreamlike country; even

more like the extraordinary mandalas the mind uses to correlate its own health

and functionality. He is lost in childlike awe. The lives and efforts of tens of

millions pass before him: births and deaths, cultural ebbs and flows, trends
/ SLANT 185
ship, competition and cooperation, levels of maladaptive behavior including

the criminal and the culturally repressed...

The red rashes are breaking out all over now. He looks at his time indicator.

They are entering the past of one week ago. The cell-like bodies become as

gaudy as sea slugs, and some glow like hot embers, with burned-out black

spots and ashen surfaces expanding. He seems to be watching a fire in a dream

jungle canopy, the branches glowing and leaves withering under heat and

invisible flame.

"We'll extrapolate now, speeding forward two years." Carrilund's voice jars

him, like a pig's squeal in a symphony. The time indicator whirs past. He

turns his head and the green and blue and cream is chased by the red; the

forest wriggles and slithers as if trying to escape and is scorched and then

incinerated.

He drifts at the end of two years in a desolation of ash with a few subtle

spots of green, then these too wink out.

Gray gives way to darkness, like ashes wetted by rain.

"Enough," Carrilund says. The blue void and multicolored mist return, but

not in time to save Martin's dignity. He sits back on the couch, his cheeks

damp. Carrilund is moved as well. She hands him a handkerchief and he sees

something less cool, more sympathetic, in her expression as she watches him

wipe his eyes.

"I don't know what to say," Martin tells her.

"I've seen this three times now, and I don't know what to say, either."

"Is the whole culture getting sick--is it dying?"

"We've run this space twenty or thirty different ways, and the results come

out the same."

"Something is burning our people. There's a fire in our minds," Martin says.

"I'm glad you see it that way, too," Carrilund says. Her voice sounds fragile.

"I think to myself, someone is hurting my children. I think of our clients that

way... I have no children of my own."

She turns away, irritated at having revealed so much, but this allows Martin

to regain his own composure.

"It's a war, I don't know what kind of war," Carrilund says. "I wish I knew

who or what was doing this."

"I'd like to help, if I may," Martin says.

"We need all the help we can get," Carrilund says. "You hold the patent

on most therapeutic monitors. Who better to advise us?" She stands and off'rs

her hand. Martin slides off his couch a little awkwardly and shakes it.

As their hands touch, a loud and unpleasant horn alarm sounds in the room.

They pull back and stand several feet apart, hands still extended. Carrilund

glances at him, eyes wide.

A small but urgent female voice speaks out all around them: "Thi i an


186

GREG BEAR


Carrilund stiffens and cocks her head; she has never experienced this before. "This system has been breached. This system has been breached. All firewalls

have been penetrated and information is being transferred to an outside system.

Repeat: this is an emergency alert to human operators. Lockdown is not successful.

This system--"

Carrilund runs from the room. Martin follows at a discreet distance, knowing

the best thing he can do, for the time being, is stay out of the way.


Dinner is spare--hamburgers from a local takeout, a bottle of beer apiece, an

apple. Giffey doesn't mind. He's been waiting for Hale to say his piece, put

him in his place. Hale is low-key, not brash; preferring to bide his time rather

than bursting out with his accumulated concerns.

They eat separately, Jenner joining Giffey in the office. The team has not

yet found its center, nor does it have any sense of cohesion, and Giffey is sure

Hale will bring that up. He seems a managerial rather than a dictatorial type.

Giffey appreciates this, as far as it goes. But Giffey has his own agenda in this

effort, and he will not let Hale's sensibilities get in his way. There are bound

to be some conflicts.

Mercifully, Jenner eats in silence. But for the creaking of the steel walls as

j they contract in the evening's cold, the warehouse is quiet. Even in the over

heated office, drafts of cold air slip through like flows of ghostly ice.
Hale knocks and enters before anybody answers. He looks at Giffey and
smiles, a little falsely. "We need to have our talk now," he says. Jenner stops
in mid-chew, looks between them, then gathers up his plate and bottle and
leaves. Hale sits in the chair behind the desk.
"I thought you'd like to settle some things before tomorrow," Hale says.
"And I have a few more questions to ask."
"All right," Giffey says, putting down his burger half-eaten.
Having stated his purpose, Hale seems reluctant to leap right in. "Meat's
meat here," he says, pointing to Giffey's plate. "In New York, it's almost a
sin to eat beef."
"Yeah."
Hale folds his hands on the desktop. "We've had very little time to get
acquainted, Mr. Giffey. May I call you Jack?"
Giffey nods.
"Jack. This is my team, here. We've worked together before, in odd little

:-- :-.


tto rr,,nrrv I know these leople and

I

trust



them.
/

SLANT 187


work. Pickwenn and Pent... They're oddballs, but they've never failed me. Park--I've never worked with him before, but he has a good reputation. You,

Jack..." Hale regards him with a flat, alert expression.

"You know nothing about me," Giffey says.

"Or about Jenner."

Giffey leans his head to one side, acknowledging that the situation is unusual.

"I understand that our window of opportunity is narrow, that your contacts

and my contacts have never worked together before. And what I've been told

about both of you.., what I know about Park ... is encouraging."

"Same with your folks," Giffey says.

"Thank you. The rules of engagement are that we agreed to say that I'm in

charge. I get the feeling you're used to being the one in command."

"I'm flexible," Giffey says.

"We're in an awkward situation here, and there's a lot of missing pieces to

our side of this puzzle. I'm not used to that. This MGN concerns me. I have

no idea in hell how you or anybody could get such stuff. I know--contacts in

government and the military, Raphkind sympathizers, all dog-inthe-manger,

and not hard to believe. But some of this stuff hasn't even been hinted on the

ribes. Yet here we are, with you and Jenner, relying on stuff that supposedly

doesn't even exist to overcome what may very well be stiff resistance inside

Omphalos."

Hale licks his lips and leans his head back. "I appreciate your trying to keep

it all in perspective, calm us down about what to expect, but I don't find any

of this calming. My people were not told about Ferrets, and we weren't told

about this MGN, or why we should even have it. I am frankly concerned on

both accounts."

"I understand."

"I'd like to know more about your sources. Procurement. Where Jenner

comes in, his past experience... If it's any exchange, I'll level with you about

my people."

Giffey stares down at his clasped hands. "I am as ignorant about some of

this as you are. Mr. Park made some of the arrangements, and he brought us

together. Perhaps you should discuss this with him."

"Park works with people who expect big returns on their investment. He

doesn't talk much, and he doesn't like to put himself in danger. But getting

MGN is as much a surprise to him as it is to me. Have you met Park before,

or worked for him?"

"I've worked for his superiors . . . indirectly."

Hale lifts his eyebrows, encouraging Giffey to continue.

"I can't say any more about that."

Hale backs down for a moment. "Pickwenn and Pent are the best in this

business. They tell me Omphalos may be vulnerable, but they also tell me
188 GREG BEAR

"We've known that from the beginning," Giffey says.


Hale's face screws up in sudden, childish frustration. "God dammit, Jack,
you don't seem at all concerned about how shoved together, how last-minute
this is."
"High risk for high gain," Giffey says.
Hale throws this off with a toss of his hand. "I know the Aristos, Jack. I've
worked with people who worked with them at various times on various jobs.

I've come to know their operations, but they don't know anything about me.

That's how I've managed to get us this appointment. They are not nice people,

not at the top. I don't know about the lackeys, but the guys at the top--they

are vicious, cold, and arrogant. They scare me, but I hate them more than I'm

afraid of them."


"So it all balances out. Gain, risk, a blow against the big bad boys."
"Do you know what kind of connections the Aristos have in government?"
Hale asks.
"Enough to get them Ferrets," Giffey says.
"Is it possible that folks who can get us MGN are even more hateful and

dangerous than the Aristos?"


Giffey grins. "We are in no position to choose moral sponsors," he
says.
"No," Hale says. "No, we're not. After this is over, if we're still alive, Hally
and I are going to get the hell away from all of this. Southern China, maybe.

A few tens of millions will do it. Financial sigs and notes we can exercise before

anybody wises up.. ·
"This is my last, too," Giffey says.
e
Hale sits up in the chair. "I need you and Jenner, Jack, but I don't trust

you. I think you're more comfortable in command, and you may even be more

experienced than I am."
"I am not going to challenge your leadership," Giffey says.
"No, but you'll have the MGN. You'll have the balance of power."

They watch each other closely for four or five long seconds.

"Don't underestimate my contribution, Jack," Hale says.

Giffey shakes his head.


"Don't underestimate my desperation in putting Hally and myself and Pick-
wenn and Pent in this kind of operation. I can't stay in this business much

longer. Too many birds are coming home to roost. I assume it's the same

with you."
Giffey says nothing.
"Well, I'm glad we've got all this straight," Hale says with a sour face,

standing. "Glad to be on firm footing and in complete sync."


Giffey chuckles. "It'll be quite a romp, Mr. Hale," he says. "A fine capstone
for our checkered careers."
.... ,:c: ...... A ,inr hi finer at Giffev. "A warning, Jack. I'm
/

SLANT 189


being misused, or cheated, or put in unnecessary danger... If she gets hurt

for no good reason...

Giffey nods solemnly. This much he can completely sympathize with.

"I believe in treating women right, and putting them in no more danger

than I'm willing to face myself," Hale says. "And for me, there are no other

women. Just Hally."

Hale nods emphatically and leaves, shutting the door behind him. Giffey

leans against the file cabinet in thoughtful silence.

Jenner returns to the office a moment later, carrying an almost-empty bottle

of beer. He sits in the chair Hale has vacated, watching Giffey as if waiting

for orders.

"Don't stare at me like I'm your goddamned general or your father," Giffey

snaps. "I'm not." He jabs his finger at the door. "Hale is the boss. Not me."

"Yes, sir," Jenner says respectfully. "Are we all going to work together

smoothly, sir?"

"I hope so, Mr. Jenner."

"I hope so too, sir," Jenner says, and finishes the last swig of his beer.
13
"I thought you said this wasn't going to be a fryball," Alice murmurs to Twist.

Fryballs are vid and Yox entertainment parties, typically frenetic and overblown.

Twist makes a sour face.

"This is all I could find," she says. She wriggles with half-restrained energy

and frustration, then pleads, "You can get us in! Some tro shink people are

here. We should meet them, you know, make touches, do the flow."

"Like who?" she asks.

"Men and women, why can't they get along?" a woman's voice calls out

along the pathway to the big house. Huge house, really, perched high on

Capitol Hill, in the shadow of the old Corridor/Sound Relay Tower. The

woman's voice echoes across the street.

Twist pokes the side of her nose and shakes her head, grinning. Alice is

waiting for the other side of the question/conversation, for somebody to answer.

"Christ. Everybody's from a different planet," she hears a man's voice say.

"I wonder, could that be true?" Twist asks.

Alice feels the deep little burn again, as if someone has pressed a just-extinguished

match somewhere into the center of her head. They've made it

up the front walkway, through the forest of twisting angels and fairies on

slender black poles, through the glowing green archway to where they are
190

GRE6 BEAR


"Non-invite," Twist tells Alice at the last minute, with a little shimmy

straightening her flimsy dress beneath her coat. She smiles sweetly. "You try

first. You're more famous than I am."

Alice grits her teeth and glares at Twist.

The arbeiter pushes Alice's name and palmscan through a status filter.

"You're not on my list," the arbeiter says in a snooty voice, nasal and slyly

false. "It is apparently not a true spin name. Are you currently employed in a

sly project?"

"I've finished working on a Francis Cord Yox," Alice says. She may not

want to go to this party, but even less does she want to be forbidden to enter.

"I'll push that and see if it goes through," the arbeiter says, and quickly

enough a little bowing fairy dances on its head, beckoning them to enter.

"Welcome, Alice Grale; you are part of the cast of The Faerie (ueene."

"This is my friend," Alice says, and the arbeiter records Twist's image. Twist

smiles brightly.

"Yow," Twist says. "Francis is sly again." They enter through the high front

door. "Heat made flesh!'

The main hall is filled with men and women standing in threes or more--

the party is young and they have not yet broken into more intimate groups--or

strolling, many carrying drinks and plates of food. Arbeiters roll through with

more food and more drinks; a particularly large arbeiter, at least eight and a

half feet high, moves ponderously on delicate insect legs dispensing jewelry

promoting a new fibe-direct action Yox, Ten High Command.

Twist grabs a drink in a crystal bulb and squeals with delight as she moves

through the crowd and approaches the big arbeiter. "I collect these things!"

she calls back to Alice, plucking up a necklace. "Yow! Sapphires!"

e Alice looks over the main hall. She recognizes a few ex-spin and slow-rev

faces, folks who two or three seasons past might have been sly indeed in the

eyes of billions, greater than she ever was, but who are now living on residuals

and scheming on how again to lay siege and take the town.

A few figures shimmer every few minutes, projections of famous men and

women from the eighties and nineties, expertly mimicked by out-of-view

INDAs rented for the occasion. She recognizes Richard Thompson, looking

uncomfortable in a denim jacket, hands in pockets; Thompson became

hugely popular again just last year. A pair of young women are talking with

him; they wear almost nothing, as subtle as steel-toed boots, and they're just

killing time, sweeping the room with opal eyes to see what the solid men

are up to.

Thompson shimmers like a mirage and then meets Alice's gaze and smiles.

He seems to be looking for somebody who wants to talk intelligently; he's

long dead and he can't do anything with half-naked wahinis.

Alice doesn't feel up to talking with dead people. She moves on to the

e:ond bi room, a ballroom and group Yox chamber, and more people. Bits
/

SLANT 191

--"All that backmind. Never even reached the cerebrum."
--"Top dyne in that deal. Signed clauses with references in three dimensions, never

experienced that kind of protection..." ."


--"He's at Topps/Bally now, trying to hold together the Monte Carlo Yox deal.

They got a point last year and now they're on the board of directors."


--"Have you caught Melissa Missile on Twentieth? She's been tapping into White

House secrets and the FBI is going after her puppeteers."


--"So I asked her. 'Senator, which would you rather see, a real Yox of people fucking,

or a fake Yox of people getting killed?' She wouldn't answer. She could not answer.

That's one of those questions no politician will ever be able to answer. And the whole

committee chamber--"


Twist comes back to Alice, clutching a ring and two necklaces, all flashing

tiny logos and designs from the as-yet-ungated Yox.


"Who's giving this party?" Alice asks, a little dismayed to realize Twist has

told her nothing about the celebration, not even who owns the house.


"Some producers," Twist says. Twist is bright and happy, all her mental

troubles forgotten. Still, in the middle of her broad grin, Twist's lips jerk and

she tosses her head as if avoiding a fly. "You did vids f)r them back when.

Jake Sanchez and Tim Shandy."


"Oh. I did vids for Jake, not for Tim."
But Twist has darted off again, leaving Alice staring at empty air and

unfocused figures beyond. She looks around and then up at the ceiling, uneasy.

She hasn't seen Jake Sanchez in nine years, and Tim...
Tim never did vids with Jake. He left Jake before Jake ever signed Alice.

Thinking of Tim, she doesn't really want to be here. The image of her apt

beckons, small and close; her mind is unsettled, and her insides twist with

worries so deep she can't remember what they are.


But she's here and the party is just winding up and she is determined not

to be down in an up and swirling world. Steeled, she looks around not for

familiar faces, but prepares to engage in the old and pleasant game of finding

new attractions.


The house seems to go on forever. One room is surrounded by terraces with

springy floors, like rice-paddy beds rising to meet walls glimmering with

twilight skies. No free behavior is evident yet, but Alice senses that couples

will soon condense. The joins may evaporate and new duets rain out, several

times before the night is over.
She feels a renewal and some of the old party stir watching the attractive

men and women talking, getting ready to seize the night. Her entrails settle,

away from worry and into drives that have always been strong and facile for

Alice; she has never had trouble connecting, first with words and then with

hands and later with her entire body. Sex is like running free in clear cool air,

or so she convinces herself yet again.


She assumes the posture, the expression, of challenging indulgence that
192 GREG BEAR
a spectacular Apollonian body dressed in slender ribbons of orange, and starts

to walk toward him.


She turns, surprised, to see Jake. With dizzying speed, she shifts to wary

professional friendliness, not provocative, but familiar. She allows him to kiss

her cheek--he takes a tongue-swipe at her earlobe, to which she blandly ac-quiesces-and

they hold hands at arms length, turning slowly in mock joy,

examining each other.

"You are still the most beautiful, you know?" Jake says. He is in his fifties,

tightly handsome and brown, with a band of gold and clear ruby embroidered

around his forehead. His eyes are different colors, by birth not

design, and his nose is still large and bulbous, a trademark distortion men

of his power can get away with. "I hear you're working with Francis. How

is the old artiste?"

"Precise," Alice says.

Jake laughs in dubious recognition. "Yeah, the whisper is he's onto something

big. May even get a SexYule exposure and be expanded to the WorldWide

Yox. It's lit, what can the Grundys and Exons say?"

Alice smiles. She's small in whatever success Francis may have, but at least

she's on the list.

Jake grins on. "I remember when we worked on a vid with Francis and he

made you retake a simple entry fourteen times. The lights kept wandering

away and he wanted your lovely navel like a swimming pool, with sweat, you

know.., just right."

Alice does not remember that. There have been so many takes on so many

entries. Burn.

"You know Tim and I are working together now. After all these years."

"I didn't know," Alice says.

"Amazing, friends all these years. We've got some heavy projects, total

audience grabs. Not your usual Jakey schmaltz. Tim brings real class."

She can't imagine Tim working with Jake. "Things have changed," she says.

"He got hungry," Jake says with shrug. "Hey, didn't know you'd be here,

but slide free. Maybe we can talk later."

"You own the house?" Alice asks. Jake nods proudly. "Introduce you to my

wives. They're twins, paired, with plugs, you know. Amazing team. Parallel

women!"

Jake is off, walking zag like a dog hunting up birds to flush. Alice suddenly



specks clear as in an X-ray the anatomy of these folks, the half-life they live

separated from work or a live audience.

She's no better.

She looks again for the Apollonian male, anything to douse the burn, distract

her for a few minutes but he's not in the room now and she feels lonely,

nobody else here will do. Still, she looks.


/

SLANT 193

A balding man in his forties approaches with a servile smile. "Pardon me,"

he says. "Miz Grale. I've seen your vids."


"Oh?" She can do this in her sleep. Maybe he'll sense that and go away

politely.


But no such luck. "You're extraordinary. I think you showed me what women

can be like, when I was going through a rough time, getting divorced... You

kept me sane. I knew there had to be women as genuine and warm as you. I want

to thank you."


"You're welcome."
He has this look in his eyes, totally vulnerable. His little male sexual coprocessor

is running overtime; he's going to hang on this ten or fifteen seconds

and all she has to do is reach out and touch his shoulder (he might be sly and

top, it's been so long since she's met the new bosses) and he'll remember this

for years to come. Making love to other women, he'll be a kind of zombie slave

to her in his backmind, he'll think of her every time he needs to reach orgasm,

and his wives or girlfriends will wonder why they never quite connect.
Alice reaches out and grips his shoulder, leans forward, kisses him lightly

on the cheek. "You're sweet to let me know," she says. "You make so many

things worthwhile." Her smell sets the hook deeper. "Those times when it

isn't easy. You know?"


The man nods vigorously. "Oh, yes!"
Alice blinks at him. "Can you tell me where the bathroom is?"
"Oh yes, it's an amazing bathroom, it's over there, behind the forest wall--those

trees, in the next room."


"Thank you," and she gives him her most dazzling professional smile. When

she turns and walks away, she does not even remember his face.


The bathroom is bigger than her apartment. The toilet stalls are ten feet

on a side and covered with pink marble and are fibed for full-sense spinal

induction Yox. The wall-length mirror is virtual not reflective and the bathroom

in the mirror is filled with female celebrities from times past, and she's

right in among them. Marilyn Monroe emerges from one stall, in the mirror,

and adjusts her calf-length white dress. She catches Alice's sight-line and smiles

that sun-honey smile. "Your turn, sweetie," she says.
Marilyn's Character Estate Manager--CEM in the trade--never rents her

cheap. She's a perennial, no matter what decade is sly.


Jakey is doing very well indeed; either that or is blowing everything he ever

made, and he'll likely drag Tim with him when he sputters down.


Alice hasn't thought about Tim in years, and with good reason. She killed

something wonderful that time, like stepping on a beautiful butterfly; and she

did it for no good reason, except that there were other prospects and she

thought she needed to get on with her life.


And maybe she thought he could do better. He was that kind of man, that

nice.
194

GREG BEAR
She gets up from the toilet as it whirls away her urine. "Excuse me," the

toilet says. "You should check with your physician--"

Alice slams the door and stands outside the stall, her heart hammering.

"Don't you hate that?" asks a woman with maple and oak patterned skin,

emerging from the stall next to hers. Both stalls continue their irrational warnings.

"They're doing that everywhere now!"

Outside the bathroom, Alice wonders how much of this she can ignore

without screaming. Twist orbits past on the arm of the strangest-looking man

Alice has seen thus far at the party. He's seven feet tall and built like a Popeye

Goon, with heavy forearms covered with hair and incredibly broad shoulders

and a banana nose, and his eyes are those of a proboscis monkey. Twist seems

ecstatic. He's different and Twist is not one to turn down new experiences.

Alice wonders how well hung Goons are. She shudders.

Finally she comes to the back of the house and the long green lawn set

with winterlife palms and beds of blue irises and violets. The fence is brick

and twenty feet high; set in the bricks at intervals are vid monitors reflecting

the party back, with add-ons: giants, dinosaurs, disjointed animes, kid-vid

characters, all accompanied by floating icons denoting their current

corporate owners. (Alice remembers the (cE mark on Marilyn's dress ... )

Typical for Jakey, this is all very obvious, forced, like sausage meat, which

everybody likes even knowing what's in it, and for that reason most of the

guests can at least pretend they're having a good time. The party provides

everything they expect, an excellent top-do, a shink sham, or whatever else the

socials will call it in the trade spares.

The burn is really giving her grief now. She's tough; she can handle six bad

{lmmOtions and still keep a face, but she had hoped for something to take her

ind away to body-buzz nirvana, to a himmelspace, and what she gets is just

more EntBiz flare and glint.

Richard Thompson has somehow migrated to the back porch, where he's

talking with Billie Holiday. Alice walks past them. Holiday nods as if they

know each other. Then the two projections go on talking. Alice wonders if

somebody will reconstruct her and set her up at some party a hundred years

from now. But then, maybe in a hundred years they won't have parties.

Maybe they'll all lie in cold coffins and suck up Yox, forever and ever.

She's been looking for Tim without knowing it and here he is, standing

with three other men on the lawn. They're dressed in gray EntBiz-cut longsuits

with fan collars and forearm-length sleeves puff-cuff like pastries. Tim has

grown a beard and she wonders whether it suits him. He half-turns, scanning

for new faces, and spots her. Turns away.

Alice suddenly feels warm and touches her face, then pulls her hand away.

Jaw muscles hard as rocks, she looks for the Apollonian again, clenches her

hands until the fingernails bite. There is no reason on Earth for Tim Shandy

....... I tn nv attention to her. He's sly top and she's not; he's working EntBiz
/

SLANT 195


With her back to Tim and the group, she sees a very odd-looking figure

standing below the wall, like a tailor's dummy covered with metallic cloth.

Then she realizes this is a portable simulacrum, its projectors turned

off or perhaps in transition. She watches it, studiously ignoring Tim and his

people.

Sure enough, the projection returns, but it's nobody she recognizes. It's a



young, odd-looking man, little more than an adolescent boy, and his feet seem

stuck in a pile of thick steaming dirt. He stares at her with a spooky intensity.

At one of Jakey's parties, anything is possible.

The figure moves toward her, not walking but smoothly gliding. For a

flickering moment, it transforms to Richard Thompson again, but the adolescent

returns, standing in his pile of dirt. Something seems to be malfunctioning.

"Is your name Alice Grale?" the image asks her.

She nods. "What are you? A practical joke?"

"My name is Roddy," it says. "I just wanted to look at you."

"Where's Richard?" she asks. "Billie get tired of him?"

The figure smiles awkwardly. "They're pretty deep, actually. I've been talking

to the dark woman for some time now. Sorry about this."

Alice gapes at the projection. "What?"

"I need to be certain you're really Alice Grale."

"I really am," she says, looking around. She has never been asked questions

by a projection before.

"Do you know someone named Terence Crest?"

Alice's face goes white and she stammers.

"Do you?"

"Yes," Alice manages, then regrets saying anything.

"Thank you."

The adolescent vanishes and Richard Thompson returns, but the character

appears stuck in some loop, and shortly, the simulacrum drops its ruse and

rolls off to a portable shed at the far northern corner of the yard.

Alice rubs her face for a moment, wondering if she's just imagined the

encounter. Still pale, she walks toward the buffet table several yards away

beneath the vid monitors, absently picks up a plate and loads it with vegetables,

then looks with caution upon a live sauce bunched to one side of a bowl.

She takes a dollop of the live sauce and pools it next to her vegetables. The

sauce flows into a shiny picture, Ten High Command's poster and Yox promo

sig, and she watches it with such interest that she does not hear or see a man

approach her left side. At the man's touch, she starts violently, expecting the

ghostly adolescent with his feet stuck in dirt.

Tim takes her in gentle fingers by the corner of her elbow.

"Hey, what are you doing here?" His tone is completely friendly and non-challenging.

Confused, Alice looks at him, then at the group of important

196 ;REG BEAR

"Crashing," she answers. "Twist brought me here. I didn't know it was


yours until Jakey told me."
"It's his more than mine. I don't know Twist. Male or female?"
"Friend," Alice says. She puts the plate down. The sauce begins to blur.
Finally, it's just sauce.
"It's been years," Tim says. His face is all sympathy and interest, and the
way he scans her from forehead to bottom of neck is just plain Tim--he never

pulls the whole-body look, never demands with just his manner that you think

of him any way but as a friend. He makes Alice very nervous. She has never

known what Tim is really thinking.


"It's good to see you again," Tim says.

"Sure," Alice says. "I'm sorry. I can go--"

"Why?"
"I... didn't want to push in. I honestly--"
"I believe you. But you're here, and I'd enjoy a talk, catching news, you
know?"
Alice swallows and says that she would enjoy that too. She feels so vulnerable
with him, and she is not at all clear why; he has aged a little, but he's only a

few years older than her, and beneath the beard, there's still that broad, pleasant

face, not handsome but strong and good-looking, not her type at all judging

by the record. Tim's eyes are clear blue like a little boy's.


He takes her through the crowd back to the main house and then upstairs
to a sitting room overlooking the backyard. From here they can watch the

party, lounging back in two large old deep red leather chairs with their color

finely cracked.
"Jakey says you're working together."
e "We are." Tim smiles at the window. Sun is coming through now. "He

wants to move me to LA and plug with some full-spinal Yox folks. The next

step, you know."
"Isn't what we have now enough?"
"Every few years, we need something new," Tim says. "I'm not saying yes
or no yet, but it's there. It's tempting. We could all write our own ticket. LA

is eager to make Corridor deals again. Marilyn and all the others are out there,


but looks like the celeb marketing is cooling off. Home drama is moving up."

"I hope it works out for you," Alice says.

"I think it will. How about you?"

"I've done some work for Francis."


"Faerie Queene. Good move. Might be the hottest thing Disney's ever offered.
It's getting great preevs."
"Francis is just using me for backmind."
"Pity. You look great."
"Nice," Alice says, smiling at him. "And your wife?"
"Living: in Macao. She's working Asian data services. We're on trial sep. I
/

SLANT 197

"I'm sorry," Alice says. Now it's her turn for the sexual co-processor to work

overtime, and not because she wants Tim back in her bed; she would do

whatever he wants (knowing Tim is a gentleman) as access to that moment

when they can be alone for a long time and talk. Tim has always been the man

she was most likely to confess to, even more than Minstrel, whom she has never

loved in the same way. Minstrel is like a place you come to to relax; Tim has

always been a complete and beautiful shadow, a lovely deeply respected other.
She feels herself getting weak and impulsive and clamps that quickly. If he's

so great, why did you dis him so bad, and throe times? He kept coming back like it

was his fault, and you just got worse, and finally you were also cruel and arrogant.

You haven't seen him since and here it's all nicey, no traces.


"No need to be sorry," he says. "I've always chosen badly."
Alice makes a touch face but he doesn't pick up on it.
"She's her own woman. I don't think she'll ever need me the way I need a

woman. You probably know the type--all style and number crunching, you

can hear the little chips humming in her head. She'll hook up with some Co-Prosperity

magnate in Hong Kong or Kuala Lumpur. She's almost as beautiful


as you are, and she'll pay a fortune to stay that way. Have you... ?"
"No," Alice says. "What you see is what you get."
Tim smiles wryly. "I'd like to take you out on the lawn and put you up
against Catherine Deneuve."
"Is she out there?"
"Probably. Jakey rented the whole suite from 1940 on. They'll show up

throughout the day."


"I'm not in that category," Alice says.
"Don't underestimate yourself. With a better temp agency slot and a better

game-plan..."


"I had my moment," Alice says.
Tim says nothing for a long pause, watching her with a tense grin. "Talk
to Jakey," he finally says. "We'll find something for you."
"I don't take handouts," she says.
Tim leans forward and she feels as if he is about to lecture her but he doesn't.

"You'll be hot after the Faerie Queene goes full Yox. You could end up slyer

and higher."
The burn has cooled in Tim's presence. Tim has a way of driving out the

little disparate tugs in Alice's mind, integrating her thoughts; she wants him


to be proud of her but knows that is unlikely, given their history.
"I'm ash," Alice says quietly.
"You don't need sympathy, not mine," Tim says.
"It's true. I have too many handicaps. If the business is going back to home

and family, what'll happen to all the succubi?"


Tim laughs until he almost howls. He shakes his head and wipes his eyes.

Alice sits still, liking that he appreciates her wit, but not sure she has been


198

GREG BEAR


"I don't think we're doing nothing but home and family just yet. Not if

Jake has anything to say about it. Besides, there will always be teenage boys.

You have been cutting a swath, haven't you?"

"It's my way," Alice says.

"I'm sure you've enjoyed it."

"I'm sure you disapprove."

Tim leans back, the riposte fairly and cleanly delivered. "I never thought a

woman should live to the expectations of some man."

"I haven't," she says.

"No, you haven't."

"But I'm not doing all that well," she says. "I've made some major mistakes."
Tim looks pained. "Don't tell me that, Alice."

"Why?"


"Eve since you.., ruined my life," he says with a false chuckle, "you've

held a place in my thoughts as the ultimate free spirit. Tied down to nobody

and owing nothing to anyone."

"Connecting with nobody for very long," Alice adds.

"It would just hurt me worse to think your kind of freedom doesn't work,"

Tim says. "Because you could have chosen differently."

Alice looks down at her hands, knotted in her lap.

"Was all that pain wasted and pointless?" Tim asks.

Alice deliberately relaxes her hands and lays them on her knees, fingers

spread. "I've had to change."

"So have we all."

"I've thought about you."

I Tim raises his brows. "Thought what?"

"I wondered how you were doing. Who you were with and how they were

treating you."

"Four women since you," Tim says. "They varied. I varied. And you?"

There it is again, even in his presence; the burn is back. She frowns and

tries to say something, but there is no good answer. Statistics can't describe

her life. Hundreds, a thousand, most of them work; twenty-five or thirty relationships,

but none of those even came close to what she trashed with Tim.

None of them made her feel so together, or so inadequate.

"A lot, I presume," Tim says tightly. "Variety."

"Men," she says, laughing.

"Alice and men," Tim says, not laughing. "Alice and men and women and

all varieties in between."

"We both have nobody significant," Alice says. "We've taken different roads

to the same place." She does not want him to score all the points.

"The same place," Tim agrees.

"You scared me. You still do."
/

SLANT 199

"You were--you are--the only man who makes me wonder what it would

be like to live a straight settled life. With. With you. Working as a team and


being loyal. Sharing everything. Raising children. As a team. The only one."

"My type can't be so rare," Tim says.


"No. For me. I've been very choosy.., believe it or not."
"Don't cry," Tim says, his voice rough, resentful.
"I'm not." But she is, the tears sliding down her cheeks. "It's been a tough

week. Forgive me."


"You're a tough woman."
"I'm worn down. Something seems to think it's time to show me how stupid

I've been. Willful."


"What does that mean?" he asks.
Just like Tim; he hasn't been tracking the scandal ribes. She does not want

to tell him about Crest, so she generalizes.


"Somebody suggests I should do this, go this way, I go the other way. I'm

not in charge. Everybody else is in charge, they just do it in reverse. Whatever

they want me to do, they tell me to do the opposite."
Tim shakes his head. "That I don't understand at all."
"I am a little desperate and more than a little lost," Alice says. "And you

don't have anybody."


They stare at each other with that sappy, deceptively meaningful gaze that

seems to last forever but conveys no useful information.


The burn is coring and singeing its way to the center of her brain. If Tim

reacts the way she needs him to, she will be saved; if he does not, she thinks

she might as well just lie back and shut her eyes and stop breathing.
"No, Alice," Tim says, and his voice is very gentle, very soft. "I have a lot

of unresolved miseries to deal with. I hold grudges. I'm not who you think I

am, and I'm certainly not what I was."
"It might be worth some sort of effort, a try?" Alice suggests.
"It hurts me that things haven't worked out for you," Tim says again.

"Because to justify the pain you caused me, you would have to have been right.


You would have to have done what was best."
"I was wrong."
"I don't want to hear that. I thought you were the finest, the most complex

and beautiful. I would have cut off my limbs to live with you. I dreamed about

you night after night. You lived inside me, I worshipped you. It was too much

and you proved that. You proved to me that I did not deserve you and could


never reach your standards."
"I was cruel and stupid."
Tim shakes his head vehemently. "If you did what you did for no good

reason, that means we come from different planets."


Alice remembers the voices outside. Echoes of Tim; not Tim.
"On my planet," he continues, "we don't flit around stomping on people,
200 GREG BEAR
work to do and I just can't sit around and play the keys on women's emotions,

as a lark. On your planet, apparently, it's possible to do whatever you want

and forget about it. You haven't been thinking much about me, have you,

until now? You didn't suffer." His voice goes loud and deep, gravelly. "You

changed my li."

Tim stands. He's trembling he's so upset. "I'm all I have. I can't let anyone

break me twice."
Jakey finds her in the main ballroom, trying to get lost in the crowd. She's

looking for Twist but she's no longer in sight; off with the Goon gaining

experience, probably.

"Hey, Gorgeous," Jake says. "I've got something for you. One of my live

talent bookings fell through. I need a replacement, a real showpiece. There are

a lot of sly top people here. I can introduce you, let you shine... Interested?"

Alice decides something should be salvaged. "Sure," she says.

"You look roughed," Jake says with professional candor. "Pull it together

and we have a deal."

"I'm together," Alice says.

"I have another fellow here . .. You two are perfect. You've worked with

Minstrel before, haven't you?"

Alice nods. "He's here?"

"You two are perfect," Jake repeats. "It's a beta demo on full-spine interface.

The next big step. We have a major studio-produced Yox that glows. You can

do the demo with Minstrel--it's sensuous as all hell, Alice. People will rec4ognize

you. You're rising with Faerie Queene. You'll be on the sly spin!"

"Where's Minstrel?" Alice asks.

Jake leads her to a small side room decorated with fall colors. Ghosts of

leaves fall with an eternal rustling sound just outside the surface of the walls.

Minstrel is sitting on a pliant burnt-orange couch, pushing his bare feet into

the paradise garden pattern of a Persian rug. He looks up and grins, then

stands, and seems a little startled when Alice clings to him, pressing her face

into his shoulder.

"Hey, not so fast," Jake says. "Give us time to do setup. It's all arranged--you're

getting twice your temp scale. I'll add another share if it goes well.

Wait here a few minutes and I'll come back and get you." He rubs his hands

together and shakes his head in admiration. "You two are so hot/"

Jake leaves and Minstrel strokes Alice's cheek. "I am being squeezed to

death by a lovely woman," he says. "Do I dare ask why?"

"Because you're the only decent man on this planet," Alice says into his

shirt. She pokes her nose into his shoulder, then draws her face up and back.

"You can't believe what's happened to me since we were at Francis's studio." "lnn'r le,n on me too hard," Minstrel warns. "My foundations have been
/

SLANT 201


"Do you think that's it?" Alice asks, half serious, staring up at him. "We're

cursed by old king Fuck?"

"Undoubtedly. Two half lovers, starscrewed by the tetragrammaton." "What is Jakey planning?"

"You volunteered without knowing?"

"We're supposed to demo a Yox, he said."

"Jakey's tied up with a company that wants to market full spinal interfaces.

Glue a neural induction ribbon from tail to tete, and live Yox to the fullest.

Even better if you've swallowed a monitor or two."

"What sort of Yox?"

"Knowing Jakey, and knowing us, it's not going to be a train ride through

the Urals."

"I'll do anything as long as it's with you," Alice says.

Jake enters, and behind him steps the three men in longsuits who had

been conferring with Tim. Tim is nowhere in view. Jake introduces Alice and

Minstrel; these are top execs and investment managers with Golden Nitro,

who are slotting Jake's next ten Yox productions for limited fibe release in

California and Kansas, test markets before opening gate to the world. They

seem to be familiar with Alice, and one of them knows Minstrel and has warm

eyes for him.

"We can NOT do better than these two," Jake enthuses. "They look eggs-ce/lent for a demo strip to show the full spinal, get the crowd's blood up, and

then we let them experience the full Yox. The crowd sees a vid and limited

monitor version. How you two react," Jake hints, "will impress the hell out

of the crowd out there."

"All right," Alice says. "Let's do it."

"It's a sensual feast, multicultural, very exciting and very relaxing," Jake

adds, a bit taken back by her eagerness. He can't believe he does not have to

sell the idea a little harder.

"Got it," Alice says. "Gentlemen, do we gate it or do we stand here with

our clothes on?"

"I'm ready," says one of the execs warmly, watching Alice like a hungry

puppy. She brushes past him through the door. She knows the routine. Jake,

whatever his tendency, is not a pimp. She's good behind glass today.

Richard Thompson is standing in the main ballroom with Catherine De-neuve

and Judy Garland. They just aren't attracting that much attention today,

perhaps because they seem to be malfunctioning: fading and rippling every

few seconds. Thompson is still staring at Alice and she does not like it.

Jake makes his announcements and does his puffery, hyping the process.

Alice strips with style until she is naked, and Minstrel removes his shirt as if

preparing for an underwear shot. They stand on a foam pad set in the middle

of the room. Some of the men in the audience hoot.

Twist is still out of sight. Maybe she's falling in love with the goon.
202 GREG BEAR
the crowd can see. Two techs, a man and a woman, give up on trying to make

the celebs work smoothly and open the silver canisters carrying the inducers.

These are long and slender, skinsticky on one side, with a silver stripe up the

length, like minimal jewelry for the spine. Alice stretches her arms up provocatively

as her inducer is applied. Minstrel gets his, and the inducers are

hooked to a fibe which feeds into a larger than usual Yox player.

"Just to show you what the future holds," Jake says, "we'll let two of the

most sensual people I know revel in a world of sensation, total emotional and

bodily immersion. Silk and fire and scented oil."

"Not a dry seat in the house," one of the execs comments. Jake lets this

crudity pass.

Alice will ignore the people, concentrate on Minstrel and on this exposure.

She needs a boost now, affirmation, both the crowd's and Minstrel's. Proof of

her solid worth.

Jake gives them sheer silk robes and whispers in her ear, "You're on. Alice,

let it all go. You can do all it takes."

Let them stare.

One of the techs seems to be having difficulty. "Excuse me," Jake says,

smiling broadly. "A few beta snags."

"Bugs for tea," someone in the crowd says, quoting a familiar vid punch

line. The crowd is warm and receptive. She can feel the energy, the support.

They're all lovers now.

Alice hears the tech mutter to Jake, "We're getting some feed from another

line. You have a high-flow system running somewhere?"

"No," Jake says. "Maybe the neighbors."

4

"It's here," the tech says, and then the other tech says, "We're clear. Let's



do it."

Alice and Minstrel improvise a small dance on the pad, stepping over their


ribes as they cross, hands held high, gallant and elegant before the unknown.
The party crowd eats it happily.
"We're worth a fortune," Minstrel tells Alice, smiling at her. Alice beams
and leans her head to one side, coming in tune with the moment and the
simple grace of this man. Her body treats this as a seduction already and the
Yox has not begun.
She has never seen Minstrel more handsome. Eyes just skirting sadness,
mouth wry, attention on her.
The adolescent male with his feet in dirt is back, flickering and shimmering
in the front of the circling crowd. Alice ignores him.
Then the inducer becomes a warm tea-bath along their spines, with a smell
of roses and a hint of sand under their heels. Alice giggles. The effects are well
chosen. She feels sun on her face and arms. It lacks the hints of jitter she's had
under previous Yox immersions; this is round, velvety, and totally convincing,

I:. gl A

h

oh-r? wirh(



ut being iaed.
/ SLANT 203

is falling and they are shivering. This is going to be some demo; hot and cold,

sweet and sour.
The gate opens and beyond lies a Maxfield Parrish twilight over an Arabian

Nights bazaar, small beautifully dressed people walking on streets paved with

shimmering wet cobbles. The air is full of tinkling raindew that lands sweetly

on their hands, warming like alcohol on the tongue. Her shoulders are

weighted with heavy brocaded cloth and she looks to one side to see Minstrel

in a suit of the same, violet and blue and red and shot through with gold

threads.
Lightning splits the sky and the rain becomes little moths.
A sweeping cut and they stand at the parapet of a palace, and behind them

a vast round chamber filled with beautiful men and women, large and small,

some giants, some barely the size of her hand, and they murmur and whisper

of the beauty of the two on the parapet, with the ancient city spread beneath

them.
Alice does not care about being female, she is too powerful for that, all her

misconceptions are erased and new embodiments replace them. The play of

sense is all in this city, this chamber. To dance is to experience an intense

pleasure in one's feet, as if they might melt in supplication. For Minstrel, all

of her will melt; he can command and she can command, and they will flow

into one another.


Alice and Minstrel continue to dance on the pad in the middle of the

ballroom, but the moves are repetitive. They are elsewhere.


Jake and, at last, Tim, along with the rest of the crowd, watch the vid

screens and ooh and ahh in communion. Tim avoids looking directly at Alice;

he seems numb to the whole spectacle. He is here because Jake has asked him

to be here.


The sim celebs have all shut down and moved to a corner to get out of

the way.
Alice knows this structure; Yox at its most abstracted, sweep and visual and

now intense sensory excitation, all flesh and muscle but no joints, all push

without leverage, linearity abandoned for immediate gratification. The gratification

would ring hollow if not for the artistry of the sensory, its own kind

of music; the Ygxicians have developed this to a fine art, and the producers

have hired the best to showcase their new enhancements.
For a moment Alice forgets who and where she is. The parapet is a universe,

the figures all around are her friends, she is awash in social confirmation from

tail to tete, as Minstrel said. Stars twinkle in a false sky better than real; stars

and moon are her friends, beaming sharp jewel approval down on her liaison

with the Partner. What she sees is enhanced. Minstrel is her Partner, but he

is, if anything, even more beautifully angular, and his skin seems bathed in


musk.
"It's what we're here for," the Partner tells her, bringing her closer. The
204

GREG BEAR

nipples need to weep honey and milk. She sees the dripping gold and cream

fluid from her breasts bead on his curled hairs, smells his musk intensifying,

becoming very nearly skunky.
Somewhere, the crowd is caught up and has fallen silent, good Yoxers riding

on a thick saddle the horse that Alice rides bareback, but all with accepting

uncritical nerve endings, all seeking that release more controlled and artifactual

than a drug-induced plunge.


Minstrel tells her again this is what they're here for. She can feel his reaction

echo her own and then double it, wavetrains in phase, they are being

watched by thousands who approve, the stars are overjoyed that this communion

is taking place under their sphere. No strain, no adverse judgment,

no criticism; sneaking off as teenagers with all the neuronal flushes in flood,

and finding that all fmilies involved have arranged it this way, full cultural

and social approval, celebrating joy, all instincts confirmed, there will be a



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