Falling from Grace
Friendship was too rare in Florence Home to let it go like this.
"Why hide it from me, Jell?" Cho asked.
Jell cocked a silver brow and scanned the circular dome of cafeteria. O-readers, locked into their gisms for days at a time, sat or sprawled hither-thither over the vast white floor. All naked, as was customary, and resilient to the glaring judgments of passersby. The passersby, in turn, disapproved of the O-reading, but with little depth or rancor, because both ogler and reader maintained their roles for pleasure's sake, not principle. Such were the vocations of every inhabitant in Florence Home: to act their part, tacitly live out their version of the Play, preserving the rote and style of a sub-aquatic culture three hundred years old. In an oceanic Freerider of 700,000 residents, bobbing about the Atlantic for survival, this tradition perpetuated meaningful existence.
Of similar import was the exchange between these two friends.
"Listen for the wind, Cho," Jell said. "What've I got to live at? Work me two, three years, then off? Just off? Where's after, then?"
He reasoned her reasons, shifted in his webbed seat. "That's a cop, Jell. If you're stifled, you should've told me about it. Then we could work at it maybe, you know? See a counsellor or what. You been out a whole sweeping year, Jell? That long?"
A pause as he struggled, then, "Let's start it over. Please? Huh? You're it for me."
She shook her head. Longer hair was non-mode, but she wore grey-brown curls down past her elbows. Her tone was off too, three shades paler than his own grey-brown. But that was Jell, always outside the norm--way out. On hyperextended expeditions under pressure, down where sea vents gave birth to humanity's last refuge: the Freeriders. The gigantic extra-terras bred at those depths, a mystery which drew people like Jell to ponder and pursue. She had died--how many times?--scrambling for air when the scrubbers gave out, her dirigible blasting upwards, forcing gases through her blood. But here she was, revived, restored, very few like her. That's what made Cho's chest ache so much now.
"So...." Was there anything more to say? No. Panic dug in, and Cho quickly, silently queried Pardor, Florence Home's Overmind, to beg for assistance.
"Here I am," replied Pardor.
"I'm in the coral, you gotta help me," Cho mind-spoke.
"Tell me more."
Was it lonely to be Pardor, always wanted and never wanting back? Cho couldn't guess; his heart screamed for reciprocation from a woman always barely within and now moving swiftly beyond his reach. As collective mind, Pardor wouldn't--couldn't--know such feelings personally, only from an multistimmed, cumulative distance. But distance made Pardor's judgments reliable, unfettered by individual greed. What Cho wanted from the Overmind would mean harsh Time payments from his own Greycell Account, long overdrawn. But what the hell, into the Abyss; he asked for the big one.
"Give me override."
"Yeah. She's walking."
Pardor knew the reference, the situation. He could read Jell's thoughts simultaneously, was probably doing so. "She's backed, Cho. By ten accounts featured as High Pro this month. If you have more backing, you'd better rank it now."
Shit. That was leagues away from him. How did she wrangle ten accounts? Suspicion blanked his hopes, made false and pointless the reunion he envisioned. Probably she had new friends, ones that outranked him and offered her more Time than he could ever earn.
There was no buying her back, then. At least not right now.
All this calculating stole seconds she would notice. Quick now, what was the steady course? Honesty? He stared at his long, grey-fingered hands. "Jell...is it you don't trust me? Is it some kind of bonding pressure, or--"
"The current, babe. Can't you smell what's coming?"
An O-reader cackled and pounded his dreamstation, cackled some more. Cho glanced over and back. "No. Tell."
She simpered, shrugged. "The vents are cooling, closing up. Big changes are written all over the reports I've seen. My research is a shut-down. Time is really tightening up on me, see? And there's nothing after the Freeriders go. Nothing for nobody." She clenched a slender hand over his. "You've been lost in your music, babe. Everybody but those fucking O-readers are plugged into what's coming."
Cho's confusion didn't ebb, contrarily. "You're swimming circles, Jell. I do to listen. There's nothing around about life cycle alteration. Hell, the Freeriders'll adapt. They always have. Remember the shelf-breach in the south? Killed thousands of them, and we still got out safe. It's symbiotic, them and us. We stay, they stay. Vents close? So what?"
She blinked his words away, stood. "I gotta go. You work on it."
The air was suddenly thick and dry, her hair floated up a little, spreading out. So lovely, he thought, sad inside, saying quietly, "Well, tomorrow."
"Or another day," she corrected.
"Or another day." Which meant this was it. Ten High Pro accounts as backing made her calm, logical explanation a tepid pool of bilge. What about friendship? He wanted so very, very much to ask. But a word like "love" played with boundaries too semantic, too assumed to be useful. Action was her cue, her way of thinking, and so she left.
Maybe she'd change her mind.
* * *
He'd done it once, twenty years ago, and liked it too much. Now the stimfeed would feed him pleasure to drown pain. Cho found a free dreamstation and plugged in.
O-reading had always been, with the Freeriders. The creatures' senses extended immeasurable distances through the dark cradle of cold salt water. Life was out there, and they felt it, treasured it, communed with it on levels not yet understood and seldom investigated, anymore. Their power was part of the Play, with solace in the abstruse and inexplicable--an inversion of the scientific fervor of pre-Arrival humanity--a powerful impetus for continued ignorance. Breathing God, the O-readers called it.
Cho found a channel and opened up, sighing when the world ceased being limited. Light flooded him, smiled through him, invited him into the happy drone of plankton and shrimp. God, it felt good. A school of salmon intruded, washed a more selective drive through his mind. "We're off to spawn," they said. "Off we go to jump and spawn and race. Hurry. Hurry. Hurry." A feeling only, but the Freerider transmuted it into rythmic sing-song and bright, colorful visuals. So Cho followed, striving, longing for battle with rushing water. The stronger the better, Cho crooned to himself, the faster and wilder.
Delight, until something unexpected.
The shock nearly shattered his link.
"Sorry, man. Didn't know you were freshgill. Hey, keep in. Great, isn't it?"
Slowly Cho reoriented. "Who are you?"
"A wader, man. I'm mammal in the sea, get it?"
"No." He didn't.
"I'm in--or out, I guess. Depends on your state. But totally it."
Cho gambled a conclusion. "Outside Florence Home? Or are you some Otherlife here? I've heard--"
"No, man. I'm your kind, but independent. You should check it out. There's a web out here the Freeriders can't tap. Not theirs, not anything they make. Check it out, man. All the O-readers know about it. A lot of us going permanent. I'm not pushing perfection, but with what's coming...."
"What? What's coming?" And why was he the only one who didn't know?
"The vents, man. Cooling, closing."
"Oh." A confirmation.
"Check out the web, that's all I can say."
Cho's mood was shattered, he logged out. Maybe Pardor would know what the web was.
* * *
A week full of bad dreams and cramped feelings passed without a sign from Jell. Didn't anybody care that Cho's life was shredded? Didn't anybody understand what it meant to be forsaken? In his lonely helplessness, Cho's thoughts drifted into wicked schemes.
Pardor knew about the web, reluctantly. It was Otherlife filament, stretched like surface tension on a puddle across five dimensions of spacetime. Theoretical, he said, nothing a posteriori on it.
"Is it really separate, totally?" Cho asked. With all his demands on the Overmind, his Time Debt had exceeded probable pay-back, was quickly approaching criminal. Worth the risk, he told himself, because the sea held a promise that Florence Home's tendrils couldn't touch.
"Yes, and hypothetically transfinite. One could describe it as two-dimensional planes forever intersecting at random angles. An origami universe."
"How do people survive there?"
"Do? They don't, as far as I'm aware. They could, perhaps, as consciousness only. It would be difficult to maintain separation from other individuals, though. Similar to the enforced time-share in my environment, with all minds cohabitating one continuum. Not a sane alternative for you, Cho." Yes, Pardor knew what he was planning, could extrapolate a hundred probable conclusions from Cho's abstracted machinations. So it went, but the Pardor didn't judge, wouldn't report Cho to the Home Caucus, might even continue to help. The key was to challenge the perpetually bored Overmind. Pardor always had Time for difficult questions.
Cho held his breath, said, "I'm crossing over, and I'm taking her with me."
"You don't have the backing, Cho. You'll be drowned by her new alliances."
"I'll trick her. I'll lure her--make her think it's the farthest out she can get. She'll cross on her own. Got it? She'll do anything if she thinks she's earning Time." Then they would live happily as one, no other way.
It might have been that Pardor laughed, which was impossible. "An anticipated fixation, Cho, but why not wait until you heal? Give yourself a chance, go back to music for a while. You loved it once."
No. Jell was his salvation; waiting for healing would take Time, Time he had only in negative amounts. "I want her, Pardor."
"So you do."
* * *
In the art gallery with pink florescence and curving angles. A show of varied human artifacts was here, always an attraction for Florence Home residents, though muted by the glory of the Freerider itself. The gallery was a chamber of warm, sweet breezes.
Jell walked with a young blonde woman, was sour when Cho confronted her. "Another day, I thought I--" she began.
"Listen," Cho interrupted, "I've found more Time than all of Florence Home can offer. No ruse."
The corner of her mouth lifted. She did that--it was somewhere between smile and sneer. "Thieving talk," she said.
"Nothing stolen, nothing borrowed. I was there, dig?"
"Come with me, once is all." He furtively scanned the blonde. High breasts, dark skin. "Once."
"Maybe," she repeated, and turned away.
* * *
The route to the web would be branched, prepped, and smooth as the birth canal it emulated. Pardor's doing -- had the Overmind lied, then, claiming ignorance? They need only plug in, and away.
Cho tapped his long fingers on the poser module, downloading his last musical composition. It was all he could take with, labeled and shelved in his ordinated Grey Cells along with memories, favorite smells, and pleasant sensations. Music, his dearest prize. He and Jell had always shared it together, straight across, mind to mind, no filters. It would be easier to do now, soon.
She came then, on Time, looking bemused and wary.
"Ready?" he asked.
She'd painted a sea cucumber on her abdomen. "Yes. You?"
"It's the best, Jell. I know you'll like."
"Can we bring some back?"
She laughed. "What else?"
"Yes...yes, of course."
A grin from her at that. Hooked.
They walked down the long, curving corridor to the cafeteria. He'd insisted on a public station; it was a great moment, a final one he wanted everyone to see. They settled near the port viewer, saw vague motion and light outside the Freerider's skin. No one from the Caucus intercepted them--a slim possibility, Cho realized, but he hadn't fully trusted Pardor's silence. What he did trust was the furious surge of adrenaline pulling at his soul. Prelude to joy.
They plugged in.
* * *
The birth was swift.
First the ocean's broad, hungry pull, the striving of every creature overwhelming and enticing them. On they flew through nerveless night, transfixed. Then, abruptly, like the green flash just before dawn, Otherlife burst into their datastream, a siren of pure emotion rising and falling, reaching into their hearts, lust-like and demanding. They passed through it, nearing Something Better. Larger and hotter It became. The ocean's dark dissipated, boiled away from them, left them in lofty regions of air and sunlight, near screaming.
Oh God oh God oh God....
Earth below them, verdant and soft with wind-bent grass, and a new drive, almost a sexual compulsion, pulsed through their ephemeral bodies.
There! The fire at the center of the web. They could see it, open-armed, source of heat and light and longing, pulling them in--
Oooohhhh! The pleasure pained them, locked them to their course without retreat. They wanted--a terrible, forceful urging that the end arrive now, now, now! A race into the web's embrace, falling toward a final kiss they couldn't yet comprehend. Oh, but how they yearned for it. Already Cho and Jell were one, merged in preparation for this new consciousness. Bliss, it pledged, bliss.
And then climax.
Dissolving like wax into boiling oil, absolute and electrifying self-expression. Again. Then again, each time an unimagined increase in violent ecstasy. And terrifically, again. Afterward, for a very brief instant, they understood what had happened, and might have felt regret if the instant had lasted any longer.
It was finished.
* * *
"Tell me more ," said Pardor, bored forever with the tedious impishness of People. Always willing to listen, though, and answer, and ask. They might even think he cared, which, in a way, he did.
The young blonde woman was sobbing, would have been unintelligible without his knowledge of her innermost cogitations. "Jell's dead! It just hurts so much. So much...." she cried.
"I understand." Pardor borrowed more grey cells from a drifting O-reader--one who had been logged on too long anyway--and calculated his current subject's potential for profitable contribution to the Overmind's existence. Yes, she had a healthy brain, good transmission, wasn't overly demanding and probably would never be, especially once she was committed to the Web. This drain on his resources was acceptable, unlike those last two. "You should rest, give yourself Time to heal." He always gave this excellent advice, of equal value to his subjects and himself. Those who followed it lived long and healthy lives, usually. Excellent advice.
"Do you know, Pardor, where our souls go? Do you think we have souls?"
An interesting question, one that, if Pardor had possessed a conscience, might have bothered him. "I don't know," he said. "I'll reflect on it."
"Oh no, I--I don't have much Time in my account."
A wise choice, then, and surprising presence of mind for the state she was in. "Another day," said Pardor.
"Another day," she agreed, and went off to fulfill her role in the Play.