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       Slant, p.1

           Greg Bear


  Greg Bear


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  > Knowledge, Sex, Dataflow

  TOPIC FILTER: > Community

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  “Tell all the truth,

  but tell it slant”

  —Emily Dickinson


  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,

  56th Revision, 2052


  Educated 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 of a 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 Giff. At fifty-one he looks mild and past his aggressive years, with a grizzled and ragged beard and kind gray eyes 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 Federal 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 securities—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, biovitrifying 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 reconstruction and resurrection.

  “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 dataflow 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 m
ap 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 this 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.

  He smiles at the bank of sensors scanning the visitors for suspicious bulges and behaviors. The system passes them through to the display area. The casket room. Lie in silken comfort through all eternity.

  The young tourists in their denims and warm, upscale Nandex stand agape before the ice-blue enamel and flexfuller 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. Dataflow 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 petaflop 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

  / is what happens between us

  / is what separates us.

  We are all different sexes, though with only two brands of equipment.

  —The Kiss of X, Alive Contains a Lie


  Stone Hammer

  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, graceful as a leopard. His body is all grace and blunted angles.

  “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.”


  “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 El 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. “All right. Fuck me,” with her best, most provocative professional emphasis.

  “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 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, twofaced 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.

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