Matter is simply frozen
information . . .
— Timothy Leary, Pataphysics Magazine, 1990.
The villagers had taken the bait. Paul came out of the desert covered in dust, beads around his neck, braids in his hair . . . He climbed to the top of the mesa alone, under the high scorching sun, and begged to see their little settlement, licking his parched lips and managing to tremble—genuinely—from exhaustion. They had no idea what to do with him. The American Indian body—though recognizably the work of a fashion designer—gave him the look of the land, their desolate home for almost a decade, and also gave him a very hip, reformist look—a distinct advantage.
"I come from the north," he told the men who met him at the top of the mesa. "I'm from a settlement behind the Snakeback. They've sent me to make contact."
The men exchanged looks, shading their eyes to better see him, as though doubting that this was happening at all, then one left to find the village leader. The other man directed Paul to a stone on the edge of the mesa.
Paul sat down, relieved for a chance to rest, while the man withdrew to a high crag, where he could keep watch. From the stone Paul could see as far as he had traveled, farther even, perhaps a hundred miles. Shabby little houses stood here and there, isolated by the absence of roads but looking crowded together, though this was perhaps the most underpopulated place on earth. Among them he spotted places he had stopped for directions, only pretending to be lost in order to stir up gossip. He could also see the long bending scar of the riverbed he had followed two miles in the wrong direction, stalling for time, waiting for word of his coming to reach the village.
They had been warned, he was sure. The question was what they were going to do about it. Most likely, they thought he was telling the truth, that he was from a new settlement of "logoffs" just digging into the sand and learning to live without credit. He was banking on it.
A girl came up the side of the mesa, panting and carrying a gray metal cylinder on her back. A small boy followed, blonde like she was, too young to be one of her friends.
He watched them navigate the steep rocks, surprised to see that the device the girl carried was a demiurge. The machines were getting smaller, more portable. She walked up the slope with such agility that he guessed she must have grown up carrying such devices, probably too young to have ever known the days before solar fusion, too young to find the device even unusual. She carried it like a part of her body, like some high-tech mutation, amazing to parents but invisible to children. A strange way to grow up, he thought. Had these kids ever been to school? The girl maybe, not the boy. Either way, they were creatures of the desert now, half-savages, gods in some ways, animals in others. He could hardly blame them. They were just living the lives their parents had given them.
The girl—maybe twelve years old—recognized him as a stranger right away. She dropped the demiurge onto the gravel at his feet and with alarming directness asked who he was.
He pointed to a low ridge of hills. "I'm from over there, behind the Snakeback. There's a settlement like this one. We're trying to live like you do."
The girl examined the place where he had pointed, very intent, believing everything he said.
Though fooling people was Paul's job, lying to children always seemed a little unfair, even unkind. Yet he could not put on one show for the adults and another for the children.
She asked, "Are there many people?"
The boy interrupted, holding up a small brown lizard, beaming at Paul. The lizard squirmed and kicked its legs like extra fingers. The boy grinned, expecting Paul to say something.
"That's quite a little critter you have there."
The boy laughed shyly and looked away. "You want me to make you a sandwich?" He knelt beside the machine and told it to open up. He tried to put the lizard inside, but it slipped out before the door could close. He caught it again with a brutal swipe of his hand. "It needs carbon," he explained, talking about the machine.
"I'm not very hungry. But thank you."
The girl was still examining the Snakeback, intent as a hawk, maybe looking for signs of life she had missed before. "What's it called?"
"We don't have a name yet. We don't even know if it'll work out."
"Are you here to see my dad?" She looked at him, serious.
"Is your father the leader of the village?"
"I guess. He brought all of us here, a long time ago."
"Then—yes, I came to meet your father."
The boy had gotten the lizard into the demiurge. The machine vibrated greedily, sorting the animal's atoms into separate compartments. "Tell it what you want," he said.
"I'm not hungry. Maybe later."
The kid squinted against the sunlight to see Paul's face.
Paul added, "That's very nice of you, though."
The kid kicked around in the dirt, then he retreated to the girl's side, hugging her leg to say he was ready to go. Paul had not meant to be rude. "Maybe something to drink," he amended. "That thing have enough silicon to make a glass of ice water?"
The boy did not smile as he came back, but he seemed proud to command the machine to make water. He delivered the glass to Paul with solemnity, holding it with both hands, as though he were performing a ceremony, a timeless rite of friendship. Paul accepted the glass with both hands, hoping he had passed the test.
The girl allowed the boy to make the offering, watching how Paul behaved. "Sure you're not hungry?" she said.
"This will be fine. Thank you anyway." He took a long drink of water, grateful.
"I'll get our father," she said. "You wait here."
"I'll be here."
She lifted the demiurge onto her back.
He could not resist asking the question that had been on his mind since he had first seen them. "Is he your . . . brother?"
The little boy did not seem to be listening, but the girl gave him a sudden look, old enough—he realized too late—to know the implications of the question. "I'll get my father," she repeated, and headed for town.
They left him at the mesa's edge, sitting on the rock, hands wet from the cold glass. He looked over his shoulder. Fortunately the man was too far away to have heard his little slip. "Talking to kids," he muttered to himself. Christ. He might have just thrown the investigation with an inappropriate remark he had made to a couple of kids. Got to keep your guard up, he told himself.
Two men from the village appeared, armed with laser tubes. He figured they had talked to the girl and would take him to a cave to flash a hole through his head. Instead, they led him to a two-story rock compound molded from a single expanse of stone, molded into a jagged façade like rimrock in order to fool the spy satellites—which it might have done, if the rooms inside had not been so conspicuously rectangular. In addition to portable demiurges, the village obviously had some nanotech construction agents.
Marcel Pizarro, the founder and leader of the settlement, was indeed the children's father. Paul had been sitting in the man's high-ceilinged antechamber only a minute or two when his gaze, drawn upward by the murky inverted palace of the chandelier, fell from wrought-iron hexagons hung with long banner-like rubies, opals, and bloodstones to the boy and girl, who were conspiring together upstairs in the shadows behind the ivory balustrade. They should have been tucked away in some far corner of the house, where Paul was sure the father had tried to put them, but he said nothing. The ugliness of this meeting would be nothing compared to the ugliness that would follow.
Marcel, coming through the room only once, tended to mysterious matters of state while Paul waited, seated in one of a pair of straight-backed chairs pushed against a wall, the half-empty glass of ice water on his knee. The men who had met Paul outside of town, having additionally armed themselves with what looked like goo guns, stood against the opposite wall, stone-faced, positioned like a pair of statues, so still that candles could have been balanced on their heads. A third man, morphed into a long-haired baboon creature, paced in a far corner, nervously pulling his fingers through the tangles of his poorly groomed hide. By the time Marcel and his wife, Anita Stone, finally arrived, thin modern laser tubes strapped to their hips, Paul had a working theory that the villagers did not entirely trust their new Indian friend.
"We've heard of Snakeback," said Marcel, sauntering to the center of the room like a gunfighter. "How've you heard of us?"
The children had moved forward, showing their faces between the scrimshawed balusters.
Paul said, "You've been making a go of this thing for a few years now . . . or so we heard from your neighbors."
"We have an understanding with the people in this area."
What assurance, thought Paul, amazing . . . Marcel really believed he could trust the locals, who had been tight-lipped, certainly, suspicious . . . Maybe he could trust them with a secret; after all, in ten years no one had filed a report with the police. Widespread sympathy for logoffs was a new wrinkle no one at the World Police had predicted. "We asked around," Paul said anyway, sticking to the story, "looking for others."
The baboon-morph, crouched in its safe dark corner, spoke to Marcel. "Right. The first thing you do when you log off is put up a flag, blow a bugle, call out to the whole area . . ."
The slang usage of "log off" still bothered Paul. These people wanted to believe that leaving society was like leaving some big evil computer, but in the "on-line" world you could be sitting at your table eating a sandwich and never be inside a computer or even say a word to a computer. "Logoffs" tried to make their crimes into some grand statement about technology, when really they broke the law out of plain selfishness. They wanted free food, free clothes, free entertainment—
"Take it easy, Gary." Anita Stone was calm and her voice even, though her fingers were doing a dance up and down the laser tube. "We're pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr. Kruger. This county could use a few more faces. Tell us about Snakeback."
"We don't call ourselves Snakeback. We don't call ourselves anything, actually. We're very new and small, so new that we don't even know where to begin building a village like you have here. I was sent to ask for advice."
"You came to the right place," said the baboon-morph named Gary. "Bald Mesa's the best. Ask anyone."
One of the men who had greeted Paul said, "Something tells me you're looking for more than advice."
Paul grinned and drew his long black braid onto his breast—yes, the costume was there; he was in disguise. Nevertheless, the gameplan they had made in Phoenix was turning out to be a stinker. The idea had looked great on a holodisplay in the conference room, but he could see now that no stranger, no matter how well-scripted, was going to tempt the villagers to traffic illegal technology, let alone reveal where they had originally acquired it. "Okay. So here we are, not quite able to trust each other," he said. Everyone stared at him. "You're right to be careful. And you're right that we want more than advice; we want much more. We're a new settlement, with only one off-line demiurge, no nanoplast, no way to build houses or anything larger than a loaf of bread, and—" He shifted his eyes around the room, as though afraid to admit the truth. "And we're sterile as mules, as sterile as the day we were born. No one in our group has ever had a child." He waited, hoping his speech would at least buy some sympathy. "When we heard about Bald Mesa, we knew it was our only hope. We need help." Anita’s fingers halted their dance, resting on the laser tube.
He stood up. "Maybe I should go."
The villagers drew their weapons. Reflexively, he glanced up at the children, who had not moved. Their eyes were drinking in the spectacle as though it were a holomovie thriller, making him want to say something, step out of the scene, stop them from seeing the inevitable violence, the laser-slicing of a human body, the lightning freeze of gray goo—but he could wait. He could hold the role together a moment more.
"If we offered you fertility pills," said Marcel, probing, "or if we help you out with off-line technology, we've committed a felony—or is it treason these days?"
"Just kill him," said Gary, thankfully the one unarmed person in the room. "He's seen too much, even if he is who he says he is."
"It was a long shot," said Paul, trying to sound defeated, praying that Banks, who was tuned-in via a bead-sized transmitter on the Indian necklace, had not waited for the baboon-morph's comment to launch the raiding party. He calculated that about ninety seconds remained to his life. "But we were desperate. I won't come again, or tell anyone I was here."
"Tell us who you really are, Mr. Kruger," said Anita. "For all we know, you're a cop."
"Just get it over with," said Gary. "If he's a cop, then he's bugged, and if he's bugged . . ."
"If I'm a cop," said Paul, "it's already too late for all of you." He gave the shaggy baboon-man a serious look. Go ahead, buddy, he thought to himself, growl at me all you want. Live it up. Enjoy your last day as a monkey; I'm paid to pick up junk like you every day, and I know to the microgram how much shibboleth we're going to find in your monkey hair follicles. More than enough to get you changed back into a human and beamed to prison, you demented freak. "If I'm a cop," he added, "A raiding party is on the way and will be here in a few minutes."
He let his strong, authoritative voice fill the chamber. He wanted the feeling of announcing just what had happened to all of them, before he died. They had the guns, but this was the end for them, the absolute final end. For years they had scrabbled in the wilderness, kept their lives small and unseen, like shadows under the rocks, hoping to hold on just long enough to grow old and pass away like primitives, or wishing, like capricious teenagers, that the world order would come crashing down, as it did in music meld-movies, freeing underprivileged people everywhere. He gave them all a very obvious, fearless, searching stare. The villagers were understanding now. Yes, the police are here. None of you will ever have jobs or families again, and your illegitimate children will be taken away, put into datafiles. They will be half-alive for a day or two, during your short miserable time in court, then they will be deleted. You have already killed them, by lying them into existence.
Marcel's naturally aged face was a page of creases and lines, a chronicle, drawn by deformations of gravity, the sun, the sadness of having children who for all their years had hidden in the dust, no chance of ever growing up: Paul could see the years of anxious fear at the corners of the eyes, worn there like seams in old leather, the way feeling must once have shaped the faces of all primitive human beings. Marcel raised the laser tube, the crow's feet deepening, his eyes dark as bullet holes in glass, a tick below the eye, twitching, twitching again, a break happening somewhere inside him: the final break, it seemed to Paul, the bright shattering end that happens when a person has lost everything but life itself.
Paul closed his eyes, sensing defeat but calm, thinking how much worse this moment must be for the villagers. He had simply blundered, not done his research, whereas the villagers had thrown up a phony life all around themselves and their children, a life that would soon fade away, like a dream. At least Paul would forget this place and everything that was happening. The precinct would reinstantiate the most recent backup of his body, the person he had been when he beamed off to the assignment.
The little girl shouted, piercing the chamber, drawing everyone's attention. Startled, he opened his eyes, thinking the laser gun had fired. "No! Don't!" she cried, not moving, not even standing. Her silent face looked down on everyone, pale, painted with light like a moon, small and clear and beautiful. She had been there the whole time, watching; she had been high above their heads, aware, judging them all.
"Judith! Get out of here! Get—" Marcel held the weapon on Paul. His sentence hung unfinished, hung in a silent baffled moment over a room of toy-like figures, suddenly still, the game called to an end by his daughter.
He would never finish the sentence. A sound like pounding rain filled the chamber, overwhelming them all. Hundreds of autonomic tranquilizer darts, zooming in formation out of neighboring hallways, pounded the bodies of the villagers. The raiding party had landed. Marcel got off one silent swipe of the laser, cutting from shoulder to hip a rookie squad member, who had jumped the gun and now fell to the ground in two pieces. Ouch. The kid would get a kick out of watching the replay at HQ, after his reinstantiation—his first death, Paul guessed.
Marcel redirected the laser tube at Paul, but the darts in his chest and neck took him down before he could fire, clean as clockwork. Paul watched him slump to the floor, the last words he would ever want to say to his daughter buried in his heart.
David Banks, Paul's partner, was next to enter the chamber, running sideways up the curving staircase, his back against the wall, dart pistol clasped in both hands and pointed at the ceiling. He looked like a giant bug in the black diamond-fiber bodysuit. The children ran off, but he did not attempt a pursuit. He navigated the building's full perimeter, securing the premises like a preprogrammed military robot—Banks, the most exacting and dependable cop Paul had ever known.
Meanwhile, a squad of police occupied the antechamber. Since Paul was the lead investigator, one of them handed him a molecular scanner so that he could do the honors of recording the villagers' DNA sequences. He moved through the chamber like a physician, using the scanner to tell the computers in Phoenix who had been found. Biographical files, projected by the scanner's holodisplay, followed him like planets around a star, lives now subordinate to his own, returned to lawful orbits.
He had finished with the drugged bodies and was paging through the files with touches of his fingers when Banks finally came down the stairs, escorting the children by the hands. The boy fought like a lamb being pulled by its front hooves, his head jerking around with bewildered terrified side-glances, his eyes flashing wetly, dark, wild. Poor wretch, thought Paul. No one was going to make the effort to explain what was happening. He would die thinking his parents had been killed. The girl was a still-frame of who she had been, numb-looking, guided to a stop by Banks' leather-gloved hand, not a muscle alive in her face: she understood what had happened and how truly helpless she was.
"We didn't have a chance with these people," said Banks, releasing the girls' hand to lift his visor.
"One thing to be glad about: this place was a fortress of paranoia. We're doing something right. When people don't give a damn whether we find them or not—that's when we have to worry."
The boy began howling like a dumb grieving animal, reaching out his free hand to his mother, who was sleeping on the floor nearby.
"Scan the kid," said Banks.
Paul complied readily; the boy was making everyone uncomfortable. It took only a few seconds to verify that both he and the girl were illegitimate, organic pregnancies induced by parents who had never been granted even the lone child sanctioned by the state.
Paul volunteered to take the kids to the hovercraft's telepod, wanting to supervise the round-up of the rest of the villagers. The boy had to be pulled, but the girl followed, obedient, knowing there was nowhere to run. That left a hand free for the ice water the boy had made him. As they walked, he finished the ice cubes one at a time, chewing swiftly, too hard at times, hungry for the cold after all he had been through.
By the time he had led them into the huge hovercraft, the boy had calmed down enough to talk to his sister. He asked if their mother and father were dead, and she said no, they were just sleeping. They would be okay. When Paul had the computer open the telepod booth's door, however, the boy stepped back, his face growing fearful again, illuminated with light from the machine's pastel-green interior. He asked his sister where they were going, familiar with telepods, probably from holomovies.
The girl took no step either forward or backward. She looked into the empty chamber as though she had expected it all her life. "Nowhere," she said.
Paul had never deleted a child her age. She must have been one of the first born after portable demiurges had opened the possibility of unregistered living. What a life—out here—growing up and learning that you're illegal, believing the opposite as long as you can, the way children try to believe in the Tooth Fairy even after they know it's a lie. For the first time, he was deleting a child who was done trying to believe.
The boy must have heard something in her tone of voice. He became nearly unmanageable, screaming for his father, biting, scratching with his fingernails. When Paul shoved him through the opening, he managed to squirm out before the door could shut, like the lizard the boy himself had converted into a glass of water an hour before. He kicked and squirmed in Paul's arms, full of his sister's anger. Eventually Paul had no other choice than to take a pistol from the gun cabinet and put him to sleep. He held the child until the muscles had fallen completely limp, then he curled the body onto the floor of the telepod. Beside it, he put the empty glass of ice water, thinking he might as well recycle the silicon while he was at it. He told the computer to store a copy of the boy and to delete the glass.
The girl observed the episode very calmly, almost analytically. When the telepod doors opened again, she stepped right into the empty chamber and turned to face Paul. She looked up calmly and said that she was ready.
This is what his job had become: looking into the eyes of an illegal child, always the same child, growing older as the years passed, until he no longer faced an unthinking toddler but a girl with age and understanding, nearly a woman, knowing just who he was and what he was doing. With her motionless gray eyes, she seemed to dare him to think about what he was doing; he was taking her life from her, punishing her for what her parents had done years ago. No one was more innocent than she was, but she was the crime, and the crime had to be removed from the world. Twenty years before, she would have been a drug shipment, a stolen datafile, or, at worst, an illegal copy of herself, in need of deletion but only a copy. Now she was a real human being. He was actually killing someone. "I'm sorry," he said. "I have to do this."
She just stared at him, and he knew what she was thinking: Come on, do it. Kill me. Kill me and everyone else. Kill yourself.
"The choice isn't mine," he told her, amazed how sick he felt inside, knowing that her calm face, already a face in a photograph, would be only one of many more hundreds to come, faces that would grow older with the years, until he would be looking into the eyes of grown men and women, telling them they had no right to be alive. If the police could not stop the spread of villages like this one, the whole sick world, already black with cancer in his mind, would truly begin to kill itself, creating lives that had to be destroyed, setting two armies of people against each other: the legal and the illegal, two armies thrown onto the planet like pieces in a game by a changing world no one understood. He touched the girl on the cheek, wanting to tell her how wrong everything was, how lost they all were, but it was hopeless. She turned away, disgusted, and he withdrew the hand.
He told the computer to store her data. The door slid shut and she was gone.
To get her off his mind, he took the scanner outside, where the raiding party would be lining up the rest of the villagers. The sun was past its zenith, which meant he would get home late again, for the third week in a row. Hopefully Claire would not be waiting up.