“Slots Palace,” says Suze.
You all stare at her. Staring at her is worth doing. She’s moved into a new bod since coming here, and the change has been a big improvement. There wasn’t exactly anything wrong with the one she initially adopted for the pentagon’s pre-consensuality union, but she became dissatisfied with it and the dissatisfaction affected the rest of you—especially Kagura, who said it reminded him in all the wrong ways of a past consensual of his who turned out badly. Now, with her alluring ancillary limbs and her skin that’s never the same color any two times you look at it, Suze cuts a striking figure as she stands against the backdrop of the open window and the bright Seventh Heaven sunlight.
“Slots Palace,” she repeats. “I’ve never been there. Any of you?”
You shake your head, as do the others. You think Mana may not even have heard of the place before.
The five of you are trying to settle where your pentagon should go for the honeytime.
The Probation Hotel here on Seventh Heaven is exactly what its name implies: a place where prospective consensualities can gather to spend that always slightly anxious experimental period before the final thumbings of the contracts between them. In the instance of your own pentagon, you’ve agreed to make an exception for Arnie, who’s present in blance only, his true self being currently somewhere in the Magellanics and thus inconveniently distant for direct access to a bod here. Blance-bound, he’s of course restricted to secsensing, which is a pity for all of you, but most especially for him.
The four of you who’re here in physical reality have taken one of the largest suites the Probation Hotel offers and then zeroed the walls so you can test your pentagon (well, eighty percent of it) to the max of intimacy. So far there’ve been no frictions—rephrase this: So far there’ve been no squabbles, the only dissent of any note being the one over Suze’s bod, soon settled.
It isn’t much of a surprise that none of you have ever been to Slots Palace, bearing in mind the difficulties of getting there—and the even greater difficulties of being there, come to that. You’d be startled if more than a few hundred people have gone closer than watching it from a distance.
That would be, of course, merely a second best. No one in your pentagon is much of an aficionado of second-bests.
“It’s only as blances we can go there,” observes Kagura. He gestures around at your four scattered bods, adding a wave to acknowledge the in absentia Arnie. Kagura doesn’t have to say anything more. The pleasures these bods have been giving you all these past few days are going to be hard to abandon.
Arnie laughs. It won’t make any difference to him if the rest of you have to blancify. Blances have their limitations, but they have the considerable advantage—being massless—of not really being there, wherever there might happen to be.
“We don’t need to go right away,” says Suze, gliding from the window to one of the loungers, where she sits herself down beside Mana. Mana’s hair today is straight and the silver-gray of dried-out ashes and it stretches all the way to the floor. Mana, more than any of you, even Kagura, maintains a constant awareness as to how she looks. “And we don’t have to stay forever. And while we’re there we’ll still be able to secsense, which is better than nothing.”
Arnie laughs again. He knows that. He’s a galaxy and a half away and a couple of hundred thousand years in the past, but sometimes he seems right there beside you.
You push yourself up from the floor, where you’ve been sprawling with Kagura, and walk across to the window, standing where Suze was. Suze is the strongest-willed of the five of you, the tacitly acknowledged leader of the new grouping. By moving to the position she has just vacated you feel as if you’re taking over a podium from her.
“It would be . . . different,” you say of the prospect of visiting Slots Palace. Outside the window you can see part of Threeberry, the nearest thing there is to an actual city on Seventh Heaven. It’s a long time since you’ve been on a planet. A hurla is struggling through the golden air from one brown scartree to the next, looking the whole while as if it’s going to flop down onto the ground like a great rubber sheet. Ugly creature. The sunlight pierces like the tines of a climbing-fork. It always does on Seventh Heaven, ever since the planet’s rotation was reconfigured by the people of some earlier, forgotten wave of human expansion. Once upon a time, you muse, you’d have been thirsty for the strangeness of Seventh Heaven. Now, when you seem to have seen so much of the galaxy and most of it more times than once, your palate is jaded and Seventh Heaven seems to be just another world: an old acquaintance, not a fresh consensual. “We could learn something from the experience.”
“But not yet, Rehan,” says Mana, looking you up and down as you turn back toward the room.
Soon, though, you think, and you can see in Suze’s eyes that she is thinking the same. You’ve all drowned yourselves in the pleasures of the flesh a billion times before. Not so in the Palace. This will redefine sensual experience for you.
• • • •
Following the dissolution of your longstanding triangle, you decided to solo it for a time.
Eventually, though, you found, as always, there was loneliness in an endless diversity of partners, so you hauled your synapses along to the interexchange in quest of others who might want to establish a consensuality contract with you. There was the usual string of negotiation processes, but after a number of minutes you retreated from the interface securely implanted within a newly formed quad. There are always difficulties with even numbers in consensualities, for some reason, so on reflection you nominated the incorporation of Arnie, a consensual of yours from several contracts ago who happened to be solo right then and of whom you often nostalgically dreamed—ah, the wiles of love. Suze and Mana were reluctant briefly, having decided they liked the prospect of a two:two female:male ratio within the consensuality, but Kagura and you sold them on the benefits of a third male and soon they conceded.
So there you were, a neat and conventional pentagon.
The five of you had a trace of formality in your collective personality. You determined to meet for a probation before digitally thumbing the final contracts. Arnie, as noted, could be there only in blance: unorthodox, of course, but there was an attraction in unorthodoxy, too. The rest of you converged by agreement on the Probation Hotel on Seventh Heaven, a planet practically in the hinterland of The World—fewer than forty parsecs from it, in fact, and consequently hellishly expensive, but, what the heck, you’re old beings and knew you could afford it.
Old you might be, but you were in young bods, specially brewed for the occasion. The probationary meeting, scheduled for a tenday, has already lasted twice that long and has involved the plethora of fucking typical of potential contractees. For your own bod you’ve cross-dressed, a wry jest that almost backfired when you discovered Mana had done the same. Arnie, confined within the narrow bandwidth of sensation typical of secsensing, keeps saying he’s content to admire you all and your skills.
Days ago, less than halfway through the meeting, you gathered the five thumbings. Everything looked to be set for an extended pentagonship.
Except that now, as venue for the honeytime, your pentagon has settled on Slots Palace.
• • • •
Not a lot is known about the early history of the human species, or even where it came from. Most people think it sprang from The World, which is still at the center of things, but the evidence is clear that The World was a secondary beachhead and not the original home, which humans must have left untold eons before; for one thing, the hour used as a standard by humanity all over the galaxy doesn’t divide neatly into The World’s rotational period, and will not for another hundred million years or so. The identity of the homeworld of humanity, or at least of the ancestral species from which humanity descends, is a datum that was lost during the collapse of humanity’s first galactic culture. This collapse was triggered by the establishment of a culture-wide regime, the Great Autarchy, in which the choice of ruler and ruled was divinely ordained and therefore irrevocable. Doctrinal differences among different power factions eventually brought everything tumbling down, including, alas, human culture as a whole.
The factions agreed on more than they disputed. One tenet common to all was that sin had to be expunged from the galaxy. There was disagreement as to precisely which human activities were sins and which weren’t, but the Great Autarchy placed near the top of its list the sin of gambling. (Another high-ranker, bizarrely, was fucking in public.) What the ancients did when they gambled was give a whole stack of credit to someone else contingent upon the outcome of something unpredictable. Sounds nuts, but then you’re pretty convinced that just about all human beings have been nuts—still are, come to that. Back in the day they had machines called slots for producing events people couldn’t predict and thus could gamble with—random-number generators, usually. The name “slots” derived from a time when the devices used were machines with spinning wheels, fueled by metal disks.
The rulers of the Great Autarchy disapproved of this gambling hobby not because it was boring, not because it was pointless, not because it was stupid—after all, when you want to give stuff away, it’s much easier just to do it without all the preamble—but because they decreed the element of chance involved was sinful: How could there be such a thing as chance in a universe whose deity determined everything right down to the properties and location of the loneliest quark? They tried to stamp it out in the usual ways of their age, like torture and massacre (remember, people died easier then), and, when they found they couldn’t eliminate gambling by these means, they confined it to a single world, an airless asteroid which soon came to be called Slots Palace.
So, okay, if you were strange enough to want to find difficult ways of giving away your possessions, you had to go to this asteroid-wide casino, which was inconvenient but not that inconvenient.
Then a new Autarch came to power and instituted a more rigorous scourge against sin than any that had preceded it. It wasn’t enough for him—of course it was a him, because the Autarchy regarded all females and intersexed as distanced from their creator boogey, another him—that gambling should be pent up on a single remote asteroid. The gamblers themselves were, each and every one of them, accursed in the eyes of the deity, and must be consigned to eternal perdition. He condemned them to what he thought was not just death but complete annihilation from the known universe.
The Autarch sent a fleet of his heavy military fittlers. They seized Slots Palace in their tractor fields and dragged it a few hundred parsecs, no great distance at fittle speeds, to where a black hole lurked, orbiting in tandem with the star that the hole, Old Throat, was casually stripping of its essence.
The forces of the Great Autarchy hurled the asteroid, with all its thousands of inhabitants still alive in their heated, pressurized habitat, toward the event horizon of the black hole.
It could have been worse. There were plenty of other unspeakable atrocities perpetrated by the Autarchy in the name of virtue and morality and sweet heavenly forgiveness. The gamblers could consider themselves lucky just to be thrown into a black hole. Imagine how much more cruelly they’d have been treated had they been al fresco fornicators.
Farewell, Slots Palace.
Thus was sin banished from the universe.
But it wasn’t, of course.
• • • •
What with the known dangers of ground-based streamers, the portal on Seventh Heaven is only a small affair, the streamer itself having just sufficient bandwidth to take your party of four up to an orbiter, where the main terminal is housed. You decide to save a little money by leaving your current bods at the portal and join Arnie as blances at the orbiter. Mana says you should make a game of choosing blances that match as closely as possible your original forms, but none of the rest of you can remember what those original forms looked like, and after a while Mana confesses in a cascade of millennia-old giggles that she herself can’t even recall what sex she started out as.
You have to spend a few hours in the orbiter before the next available vacancy for a stream to the vicinity of Slots Palace—and not the very close vicinity, you discover: You’re going to have to make a supplemental jump, maybe two, at the other end.
Eventually the moment comes for you to dissolve your blances so you can be streamed as raw data two-thirds of the way across the galaxy.
Things don’t look much changed by the time you reach your destination, though inevitably there must have been a few supernovae here and there; it doesn’t do to think too much, after streaming, about the passage of time.
Where you find yourselves is aboard a holiday cruiser that’s heading from somewhere to somewhere else at sublight in an approximation of real time, bearing a cargo of a few million humans in physical bods who get a thrill out of experiencing spaceflight “like it was supposed to be”—in other words, in a comprehensively artificial environment composed entirely of facilities designed to help pass the time. Well, each to their own, you suppose; it still seems crazy to you.
Being in the latest set of blances you’ve slipped into, you and your consensuals feel out of things among all these determinedly corporeal folk, so you don’t explore much. Maybe the place has hidden depths, who knows?
And who cares? You don’t go that deep.
It’s only a couple of days, anyway, before you’re on your way again, this time a short hop to an orbiter that’s maintaining a respectful six-parsec distance from Old Throat. This vessel, the Ten Percent Extra Free, is supposed to be a sort of observation platform for thrill-seekers and students alike, so they can study (a) the death throes of the hole’s enormously depleted companion star, but, more popularly, (b) the frozen data that were once an asteroid called Slots Palace, and all of the fervent gamblers and their gambling machines who were there at the time the Autarch enacted his condemnation of the whole caboodle. What the Autarch didn’t realize—thanks to the Great Autarchy’s suppression of any knowledge it didn’t like and/or understand—was that the hole’s grav field, while it might swallow the physical constituents of the Devil’s One True Spawn (or whatever), would retain the data frozen forever at the event horizon.
The fourth law of thermodynamics is the law of conservation of data. While a fraction of the stuff in the universe follows the timelike dimension familiar to human beings, which is the timelike dimension associated with universal expansion and gravitational attraction, the remaining three-quarters obeys the universe’s other timelike dimension, the “flow of time” whose arrow points in the opposite direction, the one associated with contraction and gravitational repulsion. Hence the phenomena once ascribed to the presence of hypothetical entities like dark matter and dark energy.
It’s because of there being two timelike dimensions that data must always be conserved. Everything that lies in the past of one of the dimensions lies in the future of the other. Data cannot simply dissipate, so to speak, once no longer in use, because the truth is that those data have also yet to be used. They’re frozen in place so long as the universe shall subsist.
It’s for analogous reasons, operating on the fringes of the localized universe that is Old Throat, that the information once manifested in four-dimensional form as Slots Palace is still frozen three-dimensionally all across the hole’s event horizon, eternally there for tourists like yourselves to gawp at, even if it seems at first to be merely a nebula swirling just beyond the edges of vision.
Your consensuality is intent on doing more than just gawp, of course.
The five of you want to mingle with the conserved data . . . for a while.
• • • •
Suze and yourself are the ones deputed to take charge of the negotiations.
You’ve all—except Arnie, of course—chosen to be in bods for the duration of your stay on the orbiter. Part of the motive is to pack in as much genuine sensation as you can before your confinement to blances as you visit the information that is the erstwhile Slots Palace. But a much bigger part of the motive is perhaps a searching for security: You’re sure there’ll be no difficulty departing Slots Palace once you bore of being there (would that its original occupants were so lucky!), but at the same time you’re going to be—at least your blances are—right on the observable rim of something capable of crushing you out of existence, extinguishing you entirely except for a data detritus that might never be properly reconstituted, at least along your own timelike axis.
Suze has yet again chosen an inventive bod for herself, this time one that’s about four meters tall and proportionately wide, but averages only about a centimeter thick, front to back: the bod looks like someone has rolled over it with an immensely heavy weight. (What’s especially alarming to you is that the bod possesses a weird sexual allure, even though—perhaps because—fucking is, as you’ve discovered to your frustration, distinctly problematic.) Suze ripples rather than walks to get from one place to another; if she wanted, she could plaster herself to a wall or a ceiling and alter her skin colors to blend in with the decor—excellent camouflage, if ever there might be a purpose for it.
She’s rippling in this wise ahead of you as you scoot along gangways to where you’ve been told the logistics center of the orbiter is. You reflect that this expedition to see the boss would have been easier if you and your consensuals had opted for blances instead. And Arnie wouldn’t finally be starting to grumble about the way he gets left out of things . . .
“You know the way?” you say for the hundredth time. The directions the aide in the main arrival bay gave you were a long string you lost track of before it was halfway done.
“I remember it,” says Suze over her wafer-thin shoulder, “even if you can’t.”
The risk of disaster occurring through her own overconfidence has never been something to trouble Suze much. It does you.
This time she’s right, though.
The orbiter boss’s name is Sikhanyiso, and he makes his base in a walled room done out in some historical style you’re not able to identify. There are all kinds of complicated devices lying around that seem to be made of real metal; they’re even authentically massy, as you discover when you casually try to lift one of them up.
“Feel free,” says Sikhanyiso, smiling at you from behind a broad, brown, grained desk. Wood. At least a couple of square meters, polished until you could probably see your face in it. Running an observational orbiter is obviously a lucrative business. “It’s a compass, Rehan,” he adds.
“What’s it for?”
“On a planet, it tells you the direction of the planet’s magnetic field.”
“Useful,” you say cautiously.
“Out here it’s useless, of course. It’s just a collectible, if you’re into antique instruments, that sort of thing. I had to jam the needle. Enough of the ee-em flux from Old Throat gets through the hull to drive the gadget berserk.”
Suze begins to explain what your consensuality wants to do. Sikhanyiso’s expression darkens.
“I’m not sure I can allow that.”
“Why?” Whatever her bod looks like, Suze has wheedling down to a fine art.
“We wouldn’t be the first.”
“The others were serious scientific researchers.”
“So are we.”
“We need to know. It’s important to us.” She’s sitting on his desk by now. The light glinting off her back makes her look as if she’s constructed of ice.
“Why do you need to know so much about what things are like down there?”
Suze glances across at you, passing over the tag of your tag-team.
“We’re researching into the properties of countermatter,” you say as if you hadn’t just thought of this on the spur of the moment.
Sikhanyiso makes a pantomime of choking on the fizzy he’s been drinking. “‘Countermatter’?”
“The matter of the counter-universe.”
“I know what countermatter is.” He makes a show of looking around the room at his antique instruments. Once he can see you’ve got the message he adds: “But what’s it got to do with Slots Palace?”
“We think the face of a black hole is somewhere that orthomatter and countermatter co-exist.”
You can see he wants to be convinced, that he wants to let the five of you go ahead and do this stupid thing. It couldn’t be any clearer that you’re lying, and that Suze is lying, yet he nods his head slowly and somberly as if mulling over the pros and cons. Really, all he’s doing is working out how to cover his own ass. If your consciousnesses—which is all that blances really are, when you think about it right—if your consciousnesses never come back from Old Throat’s event horizon, which is eminently possible, he wants to make sure some future investigation won’t blame him. It wouldn’t be until half a millennium or more down the pipeline, of course—that long because things move slow in any bureaucracy and the universe is a very big bureaucracy—but it pays to be cautious. In reality, the chances of an investigation ever coming about are infinitesimal—with humanity being so numerous and so far-spread, who the fuck cares about a few casualties here and there?—but they’re not zero.
“We have complete insurance,” says Suze.
The man’s face becomes suddenly more cheerful.
“Really,” she says. You try not to stare at her. It’s the first you’ve heard of any insurance.
“In that case,” says Sikhanyiso, making a palaver about moving things around on his desk that don’t need to be moved, “and assuming you’re aware of the small processing fee involved, perhaps I could see my way to permitting . . .”
By the time you leave him, you’ve discovered how the bosses of observation orbiters can afford wooden desktops.
• • • •
Returned from Sikhanyiso’s quarters, you eventually find Mana and Kagura preening themselves and each other among the throngs on the Ten Percent Extra Free’s observation deck. The “observation deck” is an elaborate conceit, because its various viewer terminals could just as well be mounted in the passengers’ individual cabins. There are screens up on the wall for people who’re content with a lower-resolution view. Perhaps the idea was to build a sense of community. More likely, doing it this way is merely a matter of theater. All the real research on Old Throat and Slots Palace is being done elsewhere, anyway, far out of sight of the sensation-seekers, somewhere that isn’t a tourist haven like the Ten Percent Extra Free. Most of the people here aren’t even paying attention to the screens, just chattering or getting high on stim; a triple is rather amateurishly having sex in the middle of the deck space, but no one’s paying attention to that, either.
“Arnie wants out of the consensual,” says Mana as you approach.
“No great loss,” says Suze brusquely.
“He didn’t think of blancing to tell us himself?” you say, bristling. It was you who engineered Arnie’s recruitment. You feel a fool in front of the others—that effort, for nothing.
“Where you were with the boss man,” says Kagura, another who’s clearly not upset to see the disappearance of Arnie, “there’s a block in place.”
So Sikhanyiso values his privacy. That seems consonant with his love of obsolete technology, somehow.
Well, there’ll be other consensuals, other times. And maybe your course will interweave with Arnie’s in the future. Though who cares one way or the other? The universe is full of Arnies. Besides, you find Mana’s current bod decidedly fascinating—almost ancestral in its solidity, although you’re fairly sure human ancestors were never blue with shimmers of turquoise—and, while you’re gazing at it, it’s difficult to focus too clearly on anything else.
Just then, one of the Ten Percent Extra Free’s aides approaches. On his forehead is stamped the name Kevin, plus a serial number. He clearly recognizes Mana and Kagura, and addresses himself to Suze and yourself.
“Have you used these viewers before?”
“Viewers like them, obviously,” you say, “but not these precise ones, no.”
“They’re a little different,” says Kagura. “Kevin explained them to us earlier, but we thought we’d wait for you.”
The little entity bustles to the nearest terminal, pulls from it a couple of viewers, and tosses them one each to Suze and yourself. You turn the thing over in your hands, this way and that. It looks just like an ordinary viewer: a flat, featureless, transparent flexible sheet that’s big enough to fit over the head and tuck under the chin and around the back of the neck. You crumple it in your fist and you can immediately feel the difference. This viewer’s a bit stiffer than you’d expect. Usually this is a sign of a lesser quality of manufacture, but you suspect that isn’t the case here.
Kevin answers the unspoken question. “We have to trade a little flexibility for all the extra technology that’s in there. You won’t notice the difference once you’re wearing the viewer. Hardly at all,” he amends.
You get the impression it’s an often-rehearsed speech, the little afterthought being introduced in order to give Kevin a trace of the personality he does not in fact have.
“As you’ll know,” the aide continues, “all the data of Slots Palace are frozen at Old Throat’s event horizon. The trouble is that Slots Palace is just one of the more recent things to have fallen into Old Throat over the past couple billion years. There’s who knows how much other data preserved there as well. All of it jumbled. The additional technology in your viewer is designed to sort that data, enabling you to see the reality buried beneath the surface of the chaos. It’s a complex task. The results aren’t entirely perfect”—Kevin gives what’s supposed to be a nervous little laugh but sounds more like a recycler malfunction—“but we think you’ll find that most of the time they’re fairly satisfactory.”
You look at the viewer you’re holding with new respect. Kevin isn’t exaggerating when he says the task involved is complex.
Before this, you haven’t really thought ahead about how the blances of you and your consensuals are going to be able to interpret the data they find themselves among when they eventually make the descent onto Old Throat. Now that Kevin has brought it to your notice, though, you realize that whatever Sikhanyiso has lined up for you must incorporate some similar cybernetics. Otherwise all the data you’d see would be more or less entirely random.
Which is to say, you wouldn’t see anything at all.
“Impressive,” you say.
Kevin flashes an unsettling grin. “The owners and operators of the Ten Percent Extra Free are proud of the service they offer to their visitors. Thank you.”
He turns away and scurries off in search of other unenlightened people to instruct.
“That’s all there is?” you say to Mana.
“The viewers are pre-calibrated,” she responds. “That’s what he told us, anyway. You just pop them on and . . .”
She brings the viewer up to her face and presses it against the blue flesh. Kagura is mirroring her actions, and Suze and yourself hurry to follow suit. The smart material at once starts wrapping itself around the rest of your head, molding itself against the contours. Once it’s convinced that it’s properly positioned, you know you have thirty seconds to find yourself somewhere comfortable to sit or lie down before the material opaques. The four of you link hands to form a circle, and sit down on the floor where you are.
As the light dims toward blackness, so too does the sound of the busy deck around you, the babbling voices of the other tourists, the loud, near-hysterical laughter of someone who’s over-stimmed themselves. Although you can feel Mana’s hand in your own left and Suze’s wafer-thin one in your own right, you feel as if suddenly you’ve been plunged into solitude.
There’s a long moment when there’s only the darkness, and then
• • • •
the illusion is that you’re hovering over a landscape not unlike a planetary one except that the land curves gently upward in every direction away from you. It’s as if you were inside Old Throat, not outside it (if there’s ever truly a place that’s outside a black hole). Although you can still feel the hands of your consensuals, you can see no sign of them; viewing can be disconcerting this way, no matter how much you believe you’ve grown accustomed to it. You’re having difficulty working out which of your senses is experiencing this panorama: It’s a cacophony of motion, a bitter taste of blazing colors. You’ve never known vertigo before, but you recognize that you’re feeling it now.
And then it’s as if someone had gripped the world you’re witnessing to hold it steady. Everything comes into focus. The software inside your viewer has done a little bit of final tuning, an imposition of a more accurate ordering upon the chaotic data preserved here.
You’re aware of the fact that there are immense destructive forces raging all around you, horrific torrents of radiation as matter’s torn asunder by the hole’s gravity. Somewhere nearby—nearby in cosmic terms, at least—a star’s being ripped apart as it succumbs to that same inexorable gravitational field. Yet, now that the vista has been clarified by the clever technology, this new environment seems oddly peaceful, placid. The motions you can see in the terrain spread out around you are as frenetic as before, but at the same time they give the impression of purpose: They’re performing a wild dance, for sure, but it’s a dance done according to a prescribed choreography.
You’re moving now yourself, floating slowly across and down toward this bowl-shaped world.
As you anticipated, the particular set of data that the viewer has pulled out of the background chaos is the one pertaining to Slots Palace. You must already have passed through the data that represented the hermetic dome that once kept the revelers secure from the vacuum surrounding the original asteroid. You’re now within shouting distance of the ground, except, obviously, that you can’t shout to the people you see down there because you’re not really here: you’re just viewing. For the same reason, no one who looks up can see you. The people here are ghosts, of course, but you’re a ghost too.
It’s unnerving to see so many people in ancestral form gathered all in the same place. You’re accustomed to seeing people in all different shapes and sizes, but here everyone’s roughly the same size and there’s really very little diversity of shape. There are a few different skin colors, but only a few, and the ones that there are seem desperately dull.
By contrast, whoever designed Slots Palace believed in assaulting the senses with color. Everywhere you look there are cavalcades of clashing hues, flashing lights so raucous in their brightness you think you can hear them. Greens, yellows, oranges, reds, a particular glaring shade of purple. Some of the signs have marks on them that you’re pretty sure are writing but you can’t read it.
And now you seem to be skimming just above the heads of the Slots Palace people. There are walls segregating off different areas of what seems like an infinite casino, forming rooms. The rooms, you think, must have been open to the sky, or at least to the pressure dome, back in the old, asteroid-bound days; more likely, you soon conclude, the viewer’s software hasn’t bothered to reintegrate the data that formed the palace’s upper stories and roof. Some of the spaces are still filled with machines that you guess must be the random-number generators at the root of the addiction that brought the palace into existence in the first place, and a few of the crowded people there are attending them in a desultory way.
Most of the rooms, though, are dwelling spaces, either private or public. Some are filled with tables, mostly untenanted. As you speed across the concave terrain, you see people eating, drinking, defecating, making love, partying, fighting, singing, cavorting . . . all of it in a blur of human animation that soon seems to you to become just a single human activity: the business of living.
There’s litter everywhere: discarded stuff. Hard to get rid of anything when the data that comprise it are permanent.
It’s all so messy.
Perhaps the viewer’s smart programs interpret your shudder of revulsion as a sign of distress—who knows?—but the next thing you know they’ve hauled you back to the reality of the Ten Percent Extra Free’s observation deck, where you find yourself, once the viewer has cleared, sitting in a ring with your consensuals.
You’re disoriented enough that you have to consciously remind yourself of their names: Mana, Suze, Kagura.
Mana has obviously returned some little while ago: Her viewer lies on the floor in front of her, and she blinks at you in welcome. The other two are still journeying: sitting bolt upright, the muscles of their necks twitching.
You shake your head and the viewer obediently unwraps itself and slides down your front to join Mana’s.
“That was a gateway to hell,” Mana whispers.
You don’t know whether you agree with her or not.
• • • •
The next tenday or so is a bit of a burden for you. Once Suze and Kagura returned from viewing the face of Old Throat, Mana announced that she’d changed her mind about blancing down there—had changed her mind about the consensuality as a whole, in fact, and wanted to back out from it. This was a shock to the rest of you, who’d been unaware she was restless; even more of a shock was Kagura’s decision to leave with her. You’d always known he felt something special for her—they’re alike in so many ways—but it’s etiquette to value consensual bonds above individual ones. Even so, it was perfectly within the entitlement of Mana and Kagura to dissolve their fractions of the contract. A day of shared intimacy in your cabin was enough as a fond farewell to the quad, and then Suze and yourself watched your erstwhile consensuals stream away to wherever they were going.
It’s a strange experience, being in a contracted pair, and Suze isn’t a person you’d ordinarily have chosen to be in a pair with—as part of a pentagon, fine, but as a single partner? Yet the two of you are determined to make the best of it, and in fact it’s working out fine, so far—especially since you both invested in fresh bods, this time ones that are closer to the ancestral in form. This is something Sikhanyiso and his aides have insisted upon: The blances you’ll be using on your trip to Slots Palace—on what feels like a return rather than a first journey—will have that general form, in order to blend in among the reconstituted people there, so it’s essential you become accustomed to that now.
Suze has her own way of getting accustomed to her new bod, and you’re an enthusiastic accomplice.
There’s a lot more training and modification to be done. There’s no way to smarten a blance, it being immaterial, so the smartening has to be done to the individual from whom the blance emanates—from whom it derives its motivation, reasoning powers and such muted senses as are feasible. This is something you’ve never really thought about before, because your brain was smartened for the purpose millennia ago and since then the mods have become just another part of the organism that’s you, like your language app. Among the data ocean of Old Throat’s event horizon, however, your mind’s going to have to perform all the analysis and ordering of the data that the viewer did. That’s something you’ve never demanded of your brain before.
You lose an hour while the Ten Percent Extra Free aides perform the operation—almost as long as for a resurrection process. Afterwards, although of course there’s no pain, there’s a sense of intrusion. You imagine a discomfort that isn’t really there. Suze reports the same.
It takes a whole day for this effect to wear off. By then the pair of you are using your new bods as if you’d been born to them.
You’re both itching to get back to Old Throat. You told Suze about Mana’s remark—“That was a gateway to hell”—and you’ve discussed it. You can understand why the experience horrified Mana so, and why to an extent you shared that feeling. Yet for you and Suze the fear was just a small part of it all and if anything an enhancement.
The viewing was not so much a gateway to hell as a gateway to a reality you haven’t known for far too long.
A reality you’re both now eager to bathe in.
• • • •
When you were viewing, they were just bright colors, all the greens and the yellows, the oranges and the reds and the purple that stabbed your vision. Now that your blance is down here, though, mixing among the trapped data, the flashing lights have taken on a life of their own, almost a personality. They’re flares of hope and desire—cold glances, hot flames, glimpses that aren’t entirely of this dimension . . . whatever the dimension you’re now in actually is. Some are pulsing slowly, others strobing so rapidly they seem almost continuous. Your mind reels at the thought of the impact they’d have on you if you weren’t secsensing. They’re part of the ecosystem—an ecosystem that’s full of sounds and smells and incident.
People everywhere, of every age, from infants in arms to wizened grandparents. You’ve never seen old people before—well, you’ve seen people who were old, obviously, but you’ve never seen people who were old.
You must stop thinking of these people as data. In a very real way, you’re now just a collection of data yourself—or at least your blance is.
Glancing upward, you see a ceiling with slowly turning mirrored globes hanging from it: a reference to distant history that the builders of Slots Palace must have thought would give the place a touch of, you know, class. You were right about the viewer being selective in deciding what parts of the structure to extrapolate from the data.
Suze’s blance arrived in the casino beside yours but she’s wandered off somewhere. You peer around, trying to catch a sight of her, but there are people in the way; you and Suze would ordinarily tower above everyone else here, but you don’t when you’re in your ancestral-form blances.
You turn to see a short, stubby woman looking at you; not that everyone else isn’t short and stubby, but she’s shorter and stubbier than most. It seems very odd to see so many people who aren’t beautiful, all of them gathered together. Everyone you know is beautiful, because why shouldn’t they be?
The facial expressions of ancestrals are hard to interpret, but the woman seems friendly. A small boy leans against her leg: a child or a grandchild.
“I’m looking for a friend.”
“You new around here?”
“It’s that obvious?”
She doesn’t elaborate, but she doesn’t have to. There are tens of thousands of people here in Slots Palace, but they’ve been here long enough that they must all recognize each other—or, at least, know when they don’t recognize someone.
“How did you get here?” she says.
Where to begin? She was born of a time before there were blances, a time when humans were restricted by so many constraints you no longer know.
“I’m just passing through,” you say, as if that were an answer.
“You’re a visitor.”
“We’ve had visitors before.” She glances down toward the child clinging at her side. “At first we thought Laddie here was one of them, didn’t we, Laddie?”
Wide-eyed, thumb in mouth, the child nods. He’s staring at you with over-wise eyes.
It must be centuries since you last met a child, and you’re not sure how to go about this.
“Laddie,” you say. “That’s a nice name.”
“It’s not really a name at all,” says the woman. “He just sort of wandered in—fifty, sixty years ago. No memory, no idea how he’d got here. We called him Laddie. By the time his memory started coming back and he was able to tell us he was really called Mokwugo, it was too late. Everyone knew him as Laddie, and that’s what he stayed.”
“And did he eventually remember how he’d got here?”
“A colony ship, fleeing from the Autarchy. But the Autarchy was onto them. That’s what Laddie remembers, anyway. You can guess the rest. The colonists realized recapture was inevitable, so they committed mass suicide and programmed their ship to try to lead the chasing war vessels into Old Throat. Here, in other words. Good thing they didn’t succeed because, if they had, the place’d have been crawling with Autarchy warriors. Laddie here, his mother couldn’t bear to kill him so she hid him away. That’s Laddie’s excuse for being here. What’s yours?”
“I came here to see what it was like,” you say lamely.
“You planning on staying?”
“Not for long, no,” you admit.
She sniffs, as if coming to a judgment about something.
Laddie pulls his thumb out of his mouth. “You’re not really here at all, are you?” he says.
Like his gaze, his voice seems older than he is. You wonder what it must be like to be a child here, never ageing—you can’t change fundamentally from the data you arrived as. On the other hand, that should surely apply mentally as well as physically, shouldn’t it? Maybe it’s not that his mind has grown older, just that it’s had far more experiences than it would have had anywhere else.
“No,” you tell him. “I’m not really here.”
Of course, time here obviously obeys different rules. The stubby woman talks of Mokwugo arriving a few decades ago, but there hasn’t been an Autarchy for a gazillion years or more. True, ships that are fittling can cause havoc with the ordering of events, but it’s improbable that both pursued and pursuers would find themselves displaced from their own era to exactly the same degree.
“You’re like the other guys,” the boy says.
“What other guys?”
“That was what I was about to tell you,” says the woman, folding her arms beneath an ample bosom. “The other blances.”
“You know about blances?”
There’s no need for her to answer the question. “I’m Ella.” She sticks a hand out. You stare at it for a moment, then realize she wants you to touch it. Secsensing allows you to feel her skin hardly at all, just enough to detect its coarseness. People don’t have skin like that any longer.
“Rehan.” You offer your hand to Laddie, and he puts his own small hand into it for a moment.
“Those other blances, are they still here?”
“Yes. Some of them. Come with me and I’ll introduce you.”
You follow Ella as, with the boy tagging along beside her, she makes her way across the big salon. Even though it’s quite crowded in places, people seem to melt away in front of her, and briefly you wonder if she has some high rank in this society. But then you notice that the others are behaving in the same way toward each other, too. Personal space clearly matters a lot. You suppose that, if a few tens or hundreds of thousands of humans are destined to live alongside each other in a relatively confined space for effectively an eternity, it’s only natural they should be concerned to keep what distance they can between themselves. Or maybe the reason’s more pragmatic. Although you’ve learned already to think of them as people, the Slots Palace occupants are also really data clusters. Could they compromise each other’s integrity?
You wonder how much of a gesture it was for Ella and Laddie to touch your hand.
It’s been a long time since you’ve had to confront so many unanswered questions. It’s been a long time since you’ve enjoyed doing it.
You noticed before that there are doors peppered all around the walls of the salon. These doors don’t open of their own accord as you approach them, or at least the one Ella has selected doesn’t. She pushes it open manually, then stands back to usher you through. Laddie runs on ahead.
You’re in a lit corridor. The illumination’s quite bright, but it seems almost gloomy here after all the glare and flashing of the public chamber you’ve just left.
“Where are we going?” you say.
“Not far,” Ella replies with a smile. “The others like you, they mix among us often enough but they tend to keep themselves to themselves. They have a set of rooms we set aside for them. I think sometimes they take trips back to wherever they’re based and they don’t like us to see them leaving or arriving—as if we’d envy them their freedom to come and go.”
She says those last few words as if it were perfectly obvious why none of the people here would envy the blances.
“There’s a whole universe out there, you know,” you say timidly. “A trillion places you can be. A trillion things you can do.”
She raises an eyebrow. “What’s the point, if you don’t know how to experience any of them?”
You imagine she’s referring to her status as a collection of data rather than a living, breathing creature. Only later will you begin to conceive that she might have been saying something else entirely.
For now, you don’t answer her.
In less than a minute, you find yourself being shown into a medium-sized cabin. There are two female blances sitting at a table in the middle, with a male blance between them. Standing, looking as if she’s being held against her will, is Suze.
She gives a start as you appear. “Hey, Rehan.”
You’re aware that behind you Ella is quietly leaving the room, shutting the door. Laddie doesn’t follow her.
One of the women looks up at you, her mouth beginning to twist in what you almost immediately recognize as contempt. “Another bloody tourist.”
“They’re rude bastards, these three,” says Suze. You were thinking much the same yourself but you wouldn’t have said it out loud. Typical Suze: jumps in with both feet.
You try to bluff it out, just as you did with Sikhanyiso. “We’re hoping to learn something about countermatter.”
The blance who greeted you snorts.
Her male companion puts a calming hand over one of hers. “Hush, Anya.”
“I tell you, Darien, I can’t stand these people,” says Anya, shaking his hand off. “They’re gruesome. They come here to pick over the flesh and bones of a massacre. All they’re looking for is cheap thrills. Hey, tourist, does it give you a jolly to look around you and see all the dead folk?”
“It’s not that at all,” you say. But it has more truth in it than what you just said about countermatter.
“The woman’s a bitch,” says Suze. “She needs to get laid, like, yesterday.”
Suze tries to carry off a look of easy superiority, but even you, her supposedly loyal consensual, have to admit she’s being unsuccessful. The trouble is that the two of you are just tourists, and your motives, now that you hold them up and examine them for the first time, are pretty morbid. You’re here to see a bizarrery, nothing more.
Ignoring Suze, you say, “And what brought you three here?” to the woman called Anya.
She’s obviously startled by the question. “Science,” she says. “Research.”
You smile. “Not research into countermatter?”
“No.” She turns away, lips pursing as if she’s preparing to spit on the floor.
“Anya’s a mathematician,” says the man. “She specializes in probability. I’m a psychologist.” He sees you don’t recognize the word. “That means I study the way the human mind works. I’m also interested in integrative neuroscience.” This time he doesn’t bother to explain the piece of jargon.
You turn toward the other female expectantly, but she just stares back at you.
Darien explains that Syor’s specialty is to recognize statistical patterns that are invisible to most observers and draw deductions from them—in other words, he adds, that she intuits. “There could hardly be a better talent to bring to a casino, you’re thinking”—you weren’t—“but that’s not why she’s here.”
He reaches a hand across the table to you, and you touch it.
“This is a waste of time,” says Suze.
Darien ignores the interruption as, you sense, he ignored quite a few interruptions from Suze before you got here. “Come sit down with us,” he says to you.
There are two more chairs at the table than you noticed earlier. Obediently you sit down in one while Laddie, whom you almost forgot was here, hauls himself up into the other. As the child settles himself in place, you’re struck once more by the earnestness in his eyes, and now also by the respect the three blances seem to have for him.
“You’ve still not really told me what brought the three of you here,” you say.
Syor speaks for the first time. “We’re hoping to solve the puzzle of this place.” Unlike Anya, she seems disposed, after a brief initial reservation, to be friendly.
“Why the people here perceive it as stable.”
And at once you realize what’s been troubling you ever since you arrived, an irritating doubt scratching at your mind.
“If you’re like us,” Syor is saying, “you had to go through a major augmentation regime before you got here. The data that used to be Slots Palace and its occupants are all here, but without integration software they’d just be random noise. Not quite random. Data can never become totally random, otherwise they’d stop being data. But, lacking the integration facilities built into you, you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference.”
“But the people who were already here, the locals—they don’t have any augmentations,” you say.
“Where’s this all going?” demands Suze.
“Have you spoken to any of them?” you say, looking up at her. You sense that she’d regard sitting down like the rest of the people in the room as a surrender. “The locals, I mean.”
“Yeah. There was the guy that brought me here.”
“Did you talk about much?”
“Not much. No.” Any minute now Suze is going to lose her temper. Not for any particular reason but just because that’s the way she’s made. Everything in the universe moves too slowly for Suze. Reality refuses to cooperate with her every whim. She wants everything to be transient, experienced one moment and forgotten the next, but too many things decline simply to go away when she’s no longer interested in them.
“Did he talk about life in Slots Palace?”
“Ella—the woman who was here a few minutes ago—as far as she’s concerned, Slots Palace is somewhere she’s been living for hundreds of thousands of years, maybe longer than that. She wasn’t just pulled out of the data cloud by our arrival—or Syor’s, or Anya’s, or Darien’s. This, this”—you wave your hand at the bleak walls—“this environment is permanent and stable, at least so far as the people who live here are concerned. They don’t need something like an integration app to drag coherence out of the maelstrom. Ella doesn’t even realize it, so I assume everyone else is the same, but the people of Slots Palace are somehow pulling order from the chaos. And that’s—at least I guess so—what our new friends are here to investigate.”
“Bravo,” says Darien softly, mimicking the clapping of hands.
“So what?” says Suze.
Syor looks bewildered at Suze’s obtuseness. “You don’t find it interesting? You don’t find the puzzle challenging?”
“Not really,” Suze replies. “I came here for the honeytime, not for a science education.”
“Stupid bloody tourist,” says Anya savagely.
This time Suze goes for her, lunging across the table. There’s not a huge amount of damage one blance can do to another, seeing as how neither of them’s really there, but, even through secsenses, pain can become pretty severe. Even if your eyeball is just a psychographic projection, you know all about it if someone tries to gouge it out.
You pull Suze back; Darien and Syor do the same for Anya.
All this time, Laddie has been just watching the proceedings. It’s quite a surprise when he suddenly speaks.
“You’re acting like children.”
Anya lets out one last enraged grunt, then stops struggling and sinks back onto her chair.
As Laddie’s words hang in the air, you remember where he came from. He and his family were putting up resistance to the will of the Autarchy. When it came to a choice between abandoning their principles or dying, they elected to die rather than concede to tyranny. Their convictions gripped them more tightly than the need to breathe.
No one would make that bargain any more. There’s never any need to. Humans can do virtually whatever they want on a stage that’s as near as dammit infinite.
That’s good. It was what the species was meant to become, if it was meant to become anything at all. But humanity paid a price for it.
“Intelligence is data, too,” you murmur.
Syor, watching your face, nods in agreement. “That’s the line of research we’ve been pursuing.”
“Emotions. Memories. Determination. Willpower. They’re all of them not just data but ways of interpreting data. These people feel things more strongly than we could ever dream.”
“Yes. It’s something to do with that, we think, this integrative power of theirs. But we can’t work out the details. We’re tantalizingly close but . . . we just don’t know.”
“There’s a way of finding out,” you say, carrying a thought to its conclusion.
“Yes,” Syor agrees, reading your mind. “But none of us has dared try it.”
“This is futile,” concludes Suze as she begins to go into the routine that will recall her blance to the Ten Percent Extra Free.
• • • •
You’ve been in short-lived consensualities before but never, so far as you can recall, one that’s been shorter-lived than this one.
You remain in Slots Palace for another tenday or so, getting to know the other three blances better, not to mention Laddie and Ella and dozens of the locals. Even Anya eventually admits grudgingly that you may be redeemable. You grow accustomed to the clamoring light displays in the main salons—well, as accustomed to them as you’ll ever be. You form friendships; you’re amazed by how readily people are willing to be friends with you. Laddie has taken to following you around and you’re amazed, too, by how good that makes you feel.
By the time you return to the Ten Percent Extra Free, Suze has long gone. You wish you could find it within yourself to care, but, to be honest, you hardly think about it. You’re a man on a mission.
For the first time in your long life, you’re driven. It’s as if the Slots Palace people infected you with their way of being. You need to understand your surroundings, and your place in them. Most of all, you need to solve the puzzle of the conservation of the subtler data that once formed Slots Palace: the emotions, the aesthetics, the patterns of thought.
For a couple of days after your return to the Ten Percent Extra Free, you experience a new sensation that you have great difficulty in identifying. Finally you recognize it as the awareness of the blood flowing in your veins.
There’s something else, too. In the same way that you felt so good when Laddie adopted you and started treating you like a trusted friend, the thought of the green-gazed Syor fills you with warmth. The two of you became close during the final days before your return, especially after you both decided to take the next obvious step in unraveling the puzzle the organized data present. If the experiment’s successful, maybe you’ll become closer still. You’re not sure if you’re comfortable with the thought. The uncertainty’s exciting.
It takes a lot of hard, forceful argument—and a goodly percentage of your accrued wealth, wealth you’re no longer going to have a use for—to persuade Sikhanyiso to go along with what you’re demanding of him. He sets out a million bureaucratic hoops for you to jump through just in case he ever gets the blame for what he regards as being inevitably an act of willful suicide. Which in a way it is.
Finally everything’s ready. Sikhanyiso makes one last effort to dissuade you, and then two of his aides code the portal to stream you to Old Throat’s event horizon. Your consciousness will arrive there as a package of disorganized data.
You’re relying on the data that’s already there to reintegrate you.
Even if it doesn’t work out like that, even if the essence of you will just be snuffed out of existence, one more tiny particle of degraded information swept into the singularity, you’re prepared for it. You’re alive at last; the biggest part of the puzzle has been solved.
“Send me there,” you say to the aides.
And so they shrug, as they’ve been programmed to do, and they send you there.
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