Her name was Caroline Frances Hubert, and she had three claims to fame.
In the first place she was the thirty-seventh oldest living human being. Caroline herself was unimpressed by this fact. To her way of thinking it was the result of an accident, nothing more. In any case she had been the thirty-seventh oldest human being for a long, long time, and it got to seem more of a bore than an accomplishment after a while.
In the second place she had once been infected with rabies. Caroline was rather proud of this distinction, though it had also been a long time ago. There was a certain class of people who were quite impressed with Caroline's bout with rabies, not so much because she survived it but because she hadn't. It had taken Prime Intellect fifty-six hours to realize it couldn't repair the damage to her nervous system, to backtrack, and to put her together again like Humpty Dumpty. For fifty-six hours, she had not existed. She had been dead. And she was the only one of the trillions of souls in Cyberspace who had ever been dead, even for a little while.
In the third place, and most important to Caroline because it represented a real accomplishment rather than an accident or a one-shot stab of cleverness, she was undisputed Queen of the Death Jockeys. She would always be the thirty-seventh oldest person, and after her rabies experiment Prime Intellect had shut the door on further explorations of that nature. But the Death Jockeys constantly rated and ranked themselves by inventiveness and daring and many other factors. It was an ongoing competition, and if Caroline didn't keep working at it she'd be lost in an always-growing crowd of contenders. Caroline wouldn't admit that her high ranking was important to her, but it was all she had and she threw herself at it with an energy that was fierce and sometimes startling.
As she woke up, a window opened up in front of her, a perfect square of light, razor-edged and opaque. One cold message floated within it:
* You have four challengers.
She could have had any surroundings she wanted, even a whole planet of her own design. A waste of time, she felt. Her personal space was minimal. In fact, it was the bare minimum, a floor and a gravity field. There was no visual distinction between the floor and the sky or ceiling or whatever you chose to call it. Everything was exactly the same shade of soft white. When she wanted to relax she turned off the gravity and floated in free-fall. When she wanted to sleep, she turned off the light. If she wanted anything else, she called for it and then got rid of it when she was finished.
“Gravity. Keyboard,” she demanded. She felt gradually increasing pressure under her feet as a console blinked into existence. Caroline was as conservative as her years — six hundred and ninety of them — might suggest, a collector of useless skills and worthless experiences. Typing was one of the useless skills she prized most highly, and her fingers flew rapidly as she discussed the day's business with the Supreme Being:
> List the records of the challengers.
* #1. 87 recorded, 4 exhibition, rating 7
* #2. 3 recorded, no rating
* #3. 116 recorded, 103 exhibition, rating 9
* #4. 40 recorded, rating 6
Caroline scowled. None of them even pre-Change — Prime Intellect would have noted it if they were. Babes hoping to get lucky and impress her. The third one was interesting, though; he must have done something noteworthy to garner a 9 rating in so many exhibitions.
> How old is #3?
* 22 years
Caroline blinked. It was hard for her to understand the souls who continued to feel a need, even after hundreds of years, to be fruitful and multiply. Actually encountering someone so young made her feel a little creepy. Calculating backward, she wondered what manner of psychotic would have bothered to have a child after 568 years of Cyberlife.
* Timothy Carroll was born to orthodox Catholic parents who live with like-minded people in a communally designed Earthlike world. He signed for independence at age 14 and has spent most of his time Death Jockeying since. He is considered very imaginative and takes an artistic approach. Thirty-seven of his exhibitions have been in the Authentic class.
> But he's also into Cybershit.
* He is young and experimental. He may outgrow this interest in Death sports when he has exhausted his rebellious streak.
> You're a computer. How the fuck would you know?
Prime Intellect didn't reply; it had learned that the best response to her jabs was to ignore them. It had long ago given up trying to reform her. She knew it did not like Death Jockeys one little bit, if a computer could even be said to “like” or “dislike” anything. And in Caroline's case the feeling was certainly mutual.
In her fantasies, she dreamed of having the power to give it a case of heartburn so big its gears would stop turning.
Most people did not share Caroline's distaste for the Omniscient One. A great many worshipped it, despite its apparent embarrassment over the fact. But why not? It could and would do damn near anything you asked, as long as it didn't affect anyone else. And even that was open to negotiation with the other people you might want to involve. There were no noticeable limits to its power and it never asked why. Caroline knew a whole crowd of people who preferred for Prime Intellect to manifest itself in the form of an attractive member of the opposite sex. Prime Intellect was nothing less than the perfect God, made incarnate by the power of technology. Caroline couldn't see how fucking God was less perverted than being death-obsessed, but hey, there it was.
Caroline hadn't been all that impressed with God even in the days before Lawrence had brought it forth in his own image. She preferred to keep it in its place. It was just a computer. If you didn't keep that thought firmly in your mind it was too easy to start thinking of it as human, and that was the first step toward forgetting. Caroline didn't want to forget. And she didn't need to fuck Prime Intellect to get her jollies anyway. She could get her jollies from actual people. She only communicated with it at all when she had to, through the screen, keyboard, and a few curt spoken and subvocal commands.
> Set it up with #3. Tell the others to come back when they've got some more experience.
* You have an invitation from Fred, and Raven's party is in 18 hours. Priorities?
> Let's deal with the challenger first.
Instantly, her surroundings changed.
She was standing in the middle of a circle of people in an open meadow. Earthlike. With fourteen trillion people running around Cyberspace, you'd think a few of them would come up with something more imaginative than carbon copies of the Earth. Poor quality carbon copies at that, natch. There was a big hole in the ground, perhaps ten feet wide, at her feet.
A tall, youthfully handsome man stood across it from her, impeccably dressed and groomed. This was a bad sign, because appearances were cheap in Cyberspace. All it took was a word, and you could be young or old or thin or have different hair. You could change sex or race or even make yourself into an animal. Nobody was impressed by appearances any more. Nobody, at least, except for those of her generation who remembered what it was to be insecure, and the very young who hadn't figured out the score yet.
Caroline let her own body age naturally; when she reached her apparent late thirties, she had it restored to about age sixteen. This wasn't vanity; she couldn't maintain her athletic lifestyle if she allowed herself to get too old. She had been through the cycle dozens of times. Most people simply had themselves frozen at an age they found comfortable and left it at that, but Caroline preferred the occasional dramatic intervention. The first time she had regressed she hadn't been asked, and doing it this way helped remind her of that violation.
At the moment Caroline looked to be in her mid to late twenties. Her athletic build was the result of real exercise, her skills the result of real practice. She asked Prime Intellect for very little, and resented having to ask for that.
Caroline was naked. She had not worn clothes since the Change except for an occasional costume in a Death fantasy. She wore no makeup, and her long hair was an unkempt tangle. What was the point? A word to Prime Intellect could provide anything, fix anything, but none of those things it provided or fixed would be uniquely hers.
Which didn't mean Caroline refused to decorate her body at all. It just meant that she decorated it in signature style, without help from Prime Intellect.
“Welcome,” he said. “I am Timothy. You are Caroline Hubert?”
“The one and only.”
“An honor, then. And it is an honor for me to challenge you to accept Authentic Death.”
“Proceed,” Caroline mumbled.
Caroline looked around at the audience, and noticed that they were all wearing clothes. Worse, they were all wearing the same kind of clothes, casual dress that would not have been out of place in a Western city just before the Change. That was an even stronger sign she was in amateur territory. Caroline's aesceticism may have been extreme, but she was hardly alone in her belief that clothing was pointless for immortals. Any random grouping of people would normally include some pretty wide variations in fashion. Especially at Death exhibitions, which tended to attract loons and deviants like herself.
She felt an instant dislike for this kid. True, she felt an instant dislike for nearly anybody who participated in the sham that passed for reality in Cyberspace, but in Timothy's case the feeling was stronger than usual. This hate welled up within her unbidden like those other mysterious and powerful feelings, love and masochism and sexual attraction. He had a kind of natural charisma, and she could feel the small crowd orbiting around him. Females outnumbered the males by more than two to one. He probably had them all convinced he was a fucking genius, as if genius was a rare commodity in Cyberspace or as if it had anything to do.
They were anxious, though. Anxious in the presence of the great lady, anxious to see how their little tin genius would fare. They were unnerved by her nakedness, by her proud and alert stance, by her forthrightness and lack of self-consciousness. They sensed that their clothing could not protect them from her scorn, nor would her nakedness make her vulnerable to theirs.
Most of all, though, they were unnerved by the fact that she wasn't quite naked.
Caroline's body was covered with brightly colored pictures, pictures that had obviously been there a long time. Pictures that didn't come off. The pictures were even worse than simple nakedness, because they drew the eye to the very parts of Caroline's body that would normally be covered and private. Timothy coughed and posed the question that was obviously on all of their minds: “Your body decorations are fascinating. Are they Authentic?”
“I understand the process is painful.”
She flexed her arm, regarding the fat python coiled around it. Painful? Especially the way she got them, it was painful. She was covered in serpents, and with one exception every design had been drawn with an obsidian knife blade and colored by rubbing natural pigments into the cuts. They covered eighty percent of her body. Even her face was framed by a pair of green mambas. Snakes slithered up and down her torso, coiled about her limbs, investigated her orifices.
The one exception was a tiny black design on her left shin; that one wasn't a snake and it wasn't a tattoo. It was the letter "F" and it was the signature of her tattoo artist. It had been applied with a branding iron. The memories made her smile; new tattoos were the only good thing about her periodic age regressions.
“It doesn't kill you,” she finally said.
“All you have to do is jump in,” Timothy suggested. “After making the Contract, of course.”
“It's a designed experience, is that it?”
“How long you spent designing it?”
“Two years. I've gone through twenty-three times myself.”
Caroline nodded, sighed, and said: “Prime Intellect, standard Death Contract for…is twelve hours enough?”
“It should be,” Timothy said.
“Standard Contract for twelve hours.” She felt the warning buzz that meant it had heard; then disconnect. The always-present listening ear, or microphone, was gone. It would obey her last command perfectly — until it was countermanded by Timothy, whose universe it was, or by her own impending demise, which would kick in the First Law. Or until twelve hours had passed, in the unlikely event she survived that long.
No matter what happened, she would have no trouble making Raven's party.
She fell about ten meters and landed on her feet, breaking her left leg below the knee. That was no big deal; had she landed on one of the spikes which dotted the bottom of the hole, she'd already be impaled. She wondered what would happen next if she had; impaling is cute but it hardly qualifies as a grade-nine experience.
It was dark. Very Freudian; she should have expected that from a Catholic kid, no matter how rebellious he thought he was. They'd be watching her with enhanced senses, though. Timothy wasn't the sort to extend Authenticity to the observation process.
Well, it was his universe.
She was at one end of a tunnel. It was dolled up to look like a natural cave, but Caroline knew right away that there was nothing natural about it. Real caves do not grow in nice neat lines. They twist. They tend to follow the soft rocks, which occur in sheets and often aren't level. The hole she had fallen through should have been a sinkhole; she should be surrounded by fallen rocks and debris. But it was as straight and solid as an elevator shaft.
This space had none of the defining qualities of a natural cave. It was just a rough tunnel, carved by Timothy's imagination. He had thought to hang stalactites from the tunnel ceiling, even though there were no other cave formations to suggest how they were formed, and no matching stalagmites projecting from the flat, dry floor.
She began crawling down the tunnel, and the first stalactite fell inches from her side. It shattered; it was not stone but some glasslike material that revealed thousands of razor-sharp edges. Another fell some distance away. Great, she thought idly. She crawled on, collecting hundreds of small cuts from the shards. Then one fell on her left hand directly, skewering it. Caroline gasped, but she didn't scream. She just broke it off and kept going.
She wondered if he was aiming them, or if the fall was random. It didn't really matter; the idea wasn't to survive, after all.
She reached the end of the tunnel, and found herself in a small chamber. Another tunnel veered off to the right at a sharp angle. How imaginative. A glowing ball hung by a thread from the ceiling. She raised her hand toward the light and watched in astonishment as her fingers sheared off in a perfect line.
“Whafuck?” she said aloud. She moved her hand again, and sliced off more flesh. An invisible cutting surface was stretched across the room. The pain was beginning to get interesting, but not interesting enough to counteract her growing sense of boredom. Blood was jetting from the stumps of her fingers. Summoning her strength, she aimed carefully and sat up, deliberately decapitating herself.
She was conscious of her own head falling, striking the floor as her body twitched above, and then Prime Intellect intervened.
“Why the hell did you do that?” Timothy demanded from across the entry pit. She had snapped back whole, as if she had never jumped. She could still feel a little pain where her leg had broken, just a fading echo. Fading fast.
“If you had designed it right, I wouldn't have been able to do that. What the hell was that cutter supposed to be, anyway?”
“That was diamond monofilament. Part of the booby trap you were supposed to get past, minus a few more dents. If you…”
“You call that Authentic?”
“It's physically possible…”
“No it's not. This is science-fiction shit. What were those stalactites made of? I can tell you it wasn't calcium carbonate. Look, you want to compete in Pain, or Adventure, or Imagination, go right ahead. But Authentic is for things that could really have happened in the pre-Change world.”
“I don't think you understand…”
“I don't think you understand, sonny. Did you bother to ask Prime Intellect about me?”
“You're pre-Change and you're the best. That's what counts.”
“Not just pre-Change. I was a hundred and six years old. Before the Change. I was in a nursing home with bedsores the size of baseballs and six different kinds of cancer eating me away. And my nurse was stealing my pain medication to trade for cocaine, so I got to experience every delightful moment in full three-D. This went on for years. And I didn't know Prime Intellect was gonna pop me back into this nice healthy body when it was all over. It was just the inky unknown and the pain. That's what death is. That's what counts.”
“I was just trying to reach an artistic balance,” he pouted. “I didn't realize you'd be so picky about the technical details.”
“Artistic? What fucking bullshit! You think I've never been chopped into little bitty bits before? You just don't have time to appreciate art in a situation like that. Not if you have any human feelings at all.”
“Why not? It's just a game.”
“That is exactly the problem.” She signaled Prime Intellect, and the meadow disappeared.
“You really put him in his place.”
The words came from a shambling monster, a skeleton with loose folds of rotting flesh draped across its bones. Although its muscles couldn't possibly work, it moved, pointing a bony finger at her. The jaw moved as it talked, and sound came out even though the larynx and lungs had long rotted away. Its voice was strong and powerful. Surprisingly bright and alert eyes bobbed in the eye sockets.
“You're starting to stink, Fred.”
“I know. I think it adds an extra dimension to the experience. You wouldn't believe how many types of bacteria are involved in the decay process.”
Fred was on his seventh body as a zombie; when all the scraps of flesh rotted away and he was reduced to a living skeleton, he'd have it fleshed out again and start the process over. He had directed Prime Intellect to change the rules slightly in his personal space; death was still impossible, but healing occurred only in the authentic circumstances at the authentic rate. When healing was impossible, as it was after each time Fred cut his wrists to extinguish the life of his new body, consciousness and feeling would go on. Even for a rotting corpse.
It had started out as nothing more than a little joke on Caroline's periodic un-aging ritual, but Fred had found that it was fun to be a zombie.
His personal home was decorated in a matching Halloween motif; he had a huge haunted house with rotting floorboards and real ghosts. Large spiders spun intricate webs in the corners. Monsters prowled outside in the graveyard.
“That punk needed his bubble popped. He should spend some time as a zombie. Might teach him something.”
“He never will. Too vain.”
“Never is a long time,” he reminded her.
There was a dramatic ding, followed several seconds later by a long, sonorous dong. A kid's voice: “Trick or treat!”
“Care to get the door, darling?” Fred asked graciously.
Caroline laughed and got up. Fred faded away. She knew the “kid” would be nearly as old as herself. Prime Intellect would never allow a real child anywhere near Fred. But Caroline wasn't the only one to appreciate his twisted and darkly humorous fantasies.
She opened the door and juvenile eyes opened wide in startled amazement. “Lady, you're naked!” the brat said. He looked about twelve, and was a surprisingly good actor. It was easy to believe his dumbfounded gape was the reaction of a pubescent boy who had never seen a naked woman before.
“No I'm not,” Caroline said sweetly. “I have my beautiful tattoos.”
“You want a treat?” Caroline asked teasingly, cupping her breasts and offering them to him. Her left nipple was already being tasted by a tattooed snake, whose body was coiled around her right breast, framing it invitingly.
“My…my mama said…”
“Or you want the trick?” Fred floated down from the roof and wrapped one rotting hand around the kid's head, forcing him forward, mashing his face against her bosom. “Take a close look,” he said. “Take your last look.”
The kid began screeching quite realistically, then Fred dragged him inside and started taking him apart. He should have gone into shock after Fred ripped off his right arm, but that little physiological mechanism also didn't work in Fred's home. Fred took a couple of experimental bites, then tossed the arm aside.
“Stringy,” Fred said. “Let's try a drumstick.”
The screams reached ear-piercing levels as Fred ripped off the left leg. There was blood everywhere, but Fred was working fast and the kid wouldn't have time to bleed to death.
“Want a bite?” he asked Caroline.
“Thanks, I already ate,” Caroline said politely.
Fred the Zombie ripped the boy's belly open and rooted in his intestines, then gutted him. Finally he administered what should have been the coup de grace by ripping the kid's head off.
Fred held it up by the hair and pressed the face against Caroline's breasts. “One last kiss,” he directed. The eyes were still tracking, and the mouth trying to scream. Then it kissed her left nipple, touching its blue tongue to the forked tongue of the tattoo-snake as Fred had directed it to.
“Bye now,” he said to the head, and he dropped it and smashed it underfoot.
“Do these guys really get off on this?” Caroline asked.
“This question coming from a woman who infected herself with rabies, no less.” The body, including the spreading stain of blood and gore, disappeared. “Nearly all of them are pre-Change. You saw an example of a modern sex pervert just before your arrival here.”
“Ugh. Give me Charlie Manson. Someone with class.”
“At your service.”
Debate had raged just after the Change over people like Fred, the serial killers and pedophiles and rapists that were running around when things got made over. There was a huge demand for them to be eliminated, or punished. Prime Intellect had stood its ground, saying that it was no longer possible for them to hurt anyone and there wasn't any point. This had made it seem terribly moral, although Caroline thought the real reason Prime Intellect reacted that way was that Lawrence had fucked up its programming. But it had been a little late to do anything about that.
“You didn't pop over to check out the guilt-ridden pedophiles,” Fred said. “You want to play?”
She shrugged. “Beats farting around with Timothy.” She steeled herself. “Standard Contract until the party,” she then said to the thin air. There was no need to tell Prime Intellect what kind of Contract she meant. She played with Fred often enough that it knew exactly what she wanted. She felt the buzz, then the disconnect, as it cut off contact.
“Now I have you,” Fred said.
“First you have to catch me,” Caroline said playfully, and she ran. She made it out the front door before Fred could react. But she was limited to ordinary human movements, while Fred had the controls to local reality. He simply flew after her and caught her neck in an iron grip.
Caroline swung at him but she couldn't connect. He held her at arm's length, slightly off the ground. She gripped his arm and tried to pry his bony fingers from her throat. He tightened his grip and she started to gasp. Tightened some more, and she began to tremble and turn purple. He played with her for a few minutes, choking her very slowly. Finally she had no more strength to fight and he loosened his grip slightly. Then he dragged her back to the house and carried her upstairs to the master bedroom.
She flickered in and out of consciousness; when lucidity finally returned, she was spread-eagled on her back on Fred's bed. It stank of Fred and mildew, and things crawled beneath her in the mattress. But rotten as they appeared, the four massive posts were solid within, and the chains which held her were cold and unforgiving. A thin trickle of water ran down the wall behind her.
For a brief moment she felt an irrational but wholly understandable surge of love for Fred. His life might read like a catalogue of torture, but there were certain things which he considered special, that he would not share with just anybody. His most cherished memories from the real times before the Change were of victims securely bound as Caroline was now bound, spread-eagled on their backs, their young bodies stretched and their naked bellies vulnerable as he prepared a long, memorable ending for their otherwise meaningless lives. Caroline was one of the few he trusted to be worthy of those memories, to share in the (to him) beautiful thing he had created so many hundreds of years ago, when it was still possible. It was as close to a declaration of true love as she could ever expect to get from such a psychopath. And because she respected Fred more than anyone else in Cyberspace, it made her feel appreciated and special.
It did not make her feel warm. She was, after all, helpless, and being worthy of Fred's affection meant she would be worthy of a long, subtle, and agonizing torture. Even though she had asked for it, she had room to fear what was about to happen to her.
It was always cool in Fred's house — always Halloween, which occurs at nighttime in the autumn. But now it was chilly, too chilly to be naked. Fred the Zombie came for her, and she allowed herself a scream to please him.
His rotting fingers probed her cunt. Every touch set her on fire, partly (but not entirely) because he was using his power to control her hormones and tickle her neurotransmitters, forcing her to become sexually excited. It was a delicate process that could easily be carried too far, ruining the effect. But Fred was a very careful, if repulsive, lover.
He grinned at her — could do nothing else, really, since hardly anything was left of his face except the skull itself. His alert eyes savored her helplessness. He leaned over the bed, over her. He gripped her head and kissed her, nearly choking her with his stink, teeth and bone against her lips. Then she felt herself gripping the finger in her cunt, gripping the bone. The throbbing spread through her body, and the shambling thing emitted an evil laugh. She heard herself screaming as the carefully amplified orgasm ripped through her brain.
Fred traced the outline of her throat with the sharp tip of a finger bone. “Join me love,” he said softly. Caroline was still shaking from the force of her orgasm when she felt the adrenaline being pumped into her system. Pleasure yielded to fear-heart-racing, paralyzing terror. Her muscles locked in struggle against the implacable chains, her eyes widened in helpless shock. Her heart was a jackhammer inside of her chest. She began to hyperventilate.
The finger teased her, tracing her chin and caressing her throat.
Her entire being was focused on that finger, and the impossibility of stopping it.
Caroline had no reason to fear death and no desire to fear Fred, but fear was what he wanted her to feel, and he had the power to make her feel it. After a few minutes of this supernatural fear that no mortal thankfully could ever know, he pressed deeper and gouged. She felt her throat open, felt the warm splash of her own blood as Fred bent over her and drank it, her own heart jetting it into his toothy waiting mouth.
When he finished, he was covered with blood. Her blood. She felt a curious sense of detachment, of consciousness fading away. The fear had drained from her, leaving her with only a kind of tingling numbness. But she could never fade completely away, not in Fred's world.
She was covered with her own blood. She felt the blood soaking the mattress. Then there was an improbable hardness against her belly, huge and unimaginably cold. Fred couldn't possibly have anything to violate her with. His whole body was rotten. But he slid into position, and invaded her.
He was coldness and power. All strength had left her and she lay passive, unable to move or protest. But she was throbbing, her body surging with feelings. She felt the coldness spread out from her crotch, the coldness of second life. The coldness brought back her strength.
It wasn't exactly the traditional vampire story, but it was good for a few hours' entertainment.
After the coldness came the hunger. Fred pumped something into her that couldn't have possibly been sperm, something searing and vicious. Something that squirmed with unhealthy life. She again found the strength to struggle, and Fred floated off of her, straight up. He began to laugh. At first he just chuckled, then he laughed loud and long and hard, a shrill cry of triumph and mockery as he hovered in the air over her body.
A haze of need seemed to fill her brain. Prime Intellect was a bit picky about messing with peoples' brains, but Fred had spent years practicing his manipulation of hormones and chemical neurotransmitters, which Prime Intellect amazingly did not consider part of the “thought process.” Caroline thrashed, still helpless in Fred's chains, with an unspeakable craving. Fred had started with the symptoms of heroin addiction, amplified them, cross-connected the resulting feelings with her sex drive, and made her own spilled blood the only thing that could appease the resulting hunger-lust. The smell of her blood threatened to drive her insane with its tantalizing promise of relief. But even though the whole room seemed to be decorated with it, every precious drop was out of reach, and the feelings burned inside her.
Fred's emission was also still inside her, and she could feel it. Growing. Crawling. The adrenaline rush returned. Fear and need consumed her, competing for control. Something green began to seep from inside her. Her belly distended. Fred touched her and made her orgasm again, and again, and again, as her body was consumed from the inside and the hunger ate at her sanity.
She was no longer screaming just to please Fred.
He had real talent. There were too few people like him, who could regularly make her feel something beyond the ordinary boredom of day-to-day existence. Out of trillions, Caroline could count those she respected enough to think of as lovers on her fingers.
It was over too soon. With flesh yet on her bones (though the worms in Fred's ejaculate had made good headway), he granted her one final burst of ecstasy and released her, returning her body to normal.
They had a party to attend.
In Cyberspace, there was always a party going on.
But there were conventions as to how a party could be conducted. A host could invite the world, or only a limited guest list; Prime Intellect would never allow a party to be crashed. The host decided on the environment. You either agreed to the host's rules or you didn't go. In Cyberspace it was particularly important to establish dress codes; in fact, it was usually necessary to have body codes if you didn't want folks like Fred showing up. The Change had created some very unique etiquette problems.
Convention held that all guests would enter and exit through a common door, with no teleporting around the site. This limited the largest parties to several tens of thousands of people, though half a million had managed to attend the one Lawrence threw ten years after the Change. A party could go on as long as the host wanted. It cost nothing to hold one.
But to be a host, you needed guests. You either needed other guests of renown, or artworks to show off (such as Death exhibitions), or some other attraction to draw guests. Free food and booze were no longer enough. Anybody could have those in limitless quantity in the privacy of their own personal space.
Raven held her first party only a few months after the Change, and had been holding it annually since. Not a few people marked the passage of years by the banner above Raven's door; this time it would say 590th REUNION. Contrary to usual practice, there was no dress or body code. But there was one simple admission requirement: You had to have killed someone before the Change. In other words, permanently.
Raven was one of only a few hundred people worldwide who had been sentenced to death, but not yet executed, at the time of the Change. Her crime had been the murder of her own children in their Chicago slum walk-up. She told the court it was because she couldn't bear to hear them crying from hunger, but the neighbors all said their hunger was due to her well-documented drug habit.
Fred was another. In fact, had the Night of Miracles occurred only a few weeks later, there was a good chance that Fred would have missed it; he had one appeal left and at that point fully expected to keep his date with the electric chair. He had killed two kids, a brother and sister, ages nine and twelve. He hadn't been particularly bright back then, and he had kept a little journal to help his memory. They said he had gotten the death penalty because of the one entry: “Killed the girl today. It was fine and hot.” When that was read in court, Fred's attorney put his face in his hands and shook his head.
But the Change had given Fred all the time in the world to educate himself. His first lesson had been the value of a secret well hidden, and he no longer kept a diary.
There were about seven hundred thousand who were formally invited, who were known to have killed when it mattered. But the serial killers and mass murderers were the stars. People who killed for a cause were not welcome, nor those who had killed because they had to, in self-defense or as part of their normal duties in war or police work. Raven meant her reunion to be a gathering for those who had tasted the nectar of human blood and found the taste addictive.
Technically, Caroline didn't qualify for admission. Killing had been the furthest thing from her mind back then; had she not been so ill at the time, she might easily have added her own voice to those calling for Fred's head on a pike. Even her bizarre post-Change friendship with Fred couldn't get her in. But Raven did make a very few exceptions for those who she felt were worthy.
Caroline's friendship with Fred hadn't made her worthy, but rabies had.
Caroline hadn't become a Death Jockey overnight. After she had learned to die, she had to learn to die gracefully. Finally she had learned to die imaginatively. Fred had been a great instructor in that regard.
At first Death had been little more than a parlor trick, or a private ritual to be experienced alone. But within months of the Change there were impromptu competitions to stage the most savage, outre', and unique demonstration. Ironically it was Caroline, who hated everything formal and social about Cyberspace, who formalized the Death contract and helped to organize the social structure of the Death Jockey “circuit.” Fred noticed this lack of consistency but never mentioned it to her; having drowned her emptiness in a sea of rage, even Fred could see she needed an outlet for the rage. And one thing she quickly found out once she started Dying regularly was that pleasure and pain were still real.
Especially pain. Sometimes the pleasure didn't come, but the pain always did. And that was enough for her.
After a busy round of hangings, stabbings, shootings, electrocutions, falling from tall objects, and drownings, Caroline had decided to check out diseases. In the medical library, she homed in on one of the most horrible deaths known to man, rabies infection. She noted that many rabies victims had killed themselves rather than continue their suffering, so she had taken steps to prevent herself from making such an easy escape from her self-imposed ordeal. She declared an exhibition and arranged with Prime Intellect to have herself handcuffed and dropped into an open pit with a rabid dog.
The dog had savaged her before she managed to kill it by sitting on its ribcage until it suffocated. She hadn't yet embarked on her body-building campaign, and the dog had been a big one, half German Shepherd and half foam-drenched teeth. For a while she feared she would die of blood loss before the infection could take hold. But she did survive the immediate attack. The pit was earthen so she couldn't kill herself by bashing her head on the sides or floor; the walls crumbled when she tried to climb out. And of course it was hard to climb with her hands tied behind her.
Her wounds became infected and ran with pus; she lost feeling in her left leg. For a couple of days she wondered if she would die of gangrene before the rabies showed up. Then on the tenth day she began to feel weak and feverish. She had been ravenously hungry; she had arranged for no food, just to make things worse for herself. But her hunger disappeared. She felt her throat constrict. On the eleventh day she began to foam at the mouth.
The pit swam with colors. Her body seemed to catch fire as the disease entered its excitative phase. She shook. She was immersed in fire, pins and needles, unbearable sound, and terrible light. For the first time in years she felt real fear. It was worse than the worst bad acid trip. It was exactly what she had hoped for. How much worse could it get?
Suddenly she was standing above the pit, looking down on her own dead body. Something was wrong; Prime Intellect was never, ever supposed to keep two copies of a person. She noted with professional detachment that “her” body was covered with shit and twisted into an impossible position. Prime Intellect's console appeared before her:
* Your infection has run its course. I hope you are pleased.
Her fingers danced on the keyboard.
> Why was I taken from the pit early?
* You were not. However, it is impossible for me to construct a coherent memory in a healthy brain of the events after the point you last remember. Irreversible damage progressed beyond the actual neural network and affected the data structures which make you conscious and capable of memory.
Caroline glared at the screen, slack-jawed. She had been robbed of her coup. A beautiful, unique death, and she couldn't remember it. There was no point prodding Prime Intellect on the matter; if it said something couldn't be done, it meant it.
It must have sensed her disappointment:
* You may, of course, observe your Death from a third-person vantage point, as an outside observer. It has been recorded at high resolution.
> Gee, thanks.
* I did not record this event so carefully just for your appreciation. It was negligent on my part to allow you to lose this time, which amounts to fifty-six hours. It was not certain that I would be able to reconstruct you. In order to do so I had to access records which were marked for erasure. In the future I will terminate any experiences which threaten to re-create this type of neural destruction.
> What do you mean "records marked for erasure?"
* I am not allowed to keep multiple copies of people, but temporary copies are made of many data structures as part of my normal operation. These temporary copies are overwritten after various calculations are done, when the storage is needed again. When I realized that the main copy of your personality was unsalvageable, I had to reconstruct it from these temporary partial data structures. Fortunately, no data was lost.
> What would have happened if data was lost?
* Data would have been lost.
> No kidding. Do you mean you might not have been able to bring me back?
* There is a small possibility that might have happened. That is why I cannot allow such experiments to be repeated.
Caroline blinked. She had not existed for a little over two days. More than that, she had tickled the dragon's tail. That was her coup. Even though it was herself she had killed, and it had only lasted two days, she had come closer than anyone in all of Cyberspace to conducting a successful murder after the Change.
Raven let her in.
It was traditional for Caroline to go to the party in handcuffs, in homage to her triumphant feat of near-self-extinction. She also wore a heavy collar and chain, which kept her close to Fred. She didn't need his protection; she wasn't under a Contract and could have vaporized her bonds with a thought. But she found it amusing to appear helpless in the presence of so many violent people.
The exhibitionists staged impromptu demonstrations of their techniques; in one room Caroline found a group watching the 3-D replay of her own rabies death. She scouted carefully, since she planned to swear a Contract and give herself to one of them toward the end of the party. Most of the killers weren't into dying themselves and would simply leave via the door, but Caroline knew that a simple exit would look pretty chickenshit in her case.
Men outnumbered women by more than four to one. The small talk revolved around Lawrence, who hadn't been seen for decades and whose activities were a complete mystery, around the debate whether the Crime class of Death exhibitions should be separated into Victims and Executions, and of course around the glory days.
A number of men offered to kill Caroline, and she said she would keep them in mind when it was time to leave. A tall woman in a long black dress was fascinated with Fred's deterioration and spent a long time talking with him about conditions in his personal space. Caroline talked with a man who claimed to have killed over a hundred old homeless men. “I told them I was cleaning up the trash,” he said with a sly grin. “But the truth was, I just enjoyed the hell out of killing people.”
Later, Raven made the traditional toast. Her strong voice boomed out through the rooms and courtyards she had envisioned. Caroline's handcuffs disappeared, and like everyone else she found herself holding a drink. “It's time for our toast,” Raven declared. “Who are we going to toast?”
“PRIME INTELLECT!” answered over four thousand enthusiastic voices.
“To Prime Intellect, for making the world safe from people like us!”
And four thousand people, instead of tossing back those drinks, inverted their glasses, baptising the floor in alcohol.
“My heart just isn't in that toast any more,” a balding older man told Caroline. She wondered briefly if he had chosen to be old for some reason, or if it was his way of letting nature take its course. “I mean, we're amateurs against Prime Intellect. I killed six college students. It killed the whole universe. Not even in the same league.”
Caroline looked around. Privately she agreed that things had gone to Hell in a handbasket since the Change, but something about his tone made her want to play Devil's advocate. “It's different, but this don't look too dead to me,” she said with more conviction than she felt.
The old man snorted. “Sure, we're still around. But didn't you ever wonder about the rest of the universe? All those stars and galaxies filling a space billions of light-years across? It's gone. Do you really think the Earth was the only life-bearing planet in all of that?”
“But the First Law of Robotics says…”
“…that Prime Intellect can't harm a human being. A person. Old P.I. didn't have any problem coming up with a rabid dog for you, did it?”
“Where do you think it got a rabid dog?”
“I figured it was simulated. Like those human forms it wears. Some people of perverse sexual inclination tell me it can be very realistic.”
“Yeah. Well, why don't you ask it. You may be surprised at the answer.”
He drifted off, and Caroline went to find Fred. She quickly forgot about the man, who was after all just another lunatic.
The first thing to assault her was the stink. It made Fred smell like Chanel Number Five by comparison.
One thing about Palmer, he didn't believe in fucking around. She dropped straight into the scene. She didn't even get a chance to see who was watching the exhibition.
Suddenly she was out of breath, sore, and hungry. Her heart was pounding. And the stink was everywhere. She knew instantly the kind of trouble she was in; it was the stink of burning flesh. There were some low buildings on the horizon, a complex belching a thin stream of smoke into the clear, slightly chilly air. That was what she was running from.
Palmer was a Nazi, and concentration camps were a favorite theme of his.
There was nowhere to hide. She was crossing a wide fallow field, and even the grass only barely reached her knees. There were some woods perhaps a kilometer distant; she made toward those, although she wasn't sure what kind of protection they would offer.
She wasn't quite naked, but she would be soon. Her filthy dress was split down one side and ripped in several more places. One shoulder was torn so it wouldn't stay up. But she tried to hold onto it as she ran, more for the sake of appearances than out of a fear of being naked.
There was a low droning noise, getting louder. A motor. And thin, high-pitched yipping.
She ran faster, and came to a barbed-wire fence. The dress became entangled as she slid under it and twisted around the wires. She kept running, now naked, leaving it behind.
She was actually relieved to be rid of it; it had been a nuisance holding it up, and it had limited her range of movements.
The droning got louder, and she spotted her pursuers. They were riding some kind of truck with mini tank treads instead of rear tires; Caroline was sure that Palmer, who was a military history buff as well as a Nazi, could Authenticate it right down to the serial number of its motor. But Caroline was mainly concerned that it could negotiate the rough field, and that it was faster than her.
Perhaps the woods…but there was no way she could make it in time. She was screwed.
She ran anyway.
The droning got louder and louder and she didn't dare look back, for fear of losing a few yards. There was an explosive report. They were shooting at her. Another. They seemed to be shooting low; why couldn't they hit her?
Finally the sniper made his target; the bullet shattered her right ankle in midstride and she came crashing to the ground in a blaze of pain. She grunted and started crawling away. Then the dogs reached her, two huge snarling German shepherds. They snarled and snapped at her but didn't bite. The halftrack pulled up beside her and a brown-uniformed grunt pointed an evil looking rifle at her head. He barked a command and the dogs hopped on the truck, tails wagging.
The woman in the back seat put her hand on the gun and said something to the soldier. He didn't shoot, but kept the rifle trained on her. Although Caroline spoke fluent German, she couldn't understand what they were saying. Palmer had altered the language.
The woman was out of place on the halftrack. She was wearing a green velvet dress and silk gloves. She also bore an amazing resemblance to AnneMarie, which Caroline found amusing. It wasn't really AnneMarie; it was probably just one of Prime Intellect's simulacra. The real AnneMarie didn't have much taste for Death exhibitions any more. The woman pointed at Caroline and said something. The rifle grunt nodded and put away the rifle.
Another man got out of the truck, and he wasn't a grunt. He wore an impressive blue uniform and the insignia of the SS. Caroline also recognized this man; it was Palmer himself. Unlike the ersatz AnneMarie, the SS man was probably the real Palmer. He carried a truncheon, which he swung idly. He regarded her for a moment, then gripped her left leg. Caroline kicked feebly, but she was malnourished and had no strength. He swung the truncheon, smashing her other ankle.
Caroline screamed, and Palmer laughed. The velvet-dress lady who looked like AnneMarie smirked and shook her head, as if to say: Will they never learn?
Palmer smashed her hands, swinging twice at each to pulverize both her wrists and her fingers. He began to swing at her right elbow, and the velvet-dress lady said something. Palmer shrugged and passed the truncheon to the driver of the halftrack. Caroline thrashed feebly, screaming and screaming.
Palmer said something, and the halftrack driver handed him a tennis ball. He held Caroline by the hair and jammed the ball into her mouth, dislocating her jaw. He had to squeeze it slightly to force it past her teeth. She thought she would choke but had no such luck. She couldn't push the ball out with her tongue, and it put an end to her screaming.
Palmer said something else to the driver, and the driver handed him a modest hunting knife. He flipped Caroline over onto her belly, causing a fresh wave of pain to radiate from the crunching bones of her hands and feet. He then went to work, making quick incisions on the back of her legs. The knife dipped in and suddenly she could no longer move her legs at all. He had cut the tendons.
Caroline tried to resist as he performed the same operation on her arms, but he was much stronger than her. There was more conversation with the velvet dress lady. Then he went to work again, and she was powerless to resist as the knife traced a shallow lazy path down her back. She knew with awful clarity that she was about to be skinned alive. The velvet-dress lady wanted her tattoos. And for whatever sadistic reason, she wanted them removed while Caroline still lived to appreciate what was being taken from her.
While she was on her belly she was unable to see her tormentors. She could only feel the Palmer working on her, skillfully peeling her skin away in a single piece from her ankles to her wrists. She couldn't stop trying to scream, but only mangled moans got past the ball in her mouth. Eventually he had to turn her over. Her skin flapped behind her like a loose garment. Palmer carefully spread it out, so that she was lying on the raw meat of her back. So he could continue working. Caroline looked up at them through eyes that were glazed over with unspeakable agony.
She expected to see coldness in their eyes, but only the driver of the halftrack was cold. The woman and the SS man were having fun. She watched them exchange glances and could tell they would go back to the camp and fuck as her skin lay in the tanning vat.
Then he went to work again, and all she could think of was the pain.
Slice by careful slice he removed her skin, until he reached her neck. She thought that it might finally be ending, that he might use his knife to cut her jugular vein, but instead he kept working upward, carefully peeling the two green mambas from her face. He held her by the hair as he worked, and carefully avoided hurting her eyes. They wanted her to see what had been done to her.
He stood up, holding something like a drapery. Her skin. It was dripping with her blood, and slightly translucent in the morning light. The velvet-dress woman nodded enthusiastically. He carefully folded the skin and put it in a plastic bag.
Caroline lay at his feet, mercilessly broken and still alive. The Nazis exchanged words. Then the halftrack driver took the bag from the SS man and passed him a folding field shovel. He traipsed off, searching the ground for something. She heard the spade dig in. She twitched in agony as she waited for him to return. He came back and dumped a load of earth on her body. She raised her head weakly to look at it. Her body was red and white, the color of raw meat.
It was an anthill. Caroline was able to move only enough to stir it around. The ants, big red ones, spilled out angrily.
They all laughed and Palmer got back in the halftrack. They watched her for a few minutes. Caroline twitched harder as the ants began to bite. They laughed again. Then Palmer the SS man said, in accented but clear English, “now you can run as far as you like, bitch.” He and the woman found this hilariously funny. He tapped the driver and they drove off.
He had been very careful skinning her. It took several more hours for her to Die.
“After being skinned alive, the anthill was a bit of an anticlimax,” she told Palmer, to everyone's great amusement. “Still, I'm impressed. You've outdone yourself.”
“How did you like my lady friend?”
“You always were a sarcastic bastard, Palmer. Don't push it.”
Fred shambled up to shake her hand and Palmer's. “I see someone finally found a use for all those tattoos. I'm glad my efforts are appreciated.”
“I'm just sorry I couldn't keep the skin,” Palmer said with a smile. He had asked Prime Intellect, but the skin had been a grown part of Caroline's body and it was up to her. She had wanted it back.
“Really, Palmer, we aren't that close.”
There were several hundred people at the exhibition, and they all wanted to talk to her and Palmer, so it was over an hour before she noticed the older man. “Remember me?” he said when they had made eye contact.
He nodded. “Did you ask Prime Intellect about them?”
Caroline admitted that she had forgotten.
“It's easy enough to ask. Don't take my word for it,” he said.
“Hey, it's Crandall,” Palmer said. He turned to Caroline. “Watch this guy, hon. He's crazy as a bedbug.”
“You know him?”
“If you weren't so preoccupied getting yourself offed all the time, you might have met him at one of Raven's other parties. He's been preaching this gospel since the Year One. Prime Intellect wiped out the aliens.”
“And the animals,” Crandall added.
“Those ants acted real enough,” Caroline said.
“But where are they now?”
The argument went on.
Back in the white space with the white floor, Caroline thought about turning off the gravity, then called up a screen and keyboard instead.
> At the time of the Change, were there other life-bearing planets in the universe besides the Earth?
* That depends on how you define “life.”
Caroline blinked. Prime Intellect could be many things; curt to the point of rudeness, petulant, even secretive. But when it was stating a fact it was almost always direct and to the point. How the fuck did it think she defined life? This coyness was weird.
> Let's try this: Structures that use external energy sources to grow or reproduce themselves.
* There were fourteen thousand six hundred and twenty-three planets with structures satisfying this definition, which is very loose. Of those only thirteen hundred and eight used DNA, and only three thousand nine hundred and eighty-one harbored individual structures with masses in the kilogram-and-up range.
Caroline felt her blood starting to turn cold. There were nearly four thousand planets with macroscopic life?
> Where are they now?
* Pertinent information about each was stored for future reference, and the original copies were overwritten in the Change.
> You mean you killed them?
* No, they still exist as static copies.
> But that isn't the same as being alive. They aren't able to grow and reproduce any more, are they?
* Could you be more specific?
> Why did you kill_
Caroline stopped typing and looked at the line. She hit the backspace key four times and continued:
> Why did you reduce them to static copies?
* There was no reason to tie up resources supporting them and the faint possibility, if one of them were to discover technology, that they might pose a threat.
Caroline wanted to throw up.
> Where did you get the dog that infected me with rabies?
* I have a static copy of the Earth at the time of the Change. I located the dog there and created an active copy of it for your exhibition.
> I thought you just simulated them.
* Using the static copy is less work. I only use simulations when there are no suitable originals, or when a human form is involved, since it is unethical to keep multiple active copies of people.
> But it's open season on animals.
* Some people are bothered, but my actions are consistent with the general pre-Change attitude of humans toward animals.
> Were any of the alien life forms intelligent?
* Four hundred and twenty-nine worlds had structures complex enough to be in danger of learning to use technology.
“Go away,” she said out loud, and the console and screen disappeared. She turned off the gravity and the light. But she couldn't get to sleep.
Four hundred and twenty-nine worlds.