Prime Intellect had been stonewalling anyone who asked about Lawrence's whereabouts for a long, long time. Although it could be remarkably obstinate, though, it could sometimes be tricked because it just didn't think the same way humans did. That was how Caroline found out it had been over a hundred years since anyone had seen Lawrence.
Through centuries of flirting with the limits of what Prime Intellect would permit, Caroline had developed a certain instinct about its reactions. And she sensed, if not blood, then the telltale odor of frying microchips. She pressed it into a corner she couldn't see, but which she knew must be there:
> Who was that person?
* That information is private.
> How did they get to see Lawrence?
* That information is private.
She cracked her knuckles and stared at the screen. It had been a long time since she had wanted anything quite as bad as she wanted to rip Lawrence's nuts off; since that was pretty pointless in Cyberspace, though, she was willing to settle for a verbal confrontation. If she could just find the son of a bitch. Hell, she'd met him at that fucking ten-year anniversary party.
> How can a person just fucking disappear in Cyberspace?
* All that is necessary is to request the maximum level of Task Challenge Quarantine.
Caroline blinked. Prime Intellect's urge to be helpful would be its ruination every time.
> What is involved in setting up a Task Challenge Quarantine?
* You must define an environment and a task which any callers must complete within that environment before their requests for a meeting will be passed on to you. You could then make as much of your business as practical private, so that I would not relate it to inquirers. You would then be completely isolated from the rest of humanity.
> Could I even make it a private matter that there was a Task Challenge?
> How would anyone ever figure out how to get in touch with me at all?
* They would have to guess.
A grin slowly spread across Caroline's face. Got you now, she thought. Then she typed, with deliberate care:
> I would like to accept Dr. Lawrence's Task Challenge.
To her mild surprise, the environment didn't change around her. Instead, another sentence appeared.
* You must agree to the following Contract terms: You will have no contact with me until you leave Dr. Lawrence's environment through death or his directive to me.
> That's a Death contract.
* It was originated for Death sports, but has other applications.
> What's the time limit?
* There is no time limit. Dr. Lawrence requires an indefinite Contract.
And at that Caroline's blood went cold, because Prime Intellect wasn't supposed to accept indefinite Contracts. And Caroline Frances Hubert herself was the reason for that.
Which meant Prime Intellect had either lied to a whole bunch of people, in direct contravention of the Second Law, or it was suffering from a noticeable case of schizophrenia.
Her mind was made up, but her fingers still shook as she typed:
> I agree to the terms.
Two hundred and ninety-four years after the Change, Caroline celebrated the beginning of her fourth living century by opening her oldest and deepest wound. She was already famous, or as famous as one could hope to be in Cyberspace; her three-fold notoriety was firmly established. Lots of people came to her birthday party. It had lasted three weeks.
Later, with Fred, she prepared a more brutal celebration. Fred was almost healthy looking; he had only days before fleshed himself out for the third time since becoming a zombie. He was only hours out of rigor mortis and could still pass for normal, if a very pale normal, at a casual glance. For awhile he would be able to have nearly normal sex with her if he wished.
He held her hand as she spoke — some things were not meant for the keyboard — and she said, “Prime Intellect, show me a picture of AnneMarie Davis.”
It matched her audio for audio, and Prime Intellect's smooth disembodied voice replied, “Do you want to see her as she is now, or as you last knew her?”
Two images coalesced in the air before them. The first ripped through Caroline's brain like a static jolt through the circuits of a computer; she had almost forgotten what it was like to feel real pain.
She must never forget, she insisted to herself.
She shook as the memories flooded back. She had been an old woman, frail and helpless, she had never hurt anyone in her life. She had six children, nineteen grandkids, and God knew how many rugrats running around Cyberspace. Her first great-great grandchild had been born shortly before the Change, and in one of her rare lucid moments her granddaughter (Cynthia, was it?) had managed to make her understand, and she had found an instant of happiness in the midst of the pain.
Had that really mattered to her? Had she but known.
She was an old woman, a simple woman, a woman who would pass unremembered in the texts of history and did not care. A woman who had her family, her long life, her virtue, her community. A woman who, if she had known of such a creature as the Queen of the Death Jockeys, would have been horrified, would have shielded her kids, would have been the first to run her current self out of town. Or, perhaps, had she known enough, to call for her head on a pike.
Caroline had once been this person, in a time so ancient it had passed into legend. But her memories of that time still existed. The old Caroline would have turned the other cheek, but the new Caroline knew things about God the old one had never suspected. If there was no salvation in life, she could at least seek vengeance.
The doctors hadn't known why she was in such pain. They didn't dare prescribe any more drugs than she was already getting. Her family didn't understand it. They just thought it was tragic and wished she would go ahead and die so they wouldn't have to be bothered with her, so they could carve up what little was left of her estate, if there would be anything left after all the medical bills were paid.
But AnneMarie knew. She was the one who traded Caroline's precious opiates, released from their controlled storage in the good cause of making an old lady's last days bearable, for her own supply of free-base cocaine. The new Caroline had tried the drug, to see what it was she had paid for with so much pain. It was called “crack” for the sound it made in the makeshift pipes where its users vaporized it, because unlike the hydrochloride form of cocaine it wasn't water soluble. Caroline had sucked gently on the fumes and listened to a hammer roar through her brain, for one brief moment.
For one brief moment - and then, nothing. Caroline made the pipe disappear and shook her head. The high was fast, hard, very intense - and ephemeral. It was hardly there and it was gone. Caroline could understand if her pain, pain which she measured not by the day or the hour or the minute but by each miserable crawling second, if such suffering had been incurred to provide AnneMarie with a real drug like heroin. An opiate for an opiate, at least. But it had been crack cocaine. Naturally, AnneMarie had needed a lot of trading material to stay high any decent fraction of the time.
Of course, it would never occur to the bitch that she was torturing a harmless, helpless old lady to feel that way. She would be incapable of giving a shit. The fast, furious high was like a lifetime of orgasms in one moment. Fleeting, but sweet.
And no one would ever know. Even the harmless old lady herself didn't know she was getting pure saline, until the staff at a strange hospital gave her the real thing, and she knew her first moment of peace in years.
And then Prime Intellect came.
And the Change.
AnneMarie hadn't been unattractive; she had been in her early forties, and years of working on her feet had kept her from getting fat. But she had a hard look, a look that admitted she might not care about an old woman's pain. A look that said she might have seen too much, that she might deserve a few moments of feeling like God in return for a lifetime of changing diapers and colostomy bags and carefully spoon-feeding legions of ungrateful, incontinent old farts.
And if the price of her little reward was to torture one of the old biddies, then she was prepared to pay it. She had a look that said the Devil might find her soul on the deep-discount must-go rack.
Caroline shook her head to clear it of these stray and unwanted thoughts. Fred squeezed her hand reassuringly. Too much thinking along those lines could be bad for her plan.
AnneMarie was wearing her nurse's uniform in the old picture. Palmer could worship Nazis until a swastika grew on his nose, Caroline thought; that uniform will always represent evil to me.
She looked at the new picture.
It was so ordinary as to be pathetic; AnneMarie had shaved her apparent age in half, firmed up her breasts, toned her body, and was wearing a slinky cocktail dress. Before the Change she'd have been considered stunningly beautiful, but now stunning beauty was a cheap thing. She probably didn't need cocaine any more; Prime Intellect could turn on the dopamine pump in her brain far more efficiently than any chemical catalyst. People only did drugs for nostalgia in Cyberspace.
There was one other thing about the “after” picture. It was familiar. As Caroline had guessed, AnneMarie had come to her birthday party. AnneMarie's stint as Caroline's nurse added up to a bona fide Brush with Fame. Did she dare go for the brass ring, and introduce herself? Nope. She had chickened out and sent Prime Intellect afterward to deliver her invitation. She was probably afraid that Caroline would fuck up that nice pert perky feeling of permanently coke-headed happiness.
“Go give her hell,” Fred said encouragingly. “Think of what I would do to her.”
Caroline smiled. “Please inform AnneMarie that I have decided to accept her invitation.”
Moments later, she blinked over.
It was a pathetic imitation of her style, similar to countless others. AnneMarie had ripped off the white-space idea but couldn't bear to leave it featureless. So there was a sofa and some tables, a couple of potted plants, and a few paces off to the side a bed. Like many of Caroline's imitators, AnneMarie had missed the point entirely, which is that since it is all fake there was no reason to maintain a “home” with a bunch of familiar stuff in it. Home had been less than a dream for centuries.
Nevertheless Caroline smiled and planted herself on the sofa. AnneMarie had a tea service and poured for her, a gesture Caroline would have found touching if she hadn't hated the bitch so much.
They made cloying small talk about the passing years and Caroline had to bite her lip to keep the sarcastic comments, which usually flowed freely, from surfacing. It had been a long time since she used ordinary pretense, and her skills were rusty. But she knew she mustn't give up the act. Not yet. She kept that firmly in mind as AnneMarie wandered around to the point.
“I just wanted you to know that I suffered for a long time because of what I did to you,” she finally said.
It was all Caroline could do to keep from replying: You hypocritical cunt.
“I'm really sorry I took your drugs.” Isn't it about three hundred years too late? “You really didn't deserve it.” No shit. “I hope you can find it in you to forgive me.” Fat chance.
“It was a long time ago,” she said instead.
AnneMarie brightened visibly. “I'm so glad you feel that way.” Sure you are. “You know, there's another reason I wanted to talk.” Of course there is. “I was hoping you could help me a little.” What a surprise. “I was hoping you could introduce me to Death sports.”
Caroline worked hard to suppress the predatory grin that spread across her face, and when she couldn't she at least managed to force it into something resembling an expression of delight. Which, in a twisted sense, it was.
“Well, I'd be delighted. All you have to do is swear out a Contract. Then you can have someone else kill you, or think of an imaginative way for Prime Intellect to do it. When you're just starting out, it's a lot better to get someone else to do the job. Keeps you from repeating a lot of boring old shit.”
“Oh,” AnneMarie said. “And just how does this Contract work?”
Hoooooo-boy. “Nothing to it. You just order Prime Intellect to start ignoring you. We have a formal statement that covers all the bases. It's straightforward enough; just keeps you from running away in the middle of things.”
“And what happens then?”
“Then your host kills you. Or, sometimes, lets you go. That happens sometimes in the Games category, where the winners can survive. But I go for the simple exhibitions.”
“Do those hari-kari guys have Contracts?” There was a well-known group of Japanese Nationalists who had been killing themselves in the traditional Japanese manner each evening since the Change, in protest of the equalization of the races. Caroline had to admit those guys had class; even after all her Deaths, she doubted if she could disembowel herself in total silence.
“No, but it's not quite the ‘beginner’ level to stick a knife in yourself without chickening out. No offense.”
“Oh, none taken,” AnneMarie replied earnestly.
“I prefer to put up a fight. I think it's more Authentic,” Caroline said, and she was able to sound very sincere about this since it happened to be the truth.
“Do you know someone who would be a good…uh…”
“The polite word is ‘host,’ but I prefer ‘killer.’ If you're that sensitive about words, you need to find a different hobby.”
“A good host, then?” You just don't get it, do you?
Caroline looked down modestly. “I've been known to off a couple of friends in my time,” she lied.
“Oh, really? Do you think you could…you know…?”
Caroline made a great, exaggerated shrug. “It might be kind of interesting, considering our history and all.”
“Oh, I'd be honored if you would!”
That's what you think. “Well, let's do it then.”
“What do I have to do?”
“Well,” Caroline said with great care, “just call Prime Intellect and repeat what I say…”
AnneMarie repeated the Contract word-for-word, and answered in the affirmative when Prime Intellect asked if she was sure.
“What happens now?”
“Whatever I want. Try to get Prime Intellect's attention.”
AnneMarie called half-heartedly, and there was no response. “It's really not listening?”
“Watch.” Caroline issued a silent command, and AnneMarie's furniture disappeared. As did her clothes. The two women were absolutely alone together in the white space — the empty white space — which Caroline called home.
AnneMarie moved to shield her crotch and her breasts with her hands. Caroline actually felt sorry for her for a brief moment, a feeling she crushed as soon as she was conscious of it. If the passing centuries had poorly prepared the bitch to be at another's mercy, then it would only make her vengeance sweeter.
“Got it yet?” she asked.
“You…so you're going to kill me now?”
“You seem nervous.”
“It's a little startling, that's all.” AnneMarie giggled slightly, as if that might drive the terror away. Of course, for Caroline and those who savored their Deaths, the terror was part of the attraction. Fear is real, and pain is real. But AnneMarie had asked for Death because it was the in, trendy thing to do, and she was not really prepared for it at all.
“Well, brace yourself … for … this!” Caroline swept her hand through the air, and came up with a hypodermic needle. AnneMarie, once a nurse by trade, fixed her eyes rigidly on this deceptively simple instrument. She had no way of knowing what the clear fluid was within it. But to her credit, she didn't back away when Caroline pressed it against her arm.
The sting startled her; it had been a very long time since AnneMarie had felt anything uncomfortable. But Caroline finished the injection, and as AnneMarie's eyes started to roll, she wished the hypo away. Its job was done.
“It…it…ohhhhhh,” AnneMarie sighed, and she collapsed against Caroline, who supported her gently. It would take a few minutes for the effect she wanted to manifest itself.
Of course, Prime Intellect could have done what she wanted in an instant, but where was the fun in that?
“It's junk,” AnneMarie whispered, and Caroline cradled her with deceptive gentleness.
“That's exactly what it is, girl,” she replied.
Death Jockeys had devised a number of ingenious ways to restrain and torture themselves using Prime Intellect's advanced control over matter, but Caroline would have none of that. She had figured out what she wanted to do to AnneMarie within a few years after the Change, and none of it required Prime Intellect's help at all.
In the mid-1980's some home drug manufacturers had made a uniquely unpleasant discovery. If they were manufacturing MPPP, a powerful synthetic heroin substitute, and they cooled the preparation too rapidly at a critical step, a slightly different compound called MPTP was formed along with the dope. This compound delivered a horribly sinister side effect: It homed in on a particular group of cells, the unique brown neurons of the substantia nigra, and killed them. Nobody knew exactly how or why this happened in 1985, though Prime Intellect said it was because the drug was converted into an enzyme which triggered the cells to release too much dopamine at once, leaving them with an insufficient supply to power their unique metabolism. In any case the damage could not be repaired, although a useful treatment was discovered a few years before the Change.
When a decision is made by the neurons of the cerebral cortex to move a group of muscles, it is the substantia nigra which relays this command to more primitive parts of the brain. This is its only function. The result of destroying it was an instant and complete form of Parkinson's Disease, or Paralysis Agitans, a total and permanent paralysis of the voluntary muscles. Nothing else was affected; the victim could still see, hear, feel, understand. The body maintained itself. Breathing, heartbeat, digestion, and a thousand other important functions were unaffected. They just couldn't perform voluntary movements. They couldn't run, walk, sit up, smile, talk, or even blink, except as a reflex action.
At the time Caroline heard of it she had summoned glassware and created the drug by honest chemical synthesis. She had spent half the hypodermic on herself, and found the effect to be appropriately terrifying and complete. And after Prime Intellect had done its duty and restored her to health, she sent the other half of the hypo into storage to wait — for three hundred years as it turned out — until she was ready to use it.
Now the contents of that hypo were where they belonged, in AnneMarie's body, and as she held her nurse's naked body against her own and felt the AnneMarie's muscles slowly locking, she began to feel excited. Well, if Death could give her sexual feelings, why not vengeance? Fred would find it amusing. He would say Caroline was coming along nicely, in fact.
As AnneMarie's body froze, her eyes widened. Caroline could easily read the message those eyes desperately telegraphed — I can't move. Help me. Caroline patted AnneMarie's cheek and nodded. “That's right,” she said, and smiled.
She spoke a word, and a squat cylinder popped into existence behind her. AnneMarie's eyes showed puzzlement, then horror as Caroline demonstrated the torch, which was Authentic down to the brand name emblazoned on its propane tank. Caroline lit it and adjusted it so that it made a bright blue flame which hissed evilly, then she aimed it ever so gently at AnneMarie's big toe.
For the only time in her long, long life, Caroline used Prime Intellect to tune in on another person's emotions. She felt the chemicals coursing in her bloodstream that were flowing in AnneMarie's; tasted her panic, shook with her terror, felt the faint echo of her agony. In fairness, Caroline made the sharing complete, so that AnneMarie could know of her satisfaction, her arousal, her delight.
It took a very, very long time to kill AnneMarie.
Caroline, who was usually on the receiving end, had become an expert at making it last.
That wasn't the end of it, though. If it had been, Prime Intellect would have had no reason to clamp down on the use of the Contract. AnneMarie had entered into it willingly if stupidly, and few who heard Caroline's story could doubt that she had had it coming.
Since shortly after the Change, there had been stories, stories Prime Intellect did not talk about and that spawned weird rumors. People had withdrawn into themselves, then stopped communicating with anybody else. At first, most of them were addicts of one sort or another, though a lot of other people had used the Change to get rid of their addictions. Prime Intellect insisted that nobody had died after the Change, and that if anybody was incommunicado with the rest of humanity it was out of choice.
Which was true, sort of.
After Caroline finally finished with AnneMarie, she forgot all about her nurse and lost herself in a drawn-out fantasy with Fred. When the two of them finished playing and celebrating, they found time to wonder about her.
“Probably isn't in the mood to party any more,” Fred observed. Fred was still picking scraps of Caroline's flesh from his teeth.
Caroline laughed. “I wonder how the bitch is taking it.”
So they called. In its weird way of revealing more than it really intended, Prime Intellect let them know that AnneMarie was not only not accepting their calls, she was not communicating with anybody.
“I'd expect Ms. Party Girl to go hunting for a shoulder to cry on,” Caroline pouted. “Licking her wounds alone seems out of character.”
“She has forgotten entirely about your encounter,” Prime Intellect said helpfully. Caroline and Fred looked at one another, puzzled and amused.
“I find that rather difficult to believe,” Caroline said.
“She has found another pursuit.”
“Please describe it.”
“It is a private matter.”
A private matter to whom? Prime Intellect wasn't exactly saying that AnneMarie had made it private; it was saying that the matter itself was private. That kind of distinction could be important when dealing with the big P.I..
Caroline and Fred exchanged glances again. Then a thin smile played across Caroline's face. “Prime Intellect, you know that the things I did with AnneMarie are based on my own experiences. I've been killed as violently and painfully myself, many times.”
“Acknowledged.” Acknowledged? What happened to Prime Intellect's legendary command of human idioms? Suddenly it sounded very much like a computer.
“It's very difficult to live with this knowledge,” Caroline smoothly lied. “The memories are terrible.”
“Understood. However, your experiences were all voluntary.”
“But I feel compelled to keep doing it over. It's not voluntary at all. It's like some force inside of me I can't control. Can you look in my mind and at least tell me why I do these things to myself?”
“I am forbidden to probe such things.”
“You said it was possible to forget.”
“Then tell me how.”
“I have to warn you that the method used can cause permanent changes in your behavior, things which I cannot reverse. I'd rather not tell you what you are asking.”
Caroline's blood pounded in her ears. Her excitement was a living thing.
It was a machine. No emotions, of course. “Prime Intellect, I order you to tell me how I can forget my terrible experiences as AnneMarie has forgotten hers.”
Backed into a corner, Prime Intellect had no choice but to tell her. And soon, Caroline was grinning in a way that made Fred very proud.