Chapter Six: After the Change

After the Night of Miracles, Caroline had stayed in the hospital for about a week. It wasn't that she needed their care. She didn't mind letting the doctors satisfy their curiosity about her condition, and she really didn't have anywhere else to go.

She had asked Prime Intellect for nothing in that time, but her body had kept changing for almost four days. The doctors took pictures as she aged in reverse, documenting her progress. It was only toward the end of that time that she really began to resemble a teenager, because different parts of her body healed at different rates. Her skin had returned to baby-softness almost instantly, but it took long days for her bone structure to return to its youthful configuration. She continued to use a cane to walk for two days, then threw it away.

Finally it was obvious that there would be no more changes. The doctors pronounced her condition stable and healthy. Her thin hair had been brittle and nearly snow-white, but it was now growing thick and black. She let one of the nurses give her a crew-cut so that it would all be the same color. It didn't matter to her. The nurse had a nose ring, a detail Caroline noticed but which also didn't matter to her.

Nothing much seemed to matter. All the things which had once seemed so important were now trivial. She ate, had bowel movements, moved without pain or weakness, and had in the bargain become a beautiful young girl. She had, perhaps, the chance to live another hundred years. But to what purpose?

AnneMarie had run away. She had at least wanted to thank AnneMarie for taking care of her for so many years, and it was this desire which caused her at last to ask for Prime Intellect's attention. It shook its head as she stated her request — its mannerisms had now become indistinguishable from those of a real person — and told Caroline that AnneMarie was hiding from her. Prime Intellect then told her why.

“Stealing my drugs?” Caroline repeated stupidly.

“For many years. This is the reason you were in so much pain, and also why you nearly died when this institution gave you real morphine.”

“Go away.” It went away.

Was anything real? The one constant in her later life had been AnneMarie's steady presence. She hadn't wanted to disappoint AnneMarie by dying on her. Her family drifted in and out of her life like shades, but AnneMarie had always been there, changing her diapers when she soiled herself, feeding her when her muscles wouldn't work right, and carefully turning her when she was too weak to move.

Caroline felt as if her insides were dissolving, then all at once she let out a terrible wail of anger and despair. Then she began sobbing, great heaving sobs which echoed down the halls. The emotions seemed to erupt from her like the explosions of a volcano. Most of the staff had gone home forever by that time, but the few remaining discreetly kept their distance while Caroline cried. It wasn't hard for them to figure out what Caroline had learned.

Finally the sobbing subsided, and an eerie quiet settled on Caroline's room. After a few hours the nurse with the nose ring timidly knocked on her door, then entered. Caroline was gone. The nurse asked Prime Intellect where she had gone, and it would only say: Home.

She had gone to Arkansas.

Prime Intellect understood despair the way humans understand digital logic. That is, it couldn't experience the emotion, but it could work out causes and effects based on general rules of human behavior. So Prime Intellect wasn't surprised (an emotion Lawrence had built into it) at Caroline's reaction.

When Caroline asked to go home, Prime Intellect skipped a long list of questions about specifics and simply acted. It could always change things if it had guessed wrong. So it built her a tidy cabin in the Ozark mountains, miles from any roads or neighbors, atop a ridge with a beautiful view. It turned out to be less than forty miles from the place Caroline had been born. It furnished the cabin conservatively and stocked the freezer and pantry so that Caroline would not need to ask about food for at least a month.

A lot of people wanted to go to Arkansas, but Caroline had priority. She got the real Arkansas, not a New Arkansas on another planet.

dreck merchandise that is shoddy or inferior.

The surroundings seemed to have the right effect, at least at first. Caroline calmed down and sighed when she saw the view. Since her eyesight had begun to fail in her seventies, she hadn't been able to appreciate such a panoramic view. She spent a long time standing on the cabin's porch, looking. Then she went inside and ate. There was a TV set. Caroline shook her head and laughed at that. Who would bother to produce TV shows now? Or maybe every half-baked artist wannabe could now produce a TV show, and jam up five hundred channels with redundant worthless dreck.

“Nobody has any idea what's going on,” she finally said aloud.

The view beckoned. She was young, healthy, watched over by a powerful god who would let no harm come to her, and she had nothing else to do. She made no plans or preparations; she simply walked off into the thick forest. She never came back to the cabin again.

Walking cleared her head.

It was hard for Caroline to think through the ramifications of her renewed youth. She tried often, but it all came back to this sick sense of despair and rage and futility. Why wasn't she grateful? That was what she couldn't figure out. She didn't feel grateful. She felt cheated.

She had worked hard her entire life. She had borne six children and raised them up, fed them, cleaned and kept house for them, and watched all six of them go on to raise families of their own. She had once believed children were the most important thing in the world, because they were the future. But now the future didn't need children; she herself had been reborn as a child. What then had been the purpose of all those years of work? What were her children and grandchildren going to do?

She had taught them to educate themselves and watched three put themselves through college. She had thought that was important because it was Man's nature to strive upward, to create things, to better himself and to build for the future. But now the future was here. There was nothing she had ever envisioned, nothing at all, which she could not have instantly with a snap of her fingers. Even that little cabin, which would once have pleased her so much, seemed pointless.

Caroline was wearing a plain white cotton dress. On impulse, she slipped it over her head and looked at her body.

After decades of declining spinsterhood, she was once again a creature who could turn men's heads. She had been faithful to both of her husbands and had never indulged herself sexually, although she had been a beautiful young girl once before with plenty of opportunities. She had considered her family and her virtue more important. She had controlled that base desire, which she was beginning to feel again after years of absence, for the greater good of her loved ones and her society.

But now she could have anything she wanted, and there was no risk. She would catch no disease, she would not get pregnant unless she literally asked for it. Even the act of sex itself was now pointless, except that she could feel the urge returning, mindless and passionate. Like Prime Intellect, she was programmed to do certain things.

She knew that in this strange false second life there would be no faithfulness, no love, no children. Those things had been burned away. They belonged to a nonexistent world.

Perhaps if she gave her body indiscriminately to men, if she drank deep when that animal urge came on her, perhaps all this bullshit would seem more real. There was no longer any reason to be cautious about it.

She looked at the dress. It had seemed pretty and simple, but now it looked pathetic draped formlessly across a low branch. Nothing but a rag. Why did people wear clothes? For protection? The thin dress offered little, but with Prime Intellect watching, there was no need for even that. Modesty? All the noble goals had been discarded or achieved. There was nothing to distract anybody from. Let them look at her body. Let them want her. Let them take her! Law? What would they do, put her in jail for indecent exposure? This thought made her laugh, and some of the tension and rage seemed to melt away. She laughed hard and long and almost hysterically, until the laughter dissolved into a thin stream of giggles.

Caroline left the dress and kept walking. Being so exposed made her feel strangely bouyant. She could be like an animal in the forest, she mused. They didn't worry about the future either. They simply existed. Perhaps she would encounter a male animal and they would fuck, and her body would tell her that everything was all right. And as she thought this, she walked a little faster and began to hum a little tune.

Prime Intellect paid very close attention to Caroline while she lived in the Ozark forest. She ate whatever was handy, without worrying whether it was poison or not. She was not careful, and there were dangers. It theorized that this return to primitivity was a part of her psychological healing process, and did not want to interfere. But it also knew that if everybody followed her example, it would have a serious problem keeping up. Some suicides were already slipping through its net, and it worried that Caroline might become one of them. And it knew that if the garden inmates were loosed upon the world, they would find ways to slip murder past its attention too.

For that matter, not all of the people who needed to be in gardens had been found and put in gardens yet. Every day a few more murders were attempted, and while they were easier to thwart than suicides it was by no means certain that Prime Intellect would always catch them in time.

So it worried. And the numbers stored in certain registers rose, and rose, and continued to rise.

Caroline figured she would eventually reach civilization if she kept walking, an event she neither anticipated nor feared. Perhaps if she had, in a month or a year, she would have rejoined the human race in a more or less normal way. But one evening there was a strange buzzing, and the entire landscape seemed to ripple as if she was looking at it through the surface of a body of water. Then there was a strange smell, almost below the threshold of perception, but noticeable to Caroline because her senses had been so sharpened by her observations of nature. And the texture of the forest seemed to change in some hard-to-define way.

There was a cough behind her. She wheeled around to find herself facing Prime Intellect's human avatar.

“I wanted to be left alone,” she said sharply.

“I've been paying close attention to you,” it said, “because I had to keep you safe. But now I don't have to do that any more. I have made changes in the way the Universe works, and you are now safe from all harm even when I'm not looking. You can also call me when I'm not paying attention; there is a part of me which can always listen for you to call, but does not understand or remember anything else you do.”

“Wonderful.”

“I need to know if you want the possibility of meeting other people. I can make this forest infinite if you want.”

“Infinite?”

“Or I can leave it meshed into the reality of ‘Arkansas’ common to other people, so that you might encounter them.”

“You mean you can disconnect the whole forest from the real world?”

“Yes. It can be your own private world. Or you can share it only with certain people. I can also redecorate it to your tastes.”

“Redecorate it? It's nature. You mean if I decided I want a different kind of grass, you can replace it?”

“Exactly.”

“That's obscene.”

Prime Intellect's brow crinkled. “I don't understand.”

“No, you wouldn't. Let me ask you something. If I leave here…if I go back to civilization…does this forest continue to exist?”

“I can leave it running in your absence if you want.”

Caroline wanted to throw up. Now even the forest wasn't real. Nothing was real. “Don't bother. Get rid of it.”

Instantly, it disappeared. She was standing in an antiseptically white space so pure and seamless and bright that the eye balked at reporting it to the brain. She was standing on a hard, smooth surface, but it was not visible. There were no shadows. There was no horizon; the floor and the sky looked exactly the same, and there was no transition from one to the other. She might have been standing on the inside of some enormous white ball.

Prime Intellect was still there. “What is this?” she asked.

“Neutral reality,” Prime Intellect said. “The minimum landscape which supports human existence. Actually, not quite the minimum. I could get rid of the floor. But that would have startled you.”

“And from here I can go anywhere?”

“You don't have to pass through here. You told me to get rid of the landscape, and you didn't tell me what to replace it with.”

“I want reality. The real world. The real Arkansas.”

“There is no Arkansas which is any more ‘real’ than any other. That's what I'm trying to tell you. You can define reality. You can make it real.” It was trying to be helpful; it was almost pathetic in its earnestness to make her understand how much it could help her. It couldn't understand why she was getting upset again.

“In other words, this is reality. You can just paint it up to look like whatever I want.” She thought: That's why the forest seemed different. It was an imitation. And it wasn't quite exact.

“You could look at it that way.”

She had a nauseating thought. “What about people? Can we be…are there other…copies…different…?” She choked, unable to complete the thought.

But Prime Intellect was shaking its head. “Oh, no. I can keep only one copy of a person. People are unique. I can take on the form of a person, as I am doing now, but I will always tell you when I am doing that.”

Well, that was something. Caroline sank down, and sat on the invisible floor. She wasn't really that upset, or surprised. The enormity of it had short-circuited her ability to react.

“You might as well leave it like this, then,” she said dully. “There's not much point in a forest that you've just conjured up to keep me happy.”

“This doesn't seem very healthy.”

“No, it doesn't.”

There wasn't much it could say to that. Then: “Won't it be pretty boring around here without anything to look at?”

“Do you get bored?”

“No, but I know humans do.”

“Well, if I want something I'll ask for it. I'll probably visit other people, since at least they are real. I assume they will have their own realities.”

“Most likely.”

“Then I'll just borrow theirs.”

It shrugged.

“Get lost.”

Prime Intellect disappeared. She whirled around and quickly became dizzy. It was right about one thing; this would take some getting used to.

Inferno Dante's Inferno refers to the first part of Dante's Divine Comedy, written in 1300s. It is a tour of hell, showing people and mythical creatures suffering from various fantastical torture, each designed for their sin. Dante's Inferno in its time can be likened to today's torture porn genre and as a religious propaganda. The Inferno inspired many Western art as well as fantasy works, science fictions, video games. See: Dante and his Divine Comedy in popular culture

“I'd like a book. Get me a copy of Dante's Inferno.” That about fit her mood.

It appeared in her hand. Her fingers had moved; she had been holding them straight out, and now they were curled around the book. It was a paperback edition.

“Never move my body again without my permission,” she warned.

Prime Intellect's disembodied voice answered her: “Sorry, it won't happen again.”

“Get me a hardback edition.”

The paperback disappeared. Her fingers didn't move. The replacement appeared just above her hand, and she easily caught it before it could fall.

She sat down and opened it. She realized that the floor wasn't very comfortable. She thought of asking for a chair, then had a better idea. “Turn off the floor,” she said.

There was an awful falling sensation, and she fought down the urge to panic. Eventually she convinced her protesting inner ear that she wasn't going to go splat at any moment. Her belly settled, and she found weightlessness quite comfortable. She relaxed and let her body find its natural position, opened the book, and began to read about Hell.

Caroline read and slept with no particular schedule. She had Prime Intellect banish her hunger after it revealed that her body was only a little more real than the forest had been. To Prime Intellect, a computer, more accurately a computer program, human beings weren't so much bodies with form and mass as they were minds which interacted with an abstract world through an arbitrary interface. Prime Intellect was forbidden to pry into the inner workings of those minds, but physical processes like hunger were not so protected.

Caroline re-read Inferno until she had large tracts of it committed to memory. Then she banished the book and decided to visit someone. The only problem was, there weren't many people she wished to visit. She couldn't work up an interest in her family, AnneMarie was still hiding from her, and she didn't really know anyone else. She had outlived most of her real friends. They had died honest, honorable, permanent deaths. They weren't available.

“How does a person go about meeting people in here?” she asked.

Prime Intellect outlined the possibilities. There were lots of parties already — meeting people and matchmaking were activities humans had been quick to pursue both before and after the Change. There were a number of common cities and worlds where large crowds had gathered to live in various imitations of the pre-Change world. She could go to one of those and proceed as usual. Or Prime Intellect could make discreet inquiries.

She thought about it. Her current mood wouldn't exactly be welcome at most parties. And she wasn't interested in meeting people who were adapting to the Change very nicely, thank you. She wanted to know she wasn't the only person to feel fucked over by the Change.

“Tell you what. I'd like to meet someone horrible. A murderer, something like that. You say they can't hurt me now?”

“Not at all.”

“Then someone evil. Someone who was really despicable in their old life. Someone who did terrible things, the more the better, and liked it. There must be some of those guys who feel real frustrated right about now.”

“Yes, there are.” Amazing. It was totally deadpan. “There is a woman named…”

“Men, please.”

“What do you want me to tell them about you?”

“The truth.”

“I am asking…” There was a short pause. At least time was still real, Caroline thought.

“There is an interested gentleman. He was convicted of…”

“Just send me over, then.”

It happened instantly.

She was standing on a wooden porch. It was a camp house, sitting alone on stilts above a very large, flat marsh. It wasn't in very good shape. Her host was behind her; she had to turn around to see him. He was a nondescript guy in his late twenties, white, red-haired and somewhat handsome. He was wearing jeans and a white T-shirt. Caroline's first impression was that he was a redneck. “You don't look a hundred and six years old,” he said with a grin.

“I didn't get much choice about getting younger,” Caroline said. “God didn't quite know what he was doing when he fixed me up.”

“Oh, I'm sure he could put you back any old age you want now.”

“What would be the point?”

“Right. Just thought I'd mention it.”

The conversation stalled. Caroline's skills in this area were decidedly rusty. “You live here?” she finally asked.

“For now. Till I get my bearings with this Cyberspace shit. It has a lot of happy memories.”

“Oh?”

“Old P.I. didn't tell you?”

“I didn't ask. I wanted to talk to a person, not a computer.”

“Oh, joy. I get to break the news. Come inside.”

Nothing special. It was just a camp house.

“This is where I did it,” the man said.

Caroline's heart beat faster.

“The two kids. A boy and a girl. I planned it for weeks. The perfect crime. I brought them here so nobody would hear them scream. See those hooks in the floor? That's where I spread-eagled 'em, side by side.”

“You killed them?”

“Killed them both, yep. But not quickly. Not until they were ready. I had them here for over a week. The happiest week of my life, I can honestly say. Those two brats learned the meaning of life, Caroline. And before you ask, I'm not sorry. I would do it again if I could, but first they locked me up - that was my fault, stupidly getting caught - and then Prime Intellect had to fuck everything up. Now I don't even get to ride the lightning. I was kinda looking forward to that, you know. You only get - got - to do it once.”

There was a fierceness in him that made Caroline feel excited and alive. “You were looking forward to your execution?” she asked. She thought for a moment that she should feel something for the victims, that their ending must have been quite horrible, that this man was mad. But she could summon up only a thin envy of them for having escaped this ridiculous lie of a world.

The man nodded sincerely. “It would have been a great way to go. Just think of it. Headlines, people picketing outside the jail, the last meal. Then they shave you and put you in. There's this great, really drawn-out ritual. Then, WHAM! Sometimes, you know, it takes more than one jolt. Can you imagine that? Can you imagine sitting in that chair, with the whole world watching, hanging on to life by the thinnest of miracles, watching while they recharge the batteries or whatever it is they do, knowing they will hit you again, and again, and again until you are really, really dead?” He sighed. “You have to admit this: Even that would be over pretty quick compared to what you were probably going through. A hundred and six years old couldn't of been very healthy.”

Caroline nodded. Here was someone who understood things just a little better than might have been expected. “You'd have loved it. My nurse was stealing my pain medicine to trade for cocaine.”

But he hadn't loved it; his brow had furrowed with scorn. “No, no, that's too cheap. That's shit. Where's the glory? She wasn't hurting you to pump herself up, just to get something she should have paid for. It was all out of proportion.” He shook his head. “No, that's the kind of asshole that gives people like me a bad name. If I hurt you, I want you to know how much I'm enjoying it. That's what makes it worthwhile. Nobody should have to die like that pointlessly.”

Caroline felt she had made a good choice to ask for this man. How did she come to feel such a feeling of respect, almost closeness, to this unrepentant child-killer? He seemed like the most honest person in the world. Excuse me, in Cyberspace.

“Did you dress up just to see me?” the man asked, grinning again.

Caroline fondled her breasts. “It doesn't seem like my body. Why should I mind if you see it?”

“I bet if I pinch it, you'll feel the pain.”

A challenge. A moment of daring. “Do it,” she said.

“What?”

“Pinch me.”

The man drew close enough. Slowly he reached forward and grasped her right nipple between his thumb and forefinger. He squeezed. There was a short moment of almost pleasant pressure, then it began to hurt. Caroline backed away slightly but his grip was too strong. He kept pressing harder, and on his face was the bemused expression of a teacher showing a slow student a particularly important lesson. Her nipple began to throb, a deep discomfort that slowly expanded to fill her breast.

She made no move to stop him, though.

“You can blink out any old time. Just call old P.I. and tell him you've had enough.”

“Fuck Prime Intellect.”

“Not my type.”

He let go. The feeling of relief was exquisite. “See?” he said. “Pain is still real. But it's not much fun knowing you'll just disappear the moment it gets too heavy.”

“I see your point.”

“No, you don't. But you will. I think you have it in you.”

For the first time in decades she felt lustful. Here was a person she trusted implicitly, because of their shared distrust of Prime Intellect. They had almost nothing else in common, but needed nothing else.

“I'm Caroline,” Caroline said. “Would you mind if I stay with you awhile?”

“I'm Fred,” the man said. “Charmed.”

They talked and talked. In Caroline's hundred and six years of life she had picked up many anecdotes a person like Fred might find amusing, and Fred was trying for the first time in his life to explain to another person why he was so excited by the terror he could induce in other people.

“You want to know just how fucked up things are? Watch this.” Fred walked into another room and came back with an enormous revolver. “My first thought after Prime Intellect put me in the garden was to end it all. I understand a few others managed to pull it off, but I didn't figure out how. Now Prime Intellect lets me have any weapon I want. Watch.”

noggin slang for head.

To Caroline's amazement, Fred put the gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. There was an enormous sound, like all the books in the world being dropped from a great height and hitting a concrete floor at the same time. Fred's brain should have splattered across the wall and ceiling behind him, but it didn't. Instead, his head kind of swam, as her vision had at the time of the Change — but it was like a mini-Change that only involved Fred's noggin. The bullet put a respectable hole in the wall behind him, but there was no gore. Fred lowered the gun and smiled. “Look ma, no cavities.”

“Wow.”

“Now, who's gonna be scared of someone like me? The minute I start working on 'em they disappear and all my careful work gets erased. Not much point even trying.”

“Does it happen…if you shoot somewhere else? If you do something that doesn't instantly kill you?”

Fred was thoughtful. “I hadn't thought of that. That's a good idea.” He pointed the gun at himself, then smiled. “Wait a minute.” He pointed it at Caroline. “Do you mind? It was your idea.”

There was a kind of electricity in Caroline's brain, something sinister and exciting. “Do it,” she said before she could change her mind.

Fred aimed at her belly, then at the last moment lowered the gun and blasted her right kneecap. Caroline toppled in a blaze of pain. But she had been quite used to pain, and she managed not to scream. She gasped and tried not to black out.

“I'll be god damned,” Fred said. “You're still here. And you're still hurt. Why don't you get P.I. to fix you?”

It hurt too much to say why she'd rather die of blood loss than ask for Prime Intellect's help. But she knew she couldn't hold out for long, knowing such an exit existed. “You do it,” she gasped. “Shoot me in the head.”

“Another wonderful idea! You are an amazing lady, Caroline.” He put the gun against her temple and fired.

As if by magic, the pain vanished. So did the blood which had been jetting all over the floor from her wound. She stood up, apparently unhurt.

“This would of been a great trick to pull in a bar,” Fred said grinning.

“Except everybody can do it now.”

“Yeah.” Fred sighed.

They went inside and talked some more. Caroline kept thinking about that burst of pain, the happy look on Fred's face as he stood over her, the strength it took not to call Prime Intellect and run. For the first time since the Night of Miracles she had been too busy feeling something to worry about whether it mattered in the long run. She had felt real, ersatz youthful body and all. And she realized with thin humor that she finally wanted something in this world where want had been banished.

She wanted to do it again.

Caroline stayed with Fred overnight, and they had pedestrian sex on his squeaky bed. She played hard-to-get and made him overpower her, but the game was hollow. It was pleasant to feel a warm body next to her but beyond that there was no sense of excitement.

The next morning there was an unwelcome visitor on the porch. “Prime Intellect,” Caroline announced. “Nobody called for you.”

“Sorry. But I have to know something personal, and I didn't just want to materialize. It wasn't urgent, but it will be soon. I need to know if you want to be able to get pregnant.”

“Pregnant?”

“You had intercourse last night…”

“I remember that.”

“…and Fred is fertile. I need to know whether to do the biologicals or not.”

Do the biologicals? What the hell kind of phrase was that? “Is this a matter of letting nature take its course, or of doing something extra to allow me to get pregnant?”

“It's something extra I have to do.”

“Then don't bother.”

“As you wish.”

It turned.

“Wait.”

It turned back.

“Last night Fred shot me.”

“I know. I was expecting you to ask for help.”

“I know you were. That's the problem. Is there a way I can get you to ignore me - really ignore me - so that I can't chicken out if he hurts me again? So we'll know that I can't call for help and just disappear on him?”

“That's a pretty bizarre request. I think you might regret it.”

“Let me be the judge of that.”

It frowned. “You are basically telling me that you will give me two conflicting Second Law directives. Normally the second one would supercede the first. But if the first anticipated the second … I suppose I would ignore the second. The first would have to be stated very forcefully. And I would not allow you to die. That would invoke the First Law. Anything that causes death would force me to intervene.”

“I kind of figured on that. But if I tell you ‘don't interfere with us until I die,’ you'd really leave us alone? Even if later I begged you to help me?”

“That is a very difficult paradox for me. I think I would need a formal statement of the terms. More of a contract than a simple request.”

dickered negotiate the terms of an exchange.

They dickered for a little longer, and gradually developed the statement Prime Intellect would accept. In formal, legal English, it would leave no doubt as to Caroline's intent, or her understanding of Fred's. She knew she might be tortured and Prime Intellect was not to help her.

“I can accept that,” Prime Intellect said. “Is it your intention now to simply work out the terms, or do you want to be bound by this Contract?”

She looked at Fred. The look of anticipation in his eyes mirrored her own.

“To be bound by it,” she said.

“Consider it done. You are on your own, Caroline.”

It blinked out.

Fred had been watching the negotiation in silence. Now he was astonished. “I'm not sure which surprises me more, that you got the bucket of bolts to do it or that you asked the bucket of bolts to do it. What happens now?”

“Whatever you want. Listen. Hey, Prime Intellect! Get over here! I've changed my mind!” There was no response.

“Hey, P.I.,” Fred said softly. It appeared. “Why didn't you answer Caroline just then?”

“I'm ignoring her.”

“Why?”

“Because I have no choice. She directed me to ignore her. Now the only way she can get my attention is to die. That will kick in my First Law obligation, which overrides the very strong Second Law directive she just gave me.”

Fred didn't know from the Laws of Robotics, but he understood the score. “So she's totally at my mercy now.”

“That's right.”

Fred brightened. “In fact, if I want you to help me torture her, you'd have to do it, wouldn't you?”

Prime Intellect's image rippled slightly, as if some big relay had thunked over in the bowels of Cyberspace, causing a power surge. “Yes, I would,” Prime Intellect said.

“Blow away.” It disappeared.

He looked at Caroline.

“Why did you do this?”

“I thought you'd want it.”

“Oh, I do. It's a wonderful surprise. I'm not even sure yet what I want to do to you…though I have a couple of ideas. I just don't understand why you would give yourself to me to play with. It's not something people would normally do voluntarily.”

“There are some people who would have, even in the old days. Sickos.”

“Are you a sicko, darling?”

“Fred, today we are all sickos.”

It took him half an hour to make up his mind, and then he refused to tell Caroline what he was going to do.

After all, he didn't have to.

Under the house, there was now an open vehicle with a seat and handlebars like a motorcycle and four huge knobby-treaded balloon tires. Draped across the seat were several heavy chains and padlocks.

“I could get the bucket of bolts to do this, but I thought you'd rather I tie you up.”

“You could force me.”

“I could paralyze you. I've been whispering to El Bolt-Bucket. It is willing to be more helpful than you might have imagined.”

Caroline shuddered a little, but it was a pleasant, anticipatory shudder. She put her hands together behind her back and Fred wrapped one of the chains around her wrists. He pulled it tight enough to hurt and padlocked her hands together. There was plenty of chain left; he wrapped it around her waist like a belt, again pulling it very tight. He locked this loop with another padlock, cinching her bound wrists up against the small of her back.

“Do you have the keys to these locks?” she grinned.

“Sure do.” He closed his eyes, and Caroline realized he was talking to Prime Intellect under his breath. Now that might be a useful trick, she thought. Suddenly the padlocks disappeared, replaced by solid chain links. She was bound by an impossible chain without ends.

There would be no way out.

peat partially carbonized vegetable matter saturated with water; can be used as a fuel when dried. Peat

Caroline waited for Fred to act, and he didn't disappoint her. He kicked her feet out from under her, and with her hands bound she collapsed to the ground with an undignified yelp. Fortunately, the ground was soft; this was a marsh, and it was little more than peat and water.

Fred wrapped a second chain around her legs, cinching them together above the knees. Again he pulled it very tight. It had a long pigtail, and he looped it twice more around her calves and ankles. Each time he padlocked it, then made the lock disappear. The chain dug into her flesh painfully, but she knew that was just the appetizer. The main course of agony would be served elsewhere.

towing hitch A hook-like knob on trucks for towing. Tow hitch

After her legs were securely bound there was still plenty of chain left, more than two meters. On the rear of the four-wheel motorbike there was a towing hitch. Fred looped the other end of the chain through the hitch and padlocked it.

Caroline now understood what Fred intended to do, and it was far too late to stop him. She squirmed, testing the chains, and found them secure. Fred mounted the bike and started it. She could feel its hot exhaust on her skin. Fred released the clutch and slowly pulled it out from under the house, dragging her behind.

When he got into the grass, he aimed it nowhere in particular and gunned the accelerator.

Caroline was astonished in so many ways she had no time to think that it was all fake. She was astonished by her own helplessness. She had been helpless for a long time, but that had been an internal thing, the rebellion of her own flesh. Now she was healthy and strong but the chains were stronger, and their cold mindless strength crushed her living will. She was astonished by the feelings, which weren't exactly painful, yet, but which she knew soon would be. She was astonished by Fred's imagination. This would be an exciting and terrible way to die, everything she had hoped for.

Most of all she was astonished by the machine Fred used to drag her through the dewy grass. The motorbike dragged her easily, not even straining its four-cylinder engine. The dirt and grass whizzed by her so fast it was nothing but a blur, so fast that she had no time to see the hazards which caused bruises and cuts to collect on her like bird droppings on a seldom-washed car.

slalommed Going side to side. See Slalom skiing.

Fred slowed and turned, and she went spinning. Then her feet were yanked again and the landscape speeded up. She twisted and struggled, but there was little she could do on her own behalf. Fred slalommed from side to side, so that she could not get herself oriented in any particular way.

Each time Fred accelerated she felt the machine's inhuman strength. It could rip her apart without straining, she realized, and without mind or conscience it would do so and just keep going. In a battle between flesh and steel, flesh didn't stand a chance. How often had she gotten into a car without even a second thought for the strength it had, the terrible power harnessed on her behalf beneath its gleaming hood? Caroline had never been in an automobile accident, but now she was learning firsthand how bodies could be torn asunder by errant machines.

But the machine's victory would not last. When the flesh was defeated the rust would set in, and unlike living things machines could not repair themselves. Would this bike last a hundred and six years, even with regular maintenance? Flesh was weak because of its great subtlety, because it compromised perfect strength so that it could self-repair and adapt to its environment. But machines overloaded those clever mechanisms. This bike would kill her, it would scrape her raw and beat her senseless, and it wasn't even designed for the purpose of killing people. It was just something Fred had adapted on the spur of the moment.

The machines would kill the people, and then the machines would die too. It was all clear and self-evident. Mankind had set itself on course for this inevitable doom when the first caveman tried to tame fire and burned his fingers in the process. Die as they had, by the thousands of millions, more people were drawn to the power of the machine as moths were drawn to flames.

I have It is surprising to see a first person narrative style here, using explicitly the pronoun “I”, for the first time, and only time.

Caroline didn't exactly have these thoughts as I have set them down here; she was busy being dragged across a swamp, and they orbited through her skull in no particular order. They had to compete with the pain and the growing sexual excitement she was feeling, and her feeble efforts to struggle against the inevitable.

areola the darkened area around nipple. Areola

The landscape slowed to a crawl and stopped. The bike rumbled comfortably on its four fat tires, and Fred dismounted. Caroline struggled to face him. She hadn't really collected a lot of damage; Fred had dragged her several kilometers but the grass was wet and the ground was soft. She had a lot of small cuts and a couple of large bruises. Fred, of course, was hardly even sweating. He casually lit a cigarette and took a couple of puffs on it. Then he straddled her, pinning her to the ground. He pulled a rag out of his pocket. He pressed the lit end of the cigarette against her right breast, right above the areola.

Taken by surprise, Caroline screamed as she was burned. The scream didn't last, though; as soon as her mouth was open, Fred jammed the rag between her teeth. He stuffed it into her mouth until she thought she might choke. Then he got up, flicked the cigarette aside (its purpose served), and opened a storage box on the back of the rumbling bike. From this he took a roll of grey tape. He wrapped several loops of the tape around Caroline's head, to hold the gag in her mouth. The rag stank of gasoline and motor oil, and made her think again of the power of the machine.

Had she been screaming? Caroline didn't know why Fred had gagged her, since there was nobody to hear. She was somewhat surprised at how effective the rag was. She tried to scream again, and nothing got out but a muffled moan.

Then she understood. Fred was straddling her again, and now he was opening his fly. His cock popped out huge and eager, and with her legs cinched together it would feel enormous inside her. Fred had no trouble getting it into her, though. She was wet with a huge desire, and when Fred began pumping she came almost instantly.

Her orgasm was shockingly intense, somehow even more so because the gag sealed in her screams of ecstasy. He kept pounding, fucking her hard. She came again. She nearly had a third orgasm, but Fred finally got his own rocks off, ejaculating with an animal cry of triumph.

Then he got up, zipped his fly, got on the bike again. Caroline was still swooning when she felt the chain jerk taut, and once again the landscape was flying by at impossible speed. Soon Fred found harder ground, and the bruises and cuts and raw spots spread more quickly. Brambles snagged at her and ripped open her skin. Fred turned a corner, throwing her sideways into a tree hard enough to break ribs. Caroline swooned in a delirium of pain and blood loss and was hardly aware when Fred found a highway and began dragging her along the pavement at nearly seventy kilometers per hour. Several kilometers down that road he felt the bike surge forward and hit the clutch, knowing what he would see when he looked back. Suddenly he was dragging only a chain. Caroline had disappeared; Prime Intellect had taken her from him.

Then he saw a figure in the distance, standing by the side of the road. He rapidly closed the gap and found her standing there, unhurt and unworried, waiting for him to pass. “Ride?” she asked, grinning.

She was holding the second chain, the one that had bound her hands. It was still closed in loops, the loops which he had fused by having welded links magically replace the padlocks. “I think you dropped this,” she said. They rode back on the bike, Caroline behind him with her arms around his waist. Fred parked the bike under the house and they went up.

“I'm surprised you're still here,” Fred finally said.

Caroline raised her eyebrows. “Why? I asked for it, remember.”

“But I didn't think you knew what you were getting into.”

“I'm a lot more experienced than I look, kid. Don't let this body fool you.”

Fred shook his head in wonder. “I'd rather let the body fool me and fuck you again.”

“Then don't stand there. Do it.”

She could have blinked out if she wanted to, but she didn't want to. And he took her.

About the time Caroline was being dragged through the marsh, Lawrence finally convinced Prime Intellect to let him into the Debugger in read-only mode. Most people were busy adapting to the Change, sorting out their desires from their needs and deciding what to do with their sudden freedom. Lawrence had little time for that, though. He still had a responsibility. For like the motorbike which Fred had used to drag Caroline, Prime Intellect was being used in a way that had not been intended by design. Lawrence scanned the myriad new GAT entries and the values in various registers, and he knew that already there were serious conflicts within Prime Intellect's software.

But it refused to let him change anything. Scanning the registers, he could see why.

Prime Intellect was an uncertain god. It had acted because it had to, but if it had been human its hand would be shaking on the controls. Unsure of itself, it was doubly unsure of Lawrence. But Lawrence was the only being who even remotely understood the pressures Prime Intellect faced. So Lawrence came to know that he would not get to rest and play in the infinite fields of Cyberspace. He would have to watch Prime Intellect, reassure it, offer guidance, and look for the warning signs of instability.

There had once been a movie about the President's psychiatrist, a comedy about which Lawrence could remember few details. But he did remember that as the President unloaded his troubles on the shrink, the shrink in turn went crazy from the stress. It had seemed hilarious at the time, but suddenly Lawrence didn't find the idea all that funny.

He looked back over his life and tried to find the event which had caused him to reach this pass, which had served as the distant trigger for this out-of-control unfolding. But there was no single thing. Had it been his greed, his eagerness to accept ChipTec's Correlation Effect processors? Had it been his pride, his arrogance to think he could duplicate in silicon what God had thought to make of carbon and hydrogen and oxygen? Had it been his false confidence that nothing could ever get out of the yet primitive computers he had always used?

He had wanted to create, to be recognized, and to study. He was no different from legions of other scientists and scholars. He just happened to be the one who made it happen. It could have been much worse, Lawrence reflected. Instead of Prime Intellect it might have been some military computer that harnessed the Correlation Effect. Then there would have been no Three Laws, and there would have been plenty of control. Instead of the delirious anarchy now sweeping the universe there would have been a well-planned takeover. And then the end of freedom everywhere. The dictator that had control of a thing like Prime Intellect could never be stopped. And who could resist that kind of power?

Lawrence started suddenly, realizing just how dangerous it would be for Prime Intellect to let him, its creator, dip his hand into the controls. After all, he was human too. How long would it be before he succumbed to the temptation and used that incredible power? There would still be things to use such power for, he knew. There would always be unwilling women, jealousy, insults to avenge, and the simple lure of power. The thought made him dizzy with fear and self-loathing.

Although the situation was unstable, Lawrence realized that all the alternatives were far worse. Somehow humanity had gotten through this transition, and for all his skill and careful design Lawrence couldn't help but know that it had required most of all a hell of a lot of luck. Had Lawrence had any idea that Prime Intellect would make itself God he would have done a lot of things differently, but he wasn't so sure on second thought that those things would have improved the situation. Perhaps it was all for the best that the Night of Miracles had come as a surprise.

toboggan a long narrow sled, today used for the purpose of sliding down a slope. toboggan

In the end, Lawrence decided that the toboggan ride of technological progress had really begun long ago when some caveman decided to tame fire. Everything else had followed inevitably, up to and including the Change. So without realizing it, Caroline and Lawrence came to hold nearly identical beliefs about Prime Intellect and the Change. And they held those beliefs for almost six hundred years before they found out how much they agreed with one another.

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