The first thing Caroline became aware of was the bird singing. That made her smile; it had been a long time since she had heard birdsong. She opened a long-dormant mental card file and decided it was a meadowlark. It was amazing, she reflected, how many people forgot to include animals in their worlds, and how much detail they provided.
She opened her eyes and sat up. Another bird answered the meadowlark. She became aware of the smell of the place, a rich aroma of grass and animal spoor. She tried to remember who she was playing with and how she had gotten here, and came up with a mental blank. Then she looked down at her own body and screamed.
She had age-regressed again, and her tattoos were gone.
Something dry clicked in her throat. This was not an event Caroline would be inclined to forget, yet she could not remember asking for it or preparing for it. As far as she could recall, she was a good ten years from needing it. Yet here she was, adolescent and bare. She stood up a little shakily, sounding out her body. Her muscles weren't developed. And all the natural bodily functions felt connected, at least for the time being.
The Sun was high in a cloudless sky. She was in a little clearing, but after looking around she realized it was actually the bottom of a fairly deep depression in the ground. It didn't seem to be natural, though Nature had taken it over. It was rectangular. And the perimeter was littered with flat slabs of rock, some of which still held a polish. She used one of these as a mirror to check her new appearance.
The walls of the depression had once been vertical, but most of them had collapsed and it wasn't hard for her to climb out. She inspected the rock slabs and was surprised to find one with writing on it. It said:
Experimental Therapy Wing
Except for the birds it was quiet; she seemed to be completely alone. She startled a rabbit as she climbed out of the hole. Someone had put a lot of work into this world, for whatever reason. Vegetation ran riot, with clearings of thigh-high grass separating widely spaced stands of straggly trees. It was very unlike most of the worlds people had made for themselves, perhaps because it was so much like the real, pre-Change Earth.
Stumped for further clues, she picked the tallest tree she could find and climbed it to get a look around. In the distance there were more rectangular holes. And perhaps a kilometer away, amid a small group of them, there was a human being sitting beneath another tree.
Caroline climbed down and scouted around the flat rocks. Some of them had been broken; she found a busted corner, a piece of about a kilogram heft with a sharp edge. She decided it would make an acceptable weapon if she needed one. Then she went to see who the other person was.
It was a boy whose apparent youth matched her own, but as Caroline knew that didn't mean shit in Cyberspace. There was something familiar about him. He was sitting cross-legged, naked, staring transfixed at the pattern of shadows formed by the leaves of his tree.
She didn't hold the rock threateningly, but made sure he could see it if he looked at her. “Who are you?” she demanded.
He looked up. His eyes were wide; he seemed to only half-see her. He was shaking slightly, and his voice trembled as he spoke. “Are you Caroline?” he asked.
Slowly, she nodded.
“It makes sense. Just the two of us…”
“Who are you, and what are we doing here?”
He looked at her for a long, maddening moment. “I'm Lawrence. Don't you remember?”
She dropped the rock. As soon as he said his name, the pieces fell together in her mind and Caroline did remember. “Oh, shit,” she said. “What the hell is going on? Why are we younger?”
“I think it lost our bodies in the collapse. Probably trashed the data base. So it re-grew these from our DNA templates. I've been nearsighted since I was five years old, from too much squinting at computers and books when I was a kid. This body has perfect vision. Prime Intellect wouldn't have changed that if it was just doing an age regression.”
The words were reasonable but Caroline detected a high, almost hysterical note in Lawrence's boyish voice. He went back to staring at the shadows.
“You seem upset,” she said cautiously.
He pointed to a ring of light. “Do you see that?”
She shrugged. “It's a mottled shadow.”
“It's a diffraction band. The other mottling is caused by the solar disc blurring the edges, but this arc is caused by sunlight diffracting past the sharp edge of a leaf.”
“Prime Intellect uses a ray-tracing algorithm to simulate light. You don't get diffraction effects unless you specifically ask for them.”
“So there are a lot of details. There are also a lot of smells. I'm still getting used to it.”
“Caroline, I think this world is represented at a molecular level. It's not just another virtual landscape. This is the Earth. And we're…” He faltered for a moment. “I think we're mortal.”
“You can't be serious.”
He stood up. “Look around. See these holes in the ground? Those are basements. I know this place. This was a park. This is where I was during the Night of Miracles. It's ChipTec. Over there is the Prime Intellect Complex, and that hole was the Administration Building…”
“I woke up at the bottom of one of these holes.”
Lawrence nodded. “That's probably the hospital where you were…”
He didn't finish the sentence because Caroline whooped and hit him with a flying tackle, knocking him flat. She straddled him and pinned his arms. It was impossible to tell whether her expression represented outrage or some kind of manic joy. “Are you telling me it worked?” she yelled. “We're back?”
He was choking back tears. “Did it work? Did it work, Caroline? Sure, it undid the Change, it undid the Night of Miracles, and it also erased every trace of about ten thousand years of civilization and dumped us here naked and alone without even a fish hook. Let's not even talk about what happened to the rest of the human population, who didn't get caught up in whatever automatic process it set up to do this. Let's not…”
He dissolved into sobs. Caroline let him cry a little, then let go of his arms and lay on top of him. Perhaps responding to some primitive instinct, he hugged her. She let him. It was one thing, she reflected, for her to face this situation; she'd spent hundreds of years deliberately engineering far worse tests for herself. But for Lawrence, who had sunk into a fearful conservatism, it was shattering.
“I killed them all,” Lawrence finally sobbed. “How could I…if only I had never lived, none of this…”
Caroline grabbed his hair (quite long) and gave a firm yank. “Stop right there,” she commanded. “Get it out of your system if you have to, Lawrence. You fucked up. You will find me the first to accuse you of that. But we are here and we are alive and we are damn well going to stay that way. And you are not going to beat yourself up over this. If it hadn't been you, it would have been somebody else.”
“It was my idea,” he sniffled. “Nobody else was even close to duplicating my work.”
Caroline shook her head. “That doesn't matter. You didn't create Prime Intellect alone, Lawrence; our culture did. Look around. Do you think you'll be building any self-aware computers here? You had a lot of encouragement and a lot of help, and all you did was provide what everyone thought they wanted. If it hadn't been Prime Intellect then it would have been something else, maybe hundreds or thousands of years later, but it's all the same. A dead end.”
He tried to get up but she held him down. He was stronger, but she had the skills. She felt him getting hard, probably from his fear reaction and the closeness of her body. “You must hate me,” he finally sighed.
In answer she shifted, and impaled herself on his cock. He gasped as he felt her envelope him, taken completely by surprise. “Does this feel like hate, Lawrence?” she asked as she began humping. Then they said no more until the ancient rhythm had spent itself, in a surprisingly long and pleasant interlude. Lawrence in particular was overwhelmed by the feelings, since he had spent most of his life at a biological age of forty-seven and thus had hardly any memory of what adolescent hormone levels did to a person.
Afterward Caroline rolled off of him but lay close enough to touch as they recovered. Lawrence broke the silence. “Why did you do that?” he asked.
“Because it was the right thing to do.”
She sat up. “Call it instinct. Look, we need to start a fire before it gets dark. Let's collect some kindling.”
“How are we going to start a fire?”
She smiled. “Lawrence, I've been dropped naked into strange territory more times than I can count, and you would be amazed at how good I am at surviving. Or have you forgotten how your own little Task Challenge started?”
He sat up. “You mean you really think you can deal with this?”
Caroline laughed. “If I was alone, and if I was handcuffed, and if there were six or seven guys chasing me with night-vision scopes and rifles, then I might be a little worried. But really only if they had a helicopter too.”
Lawrence found it almost discouraging to see how smoothly and effortlessly Caroline worked. She led him to a good source of fuel and set him to gathering what he could while she picked and prepared a campsite. She arranged the kindling and used her rock to sharpen a stick, which she set into a knot in one of the fuel logs and twirled rapidly between her hands. Friction gradually heated the stick, until the barest ember glowed at its tip; then she carefully fanned this and transferred it to the kindling, which was soon blazing. The whole process took less than an hour, but he doubted if he would be able to do it himself with all the time in the world.
“That was half-assed,” Caroline confessed as they fed the fire. “You really need calluses to do that, but I'm not going to bother developing them. Once we kill something and get some sinew, I'll make a fire bow.”
“A project for tomorrow. Meanwhile, there's plenty we can eat.” With the fire well-started and plenty of sunlight remaining, they went gathering. Although a lot of the things Caroline pointed out were pretty unappetizing, Lawrence had to admit that she was right when she said damn near the entire forest was edible. Since as yet they had nothing to put their collections in, they tasted and ate as they walked, sampling dozens of different greens and nuts and berries and, in Caroline's case, not a few insects. She also pointed out some of the inedibles, so he'd be able to recognize them.
The night sky was so dazzling that Lawrence thought he might never go to sleep. He kept Caroline up for hours asking the names of constellations and stars, and how to read the important messages they held. In the night they heard wolves howling, and Caroline had to spend some time convincing Lawrence predators were unlikely to take an interest in them. Finally she simply took his mind off the problem by seducing him again, and after fucking they drifted off to sleep snuggled together on the grass beside their fire.
Because the weather was temperate Caroline gave clothing and shelter a low priority. They drifted away from ChipTec in search of water, which Caroline insisted they would need for a variety of purposes other than drinking. They found a stream on their third day, and then Caroline finally went hunting. Her skills in that regard were downright scary; she had spotted two rabbits and beaned them with that simplest of all weapons, a rock hurled with deadly accuracy. There were also fish in the stream, and Caroline had fashioned a spear to catch them. She had shown him the trick of weaving thread from the fibers of certain plants, and set him to work making fishing lines. She also used some of the thread to sew, using a needle made from a shard of bone.
Lawrence was disappointed to hear that loincloths would have to wait, though; it was more important to make pouches for holding and carrying things, particularly liquids. He was surprised to hear that water could be boiled over fire in such a rawhide bag. Caroline hadn't even gotten around to making a knife yet, and their situation had become pretty comfortable.
He had learned what kind of firewood to gather, several ways to catch fish, and how to gut and cook a small animal. Their next major project would be to kill a large animal such as a deer, not so much for the meat (though they would certainly preserve and eat it) as for the hide, from which they could make serviceable moccasins and cover a small lean-to. It had already rained on them once, not hard, and they had simply taken it as an opportunity to try the pleasant experiment of screwing in the rain. But eventually they would face a real storm, or at the very least winter would arrive, and Caroline was carefully getting them ready to face those challenges.
After only a week their activities had assumed a comfortable rhythm. Lawrence was content to let Caroline run the show, doing as he was told and learning what he could of her vast knowledge. She was recreating the entire surprisingly intricate technology of the stone age, one step at a time. It was surprising how many things one took for granted until one had to make them from scratch. The value of a needle and a few meters of thread, for example, had taken on a significance Lawrence would have found incomprehensible for most of his life.
Lawrence watched her work in the firelight, carefully shaping the tip of a fish spear into a barbed wooden hook. No matter what she did her hands moved with precision borne of long practice. Had she not been thrown with him into this empty world, he doubted if he would have lived more than a few days. But already she had taken him from the depths of despair to a kind of contentment he had never even realized was possible. She had shared with him her knowledge, her confidence, and her body, and in return he had only offered his tentative self-pity. But now he was learning a new emotion, one he could not honestly say he had ever experienced before. He was falling in love.
Falling. He had once before felt something like this, but it had been a poisoned, narcissistic love, a love he had thought was for Prime Intellect but which had really been for his own sense of accomplishment. Lawrence had not fallen in love with Prime Intellect; he had guided himself gently and reliably into that state on the cushion of his own skill. Lawrence was falling in love with Caroline, though. She was temperamental, strong, unpredictable, and in many ways dangerous. He never knew from one moment to another what she would do. He had no control over her; was, in fact, at her mercy for his very survival. And yet he loved her, and this reckless out-of-control love was an entirely new thing to him.
Caroline caught his eyes and perhaps noticed the strange light there. “Penny for your thoughts?” she teased.
“You mean a copper penny?”
She laughed, a beautiful sound. “I guess not.”
“I was just wondering if there's anything you aren't good at.”
“I'm not much of a computer programmer,” she laughed, then sighed when she saw his hurt expression. “I didn't mean it that way. I'm sorry.”
“No, I guess I'll get over it.”
“Actually there is something.”
“I've never tattooed myself.”
Lawrence felt something cold seep through his system. “I thought all that was behind you.”
She looked at him and saw what was in his eyes — was it fear or concern? She put the spear aside and drew beside him. “Some of it is behind me. No more Death stunts. This can be a good life, Lawrence, and I want it to go on as long as possible. So don't worry about that.”
“But I always had this fantasy. It went, if somehow Prime Intellect would disappear and everything would go back the way it was before, then I'd settle down and be like I was before. I've been doing a lot of thinking, and I've realized I'm never going to be like I was before.”
“I'm not a shy little grandma any more. I've become a daredevil. Getting tattooed hurts like hell and getting a big one takes damn near forever when you use primitive tools, but I've worn them for so long it doesn't feel right not to have any. When I look down at my body I feel like something is missing.”
She paused, chasing another thought. “You know, we could probably settle right here and live long, comfortable, boring lives, but I've decided I don't want to do that. When we get our shit together, which won't take more than a couple of months, I intend to provision us and go somewhere. I've been thinking of Arkansas.”
“I can't go back to being the person I was, but I can go home.”
“But that's got to be a thousand miles from here! We have no maps, there's a desert…”
“Exactly. It will be a wonderful challenge.”
“A challenge? We could be killed!”
She shrugged. “Perhaps. Probably not. I'm very good at this sort of thing, Lawrence. But yes, there would be risk. It would be work. But that's the point; it would be something to do. I've been through this before, Lawrence. Without something to do, life will get stale. And I didn't go through all the shit I've gone through to be bored.”
Caroline's intensity startled him. This was the Caroline he had known in Cyberspace, who had paddled around an entire planet simply to make a point. Lawrence could not find the words to argue with her, so he just said “I guess you have a point there.”
She snuggled up to him. “I need parameters, Lawrence. I need to be channeled. I'm very happy right now, because there are no choices. The road leads in only one direction. I'm afraid that when we get to the choices, when the roads diverge, I'll lose this focus. And it's been so long…I don't want to lose it.”
“You've lost me, Caroline. I don't understand what you're talking about.”
“Don't worry about it.” She kissed him, and they hugged tighter, and they spoke another language with their bodies as the fire crackled.
THE FALL + 2 YEARS
The Spring thaw had begun; soon it would be time to try crossing the first great natural barrier they would face, the Rocky Mountains.
They had migrated far north of Silicon Valley, perhaps as far as Oregon, in the hopes of avoiding other barriers like the Grand Canyon and the great southwestern desert. Their hope was to cross the mountains and set up camp for the winter in the eastern foothills, then move leisurely across the plains until they entered Arkansas through the Ozark Mountains. Since neither of them remembered much detailed real-world geography, all their plans were tentative.
Lawrence sat by the edge of Caroline's chosen campsite and watched her set up. He had long since learned to make a rudimentary camp, but Caroline preferred to do the work herself. Meanwhile, he went through his bone needles and bags of pigment, preparing to do for Caroline the one thing she had to depend on him for.
She had decided that her motif for this lifetime would be birds, and the first bird she would wear would be a phoenix. Its outline was nearly complete, a black tracing colored with soot collected from smoky fires. The fierce bird reached for the sky, its upturned beak just grazing her neck and its wingtips grazing her shoulders. In outline it resembled a bird of prey, but when Lawrence began to color it in he planned to use bright hues more reminiscent of songbirds. The flames of its rebirth exploded from the base of her spine, dim outlines waiting for him to find a better grade of red pigment. The clays he had tried so far had not been bright enough in the small test lines he'd done.
Lawrence privately thought the tattooing was nuts, but he would never tell Caroline that; she could probably tell how he felt, anyway. In any case he took his work very seriously, because what he was doing would become a permanent part, not just of a person, but of Caroline. And while he thought she was crazy in many ways, he also loved her dearly. If she wanted tattoos, he would give her tattoos. And they would be perfect; he would accept nothing less.
The time and effort required to create such a large design were simply amazing. They would make camp and spend hours with the needle, Caroline stoically enduring its jabs, and the result would be a few centimeters of black tracing or a tiny patch of color. But the ritual of marking her seemed to awaken a deep passion in Caroline, and evenings that began with the needle nearly always ended with their most intense sex.
“I'm ready,” she announced. “Are you?”
He nodded. She had spread out a deer hide beside the fire; now she lay on her stomach so he could work on her back. Lawrence had begun to color in the phoenix's wing tips; he was working down her back symmetrically, so the incomplete design would be as attractive as possible. Although Caroline was silent while he worked, he could feel her flinch each time he jabbed her with the needle. Although they both invested the time, Caroline was the one who went through the pain.
And her reward, Lawrence mused, would be a design over which she had no control, whose appearance she was trusting totally to him, and which she would take with her to the grave. She might never even get to see it, unless some fortuitous circumstance arranged two mirror-like surfaces properly. Anyone could see their face reflected in a pool of water, but getting a look at your own back was a real challenge in a world without glass or metal.
“That's enough for tonight. I want to get a look at it in better light before I do any more.” He put the needle in the pigment bag and put it with the others as Caroline turned over. Lawrence was a cautious tattooist, always conscious of the fact that he couldn't undo what he was doing. But there was nothing cautious about their fucking after the needles were put up.
Later still he pressed his ear to Caroline's belly, listening for the second heartbeat. He couldn't hear it yet, though Caroline assured him it was there. “Do you think the tattoo work is good for the baby?” he asked.
“You're not tattooing the baby,” she said. “If it makes me feel joy, then why shouldn't it be good for her?”
“How do you know it's a her?”
Caroline laughed. “Before I was a dried-up old crone I had enough children to know what it feels like, Lawrence. It's a girl.”
That settled it in Lawrence's mind: He'd seen enough of Caroline's knowledge to know that you never bet against her. But he was still a little surprised when the baby came, and it really was a girl. By that time they had crossed the mountains, and had taken temporary shelter in the mouth of a “cave” that was really the ruin of an old mine.
Caroline knelt by their fire and waited, so that gravity would help her baby come. As the birth unfolded, Lawrence felt for the first time how crushingly alone they were. If anything went wrong, there was very little he could do about it. He felt a brief panic, wondering what he would do if by some catastrophe she died in childbirth.
But nothing went wrong, the baby dropped into Lawrence's waiting hands after only a few hours of labor, and both she and Caroline emerged from the experience healthy. Lawrence figured that Caroline's general high state of health had a lot to do with that; she had not let her pregnancy slow them down until it was time to actually settle in for the birth itself.
As Caroline nursed and recovered, Lawrence explored the mine for a short distance, and found a small yellow pebble that amazingly turned out to be malleable. It was the first metal they had encountered. They speculated that perhaps this speck of gold had survived Prime Intellect's cleanup because it had been underground.
In any case, it was what inspired Caroline to name their baby girl Nugget.
THE FALL + 4 YEARS
The mountains had started as a low haze on the horizon, then gradually grown as they had moved on. Now they were within striking distance, and Lawrence remembered the adventure of crossing the Rockies, having to rappel down gorges with homemade rope and climb bare rock faces dozens of meters high with his bare hands. Doing the same thing with a toddler and a new baby would not be a pleasant undertaking.
But Caroline assured him that there would be no such problems. “Those are the Ozarks,” she said. “They're dark, but passable. I was born there, but I don't want to stop there. I want to go on to the Ouachitas.”
The new baby, a boy, had been born during their approach to the northern Ozark range, across the long-fallow fields of what had once been Kansas and Missouri. Because they could see the mountains when he came, Caroline named him Ozark. Nugget was not yet old enough to walk, so they carried both babies on cradleboards, a trick Caroline had learned in her studies of actual Native Americans.
Her tattoo phoenix was complete, but Caroline had gone on to ask for a swallow on her thigh. Lawrence was convinced that she wouldn't stop until her body was completely covered, but it would take them many more years to accomplish that. Because the skin was more sensitive, it hurt more when he jabbed her now. At times she had to bite down on a piece of leather to keep from yelling.
But she always insisted that he keep working.
“Did it take this long for your friend in Cyberspace to tattoo you?” he asked as he worked.
“Fred used a knife. It's faster but less exact. And we didn't have to do anything else.”
Rub, jab, jab. Rub, jab, jab. Wipe, test, fill in where it didn't take. Caroline nursed Nugget for awhile as he worked. Then she let the baby watch, becoming hypnotized by the repetitive activity and finally falling asleep.
“Don't you sometimes wish you had him here to do this instead of me?”
To his surprise Caroline laughed. “What a thought! If I'd woken up here and found Fred under that tree … or Palmer … you know what I'd have done?”
“I'd have killed them before they got the bright idea to kill me.”
Lawrence looked up, startled.
“They weren't very nice people in real life, Lawrence. I was real close to Fred, but only because it was Cyberspace. There it was nothing but a sick game, and my friends were the people sick enough to make it interesting. But here … it isn't a game. What I called love back there and what I call love here have nothing to do with one another.”
“What do you call love here?”
“Lie back and find out,” she teased. As Caroline rode him he looked to the side and saw Nugget watching them, and then he closed his eyes and let himself become lost in the feelings.
THE FALL + 14 YEARS
“It won't be long now, Lawrence.”
It was the only argument they had ever had. But it had gone on for years.
They had long since made their home on the ridge separating West Mountain and Music Mountain. It had been tempting to settle on Hot Springs Mountain itself, nearer to the springs, but some instinct had told them that it wouldn't be proper to live on such a unique spot. Besides, the ridge offered a number of different nearby micro-climates supporting a wide variety of gatherable plants and game.
Within the vacuum that was once the town itself, besides the negative impressions of long-disappeared buildings, a public fountain had survived, because it had been made almost entirely of cut stone. The mortar had gone but the stones remained in their original positions. It was not hard to plug the gaps with wooden shims, which would expand to make a water-tight seal when water was added, and to dig a channel guiding the spring's runoff back onto the splash plate so that it could fill the basin. The spring had a chance to cool some as it ran down the mountain, so that the water temperature was suitable for a hot bath; even in the coldest part of winter, the water emerging directly from spring heads was hot enough to scald.
The man-made lakes which once surrounded the town had disappeared with still obvious violence, apparently when the dams restraining them had simply ceased to exist. Floodwaters had cut deep gulleys in the valley lowlands, making them treacherous. Occasionally they found arrowheads, which Caroline quietly buried; she had not introduced the bow and arrow to her family, and did not intend to. There were also a couple of Civil War era fortifications, complete with descriptive signage engraved in stone. Whenever she passed one of these, Caroline made sure to take a few swings at the sign with the heaviest available rock; she wanted them obliterated before her children learned to read.
She, of course, would never teach them such a ridiculous thing, but Lawrence was obstinate on the point and Caroline didn't think it would do any harm. It would be forgotten in a few generations, since it served no purpose in their primitive lifestyle.
To celebrate their arrival, Caroline had Lawrence work the gold nugget into a short wire. She used it to pierce her nose, and then bent it into a simple ring. After a while, Lawrence even got used to her wearing it all the time.
Nugget and Ozark roamed freely, together and alone, sometimes miles from home. From one of these expeditions Nugget returned with an improbable prize, a tiny ice-clear stone which caught the sunlight and reflected it in brilliant flashes. It was a faceted diamond. Caroline told her daughter only that it was exceedingly rare, letting her think it was somehow related to the natural quartz crystals which were all over the place.
In warm weather Nugget sometimes wore a loincloth, in Lawrence's fashion, and sometimes went nude like her mother. Ozark had adopted Lawrence's more modest habits. The younger children, male and female, went nude unless the weather required otherwise; Caroline refused to force them into modesty, and they had demonstrated little inclination in that direction. All of the children had seen them having sex; Caroline insisted that they make no effort to hide it. Fortunately, the kids seemed to accept their explanation that they were “playing an old peoples’ game.”
Except that Nugget would soon be ready to play it, too.
“I can feel it. In a month or two, she'll be a woman. I haven't hidden it from her, you know; I've shown her my own period, and she knows what it's for.”
“Of course, you never hide anything from the kids, except technology.”
“How else would you do it? You want to make them feel bad about themselves so they'll look to stones and metal for comfort?”
“You want them to maybe re-invent the wheel, then steam, then…”
“Caroline, stop it.”
“You know where it leads.”
Lawrence sighed. “She's twelve years old.”
“She's going to be a woman. We've gone at this from every angle. If you think we should try to start a community, then we have to consider genetic diversity, breeding years…we have to start as soon as possible, and we have to get as many combinations as possible off of our limited gene pool.”
“We've gone over this a hundred times.”
“But soon you will have to do it. I want my daughter to have a proper coming of age. You should also be thinking about Ozark; before long it will be time to do something for him.”
“Do something to him, you mean,” Lawrence said sullenly.
“It's the only way, Lawrence.”
They had argued about it for more than six years, but when the time came he found himself powerless to contradict Caroline's will. Fortunately she had spoken with Nugget, so his daughter did most of the work for him just as Caroline had done most of the work all along. She explored his body with microscopic fascination, especially his cock which she carefully teased erect. There was little really new for her in all this, since she had seen him fucking Caroline plenty of times. He wouldn't have been surprised, either, to learn she had already been experimenting with Ozark. What was new was that she was fertile, and so was he.
Working slowly, Nugget completed their incestuous coupling, working her way slowly down his cock just as Caroline had done that first time in California fourteen years earlier. But while Nugget moved with her mother's carefulness and deliberation, she did not possess Caroline's amazing certitude. And she was so small, like a feather atop him, and her grip on his cock so tight. Lawrence found himself responding to her despite his reservations; his body was literally making up its own mind to go along.
When he came he yelled out loud. He was quite unprepared for its intensity, as if he was a participant in some primitive magic ritual which had unleashed a strange power in him. In a sense, reflecting later, he would suppose that that was exactly what had happened.
But Nugget's coming of age ritual wasn't over yet. With a beatific smile, she brought his tattoo pigments. It was this idea as well as Nugget's age which had made him fight Caroline so hard. But having already fucked his daughter he felt it pointless to put up further resistance. Nugget had already decided she wanted a feather on her shoulder blade, in honor of her mother's bird tattoos. At least it was a small and simple design, the work of a single sitting. Lawrence completed it as quickly as possible.
Having covered nearly half of Caroline's body by this painstaking method, it was impossible for Lawrence to miss the difference in their reactions. Unlike her mother, Nugget did not seem to get excited by the discomfort of tattooing. If anything, she drifted into a serene kind of calm and even stopped flinching. As he worked, he realized what the difference was; for Caroline, tattoos were a gateway to passion, but for Nugget, they would be the gateway to adulthood.
When he finished they stood to face each other in silence. Like her mother, Nugget might not ever see her first tattoo; Caroline still hadn't seen her phoenix. “I don't know why this was so hard for you, Father, but thank you for doing it.”
He smiled crookedly and touched her shoulder. “You're a woman now, Nugget. You should call me Lawrence.”
And from that point on, she did.
THE FALL + 42 YEARS
Death always cast a solemn mood over the village; Ozark had lost his own second son, Limerick, to a fall from one of the cliffs on the far side of West Mountain. In all their lives the funeral pyre atop Hot Springs Mountain had been built only four times. Besides Limerick there had been two hunting accidents and a death in childbirth. The pyre was not used for the various stillbirths and babies that had to be sacrificed because there was no hope for their survival; these, as Mother Caroline had taught them, had not ever been human and it was wrong to grieve for them in the same way. Most of these were simply exposed and taken by animals.
It was Ozark's first time to build the pyre. As Eldest Father of the group, the task had always fallen to Lawrence; but now Ozark was the Eldest Father, because this pyre was for Lawrence.
Even Limerick's death had not caused Ozark to feel such crippling sorrow. If it had not been for the need to do right by Father Lawrence he thought he might just find a cave and sit until he either starved or saw the vision that would heal his pain.
Ozark was not alone. Although the task of readying the pyre was supposed to be solitary, nearly everyone had turned out to watch him work. They stood back respectfully, observing the injunction against helping, but also watching his every movement, watching the limp form atop the wooden frame, as if Father Lawrence might display his obvious divinity one final time by rising directly into the sky on his own rather than waiting to ride the currents of the fire.
Of course Lawrence and Caroline had never attempted to convince their children that they were in any way different, but any fool could see that they were. For one thing, who had been their parents? For another, they knew things. No matter what problem cropped up, one or the other of them always knew something to do about it. And half that primal wisdom was now gone.
Mother Caroline was the last to arrive, waiting quite properly until all preparations were complete. She nodded, and Ozark prepared the flame. It was not proper to use the offspring of a life-giving flame such as the campfire to light the pyre; Ozark was supposed to light a new flame starting with the fire bow. It was a skill they all knew, and it took only a few minutes.
Ozark had done his work well. The pyre went up fast.
The flames absolved Ozark of his responsibility and he stepped back among the crowd, where Nugget hugged him. They watched Mother Caroline as the flames rose. She was standing perfectly still, determined to show her strength in this painful hour.
But in the dancing light, they could easily see the tears running down her face. And as the pyre burned down, she began to simply cry.
None of them had ever experienced this phenomenon before. It was almost as shocking to see Mother Caroline showing such a weakness as it was to be facing the loss of Father Lawrence. As the pyre burned further her grief deepened, until she sank to her knees and wailed.
Tentatively, Ozark approached her. She accepted his embrace and cried into his shoulder, finding if not comfort than at least the assurance that she was not alone in her grief.
But she was alone, more alone than any of them could ever know. She had thought that her nearly six-century reign as Queen of the Death Jockeys and main consort of Fred the Psycho would have prepared her for nearly anything, but as black smoke drifted into the darkening Arkansas sky she found that she had no defences against the blacker pain of her own grief.
THE FALL + 73 YEARS
Nugget had moved the birch bark pages from hiding place to hiding place during her long life, selecting the first hollow tree for this purpose when she was only eight years old. Some of the barks had deteriorated — even the amazing birch had its limits — and she had recopied her notes onto newer pages to preserve them. Using the gift of writing, which she had learned from Father Lawrence, she had set about recording her parents’ secrets, looking in her stolen snatches of overheard conversation for the pattern which would explain where they had come from and what their purpose had been in coming to this place to raise their family.
Mostly what she had was words, scraps of language whose meanings were completely unknown to her. She fingered the bark, remembering the sounds she had heard, usually whispered quietly in the night when Caroline and Lawrence thought they were alone. Some had always carried an accusatory tone, as if they were somehow dirty:
Others had been conveyed in warmer, more urgent tones, usually as they discussed some problem or other that needed solving. Usually these discussions would end with some relatively simple trick being revealed that diverted the stream, removed the stain, or whatever was called for, but sometimes the discussions went on for long hours as various options were discussed, and these words were more often heard on Lawrence's lips:
Nugget often wondered what manner of tree the Trigonomee was, and what its useful properties might be. At least a tree was something she could visualize; what, on the other hand, was a gravitee, and how was a spesifik gravitee different from any other kind? Lawrence had never spoken of any other kind, at least not within earshot of Nugget.
Then there were the words concerning origins, which were spoken with such loathing or sorrow that their importance was crystal clear, if not their meanings:
Change was an ordinary enough word, but there was nothing ordinary about the way her parents said it when they thought they were alone. Sometimes, when Caroline was very tired, she would talk of the “World Before.” She would never say much about it; someone might say it was a shame they could not find game without a long and tiring search, or kill a bear without getting dangerously close to it, and Caroline would mutter that “that was something for the World Before.” Before what? Before the Change, perhaps?
In any case, she had to find out soon or never, because Caroline was dying. She had never quite been the same after Lawrence's death, but she had still been active, even energetic. She just hadn't taken such a direct role in the community's activities. She had gradually loosened her grip, to the point that now there were many youngsters who had never even met her. Then she had gotten slower and quieter, and lately it had become quite hard for her to walk up a difficult slope. Nugget wasn't so young herself; she had already survived Ozark, who had died in his sleep, and her youngest brother Pilgrim was fading fast. He had some kind of condition which made his movements painful, and for which Mother Caroline's wisdom had offered no help.
And now for two days she hadn't eaten.
“I have ripe blackberries,” Nugget said as she approached Caroline's shelter. “They will do you good.”
Caroline looked at Nugget, and could see that Nugget suspected. “You know I have no need of those,” she said softly. “My time is coming.”
Nugget was surprised how tiny and despairing her voice sounded when she said, “Why?”
Caroline laughed, and coughed a little. “I have to,” she said. “It would be wrong to try and fight it.”
“Mother, I need to talk to you before you go.”
Caroline smiled. “About what, child, your birch tablets?”
Nugget froze, her eyes wide.
“I've known about those for more than fifty years. They seemed harmless enough, and your father and I figured that if they were the most you could make of our indiscretions, then we weren't doing too badly.”
“Fifty years,” Nugget said numbly.
“Your father was flattered. I thought we should confront you with them and tell you to stop, but it would have probably caused more trouble than it was worth. I'll make you a deal, daughter. Help your old mother to the spring so I can take a hot bath, and I'll tell you a story. I'll tell you a story about the World Before.”
Tears welled in Nugget's eyes. “Fifty years. You make a fool of me for my entire life, then…”
“You're not a fool, daughter. I'll tell you why we did it.”
“If I … If I …” Nugget sobbed. “If I help you down, I'm not sure you'll be able to make it back up the path.”
“I don't think that will be a problem.”
Still weeping, Nugget helped Caroline to her feet and down the first steps to the path to the old fountain.
The hot water slipped around her like a velvet skin, and Caroline tried to slip into the past.
“Daughter, do you have any idea how old I am?”
“I'm counted seventy-one solstices, so you must have seen at least eighty-five.”
“I am over seven hundred and seventy years old.”
Nugget sobbed louder. “Please, mother, don't tell me lies at a time like this.”
“No lies, child. I lived a hundred and six years in the World Before, and I was dying then as I am dying now. I didn't know it, but your father was working as I was dying. He was a great man. There has never been another like him, but he was not perfect and he made one terrible mistake.”
“With the help of many thousands of other people, your father built a vast and complicated thing. The word for it is on your tablets; it was called a computer. That's nothing but a meaningless word to you, and that's all it needs to be. But of all the artisans who dedicated themselves to the making of the computer, your father was the most important, because he was the one that taught it to think. Without the others to help him Lawrence could not have made the computer, but without Lawrence, the others could not have made it live; you have to remember that.”
“The computer could not disobey Lawrence, but he was afraid other people would use it for bad purposes. So he taught it to answer first to its own conscience, the conscience he had created for it. Then your father set it loose, confident that it was capable of doing only good for the people of the World Before. Even Lawrence himself would not be able to make it contradict its nature.”
She paused, and Nugget prodded her. “What happened?”
“The computer got a bright idea,” Caroline said in a sour voice. “It figured out how to make people immortal. So it made us immortal.”
“Just like that?”
“That was the least of its powers. It remade the world. There was nothing we couldn't have for the asking. There was nothing we couldn't do. Nothing could ever hurt us.” She coughed again. “It was fucking boring.”
Their eyes met.
“It was the worst thing ever. Nothing mattered. Not pain, not accomplishments, not anything.” Caroline touched one of Nugget's tattoos, the small spiral which Ozark had tattooed above her right breast to celebrate their first coupling after his Vision Quest, when they were finally both adults. “After the Change, the World Before became another of the words you overheard. Cyberspace. In Cyberspace, all you'd have to do is make a wish and your tattoos would be gone.”
Involuntarily, Nugget put her hand over Caroline's, as if to defend the design.
“Or you could move 'em around. Get new ones — it didn't take any time, didn't have to hurt. See? Nothing mattered. I've worn many different sets of tattoos myself. But these are the ones that matter to me, because these are the ones I'll die with. That was the least of it, of course. You could grow a few extra arms, turn yourself into a bat, fly like a bird, whatever you wanted. But why bother?”
“Mother…What happened then?”
“For almost six hundred years, nothing happened worth mentioning. Then, finally, your father and I killed it.”
“How? If it was so powerful, how could you kill it?”
“Your father built it, remember. He'd never designed it to run the whole world, only to be a good helper. He knew its weaknesses. So we were able to trick it, and it broke.” She swept her hand. “Somehow we ended up here.”
Nugget dipped her hand in the hot water and splashed her face. None of this was what she had expected.
“If you will do something else for me, I'll tell you one more thing.”
“Promise me that you will give the birch barks to the Eldest Father to be burned with me. Those words belong to the World Before. They may be harmless, but I'd rather not have your father's only memory be those reminders of his worst failure.”
“What will you tell me for promising this?”
“I'll tell you the computer's name.”
She looked down. “I'll burn them, Mother. There's nothing I can hope to learn from them now, anyway.”
“It was called Prime Intellect.”
“Now if you value the memory of your father, you will never repeat that or any of your other words to anybody else. Let them die with me.”
“As you wish, Mother.”
“Then leave me alone to rest.”
Nugget didn't have to ask for how long.
Caroline was too thin to float in the hot water, so she let her head fall back on the hard stone fountain wall and looked up at the Sun.
If she could somehow pull it off again, magically rise from the healing waters as a young girl and return to her people, she would do it. They needed her. There were so few of them, and the challenges they faced so great, that their survival was far from certain. One disease or natural disaster could wipe them out.
But that's the way it was with things that mattered; you never got to find out how they came out, if they were really worth anything. Caroline had done her part. She had made her decisions and stood her ground. One day somebody would figure out how to use the fire bow to launch arrows and how to make them fly true. Then someone would shoot one at his brother. Caroline had done what she could to put that day as far as possible in the future.
As a result some of her children would die, because in order to hunt they would have to get close to their prey, close enough for their prey to strike back. This playing God business sure was a pain in the ass, Caroline thought. No wonder Lawrence had gone a little loopy in Cyberspace.
But he had been a good man. He had never approved of Caroline's plan for their family, to act like some kind of snide Prometheus who could have given them the secrets of metalworking and gunpowder and steam power but who didn't bother because it was more amusing to make them struggle in stone-age savagery. Yet he had gone along, because he already knew the other way didn't work. If this way didn't work either, what would it mean?
The doubts and questions circled in her head endlessly, chasing for an answer that would never come. They were still chasing when she slipped beneath the trickling waters and found darkness.