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To Kort's surprise, Taya was gone from the suite when he returned into the house. Homing on the ident acknowledgement from her notepad, he found her with Marcala by the fishpond in the court at the rear. It was one of her favorite spots, leafy and secluded, enclosed by parts of the house on three sides and looking out from the other over the garden, which was screened by a small orchard at the far end. Marcala must have helped her out. As Kort arrived, she was settling into the seat by the rose trellises, while Marcala made her comfortable among the cushions and draped a blanket around her knees.

"What's this?" Kort gestured at them. "I turn my back for a moment, and she's got you galloping about all over the house. I'm not sure this daughter of ours is a good influence."

"It was my fault. I insisted," Taya said. "I just felt I needed the air, and I'm up to it today. So there--you can fuss and nag all you want."

"You see, you're wrong," Marcala told him. "I'm good for her. It takes one old woman to know what's best for another. Isn't that so, Taya?" It was true that Taya had more color in her face today. Medic said that the final deterioration would come quickly. It would probably be for the best that way, Kort thought.

"All of the company is good," Taya said. "To think, they would all come so far to see me. I especially like having the children around . . ." she paused to consider, "at least, as long as it's in small doses. . . . Look at the size of those fish, Kort. What are we feeding them on?"

How could she be concerned about the size of the fish? Kort asked himself. She acted as if she didn't know, as if a month from now any of this could matter or make a difference. Was it some kind of protective mechanism that biological minds possessed to soften the final phase? He had no experience of this. Medic and Psychologist said it happened this way sometimes, but there was no fixed pattern. The exact course in any one instance was as variable and unpredictable as just about anything involving humans.

"Yes, well, you've got Kort to keep an eye on you for a while now," Marcala said, straightening up. "I'm going to disappear back to my room for half an hour to bathe and change. Then we'll have the rest of the afternoon together. Is there anything else you need?"

"No, I'll be fine. They do take very good care of me when you're not here, you know, whether you believe it or not. You might stick your head in the library on your way back, though-- to make sure that Irbane has everything he wants."

"I've already mentioned it to Nerla. She'll check on him," Kort said.

"Oh, fine, then. . . . There, look at that one. Do you think it could be due to something in the water?"

"I don't know, but that's where I'm going to be. I'll see you in half an hour." Marcala turned and headed back for the house.

"Make sure it's from a different supply," Taya called after her. "You'll come out the size of a whale." But she couldn't raise sufficient volume for it to carry, and Marcala didn't hear. The effort caused Taya's voice to trail off as a wheeze, which turned into coughing. Kort lowered himself down onto the wall below the trellises and steadied her with a hand. He put a call through for Nerla, and she answered a moment later.

Can you bring some water and a glass, he sent. We're outside by the pond.

"Sure, right away."

What could compel somebody to try and make a joke at such a time? Humor was something that the machines had learned from the children growing up in Merkon. Like the others, Kort could appreciate it and join in when it was appropriate. He couldn't see how it was appropriate right now.

Taya lifted her head and put a hand to her chest. "Dear me. You'd think I'd know better. . . . Do you think I could have a gl--"

"It's on its way."

"Oh, yes. Of course. . . ." Kort knew everything. Taya lay back against the cushions and waited for her breath to come easily again. Nerla appeared from within, set a tray with a jug and glass down on the patio table by the seat, and departed. Kort filled the glass and handed it to Taya. She sipped gratefully.

"Are you all right?" he asked. She nodded. Kort scanned her skin temperature, coloring, and moisture levels, eye quality, and heart rate from the pulsation at the side of her neck, and sent the data to Medic. Medic advised keeping her still for fifteen minutes or so and then taking her back inside.

"You do fuss, you know," Taya said finally. "You always have. But it's my fault, I suppose. I'd probably have driven any human to distraction long ago. Have I really given you such a hard time over the years?"

"There have been times," Kort agreed. "I wouldn't let it trouble you."

"That's Kort. Brutally honest as ever, eh?"

"Not really. I just let you think I am. That way I can lie and be tactful when I need to, and you'll never know."

"Hm, so which is it right now? . . ." Taya stopped, frowned, and sighed. "Oh, don't tell me. I really don't care. I'm not getting into one of your convoluted chains of logic."

Kort took the glass and asked with a gesture if he should refill it. Taya shook her head. "Anyway, it isn't fussing any more," Kort said. He held up his arm to display the bracelet. "I have to take special care of you now. It appears I'm under some kind of oath of honor or something--not that I wouldn't have anyway."

"You shouldn't joke about it," Taya said. "Marcala says it has a very important significance."

"Really? What?"

"I think she's showing early signs of getting glimpses of things. She told me just before you came back that the bracelet will be important in helping the machines discover what they really are."

Kort pondered but could made nothing out of it. "What was that supposed to mean?" he asked finally.

"She's not sure. It's just something she says she knows."

"What do you think?"

"I have no idea either."

At last, Kort set the glass back on the tray. This conversation wasn't about to go anywhere, he decided. "Marcala works well with Kadethir," he said instead. "She has been a good student there. Learned much."

"And I'm pleased at the way she has kept room in her life for her family. Arrelil is going to be a charmer." Taya stared distantly into the water for a moment. "She reminds me a lot of Cariette. It was so sad, losing all those early ones like that. . . . And after they'd come so far. You know, it's strange, Kort. I couldn't tell you most of what I did last week, but I can remember clearly some of the things that happened back in Merkon, all those years ago." She looked at him for a second, wrinkled her face, and made a parody of her own voice as a child. "But machine minds never forget anything."

One thing that Taya evidently hadn't recalled so clearly was the glass stones that went into the necklace she had given Arrelil. They had been made not by her, but by the younger children growing up in Merkon later. The shapes she remembered making had been of plastic, and Kort wasn't sure what had become of them. He let it pass, rubbing his chin and smiling instead at her pretense of chiding him.

"Tell me some of the things you remember," he said.

"Oh dear, now you're going to make me think. . . ."

"Not if you don't want to."

"Well, there isn't a lot else left that I can do, is there? Let's see . . . That time when the children discovered how much fun it was to be immersed in water, and you got the machines to make that pool for them. In all my years I'd never found out about that. It was Doleen and Sel who started it all, wasn't it?"

"That's right. And Bron too."

"Oh, yes. Poor Bron. . . . You made a fuss about that too at the time, Kort."

"It was Scientist more than me. He thought you might all dissolve back into some kind of messy soup."

"Yes, that's right. . . . Ugh." Brightness touched Taya's tired eyes as she thought back. "And I told you that if that was so, then why hadn't we already dissolved from the inside? I must have been sharper then. It wouldn't occur to me these days."

"And you ask if you used to give us a hard time," Kort said, shaking his head.

"Then there was Nyelise--when it first became apparent that she had flashes of vision too, the kind I'd started to experience. She saw Azure, you know, Kort. Long before Scientist could resolve the disk from Merkon. And she knew Fayl and Moyissa wouldn't be there. She told me about it. She didn't understand it, and it scared her." Fayl and Moyissa had been two of the four who hadn't survived to arrive at the planet. Nyelise was the first of the others to show Insight.

Physicist had a theory, so far untestable, that perhaps brought this undeniable reality that Scientist had so far been unable to explain within the realm of physical phenomena nonetheless. It derived from his conclusions concerning the ultimate nature of the very fabric from which the universe was woven.

Not only was matter an illusion constructed by consciousness, but so also, it turned out, was the framework of space and time in which it appeared to move and perform its elaborate transformational dances with energy. The actuality existed as a vast, unimaginable, superposition, virtually infinite in extent, of everything that had been, would be, or ever could be. Out of this fusion of all possibilities, awareness had somehow emerged in a way like the minds that had coalesced within Merkon, tracing paths through this unchanging labyrinth and assembling along them the sequences of experience that were perceived as time.

Evolution measured the proportion of willful, directed choice, as opposed to randomness, that went into deciding the paths. Elementary quanta were ruled by pure chance, which at the level of everyday objects averaged out as mechanical laws. Primitive organisms and simpler animals fared little better. Higher life brought to bear a progressively greater element of purpose. What else was the "intelligence" displayed by minds but an ability to build knowledge from experience and apply it to altering behavior in a manner appropriate to one's goals?

The key word was "knowledge." The entire instrumentation systems associated processing complexes of Mecminds, like the nervous systems and brains of biolife, specialized in acquiring it. And what Taya and those like her had demonstrated, Physicist believed--and which the culture of the Ancients had taken to a greater level--was an ability to obtain knowledge from parts of the totality--the superposition of all possibilities--that hitherto had not been accessible. In short, information could be acquired in ways that were not covered by the laws that Scientist had once maintained described the workings of the universe. Nevertheless, this was not something supernatural in the way Mystic insisted. The "universe" was just a lot bigger now than Scientist had thought, and "natural" meant more than it used to.

Why, then, hadn't Mecminds been able to do the same thing too? This was a question they had been asking ever since it became incontrovertible that Taya sometimes knew things in ways Scientist couldn't explain. Now that Physicist had come up with a possible underlying mechanism that was at least comprehensible if not yet comprehended, demands for an answer had become all the more pressing. Thinker thought he might have found one, although it didn't seem to spell very good news for the Mecminds.

It was only when experiments were performed at the finest levels of detectability and sensitivity, where the separate wave and particle properties of quanta become manifest, that the first hints became apparent of all possible worlds existing in an immense totality, and every part of it being equally real. Seeming paradoxes were confirmed that could only be resolved by interpreting them in terms of parts of the familiar reality interacting with those of others never before revealed. What it meant was that the constituent realities--the number of them was too stupefyingly large to bear comparison with anything visualizable--normally unaware of each other, interfered at the quantum level; in other words, at this level there was communication between them. And this, Thinker thought, was what biological brains had found a way of tapping into.

The sensitive, incredibly delicate molecules contained in their nervous systems were what made it possible, he surmised. Receptors in the eyes of some animals responded to single photons. (Human retinas were as sensitive too, although smoothing and correcting mechanisms in the visual system made higher stimuli necessary in order to register.) Suppose, then, Thinker had suggested, something of comparable sensitivity appearing in the brain, which responded to signals originating from elsewhere in the totality and arriving via the same channels of information leakage that permitted interference. Couldn't that, with refinement and connection to neural amplifying machinery, lead to faculties beyond anything else in the animal kingdom? Yet it would surely be no more awesome than those that already turned the energies of impacting photons into the world of sounds, sensations, and images created in the mind.

Skeptic, of course, said he'd believe it when somebody showed him a mechanism that could turn quantum effects into coherent messages, and Scientist had been spending lots of time with Physicist to see what they could come up with. But the sobering implication was that if Thinker was right, then machine minds might never be able to duplicate the ability. They weren't based on neurons containing the same delicate molecules, but on rugged circuits formed out of silicon and optical crystal. This was where Mystic disagreed with all of them, saying that Physicist was trying to take over his idea of Supermind and call it "Super Universe" instead. But Physicist was still trying, as he and Scientist always did, to impose limits that reflected the limits that existed in their own thinking, not anything to do with the reality they were talking about. Supermind could do anything He wanted to, and when He decided he wanted machines to develop Insight too, they would. What made biominds different wasn't anything to do with molecules, but that they believed. Mecminds should learn to believe in things too, instead of spending their time thinking up reasons why they couldn't happen.

There was also another side to Physicist's theory, that Biologist had pointed out. That same delicacy of the molecules which formed the basis of biological life was what caused it, in the end, to break down. Kort reflected on the irony as he looked at Taya, now peaceful and with her eyes closed, sunk back into the cushions. The price of seeing into other worlds and other times, it seemed, was that it was granted just for a short while. Insight and mortality came together.

It was time he thought about getting her back inside. Perhaps he would fetch a wrap first for her shoulders before disturbing her, he decided. He leaned across for the tray, and when he moved it the clink of the glass against the jug made Taya open her eyes. "Oh. You looked as if you were sleeping," Kort said. "I was going to get you a wrap."

"Does that mean you're going to start fussing at me to go back in?"

"It would probably be better. We wouldn't want you to get chilled."

"Oh, just a few more minutes, Kort. It's so peaceful, and I can hear the birds. Do you remember how astonished we were by the birds?"

Kort sat back and nodded a faint grin. "Engineer had put all that work into figuring out how to build a flying machine for us to land in."

"And there they all were, just . . . doing it." Taya stared for a while toward the orchard at the far end of the garden, where the birds were busiest. "What's Engineer doing these days?" she asked finally in a faraway voice.

"Oh . . . all kinds of things. A lot of construction. Materials and manufacturing--mainly centered around the fusion plants."

"And the space projects?"

Kort shrugged. "Nothing particularly new. You know about the lunar workings and the orbiting bases. The planetary missions are finding some interesting things." There were Azureans off-planet now, engaged in various tasks, although the longer-range operations still involved machines only at this stage. Kort didn't feel comfortable about elaborating on them--things that Taya would never see. But she seemed to want to talk about it.

"I can remember how the stars looked out there," she said. "I gave up trying to count them. I used to watch them for hours, trying to guess what they were and waiting for Vaxis to get bigger. With Rassie. What ever happened to Rassie?"

"I think you gave her to Nyelise."

"Oh, that's right. . . . And there was just you and me and Merkon, and neither of us knew where we'd come from or how we'd gotten there."

"True." Kort couldn't see much else to say.

"Is it all that much different now?" Taya asked, looking back at him. "So there are more of us today, and we call some of them Azureans, and we're on Azure instead of Merkon. But are the questions any different?"

"Now you're sounding like Mystic and Scientist and Skeptic, Asker-Of-Endless-Questions," Kort said.

"Are they still arguing about that?"

"What else do they do?"

"And have they got any answers? . . ." Taya waved a hand. "No, don't tell me. I probably wouldn't understand them."

"I'm not sure that I do," Kort told her.

The movement had made Taya breathless again, and she lay back for a moment, looking up at the expanse of sky beyond the leaves, framed on three sides by the house. "Where is Merkon at the moment?" she asked. It was easily seen as a moving point of light when it passed overhead, even in daytime.

"Over Sharvia. It's in eclipse right now. It won't be visible here again until late tomorrow."

Taya stared upward for a few seconds longer, then lowered her head to look into the clear water of the pond. But this time she didn't seem to be seeing the fish. Finally, she fixed her gaze back on Kort. When she spoke, he got the feeling that this was not something that had just occurred to her, but that she had been leading up to it.

"I want to go back there," she announced.

"Back where?"

"Back home. To Merkon."

Content © The Estate of James P. Hogan, 1998-2014. All rights reserved.

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