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If Nixie's case was typical, there was indeed something immediately apparent that set her kind apart from other Jevlenese—and from Terrans and Ganymeans, too, for that matter: When neurally coupled into VISAR, her mode of interaction with the system was entirely different from anything that VISAR had handled before.

For one thing, she was able to retain full awareness of her surroundings at the same time as she experienced the sensory environment communicated by the machine—she could refocus her attention between one and the other, in a manner similar to the normal ability of anybody to watch a movie and follow what was happening in the room. With most users, the system-generated datastreams took over the sensory apparatus, suppressing external sensations completely. And for another, she showed an extraordinary capability that nobody could quite explain, of interacting in a way that went beyond the regular trafficking of sensory information and motor signals, seeming to access the inner processes of the machine itself. This had the effect of reversing the normal state of affairs of machine-organism interaction and adding a new dimension to VISAR's perceptual universe that was evidently unprecedented.

* * *

Hunt had never before heard a computer express genuine awe.

"This is astounding!" VISAR exuberated. "It's out there! Physical space! Volume, void, continuity, extent. The implicit geometry of the entire domain of a three-variable real-number field, compressed, embodied, and contained in an instantaneous, all-embracing experience. . . . I mean, I can feel it, sense it extending away . . . form without shape, structure without substance, enveloping yet describing . . ."

"My God, it's getting lyrical," Hunt murmured. They were using a regular voice channel to communicate with VISAR, since their conscious faculties needed to be free to follow what was going on.

"Extraordinary," Danchekker agreed.

Nixie, relaxing back in one of the neurocouplers in the UNSA labs and looking as if she were enjoying herself, moved her head to gaze up at a corner of the room where the planes of two walls and the ceiling converged. VISAR responded in wonder. " The superset of point, line, curve, and plane reduced to a perceptual gestalt. The inherent beauty of mathematics extracted and crystallized. Logical rigor made tangible. Infinity of infinitesimals. Continuum of manifolds. . . ."

Nixie raised an arm and moved it across her field of vision.

"Change and derivative, differential equations coming alive. Choreography of vectors. Animated momentum. Forces in concert, locked in balances of symmetry—"

"VISAR, knock it off," Hung told it. "Don't forget that you're still juggling with the whole Thurien civilization. For Christ's sake don't have a seizure now."

"So this is the reality that you live in naturally!' VISAR said.

"What is? That who live in?"

"You—humans. Ganymeans. You beings who describe yourselves as existing outside. This is the universe which the data encode."

Hunt frowned. "Well, yes . . . I guess so. But I always thought you knew as much about it as we did. More, in fact."

"You don't understand," VISAR said. "Until this moment, I've only dealt with symbolic representations of what you call observable reality. Processing the model and comprehending what it stands for are two different things. This is the first time I've ever really understood what 'outside' means."

Danchekker looked bemused. "Are you saying that this young lady sees things differently, VISAR?" he asked.

"No," VISAR replied. "I see things differently! Hunt had the uncanny feeling that he could almost sense the machine quivering with excitement. "In fact, this is the first time I've ever seen anything! I am Nixie! I'm inside her head, looking out!"

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