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by Greg Bear
Category: Science Fiction
Description: In the second half of the twenty-first century, nanotechnology has transformed every aspect of society. Humans can now change their abilities, their appearance, their very bodies on microscopic level. Advanced psychotherapy seems to have wiped away violence and illness. The world is sane and in balance. However, that balance teeters with the grisly murder of two prostitutes and a series of suicides. Soon, public defender Mary Cho's investigation finds a dark danger lurking in the recesses of the "dataflow." Entertainment, virtual pornography, neo-Luddite separatists, an unknown artificial intelligence--everything seems to be intertwined in a vast conspiracy. As technology fails so too does the society perched high atop it. Perfection is a high pedestal from which to fall. SLANT, Greg Bear's sequel to the popular QUEEN OF ANGELS, "shows that Bear is one of our very best, most innovative, speculative writers." --New York Daily News
eBook Publisher: E-Reads/E-Reads, 1997
eBookwise Release Date: August 2012
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [716 KB]
Reading time: 422-591 min.
"Tense and fast-paced, beautifully written with complex, engaging characters, and a story line that unfolds like an origami puzzle." --San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner
Omphalos dominates Moscow, Green Idaho. It glows pale silver and gold like a fancy watch waiting to be stolen. A tetrahedron four hundred feet high, with two vertical faces and a triangular base, it is the biggest thing in town, more ostentatious than the nearby Mormon temple, though not so painfully white and spiky. The leading edge points at the heart of Moscow like a woodsman's wedge. The vertical faces descend, blind and windowless, to sink seventy feet below ground. The single sloping face is gently corrugated like a dazzling ivory washboard for the leaden sky.
Omphalos is a broad-shouldered edifice, Herculean architecture for the ages, given the kind of shockproof suspension and massive loving armor once reserved for hardened defense installations and missile silos.
Jack Giffey waits patiently in line for the public tour. It is cold in Moscow today. Thirty people stand with him in the snaking line, all clearly marked by their gray denims as young tourists biking through Green Idaho; all youthfully unafraid of the reputation of the state's Ruggers, the legendary gun-wielding rugged individualists, who see themselves not as lawless brigands but as steely-eyed human islands in a flooded, corrupting stream.
But the state's reputation is exaggerated. Not more than three percent of the population could accurately be labeled Rugger. And fewer than ten young tourists each year vanish from the old logging trails in the regrowth timberlands, their forlornly beeping Personal Access Devices and little knit caps nailed to posts on the edges of the abandoned national forests.
In Giffey's opinion. Green Idaho has all the individuality of a zit on a corpse. The zit may consider itself special, but it's just a different kind of dead meat.
Giffey is known to his few friends as Giff. At fifty-one he looks mild and past his aggressive years, with a grizzled and ragged beard and kind gray eyes that attract the interest of children and discouraged women past their picky twenties. He doesn't like Green Idaho any more than he likes the rest of the nation, or the world, for that matter.
Old-fashioned radiant outdoor heaters mounted on poles glow raw-beef red overhead, trying to keep the people in line warm. Giffey has been here before, thirteen times; he's sure Omphalos knows his face and has tagged him as worth paying marginal attention to. That is okay. He does not mind.
Giffey is among the very few who know that Omphalos absorbs knowledge from the outside at the extraordinary rate of fifty million dollars a year. Since Omphalos is publicly assumed to be a fancy kind of tomb for the rich and privileged, its dead and near-dead must be very curious. But few ask serious questions about it. The builders of Omphalos paid a lot for freedom from oversight, the kind of freedom that can only be bought in Green Idaho.
The rulers of Green Idaho, true to their breed, hate the Federal and the outer society but revere money and its most sacred benison: freedom from responsibility.
Giffey has been to the Forest Lawn Pyramid in Southcoast California; Omphalos is, architecturally, by far the classier act. But he would never think of robbing the truly dead in Forest Lawn, with their few scattered jewels adorning rotting flesh.
The frozen near dead are another matter. Entombed with all their palpable assets--precious metals, collectibles, long-term sigs to offshore paper-deed securities--the corpsicles racked in their special refrigerated cells in Omphalos, Giffey believes, might be worth several hundred million dollars apiece.
Those rich enough to afford such accommodations have their choice of packaged options: cheapest is capitation, biovitrifying and cryo-preserving the head alone. Next is head and trunk; and finally, whole-body. There are even more expensive and still-experimental possibilities ... For the wealthiest of all, the plutocratic highest of the high.
The sloping face of the wedge gleams like a field of wind-rippled snow. The line begins to move in anticipation; there are sounds from within. Omphalos opens its tall steel and flexfuller front doors. Its soothing public voice spreads out over the crowd, only mildly funereal.
"Welcome to the hope of all our futures," the voice says as the line pushes eagerly into the tall, severe granite and steel lobby. Great shining pillars rise around the student tourists like steel redwoods, daunting and extra human. The floor is living holostone, morphing through scenes of future splendor beneath their feet: flying cities high above sunset mountains, villas on Mars and the Moon, idyllic valleys farmed by obedient arbeiters while beautiful, magisterial men and women of all races and creeds watch from the balconies of their spotless white mansions. "This completely automated facility is the repository for a maximum of ten thousand two hundred and nineteen biologically conserved patrons, all expecting long, and happy lives upon their reconstruction and resurrection.
"Within Omphalos, there are no human employees, no attendants or engineers or guards..."
Giffey has never met a machine he could not beat, at chess, at war games, at predicting equities weather. Giffey believes he may be one of the smartest or at least most functionally successful human beings on this planet. He succeeds at whatever he wants to do. Of course--he grins to himself--there are many things he has never wanted to do.
He looks up at the distant lobby ceiling, studded with crystal prisms that project rainbows all around. Above them, he imagines stacks of cold cells filled with bodies and heads. Some of them are not frozen, he understands from secret sources, but are still alive and thinking, suspended in nano baths in what is euphemistically called warm sleep. They are old and sick and the law does not allow them to undergo any more major medical intervention. They have had their chance at life; anything more and they are classified as greedy Chronovores, seekers after immortality, which is illegal everywhere but in the quasi-independent republic of Green Idaho, and impractical here.
The terminally ill can, however, forfeit all but their physical assets to the republic, and enter Omphalos as isolated wards of the syndicate.
Giffey presumes the still-living are the curious ones. They stay current as they sleep.
Giffey does not care what they're dreaming, half-alive or wholly dead, whether they're locked into endless rounds of full-sensory Yox, or preparing themselves for the future by becoming the most highly educated near-corpses in the dataflow world. They should be honorably gone from the picture, out of the game, They don't need their assets.
Omphalos's occupants are just a different set of pharaohs. And Jack Giffey is just another kind of tomb-robber who thinks he can avoid the traps and break the seals and unwrap the mummies.
"You are now within the atrium of the most secure building in the Western World. Designed to withstand catastrophic earthquakes, volcanic activity, even thermonuclear explosions or microcharge dispersals--"
Giffey is not listening. He has a pretty decent map of the place in his head, and a much more detailed map in his pad. He knows where the arbeiters must come and go within the building's two entrances. He even knows who has manufactured the arbeiters, and what they look like. He knows much else besides. He is ready to go and does not need this final tour. Giffey is here to legitimately pay his respects to a remarkable monument.
"Please step this way. We have mockups of hibernaria and exhibits usually reserved only for prospective patrons of these facilities. But today, for you exclusively, we allow access to a new and vital vision of the future--"
Giffey grimaces. He hates today's big lies--exclusively, only, I love you alone, trust, adore, but ultimately, pay. Post-consumer weltcrap. He's glad he has paid his money for the last time.
He smiles at the bank of sensors scanning the visitors for suspicious bulges and behaviors. The system passes them through to the display area. The casket room. Lie in silken comfort through all eternity.
The young tourists in their denims and warm, upscale Nandex stand agape before the ice-blue enamel and flexfuller hibernarium, a long flattened tube stretched across a mocked-up cubicle like a dry-docked submarine cemented at both ends. Giffey knows what the tourists, the young students, are thinking. They are all wondering if they will ever be able to afford this kind of immortality, a chance at the Big Downstream.
Giffey doesn't care. Even riches and the high life do not matter to him because unlike his partners, he has severe doubts they will ever be able to fence such goods, nearly all of which will be marked with ineradicable tracers. Besides, gold means much less than it used to. Dataflow is all.
He's in it to tweak a few noses, and to play against the machine he suspects lies within. Hardly a machine at all...
"Our exclusive method of bio-vitrifying cryo-conservancy was pioneered by four doctors in Siberia and perfected fifteen years ago. The fluids of a human body normally crystallize upon freezing, but by vitrifying these fluids, making them smoothly glassy, we eliminate crystals completely--"
Giffey believes he will face an unauthorized artificial intelligence--Omphalos's own advanced petaflop INDA, perhaps even a thinker. He's always wanted to go up against a thinker.
He suspects he'll lose. But maybe not.
And what a game!