Read Permutation City Online

Authors: Greg Egan

Permutation City

Permutation City

 

Greg Egan

1994

 

First Printing October 1995

 

ISBN 0-06-105481-X

 

a.b.e-book v3.0

 

 

 

 

 

STREET SCENE

 

 

There were cyclists and pedestrians on the street -- all recorded. They were solid rather than ghostly, but it was an eerie kind of solidity; unstoppable, unswayable, they were like infinitely strong, infinitely disinterested robots.

 

When Paul reached the corner, the visual illusion of the city continued off into the distance; but when he tried to step forward, the concrete pavement under his feet started sliding backward, like a treadmill.

 

He was on the edge of his universe.

 

 

 

 

 

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

 

 

Parts of this novel are adapted from a story called "Dust," which was first published in
Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine,
July 1992.

 

Thanks to Deborah Beale, Charon Wood, Peter Robinson, David Pringle, Lee Montgomerie, Gardner Dozois and Sheila Williams.

 

 

 

 

 

Into a mute crypt, I

Can't pity our time

Turn amity poetic

Ciao, tiny trumpet!

Manic piety tutor

Tame purity tonic

Up, meiotic tyrant!

I taint my top cure

To it, my true panic

Put at my nice riot

 

To trace impunity

I tempt an outcry, I

Pin my taut erotic

Art to epic mutiny

Can't you permit it

To cite my apt ruin?

My true icon: tap it

Copy time, turn it; a

Rite to cut my pain

Atomic putty?
Rien!

 

Found in the memory of a discarded notepad in
the Common Room of the Psychiatric Ward,
Blacktown Hospital, June 6, 2045.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PROLOGUE

 

(Rip, tie, cut toy man)

 

JUNE 2045

 

 

 

Paul Durham opened his eyes, blinking at the room's unexpected brightness, then lazily reached out to place one hand in a patch of sunlight at the edge of the bed. Dust motes drifted across the shaft of light which slanted down from a gap between the curtains, each speck appearing for all the world to be conjured into, and out of, existence -- evoking a childhood memory of the last time he'd found this illusion so compelling, so hypnotic:
He stood in the kitchen doorway, afternoon light slicing the room; dust, flour and steam swirling in the plane of bright air.
For one sleep-addled moment, still trying to wake, to collect himself, to order his life, it seemed to make as much sense to place these two fragments side by side -- watching sunlit dust motes, forty years apart -- as it did to follow the ordinary flow of time from one instant to the next. Then he woke a little more, and the confusion passed.

 

Paul felt utterly refreshed -- and utterly disinclined to give up his present state of comfort. He couldn't think why he'd slept so late, but he didn't much care. He spread his fingers on the sun-warmed sheet, and thought about drifting back to sleep.

 

He closed his eyes and let his mind grow blank -- and then caught himself, suddenly uneasy, without knowing why.
He'd done something foolish, something insane, something he was going to regret, badly . . .
but the details remained elusive, and he began to suspect that it was nothing more than the lingering mood of a dream. He tried to recall exactly what he'd dreamed, without much hope; unless he was catapulted awake by a nightmare, his dreams were usually evanescent. And yet --

 

He leaped out of bed and crouched down on the carpet, fists to his eyes, face against his knees, lips moving soundlessly. The shock of realization was a palpable thing: a red lesion behind his eyes, pulsing with blood . . . like the aftermath of a hammer blow to the thumb -- and tinged with the very same mixture of surprise, anger, humiliation and idiot bewilderment. Another childhood memory:
He held a nail to the wood, yes
--
but only to camouflage his true intentions. He'd seen his father injure himself this way
--
but he knew that he needed first-hand experience to understand the mystery of pain. And he was sure that it would be worth it, right up to the moment when he swung the hammer down
--

 

He rocked back and forth, on the verge of laughter, trying to keep his mind blank, waiting for the panic to subside. And eventually, it did -- to be replaced by one simple, perfectly coherent thought:
I
don't want to be here.

 

What he'd done to himself was insane -- and it had to be undone, as swiftly and painlessly as possible.
How could he have ever imagined reaching any other conclusion?

 

Then he began to remember the details of his preparations. He'd anticipated feeling this way. He'd planned for it. However bad he felt, it was all part of the expected progression of responses. Panic. Regret. Analysis. Acceptance.

 

Two out of four; so far, so good.

 

Paul uncovered his eyes, and looked around the room. Away from a few dazzling patches of direct sunshine, everything glowed softly in the diffuse light: the matte white brick walls, the imitation (imitation) mahogany furniture; even the posters -- Bosch, Dali, Ernst, and Giger -- looked harmless, domesticated. Wherever he turned his gaze (if nowhere else), the simulation was utterly convincing; the spotlight of his attention made it so. Hypothetical light rays were being traced backward from individual rod and cone cells on his simulated retinas, and projected out into the virtual environment to determine exactly what needed to be computed: a lot of detail near the center of his vision, much less toward the periphery. Objects out of sight didn't 'vanish' entirely, if they influenced the ambient light, but Paul knew that the calculations would rarely be pursued beyond the crudest first-order approximations: Bosch's
Garden of Earthly Delights
reduced to an average reflectance value, a single gray rectangle -- because once his back was turned, any more detail would have been wasted. Everything in the room was as finely resolved, at any given moment, as it needed to be to fool him -- no more, no less.

 

He had been aware of the technique for decades. It was something else to experience it. He resisted the urge to wheel around suddenly, in a futile attempt to catch the process out -- but for a moment it was almost unbearable, just
knowing
what was happening at the edge of his vision. The fact that his view of the room remained flawless only made it worse, an irrefutable paranoid fixation:
No matter how fast you turn your head, you'll never even catch a glimpse of what's going on all around you . . .

 

He closed his eyes again for a few seconds. When he opened them, the feeling was already less oppressive. No doubt it would pass; it seemed too bizarre a state of mind to be sustained for long. Certainly, none of the other Copies had reported anything similar . . . but then, none of them had volunteered much useful data at all. They'd just ranted abuse, whined about their plight, and then terminated themselves -- all within fifteen (subjective) minutes of gaining consciousness.

 

And this one?
How was he different from Copy number four? Three years older.
More stubborn? More determined? More desperate for success?
He'd believed so. If he hadn't felt more committed than ever -- if he hadn't been convinced that he was, finally, prepared to see the whole thing through -- he would never have gone ahead with the scan.

 

But now that he was "no longer" the flesh-and-blood Paul Durham -- "no longer" the one who'd sit outside and watch the whole experiment from a safe distance -- all of that determination seemed to have evaporated.

 

Suddenly he wondered:
What makes me so sure that I'm not still flesh and blood?
He laughed weakly, hardly daring to take the possibility seriously. His most recent memories seemed to be of lying on a trolley in the Landau Clinic, while technicians prepared him for the scan -- on the face of it, a bad sign -- but he'd been overwrought, and he'd spent so long psyching himself up for "this," that perhaps he'd forgotten coming home, still hazy from the anesthetic, crashing into bed, dreaming . . .

 

He muttered the password, "Abulafia" -- and his last faint hope vanished, as a black-on-white square about a meter wide, covered in icons, appeared in midair in front of him.

 

He gave the interface window an angry thump; it resisted him as if it was solid, and firmly anchored.
As
if he was solid, too.
He didn't really need any more convincing, but he gripped the top edge and lifted himself off the floor. He instantly regretted this; the realistic cluster of effects of exertion -- down to the plausible twinge in his right elbow -- pinned him to this "body," anchored him to this "place," in exactly the way he knew he should be doing everything he could to avoid.

 

He lowered himself to the floor with a grunt.
He was the Copy.
Whatever his inherited memories told him, he was "no longer" human; he would never inhabit his real body "again." Never inhabit
the real world again
. . . unless his cheapskate original scraped up the money for a telepresence robot -- in which case he could spend his time blundering around in a daze, trying to make sense of the lightning-fast blur of human activity.
His model-of-a-brain ran seventeen times slower than the real thing.
Yeah, sure, if he hung around, the technology would catch up, eventually -- and seventeen times faster for him than for his original. And in the meantime? He'd rot in this prison, jumping through hoops, carrying out Durham's precious research -- while the man lived in his apartment, spent his money, slept with Elizabeth . . .

 

Paul leant against the cool surface of the interface, dizzy and confused.
Whose precious research?
He'd wanted this so badly -- and he'd done this to himself with his eyes wide open. Nobody had forced him, nobody had deceived him. He'd known exactly what the drawbacks would be -- but he'd hoped that he would have the strength of will (this time, at last) to transcend them: to devote himself, monk-like, to the purpose for which he'd been brought into being, content in the knowledge that his other self was as unconstrained as ever.

 

Looking back, that hope seemed ludicrous. Yes, he'd made the decision freely -- for the fifth time -- but it was mercilessly clear, now, that he'd never really faced up to the consequences. All the time he'd spent, supposedly "preparing himself" to be a Copy, his greatest source of resolve had been to focus on the outlook for the man who'd remain flesh and blood. He'd told himself that he was rehearsing "making do with vicarious freedom" -- and no doubt he had been genuinely struggling to do just that . . . but he'd also been taking secret comfort in the knowledge that
he
would "remain" on the outside -- that his future, then, still included a version with absolutely nothing to fear.

 

And as long as he'd clung to that happy truth, he'd never really swallowed the fate of the Copy at all.

 

People reacted badly to waking up as Copies. Paul knew the statistics. Ninety-eight percent of Copies made were of the very old, and the terminally ill. People for whom it was the last resort -- most of whom had spent millions beforehand, exhausting all the traditional medical options; some of whom had even died between the taking of the scan and the time the Copy itself was run. Despite this, fifteen percent decided on awakening -- usually in a matter of hours -- that they couldn't face living this way.

 

And of those who were young and healthy, those who were merely curious, those who knew they had a perfectly viable, living, breathing body outside?

 

The bale-out rate so far had been one hundred percent.

 

Paul stood in the middle of the room, swearing softly for several minutes, acutely aware of the passage of time. He didn't feel ready -- but the longer the other Copies had waited, the more traumatic they seemed to have found the decision. He stared at the floating interface; its dreamlike, hallucinatory quality helped, slightly. He rarely remembered his dreams, and he wouldn't remember this one -- but there was no tragedy in that.

 

He suddenly realized that he was still stark naked. Habit -- if no conceivable propriety -- nagged at him to put on some clothes, but he resisted the urge. One or two perfectly innocent, perfectly ordinary actions like that, and he'd find he was taking himself seriously, thinking of himself as real, making it even harder . . .

 

He paced the bedroom, grasped the cool metal of the doorknob a couple of times, but managed to keep himself from turning it. There was no point even starting to explore this world.

 

He couldn't resist peeking out the window, though. The view of north Sydney was flawless; every building, every cyclist, every tree, was utterly convincing -- but that was no great feat; it was a recording, not a simulation. Essentially photographic -- give or take some computerized touching up and filling in -- and totally predetermined. To cut costs even further, only a tiny part of it was "physically" accessible to him; he could see the harbor in the distance, but he knew that if he tried to go for a stroll down to the water's edge . . .

 

Enough. Just get it over with.

 

Paul turned back to the interface and touched a menu icon labelled
utilities;
it spawned another window in front of the first. The function he was seeking was buried several menus deep -- but he knew exactly where to look for it. He'd watched this, from the outside, too many times to have forgotten.

 

He finally reached the
emergencies
menu -- which included a cheerful icon of a cartoon figure suspended from a parachute.
Baling out
was what everyone called it -- but he didn't find that too cloyingly euphemistic; after all, he could hardly commit "suicide" when he wasn't legally human. The fact that a bale-out option was compulsory had nothing to do with anything so troublesome as the "rights" of the Copy; the requirement arose solely from the ratification of certain, purely technical, international software standards.

 

Paul prodded the icon; it came to life, and recited a warning spiel. He scarcely paid attention. Then it said, "Are you absolutely sure that you wish to shut down this Copy of Paul Durham?"

 

Nothing to it. Program A asks Program B to confirm its request for orderly termination. Packets of data are exchanged.

 

"Yes, I'm sure."

 

A metal box, painted red, appeared at his feet. He opened it, took out the parachute, strapped it on.

 

Then he closed his eyes and said, "Listen to me.
Just listen!
How many times do you need to be told? I'll skip the personal angst; you've heard it all before -- and ignored it all before. It doesn't matter how I feel. But . . . when are you going to stop wasting your time, your money, your energy --
when are you going to stop wasting your life
-- on something which you just don't have the strength to carry through?"

 

Paul hesitated, trying to put himself in the place of his original, hearing those words -- and almost wept with frustration. He still didn't know what he could say that would make a difference. He'd shrugged off the testimony of all the earlier Copies himself; he'd never been able to accept their claims to know his own mind better than he did. Just because they'd lost their nerve and chosen to bale out, who were they to proclaim that he'd
never
give rise to a Copy who'd choose otherwise? All he had to do was strengthen his resolve, and try again . . .

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