Part III

"The cartoon appeared on all of HQ's screens simultaneously," said Viggen. "Corporate board rooms, beauty salons, restaurants, private apartments, information kiosks, whatever. Forty-five minutes later the cartoon was followed by a dancing, rotating model of a genotype, and the image of a melting, Dalí-style clock counting down the hours from fourteen days to zero.

"The genotype was quickly identified as that of a virulently infectious biological agent with an incubation period of nineteen days. It was one of a set developed by the military in their biological warfare labs and then deemed too dangerous to use. Apparently it was smuggled out of their arsenal some years previously, and was released by Earth First into HQ's ventilation and water systems shortly after HQ began its massive attack on Earth. Transferred through air, food, and water, once one is infected nothing further can be done. There is no cure, and death is certain."

"So that was their response to the decimation, eh?" I said, knowing what was coming next, feeling as old and cynical as Morgan.

"Yes," said Viggen. "HQ's attack on Earth lasted five days, and by the time it had been completed their fate too had been sealed. Earth First waited just long enough to make sure everyone on HQ had been infected, then, in an idiotic display of arrogance, hatred, and contempt, announced what they had done. This was what Morgan meant by "Looney to the end," for by childishly taunting us, trying to increase our terror -- the biological agent causes an unusually gruesome and painful death -- they gave HQ time to retaliate. Which it did. With the rest of the biological warfare arsenal, along with saturation missile strikes designed to eradicate all life on Earth."

V-Kay raised his hand. "Fortunately for us, what Earth First didn't know is that PDU-1 filters out, on arrival, all harmful agents any individual might be carrying. So there was a cure for the disease after all."

Morgan shrugged. "A twenty-three percent chance. If one was psychologically prepared to accept transportation as a cure."

"True," V-Kay said, their feud once again on hold. "Many of those given priority on the eligibility list did choose suicide rather than trying to make their way on a primitive new world without the comforts and status they felt were their due." He gestured to Viggen to continue.

"First on the list," said Viggen, "were the programmers and other technicians who, through inclusions in PDU-1's VR matrix, could provide some of the comforts and weapons we would need to survive. Then came the World Council and HQ's military leaders, along with their families. Following them were as many of HQ's elite troops and guards as time allowed. The technicians and physicians who operated the scanning equipment were also included, on a rotating list selected by lottery and based on the number of people transported, with death from the biological agent forming the cutoff point."

"So you uploaded your problems, eh," I said, remembering the ancient legends and Lake Da'Kal. "What about RJR?"

"RJR's Board was denied places on the list," said V-Kay, looking slightly sick at the memory, "by direct order of the World Council. They blamed RJR and Urban Pastures for Earth First's attack, and when the Board objected, they were summarily executed on the spot. The Council then confiscated RJR's facilities at gun point, and, when further objections were raised, those complaining -- both management and technical staff -- were also shot. Elsewhere on HQ there were riots, and our labs ended up sealed and running under emergency power, with those waiting to be transported bivouacking in our auditorium, administrative offices, and storage facilities."

I nodded, feeling a sudden, almost overwhelming, urge to be away from here, away from these people, back in my desert home with Ly'is, under the stars and moons. "What about the memory problem? And what is this about inclusions in the matrix?"

"Amnesia had been designed into the initial scanning process by RJR's psychologists for two reasons," said Viggen. "First, they felt the subjects would have a better chance for survival without memories of their past. Second, they wanted to study how humans would react when awakening in a wilderness without memories or language, and what types of societies they would form to deal with the situation. But this option could be turned off, and experimental training modules had been devised to help deal with transportation. Both were, of course, made available to those being transported from HQ."

"You can observe what is happening on PDU-1?" I asked, repulsed. The oracles were bad enough, even with their limited abilities.

"Not directly," said V-Kay. "What we have is a simple utility that massages and formats raw data from the logs after stripping out personal UIDs, much like those merchants use to track trends on their marketing and sales sites. This was all we could get permission to use because of the privacy laws, which were extended to all New Frontiers worlds, including PDU-1, to enable us to legally accept certain grants. The privacy advocates were so insistent on this that it ended up being included in the Primary Imperatives." He paused, then gestured to Morgan. "As to inclusions, that is Morgan's province."

Morgan shrugged. "Members of the Unix community are often rebels, nonconformists living on the outer fringes of the dominant culture and tolerated only because of their knowledge and skills. Sun has always provided a refuge for these types, with the hackers working behind the scenes and the suits working in the front office, and both cultures have prospered as a result.

"It was no different with PDU-1, and while RJR and HQ were willing to tolerate us during the life of the project, we knew that once our services were no longer required we would be returned to Earth. Our options were either the crowded, polluted, crime-infested planet of our birth, or, if we got lucky and found a local job, the highly regimented, movement-restricted, security-obsessed life on HQ. But whatever it was, we would no longer be part of the most interesting scientific project since humanity's first steps into space.

"As the project advanced, we began to realize we had created a nice little world in PDU-1, and some of us, being virtual-reality addicts during our off-hours, began to wonder what life might be like inside our creation. Bear in mind that at the time most of us were quite young, and beyond Unix and VR we saw little future in the `real world.' As far as we were concerned, it was a dead end."

Morgan paused, glanced at the admin, then continued. "This thought began to obsess us more and more as the years passed, and then one night Security made an unexpected raid on our quarters, caught a couple of the junior programmers with drugs and illegal VR modules, and deported them to Earth to stand trial. At this point we quietly petitioned Sun to let us prepare a terminal inside PDU-1's matrix in case some day we would need to go inside and fine-tune the program. Don't forget that because of the privacy laws, our understanding of what was going on inside the matrix was limited to broad trends.

"Sun authorized us to make this modification provided it could be done safely, so a small team from my department set to work. The problem was more difficult than it would appear on the surface, because PDU-1's VR matrix has a very strict structure and nothing can be done inside it that violates its internal rule set. We finally found a way around this problem through the addition of inclusions to its structural definition, though using them is both tricky and dangerous because of the possible instabilities that can result."

"Interesting," I said, thinking back to some VR training modules that had been part of my education on Earth. "It sounds much like the way one would deal with an industrial-strength SGML DTD that didn't quite meet current requirements. Modify its basic structure so it would accept the added elements and attributes needed for the job at hand. Is this what you did here?"

Morgan nodded. "Basically, yes. PDU-1's matrix and SGML operate under similar principles, at least in regard to their structural rules. Inclusions are, technically, items that do not belong in the matrix because they did not evolve there, but are able to exist as long as they do not violate the laws of physics." He paused for a moment, as if wondering whether to continue, then shrugged. "To create an object inside the matrix, it must first be described in detail down to the molecular level, then sources for the raw materials inside the matrix must be located and specified that, when they are extracted, will not cause local instabilities. Once that has been done, the inclusion is ready to be formally declared, validated, and generated. To simplify this, we wrote a utility that automates the process, requiring only the include command, followed by the inclusion's file name and destination coordinates." He paused, unexpectedly giving me a boyish grin, the first real humor I had seen in him. "In this way we were able, as if by magic, to create a camouflaged electrosteel terminal room inside PDU-1's matrix, complete with three functioning terminals."

I grinned back, catching his reference, long a part of hacker lore, once again sharing a brief moment of rapport with him. As if by magic. And I once again cautioned myself that it was dangerous to get to liking any of these people, under the present circumstances. "I suppose you had the foresight to upload a fairly complete library?"

He nodded, starting to enjoy the discussion, his team's hack obviously a matter of pride with him. "Yes. The William Henry Gates III Memorial --"

V-Kay raised his hand. "I don't think you need to get so technical," he said to Morgan. "She isn't going to need any of this information to perform her job. Let's move on with the briefing." He signaled to Viggen to continue.

* * *

Viggen nodded to V-Kay, getting the message: no more technical details. Turned to me, said, "The first through, a team of programmers led by Morgan, were set upon by naturalborn marauders, and all were killed except for him and Peters, who, naked and without weapons, managed to escape into the woods."

"Into the woods?" I said, surprised. "Why weren't they released in the terminal room?"

"Good question," said Morgan. He grinned at V-Kay. "Dare I tell her about your unbelievable incompetence?"

"It was just a typo," said V-Kay. "Two numbers transposed. You know we were under an enormous amount of stress. Security had just killed Laguna and O'Reilly for moving too slowly and were screaming at us to hurry if we didn't want to be next."

"Sure," said Morgan. "Had Peters and I not escaped and made it to the terminal room, the rest of you would have ended up fifty kilometers from our base and no doubt been massacred too." He turned to me with a sour grin. "I do know, from bitter personal experience, how PDU-1 treats newcomers, especially males."

I nodded, once again sharing empathy with him, respecting the resourcefulness and courage it had taken for them to survive.

Morgan stared at V-Kay, said deliberately, "RJR's psychologists had demanded control over the release points and sequence of those being uploaded because of conditions attached to their grants, so provision had been made within the file headers for the necessary instructions. This served us well during the exodus, for we were able to give release priority to our initial team of twenty-four programmers, and specify that they be released inside the terminal room. However, because of the typo, four of the six who managed to survive transportation were hunted down and killed within hours of their arrival in the matrix. Fortunately, the biometric control on the entrance -- which had been a last-minute-emergency hack, sent in the blind -- worked, and we fell through the door just seconds ahead of our pursuers, which then closed behind us. The last they saw of us was Peters giving them the traditional salute, then the terminal room vanished from their minds leaving only an empty clearing with a large rock in its center. That, and the wind whispering in the trees."

I smiled, liking the image, said, "There is more to it, of course."

"Of course," Morgan said, as V-Kay started to raise his hand, then, looking at Morgan's eyes, changed his mind. "The camouflage for the terminal room was, in itself, an interesting project. We needed something that wouldn't look out of place in natural surroundings, so we designed its exterior to appear, on casual inspection, to be just a large, weathered rock, a miniature butte. But we also realized that, over time, its true nature would become apparent, especially to the locals, and then problems would develop. So we got together with one of RJR's psychologists, a brilliant psychometrician who was having an affair with one of our senior programmers, and with his help devised a neat little hack, strictly illegal: whenever anyone began to wonder about the butte, or why it, a geological oddity, was in that particular location, a very minor part of their thoughts would be redirected to write-only memory and they would simply forget what they had been thinking about. The effect is much like when you have somebody's name on the tip of your tongue but can't quite remember it."

"Interesting," I said, gazing at him, thinking through what he had said, the various options that would have been available. "write-only. I assume the reason you didn't use the more traditional /dev/null was because access to those thoughts and short-term memories are required in order to use the terminal room."

V-Kay started to raise his hand once again, obviously getting nervous.

Morgan turned to V-Kay, said, "If she agrees to undertake our mission, she will need to have enough knowledge to enable her to complete it successfully. If she refuses, nothing else will matter."

V-Kay nodded, reluctantly. And once again that look flashed across the admin's face which gave me cause for additional caution.

Morgan turned back to me, said, "You are correct. With /dev/null the thoughts would be lost forever. However, with write-only, they remain in accessible memory, which can be toggled to read-write when required."

I nodded. "I suppose you also have write-only protecting your stronghold?"

Morgan grinned. "Of course. It is one of our main protections."

I stared thoughtfully at him, beginning to see the shadow of an outline in the pattern of his hacks, their style. "Then you had to have toggled write-only for me prior to my arrival here. Otherwise, I would not be able to discuss this matter with you, or even sit in this room. How was this done?"

"You're getting ahead of the briefing," V-Kay said, finally losing patience. "Viggen, please continue."

* * *

I felt something wet and muddy touch my face, and in the cautious way of the warrior, not moving, I carefully opened my eyes to find it late afternoon and a bulky, unfamiliar type of animal standing over me. Behind it were three of its friends, and from my distant childhood on Earth came the memory of an illustrated article I had once seen on the net. My visitors appeared to be collared peccaries, also known as javelina, a long-extinct animal of the deserts and tropics far to the south. Weighing about twenty-three kilos and generally timid, it was said they could, if threatened, turn ferocious and become extremely dangerous. Looking at their powerful jaws and long tusks as they stood there quietly watching me, I could well believe it.

I carefully sat up, and when I did the lead javelina danced back a few paces, still looking at me, and I noticed a deep tear in its left ear, a wound from some long-forgotten fight. Its dark, expressive eyes had extraordinarily long lashes, and its dainty hooves, the way it moved them, seemed in marked contrast to its powerful, stocky body. Somehow, I found them very attractive.

Finding myself hungry, and in a strange way comforted by their presence, I reached into my quiver-pack and removed the last of the food the Sages had given me. Tearing off a piece of one of the moose sandwiches, I offered it to Split-Ear. He gently took it from my hand, and, because his friends were more timid than he and did not want to approach as closely, I tossed their share to them, and in companionship we finished off what food I had left. Then, having learned my lesson and feeling the first faint traces of da'ahta returning, I cut off a piece of sy'ahta root and began to chew it. Split-Ear put his nose to what I had left in my hand, gave a disgusted snort, and he and his friends returned to the ravine from which they had come.

I sat there, chewing the sy'ahta and watching the sun setting on the snow-capped mountains across the water, the many changes of hue as they moved through different shades of red and orange, wondering what evolutionary changes had taken place that allowed the javelina to survive so far north of their original range. And how they had managed to come to the Sages' island, so distant from the mainland.

A lot of mysteries. A lot left unexplained. A lot glossed over. Like parts of Viggen's briefing describing how, during the first twenty-seven years of their settlement, the refugees from HQ had split into three competing groups battling over land, resources, and power. Eventually the struggle had degenerated into random acts of violence, and some of the junior programmers -- tired of waiting for promotions that never came and the mundane work that kept the Sages' community going -- had turned rogue and secretly begun work on a miniature antimatter device for the president of the World Council, now the aging leader of their largest political party. Shortly thereafter, when Morgan, during a routine review of the logs, noticed a minor discrepancy in one of them and started to investigate, he was summarily arrested, along with Peters and the other surviving members of the original team from RJR, and imprisoned. It was only their standing in the community as the creators of PDU-1 that prevented the president from having them executed. Instead, as a pre-election gesture, they were exiled to the Arctic and the doorway leading to their stronghold permanently closed.

"So it was the power struggle within your community, combined with the demand for luxuries, that started you down the same old path once again?" I had said.

"Yes," said Viggen. "The demand for cars, trucks, heavy farm equipment, Tri-Ds capable of accessing the Entertainment and Games Section of the Gates Library, and numerous consumer items like they were used to on HQ was a raging issue fanned by the politicians, and the public couldn't understand the technical reasons why they couldn't have them."

"Which were?" I said.

Morgan shrugged. "Computational cycles and instabilities. PDU-1 requires a certain amount of processing power and memory to maintain the matrix, and every time a new inclusion is created it puts a heavy drain on the system. This drain, combined with the instabilities caused by widespread removal of natural resources to support the inclusion, markedly increases the possibility of the matrix crashing. The system was running at its current limits, and I felt the risk was just too high to take for trivial reasons."

"Political stability is not trivial," said the admin.

Morgan looked at her. "They had a fresh new world in which to build their lives. Clean air, good land, low population density. On top of that, we were producing for them medicines, tools, personal weapons, clothes, and PCs. Further, we were maintaining the access doorways connecting the programmers' homes in each of our towns to the terminal room so they wouldn't have to cross the river by boat every time they reported for work. In my opinion, this was more than enough. It was, after all, far more than what the rest of PDU-1's population had."

The admin's eyes passed coldly over me. "They weren't savages," she said to Morgan. "They were civilized people and felt entitled to these things. By not giving them what they wanted, you drove them into the camp of that maniac, and we ended up with another war."

"It wasn't a war," said Viggen. "It was an assassination attempt."

"Pardon me," I said, "but I seem to have missed something here. Where did all these people come from? You had only two weeks to transport the refugees from HQ, and of those there was only a twenty-three percent success rate."

Morgan shrugged. "The math is simple, though the job -- done at gunpoint in an environment of mass hysteria -- was ugly. We were able to cruft together forty-seven scanning stations out of spare parts in the labs, each of which enabled us to scan approximately one person per hour on an assembly-line basis, so we were able to transport almost 13,600 refugees. Out of these, 3,169 survived. During the twenty-seven years they lived in the matrix, they concentrated on having children, and their children had children, so by the time they exiled us to the Arctic, their population, spread over three towns and several outlying farms, was not only fairly large, but growing rapidly." He paused, then added, "I even configured the release controls on the population kluge to favor their community."

I nodded, sensing he had never felt himself a part of their community, any more than he had felt a part of the dominant culture on Earth or HQ. "Since Transported Ones, as far as I know, are unable to have children, I assume these events occurred prior to whatever made us sterile. Or is sterility just restricted to warriors?"

"Yes and no," said Morgan. "Yes, these events happened prior to what made us sterile. And no, sterility is not restricted just to warriors, it affects all those currently in the trn group. It was an unplanned consequence of the immortality program." He paused for a moment, gazing at me, then continued. "About a year after we arrived in the matrix, the president of the World Council summoned me to his office and ordered me to find a way to make the members of our community immortal. Since this concept, along with various ways to solve the problem, had been in the back of my mind for some time, I accepted the assignment and set to work. Unfortunately, because of the other demands on my time, I wasn't able to complete the code until --"

"You just didn't want to give it to them!" said the admin. "Just like you didn't want our children to be able to use the terminal room. That's why you made it so only those in the trn group could have write-only toggled to read-write! You didn't think they were worthy!"

"Of course he did," said V-Kay, soothingly. "The president made it clear that we would be released from exile and all charges dropped once the code had been turned over to him. We all wanted to get back to our homes and families, just like you. And we would have, had it not been for the assassination attempt." He turned to me, said, "She lost her husband and three children in the explosion."

"Was this the explosion that created Lake Da'Kal? If so, I would hardly consider a weapon that unselective an appropriate choice for an assassination."

"The president's programmers just made an error, like the typo I made," said V-Kay. "Instead of annihilating half of one town along with its leader because they declared independence, the device wiped out everything except the terminal room. Nobody had ever made an antimatter weapon before, and they got their first try wrong."

I saw something shift within Morgan's eyes when V-Kay said typo, and in that instant I knew. This politician, the president of the World Council, whose actions had led to the destruction of both Earth and HQ, had then gained control of the terminal room and could, stupidly, in his blind pursuit of power, destroy the matrix and all who lived within it. I looked at Morgan, and once again something passed between us, a rapport, and I very slightly nodded my understanding and approval, as a Donda warrior, of what he had done. Had I been in his place, I would have done the same. Without the slightest hesitation.

* * *

"The first we knew that something had happened," said Viggen, "was when the doorway, locked to us, suddenly opened and two of the rogue programmers, McCain and Singh, stumbled into our midst, hysterical and in shock. We couldn't get a coherent report out of them until after they had been strongly sedated for several days, and even then it had so many gaps and contradictions that we didn't really learn the details until long after, when we had a chance to review the logs.

"They were on the night shift, producing advanced weapons for the new militia, when the encrypted signal from the president arrived. PRIORITY RED, PLAN D. They double-checked the signal, then together unlocked the PLAN D script as required by regulations and waited for the second signal. After a slight delay, it arrived, and they ran the script. Almost immediately they realized something had gone badly wrong when they felt the shock wave through the electrosteel of the terminal room, and the terminals went blank, cutting them off from both the outside world and PDU-1. Trying the main entrance, they found it inoperative, and the doorways into the three towns gave warning alerts. There was no place else to go except here for help, so that is what they did."

"What happened to them next?" I said.

"It's interesting you asked," said Morgan dryly. He turned to the admin. "Would you care to explain how `civilization' dropped off most of us like the flimsy mask it is, revealing the bestial lynch mob lurking underneath?"

"You just used that as an excuse for your next interference in our free will," said the admin. "Just as you did with write-only. They were only trying to assign blame, which under the circumstances was entirely normal."

"We got immortality in return," said Jorgensen, breaking a long silence. "I feel that was a good trade. And, as you well know, MAD is not at all like write-only, for it doesn't operate on our personal files."

"Not to mention," said Peters, with a grin much like Morgan's, "that it has a long historical tradition behind it."

"MAD?" I asked, remembering both their odd fear when the admin had made her mistake, and my astonishment at V-Kay and Morgan openly feuding in my presence.

"It's just an agreement between us," said V-Kay. "It has nothing to do with anybody else." He signaled Viggen to continue.

* * *

"The next few years were very difficult for us," Viggen said. "Of the original 3,169 emigrants from HQ, there were now only 311 of us left, ranging in age from the junior programmers who were now in their early fifties to those of us from the program's first days who were now in our mid-nineties. Authority had broken down, and we had a fairly serious mini-rebellion on our hands, complete with the settling of old scores, which was only soothed by our agreeing to a set of demands. These included immortality for everyone just as soon as Morgan got the terminals working again, the restoration of our youth as soon as the code could be written, and serious help in creating the items needed to rebuild our society back to its previous level."

"And MAD was part of this agreement?" I said.

"Yes," said Viggen. "This idiotic political infighting, which had become such a part of our society over the years since we arrived in the matrix, had to stop, and immortality was the only inducement powerful enough to get the various cliques to let old grudges and rivalries go and start working together again. MAD was, of course, the force binding our agreement, but, as V-Kay noted, it only applies to us, nobody else."

"So what happened after they received immortality and discovered it made them sterile?"

"The problem didn't surface until after some time had passed," said Viggen. "Then, when it did, Wong -- who served as our medical technician -- applied her skills full-time to solving it. Many of the women had opted for delayed puberty/menopause on HQ, as was the fashion, and had continued the treatment here, so age wasn't a factor. When tests showed that, biologically, everything was in order, suspicion naturally focused on the immortality code, along with considerable anger directed toward Morgan and Peters, who, it was felt, hadn't debugged it properly."

"More assigning of blame, eh?" I said. "As if immortality wasn't gift enough."

Viggen shrugged. "RJR was a bureaucracy. These people were, mostly, rank and file. It was just their way."

"I suppose you tried cloning next?"

Viggen got a sour look. "We couldn't." He gestured to Morgan.

Morgan grinned at me. "It's another of those inconvenient human rights things. RJR included in the Primary Imperatives a ban on both cloning and the use of commands like cp, rm, and destroy on individuals living within the matrix so the project could qualify for certain humanitarian grants."

"Wise," I said, thinking about the president of the World Council. "But why didn't you just change the Imperatives if they interfered with what you wanted to do? After all, the need for grants is now long past."

"We can't. They're part of the security system. PDU-1 has a dual-kernel OS protected by Type Enforcement. Before anyone can make modifications to the Imperatives they have to reboot the system from its operational kernel to its administrative kernel, which shuts down not only the VR-module, but all contact with the outside world. Because of this, changes to the Imperatives have to be made from the console that resides in the maintenance bay's pressurized Operations Center." He grinned at me again. "Since we no longer exist in what many are pleased to call the Real World, we obviously can't use it."

"Then there are limits on what can be done in the matrix," I said.

"Sure," said Morgan. "Some. Space travel. Certain biochemical reactions. The matrix is not perfect, after all. But it is close enough, and life can be good here. Very good. When you think about it, of all that has transpired since our birth, our strange history, there is no question but out of our contemporaries on both Earth and HQ, we are the lucky ones."

* * *

There was an odd, uncomfortable silence after Morgan finished speaking, almost as if what he said had been directed not to me, but, with hidden meaning, to someone else, perhaps one of the other Sages. Then Viggen looked at V-Kay, a question in his eyes, and V-Kay, expression grim, looked at me, then Morgan. Morgan shrugged. "She has to know," he said. "The stakes are too high, and we need her voluntary cooperation."

Jorgensen and Peters both nodded their agreement with Morgan, and once again I saw that look pass across the admin's face. V-Kay, seeing it too, nodded slightly to her, making his decision, and gestured to Viggen to continue with the briefing.

"During the period these events were taking place," Viggen said, "Morgan and Peters had been working around the clock on the code to restore our youth. This job took several years, but with the improved health and added energy that were side effects of the immortality code, progress was rapid and finally the program was completed, debugged, and installed. But the instant they tried to run it, doorway fields materialized around their terminal couches and they found themselves forcibly returned to our Arctic stronghold." He paused, giving me a hard look, then continued. "When they tried to return to the terminal room to troubleshoot the program, they found themselves locked out, and every attempt since then to access the terminals or enter the terminal room has been met with Permission denied."

Permission denied?

I felt a chill rush over me at the implications, the sudden realization that without terminal access their legendary powers were now no more than that, a shadow of the distant past. Yet, as I looked at them, at their advanced physiological age, at V-Kay's and Viggen's grimness, the icy fury on the admin's face, a cold caution gripped me, tempering my sudden surge of relief, whispering, be careful, for you still do not have the full story, still do not know what their problem is, how far it extends. So gently, perhaps even sympathetically, not envying them their situation, still sensing danger but at the moment only to myself, undercurrents I did not understand, I said, "What went wrong?"

Morgan gave me an odd look, a weird mixture of chagrin and pride. "PDU-1 interpreted the code as an attack on the integrity of its systems, an attempt to violate causality, decided we were becoming a danger to its internal stability, and revoked our terminal and root privileges."

Another chill ran over me. "PDU-1 decided? Are you saying PDU-1 has become self-aware and is now able to act on its own? Without having a base core of human memories? Or the underlying biological processes?"

Morgan nodded. "While the general feeling in the Computer Science community has long been that the `strong AI problem' was unsolvable except within the specialized environment of a VR matrix based on human uploads, it now turns out they were wrong. Apparently it is possible for some self-correcting systems, once they pass a certain level of complexity, to achieve self-awareness. Shortly after its upgrade to 0.97p63, PDU-1, unknown to us, began to consciously monitor and administer its many subsystems. Bear in mind that it had been designed to be self-learning and self-maintaining, so while the changes it was making to its internal subprograms were unexpectedly sophisticated and powerful, they were not totally unexpected. What was unexpected was their surprising elegance and subtlety -- its code is absolutely beautiful, almost like music. Unfortunately, being preoccupied with more pressing matters and not expecting this turn of events, we did not give these changes the close inspection they deserved until it was too late."

I nodded, remembering that it was after PDU-1's upgrade to 0.97p63 that the mass uploads began. "I would like one day to inspect some of its code. But what do you mean by `violate causality'?"

"Apparently PDU-1 felt we were trying to make time run backward in the matrix when we ordered it to restore our youth. Viewing it from that perspective, we presented it with an unsolvable problem because the Butterfly Effect operates here as well as in the universe at large, and chaos rules. That is why, in fact, the matrix is able to continue evolving, and why we exist."

I nodded again, having nothing to say.

Morgan gazed into the distance, thinking of errors made, paths not taken, said, "This is where you come in. PDU-1 has placed us on an Access Control List that prevents us from logging into its terminals or even entering the terminal room, and it is critical that we get in touch with it. Its future survival depends on its receiving certain information that at the time of its construction was deemed not important enough to place in its operational database. You are not on that list, and from your background on Earth -- combined with what we have learned about you during this briefing -- we believe you have the basic knowledge and skills needed, once given a little training, to operate PDU-1's terminals. Because of this, and the critical nature of the situation, we have no other option but to turn this problem over to you."

I looked at them, thinking it was far better for the Donda, for the matrix, for PDU-1 that the terminal room remained abandoned, locked against all access, its true purpose forgotten, until the heat death of the universe. And I knew they were aware of my feelings, that it could not be otherwise. Yet they had brought me here, restored my memories of Earth, revealed the true nature of our world, admitted their loss of power, were even offering me terminal access, so they had to have good cause to feel I would override my feelings, undertake their mission, even though it would probably cost me my life. This removed the last faint residue of relief I had been feeling, for I now realized Jorgensen's threats when first we met had not been what they seemed, then or later, but other. So I said to Morgan, to the Sages in general, keeping my options open, "Please explain."

* * *

"While it was unfortunate for us that PDU-1 achieved consciousness when it did," said Viggen, "it is only fair to acknowledge that, by focusing deeply inward, it has managed to control the matrix very well over all the years of its existence. Certainly it is questionable whether we, as humans with our short lives and even shorter attention spans, could have done as well. But this focusing inward, this single-minded preoccupation with its internal processes, though one of PDU-1's greatest strengths and probably necessary for our survival, is also its weakness, its Achilles' heel, and in the end may cause its, and our, death."

He paused, looking at me with a seriousness I had not seen in him before. "The problem is the same one that has plagued us from the beginning -- the discrepancy between internal and external time. For although just under 9,000 years have passed inside the matrix since we emigrated from HQ, and slightly over 800 years have passed since you were released from storage into the general population, close to four billion years have passed outside, in the solar system."

I stared at him, unable to hide my shock, and he nodded. "Yes. Our home star is now approaching the end of its hydrogen-burning phase and is about to enter its helium-burning phase. When this occurs, its outer atmosphere will expand out past the orbit of Earth, perhaps even as far as Mars, as it settles into its red giant phase, and while the changed environment in our orbit will not damage PDU-1 because of its electrosteel exterior, it will not be able to open the doors of its maintenance bay. Because of this, its mining craft will be unable to obtain supplies from the asteroid belt or Jupiter's Galilean satellites." He paused again, staring at me, added, "As best we can determine, PDU-1 is totally unaware of what is about to happen, and will remain so until it is too late."

"Unless I can update its operational database," I said.

He nodded. "Yes. You're our only chance now. And our calculations indicate we only have fifty-four internal days left before helium-burning commences."

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