Cover image for End of days
Title:
End of days
Author:
Danvers, Dennis.
Personal Author:
Edition:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Avon Eos, [1999]

©1999
Physical Description:
372 pages ; 19 cm
Language:
English
ISBN:
9780380974481
Format :
Book

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Central Library X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks
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Summary

Summary

Seventy years earlier, religious zealots believed they destroyed the Bin -- a technological Eden into which most of the world's population had uploaded their personalities to live forever in virtual bliss. Now one of the faithful -- a young Christian Soldier named Sam who has begun to doubt the good works of his messianic leader, Gabriel -- has unearthed a prototype of the Bin which houses the personality of Walter Tillman, one of the system's creators. By freeing Tillman, Sam and a beautiful renegade Construct named Laura place themselves in dire jeopardy, and make a second, even more astonishing, discovery: the Bin and its billions of disembodied inhabitants still exist -- including Tillman's long-lost love Stephanie Sanders. But when Gabriel, also, learns of the Bin's survival, Earth and virtual Heaven move toward a violent collision, as the destinies of Sam, Laura, Tillman, and Stephanie converge as well, with unforeseen and worlds-shattering consequences.


Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

As detailed in Circuit of Heaven (1998), to which this novel is a sequel, more than a century ago most of Earth's population abandoned reality to upload onto the Bin, a computer-generated Nirvana of instant gratification created by Newman Rogers. Those outside the Bin were decimated by the Army of God and its fundamentalist leader, Gabriel, who prophesied the "end of days," when the righteous would be rewarded for their faith and sacrifice. When Gabriel dumped a killer virus into the Bin to destroy it, Rogers secretly saved his creation and moved its disembodied souls to a hidden site off-world. Now, despite the Bin's coziness, its inhabitants are increasingly unsatisfied. Donovan Carroll, aka "Dr. Death," links ennui and the increasing suicide rate to the fact that life inside the Bin is meaningless. Meanwhile, Sam, a disillusioned Christian Soldier, has found the hidden prototype for the Bin. Sam tries to keep it secret, if only to protect its sole inhabitant, Walter Tillman, the ugly duckling geneticist unwittingly responsible for the creation of Constructs, clone-slaves since freed. Betrayed by a fellow soldier, Sam teams up with a tough hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold named Laura, who just happens to have a communication link with the Bin, setting in motion a complex plot to reunite old lovers and destroy Gabriel. Danvers raises thoughtful questions about identity and personal responsibility, but the story suffers from overplotting and limited character growth. Attempts at religious allegory collapse under stereotypesÄfrom the evil Gabriel and his minions, opposed by benevolent god-scientist Rogers, to a forced replay of the Nativity. But even so, Danvers is a skilled writer with a good, inventive story to tell. (June) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved


Library Journal Review

Severing their ties to the physical world, the inhabitants of the virtual reality known as the Bin dwell in a timeless paradise until a young man in the outside world discovers their existence and seeks a way to bring the two worlds back together. While the Christian Soldiers of the material world labor to bring about the end of the world, a few residents of the Bin search for a way to infuse their meaningless lives with purpose and direction. Continuing the story begun in Circuit of Heaven (Avon, 1998), Danvers brings two flawed realities together in a confrontation that defines both worlds. Suitable for most sf collections. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Excerpts

Excerpts

Chapter One DR. DEATH DONOVAN CARROLL SAT UNDER THE STRIPED AWNING OF A sidewalk cafe and watched the rain. It drummed the taut canvas overhead, and a fine, cool mist settled on his face and hands. Dangling from the awning, a whirling wind chime emitted a high melodic clatter. He took a deep breath. The rain smell left a tang at the back of his throat and made him feel a little high.     Every year some misguided senator introduced a bill to control the weather, arguing, as required for any innovation, that it was both scientifically possible and socially desirable. Donovan didn't know about the possible part. He was no scientist. But any random occurrence was desirable as far as he was concerned. It was bad enough contemplating eternity without the prospect of an endless succession of sunny days. Apparently, most people agreed with him: The rain was still falling when and where it liked.     Donovan checked his watch. He was waiting to meet Freddie--late as usual, like most people. Donovan's anachronistic devotion to timeliness--including his affectation of carrying a watch, for goodness' sake--was a sure sign of his eccentricity. An image he sometimes cursed and sometimes nurtured. He caught the waiter's attention and pointed at his coffee cup. He watched the waiter pour.     When he was a kid, there hadn't been any waiters. You pushed a button or a glowing icon. The world was a huge free-of-charge vending machine. But these days jobs were making a comeback. Anything to fill the time. With Donovan's coffee poured, the waiter tidied up the other tables, none of which needed any tidying. Then he stood by the door, a towel draped over his arm, a crisp white apron from his waist to his shins, staring past Donovan at the rain-swept streets, looking, Donovan decided, vaguely military.     Donovan wondered how old the waiter might be, wondered whether he'd been a waiter in the real world, whether he'd ever lived in the real world at all, for that matter. Maybe he was a newbie like Donovan himself, a virtual life formed from the dance of his parents' genetic uploads, choreographed by the strictest laws of biological science, pure life without the muss and fuss of flesh and blood.     He wondered all those things, but he couldn't ask the waiter. It was rude to ask questions about life before the Bin, especially if, like Donovan, you didn't have one. "Born in the Bin with no body to burn" was the phrase that Donovan had grown up hearing, just as, he imagined, the young of a couple of centuries earlier had gritted their teeth to "footloose and fancy-free." Both were licenses for a certain eccentricity tinged with misplaced envy.     Donovan was about to turn forty, an age when men used to start feeling old, calculating their lives were half over, lamenting they were halfway to nowhere, crying out, "Is this all there is?" Donovan envied them. It'd taken him only forty years to decide his life was pointless. Now he had eternity to figure out what to do about it.     He sipped on his coffee and opened up the newspaper he'd brought with him. He usually didn't read newspapers, though they were all the rage. A nice fat paper could last you all day. The lead story was about the upcoming centennial of the Bin, still months away. There were numerous expert opinions as to "what this incredible milestone might have to say to the human race," Donovan read that part over. The writer had indeed created a talking milestone. And no matter which expert made it talk, it seemed to say pretty much the same thing as far as Donovan could tell: It's only been a hundred years, and already immortality is getting old .     Donovan looked down the page at a small story about a bill to implement transporter technology, modeled after the old Star Trek TV show. The photo showed a senator from Thailand dressed in the knit pajamas that had once passed for the garb of the future. Donovan skipped the technical debate. Nobody much cared about that part of it anymore. If people wanted an innovation badly enough, they'd convince themselves that anything was possible. If they didn't really want it, they'd say the wheel was unproven technology. The transporter didn't stand a chance. Who but a masochist would want a technology that saved time and decreased privacy?     Naturally, there was a story about the real world, the tabloids' favorite subject--where people still died every day in any gruesome or touching way a writer might care to imagine. No one could check your facts.     The Bin had been cut off from the real world for seventy years now, after some religious zealots attempted to wipe out the Bin with a virus--and almost succeeded. To ensure the future safety of the Bin, all connection with the real world had been severed, thus duping the fundies into thinking their virus had worked. Every schoolboy heard the story ad nauseam. Newman Rogers, inventor of the Alternative Life Medium Assembly (ALMA, commonly called the Bin) that gave the gift of eternal life to all humankind, outwits Gabriel, the wicked and fanatical leader of the Christian Soldiers. Donovan found the whole business saccharine and tedious. The heroes always a bit too pure and the villains--the scenery--devouring fundies--a bit too thick. But it was the Bin's only fling with cataclysm, and everyone loved to wax nostalgic and philosophical about it.     This article rehearsed the Bin's only "brush with disaster," then investigated the claim that the fundies had not been fooled and were preparing an all-out missile attack. With my luck, Donovan thought, they'll miss. Besides the Bin had dozens of backups waiting in the wings. It would be like trying to wipe out a swarm of bees with a .22.     Not that he believed any of this babble. The writer of the article had probably made the claim in the first place so that he'd have something to investigate. There were no murders, robberies, wars, plagues, famines, rapes, plane crashes, starving babies. What was a writer to do? Immortality even took the wind out of gossip's sails. It was hard to be impressed by scandalous behavior when you stopped to ask yourself who the hell would care in a few centuries what went on several spouses ago.     Donovan turned to the inside pages, looking for the article that'd prompted him to buy the damn thing in the first place. Against his better judgment, he'd agreed to an interview, and now he wanted to see how badly he'd been misquoted. The interviewer, Fawn Riverside, a perky 150-year-old who'd just Started Over as a journalist, had treated him as if he were an aficionado of Bigfoot or the ghost of Elvis, and he'd thought she was a complete idiot.     He paused over a piece claiming that Newman Rogers, inventor and patron saint of the Bin, was alive somewhere, incognito, running the whole show. Probably lived down the street from Elvis, Donovan thought. There was the familiar photo of Rogers making his last public appearance, dwarfed behind a podium, his long white hair blowing every which way. Donovan smiled at the little man and shook his head, thinking, If he is still alive, he must be crazy as a bedbug by now. He checked the byline on the story against the missile-lobbing fundies piece, and indeed, they were the same: GWENNA R. MORSE. Probably a pal of Fawn's.     Donovan turned the page, and his own dour face stared out at him in black and white--the familiar book jacket photo. The photographer had told him not to smile, to look, instead, "authorial." To keep from laughing, Donovan had scrunched his face into an exaggerated frown. "Perfect," the photographer had said.     Donovan winced at the headline above the photo: DR. DEATH MUSES ON MORTALITY. It wasn't just the inevitable alliteration. He'd asked the interviewer not to call him by that ridiculous nickname, first coined by the reviewer in the Times , who seemed blissfully ignorant of the fact that it had been taken more than a century earlier. It made him feel silly, not a feeling he enjoyed or sought after. Which, according to Freddie, was precisely his problem. "High silliness, Donnie," Freddie counseled. "Leave high seriousness to the dying."     The article itself wasn't so bad, and she did correctly report the time and location of his lecture tomorrow night. After an insipid opening, Fawn transcribed the interview pretty much verbatim as far as Donovan could remember, even though her questions were idiotic. Still, he knew most people would read it and decide that Donovan, not Fawn, was the idiot.     And maybe he was. He'd been born immortal, had never known anyone who'd died a natural death, and yet he'd studied death since he was a boy, even learning Sanskrit so he could read The Tibetan Book of the Dead in the original. His parents had encouraged him. It kept him busy. When he reached maturity, they, like the journalist, had Started Over, divorcing each other (his fifth, her sixth), renouncing their pasts, including Donovan.     Starting Over was said to be a healthy thing, a sure cure for immortality anxiety. Donovan thought of it as the latest wisdom of the Ostrich Academy. Mother lived in a memory hive on the banks of the Yangtze. He saw her every year or so, and she'd get him mixed up with the dozens of other sons she remembered from the other hive moms. She always reminded him, when she spoke at all, that she wasn't his mother anymore. Father had moved to a minimalist community where everything looked like a line drawing, but he hadn't stayed there long, and Donovan didn't know where he'd gone, or who he was this time around. Donovan checked the suicide records every once in a while. So far, his dad's number hadn't come up.     In a sidebar was a piece on the suicide rate. He skimmed the familiar statistics, the most recent and most famous suicides, the predictable analysis. Sure enough, they managed to mention Nicole--"wife of Donovan Carroll, popularly known as `Dr. Death.'"     Three years after they were married, Nicole jumped from a bridge to her death, after a series of unsuccessful suicide attempts. "Practice runs," she used to call them. He sometimes wondered if that hadn't been the attraction, that if he stuck with her, someday he'd see death close up and learn its secrets. If that was the plan, it hadn't worked. She left him a note that never mentioned death, only the unbearable burden of life.     The death he wanted to understand didn't come invited. It showed up unannounced, ready or not, the sole inevitability, case closed. It wasn't a decision you made because you didn't care enough to live. He folded up the paper and shoved it to one side. The ink came off on his fingertips, and he wiped them on a napkin. He shouldn't read newspapers, he told himself. They always upset him. He lit a cigarette and blew a cloud of smoke into the rain. AS DONOVAN WAS FINISHING HIS CIGARETTE, HE SPOTTED Freddie a couple of blocks away, strolling toward the cafe through the driving rain. He wore peasant clothes, baggy muslin shirt and pants, a broad-brimmed straw hat. He was barefoot, walking in the gutters where the water was deepest. The rain gathered on the brim of his hat and formed a slender waterfall a few inches in front of his face. He was grinning from ear to ear.     He stepped under the awning and took off his hat with a flourish, showering Donovan with water. "I just adore the rain," Freddie announced as he sat down at the table. A pool of water formed at his feet. "Sorry I'm late. I got caught up in the whole Gene Kelly thing." He looked down at himself and said, "Clothing, dry and press."     As Donovan and Freddie watched, Freddie's sodden clothes dried and pressed themselves. "It's those little nano-thingies they introduced a few years back," Freddie said. "I can just imagine all these little machines chugging away to make me warm and toasty."     "It's programming, and you know it," Donovan said. "I take it you want to do the `Gene Kelly thing,' but you don't want to experience the wet and cold afterward."     Freddie groaned. "Oh, Donnie, you are s-o-o-o serious. There are drugs for all that angst, you know."     Donovan smiled. "So you keep telling me."     The waiter stood dutifully by the table, patiently waiting for a lull in the conversation. "Hot chocolate," Freddie said. "With marshmallows." The waiter walked into the cafe, and Freddie watched him go. "Cute butt, don't you think?"     "If you say so."     Freddie arched a brow. "We each have our areas of expertise."     Donovan laughed. "And yours is programming."     Freddie made a face. "Ugly."     Freddie was one of Donovan's few friends. He'd come up after a lecture about a year ago and introduced himself. They'd ended up talking most of the night about death. At first Donovan thought Freddie might be coming on to him, but that wasn't it. He was more paternal than anything else--a frivolous, brilliant father who made him laugh--absolutely nothing like his real father--what passed for "real" in the Bin, that is. Biologically, he had no father, no mother.     Freddie pointed at the newspaper. "I see you've been reading about yourself. You're getting to be quite the celebrity, Dr. Death." For all his silliness, Freddie was the best programmer in the Bin. He'd worked on the Bin's design with Newman Rogers and had been one of its original inhabitants. Freddie knew quite a bit about being famous.     "Don't start, Freddie. I have no desire to be a celebrity. I just want to make people think."     "Ah, youth!" Freddie sighed. "I can't imagine a more hazardous, more frustrating occupation."     The waiter arrived with hot chocolate. Once again Freddie watched the waiter's retreating butt. "People don't want to think, Donnie. They want to enjoy themselves."     "Mindlessly?"     "`Mindlessly' can be quite delicious." Freddie scooped up a spoonful of hot chocolate and marshmallow and put it in his mouth, savoring it, pulling the spoon out slowly. "Even intellectual pleasure requires a certain mindlessness, don't you think? Tussling with some novel or neutrino as if it were the only thing in the universe that mattered."     "But if it just goes on and on forever without end, how do we decide that anything matters?"     Freddie rolled his eyes and waved his spoon in the air. "If it feels good, Donnie, it matters. If you have to decide when something feels good, you have my deepest sympathies."     "Is that why people read my books--to `feel good'?"     "Of course it is. They read all about death and say, `Glad it's not us !'" Freddie hugged himself and gave a theatrical shudder.     Donovan looked out at the rain. It was finally beginning to slack off. "Maybe you're right."     Freddie scooped up two more marshmallows, admired them, and turned them loose. "And maybe I'm not." He laid his spoon down on his saucer. "You know that little program you wanted? I finished it."     For an upcoming seminar, Donovan had asked Freddie to write a virtual death experience based on hundred-year-old recordings of the dying's last conscious moments. The so-called near-death experience had been discredited as superstitious hokum--the brain's last electrochemical hurrah--but it was still as close to death as anyone in the Bin was likely to come without committing suicide. "Did it work?" Donovan asked.     "It worked all right. But I don't think you can use it. I did what you suggested, found a first-rate upload of a woman's death--the dark tunnel, the blinding light, dead loved ones coming to greet her--a classic. Then I set up a program to patch into a user's memories to give them a virtual near-death experience based on their own personal history. Three people tried it. The first two went fine, but they were newbies like you. The third one ... Maybe I should just show you."     "Come on, Freddie. What happened?"     Freddie picked up his spoon, scooped up a single marshmallow in a puddle of chocolate. "She died."     "You mean she killed herself?."     Freddie thought about this a moment, rocking his head from side to side. "That, I suppose, is subject to interpretation, but I'd say no. She died." He slid the spoon into his mouth. DONOVAN WAITED IMPATIENTLY WHILE FREDDIE FINISHED his hot chocolate. He wouldn't tell Donovan what the big mystery was, and Donovan had to admit he was enjoying that rarest of emotions in the Bin: suspense. Someone had died. How could that have happened unless she'd killed herself? It was impossible.     When the last drops of his chocolate were consumed, Freddie chose another walk in the rain, while Donovan insisted on taking the Metro to Freddie's place. Donovan didn't have any "nano-thingies" in his clothes, and Freddie wouldn't answer his questions anyway.     Donovan just missed the train and had to wait five minutes for another. If Freddie didn't spend too much time dancing along the way, he might get there first. Donovan had asked Freddie once if he didn't feel ridiculous acting like a kid when he was 164 years old. Freddie said no. He'd felt ridiculous when he was just a kid in his twenties, when all his friends were dying in the second AIDS epidemic and he was trying to act old and wise and strong for the next poor bastard who was going to die. " That was ridiculous," Freddie said. "That was truly ridiculous."     A holo-ad for Depression World was playing in front of the station platform: Black roadsters and tommy guns. Dust Bowl victims. Women in slender lamé gowns and golden bobs. A Wobbly taking a riot stick across the jaw--the police uniforms looking like something from another planet, boxy-shaped and festooned with buttons. It ran through the cycle of images in a minute or so, then the slogan appeared in six-foot letters: LET THE DEPRESSION LIFT YOUR SPIRITS AT DEPRESSION WORLD(tm).     "I been there," a woman on the platform told him. "Save your money. You want an experience , go to Prehistoria. They got this saber-toothed tiger will scare the crap out of you." She boarded the car directly in front of her, and Donovan got into the car behind it and took a seat.     A couple of boys, a tall one and a short one, were decorating the other side of the car with a can of spray paint. Both looked to be about eleven. FUCK, they wrote in block letters as tall as they could make them, taking turns with the letters so it came out FuCk. A couple of seats behind Donovan a proper-looking man in a suit--a lawyer, most likely--watched the boys through narrowed eyes. When they'd completed their one-word sentence, he sat up in his seat and stretched out his hand. "May I borrow that?" he asked.     The kids traded a glance, and the short one shrugged, handing over the can of paint. "Sure, why not?" Apparently, it was his can of paint.     The man stood in the aisle and selected a spot--the map of the Metro system most people had memorized a hundred years ago--a square yard of unobstructed Plexiglas set into the wall. The man crouched before it like some martial-arts master, and what Donovan had always regarded as an unnecessary map became a blank Plexiglas slate. The man depressed the button on the can, moving his hand quickly, with a little flick of the wrist at the end. It only lasted a second. The result looked like a jelly donut trying to form itself into letters. Unlike the kids' FuCk, it was dripless, almost elegant. Donovan peered hard at the intricate shape. Though he knew half a dozen systems of hieroglyphics, he could make no sense of it.     "What's that?" the tall kid asked.     "That's my tag," the man said. "I wondered if I could still do it. Haven't done it in a hundred and thirty-two years." He tossed the paint can to the short kid, who bobbled but caught it. The boys looked at the tag without comment and set to work painting a giant penis in the aisle. The man slumped back into his seat.     As the train hurtled along, Donovan kept trying to read the tag. This would be his only chance. It'd be wiped clean once no one was looking. Vandalism was automatically erased from the Bin. He heard the doors open and close behind him as the boys moved on to the next car.     The proper-looking man stood up as the train slowed, and Donovan pointed at the tag. "What does it say?"     The man smiled, a broad smile transforming his face completely. "Byte," he said, "with a y . My tag was `Byte.'" He continued to smile as the train came to a stop and the doors slid open. "Thanks for asking," he said, stepping off the train. Donovan looked back as the train pulled out of the station, and the man smiled and waved.     When Donovan turned around, the tag was gone, the FuCk and the penis as well. Donovan tried to picture the brainlike shape of the tag in his mind, and he could almost see how the lines formed a chubby rendering of BYTE.     He looked up and down the spotless car. They could've left the tag, he thought. What on earth would it've hurt? FREDDIE'S PLACE NEVER SEEMED TO LOOK THE SAME WAY twice. Today he was going for a Mayan temple look. The rain had stopped, and the stones glistened in the sun. Donovan sat on the steps and checked his watch: 11:25, Eastern time. He had to laugh at himself. What did that even mean anymore? He wasn't on the surface of the Earth, much less in a particular swath of the sun. He was an electrical pattern, a string of information inside the Bin, a quasiorganic crystalline structure about the size of three or four football stadiums orbiting the Earth, drawing its sustenance from the sun. For all he knew, the real Eastern time zone and everyone who might conceivably care what time it was were glowing embers.     The one bit of real-world rumor Donovan thought likely was that without heathens to kill, the various permutations of fundies had started blowing each other up. If there was only One Truth, no one could afford to be Wrong. When King on the Mountain was no mere game but a moral imperative, The meek shall inherit the earth would quickly devolve into The meek shall bite the dust .     Perhaps the true meek live in here, Donovan thought. Meek enough to trade their physical existence for life everlasting, hiding from death under a clever rock. What did the brave inherit, he wondered, when they died in their bodies, when--as the old phrase used to have it--their time ran out? AS HE WAITED FOR FREDDIE, DONOVAN ENTERTAINED HIMSELF by translating the hieroglyphs above the massive stone doorway. It took him awhile to get it right: TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING CAN BE WONDERFUL. Donovan laughed out loud.     Freddie walked up the steps. "I'm glad you approve," he said. "Mae West said that."     "Who's she?"     "Early-twentieth-century hedonist philosopher and sex goddess. I'll download you the mosses. You'll love her."     They went into Freddie's workroom, a windowless space, softly lit, thick carpet on the floor and halfway up the walls--Freddie's own blank slate, where he could make anything happen, or seem to happen. Take your pick.     Freddie sat down at a vintage computer console, his interface of choice. Donovan perched on a hillock of carpet that seemed made for that purpose. As he settled in, it became a tiny hill overlooking a field of some grain or other.     "It's sorghum," Freddie said. He was patching Donovan into whatever he was about to run, and he'd picked up the emerging question. "The woman who died is ... was ... Simone Mirabelli. This whole rural thing was hers. I wrote the program so that you can choose where you're going to die. "Freddie shrugged. "I thought it was a nice option. Anyway, Simone was a wee bit of a holdout. She was raised by her grandparents on a farm and lived in the real word with them until their deaths in the late sixties. They raised sorghum.     "I recorded everything, of course. I figured we'd start with her death." Freddie rose from his console and joined Donovan on the hillside. "That is, if you're ready."     "I've got a million questions," Donovan said.     "I take that as a yes. You want first-person perspective or third-?"     Donovan opened and closed his mouth, all worked up over something he couldn't quite place. It was just another virtual, he reminded himself. "Third-," he said.     Freddie addressed his computer, "You heard the man, snookums. Run it."     The ceiling transformed into dark heavy clouds, low and threatening. A strong wind, heavy with the scent of ozone, blew into Donovan's face, forcing him to squint. Down below him, Simone Mirabelli stood naked in the sorghum field, looking off at the dark horizon. The sorghum was flattened to the ground, and Simone's long dark hair streamed out behind her. Her skin gave off a luminous glow. The horizon flickered with lightning, and thunder shook the ground.     "What in the hell is she up to?" Donovan whispered.     "It's how she chose to die," Freddie said in a normal voice. Simone didn't seem to notice. "Not a bad choice, I'd say."     Donovan was about to ask what he meant, when a bolt of lightning came out of the clouds and struck Simone in the chest, knocking her into the air like a rag doll. As she fell to the ground, a glowing version of herself remained erect, as if the lightning had knocked a dark husk off--what? Her soul? The sorghum field was gone. Sky and earth had darkened to complete blackness. The wind died down to a light breeze with a damp yeasty smell. There was a sound hanging in the air like the dying note of an enormous bell, barely audible, but it never quite faded away.     Donovan could tell by the way that Simone was standing--her shoulders back so that her spine made a graceful curve--that she wasn't afraid, far from it. The blackness was pierced by a circle of light that expanded slowly, growing brighter and brighter.     "I've toned down the light," Freddie said softly. "It was too bright to look at." Simone, however, stared into it and began walking toward it.     It was then Donovan realized the light was some distance away, at the end of a long tunnel, like the inside of a cornucopia, or a tornado laid on its side, swirling with images of people and places changing too fast to take in.     As the light grew, Donovan could make out the silhouettes of people standing in the light, perhaps a dozen. Two of them began to grow larger, and he realized they were walking toward Simone. A man and a woman. Old and wrinkled. What would probably be eighty or ninety in a real person. A chill went up Donovan's spine.     The three figures, all aglow, came together maybe ten yards ahead of him, wrapping their arms around one another in a strong embrace. The old woman seemed to say something, but there was no sound.     "Turn it up," Donovan whispered intently.     "It's up all the way," Freddie said. "Watch this part."     The three of them looked back toward Freddie and Donovan as if they could actually see them watching this recording. They were almost as bright as the light behind them now. They gave what could only be described as a smile of sympathy, turned away arm in arm, and took a step toward the light.     The whole thing winked out, and Freddie and Donovan were sitting in an empty room. It was over.     "What happened to the rest of it?" Donovan asked. His heart was racing, and he was having trouble catching his breath. Intensity did not come easily for Donovan. There was only one other thing that even came close to this, and that had been a very long time indeed.     "There is no rest of it. I was accessing her consciousness. She ... broke the connection."     "What does she say happened?"     "Nothing. I told you. She's dead."     "You didn't restore her? She wasn't backed up?"     Freddie let Donovan's shrillness hang in the air for a moment, let him get a grip. "Of course I did. She was showing no life signs at all, so I restored her. She opened her eyes, said `Leave me alone,' and promptly died again. Her body's in the next room."     "This isn't funny, Freddie."     "Even I will have to agree with you there."     Donovan followed Freddie into the bedroom where Simone Mirabelli's body lay on the bed. Donovan had never seen a dead person. But he didn't have to touch her, take her pulse, or watch her breathing to know she was dead. There was something missing, an absence he'd never felt before. He looked over his shoulder, as if the tunnel might still be there behind them in the next room.     "You didn't try again?"     "She did ask me not to, but yes, I did. Her file is hopelessly corrupted."     "And you checked the suicide records?"     "Of course."     "Did you check again? Maybe it just hadn't showed up yet."     "All suicides are logged the instant they occur, a matter of instantaneous public record. I should know, I wrote the damn code for all the suicide routines. But yes, I checked again."     "Have you tried to locate her?"     "Of course. She's listed as deceased."     " `Deceased'? What the hell's going on here, Freddie? Was there a virus in your program?"     "A virus?" Freddie drew himself up. "Not likely."     "Then what happened?"     "I'd say it was ghosts," Freddie said.     "The people in the recording?"     "Her grandparents. I found their last passport photos They're about ten years younger and not nearly so beatific, but it's them, all right. The program was written so that the user would be patched into Carmelita Sanchez's near-death experience, substituting people and places from their own past, but essentially following her experience. Once those two start walking out of the light, however, Simone Mirabelli was on her own."     "Or not."     "Exactly." Freddie clapped a hand on his shoulder. "You want a drink? I do." Freddie gave him a drink, and Donovan downed it quickly, then asked for another. It was Irish whiskey. "In honor of your heritage," Freddie said.     "I've never set foot in Ireland," Donovan said.     "Well, now it's set foot in you."     They went out into a courtyard, thick with tropical plants, still dripping from the rain. Among the plants were sandstone animals, their features eroded to an almost smooth surface. A waterfall fell from somewhere above the treetops into a rock-rimmed pool. A school of foot-long koi moved slowly beneath the surface. Donovan sat down on a moss-covered stone by the pool, running his fingers over the slightly prickly moss tips. Freddie never seemed intimidated by endless possibilities, constantly reveling in the rich details of life. Why can't I do that? Donovan wondered.     "You like the Bin, don't you, Freddie?"     "What's not to like?"     Freddie pushed up his sleeve and plunged his hand into the pool. The koi wheeled about and came to his hand, sliding the length of their bodies up against it. As they moved through his palm, he squeezed them gently. He was petting his fish. Donovan had seen him do this before. These weren't just holo-fish but uploads from his real life before the Bin.     "I've had these fine finny fellows for over a hundred years, fed them every day. I love them, and they love me. There're worse places than the Bin, Donnie."     But Donovan kept seeing Simone Mirabelli's face just before she turned away from life into--what? She knew, and he didn't. He couldn't help it. He envied her knowledge. "But after what we just saw happen to that woman--doesn't that prove there's something after death? Something we're denying in here--like children who refuse to grow up?"     Freddie slowly pulled his hand out of the water, scratching the heads of a couple of the more boisterous koi before they sank beneath the surface. He let the water drip off his slender fingers, then shook them dry. "Oh, Donnie, you can do better than that tired old Peter Pan thing again." He gave a little shudder. "I abhor tights. Make me look bony."     "You're missing my point."     "No, I'm not. I'm teasing you. Besides, we didn't prove a thing. What we saw were her perceptions of what happened. I don't have to explain the difference to a bright lad like you, do I?"     "But what do you think? Did it happen or not?"     "Oh, I think it happened. So what?"     "What do you mean, `So what'? That changes everything."     "I think you're more Irish than you admit. Need to drink more, though. You think God or the cosmic design or something or other intended for everyone to die and cozy up with the Big Bright Light, but along came the evil old Bin and ruined everything. Well, gosh, I guess we just outsmarted God, then, huh? P-lease! I'm a great programmer, but I'm not that good. Sorry, Donnie, if things are meant to be, the Bin has as much right to meaning as anything else."     "But look around you. People are going crazy with boredom. The only reason they have to live is their fear of death."     Freddie smiled. "Catchy. Wasn't that in your last book? Trust me. It's a bad sign when you start quoting yourself."     Freddie had him. He was particularly fond of that line, used it quite often. "Okay. I'm being a pompous jerk. But, Freddie, you've got to admit--people aren't happy."     "People are the same as they ever were. Happiness is like most religions--more people talk about it than actually practice it. They should stop and pet the fish."     "`Pet the fish '?"     "Don't be snotty. Stick your pompous little digits in there and try it, Dr. Carroll."     Donovan rolled his eyes and stuck his hand in the water, fully expecting the fish to wrap themselves around his hand, as they had with Freddie's. But they only circled cautiously, and in spite of himself, he felt disappointed. Freddie plunged in his hand beside Donovan's, and the fish came to him again. "Go ahead," Freddie said. "Pet them."     Slowly, cautiously, Donovan moved his hand into the school of fish and stroked their sides with his fingers. Freddie withdrew his hand, and the fish let Donovan continue to pet them. Shy at first, they gradually warmed to his attentions and jostled against his hand. He smiled at the sensation. When he pulled his hand out of the water, he was still smiling. Perhaps Freddie had a point.     "Don't be so hard on people, Donnie. Maybe when they get bored enough, they'll finally find something to do with their lives that's truly interesting--something new in the cosmic design."     "Maybe." The fish were weaving back and forth, apparently content with their immortality. "Do you really think those were spirits who came for Simone Mirabelli, not just her memories playing out?"     "I do indeed. I believe they were as real as you or me, which, if you think about it, isn't saying a whole, whole lot." He laughed as if that pleased him.     "What do you think would happen if I ran that program?"     Freddie sighed. "As I told you, it was just a particularly affecting virtual as far as the newbies were concerned. Of course, they didn't share your particular passions. You know the script already."     "Yes, but who'd come to meet me?"     "This whole business is about Nicole, isn't it? Why don't you go meet someone in here first? Have a little fun?"     Donovan stood up. "I already met someone in here, Freddie. She committed suicide. And right now I need to go home and work. I've got a lecture tomorrow night at the Rogers Memorial, and I haven't written a word yet."     "Tell them to pet the fish."     Donovan laughed. "They already think I'm nuts."     "We like nuts in here, even more than we used to. They keep things interesting." AT HOME DONOVAN COMPILED A GRAM OF HASH AND SMOKED it before the fire. He wrote his lecture on a yellow pad with a fountain pen, downing espresso as he worked. Freddie was right. He was just repeating himself. He tried a new tack, something that might wake a few people up. When it was done, he let his computer translate his cramped writing full of cross-outs and insertions, arrows, and addenda into a neat typescript.     Lately, he'd been reading poetry every night. The dying fire reminded him of Coleridge's Frost at Midnight , so he reread it and meditated on the lines. Coleridge is sitting in a country house late at night. Everyone else in the house is asleep, including his "cradled infant" beside him. Outside, it's bitter cold, the world plunged in frost. Inside, the "low-burnt fire ... fluttered on the grate." Coleridge being Coleridge, this scene prompts him to meditate on his own childhood in the city, contrasting it with the life he envisions for his son in the country, close to nature: But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds, Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores And mountain crags: so shalt thou see and hear The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible Of that eternal language, which thy God Utters, who from eternity doth teach Himself in all, and all things in himself. Great universal Teacher! he shall mould Thy spirit and by giving make it ask. Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee, Whether the summer clothe the general earth With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch Of mossy apple-tree, while the nigh thatch Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall Heard only in the trances of the blast, Or if the secret ministry of frost Shall hang them up in silent icicles, Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.     Donovan didn't know how things actually turned out for Coleridge's son. He could look it up--he could look anything up--but what did it matter, anyway? The poem wasn't really about him, but about Coleridge. Donovan couldn't help wishing that he had a son asleep beside him, wished that he could imagine any such time with his own father.     But like most poems, it didn't really work without death. Where's the poignancy of the father imagining his son's future if the father never dies? If the son never lives on without him? If the fire will burn forever if you tell it to?     "Go out, fire," Donovan said, and he was staring at a cold hearth.     There was a way to die, apparently, for those who'd lived in the real world. But for newbies like him, it was still life or suicide. Even after the third generation of newbies, those who'd once walked the Earth, or even lay in an incubator there, regarded themselves as more real, more human. Maybe they were. He couldn't even die properly.     It wasn't death he wanted. He only hoped that if it was out there, waiting for him, he'd want to live and live well. But maybe that was a foolish hope. Maybe Freddie was right, and it was all about Nicole. Maybe all he really wanted to know was why Nicole wanted death more than she'd wanted anything, more than she'd wanted him.     He fell asleep in front of the hearth and dreamed he died in a sorghum field. Nicole is there. She sits in the dirt, her legs akimbo, her back to the light, her head down as if she's trying to keep from passing out. He grabs her shoulders and shakes her, and she looks up at him, tears streaming down her face. "Leave me alone," she whispers. The light is bright but not blinding. He wants to walk into it, but he can't leave her sitting there. He pulls her to her feet, but she's like a rag doll, staring at him as if he isn't even there. He feels as substantial as a figure in hangman. He tries to drag her toward the light, but with each step, it shrinks until he's moving through a dark narrow tunnel, dragging something he knows isn't Nicole any longer, but he can't let it go. He woke as the sun was coming up, streaming into the window. He rolled over on his back, feeling cold and stiff. It was unseasonably cold with frost in the corners of the windowpanes. "Fire," he said, and the flames appeared in the fireplace.     Interesting variation, he thought. But you're not fooling me. Copyright © 1999 Dennis Danvers. All rights reserved.

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