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Author: Tony Ballantyne
Publisher: Tor, 2006
Bantam Spectra, 2005
Series: The Recursion Trilogy: Book 2

1. Recursion
2. Capacity
3. Divergence

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Artificial Intelligence
Avg Member Rating:
(6 reads / 4 ratings)


Welcome to the year 2252--and congratulations! You’re now a personality construct. We know that can be a daunting stage of personal development, especially if you don’t remember making this life-changing decision. But we’re here to help….

Helen is waking to a dark new reality-one that she’s certain she didn’t choose. In this borrowed existence, she finds an unexpected guide in Judy, a geisha-faced virgin who’s on a mission of her own. Together, the two of them begin a dangerous run through dozens of imagined worlds in an attempt to trap a psychopath haunting the shadowed areas of virtual space-a killer who brutally murdered an earlier version of Helen and who plans to kill again. Meanwhile, Justinian is investigating a peculiar rash of AI suicides on far-off planets-and finds that not only is there more to these “deaths” than he thought, but that they may be linked to his wife Anya’s mysterious coma.

In a future where AIs have taken over human life and the Environment Agency runs everything for our own good, the fact that we can live on after physical death as sentient digital beings should have been a good thing. Instead, as Helen and Justinian are about to discover, it just means there are more ways to die.


Helen 1:

"Come on then; see if you can spot which ones are the true botanicals."

Sunlight dappled Helen as she raised her eyebrows in challenge to Kevin. Amongst the warm green life of the woodland glade, her tanned brown limbs and flower-plaited blond hair gave her the appearance of a nymph. She looked good, and she knew it. Kevin knew it too; she could tell. He rubbed his chin in an exaggerated fashion as he looked around the arboretum, his eyes lingering on her for a little longer than was necessary.

"Hmm, can I touch?" His voice was a delicious gravelly rumble. He waggled his eyebrows at her. "The plants, I mean."

"If you like." Helen smiled.

She leaned back against the bark of a lime tree and watched Kevin kneel down to feel the leaves of a McCusker's Miracle. She felt a little glow somewhere inside. The defined V of his shoulders and upper body, the gentle way he rubbed a grey-green leaf between his fingers: it made her wonder what it would be like if he were to fold her up in his arms. Maybe just to kiss her.

He straightened up, rubbing the leaf's metallic residue from his fingers, and caught sight of a nearby hawthorn, ragged green leaves dancing in the fresh breeze.

"No way is this one natural," he said. Helen was impressed that he was tall enough to reach up and catch hold of the end of a branch.

"Ouch!" He winced. "It has spikes! Look at that twisting effect on the trunk as well. This one is definitely a venumb."

He came back towards Helen, his dark eyes running up and down her body. For the twentieth time that day, she silently thanked the set of circumstances that had led to her drawing Kevin for the arboretum tour; thanked Lucy for asking her to swap shifts at the last moment; thanked Marek for pointing out the man who had just stepped from the Lite train.

She'd been tidying up the winged seeds display, placing natural sycamore seeds and ash keys next to the AI-designed VNM carriers used on Iota Cancri 4. Marek had raised his eyebrows at her, then deliberately turned to look in the direction of the tall handsome man who had just walked into the airy glass structure of the visitors' center. He had quickly pressed an ash key into one of her hands and the strange double-fluted IC4 carrier into the other, and then pushed her gently in the man's direction.

"Hello there," Helen had said, holding them out to the gorgeous stranger and smiling brightly. "Can you guess which was built and which evolved?"

Her console, wrapped about her waist like a belt, was busy releasing a cloud of the maximum permissible dose of pheromones. The way the man smiled at her gave the impression that maybe chemicals weren't that necessary. Marek certainly got the hint and jumped Helen two places in the roster, allowing her to escort the man from the queue out into the warm summer of the arboretum proper.

And here he was now, gently sucking his pricked thumb, a tender gesture in such a big man. Helen silently thanked the Watcher for realizing that she was ready for another relationship by sending this gorgeous giant along. He was walking towards her now in a slow prowl, and she wondered if he was finally going to kiss her . . . push her against the dark tree trunk and kiss her firmly on the lips. He was reaching towards her, closer, an arrogant smile on his face . . . but at the last moment he bent down to touch the sprays and shoots emerging from near the base of the tree she was leaning against. He was teasing her. She liked that.

"This doesn't look right either." He looked up at her. "Another venumb. I'd say the little one over there is the only true botanical."

"Wrong!" Helen said triumphantly. "Both trees are natural. The first plant you looked at is the venumb. McCusker's Miracle. It was designed to extract aluminum from the soil. You got some of the metal residue on your fingers when you felt its leaves."

Kevin laughed as he straightened up, his big body filling her vision, and he leaned a little closer so that he was almost touching her. He smelled very clean, just a hint of cologne.

"Ah well, can't be right all of the time."

He touched Helen on the cheek; she felt a tiny flutter where his fingers brushed against her skin. He gazed at her for a moment, and she smiled . . . then ducked under his arm and walked over to the center of the clearing. The noon sun lanced down onto the mossy grass, and she spun slowly round in its glow, showing off her body. The light flickered as silver space-bound ships slowly ascended from the port that bordered the arboretum. A sprinkling of butterflies rose into the air and flitted away, back towards the nearby coppice.

"You'll find the best examples of the hybrid venumbs that way," said Helen, deliberately facing away from Kevin towards an area where the trees looked more mechanical. "That section most resembles the modern world," she said. "Or, if you want to see more traditional woodland, we can head in the opposite direction, towards the coppice. There's fine display of butterflies and deer there, too."

She became aware that Kevin was now standing just behind her.

"What's that?" He pointed to the edge of the coppiced area. The corner of a silver-grey cube rose above the tops of the trees.

"That?" Helen smiled. "Oh, that's the Secret Garden."

"The Secret Garden? That sounds intriguing."

Kevin had moved around in front of her now, gazing at the tilted, sunken cube, half seen through the trees. About twenty meters along each side, the straight edges and clean lines of its polished surfaces were in marked contrast to the rounded organic shapes of the surrounding wood. The top of the cube glinted oddly in the sunlight where it emerged from the foliage. Helen took him by the elbow and led him forward.

"Come on, let's go look."

They set off towards the cube. Helen put on her lilting guide's voice.

"The Secret Garden is a first-generation Von Neumann Machine from around the end of the twenty-first century. Unlike contemporary VNMs, these first-generation machines were built without the use of AI library code. It seems hard to believe nowadays, but humans actually worked out the replication routines themselves–"she gave a little laugh; it was part of the script, "–and more often than not, they got them wrong."

"Humans worked out the code? I thought all that sort of thing could only be done by artificial intelligences."

Helen smiled knowingly. "That may be the case nowadays, but back in those days the first AIs hadn't evolved properly. That VNM almost predates AIs."

They reached the cube and stood in the shadow cast by one out-sloping side of the huge VNM. Kevin reached out and ran his hand across its surface. His big, powerful, gentle hand.

"It feels odd, almost frictionless. It's sort of ugly, too." He frowned at Helen. "I'm surprised they left it here in the arboretum. It's hardly natural, is it?"

Helen frowned. "Kevin, people have resigned over that point! The consensus is that this cube is just as natural as any of the hybrid venumbs found in here. As much a living thing as the McCusker's Miracle you were just looking at. This cube replicates itself, just like the beeches and the willows do. The EA therefore counts it as a life form."

"Really?" said Kevin, sounding surprised. "Do you mean that thing is still replicating?"

"Oh, yes. The original unit was seeded about three kilometers down and one kilometer west of here. Some organization wanted a complex of rooms beneath the ground, all to be protected by stealth technology. That's what gives the cube its silver sheen and frictionless feel. Industrial espionage was rife back then, so a secure location was essential. All appeared fine at first, but someone got the telomeric procedures wrong and the VNMs just kept replicating themselves. Rooms kept being built onto previous rooms. Go inside this cube and you're at the top of a four-kilometer-high tower that has burrowed right up from beneath the earth."

Kevin looked at the cube in fascination.

"How did it go on reproducing for so long? Why didn't they stop it?"

Helen laughed. "They didn't know it was happening! It was a stealth construction, remember? They didn't detect any activity!"

She laughed again, and the console around her waist emitted another puff of pheromones. Helen looked delightful when she laughed; she had been told as much many times. Kevin's console must have caught the spray; to be sent a puff of pheromones was a flattering invitation, but at the moment he seemed utterly fascinated by the construct.

"Can we go inside?" he asked. He suddenly switched his attention back to her and, caught by the force of his all too apparent intention, she felt her stomach flip over.

"Oh yes," she said, looking up coyly from beneath her lashes. "There is a door around the other side."

Heart pounding, she led the way along one side of the cube. Sunlight, flickering its way through the green leaves above, formed jigsaw patterns on the ground. Grass and moss grew right up to the VNM's very edge but no further, unable to get a grip on its stealthy surface.

"It's got no roof," said Kevin as they reached the other side. The tilt of the cube allowed them to see the unformed top surface of the VNM.

"Ah," began Helen, "the EA slowed the replication process right down. The thing is still growing, but now at about one billionth of its original rate. The EA does the same with a lot of the hybrid venumbs here in this park. They're technically alive, but with restricted ability to absorb any more of the arboretum's capacity....

Copyright © 2005 by Tony Ballantyne


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