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Greg Egan

PERMUTATION CITY

Into a mute crypt, I Can’t pity our time Turn amity poetic Ciao, tiny trumpet! Manic piety tutor Tame purity tonic Up, meiotic tyrant! I taint my top cure To it, my true panic Put at my nice riot To trace impunity I tempt an outcry, I Pin my taut erotic Art to epic mutiny Can’t you permit it To cite my apt ruin? My true icon: tap it Copy time, turn it; a Rite to cut my pain Atomic putty? Rien! Found in the memory of a discarded notepad in the Common Room of the Psychiatric Ward, Blacktown Hospital, June 6, 2045.

STREET SCENE

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

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

He was on the edge of his universe.

PROLOGUE

(Rip, tie, cut toy man)

JUNE 2045

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two out of four; so far, so good.

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

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

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