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Episode 4

Tritonic Neuroform Composition

With another gesture, Phaethon lowered his sense-filter and opened his brain to all the sensations in the area, so he could look upon “reality” without any interpretation-buffer.

The shock of the noise and music, the screams of the Advertisements, startled him.

Panels and banners of lightweight film hung or floated grandly in the air. Each one flashed with colors brighter and more gaudy than its neighbor; every image was twice as dizzying, alluring, and hypnotic as the one before. Some of the Advertisements had projectors capable of directing stimulation into any brain equipped to receive it.

When they noticed Phaethon staring (perhaps they had registers to note his eye movements and pupil dilation—such information was, after all, in the public domain) they folded and swooped, clamoring, pressing around him, squawking, urging him to try, just once, free trial offer, their profferred stimulants and additions, false memories, compositions, and thought schemes. They swarmed like angry sea gulls or hungry children from some historical drama.

The music was, if anything, worse. A group from the Red Manorial School on one hillside in the distance were having a combination scream-feast, Bacchanalia, and composition-symphony analogue. Emancipated partials of the Psycho-asymmetric Insulae-Composition were on the other hillside, having a noise duel. Their experimental 36- and 108-tone scale music, subsonic and hypersonic, trembled in Phaethon’s teeth. They made no effort to muffle the sound for the sake of those who did not share their extensive ear/auditory lobe modifications, their peculiar subjective time-scale alterations, or their even more peculiar aesthetic theories. Why should they? Every civilized person was assumed to have access to some sort of sense-filter to allow them to block or to tolerate the noise.

And there was no sign of the white-haired man. Perhaps he had been a projection after all, or some fiction, part of the art statement of the grove?

The flash and glamour of the transparent Advertisements did not block his view. The trees were widely spaced, nor was there brush. And, unless the man had hidden behind the walking iceberg thing looming above the grape trellises nearby, there was simply no place to hide.

Phaethon threw his hands before his face and gestured for his sense-filter to resume.

Peace and silence crashed into place around him. It was not, perhaps, the perfect truth he saw. But the groves were quiet now, and starlight and moonlight slanted through the strange silver-mirrored leaves, and falling blossoms. A routine calculated how the scene would look (and sound and feel and smell) were the disturbing objects not present. The representation was close to real, “Surface Dreaming” as it was called. The machine intelligences creating the illusion, able to think a million times faster than a man, or a billion, could cleverly and symmetrically account for all inconsistencies and cover up any unwanted errors.

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His ears still rang with echoes; his eyes were still dazzled by floating half shapes, colors reversed. He could have waited for his ears to stop ringing naturally, or blinked his eyes clear. But he was impatient; the man he sought was no doubt getting away. He merely signaled for his eyes to reset to perfect night adaptation, for his ears to restore.

Phaethon started to jog toward the grape trellises where …

The iceberg thing was gone. Phaethon saw nothing.

Iceberg? Phaethon’s augmented memory could re-create an exact image of what he had seen. It had loomed, gigantic, over the area, moving on myriad legs of semiliquid, which solidified, elephantine, then liquefied again as the creature drifted forward. Likewise, it had had a dozen arms or tentacles of ice flowing and freezing around objects in the area, careful not to disturb the trees, but holding objects (eyes? remote sensors?) near the garden plants, as if to study them from every angle.

It was, of course, a member of the Tritonic Neuroform Composition School, the so-called Neptunians. The technology of their nerve-cell surface allowed them thought-speeds approaching that of some of the slower Sophotechs; but the crystals of the cell surface exhibited their peculiar electrosuperconductive and micropolymorphetic characteristics only under the near-absolute-zero temperatures and near-metallic-hydrogen-forming pressures of the Neptunian atmosphere. The icy body Phaethon had seen was armor—living, shape-changing armor, but armor nonetheless, and a triumph of molecular and submolecular technology. That armor allowed the Neptunian brain substances inside to withstand the unbearable heat and (relative to Neptune) near-vacuum conditions of the earthly atmosphere.

That he had programmed his sense-filter to block images of Advertisements or raucous music, Phaethon could understand. But he did not remember (and his memory was photographically perfect) ordering the filter to block views of Neptunians. Merely that one of that strange, remote school, the most distant members of the Golden Oecumene, should come physically to Earth was cause for wonder and comment.

Why in the world would Phaethon have ordered himself not to see, or to avoid remembering seeing, such a being? It was true that Neptunians were thought of as reckless, innovative, untrustworthy, and yet …

Phaethon took a moment to examine his sense-filter’s censor. Only three of the command lines struck him as odd. Very odd. One was meant to prevent him seeing the Cerebelline Green-Mother’s ecoperformance being held on Channels 12—20 at Destiny Lake. The second was to edit out sights and references to the visiting Neptunian legates. A third was meant to distract him from studying astronomical reports or information concerning a recent disaster in Mercurial space, brought on by solar prominences and irregularities of unusual violence.

Why? What was the connection?

And why had he done this to himself? And then ordered himself to forget that he had done it?

Phaethon adjusted his sense-filter to allow himself to see the Neptunian (without hearing the music or seeing those dreadful Advertisements) and was surprised to behold the gigantic creature picking its way up the grassy slope toward him, moving like a pale cloud bank.

As it came closer, Phaethon saw, within the ice, several concentric shells or spheres of crystalline armor. Deep in the smoky depths was a web of nerve tissue connecting four major brains, and at least a hundred lesser subbrains, nerve knobs, ganglia, synthetic cells, relays, and augmentation clusters.

The nerve tissue within the ice was in motion, some tendrils of brain matter expanding, forming new nodes and knobs; and others contracting, creating an impression of furious mental activity.

Closer it came.

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