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( ( ( 7 ) ) )

Sleep tore at him, shrieked at him, pummeled him without mercy. His traitorous body was only too happy to succumb, and it took a monumental effort of will for Natch to keep himself awake.

Sheldon Surina, the father of bio/logics, had once defined progress as “the expansion of choices.” Natch wanted the choice to stay awake. So he switched on PulCorp’s U-No-Snooze 93 and let the OCHRE machines in his body release more adrenaline. Within seconds, he was awake and alert.

He was on the tube headed north out of Cisco station, through the great redwood forests that carpeted much of the northwest, and up to Seattle. Natch had been on this route hundreds of times. The tube would shuttle back and forth between the two port cities all afternoon, hauling industrial supplies and a dwindling number of commuters. At this time of the morning, the passenger car was nearly empty. Besides Natch, there was an elderly gentleman who appeared to be killing time; two businesswomen who were probably accompanying their cargo in the trailing cars; and an Islander tugging uncomfortably at the copper collar around his neck. Fickle economics, which had once courted TubeCo with ardor, had moved on to younger and more acrobatic mistresses.

Natch had no business to transact in either Cisco or Seattle. He came to see the trees. To see the trees and to plot his next move.

Everyone in the fiefcorp knew about his ritual of tubing out to the redwood forests whenever he had something to mull over. Nobody understood it, least of all Jara. “You refuse to eat a meal sitting down because it’s a waste of time, but you’ll spend three and a half hours riding a hunk of tin across the continent?” she had once scolded him. “Why tube all the way out there when you can multi instead?”

“It’s not the same as being there in person.”

Jara rolled her eyes. He saw the incomprehension written all over her face: This is the same kind of backwards logic that the Islanders and the Pharisees use. I thought you were smarter than that.

“What about a hoverbird?”

“I don’t like hoverbirds. Bad memories.” “Okay, then why don’t you teleport? I know, it’s expensive. But time is money, isn’t it?”

Natch had had no reply. He was not very good at elaborate explanations. He simply knew he did his best thinking while in a tube car staring at giant sequoias. Teleporting or multi projecting out to the redwoods just wasn’t the right way to do it. It was wrong, like an imperfect bio/logic program was wrong.

Maybe what he appreciated about the tube was that it was done right. TubeCo had an eye for perfection in everything they did. Their vehicles were not “hunks of tin,” as Jara had accused. They were sleek and beautiful, the product of a business that had reached its awesome maturity. Transparent from the inside but breathtakingly translucent from the outside, the tube cars floated on a cushion of air just molecules thick and whooshed over slim tracks with quiet grace. Even the armrests on the chairs were sculpted from synthetic ivory and contoured for maximum comfort. Unlike so many technological marvels these days that blended into the background—microscopic OCHREs that regulated the human body, multi projections that were nearly indistinguishable from real bodies, data agents that existed only within the mind—the tube was a visible, palpable manifestation of human achievement. It was progress writ large.

The redwoods, in contrast, were nature writ large. Natch gazed through the transparent wall at the sequoias towering over the tube tracks. These trees had watched over this route long before the tube even existed. Most of them had undoubtedly seen the days of Sheldon Surina and Henry Osterman, the days of bio/logics’ founders. Some of the trees had stood here since long before the Autonomous Revolt or even the First American Revolution. All of human history, in fact, was but a footnote to their tranquil and reflective existence.

The tube car completed its circuit through the redwood forest and slid to a graceful stop at the Seattle station, but Natch stayed on for another pass. Then another, and another. He watched the trees; he pondered the future; he formulated plans. Gradually, the effects of the U-No-Snooze program wore off. Natch let his guard down and drifted off to sleep.

* * *

In his sleep, he dreamed.

He dreamed he was standing in a grove of redwoods, dwarfed by their majesty. He felt small: a forgotten attribute in the great schema of the universe. He was trapped down here. The forest was endless. Tube trains whizzed by just over the next hill, powerless to do anything but circle around in vain looking for an outlet.

But Natch had found a method of escape. He had prepared for this moment. He was a bio/logic programmer, a master architect of human capability. He had studied in the Proud Eagle hive, apprenticed with the great Serr Vigal, gone up against formidable enemies like the Patel Brothers. And he had brought all his skill and learning to bear when he crafted the ultimate program: Jump 225.

He stared at the canopy of leaves many kilometers up in the sky. It looked impossibly distant. But then he thought about the Jump program, the way it swirled and swooped in MindSpace with impossible grace. The sheer number of its tendrils, its connections. The geometric shapes that formed mathematical constellations beyond human perception.

Natch was confident. He started the Jump program, felt programming instructions flowing off the Data Sea and into the data receptacles built into his very bones. Felt the tingling of OCHRE systems interpreting the code and routing commands to the proper leg muscles. He Jumped.

Natch propelled himself right-foot-forward in an elegant arc towards the sky. The code was grounded in one of the classic moves of natural law: the jump, a movement humanity had worked out through a hundred thousand years of constant iteration. Yet the program bore the indelible signatures of an artificial product: the curl of the toes at mid-leap, the triumphant arching of the back, the pleasing whistle where no whistle would otherwise exist. The sky drew nearer and nearer, the ground now but a distant memory. Breaking free of the redwoods was already a foregone conclusion, and Natch had set his sights on still loftier goals. Jump 225 would take him not only above the redwoods, but up into the clouds and out of natural law altogether. He would achieve freedom from the tedious rules that had governed human existence since the beginning of time. Down would no longer follow up. Autumn would no longer follow summer. Death would no longer follow life. The Jump 225 program would accomplish all this, and more.

Then, just when his straining fingertips struggled for purchase on the twigs hanging off the highest branches—when he could feel the feathery touch of the leaves—when he had just gotten his first whiff of pure, clean, unspoiled sky—the inevitable descent began.

Natch could see himself falling in slow motion, as if he were looking down from the pinnacle of the tallest redwood. He could see his arms flailing and feel his lungs bursting every second of the way down. The whistle of the Jump had become the screech of gravity’s avenging angel. What mere seconds ago had been a triumphant Jump now turned into a horrible, agonizing Fall. How could he have been so blind? How could he not have seen this?

This was worse than not having Jumped in the first place: the force of the impact would surely crush him, flatten him, destroy him. And still he accelerated. Falling so fast now that he would actually crash through the ground, down through the pulverizing rock, down to the center of the Earth, where nothing could ever rise again. He yelled his defiance. He shook his fists. He railed at the trees, reaching out in a vain effort to pull them down with him.

A split second before impact, Natch awoke.

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