Beyond Infinity

By: Gregory Benford



Thought shall be harder,

heart the keener

courage the greater,

as our might lessens.

—“The Battle of Maldon”

Tenth Century A.D.



AT TIMES CLEY thought that she was, well, a bit too intense. She seemed to have too much personality for one person and yet not enough for two.

Perhaps the cause lay in her upbringing. She had been most attentively raised by her Meta, an ancient term for the meta-family. Hers had several hundred loosely related people clustered in ever-shifting patterns. It provided an overview, a larger vision of how to grow up.

The Meta had spotted her as a wild card early on. It made no difference. Though hers, the Hard River Meta, was entirely, deliberately populated by Naturals—those without deep-seated connections to external machine intelligences—not many were Originals. Cley was an Original of particularly primordial type, based on genes of great vintage. Other Originals carried genes that had passed through revisions so many times that, by comparison, Cley’s genetic suite was a fossil.

This gave her a kind of status. Not many true Originals walked the Earth, though the historians who pestered her early education said there had once been billions of them afoot. Billions! There were hardly a tenth that many now in all Earthly humanity. Not that she cared much about such numbers. Mathematics was a fossil art. Few in her time bothered to scale those heights of analysis with their majestic, abstruse peaks that the ancient civilizations had climbed, marked as their own, and finally abandoned as too chilly, remote, and even inhuman.

She cared far more for things close by, not abstractions. That was the gift of living in Hard River Meta—the natural world, custom-made for Naturals. They had enough technology to be comfortable but did not waste time tending to it. Nobody much cared about events beyond the horizon.

She had dozens of good friends and saw them daily. Children had jobs that meant something—farming, maintenance, big-muscle stuff—and nobody lorded it over others. Leadership rotated. Kids tried on jobs like clothes. Her life was one of small, steady delights.

She was happy, but—The filling in of the rest of that sentence would, she knew quite early, occupy the rest of her life. And she knew even then that the things she sought in life could disappear even as she reached for them, the way a fist went away when she opened her hand.

She suspected her antic energy came from a heavy genetic legacy. She belonged to the narrowest class of the Ur-humans—a genuine Original, and as such, something of a puzzle to her Meta of Naturals and much-revised Originals. A rarity.

She knew herself to be something of a hothouse plant. Not an orchid, no. More like a cactus, feverishly flowering under the occasional passing cloudburst. Anyone who showered her with attention got her one-plus-some personality, ready or not. She wore people out.

Especially, she tired her fellow Naturals in their orderly oatmeal lives. She secretly suspected that she also carried some Supra genes, or maybe some of the intermediate breeds of human that had been in vogue through the last several hundred million years. She tried to find out if this might be so, but hit the stone wall of Meta security, whose motto in most matters genetic was “Best not to know.”

So she watched herself for telltale signs of intermediate forms. Nobody would help her, and she was too close to herself to be objective—and who wasn’t? A stutter she developed at age nine—could that be a sign? She worried endlessly. Bit off fingernails, even when they were part of her extendable tools. Chewed her lip. Then the stutter went away. Another sign?

She felt as though she might very well spend the rest of her life with her button nose pressed against the glass of a room where she should be, only she couldn’t find the door.

Her Meta never told her exactly who her parents were. There were Moms, which stood for mother of the moment, who tended to her upbringing for years, then handed her off to another Mom. All her previous Moms stayed in the background, ready to help.

She only knew for sure that some pair among the sixty or so in her Meta had given birth to her genetically. But which pair? She had often wondered. It was usually reassuring that the genetic parents sometimes did not themselves recall—and sometimes it was not reassuring at all.

But then, growing up was not supposed to be easy. One Mom remarked offhandedly, “It’s the toughest work you’ll ever do.” For a long while Cley had thought this an exaggeration. Now she was not so sure she could even do it.

The troubling question was, when was growing up over? Maybe never.

So she took her earliest Mom as a model. That Mom was a stocky, affable woman of wide smile and high cheekbones. Cley had good, trim cheekbones like hers but had grown to be slim, tall, muscular, small-breasted. Were these differences clues to her father’s genes? She wished she had gotten more cleavage and an easier manner. But even Cley knew that gene combinations were not so simple.

In late childhood, when she first started to fret over such matters, she had mentioned her vague ideas about her father to her then-nominal Mom, who said, “You don’t need to know, dear, and anyway, he’s far away.”

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