The yancibot had brought a rolling metal table or gurney. “For bipeds, such as ourselves, we have cars and carriages and rolling-halls and many other conveyances. Strangely-shaped alien visitors are few in number, and we expect to program our miraculous fabrication-engines to produce suitably dignified vehicles. I am still searching for the proper program.”
“I should be a rude sort of visitor to complain about even the available luxuries! In many cases I have flown or walked great distances. Not long ago I needed to fly to an intra-atmospheric moon, in fact,” said Itharieth, and leapt lightly onto the gurney and settled himself in a sphynxian attitude.
The yancibot wheeled behind the gurney, extended three manipulators, and pushed it along the titanic hallway of steel. “The trip to the Hall of Grandeur will take some time. Pray alert me to any biological needs that occur to you,” said the Curator.
Several miles passed, featureless save for the occasional ramp or control room. Itharieth asked, “We are now, I believe, half a mile under the surface of Memharsh. Did I just see a console which was superficially identical to the photo-yeast control unit?”
“Yes! You are indeed a visitor of most detailed and precise perceptions! On this floor, as on the fourteen above and seven thousand some below, we grow yeast and bacterial mats in tanks, illuminated by artificial lights. What, did you think that the memha relied on sunlight for energy and illumination? We are not so primitive as that! Our powers are endless — inexhaustible!”
“But you do have yeast and bacteria that feed on sunlight,” said Itharieth. “I hope I may be forgiven for thinking that, consequently, you wish to feed your yeast and bacteria upon sunlight.”
“Hah, yes! Forgiveness is instant and unconditional! The sunlit yeast provides a higher grade of nutrition than that fed on artificial light — no matter how precisely we perfect the spectrum! For untold years the yields of the solar tanks have been reserved for the great and the good, the wise and the wonderful among us. I, myself, eat nothing else.”
“Of course not!” exclaimed Itharieth. “But with seven thousand layers of tanks, you must have vast multitudes to feed, do you not?” (Population estimates are of course a crucial part of scouting, thought Itharieth.)
“Our population has declined substantially over the last eighteen thousand years, but hundreds of billions of memha still remain,” said the Curator.
“They remain in places distant from here, if my senses do not confound me,” said Itharieth.
“Oh, they are even further than that, for the most part,” said Des-Cnidda, but did not elaborate.
The yancibot wheeled Itharieth into an elevator chamber sized for thousands, and providing seating for hundreds. (Itharieth reported the numbers in decimal, since they enumerate small people.) “Now you shall descend to the inhabited parts of Memharsh, and see wonders rather than yeast!” And the elevator zoomed downward, a distance that Itharieth estimates as five miles.
The elevator stopped; the vast door slid open. “Well, that is somewhat more comfortable than the yeast-vats,” said Itharieth. The hallway was immense, and the floor was the same burnished steel as upstairs. But the walls and ceiling were covered with brightly colored foam pyramids, arranged to form simple patterns.
“Yes, of course it is! You cannot imagine the noise, the hustle, the bustle, that was here in the ancient days when this hallway was full!”
“I can, at least, estimate it. Those decorations serve the practical function of muting sounds,” said Itharieth.
“Oh! They do that indeed! That had not occurred to me…There is much about Memharsh that has been forgotten, even by the Curator.”
“I note that this huge hallway is empty. There is a slight scent of the organic in the area, but I do not yet see your hundreds of billions of memha,” noted Itharieth.
“Bah, you will not see them. — Or, if you wish, you may look upon their carnalia,” said Des-Cnidda. Itharieth indicated interest, and the yancibot rolled his gurney thither.
The corpspital, romantically named 2890A/ChW73, was another vast room. (Are there any small chambers on Memharsh at all? wondered Itharieth idly.) This one was strewn with thousands and thousands of ambulances: massive sphere-wheeled robots, their outsides busy with ports, intakes, outlets, meters, and subsidiary limbs. Each ambulance was built around a tank.
“Let an ambulance with a living occupant and observation ports roll forth and approach our visitor!” proclaimed Des-Cnidda over the public-address system. The ambulances flickered with low-frequency communications, and then one came to Itharieth.
“Thank you, good ambulance!” said Itharieth. The ambulance buzzed in surprise, and its personal communication panel flashed forth the slogan, SERVICE IS MY ONLY JOY.
“I suppose it is better to have one joy than none,” Itharieth remarked. “Well, would you be so kind as to let me see your memha inhabitant?”
The ambulance turned sideways, showing Itharieth its window. A three-armed biped floated in a thick fluid. It was intubated three dozen ways: larger tubes to its lungs, stomach, and bowels, smaller tubes to its circulatory system, and three massive cables to bands of machinery around its cerebrum.
“Biological and medical science has been poured forth in a torrent upon this person!” said Itharieth. “Did she suffer some terrible illness or accident, requiring such monumental treatment?”
“No accident worse than being born a common memha of the twenty-eighth era!” exclaimed Des-Cnidda. “In the Year of the Twelfth Cabochon of that era, it was decided and enacted that all memha who could, would escape the physical world, with its requisite sins and poisons, and enter the Cyber-Social Heaven and dwell there forever.”
“So, her body is maintained alive by this machine, while her consciousness is in some very advanced and, I assume, quite orthodox computer game?” asked Itharieth.
“That is an oversimplification of a complex reality!…But rather than attempting to correct it, we shall let it stand, as the sort of summary that a visitor who does not wish a five-year lecture may readily comprehend!” said Des-Cnidda.
“I do confess to being that sort of visitor,” said Itharieth. “Good ambulance, I am quite grateful for your service, and if you wish, I will proclaim your identity across many worlds. The ambulance turned further, showing a plaque saying Serial Number 237-5134-AD-57226-E-5995-JhD-4, which is included in this text to honor Itharieth’s promise.
“You show remarkable courtesies to machines,” said Des-Cnidda, as the yancibot rolled the dragon gurney towards the Hall of Grandeur.
“Perhaps so. I do not wish to be a rude and arrogant sort of visitor,” said Itharieth.
“That is well enough for you. On Memharsh, it is not done that way. We do not wish to suggest to the machines that they have any inherent value. The world is ours; they dwell upon it for our convenience!”
“Of course, of course. The situation is similar on certain dragon-worlds. The difference, of course, is that dragons do not spend their time in any sort of Cyber-Social Heaven. Are all memha thusly cyber-deified?”
“Hah, it is not so! Not even all those who remain on Memharsh are! Hundreds of us remain unconfined, free to dwell on the material world and live in reality! Not counting the degeps in their tens of thousands — they are technically memha, though they scarcely act like it!”
“How is it that you are unconfined?”
“A noble rebellion! A long and elaborate story of deceptions, bribes and assassinations of officials, hiding in a space-ship on the far side of the moon, sabotage of certain tabulating computers!”
Itharieth grinned. “That sounds like an adventure — the stuff of legends and sagas!”
Des-Cnidda said, “I wholly agree! My great-grandparents were great indeed! But I am the last of their lineage, the last of the noblest race of memha to remain free on our ancestral home-world!”
“H’m. I am a biologist by trade. I must wonder — do the tanked memha reproduce? If so, how is it accomplished?”
Des-Cnidda said, “Indeed they do! Though in recent centuries it has become an ineffective and mischancy procedure. Perhaps because it is, in effect, rape of an unconscious woman. I am given to understand that the tank-dwellers are in all ways unaware of their bodies, save for annual maintenance reports delivered to them via e-mail. The ambulances and corpspitals collect spermatophores from tanked males, and deliver them to tanked females, in an action far from the gracious glories of traditional mating-ceremonies. When a child results — as happens quite rarely anymore — it is taken immediately to its own ambulance, intubated, and propelled into the Cyber-Social Heaven. The same fate awaits all children born on Memharsh whose parents do not guard them quite carefully, which is why I have no peers or siblings, and why even the degeps are becoming scarce.”
“Not entirely scarce, I think! Twenty-one memha are approaching me, if I am not mistaken, with blasters and metal spears at the ready.”
“I shall rescue you!” cried Des-Cnidda. The yancibot jerked the gurney quickly around. Itharieth, as far from vulnerable as he is far from redoubtable, leapt off the gurney and glided towards the degeps.
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