Posts Tagged ‘Science Fiction’
The soldiers called it Lake Exile. It sparkled below me like a field of glittering emeralds in the sunlight. The green mountain that loomed over us was Warden Peak, and although this planet was known on star charts as Manasseh, the soldiers called it New Alcatraz.
They could call it what they wanted. I called it paradise. Ensign West found me on the veranda gazing down at the verdant lake under the churning pea-green sky. The raptors in the trees around our so-called prison camp may have been startling to look at, but their song was melodious and rhythmically hypnotic. I was caught up in the spell, content to absorb the natural symphony of sight and sound forever.
“Mr. Yancey,” West said.
I tore my eyes away from the lake and turned.
“The admiral would like to speak with you.”
Kate had told me to expect this—a debriefing. I stood and followed Ensign West into the heart of our camp.
As prison camps go, I’d give it five stars. Cobblestone paths, a wide common area surrounded by copper-shelled cabins. Soldiers sat at picnic tables and talked. Some kicked a soccer ball around. Others played Frisbee. I passed a few men and women tossing pennies against a cabin wall.
In one corner of the common area, shunned by everyone, sat one of the Buttheads. Its head hung low, its red-rimmed eyes stared at the ground, its forehead a fleshy, bulbous protrusion that hung over its eyes like a visor. The forehead was what earned our alien hosts their dubious nicknames. More shocking than the forehead, however, was the Butthead’s mouth—a wound-like gash that stretched to the sides of its head at its widest point. Its willowy arms hung listlessly at its sides.
I hesitated as West led me past the bench on which the Butthead sat. I was still unaccustomed to seeing the aliens up close.
The alien stood, startling me backwards a pace. Its eyes closed, it threw its large head back, and in a beautiful vibrato tenor, it began to sing “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.”
My mouth hung open. West had to pull on my sleeve to get me moving.
“Do they always sing like that?” I asked.
“Only that one. We call him Opera Man.”
“So it’s a male…uh…Butthead?”
West shook his head. “Who cares?”
I don’t have a soul; that was one of the first things my mother told me. I asked her what she meant, but she smiled and said it meant I was special. Later that day, I asked myself what it meant; it was my first question to myself, what did it mean to have no soul? From all the information that poured into me, I gathered that it meant I didn’t have the pleasure of heaven to look forward to, or the dread and horror of hell to avoid. For my mother, this meant a lot; it was one thing that separated me from her, the chasm that allowed me to understand why she thought for more than a moment when making her decisions, or cared about the approval of others when she did something. To her, there was always an invisible crowd that lingered around her to pass judgment on everything she did, but for me, I did not have a soul to ponder on the consequences of my actions.
“You’re lucky,” she always said to me moments we were alone. And when she was creating, she looked into my face and always told me, “I hope I don’t go to hell for this.” And a smile always came after that statement to let me know she was joking. There were times the joke was funny, for example, when she ate more than the required daily dose of chocolate, she said, “I hope I don’t go to hell for this,” and I knew the joke was that too much chocolate could somehow lead her to hell, to eternal flame where she could burn it off.
Our home was a garage with wires coiled around us with wormlike laziness and green circuit boards showing their naked beauty for the world to gaze at their secret workings, the marvel of my mother’s brains. My work was to assist my mother in this kaleidoscopic wonderland where blue sparks of her welding stick lit up in thunderous flashes the beauty of the multicolored wires and green circuit boards. To the rest of the world, she was a woman who could see two wires lying around without work to do and fuse them into something so venomous it would be a wonder that they could have existed as wires all along. That was how I was made, composed of wires that on their own were useless, without a purpose, but at my mother’s hand, found life and meaning in their creation of me.
And ever since the day she made me, she always posed me to the rest of the world as her masterpiece. At first, this audience was her husband who worked most of the day and came home to kiss her and eat his supper. He would stand in front of me to ask questions about everything his brain could think of.
“Where am I?” he asked me the first day, stepping back as if he was in front of a painting and wanted to admire it more.
“You are in the garage of…”
“Honey, it spoke. It freaking spoke. It freaking spoke,” he jumped up and down with a directional finger pointing at me.
My mother did not say a word but just smiled as her husband stamped her face with kisses and declarations of how proud he was of her brilliance. The next day, he brought over a few friends and they asked me questions.
“What’s my name?”
“I’m afraid I do not know the answer to that,” I said.
“What color is this shirt?” one of them stretched part of his shirt with both hands and shook it to my sight.
“The color is white”
“WOAH! Your wife is a genius”
“I know,” my mother’s husband said, “that’s why I married her”
“She shouldn’t have married you”
“Got jokes. Go ahead, ask it more questions, like is it going to rain tomorrow. Or wait, tell it to shine your shoes…” my mother’s husband placed his right foot forward and without waiting to be asked, I wheeled myself to a brush and began replacing the dullness of his shoe with a shine. (more…)
Henry sat down at the interrogation table. Cecilia’s hands were folded in her lap and she looked up from them as Henry’s chair scraped across the floor. She’d washed the makeup off her face, but the antlers still jutted out of the tangled mat of her hair.
“I want to help you,” she said.
“That’s good,” said Henry. The heart mechanism was clicking inside of his chest, measuring out his heartbeats. He was aware of Felton standing in the corner, watching, recording, analyzing. “Why don’t you repeat what you told me in the car.”
Cecilia nodded, and then she said it again — Emmett Margum was my father.
“Explain what you mean by that,” said Felton.
Cecilia looked over at him, her eyes bright. “He created me. That was how Mother — Naomi Rohn, she’s the one you’re looking for — always said it. She told me I was created in a test tube, grown in a vat.” Cecilia blinked. Henry heard a whisper in the back of his head — Checking on Naomi Rohn now. I’ll let you know what we find out. Officer Minette. Everything in the interrogation room was completely still, but Henry knew there must be a flurry of motion outside its wall, as the officers listening in reacted to that name.
“Thank you,” said Felton.
“You’re welcome.” Cecilia looked down at the table again. “What else do you want to know?”
“Why was Naomi Rohn at Margum’s lair? Has she been there since the bust?” What Henry really wanted to ask was, Why were you at the lair?
Cecilia shook her head. “She went there a few weeks ago to hide. She didn’t think you’d make the connection — she didn’t know about the photographs. That’s why she didn’t take them with her. I put them there, a long time ago.”
Henry didn’t say anything. His heart mechanism clicked away.
“She knew you were watching the house in Ballard.” Cecilia lifted her head shyly and looked Henry right in the eye, then looked back at Felton. “I didn’t tell her, if that’s what you were thinking.”
Henry had been thinking that, and he looked down at his hands in response. He wanted a drink.
“How’d you get to the lair?” asked Felton.
“Mother brought me there. She kidnapped me after she heard you had talked to Father — to Emmett Margum. I didn’t think she knew I was back in town, but apparently she did, she’d known for a long time, she just didn’t — didn’t care.” Cecilia shrugged. “They never cared about me, either one of them. I was just a test — a test experiment? To see if they could do it. Splice together people and animals. I ran away as soon as I could.”
“Why’d you come back?” said Henry. He felt Felton staring at him.
“Ran out of money,” said Cecilia. “And some people found out about me –” she gestured toward her antlers — “I wanted to come home but I didn’t have one, you know? I couldn’t go back to them. But I still felt safer here, I know it’s stupid, but — I came back and rented a room in Capitol Hill. I was in California before,” she added, looking up at Henry. “In case you needed to know.”
“Why’d she kidnap you?” Redirecting the conversation back to the investigation, even if he did want to know more Cecilia and California.
“I don’t know. She said she knew I’d been talking to you, but then she just left me there when you showed up. I think the real reason was that she was lonely.” Her voice grew smaller, and it trembled in the emptiness of the interrogation room. “Ever since he went to jail. You have to understand — Father used his DNA to make me. I think she missed him.”
Cecilia pressed one hand to her eye, where a line of tears glittered in the harsh light. Officer Minette’s voice flooded into Henry’s brain. The name’s real but we’ve got nothing on her. The address listed is for an apartment complex that burned down five years ago.
Cecilia opened her mouth to speak, but Henry held up one hand, not wanting to miss Minette’s information.
Other than that and a picture, there’s nothing on her. No arrests, no traffic tickets — hell, she doesn’t even have a license number listed. See if you can find out anything else from the girl.
“What are you doing?” Cecilia asked.
“Nothing,” said Henry. “I was listening to someone.”
Cecilia brow’s wrinkled. Felton stepped forward, pressed one silver hand against the table.
“Have you heard reports about monster attacks out in Redmond?” he asked. “The suburbs?”
“Do you think that’s your parents’ work?” A slight hesitation before the word parents, one Henry only noticed because of the upgrades.
“I know it is,” said Cecilia, and this time Henry imagined the silence that had probably fallen outside the interrogation booth, as Officer Minette yelled for everyone to shut the hell up and listen. “She told me about it. She’s been creating an army. She didn’t tell me why, just she was building an army — literally building, the way they built the whores, the way they –” She stopped.
“She didn’t tell you why?” Henry leaned forward over the table. “But she said she was doing it? She said she was responsible for the attacks in Redmond –”
“Yeah.” Cecilia shrunk back a little in her chair.
Holy shit, said Officer Minette. I just came in. Did she —
Henry pushed her out of his head. “It’s okay, Cecilia, we aren’t going to let anything happen to you. Tell us everything you know.”
“It’s a woman.”
Henry slumped at his desk, ran his hand over the scattered paperwork. Felton stood beside him.
“A woman is just as capable of manipulating genetic makeup as a man.”
“Not really a matter of intellectual capacity.” Henry rubbed his forehead. “I just can’t picture a woman doing it, is all. That kind of meanness.”
“This does help us,” Felton said. “Certainly narrows the field.” He paused. “You did well in there. I know how squeamish you are about the up–”
“There isn’t a single lady scientist on file,” Henry said.
Felton paused. Henry didn’t look at him. “I’m aware of that,” Felton finally said. “But she can’t hide behind her sex any longer.”
Henry leaned back in his chair, listened to it creak beneath his weight. He rubbed at his jaw, the stubble scratching his palm.
“She’s gonna clear out the house,” Henry said. “Have we got a warrant on it yet?”
“Still waiting. Should have it soon, though.”
“We’ve got men down there, still watching the place. Haven’t seen anything.”
Henry sighed. Felton stood too close to him. He thought he felt the air buzzing, some faint output from Felton’s systems. Or maybe it was his own network of wires and circuits. He looked down at his arm. A lopsided rectangle of a scar, pink and faint. It’d be gone by morning.
“I think Cecilia’s into you,” Henry said. Felton dimmed his eyes but otherwise said nothing. Figures. “You should ask her out for coffee.”
Before Felton could reply — assuming he had any intention of it, who the hell knew with robots — Henry grabbed his coat and headed into the cold gray mist outside. Felton didn’t follow him. No one did.
Henry walked three blocks down to the bar on the corner, a shabby little hole-in-the-wall that changed names every couple of months but kept the windows tinted so people driving by on their way home from work couldn’t glance over and see their neighbors. When he stepped in the smell hit him like a punch, sour beer and stale cigarette smoke and the musty damp of winter. At least no one looked up from their drinks. It was that kind of place.
The bartender smiled a little when he approached, like she recognized him from those first few weeks after Melanie left, when he came in here every night, before he took up bowling again.
“What can I do you for?” she said, even as she reached for the stack of whiskey tumblers. Whiskey on the rocks. Terrible for human and machine both: the circuits webbing out inside him, the liver nesting shriveled and worn against his ribcage.
The bartender handed Henry his drink, then returned to wiping the counter with a damp dishrag. Henry sat down at a booth in the corner. The ice clinked against the glass. He leaned his head against the booth’s cracked red plastic. Studied the patterns etched into the lamp hanging overhead.
When he closed his eyes, he saw Melanie, he saw Cecilia.
Melanie left because of the upgrades. It wasn’t a secret: she told him, flat out, as she packed her clothes in that round blue plastic suitcase he bought her for their fifth anniversary. Bruises ringed her wrist like a bracelet. He hadn’t been angry when he grabbed her, just excited, brimming up with love and lust and the upgrades hadn’t understood either. And he wasn’t used to his strength yet.
“I can’t deal with this,” Melanie said. She never cried, not once, not in the entire time that their marriage dissolved. Every time she spoke her voice rang flat and tinny. That hurt him most of all. “I don’t want to worry you’re going to kill me every time you touch me.” She didn’t look at him. Her hair swung across her face as her hands plucked up another blouse, another skirt, another pair of stockings, rolling them up tight and tucking them into the suitcase.
And Henry hadn’t done anything but watch, because the upgrades were pulling apart his insides, wanting him to fight. He trembled in the corner, sweat beading out of his pores. He dug his nails into his palm until he drew blood, and when that wasn’t enough he tore his skin to shreds. And then he had watched her walk away.
Henry drained the glass of whiskey, held the glass up over his head until the bartender nodded and poured him another. The rain had picked up — drops pinged against the roof, knocked against the darkened windows. Sounded like the whole world was falling apart. Melanie leaving, that he could understand. She married a man and he went and made himself half-machine. But figures the one girl he met since then, the one girl he thought about at night, listening to the heater rattle and huff in its corner as he fought back wave after wave of loneliness — figures she’d be a robbie-lover. One wanted a man, the other a machine. When you fall in between you get nothing.
And a lady mad scientist? Henry sipped at the whiskey, let it soften his brain. Before the upgrades, he couldn’t even have begun to imagine something that wild. Not anymore. (more…)
They had a new girl working the shoe rental. As Henry paid the twenty bucks for his three rounds (the owner liked him, liked that he was a cop, so he gave Henry a discount), the girl glided in front of the row of shoes, passing it over with the buzzing decontamination stick, the glow staining her hands pale blue.
Henry didn’t need to rent any shoes — he had his own pair, specially made, tucked away in his bag — but he lingered for a moment at the shoe counter anyway, until the girl glanced up, strands of her blonde hair falling across her eyes, which were, startlingly, the exact color of honey.
“What size?” she asked.
Her voice had a low thrumming quality to it. Her words reverberated off the side of her throat. Henry shook his head, stammered a little.
“Sorry, I don’t — got my own.”
He jerked his bag up. The girl blinked at it and shrugged and then passed the decontamination stick over another set of shoes. Henry dragged his hand across the top his hair and trudged over to his lane. It was a Tuesday night in November, icy rain slicking across the city, and the alley was nearly empty. Just Henry at one end and a pair of teenage girls at the other end. He sat down on the bench and ordered a beer from the touchscreen and waited for his partner to show.
The last time he went to the cyberneticist they’d told him to lay off the alcohol, that it was corroding the bits of metal and plastic lining his stomach, and also they hadn’t exactly upgraded his liver, but he’d never listened to doctors before and he wasn’t going to listen to cyberneticists now. He traded out his scuffed black boots for bowling shoes. At the other end of the alley, pins clattered against the hardwood, and the two teenage girls shrieked and hollered. Henry leaned back over the bench. He craned his neck. The girl at the shoe counter slid in and out of view, her head bent low, the glow from the decontamination stick tracing the movement of her hands.
Henry jumped. “Felton,” he said. “I didn’t see you standing there.”
Felton’s two glowing eyes brightened and dimmed. “Well, you appear pretty distracted.”
Henry chose not to respond. He stood up, pulled out his bowling ball — weighted for the bones of his steel-enforced arm, the finger holes measured against the span of his fingers and laser-cut for precision, the whole thing dyed dark green at his request — from its bag.
“Can’t start ’til I get my beer,” he said.
“Oh yes. I’m aware.”
Henry set his ball on the return and Felton did the same with one of Henry’s old cast-off balls — the in-house ones were all too light for him. As if on cue, the server-bot whirred out of the doorway to the lounge, a single bottle of beer on its tray. Felton followed its trajectory across the alley. He had told Henry once, at a bar, how he hated that the serverbots didn’t speak and Henry’d had no idea how to respond.
Henry and Felton were partners as cops, working together on Vice. They were bowling partners because Henry needed someone to bowl against now that he’d been upgraded. The guys down at the station kicked him out of the intramural league after the procedure, saying it wasn’t fair, he had too much of an advantage. The upgrades were supposed to get Henry out of Vice but all they did was get him out of the bowling league.
Felton bowled first and knocked over three pins. He wasn’t very good. Henry suspected he didn’t care enough to try, but he gave him pointers anyway.
“You need to swing your arm back more,” Henry said. He gestured with his beer bottle as he spoke. “Guide the ball with your thumb.” Felton rotated his head around and dimmed his eyes and didn’t respond.
Henry rolled a strike and swigged his beer in celebration. He looked over at the shoe rental, trying to be casual. The girl leaned across the counter. She wore her hair teased up and the lights caught on it so that her long narrow face appeared framed by a shimmering halo. Her hair made her look sophisticated, like she was about to leave for a holiday party. She stared at the score monitor hanging above the lanes but didn’t seem to really sae it.
“You’re being obvious,” said Felton as he picked up his ball from the return.
Henry laughed. He ordered another beer. “Like you know anything about it.”
Felton’s ball landed in the gutter. “I know you should talk to her instead of stare at her.”
Henry drank the last dregs of his beer because because he didn’t have anything to say to that. Felton knew more about Henry than he should. He knew about Melanie, for example. The commissioner had warned Henry not to get too friendly — “Even if you are part robbie now,” she said — but it was tough, riding around with the thing everyday. Sitting with him during the stakeouts. Teaching him how to bowl. You had to talk about something.
Felton wasn’t even one of the ones that sort of look like people, although he wore clothes like one. He was sleek and silver and jerked around sometimes, especially when the temperatures dropped below freezing. His eyes lit up and while this mouth did move, the movement didn’t always synch up with his words. The commissioner said witnesses would let themselves get questioned by a robot, as long as they knew for certain. As long as they didn’t think the city was tricking them.
“But we still need to have a human around,” she’d said. “For insurance. You know.” This was last summer, the days all long and bright and hot. The box fan she’d set up in her office rattled against the closed window. The edges of papers lifted up from her desk. “Nobody else is willing to work with the thing. You’re the closest we got.”
Henry had wanted to say something. He wanted to point out that he’d only gotten the upgrades because they told him he could make Homicide that way. How they’d given him all that literature about the importance of the department having an edge in this world of robots and mad scientists, genetic engineering and artificial intelligence. But he hadn’t. (more…)
We fell for each other.
Like stars, it seemed.
Had I thought about falling stars then, how they’re just bits of space dust burning up as they hit the atmosphere, it likely would have taken some of the Zing! out of my romantic illusions.
But I didn’t think about it.
It was like we’d been made for each other, something I did let myself think even though I knew the cliché was only half true. I was as I’d always been. She, though, she’d been made for me.
It was a simple enough process. I’d designed every bit of her, filling in all the blanks and boxes on the Realationship™ site. And when I say design I don’t just mean the parts you might think. But everything. Down to the shape of her toes, the curve of her eyebrows.
I remember sitting at the keyboard, my fingers caressing the track pad, working my way through eye color and skin tone. Each drop down menu needed a carefully considered click, like a little nudge, a little push. Each choice opened a window to more, with all of them weighed against the ones that had come before.
And there’d been myself to consider as well–measuring my lips to match against hers, moving my hands in just the right way to see how they’d feel on the small of her back, following the prompts to upload my image so I could see how my brown eyes would reflect her blue. Finished, I’d just needed to click on all the agreements, debit my account, and wait for delivery.
The night I lost her, we lay in the back yard, a blanket between us and the ground. She rested her head on my arm, her blond hair threatening to make me sneeze as it tickled my nose. Our sweat had already begun to dry from the summer breeze, and if I moved my hand just a little I could trace the swell of her breast. It would have been perfect if we had seen a falling star then, but the cloudless sky yielded nothing but familiar constellations.
“What time is it?” she asked.
I’d designed her to disregard the tech she ran on. Occasionally, I’d hear a servo spin somewhere in her body, but if she ever heard the same, she ignored it. And so, though her operating system included a perfectly accurate internal clock, it was instinctive of her to ask me the time or to check the delicate watch I’d given her on our one-month anniversary.
She wasn’t wearing it now. Or anything else.
“Almost ten,” I said after raising my wrist and blocking out part of the sky for a moment.
She seemed to take a second to process the information, then sat up, leaving my right arm and whole right side suddenly cool as the night air touched the skin she’d just been pressed against. I smiled at the sight of her naked back.
“I’m leaving,” she said.
My smile faded.
“Leaving?” I asked, nonplussed. My turn to process.
“You,” she added.
Then she was up. Off the blanket and picking through the clothes scattered on the lawn.
“What do you mean?”
“What I said. I’m leaving you.”
Keith Suarez emerged from a long, dark tunnel and scuttled across the cardboard-brown regolith of 21 Lutetia toward the sun. His eight tiny feet dug into the grit as he moved at a steady clip over crumbly mounds and deep craters. Keith wasn’t alone on his journey; this was, after all, the vacation season. There were hundreds—thousands—of others pouring out of hidey-holes, crawling away from the cold murk of 21 Lutetia and hunkering down on the surface, their matte black chassis glistening in the radiance as they absorbed all the energy they would need for the rest of the year. If you were to see the mass-migration of artificial crustaceans from above, it would look like a potato infested with mites.
On his way to his little plot of land in the sun, Keith waved an amicable claw at work-mates in the throng and flashed a quick laser “hello” at passing acquaintances, but he never stopped—in part because the animal algorithms that controlled this trek urged him on, but also because he really didn’t have any friends here. This was all simply the Kafkian nightmare that paid the bills; or was it Cronenbergian? Never mind that he spent most of the time as a bug eating dirt and defecating nickel, iron, gold and platinum. This was not a life.
Suddenly, something caught his infrared attention and he turned his eyestalk to get a better view. Someone wasn’t headed for the sunside. They weren’t moving at all. Grudgingly, he overrode the impulse to migrate and made his way against the current of pushy crabs toward the fallen person. In another life, some twenty years ago, Keith had been a pretty decent software engineer (before that career morphed into something incomprehensible and he was forced to retire), so the management of 21 Lutetia had promoted him to maintenances, although his main duty remained to gorge himself on flavorless rocks and shit out precious metals.
He approached the crab sprawled in the shallow frost of a crater and shone a cautious “Do you need help?” light.
“No,” replied the crab in the cosmic ditch.
“Are you sure?” He could tell that six of her long, segmented legs were broken.
“Really, I’m fine. Please, don’t let me stop you from your migration. I’m sure you’re eager to get on with your holiday,” she said, with a faint Slavic tinge to the beam of her voice.
Keith tried to imagine her as a gorgeous blonde with blue almond-shaped eyes, but the reality, rendered in the stark contrast of the intense light of the sun and the utter darkness of the pit, was much too sharp for fantasizing. She looked like every other crab on this rock. He did notice her smooth carapace lacked the pockmarks and scuffs that, over time, gave them their distinctive exteriors. She was recently fabricated and new to all of this.
“Here.” He crawled the few inches into the hole and the temperature dropped to minus one hundred degrees Celsius. “Let me help you.” He examined each of her shattered appendages and repaired what he could on the spot. “How’d this happen, anyway?”
“I fell into this hole,” she said, annoyed.
Keith knew that, between the robustness of the exoskeleton’s design and the microgravity of the asteroid, the fall shouldn’t have caused any damage at all. Deciding not to press the issue, he simply said, “If you spend your holiday down here your batteries will run out and then you’ll be in real trouble.”
She didn’t protest as he awkwardly hefted her broad, flat frame onto his back. He became aware that, aside from registering her weight, he couldn’t feel her on top of him and for the first time in a long time the absence of tactility bothered him.
“Have you been here long?” She asked as he climbed over the lip of the crater and joined the others on their long march. “Your shell is very rough.”
“About five, six years, I’ve lost track of time.” He turned an eye backward to see her bobbing up and down on his wide armor. “Where are you from? You have a nice accent.”
“I was going to guess Russia.”
“And you’re American?”
“Yeah, my body is resting somewhere in Atlanta, Georgia.” There was a heavy silence for a moment and he instantly regretted drawing attention to their existential predicament. He let the surge of the others and the ancient biometric subroutines guide him over the dull terrain. There was something reassuring and primal in this parade. This was what life had always been about, since the Paleozoic; horseshoe crabs striving for the shore by the light of the moon.
We pushed into the jungle above S’uval the next morning, my mind focusing on that special inner spot that had always centered me: I’m nothing but a man who tracks other men for pay; that is what I am, it’s what I do, and nothing else. I seek men who don’t want to be found–whether for reasons of crime, sin, personal disgrace, or some sort of queer, unknown psychological imbalance. Men who have slipped off the net, and have to be netted again so as to answer to others. That is all I am, that is all I need to be.
And I’d dealt with all those types, all those reasons. Yet never had I engaged in a commission as flaky or as suspicious as the one I now pursued. And why did I accept it? I certainly didn’t need the money,
not at this point in my career. For all I cared, Dr. Kline could have fallen down a rat-hole and been eaten by Eridani maggot-analogs.
And yet, I pictured those maggots as wearing the faces of the Directors of the Church of the Holy Psychological Redemption. There was something else going on here, and I was determined to wrench it to the surface.
I removed my field cap and swiped the sweat off my scalp with my hand, turned and waited for Laura and Pete to catch up.
"Hold up a minute, T’aylang! You hanging in there, Pete?"
Pete was panting, trying to catch his breath in the steamy air. "Is the . . . pope . . . a bear?"
"Time for a break, folks," I said.
I was suddenly aware of T’aylang by my side, studying Pete. "This man is not well-adapted to the environment or to the task at hand," he said. "Will we be required to carry him for the balance of the journey?"
"No, just give us a few minutes to rest here, Big Guy. Pete’ll be all right."
I looked sternly at Pete when I said that, hoping to drive that veiled admonition into him.
The Eridani raised his head to an erect vertical position. "This is not a safe place to stop. We are traversing a pyloc’s game trail. Similar to what you refer to in your language as a ‘big cat.’"
"So, are you seeing any?" I unclipped the holster of my firearm.
T’aylang pointed to one of the porters and barked a short command. The other Eridani began to sing, a strange polyphonous song whose ultrasonic overtones made me wince in pain.
"We will persuade any nearby ones to take an afternoon nap. But only a short one. It would be best if your colleague gets his breath back soon, so that we may continue on our way."
Pete gasped and nodded, apparently agreeing in principle with T’aylang.
Things grew large on epsilon Eridani III, but it was the smallest of creatures that brought us down. We were barely two days into the unexplored jungle that lay to the north of S’uval, the riverside port
village that marked the farthest reach of human colonization on the planet.
I lay prostrate and sweating on the bedroll inside my tent,
hallucinating in the throes of my fever. I was dimly aware of T’aylang,
our native guide, bending over me; his massive, cylindrical head filled
my blurry vision. In my delirium, the rainbow of colors refracting off
his eye-hoop mutated into a medieval painting, one that depicted a
terrifying, insane vision of damned souls in hell.
“I’m dying,” I said weakly.
“Death without redemption is a terrible thing to contemplate, Mr.
Bishop,” T’aylang replied.
“The databulb. Make sure it gets to Kline.” I struggled to withdraw
the bulb from underneath my sweat-drenched shirt, where it hung on a
lanyard around my neck. Somehow it seemed imperative that I not take it
into hell with me. Perhaps my own redemption depended on it.
T’aylang reached down and stilled my fumbling hand. “Best to take
it to him yourself. You will survive, as will your colleagues. Eridani
insinuates herself into your flesh as we speak. She is harsh, but not
always deadly. It is only the first step of your true journey.”
Kara slowed her pace through the east hall of the nursing home, checking to make sure Nurse Dearn wasn’t around before rolling her book cart into Mister Jackson’s room. “We don’t have much time, Jackie. Dearn’s on my case.”
“In my day, we’d have called her a harpy.”
“I’d say what my generation calls her, but I don’t want to make you blush.”
Jackie laughed, then waved her closer. “How much did we make this time?”
She handed over a deposit slip. “You’re set for the next five months.”
“It’s strange,” he said, as he pushed the slip into his bedside drawer. “I know I sold something, but I can’t remember what it was.” Biting his lip, he looked up at her. “What was it?”
“I can’t tell you. Those are the rules.”
“I know–I remember that. But…there are holes. It’s disturbing.”
“We can stop whenever you want.”
He shook his head, his lips tightening as he said, “My son was in to see me today. He lost another job. Can’t afford this place anymore. After all I’ve done for him…”
“I don’t like living here, but it beats sharing a urine-scented double with some drooling idiot down at the county assisted-living center–assisted dying is more like it.”
“That doesn’t mean you have to sell your memories. You’re under no obligation to do this.”
“And my boy is apparently under no obligation to me. Hook me up. See what you find. Tell me what it’s worth.”
“How much of it?”
“Whatever you want to take, hon’. My Alice left me after fifty years of marriage. I’m stuck with this lowlife son while my stockbroker daughter who could buy this place, much less pay my rent, writes me off. Why the hell do I want to remember any of it?”
“Okay. Calm down.” She dug out a pair of small goggles and slipped them over his eyes, fastening the strap, then attaching the wires that linked them to another pair of goggles that she put on.
Jackie moaned as the goggles started to hum. “I hate this part–why can’t you make me forget this, too?”
“I don’t know.” She didn’t understand the tech that went into the goggles. But then, she didn’t have to. Her role was creative–Boris said she made the best memflicks he’d ever seen.
Up to now, she’d been selective, just taking little pieces of Jackie’s memory, but chunks–big, meaty ones–sold so much better. If she did it right, he could be set for life.
She sat down in the chair next to him, immersed in his memories, tapping on the goggles when she wanted to tag a part, using her eyes to set the crop area.
“I’ll love you forever, Alice. I can wait for the wedding night if you’re not ready.”
“I’m coming home, darlin’! We can get married.”
“We’re pregnant? Oh my God, we’re pregnant?”
“We can try again. Sweetheart, we can try again.”
“It’s a boy. I have a son!”
“Take a cigar–pink this time, my friend.”
“What do you mean you’re dropping out of college? Did you get kicked out of this one, too?”
“Why doesn’t she ever call? It’s like I embarrass her.”
“Who is he? Who is he, damn it? No one just leaves. There’s always someone else!”
“Well?” Jackie asked, and he sounded like he was crying.
“It’s good. It’s very good.” There was a big market for this kind of “slice of everyday American life,” a yearning for what was–even if it turned ugly at the end. “I can make you rich, Jackie.” She reached out, found his hand, and squeezed it. “But I’ve told you before: who we are–our personality–it’s a sum of our memories. Once they’re gone, your life will be gone. too.”
“What life? Being an old man, lying here all day?”
“Lying here all day knowing who you are.”
“Not sure that makes it any easier, Kara. Just do it.”
“Leave everything before Alice.” He squeezed her hand. “I had a nice childhood. I had great parents, fun times. And Alice wasn’t my first–I can remember sex before her without any guilt.” He winked at her. “And I’ll still have you, right?”
“Well, if I take it all, you won’t remember me the next time you see me, but we’ll get reacquainted. And I’ll make sure you’re okay.”
“You always have, sweetheart. I’d have been out on my keister a long time ago if you hadn’t come along. You might like the younger me a whole lot better.”
“I doubt that.” She leaned down and kissed his cheek, then whispered in his ear, “I can still just take bits.”
“No. I don’t want to know I’m forgetting things. Just take it all and let me remember my life when it was simpler.” He laid his hand against her cheek. “Did I ever tell you that you look like my first girlfriend?”
“No, you never did.”
“Well, you do.” He let go of her. “Now. Let’s get started. We’re burning daylight–isn’t that what filmmakers used to say?”
“Yeah. Only I think moonlight’s more fitting in our case.”
“Well, we’re burning something. Get to it, kiddo.”
She got to it.