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The Ophiuchi Hotline — Excerpt

Daily Legal Bulletin, published by the Intersystem Office of Criminal Control Research. Aquarius 14, 568 O.E.

Case of Lilo-Alexandr-Calypso vs. The People of Luna.

(Legal SummaryFor immediate release)

The State charges that Lilo-Alexandr-Calypso, during the period of time 1/3/556 to 12/18/567, did willfully and knowingly conduct experiments upon human genetic material with the intent of artificially inducing mutations in said material. The State further alleges that defendant did produce human blastocysts and embryos reflecting potential structures atypical of the permitted spectrum of Humanity, in violation of the Unified Code of the Eight Worlds Confederation, Article Three (Crimes Against Humanity) Section Seven (Genetic Crimes). The State asks the penalty of permanent death.

(Class I read-rating)

The file was started on Lilo when CCR computers noticed she had been dealing with Ophiuchi Hotline data tagged by analysis as probably related to human DNA. Crimcon agents obtained a warrant to investigate her subscription records and use-charts with Star-Line, Inc., principal broker for processed Hotline data. The grand jury data bank authorized further surveillance both by computer model projection and human operatives. A warrant was granted 11/10/567 pertaining to her home, places of work, and personal property, including her body.

 

(Class II read-rating)

Crimcon G-cops will tell you, “Lilo was tough. Crafty. Thought we’d struck ice when we broke down the door at Biosystems Research. No joy. We were punching holos. Tapes, notes, all wiped clean when we touched them. Code crackers at CCR chewed and spit: Zip. Phi. Nothing. Rerun that for her house; we were chewing vac. But she had money. Ten years back, gene patents on Bananameat Trees ©. Made a bundle. Checked her travel records. Access! Five trips to Janus. Hopped a 3gee tank-tripper and busted down the door, lasers ready. Nobody home, but one of her booby traps fritzed. Came home with two grams of mutated meat. Her ass was in the recycler now. X rays were pure no-go, but we opened her anyway and what do you think we found? A billion and one bits of data wrapped around her spinal cord! Eat death, gene trasher! The Hole waits!” Crimcon G-cops will tell you, crime does not pay.

 

(Illiterate read-rating)

Photocomics and holotapes attached.

 

Prisons are not what they used to be. I did a little reading on the subject when it occurred to me that my work might cause me to see the inside of one. Some of the prisons of Old Earth were pretty barbaric.

My cell was nothing like that. It was better than the average run of workers’ warren apartments. There were three rooms, well furnished. I had a vidphone, if I didn’t mind the warden listening in. I didn’t use it.

What the cell had in common with old prisons was the most basic thing of all: The door would not open to my command. Beyond that door were dozens of others, all closed to me. There was a camera in each room that followed my movements.

I was in the Terminal Institute for Enemies of Humanity, three kilometers beneath Ptolemaeus, on the Nearside. I had been there just over a year. Six months of that was consumed in the gathering of evidence against me. The trial was held in a few milliseconds of computer time one morning while I was still asleep. I was told of the resultsno surprisesand scheduled for execution the following morning. Then my lawyer got a six-month stay.

I had no illusions. The stay had been granted, most likely, because my execution was to come before the end of the semester. The Institute was running short on Enemies of Humanity, and there were theses to be completed. Twice a day one of the walls of my cell changed color and began to glow. On the other side of the wall a professor was lecturing a psych class. If I put my face up close I could see ranks of students sitting in the lecture hall. But I quickly tired of looking.

About once a week I was visited by teams of graduate students. They would sit on my sofa and fidget, a series of girls and boys with earnest faces, brows furrowed in concentration. They would interview me for an hour, plainly not knowing what to think of me. At first, I thought up bizarre answers to their questions, but I tired of that, too. Sometimes I just sat there for the whole hour.

My life crawled toward its termination.

 

Lilo-Alexandr-Calypso sat in her cell and waited for morning. She still had not decided if she could bear to mount those lonely stairs. A year ago, when it hadn’t been so goddam imminent, it had been easy to be brave. Now she could see that her bravado had come from the deep inner conviction that no one would actually kill her. But she had had plenty of time to think.

Gas chamber, gallows. Electric chair, stake, firing squad. Hang by the neck till you’re dead, dead, dead, and may God recycle your soul.

Imaginative as those devices had been, they had an extremely simple purpose. They were intended to stop a human heart from beating. Later, the criterion for determining death was brain activity.

That was no longer enough. The sad fact was that it was no longer possible to kill someone and be absolutely sure the person would not show up again. Lilo’s execution in the morning was therefore largely symbolic, from the viewpoint of society.

From Lilo’s viewpoint, it was much more than that. She was toying with an idea she had entertained only once before in her life: six months earlier, just before her stay of execution. She was thinking of committing suicide.

“And why not?” she asked herself, a little startled when she realized she had said it aloud.

Why not, indeed? A few years earlier she could have given a thousand reasons why not. She had been in her early fifties, still young, with her life stretching endlessly in front of her. but now she was fifty-seven, and suddenly ancient. Soon she would be dead. Dead. You can’t get any more ancient than that.

Physically, Lilo was twenty-five. It was a popular age to be, and though Lilo did not like to ape popular trends, she had never felt good looking any older than that. Her body was largely her own, when a few surgical modifications. Her hair was light brown, her eyes were set far apart to accommodate a wide, slightly flat nose. She was tall and slim, and it suited her.

Her one vanity was her legs. She had added ten centimeters to her leg bones, making her two point two meters tall, slightly above average height. She wore fine brown hair, like chinchilla, from midway down her calves to the tops of her feet.

She got up and restlessly paced the room. What amazed her was that, once she had accepted that she was going to die, suicide began to seem like an attractive possibility. The State of Luna did not care if she killed herself; she was going to The Hole in the morning, dead or alive. No attempt had been made to clear her cell of harmful tools.

The tool she was examining now was a knife. It was a lovely thing. Stainless steel, mirror-bright–it had a symmetry of line she found appealing. Cross-hatched grooves wound around the handle, giving a sure grip on cool metal. She drew it across her throat, keeping her mind blank. Her hand shook as she brought her fingers up to her neck. No blood.

She thought about the two alternatives facing her.

Tomorrow would be an emotional moment. She was sure nothing could possible match the anticipation of mounting the stairs over The Hole. She had a horror of breaking down completely, of having to be restrained and thrown over the brink rather than stepping off by her own volition.

On the other hand, she felt reasonably calm now. All hope was gone. Could she meet her death now, by her own hand, in private? Was it better to go that way?

It seemed to her that it was. She told herself that three times in succession and reached for the knife. She drew it over her wrist. Shuddered, and felt her heart pound. She opened her eyes and looked down and there wasn’t even a red line. She was sure she had been bearing down. Something trickled over her cheek. Alarmed, she brushed it away.

She sat in her chair beside the small table and gritted her teeth. She leaned over the table and rested her forearm on the surface. She put the knife blade to the soft part, looked at it, looked away, dragged her eyes back and felt them drying out as she refused to blink.

There was a red trickle of blood.

“Put the knife down, Lilo.”

She jumped, and dithered with the bloody knife in her hand, blushing furiously. Trying to hide it in the cushions of the chair, she turned to see who had entered the room behind her.

“Is it serious?” he asked, walking toward her.

She looked at it. Just a small cut, the bleeding almost stopped already. He tossed her a cloth, which she used to dab at the blood on her hands. Taking a seat a few meters from her, he waited until she had cleaned herself.

“There’s someone I’d like you to meet,” he said, and gestured toward the cell door. It opened, and her blue-uniformed male guard entered, followed by a nude woman. She was tall, staggered slightly as she walked, and looked drugged. Her brown hair was plastered over her shoulders in ropes and nets; she dripped a thick, syrupy liquid from her hands and nose and chin. Her eyes met Lilo’s for a moment, without comprehension, then she bumped into a chair and fell over. The guard helped her to her feet and half-carried her to the bathroom. A woman, also dressed in blue, entered the cell, and closed the door. She followed the other two. There was the sound of water running.

Lilo managed to look away. The woman’s face had been terribly familiar. It was her own face.

 

Gold. Everything was yellow-gold. I opened my eyes underwater and knew that I was not breathing. For some reason, it didn’t bother me. I sat up and felt thick liquid roll sluggishly from my body.

I choked, tried to cough, and a great amount of fluid came out of my throat. For a moment I couldn’t cope with it. I was drowning. But someone was slapping me on the back and then I was gasping.

Being born is not easy.

 

Her eyes wouldn’t focus. Someone was holding something out to her and all she could see was the end of an arm holding the object. It was a cup. She recoiled, but it followed her. She took it, and drank deeply.

She was sitting in a glass tank, wheat-colored liquid up to her waist. Wires trailed from her body, which still twitched from time to time under the influence of the muscle-tone program, winding down now after three months of enforced exercise.

Disorientation. She couldn’t string two thoughts together. The tank should have meant something to her, but it didn’t.

“Come on, let’s get up,” someone said. It was a woman in blue, who reached over and helped the naked woman out of the tank, to stand dripping, swaying, leaning on a strong shoulder with a hand holding her firmly around the waist. She wanted to go back to sleep.

“Is she ready?”

“I think so.” There was a second person, a man, also dressed in blue. “This won’t take long.”

She knew they were talking about her. She tried to shake the hand off, but she was too weak. It annoyed her, hearing them talk. She wanted them to stop.

“Leave me alone,” she said.

“What did she say?”

They were leading her down the hall, helping her step up through the doorways, dogging them behind her. She couldn’t hold her head up; it kept falling to the side. All she could see was her bare feet, her legs, and wetness dripping from her body onto the carpet. It struck her as funny; she laughed, nearly slipping from the woman’s arms.

“What’s the matter with her?”

She didn’t hear the reply, she was laughing so hard. There was another door. They stopped in front of it and she became aware of someone slapping her face. She tried to make him stop but he wouldn’t and she started to cry. Then a harder slap that rocked her back against the far wall. She recoiled, realized that she was standing on her own and looking into the man’s face.

“Are you awake now?” He peered into her eyes.

“Yes . . . I . . .” She coughed, and tried to look around her, but he kept pulling her head back until she thought she would cry again. “I . . . that is . . .”

“She’s all right. Take her in.”

The man again. “You follow me, you hear? Just follow me.”

She nodded. He seemed to think it was very important and she was willing to do anything if he’d let go of her head. But she was all wet, her hair was all over the place, and she felt clammy. She tried to tell him that, but he had already gone into the room. She felt a shove on her shoulder, and staggered over the lip of the door.

She got a glimpse of the people sitting in the room. There was a man in a funny coat who tickled her memory. She knew him, but couldn’t remember the name. And there was a woman in a chair. She knew that one. It was herself.

 

I never thought I’d meet ex-President Tweed face to face. You can’t avoid him on the cube; he’s there all the time on one program or another, pushing his crazy schemes. He’d been a fixture on the telepolitical scene since the time I was born.

Tweed dressed like a political cartoon from the turn of the twentieth century. He had allowed himself to develop a paunch, always wore striped pants and a claw-hammer coat, top hat, and spats. He smoked a cigar, and when elected called the Presidential Warren “Tammany Hall.” And he won elections. Though I never followed it closely, I knew he had been elected to three consecutive terms.

He paved the way for the current Lunar clown show we call government. Recognition is all, and the public had shown a perhaps understandable confusion between political rhetoric and the fantasies that surround it on the cube. So now we have our Tweeds, our Churchills, and our Kennedys. There is a Hitler, a Bonforte, a Lewiston, and a Trojan. Put them all in the same place and you might as well call it a circus.

Luckily, elected officials don’t do that much any more; the posts are largely ceremonial or supervisory over the computers who do the actual governing. I’ve never been sure if that’s such a good thing, but Tweed made me thankful for it. Not that my opinions mattered at the moment.

I put political ruminations aside and prepared to listen to whatever pitch he was about to make. It had to be better than what I was facing.

 

“Don’t get any ideas,” he said, in that famous bass rumble. “I’m protected against anything you might try to do.”

Lilo realized he was talking about attempts on his life. Nothing could have been further from her mind. He was here, where he had no legal right to be, he had just shown her what had to be an illegal clone; she could think of no reason he would have done these things unless he had something to offer her, and she was very interested in hearing it.

“You will find in our future dealings that I am invariably protected.”

“I don’t see how that information can be of any use to me unless I’m going to be dealing with you in the future. As you know, my future is limited at this moment.” She tried to keep it light, to keep the hope out of her voice, but it was impossible. The guilty weight of the knife pressing against her thigh and the trickle of blood on her arm testified to how much bargaining leverage she could bring to the conversation.

“Yes, you will be dealing with me in the future. You–” he gestured toward the bathroom “–or that . . . other woman. The choice will be yours.”

She could hear voices from the bathroom; the sound of water running and an angry voice that she barely recognized as her own. Her twin was waking up, and she dreaded it.

“What’s the choice?”

“First, understand your position. I–”

“I know my position, damn it. Get on with it.”

“Be patient. I want you to know a few things first.” He paused, then took out a cigar and went through the process of trimming and lighting it. He was an extraordinarily ugly person, Lilo thought, with the ugliness that only caricature can achieve. As repulsive as a twisted, stunted ghost from the past on Old Earth.

“The clone was grown illegally, obviously,” Tweed resumed. “But you are no longer a useful witness to anything. You will never have a chance to tell anyone what you have seen here today, should you refuse me. Your only contact from now on will be with Vaffa and Hygelia, the two guards you just saw. Both are loyal to me.”

“What else can you tell me that I’m so goddamn anxious to know? You didn’t do all this to taunt me. You’re a . . . never mind. I don’t like you much. Never did.”

“And I don’t like you. But I can use you. I want you to work for me.”

“Fine. When do we get started? As you pointed out, we’d better hurry, because I don’t have that long to live.” But the sarcasm fell flat, even in her own ears, because her throat hurt so badly when she said it. He laughed, politely, and she was so receptive to him that she nearly laughed herself. She stifled it when it threatened to turn into a sob.

“There is that little problem,” he agreed. “I’m offering you a chance to bow out of your execution. I’m offering you a stand-in.”

He looked at the bathroom door–there were sounds of a struggle–and back to her. He raised his eyebrows.

 

The cold water made me gasp and choke, but some of the grogginess washed away. For the first time in that dizzy few minutes I could think straight. More than anything in the world I wanted to sleep, but things were happening too fast, and seemed to be out of my control.

Tweed! That was his name. What was he doing out there in the other room, talking to someone who looked exactly like me, in my own cell? And the tank. Had I died? I woke up in a vat, which had to mean that I had died. But I was under a death sentence; I shouldn’t be waking up ever again.

I pushed my face under the cold stream. Stay awake, stay awake. Something important is happening and you’re being left out. I sputtered and gasped, slapping my face and legs and shoulders. I thought I saw it now, and it was dirty, rotten; so bad I couldn’t believe it. But I had to.

I stumbled and fell against the wall of the shower. The woman guard took my arm and pulled me to my feet. My eyes wouldn’t focus. I struck out at her, but she was big and alert and the blow didn’t land. Then I was screaming, lashing out.

 

She came running out of the bathroom, pursued by the man and woman. The man grabbed her, but she was slippery and powerful with hysterical strength. She got away, kicking at him with her bare heels as they grappled on the floor, then scrambling on her hands toward the woman in the chair. She screamed again.

Banging hard into a table as she tried to get to her feet, she toppled and fell loosely in front of the couch where Tweed sat. The man reached her and started to haul her away, but Tweed held up his hand.

“Let her alone,” he said. “I think this is her room, after all.” He looked at Lilo, sitting in frozen fascination. She couldn’t seem to drag her eyes away from the woman on the floor. “That is, unless you want it.”

Lilo tore her eyes from the clone. She opened her mouth to speak, but the words caught in her throat. The clone was looking at her again. The fear on her face was almost too much for Lilo to bear. To accept Tweed’s offer would be to condemn this woman to death. She didn’t want to think about that.

But the clone was looking at Tweed now, and Lilo could almost hear her mind working. She gripped the edge of the couch and got to her knees.

“I don’t know what you were talking about,” she said, “but I think you should tell me. I know I’m not up to date; I just woke up. Things have been happening, I can see that. I got the stay of execution, right? She’s who I think I am, but six months later, right?”

 

I felt as though I had suddenly disappeared.

Tweed and the other woman were talking right through me, right over my head as I knelt there on the floor. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t follow what they were saying; there was a roaring in my ears and I was dizzy again. I think I hit my head when I fell.

I had to make them notice me. My life depended on it. I got up, shakily, and stood between them, but still they took no notice. It was a nightmare. I screamed at them, but it was no use. They were getting up and leaving the room, the female guard imposing herself between me and the door. Her face was hard.

I lunged, struggled with the woman, but she held me tightly. They were gone.

I went in and out of consciousness, sitting in my chair, alone. Hygeia, the guard, had given me a double-dose of painkiller a few hours ago and I had been sitting there, waiting for it to take effect. My dreams were black and formless, except for the familiar forest I had always run through in my dreams: a forest beneath a blue sun.

When I could no longer feel much in my hands and feet I got up. Everything went black, and I found myself in the bathroom without remembering how I got there. I turned on the shower.

I stared down at my wrist for a moment. There was a deep cut, the blood was pumping sluggishly through my fingers and splattering on my bare legs and feet. How had that happened? My head was thick as soup, but I thought I remembered . . . I had put the knife down . . . hadn’t I? That woman–what was her name?–had been in my room. Had she tried to kill me, and make it look like suicide?

Warm water was flowing over me. Pink rivers wound between my toes. I staggered, and hit my head on the wall. I knew it was too late. I was dying. It was so cold. I would be dead soon.

The spray was in my face. My feet were freezing. I looked at my wrist again and saw that the blood had stopped flowing. I got up, slipped and fell on my face in a puddle of red.

In the main room again. Unable to stand up. I was looking for something. What? There was another blank in my mind. The knife. I was going to finish the job the woman had started. Or was it me? I left the knife . . . where? In my hand. Hacking, my fingers losing their grip. The knife was gone again. I crawled.

I saw booted feet in front of me, tried to stand up.

“You passed out again.” It was Hygeia.

“There’s no pain,” I told her. “Don’t be afraid.”

 

Circum-Luna 6 was a metal shell, five hundred meters in radius. The gravity on the outer surface was five meters per second squared, but a visitor descending through one of the three entrances would experience a perceptible rise in weight for each step downward. CL-6 had few visitors.

All orbital power stations were “holes,” but only CL-6 was known as The Hole. Five or six times a year it was shut down for a few hours so people could descend into what had recently been a hell of radioactivity.

It was shut down now. At the one-gee level a terrace hung beneath the gargantuan field generators which held the black hole suspended in the center of the station. Arcing away from the terrace was a span of unsupported metal with rails on each side and low steps built into it. The thirteen steps were traditional, just a few centimeters high. The stretcher rolled over them easily, the body strapped to it bouncing as the black-clad man and woman pushed it out to the end of the arc.

One of the executioners removed the drape from Lilo’s body while the other attached the stretcher to an ejection mechanism. Finished, they stood for a moment under the eye of the camera, then walked down the span and climbed to the surface.

The stretcher tilted, hung suspended for an instant, and then fell. It picked up speed asymptotically, and the interior of CL-6 blazed in hard light. Far down the slope of the hole, halfway to infinity, a tiny mass of neutronium that had been Lilo was orbiting at almost the speed of light, releasing energy as it was stressed to the limits of matter before it finally decayed into oblivion.