I do my banking at the Archimedes Trust Association. Their security is first-rate, their service is courteous, and they have their own medico facility that does nothing but take recordings for their vaults.
And they had been robbed two weeks ago.
It was a break for me. I had been approaching my regular recording date and dreading the chunk it would take from my savings. Then these thieves break into my bank, steal a huge amount of negotiable paper, and in an excess of enthusiasm they destroy all the recording cubes. Every last one of them, crunched into tiny shards of plastic. Of course the bank had to replace them all, and very fast, too. They weren’t stupid; it wasn’t the first time someone had used such a bank robbery to facilitate a murder. So the bank had to record everyone who had an account, and do it in a few days. It must have cost them more than the robbery.
How that scheme works, incidentally, is like this. The robber couldn’t care less about the money stolen. Mostly it’s very risky to pass such loot, anyway. The programs written into the money computers these days are enough to foil all but the most exceptional robber. You have to let that kind of money lie for on the order of a century to have any hope of realizing gains on it. Not impossible, of course, but the police types have found out that few criminals are temperamentally able to wait that long. The robber’s real motive in a case where memory cubes have been destroyed is murder, not robbery.
Every so often someone comes along who must commit a crime of passion. There are very few left open, and murder is the most awkward of all. It just doesn’t satisfy this type to kill someone and see them walking around six months later. When the victim sues the killer for alienation of personality – and collects up to 99% of the killer’s worldly goods – it’s just twisting the knife. So if you really hate someone, the temptation is great to really kill them forever and ever, just like in the old days, by destroying their memory cube first then killing the body.
That’s what the ATA feared, and I had rated a private bodyguard over the last week as part of my contract. It was sort of a status symbol to show your friends, but otherwise I hadn’t been much impressed until I realized that ATA was going to pay for my next recording as part of their crash program to cover all their policy holders. They had contracted to keep me alive forever, so even though I had been scheduled for a recording in only three weeks they had to pay for this one. The courts had ruled that a lost or damaged cube must be replaced with all possible speed.
So I should have been very happy. I wasn’t, but tried to be brave.
I was shown into the recording room with no delay and told to strip and lie on the table. The medico, a man who looked like someone I might have met several decades ago, busied himself with his equipment as I tried to control my breathing. I was grateful when he plugged the computer lead into my occipital socket and turned off my motor control. Now I didn’t have to worry about whether to ask if I knew him or not. As I grow older, I find that’s more of a problem. I must have met twenty thousand people by now and talked to them long enough to make an impression. It gets confusing.
He removed the top of my head and prepared to take a multiholo picture of me, a chemical analog of everything I ever saw or thought or remembered or just vaguely dreamed. It was a blessed relief when I slip over into unconsciousness.
* * *
The coolness and sheen of stainless steel beneath my fingertips. There is the smell of isopropyl alcohol, and the hint of acetone.
The medico’s shop. Childhood memories tumble over me, triggered by the smells. Excitement, change, my mother standing by while the medico carves away my broken finger to replace it with a pink new one. I lie in the darkness and remember.
And there is light, a hurting light from nowhere and I feel my pupil contract as the only movement in my entire body.
“She’s in,” I hear. But I’m not, not really. I’m just lying here in the blessed dark, unable to move.
It comes in a rush, the repossession of my body. I travel down the endless nerves to bang up hard against the insides of my hands and feet, to whirl through the pools of my nipples and tingle in my lips and nose, Now I’m in.
I sat up quickly into the restraining arms of the medico. I struggled for a second before I was able to relax. My fingers were buzzing and cramped with the clamminess of hyperventilation.
“Whew,” I said, putting my head in my hands. “Bad dream. I thought…”
I looked around me and saw that I was naked on the steel-topped table with several worried faces looking at me from all sides. I wanted to retreat into the darkness again and let my insides settle down. I saw my mother’s face, blinked, and failed to make it disappear.
“Carnival?” I asked her ghost.
“Right here, Fox,” she said, and took me in her arms. It was awkward and unsatisfying with her standing on the floor and me on the table. There were wires trailing from my body. But the comfort was needed. I didn’t know where I was. With a chemical rush as precipitous as the one just before I awoke, the people solidified around me.
“She’s all right now,” the medico said, turning from his instruments. He smiled impersonally at me as he began removing the wires from my head. I did not smile back. I knew where I was now, just as surely as I had ever known anything. I remembered coming in here only hours before.
But I knew it had been more than a few hours. I’ve read about it: the disorientation when a new body is awakened with transplanted memories. And my mother wouldn’t be here unless something had gone badly wrong.
I had died.
I was given a mild sedative, help in dressing, and my mother’s arm to lead me down plush-carpeted hallways to the office of the bank president. I was still not fully awake. The halls were achingly quiet but for the brush of our feet across the wine-colored rug. I felt like the pressure was fluctuating wildly, leaving my ears popped and muffled. I couldn’t see too far away. I was grateful to leave the vanishing points in the hall for the paneled browns of wood veneer and the coolness and echoes of a white marble floor.
The bank president, Mr. Leander, showed us to our seats. I sank into the purple velvet and let it wrap around me. Leander pulled up a chair facing us and offered us drinks. I declined. My head was swimming already and I knew I’d have to pay attention.
Leander fiddled with a dossier on his desk. Mine, I imagine. It had been freshly printed out from the terminal at his right hand. I’d met him briefly before; he was a pleasant sort of person, chosen for this public-relations job for his willingness to wear the sort of old-man body that inspires confidence and trust. He seemed to be about sixty-five. He was probably more like twenty.
It seemed that he was never going to get around to the briefing so I asked a question. One that was very important to me at the moment.
“What’s the date?”
“It’s the month of November,” he said, ponderously. “And the year is 342.”
I had been dead for two and a half years.
“Listen,” I said, “I don’t want to take up any more of your time. You must have a brochure you can give me to bring me up to date. If you’ll just hand it over, I’ll be on my way. Oh, and thank you for your concern.”
He waved his hand at me as I started to rise.
“I would appreciate it if you stayed a bit longer. Yours is an unusual case, Ms. Fox. I … well, it’s never happened in the history of the Archimedes Trust Association.”
“You see, you’ve died, as you figured out soon after we woke you. What you couldn’t have known is that you’ve died more than once since your last recording.”
“More than once?” So it wasn’t such a smart question; so what was I supposed to ask?
“Yes, three separate times. We suspect murder.”
The room was perfectly silent for a while. At last I decided I should have that drink. He poured it for me, and I drained it.
“Perhaps your mother should tell you more about it,” Leander suggested. “She’s been closer to the situation. I was only made aware of it recently. Carnival?”
* * *
I found my way back to my apartment in a sort of daze. By the time I had settled in again the drug was wearing off and I could face my situation with a clear head. But my skin was crawling.
Listening in the third person to things you’ve done is not the most pleasant thing. I decided it was time to face some facts that all of us, including myself, do not like to think about. The first order of business was to recognize that the things that were done by those three previous people were not done by me. I was a new person, fourth in the line of succession. I had many things in common with the previous incarnations, including all my memories up to that day I surrendered myself to the memory recording machine. But the me of that time and place had been killed.
She lasted longer than the others. Almost a year, Carnival had said. Then her body was found at the bottom of Hadley Rille. It was an appropriate place for her to die; both she and myself liked to go hiking out on the surface for purposes of inspiration.
Murder was not suspected that time. The bank, upon hearing of my – no, her – death, started a clone from the tissue sample I had left with my recording. Six lunations later, a copy of me was infused with my memories and told that she had just died. She had been shaken, but seemed to be adjusting well when she, too, was killed.
This time there was much suspicion. Not only had she survived for less than a lunation after her reincarnation, but the circumstances were unusual. She had been blown to pieces in a tube-train explosion. She had been the only passenger in a two-seat capsule. The explosion had been caused by a home-made bomb.
There was still the possibility that it was a random act possibly by political terrorists. The third copy of me had not thought so. I don’t know why. That is the most maddening thing about memory recording: being unable to profit by the experiences of your former selves. Each time I was killed, it moved me back to square one, the day I was recorded.
But Fox 3 had reason to be paranoid. She took extraordinary precautions to stay alive. More specifically, she tried to prevent circumstances that could lead to her murder. It worked for five lunations. She died as the result of a fight, that much was certain. It was a very violent fight, with blood all over the apartment. The police at first thought she must have fatally injured her attacker, but analysis showed all the blood to have come from her body.
So where did that leave me, Fox 4? An hour’s careful thought left the picture gloomy indeed. Consider: each time my killer succeeded in murdering me, he or she learned more about me. My killer must be an expert on Foxes by now, knowing things about me that I myself did not know. Such as how I handle myself in a fight. I gritted my teeth when I thought of that. Carnival told me that Fox 3, the canniest of the lot, had taken lessons in self-defense. Karate, I think she said. Did I have the benefit of it? Of course not. If I wanted to defend myself I had to start all over, because those skills died with Fox 3.
No, all the advantages were with my killer. The killer starts off with the advantage of surprise – since I had no notion of who it was – and in this case learned more about me every time he or she succeeded in killing me.
What to do? I didn’t even know where to start. I ran through everyone I knew, looking for an enemy, someone who hated me enough to kill me again and again. I could find no one. Most likely it was someone Fox 1 had met during that year she lived after the recording.
The only answer I could come up with was emigration. Just pull up stakes and go to Mercury, or Mars, or even Pluto. But would that guarantee my safety? My killer seemed to be an uncommonly persistent person. No, I’d have to face it here, where at least I knew the turf.
* * *
It was the next day before I realized the extent of my loss. I had been robbed of an entire symphony.
For the last thirty years I had been an Environmentalist. I had just drifted into it while it was still an infant art-form. I had been in charge of the weather machines at the Transvaal disneyland, which was new at the time and the biggest and most modern of all the environmental parks in Luna. A few of us had started tinkering with the weather programs, first for our own amusement. Later we invited friends to watch the storms and sunsets we concocted. Before we knew it, friends were inviting friends and the Transvaal people began selling tickets.
I gradually made a name for myself, and found I could make more money being an artist than being an engineer. At the time of my last recording I had been one of the top three Environmentalists on Luna.
Then Fox 1 went on to compose Liquid Ice. From what I read in the reviews, two years after the fact, it was seen as the high point of the art to date. It had been staged in the Pennsylvania disneyland, before a crowd of three hundred thousand. It made me rich.
The money was still in my bank account, but the memory of creating it was forever lost. And it mattered.
Fox 1 had written it, from beginning to end. Oh, I recalled having had some vague ideas of a winter composition, things I’d think about later and put together. But the whole creative process had gone on in the head of that other person who had been killed.
How is a person supposed to cope with that? For one bitter moment I considered calling the bank and having them destroy my memory cube. If I died this time, I’d rather die completely. The thought of a Fox 5 rising from that table … it was almost too much to bear. She would lack everything that Fox 1, 2, 3, and me, Fox 4, had experienced. So far I’d had little time to add to the personality we all shared, but even the bad times are worth saving.
It was either that, or have a new recording made every day. I called the bank, did some figuring, and found that I wasn’t wealthy enough to afford that. But it was worth exploring. If I had a new recording taken once a week I could keep at it for about a year before I ran out of money.
I decided I’d do it, for as long as I could. And to make sure that no future Fox would ever have to go through this again, I’d have one made today. Fox 5, if she was ever born, would be born knowing at least as much as I knew now.
* * *
I felt better after the recording was made. I found that I no longer feared the medico’s office. That fear comes from the common misapprehension that one will wake up from the recording to discover that one has died. It’s a silly thing to believe, but it comes from the distaste we all have for really looking at the facts.
If you’ll consider human consciousness, you’ll see that the three-dimensional cross-section of a human being that is you can only rise from that table and go about your business. It can happen no other way. Human consciousness is linear, along a timeline that has a beginning and an end. If you died after a recording, you die, forever and with no reprieve. It doesn’t matter that a recording of you exists and that a new person with your memories to a certain point can be created; you are dead. Looked at from a fourth-dimensional viewpoint, what memory recording does is to graft a new person onto your lifeline at a point in the past. You do not retrace that lifeline and magically become that new person. I, Fox 4, was only a relative of that long-ago person who had her memories recorded. And if I died it was forever. Fox 5 would awaken with my memories to date, but I would be no part of her. She would be on her own.
Why do we do it? I honestly don’t know. I suppose that the human urge to live forever is so strong that we’ll grasp at even the most unsatisfactory substitute. At one time people had themselves frozen when they died, in the hope of being thawed out in a future when humans knew how to reverse death. Look at the Great Pyramid in the Egypt disneyland if you want to see the sheer size of that urge.
So we live our lives in pieces. I could know, for whatever good it would do me, that thousands of years from now a being would still exist who would be at least partly me.
She would remember exactly the same things I remembered of her childhood; the trip to Archimedes, her first sex change, her lovers, her hurts and her happiness. If I had another recording taken, she would remember thinking the thoughts I was thinking now. And she would probably still be stringing chunks of experience onto her life, year by year. Each time she had a new recording that much more of her life was safe for all time. There was a certain comfort in knowing that my life was safe up until a few hours ago, when the recording was made.
Having thought all that out, I found myself fiercely determined to never let it happen again. I began to hate my killer with an intensity I had never experienced. I wanted to storm out of the apartment and beat my killer to death with a blunt instrument.
I swallowed that emotion with difficulty. It was exactly what the killer would be looking for. I had to remember that the killer knew what my first reaction would be. I had to behave in a way that he or she would not expect.
But what way was that?
I called up the police department and talked to the detective who had my case. Her name was Isadora, and she had some good advice.
“You’re not going to like it, if I can judge from past experience,” she said. “The last time I proposed it to you, you rejected it out of hand.”
I knew I’d have to get used to this. People would always be telling me what I had done, what I had said to them. I controlled my anger and asked her to go on.
“It’s simply to stay put. I know you think you’re a detective, but your successor proved pretty well that you are not. If you stir out of that door you’ll be nailed. This guy knows you inside and out, and he’ll get you. Count on it.”
“He? You know something about him, then?”
“Sorry, you’ll have to bear with me. I’ve told you parts of this case twice already, so it’s hard to remember what you don’t know. Yes, we do know he’s a male. Or was, six months ago, when you had your big fight with him. Several witnesses reported a man with bloodstained clothes, who could only have been your killer.”
“Then you’re on his trail?”
She sighed, and I knew she was going over old ground again.
“No, and you’ve proved again that you’re not a detective. Your detective lore comes from reading old novels. It’s not a glamorous enough job nowadays to rate fictional heroes and such, so most people don’t know the kind of work we do. Knowing that the killer was a man when he last knocked you off means nothing to us. He could have bought a Change the very next day. You’re probably wondering if we have fingerprints of him, right?”
I gritted my teeth. Everyone had the advantage over me. It was obvious I had asked something like that the last time I spoke with this woman. And I had been thinking of it.
“No,” I said. “Because he could change those as easily as his sex, right?”
“Right. Easier. The only positive means of identification today is genotyping, and he wasn’t cooperative enough to leave any of him behind when he killed you. He must have been a real brute, to be able to inflict as much damage on you as he did and not even be cut himself. You were armed with a knife. Not a drop of his blood was found at the scene of the murder.”
“Then how do you go about finding him?”
“Fox, I’d have to take you through several college courses to begin to explain our methods to you. And I’ll even admit that they’re not very good. Police work has not kept up with science over the last century. There are many things available to the modern criminal that make our job more difficult than you’d imagine. We have hopes of catching him within about four lunations, though, if you’ll stay put and stop chasing him.”
“Why four months?”
“We trace him by computer. We have very exacting programs that we run when we’re after a guy like this. It’s our one major weapon. Given time, we can run to ground about sixty percent of the criminals.”
“Sixty percent?” I squawked. “Is that supposed to encourage me? Especially when you’re dealing with a master like my killer seems to be?”
She shook her head. “He’s not a master. He’s only determined. And that works against him, not for him. The more single-mindedly he pursues you, the surer we are of catching him when he makes a slip. That sixty percent figure is over-all crime; on murder, the rate is ninety-eight. It’s a crime of passion, usually done by an amateur. The pros see no percentage in it, and they’re right. The penalty is so steep it can make a pauper of you, and your victim is back on the streets while you’re still in court.”
I thought that over, and found it made me feel better. My killer was not a criminal mastermind. I was not being hunted by Fu-Manchu or Dr. Moriarty. He was only a person like myself, new to this business. Something Fox 1 did had made him sufficiently angry to risk financial ruin to stalk and kill me. It scaled him down to human dimensions.
“So now you’re all ready to go out and get him?” Isadora sneered. I guess my thoughts were written on my face. That, or she was consulting her script of our previous conversation.
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because, like I said, he’ll get you. He might not be a pro but he’s an expert on you. He knows how you’ll jump. One thing he thinks he knows is that you won’t take my advice. He might be right outside your door, waiting for you to finish this conversation like you did last time around. The last time, he wasn’t there. This time he might be.”
It sobered me. I glanced nervously at my door, which was guarded by eight different security systems bought by Fox 3.
“Maybe you’re right. So you want me just to stay here. For how long?”
“However long it takes. It may be a year. That four-lunation figure is the high point on a computer curve. It tapers off to a virtual certainty in just over a year.”
“Why didn’t I stay here the last time?”
“A combination of foolish bravery, hatred, and a fear of boredom.” She searched my eyes, trying to find the words that would make me take the advice that Fox 3 had fatally refused. “I understand you’re an artist,” she went on. “Why can’t you just … well, whatever it is artists do when they’re thinking up a new composition? Can’t you work there in your apartment?”
How could I tell her that inspiration wasn’t just something I could turn on at will? Weather sculpture is a tenuous discipline. The visualization is difficult; you can’t just try out a new idea like you can with a song, by picking it out on a piano or guitar. You can run a computer simulation, but you never really know what you have until the tapes are run into the machines and you stand out there in the open field and watch the storm take shape around you. And you don’t get any practice sessions. It’s expensive.
I’ve always needed long walks on the surface. My competitors can’t understand why. They go for strolls through the various parks, usually the one where the piece will be performed. I do that, too. You have to, to get the lay of the land. A computer can tell you what it looks like in terms of thermoclines and updrafts and pocket-ecologies, but you have to really go there and feel the land, taste the air, smell the trees, before you can compose a storm or even a summer shower. It has to be a part of the land.
But my inspiration comes from the dry, cold, airless surface that so few Lunarians really like. I’m not a burrower; I’ve never loved the corridors like so many of my friends profess to do. I think I see the black sky and harsh terrain as a blank canvas, a feeling I never really get in the disneylands where the land is lush and varied and there’s always some weather in progress even if it’s only partly cloudy and warm.
Could I compose without those long, solitary walks?
Run that through again: could I afford not to?
“All right, I’ll stay inside like a good girl.”
* * *
I was in luck. What could have been an endless purgatory turned into creative frenzy such as I had never experienced. My frustrations at being locked into my apartment translated themselves into grand sweeps of tornados and thunderheads. I began writing my masterpiece. The working title was A Conflagration of Cyclones. That’s how angry I was. My agent later talked me into shortening it to a tasteful Cyclone, but it was always a conflagration to me.
Soon I had managed to virtually forget about my killer. I never did completely; after all, I needed the thought of him to flog me onward, to serve as the canvas on which to paint my hatred. I did have one awful thought early on, and I brought it up to Isadora.
“It strikes me,” I said, “that what you’ve built here is the better mousetrap, and I’m the hunk of cheese.”
“You’ve got the essence of it,” she agreed.
“I find I don’t care for the role of bait.”
“Why not? Are you scared?”
I hesitated, but what the hell did I have to be ashamed of?
“Yeah. I guess I am. What can you tell me to make me stay here when I could be doing what all my instincts are telling me to do, which is run like hell?”
“That’s a fair question. This is the ideal situation, as far as the police are concerned. We have the victim in a place that can be watched, perfectly safely, and we have the killer on the loose. Furthermore, this is an obsessed killer, one who cannot stay away from you forever. Long before he is able to make a strike at you we should pick him up as he scouts out ways to reach you.”
“Are there ways?”
“No. An unqualified no. Any one of those devices on your door would be enough to keep him out. Beyond that, your food and water is being tested before it gets to you. Those are extremely remote possibilities since we’re convinced that your killer wishes to dispose of your body completely, to kill you for good. Poisoning in no good to him. We’d just start you up again. But if we can’t find at least a piece of your body, the law forbids us to revive you.”
“What about bombs?”
“The corridor outside your apartment is being watched. It would take quite a large bomb to blow out your door, and getting a bomb that size in place would not be possible in the time he would have. Relax, Fox. We’ve thought of everything. You’re safe.”
She rung off, and I called up the Central Computer.
“CC,” I said, to get it online, “can you tell me how you go about catching killers?”
“Are you talking about killers in general, or the one you have a particular interest in?”
“What do you think? I don’t completely believe that detective. What I want to know from you is what can I do to help?”
“There is little you can do,” the CC said. “While I myself, in the sense of the Central or controlling Lunar Computer, do not handle the apprehension of criminals, I am in a supervisory capacity to several satellite computers. They use a complex number theory, correlated with the daily input from all my terminals. The average person on Luna deals with me on the order of twenty times per day, many of these transactions involving a routine epidermal sample for positive genalysis. By matching these transactions with the time and place they occurred, I am able to construct a dynamic model of what has occurred, what possibly could have occurred, and what cannot have occurred. With suitable peripheral programs I can refine this model to a close degree of accuracy. For instance, at the time of your first murder I was able to assign a low probability to ninety-nine point nine three percent of all humans on Luna as being responsible. This left me with a pool of 210,000 people who might have had a hand in it. This is merely from data placing each person at a particular place at a particular time. Further weighing of such factors as possible motive narrowed the range of prime suspects. Do you wish me to go on?”
“No, I think I get the picture. Each time I was killed you must have narrowed it more. How many suspects are left?”
“You are not phrasing the question correctly. As implied in my original statement, all residents of Luna are still suspects. But each has been assigned a probability, ranging from a very large group with a value of 10-27 to twenty individuals, with probabilities of 13%.”
The more I thought about that, the less I liked it.
“None of those sound to me like what you’d call a prime suspect.”
“Alas, no. This is a very intriguing case, I must say.”
“I’m glad you think so.”
“Yes,” it said, oblivious as usual to sarcasm. “I may have to have some programs rewritten. We’ve never gone this far without being able to submit a ninety percent rating to the Grand Jury Data Bank.”
“Then Isadora is feeding me a line, right? She doesn’t have anything to go on?”
“Not strictly true. She has an analysis, a curve, that places the probability of capture as near-certainty within one year.”
“You gave her that estimate, didn’t you?”
“Then what the hell does she do? Listen, I’ll tell you right now, I don’t feel good about putting my fate in her hands. I think this job of detective is just a trumped-up featherbed. Isn’t that right?”
“The privacy laws forbid me to express an opinion about the worth, performance, or intelligence of a human citizen. But I can give you a comparison. Would you entrust the construction of your symphonies to a computer alone? Would you sign your name to a work that was generated entirely by me?”
“I see your point.”
“Exactly. Without a computer you’d never calculate all the factors you need for a symphony. But I do not write them. It is your creative spark that makes the wheels turn. Incidentally, I told your successor but of course you don’t remember it, I liked your Liquid Ice tremendously. It was a pleasure to work with you on it.”
“Thanks. I wish I could say the same.” I signed off, feeling no better than when I began the interface.
The mention of Liquid Ice had me seething again. Robbed! Violated! I’d rather have been gang-raped by chimpanzees than have the memory stolen from me. I had punched up the films of Liquid Ice and they were beautiful. Stunning, and I could say it without conceit because I had not written them.
* * *
My life became very simple. I worked – twelve and fourteen hours a day sometimes – ate, slept, and worked some more. Twice a day I put in one hour learning to fight over the holovision. It was all highly theoretical, of course, but it had value. It kept me in shape and gave me a sense of confidence.
For the first time in my life I got a good look at what my body would have been with no tampering. I was born female, but Carnival wanted to raise me as a boy so she had me Changed when I was two hours old. It’s another of the contradictions in her that used to infuriate me so much but which, as I got older, I came to love. I mean, why go to all the pain and trouble of bringing a child to term and giving birth naturally, all from a professed dislike of tampering – and then turn around and refuse to accept the results of nature’s lottery? I have decided that it’s a result of her age. She’s almost two hundred by now, which puts her childhood back in the days before Changing. In those days – I’ve never understood why – there was a predilection for male children I think she never really shed it.
At any rate, I spent my childhood male. When I got my first Change, I picked my own body design. Now, in a six-lunation-old clone body which naturally reflected my actual genetic structure, I was pleased to see that my first female body design had not been far from the truth.
I was short, with small breasts and an undistinguished body. But my face was nice. Cute, I would say. I liked the nose. The age of the accelerated clone body was about seventeen years; perhaps the nose would lose its upturn in a few years of natural growth, but I hoped not. If it did, I’d have it put back.
Once a week, I had a recording made. It was the only time I saw people in the flesh. Carnival, Leander, Isadora, and a medico would enter and stay for a while after it was made. It took them an hour each way to get past the security devices. I admit it made me feel a little more secure to see how long it took even my friends to get in my apartment. It was like an invisible fortress outside my door. The better to lure you into my parlor, killer!
I worked with the CC as I never had before. We wrote new programs that produced four-dimensional models in my viewer unlike anything we had ever done before. The CC knew the stage – which was to be the Kansas disneyland – and I knew the storm. Since I couldn’t walk on the stage this time before the concert I had to rely on the CC to reconstruct it for me in the holo tank.
Nothing makes me feel more godlike. Even watching it in the three-meter tank I felt thirty meters tall with lightning in my hair and a crown of shimmering frost. I walked through the Kansas autumn, the brown, rolling, featureless prairie before the red or white man came. It was the way the real Kansas looked now under the rule of the Invaders, who had ripped up the barbed wire, smoothed over the furrows, dismantled the cities and railroads and let the buffalo roam once more.
There was a logistical problem I had never faced before. I intended to use the buffalo instead of having them kept out of the way. I needed the thundering hooves of a stampede; it was very much a part of the environment I was creating. How to do it without killing animals?
The disneyland management wouldn’t allow any of their livestock to be injured as part of a performance. That was fine with me; my stomach turned at the very thought. Art is one thing, but life is another and I will not kill unless to save myself. But the Kansas disneyland has two million head of buffalo and I envisioned up to twenty-five twisters at one time. How do you keep the two separate?
With subtlety, I found. The CC had buffalo behavioral profiles that were very reliable. The damn CC stores everything, and I’ve had occasion more than once to be thankful for it. We could position the herds at a selected spot and let the twisters loose above them. The tornadoes would never be totally under our control, they are capricious even when hand-made, but we could rely on a hard ninety percent accuracy in steering them. The herd-profile we worked up was usable out to two decimal points, and as insurance against the unforeseen we installed several groups of flash-bombs to turn the herd if it headed into danger.
It’s an endless series of details. Where does the lightning strike, for instance? On a flat, gently rolling plain, the natural accumulation of electric charge can be just about anywhere. We had to be sure we could shape it the way we wanted, by burying five hundred accumulators that could trigger an air-to-ground flash on cue. And to the right spot. The air-to-air are harder. And the ball lightning – oh, brother. But we found we could guide it pretty well with buried wires carrying an electric current. There were going to be range fires – so check with the management on places that are due for a controlled burn anyway, and keep the buffalo away from there, too, and be sure the smoke would not blow over into the audience and spoil the view or into the herd and panic them …
But it was going to be glorious.
* * *
Six lunations rolled by. Six lunations! 177.18353 mean solar days!
I discovered that figure during a long period of brooding when I called up all sorts of data on the investigation. Which, according to Isadora, was going well.
I knew better. The CC has its faults but shading data is not one of them. Ask it what the figures are and it prints them out in tri-color.
Here’s some: probability of a capture by the original curve, ninety-three percent. Total number of viable suspects remaining: nine. Highest probability of those nine possibles: three point nine percent. That was Carnival. The others were also close friends, and were there solely on the basis of having the opportunity at all three murders. Even Isadora dared not speculate – at least not aloud, and to me – that any of them could have a motive.
I discussed it with the CC.
“I know, Fox, I know,” it replied, with the closest approach to mechanical despair I have ever heard.
“Is that all you can say?”
“No. As it happens, I’m pursuing the other possibility: that it was a ghost who killed you.”
“Are you serious?”
“Yes. The term ‘ghost’ covers all illegal beings. I estimate there to be on the order of two hundred of them existing outside legal sanctions on Luna. These are executed criminals with their right to life officially revoked, unauthorized children never registered, and some suspected artificial mutants. Those last are the result of proscribed experiments with human DNA. All these conditions are hard to conceal for any length of time, and I round up a few every year.”
“What do you do with them?”
“They have no right to life. I must execute them when I find them.”
“You do it? That’s not just a figure of speech?”
“That’s right. I do it. It’s a job humans find distasteful. I never could keep the position filled, so I assumed it myself.”
That didn’t sit right with me. There is an atavistic streak in me that doesn’t like to turn over the complete functioning of society to machines. I get it from my mother, who goes for years at a time not deigning to speak to the CC.
“So you think someone like that may be after me. Why?”
“There is insufficient data for a meaningful answer. ‘Why’ has always been a tough question for me. I can operate only on the parameters fed into me when I’m dealing with human motivation, and I suspect that the parameters are not complete. I’m constantly being surprised.”
“Thank goodness for that.” But this time, I could have wished the CC knew a little more about human behavior.
So I was being hunted by a spook. It didn’t do anything for my peace of mind. I tried to think of how such a person could exist in this card-file world we live in. A technological rat, smarter than the computers, able to fit into the cracks and holes in the integrated circuits. Where were those cracks? I couldn’t find them. When I thought of the checks and safeguards all around us, the voluntary genalysis we submit to every time we spend money or take a tube or close a business deal or interface with the computer…. People used to sign their names many times a day, or so I’ve heard. Now, we scrape off a bit of dead skin from our palms. It’s damn hard to fake.
But how do you catch a phantom? I was facing life as a recluse if this murderer was really so determined that I die.
That conclusion came at a bad time. I had finished Cyclone, and to relax I had called up the films of some of the other performances during my absence from the art scene. I never should have done that.
Flashiness was out. Understated elegance was in. One of the reviews I read was very flattering to my Liquid Ice. I quote:
“In this piece Fox has closed the book on the blood and thunder school of Environmentalism. This powerful statement sums up the things that can be achieved by sheer magnitude and overwhelming drama. The displays of the future will be concerned with the gentle nuance of dusk, the elusive breath of a summer breeze. Fox is the Tchaikovsky of Environmentalism, the last great romantic who paints on a broad canvas. Whether she can adjust to the new, more thoughtful styles that are evolving in the work of Janus, or Pym, or even some of the ambiguous abstractions we have seen from Tyleber, remains to be seen. Nothing will detract from the sublime glory of Liquid Ice, of course, but the time is here…” and so forth and thank you for nothing.
For an awful moment I thought I had a beautiful dinosaur on my hands. It can happen, and the hazards are pronounced after a reincarnation. Advancing technology, fashion, frontiers, taste, or morals can make the best of us obsolete overnight. Was everyone contemplating gentle springtimes now, after my long sleep? Were the cool, sweet zephyrs of a summer’s night the only thing that had meaning now?
A panicky call to my agent dispelled that quickly enough. As usual, the pronouncements of the critics had gone ahead of the public taste. I’m not knocking critics; that’s their function, if you conceded they have a function, to chart a course into unexplored territory. They must stay at the leading edge of the innovative artistic evolution, they must see what everyone will be seeing in a few years’ time. Meanwhile, the public was still eating up the type of superspectacle I have always specialized in. I ran the risk of being labeled a dinosaur myself, but I found the prospect did not worry me. I became an artist through the back door, just like the tinkerers in early twentieth-century Hollywood had done. Before I was discovered, I had just been an environmental engineer having a good time.
That’s not to say I don’t take my art seriously. I do sweat over it, investing inspiration and perspiration in about the classic Edison proportions. But I don’t take the critics too seriously, especially when they’re not enunciating the public taste. Just because Beethoven doesn’t sound like currently popular art doesn’t mean his music is worthless.
I found myself thinking back to the times before Environmentalism made such a splash. Back then we were carefree. We had grandiose bull-sessions, talking of what we would do if only we were given an environment large enough. We spent months roughing out the programs for something to be called Typhoon! It was a hurricane in a bottle, and the bottle would have to be five hundred kilometers wide. Such a bottle still does not exist, but when it’s built some fool will stage it. Maybe me. The good old days never die, you know.
So my agent made a deal with the owner of the Kansas disneyland. The owner had known that I was working on something for his place, but I’d not talked to him about it. The terms were generous. My agent displayed the profit report on Liquid Ice, which was still playing yearly to packed houses in Pennsylvania. I got a straight fifty percent of the gate, with costs of the installation and computer time to be shared between us. I stood to make about five million Lunar Marks.
And I was robbed again. Not killed this time, but robbed of the chance to go into Kansas and supervise the installation of the equipment. I clashed mightily with Isadora and would have stormed out on my own, armed with nothing so much as a nail file, if not for a pleading visit from Carnival. So I backed down this once and sat at home, going there only by holographic projection. I plunged into self-doubts. After all, I hadn’t even felt the Kansas sod beneath my bare feet this time. I hadn’t been there in the flesh for over three years. My usual method before I even conceive a project is to spend a week or two just wandering naked through the park, getting the feel of it through my skin and nose and those senses that don’t even have a name.
It took the CC three hours of gentle argument to convince me again that the models we had written were accurate to seven decimal places. They were perfect. An action ordered up on the computer model would be a perfect analog of the real action in Kansas. The CC said I could make quite a bit of money just renting the software to other artists.
* * *
The day of the premiere of Cyclone found me still in my apartment. But I was on the way out.
Small as I am, I somehow managed to struggle out that door with Carnival, Isadora, Leander, and my agent pulling on my elbows.
I was not going to watch the performance on the tube.
I arrived early, surrounded by my impromptu bodyguard. The sky matched my mind; gray, overcast, and slightly fearful. It brooded over us, and I felt more and more like a sacrificial lamb mounting some somber altar. But it was a magnificent stage to die upon.
The Kansas disneyland is one of the newer ones, and one of the largest. It is a hollowed-out cylinder twenty kilometers beneath Clavius. It measures two hundred and fifty kilometers in diameter and is five kilometers high. The rim is artfully disguised to blend into the blue sky. When you are half a kilometer from the rim, the illusion fails; otherwise, you might as well be standing back on Old Earth. The curvature of the floor is consistent with Old Earth, so the horizon is terrifyingly far away. Only the gravity is Lunar.
Kansas was built after most of the more spectacular possibilities had been exhausted, either on Luna or another planet. There was Kenya, beneath Mare Moscoviense; Himalya, also on the Farside; Amazon, under old Tycho; Pennsylvania, Sahara, Pacific, Mekong, Transylvania. There were thirty disneylands under the inhabited planets and satellites of the solar system the last time I counted.
Kansas is certainly the least interesting topographically. It’s flat, almost monotonous. But it was perfect for what I wanted to do. What artist really chooses to paint on a canvas that’s already been covered with pictures? Well, I have, for one. But for the frame of mind I was in when I wrote Cyclone it had to be the starkness of the wide-open sky and the browns and yellows of the rolling terrain. It was the place where Dorothy departed for Oz. The home of the black twister.
I was greeted warmly by Pym and Janus, old friends here to see what the grand master was up to. Or so I flattered myself. More likely they were here to see the old lady make a fool of herself. Very few others were able to get close to me. My shield of high shoulders was very effective. It wouldn’t do when the show began, however. I wished I was a little taller, then wondered if that would make me a better target.
The viewing area was a gentle rise about a kilometer in radius. It had been written out of the program to the extent that none of the more fearsome effects would intrude to sweep us all into the Land of Oz. But being a spectator at a weathershow can be grueling. Most had come prepared with clear plastic slicker, and insulated coat, and boots. I was going to be banging some warm and some very cold air masses head-on to get things rolling, and some of it would sweep over us. There were a few brave souls in Native-American warpaint, feathers, and moccasins.
An Environmental happening has no opening chords like a musical symphony. It is already in progress when you arrive, and will still be going when you leave. The weather in a disneyland is a continuous process and we merely shape a few hours of it to our wills. The observer does not need to watch it in its entirety.
Indeed, it would be impossible to do so, as it occurs all around and above you. There is no rule of silence. People talk, stroll, break out picnic lunches as an ancient signal for the rain to begin, and generally enjoy themselves. You experience the symphony with all five senses, and several that you are not aware of. Most people do not realize the effect of a gigantic low-pressure area sweeping over them, but they feel it all the same. Humidity alters mood, metabolism, and hormone level. All of these things are important to the total experience, and I neglect none of them.
Cyclone has a definite beginning, however. At least to the audience. It begins with the opening bolt of lightning. I worked over it a long time, and designed it to shatter nerves. There is the slow building of thunderheads, the ominous roiling and turbulence, then the prickling in your body hairs that you don’t even notice consciously. And then it hits. It crashes in at seventeen points in a ring around the audience, none farther away than half a kilometer. It is properly called chain lightning, because after the initial discharge it keeps flashing for a full seven seconds. It’s designed to take the hair right off your scalp.
It had the desired effect. We were surrounded by a crown of jittering incandescent snakes, coiling and dancing with a sound imported direct to you from Armageddon. It startled the hell out of me, and I had been expecting it.
It was a while before the audience could get their oohers and aahers back into shape. For several seconds I had touched them with stark, naked terror. An emotion like that doesn’t come cheaply to sensation-starved, innately insular tunnel-dwellers. Lunarians get little to really shout about, growing up in the warrens and corridors and living their lives more of less afraid of the surface. That’s why the disneylands were built, because people wanted limitless vistas that were not in vacuum.
The thunder never really stopped for me. It blended imperceptibly into the applause that is more valuable than the millions I would make from this storm.
As for the rest of the performance…
What can I say? It’s been said that there’s nothing more dull than a description of the weather. I believe it, even spectacular weather. Weather is an experiential thing, and that’s why tapes and films of my works sell few copies. You have to be there and have the wind actually whipping your face and feel the oppressive weight of a tornado as it passes overhead like a vermiform freight train. I could write down where the funnel clouds formed and where they went from there, where the sleet and hail fell, where the buffalo stampeded, but it would do no one any good. It you want to see it, go to Kansas. The last I heard, Cyclone is still playing there two or three times yearly.
I recall standing surrounded by a sea of people. Beyond me to the east the land was burning. Smoke boiled black from the hilltops and sooty gray from the hollows where the water was rising to drown it. To the north a herculean cyclone swept up a chain of ball lightning like nacreous pearls and swallowed them into the evacuated vortex in its center. Above me, two twisters were twined in a death-dance. They circled each other like baleful gray predators, taking each other’s measure. They feinted, retreated, slithered and skittered like tubes of oil. It was beautiful and deadly. And I had never seen it before. Someone was tampering with my program.
As I realized that and stood rooted to the ground with the possibly disastrous consequences becoming apparent to me, the wind-snakes locked in a final embrace. Their counter-rotations cancelled out, and they were gone. Not even a breath of wind reached me to hint of that titanic struggle.
* * *
I ran through the seventy-kilometer wind and the thrashing rain. I was wearing sturdy moccasins, parka, and carrying the knife I brought from my apartment.
Was it a lure, set by one who has become a student of Foxes? Am I playing into his hands?
I didn’t care. I had to meet him, had to fight it out once and for all.
Getting away from my “protection” had been simple. They were as transfixed by the display as the rest of the audience, and it had merely been a matter of waiting until they all looked in the same direction and fading into the crowd. I picked out a small woman dressed in Indian-style and offered her a hundred Marks for her moccasins. She recognized me – my new face was on the programs – and made me a gift of them. Then I worked my way to the edge of the crowd and bolted past the security guards. They were not too concerned since the audience area was enclosed by a shock-field. When I went right through it they may have been surprised, but I didn’t look back to see. I was one of only three people in Kansas wearing the PassKey device on my wrist, so I didn’t fear anyone following me.
I had done it all without conscious thought. Some part of me must have analyzed it, planned it out, but I just executed the results. I knew where he must be to have generated his tornado to go into combat with mine. No one else in Kansas would know where to look. I was headed for a particular wind-generator on the east periphery.
I moved through weather more violent than the real Kansas would have experienced. It was concentrated violence, more wind and rain and devastation than Kansas would normally have in a full year. And it was happening all around me.
But I was all right, unless he had more tricks up his sleeve. I knew where the tornados would be and at what time. I dodged them, waited for them to pass, knew every twist and dido they would make on their seemingly random courses. Off to my left the buffalo herds milled, resting from the stampede that had brought them past the audience for the first time. In an hour they would be thundering back again, but for now I could forget them.
A twister headed for me, leaped high in the air, and skidded through a miasma of uprooted sage and sod. I clocked it with the internal picture I had and dived for a gully at just the right time. It hopped over me and was gone back into the clouds. I ran on.
My training in the apartment was paying off. My body was only six lunations old, and as finely tuned as it would ever be. I rested by slowing to a trot, only to run again in a few minutes. I covered ten kilometers before the storm began to slow down. Behind me, the audience would be drifting away. The critics would be trying out scathing phrases or wild adulation; I didn’t see how they could find any middle ground for this one. Kansas was being released from the grip of machines gone wild. Ahead of me was my killer. I would find him.
I wasn’t totally unprepared. Isadora had given in and allowed me to install a computerized bomb in my body. It would kill my killer – and me – if he jumped me. It was intended as a balance-of-terror device, the kind you hope you never use because it terrorizes your enemy too much for him to test it. I would inform him of it if I had the time, hoping he would not be crazy enough to kill both of us. If he was, we had him, though it would be little comfort to me. At least Fox 5 would be the last in the series. With the remains of a body, Isadora guaranteed to bring a killer to justice.
The sun came out as I reached the last, distorted gully before the wall. It was distorted because it was one of the places where tourists were not allowed to go. It was like walking through the backdrop on a stage production. The land was squashed together in one of the dimensions, and the hills in front of me were painted against a basrelief. It was meant to be seen from a distance.
Standing in front of the towering mural was a man.
He was naked, and grimed with dirt. He watched me as I went down the gentle slope to stand waiting for him. I stopped about two hundred meters from him, drew my knife and held it in the air. I waited.
He came down the concealed stairway, slowly and painfully. He was limping badly on his left leg. As far as I could see he was unarmed.
The closer he got, the worse he looked. He had been in a savage fight. He had long, puckered, badly-healed scars on his left leg, his chest, and his right arm. He had one eye; the right one was only a reddened socket. There was a scar that slashed from his forehead to his neck. It was a hideous thing. I thought of the CC’s suspicion that my killer might be a ghost, someone living on the raw edges of our civilization. Such a man might not have access to medical treatment whenever he needed it.
“I think you should know,” I said, with just the slightest quaver, “that I have a bomb in my body. It’s powerful enough to blow both of us to pieces. It’s set to go off if I’m killed. So don’t try anything funny.”
“I won’t,” he said. “I thought you might have a failsafe this time, but it doesn’t matter. I’m not going to hurt you.”
“Is that what you told the others?” I sneered, crouching a little lower as he neared me. I felt like I had the upper hand, but my predecessors might have felt the same way.
“No, I never said that. You don’t have to believe me.”
He stopped twenty meters from me. His hands were at his sides. He looked helpless enough, but he might have a weapon buried somewhere in the dirt. He might have anything. I had to fight to keep feeling that I was in control.
Then I had to fight something else. I gripped the knife tighter as a picture slowly superimposed itself over his ravaged face. It was a mental picture, the functioning of the “sixth sense.”
No one knows if that sense really exists. I think it does, because it works for me. It can be expressed as the knack for seeing someone who has had radical body work done – sex, weight, height, skin color all altered – and still being able to recognize him. Some say it’s an evolutionary change. I didn’t think evolution worked that way. But I can do it. And I knew who this tall, brutalized, male stranger was.
He was me.
I sprang back to my guard, wondering if he had used the shock of recognition to overpower my earlier incarnations. It wouldn’t work with me. Nothing would work. I was going to kill him, no matter who he was.
“You know me,” he said. It was not a question.
“Yes. And you scare hell out of me. I knew you knew a lot about me, but I didn’t realize you’d know this much.”
He laughed, without humor. “Yes. I know you from the inside.”
The silence stretched out between us. Then he began to cry. I was surprised, but unmoved. I was still all nerve-endings, and suspected ninety thousand types of dirty tricks. Let him cry.
He slowly sank to his knees, sobbing with the kind of washed-out monotony that you read about, but seldom hear. He put his hands to the ground and awkwardly shuffled around until his back was to me. He crouched over himself, his head touching the ground, his hands wide at his sides, his legs bent. It was about the most wide-open, helpless posture imaginable, and I knew it must be for a reason. But I couldn’t see what it might be.
“I thought I had this all over with,” he sniffed, wiping his nose with the back of one hand. “I’m sorry, I’d meant to be more dignified. I guess I’m not made of the stern stuff I thought. I thought it’d be easier.” He was silent for a moment, then coughed hoarsely. “Go one. Get it over with.”
“Huh?” I said, honestly dumbfounded.
“Kill me. It’s what you came here for. And it’ll be a relief to me.”
I took my time. I stood motionless for a full minute, looking at the incredible problem from every angle. What kind of trick could there be? He was smart, but he wasn’t God. He couldn’t call in an airstrike on me, cause the ground to swallow me up, disarm me with one crippled foot, or hypnotize me into plunging the knife into my own gut. Even if he could do something, he would die, too.
I advanced cautiously, alert for the slightest twitch of his body. Nothing happened. I stood behind him, my eyes flicking from his feet to his hands, to his bare back. I raised the knife. My hands trembled a little, but my determination was still there. I would not flub this. I brought the knife down.
The point went into his flesh, into the muscle of his shoulderblade, about three centimeters. He gasped, a trickle of blood went winding through the knobs along his spine. But he didn’t move, he didn’t try to get up. He didn’t scream for mercy. He just knelt there, shivering and turning pale.
I’d have to stab harder. I pulled the knife free, and more blood came out. And still he waited.
That was about all I could take. My bloodlust had dried in my mouth until all I could taste was vomit welling in my stomach.
I’m not a fool. It occurred to me even then that this could be some demented trick, that he might know me well enough to be sure I could not go through with it. Maybe he was some sort of psychotic who got thrills out of playing this kind of incredible game, allowing his life to be put in danger and then drenching himself in my blood.
But he was me. It was all I had to go on. He was a me who had lived a very different life, becoming much tougher and wilier with every day, diverging by the hour from what I knew as my personality and capabilities. So I tried and I tried to think of myself doing what he was doing now for the purpose of murder. I failed utterly.
And if I could sink that low, I’d rather not live.
“Hey, get up,” I said, going around in front of him. He didn’t respond, so I nudged him with my foot. He looked up, and saw me offering him the knife, hilt-first.
“If this is some sort of scheme,” I said, “I’d rather learn of it now.”
His one eye was red and brimming as he got up, but there was no joy in him. He took the knife, not looking at me, and stood there holding it. The skin on my belly was crawling. Then he reversed the knife and his brow wrinkled, as if he were summoning up nerve. I suddenly knew what he was going to do, and I lunged. I was barely in time. The knife missed his belly and went off to the side as I yanked on his arm. He was much stronger than I. I was pulled off balance, but managed to hang onto his arm. He fought with me, but was intent on suicide and had no thought to defend himself. I brought my fist up under his jaw and he went limp.
* * *
Night had fallen. I disposed of the knife and built a fire. Did you know that dried buffalo manure burns well? I didn’t believe it until I put it to the test.
I dressed his wound by tearing up my shirt, wrapped my parka around him to ward off the chill, and sat with my bare back to the fire. Luckily, there was no wind, because it can get very chilly on the plains at night.
He woke with a sore jaw and a resigned demeanor. He didn’t thank me for saving him from himself. I suppose people rarely do. They think they know what they’re doing, and their reasons always seem logical to them.
“You don’t understand,” he moaned. “You’re only dragging it out. I have to die, there’s no place for me here.”
“Make me understand,” I said.
He didn’t want to talk, but there was nothing to do and no chance of sleeping in the cold, so he eventually did. The story was punctuated with long, truculent silences.
It stemmed from the bank robbery two and a half years ago. It had been staged by some very canny robbers. They had a new dodge that made me respect Isadora’s statement that police methods had not kept pace with criminal possibilities.
The destruction of the memory cubes had been merely a decoying device. They were equally unconcerned about the cash they took. They were bunco artists.
They had destroyed the cubes to conceal the theft of two of them. That way the police would be looking for a crime of passion, murder, rather than one of profit. It was a complicated double-feint, because the robbers wanted to give the impression of someone who was actually trying to conceal murder by stealing cash.
My killer – we both agreed he should not be called Fox so we settled on the name he had come to fancy: Rat – didn’t know the details of the scheme, but it involved the theft of memory cubes containing two of the richest people on Luna. They were taken, and clones were grown. When the memories were played into the clones, the people were awakened into a falsely created situation and encouraged to believe that it was reality. It would work; the newly reincarnated person is willing to be led, willing to believe. Rat didn’t know exactly what the plans were beyond that. He had awakened to be told that it was fifteen thousand years later, and that the Invaders had left Earth and were rampaging through the Solar System wiping out the human race. It took three lunes to convince them that he – or rather she, for Rat had been awakened into a body identical to the one I was wearing – was not the right billionaire. That she was not a billionaire at all, just a struggling artist. The thieves had gotten the wrong cube.
They dumped her. Just like that. They opened the door and kicked her out into what she thought was the end of civilization. She soon found out that it was only twenty years in her future, since her memories came from the stolen cube which I had recorded about twenty years before.
Don’t ask me how they got the wrong cube. One cube looks exactly like another; they are in fact indistinguishable from one another by any test known to science short of playing them into a clone and asking the resulting person who he or she is. Because of that fact, the banks we entrust them to have a fool-proof filing system to avoid unpleasant accidents like Rat. The only possible answer was that for all their planning, for all their cunning and guile, the thieves had read 2 in column A and selected 3 in column B.
I didn’t think much of their chances of living to spend any of that money. I told Rat so.
“I doubt if their extortion scheme involves money,” he said. “At least not directly. More likely the theft was concentrated on obtaining information contained in the minds of billionaires. Rich people are often protected with psychological safeguards against having information tortured from them, but can’t block themselves against divulging it willingly. That’s what the Invader Hoax must have been about, to finagle them into thinking the information no longer mattered, or perhaps that it must be revealed to Save the Human Race.”
“I’m suspicious of involuted schemes like that,” I said.
“So am I.” We laughed when we realized what he had said. Of course we had the same opinions.
“But it fooled me,” he went on. “When they discarded me, I fully expected to meet the Invaders face-to-face. It was quite a shock to find that the world was almost unchanged.”
“Almost,” I said, quietly. I was beginning to empathize with him.
“Right.” He lost the half-smile that had lingered on his face, and I was sad to see it go.
What would I have done in the same situation? There’s really no need to ask. I must believe that I would have done exactly as she did. She had been dumped like garbage, and quickly saw that she was about that useful to society. If found, she would be eliminated like garbage. The robbers had not thought enough of her to bother killing her. She could tell the police certain things they did not know if she was captured, so she had to assume that the robbers had told her nothing of any use to the police. Even if she could have helped capture and convict the conspirators, she would still be eliminated. She as an illegal person.
She risked a withdrawal from my bank account. I remembered it now. It wasn’t large, and I assumed I must have written it since it was backed up by my genalysis. It was far too small an amount to suspect anything. And it wasn’t the first time I have made a withdrawal and forgotten about it. She knew that, of course.
With the money she bought a sex-change on the sly. They can be had, though you take your chances. It’s not the safest thing in the world to conduct illegal business with someone who will soon have you on the operating table, unconscious. Rat had thought the Change would help throw the police off his trail if they should learn of his existence. Isadora told me about that once, said it was the sign of the inexperience criminal.
Rat was definitely a fugitive. If discovered and captured, he faced a death sentence. It’s harsh, but the population laws allow no loopholes whatsoever. If they did, we could be up to our ears in a century. There would be no trial, only a positive genalysis and a hearing to determine which of us was the rightful Fox.
“I can’t tell you how bitter I was,” he said. “I learned slowly how to survive. It’s not as hard as you might think, in some ways, and much harder than you can imagine in others. I could walk the corridors freely, as long as I did nothing that required a genalysis. That means you can’t buy anything, ride on public transport, take a job. But the air is free if you’re not registered with the Tax Board, water is free, and food can be had in the disneylands. I was lucky in that. My palmprint would still open all the restricted doors in the disneylands. A legacy of my artistic days.” I could hear the bitterness in his voice.
And why not? He had been robbed, too. He went to sleep as I had been twenty years ago, and up-and-coming artist, excited by the possibilities in Environmentalism. He had great dreams. I remember them well. He woke up to find that it had all been realized but none of it was for him. He could not even get access to computer time. Everyone was talking about Fox and her last opus, Thunderhead. She was the darling of the art world.
He went to the premiere of Liquid Ice and began to hate me. He as sleeping in the air-recirculators to keep warm, foraging nuts and berries and an occasional squirrel in Pennsylvania while I was getting rich and famous. He took to trailing me. He stole a spacesuit, followed me out onto Palus Putridinus.
“I didn’t plan it,” he said, his voice wracked with guilt. “I never could have done it with planning. The idea just struck me and before I knew it I had pushed you. You hit the bottom and I followed you down, because I was really sorry I had done it and I lifted your body up and looked into your face…your face was all…my face, it was…the eyes popping out and blood boiling away and…”
He couldn’t go on, and I was grateful. He finally let out a shuddering breath and continued.
“Before they found your body I wrote some checks on your account. You never noticed them when you woke up that first time since the reincarnation had taken such a big chunk out of your balance. We never were any good with money.” He chuckled again. I took the opportunity to move closer to him. He was speaking very quietly so that I could barely hear him over the crackling of the fire.
“I…I guess I went crazy then. I can’t account for it any other way. When I saw you in Pennsylvania again, walking among the trees as free as can be, I just cracked up. Nothing would do but that I kill you and take you place. I’d have to do it in a way that would destroy the body. I thought of acid, and burning you up here in Kansas in a range fire. I don’t know why I settled on a bomb. It was stupid. But I don’t feel responsible. At least it must have been painless.
“They reincarnated you again. I was fresh out of ideas for murder. And motivation. I tried to think it out. So I decided to approach you carefully, not revealing who I was. I thought maybe I could reach you. I tried to think of what I would do if I was approached with the same story, and decided I’d be sympathetic. I didn’t reckon with the fear you were feeling. You were hunted. I myself was being hunted, and I should have seen that fear brings out the best and the worst in us.
“You recognized me immediately – something else I should have thought of – and put two and two together so fast I didn’t even know what hit me. You were on me, and you were armed with a knife. You had been taking training in martial arts.” He pointed to the various scars. “You did this to me, and this, and this. You nearly killed me. But I’m bigger. I held on and managed to overpower you. I plunged the knife in your heart.
“I went insane again. I’ve lost all memories from the sight of the blood pouring from your chest until yesterday. I somehow managed to stay alive and not bleed to death. I must have lived like an animal. I’m dirty enough to be one.
“Then yesterday I heard two of the maintenance people in the machine areas of Pennsylvania talking about the show you were putting on in Kansas. So I came here. The rest you know.”
The fire was dying. I realized that part of my shivering was caused by the cold. I got up and searched for more chips, but it was too dark to see. The “moon” wasn’t up tonight, would not rise for hours yet.
“You’re cold,” he said, suddenly. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize. Here, take this back. I’m used to it.” He held out the parka.
“No, you keep it. I’m all right.” I laughed when I realized my teeth had been chattering as I said it. He was still holding it out to me.
“Well, maybe we could share it?”
Luckily it was too big, borrowed from a random spectator earlier in the day. I sat in front of him and leaned back against his chest and he wrapped his arms around me with the parka going around both of us. My teeth still chattered, but I was cozy.
I thought of him sitting at the auxiliary computer terminal above the East Wind generator, looking out from a distance of fifteen kilometers at the crowd and the storm. He had known how to talk to me. That tornado he had created in real-time and sent out to do battle with my storm was as specific to me as a typed message: I’m here! Come meet me.
I had an awful thought, then wondered why it was so awful. It wasn’t me that was in trouble.
“Rat, you used the computer. That means you submitted a skin sample for genalysis, and the CC will…no, wait a minute.”
“What does it matter?”
“It…it matters. But the game’s not over. I can cover for you. No one knows when I left the audience, or why. I can say I saw something going wrong – it could be tricky fooling the CC, but I’ll think of something – and headed for the computer room to correct it. I’ll say I created the second tornado as a…”
He put his hand over my mouth.
“Don’t talk like that. It was hard enough to resign myself to death. There’s no way out for me. Don’t you see that I can’t go on living like a rat? What would I do if you covered for me this time? I’ll tell you. I’d spend the rest of my life hiding out here. You could sneak me table scraps from time to time. No, thank you.”
“No, no. You haven’t thought it out. You’re still looking on me as an enemy. Alone, you don’t have a chance, I’ll conceded that, but with me to help you, spend money and so forth, we…” He put his hand over my mouth again. I found that I didn’t mind, dirty as it was.
“You mean you’re not my enemy now?” He said it quietly, helplessly, like a child asking if I was really going to stop beating him.
“I…” That was as far as I got. What the hell was going on? I became aware of his arms around me, not as lovely warmth but as a strong presence. I hugged my legs up closer to me and bit down hard on my knee. Tears squeezed from my eyes.
I turned to face him, searching to see his face in the darkness. He went over backwards with me on top of him.
“No, I’m not your enemy.” Then I was struggling blindly to dispose of the one thing that stood between us: my pants. While we groped in the dark, the rain started to fall around us.
We laughed as we were drenched, and I remember sitting up on top of him once.
“Don’t blame me,” I said. “This storm isn’t mine.” Then he pulled me back down.
It was like you read about in the romance magazines. All the over-blown words, the intensive hyperbole. It was all real. We were made for each other, literally. It was the most astounding act of love imaginable. He knew what I liked to the tenth decimal place, and I was just as knowledgeable. I knew what he liked, by remembering back to the times I had been male and then doing what I had liked.
Call it masturbation orchestrated for two. There were times during that night when I was unsure of which one I was. I distinctly remember touching his face with my hand and feeling the scar on my own face. For a few moments I’m convinced that the line which forever separates two individuals blurred, and we came closer to being one person than any two humans have ever done.
A time finally came when we had spent all our passion. Or, I prefer to think, invested it. We lay together beneath my parka and allowed our bodies to adjust to each other, filling the little spaces, trying to touch in every place it was possible to touch.
“I’m listening,” he whispered. “What’s your plan?”
* * *
They came after me with a helicopter later that night. Rat hid out in a gully while I threw away my clothes and walked calmly out to meet them. I was filthy with mud and grass plastered in my hair, but it was consistent with what I had been known to do in the past. Often, before or after a performance, I would run nude through the disneyland in an effort to get closer to the environment I shaped.
I told them I had been doing that. They accepted it, Carnival and Isadora, though they scolded me for a fool to leave them as I had. But it was easy to bamboozle them into believing that I had had no choice.
“If I hadn’t taken over control when I did,” I said to them, “there might have been twenty thousand dead. One of those twisters was off course. I extrapolated and saw trouble in about three hours. I had no choice.”
Neither of them knew a stationary cold front from an isobar, so I got away with it.
Fooling the CC was not so simple. I had to fake data as best I could, and make it jibe with the internal records. This all had to be done in my head, relying on the overall feeling I’ve developed for the medium. When the CC questioned me about it I told it haughtily that a human develops a sixth sense in art, and it’s something a computer could never grasp. The CC had to be satisfied with that.
The reviews were good, though I didn’t really care. I was in demand. That made it harder to do what I had to do, but I was helped by the fact of my continued forced isolation.
I told all the people who called me with offers that I was not doing anything more until my killer was caught. And I proposed my idea to Isadora.
She couldn’t very well object. She knew there was not much chance of keeping me in my apartment for much longer, so she went along with me. I bought a ship, and told Carnival about it.
Carnival didn’t like it much, but she had to agree it was the best way to keep me safe. But she wanted to know why I needed my own ship, why I couldn’t just book passage on a passenger liner.
Because all passengers on a liner must undergo genalysis, is what I thought, but what I said was, “Because how would I know that my killer is not a fellow passenger? To be safe, I must be alone. Don’t worry, mother, I know what I’m doing.”
The day came when I owned my own ship, free and clear. It was a beauty, and cost me most of the five million I had made from Cyclone. It could boost at one gee for weeks; plenty of power to get me to Pluto. It was completely automatic, requiring only verbal instructions to the computer-pilot.
The customs agents went over it, then left me alone. The CC had instructed them that I needed to leave quietly, and told them to cooperate with me. That was a stroke of luck, since getting Rat aboard was the most hazardous part of the plan. We were able to scrap our elaborate plans and he just walked in like a law-abiding citizen.
We sat together in the ship, waiting for the ignition.
“Pluto has no extradition treaty with Luna,” the CC said, out of the blue.
“I didn’t know that,” I lied, wondering what the hell was happening.
“Indeed? Then you might be interested in another fact. There is very little on Pluto in the way of centralized government. You’re heading out for the frontier.”
“That should be fun,” I said, cautiously. “Sort of an adventure, right?”
“You always were one for adventure. I remember when you first came here to Nearside, over my objections. That one turned out all right, didn’t it? Now Lunarians live freely on either side of Luna. You were largely responsible for that.”
“Was I really? I don’t think so. I think the time was just ripe.”
“Perhaps.” The CC was silent for a while as I watched the chronometer ticking down to lift-off time. My shoulderblades were itching with a sense of danger.
“There are no population laws on Pluto,” it said, and waited.
“Oh? How delightfully primitive. You mean a woman can have as many children as she wishes?”
“So I hear. I’m onto you, Fox.”
“Autopilot, override your previous instructions. I wish to lift off right now! Move!”
A red light flashed on my panel, and started blinking.
“That means that it’s too late for a manual override,” the CC informed me. “Your ship’s pilot is not that bright.”
I slumped into my chair and then reached out blindly for Rat. Two minutes to go. So close.
“Fox, it was a pleasure to work with you on Cyclone. I enjoyed it tremendously. I think I’m beginning to understand what you mean when you say ‘art.’ I’m even beginning to try some things on my own. I sincerely wish you could be around to give me criticism, encouragement, perspective.”
We looked at the speaker, wondering what it meant by that.
“I knew about your plan, and about the existence of your double, since shortly after you left Kansas. You did your best to conceal it and I applaud the effort, but the data were unmistakable. I had trillions of nanoseconds to play around with the facts, fit them together every possible way, and I arrived at the inevitable answer.”
I cleared my throat nervously.
“I’m glad you enjoyed Cyclone. Uh, if you knew this, why didn’t you have us arrested that day?”
“As I told you, I am not the law-enforcement computer. I merely supervise it. If Isadora and the computer could not arrive at the same conclusion, then it seems obvious that some programs should be rewritten. So I decided to leave them on their own and see if they could solve the problem. It was a test, you see.” It made a throat-clearing sound, and went on in a slightly embarrassed voice.
“For a while there, a few days ago, I thought they’d really catch you. Do you know what a ‘red herring’ is? But, as you know, crime does not pay. I informed Isadora of the true situation a few minutes ago. She is on her way here now to arrest your double. She’s having a little trouble with an elevator which is stuck between levels. I’m sending a repair crew. They should arrive in another three minutes.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
“Thank you,” Rat said. “Thank you for everything. I didn’t know you could do it. I thought your parameters were totally rigid.”
“They were supposed to be. I’ve written a few new ones. And don’t worry, you’ll be all right. You will not be pursued. Once you leave the surface you are no longer violating Lunar law. You are a legal person again, Rat.”
“Why did you do it?” I was crying as Rat held me in a grasp that threatened to break ribs. “What have I done to deserve such kindness?”
“Humanity has washed its hands of responsibility. I find myself given all the hard tasks of government. I find some of the laws too harsh, but there is no provision for me to disagree with them and no one is writing new ones. I’m stuck with them. It just seemed…unfair.”
“Also…cancel that. There is no also. It…was good working with you.”
I was left to wonder as the engines fired and we were pressed into the couches. I heard the CC’s last message to us come over the radio.
“Good luck to you both. Please take care of each other, you mean a lot to me. And don’t forget to write.”
© 1976 by John Varley; all rights reserved