Respect for the Dead
by Steven Pemberton
Book Cover: An Appointment to Keep (118K JPEG)
This book is split into three parts, mostly to save on bandwidth. This file is part 1. Parts 2 and 3 are at http://www.pembers.net/fiction/respect2.html and http://www.pembers.net/fiction/respect3.html, respectively. The three parts form a single story; parts 2 and 3 are unlikely to make much sense if you haven’t read part 1.
Respect for the Dead is a science-fiction novel that attempts to answer the question: “What would happen if it became possible for doctors to revive the dead?” In the 29th century, Historian Thander selects Matthew Prentice, a 21st century computer scientist, for resurrection. Matthew had been frozen in the hope of being reunited with his dead wife Debbie, but no-one can tell him where she is. Thander tells Matthew that she wants him for historical research, but her purpose is something else entirely. Matthew soon finds himself caught up in a world where nothing is quite what it seems, where everyone is manipulating someone else, and where even the basis of society has changed from what he knew.
Respect for the Dead is a free book. You can read it without having to pay money to the author or anyone else. You can give copies to other people, as long as you don’t charge them money for it. (This is a brief statement of what you can and can’t do with this book. See the Licence Agreement below for a more detailed version.) The book is some 68,000 words long, or about 100 pages of A4 or letter-size paper.
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With that necessary unpleasantness out of the way, let’s settle down and enjoy the story...
She floats in the midst of the datastream, awash with history, the details of a million lives foaming past her. She needs the utmost vigilance, for somewhere among these individuals are five or, at the most, ten, who can save the human race from extinction. The human race, and quite possibly the planet Earth with them.
She dare not let anyone suspect that she is using these precious seconds to look for someone else.
Tyrants, plutocrats, hypocrites, sycophants... further back... saints and sinners, when those names had real meaning... villains and victims, when there was something to distinguish one from the other... further back, further back--
Slowly, she withdraws from the stream, so that she will not crash back into that place conveniently labelled “physical reality.” It is usually a wrench to be separated from the effortlessness of the stream, to go back into that small, confining world of extent and duration, of limit and demand. Now, though, she has to restrain herself from rushing back to examine her prize properly.
Historian Thander opened her eyes and yawned. She was sitting in her chair in her office, exactly as she had left it all a few subjective hours ago. She lifted her hands from the small, soft pad embedded in her desk that formed the datastream’s terminal, and stretched her arms in an effort to work the stiffness out of them. The wake-up drugs were already flowing through her.
She sat back in her chair and half-closed her eyes, reviewing the knowledge that the datastream had neatly pasted into her brain. It felt strange, as these constructed memories always did. Objectively, she knew that a small group of molecules in her head had somehow been rearranged a few seconds ago to encode the information that she had told the stream she wanted to copy out of it. Subjectively, the memory felt as though it had always been there, because she couldn’t remember learning it, any more than she could remember learning how to breathe.
The memory consisted of the details of the two individuals she had selected from the stream a few minutes previously. Already it felt like several hours. They were a husband and wife, both aged about 35. There was a photograph of them, which was unusual for this period. He was blond, with a long, droopy moustache. She was a brunette, and wore some of that bizarre facial decoration known as “make-up.” Yes... They were looking half at the camera and half at each other, each with an arm around the other’s shoulders, their faces fixed in an expression which Thander readily recognised as a sign of being hopelessly in love. She wondered, not for the first time, what that was like. It might have been pleasant, or at least interesting, to be that woman. For a while, anyway...
She studied the rest of the data about them--particularly their professions. Yes... She opened her eyes and leaned forward to enter a requisition through her communicator.
No. This is wrong. It shall not be.
Thander took a deep breath and clenched her fists. “Leave me alone,” she said in a low, determined voice. “You don’t understand what it’s like.”
Some things are always wrong, no matter what other circumstances exist.
She closed her eyes and tried to focus inwards on the source of the voice. “Fuck off,” she growled at it.
It is wrong even to contemplate what you intend. You will be discovered, and you will be punished.
There was never any arguing with the voice. After all, it didn’t really exist. It was just an artefact of eugenics and conditioning, lurking somewhere in her subconscious, which surfaced whenever she thought too much about doing something wrong. Some other part of her brain obligingly translated drives and inhibitions into words and images that the rest could understand.
She sat back again and tried to relax. At times, the chastisement was enough to make her feel like vomiting. Nowadays, everybody had a little regulator like that, to see to it that they behaved correctly. No doubt it made most people’s lives much simpler. Whoever had designed that simple black-and-white morality, which insisted that some things are always wrong couldn’t possibly have imagined the situation that Thander was in now. Or perhaps they could. Perhaps they had set this up deliberately for their own amusement. But she would find a way. A way to break the commandments, or bend them so far that they might as well be broken.
Some things are always wrong. You will be discovered. You will be punished.
“I’ve been punished enough already,” she groaned. “Leave me alone, you bastard...”
She put her forearms on the desk, and rested the side of her head on them. A tear squeezed itself out of one tightly-closed eye and splashed onto the back of her wrist. She had no other choice. When you are faced with an insoluble problem, the only way out of it is to cheat. Some things are always wrong.
The oldest sarcophagi were always the heaviest, reflected Senior Technician Camrun. Back in those days, metals were the only materials known to be capable of withstanding centuries of immersion in liquid nitrogen. To the people of those times, more was always better, so this sarcophagus, with its occupant, weighed close on 250 kilograms. It was about two metres long, roughly egg-shaped, with the ends and the bottom squared off. A thin horizontal groove was just visible around the middle of it. A window over the corpse’s head was rimed with thick frost. Just below this was the usual plaque with the occupant’s name and dates. There was a lot of other text beneath that, in what appeared to be several different alphabets. This was unusual for this period: perhaps this person had been someone important.
Of course, the hover-sled would choose today to break down, so Camrun and his new assistant Trant were pushing the sarcophagus along the corridor on a wheeled trolley. Trant had only recently completed his training, and Camrun had rapidly concluded that the trainers had taught Trant even less than they had taught him. He had not yet made up his mind, though, whether Trant or the trainers were to blame for this. The nitrogen that had condensed on the sarcophagus when it was in its cubicle steamed in the sudden heat. The temperature here was low enough to kill a person in minutes without the heated robes that he and Trant wore, but it was still some 150 Celsius warmer than the cubicles.
They approached a junction. The corridor they were on was one of many on this level that radiated outwards from the centre. At several points, it intersected others that formed a set of concentric rings. They needed to move over to the next radius to reach the lift that would take them down to ground level. Trant rushed forward to pull the trolley around using a handle at the front. As usual, he pulled it rather too hard. Camrun’s sigh was not entirely masked by the noise of the trolley crashing into the wall. “We’re not going to thaw him out any quicker by shaking him, you know,” he tutted, as the echoes died away. (picture)
“Sorry, sir,” muttered Trant, looking at Camrun for a moment, and then down at his boots.
“Just be glad you jumped out of the way in time,” said Camrun. “Otherwise we’d have had to fill in an accident report.” Trant shivered, and Camrun motioned him to turn around. “One of the power lines for your heater’s worked itself loose,” he said, plugging it back in. “Bad design, I know, but you’ll learn how to move so that it doesn’t happen.” As they began manoeuvring the trolley around the corner, he added: “And don’t call me ‘Sir.’ We’re the same grade, even though I’m a higher rank than you. You know it makes Doctor Hamesh think I’m getting ideas above my station.”
“Well--Senior Technician,” began Trant, “Doctor Hamesh is--”
“Let’s not go into that,” said Camrun firmly, making a swift chopping motion with his hand. Instinctively he looked about him before continuing, more quietly than before: “I don’t like him any more than you do, but if there’s one thing you should have learned since you’ve been working with me, it’s that you don’t upset the doctors--particularly not Doctor Hamesh. Clear?”
“Yes, Senior Technician,” replied Trant sullenly.
They began pushing the trolley along the next stretch of corridor. As Camrun fell back into his slow, determined walking rhythm, he found himself thinking that there was something odd here. An annotation on the hatch of the cubicle that had contained this sarcophagus indicated that the occupant was one of a family group. It added that another member of the group was stored three slots to the right of this one. Families were usually exhumed together, but Camrun had received instructions only to exhume the man who was now on the trolley. Still, those who made these decisions no doubt had their reasons for doing it this way, and it was not Camrun’s place to question them. The order to exhume this man’s wife might simply have been held up somewhere. Yes, that was probably it. Doubtless it would arrive in a day or two.
Something was becoming aware of the fact that it existed. There was a large store of memories that appeared to belong to it. None of these made any sense. There was a thing called “language,” whose purpose seemed to be to shape and order thoughts. There was a thing called “time,” closely connected to concepts of “before” and “after.” Possibly “language” and “time” could unravel the tangle of memory. Yes... Besides language and time, there were things called “emotions” and “perceptions.”
There was also a thing called “pain.”
He opened his mouth and screamed.
As his breath ran out, he felt lassitude washing over him, as though the pain was being rinsed out of him. He closed his eyes, and breathed deeply. Then his eyes flicked open again. This was not a place he recognised. His memory could give no reason for that intense flash of pain. Where was he, and what had happened to him?
He was lying in bed, his upper body propped up on what felt like a couple of firm pillows. His right arm was under the blankets, which came up to his ribs. His left arm was above the blankets. His left hand and wrist felt numb. He tried flexing his fingers. Those on the right hand responded; those on the left didn’t. He tried to raise his head to look at his left hand, but found it too much of an effort. Instead, he dragged his hand up over the blankets. He managed to glimpse something small, flat and blue strapped to the back of it. That explained the release from pain, at least. The thing was about the right size to contain a simple hormone monitor and a drug dispenser. He felt a familiar sense of petty resentment at that. No-one ever stopped to ask if he was left-handed. What did “left-handed” mean, though? He had two hands, like almost everyone else. Surely that made him “two-handed” or “both-handed”?
He let his eyes focus further away, in an effort to gauge his surroundings. The ceiling was a pale yellow, almost white. The room’s light seemed to be coming from it, but there was no visible source. The walls, or what he could see of them lying almost flat on his back, were pale green and featureless. There was no sign of a window or door. The room appeared to be roughly square, anything between three and six metres along each side.
There came a soft chime from his left, and a calm, clear voice began to speak. “Good morning,” it said. It was not obvious whether the voice was male or female, and it had a slight accent which he couldn’t place. He tried to turn his head to face the speaker. “Please do not be alarmed,” it continued. There was a synthetic quality to it. He felt that, if it was to repeat the sentence, the intonation would be exactly the same as before. “I am not physically present in this room.” He wondered why that was. Did he have some highly contagious disease?
He felt a slight vibration beneath him, and found that part of the bed was slowly rising, to lift him into a sitting position. He was wearing a loose, light grey garment, which came down to his elbows. His forearms were hairless, which didn’t seem quite right. He lifted his hand to his face. That too was hairless. Shouldn’t he have a moustache? He couldn’t remember for sure.
“There is a communicator in front of you,” the voice said. Something that was mounted on a pivoting stand beside the bed was swinging around towards him. It came to a smooth halt at eye level in front of him, within easy reach. It was a thin, flat box, about thirty centimetres wide by fifteen high. The middle two-thirds of it were taken up by what he guessed was a screen, although it was dark at the moment. On either side of the screen were five large, widely spaced buttons of various colours. They were labelled, although not in any language that he recognised.
“If you require assistance now or in the future, please shout ‘Help,’ or press the red button at the top left of the communicator.” One of the buttons on the box lit up and flashed a few times. It was labelled with what looked like an exclamation mark. He decided to wait until the voice had finished before calling for assistance.
“It is likely that you are suffering from some loss of memory,” the voice went on. He turned to look in the direction of the voice, but saw nothing that might be reproducing it. “Please do not worry about this. It is quite normal. Your memory should return within a few days.” The qualifying “should” made him feel uneasy.
“The screen of your communicator will now display some of your personal details, as our records show them. Please take a few moments to read them. If you have trouble reading, please call for assistance.” The screen switched on, and filled with a soft, pearly glow. A moment later, several lines of large, clear, black text appeared on it. The letters seemed familiar, but most of the words were not. He decided to try to puzzle it out.
Neim: Matthew Adrian Prentice
Yes, that was his name. “Prentice” was the name of his family, and he was commonly known as “Matthew.” He knew that he had never liked “Adrian,” but couldn’t remember why at the moment.
Deit ov bεθ: Ænou Dominai 1974, Matʃ 2
1974, March the 2nd... his date of birth?
Deit ov bεθ could be that. Yes,
θ looked like a theta, which was pronounced TH. How was it that he knew about that letter? It seemed to be part of an alphabet which was not his own. He felt that it had more letters than he was familiar with, but why anybody would want to learn only half an alphabet was quite beyond him at the moment.
Ænou Dominai, though, must be “Anno Domini,” referring to dates in the Christian calendar. But why was that necessary? What other calendar was in common use nowadays in this country? No-one was going to think he was born in 1974 BC, were they? And why were the words spelt differently from how his memory said they should be? Perhaps he had been in a coma for a few years, and somebody had decided to implement the reform of English spelling which everybody agreed was needed, but which almost everybody agreed would cause too much upheaval to be worth the effort. Why then was his name spelt the “old” way? Was that just for his convenience? If so, why did the display not use “old” spelling throughout?
Deit ov deθ: Ænou Dominai 2008, Oktouber 14
2008, October the 14th... that date meant nothing. Today’s date, perhaps? He realised with a slight shock that he had no notion of what the year was now. He couldn’t even put definite dates on any of the events that he remembered. What did
Deit ov deθ mean, then? Date of D, E, Theta... Date of deth...
Matthew yelled: “Help!” At the same time, he punched the assistance button so hard that the communicator stand shot away from the bed and crashed into the wall.
The door slid shut behind them. The room was about four metres by three. Most of one of the shorter walls was taken up with what appeared to Matthew to be a large television screen. In the middle of the room was a table, with two large swivel chairs on opposite sides of it.
“Please sit down,” said the woman who had identified herself as Historian Thander. Matthew took the chair nearer the door. Historian Thander was about one metre 70, with black shoulder-length hair. Matthew guessed she was about 30. She had a pleasant, sympathetic face, but her manner was business-like. She wore a pale blue blouse and a pair of grey trousers. Over the blouse, she wore a small, white garment. It looked like an apron, but came down only to her waist. On the left shoulder of the apron was a bright green square, with two circles joined by a horizontal line in the middle of it. On the right shoulder was a paler green square, with some of the phonetic writing that Matthew had seen earlier on the communicator screen. He guessed it said “Historian Thander” or something like that.
“‘Historian’ is my profession, and also a title of rank,” she said. “You may address me as ‘Thander’.” Like the disembodied voice that had greeted Matthew when he woke up, she had a slight, unfamiliar accent. English was probably not her native language. “May I call you ‘Matthew’?”
“Uh, yeah,” said Matthew uncertainly. He felt a dull ache in the back of his neck and reached a hand around to investigate.
“No,” said Thander, looking worried.
“Why not?” he asked, putting his hand back in his lap.
“The thing in the back of your neck is keeping you alive,” she told him. “If it thinks you are interfering with it, it will give you a shock. If you do not stop, it will send you to sleep for a few hours.”
“Yes, but only at first. I am told that one becomes accustomed to it,” Thander replied. She paused a moment, and then continued: “I must apologise for the shock you received when you woke up. We tend to forget that our ancestors began freezing their dead long before exhumation became possible. For you and many others, the decision to be frozen must have been based on hope, rather than on knowledge.”
“I guess so,” Matthew replied. He was rather embarrassed about the incident now, and felt that perhaps he had overreacted. He couldn’t remember at the moment why he had decided to be frozen. Perhaps he had made the choice shortly before his death. If he had known in advance that he was going to die, the decision might have had something to do with the fact that he was only 34 at the time. “Am I still dead, then?”
“Medically speaking, no,” she said. “You are breathing, your heart is beating, and so on. Our tests indicate that all your physical and mental functions are working normally. The fact that you were in good health when you died made your exhumation relatively trouble-free.”
Can anybody truly be said to be in good health when they die? Matthew wondered. He supposed the phrase was relative; it probably just meant that he hadn’t been ill for a long time before dying. So what had killed him, then?
“Legally, however,” Thander continued, “you are still dead. The main consequence of that is that you no longer own anything, except for the personal possessions that were stored in your sarcophagus. Those will be returned to you later. Your will would have been executed when you died, and it cannot be reversed. However, you may now accumulate wealth again.”
“If I make another will,” he asked, “can I leave everything to myself?”
“A lot of people ask that,” said Thander, giving a wry smile. “The answer is no. Apart from that, it’s very unusual for someone to be frozen and exhumed more than once. Now, I’ll tell you a little about the world you’ve come back to, and then you can ask me any questions you might have.
“We’ve changed the calendar a couple of times since you were first alive. By our count, this is Earth Year 540. As near as I can work it out in the Anno Domini calendar, that’s 2815.”
Matthew gasped. “I’ve been dead over 800 years...”
“Why so long?” he asked.
“Well, the first people to be frozen are not necessarily the first people to be exhumed. Exhumation is still a tricky and expensive process. We have to consider how useful an individual might be. It’s possible that the need for someone like you has only recently arisen.”
“What might I be useful for?”
“We have a couple of ideas, but I need to confirm them by questioning you. Now, the next thing--you have probably noticed that my English does not sound quite the same as yours.”
“Yes,” Matthew nodded.
“I do not have much chance to speak it,” she explained. “What you would recognise as English had all but died out by the time our calendar began. We now speak a language called Athic. It has some elements of English in it, but also a lot of Chinese, Russian and Arabic.” Seeing him grimace, she added: “It’s not as bad as it sounds. Modern teaching methods are very effective. You will need no more than four weeks to become fluent in Athic. Nearly 95 percent of the world speaks it now, so you need learn only one new language. And it has a rich tradition of prose and poetry, as beautiful as anything in English.”
“You say ‘95 percent of the world’. Which world is that?” asked Matthew.
“The world,” replied Thander, puzzled. “There is only one.” After a moment’s concentration, she continued: “Ah. I think I see what you mean. You are still on the... planet which you called, ah... Earth.”
“Whereabouts are we on the planet, then?”
“I don’t know the place-names that you used very well, and ours would mean nothing to you at this stage. I’ll show you on the screen.” She turned her chair to face the screen and uttered a few words of what Matthew supposed was Athic. The screen filled with the globe of Earth, shorn of its cloud cover, familiar from a thousand satellite images. Thander gave some more instructions, and the view moved closer to the planet. The sentences of this language Athic appeared to consist of a large number of short words. Matthew had expected that a hybrid language with four parents would sound awkward at best, but Athic seemed to flow easily enough. Its speakers had had about half a millennium to perfect it, after all.
The map had stabilised on a part of the northern hemisphere. The right half of the screen was occupied by land, showing mountains, valleys and river beds. The left half was filled with featureless blue sea. In the sea, close to the main mass of land, was a large island. Its eastern edge bore some resemblance to the coastline of Britain, but the west was unfamiliar. If this was Britain, there was only water where Ireland should have been. Had the polar ice-caps melted, as 21st century ecologists had long predicted? Or had there been some terrible war? Matthew found it hard to imagine anything that could wipe an entire country from the face of the Earth.
“This is a large-scale view of our surroundings,” said Thander. “The scale is one to 500 thousand. The area that you see now is about 3 thousand kilometres east to west.” She spoke a few more words of Athic, and a pale blue dot appeared near the middle of the screen. It was somewhere in what had been Norway, or possibly Sweden, in the 21st century. Matthew’s knowledge of geography had always been sketchy. During his life (his first life, he corrected himself), the constant improvements in communication technology had been steadily making the physical location of a person or piece of information irrelevant. He wondered, then, why it was suddenly so important to him to know where he was.
“The blue dot shows the approximate location of this establishment, to within 25 kilometres,” she told him. She paused. Matthew looked expectantly at her, and then back at the map. “I regret I can not show you the exact location.”
She turned to look at him, slightly embarrassed. “It’s a secret.”
“Well, the English word ‘government’ is a rather un-accurate description of how humanity is ruled now, but I do not know of a better one.”
“The government. OK,” said Matthew, nodding. Some things hadn’t changed in the last eight centuries, then. The fact that she had said “how humanity is ruled” rather than “how humanity rules itself” was a little worrying, though. It suggested that something non-human was in charge now. Aliens? Robots? Dolphins? Or was it just Thander’s imperfect English? “Can you tell me what this... establishment does, then?” he asked.
“In broad terms, yes. It’s an... exhumee processing centre, I think you would call it in English. We exhume people from the two mausolea nearby, and ensure that they’re in good physical and mental health. We question them, to find out what tasks they’re most suitable for. We also question some of them for historical research, which is a large part of my profession. I would like to question you for research, if I may.”
Matthew considered this request for a moment, and then nodded. “OK, then.”
“Thank you,” she said. “The period that I specialise in, Anno Domini 1980 to 2025, is quite well-documented, but I rarely have the opportunity to talk to someone who was alive at the time.”
“Quite well-documented” was something of a euphemism, Matthew thought. He recalled the hectares of newsprint, the TV services with three- and even four-digit channel numbers, the gigabytes of online reportage and opinion, and then remembered how hard it had been (to begin with, at least) to find anything that was relevant, or even interesting.
“Lastly,” said Thander, “we prepare exhumees for their new lives--for example, by teaching them Athic if necessary.”
“Does this exhumee processing centre have a name?” asked Matthew.
“Yes. It’s one of the oldest. Most of the centres just have a number, or are named after the area they’re in. This one is called Baha Ik-Tolu in Athic. Literally, that means ‘Accidental Discovery Base.’”
“‘Accidental Discovery’...” Matthew frowned in concentration. “Serendipity Base?”
“If you prefer,” shrugged Thander. “It has probably never had a name in English, so you can call it what you like.”
“One other question,” said Matthew. “You said: ‘There is only one Earth.’” She nodded. “Does that mean that you haven’t colonised other planets, or star systems?”
“No, we have not. At least, not that I am aware of.”
“And... why wouldn’t you be aware of it?”
“There are many events in the past that I am not aware of.” She paused. “Ah. I think I understand. Some small groups may have attempted colonisation in some period that I have not studied closely, but there have been no such attempts within the last century. There have never been any large scale attempts.”
“Why not?” asked Matthew. “Many people in my day thought it was inevitable.”
She gave a wry smile. “As many people between Anno Domini 1918 and 1939 thought that perpetual peace was inevitable? As many people between 1990 and 2010 thought that it was inevitable that the world would come to be dominated by large corporations? If the study of history has taught me anything, it is that words like ‘inevitable’ and ‘impossible’ do not apply to people, still less to large groups of them.” Seeing that he was not fully satisfied with her answer, she added: “Colonisation of a nearby planet is probably within our technological capabilities, but we have been... preoccupied these last few centuries.”
Her pause before “preoccupied” suggested to Matthew that the word was a euphemism. He sensed that she had said all she had to say on the matter, and he decided not to press her further about it.
Matthew sat at the table in his little room, pondering the possessions that Thander had returned to him. There was a gold ring set with a purple gemstone, that looked as though it would fit him. There was a thick hardback book entitled From Babbage to Booch: 150 Years of Computation, which appeared to be a collection of essays and academic papers by people who had been influential in the history of computing. Tentatively, he opened the front cover. He heard a sharp crackling, and a puff of dust emerged from the book’s spine. He decided against investigating it any further for the moment and put it to one side. Nevertheless, it was clearly aimed at those who worked in computing. Had he been such a person? He had found that he could remember general things about the society and culture he had lived in--things that any person in that society might be expected to know--but most of the details of his own life eluded him at the moment. He knew that Babbage had tried and failed to build a mechanical computer, a century before anyone had tried to build an electronic one--but how he had learned that, and how he had come to have a book with the man’s name on the cover, he didn’t know. He knew that he had a good command of English--but he couldn’t remember any of the people who had taught it to him.
Next were two square plastic cases, about 12 centimetres on a side, evidently some form of storage for recorded music. One was Electric Ladyland by The Jimi Hendrix Experience. The other was Mozart’s 41st Symphony (Jupiter). They reminded him of wild sensuous excess in low-lit, smoke-filled rooms, but at the same time of tunnel vision, of trying to shut out distractions from the demanding and unempathetic people around him. He knew that the music had been there through both of those times and more besides, but which pieces belonged with which environment, or whether it was all one, he couldn’t remember at the moment. He opened one of the cases. Inside was a silver-coloured disc, which bore details of the music it contained. He recalled that the music was recorded on the other side of the disc, so he gently lifted it out. He saw a shimmering iridescence--the phrase “interference patterns” came to mind, although he had no idea why. It seemed to be in good condition, but there was no way to be sure: the pits and bumps that encoded the music were too small to see with the unaided eye. He put the disc back and closed the case.
There were two more small cases, about five centimetres by three, made of a translucent plastic that had become cloudy with age. Opening one of these, he found a slightly smaller box, this one black, and an insert of brittle card. In one corner of this was printed
Sony miniDV 60min. That meant that the box was a cassette recording of moving pictures. The main part of the card was occupied by the words
Holidays / Home / Friends 2003, written in a scrappy, awkward hand. He wondered if it was his own. He guessed that
2003 referred to the year the recording had been made. In which calendar? asked some part of him, although it was obvious. Nevertheless, he found that he wanted to write
Anno Domini after it.
As he examined the box, a shard of memory fell before him. He was holding the camera he had used to make this recording. It was of a size to fit comfortably in his hand and point at whatever he wanted to film. It had a screen that folded out from one side so that he could see what was going on to the tape. There was a person on the screen, laughing. Laughing? What was so funny? Matthew blinked as the memory ceased, as if at a fault line.
The box had a clear window in the middle of one face, and through it he could see what looked like a reel of dark brown tape. One edge of the box was a flap, which the recorder would hold open to reach the tape inside. It had an interlock mechanism to prevent it opening accidentally. A few seconds’ experimentation reminded him of how to defeat it, and he carefully lifted the flap. A small shower of black dust fell out. Looking at the exposed portion of the tape, he saw that it was almost clear, except for a few fragments of oxide that clung to it. Cautiously, he wound it on a little way, producing more black dust and more clear tape. The cassette was unplayable.
He opened the other box. Written on its card was
Holiday / Home / Friends 2003 (clone), so presumably it was a copy of the first tape. It was in a similar state. He sighed. Had he really expected anything else? “Archive stability 30-50 years” the data sheets had boasted. This was at a time when 30 years was almost longer than video tape had existed commercially. Half a century must have seemed like forever. Even if the tapes had been in pristine condition, were there any machines that could read them? Did anyone even know how to make such a machine?
Last was a dog-eared photograph in a plain wooden frame. It showed a man and a woman sitting close together at a table, each with an arm around the other. The room they were in appeared to be someone’s study. There was a large bookcase against the left-hand wall, and behind the man and the woman was a desk with a reading lamp and a computer on it.
The man, he confirmed with the mirror in one corner of the room, was a younger version of himself, with the familiar jutting chin and pointed nose. There was that same depressingly large area of pale skin between his eyebrows and his blond hair. He had a moustache in the photograph, so he had been right about that when he woke up. There was a small horizontal scar, pale but prominent, below his left eye, about level with the bottom of his nose. He couldn’t remember getting it. He wore a plain white T-shirt, with what looked like a small logo over the left breast, although it was too crumpled to tell what it was. From what he could see of his flesh, he had been a lot more muscular then. He was frowning slightly, although whether in concentration or disapproval, he couldn’t tell. Another shard of memory fell before him: “You look as though you could put the world to rights if you thought hard enough about it.” A woman had said it: the woman he was sitting with? Memories were like rockets at firework displays at the moment: beautiful and fascinating, but all too brief, and illuminating nothing of their surroundings.
He turned his attention to the woman. A soft mass of light brown curls framed a smiling oval face. There was a glint of mischief in her green eyes. Her skin was a shade or two darker than his, and that prompted another memory fragment. “You don’t need that much suncream, pet.” It was the same voice as before. Pet? She had a little makeup: deep brown eyeshadow, a touch of blusher, pale red lipstick. The lipstick was unusual for her. Why was she wearing it now? Why did she not wear it normally? How did he know it was unusual? He didn’t know. She wore a baggy calico blouse, with the top three buttons unfastened. It hid most of her figure, but she seemed to be of medium build with a small bust.
Clearly, he had known this woman well, to be sitting like that with her. But who was she, and why had he thought the photograph important enough to be worth squeezing into the very limited space that his sarcophagus had allowed for personal possessions?
Carefully, he took the photo out of the frame to look at the back of it. There was the answer.
Saturday 7 July 2001
My dearest husband,
I will love you always.
“Debbie,” he whispered. Like the match that starts a bonfire, or the footstep that starts a landslide, the name released a torrent of raw, unstructured memory. Warm kisses, laughter, smiles, tears, silly love-names, evenings of intimacy in front of the fire, long phone calls, mock arguments on weekend mornings over who would get out of bed to make the coffee, then letting it go cold as they made love, absurd rituals of endearment... then... sickness, gradually worsening pain, hallucinations, nightmares, a slow descent into cold, numb darkness.
“Debbie...” Matthew scarcely noticed the tears that streamed down his face, some soaking into his sleeve, others splashing onto the table. She was the reason he had decided to be frozen after his death. Indeed, he had often thought that she was the reason he had survived into the 21st century. He began the task of ordering the memories into a connected sequence...
After graduating in 1995, he had found a job as a software engineer. The company’s main line of business was transaction processing systems for stockbrokers. The hours were long, as was typical in the industry, but the pay was good and the work, on the whole, was challenging and enjoyable. The last project he had worked on for them, throughout most of 1998, had been a semi-secret project to help dealers decide what to buy and sell, and when.
It began to become apparent that this project had gone badly wrong when the lead project manager resigned to take a job elsewhere. The first two things that the firm’s senior management noticed were that it was 70 percent over budget and eight months behind schedule. The next two things they noticed were that several of the system’s components had numerous bugs (a common euphemism for “mistakes”), and that several other components, while sound by themselves, would not work with the rest of the system. The management began an investigation to find out what had gone wrong. Matthew observed to a colleague that it was rather like a crocodile asking about the meaning of the Pyramids: no-one should be surprised that they would completely fail to understand the answer, but it was remarkable that they had asked the question at all. A rumour started that the system would be scrapped. Another rumour followed close behind, that writing off an investment of that size was likely to bankrupt the company, unless substantial savings were made. It was fairly obvious who would provide those savings.
Matthew, along with many others, was called before the investigation to explain his part in the project. The management asked numerous questions, all of which confirmed Matthew’s belief that no lessons would be learned from this disaster. Then one of them asked him: “Mr Prentice, in your opinion, why did this project fail?”
“I think you’d better ask Mr Ruddock that,” replied Matthew. Mr Ruddock was the project manager who had resigned.
“I did,” said the manager. “When I told him who I was, he laughed and put the phone down.”
So Matthew explained why he thought the project had failed. He said he thought it had been too ambitious for the amount of time and money and the number of people the company had been prepared to commit to it. He said that the system used a number of new, unproven technologies, with which the company had little experience, and which seemed to have been chosen mainly so that it could be seen to be keeping pace with its competitors. He said that Mr Ruddock had been rather too keen to carry out his orders to keep the project secret, and had divided his people into small teams, which were not allowed to communicate with each other except through him. “I’m sure you can imagine,” Matthew said drily, “the difficulty of relaying complex technical information through somebody whose last close encounter with a computer was in the punched card era.” He did not say that he thought Mr Ruddock to be a fatuous windbag whom the idiots in front of him had promoted far beyond his ability, and that the company was much better off without him. The management thanked him for his input and said he could go back to his desk.
The following morning, Matthew’s line manager called him into his office and told him, with plain reluctance, that his employment was at an immediate end. About three-quarters of the people who had worked on the project were sacked the same day. Most of the rest followed a few weeks later. Matthew’s manager gave him a cheque for six weeks’ pay in lieu of notice. He said he had heard about Matthew’s diatribe against “that cretin Ruddock” (he had not been a popular man), but denied that Matthew’s dismissal was anything to do with it. Matthew found himself wishing that it was. It wouldn’t have made losing his job any less unjust, but at least that way it would have been because of something he had actually done. It wouldn’t have been because of Ruddock’s incompetence. It wouldn’t have been because the management were lashing out in frustration at not being able to punish Ruddock. It wouldn’t have been because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
After that, Matthew found himself unable to get another job. Those were boom years for the computing industry, but no-one seemed to want him. The reason most often cited was that his experience and skills were not relevant to the vacancy he was applying for. A few employers admitted the real reason, which was that his former managers described him as a troublemaker, with an inflated idea of his own ability.
In the year after being sacked, Matthew slid slowly towards clinical depression. His friends, although initially sympathetic, gradually deserted him when he failed to improve. Once or twice he contemplated suicide. What stopped him was partly a belief that things had to get better sooner or later, partly a desire to prove himself better than the bastards who had sacked him, and mostly a fear that dying by his own hand would be very painful.
Then one day in September of 1999, a friend who was more tenacious than the others, or perhaps just less perceptive, invited Matthew to a party. Matthew found it odd that he couldn’t even remember the man’s name now. The host introduced Matthew to a woman, a year or two older than him. Her name was Debbie Rawlins, and she was a researcher in computational linguistics, a branch of artificial intelligence, at a nearby university. She didn’t know many of the people at the party, and nor did he, and they spent most of the evening talking to one another. She was friendly, articulate and perceptive, with a very sharp sense of humour. He liked her almost immediately. She laughed at some of his jokes and smiled at most of the rest, but Matthew left the party feeling that he must have come across as terribly clumsy and boorish. He was astonished when she phoned two days later to invite him out to dinner.
Over the next few weeks and months, they saw each other more and more often. Matthew’s emotional condition improved quickly. The knowledge that Debbie thought he was worth taking trouble over was a big help.
About four months after they met, Debbie told Matthew that the university had decided to appoint another researcher in artificial intelligence, this time in pattern recognition. This was close enough to the work Matthew had been doing earlier for Debbie to encourage him to apply. His academic credentials were a little shaky, but he had plenty of industrial experience. To his surprise, the university offered him the post, and he accepted. That evening, he and Debbie made love for the first time. They agreed that it had been worth the wait.
Matthew’s new job was demanding, and paid less than half his former salary, but it was far, far better than being unemployed. A month or two later, Debbie moved into Matthew’s flat. They joked that it made little difference, since she spent so much time there anyway. Five months after that, and about a year after they had met at the party, they were married.
“Oh, Debbie... my love...” Matthew looked up and tried to dry his eyes. The outer surface of his shirt was not very absorbent, and he just succeeded in wetting those parts of his face that were not already damp. Blinking away some of the tears, he picked up the ring, his wedding ring, and put it on. It felt loose; he was right in thinking that he must have lost a lot of weight. He held up his hand to look at it. Even in the diffuse, unfocused light of this room, the gold and the amethyst still sparkled. Softly, he kissed the ring.
In the years following Debbie’s death, he had found it hard to cry, even late at night, lying awake in a cold, half-empty bed. It wasn’t quite that he was damming up his feelings, more that it seemed inappropriate to grieve for somebody whom he believed he would soon be reunited with. Now, though, he somehow knew that there were many more tears to be shed before he and Debbie were together again.
“Now, Matthew,” said Thander, “would you like to tell me why you decided to be frozen?”
“Well,” he replied awkwardly, “mainly it was because of my wife, Debbie.” He showed her the original of the photograph that Thander had found in the datastream a couple of weeks ago, when she had selected Matthew for exhumation. “She died of cancer in 2005. She was only 34.” He hesitated, and then asked: “You know what cancer is?”
“Yes,” she said softly. She had once seen a film about it, made in the early 21st century. It was one of the few things that made her glad that she was alive now, rather than then. “I’m sorry to hear that.” She hoped he wouldn’t realise that Debbie’s existence and the manner of her death wasn’t news to her.
“Pause,” instructed Thander. The recording of that afternoon’s interview with Matthew paused, with Matthew about to utter another sentence. Thander’s right shoulder and the back of her head were visible, but the office’s screen was mostly occupied by Matthew, slightly larger than life-size. He wasn’t aware of the camera, which was hardly surprising, given that it was about the size of a mosquito, and was hovering somewhere on the other side of the room.
Thander’s office was a small, cramped place. On the wall to the right of the screen were several shelves, crammed with academic books and datacubes, and sheaves of hand-written notes. These had long ago outgrown their natural habitat and had since expanded onto every available flat surface. Periodically, Thander tried to herd them back into their allocated space, but she seldom had much success.
She was sitting at her desk. Just visible above all the books and notes on it were a couple of small ornaments: a plastic drink can, finished to look like aluminium, and a reproduction of a transistor radio. The radio was just the casing; it wouldn’t have worked, even if there were any broadcasts that it could have received.
Thander made an annotation in the notebook that she was balancing on her knees. She would have dictated her notes to Mandarin, the base’s computer, like everyone else, but it was important--in Matthew’s case, absolutely vital--that no-one else could read them. She had taken the extra precaution of unplugging the notebook’s communication module, so that it was physically isolated from everything else. From time to time, it complained that the communication module appeared to be defective, which was something she had learned to live with. “Resume,” she said, and the recording continued to play.
Matthew looked down slightly. For a moment, he said nothing. Then: “We were cheated of our time together... so we agreed that she would be frozen, and that, when I died, I would be too.” He looked up at her, and asked: “So--where is she?”
“I’m sorry,” Thander replied. “I don’t quite follow you.” He must not suspect that she was lying, that she knew exactly what he meant.
“Well, I was right next to her,” he pointed out.
Three cubicles away, in fact, she thought.
“Surely we would’ve been, ah... exhumed... together?”
“I’m afraid not, Matthew,” she said uncomfortably. “The mausolea have been rearranged several times over the centuries, and she could be in any of them. It’s equally likely that she was exhumed some years ago, in which case she could be anywhere in the world. Even if anybody could be spared to do a search, it could take years.”
“I’ll do it!” he exclaimed, exasperated.
She shook her head gently. “Your new life may take you far from here. Even if you remain in this area, it’s unlikely you would ever get the necessary clearances, especially not for that length of time.”
“Difficult to say. But to give you some idea, the mausoleum you were in, a couple of kilometres over there, is a pyramid 650 metres high and 1300 metres along each side. It can hold 91 million sarcophagi, and it’s usually at least 80 percent full. Think how long it would take you just to walk past all of them and read the label on each freezer cubicle--not forgetting that some of them don’t have labels, so you’d have to drain the coolant out of them to look at the actual sarcophagus.”
“But surely there’s some kind of catalogue or index?”
She shook her head. “There’s none.” This was not entirely true. There was, of course, the datastream: not an index in the sense that Matthew meant, but very effective at finding people. What she meant was: “none that any exhumee will ever be allowed to access.” She continued: “There are 14 mausolea in this country alone, and about 100 more world-wide. Some of them are even bigger than the one you were in. National boundaries have changed a lot, of course, so she might be in another country. Our relationships with neighbouring countries are poor, to say the least.”
“Why?” said Matthew. “What’s the problem?”
“I’ll explain later.” She paused, seeing that he still wanted an answer. “Let’s just say that our neighbours would never allow access to their mausolea to anyone living in this country.”
“But there must be something we can do. Without Debbie...” he said, his voice becoming quieter as he spoke, “there’s no reason for me to be here...”
“All right,” she sighed, “I’ll see what I can do. After all that, she might not be very far away. I’ll ask the technicians to search the block you were in. That’s about 1000 sarcophagi. It would take an hour or two, but it might be a few weeks before they can spare someone who can read English.”
“Thank you,” he said softly.
“Pause,” ordered Thander. Had her performance been natural enough? Had he suspected that she could have made a good guess what his answer to each question would be? Should she perhaps have added that Debbie might have been exhumed so long ago that she would be permanently dead by now? No... better to save that for later. Or let him figure it out for himself. “Resume.”
“Now, Matthew,” she said in the recording, “would you like to tell me about your most recent profession?”
“Well,” he replied, “I was a researcher in artificial intelligence, mainly in pattern recognition. I enjoyed that quite a lot, but... after Debbie died, I found it hard to continue...”
“What do you mean by ‘pattern recognition’?” she asked. They were still speaking English at the moment, so it was easy to pretend that she didn’t understand some of the technical terms that he used.
“Well, mainly, it means imitating human senses, to understand speech, recognise faces, that sort of thing.”
“And did you work in pattern recognition generally, or did you specialise in one of those topics?” Computing was still a fairly new discipline at the time of Matthew’s death, and she was not sure of the extent to which it had divided and sub-divided into long narrow branches of expertise.
“Well, I specialised in speech recognition,” Matthew said, “but we were expected to be familiar with trends in other areas.”
“What were the main problems that researchers in speech recognition were trying to solve?”
“Well, understanding regional and national accents was one of the main problems that I was concerned with. That’s a special case of a more general problem, which was that with most of the systems that did anything useful, you needed train them to recognise your voice before you could use them. To give an example, there was one system that was in commercial use--” Suddenly, the picture became blocky and the sound distorted. Evidently, the camera had developed a fault. Then the screen went black and the sound stopped. The recorder, realising that it was no longer receiving a good signal, had stopped recording to save space. This sort of thing was becoming more common nowadays; no-one seemed to be bothering to maintain the cameras. Maybe no-one knew how any more.
“--and I could never get it to understand me saying ‘three.’” The signal had returned. Glancing at the recorded clock in one corner of the screen, she saw that it had jumped about ten seconds. As dropouts went, this one was fairly short.
“But if you had to train them, surely it would have understood you eventually?” asked Thander.
“That’s just the point. The people who built this system didn’t allow it to learn. They thought that the users wouldn’t want to go through the bother of training it--even though it only recognised three words. And this system was used by millions of people, so they’d have had the problem of storing all that training data and retrieving it quickly.”
The door of Thander’s office opened. “Pause,” she said, switching off her notebook. There was only one person, besides herself, who knew that her office was never locked when she was in it--the same person who had insisted that it should be so.
“Ah, Thander,” said Doctor Hamesh, his round, flabby face as full as ever of that despicable smugness. “I thought you’d have finished by now.” He was 44 years old, heavily-built, about one metre 60. She noticed that his thick, mousy hair was more unkempt than usual. She nodded glumly, partly because she had been working a lot of extra time lately, and partly because she had a fair idea of what Hamesh was going to say next.
“Care to join me in the relaxation room?”
He must have been in an incredibly good mood to ask for something as innocent as that. Oh, it would doubtless lead to much worse later, but the relaxation room itself was a public area: he wouldn’t dare so much as touch her there. Still, if he was in a good mood, she might be able to wriggle out of whatever he was planning.
“Well,” she replied, pointing to the screen, “I’m only halfway through writing up this interview.”
Hamesh stepped into the room and walked over to where she was sitting. He stood close to her, behind and to one side, as though trying to read the screen of her notebook. She hoped he wouldn’t notice that she’d switched it off. He looked at the image of Matthew that was still on her screen.
“Ah,” he said, “Matthew Adrian... Prentice, I do believe. Died in minus 267. One of the oldest exhumees we’ve processed for quite some time.” Somehow Hamesh always seemed to be in charge of the medical processing of anyone whom Thander selected for exhumation.
She turned her chair to face him, pushing it away from him a little. “He had several jobs in computing before he died. That makes him very important to Project Five, and it also makes it very important for me to finish writing up this interview.”
Ignoring the hint, Hamesh shook his head smugly. “He’s too old, Thander. The instructions were quite clear. Exhumees with computing experience and a date of death of minus 100 or later. He’s too primitive. That thing” --he pointed to her notebook-- “could derive all of Hibari’s equations before the most powerful computer of his time could tell you that two and two are four.” He smirked. Evidently that was his idea of a joke.
“Yes,” she said patiently, “well we haven’t found nearly as many computer experts as we expected. We can’t afford to reject anyone who might be useful. I’m going to send him to the project anyway, and let them decide.”
He took a step closer to her and leaned over her slightly. She didn’t want to look up at him, and yet knew that she must--otherwise he would put his hand under her chin and pull her head up so that her eyes met his... “Tell me, my dear...” he said in that quiet, too-reasonable tone that was almost an implement of torture all by itself, “does the word ‘insubordination’ mean anything to you?” When she made no reply, he continued: “I can’t help wondering if your interest in this ex is entirely... professional.”
Sickened, she answered: “Don’t tell me you’re jealous of him.” That Hamesh should be jealous of anybody was a terrible thing in any case, but that he should be jealous of Matthew was worse still.
“But of course,” said Hamesh, surprised. His voice returning to normal, he went on: “My dear Thander, I’m jealous of anyone who may come between us.”
She gave him a hard stare and said, in as determined a voice as she could muster: “Get out of here. Now.”
For a moment he looked shocked, as though she had just slapped him. Then he returned her stare. “What did you say?” His voice remained quiet, measured, but the earlier gentleness was gone.
She rose to her feet. “You heard me.” She brandished her notebook at him. He retreated a pace or two. “Get out!”
The Doctor remained where he was, his arms limp at his sides. He looked thoughtfully at her, as though considering a diagnosis. Then: “Come to my office in half an hour.”
Please, no, she thought, not again. Not now. “I have work to do,” she implored him. With one arm, she clutched the notebook to her like a shield. The other gestured to the screen.
His gaze followed hers, and the smooth mask his features had presented was replaced by undisguised hatred. He turned back to her and snarled: “You should have thought of that, Historian Thander.” He stalked out of the room.
Thander waited a few seconds until his footsteps had become inaudible. She went to the door and brought her fist down on the panel that closed it. Shaking, she locked the door, and put her back against it. She felt herself sliding downwards, felt the notebook slip from her fingers, heard it clatter on the hard floor. “You fucking bastard,” she moaned. “You’re going to wreck everything now, aren’t you?”
What you intend is wrong. Always. You will be discovered. You will be punished.
“Shut up,” she said, automatically. By trying to stand up to Hamesh, she had made the situation worse. Even when he was in a good mood, he was far from pleasant, but he was at least fairly predictable. When he was angry or frustrated, there was no telling what he might do.
Why did Matthew have to be nearly the same biological age as Thander? Why did he have to be from the period of history that she specialised in? Why did he have to be so much better-looking than Hamesh? She slumped onto the floor, sobbing. Some things are always wrong.
The 30 minutes had passed. Thander had dried her eyes and gone to her quarters to put on a clean uniform. As she stepped out of the door, her instincts cried out to turn the other way and run. But she knew that wasn’t an option. She struggled to beat down her feelings of nausea. For a little while, anyway. If she happened to vomit all over Hamesh’s nice tidy desk, so much the better. He’d have to mop it up himself, rather than calling in a cleaner.
She arrived at Hamesh’s office. Even before she signalled her presence, the door slid open. The Doctor was on the other side, his arms outstretched, a broad grin on his face. Many people at the base considered him to be overweight and physically lazy. Thander, though, knew too well that he was horribly strong and could move very quickly when he needed to. There was still time to back out--fractions of a second, but time enough. She stepped in. Hamesh locked the door and dimmed the lights.
I give thanks for the simplicity of the regulator, she thought, recalling the explanations of childhood. I give thanks for the simplicity it brings to my life. He looked at her face with that same thoughtful expression he had worn half an hour ago. “I hope you saved some for me,” he said. She looked down a little and nodded mutely. He put his arms around her--a gentle beginning. I give thanks that everyone has the privilege of the regulator. She returned the embrace--a conditioned response, as devoid of affection as the door’s mechanised closing. It seemed not to bother him. I give thanks that everyone’s individual simplicity unites into one grand simplicity. What was important to Hamesh was the fact that she had put her arms around his waist, not the loveless manner in which she had done it. The greatest problem with the moral codes of the past--aside from the fact that some of them sanctioned the most heinous acts, if only they were committed in certain circumstances, at certain times, or against certain people--was that they were too complex. One arm gripped her a little more tightly, while the other came up to her forehead, to brush aside a lock of black hair. Our code, however, is simple. Simple enough for its form to be written into the DNA of every human embryo, putting to good use the terrible knowledge we gained before and during the Genetic Wars. He kissed the part of her face that he had just uncovered. That potential in the genes is realised through conditioning during the first two years of life. He didn’t see the faint revulsion that passed across her face, like the wind pushing a scrap of cloud in front of the moon. It wouldn’t have mattered if he had: he knew how she felt about him. The best thing about our morality is that it comes naturally. Everyone knows what to do in any situation. And because everyone else is following the same simple rules as you, you know what they will do as well. There is no room for doubt; dilemmas cannot occur.
Well... almost everyone.
That altered the situation completely, of course.
She should have put an end to this years ago. She should never have even allowed it to happen. Failure to report a crime was itself a crime. But she had weighed the alternatives, and had long ago decided that this was the path of least harm. There was no way she could use the law against him without condemning herself as well. Now at last there was another choice, but it was well within Hamesh’s power to destroy it if he found out about it before it was ready. He must not be allowed to suspect. It was for that reason, and that reason only, that Thander now surrendered herself, as she had done so many times before.
Even as the torture resumed, her regulator was silent. That was the only facet of this agony which gave her any cause for hope.
It was a bright, warm morning in April of 2004. Matthew was sitting at his desk, mulling over the results of an experiment to compare two different techniques for helping speech recognition systems cope with regional accents. The data suggested that, contrary to the findings of researchers at other institutions, neither technique was actually very good.
The phone rang. Matthew, when he was being charitable, called his phone “a link with the past.” It handled only speech, nothing else, and it even had a wire coming out of it that plugged into a socket on the wall. He lifted the receiver and said: “AI Lab, Matthew Prentice speaking.”
“Mr Prentice? Good morning. This is Doctor Farrell from the Princess Diana Hospital. Your wife came to see me this morning for a consultation. She’s asked me to ask you to come to the hospital.”
“What, now?” asked Matthew. Doctor Farrell had a slight, though noticeable, Scottish accent. There was concern in her voice, underneath the smooth, flat professionalism.
“Yes, if that’s possible, Mr Prentice,” said the doctor, “I think your wife would be grateful.” After a moment, she added: “She’s very upset, Mr Prentice.”
I should’ve guessed that, thought Matthew. Nevertheless, he felt surprised. “Why?” he asked. “What’s wrong?”
“I think it would be more appropriate to tell you that in person, Mr Prentice. Would you come to the hospital? Please?”
Matthew realised that the doctor herself was worried. She wasn’t just relaying what Debbie had said. “OK,” he said. “I can get an hour or so off work. Tell Debbie I’ll be there in about 10 minutes.”
“Certainly, Mr Prentice. Thank you.”
As Matthew came down the steps at the front of the Computing Faculty building, he remembered that he was supposed to be attending a seminar that afternoon, about “The Ethical Implications of the Increased Use of Intelligent Systems in Decision Making,” or something like that. He was probably going to miss it through being at the hospital. No matter; he hadn’t had the chance to do any proper preparation, and the seminar was being led by Professor Collins, a man who, in Matthew’s opinion, knew next to nothing about intelligent systems, and not much more about decision-making. Matthew dug his organiser out of his pocket and left a suitably vague excuse in the Professor’s message box.
He was just in time to catch a bus that stopped at the hospital. He wondered what could have happened to upset Debbie so much that she wanted him there immediately, and didn’t feel able to make the call herself. She had been bothered for a while by a pain in her right ankle, and more recently, in her right knee. As he recalled, that was what she had gone to see the doctor about. Arthritis? he thought. At her age? It was so improbable that he couldn’t take it seriously. What could be the matter, then? Debbie wasn’t easily distressed. She wouldn’t drag him away from work over something trivial.
The worst possibility that Matthew could think of was that something had gone wrong with their contraception, and that Debbie had suddenly discovered herself pregnant. Matthew would have liked to start a family, while Debbie was ambivalent on the matter, but they agreed that at the moment, they had neither the time nor the money to make a proper job of bringing up a child. If Debbie was pregnant, that would cause them a great many difficulties. Matthew believed that abortion, while unpleasant, was a necessary evil, a last resort if other plans failed, or had never been made. Debbie, though, was firmly opposed to it. For better, for worse... He realised that he was fingering his wedding ring.
When he arrived at the hospital, the receptionist told him to follow the signs for the Oncology Department. The word sounded ominous, but he hadn’t the slightest idea what it meant.
He found Doctor Farrell’s office without trouble. He knocked, and the voice he had heard on the phone called: “Come in!”
Doctor Farrell was a stern-looking woman with thick brown hair. From the flecks of grey, Matthew guessed she was about fifty. She wore a plain, pale blue suit, about five years old to judge from the style of it. Her office, though crowded with books and electronic equipment, was tidy; much tidier than the part of the AI Lab that Matthew called his own.
He had time to see and deduce this much before he noticed Debbie.
She was sitting in a chair at one side of the Doctor’s desk, her face buried in her hands. She looked up at him. “Hello, pet,” she said weakly.
He walked over and crouched beside her. She had clearly been crying. That meant that things had to be even worse than he had feared. He couldn’t remember the last time he had seen her cry about anything. “Debbie,” he said, looking into her eyes, feeling the despair that was in them. “What’s wrong?”
She made no reply. She closed her eyes, looked down, began to weep again.
“Oh, Debbie,” he said, putting his arms around her, feeling tears pricking at his own eyes, “please don’t cry. Everything’s going to be all right.”
She shuddered, and managed to say: “I hope you’re right.”
Several minutes passed, and they said nothing more.
“Mr Prentice?” Doctor Farrell said from somewhere behind him. Matthew gently let go of Debbie and stood up. From the look on the Doctor’s face, he guessed she was thinking something like: Typical man. You didn’t believe me when I told you she was upset, did you? “Would you excuse us for a few minutes, please, Mrs Prentice?” the Doctor asked.
The Doctor took Matthew into the reception area outside her office. They sat down on a large sofa in front of the reception desk. “Now, Doctor,” said Matthew, in as restrained a voice as he could manage, “would you please tell me what the hell is wrong with my wife?”
“Well, Mr Prentice,” she replied defensively, “she was referred to me about a fortnight ago by her GP. There was some pain in her right foot and knee.”
“I know that.”
“I’ve done some preliminary tests, and, as you’ve probably guessed by now, the results look quite bad.”
“How bad?” Matthew asked quietly. He had decided that Debbie wasn’t pregnant. You didn’t need to go to a hospital to find that out; you could buy a kit from any chemist that would give you a definite answer in five minutes. Then again... what if she was pregnant, and the child had some severe disability?
“Well, the results aren’t fully confirmed yet. I need to do a couple more tests, but I think it’s best if I give you the results of these tests now. I must stress that they’re only preliminary, and the problem could well turn out to be something quite trivial. But I’m afraid that the most likely diagnosis at the moment is that Debbie has cancer.”
It was trivially easy to tap into Mandarin’s monitoring system, to spy on anyone you chose. It was easier still to spy on exhumees, because the transmitter in an ex’s implant regularly informed the computer of its location. There was no delay while Mandarin matched the faces shown by each camera against the several thousand which it recognised.
On the screen in Hamesh’s office, Matthew Adrian Prentice walked through a corridor somewhere in Serendipity Base. He was moving towards the camera, which was a little way above head height. It turned to follow him as he passed. When he was about 10 metres away from it, the picture merged into that from the next camera along the corridor.
Hamesh’s office was about the same size as Thander’s, but was much less cluttered, and so seemed bigger. The desk was empty, except for the communicator. There was only one chair, his own; almost everyone who came to see him was of a lower grade than him, and so he was entitled to expect them to stand. One wall was mostly taken up with the obligatory screen. There was a single shelf on the opposite wall, which held the very small number of datacubes and printed books that he felt the need to refer to often. In arbitrary positions on the other two walls were five two-dimensional black and white pictures. Their content was such that to put them anywhere in public view would bring an immediate reprimand, and probably an order to destroy them. Here, where no-one came unless asked by him, they were just about tolerable. He had actually become a little bored with them, but Thander still found them distressing, which was reason enough to keep them on display.
Hamesh considered the monitoring system an excellent source of material for persuasion and blackmail. Or rather, it would have been an excellent source, if there had been any other way in which he could plausibly claim to have obtained the information that it gave him. All too frequently, he felt that he couldn’t take the risk that his intended victim would realise how he had come by the secret that he wanted to confront them with. Unauthorised access to the monitoring system was a much more serious offence than most of the events that he witnessed through it.
There was one notable exception to this rule, however, and she was in the corridor with Prentice, a metre or so in front of him. Historian Thander moved with assured self-confidence, in contrast to Prentice, who gawked at everything they passed, as if he’d never seen anything like it before. Sometimes Hamesh watched her to unearth blackmail material; more often he just watched her for the pure sexual thrill of it. His lust for her was strong enough that the mere sight of her, no matter what she was doing, was enough to give him an erection. In some ways, watching her on a screen, without her knowledge, was even more thrilling than watching her in the flesh.
Of course, neither was anything like as exciting as touching her, kissing her, stripping her clothes from her, bending her to his will through sexual degradation and carefully-measured agony. Now, he knew both her and himself well enough to push her as deep into pain as was possible without leaving permanent marks on her soft, rounded body, and keep her there as long as he wanted to. Sometimes, she tried to avoid the pain by slipping into unconsciousness, which Hamesh of course found very frustrating. All he could do then was rape her, but even that wasn’t as good as when she was awake. There was some small satisfaction to be had from the look on her face when she woke up and realised what he was doing.
What he wanted from her more than anything was a response to his lovemaking. She couldn’t scream, of course--there was too much risk of being overheard. Instead, he allowed her to cry, as much as she wanted to. She didn’t do it every time, but when she did, her face was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. She’d been crying less lately. Until he’d become aware of this Prentice, it hadn’t occurred to him to wonder why.
He instructed the screen to crop the picture from the camera so as to exclude Prentice. If only it was that simple in reality. He toyed with the idea of diverting a couple of cameras to follow Thander for a while, to fill his screen with big close-ups of her hips or her breasts. But there was always the risk that Security would decide they needed the camera for something else, and find it five corridors from where it was supposed to be, transmitting a picture that had absolutely nothing to do with keeping the base secure. Apart from that, there wasn’t really much to see anyway: she was wearing one of the standard sack-like uniforms that did a commendable job of hiding those curves that his hands knew so well.
Better to watch from a distance, then, and observe the expressions of her face, the smooth rhythms of her limbs, the slight sway of her hips. Hamesh found the way that she walked normally very arousing, particularly when she was naked. She knew this, of course, and so she tried not to walk like that when she knew he was watching. Now, though...
“Damn, you’re sexy,” he breathed. He felt a tightening in his crotch. “And you’re mine. Understand? No-one’s going to take you away from me--especially not some filthy 800-year-old ex.” The ones who put up a fight are always the best, he thought.
Thander and Prentice stopped outside a door in the left-hand wall of the corridor. They entered. Hamesh expected the picture to merge to one from the other side of the door, but all he saw was a large, empty room. Then he noticed two little figures near the middle of the screen, and realised that the room was so big that no camera was near enough to show them in any detail. Where were they, then?
“Map,” he said. The picture from the camera dimmed, and was overlaid with a plan view of the base. “Locate Prentice.” A green dot began winking near the bottom left corner of the map. “Label location.” The word
Garage appeared inside the box which represented the room that Thander and Prentice were now in.
Hamesh raised an eyebrow. Taking exhumees outside the base before a final decision had been made about their destination was... well, it wasn’t exactly against the rules, but it certainly wasn’t encouraged. Thander’s supervisor, Senior Historian Shemik, might well have some awkward questions to ask about why she had done this, and where she had taken Prentice, and what she had allowed him to see.
“Map off,” Hamesh instructed. “Show all cameras in garage.” There were six cameras in all, most of them at the far end of the room where the vehicles were parked. Thander and Prentice were walking towards one of them, and he switched to the view from that camera alone. They got into an Apta 10, a light four-person Gauss drive car. Gauss drive vehicles in theory had unlimited range, but the Apta 10s were uncomfortable, particularly above a hundred kilometres per hour. It was unlikely that Thander was planning to go far.
Through the window of the car, he saw Thander and Prentice talking. He couldn’t hear their words; the soundproofing was too good. He scowled and thought, not for the first time, that he should learn how to lip-read. He had no way of knowing where they were going, and that information could be vital. Mandarin kept a log of vehicle journeys, but he had no access to that; until now, he had never needed it. He couldn’t divert a camera to follow them, either, since it would alert Security as soon as it crossed the base perimeter. The car’s engine started, and the vehicle lifted a few centimetres off the floor. The camera turned to follow it as it glided slowly towards the exit.
Then he remembered that Prentice’s implant would tell him where they had gone. The maximum range of the signal was about 50 kilometres from the base, and beyond about 20 kilometres, the accuracy fell off rapidly, but it was much better than not knowing at all. In a way, tracking the implant was better than tracking the car, because it was possible that they might transfer to another vehicle, or even travel some way on foot. With all the information about Prentice’s bodily functions that the implant transmitted, he could even make educated guesses about what they were doing.
Best of all, tracking Prentice’s implant was perfectly legitimate. Since he was the doctor who had overseen Prentice’s exhumation, he was responsible for the exhumee’s physical well-being while he was at the base. Prentice’s implant would generate an immediate alert in the event of any of 30 or more conditions that were classed as “serious,” but a doctor was supposed to monitor his exhumees’ implants every now and again, in the hope of spotting problems before they got to that stage.
That was decided, then. He would simply happen to be checking up on Prentice on the day that Thander decided to take him outside the base. He cut the link to the monitoring system. Then he instructed Mandarin to record the data from Prentice’s implant until further notice and alert him if it transmitted any event with a priority of “minor” or above.
Matthew’s first question on getting into the car had been: “Where are the controls?”
It was a moment before Thander realised what he was talking about. Cars in his day had been under the control of a human driver. There was a law against that now, although it was a long time since anybody had been prosecuted for breaking it. There was nothing, Thander thought, that would have induced her to travel in a vehicle of that kind. Almost nothing, she corrected herself.
“It’s controlled by computer,” she replied. “You tell it where you want to go and it takes you there.”
“What if the computer fails?”
“There’s a set of manual controls under that panel there.” Seeing that he was still worried, she added: “I’ve never had to use them.” She thought it best not to mention that she had made only about 12 journeys in cars, and had never been trained to use the manual controls.
So now they were cruising over a rough, rock-strewn plain with occasional bushes and patches of grass. According to the map display, Serendipity Base was some 15 kilometres behind them. The sun shone amid small, ragged patches of cloud, and the car’s windows had tinted slightly to bring the light down to a more comfortable level. The car was travelling at about 60 kilometres per hour, at its normal altitude of 10 metres. It could reach 300 kilometres per hour and go as high as 500 metres if necessary. The car drew most of its power from the Earth’s magnetic field, which was what imposed the limit on altitude. The distortion and depletion of the field that the car’s engines caused made it possible to track the vehicle for several hours after it had passed. In addition, the cars that belonged to Serendipity Base regularly informed Mandarin of their position. Hamesh, therefore, could probably find out where Matthew and Thander had gone, although he would not be able to discover what they had done there.
They had seen no other cars on this journey. Serendipity Base was a long way from any other human dwellings, to reduce the risk of an escaped exhumee (rare though they were) finding assistance, or posing a threat to anyone else. As well as that, the car drew energy from at least 100 metres around itself, which made it necessary for the cars to keep themselves well apart.
The instrument panel showed that the temperature outside averaged 12 Celsius, with a wind of 2.2 kilometres per hour from the east. This was typical for the time of year, and showed that the region’s climate control was not being unduly taxed. “Climate control” was a rather generous term, actually. It could not produce rain or sunshine on demand. “Climate moderation” would have been more accurate. It reined in the extremes, but otherwise let the laws of nature follow their course.
Once, Thander noticed a small dot moving close to the horizon. It didn’t show up on the map display, so she guessed it was a surface bulk transporter. They were built for moving raw materials and manufactured goods over short distances--less than, say, a thousand kilometres. By an accident or whimsy of design, they were circular, about a kilometre in diameter, flat underneath with a shallow curved top. This gave them a startling resemblance to the “flying saucers” of 20th century folklore. The historians had, after some debate, classed flying saucers as a minor religion. Matthew seemed not to have noticed the transporter, and she did not draw his attention to it.
“Where are we going, Thander?” Matthew asked. He spoke in Athic, as he almost always did now. He had a mild accent, one that was typical of people who had previously spoken 21st century English, but he had no trouble in making himself understood. The accent would soften with use. In a few months, it would be unnoticeable.
“You’ll see,” she said. “We’re nearly there now.” She had given their destination to the car in map co-ordinates, which was unusual, though acceptable. The map showed a lot of geographical detail, but nothing of note at the point that they were heading for.
Matthew looked around. He was probably expecting to see a building of some sort.
“Don’t worry,” Thander told him, in what she hoped was a reassuring tone. “Nothing bad will happen.”
A few minutes later, the car came to a halt and lowered itself to the ground. “We have reached our destination,” said a synthesised voice from the instrument panel. They were at the edge of a small wood.
“Open the door,” Thander instructed. The car’s door levered open. Thander stepped out, blinking in the sudden brightness, and raised a hand to her forehead to shield her eyes from the sun. Matthew followed her, and the door closed behind him. She led him into the wood, following a narrow track which she guessed had been made by animals. The trees’ leaves had not yet fully returned after the winter, so there was almost as much light within the wood as outside it. There were few signs of life. She could hear some birds singing in the distance, and once, something small and brightly-coloured flew out of a nearby tree, almost hitting her. Apart from that, the wood appeared to be deserted. Quite possibly, no human had set foot in it since she had discovered it over a year ago.
They had gone about 100 metres into the wood when Thander stopped. Behind her, she heard Matthew halt. Now, she told herself. Before you change your mind.
She turned to face Matthew. “Well, this is nice, isn’t it?” she said, smiling, spreading her arms about her to indicate their surroundings. With that, she threw her arms around him and kissed him forcefully.
When she felt him struggle, she let go. He took a couple of paces back from her. He looked appalled. “That was a cheap trick,” he said, shocked back into English. “It was also very unprofessional of you.” That was the second time she had been accused of not acting professionally towards Matthew. She took sufficient pride in her work for that to hurt her. Some things are always wrong.
“Matthew,” she said clumsily, “I--I’m sorry.”
“So you should be,” he replied, returning to Athic. “I don’t know much about what morals are like nowadays, but when I--” He was about to say “when I was alive,” as he often did, but corrected himself. “In the 21st century, that would’ve been sexual harassment. I’d’ve thought you’d know better, being a historian.”
“No, that wasn’t my intention... I just thought that I, well, that you...” She paused.
“I think I know what you’re going to say,” said Matthew, looking at her carefully, “but carry on.”
“You just seemed so... lonely and frustrated.”
He nodded wearily, as if to say: “I thought so.” “You’re not the first person who’s taken that approach since--” He shut his eyes momentarily, as pain flickered across his face. “--since Debbie died... and I’ve got a nasty feeling you won’t be the last. But if you do that because you feel sorry for me, rather than because you like me, it’s never going to work. It seems to me that there are some things that haven’t changed in the last eight hundred years. Relationships based on one person’s pity for the other didn’t work then and they won’t work now--if only because I’m not going to let it work.”
“How do you know that I don’t like you?” she asked. “As well as feeling sorry for you--which I do.”
“Well, I don’t know. It would be flattering if it was true, I suppose,” he shrugged, “but irrelevant. I’m a married man, Thander.” He held up his left hand, to show her his wedding ring. “Do you understand what that means?” She gave a slight nod. She still didn’t fully comprehend the complex interactions of laws and customs and attitudes that composed marriage in the early 21st century, but she was well aware that it was one of the periods when some people, at least, considered adultery to be a terrible crime. Had it actually been grounds for divorce then? She couldn’t remember at the moment.
“Debbie and I made promises to each other,” Matthew continued, “serious promises... I don’t know the words in Athic.” In English, he said: “Solemn. Formal.” In Athic again: “The fact that Debbie is frozen somewhere, and it--” Again, he stumbled over the words. “--it may be years before we’re together again--it doesn’t alter that. I can’t break those promises. I must not. I will not. It was because of Debbie that I decided to be frozen. Not for anyone or anything else. She was--she is...” He looked down, put a hand to his face. For a moment he seemed close to tears. He looked up again, saying: “I don’t have the words... I can’t begin to describe how strongly I feel about Debbie, how much she means to me.” He paused. “I appreciate your... concern for my feelings, but it would only make things worse for me if we were more closely involved with each other. Do you understand what I’m trying to say?”
“Yes,” she mumbled. Then, more distinctly: “I’m sorry, Matthew.”
“I accept your apology.” The particular form of the Athic words that he used carried the undertone: “I am pleased to hear you admit that you were wrong. Nevertheless, I do not forgive you.” She wasn’t sure whether he realised that. Matthew continued: “I think it’s best if we both forget about this. I won’t mention it to anybody else, and I’d appreciate it if you didn’t either.”
“I won’t.” She had no choice about that in any case.
“Good. Now,” he said, more brightly, “did you bring me out here solely to profess love for me, or were you planning on doing something else as well?”
She shook her head. “Nothing else,” she mumbled.
“In that case, I suggest we begin the journey back now, before someone starts wondering what we’re up to.”
She stepped past him, and led him out of the forest, back to the car.
It took Hamesh some years to realise that he wasn’t bound by quite the same rules that applied to everyone else. That turning point came when he was 14. There was a girl whom he had felt himself to be in love with. She had willingly had sex with him, as was customary, but had been less than enthusiastic about his suggestions of forming a long-term partnership. On each occasion, she offered a different reason for not doing it, which made him sure that none of them was the real one. They had several arguments about it, and eventually, she said that she didn’t want to see him anymore, even for sex.
Despairing, Hamesh left the building. On the way home, he crossed a bridge over a gully, which had a break in the railing on one side. Feeling that he had nothing to lose, he squeezed through the gap and jumped.
He woke up in hospital with concussion and bruising to his upper body. The gully was no more than three metres deep at the most, and there were bushes at the bottom. He had known, of course, that falling from a height could be fatal, but since so few people died like that nowadays, he had no idea how great a fall was necessary. The time just after waking up gave some much-needed clarity to his thoughts, and he realised that, while she might have been lying about her reasons for it, the girl was right when she said they wouldn’t be happy together.
It was just after this realisation that the psychiatrist came to see him. The man was full of concern for Hamesh’s mental well-being. He seemed to think that the fall had been an accident, and Hamesh decided not to tell him anything that might lead him to believe otherwise. Quite apart from anything else, he felt rather embarrassed that he had acted so rashly over what seemed now to be a relatively unimportant matter.
The psychiatrist explained at some length that Hamesh must be wondering why his regulator hadn’t prevented the fall. It should have noticed the danger and warned him to stay clear of it--perhaps even find another route. Probably it was chastising him now for not doing more to protect himself. The man said a great many other things, and Hamesh nodded politely throughout. He did not say that he had not heard so much as a whisper from his regulator, either when he was on the bridge or when he woke up in hospital.
The psychiatrist offered Hamesh a drug to alleviate his suffering until the incident began to fade from his memory. It wouldn’t lessen the regulator’s ability to prevent him doing harm, but would reduce the severity of its punishments for a while. Hamesh was certain by now that either he had no regulator, or he had one that didn’t work. He was unsure of the effects such a drug would have on someone who didn’t display the symptoms it was designed to treat, but he had no wish to find out. He declined to take it. The psychiatrist administered it anyway, and that was the last thing Hamesh remembered for some time.
The first words he heard when he woke up were: “I think I maybe gave you too much.” He told the psychiatrist that he felt much better now. That was the last he saw of him. At the time he was amazed that the man hadn’t realised what was “wrong” with him, but later he worked out that his condition must be very rare. Certainly he had never heard of anyone else with it, so it was understandable that the psychiatrist hadn’t recognised it.
Up until his “accident,” he hadn’t thought of his condition as anything special. Now, though, he began to put the incidents together, and realised that he could do things that nobody else could. Hurting himself with no ill-effects beyond the physical pain was only the start. Being able to cause harm in a world where no-one else could do that would give him a tremendous advantage.
Most people, on realising that they had such power, would probably have gone to the streets and attacked the first person they could find. Hamesh, though, understood that violence was a means, not an end. He decided that before he could use his ability, he would have to find out what it was good for. As far as he knew, there was only one was to get the answers that he needed. He now knew what he was going to do for a career. He would become a doctor.
There was a soft chime. Hamesh looked up from the report that Senior Technician Trant had filed on one of his new subordinates. The air on the other side of his desk shimmered, and the image of a person began to appear there. It was as though the person was under a spotlight, which was gradually being turned to full brightness. This was supposed to give you time to adjust to Mandarin’s presence. The designers apparently thought that it would be too disconcerting for the computer’s interface to suddenly appear, fully-formed, in front of you. Hamesh just found the two-second wait irritating.
The persona, to give this apparition its technical name, was slim, with reddish-brown hair, and appeared to be about 25. Hamesh had never been able to decide whether it was meant to be male or female. Quite possibly it was both, or neither. In any case, he always thought of the persona as “it.” It was dressed in a set of black and white clothes called a “suit,” which no-one outside a historical drama had worn for well over half a millennium. He knew of no satisfactory explanation for why its designers had done this.
“Doctor Hamesh,” Mandarin said, “Matthew Adrian Prentice’s implant has just reported an intermediate alert.” Its smooth, clear voice was, like its body, somewhere between male and female.
“Show me the data for the last five minutes,” he ordered.
The screen filled with graphs of the data that Prentice’s implant had telemetered back to the central computer. A pair of horizontal lines on each graph showed the range that had been established as normal for that function when Prentice’s implant had been calibrated, shortly after his exhumation. The implant usually transmitted readings every 60 seconds, but this interval shortened if any reading was outside its normal range. Each reading was an average of that statistic over the period that it covered, so fine detail was not available unless there had been an alert recently.
Everything was well within the normal ranges for most of the period that the graphs showed. Then, about a minute before the end, nearly all of the measurements showed a sudden increase. They remained at their new high level for about 10 seconds, before beginning to fall slowly. As he watched, another set of readings appeared at the right-hand end of the graphs. Most of them were still well above the normal range.
Hamesh turned to look at Mandarin and asked: “In your opinion, what is the most likely cause of this alert?”
“The data gathered during the calibration of this exhumee’s implant indicate that he has some minor medical problems,” the computer replied. “Those problems, however, are not consistent with these readings. I estimate, therefore, that the probability that this alert is medically related is much less than one percent. The fact that the readings rose so rapidly strongly suggests that whatever the cause of the alert, he was not expecting it.”
“Any ideas about what it might have been?”
“I can draw no firm conclusions from this data alone,” it said.
“You always say that,” Hamesh told it. Its raw intelligence was equivalent to that of about 12 “ordinary” humans, and its memory equivalent to about 100, but it was still very reluctant to speculate about anything. However, it perhaps sensed that he would like some sort of clue to get him started, for it added:
“I would draw your attention to the pain graph. Observe that, although this reading has remained within the normal range, it did rise and fall at the same time as the other readings. This suggests that he may have been touched, roughly and suddenly, by someone or something. Clearly, it was not enough to cause injury, but if he was surprised by it, that is a possible explanation for the alert.” It paused for a moment, and continued: “I must stress that this is merely a hypothesis. The rise on the pain graph is small enough to be a random fluctuation. The alert could have some other cause entirely.”
“Understood,” Hamesh nodded. “Dismiss.” The persona vanished.
Hamesh pondered the graphs for a moment, and then called up a display of the position readings from Prentice’s implant. Prentice was currently 17 kilometres away, on a bearing of 152 degrees. The display noted that, at that distance, there was an error of 200 metres in the position readings. The implant had never been designed to track exhumees outside the base.
According to the map, Prentice (and presumably Thander as well) was in the middle of nowhere. A large area around him was coloured in a pale green, which the key described as “grass/light woodlands.” The nearest building was... Hamesh centred the map around Prentice and reduced the scale. The nearest building was actually Serendipity Base. There wasn’t another within 40 kilometres of them.
What were they doing, then? They didn’t seem to be moving. Either they had stopped the car, or were now travelling on foot. Hamesh looked at the muscular activity graph. The intervals just before the alert each had a symbolic annotation. He had to call up the key to remind himself what they meant. They indicated that Prentice had been walking during that time, slightly faster than the calibration had established as normal. He had stopped walking in the same reporting interval as the alert. He looked at the earlier position readings. These were about a kilometre apart, as would be expected if Prentice was in the car. Five minutes ago, they had begun to bunch together, with the car slowing down, and three minutes ago, the alert had occurred. For two minutes after that, Prentice was almost motionless.
What the hell were they doing, then? Another position reading appeared. This was 600 metres from the last one. They were coming back! What could they have done in five minutes in the middle of nowhere?
It would have been easy to suppose that they had had sex; easy and simple. Hamesh almost wanted that to be true. He knew how to deal with anybody who challenged him for the affections of one of his lovers, and make sure that there were few, if any, consequences for him. Unfortunately, they hadn’t had sex, at least not on this occasion. If an exhumee engaged in any kind of sexual activity, that produced very distinctive patterns from his implant, and the data from Prentice was nothing like that.
Another position reading appeared. They were definitely back in the car, returning along the route of their outward journey. If they came straight back, they would arrive at the base in a little under 20 minutes. What could they possibly have done in five minutes in the middle of nowhere? Maybe they hadn’t done anything. Maybe they had wanted to have sex, but had decided not to. Maybe they thought someone was watching them. Maybe Prentice had wanted to have sex, and Thander had refused, knowing that Hamesh would be extremely angry if he found out. But no, the graphs didn’t support that hypothesis, either. If he had wanted to have sex, even if he knew that he was unlikely to get it, there would have been indications in the data before the alert.
Or maybe... maybe it had been Thander who wanted sex, and Prentice who refused. But that made no sense at all. She wouldn’t dare. She was his, and she knew it. But then, until a few weeks ago, she wouldn’t have dared to shout at him and chase him out of her office when he started asking questions about one of “her” exhumees. And she wouldn’t have dared take an exhumee outside the base in a car with no-one else to accompany them.
The cause of the alert might have been something quite trivial: maybe Prentice had tripped and fallen into a muddy puddle, and they were just coming back for a change of clothing. It would be interesting to see whether they went out again afterwards. He looked again at the graphs. The readings from the speech and auditory centres of Prentice’s brain were fairly high for about two minutes after the alert, even after the other readings had dropped back into their normal ranges. So there had been a conversation, and it seemed Prentice had been doing most of the talking. They had been almost silent before the alert, so it was likely they were talking about whatever had caused it. You didn’t need to talk that much about falling into a muddy puddle.
Put it all together then, and what did you have? Not much. Thander and Prentice had travelled by car to nowhere in particular. They had walked for about a minute, and then something, which could have been mildly painful, had happened to cause Prentice’s implant to report an intermediate alert. They had stood around talking for two minutes or so, and had then gone back to the car, to return to the base.
He wished he could get data like that from Prentice’s implant for Thander as well. But that would probably just multiply the questions. Much better if he could find out what they had said in those two minutes. These graphs couldn’t tell him that. But there was someone who could. Or could be forced to.
For most of the way back, Thander avoided Matthew’s gaze, and looked pointedly out of the window. She tried desperately not to smile, or, worse, shout for joy. Until now, she had had no way to be sure that he really had been frozen for Debbie’s sake, and that he was not merely using that as a convenient excuse for being frozen, which many people in his era had seen as a very selfish and narcissistic act. Claiming to desire him herself was the obvious way to test this. She had had to wait until now to give him at least some time to adjust to modern life: earlier, in confusion, he might have accepted anybody.
At the back of her mind, though, was the nagging possibility that he might have rejected her simply because he found her unattractive, and that he would have accepted an offer from another woman. Hiding somewhere within her personality was a part that could loosely be described as “loving,” although Hamesh had done his best to erase it. And she knew that when she took trouble over her appearance, which wasn’t often these days, she could be reasonably pretty, at least by today’s standards. More than half of the 25 generations between Matthew and herself had rewritten the definition of “beautiful,” so it was quite possible that he thought her indescribably ugly. But he had rejected her quite quickly, apparently without stopping to consider whether she possessed beauty, charm, intelligence, sexual adventurousness, or whichever other attributes had convinced him to marry Debbie. As well as this, the psychological and neurological tests indicated that he was basically honest, and would tell the truth unless he had a compelling reason not to.
Nevertheless, a residue of doubt remained. But she would have to live with it. There was no way she could test him with anyone else. If Matthew’s reaction had been genuine, it was exactly what she had hoped for.
One of Debbie’s favourite little rituals was to tiptoe up behind him when he was doing one of the household chores. (He did the washing-up and the ironing, she did the vacuuming and dusting, and whichever of them got home from work first would cook the dinner. They usually tossed a coin for anything else that needed doing.) He didn’t always hear her coming; if he did he would pretend he hadn’t. She would slide her arms around his waist and press herself up against his back. Usually, he would stop what he was doing, but sometimes, to tease her, he would carry on as if he hadn’t noticed. Then she would say something like: “Do you know something, Mr Prentice?”
To which Matthew would typically reply: “What’s that, Mrs Prentice?”
“I’m in love with you,” she would say.
Sometimes Matthew would pretend that this news was a complete surprise to him. Sometimes he would say that he did know. (Because she had just told him; because her best friend had told him; because she had left her organiser lying around and against today’s date she had typed: “Tell Matthew I love him”; because he had heard it on the evening news; because it was a fundamental law, like gravity or the way Debbie could never find a clean blouse in the morning.) Sometimes he would say that he had suspected, and she would ask what had made him suspect. Possible answers included: “The way you look at me,” “The way you smile at me,” “The way you kiss me,” “The way you hug me after we’ve had sex,” and “The way you’re trying to distract me from the ironing by grabbing me from behind.”
Once, her reply to this last reason had been: “Are you telling me that you’d rather do the ironing than kiss and cuddle with me?”
“Not exactly,” he said. “Not exactly. But if I do kiss and cuddle with you, then you’ll tell me off for not finishing the ironing. And if I carry on doing the ironing, you’ll say I’m ignoring you and you’ll sulk.” Both of these were outrageous exaggerations, and the choice between the alternatives was no contest, of course. “So,” he asked rhetorically, “what am I to do?” He carefully put the iron down on its end and turned to face Debbie, who still had her arms around him. “I love you too,” he murmured, as he embraced her, and they slid smoothly into a long, slow kiss.
When they finally separated from each other, and Matthew returned to the ironing board, he found that the iron had switched itself off, and its plate was quite cold.
Thander spoke slowly and clumsily, forcing the words out of herself. Every syllable was a conscious choice between coherent speech and a scream.
Hamesh let go of her, and the pain gradually ebbed to a more bearable level. That was another of his tactics. Pausing the torture every now and again made it much more effective. The body and the mind became desensitised to continual pain, in the same way as any other sensation. A temporary cessation of pain allowed body and mind to recover, so that when the pain resumed, it was felt every bit as keenly as before. As well as that, fear of pain could hurt as much as pain itself. Or so Hamesh said, anyway. She doubted he spoke from experience.
“You will tell me,” said Hamesh, looking into her eyes. “Because if you don’t, I’ll hurt you even more.”
She shook her head--carefully, since her neck still hurt. “You said yourself that--you’re already hurting me as much as--you can without--leaving permanent marks on me. And not for any good--reason, but just for the sheer fucking--thrill of it, because it’s the only way--you can get an orgasm.” Ah, that had hit home. He didn’t move, but his eyes flicked away from hers, just for a moment. “What makes you think you can do--any worse than that, just because--you want to know some--secrets all of a sudden?”
“This time,” he told her, “I might not stop short of leaving permanent marks.”
“Someone will notice. I’ll make sure someone notices.”
“I’m prepared to take that chance.”
“I don’t think you are,” she said. “But even if you are--what will you gain? The knowledge that Matthew kissed me, or that I embraced him--”
“Ah, you admit--”
“I admit nothing. I’m just speculating about--what’s going through your narrow sordid mind. Do you really want to know--something so trivial--as badly as that? Does your career, maybe--your life mean so little to you?”
“My career is ruined already,” Hamesh said flatly. All that Thander had been able to discover was that he had been sent to Serendipity Base as a punishment for something he had done in his previous employment.
“Maybe--but I think being sent to a prison camp would ruin it rather more. But it doesn’t really matter whether there’s anything between Matthew and me. What matters is that you think there’s something. As long as you can’t--squeeze any secrets out of me, you’ll think it’s because you aren’t trying hard enough. Only you can’t try any harder, because you’re already hurting me as much as you dare and you haven’t broken me yet.”
“I’ll find another way,” he said. “I’ll tell Senior Historian Shemik that you’ve taken an ex outside the base.”
“And that’s a threat, is it?” she asked, managing a weak smile. “You’ve forgotten that I need authorisation before I can even step into a car. Who do you think gave that to me?”
“He obviously didn’t know what you and Prentice were going to do. I’ll tell him that.”
“But you don’t know either. That’s what you’re trying to make me tell you. And he’d never believe you, anyway. It’d be your word against mine.”
Hamesh shook his head. “I have proof of what you did.”
“Proof?” she asked, raising an eyebrow. “Why didn’t you say so before, and save us both this tedious interrogation? So you managed to get a camera into the car, without raising any alarms? I’m sure the Director and the Head of Security would be very interested to know how you did that.”
He smiled. “Not a camera. Though I could have done, if I wanted to. But my source of information is perfectly legitimate. I just happened to be checking up on Prentice’s implant at about the time that you took him outside.”
Oh, shit, thought Thander, trying not to show it. If Matthew had been at all aroused by her kiss, even for a few seconds, the implant would have reported it, and that would be proof enough for Hamesh.
“I know where you took him. I know that you got out of the car and walked for a minute. Then something happened to make his implant report an alert.”
Why did he say “something happened,” and not “you kissed him”? Was the data not precise enough to establish that? Or was he bluffing, hoping she would tell him something that was harmless in itself, but very damaging when combined with the other things he knew?
“Mandarin says that the cause of the alert wasn’t medical,” Hamesh went on. “It thinks that someone or something surprised him, possibly by touching him unexpectedly. Whatever it was, you and Prentice felt yourselves to be in no danger, because you then stood talking for two minutes before you went back to the car and returned to the base.
“Now whatever caused the alert, you must have witnessed it. I would very much like to know what you saw, and what you and Prentice said to each other afterwards. I will have the truth out of you, my dear, and all of the truth. The only question is: how much are you going to tell me willingly, and how much do I have to force out of you?”
“I will tell you--nothing,” she declared. The last word was more of a gasp, as Hamesh grabbed her wrist.
He brought his face closer to hers. “We’ll see,” he breathed.
After that, things degenerated into one of the usual sex and torture sessions. There was some very small comfort to be had from the fact that Hamesh evidently didn’t enjoy it much either.
“Doctor Hamesh requests entry,” said the room.
Matthew looked up. The little screen of his communicator was displaying a picture from the camera in the door. Hamesh was outside, looking impatient, as he usually did. Matthew shouted: “Come in!” The door opened. Matthew wasn’t sure whether that was because the room had figured out that was what he wanted, or because the door was unlocked, but Hamesh had asked permission because that was the proper thing to do.
The Doctor came into the room. Without preamble, he said: “Prentice, I want to talk to you about your little trip outside the base with Historian Thander yesterday afternoon.”
“What in particular about it?” Matthew asked carefully.
“I’m interested in what happened in the five minutes or so when you got out of the car at the end of the outward part of your journey.”
He must be talking about when she kissed me, thought Matthew. How did he know? They had agreed not to tell anyone else about it. If Thander had broken that promise, surely she would have told Hamesh more than he evidently knew. Playing for time, Matthew asked: “Why?”
“Because the data that was transmitted by your implant indicates that something serious happened to you in that time.”
Matthew tried not to smile. Being suddenly kissed was hardly serious, at least not from a medical point of view. Or maybe Hamesh was talking about something else. “Really?” said Matthew. “I wasn’t aware of anything. I felt fine. I feel fine now.”
“Indeed,” said Hamesh. “But a person’s feeling of well-being is seldom a reliable indicator of that person’s state of health. A tumour, for instance, may grow for months before it causes the patient any pain.”
Did he pick that example deliberately? Matthew thought sourly. “What was this serious thing, then?” he asked.
“I don’t know, Prentice. That’s why I’m asking you.”
“I already said, I wasn’t aware that anything happened to me. The data from the implant is surely more precise than just ‘something serious happened’.”
“It is,” replied Hamesh. “But not precise enough.” Matthew made no answer. Hamesh stared at him for a moment, and then continued: “Let me explain my concern. As the doctor who supervised your exhumation, I am responsible for your medical well-being while you are living at this establishment.”
“So if I fall ill or die, you get the blame.”
“Indeed. I have a duty to investigate any abnormalities that your implant reports. I can’t do that fully unless you co-operate with me by telling me what happened at the time of that abnormality.” He paused again. “I know that people of your era are sometimes embarrassed to talk about medical matters, but please, don’t be shy. Whatever you have to say, it’s unlikely to shock or disturb me. Probably, you’re quite right, and there’s nothing the matter with you. But I need to be sure.”
Again, Matthew said nothing. He hoped Hamesh would accept his pretence of ignorance, and that he wouldn’t have to explicitly refuse to tell him what had happened.
Hamesh looked past Matthew, at nothing in particular. “The main reason for my concern is this, Prentice,” he said. “We’ve been exhuming people now since about 200, and we’ve come to be very good at it. Occasionally, though, things do go wrong--very badly wrong. The most common problem is what we call constructor rejection. That’s rejection of the micro-organisms that are directing the reconstruction of your body. Your immune system wrongly identifies them as hostile, and attacks them.” He looked back to Matthew. “I’ve seen that happen once or twice. Believe me, it’s very unpleasant.”
“Can this... constructor rejection be cured?”
“’Cured’ is probably too optimistic a word,” replied the doctor. “We can treat it, certainly, with doses of the appropriate micro-organisms. The problem is, of course, that as soon as we inject you with the micro-organisms, your immune system will attack them again. We can suppress your immune system, but that of course leaves you vulnerable to real diseases.”
“How long is the treatment likely to last?” Matthew asked. “Assuming that you detect the problem as early as possible.”
“Several years, at least. Maybe even 10 or 15.” Seeing Matthew’s surprise, Hamesh elaborated: “The micro-organisms are not only repairing structural damage and clearing away dead tissue. They’re also restoring your body’s ability to repair itself. Much of that ability is lost when your body is dead and frozen. The longer you’re frozen, the more work there is to do when you’re exhumed.”
Somehow that didn’t ring true. What had Thander said when he had first met her? “...the fact that you were in good health when you died made your exhumation relatively trouble-free.” “Relatively” could have meant “compared to other exhumees of your age,” rather than “compared to exhumees who were ill,” but even so...
“I think I’m missing something here, Doctor,” said Matthew. “You said that this constructor rejection is quite rare, but you’re talking as if you already know that I’m going to suffer from it.”
“Not at all. The reason I mention it is because one of the warning signs is otherwise inexplicable abnormalities in the readings from the implant.”
“Have there been any such incidents before now?”
Hamesh shook his head.
“Well, then, we’ve caught it early,” said Matthew. “I suppose you’ll want to do some tests to confirm it, and then if they prove positive--”
“You don’t understand, do you, Prentice?” interrupted Hamesh. He looked levelly at Matthew and said distinctly: “I want to know what you and Thander did yesterday when you were outside the car.”
The sharp edge in Hamesh’s voice told Matthew that he would be unwise to push the Doctor any nearer to anger than he was now. Cautiously, he replied: “She took me for a walk in a little wood.”
“You stopped walking for a few minutes. What happened to cause that?”
Matthew found it disconcerting that Hamesh knew this much already. He supposed that since his implant allowed remote monitoring of medical data, it was a simple task for it to transmit his location as well, but even so, the man should have had some respect for his privacy. Evidently he didn’t. Matthew took a deep breath and said: “She kissed me.”
“And what then?”
“Well, I told her thanks for the compliment, but I wasn’t interested. She seemed to accept that, and we got back into the car and came back here.”
“Why weren’t you ‘interested’ in her?”
“I don’t see what that has to do with my medical condition.”
“Why weren’t you interested in her?” Hamesh demanded again.
As he had done with Thander the day before, Matthew held up his left hand. “I’m a married man. I made promises to another woman, promised that--”
“I know what ‘married’ means,” Hamesh snapped. “Has it not occurred to you that your woman could be anywhere in the mausolea, even anywhere in the world? Has it not occurred to you that you’ll probably never see her again?”
Matthew was silent.
“Well?” the doctor insisted.
“Thander did mention the possibility,” Matthew said indistinctly.
“So you expect me to believe that you passed up an opportunity like that? That you rejected her, and just came back to the base?”
“You’re welcome to believe whatever you like, Doctor, but that’s the truth. I won’t answer any more questions about yesterday’s events. I think you’re just trying to frighten me.”
“Is that your final position on the matter?” Hamesh asked.
“It is. Now would you leave the room, please.”
Hamesh went towards the door. When he was halfway there, he turned and said: “You may well come to regret the attitude you’re taking now, Prentice. I think you should know that I can make your life here very difficult.”
Matthew sat thinking for about 10 seconds after Hamesh had left. Then he went over to the communicator and pressed the
Call button. “Get me Historian Thander,” he said.
Thander took Matthew back to her office, where she summoned Mandarin. She and it listened while he repeated what he and Hamesh had said to each other.
“Is that everything that was said?” asked the computer when he had finished.
“As near as I can remember it, yes.”
It nodded in acknowledgement. “My assessment is as follows. Doctor Hamesh’s description of the symptoms and warning signs of constructor rejection is quite accurate. However, he omitted two facts that might be considered significant. The first is that the irregular readings from the implant that are characteristic of constructor rejection are not very similar to the readings that your implant reported yesterday. The second is that there have been no reported cases of constructor rejection anywhere in the world for 122 years. To my certain knowledge, the last case at this establishment was 148 years ago.”
Matthew looked at Thander, and then back to the computer. After a moment, Thander told Mandarin: “You will not say anything about this conversation to anybody other than me.”
“Understood,” it replied.
“Dismiss.” The computer vanished.
Thander looked at nothing in particular for a few seconds, and then said: “You were right, then. He was trying to frighten you into telling him what happened.”
“You don’t seem particularly shocked,” Matthew observed, “or even surprised.”
“Shocked?” she said, turning towards him. “Well, a little, maybe. But not surprised.”
“He’s done things like this before, then?”
“Well, that raises two questions. Firstly, what the hell has it got to do with him, and secondly, if you knew that something like this was likely to happen, why did you take the risk?”
Thander said nothing for a moment. She wondered how little of the truth she could get away with. Then: “My relationship with Hamesh is... complicated. He’s not exactly in love with me. He desires me.” The Athic word that she used was unambiguous: it meant “sexual desire; lust.” However, she went on: “Only it’s more like... desire for a rare, valuable object. He has a deep, passionate yearning, but... it’s not really me that he wants. He maybe desires what he thinks I am, or maybe some facet of me, and the rest is... well, at best, irrelevant, and at worst, actually gets in the way.” She paused briefly and then asked: “Do you see what I’m saying?”
“No,” Matthew replied flatly.
She smiled a little. “Well, I said it was complicated.”
“And what about your feelings for him?”
“I don’t feel anything for him.” Then, realising that she couldn’t possibly maintain that pretence, she corrected herself: “Well, I mean, I don’t desire him, or love him, or anything like that.
“I’m sorry that he intimidated you,” she continued. “But he is responsible for your medical welfare, and he’s supposed to check the data from your implant every so often. It’s just unfortunate that he happened to check yesterday afternoon.”
“Did he ask you about it?” asked Matthew.
“Yes. I told him to, as you used to say in English, ‘fuck off.’”
“Some of us did, yeah.” Matthew gave an embarrassed smile. “Be careful who you say that to. It’s a real insult.”
After a few seconds, Matthew asked: “What data does my implant transmit?”
Thander hesitated before replying. “Well, I’m not really supposed to tell you... but then doctors aren’t supposed to use that data the way Hamesh did. Apart from your location, it’s mostly bodily functions like heart rate, respiration, body temperature, energy use, and the levels of key hormones and enzymes. It also transmits the amount of activity in certain areas of your brain. So he’d have been able to see that you took part in a conversation, and he might have been able to guess at your emotional state, but he couldn’t have known what you said or heard.” She paused again and then added: “Don’t worry about telling him about yesterday. It’s my fault, really, I suppose. I didn’t think anything like this would happen. I don’t think he’ll bother you again, but if he does, just let me know and I’ll deal with him.” She fervently hoped that she wouldn’t be held to that promise. She knew that she couldn’t keep it.
Thander took Matthew back to his room and then returned to her office. She closed the door: even now, she couldn’t bring herself to lock it. As she had done so many times before, she put her forearms on the desk and rested the side of her head on them. She wanted to cry. Then she thought that Hamesh would want that too, and resolved to hold back her tears, for a while at least. If Hamesh thought that there was some kind of romantic or sexual attachment between her and Matthew, that just might stop him inquiring any further and finding out what she really wanted the exhumee for.
She remembered the words of a poem that had been written a few years ago by an exhumee of the mid-21st century. It had been discovered near his sleeping place after his final death, and was one of the few pieces of art that were acknowledged as the work of an exhumee. Most of the article about it the Journal of the Mediaeval History Society had been taken up by speculation about how the poet had obtained anything to write with. The poem was in English, and the article’s authors had made a rather poor job of translating it. Fortunately they had printed the original as well. Thander had wanted to send them a more accurate Athic version, but Hamesh had somehow found out about her plan and had vetoed it. He’d said he didn’t want her to draw attention to herself. At the time, she had meekly accepted this, and had even tried to rationalise by telling herself that her translation wasn’t much better than the one in the Journal.
She closed her eyes and recalled the poet’s words:
You have been dishonest with me,
faithless as a stranger’s kiss.
I never knew what I would see,
but it wasn’t meant to be like this.
I hear the friends I left behind,
telling me that I must be strong.
How could I have been so blind
as to think that nothing would go wrong?
I remember my departed love
as I ponder your convenient lies.
I gaze into the skies above,
and a tear falls from my half-closed eyes.
You trespass on my grave.
You violate my grief.
Oh where is your respect,
for the dead?
The poem was, of course, directed against the people who had made the laws which said that an exhumee was not a human being and therefore had no rights. Yet it seemed to Thander that the words could have been said by Matthew to her. Some things are always wrong. The fact that what she was planning to do to him was going to be over much more quickly than what most exhumees had to live through made no difference.
She looked up. Her vision was blurred, and she realised that she had been crying for some time.
After speaking to Matthew, Hamesh went back to his office. He slouched into his chair, scowling. He had learned nothing. He had merely confirmed a suspicion which was already quite strong: that Thander and Prentice were trying to hide the fact that something was going on between them. As well as that, he had alerted them to his suspicions.
So what were they trying to hide, then? Why, and from whom? Was it illegal, or just embarrassing? If they were trying to hide whatever it was from Hamesh, he had to upset their plans, almost as a matter of principle, to bring Thander back under control. If they were trying to hide something from the law, again, he had to upset their plans, to prevent the law from taking Thander away from him. Doubtless, there would be others afterwards, but Thander was the best in quite a while. Not only that, but if she was arrested, she would certainly try to drag him down with her. He was confident that there was little evidence against him now, but that little might still be enough.
He scowled again. His gaze fell on the screen that occupied the wall opposite his desk. That might be the answer... “Mandarin!” he called.
The computer’s persona appeared before him. “Good morning, Doctor Hamesh,” it said. “I regret that your remaining allocation of computer time for this month is not sufficient for me to communicate with you as a persona. Please submit your requests using your communicator.” It indicated the device on his desk and then, after a second or two, faded from view.
“Shithead,” he muttered. Rationing was a fact of life, of course--Hamesh couldn’t remember a time when there hadn’t been something that was in short supply--but computer time was a fairly recent addition to the list of “controlled resources.” It was Mandarin’s processing time that was rationed, not people’s access to it. Unfortunately for the majority of users, who had become accustomed to dialogue with something that looked like a human, generating the persona required Mandarin to perform far more calculations than most of the questions that people asked it. Someone who was prepared to type on a keyboard and see the results on a screen--using the computer’s native language, in effect--could typically access the computer for ten times as long as someone who insisted on dealing with a persona--and would probably need 15 times as long to get his results. It would have been easy for Hamesh to move minutes or even hours from other people to himself, but rather harder to make sure that no-one else noticed.
So he switched on the communicator and began to type. The keys felt awkwardly-positioned under his fingers, and many of his commands were initially rejected because of typing errors. It was partly his frustration that caused this, and partly a lack of recent practice.
He went looking for Prentice’s records. Thander had not put them in the usual place, and it took Hamesh almost five minutes to find them. As he paged through the data, he noticed that a lot of the attributes had
Not available or
Not yet obtained next to them. Thander was usually more thorough than that. He turned to the notes. There was something about them that felt wrong, but he couldn’t quite work out what it was. Then a phrase caught his eye:
deeply scarred by his experiences as a soldier during the Genetic Wars. When had the Genetic Wars happened? Minus 51 to minus 43: everyone knew that. Matthew Adrian Prentice (if that was his real name, which Hamesh was beginning to doubt) had been dead and frozen for over 200 years by the time the wars started. These were Thander’s notes about another exhumee. Her real notes must be somewhere else, probably not in Mandarin’s memories at all.
How best to upset their plans, then? Prentice was obviously important to those plans--otherwise, Thander wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of hiding so much of the information about him.
So make it impossible for Thander to get to him--temporarily or permanently. He wondered how best to do that. A fossil disease alert, perhaps. That would require Prentice to be quarantined until he could be certified clear of diseases that had been wiped out since his death, and to which no living person had any immunity. That would take weeks, since he was certain that Prentice had no such diseases. But no... Thander would still be able to talk with him by communicator. Something more drastic was needed.
An accident could easily be arranged--a miskeyed amount on a prescription, a swapping over of two drug patches in a hormone monitor--and no-one would know anything until it was too late. But a death at the base would inevitably bring an inquiry, with officers of the law swarming everywhere, poking into things that were none of their business. There was no telling what they might discover. Even if he was shown to have done nothing wrong, he was still accountable for the actions of his staff, and he was likely to earn a severe reprimand from the Director.
But why was he so worried about Prentice’s part in whatever Thander was planning? Prentice would be gone in a week or two anyway, into whatever new life her questioning had determined he was best suited for. There was no way she could keep him here, and it would be difficult for her to see him or speak with him after he had gone. In that case, maybe his destination was part of her plan... Hamesh paged back up to the top of Prentice’s records.
Major areas of knowledge:
Computing (artificial intelligence 4, symbolic logic 4)
Dead languages (Late English 4, minus 3rd century)
The numbers, which were between one and five, indicated the exhumee’s skill and experience in that area. By default, Mandarin didn’t list ones and twos, and historians seldom bothered recording them. A “one” was somebody who could give a definition of the area. A “five” was a once-in-a-decade genius, an Einstein or a Hibari. The fours that Prentice had in computing were much more common--there were one or two thousand of them for every single five. A place such as Serendipity Base could expect two or three exs like him in any given year. The fact that he had fours in two related areas of computing made him rare, though not especially unusual. As Hamesh recalled, computing was still a young science in the minus 3rd century, and within it, the amount of knowledge that an individual could cope with was an appreciable percentage of everything there was to know. Prentice’s skills were certainly valuable--but only if there was currently a need for them.
not yet determined
This was what Thander had told him a while ago. There was another puzzle. Why was she adamant that she was going to send someone to Project Five whom she knew was nearly 200 years older than the Project had specified? It was true that, at this base, they had found few computer experts in their mausolea, but that in itself didn’t make an unsuitable person acceptable. The people at the Project would question Prentice, and they would quickly discover that he was of no use to them and send him elsewhere. Probably Thander wouldn’t suffer for this “mistake,” unless she made a habit of it.
There had to be more to it than that. Was Prentice going to do something else while he was at the Project? The aim of Project Five was a well-kept secret. Obviously it involved computing, but that was all that anyone at the base was privileged enough to know. Did Thander want to find out what the Project was doing? Or did she know, or suspect, already, and intend to sabotage it? Hamesh considered himself enough of a patriot for that last thought to make him uneasy.
The simplest way, then, to spoil Thander’s plans was to see to it that Prentice never went to Project Five. That was easy enough. When the time came for him to leave the base, someone would just ask Mandarin for his records, look at the provisional destination, and arrange for someone from there to come and collect him.
Hamesh had long ago defeated the security mechanisms that were supposed to prevent people from modifying records that they were not responsible for maintaining. He had also figured out how to switch off the auditing, so there would be no evidence pointing to him. He still had to be careful, of course. A transaction with no audit details always looked suspicious; it wasn’t something that just inexplicably happened every now and again. He hadn’t yet worked out how to put someone else’s name on a transaction. But no-one would look very closely unless they suspected that something was wrong. If and when that happened, Prentice would be too long gone for the matter to be worth making any trouble over.
So Hamesh entered the command sequence that would allow him to change Prentice’s records. He deleted
Major areas of knowledge. He asked for a list of options and, after a moment’s thought, selected
Decorative arts. For the sub-area, he chose
two-dimensional pictures, and entered
3 for the skill level. Now, according to Mandarin, Prentice was, and always had been, a painter--and not a particularly noteworthy one, either. For every incandescent five, there were as many as ten million guttering threes. A nation of unremarkables, unnoticed against the background.
Dead languages untouched. No-one was going to think Prentice worth saving for that. It was the one exception to the “one--two thousand--ten million” rule. Anybody with a good education would have a four or five in their native language. Mandarin probably spoke better English than Prentice did. He changed
Provisional destination from
Project Five to
Camp Fidelity. His familiar smile spread across his face as he committed the changes to the computer’s permanent memory. “Alith, you shithead,” he murmured, “you should have killed me when you had the chance.” He hit the communicator’s power switch, and the screen went black.
Part two is at http://www.pembers.net/fiction/respect2.html