29 September 2011
Things on Perepeteia have become untenable. It's gone from a few rocks thrown, a few people dead, a few Dual-sings lynched in retaliation, into rioting in the streets and full-scale battles. The unit I'd become attached to was dispatched to try to keep the peace—at least, that was the orders. In reality, they just wanted to crack skulls, human or not. I had to slip away, I couldn't stomach it.
I've got no problem fighting, I'm no lily-white pacifist, that's for damned sure, but I'm no butcher either. And I've got no problem with anyone on either side of this scrum, although it seems to me as if the Dual-sings oughta get their due rights. They are people, right enough. Maybe, sure, they're not humans, technically, but they feel, they speak, they evolve, they...I don't know...they evince all the characteristics of humanity. It doesn't seem programming to me. When the Look-Alike Case happened, just after the war on Luna, people discussed this very issue. Cybrex had invented robots that looked, acted, and felt like real people, only they were inanimate machines. Of course, they didn't stay that way, the Androidicons. All the HoloNet fictions were coming true, Androidicons developing past what the inventors had intended, and causing all sorts of problems Earthside. I'm not sure how it all shook out, as I got shipped to Kleuer just as things were getting really heated. But this situation with the Dual-sings smacks of that same issue: what defines an individual? What is a person?
For me, a person is someone I can sit down with and have a good old fashioned talk with, someone I can shake hands with, or sock in the jaw, or kiss, and not predict the response based on programming. These Dual-sings, they're people. Odd, hard-to-look-at people, maybe, but they're people. And I cannot, will not be party to any effort to suppress their bid for equal rights. That doesn't mean I'm ready to join their side either.
I don't know what I want, or where I fit.
I'm wandering J-Temp, alone, dressed in torn uniform pants and a ground-length heavy coat pilfered off of a dead man in an alley. I kept my Patrol-issue boots, tablet, shock-sticks, and pulse-rifle, just because I feel more of a man if I'm armed. The fighting is intense, now, door-to-door, civvies against Patrol against Dual-sing. No one is cleaning up the dead, no one is using tactics or organization. It's a free-for-all hell, and no telling who'll win.
As I scratch this entry into the tablet, sitting in the shadows of dead-end alley, a knot of Patrol thugs are being systematically overrun by a much larger group of Dual-sings, not twenty feet from my hiding spot. The Sings seem organized. They've got a plan and leader to keep 'em following it. Patrol doesn't stand a chance, I think. They're cornered in a courtyard, surrounded, wounded, and desperate, but desperate men put up a savage fight. Just look at the Colonials on Mars. Those bastards were primal. We couldn't stop 'em until every last one of 'em had been shot to pieces. A Pyrrhic victory, the Old Man called it. Which amounts to no victory at all, if you boil it down.
Midnight after the last entry. The Patrol lasted longer than I expected, but it was inevitable. The Dual-sings were crafty, they went for the head-shots, to preserve the gear of the dead men. The plan, as I could see it, was to get the uniforms and try to infiltrate with whoever could pass for human. Smart, that.
I'm feeling less and less connected. I don't know how else to put it. My brain and body, my mind and my soul are not fully in sync with my body. Memories waft up and wash over me, time slows down and speeds up, sounds get louder and louder, lights get too bright and the night seems less dark. Just now, I can hear a rat scrabbling in the darkness beneath me, hear its jaw chomping and its breath soughing slightly. There's fighting to the east and to the south.
I fell asleep writing that entry, and now it's dawn. Someone is screaming, a few streets over. A woman. I can't listen to it anymore, I've got to do something.
Damn it, I didn't want to get involved.
Now, this is just a record for myself. A means of keeping track of my thoughts, a place to work out my confusion. I don't think I can keep up the pretense that these entries are to you anymore. You're dead, my love, and to write letters I'll never send to a woman I'll never see again seems like running in circles. I have to let you go. I'm sorry I couldn't save you, my heart. You didn't deserve to die that way.
I died. Here's what happened: I heard screaming, and went to investigate. I should've kept my nose out of it, but it's just not my nature. She was a Dual-sing. A Patrol thug was raping her, beating her. She was nearly dead by the time I found her, and the bastard was still hammering away. I blasted his head into a splatter of red on the walls, threw his body into the street. The poor girl couldn't even move, could barely breathe. Half-dead, all beautiful. I picked her up, realized she was nearly as tall as me, knew she was Dual-sing by her hair. It's not hair, it's like...the filaments in the old-style lightbulbs they had in that museum of old-Earth tech. Thin, almost invisible strands of metal, twisting in braids. Her hair chimed when I lifted her, glowed dull red from within the strands of metal. It was as if her hair knew that she was hurt, maybe dying. That sounds silly, I guess, but it was my impression then, and it rings true, even now. I picked her up, carried her into the street. She was heavier than she should have been. Tall and lithe, willowy and delicately curved, she should have been a feather in my arms, instead she felt...like carrying a machine. But she wasn't a machine. She was warm against my skin, her blood dripped red from her bruised, battered face. Her skin was bruised and yellow by her ribcage and beneath her breasts, and I could tell she had broken ribs in a few places. She moaned, whimpered, cracked her eyes open, peered at me with violet eyes that glowed with preternatural luminosity through her slitted eyelids.
“I don't know where to take you,” I told her. I was whispering, for some reason. The city around me was dead silent, but for the distant concussive thumping of a battle somewhere miles away across the pyramidion.
“Down...beneath..” she croaked. She turned her head, flopped over to one side, looked around, lifted a limp, weak arm to point vaguely towards the eastern wall. “That way...to the Mosque of Ibn Haran... catacombs entrance...alley behind.” I had no idea where the Mosque of Ibn Haran was, but I knew what a mosque was, so I set off in the direction she had indicated. By the time I found the mosque, I was sweating and trembling. The girl, the Dual-sing, was dead weight, passed out but alive. The mosque was enormous, a cupola rising hundreds of feet into the air, spires and minarets spiking the sky, gold leaf on the roofs and trimming the arched windows of painted glass, white-washed walls, the whole surrounded by a wrought iron fence to keep out the infidels. The muezzin was ululating his call to prayer, and it brought me back to Mars with jolting suddenness. I slump the pavement, the girl in my arms a heavy weight across my legs. I laid my head against the bars of the fence and stared up at the city around me, eyes seeing, but mind re-living the past. Beyond the mosque, the city is a welter of building, all of them uniformly tall and thin, like reeds in a pond. I doubt anyone here would understand the simile, never having seen a pond, or reeds, but that's the image I see when I look around me. They've built vertically, here. There is no wind within the pyramidions, no weather at all, so buildings can rise up high and thin like needles stood on end, stacked one atop the other in impossible structures. They are round, made from what appears to be seamless glass windows that reflect like mirrors, making the city glint and glimmer and seem even bigger than it is; the towers are built cheek-by-jowl, less than fifty feet between sides in some places, and in others, they are touching, with walkways and bridges spanning the two, attaching them. There are a couple smaller buildings scattered here and there, like this mosque. The streets are laid out in a grid pattern dissected with diagonal cross-cutting side-streets, and the whole is lit, at night, by luminous globes a hundred feet in diameter strung like over-sized Christmas lights from the girders that prop up the ceiling. The lowest level is two thousand feet high, at least, probably more. I've never understood the physics of what makes the pyramidions so stable a structure, but it seems to work, and these people have taken the idea and expanded it into something unbelievable in scope.
The sky above us, outside the pyramidion, is yellow, like sulfurous gas, and the land is barren wasteland, empty brown and red gently rolling hills is some places, flat as the Kansas plains of my boyhood, a dusty expanse of dead earth. I can see the lure of a place like this, open, uninhabited: they can build pyramidions one next to other until the whole globe is covered with the gleaming transtanium structures, each one holding millions. The race can expand exponentially before running out of room. It is an unlovely place, but it serves a function.
Like Mars. The Red Planet. It was a place of death, at the end, and its crimson appearance was awfully apropos. I can't think of that. Can't, just can't. I shake my head, shake away the images that cling to my consciousness like cobwebs.
Are there spiders here? Probably not.
The girl moans, coughs, and I am stirred out of my delirium. I realize that I'm dehydrated and starving. I haven't eaten or drunk anything in a long time...days...
Drunk? Or should it be drank? I can't remember now. I haven't had anything to drink in days, is what I'm trying to say.
The entrance to the catacombs is hidden carefully, at the back end of a blind alley, behind a door that seemed perfectly natural, a back door to a shop or apartment. Behind it was a staircase, low, narrow and steep. I have to duck almost double, which makes carrying the girl almost impossible, but she is limp still, barely conscious.
As I glance back up at what I've written, I realize I'm vacillating between past tense and present tense. My memory is difficult to control, since the cryobed. Past and present bleed together, and it's difficult to tell, sometimes, whether I'm living an experience currently, or remembering something that's happened. To make it all the more confusing, I have a habit of composing the entries in my head before I write them down, so I tend to forget whether or not I'm composing or writing. It all bleeds together.
I think I'm telling the story of how I died. Yes, I do believe that's it; so this should be past tense, then, and I'll just stick to that. It's easier, I think. It puts distance between me and all that's happened, and that's a good thing.
We entered the catacombs, and now the girl directed me with a weak finger pointed this way or that. The catacombs were dark, dank, and low, echoing every footstep to sound as if a thousand nightmare monsters were creeping through the darkness behind me. My pulse-rifle has a lamp on it, shedding a dull yellow spear of light into the thick darkness of the subterranean passage. It took me several minutes to realize that these tunnels were truly catacombs, underground burial chambers. The walls on either side were carved with shallow niches six feet long and two feet high, stacked four high. Each niche held a body, wrapped in a kind of bag rather than a hard coffin. The tunnels were a maze, stretching for miles in every direction, winding and looping and dipping and rising, crossing and re-crossing. I cannot imagine how many miles of catacombs there must be beneath the ground, if this is how they dispose of their dead. It seems archaic and bizarrely low-tech, but there is much I simply cannot understand.
I was thoroughly lost within moments, but she seemed to know where she was going, and indeed, within maybe fifteen minutes, we had left the catacombs and emerged in what looked like an underground cavern, a natural space that had been turned into a city. I stood amazed for many long moments, staring, unbelieving. It was hyper-organized, gridded and uniform in layout, but each building looked handmade, like an expression of the builder, some tall and thin, others short and squat, some colorful and bright, others white and utilitarian. Light was provided by the same globes that lit the upper world, and the cavern was so enormous as to make it feel as if one weren't underground at all.
I was seen immediately, and surrounded by a host of curious, hostile Dual-sings, some normal looking, others looking as if nature and technology had fused in an accidental freak of evolution. No two were the same. They took- her from my arms, disappeared with her, and I followed as best I could, pushing through the crowds that whispered and muttered at the appearance of a human in their midst. They healed her, somehow. I was brought to her side, and when she awoke, she took my hand, thanked me in a voice like synthesized bells.
“I'm Cully,” she told me. Cully? That baffled me. It was a word I'd heard back up above, in reference to a specific kind of Dual-sing, ones that sold themselves. A cully was a prostitute.
“Yes,” she said, eyes firing and flashing, “that kind of Cully. It's what I was, though not by choice. I took the word as my name, because it was my identity, and now...it's a reminder.” I didn't pursue the subject.
What I'd seen wasn't prostitution, it was rape, and I knew it.
She must've seen or sensed the thoughts running through my head. “He'd decided he didn't have to pay for it,” she said. She leveled an odd look at me, saying, “You know, now that you're here, among us, I'm not sure what we're going to do with you. No human has ever seen this place before.”
I had a sinking feeling in my gut that told me where this was going. “And then you're going to tell me that I can't leave, now that I've done my good deed of saving you.”
Cully smiled, laughed gently. Her laugh sounded like a spoon tinkling against glass, exactly so, like a recording. Eerie, but beautiful. “Pretty much.”
“Would it make a difference if I said that I couldn't get back here if I tried? After the first few turns, I was lost completely.”
“No, that won't matter. Humans don't even suspect that there is a secret community of Dual-sings. You even knowing that there is such a thing...it compromises you.” I sighed, leaned back, tried to collect my thoughts. I hadn't felt any more at home among the real humans...
Real humans...as opposed to what? These weren't humans, I couldn't deny that. At least, not fully. But they were people. What comprises an individual? Sentience? Emotion? Enough philosophizing, back to the story.
I just sat there, for a long time, staring at her, lost in thought. She was beautiful, human or not. Her eyes were magnetic, fiery, like purple supernovae, lush with emotion writ plainly. Her hair, too, was an expressive part of her beauty. Now, at rest, at home, and healing, her hair was a gentle, vibrant green, like oak leaves when seen backlit by the sun.
There are no trees here. I miss trees, grass, early morning dew on my feet.
Already her bruises were fading, and she seemed less tired with every passing second...as if she were being recharged...
I followed what I had taken to be an IV line in her arm, but the line was opaque, and it terminated, not at a IV tree with the clear bag of regrow meds, but at the wall, in socket. She was being recharged, literally, and was healing in the process. This struck me as so funny that I laughed out loud. I have sounded slightly unhinged, because Cully regarded me quizzically.
“Nothing...I just haven't ever seen anyone get...recharged before. That's all.”
“Recharged? What are you talking about?”
I pointed at the cord in her arm. She fingered the cord, and then looked back at me, confusion in her violet eyes. “You've never seen a med-line before?”
“Med line? I thought it was a Dual-sing thing, like...recharging a battery...”
She shook her head, making her hair chime. “What's a battery? Where are you from? Who are you?”
I guessed I had misjudged a few things, and given myself away in the process. “My name is Vargos Vale.
I'm new to J-Temp. New to Perepeteia in general.”
“How can you be new to Perepeteia? Were you born on a far-scout?”
“Kind of. You probably wouldn't believe me if I told you.”
“Told me what? And what does 'kind of' mean?” I hesitated. Now, it seems stupid. I was talking to someone who was an outcast, who had to live in a secret, underground city because normal society didn't like her kind.
“I came in on a far-scout, that much is true. But I didn't go out on one, and I wasn't born on one, either.” Cully tilted her head to one side, puzzled. “I was born on Earth.”
“Earth...?” She said the word as if it tasted strange, like it was a word only heard rarely, an exotic word used by scholars and mystics. “How...how is that possible? Humans left Earth a millennium ago, and no one even knows where it is anymore. They teach human kids about it in grade school like it's a myth.”
“It's real. How...it's a long story. The short version is that I was part of the Exodus and something went wrong I was in cryosleep, kind of, and my ship got damaged. We...I...got knocked off course, without power, and I drifted in space, for what turned out to be a more than thousand years. I was found, by accident, by a far-scout. They sent me here.”
Cully was silent for a long time, processing what I'd told her. To her credit, and my relief, she didn't seem to disbelieve me. “So you really don't know much about anything, do you?” She seemed sympathetic, almost.
“No, not really.”
“Who is 'we?'”
She'd caught that slip. “Just...someone who was with me. Someone I cared about. She...her cryobed shut down, and she...didn't make it. Mine malfunctioned and went to back-up power, which kept me alive, kind of. I hadn't gone completely under, so I was awake.”
“I don't know much about cryosleep. It's ancient tech, these days. Some humans use it, sometimes, just as a fad. They'll go under for a while and come back up.”
“Well, it puts you to sleep, freezes you, starts at the feet and works upwards. I was frozen physically, but then the accident happened. Eyesight and consciousness get turned off together. They're connected, somehow. Well, when the ship got hit, I was left awake.”
“You mean, you drifted, awake, and seeing, for a thousand years? How is that possible? Didn't you go crazy?”
This was touching on things I wasn't comfortable with. “I...I don't know. At some point, I think I just fell asleep, or something. Things get blurry, if I try to think about it. I don't think the human mind is meant to experience that kind of thing, just empty, unmoving time. I couldn't move, couldn't smell or hear. I could only see, and think, and remember. I think my mind just...shut down.” I hadn't really thought about any of this too carefully, but something about Cully...the words just poured out. “I'm not sure I've really woken up, truly. I feel...disconnected. Time doesn't feel the same, anymore. I don't feel the same. I feel...like I'm not a person any more. Like my mind and body and soul are three different things now. Awake, asleep, thinking, remembering, feeling...it's all the same, it all runs together. Everything is confused and blurred.”
Cully reached out a hand, touched my arm. Her eyes drilled into me, struck deep into me, held me fast. I couldn't look away, and I felt a brush against my mind. It was delicate, careful, tentative, but real. Cully's eyes were locked on mine, and I could feel concentration coming from her in palpable waves. My instinct was to lock down, run away, push back; instead, I sat still and let her in. I don't know why. There was no sense to it. I didn't even believe in telepathy, for God's sake.
Then, like a concussion, I was duality. She was there inside, reading me, rifling with quick, sure mental fingers through the contents of my mind; I was seeing her, too, and something told me that this was a conscious decision on her part, somehow. She didn't have to let me see her, but she did, to reassure me.
I couldn't move, couldn't breathe, I could only feel her thoughts and mine twined like vines. She was sad, and angry. She hated who she had been, and longed to remake herself.
The universe shifted between us, and I was seeing her through my own eyes, and seeing myself through hers. She saw with mechanical precision. There was no focus or blur, no near and far: all things were inherently clear and sharp, from the fine hairs on arms and the flecks of gold in my eyes (oh Lyssa, you always loved those gold flecks in the brown of my eyes) to the far crags and stalactites on the ceiling of the cavern, thousands of feet away.
Her thoughts left me whirling, mentally. She thought in a logical procession, computer-fast computations and sequences; conversely, there was a strain of illogical emotion running through it, wound around the logic like ivy creeping up a tree trunk, urges and desires, fears and love and hate and curiosity that was entirely human. She was assessing my character at the same time that she was trying to decide how she felt about me, if she was attracted to me, if she wanted me to take her hands in mine or not, if she wanted to remember how it felt to be carried by me through the tunnels, my strong arms like silken steel around her...
It was fairly strange to think of myself in those terms, to see myself in that light. I shuddered, pulled back, took my arm from her touch. The connection between us was snapped like a cord stretched too tight.
I've been delaying the telling of the important part. Now I come to it. It's unavoidable, but hard to tell, mainly because it all happened so fast.
They took me topside with them. They'd ended up trusting me, and I them. I felt more in common with them. They let me be. They understood that I liked to sit at the farthest edge of the cavern and be alone. It was quiet there, and peaceful. I could feel Alyssa, there.
It's been easier and easier to let her go, now that I've got Cully around to distract me. It feels like betrayal, in a way, but I know she would want me to move on. Cully and I are friends, but there's a glimmer of something there, a respect, a tentative attraction that we haven't dared look at too closely.
After months below ground, emerging topside was like rebirth...again. Like coming out of a cocoon, blinking and stretching in the bright sunlight. Above, all was chaos.
The riots and street warfare hadn't subsided; the entire planet was in a state of warfare, a many-factioned free-for-all, with Dual-sings stuck in the middle. The group I was with—Cully, myself, three big, warrior types that also looked mostly human, and a person that was some kind of androgenous, deaf-mute healer—were sent to observe the state of things, to find any Dual-sings and try to bring them to the underground city, Sessura.
It turns out even the Dual-sings were divided: some wanted to stay and fight, get their rights, kill and destroy as much as possible in the process and then start over. Others wanted just to be left alone—this was the smallest faction, and quickly eradicated. The other group were the ones who wanted to leave, to board a colony ship and set out to find somewhere they can live on their own, start a new society. Cully and the Sessurians were of the last group, and they were willing to break a few human heads to get away, if that's what it took.
And it did.
We were ambushed.
We were moving in a tight group down a main thoroughfare, myself in point, Cully behind me, Apothika, the healer in the middle, and the three warriors—Herick, Dove, and Lure—in the rear. A dozen Patrolmen slipped silently out of an alley behind us, opened fire, dropping Herick like a sack of stones. The rest of us jumped through an open door, watching Herick bleed out less than ten feet away. Pulse-rifles barked in their harsh, throaty voices, sending small incendiary shells flying at near light-speed, so that bark and explosion were simultaneous. I lifted my own rifle, peeked around the lip of the door, took a bead on a Patrol thug and dropped him. Cully had a weapon that looked like a pistol, but fired silent needles with machine-gun rapidity; Lure and Dove had pulse-rifles like mine, and Apothika simply sat against the farthest wall, black, almond eyes unblinking and emotionless, hairless gray head bowed, thin arms and legs folded.
Of course, the dozen who ambushed us were just the fore party, the ones sent to corner us. When we had them whittled down to a manageable number, a hundred more poured out of a side-street a mile away and sync-marched towards us with unhurried arrogance.
We took our chances. Dove scooped up Herick and ran as hard as he could, dropping small, blinking black globes behind him. They beeped in a quickening pattern; I knew they were some kind of explosive. Cully was beside me, Apothika in front, running as lightly as a deer, its breathing unlabored. Then, without warning, Dove and Lure were down and bleeding at my feet and Cully was behind a door, a dozen feet away, Apothika behind her; three thugs faced me, close enough to punch, pulse-rifles leveled and firing. I felt a twinge in my brain, and time slowed. I saw rifle-round inching towards me; I dropped my rifle and pulled out my shock-sticks, jabbed them both simultaneously. When the pronged tips touched flesh, a burst of blue-white electric fire arced around their bodies, jerking them like rag dolls, dropping them instantly to the ground. The last one took a shock-stick to the throat, spraying me with bright blood.
I forgot to move out of the way. I was hit in the chest, blowing me back a dozen feet.
I laid on the ground, staring up at the girders and lights far above, dizzy, deaf, hurting, dying; Apothika's genderless face appeared above me, mouthed words I couldn't hear, bent over me, a needle in its hand.
Cold washed over me; blackness swallowed me.
I woke up underground, tethered to machines that hummed and beeped. I was awake, but my eyes were stubborn, refused to obey.. “We were able to save your life, Vargos Vale,” came Cully's voice. “But there was a cost.” I opened my eyes slowly, performed the unconscious routine of taking stock of one's self after an injury. I've been injured many times before, and nearly died once before as well; this stock-taking is no new experience for me. This time, however, was unique.
Where before I would flex my toes, wiggle my fingers, roll my shoulders and tense my muscles, this time I could do none of those things. I looked down at myself, and saw not flesh-covered bone and hospital sheets and blankets, but the dull metallic gleam of an un-fleshed Androidicon, or the version of that for this age. Horror spread through me like post-battle adrenaline wearing off. This wasn't a cybertronic leg or arm, this was...all of me. I felt myself, mentally, emotionally, in my spirit and soul, but...physical sensation was entirely absent.
“What...what did you do to me?” I asked. I turned my head to find Cully: servomotors whirred gently and my vision rotated a precise ninety degrees. Cully was on a platform a few feet away, a small hovering disc more than a dozen feet off the ground. How was that possible?
I lifted my hand, and the servomotors whispered again, subtly louder this time. The appendage that rose into my line of sight was five-fingered, as a human's but huge, big enough that Cully could have sat in the palm with room to spare. It was a hand made for the vacuum of space, for the arid landscape beyond the transtanium of the pyramidions, meant to clutch titanic tools and colossal weapons. I looked down, and the motion was again exact, mechanically precise. At least I was bipedal, with knees that bent the right way. I recognized the body model. It was an elaboration of the out-ship-ops exo-mech, except this one had been worked over by the Dual-sings. I saw these exo-mechs on the Rakehell, mechanized suits that could also be used remotely. They were used for everything from repairs done in vacuum to waging wars in human-hostile environments. They were amazing tech, and I'd always wished for a chance to take one out as an exo-suit.
This wasn't what I'd had in mind.
“I know this is a drastic change, Vargos, but it was the only way to preserve your entity. Your physical shell was too badly damaged to be saved.” I turned back to look at Cully. Sympathy and concern glittered in her eyes.
“So what did you do? There's no body inside this exo-mech, is there?”
“No, there isn't.” At least she didn't sugar-coat the answer.
I am a mech, now. All those ruminations on individuality suddenly seemed more apropos than I could ever had guessed.