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Copyright © 2013 by Robert J. Sawyer. All Rights Reserved.
RED PLANET BLUES
by Robert J. Sawyer
In February 2004, Hugo Award-winning author Mike Resnick approached me with an offer I couldn't refuse: write a "science-fictional hard-boiled private-eye novella" for an original anthology he was editing for the Science Fiction Book Club called Down These Dark Spaceways.
There are strange things done 'neath the Martian sun
The door to my office slid open. "Hello," I said, rising from my chair. "You must be my nine o'clock." I said it as if I had a ten o'clock and an eleven o'clock, but I didn't. The whole Martian economy was in a slump, and even though I was the only private detective on Mars this was the first new case I'd had in weeks.
"Yes," said a high, feminine voice. "I'm Cassandra Wilkins."
I let my eyes rove up and down her body. It was very good work; I wondered if she'd had quite so perfect a figure before transferring. People usually ordered replacement bodies that, at least in broad strokes, resembled their originals, but few could resist improving them. Men got more buff, women got curvier, and everyone modified their faces, removing asymmetries, wrinkles, and imperfections. If I ever transferred myself, I'd eliminate the gray in my blond hair and get a new nose that would look like my current one had before it'd been broken a couple of times.
"A pleasure to meet you, Ms. Wilkins," I said. "I'm Alexander Lomax. Please have a seat."
She was a little thing, no more than 150 centimeters, and she was wearing a stylish silver-gray blouse and skirt but no makeup or jewelry. I'd expected her to sit with a fluid catlike movement, given her delicate features, but she just sort of plunked herself into the chair. "Thanks," she said. "I do hope you can help me, Mr. Lomax. I really do."
Rather than immediately sitting down myself, I went to the coffeemaker. I filled my own mug, then offered Cassandra one; most models of transfer could eat and drink in order to be sociable, but she declined my offer. "What seems to be the problem?" I said, returning to my chair.
It's hard reading a transfer's expression: the facial sculpting was usually excellent, but the movements were somewhat restrained. "My husband oh, my goodness, Mr. Lomax, I hate to even say this!" She looked down at her hands. "My husband ... he's disappeared."
I raised my eyebrows; it was pretty damned difficult for someone to disappear here. New Klondike was locked under a shallow dome four kilometers in diameter and just twenty meters high at the central support column. "When did you last see him?"
"Three days ago."
My office was small, but it did have a window. Through it, I could see the crumbling building next door and one of the gently sloping arches that helped hold up the transparent dome. Outside the dome, a dust storm was raging, orange clouds obscuring the sun. Auxiliary lights on the arch compensated for that, but Martian daylight was never very bright. "Is your husband, um, like you?" I asked.
She nodded. "Oh, yes. We both came here looking to make our fortune, just like everyone else."
I shook my head. "I mean is he also a transfer?"
"Oh, sorry. Yes, he is. In fact, we both just transferred."
"It's an expensive procedure," I said. "Could he have been skipping out on paying for it?"
Cassandra shook her head. "No, no. Joshua found one or two nice specimens early on. He used the money from selling those pieces to buy the NewYou franchise here. That's where we met after I threw in the towel on sifting dirt, I got a job in sales there. Anyway, of course, we both got to transfer at cost." She was actually wringing her synthetic hands. "Oh, Mr. Lomax, please help me! I don't know what I'm going to do without my Joshua!"
"You must love him a lot," I said, watching her pretty face for more than just the pleasure of looking at it; I wanted to gauge her sincerity as she replied. After all, people often disappeared because things were bad at home, but spouses are rarely forthcoming about that.
"Oh, I do!" said Cassandra. "I love him more than I can say. Joshua is a wonderful, wonderful man." She looked at me with pleading eyes. "You have to help me get him back. You just have to!"
I looked down at my coffee mug; steam was rising from it. "Have you tried the police?"
Cassandra made a sound that I guessed was supposed to be a snort: it had the right roughness but was dry as Martian sand. "Yes. They oh, I hate to speak ill of anyone, Mr. Lomax! Believe me, it's not my way, but well, there's no ducking it, is there? They were useless. Just totally useless."
I nodded slightly; it's a story I heard often enough. I owed much of what little livelihood I had to the NKPD's indifference to most crime. They were a private force, employed by Howard Slapcoff to protect his thirty-year-old investment in constructing this city. The cops made a token effort to keep order but that was all. "Who did you speak to?"
"A a detective, I guess he was; he didn't wear a uniform. I've forgotten his name."
"What did he look like?"
"Red hair, and "
"That's Mac," I said. She looked puzzled, so I said his full name. "Dougal McCrae."
"McCrae, yes," said Cassandra. She shuddered a bit, and she must have noticed my surprised reaction to that. "Sorry," she said. "I just didn't like the way he looked at me."
I resisted running my eyes over her body just then; I'd already done so, and I could remember what I'd seen. I guess her original figure hadn't been like this one; if it had, she'd certainly be used to admiring looks from men by now.
"I'll have a word with McCrae," I said. "See what's already been done. Then I'll pick up where the cops left off."
"Would you?" Her green eyes seemed to dance. "Oh, thank you, Mr. Lomax! You're a good man I can tell!"
I shrugged a little. "I can show you two ex-wives and a half dozen bankers who'd disagree."
"Oh, no," she said. "Don't say things like that! You are a good man, I'm sure of it. Believe me, I have a sense about these things. You're a good man, and I know you won't let me down."
Naïve woman; she'd probably thought the same thing about her hubby until he'd run off. "Now, what can you tell me about your husband? Joshua, is it?"
"Yes, that's right. His full name is Joshua Connor Wilkins and it's Joshua, never just Josh, thank you very much." I nodded. In my experience, guys who were anal about being called by their full first names never bought a round. Maybe it was a good thing this joker was gone.
"Yes," I said. "Go on." I didn't have to take notes. My office computer a small green cube sitting on my desk was recording everything and would extract whatever was useful into a summary file for me.
Cassandra ran her synthetic lower lip back and forth beneath her artificial upper teeth, thinking for a moment. "Well, he was born in Wichita, Kansas, and he's thirty-eight years old. He moved to Mars seven mears ago." Mears were Mars years; about double the length of those on Earth.
"Do you have a picture?"
"I can access one." She pointed at my dusty keyboard. "May I?"
I nodded, and Cassandra reached over to grab it. In doing so, she managed to knock over my "World's Greatest Detective" coffee mug, spilling hot joe all over her dainty hand. She let out a small yelp of pain. I got up, grabbed a towel, and began wiping up the mess. "I'm surprised that hurt," I said. "I mean, I do like my coffee hot, but ..."
"Transfers feel pain, Mr. Lomax," she said, "for the same reason biologicals do. When you're flesh and blood, you need a signaling system to warn you when your parts are being damaged; same is true for those of us who have transferred. Of course, artificial bodies are much more durable."
"Sorry. I've explained this so many times now you know, at work. Anyway, please forgive me about your desk."
I made a dismissive gesture. "Thank God for the paperless office, eh? Don't worry about it." I gestured at the keyboard; fortunately, none of the coffee had gone down between the keys. "You were going to show me a picture?"
"Oh, right." She spoke some commands, and the terminal responded making me wonder what she'd wanted the keyboard for. But then she used it to type in a long passphrase; presumably she didn't want to say hers aloud in front of me. She frowned as she was typing it in and backspaced to make a correction; multiword passphrases were easy to say but hard to type if you weren't adept with a keyboard and the more security conscious you were the longer the passphrase you used.
She accessed some repository of her personal files and brought up a photo of Joshua-never-Josh Wilkins. Given how attractive Mrs. Wilkins was, he wasn't what I expected. He had cold, gray eyes, hair buzzed so short as to be nonexistent, and a thin, almost lipless mouth; the overall effect was reptilian. "That's before," I said. "What about after? What's he look like now that he's transferred?"
"Umm, pretty much the same."
"Really?" If I'd had that kisser, I'd have modified it for sure. "Do you have pictures taken since he moved his mind?"
"No actual pictures," said Cassandra. "After all, he and I only just transferred. But I can go into the NewYou database and show you the plans from which his new face was manufactured." She spoke to the terminal some more and then typed in another lengthy passphrase. Soon enough, she had a computer-graphics rendition of Joshua's head on my screen.
"You're right," I said, surprised. "He didn't change a thing. Can I get copies of all this?"
She nodded and spoke some more commands, transferring various documents into local storage.
"All right," I said. "My fee is two hundred solars an hour, plus expenses."
"That's fine, that's fine, of course! I don't care about the money, Mr. Lomax not at all. I just want Joshua back. Please tell me you'll find him."
"I will," I said, smiling my most reassuring smile. "Don't worry about that. He can't have gone far."
Actually, of course, Joshua Wilkins could perhaps have gone quite far so my first order of business was to eliminate that possibility.
No spaceships had left Mars in the last twenty days, so he couldn't be off-planet. There was a giant airlock in the south through which large spaceships could be brought inside for dry-dock work, but it hadn't been cracked open in weeks. And, although a transfer could exist freely on the Martian surface, there were only four airlock stations leading out of the dome, and they all had security guards. I visited each of those and checked, just to be sure, but the only people who had gone out in the past three days were the usual crowds of hapless fossil hunters, and every one of them had returned when the dust storm began.
I'd read about the early days of this town: "The Great Martian Fossil Rush," they called it. Weingarten and O'Reilly, the two private explorers who had come here at their own expense, had found the first fossils on Mars and had made a fortune selling them back on Earth. They were more valuable than any precious metal and rarer than anything else in the solar system actual evidence of extraterrestrial life! Good fist-sized specimens went for tens of thousands; excellent football-sized ones for millions. In a world in which almost anything, including diamonds and gold, could be synthesized, there was no greater status symbol than to own the genuine petrified remains of a Martian pentapod or rhizomorph.
Weingarten and O'Reilly never said precisely where they'd found their specimens, but it had been easy enough to prove that their first spaceship had landed here, in the Isidis Planitia basin. Other treasure hunters started coming, and Howard Slapcoff the billionaire founder of the company that pioneered the process by which minds could be scanned and uploaded had used a hunk of his fortune to create our domed city. Many of those who'd found good specimens in the early days had bought property in New Klondike from him. It had been a wonderful investment for Slapcoff: the land sales brought him more than triple what he'd spent erecting the dome, and he'd been collecting a life-support tax from residents ever since. Well, from the biological residents, at least, but Slappy got a fat royalty from NewYou each time his transfer process was used, so he lined his pockets either way.
Native life was never widely dispersed on Mars; the single ecosystem that had existed here seemed to have been confined to this basin. Some of the other prospectors excuse me, fossil hunters who came shortly after W&O's first expedition found a few excellent specimens, although most of the finds had been in poor shape.
Somewhere, though, was the mother lode: a bed known as the "Alpha Deposit" that produced fossils more finely preserved than even those from Earth's Burgess Shale. Weingarten and O'Reilly had known where it was they'd stumbled on it by pure dumb luck, apparently. But they'd both been killed when their heat shield separated from their ship upon re-entry into Earth's atmosphere after their third expedition and, in the twenty mears since, no one had yet rediscovered it. But people were still looking.
There'd always been a market for transferring consciousness; the potentially infinite lifespan was hugely appealing. But here on Mars, the demand was particularly brisk, since artificial bodies could spend weeks or even months on the surface, searching for paleontological gold.
Anyway, Joshua-never-Josh Wilkins was clearly not outside the habitat and he hadn't taken off in a spaceship. Wherever he was hiding, it was somewhere under the New Klondike dome. I can't say he was breathing the same air I was, because he wasn't breathing at all. But he was here, somewhere. All I had to do was find him.
I didn't want to duplicate the efforts of the police, although "efforts" was usually too generous a term to apply to the work of the local constabulary; "cursory attempts" probably was closer to the truth, if I knew Mac.
New Klondike had twelve radial roadways, cutting across the nine concentric rings of buildings under the dome. The rings were evenly spaced, except for the giant gap between the seventh and eighth, which accommodated agricultural fields, the shipyard, warehouses, water-treatment and air-processing facilities, and more. My office was at dome's edge, on the outside of the Ninth Circle; I could have taken a hovertram into the center but I preferred to walk. A good detective knew what was happening on the streets, and the hovertrams, dilapidated though they were, sped by too fast for that.
When I'd first come here, I'd quipped that New Klondike wasn't a hellhole it wasn't far enough gone for that. "More of a heckhole," I'd said. But that had been ten years ago, just after what had happened with Wanda, and if something in the middle of a vast plain could be said to be going downhill, New Klondike was it. The fused-regolith streets were cracked, buildings and not just the ones in the old shantytown were in disrepair, and the seedy bars and brothels were full of thugs and con artists, the destitute and the dejected. As a character in one of the old movies I like had said of a town, "You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy." New Klondike should have a sign by one of the airlocks that proclaims, "Twinned with Mos Eisley, Tatooine."
I didn't make any bones about staring at the transfers I saw along the way. They ranged in style from really sophisticated models, like Cassandra Wilkins, to things only a step up from the Tin Woodman of Oz. The latter were easy to identify as transfers, but the former could sometimes pass for biologicals, although you develop a knack for identifying them, too, almost subconsciously noting an odd sheen to the plastiskin or an unnatural smoothness in the movement of the limbs; paydar, it was called: the ability to spot a bought body.
Of course, those who'd contented themselves with second-rate synthetic forms doubtless believed they'd trade up when they eventually happened upon some decent specimens. Poor saps; no one had found truly spectacular remains for mears, and lots of people were giving up and going back to Earth, if they could afford the passage, or were settling in to lives of, as Thoreau would have it, quiet desperation, their dreams as dead as the fossils they'd never found.
I continued walking easily along; Mars gravity is just thirty-eight percent of Earth's. Some people were stuck here because they'd let their muscles atrophy; they'd never be able to hack a full gee again. Me, I was stuck here for other reasons thank God Mars has no real government and so no extradition treaties. But I worked out more than most people did at Gully's Gym, over by the shipyard and so still had strong legs; I could walk comfortably all day if I had to.
I passed a few spindly or squat robots most of whom were dumb as posts, and none of whom were brighter than a four-year-old running errands or engaged in the Sisyphean tasks of road and building repair.
The cop shop was a lopsided five-story structure it could be that tall, this near the center of the dome with chipped and cracked walls that had once been white but were now a grimy grayish pink. The front doors were clear alloquartz, same as the overhead dome, and they slid aside as I walked up to them. On the lobby's right was a long red desk as if we don't see enough red on Mars with a map showing the Isidis Planitia basin behind it; New Klondike was a big circle off to one side.
The NKPD consisted of eight cops, the junior ones of whom took turns playing desk sergeant. Today it was a flabby lowbrow named Huxley, whose blue uniform always seemed a size too small for him. "Hey, Hux," I said, walking over. "Is Mac in?"
Huxley consulted a monitor then nodded. "Yeah, he's in, but he don't see just anyone."
"I'm not just anyone, Hux. I'm the guy who picks up the pieces after you clowns bungle things."
Huxley frowned, trying to think of a rejoinder. "Yeah, well ..." he said, at last.
"Oooh," I said. "Good one, Hux! Way to put me in my place."
He narrowed his eyes. "You ain't as funny as you think you are, Lomax."
"Of course I'm not. Nobody could be that funny." I nodded at the secured inner door. "Going to buzz me through?"
"Only to be rid of you," said Huxley. So pleased was he with the wit of this remark that he repeated it: "Only to be rid of you." He reached below the counter, and the inner door an unmarked black panel slid aside. I pantomimed tipping a hat at Hux and headed into the station proper. I then walked down the corridor to McCrae's office; the door was open, so I rapped my knuckles against the steel jamb.
"Lomax!" he said, looking up. "Decided to turn yourself in?"
"Very funny, Mac. You and Hux should go on the road together."
He snorted. "What can I do for you, Alex?"
Mac was a skinny biological with shaggy orange eyebrows shielding his blue eyes. On the credenza behind his desk were holograms of his wife and his baby daughter; the girl had been born just a couple of months ago. "I'm looking for a guy named Joshua Wilkins."
Mac had a strong Scottish brogue so strong, I figured it must be an affectation. "Ah, yes. Who's your client? The wife?"
"Quite the looker," he said.
"That she is. Anyway, you tried to find her husband, this Wilkins ..."
"We looked around, yeah," said Mac. "He's a transfer, you knew that?"
"Well," Mac said, "she gave us the plans for his new face precise measurements and all that. We've been feeding all the videos from public security cameras through facial-recognition software. So far, no luck."
I smiled. That's about as far as Mac's detective work normally went: things he could do without hauling his bony ass out from behind his desk. "How much of New Klondike do they cover now?" I asked.
"It's down to forty percent of the public areas."
People kept smashing, stealing, or jamming the cameras faster than Mac and his staff could replace them; this was a frontier town, after all, and there were lots of things going on folks didn't want observed. "You'll let me know if you find anything?"
Mac drew his shaggy eyebrows together. "Even Mars has to abide by Earth's privacy laws, Alex or, at least, our parent corporation does. I can't divulge what the security cameras see."
I reached into my pocket, pulled out a fifty-solar coin, and flipped it. It went up rapidly but came down in what still seemed like slow motion to me, even after a decade on Mars; Mac didn't require a transfer's reflexes to catch it in midair. "Of course," he said, "I suppose we could make an exception ..."
"Thanks. You're a credit to law-enforcement officials everywhere."
He smiled, then: "Say, what kind of heat you packing these days? You still carrying that old Smith & Wesson?"
"It's registered," I said, narrowing my eyes.
"Oh, I know, I know. But be careful, eh? The times, they are a-changin'. Bullets aren't much use against a transfer, and there are getting to be more of those each day, since the cost of the procedure is finally coming down."
"So I've heard. Do you happen to know the best place to plug a transfer, if you had to take one out?"
Mac shook his head. "It varies from model to model, and NewYou does its best to retrofit any physical vulnerabilities that are uncovered."
"So how do you guys handle them?"
"Until recently, as little as possible," said Mac. "Turning a blind eye, and all that."
"Saves getting up."
Mac didn't take offense. "Exactly. But let me show you something." We left his office, went farther down the corridor, and entered another room. He pointed to a device on the table. "Just arrived from Earth. The latest thing."
It was a wide, flat disk, maybe half a meter in diameter and five centimeters thick. There were a pair of U-shaped handgrips attached to the edge, opposite each other. "What is it?"
"A broadband disruptor," Mac said. He picked it up and held it in front of himself, like a gladiator's shield. "It discharges an oscillating multifrequency electromagnetic pulse. From a distance of four meters or less, it will completely fry the artificial brain of a transfer killing it as effectively as a bullet kills a human."
"I don't plan on killing anyone," I said.
"That's what you said the last time."
Ouch. Still, maybe he had a point. "I don't suppose you have a spare I can borrow?"
Mac laughed. "Are you kidding? This is the only one we've got so far, and it's just a prototype."
"Well, then," I said, heading for the door, "I guess I'd better be careful."
My next stop was the NewYou building. I took Third Avenue, one of the radial streets of the city, out the five blocks to it. The NewYou building was two stories tall and was made, like most structures here, of red laser-fused Martian sand bricks. Flanking the main doors were a pair of wide alloquartz display windows, showing dusty artificial bodies dressed in fashions from about five mears ago; it was high time somebody updated things.
The lower floor was divided into a showroom and a workshop, separated by a door that was currently open. The workroom had spare components scattered about: here, a white-skinned artificial hand; there, a black lower leg; on shelves, synthetic eyes and spools of colored monofilament that I guessed were used to simulate hair. And there were all sorts of internal parts on the two worktables: motors and hydraulic pumps and joint hinges.
The adjacent showroom displayed complete artificial bodies. Across its width, I spotted Cassandra Wilkins, wearing a beige suit. She was talking with a man and a woman who were biological; potential customers, presumably. "Hello, Cassandra," I said, after I'd closed the distance between us.
"Mr. Lomax!" she gushed, excusing herself from the couple. "I'm so glad you're here so very glad! What news do you have?"
"Not much. I've been to visit the cops, and I thought I should start my investigation here. After all, you and your husband own this franchise, right?"
Cassandra nodded enthusiastically. "I knew I was doing the right thing hiring you. I just knew it! Why, do you know that lazy detective McCrae never stopped by here not even once!"
I smiled. "Mac's not the outdoorsy type. And, well, you get what you pay for."
"Isn't that the truth?" said Cassandra. "Isn't that just the God's honest truth!"
"You said your husband moved his mind recently?"
"Yes. All of that goes on upstairs, though. This is just sales and service down here."
"Do you have security-camera footage of Joshua actually transferring?"
"No. NewYou doesn't allow cameras up there; they don't like footage of the process getting out. Trade secrets, and all that."
"Ah, okay. Can you show me how it's done, though?"
She nodded again. "Of course. Anything you want to see, Mr. Lomax." What I wanted to see was under that beige suit nothing beat the perfection of a high-end transfer's body but I kept that thought to myself. Cassandra looked around the room, then motioned for another staff member to come over: a gorgeous little biological female wearing tasteful makeup and jewelry. "I'm sorry," Cassandra said to the two customers she'd abandoned a few moments ago. "Miss Takahashi here will look after you." She then turned to me. "This way."
We went through a curtained doorway and up a set of stairs, coming to a landing in front of two doors. "Here's our scanning room," said Cassandra, indicating the left-hand one; both doors had little windows in them. She stood on tiptoe to look in the scanning-room window and nodded, apparently satisfied by what she saw, then opened the door. Two people were inside: a balding man of about forty, who was seated, and a standing woman who looked twenty-five; the woman was a transfer herself, though, so there was no way of knowing her real age. "So sorry to interrupt," Cassandra said. She smiled at the man in the chair, while gesturing at me. "This is Alexander Lomax. He's providing some, ah, consulting services for us."
The man looked up at me, surprised, then said, "Klaus Hansen," by way of introduction.
"Would you mind ever so much if Mr. Lomax watched while the scan was being done?" asked Cassandra.
Hansen considered this for a moment, frowning his long, thin face. But then he nodded. "Sure. Why not?"
"Thanks," I said, stepping into the room. "I'll just stand over here." I moved to the far wall and leaned against it.
The chair Hansen was sitting in looked a lot like a barber's chair. The female transfer who wasn't Cassandra reached up above the chair and pulled down a translucent hemisphere that was attached by an articulated arm to the ceiling. She kept lowering it until all of Hansen's head was covered, and then she turned to a control console. The hemisphere shimmered slightly, as though a film of oil was washing over its surface; the scanning field, I supposed.
Cassandra was standing next to me, arms crossed in front of her chest. "How long does the scanning take?" I asked.
"Not long," she replied. "It's a quantum-mechanical process, so the scanning is rapid. After that, we just need a couple of minutes to move the data into the artificial brain. And then ..."
"And then?" I said.
She lifted her shoulders, as if the rest didn't need to be spelled out. "Why, and then Mr. Hansen will be able to live forever."
"Come along," said Cassandra. "Let's go see the other side." We left that room, closing its door behind us, and entered the one next door. This room was a mirror image of the previous one, which I guess was appropriate. Lying on a table-bed in the middle of the room was Hansen's new body, dressed in a fashionable blue suit; its eyes were closed. Also in the room was a male NewYou technician, who was biological.
I walked around, looking at the artificial body from all angles. The replacement Hansen still had a bald spot, although its diameter had been reduced by half. And, interestingly, Hansen had opted for a sort of permanent designer-stubble look; the biological him was clean-shaven at the moment.
Suddenly the simulacrum's eyes opened. "Wow," said a voice that was the same as the one I'd heard from the man next door. "That's incredible."
"How do you feel, Mr. Hansen?" asked the male technician.
"Fine. Just fine."
"Good," the technician said. "There'll be some settling-in adjustments, of course. Let's just check to make sure all your parts are working ..."
"And there it is," Cassandra said to me. "Simple as that." She led me out of the room, back into the corridor, and closed the door behind us.
"Fascinating." I pointed at the left-hand door. "When do you take care of the original?"
"That's already been done. We do it in the chair."
I stared at the closed door and I like to think I suppressed my shudder enough so that Cassandra was unaware of it. "All right. I guess I've seen enough."
Cassandra looked disappointed. "Are you sure you don't want to look around some more?"
"Why? Is there anything else worth seeing?"
"Oh, I don't know," said Cassandra. "It's a big place. Everything on this floor, everything downstairs ... everything in the basement."
I blinked. "You've got a basement?" Almost no Martian buildings had basements; the permafrost layer was very hard to dig through.
"Yes," she said. She paused, then looked away. "Of course, no one ever goes down there; it's just storage."
"I'll have a look," I said.
And that's where I found him.
He was lying behind some large storage crates, face down, a sticky pool of machine oil surrounding his head. Next to him was a stubby excimer-powered jackhammer, the kind many fossil hunters had for removing surface material. And next to the jackhammer was a piece of good old-fashioned paper. On it, in block letters, was written, "I'm so sorry, Cassie. It's just not the same."
It's hard to commit suicide, I guess, when you're a transfer. Slitting your wrists does nothing significant. Poison doesn't work and neither does drowning. But Joshua-never-anything-else-at-all-anymore Wilkins had apparently found a way. From the looks of it, he'd leaned back against the rough cement wall and, with his strong artificial arms, had held up the jackhammer, placing its bit against the center of his forehead. And then he'd pressed down on the jackhammer's twin triggers, letting the unit run until it had managed to pierce through his titanium skull and scramble the material of his artificial brain. When his brain died, his thumbs let up on the triggers, and he dropped the jackhammer, then tumbled over himself. His head had twisted sideways when it hit the concrete floor. Everything below his eyebrows was intact; it was clearly the same reptilian face Cassandra Wilkins had shown me.
I headed up the stairs and found Cassandra, who was chatting in her animated style with another customer.
"Cassandra," I said, pulling her aside. "Cassandra, I'm very sorry, but ..."
She looked at me, her green eyes wide. "What?"
"I've found your husband. And he's dead."
She opened her pretty mouth, closed it, then opened it again. She looked like she might fall over, even with gyroscopes stabilizing her. "My ... God," she said at last. "Are you ... are you positive?"
"Sure looks like him."
"My God," she said again. "What ... what happened?"
No nice way to say it. "Looks like he killed himself."
A couple of Cassandra's coworkers had come over, wondering what all the commotion was about. "What's wrong?" asked one of them the same Miss Takahashi I'd seen earlier.
"Oh, Reiko," said Cassandra. "Joshua is dead!"
Customers were noticing what was going on, too. A burly flesh-and-blood man, with short black hair, a gold stud in one ear, and arms as thick around as most men's legs, came across the room; he clearly worked here. Reiko Takahashi had already drawn Cassandra into her arms or vice-versa; I'd been looking away when it had happened and was stroking Cassandra's artificial hair. I let the burly man do what he could to calm the crowd, while I used my wrist phone to call Mac and inform him of Joshua Wilkins's suicide.
Detective Dougal McCrae of New Klondike's Finest arrived about twenty minutes later, accompanied by two uniforms. "How's it look, Alex?" Mac asked.
"Not as messy as some of the biological suicides I've seen," I said. "But it's still not a pretty sight."
I led Mac downstairs. He read the note without picking it up.
The burly man soon came down, too, followed by Cassandra Wilkins, who was holding her artificial hand to her artificial mouth.
"Hello, again, Mrs. Wilkins," Mac said, moving to interpose himself between her and the prone form on the floor. "I'm terribly sorry, but I'll need you to make an official identification."
I lifted my eyebrows at the irony of requiring the next of kin to actually look at the body to be sure of who it was, but that's what we'd gone back to with transfers. Privacy laws prevented any sort of ID chip or tracking device being put into artificial bodies. In fact, that was one of the many incentives to transfer: you no longer left fingerprints or a trail of identifying DNA everywhere you went.
Cassandra nodded bravely; she was willing to accede to Mac's request. He stepped aside, a living curtain, revealing the synthetic body with the gaping head wound. She looked down at it. I'd expected her to quickly avert her eyes, but she didn't; she just kept staring.
Finally, Mac said, very gently, "Is that your husband, Mrs. Wilkins?"
She nodded slowly. Her voice was soft. "Yes. Oh, my poor, poor Joshua ..."
Mac stepped over to talk to the two uniforms, and I joined them. "What do you do with a dead transfer?" I asked. "Seems pointless to call in the medical examiner."
By way of answer, Mac motioned to the burly man. The man touched his own chest and raised his eyebrows in the classic "Who, me?" expression. Mac nodded again. The man looked left and right, like he was crossing some imaginary road, and then came over. "Yeah?"
"You seem to be the senior employee here," said Mac. "Am I right?"
The man had a Hispanic accent. "Horatio Fernandez. Joshua was the boss, but I'm senior technician." Or maybe he said, "I'm Se¤or Technician."
"Good," said Mac. "You're probably better equipped than we are to figure out the exact cause of death."
Fernandez gestured theatrically at the synthetic corpse, as if it were well, not bleedingly obvious but certainly apparent.
Mac shook his head. "It's just a bit too pat," he said, his voice lowered conspiratorially. "Implement at hand, suicide note." He lifted his shaggy orange eyebrows. "I just want to be sure."
Cassandra had drifted over without Mac noticing, although of course I had. She was listening in.
"Yeah," said Fernandez. "Sure. We can disassemble him, check for anything else that might be amiss."
"No," said Cassandra. "You can't."
"I'm afraid it's necessary," said Mac, looking at her. His Scottish brogue always put an edge on his words, but I knew he was trying to sound gentle.
"No," said Cassandra, her voice quavering. "I forbid it."
Mac's tone got a little firmer. "You can't. I'm required to order an autopsy in every suspicious case."
Cassandra opened her mouth to say something more, then apparently thought better of it. Horatio moved closer to her and put a hulking arm around her small shoulders. "Don't worry," he said. "We'll be gentle." And then his face brightened a bit. "In fact, we'll see what parts we can salvage give them to somebody else; somebody who couldn't afford such good stuff if it were new." He smiled beatifically. "It's what Joshua would have wanted."
The next day, I was sitting in my office, looking out the small window with its cracked pane. The dust storm had ended. Out on the surface, rocks were strewn everywhere, like toys on a kid's bedroom floor. My phone played "Luck Be A Lady," and I looked at it in anticipation, hoping for a new case; I could use the solars. But the ID said NKPD. I told the device to accept the call, and a little picture of Mac's face appeared on my wrist. "Hey, Alex," he said. "Come by the station, would you?"
The micro-Mac frowned. "Nothing I want to say over open airwaves."
I nodded. Now that the Wilkins case was over, I didn't have anything better to do anyway. I'd only managed about seven billable hours, damn it all, and even that had taken some padding.
I walked into the center along Ninth Avenue, passing filthy prospectors, the aftermath of a fight in which some schmuck in a pool of blood was being tended to by your proverbial hooker-with-the-heart-of-gold, and a broken-down robot trying to make its way along with only three of its four legs working properly.
I entered the lobby of the police station, traded quips with the ineluctable Huxley, and was admitted to the back.
"Hey, Mac," I said. "What's up?"
"Morning, Alex," Mac said, rolling the R in "Morning." "Come in; sit down." He spoke to his desk terminal and turned its monitor around so I could see it. "Have a look at this."
I glanced at the screen. "The report on Joshua Wilkins?"
Mac nodded. "Look at the section on the artificial brain."
I skimmed the text until I found that part. "Yeah?" I said, still not getting it.
"Do you know what `baseline synaptic web' means?"
"No, I don't. And you didn't either, smart-ass, until someone told you."
Mac smiled a little, conceding that. "Well, there were lots of bits of the artificial brain left behind. And that big guy at NewYou Fernandez, remember? he really got into this forensic stuff and decided to run it through some kind of instrument they've got there. And you know what he found?"
"The brain stuff the raw material inside the artificial skull was pristine. It had never been imprinted."
"You mean no scanned mind had ever been transferred into that brain?"
Mac folded his arms across his chest and leaned back in his chair. "Bingo."
I frowned. "But that's not possible. I mean, if there was no mind in that head, who wrote the suicide note?"
Mac lifted those shaggy eyebrows of his. "Who indeed?" he said. "And what happened to Joshua Wilkins's scanned consciousness?"
"Does anyone at NewYou but Fernandez know about this?"
Mac shook his head. "No, and he's agreed to keep his mouth shut while we continue to investigate. But I thought I'd clue you in, since apparently the case you were on isn't really closed and, after all, if you don't make money now and again, you can't afford to bribe me for favors."
I nodded. "That's what I like about you, Mac. Always looking out for my best interests."
Perhaps I should have gone straight to see Cassandra Wilkins and made sure we both agreed that I was back on the clock, but I had some questions I wanted answered first. And I knew just who to turn to. Juan Santos was the city's top computer expert. I'd met him during a previous case, and we'd recently struck up a small-f friendship we both shared the same taste in Earth booze, and he wasn't above joining me at some of New Klondike's sleazier saloons to get it. I called him and we arranged to meet at The Bent Chisel, a wretched little bar off Fourth Avenue, in the sixth concentric ring of buildings. The bartender was a surly man named Buttrick, a biological who had more than his fair share of flesh, and blood as cold as ice. He wore a sleeveless gray shirt and had a three-day growth of salt-and-pepper beard. "Lomax," he said, acknowledging my entrance. "No broken furniture this time, right?"
I held up three fingers. "Scout's honor."
Buttrick held up one finger.
"Hey," I said. "Is that any way to treat one of your best customers?"
"My best customers," said Buttrick, polishing a glass with a ratty towel, "pay their tabs."
"Yeah," I said, stealing a page from Sergeant Huxley's Guide to Witty Repartee. "Well." I made my way to a booth at the back. Both waitresses here were topless. My favorite, a cute brunette named Diana, soon came over. "Hey, babe," I said.
She leaned in and gave me a peck on the cheek. "Hi, honey."
The low gravity on Mars was kind to figures and faces, but Diana was still starting to show her forty years. She had shoulder-length brown hair and brown eyes, and was quite pleasantly stacked, although like most long-term Mars residents, she'd lost a lot of the muscle mass she'd come here with. We slept together pretty often but were hardly exclusive.
Juan Santos came in, wearing a black T-shirt and black jeans. He was almost as tall as me, but nowhere near as broad-shouldered; in fact, he was pretty much your typical pencil-necked geek. And like many a pencil-necked geek, he kept setting his sights higher than he should. "Hi, Diana!" he said. "I, um, I brought you something."
Juan was carrying a package wrapped in loose plastic sheeting, which he handed to her.
"Thank you!" she said with enthusiasm before she'd even opened it; I didn't know a lot about Diana's past, but somewhere along the line, someone had taught her good manners. She removed the plastic sheeting, revealing a single, long-stemmed white rose.
Diana actually squealed. Flowers are rare on Mars; those few fields we had were mostly given over to growing either edible plants or genetically modified things that helped scrub the atmosphere. She rewarded Juan with a kiss right on the lips, and that seemed to please him greatly.
I ordered a Scotch on the rocks; they normally did that with carbon dioxide ice here. Juan asked for whiskey. I watched him watching Diana's swinging hips as she headed off to get our drinks. "Well, well, well," I said, as he finally slid into the booth opposite me. "I didn't know you had a thing for her."
He smiled sheepishly. "Who wouldn't?" I said nothing, which Juan took as an invitation to go on. "She hasn't said yes to a date yet, but she promised to let me read some of her poetry."
I kept my tone even. "Lucky you." It seemed kind not to mention that Diana and I were going this weekend, so I didn't. But I did say, "So, how does a poet sneeze?"
"I don't know, how does a poet sneeze?"
"Don't quit your day job, Alex."
"Hey," I said, placing a hand over my heart, "you wound me. Down deep, I'm a stand-up comic."
"Well," said Juan, "I always say people should be true to their innermost selves, but ..."
"Yeah? What's your innermost self?"
"Me?" Juan's eyebrows moved up. "I'm pure genius, right to the core."
I snorted and Diana reappeared to give us our drinks. We thanked her, and she departed, Juan again watching her longingly as she did so.
When she'd disappeared, he turned back to look at me, and said, "What's up?" His face consisted of a wide forehead, long nose, and receding chin; it made him look like he was leaning forward even when he wasn't.
I took a swig of my drink. "What do you know about transferring?"
"Fascinating stuff," said Juan. "Thinking of doing it?"
"You know, it's supposed to pay for itself now within three mears, because you no longer have to pay life-support tax after you've transferred."
I was in arrears on that, and didn't like to think about what would happen if I fell much further behind. "That'd be a plus," I said. "What about you? You going to do it?"
"Sure, someday and I'll go the whole nine yards: enhanced senses, super strength, the works. Plus I want to live forever; who doesn't? 'Course, my dad won't like it."
"Your dad? What's he got against it?"
Juan snorted. "He's a minister."
"In whose government?"
"No, no. A minister. Clergy."
"I didn't know there were any of those left, even on Earth."
"He is on Earth; back in Santiago. But, yeah, you're right. Poor old guy still believes in souls."
I raised my eyebrows. "Really?"
"Yup. And because he believes in souls, he has a hard time with this idea of transferring consciousness. He would say the new version isn't the same person."
I thought about what the supposed suicide note said. "Well, is it?"
Juan rolled his eyes. "You, too? Of course it is! Look, sure, people used to get all worked up about this when the process first appeared, decades ago, but now just about everyone is blasé about it. NewYou should take a lot of credit for that; they've done a great job of keeping the issue uncluttered I'm sure they knew if they'd done otherwise, there'd have been all sorts of ethical debates, red tape, and laws constraining their business. But they've avoided most of that by providing one, and only one, service: moving not copying, not duplicating, but simply moving a person's mind to a more durable container. Makes the legal transfer of personhood and property a simple matter, ensures that no one gets more than one vote, and so on."
"And is that what they really do?" I asked. "Move your mind?"
"Well, that's what they say they do. `Move' is a nice, safe, comforting word. But the mind is just software, and since the dawn of computing, software has been moved from one computing platform to another by copying it over then immediately erasing the original."
"But the new brain is artificial, right? How come we can make super-smart transfers, but not super-smart robots or computers?"
Juan took a sip of his drink. "It's not a contradiction at all. No one ever figured out how to program anything equivalent to a human mind they used to talk about the coming `singularity,' when artificial intelligence would exceed human abilities, but that never happened. But when you're scanning and digitizing the entire structure of a brain in minute detail, you obviously get the intelligence as part of that scan, even if no one can point to where that intelligence is in the scan."
"Huh," I said, and took a sip of my own. "So, if you were to transfer, what would you have fixed in your new body?"
Juan spread his praying-mantis arms. "Hey, man, you don't tamper with perfection."
"Hah," I said. "Still, how much could you change things? I mean, say you're only a hundred and fifty centimeters, and you want to play basketball. Could you opt to be two meters tall?"
"Sure, of course."
I frowned. "But wouldn't the copied mind have trouble with your new size?"
"Nah," said Juan. "See, when Howard Slapcoff first started copying consciousness, he let the old software from the old mind actually try to directly control the new body. It took months to learn how to walk again, and so on."
"Yeah, I read something about that, years ago."
Juan nodded. "Right. But now they don't let the copied mind do anything but give orders. The thoughts are intercepted by the new body's main computer. That unit runs the body. All the transferred mind has to do is think that it wants to pick up this glass, say." He acted out his example, and took a sip, then winced in response to the booze's kick. "The computer takes care of working out which pulleys to contract, how far to reach, and so on."
"So you could order up a body radically different from your original?"
"Absolutely." He looked at me through hooded eyes. "Which, in your case, is probably the route to go."
"Hey, don't take it seriously," he said, taking another sip and allowing himself another pleased wince.
"It's just that I was hoping it wasn't that way. See, this case I'm on: the guy I'm supposed to find owns the NewYou franchise here."
"Yeah?" said Juan.
"Yeah, and I think he deliberately transferred his scanned mind into some body other than the one that he'd ordered up for himself."
"Why would he do that?"
"He faked the death of the body that looked like him and I think he'd planned to do that all along, because he never bothered to order up any improvements to his face. I think he wanted to get away, but make it look like he was dead, so no one would be looking for him anymore."
"And why would he do that?"
I frowned then drank some more. "I'm not sure."
"Maybe he wanted to escape his spouse."
"Maybe but she's a hot little number."
"Hmm," said Juan. "Whose body do you think he took?"
"I don't know that, either. I was hoping the new body would have to be roughly similar to his old one; that would cut down on the possible suspects. But I guess that's not the case."
"It isn't, no."
I looked down at my drink. The dry-ice cubes were sublimating into white vapor that filled the top part of the glass.
"Something else is bothering you," said Juan. I lifted my head and saw him taking a swig of his drink. A little amber liquid spilled out of his mouth and formed a shiny bead on his recessed chin. "What is it?"
I shifted a bit. "I visited NewYou yesterday. You know what happens to your original body after they move your mind?"
"Sure," said Juan. "Like I said, there's no such thing as moving software. You copy it then delete the original. They euthanize the biological version once the transfer is completed."
I nodded. "And if the guy I'm looking for put his mind into the body intended for somebody else's mind, and that person's mind wasn't copied anywhere, then ..." I took another swig of my drink. "Then it's murder, isn't it? Souls or no souls it doesn't matter. If you wipe the one and only copy of someone's mind, you've murdered that person, right?"
"Oh, yes," said Juan. "Deader than Mars itself."
I glanced down at the swirling fog in my glass. "So I'm not just looking for a husband who's skipped out on his wife. I'm looking for a cold-blooded killer."
I went by NewYou again. Cassandra wasn't in, but that didn't surprise me; she was a grieving widow now. But Horatio Fernandez he of the massive arms was on duty.
"I'd like a list of everyone who transferred the same day as Joshua Wilkins," I said.
He frowned. "That's confidential information."
There were several potential customers milling about. I raised my voice so they could hear. "Interesting suicide note, wasn't it?"
Fernandez grabbed my arm and led me quickly to the side of the room. "What the hell are you doing?" he whispered angrily.
"Just sharing the news," I said, still speaking loudly, although not quite loud enough now, I thought, for the customers to hear. "People thinking of uploading should know that it's not the same at least, that's what Joshua Wilkins said in that note."
Fernandez knew when he was beaten. The claim in the putative suicide note was exactly the opposite of NewYou's corporate position: transferring was supposed to be flawless, conferring nothing but benefits. "All right, all right," he hissed. "I'll pull the list for you."
"Now that's service. They should name you employee of the month."
He led me into the back room and spoke to a little cubic computer. I happened to overhear the passphrase for accessing the customer database; it was just six words hardly any security at all.
"Huh," said Fernandez. "It was a busy day we go days on end without anyone transferring, but seven people moved their consciousnesses into artificial bodies that day, and oh, yeah. We were having our twice-a-mear sale. No wonder." He held out a hand. "Give me your tab."
I handed him the small tablet computer and he copied the files about each of the seven to it.
"Thanks," I said, taking back the device and doing that tip-of-the-nonexistent-hat thing I do. Even when you've forced a man to do something, there's no harm in being polite.
If I was right that Joshua Wilkins had appropriated the body of somebody else who had been scheduled to transfer the same day, it shouldn't be too hard to determine whose body he'd taken; all I had to do, I figured, was interview each of the seven.
My first stop, purely because it happened to be the nearest, was the home of a guy named Stuart Berling, a full-time fossil hunter. He must have had some recent success, if he could afford to transfer.
On the way to his place, I walked past several panhandlers, one of whom had a sign that said, "Will work for air." The cops didn't kick those who were in arrears in their life-support tax payments out of the dome Slapcoff Industries still had a reputation to maintain on Earth but if you rented or had a mortgage, you'd be evicted onto the street.
Berling's home was off Seventh Avenue, in the Fifth Circle. It was part of a row of crumbling townhouses, the kind we called redstones. I pushed his door buzzer and waited impatiently for a response. At last he appeared. If I wasn't so famous for my poker face, I'd have done a double take. The man who greeted me was a dead ringer for Krikor Ajemian, the holovid star the same gaunt features and intense brown eyes, the same mane of dark hair, the same tightly trimmed beard and mustache. I guess not everyone wanted to keep even a semblance of their original appearance.
"Hello. My name is Alexander Lomax. Are you Stuart Berling?"
The artificial face in front of me surely was capable of smiling but chose not to. "Yes. What do you want?"
"I understand you only recently transferred your consciousness into this body."
A nod. "So?"
"So, I work for NewYou the head office on Earth. I'm here to check up on the quality of the work done by our franchise here on Mars."
Normally, this was a good technique. If Berling was who he said he was, the question wouldn't faze him. Unfortunately, the usual technique of watching a suspect's expression for signs that he was lying didn't work with most transfers. I'd asked Juan Santos about that once. "It's not that transfer faces are less flexible," he'd said. "In fact, they can make them more flexible let people do wild caricatures of smiles and frowns. But people don't want that, especially here on the frontier. See, there are two kinds of facial expressions: the autonomic ones that happen spontaneously and the forced ones. From a software point of view, they're very different; the mental commands sent to fake a smile and to make a spontaneous smile are utterly dissimilar. Most transfers here opt for their automatic expressions to be subdued they value the privacy of their thoughts and don't want their faces advertising them; they consider it one of the pluses of having transferred. The transferee may be grinning from ear to ear on the inside, but on the outside, he just shows a simple smile."
And Berling was indeed staring at me with an expression that didn't tell me anything. But his voice was annoyed. "So?" he said again.
"So I'm wondering if you were satisfied by the work we did for you?"
"It cost a lot."
I smiled. "It's actually come down a great deal recently. May I come in?"
He considered this for a few moments then shrugged. "Sure, why not?" He stepped aside.
His living room was full of worktables covered with reddish rocks. A giant lens on an articulated arm was attached to one of the tables, and various mineralogist's tools were scattered about.
"Finding anything interesting?" I asked, gesturing at the rocks.
"If I was, I certainly wouldn't tell you," replied Berling, looking at me sideways in the typical paranoid-prospector way.
"Right," I said. "Of course. So, are you satisfied with the NewYou process?"
"Sure, yeah. It's everything they said it would be. All the parts work."
"Thanks for your help," I said, pulling out my tab to make a few notes, and then frowning at its blank screen. "Oh, damn. The silly thing has a loose excimer pack. I've got to open it up and reseat it." I showed him the back of the unit's case. "Do you have a little screwdriver that will fit that?"
Everybody owned some screwdrivers, even though most people rarely needed them, and they were the sort of thing that had no standard storage location. Some people kept them in kitchen drawers, others kept them in tool chests, still others kept them under the sink. Only a person who had lived in this home for a while would know where they were.
Berling peered at the slot-headed screw, then nodded. "Sure. Hang on."
He made a beeline for the far side of the living room, going to a cabinet that had glass doors on its top half but solid metal ones on its bottom. He bent over, opened one of the metal doors, reached in, rummaged for a bit, and emerged with the appropriate screwdriver.
"Thanks," I said, opening the case in such a way that he couldn't see inside. I then surreptitiously removed the bit of plastic I'd used to insulate the excimer battery from the contact it was supposed to touch. Without looking up, I said, "Are you married, Mr. Berling?" Of course, I already knew the answer was yes; that fact was in his NewYou file.
"Is your wife home?"
His artificial eyelids closed a bit. "Why?"
I told him the honest truth since it fit well with my cover story: "I'd like to ask her whether she can perceive any differences between the new you and the old."
Again, I watched his expression, but it didn't change. "Sure, I guess that'd be okay." He turned and called over his shoulder, "Lacie!"
A few moments later, a homely flesh-and-blood woman of about sixty appeared. "This is Mr. Lomax from the head office of NewYou," said Berling, indicating me with a pointed finger. "He'd like to talk to you."
"About what?" asked Lacie. She had a deep, not-unpleasant voice.
"Might we speak in private?" I asked.
Berling's gaze shifted from Lacie to me, then back to Lacie. "Hrmpph," he said, but then a moment later added, "I guess that'd be all right." He turned around and walked away.
I looked at Lacie. "I'm just doing a routine follow-up," I said. "Making sure people are happy with the work we do. Have you noticed any changes in your husband since he transferred?"
"Oh? If there's anything at all ..." I smiled reassuringly. "We want to make the process as perfect as possible. Has he said anything that's surprised you, say?"
Lacie crinkled her face even more than it normally was. "How do you mean?"
"I mean, has he used any expressions or turns of phrase you're not used to hearing from him?"
A shake of the head. "No."
"Sometimes the process plays tricks with memory. Has he failed to know something he should know?"
"Not that I've noticed."
"What about the reverse? Has he known anything that you wouldn't expect him to know?"
Lacie lifted her eyebrows. "No. He's just Stu."
I frowned. "No changes at all?"
"No, none ... well, almost none."
I waited for her to go on, but she didn't, so I prodded her. "What is it? We really would like to know about any difference, any flaw in our transference process."
"Oh, it's not a flaw," said Lacie, not meeting my eyes.
"No? Then what?"
"It's just that ..."
"Well, just that he's a demon in the sack now. He stays hard forever."
I frowned, disappointed not to have found what I was looking for on the first try. But I decided to end the masquerade on a positive note. "We aim to please, ma'am. We aim to please."
I spent the next several hours tracking down and interviewing three other recent transfers; none of them seemed to be anyone other than who they claimed to be.
After that, the next name on my list was one Dr. Rory Pickover. His home was in a cubic apartment building located on the outer side of the First Circle, beneath the highest point of the dome; several windows were boarded up on its first and second floors, but he lived on the fourth, where all but one of the panes seemed to be intact. Someone was storing a broken set of springy Mars buggy wheels on one of the balconies. From another balcony, a crazy old coot was shouting obscenities at those making their way along the curving sidewalk. Most of the people were ignoring him, but two kids a grimy boy and an even grimier girl, each about twelve but tall and spindly in the way kids born here tend to be decided to start shouting back.
Pickover lived alone, so there was no spouse or child to question about any changes in him. That made me suspicious right off the bat: if one were going to choose an identity to appropriate, it ideally would be someone without close companions.
I buzzed him from the lobby. A drunk sleeping by the buzzboard was disturbed enough by the sound to roll onto his side but otherwise didn't interfere with me.
"Hello?" said a male voice higher pitched than my own.
"Mr. Pickover, my name is Alex Lomax. I'm from the NewYou head office on Earth. I'm wondering if I might ask you a few questions?"
He had a British accent. "Lomax, did you say? You're Alexander Lomax?"
"I am, yes. I'm wondering if we might speak for a few minutes?"
"Well, yes, but ..."
"Not here," said. "Let's go outside."
I was pissed, because that meant I couldn't try the screwdriver trick on him. But I said, "Fine. There's a café on the other side of the circle."
"No, no. Outside. Outside the dome."
That was easy for him; he was a transfer now. But it was a pain in the ass for me; I'd have to rent a surface suit.
"Seriously? I only want to ask to ask you a couple of questions."
"Yes, yes, but I want to talk to you and ..." The voice grew soft. "... and it's a delicate matter, deserving of privacy."
The drunk near me rolled onto his other side and let out a wheezy snore.
"Oh, all right," I said.
"Good chap," replied Pickover. "I'm just in the middle of something up here. About an hour from now, say? Just outside the east airlock?"
"Can we make it the west one? I can swing by my office on the way, then." I didn't need anything from there I was already packing heat but if he had some sort of ambush planned, I figured he'd object to the change.
"That's fine, that's fine all four airlocks are the same distance from here, after all! But now, I really must finish what I'm doing ..."
Of course I was suspicious about what Rory Pickover was up to and so I tipped Mac off before making my way to the western airlock. The sun was setting outside the dome by the time I got there to suit up. Surface suits came in three stretchy sizes; I put on one of largest, then slung the air tanks onto my back. I felt heavy in the suit, even though in it I still weighed only about half of what I had back on Earth.
Rory Pickover was a paleontologist an actual scientist, not a treasure-seeking fossil hunter. His pre-transfer appearance, according to his NewYou file, had been almost stereotypically academic: a round, soft face, with a fringe of graying hair. His new body was lean and muscular, and he had a full head of dark brown hair, but the face was still recognizably his own. His suit had a loop on its waist holding a geologist's hammer with a wide, flat blade; I rather suspected it would nicely smash my fishbowl helmet. I surreptitiously transferred the Smith & Wesson from the holster I wore under my jacket to an exterior pocket on the rented surface suit, just in case I needed it while we were outside.
We signed the security logs and then let the technician cycle us through the airlock.
The sky was growing dark. Nearby, there were two large craters and a cluster of smaller ones. There were few footprints in the rusty sand; the recent storm had obliterated the thousands that had doubtless been there earlier. We walked out about five hundred meters. I turned around briefly to look back at the transparent dome and the ramshackle buildings within.
"Sorry for dragging you out here, old boy," said Pickover. "I don't want any witnesses." There was a short-distance radio microphone inside that mechanical throat for speaking outside the dome, and I had a transceiver inside my fishbowl.
"Ah," I said, by way of reply.
"I know you aren't just in from Earth," said Pickover, continuing to walk. "And I know you don't work for NewYou."
We were casting long shadows. The sun, so much tinier than it appeared from Earth, was sitting on the horizon now. The sky was already purpling, and Earth itself was visible, a bright blue-white evening star. It was much easier to see it out here than through the dome, and, as always, I thought for a moment of Wanda as I looked up at it. But then I lowered my gaze to Pickover. "Who do you think I am?"
His answer surprised me, although I didn't let it show. "You're the private-detective chap."
It didn't seem to make any sense to deny it. "Yeah. How'd you know?"
"I've been checking you out over the last few days," said Pickover. "I'd been thinking of, ah, engaging your services."
We continued to walk along, little clouds of dust rising each time our feet touched the ground. "What for?"
"You first, if you don't mind," Pickover replied. "Why did you really come to see me?"
He already knew who I was, and I had a very good idea who he was. I had my phone on the outside of my suit's left wrist, and it was connected to the headset in my helmet. "Call Dougal McCrae."
"What are you doing?" Pickover asked.
"Hey, Alex," said Mac from the little screen on my wrist; I heard his voice over the fishbowl's headset.
"Mac, listen, I'm about half a klick straight out from the west airlock. I'm going to need backup.
"Lomax, what are you doing?" asked Pickover.
"Kaur is already outside the dome," said Mac, looking offscreen. "She can be there in two minutes." He switched voice channels for a moment, presumably speaking to Sergeant Kaur. Then he turned back to me. "She's north of you; she's got you on her infrared scanner."
Pickover looked over his shoulder, and perhaps saw the incoming cop with his own infrared vision. But then he turned back to me and spread his arms in the darkness. "Lomax, for God's sake, what's going on?"
I shook my phone, breaking the connection with Mac, and pulled out my revolver. It really wouldn't be much use against an artificial body, but until quite recently Joshua Wilkins had been biological; I hoped he was still intimidated by guns. "That's quite a lovely wife you have."
Pickover's artificial face looked perplexed. "Wife?"
"I don't have a wife."
"Sure you do. You're Joshua Wilkins, and your wife's name is Cassandra."
"What? No, I'm Rory Pickover. You know that. You called me."
"Come off it, Wilkins. The jig is up. You transferred your consciousness into the body intended for the real Rory Pickover, and then you took off."
"I oh. Oh, Christ."
"So, you see, I know. And ah, here's Sergeant Kaur now. Too bad, Wilkins. You'll hang or whatever the hell they do with transfers for murdering Pickover."
"No." He said it softly.
"Yes," I replied. Kaur was a sleek form about a hundred meters behind Pickover. "Let's go."
"Back under the dome, to the police station. I'll have Cassandra meet us there, just to confirm your identity."
The sun had slipped below the horizon now. He spread his arms, a supplicant against the backdrop of the gathering night. "Okay, sure, if you like. Call up this Cassandra, by all means. Let her talk to me. She'll tell you after questioning me for two seconds that I'm not her husband. But Christ, damn, Christ."
"I want to find him, too."
"Who? Joshua Wilkins?"
He nodded, then, perhaps thinking I couldn't see his nod in the growing darkness, said, "Yes."
He tipped his head up as if thinking. I followed his gaze. Phobos was visible, a dark form overhead. At last, he spoke again. "Because I'm the reason he's disappeared."
"That's why I was thinking of hiring you myself. I didn't know where else to turn."
"Turn for what?"
Pickover looked at me. "I did go to NewYou, Mr. Lomax. I knew I was going to have an enormous amount of work to do out here on the surface now, and I wanted to be able to spend weeks months! in the field without worrying about running out of air or water or food."
I frowned. "But you've been here on Mars for six mears; I read that in your file. What's changed?"
"Everything, Mr. Lomax." He looked off in the distance. "Everything!" But he didn't elaborate on that. Instead, he said, "I certainly know this Wilkins chap you're looking for. I went to his shop and had him transfer my consciousness from my old biological body into this one. But he also kept a copy of my mind I'm sure of that."
"That's ..." I shook my head. "I've never heard of that being done."
"Nor had I," said Pickover. "I mean, I understood from their sales materials that your consciousness sort of, um, hops into the artificial body. Because of that, I didn't think duplicates were possible at the time I did it, or I never would have undergone the process."
Kaur was now about thirty meters away, and she had a big rifle aimed at Pickover's back. I held up a hand, palm out, to get the cop to stand her ground.
"Prove it to me," I said. "Prove to me you are who you say you are. Tell me something Joshua Wilkins couldn't know, but a paleontologist would."
"Oh, for Pete's "
"Fine, fine. The most-recent fossils here on Mars date from what's called the Noachian efflorescence, a time of morphological diversification similar to Earth's Cambrian explosion. So far, twenty-seven distinct genera from then have been identified well, it was originally twenty-nine but I successfully showed that both Weinbaumia and Gallunia are junior synonyms of Bradburia. Within Bradburia there are six distinct species, the most common of which is B. breviceps, known for its bifurcated pygidia and "
"Okay!" I said. "Enough." I held up fingers to show Kaur which radio frequency I was using and watched her tap it into her wrist keypad. "Sorry, Sergeant," I said. "False alarm."
The woman nodded. "You owe me one, Lomax." She lowered her rifle and headed past us toward the airlock.
I didn't want Kaur listening in, so I changed frequencies again and indicated with hand signs to Pickover which one I'd selected. He didn't do anything obvious, but I soon heard his voice. "As I said, I think Wilkins made a copy of my mind."
It was certainly illegal to do that, probably unethical, and perhaps not even technically possible; I'd have to ask Juan. "Why do you think that?"
"It's the only explanation for how my computer accounts have become compromised. There's no way anyone but me can get in; I'm the only one who knows the passphrase. But someone has been inside, looking around; I use quantum encryption, so you can tell whenever someone has even looked at a file." He shook his head. "I don't know how he did it there must be some technique I'm unaware of but somehow Wilkins has been extracting information from a copy of my mind. That's the only way I can think of that anyone might have learned my passphrase."
"You think Wilkins did all that to access your bank accounts? Is there really enough money in them to make it worthwhile? It's gotten too dark to see your clothes but, if I recall correctly, they looked a bit ... shabby."
"You're right. I'm just a poor scientist. But there's something I know that could make the wrong people rich beyond their wildest dreams."
"And what's that?" I said.
He stood there, trying to decide, I suppose, whether to trust me. I let him think about that, and at last Dr. Rory Pickover, who was now just a starless silhouette against a starry sky, said, in a soft, quiet voice, "I know where it is."
"Where what is?"
"The Alpha Deposit."
"My God. You'll be rolling in it."
Perhaps he shook his head; it was now too dark to tell. "No, sir," he replied in that cultured British voice. "No, I won't. I don't want to sell these fossils. I want to preserve them; I want to protect them from these plunderers, these ... these thieves. I want to make sure they're collected properly, scientifically. I want them to end up in the best museums, where they can be studied. There's so much to be learned, so much to discover!"
"Does Joshua Wilkins now know where the Alpha Deposit is?"
"No at least, not from accessing my computer files. I didn't record the location anywhere but up here." Presumably he was tapping the side of his head.
"But if Wilkins could extract your passphrase from a copy of your mind, why didn't he just directly extract the location of the Alpha from it?"
"The passphrase is straightforward just a string of words but the Alpha's location, well, it's not like it has an address, and even I don't know the longitude and latitude by heart. Rather, I know where it is by reference to certain geological features that would be meaningless to a non-expert; it would take a lot more work to extract that, I'd warrant. And so he tried the easier method of spelunking in my computer files."
I shook my head. "This doesn't make any sense. I mean, how would Wilkins even know that you had discovered the Alpha Deposit?"
Suddenly Pickover's voice was very small. "I'd gone in to NewYou you have to go there in advance of transferring, of course, so you can tell them what you want in a new body; it takes time to custom-build one to your specifications."
"So I wanted a body ideally suited to paleontological work on the surface of Mars; I wanted some special modifications the kinds of the things only the most successful prospectors could afford. Reinforced knees; extra arm strength for moving rocks; extended spectral response in the eyes so that fossils will stand out better; night vision so that I could continue digging after dark. But ..."
I nodded. "But you didn't have enough money."
"That's right. I could barely afford to transfer at all, even into the cheapest off-the-shelf body, and so ..."
He trailed off, too angry with himself, I guess, to give voice to what was in his mind. "And so you hinted that you were about to come into some wealth," I said, "and suggested that maybe he could give you what you needed now, and you'd make it up to him later."
Pickover sounded sad. "That's the trouble with being a scientist: sharing information is our natural mode."
"Did you tell him precisely what you'd found?"
"No. No, but he must have guessed. I'm a paleontologist, I've been studying Weingarten and O'Reilly for years all of that is a matter of public record. He must have figured out that I knew where their prime fossil bed was. After all, where else would a bloke like me get money?" He sighed. "I'm an idiot, aren't I?"
"Well, Mensa isn't going to be calling you anytime soon."
"Please don't rub it in, Mr. Lomax. I feel bad enough as it is."
I nodded. "But if he suspected you'd found the Alpha, maybe he just put a tracking chip in this new body of yours. Sure, that's against the law, but that would have been the simplest way for him to get at it."
Pickover rallied a bit, pleased, I guess, that he'd at least thought of this angle. "No, no, he didn't. A tracking chip has to transmit a signal to do any good; they're easy enough to locate, and I made sure he knew I knew that before I transferred. Nonetheless, I had myself checked over after the process was completed. I'm positive I'm clean."
"And so you think he's found another way," I said.
"Yes! And if he succeeds in locating the Alpha, all will be lost! The specimens will be sold off into private collections trophies for billionaires' estates, hidden forever from science." He looked at me with imploring acrylic eyes and his voice cracked; I'd never heard a transfer's do that before. "All those wondrous fossils are in jeopardy! Will you help me, Mr. Lomax? Please say you'll help me!"
Two clients were, of course, always better than one at least as far as the bank account was concerned. "All right," I said. "Let's talk about my fee."
After Rory Pickover and I went back into the dome, I called Juan, asking him to meet us at Pickover's little apartment at the center of town. Rory and I got there before him, and went on up; the drunk who'd been in the entryway earlier had gone.
Pickover's apartment an interior unit, with no windows consisted of three small rooms. While we waited for Juan, the good doctor trusting soul that he was showed me three fossils he'd recovered from the Alpha, and even to my untrained eye, they were stunning. The specimens all invertebrate exoskeletons had been removed from the matrix, cleaned, and painstakingly prepared.
The first was something about the size of my fist, with dozens of tendrils extending from it, some ending in three-fingered pincers, some in four-fingered ones, and the two largest in five-fingered ones.
The next was the length of my forearm. It was dumbbell-shaped, with numerous smaller hemispheres embedded in each of the globes. I couldn't make head or tail of it, but Pickover confidently assured me that globe on the left was the former and the one on the right the latter.
The final specimen he showed me was, he said, his pride and joy the only one of its kind so far discovered: it was a stony ribbon that, had it been stretched out, would have been maybe eighty centimeters long. But it wasn't stretched out; rather, it was joined together in a Möbius strip. Countless cilia ran along the edges of the ribbon I was stunned to see that such fine detail had been preserved and the strip was perforated at intervals by diamond-shaped openings with serrated edges.
I looked at Pickover, who was chuffed, to use the word he himself might have, to show off his specimens, and I half listened as he went on about their incredible scientific value. But all I could think about was how much money they must be worth and the fact that there were countless more like them out there of this same quality.
When Juan finally buzzed from the lobby, Rory covered his specimens with cloth sheets. The elevator was out of order, but that was no problem in this gravity; Juan wasn't breathing hard when he reached the apartment door.
"Juan Santos," I said, as he came in, "this is Rory Pickover. Juan here is the best computer expert we've got in New Klondike. And Dr. Pickover is a paleontologist."
Juan dipped his broad forehead toward Pickover. "Good to meet you."
"Thank you," said Pickover. "Forgive the mess, Mr. Santos. I live alone. A lifelong bachelor gets into bad habits, I'm afraid." He'd already cleared debris off one chair for me; he now busied himself doing the same with another, this one right in front of his computer, a silver-and-blue cube about the size of a grapefruit.
"What's up, Alex?" asked Juan, indicating Pickover with a movement of his head. "New client?"
"Yeah. Dr. Pickover's computer files have been looked at by some unauthorized individual. We're wondering if you could tell us where the access attempt was made from."
"You'll owe me a nice round of drinks at The Bent Chisel," said Juan.
"No problem," I said. "I'll put it on my tab."
Juan smiled and stretched his arms out in front of him, fingers interlocked, and cracked his knuckles, like a safecracker preparing to get down to work. Then he took the now-clean seat in front of Pickover's computer cube, tilted the nearby monitor up a bit, pulled a keyboard into place, and began to type. "How do you lock your files?" he asked, without taking his eyes off the monitor.
"A verbal passphrase," said Pickover.
"Anybody besides you know it?"
"And it's not written down anywhere?"
"No, well ... not as such."
Juan turned his head, looking up at Pickover. "What do you mean?"
"It's a line from a book. If I ever forget the exact wording, I can always look it up."
Juan shook his head in disgust. "You should always use random passphrases." He typed keys.
"Oh, I'm sure it's totally secure," said Pickover. "No one would guess "
Juan interrupted. " that your passphrase is `Those privileged to be present '"
I saw Pickover's artificial jaw drop. "My God. How did you know that?"
Juan pointed to some data on the screen. "It's the first thing that was inputted by the only outside access your system has had in weeks."
"I thought passphrases were hidden from view when entered," said Pickover.
"Sure they are," said Juan. "But the comm program has a buffer; it's in there. Look."
Juan shifted in the chair so that Pickover could see the screen clearly over his shoulder. "That's ... well, that's very strange," Pickover said.
"Well, sure, that's my passphrase, but it's not quite right."
I loomed in to have a peek at the screen, too. "How do you mean?"
"Well," said Pickover, "see, my passphrase is `Those privileged to be present at a family festival of the Forsytes' it's from the opening of The Man of Property, the first book of the Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy. I love that phrase because of the alliteration `privileged to be present,' `family festival of the Forsytes.' Makes it easy to remember."
Juan shook his head in you-can't-teach-people-anything disgust. Pickover went on. "But, see, whoever it was typed even more."
I looked at the glowing string of letters. In full it said: Those privileged to be present at a family festival of the Forsytes have seen them dine at half past eight, enjoying seven courses.
"It's too much?" I asked.
"That's right," said Pickover, nodding. "My passphrase ends with the word `Forsytes.'"
Juan was stroking his receding chin. "Doesn't matter," he said. "The files would unlock the moment the phrase was complete; the rest would just be discarded systems that principally work with spoken commands don't require you to press the enter key."
"Yes, yes, yes," said Pickover. "But the rest of it isn't what Galsworthy wrote. It's not even close. The Man of Property is my favorite book; I know it well. The full opening line is `Those privileged to be present at a family festival of the Forsytes have seen that charming and instructive sight an upper middle-class family in full plumage.' Nothing about the time they ate, or how many courses they had."
Juan pointed at the text on screen as if it had to be the correct version. "Are you sure?"
"Of course!" replied Pickover. "Do a search and see for yourself."
I frowned. "No one but you knows your passphrase, right?"
Pickover nodded vigorously. "I live alone, and I don't have many friends; I'm a quiet sort. There's no one I've ever told, and no one who could have ever overheard me saying it, or seen me typing it in."
"Somebody found it out," said Juan.
Pickover looked at me, then down at Juan. "I think ..." he said, beginning slowly, giving me a chance to stop him, I guess, before he said too much. But I let him go on. "I think that the information was extracted from a scan of my mind made by NewYou."
Juan crossed his arms in front of his chest. "Impossible."
"What?" said Pickover, and "Why?" said I.
"Can't be done," said Juan. "We know how to copy the vast array of interconnections that make up a human mind, and we know how to reinstantiate those connections on an artificial substrate. But we don't know how to decode them; nobody does. There's simply no way to sift through a digital copy of a mind and extract specific data."
Damn! If Juan was right and he always was in computing matters then all this business with Pickover was a red herring. There probably was no bootleg scan of his mind; despite his protestations of being careful, someone likely had just overheard his passphrase and decided to go hunting through his files. While I was wasting time on this, Joshua Wilkins was doubtless slipping further out of my grasp.
Still, it was worth continuing this line of investigation for a few minutes more. "Any sign of where the access attempt was made?" I asked Juan.
He shook his head. "No. Whoever did it knew what they were doing; they covered their tracks well. The attempt came over an outside line that's all I can tell for sure."
I nodded. "Okay. Thanks, Juan. Appreciate your help."
He got up. "My pleasure. Now, how 'bout that drink?"
I opened my mouth to say yes, but then it hit me what Wilkins must be doing. "Umm, later, okay? I've got some more things to take care of here."
Juan frowned; he'd clearly hoped to collect his booze immediately. But I started maneuvering him toward the door. "Thanks for your help. I really appreciate it."
"Um, sure, Alex," he said. He was obviously aware he was being given the bum's rush, but he wasn't fighting it too much. "Anytime."
"Yes, thank you awfully, Mr. Santos," said Pickover.
"No problem. If "
"See you later, Juan," I said, opening the door for him. "Thanks so much." I tipped my nonexistent hat at him.
Juan shrugged, clearly aware that something was up but not motivated sufficiently to find out what. He went through the door, and I hit the button that caused it to slide shut behind him. As soon as it was closed, I put an arm around Pickover's shoulders and propelled him back to the computer. I pointed at the line Juan had highlighted on the screen and read the ending of it aloud: "`... dine at half past eight, enjoying seven courses.'"
Pickover nodded. "Yes. So?"
"Numbers are often coded info," I said. "`Half past eight; seven courses.' What's that mean to you?"
"To me? Nothing. Back when I ate, I liked to do it much earlier than that, and I never had more than one course."
"But it could be a message."
There was no easy way to tell him this. "From you to you."
He drew his artificial eyebrows together. "What?"
"Look," I said, motioning for him to sit down in front of the computer, "Juan is doubtless right. You can't sift a digital scan of a human mind for information."
"But that must be what Wilkins is doing."
I shook my head. "No. The only way to find out what's in a mind is to ask it interactively."
"But ... but no one's asked me my passphrase."
"No one has asked this you. But Joshua Wilkins must have transferred the extra copy of your mind into a body, so that he could deal with it directly. And that extra copy must have revealed your passphrase to him."
"You mean ... you mean there's another me? Another conscious me?"
"Looks that way."
"But ... no, no. That's ... why, that's illegal. Bootleg copies of human beings my God, Lomax, it's obscene!"
"I'm going to go see if I can find him," I said.
"It," said Pickover forcefully.
"It. Not him. I'm the only `him' the only real Rory Pickover." He shuddered. "My God, Lomax, I feel so ... so violated! A stolen, active copy of my mind! It's the ultimate invasion of privacy ..."
"That may be," I said. "But the bootleg is trying to tell you something. He it gave Wilkins the passphrase and then tacked some extra words onto it, in order to get a message to you."
"But I don't recognize those extra words," said Pickover, sounding exasperated.
"Do they mean anything to you? Do they suggest anything?"
Pickover re-read the text on the screen. "I can't imagine what," he said, "unless ... no, no, I'd never think up a code like that."
"You obviously just did think of it. What's the code?"
Pickover was quiet for a moment, as if deciding if the thought was worth giving voice. Then: "Well, New Klondike is circular in layout, right? And it consists of concentric rings of buildings. Half past eight that would be between Eighth and Ninth Avenue, no? And seven courses in the Seventh Circle out from the center? Maybe the damned bootleg is trying to draw our attention to a location, a specific place here in town."
"The Seventh Circle, off Eighth Avenue," I said. "That's a rough area. I go to a gym near there."
"The shipyard," said Pickover. "Isn't it there, too?"
"Yeah." Dry-dock work was so much easier in a shirtsleeve environment, and, in the early days, repairing and servicing spaceships had been a major business under the dome. I started walking toward the door. "I'm going to investigate."
"I'll go with you," said Pickover.
I shook my head. He would doubtless be more hindrance than help. "It's too dangerous. I should go alone."
Pickover looked for a moment like he was going to protest, but then he nodded. "All right. But if you find another me ..."
"Yes?" I said. "What would you like me to do?"
Pickover gazed at me with pleading eyes. "Erase it. Destroy it." He shuddered again. "I never want to see the damned thing."
You've just read the opening of Red Planet Blues by Hugo and Nebula Award-winner Robert J. Sawyer. To read the rest, pick up a copy of the book.
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