Thursday, January 13, 2011


We carry forever the imprint of those we have loved. At least, that's what the poet says. And science, as ever, is keen to catch up to poetry. That's what they call them, then. Imprints. That's what brought me to Mars. My name is Hawker Ellis. I work in Recovery.

An imprint is a digital clone of your beloved's personality. Everything they are, reduced to ones and zeroes. And it is dispiriting how easy all that turned out to be. For 60,000 credits, you can download a version of your consciousness into someone's brain. A pooka. A Guardian Angel that only you can see and hear and talk to. Soldiers would get them of their sweethearts, and vice versa, before shipping out to the Proxima front. The dying loved them. Funerals became very, very weird.

We needed to get to her, and the only way to do that was through him. Madhuri Choudry, Captain of the Hieronymus Bosch.

Take away the hard radiation, the month-long trip, the blue sunsets & the domed wonders, and Mars is just another place, like Dayton, Ohio. It's amazing how quickly we become desensitized to wonderment. Airplanes then flying cars then rockets; radio then television then holograms; adding machines then computers then imprints. You really can get used to anything.

The thing about space travel is its fabulous anonymity. The distances are so vast, so baffling, they hide the truth. No instant wireless reports. Radio signals take years to travel from star to star, and they may fall apart entirely, If you're the point man, say, of humanity's only contact with an alien race, well, we have to take your word on what happened. Especially when you refuse the mind scan. And everybody on the Bosch, they all backed her claims about what happened. But Choudry and Barquist were they only ones to actually see them, and now Barquist is dead--died alone in some daredevil shit above the Great Red Spot a month ago--and Choudry is halfway to Proxima and there's an alien spaceship making its leisurely way in to the Inner Solar System.

So they sent me. Choudry didn't take a scan and that's her right, sure, Bosch wasn't a military ship. She didn't have to and neither did Barquist. But she did make an Imprint, for her husband, before her ship left for Proxima.

Liang Hao wasn't hard to find. He runs one of those restaurants that gets popular every five to six years. Marvin's. Full of old-school Martian kitsch, mostly American. Cigar-store Thark. Red decor everywhere. Little koi ponds that link through a series of--no kidding--canals. And to think that I found him on Bradbury Street. Unassuming guy, short, starting to gray. Sometimes, just for a moment, I could swear he was talking to her. Out of the corner of his eye. Meant she was Active, which meant Recovery would be that much easier.

Just behind the earlobe--usually the left--of an Imprinted and you'll find the tagport, the point at which the original chip was implanted and through which a competent service technician (or Recoverer) can access your chip and fix any problems you may be experiencing, such as signal lag, aphasia, synesthesia, general customer dissatisfaction, aneurysm, stroke, channeling the dead or deciding the fate of the human race. Okay, I made one up. You can't channel the dead.

My equipment includes a tagjack, neural harness, general assortment of quite-lovely drug cocktails, restraints, and a VR relay/recording device. And, yes, you could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff. Most of the downloads I recover heave the ephemeral quality of dreams, vanishing a few moments after the harness is released. It's important to have the recording equipment.

On his way out after locking up the restaurant, I accosted Liang. Quietly. Gun in his side to show I meant business. It's the part of the job I love. Reminds me of old movies. I even bought a slouch hat. We stepped back inside Marvin's.

"Siddown," I said.

"What's this about?" Liang asked me and it was preliminary interview time.

"Did your wife ever mention the Zonzomma Incident?"

"Yeah. Yes, I mean, of course," Liang said. Is she in some kind of trouble? She left for Proxima a year ago. Nobody said anything about the Zonzomma."

"Do you know what this is?" I asked him, pulling out the harness. At this point he figured out what was in store, and well, they do try to run...

I hit him with the sedative and it was down to business.

The whole thing was a terrible long shot. What I was relying on was that Choudry's impressions of the Incident would be so vivid, so close to the core of who she thought herself to be, that they would be transferred along with whatever packet she prepared for Liang. It's never 1:1. You never get the whole of that person's mind, yapping away at you, 24/7. The brain can't handle it and who would want it in any case? The Imprint is usually a best-face impression of how we'd like to be thought of by our lover. However, this being the brain and the brain being essentially very undisciplined and associative and James-Joyce-on-his-worst-of-all-ever-days, the personality construct tends to get a little bit of bleedback. Side-effect memories. Of course my hope, and that of my employers, is that Choudry's include the Zonzomma.

In order to convey any meaningful sense of the upside-down blushing immediacy of poking about in someone else's brain, I'm going to have to strap on my stream-of-consciousness prose hat. You'll have to trust me, come what may, flowery ostentatiousness and all. We started in the Green Room.

The Green Room is an electropsychic construct, a basic dream space where your average technician (or less-than-trustworthy sort such as myself) can uplink to interact with the Imprint and the host mind. It's a shared fiction we inhabit. Makes it easier to contextualize the more intimate, less quotidian aspects of the whole enterprise.

Choudry was there. Liang was there. I was there. Choudry demanded to know what was going on. I explained. And because she was just ones and zeroes (and so was I and so was he and so was the Green Room, as long as we were all in it) I dove headfirst in to her.

Like I said. Ones and zeroes. The three of us are there, riding the binary infrastructure of her thoughts, leftover memories kept in the fridge, with a heart on them to remind you I love you. They are meeting at a party for the first time. He is trying an especially groan worthy line. They are married. It's their first time together, it's their first fight, it's a jumble, she's leaving that's what the fight's about, she's leaving for the first time, she's alone it's the ship it's THEM.

The Zonzomma are giant diamond jellyfish the size of cities. She and Barquist are afraid the little shuttle they're in will be torn to pieces. The clouds around them shake as the Zonzomma speaks. She is coming home. She sees him, on the platform. Their first date. Sunset in Bangalore. The fields beyond her father's house. University. The first time she felt weightless. The first time they kissed.

See what I mean? I try to nudge Choudry's construct back to the Zonzomma. Liang, protesting, still along for the ride.

Strange readings for years. Clouds over Rossellius. Taking the shuttle down. A flash, a brief flitting image of Barquist's face as he--

Gossip, well. Liang is outraged, somewhere distant and close, but the general framework of the Green Room holds. He doesn't know it, but he holds all the cards. His brain, after all. Back in. The clouds, she and Barquist, the thing breathing. A week spent in the company of that thing, it quickly learning their language as they barely grasp its. Zonzomma is their word for themselves. Between-the-Tall-Clouds is the jellyfish's personal name, it turns out.

There is a memory, hazy, guarded, Choudry protests, but, again, ones and zeroes. You'd think a thing like weekly skinny-dipping sessions in other people's minds would decrease the brain's natural proclivity toward solipsism. This it does not.

The image snaps into view. I am she and she is he and we are all together watching the Earth on their return trip. The foredeck. She and Barquist. Something has happened between them, the night before. "I can't talk to anyone about this," she says he says I say. This, what we saw...nobody will ever be...the world has changed. There are aliens out there. But I love him. And I won't leave him."

"I know," Barquist says. They hold hands in the Earthlight.

Rubbish. Back to the Green Room. Not one usable piece of intelligence in the whole construct. Just your typical human messiness. Liang has gone. Choudry is alone. She is crying, softly.

I close the door on the Green Room and I'm back in the real world, Liang slumped over, dreaming an I-hope-dreamless sleep. Equipment stowed in orderly fashion and I'm out the door. The whole operation took less than ten minutes. Still time to catch a bus out of here, maybe linger. Maybe catch a movie. Give me time to collate my thoughts before the inevitable dressing-down my superiors are sure to give. Big honkin' alien spacecraft. No idea what it would want with us. No idea at all. Still. These things have a way of finding a happy resolution, right?

That's what I tell myself.

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