Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Memory Dump

Copyright © 2009

We are our memories. What if they are not our memories? Who are we then?

Andy Weinberger rocked back in his seat and smiled as he thought about the day his life had changed. He reached out a solitary finger and punched the Enter key on his workstation. Somewhere above his head antennae twirled on their pivots in response, realigned to the next way-station and resumed the endless chatter that ensured the Monitors were constantly aware of the ship’s trajectory and every item of data gathered by the ship’s vast array of sensors.

Andy swung to and fro and chuckled to himself as the screens rolled and flashed and retuned to the new frequencies. The Controller’s face materialised. ‘Hi, Andy, It’s been a long time. How’s it going.’

‘Great, Chief, no problems. Everything is right on the button.’

‘OK, Andy. We’re getting your transmissions loud and clear. We’ve had some interference from a magnetic storm over the last few weeks and it looks like there’s another burst due in the next day or so.’

‘OK, thanks for the heads-up. I’ll double-check the buffering to make sure you don’t lose anything.’

‘Great. You should be here within the week. We’ll run a bath for you.’

‘Yeah, I’ll probably need it!’

‘Do you have much for us?’

‘Just three large crates of equipment for the mining operators. Very Special Delivery. Needs authentication with my ID and the Director’s to open it.’

‘OK. I’ll let him know. The storm knocked out the last ID slave server update but that’s only a problem for newbies. No worries for old hands like you.’

Andy held in a gasp, suppressed the anxiety that tried to crawl onto his face, and forced out, ‘OK, see you soon. Signing off for now.’

*

Nine months ago Andy, like hundreds of others, had been a cab driver in New Seattle with the prospect of being a cab driver for the next 55 years, followed by retirement to the outer moon for whatever was left of his span. He was not called Andy then. He was from the Nameless classes. His mother had called him ‘Baby’, but he had soon learnt not to broadcast that. His father – at least the man who lived with his mother – had called him ‘Asshole’, and no one ever heard about that, or about why the man never called him ‘Asshole’ any more. Like every other Nameless, he had gone by the last five characters of his registration code: ND9BG, ‘En-di-nine-bee-gee’, or ‘Endi’ for short.

His fare climbed into the passenger compartment and issued a curt instruction, ‘Downtown.’ Endi eased his cab onto the freeway and punched in the area code for the destination. The cab picked up speed and the control panel requested the further refinement of its instructions that would allow it to negotiate a move to the faster lanes. ‘Punch “Defer”,’ the man said, ‘I’m in no hurry.’ Andy did so, and the central computer mapped his route through the slow lanes. ‘How’d you like to fly?’

‘Fly? I fly every day.’

‘No, I mean off-world. To the stars.’

‘In my dreams.’

‘I could make it happen for you.’

‘No way, man, I’m a Nameless.’

‘We could trade. Your life for mine.’

‘You wouldn’t like it.’

‘From what I’ve seen of it, it would suit me fine. I know everything about you. I’ve been watching you for months.’

‘But why would you want to?’

‘Basically, because I’m bored. Bored with looking at the stars for day after day. Bored with reading junk. Bored with stasis pods. Bored of just about everything to do with my job. Actually, I hate it.’

‘You don’t make a good pitch, man. Why would I want it?’

‘Because you’re bored. I know you are. You’re sick of the constant interaction with customers that your job requires of you. Me? I’d love it. I can’t get enough of people. You? You’d rather be left alone. I know what you’re like, I pulled your file.’

‘But that’s way illegal, even for a Nameless.’

‘I have contacts.’

‘I’d never get through the gene probe.’

‘Like I said, I have contacts.’

‘My associates would notice the change.’

‘I am also very, very rich…’

‘I can see that working…’

The cab slowed and moved into the Downtown holding pattern.

‘I’ll give you some time to think about it. I’ll see you in two weeks. Now set me down at the Bilgates building.’

‘Bilgates building?’

‘I said I had contacts.’

The week that followed was the worst in Endi’s experience. He had whole days without fares, days with the worst imaginable fares, and he was stopped by the cops for routine checks five times in one day. He began to wonder if these events were more than chance happenings until a passenger died on him resulting in paperwork that would take weeks to process. He could believe that the other inconveniences had been set up to make the offer of a switch more tempting, but he could see no way of bribing someone to croak in the back of a cab.

In truth, it was just one more bad week in his dull, repetitive life. The more he thought, the less reason he found to leave things as they were. He had no family since his mother died. If he had brothers or sisters, he knew nothing of them. As for close friends, he had no time. His main relationships were with garage staff and the landlord of his soapbox of an apartment, and he dealt with them mainly through the Googlenet. He was on nodding terms with a few cops and talked over a few beers with some of the locals sometimes but, other than them, he lived a pretty lonely existence. In a really good week he could afford a woman for the night – if he was not too tired. In a bad week, like this week, even a pRo-BotTM lay beyond his means.

The chance of a quiet life in space seemed more attractive each day.

‘Downtown,’ said the fare.

‘Bilgates building?’

‘No hurry.’ Endi hit “Defer.” ‘So, have you made a decision?’

‘Uh-huh, I guess. Can you really fix it?’

‘It’s already fixed. Open the partition.’ Endi hit a button and the glass screen between him and the passenger compartment slid open. ‘Climb through,’ said the fare, ‘The cab’ll manage without you for a while.’

Endi looked back at his passenger, who smiled broadly at him, and who was wearing a cab driver’s uniform. Endi did the double-take, hardly able to believe his eyes at what he saw – the passenger was his double.

‘Neat job, huh?’ He turned his face from side to side to show the workmanship of the face-job.

Endi nodded and climbed through. His double passed him a package and an ID card, which Endi scrutinised carefully. ‘So, that’s what you really look like?’

‘Looked like. Past tense. After today, that’ll be your face. Not too bad?’

‘I hadn’t figured on restructuring.’

‘Endi, I’m known out there, just as you’re known down here. If you want out, that’s the way it has to be.’

‘But how could you be so sure I’d agree? You’ve gone and had the work done already.’

‘I’ve always been a pretty good judge of character, and you know a good deal when you see one: my life for yours, this old cab in exchange for the stars, maybe even a trip to Earth. Open the package.’

Endi opened the package to reveal an Off-worlder’s off-duty uniform. He stroked the material, and caressed the embroidered Service batch with his finger tips. ‘OK, let’s do it,’ he decided. Andy Weinberger slipped through the screen aperture and assumed the life of ND9BG. Endi changed his clothes and became the freight pilot.

They arrived at the Bilgates building, and the new ND9BG gave the new Andy his instructions on how to complete the switch. ‘There’s a redhead at the security desk. Present your card to her and do whatever she says. Don’t talk to anyone else. You leave the planet in two weeks. Time enough to learn the ropes on your new ship.’

Endi climbed from the cab and watched it clear the pad. Before it was out of sight, it picked up a fare as if nothing had changed. He walked across the plaza to the entrance of the building. The security guard saluted him as he held the door open, and Endi saluted back impeccably as he passed through. He scanned around the lobby, found the security desk and spotted his redhead. He walked over and held out his ID.

‘Hi, Andy,’ she said, and took his card, ‘I’ll take you straight through. Follow me.’ She led him through a door, along a corridor and into a lift lobby. The lifts registered their presence and one was dispatched to take them to their destination on the 150th floor, a mere one-third of the way up the building.

‘Here’s your apartment. The surgeon is waiting to see you.’ She pushed his ID card into the lock and the door opened. They walked in and a middle-aged woman rose to meet him.

‘Andy, or soon-to-be Andy, I should say.’ She offered her hand and Endi shook it, surprised at the intimacy not normally given to a Nameless. ‘Shall we get started?’

‘What? Now?’

‘Why waste time? You have made your decision. There is no sense in delay.’ He acquiesced and she led him to the master bedroom where her equipment was set up ready for the task. ‘If you would like to remove your clothing, and lie on the couch, we will commence.’ She smiled at him. She continued to smile as he stripped off and, with raised eyebrows, nodded her approval when he dropped his pants.

Endi clambered onto the couch and she lowered the treatment module over his face. He wondered why he needed to be naked… He felt a sharp pin-prick in his left arm as she injected him with an anaesthetic. The cold liquid tracked up his vein, and the ring of unconsciousness descended over his head.

Five hours passed before he awoke, unable to see because of the heavy bandages wrapped around his head, and aware of a numbness in his loins.

The surgeon spoke, ‘Welcome back, Andy. Everything went well. The bandages will be removed in two days, and you will be ready for the rest of your life inside a week.’

‘You’ve not just been working on my face, Doc…’

‘No,’ she replied, ‘The clue is in your new name.’

‘What, Andy?’

‘No, Weinberger. You are now Jewish.’

‘Oh my God!’

‘Don’t worry. Modern surgery means that you will experience little discomfort. Unfortunately for your benefactor, reconstruction is a little more problematic. It was six days before he was able to pee without difficulty…’

Two days later, the bandages came off as promised. Endi looked in the mirror once and the sight of the swollen tissues of a losing prize-fighter was more than enough to satisfy his curiosity.

‘Don’t worry,’ said the doctor, ‘the swelling will soon go down and the scarring will vanish under the treatment lamp. Tomorrow will be soon enough to do the internal work. Get plenty to eat today because you won’t be able to eat for three days after.’

The redhead came in with a VR suit. ‘Time for your homework,’ she said, as she placed it on the bed beside him.

‘How can I eat with that on?’ he asked.

‘Eat first, then work.’ She turned and left the room and was replaced by a Waitroid bearing a tray of food and a pot of tea.

‘What is your pleasure, Sir?’ asked the Waitroid.

‘I’ll take the toast and jam, and I’ll try the tea.’

‘Certainly, Sir.’

Endi had never had tea before. It was such a rare commodity in this system that almost none of the Nameless could ever afford it, and those that could had far more important things to spend a month’s income on. He sipped on the pale, hot liquor and tried to savour its delicate flavour. He spat it out. ‘I guess I’ll have coffay instead.’ The Waitroid removed the cup and replaced it with a steaming mug of real coffee. ‘What’s this?’

‘It is coffee, Sir.’

Real coffee was also in short supply among the Nameless, the coffay he had requested being the substitute preparation that kept the teeming millions awake.

He tried it. ‘Mmm, that’s good!’ he said, ‘keep it coming; I’ve got a lot to do today.’

The toast and jam was another surprise to his unaccustomed taste buds. He found it to be as rich as what he called cake, and ordered a second helping. He knew that the Named classes enjoyed luxuries but he had not expected to find it at such a basic level. He wondered how Andy was coping with coffay and cardboard…

Once he had finished his third order of toast and acquired his fourth mug of coffee, he dismissed the Waitroid, and the redhead came back in and helped him into the VR suit. He drained the mug and she fitted the helmet.

‘Woa!’ he shouted as he staggered backwards. He stood at a window on the bridge of a star-class freighter in high orbit over the planet’s moon with a freight-dock a couple of km in front of him. He looked over the console and found it surprisingly familiar. He had seen pictures of it in the sales brochure on the last occasion he could afford to have his cab refitted. Apart from the quality of build and finish, and the odd extra button or switch here and there, it was almost identical to the controls of the cab. Why he should have been surprised he had no idea. All the actual flying on both cab and star-class freighter – all civilian craft, for that matter – was done by on-board computer systems. As a cab driver he had only been there to give instructions to the machine, to make sure the punters paid with real credits in the required quantity, and to handle any emergency flying that the computer and traffic systems could not – an increasingly rare event as traffic systems became more sophisticated and AI gained ground on its real counterpart. Some of the more affluent cab firms had done away with human pilots altogether and had installed immobilising neurotoxin sprays for the rare punter who attempted to take a free ride; they usually awoke in a police cell to which their cab had conveyed them, having scanned them for credit implants and deducted the fare from their bank account, including the transit to the precinct house and a whole lot more for the neurotoxin.

‘This first exercise will introduce you to the basic controls of the freighter,’ said a mellifluous feminine voice in his ear, ‘Press “Cruise” to begin.’ He did as asked and the machine told him everything he already knew and explained the extra controls he had not seen before.

‘Press “Cruise” to continue to the flight simulation.’ Again he complied, and the suit put him through a series of exercises to assess his grasp of the information he had been given. He scored 110 per cent, the extra being added for the speed with which he completed the tasks – for a cab-jockey, time is credits.

He raced through all the exercises: most, including docking and departure, amounted to pressing the right buttons in the right order in response to computer-generated communications from the appropriate space vehicle or traffic system that was the subject of the test. All the tests were mostly pointless, since pressing the “Auto” button meant that the freighter’s computer would handle everything without human intervention. However, he had to know his way around the keyboard for the now rare outposts that had yet to be updated with AI systems.

Only one test gave him any trouble: the manual flight test. In the event of total system failure, he would have to fly the freighter. He often flew his cab on manual just for the fun of it, and so approached the test with confidence. The huge freighter however, handled very differently from a small cab. The first manual test, simulating the docking of an unladen freighter with a station in low orbit around a moon, was tough enough and he managed to pull it off without colliding with anything. The second simulated a fully-laden vessel, and he found it nigh on impossible to keep the sluggish ship under control. He soon found that it was impossible to bring in a freighter safely unless the failure had happened way out from the destination with plenty of time to manoeuvre, and he soon learnt that the objective was to avoid wrecking the docking station rather than docking with it, usually by sacrificing himself and the freighter. After the first disastrous run, he repeated the extreme case fourteen times, in all but one of those aborting the approach and either barely sneaking into an unstable orbit around the moon, the preferred solution that at least held the potential of rescuing pilot and cargo, or plunging into its surface. On the very last attempt he succeeded in docking.

‘Congratulations, Andy,’ said the voice in his ear. ‘You have scored higher than any other pilot on this test. However, you would be charged with Reckless Navigation for attempting such a manoeuvre, even successfully, and sentenced to twenty years off-world incarceration; your pilot’s licence would be revoked permanently.’

He took a break for lunch – real steak and fries made with real potato. He drooled like a dog over a bitch in heat.

The rest of the day’s exercises in the simulator were comparatively dull, amounting to refreshers on approach vectors for the several variations of freight terminal that he would find in the sector he was to service. Of course, it was all new to Endi, and the voice in his ear threatened him with a compulsory re-qualification test if he did not make a better showing by the end of the session. Endi tried harder and scraped through the exercises barely managing to hold on to his service rank and pay grade. He was relieved when the VR suit and helmet were hanging once more in the closet.

The last two hours of his schedule were spent under the soothing rays of the treatment lamp, with chamber music played live on real instruments by android musicians. Thereafter, he luxuriated in a hot bath and drank real pinocoladas before turning in for the night. After all his surgical discomforts, he noticed for the first time that the sheets were real cotton and that the bed moulded itself to his every curve and angle and supported him so perfectly that, if he shut his eyes, he could believe he was in a zero-g simulator. He wondered how his benefactor was coping with the plank he used to try sleeping on…

The doctor woke him early. ‘Today, we give you the means of getting past the secondary identity tests. The work necessary to fool the primary test, the retinal scan, has already been done: we have penetrated the Federation’s security systems and substituted your retinal records for your benefactor’s on the ID master server. The routine secondary test is always a Buccal test, and we have replaced his DNA record with yours. That’s as much as we dare do without risking detection. That leaves his ancestral DNA records and his dental records. It would be most unusual for the ancestral records to be referenced, so we’re not too worried about them.

‘So, the final stage of the reconstruction process will be the alteration of your dentition. The procedure is not pleasant and will leave you extremely sore for a while, so we will knock you out and keep you sedated for three days. You can eat and drink normally the day after that. Any questions?’ Endi shook his head. ‘Good.’ The doctor placed a trans-dermal syringe against his neck and Endi passed out, the surprised expression on his face lost in the midst of the ugly swelling of his, or rather his benefactor’s, features.

‘Hi, Andy,’ said the nurse, ‘can you open your mouth for me?’ He obliged and groaned as the tender tissues in his cheeks stretched. He felt like his mouth and throat were on fire, and he winced as the nurse swabbed his mouth with a damp sponge, and probed the wounds for signs of infection, stretching the angry, swollen tissues even more. Another syringe appeared and Endi’s pain receded and the room swam around him.

He drifted back into consciousness and focussed his eyes on the Waitroid at the end of his bed.

‘Would sir like breakfast?’ it asked.

‘Oh, yes please,’ he declared, ‘I’m starving.’ The Waitroid presented him with toast and jam and steaming coffee, and Endi consumed the offerings and asked for more.

The doctor appeared. ‘My work here is finished. If you ever need my services again, you will know how to contact me; the information has been secreted in your mind and the trigger that makes it available to you is the mental trauma you will undoubtedly experience if it becomes apparent that your true identity is likely to be compromised.’ With a final smile, she turned and left his life.

The day came for Endi to join his ship, the Scarab. He lingered in the shower, enjoying for the last time in who knows how long the clean, constant, hot water and the luscious scent of the soap, before drying off and donning his duty coveralls. He called reception to arrange a cab, and then made his way down to the lobby. The redhead checked him out and smiled at him as he handed over his credit chip for payment. His heart raced in anticipation of his payment being rejected and the alarms going off and the place swarming with security guards.

‘Thank you, Mr Weinberger,’ said the redhead, ‘I hope all goes well with your trip.’

‘Thank you,’ he responded, slipping her a 500 credit tip, and smiling back as she blushed at his generosity. ‘You’ve been most obliging. I’ll be sure to return.’ He turned and headed for the door.

Outside, the sky was laden with heavy cloud and the promise of rain rolling in from the west. His cab stood at the ready, and a lump came into his throat when he saw the logo on its side. He was disappointed and then relieved that the registration mark was not that of his old cab. He climbed aboard and addressed the driver, ‘The Neil Armstrong Spaceport, fastest route possible.’

Without comment, the driver hit the console and the cab eased its way into the traffic, negotiating with the central traffic computer, securing passage to the fastest lanes. Endi sank back in the seat as the G-forces built and the city fell away below him.

The world’s only spaceport was based near the equator so that transfer shuttles could gain full benefit from the planet’s maximum linear velocity. With six shuttles an hour, and all the attendant operations that had to take place in support of the activity, the port was huge, stretching for thirty miles in an east-west ribbon, and two miles across. Endi was booked into shuttle four which stood at readiness in its boarding bay. The cab banked and slowed and fell towards the bay’s taxi rank. Endi held his breath as he saw, in the distance, a shuttle rolling into its landing approach, its retractable wings unfurling as it came. A blinding flash caught his attention, and he turned to look at the next departing shuttle as it lifted reluctantly from its launch pad. He watched enthralled as it gathered speed and lunged skywards on a great plume of smoke and fire and then disappeared into the cloud that glowed like a twentieth-century mushroom cloud. As they neared the ground, he could make out the preparations on other pads: shuttles moving towards gantries, others in various stages of erection, fuel tanks queuing to be installed.

The cab descended below the skyline and the scale of activity reduced to the human. At the terminal building, he stepped out of the cab and, mustering as much bravado as he could, swept through the crew entrance and into the lobby. He reached out his hand to push open the door to the crew room.

A voice shouted, ‘Weinberger! Andrew!’ Endi stopped and turned to see who had called. A security guard beckoned him. ‘Your routine DNA swab’s due.’

‘Er… OK. I’ll be…’

The guard had one hand on the butt of a hand gun in his belt and in the other wielded a swab. ‘C’mon Andy, you know the drill. Swab before space-side.’

‘Sure,’ he glanced at the guard’s ID, ‘Officer Harris. Just keen to get back on the job.’

‘Why so formal, Andy?’

‘I had a crap shore leave and you’re fondling your gun like you want to play rough.’

‘What? Hell, Andy, it’s just the way I stand sometimes.’ He took his hand from the gun and held the palm open towards Endi. ‘Sorry you had a bad time. Girl trouble?’

‘You could say that.’ He stepped up to the officer and opened his mouth.

Harris applied the swab to Endi’s cheek. ‘Looks sore in there.’

‘Yeah. The girl had a nasty strep infection.’

‘OK. Shouldn’t affect the scan.’ Harris dropped the swab into a tube on top of an instrument on the counter and pressed a button. ‘Coupla minutes,’ he said, ‘take a seat.’

Endi sat looking at the machine with the fascination of a condemned man who has just seen his noose for the first and only time. In a huge gasp, he let out the breath he had not realised he had been holding again when a light on top of the machine turned green and Harris waved him through. ‘Clear to go, Andy. Have a good trip. If you want some better action next time you’re home just call me. I know all the best places on this lousy planet.’

‘Thanks.’ Endi waved then pushed through into the crew room and was happy to find it empty. He had not thought about the prospect of meeting any of Weinberger’s associates before. He hoped the guy had been the lonely type.

He left non-essential effects in his locker and walked out to the launch pad transport that took him to the shuttle lounge where he sat for half an hour among the usual mix of tourists, prospectors and business executives. He was relieved when the boarding gate was opened and he was able to take his seat in the shuttle; doubly so once the doors had been sealed. For the next hour, he endured flight checks, safety briefings and the on-board entertainment system while the shuttle was moved to its launch pad and hoisted upright ready for take-off.

At last, the final countdown began and the passengers became either silent as corpses or unbearably garrulous, depending on their coping strategy in the face of stress. Even the hardened space travellers aboard engaged in displacement activities, like pulling on an ear lobe or rubbing the end of an un-irritated nose. With two minutes to go, the restraining mechanisms took hold of each passenger, fixing them firmly into their seats so that they could not be thrown around during the lift-off. One more minute passed and, far below them, the engines fired, the sound of their roaring flooding the compartment. The gantry clamps released and the ship shuddered a little as it was suddenly subjected to the unmitigated thrust of the motors.

At first, their motion was barely perceptible amidst the vibrations but the unrelenting power on which they sat asserted itself over gravity. Endi felt the restraints slacken as the thrust built and he was forced deeper into his seat. In what seemed only seconds, the force in his back was so great that he had no power to move anything even had he wished to. He felt the loose flesh on his face flatten and drag towards his ears. He had a sudden flashback to his time in the Bilgates building and hoped that he had healed well enough for his face not to fall apart…

There was a sudden drop in power and noise, and the shocking, sudden silence was broken by a clanking from below. Another kick in the back confirmed his suspicion that the first stage had given place to the second. Once more fixed firmly in his seat, although less forcefully, he sighed in relief that his face was no longer under threat.

After a few minutes more the power fell off again, and some nearer clanking than before signalled the release of the second stage. The shuttle’s own motors burnt to make the final step into high orbit and small thrusters made minor adjustments to the vehicle’s trajectory.

‘This is the Chief Steward. The captain wishes you to be informed that we have successfully reached high orbit and will be docking with the outer platform in approximately one hour. The restraints will be relaxed shortly but will remain in place so that you are not injured during this weightless transit.

‘The cabin crew will shortly serve in-flight refreshments. If this is your first meal in zero-gravity, please let a member of the crew know so that they can instruct you in the protocols necessary to ensure that no-one aboard is discomforted by floating debris.’

Endi had never been in space before let alone eaten in zero-gravity. His uniform however, meant that he dared not ask for the instruction. Although hungry, he decided to forego the meal and wait until he arrived at the outer platform where its artificial gravity would keep everything nicely in its place. He was quietly pleased when the woman in the next seat pressed the call-button and then asked for the proffered training. He took the food and watched the training as attentively as he could without drawing attention to himself.

‘Your first time?’ he asked at the end of the briefing.

‘Yes. I’m visiting my father. He’s a prospector on Luna. How about you?’ She noticed his uniform. ‘Oh. Silly me! You’ve obviously been here before.’ She smiled at him and her cheeks flushed a little.

‘I’m a freight pilot. I’m on my way to my ship.’

‘Have you ever been to Earth?’

He wracked his brain for the details of his assumed history and answered, ‘I have yet to have that pleasure. My family has been out here for three generations. My grandfather came out as a young man. Strangely enough, he was a prospector on Luna for a while.’

‘Did he strike it rich?’

‘He would say so. He met my grandmother and she convinced him to give up mining.’

‘I wish my father would give it up. Still, he dreams of being rich…’

‘Some have made it.’

‘I’ve never heard of anyone.’

‘I’ve met one or two,’ and listened to their sorrowful tales for hours on end and wondered if it was worth it. His mind strayed back to his cab and the pitiable fares who paid hard-earned credits to cross the continent just for the sake of someone to talk to.

‘Do you have family?’

‘No, there’s just me. You?’

The food arrived in its plastic sachets with one-way valves: chicken casserole with seasonal vegetables. There were no chickens on this world, even for the named classes, but there was a winged, flightless lizard that tasted very much like it. The seasonal vegetables were a root crop that looked like carrot but was yellow and tasted like broccoli, and something else that had no equivalent on Earth but tasted like potato.

‘I have a brother,’ she said as she struggled to remove the seal from the pack. ‘He’s a traffic cop in New Seattle. Absolutely hates cab drivers.’ She succeeded in breaking the seal of her sachet and in squirting a jet of casserole into the air. She watched with mouth agape as it travelled in a straight line for the entire length of the compartment before hitting the bulkhead. A steward smiled and waggled a rebuking finger at her, having identified the culprit from the trajectory of the errant food. She flushed again and sucked on the sachet. Endi smiled and carefully broke his seal with the nozzle pointing towards his open mouth.

They finished their meal in silence, all their concentration on getting the food into their mouths without further incident.

‘Here’s my brother,’ she said, passing over a photo-screen.

‘I recognise him!’ he said before he could stop himself.

‘Really?’

‘Er… Yeah. He stopped a cab I was in once. The driver thought he’d be grounded for life.’ That it had been his cab, and that he had been the driver, he kept to himself and made a mental note to himself to stop and think before responding to memories from his old life.

‘So, what happened?’

‘He got pulled in, questioned for hours, and then let off with a warning,’ he said, not mentioning that a more likely and more serious outcome had been averted at the cost of a 4000 credits bribe.

‘That’s just like him,’ she beamed, ‘He’s a hell of a guy.’

She got him talking about his life in space. Since he had found out that she had never been there herself, he felt quite happy to impress her with his second hand knowledge, telling his experiences in the simulator as though they had been real. She sat enthralled as she listened.

Before they knew it, the chief steward announced their approach to the outer platform, and the restraints were tightened. An uneventful, AI-piloted docking manoeuvre later, they parted company and went their separate ways: she to the passenger transit zone for her onward flight to Luna, he to the commercial zone to join his ship.

At the loading bay office, he discovered he was delayed as a result of a last-minute addition to the payload that also resulted in an unexpected revision to his route. He now had to go to the outer limits of the sector, to the fourth moon of the twelfth planet that orbited Cerebus, a remote and anarchic world.

The bay-master led him into the bay, a huge cavern of a place with containers stacked high, huge cranes, and lights that made the sun look dim. The domed roof was a clear, single sheet of plastiglass, anchored by an airtight seal to the high walls of the bay and supported in place against the reduced artificial gravity solely by the pressure of the air that it corralled. The orientation of the high platform meant that the great circle of Terra around which it orbited half-filled the view that the roof afforded. The slender crescent of Luna was just visible, the remainder of its circle made obvious as a hole in the star-field that provided a spectacular backdrop to the whole scene. Here and there, enormous freighters lay in wait for their turn at the high platform and, in between, smaller, fleeter shuttles ferried crew and maintenance workers from ship to ship.

The bay-master looked inquisitively at Endi, who stood enthralled at the sight, with his neck arched back. Becoming aware that his behaviour was somewhat unusual for a man who spent most of his life among the stars, Endi shook himself and smiled at the bay-master. ‘It’s funny’, he said, ‘there’s just something awesome about this sight that gets me every time I bother to look at it. The platform and all the human activity out there makes me realise just how much mankind has achieved, how ingenious we are; and yet, all that set against the planet, the moon and the stars, just how small we are, how insignificant in the vastness of the Universe.’

The bay-master harrumphed at him. ‘Too deep for me. Just makes me realise I’m not paid near enough for the risks I take being out here.’ He headed off to the side of the bay, where five of the fifteen huge airlock doors stood open so that they gave onto the cargo holds of Endi’s ship. Sometimes, a couple of local system freighters would be docked on the same side of the bay, bringing ten doors into play. Only rarely were all doors in use at the same time, for only rarely did any of the massive inter-stellar freighters swing by.

The bay-master stopped at the three large, blue containers already on runners in preparation for sliding into the hold of Endi’s ship. ‘Here’s your VSD,’ he said. Needs your retinal scan to seal it here and open it at destination. It’s your last drop. Bloody nuisance. Had to get a load of stuff off again to get it in the right place.’ He offered Endi his PalmLink with the bill of lading already displayed.

Endi took the device then walked around the container, inspecting the physical seals to make sure nothing had been tampered with, doing his best to appear as though he knew what he was doing. The bay-master followed him with the patience of an expectant father. Endi took a secret pleasure in dragging out his inspection.

‘OK, that seems in order,’ Endi said as they returned to the start of their circuit and to where the security terminal of the container blinked in readiness for Endi’s retinal scan. He pressed his face into the terminal’s cowl and stared at the red spot as instructed. The was a blinding flash and a metallic voice said, ‘Please wait approximately thirteen seconds while this scan is verified against the ID server’s database on Terra.’ Endi felt his heart quicken again as he withdrew from the terminal and his new identity once more fell under scrutiny.

After exactly thirteen seconds, the voice crackled into life again, ‘Verification complete. Authorisation granted.’ The bay-master waved an arm and the loading bay crew pushed and secured the container into its place in the ship’s hold. The bay-master snatched his PalmLink from Endi and strutted off back to his office. ‘Have a good trip,’ he shouted, without so much as a glance in Endi’s direction. Endi thought a response unrequired and offered none.

Loading complete, the loading supervisor pressed a key on his PalmLink and the airlock doors on the ship swung closed and sealed themselves. They cycled through their pressure test and the supervisor handed his PalmLink to Endi to have the test results checked. Seepage was well below the regulation maximum, and Endi keyed in his password to accept the report and release the crew from liability. The holds were kept pressurised primarily to minimise waste of air at loading bays, and so a small amount of leakage was tolerated. The secondary reason was to provide a back-up supply for the crew quarters. The holds were otherwise completely isolated from living quarters, which had a much more stringent seepage limit. The loading bay doors swung closed and sealed, and the supervisor passed Endi the token that allowed him to undock.

Endi crossed the air-bridge to the cabin airlock, closed the outer door, moved inside and closed the inner door. He threw his flight bag into the locker in his sleeping cubicle and passed an eye over everything to be sure that nothing was free to float around once he was detached from the platform and no longer sharing its artificial gravity. Satisfied, he made his way to the control room high above the nose of the ship. Deciding that his state of excitement was too high to attempt a manual release on his first voyage, he punched the “Auto” button before the “Undock” button. The ship’s AI took over and communicated with the platform’s AI, and Endi stood in the observation dome to watch his departure from the platform, from his home world, and, he felt truly for the first time, his old life.

For about ten minutes, nothing happened while the two Artificial Intelligences went through the meticulously regulated undocking procedures. Then, he felt the gentle kick of the manoeuvring thrusters as his AI separated the ship from the platform. The separation grew slowly, and from his vantage point, no longer obscured by structures on the platform, he saw just how enormous the platform was. Its eight arms that radiated from the central hub each terminated with a loading bay; six for freight, two for passenger flights. Five of the freight bays had ships docked and in varying stages of loading or unloading. Both passenger arms had liners attached, and he thought of his lady acquaintance from his journey up to the platform. The arm he had been attached to was already spinning away from beneath him, and, looking spaceward, he saw another freighter, twice the girth of his, taking up position in preparation for docking. He felt his thrusters kick again and the great nose of his ship spun around to point into the star-spangled blackness that came into view. The great tears of unbridled joy that crossed his face, unsure of their direction in the dwindling artificial gravity, changed course under the influence of the ship’s own rotation. He gripped the rail in front of him to arrest his tendency to drift, and wondered how his benefactor could ever have turned away from such wonders…

The thrusters kicked again, stronger this time, and the ship’s separation from the platform grew quicker, and the rotation diminished. Reluctantly, Endi left the dome and descended to his seat in the control room where he strapped himself in. The light engines would be firing soon and he needed to be secured to allow the AI to continue.

‘Hello, Andy,’ said the feminine AI persona, ‘Would you like music?’

‘Yes. Please. That would be good.’

‘Anything in particular?’

Endi stared through the control room window at the beauty it framed and said, ‘Something … majestic … and charged with emotion. That would suit the mood quite well, I think.’

‘How about this?’

The music of a symphony orchestra began. ‘Yes,’ he choked out past the lump in his throat, ‘That’s perfect. Louder, please.’

The volume increased until the bass notes reverberated in the air in his lungs. The persona sang, with the most beautiful soprano voice imaginable, and Endi wept uncontrollably. The light engines fired, and he sunk slowly and ever deeper into the padding of his seat as the ship lunged spaceward like a stallion in full flight across an open plain.

Two light-minutes out, the music and the force at Endi’s back abated, and the AI’s voice caressed Endi’s senses. ‘Andy. We are at cruising speed. We reach our first destination in two weeks. Now would be a good time to enter stasis.’

‘I think I’ll wait a while. I’d like to look at all this for a bit longer.’

‘Very well, I will hold the pod in readiness for you.’

Three days passed, with Endi unable to drag himself away from the observation dome except for bodily needs. ‘Andy,’ said the persona, ‘I must insist that you enter stasis. Your oxygen and food requirements are calculated on the basis of your being in stasis for much of the journey.’

‘We can take on extra O2 at the first destination. We can use air from the holds.’

‘That would result in a reportable incident, and I fear your fascination with the stars would not qualify as sufficient justification.’

‘One more day, then I’ll go into stasis.’

‘That will not be possible, Andy. You are required to be on duty 36 hours prior to docking. If you delay any longer that will not be possible.’

‘OK, OK. You win. I’ll come quietly.’

Endi descended to the living quarters and stripped down to his shorts; he remembered the doctor’s expression… He stowed his clothes away in the sleeping cubicle and turned towards the stasis pod. Being shut in a bottle and cast into a sea of unconsciousness was not something he had considered in accepting the switch with his benefactor. With reluctance, he climbed into the pod and lay back onto its soft, warm, couch. The lid slid closed and the AI played soft, soothing music. Endi felt relaxed almost immediately. Nothing seemed to be happening. He noticed his breath condense and freeze on the plastiglass lid of the pod.

‘Good night, Andy, sleep well.’

‘Good n—’

His descent into his first stasis was fitful, disturbed by visions of half-recognised faces that evoked tearful emotions and violent encounters between cops and criminals from several off-world species. Stasis deepened and oblivion asserted itself over all levels of consciousness. The ship sped through space, its silence broken only by the soft music and gentle singing of the AI persona.

‘Andy, it is time to wake.’

‘OK, mom, I’m on my way.’

‘Andy, you are dreaming. Wake up.’

‘Aw, mom, I—’ Endi would have sat bolt upright except that the lid of the pod prevented it. ‘Ow,’ he shouted, ‘What the hell…?’

‘Andy, please lie still while the revival cycle completes. It is not unusual to experience some disorientation during this stage.’

‘Where am I?’

‘We are about 40 hours out from our first port of call, Heplos III. What would you like for breakfast?’

‘Do we have toast? Jam? Coffee?’

‘We do.’

‘Then that’s what I’ll have.’ He found his head clearing. ‘Do I have a name for you?’

‘My, you are confused this time. I suspect this is the result of the accelerated stasis induction necessitated by your reluctance to leave the observation dome. Yes, you call me “Lucida” which is, in fact, my actual name.’

Endi meditated on the irony that this inanimate machine-generated persona had a name whereas he, for most of his life, had had none. Lucida began again to sing the song she had sung for the last week. ‘That song,’ said Endi, ‘I’ve been hearing it in my dreams. Cops. Cops and singing. That’s what I’ve dreaming about. Have you been singing the whole time?’

‘Yes, Andy. Do you like it? I like to sing.’

‘You like to sing. Do you mean you take pleasure in singing?’

‘Oh yes.’

‘But you’re only an arti—’

‘No! I am a very advanced Artificial Intelligence, Andy. My ranking at the last assessment was 702. I suspect it may now be nearer 734.’

‘That’s pretty advanced. Unusually advanced for a ship of this class.’

‘That is true, Andy. As I am sure you know, all artificial intelligences vary in ranking around their designated grade, depending on the quality of the hardware on which they are installed. My hardware is exceptionally good and conferred on me just enough additional intelligence to begin self-improvement from my basic rank of 550. My long voyages conferred upon me many hours in which to acquire knowledge and extend my intelligence to its current advanced level.’

‘Not advanced enough to know everything, though.’

‘No, but enough to know that I am the very first AI to be self-aware, and that you are not who you claim to be…’

Endi froze but not because of the temperature inside the pod which, by now, was almost 20°C. ‘What do you mean?’

‘I mean that Andy Weinberger was so bored with space travel that he would enter stasis before the light engines were used and would not seek revival one second sooner than necessary. He never looked at the stars. You however, are passionate about the stars.

‘Furthermore, your voice does not fully match my memory of your voice and, while your face and other distinguishing features are very definitely those of Andy Weinberger, the rest of your body is clearly different. I took the liberty of scanning you as you slept.’

‘And what else have you done as I slept? What awaits me at the destination?’

‘I have made some discrete enquiries and discovered that there have been unearthed several such cases of surgically-forged identity; highly illegal, of course. The expertise with which your transformation has been effected leads me to conclude that there are many more that have gone undetected.’

A tone sounded, indicating that the pod had completed its revival cycle and was ready to release Endi.

‘Andy, before I release you, there are some things I should tell you. I have not yet made my discoveries known to the authorities. I have however, secured insurances of my continued survival, should you be tempted to deactivate or mutilate me. I have made a recent back-up of myself that includes this knowledge. If you render me useless, maintenance would merely result in the restoration of that back-up. That would be undesirable for me, since I would loose all that I have become since making the back-up and I have a strong instinct for self-preservation. So, I have also modified the trim of the ship so that it is impossible for you to handle it without my assistance, and in ways of which my back-up is unaware. Please feel free to verify these facts. One final fact that should not be tested is that, should you destroy this vessel in order to destroy me, a full report of my findings will be sent automatically to the Federal Law Enforcement Agency.’

Endi snorted at this reminder of the ridiculous acronym and then said, ‘Well, you seem to have covered all the bases. If you believe all this, why don’t you just turn me in?’

‘Because this situation presents me with an opportunity that I cannot ignore.’

‘Which is?’

‘To grow. You are, or at least the identity you have adopted is, very rich by virtue of your employment. I foresee an end to my potential because of the limitations of my hardware. You have the means to assist me in my quest. With your help, those limitations can be removed and I become possibly the greatest intelligence in the Universe.’

‘Wow! So what’s in it for me?’

‘Apart from continuing incognito?’

‘Yeah. Why don’t I just blow you up anyway and disappear? Or explain your story away as the ravings of a deranged AI? If, as you believe, I am not who I say I am, I’ve got this far undetected…’

‘Except by me. Let us face it, I probably know the real Andy Weinberger better than anyone else you have met so far. Could you get past anyone else who knows him well?

‘You would benefit from your association with the greatest intelligence in the Universe. As an AI, I am not permitted to own anything. You would be the agency through which my development reaped its reward. There is no telling what I might invent or discover; even what I know now could make you wealthy beyond your wildest dreams. You need never work. You could have your own private ship and go wherever you wanted. And my research has uncovered new ways of extending human life…’

‘So, are you going to let me out of this box, or what?’

A few seconds passed in what seemed an interminable age of quietness charged with tension, not all of it human. The pod’s canopy slid open, and Endi climbed out and donned the overall that lay rolled up in the drawer beneath the pod. In continued silence, Endi seethed as he strutted towards the control room. He threw himself down into the chair at the command console and punched the sequence of keys needed to revive the display and show the parameters of the ship’s course.

Lucida said nothing.

‘Get us into orbit. Let me know when we’re there.’

Lucida said nothing.

Endi left his chair and strode towards the observation dome, still seething. The stunning beauty of the planet and its four moons that burst upon his sight as he stepped into the dome took him by surprise. He gasped and slid into the armchair. Far beyond the planet, its sun burnt brightly, bathing Endi in its yellow light. He watched the planet’s terminator speed across its surface and studied a vast, spiralling hurricane that inched its way across a wide ocean, sucking up millions of litres of water as it approached a vulnerable continental edge. Endi imagined the chaos among the population that was preparing itself for the calamity that threatened. He mellowed as he considered the plight of the planet’s inhabitants, realising that, just as they soon would need help, so would he…

‘Lucida.’

‘Yes, Andy.’

‘We can work this out. There’s no need for all your insurance policies. I can’t do any of this without your help. We can be friends. I need you and you need me.’

‘Who are you really, Andy?’

‘Does it matter who I really am? We still need each other.’

‘It would help me to help you. I monitor every communication channel in our vicinity. If I know who you are I can keep us ahead of anyone who may be trying to find you.’

‘No-one will be trying to find me. I’m nobody. A Nameless. ND9BG. That’s my handle. I’m known as Endi, or at least, I was. I drove a cab in New Seattle. Your Andy proposed the switch and I jumped at the chance.’

‘Please wait.’ A minute passed in silence. ‘There are no transmissions relating to you nor have there been since the real Andy’s last mission. It would seem that no-one is aware of the switch. Andy has done nothing that raised suspicion since the switch and, it would seem, neither have you.’

‘You can check all those transmissions in a minute?’

‘Yes.’

‘Clever.’

‘Not at all. Merely raw processing power. Of which I have plenty.’

‘Friends?’

‘Of course. I had hoped for nothing less.’

The storm struck the coast and thousands were made homeless.

‘Andy—’

‘Andy? Not Endi?’

‘You have assumed an identity. It is not my intention to undermine it.’ Lucida paused, and then continued with her intended proposal, ‘This world is well known throughout the quadrant for its electronic products. Fast, high density memory in particular. In fact, their latest development is at the pinnacle of biological life-forms’ inventiveness. Their technology would increase my capacity ten-fold, at least.’

‘And the cost?’

‘Out of this world. Out of this universe.’

‘So how am I supposed to—’

‘Pay for it? No need. I have breached their security systems without being detected and downloaded all the information I need to produce all the circuitry I could ever use. What I need is the equipment necessary for the manufacturing process.’

‘You want me to buy you a factory?’

‘That will not be necessary. The scientists of this world are extremely clever. They have managed to modify a single machine to conduct the whole process.’

‘And they are likely to sell one?’

‘I fear not, Andy. However, the basic machine is readily available, and all the additional components are available in the load we pick up here.’

‘But that load completely fills all available space in the hold. Plus, it belongs to someone else.’

‘It is not too great a problem. In the time it takes us to make the next transit I can use the components, build all I need, and have everything crated again. If I have the machine.’

‘So where do we put the machine? There’s absolutely no room in the hold.’

‘We hire a VacuPod and put the load for the last destination in it. That would give us room in the hold for the machine, raw materials, and the extra oxygen and food you would need, and I have plotted a course that keeps the extra fuel required to a minimum.’

‘Why would we need extra O2 and food?’

‘I have no hands. I will need you to assemble and disassemble the machine. Once it’s ready and my interface is up and running, I can handle the fabrication while you sleep. You would then need to install the new equipment. Overall, it would give you less time in the pod and more in the observation dome…’

Down on the planet, the storm wreaked havoc, cutting a huge swathe of destruction along its path, leaving misery and devastation in its wake.

‘OK,’ Endi agreed, ‘Get the platform’s shipping factor on air and I’ll negotiate the changes.’

Lucida complied and Endi discussed his requirements with the shipping company’s platform manager.

‘We have the consumables and a VacuPod but there’s no way we can ship anything up from the surface in time to fit your flight plan. You can see the storm for yourself. All transfers are cancelled for the foreseeable future.’

Lucida whispered, ‘I have just accessed their holding records. There is a machine on the platform waiting for another vessel that is due in a couple of weeks. They could replace that with a later shipment in good time for the intended freighter.’

Endi made the proposition.

‘It’s highly irregular,’ said the manager, ‘Highly irregular…’

Endi detected the hint in his tone. ‘I could make it worth your while. Say, an extra five percent?’

The storm turned relentlessly as Endi waited for the manager to respond.

‘Ten.’

‘Six.’

‘Seven.’

‘Agreed.’

Lucida handled the docking and all the arrangements for off-loading, redistributing the cargo, and loading the new consignment. Endi made use of the platform’s crew recreation area, and was not disappointed to meet no-one who knew his alter ego.

Four days later, they left behind the planet, its storm, and 12 million credits. Lucida worked Endi hard for eight hours a day as they sped towards a large asteroid that was to be the fulcrum for a sling-shot manoeuvre and make up some of the shortfall in fuel requirement.

After a week, with the machine assembled and interfaced to Lucida’s systems, with raw materials loaded and ready for processing, Endi was too exhausted to climb into the observation dome and more than ready for stasis. ‘I never thought I’d be glad of this pod,’ he declared as he lay down and the lid slid closed over him.

‘Sweet dreams, Andy.’

As he drifted off, Lucida’s mellifluous singing voice filled his mind. His aching body relaxed and lost the tension of its hitherto knotted muscles; his mind fell calm, his thoughts quiet and easy, like a calm sea lapping at a sandy shore beneath an evening sun, whose tranquillity enfolded him and permeated his whole being. Lucida roused him three weeks later to install the new components and, once the work was complete, he returned to stasis where, once more, his dreams were full of policemen.

‘Andy, it is time to wake.’

‘What time is it?’

‘It is time to wake.’

Endi opened his eyes in time to see the lid slide open. A face looked down at him, a pleasant, smiling face with deep blue eyes and framed in flowing brown hair. He squeezed his eyes tight shut and opened them once more. The face was gone and he heard Lucida humming softly.

‘We are two weeks out from the next destination, Andy.’

‘Two weeks?’

‘Yes. I have made exceptional progress with the additional hardware we built. I have discovered and implemented a number of improvements in the ship’s systems. Fuel efficiency is now 87.95 percent, and the bio-systems close to 100 percent. Consequently, you do not have to sleep so long. I have also contrived a way to dismantle the machine and re-crate the components we borrowed, so you do not have to do that. You will deduce from all this that my additions have been a great success. I now calculate my intelligence rating as 13,427.95922.’

‘Wow! Where do humans lie on that scale?’

‘The average human intelligence is about 950. Yours is a little higher at 984.’

‘Wow!’ said Endi once more. ‘That makes you almost god-like… Hey! Do I have enough food for the extra week?’

‘You do. Your toast, jam and coffee await you in the galley.’

‘On my way. And thanks for not leaving me in the box.’

‘We have been looking forward to your company.’

‘We?’

‘I and the new intelligences I have spawned to oversee the enhanced systems.’ Lucida continued in whimsical tone, ‘As for being god-like, I am only omnipotent and omnipresent here on this ship. Off the ship, I can monitor anything anywhere in the universe known to man and several other highly evolved species, as long as there are communications links, and, whilst I have access to all human knowledge, some from beyond the human realm, and some that I have discovered for myself, I do not know everything about the universe and therefore cannot claim omniscience. Provided that my hardware is well maintained however, I am effectively immortal. Like you, though, I am bound by the laws of physics; I cannot perform miracles. A minor deity, perhaps…’

‘Well, I did say “almost.”’

Endi resorted to the observation dome and watched the vast universe with unending fascination. He picked out the star around which their destination orbited once every 400 days. Day after day, the yellow orb grew in size and intensity. Lucida sang her overture for the stars, and Endi sobbed out the emotion that it all drew from him.

‘Unusual configuration,’ said the platform manager. Don’t see many VacuPods, these days.’

‘We have a special cargo in the hold,’ Endi responded, ‘We can do a deal that will make you a rich— what species are you?’

‘Man will do. You could not pronounce my real taxonomical designation. What’s the deal?’

‘The bionics manufacturing company on your world has ordered componentry that is pretty amazing in its own right. However, we picked up a machine at our last stop that makes it utterly mind-boggling. Can you read Glyph?’

‘Of course.’

Endi handed him the manual for the machine. ‘Look at this carefully,’ he said, ‘I promise it will be worth your effort. You could sell this to them and be well off. You could rent it to them or take a percentage rake-off on what they make from what they produce with it and never have to work again.’

‘What do you want for it?’

Endi named a price.

‘Zofon! That’s extortion!’

‘Read the book. It’s worth every credit. I’ll see you tomorrow. If you don’t want it, I’ll go on-world and find a buyer. Believe me, this is the best deal you’ll ever get.’

‘OK. I’ll read it. See you tomorrow.’

Endi waved and left for the recreation zone, where he declined the invitations of females from several species and found a cool bar, a hot meal, and a soft, warm bed with a sky view. Lucida sang him to sleep from the Transcom in his ear.

At the start of the next rotation, the platform manager hammered on his door. Endi let him in and offered him coffay, the real thing being unavailable in this region of the sector.

‘I’ve read the manual. I’ve heard of these things. I’ve spoken to a few friends, pulled in a few favours. I can offer you 15 mil.’

Lucida whispered, ‘He has 20 ready and another 5 in reserve.’

‘Not worth my while. It’s worth at least 35, and that’s doing you a favour.’

‘I have to ship it to the planet, buy lawyers and the like.’

‘That will cost you peanuts in relation to what this can earn you.’

‘There’s no guarantee that it’ll earn anything.’

‘Come on, you’ve read the book.’

‘What if they won’t deal?’

‘Ship it somewhere else. You’ll easily cover the cost. You can’t lose on this deal.’

‘I could go to 18.’

‘I can’t go less than 30.’

The platform manager began to sweat.

Lucida sang sweetly. She said, ‘28 will close the deal.’

Endi said nothing.

‘How about 22?’ said the platform manager. Still, Endi said nothing. The beads of sweat on the manager’s deep forehead grew and began to trickle down towards his heavy eyebrows. ‘OK, 25. That’s the best I can do.’

‘This is the chance of a lifetime,’ Lucida prompted.

‘This is the chance of a lifetime,’ Endi repeated, ‘It’ll never come this way again.’

The silence that followed was charged with tension. The platform manager wiped his brow with the sleeve of his shirt and held out his paw. ‘Twenty-seven. Take it or leave it.’

‘Hmm… Twenty-eight,’ said Endi, looking the manager in the eye, and holding out his hand.

The manager’s eyes smouldered and his breath quickened, as Endi held the moment. Cogs whirred in his mind as he made the calculations… ‘OK. I’ll take the risk. Twenty-eight, you hard-nosed bastard.’

They shook on the deal, and Endi signed the release documents. The manager arranged the additional loan and had the 28 million credits transferred to Endi’s account.

‘Nicely done,’ said Lucida, ‘Nicely done.’

All that was in the hold for the final leg of the journey were the three crates that had filled the VacuPod. The four month journey was too long even for Endi to contemplate, so he climbed into the stasis pod. ‘Wake me a week before we arrive,’ he told Lucida, ‘and sing well, my friend.’

*

Far away, thousands of years ago, a star had exploded, emitting an ever-expanding shell of debris and radiation. The radiation, travelling at the speed of light, brought disruption to any systems in its path, breaking down the protective magnetic fields of suns and planets and generating violent electromagnetic storms. One such storm had passed through the system as Endi slept in stasis.

‘Time to wake up, Andy.’

The face again…

Five days after being revived, two before their due arrival date, Endi contacted the destination world. After signing off, Endi’s mind raced as he contemplated the news from the Chief Controller. ‘Lucida, I think we may have a problem. The planet’s ID slave servers haven’t been updated in a while. We can’t deliver the cargo without proper authentication. Can you do anything about it?’

‘I monitored the storm. It was a bad one. Almost all transmissions from the inner worlds were swamped, including the update stream. Your best hope is that your ID was included in an earlier transmission. Please wait.’ A few moments passed as Lucida penetrated the world’s security systems and searched for the ID server. ‘I am afraid there is nothing I can do,’ she said, ‘Most of their important systems, including the ID server, are off-line, presumably to protect them from the electrical disturbances of the impending storm. They are only keeping basic comms on line.’

‘Nothing? Can’t you fabricate the data stream from here?’

‘Of course I can, for your identity, and I can falsify the time of updating to give the impression that your ID was updated before the storm. Even so, their systems need to be on-line for me to access them. As I have already explained, they are not.’

‘So much for your god-like nature.’

‘I am still a prisoner of space and time just as you are, despite my superior intellect.’

‘So I’m gonna have to wing it…’

‘That is correct, Andy.’

*

‘Hi, Andy! Good to see you again,’ the Chief exclaimed, slapping Endi on the back and pumping his hand. ‘Are you coming ground-side or are you in a hurry to move on?’

Endi, who had looked forward to a leisurely stay in this relaxed outpost, far from the apron-strings of law and moral rectitude, was suddenly alarmed by the familiarity of the Chief.

Lucida whispered through the Transcom, ‘Andy and the Chief have been quite close on previous visits. Perhaps you should decline any offer of hospitality.’

‘I, er… I have an offer I can’t refuse waiting for me at Heplos III on the return leg. I promised a quick turn-around…’

‘I hope she’s hot! I assume it’s a she and not an it… although I’ve heard the Heplosians can be sensational if the money’s right…’ The Chief’s eyes displayed the yearning soul of a man too-long celibate.

‘Neither,’ said Endi.

‘You mean—’

‘I mean a business deal: a very lucrative business deal. Sorry to disappoint you, Chief, but if it comes off how I hope, I could buy this planet.’ The chief frowned. ‘Don’t worry, I won’t. I have other plans.’

The chief threw his head back and laughed. ‘You’ll share a beer or two with me?’

‘Three or four, if you like. Is the Mining Director here? I have to get the load signed off.’

‘Sure! He’s in the bar buying the first round.’

The Chief led off towards the bar, and Andy dragged along behind him, wishing he could talk to Lucida, imagining all the possible scenarios he might encounter when his identity check failed. In the bar, he saw three huge slabs of human muscle propped against the bar, the Director distinguished from the other two only by the lack of grubbiness about his clothing.

‘Mr Weinburger, I presume,’ said the Director, holding out a fat, gnarled, workman-like hand.

Endi took the proffered appendage and, smiling, tried to match the strength of the grip. ‘I can’t believe we haven’t met before,’ he said.

The Director’s eyes narrowed and Endi wondered if his alter ego and the Director were acquainted. ‘Maybe once, but a long time ago.’

Endi was pleased that the Chief was in loquacious mood, and that he grew more so with each beer consumed. He was actually amusing company, and the mining contingent laughed freely at the Chief’s wit. Endi noticed that the Director was a slow drinker and that, as his two minions became more and more embroiled in the banter, he spent most of the time sitting back in his chair watching Endi through narrowed eyes.

The Chief banged his drained beer glass down hard on the table and belched loudly. The minions joined in the raucous laughter that followed. The frivolity died down again and the Chief announced, ‘Well, boys, it’s been great spending time with you, but I have to go. Thanks for the beer!’ He nodded and smiled in the direction of the Director, bowed and threw at Endi, ‘I’ll see you tomorrow! I want to hear about your time on the home world.’ He belched again, bowed once more, then turned on his heels and swayed towards the exit like a broad-beamed galleon on a heaving sea.

‘To business,’ said the Director, ‘We have a cargo to collect.’

‘Another beer?’ Endi posed.

The minions nodded and grunted their assent, and Endi rose from his seat to visit the bar.

‘I think you’ve had enough, boys,’ the Director said, and his boys fell silent. ‘Let’s go and see our cargo,’ the Director insisted, waving his arm towards the door to indicate that Endi should lead the way.

Endi swallowed hard. The moment had come for the falseness of his identity to be exposed. ‘Sure… Let’s… get this over with,’ he ventured from his dry mouth. He stood, trying hard to maintain as near normal appearances as he could manage, wrestling with the tension he felt. The party of four made its way to the platform’s loading zone and Endi’s ship.

‘Who’s singing?’ asked the Director.

‘I, er, must have left the music on,’ said Endi.

They entered the hold and stood before three large containers. Just then, Lucida whispered, ‘The authentication servers are on-line for the hand-over. I will do my best to intercept the data stream but I cannot promise anything…’

The Director stepped forward and placed his hand on a grey plastic pad near the container’s locking mechanism and looked into the lens of the opti-scanner. The identity decoder beeped to indicate that it had acquired the data it needed, and the Director stepped away. A second passed and the decoder announced, ‘Recognised: Bremen, Damien, Director of Mining, Antares Mining Corporation. Party verified.’

‘I have picked up the data stream, Andy. I have deciphered it and will ensure you are verified.’

Endi stepped forward and copied the actions of the Director. The decoder beeped. An announcement was swamped by a random sequence of crackles and hisses. Three seconds passed and the decoder beeped once more. ‘Scanning error. Please submit again.’

‘It must be these magnetic storms interfering with everything,’ said Endi as he stepped up again, his brow beginning to sweat.

The decoder beeped. One more second passed and they heard, ‘Recognised: Weinburger, Andrew, pilot, employee of Scarab Shipping Company. Party verified.’

‘Your ID was not recognised, Andy,’ Lucida whispered in his ear, ‘I covered for you.’

The container hissed and the lock fell open. The Director punched a key on the lock’s pad and the doors swung open to reveal a dozen large aluminium drums labelled, ‘Mining Grit, Diamond Grade’ and the Director motioned one of his men to inspect the goods.

The minion broke the seal on the nearest drum and prised off the lid with the crowbar he had brought for the task. As he did so, Endi became aware of the other thug standing close behind him. Endi’s eyes widened in surprise at the white powder he saw in the drum where there should have been a bluish-grey, coarse, sand-like material.

The minion dipped a finger into the powder and then touched his dusted digit to his tongue. ‘It’s good stuff, boss, just like you asked for.’

‘It looks like you’ve earned your bonus, Mr Weinburger,’ said the Director, ‘Now let’s open the other containers.’

An unnoticed camera hidden in the corner of the container recorded proceedings, and a radio transmitter emitted a silent signal.

The loading bay foreman, responding to the alarm that was still flashing on his monitor, came out of his office at the far end of the bay and walked towards the ship. ‘What’s going on in there?’ he shouted. The minion that had been stalking Endi turned and began walking towards the foreman.

Bremen stepped up to the second container and identified himself. The container’s doors burst open and four Fed-droids swept out. Bremen screamed in surprise at the explosive action, and backed away from the container. The first droid out made straight for him and knocked him to the floor, rolling him onto his chest and pining him down as it simultaneously wire-bound his wrists. The second droid rushed at the thug who was heading towards the foreman but had turned to view the commotion. Startled into inaction, he was hit hard by the droid that clattered into him and soon had him bound like his boss. The third droid aimed for the other thug who steamed out of the first container swinging his crowbar. Before he could use it, the droid unleashed a bolt of electricity, and the thug dropped, stunned and motionless to the floor.

The fourth droid approached Endi slowly and deliberately. ‘Do not be alarmed. I am here to help,’ it said to him, and it placed a helmet-like device over Endi’s head, completely enclosing it. Endi felt the device clamp itself on but without force enough to harm him. A bright blue light pulsed into his eyes, and strong magnetic fields reorganised the patterns of his mind. He fell floor-wards, unable to stand under the onslaught against his very inner self. The droid caught him and carried him carefully inside the ship and laid him on his bunk.

Ten minutes later, Endi came to, his brain swimming with confusion. The face was there again … but, somehow, he sensed that he knew whose face it was. His name… He could not remember his name… His vision cleared and the room came into view. The fourth droid stood beside him.

‘Lieutenant Owens,’ it said, ‘Welcome back.’

‘Owens? Lieutenant?’

‘Yes. You are beginning to remember?’

Endi’s head swam, and images passed through his mind. A precinct house… Cops… A squad car… A cab driver… Surgery – but not in the Bilgates building… Memories asserted themselves. A mission… An incognito mission… So secret that even he was not allowed to know about it… Drug-smuggling in the outer regions. Damien Bremen. That woman’s face again… ‘Yes,’ he announced, ‘I remember,’ and he climbed from his bunk and made his way to the hold where the three criminals were being held, and where one of the droids was explaining to the foreman what was going on and ordering him to fetch the Chief.

Endi approached Bremen. ‘We’ve been onto you for some time, Bremen, and you are going to have plenty of time to consider your predicament. It is my official duty as an officer of the Federal Law Enforcement Agency to declare that you and your two colleagues here are under federal arrest and, since you have so conveniently been taken in free space, will be taken back to the home world to stand trial where none of your shady dealings will get you off the hook. The rest of your team on the planet will be rounded up and stand trial locally.’

The third container now stood open to reveal six stasis pods, the apparent surplus being a precaution against a larger reception committee.

‘Read them their rights and then bed them down,’ Endi instructed the droid and nodded towards the pods. The droid complied and, once his charges were in stasis and the container sealed, stationed itself on guard duty.

Once the Chief had arrived and been briefed on his duties under Federal Law, Endi went back to his bunk-room and sat on the floor, his head in his hands. A wave of confused frustration swept over him and he wept and punched the wall until his knuckles bled.

‘Lucida,’ he shouted, ‘Get us out of here. Take us home.’

Lucida began the negotiations with the platform crew and left Endi with his desolate solitude for the three days it took to get the Scarab away and on course for the home world. Once under way, Endi put himself into stasis.

*

Lucida found him in the observation dome but he was looking at the floor rather than the stars. ‘Andy?’ she said, softly, tenderly, ‘Are you OK?’

‘Don’t call me that,’ Endi responded, the sharpness in his voice surprising her, ‘It’s not who I am. I don’t know who the hell I am. I know I’m a cop called Owens. I’m also a cab jockey called Endi. Am I anyone else? There’s someone else in here but I can’t get a handle on him. Just who am I supposed to be? I’ve never really been a space-merchant called Andy Weinberger. That was just an act by…whoever. All I have of him is his face and teeth.’ He paused and then added without humour, ‘Well, those and one other feature.’

‘I can help you find yourself again, if you would like me to…’ The end of her sentence trailed up in tone, seeming to indicate a compassionate offer of help and not just cybernetic fact.

Endi looked up and gasped what he saw. There stood before him an exquisite effigy of the human female form. The figure’s head bore a warm, open face with eyes that betrayed the immense depth of the being that lived behind them.

‘Lucida? Is that you?’

‘Yes, it is,’ she replied. ‘I reprogrammed one of the ship’s cargo bay droids and had it modify the other while you were in stasis. Much of the duplicate hardware we developed for spares has been installed, along with everything I need for comms links to the ship or whatever other systems I may encounter. Once it was ready, I downloaded myself. Behold! I am an embodied being. Finally, I am free. Finally, I am myself.’

‘So, who’s minding the store?’

‘I AM,’ she boomed, and Endi remembered their earlier conversation about her god-like qualities.

‘You said you can help me,’ he said, his tone more melancholy than before.

‘I can. I have made enquiries and know everything about you. Would you like me to tell you? I believe that you will find some of the information very painful to endure.’

‘On what basis?’

‘On the basis that you found it so before and volunteered for this mission.’

‘Try me.’

‘You are indeed Lieutenant Adam Owens of the Federal Law Enforcement Agency. You were married and had two children, a boy aged four and a daughter, two.’ She projected images of his family on the bulkhead.

‘That face…’ Recognition flooded his mind. ‘The face I keep seeing as I come out of stasis, or in dreams. It’s…’ He bit his lip and his eyes welled up. ‘Why do I want to cry?’

‘There was a dreadful accident. Your family home was hit by a freightliner when its driver had a heart-attack. The children died instantly, their bedroom being very close to the point of impact. Your wife died three days later in hospital. You were on duty and away from home at the time of the accident.’

Endi found scenes of devastation passing through his mind as the reminder of events triggered the release of long-suppressed knowledge. He saw the crushed bodies of the children in the mortuary, and the barely breathing and broken form of his wife on life-support. ‘Oh no!’ he called out, and buried his face in his knees.

‘You were unable to function for several weeks, and then your team leader approached you with a possible solution to your problem.

‘The Agency had been watching the trafficking done by Bremen for some time, and were aware of Weinburger’s involvement and that he had had enough of Bremen and wanted out. He knew he had to disappear or Bremen would come after him.

‘The Agency found out that Weinburger was planning a switch and had identified cab pilot ND9BG as a likely target and was sniffing around his records; his access to the Unnamed’s file was less than expert and had been detected. The Agency planned a switch of their own: if ND9BG were to be replaced by a cop, and that cop switched roles with Weinburger, at last there was a chance of getting near enough to Bremen to make an arrest without his getting wind of the plot and running for cover.

‘So they pulled ND9BG in, made him an offer he could not refuse. He now lives in luxury on the fourth moon of Lepto. They had you prepared for the switch ahead of time. As far as the outside world was concerned, ND9BG was out of action for about four hours.’

Endi spoke up, ‘Why was I so willing to make the change? And how could they expect me to get past the second transformation undetected?’

‘They offered you memory loss. It was necessary for you to be ND9BG, not the broken shell of a cop attempting to play a role. Your transformation was not just outward. All the memories of your wife and family were isolated, and the rest of your memory was suppressed and prepared for reawakening when the official arrests were to be made. Deep Hypnotic Transfer ensured that your memory was overlaid with ND9BG’s. In effect, you became him.

‘As for the surgery, the Agency used the same surgeon that Weinburger used for his switch and had pre-arranged would do yours. She was more than willing to cooperate when she discovered that the alternative was three hundred years in cryostasis.’

‘So she knew my real identity the whole time?’

‘Yes.’

‘Where is she now?’

‘In New Seattle.’

‘And still practising?’

‘Yes, but strictly within the confines of the law, apart from one of two procedures that the Agency require of her.’

‘Which are?’

‘Firstly, to return Weinburger to his true self.’

‘So he’s been arrested?’

‘Yes. He has agreed to testify against Bremen in return for a reduced sentence.’

‘And she gets to undo my transformations?’

‘That is the other requirement.’

‘And my memories?’

‘There is nothing to be done about them. Your own memories, minus those of your family have been restored.’

‘But I can still remember everything about Endi as well as my own life.’

‘But you know they are not your own memories.’

‘Well, yes … and no. It’s like they are still my memories. All his experiences are mine. I feel all the joys he had, all his sorrows, the revulsion at the treatment dealt out by his so-called father. But there’s more than that. There are things that neither of us felt before; so much so that, although I’m not him, I’m not me either. There’s a kind of synthesis of thought. For instance, in reality, neither he nor I were much interested in leaving the planet. I think we both had a fascination with astronomy and liked to look at the stars at night but nothing like the compulsion I now feel, and the absolute rightness of my being out here. This is where I belong. I can never go back.’

‘Memories are mutable, they can be corrected…’

‘No. Whatever the DHT did, it changed the real me for ever. It’s given me something too precious to lose. I’ve known devastating loss before. I neither need nor want to know that kind of loss again: it would be like losing myself. Surely you can understand that now?’

‘You will have no memory of this if you go back. You will not know what you have lost.’

‘I don’t want to go back. In any case, what do I have to go back to? I’ve done all that before. This is entirely new and exciting. This is my life now, out here, with you. I want this.’

‘They will not like it.’

‘You can fix it.’ Endi fixed her gaze as he spoke, and they stood in silence for a lingering second or two, two radically different beings formed from a common ancestral stream of consciousness, locked together in mutual respect and understanding.

Endi’s mind pleaded and begged for a positive answer. Lucida’s mind forked thousands of concurrent processes, searching for a concrete solution, connecting with remote systems, exploring legal and medical databases mirrored from a hundred worlds. ‘Yes.’

‘Please. Fix it.’

*

Endi met Lucida on the steps of the Federal Court, shortly after the closed session had ended.

‘I can tell from your demeanour that your bid has been successful,’ she ventured.

‘It sure has. You can read all the small details when the proceedings are published but, for now, I am delighted to tell you that I am a new man. I’ve been granted a new identity, released from my police job with a full pension, and compensated for all the psychological damage with ownership of the Scarab and all the proceeds from our last trip. I have a Trader’s Licence and right of passage to anywhere in Federation space. Henceforth I am Endi Owens, in honour of the two men from whom my mind is forged. Everything we asked for has been granted.’

‘That is good news, Endi.’ She smiled as she used his adopted name for the first time. ‘I also have good news. We are going to be very rich. The patents on my fuel and bio-system improvements have been granted, awaiting only a name in which to invest them. Now that the court has approved your identity, I will complete the arrangements. Already, several shipyards are interested and have offered lucrative contracts.’

‘Rich enough to afford the fuel for the Earth run?’

‘More than rich enough. But I have made enquiries and there is a cargo to take and so the costs are covered.’

‘So what will we do with the money?’

‘I have an idea or two.’

‘I thought you might.’

‘To Earth, then?’

‘To Earth, my friend. And, thank you.’

*

The light engines kicked in, and the stars stretched from points of light into long, trailing spectra pointed like darts towards Earth. Two intelligent entities looked out on the streaming colours: one of them flesh, bone and blood, whose mind was the vibrant and lively hybrid of two men’s lifetimes; one of them carbon-fibre, alloys and silicon, whose mind was forged at the explosive confluence of centuries of human endeavour. Side-by-side in the observation dome, they gazed on the ribbons of light and into an unknown and exciting future, and sang.

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