It's interesting, what an afternoon home sick trying to entertain yourself will do to your authorial morale. I've been skimming the Wikipedia 'Articles For Deletion' discussions - fascinating little mini-sagas of the effort to be neutral and altruistic on the Net - and have been encouraged not to worry, because comparatively speaking, I don't HAVE any readers. Thus, there's little-to-no chance thousands will gather and jeer and eventually make an Internet-wide fetish of my incompetence.
....Still, it might just be worth pointing out that I can spell, OK? I can spell REALLY REALLY WELL, as a matter of fact. Except the parts that I deliberately misspelled, for effect. That is...oh, the hell with it.
To confuse the issue further, this isn't the same saga I was on about a few weeks ago; it has roots in a few of the same places, though. I actually started this one 'way back on the old forum, but got sidetracked - hard - when it became evident that I'd have to introduce some actual plot at some point. The idea now is, I post the setup chapters over a few weeks, by which point I will have made a decent start on the plot part and be posting that.
If anyone wants to follow along, feedback is welcome as usual. Just realise that this is still a very rough draft, 'kay? And overlong, and probably embarrassingly naiive if not derivative. But it is - I cannot stress this enough - very well-spelled. (Also, on the off-chance, copyright asserted etc.)
People think it must be pretty cool, to have a perfect memory. Total recall. Impress your friends, win big on the vid-quizzes, look suave at parties.
Until it sinks in that total means everything. Every single thing you’ve ever experienced. Every decision you ever make - and here on the Pirate Moon in 2258, there are a whole lot of choices, none of them very subtle -every second of every waking hour, you’re trapped with the consequences; from transcendent joy all the way down to raw, tearing wounds...and neither one ever, ever heals. No merciful fades, no selective rewrites, no soft-focus filters. You never do realise how essential it is to be able to lie to yourself until you can’t.
Now, imagine that on top of all this…that you can read minds. Not always when you want to; usually, in fact, when you don’t. Meaning that at least decent chunk of those memories, those decisions, aren’t even yours to begin with. You’re walking around with pieces of random lives in your head and half the time you can’t even figure out whose they are, let alone what the context must’ve been.
You know stuff about total strangers – stupid stuff, like why they’ll never risk kava-berry juice for breakfast again. Intimate things, like the way the curve of their wife’s inner thigh felt when they last made love…
…the stuff that flashes through their heads, when they die.
And the one thing that keeps you half-way sane, keeps you what’s usually called grounded, is…six other minds. Six other people in the same boat. Except the part where one of them's an alien, of course.
So…yeah. Welcome to my world.
It didn't start out that way. My parents had come here voluntarily, from Earth, so they were better off than most – far better than I was able to understand, at that point. Mom was Elisabeth Reyes, one of the pioneer crewmembers on the original Astra deep-space program and now an engineering consultant planetside.
That meant an actual plasticrete condo in the IASA complex – a massive sprawling thing, like a funnelrat’s warren, humming and whirring and populated by people in suits spouting exotic jargon. All the latest tech, including a line back Home. Friends dropping by at all hours, still in suits but now clutching drinks, muttering about how things were going from bad to worse ‘outside’.
The only flaw in the hypothesis was a shy, solemn kid who looked more or less like he was being held together with paperclips, both inside and out. My full name is Joshua Alejandro Ramos, but nobody’s ever called me anything but Josh, very possibly out of disappointment. Not that my parents were ever unkind; at least, I don’t think it would’ve occurred to them that they were. Just...uninterested. I always wondered why they’d bothered with something as mundane as parenting in the first place. Later, when I twigged the biology of it, the more details I got the less plausible it seemed.
“Eyes on him like a little gip in those horror vids,” I overheard our housekeeper mutter, when I was around four. “He needs to be run around, make some noise. Instead of just sitting there staring off into space. Then they complain because the food’s off the reg. I ask you, what am I supposed to do with that sitting here, knowing-like?”
The funny part is, I didn’t actually know anything, then. In the long history of fictional – and semi-fictional - telepaths, as far as I can gather, none have ever developed the knack at an opportune time. I used to feel really sorry for them.
There were other things, though. I don’t remember - hello, irony - a specific moment when I first realised I could trust my memory implicitly, that I had access to what others didn’t, not even the adults in suits. Nobody ever explained that it was unusual to be bored with toys and games and picture puzzles, just because you had them memorized at a glance. Scoring perfectly on every interlesson, every time, now, that got me some attention. Sort of. The overwhelming impression I have, after the first few sets came in, is of being…watched, warily, as though I might go off any second. By my teachers, my classmates - and my father, especially. He was a good, steady corporate drone, and he liked it that way.
I did figure it out, eventually, of course. But at the time, it was mostly just one more good excuse to go find things to do that didn’t involve people.
There was a paper library in our complex – a tiny, stuffy adjunct to the main library building, run by a nice dignifiedly eccentric retired couple, the Lobels. They had belonged to the Society for Literary Preservation, back Home, and I guess had felt the missionary call. Anyway they had commandeered a real green baize carpet, and conscientious-looking plants hanging in odd places, and above all shelves and shelves of books. Real old high metal shelves, carrying everything from picture books to encyclopaedias, crammed closely enough together for a kid to wander through without anybody noticing much.
Not that it would've mattered much if they had.
I can still see myself, prowling the shelves from end to end - poking, prodding, even sniffing, exactly in the way of a small critter instinctively satisfied with a burrow…Honestly, the few times Mrs. Lobel came by – to check on why the Oxford Unabridged Dictionary had suddenly grown sneakered feet, I’m assuming - I was mostly just surprised that anyone had to look for me, something along the lines of Jesus in the temple.
So after awhile, she would retire bemusedly back to her desk, and I returned to where I belonged, curled up at the base of a random shelf, knees drawn up and head bowed down to the page.
Looking back, it feels kind of like a baby trying to feed its own restless, omnivorous hunger. Not so much understanding the ideas I was taking in as absorbing them; reveling in the music of the words and the play of the drama - accepting romance and comedy and tragedy and mystery and fantasy all together, fiction and non-fiction a world complete, without conscious question. If it wasn’t real, then it should be, and that was that.
“What’s this, now?”
I blinked. Looked up.
The speaker wasn’t Mrs. Lobel. It was a small man in a grey suit, smiling down on me as though we were merely picking up a conversation held many times before. He reached down, just as naturally, and pulled the book from my hands. Turned it from side to side, carefully keeping one finger marking my page. Then looked back at me.
“David Copperfield? That’s a bit ambitious, isn’t it?”
By now I had scrambled to my feet, having recognised him as one of my father’s fellow suits, an important one. Aways too important for us to have ever been introduced. The only reason he had caught my attention at all was his hair; it was an odd shade of light, bright gold, reminiscent of the characters in the Grimm stories I’d been reading at the time. Confused, just wanting him to go away, I dropped my eyes to the floor.
The smile didn’t waver. I could feel it there, compelling..."You’re Ramos’ little boy, aren’t you? Let’s see, you must be about…” his eyes traveled from me to the book with a considering gaze – “…ten, by now, yes?”
Thinking about my father and unpleasant surprises, I nodded reluctantly. “How very convenient that I happened to be visiting, then. Come along, I’m sure somebody’s missing you…” And before I could point out the sheer implausibility of anybody missing me, anytime, he grabbed my hand and hustled me past a startled Mrs. Lobel.
We burst into the party in our living area with an enthusiasm I’d never seen anyone display there before. “See what I’ve found, Rafe!” he announced, almost gaily. The conversation stopped, heads turned…among them my mother’s.
“Oh, yes…Josh,” she murmured. A little reluctantly…but that wasn’t new. Neither were my father’s fulsome apologies.
Golden-Hair beamed and bobbed a little on his feet, like a host on the trivid. “No, no, don’t be foolish…family is our most precious resource, yes? The next generation of space discovery, eh?” He actually ruffled my hair. “Seriously, Rafe, all I’m wondering is how you’ve kept him hidden all this long. Do you know I found him in the library? Reading this?”
He held up the copy of Dickens. Still carefully holding my place, I noticed. I pondered snatching it and running like hell, on the grounds that the Lobels would be reallyreally mad if I didn’t give it back…
My mother saw me tense, and half-rose from her chair…then exchanged glances with my father, and sat down again.
He turned back to me. “Have you read many stories like this one, Josh?” My father caught my eye. I nodded again. Golden-Hair beamed once more ‘round the room…got a round of automatic smiles…then leaned over to me, using that awkward self-importance that's an adult's idea of respecting childrens' confidence. “Can you tell me about some of them?”
It had occurred to my by now that there were ogres in those fairy stories, too. I rattled off a list of maybe ten-twelve titles.
Golden-Hair looked utterly fascinated. So, for that matter, did everybody else not related to me. “Is that so, eh? And what could a little boy of ten possibly get out of…” - he paused, clearly trying to pick a real poser out of the list…”Ulysses?”
“It’s…fun to read. The words,” I mumbled. Then…since that clearly wasn’t enough to get him out of my face… spit out a half-page or so, by way of illustration.
“Josh!” my mother broke in suddenly and sharply mid-paragraph, “That’s enough. You don’t want to bother Mr. Lysander.”
Hey, why hadn’t she said so before? I hopped backwards with alacrity.
“No, no, Lis!” Golden-Hair – Lysander – waved a hand at her. “This is really most interesting. You’d think you didn’t realise what an amazing little boy you have here!” He stepped swiftly towards me again. “You have a very amazing memory, did you know that, young Joshua?” He didn’t wait for a response, just boomed on. “Can you remember…oh, say…what you read this day six months ago? What you had for lunch?”
In a barely audible voice, I told him.
“My…my…” He beamed once more around the room, in a vague sort of way. I followed him from half-lowered eyes, certain that somebody else was about to pick up the cue and embarrass me completely. But all that happened was that he suddenly noticed the book in his hand, laughed, and ordered me to go return it. I was out of there so fast he missed my hair completely.
I went back and apologised to Mrs. Lobel…who seemed rather more glad to see me than the book…and tried to curl up in my corner again and forget the whole thing. Didn’t work. An air of being found out, of foolishness, clung to my haven now. Every time Uriah Heep spoke I seemed to see Lysander, beaming at me. I thumped the stupid book down and ran home again by the back way, throwing myself on my bed and burying my face in the pillow.
The next thing I remember is my mother shaking me awake. I shot upright…and she put a gentle hand on my shoulder to stop me. “Hullo, baby,” she said, “are you all right?”
I had no response at all. Just stared back at her. A big day for staring, in the Ramos household. Watched as her artificial brightness slowly disappeared under real…wistfulness? Acceptance? To this day, replaying it for the thousandth time, I can’t make it out. But the hand stayed in place…
Finally she told me that she was sorry if Mr. Lysander had embarrassed me that day, it was just his way, I had to realise…She broke off in the face of my evident disinterest. Tried to laugh it off a little.
“OK, OK. But he was right about you, you know. You never told us you'd read...I mean, you really have read all those books? You really can remember things that clearly? You weren’t just playing a trick?”
“No!” I shook my head as indignantly as I could. No way was I going to be labeled a freak and a cheat into the bargain.
She smiled for real, then, briefly. Then her hand reached up and pulled, thoughtfully, at one of my curls. “We haven’t done very well by you, have we, baby?”
I couldn’t answer…then realised it wasn’t actually required that I try. As the moments ticked away her eyes focussed further and further inward. “I suppose it was never really...fair...for any of us…”
I wanted to tell her that it was OK, I was fine, whatever would bring this bizarre scene to an end…except some part of me was desperately hoping it would go on for the rest of my life. So I sat quietly while she told me that no matter what, she loved me and was proud of me, and so was my father – she really did, that last bit, straight face and everything.
Come to think of it, a kid with a perfect memory would be serious hell for parents, too...I realised just enough of that in the moment to smile back at her. Then she said there was something she wanted me to remember for her, and suddenly, incredibly, she hugged me tight. Told me that it was wonderful to know so many things, everything would be wonderful, if only I always remembered too that knowing how to put them together was the most important of all.
“You understand, baby?” she said, finally, letting me go just enough to make sure. “I want you to think.”
I had absolutely no idea what she was saying – of course I thought, didn’t everybody? - but that didn’t matter. She laughed a little, and so did I, and we went out to supper.
Five days later, my mother was dead.
Nobody told me what happened. Nobody told me anything at all. People came and went and talked and gestured and sometimes sobbed – I think that was my father, but the door was closed. Locked. Whether to keep my pain out or his pain in, I didn't know that either.
I found out later that she had been the victim of a freakish shuttle training accident. And my father blamed me.
He stuck it out for a good long while, though, I have to give him that. It was nearly a whole month later I came back from the library to find an empty condo. It took several hours to realise he hadn’t come back – or come out. Another few hours, and I got up the courage to knock on the bedroom door; one more, to open it.
His clothes were gone, his computer was gone. The phones were gone. The housekeeper was gone, when I checked the kitchen. Everything was gone except the leftovers in the fridge and yours truly.
I raced back to the library. The Lobels were gone, too. Big sign on the door saying Closed for Renovations. I had no idea where they lived. No idea where anyone lived. It was summer and the classes were empty, the playgroups dispersed to offsite camps. Outside the complex was just one big all-purpose boogeyman story, instilled in all the kids there practically from birth.
So…I went back and sat in the living space for awhile. Watched some cartoons, on the trivid; he’d left the digicable account running, nice touch that. Ran over all my favourite stories in my head, pausing and embellishing the good parts – it had become a serious hobby, the last while. Actually, other than the lack of grumbling from the kitchen, things didn’t seem all that unfamiliar. Sort of peaceful, even. Until a couple days later, when the food ran out…
I had just decided that this was crisis enough to take matters into my own hands - ie, start bothering the neighbors - when the ‘com went off.
All right~! I ran to the door. Then…paused, just short of the entrance. Look, I hate stories where people suddenly ‘have a bad feeling’ about things as much as you do, but I can’t articulate it any better: I stopped cold and stood there, listening to the com repeat itself.
“Hello?” the voice called. “Is anyone there?” I knew that voice.
“Joshua?” Calm, authoritative, reassuring….and so help me, I couldn’t have moved toward that door if you’d held a gun to my head. The only thoughts going through my head were of ogres.
New murmurs from behind the door. “Yes…you’d better check, I suppose…” Lysander murmured back. I heard the numlock being keyed.
I ran. Flew out the back door, so hard I caromed right off the policeman standing there, like a pinball. He stumbled back yelling “Hey – hey – wait…” but I was already a panicked speck in the distance.
Across the complex – baffled for a second by the fence – then I remembered the gap, a path through to the wooded area behind. Went stumbling through the brush like Tarzan on flake. Burst out the other end…onto a maze of streets – picked a direction at random and…finally ran out of steam.
Somewhere in the City. Blinking dazedly at the hard, grey, unknowing bustle around me…
“Gallery’s thataway, mate.”
I blinked one last time. A pimply-faced teenager stood there, clutching a plasticase, mildly annoyed.
I must’ve looked as blank as I felt, because he sighed elaborately and started again. “Over there –“ pointing – “is where they keep the random statuary. Right here –“ indicating the doorway I was blocking – “on the other hand, is where I need to deliver this box, which is no doubt brimful of urgent Admin agendas. You wouldn’t want to be responsible for starting WWIII, now would you?”
I got it...sort of. “Um…I don’t know…” Brilliant. Try again. “I mean…um…do you have a palmcell I could maybe…call somebody…?”
He was already pushing past me. That stopped him. “You’re a bit up the jack, are you, cully?”
Yeah. Which is why I was still standing in that doorway, going “Um…” I mean, if I told him what was going on, he might insist I go back. On the other hand…I sure couldn’t go much further forward on my own. Carefully leaving out any mention of Lysander, I explained.
“Ah…” He cocked his head at me, thoughtfully, like a spotty flagpole. “I ken the trouble. What? Oh, yeah, happens all the time, mate. Parents is notorious for needing a break. Why don’t we call it debs and you port with me to where the admin scoff lost gips?”
Short pause…another sigh. “I –“ pointing theatrically to himself – “Take you – “ likewise to me – “over to the office where they keep lost small people until called for.” He finished with a wide hand flourish toward the bustle beyond. “C’mon, They’ll fix you up. I’ll even buy you a snacker, yeah?”
Yes, I should’ve known. I really, really should’ve known. But somehow it didn’t kick in…until after the first beating.
Later, as I lay in the dark, crying, it also occurred to me what my mom had meant by thinking.
If you remember your history, as soon as the push-drive was perfected, the first thing anybody thought of back on Earth…or Home, as everybody up here insists on calling it regardless of status card…was finding a way to replenish their resources. Or just to have them anyway. Colonizing the Moon, establishing bases on Mars, that was nice chest-puffery and all, but it wasn’t until a solar system that could support life without expensive modifications was found that people really started looking up.
In the standard intertexts, this is where they abruptly break in with a graphic of the International Space Admin flag: ‘From Earth to the Stars’ in as many UN languages as they could fit, against a blue background. The alliances represented therein were so desperate to get their paws on the tick, as they say, that they barely waited until that flag had been lowered on the International Accord ceremonies before the ‘Global Gold Rush’ began.
Not everybody had to be convinced, of course. Space travel had reached that pleasant balance between dashing and dependable reminiscent of the transAtlantic crossings of early twentieth-century. The texts do need room for all those inspiring stories, after all; the adventurers and dreamers and, er, global-exec-corps who decided to conquer a new frontier. I suppose they can’t really be blamed for leaving out the vast unwashed infrastructure…let alone the chaos below that. Legends just don’t work on the human scale, no matter how hard anyone tries. Which is probably also why it didn’t take long, in the first place, to occur to more influential types that they could polish up both Home and Away pretty efficiently via a fleet of of one-way passenger shuttles.
It started reasonably enough; with the chronically unemployed, the homeless, the hopeless welfare cases - there were a lot more of those around, since mechanization really took off early in the new millennium. Ship them off to a new land, fresh and unspoiled – sort of; these kinds of policies work as well for environmental waste as human – anyway, they’ll surely be inspired enough to work hard and make good and not bother decent folks’ consciences anymore. Send them off to what was called the ‘City’, at first, mostly as a sort of ironic joke.
Then came the storefronts, bars…arcades…pleasure places...chem labs, like the one I was currently residing under…then finally IASA, renamed the Authority – struggling along as best they can, considering their trooper force is also largely made up of Home conscripts. (One of the first heads of the patrol troops was actually named Earp. Everybody got a big kick out of that one).
The difference this time, though, was that when the novelty wore off there was no place for the beaten – or angry - to go. You’ve heard the equally ancient saying, ‘out of sight, out of mind?’ Yeah. Try light-years. By the time it became clear that Panandal was valuable mostly as a springboard to find some really exciting resources, ‘resocialization’ policies had become part of the legal systems. More ‘guidelines’ entered every year.
Thanks to endless inter-alliance shifts and squabbles back at the United Nations, that’s about as far, hope-wise, as you’ll ever get. There are also admin centres where, if you can prove what they promised when they sent you here, you’re entitled to some food chits and whatever leftover temp housing from the good times.
If you can’t…well, enter the chaos. The last untouchable caste, the Unregs.
Me, Josh, age ten. Abruptly dumped from a dream into...a nightmare. I know what you’re thinking, but believe me, I’d’ve been more than thrilled if the reality hadn’t matched up to the books. Instead, they surpassed them. A spinning kaleidoscope of noise and grime and pain and just flat-out crazy that doesn't care if you scream or cry or throw yourself away it just would not stop.
The only real motivation I had was not to make it worse. The only thing I could even remotely process was that no matter how extreme things got in my new ‘family’ - where I was standing, what I was doing, how I was hurting…it could always be worse. It was shoved into my face, locked into my head, and replayed at night. Not always in dreams.
It’s amazing, really, all these many centuries post-Oliver Twist, how many uses there still are for a preteen at street level. Especially when weapons are restricted. Anybody who thinks thug equals unimaginative should watch them in action after their heavy crank's been confiscated; I still have some really interesting scars, from those experiments. Picking pockets, running sensors, providing distractions…yeah, we won’t get into those distractions too deeply. The few times anybody bothered to make an offer for me, they had to drug me up, so I can’t give you any juicy details anyhow.
You get preoccupied with blocking stuff out as best you can. After a long, long while, you peek out from behind the blocks, and look around, and stuff looks… Just like Philip Marlowe, I assured myself all the while I was stealing, delivering chem, dodging the Authority generally.
Down these mean streets I must go…among them, but not of them. Even if in the meantime I had to duck them. That’s the first thing I thought about; although calling it thinking might be pushing it. Survival is first of all a matter of instinct, and all that practice I’d had at making myself invisible was paying off in more ways than one. I could not lose the books - the memories - to chem or lack of sleep or anything, anything else.
Didn’t hurt that the hoods - the senior members of the gang - they thought my memory was just about the best toy they'd ever come across. They used to bet with each other, throw out bits of trivia and see who could stump me first. I was a good little rat; I’d learned real fast that knowing who to contradict and who to let win could earn me cred. I even made one or two stabs at setting myself up as a mini-Scheherazade. Didn’t work. By the time anybody got the the stage where they’d’ve been capable of listening, they’d…much rather…I listened to them instead. Which was OK, funnily enough. I was fascinated by the way even the toughest, men and women alike, had a story to tell, some need to justify themselves. After all, I was kind of tired of being lonely, too.
So I became a small, tense expert on human nature…as viewed through Dickens’ lens…sometimes Hemingway’s…sometimes, when I was particularly desperate, Gatsby’s. Even Molly Bloom did her part. Bit by excruciating bit, the kaleidoscope slowed…and I was mesmerized. Fell right into its trap.