Authors: M M Buckner
If you purchased this book without a cover, you should be aware that this book is stolen property. It was reported as “unsold and destroyed” to the publisher, and neither the author nor the publisher has received any payment for this “stripped book.”
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
An Ace Book / published by arrangement with the author
Ace mass-market edition / February 2003
Copyright © 2003 by M. M. Buckner.
Cover art by Craig White.
Cover design by Rita Frangie.
Text design by Julie Rogers.
All rights reserved.
This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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SINCERE THANKS TO
the many friends and colleagues who advised and encouraged me, including in alpha order: Beth Boord, Patsy Bruce, William and Margaret Buckner, Tim Choate, Mary Helen Clarke, Elizabeth Crook, Deana Deck, Joe DeGross, Dustine Deming, Mary Bess Dunn, Steve Edwards, Laura Fowler, Cindy Kershner, Melany Klinck, Jack Lyle, Bonnie Parker, Nathan Parker, William Parker, Brenna Piper, Brian Relleva, Martha Rider, Nancy Skinner, Allen Steele, Rachel Steele, Robin Warshaw, Ava Weiner, and Tom Wright. And very special gratitude to the editor who believed in me, John Morgan.
The mind commands the body, and the body obeys.
The mind commands itself and finds resistance.
WE LOSE OUR
lives even as we live them. We forget the moments that formed us, what we were before, and how it was that we changed. So as of today, I have assigned myself this penance—to make a record while I do remember. Because I’m to blame for what happened. Everything was my fault I knew Merida. I knew how seductive she could be. And still I introduced her to Jin. Maybe I didn’t understand Jin as well, not at first, but ignorance is no excuse.
Jin Airlangga Sura was not just a name on my tour group list. Even I, who hardly ever downloaded movies back then, even I had seen his handsome face splashed across the Net. Jin Airlangga Sura, born in wealth, heir to a commercial dynasty. At twenty-five, the same age as me, Jin had already become a preter-famous screen idol with over a dozen movies to his credit. His elegant Indonesian looks and sultry style drove women to acts of mindless worship. When he signed up for my Irian Jaya adventure tour, I barely glanced at the letter he’d attached about what this trip meant to him. I assumed that I knew what Jin Sura would be like.
Jolie’s Trips—that was the name of my tour guide service. My extreme adventure tours drew a rich crowd—I set the prices high. Traveling on the Earth’s open surface is no stroll in the mall. What with lethal sunlight and toxic atmosphere and the cyclones blowing right out of Hades, your life depends on the right gear. Top-of-the-line airtight surface suits. Custom vehicles. Hardened communications links. Lots can happen on the open surface.
Sometimes people were surprised to find a woman guiding these trips. But once they saw me in action, they stopped doubting. Bien sûr, they may have joked about my scrawny size, or my bristly white hair, or my deviant fashion sense. But they didn’t joke about my skill.
I met Jin Sura almost exactly three years ago in Paris, on the night of November 27, 2125—before the war broke out and changed Paris forever. As usual, Rennie’s Airport Bar was sweltering hot and sticky. Can anyone tell me why they kept the humidity turned up so high in Paris back in those days? Anyway, I always met clients at Rennie’s before a trip. It was easy to find, directly under the Place Etoile launchpad. The beer was nothing special. The floor was not exactly clean. There was the constant rumble of rockets launching overhead. But the place never got crowded—by northern hemisphere standards.
We had five clients that night, three men and two women. They sat hunched up in their chairs trying not to touch anything and wearing expressions like they expected vermin to crawl up their legs. The gay bodybuilder couple from Nome.Com were holding hands. The slender, thirtyish widow from Green-land.Com was talking to a Net node she kept hidden in her purse. The other woman, an exec from Yev.Com, was closer to fifty but she had a big stout body, fit for action. I wasn’t so sure about the bloated bond trader from Canada.Com. He seemed eager, I’ll say that. He looked like he’d rather face death than another bond trade.
I drew myself a beer and caught Luc’s eye. Cher Luc grinned and mouthed a sentence at me, our private joke. “Vive les Coms!”
The Coms. Without them, we couldn’t have stayed in business as long as we did. Before the war, those fourteen commercial dynasties owned all the habitable territories in the northern hemisphere, including surface domes, tunnels and undersea colonies, not to mention the life contracts of all the rank-and-file workers. Only Com executives were rich enough to afford my trips. Born to their positions like royalty, those Commies treated Luc and me like vending machines.
What the hell, they paid in advance. For the next few days, Luc and I would give them their fright show under the open skies. They’d get their money’s worth. Yeah, making those soft Commie execs pay me—a tunnel rat—to scare the stew out of them, that made me chuckle.
Dr. Judith Merida was there, too, mooching my beer and glad-handing my clients. The year before, she’d signed on for my three-day/two-night Madagascar excursion. Judith Merida had once been attached to a Com, but somehow she’d fallen out with the top brass and lost her place. Merida couldn’t afford my prices after that first time. Still, she kept showing up at Rennie’s for the pretrip meetings.
I knew what she was up to. She was trying to snag a rich backer to fund her research. Merida didn’t have money, but she had ambitions. She ran a neuroscience clinic in Frisco, California, and she’d earned a reputation for some kind of fad cosmetic nanosurgery. The Commies knew Dr. Judith Merida by name.
In the beginning, I really liked Merida. Short like me, but sensual and curvy, with full round breasts, the way men like. She had thick black hair, pretty Spanic eyes, and a wide mobile mouth outlined in lipstick. She was older than me, maybe a lot older. Ça va, I couldn’t guess her age. The whites of her eyes looked like granulated sugar, a sure sign of gene rejuvenation.
Dr. M., I nicknamed her. She always greeted me with a kiss that left a big red smear on my cheek. What a mouth on that woman! “Jolie, you heavenly creature, who cuts your hair? You could frighten the dead!”
She had an earthy laugh and an easy way of getting next to people. Her Spanic accent made her sound way exotic. And when Dr. M. started describing her latest nanosurgery scheme, her mouth would quiver, and she’d fling out her hands. Mes dieux, but she could draw you in. You’d think she had discovered nirvana.
That night, she was shining. “Friends, life is a dream. Sí, everything we’re most certain about, what we see, hear, touch and taste—all our perceptions are mere chemical signals manufactured in our brains. They may not refer to anything outside ourselves. Our brains create colors, flavors and sounds that don’t exist in abstract reality. Perhaps we’re sleeping, dreaming the world.”
Merida strutted around like a flirty bar singer, lifting her beer glass. “You’ve browsed the Science Channel, sí? The physicists know that nothing is solid. This beer, this room, even you, my excellent friends. Just waves of energy. Transient particles. Vibrating loops in vast empty space.”
Her eyes smoldered with emotion, and my clients unconsciously leaned toward her. “How do you define the present moment? You can’t. It has no dimension. Everything has occurred in the past. We think we remember. But memories—they’re only phantom chains of molecules woven in our brains. If we can’t trust our senses or our memories, how do we know what’s real? What if we’re caught in a maze within our own dreaming brains?”
Merida let the silence lengthen. She pranced among her listeners in the elevated boots that made her seem taller. Slicing her eyes back and forth, she held them spellbound. “What if only one of you is real, and all the rest of us are characters in your dream?” Then she leaned forward and hissed, “You already know the truth!”
The Commies drew back in surprise. The fat bond trader spilled his drink on his pant leg. Merida leered at each of them in turn. “Sí, you know. But the knowledge lurks under the surface of your consciousness. You can feel it like a nagging suspicion, something you’ve thought about many times, sí? At the quantum level, your brain registers more input than you realize. You know the truth! I can show it to you!”
“How?” asked one of the bodybuilders.
“With simple nanosurgery, my friend. I have developed a nano-sized robot to travel into your perception centers and activate your latent senses. Perfectly safe and painless, I guarantee. My nanobot will make you smarter man all your friends. You will gain a new kind of sight!”
The Greenland widow asked for Merida’s Net address. The bodybuilders took it, too, and I saw the bond trader record a memo in the Net node he wore strapped to his wrist. Those Com execs were sucking in Merida’s scam like a bunch of babies. Dr. M. had them in her palm, all set to put the squeeze on.
But then everything fell apart. Merida touched the widow’s shoulder. “When will you visit my clinic, señora? Next week? How about Monday? Let’s set the date now, sí?” She was standing too close, breathing in the widow’s face. Even I knew the aristo snobs didn’t like that.
“No, that’s not convenient for me.” The widow backed up several steps and tripped on the bond trader’s foot. When Merida followed, the widow squeaked some excuse and fled to the ladies’ room.
Merida whirled on the others as if they were escaping prey. Her expression went naked and predatory as she moved closer. I saw the bond trader’s eyes widen. “My friends,” Merida raised her voice, “we must set the date. I can make you smarter than God, but nothing begins till we set the date.” She pointed her handheld Net node like a gun. “Open your calendar,” she said to the bond trader.
He stuffed his hands in his pockets and didn’t answer. The bodybuilders became engrossed with Rennie’s slot machines. The woman from Yev.Com simply turned her back. Poor Merida, I’d seen it happen before.