Hollowed Memories, chapter 2, part 2

May 18, 2014

Yarec’s profession was risky and extremely physically demanding.  He was only still working thanks to extensive artificial assistance.  Once a body was sufficiently battered that it was no more use operationally, the neurophysicians made a meticulous scan of Yarec’s brain.  It was supposed to capture every dendritic branch and the connections at every synapse, so they could imprint all the chemical and morphological features onto a freshly grown cortex, in a new body grown from his own DNA.  In this way, his memories and consciousness passed from body to body.  There was a continuity of self, and some might have called it immortality.

However, a process this complicated did not work perfectly in every instance.  Sometimes agents woke up after a transfer with pieces of their memory missing.  The recollections were not usually gone; they were just inaccessible—blocked by some imperfection elsewhere in the duplicate brain.  Such minor glitches were not usually permanent.  Very often, the memories would come back after another transfer—the lost days or years just there again when the patient awoke.  That was a frequent scenario, and the best one, but the human brain was a complicated ball of glial cells and nerve fibers.  Sometimes, the memories had other ways of coming back, and they were not always perfectly intact when they did.  Moreover, with too many consciousness transfers, the small errors did gradually begin to accumulate.  Ultimately, it could only be a downward slope—slow enough for most patients to last scores of iterations, but not forever.

Yarec ran through some memory exercises.  Their word patterns had a soothing familiarity.  He enunciated the sounds clearly but softly, as he pulled on a set of garments appropriate for venturing out.  The illogical nuggets of verbiage came easily, proof that he hadn’t suffered any major loss of cognitive function.  If I ever forget these drills, then I’ll know I’m in real trouble, Yarec thought.

He exited the hospital, which was a separate two-story building constructed on the ship’s underdeck.  Glass doors, tinted to allow perfect transparency from the inside but appearing dark as bonfire smoke to anyone peeping in from the exterior, slid open with a friendly whirr as he approached.  Overheard, the sterile pastel ceilings of the clinic were replaced with gray metal plates and massive arching girders, crusted with salt and rust.

The ship was old—not ancient enough to predate the economic collapse of the superpowers, but nearly so.  It had been constructed by one of the first generation of fractious successor states, but the mighty shipyard that birthed the vessel had rusted away long ago—lost like so many other heirlooms of humankind’s illustrious past.

Atop the ship sat a tall bridge complex, bristling with the stalks and finials of half a dozen communication and surveillance systems.  Around the bridge spread the flat expanse of the landing deck.  The vessel belonged to an era when airplanes were still plentiful, swarming like hot wasps across the skies above the battlefield.  The carrier still supported a squadron of fixed wing fighter craft and a number of helicopters, but most of the cavernous hangar deck was now occupied with medical and manufacturing facilities.

Yarec left the transfer clinic wearing an off-white gown and a pair of brand new but ill-fitting boots, whose soles clicked against the riveted floor of the hangar deck.  He crossed past the blocky command core, hanging like a cubical stalactite from the bottom of the bridge.  He would probably receive his next assignment there in a few days, but he avoided the place now.  He found his way to a familiar staircase and descended, down into the old gray-enameled tunnelways of the ship.

His fingers ran lightly over the spiraling guard rail.  The paint had been worn off near the top of its cylindrical surface by the passing of so many grubby hands.  Yarec stepped off the steel mesh steps at the second landing.  With a jaunty twitch, he ducked through an open hatch into a vaulted corridor and set off at a brisk pace, in search of some old friends.

There were cabins along the hallway, for visitors and the permanent officer corps.  If space was needed in the clinic, they would bunk Yarec here.  There was room on the carrier for nearly fifteen thousand sailors, but Yarec knew that it had probably never been crewed to capacity.  The number on board never rose beyond a thousand nowadays.  This passageway was almost empty, and there were lonely clanging echoes was he walked.

Yarec turned a corner and brushed past a junior lieutenant.  There was an insignia pinned to the shoulder of Yarec’s hospital gown, and the young woman turned him a perfunctory salute.  Yarec offered no gesture in reply—only a grunt of acknowledgement.

He located the stateroom he was looking for, which belonged to a retired couple.  Yarec knocked, and the oval portal swung back.  The hinges moved smoothly; the only sound was from the soft decompression of the flexible plastic bumper that made the closed door waterproof.  The mistress of this tiny homestead, who kept her front door so excellently oiled, beamed out at the visitor.

“Oh, hello!” she said airily.  “It’s wonderful of you to come by.”  Her body looked relatively young, for she had changed it many times.  Her hair, cropped short above her ears, was a thin, wispy brown, interrupted by one or two lines of gray.  Her face dimpled when she smiled, but even without a nest of wrinkles, Yarec could see something about her face that reminded him she was very old.  He wondered whether she remembered who he was.

“It’s good to see you, Elara.  It’s me, Yarec.”  Her expression did not move.  No sign of surprise or recognition or anything, Yarec silently observed.

“Come in, please,” she said softly, stepping out of the way.  “Jonah, Yarec is here to visit.”  Her husband was lying down in narrow recessed bunk.  He sat up, his pudgy frame shaking uncertainly as he moved.

“Sit down, and tell us what you’ve been up to,” the man said.  His wide face bore an innocent-looking grin—a sight seldom seen in places like this floating fortress.  That was exactly why he had come to see this pair, Yarec reminded himself—to get away from the bitterness of work.  He needed a respite from the emotionless calculation that his profession demanded.

Yarec shook a proffered hand, then dropped himself into a chair beside the room’s small square table.  Yarec looked at his host.  Nobody remembered this man’s birth name—not even he himself.  His wife called him “Jonah,” which had been one of his professional aliases—after a legendary hero who had been swallowed by a whale and given the monster its baleen throat.  Too many transfer cycles had robbed Jonah’s mind of its potency.  His wife had been an agent too, and most of her skills and memories were also gone.  They had worked together skillfully for many years, as infiltrators and thieves.  Time and again, they had returned from missions crippled or maimed, but there was always a new body waiting—cloned flesh with a blank, undifferentiated brain, ready to receive a nearly-perfect imprint of a unique human consciousness.

Eventually, however, near perfection was not sufficient.  They had waited too long to retire, as errors in their duplicate neurocircuitry compounded—until all their knowledge and tradecraft were washed away.  Now they were no real use for anything, except to each other.  It was joked that when she had first been assigned as Jonah’s partner, Elara had hated him, but that was the first thing she had forgotten.

“I just finished a job,” Yarec told them.

“You don’t look familiar,” Jonah said.  “Does that mean the job went badly?”

“Not too badly, I think,” Yarec said with a grin followed by a grimace.  “I did get pretty slammed around at the end, though.”

Elara clicked her tongue, as if she disapproved of such exploits.  “You should be more careful.  You can’t keep injuring yourself and then moving to a new body.”  Yarec wanted to offer a defensive demurral—that he was cautious, as a rule—but Elara waved him to silence with a sternly crooked finger.

“I lost a leg once, you know,”  Elara announced.  This was news indeed to Yarec, and his eyes widened.  Jonah must have known the story already, but his flat affect showed no evidence of either recognition or surprise.

“I got it shot full of pellets, and they amputated it in the prison hospital.”  She made a hacking gesture at the level of her knee.  Her husband reached over to stroke the spot tenderly as she continued.  “I was in prison, on crutches, for nearly a year.”

“Where was that?” Yarec asked.

“Point Daring,” Elara answered, “I think.”  She bit her lower lip pensively.  “No, no, it couldn’t have been.  It was… such a long time ago.”

“I lost a leg,” she picked up again after a morose pause.  “The phantom pains were hellish.  I woke up screaming in my bunk every night for weeks.”

Jonah squeezed her leg more tightly, his fingers roving high enough up her thigh to make Yarec a bit uncomfortable.  “You got out of that place,” Jonah murmured softly.  “You’re out now, starling.”  From what Yarec had seen of starlings, that seemed a rather unsavory nickname, but they were one of the few birds that had thrived through the human-wrought devastation of the major landmasses.

“Yes, I got out, and I showed a few of those guard bitches what I thought of them.  I made it back, and they naturally fitted me for a new body.  The pains were mostly gone by then, except for occasional twinges.  They got me a new body, with two legs, and the pain came back, even worse than before.  I felt like I had three legs, and the middle one was constantly being electrocuted.”

“Wow,” was all Yarec could think to say.  His mind still felt rather fuzzy from his own transfer.

“It passed eventually, but that was a bad time,” Elara sighed.  Yarec nodded, indicating his understanding.

“Now then,” said Jonah, perking up now that the story was over, “have you been down to the mess yet?”

Jonah led the way down another flight of stairs to the officers’ dining hall, where he and his wife ate every day.  The ship had originally been built with separate kitchens and dining areas for petty, warrant, and commissioned officers, as well as enlisted sailors.  However, there was no need for most of those facilities now.  The skeleton crew managed with two modest-sized mess halls, and the others had been closed off or converted into laboratory space.

An artistic crew member had painted a mural over the arched entrance to the officers’ mess, something that would never have been allowed when the ship was new and military discipline still tight.  The mural depicted a bearded personification of one of the solar system’s outer planets, harpooning enemy warships with his trident.  Waves crested around his torso, and his face was grim.  Wispy clouds drifted across the painted sky, and in the distance, a pod of whales blew froth into the air.

Jonah ducked beneath the arch and found his regular seat at an isolated table near the kitchen.  He sat down, Elara across from him, and waited to be served.  Yarec ate with them, but nobody really talked.  Jonah stared down at some fiber mash that had been reconstituted in a heavy cook pot, raising a bite to his mouth every now and then.  After the meal, Yarec shook hands with the narcotized couple and returned to the clinic.

His head was throbbing by the time he got to the head of the stairs.  According to his eyelid, he had stayed out longer than the surgeon’s instructions allowed.  Yarec generally recovered quickly from his transitions, but he still needed extra rest while his metabolism normalized.  The neurophysician would give him a stern lecture and a powerful sedative.  Tomorrow, they’ll give me another full physical exam and take about a deciliter of blood, Yarec grumbled silently.  What a joy to wake up to.

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