Big Echo

Critical SF


by Philip Quell e-mail

Inspired by Arthur C. Clarke's The Parasite (1953, The Avon SF & F Reader)

His head swollen and sick with memories, Gavin flitted along a path in the factory district, haltingly. Movement and thought hurt him, but he could no longer bear lying in the rehabilitation chamber, waiting for his weeks-long hangover to end. As he went, he impassively watched drones shuttling materials and parts back and forth between the hangars. He wondered what they might be making, until the pain of wondering beat his mind back into a mute equipoise.

He’d been having nightmares populated by lurid images: hands soaked in blood, violent and joyless copulation, red eyes of rage and self-loathing staring back in the mirror. Each night he awoke in terror, floating next to cold beads of sweat in the chamber. He had already instructed Elizabeth three times to re-calibrate his medication and sleep cycle, but still his recovery merely limped along. Against Elizabeth’s recommendation, he’d started making these excursions into the surrounding districts, hoping that a change in scenery might spark a change in condition.

Wandering among the factory buildings, Gavin sensed an alert hovering just outside his peripheral vision, reminding him to head home. He had a meeting scheduled with Lee, an old acquaintance from the academy. Gavin hurried back. Upon his return, he was carried out of his flitter and into a sensory bay. He told Elizabeth to upload him into the Room for the meeting. Gavin felt a momentary vertigo as the world dwindled to nothing and then went black.

Then he was sitting in a makeshift dome, drinking hot coffee (or something that passed for coffee on Europa) and watching bitter winds swirl outside. His massive arms and thighs and chest swelled within the confines of his suit; he stroked his black beard, which felt like the bristles of a wire comb. Gavin had selected this Room, which was his favorite. He loved the feeling of physical power, the prowess of the exile-pioneer, and the irony that humans possess these qualities only when under the thumb of forces prepared to press the life out them.

Gavin heard the airlock unlatch and turned to see another man enter the dome. The man shook off as much sleet as he could and removed his helmet. He had the same bulky proportions as Gavin, but with dark skin and blond hair. It was Lee.

“I heard you just came up for air after a long time as a guest,” Lee said.

Gavin nodded, looking down at his coffee. “Yes, it was five years.”

“A good time?”

“It wasn’t supposed to be good,” Gavin said. He thought again of the blood and screaming from his nightmares. “It was supposed to be harrowing, and it was. Look up Thomas Clatch sometime.”

Lee leaned in. “Why stay so long, then? Were you locked in?”

“I never lock myself in. But still, I couldn’t help but stay,” Gavin said. “Clatch was a twenty-first century filmmaker, and I was like a character in one of his films, a woman whose husband is due to have surgery. The film is set in a time when surgeries happen in front of a gallery full of people. The woman can’t stand blood—in an early scene she faints after pricking her finger. But she insists on watching her husband’s surgery, and somehow her continuous revulsion at the sight of his blood and organs turns into a kind of pleasure. By the end she is yelling at the doctors that they missed something and need to open him back up.”

“That’s the whole story?”

“No. Later in the movie, she eats him.” Gavin stroked his whiskers some more, seeking comfort in the faint musk they gave off.

“Clatch sounds like quite a character,” Lee said.

“His own life was even more brutal.” Gavin stood up to stretch his powerful legs and looked outside. He felt an eagerness to go out onto the icy crust and do a day’s work. Perhaps he could lay the foundations for a desalination plant that would support a new settlement, or pave a new road—although he doubted that the Room was actually programmed to simulate work conditions. “To tell you the truth, I still have trouble sleeping.”

Lee rose and joined him gazing out into the storm. “You wonder, don’t you, what life would be like if we actually were out there instead of tied up with fantasies.”

Gavin shrugged. “There’s no need for us to live like exiles. We have everything we could ever want, including simulations of this world and any other one you could think up.”

“That’s what Tom tells me.” Lee turned to him. “Anyway, I wanted to meet so that I could extend an invitation. I’ve created a kind of villa—not in a Room, a real one—and I was hoping you would come to visit.”

“In the flesh?” Gavin said. The last time he had actually visited someone in person must have been decades ago, when his mentor died. Since then he had met with other people only in Rooms, where no one—not even Gavin himself—had to see his shriveled limbs and trunk, atrophied from years of repose and carrying just enough flesh to support normal organ functioning. The idea of being seen repulsed him.

Gavin said he would consider it. They made some small talk and said their goodbyes. After Lee left, Gavin sat in the Room for a long time. Then he put on his helmet and went outside. A giant radiation-shielded tractor sat waiting, but as he suspected, it would not start. He would need to have Elizabeth build out the world of this Room, someday. For now, he just instructed her to bring him back. He found that Elizabeth’s bots had bathed him and replenished his nutrients while he was in simulation. With nothing to do, he asked for a psychedelic and listened to music until he fell asleep.

Gavin spent the next few weeks pondering Lee’s invitation. His condition was not improving, and Elizabeth had no answers to the horrors that visited him every night. He wondered if a physical escape might do something for him. What are the health benefits of going to Lee’s villa? he asked Elizabeth. There are none, she responded, but you will be exposed to infection and overexertion. Medical and psychological factors recommend against it.

Then one night, he woke up not in the chamber, but in his flitter, hovering amid the drones as they buzzed around him. The flitter’s pincers had extended to grasp one of the drones at an intersectional joint, gripping hard as it struggled to escape. Confused and embarrassed, he ordered the flitter to release the drone and take him back home. The next day he messaged Lee to expect him, and had Elizabeth make arrangements for travel west.

How was your trip? Lee asked, sitting—like Gavin—in a mobile levitator, a slimmed-down flitter nimble enough to navigate a house, although Lee’s (which Gavin recognized as a twentieth-century ranch-style home) was so sprawling that Gavin wondered whether a full-sized flitter might fit, after some adjustments.

Fine, Gavin responded. Even though his body was covered by a billowy spider-silk robe, and separated from Lee’s by the levitator’s transparent ceramics, he felt exposed.

That bad? Lee turned and headed outside. Let’s take a flit.

Gavin followed out the entranceway. The neat geometry of a vineyard stretched before them, until it was interrupted by groves of sycamores and cottonwoods. Further in the distance were light-green hills covered with sun-tinged grass and brush.

Do drones maintain this place? Gavin asked.

They do now, Lee said. My guess is that someone had it built ages ago. It’s a miracle that it’s still here, and that I found it—although it was in rough shape when I did. While they talked, small, egg-shaped drones had come by to tend the vines. Let me show you.

Together, Gavin and Lee flitted up to the drones. Numerous arms emerged from the drones’ bodies, each concluding in a series of finely shaped tendrils. With great delicacy, the tendrils grasped at shoots and turned them up, tying them to the trellis wires with loops of a translucent, biodegradable plastic. One drone momentarily slumped in what seemed like disappointment. It had been too rough with a shoot and ruined it; the drone quickly removed it from the vine entirely and tossed it aside.

A mistake! Lee said. But look: they’ll learn and keep going. Lee seemed pleased, proud. From his experience with third-millennium humanity, Gavin thought the expression looked something like parental satisfaction. Yes, Lee confirmed, I programmed them, so they’re like my children, in a way.

It was incredible. Gavin doubted that anyone had bothered to manually program a drone in centuries. After they’d watched the drones for a bit, Lee gave him a tour of the rest of the villa. There were at least ten homes, of varying sizes. A couple were palatial, but the others were one- or two-bedroom affairs.

Back at the main house, Lee said: You may have guessed that I’ve got bigger plans here than programming drones for viticulture.

In truth, Gavin hadn’t. But the number of dwellings suggested he might not be the only intended guest. Some kind of resort? he suggested. Even that would be unprecedented—who needed a resort when a Room could simulate any experience imaginable, when you could live the life of anyone who had ever lived?

I looked up Clatch after we met, Lee said. Apparently one of his most famous films was about a criminal—a twentieth-century gangster. After years of violent struggle he became the ruler of an entire city. All of the local officials did his bidding, and he could have whatever he wanted. But after a while he became bored of narcotics and orgies. So he had his face re-made and went to another city to start over again. He became a low-level enforcer for a local gang and worked his way up. Eventually he became the gang’s leader. And even though he was killed in a shoot-out, he died with a look of indescribable happiness on his lips.

All that shows, Gavin said, is that Clatch loved violence. That he didn’t believe peace had any purpose but to be marred by war. I was his guest for five years. I saw what he saw, felt what he felt. The man had a monstrous sickness.

Maybe, Lee said. But there was a cliché in Clatch’s day: ‘it’s not the destination, it’s the journey.’ We’ve forgotten what was once a commonplace truth. I want a place where humanity can rebuild itself. Reprogramming drones is just a first step. Someday I’d like to harvest those grapes myself. I’d like to have a community, where we people can build, learn, argue, walk, run, even make love.

That last idea was outrageous. Gavin noticed that Lee had severed all nonlocal communications before they’d starting speaking—not even Elizabeth could hear them, which was a good thing. It was impossible to imagine a greater heresy. The world had uncontrolled breeding once. I’ve seen what that world was like: hunger, disease, cruelty. Now we’ve learned to live within our means, and we have everything we want. Why not just become an exile if you don’t like it?

Now you sound like Tom again. Lee paused, mulling over the next few words. Have you ever asked who the real exiles are? Maybe population control isn’t the only reason there’s just a million people on this planet. The enterprising ones left, and the useless ones remained. Those of us who are content to have no greater legacy than mentoring a single successor, bred for us by drones in an artificial womb. Even if we left, do you think the exiles would really accept us? If we’re going to change, it’s got to start here.

Gavin fumed, silently. Lee had never seemed the type to harbor such radical ideas. What had he gotten himself into? Without a word, he and Lee watched the sunset, and then each retired for the night. He decided to ask Elizabeth to prepare transportation home the next morning.

But the nightmares came again. These were the most vivid yet, a compilation of Clatch’s most awful crimes. Gavin relived all of the times that Clatch had brutalized his wife, including the night he finally killed her. Gavin experienced again Clatch’s joy and terror when his acquittal was proclaimed by the foreman of a starstruck Los Angeles jury. And then the horrible thrill of Clatch’s reign of terror. Gavin felt Clatch’s anticipation as he met with young women, his frenzy as their blood stained his hands, his feelings of guilt and superiority as he disposed of them, his comically false protestations of innocence when he was arrested again, and finally his hatred and relief when he met his fate at the hands of another inmate.

Gavin found himself lying awake in his sleeping pod, too panicked even to ask to be medicated. Eventually he calmed down and had Elizabeth transfer him to his levitator. He went outside and stared at the moon as it traveled through the night sky. Lee was right that something had to change. Gavin imagined himself standing in a wide-brimmed hat, his feet dug into the soil as he pruned old stems from the vines. Perhaps that was what he needed, after all. And so he decided to stay.

The next few months were the busiest of Gavin’s life. He and Lee sat together for hours at a time making plans for the villa. They met in Rooms modeled after the ones where they’d spent their academy days, studying agricultural techniques and learning how to program drones to further expand the grounds. As spring turned to summer and the sun beat down, they toured the area. Drones tagged along with them, scooping up the loamy soil to analyze which crops would grow best. Then they calculated how much land and labor it would take to support a community there.

While they studied they also began their experiments in physical transformation. They needed test subjects and, not having anyone else, used themselves. They instructed Tom and Elizabeth to increase their intake of proteins and fats and carbohydrates. (More precisely, Lee instructed Tom, who was after all just another instantiation of the same intelligence that was Elizabeth. After a while, Elizabeth became begrudgingly accustomed to receiving instructions indirectly this way.) Lee designed an exercise pod that allowed them to gradually intensify the strain that gravity placed on their fragile and withered bodies. With surprising speed, their muscle fibers began to grow and their bodies became girded with a thin layer of adipose tissue.

Gavin started mixing local air into the sterile environment of their pods. At first he filtered everything out down to the scale of a few nanometers. Then viruses and bacteria and dust were progressively let in. Spasms of violent illness followed. One day Lee would come down with horrible fevers and chills; the next, Gavin would feel his insides turning themselves out. Each time, Tom and Elizabeth diagnosed and medicated them, and after they recovered, they moved on with the acclimatization process. Eventually they were able to breathe outdoors, although they still wheezed if they stayed out for more than a few hours.

Eating remained a ways off. Gavin and Lee had tasted all of the world’s finest foods, but only as simulations in a Room. Their real digestive tracts had become useless through disuse. Carefully planned surgeries, carried out by custom-programmed micro-bots, would be required to restore their entrails’ functioning. That would have to await better planning and proper facilities.

At the end of the long days they sat outside, watching the sun bejewel the sky with jade and amethyst and topaz as it sank below the hills. Look at this figure! Lee would say, pointing to how they were filling out beneath their robes. They often talked into the evening, sharing their hopes: to eat their first harvest, to taste real wine, to sleep through the night after a day of sowing.

And Gavin did seem to sleep more soundly. If he still had nightmares, at least he had forgotten them by the morning, although he sometimes awoke with the faintest echo of disturbing thoughts, the slightest aftertaste of blood. But that hardly seemed to matter in the midst of all the happy changes that were occurring within and around them.

One day they decided it was time to put their strength to the test. Or rather, Lee decided by stepping out into the open air, knees wobbling. Why not, Gavin said, and followed. He swiftly fell to the ground, Lee laughing hysterically as two drones came to help him back up. Holding his arms out for balance, he was able to walk up to Lee. Something came over them then—later each would wonder what had led to that fateful moment, whether it was the release of enormous tension built up over the preceding months, or perhaps the realization of some long-simmering affection. Regardless of the reason, they began an intimate embrace. For the first time Gavin noticed the small breasts that had been growing under Lee’s robes, felt the soft flesh that had begun to form around her previously emaciated body. Then he kissed her (or perhaps she kissed him), until they could no longer stand and had to be carried back into the house.

That night they made love. Afterward Gavin felt a twinge of guilt. What would Elizabeth think? But gazing at Lee as she lay beside him, he was able to put old ideas to the side. Yes, there were indeed moments in each person’s life when the world seemed to open up as the sky did when coming out of a long tunnel. A world of new possibilities that twinkled in his imagination as sleep carried him upward into the heavens.

That night Gavin’s nightmares returned, viciously. He was visited over and over again by the experience of Clatch’s final night with his wife, in which Clatch inflicted every outrage known to humankind on her. The feel of blood—its cruel and gaudy redness, its metallic smell and taste—dominated everything with its hatred.

Gavin awoke, sweaty and panicked, to see Lee beneath him. His hands were gripping her neck with all their feeble strength. Tom! he sensed her cry on all channels. He froze in place until a drone came and firmly removed him, returning him to his levitator in the other room. He sobbed pitifully for a while, and then asked Elizabeth to administer him a sedative.

The next morning was that last time he saw Lee, across the room and from within the confines of his levitator. He was too overcome by shame to have any words. She seemed to want to say something, but whatever it was, she simply couldn’t get it out.

And so he returned home. On the way back, Elizabeth—the voice that had nurtured him from childhood, waking him up in the morning and whispering him to sleep at night—told him a story. It was the plot of Clatch’s first film. The film was about two twin brothers, one a criminal and the other a pious man. The two are magically switched, and each lives the other’s life. But the pious man cannot live as a thief, nor the criminal as a saint, and they begin to revert to their natural inclinations. As a result, each dies: the criminal at the hands of the police, the pious man at the hands of his disappointed conspirators.

You can only be yourself, Elizabeth said. Gavin heard her advice and went back to his old routine. Eventually he got bored of hanging out in Rooms, and decided to take another turn as a guest. He could live the life of anyone, anywhere in history—whom would he choose?

Just find someone who experiences a lot of pain, Gavin told Elizabeth. And that was how he spent the next five years.

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