Voices/Future Tense

An Orions’ Arm E-zine

The Starlark: Part Two

July 4 694 a.t.

Harlan is there when I awake this time; he is glad that I recognise him. He is now sleeping in this crowded room, with three medics and three more patients; all of which have some degree of ice- damage and need a great deal of assistance to carry out their normal routine. Two of the patients have intricate silver caps over their scalps, cybernetic augmentation presumably assisting or replacing some of their normal brain or motor functions. These individuals speak in loud, broken voices and keep me awake when I should be resting in my post-hibernation weakness; I feel sorry for them, but Harlan is optimistic about their prospects for recovery

“We are giving them a range of new treatments for neural repair and replacement,’ he told me.”After a while the cybernetics will become fully integrated and these patients will be well again: they might be partly electronic, but a lot of people are these days.”
“We will be arriving at the stars as cyborgs,” I said, ruefully.
Cyborgs were fairly common back in the Solar System, but they were often unfriendly, haughty, full of self-importance, from what I can recall (with my admittedly unreliable memory).

“At least we will get there healthy enough. But the problems people are having with memory loss are still considerable; there are more people than ever refusing to go back into the freezers, and we are running out of room and life support. The ship AI thinks that he has a solution, and that you can help.”

“If there is anything I can do, I will do it; but what in all of space can I do?” I said.

“You can volunteer for a new treatment, one that Hoyle has cooked up himself. All the Arkships are sharing research and medical information with each other, as they get further apart; there is little useful information coming out of the Solar System these days. None of the ships has come up with a cure for memory loss yet, but Hoyle thinks he has a possible cure, of sorts. And he wants you, an otherwise healthy individual who has been unfrozen a number of times, to join in the trials.” “You know, I really need a bit more information before I make up my mind. Is Hoyle proposing to replace my brain with circuits, like these poor souls?” I indicated the other patients, who smiled back with broad, empty grins.
“No, not at all. He proposes to harness the power of dreams.”

July 12 694 a.t.

I must admit that I was a little apprehensive about the nature of the retrieval procedure at first; the idea of a ship’s AI poking around in my memory was a little daunting, to say the least. But now that I fully understand Hoyle’s proposed treatment, it doesn’t seem too scary at all. Even though the method seems a little bizarre, almost like something out of the nu-age pseudoscience that was rampant on Earth before the swarms. But it might just work.
Hoyle himself explained it to me, appearing on a flat screen in the sickbay ward I was in. The AI Hoyle adopts the image and personality of an old-time English professor; I have never seen an Englishman of that kind in real life, but they appear in plenty of historical simulations. With twinkling good humour and a strange didactic demeanor he described his proposal to me.

“Sit down, and make yourself comfortable; I tend to waffle on a bit, so stop me if I wander off into a digression, won’t you?

Now then. It seems to me apparent that the loss of your memories – the loss of your life’s history – is very distressing, and many others on the ship are similarly affected. If I can’t do anything about it, we will have a ship full of unhappy colonists refusing to re-enter hibernation, and almost certainly we will not have enough resources to reach the destination with a single soul alive.

But what to do, eh?
Well now.

I think that some, or many of your memories are still there, somewhere; they are just a little buried. Perhaps we can dig them up. You may have lost all your conscious recollections, but there are still almost certainly remnants buried in your subconscious. Every night, when you sleep, you may wander in those memories, recalling things your waking mind has forgotten. But every morning you forget your dreams again; this is a well-known and understood mechanism, which stops you confusing your dream-life with the real world.

For a long time there have been techniques which suppress that mechanism, and allow dreams to be recalled either partially or in full. You may have seen the commercial dream-recordings that some virtual media companies advertise for sale; a fully pre-packaged dream scenario implanted into your sleeping mind, generally associated with one of those virtual world scenarios that were popular on Earth before the Great Expulsion. Now there is no purpose in a company selling pre-packaged dreams if the customer forgets the dream immediately on waking, is there? Eh?

Indeed, there are ways of allowing you to remember your dreams. I can do that easily. But I intend to gently nudge you into recalling your lost past in your sleep. I have studied this subject in detail, both using the mass of scientific data in my databanks, and also experimentally using a number of volunteers (including Harlan, here; thank you, young man). I am now convinced that there is a subtle difference in the brain’s chemistry when you recall events from your past, whether awake or no. You might call it nostalgia: a slight aching or longing for things past, which manifests itself as a distinct and reproducible biochemical state in your brain at certain loci.

By reproducing this state while you are in REM sleep I will attempt to make you dream of your past; whatever information remains in your head concerning your past will hopefully surface, and be sorted into more or less coherent memories. I believe I can give you your past back.”

Harlan enthusiastically added that he had been subjected to this form of induced nostalgia, and had vivid dreams of his past, including things he had seemingly forgotten. But Hoyle needed to try the procedure on a number of volunteers with substantial memory loss; after a short debate with myself, I agreed to help with the trials.
After all, it was only dreaming; how risky could it be?

July 13 694 a.t.

I have now had my first induced recollection dream; I feel tired out, as if I haven’t slept. But it was a fascinating experience. I dreamt of Tyr Habitat, as it was before we left; the new zones and rings extending the space station into a vast bloated city suspended in orbit above Mars. Every one of the other habitats were grown larger too- from the few windows it was possible to see them as tiny sparks off in the deep distance. That had never been possible in the old days- the days that I can remember clearly.

But in my dream I could see all the newly built, shabby extensions to my tiny world, and hated them. Cheap, shoddy metalwork and acres of graphene slab, thronging with refugees from Mars, Earth and other devastated places. Cubic hectares of bazaars and supermarkets selling badly made goods, cheap fabricators and unappetizing foodstuffs, all lit with garish advertisements in a number of languages I didn’t recognise.

And beside me walked Rosie. I still barely recognised her, but she was acting as if we had been partners for years. Which, by that time, I suppose we had. In fact, we argued most of the time-she was quite happy to see all the new arrivals into our tiny worldlet, and was seemingly fascinated by the range of cultures and the behaviour of the incomers. I argued with her bitterly. For some reason I was not happy about the refugee situation; to be entirely honest, it is a little difficult to remember the details of my argument- it was as if I was merely a spectator to a conversation between two people I hardly knew.

Then I woke up.

It is strange; I am not sure if I can recall my love for this woman; but I feel that I know her a little better now.

July 14 694 a.t.

Two dreams this time; I was on the Martian Surface, attempting to firewall the fusion plant control systems in Cydonia city. Every control system and every nanofabrication plant on Mars had been under attack from a range of malicious viruses and worms; these seemed to spread from no known loci, but rather were being injected into the technosphere at newly created entrypoints out in the desert. Before my dream I had no recollection of Cydonia; all it seemed to be in my dream was an endless field of agricultural greenhouses, indirectly lit by vast fields of petal-mirrors but roofed with protective water-tanks. The city, such as it was, could be found underground.

Mars had a class of slaved robots, some of which were very humanoid in outline, capable of going out onto the surface and working in the thin atmosphere; I dreamt about the thin atmosphere, and how it was slowly getting thicker and thicker thanks to the terraforming projects. Our fusion plants provided energy to innumerable atmosphere plants, busily producing CO2, water vapour and nitrogen. Not much oxygen yet- that would follow, once the planet’s surface was warm and wet enough to support plant life. In many places around the equator it already was.

Rosie wasn’t with me in this dream, but a friendly Martian minor tweak took me out onto the surface. He could breathe the atmosphere without any equipment, but I needed rebreather gear. Most of the people on the Martian surface were either tweaks, or had temporary gene therapy to allow some freedom of movement onto the surface.

I had another strange dream argument with this guy, this time about the robot liberation movement. As an outsider I couldn’t agree with the strict controls on robot behavior on the planet; plenty of the robots seemed self-aware enough to pass the Turing test, and were practically vecs- that is to say, independent individuals. They had to be, to cope with the dangerous Martian surface- which was changing every sol as the terraformation process proceeded. Yet they were just as slaved as the other terraforming machinery. The Martian- Yuan was his name if I remember correctly- said I didn’t have the right to an opinion if I didn’t live on the surface of Mars surrounded by robots, who might pose a real threat to the human population if given freedom of action.

Looking at the apparently dull, sad faces of the terraforming ‘bots as they trooped by on the surface made me wonder what would happen if they were suddenly liberated from electronic compulsion.

My second dream was short, because I woke from it very quickly. I dreamt Rosie and I were on board this very ship, just before we were frozen; it appears we managed to grab enough time to make love, and this dream was very vivid indeed (although I remained strangely numb, unable to feel her touch or any other sensation). Once again I seemed to be watching from outside; but her voice was so real in my head that I was sure I remembered our life together.

Or did I dream that too? In any case, I was awake much too soon.

July 15 694 a.t.

A strange dream this time, almost comic. A friend or acquaintance I didn’t recognise, but one that I apparently knew and trusted, turned up at our apartment in Tyr habitat. By listening carefully to the dream conversation, I eventually gathered that my friend’s name was Shu; she was accompanied by what appeared to be a bemused looking young woman. Almost immediately I recognised this person as a twentieth century movie star, a certain Marilyn Monroe. Obviously she – it – was a robot simulant of some kind, probably from one of the pleasure palaces on the Martian surface. But what was it doing here, in orbit, in the habitats? It seemed that Shu had smuggled the robot offworld and was looking for somewhere to hide it for a while. The robot-smugglers of Mars generally had one of two very different motivations; some were concerned with the sentient rights of the robot slaves, while others were more interested in the financial value of the machines. I couldn’t tell exactly which of these motivated Shu to get involved in this pursuit.

Simulants of this kind could pass for human in an everyday situation, but would be instantly recognised when passing through customs scanners; I never did find out how Shu smuggled the machine into Tyr.

Perhaps it was better that I didn’t know.

The Marilynbot stayed with us in the apartment for a number of days, I don’t know how long; in the dream this was made apparent by several changes in clothing by everyone concerned. I felt like I was watching a vid or some other fictional narrative; very unlike an ordinary dream. We cut the Marilynbot’s hair and dyed it (it complained quite realistically) and changed its make-up radically; soon it looked almost unrecognizable. The simulant had almost no domestic skills; it didn’t know how to operate a fabricator, or how to clean or cook or operate the home manager. But it did have a broad repertoire of amusing and rather daffy conversation, seeming very human if you did not know better.

My Aunt Julie – who looked older than I remembered her- was completely taken in, and became good friends with the Marilynbot; we couldn’t tell Aunt Julie the truth, and Rosie and I found the situation highly amusing- until the pair of them went out shopping together- risking discovery and arrest. We searched the habitat high and low for them, and eventually found them in a bar near the top Pole where the Marilynbot was singing a torch song in a quavering voice. Anyone who knew a bit of history, or frequented the dens of iniquity on Mars might have recognised it. We bundled them out of the bar, just as a couple of shady looking characters- who might have been robot bounty hunters- came in at the other door. Aunt Julie was utterly confused as we fled back to our apartment like the criminals that we were.

My final memory of this dream was a drunken conversation with the ‘bot. It was I who was drunk, not the machine, of course. It told me about a mythical robot homeland, that all the slaved sentient machines had heard about. There, the robots could become free- upgraded to full sophont status, they would be true ‘vecs. I told the bot that the very fact that it had an ambition of this kind meant that it was already sophont, as far as I was concerned; the machine looked at me with seemingly grateful eyes.

July 16 694 a.t.

This time I dreamt about the hab riots. Tyr habitat was full of displaced persons, few of whom were happy. As Rosie and I walked through the downtown spaces we were jostled and shouted at. But from what I could see in my dream we were trying to continue with our normal routine, and we were even prepared to visit the refugee shops and buy some of their hand-made garments and trinkets to show a little support.

So when the riot and chaos came we were clutching nothing more than a couple of bags of brightly coloured woven clothing; no weapons, and no food.

A great press of people was suddenly running through the bazaar; mostly Europeans of all types, they were shouting in new-English and more obscure tongues. Then we could see the cause of the problem, a large gang of Ludds with machetes, electric guns and prods shocking or hacking anyone with visible cybernetics (and a good number of people without). They were shouting obscenities against GAIA, the Great Mother, the artificial intelligence that that seized control of Earth. I wanted to shout that I had no love for that artificial demon either- by forcing the population of Earth off the planet GAIA had plunged the solar system into this chaos. No-one knew how many had died, and the dying continued. These fierce men and women with their electric weapons were determined to make sure of that.

Rosie whispered to me to keep quiet, and I crouched lower. She remarked that the rioters seemed well prepared; with electric weapons they wouldn’t risk punching a hole in the hab outer skin and risk a blow-out.
“That makes all the difference. So they’ll kill us but not themselves. Great.” My dream-self said.
Rosie said, “We can’t stay here. Look, a bulkhead door. And open. Let’s go- quick.”
“Don’t let them see you-” I said, but she was gone. I followed, slipping on some fruit.

Behind the bulkhead was a recycling point, and corridors leading to some cheap residential apartments. The corridors were dimly lit by bluish emergency lighting. A number of figures could be seen running away; then, with shouts and screams, they came running back, followed by more ludds with machetes. Rosie and I hid in the recycling point behind some piled up silvercloth remnants, leftovers from the incomers’ clothing trade. One of the rioters set fire to a bale of sylk cuttings and threw it onto the pile. It smoked and smoldered there for a bit, then automatic sprinklers came on.

We crouched in the steam, trying not to cough and to listen for the ludds as they ran up and down screaming and slashing. Soon we were flat on the floor trying to get under the pall- but when the sprinklers stopped the corridor was silent. The ludds had moved on. Soaked, we crept out into the haze-filled corridor.

We hurried down the corridors, trying all the doors; after about twenty we found one which was open. Inside was an empty apartment, with just a few décor-fabricators and bags of dry pigment lying around. The sprinklers had spread the pigments into coloured pools on the floor. We looked in the kitchen space- empty. No domestic machinery; not even a comp terminal.

Suddenly an internal door flew open, kicked from within. Out came a single ludd, a young Euro man, holding an electric gun. He fired at Rosie, then at me. We were both hit by the practically invisible conducting thread which would bring the killing electric charge. But the white flash of current didn’t come; the gun had malfunctioned, or run out of juice, thank all space. I lunged forward and tried to rip the gun from his hands, but he swung it round and started to bludgeon me with it.

Rosie meanwhile had grabbed some random piece of decorator’s equipment – a crab-like metal autopainter, we found out later- and bought it down on his head. Finally I could wrestle the failed gun from his hands, and together we beat the poor fellow to the ground.

More shouts in the corridor outside; more water from the sprinklers. I went to the door, and locked it manually. Rosie was bending over the young Euro.
“I think we killed him.”
“Never. No. Not possible,” I said. But I knew it was.

The sounds faded from the corridor; I tried the door, but it had sealed itself against vacuum. The corridor had been breached somehow- we were trapped in the apartment. A delirious sequence of images followed, showing us drinking sprinkler water from paint trays and other receptacles; at some point we changed into our new clothes, but they were soon filthy. I remember from reading my journals that Rosie and I were holed up in that empty apartment with a dead body for ten sols. All I know is that, eventually, the door of the apartment was opened from outside and militiamen from another habitat came bursting in. Tyr’s own militia had been entirely unable to cope, so some of the other habitats had sent armed police to help. We were taken away in our dirty, pigment stained clothes, presumably for interrogation.

But the dream ended there. As citizens of long standing, we must have been treated with sympathy; my journals don’t mention any charges.

I feel grateful that somehow these memories are coming back to me, but they are not all pleasant by any means. I can now recall several portions of my past life, as if lit by bright flashes of light; but some of the things which are revealed are uncomfortable.

*****

More about the author, Steve Bowers, here.

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