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Remote

by James Heflin 

We had just turned to enter a holo shop when the sidewalk went rubbery, my arm stretched, and with a strange snap in my head, I found myself in an unfamiliar room. Stars crept by. Translucent scrawlings hovered in front of me. An extraordinarily ugly man sat nearby, and seemed happy that I was aware, but as he opened his meaty mouth the snap happened again, my feet stood on pavement, and I opened the door, Greena just behind me in the middle of telling me to go to hell in some novel way. Her black skin turned pale, I could swear.

"You okay? What the hell? You nearly hit the sidewalk. You better not be messing with me, you motherfucker."

The clerk ogled and I calmly asked for an old Rafi Schroeder title and fumbled back to the door, wary of the sidewalk. Greena's arms were folded, and she couldn't decide between a glare or worry. I was pretty damn worried, but I wouldn't tell her that.

"It's OK, Greena -- I was just a little dizzy is all. Don't worry about it."

A look approaching concern disturbed her usually sneering face. "Awright, baby. Come on." It didn't take long walking down Esplanade for her to get back to usual, but now and then even the most sadistic have their moments.

The second time was that night. We had just downed a load of pasta and were lying back, listening to the Flashing Luddites and the same snap threw me back onto the vessel. The ugly man was staring right into my face, and he muttered in an unfamiliar language, his voice sweaty. Garjathee! Sologee! Harnot. His fist loomed near as he adjusted something on my head, and its lines were black with grease. I was covered with silvery white mesh. I realized that the odd shapes in front of me were letters, a few familiar, others indecipherable. They were a readout on the visor of a helmet. A thick cable swayed across the room from the helmet to a socket in a panel. The ugly man expected a reply, I think, because his oafish face was still in front of mine. I asked him where I was and who the hell he might be, but he looked at me like I'd just pissed on the carpet. I snapped back to my bed and the Luddites faded in just as the man opened his mouth again. I was shaking for a minute or two, but I think Greena was too stoned to notice. Naturally, all this worried me. I didn't think I was dreaming -- it felt real, though I couldn't believe I had vanished and reappeared somewhere in space.

I had been fired from my environmental tech job at SowetoLand, and I was enjoying for a few months the fruits of my labors which I had been setting aside for some future trip offworld or at least to the south Pacific. Being jobless was the utmost in boredom, with my neighbors absorbed in endless virtureals and even my drinking pals from work falling one by one into more sedate routines, never dropping by Happy's Pub after work anymore. I even tried programming my own virtureals, but only the ones involving harems of jiggling Arabian princesses held my interest, and even those lost their charm after interfacing one too many times with the clumsy devices of virtuporn. Lifelike my ass.

Then I found Greena, real porn, but she liked me, so who was I to judge? She was hard edge, Greena. Snorted anything that promised a high, which immediately made her want to strip. I could do with that. So we met at Happy's, and so she was high then too. So I had to support her habits--at least she was easy to please. Once I saw her snort Ajax and swear it was a great blow. I don't snort anything, with porn or otherwise. She had claws of iron and a will to match, but she was a diversion.

It kept on. I would feel the snap, find myself aboard the ship, and the ugly man would run to my side, yammering in his incomprehensible tongue. Garjathee! he kept saying. I would gaze at him stupidly, open my mouth, and find it painfully dry, my jaw stiff. Then I snapped back to wherever and went on my way, staggering, more than once getting looks to kill from whatever prude was nearby, assuming I was a blowhead. If, God forbid, Greena was with me, and she was a lot of the time, she would get mad. "What the fuck? What are you doing?" I'd tell her I didn't know, that maybe I was sick, but she'd only shake her head and walk faster. Weird woman, that.

I had theories. Dual realities, alien contact, too much asthma medicine; the usual bullshit, but then, then someone tried to contact me through spylike means. I received a postcard with a desert scene signed "Hanoi Bob" underneath a message about a vacation. Hanoi Bob? Jesus Christ, they could do better than that. Surely a mistake, but the address and name were mine. I've never known anyone named Bob, let alone Hanoi Bob, and only after an uplink to the library did I discover that Hanoi was a city in Asia.

A couple of days later, someone rang my doorbell, and when Greena opened the door, an object rather like a black olive, floating at eye level, sped into my living room. It hovered, paused, then around it materialized a hologram of a woman. She wore a maroon suit, and had short blonde hair. "Why haven't you delivered?" she asked me.

"Delivered what?" I replied, astounded. "Who are you?"

"Don't play dumb, damn it. It was risky to send even this with the net of bugs and screens around here. You haven't told us a thing, and it's time and past for your drop. That's the only reason for your little visit, after all."

"I don't know what you mean. A visit? I live here! You're standing in my living room."

"My God! Have you forgotten?"

As I stood puzzling, trying to remember if there was anything to remember, her image flickered. Her face fuzzed, and she angrily exclaimed something about someone discovering the projector, and winked off as the projector disintegrated and fell into a sand heap on the carpet.

Greena was, as usual, getting pissed. "What the fuck was that?"

"I have no fucking idea, Greena."

"You know that woman?"

"How should I know her?"

"You're a jackass. That's your fucking wife or something, isn't it? Huh?"

"Oh please. You're just stoned again! That's not anybody I've ever seen."

"I am NOT fucking stoned. YOU are fucking stoned." She stomped off into the bathroom and locked the door.

A hologram comes into my living room, I find myself in outer space with no explanation, and my shit-for-brains girlfriend locks herself in the bathroom. Brilliant. As if she wasn't snorting up all my extra cash anyway. I ignored her, and she came out in a while. Good damn thing, too. I was getting hard up for the john.

After she left the bathroom, damned if she didn't leave the house, I thought maybe to just go cool off, but then I found a note on the bed. Short, cryptic. Said she had to go to Chicago for a funeral. Didn't say whose. Didn't make any sense, considering she was in the bathroom all that time--how would she have found out she needed to leave? But leave she had, and she didn't say when she was coming back. A real pisser, that. Great timing.

Then the strangest. I was on the train heading home, and again I snapped, again the ugly man. He spoke frantically, but this time I stayed longer, and as I stared, his elongated vowels and harsh consonants slowly became familiar, and the words made some sense. I heard "remote," "default," something about an "opcom," and "phase break in the beamsat." I couldn't get the big meaning, but I understood the individual words. He noticed I was getting it and sat up, talking faster. I drifted away from comprehension. The scene dimmed slowly, not like the almost violent change that had tossed me back before. I returned to the train, lulled by its clack and sway, and no one around me seemed disturbed at all.

That night I uplinked into the library again and looked for a match for the ugly man's language, trying to pronounce a word or two for the computer. I found only one word that the computer recognized: glimid, which exists in two tongues and means death. Both languages were colonial. The older was Ganymedan, where the colonists generated a completely new language, and though their efforts seemed ridiculous to all but the most stalwart of supporters of independence, eventually succeeded in replacing English. The other colony was Centauri 5, the one settled by both Ganymede and Earth, where Ganymedan and English mixed. The appearance of "death" in the ugly man's speech didn't exactly comfort me.

I asked the computer to make a holo of my sleeping hours and alert me to anything out of the ordinary. The next morning the computer brought the holo to life, and I saw my sleeping form in front of me. 3:49 AM. My holo image rolled onto its back, and the computer zoomed in above the left temple about an inch into the hair. A pinkish glow. A brief flash. I numbly asked the computer what this meant.

"Unknown."

"Check the medical database for implants." A pause.

"No implants with matching characteristics."

"What about cyborg processors?"

"No matches."

"Then what the hell is it? Am I an android!?"

"You are not an android. Your last medical recorded appropriate human vital signs."

"Can't that be faked?"

"That would be difficult, perhaps impossible."

"Well, something is in my head! What in hell is happening?!"

"Unknown."

I stifled the desire to hit the computer. I knew only that I was the object of someone's scrutiny and that something artificial clicked away under my scalp. The notion that I was in a virtureal struck me, but how I could get into one without knowing was beyond me. Spending this long in a virtureal would be ridiculous anyway. Weeks. I would have died of hunger.

*   *   *

 

I didn't go anywhere that day. I just stayed in the house and engaged the computer in fruitless discussions. I was afraid. The hologram woman asked about a delivery, and I thought if I could only crack that, I would be on the way out of this dilemma. Memory implants were dismissed by the computer because no matches were found to Earth-based technology. They had faded in popularity, but the false memory chips could still be found. But what about Ganymede or the other colonies? Who knew what they had produced? Then of course there was the question why bother. What was I expected to deliver? Had I been implanted with instructions to deliver vital information to colonial operatives on Earth? Was I a colonial agent whose only memory of it had faded with the malfunctioning of a memory implant? Each question led to a hundred more, and it seemed impossible for any one fact to emerge.

I was getting frantic, and the inability to act, to do anything to escape this elusive game only increased my panic. My face in the mirror seemed distant, almost as if it were not my own, and my hands were cold with fear. I hoped some new sign or message might appear. I couldn't last much longer this way. I was afraid to leave, afraid for my very life if the word glimid was to be believed, and according to the holographic woman, my house was surrounded by a security field whose functions might be deadly. I peered cautiously out my window, and found it difficult to believe that the same scene which had greeted me daily for seven years, the placid houses, the gently waving trees and barking dogs hid something sinister, an invisible web attuned to all my movements. Now it seemed silly to have not gone to the police, but of course, who would believe something this close to madness?

Late in the day, I started at the laugh track my computer played to announce new mail. I was not disappointed. Another postcard from Hanoi Bob, and an invitation to an office, the "Friends of the Earth" charity. The postcard from Bob, whoever he was, made awkward sense, and described a golf outing. I tried to assign some broader meaning to the words, but nothing really added up. The last sentence made the least sense -- "Bring your best putter and we'll tee up early, socks include." It had never occurred to me to run the Hanoi Bob cards through the computer, which I now did. The computer told me no code was there. I finally asked if a translation into Ganymedan or Centauri might offer something. There was nothing new there, but I finally asked the computer if some connection between the two attempts might be made.

"Certain of the English words form anagrams of Ganymedan words."

"You might have said. Print them! With translations."

The sheet emerged, and I grabbed it, my hands trembling.

The translations read: "interruption impossible stimulants ineffective destroy remote you remote destroy you remote."

Remote what? What was I to destroy? The only other possibility made me almost ill with fright: "you remote."

I was a remote. Remote tech was not a reality on Earth, though there were rumors of success on Ganymede. It fit, anyway. I was an android remote. My reality was the helmeted man on the ship, and what I took to be my Earthbound existence was a preprogrammed history allowing me to operate in a culture I did not know. If this was so, how did I get stuck in the wrong set of memories? A tech failure? Or was the transformation so strong I had forgotten? Good God. Was this to be believed?

The rest of the message. "Destroy remote." Was I to destroy myself? I was sure as hell going to be certain before I stuck a gun in my mouth. I was shaking, nearly ill.

The other card, the one about the appointment, had yet to be examined. It was simple: "We invite you to the VIP reception and grand opening of the new Friends of the Earth office on Fifth and Lemmon, March 19, at 4 pm. Semi-formal attire." That was today. I didn't recall such an organization, so I punched up the headers to check out the sender. Salt Lake City. If an invitation to an office down the street came from two thousand miles away, something was amiss. An invitation to my own destruction, in case I didn't have the guts to pull the trigger myself? On the other hand, it might be a last chance effort to get me, or at least the android remote, out of the surveillance net around my house and into Ganymedan hands. I checked the full Hanoi Bob header. Origin: close. Very close.

I numbly placed the invitation in the scanner and stared at the wall while I waited. The words "attend" and "destroy" finally appeared on the screen. At least it was clear. I wouldn't have to destroy myself. It would be done for me. I suspected that skipping this "reception" would bring worse than a quick death. But it wouldn't be death. It would be the destruction of a remote; I would awaken back on the ship, and my true memories would slowly overtake my false memories.

I thought of going to the police anyway, but I realized that if I was right, I would be betraying the cause for which I had gone to such extremes, even if I didn't now remember just what that cause was, and if I was wrong I would likely wind up in a state hospital.

I called an old friend from college, talked stiffly about old times for a while, and finally hung up, unable to speak a word about my strange problem. Somehow in the light of day it seemed ridiculous, seemed to have lost its power. And after all, hadn't I just confirmed my own claim to this reality? I had talked to an old friend, one who recognized me the second I spoke. This heartened me, and I resolved to go out, to defy these bizarre circumstances. I would go to Happy's Pub, maybe run into somebody from work, maybe Hildiger, and laugh about the whole thing over a pitcher of margaritas. If I was still worried, who better to consult than a computer tech as good as Hildiger? And a postcard from Greena (finally) said she would be back soon, this very evening, and I was certain that sarcasm or no, a good snort or two and I'd have plenty of smooth-skinned reason to forget my troubles. Now there was something to look forward to!

*   *   *

 

I pulled on a rumpled coat, ventured into the pleasant street, and strode toward Happy's Pub, my steps scraping loudly in the silence. My light mood weakened as I considered the idea of a security net. I hoped that all would not end with a laser blast from some innocent-looking hedge. I found it somehow amusing that I was afraid. If I was a remote, what did I have to fear? If not, who would give a damn about me? The further I got from the house, the more certain my escape seemed. A child, mumbling to herself, played with a toy truck in a neighbor's yard, and the sprinkler two doors down rotated slowly. Were they letting me go, the "they" behind this supposed surveillance? I was a hundred meters from the house and nothing. Behind me I heard an odd whirring, and I spun around, my veins bursting, to encounter only an electric sedan motoring silently by. I had never grown fully used to their lack of sound, only the hollow touch of tire and pavement. I'm sure the driver thought I was crazy. I trudged on, my step quickening despite myself, my breathing still hard. A hundred and fifty meters and I relaxed a little.

My confidence had evaporated, and when I reached Happy's I slouched for a dark corner and tried to calm down with a scotch and soda. The jukebox blared something soulful, and I felt like puking. Hildiger never showed up, and I didn't know even the bartender anymore.

Deep into a third scotch, I may have snapped again, may have dreamed myself back on the ship, and the ugly man spoke to me as though through water, distant and shaky. I understood the one thing he said over and over: "go to the Friends of the Earth."

When I finally lifted my head from the table, I was numb with fear and alcohol, and I threw my money onto the bar, hulking toward the door. What could I do but go? Nothing else made sense. I squinted when the light hit my eyes, and pulled my coat tight in the rising wind. I walked quickly, trying not to think too hard, riding the buzz from the scotch. Would it all recede into memory when I awoke on the ship? It seemed real enough now. But God, it had to be true, didn't it? Everything pointed to the one broken sentence -- "you remote." One moment and I would return to my proper place, my proper identity.

The highrise on the next corner was the one. "Friends of the Earth, Suite 4B." Would I open the door to bullets smacking home? Would I die? Would I become the self I'd forgotten, wired into a remote hookup on the ship? At least no more questions.

I opened the clear door, and headed up a short flight of stairs. I found a hallway, harshly lit, and followed it to a blue door at the end marked 4B. Locked. I reached for the handprint reader numbly, automatically. I unlocked the door, pushed it open, and saw Greena and two men, seated around a screen.

Greena turned around and said, "What the hell?"

One of the men looked at me strangely, said, "What are you doing here?" The other went pale and yelled, "My God! His head just flashed! They got to him somehow!"

No one seemed to know what to do, even how to move. The clock ticked. I was numb.

Greena looked sober, very sober. "Fuck! I thought we had the fucker back with us!" She looked at me with eyes as wide as a child's. She muttered and looked away. I think she prayed. Her words were Ganymedan. Whatever was happening was not supposed to be.

Was I a remote, standing drunk and swaying with these Ganymedans? Was I, had I been their friend? Memory could not serve. Would I awaken? Where? Who am I? The snap, the moment suspended, dust in a sunlit window. The humming of screens. A bird trilling. White faces before me. The flash and roar, the world exploding. *

 

Story copyright © 1999 by James Heflin <jheflin@english.umass.edu>

Artwork "Regards, Hanoi Bob" © 1999 by Nicola Stratford <ncstrat@camtech.net.au>

 

 

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