Living history, p.1
Living History, p.1Ben Essex
"Eripuit Coelo fulmen, mox Sceptra Tyrannis."
("He seized the lightning from Heaven and the sceptre from Tyrants.")
-Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, regarding Benjamin Franklin. March 1778.
"So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do."
-Benjamin Franklin, 1817.
I'm flat on my back, and there's a life flashing before my eyes.
Around me, windows rattle. The floor is shaking- the whole world's falling to pieces. I'm on a broken train, and it's kicking itself apart with stress and strain. It could go off the rails at any moment.
The stupid powder wig feels heavy on my head. My clothes are tight; britches and frills soggy with sweat. Behind me, the carriage doors are forced open and five men in body armour burst in. Their heads are helmeted, their eyes are unsympathetic and some of them are bleeding. They've just been through a battle.
The armoured men part, and someone else steps up. He's not dressed like them, not at all. He has a great frilly beard and a tall top-hat. His clothes are immaculately tailored, coloured black. Unlike me, he doesn't have a belly.
His face is stern and somewhat goat-like. One of his eyebrows seems permanently raised.
'I'm sorry, Ben,' says the man who looks exactly like Abraham Lincoln. 'But honestly, how did you think this was going to end?'
The men advance, weapons lit with crackling blue fire. Some of them also have batons.
So let's review. I'm here, in the body of Benjamin Franklin, about to get my brains beaten out. I could ask myself why? but I know the answer.
Because I had a deadline.
I close my eyes.
And at that moment, dinosaurs attack.
My real name is Jacob White. I used to have a real body. It was tall and gangly and plain looking, but it was mine.
I used to have a real job, too. I worked for the Applied Fundamentals Division of The Salmon Corporation.
What does an Applied Fundamentals Division do? I don't really know- no one does. Applied Fundamentals is a warehouse department, a dumping ground for whatever projects the company can't fit elsewhere. Getting to work in Applied is actually quite a big deal. It means the company considers you smart enough, flexible enough and above all unscrupulous enough to turn your hand to whatever their latest vague and seedy project might be.
The Salmon Corporation is not the most above-board company in the world. Actually, it's run by the Mafia. I'm not sure precisely which Mafia, since they don't exactly give out business cards. Wait, that's a lie. They actually do give out business cards, but the cards don't go into specifics.
The day my deadline came, I got a business card.
It was a Tuesday. 09:23 A.M. I was late for work.
This was in no way unusual for me. My lovely little box-apartment was located on the other side of the city, behind the metro-lines. Getting to the office every morning was a bit of a hike, especially to a man like me- that is to say, a lazy man.
Usually, my tardiness wasn't a problem. I was high enough up in the department to be sure nobody was going to call me out... except for this particular Tuesday, when I got hauled into my manager's office and glared at by beady eyes behind little wireframe glasses.
I had a lot of managers. I'd never seen this one before. He was a fat man with sausage fingers.
The Fat Man sat behind his desk. It was nice desk in, and it was in a nice room. There were potted plants.
'Your attendance could use some work, Mr. White,' I was told.
'Yes sir,' I nodded. I didn't get promoted up to Applied without knowing how to work the system a little bit. Suck up to your superiors, bark at your inferiors. If necessary, grant sexual favours.
'I hope you're not having any kind of trouble at home, Mr. White?'
'No sir,' I shook my head. 'Everything is A-OK, sir.'
'Good,' the Fat Man grunted. 'Well, just in case, take my card. If anything is bothering you give me a call, it'll be dealt with. We at The Salmon Corp care about our employees, you know.'
'I know, sir.' He gave me the business card. It was laminated, and bore the Fat Man's name; Peter Greuze.
It'll be dealt with. I didn't want to ask for details, and I didn't want to take up that offer- ever, under any circumstances. The Corp does take care of its employees. Sometimes it flattens entire neighbourhoods to make life easier for them.
'Well,' Greuze coughed. 'Now that you are here, I want to give you your latest assignment in person. We have something rather special planned for Applied this year.'
'Oh yes, sir? That's exciting to hear.' I wasn't being flip. Special is exciting.
The Fat Man beamed. 'Indeed it is. You see, we've decided to expand the Corp's merchandising rights into hitherto unexplored areas. We want the rights to an American Presidents Action figure line.'
I nodded. Fair enough. Action figures seemed a little... small, though.
'But we have certain concerns about image copyright. We want to make sure the Presidents' images are all exclusively ours. For that, they'll need to sign certain contracts.'
The Fat Man could see my blossoming disbelief. This was bigger, all right.
'That'll be your job, Mr. White. We want you to start resurrecting Presidents. All ninety three of them.'
Technically, there have been ninety-four Presidents. However, the ninety-fourth (President Huey Jackson II) was only in office for a grand total of forty-seven seconds before his office exploded, so people tend to ignore him. Since Jackson II, the institution has fallen sharply from grace. Nobody pays much attention to the Presidency anymore.
Greuze's task was certainly something to dwell on.
Walking through a bad neighbourhood at a bad time of night, I lost myself in daydreams of Presidents past. I didn't need to worry about being murdered or robbed or anything like that- the little salmon symbol on my jacket kept all the lowlifes at a distance.
On the horizon, there were fires. A police helicopter was tumbling through the sky, tracing a rapid path back down to earth. On its way, it clipped a shiny skyscraper; I had to wince. Even if the pilot survived that crash, he was going to be in trouble. The skyscrapers were supposed to stay shiny at all times- very rich people have paid some very big guns to keep them shiny at all times. In the city of America Little, you respect your janitors.
America Little doesn't really live up to its name. It's enormous; it spans two coasts and all the land in between. It's not quite up to the scale of America Large below, but Large is mostly artificial oil fields.
I took the subway in the direction of home, spent the ride chatting to a couple of prostitutes. They wanted to know what working for the Corp was like. I exaggerated a little bit, because I like to impress people. What? We all like to impress people.
My apartment was horribly cramped, which was exactly how I wanted it. I could've afforded a much swankier, up-town place- or at least, a slightly swankier, mid-town place- but all that space would just encourage me to clutter. I had what I needed: A few desks, a few drawers, and not enough floor to sprawl on.
That night, I slept to the soothing rattle of the metro-tracks outside. Still trying to wrap my brain around the Fat Man's order.
Resurrect all the Presidents.
For a few of
But the Founding Fathers? Everyone pre-Millennium? They'd been dead for ages. What was I supposed to do, invent a Time Machine? Applied had already tried that. The dry-cleaning bills were ridiculous.
All right. Think about this. You're a smart man.
I just needed inspiration.
That was when dinosaurs attacked.
Nobody's quite sure where the dinosaurs came from. Even Applied can't say for certain that we invented them, although it's possible. The most convincing rumour says that they were manufactured by some Fast Food chain as part of an incredibly elabourate advertising campaign. Chinese whispers aside, the creatures now constitute the city's foremost pest control issue.
Most of them are harmless, not to mention cute. Little blue and green lizards
sitting outside restaurants, begging for scraps. They're sort of like kittens.
The Raptors, on the other hand, are a pain. Apparently, real Velociraptors were small and fairly timid. Whoever engineered these monstrosities had no head for historical accuracy. In my life, Raptors are big. They're mean, they're fast, and they can pick locks.
Some of them fly.
'Shit!' I yelled constructively, as a small group of the buggers broke into my flat. Three forced open the door; one barged in through the window. The former were classical Raptors, long tails and gnashing jaws. The latter looked similar, except it had wings tacked onto its back. Genetic engineering can do crazy things.
The Raptors hunt in packs; stalking via shadows. They generally pick their prey at random, except... did I have BBQ sauce with my lunch? Yes, I did. Stupid me. For reasons unknown, the smell of BBQ sauce attracts them. They can sense it miles away.
The creatures surrounded me. Claws clicking, heads cocked. The flying Raptor was stumbling about, making a mess. Its wings were too small for the tiny apartment.
I backed up, toward the kitchen counter.
The reptiles hissed, flaring gigantic nostrils. Long necks extended, and I could see salivating tongues as they crept steadily closer. About to pounce...
I thrashed for the nearest drawer and yanked out my taser Gauntlet. A hail of spatulas clattered around me.
Gauntlets look flimsy, like gloves made from copper wire. Don't let the fragile appearance fool you; they're deadly weapons. Pointing at the dinosaurs, I clicked twin thumb triggers. Bursts of electricity flew out from my hands; arcs of lightning. Flashes of blue tore through the room- my own little thunderstorm.
I released the triggers, and the storm stopped. The dinosaurs fell, flesh sizzling. Quite dead.
Gauntlets are an Applied product. I didn't invent them, but I did make them extra-dangerous. Nowadays every cop carries one and every criminal owns four.
'Crap,' I reflected, poking the nearest dinosaur with my foot. The last thing I wanted to do was lug five reptile corpses all the way across town to the dump, especially at this time of night.
I decided to go and get something to eat instead.
Derry's was about ten minutes walk from my front door. The food was generally worth it.
Nestled between street corner and curb, the restaurant was a fairly well-kept local secret. A dull exterior served up poor expectations.
The interior, on the other hand, was a thing of beauty. Serious money had been spent- it was definitely plush. Red lanterns hung over blue tables, fluorescent bars of every colour ribbing the walls. Every chair was a sculpture, every lamp a work of art. There were even water features.
Still, all that shine simply hid a different kind of dirt. I recognised a couple of patrons from 'Most Wanted' posters. There was generally at least one kidnap victim huddled at the corner table, being pressed into an uncomfortable meal.
A brilliant blue lizard flashed over my feet, chasing after a cockroach. The dinosaurs here had been repainted to match the decor, and trained to earn their keep. I watched them distrustfully.
Derry herself was behind the counter, yelling at chefs. Her face was round and kindly, which somehow made her temper all the more terrifying. She twirled her moustache with villainous abandon.
'Jasie!' The moment she saw me, Derry smiled. We'd known each other forever- we didn't grow up far apart. 'What can I get you?'
'The usual.' Broth.
'Coming up,' Derry grinned. 'You bring something for me?'
'Raptor meat,' I told her. 'Five big heaps. Think you can do something with it?'
'Fried or crisped?'
'Hmmm.' Derry bit her bottom lip. 'I could probably whip something together with that. I'm guessing you don't have it with you?'
'My apartment.' I tossed her the keys.
'I'll send a courier.' She tossed the keys to one of her boys.
'Tell them not to touch anything.'
'Please,' Derry said. 'My kids know better than that. So, my man, what've you been up to?' She leant on the counter, apparently oblivious to all the customers who weren't me. 'Haven't seen you here in longer than usual.'
'Busy busy,' I shrugged. 'You know me.'
I smiled. 'Say, Derry. You know much about history?'
'Got a degree in it.'
I blinked. I didn't recall Derry having an education. 'Really?'
'Yeah,' Derry nodded. 'I mean, it's not my degree. I downloaded it a couple of years ago for a laugh.'
'For a laugh?'
'On a bet.'
'Why'd you ask?'
'I've got this, uh, project,' I waved my hands vaguely. 'I think I might need to know some history.'
'Well, five loads of Raptor probably does buy you more favours than a free meal.' Derry clicked her tongue. 'Tell you what, come by my place later. I'll see if I can help you out.'
That night, I went to Derry's apartment. We had a little bit of sex, mostly out of habit. It was quite nice.
Afterwards, she showed me her history degree.
Cybernetics had always been Derry's passion. Implants, body-shopping, augmentation, that sort of stuff. When she was little, she had a blue LED installed in her right eye for no particular reason. It's a phase some kids go through.
Thus, her apartment was filled with Neuro-interface clamps, Virtual Reality Headsets, Holographic Immersion pads; some of it quite high-end stuff, some of it quite nasty looking. Apparently, the restaurant business could fund some pretty serious hobbies.
Her history degree had been downloaded straight from the internet, through a jack cable and into her skull. Not being one for shoving relays into the brain myself, I asked her if she could get me a more tangible copy.
'Sure thing, Jasie,' she said. 'But you've really got to stop being such a prude.'
Derry plugged herself into the mesh of circuitry taking up most of her living room, and spent a long moment doing what I can only describe as writhe. Apparently, VR provides the ultimate high. Personally, I don't see the point of the ultimate high. Eventually, you're going to have to come back down to Earth.
After a while, Derry emerged from the web of wire clutching a small crystal disc. The wafer thin speck was pressed into my hands.
'Here,' she said, a little flushed. 'I think I got everything out of my head.'
'You know, it'd be easier to experience it for yourself than to read about it on a screen,' she said, pointedly. 'So I've left all the VR access tabs enabled.'
'That's nice, Derry, but I'm not going to-'
'Aw, come on, Jasie,' Derry grinned at me, moustache creasing upward. 'History's no fun on paper. Try living in the past for a couple of hours.'
Reading up on the nation's Founding Fathers, I couldn't help but feel that some of the stories might have been just a little bit exaggerated.
For instance, the tale of George Washington defeating the English Hordes at Olde New York. Of course Washington was an excellent General, but it didn't seem realistic that he could've killed five hundred enemy men single-handedly. Also, the portrayal of foreign countries struck me as simplistic at best. Was Spain's sole contribution to history really the invention of cannibalism? Surely treachery was not universal amongst the Ancient French.
Clich?s are a modern problem. Since the Great Collapse, every country on Earth has had a particular national stereotype, and all the history books have been altered to make it seem forever-so. I suppose it's an attempt to make things less confusing for children.
Of all the stories, the most inflated was the biography of Benjamin Franklin. I refused to believe that any one individual could be responsible for inventions ranging from the light-bulb to electricity to the concept of yellow. There had to be some distortion in there somewhere.
But as I sat alone in my bed, reading over all those great stories of all those great men, I couldn't help wonder... what were they like? How did they live? How close were they to the legends they inspired? The Founders- they had a whole mountain carved out in their image. What must a man do to earn that kind of respect?
A few hours later, I was back on Derry's doorstep. It was four in the morning. Getting her to answer the door was a challenge.
'Jesus, Jasie.' Her yawn was a roar. 'What do you want?'
'You were right.' I pushed into her flat without thinking- I'm allowed to do that. I couldn't help noticing that all of her VR equipment was still up and running. Maybe she hadn't been asleep after all.
I held up the little data-crystal. 'I do want to see it for myself. Derry. I want to meet them.'
The virtual world is tingly.
Experiencing it involves sensory aphasia; an enforced departure of mind from body. It makes your nerves all fluttery, makes everything go loose and light. It's a bit like being comfortably drunk- not hammered, but slightly more than tipsy. You get used to it.
I was standing in a room.
Derry wasn't with me. She went back to bed; told me to knock myself out with her equipment.
I felt queasy. The last stages of uploading are like a mental dry-heave. The tingling is briefly supplanted by internal retching- then equilibrium returns.
I was standing in a room.
It was a simple room. Nice furniture- all wooden and antique. Crimson drapes. A desk, with a window looking out onto nothing in particular. Literally, nothing in particular- a flood of blinding daylight was blotting out the view, overexposing it into nothingness. Probably so the server didn't have to worry about rendering too many extra details.
Sitting at the desk was a man- a big man, quite rotund. Head balding, remaining white hair grown long to compensate. Glasses balanced over a wide nose, jaw curved. He was wearing a frilly shirt and a ruffled waistcoat. The man had an aura of kindness about him; his glance instilled instant trust. There was a knowing sharpness behind his eyes; signs of a soul wise and a little bit mercurial.
The virtual Benjamin Franklin was writing- or rather sketching- with a quill pen. It looked like he was in the process of scribing some kind of blueprint for... what looked like a stove, or fireplace. Okay, I thought, this is getting ridiculous. Is there anything this man did not invent?
Franklin did nothing for a while, apparently ignorant of my presence. Then, quite suddenly, he looked up. His expression indicated he'd been aware of me the entire time.
'Yes?' He said pertly. 'Can I help you with anything?'
He wasn't surprised to see me, of course. The simulation would be programmed to absorb my presence. For some reason, I felt a little bit unnerved. It's only a low-level Sim, I told myself. He's a very simple program, not even nearly alive. Still, nothing about the man-shaped thing before me seemed the slightest bit fake.
This is why I don't like VR.
I took a seat.
'Mr Franklin- Ben. Can I call you Ben?'
'At this early stage of our relationship, I would just as soon you did not.'
'Fair enough,' I smiled. Oh my God, I'm actually intimidated by a Simulacra. 'Sir, in that case... I want you to tell me all about your life.'
'Ah.' Ben smiled. 'A biographer. About time one arrived, I think. All right then, Mr-'
'Hmmm.' Ben grunted. 'All right then, Mr. White. Let's start at the beginning.'
'He didn't even graduate from the school- he was supposed to go into the Church, but he was so smart that he managed to get out of that, he was married twice to women who, if I do say so myself, were very nice for their time... he travelled all over the place, I mean, he was practically-'
'All right,' Derry snapped. 'You're going to have to shut up about Benjamin Fucking Franklin right about now, or I'm going to kill you.'
'Sorry,' I said shyly. 'Am I gushing?'
'Like the cheapest whore I've ever met,' Derry said.
We were having dinner- at my place, for a change. I cooked, as a thank you to Derry for installing some VR equipment in my room.
'He's just... a remarkable man, Derry. They're all remarkable men. People like that aren't born anymore.'
'Sure they are,' Derry shrugged. 'We just kill them off early.'
'That's even worse.'
'I really don't see why you're so impressed,' Derry said. 'They were just a bunch of elderly, white, slave-owning men who happened to be both not stupid and not in the wrong place at the wrong time. I'm just as good as them. You're just as good as them.'
'Neither of us,' I pointed out, 'invented electricity.'
'He didn't invent electricity...'
'It's amazing, Derry- to think I'm going to play a part in bringing these men back to life...'
I stopped, and dropped my fork. Oh, crap.
' "Bringing these men back to life," ' Derry echoed, gaping. 'That's your project.'
'I don't suppose you could forget I ever said that?'
'My God, J, why?'
'It's that kind of world.'
Derry was taken aback. 'Uh... I mean... wow. How are you going to do it?'
'That's Stage Three.'
'Stage Three is working out how to do it. Stage One is assimilating the enormity of what I have to do. I'm still at Stage One.'
'What's Stage Two?'
'Inspiration magically striking me.' I rubbed my teeth together- an anxious habit. 'If only they hadn't messed up that stupid time machine...'
'Why don't you just use the Simulacra?'
I stared at Derry. 'What?'
'Why don't you just use the Personality Simulations from the VR degree I gave you? Download a Sim, find something to use as a brain, stick them together in a cloned body, and bang. You've got a walking, talking historical figure. Or as good as.'
I considered this. But... 'The Personality Simulations are very simple, though. They're just designed to educate you about the subject's life. Their responses are all pre-programmed.'
'So?' Derry shrugged. 'You're pretty smart. Can't you make them a little more real?'
I thought for a moment.
'What are you doing, young man?'
I was pottering around Virtual Ben Franklin's virtual office, poking things. Occasionally, I'd stick my hand through a wall and come out with a string of numbers.
'Oh, don't mind me,' I told him. 'I'm just re-writing your program code.'
The virtual copy of Benjamin Franklin blinked, confused. 'I see.'
'I don't actually need to be in here to do it,' I added, knowing he wouldn't understand me. 'I just thought we could chat while I worked.'
A string of ones took flight with a string of zeroes, bouncing around the room and out the window.
'I see,' Franklin repeated carefully. 'What about?'
I considered. 'What's the first thought that comes into your head?'
'I was born on the date-'
'No, no, no,' I cut him off. 'Not part of your biography. That's the problem I'm trying to fix- we're going to see if we can't get a new first thought in your head.'
'So, Mr. Franklin.' The trick was getting exactly the right balance. I had to make the Franklin Program seem intelligent without actually being intelligent. I didn't want him able to outsmart me, but people would have to believe that he might. 'Why don't you tell me how you feel about... creativity in invention?'
'I think it should be celebrated. I think it should be embraced. I think invention should be the prerogative of all men and in priority or not. And...'
'I think I like to invent things. I think it is... an enjoyable activity.'
Excellent, I grinned. A small demonstration of personhood. He had passed the first test.
There was a long road ahead, but still.
This was going to work.
That's what I told my bosses.
And that's what I told my colleagues.
And that's what I told myself.
Turned out, I wasn't completely wrong.
Unfortunately, at the time I was so sure of myself that I even self-imposed a deadline. To the Fat Man himself.
'You're sure you can be ready so quickly?' Peter Greuze asked, from behind his gigantic desk.
'Oh yes, sir. I can have your first model ready to go in two weeks. An actual, factual, walking-talking Ben Franklin.'
'I see.' The Fat Man wrinkled his brow. 'And why would I want one of those?'
I was thrown by the question. 'But- you assigned me-'
'I asked you to resurrect the Presidents. Ben Franklin was never President.'
'Yes, he was!'
The Fat Man glared at me.
'Trust me, Mr. White. I know my history.'
'But... my sources...'
'Let me guess. You were studying from one of those Download Degrees you get online? They're always riddled with error. No, Mr. White. Ben Franklin was never, in my opinion, Presidential Material.'
I felt vaguely insulted. Of course that man was Presidential material. This feeling was quickly drowned out by the depression sinking through my stomach. Damn you, Derry...
'However,' Greuze abruptly added, 'we were eventually planning to merchandise other historical figures anyway. So I suppose your mistake is not completely without virtue. Tell you what, White. You get us a working Franklin in two weeks, and we'll pretend everything is happening exactly as it should. Deal?'
Oh, thank God. 'Deal.'
'But two weeks, White. One day more, and your head is on the line. Understand?'
Did I mention that Applied has a very high staff turnover? That's because the best and the brightest work best under pressure. Lots of pressure.
When Greuze says something like: "Your head is on the line," he really means it. There's a lot of room for demotion in my department. Some people have been demoted all the way down to Organ Donor.
You get one mistake.
This was my first.
Twelve days later, I made my second.
And once again Derry found me thumping on her door at a stupid hour of the morning.
She started to yell, then saw my expression.
'Jasie. What's wrong?'
I began to shake my head and gibber. This went on for some time. In the end, Derry pulled me inside and administered some coherence via an industrial strength cup of coffee.
'Calm down, J, calm down. Talk straight.'
'I can't do it,' I blurted. 'It can't be done. I lost everything. Oh God, get me a drink with some alcohol in it...'
'What do you mean, you lost everything?' Derry demanded. 'And there's bourbon in the coffee.'
'I suppose I haven't technically lost it yet,' I babbled. 'But give them a couple of days and oh yes, they'll take it away from me. Starting with my legs, for tradition. Then probably my liver, or whatever else is valuable, working their way up-'
'J, it's late, I'm tired, and you're talking nonsense. Will you please just calm down and explain things to me properly, before I crack your head open and scoop out the information for myself?'
'All right. All right.'
I took a couple of deep breaths.
'I don't know what happened, exactly.' I said. 'I was programming. I was programming just like normal- everything was going fine... everything was going great, actually. I was ahead of schedule, Derry. Way ahead. And then...'
'And then what?'
'I don't know! It all crashed! All my data, all my backups. There was some kind of massive system failure. I must've... I don't know what I must've done. I lost everything.' My teeth chattered. 'I lost everything.'
'Can't you redo it? Retrace your work?'
'Not all of it! Not in two days!'
'Surely you can get an extension.' Derry bit her bottom lip. 'I mean, your boss was pretty harsh to give you a two week deadline...'
'I asked for it.'
'You asked for a two week deadline?'
'Forgive me for having a healthy ego,' I snapped. 'It seemed like it was going to turn into a pretty easy project.
'Okay.' Derry began pacing. She was starting to get just as freaked out as me. 'Okay, let's be sensible. We're smart. We can fix this.'
'You're not helping.'
'This is all your fault, you know. Your idea.'
'Fine then, I'm the smart one.'
'It was going to be so simple,' I twitched, digging my fingers into the sofa. 'I'd have it all done by tomorrow. I'd upload the Ben Sim into his body a day earlier, spend the afternoon playing chess. You know he was the first chess player in America? Oh, God...'
Derry's head snapped up. 'Upload him into his body? What body?'
'We've got a cloned shell waiting in the lab,' I waved my hands. 'Engineered to look as much like Ben Franklin as possible. Pointless now.'
Derry was twirling her moustache. She had a particular kind of look on her face, a Stage Two kind of look.
She was always better at ideas than me. I'm an execution man. If she didn't like her restaurant so much, the woman'd be high-up in Applied by now.
'This body,' Derry said. 'Can you show me?'
I took her across town, to see the lab. Why not?
The Salmon Corporation is a building, tall and plain as any other- a skyscraper with glass skirt-tails. Three miles below, there is a basement.
The basement is a square kilometre in size, and that's the lab.
It's all carved from chrome and polished glass; Perspex cages lining the walls, plastic screens and chemical cabinets everywhere. Room after antiseptic room, each one devoted to a more baffling design. Half-built robots and mysterious machines stand by lumps of bubbling flesh and vats of half-green liquid. All sorts of things for all
Getting Derry in was easy. My security clearance was only moderate, but a couple of well placed bribes served to jack it up a notch or two.
We walked together through the subterranean corridors.
'So,' Derry said, unimpressed. 'This is where you work.'
'Funny. I always pictured something less... shiny.'
I wasn't really in the mood for conversation.
Eventually, we reached my workden- my "office," I suppose. As one of the larger Sub-Labs, it was positively cavernous. So big that it was always cold; every breath turned to fog, drifting off in little clouds.
Great tubes hung down from the ceiling, each one filled with liquid. A few also contained half-grown organs, suspended in goo. Spinal cords, skeletons and the occasional beating heart.
In the middle of it all was my baby. Shining in the stark light, covered by cables- a naked body, rather plump, instantly recognisable. The Flesh Sculptors weren't perfect, of course- they hadn't got the nose quite right, and there was no hair (for some reason, cloning decent hair is difficult). But other than that, the illusion was unimpeachable. Benjamin Franklin was in the room with us.
'Not bad,' Derry said, circling the Clone Tank. 'Not bad at all.'
'Useless now,' I muttered.
'Not... not necessarily,' Derry said. 'What are you using for a brain?'
'Complex Computer Processor. Bio-augmented tech.'
'Third and Seventh.'
Derry stood for a second. Then said; 'Yeah. I can make that work.'
I stared blankly.
'Third and Seventh series aren't perfect,' she continued, prodding the tank, 'but they'll just about hold a human mind. It's been done before.'
There was a short pause.
'Derry,' I said. 'You've got to be kidding.'
'You have two days to get this thing working like a person, right?' Derry asked. 'Well, I can get it working like a person.'
'What you're suggesting... it's very, very, very illegal.'
'Since when does your Company care?'
'This is one of those crimes they actually give a damn about,' I hissed. 'For religious reasons.'
'Derry,' I shook my head. I shook my whole body. 'I don't even know where to start.'
'Trust me, it's easy,' Derry said. 'I've done it before. It's just data transfer and storage- that's all brains do, that's all computers do, and bridging the gap is child's play. I can put your mind in that body and have it back out again whenever need be. No sweat.'
'Why does it have to be my mind?'
'Because this is your responsibility.'
'But they don't just want a body!' I insisted. 'They don't want a lookalike! They want the real thing!'
'Why isn't a lookalike good enough for them?'
'Oh gee, I don't know Derry. Maybe because they're perfectionists or just fucking insane!? Why don't we go ask them!?'
'Calm down,' Derry hissed. 'I know they want more than a lookalike, and that's the other reason it has to be you. You have to convince them, Jasie.'
'Convince them,' I echoed.
'You have to make them think that your experiment worked. You have to make them think that you're really Ben Franklin brought to life. That's the only way to keep you from being punished.'
'But if they catch me...'
'But if they don't.' Derry grabbed my arms, looking into my eyes with her big, beautiful blues. 'I'll go over your data, find out what you did wrong. I'll get a working Franklin Sim up and running in a couple of weeks, I promise. But until then, you'll have to carry the con.'
'No. This is insane.' I stepped back. 'It'll never work, it's too... I'll just confess. I'll go and I'll confess. I'll tell them I screwed up. And...'
'And even if they don't do something horrible to you, you'll be fired,' Derry said coldly. 'Best case scenario.'
'What about ... me?' At that moment, a tiny switch in the back of my head went click, and I knew two things. One- I would have to do it. And two- the personal pronoun problems were going to get serious. 'My body, I mean, this body. What happens to it?'
'We'll keep it in my apartment, we'll pretend you're sick. As long as you've got the job done, I doubt that they'll care.'
'No. They won't.'
'We can do this, Jasie.' She gripped my face, and kissed me softly. 'I wouldn't suggest it if we couldn't.'
I smiled, quite without meaning to. I definitely wasn't the slightest bit happy.
'All right. We can do this.'
'First things first,' Derry said, braiding my hair with wires. 'We need to plug you in.'
I was sitting in Derry's bath.
I didn't like Derry's bath.
For one thing, it was dirty. She assured me everything was perfectly sterile, but it didn't look clean. The porcelain was cracked, the shower-head was crooked and the taps were covered in grime.
Also, there were the rats.
The rats helped Derry out, and in return she sheltered them from the reptilian predators outside. She had them all fitted with little neural clamps; flashing blue and green lights, stapled to each rodent cranium. With these she could control them, use them as little four-legged helpers. Rats don't have opposable thumbs, but their jaws are strong and surprisingly delicate.
The rats never failed to freak me out. Watching them scuttle back and forth, trailing cables and hairless tails... all right, so they had fluffy fur and smelt of apricot. Derry kept them soaped and scrubbed. I still didn't trust the little buggers.
'Listen,' Derry stood over me, looking concerned. 'It's possible you're going to want to close your eyes for this bit.'
Behind her was a huge pile of electronic equipment. Most of it, I couldn't even begin to identify. Wires, baubles and three-pronged plugs. Sparkly things. Sharp things. I gulped.
'Uh, I think maybe I'll get something to eat and we can do this later-' I started to babble, stepping out of the bath. Not a little bit gently, Derry pushed me back in.
'Right,' I mumbled. 'Sorry.'
'Just relax. It's all going to go according to plan.'
She started shovelling electronic equipment into the bath. Goosebumps struck me skin. I smelled something acrid.
'Just lay back,' she told me. 'And- seriously- close your eyes.'
She was holding what appeared to be a small lawnmower attached to a giant meat cleaver.
I shut my eyes.
'Derry,' the thought suddenly occurred. 'I... I want to say thank you. I'd be dead without you. You're always here for me. And I-'
'I need to use your mouth for the next part,' she interrupted.
I did so, and felt something bitty and sticky shoved down my throat. My oesophagus began to spasm, and I fought the urge to vomit.
My spinal cord made a bid for freedom, and my liver tried to burst.
Everything went black.
Darkness, and the place under darkness.
Two trains, passing in the night.
Two windows, just for one moment standing side by side.
And my reflection...
...Is behind me.
I opened my eyes, gasping.
Water rushed down my throat, tasting of salt.
I was floating, breathless. Arms flailing, starting to drown. Brain in shock, something telling me... wrong, this is wrong... arms too big, legs too short, heart too slow... trapped... my hands hitting glass... trapped in a tiny space, drowning in a tube... drowning.
From somewhere below, there was a hiss and a slurp. I felt myself falling, falling...
...Something beeped. The water went away.
'Brain activity detected,' came the gentle voice of a computer. 'Emergency vent in progress.'
I felt the glass walls around me falling away, and saw water spilling out onto a shiny floor. I flopped to the ground, rolling onto my back. Naked and vulnerable, my body refusing to respond to commands. My brain refusing to command properly.
Don't feel right.
I remembered why.
I am in the lab.
I tried to say the words out loud, but my throat would only croak.
I am in the lab, and I have to get back to Derry.
But for the moment, I could not move. Not on muscle.
So I stayed flat on my back, breathing heavily with someone else's heart.
And crawled back up, onto unsteady feet.
Over by the lab-door, I found a pile of clothes. Underneath it was an ID card. Convenient that they were here, I thought, then remembered vaguely: Derry and I planned this. We planted this stuff. So I wouldn't have to walk outside naked. That's nice.
My mind was still quite jumbled.
Obviously, the picture on the ID card wouldn't match my face anymore, but it'd be enough to get me past the electronic security. With any luck, the human security wouldn't pay too much attention to somebody going out.
The clothes didn't fit. It took several deep breathes to squeeze into them. Trouser legs too long, shirt like wearing a corset. In the end, I had to leave everything unbuttoned. Not very professional looking.
There was a white lab coat hanging by the door. That would do for a little extra cover- it was almost my size. I caught my reflection in a particularly shiny wall. Buttoned up, I looked almost respectable.
I also looked like Ben Franklin.
I touched my face. It was squidgy. I touched my knee. Ten years ago, I fell of a bike and permanently scarred my right leg, shin to thigh. Naturally, the mark was gone.
My head swam. Every limb provided resistance- I had to work twice as hard to make them move. It was like walking through syrup.
I got out of the lab, onto the street, and prayed for a quiet night. This would not be a good time to get mugged.
Somehow, I found a cab. The little yellow car stood anchored by the roadside, dirty engine spewing smoke. The driver gave me a funny look, as if trying to recognise my face.
I told him Derry's apartment number. I told him to drive. I ignored his attempts at conversation.
Peering out of the cab window, the whole world came across as an indistinct blur. Abruptly, I realised why I'd been stumbling. Short-sighted. I need glasses.
My body kept doing things I didn't expect. Hands twitching. Pulse different. You ever think about your pulse? You ever really notice it? You will if it starts changing pace, trust me.
The cab stopped. I reached Derry's home, found my way inside. Mostly pushed past her; just kept going straight for the bathroom.
I had to see him... I had to see me. My own body, my real body.
There it was, in the cracked porcelain tub; covered in tubes, being scurried over by creepy cybernetic rats.
It was like looking into a mirror, except infinitely more realistic. No. Not like a mirror. Like a madman's portrait, covered in rust.
I always thought my jaw was wider than that. I never realised I was so thin.
Irrationally, I reached a hand down-
-Derry grabbed it.
'It's very important,' she said, 'that you don't touch anything.'
I nodded, clearing my throat. Still trying to get the hang of my voice. It came out in gasps and rasps.
'I can go back at anytime?' I managed to ask.
'You need to give me a couple of hours notice,' she replied.
'Now for the hard part.'
Derry pulled a data-disc from her pocket.
'This is all the reasonably reliable, reasonably legitimate data on Benny Boy that I could find.'
'You didn't give me long to work, J,' She said, scratching her head. 'Now. Let's get down to learning your new life story. You've got a lot of people to convince.'
Apparently, Ben Franklin used to play the guitar.
I still can't quite believe that.
The next day, I strode into work.
In full costume.
I don't know where Derry found the clothes. She probably ordered them online- fast track delivery. Whatever she did, I couldn't disapprove. I looked good. More importantly, I looked accurate.
Frilly shirt. Puffy collar. Little glasses. A white wig stuck firmly to my head. I kept a kind, knowing half-smile active at all times. It made me look smarter.
It was the middle of the day, and so the lobby of the Salmon Corp was crowded. Shiny boots trod the shiny floor as workers bustled back and forth, some descending down to the lab, donning white coats on the way- others in suits and ties, ascending up to middle-management.
'Excuse me, sir.' I was stopped by two security guards. Large heads bulged out of pastel-blue uniforms, looking me up and down.
'Do you work here, sir?' One guard asked.
'I do.' I remembered myself. 'Not. I do not. But I am supposed to be here.'
The security men exchanged a look- then they started moving, ready to throw me out overarm. I raised my hands to stop them.
'Wait!' I proffered a square of laminated card and a data-disc. 'Wait. I am authorised. I am here on behalf of Jacob White. He sent me with his ID card.'
I showed them.
'And this disc... this disc has a message for Peter Greuze. I can wait here while you deliver it. When Greuze sees it, he'll also want to see me.'
Look calm. Look commanding. You're Ben Franklin. Ben Franklin (probably) wasn't afraid of anything.
But I'm not Ben Franklin, and my heart is racing...
I kept my gaze steady.
Begrudgingly, one of the security men snatched the disc. I could tell what he was thinking: Yes, this man in funny clothes could be some nut... or he could be something important. You never knew with The Salmon Corporation.
'Wait here,' I was ordered. 'Or else.'
Heart racing, heart racing, heart racing...
It seemed to take an age for the security men to come back.
'Mr. Greuze says you can come in,' I was told.
The data-disc contained a pre-recorded message, made by me and Derry just before the body swap. It was essentially just me monologueing to a camera, explaining that I had, through sheer effort and hard work, managed to effectively resurrect Benjamin Franklin. Of course, the entire affair had been explained to the new Franklin, who seemed surprisingly agreeable. I had wanted to accompany him into the office myself but, unfortunately, I'd just been shot...
That last part was Derry's idea; the only kind of sick-leave the Corporation would readily buy. A bullet hole in the leg. Not serious enough to be permanently debilitating, not mild enough to shrug off in a day or two
She did actually shoot me in the leg, by the way. So she could zoom the camera up on the freshly bandaged wound, to make things more "believable." It hurt like hell, until she gave me some drugs to make the pain go away. 'After all,' she'd said, 'I can have these legs all fixed up far before you actually need to use them again.'
She was sure that Peter Greuze would buy the story. I wasn't.
And so I found myself in the Fat Man's office, watching
'A remarkable man, that Mr. White,' the Fat Man was mumbling. 'Remarkable.'
'Indeed he is.'
'Always gets the job done. To be commended. I'm sure he'll be back to work soon enough- it's only a leg wound, barely broken flesh. It was very responsible of him to make sure you got here. He did make sure, I assume?'
'Chaperones and cab-fare.'
'Good. That man knows how to keep a deadline, which is very important around here. But enough about our inconsequential little worker drones.'
Something inside me tightened; I kept the indignation down. Greuze interlaced his fingers. 'Let's talk about you.'
'What about me?'
Should I be speaking more old-fashioned? Should I use 'ye?' Did anybody actually use 'ye' ever?
Stop thinking stupid thoughts.
'For one thing, Mr. Franklin, you appear to be taking your... re-actualisation... extremely well.'
Crap. I should act more freaked out.
'Ah,' I covered, 'I was unnerved at first, but your Mr. White calmed me down. Explained the situation.'
'And you were able to understand it?'
Be prissy. He's insulting your intellect.
'Hmm.' The Fat Man looked at his hands. 'Truth be told, Mr. White was somewhat exceeding his bounds by taking you home. I suppose he values the personal touch. But regardless, I'm afraid we won't be able to allow you out of this facility again for a little while?'
'You see, we're going to have to run some tests. The rule is that you must be psychologically and physiologically identical to our profiles of Benjamin Franklin, as close to indistinguishable as possible.'
'Fair enough.' I took a deep breath.
'Otherwise, you're just another expendable clone.'
Expendable. I tried not to catch the implied threat.
'And it seems to me,' the Fat Man smiled, 'that we might as well begin at once.'
'Who was your travelling partner to Paris in September 1767?'
'John Pringle. Sir John Pringle. My usual partner.'
'What was your proposed motto for the declaration of independence?'
' "Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God" '
'By what ratio were you elected president of Pennsylvania?'
'How did you feel about George Washington?'
I paused. They had me in a sparse room, hooked up to all manner of lie-detector machines. Polygraph hands wavered and heart-rate monitors beeped. Fooling these machines was not difficult; all one had to do was remain calm, and it's surprisingly easy to keep the body tranquil when you're still getting the hang of using it.
The factual questions were easy to answer. Derry and I had stayed up all night cross-checking autobiographies; we'd taken great care compiling a history that at least sounded accurate. But feelings? Emotions? Few of Franklin's own words had survived free of gross misinterpretation. Nobody knew how he felt.
'In that case,' Derry had advised, 'answer however the hell you like. But try to make it sound authentic.'
'He was a good, even great man,' I said, 'an excellent leader and an inspiration to befriend. However, he did tend to drink a bit too much.'
The white-coated scientists looked up from their clip-boards. From the corner of the room, Peter Greuze said:
'Very much so.'
The Fat Man shook his head, and lit a cigarette. The questioning resumed.
'List your thirteen virtues.'
'Temperance, Quiet, Order, Resolution, Fragility, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Chastity and Humility. And Tranquillity, of course.'
'And how well did you yourself embody these values?'
'Well.' I crinkled my face modestly. 'I don't try to work them all at once. One a week, every week, and getting a little better each time.'
'Do you believe in God, Mr. Franklin?'
'Of course. But I prefer to call him "the infinite." '
'Okay,' the Fat Man suddenly spoke up. 'That's enough. Everybody out of the room.'
Accordingly the scientists fled, leaving me alone with the rounded spectre of Peter Greuze. Still connected up to the polygraph machines, I couldn't afford to let my heart spike. I concentrated on keeping myself calm. Tranquillity. Tranquillity. Tranquillity.
'All right, Mr. Franklin,' Greuze said. 'I admit I'm still a little bit sceptical. More than a little bit, in fact. But you seem to have answered all our questions honestly and without flaw, and you certainly look the part.'
'Thank you,' I inclined my head slightly.
'I really would like to know exactly how Mr. White managed to do it. He was so vague about his plan, about your exact nature. Why, you could be anything. You might even be the real thing.'
'I like to think I am. And I do agree,' I couldn't resist, 'Mr. White is very clever.'
'Well, you can tell him so yourself.'
'While we're meeting with him.'
Beep. My heart rate skipped. Greuze pretended not to notice. Knowing I couldn't afford another such mistake, I started slowly and subtly unplugging myself from the machines; gently pulling electrodes off my head.
'We're going to see Mr. White,' said the Fat Man. 'You and me. Now.'
'But...' Keep. It. Together. I smiled to cover my anxiety. 'He was shot.'
'Just a leg-wound. Caught in a gang crossfire. So obviously he can't come into work, but doesn't mean we can't visit him. I have many questions, and I'm sure he'll be only too happy to answer them. Mr. White always did have a horrible ego.'
'I... did he?'
'Come, Mr. Franklin.' Greuze put his arm around me, pulling me out of my seat. 'We'll get you some more fitting clothes, and then it's off to meet your maker.'
The Fat Man smiled.
And in my head, I started to swear.
We took a car across the east side, down to my apartment.
It was more of a limo, actually. Black with blacked out windows, the seal of the Salmon Corp shining on the doors. An effective shield against all the street skirmishes we drove directly through.
I sat slumped in padded leather, trying to keep my brooding subtle.
Greuze was opposite me, drinking from a bottle of Champaign. There was a body-guard in the driver's seat.
'I do love this city,' Greuze said. 'It's so clean and dirty, all at the same time. Makes you think.'
I made a nonspecific noise.
They're going to find I'm not in my house. Shot men don't move. And then they'll go looking for me and take, what, ten minutes to work everything out? They'll find Derry. They'll find my body. They'll shoot both of us properly. Oh God.
'I will never understand why White enjoys this neighbourhood,' Greuze muttered. 'It's so... unabashedly cheap.'
'I assume your tastes are more refined?' I snapped, almost without thinking.
'Poverty,' Greuze shrugged, 'is no excuse for a lack of imagination. Being poor is no excuse for looking poor.'
The limo stopped. We got out, in the shadow of my apartment block. Suddenly, the building seemed to loom. A big grey cube, dark and ominous, hogging the street-side.
Mr. Greuze took a little piece of paper from his pocket and consulted it. 'Fourth floor. Apartment... twenty-one B, apparently. I think I used to live in a twenty-one B. This way.'
Greuze led on. His bodyguard-cum-chauffeur stayed with the car. Apparently, Greuze wasn't worried about needing protection.
We ascended up a broken staircase, and found my front door.
'This week's virtue is Silence.'
Greuze knocked on the door.
I could hit that Fat Man in the back of the head and run. I could go find Derry and get away.
I had nothing to lose. I felt my fists clench-
The door opened.
And there was me. The real me, in my real body. Walking with a limp, and leaning on a cane.
I stood in the doorway with my jaw on the floor.
'Ah,' said the real me. 'Mr. Franklin. I've been expecting you.'
I'll call him Jacob White, even though that's my name. Maybe just 'Mr. White,' would be better.
Mr. White didn't move like me. That was weird to see. His stride was stately, elegant. He seemed too self-assured. Too confident.
He walked about my apartment like the king of a very small castle.
'Tea?' He offered. 'I'm sure I must have some around here somewhere.' He started rooting through my cupboards.
No, you don't. You're out.
'Ah, here we go. I brought it just this morning.' Mr. White smiled, proffering a packet of Camomile teabags. I hate Camomile.
'I'd appreciate some tea,' Greuze nodded, looking at me. 'Would you like some tea?'
I just about managed to shake my head.
'Only for me then. Two sugars, if you have them.'
Mr. White nodded politely, and went about brewing. It took him a couple of tries to work the kettle, I noted.
Derry, I thought. It must be Derry. Controlling my body somehow to cover for me. Clever girl.
'Here,' I offered, rushing into the kitchen. 'Let me help you pour that.'
I watched my own hands lift the overflowing kettle, spilling a little water in the process. Mr. White winced, and so did I.
'Derry,' I whispered, so quiet that I was sure Greuze couldn't hear. 'Derry, is that you?'
Mr. White ignored me, striding past.
'Have either of you read the paper?' White asked, handing Greuze his tea. 'Terrible business this morning.'
'Terrible business most mornings,' Greuze replied. 'But I take it you mean something in particular?'
'A young woman, stabbed to death in her own apartment.' White shook his head. 'Senseless. Horrible crime. See for yourself.'
Mr. White picked a newspaper from the coffee table, and threw it to me. I stared at the front page, and wanted to cry.
'I'm sure whoever did it is filled with remorse.'
Derry was the young woman found dead. Only a handful of hours ago. The press print quickly, in this day and age; the newspaper was already updating itself with the latest details of her murder inquiry. Seemed that whoever the killer was, she'd let him into her home voluntarily. There were signs of struggle, but all the doors had been broken open from the inside. Some very expensive VR equipment had been found in her house, smashed almost beyond recognition.
I needed to lie down.
'Are you all right, Mr. Franklin?' Greuze noticed my expression.
'Forgive him,' White said. 'He's from a simpler time.'
'Well, you would know,' Greuze grinned. 'After all, you are the man who made him.'
'Yes.' White looked me square in the eyes. Something made me shiver. 'Yes, I am.'
White knew everything.
He knew how the cloning process worked. He knew how the Simulacra was supposed to develop. He knew all the technical terms, all the jargon. He knew exactly what I had done, how I had done it, and how I was supposed to have done it.
He sat and sipped his tea, idly spouting off technical specs and humorous anecdotes about my life- anecdotes which never happened. Occasionally, he'd wince and apologise for any incoherence. 'It's the pain meds, see. They foggy up the brain.'
Greuze brought it all. Of course he did. There was no reason for him not to, no reason at all.
Eventually, I managed to scrape my jaw off the floor and make a show of nodding, agreeing, going along with... whatever was happening.
'Well,' White finally said, after an hour or so. 'It's getting late. And gentlemen, it's been fun, but now I really need to get some rest.'
We let ourselves out. 'Drop by anytime,' said White, closing the door.
'That all certainly seems to be in order,' Greuze beamed, as we returned to the limo. 'Irritatingly, that man is certainly worth his ego.'
'I'm sure,' I mumbled.
'We can let him rest a bit, now that we have an understanding of the process. There's no reason we can't go ahead with the rest of the project ourselves.'
I nodded absently.
'As for yourself, Mr. Franklin,' Greuze climbed into the car. 'I'm afraid we can't offer you much time to adjust to your new situation, but don't worry. We intend to treat you with the utmost veneration and respect.'
I nodded again.
'Which is why we'll be assigning you a specialist handler for your mission.'
'Handler?' I blinked. 'Mission?'
'Mission,' Greuze considered, 'might be too strong a term. Let me explain.'
The engine started.
Her name was Natalia Abranos Illnyova.
She was, unsurprisingly, Russian.
Short red hair. Sharp eyes. Appreciable curves. In other words, very attractive. Under ordinary circumstances I might have been attracted to her, but at the time the only woman on my mind was Derry.
She can't be dead. It didn't seem real. I hadn't seen the body, hadn't been back to her restaurant, hadn't RSVP'd the funeral. I couldn't do any of those things, because I was now living in the confined quarters of the Salmon Corporation. Being followed around by a stupidly sexy Russian and her atrociously over-exaggerated accent.
My cage was gilded. I had a slew of comfortable rooms with cushions everywhere, and a fridge forever stocked with fatty foods. I had all the books I could ever read, and any piece of equipment I cared to request. I think they were waiting for me to invent something.
Once or twice a day, Ms. Natalia would take me out for a walk. I was given some proper clothes. Simple garbs in black and grey, designed to echo my previous outfit without appearing too antique- they at least kept all the frills. I had new shoes. Comfortable shoes, with Salmon labels on the heels. I had been tagged.
'And over here, we have the Monument of Ages. Now I'm sure it looks to you like a big metal spike because frankly, that is what it is. But there we go.'
Natalia had a tendency to mistake herself for a tour guide. She rarely gave me time to get a word in edgeways. I was actually quite happy to hang around with someone who didn't expect me to be... well, Ben Franklin. Natalia didn't seem to expect me to be anything.
We were walking around a public park- Memorial Garden. It was a nice park; peaceful and green, possibly more so than anywhere else in the city. Baroque bridges hung over little ponds, swans circled fountains and tyres swung on tree branches. In the background, the sun was fighting to get up over the skyscraper skyline.
The Monument of Ages was square in the middle of the park. It's supposed to be a commemoration for the Labour Unions killed off by the '97 purge, I thought testily. Natalia would often make mistakes, and of course I couldn't correct her- that would be breaking character.
This was only supposed to last for two weeks.
Two and a half, and counting. No plan for a way out. Getting my body back was all I ever thought about. But without Derry's equipment... equipment I couldn't rebuild without tempting suspicion...
And there was the other me. Mr. White. Part of me still clung to the faint hope that, somehow, some way, it might be Derry. I knew this couldn't be, but it would've made things so much easier if my friend was still out th
After our walk, Natalia took me back to my cage. As always, we restricted ourselves to the barest pleasantries. I called her 'dear lady,' a couple of times, because I felt it sounded authentic.
A message from Greuze was waiting on my bedside table.
It said: Time for your premiere.
I'd been putting off my premiere ever since Greuze had first mentioned it.
To sell. Basically, to sell myself.
I'd signed away the rights to the Benjamin Franklin Action Figure line, just like they'd wanted. The Corp had ten million tiny little versions of me, packaged and ready to sell- all they needed as an excuse to put them on the shelf.
I would be providing them with that excuse.
My job was to go from place to place, and wave at the crowds. Apparently, the Corp wanted to give me a grand unveiling, or rather, a succession of Grand Unveilings- one for every state. People would flock to see me. And after the amazing experience of seeing history come to life, people would obviously want a souvenir.
There was a reason the company had really wanted me to go on those walks with Natalia; those very public walks. They let the press could catch glimpses of a man who looked vaguely historical, drumming up that little bit of extra interest.
All I had to do was to stand on stage and be Ben Franklin. Or rather, as Greuze put it, "just be yourself."
The first time was the worst.
I was sent out in the middle of a rock-concert. The audience was dominated by punks and goths, the stage crowded with ugly faces. The main act had just finished playing, and they had left the stage a mess; broken wiring and mysterious fluid everywhere. Spotlights exploded across my eyeballs, coming from all directions. This was New Hampshire, the northernmost region of the America Little. Eight hundred square kilometres devoted to stadiums, sports centres and palladiums. In the distance, I could see other concerts; firework displays and limelight flares.
I'd been introduced already, in between acts. The audience had been primed and prepared for me. I could tell, because the moment I stepped on stage they exploded into rapturous applause.
I was nervous as a pimp in hell. My head thumped, my blood-pressure soared and I had to fight the constant urge to pee. Natalia was behind me, along with a few beefy bodyguards. Somebody handed me a microphone, and I stood on the edge of the stage; looking down over the precipice, staring at all of the scruffy young people below.
'Um,' I coughed. The microphone gaze a slash of feed-back.
Glancing over my shoulder for support, I found none. Natalia just shrugged. Helpful.
'Greetings to your all!' I fumbled vaguely. 'Good citizens! It is I, Benjiman Franklin!'
"It is I, Benjamin Franklin"?!? My brain echoed incredulously. What the hell are you thinking?! I should've practiced my speech.
'Now,' I continued, 'I know what you're all thinking. This gentleman must be a clot in costume. He must be false, a fake, a ph-' Ben Franklin wouldn't say phoney. 'A facsimile. Well, I can offer you little firm evidence at this juncture. My friends here,' I gestured vaguely at Natalia, 'my friends from the Salmon Corp will no doubt have some scientific evidence for those of you with inquiring minds. In the interests of not boring you, I shall confine myself to the only fact of the matter you need to know. I am the real and true Benjamin Franklin. From your history. And through the wonder of technology, I have returned to life!'
There was a long pause. Silence from the crowd. A few people scratched their heads; wondering if this might be a joke. A few others choked off laughter.
Somehow, I'd hoped for a bit more of a response.
'I am history come to life?' I tried again, uncertainly. Again, no response from the audience. I began to feel very small.
'Okay,' Natalia said quickly, stepping forward and snatching the microphone from me. 'I think Mr. Franklin's tired, and we've probably taken enough out of him. Off you go back stage, good sir.'
She gave me a pointed look, eyes flashing. I nodded glumly, feeling humiliation deep inside. I let the bodyguards lead me behind the curtain.
'Now then,' Natalia's voice faded with the light of the stage. 'That's one spectacle down, let's see if we can get another. How many people here are fans of Mentallic B?! How many people want them on for an encore?!'
Cheering from the audience.
Somewhere backstage, an argument was raging. A lead singer was complaining that he 'Didn't ever do encores.' I wasn't listening. The moment I was out of sight of the crowd, I flopped onto the floor.
The humiliation... being stared blankly at by half a million faces...
Well, chirped a little part of my brain. They weren't really staring at you.
Yes they were.
No. They were staring at Ben Franklin.
I thought about this for a minute, and decided that it didn't make me feel any better.
'Okay,' Natalia appeared, hands on hips. Onstage, another band had started playing. 'Okay, I think I know what we did wrong here. This isn't the right crowd, this isn't the right gig.'
'They applauded when I came on,' I muttered.
'That was just on general principles. We shouldn't be marketing to a young audience, or at least, not this young audience. Will you get off the floor?'
'Oh.' I stood up. 'Sorry.'
'And another thing,' she snapped. 'You could try to be a little more impressive, you know. You're not going to convince anyone with a display like that.'
'I'm sorry,' I rallied. 'I'm having a bit of a rough month. I'm sure it's playing hell with my charisma.'
'Tough,' Natalia said flatly. 'These are modern times. People aren't going to be impressed by a harmonica and a light-bulb anymore. Deal with it.'
'You're not helping.'
'My job isn't to help,' she said. 'My job is to organise.'
'You're a press officer.'
'Of course,' she shrugged. 'What did you think I was? Your concubine?'
I was left in her wake; Natalia was already speaking on the phone, organising another round.
From the stage, there came the sound of a second encore.
'We shouldn't be targeting the North,' Natalia told Greuze. 'They have a rudimentary education system, a pop-obsessed culture and very little respect for history.'
We were in the Fat Man's office. I couldn't help noticing that Greuze seemed to be losing weight.
'Our Pre-Publicity department picked that location for maximum press coverage,' Greuze pointed out, from behind his desk.
'I'm sure they did,' Natalia said. 'And if they had listened to my recommendations, they would have realised that we were always going to have maximum press coverage. We could have opened in a shed in the Nevada desert and gotten maximum press coverage- this is Ben Franklin we're talking about. The point is how the Press sees the public react.'
'Hmm,' Greuze shifted. 'Well, since this is now a job for Post-Publicity, Natalia, it's going to be up to you to make sure this kind of mistake doesn't happen again.'
'Already on it sir,' Natalia smiled smugly. 'I've arranged a series of events constituting a tour of America Large.'
I gave her an incredulous look. Greuze raised an eyebrow. I remembered that Ben Franklin probably wouldn't have a reason to look incredulous, and wound my expression down to merely 'curious.'
'America Large?' I asked, trying to sound ignorant.
'You would have called them the Southern states,' Greuze explained. 'Some of them, anyway. That area has considerably expanded since you were last around. Are you sure we should take him down there?' Greuze asked Natalia. 'We don't have a lot of influence in Large.'
'Nonsense,' Natalia said. 'No one in Large would ever try to harm us. They're a timid, backwards lot, but the
Greuze bit his upper-lip, considering.
'All right. We'll try it your way, Natalia. Benjamin, pack a bag.'
'Yes, sir.' I said, a little bit stiffly. Going to Large. Great. One more thing crossed off the Things-I-Never-Wanted-To-Do list.
'Oh, Ben,' Greuze called, as we were leaving. 'Stay behind a moment, would you? We need to talk.'
Somewhat nervously, I stayed behind.
'Now, Mr. Franklin.' Greuze gave a slow sigh. 'I understand this has been a difficult transition for you.'
'And the process we used to bring you here, I admit, was experimental. It might not have been perfect. Given your... behaviour... I thought I should ask if you feel at all... strange?'
'Different. Not yourself. Mentally compromised.' Greuze smiled. 'If you should find yourself feeling any of these things, it is important that you let someone on staff know as soon as possible.
The meek little Yes Sir, trickled to the front of my mind- but something stopped me. He's calling you out, I realised. He's testing you. I admit, I didn't have much reason to think that. I just had a lot of anger and frustration pent up, and it sounded like this man was dangerously close to blowing my cover. I felt awful.
So I spoke up.
'Are you questioning my integrity?' I asked, coldly and with volume. My anger helped me stay in character- it made me feel strong and smart. For a second, I genuinely thought that I was right and he was wrong. 'Are you suggesting that I am in some way blunted? Addled? Damaged? Less than a man? Is that what you mean to say, sir, because if it is then I appeal to you to come straight out and say it. I may have lost some of youth's sharpness, and I may be stranded in an alien world, but I am no fool. I am myself, I am fully in possession of my faculties, and I do not appreciate the implication that I could be otherwise. Do I make myself clear?'
Greuze seemed taken aback. I'd never seen the Fat Man cowed. For a second I thought: Oh, shit, I'm gonna get in trouble. Then I remembered- I was the honoured guest here. And I puffed my chest out accordingly.
'Of course,' Greuze said quickly, 'I wasn't at all implying-'
'I should think not,' I cut him off. I cut him off.
'Well then. That, uh, that will be all.' Greuze nodded briskly. 'Mr. Franklin.'
I strode out of the room, not giving the Fat Man time to regroup.
My brain was arush. Endorphins were flowing. I felt good.
I've never liked helicopters.
They hover and buzz, like bluebottles. They look unpleasant in the sky and I'm fairly sure they're not a safe; they tend to shake.
I was sitting in a helicopter, on the edge of my seat. Natalia was opposite me, dropping pills into a glass.
'What are you doing?' I asked.
'I despise flying,' Natalia replied, pulling a flask from her pocket and filling the glass with whisky. 'You want some?'
'Thank you, no.'
'Suit yourself,' Natalia shrugged, downing the glass. 'Wake me when we get there.'
Soon after, she was asleep. I was left alone but for the pilot, who wasn't exactly talkative.
The side of the helicopter held a single window. I peered outside, squinting in the sunlight.
America Large. Only a few minutes after crossing the border, and the landscape was already undergoing a massive shift. Grey hills and canyons were subsiding, flattening into the ground. Grass became rock and rock became sand. Everything started to look beige.
We were drawing into the desert.
A few miles later, and we reached the Oil Fields.
For a thousand kilometres, the oil rigs stretched. Built under bright blue sky and over stone-baked sand, the great metal pumps looked like huge overturned hammers- rocking gently back and forth. Steel wells reached down into the Earth, oil barrels lined up beside them. Little figures, tiny as ants, crawled around gigantic drills. Workers, sweating out the day.
The helicopter chose to dip low, for some reason. Maybe the pilot wanted me to see it all up close; we flew right by the nearest pump, rotor blades practically kissing the rusted metal frame. I saw the size of it; the unfathomable scale that would make giants seem small and skyscrapers tiny. I saw the depth of the well, and I heard the miners' call. Work harder. Work faster.
A man in an iron helmet was standing high up on the rig. He waved at my helicopter. One of his arms was a hook.
I waved back.
The pilot took us a little further up- so I could be reminded that this Field went on forever.
A burst of flame flew up on the horizon. A controlled venting, I hoped. This was no place for untamed fire.
We flew on.
Eventually, we reached the border town of Louisian.
From the air it looked more than a little ramshackle. A wooden clock-tower comprised the shoddy town hall, surrounded on all sides by shanty huts trying to pass for houses. Rickety old cars and jeeps chugged along rocky roads.
We landed just outside of town, and the moment the rotor blades stopped I truly felt the overwhelming heat. Like a wave of shrapnel, digging into my skin- I had to take my jacket off. I suddenly felt very self-conscious of my pudginess.
'No more frosting!' Natalia yelled with a start, shaking herself awake. She looked around for a minute in obvious confusion, before remembering herself. 'Ahem.' She straightened her shirt, standing up. 'I take it we're here?'
'Well then. Let us go.'
The two of us stepped out of the copter- the silent pilot chose to stay with his ship, which was presumably his only friend.
'Exactly what was wrong with the frosting?' I couldn't help asking.
'Excuse me?' Natalia blinked.
'You yelled it out, just before waking up,' I told her.
'I don't know. It was just a dream.'
'For some reason, I expected that you'd dream in Russian,' I said
'Why? I don't speak Russian.'
I gave her an odd look. At that moment, we were interrupted.
The man doing the interrupting was a fine and fearsome specimen. Tall, broad, handsome, dark skin and glittering eyes beneath the brim of a cowboy hat. His clothes were mostly coloured white; I wondered how he managed to keep them clean. He spoke with a strong southern drawl.
'Good to see y'all. Right on time, too.' The man made a show of checking his watch. 'That's somethin' I approve of.'
'Mr. Franklin, this is Colonel Parker Harland- Mayor and Military Viceroy of Louisian. Colonel Harland,' Natalia's tiny palm was consumed by the Colonel's gigantic paw. 'This is Benjamin Franklin.'
'So I've heard!' Harland bellowed. 'It is an honour to meet you sir! A real honour! Should I-' Harland looked to Natalia. 'Should I bow? Am I supposed to bow or salute or-'
'None of that will be necessary,' I said firmly. 'A handshake will suffice.'
My own hand was crushed by the Colonel's.
'Truly sir, this is one of God's finest miracles.' The way Harland was looking at me- the adoration- it was almost frightening. 'One of his very finest.'
'Um. Thank you.'
'I understand you've arranged a suitable program of events for tonight?' Natalia asked, as we strode into town.
'Oh, yes,' The Colonel nodded quickly. 'We have a whole evening based around your arrival, sir and ma'am. The entire town should be turning out. It'll be quite a party.'
I was already drawing attention. I could feel gazes on my back; people peering out from between curtains, stealing glimpses through letterboxes. The town was little more than a single main street, bordered by shops and houses. Few pedestrians were ab
'I admit, we were all surprised that you chose to come here,' the Colonel said. 'We expected you'd want to appear in Boston or Philadelphia or the like.'
'We considered it,' Natalia answered before I could. 'But since Boston's still essentially underwater and Philadelphia is... well, Philadelphia... we thought we'd go somewhere calmer. Somewhere more appreciative.'
'We are that, ma'am.' Harland said briskly. 'Oh my, yes. We are certainly that.'
The Colonel took us to what he optimistically termed 'the finest hotel in town. It was a bit... rustic. Wooden floors, wooden walls, wooden chairs... it was like the whole place had been carved from pine, with only the occasional cushion to break things up. So strange in comparison to my city of metal.
The hotel lobby was small and low ceilinged, with a single reception desk dominating everything. A staircase rose up and around in the background, surrounded by landscape paintings that were probably supposed to look snazzily post-modern but were actually rather bad.
'I take it this place is more suited to your antique sensibilities,' Natalia said dryly.
Uh... maybe, I thought. 'Somewhat,' I said.
There was a bellboy to show us upstairs. The little brown kid never once looked me in the eye, nor spoke a word to my face. He handed us our door keys, then darted off.
Natalia and I stood in the plywood corridor, outside our respective rooms.
'They really do believe in history here,' I observed. 'It's... overwhelming.'
'The backwards are often obsessed with the past,' Natalia shrugged, opening her door.
'Natalia,' I had to ask. 'You really don't speak Russian?'
'Why would you assume that I do?'
'My accent?' She asked- and just like that, her voice changed. The low vowels dropped away, high tones slipped in. She became a city girl, just like any other.
I blinked. 'How-'
'I am Russian,' she said, simply. 'But my parents did not like this. They would not teach me their language. Still, I do not like to hide what I am. The world has had enough of that.'
'Right.' I couldn't think of a decent response. 'Very... admirable.'
'Perhaps.' Her accent returned. Somehow, it seemed to suit her a lot more. 'Or perhaps I am simply being stubborn.'
She disappeared into her room.
A few minutes later, I did the same.
The Colonel hadn't been exaggerating. The whole town really did turn out to party.
I made my appearance on an improvised stage (made from plywood... where were they finding all these trees?) outside the town hall, at the stroke of midnight.
There were maybe three hundred people present. A far smaller crowd than the New Hampshire stadium, yet somehow far more intense. Some of them clearly weren't locals. A lot of extra cars were parked around the town- cameras and notebooks were in evidence. The Press were showing in force. I felt the pressure.
Natalia was behind me, wearing a Don't screw this up expression.
'Listen,' I hissed at her, 'would you please leave me alone for five minutes?'
'It's my job to make sure things go smoothly,' she replied.
'Well, things'll go a lot smoother if you're not leaning over my shoulder. Go and make sure from over there.' I pointed vaguely off-stage. 'Go on. Shoo.'
Natalia fixed me with an irate glare, then made a show of sauntering off. Left alone on stage, I fought off images of my last live performance. This would be different. I'd spent the entire afternoon practicing my speech.
Okay. Deep breath.
'Hello.' It wasn't the strongest start in the world, but it was a classic. 'It's nice to see you all.'
Somewhere off-stage, Natalia was rolling her eyes.
'No, really.' I ran my gaze over the crowd. Psyching myself up, getting fully into character. 'It is nice to see you all. It is nice to be reminded that people remember.
'And I don't mean that they remember me. I'm not the thing you should be remembering. I am merely a man, no more valuable than any other. But your remembrance of the history, the past, the events shepherding you all the way through yesterday toward today- that is important. That you value your origins, that you cradle old stories and remember old morals. That is important. I have looked around this strange new world, and it is full of wonderful things. Technology I had never dreamed of, miracles I can barely understand. But for every wonder, I see something else, something to... to repulse me. Decadence. Crime. Ill-virtue ruling the streets, apathetic young and violent old. People who have forgotten where they came from. People who have forgotten the values upon which this nation was built, the values we need to be worthy. I have not forgotten. I was there... it seems like yesterday. I was there, at the beginning of it all. I saw those who forged a nation from fire and blood and they birthed a beautiful dream. I walked with great men, and did what little I could to help. Perhaps you will say that there are no longer such men. I do not believe that. There are always giants, and each of you has the potential to become one. I was there at the beginning of it all, and I am here again. Those days were bright and full of promise, and they can come again.
'I have not forgotten, and it is comforting to know that neither have you. My name is Benjamin Franklin. My return from the dead is nothing to get excited about. But if we can bring some of those old morals back, if some us of can be giants again...then perhaps I will have proved myself worthy of such small resurrection.
'Thank you all for your attention. Enjoy the party.'
Wow, I thought, stepping back. Where did that come from? Some of it was what I'd rehearsed, but a lot of it... just came from nowhere.
Clap. Clap. Clap.
Someone was applauding.
Clap! Clap! Clap!
Everyone was applauding.
The air was filled with cheers. Apparently, I'd done well this time.
Whisking me off-stage, Natalia whispered: 'Looks like you have some of the old magic left after all.'
I could only nod.
Living History by Ben Essex / Science Fiction have rating 4.8 out of 5 / Based on38 votes