Back | Next
The storm wrecked Sam's carefully planned solitude.
The next morning, Sam hiked to the small beach below her house to see the damage. She followed a trail through the redwoods, those ancient trees that stood like sentinels around her property. They had been growing on this remote stretch of California coast for centuries, even millennia. Mist softened her view of the trunks as if a gauzy shroud hung over the green-needled branches with their dark cones. The world had become muted after the fury of last night's thunder, rain, and winds.
Sam came out onto the beach under an overcast sky the color of pewter. Seagulls cried as they wheeled beneath the clouds. Through the shreds of fog that hung over the beach, she saw the sea, a froth of green and ivory cream, thick and restless.
Flotsam from last night's storm had scattered across the beach in soggy clumps. Sam walked past driftwood and kelp, her hands scrunched in the pockets of her jacket. Chips embedded in the coat's lining controlled its heating system and warmed her body, but the chill air on her face bit like ice.
So Samantha Abigail Harriet Bryton wandered across her private stretch of sand, hidden from the rest of the coast by cliffs that cupped the beach and extended promontories into the water. She felt at home here. Her name made her think of the cocktail parties, society pages, and chic clothes of her parents' world, or else a pair of spectacles hanging off the end of her nose. None of those qualities described her, except perhaps the last, before surgery had corrected her vision. To escape all that, she just went by Sam.
Contrary to its reputation as a sunshine state, California had weather that turned cold and foggy up here near the Oregon border. Sam missed the warmer climates down south, but she had no wish to return to the hard-edged, fast-paced world she had fled. She had begun to heal these past six months since she had left the biotech corridors of the San Francisco Bay Area. Better to hide here than face a life that compromised her sense of right and wrong.
Wind blew her mane of shaggy yellow curls across her eyes. She passed rocky tidal pools with orange starfish draped across them, half in the water. Tiny octopuses hid under the rocks. Oystercatchers strutted among the pools, foraging for limpets and mussels, their red beaks fluorescent against the dull gray morning. Waves rolled into the beach, mottled in blue, green, and foamy white, swirling across the sand and rounded stones. Most petered out a few feet short of where she walked, but some came far enough to eddy around her hiking boots and soak the ankles of her jeans. The icy water gave her a jolt.
Sam felt one of her moods coming on, the desire to rebel against the technology she had forsworn when she resigned her job last year. This morning she had deliberately left her mesh glove on her desk at home, and she had ripped the chips out of her clothes. Well, all except the heating system in her jacket; one couldn't be completely uncivilized. She supposed she wasn't rebelling all that much, given that her ability to communicate with the world was only half a mile away, in her house among the redwoods. But she valued her isolation here, on the wild beauty of her beach.
Last night's storm had left a mess, though: tree branches rounded into smooth shapes, shards of wood, a broken ring made from metal, tatters of cloth, bits of machinery—
Sam went over to a pile of metal fragments. They definitely came from a human-built object, possibly a ship. Uneasy, she peered out at the ocean. The mist obscured her view, but she thought more debris was bobbing beyond the breakers, in the swells rolling toward shore. The water had never had this much junk, not even after other storms.
Curious now, she stripped to her underwear and blouse, goose bumps rising on her skin in the cold air. Drawing in a deep breath, she steeled herself and waded into the icy water.
"Ah!" Sam gasped as waves crashed around her knees and sprayed water into her face. Exhilarated, she spread her feet wide, bracing herself against the force of the waves and the slight undertow that tried to pull her under. She loved the ocean, loved its power and surging beauty, even its chill temperature, surely no more than fifty degrees now. Usually she jogged in the morning, but today she would swim instead. She couldn't stay in too long; a few minutes would invigorate her, but any longer without a wetsuit and she risked hypothermia.
Her muscles tightened as she forged onward. Water swelled around her thighs, her waist, and higher, and she had to jump with the waves to keep from being knocked over. When it reached her breasts, she began to swim, riding up a swell and down the other side as it rolled past. After the first shock of the water, her body was adapting, which made the chill recede.
Sam ducked under the next wave, holding her breath as she submerged, her body tingling from cold. She jumped through the next waves. In the valley between the swells, she swam with powerful strokes, until she made it past the point where the waves no longer broke.
Now that she could see the debris more clearly, she caught her lower lip with her teeth. This was the wreckage of a vessel, possibly a small yacht given the quality of wood floating around her. She found a section of metal with a date stamp: July 2032. That made it less than a year old.
She stroked past broken planking, baffled. This had been a bad storm, yes, but it shouldn't have wrecked a vessel. If the yacht had smashed against the rocks north of here, the pieces would have been more dispersed now, unless it had happened on a promontory right here, this morning. She peered at the cliff jutting into the water a few hundred meters to the north. Although she saw no indication a ship had run into trouble there, the restive waves could have carried the debris this way.
The overcast was beginning to clear, and a V-shape of birds flying south made dark lines against the sky. From behind her, watery sunlight slanted through the mist. The cold had begun to bother Sam; perhaps it was time to head back in to shore.
Then an anomaly caught her attention. A glint came from farther out, different from the many ways sun reflected off seawater. With a powerful kick, she headed for it, stroking through the chill water. She soon saw what caused the reflection. A large section of hull floated out here. The remains of a metal rail hung off one side and some cloth had caught on the wood.
With dismay, Sam realized the "cloth" was a man sprawled facedown. Water lapped over the makeshift raft, soaking him, bathing his face and then ebbing away.
Kicking hard now, afraid the man would drown if he hadn't already, Sam came alongside the hull. She grabbed the rail, reached across the wood, and laid her hand on his neck. With relief, she felt his pulse, steady but slow under her palm.
Sam hoisted herself up and got her elbows onto the raft so she could see better. He was probably in his mid-twenties, with skin and hair so pale, they seemed almost translucent. He looked like a corpse. She might have been wrong about his pulse—but no, he was breathing, low and shallow, unconscious but alive.
Sam pushed a straggle of hair out of her face. She had to get him to shore fast; he could die of exposure out here. Towing him on the raft would probably be safest; although she had taken a lifesaving course in college, that had been twenty years ago and she wasn't certain she could keep his head above the water without help.
Sliding into the ocean, she hooked her arm over the metal rail and pulled the rough underside of the hull onto her hip. Then she headed for the shore, using a side kick she practiced often, one of her most powerful strokes. Or so she had thought.
Towing in the makeshift raft was harder than she expected. She struggled through the water, making so little headway that she questioned if she could reach the shore. For every few feet she gained, the waves grew larger, which moved her forward but made it harder to control the raft. Her arms tired, and her legs ached with the strain of kicking hard enough to propel the hull. She might soon be too cold to pull even herself through the water, let alone the raft. She could drown.
Sam thought of releasing the raft and swimming into the beach. She would run for help. But it was no good; if this man died because she couldn't get him to the shore in time, she couldn't live with herself.
The swells continued to grow. She rode up the back of one, higher and higher, four or five feet into the air. Wind blew across her soaked blouse and she shivered. In the instant she realized the wave was going to break, she threw her arms over the raft, grabbing the man, holding him tight on the water-soaked hull. Then the wave crashed down in a whirl of froth and seaweed, throwing the raft with it, battering them with bits of debris. Sam clung to the precariously tilting hull, covering the man as best she could. She prayed he didn't breathe in too much water.
The wave rolled on, leaving them in the valley between swells. Mercifully, the raft hadn't flipped. The next wave loomed above her, but this time she was better positioned to catch it. She scrambled onto the hull, lying across it and the man, ready to ride into shore as she had often done as a child on mini surfboards.
She had lost her touch, though. The wave curled over in a pipe and crashed on top of her, wrenching away the raft. The backlash caught Sam and she floundered under the water, buffeted on all sides. Holding her breath, she dove deeper to escape the turbulence. When she hit the bottom, she pushed off with a great shove and shot up until she flew out of the water up to her hips. On another day, it would have been fun, but right now she could think only about the injured man.
She caught the next breaker and body surfed into shore. As the wave dwindled into a tame wash, she jumped up and ran through the foam and tangles of kelp. The raft had swept up a few yards away, its passenger lying across it, his hair plastered against his head. Sam's clothes lay crumpled in a heap a few hundred yards farther up the beach.
Sam sped to the raft and dropped down next to it, shaking with the cold. When she felt the man's pulse under her hand, she gulped with relief. At least she hadn't drowned him. With barely a pause, she scrambled to her feet, ran to her clothes, scooped up her jacket, and raced back. Sand flew as she skidded to a stop by the raft and knelt down. She spread her jacket over the man, covering as much of him as possible with the heat-controlled garment. Right now he needed the warmth far more than she did.
Her check showed no obvious sign of injury. His slender, athletic build made her think of a runner, and his white pants and shirt could have come from a sports rack in any department store. He carried no wallet or mesh glove. The bluish tinge of his lips frightened her; he could die of the cold as easily as by drowning.
Sam sat back on her heels. Her house was half a mile away, up a rocky trail. She lived miles from her nearest neighbor, and she had purposely left her glove at home. Rejecting technology was all well and fine as long as she didn't need it. She could have linked her glove into the local mesh and called in help. She didn't want to leave the man here while she ran to the house. Although she had paid an exorbitant price for the seclusion offered by this lonely stretch of land, right now she would have given anything for a trespasser to show up.
Well, she had to do something or she would freeze herself, which wouldn't help him any. She could sprint home for her glove and make the contact while she ran back here.
Sam leaned over the man and brushed his dripping hair back from his face. "I don't know if you can hear me, but I will be back as soon as I can. I promise."
The man groaned.
Startled, Sam sat back. He opened his eyes, his gaze unfocused, his wet lashes making star patterns around his blue eyes. It seemed odd he would awake now, when he had been drifting in the water for who knew how long. Then again, if anything could jolt him awake, her onerous method of hauling him in to shore probably fit the bill. Or maybe her voice stirred his response. Whatever the reason, he was conscious.
"Can you hear me?" she asked.
He stared past her, his face blank.
Sam set her hand on his shoulder. His wet shirt felt thin under her palm. "Are you hurt?"
She was even more uncertain now whether to leave or stay. A wave swirled around them, reminding her the tide was coming in. Standing up, she tried to drag the raft farther up the beach, but without the buoyancy of the water, she had a lot more trouble. After pulling it only a few inches, she had to stop, her arms aching. Her rescued prince didn't stir, and her concern was edging into alarm.
Sam knelt next to him. "Can you move at all?"
She expected him to continue staring at nothing, but this time he did move, pushing up on his elbows and lifting his head. With erratic motions, he leaned his weight on one hand and nudged a dripping lock of hair out of his eyes. He jerked eerily, as if he were a marionette. His soaked white shirt clung to him, as did his white trousers. The cloth had turned translucent in the water, delineating the planes of his chest. He was obviously in good shape.
"Hello," Sam said.
His eyes scanned the beach, his head turning until he was looking at her. "Hello?" he said.
"Are you all right?" she asked.
Sam couldn't tell if he was answering or repeating her question. His face was hard to read. The regular features and smooth skin had an unnatural perfection, like a statue without the character lines or quirks created by life.
"Can you tell me what happened?" she asked.
He tilted his head.
Sam tried again. "Is anyone else out there?"
Maybe he had hurt his head during the wreck. "I can go back to my house and call a doctor." More to herself than him, she added, "I think I should." She rose to her feet. "I'll hurry back. You keep the jacket on. I'll be back with help."
"No." That one word seemed to cause him great effort. With labored movements, he rose to his feet. He wasn't too tall, only about five foot eight, half a foot taller than Sam.
She watched him with concern. "You should sit."
"Please don't call a doctor." His eyes never blinked.
That made her wary. "Why not?"
"I feel fine."
He didn't look fine. "Are you sure, Mister . . . ?" She paused, hoping he would supply his name.
"I am sure." He had a rich voice with no accent. He took a step—and stumbled, his bare foot catching on the edge of the raft. With a grunt, he sprawled forward, barely catching himself on his hands as he hit the beach.
"Wait!" Sam knelt next to him, the sand in her soaked clothes scratching her skin. "Don't try to walk. Please stay here. I'll get help." She looked out at the restless ocean. "Should I check for anyone else out there?"
"There's no one but me." He pushed up on his hands with methodical determination and doggedly climbed to his feet. When Sam tried to help, he shook her off.
"I'm fine," he said.
She smiled slightly. "You sound like me."
"Oh." He peered at her. "You are . . . ?" His glance went over her body, his gaze lingering. Then he looked quickly back at her face, his cheeks turning red.
Sam's face heated as well. She was practically naked, in only her underpants and a wet top with no bra. Well, nothing to do about it now. She stuck out her hand. "Sam Bryton, at your service."
He stared at her hand, until Sam flushed and lowered her arm. "Did the storm smash your yacht?" It seemed unlikely, but she couldn't be certain.
"Yes." He spoke slowly. "Smashed."
It surprised her an emergency team hadn't arrived. Surely the wreck had been detected by now. By law, it had to transmit signals to the global tracking system.
She motioned toward the nearby cliffs. "My house is up there. I can get you a blanket or a change of clothes."
He peered at the redwoods rising on the cliff, tall against the gray sky. "It would be good to go to a house."
Sam had been thinking she would go up and bring supplies back to him. "Can you walk? It's a ways."
His voice cooled. "I walk fine." He took a jerky step.
Puzzled, Sam went with him as he headed toward the cliff. His uneven gait reminded her of . . . yes, now she remembered. "You have robotics in your legs. That's why you don't walk right."
His shoulders hunched. "I am perfectly capable of managing them."
Sam could have kicked herself. One of these days she would learn to temper her bluntness. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean you couldn't."
His tense posture eased. "Sometimes it takes a while to reintegrate the components."
Sam thought of the way his gaze hadn't focused when he first awoke. Possibly he had artificial eyes as well. If he had enough hardware in his body, prolonged contact with the water might damage the system. "Can you monitor your condition? It may need internal repairs."
He hesitated. "It doesn't bother you?"
"Bother me?" She squinted at him. "What?"
"Me." He motioned at his legs. "That they are biomech constructs."
"Well, no." A good chance existed that she had patented some of his internal components.
For the first time, his voice relaxed. "Good." His gait was already beginning to smooth out.
They continued up the beach. When they reached her clothes, she pulled on her jeans, self-conscious now, aware of him watching, though she didn't look at him. She had never believed teeth could "chatter," but hers were doing it now, rattling as she shook from the cold. She knew she should take off her wet underwear before she put on her jeans, but she couldn't do it in front of him.
When Sam finished, she did finally look at him. He smiled, his cheeks pink, his gaze warm. Feeling awkward, she grabbed her boots. She didn't stop to put them on; months of trudging around barefoot had toughened her feet, and she hardly noticed the shells and pebbles. Her guest seemed even less fazed by the rocky beach. Either he had spent a great deal of time barefoot or else he had little or no feeling in his feet. Possibly they came from a lab, too, like his legs.
When they reached the cliff and started up, he slowed down, trudging at her side up the steep trail. It worried Sam. She ought to take him to the doctor. She couldn't force him to go against his will, though, and if he did feel well enough, he probably wanted to get busy dealing with the destruction of his ship. She certainly would.
He intrigued her. What had left him needing such prosthetics? His damp trousers revealed the structure of his biomech legs. Seen through the cloth, the limbs appeared normal—long, lean, and well toned. What showed of his feet below the hem of his trousers appeared human.
"Why are you staring at my feet?" he asked.
Embarrassed, Sam looked up. "I wondered if they hurt. Does it bother you to step on broken shells?"
She tried for a light, friendly tone. "Hey, you know, you haven't told me your name."
"No. I haven't."
She waited. "And?"
"Are you going to?"
Sam scowled at him. "I just hauled your wet ass out of the ocean. So tell me who you are."
Unexpectedly, he laughed, his teeth flashing. "Fair enough. I'm Turner."
Oh, my. That smile was a killer. It lit up his face. She had thought him attractive before, but when he smiled, he became devastating, with those sparkling blue eyes, his handsome boy-next-door face, and his tousled hair dripping with water.
"Pleased to meet you, Turner," she said. "Is that your last name?"
His smile faded. He turned his attention to the rocky path they were climbing.
"What," Sam grumbled to herself. "Am I that off-putting?" He wouldn't be the first person to tell her so.
His mouth quirked up. "You're charming."
She slanted him a look. "If you think I'm charming, you were in that water too long."
"I've no idea how long I was in it. What is today?"
"Tuesday. November eighth, 2033."
He stumbled on a jutting rock. "That can't be."
He looked at the trees up ahead, his face drawn with strain, marring his unnatural perfection. Sam let it go. Better to wait until they weren't hiking through the woods and he had a chance to recuperate some.
They reached the top of the cliff and headed through the redwoods. Mist no longer shrouded the majestic trees. They grew over two hundred feet tall, as high as skyscrapers. They had such a large girth at the bottom, it could take ten people holding hands to encircle one. Red bark covered their trunks in great, corrugated strips. The trees grew far apart, leaving a great deal of open space in the forest, with sparse but verdant underbrush. Sunlight filtered through the canopy where a redwood had fallen and lay on its side. Although she owned the beach and the clearing with her house, this patch of forest was federal land. It never ceased to awe Sam that some of these trees had lived for thousands of years, over a millennium before her English forebears had set foot on this continent.
" 'Farewell my brethren,' " Sam murmured. " 'Farewell O earth and sky, farewell you neighboring waters, my time is ended, my time has come.' "
A smile warmed Turner's face. "What is that?"
" 'Song of the Redwood Tree.' One of Walt Whitman's works." She knew the poem by heart. " 'Riven deep by the sharp tongues of the axes, there in the redwood forest dense, I heard the mighty tree its death-chant chanting.' "
"It's beautiful. But so sad." He gestured at the trees. "Their time hasn't come."
Regret touched her voice. "No. But so many are gone now. It takes them so long to grow and only a few hours to die, when someone cuts them down."
He spoke in a low voice. "Like people."
That sounded as if it had a lot of history. "Like you?"
"Turner?" she asked.
He wouldn't look at her. "The storm hit on November fifth."
It took her a moment to realize he was answering her question from before about why he didn't think it could be November eighth. But he couldn't have been drifting for three days. "Do you mean this storm?"
"I'm not sure."
"What happened to you when the storm hit?"
"I don't know."
"How can you not know?"
His gaze darted around. "Is this Oregon?"
"Is that where you live?"
His head jerked. "All my life."
"This is California."
He stared at her. "I can't have traveled that far!"
"Well, we're near the Oregon border."
"I came from Portland."
"Okay." Sam wondered if he had stolen the yacht. "Then why is your yacht here, all broken?"
His gaze slid away from hers. "A storm."
"The one last night?"
"Earlier." He wouldn't look at her.
"Must have been a bad one, to wreck your ship."
He studied the trail with its half-submerged roots and scattered pine cones. "It was bad."
She spoke dryly. "How odd that the debris stayed with you all that way during such a bad storm."
Right. No way could that wreckage have kept together over such a distance. Even last night's storm would have dispersed it. The wreck had to have happened this morning, near her beach. It wasn't impossible; if he hadn't been paying attention, it could have crashed against the promontory that curved around her cove, especially given the choppy waves this morning. Why would he tell such an unlikely story? If he knew anything about ships, he should realize she wouldn't believe him.
"You'll need to report the loss of your vessel," Sam said, which was more tactful than I don't believe this fable. "You can use my console." If he had stolen the yacht, he would probably refuse to call the authorities.
"Thank you," he said, distant now.
"You say you had no passengers or crew?"
"I was the only one."
"You know, I'm finding this hard to believe." The words slipped out despite her intent to use discretion.
His voice tightened. "Then don't believe it."
Well, so, now what? She could refuse to help, except it wasn't her nature to turn away someone in need. Despite his claims, he didn't look fine. He plodded next to her, his arms hanging at his sides.
They came out of the redwoods into the clearing where her house stood, an airy wonder of glowing pine and glass. Her home hadn't come easily; together with the beach, this property and house had cost her ten million dollars.
Sam led him to the side entrance she used, a door of golden wood, varnished to a sheen. A carved vine heavy with grapes bordered it, and a round, stained-glass window above the door offered a stylized view of the ocean in blue, green, gray, and white glass.
"Pretty," Turner said behind her.
Sam turned. He was waiting on the blue gravel path. "So come in." Then she winced. She needed better people skills. To sound more hospitable, she added, "Please do."
"I don't want to intrude."
"You aren't." She pressed a fingertip panel by the door, alerting the security system to raise its level of protection. It monitored the house and would protect her if she had problems. She doubted she would, though. She tended to develop a sense of people fairly quickly, and Turner didn't strike her as dangerous. In truth, he looked ready to pass out.
Sam ushered him inside, into a spacious foyer. No walls separated it from the living room on the left or the stairwell on her right. The place had an open, airy feeling. Pots with flowering plants hung from beams on the high ceiling, adding accents of green. Panes of glass everywhere let sunlight pour into the house, and the stained-glass window behind them cast tinted colors across the parquetry floor. To the left, across the living room, the outside wall curved out. Tall windows stretched from a cushioned bench there to the ceiling, providing a view of the forest.
Their clothes had dried enough to stop dripping, but the two of them had tracked sand all over the floor. Sam wasn't certain if she could provide Turner with a change of clothes; although he wasn't large (anyone was big compared to her) he was too big for her clothes to fit him. Perhaps she could just wash his garments.
Her guest turned in a circle, gazing around her house as if he would drink in the sight. "This is incredible."
"Thanks. I like it."
"I've never been anywhere like this."
She thought of his yacht. "Surely you've seen nice houses."
He turned to her. "Nothing even close to this."
Sam didn't know what to think. He had access to what had to be an exceedingly expensive vessel, yet he behaved as if he had never seen a nice house. It didn't fit—unless he had stolen the yacht. Although he hardly seemed the criminal type, his bewilderment could be an ideal disguise for a con man. With those baby blues and his angel-boy appearance, he could commit a load of crimes and no one would suspect him.
"What's wrong?" he asked. "Why do you stare at me?"
"I wondered if Turner was your last name."
"It . . . is my name."
She put her hand on her hip. "And is that the only name on the registration for your yacht?"
His face paled. "No."
She hadn't expected him to admit it. A con man would have had a better story. Then again, maybe this innocent act was part of his story. "Who does it belong to?"
Guardian? He looked in his late twenties, certainly of legal age. "Where is he?"
Turner pushed back his hair, which was curling as it dried, over his ears and down his neck. "I don't know."
"So you were the only one on that yacht, which belongs to your guardian, but you don't know where he is. Somehow the wreckage drifted hundreds of miles, staying together through a storm here with almost hurricane strength." Sam brushed away a drop of water running down her nose. "And you were unconscious during all this, for three days."
He cleared his throat. "It looks that way."
She crossed her arms. "Give me one good reason why I shouldn't call the police."
"I need a better reason than that."
Turner looked around quickly. When he saw that she was standing between him and the only visible exit from the house, he spoke in bursts. "If you call authorities, they will contact my guardian. He will come for me."
"And this is bad because . . . ?"
"I've been his prisoner. I escaped."
Ah, Lord. What had she gotten herself mixed up in here? "Why does a man your age have a guardian?"
"I can't tell you."
"I can't!" He backed into the living room.
Sam tayed put, giving him space. His fear seemed genuine and that troubled her. She just didn't know enough about this situation. "All right," she said, thinking. "I won't call the police."
He stopped backing away. "You won't regret—"
She held up her hand. "Yet."
"Please don't tell anyone."
"The wreckage of your ship is all over my beach. I'm surprised no one has come yet to investigate. Some satellite must have picked up its destruction."
"I deactivated the signaler."
Well, hell. This was getting worse and worse. By law, ships had to signal their location at all times. Not that she didn't sympathize with his impulse to evade the system; she often retreated from the scrutiny that technology had brought into their lives. It took real effort nowadays to avoid it; sometimes it seemed every dumb widget could send you a message or track your location.
She said only, "That's illegal."
"I had to get away."
Perhaps she could draw him out more if she took a friendlier approach. "I sometimes feel I have to get away from all the gadgets and meshes," she said, which was true. "A few days ago, my jeans emailed to ask why I hadn't worn them."
Turner gave a startled laugh. "You're kidding."
"Unfortunately not. The mesh-threads in their seams linked with the house mesh and determined I hadn't cleaned my other jeans in over a week. They concluded I should wear clean clothes."
He made a face. "I would have torn all the mesh-threads out of my clothes if they did that."
Sam grinned. "I did." She looked over his shirt and trousers, which were almost dry. They apparently had very few smart threads in their tailoring, because they hadn't even smoothed out wrinkles. Her clothes had not only dried and flattened by now, they had also shifted around until they moved the sand out, leaving scatters of it on the floor.
"Would you like a change of clothes?" she asked.
"No, I'm all right." He rubbed his eyes with both hands, reminding her of a child. Then he looked around her living room, taking in the gold paneling, the seascapes on the walls, the plants hanging from the rafters. "This house feels . . ." He turned back to her. "Warm?" He made it a question rather than a statement.
"Is it too hot for you?"
"I don't mean that way." He lifted his hand, palm up. "Hospitable. Welcoming."
"I try." Sam was glad he appreciated it. She had chosen the décor specifically with that in mind.
He lowered his arm. "It's so different."
"You mean from where you live?"
Turner nodded. "My mother's house was nice, but I rarely went there."
"Your parents were divorced?"
He had an odd expression now, as if he wanted to crawl under the couch. "No. I lived with my mother's sister and her husband."
Although she was reluctant to push a personal matter, she needed to know what was up if she was going to take him in. "Your parents couldn't have you live with them?"
"Wouldn't." Bitterly he added, "My cousins were more welcome in their house than me."
"That's terrible." The words came out before she could stop them.
She spoke carefully. "Do you mind if I ask why you lived with your aunt and uncle?"
"My mother thought I would be safer there."
He answered tightly. "Her husband."
"He wasn't your father?"
"No." He let out a breath. "That was the problem."
"Oh." It sounded like a mess. "I'm sorry."
He shrugged, trying for a nonchalance he obviously didn't feel. Then he rubbed his side, wincing.
"Are you sure you don't want me to call the hospital?" Sam asked.
"You can lie down, then. I'll get you a blanket and something warm to drink."
"No. I just need . . . to get off my feet." He went to the couch and sat down, sinking into the cushions. The furniture had rudimentary intelligence; woven with mesh-threads, it recorded and responded to the muscle strain of whoever sat on it, subtly shifting to maximize comfort.
Sam sat on the other end, leaving two cushions between them. "Turner, what happened out there?"
Instead of answering directly, he motioned to his legs. "Look at these. They're biomechanical constructs." He flexed his hands, opening them palm up. "So are these." Then he tapped his temple. "My eyes are synthetic. So are parts of my ears. And many other parts of me, too."
Sam weighed his words, looking for a hidden message, but found none. "So are a lot of people's."
"A bit. But they are mostly human, yes?"
He regarded her steadily. "I am more biomech than human."
"Were you injured?" she asked. "Is that why you have so much augmentation?"
"Injured?" He laughed with pain rather than humor. "You could say that. It made me useful."
The hairs on Sam's neck prickled. "What do you mean?"
"As an experiment." He swallowed. "If your rebuilt man is more biomech than human, does he become a machine instead of a human being?"
"Of course not." Just what had happened to him? "Having biomech in your body doesn't change your humanity."
"Not everyone sees it that way."
The cushions shifted under her. "Are you claiming someone decided you are a machine and therefore no longer have the rights of a human being?"
He met her gaze. "Yes."
The idea appalled her. It epitomized one of the reasons she lived on this lonely coast instead of down in the heavily populated biotech corridors around San Francisco. "If that were true, you should want the authorities here. That's so illegal, it reeks."
A muscle twitched in his cheek. "Tell Charon."
"Who is Charon?" She knew the mythological reference: he was the ferryman who took dead souls to Hades. Out of nowhere, a phrase popped into her mind: He can only take you across once. A person could only die once.
"Charon is my guardian," he said.
"Your aunt and uncle?"
"Not them." His jaw worked. "Charon took me."
Took him? "I don't understand."
"He rebuilt me and imprisoned me in his lab."
"Good Lord." The cushions shifted even more under her. "You should get a lawyer. Go to the police. Talk to a reporter."
He flushed. "I can't go to any authorities.
So now the other shoe dropped. "Why not?"
"They think Turner Pascal is dead."
"Dead?" Good lord. She had expected to hear he had committed a crime. "Are you Turner Pascal?"
"Yes. I was in a hover car pileup."
Sam blinked. "You don't look dead to me."
"Well, I was. Charon stole me from the morgue and remade me." His voice grated. "Now he says he owns me."
Sam struggled to get her mind around what he was telling her. She couldn't imagine this vital young man in a morgue, besides which, what he described was barely in the grasp of current science. "Even if that were possible, he couldn't own you." She rubbed the back of her neck, which was developing a muscle kink. "Surely you could go to a lawyer or the police. They can prove your identity."
"Charon changed all that."
She could see how his eyes or skin could have been replaced, but not his genes. "Even if he altered your fingerprints and retinal scan, they can do a DNA analysis."
"He fooled with my DNA map just enough to confuse my identity." Turner sounded as if he were gritting his teeth. "Then he registered me as an android."
"That's nuts! You can't do that."
He spoke wearily. "I have no proof I'm human."
"Do you look like Turner Pascal?"
"Exactly. Except in better condition."
Sam turned it all over in her mind. "This has to be impossible. Anyone able to do what you describe would be an incredible biomech surgeon, one with access to a world-class facility. I can't think of anyone in that rank who would so thoroughly violate ethics the way you describe." She knew all the major players in her field. Yes, some of them were capable of taking the word "cutthroat" to whole new levels of meaning. But that was in business. She couldn't imagine anyone going this far outside the bounds of human decency.
"Charon works with the underground," Turner said.
Sam had, too, in the biomech movement that pushed the envelope on the definition of the word "human." "What underground? That's a generic term."
He lifted his hand, then dropped it. "I don't know details. I'm not sure I want to."
Sam studied his face, trying to pick up clues from his expression, hints of his thoughts, but she couldn't read anything. His skin had no flaws, no lines, no scars, no moles, nothing. It looked unreal. "How long were you in the morgue?" Saying the words chilled her.
"A few hours."
"And yet when this Charon brought you back, your brain was intact?" It was easier to be skeptical than horrified. "I don't think so."
"He rebuilt my brain."
Sam folded her arms, creating an invisible barrier of doubt between them. "That is impossible. We can make a synthetic liver or bone. But a brain? Not a chance."
He slumped on the couch. "I'm an EI."
Whoa. Hold on. Sam had worked for two decades on the leading edge of research in machine intelligence. The term EI had come into use for the exceptionally rare machines that achieved sentience. It separated them from run-of-the-mill AIs, or artificial intelligences, which weren't self-aware. Only a handful of EIs existed. Scientists weren't even sure why they became aware. Some existed in machines; others had android bodies and minds that more closely resembled human intelligence.
Her specialty was in designing EI intelligences. Some people called her an EI architect; others used "EI shrink," though that wasn't truly accurate. She didn't do therapy; she developed EIs, she hoped with stable personalities. Her second area of expertise was in the construction of biomech components for EI bodies. Although she didn't work on implants for humans, she often talked to people who carried them. Turner wasn't the first one to express disquiet about his biomech; other people with far less than he carried had told her they no longer felt completely human.
She spoke quietly. "I thought you were a man."
"I am. Was." He looked ill. "Charon sliced up my brain and imaged those slices."
"Turner, good Lord."
He was clearly struggling to present himself calmly. "He got it soon enough to map out most of the neural connections. My personality is basically intact. I have memories of my life. But I've no idea how accurate a match I am to my former self."
Sam wanted to deny it, but it wasn't beyond current technology. Doctors had known even in the twentieth century how to image the brain. The method Turner described required slices as thin as a few molecules to map out the neural structures needed to re-create a mind. However, noninvasive methods had improved dramatically over the past two decades. Techniques existed that didn't cause harm. She wasn't familiar enough with the field to know how they all compared in accuracy and precision, but this much was obvious: the process Turner described killed a person.
Sam was starting to believe his story. It was horrifying, the theft of his internal identity, of his intellect, even of his soul. She folded her arms, covering her dismay with a shield of doubt. "Now you're going to say it's coincidence you washed up on the beach belonging to a semi-well-known biomech shrink."
He spoke dryly. "Calling you a semi-well-known biomech shrink is like saying Einstein sort of knew a little science. You're the leading biomech architect in the world, Doctor Bryton."
"Far from it." She wanted no reminders of what she had left behind. "And if you know who I am, that makes it even harder to believe you're here by accident."
He averted his gaze, looking at his hands where they rested in his lap. "I came to see you."
"All the way from Oregon?"
"Yes. I stole Charon's yacht." A yellow curl fell into his eye.
She wished he would stop looking so much in need of help. It evoked her protective instincts, which invariably led to trouble. "What did you do then?"
"I told the yacht's AI to come here. I programmed myself so only your voice would wake me, and then I put myself to sleep."
It made sense in its own gruesome way. She spoke quietly. "You were committing suicide. Except you left yourself an out. Me."
"Yes." His voice was barely audible.
He finally looked up at her, a plea in his gaze. "What Charon did, you can undo. Help me regain my identity, memories, life. My peace of mind." Softly he said, "Help me. Please."
What could she do when he looked at her that way, so vulnerable? She had come here to escape the lack of ethics in the exorbitantly lucrative universe of biomech research. In these heady days, technologies were expanding so fast, the field was exploding. Endless opportunities existed for firms that controlled the industry that made androids and EIs. With all that wealth and power came equally powerful corruption. Sam wanted nothing more to do with it. She had fought against the sleaze and she had failed, again and again. So maybe she couldn't stop it, but damned if she would ever work for any of them.
The worst of it was, his story could be true. If the yacht had a top-notch guidance AI, it could conceivably have made it here and broken up this morning on the rocks.
"Listen," she said. "Get a lawyer. Tell them what you've told me. I'll verify the science. If your story holds up, no one in their right mind would let Charon take you."
He clenched his trousers at the knee, making a fist. "If anyone examines me, they will find an android with an EI brain. A forma. I have no proof I'm human."
That gave Sam pause. She often worked with biomech-formed constructs. The word "forma" had come to mean any construct with biomech components and an AI or EI brain. If he was simulating desperation, he was doing a better job than any EI she had worked with. She found it hard to believe he could be anything but a man.
"You tell me that I'm the leading biomech analyst in the world," she said. "Yet even I couldn't do what you claim this Charon did with you." That wasn't exactly true; if she worked hard enough, she might be able to manage, given enough time and resources.
His gaze never wavered. "You could do it."
"Not if I wanted to live with myself." Yet already her mind was considering possibilities, how she would approach such an EI, could he remain stable, would he be more or less likely to endure than an EI developed from scratch. It wasn't impossible.
They had other worries, too. "Can this Charon track you here?" she asked.
"I've deactivated the signalers in my body."
It didn't surprise her, if he could do it with the yacht. In one of her mutinies against technology, she had done the same to all her cars. "Are you sure you got every one?"
"I think so." He watched her warily. "Are you going to call the police?"
Sam wanted to know more about him before she made that decision. And she couldn't bear it when he looked at her like a beautiful but injured wild animal, ready to run at her slightest move.
"You can stay tonight," she said.
He closed his eyes. Then he opened them again. "Thank you."
She shifted position, inspiring her couch to resume its attempts to relax her. "Don't thank me yet. My help comes with a condition."
His expression became guarded. "What?"
"Let me examine you. Also, I'll need to do a search on the world mesh and see what I can verify of your story."
He didn't so much as flick an eyelash. "All right."
"Do you want to rest first? Shower or eat?"
"No. The sooner we get this over with, the better." He hesitated. "But where will we find a lab?"
She indicated the floor. "There."
"Under your house?"
"That's right." She motioned toward the stairway by the entrance foyer. "In the basement."
"Wow." He looked more like a schoolboy than a master criminal who stole million-dollar yachts. Standing up, he added, "Then let's go."
Back | Next