Counting Headsby David Marusek
The year is 2135, and the international program to seed the galaxy with human colonies has stalled as greedy immortal power brokers park their starships in Earth's orbit and begin to convert them into space condos. Ellen Starke's head, rescued from the fiery crash that killed her mother, struggles to regrow a new body in time to restore her dead mother's financial… See more details below
The year is 2135, and the international program to seed the galaxy with human colonies has stalled as greedy immortal power brokers park their starships in Earth's orbit and begin to convert them into space condos. Ellen Starke's head, rescued from the fiery crash that killed her mother, struggles to regrow a new body in time to restore her dead mother's financial empire. And pre-Singularity AIs conspire to join the human race just as human clones, such as Mary Skarland and her evangeline sisters, want nothing more than to leave it.
In the 22nd century, the program to colonize the galaxy has stalled. Heir to a financial empire, Ellen Stark has survived the fiery crash that killed her mother, but as her head strives to grow a new body, her mind ventures down strange pathways, as if deciding all over again what she wants to become. The sequel to Counting Heads proves as deliriously imaginative and fresh as its predecessor. Strong writing and a whimsically cynical vision of the future make this an excellent choice for most sf collections.
- Tom Doherty Associates
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- First Edition
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By David Marusek, David G. Hartwell
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2005 David Marusek
All rights reserved.
On March 30, 2092, the Department of Health and Human Services issued Eleanor and me a permit. The undersecretary of the Population Division called with the news and official congratulations. We were stunned by our good fortune. The undersecretary instructed us to contact the National Orphanage. There was a baby in a drawer in Jersey with our names on it. We were out of our minds with joy.
ELEANOR AND I had been together a year by then. We'd met at a reception in Higher Soho, which I attended in realbody. A friend said, "Sammy Harger, is that really you? What luck! There's a woman here who wants to meet you."
I told him thanks but no thanks. I wasn't in the mood. Not even sure why I'd come. I was recovering from a weeklong stint of design work in my Chicago studio. In those days I was in the habit of bolting my studio door and immersing myself in the heady universe of packaging design. It was my true creative calling, and I could lose all sense of time, even forgetting to eat or sleep. Henry knew to hold my calls. Henry was my belt valet system and technical assistant, and he alone attended me. I could go three or four days at a time like that, or until my Muse surrendered up another award-winning design.
My latest bout had lasted a week but yielded nothing, not even a third-rate inspiration, and I was a little depressed as I leaned over the buffet table to fill my plate.
"There you are," my persistent friend said. "Eleanor Starke, this is the famous Samson Harger. Sam, El."
An attractive woman stood on a patch of berber carpet from some other room and sipped coffee from a delicate china cup. She said hello and raised her hand in a holo greeting. I raised my own hand and noticed how filthy my fingernails were. Unshaven and disheveled, I had come straight from my cave. But the woman chose to ignore this.
"I've wanted to meet you for a long time," she said brightly. "I was just telling Lindsey about admiring a canvas of yours yesterday in the museum here."
A canvas? She'd had to go back over a century to find something of mine to admire? "Is that right?" I said. "And where is here?"
A hint of amusement flickered across the woman's remarkable face. "I'm in Budapest," she said.
Budapest, Henry said inside my head. Sorry, Sam, but her valet system won't talk to me. I have gone to public sources. Eleanor K. Starke is a noted corporate prosecutor. I'm digesting bios now.
"You have me at a disadvantage," I told the woman standing halfway around the globe. "My valet is an artist's assistant, not an investigator." If her holo persona was anything like her real self, this Eleanor K. Starke was a pretty woman, mid-twenties, slight build. She had reddish blond hair, a disarmingly freckled face, and very heavy eyebrows. Too sunny a face for a prosecutor, I thought, except for the eyes. Her eyes peered out at you like eels in coral. "I understand you're a corporate prosecutor," I said.
Her bushy eyebrows rose in mock surprise. "Why, yes, I am!"
Sam, Henry whispered, no two published bios agree on even the most basic data. She's between 180 and 204 years old. She earns over a million a year, no living offspring, degrees in History, Biochemistry, and Law. Hobbies include fencing, chess, and recreational matrimony. She's been dating a procession of noted artists, composers, and dancers in the last dozen months. And her celebrity futures are trading at 9.7 cents.
I snorted. Nine point seven cents. Anything below ten cents on the celebrity market was nothing to crow about. Of course, my own shares had sunk over the years to below a penny, somewhere down in the has-been to wannabe range.
Eleanor nibbled at the corner of a pastry. "This is breakfast for me. I wish I could share it with you. It's marvelous." She brushed crumbs from the corner of her mouth. "By the way, your assistant — Henry, is it? — sounds rather priggish." She set her cup down on something outside her holo frame before continuing. "Oh, don't be offended, Sam. I'm not snooping. Your Henry's encryption stinks — it's practically broadcasting your every thought."
"Then you already know how charmed I am," I said.
She laughed. "I'm really botching this, aren't I? I'm trying to pick you up, Samson Harger. Do you want me to pick you up, or should I wait until you've had a chance to shower and take a nap?"
I considered this brash young/old woman and her awkward advances. Warning bells were going off inside my head, but that was probably just Henry, who does tend to be a bit of a prig, and though Eleanor Starke seemed too cocky for my tastes and too full of herself to be much fun, I was intrigued. Not by anything she said, but by her eyebrows. They were vast and disturbingly expressive. As she spoke, they arched and plunged to accentuate her words, and I couldn't imagine why she didn't have them tamed. They fascinated me, and like Henry's parade of artist types before me, I took the bait.
OVER THE NEXT few weeks, Eleanor and I became acquainted with each other's bedrooms and gardens up and down the eastern seaboard. We stole moments between her incessant business trips and obligations. Eventually, the novelty wore off. She stopped calling me, and I stopped calling her. We had moved on, or so I thought. A month passed when I received a call from Hong Kong. Her Calendar asked if I would care to hololunch the next day. Her late lunch in China would coincide with my midnight brandy in Buffalo.
I holoed at the appointed time. She had already begun her meal and was expertly freighting a morsel of water chestnut to her mouth by chopstick. "Hi," she said when she noticed me. "Welcome. I'm so glad you could make it." She sat at a richly lacquered table next to a scarlet wall with golden filigree trim. "Unfortunately, I can't stay," she said, placing the chopsticks on her plate. "Last-minute program change. So sorry. How've you been?"
"Fine," I said.
She wore a loose green silk suit, and her hair was neatly stacked on top of her head. "Can we reschedule for tomorrow?" she asked.
I was surprised by how disappointed I felt at the cancellation. I hadn't realized that I'd missed her. "Sure, tomorrow."
That night and the whole next day was colored with anticipation. At midnight I said, "Henry, take me to the Hong Kong Excelsior."
"She's not there," he replied. "She's at the Takamatsu Tokyo tonight."
Sure enough, the scarlet walls were replaced by paper screens. "There you are," she said. "God, I'm famished." She uncovered a bowl and scooped steamy sticky rice onto her plate while telling me in broad terms about a case she was brokering. "They asked me to stay on, you know. Join the firm."
I sipped my drink. "Are you going to?"
She glanced at me, curious. "I get offers like that all the time."
We began to meet for a half hour or so each day and talked about whatever came to mind. El's interests were deep and broad; everything seemed to fascinate her. She told me, while choking back laughter, ribald anecdotes of famous people caught in embarrassing situations. She revealed curious truths behind the day's news stories and pointed out related investment opportunities. She teased out of me all sorts of opinions, gossip, and jokes. Her half of the room changed daily and reflected her hectic itinerary: jade, bamboo, and teak. My half of the room never varied. It was the atrium of my hillside house in Santa Barbara where I had gone in order to be three hours closer to her. As we talked I looked down the yucca- and chaparral-choked canyon to the university campus and beach below, to the channel islands, and beyond them, to the blue-green Pacific that separated us.
WEEKS LATER, WHEN again we met in realbody, I was shy. I didn't know quite what to do with my hands when we talked. We sat close together in my living room and tried to pick any number of conversational threads. With no success. Her body, so close, befuddled me. I thought I knew her body — hadn't I undressed it a dozen times before? But it was different now, occupied, as it was, by El. I wanted to make love to El, if ever I could get started.
"Nervous, are we?" she teased.
FORTUNATELY, BEFORE WE went completely off the deep end, the self-involved parts of our personalities bobbed to the surface. The promise of happiness can be daunting. El snapped first. We were at her Maine town house when her security chief holoed into the room. Until then the only member of her valet system — what she called her Cabinet — that I had met was her chief of staff.
"I have something to show you," the security chief said, glowering at me from under his bushy eyebrows. I glanced at Eleanor, who made no attempt to explain or excuse the intrusion. "This was a live feed earlier," the chief continued and turned to watch as Eleanor's living room was overlaid with the studio lounge of the SEE Show. It was from their "Trolling" feature, and cohosts Chirp and Ditz were serving up breathless speculation on hapless couples caught by holoeye in public places.
The scene changed to the Baltimore restaurant where Eleanor and I had dined that evening. A couple emerged from a taxi. He had a black mustache and silver hair and looked like the champion of boredom. She had a vampish hatchet of a face, limp black hair, and vacant eyes.
"Whoodeeze tinguished gentry?" said Ditz to Chirp.
"Carefuh watwesay, lipsome. Dizde ruthless Eleanor K. Starke and'er lately dildude, Samsamson Harger."
I did a double take. The couple on the curb had our bodies and wore our evening clothes, but our facial features had been morphed beyond recognition.
Eleanor stepped into the holoscape and examined them closely. "Good. Good job."
"Thank you," said her security chief. "If that's everything —"
"Wait a minute," I said. "It's not everything."
Eleanor arched an eyebrow in my direction.
Those eyebrows were beginning to annoy me. "Let me see if I've got this straight," I said. "You altered a pointcast feed while it was being transmitted?"
She looked at me as though I were simple. "Why, yes, Sam, I did," she said.
"Is that even possible? I never heard of that. Is it legal?"
She only looked blankly at me.
"All right then. Forget I said that, but you altered my image along with yours. Did you ever stop to wonder if I want my image fooled with?"
She turned to her security chief. "Thank you." The security chief dissolved. Eleanor put her arms around my neck and looked me in the eye. "I value our privacy, Sam."
A WEEK LATER, Eleanor and I were in my Buffalo apartment. Out of the blue she asked me to order a copy of the newly released memoir installment of a certain best-selling author. She said he was a predecessor of mine, a recent lover, who against her wishes had included several paragraphs about their affair in his latest reading. I told Henry to fetch the reading, but Eleanor said no, that it would be better to order it through the houseputer. When I did so, the houseputer froze up. It just stopped working and wouldn't respond. That had never happened before. My apartment's comfort support failed. Lights went out, the kitchen quit, and the doors all sprang open. Eleanor giggled. "How many copies of that do you think he'll be able to sell?" she said.
I was getting the point, and I wasn't sure I liked it. The last straw came when I discovered that her Cabinet was messing with Henry. I had asked Henry for his bimonthly report on my finances, and he said, Please stand by.
"Is there a problem?"
My processing capabilities are currently overloaded. Please stand by.
Overloaded? My finances were convoluted, but they'd never been that bad. "Henry, what's going on?"
There was no response for a while, then he said in a tiny voice, Take me to Chicago.
Chicago. My studio. That was where his container was. I left immediately, worried sick. Between outages, Henry was able to assure me that he was essentially sound, but that he was preoccupied in warding off a series of security breaches.
"From where? Henry, tell me who's doing this to you."
It's trying again. No, it's in. It's gone. Here it comes again. Please stand by.
Suddenly my mouth began to water, and my saliva tasted like machine oil: Henry — or someone — had initiated a terminus purge. I was excreting my interface with Henry. Over the next dozen hours I spat, sweat, pissed, and shit the millions of slave nanoprocessors that resided in the vacuoles of my fat cells and linked me to Henry's box in Chicago. Until I reached my studio, we were out of contact and I was on my own. Without a belt valet to navigate the labyrinthine Slipstream tube, I undershot Illinois altogether and had to backtrack from Toronto. Chicago cabs still respond to voice command, but as I had no way to transfer credit, I was forced to walk the ten blocks to the Drexler Building.
Once inside my studio, I rushed to the little ceramic container tucked between a cabinet and the wall. "Are you there?" Henry existed as a pleasant voice in my head. He existed as data streams through space and fiber. He existed as an uroboros signal in a Swiss loopvault. But if Henry existed as a physical being at all, it was as the gelatinous paste inside this box. "Henry?"
The box's ready light blinked on.
"THE BITCH! HOW dare she?"
"Actually, it makes perfect sense."
"Shut up, Henry."
Henry was safe as long as he remained a netless stand-alone. He couldn't even answer the phone for me. He was a prisoner; we were both prisoners in my Chicago studio. Eleanor's security chief had breached Henry's shell millions of times, near continuously since the moment I met her at my friend's reception. Henry's shell was an off-the-shelf module I had purchased years ago for protection against garden-variety espionage. I had rarely updated it, and it was long obsolete.
"Her Cabinet is a diplomat-class unit," Henry argued. "What did you expect?"
"I don't want to hear it, Henry."
At first the invasion was so subtle and Henry so unskilled that he was unaware of the foreign presence inside his shell. When he became aware, he mounted the standard defense, but Eleanor's system flowed through its gates like water. So he set about studying each breach, learning and building ever more effective countermeasures. As the attacks escalated to epic proportions, Henry's self-defense consumed his full attention.
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"I did, Sam, several times."
"That's not true. I don't remember you telling me once."
"You have been somewhat distracted lately."
The question was, how much damage had been done, not to me, but to Henry. I doubted that Eleanor was after my personal records, and there was little in my past anyone could use to harm me. I was an artist, after all, not a judge. But if Eleanor had damaged Henry, that would be the end. I had owned Henry since the days of keyboards and pointing devices. He was the repository of my life's work and memory. I could not replace him. He did my bookkeeping, sure, and my taxes, appointments, and legal tasks. He monitored my health, my domiciles, my investments, etc., etc. These functions I could replace. It was his personality bud that was irreplaceable. I had been growing it for eighty years. It was a unique design tool that amplified my mind perfectly. I depended on it, on Henry, to read my mind, to engineer the materials I used, and to test my ideas against the tastes of world culture. We worked as a team. I had taught him to play the devil's advocate. He provided me feedback and insight.
"Eleanor's Cabinet was interested neither in your records nor in my personality bud. It simply needed to ascertain, on a continuing basis, that I was still Henry and that no one else had corrupted me."
"Couldn't it just ask?"
"If I were corrupted, do you think I would tell?"
"Are you corrupted?"
"Of course not."
I cringed at the thought of installing Henry back into my body not knowing if he were someone's dirty little spy.
"Henry, you have a complete backup here, right?"
"One that predates my first encounter with Eleanor?"
"And its seal is intact?"
Of course, if Henry was corrupted and told me the seal was intact, how would I know otherwise? I didn't know seals from sea lions.
"You can use any houseputer," he said, reading me as he always had, "to verify the seal, and to delete and reset me. It would take a couple of hours, but I suggest you don't."
"Oh yeah? Why not?"
"Because we would lose all I've learned since we met Eleanor. I was getting good, Sam. Their breaches were taking exponentially longer to achieve."
"And meanwhile you couldn't function."
"So buy me more paste. A lot more paste. We have the money. Think about it. Eleanor's system is aggressive and dominant. It's always in crisis mode. But it's the good guys. If I can learn how to lock it out, I'll be better prepared to meet the bad guys who'll soon be trying to get to Eleanor through you."
"Good, Henry, except for one essential fact. There is no Eleanor and me. I've dropped her."
"I see. Tell me, Sam, how many women have you been with since I've known you?"
Excerpted from Counting Heads by David Marusek, David G. Hartwell. Copyright © 2005 David Marusek. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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