In the twenty-fifth century, humankind has spread throughout the galaxy, monitored by the watchful eye of the U.N. While divisions in race, religion, and class still exist, advances in technology have redefined life itself. Now, assuming one can afford the expensive procedure, a person’s consciousness can be stored in a cortical stack at the base of the brain and easily downloaded into a new body (or “sleeve”) making death nothing more than a minor blip on a screen.
Ex-U.N. envoy Takeshi Kovacs has been killed before, but his last death was particularly painful. Dispatched one hundred eighty light-years from home, re-sleeved into a body in Bay City (formerly San Francisco, now with a rusted, dilapidated Golden Gate Bridge), Kovacs is thrown into the dark heart of a shady, far-reaching conspiracy that is vicious even by the standards of a society that treats “existence” as something that can be bought and sold.
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Coming back from the dead can be rough.
In the Envoy Corps they teach you to let go before storage. Stick it in neutral and float. It’s the first lesson and the trainers drill it into you from day one. Hard-eyed Virginia Vidaura, dancer’s body poised inside the shapeless corps coveralls as she paced in front of us in the induction room. Don’t worry about anything, she said, and you’ll be ready for it. A decade later, I met her again in a holding pen at the New Kanagawa Justice Facility. She was going down for eighty to a century; excessively armed robbery and organic damage. The last thing she said to me when they walked her out of the cell was don’t worry, kid, they’ll store it. Then she bent her head to light a cigarette, drew the smoke hard into lungs she no longer gave a damn about, and set off down the corridor as if to a tedious briefing. From the narrow angle of vision afforded me by the cell gate, I watched the pride in that walk and I whispered the words to myself like a mantra.
Don’t worry, they’ll store it. It was a superbly double-edged piece of street wisdom. Bleak faith in the efficiency of the penal system, and a clue to the elusive state of mind required to steer you past the rocks of psychosis. Whatever you feel, whatever you’re thinking, whatever you are when they store you, that’s what you’ll be when you come out. With states of high anxiety, that can be a problem. So you let go. Stick it in neutral. Disengage and float.
If you have time.
I came thrashing up out of the tank, one hand plastered across my chest searching for the wounds, the other clutching at a nonexistent weapon. The weight hit me like a hammer, and I collapsed back into the flotation gel. I flailed with my arms, caught one elbow painfully on the side of the tank, and gasped. Gobbets of gel poured into my mouth and down my throat. I snapped my mouth shut and got a hold on the hatch coaming, but the stuff was everywhere. In my eyes, burning my nose and throat, and slippery under my fingers. The weight was forcing my grip on the hatch loose, sitting on my chest like a high-g maneuver, pressing me down into the gel. My body heaved violently in the confines of the tank. Flotation gel? I was drowning.
Abruptly, there was a strong grip on my arm and I was hauled coughing into an upright position. At about the same time I was working out there were no wounds in my chest someone wiped a towel roughly across my face and I could see. I decided to save that pleasure for later and concentrated on getting the contents of the tank out of my nose and throat. For about half a minute I stayed sitting, head down, coughing up the gel and trying to work out why everything weighed so much.
“So much for training.” It was a hard, male voice, the sort that habitually hangs around justice facilities. “What did they teach you in the Envoys anyway, Kovacs?”
That was when I had it. On Harlan’s World, Kovacs is quite a common name. Everyone knows how to pronounce it. This guy didn’t. He was speaking a stretched form of the Amanglic they use on the World, but even allowing for that, he was mangling the name badly, and the ending came out with a hard k instead of the Slavic ch.
And everything was too heavy.
The realization came through my fogged perceptions like a brick through frosted plate glass.
Somewhere along the line, they’d taken Takeshi Kovacs (D.H.), and they’d freighted him. And since Harlan’s World was the only habitable biosphere in the Glimmer system, that meant a stellar-range needlecast to—
I looked up. Harsh neon tubes set in a concrete roof. I was sitting in the opened hatch of a dull metal cylinder, looking for all the world like an ancient aviator who’d forgotten to dress before climbing aboard his biplane. The cylinder was one of a row of about twenty backed up against the wall, opposite a heavy steel door, which was closed. The room was chilly and the walls unpainted. Give them their due, on Harlan’s World at least the air resleeving rooms are decked out in pastel colors and the attendants are pretty. After all, you’re supposed to have paid your debt to society. The least they can do is give you a sunny start to your new life.
Sunny wasn’t in the vocabulary of the figure before me. About two meters tall, he looked as if he’d made his living wrestling swamp panthers before the present career opportunity presented itself. Musculature bulged on his chest and arms like body armor, and the head above it had hair cropped close to the skull, revealing a long scar like a lightning strike down to the left ear. He was dressed in a loose black garment with epaulettes and a diskette logo on the breast. His eyes matched the garment and watched me with hardened calm. Having helped me sit up, he had stepped back out of arm’s reach, as per the manual. He’d been doing this a long time.
I pressed one nostril closed and snorted tank gel out of the other.
“Want to tell me where I am? Itemize my rights, something like that?”
“Kovacs, right now you don’t have any rights.”
I looked up and saw that a grim smile had stitched itself across his face. I shrugged and snorted the other nostril clean.
“Want to tell me where I am?”
He hesitated a moment, glanced up at the neon-barred roof as if to ascertain the information for himself before he passed it on, and then mirrored my shrug.
“Sure. Why not? You’re in Bay City, pal. Bay City, Earth.” The grimace of a smile came back. “Home of the Human Race. Please enjoy your stay on this most ancient of civilized worlds. Ta-dada-dah.”
“Don’t give up the day job,” I told him soberly.
The doctor led me down a long white corridor whose floor bore the scuff marks of rubber-wheeled gurneys. She was moving at quite a pace, and I was hard-pressed to keep up, wrapped as I was in nothing but a plain gray towel and still dripping tank gel. Her manner was superficially bedside, but there was a harried undercurrent to it. She had a sheaf of curling hardcopy documentation under her arm and other places to be. I wondered how many sleevings she got through in a day.
“You should get as much rest as you can in the next day or so,” she recited. “There may be minor aches and pains, but this is normal. Sleep will solve the problem. If you have any recurring comp—”
“I know. I’ve done this before.”
I wasn’t feeling much like human interaction. I’d just remembered Sarah.
We stopped at a side door with the word shower stenciled on frosted glass. The doctor steered me inside and stood looking at me for a moment.
“I’ve used showers before, as well,” I assured her.
She nodded. “When you’re finished, there’s an elevator at the end of the corridor. Discharge is on the next floor. The, ah, the police are waiting to talk to you.”
The manual says you’re supposed to avoid strong adrenal shocks to the newly sleeved, but then she’d probably read my file and didn’t consider meeting the police much of an event in my lifestyle. I tried to feel the same.
“What do they want?”
“They didn’t choose to share that with me.” The words showed an edge of frustration that she shouldn’t have been letting me see. “Perhaps your reputation precedes you.”
“Perhaps it does.” On an impulse, I flexed my new face into a smile. “Doctor, I’ve never been here before. To Earth, I mean. I’ve never dealt with your police before. Should I be worried?”
She looked at me, and I saw it welling up in her eyes, the mingled fear and wonder and contempt of the failed human reformer.
“With a man like you,” she managed finally, “I would have thought they would be the worried ones.”
“Yeah, right,” I said quietly.
She hesitated, then gestured. “There is a mirror in the changing room,” she said, and left. I glanced toward the room she had indicated, not sure I was ready for the mirror yet.
In the shower I whistled my disquiet away tunelessly and ran soap and hands over the new body. My sleeve was in his early forties, Protectorate standard, with a swimmer’s build and what felt like some military custom-carved onto his nervous system. Neurachemical upgrade, most likely. I’d had it myself, once. There was a tightness in the lungs that suggested a nicotine habit and some gorgeous scarring on the forearm, but apart from that I couldn’t find anything worth complaining about. The little twinges and snags catch up with you later on, and if you’re wise, you just live with them. Every sleeve has a history. If that kind of thing bothers you, you line up over at Syntheta’s or Fabrikon. I’d worn my fair share of synthetic sleeves; they use them for parole hearings quite often. Cheap, but it’s too much like living alone in a drafty house, and they never seem to get the flavor circuits right. Everything you eat ends up tasting like curried sawdust.
In the changing cubicle I found a neatly folded summer suit on the bench and the mirror set in the wall. On top of the pile of clothes was a simple steel watch, and weighted beneath the watch was a plain white envelope with my name written neatly across it. I took a deep breath and went to face the mirror.
This is always the toughest part. Nearly two decades I’ve been doing this, and it still jars me to look into the glass and see a total stranger staring back. It’s like pulling an image out of the depths of an autostereogram. For the first couple of moments all you can see is someone else looking at you through a window frame. Then, like a shift in focus, you feel yourself float rapidly up behind the mask and adhere to its inside with a shock that’s almost tactile. It’s as if someone’s cut an umbilical cord, only instead of separating the two of you, it’s the otherness that has been severed and now you’re just looking at your reflection in a mirror.
I stood there and toweled myself dry, getting used to the face. It was basically Caucasian, which was a change for me, and the overwhelming impression I got was that if there was a line of least resistance in life, this face had never been along it. Even with the characteristic pallor of a long stay in the tank, the features in the mirror managed to look weather-beaten. There were lines everywhere. The thick, cropped hair was black shot through with gray. The eyes were a speculative shade of blue, and there was a faint, jagged scar under the left one. I raised my left forearm and looked at the story written there, wondering if the two were connected.
The envelope beneath the watch contained a single sheet of printed paper. Hardcopy. Handwritten signature. Very quaint.
Well, you’re on Earth now. Most ancient of civilized worlds. I shrugged and scanned the letter, then got dressed and folded it away in the jacket of my new suit. With a final glance in the mirror, I strapped on the new watch and went out to meet the police.
It was four-fifteen, local time.
The doctor was waiting for me, seated behind a long curve of reception counter and filling out forms on a monitor. A thin, severe-looking man suited in black stood at her shoulder. There was no one else in the room.
I glanced around, then back at the suit.
“You the police?”
“Outside.” He gestured at the door. “This isn’t their jurisdiction. They need a special brief to get in here. We have our own security.”
“And you are?”
He looked at me with the same mixture of emotions the doctor had hit me with downstairs. “Warden Sullivan, chief executive for Bay City Central, the facility you are now leaving.”
“You don’t sound delighted to be losing me.”
Sullivan pinned me with a stare. “You’re a recidivist, Kovacs. I never saw the case for wasting good flesh and blood on people like you.”
I touched the letter in my breast pocket. “Lucky for me Mr. Bancroft disagrees with you. He’s supposed to be sending a limousine for me. Is that outside, as well?”
“I haven’t looked.”
Somewhere on the counter, a protocol chime sounded. The doctor had finished her inputting. She tore the curling edge of the hardcopy free, initialed it in a couple of places, and passed it to Sullivan. The warden bent over the paper, scanning it with narrowed eyes before he scribbled his own signature and handed the copy to me.
“Takeshi Lev Kovacs,” he said, mispronouncing with the same skill as his minion in the tank room. “By the powers vested in me by the U.N. Justice Accord, I discharge you on lease to Laurens J. Bancroft, for a period not to exceed six weeks, at the end of which time your parole status will be reconsidered. Please sign here.”
I took the pen and wrote my name in someone else’s handwriting next to the warden’s finger. Sullivan separated the top and bottom copies and handed me the pink one. The doctor held up a second sheet, and Sullivan took it.
“This is a doctor’s statement certifying that Takeshi Kovacs (D.H.) was received intact from the Harlan’s World Justice Administration and subsequently sleeved in this body. Witnessed by myself, and closed-circuit monitor. A disk copy of the transmission details and tank data are enclosed. Please sign the declaration.”
I glanced up and searched in vain for any sign of the cameras. Not worth fighting about. I scribbled my new signature a second time.
“This is a copy of the leasing agreement by which you are bound. Please read it carefully. Failure to comply with any of its articles may result in you being returned to storage immediately to complete the full term of your sentence, either here or at another facility of the administration’s choice. Do you understand these terms and agree to be bound by them?”
I took the paperwork and scanned rapidly through it. It was standard stuff. A modified version of the parole agreement I’d signed half a dozen times before on Harlan’s World. The language was a bit stiffer, but the content was the same. Crabshit by any other name. I signed it without a blink.
“Well then.” Sullivan seemed to have lost a bit of his iron. “You’re a lucky man, Kovacs. Don’t waste the opportunity.”
Don’t they ever get tired of saying it?
I folded up my bits of paper without speaking and stuffed them into my pocket next to the letter. I was turning to leave when the doctor stood up and held out a small white card to me.