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The Anderson Project
By David G. Hartwell, Richard Anderson
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2014 Kathleen Ann Goonan
All rights reserved.
by Ken Liu
Each of us feels that there is a single "I" in control. But that is an illusion that the brain works hard to produce. ...
— Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate
I remember being Reborn. It felt the way I imagine a fish feels as it's being thrown back into the sea.
The Judgment Ship slowly drifts in over Fan Pier from Boston Harbor, its metallic disc-shaped hull blending into the dark, roiling sky, its curved upper surface like a pregnant belly.
It is as large as the old Federal Courthouse on the ground below. A few escort ships hover around the rim, the shifting lights on their surfaces sometimes settling into patterns resembling faces.
The spectators around me grow silent. The Judgment, scheduled four times a year, still draws a big crowd. I scan the upturned faces. Most are expressionless, some seem awed. A few men whisper to each other and chuckle. I pay some attention to them, but not too much. There hasn't been a public attack in years.
"A flying saucer," one of the men says, a little too loud. Some of the others shuffle away, trying to distance themselves. "A goddamned flying saucer."
The crowd has left the space directly below the Judgment Ship empty. A group of Tawnin observers stand in the middle, ready to welcome the Reborn. But Kai, my mate, is absent. Thie told me that thie has witnessed too many Rebirths lately.
Kai once explained to me that the design of the Judgment Ship was meant as a sign of respect for local traditions, evoking our historical imagination of little green men and Plan 9 from Outer Space.
It's just like how your old courthouse was built with that rotunda on top to resemble a lighthouse, a beacon of justice that pays respect to Boston's maritime history.
The Tawnin are not usually interested in history, but Kai has always advocated more effort at accommodating us locals.
I make my way slowly through the crowd, to get closer to the whispering group. They all have on long, thick coats, perfect for concealing weapons.
The top of the pregnant Judgment Ship opens and a bright beam of golden light shoots straight up into the sky, where it is reflected by the dark clouds back onto the ground as a gentle, shadowless glow.
Circular doors open all around the rim of the Judgment Ship, and long, springy lines unwind and fall from the doors. They dangle, flex, and extend like tentacles. The Judgment Ship is now a jellyfish drifting through the air.
At the end of each line is a human, securely attached like hooked fish by the Tawnin ports located over their spines and between their shoulder blades. As the lines slowly extend and drift closer to the ground, the figures at the ends languidly move their arms and legs, tracing out graceful patterns.
I've almost reached the small group of whispering men. One of them, the one who had spoken too loud earlier, has his hands inside the flap of his thick coat. I move faster, pushing people aside.
"Poor bastards," he murmurs, watching the Reborn coming closer to the empty space in the middle of the crowd, coming home. I see his face take on the determination of the fanatic, of a Xenophobe about to kill.
The Reborn have almost reached the ground. My target is waiting for the moment when the lines from the Judgment Ship are detached so that the Reborn can no longer be snatched back into the air, the moment when the Reborn are still unsteady on their feet, uncertain who they are.
I remember that moment well.
The right shoulder of my target shifts as he tries to pull something out of his coat. I shove away the two women before me and leap into the air, shouting "Freeze!"
And then the world slows down as the ground beneath the Reborn erupts like a volcano, and they, along with the Tawnin observers, are tossed into the air, their limbs flopping like marionettes with their strings cut. As I crash into the man before me, a wave of heat and light blanks everything out.
* * *
It takes a few hours to process my suspect and to bandage my wounds. By the time I'm allowed to go home it's after midnight.
The streets of Cambridge are quiet and empty because of the new curfew. A fleet of police cars is parked in Harvard Square, a dozen strobing beacons out of sync as I stop, roll down my window, and show my badge.
The fresh-faced young officer sucks in his breath. The name "Joshua Rennon" may not mean anything to him, but he has seen the black dot on the top right corner of my badge, the dot that allows me inside the high-security domicile compound of the Tawnin.
"Bad day, sir," he says. "But don't worry, we've got all the roads leading to your building secured."
He tries to make "your building" sound casual, but I can hear the thrill in his voice. He's one of those. He lives with them.
He doesn't step away from the car. "How's the investigation going, if you don't mind me asking?" His eyes roam all over me, the hunger of his curiosity so strong that it's almost palpable.
I know that the question he really wants to ask is: What's it like?
I turn my face straight ahead. I roll up the window.
After a moment, he steps back, and I step on the gas hard so that the tires give a satisfying squeal as I shoot away.
* * *
The walled compound used to be Radcliffe Yard.
I open the door to our apartment and the soft golden light that Kai prefers, a reminder of the afternoon, makes me shudder.
Kai is in the living room, sitting on the couch.
"Sorry I didn't call."
Kai stands up to thir full eight-foot height and opens thir arms, thir dark eyes gazing at me like the eyes of those giant fish that swim through the large tank at the New England Aquarium. I step into thir embrace and inhale thir familiar fragrance, a mixture of floral and spicy scents, the smell of an alien world and of home.
Instead of answering, thie undresses me gently, careful around my bandages. I close my eyes and do not resist, feeling the layers fall away from me piece by piece.
When I'm naked, I tilt my head up and thie kisses me, thir tubular tongue warm and salty in my mouth. I place my arms around thim, feeling on the back of thir head the long scar whose history I do not know and do not seek.
Then thie wraps thir primary arms around my head, pulling my face against thir soft, fuzzy chest. Thir tertiary arms, strong and supple, wrap around my waist. The nimble and sensitive tips of thir secondary arms lightly caress my shoulders for a moment before they find my Tawnin port and gently pry the skin apart and push in.
I gasp the moment the connection is made and I feel my limbs grow rigid and then loose as I let go, allowing Kai's strong arms to support my weight. I close my eyes so I can enjoy the way my body appears through Kai's senses: the way warm blood coursing through my vessels creates a glowing map of pulsing red and gold currents against the cooler, bluish skin on my back and buttocks, the way my short hair pricks the sensitive skin of thir primary hands, the way my chaotic thoughts are gradually soothed and rendered intelligible by thir gentle, guiding nudges. We're now connected in the most intimate way that two minds, two bodies can be.
That's what it's like, I think.
Don't be annoyed by their ignorance, thie thinks.
I replay the afternoon: the arrogant and careless manner in which I carried out my duty, the surprise of the explosion, the guilt and regret as I watched the Reborn and the Tawnin die. The helpless rage.
You'll find them, thie thinks.
Then I feel thir body moving against me, all of thir six arms and two legs probing, caressing, grasping, squeezing, penetrating. And I echo thir movements, my hands, lips, feet roaming against thir cool, soft skin the way I have come to learn thie likes, thir pleasure as clear and present as my own.
Thought seems as unnecessary as speech.
* * *
The interrogation room in the basement of the Federal Courthouse is tiny and claustrophobic, a cage.
I close the door behind me and hang up my jacket. I'm not afraid to turn my back to the suspect. Adam Woods sits with his face buried between his hands, elbows on the stainless steel table. There's no fight left in him.
"I'm Special Agent Joshua Rennon, Tawnin Protection Bureau." I wave my badge at him out of habit.
He looks up at me, his eyes bloodshot and dull.
"Your old life is over, as I'm sure you already know." I don't read him his rights or tell him that he can have a lawyer, the rituals of a less civilized age. There's no more need for lawyers — no more trials, no more police tricks.
He stares at me, his eyes full of hatred.
"What's it like?" he asks, his voice a low whisper. "Being fucked by one of them every night?"
I pause. I can't imagine he noticed the black dot on my badge in such a quick look. Then I realize that it was because I had turned my back to him. He could see the outline of the Tawnin port through my shirt. He knew I had been Reborn, and it was a lucky — but reasonable — guess that someone whose port was kept open was bonded to a Tawnin.
I don't take the bait. I'm used to the kind of xenophobia that drives men like him to kill.
"You'll be probed after the surgery. But if you confess now and give useful information about your co-conspirators, after your Rebirth you'll be given a good job and a good life, and you'll get to keep the memories of most of your friends and family. But if you lie or say nothing, we'll learn everything we need anyway and you'll be sent to California for fallout clean-up duty with a blank slate of a mind. And anyone who cared about you will forget you, completely. Your choice."
"How do you know I have any co-conspirators?"
"I saw you when the explosion happened. You were expecting it. I believe your role was to try to kill more Tawnin in the chaos after the explosion."
He continues to stare at me, his hatred unrelenting. Then, abruptly, he seems to think of something. "You've been Reborn more than once, haven't you?"
I stiffen. "How did you know?"
He smiles. "Just a hunch. You stand and sit too straight. What did you do the last time?"
I should be prepared for the question, but I'm not. Two months after my Rebirth, I'm still raw, off my game. "You know I can't answer that."
"You remember nothing?"
"That was a rotten part of me that was cut out," I tell him. "Just like it will be cut out of you. The Josh Rennon who committed whatever crime he did no longer exists, and it is only right that the crime be forgotten. The Tawnin are a compassionate and merciful people. They only remove those parts of me and you that are truly responsible for the crime — the mens rea, the evil will."
"A compassionate and merciful people," he repeats. And I see something new in his eyes: pity.
A sudden rage seizes me. He is the one to be pitied, not me. Before he has a chance to put up his hands I lunge at him and punch him in the face, once, twice, three times, hard.
Blood flows from his nose as his hands waver before him. He doesn't make any noise, but continues to look at me with his calm, pity-filled eyes.
"They killed my father in front of me," he says. He wipes the blood from his lips and shakes his hand to get rid of it. Droplets of blood hit my shirt, the scarlet beads bright against its white fabric. "I was thirteen, and hiding in the backyard shed. Through a slit in the doors I saw him take a swing at one of them with a baseball bat. The thing blocked it with one arm and seized his head with another pair of arms and just ripped it off. Then they burned my mother. I'll never forget the smell of cooked flesh."
I try to bring my breathing under control. I try to see the man before me as the Tawnin do: divided. There's a frightened child who can still be rescued, and an angry, bitter man who cannot.
"That was more than twenty years ago," I say. "It was a darker time, a terrible, twisted time. The world has moved on. The Tawnin have apologized and tried to make amends. You should have gone to counseling. They should have ported you and excised those memories. You could have had a life free of these ghosts."
"I don't want to be free of these ghosts. Did you ever consider that? I don't want to forget. I lied and told them that I saw nothing. I didn't want them to reach into my mind and steal my memories. I want revenge."
"You can't have revenge. The Tawnin who did those things are all gone. They've been punished, consigned to oblivion."
He laughs. "'Punished,' you say. The Tawnin who did those things are the exact same Tawnin who parade around today, preaching universal love and a future in which the Tawnin and humans live in harmony. Just because they can conveniently forget what they did doesn't mean we should."
"The Tawnin do not have a unified consciousness —"
"You speak like you lost no one in the Conquest." His voice rises as pity turns into something darker. "You speak like a collaborator." He spits at me, and I feel the blood on my face, between my lips — warm, sweet, the taste of rust. "You don't even know what they've taken from you."
I leave the room and close the door behind me, shutting off his stream of curses.
* * *
Outside the courthouse, Claire from Tech Investigations meets me. Her people had already scanned and recorded the crime scene last night, but we walk around the crater doing an old-fashioned visual inspection anyway, in the unlikely event that her machines missed something.
Missed something. Something was missing.
"One of the injured Reborn died at Mass General this morning around 4 o'clock," Claire says. "So that brings the total death toll to ten: six Tawnin and four Reborn. Not as bad as what happened in New York two years ago, but definitely the worst massacre in New England."
Claire is slight, with a sharp face and quick, jerky movements that put me in mind of a sparrow. As the only two TPB agents married to Tawnins in the Boston Field Office, we have grown close. People joke that we're work spouses.
I didn't lose anyone in the Conquest.
Kai stands with me at my mother's funeral. Her face in the casket is serene, free of pain.
Kai's touch on my back is gentle and supportive. I want to tell thim not to feel too bad. Thie had tried so hard to save her, as thie had tried to save my father before her, but the human body is fragile, and we don't yet know how to effectively use the advances taught to us by the Tawnin.
We pick our way around a pile of rubble that has been cemented in place by melted asphalt. I try to bring my thoughts under control. Woods unsettled me. "Any leads on the detonator?" I ask.
"It's pretty sophisticated," Claire says. "Based on the surviving pieces, there was a magnetometer connected to a timer circuit. My best guess is the magnetometer was triggered by the presence of large quantities of metal nearby, like the Judgment Ship. And that started a timer that was set to detonate just as the Reborn reached the ground.
"The setup requires fairly detailed knowledge of the mass of the Judgment Ship; otherwise the yachts and cargo ships sailing through the Harbor could have set it off."
"Also knowledge of the operation of the Judgment Ship," I add. "They had to know how many Reborn were going to be here yesterday, and calculate how long it would take to complete the ceremony and lower them to the ground."
"It definitely took a lot of meticulous planning," Claire said. "This is not the work of a loner. We're dealing with a sophisticated terrorist organization."
Claire pulls me to a stop. We're at a good vantage point to see the bottom of the explosion crater. It's thinner than I would have expected. Whoever had done this had used directed explosives that focused the energy upwards, presumably to minimize the damage to the crowd on the sides.
A memory of myself as a child comes to me unbidden.
Autumn, cool air, the smell of the sea and something burning. A large, milling crowd, but no one is making any noise. Those at the edge of the crowd, like me, push to move closer to the center, while those near the center push to get out, like a colony of ants swarming over a bird corpse. Finally, I make my way to the center, where bright bonfires burn in dozens of oil drums.
I reach into my coat and take out an envelope. I open it and hand a stack of photographs to the man standing by one of the oil drums. He flips through them and takes a few out and hands the rest back to me.
"You can keep these and go line up for surgery," he says.
I look through the photographs in my hand: Mom carrying me as a baby. Dad lifting me over his shoulders at a fair. Mom and me asleep, holding the same pose. Mom and Dad and me playing a board game. Me in a cowboy costume, Mom behind me trying to make sure the scarf fit right.
He tosses the other photographs into the oil drum, and as I turn away, I try to catch a glimpse of what's on them before they're consumed by the flames.
"You all right?"
"Yes," I say, disoriented. "Still a bit of the aftereffects of the explosion."
I can trust Claire.
"Listen," I say, "Do you ever think about what you did before you were Reborn?"
Claire focuses her sharp eyes on me. She doesn't blink. "Do not go down that path, Josh. Think of Kai. Think of your life, the real one you have now."
"You're right," I say. "Woods just rattled me a bit."
"You might want to take a few days off. You're not doing anyone favors if you can't concentrate."
"I'll be fine."
Claire seems skeptical, but she doesn't push the issue. She understands how I feel. Kai would be able to see the guilt and regret in my mind. In that ultimate intimacy, there is nowhere to hide. I can't bear to be home and doing nothing while Kai tries to comfort me.
Excerpted from The Anderson Project by David G. Hartwell, Richard Anderson. Copyright © 2014 Kathleen Ann Goonan. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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