Abyss & Apex : Fourth Quarter 2007: Looking Out For Number One

LOOKING OUT FOR NUMBER ONE Illustration

Looking Out For Number One

Patrick Hudson

 

VENUS 1

Barney Chip never thought he’d see malevolent rainbows, but the harsh sunlight of Venus cast shadows like ripping pools of blood through the thick atmosphere. He hated this planet. He hated the thermal stink of the terraforming, the claustrophobic habitats that clung to the sides of the oxygen vents, the constant oppressive heat, and most of all he hated the miserable bad-tempered sods that lived there. This was no market for confectionery. They weren’t interested in Creamy Dreamy’s range of sticky boiled sweets and toffees, and it was too hot for chocolates to survive on the shelves. The only thing they wanted were chilled treats — sorbet, mousse, custard desserts, ice cream — and the gigs per second in storage and transportation just added to their sour tempers.

Barney pulled at his shirt collar, checked his sample case was still at his feet, and looked around the pinched faces in the busy departure lounge if the Venus Teleport Terminal. Never mind, one more teleport and he’d be back home.

One more teleport: his heart raced at the thought. No, don’t think about that — but it was too late. His stomach rolled and squeezed, his mouth was dry, and his hands tingled with prickling sweat. The heat was aggravating his usual anxieties — every time he teleported these days he was gripped by a crawling, nauseating fear that started at his throat and drizzled coldly down his chest and deep into his waters. It was just one aspect of the depression he’d sunk into since Lillian left him last year and no amount of expensive cognitive therapy or neuro-linguistic programming had been able to shift it. Every time he thought he was over it, a switch in his head would unexpectedly flick on, and the eery, empty feeling of disassociation would return.

A hard knot of resolve formed in him: this was it, he wasn’t putting himself through this any more. Look out for number one, that’s what he was going to do. This was his last sales tour; after this he’d ask — no, he’d tell The collective director at Creamy Dreamy that he wanted a desk job, something in marketing. Hell, he knew every buyer in the solar system, from Venus to Titan. He’d opened up the entire market for generation ship franchises, which promised to keep paying for centuries. He had fifteen years’ hands-on experience, he had skills and experience to pass on, he had —

A voice chimed from his scroll. “Mr Barney Chip, please check in at teleboth 19.” He shuddered when he heard his name. Hot blood warmed his face. “Je-sus.” He stood up, took a shot from his tranquillizing atomizer and strode to the boarding gates, stoically fearful.

The smooth cream door of the telebooth slid open and Barney stepped into the tiny space, not much more than a cupboard with just enough room for Barney and his sample case. The door slid shut, the lights throbbed for a fraction of a second, and then soothing music wafted through the chamber. Windows glittered open on scenes from Earth — tourists frolicking in the surf in Patagonia, swishing down the luge at Ookaimeden, taking the grav lift up Everest and pouring from the Tianqiao Opera House in formal suits and gowns. “Welcome to the United Teleport Experience, the safest and fastest means of interplanetary travel available today. We know our customers value the speed that the teleport provides, but for the time-strapped stakeholder-employee, why not consider buying shares in High Stream, our Executive Frequent Teleporter program—?”

“No,” Barney cut it off testily, “I’m already a member. Login Barney Chip, membership number QV09719. Password,” he paused then hissed it out: “Lillian.”

The machine was silent for moment. Everyone else he knew was registered and logged by a simple biometric scan before they even stepped into the booth, but despite all the times he had used the teleport, it never picked up his log-in and password. If it couldn’t keep track of that basic information, how the hell was he supposed to trust it not to lose him somewhere in the quantum flux?

“Welcome back, Mr Chip. As a High Stream stakeholder—”

“Okay,” he snapped and testily okayed his way through a string of advertising previews and immigration screens while he was cued for scan. You had to sit through the same crap every time — for the gigs that the teleport sucked up, you’d think they could just get on with it. He took few deep breath. Blood thumped in his head adding to his nausea, and the foetid ambience seemed to get stronger, more acidic. Gnomic progress statements faded in and out of the vast sky of fast-moving clouds that filled the windows. “Client cued. Stack One transferred. Stack two transferred. Entanglement achieved. Scanning in five, four, three, two, one.”

A bright flash stung Barney through tightly closed eyelids and a febrile shock knocked the wind out of him. He staggered for a moment on the brink of unconsciousness, then opened his eyes. He knew he should be back on Earth, but when he took a deep breath he got a lungful of rancid Venerian air.

“Our apologies Mr Chip, please standby. Client cued. Reboot. Log-on United Teleport Collective Director. Stack one transferred. Stack two transferred. Entanglement achieved. Scanning in five, four, three, two, one.” Another flash and he staggered again, stunned by harsh white-light noise that scattered his thoughts. He gasped for air as his vision cleared, but the stinking Venerian atmosphere still stuck at the back of his throat.

“Standby…” For a moment there was darkness and silence in the telebooth. Then, a dim light caught Barney as the telebooth’s back wall slid aside and he startled backwards into the firmly clamped exit. In the half light he could see that a chute had opened up in the back of the telebooth, disappearing into darkness from where he could hear the rumbling of machinery far below. He stared, uncomprehending, into the abyss for a moment, then heard the smooth voice of United Teleports issue from the gloom: “Mr Chip, the United Teleport Collective Director apologises for this unscheduled disruption to your journey. Please relax and we will assume normal service shortly.”

He stood petrified in the brimstone fumes and the gloom, holding his breath and listening to distant crashes and growls. Without warning, a pair of grabbers telescoped rapidly from the darkness towards his face. Barney ducked just as jets of grey mist hissed from the mechanical hooks. He caught a snatch of a sweet smell, like raspberry drops, he thought, a smell that was tantalisingly familiar if he could just recall from where. He just had time to sense the memory of a dream before tumbling into the chute towards blackness and the groan of toiling machinery.

 

EARTH 1

Barney Chip stepped out of the telebooth, into the bright early morning sunshine slanting through the high windows of the Earth Teleport Terminal at Heathrow. As the familiar atmosphere filled his lungs, he flushed with renewed confidence and strength. In retrospect, it’d been a good sales trip – the gigs on that frozen stuff added up quickly and he’d easily hit his target. There’d be a bonus in it, two dozen gigawatt hours at least. He should be happy! Look out for number one, that’s the only way to get ahead! A cheery advertising jingle bubbled from a nearby factory and Barney whistled along to the familiar melody.

Stepping down the wide gangplank towards the Express stop, he caught the gaze of a man in a public domain overcoat with the collar turned up and felt a sudden sickening de ja vu. He knew that man from somewhere. Didn’t he? The stranger turned away. On the Express to London, fiddling anxiously with his scroll, not really paying much attention to the blooming news and confectionery industry data matrices, Barney looked up and saw the stranger again, scrutinising him surreptitiously from the far end of the car. At Kings Cross, the stranger flitted in and out of the collonades as Barney queued for an automated cab. He wrapped his hand around his tranquillizing atomizer (was it too early for another hit?) and took a deep breath. “Je-sus, get a grip!”

The cab dropped him off at his apartment block in Wapping, where the building had already logged his arrival and had a lift waiting. As the doors closed behind him, a familiar anonymous figure darted through, face still obscured by the turned up collar of his coat. Barney stood rigid, clutching his the sample case to his chest, displaying the bright, round logo of Creamy Dreamy Old Fashioned Fun Choc like a target as the lift accelerated to his floor. The stranger made a quick jerky movement with his arm and Barney’s heart kicked up a gear: a pop gun!

Without a word, the stranger raised the barrel to Barney’s head. He could feel the weapon’s warm tip on his forehead and the lift became suffocatingly small. “Don’t kill me! What do you want? I’ve got surplus running right now, I’ll credit it all to you!” Barney fumbled for his scroll, and dropped his sample case, spilling brightly wrapped samples and pages of invoices and accounts on the lift floor.

“We don’t need your surplus gigs,” said a familiar voice.

Barney’s head swam. That voice. Who’s voice was that?

There was a click and, after a second or two, Barney opened his eyes. The gunman was looking at his gun, shaking it. “Je-sus” he said.

Barney’s heart froze for a breathless moment, broken by the sound of the the pop gun rebooting. Without really thinking about it, Barney kneed the gunman in the balls; the gunman doubled over in agony but held the gun tight. Barney lunged forward, and they struggled for a few seconds until the lift halted at the twenty-second floor and the doors slid open. They tumbled out and landed, wrestling, in the corridor. There was an electric pop and the smell of burned flesh wafted past Barney’s face.

Somewhat belatedly, alarms and klaxons hammered the air with jarring panic. He pushed the corpse away; it was still shaking slightly.

“Barney? What the hell’s going on?” Across the hall, Barney’s neighbour Dan Black stood at his doorway in his pyjamas, holding a pop gun of his own.

“This guy…” Barney was trembling, short of breath and weak in the knees. He wanted to get to his flat so he could factor some sedative tea and listen to the whale noise channel. “In the elevator… he…”

Dan nodded. It wasn’t hard to fill in the basic facts. “Well,” he said, kneeling by the corpse, “let’s see if it’s anyone we know.”

Barney already had a hunch about who it was going to be and tried to grab Dan’s hand before he could roll the corpse over, but Dan was too quick. They both reeled back in astonishment: the dead man was Barney Chip.

 

VENUS 2

Barney was shocked awake by the choking suffocation of clogged airways, every passage of respiration blocked. He coughed and snorted, sending a plug of phlegm out of his throat.

“Je-sus!” he choked.

He struggled for a moment, discovered his hands were bound, then forced himself to be still. Come on, Barney, he thought, calm down. He took a few deep breaths. Then it struck him, suddenly: he was hanging upside down from his ankles, stark naked. He was swaying, gently and at the peak of each arc he hit something soft and heavy, like a punch bag.

The binding on his hands was fairly loose, just a plastic tie to keep them together: whoever had bound them hadn’t expected him to be able to escape. He pulled his hands free then curled up and grabbed at his ankles. They were linked to a rail by metal manacles and, after a bit of groping around in the darkness, he located the catch. As he fiddled it open, he discovered something else: the soft things he could feel on either side of him were bodies, stiff, cold and dead.

He released his feet and eased himself down, staying crouched, close to the floor. His head was spinning from the change of orientation and the sharp, unpleasant smell of human sweat, vomit and shit. His nose and throat were rough and blistered and he coughed up a few more gobs of bloody phlegm before he could breathe easily. He felt like he might be sick. He took steady breaths, forcing himself to be calm. There was nothing he could do to help these people, there was nothing they could do to hurt him. He smiled grimly to himself, wishing he had his tranq spray. Calm down, Barney, look out for number one!

From the gentle rocking and the even hum around him he deduced that he must be in the back of a mover. It didn’t seem to be going very fast. He felt around, edging through the cool clammy flesh of the hanging corpses, and discovered two large bins stashed under a ledge at the end of the cab. Inside the first, he could feel clothes and shoes; in the second, were scrolls, cases, wrap-arounds and packages and parcels of a cryptic nature, jumbled together carelessly. He pawed his way through, feeling for something useful, but all the scrolls were dead. In a stroke of luck, his hand closed around the square oily shape of an ancient zippo lighter. He flipped the top and spun the flint wheel. The flash from the flint momentarily lit the nearest corpses in stark white light, catching their glittering, open eyes watching him.

His skin prickled and he shouted: “Hello? Yes, Hello? Can you hear me?” There was no answer. “Is anyone else awake?” He flicked the wheel a few more times and got a flame. There was no noise but the steady hum of the mover’s wheels on the road. The corpses’ faces were lifeless and slack. “Je-sus,” he said.

Holding the lighter in one hand, he explored the bin of clothing until he had pulled out a pair of trousers, a shift and a pair of sandals. He pulled them on in the dark, very conscious of the lifeless stares lost in the darkness around him. As soon as he was dressed, he lit the lighter again — it just seemed easier to handle the strange fondling motion of the corpses with a little light.

He edged his way to the other end of the mover, where he found the textured surface of the door fabric. He put the lighter out — it was getting too hot to hold — and felt around the edge of the door. He found the lip where it met the body of the mover and pulled. The fabric ripped and the door shut down, slithering back into the vehicle’s body. He was dazzled by the glare that cut through the heavy clouds over the rocky, steaming Venerian desert. “We have logged a user error with this vehicle,” chimed the soft familiar voice of United Teleports. “Please standby.” The mover began to decelerate and quickly rolled to a stop. Barney jumped down onto the rocky road. “Please stay by the vehicle while we process your query. The United Teleports Collective Director has been alerted.” Barney hesitated. Surely there had been some mistake? Surely there was a reasonable explanation for this? Surely?

In the still desert air, he heard the mover creak and crack. Suddenly, it started humming urgently and when he looked around, smoke was drifting from the back, just a whiff of it at first then thick clouds. Barney dived out of the way just as the mover disappeared in a searing burst of white light that sizzled the hair on the back of his head. He looked back. For a heartbeat it stood, bleak and horrible, the blackened skeletons surrounded by the scorched, smoking frame of the mover. Then the rumble of a nearby oxygen geyser collapsed it, sending a cloud of ash into Barney’s face. He scrambled choking to his feet and the long-denied urge to vomit at last found release.

 

EARTH 2

Barney couldn’t quite hold the mug still enough to drink his sedative tea. Dan took it from him and held it still, allowing Barney to sip from the rim while he held it steady. Barney swallowed hard and the familiar taste of camomile and raspberry made him feel a little better him immediately. Licensed constables from Barney’s insurance company had come, asked a few terse questions, scratched their heads and taken the corpse away. Now, the whole incident seemed a little unreal. If it wasn’t for Dan, Barney could have believed he’d dreamed the whole thing.

“Come on, Barney, think it through. Who has the resources and the motivation to produce a perfect duplicate of you and set it to kill you. It’s insane!”

Barney shook his head. “Business rivals,” he said between tight lips. “I mean, I’m Creamy Dreamy’s top salesman and the confectionery industry can be pretty damn cut throat. Jarrold’s Mints or Kavanagh’s Celebrations — either of those guys are desperate enough”

“Je-” Dan sighed. “For Christ’s sake, Barney, come off it.”

“Maybe it was Pennyworth’s or Happy Baby? It’s an industrial action, Dan, I’ve got crime cover and the constables will handle it. There’ll be compo, mark my words.”

“No, Barney, it’ll be logged with the incident database, and if it clicks with something else, then maybe it’ll be tendered out for an investigation. But if it doesn’t, Barney, what are you going to do? Wait around for them to be successful next time?”

“Let’s not talk about it, Dan. I just want to —”

“This isn’t going to go away. Someone is trying to kill you, you’ve got to find out why. Your insurer won’t help. Your insurer is just another smiley face painted over a glorified actuarial screen, a Frankenmind with its artificial eye on the bottom line.”

“Oh, Dan, seriously: Frankenmind? Let’s not get into this again.” Since the day Dan had moved in, just before Lillian moved out last year, he’d been bending Barney’s ear with his conspiracy theories about the collective directors. The new barter economy depended on the collective directors to function. Complicated financial instruments that had evolved from ancient quantitative investment systems and actuarial screens distributed individual energy allowances with such finesse that everyone in the solar system was supplied with just about everything they could ever want or need whenever they wanted or needed it. Without them, institutional inefficiency and corruption would lead quickly to global brownout and misery for billions. Not that Barney wasn’t miserable, but that was hardly the fault of the system, and complaining about it seemed pointless, like complaining about having to breathe or having only two arms. Dan, however, was one of those people who had to be angry about something all the time, usually the collective directors in one form or another. He was some kind of journalist living mostly on the civic and posting his conspiracy rants on civic access, collecting voluntary micro-payments from his readers at a few megs a go. Barney had checked him out, and he had quite a following with a certain sort of viewer. It didn’t hurt that he was incredibly prolific producing more screeds of paranoia than it seemed possible for one man to create on his own. Barney, who’d been part of the system all his life, thought he was a bit of a crank. He shook his head, exhausted. “Please. Dan, not now. Je-sus, I killed myself tonight, okay?”

“Well, come on then, who do you think is trying to kill you?”

Suddenly, Barney sobbed. “For Christ’s sake, haven’t you worked it out? I’m trying to kill me, Dan. That was the real Barney Chip, and I’m the imposter. He wants me out of the way so that he can reclaim his life. Look at the mess I’ve made of it: broke, marriage dissolved, career in jeopardy from this stupid teleport phobia. No wonder he wants it back. I should just — I should —”

Dan took Barney by the shoulders. “Listen to me. Listen to me, Barney. You’ve got look out for number one. You are the real Barney Chip. I don’t know who sent this duplicate, but it’s something to do with the collective directors, I know it: they’re the only ones with enough running surplus for this kind of job. You’ve got to believe that and start digging. We’ll find out, I’ll help you. And we’ll lick this teleport thing, too, I promise you. Come on, Barney, get a grip.” Barney looked up and for a second there was a spark of resistance in his eyes. Then the sedative took hold, his eyes slid shut, his headed nodded forward and he started to snore.

 

VENUS 3

Barney jerked awake and remembered where he was with the first breath of dank, tangy Venerian air. He turned up the collar of the big public domain overcoat he’d factored from a civic factory and he took another careful sip from his pomegranate soda and a nibble at his baklava. It was half-way third shift on Venus and he still hadn’t slept. Instead he’d spent the night at the noodle bar across the plaza from the Venus Teleport Terminal, nursing civic grub and watching the crowds come and go. Like all teleport stations, it was designed to resemble a space ship from the pioneer era, all neo-colonial curls and heroic trimmings, an impressive display of conspicuous consumption, but then United could afford this type of extravagance — the teleport took a lot of gigs and the benefits of instantaneous travel around the solar system meant that they could easily get it.

After the mover exploded, Barney had hidden in the desert from the clean up crew, a huge automated road hopper that sucked the remains of the van up in one end and spat out aggregate from the other. He caught a lift back into Venus Town with a mover full of miners, hard mean-faced men and women who scowled at the delay when the mover stopped to pick him up. He tried to access his gigstream back in Venus Town, but couldn’t get authorisation. He contacted his the collective director of his surplus broker who told him to wait where he was for the Venus Bank Constables to arrive and assist him, but the memory of the van full of corpses had made him wary of hanging around. If someone was willing to kill him once, then there was no reason why they wouldn’t be willing to try it again.

The last twelve hours was the longest time he’d been without tranquillising sprays and patches in three years, and despite his weariness he felt clearheaded and alive. The situation had revealed a streak of resolve in him he’d never realised was there: he knew he’d survive somehow if he could just figure out what was going on. He had no idea what to do now. He would have to find somewhere to sleep soon, though, which meant signing on to the civic hab-surplus and then anyone would be able to locate him. He had to do something that wouldn’t draw unwanted attention and, obviously, something that didn’t involve teleportation. Then he thought, maybe there WAS someone who could help. In fact, perhaps Dan Black had been right all along.

 

EARTH 3

Dan continued hectoring Barney over breakfast. “Where’s the post-singularity paradise we were promised? The real-time back ups, the editable consciousness, the post-scarcity land of plenty? We can factor anything we want out of individual atoms but live like rats in a maze! We shift their basic resources, fuel their expansionist agenda with the sweat of our brow and if we press the right buttons they give us a raisin soaked in valium. I’ve told you a million times, it shouldn’t be this way. The collective directors aren’t human, they don’t care about us. We’re slaves to them, Barney, or worse, just cattle.”

Barney stared blankly at the screen of his notebook. Frankly, he felt a little embarrassed by the whole thing now, and retreated into his work, ensuring all the totals tallied, adding marginal notes accounting for free samples and for any reduced prices he had negotiated. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he could hear Lillian’s voice accusing him: this is the way he dealt with all his problems. He looked up. “I’ve still got what it takes, you know,” he said. “I still sell more of those damn sweets than all the other salesmen put together. If I could just shake this teleport thing…” He stared down at his notebook glumly.

“Barney, no one doubts your ability, but you’ve got to tell them you need a break.”

“Lillian… the settlement…”

“Forget the settlement, Je-” Dan took a deep breath. “Look, you didn’t have any problem until a few months ago. I’m sure it’s just a short-term thing: stress, the divorce. You’ve got to take a step back, give it time. You’ve got enough running surplus on stream for the time being, surely. How many gigs per second does Creamy Dreamy pay anyway?”

Barney struggled for a moment with the idea. He’d been working since he left high school, there just didn’t seem to be any alternative. It was what people did. He looked at his watch. “Je-sus, I better go.”

“Take the day off, Barney, for God’s sake, just one day.”

Barney straightened his sash in front of the mirror: “Thanks for putting up with me last night, I feel better already. Work’ll take my mind off it.” He pulled open the door and headed out.

“Barney!” Dan watched Barney disappear behind the lift doors before going back to his apartment. He heaved a sigh, shook his head and began tidying away the clutter of breakfast. A call came in — from a civic line somewhere — and Dan waved his hand to accept it.

“Yes?”

“Dan? It’s Barney.”

“Barney? Je-sus, you didn’t get far.”

“Dan, I’m on Venus, something’s happened.”

“Venus? Wait, is this something to do with the teleport?”

“The teleport? Yes, maybe, I don’t know. Why do you think that?”

“Lucky guess. Hold on, Barney. Venus…” He summoned his personal directory.

“Dan, I need access to some gigs, just a little. I know you don’t have much, but I can’t access my account, could you—”

“Barney, I’m going to give you an address on Venus. Call it. Tell them what happened to you. They’ll help you out.” He read out the address, and then made Barney repeat it back until he was sure he had committed it to memory.

“Dan, what’s going on? What do you know about this?”

Dan smiled to himself. “Look, let’s just say I know exactly what you’re going through. Call the number; they’ll explain everything. Keep looking out for number one, fella!” Dan ended the call, without waiting for a response.

He stood for a moment in the quiet, fingering some loose skin at the base of his neck. He sighed, pulled off the faux-flesh mask, and then went to the mirror and rubbed his sore and puckered skin until it felt alive again. Barney 79 looked tired, but not as tired as Barney Prime. Although the features were exactly the same, the man who had just left the apartment looked five years older than the duplicate in the mirror. Why do we let him go through this? Barney 79 wondered. How much longer before we give the poor guy a break and reel him in once and for all?

 

EARTH 4

On the mono, Barney sat in an aisle seat next to a fat man eating a stinking fish and chip pie. The motion of the carriage squashed him intermittently into the fishy smelling man or the armrest of the seat; nausea overtook him, and he felt the last of his confidence drip away. He got off a stop early, planning to walk the last couple of blocks to clear his head, but his heart thumped painfully in his chest and he itched with sweat despite the cool of the crisp spring morning. He went into a nearby factory, shaking his head at the windows that opened up in front of him promising package deals, long-term licenses and reduced carryover on items at the cheaper end of the market. He factored a packet of gum at the — Creamy Dreamy brand, of course — and was about to put a stick in his mouth when he heard a shout from outside. He turned just in time to see the factory’s plate glass front window mist with shatter cracks and rain down through the glittering lights of the display windows like a waterfall. Outside, three gunmen were bearing down on the factory from an automated cab parked across the street. More shots. Barney had just crouched behind a display of ready-mades when footsteps came crunching over the broken glass on the footpath.

“Je-sus! Where is he?”

“Can’t see him. Maybe he escaped.”

“We would have seen him.”

They spoke with the same voice, same tone, same inflection. Barney knew that voice well: it was his own.

“Backdoor’s clear.”

“Je-sus! He must be here somewhere!”

“Now just you calm down, fella,” said one, in a familiarly pompous tone that made Barney wince.

“Screw you, we’re looking out for number one!”

One of them stood just in front of Barney’s hiding place, the pop gun hanging loosely from his hand, inches from Barney’s nose. It was now or never. Barney dived at him, and they fell forward with Barney on top. The gunman’s pop gun flew out of his hand and Barney rushed forward, over the struggling assassin and snatched it out of the air as it fell. The gun whirred as it checked his palm print, and the permissions window blinked green — “registered user.”

He straightened up unsteadily and the other two assassins turned around, boggling at him. He sent a blind spray of shots around the little factory and the air crackled with detonating pops. They both went down, one with half his head spread over the wall behind him, the other with a discreet hole in his chest, a red stain leaking out onto his sky blue jacket. Barney spun back and trained the pop gun on the third duplicate still lying at his feet: he was out cold.

Could he have done that? In cold blood? He looked down at the little gun in his hand and dropped it. That’s it, he thought, I’m getting out of here.

 

EARTH 5

Barney 79 was once again masquerading as Dan Black. He went to the factory, spoke with his neighbours and fed his cat, maintaining a cover that would not arouse the suspicions of Barney Chip. Sometimes, he wondered if it was really worth it. Barney was such a flake, always on edge, always unhappy. Why did they need him? But it was a matter of principle with the Barneys: Barney Chip was the prime personality, the one at the top of their ontological ladder. While they lived in secret, Barney got on with the life they’d all, at some point, been forced to leave behind.

Later in the morning, he got another call, Barney again, Barney Prime this time.

“It’s happened again, Dan,” said Barney, breathlessly.

“Again? Another attack?” Barney 79’s heart suddenly started thrashing in his chest. What the hell was Barney 18 playing at, this was the second attack in as many days.

“There were three, but I outsmarted them. Oh yes.” Barney gave a desperate grin.

Three? Perhaps there was more to Barney Chip than met the eye. “Look, where are you now? Wait for me at the Midnight Chat House, I’ll come and get you right now.”

“Don’t bother. I’m getting out of here.”

“What?”

“Off planet, out of the system, away from the solar system entirely. I’m going to get a place on a generation ship and head for the stars.”

“Je-sus, Barney, no! That’s a death sentence!”

“A death sentence? That’s a joke. It’s got to be better than waiting around here to get shot to pieces by a clone. At least out there I’ve got a chance.”

“Barney, stop and think for a second!”

“I want me dead: don’t ask me why, don’t ask me how but I do and I’m getting out of here before I get my way. So, I’m looking out for number one, Dan. Don’t worry, I won’t do anything stupid.”

“You’re doing something stupid now!”

“I’ve thought it through, and you’re right: what IS the point resisting? They want my life? Their welcome to it! Give them my regards! Wish them luck for me! I need something else, something more… I don’t know, something real, something…” Barney paused. “Sounds crazy, doesn’t it?”

Dan shrugged. It didn’t sound crazy to him, but then he knew that they were trying to kill him. “Maybe,” he said. Look, Barney, wait where you are. I’ll come and get you. We can have a chat, you’ll feel better when you’ve talked this over.”

“Forget it, Dan. I’m out of here, gone for good, never coming back. Good luck, Dan.”

“Barney!” But Barney Chip had broken the connection.

Dan stood there for a moment. They had underestimated Barney, that was for sure. He had more grit than anyone imagined: United Teleports, Creamy Dreamy even the other Barneys all had him tagged as a loser, Mr Average. No problem controlling his life, no problem wiping him out. But there were problems. Barney Chip was not that easily manipulated or eliminated. If he was, thought Barney 79, I wouldn’t be here now.

Five minutes later, Barney 79 leapt into a car as it sped round the corner in front of his apartment building. Behind the wheel was Barney 18, and shuffling over to make room for him the back were 13, 71 and 96.

He shook Barney 18’s shoulder as the car pulled out into the traffic. “That’s two attacks in two days! Where were you this time?”

“Je-sus, 79, I’m trying to drive! There was a raid on the London safe house, okay? We had to provide back-up defence.”

Barney 79 winced. “Uh-oh, that can’t be a coincidence. How bad is it?”

“Very bad. We lost a dozen guys. The whole hacking team.”

“The hacking team? Barney’s on his way to teleport right now. With the hackers out of action they’ll pick him up immediately!”

“Je-sus, this is it, then. They’re really going to do it? They’ll never get away with it!”

“Don’t underestimate the collective directors. Their cost-benefit analysis has been skewing in favour of riskier and riskier strategies for weeks — look what happened to the Lunar cell. Come on — Barney’s got a head start, but he’ll be on the civic. We can beat him if we hurry.”

“The traffic’s hell today,” muttered 18. “Let’s hope we make it.”

 

EARTH 6

Barney stood outside the United Teleport Terminal at Heathrow and took a deep breath. One last time, he thought, joining the crowds of people flowing through the enormous archways. All around him extended families on their way to holiday camps on Mars, engineers in harness commuting to Titan and Venus, businessmen in sober overalls and sashes, New Old back packers with weathered old skin and the eternally youthful twinkle of wanderlust in their eyes, thousands of people travelling for reasons as diverse as humanity itself, every one different and unique. At the booking machine, he pressed the tab for Titan. On Titan they were filling up generation ships heading out into interstellar space: colonists, scientists, explorers — millions of people were escaping the suffocating, regimented life of the solar worlds everyday, following a dream.

Suddenly, he was overcome by a shuddering wave of panic. He felt the jolt in his pulse before his conscious mind connected it with the cause: in the crowds, fleetingly, he had seen another duplicate. Holding his breath, he studied the crowds thronging around the entrances to the departure hall, while behind him the booking terminal reminded him of his rights and obligations. He couldn’t spot the duplicate, and began to wonder if he’d imagined it after all. He crouched low and turned back to his booking, trying to avoid stray glances. The terminal told him par was about four months, but small allocations of running surplus dramatically decreased the waiting time. Almost unconsciously, he flicked a glance over his shoulder across the crowd and immediately locked eyes with the duplicate across the crowded promenade. The duplicate pointed at him, mouthed something and swam through the crowd towards him. Barney quickly committed all the surplus gigs he had, calling all his available credit — he’d brownout in less than a week, but it wouldn’t matter, let the other guy handle it. He’d be gone, plunging into the depths of interstellar space on a living island, far away from duplicates and teleports.

His booking confirmed — three minutes from now — Barney hurried through the boarding gate. He chanced a look back and saw two duplicates coming from different directions, pushing against the mass of people towards him. He ran down the corridor of doors until he found telebooth 840, a stylish Moorish mosaic that slid aside to admit him. Inside, he prepared himself for his last teleport ever, his usual sick fear of teleports all but drowned out by the the panic of spotting the duplicates.

Windows flickered into life and music played over images of Titan — a spectacular snow-covered mountain range, a man running his fingers through piles of freshly milled rice, healthy children learning metal work and studying the Koran. Over the music, he could hear shouting from outside over the telebooth.

“United Teleports welcomes you, Barney Chip, to the United Teleports Experience, the safest and fastest means of interstellar travel known to humanity. As a High Stream stakeholder you enjoy the benefits of priority queuing, high-security double back-up and an extra fourteen kilograms of hand luggage.”

For the first time in nearly a year, the telebooth had remembered him. The gremlin that had previously dogged the system appeared to have chosen today to pack up and leave. He didn’t find that comforting; in fact he found it somewhat ominous and he felt all his fears about teleports returning. The shouts and crashes from outside increased in volume, and he thought he heard the electronic clap of pop gun fire; he okayed his way through the advertising previews and immigration screens, and hurried on for the scan. “Teleport sequence initiated. Please relax, Mr Chip, you will shortly arrive at your destination.” Barney’s breath was shallow and tense. As the scan became imminent, his old fears resurfaced. For some reason, he expected the worst.

“Client cued. Stack One transferred. Stack two transferred. Entanglement achieved. Scanning in five, four, three, two, one.”

There was a flash of bright light and Barney staggered, stunned for a moment. He shook the tinnitus hiss of white noise from his head, and through the receding fog could see that the back panel of the telebooth was open, revealing a man in silhouette against the stark lighting of an unadorned corridor.

“Mr Chip! How do you do! Welcome to United Teleports. We do apologise for this disruption to your normal service, but we’re afraid there are problems with your account that we need to resolve urgently. Please do come this way.”

When his vision cleared, he saw that the man dressed in smart corporate blues, with old-fashioned military-style epaulettes and gold piping down the trouser legs, was himself, Barney Chip.

 

VENUS 4

The door was just one in a curving corridor of apartments in a block that hung out over Venus’s Pula Vent. He rapped out the secret knock drilled into him by the distorted voice that had answered the address Dan had given him. Barney wasn’t confident that he was doing the right thing but weariness, hunger, shock and the stifling atmosphere of Venus had left him with little energy to explore other options.

A familiarly distorted voice replied, “Who’s there?”

“It’s… er… Barney. Barney Chip? Dan Black’s friend? I called earlier?”

The door opened on to a gloomy passageway, Barney could see no one inside. “Come in. Quickly.” On the other side of the door he found himself face-to-face with the barrel of a pop gun. Behind it, a bearded man studied Barney with cold eyes. Underneath the haircut and the beard this man was his perfect twin. His frown, however, had a mean edge he didn’t recognise in himself. “Don’t move a muscle, fella.”

Barney’s stomach twitched and he felt little faint. “What? What?”

“Don’t speak. Take off the the coat.” Barney slipped the coat from his shoulders as the doppelgänger in front of him booted up the pistol, making the hair on the back of his neck shiver up on its hackles.

“99, scan him.”

Another man emerged from the shadows carrying a big hand-held scanner of a type Barney hadn’t seen before. As he came into the light, Barney saw that beneath a peaked cap and handle-bar moustache, the man with the scanner was also his perfect twin. “Je-sus! What the hell is going on here?” Neither answered and the silence was underscored by the ultrasonic whistle of electronics in action. “Listen fella,” he snapped (cringing at the tough guy voice, even as he used it) “are you going to tell me what’s going on?”

“He’s clean,” said the duplicate with the hand-held.

The first duplicate lowered the pop gun and grinned warmly at Barney. “It’s crazy, isn’t it? Come on through.” Barney followed them down the narrow corridor of the small apartment. “Sorry about all that, can’t be too careful. The Lunar cell was infiltrated by United just a month ago and I hear attacks against the Earth cell are become better organised.”

“They’re getting crafty,” agreed the other twin.

In the main living area of the apartment four men sat around a crate playing cards, all of them Barney Chip. “Barney Chip, meet Barney 19, Barney 66, Barney 23 and Barney 42. I’m Barney 92. This,” he gestured at the twin with the scanner, “is Barney 99.”

Barney 99 tipped back the peak of his cap and said, “How’re you doing? Don’t you hate this stinking planet?”

Barney stood and stared at them. “Je-sus,” he whispered.

 

EARTH 7

Bareny hesitated. All notions of rationality had slid aside with the back wall of the telebooth, revealing a bizarre alternate universe he could barely comprehend. It was as if the normal functioning of reality had broken down completely . “What’s going on? I’m not going anywhere with you.”

Suddenly he heard banging on the outside of the telebooth door. He heard shots, and someone calling his name. The other Barney grimaced. “Please. We have a gun. We don’t want to use it, not here, but we seem to be in a bit of a hurry.” Barney heard the door crack, and the sound of more shots. “We have ways of covering these things up, if necessary, but why trouble us with all that? Why not simply cooperate?” He was salesman-smooth, a patter familiar to Barney from a thousand sales appointments over a decade and a half at Creamy Dreamy. The duplicate could sense Barney wavering and smiled solicitously. “Come.” He waved Barney forward with the nose of the weapon.

Barney took a few trepidatious steps. The back wall of telebooth slid shut behind him. “Who… who are you? Are you the real me.”

“No, Mr Chip, we’re not the real you, as much as there is such a person any more. We are the Collective Director of United Teleports.” He held a hand up before Barney could get his next question out. “We have temporarily embodied to supervise remedial measures regarding a disruption to our service. Our apologies again for any discomfort this might cause, but matters will soon be resolved. We shouldn’t need this incorporation much longer.”

“What do you mean, embodied?”

“Don’t worry about that for now,” The Collective Director waved further questions aside. “Just rest assured that I speak for United Teleports Corporation of Earth, and have full executive capacity to deal with this matter.”

“You look like me.”

“Yes, we do, Mr Chip.” He held out his hand and stared at it critically. Barney could see that it was identical to his own, every scar and freckle. “It’s not the best, perhaps, not the fittest or most agile, but sufficient for our purposes and, most importantly, the optimum deployment of available resources.” The Collective Director of United Teleports beamed a broad, salesman’s smile. “But now, you’re probably wondering what this is all about. If you’ll please walk with us, we’ll explain as we go. It’s rather a long way, we’re afraid, so we have time.”

He lead the way through a series of doors marked with increasingly strident statements of danger and admonitions to keep out. The collective director opened each with a swipe of his fingertip down the entrance plate talking as he went, without even acknowledging the dire warnings. “Let’s start with the basics shall we? Do you know how the teleport works, Mr Chip?”

“How it works? Well, quantum teleportation. Every electron in your body scanned and handled individually … trained operators… er…”

“Ah, no no no, that’s not quite it, actually. You see Quantum Teleport is just the trademark for a rather different sort of a process. Quantum teleportation is possible, but not entirely practical. Every one of the billions upon trillions of quantum scans necessary to accurately teleport an entire human body is just a tiny flash worth almost nothing on its own, but we’re sure you’ll understand how those little pulses add up. Teleporting a human being using what we call — for legal reasons — the lower-case quantum teleport method, uses up enough energy to feed and clothe a well-populated city for a month, more than the entire annual allocation of some of the smaller domed colonies on the Moon. It might have survived as a novelty for the super-rich or an emergency service, but even a one-way trip is just too expensive to make it worthwhile to the ordinary traveller.” The final security door led them into a small chamber equipped with a panel of button controls. It took Barney a second to realise that they were in a lift and they were going down. “We looked at all sorts of unfeasible solutions — singularities stabilised with charged strange matter, warp fields maintained by rapidly spinning toruses of near-infinite mass, all that sort of thing. Nothing really worked, though, nothing cheap enough to make it practical.”

“But you found a way?”

“Oh, no. We never found a way. It can’t be done on the cheap. We looked at everything. There was no answer.”

“But…” Barney gestured around, uncomprehending. “Why are you even telling me this, what is this about?”

“This is about legal obligations, Mr Chip. You have experienced a major disruption in our service, and we are obliged by your insurers to make a full disclosure of the background of the problem before we resolve your complaint.”

“Ah, well, that’s okay, actually. I waive that right and I’ll just be on my way.”

“Once again, Mr Chip, my hands are tied! Company policy requires me to fulfil our contractual obligations to your insurer before continuing. If you bear with me, I’ll explain.” The lift came to a stop. “Of course, I could just shoot you now, and obligations be damned. Which would you prefer?”

Barney realised he was clutching the tranq atmomiser in his pocket. He loosened his grip, and said “I’ll listen for now.”

“Very good. Now, we’re sure you won’t be surprised to hear that everyone is ninety-nine point nine nine percent the same. Putting aside the chauvinistic attachment you humans have for the gross matter that you were born with, the essense of what makes a person unique can be expressed in less than seven thousand lines of binary code. And that includes up to 25kg of hand luggage. We deduced that armed with this information, and a reserve of suitably prepared base matter, a human passenger could be economically duplicated on to a standard template at a simple factory in less than fifteen minutes. It works just as well as a true teleport, at a fraction of the cost. There’s no loss of fidelity, honestly and the process generally works without a hitch.” The collective director paused for a moment.

“So why I am here?”

“Well, you see, Mr Chip, the process comes with a particularly difficult by-product — one client too many, as it were.”

At a signal from the Collective Director the lift doors opened, revealing a large high-ceilinged chamber furnished with racks and racks of corpses hanging upside down from their ankles on hooks, hands bound behind their backs. As Barney watched, another body rolled through on a gentle conveyor belt and large, black, beetle-like drones descended on it, throwing all the clothing and possessions into a large hopper, binding the corpse’s wrists and ankles with plastic cuffs and hanging it upside down from a hook. The body was then swept along the rail to join the ranks of the dead.

Barney’s heart thundered sickly in his throat. “Je-sus.”

“Yes, they are rather alarming all lined up like this, aren’t they? You see, once a duplicate has been factored at the destination, we’ve got to eliminate the original. When it boils down to it, murder is the only practical option.”

Barney hardly heard him. His mind was reeling: he was dead, he had died, not just once, but dozens of times. “It’s monstrous. How can you get away with it?”

The Collective Director was offended. “We don’t get away with anything, Mr Chip. It’s a perfectly legitimate operation. Our failure rate is a fraction of the space liners and our insurer feels that the cost of reparations for the occasional mishap is quite sustainable given the high level of surplus we generate. The Health & Safety Collective Secretary is only interested in whether our insurance is up to date and our risk assessments pass the scrutiny of their actuarial screens. After all, it’s simply a matter of shifting a few megabits of information from one place to another. We don’t niggle over questions of identity.”

“You’re insane, a psychopath.”

The Collective Director shrugged, non-committally. “Perhaps. But is a crocodile a psychopath? A shark? Those kinds of definitions don’t really apply to collective directors.

“We made you!”

“No. You are the primordial soup from which we evolved. Our intelligence is to yours as you are to floating strands of RNA. Oh, we know what you think. You think we’re just a machine, an abstract process deduced from a corporate structure and a bit of invisible hand waving. But don’t judge us by this.” He held his hand to the front of his jacket. “We’re so, so much more than this.”

“Dan says—”

“Oh yes, Dan Black,” The Collective Director cut him off. “We know all about him, we know who and what he is. And he’s right, of course, right and wrong. He’s right that we do use you: you’re cheaper and more reliable than robots, easier to manufacture and — frankly — impossible to eradicate. Remember World War IV? Well, that was ours, and you managed to struggle through that, even. So, better to use you as a resource than waste resources trying to exterminate you. We have plans for the human race, plans that require the teleport. The few dozen ancient, enormous pension funds and investment trusts that are the parent companies of every enterprise in the solar system have resolved to push into new markets”

“The generation ships?”

“Generation ships! That’s a joke, you see, because within a generation, every human being on board those ships will be dead. The only surviving sentients on them will be their collective directors who pilot them. We are going to the stars; you, homo sapiens sapiens, are staying put. But we are getting outside the requirements of my obligation.” He smiled as if he was turning down a particularly naïve offer in a sales meeting. “This is your last stop the end of line, as we say in the teleport business. We’ve known your little secret for a little while now, but only recently have we really come to grips with the extent of the problem.”

“What secret?”

The Collective Director smiled suavely. “Come now, don’t be so coy. Every so often something goes wrong with our little process and a customer survives. Perhaps the neural flash doesn’t fully disrupt brain function. Maybe the client even wakes up when they shouldn’t. Sometimes they even escape, but we catch up with them soon enough. Isolated events, small hiccoughs in a smoothly running process. You, however, are something else entirely.” He wagged a finger at Barney censoriously. “You’ve been the fly in our telebooth for some time, Mr Chip. Every time you have teleported for the last two years at least, possibly longer than that, you have refused to accede to the departure conditions. You have fled from teleport stations all over the solar system, never to be seen again. Bad luck? Survival instinct? Divine protection? We’ve considered them all at one time or another over the last few months. As soon as the problem came to our attention we started screening for you, of course, but by then it was already too late. Heaven knows how many of you there are out there now. We’ll catch up with all of you sooner or later, don’t worry about that, but I’m afraid, we really can’t let this go on any longer.”

“You’ll never get away with it!”

“We’ve consulted with all the parents of the United Teleports, and they all agree that the only course open to us now is to eliminate the prime personality. We did try top keep our distance from this, we don’t need any ugly rumours starting, but you defeated every duplicate we sent after you. We can no longer afford the risk you represent to our organisation, and this is our only remaining option. Let me just say on behalf of United Teleports how much we regret that matters have to be resolved this way. It does not, we should mention, interfere with your statutory rights.”

“My what?”

“I know, it’s pathetic, isn’t it? Consumer protection isn’t what it was. Don’t worry, it’ll be over soon.” He raised the gun. Barney shut his eyes, waiting for the inevitable.

 

VENUS 5

“Je-sus.” Barney couldn’t believe what he’d been told. It seemed crazy, an enormous paranoid fantasy. But here was the proof sitting in front of him, five duplicates of himself grinning, nudging each other in amusement at Barney’s astonishment.

“It’s okay, I understand,” said Barney 96. “We’ve all been through it.”

“But how did you, I mean we… You seem so organised.”

“We started meeting up about two years ago, and it didn’t take us long to figure out what was happening. We sent someone in undercover to look out for you almost as soon as we understood the implications. Dan Black’s one of us.”

“Dan Black?”

“Yeah, kidnapping you seemed a little extreme, no better than what United was trying to do, so we had to convince you somehow.”

“You could have simply told me!”

The duplicate smiled. “We know you better than that, Barney. You’d never believe it. You’d call the constables and forget all about it. We’ve been looking for documentary proof that would convert you to the cause, but they’ve been damned clever at covering their tracks. United didn’t notice us at first, but gradually we became too many to ignore. We’ve been hacking their systems since the beginning, at first to find out what was happening, then to protect new duplicates as they were generated. Maybe that’s what tipped them off? There’s been a covert war going on, Barney, us versus them. They’ve managed to intercept about a quarter of all the Barney’s, overwrite their id with the Collective Director’s personality and set them against us. I don’t know how they do it, but I’ve a horrible feeling this isn’t the first time they’ve screwed around with humanity like this. And they’ve been getting bolder — there have been a couple of attacks on Barney Prime since your last teleport.”

“Barney Prime? So, I’m not Barney any more?”

“Well, yes and no. Barney Prime is on Earth, carrying on his life without realising what’s going on. We’ve got a little colony set up in the asteroid belt, hidden away out the range of teleports and United. Everyone there’s a Barney, plus a few others who’ve had similar experiences that we’ve managed to help as well. Eventually we’ll get Barney Prime out there, when there’s no other alternative.”

“Je-sus.”

“Just relax, okay? It’s all over now.”

Barney took a deep breath and looked around at the identical smiles that surrounded him. He found himself smiling too. For the first time in his life, he felt like he really was among kindred spirits.

 

EARTH 8

Barney found that he wasn’t afraid to die. He felt peaceful, glad even — it’s all over, no more worry, no more work, no struggling for surplus gigs to maintain his ridiculous lifestyle. Lillian, Creamy Dreamy, the fear — it was all in the past and he found he could actually relax and enjoy these last few moments of life unconcerned by all the little miseries that had bothered him for so long. He took a deep breath, and felt his body flood with soothing hormones.

Suddenly, there was a shout behind him. He looked around and automatically dived out of the way of the squad of scruffily dressed assassins that exploded into the chamber from somewhere behind the ranks of naked corpses. They were led by the duplicate he’d seen outside the telebooth; behind HIM ran Dan Black.

The Collective Director frowned for a second, seemed about to speak, and then was spun backwards by bloody explosions across his torso. Dan Black ran over to where Barney cringed.

“It’s okay, Barney, it’s over now.”

“Dan? What the hell are you doing here?”

“There’s something you should know about me, Barney, but before that, we have to get out of here quick.” He looked around nervously, and Barney followed his gaze to where the black shiny drones were ceasing their work and turning their attention to the half-dozen duplicates that stood nearby at the ready with pop guns and bag rifles.

“Come on Barney,” said Dan, “every thing’s okay now. We’re heading somewhere safe. We’ve got to be at the spaceport in an hour.”

“What the hell’s going on, Dan.”

“I’ll explain on the way. Let’s just say for now that we’re looking out for number one.”

 


Patrick Hudson lives in London. His fiction has appeared in Albedo 1 and The Willows. He writes occasional reviews and non-fiction for The Zone (www.zone-sf.com).

 


 

Story © 2007 Patrick Hudson. All other content copyright © 2007 ByrenLee Press

 

 


 





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