“Do I have the right to know why you’re going to kill me?” Norodom asked.
He was no longer struggling. He realized that he would never break the chair he was tied to because the neural inhibitor stuck on his neck kept him from moving even his little finger. If he was tied up, it was only so that he would not fall over. He could not move or scream. Anyway, we were in a shack of corrugated metal, more precisely a gutted container converted into a shelter: it would have been useless to scream.
I had dragged Norodom here an hour earlier, but it took me a good week to set up the kidnapping. From the partly open door, a breeze blew in with the stench of curry—the miasma from the nearby marsh that lapped the reef of giant tanks separating it from the tarmac of the Koh-Tap astroport. A rumbling boomed outside, shaking the furniture: an old holo stand, some cracked and peeling waiting room chairs, a cryostat foam ice chest, a sagging, broken bench… and on a plastic crate, the briefcase—faded, beige leather with locks. There was a single word engraved on the handle: Memoria.
I waited for the rumbling to subside a little (meaning that the rocket had reached the upper layers of the atmosphere) before I answered, “The right to know? You have no rights.”
“Is it revenge? If so, you’ve got the wrong number.”
“Your name is Norodom, isn’t it? Dunam’s personal physician.”
“Fuck, I’ve never seen you before in my life!”
“I’ll explain it to you anyway. First you must know that I’m not going to kill you.”
The man’s eyes grew big. It was only then that a glint of fear flashed in them and a film of sweat dampened the collar of his shirt, which was decorated with spirals and buttoned up to his chin.
“What? If you figure on torturing me before…”
“Don’t worry. I only want to borrow you.”
“Borrow what from me? Shit, I don’t understand anything! What do you want to borrow from me? If it’s money…”
“It’s you I want to borrow.” I put my hand, which I meant to be reassuring, on his shoulder. It was like I had burned him with a red-hot iron. In spite of the neural inhibitor, his muscles writhed under my fingers. A whiff of sweat suddenly shot up my nostrils. He sat still and stared at me; his pupils had dwindled to needle points.
“Vangkgods,” he said after a few seconds. “You’re not… you’re not human. What kind of creature are you?”
I whistled softly. That was the first time one of my prey showed so much insight. “What do you think?”
Norodom started sweating again. Maybe he thought that by talking he would escape his fate, whatever it was. But he was light years away from imagining what was about to happen to him. “You come from another planet,” he said. “Your accent, your look… You’re not from Kuiper Prime or the two other worlds of the system.”
“That wasn’t too hard to guess.”
“Your eyes… they’re different.”
“You’re getting warm.” But not boiling hot. Actually, Norodom had no idea what I might be. How could he? The Kuiper system was insignificant: three half-colonized planets where mob cartels ruled disguised as legitimate business. The technology that allowed me to exist was nothing more than a legend here. And where it came from, it would mean only a bygone past.
“Could you be a killer from beyond this world?” he asked, instinctively speaking more politely.
“In a way,” I answered. “But if you think someone sent me to kill you, I’m sorry to disappoint you. You’re not worth the expense.”
Norodom shook his head. “I’m not stupid. Do you mean to pressure me to betray Dunam? Implant a virus that will contaminate him? Hell, I warned him that he went too far this time. No cartel takes on the Crops. But you’re way off base. Dunam has taken all imaginable precautions…”
While he was talking, I opened the briefcase and carefully took out a small, black, well-worn helmet and adjusted it. A thick cable connected it to a yellow box that filled the entire briefcase. It had been a long time since I had taken out the LEDs, keeping only the charcoal gray touch screen on the top. I knew the controls by heart. While spreading a conductive gel on Norodom’s temples, I said, “Of course I’m going to kill your boss. My sponsors have already tried several times, but it seems that getting close to him is not as easy as they expected. They could have poisoned him or put a price on his head, but it wouldn’t be setting an example. That’s why they called on me. My way of operating is a little special: I borrow people’s bodies. This yellow box in the briefcase is going to reconfigure your brain to accept my consciousness.”
I stopped talking, but he did not react. I explained, “First of all, the machine scans the encephalon and then generates a simulation of its electrochemical pattern. The compiled result is a frozen personality that can then be written onto a second biological support—in this case the host’s brain. In short, my machine transfers the personality of one body into another. Do you get it now?”
Clenching his teeth, Norodom nodded his head.
“Good, I’ll continue. I know that Dunam is paranoid whenever his personal security is at stake. Nobody can come close to him except for his most loyal lieutenants. That’s where I come in. Thanks to my briefcase, I can use anybody’s body.” I sat facing him and stared into his eyes. “Once I have taken over your brain, I will be able to get close to Dunam without him suspecting a thing. After killing him, I’ll leave this little planet for my next contract.”
Now Norodom was pale. His throat was so dry that he had to swallow hard to talk. “And… and me? My mind? What’ll happen to it?”
“You mind will stay in the machine’s memory during the mission. When I substitute my mind for yours, the mind of the previous occupant of my current body will come back… with a few months of amnesia so that they can’t trace back to me.”
He slowly digested my explanation. In his face and in his attempts to hide it, I saw that he finally understood that he had a real chance of survival.
“Is that why you explained it all to me? Because I’ll forget everything when I get my body back. Provided that you survive killing Dunam, of course.”
“On that point, you’ll have to trust me.”
Norodom swore at me. I just shrugged. “Those are the risks when you hang out with gangsters.”
“You’re crazy if you think I’ll help you just because you’ve got my life in your hands?” He was losing his politeness and broke out laughing. “Why do you think Dunam chose me? I’ll never betray him.”
I sighed. “I’m asking nothing of you. What’s the use? I’ll have you memories at hand. One of the secondary functions of my machine is to isolate the memories outside of the personality that generated them. I can store them in capsules, memorias, and load them into my memory.”
Another silence. Then Norodom smiled strangely. “And what do you get out all this? You must have abandoned your original body somewhere. Did you leave it behind for money?”
I fit the helmet onto his head.
“You don’t answer,” Norodom continued more confidently. “What are you afraid of? At least you must remember your name before becoming the vampire you are today? No, I bet not.”
The cerebral scan started, displaying the initial diagrams of the progress on the tactile interface. It would take six hours. Six long hours. I was beginning to feel impatient, as well as apprehensive. Like when you get a running start before jumping off a cliff. The risk was minimal, but the cliff was really there.
“I was right,” Norodom resumed, though he had stopped staring at me. “You’re no longer human. A human being would never do…”
I slapped him but not too hard so I would not damage my next receptacle. “I have lived in hundreds of individuals before you,” I said, “maybe thousands—the count escapes my memory. The only person to know what a human being is capable of doing is me.”
I administered the tranquilizer. I always did that so I would not take over a body saturated with stress hormones. Then I put on an anesthetic patch, as big as a thumbnail, in the crook of my elbow: the transfer had to take place during sleep because it was, to tell the truth, not very pleasant. Finally, I put on the second helmet.
The machine performed the first two phases simultaneously: copying Norodom’s personality into the memory of the yellow box and rewriting the initial personality of the body I had borrowed. If the second phase was not effected, there would be, at the time of the transfer, two bodies with the same personality, i.e. mine. In theory it was possible. And this might be a way to perpetuate oneself, if you think about it, and not in a symbolic way, through offspring, but truly and directly. But I never did it. A question of security because each of my embodied “me”s would surely want to take the briefcase for himself alone. And the consequences were easy to imagine.
I never believed in immortality bestowed in this way. Reason led me to think that at the moment of transfer, my old “me” was snuffed out and another was awakened. I had made up my mind. It was the price to pay to continue to think and feel. Even if it was through the body of my hosts. Even if what survived was not exactly me. After all, who could say what the “me” really was or even just guarantee its existence? As for the integrity of the conscience, maybe the transfer affected me on a fundamental level. Being the only subject of this experiment, I had no way of knowing. All I could cling to was the certainty of being me, a purely subjective certainty and yet as solid as a rock. It merged my own continuity with the chaos of the world.
The third and final phase of the operation consisted of the reconfiguration of Norodom’s brain to welcome my personality, which always remained in the belly of the machine. Every week I updated this back-up copy and, of course, the one that was made at the moment of transfer—at this very moment, to judge by tingling sensation in my neck.
The helmet spread out a web of magnetic fields that could determine the position of every molecule of my encephalon, almost to the femtometer, while the machine calculated the electrical and chemical interactions to fabricate an exact simulation, a perfect digital double. I knew that these operations needed both processing power and a gigantic memory; it happened on a subatomic level. Where did this technology come from? There were tens of thousands of colonized worlds. At the beginning, I supposed that the machine had been found on a planet on the Borders. Maybe the legacy of a lost species. It would not be the first time.
Then these speculations had very quickly lost all interest. Just like the technical details. What’s the use of understanding? What’s the use of knowing? All that really mattered was that the briefcase allowed me … or at least a copy of me… to survive beyond death.
I sat in one of the resin-cast waiting room chairs that I had taken out of the garbage at the end of the Koh-Tap terminal.
Norodom was biting his lip. After a minute he spoke in a mushy voice (from the tranquilizer), “So, you’re going to know everything about me? My past, my experiences…”
“Damn…” his mouth twisted. “That’s disgusting.”
In a way he was right. Nevertheless, I reassured him, “If you’re afraid that I’ll be horrified to find out that you’ve jerked off every day since you were twelve, you needn’t be. I’ve already lived in a pedophile with three hundred rapes under his belt. Your depravity hasn’t affected me for a long time, any more than your family secrets, your little joys or your aspirations. Basically, they’re all the same. I can tell you that they highly exaggerated the diversity among individuals. Most of you are formatted exactly the same.”
“I wasn’t thinking of my private life,” Norodom replied, as his head started bobbing, “but of my life… my life…”
“Think of me as a computer virus. I’ll take away a little of your life. But when I’m gone into another host, you’ll be back, intact.”
“Wh-wh-why are you so desperate to survive? Wh-wh…?” He was struggling to stay conscious.
“You’re not listening,” I answered. “Immortality…”
“Since you’re centuries old,” he interrupted in a last ditch effort, “everything has to end up looking the same, right? You admitted it yourself, we’re all the same. Your immortality must taste like damn cold soup. Death would certainly be a deliverance…” His voice was just a mushy whisper. “So wh-why are you still afraid?”
Then his eyes showed nothing but white.
It was high time.
Tags: Laurent Genefort