- Naught for Hire
- Manuscript Format
John E. Stith's MEMORY BLANK Excerpt
Memory Blank Copyright © 1986 by John E. Stith. All rights reserved.
Even before the man entered the room, he had known there were two bodies on the floor. A monitoring camera had told him that much. What he didn't know was that one of the bodies was not dead.
He stepped over the man nearest the exit and turned off the alarm that had summoned him. Once finished, he stooped to examine the first intruder. The man's chest was crushed. Even if that hadn't been enough to kill him instantly, the gaping wound on his forehead would have sufficed. The massive amount of blood on the man's body had resulted from the sudden large breaks in the skin, not from a single wound that had kept bleeding as the intruder slowly died. Death had not lingered here.
The man was glad the victim had not suffered. The world was too full of pain already.
He crouched over the second body, and only then did he realize this man was still alive. The injured man's breath was shallow, uneven. His pulse was weak.
Complications. The crouching man rolled the prone form onto its back, and then looked appraisingly at it. This one was no stranger.
Applying a firm but gentle pressure at the base of the jaw could make the immediate situation far simpler. It would make everything simpler. The man liked things to be simple.
Instead, he rose and shook his head. There had to be another way. Maybe not so simple, but almost as sure.
He tasted dust.
Awareness returned in a series of minute steps as fragments of information came into focus. He sprawled facedown. For no reason he could think of, beneath him lay dirt and rocks.
He tried to prop himself up on his elbows and open his eyes, but the shooting pains from his lower back forced him to clench his eyes shut.
Sweat broke out on his forehead. Fighting the growing fear, he resigned himself to a more gradual investigation. With one eye open, he could make out dark shapes that looked like outlines of bushes. Blades of grass brushed his cheek, and he smelled the musty odor of earth. A constant breeze cooled his face.
He lifted his head, more gently this time. His jaws tightened as the pain lanced back, but it didn't seem so bad this time.
He rolled carefully onto his back. In the process, he found another sore spot above his knee. His breath came heavily.
He was alone, outside somewhere in the dark, and hurt. He couldn't remember what had happened the night before, and, as he strained to recall, an overwhelming feeling of fear hit him.
With effort, he found he could summon disjointed impressions of a college campus, but they seemed distant. The harder he tried to retrieve images, the more his head hurt. It felt as if a tattoo artist were busy engraving a mural on the inside of his skull.
His eyes felt gritty. Momentarily he was unable to focus. He must hurry. Something within him made him feel the need for haste. But why?
Stars shone off to one side. They grew brighter as his eyes adjusted to the scene, and he decided that he must be in a wilderness area. The stars couldn't possibly be that bright anywhere near Atlanta or any other city. Atlanta. He hadn't remembered Atlanta until now. Was he somewhere in the Blue Ridge Mountains?
It was as though his memory lay before him, a cavernous darkened warehouse. Far into the smoky distance, unseen hands switched on one dim light, and he felt a link to Atlanta. Now that he had at least a fragment of past knowledge, the panic lessened.
What had happened last night? His memory was foggy, as though from disuse. He looked at one of the brightest stars as he tried to force his memory to disgorge more facts. But they wouldn't come. He shifted his leg to avoid a rock that ground into his hip. And then he realized something else was wrong.
The stars lay along a straight path, perhaps forty-five degrees wide. It was as though he were in the middle of Peachtree Street, seeing the stars between the parallel rows of building tops.
He moved his head so he could better see what bordered the stars. Now in his field of view lay another strip of sky. His stomach knotted. His memory loss couldn't possibly have been for merely a day or even a few days. He knew where he must be, and he knew the points of light he saw were not stars. He was a long, long way from his college days and the Chattahoochee River Valley.
He swung his gaze back in the opposite direction for confirmation. Two corridors of "stars" radiated from a vanishing point many kilometers ahead of him, and stopped overhead. Between the strips of "stars" lay a straight band of much fainter "stars."
Daedalus. He had to be on Daedalus, the orbital colony.
His head throbbed. During college, his foremost goal had been to go to Daedalus. Now he was here, and he remembered nothing of the preparations, the training, the journey. It was all blank. His memory had to be missing at least several months. Maybe more. Excitement somehow managed to displace a portion of the fear.
Before him stretched the axis of the enormous cylinder that housed Daedalus. Far into the distance the three huge strips of land, divided by three equally large strips of windows, met at the other end of the thirty-kilometer-long cylinder, like a spinning, elongated melon cut lengthwise into six slices. Along the land strips, lights of homes and public places formed the "stars" he had seen. Gigantic mirrors outside each window, now closed for the "night," merely reflected more-distant images of these same "stars."
His stomach lurched as he thought about being on the inside of a world, rather than on the outside. The darkness helped. The jolt would probably have been more pronounced if he had revived during the day, when the outside mirrors reflected the sun's light onto the interior land strips.
He sat up slowly and examined his surroundings.
He was partway up the hill formed by the end of a land strip as it gradually curved up to the cylinder end. Below him, perhaps only a few hundred meters, lay the assorted lights that had to indicate the outskirts of a town along the foothills. Trees and shrubs and grass surrounded him. Behind him the ground rose into the darkness to the end of the cylinder's axis, where it joined the five other melon slices.
Clearing away some of his confusion, he realized that he could at least learn the date. With his watch held close to his face, he realized it was not his old watch, but he was more interested in its dimly glowing screen.
05:51 12 April 2156.
Impossible. That would mean he must have lost more than... As he tried to determine the span, he realized that he couldn't pick an exact date that it had started. The best he could do was narrow it down to maybe 2143 or 2144.
He didn't for an instant wonder if someone could be playing a horrible practical joke by setting the time ahead several years. There was far too much else left to explain. His body, even making allowances for being hurt, somehow no longer felt quite as resilient as it had in his late teens and early twenties. His breath was too forced. Maybe he could have quickly lost the muscle tone he had developed by running, but it didn't seem likely.
And setting the time ahead wouldn't explain all the bewildering changes. Patches were torn out of his memory, leaving only fragments behind. For those incompletely removed portions, there were ragged edges he could get his fingers under, to pick at, to feel the boundaries so he could deduce the missing portions, like Atlanta--he could start there. But what about those sections ripped whole? If no clues waited for him to follow the trail, if in fact the start of the trail were gone, what then?
Surprised that he had not thought about it before, he realized that he could not recall his name. What other basic information was he missing? Fear came back stronger.
As he probed for links that might reveal his name, the area around him began to lighten. Far up the hill behind him, a patch of brilliant sunshine lit a mass of light and dark greens of pine trees and grass, marking the start of sunrise on Daedalus. The light split into two overhead spokes and spread down the hill he was on. The sun's image entered the overhead mirror, and he could feel the slight warmth. Squinting, he watched day come to the colony.
Slowly at first, but now gaining speed, the light moved along the length of the cylinder and finally reached the far end, where again the three land strips joined at a point.
For a moment he thought he might escape the vertigo, but then it hit even worse than unexpectedly going to zero gravity, forcing him to lie down again. His eyes closed, he felt the firm ground beneath his outstretched arms. After a long moment, he tried again, only to reexperience the feeling of being suspended upside down, a half-dozen kilometers in the air.
He saw in his brief examination that small villages marked the locations of clusters he had originally mistaken for stars. The sun appeared to be directly centered in the overhead window, brighter than he had ever seen it. The other two windows were dark. From here he couldn't see the latticework that he knew supported the millions of small panes which at this distance appeared to be one enormous, solid window.
In stages he could keep his eyes open for lengthening intervals, finding that it helped not to look at the two other land strips. As he watched, his peripheral vision picked up the Earth moving briskly down out of view of one window. About a minute later it traveled up past the window on the other side. Then he saw a distant shiny cylinder following the Earth. That would be Icarus, the agricultural and industrial counterpart to Daedalus.
Minutes later, he could sit up again. Down the hill lay a city with brown and green buildings set irregularly into the slope. But for now he was more curious about himself.
Bringing his left knee up convinced him the knee was unbroken. He wore brown running shoes. His tan trousers were soiled by several large stains. His queasiness returned.
The stains were black, but with a tinge of dark red. He reached gingerly forward, ready to roll up a pants leg, and then he saw his hands.
They were splattered with what surely must be dried blood.
Only his palms were fairly clean, as though he had rubbed them against a flat surface until the blood was gone. It must be his own blood, but from what injury? He rolled up his pants leg but his knee showed no particular concentration of stains. On the cuffs of his long shirt sleeves, prominent against the pale blue of the material, there was more blood. Again he felt the urge to hurry, without knowing why.
On impulse he checked his pants pockets. There were three reddish capsules with no designations. They could have been anything. With the capsules lay a short rod, flattened like a key on one end so it could be held conveniently. At least he knew what it was. The rod was a bank stick. He wouldn't be able to make any financial transactions without it. Stamped into the flat part were three tiny letters: CTD. His initials? They must be, but they meant nothing to him now.
A brief scolding bird cry came from a nearby pine tree.
There was no name on the back of his wrist computer. The silver and gold case had a few specks of blood on it, but it had suffered no permanent damage. He pressed the on button as he put the watch back on, but nothing happened.
He struggled to his feet. Lush green fruit trees, shrubs, and grass reached all the way to the far end of Daedalus, broken only by a modest number of towns, isolated dwellings, and a few large lakes.
"How did I ever get myself into this?" he said.
"You're going to have to be a lot more specific than that, Captain."
He turned quickly, looking for the speaker, before he realized that the voice had come from his wrist computer.
"Who are you?" he asked.
"This is Vincent. You feeling okay?"
"Vincent, my wristcomp." So the new one had voice.
"You'd better sit down. You don't sound too great."
"You called me Captain." He thought back to "CTD."
"Figure of speech. Say, you really are having trouble today, aren't you?"
"My name. What's my name?"
"Cal Donley." The computer fell silent, as though surprised.
Cal. Did he remember being teased long ago with the nickname "Calculating?" He knew he had a gift for manipulating numbers. Or more recently had someone called him "Callous?" His memories seemed to be reordered, to have linkages in some of the normal directions obliterated. He couldn't easily summon memories solely by thinking of chronologically close occurrences, but maybe he could pull fragments together if he tried seldom-used sequences. An overpowering sense of loss tore at him.
"Anything else, boss?" Vincent's voice sounded male, of indeterminate age.
"I'm trying to figure out where to start. This is Daedalus, right?"
"Right-o. But why all the questions?"
"It seems I'm missing some memories."
"I always thought the memory was the second to go. Care to quantify 'some'?"
"I don't know precisely. Ten or twelve years anyway."
To Cal's surprise, Vincent produced a long, low whistle.
"Yeah, I know," said Cal. "It's taking a little getting used to."
"So you want a little refresher course? Something like that?"
"The essentials. I'll worry later about the rest."
"Okay, partner. Start with me or Daedalus?"
"You. I need to work my way up."
"Me. Right. Halette Forty-Two series. I answer to 'Vincent' or 'Vin'. 'Good-bye, Vin' puts me to sleep. 'Hello, Vin' wakes me up. Or you can use my switches. I'm linked to your home computer, so I can share data with it. I'm your portable comm line, calculator, timer, database, and Computer Friday."
"Do you keep track of my activities?"
"No. When I'm awake, I mostly pay attention to things you say to me. And I pay less attention if you go for quite a while without talking to me. A lot of what I hear gets flushed after it's been in short-term memory for long enough. When I'm asleep, the only thing I can hear is 'Hello, Vin.'"
"And only with my voice?"
"Right, guv. You turned me on with my switch a few minutes ago, but you didn't say anything. So I decided to keep quiet."
A flash of reflected sunlight from the village down the hill caught Cal's eye. Other people must be waking up. "What about Daedalus? Orient me."
"The city down there is Machu Picchu. There are six large cities--one at each end of all three continents. There are nine villages, three in each. Current total population is a million two hundred thousand, give or take."
"What am I doing up here on the hill? Is there transportation near here?"
"Nope. You must have walked up here from town."
"Any reason not to go back there, then?"
Cal took a few steps. The pain this time was manageable, so he started to pick his way carefully down the hill.
After only a few minutes, the hillside began to feel natural. Whether it was due to fringes of his memory returning, or to a superb job of interior decorating, he couldn't tell.
"Am I getting even more tired?" he asked a few minutes later. "Or has the gravity increased that much?"
"From where we were to here, the gravity has increased by one point two-two-six percent, so most of the change must be in your imagination."
"Maybe I'm just suggestible." Thinking about his mental condition triggered curiosity about his physical appearance. "Vincent, can you act as a mirror?"
"By displaying one of my video inputs? Sure."
"Do it, will you?"
It took a moment of getting used to, because the side-to-side maneuvering was opposite that of a real mirror, but Vincent's screen showed a strangely familiar face. Cal touched his cheek with his hand and saw the relayed image do the same with no mirror reversal. The face that stared back at him had a few unfamiliar wrinkles and stress lines. Had those years been happy, or depressing and disillusioning? He wondered if they had been as frustrating as the last half-hour.
Into Cal's mind floated the ancient question "What are you going to be when you grow up?" He was quite obviously grown up, but what was he? What had he become? In school he had been studying computers, particularly organic machines. Had his interest survived? He wouldn't find out by waiting here, so he resumed his downward journey. Perseverance gets you more than halfway to your goal. He wondered how many times he had said that. And had he yet learned the difference between perseverance and stubbornness?
"Vincent, what's my job here?"
"Your title is Computer Systems Integration Manager."
A stream angled across his path perhaps fifty meters ahead. As he tried to follow its path upward with his eyes, he stumbled. Totally out of control, he tumbled at least two complete revolutions before slamming into an aspen.
This time the pain in his lower back was excruciating. He didn't quite black out, but wished he had. His whole body tightened up in agony. He lay there, trying to regain his energy, until he felt clammy as the sweat evaporated. He was aware of a sore spot on the back of his head. Had it been there earlier? There was no way to tell.
"You okay, Vincent?" he asked at last. His throat burned, making it difficult to talk.
"Naturally. But what about you? I can call a doctor."
Cal considered the possibility, thinking also of the blood on his hands and the way the conversation might turn. "No," he said finally. "I think I'm okay."
"You're in charge." Vincent said it the way someone else might say, "Go right ahead and kill yourself. See if I care."
"Can you do things on your own? I mean without directions from me?" Cal wondered what would have happened if he had broken his neck just now.
"In a way. I can't initiate activities that I don't know you approve of. But you can give me general directions, or tell me to do something like wake you in eight hours, or call a doctor if you're unconscious for more than ten minutes."
"Do I have any outstanding requests like that?"
"You've asked me to warn you if I see anyone sneaking up on you."
"I did?" Cal asked apprehensively. "Did I explain why?"
Cal sat, looking for a moment at the two overhead continents. His vertigo was still present. Toward the far end of Daedalus's cylinder, the cumulative refractions over thirty kilometers gave the distant land a faint blue tinge, but it wasn't the same as a blue sky on Earth.
He painfully pushed himself off the ground and stood until he felt steady enough to continue.
"So I can talk to anyone I want through you?" Cal asked.
"You've got it."
"I don't even know who I might want to talk to yet, besides a doctor."
"You might want to call your wife."
Cal stopped, clearing his throat before he dared to speak. His pulse pounded. "My wife?"
"Sure. She tried to call you last night. Maybe she wants to talk. Or don't you remember her?"
So he was married. Surprise and worry filtered up from the depths. He couldn't even remember dating anyone more than maybe a dozen times. He had always been too busy. Had he met her here? He wondered what would have made her special.
"What would I say to her?" he asked unthinkingly.
"That's not my specialty."
Fear and curiosity momentarily drove away all unrelated thoughts. Cal wanted to call her right then, but he didn't. Somehow it was too much like asking a stranger for help. First he had to learn more about himself. Was his marriage one of love, convenience, expediency? He couldn't imagine the latter two, but then he probably hadn't imagined waking up on Daedalus and missing a decade of memories.
"How would I call someone?" he asked.
"Tell me the name and whether you want video or voice only."
"And you'll let me know if anyone calls?"
"Unless you tell me you don't want to be disturbed."
Cal rubbed the back of his neck. "What's her name?"
Nikki. No image. For some reason he thought of a young woman he had dated a few times during his freshman year. The memory seemed to be one of the most recent he could summon, but her face had faded into oblivion. Now, all he could recall was her embarrassment when he had found out that, despite her request for help with physics assignments, she'd had a superb high school record, and obviously had as much need for his assistance as their professor did. Had he been so insecure that she needed to overdo her modesty?
He wondered if Nikki was worried. Or uncaring. Was she a friendly roommate, a loving partner, or a bitter, angry person? Again he felt the urge to call, but refrained.
Ahead lay the stream he had seen from farther up the hill. The water's course curved so it ran parallel to the path.
"The water is pumped up here?" Cal asked.
"Correct. The lakes below feed it. It keeps them from stagnating, and people seem to like the stream."
The water was totally clear. Beneath the surface, the stream bed looked like it was lined with real stones and pebbles, Cal was suddenly aware of how thirsty he was, and awkwardly knelt beside the flowing stream. The water was cool but not chilly.
He couldn't bend over far enough to drink without pain in his back forcing him to halt, so he stretched out flat on the ground. The water tasted excellent.
"Are you waterproof, Vincent?"
"Down to a hundred meters of water at Earth-normal gravity."
As he drank, it occurred to him that the water might have a second use. Maybe this would be a good place to wash off the blood and see how much damage his body had sustained. No point walking into Machu Picchu looking the way he did. Twenty meters farther down, the stream ran through the concealment of a couple of large pine trees, so Cal moved on.
The water felt colder when he immersed both arms, so he concentrated on the blood adhering to his hands. The reddish-black flakes came off stubbornly in the cool water. Cal hurried. He took off his trousers and shirt and doused them. The blood clung to the thin material.
He wrung out the trousers and shirt. The bloodstains were almost as bad as before, so on impulse he crumbled a handful of dirt and sprinkled it on the pants. The dirt reduced the blood's contrast with the tan fabric. Better to look a little dirty than bloody. He was putting his clothes back on when he realized what else was wrong.
Now that he had washed off his hands and arms, he realized that he had no wounds.
There were numerous minor bruises, but no major breaks in the skin. So whose blood was it?
"Do you know anything about the blood on my hands?"
"Not much. Last night at twenty-three fifteen, you turned me on and asked me to erase all my records of your recent activities. Your sleeve was rolled down over me, so I couldn't see, but it sounded like you were dragging something heavy along the floor. Like a body."
"Did I say why, or say anything else?" Cal's head began to ache again.
"You didn't explain. But you did keep repeating a phrase. You kept saying, 'What have I done to you?'"
End of Excerpt
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