Kiln People

The Kiln Books (Volume 1 of 2)

David Brin

Tor Science Fiction

Kiln People
PART I
Adieu! for once again the fierce dispute
Betwixt damnation and impassioned clay Must I burn through ...
But when I am consumed in the Fire.
Give me new Phoenix wings to fly at my desire.
-John Keats,
"On Sitting Down to Reed King Leer Once Again"
1
A Good Head for Wine
... or how Monday's green ditto brings home fond memories of the river ...
It's hard to stay cordial while fighting for your life, even when your life doesn't amount to much.
Even when you're just a lump of clay.
 
 
Some kind of missile--a stone I guess--smacked the brick wall inches away, splattering my face with stinging grit. There wasn't any shelter to cower behind, except an overstuffed trash can. I grabbed the lid and swung it around.
Just in time. Another slug walloped the lid, denting plastic instead of my chest.
Someone had me nailed.
Moments ago, the alley had seemed a good place to hide and catch my breath. But now its chill darkness betrayed me instead. Even a ditto gives off some body heat. Beta and his gang don't carry guns into this part of town--they wouldn't dare--but their slingshots come equipped with infrared sights.
I had to flee the betraying darkness. So while the shooter reloaded, I raised my makeshift shield and dashed for the bright lights of Odeon District.
It was a risky move. The place swarmed with archies, dining at cafés or milling about near classy theaters. Couples strolled arm-in-arm along the quay, enjoying a riverside breeze. Only a few coloreds like me could be seen--mostly waiters serving their bland-skinned betters at canopied tables.
I wasn't going to be welcome in this zone, where owners throng to enjoy their long, sensuous lives. But if I stayed on back streets I'd get hacked into fish food by my own kind. So I took a chance.
Damn. It's crowded, I thought, while picking a path across the plaza, hoping to avoid brushing against any of the sauntering archies. Though my expression was earnest--as if I had a legit reason to be there--I must have stood out like a duck among swans, and not just because of skincolor. My torn paper clothes drew notice. Anyway, it's kind of hard to move delicately while brandishing a battered trash lid between your vitals and the alley behind you.
A sharp blow struck the plastic again. Glancing back, I saw a yellow-hued figure lower his slingshot to load another round. Furtive shapes peered from the shadows, debating how to reach me.
I plunged into the crowd. Would they keep shooting and risk hitting a real person?
Ancient instinct--seared into my clay body by the one who made me--clamored to run. But I faced other dangers now--from the archetype human beings surrounding me. So I tried to perform all the standard courtesies, bowing and stepping aside for couples who wouldn't veer or slow down for a mere ditto.
I had a minute or two of false hopes. Women chiefly looked past me, like I didn't exist. Most of the men were more puzzled than hostile. One surprised chap even made way for me, as if I were real. I smiled back. I'll do the same for your ditto someday, chum.
But the next fellow wasn't satisfied when I gave him right of way. His elbow planted a sharp jab, en passant, and pale eyes glittered, daring me to complain.
Bowing, I forced an ingratiatingly apologetic smile, stepping aside for the archie while I tried to focus on a pleasant memory. Think about breakfast, Albert. The fine odors of coffee and fresh-baked muffins. Slimple pleasures that I might have again, if I made it through the night.
"I" will definitely have them again, said an inner voice. Even if this body doesn't make it.
Yes, came a reply. But that won't be me. Not exactly.
I shook off the old existential quandary. Anyway, a cheap utility rox like me can't smell. At the moments, I could barely grasp the concept.
The blue-eyed fellow shrugged and turned away. But the next second, something struck pavement near my left foot, ricocheting across the plaza.
Beta had to be desperate, shooting stones at me amid a throng of real citizens! People glanced around. Some eyes narrowed toward me.
And to think, this morning started so well.
I tried to hurry, making a few more meters farther across the plaza before I was stopped by a trio of young men--well--dressed young archies--intentionatly blocking my path.
"Will you look at this mule?" the tall one said. Another, with fashionably translucent skin and reddish eyes, jabbed a finger at me. "Hey,ditto! What's the rush? You can't still be hoping for an afterlife! Who's gonna want you back, all torn up like that?"
I knew how I must look. Beta's gang had pummeled me good before I managed to escape. Anyway, I was only an hour or two short of expiration and my cracking pseudoflesh showed clear signs of enzyme decay. The albino guffawed at the trash can lid I was wielding as a shield. He sniffed loudly, wrinkling his nose.
"It smells bad, too. Like garbage. Spoilin' my appetite. Hey! Maybe we have cause for a civil complaint, you reckon?"
"Yeah. How about it, golem?" the tall one leered. "Give us your owner's code. Cough up a refund on our dinner!"
I raised a placating hand. "Come on, fellas. I'm on an urgent errand for my original. I really do have to get home. I'm sure you hate it when your dittos are kept from you."
Beyond the trio, I glimpsed the bustle and noise of Upas Street. If only I could make it to the taxi stand, or even the police kiosk on Defense Avenue. For a small fee they'd provide refrigerated sanctuary, till my owner came for me.
"Urgent, eh?" the tall one said. "If your rig still wants you, even in this condition, I'll bet he'd pay to get you back, eh?"
The final teen, a stocky fellow with deep brown skin and hair done in a wire cut, appeared more sympathetic.
"Aw, leave the poor greenie alone. You can see how badly it wants to get home and spill. If we stop it, the owner may fine us."
A compelling threat. Even the albino wavered, as if about to back off.
Then Beta's shooter in the alley fired again, hitting my thigh below the shielding trash can lid.
Anyone who has duped and inloaded knows that pseudoflesh can feel pain. Fiery agony sent me recoiling into one of the youths, who pushed me away, shouting.
"Get off, you stinky thing! Did you see that? It touched me!"
"Now you'll pay, you piece of clay," added the tall one. "Let's see your tag."
Still shuddering, I managed to hobble around so he stood between me and the alley. My pursuers wouldn't dare shoot now, and risk hitting an archie.
"Fool," I said. "Can't you see I've been shot?"
"So?" The albino's nostrils flared. "My dits get mangled in org-warsall the time. You don't see me griping about it. Or bringing a fight to the Odeon, of all places! Now let's see that tag."
He held out a hand and I reflexively reached for the spot under my forehead where the ID implant lay. A golem-duplicate has to show his tag to a realperson, on demand. This incident was going to cost me ... that is, it would cost my maker. The semantic difference would depend on whether I made it home in the next hour.
"Fine. Call a cop or arbiter," I said, fumbling at the flap of pseudoskin. "We'll see who pays a fine, punk. I'm not playing simbat games. You're impeding the double of a licensed investigator. Those shooting at me are real criminals ..."
I glimpsed figures emerging from the alley. Yellow-skinned members of Beta's gang, straightening paper garments and trying to look innocuous amid the crowd of strolling archies, bowing and giving way like respectful errand boys, not worth noticing. But hurrying.
Damn. I never saw Beta this desperate before.
" ... and my brain holds evidence that may be crucial in solving an important case. Do you want to be responsible for preventing that?"
Two of the teens drew back, looking unsure. I added pressure. "If you don't let me get about my owner's business, he'll post a charge for restraint of legal commerce!"
We were attracting a crowd. That could slow Beta's bunch, but time wasn't on my side.
Alas, the third punk--with the artificially translucent skin--wasn't daunted. He tapped his wrist screen.
"Giga. I got enough juice in the bank to cover a blood fine. If we're gonna pay this dit's owner, let's have the joy of shutting it down hard."
He seized my arm, clenching with the strength of well-toned muscles--real muscles, not my anemic imitations. The grip hurt, but worse was knowing I'd overplayed my hand. If I'd kept my mouth shut, they might have let me go. Now the data in this brain would be lost and Beta would win after all.
The young man cocked his fist dramatically, playing for the crowd. He meant to snap my neck with a blow.
Someone muttered, "Let the poor thing go!" But a noisier contingent egged him on.
Just then a crash reverberated across the courtyard. Voices cursed harshly. Onlookers turned toward a nearby restaurant, where diners at an outdoor table hopped away from a mess of spilled liquid and shattered glassware. A green-skinned busboy dropped his tray and murmured apologies,using a rag to wipe glittering shards off the upset customers. Then he slipped, taking one of the infuriated patrons along with him in a spectacular pratfall. Laughter surged from the crowd as the restaurant's maitre-dit rushed out, berating the greenie and seeking to appease the wet clients.
For an instant no one was looking at me except the albino, who seemed miffed over losing his audience.
The waiter hammed it up, continuing to dab at upset archies with a sodden cloth. But for a moment the green head briefly glanced my way. His quick nod had meaning.
Take your chance and get out of here.
I didn't need urging. Slipping my free hand into a pocket, I pulled out a slim card--apparently a standard credit disk. But squeezing it thus made silvery light erupt along one edge, emitting a fierce hurra.
The albino's pinkish eyes widened. Dittos aren't supposed to carry weapons, especially illegal ones. But the sight didn't scare him off. His grin hardened and I knew I was in the clutches of a sportsman, a gambler, willing even to risk realflesh if it offered something new. An experience.
The grip on my arm intensified. I dare you, his ratty glare said.
So I obliged him, slashing down hard. The sizzling blade cut through fleshy resistance.
For an instant, pain and outrage seemed to fill all the space between us. His pain or mine? His outrage and surprise, for sure--and yet there was a split second when I felt united with the tough young bravo by a crest of empathy. An overwhelming connection to his teenage angst. To the wounded, self-important pride. The agony of being one isolated soul among lonely billions.
It could have been a costly hesitation, if it lasted more than a heartbeat. But while his mouth opened to cry out, I swiveled and made my getaway, ducking through the roiling crowd, followed by enraged curses as the youth brandished a gory stump.
My gory stump. My dismembered hand clenched spasmodically at his face till he recoiled and flung the twitching thing away in disgust.
With that same backward glance I also spotted two of Beta's yellows, dodging among disturbed archies, impertinently shoving several aside while they slipped stones into their wrist catapults, preparing to fire at me. In all this confusion they were unworried about witnesses, or mere fines for civil ditsobedience. They had to stop me from delivering what I knew.
To prevent me from spilling the contents of my decomposing brain.
I must have been quite a spectacle, running lopsidedly in a shreddedtunic with one amputated arm dripping, hollering like mad for startled archies to get out of the way. I wasn't sure at that moment what I could accomplish. Expiration senility might have already begun setting in, made worse by pseudoshock and organ fatigue.
Alerted by the commotion, a cop rushed into the square from Fourth Street, clomping in ungainly body armor while his blue-skinned dittos fanned out, agile and unprotected, needing no orders because each one knew the proto's wishes more perfectly than a well-drilled infantry squad. Their sole weapon--needle-tipped fingers coated with knockout oil--would stop any golem or human cold.
I veered away from them, weighing options.
Physically, my ditto hadn't hurt anyone. Still, things were getting dicey. Real people had been inconvenienced, even perturbed. Suppose I got away from Beta's yellow thugs, and made it into a police freezer. My original could wind up getting socked with enough low-grade civil judgments to wipe out the reward for tracking Beta down in the first place. The cops might even get careless about icing me in time. They've been doing that a lot lately.
Several private and public cameras had me in view, I bet. But well enough to make a strong ID? This greenie's face was too bland--and blurred even more by the fists of Beta's gang--for easy recognition. That left one choice. Take my tagged carcass where nobody could recover or ID it. Let 'em guess who started this riot.
I staggered toward the river, shouting and waving people off.
Nearing the quayside embankment, I heard a stern, amplified voice cry, "Halt!" Cop-galems carry loudspeakers where most of us have synthetic sex organs ... a creepy substitution that gets your attention.
From the left, I heard several sharp twangs. A stone struck my decaying flesh while another bounced off pavement, caroming toward the real policeman. Maybe now the blues would focus on Beta's yellows. Cool.
Then I had no more time to think as my feet ran out of surface. They kept pumping through empty space, out of habit, I guess ... till I hit the murky water with a splash.
 
 
I suppose there's one big problem with my telling this story in first person--the listener knows I made it home in one piece. Or at least to some point where I could pass on the tale. So where's the suspense?
All right, so it didn't end quite there, with my crashing in the river,though maybe it should have. Some golems are designed for combat, like the kind hobbyists send onto gladiatorial battlefields ... or secret models they're rumored to have in Special Forces. Other dittos, meant for hedonism, sacrifice some élan vital for hyperactive pleasure cells and high-fi memory inloading. You can pay more for a model with extra limbs or ultra senses ... or one that can swim.
I'm too cheap to spring for fancy options. But a feature I always include is hyperoxygenization--my dittos can hold their breath a long time. It's handy in a line of work where you never know if someone's going to gas you, or throw you in the sealed trunk of a car, or bury you alive. I've sorbed memories of all those things. Memories I wouldn't have today if the ditto's brain died too soon.
Lucky me.
The river, cold as lunar ice, swirled past me like a wasted life. A small voice spoke up as I sank deeper in the turbid water--a voice I've heard on other occasions.
Give up now. Rest. This isn't death. The real you will continue. He'll carry on with your dreams.
The few you had left.
True enough. Philosophically speaking, my original was me. Our memories differed by just one awful day. A day that he spent barefoot, in boxer shorts, doing officework at home while I went rooting through the city's proxy underworld, where life is cheaper than in a Dumas novel. My present continuity mattered very little on the grand scale of things.
I answered the small voice in my usual way.
Screw existentialism.
Every time I step into the copier, my new ditto absorbs survival instincts a billion years old,
I want my afterlife.
By the time my feet touched the slimy river bottom, I was determined to give it a shot. I had almost no chance, of course, but maybe fortune was ready to deal from a fresh deck. Also, another motive drove me on.
Don't let the bad guys win. Never let them get away with it.
Maybe I didn't have to breathe, but movement was still tricky as I fought to get my feet planted, getting headway through the mud, with everything both slippery and viscous at the same time. It would have been hard to get traction with a whole body, but this one's clock was ticking out.
Visibility? Almost nil, so I maneuvered by memory and sense of touch. I considered trying to fight my way upriver to the ferry docks, butthen recalled that Clara's houseboat lay moored just a kilometer or so downstream from Odeon Square. So I stopped fighting the heavy current and worked with it instead, putting most of my effort into staying near the riverbank.
It might have helped if I'd been made with variable-setting pain sensors. Lacking that optional feature--and cursing my own cheapness--I grimaced in agony while pulling one foot after another through the sucking muck. The hard slog left me time to ponder the phenomenological angst faced by creatures of my kind.
I'm me. As little life as I have left, it still feels precious. Yet I gave up what remains, jumping in the river to save some other guy a few credits.
Some guy who'll make love to my girlfriend and relish my accomplishments.
Some guy who shares every memory I had, till the moment he (or I) lay on the copier, last night. Only he got to stay home in the original body, while I went to do his dirty work.
Some guy who'll never know what a rotten day I had.
It's a coin flip, each time you use a copier-and-kiln. When it's done, will you be the rig ... the original person? Or the rox, golem, mule, ditto-for-a-day?
Often it hardly matters, if you re-sorb memories like you're supposed to, before the copy expires. Then it's just like two parts of you, merging back together again. But what if the ditto suffered or had a rough time, like I had?
I found it hard to keep my thoughts together. After all, this green body wasn't built for intellect. So I concentrated on the task at hand, dragging one foot after another, trudging through the mud.
There are locales you pass by every day, yet hardly think about because you never expect to go there. Like this place. Everyone knows the Gorta is filled with all sorts of trash. I kept stumbling over stuff that had been missed by the cleaner-trawls ... a rusted bike, a broken air conditioner, several old computer monitors staring back at me like zombie eyes. When I was a kid, they used to pull out whole automobiles, sometimes with passengers still inside. Real people who had no spare copies in those days, to carry on with their smashed lives.
Those times had some advantages. Back in Grandpa's day, the Gorta stank from pollution. Eco laws brought the stream back to life. Now folks catch fish from the quay. And fish converge whenever the city drops in something edible.
Like me.
Real flesh is supple. It doesn't start flaking after just twenty-four hours. Protoplasm is so tenacious and durable that even a drowned corpse resists decay for days.
But my skin was already sloughing, even before I fell in. Expiration can be held off by willpower for a while. But now the timed organic chains in my ersatz body were expiring and unraveling with disconcerting speed. The scent swirled, attracting opportunists who came darting in from all sides for a feed, grabbing whatever chunks seemed close to falling off. At first I tried batting at them with my remaining hand, but that only slowed me down without inconveniencing the scavengers much. So I just forged ahead, wincing each time a pain receptor got snipped off by a greedy fish.
I drew a line when they started going for the eyes. I was going to need vision for a while yet.
At one point warm water shoved suddenly from the left, a strong current pushing me off course. The flow did drive off the scavengers for a minute, giving me a chance to concentrate ... .
Must be the Hahn Street Canal.
Let's see. Clara's boat is moored along Little Venice. That should be the second opening after this one ... . Or is it next?
I had to fight my way past the canal without being pushed down into deep water, somehow finally managing to reach the stone embankment on the other side. Unfortunately, persecuting swarms reconverged at that point--fish from above and crabs from below--drawn by my oozing wounds, nipping and supping on my fast-decaying hide.
What followed was a blur--a continual, shambling, underwater slog through mud, debris, and clouds of biting tormentors.
It's said that at least one character trait always stays true, whenever a ditto is copied from its archetype. No matter what else varies, something from your basic nature endures from one facsimile to the next. A person who is honest or pessimistic or talkative in real flesh will make a golem with similar qualities.
Clara says my most persistent attribute is pigheaded obstinacy.
Damn anyone who says I can't do this.
That phrase rolled over and over through my diteriorating brain, repeating a thousand times. A million. Screaming every time I took a painful step, or a fish took another bite. The phrase evolved beyond mere words. It became my incantation. Focus. A mantra of distilled stubbornness that kept me slogging onward, dragging ahead, one throbbing footstepat a time ... till the moment I found myself blocked by a narrow obstacle.
I stared at it a while. A moss-covered chain that stretched, taut and almost vertical, from a buried anchor up to a flat object made of wooden planks.
A floating dock.
And moored alongside lay a vessel, its broad bottom coated with jagged barnacles. I had no idea whose boat it was, only that my time was about up. The river would finish me if I stayed any longer.
Using my one remaining mangled hand, I gripped the chain and strained to free both feet of the sucking mud, then continued creeping upward in fits and jerks, rising relentlessly toward a glittering light.
The fish must have sensed their last chance. They converged, thrashing all around, grabbing whatever flaps and floating folds they could, even after my head broke surface. I threw my arm over the dock, then had to dredge memory for what to do next.
Breathe. That's it. You need air.
Breathe!
My shuddering inhalation didn't resemble a human gasp. More like the squelch that a slab of meat makes when you throw it onto a cutting board and then slice it, letting an air pocket escape. Still, some oxygen rushed into replace the water spilling from my lipless mouth. It offered just enough renewed strength to haul one leg aboard the planking.
I heaved with all my might, at last rolling completely out of the river, thwarting the scavengers, who splashed in disappointment.
Tremors rocked my golembody from stem to stern. Something--some part of me--shook loose and fell off, toppling back into the water with a splash. The fish rejoiced, swirling around whatever it was, feeding noisily.
All my senses grew murkier, moment by moment. Distantly, I noted that one eye was completely gone ... and the other hung nearly out of its socket. I pushed it back in, then tried getting up.
Everything felt lopsided, unbalanced. Most of the signals I sent, demanding movement from muscles and limbs, went unanswered. Still, my tormented carcass somehow managed to rise up, teetering first to the knees ... and then onto stumps that might loosely be called legs.
Sliding along a wooden bannister, I flopped unevenly up a short flight of steps leading to the houseboat that lay moored alongside. Lights brightened and a thumping vibration grew discernable.
Garbled music played somewhere nearby.
As my head crested the rail, I caught a blurry image--nickering flames atop slim white pillars. Tapered candles ... their soft light glinting off silverware and crystal goblets. And farther on, sleek figures moving by the starboard rail.
Real people. Elegantly dressed for a dinner party. Gazing at the river beyond.
I opened my mouth, intending to voice a polite apology for interrupting .. , and would someone please call my owner to come get me before this brain turned to mush?
What came out was a slobbery groan.
A woman turned around, caught sight of me lurching toward her from the dark, and let out a yelp--as if I were some horrible undead creature, risen from the deep. Fair enough.
I reached out, moaning.
"Oh sweet mother Gaia," her voice swung quickly to realization. "Jameson! Will you please phone up Clara Gonzalez, over on the Catalina Baby? Tell her that her goddam boyfriend has misplaced another of his dittos ... and he better come pick it up right now!"
I tried to smile and thank her, but scheduled expiration could no longer be delayed. My pseudoligaments chose that very moment to dissolve, all at once.
Time to fall apart.
I don't remember anything after that, but I'm told that my head rolled to a stop just short of the ice chest where champagne was chilling. Some dinner guest was good enough to toss it inside, next to a very nice bottle of Dom Pérignon '38.
Copyright © 2002 by David Brin