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Joshua Ali Quare wakes in 2019 at the age of 140 in a strong youthful body with no memory of his past, to find he is at the center of a vast and deadly conspiracy. The only clues to his identity are the records he has left--messages from the man he once was...
As Quare journeys through his past, he discovers he has been a key figure in the history of a turbulent, violent century--soldier, criminal, assassin, spy. A century filled with killing plagues and warring cults, ruthless corporations and dying nations. A century where treachery is often the only way to survive.
Now someone is looking for him. Someone from his past. And Quare must learn the terrifying secret of his history before it unleashed devastating consequences for the future of the human race.
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John Barnes is the award-winning author of Orbital Romance, A Million Open Doors, Mother of Storms, Earth Made of Glass, The Merchants of Souls, Candle, and many other novels. With Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, he wrote the novels Encounter with Tiber and The Return. He lives in Colorado.
What Rough Beast
I wake up for the fourth time I can remember. The first two times were longer ago. Each time I got up, drank water, and took a piss. I think the third time I was looking for a dark-haired girl, maybe ten years old. I might have known her name, and called it. I don't think she was there. I'm not sure.
I know the third time, the time before this, I wandered around the room. There was a battered old werp in the corner, its case dented and scraped, all sorts of stickers and slogan plates pasted and glued to it. I didn't get farther than noticing it was there and wondering if it might be mine. I felt sick and tired so I went back to bed.
I'm awake and much better now. The dreams from before are fading. I sit up in bed and think, My name is Joshua Ali Quare, and I have a whole life behind me, but I don't remember much of it. This is normal. I think.
In the mirror by the toilet, my image is hideously thin, muscles wasted as though by a long fever, immense dark circles under my eyes.
My hair's gray, face lined, beard grizzled. I had thought I was about twenty or twenty-five, possibly younger. Clearly not.
I wish the girl would come back and explain. If I could remember her name, I would call for her.
What baffles me most is that I seem to be in Martian gravity. Not as low as the moon's but lower than Earth's, anyway.
How do I know how much gravity the moon, or Mars, has? The Augmented Shuttle Mission never even left for Mars, and that was just an orbital mission, a near approach to Phobos that would have arrived on my thirtieth birthday. I was planning to get drunk with my friends and watch it.
Inventory of the room:
One steel door, with handle, unlocked, leading into a kitchen.
In kitchen: airlock door with stamped logo that reads sears marshack. sears of wells city, ltd.
One window looking out on a darkening pink sky and reddish dunes streaked with gray and brown, beyond which a lake--or an arm of the sea?--rolls with lead-dull waves impossibly big and slow.
Bed. Smells like I had a bad fever in it for a long time.
Toilet. Foul. Probably missed it a few times while I had the fever.
Sink and drinking glass--christ, I'm thirsty. I take another glass of water before I continue.
Rack: ten shirts, four pairs of pants, socks and underwear on top shelf. Most of it still in the package.
Bathrobe hanging on corner of rack. I put that on.
Fresher in the corner. I must remember to stuff the sheets into it soon.
Recycling shower, must use that too.
Mirror over toilet.
Werp in the corner, in a case that looks more like an old-fashioned portable typewriter than anything else.
Small box, beside the werp, with a key in its lock. A space allocation box, what they give you before you get on a ship, it fits into the slot at the end of your bunk, you have to fit all the belongings you're taking into it.
They used to do that. Nowadays spaceships have a bigger space and weight allowance than airliners had when I was young. I just use it because it's a convenient container. It's mostly empty. I know because it's mine.
I feel a rush of memory, much of it confusing, little of it useful. I thought at first that I recognized low gravity because I read so much sci-fi when I was a kid. I don't seem to remember anything reliably after I was about twenty or so, though all sorts of things lurk at the edge of memory. Most of my past seems to be in the corner of my mind's eye, vanishing if I look directly at it.
No, I know about low grav, had experience with regular, no-, micro-, and low. Definitely.
I think, that box contains seven things. A brass key, a Boy Scout knife, a bar napkin with a name and phone number on it, a book of matches from Gwenny's Diner, a picture of a young girl, an Army dog tag for John Childs, and a plastic white knight from a cheap chess set. At once I have to know. My fingers scrabble over the surface, find and turn the key. Tears in my eyes--I don't know what that's about.
They are all there, inside, and the first thing I do is lift up the Boy Scout knife and press my face to its cool handle. I recall that it is rusted shut and I can't unfold the blades anymore. Touching it makes me feel better, but I am still crying. I heft the brass key in my hand. My mother gave it to me the last time I ever saw her--a key to the kitchen door. I squeeze it so hard that it bites my flesh, and that feels good, and comforting.
The name on the bar napkin is Anastasia, and I know that wasn't her real name, but I don't remember anything else. The phone number's an old-fashioned ten-digit one, from back when there was local and long-distance. The area code's for Supra New York. I don't remember when phone numbers changed to twelve digits, either, or when SNY was built.
I have an odd feeling that I might be John Childs. The dog tag feels strange; it's on a chain and I slip it around my neck for a moment, before taking it off again with a shudder that I can't quite explain.
I don't know what Gwenny's Diner was, but handling the book of matches (they are very deteriorated and I don't think they would light) makes me feel sort of warm and safe.
When I hold the white knight in my hand, my fingers begin to do a strange little maneuver, like a magician passing something, so that the knight flows around the fingers. I don't understand why I do that. I feel nothing much emotionally but I keep the knight moving.
The little girl is the one I was looking for. I'm pretty sure of that. The picture is a color holo, not the ribbed kind I remember used to be in cereal boxes, but just a flat piece of paper, about two inches square, no slick surface, into which I can look and see a three-dimensional image of the girl. I turn it over and sure enough, there's the back of her head. By angling it around I can see the picture was shot in a basketball gym, using three cameras, and that the photographer was trying to squat in one of the blind spots and not quite managing it--I see one of his sneakers, his checked pants, his red jacket, and just a little of his curly brown hair and mustache. I'm sure I never met him.
Over the girl's right shoulder, with the paper almost perpendicular to my eye, I can see the other kids waiting to be photographed.
I turn it back over and look at the girl. Long dark hair hangs limply, most of the way down her back. Her chin is just a little prominent, though whether that's a feature she will keep when she grows up, or a freak of being about eleven and very thin, isn't clear. Just a bare suggestion of breasts shows through her thin pullover. She looks uncomfortable, like the gym was cold or perhaps she just didn't want to be photographed. Maybe it's not a school photo but a shot for a refugee i.d. or something.
I can't remember her at any other age. I don't know whether, when I woke up the time before, I was looking for her because I could reasonably expect to find her, or because I was out of my head and raving about things that had happened long ago.
More things are pressing into my memory, and for one moment I'm breathing hard, afraid of being overwhelmed...but the surging memories never quite break through to the surface and explain themselves.
I turn to the battered old werp case and open it up. Inside, the werp looks like it's seen better days; there's a prominent dent in the keyboard and the screen has two stains that won't wipe off with my bathrobe sleeve.
The touch of my thumb on the security plate activates it. Must be mine. The screen clears. Words swim up:
your name is joshua ali quare. hit return.
this is your werp. many of your memories are in here. password check: what did your father call your mother the very last time you saw him?
The question startles me. I speak the answer aloud, "A Commie cunt." I reach to type it in but apparently the werp has voice processing because it's already responding.
When did werps get voice processing? And when did werps come along, anyway? When I was younger there were only laptops, and I sure couldn't afford one.
The screen scrolls up:
WELCOME TO 2109, JOSHUA, YOU MADE IT AGAIN. READ THIS NEXT PART CAREFULLY.
2109? But that would make me one hundred forty-one years old....
Memories flood back, now, more than before, and I bend forward to read the document:
you are on mars. the year is 2109 and you no longer work for the kgb, murphy's comsat avengers, nihon-america, or the organization. there is no more soviet union, no more free soviet association, no more european commonwealth, and no more united states of america. earth is completely controlled by resuna. you are physically just over sixty years old. you have only fragmentary memories of your former life as james norren, nor do you recall much of your former lives as jason testor, brandon smith, ulysses grant, fred engels, euripides frederickson, elisha testor, or kindness o'hart. a new identity has been established for you as "reagan foster hinckley," a joke which you and maybe a dozen historians will get.
Below that: directions. On the morning of Thursday, June sixth, if I haven't reported in yet, someone will come to see me and take me to Red Sands City, where I can get a hotel room, activate a bank account, and get my new life underway.
June 6 is ten days away. Today's Memorial Day, I think, then laugh. Who would remember?
The werp says there should be food in the kitchen. I open the door. Fridge, stove, cabinets, sink. Pressure suit on a rack. The airlock door has an elaborate warning sign about conserving air and proper airlock procedure, so I guess whatever's outside isn't fit for breathing. I still don't remember Mars having water, let alone a lake.
In the fridge I find a lot of packages with labels that don't match their small square shapes: things like "rabbit," "peas," "onion soup," all of them in packages the size and shape of the small package of Velveeta Individual Slices. I look around and see that the gadget that I had thought was a microwave is a "Westinghouse Foodzup! Reconstitutor." Taking a wild guess, I toss a square labelled "tomato soup" and another labelled "Four grilled cheese sandwiches" into it--it looks like a microwave inside, but who can tell?--carefully putting "tomato soup" into a large bowl first.
The readout on the reconstitutor says "select finished or prep for manual." I have no idea so I select "finished" and push the button.
It hums for about two minutes, then chimes. I open the door. In the large bowl I had put the square package of "tomato soup" in, there's a small, covered bowl, and it's full of hot tomato soup. A stack of four grilled cheese sandwiches sits on a plate, though I had not put any plate in there with that package. And there's no sign of the wrappers from the food packages.
I move the food to the table, sit down, eat. It's wonderful.
After the meal, I'm tired. I go back to bed. When I wake up again, it's dark, but I remember everything from before. I check the clock on the werp and find that I am up at 5:00 A.M. local time, or whatever time the werp was set to.
I've slept a long time. No hope of getting back to sleep. I turn on the lights--strange to see pools of yellow light on the Martian soil outside the windows--and go into the kitchen.
Plenty of square packets labelled "coffee, one liter pot." A dozen labelled "eggs," "hash browns," "bacon," "toast." I put one of each into the reconstitutor, not putting a plate or bowl underneath this time. I set it for "finished" and start it running. A coffee cup? A few in the back of one cabinet, all white, small circle on each side of them, and fine print in the circle. I hold the cup at almost arms' length to see the print clearly--I wonder if I have any reading glasses anywhere? And why I'm not surgically corrected?
The text reads: "The use of coffee is associated with bowel cancer, genetic damage, and several disorders of the nervous system. If you are a proven frequent and/or irresponsible coffee user you can be denied health benefits under the Uniform Care Act of 2094."
So some things have changed a lot, others have gotten more the same. I rinse out the cup. The reconstitutor pings.
I move the hot plate of breakfast and steaming pot of coffee to the small kitchen table, sit, and eat. I have to work on gaining back some weight. Whatever's going on, you can't fault the chow.
After I've finished the solid food and poured the second cup of coffee, I get the werp from the other room. Supposedly my history's in here; so far I have a list of seven names, besides my own, apparently aliases I've used at one time or another. And I have my seven objects.
I get up and get the space allocation box, so it's sitting next to me as I begin to read at the werp. I don't want to let the box get far from me, or the werp either.
When the sun comes up I am still reading and scanning. Tens of thousands of separate documents in the werp. Doesn't look like I've been much of a diary keeper, more of a collector, just grabbing up anything that seemed interesting. The werp camera seems to have been used mainly to take short videos of friends. Mostly they just wave and say "Hi" without identifying themselves. Also homemade porn--several shots of women, mostly undressed, right after sex, looking bored. A couple of them are saying things like, "That will cost extra." Several holograms of enormous, sagging breasts, shot up close so that all I can see is the breast.
I find four more pictures of the little girl whose picture is in the box, one each at ages nine, ten, thirteen, and eighteen. Her name was Alice.
The text documents don't reveal much. I wasn't much of a writer. When I do write it's mostly things like shopping lists. From these I learn I like Iron City beer.
Every so often, I find my own voice, usually just audio, sometimes with the video focused on my face, always talking urgently and urging me to remember, not to forget...something or other.
I try identifying the dates on all the documents. Perhaps if I read them from earliest to latest, I will learn something.
The one hundred and fourteen earliest ones all have the same date and time, Friday, October 8, 2021, 1745 GMT. One says "Guide note." I cue it up. It says all the other documents were copied from a stack of loose paper, video tape, photos, and cassette tapes that "Brandon Smith" had been carrying with him for a long time. I look about thirty in the note. I say I hope the "Reconstruction-issue" werp will hold up. The werp I have is not nearly that old, I'm sure--werps in those days did not have built-in cameras or holography. Or at least "Reconstruction-issue" werps didn't.
I keep working at it, as the sun comes up over the Martian beach outside. I take a minute to get up and stretch, look out the window at a bright point in the sky--Deimos, probably. I can't see it moving visibly. The small white sun climbs up out of the water toward the moon. It's a windy day and the waves out on the--lake? bay? sea? whatever--are bouncing about crazily. I feel ill looking at them.
Pull the curtains. Reconstitute another pot of coffee. Keep going. I have more than one version of my early life. They can't all be true. But the different versions all seem to be supported by fragments of my memory.
Taking a break from the ear...
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Book Description Tor Science Fiction, 1996. Condition: New. book. Seller Inventory # M0812533461
Book Description Tor Science Fiction, 1996. Mass Market Paperback. Condition: New. Seller Inventory # DADAX0812533461
Book Description Tor Science Fiction. MASS MARKET PAPERBACK. Condition: New. 0812533461 Please allow 4 - 14 business days for Standard shipping, within the US. Seller Inventory # XM-0812533461
Book Description Tor Science Fiction. MASS MARKET PAPERBACK. Condition: New. 0812533461 New Condition. Seller Inventory # NEW7.0403266