The Memcordist by Lavie Tidhar

Illustration for The Memcordist by Lavie Tidhar

(c) 2012 by Kathleen Jennings.

Polyphemus Port, Titan, Year Forty-Three

Beyond the dome the ice-storms of Titan rage; inside it is warm, damp, with the smell of sewage seeping through and creepers growing through the walls of the above-ground dwellings. He tries to find her scent in the streets of Polyport and fails.

Hers was the scent of basil, and the night. When cooking, he would sometimes crush basil leaves between his fingers. It would bring her back, for just a moment, bring her back just as she was the first time they’d met.

Polyphemus Port is full of old memories. Whenever he wants, he can recall them, but he never does. Instead he tries to find them in old buildings, in half-familiar signs. There, the old Baha’i temple where they’d sheltered one rainy afternoon, and watched a weather hacker dance in the storm, wreathed in raindrops. There, what had once been a smokes-bar, now a shop selling surface crawlers. There, a doll house, for the sailors off the ships. It had been called Madame Sing’s, now it’s called Florian’s. Dolls peek out of the windows, small naked figures in the semblance of teenage boys and girls, soft and warm and disposable, with their serial numbers etched delicately into the curve of a neck or thigh. His feet know the old way and he walks past the shops, away from the docks and into a row of box-like apartments, the co-op building where they’d first met, creepers overgrowing the walls and peeking into windows – where they’d met, a party in the Year Seventeen of the Narrative of Pym.

He looks up, and as he does he automatically checks the figures that rise up, always, in the air before him. The number of followers hovers around twenty-three million, having risen slightly on this, his second voyage to Titan in so many years. A compilation feed of Year Seventeen is running concurrently, and there are messages from his followers, flashing in the lower right corner, which he ignores.

Looking up at her window, a flower pot outside – there used to be a single red flower growing there, a carnivorous Titan Rose with hungry, teeth-ringed suckers – her vice at the time. She’d buy the plant choice goat meat in the market every day. Now the flower pot is absent and the window is dark and she, too, is long gone.

Is she watching too, somewhere, he wonders – does she see me looking up and searching for her, for traces of her in a place so laid and overlaid with memories until it was impossible to tell which ones were original, and which the memory of a memory?

He thinks it’s unlikely. Like the entire sum of his life, this journey is for his benefit, is ultimately about him. We are what we are – and he turns away from her window, and the ice-storm howls above his head, beyond the protective layer of the dome. There had been a storm that night, too, but then, this was Titan, and there was always a storm.

 

On board the Gel Blong Mota, Earth-to-Mars Voyage, Year Five

There are over twenty million followers on this day of the Narrative of Pym, and Mother is happy, and Pym is happy too, because he’d snuck out when Mother was asleep, and now he stands before the vast porthole of the ship – in actuality a wall-sized screen – and watches space, and the slowly moving stars beyond.

The Gel Blong Mota is an old ship, generations of Man Spes living and dying inside as it cruises the solar system, from Earth, across the inner and outer system, all the way to Jettisoned and Dragon’s World before turning back, doing the same route again and again. Pym is half in love with Joy, who is the same age as him and will one day, she confides in him, be captain of this ship. She teaches him asteroid pidgin, the near-universal language of Mars and the belt, and he tells her about Earth, about volcanoes and storms and the continental cities. He was not born on Earth, but he has lived there four of his five years, and he is nervous to be away, but also happy, and excited, and it’s all very confusing. Nearly fifty million watched him leave Earth, and they didn’t go in the elevator, they went in an old passenger RLV and he floated in the air when the gravity stopped, and he wasn’t sick or anything. Then they came to an orbital station where they had a very nice room and there was gravity again, and the next day they climbed aboard the Gel Blong Mota, which was at the same time very very big but also small, and it smelled funny. He’d seen the aquatic tanks with their eels and prawns and lobster and squid, and he’d been to the hydroponics gardens and spoken to the head gardener there, and Joy even showed him a secret door and took him inside the maintenance corridors beyond the walls of the ship, where it was very dry and smelled of dust and old paint.

Now he watches space, and wonders what Mars is like. At that moment, staring out into space, it is as if he is staring out at his own future spreading out before him, unwritten terabytes and petabytes of the Narrative of Pym, waiting to be written over in any way he wants. It makes him feel strange – he’s glad when Joy arrives and they go off together to the aquatic tanks – she said she’d teach him how to fish.

 

Tong Yun City, Mars, Year Seven

Mother is out again with her latest boyfriend, Jonquil Sing, a memcordist syndication agent. “He is very good for us,” she tells Pym one night, giving him a wet kiss on the cheek, and her breath smells of smoke. She hopes Jonquil will increase subscriptions across Mars, Pym knows – the numbers of his followers have been dropping since they came to Tong Yun. “A dull, provincial town,” Mother says, which is the Earth-born’s most stinging insult.

But Pym likes Tong Yun. He loves going down in the giant elevators into the lower levels of the city, and he particularly loves the Arcade, with its battle droid arenas and games-worlds shops and particularly the enormous Multifaith Bazaar. Whenever he can he sneaks out of the house – they are living on the surface, under the dome of Tong Yun, in a house belonging to a friend of a friend of Mother’s – and goes down to Arcade, and to the Bazaar.

The Church of Robot is down there, and an enormous Elronite temple, and mosques and synagogues and Buddhist and Baha’i temples and even a Gorean place and he watches the almost-naked slave girls with strange fascination, and they smile at him and reach out and tousle his hair. There are Re-Born Martian warriors with reddish skin and four arms – they believe Mars was once habituated by an ancient empire and that they are its descendants, and they serve the Emperor of Time. He thinks he wants to become a Re-Born warrior when he grows up, and have four arms and tint his skin red, but when he mentions it to Mother once she throws a fit and says Mars never had an atmosphere and there is no emperor and that the Re-Born are – and she uses a very rude word, and there are the usual complaints from some of the followers of the Narrative of Pym.

He’s a little scared of the Elronites – they’re all very confident and smile a lot and have very white teeth. Pym isn’t very confident. He prefers quiet roads and places with few people in them and he doesn’t want anyone to know who he is.

Sometimes he wonders who he is, or what he will become. One of Mother’s friends asked him, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and he said, “A spaceship captain –” thinking of Joy – and Mother gave her false laugh and ruffled his hair and said, “Pym already is what he is. Isn’t that right, sweetheart?” and she gathered him in her arms and said, “He’s Pym.”

But who is Pym? Pym doesn’t know. When he’s down at the Multifaith Bazaar he thinks that perhaps he wants to be a priest, or a monk – but which religion? They’re all neat.

Fifteen million follow him as he passes through temples, churches and shrines, searching for answers to a question he is not yet ready to ask himself, and might never be.

 

Jettisoned, Charon, Year Fifty-Six

So at last he’s come to Jettisoned, the farthest one can get without quite leaving completely, and he hires a small dark room in a small dark co-op deep in the bowels of the moon, a place that suits his mood.

Twenty-three million watch, less because of him and more because he’d chosen Jettisoned, the home of black warez and wild technology and outlaws – the city of the Jettisoned, all those ejected at the last moment from the vast majestic starships as they depart the solar system, leaving forever on a one-way journey into galactic space. Would some of them find new planets, new moons, new suns to settle around? Are there aliens out there, or God? No one knows, least of all Pym. He’d once asked his mother why they couldn’t go with one of the ships. “Don’t be silly,” she’d said, “think of all your followers, and how disappointed they’d be.”

“Bugger my followers,” he says now, aloud, knowing some would complain, and others would drop out and follow other narratives. He’d never been all that popular, but the truth was, he’d never wanted to be. Everything I’ve ever done in my life, he thinks, is on record. Everything I’ve seen, everything I’ve touched, everything I smelled or said. And yet had he said or done anything worth saying, anything worth doing?

I once loved with all my heart, he thinks. Is that enough?

He knows she’d been to Jettisoned in the past year. But she’d left before he arrived. Where is she now? He could check, but doesn’t. On her way back through the outer system – perhaps in the Galilean Moons, where he knows she’s popular. He decides to get drunk.

Hours later, he is staggering along a dark alley, home to smokes bars, doll houses, battle arcades, body modification clinics, a lone Church of Robot mission, and several old-fashioned drinking establishments. Anything that can be grown on Jettisoned gets fermented into alcohol, sooner or later. Either that or smoked. His head hurts, and his heart is beating too fast. Too old, he thinks. Perhaps he says it out loud. Two insectoid figures materialise in the darkness, descend on him. “What are you –?” he says, slurring the words, as the two machines expertly rifle through his pockets and run an intrusion package over his node – even now, when all he can do is blink blearily, he notices the followers numbers rising, and realises he’s being mugged.

“Give them a show,” he says, and begins to giggle. He tries to hit one of the insectoid figures and a thin, slender metal arm reaches down and touches him – a needle bite against his throat –

Numb, but still conscious – he can’t shout for help but what’s the point, anyway? This is Jettisoned, and if you end up there you have only yourself to blame.

What are they doing? Why have they not gone yet? They’re trying to take apart his memcorder, but it’s impossible – don’t they know it’s impossible? – he is wired through and through, half human and half machine, recording everything, forgetting nothing. And yet suddenly he is very afraid, and the panic acts like a cold dose of water and he manages to move, slightly, and he shouts for help, though his voice is reedy and weak and anyway there is no one to hear him…

They’re tearing apart chunks of memory, terabytes of life, days and months and years disappearing in a black cloud – “Stop, please,” he mumbles, “please, don’t –”

Who is he? What is he doing here?

A name. He has a name…

Somewhere far away, a shout. The two insectoid creatures raise elongated faces, feelers shaking –

There is the sound of an explosion, and one of the creatures disappears – hot shards of metal sting Pym, burning, burning –

The second creature rears, four arms rising like guns –

There is the sound of gunshots, to and from, and then there’s a massive hole in the creature’s chest, and it runs off into the darkness –

A face above his, dark hair, pale skin, two eyes like waning moons – “Pym? Pym? Can you hear me?”

“Pym,” he whispers, the name strangely familiar. He closes his eyes and then nothing hurts any more, and he is floating in a cool, calm darkness.

 

Spider’s Hold, Luna, Year One

Not a memory as much as the recollection, like film, of something seen – emerging from darkness into a light, alien faces hovering above him, as large as moons – “Pym! My darling little Pym –”

Hands clapping, and he is clutched close to a warm, soft breast, and he begins to cry, but then the warmth settles him and he snuggles close and he is happy.

“Fifty-three million at peak,” someone says.

“Day One,” someone says. “Year One. And may all of your days be as happy as this one. You are born, Pym. Your narrative’s began.”

He finds a nipple, drinks. The milk is warm. “Hush now, my little baby. Hush now.”

“See, already he is looking around. He wants to see the world.”

But it isn’t true. He only wants to sleep, in that warm, safe place.

“Happy birthday, Pym.”

He sleeps.

 

Polyphemus Port, Titan, Year Seventeen

The party is crammed with people, the house node broadcasts out particularly loud Nuevo Kwasa-Kwasa tunes, there is a lot of Zion Special Strength passing around, the strong, sweet smell latching on to hair and clothes, and Pym is slightly drunk.

Polyport, on his own: Mother left behind in the Galilean Republic, Pym escaping – jumping onto an ancient transport ship, the Ibn-al-Farid, a Jupiter-to-Saturn one-way trip.

Feeling free, for the first time. His numbers going up, but he isn’t paying any attention for once. Pym, not following the narrative but simply living his life.

Port bums hanging out at Polyport, kids looking for ships for the next trip to nowhere, coming from Mars and the Jovean moons and the ring-cities of Saturn, heading everywhere –

The party: a couple of weather hackers complaining about outdated protocols; a ship rat from the Ibn-al-Farid – Pym knows him slightly from the journey – doing a Louis Wu in the corner, a blissful smile on his face, wired-in, the low current tickling his pleasure centres; five big, blonde Australian girls from Earth on a round-the-system trip – conversations going over Pym’s head – “Where do you come from? Where do you go? Where do you come from?”

Titan surface crawlers with that faraway look in their eyes; a viral artist, two painters, a Martian Re-Born talking quietly to a Jovean robot – Pym knows people are looking at him, pretending not to – and his numbers are going up, everybody loves a party.

She is taller than him, with long black hair gathered into moving dreadlocks – some sort of mechanism making them writhe about her head like snakes – long slender fingers, obsidian eyes –

People turning as she comes through, a hush of sort – she walks straight up to him, ignoring the other guests – stands before him, studying him with a bemused expression. He knows she sees what he sees – number of followers, storage space reports, feed statistics – he says, “Can I get you a drink?” with a confidence he doesn’t quite feel, and she smiles. She has a gold tooth, and when she smiles it makes her appear strangely younger.

“I don’t drink,” she says, still studying him. The gold tooth is an Other, but in her case it isn’t truly Joined – the digital intelligence embedded within is part of her memcorder structure. “Eighty-seven million,” she says.

“Thirty-two,” he says. She smiles again. “Let’s get out of here,” she says.

 

Jettisoned, Charon, Year Fifty-Six

Memory returning in chunks – long-unused backup spooling back into his mind. When he opens his eyes he thinks for a moment it is her, that somehow she had rescued him from the creatures, but no – the face that hovers above his is unfamiliar, and he is suddenly afraid.

“Hush,” she says. “You’re hurt.”

“Who are you?” he croaks. Numbers flashing – viewing figures near a hundred million all across the system, being updated at the speed of light. His birth didn’t draw nearly that many…

“My name’s Zul,” she says – which tells him nothing. He sees she has a pendant hanging between her breasts. He squints, and sees his own face.

The woman shrugs, smiles, a little embarrassed. Crows-feet at the corners of her dark eyes. A gun hanging on her belt, black leather trousers the only other thing she wears. “You were attacked by wild foragers,” she says, and shrugs again. “We’ve had an infestation of them in the past couple of years.”

Foragers: multi-surface machines designed for existing outside the human bubbles, converting rock into energy, slow lunar surface transforms – rogue, like everything else on Jettisoned. He says, “Thank you,” and to his surprise she blushes.

“I’ve been watching you,” she said.

Pym understands – and feels a little sad.

She makes love to him on the narrow bed in the small, hot, dark room. They are somewhere deep underground. From down here it is impossible to imagine Charon, that icy moon, or the tiny cold disc of the sun far away, or the enormous field of galactic stars or the shadows of Exodus ships as they pass forever out of human space – hard to imagine anything but a primal human existence of naked bodies and salty skin and fevered heartbeats and he sighs, still inexplicably sad within his excitement, for the smell of basil he seeks is missing.

 

Kuala Lumpur, Earth, Year Thirty-Two

At thirty-two there’s the annoyance of hair growing in the wrong places and not growing in others, a mole or two which shouldn’t be there, hangovers get worse, take longer to dissipate, eyes strain, and death is closer –

Pym, the city a spider’s web of silver and light all around him, the towers of Kuala Lumpur rise like rockets into the skies – the streets alive with laughter, music, frying mutton –

On the hundred and second floor of the hospital, in a room as white as a painting of absence, as large and as small as a world –

Mother reaches out, holds his hand in hers. Her fingers are thin, bony. “My little Pym. My baby. Pym.”

She sees what he sees. She shares access to the viewing stats, knows how many millions are watching this, the death of Mother, supporting character number one in the Narrative of Pym. Pym feels afraid, and guilty, and scared – Mother is dying, no one knows why, exactly, and for Pym it’s – what?

Pain, yes, but –

Is that relief? The freedom of Pym, a real one this time, not as illusory as it had been, when he was seventeen?

“Mother,” he says, and she squeezes his hand. Below, the world is spider-webs and fairy-lights. “Fifty-six million,” she says, and tries to smile. “And the best doctors money could buy –”

But they are not enough. She made him come back to her, by dying, and Pym isn’t sure how he feels about it, and so he stands there, and holds her weakened hand, and stares out beyond the windows into the night.

 

Polyphemus Port, Titan, Year Seventeen

They need no words between them. They haven’t said a word since they left the party. They are walking hand in hand through the narrow streets of Polyport and the storm rages overhead. When she draws him into a darkened corner he is aware of the beating of his heart and then her own, his hand on her warm dark skin cupping a breast as the numbers roll and roll, the millions rising – a second feed showing him her own figures. Her lips on his, full, and she has the taste of basil, and the night, and when they hold each other the numbers fade and there is only her.

 

Jettisoned, Charon, Year Fifty-Six

When they make love a second time he calls out her name and, later, the woman lies beside him and says, her hand stroking his chest slowly, “You really love her,” and her voice is a little sad. Her eyes are round, pupils large. She sighs, a soft sound on the edge of the solar system. “I thought, maybe…”

The numbers dropping again, the story of his life – the Narrative of Pym charted by the stats of followers at any given moment. The narrative of Pym goes out all over space – and do they follow it, too, in the Exodus ships, or on alien planets with unknown names?

He doesn’t know. He doesn’t care. He rises in the dark, and dresses, and goes out into the night of Jettisoned as the woman sleeps behind him.

At that moment he decides to find her.

 

Dragon’s Home, Hydra, Year Seventy-Eight

It feels strange to be back in the Pluto system. And Hydra is the strangest of the worlds… Jettisoned lies like a sore on Charon, but Hydra is even farther out, and cold, so cold… Dragon’s World, and Pym is a guest of the dragon.

When he thinks back to his time on Jettisoned, in the Year Fifty-Six – or was it Fifty-Seven? – of the Narrative of Pym, it is all very confused. It had been a low point in his life. He left Jettisoned shortly after the attack, determined to find her – but then, he had done that several times, and never…

Dragon’s World is an entire moon populated by millions of bodies and a single mind. Vietnamese dolls, mass-produced in the distant factories of Earth, transported here by the same Gel Blong Mota he had once travelled on as a child, thousands and tens of thousands and finally millions of dolls operating with a single mind, the mind of the dragon – worker-ants crawling all over the lunar surface, burrowing into its hide, transforming it into – what?

No one quite knows.

The dragon is an Other, one of the countless intelligences evolved in the digital Breeding Grounds, lines of code multiplying and mutating, merging and splitting in billions upon billions of cycles. It is said the dragon had been on one of the Exodus ships, and been Jettisoned, but why that may be so no one knows. This is its world – a habitat? A work of strange, conceptual art? Nobody knows and the dragon isn’t telling.

Yet Pym is a guest, and the dragon is hospitable.

Pym’s body is in good shape but the dragon promises to make it better. Pym lies in one of the warrens, in a cocoon-like harness, and tiny insects are crawling all over his body, biting and tearing, sewing and rearranging. Sometimes Pym gets the impression the dragon is lonely. Or perhaps it wants others to see its world, and for that purpose invited Pym, whose numbers rise dramatically when he lands on Hydra.

The Gel Blong Mota had carried him here, from the Galilean Republic on a slow, leisurely journey, and its captain was Joy, and she and Pym shared wine and stories and stared out into space, and sometimes made love with the slow, unhurried pace of old friends.

Why did you never go to her?

Her question is in his mind as he lies there, in the warm confines of Dragon’s cocoon. It is very quiet on Hydra, the dolls that are the dragon’s body making almost no sound as they pass on their errands – whatever those may be. He thinks of Joy’s question but realises he has no answer for her, and never had. There had been other women, other places, but never –

 

Polyphemus Port, Titan, Year Seventeen

It is the most intimate moment of his life: it is as if the two of them are the centre of the entire universe, and nothing else matters but the two of them, and as they kiss, as they undress, as they touch each other with clumsy, impatient fingers the whole universe is watching, watching something amazing, this joining of two bodies, two souls. Their combined numbers have reached one billion and are still climbing. It will never be like this again, he thinks he hears her say, her lips against his neck, and he knows she is right, it will never –

 

Kuala Lumpur, Earth, Year Two

Taking baby-steps across the vast expanse of recreated prime park land in the heart of the town, cocooned within the great needle towers of the mining companies, Pym laughs, delighted, as adult hands pick him up and twirl him around. “My baby,” Mother says, and holds him close, and kisses him (those strange figures at the corner of his eyes always shifting, changing – he’d got used to them by now, does not pay them any mind) – “You have time for everything twice over. The future waits for you –”

And as he puts his arms around her neck he’s happy, and the future is a shining road in Pym’s mind, a long endless road of white light with Pym marching at its centre, with no end in sight, and he laughs again, and wriggles down, and runs towards the ponds where there are great big lizards sunning themselves in the sun.

 

Dragon’s Home, Hydra, Year One Hundred Fifteen

Back on Dragon’s Home, that ant’s nest whose opening rises from the surface of Hydra like a volcanic mouth, back in the cocoons of his old friend the dragon – “I don’t think you could fix me again, old friend,” he says, and closes his eyes – the cocoon against his naked skin like soft Vietnamese silk.

The dragon murmurs all around him, its thousands of bodies marching through their complex woven-together tunnels. Number of followers hovering around fifty million, and Pym thinks, They want to see me die.

He turns in his cocoon and the dragon murmurs soothing words, but they lose their meaning. Pym tries to recall Mother’s face, the taste of blackberries on a Martian farm, the feel of machine-generated rain on Ganymede or the embrace of a Jettisoned woman, but nothing holds, nothing is retained in his mind anymore. Somewhere it all exists, even now his failing senses are being broadcast and stored – but this, he knows suddenly, with a frightening clarity, is the approaching termination of the Narrative of Pym, and the thought terrifies him. “Dragon!” he cries, and then there is something cool against his neck and relief floods in.

Pym drifts in a dream half-sleep, lulled by the rhythmic motion of his cocoon. There is a smell, a fragrance he misses, something sweet and fresh like ba – a herb of some sort? He grabs for a memory, his eyes opening with the effort, but it’s no use, there is nothing there but a faint, uneasy sense of regret, and at last he lets it go. There had been a girl –

Hadn’t there?

He never –

He closes his eyes again at last, and gradually true darkness forms, a strange and unfamiliar vista: even the constant numbers at the corner of his vision, always previously there, are fading – it is so strange he would have laughed if he could.

 

Polyphemus Port, Titan, Year Forty-Three

He walks down the old familiar streets on this, this forty-third year of the Narrative of Pym, searching for her in the scent of old memories. She is not there, but suddenly, as he walks under the dome and the ever-present storm, he’s hopeful: there will be other places, other times and, somewhere in the solar system, sometime in the Narrative of Pym, he will find her again.

 

About the author

Lavie Tidhar is the World Fantasy wining author of Osama, and of the Bookman Histories trilogy of steampunk novels. He was also nominated for a Sidewise and Sturgeon awards and won a British Fantasy Award. He is the prolific author of numerous short stories and several novellas. He grew up on a kibbutz in Israel and in South Africa but currently resides in London.