A dark-skinned human with four arms walks toward me across the floor of the club, clad only in a belt strung with human skulls. Her hair forms a smoky wreath around her open and curious face. She's interested in me.
"You're new around here, aren't you?" she asks, pausing in front of my table.
I stare at her. Apart from the neatly articulated extra shoulder joints, the body she's wearing is roughly ortho, following the traditional human body plan. The skulls are subsized, strung together on a necklace threaded with barbed wire and roses. "Yes, I'm a nube," I say. My parole ring makes my left index finger tingle, a little reminder. "I'm required to warn you that I'm undergoing identity reindexing and rehabilitation. I—people in my state—may be prone to violent outbursts. Don't worry, that's just a statutory warning: I won't hurt you. What makes you ask?"
She shrugs. It's an elaborate rippling gesture that ends with a wiggle of her hips. "Because I haven't seen you here before, and I've been coming here most nights for the past twenty or thirty diurns. You can earn extra rehab credit by helping out. Don't worry about the parole ring, most of us here have them. I had to warn people myself a while ago."
I manage to force a smile. A fellow inmate? Further along the program? "Would you like a drink?" I ask, gesturing at the chair next to me. "And what are you called, if you don't mind me asking?"
"I'm Kay." She pulls out the chair and sits, flipping her great mass of dark hair over her shoulder and tucking her skulls under the table with two hands as she glances at the menu. "Hmm, I think I will have an iced double mocha pickup, easy on the coca." She looks at me again, staring at my eyes. "The clinic arranges things so that there's always a volunteer around to greet nubes. It's my turn this swing shift. Do you want to tell me your name? Or where you're from?"
"If you like." My ring tingles, and I remember to smile. "My name's Robin, and you're right, I'm fresh out of the rehab tank. Only been out for a meg, to tell the truth." (A bit over ten planetary days, a million seconds.) "I'm from"—I go into quicktime for a few subseconds, trying to work out what story to give her, ending up with an approximation of the truth—"around these parts, actually. But just out of memory excision. I was getting stale and needed to do something about whatever it was I was getting stale over."
Kay smiles. She's got sharp cheekbones, bright teeth framed between perfect lips; she's got bilateral symmetry, three billion years of evolutionary heuristics and homeobox genes generating a face that's a mirror of itself—and where did that thought come from? I ask myself, annoyed. It's tough, not being able to tell the difference between your own thoughts and a postsurgical identity prosthesis.
"I haven't been human for long," she admits. "I just moved here from Zemlya." Pause. "For my surgery," she adds quietly.
I fiddle with the tassels dangling from my sword pommel. There's something not quite right about them, and it's bugging me intensely. "You lived with the ice ghouls?" I ask.
"Not quite—I was an ice ghoul."
That gets my attention: I don't think I've ever met a real live alien before, even an ex-alien. "Were you"—what's the word?—"born that way, or did you emigrate for a while?"
"Two questions." She holds up a finger. "Trade?"
"Trade." I remember to nod without prompting, and my ring sends me a flicker of warmth. It's crude conditioning: reward behavior indicative of recovery, punish behavior that reinforces the postsurgical fugue. I don't like it, but they tell me it's an essential part of the process.
"I emigrated to Zemlya right after my previous memory dump." Something about her expression strikes me as evasive. What could she be omitting? A failed business venture, personal enemies? "I wanted to study ghoul society from the inside." Her cocktail emerges from the table, and she takes an experimental sip. "They're so strange." She looks wistful for a moment. "But after a generation I got . . . sad." Another sip. "I was living among them to study them, you see. And when you live among people for gigaseconds on end you can't stop yourself getting involved, not unless you go totally post and upgrade your—well. I made friends and watched them grow old and die until I couldn't take any more. I had to come back and excise the . . . the impact. The pain."
Gigaseconds? Thirty planetary years each. That's a long time to spend among aliens. She's studying me intently. "That must have been very precise surgery," I say slowly. "I don't remember much of my previous life."
"You were human, though," she prods.
"Yes." Emphatically yes. Shards of memory remain: a flash of swords in a twilit alleyway in the remilitarized zone. Blood in the fountains. "I was an academic. A member of the professoriat." An array of firewalled assembler gates, lined up behind the fearsome armor of a customs checkpoint between polities. Pushing screaming, imploring civilians toward a shadowy entrance—"I taught history." That much is—was—true. "It all seems boring and distant now." The brief flash of an energy weapon, then silence. "I was getting stuck in a rut, and I needed to refresh myself. I think."
Which is almost but not quite a complete lie. I didn't volunteer, someone made me an offer I couldn't refuse. I knew too much. Either consent to undergo memory surgery, or my next death would be my last. At least, that's what it said I'd done in the dead-paper letter that was waiting by my bedside when I awakened in the rehab center, fresh from having the water of Lethe delivered straight to my brain by the molecular-sized robots of the hospitaler surgeon-confessors. I grin, sealing the partial truths with an outright lie. "So I had a radical rebuild, and now I can't remember why."
"And you feel like a new human," she says, smiling faintly.
"Yes." I glance at her lower pair of hands. I can't help noticing that she's fidgeting. "Even though I stuck with this conservative body plan." I'm very conservatively turned out—a medium-height male, dark eyes, wiry, the stubble of dark hair beginning to appear across my scalp—like an unreconstructed Eurasian from the pre-space era, right down to the leather kilt and hemp sandals. "I have a strong self-image, and I didn't really want to shed it—too many associations tied up in there. Those are nice skulls, by the way."
Kay smiles. "Thank you. And thank you again for not asking, by the way."
"The usual question: Why do you look like, well . . ."
I pick up my glass for the first time and take a sip of the bitingly cold blue liquid. "You've just spent an entire prehistoric human lifetime as an ice ghoul and people are needling you for having too many arms?" I shake my head. "I just assumed you have a good reason."
She crosses both pairs of arms defensively. "I'd feel like a liar looking like . . ." She glances past me. There are a handful of other people in the bar, a few bushujo and a couple of cyborgs, but most of them are wearing orthohuman bodies. She's glancing at a woman with long blond hair on one side of her head and stubble on the other, wearing a filmy white drape and a sword belt. The woman is braying loudly with laughter at something one of her companions just said—berserkers on the prowl for players. "Her, for example."
"But you were orthohuman once?"
"I still am, inside."
The penny drops: She wears xenohuman drag when she's in public because she's shy. I glance over at the group and accidentally make eye contact with the blond woman. She looks at me, stiffens, then pointedlyturns away. "How long has this bar been here?" I ask, my ears burning. How dare she do that to me?
"About three megs." Kay nods at the group of orthos across the room. "I really would avoid paying obvious attention to them, they're duelists."
"So am I." I nod at her. "I find it therapeutic."
She grimaces. "I don't play, myself. It's messy. And I don't like pain."
"Well, neither do I," I say slowly. "That's not the point." The point is that we get angry when we can't remember who we are, and we lash out at first; and a structured, formal framework means that nobody else needs to get hurt.
"Where do you live?" she asks.
"I'm in the"—she's transparently changing the subject, I realize—"clinic, still. I mean, everything I had, I"—liquidated and ran—"I travel light. I still haven't decided what to be in this new lifetime, so there doesn't seem much point in having lots of baggage."
"Another drink?" Kay asks. "I'm buying."
"Yes, please." A warning bell rings in my head as I sense Blondie heading toward our table. I pretend not to notice, but I can feel a familiar warmth in my stomach, a tension in my back. Ancient reflexes and not a few modern cheat-codes take over and I surreptitiously loosen my sword in its scabbard. I think I know what Blondie wants, and I'm perfectly happy to give it to her. She's not the only one around here prone to frequent flashes of murderous rage that take a while to cool. The counselor told me to embrace it and give in, among consenting fellows. It should burn itself out in time. Which is why I'm carrying.
But the postexcision rages aren't my only irritant. In addition to memory edits, I opted to have my age reset. Being postadolescent again brings its own dynamic of hormonal torment. It makes me pace my apartment restlessly, drives me to stand in the white cube of the hygiene suite and draw blades down the insides of my arms, curious to see the bright rosy blood welling up. Sex has acquired an obsessive importance I'd almost forgotten. The urges to sex and violence are curiously hard to fight off when you awaken drained and empty and unable to rememberwho you used to be, but they're a lot less fun, the second or third time through the cycle of rejuvenation.
"Listen, don't look round, but you probably ought to know that someone is about to—"
Before I can finish the sentence, Blondie leans over Kay's shoulder and spits in my face. "I demand satisfaction." She has a voice like a diamond drill.
"Why?" I ask stonily, heart thumping with tension as I wipe my cheek. I can feel the rage building, but I force myself to keep it under control.
There's a certain type of look some postrehab cases get while they're in the psychopathic dissociative stage, still reknitting the raveled threads of their personality and memories into a new identity. The insensate anger at the world, the existential hate—often directed at their previously whole self for putting them into this world, naked and stripped of memories—generates its own dynamic. Wild black-eyed hatred and the perfect musculature of the optimized phenotype combine to lend Blondie an intimidating, almost primal presence. Nevertheless, she's got enough self-control to issue a challenge before she attacks.
Kay, shy and much further advanced in recovery than either of us, cowers in her seat as Blondie glares at me. That annoys me—Blondie's got no call to intimidate bystanders. And maybe I'm not as out of control as I feel.
"In that case"—I slowly stand up, not breaking eye contact for a moment—"how about we take this to the remilitarized zone? First death rules?"
"Yes," she hisses.
I glance at Kay. "Nice talking to you. Order me another drink? I'll be right back." I can feel her eyes on my back as I follow Blondie to the gate to the RMZ. Which is right beside the bar.
Blondie pauses on the threshold. "After you," she says.
"Au contraire. Challenger goes first."
She glares at me one more time, clearly furious, then strides into the T-gate and blinks out. I wipe my right palm on my leather kilt, grip the hilt of my sword, draw, and leap through the point-to-point wormhole.
Dueling etiquette calls for the challenger to clear the gate by a good ten paces, but Blondie isn't in a good mood, and it's a very good thing that I'm on the defensive and ready to parry as I go through because she's waiting, ready to shove her sword through my abdomen on the spot.
She's fast and vicious and utterly uninterested in playing by the rules, which is fine by me because my own existential rage now has an outlet and a face. The anger that has been eating me up since my surgery, the hatred of the war criminals who forced me into this, of the person I used to be who surrendered to the large-scale erasure of their memories—I can't even remember what sex I was, or how tall—has a focus, and on the other end of her circling blade, Blondie's face is a glow of concentration and fury to mirror my own.
This part of the remilitarized zone is modeled on a ruined city of old Urth, shattered postnuclear concrete wastelands and strange creeping vegetation shrouding the statues of conquerors and the burned-out wreckage of wheeled cars. We could be alone here, marooned on a planet uninhabited by other sapients. Alone to work out our grief and rage as the postsurgical fugue slowly dissipates.
Blondie tries to rush me, and I fall back carefully, trying to spot some weakness in her attack. She prefers the edge to the point and the right to the left, but she's not leaving me any openings. "Hurry up and die!" she snaps.
"After you." I feint and try to draw her off-balance, circling round her. Next to the gate we came in through there's a ruined stump of a tall building, rubble heaped up above head height. (The gate's beacon flashes red, signifying no egress until one of us is dead.) The rubble gives me an idea, and I feint again, then back off and leave an opening for her.
Blondie takes the opening, and I just barely block her, because she's fast. But she's not sly, and she certainly wasn't expecting the knife in my left hand—taped to my left thigh before—and as she tries to guard against it, I see my chance and run my sword through her belly.
She drops her weapon and falls to her knees. I sit down heavily opposite her, almost collapsing. Oh dear. How did she manage to get my leg? Maybe I shouldn't trust my instincts quite so totally.
"Done?" I ask, suddenly feeling faint.
"I—" There's a curious expression on her face as she holds on to the basket of my sword. "Uh." She tries to swallow. "Who?"
"I'm Robin," I say lightly, watching her with interest. I'm not sure I've ever watched somebody dying with a sword through their guts before. There's lots of blood and a really vile smell of ruptured intestines. I'd have thought she'd be writhing and screaming, but maybe she's got an autonomic override. Anyway, I'm busy holding my leg together. Blood keeps welling up between my fingers. Comradeship in pain. "You are . . . ?"
"Gwyn." She swallows. The light of hatred is extinguished, leaving something—puzzlement?—behind.
"When did you last back up, Gwyn?"
She squints. "Unh. Hour. Ago."
"Well then. Would you like me to end this?"
It takes a moment for her to meet my eyes. She nods. "When? You?"
I lean over, grimacing, and pick up her blade. "When did I last back myself up? Since recovering from memory surgery, you mean?"