twinmaker

“On the Road to Tarsus”

This is a very early d-mat story, written before the world of Twinmaker existed. I hope you enjoy it!


“I hate this fucking town,” my sister said on the day she disappeared. “I hate it almost as much as I hate you, you little shit.”

I can remember her words clearly—as though she is saying them to me now, over three decades later—but I can’t recall my reply. I doubt that I was upset; I knew she didn’t mean it, not the last part anyway. I may have been a burden, an unwanted responsibility, but she loved me all the same. And I loved her back, you can be sure about that. Every now and then, though, I annoyed her, and this was one such occasion.

It had almost been enough for me simply to walk into the d-mat room at the wrong time. She, sixteen, had been crouched over the terminal, wearing a good approximation of that year’s fashion: skin-tight pants which changed colour in vivid rainbows; a loose top of shimmering silver, each thread a hologram of falling water; bare feet with glow-painted toenails; long, black hair tied back in a bushy pony-tail; no make-up, except for a purely ornamental pair of Lennon glasses; and a fish tattoo that crawled up and down her right forearm. The best she could do, given her meagre resources, but good enough. Her long, black hair and smooth skin inherited from our mother stood her in good stead, regardless of clothing.

I can’t remember what I was wearing, or even what I looked like. The photos of me at ten years of age look like another person, one long-dead.

But I do remember creeping up behind her as silently as possible and tapping her on the shoulder.

She jumped with surprise and emitted a guilty cry. Upon realising it was only me, she looked relieved, first, then annoyed.

“Jesus Christ, David! I nearly wet myself.”

“What’re you doing?” Dad had grounded her the previous weekend for going off on a ‘spree’, as she called it. She was supposed to be baby-sitting me as punishment.

“What does it look like?” She turned back to the screen. “I’m cracking the password.”

“Why?”

“Because I’m bored. Why do you think?” Her hands caressed the terminal’s sensor pad, running routines through the security system. “And why aren’t you studying?”

I shrugged. “The network gave me the afternoon off.”

“Typical. You little suck.” My academic record was a great cause of friction between us. She wasn’t stupid, but she didn’t like being told how to be smart. Her knowledge extended to more practical matters, like foiling the computerised systems that were part of our daily lives.

It was then she told me how much she hated both the town and myself, and added: “If you tell on me, I’ll break your arms and legs and leave you out in the desert to die slowly.”

“I won’t tell on you.” I moved around the desk, to where I could see her face. “Not if you take me with you.”

“No way.” She shook her head firmly. “Dad’d kill me.”

“He’ll kill you anyway if you duck out again.”

“No he won’t. He won’t even know I’ve gone, unless you tell him.”

“I won’t need to. All he has to do is look in the transmit file and—”

“Uh-uh.” She shook her head again, rebelliously this time. “I haven’t told you about the new gibben Andy got for me.”

I groaned. Andy was her boyfriend, who lived in Sydney, and ‘gibben’ meant ‘illegal software’. The two words were often used in conjunction, which was why Dad disapproved of him.

“What now?”

“You won’t believe this.” She unconsciously leaned closer, to whisper the secret. “It bypasses QDos’ security systems.”

“So.”

“‘So? QDos is d-mat, you idiot. They built it, and they own it—lock, stock and barrel. With them off my back, I can go anywhere there’s a d-mat. No record, no charge, and no Dad. See?”

“So take me with you.”

“No.”

“Please?”

“Why should I?”

“Because I’m bored too.” I said, trying to emulate her. It wasn’t hard. What she did on her sprees, I didn’t exactly know, but it must have been exciting. Better than studying, anyway. “Dad won’t be home until six, which gives us four hours. I promise not to get in the way.”

“Well, maybe…but I’ll have to ask Andy first.”

With at least that small victory in hand, I stopped arguing; push too hard and I’d risk the lot. She returned to her code-breaking efforts while I silently prayed that Andy wouldn’t be home. I didn’t like him much, and the feeling was mutual.

Eventually, she looked up with satisfaction glowing deep in her dark green eyes.

“Got it.”

She reached for the phone and dialled an interstate number. It rang five times before an automatic pager took the call. The tank lit up with an image of Andy in miniature.

“I’m busy right now,” he sneered, “but I may yet deign to take your call. What the fuck do you want?”

“It’s Julia,” said my sister. “Wondering what you’re doing. The new gibben worked fine, and—”

“I’m sorry,” interrupted the automatics. “Your message has not been granted priority.”

“What?”

“I’m sorry. Your message has not been—”

“So fuck you, too.” She killed the line. “Arsehole.”

I moved in. “I guess that means—”

“Shut up.” She tied a strand of hair in a knot around her finger, over and over, then dialled another number, another friend, and got another message; then a third. Her frustration grew rapidly. “It’s a fucking conspiracy…”

After four fruitless phone-calls, she gave up. I watched her expectantly.

“If you think you’re going anywhere,” she said, reading my mind, “then think again, kid.”

“Aw, come on, Jules—”

“No. You’re too young to get into the clubs.”

“Who said anything about clubs?”

“What else is there?”

“I don’t know,” I said, thinking: coffee in Paris, tea in Reykjavik, antifreeze in Mawson City, oxygen in the old Freedom Base—the possibilities were endless. “We could just wander.”

She snorted mockingly. “Yeah, sure.”

“Why not?”

“I’d rather stay at home, thanks.”

“Then let’s play a game.”

“Like what? Hide and seek? Random numbers?”

“No.” I hesitated, not really knowing what to suggest. She was supposed to be the one with the big ideas, not me.

“Well?” She waited for my suggestion with an amused smile, and I knew it wouldn’t take much to convince her. She had time to kill, and would be bored just sitting around.

All I had to do was find something that would interest her, and involve me too. But her interests seemed to lie in only three areas: danger, dare, and defying Dad. I wasn’t keen on any of the three d’s, except for the last, and that only as a means of satiating my curiosity. I therefore had to come up with another method of leverage.

Something that would make her feel superior?

Yes.

“I’ve got an idea,” I said.

#

The year was 2062, and we were living in Burringup, the first and largest of seven recently-completed CentAus cities. Dad was a structural engineer under contract to the Pacific Rim Planning Authority, which meant that Julia and I had moved around a lot as kids, especially after Mum died. Singapore, New Hong Kong, Manila, Queenstown, Fiji, Broome and the Antarctic Accord’s Mawson City were just some of the places in which we had lived, usually no longer than six months each. And even Mawson had been better than our latest home.

The Burringup Underground Community, known in the vernacular as ‘the Bucket’—which is what it resembled in cross-section—was ten kilometres in diameter and six deep, buried five hundred metres below the surface of the desert with its own power supplies, local government and population of one million. It had hydroponic gardens and a self-contained waste recycling plant; only a small proportion of the Bucket’s resources were ferried in by d-mat, paid for by the mines.

Burringup was, in short, a hive. A warren. It was mostly an exercise in population-management, fully-utilising the wastelands between more hospitable regions, but partly an experiment to test the viability of interstellar colonisation. The first colonists had already been sent by d-mat to the Eta Boötis system, thirty lightyears away; although automatic probes had proven their target planet, Tarsus, to be reasonably Earth-like, the back-room boys assumed that others might not be. Burringup was, therefore, a dry-run for technologies that would be used on less-hospitable worlds—and most people hated it.

The ability to flee at a moment’s notice, however, made life tolerable. Every city in the world was just a blink away by d-mat—unless you were grounded, like Julia, or too young to have a solo license, like me. And therein lay our problem.

She insisted upon going first, as I’d known she would. Without letting me see, she programmed the d-mat desk with a particular destination and took a defiant stance in the booth. The cover slid closed, and she disappeared.

Twenty minutes later she returned, looking breathless. I had prepared the snapshot imager in advance, and she wrapped her hands around the input column, downloading. When the transfer was complete, I took hold of the opposite column and closed my eyes. Raw data coursed through my fingertips and palm, up the nerves of my arms and spine, into the processor at the base of my skull, and —

I was standing on the top of a very tall building. The image was perfectly clear: an endless skyline of ‘scrapers marched off into the distance, with the odd squat, modular community here and there between the older towers. It was obviously a relatively equatorial city, given that so much of it lay above the surface. Distant foothills were green and blurred with thick vegetation, almost rainforest. It was early afternoon, which narrowed my guess even closer: a time-zone not far from our own.

Clouds darkened the sky; heavy rain fell in a solid mass a kilometre or so to my left. Lightning flashed about the crown of one particular building that dwarfed even the skyscrapers. As I watched, the same bolt of lightning struck twice a minute: the snapshot loop therefore lasted thirty seconds.

My guess was New Port Moresby, but what I said was: “Manila?”

“Nope. Guess again.”

“Hilo?”

Her smile broadened, judging by the tone of her voice.  “One last chance.”

“Um…Townsville?”

“Wrong.”

“Where then?”

“New Port Moresby, of course. If you look to your left, you’ll see the old Olympic Village.”

“Shit.” I dropped out of the snapshot, feigning petulance. She grinned triumphantly.

“My turn?” I asked, half-hoping that she would fall for it.

“Winner goes.” She stroked the terminal. “Think of this as a geography test.”

“Hmph.” I sulked sceptically.

“When you pass, you’ll get a go, I promise. I’m sure your tutor would approve.”

#

I let her win the next two as well: Buenos Aires and the ruins of Kuybyshev. I had ‘visited’ both places through my History studies, and was familiar with their skylines. The fourth was fairly tricky, but I resolved to win it in order to present a serious challenge.

“Vienna?”

“Damn. Too easy.”

“Right. My turn now?”

“I suppose.”

I dithered at the desk for a moment, skimming the list of available termini, choosing between possible destinations, then stepped into the booth.

“Do your worst.” she said.

And I was gone.

#

My mind went blank for an instant, as it always does during d-mat, then cleared. Transmission time was five minutes in those days, plus the inevitable few seconds of lightspeed delay as signals bounced back and forth between satellites and ground stations. But it felt instantaneous, regardless, or nearly so. The only hint that I had travelled at all lay in my surroundings.

The booth looked the same, even smelled the same, but I knew somehow that it was different. I could hear new sounds through it: of many people in a hurry, of electric carts whirring by, of air conditioning. With a fearful excitement burning inside my stomach, I keyed it open and stepped outside.

This was the first time in my life that I had jumped solo anywhere outside of the Bucket. As a minor, it was illegal for me to do so without Dad’s permission. It wasn’t a matter of physical danger—in twenty years of constant operation, d-mat had demonstrated a signal-loss of less than one part per twenty billion—but it was easy to get lost or disoriented between the multitude of global stepping-stones. And there always existed the temptation to misuse the facility, much as a child might push all the buttons on an elevator at once, just for fun.

Exactly what I was doing, in other words.

I stepped onto a wide reception platform filled with people. No one seemed to notice me—or, if they did, assumed that I had permission to travel on my own and let me be. I headed for an escalator in one corner of the platform, dodging a convoy of pensioners on electric carts along the way. A sign above the escalator said ‘Observation’.

When I reached the top of the stairs, I crossed immediately to the windows, readying the snapshot program buried in my skull as I ran. With my face pressed to the glass, I peered out—

At a flat plateau ringed with mountains, like a crater, with nothing but stars and the lipless grin of the crescent moon above. At the centre of the ‘crater’ was a small hill covered with tiny lights. As I watched, one orange light, pulsing brighter than the rest, detached itself from the central hill and followed a perfectly straight line into the sky.

I killed the snapshot, and, after a breathless minute to savour the scene, returned to the d-mat booths.

 

“Mount Pintabo?” Jules seemed almost offended. “You travelled half-way across the bloody world to bring me back a picture of…of a train platform?”

I shrugged, disappointed by her reaction. The summit of Mount Pintabo housed the base of the world’s only orbital tower. Begun in 2015, before d-mat had proved commercially viable, the project had been hailed as the Gateway to the Stars. Now, twenty years after its completion, it was used mainly to study the workings of the upper atmosphere, and to ferry those few tourists who had the patience to travel between two points. The journey up to Halfway House was rumoured to be spectacular, but I had never experienced it. Dad, like Julia, was always in a hurry.

“It’s not a train station,” I asserted.

“But it’s still boring. Christ.” She shook her head. “I’ll show you exciting.”

She returned with a picture of the heart of Tokyo, which I readily identified. Only one place on Earth had so much light in such a small area.

And then it was my turn again.

“Come back with something interesting this time,” she warned me, settling back onto a couch to change the colour of her toenails. “Or else you’ll really be in trouble.”

#

And so, quite deliberately, the game changed, becoming a quest to find, not a location the other person would not guess, but one that the other person had not dared to try. The sense of challenge increased until the tension between us was almost palpable. And the enjoyment of the game increased along with it, of course.

Instead of trying to win each turn, we simply alternated. I brought back snapshots of Mount Everest, Angel Falls and the Challenger Deep; she showed me backstreets of Johannesburg, Milan and Wisconsin that I had never imagined existed.

Then, much to my subsequent dismay, we stumbled upon something new. Or, to be more exact, Jules did.

On her fifteenth trip, she brought back a hurried, five-second snapshot of a snowstorm. Through the whipping wind (this was one image I was glad I couldn’t feel in person) I glimpsed what looked like a single, smooth dome, almost invisible against the grey-white backdrop. Gradually a sense of scale asserted itself: the dome was at least twenty miles in diameter. But I didn’t remember seeing anything like it in my life. Or did I?

“Give up?”

“No… Hold on a second.”

I watched the ‘shot through a few times. Something about the dome rang a distinct bell. In the corner of the ‘shot crouched a piece of more immediate scenery: she had been standing next to a smaller dome, one less than two hundred metres across. Obviously a substation of some sort, an outpost for the main structure.

Which was…? I could have screamed, the answer was so close.

“You’ve got five seconds before you forfeit.”

“Wait. I just need to think for a—”

“Four.”

“Um—”

“Three.”

“Joooolz—”

“Two… One… And—”

“Uh, the Svartenhuk Experimental Plasma Facility?”

Pause, then, disbelievingly: “You cheated!”

“I did not. I read about it in Physics. How did you know about it?”

She shrugged. “I just saw the name in the menu, and it sounded cool.”

Cool? A few hundred kilometres further north and she would have been standing in the Arctic Ocean. But I could tell she wasn’t lying.

Curious, I scanned the menu. It was there as she’d said, along with a lot of other pseudo-military research stations. The odd thing was that these d-mat codes were marked Restricted. No one without a security clearance should have been able to jump there—clearance we certainly did not possess.

Which implied that the gibben defied security restraints as well as civil restrictions.

As soon as the ramifications of this fact hit home, Jules didn’t waste any time. She leapt into defence installations, political headquarters and commercial laboratories—anything marked with the forbidding blood-red. The snapshots she brought back were rarely longer than a split-second in duration, and I only had her word that these empty corridors and those startled faces were what and whom she said they were, but I had no reason to doubt her because, without much encouragement, I was soon doing the same.

Jules was better at it than I, of course; her ability to shock was greater than mine would ever be. Intoxicated by our momentary adventures, simply enjoying the thrill, I rarely stopped to think where the game might lead.

But a competition was a competition, after all, and I resolved to surprise her just once.

Time passed, and soon Dad was due back within the hour. There was only one place I could think of that neither of us had tried, but the mere thought of it daunted me. It was simply too outrageous, even for the game we were playing. And I doubted, even then, that the gibben would be powerful enough.

So I cheated.

When my last turn came, I jumped to the Bucket’s museum. This was territory I knew well, and the curator nodded in recognition as I appeared. Waving a cursory greeting, I dashed down a corridor to one of the special exhibits. There I found the snapshot of the scene I wanted, and jacked myself in.

The familiar view appeared before me, and I recorded it. A snapshot of a snapshot, but real enough to fool her.

“Holy shit,” she breathed, staring at the moonscape with eyes wide and sightless from my point of view. “I don’t believe it.”

“Armstrong City, observation tower four.”

“You really went there?

“Why not?” I lied.

She dropped out of the ‘shot and I grinned at her smugly.

“You think you’re pretty hot, don’t you?” she said, obviously angry that I had showed her up—more so than I had expected. “That was fucking dangerous.”

“Why?”

She opened her mouth, but could think of no suitable retort. Her little brother had beaten her at her own game, and that galled her beyond words.

“Well?” I said.

“Well what?”

“It’s your turn, isn’t it?”

She stared at me, then, and the look in her eyes made me doubt the wisdom of my goad. It was a look I knew I’d never forget: one third anger, one third betrayal, and the remainder fear. Seeing it, I began to feel nervous myself.

Concede defeat, I wanted to say to her, although my voice betrayed me. Just let it go. It’s easy, really. I’ve been doing it all my life. Please…

Eventually, she turned away, took a seat behind the console and began flicking through menus.

“You little shit,” she said. “You think you’re so fucking clever, don’t you?”

“Don’t be stupid, Jules. It’s only a game—”

“Crap.” She found the terminus she wanted, programmed the d-mat accordingly and cleared the screen so I couldn’t cheat. Then she stepped into the booth, her nervousness betrayed by the way she rubbed her hands on her tights.

“Jules—”

“Just you wait here, kid. I’ll be back in a sec with a ‘shot that’ll blow your fucking mind.”

The booth closed.

When it opened a second later, she was gone.

#

Twenty minutes later, the booth was still empty. Three quarters of an hour passed, and I started to pace, imagining the worst. She’d planned to jump somewhere and come straight back; minutes, theoretically, was all it should have taken. I ran a self-test through the d-mat, but it checked out okay. So where the hell was she? Was she injured, unconscious, dead?

After an hour, the doors slid shut automatically to process an arrival. But when they opened again, they did not reveal Julia.

Dad took one look at my face and knew that something was wrong. I told him everything—about the game, the final dare, the gibben—and he was as angry as I had expected, but worried as well. Julia had been known to disappear for a day or more when on a spree, but this time was different.

We waited together for another four hours, then called the Bucket’s maintenance team. They inspected the booth’s circuitry, but could find nothing wrong. Neither could they trace Julia’s last jump. The gibben permitted the retention of only the arrival data of our terminal; none of the external destinations were listed.

We notified the police, who filed Julia as a missing person. Her genetic pattern was fed into the international surveillance grid, but didn’t produce a match; she had neither used a d-mat since she left, nor submitted herself for medical treatment anywhere in the world.

Twenty-four hours passed, and still she didn’t reappear.

QDos was called in. They too went through the circuitry and gave it a clear thumbs-up. The fault lay not with the d-mat process, then, but elsewhere.

QDos tracked down Andy and subpoenaed a copy of the gibben. Subjected to intense scrutiny, it turned out to be a program of fiendish complexity. Even its creator—a member of QDos’ own research team—could not explain what had made it backfire.

But obviously, given the evidence, it had. Some sort of interaction between the gibben and the normal operation of the d-mat had caused an unprecedented malfunction. Jules had dematerialised properly, but had failed to reach her destination. She must have vanished into the system—literally, and forever.

The inquiry found Andy and the gibben’s creator guilty of both negligent and criminal misconduct. QDos, although they were completely blameless, resolved to avoid a recurrence and modified the d-mat network accordingly. Now, every time someone steps into a d-mat, a template of his or her physical form is stored in a central databank and able to be retrieved later, should something go wrong at any stage in the process.

Had such a facility been available before Julia’s disappearance, we could simply have procured a Judge’s order for her ‘resurrection’ and had her returned to us. Minus a few minutes, but still her.

It seemed darkly ironic at the time that she would be the one and only person ever to die as a direct result of the d-mat process. And that she had finally escaped in a way more permanent than either of us had dreamed she would.

Jules was gone, and there was nothing that we could do about it.

Ever.

#

Until now.

The restaurant of the counselling building offers a fine view of Chomski City. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the cuisine is predominantly Earth-like and the skyline—a row of jagged crystal and metal canines upthrust towards the stars—could belong to almost any city on the home planet. The only jarring element is an absence from, rather than an addition to, the night sky: Eta Boötis III has no major satellite, its three tiny moons little more than specks of light hanging low on the western horizon, difficult to distinguish from the O’Neill communities also in orbit about the planet. It takes time to notice the difference, but it is one I frequently find discomforting.

The night sky looks like a fake—a well-executed fake, to be sure, but one with stars slightly skewed and moon forgotten entirely.

For newly-arrived patrons, the restaurant acts as a reminder of places left far behind; for those heading the other way, it provides a foretaste of things to come. For me, it is a limbo, a boundary between states. Part of me longs for Earth, my home, but I know I can’t return until my reason for being on Tarsus has reached a conclusion. And maybe not even then. The past, quite literally, is holding me back.

Dad passed through anger, grief and acceptance over the years following Julia’s disappearance. I, on the other hand, never stopped blaming myself: as though by cheating on my last jump I had caused her death. We moved from the Bucket to Pakistan, where we finally settled for good, until he died of a cerebral haemorrhage ten years later. His will expressly forbade the use of d‑mat technology to resurrect him, which I could understand.

From then on, I was free to do whatever I wanted. University took me in his footstep’s—civil engineering—and to the PRPA. When the Fraun Effect made ftl transmission of information a practicality, and d-mat truly opened the stars, I migrated to Tarsus, where engineers were in demand. And there I settled, having realised my childhood dreams of migrating to the stars. Settled, and tried to forget.

It wasn’t until seven years later that I saw an article in Time Earth about the latecomers. With the trip to Tarsus suddenly down to thirty-nine days, we’d started building the colony straight away, without considering the colonists Earth had been sending en masse for a decade before the Fraun Effect—people who were still on the way, travelling at the tardy speed of light, well after the colony was built. With the first latecomers due to arrive in a couple of years, however, the true enormity of the situation began to hit home. Immigration couldn’t be cut back, not with resurrection so commonplace and Earth more crowded than ever, and the latecomers couldn’t be turned back in transit. They had to be integrated, somehow, into the grander scheme of the future, into the colony they had planned to build themselves but had been beaten to.

Like most later colonists, I’d never really thought about it before. I’d assumed that the first wave of colonists had already arrived, or had somehow vanished in transit. And it was only with this realisation that the rest hit me.

Feigning boredom, saying I’d had enough of designing cities, which was for the most part true, I applied for a position on the latecomer counselling team. To be sure I was close. I had no evidence to back my belief, just an absolute certainty. The look—wild, rebellious and youthful—in Julia’s eyes the day she disappeared told me everything I needed to know. And her final words: “I’ll be back in a sec with a ‘shot that’ll blow your fucking mind.”

Back in a sec. So ironic, now, thirty-one years later. If only she’d paid more attention to her schooling; if only she’d stopped to consider the effects of lightspeed on d-mat, especially with respect to interstellar travel. What may seem instantaneous never is, and thirty years is a long, long time to spend in limbo.

The latecomers were looking for a new home and she was trying to win a game. Both of them have failed. The latecomers find the planet over-run with people, and she loses everyone she ever loved: her father, her boyfriend, even her little brother.

The year is 2093. I’m old enough to be her father, now. Only time will tell if I, and Tarsus, are equal to the task of taming her.

Time, perhaps, and a great deal of help.

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