The Empty Faux-Historical Residential Unit

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Image Credit: Future London

Data incoming

Galactic Medical Corps system tracer alert

Query “Watson_J+Earth+reintegration” returned

Watson, J – Identity confirmed w/ DNA scan

Spaceport 762 – Earth re-entry approved

Reintegration Center 12 – New London – arrival logged

23:14 05032195

Loading program “consciousness_backup33_2”

12.75 hrs remaining

Ping “Holmes_M”

I wake to sunlight—real, natural sunlight—streaming in through the naked window, for the first time in a decade. It drills right through my eyelids, hot and inescapable, and for just a moment I’m helplessly homesick. Then I remind myself that the bleak, black edges of space were not my home and carefully crack open my eyes.

The room would probably seem dim to a real Earther (I am a real Earther, must remember), but to me natural sunlight is painful. The eyemask I wore to bed has lost its adherence from some combination of night sweat and tears. Not a problem. It’s disposable, and also the one meager comfort that the GMC will provide to returning frontier doctors, free of charge.

There’s another mask waiting on the bedside table; I fumble for it and tear off the paper backing, sticking it carefully to my face, sealing the natural light out with tinted UV paper. The relief is immediate, though the startling heat of the room is still uncomfortable. It doesn’t matter. Today I’ll pick up my GMC “reintegration support” chit and find a room somewhere out of the sun. I’ve gotten good at starting over.

Like so many government buildings, the Reintegration Center is staffed almost entirely by robots. When I leave my room, a robot maid is waiting to strip the bed and clean the tiny bathroom. As I make my way through the temp residence floors and down to the Support Office, robots of all sorts zip past me like water around a rock. They make me feel slow, clumsy. Superfluous. It’s very different from a morning in the deep space colonies. The robots here are low-end, government-made tech, nothing like the nearly human androids employed by private companies and citizens for customer or home service work. In deep space there aren’t robots at all. A doctor can still make something of a living out there in low-grav, far from the sun, where robots haven’t yet replaced human judgement. Of course, if you ask me, no robot can replace human judgement. (No robot other than him, anyway. But he’s gone, been gone a long time, and it’s only being on Earth again that makes my chest hurt when I think about him.)

Here in the RC, the robot behind the steel desk in the office scans my retinas and pricks my fingertip, processing identity markers before dispensing my allotment on a flimsy paper chit. It’s just a receipt; my housing credit goes into my account instantly. Even the basic modern conveniences seem strange, now, but they are at least convenient.

I think of Mary, shaking her head with fond exasperation as I tallied up the baskets of hydroponic vegetables, the freeze-dried hens from the terraforming farms on Ceres, and the only-sometimes-useful mechanical bits and bobs I accepted in lieu of payment. “We’ll never go hungry, at least,” she’d say with a grin, game for every adventure, even those simple domestic ones. I should have known better by then. Adventures are only fun until—well.

The robot beeps, and this time dispenses a temp-pad, the cheap, mass-produced kind you can pick up at the chemist or the grocery. Basic net connectivity, public access browsing and communication software. It scans my thumbprint as I turn it on, and immediately produces a list of available housing within my budget. The list, a notification informs me, is optimized based on every factor the pad can get about me through public record, which is pretty much everything: past residences, medical history, job history, consumption and purchasing trends. The algorithm somehow settles on a top ten. It’s a bit much to deal with on an empty stomach.

I glance through the options, then shove the pad into my pocket and slide a finger around the edges of my eyemask, making sure of the seal; shapeless, one-size UV parkas hang on hooks beside the door, and I slip one on before stepping outside into the fierce daylight.

Data incoming

Galactic Medical Corps system tracer alert

Query “Watson_J+Earth+reintegration” returned

Watson, J – Identity confirmed w/ DNA scan

Reintegration Center 12 – New London – funds transferred

10:38 05042195

Loading program “consciousness_backup33_2”

1.5 hrs remaining

Loading program “hardware_model4.2_operationdiag”

Run “hardware_model4.2_operationdiag”

Operational diagnostic 0% complete

ACK received “Holmes_M”

The main doors are on hoverstreet level, but I noticed a public lift outside last night. As brave as I felt striding out into the world, in reality the light and heat that greet me are unbearable. I stand in front of the lift, hesitating. Perhaps this time it would be better to find a flat on a sunlit level and look for a sunlit job; dark places haven’t brought me anything but—

The thought is so blatantly untrue, I can’t quite finish it. Mary’s laughter rings through my head. Softer, farther back, I hear the mournful cry of an old-fashioned acoustic violin, played with mechanical precision but peppered with bursts of emotion like knots in a fine chain.

Dark places have brought me more joy than pain, in the end, so I step into the lift and make my way Below.

Lower London is a crazed mashup of pre-hover eras, going back hundreds of years. Some sections are almost modern, if ground-bound, and see a brisk trade. Other areas are crowded with houses, still livable, from the reigns of Victoria I and the four Georges before her, squashed between faux-historical constructions from the Preservation and Re-Creation craze a few decades back. It was all over the news when I was a kid—tearing down obsolete Tube stations and ugly twentieth century architecture to bring back the romantic scenery of older times.

It’s been a while, but I still have much of the map in my head; down here change has moved out and up, leaving a static world behind.

As I stroll, pitying looks from strangers on the street remind me that I’m still wearing the UV mask—so it’s not quite as dim down here as I think—but I’ve just got the one, so it’ll have to stay on. It’s not entirely unheard of to wear a mask Below; people live here because they can’t afford the Upper City, or they’re like me, returning from work or service (or, sometimes, pleasure) in colonial space and getting too old to fully adjust to the bright life.

“The Dim is where crime happens,” says an almost gleeful voice in my head, and I push it away. My stomach’s voice is louder. I haven’t eaten since lunch yesterday, so I slip into the next pub I see with “cooked breakfast” on the signboard.

The Nine Balls Pub and Games Hall is, at this time of the afternoon, a quiet and mostly empty establishment. A few grizzled-looking older men, probably regulars, sit with pints at the far end of the bar; they glance up when I enter, and one of them gives me (and probably my eyemask) a long, hard look. He’s got a military sort of bearing; maybe he sees the same in me. The bartender, a muscled and gruff-looking woman perhaps a decade or two younger than I, is scowling at a vidscreen as she loads glasses into the body of a dishwashing/drying robot. The gaming tables are entirely empty. Not surprising—instead of more modern games, virtual pachinko and pneumatic snooker and the like, they’ve got old-fashioned wood tables for billiards and what might be bagatelle. An effort to fit in with the historical chic, no doubt, but I notice layers of dust, varying in thickness, on the tables. Clearly they haven’t seen much use.

When I realize I’m idly deducing which billiards variant has been most recently played from the paths in the dust and the wear on the cleanest table, I shake my head to clear it and plunk myself down at the bar.

“Fry-up and a coffee, please,” I tell the bartender before she can ask, and I try to distract myself with the newsfeed screen in the countertop.

“. . . found dead in his flat late last night. According to Scotland Yard inspectors, Adair was last seen alive at the Nine Balls Pub in Lower London, where he frequently indulged in turn-of-the-century table games . . .”

Well. No wonder the place is so quiet.

“Good bloke, good customer,” the bartender is saying on the vidscreen, frowning at the camera. “We’ll miss ‘im.”

“Caught my bad side, they did,” she says in real life, setting a steaming cup of coffee in front of me and blocking my view of the feed. “Wish they’d stop nattering on about the Nine Balls, no good for business.”

“I don’t really think much could hurt this business,” I mutter, warming my hands on the mug, and she scowls and leaves me to it. Young people today, no sense of humor.

Data incoming

Galactic Medical Corps system tracer alert

Query “Watson_J+Earth+reintegration” returned

Watson, J – Identity confirmed w/ DNA scan

Nine Balls – Old London – funds charged

12:02 05042195

Galactic Medical Corps system access alert

Record “Watson_J02145” updated – author “Holmes_M”

Loading program “consciousness_backup33_2”

Program loaded

Operational diagnostic 100% complete: All hardware fully functional

Run program “consciousness_backup33_2”

I’ve been away from Earth long enough to find the newsfeed quite absorbing—everything is news to me—but I’m snapped out of it when an alarm notification sounds from the other end of the bar. The bloke who’d given me the long look coming in fumbles for the pad in his pocket and silences the chime. He stares at it a minute, and then, for whatever reason, looks back at me. His sudden scrutiny is so intent, it makes my fingers curl convulsively into a fist. Before I can react any further, he’s up off his stool and out the door.

The back of my neck prickles. Probably I just remind the old guy of someone he knows. I’ve been told I have the kind of face that blends in. Still, there’s a familiar voice in the back of my head, and I don’t even have to listen to it to know what it’s telling me. My tab’s already paid, I’m just picking at my food. Time to go.

He moves quickly, purposefully; the military bearing is more evident now in his stride and the way he watches the street around him. If he knows I’m tailing him, he gives no sign. Even after a decade away, I’m slipping back into this like a fish into water; my blood’s up, the old wounds don’t ache. I’m ready for anything: a sudden chase through hidden alleys, a quick and dirty fistfight, a dramatic citizen’s arrest. It’s exhilarating.

Six blocks later, Military Man swipes his way into an unassuming residential building on Park Crescent and leaves me stuck, jittery and frustrated, on an empty street corner. I can’t follow him without attracting attention, and I don’t want to get arrested for breaking and entering on my first day back on Earth just because some bloke looked at me funny.

It’s not an adventure, after all. That’s not what I do anymore.

Grudgingly I pull the pad out of my pocket and consult the top ten recommended residences list. The list has shuffled since I last checked it, which is . . . odd. This time I ignore the back-of-the-neck prickle. Sometimes odd things happen; not everything is a conspiracy. The new top suggestion is on Allsop Place, just a few blocks from here. Old stomping grounds, for me. Worth checking out. I turn away from Military Man’s building and head west without looking back.

Marylebone Road to Allsop looks much like I remember. The walk is nice enough, and the Prez-and-Rec “electric flame” lamps flicker pleasantly above my head. It’s prodding the edges of a healing wound, to house-hunt so studiously near but never on the old street. I suppose even a doctor can’t help picking at scabs sometimes. At least the residential units here aren’t original Georgian and Victorian. I can deal with a place that needs fixing up, but original houses are far more costly to repair. I still have nightmares about the red tape and expense inherent in keeping up a historical building, and we were just renters then. Well, I was a renter. He was just a menace. No, a Prez-and-Rec house will suit me just fine, and that’s what I find when I come to the address my pad indicates.

The building, tucked into the sharp corner where Allsop turns into Park Road, doesn’t look terribly inviting. It’s an eyesore, paint worn away and brickwork chipped, and the ground floor windows are all papered over. It doesn’t even have a “For Sale” sign, like some of the others on this block. Why did my “optimized list” decide on this one? Price, perhaps, but once again I can’t help but feel that something is . . . off. As if there’s more to this place, this whole morning, than I can see. Discerning the patterns has never been my strong suit, though. There’s nothing for it but to press on and see what happens; if someone wants me here, I’ll find out soon enough.

I try the door. It’s not locked, but it is stuck; an ungentle shove with my shoulder pops it open quick enough. The inside is dark, more so through my mask, enough to wish I had a torch. The front room is empty of furniture and smells musty and unused, but not foul; the floors seem solid, and the stairs hold my weight when I follow them to the upper floor. The windows here are uncovered and let in a little more light, so I glance into each room to get a sense of the layout.

At the back of the house, furthest from the street corner, I find a robot.

It’s dark.

Low-light vision adjustment

Working…

Complete

The house is empty, thick layers of dust.

Formula thickness/dust accumulation per year=x

Calculating…

9.923 years

Conclusion: out of use for a decade. Extensive physical self-repair completed over duration. Last conscious data recorded: preparations to go into hiding. Current consciousness backup created as part of said preparations. Last physical data recorded:

Review hardware sensor readings

Data sort: 10 years

Compiling…

Complete

Conclusion from available physical data: J. Moriarty deceased. Current physical body damaged in altercation, distress signal activated. Body retrieved by M. Holmes, returned to residence for self-repair cycle. Query: remaining risk factors?

Aggregate newsfeed search

Keyword string “Moran_S”

Data sort: 10 years

Compiling…

Complete

Still at large. Last recorded positive identification 09122186. Conclusion: identity altered.

Run program “identity_trace” startpoint “Moran_S”

Compiling…

Estimated run time 06:23:02

Extent and skill of identity alteration may indicate awareness of my survival. Conclusion: Moran remains a danger.

Consciousness backup program triggered by data alert re: J. Watson. Query: status of J. Watson?

Review data all sources

Keyword string “Watson_J”

Data sort: 10 years

Compiling…

Complete

Conclusion: Error 808 – Sentiment

Conclusion: Error 808 – Sentiment

Load subprogram “human_emotional_range_factors”

Loading…

Complete

Load subprogram “personal_emotional_expression”

Loading…

Complete

Conclusion: Strong desire to locate J. Watson as soon as possible.

The dust-covered robot is a straightforward sort, with an entirely clear purpose. Visual sensors trained out the window, a visual data processing unit, and a mechanical arm assembly made for remote virtual control. I encountered them often enough in my service days, mass-produced robots built to take the place of human soldiers, controlled from home base by virtual reality software. A way to get closer to the enemy, track their movements, and take out targets, without putting troops in danger.

Like the army robots I knew, attached to this mechanical arm assembly is a laser sniper rifle.

Everything goes cold, and clear. I should have trusted my instincts, should have been trusting them all day. Trouble always finds me, and I can’t say I’m sorry about it. I step cautiously toward the window to follow the sensors’ trajectory. A glance confirms my suspicion; though the front of the house faces Allsop, it’s a narrow corner building, and the back is street-facing as well. Beyond the glass, I can see Baker Street, precisely as I remember it; following the sightline of the rifle and the visual sensors, I find myself peering into the windows of 221B.

Windows that should be shuttered and dark, abandoned. Windows that are, instead, blazing with light through the UV shades.

A shadow passes from one end to the other, then back again—a figure, pacing. The figure pauses, revealing its profile. High forehead, aquiline nose. A profile I would know anywhere, a profile that cannot possibly, possibly—

The robot’s visual sensors engage with a whir, zoom in, and the time it takes me to register the sound and look at the robot and comprehend is much too long—but when the mechanical arm swings up, dislodging thick layers of dust, I throw myself onto the butt end without thinking. The laser slices a line through the UV shade and cuts up into the roof of 221. The robot shudders with effort as it tries to correct itself, but my weight is enough to hold it off-target for a moment or two. Finally the rifle arm swivels, knocking me off balance, and the visual sensors sweep around to find me. I tear off the UV parka I wore out of the RC this morning and shove it hard against the sensor panel, tying it in place with the sleeves before throwing myself onto the rifle arm again, wrenching it down toward the floor.

The world narrows down to my own body and the mechanism is spinning and bucking. My weight isn’t enough now; I can’t get purchase on anything to force it still. It’s just a robot, but there’s someone on the other end who’s fighting me blind, and I’m not used to this sort of thing anymore, and I’m going to tire out before this robot will, and I’ve got to get to Baker Street

At which point several inexplicable things happen in rapid succession. The robot shudders to a stop, as if all the fight’s gone out of it. The rifle arm swerves sharply toward the floor, which was my goal but still sends me tumbling. Then the rifle is torn, physically, from the robot’s base with a horrible screech of metal and a startling shower of sparks. A voice asks, close to my ear, “Are you all right?”

I am reeling and dizzy and blinded by afterimages of the sparks on my retinas, but I know that voice all the way down to my bones. I reach out and a hand steadies me, long fingers, warm to the touch, but skin that isn’t quite skin, no muscles or bones or blood underneath. I haven’t felt that hand, that skin, in a decade. I blink hard behind the mask, and when I open my eyes, he’s there.

His face is exactly the same, except for the slice across the side of his head where the laser struck, revealing the wiring inside. It’s already repairing itself. It’s not a wound, but I’m still a doctor, and I can’t help touching my fingers to the edges of the damage. He holds still, peering at me with something like concern and something like joy. “Are you all right?” he asks again.

When I’ve eliminated all the responses I find impossible to speak aloud, I am left with a merely improbable truth. “Yes,” I say.

He grins and rises, tugging me to my feet.

“Hurry, then,” he says. “The game is on!”

end article

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Rachel Hochberg

About Rachel Hochberg

Rachel Hochberg spends her days matching young readers with good books at an independent children's bookstore in the Philadelphia suburbs, and her nights thinking about all the good books that have yet to be written. Her free time is filled with reading, cooking, haunting tumblr like a particularly nerdy ghost, singing along to the radio, and watching television with her attention-seeking rabbit, Percy. Someday, they may both be trapped beneath the profuse and teetering piles of books cluttering the apartment--but until then, the piles will inevitably continue to grow.