Nominated for Nebula Award for Best Novella in 2005
by Robert J. Sawyer
The door to my office slid open. “Hello,” I said, rising from my chair. “You must be my nine o’clock.” I said it as if I had a ten o’clock and an eleven o’clock, but I didn’t. The whole Martian economy was in a slump, and, even though I was the only private detective on Mars, this was the first new case I’d had in weeks.
“Yes,” said a high, feminine voice. “I’m Cassandra Wilkins.”
I let my eyes rove up and down her body. It was very good work; I wondered if she’d had quite so perfect a figure before transferring. People usually ordered replacement bodies that, at least in broad strokes, resembled their originals, but few could resist improving them. Men got buffer, women got curvier, and everyone modified their faces, removing asymmetries, wrinkles, and imperfections. If and when I transferred myself, I’d eliminate the gray in my blond hair and get a new nose that would look like my current one had before it’d been broken a couple of times.
“A pleasure to meet you, Ms. Wilkins,” I said. “I’m Alexander Lomax. Please have a seat.”
She was a little thing, no more than a hundred and fifty centimeters, and she was wearing a stylish silver-gray blouse and skirt, but no makeup or jewelry. I’d expected her to sit down with a catlike, fluid movement, given her delicate features, but she just sort of plunked herself into the chair. “Thanks,” she said. “I do hope you can help me, Mr. Lomax. I really do.”
Rather than immediately sitting down myself, I went to the coffee maker. I filled my own mug, then opened my mouth to offer Cassandra a cup, but closed it before doing so; transfers, of course, didn’t drink. “What seems to be the problem?” I said, returning to my chair.
It’s hard reading a transfer’s expression: the facial sculpting was usually very good, but the movements were somewhat restrained. “My husband— oh, my goodness, Mr. Lomax, I hate to even say this!” She looked down at her hands. “My husband… he’s disappeared.”
I raised my eyebrows; it was pretty damned difficult for someone to disappear here. New Klondike was only three kilometers in diameter, all of it locked under the dome. “When did you last see him?”
“Three days ago.”
My office was small, but it did have a window. Through it, I could see one of the supporting arches that helped to hold up the transparent dome over New Klondike. Outside the dome, a sandstorm was raging, orange clouds obscuring the sun. Auxiliary lights on the arch compensated for that, but Martian daylight was never very bright. That’s a reason why even those who had a choice were reluctant to return to Earth: after years of only dim illumination, apparently the sun as seen from there was excruciating. “Is your husband, um, like you?” I asked.
She nodded. “Oh, yes. We both came here looking to make our fortune, just like everyone else.”
I shook my head. “I mean is he also a transfer?”
“Oh, sorry. Yes, he is. In fact, we both just transferred.”
“It’s an expensive procedure,” I said. “Could he have been skipping out on paying for it?”
Cassandra shook her head. “No, no. Joshua found one or two nice specimens early on. He used the money from selling those pieces to buy the NewYou franchise here. That’s where we met — after I threw in the towel on sifting dirt, I got a job in sales there. Anyway, of course, we both got to transfer at cost.”
She was actually wringing her synthetic hands. “Oh, Mr. Lomax, please help me! I don’t know what I’m going to do without my Joshua!”
“You must love him a lot,” I said, watching her pretty face for more than just the pleasure of looking at it; I wanted to gauge her sincerity as she replied. After all, people often disappeared because things were bad at home, but spouses are rarely forthcoming about that.
“Oh, I do!” said Cassandra. “I love him more than I can say. Joshua is a wonderful, wonderful man.” She looked at me with pleading eyes. “You have to help me get him back. You just have to!”
I looked down at my coffee mug; steam was rising from it. “Have you tried the police?”
Cassandra made a sound that I guessed was supposed to be a snort: it had the right roughness, but was dry as Martian sand. “Yes. They— oh, I hate to speak ill of anyone, Mr. Lomax! Believe me, it’s not my way, but — well, there’s no ducking it, is there? They were useless. Just totally useless.”
I nodded slightly; it’s a story I heard often enough — I owed most of what little livelihood I had to the local cops’ incompetence and indifference. “Who did you speak to?”
“A— a detective, I guess he was; he didn’t wear a uniform. I’ve forgotten his name.”
“What did he look like?”
“Red hair, and—”
“That’s Mac,” I said. She looked puzzled, so I said his full name. “Dougal McCrae.”
“McCrae, yes,” said Cassandra. She shuddered a bit, and she must have noticed my surprised reaction to that. “Sorry,” she said. “I just didn’t like the way he looked at me.”
I resisted running my eyes over her body just then; I’d already done so, and I could remember what I’d seen. I guess her original figure hadn’t been like this one; if it had, she’d certainly be used to admiring looks from men by now.
“I’ll have a word with McCrae,” I said. “See what’s already been done. Then I’ll pick up where the cops left off.”
“Would you?” Her green eyes seemed to dance. “Oh, thank you, Mr. Lomax! You’re a good man — I can tell!”
I shrugged a little. “I can show you two ex-wives and a half-dozen bankers who’d disagree.”
“Oh, no,” she said. “Don’t say things like that! You
a good man, I’m sure of it. Believe me, I have a sense about these things. You’re a good man, and I know you won’t let me down.”
Naive woman; she’d probably thought the same thing about her husband — until he’d run off. “Now, what can you tell me about your husband? Joshua, is it?”
“Yes, that’s right. His full name is Joshua Connor Wilkins — and it’s Joshua, never just Josh, thank you very much.” I nodded. Guys who were anal about being called by their full first names never bought a round, in my experience. Maybe it was a good thing that this clown was gone.
“Yes,” I said. “Go on.” I didn’t have to take notes, of course. My office computer was recording everything, and would extract whatever was useful into a summary file for me.
Cassandra ran her synthetic lower lip back and forth beneath her artificial upper teeth, thinking for a moment. Then: “Well, he was born in Calgary, Alberta, and he’s thirty-eight years old. He moved to Mars seven mears ago.” Mears were Mars-years; about double the length of those on Earth.
“Do you have a picture?”
“I can access one,” she said. She pointed at my desk terminal. “May I?”
I nodded, and Cassandra reached over to grab the keyboard. In doing so, she managed to knock over my coffee mug, spilling hot joe all over her dainty hand. She let out a small yelp of pain. I got up, grabbed a towel, and began wiping up the mess. “I’m surprised that hurt,” I said. “I mean, I
like my coffee hot, but…”
“Transfers feel pain, Mr. Lomax,” she said, “for the same reason that biologicals do. When you’re flesh-and-blood, you need a signaling system to warn you when your parts are being damaged; same is true for those of us who have transferred. Admittedly, artificial bodies are much more durable, of course.”
“Ah,” I said.
“Sorry,” she replied. “I’ve explained this so many times now — you know, at work. Anyway, please forgive me about your desk.”
I made a dismissive gesture. “Thank God for the paperless office, eh? Don’t worry about it.” I gestured at the keyboard; fortunately, none of the coffee had gone down between the keys. “You were going to show me a picture?”
“Oh, right.” She spoke some commands, and the terminal responded — making me wonder what she’d wanted the keyboard for. But then she used it to type in a long passphrase; presumably she didn’t want to say hers aloud in front of me. She frowned as she was typing it in, and backspaced to make a correction; multiword passphrases were easy to say, but hard to type if you weren’t adept with a keyboard — and the more security conscious you were, the longer the passphrase you used.
Anyway, she accessed some repository of her personal files, and brought up a photo of Joshua-never-Josh Wilkins. Given how attractive Mrs. Wilkins was, he wasn’t what I expected. He had cold, gray eyes, hair buzzed so short as to be nonexistent, and a thin, almost lipless mouth; the overall effect was reptilian. “That’s before,” I said. “What about after? What’s he look like now that he’s transferred?”
“Umm, pretty much the same,” she said.
“Really?” If I’d had that kisser, I’d have modified it for sure. “Do you have pictures taken since he moved his mind?”
“No actual pictures,” said Cassandra. “After all, he and I only just transferred. But I can go into the NewYou database, and show you the plans from which his new face was manufactured.” She spoke to the terminal some more, and then typed in another lengthy passphrase. Soon enough, she had a computer-graphics rendition of Joshua’s head on my screen.
“You’re right,” I said, surprised. “He didn’t change a thing. Can I get copies of all this?”
She nodded, and spoke some more commands, transferring various documents into local storage.
“All right,” I said. “My fee is two hundred solars an hour.”
“That’s fine, that’s fine, of course! I don’t care about the money, Mr. Lomax — not at all. I just want Joshua back. Please tell me you’ll find him.”
“I will,” I said, smiling my most reassuring smile. “Don’t you worry about that. He can’t have gone far.”* * *
Actually, of course, Joshua Wilkins
perhaps have gone quite far — so my first order of business was to eliminate that possibility.
No spaceships had left Mars in the last ten days, so he couldn’t be off-planet. There was a giant airlock in the south through which large spaceships could be brought inside for dry-dock work, but it hadn’t been cracked open in weeks. And, although a transfer could exist freely on the Martian surface, there were only four personnel air locks leading out of the dome, and they all had security guards. I visited each of those air locks and checked, just to be sure, but the only people who had gone out in the last three days were the usual crowds of hapless fossil hunters, and every one of them had returned when the dust storm began.
I remember when this town had started up: “The Great Fossil Rush,” they called it. Weingarten and O’Reilly, two early private explorers who had come here at their own expense, had found the first fossils on Mars, and had made a fortune selling them back on Earth. More valuable than any precious metal; rarer than anything else in the solar system — actual evidence of extraterrestrial life! Good fist-sized specimens went for millions in online auctions; excellent football-sized ones for billions. There was no greater status symbol than to own the petrified remains of a Martian pentaped or rhizomorph.
Of course, Weingarten and O’Reilly wouldn’t say precisely where they’d found their specimens, but it had been easy enough to prove that their spaceship had landed here, in the Isidis Planitia basin. Other treasure hunters started coming, and New Klondike — the one and only town on Mars — was born.
Native life was never widely dispersed on Mars; the single ecosystem that had ever existed here seemed to have been confined to an area not much bigger than Rhode Island. Some of the prospectors — excuse me, fossil hunters — who came shortly after W O’s first expedition found a few nice specimens, although most had been badly blasted by blowing sand.
Somewhere, though, was the mother lode: a bed that produced fossils more finely preserved than even those from Earth’s famed Burgess Shale. Weingarten and O’Reilly had known where it was — they’d stumbled on it by pure dumb luck, apparently. But they’d both been killed when their heat shield separated from their lander when re-entering Earth’s atmosphere after their third expedition here — and, in the twenty mears since, no one had yet rediscovered it.
People were still looking, of course. There’d always been a market for transferring consciousness; the potentially infinite lifespan was hugely appealing. But here on Mars, the demand was particularly brisk, since artificial bodies could spend days or even weeks on the surface, searching for paleontological gold, without worrying about running out of air. Of course, a serious sandstorm could blast the synthetic flesh from metal bones, and scour those bones until they were whittled to nothing; that’s why no one was outside right now.
Anyway, Joshua-never-Josh Wilkins was clearly not outside the dome, and he hadn’t taken off in a spaceship. Wherever he was hiding, it was somewhere in New Klondike. I can’t say he was breathing the same air I was, because he wasn’t breathing at all. But he was
, somewhere. All I had to do was find him.