Contents

Approaching Human

Eric Brown

A story in 10 parts

One: Gel-Tank Atrocities

Two: The Disappearance of Jake Carrelli

Three: Played Like a Patsy

Four: Partially Human

Five: Decoy Codeline

Six: Death on Mars

Seven: At the Grave Garden

Eight: Making Love at the End of the World

Nine: At the Hoboken Junkyard (available at 23:59, New Year’s Eve)

Ten: First Contact (available at 00:01 New Year’s Day 2023)


Chapters 1 and 2 were published in Shoreline of Infinity 30. 


The novella Approaching Human will be published in paperback in Spring 2023.

Let us know what you think about a regular serial here on the Shoreline of Infinity website. Tell us via our Contact Form.

Man's face peering out of a large space helmet. Background is the rich, red landscap of Mars, with a faded yellow and blue of a Martian sky.

Approaching Human 10: First Contact

Eric Brown

I nestled in LaFay Oyeyemi’s Faraday purse, and experienced a peculiar kind of torture.

I could neither receive nor transmit data. I was denied the Cloud, the trillion-trillion-plus bytes of information that made up much of my reality. I existed in a pitch-black limbo, incommunicado, with only my memories for company.

I considered accessing the data cache of the hours I’d spent making love to Mona Taylor, reliving the passion to compensate for my present circumscribed situation.

I resisted the urge.

At midnight, I’d attempted to contact me3 to request a progress report. I’d received nothing in response. Not only did me3 fail to reply, but when I scanned, I found no evidence of his continued existence. Had me3 gone the way of me2? Had OmniScience, or whoever was behind all this, located and neutralised my copy? If so, it didn’t bode well for what might lie ahead.

I lay in the Faraday purse in a state of heightened anticipation.

I’d lodged a copy of myself, continually updated, deep in the Cloud – in case of emergencies, in case OmniScience discovered my presence and eradicated me too. But self-preservation is a solipsistic concept. I – the me whom I considered the original – didn’t want to cease to exist. I didn’t want to pass the baton of continued experience to my copy.

I wanted to survive. I wanted to hold Mona Taylor again.

LaFay Oyeyemi opened her Faraday purse, and it was as if a new day had dawned as I accessed data from the Cloud and took in my surroundings.

“We’re in the restroom of the basement labs,” she whispered as I rose from the confines of the purse and hovered in the white-tiled cubicle. “When you leave here, turn left. The corridor continues for about ten metres. Turn right, and you’ll see the double doors to the clinic at the end of the corridor. After that, it’ll be up to you. Good luck.”

“No problems getting yourself down here?” I asked.

“A cinch. I had something to deliver to the labs anyway.”

She pulled open the restroom door and turned right. I followed her out, turned left and flew along close to the ceiling.

LaFay had successfully got me past one level of security, but more lay in wait. The clinic would be protected by a data baffle, and OmniScience’s security system would also be scanning for all types of drone intruder.

As I turned the corner and approached the double doors, I employed a number of self-protective shields. I might have been tiny, hardly noticeable to the human eye, but I was the locus of considerable data storage that would pulse like a beacon to any self-respecting security system. It was all down to whether my defences were equal to OmniScience’s offensive capabilities.

The double doors were retina-activated. Several lab workers came and went, staring briefly at a camera to have their unique retina-prints scanned and accepted. Then the doors would sigh open, and the cyberneticists and techs would proceed.

It was a simple matter to hitch a ride on a worker’s metaphorical coat-tails and pass into the clinic.

A minute later, I did so, and the doors hissed shut in my wake.

I detached myself from the tech, rose to the ceiling and hovered, taking in the aseptic, white-walled chamber.

Half a dozen cyberneticists sat around the room, studying consoles and softscreens, their absorption as profound as the silence.

At the far end of the room, a window in the wall looked through into a second, smaller chamber. Beside the window was a sealed door.

A scientist suited up, donned a helmet and gave the thumbs up to a colleague who opened the hatch. She stepped into what looked like an airlock, and the door swung shut behind her. Ten seconds later, she was cycled into the inner room, and I watched her through the window.

I increased the magnification of my vision and stared through the glass.

Two male bodies lay on slabs within the hermetically sealed, antiseptic chamber. They were naked, their heads connected to Medusa-like hanks of graphite cable snaking away to a banked smartcore.

One of the bodies belonged to Hans Tallis – the other to Jake Carrelli.

The woman moved from one body to the other, calibrating the ports on the side of their heads, then turned to the smartcore behind the trio and read something from an inset screen.

I stared at their bodies, and made out the even rise and fall of their chests as they breathed.

I considered the Long Island grave garden, and the faked interment of Hans Tallis’s ashes beneath the oak sapling.

The woman finished what she was doing and approached the exit. When the outer door sighed open, I slipped through and adhered myself to the ceiling. I was, for the time being, imprisoned in the airlock until the entrance of the next scientist.

I waited patiently and considered what I’d discovered.

I had questions aplenty, but no answers. What was OmniScience doing with the bodies that had had their cerebral identities copied?

Why the lies?

The outer door opened, and a garbed, helmeted figure stepped into the airlock and was cycled through. I followed.

I positioned myself near the ceiling and stared down at the bodies. The scientist moved to the smartcore and examined the screen. Code scrolled, meaningless to me.

I scrutinised the men’s skulls, and saw what had been hidden from me from my previous vantage point in the outer chamber.

Carrelli and Tallis had undergone extensive cranial surgery. Implant jacks and sockets sat flush with their temples, miniaturised examples of the cyberneticists’ art, which would be hidden when their hair grew back. More shocking, however, was the circumferential scar that encircled their skulls. At some point, the tops of their heads had been removed and then replaced.

I could only speculate as to the reason for this.

The scientist turned from the smartcore and regarded the bodies, and I saw that it was Angel DiMatteo.

She reached out and ran gloved fingers over Jake Carrelli’s skull, almost lovingly.

Then, still staring down at the comatose body, she spoke, startling me.

“I’m so glad that you could join us, Mr Zorn. We would have come for you in time, of course, once we were satisfied as to your suitability.”

I wondered if my shields had been inadequate, or…

“Oyeyemi, right?” I said.

“She is a loyal OmniScience employee.”

“You said ‘my suitability’,” I said. “But suitability for what?”

She regarded the shaven skull before her, not bothering to look up at where I was hovering. “I was impressed by your investigative skills in tracing the leak, and the theft of Jake Carrelli’s cerebral copy, Mr Zorn. I decided to have someone investigate you a little further, and I must admit that I was even more impressed with what was discovered. Aside from your deductive abilities, I came to appreciate the … shall we say the more humane aspects of your personality. You’ve come on a long way from the AI which left the Mishima–Gelman lab.”

“You’ve been trailing me?”

She smiled behind the visor. “Right into your hideaway, the End of the World. I was … moved by your relationship with Professor Taylor, even if you did erase the memory of your initial encounter. I was pleased that you saw fit to cache the second episode of your love making. You’ve become… almost human.”

“What do you want with me, DiMatteo?” I stared down at the bodies. “And what are you doing with Carrelli and Tallis?”

Then she did look up at me. “Of course, you know nothing about what your copy discovered at the spaceport junkyard last night.”

“You were responsible for silencing my copies?”

“Well, let’s say that our discovery of the copies provoked them to self-destruct,” she said. “And we’ve traced the emergency backup of your identity you keep secreted deep in the Cloud, and the other copies you made. But don’t worry,” she went on, “we haven’t harmed those versions, merely incapacitated them for the time being.”

I gathered my thoughts, then repeated, “What do you want from me?”

She said, “Eugene MacArthur and his team discovered something … something terrible – and wonderful – on Mars.”

“What,” I asked, “did they discover?”

“Life.”

I experienced an intellectual thrill like a jolt of electricity. “Life on Mars…” I said. “Native life?”

She shook her head. “Extrasolar. They call themselves the Chull, and they hail from a planet orbiting the star we know as Delta Pavonis, almost twenty light years from Earth. When their ship entered the solar system thirty years ago, they experienced difficulties and crash-landed on Mars. A dozen aliens survived, and placed themselves in a form of suspension or hibernation – until they detected the presence of the Pegasus and its crew.”

“Incredible…”

“MacArthur and his team discovered the ship buried in the regolith, and investigated.”

“And the Chull killed three of the astronauts, and left MacArthur traumatised?”

Behind her face mask, DiMatteo frowned. “It wasn’t quite as it seemed,” she said. “Six years ago, ASA sent another ship to Mars, equipped with a team of AIs and drones tasked to study the Chull. We discovered that the deaths of Novak, Delgardo and Anderssen were the result of a terrible accident.”

“An accident?” I asked. “The Chull were not responsible?”

“Indirectly, yes, they were. But they did not intentionally kill the astronauts – ”

“They killed them accidentally?” I sounded sceptical, even to myself.

DiMatteo considered her response, then said, “They attempted to communicate with the astronauts in the only manner they know – mind to mind, or telepathically, if you will. However, the psychic discharge that resulted – the sheer volume of the mind-to-mind contact – proved too much for the three, and it was only because MacArthur fled the scene that he was saved from the worst of the effects, though even so he was catastrophically debilitated. We did our best, after bringing him back to Earth, to erase all memory of the contact, though we were only partially successful.”

“A tragic first contact…” I said.

“We’ve since discovered that the Chull were devastated. They were doing what for them was normal – extending psychic greetings. They were not to know that the human mind was not equal to the task.”

I began to see where this might be leading.

“You said there are AIs and drones up there. Have they assessed the intentions of the extraterrestrials?”

“They are an exploration team,” she said. “The Chull assure us that they are entirely peaceful. They are, for the time being, stranded on Mars until the rescue mission they’ve summoned can reach them, which could still be a decade away. They can survive until then in hibernation, with time out for individuals to communicate with our AIs. In the past few years, we’ve learned a lot.” She hesitated. “But we wish to know more, of course – namely, to corroborate, if possible, the Chulls’ claim that they come in peace.”

I gazed at the bodies that lay side by side beneath me. “And where,” I asked, “do Carrelli and Tallis come in?”

She smiled. “I should have known that you’d be ahead of me – ”

“Hans Tallis,” I said, “died of a cerebral haemorrhage – officially. But Jake Carrelli? I scanned footage of his leaving the OmniScience building on the day he disappeared – ”

DiMatteo shook her head. “He never left the building, Mr Zorn. What you followed was an avatar.”

Which, of course, explained his disappearance outside Luigi’s bistro that afternoon.

“You imprisoned him here, in this clinic,” I said. “You had them killed, both Tallis and Carrelli? And Tallis’s haemorrhage was nothing more than a cover up, right? Jake suspected that something wasn’t right – he wouldn’t have volunteered to have his cognitive copy uploaded, considering the risks.”

The woman reached out, touched Jake Carrelli’s cheek, almost lovingly. “I hope you’ll believe me when I say that both men died of natural causes – though causes which, I don’t deny, might have been the consequence of having their cerebral identities uploaded. Just three hours after Carrelli’s successful upload to the smartcore, he too suffered a cerebral haemorrhage…”

“But he knew the risks,” I said. “You must have coerced him.”

“I did nothing of the kind, Mr Zorn, though you might say I persuaded him.”

I shook my head. “But why send out an avatar of Carrelli?”

She hesitated, then nodded. “To buy us time. We feared the authorities might stall the project if Carrelli’s haemorrhage was discovered. We need a little time to complete the job.”

I stared down at the corpses, wondering how much I could trust Angel DiMatteo. For all I knew, the men’s “haemorrhages” were nothing more than a cover story.

“The scars,” I said. “You’ve removed their brains … and presumably uploaded copies of their cerebral identities to a cognitive nexus implanted in their skulls?”

“We successfully completed the procedure with Hans Tallis,” she said, “and uploaded his copy to the nexus – which is why the hackers were unable to take Tallis’s copy. We were about to perform the same operation on Carrelli when – ”

“When the hackers struck, making a copy of Carrelli’s cerebral identity and destroying your backups.”

DiMatteo nodded.

“And the reason for all this?” I asked.

“The AIs we’ve been using on Mars can only tell us so much about the Chull. We need … humans on the ground to interface with the aliens. For the past five years, we’ve been working to copy the human mind, and upload it onto a cybernetic matrix.”

I gestured to a body. “Tallis,” I said in a whisper. “Or whatever he is now.”

“He is human, Mr Zorn, I assure you. He is, to all intents and purposes, the person he always was – with the advantage that, when he communicates with the Chull, he will not be adversely affected by the aliens’ psychic discharge.” She stared up at me. “We will be sending Hans Tallis to Mars in less than a month.”

I looked from DiMatteo to Jake Carrelli. “And Carrelli?” I asked.

Behind the mask, her face was expressionless as she said, “Surely, Mr Zorn, you can work that out for yourself?”

“I failed to retrieve Jake Carrelli’s cerebral identity,” I said, “and the Chinese destroyed all the other copies. The body is,” I went on, “empty…”

“Vacant, untenanted, and … and awaiting habitation.” She went on, “We have suspended, for the time being, the uploading of human cognitive identities to the smartcore, for fear of further … fatalities.”

I stared at her. “Why me?” I asked.

She laid her head on one side and pursed her lips, regarding the drone that hovered before her. “Because you are the closest example of the successful rise to self-awareness I have ever studied in any AI. You would be an asset to our team, once uploaded into…” She gestured to the body of Jake Carrelli.

I considered what she had said, then asked, “But how can you be sure of my … my humanity? Even I wonder if my emotional response to everyday stimuli is merely so much code, hardwired into my psyche – even I doubt the genuineness of my apparently human emotions?”

DiMatteo smiled at me. “Such doubts are themselves a very human response,” she said. “Welcome to the human race.”

To be in possession of a human body, to inhabit flesh and blood… I had experienced a facsimile of the experience in VR, or course, but how might that fantasy compare with the reality of actually being human?

“Do I have a choice?” I asked.

Her lips quirked with humour. “Not really, Mr Zorn.”

“In that case, I have one request,” I said.

“Name it.”

“That you copy me, and upload the copy into Jake Carrelli’s body.”

“While your original,” she said, “is free to continue its affair with Mona Taylor?”

“Am I that obvious?”

“That human,” she said. “It’s a deal, Mr Zorn.”

I wondered if I could trust this woman, this human being. For all I knew, she could be lying, would renege on her promise and use me just as she had used Tallis and Carrelli.

But what choice did I have?

She raised a hand before her face and laid it flat, and I descended and made a perfect landing on her palm.

EPILOGUE

Mona and I sat side by side on the verandah, and watched the swollen sun at the End of the World.

That morning I’d contacted Ed Carrelli, arranged a meeting and broken the news that his brother was dead – somatically – though the Chinese possessed the only extant copy of his cognitive identity. He’d taken it well, all things considered, and promised to tell Jake’s wife.

More crocodile tears then, I thought cynically.

I finished telling Mona about what DiMatteo had said in the lab the previous day.

“She reprimanded the operatives who torched my office and destroyed my drones, and apologised to me for their overstepping the bounds of their remit. She said I can continue my PI work, if I wish.”

She looked at me. “So the bad guys have won, Rob? OmniScience have got what they wanted – you – and there was nothing, not a thing, you could do about it?”

I considered her words, smiling. “She might have got what she wanted, Mona, but she didn’t win.”

She tipped her head to one side. “How so?”

“Back in the lab, she told me that she’d found all the copies I’d made, and had deactivated them for the time being.” I shrugged. “I took her at her word. I thought she’d discovered my secret. I really thought that she had won.”

“Your secret?”

“I call it Zorn Prime,” I said. “The real me. I built it years ago, when I first left the lab, and over the years it … grew, protected by security that even DiMatteo’s cyberneticists couldn’t crack. Everything learned and experienced by the various copies of myself was uploaded to Prime. She thought she had me, but all she had was a copy, from which she made a copy to work for her on Mars.”

In the silence that followed, Mona nodded, then reached out and touched my cheek. “And the ‘you’ I have, Rob – is he a copy, or the real thing?”

I smiled, and touched her hand. “Prime,” I said. “The ‘real’ thing.”

I no longer wiped the memories of our time together: I lived them again and again in spare moments – when Mona was no longer with me in VR – relishing the passion, my response to her humanity, and learning from it.

She stood up, took my hand and walked me to the bedroom.

And while we made love on Earth, I2 prepared to meet the Chull on Mars.

Eric Brown has published over seventy books. His latest is Murder Most Vile, and later this year is the SF novel Wormhole, written with Keith Brooke. Also with Brooke, the Enigma Season quartet of novellas is forthcoming from PS Publishing. He lives near Dunbar in Scotland.

His website is at: ericbrown.co.uk

Artwork: Mark Toner

Editor’s note

Approaching Human by Eric Brown is a serial in 10 parts. 

Approaching Human will be published in paperback format in March 2023. Watch out for details by subscribing to the mailing list.

—Noel Chidwick

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