Red Planet Blues
Robert J. Sawyer, the author of such “revelatory and thought-provoking”* novels as Triggers and The WWW Trilogy, presents a noir mystery expanded from his Hugo and Nebula Award-nominated novella “Identity Theft” and his Aurora Award-winning short story “Biding Time,” and set on a lawless Mars in a future where everything is cheap, and life is even cheaper…
Alex Lomax is the one and only private eye working the mean streets of New Klondike, the Martian frontier town that sprang up forty years ago after Simon Weingarten and Denny O’Reilly discovered fossils on the Red Planet. Back on Earth, where anything can be synthesized, the remains of alien life are the most valuable of all collectibles, so shiploads of desperate treasure hunters stampeded to Mars in the Great Martian Fossil Rush.
Trying to make an honest buck in a dishonest world, Lomax tracks down killers and kidnappers among the failed prospectors, corrupt cops, and a growing population of transfers—lucky stiffs who, after striking paleontological gold, upload their minds into immortal android bodies. But when he uncovers clues to solving the decades- old murders of Weingarten and O’Reilly, along with a journal that may lead to their legendary mother lode of Martian fossils, God only knows what he’ll dig up...
* The Globe and Mail
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. Peo¬ple usually ordered replacement bodies that, at least in broad strokes, resembled their originals, but few could resist improving them. Men got more buff, women got curvier, and everyone modified their faces, remov¬ing asymmetries, wrinkles, and imperfections. If I ever transferred my¬self, 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 150 centimeters, and she was wearing a stylish silver–gray blouse and skirt but no makeup or jewelry. I’d expected her to sit with a fluid catlike movement, given her delicate features, but she just sort of plunked herself into the chair. “Th anks,” she said. “I do hope you can help me, Mr. Lomax. I really do.”
Rather than immediately sitting down myself, I went to the coff ee¬maker. I filled my own mug, then offered Cassandra one; most models of transfer could eat and drink in order to be sociable, but she declined my offer. “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 excellent, 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 locked under a shallow dome four kilometers in diameter and just twenty meters high at the central support column. “When did you last see him?”
“Three days ago.”
My office was small, but it did have a window. Through it, I could see the crumbling building next door and one of the gently sloping arches that helped hold up the transparent dome. Outside the dome, a dust storm was raging, orange clouds obscuring the sun. Auxiliary lights on the arch compensated for that, but Martian daylight was never very bright. “Is your husband, um, like you?” I asked.
She nodded. “Oh, yes. We both came here looking to make our for¬tune, 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 with¬out 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. Th ey—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 much of what little livelihood I had to the NKPD’s indifference to most crime. They were a private force, employed by Howard Slapcoff to protect his thirty–year–old investment in constructing this city. The cops made a token effort to keep order but that was all. “Who did you speak to?”
“A—a detective, I guess he was; he didn’t wear a uniform. I’ve for¬gotten 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 fi gure 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 are 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.”
Naïve woman; she’d probably thought the same thing about her hubby—until he’d run off. “Now, what can you tell me about your hus¬band? 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. In my experi¬ence, guys who were anal about being called by their full fi rst names never bought a round. Maybe it was a good thing this joker was gone.
“Yes,” I said. “Go on.” I didn’t have to take notes. My offi ce computer— a small green cube sitting on my desk—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. “Well, he was born in Wich¬ita, Kansas, 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 pointed at my dusty keyboard. “May I?”
I nodded, and Cassandra reached over to grab it. In doing so, she managed to knock over my “World’s Greatest Detective” coff ee 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 do like my coffee hot, but . . .”
“Transfers feel pain, Mr. Lomax,” she said, “for the same reason bio¬logicals 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. Of course, artificial bodies are much more durable.”
“Sorry. 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 offi ce, eh? Don’t worry about it.” I gestured at the keyboard; fortunately, none of the coff ee 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 con¬scious you were the longer the passphrase you used.
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.”
“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 ter¬minal 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, plus ex¬penses.”
“Th at’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 fi nd him.”
“I will,” I said, smiling my most reassuring smile. “Don’t worry about that. He can’t have gone far.”
Actually, of course, Joshua Wilkins could perhaps have gone quite far—so my first order of business was to eliminate that possibility.
No spaceships had left Mars in the last twenty 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 airlock stations leading out of the dome, and they all had security guards. I visited each of those and checked, just to be sure, but the only people who had gone out in the past three days were the usual crowds of hapless fossil hunters, and every one of them had returned when the dust storm began.
I’d read about the early days of this town: “The Great Martian Fossil Rush,” they called it. Weingarten and O’Reilly, the two private explorers who had come here at their own expense, had found the fi rst fossils on Mars and had made a fortune selling them back on Earth. Th ey were more valuable than any precious metal and rarer than anything else in the solar system—actual evidence of extraterrestrial life! Good fi st–sized specimens went for tens of thousands; excellent football–sized ones for millions. In a world in which almost anything, including diamonds and gold, could be synthesized, there was no greater status symbol than to own the genuine petrified remains of a Martian pentapod or rhizomorph.
Weingarten and O’Reilly never said precisely where they’d found their specimens, but it had been easy enough to prove that their fi rst spaceship had landed here, in the Isidis Planitia basin. Other treasure hunters started coming, and Howard Slapcoff—the billionaire founder of the company that pioneered the process by which minds could be scanned and uploaded—had used a hunk of his fortune to create our domed city. Many of those who’d found good specimens in the early days had bought property in New Klondike from him. It had been a wonderful investment for Slapcoff: the land sales brought him more than triple what he’d spent erecting the dome, and he’d been collecting a life–support tax from residents ever since. Well, from the biological residents, at least, but Slappy got a fat royalty from NewYou each time his transfer process was used, so he lined his pockets either way.
Native life was never widely dispersed on Mars; the single ecosystem that had existed here seemed to have been confined to this basin. Some of the other prospectors—excuse me, fossil hunters—who came shortly after W&O’s first expedition found a few excellent specimens, although most of the finds had been in poor shape.
Somewhere, though, was the mother lode: a bed known as the “Alpha Deposit” that produced fossils more finely preserved than even those from Earth’s 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 ship upon re–entry into Earth’s atmosphere after their third expedition—and, in the twenty mears since, no one had yet rediscovered it. But people were still looking.
There’d always been a market for transferring consciousness; the po¬tentially infinite lifespan was hugely appealing. But here on Mars, the demand was particularly brisk, since artificial bodies could spend weeks or even months on the surface, searching for paleontological gold.
Anyway, Joshua–never–Josh Wilkins was clearly not outside the hab¬itat and he hadn’t taken off in a spaceship. Wherever he was hiding, it was somewhere under the New Klondike dome. I can’t say he was breathing the same air I was, because he wasn’t breathing at all. But he was here, somewhere. All I had to do was fi nd him.
I didn’t want to duplicate the efforts of the police, although “eff orts” was usually too generous a term to apply to the work of the local con¬stabulary; “cursory attempts” probably was closer to the truth, if I knew Mac.
New Klondike had twelve radial roadways, cutting across the nine con¬centric rings of buildings under the dome. The rings were evenly spaced, except for the giant gap between the seventh and eighth, which accom¬modated agricultural fields, the shipyard, warehouses, water–treatment and air–processing facilities, and more. My office was at dome’s edge, on the outside of the Ninth Circle; I could have taken a hovertram into the center but I preferred to walk. A good detective knew what was happening on the streets, and the hovertrams, dilapidated though they were, sped by too fast for that.
When I’d first come here, I’d quipped that New Klondike wasn’t a hellhole—it wasn’t far enough gone for that. “More of a heckhole,” I’d said. But that had been ten years ago, just after what had happened with Wanda, and if something in the middle of a vast plain could be said to be going downhill, New Klondike was it. The fused–regolith streets were cracked, buildings—and not just the ones in the old shantytown—were in disrepair, and the seedy bars and brothels were full of thugs and con art¬ists, the destitute and the dejected. As a character in one of the old movies I like had said of a town, “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.” New Klondike should have a sign by one of the air–locks that proclaims, “Twinned with Mos Eisley, Tatooine.”
I didn’t make any bones about staring at the transfers I saw along the way. They ranged in style from really sophisticated models, like Cassan¬dra Wilkins, to things only a step up from the Tin Woodman of Oz. Th e latter were easy to identify as transfers, but the former could sometimes pass for biologicals, although you develop a knack for identifying them, too, almost subconsciously noting an odd sheen to the plastiskin or an unnatural smoothness in the movement of the limbs; paydar, it was called: the ability to spot a bought body.
Of course, those who’d contented themselves with second–rate syn¬thetic forms doubtless believed they’d trade up when they eventually happened upon some decent specimens. Poor saps; no one had found truly spectacular remains for mears, and lots of people were giving up and going back to Earth, if they could afford the passage, or were settling in to lives of, as Thoreau would have it, quiet desperation, their dreams as dead as the fossils they’d never found.
I continued walking easily along; Mars gravity is just thirty–eight percent of Earth’s. Some people were stuck here because they’d let their muscles atrophy; they’d never be able to hack a full gee again. Me, I was stuck here for other reasons—thank God Mars has no real government and so no extradition treaties. But I worked out more than most people did—at Gully’s Gym, over by the shipyard—and so still had strong legs; I could walk comfortably all day if I had to.
I passed a few spindly or squat robots—most of whom were dumb as posts, and none of whom were brighter than a four–year–old—running errands or engaged in the Sisyphean tasks of road and building repair.
The cop shop was a lopsided five–story structure—it could be that tall, this near the center of the dome—with chipped and cracked walls that had once been white but were now a grimy grayish pink. Th e front doors were clear alloquartz, same as the overhead dome, and they slid aside as I walked up to them. On the lobby’s right was a long red desk—as if we don’t see enough red on Mars—with a map showing the Isidis Pla¬nitia basin behind it; New Klondike was a big circle off to one side.
The NKPD consisted of eight cops, the junior ones of whom took turns playing desk sergeant. Today it was a flabby lowbrow named Hux¬ley, whose blue uniform always seemed a size too small for him. “Hey, Hux,” I said, walking over. “Is Mac in?”
Huxley consulted a monitor then nodded. “Yeah, he’s in, but he don’t see just anyone.”
“I’m not just anyone, Hux. I’m the guy who picks up the pieces aft er you clowns bungle things.”
Huxley frowned, trying to think of a rejoinder. “Yeah, well . . .” he said, at last.
“Oooh,” I said. “Good one, Hux! Way to put me in my place.”
He narrowed his eyes. “You ain’t as funny as you think you are, Lomax.”
“Of course I’m not. Nobody could be that funny.” I nodded at the secured inner door. “Going to buzz me through?”
“Only to be rid of you,” said Huxley. So pleased was he with the wit of this remark that he repeated it: “Only to be rid of you.” He reached below the counter, and the inner door—an unmarked black panel—slid aside. I pantomimed tipping a hat at Hux and headed into the station proper. I then walked down the corridor to McCrae’s office; the door was open, so I rapped my knuckles against the steel jamb.
“Lomax!” he said, looking up. “Decided to turn yourself in? ”
“Very funny, Mac. You and Hux should go on the road together.”
He snorted. “What can I do for you, Alex?”
Mac was a skinny biological with shaggy orange eyebrows shielding his blue eyes. On the credenza behind his desk were holograms of his wife and his baby daughter; the girl had been born just a couple of months ago. “I’m looking for a guy named Joshua Wilkins.”
Mac had a strong Scottish brogue—so strong, I figured it must be an affectation. “Ah, yes. Who’s your client? Th e wife?”
“Quite the looker,” he said.
“That she is. Anyway, you tried to find her husband, this Wilkins . . .”
“We looked around, yeah,” said Mac. “He’s a transfer, you knew that?”
“Well,” Mac said, “she gave us the plans for his new face—precise measurements and all that. We’ve been feeding all the videos from public security cameras through facial–recognition software. So far, no luck.”
I smiled. That’s about as far as Mac’s detective work normally went: things he could do without hauling his bony ass out from behind his desk. “How much of New Klondike do they cover now?” I asked.
“It’s down to forty percent of the public areas.”
People kept smashing, stealing, or jamming the cameras faster than Mac and his staff could replace them; this was a frontier town, aft er all, and there were lots of things going on folks didn’t want observed. “You’ll let me know if you fi nd anything?”
Mac drew his shaggy eyebrows together. “Even Mars has to abide by Earth’s privacy laws, Alex—or, at least, our parent corporation does. I can’t divulge what the security cameras see.”
I reached into my pocket, pulled out a fi fty–solar coin, and fl ipped it. It went up rapidly but came down in what still seemed like slow motion to me, even after a decade on Mars; Mac didn’t require a transfer’s re¬flexes to catch it in midair. “Of course,” he said, “I suppose we could make an exception . . .”
“Thanks. You’re a credit to law–enforcement offi cials everywhere.”
He smiled, then: “Say, what kind of heat you packing these days? You still carrying that old Smith & Wesson?”
“It’s registered,” I said, narrowing my eyes.
“Oh, I know, I know. But be careful, eh? The times, they are a–changin’. Bullets aren’t much use against a transfer, and there are getting to be more of those each day, since the cost of the procedure is finally coming down.”
“So I’ve heard. Do you happen to know the best place to plug a trans¬fer, if you had to take one out?”
Mac shook his head. “It varies from model to model, and NewYou does its best to retrofit any physical vulnerabilities that are uncovered.”
“So how do you guys handle them?”
“Until recently, as little as possible,” said Mac. “Turning a blind eye, and all that.”
“Saves getting up.”
Mac didn’t take off ense. “Exactly. But let me show you something.” We left his office, went farther down the corridor, and entered another room. He pointed to a device on the table. “Just arrived from Earth. Th e latest thing.”
It was a wide, flat disk, maybe half a meter in diameter and fi ve cen¬timeters thick. There were a pair of U–shaped handgrips attached to the edge, opposite each other. “What is it?”
“A broadband disruptor,” Mac said. He picked it up and held it in front of himself, like a gladiator’s shield. “It discharges an oscillating multifrequency electromagnetic pulse. From a distance of four meters or less, it will completely fry the artificial brain of a transfer—killing it as effectively as a bullet kills a human.”
“I don’t plan on killing anyone,” I said.
“That’s what you said the last time.”
Ouch. Still, maybe he had a point. “I don’t suppose you have a spare I can borrow?” Mac laughed. “Are you kidding? This is the only one we’ve got so far, and it’s just a prototype.” “Well, then,” I said, heading for the door, “I guess I’d better be careful.”
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