Please enjoy “Reborn,” by Ken Liu, a novelette inspired by an illustration from Richard Anderson.
“Reborn” is part of a three-story series curated by senior Tor Books editor David G. Hartwell. All three are based on a singular piece of art by Richard Anderson and will be released for free on Tor.com.
Read the story behind these stories or purchase all three right now in a $1.99 ebook.
Like some other stories published on Tor.com, “Reborn” contains scenes and situations some readers will find upsetting and/or repellent.
This novelette was acquired and edited for Tor.com by Tor Books editor David Hartwell.
Each of us feels that there is a single “I” in control. But that is an illusion that the brain works hard to produce . . .
—Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate
I remember being Reborn. It felt the way I imagine a fish feels as it’s being thrown back into the sea.
The Judgment Ship slowly drifts in over Fan Pier from Boston Harbor, its metallic disc-shaped hull blending into the dark, roiling sky, its curved upper surface like a pregnant belly.
It is as large as the old Federal Courthouse on the ground below. A few escort ships hover around the rim, the shifting lights on their surfaces sometimes settling into patterns resembling faces.
The spectators around me grow silent. The Judgment, scheduled four times a year, still draws a big crowd. I scan the upturned faces. Most are expressionless, some seem awed. A few men whisper to each other and chuckle. I pay some attention to them, but not too much. There hasn’t been a public attack in years.
“A flying saucer,” one of the men says, a little too loud. Some of the others shuffle away, trying to distance themselves. “A goddamned flying saucer.”
The crowd has left the space directly below the Judgment Ship empty. A group of Tawnin observers stand in the middle, ready to welcome the Reborn. But Kai, my mate, is absent. Thie told me that thie has witnessed too many Rebirths lately.
Kai once explained to me that the design of the Judgment Ship was meant as a sign of respect for local traditions, evoking our historical imagination of little green men and Plan 9 from Outer Space.
It’s just like how your old courthouse was built with that rotunda on top to resemble a lighthouse, a beacon of justice that pays respect to Boston’s maritime history.
The Tawnin are not usually interested in history, but Kai has always advocated more effort at accommodating us locals.
I make my way slowly through the crowd, to get closer to the whispering group. They all have on long, thick coats, perfect for concealing weapons.
The top of the pregnant Judgment Ship opens and a bright beam of golden light shoots straight up into the sky, where it is reflected by the dark clouds back onto the ground as a gentle, shadowless glow.
Circular doors open all around the rim of the Judgment Ship, and long, springy lines unwind and fall from the doors. They dangle, flex, and extend like tentacles. The Judgment Ship is now a jellyfish drifting through the air.
At the end of each line is a human, securely attached like hooked fish by the Tawnin ports located over their spines and between their shoulder blades. As the lines slowly extend and drift closer to the ground, the figures at the ends languidly move their arms and legs, tracing out graceful patterns.
I’ve almost reached the small group of whispering men. One of them, the one who had spoken too loud earlier, has his hands inside the flap of his thick coat. I move faster, pushing people aside.
“Poor bastards,” he murmurs, watching the Reborn coming closer to the empty space in the middle of the crowd, coming home. I see his face take on the determination of the fanatic, of a Xenophobe about to kill.
The Reborn have almost reached the ground. My target is waiting for the moment when the lines from the Judgment Ship are detached so that the Reborn can no longer be snatched back into the air, the moment when the Reborn are still unsteady on their feet, uncertain who they are.
I remember that moment well.
The right shoulder of my target shifts as he tries to pull something out of his coat. I shove away the two women before me and leap into the air, shouting “Freeze!”
And then the world slows down as the ground beneath the Reborn erupts like a volcano, and they, along with the Tawnin observers, are tossed into the air, their limbs flopping like marionettes with their strings cut. As I crash into the man before me, a wave of heat and light blanks everything out.
It takes a few hours to process my suspect and to bandage my wounds. By the time I’m allowed to go home it’s after midnight.
The streets of Cambridge are quiet and empty because of the new curfew. A fleet of police cars is parked in Harvard Square, a dozen strobing beacons out of sync as I stop, roll down my window, and show my badge.
The fresh-faced young officer sucks in his breath. The name “Joshua Rennon” may not mean anything to him, but he has seen the black dot on the top right corner of my badge, the dot that allows me inside the high-security domicile compound of the Tawnin.
“Bad day, sir,” he says. “But don’t worry, we’ve got all the roads leading to your building secured.”
He tries to make “your building” sound casual, but I can hear the thrill in his voice. He’s one of those. He lives with them.
He doesn’t step away from the car. “How’s the investigation going, if you don’t mind me asking?” His eyes roam all over me, the hunger of his curiosity so strong that it’s almost palpable.
I know that the question he really wants to ask is: What’s it like?
I turn my face straight ahead. I roll up the window.
After a moment, he steps back, and I step on the gas hard so that the tires give a satisfying squeal as I shoot away.
The walled compound used to be Radcliffe Yard.
I open the door to our apartment and the soft golden light that Kai prefers, a reminder of the afternoon, makes me shudder.
Kai is in the living room, sitting on the couch.
“Sorry I didn’t call.”
Kai stands up to thir full eight-foot height and opens thir arms, thir dark eyes gazing at me like the eyes of those giant fish that swim through the large tank at the New England Aquarium. I step into thir embrace and inhale thir familiar fragrance, a mixture of floral and spicy scents, the smell of an alien world and of home.
Instead of answering, thie undresses me gently, careful around my bandages. I close my eyes and do not resist, feeling the layers fall away from me piece by piece.
When I’m naked, I tilt my head up and thie kisses me, thir tubular tongue warm and salty in my mouth. I place my arms around thim, feeling on the back of thir head the long scar whose history I do not know and do not seek.
Then thie wraps thir primary arms around my head, pulling my face against thir soft, fuzzy chest. Thir tertiary arms, strong and supple, wrap around my waist. The nimble and sensitive tips of thir secondary arms lightly caress my shoulders for a moment before they find my Tawnin port and gently pry the skin apart and push in.
I gasp the moment the connection is made and I feel my limbs grow rigid and then loose as I let go, allowing Kai’s strong arms to support my weight. I close my eyes so I can enjoy the way my body appears through Kai’s senses: the way warm blood coursing through my vessels creates a glowing map of pulsing red and gold currents against the cooler, bluish skin on my back and buttocks, the way my short hair pricks the sensitive skin of thir primary hands, the way my chaotic thoughts are gradually soothed and rendered intelligible by thir gentle, guiding nudges. We’re now connected in the most intimate way that two minds, two bodies can be.
That’s what it’s like, I think.
Don’t be annoyed by their ignorance, thie thinks.
I replay the afternoon: the arrogant and careless manner in which I carried out my duty, the surprise of the explosion, the guilt and regret as I watched the Reborn and the Tawnin die. The helpless rage.
You’ll find them, thie thinks.
Then I feel thir body moving against me, all of thir six arms and two legs probing, caressing, grasping, squeezing, penetrating. And I echo thir movements, my hands, lips, feet roaming against thir cool, soft skin the way I have come to learn thie likes, thir pleasure as clear and present as my own.
Thought seems as unnecessary as speech.
The interrogation room in the basement of the Federal Courthouse is tiny and claustrophobic, a cage.
I close the door behind me and hang up my jacket. I’m not afraid to turn my back to the suspect. Adam Woods sits with his face buried between his hands, elbows on the stainless steel table. There’s no fight left in him.
“I’m Special Agent Joshua Rennon, Tawnin Protection Bureau.” I wave my badge at him out of habit.
He looks up at me, his eyes bloodshot and dull.
“Your old life is over, as I’m sure you already know.” I don’t read him his rights or tell him that he can have a lawyer, the rituals of a less civilized age. There’s no more need for lawyers—no more trials, no more police tricks.
He stares at me, his eyes full of hatred.
“What’s it like?” he asks, his voice a low whisper. “Being fucked by one of them every night?”
I pause. I can’t imagine he noticed the black dot on my badge in such a quick look. Then I realize that it was because I had turned my back to him. He could see the outline of the Tawnin port through my shirt. He knew I had been Reborn, and it was a lucky—but reasonable—guess that someone whose port was kept open was bonded to a Tawnin.
I don’t take the bait. I’m used to the kind of xenophobia that drives men like him to kill.
“You’ll be probed after the surgery. But if you confess now and give useful information about your co-conspirators, after your Rebirth you’ll be given a good job and a good life, and you’ll get to keep the memories of most of your friends and family. But if you lie or say nothing, we’ll learn everything we need anyway and you’ll be sent to California for fallout clean-up duty with a blank slate of a mind. And anyone who cared about you will forget you, completely. Your choice.”
“How do you know I have any co-conspirators?”
“I saw you when the explosion happened. You were expecting it. I believe your role was to try to kill more Tawnin in the chaos after the explosion.”
He continues to stare at me, his hatred unrelenting. Then, abruptly, he seems to think of something. “You’ve been Reborn more than once, haven’t you?”
I stiffen. “How did you know?”
He smiles. “Just a hunch. You stand and sit too straight. What did you do the last time?”
I should be prepared for the question, but I’m not. Two months after my Rebirth, I’m still raw, off my game. “You know I can’t answer that.”
“You remember nothing?”
“That was a rotten part of me that was cut out,” I tell him. “Just like it will be cut out of you. The Josh Rennon who committed whatever crime he did no longer exists, and it is only right that the crime be forgotten. The Tawnin are a compassionate and merciful people. They only remove those parts of me and you that are truly responsible for the crime—the mens rea, the evil will.”
“A compassionate and merciful people,” he repeats. And I see something new in his eyes: pity.
A sudden rage seizes me. He is the one to be pitied, not me. Before he has a chance to put up his hands I lunge at him and punch him in the face, once, twice, three times, hard.
Blood flows from his nose as his hands waver before him. He doesn’t make any noise, but continues to look at me with his calm, pity-filled eyes.
“They killed my father in front of me,” he says. He wipes the blood from his lips and shakes his hand to get rid of it. Droplets of blood hit my shirt, the scarlet beads bright against its white fabric. “I was thirteen, and hiding in the backyard shed. Through a slit in the doors I saw him take a swing at one of them with a baseball bat. The thing blocked it with one arm and seized his head with another pair of arms and just ripped it off. Then they burned my mother. I’ll never forget the smell of cooked flesh.”
I try to bring my breathing under control. I try to see the man before me as the Tawnin do: divided. There’s a frightened child who can still be rescued, and an angry, bitter man who cannot.
“That was more than twenty years ago,” I say. “It was a darker time, a terrible, twisted time. The world has moved on. The Tawnin have apologized and tried to make amends. You should have gone to counseling. They should have ported you and excised those memories. You could have had a life free of these ghosts.”
“I don’t want to be free of these ghosts. Did you ever consider that? I don’t want to forget. I lied and told them that I saw nothing. I didn’t want them to reach into my mind and steal my memories. I want revenge.”
“You can’t have revenge. The Tawnin who did those things are all gone. They’ve been punished, consigned to oblivion.”
He laughs. “‘Punished,’ you say. The Tawnin who did those things are the exact same Tawnin who parade around today, preaching universal love and a future in which the Tawnin and humans live in harmony. Just because they can conveniently forget what they did doesn’t mean we should.”
“The Tawnin do not have a unified consciousness—”
“You speak like you lost no one in the Conquest.” His voice rises as pity turns into something darker. “You speak like a collaborator.” He spits at me, and I feel the blood on my face, between my lips—warm, sweet, the taste of rust. “You don’t even know what they’ve taken from you.”
I leave the room and close the door behind me, shutting off his stream of curses.
Outside the courthouse, Claire from Tech Investigations meets me. Her people had already scanned and recorded the crime scene last night, but we walk around the crater doing an old-fashioned visual inspection anyway, in the unlikely event that her machines missed something.
Missed something. Something was missing.
“One of the injured Reborn died at Mass General this morning around 4 o’clock,” Claire says. “So that brings the total death toll to ten: six Tawnin and four Reborn. Not as bad as what happened in New York two years ago, but definitely the worst massacre in New England.”
Claire is slight, with a sharp face and quick, jerky movements that put me in mind of a sparrow. As the only two TPB agents married to Tawnins in the Boston Field Office, we have grown close. People joke that we’re work spouses.
I didn’t lose anyone in the Conquest.
Kai stands with me at my mother’s funeral. Her face in the casket is serene, free of pain.
Kai’s touch on my back is gentle and supportive. I want to tell thim not to feel too bad. Thie had tried so hard to save her, as thie had tried to save my father before her, but the human body is fragile, and we don’t yet know how to effectively use the advances taught to us by the Tawnin.
We pick our way around a pile of rubble that has been cemented in place by melted asphalt. I try to bring my thoughts under control. Woods unsettled me. “Any leads on the detonator?” I ask.
“It’s pretty sophisticated,” Claire says. “Based on the surviving pieces, there was a magnetometer connected to a timer circuit. My best guess is the magnetometer was triggered by the presence of large quantities of metal nearby, like the Judgment Ship. And that started a timer that was set to detonate just as the Reborn reached the ground.
“The setup requires fairly detailed knowledge of the mass of the Judgment Ship; otherwise the yachts and cargo ships sailing through the Harbor could have set it off.”
“Also knowledge of the operation of the Judgment Ship,” I add. “They had to know how many Reborn were going to be here yesterday, and calculate how long it would take to complete the ceremony and lower them to the ground.”
“It definitely took a lot of meticulous planning,” Claire said. “This is not the work of a loner. We’re dealing with a sophisticated terrorist organization.”
Claire pulls me to a stop. We’re at a good vantage point to see the bottom of the explosion crater. It’s thinner than I would have expected. Whoever had done this had used directed explosives that focused the energy upwards, presumably to minimize the damage to the crowd on the sides.
A memory of myself as a child comes to me unbidden.
Autumn, cool air, the smell of the sea and something burning. A large, milling crowd, but no one is making any noise. Those at the edge of the crowd, like me, push to move closer to the center, while those near the center push to get out, like a colony of ants swarming over a bird corpse. Finally, I make my way to the center, where bright bonfires burn in dozens of oil drums.
I reach into my coat and take out an envelope. I open it and hand a stack of photographs to the man standing by one of the oil drums. He flips through them and takes a few out and hands the rest back to me.
“You can keep these and go line up for surgery,” he says.
I look through the photographs in my hand: Mom carrying me as a baby. Dad lifting me over his shoulders at a fair. Mom and me asleep, holding the same pose. Mom and Dad and me playing a board game. Me in a cowboy costume, Mom behind me trying to make sure the scarf fit right.
He tosses the other photographs into the oil drum, and as I turn away, I try to catch a glimpse of what’s on them before they’re consumed by the flames.
“You all right?”
“Yes,” I say, disoriented. “Still a bit of the aftereffects of the explosion.”
I can trust Claire.
“Listen,” I say, “Do you ever think about what you did before you were Reborn?”
Claire focuses her sharp eyes on me. She doesn’t blink. “Do not go down that path, Josh. Think of Kai. Think of your life, the real one you have now.”
“You’re right,” I say. “Woods just rattled me a bit.”
“You might want to take a few days off. You’re not doing anyone favors if you can’t concentrate.”
“I’ll be fine.”
Claire seems skeptical, but she doesn’t push the issue. She understands how I feel. Kai would be able to see the guilt and regret in my mind. In that ultimate intimacy, there is nowhere to hide. I can’t bear to be home and doing nothing while Kai tries to comfort me.
“As I was saying,” she continues, “this area was resurfaced by the W. G. Turner Construction Company a month ago. That was likely when the bomb was placed, and Woods was on the crew. You should start there.”
The woman leaves the box of files on the table in front of me.
“These are all the employees and contractors who worked on the Courthouse Way resurfacing project.”
She scurries away as though I’m contagious, afraid to exchange more than the absolute minimum number of words with a TPB agent.
In a way, I suppose I am contagious. When I was Reborn, those who were close to me, who had known what I had done, whose knowledge of me formed part of the identity that was Joshua Rennon, would have had to be ported and those memories excised as part of my Rebirth. My crimes, whatever they were, had infected them.
I don’t even know who they might be.
I shouldn’t be thinking like this. It’s not healthy to dwell on my former life, a dead man’s life.
I scan through the files one by one, punch the names into my phone so that Claire’s algorithms back at the office can make a network out of them, link them to entries in millions of databases, trawl through the radical anti-Tawnin forums and Xenophobic sites, and find connections.
But I still read through the files meticulously, line by line. Sometimes the brain makes connections that Claire’s computers cannot.
W. G. Turner had been careful. All the applicants had been subjected to extensive background searches, and none appears suspicious to the algorithms.
After a while, the names merge into an undistinguishable mess: Kelly Eickhoff, Hugh Raker, Sofia Leday, Walker Lincoln, Julio Costas . . .
I go back and look at the file again. The photograph shows a white male in his thirties. Narrow eyes, receding hairline, no smile for the camera. Nothing seems particularly notable. He doesn’t look familiar at all.
But something about the name makes me hesitate.
The photographs curl up in the flames.
The one at the top shows my father standing in front of our house. He’s holding a rifle, his face grim. As the flame swallows him, I catch a pair of crossed street signs in the last remaining corner of the photograph.
Walker and Lincoln.
I find myself shivering, even though the heat is turned up high in the office.
I take out my phone and pull up the computer report on Walker Lincoln: credit card records, phone logs, search histories, web presence, employment, and school summaries. The algorithms flagged nothing as unusual. Walker Lincoln seems the model Average Citizen.
I have never seen a profile where not a single thing was flagged by Claire’s paranoid algorithms. Walker Lincoln is too perfect.
I look through the purchase history on his credit cards: fire logs, starter fluid, fireplace simulators, outdoor grills.
Then, starting about two months ago, nothing.
As thir fingers are about to push in, I speak.
“Please, not tonight.”
The tips of Kai’s secondary arms stop, hesitate, and gently caress my back. After a moment, thie backs up. Thir eyes look at me, like two pale moons in the dim light of the apartment.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “There’s a lot on my mind, unpleasant thoughts. I don’t want to burden you.”
Kai nods, a human gesture that seems incongruous. I appreciate the effort thie is making to make me feel better. Thie has always been very understanding.
Thie backs off, leaving me naked in the middle of the room.
The landlady proclaims complete ignorance of the life of Walker Lincoln. Rent (which in this part of Charlestown is dirt cheap) is direct deposited on the first of every month, and she hasn’t set eyes on him since he moved in four months ago. I wave my badge, and she hands me the key to his apartment and watches wordlessly as I climb the stairs.
I open the door and turn on the light; I’m greeted with a sight out of a furniture store display: white couch, leather loveseat, glass coffee table with a few magazines in a neat stack, abstract paintings on walls. There’s no clutter, nothing out of its assigned place. I take a deep breath. No smell of cooking, detergent, the mix of aromas that accompany places lived in by real people.
The place seems familiar and strange at the same time, like walking through déjà vu.
I walk through the apartment, opening doors. The closets and bedroom are as artfully arranged as the living room. Perfectly ordinary, perfectly unreal.
Sunlight coming in from the windows along the western wall makes clean parallelograms against the gray carpet. The golden light is Kai’s favorite shade.
There is, however, a thin layer of dust over everything. Maybe a month or two’s worth.
Walker Lincoln is a ghost.
Finally, I turn around and see something hanging on the back of the front door, a mask.
I pick it up, put it on, and step into the bathroom.
I’m quite familiar with this type of mask. Made of soft, pliant, programmable fibers, it’s based on Tawnin technology, the same material that makes up the strands that release the Reborn back into the world. Activated with body heat, it molds itself into a pre-programmed shape. No matter the contours of the face beneath it, it rearranges itself into the appearance of a face it has memorized. Approved only for law enforcement, we sometimes use such masks to infiltrate Xenophobic cells.
In the mirror, the cool fibers of the mask gradually come alive like Kai’s body when I touch thim, pushing and pulling against the skin and muscles of my face. For a moment my face is a shapeless lump, like a monster’s out of some nightmare.
And then the roiling motions stop, and I’m looking into the face of Walker Lincoln.
Kai’s was the first face I saw the last time I was Reborn.
It was a face with dark fish-like eyes and skin that pulsated as though tiny maggots were wriggling just under the surface. I cringed and tried to move away but there was nowhere to go. My back was against a steel wall.
The skin around thir eyes contracted and expanded again, an alien expression I did not understand. Thie backed up, giving me some space.
Slowly, I sat up and looked around. I was on a narrow steel slab attached to the wall of a tiny cell. The lights were too bright. I felt nauseated. I closed my eyes.
And a tsunami of images came to me that I could not process. Faces, voices, events in fast motion. I opened my mouth to scream.
And Kai was upon me in a second. Thie wrapped thir primary arms around my head, forcing me to stay still. A mixture of floral and spicy scents enveloped me, and the memory of it suddenly emerged from the chaos in my mind. The smell of home. I clung to it like a floating plank in a roiling sea.
Thie wrapped thir secondary arms around me, patting my back, seeking an opening. I felt them push through a hole over my spine, a wound that I did not know was there, and I wanted to cry out in pain—
—and the chaos in my mind subsided. I was looking at the world through thir eyes and mind: my own naked body, trembling.
Let me help you.
I struggled for a bit, but thie was too strong, and I gave in.
You’re aboard the Judgment Ship. The old Josh Rennon did something very bad and had to be punished.
I tried to remember what it was that I had done, but could recall nothing.
He is gone. We had to cut him out of this body to rescue you.
Another memory floated to the surface of my mind, gently guided by the currents of Kai’s thoughts.
I am sitting in a classroom, the front row. Sunlight coming in from the windows along the western wall makes clean parallelograms on the ground. Kai paces slowly back and forth in front of us.
“Each of us is composed of many groupings of memories, many personalities, many coherent patterns of thoughts.” The voice comes from a black box Kai wears around thir neck. It’s slightly mechanical, but melodious and clear.
“Do you not alter your behavior, your expressions, even your speech when you’re with your childhood friends from your hometown compared to when you’re with your new friends from the big city? Do you not laugh differently, cry differently, even become angry differently when you’re with your family than when you’re with me?
The students around me laugh a little at this, as do I. As Kai reaches the other side of the classroom, thie turns around and our eyes meet. The skin around thir eyes pulls back, making them seem even bigger, and my face grows warm.
“The unified individual is a fallacy of traditional human philosophy. It is, in fact, the foundation of many unenlightened, old customs. A criminal, for example, is but one person inhabiting a shared body with many others. A man who murders may still be a good father, husband, brother, son, and he is a different man when he plots death than when he bathes his daughter, kisses his wife, comforts his sister, and cares for his mother. Yet the old human criminal justice system would punish all of these men together indiscriminately, would judge them together, imprison them together, even kill them together. Collective punishment. How barbaric! How cruel!”
I imagine my mind the way Kai describes it: partitioned into pieces, an individual divided. There may be no human institution that the Tawnin despise more than our justice system. Their contempt makes perfect sense when considered in the context of their mind-to-mind communication. The Tawnin have no secrets from each other and share an intimacy we can only dream of. The idea of a justice system so limited by the opacity of the individual that it must resort to ritualized adversarial combat rather than direct access to the truth of the mind must seem to them a barbarity.
Kai glances at me, as though thie could hear my thoughts, though I know that is not possible without my being ported. But the thought brings pleasure to me. I am Kai’s favorite student.
I placed my arms around Kai.
My teacher, my lover, my spouse. I was once adrift, and now I have come home. I am beginning to remember.
I felt the scar on the back of thir head. Thie trembled.
What happened here?
I don’t remember. Don’t worry about it.
I carefully caressed thim, avoiding the scar.
The Rebirth is a painful process. Your biology did not evolve as ours, and the parts of your mind are harder to tease apart, to separate out the different persons. It will take some time for the memories to settle. You have to re-remember, relearn the pathways needed to make sense of them again, to reconstruct yourself again. But you’re now a better person, free from the diseased parts we had to cut out.
I hung onto Kai, and we picked up the pieces of myself together.
I show Claire the mask, and the too-perfect electronic profile. “To get access to this kind of equipment and to create an alias with an electronic trail this convincing requires someone with a lot of power and access. Maybe even someone inside the Bureau, since we need to scrub electronic databases to cleanse the records of the Reborn.”
Claire bites her bottom lip as she glances at the display on my phone and regards the mask with skepticism. “That seems really unlikely. All the Bureau employees are ported and are regularly probed. I don’t see how a mole among us can stay hidden.”
“Yet it’s the only explanation.”
“We’ll know soon enough,” Claire tells me. “Adam has been ported. Tau is doing the probe now. Should be done in half an hour.”
I practically fall into the chair next to her. Exhaustion over the last two days settles over me like a heavy blanket. I have been avoiding Kai’s touch, for reasons that I cannot even explain. I feel divided from myself.
I tell myself to stay awake, just a little longer.
Kai and I are sitting on the leather loveseat. Thir big frame means that we are squeezed in tightly. The fireplace is behind us and I can feel the gentle heat against the back of my neck. Thir left arms gently stroke my back. I’m tense.
My parents are on the white couch across from us.
“I’ve never seen Josh this happy,” my mother says. And her smile is such a relief that I want to hug her.
“I’m glad you feel that way,” says Kai, with thir black voice box. “I think Josh was worried about how you might feel about me—about us.”
“There are always going to be Xenophobes,” my father says. He sounds a little out of breath. I know that one day I will recognize this as the beginning of his sickness. A tinge of sorrow tints my happy memory.
“Terrible things were done,” Kai says. “We do know that. But we always want to look to the future.”
“So do we,” my father says. “But some people are trapped in the past. They can’t let the dead lie buried.”
I look around the room and notice how neat the house is. The carpet is immaculate, the end tables free of clutter. The white couch my parents are sitting on is spotless. The glass coffee table between us is empty save for a stack of artfully arranged magazines.
The living room is like the showroom of a furniture store.
I jerk awake. The pieces of my memories have become as unreal as Walker Lincoln’s apartment.
Tau, Claire’s spouse, is at the door. The tips of thir secondary arms are mangled, oozing blue blood. Thie stumbles.
Claire is by thir side in a moment. “What happened?”
Instead of answering, Tau tears Claire’s jacket and blouse away, and thir thicker, less delicate primary arms hungrily, blindly seek the Tawnin port on Claire’s back. When they finally find the opening, they plunge in and Claire gasps, going limp immediately.
I turn my eyes away from this scene of intimacy. Tau is in pain and needs Claire.
“I should go,” I say, getting up.
“Adam had booby-trapped his spine,” Tau says through thir voice box.
“When I ported him, he was cooperative and seemed resigned to his fate. But when I began the probe, a miniature explosive device went off, killing him instantly. I guess some of you still hate us so much that you’d rather die than be Reborn.”
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“I’m the one that’s sorry,” Tau says. The mechanical voice struggles to convey sorrow, but it sounds like an imitation to my unsettled mind. “Parts of him were innocent.”
The Tawnin do not care much for history, and now, neither do we.
They also do not die of old age. No one knows how old the Tawnin are: centuries, millennia, eons. Kai speaks vaguely of a journey that lasted longer than the history of the human race.
What was it like? I once asked.
I don’t remember, thie had thought.
Their attitude is explained by their biology. Their brains, like the teeth of sharks, never cease growing. New brain tissue is continuously produced at the core while the outer layers are sloughed off periodically like snakeskin.
With lives that are for all intents and purposes eternal, the Tawnin would have been overwhelmed by eons of accumulated memories. It is no wonder that they became masters of forgetting.
Memories that they wish to keep must be copied into the new tissue: retraced, recreated, re-recorded. But memories that they wish to leave behind are cast off like dried pupa husks with each cycle of change.
It is not only memory that they leave behind. Entire personalities can be adopted, taken on like a role, and then cast aside and forgotten. A Tawnin views the self before a change and the self after a change as entirely separate beings: different personalities, different memories, different moral responsibilities. They merely shared a body seriatim.
Not even the same body, Kai thought to me.
In about a year every atom in your body will have been replaced by others, thought Kai. This was back when we had first become lovers, and thie was often in a lecturing mood. For us it’s even faster.
Like the ship of Theseus where each plank was replaced over time, until it was no longer the same ship.
You’re always making these references to the past. But the flavor of thir thought was indulgent rather than critical.
When the Conquest happened, the Tawnin had adopted an attitude of extreme aggression. And we had responded in kind. The details, of course, are hazy. The Tawnin do not remember them, and most of us do not want to. California is still uninhabitable after all these years.
But then, once we had surrendered, the Tawnin had cast off those aggressive layers of their minds—the punishment for their war crimes—and become the gentlest rulers imaginable. Now committed pacifists, they abhor violence and willingly share their technology with us, cure diseases, perform wondrous miracles. The world is at peace. Human life expectancy has been much lengthened, and those willing to work for the Tawnin have done well for themselves.
The Tawnin do not experience guilt.
We are a different people now, Kai thought. This is also our home. And yet some of you insist on tasking us with the sins of our dead past selves. It is like holding the son responsible for the sins of the father.
What if war should occur again? I thought. What if the Xenophobes convince the rest of us to rise up against you?
Then we might change yet again, become ruthless and cruel as before. Such changes in us are physiological reactions against threat, beyond our control. But then those future selves would have nothing to do with us. The father cannot be responsible for the acts of the son.
It’s hard to argue with logic like that.
Adam’s girlfriend, Lauren, is a young woman with a hard face that remained unchanged after I informed her that, as Adam’s parents are deceased, she is considered the next of kin and responsible for picking up the body at the station.
We are sitting across from each other, the kitchen table between us. The apartment is tiny and dim. Many of the lightbulbs have burnt out and not been replaced.
“Am I going to be ported?” she asks.
Now that Adam is dead, the next order of business is to decide which of his relatives and friends should be ported—with appropriate caution for further booby-trapped spines—so that the true extent of the conspiracy can be uncovered.
“I don’t know yet,” I say. “It depends on how much I think you’re cooperating. Did he associate with anyone suspicious? Anyone you thought was a Xenophobe?”
“I don’t know anything,” she says. “Adam is . . . was a loner. He never told me anything. You can port me if you want, but it will be a waste of energy.”
Normally, people like her are terrified of being ported, violated. Her feigned nonchalance only makes me more suspicious of her.
She seems to sense my skepticism and changes tack. “Adam and I would sometimes smoke oblivion or do blaze.” She shifts in her seat and looks over at the kitchen counter. I look where she’s looking and see the drug paraphernalia in front of a stack of dirty dishes, like props set out on a stage. A leaky faucet drips, providing a background beat to the whole scene.
Oblivion and blaze both have strong hallucinogenic effects. The unspoken point: her mind is riddled with false memories that even when ported cannot be relied upon. The most we can do is Rebirth her, but we won’t find out anything we can use on others. It’s not a bad trick. But she hasn’t made the lie sufficiently convincing.
You humans think you are what you’ve done, Kai once thought. I remember us lying together in a park somewhere, the grass under us, and I loved feeling the warmth of the sun through thir skin, so much more sensitive than mine. But you’re really what you remember.
Isn’t that the same thing? I thought.
Not at all. To retrieve a memory, you must reactivate a set of neural connections, and in the process change them. Your biology is such that with each act of recall, you also rewrite the memory. Haven’t you ever had the experience of discovering that a detail you remembered vividly was manufactured? A dream you became convinced was a real experience? Being told a fabricated story you believed to be the truth?
You make us sound so fragile.
Deluded, actually. The flavor of Kai’s thought was affectionate. You cannot tell which memories are real and which memories are false, and yet you insist on their importance, base so much of your life on them. The practice of history has not done your species much good.
Lauren averts her eyes from my face, perhaps thinking of Adam. Something about Lauren seems familiar, like the half-remembered chorus from a song heard in childhood. I like the indescribable way her face seems to relax as she is lost in memories. I decide, right then, that I will not have Lauren ported.
Instead, I retrieve the mask from my bag and, keeping my eyes on her face, I put it on. As the mask warms to my face, clinging to it, shaping muscle and skin, I watch her eyes for signs of recognition, for confirmation that Adam and Walker were co-conspirators.
Her face becomes tight and impassive again. “What are you doing? That thing’s creepy-looking.”
Disappointed, I tell her, “Just a routine check.”
“You mind if I deal with that leaky faucet? It’s driving me crazy.”
I nod and remain seated as she gets up. Another dead end. Could Adam really have done it all on his own? Who was Walker Lincoln?
I’m afraid of the answer that’s half-formed in my mind.
I sense the heavy weight swinging towards the back of my head, but it’s too late.
“Can you hear us?” The voice is scrambled, disguised by some electronic gizmo. Oddly, it reminds me of a Tawnin voice box.
I nod in the darkness. I’m seated and my hands are tied behind me. Something soft, a scarf or a tie, is wrapped tightly around my head, covering my eyes.
“I’m sorry that we have to do things this way. It’s better if you can’t see us. This way, when your Tawnin probes you, we won’t be betrayed.”
I test the ties around my wrists. They’re very well done. No possibility of working them loose on my own.
“You have to stop this right now,” I say, putting as much authority into my voice as I can. “I know you think you’ve caught a collaborator, a traitor to the human race. You believe this is justice, vengeance. But think. If you harm me, you’ll eventually be caught, and all your memory of this event erased. What’s the good of vengeance if you won’t even remember it? It will be as if it never happened.”
Electronic voices laugh in the darkness. I can’t tell how many of them there are. Old, young, male or female.
“Let me go.”
“We will,” the first voice says, “after you hear this.”
I hear the click of a button being pressed, and then, a disembodied voice: “Hello, Josh. I see you’ve found the clues that matter.”
The voice is my own.
“. . . despite extensive research, it is not possible to erase all memories. Like an old hard drive, the Reborn mind still holds traces of those old pathways, dormant, waiting for the right trigger . . .”
The corner of Walker and Lincoln, my old house.
Inside, it’s cluttered, my toys scattered everywhere. There is no couch, only four wicker chairs around an old wooden coffee table, the top full of circular stains.
I’m hiding behind one of the wicker chairs. The house is quiet and the lighting dim, early dawn or late dusk.
A scream outside.
I get up and run to the door and fling it open. I see my father being hoisted into the air by a Tawnin’s primary arms. The secondary and tertiary arms are wrapped around my father’s arms and legs, rendering him immobile.
Behind the Tawnin, my mother’s body lies prostrate, unmoving.
The Tawnin jerks its arms and my father tries to scream again, but blood has pooled in his throat, and what comes out is a mere gurgle. The Tawnin jerks its limbs again and I watch as my father is torn slowly into pieces.
The Tawnin looks down at me. The skin around its eyes recedes and contracts again. The smell of unknown flowers and spices is so strong that I retch.
“. . . in the place of real memories, they fill your mind with lies. Constructed memories that crumble under examination . . .”
Kai comes to me on the other side of my cage. There are many cages like it, each holding a young man or woman. How many years have we been in darkness and isolation, kept from forming meaningful memories?
There was never any well-lit classroom, any philosophical lecture, any sunlight slanting in from the western windows, casting clean, sharp parallelograms against the ground.
“We’re sorry for what happened,” Kai says. The voice box, at least, is real. But the mechanical tone belies the words. “We’ve been saying this for a long time. The ones who did those things you insist on remembering are not us. They were necessary for a time, but they have been punished, cast off, forgotten. It’s time to move on.”
I spit in Kai’s eyes.
Kai does not wipe away my spittle. The skin around its eyes contracts and it turns away.“You leave us no choice. We have to make you anew.”
“. . . they tell you that the past is the past, dead, gone. They tell you that they are a new people, not responsible for their former selves. And there is some truth to these assertions. When I couple with Kai, I see into thir mind, and there is nothing left of the Kai that killed my parents, the Kai that brutalized the children, the Kai that forced us by decree to burn our old photographs, to wipe out the traces of our former existence that might interfere with what they want for our future. They really are as good at forgetting as they say, and the bloody past appears to them as an alien country. The Kai that is my lover is truly a different mind: innocent, blameless, guiltless.
“But they continue to walk over the bones of your, my, our parents. They continue to live in houses taken from our dead. They continue to desecrate the truth with denial.
“Some of us have accepted collective amnesia as the price of survival. But not all. I am you, and you’re me. The past does not die; it seeps, leaks, infiltrates, waits for an opportunity to spring up. You are what you remember . . .”
The first kiss from Kai, slimy, raw.
The first time Kai penetrates me. The first time my mind is invaded by its mind. The feeling of helplessness, of something being done to me that I can never be rid of, that I can never be clean again.
The smell of flowers and spices, the smell that I can never forget or expel because it doesn’t just come from my nostrils, but has taken root deep in my mind.
“. . . though I began by infiltrating the Xenophobes, in the end it is they who infiltrated me. Their underground records of the Conquest and the giving of testimony and sharing of memories finally awoke me from my slumber, allowed me to recover my own story.
“When I found out the truth, I carefully plotted my vengeance. I knew it would not be easy to keep a secret from Kai. But I came up with a plan. Because I was married to Kai, I was exempt from the regular probes that the other TPB agents are subject to. By avoiding intimacy with Kai and pleading discomfort, I could avoid being probed altogether and hold secrets in my mind, at least for a while.
“I created another identity, wore a mask, provided the Xenophobes with what they needed to accomplish their goals. All of us wore masks so that if any of the co-conspirators were captured, probing one mind would not betray the rest of us.”
The masks I wear to infiltrate the Xenophobes are the masks I give to my co-conspirators . . .
“Then I prepped my mind like a fortress against the day of my inevitable capture and Rebirth. I recalled the way my parents died in great detail, replayed the events again and again until they were etched indelibly into my mind, until I knew that Kai, who would ask for the role of preparing me for my Rebirth, would flinch at the vivid images, be repulsed by their blood and violence, and stop before probing too deep. Thie had long forgotten what thie had done and had no wish to be reminded.
“Do I know if these images are true in every aspect? No, I do not. I recalled them through the hazy filter of the mind of a child, and no doubt the memories shared by all the other survivors have inseminated them, colored them, given them more details. Our memories bleed into each other, forming a collective outrage. The Tawnin will say they’re no more real than the false memories they’ve implanted, but to forget is a far greater sin than to remember too well.
“To further conceal my trails, I took the pieces of the false memories they gave me and constructed real memories out of them so that when Kai dissected my mind, thie would not be able to tell thir lies apart from my own.”
The false, clean, clutter-free living room of my parents is recreated and rearranged into the room in which I meet with Adam and Lauren . . .
Sunlight coming in from the windows along the western wall makes clean parallelograms on the ground . . .
You cannot tell which memories are real and which memories are false, and yet you insist on their importance, base so much of your life on them.
“And now, when I’m sure that the plot has been set in motion but do not yet know enough details to betray the plans should I be probed, I will go attack Kai. There is very little chance I will succeed, and Kai will surely want me to be Reborn, to wipe this me away—not all of me, just enough so that our life together can go on. My death will protect my co-conspirators, will allow them to triumph.
“Yet what good is vengeance if I cannot see it, if you, the Reborn me, cannot remember it, and know the satisfaction of success? This is why I have buried clues, left behind evidence like a trail of crumbs that you will pick up, until you can remember and know what you have done.”
Adam Woods . . . who is not so different from me after all, his memory a trigger for mine . . .
I purchase things so that someday, they’ll trigger in another me the memory of fire . . .
The mask, so that others can remember me . . .
Claire is outside the station, waiting, when I walk back. Two men are standing in the shadows behind her. And still further behind, looming above them, the indistinct figure of Kai.
I stop and turn around. Behind me, two more men are walking down the street, blocking off my retreat.
“It’s too bad, Josh,” Claire says. “You should have listened to me about remembering. Kai told us that thie was suspicious.”
I cannot pick Kai’s eyes out of the shadows. I direct my gaze at the blurry shadow behind and above Claire.
“Will you not speak to me yourself, Kai?”
The shadow freezes, and then the mechanical voice, so different from the voice that I’ve grown used to caressing my mind, crackles from the gloom.
“I have nothing to say to you. My Josh, my beloved, no longer exists. He has been taken over by ghosts, has already drowned in memory.”
“I’m still here, but now I’m complete.”
“That is a persistent illusion of yours that we cannot seem to correct. I am not the Kai you hate, and you’re not the Josh I love. We are not the sum of our pasts.” Thie pauses. “I hope I will see my Josh soon.”
Thie retreats into the interior of the station, leaving me to my judgment and execution.
Fully aware of the futility, I try to talk to Claire anyway.
“Claire, you know I have to remember.”
Her face looks sad and tired. “You think you’re the only one who’s lost someone? I wasn’t ported until five years ago. I once had a wife. She was like you. Couldn’t let go. Because of her, I was ported and Reborn. But because I made a determined effort to forget, to leave the past alone, they allowed me to keep some memory of her. You, on the other hand, insist on fighting.
“Do you know how many times you’ve been Reborn? It’s because Kai loves . . . loved you, wished to save most parts of you, that they’ve been so careful with carving as little of you away as possible each time.”
I do not know why Kai wished so fervently to rescue me from myself, to cleanse me of ghosts. Perhaps there are faint echoes of the past in thir mind, that even thie is not aware of, that draw thim to me, that compel thim to try to make me believe the lies so that thie will believe them thimself. To forgive is to forget.
“But thie has finally run out of patience. After this time you’ll remember nothing at all of your life, and so with your crime you’ve consigned more of you, more of those you claim to care about, to die. What good is this vengeance you seek if no one will even remember it happened? The past is gone, Josh. There is no future for the Xenophobes. The Tawnin are here to stay.”
I nod. What she says is true. But just because something is true doesn’t mean you stop struggling.
I imagine myself in the Judgment Ship again. I imagine Kai coming to welcome me home. I imagine our first kiss, innocent, pure, a new beginning. The memory of the smell of flowers and spices.
There is a part of me that loves thim, a part of me that has seen thir soul and craves thir touch. There is a part of me that wants to move on, a part of me that believes in what the Tawnin have to offer. And I, the unified, illusory I, am filled with pity for them.
I turn around and begin to run. The men in front of me wait patiently. There’s nowhere for me to go.
I press the trigger in my hand. Lauren had given it to me before I left. A last gift from my old self, from me to me.
I imagine my spine exploding into a million little pieces a moment before it does. I imagine all the pieces of me, atoms struggling to hold a pattern for a second, to be a coherent illusion.
“Reborn” copyright © 2014 by Ken Liu
Art copyright © 2014 by Richard Anderson