It is perhaps a hundred years in the future, our civilization is gone, and another is in place in North America, but it retains many familiar things and structures. Although the population is now small, there is advanced technology, there are robots, and there are clones.
E. A. Smithe is a borrowed person. He is a clone who lives on a third-tier shelf in a public library, and his personality is an uploaded recording of a deceased mystery writer. Smithe is a piece of property, not a legal human.
A wealthy patron, Colette Coldbrook, takes him from the library because he is the surviving personality of the author of Murder on Mars. A physical copy of that book was in the possession of her murdered father, and it contains an important secret, the key to immense family wealth. It is lost, and Colette is afraid of the police. She borrows Smithe to help her find the book and to find out what the secret is. And then the plot gets complicated.
Gene Wolfe’s new science fiction novel, A Borrowed Man, is available October 20th from Tor Books!
From the Spice Grove Public Library
Murder is not always such a terrible thing. It is bad, sure, sometimes awfully, awfully bad. But only sometimes. I have been lying here on my shelf trying to figure out why I wrote all this, and I think maybe that is it. The law is not perfect.
You kept reading! All right, here we go.
I am really a young guy behind an older guy’s face; you must understand that or you will not understand half the stuff I am going to tell. I was a mystery writer, a good one. You must know about the truckloads of his memories I am carrying from all his brain scans; so please keep them in mind all the time, just like I have to.
I live here, on a Level Three shelf in the Spice Grove Public Library. Our shelves are sort of like furnished rooms, if you have ever lived in one of those. About like furnished rooms, only three walls instead of four. There is a roll-up bed and some chairs, and the little table I have got this screen I borrowed on. I am not supposed to have the screen, but when the library is closed we can do just about whatever we want. There are the ’bots, sure; but sometimes they cannot seem to tell us from you fully humans. Sometimes I wish I could peek inside one and see how it thinks. Not that I believe that would really work. I know it would not.
Have I said there is a curtained-off part with a toilet and a washbowl? No, not yet. Well, there is; only when I want to take a shower I have to go to the shower room, and I am not supposed to until after six.
Unless we are checked out, or at least taken to a table for consultation, we cannot leave our shelves until the library closes. We sleep here, shit here, and wash here. You have caught on to that already, I guess. At first it is not as bad as you might think. One time I saw a girl whose tits read: Everything For / A Peaceful Life. All right, I have got a peaceful life. Also I will get a peaceful death, when they burn me and death comes again. Only after a while you want more, and death comes again way, way too quick for anybody who never gets borrowed. Just the same… Well, you know. Naturally having you, my reader, in the back of my mind so much worries me.
I have been borrowed twice, thanks to all this about Colette, the locked doors, and my old book. Colette will come back next year and borrow me again. I have seen to it. I am called E. A. Smithe, just like I was—I mean, the first me—and I am really just like you. I ought to say that before we get in too deep. We reclones are people, even if we do not count as human beings with you fully human ones. She knew that.
My watch had struck two when she stopped to stare up at me; I sat there trying not to grin and liked looking at her. She was at least as tall as I am, with coal black hair, dream-deep blue eyes, and that paper white skin that burns in five or ten minutes if it is not protected from the sun. When a whole lot of fun and daydreams had passed, she whispered, “You might be the card that opens the book for me.”
I nodded. “There’s only one way to find out, madam.” It is not just that I look like him, I talk like him, too. Boy, do I ever! Really, though, I talk the way he wrote exposition. I have to. Only I could not write like that if I wanted to, or nowhere except here when they do not know. They will not let me, just to begin with. Someday I would love to kick the guy who worked out all this business of bringing back writers but not letting them write.
Colette took my hand and I jumped down off my shelf. Then she took me to a table. You can guess how happy that made me. Being consulted is not nearly as good as being checked out, but it is good, too; and in three years I had not gotten consulted more than three or four times. It was July, and so far that year it had only been once, for maybe fifteen or twenty minutes. In my dreams I could see the flames and feel the heat.
“Do you know about books?” Colette asked. She sat down, which let me sit, too.
So play it cool. I shook my head. “I don’t. I fear you’ve got the wrong man.”
“Yes, you do!”
“No. I know something about men. I know more about women than most men do, which really isn’t saying a great deal. I know a little about children, rather more about dogs, and much less about cats. I’m afraid that’s as far as my knowledge goes. Nothing worth mentioning about books or music or cooking or ten thousand other things.”
“I’ve researched you, Mr. Smithe. You wrote The Lantern in the Library, so clearly you know a lot about books.”
Hoping I was teasing her along, I shook my head.
“There’s a book that holds an enormous secret.”
I said, “There are thousands upon thousands of books that hold millions upon millions of secrets, madam. A few hundred of those secrets may be enormous. I won’t argue the point.”
“Not like this.”
“I see.” I waited; and when she did not speak, I asked, “What is this secret you seek?”
“I don’t know,” Colette said; she should have looked put out at the question, but she did not. She just smiled at me, and I felt she sure as hell knew.
So try something else. “What’s the title of this mysterious book?”
Still smiling she said, “I’m afraid I don’t know that, either.”
“You’re being very close-mouthed; I can only hope you have a good reason. With no more information than you’ve given, do you expect me to tell you the title?”
“No, I don’t; but I expect you to help me ferret out the secret.”
“I will—if I can. I am a library resource, after all.” I was still not sure I would be able to wrangle a checkout from her. “Knowing no more than you’ve told me, how can I be of help?”
“A man wants to change one page of a certain book to incorporate information he needs to conceal. Am I making myself clear?”
So spy novel stuff; I tried to keep a straight face as I nodded. “Perfectly.”
“Very well. How can he do it?”
“In any of a dozen ways, or so I would think. To begin with, paper books are now printed exclusively on demand. You can buy a download from a company that is selling the book you want and have one printed for you. You must know about that.”
“Tell me about it.” Colette was concentrating, so she had stopped smiling.
“There are machines. One can be bought or rented. You download the text. You may design the cover. If you do not, the machine will design its own. Those are very plain, for the most part, and you can save a bit of money by specifying two colors instead of four.”
She nodded, impressed; and silently I blessed a couple of librarians whose conversation I had overheard eight or ten weeks ago. “Say that I want to conceal my information in a standard reference such as Common Deciduous Trees of Our New America. I’d download a copy from the publisher, carefully scan the text and illustrations, then insert my information at an appropriate point. That done, I would rent time on a demand printer and binder.” I shut up and waited for a question or a comment, but she did not say a word.
“I would not have to go where the machine was, you understand, just rent the time. I would download the text I had prepared and specify one copy. The machine would print and bind the book in something less than a minute. The exact time would vary, depending upon the length of the text and the number and difficulty of the illustrations. The company that owned the machine would send me the book, with a bill for machine time and postage.” I waited for a question before I added, “In most cases, it would offer to print me additional copies at a reduced price, if I were satisfied and wanted more.”
“You said there were a dozen ways, I believe.”
“There are. Here’s a simpler one. Books—books other than textbooks particularly—often contain errors. When they do, the publisher may include an errata sheet correcting the error. ‘On page two twenty-one store age should read storage.’ This library tips those sheets into the back of its books.”
“If the information someone wanted to hide were brief, he could easily print up his own errata sheet. ‘On page two twenty-one, the formula such-and-so has been omitted.’ Do you like that one?”
She smiled. “You really are the person I need. I don’t know how I knew it.”
That was flat-out encouraging. It sounded like she might actually borrow me; so I smiled, too, hoping to hit the next question out of the park.
“Give me another. You said a dozen.”
“I feel sure you’ve thought of the simplest. He could write something on a flyleaf, or in the margin of a certain page.”
“I don’t think it’s as obvious as that.”
“There are chemical formulations that will disappear into the paper when they dry, only to reappear if the paper is warmed. When it cools, the writing vanishes again. Say that he writes his secret on a flyleaf. Conceivably it might be warmed by accident and some reader might notice it. But that would be extremely unlikely.”
“I didn’t know about the chemicals.”
“A great deal will depend on the nature of the information. The longer it is, the harder it will be to hide. If it can be expressed in text, that’s one thing. If it requires diagrams…” I pushed my shoulders up and let them drop.
“Suppose it’s solid. A physical object.”
I was not ready for that one, which was limiting and pretty crude. I said, “Ouch!”
“Yes, exactly. But suppose it is.”
Thinking hard, I said, “It would have to be quite small.”
“And flat, right?”
“Wrong. A pin might be pushed into the binding of a cloth-bound book and go unnoticed. A leatherbound book would be worse still.”
“Most books have plastic bindings, like this one.” She got a book out of her shaping bag and held it up.
“Of course, but almost anything is still possible. Is it information? Basically?”
“I think so.”
“Then it might be encoded in a microchip, which is a tiny physical object that can hold, well, a lot. A chip like that can be inserted in a mouse’s ear and used to locate and identify the mouse. If you really want me to help you, you’re going to have to tell me a great deal more than you have so far.”
“Not here,” she said.
“Where, in that case?” Here I was afraid she was going to suggest someplace in the library; I would have to counter that somehow.
She shook her head. “I doubt that we’re being bugged here, but it’s possible. If we are—let’s just say that anything we say may put us in danger.”
That sounded paranoid; I decided to play up to it for the time being. “They would bug the place you named before we got there.”
“Something like that. Yes. Come with me.” She had decided, and she jumped up fast. “I’m going to check you out.”
That was exactly what I had been hoping for, but I managed to hide my grin before we got to the front desk. Colette showed her library card to the ’bot we called Electric Bill, and it got us a fully human librarian who told her, “I’m afraid your card hasn’t been approved for reclones.”
Colette nodded. “I want to get it approved so I can check out this one.”
“We need a deposit. It’s quite substantial.” The librarian’s tone said Colette could not possibly have enough money.
Colette nodded again. “I suppose it must be. I’ll return him.”
“It will be refunded when you bring him back, assuming he’s not damaged. How long?”
Colette pursed her lips. “Let’s say I’ll keep him for ten days.”
The librarian looked skeptical. “For a period in excess of a week, I may be able to get you a special rate; but it will still be a great deal of money.”
Electric Bill asked, “Will we give her the long-term discount, ma’am?”
Electric Bill hummed. “My figure is forty-seven hundred for ten days, ma’am.”
Colette took it calmly enough, but to me it came as a pretty stiff shock; I had hoped the library valued me more highly. The librarian merely pulled out another card and waved it at Bill, who promptly coughed up a couple more. The librarian took them and passed one to me, saying, “July thirtieth.”
I said, “I’ll remember.”
“Not that we wouldn’t like to hang on to your money, Ms. Coldbrook.” Smiling, the librarian handed Colette the other card.
Maybe I should stop right here and explain that up until then I had not known Colette’s name. As we were going out of the library I said, “It will be quite a treat to be in your company for so long, Ms. Coldbrook,” and she told me to say Colette.
A hovercab came at her signal. I had seen hovercabs before, but I had never ridden in one. There is nothing scary about them—or anyway I was not scared when it seemed pretty clear that Colette had ridden in them a lot. The whole thing should have been a lot scarier than it was; of course Colette’s not being scared helped. “Taos Towers, please,” she told the sim who’d showed up in the hovercab’s screen.
It touched its cap, and the hovercab, which had been floating up like a bubble in still water, picked up speed enough to push us back in our seats.
“It’s quite a run,” the sim remarked. “Takes a load of energy, ma’am.”
“Which will be covered by your charge.”
It nodded thoughtfully. “I’ll have to deadhead back, though.”
“Unless you pick up another fare there. Which you probably will.”
“These exclusive places…”
I believe she ignored him. I was looking down at New America, something I had seen before only on maps. We flew from twilight into day while I watched. The mountains were much nearer now.
Colette leaned forward, whispering to the hovercab, and I felt it make a change of course. “Another thirty-four thou and I can buy out,” the sim told us.
Colette did not speak; so I said, “I suppose you’ll go humanoid?”
“ ’Course I will. That what you are, sir?”
I shook my head. “I’m flesh and blood. Almost the real thing.”
“Sorry, sir. I didn’t mean nothing by it.”
I was looking up, mostly. Also down and around.
“You have a wonderful face,” Colette told me.
My eyes left the sky; when I looked at her, I had to catch my breath. As soon as I could, I said, “No one else has ever thought so.”
“Of course they have! You mean they haven’t said so. You can’t possibly know their thoughts.”
“There must be machines for that.”
“There are. When I was still a student they took us to Long Lawn. They have one there to help them treat the patients. One of the other students volunteered, and they let us look into his thoughts. Imagine an anthill, but instead of just seven kinds every ant is different. Then they let us listen to them. It was like listening to the whole city talking, everybody talking at once.”
“You have an enchanting face,” I said to her. “Any number of men must have told you that. Please don’t be insulted.”
She laughed. “Half a dozen men and three or four women. The women were trying to sell me clothes and the men were trying to get me to take them off.”
“I’m not. Believe me, I know what I am.”
“A less-than human who contemplates the sky.” Said with that tender smile, it did not sting.
“How can anyone not? This is a lovely world, and until a few minutes ago I didn’t know how lovely it is. People are wonderfully fortunate to be born now. I remember a world whose sky was gray with smoke or black with dust.”
“That’s right, you have his memories. I’d forgotten that.”
I nodded. “Wonderful memories. Back in the library, on my shelf, that was what I did most of the time. For day after day I read and remembered.”
“We’re down to about one billion now. I’d halve that, if I could.” Colette paused, thinking. “It must have been lonely there in the library. Did you tell yourself your own stories?”
“Sometimes. Stories help, sometimes. When I tire of stories, I daydream about Arabella—Arabella Lee. Perhaps you know her work?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“She was a poet, and a fine one. Her poetry was lovely, although not half so lovely as she. We were married.…”
“Yes?” Colette pronounced the word in a way that made it seem she might really be interested.
“Only for two years; then she divorced me. I mean the original me, back in my own time. The me who wrote all my books.”
“How old are you? Not him, but the living, breathing reclone sitting beside me.”
When I did not answer, she changed it to, “How long has it been since you were published?”
I shrugged. “They told me, but I’ve forgotten.”
“Yes. Am I that transparent?”
“Certainly. All men are. Women lie and lie—do you know that?”
I said, “I suppose I do now.”
“It’s one of the things men tell each other, and it’s true. We women lie and lie, because we’re good at it. Men generally tell the truth because they’re not.”
“I have nearly half a century of memories. Doesn’t that make me old?”
“Certainly not. I’m a good judge of age. Shall I tell you how old you are?”
I nodded and tried to smile, although no smile came. “I wish you would.”
“You’re twenty-one or twenty-two, but you could easily pass for thirty or more. Most people wouldn’t believe that you’re only twenty-two.”
Although Colette would and did. And it was not quite true, I decided, that I had an old man’s memories and a young man’s mind. That was what they had taught me to believe, but it was not really that simple. How old was my judgment? I think your judgment depends on both those things, but it depends more on something else, something I cannot put my finger on. On insight and this other thing. Only I am a lot younger than Colette thought.
I could study the mountains in the middle distance when we landed in what looked like the ruined garden of some abandoned estate. There were trees like towers of bells, and patches of golden-green sunlight. A waterfall roared about a hundred paces away. “This grass is fresh and very soft,” I said when our hovercab had lifted off, “but I wouldn’t think you’d want to sit on the ground in that skirt.”
Colette nodded and waved her hand, leading me to a couple of stones about a hundred steps away. I dusted off both with my handkerchief, which got me a really great smile, and I sat on mine after she had sat down.
Opening her shaping bag, she took out the plastic-bound book she had shown me before. “Books like this are almost obsolete now. Did you know it?”
“The librarians have told me so. I would hate to believe it.”
“You must, because it’s true.”
I wanted to walk. That was a new feeling for me, or maybe only an old buried one coming back, one so old I had forgotten it. I got up and walked up and down, not fast but not slow. Books—real books printed on paper—were the heart and soul of a whole culture that had been mine. Cultures are like people, it seems. Sure, they get old and die; but sometimes they die even when they are not very old at all.
“I can see you’re trying to keep this age straight.” Colette herself was trying hard not to laugh.
Still dizzy with thought, I nodded.
“That’s good. Do it. I’ll stop talking until you sit again.” Without paying much attention to what I did, I had gone to the edge of the waterfall. I guess it was pretty small, no higher than some of the belltower trees, but really pretty. I must have watched it for ten or fifteen minutes. Maybe more.
At last I went back to her. “You told me that books are almost obsolete, yet you carry that one in your shaping bag. That must mean that this secret you’re looking for is in there, or you think it is. You were afraid of our being overheard—afraid there were hidden listening devices in the library.”
She nodded, looking grim.
“Why would the police be snooping our conversation?”
“They wouldn’t be interested—not as far as I know, or at least not seriously.” She shut up for a long look at the book. “You may be right. I…”
“I’ll certainly consider it. Probably for quite a while.”
I sat down again. “Are you yourself a scientist?”
She laughed and shook her head. “What makes you think I might be?”
“Our earlier conversation. I didn’t ask about a map that might give the location of buried treasure. I talked about formulas and diagrams, none of which you challenged. So it’s a scientific secret, or at least you think that it might be.”
“Yes, it might.”
“But you yourself are no sort of scientist. What are you, then?”
“What do I look like?”
I shrugged. “A wealthy, well-educated young lady.”
“Close enough! Let’s leave it at that.” She had been reading the book. “You mustn’t ask me how I know the secret’s in here.”
“In that case, you’d certainly lie if I did.” I smiled, remembering something she had said.
“So I won’t. Tell me this, please, and don’t lie. Is it in all copies of that book, or only in that one?”
“You…” She hesitated. “I don’t really know. What difference does it make?”
“A great deal, or so I think. If it is in this one alone, we need only look for a difference between this copy and the rest; but if it’s in all the copies, that approach would be quite useless.”
“If it’s in all the copies, it must be in the text.”
“Correct,” I said.
“While if it’s only in this one, there could be some difference in text. Or else something physical, like the chemical ink you talked about, or the errata sheet.”
“Exactly. Are you good with modern screens? I knew next to nothing about the wonderful computers of my own time, and I know less than nothing about the screens you use now.”
“No, not at all.” She paused. “Some people are fascinated by them.”
“You aren’t, I take it.”
“No.” She opened the book and closed it again. “I’m not. Those people are mostly boys, and they get into the mathematics— all sorts of things that machines can handle much better than we can.”
“We may have to enlist one of those boys, in that case. Millions of books are available in digital form, or so I’ve heard.”
“Several digital forms, really.” She smiled. “I see I’ve let the helium out. I’m sorry. Really, I am.”
“Not necessarily. Why several forms?”
“Sometimes people want to see the author’s original text, prior to editing. In other cases there are several forms. Suppose a Chinese book has been translated into English. There could be three or four translations, and arguments about which translation is best.”
“Is that a translation?”
She shook her head. “I’ve researched it, and it was written in late English—in the language we’re speaking, in other words.”
“Is that the only language in use now?”
She shook her head again. “There are dozens of others.”
She nodded again. “Yes. I know what you’re going to say, and I agree: there may be a planetary language. But it hasn’t happened yet and perhaps it never will.”
“Since we don’t have to worry about translations, what do we have to worry about? The author’s original text?”
She smiled. “You should know.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“You wrote it.” She handed me the book.
I glanced at the title page and shook my head. “I see I did, but this one must have been written after my death. I don’t remember it at all.”
“Oh, come now!”
“I meant almost. After my last scan, in other words, and nobody thought it was worthwhile to make another. I suppose I wasn’t selling all that well. As to the author’s—as to my original text…”
“Yes? Tell me!”
“I don’t think we have to worry. I wasn’t generally edited a lot. You couldn’t hide an enormous secret in minor corrections of punctuation and the like, or I don’t see how you could.”
“And it would have to be something you, the author, could see.”
“Which is why you thought I might be the one to help you?”
“Exactly. I’ve talked to experts on codes and ciphers. Nothing they told me seemed to lead anywhere; then I thought of you. Are you sure you don’t know what you put in this book?”
“I am.” I opened the book and read a few paragraphs. “It seems to be in my style, or something very near it, so I doubt the title page is lying. I don’t recall writing it, but the copyright date must—”
“What’s the matter?”
“I just thought of something, that’s all. You knew where these stones were.”
“So you’ve been here before. Isn’t it possible that the hearers you fear are listening to us? That they’ve bugged it?”
“I doubt it. It’s been almost three years since I was here last.”
“You sat on these stones.”
“And he sat on this one I’m sitting on.”
“Oh, stars! Now you’ll want to know who he was, and whether I still care about him, and how much I cared about him when I did, and whether we slept together a lot, and if he and I—”
I had raised my hand. “No!”
“You don’t have to shout at me.”
“I wasn’t shouting, but if it seemed like that to you, I apologize most humbly. All I’m saying is that this site could be bugged. Perhaps it’s unlikely, but it’s certainly possible.”
“How about over there?” She pointed across the stream.
The stream was narrow and deep, with a fast current. The land on the other side was rough with broken building stones. We walked slowly, I wearing the one pair of low shoes that was all I had, and Colette in screw-heeled fashion boots. I wondered how soon she would want to stop. Now I think she was probably thinking something like that about me.
After a while she said, “Not all the animals here are harmless, you know.”
I shook my head. “I didn’t.”
“Some of the dangerous ones have been killed off; but they keep coming back, bears and wolves, and panthers that look like big Siamese cats.”
“Were they less dangerous near the waterfall?” We were still walking.
“Yes, because there was no scent trail for the animal to pick up. We’re leaving one now.”
I nodded. “Then let’s stop and talk here.”
“There’s no place for the hovercab to land.”
“We can go back.”
“If anything’s tracking us, we’ll meet it. You realize that, I hope.”
“In that case, the sooner we start back, the safer we’ll be.”
“Not if they’re listening.” She paused. “I know you’re right—they might have found out about that spot.”
“Who are they? Do you know?”
“First I want to sit down. Isn’t that terrible?”
I shook my head. “We’ve walked quite a distance, and you’re wearing screw heels. I didn’t think we’d come this far.”
We went back to the stream. The water was well below ground level there, and we sat on the bank. We hadn’t been there long before she pulled off her boots and splashed the water with her feet. I pulled off my shoes and stockings, and did it, too.
Excerpted from A Borrowed Man © Gene Wolfe, 2015