Through Fire – Snippet 19

She opened the door, stuck her head in and said something. The voice that answered her spoke too low for me to understand the words, but it reminded me of Simon’s voice. Not in timbre or tone, but in some indefinable way. Indefinable, that is, until I met Royce Allard.

Martha led me into a room that looked like a laboratory’s offspring by a styling parlor. There were machines and screens, mirrors and vials, and then there were chairs, set in front of what were clearly vanities of some sort, if vanities were really serious and high tech.

Royce — introduced that way by Martha — was a large man, built on the mold of Lucius or Alexis. He had blunt features, a shock of reddish-brown hair, arms that looked like he lifted weights at his job every day, and eyes like a shrewd monkey. Which might sound unkind, but isn’t. Just like the eyes of a monkey can look out of place, staring out of incongruous features, so too Royce Allard’s eyes looked incongruous, much too bright and intent for his blunt features. He looked at me, and his eyebrows went up a little. Then his hands went to the side of his waist, and then he spoke and I understood why he reminded me of Simon. He had the same accent, which wasn’t quite like a French accent in historic casts, but was close enough. “You want her to pass unnoticed in Liberte?” he asked Martha, and sighed. “Wouldn’t you want me to do something easier, like, say, hide a full-grown elephant in my armpit?”

I frowned. “I’m not an elephant,” I said. One thing is not to wish to take offense, and another to remain quiet while people around you are acting like mental patients.

He smiled. “Indeed not. And that’s the problem. Most people, male or female, will see you and remember you.” He shrugged. “Well! This will be a challenge. I always hear it’s important to have a challenge, so one doesn’t grow stale. When I finish this work, I’ll be so fresh I might as well be a beginner again.”

He led me to a chair and sat me down. The work he did involved a lot of machines, both for measuring things and for changing things. I wish I could tell you precisely what he did, but the truth is, I couldn’t even follow it. He worked silently, and all I can tell you is that at some point semi-permanent caps went on my teeth, which changed their shape, and that something of the same sort went inside my cheeks, which changed the shape of my mouth and my features. And yet, none of it was permanent, and none of it felt any different once it was in.

All right, maybe the teeth. I kept getting the persistent and unshakeable feeling that my teeth were too long for my mouth, but I couldn’t tell which parts of them were different.

My eye color was changed too. Not lenses. There was something injected. There was something injected at various portions of the procedure into various parts of my features, and I can’t tell you exactly where or what it did.

At one point I asked if the makeup would survive bathing, and Royce shook his head, which alarmed me, but then he said, “Not makeup, as such, understand. It is subcutaneous. It will be absorbed, in a couple of weeks. Earlier if I remove it. But until then, you are completely safe in your new appearance, safe through immersion and baths, and exposure to sun and anything. Your new appearance is your new appearance, impervious to all the things your normal appearance is.”

When it was all done, he stood me in front of the mirror. I still looked like myself, though my hair was a reddish shade of brown, and my features were…

It’s hard to explain. They hadn’t so much changed as been made unmemorable. The changes were small, save for the coloration — both my skin and my eyebrows and eyelashes were darker, and my eyes were now brown — but I no longer looked like Boticelli’s Venus. I looked similar enough that someone would say “Oh, you remind me of,” if he were very well educated and had spent a lot of time staring at me. Still, I didn’t look like I’d been made to order.

The point was that no one, male or female, would spend a lot of time staring at me. I looked like someone who could pass unnoticed in the street. I’d have passed myself on the street without noticing.

“The important thing,” Royce said, “and the difficult one is to change the way you move.”

I turned around and the stranger in the mirror turned around too, to face him. “The way I move? Why? Is that particularly memorable?”

He seemed to struggle for words. “Oh,” he said. “Well… yes. Or rather, it’s not memorable. No one is going to tell you he really likes or dislikes the way you move. It’s just… odd.”

“No one ever commented on it,” I said, frowning at him.

He smiled. When he smiled, he looked like a different person, and a much nicer one. “No, I imagine not. No one would notice it in your world, because it would be the normal way to move, or at least close enough. And here, on Earth, everyone knows you’re a stranger, so they would expect you to move and act like a stranger. But if you want to pass unnoticed, something will need to be done. People won’t know what makes them notice you, or what makes them sure you’re not from Liberte, but they will know — they will be able to have you followed and that’s the difference between your surviving and not–potentially. And then there’s the patois, but fortunately we have recordings for that.”


“Neural recordings,” he said. “Of the movements, too, but that’s harder to upload.”

“You’re going to upload things to my brain?” I blinked at him. I was used to the science on Earth being behind what we did on Eden. There was a reason for it. They had outlawed most experimentation and research after the Turmoils. Supposedly they’d only outlawed new biological research, but in fact all sorts of technical research and even incidental discoveries had been hidden and never hit the public consciousness. The reason for it was that the Good Men had liked society stable. Nothing destabilizes society like new knowledge and new gadgets and new inventions. They’d sold themselves to the people of Earth as bringing stability. And they had. Three hundred years of stability. Even if it required stagnation and massive deaths by attrition and neglect.

But even on Eden we didn’t have any way to access our neurons, bypassing the conscious act of learning to upload knowledge or training into the brain. “When I was in training,” I told him, “I often wished that there were some way to just upload all the knowledge directly to the brain, without my having to work at it.”

He chuckled. “Well, there isn’t. This isn’t it. It’s not knowledge of that type. I can’t use neural upload to teach you the multiplication tables, for example, but I can put it in your head so that if you’re prompted to answer two times two, your lips will say four. Does that make sense? Consciously you won’t know it, until you hear yourself say it. It is a lousy way to learn anything, because it will only apply in certain situations, and there will be no… control on your part. No…” he translated his verbal hesitation into a flourishing gesture midair with his right hand. “No way to use that knowledge, but the way that was imprinted. Also, it doesn’t last. It used to be believed, back in the dark ages around the twenty-first century, that eventually this mode of learning would replace traditional learning, that people would buy knowledge packs, and have it uploaded to their minds, as though they were a sort of meat computer. But it doesn’t work that way long term. Sure, if you absolutely need to speak a language for a week or so, we can upload some basic vocabulary, but you’ll speak it with atrocious grammar, unless you respond with a learned sentence to another learned sentence. You’ll be a clever parrot, not a real speaker of the language.”