by Rati Mehrotra
Some jerk in a speeding racer had wrecked Tiya’s cat. I was all for recycling its remains, but Tiya would have none of it. She wept until I gave in and promised to get it fixed at Hacker’s Faire.
I’d sworn not to go back there, not unless our lives depended on it. Everything at the Faire has a price, and I had little left to sell or barter. I had optioned my useful parts years ago, before I met Hanna and settled down – if squatting in an abandoned warehouse with eight other families can be called settling. Anyway, I had left my old life behind, and I kept quiet about my Truthtelling skills.
But Tiya’s our youngest and I couldn’t bear to see her cry. So I dusted my drum, slung it on my back and told her not to worry. “If Mama asks,” I said, “tell her I’m at the greenhouse.”
Tiya wiped away her tears and handed me a little sack clanking with cat bits. I’d tinkered with the parts myself, but it was no good. I can put together a simple comp or fix a broken tap, but sixth generation robots are beyond me. Especially those that have come under the wheels of a racer. Idiot cat, I thought as I stuffed the sack in my bag. What use were syntronic brains and carbon nanos if you couldn’t even dodge a car? No wonder this particular specimen had been discarded. It probably had a factory defect.
But I said nothing. Tiya loved Whiskers in her unconditional four-year old way, notwithstanding the patchiness of its fur and the raspiness of its meow. She hugged me and went back to lessons with Naomi, the old Teach I’d rigged up for the younger kids, secure in the knowledge that her Papa Lazlo would solve everything.
I stepped out into the sunshine, wishing I shared her conviction. Down the street I walked, skirting potholes and puddles. It had rained last night and the air was clear and sharp – a perfect fall day that revealed, only too clearly, the gap-toothed ruins that surrounded me. On both sides tottered the architectural dregs of a city that had seen better days: abandoned storefronts with cracked windows, churches rebuilt as hospitals and then as funeral parlors. It wasn’t the best place to live – that was up in the wooded hills north of the city – but it wasn’t the worst either. The worst was where I was heading: the slummy outskirts that housed the detritus of the Faire.
The road curved around a set of crumbling apartment buildings and deteriorated into a labyrinth of narrow streets. Windowless shacks of discarded plastic and corrugated tin leaned against each other. Men slumped on steps, eyes glazed from Dreams. Their minds were gone, and perhaps not even I could have reminded them who they had once been.
I emerged from the labyrinth and the burned hull of a launch tower rose like a blot in the autumn sky. I headed for the remains of the defunct North York spaceport, trying to squash my misgivings.
The Outers didn’t just bomb us when they left; they made sure we couldn’t follow them into space. Thirty years ago, and I was just three years older than Tiya when it happened, but I remembered it as clear as yesterday: fire blooming in the sky, the rumble of anti-aircraft missiles, shouts of confusion and screams of pain. I hid in a bunker with my mother and cousins. We survived, but my father didn’t. Captain Ruhark died along with his entire company, men and cyborgs alike, in the firebombing of the spaceport they were supposed to protect.
An uneasy truce had held since then, but we didn’t rebuild the North York spaceport. There was no point; the new one in Mississauga served the entire province of Upper Kanata. Instead, Hackers’ Faire had sprouted like an ugly but colorful growth around the ruins of the buildings and launch pad facilities. Better that than turn it into a museum for the dead. At least it served a purpose; at least it was alive.
A little too alive. The crowd thickened as I drew near the launch tower, the heart of the market. Someone spat on my shoes. I looked down, startled, and felt a hand slip into my back pocket.
But my pockets were empty and I didn’t want to start a fight, not now. I had a job to do. I walked on, scanning the faces around me. I didn’t know what to expect. It had been years since I last practiced my craft, and yet I couldn’t help but hope I’d glimpse someone I used to know, a man or woman who had belonged to the Truthtellers’ guild.
But they were strangers all, from the beggars who lined the streets whining for coin to the cocky young men hawking pirated Dreams. It was bewildering; I’d forgotten what it could be like. Discarded robots crawled, jumped and flew overhead. Broken vehicles repurposed as slumber-booths crammed beside med-tents and food carts. A giant electric giraffe wheeled by, music blaring from its tinny mouth. The smell of frying sausage hit my nostrils and set me salivating.
But I was here to make money, not to spend it. I squeezed my way through the throngs until I arrived at the foot of the launch tower. Inside, sheltered from the elements, were bigger fry: sales reps of companies like Genex and Syntron that could afford the astronomical rent.
I unslung the drum from my shoulders, humming to calm my nerves. With a piece of white chalk, I began to draw a circle around myself.
An old man at a stall opposite paused in the act of strapping on his new bionic boots long enough to ask, “Watcha doin’?”
“Drawing the circle of truth,” I said. I completed the circle and sat inside it, the drum on my lap and my empty hat before me. “Ever seen one? Nothing but truth can cross this line.”
The old man snorted. “Truthteller, are you? I thought they were extinct.”
I flashed a grin. “No sir, as you can see I am very much alive.”
“But for how much longer?” he asked, and there were a few laughs from around us.
“Very humorous sir,” I said. “Please stay and listen. Payment is strictly optional, although I do have five mouths to feed and a robotic cat to fix. My hat will be glad of any change you can spare, and if you have none, why, your boots will do just as well.”
More laughter. People stopped to watch. Good, I was getting a crowd. I began to beat out a simple rhythm on the drum, slow and pulsing like a heart. I amplified it until it was the single biggest sound in that part of the market so everyone would know a show was on and gravitate toward my circle.
Then I killed it. In the deep silence that followed, I said, “Do you remember who you were before the mindwipes and the Dreams ate your memories? Because I remember. I, Lazlo Ruhark, can tell your truth, no matter how deeply buried it is.”
This was not strictly correct. There are some minds no Truthteller can delve into, and there are some things it is better not to know. It took me years to understand this. But it was part of my act, the spiel that my guild had taught me after my augmentation.
I looked them in the eyes one by one, challenging. This was the tricky part. If I could establish a connection with them now, most of them would stay, and many of them would pay.
I began a different rhythm on the drum, soft and slow. “This is the story of you,” I said. “It is the story of how you became what you are.” I stood up and pointed. “You: I can tell you’ve had a mindwipe. Did somebody die? Was it so important that you let a part of yourself die too? And you. Are the Dreams so much better than waking life?”
They stared at me, rapt. Someone moaned. I had them now; they were going to stay. I sat down to wait for the first customer, my skin tingling. I couldn’t for the life of me remember why I’d ever stopped Truthtelling. This was what I was made for, this was me. Reminding people of who they were before all the edits they’d made of their bloody histories.
“Tell my truth, if you can,” came a flat voice.
My stomach clenched when I saw who had spoken. It was a cyborg who had seen better days, much like the city we lived in. The burnished gold of the e-skin stretched over his limbs had faded to a dull yellow-brown. The left side of his head was dented and the legs were a patchwork of metal parts. Cyborgs weren’t a common sight nowadays and I wondered how he’d escaped the cull.
Aloud I said, “Sir Metal, may I remind you that Truthtelling is a service for humans?”
He laughed, a rasping sound that sent spiders crawling over my skin. “May I remind you of the rules of your guild? You tell my story if I step into your circle. I was human once, after all.”
To my horror, he detached himself from the crowd and crossed into my chalk-drawn circle. He crossed his arms and regarded me with calm eyes. I almost panicked for a moment; I knew what cyborgs were capable of, how feared they’d been, back when they filled the ranks of the now-disbanded York Supersoldiers.
Already people had begun to mutter; the mood was turning bleak and so were my prospects of making enough money to fix Tiya’s cat. I didn’t want to go home empty-handed, not after all the effort I’d made. But the cyborg was right. If anyone stepped into the circle of truth, their story had to be told. Would I be able to read him? How different would his real story be from the one the crowd believed, the one he himself believed?
“Are you afraid, Lazlo Ruhark?” said the cyborg. “Do not be. I will not harm you if you refuse to speak.”
I swallowed hard. “Sir Metal, what I am afraid of is that my hat and my stomach will go empty today. But no matter. You have crossed the circle and I am honor-bound to tell your tale.” I lowered my neck, offering the port at the base of my skull.
The cyborg bent and pressed a finger to my node. A shock of unedited data flooded me and I almost drowned. I flailed and fought to the surface. It had been too long since I’d done this.
“My name is Vajra 4. Before that my name was something else, but I no longer remember it,” said the cyborg.
“Your name was Devrin,” I said, sifting through the information. “You had a wife and two children, and you were a captain in the York Paramilitary.”
“True,” said the cyborg. “I died in a battle several decades ago, during the suppression of the first Outer rebellion in 2093. They did not call themselves Outers then. They called themselves space nomads, explorers who wanted freedom from the shackles of Earth bureaucracy. I was a soldier and I played my part; I killed many rebels before a shell took off the lower half of my body.”
I gritted my teeth. “False. You died by your own hand years after the first Outer rebellion. You were haunted by the faces of the men who’d died fighting by your side. You had nightmares, you heard voices, and you woke screaming for your gun. You were afraid you’d hurt your family.”
There was silence. Someone in the crowd hooted, and someone else shushed them.
“Perhaps,” said the cyborg finally. “It was a long time ago. I was given a new life, a new body.”
“Permanent indenture to the military wing that paid for your rehabilitation,” I said.
“What is a soldier for but to fight and kill to keep the peace?” said the cyborg. “The Vajra battalion grew. The younger ones looked up to me; I was one of the oldest surviving members of the Supersoldier army. Gradually, they took the place of the family I had lost.”
“That family tried to contact you,” I said. “Your two grown-up daughters visited you at the facility, but you refused to meet them.”
“False,” said Vajra 4.
“True,” I said. “You were still trying to protect them, prevent them from seeing what you had become. When they left, you requested and received your second memory edit.”
“Second? Did I have more?” asked Vajra 4.
I stared into the dark gaps of his mind. The number of men he had killed, the comrades he’d lost.
“You remember the circumstances of the last war?” I said, stalling for time.
“Of course,” said Vajra 4. “The remaining Outers had retreated to the farthest parts of the solar system; we were triumphant because we thought this meant their defeat, their eventual demise. Many of my soldiers were decommissioned. We paid heavily for that mistake when the Outers returned. They broke through our missile defenses like paper; they atomized our satellites like dust. They burned our spaceports and devastated our communications.”
“The terms of peace were binding,” I said, “and the American Alliance did not try to negotiate.” I took a deep breath. “In the following weeks, the Alliance destroyed ninety nine percent of their cyborgs, including the Vajras. You are the last of your battalion. You requested euthanasia, but your request was denied. You were given a memory edit instead, and retrained in mech repair.”
Vajra 4 swung on me, fists clenched. “False!” he shouted. “The Outers destroyed the cyborgs.”
“False,” echoed someone in the crowd. “The cyborgs defected to the Outers, who promised them citizenship.”
“The cyborgs betrayed the Alliance!” screamed a woman.
The cyborg turned on them, threatening, and they fell silent.
I stood up, trying not to shake. My mouth was dry, my throat hoarse. I’d have given anything for a drink, the stronger the better. But I had nothing remotely alcoholic in my bag.
“I am a Truthteller,” I said, “and I have told the truth. My gift to you,” I bowed to Vajra 4, “and to you,” I bowed to the crowd.
“You’re nothing but a liar,” shouted a man. Something hard and sharp – a stone, perhaps, or a discarded bit of metal – struck me on the forehead. I stumbled and fell. Of course, they wouldn’t dare turn on the cyborg. Why not attack the poor Truthteller instead?
The cyborg helped me sit up. “Logic tells me you would not lie,” said Vajra 4. “But I cannot believe what you just said. I cannot thank you for what you have done.”
“No one thanks me,” I said, clutching my forehead. “This must be why I stopped Truthtelling.”
“Why you stopped – don’t you remember what happened to your guild?” asked Vajra 4.
“You’d best leave,” said the old man with the bionic boots. He was holding back some of the more agitated members of the crowd with extensible arms.
“Yes sir,” I said. “I can see I’m not wanted.”
“Wait,” said Vajra 4. “They burned down the Truthtellers’ guildhouse, didn’t they?”
I slung the drum on my back, stuffed the empty hat on my head, and scurried away. But I couldn’t unhear his words. I wished I’d never laid eyes on that damned cyborg. Years of calm ignorance, and that one line brought it all back to me.
I ducked into the launch tower, wove between the crowded aisles on the first floor, and slipped out of a rear door. I glanced over my shoulder, but the only thing that followed me was my past.
The problem with my kind of neural implant, which allowed me to access the original, unedited memories of others, was that it did not allow me to edit myself. Three tries, and the best I got was a temporary curtain over the events of the night that everything went up in flames.
We’d decided to do a play, the eight of us, to enact the lives of our audience. A massive Truthtelling performance, the like of which had never been seen before, to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of our guild.
Half the night it went on, with more and more people offering themselves up to us. Folks worked themselves into a frenzy of need that turned to rage when we showed them truths they had wanted buried forever. Realizing the danger of the uncontrolled mass release of painful memories, we tried to end the performance. But it was too late.
Mobs set fire to our guildhouse. Two Truthtellers burned alive and the rest scattered like so much dust. Who still lived, and where? I didn’t want to know. I didn’t want to remember. Fine Truthteller I turned out to be.
I couldn’t go home right away, not in my present mood. I stopped at a bar and tried to drown the memory of that terrible night in a few beers. It didn’t work.
It wasn’t until I emerged from the bar that I realized I didn’t have my bag with me. I groped and patted myself, but it was an exercise in futility, much as my whole trip had been. What had I been thinking? Hanna would never let me hear the end of it. Tiya would be heartbroken, with not even the remnants of Whiskers to bury.
“Is this what you’re looking for?” The cyborg’s voice in my ear, after all that had happened, took at least five years off my remaining life span. Vajra 4 stood behind me, proffering my bag.
When I had reduced my heart rate sufficiently to speak, I said, “Thank you.” I grabbed the bag and held it against my chest, hoping he would leave, fast. I didn’t want to be seen with him. People might get the idea we were friends.
“It was the least I could do,” said Vajra 4. “You will find it has enhanced capabilities. May it give you much amusement.”
He turned and left, the westering sun casting a golden sheen on his faded e-skin. I opened the bag to make sure Tiya’s sack was still there, and Whiskers poked his head out, surveying me with inscrutable yellow eyes. I yelped and almost dropped the bag. I couldn’t believe it. Vajra 4 had fixed the robot in just a few hours.
I looked up, but the cyborg was gone. Part of me wanted to run and call him back, but what could I have said that would have meant anything?
I could have said: Vajra 4, I am sorry for you. You were human once. But I don’t know what you are now. The Outers, much as we loathe them, are made of flesh and bone, same as us, no matter how many modifications they undergo to live in low g, high radiation environments. You are subject to none of the biological constraints that I am. What is true for me is not true for you, and what is true for you is not true for me.
I could have asked: Vajra 4, now that I have reminded you, will you try and find your daughters again? Do you think it will do any good?
And: Vajra 4, do you think I should try and find my guild mates again? Will it do any good?
I walked home in the cooling dusk, trying to empty my head of its black thoughts. I practiced what I would say to Hanna. Perhaps I would tell her that I had found some old friends and joined them for a drink, forgotten the time.
Outside the door of the three-story warehouse that we had converted into barely-livable space, I dumped the cat out of the bag. It righted itself in mid-air, landing on four paws.
“Whiskers, you dumb cat,” I said. “You almost got me killed. Try not to get run over again.”
“Lazlo Ruhark,” said Whiskers calmly, “you are so full of excrement.”
My jaw dropped. Maybe I said something, but at that moment, Tiya came rushing out. She swooped down on the cat, cooing. Whiskers purred and rubbed his head against her cheek.
“Told you I’d get it fixed,” I said, recovering my voice.
“You’re the bestest Papa in the whole world,” said Tiya. “Isn’t he, Whiskers?”
About the Author
Rati Mehrotra lives and writes in lovely Toronto. Her short stories have appeared in AE – The Canadian Science Fiction Review, Apex Magazine, Abyss & Apex, Podcastle, and many more. Her debut novel, Markswoman, will be published in early 2018. You can follow her online and on Twitter.
About the Narrator
Wilson Fowlie has been reading stories out loud since the age of 4, and credits any talent he has in this area to his parents, who are both excellent at reading aloud.
He started narrating stories for more than just his own family in late 2008, when he answered a call for readers on the PodCastle forum. Since then, he has gone on to become PodCastle’s most prolific narrator, reading or appearing in over 30 episodes.
He’s also narrated for many other podcasts, including PodCastle’s sister casts, Escape Pod and Pseudopod, as well as StarShipSofa and other District of Wonder podcasts, Beam Me Up, Cast Macabre, Dunesteef Audio Fiction magazine and the Journey Into… podcast. He fits in all this narrating between his day job as a web developer in Vancouver, Canada, and being the director of a community show chorus called The Maple Leaf Singers.
About the Artist
The Artemis Rising 3 image was commissioned from Ashley Mackenzie. Ashley is an artist and illustrator based in Edmonton, Alberta. She was born in Victoria, BC and grew up between Vancouver, BC and Edmonton, AB. After studying online for a year through AAU in San Francisco, CA she moved to Toronto to pursue a degree in Illustration at OCADU. Though she loves the challenge of creating complex conceptual illustrations and finding new ways to navigate ideas visually she also enjoys making concept art and decorative illustration. When not drawing she can be found reading, playing videogames or thinking about her next project.