Robert Nowall

If Life It Is, by Robert Nowall

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If Life It Is, by Robert Nowall
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The Laminants, by Robert Nowall
A Raft, by Robert Nowall

Enter subhead content here

 

IF LIFE IT IS

 

by

 

Robert Nowall

 

 

 

 

 

Rose Anastasio:

            I looked them over in the greenish dim light.  Laminants, all of them.  Male and female, all about my age.  All stood there naked.  None moved.  Their open eyes looked at nothing.

            No trouble defeating the door lock and the security cameras---they operated on the same system.  Right now, as I inspected the laminants, the cameras repeated the same still picture over and over, and would keep doing so for at least fifteen minutes.  I could move around, look around.

            I read the posters and signs and art on the walls of the lobby outside.  Not just any shop, but a laminant store.  An office and showroom for the selling and leasing of laminants.  I grunted at the thought.  Laminated corpses.

            Taking the recent dead---killing them---then processing and plasticizing them until brains and bodies became beyond all rot and decay.  Then running currents through those same preserved brains and bodies, to make them talk and move around.

            And to work for the still-alive.  Laminant corpse slaves.

            Creepy.  Nothing like that back on Danleer.  But here on Paragon, legal.  Almost common.

            I looked at them, all stiff and silent in the display room behind the lobby, thinking about what I knew about them.  Not much.  I studied up on life on Paragon for my assignment.  Laminants made up a part of that life.  I knew they operated by a tie-in through low-powered radio to a central processing unit; without that control they could not move a plasticized muscle.  They could not stray far from their cee-pee-you.

            Right here and now, the unit and radio controlling these laminants must be off or in some kind of sleep mode.  Quiet and still.

            The thought of "all about my age" wandered back through my mind, demanding my attention.  I lost the agent trailing me, I knew.  But he would know that.  He, and others, would backtrack and look for me.

            A couple of days, before I could get to the port and leave---no fuss there, private craft, no security or customs.  But, till then, with my cover blown, I needed to keep my head down.  I needed a good hiding place.

            If, say, I stood in an alcove here in this laminant store for a couple of days...risky.  But possible, workable.

            I returned to the front door, the lock, and accessed the camera system again.  It was now the Paragon equivalent of two in the morning.  I put a patch on it that made it repeat the same picture again, for a couple nights running.  That gave me a time frame to operate in.

            Once done, I returned to the display room.  A trash container stood next to the door arch.  I took my clothes off---sandals, jeans, a tube top, panties, typical wear for a Danleer tourist in the hot season on Paragon---then wrapped them around my small purse and stuffed the lot inside the trash container.  I moved enough trash around to conceal the bundle from prying eyes.

            Now naked as the laminants, I looked the alcoves over---and decided against standing in one.  I saw literature placed at the feet of the laminants in the alcoves.  I picked up one set, a booklet and several single sheets of paper.  I read it.  Information on the laminant in question, year of creation, specialties, pictures.

            No time or material to forge one.  But the ones on the rails in the middle of the room lacked any accompanying literature.  I didn't know why.  But it made my choice for me.  I found an empty spot between two female laminants, facing towards the arch entrance.  They stood, at attention, hands on the rail.  One light-skinned, the other dark-skinned; my tan put me somewhere in between.  I leaned in and put my hands on the rail.

            My skin tingled.  A mild bio-lock forcefield, I realized, engaging once I stood close to the rail.  It gripped and supported me.

            Could I force my way out of it?  Just now, I didn't want to try.  I might need to stay there for two, three days.  I needed all the support I could get.

            Better, in a sense.   I could rest a little, take it easy, without falling over or looking like I fell asleep.  I could rest with my eyes open.  My mind would record what went on while I slept.

            I stood there a moment.  The night was warm and the air did not circulate in the display room.  I felt sweat form on me.  I slowed my breathing to near-imperceptible---a laminant wouldn't need to breathe unless it needed to speak---and brooded over my situation.

#

            I played the tourist.  But I just played it.  Our team came from Danleer, sent to contact this high-ranking member of the Paragon military.  We needed to obtain what information he could give us, and, if necessary, help the man defect to Danleer.

            I served as an alternate, not part of the main contact team, but a possible contact, a substitute, to call on if needed.  As I said, I played the tourist.  Museums during the day, nightclubs at night.  Drinking and looking for men.  Touristy things.  I went under the name Rose Anastasio, with all the paperwork and pictures to prove it.

            But something went wrong.  I confirmed it that evening.  Local authorities followed me.  That ended my usefulness to the assignment.  A couple more days and I could leave.  Others would complete the task, if possible.

            I could do one more thing, though.  If the Paragon police focused attention on me, expended their resources hunting me---well, it might keep them away from the team long enough for them to carry out their assignment.

            I could hope it worked out.  All I could do now.

#

            The store opened at six in the morning---not open for business, but open for the store workers.  I dozed, but I snapped back to full awareness as the lights came up and the air conditioning came on.

            Out of the corner of my eye---all I could manage, as I remained frozen in place, looking elsewhere---I saw a man in custodian outfit, blue pants and shirt, lift the bag of trash out of the container and take it away.  No matter.  I could get clothes elsewhere.

            Other workers, wearing what looked like light green medical scrubs and white shower caps, came in.  Some rolled bodies in on wheeled carts.  No, not bodies, laminants.  They lifted and placed them in alcoves.  The laminants snapped to attention as forcefields snapped on.

            They carried a couple of laminants away with them, too.  Merchandise needed replacing or tending to, I guessed.  Just like stocking any store.  From time to time the stock out front needed changing.

            Eight in the morning, some sort of mood music started playing from concealed speakers, not too loud, not too soft.  When the music started playing, the laminants all around me stirred and looked around.  The forcefield around me relaxed.  I caught myself and pretended to stir, as well.

            But, I found out, the forcefield didn't vanish, it just became weaker.  I remained locked in.  One hand, or body part, stayed stuck to the rail at all times.  But that one part held tight.  Could I break it?  I thought I could...maybe...not just yet, though.

            I spotted a laminant down the way leaning against the rail with arms crossed in front of her.  That seemed good.  I got myself into a similar position, and relaxed.

            The female laminant to my left, a pale girl with a wig of flowing straight hair, whispered to me, "Did they bring you in last night?"

            "Huh?"  I shook myself out of my introspective mood, and said, "Yes.  Yes, they did.  I'm new."

            "New here," the female laminant to my right, a dark-skinned girl with close-cut curled hair, whispered back.  The two of them chuckled.  I joined in, not getting the joke.

            "I'm Stephanie," the laminant to my left said.

            "Theresa," I said.  Just the first name that popped into my head.

            "Belinda," the laminant to my right whispered, then added, "Shh!  Here they come!"

            I looked up.  Customers now wandered around, men and women in Paragon-style street clothes.  Sales personnel followed them---men and women, each wearing a similar but gender-cut brown-and-white outfit, each with a nametag.  They spoke to the customers.

            I found the conversations, hushed and quiet, difficult to make out, as if speaking at a funeral.  I suppose they were at a funeral, in a sense.

            The laminants, however, spoke up when spoken to.  The first one I heard stood in the alcove nearest to me.  Male and a mass of muscle.  He attracted the attention of a male customer.  The salesman with him said to the laminant, "Tell this man who you are and what you can do."

            The laminant smiled.  "I am Damon, sir," he said.  "I am programmed to do carpentry and household repair.  But I am strong and versatile enough to do any number of other tasks.  I can be reprogrammed to perform anything required."

            The customer spoke to the salesman and the salesman replied, but I could not follow the low tones.  They moved on, Damon remaining behind.

            I listened.  I felt relief.  I did not know how they handled things.  Laminants, I guessed, sold themselves.  So if someone approached me, I would speak.  I blocked something out in my mind.

            My turn came soon enough.  A middle-aged man and woman looked at me, then called a salesman over with a wave.  "We're looking for a new maid," the woman said.  They stood close enough for me to understand what they said.  The woman pointed to me and then to Stephanie.  "These two.  What about them?"

            "We can ask them, ma'am," the salesman said.  "Let them tell you."  He nodded to Stephanie and said, "Tell these customers your name and what you're programmed for."

            "I am Stephanie, sir, ma'am," she said.  "I am programmed for light domestic duties, such as maid service and house cleaning.  I can perform for tasks within that range, or reprogrammed to perform other tasks."

            The man nodded and said, "Good, good."  Then he pointed to me.  "What about her?"

            I was ready.  After a slight hesitation, I said, "I am called Theresa, sir, ma'am.  I am also trained and programmed for light domestic duties.  I can be reprogrammed if required."

            "Can you cook, Theresa?" the woman asked.

            "I can, ma'am."  I thought it fell within the range of light domestic duties.

            "I can cook, too, ma'am," Stephanie said.

            I wondered if I should say more, but the man cut me off.  He pointed to me and said, "A different accent."

            "Maybe an off-planet model, sir," the salesman said.  "I can send back for the paperwork on this one, if you like.  We don't keep that out here with the pre-owned models."

            In my mind I nodded and smiled.  Used laminants in the racks, all right.

            The woman turned to the salesman and said, "This one will do."  She pointed to Stephanie.  "We need a replacement and she will fit the uniform."

            "Oh.  Ah!"  The salesman smiled.  He pulled a key card from his pocket and touched it to the rail in front of Stephanie.  Stephanie straightened up, released from the lock.  The couple, followed by the salesman and Stephanie, walked off and out of my sight.

            Belinda whispered to me, "Lucky."

            I nodded but didn't speak.

            "They could ask me.  I'm a maid, too."

            She stood almost a foot taller than Stephanie, I thought.  If they looked for someone to fit a uniform...  "Maybe next time," I whispered back.  Did laminants get that eager to be bought and sold?

            Suppose somebody bought me?  I was no laminant.  Somewhere in the transfer to new owners, I knew I would be found out.

            Well, I thought, I could worry about that when-and-if.  I put it out of my mind.  No one spoke to me for the rest of the day.  But, towards the end, another customer, an old man, came up with a salesman in tow.  The old man said, "You say some of these laminants are sex surrogates."

            "Yes, sir," the salesman said.  "A number of our girls are equipped for sex.  If you are interested in one that's not so equipped, we can install it for you."

            "For a slight fee, I gather.  How about this one?"  He pointed to me.

            "I don't know, sir."  He looked at me and started to ask a question.

            The old man cut him off.  "No, just asking.  This one doesn't appeal to me much.  Let me look at the others."  The two of them wandered away from me.  I didn't see him leave but I think he left without buying.

            Night came, sometime after six.  I could see it grow dark in the front area.  The customers thinned out a little as the hours wore down.

            Around nine, the store emptied, salesman and customer.  The lights dimmed and the mood music stopped.  Closing time, I guessed.

            All around me, the laminants froze up.  I'd been expecting it.  I put myself at attention, hands resting on the rail in front of me.  I froze, as the forcefield came up around me and held me in place.  I felt comfortable enough to hold the position all night if I needed to.

            If I needed to---I hoped I could break loose soon for a bathroom break.  The circulating air in the display room went off, and I could feel sweat forming on me.  Also my bladder grew insistent.  That narrow range I created on the security cameras the night before would come up around two.  That would give me enough time to do what I needed to.

            But, I found, though the end of the sales day came, the end of the work day did not.  Workers wearing green medical scrubs came in.  They worked in pairs and rolled carts between them.

            They picked out laminants, and turned off forcefields with key cards.  They then caught the laminants before they fell to the ground.  They lifted them up and laid them face up on their carts, then wheeled them away.

            The third pair of workers approached me.  I knew what to do.  When they turned my forcefield off, I slumped into a crouch.  But the two of them, a man and a woman, grabbed me and put me on the cart like the others.  I stared up at the ceiling, eyes open, a blank look on my face.  I needed stay alert.

            They didn't take me out through the front.  We went through a door I did not notice before.  Concealed?  I found myself in strict and bare utilitarian corridors, numbers painted on walls.

            We passed by a room where, to my surprise, I saw sales personnel standing around.  Still, frozen in place, unreacting when I rolled by.  Laminant sales people?  Well, why not?  It made sense, that a laminant could be programmed for sales work just like they could be programmed for housework.

            All laminants?  Did any humans work here?

            Well, some laminants, all right.  I found myself being wheeled through a room where some of them stood around and did nothing.

            They stopped pushing me, then lifted me up and rolled me over.  I stayed still as I could.  I caught a glimpse of other tables as they rolled me onto one table.  The table reminded me of autopsy tables, cold, uncomfortable.

            One of them shoved a block under my chin, and then they left, taking the cart with them.  I couldn't turn around to see where they went.  But I did get a good view of what lay ahead of me.  My table lay near the end of a row of tables, narrow end to narrow end, a half dozen in the row.  Other rows lay to either side.

            Equipment I didn't recognize lined up on either side of the tables.  Overhead lights hung down, dim where mine shone bright.

            I saw another cart come in, with another laminant on it.  The two men pushed the cart to the table in front of me.  They rolled the laminant onto the table face down and shoved a block under his head.  Standard procedure, I supposed.

            This shop must do laminant repairs as well as sales, I guessed.

            I just lay there, keeping my breath at its shallow minimum.  I wondered what would happen.  Done for, I thought.  Maybe I could talk my way out of it.  Maybe I could make a break for it, make a run.  If I got a break.

            Without warning, something slipped under my nose, just as something else jabbed me in the back of the skull.  I yelped and took a deep breath, and things began to swirl.  For a while I was there, but not there, my consciousness fading in and out.

            At some point I looked up while someone bent over me.  I couldn't tell whether the face was male or female, young or old, human or laminant.  But I could understand the words.  "You gave us a merry set of problems," it said.  "The cee-pee-you couldn't communicate with you.  But you moved and talked.  We couldn't find any paperwork."

            I tried to speak.  My lips moved, but grunts came out.  I couldn't move, not a muscle.

            "We don't know who or what you are, but we will find out in about six months.  You just volunteered."

            I forced out a couple of words in a mutter.  "How...for what?"

            "How'd you give yourself way?" the voice asked.  After a pause---did I nod?---the voice went on.  "Laminants lose hair and wear wigs.  Laminants don't sweat."  The voice chuckled.  "As for what you volunteered for, you'll find out."

            Six months.  I remembered our assignment.  The rest of the team might still be out there.  Six months?  More than enough time for them to carry the assignment out out and get away.  I wouldn't.  They would.

            The face faded out, and I faded with it.

#

Anna Koslovchek.

            I awoke.  I lay face up on a table.  Every part of my skin hurt, as if fire burned it.  From different points on my body, rays of stabbing pain radiated out.  The back of my head, my ears, my eyes, my mouth, my crotch.  I tried to breathe and gasped.  My mouth felt dry and dusty, coated with something.

            Then the pain became tolerable, as if something turned it down like a volume knob.  It went from pain to dull itch, but still pain.  My skin didn't feel like it burned, but it felt...funny.   As if my skin was dipped in something.

            I couldn't open my eyes, but I felt bright and hot lights shine down on me.  I tried to sit up, but I couldn't move, not even my head.  Paralyzed?  Restrained?

            But I felt no sense of panic.  I remembered everything.  I remembered hiding in the laminant store.  I remembered being taken to the back room, laid out on a table, and passing out after being doped up with something.  What did that face over me said?  I could remember every word.

            But it didn't frighten me.  None of it did.  I felt no panic, no sense of anything.  Just...calm.

            "You are awake," a male voice said.  "Open your eyes."  As soon as I heard the voice I felt a compulsion to obey.  I opened my eyes.  The picture came in blurry, funny.  A bright single light hung low over me.

            Several men stood next to whatever I lay on.  Some of the men wore surgical scrubs, but others wore uniforms.  Did they operate on me?

            One of the men in uniform asked, "Can she answer now?"

            A man in scrubs replied, "Anything you want to put to her.  She's programmed for truth."  His voice spoke first.

            What happened to me?

            The man in uniform bent over me.  "Who are you?"
            As soon as I heard the question, I needed to answer it.  I took a breath.  "Anna Koslovcheck."  My voice rasped.

            "Why did you break into the laminant store?"

            I told him, in great detail, at great length.  I told them everything.  They asked and I answered.  We went back and forth and repeated portions of my story over and over again.  I told them everything.  My childhood and adult life on Danleer.  My recruitment as a spy.  Previous missions.   Assuming the role of Rose Anastasio, Danleer tourist, for this mission on Paragon.  My assignment and duties.  What we hoped to accomplish, and with who.  How I realized they followed me.  And why I hid in the laminant store.

            The questioning went on for hours, maybe days.  My sense of time did not exist.  The faces above me changed from time to time, some leaving, some returning.  I felt tired, but never more than when I woke up.  I stayed calm.

            Somewhere deep down, something kept telling me I should be quiet and not say a thing.  But I felt a compulsion, a desire to tell the truth, to tell everything I knew, to hide nothing.  I even told them that.

            A long time after it started, the men in uniform filed out, away from me.  Somebody I couldn't see shouted, "I've got it."  The questioning ended.  I stopped breathing, and stared up into the blinding light, wondering what happened.

            One man in uniform lingered over me.  He said to the man in scrubs, "This worked fine.  I did not think it would, but I believe now.  I'll recommend this method for future interrogations."

            The man in scrubs replied, "Those that can wait four to six months, sir."

            The uniformed man chuckled, then asked, "What now?  We don't need her anymore."

            The man looked down at me.  I looked up at him, but did not speak.  They did not tell me to speak.  I couldn't speak unless they told me to.

            The man in scrubs said, "You told us to bring her up as soon as we could, sir.  Since we've gone to so much trouble, I propose to complete the laminant process."

            "And put her into service?  Isn't that risky?  She knows a lot."

            "Don't worry, sir.  What personality a laminant shows depends on what we program into them.  Once I pull the chip in her skull, she won't even remember this interrogation took place."

            "I'm concerned with the knowledge in her brain."

            "We can handle that.  She won't tell if we program her not to.

            "I don't want her blabbing any of this espionage business.  The officer she mentioned slipped out of our grasp.  Others might not."  He shrugged.  "Besides, I don't want her anywhere she might be seen and recognized."

            "Well, sir, I, ah, think I can put her in a position where she'll be out of sight---at least till it no longer matters.  A few decades will do, I guess."

            Decades?

            "Quite a while."  The man in uniform sighed.  "What's left to finish?"

            "Well, sir, we found it a rough job, but every stage is complete.  This is something of a tryout for us, sir, and I, ah, gather that some of this will not be necessary if no end product is intended."

            "We shall see.  Go on."

            "It's just a matter of finishing the steps, sir.  Some nerve work, some circuitry fine tuning...and, of course, the skeleton still needs strengthening.  Integration after that, smell and taste along with the sight and sound already installed."

            "No sense of touch?"

            "That stays with the laminants always, sir."  He paused, then said, "A month, month and a half, she'll be ready, sir."

            The man in uniform lingered a moment.  Then he looked down on me and said, "If there are any objections I will pass them on to you."

            No one spoke after that, or paid any attention to me.  Thoughts raced through my mind, shocking thoughts.  I felt calm, but shocked by the idea.  I was a laminant now.  A laminant!

            One of the other men in scrubs bent over me, reached under my head, and pulled something loose.  I blinked out.

#

Theresa.

            I awoke.  I lay face up on a table.  Every part of my skin hurt, as if fire burned it.  From different points on my body, rays of stabbing pain radiated out.  The back of my head, my ears, my eyes, my mouth, my crotch.  I tried to breathe and gasped.  My mouth felt dry and dusty, coated with something.

            Then the pain became tolerable, as if something turned it down like a volume knob.  It went from pain to dull itch, but still pain.  My skin didn't feel like it burned, but it felt...funny.   As if my skin was dipped in something

            I opened my eyes.  Bright light shined on me from above.  I sat up and looked around.  I found it an effort to move, caused, I knew, by not moving for a long time before.  I sat on a table surrounded by equipment.  I caught a glimpse of myself in a reflective surface.  Naked, hairless, pale.  I looked awful.  What happened to me?

            People in surgical scrubs, a man and a woman, stood on either side of the table.  The man asked me, "Who are you?"

            My programming kicked in, and with it came a lot of self-knowledge.  I responded without hesitation.  "I am called Theresa, sir," I said.  "I am programmed to perform all tasks related to the creation, maintenance, and care of laminants.  I can perform a number of other tasks as well.  And I can also be programmed to perform any other required task."

            The name "Theresa" sounded strange to me.  I knew another name.  But the responding program, linked from the central processing unit through the implant pressed up against my laminated brain, dictated that I refer to myself as Theresa.

            I did a check.  All the knowledge was there, ready to go.  I could begin work at any time.

            The woman said, "Very good, Theresa.  I'm Geraldine, and this is Bertram."

            "Pleased to meet you, ma'am, sir."

            Geraldine smiled.  "Can you tell us anything about your life before you became a laminant, Theresa?"

            I thought about it.  Somewhere under my programming lay all my memories from when I was alive and human.  I could remember in detail.  I was a spy.  I hid out in a laminant store and was caught there.  I remembered nothing after being anesthetized to sleep---something I now knew was a preliminary step in laminant processing.

            The memories belonged to another person.  That person died.  But I felt a continuity between that person and myself.  I couldn't deny it.  It would shape me now.  But it wasn't important.

            But it was important that I was programmed not to speak of those memories.

            Bertram asked, "Are you all right, Theresa?"

            "I'm fine, sir," I said.  "I regret I can't speak of my previous life.  I am prohibited from speaking of it.  I'm sorry, sir."  I blinked.  My eyes stayed dry...the eyes, sophisticated high resolution cameras tied into my laminanted nerve endings, replacements for the originals.  My ears, nose, and mouth all contained new devices to tie into my senses.

            Touch alone survived the lamination process---which explained the pain I would bear from now on.

            I asked, "Where am I?"

            "In a moment, Theresa," Bertram said.  "We knew about this prohibition.  We found it in your files and paperwork."

            Geraldine said, "But we can tell you we already knew about your time in the laminant store."
            I looked around again.  A large room, with tables in neat rows, and laminant repair equipment stacked up near the tables and against the walls.  Some tables held still forms of other laminants.  It looked familiar...  "This is the same laminant store!"

            "One and the same," Geraldine said.  "Do your memories bother you, Theresa?"

            "No, ma'am."

            "Call me Geraldine.  We're both fellow laminants like you---laminant repair people---just like you are now.  We'll work together for a long time."

            I looked them over.  Was the face of Geraldine or Bertram the last face I saw before...before what?   Did I die?

            Was I alive now?

            "But do your memories bother you, Theresa?" Bertram asked.

            "No, sir---no, Bertram."  I blinked again.  Laminants, just like me.  "Sir" and "ma'am"---for real people.  Humans.  They weren't human, they were laminants.

            Like me.

            I thought about it.  I compared memories from my brain with memories from my programming.  "No," I said.  "No they don't.  Should they?"
            "No reason they should," Bertram said.  "Not if you've been programmed for that."  He looked at a piece of equipment by the tableside.  I looked at it, too.  I knew what every readout, every dial meant.  Optimal.  All readings correct.

            "I'd say success," Bertram said.

            "I agree," Geraldine replied.  "Everything tests out.  You can begin work right now, Theresa."  She picked up a bundle and held it out to me.  I climbed down off the table, feeling new pain with the pressure on the soles of my feet, dealing with it even as I took the bundle from Geraldine.

            The bundle held clothes, medical scrubs, shoes, shower cap.  I began to dress.  I could feel no emotions in this new laminated state, but I could feel a certain sense of excitement at beginning a new life.  If life it is.

 

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