Tusk: Clayton


The sun flickered and danced among the leaves in the trees above his head, creating shadows on his face as he lay in the grass looking up. Floating in the gentle warmth of the afternoon breeze drifting through the glade, he let the worries of the day melt away and the memories of a different time and place fill him. It had been too long since he had afforded himself any time to reflect on his family—the point in his life which centred him.

In the soft caress of his surroundings, his eyes were unfocussed and his mind slipped free to roam amongst his past. The joy in his wife’s eyes and love in her voice as she told him they had been given permission by the state to have a child…fast forward, the day they turned up at the clinic for consultations…fast forward, a screaming little girl, full of life and potential…fast forward, family and hope. There was a physical warmth he felt in these thoughts, which simply made him happy. A small smile broke across his lips and a snort that could have been a laugh.

The leaves on the trees, such a vivid green in their backlit state, and the pure blue of the sky without a cloud to be seen, were captivating. However, sounds started to infiltrate his senses and the giggling of children cut through. His wife’s voice was also unmistakable. She was only a few meters away and enjoying her daughter’s joke, whatever it had been. There were others in the background but he couldn’t make them out—a low voice, softly spoken, and a light sing-song voice which sounded like music to him.

He felt a hand brush gently across his forehead and he looked up. His wife was looking down. “Are you going to dream the day away?”

“No, just enjoying the moment,” he replied with a grin.

A shadow flew across his vision and his daughter launched herself at him in a playful tumble. “Let’s play, Daddy!” and before he could answer she was gone again, running away shrieking with laughter as she went.

“You’d better get going, or you’ll never catch her.”

“She gets that from you, you know. Definitely, your side of the family.” He got up slowly, like a dazed boxer after the count, and looked round slowly for his attacker. She was quicker than he expected. Four years old and faster than a spring hare. Shrugging off the sluggish warmth of the afternoon sun, he started after his daughter. She screamed again and jinked away, staying close but just out of reach. A game of chase, simple but with delicate rules. If the prey was too easily caught or the pursuer too aggressive, the fun was lost. No fun in a quick game. The game was in the timing: just long enough for the fun to peak and the prey to think they had escaped again. Then the pounce and capture, sudden, with tickles and hugs, then repeat. He was sure this was the same for fathers and sons or daughters the world over, the rules of the game consistent as the rules of life. Everyone knew the rules, no matter what side.

After the sixth game of chase, he fell to the ground and feigned exhaustion. Dawn was smiling at him with a knowing ‘Is that it?’ look on her face. “What? I’m shattered. Try and keep up with her.”

“I am,” he said in an exhausted voice, loud enough for Dawn to hear. “She's just so fast.”

“Daddy, let’s play more.” Dawn was in his arms in a moment. “Come on, Daddy!”

“Daddy needs to rest a while,” he said. Was the tag going to work? Jemma took up the challenge. She knew the cues.

“Come on, little one. Daddy needs a rest. You’ve worn him out.”

Nice work. He flopped down and took a look across the glade. The picnic was laid out on a blanket in front of him, now mostly remnants of a long grazing lunch. Picking up a juice drink and taking a rough gulp, he noticed the sing-song voice again. He looked around but could not identify the source, nor could he work out what it was saying. Probably a glitch in his implants; he’d run a diagnostic when he got back to the hotel. Jemma was playing and chasing Dawn through the trees and across the long grass, threading zigzag patterns as they went.

They had been off the grid for a few days now—a long overdue holiday—and he was loving it. Jemma had been insistent. His work had been getting the better of him recently and she was right. She was right most of the time. He wondered if that ever got tiring for her. A few days in the country, away from the city and its distractions and its uncompromising, relentless work schedules, but, most importantly, a moment to take time with his daughter. She was young and full of life, running with her mother and leaping like a gazelle—she was their triumph. High IQ, good genetic coding and high longevity quotient, she was booked into the best academies and had the next thirty years of her life mapped out. Nothing to do but keep it all on track, a little tap here and a nudge there to guide their golden child into a good life with the best prospects. He smiled inwardly to himself. Life was pretty good.

Of course he would need to surface again at some point, but that was a good week away yet. Don’t wish your time away, he thought to himself. But work always had a way of finding its way in. He had left things in good hands. The guys at work knew the drill, and he couldn’t see the research they were working on getting any critical uplift in the next year or so. Funding was secured for the next five years, so there were no hoops to go leaping through in the near future. He always niggled though, he was one of life’s worriers. He would at least check his mail when he got back—he could do that on the sly and Jemma would likely not know. Actually, who was he kidding? She would know. He wondered if he had a ‘tell’ and that’s how she always knew. It was a good job he wasn’t a gambler. The poker tables would be a direct route to poverty if his ‘tell’ was as easy to read as Jemma clearly found it.

On reflection, he was pleased Jemma had insisted. He could and did quite regularly get a little over-involved. Focus was not the word for it. He would literally lose himself in his work. The next code line, the next puzzle, the next problem being the one where he would take a break. He would find time slipping and only be pulled from his endeavours with a quick incoming message from his wife telling him his dinner was cold and she was ditching him for the pizza delivery boy. Joke? Yes, thankfully. A holiday would help, he could give back a little of what his work took away.

So, here they were in a small glade in a forest a couple of hours west of London, on a hot Indian summer’s day in September. The sweet smell of wild flowers and the sound of wind through the trees was a wonderful change to his usual routine of days and months locked up underground in a research facility. Thick concrete walls and even thicker doors. His world was a team of twenty people working like there would be no tomorrow without their efforts that day. Some of them so dedicated he would regularly find them asleep at their desks the next morning, looking like someone had a face-painting competition where the best panda would win. Sunken dark eyes and a look that really shouldn’t be on the faces of the brightest and best minds the country had to offer. Still, they were all working on a project that meant the world to all of them. They knew that if they could pull it off, they would be set for life. No more worrying about the next pay cheque, they would all be IW, Independently Wealthy, and the government would pick up the tab for the after-work party. It was a price worth paying.

Round they came again, like a couple of comets in an elliptical orbit, rushing past only centimetres away and zooming off into the trees. Dawn was calling to Jemma to chase her again and again, not seeming to need a breath while running like the wind with the occasional skip and pronk thrown in for good measure.

They were close but had hit a snag, a technological brick wall. He had worked in AI technology research his whole life, and over the last few months academic consensus had started to crystallise around there being no way forward. AI was simply a very complex and well-informed machine, but always a machine. The neural cortex within the machine was not responding to logic changes, advances in the code that tried to mimic the human condition. Something else was needed. It was almost as if the more they knew the further from a workable solution they actually got. It was time to try a different angle, attack the problem from the human perspective, not that of the machine. How about mapping one neural network to the other? The data would be vast, so take it in steps. What was needed was the human capacity to learn independently, and to analyse and respond to problems without the hard logic and accuracy of a machine. To allow itself to be fallible, then reinvest.

Dawn had decided it was time for a drink and to stop Daddy dreaming. She and Jemma sat back around the blanket and started to pour some orange squash. “You’re dreaming again, Daddy? What are you dreaming about?”

“Sorry. Work.” He took a look and saw the question in her eyes. “I think I’ve just had a good idea.” Quickly, he spun up his capture bio-comms, his D-RTx bio-comms wetware, sometimes known by the techs as Dr Comms or Bio-Cs, and saved his memory for later consideration. “I’m all yours. I’ll work on that later.”

“Home time,” Jemma chipped in. “If we want to get back to the lodge before dark, we should pack up and get going.”

“Aw, Mum!” This did not go down well. Then again, it never did, so why would now be any different.

“She’s right, you know. It’s more than a two-hour drive back to the lodge.” The look on Dawn’s face was all pouting and disappointment; however, he could not help but find it funny. One day, rather than look all hurt, she would simply say ‘Okay, Daddy’ and do as she was asked. But he was fooling himself, kids never did that. His smile broadened. “Go on, one more race around the field.”

“I’ll race you,” she said. “Go!”

Dawn was already half way across the field before he could even get off the floor.

The ride home was quiet. Jemma wasn’t really in the mood for long conversations and Dawn was sleeping. She had been running around all afternoon, so it wasn’t really a surprise. Now in the car, the gentle rocking and the drone of the engine was all it took to nudge her into a deep sleep. They got back to the lodge by early evening and had a late tea. Dawn was still pretty exhausted and asked to go to bed, which was not really the norm but under the circumstances not entirely unexpected. After a bedtime story about a penguin in the city trying to find a man with a bucket of fish and a time machine, she was asleep again.

By the time he had finished putting Dawn to bed, read her a story and settled down to relax with a nice healthy glass of red wine in the lounge, Jemma was already most of the way through a glass herself. “I’ve been thinking about tomorrow. How about we take Dawn skiing in the Alps?”

“It’s been forever since I’ve been skiing—I’ll break bones in minutes.” It sounded like a good idea, but he wasn’t keen about breaking bones. He could be knitted back together and out of the hospital within a couple of hours, but it was the initial pain he never liked. He remembered back to the moment he broke his arm falling from a tree as a kid—the sensation of free fall and the sudden blinding pain as his left arm twisted under him, and the mass of his body and gravity doing the rest. His mum and dad were there to pick him up from the local A&E, with a bag of his favourite chocolates, all smiles and consolation, his arm fully repaired and ready to go. But, technology can’t take away the initial shock and trauma. It can fix you up quick enough after the event, but you always remember the pain. So, skiing? After a pause: “Sure, she needs to learn sometime. We can take the vaclev to the Paris Gare du Nord then connect for the alpine routes there.”

“How about the City helojet? We’ll be there in half the time.” She always preferred air travel; he preferred his feet on the ground. Something about evolving without wings had decided it for him. No wings, no flying. He thought he was going to lose the argument though. Despite knowing the vaclev was faster, he just shrugged his shoulders.

“What’s faster than a bullet in a vacuum?” he countered.

“Ah, but where’s the view? I like to see the mountains as we go. And Dawn has never seen the mountains from a helojet. She’ll love it.” And there it was, they would be flying. He sighed, with a smile. She had a point.

Jemma giggled and took up her glass of wine, “It’ll be great. I could invite the Roberts, or the Wisemans …” His bio-comms started playing up again, and his wife’s voice faded into the background and the same weird floating voices he’s heard earlier in the day returned. He still couldn’t make out what they were saying, but he was convinced now that he needed to do something about it. “Are you alright, Honey?” Jemma was now looking slightly worried and had moved to his side. “You don’t look so good.”

“I’m okay. I think I’ve got a gremlin in my bio-comms. Sound interference maybe, I don’t know. I’ll run some diagnostics and see if I can’t clear it up, or it’ll be a trip to the clinic tomorrow.” He didn’t fancy that option. Those kind of trips could take a day out of your life really quite easily. Even as he was saying this, his vision also started to fracture—a crisp image of his wife started to become vague and a little blurred, slowly splitting into what appeared to be a double. One of the images moved away from him and returned to the armchair across the room, but the other stayed where it was with an expression which seemed bland yet sympathetic. “Err, maybe that should be a call to the clinic tonight.” His wife, in an armchair which he believed always looked more like a star ship crash couch, settled down and closed her eyes. She didn’t respond to his comment but instead appeared to be cycling through her bio-comms, maybe to catch up on her mail, maybe to watch a movie. Either way, she wasn’t taking any notice of what he was saying. The wife still sitting by his side, however, cocked her head to one side and replied in a weird voice, as if she’d been breathing helium.

“No need for the clinic, Dr Clayton.” Her voice modulated a little then lowered in pitch. “We need to talk for a moment. I need to begin the reintroduction sequence. It’s time.”

There was part of him that knew nothing of what she was saying. What did she mean by reintroduction sequence? However, some deeper part of him seemed to stir, and other memories began to bubble to the surface, memories from a more recent place and time. As these newer memories came into focus, so his whole visual world started to morph into something else completely. His living room began to melt away like a watercolour painting in the rain, slowly blurring until the drained lines meant nothing and the only thing that he was aware of was his wife opposite him with that gentle smile on her face and a look of quiet understanding at his mild confusion. Before he could start asking any questions, Jemma—or the woman now looking like Jemma—moved forward and took his hand, or rather his wrist. It was a moment before he realised that she was taking a rudimentary pulse, checking his physical wellbeing.

All he could think to say was, “Am I okay?”

“Looking good so far,” said the other Jemma, “I’ll know more in a couple more minutes. Shouldn’t take long.”

More memories came to him. It was like someone was turning on layers of memory which he felt he had always been aware of, but not with this level of accuracy or clarity. Schematics of the United Terran Ship Endeavour—an Interstellar Class starship—every passageway, circuit and conduit, navigational charts to a Terra classified planet designated 21 Hayford b, an Earth analogue in the second quadrant of the galactic north, roughly four parsecs coreward, communications protocols, biotech-generation algorithms, biodiversity methodology and terraforming theory. The stream of information was flooding him, and he could feel the rate of incoming information like a pressure in his skull, pushing from the inside, driving up and out, expanding and probing for a way out, an escape from the confines of a mind too small and ill-equipped to cope.

While this was happening, Jemma sat calmly, holding his wrist and waiting, counting. His anxiety was rising, then complete calm. A key piece of understanding had been unlocked. It was like the gasping breath of a drowning man as he reached the surface. The release he felt was palpable. His body was covered in sweat, and he realised he was gripping Jemma’s hand, perhaps too tightly, but she didn’t react or complain.

“Hello, Jem,” he said finally, getting his composure back and his breath under control. “Thank you.”

She held his wrist for a moment longer, taking a last moment to diagnose any potential problems or side effects of the process. Satisfied with what she was seeing, she gently placed his hand back to his side. “You had me worried there, for a moment,” she said. “I wasn’t sure you were processing correctly.”

“Nonsense. Things can just take a little longer after an extended sleep period.”

“I’ll be the judge of that.”

“You’re the doctor,” he smiled back. “How are the crew? Did their resequencing go to schedule?”

“All to plan. You are among the first to be revived. Senior team and medical staff first. The rest are being revived as we speak. We should have a full crew complement within the next 48 hours.” That was impressive. The clones would have been grown over the last twenty five years or so, but the tricky part was reintroducing the memory wave into the host mind. There was always a chance that the reawakened person was unable to reintegrate into their new body. It was their own body of course, just a little younger than they left it, but on the very rare occasion a newly revived person would find it impossible to reintegrate into their new frame, there was a chance of insanity. Thankfully, this was rare, as all deep space star-faring crews were put through the most mentally rigorous testing and psychoanalysis before they stepped anywhere near a starship. Spacers were fully aware of what they jokingly referred to as ‘reskinning’. It was new, but it was just another part of the job.

Jemma seemed pleased with progress. “Do you think you can stand?”

“Sure.”

“Okay. If you follow me, we have a resuscitation couch ready for you.” She started to walk away into the void around them and as she did so the background began to coalesce and take on forms and shapes again. A corridor with white walls and grey floors, yellow guiding lights indicated the way ahead and bright light panels in the ceiling gave the whole scene a washed out, sterile appearance. She headed towards the end of the corridor and a door automatically slid open as she approached. Turning momentarily to check he was following, she stepped inside. The resuscitation room was reasonably sized, well-appointed and not at all like the corridor. It had ten couches lined with five along each wall, four of which were already occupied. The walls were a relaxed green in colour and there were potted plants dotted here and there. One of the walls had been given over to a floor-to-ceiling screen which showed a serene forested panorama. The occasional bird could be seen sweeping across the view, deer might sneak through the foliage on occasion and a bubbling brook could also be heard, along with the other more ambient forest sounds.

There were a few other attendants working through the room, serving water or nutrition bars to those reclining on the couches. “Here you are—your chariot awaits,” she said, pointing like a magician’s assistant at one of the couches in front of the forest scene.

“Thank you.”

“Would you like a glass of water?”

“Yes, please,” he nodded and smiled comfortably.

Jemma moved to a side table and poured him a glass of iced water, returning and leaving it for him on the table next to his resuscitation couch. “If you can lay back and relax, I’m going to place this warm towel across your eyes. Relax and everything will work out just great.” He did as he was told, quickly making himself comfortable and adjusting his position, waiting for the application of the warm towels, the purpose of which was mostly to keep you calm as some pretty advanced medical machines piped his psyche back into his younger cloned self. In a couple of moments, he was going to physically become twenty-five again. Personally, it was not an age he would choose—he had always been far happier in his thirties. His mother had always told him he had an old head on his shoulders. Funny, now he really did. His wave was now hundreds of years old—he, was hundreds of years old—but in relative terms he was twenty-five on the outside and forty-five on the inside. Modern deep space travel really did mess with your internal clock. Like the worst kind of jet lag.

The transition, as always, was seamless. “All done,” he heard Jemma say from a couple of feet away. “Wave is holding and attenuation is stable.” Not a bump, flash or tingle. The towel was gently removed from his eyes and he looked up into the room. His stasis state had mimicked the resuscitation suite exactly: the glass of water on the side table, the serene forest panorama wall and the couch upon which he was reclining. He was constantly astonished at the level of detail the developers who designed and modelled the stasis software were able to achieve. He had done some reading on the subject during a brief vacation when last awake. They apparently really didn’t need to provide that much detail. The human mind is a wonderful thing and will quite happily fill in massive amounts of detail from some very subtle cues. There stood Jemma, khaki coloured uniform with white shoulder flash designating medical team. She was checking some details on a screen embedded in the resuscitation couch he was laying on but seemed casual and relaxed. No problems. Good.

She looked fantastic. Twenty-five again, fresh and alert with the vigour of youth but the wisdom of age—a real heady mix. Jemma looked over to him. “You should have some water. Plenty of fluids. Make sure you inform me of any headaches or bright flashing lights in your vision.” Nodding to someone across the room, she continued, “Amanda will take care of you for the next hour. If you’re hungry, let her know, but don’t go crazy. This is a new body and it’s only just been unplugged. The stomach will still be a little sensitive.” That was the medical brief out of the way.

“So how am I doing, Doc?” She gave him a withering look.

“Nothing wrong with you, Captain. Now, rest and I’ll see you later for dinner.” With that, she moved in close, their eyes locking for a moment, both of them enjoying the closeness. Then they kissed. Life in stasis felt fleeting, so to him it really had only been hours since they last spoke, but to have just successfully reskinned, it was worth marking.

“I hope you don’t treat all your patients like this,” he goaded.

“Hey, it’s the personal touch. They love it.” She smiled back.

“Quite a bedside manner. You’ll get a name for yourself.”

“I already have one of those.”

He looked confused, and she kissed him again quickly. “Dinner at eight,” and, with that, disappeared into the hallway as the door slid shut behind her.

He watched Jemma leave then looked over to the far side of the room where Amanda was tending and checking on another newly revived crewman. He couldn’t see either of their faces, as she was standing with her back to him and her patient was obscured by her. He decided to take a sip of water—he was under instruction to do so after all. Ice and a nice dash of lime. Perfect. Taking a pull on the straw, he could feel the cool liquid slipping down his throat and into his stomach, its every motion being experienced by his over-sensitive new cells. The soft sounds of the forest murmured in the background and the gentle hypnotic swaying, susurrating leaves pulled him into a momentary daydream.

Every new host body he had been reskinned into had this honeymoon period. Fresh out of the cloning process, the cells of the body were alive and as a baby’s, fresh from the mother’s womb. He lay back and closed his eyes from the bright lime of the spring trees, and took a deep breath into his new lungs. The air was sweet, the sounds in his ears, the rush of his own heart pumping blood round his body; all sensations were acute and hypersensitive. He exhaled and placed his palms flat on the couch, moving his hands back and forth to feel the soft brushed leather. Older hands would be numb to the delicate sensations. It wouldn’t take long for this newness to degrade, for the amplification of the senses to become dulled by simple use. It was like being born again, physically but not mentally, like a remembered reincarnation. He loved these first moments of a reskinning.

“Hello, sir.” Amanda was by his side and checking the data panel on the side of the couch, as Jemma had a few moments before.

“Hi.”

“Can I get you anything? More water, maybe?”

“No, that’s okay,” he said, sitting more upright in the couch. She was a tall woman with a slight build and jet black hair, dark brown eyes and a look of concentration. Clearly quite busy with the other recovering crew members in the room, he decided not to impose on her time. He was slipping into work thoughts already. He was a little annoyed with himself over how little time that had taken. Barely an hour. “Things going well?”

“Yes, sir. Things are currently going quite smoothly. No issues with wave transfer, no problems with rejection. On the whole, a good morning.” She shifted over towards him and gave him a small packet containing two pills, standard issue supplements for the post-resuscitation process. “Take these please, sir.”

“Thanks.” He opened the packet and took them with a swallow of water.

“Your clothes are on the bench at the foot of your couch and the changing room is through the door at the end of the room. You can leave your robes in the laundry by the exit.” She was already talking like she’d been saying this all day for a year. Information dispensed with the repetition of the workplace. Why didn’t she just ping the information to his bio-comms? Then he could watch it in his own time and she wouldn’t be endlessly repeating herself. Maybe it was down to the ‘personal touch’ that Jemma had mentioned earlier. Somehow, it didn’t feel that personal.

“Thanks,” he said again. “Am I free to go?”

“One last check, please look to my left ear.” He did, and there was a flash of intense light in his eyes. “And now, my right ear.” Again a flash of light.

He continued to look at her, this time with the expectation of a boy about to be let loose in a sweet shop. Light spots still echoing in his vision, he blinked a couple of times to recover. She was quietly checking some readings against records and getting the sign-off for his release.

“Sign-off has been accepted. You’re clear to leave when you like, sir.” She broke into a grin for the first time since he had seen her. It suited her much more than the frown of concentration.

“Wonderful. Thank you, Amanda.” He hopped off the couch with an excited urgency and scooped up his clothes. The resuscitation suite was meant to be place to lay a while, relax and recuperate. Some could stay there for hours after reskinning. He was the opposite: he found it only a gateway to a magic garden and could not wait to get through the door at the end to explore.

On the other side of the door, the room was empty. The resuscitation process had only really just begun and, from what Jemma had told him, he estimated there to be only around forty crew members currently awake. The ship was designed to carry eight hundred crewmen and around double that number again in scientific staff. Some of the crew, like himself and Jemma, were married or had partners, but the majority were not. Expectations on arrival at a new planet were for colonisation, so healthy relationships were encouraged planet-side. Aboard ship things were left alone, no need for any pressure—there was pressure enough and everyone was well aware.

Dressing quickly and fumbling a little, he bumped into benches and had to sit down a couple of times as he got his leg twisted in his clothing or his balance gave out. Eventually, he made it out of the changing area and into the passageway leading from the medical bay to the elevators. His bio-comms visualised door numbers, bulkheads numbers and signage as he went, overlaying a virtual world into his physical one. He requested a room location and immediately a cyan trace lit a path ahead of him, turning right at the end of the corridor. He set off to follow it.

As with its crew, the Endeavour was still waking up. It had been mostly dormant for one hundred and thirty years, operating on minimum power and life support. Once up to speed and aimed at its target, the starship had joined the cosmic dance and become one of the largest man-made comets ever created, along with her five sisters. With its crew in wave stasis and the seeds of their regeneration in cryogenic suspension, it could drift in the cosmic wind for the entire voyage, maybe a navigational nudge here or gravitational adjustment there, but the more uneventful the journey the better. Its only purpose was to carry the hope of humanity to new worlds.

Walking past corridors leading to accommodation blocks, lights flashed on and systems began their final preparations to make the space ready for habitation and human occupation. Drones buzzed around cleaning, repairing and maintaining, each with its own specific role in the long sequence of events that would breathe life back into the ship. Air was being pumped through the space, the aeration units having been started several weeks prior to ensure the fully breathable atmosphere within. Hydroponics would have been started months before within their own micro biosphere, and engineering would have been warming up the engines and critical systems. The list was vast, but all needed to happen correctly, and in the right order.

He knew the engineers had been thorough in the design of the ship. Through his bio-comms, he could see redundancy built into every system—backup systems, backups to backup systems— they had over-engineered in places to ensure success. It reminded him of any early engineering at the frontier of its time. A lack of understanding of new materials, or of the environments that their designs would operate in, always gave the engineers cause to add in an additional safety factor to their design—a ‘fudge factor’, he called it. They had been doing it for as long as there had been engineers, he didn’t see why that would change now. Work out the mathematics and add a bit for safety’s sake.

Rounding the corner, he found the elevators. One was waiting for him, and he walked in. “CIC,” he said. The doors closed and the elevator moved rapidly to the requested level, lights flashing past as levels were gained on the ascent. The Command Information Centre was empty. Systems were operational, with screens displaying various operational data and local telemetry information. He glanced quickly at a couple of screens while pacing through but considered he would get all the updates he needed in the room at the rear of CIC. A short linking corridor and a door that had a single word written on it, repeated in floating graphics in his vision. The navigational trace stopped at the door.

The sign read, ‘DAWN’.