Tom Purdom




The two desperados on the screen had obviously made a serious investment in modifications that maximized their muscle mass. No naturally occurring gene had ever generated the kind of deltoids and biceps they were displaying. The fashions on Phobos tended to be lush and dressy, but they had opted for a style that reminded me of the careless, deliberately slovenly clothing people had affected when I had been a boy at the turn of the millenium. The main item in their ensemble was a loose, short sleeved pullover that hung straight down from their shoulders to just above their knees. Their heads were crowned with skullcaps that contained obscenities written in most of the languages commonly used in the off-Earth communities.

"We have a message for your friend," one of them said. "From the associates who were kind enough to lend her some working capital."

I straightened up. It had been approximately four hours since I had told Aki Nento I would call her creditors and see if I could bluff them into leaving her alone. She had begged me not to do it. Money was the only thing that could influence them, she had said. If I really wanted to help her, I should lend her more money.

Now I was face to face with a couple of rockbodies who apparently represented the very people I had hoped to threaten. Only they were doing the threatening.

"If you're speaking of the person I think you're referring to," I said, "she's already received a number of messages from her creditors."

"We think she might pay more attention if you relayed the message. You might even be doing yourself a favor. The people we represent are afraid you might be a bad influence on her. They'd have a better opinion of you if you offered them a contrary indicator."

"Nento is engaged in a speculative business venture. Her creditors knew they were investing in something risky. Their behavior is absurd."

"They loaned her money. People who borrow money should pay it back."

"They loaned her money so she could invest it in a speculative project. They knew what the project was. They knew it might not work out exactly as planned. It was a legitimate business transaction. It should be dealt with as a legitimate business transaction."

The hoodlum on the left had been glowering while the hoodlum on the right talked. The hoodlum on the right opened his mouth and the hoodlum on the left switched to glowering mode.

"The kind of people we're talking about always get something back. They get their money back. Or they get something else. That's all you have to tell her."

They terminated the call and I settled into a chair as soon as I realized I was staring at a blank screen. It wasn't the first time I had been threatened by the products of modern biological craftsmanship. The first one I had encountered had been a woman-- a female killing machine with a body and a personality that had been shaped by designers who had started with the DNA in an unfertilized egg. These two looked like they had just given themselves a superficial remodeling. I would still be as helpless as a caterpillar if they ever got me cornered.

The situation didn't make any sense. Nento had borrowed the money so she could design chase robots that could function on Mars. In spite of all the evidence to the contrary, she had assumed the Martian population included thousands of people who would like to whoop across the Martian landscape in pursuit of simulated versions of boars, dragons, and other real and mythological creatures. I didn't think it was such a great idea myself but people who loaned out capital were supposed to have some business sense. They didn't start threatening you with bodily harm when a scheme didn't start producing profits at the exact moment specified in the contract.

I had said that to Nento when she had asked me for a second loan. I had already helped her meet a payment date. My financial alter would start nagging me with warning messages if I yielded to Nento's pleas and made another dent in my capital.

"This is ridiculous," I had said. "I'll talk to them. I've got a few connections myself. I'll let them know they could be in serious trouble if they carried out any of their threats."

Nento's bright little eyes widened. "I can't let you do that, Joe. You don't know who you're dealing with. The people I borrowed from-- they aren't the kind of people I usually do business with."

I had been threatened before but that didn't mean I could smile cheerfully and ignore all the pain and damage the two paragons of muscle worship could inflict on me. I had still been planning my approach to Nento's creditors when I had accepted their call. I had been visualizing the expressions that would cross their faces when they discovered they were inconveniencing a woman who had captured the fancy of the renowned Joseph Louis Baske. Now I was the one who was sitting in his parlor struggling with an unexpected attack of anxiety and dismay.

The Voice of the apartment broke into my emotional fog. A visitor was standing at my door.

The screen lit up and I found myself looking at another triumph of modern biology. This one was almost as tall as the two toughs and several times brighter. He was also better dressed. If he had straightened up his shoulders and acted like he had a normal supply of self-confidence, his white jacket and his embroidered sash would have made him look like a young prince. Unfortunately, he was only fifteen years old. He was slouching inside his clothes as if the microgravity of Phobos had drained all the energy out of his muscles.

I eyed him with a mixture of pleasure and embarrassment. His name was Sori Dali and he was the son of a gracious, wonderfully civilized woman named Denava Dali. Two tendays ago, his mother and I had been planning a liaison that should have lasted most of a Martian year.

"I have to see you," Sori said. "I've got something important to show you, Joe."

I stood up and greeted him as he came through the door. I had increased my height by sixteen percent just before I had left Mercury but he was still over two heads taller. I had been a little taller than average height when I had reached my full growth back in the Teens. Then I had slowly lost ground as the century wore on. Now, after eighty years, I was back where I had started.

He had brought a file card with him. He inserted it into my screen and faces started flashing past us.

"These are the faces of forty-one of the women you've been in love with in the last thirty-two years. I collected every picture I could locate in the databanks."

Memories prodded my emotions. Every face in the parade evoked a response-- pleasure, pain, excitement, tenderness, melancholy. Some of them had reigned over interludes that only lasted one or two days. One had captivated me for forty-five minutes. Others had shared a companionship and intimacy that lasted for months and years. It didn't matter. They were all part of an adventure that has bathed my life in color and warmth.

"Now watch," Sori said.

A new set of faces flitted across the screen. They all looked vaguely familiar but none of them seemed to be associated with a name or a memory. Some of them were so haunting they actually aroused a feeling of longing as they vanished after their moment on the screen.

The last item in the series jolted me as if I'd been clubbed. Nento stared at me with her eyes glittering with life. The program turned her head to one side and she raised her chin and regarded me with a smiling, sidewise look that had been befuddling me for most of the last two tendays.

"I set up a program that made random composites based on the characteristics of the real women. Every time I've run it, it eventually produced this one."

The picture wasn't an exact replica of Nento. When you looked at it for a few seconds, you could see the differences. Nento's face was a little rounder. Her nose was a shade longer, her lips a little fuller.

"I know it's not a perfect resemblance," Sori said. "They probably used more pictures than I did. I suppose, too, there are limits on the changes you can inflict on a real person. Now look at this-- this is what Nento looked like one eyear ago."

He was talking very fast, with little gasps for breath. I could smell the way he was sweating. He knew what he was doing to me.

The original Nento had a noticeably fuller face. Her lips formed a fleshy pout-- a feature that seems to appeal to men who are looking for childlike, compliant sex partners. The face I knew had captivated me with lines that suggested a refined, controlled forcefulness. The face on the screen would have attracted a casual glance at most.

"If you look up the data associated with this face in the public databanks, you'll discover they've made some changes in her biography, too. I think we can also be confident they instituted some extensive temporary personality modifications. All the information in the databanks indicates you feel a woman's personality is just as important as her appearance. You react to faces, in fact, because you feel certain facial characteristics are associated with certain personality characteristics."

"I looked up Nento's personal biography," I said. "I always do."

"Did you look for news stories? You probably searched for her name, right? I worked backward from the face the composite program gave me. I did a visual search, looking for facial characteristics that matched the face they probably started with."

He pulled his card out of my screen and gave me some relief from the sight of Nento's true identity. "Somebody set a trap for you, Joe. They probably read the passenger lists. They probably knew you were coming here from Mercury. They designed a woman you couldn't resist. I wouldn't be surprised to learn they created a model of your personality structure, too. The information on you in the public databanks would support a model that would be adequate for their purposes."



Copyright © 2000 by Tom Purdom. All rights reserved. This document may be printed out and archived for personal use. All other use is strictly prohibited.

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