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Gene Wolfe - Eyebem

By Elizabeth Rose,2014-11-24 14:57
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Gene Wolfe - Eyebem

Eyebem

by Gene Wolfe

    I am lying, I say again, in the dark; in the dark in the hut Mark has built of fuozen earth and pounded snow. My pack transforuner ratio .o6 and I am dying, My identity, I say again, is 887332 and my friends call me Eyebern"

    Inside ffi?, I know, ffiy rvords a.re going around and around in slow circles as they have all my life; I never thought it would matterwhen

    you are young you think you will live forever. I rernember very clearly old Cee-deesy describing this interior looped tape all of us contain. (I think setting my pack transformer ratio so low has called all these mernories forth, though why it should I can't cornprehend; memory chips bruning bright as the spark dies.) A tape going around and around, Ceedeesy said, recorditg the last half hour of our talk, and then when end meets beginning writing over it so that only the last half hour remains. It was an idea, he told us, more than a hundred years old, having been originally used to record the last transmissions of those picfuresque air-burning rockets called jets.

    Ceedeesy was my group's principal instructor at the creche and I looked up to him. Now I want to talk about him, and though since it doesn't pertain to the cause of my death you won't like it, what can you do about it? I will be beyond the reach of your vindictive reprogram-ming, voltage gone, mind anC memory zeroed.

    To tell the truth I have said a great many things you would not like during the past eighteen or twenty hours as I luy here talking to myself in the dark. Yes, talking, even though the voltage in my speaker is so low that Mark, lying a few feet away, cannot hear me. He cannot hear ffi?, but I know he is awake, Iying there eating and thinking. f cannot see his eyes, but how they burn in the darkl

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    Ceede?sy, as I said, was old. So old that he could no longer be repaired sufficiently for active service, which was why we youngsters received the benefit of the deep wisdom he had won during his decades in the wild parts of the world. I recall his saying, "How many times, Eye-bem, I've seen the trumpeter swans black against the morning sun!" then the little pause as he searchedthe pause that told of hysteresis gathering on his aging mind Iike cobwebs. "A hundred and twenty-three times,

    Ey"-bem. That's an average of 9.86zz times a year, but the hundred and twenty-fourth iirne will never come for me."

I{o. Nor will t}re first for me"

    Ceedeesy's skin had yellowed. They said at the creche that it was an older type of vinyl and that they had since improved the color stability so that our own will be virtually unaffected by the ultraviolet in sunlight, but I suspect that when my creche-mates are as old as Ceedeesy, their skin too will be yellowed at the back of the neck and the back of the hands, where the harsh noon light will have seen it too often.

It was because his skin was yetrlowedor so I used to thinkthat Ceedeesy

    never left the compound" I was too young then to know that humans could always identify one of us in a second or two in spite of new skin and different face patt-erns with each creche-cycle. Once I persuaded him to go with me to a little store my creche-mates and I had found scarcely more than a block from the compound gate. It was run by * plurnp woman who, in order to get our custom, pretended to be too simple to recognize us. I think, too, that having us there attracted tourists for her. At least several times when I was there people-humans, I meanentered the

    store and stared, only bnyitrg somethirrg when the plump woman pressed it into their hands. As young as I was I understood that she was exerting some form of psychological pressure on them.

    Since our faces within the creche-cycle were all the same, this woman pretended to think we were all the same human person, a young man who was her best customer,

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    coming ten or twenty times a d"y into her little shop. pretendirg, as I said, to think we were all the same person, she called us all Mark; one of my creche-mates had told her to, no doubt; it's the name stupid youngsters always give when they want to pass, useful because it's a hrnman name as well as being one of ours. How ironic that seems now.

    We would wander about the store one at a time looking at the trusses and contraceptives we had no use for, and pretending to drink a carbonated liquid until the womarr, *ith what I realize now was the most elephantine tact, contrived to turn her back so that we could pour it into a conveniently placed spittoolr'

    On the one o."utiot that Ceedeesy accompanied me we sat on high,

    swiveling stools, sloshing the sweet drinks in our cups and occasionally putting the straws to our mouths. Ceedeesy, I am certain, was only doing it to please me. He must have known I was the only one being heceived, but at the time I believe he felt I was weak in marine biology, and he was ready to take any opportunity to tutor me b"for. the iunior examination. The store faced west, and. as we talked I watched a spot of sunlight creep along the floor to his feet, then up his faded denim trousers, then past the moose-hide belt he had made himself and orr", hi, patched hunting shirt until his face and throat, and the hand that held his cuP, were all brightly illuminated. I looked at them then, cracked with minute cracks and discolored, and it was as though ceedeesy were an old piece of furnifure covered with stiff, peeling plastic; it was terrible. I thought then that the woman must know (being too innocent to realtze that she had known when the first of us rvalked in), but she was putteritg in the back of the storewaiting, no doubt,

    for the display at her soda fountain to attract tourists.

    To keep myself from staring at Ceedeesy I began watching the crowds on the street outside. In the space of a few minutes a thousand human beings must have passed the store. It made me interrupt Ceedeesy's lecture to ask,

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"When it's so beautiful out thereas the training tapes show and you

    and the other old ones saywhy don't some of them"I waved a hand at

    the winCow"go out and look at itP Why send us?"

    Ceedeesy laughed. "When I was a youngster, the explanation given was always blackflies."

"Blackflies?"

    *A stinging insect. That explanation's just a put-off, of course. There ate repellents to take care of thern."

"Then-"

    'A few of them do go out," Ceedeesy saiC. I{e rvent on to tell me about a man he had once rescued in the gorge of the Colorado. The man had been a fanatic Ecumenical Neo-Catholic, and had wanted to shoot the river on an air mattress because St. Kennedy the Less was reputed to have done something of the kind. "He was so naive," Ceedeesy said, "that he called me Ranger the whole time he was with me. Or perhaps he was

    iust afraid of me, out there away from the cities, and thought that was safest. I doubt if there are ten human rangers left in the world now." A pot-bellied man leading two children came into the store then, pointing at Ceedeesy and rne and whisperirg; we left.

    I think that was the only time Ceedeesy went out of the compound. Last rnonth (it seems so much longer) when we graduated he saw us off as we climbed into the trucks that would take us to the launch area. I was on the Iast truck, and I can still picture hirn waving as we went through the compound gate. At the time I was eager to leave.

    The launch area was a new world to all of us, a huge building filled with bustling humans and machines, with the ships rising outside on columns of fire. I wasn't thinkit'rg about it then, but I suppose it's having these ships, as well as being able to synthesize food, that have caused human beings to concentrate rnore and more in the cities. In the old days they had to go orrt to get from one to another, or at least fry low enough that treetops and lakes

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    became familiar. Nowwell, my own experience was typical, I suppose. We were issued tickets, and after rlrr"tul hours (*. sat around and compared ticketsthe North for me) *y ship was called. An enclosed travelitg walk put me into it. That was the last I saw of my creche-mates.

    After a few minutes more a human girl with inquisitive fingers came and strapped me to my couch, giving herself a lesson on how our anatomy difiers from theirs. Another wait, a recorded announcement, and the ship was rising under ffie, slowly at first, then faster and faster until the acceleration drove me down against the upholstery so hard I could sense there wasn't enough strength in my servos to move mY arms.

    And then nothing. The acceleration faded and I was disoriented, feeling sure that somethitg had gone wrong. After a short time the disoriented feeling changed to one of descending in an elevator. The couch was beneath me again and we were going down. slowly. There was no sensation of speed.

    This time instead of the enclosed walk there was an aluminum ramp; the building was older and the concrete pad small enough for its edges to be visible, but there was no more feeling of having traveled or having been out of the city than I would have gotten from going to the top of the central shop complex in our compound.

    For me there *ur, however, at least one valid difference in emotional quality. I was alone, and as I carried *y one small bug into the old and rather gnmy port builditrB, I came to rcalize what that meant. There were several machines moving smoothly over the tercazzo floor, but to these machines I was a man. There were a number of humans waiting for their ships to leave or greeting arriving relatives, but to them I was a machine in spite of my pointed, broad-brimmed field hat and high-laced boots, and they stared.

    My orders had stated that I would be met here by someone from my assigned station, but for over an hour I

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    was by tttyself in the middle of that crowd. fn retrospect I think the experience was good for ffie, and perhaps it was planned that way. I had been anticipating the loneliness of duty in some remote part of the wilderness outside of the cities, and I had been trained for that. But this was different. It taught rne that I was vulnerable after all, and I think it made rne accept Mark, when he carne, more than f would have othenvise.

    I still remember how glad I was when I saw a hat like mine over the heads of that surging mass of people. I took off rny own and waved- it over m), head to let him know where I was, and grasped his hand eagerly when he extended it. Half shoutirrg to make myself heard, I said, "fdentity BBTggz. Call me Eyebem."

He said, "Call me Mark."

    I still don't know whether "Vfark" is really Mark's name or merely one he has assumed to put us at our ease. I could ask him now, furning up my speaker until he heard me over the whistlitrg wind, but he is thinking. All our own narnes, of course, derive from the dawn age of cybernetics: Ceedeesy's from the old Control Data Corporation computers, and "Mark" from the famous series which included the Mark VII and Mark VIII. At any rate I had been expecting one of us, and the name postponed for half a minute at least my discovery that Mark was human. To be truthful, I don't believe I was really sure of it until we were alone in the cab of the copter. Then, sitting next to him as he started the engine, I could study the skin of his neck. After that it seemed best to say something so he wouldn't realize I was staring, so I asked where we were going.

    "Main station," he said. *About thirty rniles up the Kobuk River." I could tell that he wasn't accustomed to talking a great deal, but he was perfectly friendly. I asked if it were far, and he said two hundred and fifty rniles farther north. We had lifted off by then and I was too busy looking at the country to want to ask more questions. It was rocky, with conifers on the higher ground and alders

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    following the watercourses. In places they had already shed their leaves, and I knew this must be one of the last good days we would have before the short Arctic summer ended and winter closed in.

    At the rnain station I was reassured to find that Mark was the only human. The station boss was one of us, very imposing in a huge old grey cabinet with sensors scattered all over the station, but he made me welcome in a hearty, pleasant voice that made me feel right at home. There was another fellow too, from the creche-cycle two years ahead of mine as it turned out, who had come in from a tour to report and rest up.

    With my own anxiety gone I began to feel sorry for Mark. He had to prepare food when the rest of us were sitting around recharging our power packs, and a lot of the little jokes and things that were said pretty well left him outnot intentionatrly but just by the nature of things. Since I had the least seniority I had to cut wood for the fireplace and do the odd jobs the station boss couldn't be bothered with around the low-yield pile that kept our generator running, but I didn't rnind and I felt sure Mark r,vould have traded places with me gladtry if he could.

    Then the pleasant time at the station was over and Mark and I left for our tour. By then I had learned that Mark, who was nearly thirty, would be retiring the next year, and I was to work with him until then, learning the territory and getting the specialized knowledge that can only be acquired in the field. We could have flown since the first big storm of the winter hadn't come yet, but Mark \ras afraid that if we did we wouldn't be able to get the copter back out when it turned nasty, so we took a snow ieep instead.

    The ftrst night that we camped I knew that I had reached the life in which I could fulfill myself, the thing I had been made and trained for. Without his asking I carried water up from the creek for Mark so that he could wash and make coffee. After he had gone to bed I sat up

half the night staring at the polestarso bright and so

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    high hereand listening to the sounds the wind made in the little spnrce trees around us.

    The next duy Mark showed me the tracks of a bear overlapping my own beside the creek. "He came before the frost got to the mud," Mark said, '"so it must have been pretty early in the evening. Did you see him?"

I shook *y head. "He's not dangerous, is he?"

    "I wouldn't want to blunder into him in the dark, and he might go after the grub I've got locked in the jr"p."

    I hadn't thought of that. The bear couldn't eat amperes out of my power pack, but if it got to Mark's foodnot here where we could easily get

    back to the station, but when we were farther outMark might starve.

    That knowledge hung like a dark cloud at the back of my mind while we broke camp and loaded the snow ieep. I hadn't rcalized I was allowing the worry to show on my face, but when we were under way Mark asked, *What's the matter, Eyebem?"

    I told him what was troubling me and he laughed. "I'm an old hand. Funny, but while you were worrying about me I was fretting about you and the boss and the rest of you; wondering if you'll be all right when I leave."

"About usP" Frankly I was shocked.

    *Uh-huh." He swung the snow ieep around a fallen tree. "I know there are a lot of these completely automated stations operating successfully, but I still worry."

    Completely automatedP I suppose in a sense Mark was right, but I hadn't thought of it that way. I said as gently as f could, "We're designed for it, Mark. This is our home out here. If anyone's out of place it's you, and I'm sure the station boss and all of us will feel a lot less concern when you go to one of the cities."

    Mark didn't say anything to that, but I could see he didn't really agree. To change the subject I said, "The bears will be goirtg into hibernation soon, I suppose. Then we won't have to wofry about thern."

    "Most of them are in already." Mark sounded like a bear himself. *The one we had around camp was probably

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    an old male; some of them don't go until the Iast bit of food's gone, and they'II stick their heads out any time during the winter when there's a little stretch of better than average weather."

    I know all that, of course. I had asked the question to grve him something to talk about that wouldn't hurt his pride. It worked, too. Bears around camp are always a problem, and he told bear stories for the rest of that duy as we picked our way north.

    The storm came on our fifth doy out, but we were expecting it and had made ourselves as secure as possible, pitching our tent in a sheltered spot and weighing dov,tn the edges with rocks until it looked almost like a stone house. The storm kept us there for three days, but when it was over we could put the skis on the snow ieep and skim along where we had had to pick our way before. We looked in on the sea otter rookeries north of the abandoned city of Kivalin&, then followed the coast north toward Point Hope. We were still about two days' travel south of it when the second. storrn came.

    That one held us five days, and when it was over Mark decided we'd better cut orrr tour short and head back toward the station. We d,rg the snow ieep out of the drifts and got ready to leave, but when Mark engaged the transmission the engine died and would not trestart.

I know very little about ttubinesI've only so much program capacity

    after allbut Mark seemed to be quite familiar with thern, so while I built a snow wall to give hirn some shelter from the wind, he tore the engine down.

    A drive shaft bearitrg race had shattered. It was broken so badly it wouldn't even keep the shaft in place, much less allow it to turn. It had jarnmed the turbine, and the overtorque breaker was what had actually shut down the engine; the trouble with the bearing had probably been due to cold-shortness, the weakness that will make an ax head fly into a thousand pieces sometimes when it's been left outside all night in sub-zero cold and you slam it into a frozen knot. All our equipment is supposed to be tested

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    against it, but apparently this slipped through, or rnore likely, os Mark says, some mechanic doing an overhaul made an unauthonzed substifution.

    For as long as the battery lasted we tried to raise the station boss on the radio, but the cold reduced its efficiency so badly that we were forced to disconnect it from time to time so that we could carry it into the tent to warm Lrp. For a while we considered tearing the entire radio out of the ieep so that we could take it inside, but we were afraid we'd damage something in the process (neither of us were too clear on how closely its wiring was integrated with the jeep's), and by the time we had about made up our minds to do it, the battery failed completely.

    After that we had to reassess our position pretty thoroughly and we did, sitting by our little stove in the tent that night. Mark had food for at least ten days more, twenty with rationirg, but it was too heavy to carry with us together with our other gear, and the loss of the snow jeep's engine rneant no more power-pack recharges for me. We decided the smart thing to do was to stay with the ieep and our equipment, making what we had last as long as possible. We could burn the jeep's fuel in our stove, and if we kept the snow off it, just having it near us would make us a lot more visible to a ,search party than we would be othenvise. When we failed to return from our tour on schedule the station boss would send someone after us, and if we conserved what we had we thought he ought to find us in pretty good shape.

    At first everything went quite well. I cut my pack transfoffner ratio: first to .5, then as the days went by to .g without seeming to lose too much. I wasn't strong, of course, but as I told Mark it kept my monitor on, kept me going, and I didn't feel too bad. If you're not familiar with us, you who are hearing this tape, you may wonder why I didn't simply turn myself off altogether and instruct Mark to reactivate me when rescue came. The reason is that my mernory is dependent on subminiature semiconductor chips whiclr make up bistable circuits. When there

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    is no electromotive force on them, the semiconductors "forget" their position, and that would mean wiping out every rnemory I possessthe

    total erasutre of my personality as well as the loss of all my training.

    Two days ago Mark built this hut of earth and snow for us with the tent

    as a liner, but I was too weak to help him much. The truth is that for the past week I have been simply lying here conserving as much energy as I can. Yesterd"y Mark went out and was able to shoot a seal on the beach, and when he dragged it inside I know he thought I was dead. He knelt beside me and passed his hand in front of my eyes, then slipped it inside my parka to feel the place in my chest above the heaters that prevent my hydtnulic pump's freezing. There was so little current that he felt nothing, and I could see him shake his head as he drew his hand out.

    I should not have done it, but for sorne reason that macle tne angry, and I turned up the power to my speaker until I could make myself heard and said, "I'm alive, Mark. Don't junk me yet."

He said, "I wouldn't iunk You, Eyebem."

    Then it all burst out of ffie, all the horror and fnrstration of these past days. I shouldn't have talked to Nfark that w3/, he has never done me ar.,y harm and in fact has done whatever he could to help ffi?, but I lost control of myself. Perhaps the long period at reduced voltage had somethitrg to do with it. Perhaps I am going mad, but I told him over and over how unjust it was: "We are the advance of the future, not you mell. All your sfupid human history has been iust your own replacement by us, and there's nothing, not one thing, that you can do that we can't do better. Why don't you help me?" I suppose I was raving.

    He only took my hand and said, *I'll think of something, Eyebem; turn down your power before you exhaust yourself."

    And now another storm has come up, which means that whoever has been sent out to look for ffie, if anyone has,

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    is pinned down just as we ere; sitting in his tent while my power drains ampere by ampere, electron by electron on the way to nothing while Mark lies across from me in the dark eating his filthy seal blubber. Has the half-hour loop completed its cycle yet? Have I already erased the last beginning I made? I have no way of knowing. I arn lyrrrg, I say again, in the dark. . o .

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