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HorizonZero Issue 14 : DREAM
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architectures : Gathering the Echoes
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Gathering the Echoes

by Jean-Louis Trudel, translated by Timothy Barnard and Jean-Louis Trudel

The house was drowning in silence.

Entering, the visitor made a face. Of course, they'd had to deactivate the house, but even so... It felt like a burnt-out shell. Everything was frozen in place: the furniture, the walls, the colours. It could have been a home from the old days.

The house used to come alive when Frederick Greenwood came in. Recognizing its owner, it would play some of his favourite music, tune the speakers to a carefully-chosen radio station, or simply ask the old man what he would like to eat. Before his wife's death, Frederick had never been much concerned with having the latest fashion in houses. But when Melissa had passed away, he'd needed to give his home a semblance of life.

Now the house was as dead as its owner.

Only the auxiliary lighting guided the visitor's steps. The ceiling lights did not come on. Before, sensors in the walls would have tracked his movements, filling the room he was in with light and shutting everything down in the room he had just left. Even the carpet muffling his steps was once alive, in a sense. Tiny sensors gobbled voraciously the bits of skin dropped by guests in order to analyze their DNA and identify them.

Old Frederick loved to show his friends around the house. The visitor hadn't forgotten the first time he'd seen it after its transformation by nanotechnology. His neighbour had called him one Saturday morning, his voice booming into the receiver (the retiree had never really got used to cell phones). "Alex?" "Yes, Fred?" "Come over and have a cup of coffee, it's been a long time since we chewed the fat, and I've got a few things to show you."

Alex thought that Fred was coming to terms with his loss, as they say, and that he wanted to talk about his wife. But no, old Frederick had a new toy - a host of new toys, in fact - and he wanted to show them off to his friends. Microbots that constantly combed the floor on the lookout for dust and mites...the picture on the wall whose pigments had memorized four Vermeers, nine Rembrandts, fourteen Vélasquezes and (for variety) one Picasso...The easy chair that could read your mind, at least to the extent of choosing what music to play, which film to download and play on the nanotube screen, and which dish to tell the kitchen to prepare...

Before going upstairs, Alex tarried to tidy things up downstairs. Books had not been put back on shelves. Beside the easy chair, a wool blanket was laying on the floor. Alex picked it up, folded it carefully, and placed it on a corner of the coffee table. He noticed a wheelchair and a tank of oxygen, waiting for pick-up by the Red Cross.

He wouldn't admit to it, but the silence of the abandoned house was making him uneasy. Because of the twenty-year gulf between them, he hadn't known his neighbour that well. Mostly they traded neighbourly favours: Fred lent him his drill, he came by with his snowblower. And Melissa brought homemade cakes across the way.

When Fred had showed him his new nanotech house, Alex had said nothing. And yet he should have made a scene, by all rights, or at least grumbled a little. Nanotechnology had thrown him out of work. By the time he was thirty, he had created his own company, manufacturing high-end winter coats. The best materials and the latest equipment went into his company's workshop. Then, within a few years, nanotech coats made of ultra-thin layers swept the market and wiped out the competition. How could he beat a coat that made itself and was no thicker than a windbreaker?

Fred's room was upstairs, though the old man hadn't used it for the last few months of his illness. Going up the stairs had become impossible. Alex climbed them, without stopping but without hurrying either: almost reverently.

A night light lit the room, half of which was taken up by the conjugal bed. A large mirror stretched across the far wall, plunged into shadow.

"To work!" the visitor said to spur himself on.

The new rituals of death were no more pleasant than the old ones. With a lump in his throat, Alex opened the closet and piled the deceased's shirts on the bed. Then he got out his data scanner. It looked like a hand-held vacuum cleaner, but it vacuumed up lives.

Alex lingered for a moment, caressing the nanotech shirts. After his company had gone bankrupt, he had been unable to afford expensive clothes. If one knew how, it was possible to change a shirt's colour, to make it radiate a soft warmth or a blessed coolness during heat waves, and even to have the plain fabric show images (complete with logos and advertising slogans, of course). The best shirts had circuits to warn of approaching objects...

He snapped out of it. Soon, he'd be able to buy all the shirts he liked. With a steady hand, he drew the scanner across each shirt. The buttons were passive memory devices. Over the years, they accumulated data gathered by the sensors in the shirt's fabric: odours, sounds, images, temperatures, and, in some cases, electromagnetic signals...In every shirt was lodged the fragments of a life. Enough to reconstitute half of Frederick's existence and make a present of it to his family if he wanted to.

Once a shirt was scanned and stripped of memories, it was nothing more than a scrap of cloth without a soul. Something to be thrown out or given to the Salvation Army. But before putting it away, Alex took out a tubular probe and scraped the inside of the shirt collar.

He was looking for a shirt that hadn't been washed. The squamous cells harbouring the deceased's DNA often collected inside the collar. The images recorded by the shirts would enable him to recover Fred's codes and passwords; the DNA sequences would verify them.

As he was folding the fifth shirt in the pile, the probe's signal light turned green.

He closed his eyes. He felt as if he was breathing for the first time in a long while, as if he had been holding his breath ever since entering the house, sunk in silence. He hurried up and scanned the remaining shirts. He was already thinking about what he was going to do with Frederick Greenwood's identity. He had no intention of emptying the deceased's bank accounts. That would be theft. But renting a car under his name was something else altogether. Or buying a new wardrobe, or taking a trip to the tropics.

He was about to leave when a thought struck him. At the head of the bed was a console which controlled every circuit in the house. Alex still remembered the old man's explanation: "In the morning, if I want to reprogram, I just supply a sample of my genetic code."

Alex tapped the receptor with the end of his probe. One last check...When he stood back up, the house awoke.

The lights came on. Muffled clanging sounds could be heard from the kitchen. Ventilation ducts suddenly released a billow of carefully calibrated air.

"Frederick? Is that you?"

Alex stood stock still for a moment. Then he turned around. The mirror that took up the entire opposite wall was, it turned out, not a mirror after all. Now that there was more light, he saw that it did not show his reflection. But it did show another person he knew, standing in the middle of the bedroom's reflection.

Melissa!

"I don't recognize you," she complained. "And yet everything tells me it's you, Frederick. But I can't recognize your voice or your face. What's happening?"

"Plastic surgery," he said at random. "I wanted to look younger."

Alex was caught short, torn between an unjustified anger and the first stirrings of admiration. All that time, Fred had been lying to their face! He'd never told his friends that his nanotech house was able to recreate his dead wife in the form of a computerized avatar. Not a word. He'd never let on that he hadn't bought a living house, but a haunted one!

Except that the intelligence shining in the wrinkled face of the woman on the other side of the mirror was not in the least human. A mirror? An autostereoscopic surface, rather. Which didn't prevent Alex from feeling paralyzed by the gaze of the avatar as it stared at him.

She hadn't believed him. Besides, it was such a stupid thing to say that he wouldn't have believed it himself.

"Do you remember that dinner in Kelowna, by the lake?" she asked suddenly. "When we first talked about getting married?"

It wasn't fair! Alex had all the answers he needed in the memory chip of his scanner. But he hadn't had a chance to extract the data and sort through it. Remain calm! This was only a simulation of the woman he knew.

"Of course," he stammered. "You were so pretty that night."

The avatar shook its head.

"Frederick, why do you look so much like Alex Pound?"

Alex did not flinch. He had been expecting this question. Only one response was capable of saving him. He approached the mirror, his gaze fixed on Melissa's green eyes, and he spoke the truth:

"Because I am Alex Pound. I'm here because Frederick is dead."

For a moment, the program was paralyzed. The simulation of Melissa was driving her to react, to show the stupor and chagrin that the situation called for. But Alex had just stated that the person whom the software had just recognized as still living was dead.

Without giving it time to resolve its existential dilemma, Alex made for the stairway. The carpet rippled under his feet like a living animal, but the program was still struggling to understand, unable to make up its mind.

When Alex reached the front porch, his heart pounding, the door closed behind him with a dull thud, like the blade of a guillotine when it comes crashing down. But it was too late.

Behind him, the house was no longer silent. As he hurried away, Alex could hear it crying, ever more alone in the night.

Jean-Louis Trudel is well known for his science-fiction stories, which he writes in both French and English. His twenty-five books and numerous short stories, which often reflect his training in physics and astronomy, have earned him many awards, including the Prix Aurora Award on several occasions, and the Grand Prix de la Science-Fiction et du Fantastique québécois.

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