Excerpt for Aurealis #103 by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

AUREALIS #103



Australian Fantasy & Science Fiction

Edited by Stephen Higgins

Published by Chimaera Publications at Smashwords

Copyright of this compilation Chimaera Publications 2017

Copyright on each story remains with the contributor.

EPUB version ISBN 978-1-922031-60-0

ISSN 2200-307X (electronic)

CHIMAERA PUBLICATIONS


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Hard copy back issues of Aurealis can be obtained from the Aurealis website: www.aurealis.com.au




Contents

From the Cloud—Stephen Higgins

The Kovacs Incident—Mitchell Salmon

The Beast That Laid the Crystal Eggs—J M Melican

As Portrayed by John Cusack’—Brian C Baer

Ray Bradbury: His Writings and Legacy—Eugen Bacon

The Rewards of Persistence: An Interview with Leife Shallcross—Chris Large

Secret History of Australia—Inga McCartney—Researched by Stephen Higgins

Reviews

Next Issue

Credits




From the Cloud

Stephen Higgins


Recently, whilst my home town was suffering through record low temperatures, I travelled to the tourist town of Broome. This is in the Kimberly region of West Australia and it enjoys winter temperatures of a reliable 29/30°C. This is my third trip to the region and I’m only bringing it up in the editorial of a speculative fiction magazine because the area around Broome always reminds me of various science fiction works I’ve read. Specifically, these are the ‘Rynosseros’ and ‘Wormwood’ collections from Terry Dowling, and the works of Sean McMullen and others.

The landscape is so different from the (basically) dairy areas where I live in rural Victoria that it simply evokes thoughts of alien landscapes. The red dirt, weird vegetation and ‘unseasonal’ weather all help to give the feeling that you are in a strange place. I mean boab trees alone can trigger this. They’re such fantastic plants, and I mean fantastic in the terms that speculative fiction readers would understand. I succumbed to the temptation to actually place my hands on the swollen trunk of one fine example where we were staying. And one thing led to another and I ended up hugging it. See what I mean? Even just writing about the place makes things go a bit weird. Anyway, while there I went along to an ‘Astro Tour’ conducted by Greg Quicke. Greg is the popular astronomer who appeared recently in the ABC’s stargazing show here in Australia. He’s an entertaining astro-educator and his ‘astro-tours’ held outside of Broome with the aid of a phalanx of telescopes, lasers and hot chocolate are very popular.

The experience led to some lovely ‘sense of wonder’ moments for me. There I was looking at the planets and stars, in an ‘alien’ landscape, with commentary provided by Greg (Space Gandalf) Quicke. Have a look at his website www.astrotours.net for details about his tours and to find out why he’s called Space Gandalf. Interesting man and an interesting place. Those sense of wonder moments are precious to me and are, of course, usually linked to reading genre fiction, but the real-life sense of wonder moments are even more valuable.

It was refreshing that the one experience led to a bit of renewed interest in the works that had been inspired by the area and I have been looking at Terry Dowling’s books again, with a renewed appreciation for the sense of place that Dowling manages to create. Whilst I was getting back into the fiction of Terry Dowling, I was delighted to see that PS Publishing is planning to release the Complete Rynosseros in deluxe hardcover and later paperback editions with tons of added extras. That’s something to look forward to and we will keep our own readers up to speed as we hear more about this important release.


All the best from the cloud.


Stephen Higgins


Back to Contents




The Kovacs Incident

Mitchell Salmon



Travel the world with WorldHost; explore from the comfort of someone else’s skin.

My neck prickled. The website slogan filling my tablet screen didn’t fill me with easy excitement like it was supposed to.

It was another hot day—six in a row over 38 Celsius—and I was dreaming of Europe in winter. I was sitting on the couch with my tablet on my knees. It was synched up to the SmartHub implanted at the base of my skull, and I filled in the extensive WorldHost application process—pages upon pages of forms—at the speed of thought. Will, sitting opposite me with his tablet showing an old textbook, fanned himself half-heartedly with the tablet’s case. He glanced up and saw me looking at him. He smiled. ‘I hope it snows when we’re there,’ he said.

‘I don’t think it’s snowed in Budapest for decades,’ I said.

‘We’ll put some holos up.’

I nodded and looked back at the tablet. ‘What is your purpose of travel?’ I read aloud. ‘Holiday,’ I answered myself, and checked the correct box. The list rolled by banally. I hummed as I filled in details. ‘Are you planning to be sexually active during your travel? God, that’s a bit personal.’

‘I hope the answer’s “yes”,’ Will said, not looking up from his book.

I smiled and selected ‘Yes, with single (monogamous) travelling companion’ from the list of options. ‘High adrenaline activities?’ I asked. ‘There’s a Liszt concert series running all winter,’ was Will’s response, so I selected ‘no’.

The booking form rolled over to its next page. Host preferences. It asked me to select a sex, and I briefly contemplated selecting male, just for the look on Will’s face, but thought better of it; he always got a bit strange about that stuff. I didn’t think he would see the funny side. So I chose female.

I looked down the list of questions. ‘Jeez, you can get pretty specific,’ I observed. ‘You can even select preferred ethnicity… That’s got to be racist.’

‘Leave it blank,’ Will said, rising to get a beer from the fridge for each of us. ‘I didn’t put in a huge number of preferences. Anyone healthy enough to be a host is going to be fine for me.’

I looked at him, drinking in his unshaven jaw, soft cheeks, and thin hair. ‘I can’t picture kissing someone else,’ I told him.

‘You won’t,’ he replied. ‘You’ll kiss me, just in a different body. Right?’

I nodded. ‘Yeah, I guess.’


* * *


Our host offers arrived within a week. I opened my emails to find on offer from a young woman named Lara. After the WorldHost preamble, Lara introduced herself. ‘I would like to host you for your visit to Budapest,’ she wrote. ‘Please find attached photographs of myself and my apartment, if you wish to stay.’

I opened the photos. Her apartment was small, and she clearly wasn’t much of a photographer. But the kitchen looked nice, and the walls, though having no windows, were covered in holos so it wouldn’t feel as small as it was. I forwarded the apartment photos to Will. He could decide if we stayed in Lara’s apartment or his host’s.

The two other attachments to the message were photos of Lara herself. One was a selfie against a plain background; she probably took it before sending the email. The other was a full body shot of her at a local park, rugged up against a cold day, I assumed. The sky was slate grey and the trees were all bare.

She was a few years younger than myself, with a smooth smile and long black hair. She looked friendly and fun. I couldn’t resist throwing her park photo into a search, which very quickly led me to her online profile. I scanned through photos of her around the city.

Will messaged me. His prospective host had one of the cybereye enhancements he was thinking of having installed (his second piece of augmentation tech after the neural storage drive he used to hold all his history books). He was excited to try it out. I rolled my eyes. If he could read books in AR I’d probably never be able talk to him again. I thought back something vaguely encouraging.

The WorldHost email contained a bit more information about Lara. She had mild asthma, didn’t allow smoking, but permitted alcohol (in moderation, the information specifically said). She had a request for thirty minutes of jogging or cardio per day, despite her asthma. I figured that was a pretty good way to see the city.

I checked her offered price. It was reasonable. Using her apartment obviously added a little more, but it was within our budget. I sent Will a message, asking if I should confirm. He said yes, so I emailed Lara back that day. We were booked. Budapest awaited.


* * *


On our day of travel, Will and I dressed in light, comfortable clothes as described by the WorldHost website. We left all our possessions in the apartment, locking up with a thought from my SmartHub. We weren’t going to be hosting while we were away, so we needed to be ready to go into storage. We walked to the bus stop into the city.

The WorldHost building was one of the biggest in the newest business district of Melbourne. It was a dour concrete affair underneath the ever-shifting holos on the outside. The glass façade on the ground floor rippled back in a mosaic of interlocking panels to allow us in. Across the threshold the temperature dropped from 43 to a more comfortable but almost chilly 22.

Lines of people dressed in similarly light clothing snaked around the building’s massive foyer. It was basically an airport check in, complete with attendants slowly processing bookings.

We were already checked in, and a confirmation ping from our SmartHubs allowed us through another set of floating mosaic doors into a lounge where we sat down to wait. Other people were seated around us, talking quietly, or with their heads inclined towards one another in that unconscious posture people often have when they’re messaging. A Christmas album was playing softly over speakers set in the roof. The whole building smelled faintly like a hospital. After a few minutes of waiting, Will got up and bought some chips from a vending machine.

People in the lounge got up from time to time, in response to SmartHub pings. Others drifted in from the reception area. Will and I waited, hand in hand. My gut was churning—part excitement, part anxiety. I had never travelled before. In a very short amount of time (to me it would be almost instant, in reality a little longer—maybe an hour?) I would be on the other side of the world, in a different city, different climate, muddling through in a language I didn’t speak. I was dwelling on what it would feel like to be hosted when I felt a phantom rumbling in my left pinkie finger. I opened the audio ping and heard a gentle male voice say, ‘Please come through to room six. On your left.’

‘I’m room seven,’ Will told me as we stood. He squeezed my hand. ‘See you in Budapest, Mol.’

‘See you there,’ I replied. I kissed him briskly and pushed him a warm feeling as we walked off.

The door to room six wasn’t one of the fancy mosaic ones, just a normal sliding glass door, slightly opaque. It opened for me automatically. Inside was a comfortable, if slightly utilitarian, recliner, a metal pole with an IV machine attached, and a large computer terminal and office chair. Not knowing exactly what else to do, I took a seat on the recliner.

The door opened again and an older man with a bushy beard, bald head, and a crisp medical uniform with the WorldHost logo on the breast entered. From the way he was holding his hands, I guessed he was reading from an AR page. ‘Good afternoon, Mrs Harris… Molly,’ he said, eyes focused on the empty air in front of him. ‘Off to Budapest, is that right?’ I nodded. ‘Beautiful city,’ he said. ‘Make sure you visit the flooded quarter. It’s haunting, but with its own beauty.’ He dropped his hands and focused on me for the first time. He smiled warmly. ‘This is your first time travelling with us, isn’t it?’ He clearly knew from my booking. ‘Are you feeling nervous?’

‘A bit,’ I admitted.

He took a seat by the computer. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll talk you through it.’ He hammered the keys, flying fingers filling the small room with the sound of clacking keys. ‘Now, just to confirm: Your host is named Lara Kovacs, living in Budapest. Correct?’ I nodded. ‘And you’re not hosting anyone while you’re away?’ I shook my head. ‘Well, you’ll be very comfortable here in storage while you’re gone. Alright.’ The technician reached over to the side of the computer facing me and pulled free a thick cable. He handed me the end. ‘Could you plug that into your SmartHub for me?’

I took the cable and plugged it into the jack grafted into my chest, just below my collarbone. I felt the frisson of energy as the SmartHub made a physical connection to the other system, and felt the soft presence of an immense amount of data and digital activity at the other end of the cable.

The technician got up from the computer and extracted a bag of clear liquid from a drawer. He hung it from the metal pole and ran the thin tube through the IV machine. The tube ended in a needle which he gently inserted into my wrist and taped down with medical tape.

‘Alright Molly,’ he said, hand on the armrest of the recliner near my forearm. ‘I’m going to start the download of your mind now. Do you mind if I…’ Without really waiting for an answer, he checked the connection between my SmartHub and the data cable. ‘We’re beginning with subconscious patterns, and I’ll put you under before we move on to the conscious mind. When you arrive, remember that some of your subconscious may not be copied; you’ll be relying on a little of your host’s subconscious to do some basic things like breathing and walking. But you should feel like yourself within a couple of hours of waking up. How do you feel?’

I told him I felt fine, more or less like I was uploading some writing for a profile update. He nodded, saying that from the technology’s perspective the two things were not all that different—separated by scope more than technique.

‘Alright, I’m going to put you under. There will be another technician in Budapest when you wake up. Just remember to take it slow. It will probably feel very strange at first, but the mind is a remarkably resilient thing. Are you ready for me to put you under?’

I nodded, not quite trusting myself to speak.

‘Have a lovely holiday, Molly, and thank you for travelling with WorldHost. And do go see the flooded quarter.’ He pressed a button on the IV. I blinked once. Twice. On the third blink, I found it hard to open my eyes again, and when I did I was in a different room. I felt very groggy. There was a woman there with a WorldHost medical uniform looking at me calmly. She had a pen torch in her hand and was flashing it in my eyes, which I found very unhelpful.

‘Good morning, Mrs Harris,’ she said, putting away the light (thank God). ‘Welcome to Budapest. The time is currently six in the morning, the same day you left Australia.’

I shifted in the recliner. I felt very strange.

‘Please take your time getting adjusted. This is your first time travelling with us, isn’t it? Please say yes or no.’

I opened my mouth and spat out a garbled syllable. ‘Please try again,’ the technician said calmly. I tried, and managed to wrap my mouth around, ‘Yes.’

‘Very good,’ the technician said, looking at her screens. ‘Alright, we’re going to take this slowly. Could you please raise your right arm?’

I carefully stretched out my senses to find my arms. I lifted my right hand—which felt light and thin—into view. The hand was not mine. The skin was lighter, the fingers were longer and thinner, and the nails were painted deep blue. I flexed the hand, bemused.

‘Very good,’ the technician said. ‘Do you feel ready to stand?’

I cleared my throat. ‘Yes,’ I said. The syllable felt strange in my throat, unfamiliar somehow, but it was clear. The technician held out an arm for me to grip, but I put my hands on the armrests of the recliner and pushed myself up. I put my feet on the ground and carefully stood. I stumbled immediately, but when I regained my balance I realised it was because I was wearing heels. I almost never wore heels at home.

I twisted my chest and flexed my arms, as if waking from a long sleep (which was exactly how I felt). Everything felt strange. Everything was in a slightly different place than I was used to.

‘Shall I turn on the mirrors?’ the technician asked. She was sitting patiently at the computer station, hands folded on her lap. Everything about her made me think that she did this exact same process, with the exact same script, multiple times per day, and that she wanted to be done with it as soon as possible.

‘Yes, thank you,’ I said. She tapped a key on the computer.

Holo panels on the wall switched on, reflecting the interior of the room. I looked at myself, and my mind jolted, even though I knew exactly what to expect. I was looking at Lara, my host. Her smooth skin, her long black hair. I twisted and Lara moved in the holo. I ran a hand over my scalp. Holo Lara copied me.

The technician was clacking away at the physical keyboard at the computer station. ‘Your levels are optimal… Hub sync perfect… No signs of dissonance or rejection… Everything looks good. Would you mind sitting down?’

I perched on the edge of the recliner. The technician wheeled herself towards me on her office chair. ‘Lean forward,’ she instructed. I did, and she peeled back my hair to access the base of my skull. Lara had her SmartHub jack installed there; the traditional but now less favoured position. ‘Your personality and memory programs are installed on a drive attached to your host’s SmartHub,’ the technician told me. ‘Take care of the drive. If it is damaged it’s possible that your copied personality programs will shut down.’

I flinched. ‘I’ll die?’ I asked.

The tech smiled. It didn’t reach her eyes. ‘No. You would just wake up back in Australia. But WorldHost will take no responsibility for the loss of memories created during your holiday due to hardware damage. Now, before I release you: Have you read and understood the terms and conditions of WorldHost’s service, including adherence to all local laws at your travel destination?’ She pushed me a digital form to sign. I said, ‘Yes,’ and pushed back my signature (I hadn’t read the terms, but I understood the gist).

‘Have you read and understood the individual terms and conditions of your host, including but not limited to restrictions on changes to the host’s appearance beyond superficial details, restrictions to substance use, and restrictions around sexual activity?’ Another form, another muted, ‘Yes,’ and another signature. ‘Very good.’

The technician held out a long sleeved white fingerless glove with a thin fabric screen on the inside of the forearm and the WorldHost logo on the other. The technician helped me don it on my left arm and I felt it tighten. ‘This is your WorldHost link. It contains all the information you will require about your host, including physical details like allergies that may be relevant, and practical information such as your host’s address, if you are also using their home for lodging. It also will make it clear to anybody observing that the host is not currently aware.’ She pointed at a backpack and jacket on the floor of the room. ‘Your host has left you the essentials you will need to begin your holiday. Check your link for more information. And enjoy your holiday. Thank you for travelling with WorldHost.’

This was clearly my cue to leave. I picked up the unfamiliar puffy jacket and backpack and left the room.

The Budapest WorldHost building was subtly less well-appointed than the Melbourne one. The colours were a little more muted, the lights a little duller. Or maybe it was my eyes. Maybe this was just how Lara saw the world. I paused and looked at the WorldHost logo on my link glove. The colours were so familiar, so instantly recognisable, that I thought I could compare how I saw them now with my memory of how I saw them in Melbourne. But when I stared, I couldn’t quite pick if they were any different.

I emerged into a foyer. A man stood up as I came in. He had light hair and a sharp chiselled jaw. He was reasonably handsome, I supposed. He had a white fingerless glove on his left hand, with the WorldHost logo on the back. He approached me hesitantly.

‘Molly?’ he asked.

‘Will?’ I asked back. He smiled broadly.

‘Look at us!’ he laughed. ‘Welcome to Budapest!’ I laughed with him and we hugged. He felt unfamiliar, but his unfamiliar hands stroked the back of my head in a familiar way.


* * *


Will made a point of guiding us through the streets towards Lara’s apartment using waypoints in his host’s cybernetic AR vision. He chattered happily to himself about the pros and cons of this particular model. I could tell he had already decided that he wanted it and I made up my mind to let him have the surgery, assuming that his enthusiasm made it back to Australia.

The apartment was even smaller than it had looked in the photos. I couldn’t open the door fully because of the table Lara had behind it. I shuffled in sideways and Will followed. I felt the home systems sync up with Lara’s SmartHub. All my Hub data had been transferred with my personality programs (that phrase felt nicer than saying ‘my mind’), and Lara had given me the passwords to the system before we arrived. I set the wall holos to show a version of the streetscape outside. The sky was slate grey and the light muted, a far cry from the long hot summer days we had left in Melbourne.

Will busied himself poking around the apartment. He left his suitcase in the entryway. His host had packed him some clothes for his stay. I would use Lara’s. The thought of borrowing someone else’s clothes—even to the level of underwear—was a bit uncomfortable but, in fairness, I was borrowing her body, putting on her undies should be trivial at this point.

I went to the bedroom, almost entirely filled with a double bed and a large wardrobe. I opened the door and pulled out a top at random. Lara was smaller than me. It was odd. I was good at picking clothes that would fit me, and my first instinct was to discard the top as too small. I had to remind myself that it would fit me now, until I was back in my own body.

I looked around at the photos on the holos, unmoving against the streetscape background. All of them had Lara in them, usually with groups of friends. Repeated faces, but never a single ubiquitous person who could have been a partner. Which was good; I would hate to be borrowing someone’s partner and stealing her away from them. There were books stored in the home system’s memory. Psychology and social science textbooks, mostly, and a selection of novels, almost all in Hungarian. I guessed she was a student.

A figure appeared in the doorway and I gave a start at the silhouette of an unfamiliar man. But it was Will, of course. I smiled and pushed him the feeling of what had happened, plus a laugh. He chuckled out loud. ‘I keep seeing myself in mirrors,’ he said. ‘It’s weird every time.’

I wrapped my arms around his torso and looked up at him—I wasn’t normally this much shorter than him. I looked into his eyes, trying to see if I recognised him, if I could see Will behind this stranger’s eyes. But his eyes were an unfamiliar, too-clear cybernetic blue. His host’s implants, not Will’s eyes. But his mannerisms, the little quirks, the way he smiled and held his head, were all him.

He was looking at me, too, taking in my features. His hands were on the small of my back. ‘Should we find some food?’

‘I’m not very hungry.’

‘Me neither. What else can we do?’

Later, lying in a tangle of Lara’s bedsheets, our bodies cooling and Will breathing gently beside me (his breathing was different; I found it unsettling), I was staring at the ceiling, unable to sleep. Sex with Will’s unfamiliar body—in my own unfamiliar body—was a decidedly odd experience. It took us time to find our normal rhythm. And everything was new and strange. Even Lara’s orgasms felt different.

I got up and walked to the bathroom across the hall from the bedroom. I closed the door behind me and, without entirely being sure why, locked it. I leaned heavily on the edges of the sink, staring at my reflection in the mirror. Mussed black hair, pale skin, long thin limbs. Nothing like me at home. Nothing like the real me.

My hand brushed the SmartHub jack in the back of my neck, and the small, knucklebone sized hard drive plugged there. Me. Actual me. Molly. My memories, my personality, my self, in that tiny hard drive. Driving someone else’s body. Was I some kind of mind controlling parasite? Some kind of spirit possessing its victim?

I stared hard into my own eyes. I was looking for Lara in those eyes. Was she aware, in there, underneath the layers of invasive programming copied and pasted onto her consciousness? WorldHost said that being a host was just like being asleep, that Lara would wake up when they disconnected my drive and go on with her life with no memory of the time she had been hosting me.

The bathroom tiles were cold on my back as I sat down against them. I pulled my knees up to my chin and closed my eyes. I searched the darkness behind my eyelids for any sign of Lara in there with me. Could I feel her there, a sleeping presence?

Will pushed me the sensation of a big bed with an empty side. I went back into the bedroom. He was already asleep again. I lay down beside him, but couldn’t bear to snuggle up against his strange body in an equally strange bed.


* * *


I woke up earlier than I did at home. I guess Lara’s body was on a different timetable to mine. And once I was awake I couldn’t sleep.

There was a notification on my WorldHost link. I touched it, and the fabric screen showed a text prompt: Please jog, do not forget inhaler.

It took a bit to find Lara’s running gear, but I managed to cobble together some suitable active wear. The air outside was cold. My breath clouded in front of my face, which was novel. I spent a childish moment attempting, unsuccessfully, to blow smoke rings (turns out there’s a trick to it that I didn’t know). Then I called up the map Lara had left for me on the link.

I followed Lara’s suggested route along a main road lined with old pre-war apartments of an almost shockingly uniform height; all grey and brown concrete crammed together, wall to wall, with neon signs for shops bolted unceremoniously to the façades. It was cold to start with, in my thin leggings, but once I got moving I warmed up quickly. I jogged out of the built-up sprawl and into a patch of parkland. I was still jogging long past the point at which, back home, I would have been a spluttering wheezing mess. This woman with asthma was significantly more fit than me. I resolved to get into better shape when I got home.

I followed the walking track over and around the gentle hills of the park, between the grey and leafless trees. Occasionally I passed someone else on the track. I said, ‘Hello,’ and they said something back in Hungarian—probably ‘Hello.’

I was rounding the U-turn in the map on the link when I heard somebody yell, ‘Lara!’ I didn’t immediately register it, until the person shouted again, closer. I looked around. A young man in a puffy jacket was hurrying towards me, waving for my attention. I was the only other person in sight. It took me until then to realise that he was trying to get my attention because he thought I was Lara (which I was, I guess?).


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