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The Armies of Memory

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The Armies of Memory

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Author: John Barnes
Publisher: Tor, 2006
Series: Thousand Cultures: Book 4
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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Giraut Leones, special agent for the human Thousand Cultures' shadowy Office of Special Plans, is turning fifty--and someone is trying to kill him.

Giraut's had a long career; the number of entities that might want him dead is effectively limitless. But recently Giraut was approached by the Lost Legion, an Occitan underground linked to an alliance of illegally human-settled worlds beyond the frontier. Also, it turns out that the Lost Legion colony has a "psypyx" --a consciousness-recording--of Shan, onetime boss of the Office of Special Plans. If they have that, they have literally thousands of devastating secrets.

Now, returning to his native Nou Occitan, Giraut will encounter violence and treachery from human and artificial consciousnesses alike. As bigotry and mob violence erupt throughout the rapidly destabilizing interstellar situation, Giraut will be called on the make the ultimate sacrifice, for the sake of civilization itself....


Chapter One

Laprada was fussing, lifting my tapi from each shoulder till it hung parallel to the floor, and tugging at the fastening. It made me nervous--as her instructor at hand-to-hand fighting, I knew how she loved chokeholds. "Oh, cheer up, you ancient monster of ego," she said. "Something good could happen tonight. For example, maybe they'll finally send a competent sniper. Then we won't have to listen to you complain."

"Then you won't," Raimbaut said. "I'd have him in my head. And after that, we'd both have to listen to him complain about being physically four years old."

"No one has any respect for the dignity of the artist." I checked myself in the mirror again. People wear their actual ages in only about thirty of the Thousand Cultures, so my mostly-gray hair surrounding my mostly-bald crown was an oddity, and the wrinkles and crow's-feet odder still. But I looked good, for a freak--not unlike an actor in an Industrial-Age flatscreen movie. Since Laprada was on her second body, physically in her late teens, she might have been cast as my younger daughter, the one who was always running to her wise old dad with her boyfriend problems.

Unfortunately, during my earlier years I had presented myself to my niche market as "authentically Occitan," declaring, on record and often, that aging naturally was integral to my performing persona. Fans have long memories for those sorts of things; I was trapped until someone killed me. Which, as Laprada had just pointed out, could well be tonight.

I returned my attention to smoothing my clothes. I could have substituted smart fabrics, but that too seemed like cheating. The clothes were real, and the body was real, and I sang, present in my real body, not lip-synched and not holo'd, at every concert.

Martial arts had kept me supple, fussy eating had held my paunch to a little roll under my navel, and important work had kept my glance sharp, focused, and interested. Giraut Leones, I thought, you are a good-looking fifty-year-old man.

Fully equivalent to being an orangutan with great hair.

Paxa Prytanis appeared in the mirror behind me as her hand lighted on my shoulder. "He's admiring himself in the mirror again."

"Caught," I said. "I go to the mirror to see whether I look fit for my public, take one good look, and--deu sait, I don't mean to--but I am at once caught up in contemplating fifty stanyears of absolute perfection--"

"Don't hit him in the head," Laprada said. "I just got his hair under control."

"Well, if you don't like my mirror-fascination now, think what I'll be like admiring a smooth teenaged face, if you people let me get killed."

"You'll be even worse--if that's possible--when you first get out of the psypyx," an apparent eight-year-old boy said from the corner, where he had been quietly reading Ovid and making little pencil notes in the margins. "You were a very beautiful child and this time around you'd know it. Rebirth from the psypyx is a splendid experience but don't hurry."

"Dad," I said, "I promise not to step in front of any bullets just to get a new body for free."

Dad, Paxa, Laprada, and Raimbaut comprised the Office of Special Projects team that I commanded. At least the OSP thought I commanded them. Actually I filled out the paperwork and did the apologizing after the team accomplished a mission. As for giving orders and having them followed, I'd have had better luck trying to organize an all-ferret marching band.

We were five people of around ten ages. Raimbaut and I had been born in the same stanyear, so like me he was fifty on the clock, but he had spent thirteen stanyears in storage in the psypyx, so was only thirty-seven in experience, and since he had been grafted onto a new body only fourteen stanyears ago, physically he was about seventeen. Laprada, restarted from her psypyx at the same time, was forty in chronology and experience, seventeen in appearance. Dad was eighty-one in experience, eighty-three by the clock (he was Q-4, a rare mind-brain type, and so it had taken two stanyears for the placement agency to find a host), but physically an eight-year-old boy. Paxa was forty-three on the clock and in experience, but as a Hedon who believed in getting anti-aging treatments and keeping them up to date, she was physically about thirty.

At fifty--clock, experience, and body--today, I was thoroughly fifty, which was fitting because I was here for my birthday concert in Trois-Orléans, home of my most loyal and passionate audience.

"Two minutes till places," Laprada said.

Paxa plucked her computer from her jacket pocket, shook it out, smoothed it onto a makeup counter, and re-re-checked every operative, movement of active known enemies, and weapons diagnostic--a lethal version of "did I leave the oven on?" Of course everything was fine. She folded her computer in a napkin-tuck and slipped it back into her right front pocket, one corner protruding.

Laprada and Raimbaut stretched together, pulling each other's arms, stroking each other's necks, rubbing backs and muscles, preparing for jobs that could quickly become athletic. Besides, they enjoyed rubbing each other.

Since unknown people had started trying to kill me three stanyears before, all the attempts had happened at heavily publicized concerts. Hoping to get some useful clue, the OSP had kept me out on tour and watched me as a cat watches a mousehole. I just hoped the mouse wouldn't come out right after the cat got bored and wandered off for a nap.

Even if my would-be assassins stood me up, this could be the night that the Lost Legion, who had been sending delicate little feelers for more than a stanyear, would finally make real contact. (Assuming they were not the people who were trying to kill me; they might be.)

Or maybe tonight the Ixists would do something other than attend in great numbers, listening intently and breathing quietly in meditative unison, as if they were in a worship service (something their faith didn't officially have).

Or something might come out of nowhere.

So here I was: bait for the malevolent, magnet for the odd, connection to the poorly understood, the only physically old man most of these people had ever seen. Just a day in the life of your average lutist-composer, if the lutist-composer happens to publicly work for a covert ops organization. It was a strange job, but somebody had to do it, so I suppose it might as well be somebody strange.

The door opened behind me; I heard a sigh. "Happy birthday, you overgrown teenager," Margaret said.

I turned.

She was grinning; so was I. "My god, you're still beautiful," she said. "In a grandfatherly sort of way."

Careless of my costume, I embraced my ex-wife.

I had met Margaret and fallen in love with her on my first mission, almost thirty years before. We had been married just over twelve years, ending in a divorce I hadn't wanted, just before the fates had entertained themselves by promoting her to chief of my section of the OSP. (She always shrugged and said that I was a lousy husband and a good spy, so she would no more let me transfer out of her section than she would keep me in her house.)

I held her close, then took a half step back. I had seen her only on com screens for the past couple of stanyears. Margaret was still wearing her born body, but a genetic heritage with too much Euro had been kinder to her than to me. Margaret's age showed more in her attitude than in her skin or her body, still firm in my arms.

At my expectant look, she laughed. "No, there's no last-minute special mission, my desperately romantic tostemz-toszet. I bought a ticket. I'm going to be out in the seats, enjoying the show. So--happy birthday, Giraut, and I'll see you after. Be brilliant." Then she looked around the rest of the room and said, "You can all be brilliant too."

How fine a team did I have? Even while busy preparing to guard my life, they still remembered to laugh at my boss's jokes.

Laprada placed her hand between my shoulder blades and firmly shoved me into the light. The traditional disembodied voice said, "Ladies and gentlemen" (Terstad, nearly everyone's first language)

"Mesdames et messieurs--" (French, the culture language for Trois-Orléans)

"Donzhelas e donzi e midons--" (Occitan, my own culture language)

"We are pleased to present, on the occasion of his fiftieth birthday, Giraut Leones!"

I always loathed that first long walk from the wings to my stool, and this was an extra-long walk, across the stage of the largest of all the Fareman Halls in human space. The lights were so bright (did they change something after light check?), the stool was farther away than I thought (did they move it?), and I couldn't feel the songs in my fingers, the way I could just a moment ago (changes? did I make them?).

Was this my lute? How did we all forget I don't play the lute? Where was my banjo?

Why was I not laughing internally at my own jokes, as I normally did?

Could people tell I did that?

If they could tell, would it spoil the show for them?

Do they all hate me?

I always take each step toward that too-distant stool with an awkward heavy thud. How can a lifetime martial artist walk so off-balance? Surely they see that I walk like the Frankenstein monster? Don't trip and stumble--deu here comes the stool--how do people get their buttocks onto these things? I don't remember! Deu deu deu please don't let me fall down in front of all these people! Is my tapi straight? Oh, gratz'deu, I'm here.

Solid applause from the sold-out house. I bowed, sat, brought my lute into position, and played.

Now I was in the joyous void in which I did my best work, let...

Copyright © 2006 by John Barnes


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