Inside the container sat a silvery, translucent, cylindrical object. It looked vaguely like a coffin—a feeling re-enforced by the medical insignia stamped at one end—but there were no seams where you would expect to see them for a lid. Underneath the medical insignia was a data port, and through the translucent material, Grif could see dark spindly shapes twisting their way through the entire structure. There was no way to determine what they were for.
Grif had never seen anything like it before. He had no idea what it was.
“Should we try to crack it open?” Mac asked.
“No!” Vod’s said, voice sharp with alarm. “We’ll break it if we do that.”
“It’s probably better to wait for Cutter,” Grif said. “Maybe he knows how to open one of these.”
He moved over so he was facing the end of the cylinder with the medical stamp, leaned over, and looked at it closely. “This is obviously a data port, but it’s definitely nonstandard. A normal card won’t fit in it. Not sure what will…”
“Maybe we should at least take it out of the container,” Mac said.
“No,” Grif said, “we’ll wait for Cutter and let him decide. He’s the doctor, after all.”
“Sorta,” Cutter drawled, flashing everyone a lazy, good-natured grin as he stepped around the engine of the squib. The scarring on his face made his grin permanently lopsided. He winked at Vod, who smiled warmly in return, then nodded at Grif. “What’s up, skip?”
Grif pointed at the object. “The mysterious thing has a medical seal. Do you know what the hell it is? Looks like a coffin.”
Cutter snorted. “A doctor transporting a coffin? There’s a joke in there somewhe—”
Cutter’s voice trailed off as he saw the thing for the first time. His scarred face went slack, his eyes grew wide, and he stood, motionless, mouth agape.
“So,” Grif said. “You recognize it.”
Cutter noded mutely.
Grif looked at Cutter, then at the object, then back at Cutter. “And?”
“And…” Cutter’s gaze never wavered from the object. “Wow.”
“Cutter!” Grif was trying not to be impatient, but he wasn’t doing it very well.
Cutter’s eyes snapped back into focus. “Sorry, Skip. Hold that thought. I’ll be right back.”
With that, Cutter ran out of Bay Three as fast as he possibly could. Vod and Grif exchanged surprised glances.
“What the hell was that about?” Mac asked.
“Good question,” Grif said. “Vod, you know Cutter pretty well.”
A corner of Vod’s mouth turned up slightly. “Pretty well.”
“Right,” Grif said. “Did Cutter seem particularly… animated to you? I mean, I’m pretty sure he was running.”
“He was running,” Vod agreed.
“He usually doesn’t do that,” Grif said. “Unless people are shooting at him, at any rate.”
“Even then,” Vod said. “Usually it’s something he calls a ‘mosey.’”
Grif frowned. “Earthie word?”
“Texas,” Vod said.
“Oh, right.” Grif nodded. “That’s where he’s from, isn’t it? Some kind of Earth city.”
“I don’t know,” Vod said. “The way he talks about it, I’m pretty sure it’s a planet.”
They waited in silence for a few minutes. Grif fidgeted impatiently.
“Hopefully,” Grif said, “when Cutter comes back, he’ll be able to talk in complete, comprehensible sentences.”
Vod grinned. “Why would he start now?”
At that moment Cutter rushed around the squib’s engine, carrying a device that looked like a suitcase, with a medical insignia stamped into its outside shell.
“Sorry Skip,” Cutter said. He hurried over to the nose of the squib, in front of the mysterious object’s data port. When he opened the case, legs telescoped out the bottom until they supported the case at waist height. A light green glow shone against Cutter’s skin as he stared intently into a screen embedded into the top of the case.
Vod and Grif exchanged glances one more time, then Grif decided he was through being patient. “Cutter, are you going to tell me what you’re doing?”
“Sorry Skip,” Cutter said again. “Just a little off-balance, is all. This thing you found… it’s storage.”
Grif raised an eyebrow. “Really? Like a stasis device?”
Cutter shook his head. “Wrong kind of storage. Data storage. It’s a memory stick. A really, really big memory stick…”
Vod cocked her head to one side and stepped toward the object, frowning. “Oh. I see it now.”
“See what now?” Grif asked.
“I didn’t recognize it because it’s so big,” Vod said. “And the medical seal threw me. But we’ve got smaller versions of this thing in the Fool’s Errand’s central banks.”
Grif looked at the object again. “We have smaller versions of this?”
Vod nodded excitedly. “I’ve never seen one this size! You could store an entire planet’s worth of data on this thing. A system’s even. Maybe.”
“Or a person,” Cutter said. He pulled a cable out from the case and attached to the data port. The case beeped, and the glow on Cutter’s face began to flicker rapidly.
Grif stared at Cutter as if he’d just announced he was going to retire and take up kitten farming. “Or a what?”
“It’s pretty cutting-edge stuff,” Cutter said. “Only the ridiculously rich an afford it. Skip, this thing is a synaptic map. Basically it’s a digital blueprint for someone’s brain.”
“A what?” Grif looked at the thing again. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“I’m not surprised,” Cutter said. “Like I said, it’s cutting-edge stuff. Expensive, hard to build, hard to use. In fact, there are only two companies I can think of who would be able to pull this off.”
“Pull what off?” Grif shook his head and sighed. “Cutter, maybe you should back up a little bit.”
Cutter looked up at Grif, grinning sheepishly. “Right. Sorry, Skip—I’m just a little surprised to see this, especially all the way out here. So: a synaptic map is a complete map of someone’s brain, down to the atomic level. Every neural pathway, every connection, every chemical compound, everything that goes into making someone’s brain. A specific someone. Which means, in theory, that if you used that map to put the brain back together, it would contain the same memories, thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and experiences that the original brain did. This is a blueprint for building an exact duplicate of someone’s mind.”
“Oh,” Grif said. “I see.” He stared at the synaptic map thoughtfully. “Does it work?”
Cutter shook his head. “It doesn’t do anything. Synaptic maps are just storage. It holds the blueprint. You need an even bigger machine to actually do something with it.”
“What do you do with it?” Vod asked.
“Depends,” Cutter said. “Like I said, there are only two companies I know of that are even capably of trying to do anything with it. LucidForm Engineering is an Alliance-based outfit that does a lot of heavy R&D in the field of… uh, well, brains… and then there’s the Anjee Barony. They focus more on application.”
“Application?” Grif perked up. “This sounds interesting. What kind of application?”
“Comprehensive cloning.” Cutter began to type commands into a keyboard built into the medical case, and the glow of the screen flickered rhythmically in response. “Usually post-mortem.”
“Comprehensive cloning?” Grif asked. “You mean, like creating an evil twin?”
“Sure,” Cutter said. “Assuming the original was evil to start with. In your case, I’d say ‘unstable twin.’ Basically they’d use this to grow an exact copy of a client’s brain—every last bit of it—in a cloned body.”
“How do you—”
“It’s complicated,” Cutter says. “And it’s not my field, so I don’t know the details. Basically you hook this up to the machine that oversees the development of the clone, and it builds the brain using the synaptic map as a blueprint. The end result is that it’s a perfect copy of whoever got mapped, right up to the time the map was created.”
“I didn’t even know you could do that.” Fyis, one of Mac’s team, was grinning fiercely as she looked down at the synaptic map. Grif suspected the grin was a tell. “I always thought if you tried to clone a person, you wound up with a drooling vegetable.”
“You pretty much do,” Cutter said. “DNA regrowth can create a physical copy, but there’s no cognitive development. The end result is a big lump of brain not good for anything but autonomic functions. But you hook up this map, and the cloning machine uses it to alter the brain as it develops, so it grows into a full copy of the original.”
“How does that work?” Grif asked.
“You know,” Cutter said, “the funny thing is, nobody really knows how or why it works. Maybe LucidForm does. Problem is we still don’t really know how every part of the brain works together. But we can make copies, and we can use those copies as references to build more copies…”
Something on the medical case beeped. Cutter squinted at it, then nodded. “There we are. I was looking for the data imprint the Anjee Barony leaves on their work. It’s a security precaution, none of their cloning machines will build the brain if they can’t find it. Here it is, Skip—this is definitely their work.”
“So,” Grif said slowly, “Doctor Stebil Tanz, personal physician of the late Baron Mogra Tylaris, was fleeing in a ship that was destroyed by a Tylaris gunboat, and was transporting a ‘synaptic map’ of someone who probably spent a lot of money to make a copy of his or her brain.”
“Yeah,” Cutter said. “I wonder who that might be, right?”
Grif looked down at the map and nodded slowly. “I think it’s time for a crew meeting.”