A traumatized amnesiac discovers that neither the experiment he signed up for nor his own identity are what he thought they were. Robin lives in the 27th century, when humanity has achieved interstellar travel, radical body modification, and advanced brain techniques that include full memory backups that make true death extremely rare. Assemblers known as A-gates provide backups and make whatever necessities are required.
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He is in recovery after a memory wipe. He still has flashes and fragments of his past, often violent war images. He doesn't know what exactly happened, but suspects that the wipe was not exactly voluntary.
The book opens with Robin in a bar speaking to a woman named Kay, she mentions an experiment she knows about which is looking for volunteers, which she thinks Robin might be a good fit for it. They flirt and end up sleeping together.
Robin has a letter from his pre-wipe self that details the bare outline of his past (he was a military historian) and hints at darker secrets. But he has memories of combat as well, and suspects he was in charge of guarding a T-Gate, a transporter gate that allows for instant travel by disassembling you and then reassembling at your new destination.
The current world is recovering from a interstellar conflict known as the Censorship Wars which left a lot of memories and minds fragmented. Several dictatorships used viruses in the T-Gates to erase memories selectively, erasing specific places, concepts, or portions of history. Infected humans were turned into carriers who would corrupt subsequent.
Robin's dreams and memory fragmentation worsens, he thinks he may have been a mercenary and suspects his old employers might still be after him. Kay points out that the experiment will be the ideal environment; the volunteers identities will be anonymized and the experiment is closed from the outside world.
He finds out more about the scenario; they will be assigned bodies and identities and not be able to alter them during the course of the experiment, their access to technologies will be limited to from the period, so no backups or assemblers. They will earn in-experiment money based on how in-character they behave. At the successful conclusion of the experiment there will be a substantial pay-off.
Kay and Robin both sign up, even though couples are not allowed, and promise to try to find each other again inside, although they will have different names and bodies.
He goes to back-up and wakes up sensing something is terribly wrong. At first he thinks his backup has been hacked by his enemies but discovers to his surprise that he is in the experiment already, the contract he signed is on the tablet.
The contract specifics are such; his new identity is a female named Reeves, he must stay in character for three years, sticking roughly to the rules outlined for the society, everyone will be under surveillance.
After putting on the period clothes supplied, Robin (now Reeve) exits the room to find nine other new arrivals. Soon a man named Fiore welcomes them and gives a small lecture explaining that the period from 1950-2040 has huge records gaps due massive but uneven and non-standardized conversion to digital media.
There are twenty groups of ten people each, each individual has a score but their personal score also affects their group of ten. Once a week they will meet to discuss their progress, bonuses and penalties will be assigned at that time. They will pair off and live as couples.
Reeve chooses a tall but shy seeming man, they step through a door into their apartment and now are Reeve and Sam Brown, a married couple from the 1990-2010 period. As they explore their tablet gives more information, and they soon discover that they're expected to divide their labor by gender.
They go shopping the next day to outfit themselves for their new roles Reeve finds again that there are gender restrictions on what she can purchase but gets around them by saying they're gifts for a male of her same size.
Sam is uneasy with bending the rules this way, but Reeve points out that they aren't legally required to do anything in particular, they could all just agree to ignore the point system if they liked. By the contract they would still be rewarded at the end of the experiment, they would just miss out on bonuses. Sam thinks others might object to losing points, but Sam suspects the advantages of not having to put up with some of the sillier constraints of the period will be worth it for most people given how long they're here.
They both wonder what it takes to lose points and Reeve decides to test it by taking her clothes off in public. She is immediately docked 10 points and the police are called. She dresses and escapes, uncertain what a run in with the cops will mean. Sam meets her outside and explains that he was almost arrested, he warns her to take the experiment protocols seriously from now on.
Sam is assigned a job, but for Reeve this is optional so instead she buys some tools and sets up a small workshop in her garage. She uses it to build weapons and set up some exercise equipment for strength training.
While shopping she runs into two women from her group in town, they chat and they mention that during the Sunday meeting each group of ten gets to vote on the behavior of the other groups. They tell her she should comply with the dress code (she's wearing the men's clothes she bought on the sly) and mention that couples who are intimate get bonus points. Individual scores are posted, Reeve realizes that everyone knows she and Sam haven't had sex yet. She broaches the subject and Sam confesses that he is in love with someone he met on the outside.
On Sunday in the church Reeve snoops around and finds an odd sword that she recognizes but can't quite remember, it is clearly restricted tech. Suddenly she begins to worry that all of her assumptions are wrong, about the experimenters but also about herself and the letter she wrote about her own past.
She stops confiding in Sam, uncertain he is to be trusted. They relationship suffers and he becomes increasingly withdrawn. The other women continue to exert pressure on them to consummate their relationship.
Her memory lapses continue, and she has bad dreams about brutal massacres she was involved in pre-wipe.
She applies for a job and is assigned to work at the library to cover the librarian's pregnancy leave. Reeve is shocked, since regular pregnancy is rare and not used for reproduction anymore, she realizes they must all be fertile, and the pressure for couples to have sex is aimed at reproduction. The implications for the ethical oversight of the experiment are extremely troubling, since the offspring cannot possibly consent. She also realizes that the contract did not specify an end date for the experiment… and children take years to reach adulthood.
One night Reeve dreams of writing the post-wipe letter. But in the dream it is longer and different; Robin's memory was wiped by his old bosses because he was on a mission. Memory wipe patients were being recruited for an experiment and then disappearing. He would pose as such a patient, sign up, and report back. Two previous agents failed and they suspected it was because their memories were intact. Robin/Reeve was wiped to prevent detection. Moreover, they suspect the experiment is run by war criminals from the Censorship Wars..
The next day at the library she waits for a visit from one of the experiment overseers, Fiore. He is accessing the records room, which is off limits to her. She manages to make an impression of his key to the room and makes a copy in her garage work room.
During a conversation Sam says something that makes Reeve realize it is in fact Kay she is speaking to. She confesses her own true identity and they agree they need to get out before it's too late.
With her key she accesses the records room and finds a basement in which there is modern technology, including an assembler. She is surprised when a duplicate of Fiore comes out of the assembler and she kills him, experiencing another fragmentation and memory loss shortly afterwards.
With her recovered memory fragments Reeve deduces that the main point of the experiment must be the children. Most current humans are either infected or immune to the T-gate viruses, the children must be being bred as new vectors for a modified version.
Reeve finds a door to the structure which the experiment environment is built on and escapes along a vertical maintenance shaft, she figures out they are on a spaceship, light years away from any rescue except by a T-gate. She finds a maintenance robot and asks for help before blacking out. She wakes back up inside the experiment, in the hospital. Her memory fragmentation gets worse while there and she is administered a “fixative” by the doctor, which will supposedly stabilize her.
On discharge she learns that several outside groups are going to be joined to their section, soon they will be an entire city. At home Sam notices her behavior has changed, she is placid and content. They suspect she was given more than a fixative. Sam confesses his own war crimes, he was also a soldier for another faction during the wars. Reeve tells him maybe its for the best they are now someplace they can forget their pasts.
Next day Janis is at the library, and she also notices the change in Reeve's personality. Fiore arrives Reeve is terrified he's discovered the murder of his duplicate, but it turns out he is not Fiore at all. After the murder Reeve backed herself up and instructed the assembler to assemble her from this backup in a body made to look like Fiore. During this process the original Reeve blacked out and left the library, the duplicate in Fiore's body has been hiding out.
Reeve is horrified and doesn't want any part of this, but Reeve/Fiore has not been subjected to the fixative and still wants to escape the experiment. The two struggle and Reeve is pushed into the assembler. After considering killing her, Reeve/Robin decides to merge the two backups instead and steps into the assembler after her.
A united Reeve emerges and confers with Janis, who turns out to be one of the missing agents sent in previously. Janis explains that the experiment is in reality a rehabilitation program for POW's from the wars, an attempt to make them social and human again. However a few years ago the it was taken over by unknown agents.
Knowing escape is impossible, Reeve comes up with a plan, if they can destroy the ship's T-gate then the experimenters will have no more control over their subjects and at least they can live normally within the habitat.
They recruit some other discontented citizens and using the weapons and tools Reeve was building they sneak into the ship. There are casualties, but they've all backed up using the assembler, so are safe.
After the attack the town continues much as before, but free from artificial control. Most participants choose to stay in their assigned forms, though Reeve returns to being Robin. But not until after giving birth to a daughter which he raises with with Kay.
Best part of story, including ending:
The basic prisoner escaping a conspiracy plot is suspenseful and fun, and the added mystery of Robin's past makes it more suspenseful.
Best scene in story:
The scene where Reeve takes her clothes off to check the penalties is pretty hilarious and a bit scary.
Opinion about the main character:
Robin should be a bit more clever than he is, really, although I'm willing to believe the amnesia and fragmentation are responsible for him not noticing obvious things like who Sam/Kay is.