by Kurt MacPhearson | 4,451 words
“Good afternoon, Mr. Andrews,” the man on my doorstep said with a smile as genuine as a tattoo. “I’m Kellen Haversham, Customer Service Rep for SedorOn Health Systems, here to inform you of Project Reunion, an experimental breakthrough that now enables us to reunite you with your wife.”
“Credit and canned condolences weren’t enough?” I wanted to slam the door in his face. Two months ago, Abigail and I shuttled out to SedorOn’s clinic on Erradon. We’d put off rejuvenation therapy for twenty years, finally deciding that if we were to do it, we’d surprise each other with body augmentations. But Abigail never got to see mine. SedorOn screwed up her rejuve so badly there was nothing left of her to identify. I refused their cash, their empty explanations, and their insulting memory-scrubbing pill. I wanted nothing the megacorp had to offer. Especially not a sick joke disguised as a sales pitch. “Call in advance next time you want to taunt me.”
“Seriously, Mr. Andrews.” Haversham’s smile didn’t budge. “SedorOn is committed to making amends. You may find it difficult to believe, but we can restore Abigail.” He gestured to the door. “May we continue this inside?”
As a sculptor, I had a habit of appraising appearances — not for beauty, but for symmetry and unique features that might offer insight into the person. Haversham was as bland as a boulder.
“You’ve got five minutes.”
“Do you enjoy Breece?” Haversham asked as I directed him to the couch.
Breece was the greenhouse of Affinion’s moon system. Megaplantations dominated its plains and towering leatherleafs held sway along its crosshatching mountain ranges. Fat, silver rivers threaded deep, deoxygenated lakes like giant necklaces that emptied into one vast ocean teaming with fish the size of whales. The high CO2 and nitrogen levels, however, confined settlers to domes. Abigail and I had repurposed an abandoned maintenance outpost upon a ridge overlooking the bucolic sprawl of wheat fields and graple orchards where we’d planned to live out the centuries, producing art while taking in the rest of humanity in tiny, tolerable bites. But after Abigail’s death, I had no more desire to live in a piezoplastic dome on Breece than I did a cramped stackpartment on Erradon.
“I’ve been thinking of selling the place.” I settled into the armchair. “Four minutes.”
“Then I’ll get right to the point.” Haversham patted his briefcase. “With your permission, SedorOn will produce a force-grown host body — a simulacrum, if you will — tailored to exacting specifications. This simulacrum will look no different than Abigail had planned for her rejuvenation. Furthermore, the mind we design will be supplanted with a memory matrix derived from both her memory map and a scan of your own brain. Then, in a few short weeks, Abigail will be able to come home.”
I wanted to laugh. I wanted to punch him. He spoke as if Abigail’s death no more affected my life than misplacing a wallet. Or that his news was anodyne enough for my grief. But after Total-Immersion Rejuvenation Therapy and memory-scrubbing Lethe pills, it was only a matter of time before SedorOn puzzled out resurrection.
At that moment, a telepathic ripple cascaded over my mind, leaving a single word in its wake.
I looked over to see my dross poking his dappled head out of the kitchen entryway, slate-grey eyes slit in suspicion. A symbiotic proxy created from one of my sculptures, he had a knack for drawing upon my thoughts even though I hadn’t sent one.
Behave, I sent back across mindpluck.
Possibly. Now go play with the cyth.
I directed my attention back to Haversham. “Are you sure this works?”
“In simulation,” Haversham conceded, “though SedorOn guarantees the success of Project Reunion.” He withdrew a tab from his briefcase and tapped at the screen. “How well would you say you knew your wife?”
I let out a long breath. “We were married for seventy-three years.”
“Interesting.” He drew a finger down the screen. “Records indicate she had three previous rejuvenation procedures.”
“The last one was about a year before we met.”
Haversham read from a list of questions concerning Abigail. I had answers for most, but after the third one that stumped me, I said, “My memories aren’t Abigail’s memories.”
“True. But your answers will help to create the most authentic memory matrix possible.” Haversham leaned forward. “Abigail won’t know the difference because, when we’re finished, there won’t be.”
My silence taken for acquiescence, Haversham launched back into his list of questions, then finished by producing a three-centimeter-thick document from his briefcase. “Now, on to the terms of our contract…”
* * *
As I had every afternoon since Abigail’s death, I went out back to check on her cyth. Once a deep, glossy black, her symbiotic proxy’s feathers had regressed to an ashy grey, and its hawk-like eyes had become so milky that it could no longer see. It used to flit about the dome like a hummingbird, but without Abigail, it had become increasingly lethargic. It showed no interest in eating the paint I’d squeezed out before its den. If deprived of Abigail’s heartprints much longer, I feared the cyth would crumble to the ash from which it had been created.
Unable to coax out the cyth, I crossed back though the yard, only to feel my dross tickling mindpluck.
He drew my attention to the lumachelle I’d had delivered while at the rejuvenation clinic. I hadn’t touched the green block of marble, and as far as I was concerned, it could have sat there until Affinion enfolded Breece into its gaseous embrace. But as I gazed into the marble’s swirling striations, my dross slunk though the calf-high grass to brush against my legs. Mindpluck vibrated in the convolutions of my brain, pulses penetrating my subconscious until raw suggestion bubbled up. Suddenly, I could smell fear and burning steel; taste pain and acetylene; and before I knew it, I’d taken up mallet and chisel.
An unmistakable image began to take shape.
I worked though the afternoon, determined to free that image. My dross padded beside me to nibble at the chips that fell to the ground. When darkness forced me to stop, he licked dust from my fingers, his tongue a finishing cloth that served to polish the image in my mind.
Later that evening, I lounged on the deck beneath Affinion’s roiling majesty, disturbed by the fact that on that very day I learned I’d be getting back my wife. I focused on sculpting an image that had nothing to do with her. I kept asking myself, Why that face? Why now? But I had no answer for those any more than I had when an interviewer asks where I get my ideas. Abigail would have found it ironic and funny; it made me feel like a callous, self-centered jerk.
A sudden flapping interrupted my reverie. I looked over to see Abigail’s cyth perched upon the lumachelle.
The cyth cocked its triangular head. I could almost feel it questing out on a heartprint whorl, but since we shared no empathic bond, simple acknowledgment would suffice.
“I’ll just leave a little here,” I said, squeezing a blob of paint on a deck rail. When I came out the next morning, the spot had been licked clean, so I continued to leave paint for it there every night. The cyth remained aloof, but by the end of the month, its feathers regained their rich darkness and its eyes again glowed a piercing, florescent green.
On the morning of Abigail’s return, Affinion cast a blue and yellow arc along the horizon; moons Clariss, Erradon, and Farontis formed an ellipsis, as if manifesting the pause in her life. Every moment leading up to her arrival crept achingly along. I’d gotten little sleep the night before, and all morning I paced from the kitchen to the living room window, then to the bathroom in a pathetic cycle. Couldn’t concentrate on making lunch, watching a vid, or even controlling my bladder. I didn’t know what to do with myself. It was as if SedorOn were wringing out every drop of anguish before returning what they’d snatched away. And by the time a black vehicle approached the dome’s airlock, I was a sweaty, nervous wreck.
I rushed to the door, but before I could step from the house, the cyth burst by me in a cloud of inky feathers, and my dross slipped between my legs to hop across the lawn.
Abie! Abie! Abie!
Yes. My sweet Abigail.
The woman who climbed from the back seat hardly resembled the one I’d left on Erradon.
She approached, arms outstretched, but I couldn’t move. Her jarring beauty had knocked the breath clean from me. Her skin shined like oiled mahogany, and her big blue eyes sparkled in the sun. A mass of tomato-red curls tumbled down her long, slender frame. My gaze traced high, prominent cheekbones, the precise line of jaw. Her face had essentially the same oval shape, yet I recognized little of the Abigail I’d met seven decades ago on the steps of the Orion Hyatt. My heart began to rattle in its polycarb shell.
Surely SedorOn had screwed up again.
“Martin.” Her voice was suffused with the lift from Aurora’s Leap, and her smile spread to reveal teeth with the slight crookedness which had brightened many a foul mood. Those, praise all the gods that ever were, could never be faked. “Where have you been?”
“Waiting for you.” I took her into my arms, her warmth spreading over me until her heart fit into my soul like a singularity in a gravity well. Her cyth made circles in the air and my dross bounded around our feet — both proxies threatening to knock us over with their glee. “Waiting right here for you.”
“They said I died.”
I laughed. “Death can’t keep us apart.” Then I led her inside.
* * *
We spent the next few days on a long, round-about journey to discover the full
measure of our respective physical augmentations. I’d had my shoulders broadened, a cleft chiseled into my chin, and, in a moment of whimsy, ordered up a retro-navel which proved to reduce us both to giggles every time Abigail traced it with her tongue. I, in turn, relished the distillation of new and familiar in her exotic body. She may have looked different, but beneath darkened skin and beyond lengthened bones, she was still wholly and completely my Abigail.
But youthful bodies ware no match for the routines ingrained in our three-hundred-year-old minds.
Abigail migrated to her studio at the west end of the house. Her work was provocative —panoramic landscapes of alien worlds; portraits of people in odd situations; surrealistic amalgamations of flowers and animals over industrial backdrops — yet she struggled creatively. She claimed to feel as if her imagination had been trapped in a void, and her cyth was unable to help her set it free. She scoured the NetSphere for inspiration, rehashed old ideas, and even tried free-association techniques, but all she could produce were a few brushstrokes on otherwise blank canvas. My problem wasn’t much different. The image I’d seen in the lumachelle was as clear as ever, but now I was having trouble deciding how to proceed. I’d stare at the block until I found the right spot, but as soon as I’d place the chisel, I’d lose confidence in my strike. It frustrated me to no end.
We discussed our barriers, but neither had an answer. Abigail decided to stay out of her studio for a few weeks, whereas I resolved to work through my problem by sheer force of will. I had the image; it was merely a matter of finding a way of extracting it.
After another long morning of struggling with the sculpture, Abigail came out into the backyard with a pitcher of lemonade. “Still at it?” she said, pouring us each a glass.
“It’s definitely there,” I said after a long swallow, “but I can’t seem to bring it out.”
“Huh. He looks familiar.”
I’d pictured the face emerging from a black hole, the event horizon of which outlined by clouds of swirling gasses and bursting gamma rays. All I’d produced, however, was a craggy forehead running into shapeless marble.
“You must see something I don’t.”
“Not at all.” Abigail traced lines in the air. “There’s the nose. The jaw. And the set of his mouth implies he’s contemplating a loss.”
I chuckled, suddenly knowing exactly how I’d proceed. “It’s like you’re looking through my own mind’s eye.”
Abigail kissed my cheek. “That’s what wives are for.”
“Among other things.”
The following morning I went outside to find Abigail’s cyth perched atop the sculpture. I’d have made nothing of it, if not for my dross skulking from around the side.
The dross raised his hackles, mindpluck percolating with inexplicable displeasure.
Stop it. Get down.
Not belong! Our telepathic strings shook violently. Not belong!
Then he pounced.
The cyth took wing, squawk reverberating through the dome; the dross pursued, black feathers in his claws.
Confused thoughts raced through my mind as if each string of mindpluck were communicating a separate idea. I couldn’t tell if these thoughts were mine, from my dross, or if one of us were being externally influenced. I heard shouting and whispered pleas. A thousand blazing images flashed in my mind. The stench of death so cloyed my nose that I could actually taste the rotting corpse.
I slumped against the lumachelle, mind reeling as my dross chased the cyth though the garden then across the yard to the converter housing. I tried to call him to me, but I couldn’t navigate through the noise to seize his attention.
Abigail ran from the house, brandishing a broom. “Make them stop!”
She swiped at the dross. He dodged, shot back across the deck, and tackled the cyth out of the air.
“Martin, make them stop!”
I lowered the partitions of my mind in a desperate attempt to yank my dross to heel. But in doing so, any creature in the Affinion moon system with latent telepathic ability could have reached into my mind and squashed my psyche like rotten fruit. Instead of mindpluck, however, I found heartprints: Dozens of velvety whorls thrumming with disturbed emotions: worry, grief, shame, rage. I felt everything, and nothing at all. Before I could throw up the partitions, a vacillating whorl lashed about my psyche and flung me into oblivion.
* * *
I came to on the couch, head cradled in Abigail’s lap. “Hey.”
“Thought I lost you for a moment.” Lines of concern traced her brow. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine.” Truthfully, my skull throbbed as if the whorls still entangled my psyche. “Did you get them separated?”
“Your dross backed off the instant you passed out,” she said. “Any idea what’s gotten into him?”
I quested out upon a string.
Not belong, the dross sent. Must strike out.
What’s wrong with the cyth?
Impure. Foreign. Strike out.
No. Leave it be.
“I’m not sure,” I said, then tried to explain what my dross told me.
Abigail closed her eyes and let out a long breath. The tension melted from her body. Her cyth, sunning in the window, stretched out its neck. After a moment, Abigail said, “Maybe we should keep them separated for a while.”
The temporary separation seemed to do the trick for our proxies, as well as my own creative barrier. I managed to free the rugged a face from the marble in a matter of days. Soon I’d define the very same nose, jaw line, and mouth Abigail had pointed out. The only thing I’d yet to decide was whether the eyes should be open or closed.
Abigail and I discussed it over dinner.
“Definitely open. He’s emerging from a dark, impossible place, so it’s only natural that he’d be searching for the loss suggested by the set of his mouth.” She set down her fork. “I’m surprised you don’t see that.”
“Sometimes I see too much.”
“Speaking of too much.” Abigail cleared the table then came back with her tab cued to an ad for an upcoming art fair at the Orion Hyatt. “Think it might be overbooked?”
I’d jaunted out to Regentis seventy-five years ago for a similar art fair. It was a huge fiasco. There were more exhibits than the Hyatt had available space, and most rooms on its one-hundred floors had been double-booked. I was forced to stand in a line that stretched out onto the front steps as the staff scrambled to find accomodations. Meanwhile, my dross rebelled against his leash and chittered like an over-caffeinated monkey until he attracted the attention of security. And a glossy-black cyth.
Like two animals playing out a mating ritual, my dross snuffled and the cyth preened. Then, before the proxies could be separated, they bounded over each other until the tangle of their leashes rivaled the Gordian Knot.
Like, my dross sent, then sat on its haunches.
Let me be the judge.
“Hey,” said the cyth’s owner, ebony curls swaying as she worked at the knot. “I’m Abigail.”
“Hey,” was all I could manage.
“You got a name?”
“Martin,” I said, grinning like an idiot.
“Looks like we’ll be here for a while,” Abigail said once we’d freed the tangle. “Go for a walk?”
We did. In the orange glow of a methane sea. And from there, we never looked back. Soon we were jaunting across the galaxy like a pair of spritely neutrinos: counting rings in Sequoia stumps on Old Earth; watching Spica go nova from Marshal Station; reciting vows before an airship captain as we sailed into a binary sunset. Those first few years went by in a blissful blur, yet nothing we experienced in our travels was more satisfying then what blossomed between us after putting down roots on Breece.
I handed the tab back to Abigail. “Overbooking isn’t necessarily a bad thing.”
“Exactly what I was thinking.”
* * *
We booked a suite on the hotel’s eightieth floor, reserved two exhibit booths for the art fair, chartered an airship to circumnavigate Regentis, then decided to forego it all. We’d keep the room; an itinerary, however, would only conflict with the spirit of our getaway.
We shuttled out to the jaunting station on Erradon. The huge moon cast a dismal visage against Affinion’s bright bands. Webs of carbon fiber and polyplastic stretched across its equatorial plane, and dark clouds like liver spots obscured its strip-mined surface. Centauran Corp’s ansible spire rose from it all like a needle poised to pop the gas giant’s bloated girth. I’d jaunted from there dozens of times, but after our experience with SedorOn, I couldn’t help feeling a bit anxious over allowing Centauran Corp to stream our bodies as strings of code ten light-years away.
“Symbiotic proxies?” said the women behind the counter. “I haven’t seen one in six years.”
“Some of us refuse to let go of our favorite fad,” said Abigail.
“You jaunted with them before?”
“Near a hundred times,” I said. “Is there a problem?”
“Not at all. We’ll put them in pods designed for pets so they’ll jaunt right alongside you.” The woman’s fingers danced across the console. “Though we’ll have to double the fare.”
“That’s fine.” I presented my thumb for the transaction.
We checked our baggage, handed over our proxies, then were escorted to individual kiosks where we stripped down before climbing into a jaunting pod.
One moment the pod was closing over my head, the next came a loud hiss of releasing pressure as the pod reopened. In the meantime, my body had been gassed, scanned, coded, and then instantly transmitted to Regentis via ansible. The only clue anything had happened was a cloudy head and a sour taste in the back of my mouth.
As soon as I regained consciousness, I melded into mindpluck, then quested out on a string. Good?
I’ll see what we can do about that.
An attendant appeared at my right as the pod slowly extracted, “On behalf of Centauran Corp, welcome to Regentis.” He handed me a bundle of clothes. “We hope you enjoy your stay.”
Once dressed, he escorted me to a waiting room, returning a few minutes later with a basket containing my dross.
“Any word of my wife?”
“She’ll be with you shortly, Mr. Andrews,” he said, backing through the door.
The waiting room offered a view of the very same methane sea Abigail and I had walked all those years ago. Instead of rickety walkways, a sturdy boardwalk extended out across its wispy surface to an island occupied by a bed-and-breakfast. Making a mental note to book a night, I watched the lobby for Abigail.
With each customer who passed by the waiting room, the tighter the tendrils of anxiety twisted about my ribs. Everything’s fine, I assured myself. They probably just jaunted her to the wrong coordinates. But I didn’t believe it. Ansible transmissions could be rerouted with a few keystrokes.
I don’t know, but I’m going to find out.
I tried the door, only to find it locked.
I pounded on the window, shouting, “Where’s my wife?” at every head that turned. But no one responded. No one wanted to tell me that they’d killed her.
It was SedorOn all over again.
I continued to pound on the window until an attendant finally came to the door. “Where’s my wife?” I shouted as I pushed through the opening space. “What have you done to my wife?”
Several more attendants rushed to bar my way. “Please, Mr. Andrews,” said a woman with three blue stars on her white collar. “Control yourself. You’re disturbing our customers.”
“Then tell me what you’ve done to my wife!”
“Your wife is fine.” The woman sidled between me and the lobby. “There was a minor complication in the retrieval process, so we isolated her until we diagnosed the problem. We can take you to her now.”
I wanted to throttle the woman. “Let’s go.”
She escorted me to a room at the back of the station. Abigail sat in an overstuffed chair. She looked up, eyes red and puffy, then buried her face in a handkerchief. Her cyth was curled up in a basket at her feet, head tucked under a wing. Its feathers were shot with grey, eerily reminding me of the days during Abigail’s death.
“What happened?” I demanded of the attendant.
“Your wife suffered no physiological trauma,” she said, “but her distress is so profound that we suggest she meet with a staff psychologist.”
Abigail sniffed. “I don’t need a psych.”
“Can we have some privacy?”
The attendant offered a dubious frown, but replied, “Take all the time you need.”
I knelt and took Abigail’s hands. “Talk to me”
“My cyth is… empty. It’s like she doesn’t know me at all.”
“Did you try re-establishing your link?”
“Of course,” she breathed. “She took my heartpluck well enough, but there’s no resonance.”
If death couldn’t permanently sever a three-hundred-year-old bond, then the jaunt couldn’t have done it either. I told her as much.
Abigail dabbed her eyes. “Why didn’t you take a Lethe pill?”
Her question caught me off guard. “Because I didn’t want to forget you.”
“I would have.”
It felt like a slap in the face, but I shook it off. She was clearly despondent. “No. No, you wouldn’t. You might’ve been tempted, but no matter how much it hurt, you wouldn’t want to forget our memories.”
“Oh, this is so hard!” She grabbed my hands and squeezed. “I took a Lethe pill.”
“That’s crazy.” I tried to laugh. “If you took a pill, you wouldn’t remember that you had.”
“But I do remember. I remember taking the pill, and why. I remember it all.” Abigail gestured to her cyth. “I think my memories were locked inside her the whole time. The jaunt must have released them back into my mind, because I have them, as strong and as raw as ever.”
“It would’ve happened long ago if that were the case. They can’t be your memories.”
“But they are, Martin. Think about it. I died, but my cyth carried on. When I came back, I wasn’t the same. She knew it; your dross sensed it. Even if we didn’t. Why do you think I couldn’t paint?”
“What’s painting have to do with your memories?”
“Everything!” Tears streamed from her eyes. “SedorOn may have restored as much as they could, but there were holes only my cyth could fill. It’s the only thing that makes sense.”
“Okay. I can accept that.” What I meant was that I could learn to. If I must.
Then I asked the inevitable.
“Oh, Martin. I’ve always loved you, but you weren’t the man I wanted to marry.”
My universe folded in on itself.
Abigail proceeded to tell me of Paul, a boy she’d grown up with on Aurora’s Leap. They played with each other nearly every day, attended the same schools, and by the time they entered college, they were deeply, inseparably in love. His was the first portrait she painted; he convinced her to burn it and create her cyth from the ashes. Then, when Abigail became pregnant, Paul signed on as a hull welder in the orbital shipyards to secure marriage rights. They were destined for a perfect life.
But an EVA accident put an end to it all. Paul drifted off to slowly perish into the void of space; Abigail, in her grief, lost the baby. Unable to cope with so much loss, Abigail took a Lethe pill. Only to have the pain flood back three-hundred years later as if it all had happened yesterday.
* * *
Abigail stayed in the Hyatt suite while she sorted out her feelings and I jaunted home, resigned to the fact that our marriage was all but over. Talking wouldn’t fix it, while Lethe pills would only defer our problems.
I have no heartpluck. I share no empathic bonds. But I understand grief, and I understand loss. Abigail loves me, though I’m sure she loves Paul more.
Besides, it’s Paul’s face I’d been sculpting all along.
Kurt MacPhearson © 2013