Posts Tagged science fiction
Shortly before Valentine’s Day, my short story Free Love (With Every Purchase), which is a revised version of Valet de cœur, was featured on The Overcast. I’ve always thought this would be a fun one to read aloud; indeed, I read it myself at the Short Story Conference in Vienna in 2014. It’s exciting to have it read aloud on a podcast. I was travelling when the podcast came out, without much chance to download or listen to things, but I finally had a chance to listen to it recently. I love the way J. S. Arquin reads it. He often reads it differently from how it was in my head, but that makes it more interesting to me; I’d already ‘heard’ the version that’s in my head. You can listen to it here:
or go to the episode page to find out ways you can discuss it with other Overcast listeners, or subscribe to or support The Overcast. Indeed, do support the podcast if you can; they do pay authors, and would like to be able to pay them more. Since circumstances have prevented me from earning much recently, the fee for this story provided the bulk of my meagre income for the month it was accepted. This, of course, means that for that month, at least, I was a freelance writer by profession.
In the author’s note at the end of the podcast I mention that each leap year I write (or otherwise create) something every week, inspired by my collection of souvenir playing cards. That’s true; I’ve done it twice so far. I should have started a new cycle of it three weeks ago, on February 29th, but I was recovering from JoCo cruise and getting ready to fly to Johnson Space Center, so I didn’t quite manage to post anything. For most of the last year and a half I’ve either been away from home or busy catching up on all the things I didn’t do while away from home. I’ve been to new places, bought new playing cards, and built up a stock of half-finished ideas to work on during this cycle, though. The good thing about writing inspired by playing cards is that even if I don’t post them exactly weekly, I’ll always know when I’ve done the full 52 (or 54 if I write jokers.)
Now I’m pretty much caught up with other stuff, so tomorrow will be a rest day consisting of snack food, catching up on xkcd, processing JoCo Cruise videos, taking out my cruise braids, and an online concert by Marian Call. Marian will also be playing in Vienna on the 26th; come along if you’re in the area! At Marian’s last online concert, I tipped enough to get a custom holiday card, so I asked for one celebrating leap day, particularly since I start a new year of Writing Cards and Letters every leapday. I started writing a post including pictures of the card on the leapday itself, but had to sleep, or leave for the airport, or somesuch… if only I’d had one more minute!
Here they are now, a little late; you can designate a different day to be Bonus Day if you like. Any day when your plans are cancelled and you unexpectedly have a free day. Any day when you deliberately don’t make plans because you need a free day. A day like today.
Today I visited my friend Grace, who mentioned being scheduled to write for an international writing blog but not having any ideas. I also needed an idea for my holidailies post for the day, so I got out my Story Cubes, she rolled them, and we both wrote a story about the following pictures:
Footprint. Globe. Lightbulb. ID card. Abacus. Flower. Turtle. Cane. Falling star.
Grace posted her story within about half an hour of rolling the cubes. I spent a little more time on mine later in the evening, but not a lot. Here it is:
After the theme parks were set up, they protected my first footprint in a large magnifying cube, so tourists on all sides could look at it in detail. Nothing but the size of the boot marked it as mine; at the time of first landing, the soil and thick atmosphere were known to be toxic to us, so bare feet were not safe.
It’s different now, of course. People live and work here, and it looks for all the world like… all the world. The higher gravity attracts star athletes doing strength training and thrillseekers looking for acceleration. They start out crawling and propping themselves up with sticks, but after a few months they’re walking as normal, and back at home they can almost fly. They win all the sports competitions they can, then as they begin to weaken, they act as superheroes and make enough money to retire. That’s the dream, anyway. The trip back out of the gravity well is much more expensive than the trip in, so many who came hoping for a giant leap out of poverty spend their lives working in the theme parks hoping to earn enough to get home, their spirits crushed as much as their bodies are.
I’m stuck here too now, without valid identity to fly home on. They wanted to make me a hero, but I wanted to make myself one. I wanted to keep doing the science we’d started with that first small step. Wanted to take more samples of the air and soil before they lunaformed it. So I had a scent gland transplant and went incognito, got a job as a field technician. We fought hard to keep one small section of ground near the equator pristine, and even that has a crust from reactions with our safer atmosphere. I captured three canisters of air on the first landing, and I had to steal one of them from my own lab to continue studying it.
The first thing I found was a shape barely recognisable as a fossil. A faint impression of spikes radiating from a point. Months more digging revealed objects so bizarre that we may never be sure what they were.
There is one thing I am sure of: mine were not the first footprints on Earth.
When the alien invaders came,
they ordered us to play this game,
to see how we stacked up against the galaxy.
Like Calvinball hang-gliding aimed
at ice-canoe inside a flame,
there really is no adequate analogy.
Our first team turned to gelatin while fighting Newton’s laws;
they gave us exoskeletons to compensate for flaws.
The next team’s lungs were frozen when their oxygen congealed;
they gave us warmer clothing for an even playing field.
Our next team’s sorely missed inside a super-sized black hole;
but failure of existence isn’t counted as a goal.
They grounded our space-shuttlecock for throttling at max-Q,
and laughed at our rebuttal, mocking weakness of the crew.
Then sudden cell-erasure put our skull bones out of joint.
The next game we lost Asia, but we almost scored a point.
They gave us many chances, then they told us where we stood:
despite all their enhancements, our whole species was no good.
A tackle left us mute or slurred, and just like Stephen Hawking
we had to get computer nerds to synthesise our talking,
and we said:
Maybe we will watch, but we won’t play sport.
We just want to be judged on our own Merritt Island spaceport.
So maybe we could talk before we die out.
We didn’t build antennas to make contact sports team tryouts.
The umpire slapped our station with its integrated truss,
Said, ‘humans, all your baseball inning are belong to us!
You can’t defeat the shogunate of sports tycooniverse;
you’d barely beat the Vogons with your weak and puny verse.
We helped to make you stronger but you never even tried;
you won’t survive much longer if you shun what we provide.
You think that we’re subhuman since our sport is pretty rough,
but we’re far better than you, man, we are strong and we are tough.
We earned our football scholarships with sweat and not a tear
and you think you can stall it with your brains, but it is clear
that only abs like rocks and bulging arms will give you worth
and soon enough the jocks will multiply and rule the Earth.’
And at the Earth’s last launch pad, the last geeks around to man it
imagined that these staunch lads really came from other planets.
Maybe we will watch, but we won’t play sport.
We just want to be judged on our own Merritt Island spaceport.
So maybe we should talk before we die out.
We didn’t build antennas to make contact sports team tryouts.
We only want acceptance and it’s clear we won’t achieve it;
but we can stop objectin’ since we have a way to leave it.
Maybe we will watch, but we won’t play sport.
We just want to be judged on our own Merritt Island spaceport.
I wish that we could talk before we blast off;
we didn’t build this ship to reach this guy’s idea of cast-off.
I admit, I wrote this purely to make a merit/Merritt Island pun, which I thought of on the way home last night, and started writing about this morning. Merritt Island is the site of Kennedy Space Center, where all NASA manned space missions since 1968 launched from.
This is the first poem of NaPoWriMo that I have written entirely in one day, though perhaps I should have given it a bit more time. The umpire stanza was a bit rushed since I was trying (unsuccessfully) to finish it before midnight, but at that point I could hardly have finished anything else. The title is also hastily slapped together from the first three things that came to mind. This is another one that has a tune in my head, hence the repeating chorus (which I might add a few more times, if I can get the two big stanzas to have an even number of couplets.) Some day I’ll stop writing mediocre songs and get back to writing good poetry, but today is not that day, although I don’t think the tune interfered too much with this one. I added a reference to speech synthesis so that it will make sense if I get my robot choir to sing this.
It pulls the Sun across the sky
with wool that’s spun of plots and tied
to far-off wonder lost nearby.
As warp drives run, space-time will fly
and tear asunder passersby
and dear assumptions underly-
ing vapid slumps they occupy.
Climactic undertakers cry:
The chosen one’s about to die
but Chekhov’s gun’s return is nigh,
And set to stun, it acts, whereby,
the battle won, the other guy
has just begun to say, “Goodbye!
Now I’ve got funner fish to fry”
when all he’s done is shoved awry,
as next someone will dare reply:
“Do you have money? Won’t you buy?
It’s eighteen-hundred hours and I
should shelve the unbought books and try
to count demand and resupply.”
I started a poem and a song parody today, and made progress on a poem parody I started on Friday, but they need a little more time to ripen and I need a little more time to sleep. This is one I wrote several months ago and merely polished a little today; I wrote it in about twenty minutes to post on Facebook, after commenting that the sun went down while I was in a bookshop. It was the shortest day of the year, and I was in Stockholm airport, but bookshops can have that effect even under more usual circumstances. I have to be careful ‘polishing’ things I wrote too long ago; I almost rubbed off part of the streak of mid-line ‘un’ rhymes that I’d forgotten I put there. Now I see them and I’m impressed with myself.
This is to be sung to the tune of Gulf War Song by Moxy Früvous, or some approximation of it. While writing it I forgot how much the tune varied, and got stresses and extra syllables in all sorts of wrong places while thinking of similar tunes in other parts of the song. It’s NaPoWriMo’s fault I’m blogging it in this condition. Luckily, I have a time machine, so I can go back and fix it later without worrying about messing anything up.
He made a car
that goes through time
with the fuel that he stole
when it hits eighty-eight miles an hour.
He nearly died.
The kid messed up.
Then they botched three more Times
and to fix things they needed more power.
What kind of klutz tears the space-time continuum,
And assumes that the remedy’s to keep on changing time?
He’s just a h0ver boi.
Doc’s just a drag racer.
If they killed their own forebears, would it still be a crime?
Fighters to change the past.
Fighters to get back.
Fighters for hoverboards, peace and a jet pack.
Don’t you insult this guy ’cause he’s Marty McFly,
and history seems to agree
to be what he says to be.
They went back, then back forward,
and the bullies all got their dues,
and it worked out just fine for ‘the good guys’.
Who was hurt? Who’s erased?
Were the the questions unasked.
Did a hurricane start with his Levi’s?
What could they do? He’s just Doc Brown, and not The Doctor.
They couldn’t track each wingbeat of every butterfly.
Don’t think it helps to say, ‘think, McFly, think’ again.
They’ve ways to make history; how could they not try?
Fighters to fix the past.
Fighters to get back.
Fighters for hoverboards, peace and a jet pack.
Don’t you insult this guy ’cause he’s Marty McFly,
and history seems to agree
to be what he says to be.
To heck with causality.
He’s just an underdog.
Doc’s just a scientist.
Time travel’s ‘heavy’, not light at c.
What could they do? He’s just Doc Brown, and not The Doctor.
And history seems to agree
to be what he says to be.
To heck with causality.
Great Scott, where and when are my keys?
Do you love your partner but wish you didn’t have to put up with their bad habits or allergy-provoking pets?
Are you sick of chasing love only to have your heart broken?
Do you prefer relaxing alone to dragging yourself out on dates, but wish you had someone to love once in a while?
Did the love of your life walk out on you after your father’s funeral last week, taking your cat and the last roll of toilet paper, and proclaiming he liked how generous you were to him and loved being invited to such family gatherings where he could see your smoking-hot mother, but the way you always scratched your ear when you were thinking was driving him nuts?
We have the solution. With the patented HeartValet system, you’ll always feel loved. HeartValet is a precisely controlled, individually tailored, automatic delivery system of your friends oxytocin, vasopressin, and the perfect blend of nineteen other natural love potions just like the ones your body makes in the best stages of love. We’ve taken the body’s unpredictable mess of love hormones and perfected them into the smooth sailing that you deserve. But that’s not all; HeartValet integrates with a HugVest that automatically stimulates your C-tactile network whenever you need it. Users of HeartValet are proven to be up to 42% happier, and live up to five years longer or more.
Pregnant women and chronically ill people are advised to find a partner who will assist them with their physical needs. HeartValet is not suitable as a complete source of affection for infants.
Toya self-consciously stopped scratching her ear, and mentally cursed targeted advertising. And she wondered why, with all the information it had about her, it still seemed to be consistently targeted at idiots. She knew what ‘up to’ meant, and she wasn’t desperate enough to buy their cheesy fake love. Toya had never been a fan of artificial emotions, injected into her mind with no external cause. Even alcohol freaked her out a little. Even the smoother-than-nature hormones from her contraceptive implant. HeartValet was just a blow-up doll for the soul. How dare they imply she needed it… how dare they…
Toya looked down to see her ice cream had cruelly melted while her attention was imprisoned by the dumb ad. The spoon made a goddamn irritating noise when she threw it into the bowl, then it bounced out and spattered melted ice cream all over her. She began to cry.
Are you crying into your Rocky Road after a recent breakup?
Do you wish there were an easier way to feel lov…
Toya swore and threw the terminal across the room. It had the gall to respond by breaking, trapping the irritatingly-cheerful voice in a loop and leaving Toya without a working terminal. She stomped out the door, more for somewhere to stomp and something to slam than anything else. The blasted lift wouldn’t come quickly enough, so she ran down the stairs until they made her tired and she had to lean against the wall to weep. The world was just a big ball of gravity bringing her down.
She managed to settle into a calmer state of self-pity, and mope down to the ground floor. Out into the bright sunlight, which made her sneeze. “Oh, go turn into a black hole!” she yelled at the Sun, and resumed her stomping.
She passed a group of creative anachronists cooking old-time foods with a fire. One of them accosted her. “Would you like to try this grilled bell pepper?” he demanded.
“God no. Don’t you realise what you’re doing to your bodies?! Sure, it tastes nice for now, but you’ll never have the proper balance of nutrients. Don’t you idiots even see the warnings on the packaging? All sorts of diseases are linked to poor nutrition. Everyone knows that. You’re going to die younger, you know.”
She muttered ‘ovary-eaters!’ under her breath, and took a swig of delicious, nutritionally-balanced fluid from the nearest Soylent fountain to prove her point. It hurt her on its way past the lump in her throat.
“Would you put yourself at the controls of your home’s nuclear plant? Would you leave your nutrition up to the whims of taste and circumstances? Would you leave your emotional state at the mercy of…”
Toya swatted the advertising drone out of the way.
It righted itself and hovered back to her.
“You seem to be in an emotionally agitated state. Studies have shown that emotionally balanced people live up to five years longer or more. HeartValet: balanced nutrition for the soul.”
She ran away from it. It chased her through unfamiliar streets, with its calm voice helpfully pointing out each preventable spike in her temper. After a particularly irritating stretch, she stopped and faced it.
“Would you shut up?! My dad died and I’ve just been through a breakup. I really do not need you pestering me!”
Do you need a hug?
Toya’s rage turned back to tears, and she momentarily forgot the drone wasn’t sentient. “Yeah.”
HugVest can give you all the hugs you need, when you need them! Studies have shown that people who get enough hugs are up to 32% happier…
Toya sighed. “Oh, alright. If I get HeartValet, will you stop bugging me?”
With HeartValet, nothing will ever bug you again!
The drone swung its spotlight onto the logo of the HeartValet building, which was, to Toya’s surprise, right next to them. The curvaceous V formed a softly pulsating heart, which hung from a sturdy H-shaped support.
The automatic doors opened, inviting her in.
The receptionist’s smile was disarmingly genuine. “You must be Toya,” he said.
“You want to be fitted with a HeartValet? Not a problem. Just authorise the payment here and the Cupid will be with you shortly. Feel free to use the time to peruse these brochures about HeartValet and our carnal pleasure add-on packages available for a small extra charge.”
“Oh, I… don’t think I need that…” Toya was sure the carnal pleasure package was just rebranded old technology with a hefty price tag.
“I assure you, you will. They’re 25% off when purchased with a HeartValet.”
Toya ignored the receptionist and tried to ignore the preliminary price tag as she authorised the payment.
Finding nothing else to do, she flicked on a brochure, which spoke in the familiar overly-cheerful voice.
Hi, and congratulations on choosing the sensible path to lifelong love! We love having you here. In just a few minutes, your expert Cupid will come and sweep you off your feet and into the clinic to implant your HeartValet device. The implantation is performed under local anaesthetic, and is quick and painless. Your cupid will then run a few quick tests to ensure all your HeartValet’s chemical channels are working properly, and you’ll be ready to be fitted for a HugVest. To perfectly tailor your HeartValet’s functionality to your personal physiology, we will monitor your moods and blood chemistry for seven days in our luxurious Honeymoon Village. Don’t worry, this is all included in the price range you’ve already preauthorised.
You will also benefit from fantastic deals on our carnal pleasure packages, so you don’t miss the other side of having a romantic partner. We have devices that do things your previous lovers never imagined…
Toya flicked it off in exasperation, and seconds later a woman in a soft pink lab coat entered the room from the door marked ‘Cupid’s Lab’.
“Ah, I see you’ve finished with the introduction. Come with me and we’ll get started.”
Toya followed her into the ‘Lab’, which was much like an ordinary clinic: scanner bed, chair, desk. The walls were adorned with the standard medical qualifications, plus a Doctorate of Cupidity issued by the company’s HappyVersity, and the framed quote, “Tampering with their happiness circuits will invalidate the warranty” in an old-fashioned script befitting its turn-of-the-century authorship.
“Alright, we’ve already accessed your medical and behavioral history, and you’re the perfect candidate. If you’d just hold out your arm, we can get the implant in.”
The HeartValet implant went in without problems, the same way her contraceptive implant had.
“Perfect. Now if you’d just get onto the scanner bed so I can test a few functions, that would be lovely.”
Toya did as she was told.
“Okay, I’m going to test the channels on your implant using this remote here while the scanner checks what’s happening in your brain. You may feel some pretty powerful emotions, and I urge you to remember that these feelings are not toward me but caused by your HeartValet. At some love implant companies you’d be told it was love for God, but we’re a little more open about what we’re doing. Just interpret it as love for yourself, or love of biology, if that’s what floats your boat. But if you do slip up and profess your love for me, don’t worry, I’ve heard it all before.”
Toya laughed. She’d never profess her love for someone she’d just met.
The Cupid pressed a button, and Toya was in love. The ‘Cupid’ being the only viable object of affection she could see, Toya reached out to her. The Cupid expertly dodged her, and pressed another button. Toya soon returned to normal, and blushed at the realization of what she’d just done.
“Okay, that one works. By the way, can I interest you in our carnal pleasure add-on packages?”
“No thanks, I already said…” The Cupid pressed a button and suddenly carnal pleasure was all Toya could think about. “Uhhhh…” she moaned. Nurse fantasies suddenly made sense. “Yeah… I think I’ll take that…”
Another button, and Toya had the strong feeling that the Cupid loved her back.
They went through a few more tests, a few more feelings that Toya enjoyed enough that she didn’t care about the lack of external cause. Then they tried out the HugVest, which successfully tightened around her when a virtual reality game induced feelings of loneliness.
“Okay, we’re done with the initial tests! It’s all working perfectly. Don’t worry, in normal operation you won’t feel anything as sudden or as strong as that. The emphasis is on balance, and maintaining a feeling of love to keep you enjoying life when life is not doing its part.”
Toya was still buzzing a little, and wasn’t sure if it was an afterglow from the experiments or the normal operation of the implant. She nodded.
“So to make sure we get the right balance for your body, as you know, you’ll spend a week in our Honeymoon Village. This should also allow you to adjust to your new feelings while surrounded by people who understand you. You should find it quite relaxing, but don’t be alarmed if our staff or other patients upset you occasionally; it’s all to test the responses of the unit and your body. You’re going to feel great. Amy here will show you to your room.”
Amy took her down a corridor, which became a high walkway overlooking an atrium with gift shops, a casino, a swimming pool, and various real and virtual sports courts, “I didn’t bring a change of clothes!” Toya realised aloud, and immediately felt like she was wanted anyway.
“Don’t worry about it. A lot of people come here unprepared. There are some clean jumpsuits and swimwear in your room. Here it is: 216.” Amy led her into one of the rooms beside the walkway, showed her the amenities, and left.
Toya lay on her bed for a while, at first enjoying the solitude, then enjoying the feeling of being with a loved one that naturally took over when the solitude outstayed its welcome. The HugVest tightened ever so slightly.
Eventually she got up and wandered along the walkway, watching the courts. She felt a little more lost than usual watching the virtual games; it was hard to tell from people’s demeanor whether they were winning or losing.
She was startled by the feeling of fur against her ankle. A cat. Her cat! What was Molpy doing there? She patted him happily, feeling a rush of love she was sure was natural.
“Hey there, little Molpy! You’re a kitty! Yeah, you’re a fuzzy wuzzy wittle kit…”
Toya looked up. “Alex?!”
“Toya! It is you. What are you doing here?”
“Recovering from you,” she said. The HugVest tightened slightly. It was only when saying those words that she realised she didn’t feel like she needed to recover any more.
“Fair enough,” Alex said, laughing.
Toya felt a quickly-stifled spike of rage as she realised why Alex was there. “Did you leave me for this?!”
“Yeah, well… that ear-scratching thing was annoying… and their advertising was kind of… insistent… for good reason! This is so much better, isn’t it?”
“Yeah. Yeah, it sure is.” Toya fell in love with him again, then reminded herself she was in love with nothing in particular. “But why did you take Molpy? He’s mine… and you’re allergic!”
“Oh. They said I could get a discount if I stressed you into getting a HeartValet. I actually refused to go that far, but they sent a catnip-scented ad drone…”
“Wait, so… The story about having the hots for my mum, that was just to stress me?” She wasn’t sure whether to feel angry or relieved at the thought, so she felt loved. He had cared enough to give her everlasting love.
“No, that part’s true. Actually, I got my carnal pleasure package modeled on her.”
Toya’s gut reaction was anger and embarrassment. By the time she came to think about the reason for her reaction, the HeartValet had kicked in. “But… I love my mother, and she’s been alone for a week now. It’s not fair that she doesn’t benefit from your infatuation with her. You should really sleep with her.”
“Good point! I’ll go see her as soon as I leave the village this evening. It’ll be lovely! Hey, want to go swim?” he asked.
“Sure!” she said, wondering why the breakup had once seemed so important. It was just a thing that happened. She didn’t even need him.
She went back to her room and put on the provided swimsuit. The thin HugVest was barely visible underneath it, and she reckoned it gave her a smoother figure. Not that her appearance mattered.
Toya and Alex swam happily for a few hours. They even gave each other some real hugs, but eventually stopped bothering; the real thing was never in quite the right way at quite the right time.
“Hey, my week’s almost up; I have to go,” he said after a while. “I don’t actually have anywhere to stay lined up. Mind if I move back in?”
She felt a euphoric buzz at the opportunity to help someone out. “Not at all; your stuff’s there and there’s still enough room in the bed for both of us, and room for Mum this week if you want. Oh… I may have smashed some of your things; sorry about that. See you in a week!”
After just less than a week of socialising with eminently lovable HeartValet users, and contentedly losing at tennis, virtual wall ball, and roulette, Toya came across her mother in a Honeymoon Village gift shop. She’d turned to HeartValet for solace after the death of her husband and some disturbing passes made by her daughter’s ex. They reminisced about Toya’s father, imagining that the HeartValet allowed him to hug them and send them his love from beyond the grave.
And they all lived happily ever after.
Except Toya’s father, who was dead, due to a freak accident involving a HeartValet advertising drone.
Mildred Feldnether was on her way to take birth for the twenty-eighth time when she found the creature. She heard it first; a call that didn’t belong to any animal she’d heard in the forest before. The sound came from a bundle of clothes behind a tree just off the track. She squatted and gingerly pulled away some of the fabric to reveal a red, bloody thing. She didn’t immediately recognise it as a human baby; it had been more than a millennium since she’d seen one.
“Hello,” she said to it. “What’s your name?”
“What’s wrong?” she asked, first in the most popular local language and then in several others she knew.
The baby continued to wail. Mildred’s foetus kicked her from the inside.
“Where are you from? Where do you work? Are you lost?”
At the last question, Mildred noticed that the baby didn’t seem to have a navigator. She took out hers and showed it to the baby, who stopped wailing and gurgled at it.
Mildred sighed with relief. It was just lost. Soon it would get on its way. She said goodbye and continued walking to the extraction clinic.
It wailed again.
Mildred turned back towards it. “What do you want?” It seemed so upset. Most of it was still wrapped in a sweater, and Mildred suddenly wondered whether babies even had arms and legs like normal people.
Her sister had had a baby once. Or maybe her sister had been a baby. Or had she just heard a legend about a baby? It was so long ago.
She sat next to the baby and tried to remember other languages to speak to it in. She remembered how frustrating it had been when when she was just a few centuries old, and only knew a few languages. She could imagine wanting to wail when she couldn’t express herself. She was frustrated just trying to remember what the thing was called. Baby. Baby. Like in the old fairy tales. She looked it up in the encyclopaedia:
A baby is a juvenile form of human, commonly created in the pre-extraction era as a means to perpetuate the human species when it was possible that existing individuals may succumb to death (q.v.) In modern times, a baby may develop from a foetus whose life is not fully extracted after removal. This is effectively remedied by further extraction.
From a foetus? Mildred burst out laughing. Foetuses grew inside people. This thing was outside and it looked like a little human that could only speak wail. Somebody must have vandalised the entry. The baby ceased crying and seemed to look at Mildred. Mildred watched it, enchanted. It was hard to believe it really existed.
The forest they were in was even older than Mildred, and offered a secluded path to the clinic, where those unable to carry foetuses wouldn’t plead with the pregnant women for a share of the life within them. They weren’t needy, just lazy; less than a year’s work as a manservant protecting a pregnant woman and they’d have decades more life. Mildred had already made a contract with her friend and three-time manservant James, who had made sure she stayed safe and healthy and didn’t need any infusions of life which could delay or destroy the pregnancy. Four decades for her, four for him, and the rest to the clinic for miscellaneous healing. She always preferred to make the last walk to the clinic alone though, so that she wouldn’t have to explain the knot in her throat that she didn’t understand herself. Most women were excited at the prospect of becoming four decades younger. Mildred was nervous. With the crying baby tugging at it, the knot in her throat unraveled into tears.
Just then, James called her. “We’re waiting for you at the clinic. Are you on your way? Do you need me to help you with anything?”
“I’m fine, I just… I found something. But I’ll be right there.”
The baby started to wail again. “Right,” she said to it. “I don’t know what’s wrong with you, but if you’re sick maybe half a decade could fix you. Unless you’re already too young for that. Well, the clinicians should know the right dosage.” By this time she was almost certain the baby could not understand her, but it was hard to get used to.
The baby had freed a hand from its cocoon, so Mildred took it to lead it to the clinic. The baby gripped her finger, but didn’t get up. Mildred looked at its face for a second. So tiny. So new. Too new even to walk?
Mildred felt uncomfortable carrying someone she barely knew, but there didn’t seem to be much choice. She picked up the baby, finding the underside of its wrap to be soaked with dew, and tried to find a way to hold it that was comfortable for both of them. The baby did not stop crying for the rest of the way to the clinic.
“Oh dear,” said the clinician. “A baby?” The other clinicians gathered around to look at the specimen. “Oh, that must have been a disturbing thing to find. Don’t worry, we’ll do the extraction for you. It doesn’t look like you need any decades yourself,” she looked down at Mildred’s pregnant belly, “but if you’d like to donate them to the sick or less fertile, we’ll make sure you get something nice as a thank-you.”
“I’ll take them if you like!” grinned James.
“But… isn’t it like a person? I mean… can you really extract… It’s crying. I think it needs to be healed.”
“We’ll take care of that. It’s just crying because it’s not supposed to be outside the womb.”
Mildred felt a bit like crying again herself. “But is a baby a person?”
“Oh, no. I’m not a specialist in antiquities, but from what I’ve heard it takes decades of round-the-clock treatment before a baby can turn into anything like a normal person, and even then it would be centuries behind in general knowledge; it would be a complete stranger in society.”
They were silent for a few seconds, then they both started talking at once.
“Let’s get that…” began the clinician.
“Did you have a baby? In the beginning… when you were new?”
“Yes I… think I did. This is my daughter,” she gestured to one of the other clinicians.
“What was it like?”
The clinician’s eyes glazed over for a second. “It was… centuries ago. I don’t know if the things I remember about it are even real. Now let’s get these extractions underway.”
“If you… this sounds ridiculous, I know, but if you… if you removed my foetus without extracting its life, would it be a baby?”
“Yes, but don’t worry, we won’t let that happen. We have strict quality standards here.”
“So babies do come from foetuses? And people come from babies?” Mildred felt a little lightheaded.
The clinician shook her head slowly, as if Mildred were a few decades too senile. “And people need life, and life comes from foetuses, and babies are just primitive remnants from a millennium ago. Don’t you worry about it, love. You’ve found yourself some free decades!”
The baby cried even louder, and Mildred almost wanted the clinician to make it quiet. It was driving her crazy. Crazy enough that in an instant she was running out of the clinic and screaming over the noise, “I found myself a free person!”
“You can’t make a new person!” the clinician shouted after her. “They’ll have no records! They won’t know anyone! There won’t be enough food for them! It probably doesn’t even speak!”
She ran without thinking, without being aware of anything except the wailing coming from the thing in her arms. She only realised what she had done when she found herself twisted on the ground, having turned to protect the baby and her belly when she tripped. Her back hurt and her eyes were wet and the baby’s wrap was still soaked and the baby was still screaming and her mind was a cacophony of new information clanging into memories. Twenty-seven extractions, more than two millennia for her and her manservants, not a year for twenty-seven potential people. But wasn’t it just like eating meat? Some creatures give life to others. Twenty-seven more people would mean less meat for others and less space for the forests and fauna that kept humanity and the rest of the biosphere alive and prosperous. Twenty-seven stunted proto-people who knew nothing and nobody, taking life when they should be giving it. As Mildred’s head started to clear, she began thinking about how to apologise when she went back to the clinic.
As Mildred’s eyes started to dry, she realised a woman was leaning over her. What was her name? Sandra? They’d been good friends a century or so ago, and lost touch. “Milly, are you okay?” Sandra asked.
“Sandy, what are you doing here?”
“Milly, are you okay?” panted James as he arrived. He was getting old, and could do with those decades she owed him. “Sandy?! What are you doing here?”
Just as Mildred realised the wailing had stopped, it started again.
“That’s my sweater! Is that…” Sandra went white. “Is that m…mm” she stopped speaking seemed to be concentrating on not crying. Mildred stroked the baby’s face, momentarily forgetting she was caressing a complete stranger.
“It’s okay, Sandy. Take your time. What happened?”
Sandra took her time. Finally, she managed to cry, “My foetus came out! It was horrible; it hurt so much! It came out by itself, out my vagina; there must be something wrong with me. It hurt so much. I never want to take birth again; I’ll just take a manservant contract whenever I need more life.”
“That’s your baby?” said James. Sandra didn’t hear.
“I wasn’t due for extraction yet but I was feeling sore and my manservant’s run off to do some kind of crazy botanical research so I started going to the clinic but then…” She broke into sobs as the baby screamed. “Is it… is it the foetus? How come it’s alive? It wasn’t… I mean I don’t think it… It didn’t move. I thought it was just a foetus. It was horrible and bloody and blue and it had almost like a face on it. I covered it up so nobody would find it.”
“It’s a baby,” sniffed Mildred. “A… a juvenile form of human, often created in pre-extraction times as a means to perpetuate the human species… at the clinic they said it can turn into a person with a few decades of round-the-clock treatment. But it’s a foetus. They can still extract. They want to and it’s kind of… kind of like eating meat…” In the face of Sandra’s tears, Mildred’s own conclusion seemed silly again. How could they extract life from a thing that could become a person?
They were silent for a while. Even the baby quieted down. James leaned against a tree for support and flexed his creaking knees.
“Can I hold it? Does it mind?”
“I don’t know. It seems to mind everything.” Mildred passed the baby to Sandra.
“Milly, I think I’m really sick,” she confided. “First my foetus came out and now there’s yellow stuff coming out of my nipples. Can you take me to the clinic? I know they expect me to give them some life rather than take it, but maybe I could use some from your foetus.”
“Hey, you know half of that foetus is for me, right?” said James. “Nah, you can have a some of my share. Anything to help a fetching fertile lady.”
The foetus kicked, and she realised that the word was not metaphorical; it was kicking with actual legs. “I don’t know if I want it to be extracted today.” Mildred said quietly.
Sandra reached out and held her hand. They were silent, except for the baby.
Suddenly, Mildred thought of something. “What if it’s hungry?”
“I have some bacon sushi,” said James. The soon learnt that the baby could not use chopsticks.
Once again, Mildred checked the encyclopedia for information on babies. “You’re not going to believe what it says about feeding them…”
Over the next week, while Sandra and James tried to figure out how and whether to keep the baby alive, and how to keep it quiet, Mildred researched the early history of extraction. Of course there was the ugly time they all commemorated each decade on Death Day, the time when people would kidnap and extract the remaining life out of strangers. It must have been horrible to live in fear of dying. Nine out of ten of them did die. Nine out of ten adults died so that the rest could live longer.
Then perinatal extraction, called today simply extraction, solved everything. More life with no killing, and no fear of accidental breeding creating an infinite number of hungry immortals. The inventor shared the technique with the oldest and newest people he knew, the ones who hadn’t stolen anyone else’s life. They won round extractors with their ethically-sourced life, and soon nobody would extract from an adult, and nobody would give life to those known to have done so. Over the next century, the life thieves died of old age and the rest bred up to the capacity they knew they could sustain without competition for resources, and then ceased with the bother of people-making. Most of this was familiar to Mildred; the well-known story told each decade on Life Day. She’d even seen the inventor of perinatal extraction telling the story in person. Though she’d all but forgotten the meaning of the archaic words such as ‘perinatal’ and ‘breeding’.
It wasn’t quite so pretty, though. As she read older and older memoirs, Mildred discovered that many people had actually protested, saying foetuses were people; some even thought that embryos were people. And some even thought that animals should not be eaten; not just because of the unsustainable farming practices back then, but because animals were also a sort of people. Mildred wondered why nobody thought of things like that any more.
Further into her research, she came across an old journal entry which struck her:
I took my first birth today. I know it isn’t right, but I was getting old, almost too old to be coaxed into fertility, and if I die the foetuses will have nobody to fight for them. Thirty more years should give me the time to fix things. I need to find a way to prevent both death and overpopulation without sacrificing living humans.
That’s what happened to people who thought foetuses were people. They either took life anyway, or they died. She checked the author to see which group this one had ended up in.
Mildred felt lightheaded at the sight of her own name, and saw the edges of her vision prickle black. Her foetus turned, and so did her stomach. She fought to stay conscious for fear of what people might do to help her.
She’d been one of the people who’d fought to stop perinatal extraction. She’d been one of the people who’d let her survival instinct change her mind. On the backs of those she’d claimed to want to save, she’d lived long enough to forget they existed. And she would forget again.
Unless she fixed things soon.
Mildred switched her attention to learning all she could about the science of life extraction. It came to her easily at first, as if she’d learnt it all before, which she probably had. She felt less familiar with the breakthroughs that led to increased efficiency in more recent centuries. She enrolled in some classes and followed the century-old standard practical experiments involving extraction and infusion in small plants.
One night she was idly dissecting a piece of sushi, picking out the individual grains of rice and twirling the meat between her chopsticks. That meat had been in a pig once. Pigs were probably smarter than babies. She put it aside and ate the rice and seaweed thoughtfully. Just like eating meat…
She jumped up and ran to the bedroom. “Sandy!” she called out loudly before realising that it was past midnight. “Sandy, come here,” she whispered, but the baby was already gearing up to surpass her careless loudness.
“What is it?” Sandra asked groggily, before gasping in horror, “is yours coming out too?”
“No, no, it’s not that! What did you say your manservant went to do?”
“Botany. Some nutso alternative healing thing.”
“Listen, I think he might be onto something. I was thinking, we can live without meat, right? So we can live without foetuses! It’s so obvious!”
“Hey, you didn’t get me out of bed to tell me you’ve gone as crazy as Jezdimir, did you?”
James wandered in holding the screaming baby.
“Look, there are trees out there that’ve lived longer than us, right? What if we could extract life from them? I mean their seedlings? There’d be millennia! They’ve made a lot of improvements in extraction lately. Did you know that even plant extraction was not possible a few centuries ago, and now they teach it in introductory classes? All we’d need to do is figure out how to convert their life to ours, and no more foetus-killing!”
James squinted his reddened eyes and looked down at the noise-maker in his arms. “Are you sure you want more of these around?”
“No, you see that’s the other thing. If anyone gets pregnant by mistake, which, let’s face it, hardly ever happens, they can take enough life, plant life, to make the embryo regress back into nothing. Or wait, maybe that’s bad too, I don’t know. But some of them could make babies. Did you know that fish are edible; they were just banned back when there weren’t enough of them? And that there’s way more of everything now than back at the beginning of extraction? And that you can feed way more people with plants than with meat? The population limits they set back then are way lower than they need to be now. We could have new people!”
“Hey hold on there… is that even possible? What about the new people? They’re not going to know anything,” said James.
“But even at our ages, everyone knows different things,” answered Sandra before Mildred could think of an answer. She pointed at the baby. “He’s the only one who knows what it is to be new in an old world. That’s worth knowing.”
“So we need to contact this, what was his name? Jezdimir? Your manservant, and see if they can help us. I reckon we’re only a few decades away from converting plant life into…”
Mildred stopped and winced as a pain surged through her belly. Sandra stared at her with a terrified look in her eyes. Mildred regained her composure in order not to upset Sandra. “…converting plant life into human. I’ll never have to have another extraction.”
Then she collapsed in agony. James and Sandra practically carried her to the clinic, Sandra holding the baby in her free arm, and James clutching at trees with his.
“Are you back for your extraction, finally? It’s about time,” said the clinician.
“Noo…” moaned Mildred. The clinician laid her on the bed.
“What do you mean no? You clearly need the life,” said James. “I hate to see you like this.”
“No,” said Sandra. “She doesn’t want any more extractions. You’re going to take this foetus out of her and let it become a baby.”
“But she said she didn’t want another extraction. She meant after this one. I’m sure!”
Mildred filled her lungs to protest but the breath hurt so much that she let it out in a moan. Her head felt as bad as the rest of her. For a moment she thought she remembered being a child, watching her mother cry over her brother. But she had no brother.
“No, no, she doesn’t want to take any life! Haven’t you seen her? She’s been obsessed with this idea of foetuses being people.” The baby screamed louder as if to affirm its personhood.
“Well no, I haven’t seen her, because I’ve been trying to keep this thing alive! She doesn’t want one of these!”
“She does. She does. She wants the baby to live.”
“It’s not a baby! Look, she owes me four decades. She owes herself four decades. How could she just let herself die in this day and age? I’d miss her! We all would! And she needs time to finish that plant thing.”
“Sure, but the baby…”
“…doesn’t owe anyone anything.”
“But you can’t privilege this useless little thing that can’t even eat or speak over someone with a millennium of knowledge and skills and hundreds of people who love her! I know your baby is cute and it brings a fresh perspective and blah blah blah but you can’t have both, and I’m choosing Milly.”
“I love her too! But she doesn’t want to kill babies any more and we have to respect…”
“For goodness’ sake, you’re not killing anything! You’re just extracting the life out of something that isn’t alive yet to begin with!”
“Extracting the what? If it’s not alive, then…”
“Look, your friend’s not doing well. I’m going to need a decision,” urged the clinician, as Mildred slipped into unconsciousness.
The first few hundred years were okay. I had a lot of thrilling death-defying adventures. I lived the dream.
I got used to my loved ones dying, and got better at meeting new ones, and better at being by myself. Not a problem; before the accident, I’d stayed eight years at a lab full of one- and two-year contractors and students. I stayed there for a while afterwards too, but it seemed silly to chip away at the minutiae when I’d seen how huge and incomprehensible the whole thing was. Even with the amount of time I had, I knew I could never get my head around it.
In any case, the universe would stick around for a while. I wanted to study the things that wouldn’t. I don’t think I realised back then just how little time I had to do that. I always felt like there were so many more people to meet, so much more alone time to savour, so much more to learn, so many more ideas to realise than I had time to, but somewhere in the back of my mind I assumed I could get back to them later. Oh, if only I could.
I travelled the world while there were still means to do so, tried the foods when I could pay for them, smelled the flowers when I found any, learnt the languages, met the people while there still were some. Had a few wives. A few husbands. A few children. Thirty-three thousand, nine hundred and eighty-three known descendants, before I lost count. They all died, of course. I had my alone time to savour.
One by one, then ten by ten, species went extinct. We got used to it. People are good enough at ignoring things as long as they’re still comfortable. Eventually things were stretched too far to be comfortable. After the human race died out, when there was not much left bigger than bacteria, I went through a moody phase. For a millennium I’d be content just wandering around admiring the landscape, watching erosion create interesting patterns. Then I’d occupy myself by carving my own intricately-shaped rivers by hand and swimming back and forth along them. I learnt to shape them in such a way that oxbow lakes would form naturally to complete my designs. Next thing I knew, I’d be in a ten-thousand-year blue period, craving someone to hold, barely noticing as the mountains grew. Those lifelong romances seemed so short.
Sometimes the despair would give way to industriousness. I tried to work out a chemistry that would allow complex life to thrive in the changed environment. I tried to evolve something from lichen using as sole selection criterion ‘something I can talk to.’ Later I changed the goal to something I could enjoy eating. This was rather more successful, maybe because millennia of hunger had made me less picky. Every so often, I’d find little niches where life had figured out how to adapt in ways more ingenious than I’d come up with. I’d sit and watch them for generations upon generations, but nothing complex enough to be worth watching was ever as successful as before.
Time always seems so much shorter when it’s behind you, but in my case, things really did happen more quickly back then. Two-year contracts, 80-year relationships, ten-thousand-year bad moods, million-year species. When finally something interesting happened, it seemed sudden even though by mortal standards it took a long time. I still remember watching the sun expand and redden like it was yesterday, and I suppose it was yesterday, for I wouldn’t define days by that pitiful white dwarf I ended up with.
Boy was it hot when the Sun expanded to near Earth’s orbit. I’d been injured plenty of times, many times enough to kill anyone else, and it hurt a lot. If I was having a bad aeon, there were times when I jumped off cliffs or into volcanoes every day in the hope of dying. But the first time I felt the corona of a red giant, I really thought that was the end. A nanosecond of it was worse than all the pain I’d experienced until then. I did not know why my nerves could even feel pain at such magnitude. I just closed my eyes and waited for death to come. I waited what could have been thousands of years, not like the thousands of therapeutically-dull years of river carving, but thousands of slow, slow years in which I felt every moment.
And then… then it was over, but it still felt like a long time looking back. It took me a while to recover emotionally, and the blood-freezing cold didn’t help. The Earth wasn’t engulfed by the Sun, but just continued orbiting the cool, withdrawn white dwarf. The atmosphere and liquids were lost to space. I didn’t miss breathing as much as I missed eating and speaking; the urge to breathe comes more from the buildup of carbon dioxide than from the lack of oxygen, and I had none of that. There wasn’t any life I could see, but from what I’d already seen, I was sure some had survived somewhere under the surface. Sometimes I’d dig down and have imagined conversations with bacteria I couldn’t detect.
The next life-changing event came when the Earth was knocked out of its orbit. A few chunks came off it, and I had less gravity and some fragments to look at in the sky for a while. I took to jumping around the world, pretending to fly. A couple of destructive meteorites later and I accidentally reached escape velocity. Goodbye, cool world.
There was no such thing as a year for me after that, but it may as well have been ten billion years ago. I haven’t come close to any planets since. I’ve passed through a few stars, and I can tell you it doesn’t get any easier. Spent some time squished inside a black hole waiting for the Hawking radiation to free me. I took little comfort in knowing it was quicker for me than for anything on the outside.
Between stars, with no air or plasma rushing past my skin, no sound, almost no light to prove my fantasies wrong, I could construct worlds in my head that felt more real than anything else. I’d forget I was lost in outer space with nothing to look forward to but that moment of beautiful views and relief from cold that preceded an epoch of burning inside a star.
A frequent dream is that of finding the genie again, the god, that creature I had conversed with through that little tear we’d made in spacetime. Back in the old days, even before feeling the hellfire of a red giant Sun, I used to wish I’d asked to be impervious to pain as well as immortal, but now my only wish is mortality. And once again, I feel like time’s running out. The universe is expanding away from me. If I don’t find a way to summon the genie before the last matter retreats over the de Sitter horizon, I will be stuck with nothing but the taste of my mouth and the feeling of my cold, hungry body, for infinitely more time than I had anything else.
This is a continuation of the story which begins at Ten of Hearts: Double You
I lean against the wall of the corridor and close my eyes for a few moments; trying to take it all in, trying not to let the tears out. I’ve been wishing for Cat to magically reappear for a year and a half, and now that the dream has come true ten times over, I don’t know how to feel. This is the dream of a sleeper, a disconnected, nonsensical dream.
Maybe I’m really dreaming, but I feel more awake than ever. Maybe I’m in virtual reality too. Maybe there is no reality.
I open my eyes to let something like reality in. The dark hallway isn’t enough to chase away the thoughts. I flick on the flashlight and scrutinise my surroundings for anything that would betray its fakeness. There are none of the tell-tale signs I can see in my own VR software. Something else catches my eye, though. There’s another door, further down the passage.
I dread what I might find there. Another ten Cats, older than the one I knew? Younger? I have had far too many surprises for one day, but I can’t help checking.
I turn the handle and push the door open slowly. For a few moments I stand there with the flashlight aimed at the floor, afraid of what I might see if I move it. I hear whispering.
The sibilant darkness is suddenly more scary than anything else I was imagining, so I shine my light across the room.
It’s me. Me from a few years ago apparently showing a few other mes what he could recognise of the VR suit. Me squinting at the light of my torch. Me trying not to start crying. Me looking at myself in shock.
“Holy carbonara… how many of us are there?” says one of the mes who was examining the suit.
“How did you get out of your suit?” asks another.
“Did you make these?” says the me from a few years ago.
I can’t speak. I shine the light around the room, carefully counting its inhabitants. Twelve, of different ages; more than enough to match the Cats in the other room. I know that I could never have substituted one of those Cats for my Cat, but it still hurts to know that there isn’t one left over for me.
“Hey, you… I mean me,” says a young teenaged version of myself. “Do you know what’s going on?”
I sit down with them, afraid that my legs won’t support me. “I wish I did.”
“Everything was perfectly normal up until a year and a half ago. Then some old guy… maybe it was granddad… he came and killed Cat and tried to kill me, but I killed him first.” Those of me who are old enough to know Cat gasp.
“Ever since… well, of course nothing’s been normal. I’ve just been living in here trying to make sense of it all. I guess I could have left, but I don’t feel ready to face the real world yet, and maybe be accused of murder. But then, there was this power cut… and the access control on the doors is shut down. So, out of curiosity… stupid curiosity… I came down here and found…” I try unsuccessfully to hold back a sob. It’s a strange feeling, being self-conscious when the only people watching me are myself. More self, more conscious.
“Yeah, we know the feeling. At least you got to open a door to find us. I was in the middle of taking a piss.”
I involuntarily look towards his crotch, wondering how such bodily functions work in whatever virtual reality system they were in. I look away in embarrassment, then wonder whether I should be embarrassed about looking at my own fabric-covered nether regions.
It seems like I’m in a stop-motion, each absurd thing that happens shocks me into inaction for a while. Eventually I recover my train of thought. “I mean… I don’t mean… you’re not the only ones.”
The other mes are not immune to being stunned.
“There’s another room… with ten copies of Cat.”
We stare at each other, wondering how to put our thoughts into words, and wondering whether we need to. I need them to. These people were living normal lives, living with Cat, or living in the lesser, ignorant bliss of never having met her. These people have spent several hours together, learning how they are the same, how they are different, how to behave with each other. I am a stranger in a crowd of myself.
A younger me breaks the silence by giggling. “So what are we waiting for? You should go see your giiirrrlfriends!” he chides. I remember that time. The thought of having a girlfriend was so disgusting, embarrassing, and enticingly mysterious.
“He’s right,” says a me about four years younger than myself. “I want to see her. Do you know how to disconnect these cables?” He jerks his head upwards to indicate the cable attached to his head, making it sway lightly.
“I don’t know. Looks like it’s going straight into your brain. I guess if there’s no power going through it anyway, we could just cut it. But I can’t guarantee I could repair it if you want to go back in. You know I’m not that good with hardware.”
“Do it,” he says. “I think I’ve had enough fake reality to last a lifetime. I want the real thing.”
It is only when I’m back in the corridor on the way to get wire cutters that I remember Cat’s pain relief. The retreat is pretty well stocked with medicine, to avoid unnecessary contact with the high-tech outside world. We haven’t needed to use much of it, but it’s reassuring to know it’s there.
There’s no power for the computer which would have dispensed just the right amount of this or that drug. No power for the lock holding the machine closed either. I open it up and see the neat columns of capsules in their sterile plastic compartments.
Two columns are almost empty. I don’t want to think about why. It’s too much. I’m just going to take these last few painkillers to Cat, and worry about the rest when my life has regained some sanity.
To be continued…
The following is a sequel to Ten of Hearts: Double You.
A fair-haired man enters and plays a flashlight over the room. He stops dead as the light finds the face of the oldest of us.
I fight to open my eyes against the burning light. Before it blinded me, I saw something tantalisingly familiar in the man’s gait. When my eyes finally consent to staying open, they see only a bright light against darkness.
The light falls with the sound of a collapsing body, and spreads a gloomy half-light across the floor. I rush toward the unconscious intruder. It’s Jack, or almost Jack… he seems older. I stroke his forehead until his eyes also manage to open again. He looks at me as though he is lost in a familiar place.
After a minute, he pulls away abruptly. “Cat, I killed someone. Did you see?”
The others’ reactions remind me that we are not alone in the room.
“Get away from him!” I squeal. I’m eight. I don’t want the big me to be killed. I run toward her and try to drag her away, but she doesn’t move. A six-year-old me comes to help.
“What?” This time it is the man who is surprised. I look at him defiantly.
“He tried to kill me first! I’m a good guy… I think,” he protests.
I look at the big me. “It’s okay,” she says. “I know him. He won’t hurt us. His name’s Jack.”
I relax my grip, but stay at her side.
We listen to the rest of his story.
“About a year and a half ago, I woke up to an old man trying to inject me with something. We struggled, and eventually I injected him with it. He went to sleep immediately. I watched him sleeping. He looked like my grandfather. God, it was awful, thinking I’d killed my grandfather.” His voice is beginning to quaver. “So I tried to wake him, I tried so hard…” his words clump into sobs.
We watch, trying to make sense of the new layer of strangeness. Trying to remember our lives, trying to get back to them.
“But now… I went to heaven anyway…” Jack manages to squeeze past the lump in his throat.
The youngest of us starts crying with him.
“Heaven?” I’m the oldest. The oldest in a group of time-travelling versions of myself. What does that mean? “I was there too, wasn’t I?”
“Yes… yes, of course you were there… you know, don’t you?”
I see my worst fears in his eyes.
“While I was fighting the man, he said… he said, ‘you don’t know how much you want this.'” He paused to find enough calm air to speak again. “After it was over, I realised he was right. You were already dead. I’m so sorry…” Jack buries his face in my lap and weeps.
For a while we just sit there, watching him cry. He is a stranger to most of us, but we can’t help feeling his grief, and mixing it with own for our lost lives.
“Hey, were you in virtual reality too?” I ask. I’m ten, and I’ve been thinking hard to take my mind of my sore knee. It hasn’t really worked, but I have some ideas.
This gets through his despair. “Smart kid… you know all about VR? I used to make virtual reality stuff. I made a lot of money from it. So yes, I’ve been in it.”
“No, I mean… cool, you know all about it? This thing I’m wearing, it’s a virtual reality suit, right?”
Jack looks at me for the first time. He picks up the torch and points it at each of us in turn. “Holy… how many of you are there?”
“Ten”, I say. “I think we were in virtual reality, or else we travelled in time…”
“I don’t think… I don’t think people wear things like that in heaven. Hell, I don’t even believe in heaven! I think you’re right! Let me have a look at that.” He speaks with a new-found jubilance. He gets up and walks toward me.
He sits down next to me and starts examining my suit.
“Wow, it’s… this must be… how did…”
I scream in pain as he prods at my left knee, and instinctively bend it away from him, which makes it hurt even more.
“I’m sorry, I…”
Some of us cry in sympathy, some in surprise.
“She has a broken kneecap. Do you have any painkillers?” I say. At 18, I’m the second eldest.
“I think so… let me go check.”
“Wait!” I call after him. “Check where? Where are we anyway? Can we go with you?”
“I guess so…” he replies. “You’re… I’m at a retreat, from technology.”
“Already?” I remember suggesting the idea to him; it would be a giant art project, an adventure in the past. I walk with him toward the door.
“I’ve been here for about three and a half years, but there was…”
I feel a gentle tension pulling me back inside, the tingling I used to get at the top of my head when I ran too fast and breathed too little. The cable linking me to the ceiling is fully unwound.
Jack looks up at the cables for the first time, and follows them up with his flashlight. The light is too weak to reach the top. “Wow,” he gasps.
“Please…” calls the ten-year-old. “It hurts!”
“Okay, I’m going to get some stuff. I’ll be right back,” he promises as he leaves.
Here we are again, ten hearts, one name, alone with ourselves. Twenty hazel eyes staring into the darkness. A few more facts and millions more unknowns.
To be continued…