a year in stories::forty eight

This was rejected from a few places so I’ve decided to just throw it up here. It’s a transhuman love story.

A New Life

She was too young.

I remember feeling her hips against mine as music droned, the bass vibrating in and through us, your lips on my ear, your hair so tight against your head.

My hand on the glass encasing her body, she’s still so young and I’ve grown old, sagging in all the places I want to stay firm and perky.

Miss Ruiz?

I turn to Dr Kawabata, younger than me and he’s smiling. I open my mouth to speak but start crying.

Um, he clears his throat, shifts uncomfortably, and approaches, allowing me to hug him. His breath is hot on my ear, She’s going to be okay. We can bring her back.

I pull away, How?

He steps back and adjusts his glasses, We would need your permission, since she’s no next of kin. But that’s the benefit of paying for her to be here, right? He laughed, ending quickly with a cough because I didn’t. So, he wipes his mouth, The plague destroyed a lot of her internal organs. We can’t fix that, but we can give her synthetic ones. The same goes for her skeleton. Her bones are–well, it’s not good. The disease got into her marrow and she’d need it replaced. As you know, this isn’t really a possibility anymore. But her brain’s intact and she’ll still be the woman you knew back then. She’ll still be Samiah, and you’ll still be Jessica to her.

A weight drops in my stomach and tears river down my face, She won’t be human?

Dr Kawabata waves this away. What is human? She’ll be the same, but with different parts. If I have a heart transplant, do I become the heart, or does the heart become me? It’s not what’s inside you that matters, it’s what all those things make together.

Sweat paws at my back and goosebumps crawl over my skin, Is it safe?

Yes, he smiles, It’s perfectly safe, but it’s not exactly routine. It will take roughly a month for her to make the transition to the living.

It shouldn’t, but this reassures me. I don’t think I could accept it if he had told me they were bringing her back to life. I tell him okay.

Great! We’ll get started right away.

Doctor, what if–I’m old now. It’s been twenty years since she–

He raises a hand, Miss Ruiz, we can give you your youth back. If you want, we can make you look twenty again.

Electric, my skin on fire, I feel the burning of my cheeks as he walks away. Turning back to Sami, I whisper that we’ll be together soon and kiss the glass above her face.

#

You understand, Miss Ruiz, that this is only an aesthetic transformation. You will not actually be any younger. You are forty four and you’ll be forty four when you wake up, though you’ll look twenty. Surgery’s come a long way, but we can’t perform magic. You’ll still have all the pains and aches of a middle aged woman.

Dr Minkowski’s words cut through the fog of consciousness as I slip under.

In the blank oblivion I see us meeting again for the first time as children beneath the tree in my mother’s backyard. Before words like love turned romantic, before we taught each other how to kiss, before you lost your virginity to a man, and I fell in with punks and the slums, finding relief in music and petty crime. I saw your smile and then the day you died. Lying in your bed, gasping for life, too weak to even move. And then I see us together again, bodies entwined, so in love, finally. So deeply and perfectly together, the way we were before you became sick. You told me you loved me, do you remember? I remember. I remember every word and moment, but I’ll be old on the inside and you’ll be metal and synthetic.

And then there are muffled voices calling my name and I’m adrift in a sensationless ocean. A face appears above mine and it’s Dr Kawabata smiling. His words finally reach me and connect to meaning in my skull, How do you feel?

Immobile, I say.

He smiles, That’s temporary. You’ll have to be in here overnight to make sure your new skin takes hold properly, and we can’t have you moving around. In the morning we’ll run some tests with you walking around and so on. Make sure the skin’s flexible enough for you, and then we’ll make adjustments.

Doctor, I say and my chest tightens, breathing becomes a struggle.

Yes, Miss Ruiz?

I want you to fix the inside of me. Make me younger.

He shakes his head, I’m afraid we can’t do that. We can work to extend your life but nothing can make you younger. We’re made of meat, and meat decays.

What if you do for me what you do for her?

His smile fades and he stands straight, I can’t make a healthy person–I’m sorry, Miss Ruiz. We can discuss this tomorrow. You need sleep.

He moved out of the field of my vision and the sound of drawers opening and items jumbling around reaches me. I see him standing over me, and then darkness descends upon me again, and I fall into a void without thought or feeling.

#

How are you feeling, Miss Ruiz?

Dr Kawabata smiles over me and says, You should be able to move around now. Start slow. Just wiggle your toes and fingers. Good, that’s great. Okay, nurse, will you help her up?

The next hours consists of me walking, jumping, running, and doing various stretches. They don’t tell me why but I assume to make sure my skin doesn’t rip or limit my ability to move. At the end of the session Dr Kawabata tells me I’m free to go.

Doctor, I’d like to talk to you. About Samiah and me.

He sighs, and I follow him down corridors into his office. I begin to speak but he raises a hand, points to a seat. He closes the door, sits behind his desk, and plays at his screen for a few minutes. I flex my fingers and stare at the smoothness of my body, even the tiny dark hair follicles peering through my pores. I’m young again. The dream hits me and I bite back tears.

Okay, Dr Kawabata says, We can talk now.

What did you do?

I know what you want to talk about and I need to make sure no one knows that we discuss it. Miss Ruiz, this isn’t a simple request you’re going to be making of me and I don’t want it to exist. For either of us. You don’t know the legal and social ramifications of what you’re proposing.

I feel different. You said I wouldn’t be younger but I feel younger.

He smiles, Good. That’s psychological, but it should be enough. It is enough for almost everyone.

Won’t she feel different? Knowing that she’s not human beneath her skin?

He sighs and leans back in his chair, Life will be different for her, certainly, but there’s no reason to believe she won’t transition well to her new life. You’ll need to bring her up to speed on the changes that have happened during her decades resting.

Resting?

He smiles, Think of her like Sleeping Beauty. She was only sleeping, waiting for the kiss to cure her.

Doctor, will she age?

His brow furrows and he chews on his lip, In a sense, yes. In another, no. She will acquire new memories and so on, but her physical body won’t degrade the way ours does.

Won’t that, like, what if she doesn’t want to live with someone like me? Someone biological, who decays and dies.

Miss Ruiz, that’s all hypothetical. Isn’t it enough that you can have her back?

I’m afraid. If she’s going to live potentially forever, I want to be with her. I want to live forever with her. I feel young now, but, as you say, it’s all psychological. Maybe tomorrow or the next day, I’ll return to my age. My body’s made of meat, and meat can’t lie. I’m halfway to death and she’s only just entered her twenties.

Miss Ruiz, I want to stop you right there. Miss Said’s brain is still organic matter. Her blood is still organic. Even her organs are mostly organic. She won’t live forever, but she will live much longer than you or me. However, her brain is still her original brain. As far as we know, our brains don’t hold up that well after several decades. She’s subject to degenerative brain diseases and the simple ravages of time. Her body can live a long time and her bones will remain long after all else fades, but her brain is still her brain. In sixty to eighty years, her brain will fade, and she’ll leave this world the way we all do.

I don’t want to miss those years with her. I want a body like hers. I–

Miss Ruiz, his voice flat, Without any medical need, we can’t just build you a new body. This is a hospital, not a factory. Miss Said is getting a body because she needs it in order to live. If this is unsatisfactory, you can wait for science to cure her organic material completely and then wake her up. It could be five or fifty years. I don’t know, but it will not be today. Maybe one day you’ll be able to request a new body. Maybe even next year, but, for now, you are stuck in your original organic body. Is that clear?

I will pay you three billion credits for a new body.

His face dances through half a dozen emotions before settling on anger, I am a doctor of medicine. I am not a mechanic. You don’t make demands for parts. You get sick, and I fix you, if I can.

I reach over the desk and take his hand, Yasu, I know you. I’ve known you since you first put on that labcoat. You’ve been a guest at my home and I’ve met your wife and children. I’m not asking you to turn me into a robot. I’m asking you to give me a future with the woman I love.

#

Sami, I love you. I’ll see you when you wake up. I’ll tell you everything then. I have so much to tell you. So very much. Yasu’s changed his mind. It’s not the money either. It’s something deep inside him. He needs to be the best. To be first. He called a few days after I came out of surgery and put the idea in his head. He couldn’t sleep. He’s obsessed. We’ve put your transition to waking life on hold because of this. An extra year asleep while we sort this out. I’m sorry about that, but I need our reunion to be perfect. I don’t want you to see an old woman staring back at you.

Sleep well, dear angel. You must sleep a bit longer than we had agreed, but in six months you’ll be alive again, and I’ll be waiting.

#

Open your eyes. Jessica, it’s time.

Dr Kawabata stares down at me, stubble patches over his jaw and bags hang beneath his eyes. Hey, I say and my voice sounds like me.

How do you feel? his voice is husky, as if he hasn’t slept in a long time.

I feel fine. You look terrible, Yasu.

He smiles, And you look like you. Try standing.

My body light, I move easier than I have in a long time. We test my running, jumping, flexibility. I feel young again, able to do the splits, even. Yasu watches me and takes notes. The nurses don’t say anything and refuse to look at me, but they do what Yasu needs them to do. My skin is smooth and beautiful, but now I feel it beneath as well.

I’m ready, I say. I want to see Sami.

Yasu nods and yawns, You’re perfect now. But we should talk first.

He warns me again about how I’ll age and die internally, how my brain won’t last forever, and he talks on and on about the future of this technology and what this experiment may mean for humanity, but all I can think of is Sami’s smile when she opens her eyes for the first time in twenty years to see me, unchanged. She beat death and I beat time, and together we’ll redefine life.

#

Sami, it’s me. Can you hear me? You’ve been asleep a long time. A very long time. Open your eyes, Sami. It’s me, Jess.

Her cheek so smooth and soft, she opens her dark eyes and blinks many times, adjusting to sight and light. Jess?

Her voice, sweet and delicate, a smile erupts over my face and tears break free, Sami, you’re awake.

I’m alive?

I nod, vigorously, You’re alive.

I hug her and her scent fills me. Not the antiseptic stench of hospitals or the plastic scent I expect from her new body, but the smell she always carried. Sami’s smell.

I feel weird, she says.

I kiss her forehead, It’ll pass. You’ve been asleep a long time. You need to rest now and the doctors will run tests, but we’ll talk after.

Exiting her room, I keep looking back, my heart racing as I leave her with Yasu and his nurses who still don’t look at me.

Several hours drudge by as I wait for Sami. Reading a book that I can’t pay attention to, I wait and wait, hoping she’ll come around the corner at any moment and when she does, I leap up and rush to her side.

Pensive and quiet, she walks beside me. Faint and weak, I ask her if she’s okay.

I’m fine, she says and we take the bus back to my home. She stares out the windows as we traverse the city. Sometimes she stares at my face and touches my skin or stares at the people on the bus. They smile at her and ask where she’s from but she ignores them and returns to the window, to the scenery of our new world passing by.

Inside I begin cooking but Sami doesn’t look at me. She wanders my home, touching the many surfaces before stopping in front of the porch and staring out. Behind my house, a garden rolls over grass to a forest. Above the trees, the sun blushes and the earth rolls away, the trees rising to occlude day.

Mechanically, she eats dinner.

How is it?

She pushes her food around the plate and drops her fork, The doctors said I was out for twenty years. I didn’t believe them until we got on that bus. Where is everyone?

I put down my fork and drink some water, Sami, there was a plague. It started in the 20th century. Remember all those biology lessons about antibiotics? It turns out our professors were right. By discovering penicillin, humanity sowed its own greatest threat. Antibiotics spread and multiplied, becoming so common and so widely used that they even pumped their food full of it. Hearts in the right place, their brains and science dragged behind, and by the time we discovered how quickly bacteria mutated and evolved, our greatest armor against them became more and more useless. A hundred years ago, the plague would’ve been nothing, but here, in our fragile new world, the simple sickness transformed and evolved and tore through humanity. Billions of people dying.

How many? still she keeps her eyes down, on her hands.

Five and a half billion.

She nods and eats.

After dinner she goes to her room and locks the door behind her.

#

She sits in the grass of the backyard, digging her fingers into the earth.

How are you today?

She still doesn’t look at me, I smell weird. I don’t smell like myself. I don’t feel like myself.

Lightning splinters my spine, It’ll take you some time to get used to life again. You’ve been asleep a long time.

So you keep saying.

I sit beside her and talk about the clouds and the wind but she only asks me why the nurses wouldn’t look at her or call her by name at the hospital.

The day passes slow and lonely. She walks through the forest and around the house, touching things, smelling them, tasting them. When it gets dark, she goes to her room and locks the door.

#

She spends the entire next day in her room and only speaks in monosyllables through the door.

I turn on the shower, sit on the toilet and cry for most of the day. I make sure I can see her room from wherever I go in the house, and I spend two hours pressed against her wall, silently begging for her to return to me. Sami, my Sami.

#

She eats eggs without looking up at me or thanking me. Coffee and orange juice and toast and I become her servant.

Why did I survive?

I cough, my stomach dropping a thousand feet through the earth, Sami, look at me.

She raises her eyes.

Even in this new body, anxiety and fear and pain run through me and I say, I had the money to keep you alive, so I did. I kept you alive until we could bring you back.

Why are you still young?

Because I chose to be. Because you’re still the age you were when you got sick, and I didn’t want to meet you as an old woman.

Twenty years doesn’t make you old, her voice flat.

It’s twice your age.

No, I’m forty five. I’ve just been trapped in my twenties.

Sami, I–

It’s selfish. Billions of people die and you kept me alive, in youth. You’re selfish, Jess. You made yourself young out of selfishness. You kept me alive out of selfishness. What if I wanted to die? Why are there no people in the city still? When did the plague end?

I fight through the pain of her words and tell myself she’s just frustrated by missing decades of her life, The plague’s not really over.

But you said I was cured.

Inhaling deep and exhaling slow, We have to keep cities sparsely populated. The plague is very communicable and it spreads quickly, deathly. If there’s an outbreak, keeping the population density low helps us protect the species from extinction. It’s a biological imperative. There are no more concerts or sporting events like you remember. No international events with people from all over the world packed together. Kids growing up now will never know what it’s like to dance in a nightclub or fight in a moshpit or cheer for their country to beat another at a silly game.

You’ve woken me up to a nightmare. A dead and dying world.

I reach across the table but she leans away in her chair, I brought you back to be with you. I love you, Sami. I’ve never stopped loving you.

She stares at me, boring through my skin and titanium skull, I don’t even know you. The girl I knew has lived through a cataclysm. You probably don’t even remember me as I was. You’ve kept watch over my lifeless body all this time. That’s what it was, wasn’t it? Just a body. I died. I died a long time ago and you–

No, I screamed and ran to her but she jumped away. My voice weak and cracked, Sami, I brought you back–

How? There’s no cure, so how?

Sami, I say as the weight of the last twenty years drags me under a pestilent ocean.

Did I die?

I shake my head, tears running down my face, I built a new body for you.

Her eyes open wide, What does that mean? her voice sharp and painful, piercing me through a thousand times. With every word, I feel the world slipping away from me.

There was no cure, but we could make you a new body, so I did. I built you a new life. A new body for a new world. You’ll never be sick again. You’ll never have to worry about anything. You’re better.

Slowly, she sinks to the wood of my floor. Her legs give out and she collapses. Her voice weak, I feel dizzy. I feel so weird.

Rushing to her, she bats my hands away and demands I not touch her.

You did this, she says. Her eyes are wide and dart back and forth. You did this to me. You changed me. You built me a body. I’m not even real anymore. I died. And now I’m dead and walking and talking.

Sami, your body is synthetic but it’s still you. Life isn’t about what’s inside your body but about what all those parts make.

She scowls and focuses on my face, I am my body! I was, anyway.

Sami, please.

She pushes me away again and stands, her voice quiet, I want to know what you did to me. What that doctor did to me.

I call her name but she keeps walking so I chase her and she strikes me, pushes me away, screams, and keeps walking.

Weeks without her, I’ve peeled away my skin. Beneath my skin is a new world. A new life. Mechanical and beautiful. I watch the pulsing of my organs, the beating of my heart. My body, better than meat. I pull out my synthetic hair and my acrylic nails. I take my skin, hair, and nails and burn them on a pyre in my backyard. The forest calls and I walk. I walk until the canopy protects me, and I walk on, past rivers and animals, through birdsongs and swarms of bees. I find more rivers and follow them out of forests to plains immense, through storms and deserts. I find mountains and climb. The snow surrounds me and I watch the sun tumbling over the horizon, the light dying in the sky. I sit in the lotus position and watch the world roll over. I dream of Sami and hope she’s okay. I hope she chooses to live, even if she must live an artificial and synthetic life. I imagine her meeting a man, a handsome one. Maybe he doesn’t know what she is, and maybe he’ll never know. Or maybe he does and he loves her anyway.

The sky’s beautiful at night up above the world. I remember the sky of my youth, the way the lights of the cities turned it into an inky blueblack fabric spread over the world. Now, there are so few lights across the world that the sky’s taken them all. Rivers of stars wind above and beyond me. I see my name written there and find the silhouette of my face painted deep and far away.

I think I’ll stay here.

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