Authors: David D. Levine
Tags: #Science Fiction, #Novellas
David D. Levine
Book View Café Edition
July 10, 2013
Copyright © 2013 David D. Levine
I closed my eyes. The technician smeared my eyelids with a cold gel that smelled of disinfectant, then gently pressed the last set of metal electrodes in place. “All right now, Mister Eades,” she said, “it’ll just be a moment more.”
And then I was falling.
I gasped and jerked spasmodically. But a foul sticky fluid filled my mouth and nose, and my arms and legs met resistance—something hard and cold encased me on all sides. Coughing, choking, retching, I pounded my fists against the smooth unyielding surface. I couldn’t see a thing.
Oh Lord Jesus, I prayed, let me wake from this nightmare. But no dream had ever gripped me with such visceral intensity—trapped, blind, suffocating, tumbling headlong from some unknown height and moments from smashing against the ground—for so long. Still coughing, I brought my knees up to my chest and shoved my feet against the encasing walls, but my legs felt wrong... frail and thin and weak.
Then the lid sprang open of its own accord, sending me tumbling out into the bright chill air. Blinded by the sudden light, barely able to force my eyes open against the coughing spasms that wracked my chest, I thrashed desperately to catch myself on something, anything.
But I was not falling.
My gut and my ears told me I was plummeting uncontrollably through space. My eyes told me I was drifting away, gently rotating, from a man-sized lozenge of white plastic—a vivification capsule. It lay open like a clam. The inner surface glistened with a gray, viscous fluid. A moment later I bumped into a stack of boxes bungee’d to the far wall of the room.
The capsule was fastened to the wall of a small pie-wedge-shaped room. It was one of seven such capsules; the others were dry and empty. Most of the rest of the space was filled with bundles of clothing, boxes, and canisters. I knew this room—or a training version of it. But the version I’d known had not been crammed with unused equipment, and I had never experienced it without gravity.
I was in space. Aboard
. For real.
No. This couldn’t be. The first scan was only supposed to be a backup.
Maybe this was some kind of test.
Another fit of hacking, retching coughs made me curl around my aching abdomen, hacking out gout after gout of hot gray mucus from my mouth and nose onto my bare legs. Some of it stuck there, the gray of it looking sickly pale against my dark brown skin. Most floated away in loose obscene gobbets. I tasted phlegm and salt.
I was naked.
I shuddered in the chill air and clutched my legs against my chest—and stopped, amazed. No flabby belly intervened. No aching knees, no creaky hips. I was thin and lithe, with skin as smooth and unmarked as a baby’s brown bottom. I inspected my left thumb—the old scar that had cut across the knuckle and permanently marked the nail, souvenir of a broken beaker in a high-school chemistry class, was gone.
No. Not gone.
Had never been there.
My heart raced, and I struggled to control my breathing. I squeezed my eyes shut. Oh, dear Jesus. This was no test.
I wasn’t me.
I was a clone. A copy of my body, grown by machines and implanted with a copy of my mind.
Shivers ran through my torso, tendrils of steam drifting lazily away from me in the cold still air, as I tried to get a handle on the situation. I was on
, that much was certain, but clearly something had gone very, very wrong. I was supposed to be sedated for the difficult process of rebirth. There was supposed to be someone here to help me. And my memories were supposed to include two and a half years of intensive astronaut training, not just six months.
I twisted in the air, groping for a bungee cord, but misjudged my reach and scraped my hand on the rough plastic panel joint next to it. My body was all wrong—too thin, too long, the skin as delicate as a newborn’s; my hands and feet wouldn’t go where I wanted. My heart pounded and I took slow, deep breaths to calm myself. On the second try I managed to hook a finger through the cord and pull myself to the cluttered wall. I clung there, panting, reveling in the small triumph.
The many small compartments that lined the walls behind the stacked boxes and cans all bore tidy labels—square machine-produced letters fabricated right into the plastic—and I soon found a towel and wiped the gray slime off myself. One of the bundles gave up a white coverall, rough and over-large. I had never before realized how much I depended on gravity in putting on a pair of pants, but eventually I managed to dress myself and find slippers for my feet. Thank you, Jesus.
The door, a plain plastic panel closed with a simple latch, led to a habitation bay: four doors opening onto a circular space about three meters across and two high, smelling of fresh plastic. I couldn’t tell which of
’s five modules I was in. All five hab bays were identical, with a food prep area and a big wall screen—currently displaying a shimmering grid of colored squares that meant nothing to me—and a circular port in the “ceiling” leading to the adjacent work bay. I pushed off from the wall, caught myself awkwardly on the padded rail that rimmed the port, and pulled myself through.
The work bay was a large cylinder, eight meters in diameter and thirty long, divided into work stations by open-weave plastic partitions. The open central way extended from the hab bay port I’d just come out of, which we called the “bottom,” to the systems bay port at the “top.” At the waist of the cylinder two other ports led to the work bays of the adjacent modules.
Everything I could see was made of fresh gray or black plastic. Gray plastic bulkheads reeked of solvents. Black foam pads on corners and edges showed no wear. Taut gray fabric panels stretched crisp and pristine. Each of the ship’s five modules had been boosted all the way from Earth, at great energy cost, as a densely-packed bundle of metal parts, electronics, and complex mechanisms. The ship then self-assembled here at Tau Ceti, fabricating its plastic parts from local hydrocarbons, and color was an unnecessary luxury. The only relief from the monochromatic came from the false colors of scientific displays glowing on some of the monitors. And there were no windows; transparency was difficult to fabricate. The only views outside were from the airlocks at either end of the cylinder.
This place was my home—my whole world—for the rest of this life. Which might be short.
Movement caught my eye: a teenaged white girl, just pulling her head from an open maintenance panel. Tall and waif-thin, with pale, pale skin and a short brush of red-blonde hair, she wore white coveralls just like mine, equally poorly fitting on her gamine frame. Who was this girl and what was she doing on board
As soon as she saw me, she gasped, and paled still further. “Chaz?” she said, nearly choking on my name, and when I heard her voice I suddenly realized who she was.
Kyra. Kyra McCullough.
The last time I’d seen her she’d been a sturdy matron of fifty-one who wore her thick gray hair in a braid.
For a moment we just gaped at each other, hanging blinking in the air. Kyra was supposed to have awakened on mission day three, same as I, but the way she moved showed that she was already acclimated to free-fall. Something very wrong was happening here.
“Yeah, it’s me,” I said. My voice sounded strange—too high, too thin. “I... I just vived. It was... rough. No sedatives. And my memories... Kyra, I don’t remember a single thing after initial scan.”
“Oh, Chaz...” Her eyes glistened, but she didn’t say anything more.
“What day is it?”
“Uh... day ten.”
“And I’m the only one who... overslept?”
She swallowed. “Yes.”
So they’d all been awake for a week or more without me. “Did anyone else have any... memory problems?”
“No. Everyone’s clear, right up to final scan.” She stopped, blinked. “Well, except you. I... Chaz, I’m so sorry... we were... we were going to...”
“Why wasn’t anyone there to help me through vivification?” I was starting to get peeved. “You could at least have handed me a darn towel.”
“I... I’m sorry. You weren’t supposed to w... uh, to wake up by yourself.”
“And who the
decided to vive me with outdated memories?” I spat.
The initial synaptic recordings that had been placed on board along with our cell samples were only a last-ditch backup; they were not supposed to be used unless
failed to receive
of the scans transmitted from Earth during the two years after launch. And from what Kyra had said, that hadn’t happened. I gave up a lot to join the first crewed expedition to another star, but I still had the Constitutional right to control the destiny of my consciousness, and I had
consented to be vived with outdated and untrained memories unless there were absolutely no alternative.
“Chaz....” She swallowed. “We... we didn’t...”
She paused again, seeming to gather herself. She still hadn’t moved from the spot she’d been working when I entered the work bay.
“Chaz, you... you died.”
“I... died.” Repeating the word didn’t make it any more comprehensible. It was as though my ears could parse the sound, but my brain couldn’t attach any meaning to it.
“You died. Almost two years ago... I mean, two years before final scan. Just a week before scan number two. You were hit by a car in a crosswalk. The driver was on skip. We all went to your funeral. Tien sang ‘Rising to the Light,’ it was so beautiful, and the Director said that you...” She seemed to hear what she was saying and cut herself off. “Oh, God...” She wiped her nose on her sleeve. “I’m so sorry, Chaz, I’m such an idiot...”
I realized I had let go of the rail and was floating stupidly in the middle of the port. It must be a mistake. I couldn’t be dead.
But I could be. Most likely we all were.
had reached Tau Ceti on the original schedule, my last Earthbound memories were over eighty years old: forty years of boost from the drive lasers in Earth orbit, thirty years coasting, two years of repeated aerobraking maneuvers in the target system’s three Neptune-sized gas giants, and ten or twenty years with
’s automated systems gathering raw materials and assembling habitations, equipment... and crew. If Kyra were still alive back home, she’d be at least a hundred and forty.
She might be. But I wasn’t. This... this copy of me, was the only one.
For a moment I wondered why I hadn’t simply been replaced when I died. But
was scheduled to launch—no,
launched—just days after first scan, with those initial scans and our cell samples on board. After that point, the crew roster was irrevocably fixed.
I must have cheered as the boosters had thundered into the Florida sky. Not knowing I’d be dead in less than three months. Or that my clone would be vived eighty years later with no memory of the event. Trying to make sense of the mixture of future and past made my head hurt.
“Well,” I managed at last. My eyes were dry, but I felt brittle and hollow inside, as though I were a mockup of myself built from papier-mâché and chicken wire. Why should I be reacting this way to the news that a body I once occupied had died over eighty years ago?
was alive, thank Jesus. And I was on the greatest scientific expedition in human history.
An expedition from which I would never return.
God was everywhere in the Universe, I knew, and before I’d even sent in my application I’d consulted with my pastor and satisfied myself that my clone’s soul would be welcomed in Heaven at the end of its mission to Tau Ceti. But now that
was the clone, faced with the reality of my own original’s death, I wondered anew. How could I be certain that God would not consider this mission a form of extended, technologically-assisted suicide?
I blinked and saw that Kyra was still floating in the same spot. It was as though she feared death might be contagious. “Can I get you something?” she asked. “Something to drink?”