It’s six months after she died before he finally gets the call to go and collect her from the airport. He doesn’t bother to listen to their excuses, just pulls on his coat and boots, rushes from the house and runs down to the station to wait, panting and impatient, for the next cable car across the valley.
His agitation abates after he settles into his seat. He stares at his reflection in the window. His breath condenses on the cold glass. He leans his head back against the seat, closes his eyes and lets his mind drift.
Fleeting showers chase each other across an otherwise sunny day. Saltwater mixes with sweet on his cheeks and soil thuds onto the lid of the empty coffin…
He awakes with a start, into darkness. The hot weight of her back against his arm and the sound of her breathing tell him it was only a dream. For some minutes, he’s lost between past and present. Then he remembers. And knows that tomorrow he’ll confront dull eyes and a vacant mind. A living doll, hollow imitation of all that she once was.
“I’m glad you’re still living here,” she says.
She stands by the window, silhouetted against the evening light. Her hair makes a wavy halo around her head. Behind her, blue ghosts of mountains fade into the sky. He feels a thrill, again, to have her speak, engaging without him speaking first.
“I’m glad you’re back.” It doesn’t sound so foolish, now they’re home. Her face is in darkness, but he can feel her smile. “All your things are in the end room. There’s a bed made up.”
“We’re not sharing?”
Past echoes raise the hairs on the back of his neck. He gives the same answer: “You remember me. But those are someone else’s memories. You don’t know me yet.”
“You’re older than I remember,” she says. “You didn’t have any grey hairs before.”
“Eight years older.”
Cold air burns his lungs after the heated cable car. He winces at the dying shriek of the dirigible’s turbofans and spares an upward glance at the quarter-kilometre twin hull, marshmallow white with a double blue band around its waist. A cloud with racing stripes.
The terminal building is crowded. He finds her in the alcove beside the ticket office. Her solitude amidst the hubbub marks her out. His chest feels like it will burst at the sight of her.
He drinks in the details, missed for so long. Wide blue eyes and a heart-shaped face, small mouth, pointed chin, a scatter of freckles across her nose and cheeks. Fair hair, worn loose around her shoulders, kinking to follow the line of her jaw. A petite frame but well fleshed.
She’s taller than she used to be. They got that wrong the first time and he decided he liked it. Other things have changed too – nose, breasts, ankles, the set of her eyes – ironing out the flaws of the original.
She sees him as he reaches for her, gives a tiny smile of recognition, hesitant at meeting the man of her dreams for the first time. Her memories are fabricated. Concocted from photos and videos and his own recollections. Stolen from elsewhere to build her a childhood.
He grins in return and takes her hands in his, thrilled that she smiled first. Her smile widens in relief and sudden certainty.
“I’m glad you’re back,” he says. An inane statement, and slightly foolish, since his joy is plain to see and she is here for the first time.
She says nothing in return. He doesn’t mind at all, he can feel the contentment that radiates from her.
He leads her back to the cable car platform. The car he arrived in is about to depart on its return journey. They hurry through the doors. It lurches forward as they look for seats.
“How did I die?”
The question startles him. He looks up from his newspaper. She stops in the doorway, doesn’t step out onto the balcony. Watches him expectantly.
“We were on holiday,” he manages to answer. “You fell…”
…his head hangs over the edge of the cliff. His hands and knees are bruised and skinned as he almost falls himself. Her body lies broken on the rocks below. Limbs bend where they shouldn’t. Her keening carries up to him over the rumble and hiss of the waves.
The sea reaches out a delicate finger, lifts her from the rocks and bears her away. He teeters on the brink and scrambles back…
He drags himself into the present. He’s sweating, his breath shallow and rapid.
Her face is pale, seeing his distress. Their eyes meet. Belatedly, the aversion programme kicks in. She realises she doesn’t want to know, after all. He’s upset, nonetheless, that she was even able to ask.
She changes the subject, but not to one that’s any easier to discuss.
“Have you been alone all this time?”
He looks away, struggling for composure. His mind is empty of the response he’s rehearsed. He nods.
“You never wanted to find someone else?”
He shakes his head and silently wishes for her to go away. A minute later he hears the door slide shut.
The other passengers in the cable car are all his neighbours, but their greetings to him are perfunctory as he leads her along the aisle. They speak to her not at all, although their eyes linger. She discomforts them, blurs the distinction between human and the organic constructs they all own.
Ignorant, she spares barely a glance for the pliant, blank-eyed slaves that stand together in the luggage space at the back of the car.
The front-most seats are vacant, as they usually are. There is too little room for his knees and he has to wedge himself in. He doesn’t mind, since this means he must sit with his leg pressed against hers.
The cable car hauls itself up the slope from the airport. The sun is directly ahead of them and its glare turns the window efflorescent white. They ascend into heaven.
The car pauses when it reaches the edge of the valley, as though to catch its breath, before plunging past. The ground drops away sharply as it continues on, unhurried after the initial drop.
The cable from which they hang seems as insubstantial as a spider’s thread, anchored to nothingness by the repeller buoys that grasp it every few hundred metres. Today they share the sky with a hawk. It drifts lazily across their path as the cable car ambles along.
Beside him, her lips part in a gasp. Her eyes glisten with tears. Her hand seeks his.
Her emotions are as carefully sculpted as her body, every response a pre-defined instruction from the organic processor inside her head. He knows it, but the sleight of hand is so skilled the imitation transgresses into the real.
Besides, he tells himself, am I any different?Aren’t we all just constructs, dreaming that we’re real?
“This isn’t the first time you’ve brought me back, is it?”
The knife hangs over the chopping board. Blood pounds in his ears. Damn them, they should have fixed this.
He resumes cutting and pretends confusion.
She goes on. “I went out today, down to the store. A man I don’t know was speaking to the shopkeeper. He said he could hardly believe I was just a construct.”
“It’s what they’re supposed to think. Clones are illegal…”
She cuts him off, her words harsh. “He said he thought my tits were better the last time. He said this was the best arse they’d sculpted on me.”
He stops cutting again. He shuts his eyes against the crude words and wishes he could shut his ears.
“I asked him why he would say that. He wouldn’t answer. He just walked out.”
She falls silent. He looks to see if she is still there. She’s tearful as she meets his gaze. Her voice remains taut. “Is it true? Am I just a construct?”
He watches while some mechanical part of him tries to answer. Fails.
He stares at his hands.
“Is anything of what I am real?”
“Yes,” his mouth whispers. No! His mind screams.
The question disorients him. Life and faux-lives run together.
“The first time…” His voice betrays him, speaks the thought aloud.
She pounces on it. “How many times have you brought me back?”
He holds down the panicked response that surges up from his chest. He’s queasy with deja vu.
“Three.” He can barely get any sound past his throat.
“Three?” Her voice breaks over the word.
He’s numb and helpless to save himself.
His vision blurs. He shakes his head.
“…she’s too simple. She’s boring. And creepy. She won’t occupy herself. She just stands there. She’s like a fucking appliance.”
She is an appliance, their long silence replies, and you’re a sick fuck.
Sick fucks, yourselves. Don’t pretend you’re not enjoying your petty godhood.
“If we replaced her, we could explore a… higher level of complexity, more self-direction. Her behaviour would be less predictable.”
He looks down at the meat-factory floor, at all the unsculpted bodies, inert in their translucent sarcophagi.
“Make her as real as you can…”
“Three. I’m the third. Then do I only live four years, or do you kill me every time?”
“No!” He chokes on the lie. I can’t kill you, his traitor mind says, you’re just a fucking appliance.
He faces her, pleading.
“I can’t stay here. I’m leaving.”
“No.” The knife comes up, unbidden.
Her face drains of colour.
…she looks so tiny lying at his feet. Empty eyes stare at nothing and blood mats her blonde hair. He can’t remember how this happened… The sea breeze whips her hair about her face. Dark lenses hide her eyes, her expression cool while he shatters inside… There’s blood on the tiles, on his hand, locked around the handle of a bloody knife. He unclenches his fingers…
The blade clatters loudly on the floor.
The noise releases her. She flees.
Equilibrium returns. The knife lies at his feet.
He won’t need it this time. He has a termination code, after the last disaster.
He stops to put on his coat. There’s no need to hurry, her initiative will fail before she gets too far. He follows her outside.
He opens his eyes and lets the light burn the nightmares away.
The cable car is raucous with the voices of the other passengers, but she is able to wrap her silence about her like a cloak. Sitting beside her, he’s encompassed by the peaceful shroud.
He basks in the warmth of the sun, the unperfumed smell of her, the touch of her fingers in his palm, the heat of her, where her hip and thigh press against his.
He lets out a sigh that has waited half a year for release.
(c) Ian McHugh, 2003