by Ian Grosz
Even from the two hundred and twenty second floor of my apartment building the city appeared endless. It stretched out in all directions as far as you could see, its spires and towers reaching up to a huge domed sky. I remember watching a storm that night, as though it were real sky up there, real lightning. But it was always too remote to be of any consequence: silently flashing and splintering always at some indeterminate distance, just a disturbance in the Stream. The city was the Stream, and the Stream was everything. It was you and me, the past, the future. It was knowledge and pain and separation and togetherness. It was all the gods that ever were and ever would be. It flowed through the city and through all of us. The city grew with it, was born out of it. Nothing could exist without the Stream.
Your father was lying on the bed, his skin still moist. It glistened in the dim glow of the apartment. We’d had sex. We had a lot of sex. Sometimes he seemed to want to consume me – not control me—actually consume me: like he wanted the essence of me. It was as though he wanted something he didn’t have, couldn’t have: the purity of my code, maybe. I was used to that with Naturals. They were like that. It was imperfection I wanted. Maybe that’s why I wanted him too, for a time. The City thought we all lived as one. It was a joke, a not very funny joke.
“Seven hundred and fifty million lives all living as one,” I said.
“That’s what they say,” he said. He rose in that languid way lovers do, and padded across to the window to join me. We stood there, naked together, and gazed out at that impossible cosmology. The liquid crystal glow of it bathed the apartment in an unnatural light, a cold light. It seemed to occupy the spaces between the darkness rather than pushing it out.
“I wonder what it’s like,” I said. “Outside.”
He smiled. “Maybe we’ll find out,” he said. Yes, maybe we’ll find out.
Below us on a rooftop garden, I saw the trees swaying in the wind, their leaves tugged and harassed, and yet they clung on.
In the Psych Interview they brought me one of mine.
“Tell us about your Purpose,” they said.
“What do you want to know?” I said.
“Does it satisfy you?”
I didn’t know what to say, so I told them what they wanted to hear. “Yes, perfectly,” I told them.
“Perfectly…but not completely?”
I saw that they knew me. “No, not completely.” There was no point hiding it. They took me to a brightly lit room. White walls. White floor. No windows. In the middle of it there was a cot, and in the cot an infant lay sleeping.
“Would you like to hold her?” they asked me.
I didn’t know what to do. What could I do? I smiled: not a real smile; it was a twitch of instinctual social etiquette they’d taught me right from being grown, right from being made up for seeding. I couldn’t move. I just stood still there, staring blankly at the bundle of white cloth in the cot, smiling this pathetic fixed smile and terrified of this thing that had come to test me.
“Is it…?” I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t…form my words.
“One of your clutch?” Just like that they said it.
Yes. I nodded.
“Would that matter?” they asked me.
Would that matter? I shrugged, and they watched me closely. What did matter? But inside I burned to know it.
“Go on, 352,” they said. “She won’t mind; she’s a very tolerant child.”
I held that flat smile, and that word, tolerant, bothered me for a reason I could not grasp. I wasn’t shaking, but I felt like I was, and I held out my arms and carefully picked up the child. I drew the infant in to me. Its head wobbled over my shoulder, and our cheeks touched. I felt the soft newness of its skin against my own, the smell of it part of me, the warmth of it filling me. I forgot myself, forgot the City, and for a moment there was just me and that life in that room, and nothing else mattered. Everything else simply disappeared.
They moved to take the child from me. I had to fight an impulse to hold on, to not let her go, but I smiled, and gently I handed the child back. I felt the absence in my arms, a sudden physical lack of weight, of being. I realised that it had always been there without my knowing it: that strange aching emptiness, that unfocussed desire. How does emptiness enter you? I decided at that moment that I would create something new from myself, something unique.
He took me to the Skylight.
“Your destination, please?” the sky-pod asked us.
“The Skylight,” he said.
“The Skylight: floor two four two. Please use the handrails.”
The doors closed behind us, and we felt ourselves being pressed to the floor slightly as the pod rushed skyward. I watched the streets receding rapidly below us, and for a moment felt that I couldn’t breathe. That night I felt like the world was slipping away from me, out beyond my reach.
“Sell your dreams,” the pod said. “Earn credits while you sleep.”
The Skylight was one of the oldest bars in the city. It’s where we first met, your father and I, where I told him about my idea. Around the outer edge of the circular room was a full-length viewing window that curved its way around a row of dimly lit seating-bays. In them, people sat and drank, staring out across the city, or hooked up to the Stream dreaming other people’s dreams. He guided me into a seat that would give us some privacy, and ordered drinks. They had this old Touch Air Menu—it was a nice detail.
“A proper drink?” he asked me.
“What else is there?” I said.
He was watching me, waiting for a response, but I was browsing the news-stream feed. Two hundred Anti-Birth Control activists had been caught and sent for re-education by the City. I knew what that meant.
“Sorry,” I said. “A Zero Vino, please.”
“One Zero Vino, one Coral and Ice, Faber account.”
He was slick like that, or tried to be.
There was something nice about that place. For a short time you could disconnect, temporarily abandon the city. You could pretend that you were Ingrid Bergman drinking cocktails with Humphrey Bogart, and not in a dream-space but for real, except that none of the staff were very convincing. The Service-Bots were antique in that place, too. I felt sorry for them, but it added to the charm. “Enjoy your drinks,” they’d say. “But don’t drink ‘til you drop.” And people would laugh and do just the opposite.
We sat there sipping our drinks, staring out at the city we could forget for a while, and we waited. And we didn’t speak. Naturals always avoided eye contact. I learned to do it to make them feel more at ease, but there was something between us: a tension.
“It’s as though you were elsewhere,” he said eventually.
“Sorry,” I said, smiling.
“I don’t know. I’m never sure what you’re thinking,” he said.
I kept my smile. “You’re too sensitive,” I told him, and turned away again.
“I love you, that’s all,” he said, and reached out across the table and took my hands in his.
“You love me; that’s all you say,” I said, and I pulled my hands away and took a sip of my drink. I felt hemmed in, manipulated. It was me that was supposed to be doing the manipulating. It hadn’t been difficult for me to seduce him: men were never difficult for me. I had thought that his position in the City would help sway the Birth Control panel, but I had been wrong, and now I felt that everything might be wrong. And yet there was hope.
“Don’t you want me to love you?” he said.
All naturals were like that: obsessed with love, with being wanted, being needed, and I didn’t understand. “I don’t know,” I told him. I couldn’t hold his gaze now, for real, and I didn’t like that. I looked blankly toward the window and the city beyond. I felt his hand on my arm, and I could feel his need for me. I searched for recognition of the same need inside of myself, but I found none.
“He’s here,” your father said, suddenly. “He’s here.”
And I saw him, a tall and strangely beautiful man. I could tell he was a clone. He was built too perfectly, held features too symmetrical to be a natural. But he had that lost look: dark, sleepless eyes—hollow almost—and there were razor cuts to his shaved scalp. As he approached he showed some signs of ageing: a slight rounding of his shoulders, a slight bias to his left side, yes, and lines on his forehead and around those eyes. I guessed he must have stopped taking the Therapy, and it frightened me.
“Sarah sent me,” he said.
Your father nodded and invited him to sit.
The clone looked at me, studying me with those hollow eyes. There was a longing in them, a look of things being too late. He sat opposite us. “What’s your Purpose?” he asked me. His voice was smooth, not rough, not blemished perfection like his face, but smooth like the skin of a child. There was an innocence to it. I felt I knew him.
“I’ve been retired,” I told him. “I was a seeder.”
He looked at me blankly.
“For the repopulation programme,” I said.
He nodded slowly and gave me a knowing-smile. “You’ll find greater things,” he said to me. Yes that was it: greater things.
“Have you?” I asked him.
He dropped his eyes a moment; then looked up. “Faith,” he told me. It was a curious word, an old word, from another time.
“You’ve stopped the Therapy,” I said.
“Same reason as the others,” he told me. “I want to understand the value of life.”
He spoke like that. Straight. Smooth. I studied him, tried to see what lay behind his eyes, but could not. “What did you do before?” I asked him.
Your father took my hand and shifted in the seat next to me. “Eve…” he said. He didn’t want me to ask these questions. I know why, now. But I didn’t then.
“It’s okay,” the clone said, smiling still. Then he turned to look directly at your father for the first time. “I ended people,” he said, and I thought that I saw a flicker of pleasure across his thin lips. “People like you,” he added, turning his eyes back to me. I wondered how many.
Your father was getting uncomfortable. “Look,” he said. “We didn’t come here to…”
The clone cut him off. “For them,” he said, glaring at him. “That was my Purpose.”
“And now you help people,” I said. “People like us?”
I couldn’t answer, and felt wrong for saying it. “And they let you be free?” I asked him.
“No,” he said. “I’m not connected, no implant. They made me difficult to trace.”
I continued to watch him. There was a desire for him that I felt from a distant place, from a long time back, as though I had dreamt him and now here he was.
“I will take you to Sarah,” he told us. “She will explain everything.”
Your father smiled at me, squeezed my hand, but he seemed uncomfortable; like he really needed us to leave.
“You must trust us,” the clone went on. “We need to hide you in the Stream.” And he handed us each a small container, in which was a single, clear eye-lens. “Use them on your left eye,” he told us.
They masked our implant signals, created ghost trails in the Stream for just long enough that the Stream couldn’t trace us and we could move around as we wished. The Stream would be blind to us—the real us—while a ghost us lived on.
We made our way through the city’s airless, ground level streets to the Old Quarter. Vendors sold roasted insects wrapped in bamboo leaves, coma bars sold synthetic drugs, and synthetic prostitutes gave orgasms in brightly lit hotel rooms. We kept our heads down and we kept walking. Everything there was available for a price, and all around us was the stench and the look of the lost. They hung around Stream stations, their vacant eyes glowing with the blue light of dreaming. I saw something of myself there that night, and I yearned to leave.
The room was bathed in a pale yellow light, a ghost patchwork of green on the walls from all the plants: a room full of plants overflowing from pots of all sizes. On the wall was a picture of the earth. Blue and green, covered in swirling white cloud, and still with two beautiful ice caps, its colours shimmered in the half-light. It was not like the glow from the city, but another kind of glow, radiant, and primal. We waited, sitting quietly, holding hands. He liked that, your father, to hold hands.
A woman appeared. She was different. She was a natural, but she was old.
“I am Sarah,” she said. “I work for Eden. They will help to get you out.”
I saw she was studying me, this old woman, but she wasn’t judging me.
“It’s okay,” she said. “This way, please.”
We followed her to a garden terrace where we were invited to sit on long, easy chairs arranged informally. It had been raining, and there was a scent of honeysuckle. It stirred something in me: a longing for something lost that I could not place. It filled me with sadness. I hadn’t known sadness before then, a way to define it, and that’s it. It’s the scent of honeysuckle, all the loss of the world conveyed back to us in olfactory form, the scent of all the souls that have passed, or that have never been born.
“We will help you,” she said. “But you must understand what this will mean, what the consequences will be.”
Your father squeezed my hand.
“You will no longer exist,” she said.
I wasn’t sure what she meant exactly, but I understood this to be an ending as much as a beginning.
“To have the sterilisation reversed means breaking the law, reversing the control and judgement of the City, going against the decision of the Birth Control Panel,” she said.
“They found me unsuitable,” I told her.
“You know their policy.”
I’d known it my whole life. To be granted a Birth Right even as a natural was difficult, and seeders susceptible to irrational emotions were not part of their vision. “My Purpose,” I explained to her. “It hasn’t prepared me for nurture.”
She looked at me, not dismissively, no. Was it with pity? “We found that you are capable of normal empathy,” she said. That was it: normal empathy. “And with the right support…” She smiled, and glanced across at your father. “We can help to…” She paused, taking a breath. “Re-educate you,” she said.
I began to feel hot, and resisted an urge to leave. And then she told us, told me what was expected: the way it had to be.
“Committing to this means that you must become outcast and disconnect from the Stream,” she said. “Exist outside of the City,” she said.
Outside of everything I had known and had prepared for in my growing, and for what? Desire? Had my desire become so great? An unstoppable tide that I could no longer hold back?
“There are no guarantees,” she told me. “You understand? Once the sterilisation is reversed it will be up to you to create a pregnancy. You can never come back. Once you disconnect you will be missing. Your data will be erased, your futures blocked.”
I could not help staring at the creases around her eyes. I remember the intricate pattern of lines on her face like the veins of a leaf, like the archive images of the old river systems from space.
“You won’t be alone in this,” she said, “but it is not a decision that you can reverse.” She watched us both closely. Then she turned, and spoke to me directly. “One last thing,” she said. “You will live a natural lifespan, you understand that?”
“Yes,” I replied, and saw her eyes searching for something in me. I glanced across at your father and saw the same questioning. I looked away. All I could think of was the clone, the hollow look to his eyes.
“You will die as naturals do: aged and in pain, at a time that will be uncertain,”
“You will become weaker. Your bones will become brittle, more prone to breakage. Joints will become swollen and sore, and you will be vulnerable to disease. You will no longer have the Therapy.”
I knew all of these things, of course.
“And there is the Deficiency. You know about this, Eve,” she said.
I nodded, dumbly. “Yes,” I said. I looked across to your father but he avoided my gaze.
“Will it…” I wanted to know, “…affect me?’
“It could,” she said. “That is… it might affect your children.”
I pictured the countless rows of incubators I had filled with the fruits of my own Deficiency free fertility, the fertile eggs taken from me one clutch after another, the eggs taken from all the Eves of the Seeding Programme, like a dream of the ghosts of all the people that ever were and ever will be, part of you and yet unknown. I felt a sadness welling inside me again and was surprised by it. I pushed it back down. I smiled. Your father looked across to me, and now that it had come to it, I was afraid that I would be found incapable. “How long…?”
“Lifespan?” she asked.
I couldn’t speak. I nodded.
“It cannot be known for sure; there are many variables, but you are strong, healthy; you will live a good life if you are careful.”
To live a good life…what did that mean?
“We see many colonies beginning to thrive outside. The system has recovered quickly since the wars, and conditions are better than they tell us,” she said. “And of course,” she smiled, “you will both be free.”
“Outside?” I said.
“Yes,” she said. “Outside. You will no longer need to be what they make you, Eve.”
I watched her mouth as she spoke, the edges of her lips ill defined, the creases at the corners, the slackness of the skin. I thought of my own face: youthful, unchanging, perfect, someone else’s vision of what a woman should be, and hated myself for it.
I can’t remember anything about the procedure, about the re-education. After it, we were put up in a strange apartment, a safe house. It was open plan, with white walls. In the bedroom area, a single vase of yellow tulips was placed in a recess in the wall. Steps led down to a kitchenette and living space. Lush foliage hung down from hidden growing spaces in the walls. It was the last time I saw your father. Evening light was streaming in through the open window leading to the garden terrace. The scent of earth, still damp from rain, mingled with tea and lemon. I lay there on the bed, staring into nothing, into a far away, empty space where I felt my soul ought to be.
“Here, drink this,” he said, and he placed a steaming mug on the nightstand. He helped me to sit up, and put the mug of hot, sweet tea to my lips. “You’ll feel better in a few hours,” he said. He smiled at me, and I closed my eyes. I trusted him.
I tried to remember a dream I’d had. In it, I followed a man through a forest clearing. I could smell the ground, the mosses, the air; feel the warmth of real sunlight filtering down through the leaves on to my skin. People were waiting for us. There were children with dirty faces, smiling, laughing, happy faces, but there was a darkness waiting for me. The man had a name I remembered from long ago, from our growing: Chislon, an old name, from another time.
“Rest,” he said. “I’ll make us some supper.”
“I dreamt of outside,” I told him.
He paused, sat back on the bed. “Oh?”
“There was a darkness, and I was alone.”
“The procedure…the stasis, it does strange things, Eve,” he told me.
“No, it wasn’t that.” I opened my eyes, reached out and took his arm. I felt I needed to touch him.
“It’s just a dream,” he said, gently.
“I’m scared,” I told him. “I don’t want to be alone.”
“You won’t be,” he said.
He stroked the hair away from my face and leant in to kiss my forehead. His eyes said a thousand tender things, and yet I saw regret. I pulled him into me, and we joined together. I wanted to feel something more than his body, but the more I pressed myself to him, the greater the distance between us seemed. I watched his sad brown eyes searching for me, and felt that welling sadness inside of me. In the empty space between us, we somehow found each other. I held him inside me, and for the first time felt that we were together in this, bound by it, and I was afraid that I would never feel this again. I wished that I could stay in that moment—just stay there and everything would be okay—but I knew that the moment couldn’t last, and in it I felt both a beginning and an end.
When I awoke, it was from the dreamless dark, and your father had gone. There was an odd sluggishness about me, a resistance, a feeling like I had awoken into a dream. I couldn’t quite coordinate myself and struggled to sit up in the bed. Then I became aware of a figure sitting on a chair in the kitchenette, watching. I managed to sit up. “Lights,” I said. My throat was dry, sore. The lights of the apartment came on, adjusted themselves, and I blinked into the room. As my eyes grew accustomed to the light, I could see that it was Sarah. She was sitting there, idly fondling a nightgown, twirling the belt lazily in between her fingers.
“I’m afraid you wont see him again,” she said.
I was confused, groggy. “I won’t see him? I don’t understand,” I said.
“He is one of them,” she told me.
“One of them?”
She sighed. “He was using you,” she said. “To get to us.”
I tried to piece it together, tried to see. It was me who had seduced him, me who had been using him. I could still feel him inside me.
“We’ve had to…intercept him,” she said.
I couldn’t process fully what she was saying to me.
“Don’t worry, he didn’t get through,” she added.
Then I was afraid for him. The clone’s hollow eyes came up out of the darkness.
“Is he…?” I couldn’t finish the question.
“No,” she said.
“What will you do with him?”
“We don’t know,” she told me. “We’re not sure of his…later motivations. Perhaps we can use him,” she said.
“But outside…how will I?”
“We’ll help you,” she said. “You won’t be alone.”
I couldn’t. Not now. “I can’t…I…”
“You’ll have to,” she said. “We don’t know how much he told them.”
“Yes Eve, without him,” she told me. She stood slowly, tired looking, almost disinterested. She threw the gown on to the bed. “He drugged you.” She pointed to the cup still on the nightstand. “Your tea,” she said. “He needed time to get away from you, to get to them.” Her face softened a little then, I remember. “When you feel better get dressed,” she told me softly. “Then go to the Old Quarter. We’ll find you there.”
I fled to the Old Quarter. I tried not to look too often over my shoulder and kept walking, holding a hand over my face to keep from being seen, and to keep out the sweat of the street. Ragged looking vagrants followed me, and men with blood-soaked eyes selling black market medicine.
“Cell Therapy,” they called out. “Pure as clone serum.”
I thought of your father. I had to fight back the urge to vomit as I pushed my way through the crowds. I felt that I wouldn’t make it, that I couldn’t go on, not alone, not without him. He had loved me. I know that, despite everything, I know. Had I loved him? Something felt different inside me. The emptiness had left me.
I began to feel my strength failing, and moved to slump into a doorway, but a firm grip took my arm, out of nowhere, and held me up. I thought…for a moment, that perhaps…but I turned to see the clone, his dark eyes gleaming in the city’s lights.
“Keep walking,” he said.
And for a moment, the fleeting scent of honeysuckle came to me through the streets.
“Don’t look back,” he told me. “There is only what lies ahead.” His eyes seemed brighter than before, more alive somehow.
“You never told me your name,” I said, as he swept me through the crowds.
“Chislon,” he told me. “I’ll take you to safety.”
I let myself be propelled by him, gave myself up to hope. I didn’t look back. I just walked into the crowd of people until I was part of them, lost amongst them, swept along on an unstoppable tide.
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