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art by Melissa Mead

The Black Bough

***Editor's Note: Cursing in this story***
"This is where the magic happens," Louis said.
"Ha. Yes." Henry was glad he'd entered the room behind the other man, so Louis didn't see him roll his eyes.
The room was dimly lit, and dominated by the bulky white tube of the scanner. It looked hungry, the proverbial gaping maw. That would make the narrow gurney projecting out into the room its tongue; projecting now, but soon to be sucked back into the monster's mouth.
Louis prompted, "If you're ready, Mr. McMillan..."
"It's hard to wrap your head around," Henry said, knowing he was stalling. "I mean, a whole lifetime. It's amazing."
"The human brain is an amazing machine," Louis said blandly. "Unbelievably retentive. Everything you've ever experienced is still up there. Every second."
"Yes." Seventy-two years' worth of seconds. Meeting Maggie, sitting next to her at random at a movie they'd both gone to see with different people, on separate dates. Raising the kids, every day of those hectic, inexpressibly satisfying years. Laying Maggie to rest, much too soon; the most careful driver he'd ever met, killed in an accident that was at least partly her fault.
And not just the big things. Everything meant everything: a working lifetime of dull, chummy days at the office; every bowel movement he'd ever had; his first guilty, glorious experience with the art of masturbation, and every subsequent endeavor; a million questions, a hundred answers.
He was suddenly embarrassed by the whole thing. The website had made no mention of bowel movements. He asked, "What did you study? To go into this field?"
"Oh," Louis said, "Philosophy."
"Really." That did carry a reassuring air of detachment. Still, he wasn't as comfortable at the prospect of dropping his pants for a philosopher as he would've been for a doctor, even if these were metaphorical pants. "And you'll see everything?"
"'See' really isn't the word. I'll experience it. But yes, everything."
"But how does it not go on and on? How does it not take seventy-two years?"
"Oh, it does. Subjectively. Experientially. It's like dreaming." This was straight from the site. Henry remembered the cartoon man, animated Zs ascending from his drooping head, a younger version of the same man frolicking in a puffy white thought cloud. "When you dream, it may seem like it takes hours. But it's really just a few minutes in real time. This is the same, except the compression rate's much greater. The whole thing takes no more than an hour. But the fidelity's excellent. It's completely immersive."
"How many of these have you done?"
"You'll be my seventeenth."
"Wow. So in a way, you've already lived sixteen lifetimes."
"Seventeen, counting my own. Well, sixteen and a half, I hope."
"Ha. Yes. But have you ever gotten... stumped?"
"Not once."
"And you think you'll be able to--"
"I know I will. Mr. McMillan, lie down, relax, and in seven to ten business days, I'll present you with the meaning of your life."
The gurney drew back smoothly, with a soft whirring noise that was nothing like the slurping of a giant tongue. The ceiling slid away, replaced by the inner surface of the scanner.
Even before the gurney stopped, he thought he heard rain. When the whirring cut out, he was sure of it: a soft, lovely song, steady and strong in its presence, gentle and varied in its constituent tones.
That was a strange reaction. He'd always hated rain, even before the night Maggie had died, when it had slicked the roads, and whispered and sniggered against the windows of the hospital waiting room all night and into the next morning, as if in gleeful confession.
The stuff they'd given him must be kicking in. He was beginning to drift. He'd been grateful to hear he didn't have to be awake for this; the MRI at the hospital had been a trial, though he wasn't the least claustrophobic. But this felt like falling asleep in his own coffin. With that thought, his eyes slid shut.
He drew a deep, snoring breath, and kept his eyes shut. They ached; an arid ache, as if they'd never touched a drop of moisture. He took another breath, released it in a slow sigh.
Somewhere nearby a door opened. Was the scan over? Was he waking up, or still drifting off? He forced his eyes open, imagining a harsh rasp as the lids slid apart.
A woman stood in the center of the room, having stopped there in midstride. He knew her but utterly without context. She looked at him in mild surprise, then came forward, toward a desk, which, he realized confusedly, he was sitting behind.
"Sorry, I thought you were still out," she said. "Here you go." She brandished a manila folder, laid it on the desk. When he only stared, she said, "His chart. You asked for it? By the way, they just put a rush on this one, so you're gonna wanna hop."
He reached down, slid the folder around so the writing on the tab was right side up. Printed there in neat, feminine handwriting was MCMILLAN, HENRY EARL.
That summoned the familiar series of revelations that hit him like a string of lightning strikes, on and on and on, until it seemed something in his brain must pop. It was a different trigger each time, usually just a stray thought, or finding himself in his office, at his desk, with the shiny pyramidal nameplate that faced him rather than visitors, and read LOUIS G. GIBBS.
The woman was watching him, amused. She asked, "Did you just wake up?"
"Uh huh," he said muzzily. "What time is it?" He looked out the window, but the day was too dark to judge. He couldn't quite bring himself to like the rain, not with McMillan so fresh in his head, but he knew he would, soon enough.
She smiled. "Quarter after."
"Oh, come on. After what?"
"Two. Why, when'd you go under?"
He'd been intending to ask her that, but as the memories continued to trickle in, he found he didn't have to. "Right after lunch."
"Where'd you go? For lunch?"
That was still lost in the ether. He groped for it, gave up. "You're just playing with me. That's funny, huh, tease the coma patient?"
She giggled. "It's not bad. God, you guys're soupy when you wake up. Hey, Louis."
"We went to lunch together."
"Deadly seriously. Hamburgers at Sullivan's. Louis?"
"You asked me to marry you. I said yes. We settled on June."
He stared.
She stared back, face set, until she couldn't take it anymore, and smiled hugely. "Wow I got you. No offense, Louis..." But she was laughing too hard to continue.
"Holy shit. Get the hell out of my office." She was at the door, still laughing, when he said, "Hey, Sandy." The name slipped out effortlessly, though he doubted he would've been able to remember it if he'd tried. "Could you tell the techs it's still a little ragged at both ends? I could hear the rain." That had been strange in the scanner, surreal in the womb.
"And do we have any eye drops?"
"On your desk, Little Nemo. Never leave your head without them."
He looked down at the desk, his desk, familiar, but still only distantly. He found the little plastic bottle, and reached for it gratefully.
Rush order or no, he did little work on the McMillan job that afternoon. Heavy lifting was impossible so soon after. For one thing, he was indeed, as Sandy had put it, soupy. Fifteen minutes passed before he even remembered to take off the dreamer--certain the blue elastic headgear, almost identical to a bathing cap, had added to Sandy's amusement--and remove the little cartridge, about the size of a double-A battery, with MCMILLAN, H printed on one curving side in Sandy's small, neat hand.
And the whole thing was too fresh. The attic in which he pictured his memories residing was packed to the rafters with the detritus of seventeen lifetimes--seventeen and a half, he reminded himself--and the new stuff was always the loosest, as if it'd been carelessly chucked in anywhere there was room. Poking around now was liable to trigger an avalanche of associations that would bury him in Henry McMillan again.
But mostly, he was just too content being Louis Gaynor Gibbs, be he ever so soupy. The faint frustration at having come off as a bit of a phony in McMillan's eyes was only the passing scent of sweat that humanized a perfumed woman, the undercurrent of alcohol that made a beer worth drinking. The woman, the beer, the loveliest drug, was relief, and this was the good stuff, straight from the busy fingers of The Fates. He was not seventy-two years old, fifteen years a widower, recently diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer that would kill him within months if not weeks. He was thirty-two, never married and not so inclined, and he hadn't been seriously ill since he was ten years old.
All he did that afternoon was take a pen to McMillan's chart. He crossed out the obvious factors first, then doubled back and began working his way through the rest, crossing them out, or marking them with a question mark, or a dash, or one or several of the dozens of other symbols that made up his shorthand. This process of elimination, at least, was best done immediately after, when his reactions were still partly influenced by the client's.
Religion went early; McMillan had attended church off and on for parts of his life, but had ceased to take it literally shortly after Sunday school, and hardened irrevocably to the whole subject after Maggie's death. Louis circled Children and Grandchildren, but added a wavy line to both, reminding himself not to lean too heavily on them. The ones who loved their kids the most were often the toughest; progeny were already foremost in their lives, yet they'd still found it necessary to seek professional help in establishing meaning.
McMillan was shaping up to be a tough nut on a number of fronts. He was intelligent, inquisitive, skeptical; a seeker, but not a finder. They didn't get many clients with such robust bullshit detectors, a fact which sometimes made Louis uncomfortably aware of the haziness of the line that separated his profession from that particular variety of excretion.
It wasn't until he was driving home--the rain still falling, whatever light the day had contained fading from it like words from a sun-bleached page--that the other inevitable consequence of the experience began to assert itself. Unlike the soupiness, and the relief, this feeling wouldn't be dispelled by eight or ten hours of sleep. It would linger.
It wasn't deja vu, but the perpetual expectation of it. It was the uncomfortable possibility that he wasn't Louis Gibbs, earnest bestower of meaning on a grateful world, nor Louis Gibbs, kindly high-tech huckster to the aged and terminal, nor even Louis Gibbs, cynical bullshitter by nature and inclination. Who could say he was Louis Gibbs at all? How many times had he woken from other lives? What guarantee did he have--what evidence of any kind--that he wouldn't wake again, from this dream of Louis Gibbs? And find himself... who?
Three blocks from his apartment, the lights of the little convenience store where he did most of his shopping were locked in a misty stalemate with the gloom. Almost past, he braked hard, and skidded to a stop out front. He left the car running while he went in for milk, without which his morning Grape-Nuts would be inedible. There was a certain satisfaction in having remembered, after eight hours and seventy-two years.
Milk in hand, he took his time covering the few yards back to the car. The rain was cold and sharp, and he loved it.
The next morning, Louis was plodding dutifully through the preliminaries--summarizing McMillan's life in terms that were subtler in their flattery than he usually deemed necessary, hoping to stir some inspiration in himself for the more difficult task of assigning meaning--when Sandy poked her head in without knocking, and gave him a small start by saying, "Hey, Louis. What're you working on?"
"McMillan," he said, looking up.
"Put a hold on it, all right?"
"It's a rush."
She shook her head. "That's off. They might still want it, but no rush. Can I be a total bitch and put you on another one the day after tomorrow? Otherwise I have to reschedule Mr. Burnett, and he's not exactly gonna be around forever either. I know it's just a couple days since the last one, but Peter's gonna be out for the rest of the week. His kid's sick. We'll probably get him a card, if you wanna--"
"His kid's sick."
"No, why no rush on McMillan?" Probably the old guy's true nature had taken over, and he'd thought better of it. He wasn't going to get his fifty-dollar copay back, but Louis doubted it was the money. McMillan must've decided the whole thing was too much of an indignity, too much like begging.
Sandy didn't look especially troubled when she said, "Oh. Dead."
Though it'd happened twice before, it never failed to surprise him, to send a little electrical pulse up his spine. He stared, searching for a response that would match Sandy's dismissiveness. Though that would feel like a betrayal, it would be better than sitting there stunned and slack-jawed, feeling absurdly crushed, and absurdly close to tears. But he could come up with nothing.
"We're talking to the family to see if they want a posthumous," Sandy said. "So keep the file handy."
"They won't."
"They won't, I don't think." George and Terry--who were both older than Louis, but whom he thought of nonetheless as the kids--would consider it closer to a scam than a legitimate service; Terry had said as much, when Henry had told him he was planning to do it.
Louis frowned, squinted his eyes nearly shut; he really was in danger of crying. He tried to picture the kids as grown men, with cars and careers and calluses, and it was easy enough, but it was impossible not to see, simultaneously, their younger selves, possessing them like benign spirits.
He pictured them with their own children, and that brought him to the very brink. George, Terry, Stephen, Samantha, Joan, Henry. Louis felt their loss from the perspective of the father and grandfather who'd lately had occasion to contemplate it, and to wonder how deeply it would strike them; and he had the added clarity of the outside observer who'd known the moment he'd returned to himself that they'd feel it to their cores, and for the rest of their lives.
"Louis? You okay?"
He looked up from his nameplate, on which his eyes had settled. Sandy was emoting mild, generic sympathy, as if she'd heard him give an annoyed grunt, but hadn't seen whatever stubbed toe or paper cut had elicited it. "I think I feel sick or something," he said.
"Do you want some Pepto?"
He almost accepted, if only for the chance to write the company a testimonial urging them to add one more to their list of relieved symptoms, something like learning of your own death. "I think I might go home," he said.
"Okay. I'm sorry, Louis."
She gestured at the file, which lay open on the desk beside his computer. "At least you don't have to worry about the rush job."
A wave of real nausea rose up from somewhere inside him; the same place, he thought, from which a small, inhuman part of him whispered its agreement.
At the door, she turned, and said, "Louis?"
"Can I pencil you in... for Burnett?"
"Yeah. Fine."
Burnett was easy; easy to get over having been, easy to be relieved to no longer be, easy, when the time came, to placate with some cheap, banal meaning. He was a sixty-seven-year-old stockbroker who, having devoted so much of his life to selling nothing, to no one, and being handsomely rewarded for it, had come to suspect the worthlessness not only of his own wares, but of everything and everyone around him.
Subconsciously, he'd sought the services of Louis' practice not to overcome his nihilism, but to confirm it. He'd couched the experience to himself in terms of due diligence; he'd give the universe one last chance to reveal its deeper workings, after which no one, god or man, could accuse him of laxness re existence. He'd been confident the universe's response would be some variation on the same howling void he'd been hearing in his sleep for so long that he would've woken in a sweat at its absence, though not so confident that he hadn't felt a creeping apprehension at the prospect of learning that he had, after all, wasted his life, re meaning, humanity, solace, et cetera.
He needn't have worried. Louis and his partners knew how to give their clients what they wanted, even when said clients refused to know what that was. It took a certain amount of subtlety, but only a certain amount. Besides, Louis thought Burnett would've had plenty of time to reform, had that been his goal; he was a greedy, arrogant bully, a self-appointed sociopath in the best American tradition, and therefore, fate being what it was, he'd probably live to be ninety-nine.
But, since Burnett was interested not in reformation, but merely in confirmation, the report would only need to reflect his own image of reality, in which, ultimately, meaning could be found only in survival. It was a bleak, negative-image version of Louis' own view, a view which, most days at least, didn't strike him as bleak. He'd often been tempted to include his personal feelings on a client's report, but never had, for a variety of good reasons, not least of which was the fact that, if accepted, they would obviate any need for his services. It seemed to him that the question itself was flawed, no more logical than asking the meaning of blue, or the purpose of cadmium; that the meaning of life was life.
Louis' head was tilted back in the act of administering the second or third round of eye drops when the phone on his desk buzzed softly, and Sandy's voice smashed a hole in the stillness of his office. "Louis?"
"You awake?"
"No, Sandy, I'm asleep."
"You soupy?"
"I'm soupy for you, sweetheart."
"Oh, God. You have a--"
"You make me so soupy I can hardly stand up."
"Louis, you--"
"Not in public, anyway."
"You have a call, you fucking dork."
"Line three."
"That's great. Hey, Sandy?"
"God. Yeah?"
He pressed transfer, then 3, cutting her off. Repressing mischievous laughter, he said, "Hello?"
A male voice he recognized but couldn't immediately identify said, "Louis."
"Yeah? Yes?" For one strange moment, he thought the voice sounded like Henry McMillan's. The illusion wasn't strong enough to make his hair stand on end, or whatever was supposed to happen to those who encountered ghosts, but it did trigger that other sensation, the one for which there was no name.
After walking much more than a mile in each man's shoes, he'd liked McMillan as much as he'd disliked Burnett. How would Louis Gibbs be judged, when the dreamer woke? More importantly, where would Louis Gibbs be? Just down the street in the local old folks' home, or dust in the tomb for a hundred millennia? He might wake up in some far-flung future in which people dreamed this way for fun, reclining in domes of pure energy on the moon, or deep within artificial planets orbiting Alpha Centauri A and B in elegantly curving infinity symbols. Everything would be cured by then. Everyone would be immortal. He might wake from this dream of Louis Gibbs in horror at what his ancient ancestors had endured, or in hilarity so powerful that Louis would feel the laughter like an earthquake for the last fifteen years of his life.
"Louis? Are you there?"
"I'm here. Yup."
"It's Doctor Robards, Louis."
"Oh. Sorry. What... ha, what's up, doc?
"I'd like you to come down to the office."
"Ah... I thought no follow-up this time. What's the matter?" It was necessary to keep an eye on things, and he did, diligently. But he wasn't enthusiastic about going in just because someone had lost his blood sample of something. He had no desire to feel the old familiar sting of the needle, the absence of the expected sensation of suction as the blood was drawn.
"I'd rather not do this over the phone, Louis."
He had a strong urge to hang up. It was couched in terms of repeating the joke he'd just pulled on Sandy, though he knew Robards wouldn't see the humor in it. Instead, with some effort, he asked, "Do what?"
"Louis, have you been feeling all right lately? Any fatigue, soreness?"
"No. I don't know." He couldn't remember the last time he hadn't been tired on some level. His next line was obvious, but almost impossible to force out. "Why?"
"We got your latest test results back today. I'm sorry to have to tell you this, Louis. I'm very sorry. We've always known this was a possibility. The leukemia's back."
When Robards was done, Louis set the receiver down in its cradle and stared at it, thinking only that he should be feeling something. He'd pictured this day many times, imagined despair, terror, resolve, anything but this total numbness. Somehow many similar diagnoses, and many similar numbnesses, had failed to prepare him for his own.
The phone buzzed, and Sandy's voice launched itself into the room. "Louis."
"Very funny."
He had no idea what she meant.
"Louis? Did you... goddamn it."
"I'm here." He was looking out the window, at the light draining out of the day. There were no clouds, but he was listening closely for the sound of rain.
"Did you want me to stay and lock up? I got all the--"
"Lock up now, then you can go. But, Sandy."
"Leave the archive open. And charge a dreamer. Charge two."
"Okay. You doing a paper for one of the journals or something?"
"Yeah. Something."
"Okay. And, Louis?"
The line went dead.
When the sounds of locking up had faded, and the suite was quiet, and lit only by every third overhead fluorescent, Louis left his office, and walked up the hall. As he passed the closed door of Peter Sturgeon's office, he hoped Peter's boy--whose name, he thought, was either Matt or Mark--was down with chicken pox, or the mumps, or something equally innocuous.
Louis had been eight when his fight had begun, and ten when he'd won it, or when he'd thought he had. Now he knew it had only been a tie, or a postponement. A ten-year-old couldn't really understand what losing such a fight meant, but Louis was thirty-two now. Robards had made it sound extremely unlikely he'd ever be thirty-three, though that would be in less than eight months, in July. Thirty-four, apparently, was off the table.
The grandly named archive was at the end of the hallway, reincarnated from what had been a small broom closet when they'd moved into the suite. He opened the door, and switched on the interior light. All three walls were lined with closely spaced shelves, almost all of which were occupied with storage containers. These were the size and shape and material of shoeboxes, because they were shoeboxes, bought in bulk from the factory before any labels or colors had been applied.
Plain cardboard-brown shoeboxes, filled with bubble wrap, and, nestled in that, cartridges. The work of their partnership, plus the ones Peter had brought from his previous practice, plus the ones Louis--not knowing why--had wheedled from colleagues who, cleaning out their own backlogs, had planned to destroy. Five cartridges to a box, four boxes to a shelf, six shelves to a wall, except the far wall, which had five. Already he was doing the math.
The shelves on the far wall didn't climb as high as those on the others, leaving more space above the top one. On it sat four Styrofoam heads, each decorated with Sharpies; one with black, scribbled-in eye patch and earrings, another with nineteenth-century handlebar mustache and muttonchops, an alien with bulging three-quarter-moon eyes and a thin line for a mouth, a skull. All four wore dreamers. The little charge lights on the ones worn by the pirate and the skull were green.
He pulled out two shoeboxes at random. Holding them under one arm, he reached up, unplugged the charged dreamers, and slid them from their respective heads. Written on the newly uncovered forehead of the skull in neat, fresh marker strokes was a very funny joke, unintentionally apt: LOUIS.
He woke, but kept his eyes closed, afraid they'd turn to dust and blow away if exposed to the air.
The world was quiet, except for the sweetly feminine voice, which came again. "Louis? You okay?"
"Louis," he rasped. That sounded familiar. He forced his eyes open. They didn't turn to dust, but did refuse to focus.
The blond blur nearby leaned nearer, and said, "Jesus. Have you been up all night? Your eyes."
The first recognizable object to come into focus was the polished nameplate on the desk in front of him, which read LOUIS G. GIBBS. Yes, that did sound familiar. He said, "What time's it?"
"Eight thirty. I was just opening up. You don't look--"
"Eye drops?"
"On your--is that empty? Jesus, Louis, I just brought that in on--"
"Hold on, I'll grab some more."
The blond woman retreated. Louis spent the next few minutes trying to remember her name. Though that was stubbornly elusive, other facts, which he made no effort to remember, came to him in waves of warmth and cold, as if he were stepping in and out of a sauna.
"Listen," he said, when the woman returned, and, "Thanks," as she handed him the little plastic bottle. He leaned back in his chair and began administering the drops immediately. "You want a month off?"
She looked incredulous. "I used all my vacation days already. Actually I think I'm the hole. Remember, my sister's wedding?"
Absurdly, he did remember her sister's wedding; remembered, even, that her sister's name was Samantha, that she'd married a man named Jim or John or something, and that the entrees at the reception had been dry and flavorless, but the desserts delicious. He and this woman--whose name wasn't Samantha, obviously, nor Sarah, nor Sasha--had been semi-involved at the time, and had enjoyed the day quite a bit, mainly because they'd spent it together.
"Doesn't matter," he said. "I'm thinking of closing the office for a while." The drops were a cool, soothing balm to his ravaged eyes. "You could use some time off from my bullshit. Paid, of course."
"Are you sure? What about Pete?"
"Does he have anything scheduled?"
"No. But--"
"He can probably use the time off too. His kid and everything."
"Louis, are you okay? Seriously."
He tried a smile, but couldn't judge its effect on the woman, whose expression of puzzled concern didn't change. He said, "What's he have?"
"Pete's kid."
"He broke his arm. On a jungle gym or something."
He woke knowing he was no longer James Willrich, but unable to offer himself any alternative. When he opened his aching eyes, the world was a bright, red-tinged blur, so he closed them again, knowing he didn't need them. Impulses which he had no choice but to trust were moving him already.
His hand went to his head, inched across the smooth, rubbery surface there, found the small compartment he had somehow expected, slid from it what felt like a battery. This he deposited in a box on the table or desk in front of him. Another box lay open nearby, and he reached inside, withdrew another battery, inserted it into the compartment in place of the other.
He reached down to the desk, fingers searching for something. They found a wooden object, which felt like an elongated pyramid, one side glossily metallic, and inscribed with what might have been letters. This was useless, and his hand moved on, and found a row of small bottles, one of which it snatched up eagerly, and held in the air above his head.
For a moment he had no idea why he was doing this. Then he knew, and forced his eyes open, upended the bottle, and let the drops fall, like prayed-for rain onto a house fire.
When the bottle was empty, he dropped it, and closed his eyes again. Within minutes he was asleep, and a fetus.
He woke, more lucid than usual because the cartridge had been one of the older ones, done on their first scanner, a second-generation model which they hadn't owned, but had leased from a used medical equipment company. He remembered this clearly, though he tried and failed to come up with his own name.
His eyes were shrieking, and he went first for the drops, which eased the pain, but didn't come close to dispelling it. When he could see, he wondered why he was sitting in his office in what seemed to be the middle of the night, the yellow cone of light cast by his desk lamp the only illumination.
The desk was starkly lit, shadows stretching from everything on it like long black hair blown back by the wind. Why was he sitting here going through an old one? The man--whose name had already faded from his mind, and whose life was quickly following--must be long dead.
Then he knew everything, though he still didn't know his own name.
In sudden, total panic, he yanked the cartridge from the dreamer, making no move to retrieve it when his shaking fingers dropped it to the floor. He reached for another, pulled it out, and inserted it.
Though he was exhausted, though every second that ticked by was an irretrievable loss, it was some minutes before his racing heart and trembling mind allowed him to sleep.
He woke with no other knowledge than the pain in his eyes, simultaneously sharp and crushing. His hands moved without his intention or consent.
Things were arranged; actions were taken. What things, and what actions, and why, he had no strength to guess, or even question.
Things were arranged, but before the next sequence of events, whatever that would be, could begin, he found himself staring at the ceiling, hands desperately squeezing an empty plastic bottle.
Finally his right hand threw the bottle across the room, and descended to gently brush his cheek, as close to his eye as it could bear to approach. His hand reappeared dyed red, shaking so hard it flicked red droplets into the air. His eyes closed.
He knew he was finished when there were no more neatly stacked boxes on the shelves. The little closet he found himself standing in front of looked like it had been sneezed into by a giant, a few boxes shoved in disarray onto random shelves, most dropped carelessly on the floor, their lids scattered, their cartridges huddled together in corners like terrified mice, ants, bacteria blessed with sentience only to learn they would die within the day. More cartridges lay on the floor, the fallen fruit of a strange tree.
He happened to be in a state of almost total bewilderment when he saw the scene, still half-convinced he was a woman named Dana Morris, and though he had no idea what they were, the little battery-like objects struck him as heartbreakingly pathetic, lying there abandoned on the floor. An acrid stew of fear, exhaustion, and urgency was bubbling in his stomach, and the one thing he knew was that he must hurry on to whatever came next, but instead he stooped, picked the objects up in his trembling hands, and deposited them into the nearest boxes. He saw that his right hand was smeared with a dry, flaking, dark-red substance, which he guessed was blood.
When it was time for what came next, he knew what to do, or at least felt it. He walked past the office of a man named Peter Sturgeon, then that of a man named Louis Gibbs, who was apparently in, since his door was ajar. He thought of knocking, but wouldn't have known what to say to the man. He didn't even know if they knew each other.
The door with Scanner printed across its window was the door for him. He tried the knob, found the door locked, knocked, got no answer, and looked down to find a crowded key ring in his blood-smeared hand. The correct key wasn't the last one on the ring, but it was close. When the key turned, he opened the door, and reached for the light switch, which he found almost immediately.
The gurney carried him slowly, smoothly back. The ceiling was a distant blur, then it was gone, and the nearer blur of the scanner's interior was above him. The gurney stopped with a delicate shutter, and the scanner, the room, the world, were quiet.
His eyes slid shut, and he slept.
He woke, and his eyes slid open, lids scraping like sandpaper. For a moment he thought he was still in the scanning room, but that was wrong. That had been weeks ago, months; centuries, millennia.
The room in which he found himself was familiar, but strange: pure white, broken only by a set of windows in one wall, through which sunlight poured in a fuzzy yellow flood. Though he was alone, he thought he saw a woman's form outlined there, a woman all in white, opening the windows in the mornings, closing them again when the sun began to set. Angel, he thought, but corrected himself immediately: nurse. And, if nurse, then hospital. And therefore patient. And therefore leukemia.
Beside his bed was a little white table, and on it a piece of paper, also white, except where it was marked by groups of lines, four vertical scratches to each group, and a fifth cutting through them on a diagonal.
The lines were important; in fact he was expected to do something involving them. He reached out to the table, picked up a pen he hadn't noticed but had somehow known to expect, and added a fourth line to the one unfinished group on the page. Next time he'd get to make a diagonal line, which of course was more fun. But that wouldn't be for a very long time.
The math was instinctive; he'd done it so many times already that his thoughts flowed naturally along the channels it had carved into his mind, like a river returning to an old course. He'd experienced something over three hundred fifty lives, most in that last dark month when he'd raided the archive. He could conservatively estimate each--except his own--at sixty-five years. All of them were contained--with amazing fidelity, considering the compression involved--within the last dream, the one from which he'd just woken, and to which he would soon return; the one he'd gone to the scanner, at the end, to create: his own.
Twenty-two thousand years, give or take a century. He looked down at the paper, and the groups of lines that filled nearly half the page; each line an hour spent dreaming, and three hundred fifty lifetimes spent laughing, loving, lying, living; each group of five lines well over a hundred thousand years.
His hands went to the smooth rubber surface of the dreamer, which fit loosely on his bald scalp. He began to remove the cartridge, but stopped. There was no time to waste; not a moment to waste. Besides, he found he had no need to read what was written on the cartridge in his own scrawled hand. He knew what it said. His name was Louis Gibbs. He had lived for millions of years, and he would live for millions more.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, August 16th, 2013

Author Comments

This story was rewarding to write, because I went into it not knowing much about the main character, particularly how he would respond to the crisis he finds himself in. Going in without an ending in mind can be risky, since there's no guarantee of finding your way to a resolution, nor that any resolution you do come up with will be satisfying. But when it works, it's the best kind of story to write, because it's all about discovery. In this case, I like the ending, partly because it's right for the story, and partly because I can't decide whether it's a happy one or not

- Conor Powers-Smith
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