Robert led the man into his intentionally boring office. He gestured toward one of the several extremely comfortable and intentionally beige chairs that sat in front of his desk, midway between the office’s two identical doors. “Won’t you please have a seat? And may I get you anything?”
The anxious man sat, sinking deep into the cushions. He crossed his arms. “No.” Then he added, “Thank you. It’s just that—I’d rather get down to business.”
Check, Robert thought, check and tilde. “And what business is that, Mr., ah …” Robert made a show of checking for Monahan’s name on the clipboard that he’d positioned in the middle of his desk.
“Monahan. Michael C. Monahan. And you know what business it is. I want you to bring my wife back from the dead.”
Check, Robert thought. He let his face crease into a wince. “Mr. Monahan, I think you’ve been watching our competitor’s ads. We don’t claim to bring your loved ones back from the dead.” We very explicitly do not claim that.
“Mike,” Monahan said, flicking the knuckles of one hand through the air toward Robert. “I know, I know, you’re careful not to make those claims. Really careful, in fact. Is that your lawyers’ doing?”
“Yes,” Robert said. “And our priests.” When Mike blinked, Robert thought, there’s one. Good. There’s hope.
Mike shook his head, then said, “I’m a practical man. You clone Lizzy, and you give the clone back her memories. If she remembers me, and, and she’s herself and she still loves me, what’s the difference?”
Hey, there’s another. Check. God, it’s good to be wrong, Robert thought. Aloud he said, “There’s a big difference. If the process works well, she’ll remember you. But much of the time” most of the time “the reviviants remember dying as well. And that can put a strain on a relationship.”
He held up a picture of a row of endless Kennedys, perfect JFKs, perfect smiles, perfectly identical and empty, all tanning to the same shade at pool side.
Taking the words for a joke, Mike smiled. Robert picked up his clipboard, rested it as if idly on the edge of the desk, and let his other hand pick up a pen, flipping it to catch the light. “Mr. Monahan, do you know what we’re doing here today?”
“I figure we’re filling out the paperwork to get Lizzy started. I want to start right away. I miss her so much that I—I wanted to get started right away.”
There’s another. “I can see that you do miss her, Mike,” Robert said. “And I can see why you’d want her back. But we’re not starting the ‘revivification’ process today.” Robert let his voice put air quotes around the word, to show how uncomfortable he was with it.
“You’re not?” Check.
Robert shook his head.
Mike surged forward in his chair, hands opening to grapple the air. “But I thought the sooner you started, the better. They said something about tissue decay, and loss of memory RNA.”
Ah. He’s researched this. Another good sign. Robert let his pen come down on the clipboard, as if resting. It made a mark, then another, as he waited to see where else Mike would go. What else he knew. Where to start. When Mike stopped, Robert thought, okay, start at the beginning. Standard spiel, with modifications for anger due to loss and … privilege?
“On what we call the biotechnical side, where medicine, life science, and contemporary technology meet, you’re absolutely right, Mike,” Robert began. “The sooner we can get permission to access Elizabeth’s former body and recover the memory RNA, the better. We have only a finite amount of time before these complex molecules decay too much to be functional at the present stage of memory recovery.”
Mike sat back a bit in his chair. “So what’s the delay? If it’s better, we need to get started right away. I came here right away.” The “didn’t I?” was implied.
“Yes you did,” Robert replied, making another minute, uneven plus sign on the clipboard. “And again, you’re absolutely right. The biochemistry of memory recovery is extremely time-sensitive, and if we could start right now, you’d be best off.”
Mike shifted in his chair, gripping its arms. “But …?”
Good. “But … the biochemistry side of things is only one leg of the stool.”
Robert put his clipboard down and opened his desk drawer. I really should oil these hinges, he thought. But that’s what I always think. And I never do.
“You’ve really got a damn stool in there.”
“A little one, yes,” Robert agreed. He lifted it higher, so both men could see it clearly, and put a finger on one leg of the worn toy stool. “Imagine this yellow leg here is the biochemical aspect of revivification. You’ll see that it is slender, almost frail. That’s to represent the limited time window for successful memory transfer. Every minute that passes makes it less likely that you’ll get Elizabeth back.” At least, that you’ll get her back intact.
Robert glanced at Mike, to see how his test shot worked. As if on cue, Mike said, “So why the hell are we jabbering here, then!”
Very good. “A moment, please. It will all become clear.” Robert turned the stool in his hands. “Do you see this thicker green leg?”
“That’s the cloning leg. It’s like the trunk. It’s the most mature technology. The strongest, most dependable ‘leg,’ if you will. If her body had been cremated or embalmed …”
Mike shook his head abruptly.
“Ah, good,” Robert said. “If it had, then the cost of cloning would go up, perhaps astronomically, because it would likely involve cellular reconstruction. We would have likely had to work with incomplete DNA chains. That would make successful cloning less likely. With an intact corpse,” he watched Mike flinch, raise a hand to ward off the word, good, “we have a better chance of accelerating the cloning process, and using the most reliable technologies available. We can access both stem and germ cells, and, given Lizzy’s age, probably one of her own ova, and easily make a perfect copy of your wife.”
“Partner. We weren’t married.”
Robert made a show of glancing at the clipboard before saying, “Oh yes. Sorry about that.” Check.
He turned the stool one more rotation in the air, letting the third leg become completely visible. “Do you see how this leg is uneven? How it’s thick in some places and thin in others? How it’s all different colors?”
“Yeah. Where the hell did you buy a stool like that?”
“I had it made.” I made it, Robert thought, after. Stay with me. “It seems to help people grasp the challenge they face in the third component of revivification. That third leg represents the human matrix of memory.”
Mike turned one palm upward, then the other. “And … what? The different colors represent ‘all the colors of our lives?’ The ‘warm fuzzies’ that we’ve given each other?”
This time it was Mike’s voice that put quotation marks around the words, quotes of scorn. Check.
“Exactly,” Robert said, watching Mike blink. “Let me ask something, Mr.—Mike. How do you remember things?”
“You mean, how does my brain work?”
“Yes, and no. We’ll cover the brain bit, and we’ll get to it soon enough, but I’m talking about practically. You drove here today, right?”
At Mike’s abrupt nod, Robert went on. “How’d you do that?”
“I’m sorry?” His voice said, would you get to the point. Check.
“I’m not being silly, and despite what you think, I’m not wasting your time, or Elizabeth’s.”
Finally, Robert thought. A deeper, almost subliminal thought skittered through the shadows of his mind. Pick up the pace, man. You’re breaking my damn heart. “I’m sorry, that’s right. I am not wasting your time. I am not wasting Lizzy’s time. And, despite what it looks like you’re starting to think, I am not making it less likely for her to be successfully revived. I am giving her a chance.” I am trying to give you a chance.
Mike shifted in his chair, crossing his legs.
“Let me try this another way,” Robert said. “Why did you come to us?”
A single sob torn free of Mike’s throat. He closed his eyes and turned his head once to the left. Not looking at Robert, he said, “I can’t imagine living without Lizzy.”
Beat. Beat. “Believe me, I understand.” Better than you know. “But hear me again, Mike. Why did you come to us, and not, say, Second Chance, or Love’s Return?”
“Because Hope has the best success rate. Hope is my best … hope.”
“We do. And do you know why we are better at revivification than the others working in the field?”
Mike’s confusion helped him partially emerge from the La Brea tar pit of his pain. “Well, I guess I assumed it was that procedure. Don’t you use a different cloning process?”
Yes! “Very good. The techniques we use for somatic cell nuclear transfer are almost 1.5 percent more efficient at producing viable embryos with only limited degree of tissue damage.”
“1.5? But the reports I saw said your success rate was almost 15 percent higher than your best competitor.”
“Yes. Our overall success rate as defined in the industry is 14.8 percent higher than the folks at Second Chance, though that may change, as three of our memory techs just jumped ship for positions there. And we’re almost 20 percent ahead of the standard disciplinary success rate.”
“So, where’s the other 13 percent come from?” Mike asked. He was leaning forward in his chair now, the dried tears on one side of his face forgotten.
Robert tapped the stool, now sitting lopsided on his desk. “Remember how I said the cloning leg was the most mature support for our stool here?”
Barely waiting for Mike to nod, Robert continued. “Well, the other legs are the physical side of memory recovery and what we call the human matrix.”
“We’ve been over this.”
“Mike, if we take your commission to revive Lizzy, you’ll have to get used to going over things. And over things. And over things.”
“Because of how memory works. That other 13.3 percent of our superior success rate? It comes from two closely related sources. First, we have superior processes in our intake interviews.”
“Meaning, we cheat. We stack the deck. We choose people who are more likely to succeed in the process.”
“Why!” Mike’s voice pushed at Robert. His body moved to the very edge of his chair, as if he wanted to wring answers and justice from Robert by force.
“Because the cost of failure is so high. Because it breaks people’s hearts when we fail,” Robert said. Because it breaks our hearts when we fail.
Mike slumped back in his chair a bit. “Oh.”
“Mr. Monahan. Mike. Look at me.” Robert waited, then went on. “Do you think we want to deny people one more chance” two more chances, three more … shut up “to share time with the person they love most in the entire world? What kind of devils do you take us for?”
“Capitalist devils,” Mike said in a low voice.
“You mean, because we don’t give the process away. Some groups do—the Bahai have, in some cases—but you’re right. We don’t give people their loved ones back. We charge them for our expertise in a very difficult task. And we don’t take your money if we are sure we’re going to fail. And since we’ve gone down this road, do you know what happens when we fail?”
“Is that how you get body doubles?”
Robert shook his head. “No. Those clones of Pamela Anderson, Marilyn Monroe, and Ronald Reagan—”
“Republicans have long memories,” Robert said, “and the former president was a strikingly attractive man in his youth.”
“Sheesh. Some people …”
The two men in the dull room shared their first smile, then Robert went on. “Body doubles are … unseemly. Embarrassing. Black market. The court’s still trying to figure out how to phrase a law to outlaw cloning for purposes of sexual obsession without creating a law that will shut down what we do here.”
The body is rarely the problem. It’s the interface between the body and the world.
Robert flipped a page over on his clipboard, then another. He held up a picture of a row of endless Kennedys, perfect JFKs, perfect smiles, perfectly identical and empty, all tanning to the same shade at pool side. “No, this, this is low, but that just comes from maturing a human body without filling it up. It’s not even slavery legally, really, because there’s not a person there when you start. But in that, it’s not as ugly as failure. Mike, have you ever experienced déjà vu?”
“Sure. Hasn’t everybody?”
“Just about. It’s pretty common. Remember how it felt? That feeling of eerie anticipation and familiarity?”
“Yeah. I was entering Fenway, and …”
Robert raised a hand. “Stay with me. When we harvest memory RNA from someone who’s passed on, we treat it, to make the molecular chains more likely to stay intact. Some are damaged, of course, and some are destroyed, but we enhance the chances of memory transfer. And so we put all of these … potential and fragmentary memories into a cloned brain that is genetically identical to the brain that produced this RNA.”
Robert held up his hands, palms facing one another but about a foot apart. He bent and straightened his middle fingers at the same time. “Sometimes,” he said, “the genetic copy produces a physical copy that is the same. And the synapses work the same.”
Robert bent and straightened his right index finger, and, half a beat later, the left followed. “Sometimes they aren’t quite in alignment, but they can be coaxed. We have methods.”
Robert’s left ring finger made an abortive bending motion, then flared off to the side. He winced. “I broke that when I was seventeen. It healed, but on cold days …” He shook his head and held his unmoving left hand up a little higher.
“Sometimes the original was damaged during the maturation process, and the synapses are no longer parallel.”
“Jesus,” Mike said softly, staring at the upraised hand, but seeing … what? “What happens then?”
Robert tensed his left hand, making the demonstration into a stop gesture. “You begin to glimpse our problem. Our particular challenge. Now, I ask again, but in a different way, do you know how memory works? Answer me this way. How’d you get here today?”
The upraised hand circled, bending, rolling in mid-air, wordlessly calling for more words. “And in those two words is our problem. How did you drive here?”
“I don’t understand the question.”
“By what means,” Robert said, “did you drive here? What did you do first, what did you do second, what third, and how …”
“Oh.” Mike thought for a moment. “I took Harrison from work to the circle drive, then—”
The hand was back into a stop gesture. Mike paused. “More detail, please. What does driving entail? What did you actually do?”
“Oh, um. Hmm.” Mike closed his eyes. He mimed reaching in his pocket, then shook his head slightly and reached his hand out in front of him, about belly high.
His voice gentler, Robert said, “Good. Now, what did you just remember doing?”
“I went to pull my keys out of my pocket, which is where they are now, but I remembered they were in the lopsided little bowl on my desk that Lizzy made for me in her ceramics class.”
Good! “Good. Now, don’t open your eyes. What’s next to the bowl?”
Mike’s face squinted a little, like he was trying to see. The hand that had mimed the keys moved back to the memory bowl, then slowly glided three inches to the right. “That’s where the mail is. Well, the outgoing mail.”
Good. “And jump ahead for me. When you got to your car, what did you do?”
More smoothly now, Mike’s hand floated up. His thumb pressed the side of his index finger.
Softer still, Robert said. “What did you do there?”
“I unlocked the doors and started the engine.”
“How hard did you press?”
Mike’s eyes opened. “What in God’s name does this have to do with Lizzy?”
“Humor me, Mike. We’re almost there. Just a bit further. Do you remember the Milton case?”
“The Milton Meltdown?”
“That’s what the media called it, yes. What do you remember about it?”
“Didn’t a clone go crazy—and wait, the company that did it went out of business?” Mike cocked his head, squinting up and to the side.
“Yes, that more or less finished GenHarmony, which is a shame. They were pioneers in the field, and their mistakes were probably necessary learning experiences, at least in the larger sense.”
“Still,” Mike said, “I wouldn’t want one of those bastards working on my Lizzy.”
“Two of the senior techs from GenHarmony currently work for us,” Robert countered, “and it is very likely that one would be involved with Lizzy’s case, at least on a consulting basis.”
“Why!” Mike looked around the blank cube of Robert’s office, seeking answers from the walls.
“Consider it penance.”
At Mike’s blank look, Robert went on. “To put it another way, those technicians would be working on Lizzy precisely because they know everything that can go wrong in a personality reconstruction. And because they want to make up for it, and make sure it never happens again. Before the Milton case, we thought the biotechnical side of things was going to be the challenge.”
“Meaning, it isn’t?”
Robert flexed his ring fingers again, watching one that hadn’t healed properly hang briefly in the air. “No. The body is rarely the problem. It’s the interface between the body and the world. That fragile film where meaning happens.”
Robert sighed and went on. “GenHarmony wanted its clients to be happy. And it wanted to help Graham Milton and his wife reach the new life they wanted. The one that had been cut short by the accident. So they did everything Mr. Milton wanted. Sarah Milton had managed a brilliant career as a broker despite suffering from both a genetic disorder that weakened her immune system and prenatal damage that left her with a slight limp localized in her left ankle.”
Robert walked his fingers a bit on the table, unevenly. “The limp got stronger when she got tired. Mr. Milton took that away.”
Robert walked his fingers boldly. “He also had her immune system deficiencies mended. No more allergies. No more tendencies to get colds more often than other people. Sounds good, right?”
“It does, actually.”
“To me too. I get hay fever. In late spring, I can barely see sometimes,” Robert said. “And Mr. Milton wanted to make everything perfect at home too. So he hired new decorators—had the house entirely redone, actually, top to bottom. You probably saw the pictures?”
“I focused more on the blood,” Mike said.
“Makes sense,” Robert said. “Do you know what caused Sarah Milton’s ‘meltdown?’ ”
“An interior decorator?” Mike’s skepticism was audible.
“Yes. And a better body. Because Sarah Milton’s memories were this uneven net, sometimes telling her exactly who she was, and sometimes failing her. And then her body wasn’t what she remembered. And her home wasn’t what she remembered. As far as we can tell, her reconstructed mind … imploded. A failure to limp and sniffle and an inability to find her favorite books, her favorite shoes, her bedroom,” Robert said, “and her car keys drove her to two completely contradictory conclusions: I am Sarah Milton. And I am not Sarah Milton.”
“Jesus fucking Christ,” Mike said, not seeing the office anymore, seeing something private instead. Private and bleak.
Robert gave him a moment, and then said, gently, “We’re better now. There are more safeguards in place to confirm successful identity crystallization before reviviants leave the facility. But mostly, we’re better at reconstructing that matrix that tells people who they are.”
“How do you do that?”
Rather than answer immediately, Robert stood, gesturing Mike to the other door. Mike stood, then, at Robert’s gesture, turned the handle.
A gentle cascade of sound poured over them from a room that was in all ways the opposite of Robert’s office. Rather than being small, the room was large. Rather than being forgettably unified in design, the room clashed, and vividly. Rather than being the abode of humans and static furniture alone, the room was filled with …
“Hey!” Mike surged forward into the room, waving his arms. “Get off there, damn you!”
Mr. Whiskers jumped down smoothly and ran under the memory recovery unit’s control console. He didn’t even flick his tail much. He’d been chased off his person before.
“It’s okay, Whiskers,” Robert said softly, pulling a bent package from his pocket. He placed a few uneven lumps on the glassine cover, just above the dead woman’s breasts.
“What the hell are you doing!” Mike said, over the steel drum band music enveloping them. “And what is that shit!”
“Shit’s in the litter box over there,” Robert said. “Or it should be, unless you scared Mr. Whiskers too badly. That’s Tuna Treat, to let Whiskers know he can go home.”
Robert made a little ticking sound with his mouth, and tapped the cover. He shrugged. “He’ll come back,” he said. “We put Diane’s new body nearest the door because he’s such a stable kitty.”
“You put a woman’s body somewhere—anywhere!—because her cat is stable!”
“Yes. And we’re walking …”
Robert matched his step to his words, trying to lighten the mood and failing at that, but succeeding at getting his potential client to actually step into the room. When he did, Robert began another practiced spiel, punctuated by gestures and greetings.
“If we cleared the opaquing on her new womb, you’d be able to see that Diane’s clone is nearly to term. At that stage, and for the past few weeks, her eyes may not open, but we’re sure she’ll be able to be aware of the sights, smells, and sounds around her. To put it another way, as the clone grows to term, Diane shifts from gestating to simply sleeping. On a visceral level, she’s ready to be a person, even if her memories haven’t been reloaded. Afternoon, Mr. Lowenstein.”
Nathan Lowenstein nodded to the two men, and went back to talking about golf in a quiet voice, sharing his tale of knocking the ball from the sand trap into the water hazard with a short, plain woman who slept in a plastic box, boring her pleasantly, just as he always had when she’d been alive. Just around the Lowensteins, for about four feet on either side, zither music filled the air.
The RNA chains of memory are too fragile without warm, fuzzy anchors. Those sentimental bits that people carry in their pockets and rub idly with unconscious fingers.
Robert cleared his throat, to wake Mike from his stare, and walked on into his spiel. “As you move into this area, you’ll see clients whose loved ones are biologically mature, and whose memories have been re-loaded.”
“She’s got his hand inside!”
Robert nodded. “Helen.”
“This is Mike, Helen. He’s considering hiring us.”
Without releasing her daughter’s hand, which she held through a sanitary barrier only a few molecules thick, Helen nodded to Mike gravely. “I wish you wisdom in your decision.”
Mike said, “Um, thank you?”
Robert stepped in. “What’s on list for today?”
“Well, I’m starting with Goodnight Moon,” Helen said, lifting a battered copy of the children’s classic for the two men to see. “And then I’ll slide into ‘Good Night, Bethany.’ That’s what we usually played when she was this age the first time. Our special game.”
“Sounds good, Helen. Bethany’s a lucky girl. Mike?”
Gathering up his potential client by eye, Robert led Mike past a series of revivals in various stages of maturity, letting him absorb the favorite music, the road sounds, the edgy bitching of two parents, and mull it over. He watched Mike jerk at the sound of old news broadcasts, and stare a bit at outdated fashion trends brought back to life, held up for the staring eyes of clones who were now intermittently conscious. He let the smells, the sounds, and the pet hair wash over Mike until he stopped in the quieter buffered zone between revivals.
“You recreate their lives.”
“We do. And surround them with those lives.”
“Because it helps them recover?”
Robert shook his head. “You’re still not quite getting it. Not because it helps them recover. Because it is essential for them to recover. The RNA chains of memory are too fragile without warm, fuzzy anchors that people surround themselves with. Those sentimental bits that people carry in their pockets and rub idly with unconscious fingers. That people hang on their walls to show people, see this, this is me. And the fact that you’re not married will make bringing Lizzy back harder.”
Mike started to anger, then furrowed his brow. “No wedding ring.”
“Right. And no wedding pictures. And no stories about the months spent planning. And … you get the idea.”
Mike nodded slowly, looking off in the distance as if seeing, or not seeing, something other than the room. Robert let him have his moment. After a time, Mike asked, “So … what do we do now?”
His voice was slower than it had been earlier, and if not sadder, at least more somber. Robert matched his pace. “We have a few more questions. These are the big ones. And it works best if we ask them here.”
Mike gave one spasmodic nod. Robert went on. “Like many things, bringing someone back works better if there is one person in charge, making final decisions, but if that one person has the support of many willing and dedicated people.”
Mike waited. Robert said, “Saying no to any one of these questions, or any two, won’t mean an automatic negative decision overall. The decision is holistic.”
Standing between the reggae music bathing Ja Morris and the old NPR broadcasts, eyes apparently watching an old broadcast of Lost, Mike nodded.
Robert began. “Lizzy’s parents. They’re alive?”
“And would they be willing to come and sit with her?”
Mike whispered. “They’d be willing … I think. They did love her. But they divorced and remarried. And her dad—he stopped drinking.”
Mike watched Robert make more marks on the clipboard.
“Did Lizzy keep scrapbooks? Stuff from her growing up years?”
Mike’s mouth worked. After a while, Robert said, “Mike?”
Robert cleared his throat. “She did. Lizzy kept a lot of stuff. But there was a fire in the storage unit …”
“Oh Mike. I’m so sorry.”
After a polite pause of mourning, the questions went on, as did the answers.
Both got slower. Both men got sadder. After a while, Mike raised a hand. “Can we—can we just finish this tomorrow? Or can you send a list of questions my way and we just work to the verdict, decision that way?”
“Of course.” Robert tucked the clipboard under one arm, and the two men trudged back toward the office, passing cocoon after cocoon of loving memories, meticulously assembled to re-womb fragile selves.
When they got back to the revivification module nearest the door, they found that Mr. Whiskers was back in his familiar place, curled up on Diane in revivification as he had been in life. Whiskers eyed Mike suspiciously, but uncurled enough to take another Tuna Treat from Robert and run his purring chin across the offered finger.
Without taking his eyes from the cat, Robert cleared the cover, removing the opaquing used for privacy. He lift his left hand up, in front of his face. He opened and closed his fingers, watching his ring finger bend and straighten, bend and straighten, start to bend and catch, then pop to the side a little bit. Each time that it bent, the heavy platinum ring on it shifted just the slightest bit.
Robert leaned his left hand onto the glassine lid covering Diane. Beneath the lid, rising and falling with Diane’s chest, where it was intertwined with her right hand, lay Diane’s left hand. Which bore a platinum ring that matched Robert’s, along with a complementary jeweled engagement ring.
“I don’t want to tell him, honey,” Robert said softly. “He’s got almost no chance, and he’s going to want to go ahead anyway. I can tell.”
He paused, to listen to the room’s gentle cacophony. Then he said, “And if he’s like some of us, he’ll try again anyway. And again. And again. Good night, honey. See you tomorrow.”
And then Robert went home. Alone. Again. As he had done 759 times since the accident.
Greg Beatty lives with his wife and dog in Bellingham, Washington, where he tries, unsuccessfully, to stay dry. He writes everything from children’s books to essays about his cooking debacles.
Photo: Adrian Pinna / EyeEm