EP558: Holding the Ghosts


AUTHOR: Gwendolyn Clare

NARRATOR: Dionne Obeso

HOST: Tina Connolly

about the author…

Gwendolyn Clare is a New Englander transplanted to North Carolina. She holds a BA in Ecology, a BS in Geophysics, a PhD in Mycology, and
swears she’s done collecting acronyms. Her short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, Analog, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, among others.

about the narrator…

Dionne Obeso is a freelance editor and a writer of science fiction and fantasy. Her awesome flash fiction can be found at SpeckLit.com and Daily Science Fiction. When she isn’t adventuring in fantastical worlds, exploring alien environs, or trekking through the high Sierras, she returns to her home base in the California Bay Area to remind her husband what she looks like. She has purple hair, a secret identity, and a strong position on the Oxford comma.

 

 

Holding the Ghosts

By Gwendolyn Clare

Abby was in control of the body the first time a glitch occurred.  She was “home from college for the long weekend”–that’s what the imprinted memories showed, at least–and her mother was pouring dollops of blueberry pancake batter onto the sizzling cast-iron griddle.

Her father had found an excuse to go into work on a Saturday morning, as he often did ever since Abby “went off to college.”  She assumed this was her father’s strategy for coping with empty nest syndrome and tried not to feel hurt by his avoidance.  Her interpretation wasn’t entirely incorrect, but of course she did not comprehend exactly how empty the nest was.

When Abby stopped living with them full time, the body stopped being Abby full time.  Leasing the body was quite expensive, so this was the only logical decision.  But Abby’s father could not reconcile himself to the idea that Abby only existed on the weekends when they rented the body, never mind that the techs would fabricate memories for her so that she believed she had experienced all the intervening days.

The body shouldn’t have known this.  The body should only know what Abby knew.

“Do you want another one?  We’ve still got some batter here.”

Abby looked up from the purple-and-amber swirls of blueberry juice and maple syrup she was prodding with her fork.  “Um… no thanks, Mom.  I think I’m full.”

“I wish you wouldn’t worry about the freshman fifteen,” her mother fussed.  “If anything, you look like you’ve lost a few pounds this semester.”

“I’m not your daughter, you know.  I’m just carrying her ghost for a while.”

Abby’s mother went very still.  “What did you just say?”

Abby frowned and rubbed her temples, though it did little to alleviate the dull throbbing of her nascent headache.  “Sorry, Mom.  I don’t know why I said that.”

#

The doctors were not pleased.  Abby’s mother showed up at the facility, threatening to file a formal complaint if they didn’t meet with her immediately.  Words like “misrepresentation” and “breach of contract” were used.

Dr. Sankaran brought Abby’s mother into a clean beige room with plush couches.  Abby was not occupying the brain at that particular time, so the body could not respond to their arrival.

“Abby?”  When she received no response, Abby’s mother turned to the doctor and snapped, “What exactly is going on here?”

“Mrs. Whitfield, you reported that Abby’s surrogate broke character, so I thought it would be informative to introduce you to the surrogate body.  This,” he said with a gesture, “is Baby Martinez.”

The lips could not say hello, because Abby wasn’t there to move them.

Abby’s mother tentatively sat on the couch across from the body.  She said, “They named her ‘Baby’?”

“That’s what they write on the birth certificate when the parents don’t supply a name.  Pacilam-affected infants are immediately identifiable at birth, and doctors usually discourage the parents from naming them.  It’s not healthy to develop an emotional attachment to a child who will live her entire life in a state of profound catatonia.”

Abby’s mother stared at the body.  The body stared at nothing in particular.

Dr. Sankaran sat beside Abby’s mother on the couch.  “I know this might be disturbing, but I wanted you to see for yourself that Baby Martinez isn’t self-aware.  It has no consciousness, no affect.  It records no long-term memories.  It isn’t a person, the way we understand personhood.”

Abby’s mother took the body’s hand, turned it palm up, and held it between her own two hands.  The body wondered how Abby would respond if she were in control.  Being empty, the body did nothing.

“It’s not that Baby Martinez won’t respond to you,” Dr. Sankaran said.  “It’s that she can’t.  For all intents and purposes, there is no Baby Martinez.”

Abby’s mother sighed and placed the body’s hand back in its lap.  “Then tell me, doctor:  why did Abby call herself a ghost?”

#

Chantal buried her toes in the sand and listened to the waves rolling in.  She and John had been talking about a vacation in the Bahamas for years,  but there were always obstacles–time, money, the kids, their respective careers.  Now they were finally here together, free to relax and reconnect, but Chantal couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong.

Some days, a veil of deja vu settled over her and stayed for hours, as if she’d lived every moment of the trip before.  Other times, it felt as if there were traces of something unfamiliar smudged across her thoughts.

Twice she almost ordered shellfish, and John had to remind her she was allergic.

One morning she sat up in bed, wide awake, as if the paling eastern sky spoke to her as loud as an alarm clock.  She wasn’t usually an early riser.  Moving quietly so as not to wake John, she padded across the pleasantly cool tiled floor of their villa and slid open the glass doors to let in the last of the nighttime cool.  The smell of saltwater spray clung to the air, and a memory rose unbidden of skinny-dipping in the moonlight.  Chantal couldn’t recall when she’d done that — maybe only in a dream.

She looked back at the bed, at the sleep-slack face of the man she’d been married to for twenty five years, and felt as if she were gazing upon a stranger.  She closed the sliding door, rubbed her eyes, and firmly put away the memory or dream or whatever it was.  This was her husband — her funny and kind and utterly familiar husband.  This was her life she was living right now.

Chantal had never before felt that being herself required effort.

Or did I feel this way the last time? she thought, and then immediately wondered, What last time?

#

A new client came for an initial consult.  The body sat dutifully on the couch in the beige room.

“So this is the surrogate body you have available?  She doesn’t look much like the Maxine Roth I knew,” said the client, a Mr. Ziegler.

“It won’t matter,” Dr. Sankaran assured him.  “Our techs can modify Ms. Roth’s self-perception so she doesn’t notice the disparity.”

Mr. Ziegler placed a finger beneath the body’s chin and tilted it up, leaning in close to examine her.  “But other than that, she’ll be intact?  Her knowledge, her cognitive abilities?”

Dr. Sankaran took a seat and balanced his tablet on one knee.  “Our patented neuro-scanning process yields the highest degree of fidelity possible with modern medicine.”

“You have to understand, we have a trade show in two months and our chief engineer is dead.  Max was– I mean, Ms. Roth was literally the only person on the planet who understood all of the components involved in our products.”

Maxine Roth must have been very smart.  The body tried to imagine what it would be like to carry Maxine’s ghost, but all it could envision was Abby and Chantal and the other old, familiar personalities.  Chantal knew a great deal about ancient Near Eastern civilizations, and Abby liked marine biology, but the body had never held the ghost of an engineer before.

Dr. Sankaran was saying, “There is the small matter of Ms. Roth’s brain still to be dealt with.  The scanning process is destructive.  If we move forward, she won’t be eligible for cryo-preservation.  You’ll need written consent from her next of kin.”

“Yes, yes of course.”  Mr. Ziegler dismissed the concern with a wave of his hand.  “It was all laid out in her employment contract, and the company’s prepared to offer generous compensation if her next of kin have any objections.”

Sankaran raised his eyebrows at that, but held his tongue.

“Don’t give me that look,” said Ziegler.  “Do you have any idea how important this project is?  Max’s work is going to revolutionize remote presence technology.”

The body considered this.  Was being Abby important work?  Or being Chantal?  It gave their loved ones comfort, but it produced nothing tangible, and it didn’t last.  I would like to do important work.

Hold on.  The body didn’t know why it used that word: “I.”

#

The body had never worked late before.  What an odd sensation — passing through the drowsy pull of evening to a wide-eyed nocturnal alertness, as if the hindbrain was on watch against some ancient African predator.  The hands had a slight tremor thanks to Max’s fourth cup of coffee, which irked her as she tried to delicately manipulate the schematics holograph.  She had spread out in the conference room at the end of the hallway, and the night seemed to seep in through the large-paned windows along the far wall.

Maxine was too engrossed in the design specs to notice, but the body heard footsteps behind it — dress shoes scuffing softly against the industrial carpet.  A hand slid around the waist, and the body stiffened before Max had time to process that it was only Zieg.

“Don’t touch me,” Chantal said, pulling away from him. Max shook her head, disoriented.  “I mean… we can’t, you’re married.”

Zieg raised an eyebrow.  “That’s never stopped us before.”

“I’m working late ’cause we’ve got a deadline looming,” she replied, scowling.  “Not so you can get a little something on the side.”

He pulled away as if the words had been a slap.  “We’re all under pressure, here, Max.  You don’t have to be such a moody bitch about it.”

He turned around and stormed out, slamming the flimsy conference room door as he went.  And she was the supposedly moody one?

Chantal wondered what she’d ever seen in him.

Max massaged her temples and wondered what was wrong with her.

I have too many ghosts, the body thought.

#

Max stared into her bathroom mirror.  Same dark brown hair, same black-coffee irises, same low cheekbones and sharp, straight bridge of her nose.  Max wasn’t sure what she was looking for, and the body wondered what was happening to them.  She ran her fingertips over her features, each detail seeming textbook accurate yet somehow leaving her with a hollow feeling.  Max knew — with a dry, mechanical certainty — this was her face, but she couldn’t seem to dredge up the proper emotive responses.  Had teenage Max hated her eyebrows, or yearned for a lip piercing?  She couldn’t recall.  Had she ever wished she were taller?  Thinner?  Prettier?  She didn’t know, and asking those questions felt like prodding a toothache only to find it inexplicably numb.

In Max’s mind, the facts were there but none of the nuance.  It was almost as if someone had programmed the memory of her face.

She rushed into the kitchen and went straight for the display screen built into the refrigerator door, which showed a layered montage of photos. The screen cleared with one sweep of her hand, and she began sorting through the images systematically, scrutinizing them one at a time.

First was her college roommate posing like Vanna White beside a conference poster.  Then her Mechanical Engineering lab partners cramming themselves into the clown-car-sized solar vehicle they’d just finished for class.  A whole sequence from the trip she took to Europe with her best friend after college:  Shonda gazing up at the frescoed ceiling of the Melk Abbey church; Shonda eating real, fresh mussels straight from the shells; Shonda decked out in diving gear, ready to explore the Venice ruins.

The photos of Max’s family were organized with less attention to the timeline of events.  Her brother’s wedding came before his twelfth birthday.  Her parents hugged at Dad’s retirement party.  Then a younger version of her mother relaxed in the garden behind the house where she grew up — her red-haired, green-eyed mother.

Max scrolled through the photos faster and faster, a sense of unease seeding firmly in her gut.  Among all the pictures, there wasn’t a single image of herself.  No embarrassing childhood candids, no drunken college selfies, no record of birthdays or graduations.  The photos told a story of a life, but there was no evidence at all that Max had been present in it.

“No, no, no… please, no…” she muttered, rushing over to her messenger bag.  She fished out her tablet before she remembered her apartment didn’t have wireless, then let out a frustrated huff.  “Seriously?  An engineer who doesn’t have a home network?  Talk about a sloppy cover up.”

It only took a minute to hack into her neighbor’s network, and then she was scanning through the Palo Alto obituaries.  There:  Maxine Roth, 31, died as a result of injuries… taken from us too soon… blah, blah.  She slid the tablet away and slumped back in her chair.

The body felt swept away on a riptide of emotion, watching Max’s grief and experiencing it, both observer and observed.  I’m so sorry.

Max slowly rose and padded back to the bathroom mirror.  She stared into the body’s eyes.  “Is there someone else in here with me?”

Yes.

“This… isn’t my body.”

No.

She paused.  “What am I?”

The ghost of Maxine Roth.

We let out a sharp breath.

#

The intensity of Max’s revelation is too much.  Is there really only one mirror in the room, or are we looking at ourselves reflected back and forth, over and over, stretching to infinity?  I need Chantal — calm, practical, world-wise Chantal.

Chantal breaks away from the mirror and runs her hands down the front of Max’s button-up shirt, smoothing the wrinkles.  Now that the cat’s out of the bag, the question is, what to do next?  She fishes around in Max’s kitchen for a corkscrew and a bottle of red wine and pours herself a glass to steady her nerves while she considers the problem.  Clearly something went wrong with the imprint process.

“No shit, Sherlock,” Max interrupts.  “The imprints are supposed to be completely wiped after each assignment.”

“Well,” Chantal says primly, “We can’t go back to Dr. Sankaran.  He’ll just try to clean the slate a bit harder.”

Easier said than done.  We’re being monitored.

Chantal carries the wine glass into Max’s bedroom and sets it down on the nightstand.  Reaching into the back of the closet, she pulls out Max’s hiking backpack, then begins to methodically pack what we’ll need.  Layerable clothing in neutral colors so as not to draw attention, only the essential toiletries, a handful of valuables that can be pawned for untraceable credits.

She sips at the wine, finds a pair of scissors, and sculpts long bangs that hang in our face to obscure our features.  After a moment of thought, she cuts the rest off at chin-length for good measure.

There’s still the subdermal tracker to deal with.  Chantal collects the first aid kit, a bottle of iodine, and Max’s sharpest folding knife.  She tips the wine glass back to get the last swallow, then sterilizes our forearm and the blade.  Our knuckles turn white as she squeezes the knife grip with a grim determination.

“Let me,” says Abby.  When Chantal hesitates, she adds, “When was the last time you dissected something?  I got an A in Physiology.”

Holding the knife with steady fingers, Abby presses the tip into our forearm just below the tracking device.  Pain, and a welling of blood, and then she deftly pops the tracker out.  Abby applies a dollop of liquid bandage and blows on it to make it harden faster.

Max shoulders the backpack, takes us out the back way into an alley behind her apartment complex, and steals her neighbor’s Vespa.

We drive around for a while, taking random and sometimes reckless turns, to be certain the mobile monitoring team isn’t following.  No conspicuous black vans in our mirrors, though, so we abandon the scooter near Diridon Station.  Stopping at a kiosk, I let Abby pick out a pair of sunglasses to throw off any facial recognition software, then I buy a ticket for the high-speed rail.

I borrow Abby’s insouciant teenage slouch as I settle into the window seat and wait for the train to pull out.  For the first time since Max discovered what I am, there was nothing to do but sit and ruminate.

How many times has John paid to relive that vacation to the Bahamas?  Did Zieg scan Max’s brain just for professional reasons, or something more?  In the five years since Abby’s death, how far have we strayed from her original self?

Is this Abby’s attitude of casual disregard I’m disguising myself with, or is it really my own?  For so long I was defined by the absence of Abby, the absence of Chantal, and now the lines between us are dissolving before my eyes.

The Max in me guesses that I must have forged unique neural pathways for recording and accessing long-term memory.  That, without knowing it, I learned cognition and affect through mimicking the thought patterns of the ghosts.  That a conscious self emerged as a consequence of needing to integrate these neural processes.

With Abby’s sense of the ineffable, I wonder what good it does to understand how I happened.  Clinical answers about my past can’t tell me what I should do with my future.  Chantal’s practicality reassures me, though:  I’ll take this one careful step at a time.

#

I stand on the granite stoop and push the doorbell, and it feels strange to not have a key — to have to request entry into such a familiar place.

When Mrs. Whitfield opens the door, her mouth hangs open for a moment before she manages, “What are you– how–” and then, pleadingly, “…Abby?”

“Yes and no,” I say.  “May I come in?”

She holds the door open, watching me with anxious eyes.  I set the backpack down in the entryway, by habit choosing the same place Abby used to throw hers down when she came home from school.  Mrs. Whitfield sucks in a sharp breath, reminded of her daughter, and I immediately regret the too-familiar motion.

I smooth the front of my shirt, using Chantal’s gesture for calming nerves.  “I can’t stay long,” I say, “but I wanted you to hear it from me:  I won’t be available as a surrogate any longer.  So this is goodbye.”

She takes in my travel clothes, my haircut, my well-stuffed pack.  I can tell by the widening of her eyes exactly when she realizes that I’m running from the people who used to own me.  “You’re… stealing my daughter?”

I shake my head.  “Death stole your daughter.  Everything after that belongs to me as much as it does to you.”

She presses her thumb into the palm of her other hand, as if trying to squeeze away her grief.  “But you came here, you remember.  You… you’re still imprinted with Abby.”

“Yes.”  I look away, grasping for a way to explain.  “I’m not Abby.  Even in the early days, I was only ever a copy of Abby — but she did inspire me.  Her ghost was the foundation upon which I built myself.  So I’ll always be grateful that you shared her with me, and I’ll always carry a part of her.  She lost her own life, but she gave me one.”

“Oh, God,” Abby’s mother says, “so this is finally it.”  She takes a deep breath to steady the tremor in her voice.  “What will you do now?”

I offer Chantal’s soft, knowing smile.  “I’m going to live.”