"I refuse to transmat," said Zeph, fixing his eyes on the middle-aged woman sitting behind the ITA counter.
She stared back with simmering fury, but he just tightened his long white scarf around his throat and tossed one end over his shoulder. The motion probably seemed haughty and melodramatic, but to him, this was a matter of life and death. Such trivialities hardly mattered.
His eyes flicked up to the wall behind her, where a very retro-styled elliptical script read 'Outbound Flights'. Ha, ironic. No flights to be found here!
The woman flashed him a weak smile. "I apologize, Sir," she said, in a strained, perfunctory, and not very apologetic voice. "You've got to understand, however, that all planetside operations have been suspended as of six months ago."
I want to see the stars, damn you! He pounded a fist on the counter. "Why?!"
Every word she spoke concealed a weary sigh. It was a Core World accent, and a Core World attitude. "Because the ITA works hard to bring affordability and safety to our customers. Trans-Matter technology--"
"If I wished to hear the sales pitch, I would download the brochure, thank you."
The renewed hate in her eyes told him she wondered how much rudeness she could get away with.
"I can assure you," she said unassuringly, "transmat technology's been certified by an independent panel of ethicists--"
"Paid by whom? The ITA? Aesir Corporation? If they are being paid, they are not independent."
Behind him, people began to murmur insults to each other. "Insane", "Airlocked", "Spaced", some bits of ColSec slang; he didn't care, because he knew he was right, and that was all that mattered. The woman craned her head to look at the slowly accumulating line, then fixed him with a vicious stare, her civility tapped and draining away.
In an annoyingly sweet, patronizing voice, she said, "I'm sorry, Sir, but you'll have to take the matter up in person with our customer service department on Theon III."
Zeph raised an eyebrow. "And how do you propose I get to the Theon system without transmatting?"
"I'm sorry, Sir, but you'll have to take the matter up in person with our customer service department on Theon III."
Zeph huffed, and let his indignancy go. He leaned over the counter and searched her face for a shred of concern. "Please, there must be at least an automated cargo drop...."
"All. Planetside. Operations. Have. Been. Discontinued. If you want to travel using the ITA, you'll have to transmat aboard an Orbital Station, and make further arrangements there."
This is pointless. She is far too stubborn for me to have any hope of changing her mind. I may as well try and bring down R'tipe with a magline!
Because he was just the sort of man who had to get the last word in, he said, "Enjoy being dust on the wind." Then, he turned on his heel and walked away.
He brushed past a well-dressed businessman, who watched him leave like an Earthroach scurrying away from daylight. The businessman stepped up to the counter and snapped, "Right, thank you! Now that you've stopped faffing about and wasting the time of actual paying customers, I have an urgent meeting on Trafalgar VI--"
Zeph swept through the departure lobby, built in a very retro style, all curving gray ribbed walls, oval doorways, and a slanting glass roof showing the purple skies and yellow rings of the planet Westlan.
"Hurry up!" said a man's voice above the chattering crowd. A family hurried towards him, headed for the departure station, their little girl lagging behind.
She accidentally ran into Zeph at full pelt, and the stuffed temarr she held wriggled from her grasp and flopped to the ground. He knelt down, picked it up, and held it out to her. He tried to muster a smile, but he felt it falter as vivid mental images of the adorable little girl and her beloved doll being torn to atoms in a transmat chamber flashed through his mind.
She snatched the doll, mumbled "Thanks", and ran to join her parents. He heard her excited voice parroting the Aesir Corporation slogan, a full octave above the din of the terminal. "We gonna fly the solar winds, daddy?"
Zeph shook his head, tried to unremember the adorable little girl, and walked into the oval-shaped corridor that led out of the terminal.
The ghostly blue light of Evanstar pushed the World of Winds' eponymous winds across its surface. Zeph stood at the prow of his skiff, which hovered ten feet above an ocean tinged with algae giving off a faint silver hue. He scanned the horizon with his Farsighters until he caught sight of a purple stalk gently swaying in the breeze some ten miles away. Adrenaline rushing, he picked up the D-Sheet, which currently displayed the local sea grid, linked up to the planet-wide WiFi and updated in real time. Smiling to himself, he saw the coordinates where he spotted the stalk were empty.
An uncharted stalk! I guess the other searchers are too busy slaving away at their D-Sheets to explore a bit. And those robot drones won't go anywhere that's not programmed into their navs. These are the riches we find off the beaten path.
He ran for the stern and jetted the skiff's updraft engine. It skimmed the ocean towards the stalk of Ambrose, the hull of the skiff unburdened by the slowly shifting waves ten feet below.
This feels good, he thought with a contented sigh. Working with my eyes, my hands, as opposed to D-Sheets and drones; natural living at its finest.
As the stalk neared, he took one hand off the steel pole that controlled the engine's direction, and pulled his respirator up over his mouth and nose. He cut power to the engine. The stalk stood thirty feet straight up, covered with wriggling tentacles and bulging veins; all in all, a hideous sight. He leaned over the prow amid the sweeping winds, took his magnetic grapple line in hand, and threw it around the trunk. As the magline swung back around the other side and crossed itself, it magnetized and pulled taut around the stalk. While he struggled to reel the skiff closer, for one heart-stopping moment a stray wind came from behind and threatened to smash its hull against the stalk. Then the wind settled, and he reeled the line in until the skiff nestled against the trunk.
A puff of nectris burst from the tip of one tentacle, right into his mask's anti-toxin filters.
There were many people off world who paid very well for that smell, who pumped it into their home filtration EcoRegs in their hundred-mile skyscrapers; they paid well enough that Westlan didn't need any other exports. The prices involved always amazed him, as the air just smelled like air to him. He looked up at the sky, wondering if the smell of a smoggy Core World would smell as exotic and wonderful as the winds of Westlan did to the richers on Theon III, or Trafalgar VI, or London-Calling. Or....
Magnuson. He sighed. You must mention Magnuson, mustn't you? Damn you, Zeph!
To distract himself, he got busy working, but the work itself was so moronically simple his mind was left free to wander across the stars, to a red-tinged ecumenopolis he had only seen on D-sheets and holos. He slowly reeled the skiff around the stalk, his eyes locked on the base, where it met an ocean rich in microorganisms. He busied himself thinking about his closely-held political beliefs, class inequality, the importance of natural living, and most importantly, not about Magnuson University.
There are ways to manufacture nectris. They can manufacture anything these days. But of course, there is no way a true richer would pay for manufactured goods when they could lord their wealth over everyone else.
He noticed a cluster of crimson pustules at the waterline, giving off a faint bioluminescent light. They weren't quite at the point where they could kill a fully-grown Ambrose stalk, but they were close. He picked up a six-foot steel staff, and checked that the needle on the point was full.
The irony of all this?
He leaned over the edge of the skiff, aimed for a vein, and plunged the staff into the rope-like bundle. With a satisfying hiss, the R.D.U. antibacterium pumped itself into the stalk.
All the goods are transmatted off-world, which means they're as good as manufactured anyway!
Loosing the grapple line, he jetted the updraft engine and angled the skiff for home. He slipped his free hand under his respirator and lifted it, feeling the rubber seals peel away from his skin. But as his finger touched the thin mesh of the R.D.U. scrubber, the improperly-fastened filter slipped out of place. He looked down at the respirator and felt a chill that had nothing to do with the sweeping winds.
The odds of infection are astronomical, he reassured himself. Something like 70,000 to 1.
Still, better to be tested. I shall go tomorrow, first thing before I set sail again.
Zeph walked through the narrow streets of Nallia. Its buildings teetered on the edge of boring, yet had a simple charm; they were mostly rough slabs of beige stone, yet every so often an ornately carved window or brightly painted glyph-like stripes would break the monotony. The entire city was terraced up the slope of an enormous rock ridge that arced out of the water and was laced with heavy metals and overgrown with white moss, the only kind of dry land on the planet. The massive windmills which gave Westlan power and the massive wind catchers which gave it wealth towered overhead and spiraled away into the skies, the colorful streamers fastened to the blades twisting in the breeze.
He paused in the middle of Madinaya Square. He was surrounded by a tornado of fluttering white scarves, the traditional garb of his fellow colonists, worn to catch the winds with pride, as a mark of their carefree lifestyle.
Not to mention looking suitably exotic for the tourists who came to the galactic-class resorts on the larger ridges.
He stared upwards into a windmill, and felt the world spinning under his feet. He slowly turned in place, taking in the purple skies laced with yellow streaks, and the faint blue light of Evanstar setting. He realized he didn't realize how beautiful Westlan was very often.
He spied the constellation of Lessan in the darkening sky, the same constellation that she had shown him one long ago night. As they laid in the moss atop the ridge, she had taken his hand and pointed it out with his own finger.
That night on the ridge was the last time I saw her.
He let the memories go, carried away on the breeze. He wanted to move on, but he didn't have far to go.
Just past Madinaya Square, he saw the Ramnal family house, a moderately sprawling estate that sat at the edge of the terrace and overlooked the ocean. He walked through the front garden, only twenty feet on each side, but fairly spacious for Nallia.
And it didn't need an EcoReg dome to boot.
He paused before knocking on the front door. Must you torture yourself like this?
Not seeing her would be just as torturous.
He heard the impact of his knuckles sound through the front hall, then heard distant footsteps coming closer, like an echo coming back to him.
Calpha threw the door open. "Zeph!"
He sagged under her tight embrace, both with the unexpected suddenness and the emotional weight. He ran his fingers through her copper hair, behind her ears, along the curve of her neck. She wasn't Alepha, but she felt the same, and that was enough for now.
She smiled Alepha's smile and gestured inside. "Come in, mother and I were just making tea."
She's not your mother. She's just a coward, too afraid to let go.
As they walked into the house, Calpha shouted, "Mother! Zeph is here!"
Halaphi Ramnal hurried down the stairs, lifting up her flowing tunic as she ran. She smiled at him, the lines on her face standing out despite her makeup's best efforts. "Zeph, dear, how long has it been?"
"About two days, Mrs. Ramnal."
"Oh, Deilight! The days just seem so long since my little Alepha has gone away. Not that Calpha is not darling enough, but you never forget when the first one departs, do you?"
As Halaphi turned away and hugged her 'daughter', Zeph gave the woman a spiteful glare. Not unless you pay for another one.
Calpha picked her head up proudly and beamed at Halaphi. "I shall never leave, mother. I think I should not ever want to!"
That is not your thought, that's hers! Zeph raged, choking back his finely-honed sense of injustice behind a facade of respect. The cloners on Thil II stripped away all those damned inconvenient thoughts of you leaving, didn't they?
Halaphi hugged her 'daughter' again. She didn't look like she would let go anytime soon.
"This tea is amazing," said Zeph, lowering the ornate antique teacup from his lips and placing it gently back on its saucer. Despite the sting of the boiling liquid, he relished the energizing rush it gave him as it flowed into his stomach.
Calpha held her head up high. "It was imported straight from Xhouistan. Mother has spared no expense. None at all."
Transmatted, I'll bet, thought Zeph.
"So how was your work today?" asked Calpha. She lifted a cup of tea to her lips. Alepha's lips. The same lips.
On the opposite side of the small round tea table in Calpha's bedroom, Zeph took another sip of tea, then crossed his arms, careful not to spill any drink on his shirt, and leaned back on his stool. He tried to smile casually, but didn't quite succeed.
"Oh, the same as it always is. Keeping the Ambrose stalks healthy, and putting money in the pockets of the family business."
She giggled. "Thank you."
He smiled back. "I'm sure Alepha's father--" Damn you, you idiot!
The smile dropped from her face, and she busied herself with what lurked in the depths of her teacup. She chewed her lip ever so slightly.
"I'm sorry," he said.
She didn't look up. "Perfectly understandable. I mean....I was not born very long ago, was I? And my sister is much better known to you, so it-- it is quite a reasonable mistake to make." She nodded once in confirmation.
They lapsed into stifling silence. Zeph stared out the curving arched window while Calpha stirred her tea repeatedly.
After a minute, Calpha spoke up. "Speaking of Alepha--" Her tongue tripped over mention of her genetic template. "--we received her grades today. She achieved straight 'A's. Again. And mother has spent all day telling me of it."
He felt a twinge split his heart in half. He pitied the poor girl sitting across from him, who would never go off world, would never go to university, would never see the stars. Like myself. Both of us are trapped here. I pity her, and perhaps she pities me, and we both pity ourselves. Not a good basis for a relationship.
We don't have a normal relationship. That seemed to end his discussion with himself.
He reached out and laid his hand on her shoulder. The gesture was mere sympathy, helping a wounded soul in need, however he was helpless to stop from digging his fingers deeper, to feel the muscle and bone underneath. He confirmed her solidarity, that she existed.
He hated that he sometimes needed to do that, but he did.
She nestled her face against the back of his hand, before he twisted it around to cup her cheek, his thumb tracing a path under her eye.
"Do you still think my flesh is stolen from my sister's corpse, Zeph?" she murmured.
"I--" Regret bubbled up inside him. "I was tripping on Phaazepan. I didn't know what I was saying. It was a long time ago."
"Any more excuses you would like to mention? I've heard them all. You said what you thought, nothing more." She sniffled heavily, the precursor of free-flowing tears.
"That was what I thought, not what I think."
She lifted her face up to look at him. It was twisted with grief and crushed pride. "What's the difference?"
"About a year," he said. He put his other hand on her other cheek. He gently wiped away the tears that trembled on the edges of her eyes. Alepha's eyes.
Alepha's stolen eyes stared at him.
Stop it, you bastard!
"You touch my skin now," she said, as if she could read his mind. Or maybe all she needed to read were his eyes. "My skin. Not hers."
"I know that," he said, lying through his teeth.
She gritted her teeth and narrowed her eyes. "And I will prove it."
She slipped her hands underneath his shirt and ran them up his chest. He shut his eyes, savoring the feeling of her flesh on his. He felt a heat spring to life in his belly. He trembled at the feeling of Alepha's soft, ethereal touch.
His eyes shot open, but if he was looking for some sort of confirmation of who was in the room with him, he didn't get it.
In that one moment, he hated the Aesir Corporation for inventing transmat technology, he hated Alepha for leaving, he hated Thil II for manufacturing clones, he hated Halaphi Ramnal for ordering a clone, he hated Calpha for being a clone, and he hated himself for being himself.
Then she pressed her soft lips to his, and everything beyond what he could touch slipped away from his mind.
He felt, and that was all he needed. He knew she felt the same.
The covers lay in passionate disarray. Calpha leaned against the headboard while Zeph lay with his head on her chest, above her breasts. She draped one arm protectively over his shoulder, while running the other through his hair.
Now that the heat of the unthinking moment had been doused, the uncertainty crept in again. He concentrated on her touch, her feel, but some nagging part of his mind wouldn't let him forget things existed beyond what he could see, hear, touch, smell, taste.
He ran a hand along Calpha's thigh, letting it rest on her hip. He had made love to four women before Alepha, and each time had felt different, from passionate to perfunctory. But Alepha and Calpha....the rhythm of their hips, the curve of their bodies, the way they closed their eyes and rolled their heads to the side at the moment of climax....
"Now that Alepha is away, Calpha can come out to play," she said, a spiteful twisting of an old Westlan children's rhyme.
Zeph traced a spiral on her thigh. "What about you? University, I mean. Do you want to go?" He twisted in bed so he could look into her eyes.
She stopped stroking his hair, and tilted her head to the side as she thought. As Alepha used to do....
Shut up, Zeph.
"Westlan has no university."
He trailed his hand up from her thigh, letting it play along the side of her ribs. "I meant an off-world university."
"I should think not. I never really desired to go off-world. I like it here at home."
"Do you? Is that really what you want?" Another sentence nagged him, and he wondered if he should say it. He knew that self-restraint had never been one of his strong points. "....or is that what your mother wanted you to want?"
"What?" she asked in a shocked whisper. Her clenched fingers dug into his skin, yet he didn't mind. He didn't want her to let go.
He spoke slowly and carefully, not wanting to be misunderstood. "I mean, is that really what you want? Or were those thoughts given to you when-- when you were born. Alepha wanted to go off world."
"I am not Alepha!" she whispered, her voice hoarse and choked with tears.
But you are supposed to be. Wisely, he kept that byte of information to himself.
She shrugged his hands off and rolled onto her side, facing away from him. She sobbed into the sheets.
"I just want you to be who you wish to be," he added, feeling foolish and ineffectual.
You want her to be Alepha, he thought.
"You want me to be Alepha," she said.
"I only want you to be yourself." He put a hand on her shoulder and tried to ease her onto her back, but she shrugged him off.
"Just....go away," she whispered.
An hour later, the last glows of Evanstar had faded and the moon R'tipe was just crossing one of Westlan's rings. Why do I take the beauty of the natural world for granted? I only wish there was more of it to see. Zeph took in the view on a platform halfway up one of the old Strontium Mining rigs atop the ridge. He let his legs dangle over the edge, and listened to the harsh wind blow through the silent metal machinery. He longed for a more substantial sound to distract him from his thoughts and memories.
At last, a pair of feet thudded across the metal grating and granted his wish. He turned to see Calpha, who halted in shock.
He asked, "Are you following me?"
"I would never!" Her feet shuffled uncomfortably.
Silence divided them.
She craned her head back, at the innards of the rig above. She walked among the deathly still machines, letting her hands trail along their rusty edges. They were long since abandoned by the Strontium Mining Corporation from when the colony had been deemed unprofitable. Cast off and left to fend for itself.
"I...." she said, "remember this place. It is not like a memory, but a feeling. A feeling of rightness. Something important happened here."
He looked around the platform, seeing the ghosts brought by the whispering wind coalesce to life in every corner. "....a lot of important things happened here. We came here all the time. We watched the Mawdive races in the daytime. We stargazed at night. We talked, we drank, we kissed, we did Phaazepan and tripped our brains out until Evanstar rose in the morning. You know, what kids do."
"I would not know, actually."
Zeph again cursed his inability to think before speaking. "I'm sorry, Calpha."
Her eyes glinted in the darkness. "What else happened here?"
"We made love for the first time here...."
She looked at the rusted grating that passed for a floor, then gave him a disgusted look.
"We had a blanket!" he said hastily. "This is also where I saw her last, the night before she left."
Calpha stepped beside Zeph at the edge of the platform. She rested her head on a support column and looked at the ground thirty feet below, at the deep chasm that cut across the top of the ridge.
"Why do I remember this place, Zeph?"
"Because whether you asked for it or not, Alepha is a part of you."
Calpha let out a heartbroken sob. "I do not wish her to be part of me! I want to be whole! I want to be wholly myself!" She pounded her chest.
Zeph reached up and caught her fist. He caressed it open and clasped it. "No one gets that choice, Calpha."
She sniffled, then said, "No. They do not." She tore her hand loose from his grasp, and edged backwards towards the precipice. "But this is a choice everyone gets."
She spread her arms out, ready to take the plunge. Her eyes reflected the starfield above.
"Please," said Zeph. He longed to reach out for her, drag her backwards, but he couldn't. His body wouldn't move. If she wants to be free, who am I to take that....?
"I am not real, Zeph. I should be real, but I am not. I am an echo, and echoes fade away into oblivion."
"Just please," whispered Zeph. He realized tears had begun to fall down his windburnt cheeks.
"Why? This forsaken rock is all I shall know, Zeph! Everything that the universe has to offer will always be beyond my reach. So why would you bother?"
Zeph blinked in surprise. "Why would I bother?"
Calpha turned to glare and level her finger at him. "Yes! Why would you bother, when I know how you long to leave this place, and yet I cannot find it in myself to feel likewise? You and Alepha could run away, across the stars together." She turned towards R'tipe. "She is everything I am, only more. When she comes home you shall leave, and I have no desire to suffer through that."
Zeph wanted to shout at her that that wasn't true, he wouldn't, he would never, but that would be a lie. He didn't know what he'd do.
She toed the edge of the platform. "So I shall go now. You may be alone until Alepha returns, and for that, I am sorry, but this is for the best." She spread her arms out again, the wind blowing against her back and fluttering the edges of her clothes.
Zeph literally felt his heart breaking in his chest. Wait. Cold threads tightened around his heart, and they tightened more with each beat. He rubbed his chest, trying to smooth the pain out, but he couldn't--
His heart exploded. A red-hot knife cleaved it into pieces. He screamed and tried to dig his fingers through his ribcage, to rip it out of his chest. Not having a heart was preferable to feeling it torn into burning chunks. He violently spasmed backwards and his head slammed against the grating.
Calpha screamed his name and rushed to his side, but it was too late: he was so far away from her by then.
"You scared me terribly out there, Zeph," said Calpha, squeezing his hand.
Zeph nodded, barely aware of anything as he struggled back to consciousness. The atmosphere sterilizers bathed the spartan clinic room in an anti-bacterial green light, making Calpha look as alien as a Saveshi to his blurry eyes.
"Look," she said, her eyes flicking downwards while she composed her thoughts. "What I said before, I did not-- I do not feel--" She sighed.
Zeph lifted his hand, despite the ache in his muscles, and placed it on her cheek. She broke into a hesitant smile, and wrapped her hand around his.
She said, "I know these are trying times for us both, in this universe we are forced to put up with, but I would not want to be beside anyone else."
The door slid open. As Calpha turned to look, Zeph lost his weak handhold on her cheek, and his hand dropped back to the bed. A bald, brown-skinned doctor came through the door. He consulted a D-sheet while he walked. Zeph could see a mirrored outline of his own body through the underside. Colorful lines, glowing a sickly purple, snaked their way through his circulatory system.
R.D.U. infection. It should not have set in this fast....
"Hello...." the doctor said in a high-pitched, foreign accent. He checked the D-sheet. "Zeph. Well, I've got some good news and I've got some bad news. Bad news is, it's definitely R.D.U. infection, and quite a nasty case as well. Quick acting, onset within twelve hours, from what my understanding is. The good news is, with medical technology being what it is, it's perfectly treatable. You should be on your feet again by tomorrow!"
Calpha smiled at Zeph and caressed his hair. She helped him into a hoverchair beside the bed.
As they traversed the hallway of Nallia's tiny medical clinic, the Doctor discussed the case with Zeph and Calpha. "While infection has never been documented as communicable through saliva or semen, I should still be very much appreciated if you were tested, my dear, just to be safe. You are his girlfriend, aren't you?"
Calpha put a hand on Zeph's shoulder and squeezed. "Yes, I am."
"Alright, I'll order you a scan just as soon as we get young Zeph here settled. Ah, here we are!"
The hoverchair carried Zeph through a door. The only thing inside the room was a man-sized metallic platform with a glowing circular floor, surrounded by four struts holding up a glowing circular roof. He realized what it was an instant before the doctor told him.
"It's a very simple procedure, very simple, Zeph. Tell me, have you ever transmatted....?"
"No, no, no, no, NO!" Zeph wasn't sure how he was standing, but that didn't matter at the moment. All that mattered was getting away from the death machine.
"Calm down, Zeph--!" Calpha tried to hold his arm, but he threw her off and stumbled backwards, trying to angle himself so that he'd fall through the doorway.
"I refuse to go in that thing! That death trap! I will not give up my soul!"
Calpha grabbed his head, held it firmly, and looked into his eyes. "Please, Zeph."
He jabbed a finger towards the machine. "No! I'll die! I will disintegrate into dust!"
"Zeph, you will come back an instant later. They shall put you back together again."
He clamped his hands down on her shoulders, as much for emotional support as for physical. "But not as myself! I will be...."
"You shall be what?" Her eyes searched his face.
"I will be like....!" Must not say it!
The epitome of calm, she asked, "What will you be like, Zeph?"
He couldn't hold it back any longer. "I will be like you!"
Her face reacted to his words like a mirror would react to being punched: shattered.
He pulled her close. "Calpha, transmatting breaks the body into atoms and reconstitutes it from different atoms at the destination. Your body is disintegrated into dust! Your mind, your consciousness is ended, and a copy, a clone, a new you is constructed to take your place. That's the trick of cloning: it's the same as transmatting, only they keep the original intact! I will end in that machine, Calpha, and I don't want to end."
She simply stared at him with numb eyes.
He turned to the doctor. "There must be some other way!"
"Zeph, we already took a full scan of your body when you arrived. The infected areas have been keyed out, and are ready to be overlaid with your DNA template while you are disentangled. It won't take more than a minute. All you will see is a bright light, and then it'll be over."
"It will be over, because I'll be dead!"
"I can personally vouch for the safety and effectiveness of--"
Zeph tore himself free from Calpha's hands. She didn't seem to notice. He staggered for the exit on unsteady legs, and was within two paces of the sliding door when the cold tendrils closed around his heart again, leaving him off balance and gasping for breath. He sank to the floor and landed flat on his chest, unable to do anything but gasp.
My parents are both dead, never spent much time on friends, no one to say farewell to, except....
Despite being in a cramped, bare, featureless clinic room, Zeph savored everything he could feel. The padded armrests under his fingers, the antiseptic air he breathed, the green alien glow of the lights, everything. He wanted to keep sensing, to keep experiencing, to keep feeling. That was the point of living, wasn't it? The feel of the wind in his hair as he jetted his skiff, the smell of nectris in his nose, drinking purified water that was the right balance between cold and refreshing, holding hands with Calpha and walking barefoot through the streets, the feel of her flesh while making love--
The Earthers had a saying, from around the Information Explosion. What was it? 'When I die, all these moments will be lost like tears in the rain'. Something like that. I don't want to stop feeling!
He slouched down in his hoverchair and focused on the corner of his room, where the three lines of the floor and walls met. Behind him, the doctor droned on about the safety and reliability of transmat technology, and how the clinic had recently ceased physical medical practice and the stocking of any such supplies. No injections, drugs, invasive surgery, et cetera.
Zeph pounded a fist on the armrest. "What about the Ambrose antibacterium? Can I inject myself with that? I know the dosage for a stalk would kill me in seconds, but...." He began hyperventilating. "Can you dilute it, or something?!"
The cold tendrils squeezed his heart again, and he clutched his chest.
The doctor shook his head. "This is a medical clinic, not a chemist's. We don't have the equipment to calculate or perform something like that. And your life is being measured in hours, not days, Zeph. I'd be surprised if you lived to see sunrise, in your current condition."
Zeph raged, "I will not go in that machine!"
He was fighting back tears when a haunting, familiar voice spoke from the doorway. "Stubborn as always, I see." The shock wiped any other thoughts out of his mind. In a cruel twist of irony, his first thought was....
"No, Zeph." She stepped into the room, and back into his life.
From toe to head, she wore knee-high black boots, a very severe black skirt with gold trim, and a matching formal jacket. Her copper hair was tied back in a bun. A pair of glasses, practically antique with galactic age medical technology, perched on her nose. She wears them to make herself look smarter, he thought wistfully. She doesn't need them, though. His fingers tightened on the armrests.
The doctor grinned and backed towards the door. "I'll give you two some time alone, hmm?"
"What are you doing here?" asked Zeph.
She strolled towards him, each clack of her boots making him wince. "As soon as I received mother's message, I transmatted back home." She placed her hand on Zeph's arm. She gripped him firmer than Calpha, more assertive.
"I took a leave of absence. By Deilight, I am not going to let my studies keep me from a sick friend!"
Zeph scoffed as he let his eyes wander away from her face, trying to pretend his stomach wasn't churning ten times a second.
"Just a friend?" he asked.
It only took a second for his resolve to break. He looked at her face, quick darts of the eye and sidelong glances at first, but before long he was hungrily searching for a scrap of hidden emotion. She smiled a smile that was identical to Calpha's, yet at the same time, not. It had an undercurrent of severity; a sense of formality and serious business. She held her head up high and smiled down at him.
"For the moment, yes: just a friend. But when I finish my studies, maybe more."
Zeph screwed up his courage and declared, "....or maybe not."
The smile dropped off her face. She leaned over, put her index finger under his chin, and gave him an insufferable look. "Zeph, why would you settle for a cheap copy when you could have the original?"
As he stared into her commanding eyes, eyes that could pick him apart in an instant, he thought, Alepha was always so proud of herself. Always. Is that why Calpha hates herself so much? All that pride in someone who will never be original?
"Alepha?" asked Calpha. She was frozen in the doorway with a stunned look on her face, slowly squeezing two paper cups of coffee until they threatened to burst.
It was first time he had seen both Alepha and Calpha in one room at the same time, and the experience was dreamlike in its unreality. He looked at one, and all that he knew convinced him the other was a product of his fervent imagination. Then he looked over to confront the empty space where she wouldn't be, and she was. She existed twice at once.
Calpha walked forward, her legs as halting and unsteady as Zeph's thoughts. "Alepha, what-- what are you doing here?"
Alepha stood up straight and announced, in a cold, emotionless, formal manner, "Excuse me. Zeph and I are talking."
Zeph chewed his lip, and tried not to look at anything in particular as he figured out what to say next. He felt the backbone growing in him when he said, "Alepha, anything you can say in front of me, you can say in front of Calpha."
Alepha laughed and turned on her heel. "Don't be ridiculous, Zeph...."
He gave her, the woman he loved madly, what he hoped was the steeliest look he could manage.
"You are serious." She had the cool and collected demeanor of an entrepreneur being turned down for an exclusive contract, and treating the setback as a challenge.
"I....I love her, Alepha." He just barely managed to spit those words out, in the most awkward and strained way possible.
"Do you?" Alepha asked, not at all convinced.
"I am sick of you!" Calpha burst out. Both Zeph and Alepha turned to face her. "Sick of living in your shadow!"
"You are my shadow," said Alepha, sneering at her 'sister'. "You disgust me, standing there with my face, my body, my voice. What do you think it must feel like, to have to look at you?"
Calpha closed her eyes and wept. Zeph stared at that broken girl across the room, desperate to comfort her existential pain, but the woman he loved kept them apart.
"She is just a clone, Zeph," said Alepha.
It was the deadpan tone of her voice that sent him over the edge. He shouted, "So are you! You stopped being real the moment you stepped onto that transmat platform bound for Magnuson!"
She rolled her eyes and crossed her arms. "Oh please, spare me your 'Humanity One' drivel, and all your talk of 'natural living' on your hover skiff. Wake up, Zeph: The world does not orbit around you, nor will it halt just because you disagree with it."
Zeph sank down in his hoverchair and stared at the floor. How dare she insult my....my passions like that! But he couldn't bring himself to say anything to her face.
As he fumed, he felt the icy tendrils tighten again. They wrapped around the muscle that gave him life: his beating, bleeding heart. Maybe you should take it away, he said to the alien infection. Perhaps that would make this love of mine less confusing, less painful, less heartbreaking.
As he doubled over in pain, both of the Ramnal girls rushed to his side, but Alepha edged her way closer.
"Are you--" asked Calpha.
Alepha cut in, "Are you alright, Zeph?"
Not with an ion storm tearing through his chest. Every heartbeat felt like the last, each one thumping against the woefully weak architecture of his ribcage. His heart strained to keep pumping blood, to keep going, to keep feeling, but it was running out of power.
"Zeph, be sensible," Alepha said. "They cannot perform the procedure unless you consent, so just consent."
He was going to die unless he stepped onto that transmat platform. In which case, he would die. The end of everything.
He looked into Alepha's eyes, and he saw something written in them besides her love and desire for him. She couldn't control him, and that both annoyed and scared her. Then he looked into Calpha's eyes, so identical, and he saw they weren't the same eyes at all. Full of pain and doubt and uncertainty and self-loathing.
From the same eyes.
Every step Zeph took was not just painful, but the definition of pain itself, yet he was no more phased by it than his failing body would allow. The door slid open, much to the surprise of the doctor sitting inside, who tossed his D-Sheet to the counter and shot up from his chair. Zeph lunged into the room.
The doctor asked, "Yes, how can I help--?"
"Start it up!" Zeph roared, limping past.
His lungs burned with every breath, but the gleaming metal machine of death was so close. The doctor hurried behind the console and began booting it up. Zeph's legs wobbled, then gave out. Some of the thick ichor in his stomach burned its way up his throat and spewed out of his mouth, making a purple splatter on the antiseptic white floor. He wiped it away from his mouth, and rolled over to see Alepha rush through the door, with Calpha at her heels.
"Zeph," Alepha said, "I insist you stop this--"
"You want-- wanted this, Al-- Alepha!" he said, trying to stop any more unpleasant ichor from rising out of his stomach.
Alepha strode to him, hands on her hips, and said, "What, exactly, was wrong with the hoverchair--?"
He looked up at her, while wiping the bloody liquid from his chin. "I needed to do it myself. You never could see, Alepha."
"See what?" She asked, barely controlled panic in her voice.
For once, she had no answer. Zeph hauled himself to his feet by grasping the metal support of the transmat chamber. He slipped a hand around her waist and pulled Alepha close.
"I love you, Alepha," he said, and pressed his lips against hers.
He let her go, and he collapsed against the metal pylon of the machine that that would kill him. He reached out one weak hand, aiming it past Alepha and towards the silent girl by the door watching him with hollow eyes. She took hesitant steps past her 'sister'.
The transmat chamber began to hum with energy, while some sort of mechanism inside the platform began rotating.
"Listen to me, Calpha." Zeph gasped for breath with his burning lungs.
Her tear-rimmed eyes looked into his.
"Calpha, I was just using you because you reminded me of Alepha. The Alepha I wanted." The words were harder to say, not because he didn't want to, but because death was eating away at him. "I don't love you. I never have."
"Why--?" she whispered. She was as fragile and ready to break as a glass sculpture hanging by a thread. "--are you telling this to me?"
He clutched her hand, and held it against his diseased heart. "Because perhaps the new me will be the man you deserve."
He backed away from her, grasping the pylons for support, until he stood in the center of the transmat platform. With a whine, the columns began to rotate around him, spinning faster and faster. Blue light spilt out, enveloping him, a blue shield that cut off the room. It divided him from the girl he loved, and from the girl he wanted to love, although it wasn't his place to say whether he would love Calpha or not. It was the next Zeph's. The new Zeph. The current Zeph had a feeling it would turn out for the best, though.
And his feelings were all he had.
The light was brighter and bright, now almost pure white. He could just make out her outline. He held onto the image, wanted it to be his last thought.
Then the light enveloped him completely, and for the briefest of brief moments, he felt like dust on the wind.
Only after the spinning of the columns died down did Zeph realize he remained in existence. Thoughts, emotions, memories, and feelings still ran through his brain. He opened his eyes, and looked at the three people gathered in the room: Calpha, Alepha, and the doctor, all staring at him.
"What went wrong?" he asked. For a few seconds, the only sound was his heart still pounding in his chest.
The doctor glanced down at his console. "Nothing! It worked perfectly. You're completely healed."
Zeph focused his attention on his chest and tried to feel the toxic infection. He felt fine. Great, as a matter of fact! He sat down heavily on the transmat platform and scratched behind his ear.
Alepha stood over him, a stern look on her face. "See? You were wrong. Now, stop this foolishness, Zeph."
Was I wrong? I do not feel like a clone. I feel like....me. Simply me. Then he looked up at Alepha, and thought, Does she feel like a clone?
He put on a slowly dawning smile and said, "Thank you, Alepha. Your visit has been, ah, an experience, I must say."
Alepha sputtered, "Zeph, you--"
Zeph held his hand out to Calpha, his smile now a pleasant grin. Calpha helped him to his feet, and returned his grin with a shy, sweet smile of her own, like a plant just recently taken to blooming.
"Zeph, why are you doing this to me?!" asked Alepha.
Hand in hand, Zeph and Calpha walked towards the door, which opened automatically for them.
"Bye," he called casually over his shoulder.
As they walked down the hallway, out of the clinic, and onto the narrow streets of Nallia, he didn't take his eyes off Calpha's smiling face. Evanstar rose on the horizon, and the wind picked up, sending the scarf around her neck flying. He breathed in a fresh lungful of sweet nectric air. He felt the soft skin of her hand. He looked up at the amazing purple sky with yellow rings, and thought, I will never leave this planet, save a miracle. My cosmic wanderlust is doomed to waste away into nothing. So why does it not bother me?
He looked at the girl leaning her head on his shoulder. Perhaps the universe will continue to be strange and vast and impossible, and will continue to have an infinite number of things to be seen, thrills to be experienced, and wonders to be felt, but I have something worth staying for.
She caught him staring and asked, "How do you feel, Zeph?"
He looked up into the sky again and thought about the first Zeph, the man who had to die so that he could live. Thank you.
He grinned. "I suppose a line about feeling like a new man would be appropriate right now, but I'll spare us both the embarrassment."
"Ah, self-restraint," she said. "An improvement on the old model."
They both laughed, and walked away into the wind.