By Alexis A Hunter
Artwork by Jose Baetas.
Vicker isn't the first to find immortality. There's a waiting list a billion names long. These are days of fear. Every second is a chance death will swoop you away before VitaTech can get you secured in your new body.
Those who can afford to stay home. Hunkered down with tight rations and no luxury. Going out is too dangerous. A car might smash your squishy human body to flesh-colored pudding. A desperate thief--unable to afford the Upgrade--might slit your vulnerable throat and take your place on the waiting list.
After thirty-four years of waiting, Vicker's number comes up.
MEMORY FILE #001
Passing Leah on the street. Our eyes meet for the first time. My step falters. She slows, the edges of her lips curving with a delicate smile. There's a tingling sensation in my chest--as if someone has reached out frosted fingers to squeeze my heart. But we pass each other. Two strangers, feeling the wake of emptiness left by our separation.
A shuttle swoops down outside Vicker's home. Its powerful engines hum as it hovers a few feet above the ground. Vicker bolts for the door, but Leah catches his arm before he can escape. Despite the dark, he sees the desperation haunting her gaunt features. Her grip pinches his arm--a last sensation of pain.
"I love you," she whispers. She presses her lips against his.
His own kiss is rushed. A quick scrape of the lips before he twists out of her grasp.
It isn't that he doesn't care. He's just afraid. Of dying. Of having a heart attack or brain aneurism when he is so close to salvation.
Vicker turns his gaze to the shuttle, casting a goodbye over his shoulder as he jogs toward everlasting life. "See you soon, love."
MEMORY FILE #002
Leah enters the nutritional supplement shop where I work. The moment she steps through the sliding glass doors, my eyes find her. As if drawn, magnetized, to her slim frame and shining face. Our eyes meet for the second time. I lean against the counter, bracing myself. It feels as if someone has pressed their boot against my chest. If this tingling pressure isn't relieved soon, I fear I'll burst. Then she smiles. Warm, radiating smile.
A film of sweat covers Vicker's forehead. He wipes it away as he takes a seat across from the VitaTech Transportation Drones. Impenetrable titanium encases their only remaining bit of human vulnerability--their brains. Admiring their sleek metallic bodies and all the tiny, whirring gears beneath each joint, Vicker can't draw his gaze away from them.
There is no emotion in their glowing eyes. One chose blue, the other green. Vicker already knows what color his eyes will be. He chose them from the catalogue six months before.
The Drones stare at him, and he twists in his seat. Wringing his fingers in and out of complicated knots, he chuckles. A quick exhalation of nervous energy.
"So--how long have you been upgraded?"
They don't speak. Just avert their eyes and lean back in their seats. Vicker chuckles again, but it has a rasping quality now. He did not expect to feel fear. The thundering heart in his chest alarms him.
God, please don't let me die before I can reach the lab.
The shuttle slows, great gasps of air shooting from its flanks. Vicker twists to peer out the port-hole, laying eyes on the VitaTech Upgrade Laboratory for the first time.
MEMORY FILE #003
First kiss. No, the second--the first was fumbling, and she wasn't ready. The second time, she freezes initially. Her body tenses in my arms, the muscles coiling in her back. I almost pull away, but she relaxes. Then she responds. Warm lips enveloping mine. The happiness of a kiss returned is a momentary heaven.
Vicker lies on the sterile operating table. Buzzing metallic nurses move about him, securing his limbs to the table. The cold touch of their titanium digits nips his skin. Dr.Ulbert--the man who will grant him life eternal--stands near his side.
"You only get to keep five memories, Mr. Vicker."
"I know, I know. I thought this out beforehand." Vicker nods toward the nurse standing nearby with a tablet cradled in her hands.
Dr. Ulbert hesitates, but his sleek titanium face does not indicate why. "Yes, I know you know. But do you understand? You won't remember anything else about your life. Just the five memories."
Vicker shifts on the table. It feels cold against his exposed body. He thinks he should feel ashamed to be naked in front of all the nurses, but all he can think about is every second ticking by. A nervous rash spreads across his chest. The accompanying urge to scratch nearly drives him mad.
"I understand, Doctor. Please hurry."
The doctor doesn't move; he just stands there staring. "Once I do this, there's no going back. You won't-- "
"This is all in the paperwork. I signed everything. I'm ready," Vicker snaps.
"Excellent." There's no emotion in the doctor's rumbling synthetic voice. "The rest of your brain will have to be cleared--excavated, so to speak--for all the neural circuitry, your chosen skill sets, the bio-mechanical processer, and the numerous connections between metal and mind."
Vicker squeezes his hands into fists. He fights to keep a tremble from his voice. "I understand. Put me under. Get started."
A last pause as Dr. Ulbert considers him from behind those scarlet LED eyes. "As you wish."
MEMORY FILE #004
A late summer afternoon. I wake, mind still hazy from our nap. Curled up against me, Leah's warmth makes me smile. I brush a few wayward strands of hair back from her face, exposing her smooth neck and bare shoulders. She sighs and pushes back against me. Our skin sings as I wrap my arms around her. No words--just the sound of that sigh echoing in our room. No giant celebration, no anniversary. Just a moment of sweet pleasure.
Vicker awakens. A new man, no longer pudgy and fragile. Momentary panic ensues when he tries to breathe--but finds he can't. Lines of text scroll across the right side of his vision. Words he doesn't understand. Sitting upright, he cries out.
Dr. Ulbert stands close at hand and steadies him. "Easy, Mr. Vicker. You're alright. Just give it a second."
Vicker reaches up to grasp his own throat. "I can't breathe!"
"You don't need to," the doctor says, voice a robotic echo. "Just wait. You'll adjust."
Vicker raises his hands, twisting and examining them. His enhanced eyes scan the limbs and allow him to see under their black casing. Down to where a multitude of gears and sensors work in perfect cohesion.
A gentle hum fills his mind, reverberating off the walls of his titanium skull. Panic subsides as a synthetic awe passes through him. "This is...fantastic."
The doctor moves to stand before him, a light in his hands. He peers into Vicker's eyes--a burnt orange LED, the color of Vicker's choice. Squinting, Dr. Ulbert times his responses to the light. After a moment, he nods and steps back.
"Go ahead and access your memories, Mr. Vicker. Make sure they're all there. We need to make sure they're intact."
MEMORY FILE #005
The day my mother died. Every part of me feels broken. I lie in bed, staring at the ceiling and wondering when my time will come. Leah snuggles up beside me, talking. But I don't listen. Her words can't break through the walls of devastation. Then she pulls me into her arms, tugging my head against her chest. She strokes my back, not speaking. And she just holds me while I weep. She cries too--her tears anointing my head--while I soak up all her compassion and gentleness like a damaged sponge.
Vicker waits two years for Leah to get her Upgrade. He busies himself with his new job--terraforming on Mars. Each day is filled with hard work and the pleasure of finding his body fit and capable. He joins up as a volunteer security patrol officer to fill his spare hours, pushing his gears to their limit. More than once, he has to visit the Mechanic and get a part fixed or replaced.
At night, he lies on his cot and plays the memories back. Play. Rewind. Play. Freeze-frame on Leah's smiling face. It makes him ache. He tries not to think about the amount of things he can't remember. That hurts worse. He fills every spare moment so his whirring mind can't concoct another story to fill the gaps.
Then the news comes. A brief message transmitted to his cube.
MR. VICKER--WE ARE SORRY TO INFORM YOU THAT YOUR WIFE DID NOT SURVIVE THE PROCEDURE. PLEASE ACCEPT OUR DEEPEST CONDOLENCES.
That is all. No explanation, no ambassador of grief to sit him down and gently inform him of the news.
Vicker falls to his knees, the clang of metal-on-metal ringing through the cube. He grasps the tablet, squeezing until it fizzles and shorts out with a flash of sparks. Screaming, he hurls its remains against the wall. If he could breathe, he would be gasping, sides heaving. If he could cry, the tears would be streaming.
But he can do nothing. Nothing but slam his fists against the floor again and again, creating great craters. Testaments to the mechanical man's lingering emotions.
"Leah. Leah." He whispers her name a dozen times--each time trying to sound more human. Less like a machine.
Days pass, and he refuses to go back to work. Instead, he lies on his cot and tries to remember. He searches the data banks in his mind, narrowing the search parameters and digging through the recycling bin.
He needs more than five memories of her.
Six hours of scanning and digging, and finally he finds something. A surge of synthetic nervousness flushes through him as he plays the file.
MEMORY FILE #006
The shuttle swoops down outside. I bolt for the door. Leah catches my arm before I can escape the dark confines of our home. Desperation haunts her gaunt features; her grasp pinches my arm.
"I love you," she whispers.
She presses her lips against mine. My kiss is rushed. A quick scrape of fleshy lips before I twist out of her grasp.
It isn't that I don't care. It's that I'm afraid--of dying.
I turn my gaze to the shuttle, casting a goodbye over my shoulder.
"See you soon, love."
Vicker has only six memories, the last one a gift from Dr. Ulbert. A sweet agony, they play over and over in his head as he terraforms Mars. Sometimes he considers deleting the files--if only to escape the sting of remorse and regain some semblance of peace.
But that would render him a complete robot.
Instead of just the heartbroken remains of what was once human.