You Have

by Chris Buchanan
Flash fiction, 2015

Ian was at the door looking like an old man all of a sudden. Slip-ons, elbow patches, perfect creases, and when I looked again, his skin. He was watching me look at him, waiting for me to get used to it. I had to help him in.

“You might not believe my story, but I have one. So just listen,” he said, hurried. I prodded at him, laughing, looking for the rubber mask or the makeup. He laughed back and let me, at one point trying to touch my face in return. He laid down on the sofa when I let him. His voice was close enough to Ian’s, but not. What he had said sounded like a wheeze that he was trying to fashion into words.

“I’m just tired,” he said. “I’ve just travelled back in time.” He gave me an exaggerated look, like he was scolding a child.

I had a lot of questions that I couldn’t quite get out of my mouth, as though they were too large, had ends and prongs that were trapping them in there. Ian answered all of them by saying, “Really.”

He muttered that it was good to see me, almost snoring when he breathed afterwards, though his arm juddered up at me, like some sort of reflex. I felt like I ought to grab his hand and squeeze it, but I wouldn’t. I was indignant somehow. I wasn’t ready for that. Not ready to accept this man. “I have to-” he wheezed. The next breath came easier through his nose. The third time, his lip twitched and he tried speaking again. “Listen. You have-”

I patted his shoulder and let him fall asleep with a frown. Shut up, old man.

I got up and paced the room, realised that this hadn’t changed anything, knealt down by his side again. I thought about calling Ian’s mobile but I knew I might freak out if he answered. So I just looked, refusing to go any faster than I had to, until I was used to it. Time travel had happened. This was Ian.

Ian. All right.

Right.

I got him a blanket and a pillow, which slowed the wheezing down a bit, carefully carried a dining room chair over to the sofa and stayed in the room, thinking I’d watch him until he woke. He didn’t wake. It took me another long while to accept that he was dead. I shook him for hours.

Firmament

by Chris Buchanan
Short story, 2013
At a point in time when we no longer even count the date, a couple set out to visit the very edge of all things. They had nothing better to do.

The Observation Room of the space ship Ithacan 9 is white, rectangular and almost empty. There is a little furniture, there is a man named Joel and there is a window wall. Joel sits on a smooth white seat, made of a material you wouldn’t have heard of yet, and stares into space.

The view is obscured by what they call ‘shimmer’: just an optical illusion caused by Perfect Speed. It is possible to remove the effect in any of fifteen ways, from adjusting the shape of the windows, to adding buffers to the exterior hull, to tweaking the tiny panels implanted into Joel’s retinas, but the shimmer is still there. Most astronauts tend to leave it there, saying that they simply think it’s pretty. Joel is bored of it now, but then he got bored of motionless black years ago.

From outside the ship the shimmer is invisible, but to Joel the hull appears to be enveloped by a deep, layered purple substance, flapping about as if in the wind. It looks a little like there is a velvet theatre curtain behind the window, with stage hands bustling about behind it, disturbing it.

There is no emotion showing on Joel’s face, no particular thought going through his head. He’s just waiting.

In about thirty minutes the ship will drop back below Perfect and the shimmer will vanish. In the next few seconds it will drop below light speed, and then come to a stop. And Joel will be looking out of the window. There will be absolutely nothing to see, though, and the thought amuses him a little. He’s waiting, rapt, for the opportunity to look at nothing. He doesn’t smile, but he feels like he could if he wanted to. He’s almost in a trance here, just watching the shimmer and listening to his own thoughts. It’s actually not unpleasant.

There is a novelty to boredom. In any other place, any other situation, Joel could just access some form of entertainment and play it directly into his brain stem and hypothalamus. But right now he is remotely synched-up to recording equipment and it would be a little embarrassing to interrupt this historical document with a quick movie.

For him, for now, there are only white surfaces and the window wall. And the shimmer, while it lasts.

In half an hour there will be nothing to see behind that window, because the Ithacan is traveling to the absolute Edge of the Universe.

This will be the last great voyage of discovery. But to be perfectly honest, it probably won’t be so great.

*


The Universe is shaped much like early assumptions had it, but not quite: like a big, vinyl long-play record. As songs are heard on an expanding spiral groove, so too are people’s lives, for a few minutes of the play, and so too are planets’ orbits, and stars’ journeys around the centres of their galaxies. All of these galaxies move slowly around and away from a central point: an immense ring of burning and flying matter at the heart, which of course has its own heart in turn. Finally, at the very middle of that there is a large, large empty space, surrounded on all sides by a dense field of stars.

Reasonably-fast space travel was finally established at the start of the twenty-sixth century, the rest of which was spent in pursuit of the big empty space at the very centre of the Universe. Finally a pioneering woman named Ellen Dallas flew a massively expensive and barely-held-together shuttle into it in the year 2592. Viewing her recording, the people of Earth cooed and shook their heads, and wondered if there was anything inside the big LP’s hole that might tell us more about the Universe and the nature of things – the papers called it the search for a needle. Sadly a few hours later it became apparent that there was nothing there. It was a large, empty space. Humanity, as one, felt a bit silly and asked one-another what they had expected to see in all this time. Dallas retired the same day she returned and all production of spacefaring vessels was shut down by the end of the week.

In time there came the necessity for planets other than the Earth to be colonised, and the shipyards were rebuilt. People began landing on other planets in the Milky Way galaxy. Border disputes raged. Lives were lost. Technology improved. Robots became flawless, food became infinitely plentiful and the idea of a human workforce became archaic. One day the exploratory scientists formally estimated there was a 0.0001% chance of intelligent lifeforms existing on other worlds. The human species was alone and perfectly comfortable.

One day, so many centuries later that people barely counted the years any more, when everything in the Universe had been surveyed by the robots and nothing more interesting than a strange species of fish had been discovered, there was a big announcement.

A research group, essentially a group of hobbyists, was building a space ship. This ship would travel to the absolute Edge of the Universe: the farthest point from home of the farthest ring of the LP. The mission brief was extremely simple. The ship would travel out there and somebody would look out of a window, and that would be that. Mankind would officially have been everywhere and seen everything. For the sake of publicity they asked for volunteers.

One man answered. He had nothing better to do.

He didn’t even bring a flag.

*

Joel turns away from the shimmer just in time to see the door dematerialise, so that when Ash comes in, Joel is already facing him.

Good…” Ash is a little surprised, “…morning.”

Hey,” Joel replies, and he smiles. It’s the kind of smile that has no feeling behind it but it’s not false. It looks like a salute. It serves its purpose and Ash smiles back.

Y’okay?”

Yep yep.”

Ready for the big moment?”

Sure.”

A’ight then.”

Ash strolls over and kisses Joel, rests his hand on the white chair and feels the surface shift its shape slightly to keep him steady and as comfortable as is physically possible. “I am gonna fix you some eggs,” he says.

Eggs don’t need fixing, hon,” says Joel. “They’re supposed to break.”

Ash leaves and the door reappears. “Still funny,” he says, but Joel doesn’t hear.

The trip has taken only taken two days, but already Ash is starting to think he should have stayed home. It’s not that he doesn’t want to be there, or that he hasn’t been looking forward to seeing the Edge. It’s just that Joel probably wouldn’t have invited him. He knew that right away. That’s why he invited himself. It just seemed like a much better idea at the time. He reasoned that Joel would get lonely if he went out by himself.

Ash likes to cook and as such he has converted one of the empty spaces of the ship into a kitchen. It is unorthodox to have perishable foods and manual tools on-board a ship, but the Space Administration didn’t seem to mind him bringing himself along, so he assumed they wouldn’t mind him bringing a bag of fresh food, a preserver and a flatstove either. Now he enjoys the involuntary creasing of his face as he feels the rough, charred pan-handle and smells the burning fat in the pan. These are unpleasant feelings but he likes them. The novelty of fresh cooking, of creating, has not yet worn off for him. It’s his pastime.

Yanking his involuntary grimace upwards into a wonky smile, he grabs an egg, selecting the brownest one even though he knows the colour of the shell makes no difference to flavour, and cracks it on the stove’s edge. The eggmeat, suddenly acquainted with gravity, starts to drop but Ash gives it a little lift and drops it square in the middle of the pan in one disgusting, mucus dollop. His grin gets wider as he hears it sizzle. Eggs are fun. He cracks another in and throws some toast on the heater, enjoying himself.

When he returns to the Obs Room with the eggs and toast and some orange juice on a tray, he sees Joel turned toward the window again. The shimmer is kind of nice, Ash thinks. They both like it.

You’re not eating?” Joel asks before he’s turned around.

I had cereal,” Ash replies.

You cooked for me?” Joel touches his husband’s hand for a second. “Thanks.”

I like to cook.”

Then how come you never like to eat?”

Ash rolls his eyes. After fifteen years of marriage they know each other well enough that questions like this aren’t worth answering.

For a minute there is an awkwardness between the two that neither of them is able to diagnose and fix before it dissipates.

Joel probably should have been allowed to take this vacation by himself, Ash thinks. But then again he probably should have said so. Ash did ask after all. At this moment, Joel is thinking about the same thing. Their eyes meet.

They nod at each other a couple of times, to save themselves the bother of going over it all. Joel frowns, like a warning, then looks guilty and grabs some orange juice.

Joel eats, Ash drinks and watches absently, they wash up and talk about their families and then kiss again. Ash’s bristle moustache is dry and pushes into Joel’s face before bending back. They meander over to the window wall and don’t bother with arms around each other.

Are you excited for the thing?” Ash asks. “The grand unveiling?” He guesses the answer will be ‘Not really’.

Not really.”

Yeah.”

Are you looking forward to being the last great explorer?”

The Final Frontier.”

They laugh. The shimmer carries on shimmering over their pale clothes and eyes.

*

The two men had first met on a space ship with invisible walls which flew around and around the centre of a quasar. When it was built, two hundred and thirty years prior, the Disk Runner had been a popular tourist attraction: nobody at the time had even seen a quasar up close without being immediately crushed, let alone experienced the thrill of flying into one. To them it was an amazing and unique ride, an exciting educational tool, something to simulate danger and make their adrenaline pump the old-fashioned way. But by the time Ash and Joel got there, it was old news. Kids sometimes visited the ship and took a spin on its endless voyage through apparent chaos, usually just to say they had been. Ash and Joel were just about young enough to call themselves kids, still at a point in their lives when there were mysteries to be figured-out and hardships to be endured.

Love was one of these mysteries, to them at least, and so both of them had an eye open for pretty or handsome faces.

Ash noticed the back of Joel’s head first, and approved of the haircut and clothes, which led him to wonder what the young man was doing, standing alone in the ship’s Great Hall and just looking at the quasar. He pointed this curious behaviour out to his friends, who offered simple answers: he’s lonely, he’s one of those sheltered types who hasn’t travelled much, he’s waiting for somebody. Ash wondered if he should invite the guy over to join them, and then decided to just go and talk to him.

His footsteps seemed too loud, which made him look down at the transparent floor. For a second he was distracted by the vast sea of fiery colours and energies beneath his feet and thought about the Greek myth of the Kingdom of Hades. What would the ancients have made of this sight?

Never been into space before?” the young man said.

Wh–?”

Ash looked up again. The immense red and gold light show surrounding them once again became a mere distraction in his mind. A parlour trick. The guy was kind of cute, in a grumpy sort of way. They exchanged names.

Space? Yeah, I mean, of course! I just thought I saw something down there.” Immediately this seemed like a terribly jerky thing to say. Ash tried not to look embarrassed.

Joel surprised him by not reacting except to look down. Between his feet the red moved almost too quickly for his eyes to focus, but he tried to see if there was anything remarkable in the sight.

Sometimes I think I see faces in there,” he said happily, smiling a shameless smile. “Do you ever get that?”

Wow.” Ash was not good at guarding his emotions. This guy was very cute. After thinking for a moment he said, “You’re very cute,” which thankfully made them both laugh.

Through the laughter, they decided to get a drink and watch the quasar together for a little while longer. Ash forgot to say goodbye to his friends, forgot to be nervous on a first date and finally forgot to catch his flight home. Instead he spent the evening as one half of the only couple dancing, on a rotating dance floor at the edge of a supermassive black hole.

*

Now they are both in their late forties, and like everyone in their late forties they feel as though they have become different people without even noticing it and they wish they had possessed their current wisdom when they still had time to change things. They sit together in Ithacan 9, staring, thinking about their day and planning the next one. After they are done looking at the Edge, they will transmit the full experience to the Administration base’s receivers, and then turn the ship around.

For a minute they both think about going to bed, and then see the doubt in each other’s eyes and abandon the idea. The entire experience of their flight will be downloadable to anyone who cares to view it. Although there is little modesty or ignorance about human emotion and sexual activity in this day and age, they still feel that they would prefer privacy. And anyway, Joel is tired.

He never would have guessed that sitting in a perfectly comfortable chair and doing nothing at all could be tiring.

Ten minutes,” he says to Ash.

Yessir.”

They smile.

The quiet that follows is easy for a couple of minutes, but there comes a point when both men notice every time the other breathes. They find themselves trying to breathe more quietly, or less often, and failing to do so without sounding ridiculous.

Just gonna go wash my face,” Joel says, and Ash nods.

The door dematerialises when Joel approaches, letting him step through without breaking his stride. The wide, white corridor he enters looks a lot like the wide, white room he just left, albeit a touch more claustrophobic. Claustrophobia shouldn’t exist any more, he thinks. This is a badly-designed ship.

The Obs Room is located at the head of the flat, oblong tube of the vessel. He now passes Manual Control, the little spare room which Ash has made into a kitchen, and the Sleeping Bay, which seemed a bit lavish considering it would only see one or two more uses on this simple back-and-forth trip. At the very end is a storage bay and a small shower-room, which adorably has an actual shower in it. Rather than bother using that, he merely reflects his image off the wall and opens his mouth to ask the ship for water.

Immediately, Ash’s voice shouts down the hallway, cutting him off. “Let me synch-up with you so I can get some of that water!” Before opening the synch, Joel groans very quietly and very deeply.

An instant later, nothing at all has changed for Joel but he knows that his husband now shares his consciousness. “Cold water,” he says to the wall, and some appears in his cupped hands. As he drops it over his face, he knows that Ash is feeling the effect as well. After he has dried his hands and neck on pieces of his shirt, Joel closes the synch and rubs his forehead.

When he passes through the Obs Room door once more, he lets out an involuntary sigh. His walk back to the chair by the window is measured and straight, like a supervised march. He sits, sinking into the seat and not noticing the way it adjusts itself to fit his shape, his posture, his weight and its own prediction of his future movement patterns.

Hey, do you suppose there might be more Universes than one?” Ash mutters. “That ours is just one of many?”

Joel cranes his neck a little to see his husband’s face. It’s rare that Ash surprises him these days. “No,” he says. “It’s been confirmed. Couple of years back.”

Oh.”

Yeah.”

Just one?”

Just us.”

Ash grunts acknowledgement.

Joel says, “That’s it.”

And then, earlier than they had expected, the shimmer stops. It seems to drop downwards, but that’s just the way it looks from inside. There never really was any shimmer, of course. Joel and Ash stand together at the window wall and stare at sheer black.

*

Fourteen billion years ago, every single piece of matter and energy that exists and has ever existed was packed together into an object the size of a needle’s point. At some point, it began to expand. This whole business was called the big bang when it was first discovered, but the nickname was abandoned when synch devices and backward-facing causality models allowed us to watch the event. It was actually silent and quite small.

It began when the pinhead diluted into empty space, like the contents of a burst balloon, and flew in all directions and at a greater speed than has ever been seen.

The Universe scattered into pieces, each of them was flung from its siblings all at once, and these pieces expanded and scattered themselves, again and again. They swirled around themselves and cooled, and flew ever onward, and slowed, and swirled, and shattered and scattered, and cooled some more, and flew. They now form an immense tapestry mounted against black: as thin, delicate and shimmering as a spider’s web on a cold night. One that was perfectly round, anyway, with a hole in the middle.

One of the specks of light within this tapestry cooled and calmed and became the Milky Way galaxy. Inside it, a smaller piece became the star we once called ‘the Sun’. Orbiting around this, a far smaller piece still became a blue-green ball of rock and metal and water.

The moving objects who grew from that water became sophisticated. Eventually they came to understand what they were, and that they had once been connected in the most intimate way to absolutely everything else in existence.

They wanted to see it again. All of it.

A group of researchers decided to finish that work. They asked for a volunteer to take the last ‘small step’. Say a few words.

*

Huh,” says Joel, looking over the Edge.

The space ship has now passed the most distant star in the most distant galaxy. It has travelled to the very limits of the immense pattern of lights and stones that forms the cosmos. It’s the end of everything.

Long ago, long enough ago that it sounds like a fable, humans used to imagine that the world was a flat discus with a literal end that you could walk off of. Thousands of years later, Joel and Ash stare blankly and confirm for themselves that this was basically true all along.

There it is,” says Ash, but that doesn’t really make any sense because there is, quite literally, nothing there.

Yeah.”

And for no reason at all they are immensely sad. Joel stands, breathes and puts an arm around Ash.

Now leaving the Universe,” Joel says. “Home of Da Vinci, the Rings of Saturn… some weird fish…”

Black holes.”

Black holes, yeah. Binary star systems. Pulsars. Mozart.”

Shakespeare.”

And then they list some other, more recent great artists who you haven’t heard of yet.

Alenko’s Spire,” says Ash. It is a very large mountain on a cold planet in Andromeda.

For some reason Joel asks the ship to switch off all the lights in the Observation Room. The ship complies and they just stand there a while longer. There is no starlight, of course, so they can’t see a thing. Ash thinks he can still smell the eggs.

A’ight,” Joel says after a few seconds, talking to the ship. “Turn around please, and head home.” In the perfect darkness, he gently feels for the chair and grabs its arm. The white material moulds itself to give his hand purchase, and it feels for all the world like another hand gripping his. This time he doesn’t sigh or groan or close his eyes. He just gets his balance.

The ship, very slowly, starts to turn around. Ash can’t even be sure that they are moving until the first star slides into view at the edge of the window. The little white dot puts him off his train of thought. The light from it hits the edge of the window wall, makes him aware of the physical world again. The star looks very small, very simple. Like a little hole punched into the black, like a spyhole.

And Ash is suddenly not satisfied that Joel knows what he’s talking about. He wonders if this might not be the Edge after all. Just us, he had said. That’s it.

Joel has been getting awfully distant for a good year, now. Ash knows it’s partly his fault but he’s still angry. He’s sick of ‘That’s it’.

Hello, ship?” Ash says, too loudly. Louder than he meant to.

The ship, of course, says nothing.

Yes, a little further please. Straight ahead.”

Ash just looks out of the window while Joel stares at his own feet. This goes on for a few empty minutes while the single star drifts back out of view.

Finally Joel blinks, groans and starts to stand again. As he gets to his feet, he feels Ash crashing into him, elbow and heel sawing back and forth, panicked. They almost fall onto the floor but Joel manages to lift them back. The ship stops, to save the astronauts giving the order.

The black suddenly no longer looks black, to him. To us.

But we can’t describe it.

We just can’t describe it yet. It’s sort of like an illusion. The sort of thing you have to squint at to make out.

It’s like drowning. Like getting lost for the first time and not knowing how to get home and not knowing–

Joel grabs his husband’s arm, softly.

Stay course,” Ash says, dramatic and broody. He isn’t blinking.

The hell did you see?”

I love you,” says Ash. They’ve both heard that so many times before. And then Ash tells Joel what he saw beyond the stars.

*

Inside the Space Administration Centre I open my mouth and mutter things, but I can’t hear myself because I’m still synched-up to their experience. I’m seeing what Ash sees. And then the connection starts to break.

After a moment it is gone altogether and I watch their ship, stopped dead, from the perspective of a nearby monitor beacon. I don’t say anything. I only have questions. How are we going to explain this to people?

What was that?” I ask aloud, turning to my left, but there’s nobody here.

Of course nobody’s here. Nobody else wanted to watch this live from the lab. I was curious about the Edge and I thought somebody should be here. Like mission control, you know, when space travel was new. When there were things to discover. Just a touch of romantic nostalgia, really.

The Ithacan 9 is small and mostly rectangular and white. It looks like something a child would make out of spare plastic blocks just to occupy his hands during cartoons. The propulsion system is dormant, leaving the ship drifting gently forward at its skewed angle. But when it starts up again, much later, it heads back to our own galaxy along a new course. Our monitors try to follow the route but eventually the shuttle gets lost in a quasar and cannot be seen.

Slowly its white walls turn grey and then black. The propulsion glows a pale blue, but eventually that too fades into a starbeam.

This Grand Forever

by Chris Buchanan
Short story (2013)
A handsome man strolls through the perfectly-preserved city of Paris. But good looks are deceiving nowadays and they certainly don’t come cheap.

It is good to see you again, Monsieur!” said the watchmaker, smiling the emotionless but reassuring smile of the successful career salesman. The look told Robert that although both of them knew the sentiment was for show, there was no game being played. No sales pitch, no clever platitudes. Just veneer. The watches at Armand’s were good enough to sell themselves and the customers were wealthy enough to be greeted politely.

There was a look in the man’s eyes, though, even now. Like everyone did, he had stopped short when Robert entered the building and stared for just a moment.

He was used to it by now. Something about him, everything about him, looked wonderful. His face was large and rugged enough to quietly intimidate, but then it was smooth, easy and blue-eyed enough to ensure that nobody noticed. His hair naturally fell into loose, deep-blond waves that held their shape at all times, and his pale grey suit and open-collared shirt fit him as well as his skin.

And for some silly reason, seeing a handsome guy around just seemed to make people happy. Even those who seemed more jealous than pleased, like the watchmaker did now, automatically lightened their mood.
Armand, who held his own boyish, sleek features with an odd stoop, turned away from his client and retrieved a gold and bronze wristwatch from under the counter.

“Oh, wow,” said Robert, and this made the watchmaker’s smile much wider.

“I told you it would not disappoint, ah?”

“Well, you know, I believed you! But that really is something.”

As he carefully took the watch and turned it around to admire the tiny etched hallmark at the centre of the velvet-fold where the two metals blended together, Robert breathed an easy breath.

Of course, all of his breaths were easy.

“I have been hand-making these watches for sixty years, you know.”

“Time well spent, evidently,” Robert added, still admiring the fold.

“Always, Monsieur.”

Responding with a polite and warm glance, Robert tried his watch on. He went about this with sincere care, making sure to lower the piece without bending any of the uniform, half-inch hairs on his wrist backwards or turning them askew. This done, and the clasp sealed, he ran the edge of a finger across the curve of the face. It would stay this grand forever.

“It’s wonderful. Merci beaucoup.”

Armand relaxed then, waiting for the conversation to end, though neither was in any hurry. The payment had been dealt with upfront, days ago, when the gentleman had placed his order. And you only had to look at the man to see that he meant business.

“I am sure I will see it on your wrist again someday!”

“I’m just on vacation,” Robert answered happily, but the other man was not boasting. Workmanship like this meant a lot more than a souvenir. It was designed to be with him for as long as his arm. “Thanks a lot, really,” he repeated, shaking the salesman’s hand and strolling through the empty, sleek-looking shop and into the evening sunlight of the Marais.

The air was still fresh even though the day was coming to an end. He wasn’t too warm in his light suit, or too uncomfortable in his soft, carved-leather shoes, or too worried or too tired. In fact he was starting to forget what it felt like to be too much of anything. Paris was just always nice. So he walked.

It was an amusing coincidence that one of the world’s oldest cities was so full of youth. Nobody he met displayed a wrinkle, everyone was neatly turned-out, and they held themselves as if it were impossible to be any other way. It was as though hardship was a concept that had never become fashionable here. Most of all, he noticed how much they all looked like him. Like him, but not quite as good. Except for the occasional passer-by who even he had to stop and stare at, no-one quite matched him.

This smug feeling stayed with Robert only for a moment, before he realised how strange and silly his thoughts sounded to him, and he laughed. A pretty girl in a lovely yellow hat noticed him laughing at himself and reflexively smiled back at him, as if sharing the joke.

His hands in his pockets but his head high, he strolled past an antique lamp-post with its original black iron finish painstakingly reinforced with an invisible weave of Cilrex, ensuring that it would remain undamaged by weather or collision for as long as the neighbourhood wanted it. The thing must have been there for centuries, he reasoned, and it would be around longer still, considering the city’s dedicated effort for preservation. He checked his watch.

It had already been fifteen minutes since he had picked it up. That was one thing about Paris, or about this trip in general: the time really flew. With no weight in his legs, no particular plans in his head beyond getting back to his hotel, and nothing remotely ugly meeting his eyes, it was just hard to count the seconds.

Ducking into a side-street to make what he hoped was a short-cut, Robert quickly found himself in a cute little square of pale oblong paving stones. Every other one had become an impromptu canvas for a street artist, covered with everything from challenging abstracts to recreated Renaissance masterpieces, and all of them were exquisite. At the moment only one man was working, putting the finishing touches to The Girl With a Pearl Earring. It would be impolite not to say anything, so Robert admired it for a long moment and gave a heart-felt ‘bravo’.

Of course, the artist was happy to hear it. And of course, he was gracious. A moment later he returned to his details.

Robert looked at his watch again. God, it would be dark soon. He felt as though he had wandered to the top floor of the world’s most lovely museum and now could barely bring himself to find the exit. With a little more spring in his step he headed along a new route made of smaller and smaller side-streets, almost unsure of his direction, and found himself among more homely boutiques and little cafés. Outside a post office he saw what looked like an old woman. He was almost taken aback, having forgotten that Paris was home to anyone over forty, but she saw him too and seemed pleased to be noticed. She had a crooked nose. In times gone by, you might have called it charming.

Of course, she might not have been as old as she looked. He might have been older than her, even. Nobody really talked about actual age these days. It seemed irrelevant.

Brushing the thought away from his mind, he carried on gliding through the streets, between pair after pair of those adorable lamp-posts, standing guard on either side of every road, all of them clean and straight, strong and storied.

They quickly brought him to the bank of the Seine, the same way he had come this morning, and Robert was glad to have quickened his return. For the rest of the walk his view was caught between the natural grandeur of the river and the statues and structure of Tuileries garden. The road was quiet and gentle too, with only the occasional car swishing by and only a handful of people on either side. The Tower guided him then, and the rest of the walk was a pleasure.

When he saw the tan, carved walls of the hotel, his home for the week, he glanced again at the watch. Again he was surprised by how long it had been since last time; how many minutes had come along and then gotten away from him. But it wasn’t very important. The restaurant and bar were open at all times, and he wasn’t hungry anyway.

Of course, he was never hungry. Nobody in the developed world had been hungry for a good sixty years, now. Eating was just something you did for nostalgia or irony. Or comfort.

Old habits were hard to shake off.

Of course.

He had spent most of his life in an artificial body. When they were new he had certainly not been able to afford one, but in time the technology became commonplace, and then there were the protests and the riots. There came a point when allowing people to live and die in their birth bodies became either ridiculous or barbaric, depending on who you talked to. They were given away by almost all Western governments in early childhood now, and then replaced or custom-built at regular intervals. Government issue models were far from perfect, obviously. There were still debates on the news about that.

But what did they expect to be given for free? Their brains rested easily in hardened skulls, connected to sensory apparatus which worked better than nature’s own, and carried about by limbs and trunks which would last forever, with proper maintenance. Those with no jobs or no sense wore the models with asymmetrical features and knobbled knees, or short legs and shrunken skin. Somebody had to. That’s just economics. Everywhere couldn’t be Paris, could it?

“Welcome back, Monsieur,” said a pretty concierge, distracting him. She had deep red hair and skin like cream-caramel. At first she seemed too good-looking to be working in service, even at the best hotel in the city, but then Robert noticed the malformed thumb on her left hand. That explained it: a factory imperfection.

Every now and again you saw somebody who seemed way too pretty for their job and then you wondered what their deal was, until you saw the missing piece or damaged skin or badly-programmed ‘allergy’. It was a trade-off.

“Nice to be back,” he replied absently. That gentle, innocent and assured smile of his made her crease her forehead for him.

“And how was your day?”

“Great. Just a little shopping, you know. Saw the sights I guess. It’s just nice to relax.”

“Oui. You are in the right place. Would you like to stop for a drink at La Lucien, or return to your room?”

Robert mulled it over while she waited, then laughed in slight embarrassment. “Well I guess I could go for a drink!” he said as if he were being cheeky, and she chuckled with him as she led him to the bar.

“Champagne, sir?”

“Ah, sure,” he offered in reply. “Please. I’ll take the bottle upstairs myself.”

The girl poured him a glass of their best from an old, odd-looking bottle and left both of them on the bar. She stood attentively, impassively watching ahead while he sipped.

The fine wine fell over highly responsive sensors on his tongue and the roof of his mouth, which looked just like taste buds but ran a little better, a little more agreeably. The reflexive sigh he gave was coded-in just for habit; without any purpose at all, a reflex whose evolutionary purpose had long-since died away. It was one of the ‘kinks’ that the manufacturers had unanimously agreed to keep. People still slept, because it was nice to sleep together. The good models didn’t snore, or yawn, or get bad breath or any gross thing like that. Bathing was still possible but toilets were unnecessary. People still had two eyes and two hands, and the consensus among technicians seemed to be that this was how it would stay.

Body-design had reached its peak. This was as good as they would ever get. Robert, right here in this bar, drinking his complimentary champagne while the girl with the weird thumb waited, was as good as it would get.

He finished the glass quickly and nodded a goodbye to her. It would have been insulting to tip, he figured. Would have made her feel ugly.

It was a short walk over an antique Persian carpet past the front desk and to the elevator, but a strikingly bald man in his thirties with undamaged Nubian features and striking cheek bones – a manager perhaps? – stopped him.

“A letter for you, Monsieur,” the man said in a flawlessly old-French accent. Robert stopped looking at him.
In the gentleman’s hand was a fancy paper envelope. It was the only way they could reach him now. He had disconnected his call number before he set off from home and while in Paris he had made a point of only using systems with a new, anonymous username.

Smiling a reassuring smile beneath his gently down-turned eyes, Robert reached out his free hand to take the letter with a simple ‘thanks’. Holding it casually between thumb and forefinger, he strolled over to the elevator and looked deep in thought while he waited a long moment for the carriage.

He was inside and pressing for his suite at the top floor before the doors were half-way open. The car responded right away and he was at his floor in less than ten seconds.

In that time, without really being aware of what he was doing, he thumbed-open the envelope, stopped breathing, and read. The glow of the interior lights and the softening touch of the velvet-lined walls gave an amber sheen to the paper. He had to squint.

URGENT

From the offices of Warburton, Llewellyn and Mamet

Dear Mr Ross,

Further to our correspondence on April 5th, April 9th and April 12th, we write with strongest urgency to follow-up the issue of outstanding debt. As we informed you following the first two successful instalments on March 25th and March 29th, your account(s) have declined payment without explanation.

Please contact the company’s private debt-collection agency (contact info is repeated overleaf) immediately to ensure an amicable resolution. Failure to do this may result in repossession of your body and / or legal action if agreed funds cannot be transferred within five days of time of writing.

Signed in absence— John Warburton, chief executive

DO NOT IGNORE THIS LETTER

Robert didn’t actually read the whole thing. It was too hard to look. He saw the word ‘urgent’ and skimmed the rest. He was certain he had seen ‘payment’ in there somewhere, and a bunch of dates for when he should have been in touch with them. And he thought he saw ‘legal action’ and ‘failure’ too. Most painful of all, the most paralysing piece of this horror, the cruellest blow, were the words ‘five days’.

Well.

Fuck.

But all right. At least it wasn’t from the bailiffs. Or worse.

But fuck. Jesus fuck.

Already? They hadn’t even waited until his vacation was over?

In the space of a few seconds he went from feigned-outrage to complete terror, to wild imagination, to meek attempts to calm himself, to wilful ignorance, to resignation. It was a cycle he was familiar with.

They were onto him. It was all over. In five days.

The letter had found its way safely back inside its envelope and now Robert was at the door to his room, shoving his cool blue eyes toward the retinal scanner and muttering at it to hurry up. He fidgeted and ground his teeth while the door took an eternity to recognise him and slide open.

He would have sweated, but this body didn’t sweat. He would have shaken and cried and felt his cheeks burn and redden in shame and blind panic, but his body didn’t do those things either. It seemed only to casually observe the door and give it a studious, thoughtful expression, before athletically jogging inside.

Now that he had holidayed for a few days, he barely noticed the majesty of the suite. It was large but designed to be cosy, with sloping sofas and antique book-cases hugging its many corners and soft drapes covering or framing everything in simple but imaginative ways. The bed was an enormous, impossibly comfortable geometric puzzle of velvet and silk in various subtly-mixing shades of amber. The whole place looked best at dawn and twilight and then spent the rest of the time keeping just the right amount of light inside so that it barely changed.

It was nice just looking at it, Robert thought as he set down the champagne in an ice-bucket. It made him forget about his troubles.

Made him forget about the vast amounts of money he had all but robbed. The stupidity of what he had done, just to spend a week in Paris. The ridiculous loan application. How he had closed his eyes and tried to sing to quieten his mind when he had clicked ‘confirm’. People would laugh so hard their backups would kick in to save their embarrassment. It would make every news outlet, when it was all said and done. When somebody walked in here and asked him what he had done and how he thought he was going to get away with it. And what the hell was wrong with him, and did he even know how much trouble he was in? In five days.

It was six-fifteen now. How long did he have left, in hours? Less than a hundred before it all came crashing down? Before every one of his credits bounced and he would have a tailor, a travel agent, an artisan watchmaker and of course a palatial hotel to contend with, as well as the world’s most exclusive body-manufacturer?

And he just knew he wouldn’t enjoy one more second of his stay. It was over. His old ways had set in.

Suddenly he wanted to sweat. His old model sweated all the damn time! It was one of the many reasons it had been so affordable. He wanted to howl like a mangy dog in its death throes. He wanted to curl up and choke in sheer panic, gasp for air and hyperventilate until his ears popped and his heart threatened arrest. Anything that would let him stop thinking about the next five days.

But he just stood there: the most handsome mannequin in the most knockout suit, standing in the middle of a billion-dollar furniture showroom and looking at its watch.

Why couldn’t they have just let him alone for another day?

Well. At least until now, this had been a good day.

Just once, a good day. He hadn’t thought about the money today, or about who he used to be. Not once since he slept last night. He had enjoyed it.

Maybe he ought to get some sleep now, he wondered. He could make himself sleep if he wished it, and this model certainly wouldn’t give him bad dreams. He would wake up eight hours later, completely refreshed and relaxed.

But that would be another eight hours gone, right there. How many times does eight hours go into five days?
“If only that letter could have arrived in the morning,” he said to himself. Robert’s new voice was smooth and deep, but pleasant and tinged with a self-deprecating humour. Just hearing the words aloud slowed his mind for a few seconds.

“Every time I start to get up,” he almost whispered, “something has to knock me down.”

As profound and heartfelt as the words came out, courtesy of the finest voice box money could buy, tuned to a specially-tweaked variant of the ideal Californian speech template, Robert didn’t believe them.

Warburton, Llewellyn and Mamet weren’t screwing him over. They weren’t being rude, interrupting him, harassing their social better. They were just asking for their money. They didn’t owe him another few days.

Nobody was knocking him down. He just forgot that down is where he was.

Beauty was for those who had earned it. Immortality on the other hand was for all registered U.S. citizens, even screwed-up, pathetic crooks like Robert Ross. He knew that and he respected it, but he just kinda wished it was the other way around. He had lived a long, long time now in a broken-down fat guy’s body, with a bad back, bad teeth and track marks from the morphine addiction he had given himself and finally had removed ten years back. And the memories of all the other shameful shit he had done, just to get through the days. It had been a long time working as a parking attendant and part-time pill dealer in Des Moines, which is all he’d managed in his long stretch on the Earth. He didn’t want to do it any more. He wanted a fucking ending. It was enough. And now that he had been someone better for a little while, the thought of going back was intolerable.

There would be a long stay in prison soon, and then there would be an infinity after he got out, but before both of those he would have to face somebody or other – a debt-collector maybe, or a detective, and then a judge, even some of the people he knew – and explain all of this. And look them in the eye and sweat. And before that there would be a moment where they got his brain back to his old body and re-installed it, and he’d have to look at himself again.

Robert carefully straightened his cuffs and ran his pre-manicured fingertips across his chin and down his tough, long neck. With another sigh he dropped his head a touch and leaned down to the bedside cabinet. In the top drawer was a cheap, ugly, loud pistol. He had brought it and stashed it here without ever really letting himself acknowledge the fact that he had always planned to use it. This was it, though, any minute now. Time to get it done. The five days would simply not happen, not like this. The hour of his death had arrived so much faster than he thought, and maybe that was the letter’s fault or maybe it was his own. Definitely his own. It was his own mess and always had been. It was what he had earned.

But right now it hardly seemed worthwhile beating himself up over the whole thing. He ran a firm hand through his hair and felt it slink back to place. That was a nice feeling. It almost felt like the afternoon again.

He moved toward the glass door to the balcony, then stopped and placed the letter on the cabinet. The door slid open at his approach and he stepped outside, breathing fresh, cool air.

Of course, the view was great.

It was just starting to get dark and Paris was subtly making its nightly transformation. The screens came out at night, always blinking into existence when your back was turned and then advertising tourist spots or prestigious companies, or just displaying artworks on the side of every building and the corner of every street. Warm, natural-looking lights bathed everything in sight with comfortably-familiar painting and sculpture, and works of commerce. Frame by frame the city dropped from white and silver to black and gold.

The Eiffel Tower, which Robert’s room was situated to face, was not yet lit. For a little while he considered waiting for it, but not for long. He had seen the Tower by night a few times now.

Glancing back to the room, looking for some comfort or distraction, he caught sight of his reflection in the glass panel wall separating the balcony.

He looked so good.

How many people could say they looked this good, he wondered? Even for a week? Most celebrities, most vid-actors, would stare with envy at this sight. He looked like a secret agent or something with this gun in his hand, on his way to save the world or whatever.

How many people could just turn around and casually remember that they looked like this?

Robert could, right then.

That new watch of his would never be as new again, and it would never look quite as good as it did on him. It would never match anybody’s hair and skin tones as wonderfully as it did his.

He’d had that.

The corpse he would leave tonight, the one that would bare his name at the hospital and then the police station, that would smile reassuringly next to his face in the newsfeeds tonight, that would always, in some way, be his –

The corpse would be beautiful.

He had thought about jumping, several times, but he always changed his mind. As grand and attention-grabbing as such a thing would surely be, it would have been far too risky. Bodies were tough and easily repairable. He needed to damage the only part of himself that he had been born with. And, God, he was scared.

Robert turned back to his city rooftop view and opened his mouth, shoving the gun’s barrel up against his skull and frowning awkwardly.

Before he was ready, he fired. The body dropped to the floor.

And Robert couldn’t concentrate but he thought he saw a blue box flash in front of his eyes, obscuring everything, panicking him. Something about a report and some numbers. Something about damaged nervous processors and a temporary shut down and emergency call-out. It was gone a moment later.

The next thing he saw was a cheap, white-painted ceiling. There were faded and peeled spots all along and replacement wood panels to cover damage and stains. He could move but his back hurt like hell and all he could see were the tops of Formica tables and a few clunky old screens and sensors, mostly with mains-connection wires and flat displays. A hospital ward or a workshop floor, he couldn’t tell, but it wasn’t built for luxury.

He tried as hard as he could to relax and pretend it wasn’t happening, but he knew it was a waste of time. The steady, rhythmic beeping of a stem monitor was driving him crazy.