Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Checkpoint

Nerissa stole away in darkness to the silent pond of her youth. In the glassy waters she once waded in, she washed off her brother’s blood from her hands.

“Wasted tears,” she muttered, viciously pushing away the wretched marks of weakness with a closed fist, as she wished it would it could impart anger to fill the void of sorrow she felt. However, her hand only left a scarlet mark upon her cheek. She thrust her head into the algid, turbulent surface of the water, just so long that her lungs ached. When she emerged, the tears were gone as she heaved for breath.

She glanced suspiciously at the moon as if it were a witness to the unnatural deeds accomplished under its saturnine gaze. However, it remained no more than a serene specter. She was perfectly alone.

Satisfied that the trees would whispers no wounding words, she rose with a struggle. That would not do. She straightened herself exactly, hiding her pain as her mother had always taught, with a smile.

~

Timothy watched Nerissa Gagnon closely at Paris’s funeral. Her little brother had been her closest companion since their parents left on an experimental voyage to Gliese 581 G just over ten years ago, days after young Paris graduated high school. Their parents had counted on Nerissa to closely watch over Paris, and indeed, she had. She had been everything one could expect in an older sister: a protector, a mentor, an ally, and an advocate. 

She had her own very lustrous career in mechanical engineering, but she was just  as eager to pull her brother along in his own interests in xenobiology. The pair was as whip-smart as their parents, and just as handsome and athletic. With parental pride, their parents had bestowed the monikers Venus and Adonis on Nerissa and Paris.

Still, now, Venus seemed to have lost her blush. Nerissa's face was pale, although no emotion boiled to the surface. It was still as the untouched glade behind the Gagnons' house that Tim, Neri, and Paris used to play within as children.

After the short funereal service where Nerissa offered a terse, composed, but undeniably elegant eulogy, Timothy approached Nerissa. “I am so sorry.”

“As am I,” Nerissa said without intonation. Her blank countenance could be taken for unfeeling in one unknowing of the Gagnons. No matter his or her personality in normal circumstances, every one of the Gagnons seem to freeze to ice in face of strong emotion. Timothy, who had grown up just across the way and was a best friend to Paris, knew the habit well. He wiped away his own tears and hugged Nerissa's stiff body. She reacted against him, as if his touch was painful. Gradually, however, she relaxed and placed her own cold hand against his back.

In that singular gesture of closeness, his tears came more rapidly. “God, Neri, I just can’t accept he’s gone. I don’t know what I’ll do without him. I just expect him to come walking up any moment now, smiling about what a scare he gave us. He always recovered before.”

“I know, Tim,” she said. Her voice was quiet: a lugubrious note, not quite vibrato, on a tightly wound violin. “I know.”

~

“Oh man, that was awesome!” Paris yelled. His hair stuck up vertically and his smile stretched horizontally, making his face an array of right angles.

He walked around boldly, shaking his limbs occasionally, as if he still had too much adrenalin wired into his system.

“Pants, Paris. Pants,” Nerissa smiled as she proffered a bundle of clothing. The laboratory was well lit, illustrating every fine curve of the younger Gagnon’s buttocks.

Paris laughed easily and without self-consciousness. “Oh, my prudish little sister,” he said, but picked up the trousers from Nerissa’s hand.

“Elder sister,” Nerissa corrected.

“Elder sister you may be, but you’re still little.” He reached out to muss her hair, but she ducked away skillfully.  

“Now, Paris, you are still in quarantine. You should not be touching me,” Nerissa admonished.

“Pardon me, Dr. Gagnon,” he said mockingly. Nerissa rolled her eyes. “Did Mom and Dad see, you think?”

“I think they did,” Nerissa smiled.

~

“Did you hear about Dr. Gagnon, Ellie?” Ajax asked, hanging about Eleanor’s desk, as was his wont.

“It’s awful,” Ellie agreed, not terribly displeased by neither the information that was being received nor the messenger.  Nerissa had all about ascended to godhood in how she was lauded for her groundbreaking work in matter transport she accomplished while still in graduate school and with the courageousness of her brilliant parents who became the first people to undertake the journey. Several other scientists had followed into the great beyond, but even traveling at the speed of light, it would be almost thirty years before they would receive word back.

It was always Nerissa this or Doctor Gagnon that, and the press couldn’t get enough of her and her perfect family. Eleanor had not quite the privileged upbringing and had to work her way through college, not get by on her parent’s coattails. Despite the superficial benevolence of her younger colleague, Eleanor harbored resentment toward her. She was not completely alone in this. While the younger Gagnon apparently became student body president of his university by sophomore year, Eleanor thought she could count the friends of the elder on one hand and have fingers to spare. While it was common enough to praise Nerissa, it was rare to befriend her.

“She’s taking it pretty well though. I mean, she planned the funeral early in the morning last week just so she didn’t have to miss work. You’d think she’d take a day off considering now she’s alone in this world,” Ajax said, perhaps a little melodramatically, but Ellie forgave him.

“If her graduate work does not work as planned, she’s alone in the universe what with her parents,” Ellie said in false remorse. “With only a Nobel to dry her tears.”

“You are wicked, Ellie my dear,” Ajax smiled and laughed. He was among those not entirely enamored with Nerissa Gagnon as well

“It is terrible though. I liked her brother,” Ellie said honestly.

“Everyone liked Paris. Maybe that’s why she offed him,” Ajax suggested.

“Now who’s wicked, Ajax?” Ellie giggled at her fellow conspirators, glancing over her shoulder for potential eavesdroppers. Sure enough, Thaisa Talbot, the vice provost, was approaching, a tight frown over her solemn countenance. There were times that Ellie sincerely hated the decision to get rid of private offices for a more “communicative and collaborative” layout.

“You didn’t hear it from me,” Ajax winked, seeing the approaching specter as signal to take his leave.

~

“I spoke with the doctors. They want to extend your quarantine,” Nerissa said solemnly.

“Why?” Paris demanded. “I feel fine.”

“I’m not a biologist, but they seemed upset at some unknown bacteria you are harboring. They need some time to properly dissect its genome to be sure,” Nerissa explained, waving her hand as if the matters of biology were no more than the musings of grown children. She was not without an academic arrogance, although she attempted to disguise it for the most part in front of her colleagues. Her brother, however, knew her feelings well and accepted them good-naturedly. In return, he disdained mechanical engineering as math monkeys playing with wrenches. 

“They should show me. I’m a xenobiologist!” Paris said irritably, pacing.

“You only have a baccalaureate,” Nerissa reminded him gently. He stalked away and threw himself back on his bed.

“I hate being cooped up,” he moaned.

“Mom says you should be patient.” Nerissa said.

“Then why doesn’t she come down here and tell me herself?” Paris asked petulantly.

“She can’t. I told you,” Nerissa reminded him.

“I’m tired of this. I can only take so much. If they’re not done by the end of this week, there’ll be hell to pay.”

~

“Hello, Timothy,” Nerissa smiled as she opened the door for him. Her expression was nothing but magnanimous. However, it was the lack of surprise that prickled the back of his mind. Tim had never visited Nerissa before and only knew of her address as she had recently acquired her childhood home. Her parents had sold it when they were traveling to Gliese, but it was said she paid a substantial sum of money to entice the current occupants to leave. 

Despite all this, she did not seem perturbed by Timothy's sudden appearance. It was almost too perfectly welcoming of a response. “Would you like to come in?”

He shook off the suspicion.

“If you’d be so kind, Neri,” he said with half a smile.

She switched on the lights of the sitting room as she passed. “I was making a cup of tea. Would you like one? I have chamomile, jasmine, or green.”

“Chamomile would be lovely,” Tim said. Nerissa disappeared down the hallway. It was several moments before she returned. Tim took the time to examine the extensive collection of books displayed. There was everything from Shakespeare to Kafka to Freud to Hawking. Not one was dusty or in any other means suffering from neglect. It was almost as if she read each of the handsome collection on a regular basis. From her demanding work schedule Paris had told him about to the aseptically clean living quarters, he wondered when Nerissa slept.

He heard a muffled thump. Not from the kitchen, but seemingly coming from the floorboards. He looked quizzically at his feet. A second crash followed it. Just as he made the decision to investigate, Nerissa appeared, almost imperceptibly flushed. She handed his teacup to him with a guileless smile that, while well fitted for her callow younger brother, seemed less suited to the older sibling. While young enough, her eyes were just a bit too stolid to carry the expression through.

Perhaps it was the grief.

“I heard a noise,” Timothy started awkwardly. “In the basement.”

“Oh, that,” she said flatly. “I am renovating.”

“Workers can be so clumsy,” Timothy nodded understandingly.

“There’s no one down there,” Nerissa said quickly. “I’m doing the renovations myself. Something must’ve just fallen over.”

“Oh,” Tim said. A prolonged silence passed that Nerissa seemed in no hurry to break.

“Neri, how are you doing?” Tim asked.

“What?” she asked with a slight smile, startled from her introversion.

“After Paris, it must be difficult,” Tim said. “I know it’s difficult for me. He was just so vibrant, so full of life. I have the hardest time accepting he’s gone. Whenever I see something clever or something he would have found funny, I find myself reaching for my phone to text him before remembering he can’t answer. That he’ll never answer.”

Nerissa politely looked down as Tim blinked a tear away for the man who had been his brother.

“It is difficult,” Nerissa admitted. “But I have my work.”

Tim looked up, and saw that there was no facetiousness in Nerissa’s solace. As some had religion, she had mechanics.  Ever since she was a little girl, she had been strange in that way, desiring to build her own toys rather than wait for Santa to bestow them on her for good behavior. Perhaps she had chosen that route because Santa seemed to always favor Paris. People in general always seemed to. While ostensibly she seemed a model of perfection, there was something mechanical about her aspect so it always seemed that Paris had garnered more love and admiration.

With her success with the matter transporter, however, she had received her share of elegies and parental pride. Timothy remember that it was only days later that Paris had given some rousing speech on the progress of science, all of course in the name of his sister, and the press had turned their adulation toward the younger Gagnon. Really, it only seemed like in the wake of Paris’s death that the camera had permanently focused on Nerissa, that she was finally seen as the brilliant, tragic engineer on the bleeding edge of science, pushing toward a futuristic tomorrow that people would not have thought possible in a million years. She was finally and completely out of her brother's shadow.

Tim brushed away the thought before it occurred.

“Do you want to take a walk, Neri? We could down to the pond for old time’s sake,” Tim suggested.

“No, Timothy,” Nerissa said sharply. “I’m sorry, but I can’t. I’m very tired, and I think I may need some sleep.”

“Yeah, I do too. It’s been a tough few weeks,” Tim said. “Call me if you need to talk.”

She nodded. “I will. Thank you, Timothy.”

~

“Dammit, Nerissa, I can’t stay here any longer,” Paris stormed.

“Calm down. They are just being careful. It is for the best,” Nerissa said, the perfect facsimile of a parent talking down a toddler from a temper tantrum.

“And don’t you dare do that!” he said, his voice edging closer to a yell.

“Do what?” Nerissa asked, almost angelically. However, innocence was not designed to suit her ancient eyes. It could not carry through.

“Act like you’re my mother. You are not and you have never have been. And even if you were, it’s not like you could control my life. It’s my life. Not your life version 2.0,” he ranted.

“I do not believe I have ever been under than delusion. I have only ever tried to help you,” Nerissa said.

“I have had it up to here with your help,” Paris said.

“Please, Paris. Let us not fight. Let’s just talk, like we used to,” Nerissa said, almost pleading. She was no longer mother, but sister. She was the sister who never had a playmate so Paris shared Timothy with her. She was the sister who would stay up late to help Paris finish every project he procrastinated so that his parents didn't know he had snuck out to party the night before. First and foremost, she was his sister, she was his best and truest friend, and he hers. In a glance, they both seemed to remember this.

He sat down. “I can’t. I can’t. I need to get out. I can’t stand this. I need to see people other than you. When will they be done?” he asked, desperately.

“They are trying the best they can,” Nerissa said.

“Tell them to work faster. Or you do it for them. You could probably learn biology faster than they can figure this out. You’re the genius,” Paris said bitterly.

Nerissa smiled. “I will look into it.”

~

“Timothy Montague?” the mousy woman asked. She held a laptop clutched to her chest over which a pair of large eyes peered. Tim had never seen the woman in his life, but now she was on his doorstep. She seemed just as off kilter about the situation as he did.

“Yeah, that’s me,” he said.

“I need to talk to you, about Dr. Gagnon. Nerissa Gagnon,” the woman continued. “As far as I can tell, you were her closest friend.”

While Tim had mostly been Paris’s friend, he found he was not surprised that he was also the closest friend to Nerissa. While seemingly pleasant enough, she was often friendless. It was paradox that Nerissa never expressed as distressing, but Nerissa was a private individual. Tim believed there were many things Nerissa thought and felt but never expressed.

“Okay,” Tim said, still standing at the doorway, wondering why the woman was here.

“Can I come in?” the woman looked behind her shoulder, as if suspecting someone was watching. Was she a reporter? Was she doing a piece on Nerissa? If so, she wouldn’t be the first to wax philosophically on the isolated genius whose close brother had so suddenly passed and whose parents were nothing more than patterned light waves propagating through space at the speed of light at the moment.

“Um, sure,” Tim said. His dog came to greet the intruder with a happy tongue, evidentially less suspicious than Tim. The woman perched herself on the edge of a cushion on the couch, opened her computer, and began to pour through files and speak rapidly.

“I was working through Dr. Gagnon’s files for the recent mass transporter data. She keeps it quite encrypted, against university protocols—” she began.

“Sorry, excuse me, but who are you?” Tim asked.

“Portia. Portia Horner. I’m the data security analyst at Nerissa’s university and a big fan of her work. I’ve read every paper she’s ever published, watched every one of her speeches. It is why I work where I do,” she began to ramble.

“Nice to meet you, Portia, but why did you come to me?” Tim asked.

“Because I found something strange,” Portia said. She cut off, frowning and biting at her lip. She clicked at her computer before looking up once more. “And I wanted to know if you thought Nerissa had been acting strangely in the year before her brother died. And how her relationship to her brother was.”

Nerissa and Paris had fought, he remembered. But that was not so strange. Both were brilliant and strong-willed. Their parents had granted Nerissa control over the estate, and Nerissa had a way of attempting to direct her brother’s actions by dangling his heirdom like a carrot. She never did so quite so explicitly, but in an underhanded Machiavellian way. Of course, Paris responded in kind. Rebelling in slight ways that he knew could garner no recompense, and perhaps just a little, going out of his way to steal his sister’s thunder whenever possible.

While Nerissa and Paris could often be the best of friends, the rivalry between siblings could extend to a prolonged clash of the titans.

Timothy considered the wisdom of airing out the Gagnon old laundry to the woman he had barely met, who may still be a reporter attempting to fish for a new tilt to the Gagnon legacy.

“Tell me what you found,” Tim said simply.

“Well, part of my job is just to go through files and see if they’ve been corrupted or stolen. This Chinese group has been replicating data from the mass transporter that’s very similar to our own. So similar, in fact, that the provost assigned me to carefully comb through the entire group’s computers. They were seized without notice, and of course everyone threw a fit, besides Dr. Gagnon. And when I got to her laptop, I saw she’s encrypted the hell out of every piece of data. I couldn’t get in, and she refused to let me in.

“She said, ‘If you can’t get in, what makes you think a Chinese group without access to the physical copy would be able to get my data?’” Portia said. “She let me in eventually, but I was pretty sure it was to a dummy desktop. Not the one where she does all her real work. I did not dare confront her, but I told the provost.”

“That sounds a lot like Neri,” Tim nodded.

“That’s what everyone seemed to think. From the other scientists' laptops, I was able to find a few leaky files that might have been skimmed, but nothing too bad, so the provost encouraged me to get onto Dr. Gagnon’s computer by whatever means necessary. She figured that Dr. Gagnon would never admit to being wrong or making a mistake, and we needed to make sure that was the case. I downloaded a keystroke-tracking program and a data tracker, which would make copies of any files changed or deleted and gave the computer back to Dr. Gagnon. I figured since they would just save the data internally and not try to export it, she might not noticed,” Portia explained.

“But Neri did, and your programs were deleted the next time you tried to get into her computer,” Tim said.

“Yes, that’s correct. So, I asked Ajax to watch her. He was able to visually see her keystrokes and make a long list of passwords, and he reported them back to me. After she left for the day, I took her computer. It took all night, but I was able to get on, and I found this hidden file,” Portia said.

“Checkpoint?” Tim asked, reading off the dimly lit, grimy screen.

“Yeah. It was well hidden, so I figured it must be important, but I couldn’t figure out how to open these files or what they were. Mostly, the names are two distinct letters followed by a numerical code. However, “NG” with different numbers is repeated several times. The earliest file is one of the NG’s, and I figured out the numerical code refers to a time and date. It from a few months after Dr. Gagnon completed her first prototype. AG and JG correspond to the dates that her parents left, and there are initials as well for every other member sent to Gliese. Each file’s enormous, and with the dates and title, as far as I can tell, Dr. Gagnon’s been saving a, well, a copy of each person who has used her device,” Porita said, sitting back from her computer and blinking.

“Okay. I mean, that’s strange that she hasn’t mentioned it to anyone, but I don’t think we should be that worried. It’s just data, right?” Tim said with a shrug.

“I haven’t gotten to the really weird stuff yet. There’s a PG here too. Two files, actually. One, as far as I can tell, is just a normal file from about six years before Paris’s death. The other has been altered,” Portia said.

“What do you mean ‘altered’?” Tim asked.

“I mean someone’s been messing with the code. There’s no upload date. It seems to be a copy of the original PG, but there are several differences. I pulled up the two side by side. And if I didn’t know better, I would swear that Dr. Gagnon had been messing with her brother’s data, to change him somehow. But, that’s basically impossible. The files are the pattern of atoms, and to build up macroscopic changes, whatever they might be, by modulating by the patterns of atoms,” Portia said, waving her hands about, as if trying to erase the idea from her mind.

“It would take a genius,” Tom said. He met her eyes. He imagined all the things that Nerissa had complained about her younger brother and her insatiable desire to engineer past perceived problems. What things would she try to fix about him? Would she try to make him more compliant to her will? Would she decrease his intelligence slightly so that she felt smarter in comparison? What was Nerissa capable of? What did Nerissa want?

“Yes. A genius. But that’s not the end of it. I can see how many times each file has been downloaded and uploaded. Most of them, it’s a one to one ratio, like look at her parents. Someone steps inside and is downloaded at another terminal. I haven’t quite deciphered her code for what terminal it is, but I can see that they have been downloaded,” Portia said.

“But the modified copy of Paris. That was never uploaded. It was just copied. But, it has been downloaded,” Tim said, in sudden comprehension.

“More than once,” Portia concluded. Tim thought about the noise in the basement. What if Paris, or a Paris, was still alive?

“We have to tell someone.”

~

“Nerissa, you’ll get me out of here, right?” Paris begged.

“I’m doing everything I can,” Nerissa responded.

“I feel like I’m going to die in here. Please, Nerissa, I’ll take back everything I said those months ago. I won’t tell Mom and Dad. You just got to get me out of here,” Paris said desperately.

“Please, Paris, don’t be so dramatic. It’s not so bad in here,” Nerissa said.

“That’s what you say, but you get to come and go, talking to those doctors. Sometimes I swear there are no doctors, and it’s just you, keeping me in here because I was never the little pet you wanted me to be,” Paris spat.

Nerissa turned to leave.

“No, please, Nerissa. Don’t, no, I’m sorry. Don’t leave me here alone. I need you. I need someone to talk with. You have to get me out. You’re my best friend, Nerissa. You’re my sister, my big sister. You protect me. Please,” Paris whined.

“You’re not yourself when you’re like this, Paris,” Nerissa whispered. “I have to go. There’s something I need to fix.”

~

Officer Dennis Percy knocked on the door. “Dr. Gagnon, open up. It’s the police department. We have a search warrant for the premises.” Dennis had a certain distaste for the arrogant academics who, as a lot, seemed a whole bunch nuttier than your average folk. They didn’t seem to quite get that laws other than that of physics applied to them. He relished the task of setting one right, however the blood found by the pond in the backyard suggested this particular crime was darker than those with which he commonly dealt.

Quiet footsteps answered. He could hear her rise on her tiptoes to look through the peephole. “I’m sorry, Officer, what is it you require?” Nerissa answered almost listlessly, as if the armada of police cars and officers deserved no more notice than a raised eyebrow.

“We have a warrant to search the premises,” Dennis repeated irritably.

“It is dreadfully late. I kindly ask you to come back tomorrow, if you feel so inclined,” Dr. Gagnon said.

Dennis really hated academics. “This is not a request. Open the door, or we are authorized by law to break the it down.”

“That will be decidedly onerous task, I would assure you. Come back tomorrow. I am busy,” Dr. Gagnon replied without intonation.

“You have received a verbal warning, Dr. Gagnon. I—” Dennis started.

“Shall I offer my own verbal warning?” Nerissa asked. “In a minute’s time, I will detonate enough TNT to level this house.”

Officer Diana Kent beside him murmured a curse and backed away a step. “Officer Percy?” she asked, “Should we withdraw?”

Dennis considered it a moment. He realized the crazy scientist bitch might be telling the truth.

“Yes, stand down,” Dennis nodded.

“All units are ordered behind the perimeter,” Diana commanded into her radio. “Repeat, all units are ordered behind the perimeter. Code 287, suspect has made a bomb threat.”

As Diana and Dennis hustled back to the squad car, they were met with a wild young man who was surging forward. It was difficult to see the resemblance to the man who entered their station an hour earlier. The stress seemed to be slowly unraveling him.

“What? My best friend’s in there! Or, at least, his clone. We have to go get him. I can’t lose him again!” Tim yelled, struggling to get past the officers who already held him at bay. Behind him, a mousy woman continued to click between two laptops held on her lap, only moderately concerned with the happenings before her.

“Mr. Montague, while considerably suspect, we do not know for sure that Paris Gagnon is within the premises,” Diana said, attempting to keep the man back.

“Just let me talk with her. I knew her,” Tim said. “Please.”

~

Memories did not flash before Nerissa’s eyes. They ambled, slowly, almost three decades, mulling together languidly. There were happy moments, usually alone or just with her brother. The moments spent reading in the noonday sun trickled brightly past her eyes, as if she were walking in a dream.

There were darker moments as well.

“No!” he yelled. “This isn’t right. Dammit, you can’t play God!”

The darker moments seemed to be made of more viscous stuff. It stuck to her brain, refusing to budge, as if inertia exponentially increased with the unpleasantness of the memory.

“Please, Paris. Please. Just listen to me! I fixed you,” she begged.

“Not everything is here for you to fix. Life isn’t a plaything, Nerissa,” he retorted. “This machine is a monstrosity.”

“You are being unreasonable. Just think about it. The machine is just parts. It’s just mechanics, just physics, chemistry, and biology. Paris, can’t you just think what this means? Paris, I fixed you. I could fix anyone. We would never have to die,” she said. She tried to touch him, as if to make sure he was real. He shoved her away so viciously that she fell back hard.

She rose again and tried to hold him still. He hit her sharply.

“No,” he said, backing away. “No.”

Trinitrotoluene, although archaic in comparison to modern explosives, is surprisingly easy to make. When one works in a university, chemicals are easy to come by. Of course, with the quantities she needed, it was often difficult to avoid suspicion. However, she was the university darling, and storerooms are not well observed after dark.

She had felt so silly when was she began first acquiring her stocks. Surely she needn’t go to such extreme to protect her basement laboratory. It was just examining old data and experimenting with a new prototype. It was a faint wish, an uncertain hypothesis wavering on the edge of nothing. However, time had proved her wisdom.

“Paris, what are you doing?” she asked with alarm. The certainty, the elder sibling authority, she often used to address her younger brother was fading fast. “Paris, put that down! You’re going to hurt someone.”

His eyes glinted in the metal of her earliest form of protection for her basement laboratory. She couldn’t quite remember why she brought it down. Perhaps she was afraid her experiment would go horribly wrong. But, it had worked. It had worked perfectly. Almost. “It probably won’t hurt for long,” he said.

He raised the gun. She felt it rise level to her chest. Her heartbeat echoed in her ears. Her brother’s eyes were steely. Her feet were moving her backward before she realized the motion. She bumped against a bench and lost her balance. Even so, however, the muzzle slipped upward.

“No!” she screamed with acute realization, standing up and stumbling forward. “No, you can’t die, Paris!”

The pain felt so real as it shot forward from her memory, but she would never feel it again. Not all do fade as leaves; some are burned in fire.  She had made mistakes. She had made discoveries, breath-taking, world-changing discoveries. How could those selfsame discoveries be mistakes? Was she but a modern Prometheus, bringing flame to mortals only to be prosecuted for it? Was she a Dr. Frankenstein?

Hardly realizing she had traveled, she was in her basement laboratory, her sanctum sanctorum and sepulcher. She went to the fuse box, finger trembling at the button.

“It’s not dying, Neri. Not really,” Paris smiled.
~

The childhood home where Timothy had spent many a summer day collapsed in on itself, almost delicately and neatly, like a prim and proper elderly lady folding her hands upon a lace-covered lap, with only a gently burning fire quickly taking to the remains. His response was neither delicate nor neat.

“Oh God!” he choked. He collapsed messily, limbs splayed. It was hope rekindled from ashes before being doused in a flood. If only he had known sooner, he could have stopped her. “Oh God! He’s--.”

The police officer shifted uncomfortably as they radioed in the new situation, calling for firefighters on the scene.

Portia, meanwhile, stopped her examination of Dr. Gagnon’s data and sidled up to Tim. There was something strange there in the data she was examining, but it did not seem to matter anymore. She pressed her arms around him and said nothing. “He was my brother,” Tim mumbled as she buried her head in his collar. “I loved him, and I hoped—”

“We all hoped,” Portia murmured. “We all did.”

~

“I’ve got you cleared!” Nerissa announced triumphantly. Her younger brother encircled her in a hug that lifted her off her toes and spun her around wildly.

“My sister, the genius!” Paris said. “I knew you could do it!”

“Come on, Mom and Dad want to see you!” Nerissa giggled in the euphoria her younger brother exuded.

“My beautiful son. My brilliant daughter. Oh God, I don’t know how I thought I could live without seeing you two grow up,” Adam Gagnon said, holding each of his children in an arm and burying kisses on their heads through his thick beard. “I’m so glad you decided to join us, whatever the reason why.”

“Hell, I can barely remember why. It seems like Neri was just showing off her machine to me, and boom, I’m here,” Paris grinned.

“The confusion is the result of some changes Nerissa made in the program,” Juliet Gagnon explained. “Apparently the change allowed for more efficient transportation of data and less chance of data corruption. It also changed lengthened the travel time by a several of years.”

“We probably wouldn’t have been able to make heads or tales of Neri showing up without a clue of how she’d got here if she didn’t send the note ahead of time. God, I now know what the old settlers felt like when I jumped off their matter analyzer,” Adam laughed. He kissed his children again. “Now, let me show my Venus and Adonis off to the old settlers. They’ve never even been to Earth, nor have their parents or their grandparents, what with how slow rockets are, and I’m sure you have some stories to tell.”

“What my loving husband means to say is that he is a hopeless braggart and has been continually boasting of your accomplishments, and Nerissa’s recent foray into microbiology and Paris’s cure for his own cystic fibrosis is no different,” Juliet explained.

“Did I do that?” Paris mouthed at Nerissa, who nodded eagerly. He sat back with a self-satisfied smile while Adam answered his wife’s slight with a peck on the cheek and a wink. He led his children triumphantly forward. However, Juliet held her daughter back.

“Nerissa, Neri, I am proud of you,” Juliet said simply. With the unheard of pure sentiment from her mother’s lips, Nerissa smiled. She could not quite remember why she decided to leave all of her research and awards back on Earth lightyears away, but Nerissa was glad she did.

She had been so worried about her brother all those years on Earth, but now he was fixed. Now, she could smile, honestly.














Sunday, August 4, 2013

Nibblers

I’m not sure why people think ghosts will devour your soul. They have to be some stupid, ignorant, dumber than death ghosts to do that since the moment you go eating up souls, you call down every half-wit ghost-hunter and whatever superstitions he or she has, and one of them is bound to “banishing-to-hell” thing right eventually.

No, real ghosts don’t really do that. They nibble at souls, delicately around the corners where no one notices. They act more like moths in a cedar chest than monsters in the closet, taking little bits that no one notices until years and years have past and someone finally brushes out Grandma’s old wedding dress to realize the pearls and lace of yesteryear do not stay encased within history.

There are a lot more ghosts than people realize; they just don’t notice them, as those translucent forgotten figures daintily nosh at our √©lan vital. I see them though. And the souls they eat. I don’t know why. My parents thought I had a lot of imaginary friends when I was little, and I did as well. I mean, if your parents call the misty forms wandering around imaginary friends, then you just take their word for it that that’s what they’re called. In their defense, I was a dreamy, lonely child in a big, old house by myself. It seemed only natural that I would make up imaginary friends.

My friend freaked out though when I invited him and his imaginary friend over for a play date. All was going fine until one of my “imaginary friends” closed the door. I swear his screams still ring in my ears. It didn’t take too long after that to realize my “imaginary friends” were a little different.

Most the times, ghosts don’t close doors. They don’t rattle chains. They don’t make blood fall from the walls. They don’t talk. They can moan a little on occasion, but not more than that, I think. It takes a lot of energy, I guess, and they would need a big meal first, like maybe a whole soul. But, as I said, that’s a bad idea, and I’ve never seen a ghost go as far to do that. Ghosts just kinda float around a lot, languidly nibbling at souls. Just add in some art and literature, and you’ve got yourself a lot of Victorian bohemians. Really, they are quite amiable companions for an introverted, melancholy little kid, especially since as soon as they realize you can see them, they don’t eat your spirit. It must be bad manners or something.

Sometimes I wonder if that’s why people just seem to be more tired as they age. I kept my ghost buddies off my parents when I still lived with them both, but even then, their spirits were threadbare and worn. They wore them heavily, like a cilice of steel wool. Even when my parents smiled, I could see through their teeth and thinning soul to the empty echo of a chest where a shrunken heart lugubriously beats. You can see why I was a bit dark as a child.

It freaked me out as a kid to see all the adults walking around with shredded souls. It made me afraid to grow up. Of course, not only ghosts do a number on our souls. We are quite capable of destroying them ourselves, the way we throw ourselves into temporal pleasures, seeking some release from the ennui of a meaningless existence. However, being able to see your soul fray when you do that kind of stuff puts a damper on your enthusiasm for it all. I mean, where is the fun in drinking the day away when all you can see is your spirit withering?

Yeah, I’m not quite a hoot at parties.

However, the old veterans are the worst. Their vaporous, ephemeral soul barely clings to that thousand yard stare. It’s horrifying. There’s just something so utterly wrong about it. If everyone could see souls, I think, no one would go to war. Not after seeing what it does to even the people that survive it.

I don’t know much about death, but I think having your spirit slowly undermined and sloughed off layer by infinitesimal layer is worse than shrugging it off in one get-go.

The weird thing with this whole ghost and souls thing for me is that I’m not religious at all. I’ve been an atheist since by parents split and were too ground up by depression to make me go listen to someone describing how most of the people I love will face some eternal punishment for believing in the wrong dude in the sky. I study science. I have a degree in chemistry, but, I just can’t explain what I see. I know full well, I could be crazy, and if I told people, they would think I’m crazy, but, I don’t really think I am. I don’t know why.

I guess all we can rely on in this life is our fallible senses. They tell me the sky is blue, that there’s ground beneath my feet, that my stentorious professor really could use a breath mint for the poor students on the front row, and that there are ghosts.

Honestly, I don’t know how to fit souls into my worldview. I can kinda see them on animals, very faintly on plants in the right light. I tried to see them on bacteria whenever I get the chance with a microscope, but then again, I can’t see souls through glasses or photos, so I’m not terribly surprised when it doesn’t work.

As far as I can tell, we each carry some sort of life force, and when we die, it doesn’t all decay at once. It can stick around a bit, by nibbling at the life forces of those still around. I think animals and plants can’t figure that out though, judging by the late Neptune the goldfish and all the flowers in vases I seen, so their souls go kaput pretty darn quickly. I’m not sure what souls are made of or how I would go about figuring that out. I mean, it’s not really a question I can discuss with my scientist friends without sounding like a lunatic. I’ve tried checking campus ghosts out with Geiger counters, spectrophotometers, and even GC-MS, with no dice.

Nevertheless, I think they’re real.

Yeah, I know, not terribly scientific, but it’s kinda hard to get significant data with my own wide margin of error in being seemingly the only person alive to observe them. I’ve talked to the ghost hunters; they don’t know anything. It’s physically painful to be around most of them as I can feel my intelligence diffusing away, as if pulled by the steep concentration gradient. I think there must be some other people who can see ghosts, but I’ve never run into any of them. All the souls I see are pockmarked and nibbled on.

Maybe I’ll find someone else who can see them too eventually, and we can figure out some scientific mumbo jumbo for elucidating everything.


Until then, it’s just me and the ghosties.

Monday, July 29, 2013

The Donor

Andrew knocked on the door and pushed his hair out of his eyes irritably. It was too long. He should cut it. His mother had commented to the same effect, and he now felt he was morally obligated as a teenager to not get it cut now. He was not so myopic that he could not see the irony in himself holding it against his mother to suggest such a thing, thus preventing him from accomplishing the task. However, he pushed most of the thoughts away brusquely with his hair. He had other things to consider.

A woman with graying hair tied back into a fraying braid opened the door. She was a few inches shorter than him, but her steely, authoritative blue gaze made her seem half a foot taller. Her skin was relatively smooth for her years, softened slightly by wrinkles but without blemishes or makeup. She wore a blouse that at one time might have been nice but had since accumulated small holes, which she seemed to neither notice nor care about.

“Hello. May I help you?” she asked, just quickly enough to show that she had no desire to entertain visitors without reason.

“Uh, are you Lucetta Holden?” Andrew asked, smoothing his hair back again.

“Yes,” she said. It was a single syllable expressing an unstated but clearly understood idea: What do you want?

“Did you donate your eggs eighteen years ago?” Andrew asked, in that particular tone of a person who had practiced a line many time, seeking out the perfect iteration of not only words but also stress on the syllables and enunciation.

“Yes,” she said simply. Her eyes quickly glanced over, as if cataloging him as a newly discovered scientific specimen. She did not state what was so obviously implied. Neither did he. Several long moments passed where nary a word was exchanged, only glances, as if each expected the other to somehow broach the topic and harness the elephant in the room. Andrew was very uncomfortable.

“I suppose you should come inside. Would like a cup or tea, or water?” she asked. She opened the door more widely.

“Um, no thanks,” Andrew said. He pushed back his hair again. Her home was Spartan. It smelt very clean, faintly of vinegar and lemon juice. No whiff of dog, cat, or even human odor. Andrew wondered if she lived alone.

She seated herself on one of the two chairs in the sitting rooms whose only ornamentation was a single upright piano, whose reams of music stacked on top of the instrument revealed it too had a utilitarian purpose.

“Am I correct in assuming your parents do not know you are here? And if I am not mistaken, you learned about me recently,” she said, segueing roughly into the subject matter. She was keen and sharp, and it seemed like she was trying to remember the social mores she had flushed from her memory to make way for other things.

“Yeah,” Andrew said awkwardly. “It was kinda an accident that my dad let slip.”

“I would like to remind you that while I am a contributor to half your chromosomes, there is still substantial epigenetic changes that occur within the womb, which your mother would be all responsible for. In addition, the environment cues pre and post partum are known to be extremely influential in the characteristics we have as individuals. Thus, your mother is very much still your mother. Any deep, philosophical conversation about who you are may be best reserved for her. If you wish to have any knowledge of myself that might affect your life, it would be limited to the medical history of my ancestors, which I assure you, is quite fine. My parents are still alive and my grandparents lived well into their eighties. No heart disease, no diabetes, no depression, no cancer besides early stage prostate cancer in my paternal grandfather at eighty three,” she said quickly.

This was not quite the conversation Andrew was expecting. He wasn’t sure what he was expecting, just not this. He sat back on the edge of his seat, wondering if he was about to be booted out from the living room of his progenitor so quickly. He had driven all the way here.

“What are your college plans?” she asked, more softly. “You are going to college, yes?”

“Uh, yeah. I got a scholarship to the University of Arkansas,” Andrew said.

“And what will you be studying?” she asked.

“Chemistry, I think. I mean, you don’t have to declare a major until later, but I think chemistry,” Andrew said. There was a faint nod of approval.

“I have yet to hear that academic preference is a genetic trait. Any particular reason for chemistry?” she asked.

“I don’t know. I mean, it’s kinda like a puzzle, right? Our lives are made of chemistry. It’s not quite so esoteric as physics or as inexact as biology. You do chemistry, right?” Andrew asked, inelegantly wavering between crude vernacular and more refined eloquence.

“Yes, I study the application of carbon allotropes in solar cells,” she stated factually. She paused before adding, “Perhaps if you live up to the potential I believe possible of you considering your genetic makeup, you may be a graduate student in my lab.”

Andrew laughed, the only thing possible when being introduced to such forward and unhidden declaration of conditional love. “Haha, no nepotism?” he asked.

“I am afraid that is frowned upon in my academic field,” she said with a sly smile of someone who did not display emotion with any regularity, did not often indulge in the communal pleasure of light-hearted banter, but had a fine mind which was more than capable of wit.

Another moment of silence rasped on. She did not seem uncomfortable with it. She looked out the window with her thumb to her chin, as if considering some intellectual conundrum without any concern as to how else might be in the room.

“Why did you do it?” Andrew blurted. “Donate your eggs, I mean. My parents don’t know you. I asked. So why did you just give your eggs to strangers.”

“When I was in graduate school, the associate professor who ran the lab next to mine discovered that she was infertile. She had waited for tenure attempting to have children, and she then realized that an earlier surgery to remove a few ovarian cysts she had permanently scarred her ovaries to the extent that she could no longer produce eggs. They eventually found an egg donor, and their healthy baby girl was born nine months later,” she said.

“So, you like wanted to do it in their honor or something?” Andrew asked.

“Or something.” She nodded.

Another silent moment passed. Suddenly, she stood up. “I must be going into lab. One of my graduate students needed additional assistance in setting up an experiment and I have a grant to write,” she said.

“Oh, yeah, sure,” Andrew said, standing uncomfortably. He pushed the hair out of his eyes. The pair made their way to the front door again, which she opened.

“Well, it’s been nice talking to you,” Andrew said, attempting to tie up the unconventional, abbreviated conversation.

“Likewise,” she said with a curt nod. Andrew turned to leave, glancing at his watch. The dialogue had been much shorter than expected.

“I do not believe I caught your name,” she said. He turned back.

“It’s Andrew. Andrew Solis,” he said.

“My grandfather, your great-grandfather, was named Andrew,” she remarked. “I would recommend either growing your hair out to the extent it can be a restrained by a ponytail or similar mechanism over the summer or else cutting it short. The state that it is at now, you risk being balded by a Bunsen burner in your chemistry lab next year, Andrew.”

“I will keep that in mind,” Andrew smiled. He had driven two hours for a ten-minute conversation, and, strangely, he did not regret it.



Sunday, July 28, 2013

Poking Holes

I learned a long time ago to poke holes through me and let the furies whistle through. Forces far greater than I, tsunamis, typhoons, and hurricanes surge like barbarian battalions toward me, but they scream on past. They posture and pound, rage and roar. They rattle through my body and shake my sinews, but they do not move me, for they rattle out all the same. I stand tall and watch while the world rushes on.
I once crouched in the face of storms. I tilted my chin to my chest, enraptured my knees with all my strength, and hugged the ground beneath me as a friend. The storms did not hurt me, but neither could it touch me. Nothing could. I could not taste the breath of a thousand new flurries or hear the cacophonous music of a thousand contradictory passions clashing and bending and rebranding a new against an ever-changing landscape. I knew nothing but the words painted on my sleeves, and thought there was nothing more than that within. The world rushed on, but I did not.
Then, I stood. I turned my face toward the heavens and embraced the gale. I let the winds carry me. I surrendered my body and soul to the tempests and was flung farther than the eye can see. I could not see the trajectory of my journey. I could not see where I would land, but I knew in my travels mirth of exploration but also fear and terror of the land slipping away beneath me never to be seen again. I found that the winds have no concern of us small people but as simple decorations for pulsating, vehement creeds which have lined the skies for as long as memory spans. As a leaf in the wind, the world rushed me on.
Now, I fracture myself against the forces. I let it greet me as its own. I let it trace the contours of my body and welcome it into me. Then, I exhale, and it passes through, and I emerge renewed.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Fall of a Sparrow

Jay blinked slowly. The world seemed to swim in some viscous substance, slowing time, making every movement forced. It hurt to breathe, yet his chest rattled in dim concurrence with the beeping machines at his right. Just beyond those mechanical sentinels, his sister sat. Wren had been there since yesterday morning where their father had dropped her to attend to some work-related task. The girl had curled up silently with a book and had not spoken, but merely offered her presence as succor. There was not much to say now. All true words had already passed between the two, and what were left were dull platitudes that the two would never indulge in. She was drowsing as the sun set, her eyes half closed and her book lulling in her half-relaxed grasp.

The next breath came not so easily for Jay. It hung against his lungs, refusing to free itself, the breath dying where it lay. The machines beeped irritably against the intrusion. The book slipped from Wren’s hands as she awoke. She looked around in shock like a frightened dove before finding the source of her confusion. The words of her books still twisted sleepily around her mind.

Thou know’st ‘tis common; all that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity.

“Jay?” she whispered. “Jay, it’s Wren. I’m here.”

Jay was afraid. Even after so long of viewing that approaching specter of mortality, it did not help. He was afraid, even as his sister held him. He did not want to die, and he clung desperately to life, even when it was filled with passive doctors and foul treatments.

To die; to sleep; no more. And by a sleep to say we end the heartache and the thousand natural shocks.

Her brother trembled, air escaping through a tight throat in despair. He was crying, tears running down eyes open to desolation. And hers as well, the salt water comingling on their cheeks as she held pressed her lips to her cheek. A nurse poked her head in and promised to call their father and no more, for there was no more. Not for Jay.

To die, to sleep; To sleep perchance to dream.

Jay wanted to believe in heaven, in angels, and in God, but his short life had stolen from him such faith. It was but him and Wren in a bleak, dark world, and even now, he was fading. He could see it reflected in Wren’s clear, liquid eyes. He was melting, into oblivion.

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come.

Wren and Jay had been the closest of friends. Their home was often empty besides the two of them, with their father working most of the time. They grew up teasing, chasing, playing with, and fighting against each other. In every childhood moment, there was a touch of Jay, as equal parts compatriot and conspirator. Wren felt as if she could not breathe.

There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember.

The panic was fading now. The world grew still, but not dim. The borders of objects blurred. Wren’s face disappeared amongst the ceiling and walls. He could still hear her, just barely. She was whispering some lullaby from when they were young, when there was no one but her to tuck him in at night. He was not so scared now. It was calm. There was a peace he had not known since his first doctor’s appointment. It was just him and his sister’s song, which was fading even now, quietly stretching into infinity.

The rest, is silence.

Her brother did not breathe. No heartbeat murmured within his chest. His body had lost its warmth many months ago, but somehow it seemed colder; it seemed heavier. She couldn’t breathe; she couldn’t breathe. She forcefully relaxed her arms around him, lying him back on the pillow. She pulled the covers to his chin. His eyes were closed, as if asleep. It was as if she was but tucking him in to bed, one last time. She kissed his forehead.

Goodnight, sweet prince; and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

Her father came an hour later, after they had already removed her brother. Her book sat on her lap as she stared past the world into eternity. It was wrong that life could be wrest from those so young. It was wrong. The world was wrong. Life was wrong. Her father had to touch her shoulder to wake her to his presence. She jumped; the book fell to the floor to which it was already well acquainted. Her father picked it up and noted its title.

“There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow,” he said.

She looked up at her oft absent father with hollow eyes. His face was gray and thin, but such was the norm. She could not remember the last time she had seen her father smile. She could not remember the last time she had done the same. “No. There is no providence in death. I defy augury,” Wren said fiercely, wrenching away from him. She shouted silent accusation with a glance. They need not leaver he lips to sting him. Where was he? Why had she been alone in facing this? How come he could not save her brother? Did he not care? She had her mother’s ferocity, but a tear still clung to the young cheek.

A countenance more in sorrow than in anger

He collapsed, onto his knees, suddenly the child once more. His tears came swiftly with his sobs. All tragedy broke forth as if from a dam. He could not help himself. Each denunciation met its mark.

O! What a rogue and peasant slave am I!

For the first time, Wren saw her father’s resemblance to her brother who had been heretofore all memorialization of their mother. The curve of their cheeks was the same, the crinkle at the edge of their eye, the shape of their ears. The man, suddenly shrunken before her so that she now towered over him, was as much kin as her brother was. He was more than that. He was her father, and he grieved deeply. He felt the pinch of death just as sharply. She hugged him.

Doubt that the stars are fire; Doubt that the sun doth move; Doubt truth to be a liar; But never doubt I love.

When father and daughter left, the sun was brimming across the mountains into the valley, filling the bowl of land in red rays like tomato soup. Their hands were enlinked, their expressions, solemn. Nothing could replace the void within their hearts. Nothing could stop the pain. There existed no shield against the grief, the torment of loss that clawed viciously into every thought and moment. Yet, even though poor recompense for what they suffered, they had one another.


Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Those Gray Doors

There is a castle by the sea
And its gray doors I’ll never see
Long it’s been since they fled from me
And I now fear I’ve lost the key

Across the glinting sands like jewels
Amongst the crystal clear blue pools
And where the salt breeze whisper cools
Lay those gray doors of happy fools

Time and fortune did strip me from
That merry place of bells and drum
Where singers serenade to dumb
Where those gray doors have left me numb

It slipped from eye and fled so fast
As if it were some story past
And as if some dark spell was cast
Without those gray doors, the pains last

And once without, not once within
A once pure soul now plagued with sin
A dirty chest holds now to chin
My back to those gray doors and kin

And with time past my memories fade
As dew drops in a sunny glade
Bright visions sully as I wade
But those gray doors have always stayed

And I return to open sea
Where land or home I will not see
For those gray doors do call to me
A siren’s song without a key




Monday, May 20, 2013

Creation


In the beginning, there was nothing. It was not dark, for there was no such thing as dark. It was not cold, for there was no such thing as cold. It was simply nothing, a void in which the world would fill. Then, a bang. Energy condensed, blowing protons and electrons into the cosmos. They funneled together, bound by gravity’s pull, huddling against the emptiness surrounding. And, they began to glow. Their nuclei pressed together forming heavier atoms and more complex compounds. They spit out the carbon, iron, and silicon without regard as they tumbled further in upon themselves.

The cloud of forgotten ash condensed, bundling together against the void. The round surface was a tempest of fire, boiling, moiling with the heat of its progenitor stars. It exhaled, shedding atmosphere in a fury. Until, day by day, it grew weary and calm. A thick, caustic atmosphere settled as the inky depths of oceans swirled. A strange phenomenon occurred amongst the hydrothermal vents that eeked out sulfur compounds and heat, sugars spontaneously linked. Phosphates knitted them together, and with a conformational twist, they begat more.

More sugars, different sugars, and new molecules swam in phospholipid bubbles, reacting eagerly to replicate themselves. It chewed through sulfur compounds hungrily, searching for more and more. Then, it found the sun. The glimmering rays of light beckoned and fed. And the creatures gave to the sky clean air.

The ocean began to bubble with life, spilling the contents onto the shores. Creeping, crawling, twirling, rooting things colonized the space, and with a leap, they caught in the air. They inhaled and exhaled new gases, transforming the atmosphere and altering the climate. As the planet wobbled around the sun, occasionally bombarded by fellow explorers in the vast nothingness, and the life upon in changed.

A creature without much hair and a big brain crawled from Africa across the continents. They brought fire, stone, bronze, iron, steel, and silicon. They transformed the world to fit ever more and more of them inside. They fought bitterly and often acted without thinking, laying waste to land without second thought. However, they would learn and do their best to undo their mistakes in the aftermath.

We are part of a history of voids, stars, sulfur-eating bacteria, and aerobes. Whether we are alone in the universe matters not, for either way, we are privileged to enjoy some moment amongst the impossibilities that arose from nigh nothing. It is enough.