After his excellent study of gender politics in “Fluidity” last autumn, Eric Del Carlo returns to Futurismic with another look at the unanswered yet imminent questions of posthuman identity. Short, sharp and timely – enjoy!
Out Walking The Streets
by Eric Del Carlo
I’m ravenous for sights and sensations, for the leathery creak of the seat beneath me, for the subtle reassuring hum in the metaplastic hull of the train car. I feel the speed; I record in my mind the tug of force against my body, basic physical principles acting upon me at every moment. It is new. It is all worthy of my acute attention.
It is not new. I am thirty-four years old, and the laws which oversee reality are as familiar–and discountable in day to day life–as the thump of blood in my veins.
I exert the effort not to make a spectacle of myself. I’m hardly alone on the train, but no others, I feel sure, are as mesmerized by the cityscape streaming past both rows of windows. I want to, but do not, press my nose to the clear ‘plastic and cry out at the pearlescent architectural wonder on display. They’ve put me on this train, among regular people. I’ve promised to control myself, and my promises have convinced those who needed convincing.
My promises mean nothing. Diagnoses told those at the Facility that I was fit to travel, that I have the necessary knowing and composure. I am going to see the woman who arranged my freedom. I’m thrilled to be making this journey on my own.
On the platform, with warming panels staving off the crisp wintry weather, someone recognizes me. Or almost does. A respectably dressed middle-yeared man pauses and peers. He seems to be thinking he knows me personally; perhaps wonders if a greeting is in order. I look back at him and past him without glimmer of acknowledgment, as I’ve been instructed to do, and leave him there on the platform.
I draw the clean snowy air into my lungs as I walk the several streets. It is a beautiful glamorous city, though I doubt most of its inhabitants wholly realize this. Traffic slides along. A few other pedestrians brave the weather. This is the city of my birth.
Only, not my birth. I am from the Facility. They’ve kept no secrets from me.
I halt at an ornate gate and feel the purr of a scanner. I’ve seen evidence of security on this excursion, orange eyes glowing everywhere. The gate lifts, and I make for the gleaming front door, which is opening even as I approach.
She is gasping and trembling, glutted with emotion. Her arms spread, then drop to her sides. Her hands come together; frail fingers worry a bony knuckle. She touches the sleeve of my coat.
“You’ve got snow in your hair.”
I don’t believe she’s aware she has said this. I smile warmly. I’ve thought about what I will first say to her, and it must be this: “Thank you for getting me out, Mother.”
At that she seizes both my arms and hauls me inside. Her seeming frailty vanishes. She is laughing a bit shrilly, and her fine blue eyes sparkle. The interior is well heated. Even by the standards of this prosperous city, this house is conspicuously lavish.
I do indeed have snow in my hair, and I brush it out. Autos take my coat and gloves, and we are heading into a lounge, for aperitifs. She evidently holds this evening fully formed in her mind. A grand but intimate meal will follow. There is no one else in the house.
“You look so well. So well…” We sit in chairs set near enough that she can reach my knee, to pat it, squeeze it. She does this repeatedly, and I continue to smile. I am very pleased to see her, and to be the cause of this emotional display. But she isn’t the only person in my thoughts.
As we sip liqueurs, she tests my memory. She does so in clumsily furtive, rather apologetic fashion. I provide all the appropriate reassuring responses. Later, at dinner, we speak of marvelously mundane topics. Autos buzz through the vast chamber. The food is amazing, but I suspect I would find any meal outside the Facility equally wonderful. Hospital food is what it is.
“How did they treat you at the Institute?” We have moved on to another lounge-like area, and she appears nearly spent.
“The Facility, Mother.”
“Oh, of course…”
Soon she is bundled away to her bedroom, and I’m the only conscious soul in the house.
The streets of the magnificent city are quieter than before. I think I am being observed or even followed, but it is surely the city’s normal security measures, rather than some agent from the Facility trailing my movements. I’ve been told I’m on my own out here.
The snow has stopped, and the pedways are clear. I am feeling nervousness and anticipation, and am noting these states even as I experience them. A cataloguing exercise, one I’ve learned over the past four months.
It is a half hour’s walking; the grand glowing city is quite large.
The gate I stop at is grimmer than the last, more leadenly functional than the one at Mother’s. The scan is an almost unpleasant prickling. A display pops to life, and I tap virtual keys. I am doing nothing wrong, breaking no rules. It is night, but not so late that calling here is inappropriate.
The residential block looms. Its shape is less pleasing than other similarly sized structures I have seen. She is new to this place. She has moved several times. Mother provided me this information while I was still at the Facility. I had to send numerous beseeching posts. There was always an animosity between the two women.
The display crackles, stabilizes for a moment, then winks out. I’ve had no response. I continue to stand at the gate. The cold, now that I’m still, is starting to work into me. But I stay.
After a time light spills into the courtyard beyond the bars. It disappears as quickly. I squint into the gloom, thinking I see movement.
“Goddamnit! I don’t want you coming here.” Her voice is raw. It echoes on drab metaplastic walls.
It twists a harsh pain through me–sudden, strong and new. Again, something I’ve not yet encountered. I take a step forward, peering through the gate.
“There’s no reason for my not visiting you.”
“There’s every reason,” she counters immediately and angrily.
“I feel the need to see you.”
“Well, you’re not going to. Not ever. Go away. Go the hell away!” She hasn’t come any nearer. She’s just a vague shadow in the empty courtyard.
I have language; I know words. But suddenly I fumble with them, can’t get them to line up the way I want. “I–I… need to, to—”
“I don’t care about your needs.” This she says calmly, coldly. It is, I think, worse than her shouting. “Your needs are borrowed. You understand that? They explain that to you?”
“I know what I feel.” My throat thickens.
“Go find some needs of your own. You’re alive. You’re you. Fine. Terrific. Go make a life. But you can’t include me in it. I won’t let you.”
I wish she would move forward, into the modest radiance thrown by the streetlights. But she remains in the shadows, faceless, even though I hold her face, cherished, in my memory.
“But”–I know I am saying the wrong thing, perhaps the worst possible thing, but I can’t stop myself now–“but you’re my wife.”
She has been pacing, apparently. I hear the gritty scrape of her heel as she stops abruptly. A thick seething silence follows. Then, a primal growl, “Don’t ever say that again. Don’t you even think it.”
Carelessly I grab a bar of the forbidding gate. It deals me a quick shock. If I do it again, it’ll jolt me worse.
As the thickness in my throat becomes a blurring of tears, I say, “I remember you so well….”
A new silence ensues. I won’t leave until she goes back inside. In the night’s quiet I hear her take a few more pacing steps.
“Do you remember the killings too? How you got rid of the bodies. You were so smart, so cunning. Then coming home to me. Smiling. Jolly. The attentive caring husband. Do you remember all the victims?”
“I don’t.” I do know of all this, however. As I said, no secrets were kept from me. “I don’t know why those things happened,” I go on. “I didn’t do any such deeds. And I’m not capable of becoming the man who did.” The cleansing and conditioning were deep. She must know this. The process is common knowledge.
She has come forward at last, but not far enough for more than the palest hint of illumination to brush her. I see a fringe of hair, the wan whisper of a cheekbone. She is wearing something as dark as the shadows surrounding her.
“I was one of your victims too. A repeated victim. Every time you did a terrible thing, you might as well have done it to me. You don’t know the blame that gets spat at me. You can’t guess the guilt. Why didn’t I know? Why couldn’t I have seen?” I see frost as she expels a long breath. “People find out. Wherever I go. People eventually figure out who I am.”
My hand rises toward the gate again. I have to consciously pull it back.
She says, “That rich old bitch never should’ve had you grown.” A few seconds later light falls into the courtyard. Then a door slams and darkness renews.
I blink. And my cheeks are warm, and wet.
I walk. Vaguely in the direction of Mother’s house, I think.
She never even believed her son did those crimes, despite the incontrovertible evidence. He will be in a Penal Coma until the day he dies. I could not have been actualized were he not in that state. She only wanted him back; and she had the financial means. I am a vast expenditure.
I’m also a kind of neutered version of the man she remembers. But that’s a good thing, I know. I am properly horrified by the actions of my source. I don’t have his abnormalities, nor his craftiness, nor–ironically–his duplicitous nature. My dualism is just a side effect. I am simple. I am human.
I trudge in snow. I’ve wandered off the warmed pedway. My legs are chilled to mid-calf. It’s another new sensation, another unpleasant one. I pause. When I belatedly wipe my eyes, I feel ice crystals. I look around.
It appears I’m not alone. Another walker is out here, in the winter elements, coming in my direction. Coming directly toward me, in fact. A fellow wayfarer to guide me back onto the ‘way? An agent of the Facility after all, here to ensure my safety? No. They’ve created their product, and now they’re done.
I’m not surprised, somehow, that neither case is correct. I think I recognize the individual closing on me, and I look into my borrowed memories for this face. It isn’t there. This person belongs to my memories. He’s one recently made, I realize.
Middle-yeared. Respectably dressed. But he looks haggard now, overwrought, panting in great frosty plumes. His eyes goggle. He holds something in his left fist, an implement. I see a metal edge; it is glinting.
Nothing crafty about this at all. We’re in view of several orange eyes, aglow on the lampposts. He’ll pay for this crime, very soon. But not soon enough.
I make an effort to tell him that I never hurt anyone he ever knew. He doesn’t listen to me, not a word.
Eric Del Carlo is the coauthor, with Robert Asprin, of the Wartorn fantasy novels. His solo s-f, fantasy and horror fiction have appeared in numerous publications over the years, including Sybil’s Garage, Electric Spec, Brain Harvest, Necrotic Tissue, Talebones and Kaleidotrope. A final novel with Asprin and Teresa Patterson, a murder mystery set in New Orleans’ French Quarter entitled NO Quarter, is being published by DarkStar Books. Check out ericdelcarlo.com for further info.