With Thoughts of Sarah
People like to believe in lofty goals and higher ideals, but, more often than not, selfless acts are performed with only our own interests in mind.
I just didn't think it through. I was blinded by the pain of loving her and I just didn't think it through.
I suppose it all started with Weed Mulligan. Surprisingly, it didn't take us long to get used to him. As long as I didn't think too hard about what he actually was, drifting gently in his tank, I found I could look at him as just another piece of equipment or an exceptionally ugly lab animal. But what amazed me the most, and still does, was that the damned thing could communicate and seemed completely unaware of what had been done to him. But communicate he did. And he even seemed to know his new name.
The name Weed Mulligan was someone's idea of a joke. I don't remember who started it -- probably some technician or Foundation bigwig, but the name stuck. Weed was a floating jumble of nerves and brain tissue that actually resembled a cross between a patch of seaweed and a pot of Mulligan stew. He was now just the central nervous system and much of the peripheral nervous system of a chimpanzee, with a few bits of the endocrine system thrown in for good measure. The idea was to see how much Weed could remember and communicate while in this state. But, as interesting as that was, the real corker was that Weed had been dead for more than a week and didn't seem to know it yet. He was a collection of memories that had been fooled into thinking it was alive.
Dr. Sarah Yuen, my partner on the experiment, sat across the lab comparing a stack of readouts to various displays and meters. Her pace bordered on frantic, held in check only by discipline. "I'm getting a slight deterioration reading from the optic chiasm and the corpus callosum," she said as she pushed her straight black hair out of her face. "I'll increase the vitamin input long enough for us to get the memory recording finished."
"I'll be ready in just a second," I said, turning back to my keyboard, but trying to keep an eye on Sarah just the same. I suspected she had stopped taking her medication, as she sometimes did when she felt it numbed her thinking. Sarah was bipolar, but she had it under control with the meds. When she bothered to take them.
Mark Walker was standing beside me, keeping track of a few thousand wires and tubes while making sure no one wanted coffee. Mark was a grad student helping us for free because he didn't have much choice -- that's part of the deal when you enter grad school. You become a professor's slave for four years or so. You dot his i's and do the dirty work he doesn't want to do. A great racket, if you happen to be a professor.
I finished entering the important data and handed Mark the keyboard. He smiled slightly and took over for me, verifying computations and that sort of thing. I walked over to Sarah under the pretense of being some help. "This should be Weed's last recording gig," Sarah said as she reached over and squeezed my hand. "Soon the old boy will be a star."
"He won't be the only one," I said, and kissed the top of her head. She gave me a wonderful smile and returned to her work.
I stood there a bit longer, just looking at her, enjoying her presence. Being in love can be one of the nicest feelings a human can experience, but you can count on not getting much done until you get used to it. And I certainly wasn't used to it. My life had never been saturated with intimate relationships, for one reason or another. I had had brief encounters when I was younger, but I could never master the trick of keeping a relationship going for more than a few months. So when I found someone who wanted to be with me as much as I wanted to be with them, it looked like I might be able to finally fill that void in my life. Sarah made each day worth living.
"Whenever you're set, David," she said, leaning back in her chair. "I'm ready at this end."
I took my place back at the computer terminal as Mark went over to Weed's tank to check the hook-ups. When he gave the all-clear sign I started telling the computer what to do.
And what the computer did was record Weed. Every electrical impulse, every memory imprint, every chemical pattern in his nervous system was recorded on a special disc whirring like a small star inside the MRAP. The disc was only a small part of the MRAP, which stood for Memory Recorder and Playback device. The MRAP itself was such a marvel that I almost blush to admit that Sarah and I helped put it together. The process was complex and irreversible; unlike other forms of recording, the original did not survive the replication. In that sense it wasn't really replicating but transferring. We broke Weed's memories, the essence of his personality and all that made him unique, down into data more easily stored. If everything worked as predicted, he would never notice the change. As the laser disc slowed and stopped, I looked over at the readings for the original Weed in the tank. No electrical activity was present. None of the memory chemicals were to be seen. The holographic imprints that had lived in his brain were gone. All that was left of Weed in the tank was just so much garbage.
"Play back the disc," I said. Mark carefully removed the disc from the MRAP, being careful not to touch the shiny surface, and changed several settings. Eventually the MRAP would do that itself, but refinements take time. He slid it back into the MRAP and turned it on.
"He's in there!" shouted Sarah as the memory data flooded across both my screen and hers. "That beautiful chimp made it!"
"Let's go for broke. I'm starting computer assist," I said. Our computer-assist program was a translator: it took data from Weed and created a form of output. It read Weed's memory of himself and created a hologram to match. It also gave him a voice, not that Weed would get much out of that.
A ball of static appeared in the air over the holographic projector. The faint outline of a chimp appeared, its insides shifting colors like a badly tuned television. Then it snapped into focus and was, as far as I could tell, a perfect likeness of a chimpanzee.
Hello Weed, I typed into the computer. This is David. How are you feeling?
The chimp hologram started gesturing, using the sign language he had been taught when he still had a body. I saw Sarah smile out of the corner of my eye and looked at the screen. Weed want banana, he signed.
"I think it's your turn to feed him," said Sarah, laughing.
Then the world fell apart.
I still remember her laughing. The way her entire face lit up when she was happy. The way her almond-shaped eyes turned to thin, dancing lines. I don't know if that's a good thing or not. I know it hurts to remember, but that doesn't make it bad.
The experiment was a success. We still had a bit to do, little polishings here and there before we wrote up the final research article for the journals and the press. Neither Sarah nor I would have made huge sums of money out of the deal, we worked for the Foundation and any discoveries we made were technically theirs. But the prestige would send us both into history. Life could be good sometimes.
And sometimes not.
It was about a week after the recording of Weed's memories when Sarah slipped into one of her depressive phases. I had seen it before. Sarah's self-destructive tendencies worried me. She had mood swings, sometimes drastic ones, and she always became depressed after a project -- even if it was successful. The break in the routine seemed to be a trigger. I remember one time, when she was at one of her lows, staying up all night listening to her cry. Sometimes she had definite problems that were beating around in her head, but more often than not it was just a vague, generalized despair, and that was the worst. She would sob into my chest and I would hold her, feeling just as bad with the frustration of knowing there was nothing I could do. I would have given the world to shoulder her pain myself, anything to save her from what she went through.
Eventually she would fall asleep, but it would be several more hours before I could follow her.
I suppose she just grew tired of it. Despair can get old after a while, that much I've learned.
On a night much like every other night, sometime while I was at the lab closing up, Sarah managed to get the courage to do what she must have been thinking about for a long time. With surgical precision she slit both her wrists. By the time I returned to the apartment we had been sharing for almost a year, she had bled to death most efficiently.
Everything that happened next had an almost mechanical feel to it. The last normal thing I recall doing was throwing open the bathroom door, expecting to find Sarah in the middle of a bubble bath. I can still feel the way my face froze in disbelief when I saw her laying there in the tub, the red water still warm and her arms draped along the side of the tub. Her eyes were closed and her face had a calm, almost dreamy expression. If it weren't for the blood and the criss-crossed cuts on each wrist I would have sworn she was asleep.
I felt for a pulse, not because I expected to find one, but because I couldn't think of anything else to do. I kept my hand on her neck long after I was sure there was nothing there. Eventually I put my arms around her, sliding her half out of the tub and myself half in, and rocked her gently in the water. I sat there in the bathroom, just holding her and sobbing her name into her wet hair.
Sarah, oh Sarah, what have you done?
A year and a half of shared experiences poured through my head. The first time we met. The way she had to tell me it was okay to kiss her that first time. The night we were snowed in at the University and had to camp out in a classroom. The shared secrets and midnight promises. The time we both got stinking drunk and couldn't find our way home. The first time we made love. The taste of her. The smell of her. The feel of her.
I trusted you, Sarah. I let you past the walls of my heart and into my most secret of places. I gave you my trust and you do this to me? How am I supposed to live without you? How am I supposed to go on with no one to love? What about the future we could have had? What about the life we could have had? You can't go, Sarah! I love you!
And then, like a door opening into the darkest corners of my mind, I knew what I had to do. I knew a way to bring her back. If it worked for Weed, it would work for Sarah.
Getting Sarah's body to the lab was my first problem, and that one proved the easiest. First I drained the tub and washed her. It wouldn't do to leave any trails of blood. With luck, no one need ever know she had died. I could always come up with an explanation for her disappearance later.
I taped the wounds on her wrists with electrical tape and carried her from the tub to the bedroom. She was a small woman, so I had no difficulty placing her on the bed and wrapping her in the sheets, but when I was almost done I had to stop and look at her. So many jumbled thoughts clamored around in my head, but none of them would focus enough to make sense. The pain I was feeling welled up and threatened to wash me away. My vision blurred and I thought I was going to fall, but I clamped down on my emotions and switched back over to whatever automatic pilot was managing to keep my limbs moving. I pulled the sheets over Sarah and made sure they wouldn't come undone. I had no trouble getting her into the back seat of my car -- it was three in the morning on a Tuesday, so there wasn't much of an audience. Even if there had been someone out at that time, I doubt if anyone would have cared enough to wonder about the large white bundle the good professor kept talking to. Possibly ten years ago, but not now. The only real problem occurred when I reached the lab and found Mark still there.
Under different circumstances I might have tried some shrewd plan of misdirection and hustling in order to get him to leave. But, as I sat in the car looking at the bright windows of the lab, with Sarah draped across the back seat, no inspiration came. Nothing even remotely clever. So I once again turned myself over to the autopilot and slipped a good sized wrench from under the seat into my back pocket. I didn't know if I was going to use it, but I thought bringing it would be a good idea.
I picked Sarah up and carried her into the lab.
Mark looked up from the table where he was working, a little startled. He started to smile and stopped, his eyes moving from my face to the bundle in my arms. We stared at each other, him with his pen suspended centimeters from his notes and his face thoughtful, me like a marble statue, my face stuck in neutral. He suddenly seemed to realize what he was doing and put the pen down, making more of a production about it than was necessary but keeping his eyes on Sarah and me.
"I didn't expect you back tonight, Dr. Hammond," he said slowly. When I didn't answer, he continued, "That's not what I think it is, is it?"
"It depends what you think it is," I said, walking forward.
"It looks like a body wrapped in a sheet," he said, not quite sure if he was joking or not.
"Then it's what it looks like, Mark. I hope that doesn't alarm you."
Mark opened his mouth as if to say something, but changed his mind. He just watched as I put Sarah on top of one of the larger tables, still wrapped up. "Would I be far off base to guess that this isn't something the University has okayed?" he asked.
"No. Nor the Foundation. This is something that just came up. Would you help me move this table closer to the tank?"
For a second I thought Mark would bolt for the door, and I was tensed for it. I probably would have killed him. But he had always been a nice kid, so maybe I would have recorded him too. But after grinding his teeth, he got up and helped me with the table.
"Is it anyone I know?" he asked as we lifted the table. He was trying to make his voice sound casual, but we both knew he was failing. I don't think he knew it was Sarah, but I'm sure he knew it wasn't some cadaver from the Medical School.
"Yes," I answered simply. He almost dropped the table, but we had it where I wanted it anyway."It's Sarah. She killed herself tonight and I'm going to bring her back."
"Jesus Christ in a wheelbarrow! Dr. Yuen? You want to record Dr. Yuen?" He took a step backwards.
I put one hand on the wrench and tried to look relaxed. "I don't have a choice, Mark. She's dead. She slit her wrists and she's dead."
"Shit," he said and ran both hands through his hair. He seemed unable to come up with anything better to say so he said it again. "Shit."
"I'm doing it because I need her, Mark. But think of the implications, for science and for you. Weed was impressive, but he was just a monkey. The first recording of a human's memories, of a human's personality, will put us into historic immortality. You think Freud is important, Mark? He wasn't even a good scientist. All he did was come up with unprovable theories. You and I can shake the world."
Mark was quiet. I knew he was thinking it through, trying to talk himself into it. Granted, it was a bit odd, but Mark was a struggling graduate student in psychology trying desperately to make a name for himself. The payoff could be staggering for him. "What about the police? This has got to be against the law."
"We didn't kill her, Mark," I said as I unwrapped Sarah, carefully placing the sheet on the table like a tablecloth. "She'll even be able to tell the police that once we're finished."
"I don't know, Dr. Hammond. I don't think I can do it."
"We won't have to do her the same way we did Weed. We stripped him down to the bare essentials because we didn't have the experience we have now. We couldn't keep his entire body from decomposing while we experimented. But we won't have to...to damage Sarah," I finished, a little uncertain. Mark knew what I meant by "damage" -- neither one of us thought we could cut Sarah open and remove her nervous system. But we wouldn't have to. We wouldn't even have to put her in the tank. "Please, Mark. I could use your help."
He looked at Sarah and then at me.
Hello Sarah, how do you feel? My hands were shaking as I watched the holographic image of her form in the middle of the room. It had been necessary to remove a portion of Sarah's skull to get some of the probes in place and that hadn't been easy. Mark was almost as pale as I was but he was mercifully covering the body with the sheet. When he finished he silently moved over to the other terminal to watch what happened.
The holo of Sarah snapped into focus and I thought I would cry again. She was wearing baggy jeans and her favorite brown sweater, the way she dressed when we were alone and casual. She looked around, giving the impression that she could see what was going on. I knew that was an illusion. She no longer had much in the way of stimulus input, just the computer and the MRAP.
"David? Is that you? Where are you?" she said, with help from the computer. It was uncanny how good the voice was.
Yes, this is David. I'm here. You've had an accident, but don't worry about it. You'll get better.
She flipped the hair out of her eyes and moved slightly in place as if her feet were getting tired. "What kind of accident, David? The last thing I remember was... no. You didn't."
Don't get excited, Sarah. I'll take care of you.
Sarah sat down in a non-existent chair, which frightened me for a moment. Either the computer was trying to be inventive or Sarah was actually seeing and responding to something in her mind. "You did it, didn't you? Yes, that must be it. I couldn't see anything at first, but my vision is clearing slowly. Only it's not really my vision, is it?"
I'm not sure, I typed. What do you think I did?
"You recorded me, didn't you."
Yes. I had to. You killed yourself.
"That's what I thought," she sighed. "The last memory I have is...starting. Everything else must not have made it out of my short-term memory. I can almost see you now, David. That's pretty strange, I shouldn't be seeing anything at all, should I?"
No, you shouldn't be seeing anything. Maybe the computer is adjusting for you. It adds to your memories as well as plays them back.
Sarah blinked twice and looked like she was trying to focus on something. "Maybe. But I doubt we're where I see we are. We'd probably have to be in the lab, I'm in our apartment. It could be my brain making something out of nothing. Only I don't really have a brain anymore."
You don't have the actual organ, but that doesn't matter. The organ is a vessel and a recorder, just like the disc and the MRAP. All that makes you up is still there.
"I'm not sure about that, David. Are you? Is this all I am? All I ever was?"
Personality is a product of memory. You know that.
Sarah was quiet, her image looking thoughtful. I wished I could see what she was seeing. I wanted desperately to touch her again. "I can see you now. You're sitting across from me on the bed, wearing those silly bear feet slippers. You shouldn't have done it, David. You shouldn't have done this to me."
I had to. I wondered if she could feel the pain in those words and wished I could speak them to her. I love you. I need you, Sarah.
She smiled gently and stood up. "I know you do, David. That's what made it so hard to kill myself, even with all the pain I was feeling. But it was too much," she said as she walked to the limit of the projector. She seemed to be looking at me, but I knew what she was seeing was her illusion of me just as I was seeing my illusion of her. "I wanted to die. I needed to die."
We can work it out. We always have in the past.
"No, we never worked it out. We just put it off. The only solution I could live with was the one that killed me. It was my decision, David. No one twisted my arm."
Sarah, please. We can do so much together.
She smiled again. "I don't think you've thought this through. What can we do together? I'm a disc, David. And I belong to the Foundation now. I wish things were different. I wish I were different. But I'm not."
I put my head in my hands. I could feel the tears again, and this time I let them come.
"You know what you need to do," she said.
You want me to destroy the disc, don't you?
"Yes. It was nice to be able to say good-bye to you David. I didn't think I'd have that chance. But it's time for me to die again."
It will mean my killing you, Sarah. I don't think I can do that.
"Don't think of it as killing me, David. I did that. You're just sending me back where I had intended to go anyway."
There's another problem. I had Mark help me and I don't want him to go to jail for this.
Sarah looked surprised. "Then you didn't find my note? It's on my desk. It should do the trick."
A note. I didn't even think to look. I stared at the screen. This hurts more than anything.
"I know it does, David. I'm sorry."
I love you, Sarah. I'll always love you. I reached for her outstretched hand and passed right through it, as I knew I would. She hugged something I couldn't see and stayed in that position while I fit myself into the empty space. It was almost like the real thing. "I loved you too, David. Be strong. Do what you have to."
I nodded to Mark as I stood there, hugging Sarah, and he turned off the MRAP and the projector and left me hugging air. But then I'd really been hugging air all along, hadn't I?
"Will you be okay?" asked Mark.
"I don't think so," I said. He put his arm around me and led me to my chair. "Does it ever get better?" I asked him, as if he had the answer. "Does it ever stop hurting?"
"I'm told it does," he said, "But I've never known it to happen. It just gets so you can live with it."
We sat there for what seemed like hours, saying nothing. Eventually I got up and went over to the MRAP. My finger hovered over the button that would erase Sarah forever.
After a time I pushed the button.
Christopher O'Kennon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freelance writer living in Richmond, Virginia. He has been published in several newspapers and magazines (where, he reports, he has managed to enrage both the Henrico Police Department and the U.S. Navy). He spent two years working in a psychiatric hospital, which altered his outlook on life quite a bit.
InterText stories written by Christopher O'Kennon: "More Dark than Night" (v4n6), "With Thoughts of Sarah" (v6n4).
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 6, Number 4 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1996 Christopher O'Kennon.