No User Manual
By Bruce Davis
It was my birthday and so I decided to kill myself one more time. Maybe this time I’d get lucky.
I visited Jenny’s grave first. I knelt and brushed away the leaves and dead grass that had accumulated around the base of the stone and traced the carved outline of her name with my fingertip. She’d been one of the last to die, really die, before the Cure, nine years ago on this same day. God, I missed her.
Somewhere, over the years, I had run out of tears. The grief still cut me like a hot wire around my chest but there were no more tears to be shed. Even before she died, she hadn’t been the same woman that I fell in love with. We’d both lived too much and seen too much. If anything, we’d become closer during those years together, like two hands on the same person, or like the moving parts of a well-tuned engine – different, but always moving together. I’d cried for that woman every day until the tears played out. What was left was the desperate longing of a nineteen-year-old kid, helplessly in love with a seventeen-year-old girl. That was the first love, the deepest love; the one that couldn’t be cried away.
After a time, I stood and walked home. It was just after dawn and the neighborhood was quiet. That was fine with me. My neighbors may have understood why I wanted to die, but would have shrugged their shoulders as if to say, “Why bother?” Nothing would change anyway.
Samantha thought I was just being self-indulgent. She’d moved in next door to me three years ago, turning my carefully constructed isolation into a grudging friendship that wasn’t quite love but was no longer a casual acquaintance. I think I might have loved her, if not for Jenny. Sam had been the one who had finally cut me down after I’d hanged myself from the big oak tree in my front yard, two birthdays ago. I’d been mad at her for weeks after that, but eventually found it hard to ignore her constant checking up on me. She’d also been the one who had fished me out of the reservoir last birthday.
She was waiting for me in my kitchen. Bacon sizzled in a frying pan and its smoky aroma mingled with the smell of fresh coffee as she turned to smile at me.
“Are you going to be stupid again this year?” she asked, her tone light and mocking.
“I thought I might give it a try,” I said. “You never know.”
She laughed. “Whatever. Will you have some breakfast first, or should I wait on the eggs until you’re done?”
“I didn’t ask you to make breakfast for me. In fact, how did you get in here? I locked the door when I left.”
“Did you?” she asked sweetly. “I hardly noticed.”
Sam had never said much about her life Before. I knew it had been difficult from the few details she’d let slip, but she never spoke freely about it. I also knew that she had some surprising skills. She moved with a grace that I’d seen in trained dancers, or trained fighters. She spoke fluent Spanish and Mandarin and sometimes when she was asleep, she sang in French. She denied it when I asked her about it, but I’d taken a year of French in high school, enough to recognize the language.
“Why are you here, Sam?” I asked.
“Because you need me,” she said. “You just don’t know it yet. But I can wait.” She turned back to the sizzling bacon, moving the strips around the pan with a pair of tongs. “If we’re having breakfast first, you should get out some plates and cutlery. The coffee is ready, if you’d like a cup.”
I opened the cupboard next to the sink and took out two plates and a pair of coffee mugs. I set the plates on the kitchen table before taking the coffee pot and filling both mugs. I reached around her from behind with one of the mugs. She took it with her free hand and sipped.
“Thank you,” she said. “How would you like your eggs?”
“However you want to make them. I don’t care.”
She set the tongs down and turned to face me. “And that’s the problem, Duncan,” she said. “You do care, but if you tell me, it means we’re not just neighbors being polite to one another, we’re friends sharing a meal.” She smiled. “I’ll scramble them, just like your brains.”
I sighed. “Leave me alone, Sam. I don’t want a friend, or a lover, or whatever you think you want to be to me. I just want to die, and that’s the one thing that no one can do anymore.”
She touched my cheek. “I know, sweetie. But you have to learn to live again, not just exist.”
“I don’t have to do anything. No one does.” I pushed her hand gently away from my face. “No matter what we do, the nanites will just rebuild us, so why do we even bother to eat, much less worry about what we eat.”
“Because food still tastes good, and sharing food with others still satisfies a basic need for most people, even you.”
I shrugged. “In that case, fry them. Over easy.”
She nodded and lifted the bacon out of the pan, laying the strips on paper towels to absorb some of the grease. She added three eggs to the pan, deftly breaking the shells with one hand, another skill that I had never mastered.
I set the table with the plates and some forks that I took out of the kitchen drawers. I added a 9mm Beretta to my own place setting along with a pair of napkins. Then I opened the hall closet, took out a six by eight foot plastic tarp, and spread it over the floor behind my chair.
Sam carried the frying pan over to the table and slid two perfect eggs onto my plate. She put the third on her own plate and then returned the pan to the stove. The bacon was blotted and drained and she piled it onto another plate that she set on the table between us.
She eyed the tarp and the gun as she sat down across from me, but said nothing. She bowed her head briefly and made the sign of the cross: forehead, chest, left shoulder, right shoulder.
I bit into a slice of bacon. “Why do you do that?” I asked.
“What?” She forked some egg into her mouth.
“Cross yourself and pray. You don’t really believe there’s a God, do you?”
She put down her fork and looked at me with a thoughtful expression. “Belief and Faith are two different things. I believe that I have a soul. Just because I’ll live for a long time, maybe forever, doesn’t change that. I have faith that there’s something greater than me, greater than this existence that we share; a wider reality if you like, and that there may be room for God in all of that.”
“Two thousand years ago, we’d have been considered gods,” I said. “They believed in immortals, and now we’ve become what the ancients feared; with all of the pettiness and jealousy and nastiness of any Greek myth.”
“This immortality that you’ve given the world didn’t come with a user manual. Did you expect that just because people no longer feared death, they’d become noble and good?” She laughed and scooped up another forkful of egg. “The opposite was just as likely. If anything reinforces my faith in God, it’s the fact that we still have a civilization after the Cure.”
I ate a few bites of my eggs. I really didn’t want to get into a theological discussion with her. Especially when it brought back memories of the violence that marked those first few years after the Cure was distributed; the violence that had taken Jenny and so many others before they could receive the nanite injections. In our arrogance, we had expected rejoicing. Instead the world nearly burned.
A thought occurred to me. “You just said, ‘this immortality that I gave the world’. How did you know I was on the CGN team?”
She smiled. “Did I say that?”
“Yes,” I said. I set down my fork, what little appetite I had now gone. “I never told you about that. How did you know?”
“You must have said something once.”
I shook my head. She started to get out of her chair and I picked up the Berretta, pointing it at her.
She stood with her hands on her hips and laughed. “What are you going to do, Duncan? Shoot me? I’ll just come back. We always come back. You made sure of that.”
“Who the hell are you?” I growled, wishing the weapon I held was truly the deadly threat it had once been.
“I’m trying to be your friend,” she said softly as she placed her hands on the tabletop and leaned forward toward me. “Does it matter why?”
“It does to me. Who are you and why are you here?”
“I’m Samantha Logan. I live next door to you. Before that I lived on the street, getting by, day by day. I’m here because you’re my neighbor and you’re hurt and unhappy. And I like you.”
“That’s not what I asked, damn it.” I shouted. “Who sent you? Did someone in Consolidated Genetics put you up to this?”
“No.” She shook her head. “At least, not officially.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
“Harvey Wilson paid for my house. We once knew each other, back Before.” She smiled slightly, almost wistfully. “I had certain, well, abilities that he thought might be good for you. He found me down in South Central three years ago. He hired me to look after you. He paid out of his own pocket, no corporate money. He made sure I knew that, in case I needed to tell you about this arrangement. Like today.”
I lowered the gun. “Harvey put you up to this? Why?”
“He’s been worried about you for a long time, Duncan. It’s been nine years since the Cure. You’ve cut yourself off from everyone you once knew. And you keep playing these silly death games. Harvey doesn’t want to see you locked up, but he’s afraid that might happen if you attract the wrong kind of attention.” She took a step toward me but stopped when I raised the gun again. “The Committee was about to send a team to pick you up two years ago, when I cut you down from that tree. The neighbors were complaining.”
I laughed bitterly. “That’s rich. They’d leave me hanging there for two days, but wouldn’t cut me down; only complain to the Committee of Public Safety about how a corpse hanging in the front yard was hurting their property values.”
She stepped toward me again. I kept the gun on her, but knew it was a silly gesture. Still, she got the message and didn’t push any closer.
“Whatever they thought doesn’t matter. Harvey is a good man, a good friend. He told me about you, and about Jenny. He just wants to help you.”
“He had no right to tell you that,” I said, shaking. Tears that I never thought to shed again gathered in my eyes. “He had no right to talk about her.”
“He loved her, too, Duncan,” she said gently. “You always knew that. It’s why he never married.”
“How do you know that?”
She took another step. She was almost close enough to touch now. If I reached out my arm, I could press the muzzle of the gun to her chest. Or her head.
“I told you, Harvey and I knew each other, Before.” She gave a small shrug. “We once had a close relationship, in a business-like sort of way.”
“You were a hooker,” I said.
Her eyes flashed for a moment. “Yeah, I was when the need arose. I did what I had to do, back Before. Even after, if that’s what you’re wondering. Harvey was one of my regulars. Sometimes, all we did was talk. He loved to talk about you and Jenny and how the three of you worked together. It was pretty obvious that he was in love with her, and that she was in love with you.”
“So my good friend Harv hired a hooker to keep an eye on me? Does he think that if I get it on with you, I’ll magically forget about Jenny? Well, you’ve done your job, but it won’t work. Tell him that.” I gestured toward the door with the gun. “Get out of my house and go screw Harvey. I’m sure he’s paid you well for it.”
For the first time, I saw anger in her eyes.
“He paid me at first, yes. But he never asked me to do anything except keep an eye on you. What ever we’ve become in the past three years, it has nothing to do with Harvey, or the job. I stopped taking his money after the first year, anyway.”
“Did he tell you that he got her killed?” I pushed the gun into her chest, just above her right breast. “Did he tell you that?”
She nodded. “Yes. He grieved for her for a long time. He still does, but he’s moved on.”
“Moved on.” My voice was a harsh croak as my throat tightened with anger and pain. “Is that what he calls it? He was safe. He’d had the injections. He could go about the city with no fear. Why did he take her with him? What did he expect?”
“He thought he could protect her.” She paused. “Didn’t Jenny tell you why she wouldn’t take the nanite shots right away?” Samantha asked quietly. She leaned closer, ignoring the muzzle digging into her chest. “She was on the development team. She could have been at the front of the line.”
“No. I asked her, but she wouldn’t say. I thought she was being noble, not jumping ahead of others on the list. I told her it was OK, that we had plenty of stockpiles. I begged her to take the Cure.”
“And Harvey never told you where they were going that day?” She was searching my face, my eyes, for something. I didn’t know what she was looking for, only that I didn’t want to be having this conversation.
“Maybe we should talk to Harvey about this.” She looked away, no longer meeting my eye.
“Why? Did Harvey tell you they were having an affair of some kind?” I laughed. “Because if he did, he’s lying. Jenny would never have done that. She always knew Harvey loved her. She pitied him, but she would never have done that with him.”
“No, Duncan. That wasn’t why they went into the city that day. Harvey should be the one to tell you, not me.”
“Harvey isn’t here and I never want to see his fat face again.” I pushed the muzzle of the gun into her chest hard enough to make her step back. “Tell me what he told you. Why were he and Jenny in the city?”
She did look back into my eyes then. “Jenny was keeping a doctor’s appointment. She didn’t want to go to the CG clinic until she was sure everything was normal.”
“What was normal? If she were sick, it wouldn’t have mattered. The nanites would have fixed it.”
Sam shook her head. “She wasn’t sick, Duncan. She was pregnant. She didn’t know what the nanites would do to the baby. She had to be sure it was normal before she could decide whether to take the injections right away or wait until the baby was born.”
I shook my head. “No. She would have told me. She wouldn’t keep that from me.”
Not after all we went through, I thought. Eight years of failure, of miscarriages and false alarms and surgery. If we’d finally made a baby, she would have said so.
“Harvey told me she didn’t want to say anything until she was sure,” Sam said. “She went to the fertility specialist you’d seen before. She didn’t want to disappoint you again.”
“You’re lying!” I shouted. Then I pulled the trigger. The muzzle blast and the bullet knocked her backward a couple of steps. I fired again. Her face registered pain, but then she smiled and her gaze seemed to drift far away from me.
“Oh,” she said in a small, child-like tone before she crumpled to the floor.
“Why did you say that?” I asked, pounding the table with my fists, my right hand still clutching the butt of the gun. “Why did you tell me that?” I shouted at her.
The tears did flow then, whether for Samantha or Jenny or myself, I didn’t know. I stood up straight, looking down at Sam, the slight smile still creasing her lips. I put the hot muzzle of the gun into my mouth and squeezed the trigger.
There was no pain, only a feeling of pressure so intense that it blinded me. Then the back of my head exploded and the darkness took me.
I fell toward light. I’d been here before, hurtling down this black tunnel toward the light. Hanging and drowning had been different, though. The blackness had been peaceful and the light warm and soft. This time the darkness was hard and cold; obsidian ice that closed in around me, raking me with frigid shards. I would have screamed in pain, but I had no mouth. The light was brilliant blinding whiteness, cold as the black ice that enfolded me. It grew from a hard pinprick to an encompassing glare until I fell away from the black and hung suspended in a sea of white. The sensation of falling stopped. I could see nothing but the light and had no eyes to close to shut it out.
In my past deaths, I had never left the dark tunnel. Before I reached the light, the nanites had done their work and I was jerked back to awareness of the world. It was clear that time had no meaning in this place that my brain created while it waited for life to return. Two days hanging from the tree or eight hours under the water of the reservoir had seemed the same to me. I never experienced what others had described in their near death experiences from the time Before. No warm loving presence, no visions of family or friends who had died. There was just the dark tunnel and the distant light.
I hung suspended in the white sea, cold but not freezing, with no sense of up or down, no awareness of motion or even a physical presence, no clear sense of the passage of time. A second or a month may have passed. I had no cues to tell me.
The black specks began to appear and disappear at the edge of my awareness after the passage of this unmeasured and unmeasurable time. They whirled and danced, doubled and redoubled in number, until they resolved into a swirling double spiral. My awareness focused on them. Something important gnawed at me, something about this shape. The double spiral seemed to rush toward me; either that, or I fell into it until it surrounded me. I was in the center of the pattern, the moving dots climbing up and down the interlocked spirals, like ants scaling a wall. Closer, and the dots became spiders; then the spiders resolved into the boxy carapaces and spindly legs of the nanites.
My awareness drifted closer still, focusing on one particular nanomachine. This one leaned to the right as it climbed. It moved painfully, slowly, but climbed doggedly. One leg was shorter that the others and the end whipped around as it moved, like a black and pink cord.
Encoding error. The thought entered my awareness unbidden. Occasionally the self-replication files became corrupted and defective units were produced.
And in that moment, I knew how to turn the nanites off. I could literally see the vulnerable pseudo-gene inside this slow, defective, but valiant machine. I knew what to do and how to do it. I knew I would remember it when my brain was working again. I knew I could die.
My focus shifted again and the spiral pattern blew apart, like dandelion tufts on the wind, parts of it drifting past me, parts of it drifting away. The whiteness softened and forms began to appear in the now shimmering light. I noticed that I, too, seemed to be taking on form, as if my body was congealing out of some ocean of quantum potential.
And suddenly Jenny was there, standing before me, her honey colored hair pulled back in a frizzy ponytail. She wore the same blue dress I’d buried her in. She held a baby. She smiled at me and lifted the child a little higher on her hip, presenting it (him? her?) to me.
I tried to call out to her. I felt my lips moving but no sound came out. I tried to run to her, but could not move. Jenny smiled again and shook her head. She extended her hand, palm out, as if in offering, her gaze directed over my shoulder. I looked back. Samantha was there. She stood looking around like a lost child. She looked my way but there was no recognition in her eyes, as if she couldn’t see me.
I turned back to Jenny. She was still smiling. She raised her hand to me, like a blessing. The child did the same, mirroring her gesture. It smiled. Not the toothless grin of an infant, but a soft, knowing smile in a face filled with adult awareness. As the small, chubby hand reached out to me the light seemed to flare from somewhere behind me. The world spun and went black.
I opened my eyes and stared at the ceiling in my kitchen. A few spatters of blood marred the white paint. I lay on my back on top of the tarp I had carefully spread out to protect the floor.
I sat up, looking around for Sam. She was gone. Early afternoon sunlight filtered through the thin curtains that covered the window over the sink. A single shaft of light fell on the drying pool of blood where Samantha had fallen.
I got to my feet, shaky and weak. The nanites needed energy to do their work and I always felt drained and ravenously hungry after one of these pseudo deaths. This time was different. I now knew how to make death real, how to kill myself so that I wouldn’t come back.
The images from my vision flooded me then, the pictures of Jenny and the baby. I knew they were just creations of my own mind, struggling to deal with the shock of dying, but I didn’t understand why this experience had been so different, so much more vivid. But whatever I had imagined, I knew my insight into the nanomachines was real. I would confirm it in the lab, but I didn’t doubt that I could turn them off if I wanted to.
I rubbed my eyes and caught sight of the bacon, now cold, still on the plate in the center of the kitchen table. My stomach growled and I reached for the plate. Then I noticed the note.
Dear Duncan, it read. I’m sorry you learned about my deal with Harvey and about Jenny and the baby the way that you did. I have wanted to tell you for a long while, but the time never seemed right. I don’t know if you will forgive me or if this will poison whatever we may have become to each other. Please believe that it was not just a job to me. I truly want to be your friend.
Forgive and remember, Duncan. Jenny would never have wanted you to go on the way you have. I have learned enough about her from Harvey and from you to be certain of that. So the time has come to choose. Life? Or this continued Death that you have created for yourself. If you want to live, I will be at home, waiting.
The image of Jenny from my death vision returned to me. Jenny with her hand held out toward Samantha. Jenny and the baby, their hands raised as if in blessing. Sam was right. I now truly had a choice.
I didn’t know what I would do tomorrow, or the next day, or the next year when this anniversary of my birth and Jenny’s death came around. There was no instruction manual for immortality. But then, there had been no user manual for life back Before, either.
Just for today, I thought. Just for today, I’ll live.
I rolled up the tarp and put it by the garage door. I’d hose it down later. I wolfed down a piece of cold bacon and walked next door to see Samantha.