Will You Remember Me
by Ara Hone
Anybody in my boots would’ve struck the deal I did to get my lab back.
Or maybe I’d been hasty.
I’d already broken the sector’s seal. Ship’s protocols would initiate a cutting-out soon, and time dwindled. But I stood slack-jawed, because these were my own people.
And my best chance of meeting the survivalist’s demands. I couldn’t turn back.
Count and be done, then. I adjusted my visuals to sheep.
Mannaggia — Oh damn! — their soured-wool stink watered my eyes. The idiot creatures pressed together. I kneed into the herd, my finger flicking head to head. From the tomb’s edges, where darkness siphoned my lantern’s glow, a ewe’s pale features leapt bulbously. Its skin stretched red as a thrumming clot. The garish cartoon-like image filled the dank underground, and my heart banged.
I blinked away the vision and dumped an alternative image into my neural pathway and sent it gliding into my processor. Sheep dissolved into avocados. My counting finger continued, and I whispered, “Thirty-four... thirty-five...”
Fruit didn’t stink. It didn’t swelter beneath layers of dark wool; didn’t gaze with the eyes of an innocent sacrifice for the hands of the filthy survivalists. Avocados didn’t bleat: “Where will we gooooing, Tosca? Why won’t you annnswer, Tosca?”
An image sliced across my visual. It was one of women and children pressed against menfolk who crushed hats in dirty hands. I adjusted for neural vibrancy, and the image of avocados sharpened into focus. Better.
A flash of bright blue. A large avocado blocked my path. It clutched a squirming blanket that snorted and rooted as though the fruit had breasts. My imagery jittered, and I inhaled against an ambush of memories: my lips against cheeks pink and warm; the scent of wind and sunshine in tangled locks; giggles, secrets, fashion, boys: fragments of a lost past and of my own child, now lost. Pain knifed between my heart’s chambers. I blinked, and the avocado morphed into a tall Madonna.
“What’s happened, Tosca?” The Madonna’s face shone brightly, but her voice was the husky whisper of Tagliani Science’s Director of Production — its former Director.
Her militaristic chin bled through my imagery, the chin that had waged wars against Tagliani science-slingers like me. I squared my shoulders. She’d pound her mantra any moment: Stay on budget and on project! Reflexively, I darted down my usual path, one which searched for words of lip service to her bureaucracy and kept me out of her glare.
But I wasn’t accountable to her any longer. My innovative science hadn’t fit her narrow ideals, and I’d done what was necessary. She blamed me for the vanguard virus. Get in line, madre.
“Doctor Oreste,” she said, “answer me, per favore.”
“We’re moving. We’ll have to make a run for it.” I plucked the blue birth announcement ribbon from her sleeve and tapped my brow. Think think. “Don’t attract attention. Dark colors only.”
Up went the Madonna’s chin, but I took it like a bullet in the line of duty and continued counting: “Forty-eight, forty-nine.” I swiveled, finger poised. “Forty-nine? Mannaggia! Who’s missing?”
The catacomb’s walls trembled beneath the ship’s pulsing hum, which leapt into the chamber’s sudden rustling silence.
A boy squeaked: “I-I think maybe it’s—”
Static seemed to snap snap crackle in my ears. When it cleared, a name resonated as though he’d spoken it. Avocado Number Fifty was missing.
“Up here,” I said, “in the light, where I can see.”
Hands pushed the boy forward. He wore black, was curly-headed and bony-tall. He wadded his knitted cap as though it would disappear into his palm.
“What do you know? Tell me velocemente. Per favore.”
“We sneaked out per un momento, Capo. See? See? The wizurs took her.” He swung around. “They’ll infect us all!”
The forty-eight gasped and shrank like roasted meat from the bone. I latched onto the boy’s jaw and drew him close.
“I’m the one who’ll get you — all of you — out of this sector. How long has Number Fifty been gone?”
The boy’s dark brows disappeared into his curls. Fat tears spilled over his lids.
“That’s enough,” the Madonna said. “He doesn’t know.”
The compassionate woman I once was shook the bars of the cage where I’d locked her away. What business had kindness or patience in a world where survivalists called the shots and those I loved died?
I squeezed harder.
“Ten minuti,” the boy slurred. “Said he’s a humanitarian.”
I shoved the boy, my heart thump-thumping and kicked the ancient wall. Dirt showered into a pyramid at my boot tips. Getting Number Fifty back wouldn’t be easy. Maybe I should just offer the forty-nine. See what happened. But if their commander rejected the offer, I’d be forced to breach yet another city-nation sealed safe against the wizur threat. Ah! An image of Montreal and Beijing filled me — infected by the freaking nightmares — spit out into the cold of space. My home was next.
The survivalists might control my lab but not its treasure. Not yet. I alone knew its fragile secret. And I couldn’t afford to lose another piece of infrastructure — not when delivering this batch was within my grasp.
I crossed to the catacomb’s steps.
“I’m going after Number Fifty,” I told the Madonna. “The ship’s gearing up to cut out Rome. Keep everyone calm, and be ready when I get back.”
She jiggled her blanket, a Mona Lisa smile on her lips. It seemed for once she had nothing to say.
Whispers and the incessant hum sent me up the long, long flight of steps.
“Cacciatore,” the avocadoes chanted. Hunter.
At the catacomb’s exit, I unhooked my whip and extended my short rod. Swinging my shoulder against the shielded ancient door, it gave with a creak, and I spilled out. The starship engine’s monstrous hum burst free of its insulation as though suddenly loosed from beneath a suffocating hand. The hum throbbed in my ears, beat against my breast, and disappeared into the gloom far above.
I blinked to activate my night vision and stepped onto Via Celio Vibenna’s cobbles. I’d promised to plant the excavated architectures of city-nations on a new world, but I’d underestimated my enemy. I’d miss these old streets.
Pattering, naked feet slapped in the shadows. The wizurs stalked me. I activated my rod. It sparked and shrieked and added courage to my steps. I passed between the sections of stone buildings, formerly fashion houses, apothecaries, and tourist huts. Walkways once bristling with bright colors and voices from every nation stood mute of songs and laughter. I slipped past the ebony-eyed windows. My nerves tingled to run-hide, but I gripped my short rod and rolled my whip. Soon, soon the wizurs would challenge me.
Ahead, three tin-colored, stiff-muscled creatures shambled into the street. Humans in the last stages of neuropathway infection. If only the starship’s air handlers weren’t quite so efficient. I pressed my nose against the crook of an arm. I’d like it better if the wizurs were the so-called walking dead. I could work with fantasy. The truth processed harder.
We scientists thought ourselves clever for editing out syndromes and cancers and mental illnesses some three hundred years ago. We’d coveted our orgo-bionics fitted to bodies never designed for perfection. But nature fought back. A relentless assassin, Madam Virus stole into Earth’s geosynchronous satellites. The code I’d intended as a cure for infected processors spread as poison around the world in an eye’s blink. Before me was one of many virus strains. Mannaggia! The injustice.
But I was a hunter. I set my imagery to lions.
The tallest, a red-maned beast, swiped the air with shining razors. Its white-glazed gaze raked me and, when it roared, the growl vibrated in my chest bones. My knees turned to water, and I faltered. Red Mane directed a pair of stumbling, straw-colored beasts: Get’er, it said.
The lions sprang, wicked sharps gleaming, lips curled. Their weight drove me down onto the stones set long ago. I fought the pair, my rod brilliant with the fury of lightning. Up for air: I drove them back back. My whip arm flew and snapped. The three came at me, clawing. I stabbed with my short rod and sliced the leader. Blood blossomed over its hide. I bent, trembling, and sucked down air. A companion lion darted in. Pain like a high-pitched scream pierced my neck.
My rod clattered onto the stained pavement. I pressed a hand to the wound and brought it away slick with red. Wobbliness passed through me, and I thudded to my knees. My processor’s imagery skipped and scrambled.
Once, a long time ago, I played an old-timey game of smash-the-rabbit. When the rabbits popped up, you hit them with a hammer. The game was no-win, or at least, I couldn’t win. I’d volunteered aboard the Will You Remember Me to plant seeds. But rabbits popped up everywhere, and I was fresh out of hammers.
I fell away and away and away.
* * *
I opened my eyes on a pair of polished black boots, turned my head, and puked. Wiping my mouth, I flopped onto my back. I lay on a platform centered in the heart of Rome’s crumbling Colosseum.
“You met my people.” A strained rasp. As though fingers plucked the so-called humanitarian’s voice box.
“You mean lions.”
My head tumbled. My side throbbed. I pushed up, slid back down. Did a small house rest on my back?
“How long have I been here?”
“Still trying to save the world. Still failing,” he said.
Bastard. I reached for my rod and brushed an empty ring. No whip curled at my waist. He sat in a fabric-stuffed chair that might once have been China-blue and held me fast with his round gaze the color of umber. Shadows from fire torches licked his graying skin. Remarkable — no hair loss yet. It cascaded in shining waves. A white ruffle fell over the fingers caressing my whip curling like a pet around the chair’s arm.
Scant meters away, Number Fifty struggled against her bindings. Not her bindings — its bindings. A red gag cut a ridge into its cheeks. Its tears prismed in the flickering lights, but it didn’t appear damaged. A part of me exhaled.
“Hush now,” I said.
It stopped wriggling. An emotion of a certain kind shone in its gaze, and my captive, compassionate woman echoed, It’s all right. I shoved the compassionate woman aside to address my husband. “You’re not well.”
“Early-stage.” He splayed his slender fingers. “I always hated ugly.”
“Let me help you. I—”
“Science is your idol, Tosky.” Vincenzo struggled up from the chair.
How I hated the nickname. A perverse polarity gripped me. I’d once loved the man who contorted grotesquely with each rocking step, but I scuttled backward, crablike.
“Can’t a husband kiss his wife? No? Too busy running. Run, run, run.”
“I’m saving us!”
He clapped in jerks. “There’s my arrogant girl, my misguided wonder. What does your appetite demand, love? Not companionship, lords no. You dumped me.” He spread his arms. “Glory. Doctor Tosca Oreste, Earth’s savior.”
I shrank inside, becoming again the young woman puzzling through my cure theories while he ascended onto the world’s stage. We were a shooting star, he and I. If not for the virus, who knows? I didn’t regret the one bit of beauty we’d created between us even if our star flamed out.
I rocked to my feet. He was a lion, and I, cacciatore — a hunter.
“Leaving Earth will stand for something. Do you hear? Give me Number Fifty, Vincenzo. Per favore.”
His head jerked with staccato motions. “And let you play God?”
“I’m not playing! I’ve never played with life—”
“I know what’s in your lab.”
Impossible. I wanted to shrivel like a naked body exposed to a gawking crowd, but I breathed in slowly, deliberately, while his gaze passed over me, searching. Only I knew the secret and kept it safe. When the time came, I’d do what I promised the world’s last leaders: I’d reestablish humankind using tens of thousands of frozen embryos hidden away.
“The survivalists have my lab.” I edged closer to my whip. “There’s a price to get it back.”
“Humans have no rights beyond Earth. We’re finished. We can’t pollute another world. You and I, my love, we’re going to die together, dripping blood from our noses and squirting our silk drawers.” He grinned.
My breath caught. I touched the base of my neck where the lion stabbed me with what I’d believed was a blade. But Vincenzo didn’t operate sloppily. He’d infected my processor.
“It’s a personalized strain, darling. Your ego solves problems by building big dams.” He gazed into the gloominess above. “Why build dams when you can plug individual holes? The strain acts at the cellular level and an individual’s emotion centers. Who knows what delicious cocktail it’ll produce in you?”
Oh, I’m glad I’d chained my woman of compassion because I couldn’t wait to kill him. I lunged for my whip, but he checked me. I crashed onto the platform, rolled and sprang up, my head spinning.
“How d’you think you’re here?” he roared, swaying. “Your friends down in the catacombs struck a deal.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Believe me. They wanted to leave. Just not with you.”
The Madonna’s Mona Lisa smile and the boy’s defiance rushed forward, and my heart contracted. The pair had tricked me. They’d delivered me into Vincenzo’s hands. Cold streaked into my limbs. The Madonna had out-maneuvered me, but I’d repay her betrayal.
“What I’m doing, Vincenzo — it’s for everyone we’ve loved and lost.” Say her name. “For our daughter. For Lera, too.”
He cocked his head as a dog did. “Who?”
And then we were at each other like combatants in the Colosseum’s days of old.
Copyright © 2019 by Ara Hone