Will You Remember Me
by Ara Hone
Part 1 appears in this issue.
I leaned panting against the catacomb’s iron door while Number Fifty investigated the tomb where I’d left the forty-nine. I pressed a hand tightly against an oozing wound. Fever boiled inside me and amplified the lions’ roars that shook me down into the soles of my boots. Shadowy images of a battle flew at me like diving bats, but — I didn’t recall a battle. Even if a wizur held a blade to my jugular, I’d not remember. I’d ejected and spliced several minutes of my imagery. Loss punched a hole in my middle. Loss for what — or who?
Number Fifty reappeared. “They’ve gone. All of them.” It kicked the door, stepped back, kicked it again and stood panting.
Rumbling sounded. The cobbles beneath my boots shuddered. “The cutting-out. It’s started.”
The avocado gathered my weight onto its rounded side as though I were ship’s tools and raced with me toward the lock. My boots chattered over the pavement like old Morse code.
Wizurs stalked us. Their bare feet slapped the stones and drew near.
“What do they want?” Number Fifty huffed.
“Better blood. Theirs won’t process. Too dirty.”
“We’re like oil?”
“The beauty of science.”
“That’s not beautiful,” the avocado wheezed hotly in my ear. “Come on come on — where’s the lock?”
“Across the foot bridge and up—”
Alarms wailed and lights flashed. Trembling shook the sector. A massive breaking, shrieking, shattering consumed me. It pounded the city-nation.
Bricks, stones, and metal like harpoons rained down. I crashed onto the cobbles, rolled, and came face-to-face with a gnashing lion. It swiped my cheek with filthy claws that trailed fire.
I rocked to my feet, the wound in my side stabbing, and I unfurled my whip. A half dozen wizurs jerked forward. Next to me, Number Fifty brandished a worthless slice of broken glass it had wrapped hastily in its shirt sleeve. Blood drip-dripped from its green fingers.
Behind me, the arched bridge that was our escape rose a hump-backed mess, its metal and bricks now a giant, twisted heap jutting into dusty haziness. The wizurs pushed Number Fifty and me toward the pile. No doubt to trap us.
“Is there another way out?” Number Fifty yelled above the ship’s monstrous metallic thwaps.
Hunters called the shots, not the prey, and I was Cacciatore. Slashing my whip, I forced the lions back and the avocado up, up onto the bridge’s ruins and toward the lock. The lions howled. A shaggy-maned beast lunged.
Above me, Number Fifty cursed, and a gray projectile smeared past. A dark hole opened in the lion’s temple. It shuddered to a halt, eyes unfocused, and it toppled. Another lion, its hide brown and tattered, took its place. I turned and scrambled up the broken bridge and sang out the code in mono to bypass the lock. The single-panel door slid wide. Salvation.
The ship shuddered, and the brick and metal pyramid shifted.
Number Fifty yelped. “I can’t reach the lock — it’s too late—”
“It’s too late ” — I shoved her rear end up — “when you’re dead.”
It grasped the handrails framing the exit and pulled its body through the narrow opening. A lion ascended from the side, foaming, growling, but Number Fifty kicked it off the pile. Sound rose with the fury of a thousand hurricanes and rattled my teeth. Lions fell on me then, and ripped away my whip. I kicked and punched them — the hateful things.
I never imagined my journey ending atop a broken bridge smothered by bodies sickened with strains of the cure I’d tried to administer. I never saw myself about to be ejected into space by the very security system I’d created to keep us safe. I’d not be able to keep my promise.
“In my lab, there’s something I want you to protect.”
“Not my job, Capo.”
Number Fifty dropped onto its belly. Cursing and hitting, it reached down into the writhing lions. They mauled the avocado’s tender skin, but it bellowed mightily and wrenched me from their hold. I spilled with it into the deserted Many Nations Corridor and ordered lock engagement as I fell through.
A nano-second later, Rome disappeared forever.
* * *
Down, down, and down I dove with Number Fifty into London sector’s Paddington Station, where the city-nations touched in a mutual entry point. At ground level, cement stretched away into an acre of deserted, cracked gray. Lights flickered overhead. My boots echoed like shots off the darkened windows stuffed to the bits with naked, contorted mannequins.
A rumbling. Wind mingled with grease and heat drove over the platform. Paper corkscrewed into the air. A train flashed over shadowed tracks through the station. Number Fifty squeezed my hand. My woman of compassion oozed past her bars and squeezed back: We’ll be okay.
“Where are we?” Number Fifty said.
My electronic imaging sizzled and danced and clarified into a grassy field. “Why, we’re in the game. Little panels slide back, and rabbits pop up.” My legs wobbled, and everything darkened.
Number Fifty pushed up beneath my shoulder, and I sagged against the avocado’s strength. Oh, to let go, to close my eyes.
“You need to rest.”
“Can’t.” Stone ground on stone. “Here they come.”
Up burst a rabbit with shiny skin and too-bright eyes. Other panels slid back. Bears, big and green-clad, piled onto the platform opposite the rabbits. The bears reared onto hind paws and sighted down long black branches pointed directly at my brain.
I tossed up a hand.
“I’m Doctor Tosca — Tosca — somebody. You’re violating Earth’s Revitalization Doctrine-plan-program.” Laser lights glared from the branches, and I shaded my eyes. “Will you stop pointing those yellow things?”
It seemed nobody heard. The bears and rabbits shouted at each other, faces red and righteous, and the threats flew.
“Where’s your hammer, Number Fifty?”
A rabbit broke from its pack of a half-dozen and attacked the closest bear. The rabbit gripped the bear’s neck and head-slammed it. The bear’s eyes rolled white, and the rabbit’s teeth flashed. It came away with the bear’s ear between its stained lips, wild eyes bright. The bear staggered, and his scream curled across the platform. He pumped the rabbit’s belly with lightning from his black branch and pivoted wide-eyed to his mates. Lightning stabbed from their branches and punch-punch-punched him until he laid twitching.
A stubby rabbit scratched its Viking’s beard with a claw. “You call us cruel?”
“A kindness.” A big bear spat on the cement. “No virus in our city-nation. We’ll keep it that’a way.”
“Doccy-Doc,” Viking Beard said eyeing my avocado, “the deal’s for fifty. You insult us, I think.”
“A down payment,” I countered, “and an hour’s lab time, per favore.”
“Bring the rest, and we’ll talk.” He latched onto Number Fifty. “But we accept this one. As a down payment.”
“No,” Number Fifty cried. “Capo, you don’t know what you’re doing.”
My woman of compassion awakened, and she positively wailed. But an avocado was just a piece of fruit.
A commotion in the ranks. The bears and rabbits snarled at each other from across their stretch of cement and, when the bears parted, the Madonna appeared, blanket and all. No Mona Lisa smile curved the lips of Tagliani Science’s former Production Director. I wished it did, so I could knock it off.
“How brilliantly stupid can you be? The survivalists take our parts, Tosca.” She tapped her breast. “Strip out our orgo-bionics for themselves. If you’d switch off your imagery, you’d see. And turn snap snap crackle loose.”
My processor didn’t catch the name. Fruit didn’t have one.
“I’d rather talk about the catacombs,” I said.
She shrugged. “You’d never have taken us to the Americans.”
“Mannaggia! The cowboys? Nobody gets inside their sector.”
“Took some convincing we’re not wizurs. Bloody idiots ran triple scans.” Up went the chin. “Here we are. Safe because of me.”
“Says the fool.”
The Madonna’s shine dulled. “Oh, bloody-sakes! There’s no reasoning with you. Not unless you switch off your processor. Do it. Do it now.”
How long since I’d viewed the world without a processor’s lenses? Droplets stung my gaze. I should transform the visual — make a more perfect clarity. But we weren’t meant to be perfect, were we? I’d come because humanity’s only way out was back. Our future hope wasn’t simply in reestablishing humans using the embryos tucked away beneath the ship’s lab. Our hope was in less technology.
We’d not produced a pure human in over three centuries. The embryos I shepherded were one hundred percent technology-free. They’d die without me. If giving up Number Fifty to the survivalists allowed me to save millions, why did the Madonna and my own woman of compassion care so much? It was just a piece of fruit. Mannaggia!
I blinked and dumped a message into my neural pathway. The signal whisked into my imager and reverted to my own reality sans lenses.
Black and white; right and wrong; truth and lies. I’d created layer upon layer of shielding to insulate myself from the virus, leaving Earth — all this. I’d told myself I had to. But as the layers evaporated, so did the sheep, lions, bears, rabbits — and the fruit. The images broke away in chunks and left gaping holes filled by people. Stowaways: in-fighting factions, protestors, survivalists. Some sick, others healthy, all desperate.
“Mamma,” the girl in my hands whispered. “I see you in there. Welcome back.”
With a mighty pull, I gathered my daughter close. Tears choked me. I’d almost delivered her up for death. I could faint at the near-miss.
Viking Beard and his pack of survivalists shrieked at my change of heart and charged across the stretch of cement. The Americans roared. Their yellow lasers jittered. White fire flew from their long black weapons.
“Get down,” Lera cried and covered me with her body.
Men and women crashed to the cement screaming, dying.
Heat exploded up into my skull and burned beneath my eyelids. Sizzling in my side stole my breath and stabbed into my limbs. What was the sensation that tore through me like a—
A memory fragment scraped my senses: Vincenzo and his lions.
And his virus.
I pressed my cheek against Lera’s. It was she who’d carried me from Rome. She who’d plucked me from the lions. Fire flew between the battling factions, and she protected me still.
With my processor unshielded, the virus consumed me.
We’d edited genes for temperament once and solved so many problems. Scientific advancement had its price. I’d thought by fleeing Earth we’d make a better future. Yet here we were again, killing. Would my species ever achieve rational thought? Dispassionate emotions? Would the madness ever end?
My imagery returned — fizzing, fuzzy. A new clarity settled into my processor. People couldn’t escape themselves. Not without help. My help.
My woman of compassion shook her cage, but I flung a cloak over her. Its edges fluttered into place, and she disappeared into silence.
I jerked up and sent the avocado tumbling into the rabbit’s fumbling grasp. Number Fifty’s expression boggled. Its whole being went limp; fruit past its prime.
The battle petered out instantly.
“At’s more like it, Doc. Bring the rest. We’ll talk.” Viking Beard disappeared with his prize. The rabbit pack followed, dirty water swirling down a drain.
“Your own. Your own...” the Madonna sputtered. Static crackled over her words. Such fuss over fruit.
The Madonna’s chin trembled as though she might weep. Certainly not; that chin only fought wars, and I’d won this time.
“We’re finished here.” The Madonna sighed. “The Americans are pulling out. We’re going with them.”
“You’ll die in a month. A year. You’ll all die. Tiny specks out there.”
“Better than with you.” She jiggled her blanket. A pinkish arm shot up. Plump fingers dandled the Madonna’s chin. “Good-bye, Tosca.”
Down into the holes went the bears and the Madonna, too. Oh, for a good hammer. I thudded onto the cement. Hot air pushed over the track. A train flashed through, its cars clacking, and then, silence. Silence and a sense of deep loss.
I pressed my cheek against the cool platform. My head beat beat beeeeeat against the gritty paaavement. My chest seemed to deflate. My arms and legs spasmed. Wetness spilled over my lips. I’d gather a new batch of avocados from Poland’s sector and hand them over to the survivalists. After that, I’d go to my embryos, my sacred charges. They were defenseless without technology, but I’d fix them. Generations in the future would sure sure surely remember me as the one who saved humanity.
They would call me la custode di promessa: the promise keeper.
Copyright © 2019 by Ara Hone