“Phoenix” is a short story about a young guy who found freedom in a life insurance policy. Here is the first of three episodes.
Frank…if anybody’s around, save this for another time. You’re going to have to make a decision, and you don’t need anybody’s advice except your own.
You’re probably wondering why there’s no video. I turned it off. I’ll explain why later. Just keep listening, Frank, I need you to hear this through to the end without any interruption. Arrange that, okay? I don’t want somebody like Georg dropping in for a cold one in the middle of this. Not that Georg will, ‘cause he’s dead. I assume you heard. God, I hope you did – I’m not trying to be brutal. Yeah, Georg’s dead, permanently…yeah, permanently…and that’s a lot of what this message is about, so pay attention, hamhead! Oops, sorry, sorry, I, uh…Frank, I’m not trying to offend you. I don’t want you to stop listening. Don’t stop listening. Understand that I have strong feelings. You will understand, if you just listen to this. So, if I start to get abusive, just go with it, okay? Do that for me. Shit, do it for yourself. I don’t want to edit this, I’d mess it up. So some parts may be a bit raw, so what? I care about you, Frank, so no bullshit. You’re my future – all the future I’ve got.
I’m going to ask you to do something you won’t like. It’s about life insurance, Frank. I’m going to ask you to cancel your policy.
I know what you’re thinking. What’s wrong with life insurance? I can hear the words in your head. I can feel the cold wave of fear pass through you. Cancel my policy? An accident-prone type like me? You’re out of your freaking mind! I’d rather cancel sex! Right, Frank? If that wasn’t word-perfect, it was the general drift.
I bet it was word-perfect. You are so vivid to me! It’s only been four months. Four months is nothing. Frank, I know you through and through. You need to know me that well, so listen up!
Actually you do know me. Your past, until yesterday or whenever you got out of the pod, is my past, up until last August 29th. Frank, I know I’m talking to me; I want you to realize you’re listening to you. You yourself, not somebody like you, not your clone, not a past or future you or a potential you or a possible you but you. You had the experience I’m going to tell you about. It’s yours, so make it yours.
I know, I know. Do me a favour, stop thinking until you’ve heard this.
Some of this stuff will be familiar. I copied a few old logs of yours – yours and mine. Just the important parts. You still have the original logs if you want to check them out. They say it better than I could. This first one is dated December 27th, 2084, the day I – you, we, whatever – took out our first policy. We were still living at home then – nineteen years old – when we made this talking-head recording. Watch closely, this is you.
(video on – head shot of Frank)
Hi, it’s Frank. Uh…this is embarrassing. (Laughs) No it’s not. Uh…Melvin, the insurance dude, said I should start a log of anything important, so this is it. Actually, nothing important happened today except thank jesus christmas is over. I take off tonight for the Jovian system. A whole week of gravity diving. And I’m covered! Now I can quit worrying and go for it!
I might as well say what got me looking at insurance, while it’s sharp in my mind. Fear. May as well admit it.
It happened – god, just christmas day, incredible! Me and Georg and Hassan were gravity diving onto Phobos, chicken-shit stuff, just practising. One thing about the little rocks, you aren’t going that fast and no atmosphere so you can get in real close. I mean, Phobos isn’t exciting, but you can make it exciting. Especially since it’s kind of irregular.
With the little ones, you’re always tempted to shave. The Manual’s recommended dive onto Phobos stays above five kilometres; you just float around that little turd of a moon for the best part of an hour, no skill required, total frustration. So we always shave it below four kilometres. You go faster, see more detail – not that Phobos is very impressive, but velocity makes a huge difference – coming around from the dark side, crossing the rim of Stickney crater, you by god know you’re flying! I love to just relax when I dip near perigee, just slide through the vacuum spreadeagled, with the sun on my back. You can get the feeling you’re going to crash – dropping towards a surface that keeps getting clearer and richer in detail, new craters popping into sight every second, the horizon rising around you like the rim of a bowl – and you hear a little voice say something like, okay, if that’s how it’s going to be…. You don’t even think about using your jets. Any force like that would destroy the beauty of the fall. You feel wide open – spread out like that – as if you were rushing up to hug the ground.
And then, after you’ve kind of lost hope in a tranquil way, your gravitometer tells you you’ve bottomed out. You notice the rocks and craters start to drop away as you rise above the rim of the horizon. That’s a great feeling too, a miraculous, beautiful feeling, ‘cause you haven’t done anything. You were falling, and suddenly you’re soaring! You’re freed from the gravity well, heading for the sun!
You discover what it means to be a physical object. Once you establish your elliptical orbit, the rest of the dive is determined by Newton’s universal laws of motion and gravity. You fall … and, obeying those same laws, without any effort on your part, you stop falling and rise back up into space! That’s why I hate to use my jets when I’m near the surface. You lose the sense of it.
The thing about shaving is you always want to get closer. Georg and I were on the launcher getting ready for our fifth dive that day. Hassan was set to drop us on a trajectory that would bottom out at three kilometres. I looked up at Phobos – hanging in the sky like a twenty-eight kilometre burnt potato – and got bored. Massively. The whole idea of gravity diving seemed – pointless. I was just about to pack it in, give Hassan my turn, when I noticed Georg laughing inside his helmet. He was watching Phobos – that shit-moon, that ridiculous flying potato – and laughing his head off. So I hit him on the arm and held up three fingers, one bent at the knuckle. Two-and-a-half kilometres. He nodded immediately. I was a bit disappointed that I didn’t have to goad him into it. So I pulled down the half finger. Two kilometres! I grinned at him. It was insane.
Georg stopped laughing. He signed two-and-a-half again. I could read his lips saying, “Get serious!” I kept grinning – two fingers – and hit the launch button. We were pushed into space.
No matter how often you do it, it takes a second or two for your frame of reference to shift. Until then, me and my partner and the ship and Phobos, and Mars, looking like a huge rotten orange, and everything else in the sky were just so many projectiles, each moving on its own path. You get a feel for the relativity of motion.
But you can’t hold it. All of a sudden, Hassan’s dad’s ship was up and Phobos was down and Mars was about to set. Georg and I turned on our jets, pushing ourselves down to accelerate the dive.
Two kilometres! There was no way to be sure exactly how close we’d shave until we saw the numbers on our gravitometers. Personal jets aren’t all that accurate. Even the best divers have to allow for error in judgement.
So there’s me and Georg, blasting head first at that shit-moon, about a metre apart, grinning at each other like crazy people, wondering who’d be the first to turn off his jets. It wasn’t going to be me. I knew I could rely on Georg’s sense of self-preservation.
I was diving with my back to Phobos – I guess I was scared to look. By the way, Phobos means “fear” in Greek, which is interesting. Georg kept checking around, never one to rely entirely on a gravitometer. He started to drift back. I’d already decided to give myself three extra seconds of thrust. By pick-up, I’d be way ahead – when Georg showed up I’d have my helmet off and be sucking on a pouch of hot wine. I’d say, “What kept you, Georgy? Moon maidens?” I killed my jet and rolled over.
It was just on sunset – perfect! All the pocks and scarps stood out, their shadows like knives. I was getting closer and moving faster, dipping into the gravity well. The crater rims rose towards me like mouths with teeth. It was incredible – little Phobos became huge, a genuine landscape with a horizon and geography, and I was falling on it, falling…I started to worry ‘cause I couldn’t see much anymore, only the high points spotted against a mass of shadow, when my gravitometer told me I’d finally bottomed out at one-point-eight. Wow! Whew! Nothing left to do but relax and enjoy myself. The sun plunged out of sight and there was no more view. Unless you’re on the Mars side where there’s that orange glow, Phobos’ night is like the inside of somebody’s stomach. You only know it’s there because it’s swallowed half the stars. So I flipped over feet-first to see where Georg was. He was way back and high, still in sunlight, shining like a little silver star with four points. I was waving and laughing, thinking about all our great times when he gave three bursts of his jet – the panic signal. I didn’t take it seriously. I knew he thought I was too close, but I also knew – which he couldn’t know – that I’d passed perigee. But he gave the signal again, waving at me in a steady, insistent way that reminded me what a level-headed guy Georg is, so I flipped back over. My gravitometer still showed ascent, but where stars should have been flying up from the horizon ahead, nothing was happening – the blackness of Phobos was still expanding. My sense of direction shifted and I saw – felt – I was on an impact trajectory.
Before I had time to think I’d corrected my orientation and hit the emerge jet. Thank you, thank you Mr. Robertson for making me do all that safety drill!
I felt the thrust of the emerge, but Phobos kept swallowing stars – I thought I was dead. I checked and rechecked my orientation and gravitometer while my mind clicked over and figured out what happened – which was that I hadn’t allowed for the fact that Phobos really is shaped like a potato, a lot longer than it is wide. So although I was receding from its centre of gravity, as the gravitometer said, my orbit happened to intersect one of those long ends.
It was a weird feeling, flying fast over a surface so black I couldn’t tell if I was missing the high points by a kilometre or a centimetre. Every second was, is this the last? Is this? Okay, how about this? Not fear – strangely, that held off until I saw stars popping up like Rapid-gro and I knew I’d survived. That’s when I went numb. Forgot to turn off my emerge. I let it burn right out. By then I was going so fast I passed Hassan like a comet, diving onto Mars. He had to chase me. When we finally picked Georg up I had my hot wine all right, in fact I couldn’t let go of it. Sucking that nipple was more important than breathing.
With Georg around, Hassan felt safe enough to say I had a missile microprocessor for brains and shit like that. I can’t exactly blame him ‘cause if I’d one-way’d and it came out that we weren’t diving to regulation, he’d have lost his license. His dad’s liveaboard could even have been impounded. Still, I wouldn’t take that shit. So I mouthed him back, when I could leave off that nipple, saying if he couldn’t take the pace he should stick to freestyle in the zero-G gym, and he said that’s where I’d be until I could afford my own ship ‘cause he was going to tell the whole station never to take me gravity diving. Shit, he won’t do that.
Hassan kept trying to get Georg’s support, but he stayed silent as space. A true friend. I couldn’t even tell if he was pissed with me until we were back at the station by ourselves, waiting for the tube to get home. He asked how I was feeling. I didn’t want to tell him. It would be like admitting Hassan was right, and the regulations were right, and Mr. Robertson and my dad were right, you had to be careful, do what you’re told, look both ways, wear a seatbelt, play everything so goddamn safe! I wanted to be free to go for it, to dive to one hundred metres! I didn’t want to recognize limits on my life…which I’d almost just ended. Splat! If Georg hadn’t signalled me…I had to tell him, “I feel like a jerk-off.”
“That won’t keep you alive,” he said. He wasn’t mad, just serious. That bugged the hell out of me. Georg is six months younger than I am, but he can come across more mature than my dad.
I must’ve looked shaky because my mom kept at me all through Christmas dinner about how my day went. I stuffed myself like always, but I could hardly enjoy it. I bailed out of the family program – this wasn’t easy – and went to my room. All I wanted was to watch some vids, drink some wine, and try to forget the black side of Phobos coming at me like a starving mouth. I went to Young Bum and settled down to admire Ms. January – I was just getting into her when this ad pops up and – it was horrible! Really inappropriate. They shouldn’t put that kind of ad in that kind of slot. Except, well….
Right in the middle of Ms. January this guy comes flying into the scene. Hits the ground with a crunch. Machines going crazy in the background like some kind of industrial accident, sirens starting up as you close in on the guy’s face. You don’t want to see his face. Staring right at you. Then you see a pair of shoes behind him. A hand comes down – gently – and closes the guy’s eyes. Then the crematorium. The guy gets rolled in – you hear the rush of the fire. You hear him sizzling and popping. Then funeral music, and an urn on a table, and the wife standing in front. She’s wearing a veil. You’re behind her, looking over her shoulder at the urn. Then this hand touches her shoulder, gives a little squeeze, and you think it’s a consoling friend or relative until she looks around – looks at the guy and tears off her veil. Then she starts kissing him like crazy – you think, god, she doesn’t waste time – and you see she’s really sexy, and nice, a really nice, sexy woman, and then you recognize the guy. He’s that guy. The one in the urn, the guy who died. And then he looks directly at you and says, “I’m glad I got a second chance.”
Then comes the pitch. “Phoenix Life Assurance Company.” Grey ashes – a bird comes out of them and flies away. “Don’t you deserve a second chance?”
Then it was back to Ms. January, but I couldn’t care less. I had already hit the Phoenix link. The spiel could have said anything, didn’t matter, I just wanted the contact. I was already sold.
First thing this morning I linked back to Phoenix and talked to Melvin. This insurance turns out to be the same technology as itravel. Of course – it’s obvious. If a person’s mologram can be used to reconstruct him in at his favourite vacation spot, it can just as easily be used to reconstruct him after he’s dead. Apparently the insurance industry thought of it years ago, but they couldn’t get approval until now. Can you believe it? What kind of tarp-assed bureaucrats do we have down on Earth? Anyway, I figured the price would be outrageous. I couldn’t believe what he quoted me! Not much more than a long-distance itravel fare. An introductory offer, Melvin said. “We use the B77 pod, same one as in the terminals. You want to see it?” I was so excited I shouted at him, “No, I want to do it!” Melvin just laughed and said he could see it was going to get a lot easier to sell life insurance.
Okay, Frank, that’s clip 1. We’re going to skip ahead, ‘cause I know you…are not the most patient person. You remember what happened in those years anyway.
January 6, eighty-six…seven. I just did something incredibly stupid. Went gravity diving – without updating my mologram.
And I died.
It’s seven months since I was scanned for life insurance. I’ve lost a term’s work! Gone – like it never was. At least I passed the christmas exams. I’m so out of touch, I don’t know who’s leading in the series, I don’t know who my friends are. Who my enemies are.
I just got out of the pod this morning. Of course I didn’t know anything had happened. I was back in April, getting my mologram updated before taking off for a summer job with Olympic Construction down on Mars. I was impatient to get going – big money at last! – and I’m heading out the door when this dude says, “Wait, I need to talk to you!” Then he goes on horse-shitting this other customer. So I sit down and wonder where Melvin got to, ‘cause he was running the place five minutes ago, and where did this other dude come from? Anyway I couldn’t help overhearing the conversation, which was about how those guys spent New Year’s. That was four months ago! Those two must lead pretty circumscribed lives. But I look out the window and see a reindeer display in the mall – and I check my phone and it says it’s three hours after I got there, and I think WTF, and then I read the date. Wait a minute! That’s what’s going through my head when the dude comes up and apologizes nicely and says he has to fill me in on a few things.
Apparently I wiped out over Io. Dived through a volcanic plume. (Laughs.) Must’ve been quite an experience, too bad I can’t remember any of it. (Laughs.) That was the first thing brother Mikey asked when I got home. “What was it like?” All shiny-eyed.
What was it like to die? Sorry kid.
Turned out my parents were waiting in the back of the insurance shop until I’d had my de-brief. They insisted on taking me home. Dad didn’t say much, but Mom was pretty upset. Like she was mad at me! What kind of reaction is that to your son’s death? Or was it to my not being dead? Anyway, she looked grim. She said, “I hope you’ve learned something.” I just shrugged, it was so unreasonable. How could I have learned anything?
It’s been total confusion for the rest of the day. I called Georg and said I’d meet him at Mac’s. When I got there, Mac’s was gone – turned into a gourmet grow-your-own-meat farm. I looked Mac’s up and found out they’re relocated across-station. Little things like that have been happening all day. But it was okay, Georg waited for me.
The place was a zoo. I saw Georg in a corner and yelled, “Buddy!” I can’t describe how great it was to see him. I was squeezing through when somebody grabs my arm and says, “Frank, where were you?” and there’s this girl, this beautiful girl, long legs and…I’ve never seen her before in my life. But I want to be friendly, so I smile. “Across station at the meat boutique.” She obviously doesn’t know what I’m talking about. “Frank. I was counting on you.” She starts telling this complicated story about a bunch of us getting wasted at a place called Mooncow, and going swimming in the hydroponics ponds, and her brother getting charged by the cops. I was supposed to be a witness, but it’s okay ‘cause her brother got off with a warning. And she’s getting more and more excited and more beautiful every second, when finally Georg comes up and says hi, and she asks him where I was and he says I was dead.
Then he started to explain calmly, like Georg would do, but he’d made a mistake. She pulled me away and whispered, “Are your friends all like that? No wonder you never introduce me.” I started to agree or something – I don’t really want her to get to know Georg – when all of a sudden she kisses me. Repeatedly. Surrounded by hundreds of people. Then she says, “Tonight’s still on, isn’t it?” – and I nod, kind of numb – and she waves goodbye. Gone. Like last term’s stochastic calculus.
I asked Georg who she was. “I dunno – you don’t introduce me to your girlfriends.” I didn’t know I had any girlfriends! I don’t even know her name. And I don’t know where the fuck I’m supposed to be tonight!
I checked my log entries, looking for a clue. The last one was from November. “My life-goals.” To establish a career by age twenty-four, get my own cruiser the same year, arrange four weeks of annual vacation as soon as possible, leave home next summer, get laid. Get laid! I don’t even know if I succeeded.
So I check the speed-dial on my phone. Number one slot – Georg. Number two – home. Number three – Hassan! Why is he still on my speed-dial? Number four – gramma. Five – other gramma. Six – blank. Seven – Elaine. Elaine? Is that your name?
I don’t know yet. I haven’t called the number. I need to compose myself first. That’s why I’m recording this log entry now, before I call. It helps remind me who I am. Then I’ll know how to be with her, I hope. If it is her. It has to be her. I know I’d put her in my speed-dial.
I guess I have learned something from this experience. Like Melvin said, “Keep a good log.”
So here we are six years later. What happened to Elaine, Frank? You remember. You just don’t like to remember. All day, you put off calling her. You thought maybe she’d call you, but she didn’t. And then it was night, and you figured you’d missed your date with her and she’d be mad. You never called, Frank. You never saw her around, she just vanished. Maybe she moved to another station. You never found out. You’ve been piss-poor at looking out for yourself, Frank. True, the log-keeping improved, but the underlying attitude…okay, I’ll shut up. I know sermons won’t work.
One thing, though, just came back to me about that conversation with Georg in Mac’s. We got into an argument, about that volcano, whether the eruption that got me was predictable. I said no, trying to justify my risk as usual. We wrote equations all over the table, but couldn’t settle it. So I pulled my old number on him. “You should listen to me, Georg, I’m your elder.” He gave me a very direct look. “Not any more,” he said. It was true of course. I think that was the biggest shock of that day, to suddenly find myself younger than Georg. And I left that out of the log.
Continued in episode 2…