Phoenix – episode 2

This is the second episode of “Phoenix,”  a short fiction about an improved kind of life insurance.  If you haven’t read episode 1, start here.

That was my first taste of problems involved with using my life insurance policy.  I didn’t think they were all that bad, considering the alternative.  It was only after I died a second time that I felt a tiny bit concerned, because it was so stupid.  Even now, now that the pattern is obvious, I have trouble understanding how I could have done it.  Back then, I couldn’t begin to understand.  My log entry after I saw the evidence is pure confusion – just screaming question marks.

I’d survived a year and a half since the volcano.  By that time I had lots of experience and was diving safely.  In fact I was getting bored, and looking at other sports.  Anyway, this is what happened, as well as I’ve been able to reconstruct it.  I needed the cruiser for a date with a girl on some other station so I asked Dad well in advance and he agreed.  Fine.  Eight o’clock Friday night I climbed in and the fuel-oxygen was down to zip.  Almost.  The spare tank was empty too.  How could Dad let that happen?  I was probably late, probably frustrated.  I drove that thing into a station and traded in the spare.  The attendant was pretty young – I saw him at the inquest later – didn’t know much.  He gave me a tank with the wrong fitting.  And I didn’t notice.

Then somehow I got into space – probably thought I’d switch tanks on the way to save time.  Yeah, I can see myself doing that – just dropping the spare on the deck and hitting the button.  Jeez, I can imagine how I swore when I tried to hook up that pig.  I – get this – I tried to adapt the fitting.  It was found damaged, and there were tools floating around.  So far, I have a pretty good idea how I felt – late, having just wrecked an expensive fitting, and so low on fuel-oxygen that I’d have to call the Cruiser Club and wait an hour to be rescued.  How humiliating!  I’d be tossing wrenches.  But what happened next was bizarre.  Somewhere I found a spare tank fitting – Dad’s vehicles are always full of that kind of junk – and apparently I decided to use it as a replacement for the incompatible one.  Smart, eh?  An eight-year-old understands that you don’t take the coupling off a liquid oxygen tank unless it’s empty.  This one was full.  That’s what I just don’t get.  It was like I stepped out of my brain.  I hadn’t ingested any incapacitating chemicals, at least the coroner didn’t find any.  All I can say is I must have gone blank on the subject.  When the cops showed me my own frozen corpse later – not a nice experience; they wanted to scare me – I was still holding the crescent wrench, and the expression on my face was grimly determined.

After that I started dying more often.  2090 was my peak year – I wiped out six times.  Here’s a typical log entry from that period.

(video on – head shot of Frank)

April 12th.  First day back at work.  Hutchison was not pleased.  He showed up at my cube after lunch demanding some microcode which he said I’d promised by ten.  I’d spent the whole morning going over my notes, trying to figure out what projects I was working on and what I’d accomplished.  I didn’t want it to be like last time when I took Hutchison a node bit design I was so proud I’d accomplished in just two weeks.  Without saying anything, he poked through some folders and pulled up an identical design which  I’d given to him the Friday before I died.  He said I could forget about a merit bonus; I was losing experience faster than I was gaining it.  Just joking.  He also said I was looking younger.

This time he said if I regressed as far as high school the company could no longer use my services.  Said he’d know when I broke out in zits.  I never had zits!  Thank christ for all the money the company makes off me.  But it’s got so they don’t like me using my vacation.  They ask if there’s insurance to cover their risk.  Haw, haw.  It costs them less to pay me to catch up on my work than it would to replace a dead engineer, and they know it.

The worst part is trying to understand my own notes.  Honest to god, I think I’m being clear and complete, but when you can’t remember anything, it’s like reading the notes of a complete stranger.  And this time the gap was short.  I decided to back up my mologram the first of every month.  That way my average per-death loss would be just two weeks.  If I backed up more often than that, Phoenix would charge me a premium.

Altogether, over eleven deaths, I’ve lost 371 days.  I’m just over a year younger than my official age.  Actually, as you move through your twenties, that’s kind of cool.

(video off)

And so on.  Here’s an opening from September that year.

(video on)

First day back at work.  Mbotu was not pleased.

(video off)

Okay, Frank, that’s all I’m going to show of our shared past.  From this point on, everything will be new to you.  The next clip is from September 10th, just four months ago.  You’d died again.  When you came out of the pod, you were thinking about Alis. You were in love with her.  I remember it clearly.

You can relate to that, Frank, because you’re in love with Alis.  You were generated from that same backup: August 29th, 2091.  I never made another one.

As always after dying, the first thing you did was review the latest log entries to catch up on your life.  You’d left yourself a cryptic comment about you and her.  “Alis and I had a fight.  She threw me out.  Scratch that relationship.”  In an everything’s-under-control kind of voice.  That was about it – short  on detail.  From there, the log jumped straight into your plans to trek the Valles Marineris.

You didn’t accept what the log told you.  You said, “No way!” – remembering the loving way she looked at you, and how her long hair curled down around her nipples, and her legs wrapped tight around you.  You thought, well that log’s twelve days old, maybe things are different now.  It can’t be as bad as all that.

That entry held one clue.  “Alis could never accept my freedom requirements.”  You had a good idea what that meant – and you weren’t prepared to be flexible on the subject.  You figured she might, though, given time and…talking nicely.

The log said, “She threw me out.”  You remembered, on a picnic once, she threw an orange at your head – hard – which made you think maybe you should hang off a couple days, broach the subject with mutual friends (but who?) – then you remembered, again, the way she looked at you, her irresistible scent, and you wanted to see her right away.  You remembered how you hung back with Elaine, waiting for something to happen, which turned out to be nothing.  You told yourself, hell, I may as well get it over with.  Anyway, I’ve got an excuse – I never had that fight with her.  You changed your shirt and picked up a nice bottle of wine on your way to her place.  And here’s what happened, in your own words.  Take a good look at this guy, Frank.  He’s you.

(video on – head shot of Frank)

September 10th, 2091, 22:04.  I just got back from Alis’.

I should have trusted myself – I don’t lie in these logs! I had to tell her five times I really wanted to see her before she let me in.   Her place was sweltering.  She’s still got that thing about wanting to recreate the seasons.  In winter months she keeps a stack of fleece jackets for friends to wear when they come over.  I swear I’ve seen my breath in her place.  She claims it’s healthy to keep in tune with the natural rhythms, but I don’t know how healthy it is – she admitted she gets a cold every christmas.  According to her that’s caused by coming in from outside, where it’s always warm, but I dunno…I’m digressing, aren’t I?   I’m digressing.  I guess I don’t want to look at it.  It was a frankly weird scene.

So what happened was – she wouldn’t accept a glass of Glockenspiel, which is her favourite, even though I’d already opened the bottle.  I was standing there like a fool with a full glass of wine in each hand.   I know I could have put one down.  I didn’t think of it.  I told her I was sorry, I didn’t know what happened, I just hoped we could go on seeing each other, and she said she’d never seen me before in her life.  Not me.  I’m not the guy she used to go out with, I just happened to have the same name.  “If I wanted to get in touch with Frank Forster,” she said, “I’d hire a medium.”  Jesus.

It must have been thirty degrees in there.  Her place is on the sunny side of the station, and she had the filters in her picture window set to high transmission of cyan and UV and IR – they made space the colour of a blue sky on Earth, and the sun blasted into her room like a golden furnace.  She misses Earth, which is where she grew up.  She’d been tanning, but she covered up before letting me in.  The glare hurt my eyes, and my clean shirt got soaked with sweat.  When I took it off, Alis immediately put on the sunglasses  she uses for tanning.  People do that on Earth.  The sunglasses annoyed me.  It’s not as though she’d never seen me without a shirt.  Also, they made her look less human.

I started talking about my dune-buggy trek into the Valles Marineris, although I didn’t know much about it myself, since I died there and I’d just got out of the pod.  But I’d brought a surprise with me – a two-hour video I made on the trip itself.  It was a stroke of genius – a whole new dimension in continuity!  I was going to record everything now, so the next time I died I’d have a way of getting in touch with the experience.  I mean, if I died again – but I have to admit I was expecting it.  So I turned the window filter to “Overcast” to cut the glare, and projected the video from my phone into the room.  Instant bliss!  I was happy I’d upgraded my phone before the trip, 3D imaging, theatre quality sound, so you really feel like you’re there, rolling through the greatest rift valley in the solar system, up one virgin eolian bank, over the crest and down the other side, with a non-stop running commentary by yours truly!  I was so excited – just thrilled to be there, free to drive wherever I wanted through the amazing dimensions of the valley: 200 kilometres wide, 4000 long, seven kilometres deep!   I’d researched the geology before I went, and spouted it all back on the video.  “It’s a giant tectonic crack, which formed when the crust of Mars cooled, shrank, and split apart.  Because Mars is smaller than Earth, it cooled faster without developing plate tectonic activity, which tends to scab over those sorts of features.  Erosion was also a contributing factor, but not the main factor.  With a hole in the ground that big, liquids naturally flowed into it.  Right now I’m descending the Noctis Labyrinthus on a relatively smooth fluvial floor, winding my way between huge fractured blocks which are older, of volcanic origin.  What’s amazing is the scale of everything.  Hey, look at my dust!  Hah!”   Sweeping back, the camera caught the buggy’s rooster-tail, flung high in the light gravity, but not hanging like it would in the soupy air of Earth, falling back down right away, like water.

Suddenly Alis was in my face.  “Watch where you’re driving!”  She was just furious.  The sunglasses were gone.  “Frank, I don’t need to see this.”  She put her hand over my phone’s projection lens.  “Turn it off!”

“Okay.”  I turned the video off.  I didn’t know why she was so upset.  “I haven’t even seen it myself,” I told her.  “I thought you might want to share it with me.”

“I know the ending,” she spat out.  “You went too fast.  You flipped the buggy and it landed on you.”

“But I’m still here.”  I shrugged.

You’re here.  He’s not.  The guy I used to go out with.  The guy I…liked.”

“Uh, Alis.”  I was trying to be reasonable.  You’ve used the exact same technology yourself, for travelling.  Often.”

“I don’t have a problem with the technology.  It’s how you’re using it that’s a problem.”

That completely baffled me.  “Alis, please explain that to me,” I said humbly.

She sighed.   “The last three weeks are gone, aren’t they, Frank?” she said in a calmer voice, slightly sad.  “As though they never were.”

“No,” I told her.  “I kept a log.”

“Really.  Did you watch it?”

“Alis, I know we had a fight before my trip.  It must’ve been a bad one.  But I want to fix it.”  I was sincere.  “I’ll do whatever it takes.  I’m listening.”

“You’re listening?”  She sounded like she didn’t believe me.

“I am listening.  Please, Alis, trust me that far.”

“Okay.  It – kind of – started when we met Georg.”

“You’ve met Georg?”  I was really surprised to hear that.

She rolled her eyes at me.  “Yes, Frank, you introduced me to Georg, because I insisted on meeting some of your friends.  I’d been feeling like a little compartment of your life, carefully walled off from everything else you had going on.  I didn’t like that feeling.  And I could see you really didn’t want to let me into the rest of your life.  But I made you do it.”

“Oh.  Okay.”  I didn’t want to start another fight.  Just hear her out.

“I mean – I made him do it.  The other Frank.”

I let that one pass.

“We met at his place – Frank’s.   I think he felt more comfortable on his home turf.  The apartment was unusually clean and tidy.  Frank had invited Georg over to sample some high-end designer vodka he’d got hold of.  Suffused with Russian meadowgrass.  I kind of liked the grass idea, but couldn’t really taste it over the mixer.  Anyway, I thought it was all a bit formal, considering Georg was Frank’s best buddy.

“Nothing happened in that conversation, Frank.  Frank did most of the talking.  About the Mars trip he was planning.  Georg had heard it before.  He said he wished he could go along, but he had to save money for this Earth trip which was really important to him.   That interested me.  Earth is the only place I care about going.  The only place you can breathe fresh air, get rained on, smell trees and dirt.  The only place with life!  So I asked Georg a lot of questions.   He was going to assist on this project about bears.  Said his first preference would have been great apes, orangs or bonobos or something like that, but there were none left outside of zoos.  He wanted to study animal behaviour in the wild, not in zoos, so he’d volunteered to assist on this Canadian project, which sounded really exciting.  Georg started to warm up, telling me about it.  But Frank was stiff and formal.  I felt Frank was uncomfortable the whole time.”

“Georg’s doing a PhD in ethology,” I threw in.  “Funny choice for a kid born on a station.  No animals here.”

“Maybe Georg felt something missing from his life,” Alis said to me.  “Anyway, he began to feel like Frank didn’t want him there.  He remembered some work he had to do, and took off.  And we – Frank and I – started talking for real about the Mars trip.  I asked if I could go with him.”

“Wait a minute, Alis.  You just told me you don’t want to go anywhere but Earth.”

“I know.  But I didn’t want Frank to go alone, because I figured he’d get into trouble.  So I said, let’s go together.  And Frank thought about it.  I could tell he was pleased that I wanted to come, but also a bit scared.  Why do you think he was scared, Frank?”

“I haven’t the foggiest.”

“Haven’t you?”  She searched my face. “Do you know what he finally said?”

“No,” I admitted, regretting my short-on-details message to myself.  “I don’t.”

“No you don’t, because you’re not him.  You’re a lot like him, though.”

I was getting irritated.  “Alis, cut me some slack.  I’m me, okay?”

“You’re you.  He was him.  Anyway, here’s what he said – for your information, which may help you understand yourself someday – ‘You can come,’ he said.  ‘But you have to get insurance.’”  Alis stared at me in smug silence, as though she’d just proved mathematically that I was a dumb jock.

I wanted to say, “Sounds reasonable,” because it did, but I’m not that stupid.

“You don’t get it, do you?”

I shook my head.

“Okay, other-Frank.  What that told me about Frank was that he was expecting to die, once again, on that trip to Mars, and erase the last three weeks of our life together.  Three weeks in which we had actually moved a little closer to what threatened to become a real relationship.  A normal relationship in which I knew his friends, and stuff like that.  And not only was he prepared to kill himself, he’d take me with him!   And go back to what in his mind was the way it was before, with no real involvement.  No commitment, that’s for sure.  To me, this was valuable information about Frank, Frank.  I didn’t like it, but I needed to know it.  So I told Frank, in no uncertain terms, that he had three choices: we’d go together without me being insured, or he’d call the trip off, or he could go by himself and forget about me.”

I was catching a glimmer of why I’d lost hope for the relationship.  “Jeez, Alis!” I said.  “I didn’t want to lose you, that’s all.  What do you have against insurance?”

“Nothing at all,” she said.  “I’ve had coverage for two years.  My parents bought me a policy long before I met you.”

I was speechless.  She put the shades back on.  There was no arguing with that insanity.  I had to leave.

(video off)

So, Frank.  On your way home you were probably thinking what you should have said.  How could she argue with what is, after all, a safety issue?  Soon everyone will be insured, and the benefits will be achingly obvious.  The military have done it – taken out a policy on every soldier.  It only makes sense in such a risky profession.  No more flag-draped coffins, no political headaches when our guys get blown to bits by IUD’s.   IUD’s aren’t effective any more.  Makes it a lot easier to win wars – at least until the other side catches up.  Easier on the guys, anyway, way less stress.  Cops are doing the same.  But tragedy can strike any family.  Soon it will be like seatbelts, like helmets, no one will think twice about it.

And it’s bigger than safety.  It’s about human progress.  One final obstacle removed, the biggest one of all.  Our species started at a disadvantage.  We were weak, so we got smart.  We migrated from Africa to the Arctic, inventing clothing on the way.  We invented agriculture and granaries, buying ourselves leisure time to dream up more cool ideas.  When we hit ocean shores, we built boats and crossed them.  We learned to fly, to dive to the bottom of the ocean, to live in the vacuum of space.  But death always held us back – fear of dying.  Some guys didn’t have enough fear, and died.  Those who survived had to hold themselves back.  But now we’ve overcome that last obstacle.  We don’t have to be afraid to die, and we don’t have to hold back.

Like Georg – he always held back a bit.  Except once.

You would think a level-headed guy like Georg would understand that insurance is a good thing.  Remember when you tried to persuade him to take out a policy?  He just laughed and said, “Gravity diving’s not all that dangerous.”  This was over a beer.  You’d just got back from a day of free-falls onto Mercury.

“C’mon, Georg, it killed me!” you argued with him.  “Three times.”

“I know,” he said.  “You keep busting through that old envelope.”

“I don’t like limits,” you told him.

“I understand that,” he said.  “But I kind of like them.  That’s a difference between us.”  Then he gave you one of those long, steady, Georg-looks.  “You don’t see a reason to accept limits if you don’t have to.  But coming up against a limit is touching reality.  I like the feel of reality, that’s all.”

Then he got embarrassed.  “Don’t take my half-assed philosophy too seriously, Frank.  When I’m married, I’ll own life insurance.  Heck, I’ll probably have it as soon as I get a full-time job.  Companies expect it these days.  A lot of them include it in their benefits packages, ‘cause it reduces their risk.  You don’t need to bug me about it, Frank.  It’s inevitable that I’ll get insured.  And maybe someday I’ll be happy I did.  But at this point in my life, I prefer to get by without it.”

“Georg!” you broke in.  “If something happens to you, you won’t get by.  That will be it for you.  Finito.  Kaput.  No more Georg.  No ‘getting by,’ my friend.”  He laughed out loud at that.  You yelled at him, “What are you laughing about, doorknob?”

“Frank, call me nuts, I don’t care.  Allow me this eccentricity.  I understand the risk, I’m used to it.  You and I have been gravity diving and stuff since we were sixteen.  Before there was insurance, we just lived with the danger.  You know what, Frank?  There’s always danger.  Having insurance just moves it around.  The risk just moves to another part of your life.  I’m comfortable with where my risk is right now.  I’ve got my eye on it.”  Georg caught your eye, and laughed again.  “I know, I know, it’s crazy talk.  Just humour me, okay bud?”

You shrugged helplessly at that, mirroring Georg’s grin.  You felt you couldn’t really say anything more without crossing a line of respect.  So that was it.

And so, Frank, after rehashing that conversation, your mind wandered along to think about Georg in another setting, in your apartment, with Alis, having that conversation that she’d just told you about.  You could picture the scene with crystal clarity, Georg dropping hints about his interest in wild animals on Earth, and Alis picking up on that, and him rising to the theme, letting her see his new-found enthusiasm for conserving what’s left of the wilderness, his emerging love of natural, living things, his first tentative explorations of that vast, roiling, blue-green swirl of life which spawned us.  Born on the station, spending his childhood in an environment of metal and plastic, he saw Earth with fresh, shining eyes, and she, born on Earth and missing it, responded to his vision.  When you thought about this, Frank, you remembered why you hadn’t wanted to introduce them.  And you had a suspicion why she might not mind too much kicking you out of her place.

It wasn’t that you didn’t trust Georg.  You knew you could depend on him absolutely.  Nevertheless it was important that he understand you hadn’t abandoned the field just yet.  So, you made a snap decision to go see Georg right away.  Just to make sure he was on the same page about Alis.  You didn’t call first, ‘cause you wanted it to seem casual.  You just went around to his place, but he wasn’t home so you called his Mom and she said he’d left that morning for Prince Rupert in northern British Columbia.

Fine, you told yourself, I always wanted to visit Canada.  You went home, threw some  underwear, wine, self-heating noodles and Gatorade in a backpack, dug out a jacket that you thought was waterproof, pulled on your Mars boots, and headed for the itravel terminal.  What you’re about to see next is the video you made of that trip.

Continued in episode 3

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