This is the third and final episode of “Phoenix,” a short story about an improved kind of life insurance. If you haven’t read episode 1, start here.
Frank here. So here I am in the itravel pod on Olympus Station, Mars orbit, which is home, heading out to Prince Rupert BC. Who the heck was Prince Rupert, anyhow? This system’s running slower than ever. I’ve been sitting doing dick for five minutes, bored out of my skull, listening to Eleanor Rigby on their crappy sound system. Okay. here we go, I’m finally getting a tingle…a-a-a-and…must be there!
Welcome to Prince Rupert, Canada’s Pacific Rim deep-water port.
So, the door has opened and…what is that? The air sure smells different. Maybe it’s all the trees around here. Well, bye for now – I have to shut this thing down to go through immigration.
(cut to gloomy, rustic interior)
This is Frank again, in the lobby of the Mighty Moose Lodge, which Georg’s group is using as a base of operations. I’m blown away by this place! It’s not like Earth is new to me – I’ve been to three different Club Meds, and our family visited Grandma in London when I was a kid. But Rupert is a whole different animal! Speaking of animals, look at that monstrosity on the wall over the front desk! That’s the head of a moose. Its antlers are over two metres tip to tip. And it smells rank, like it was alive, which it bloody was! This one stood two-and-a-half, maybe three metres high. There are still live ones out there in the wilderness – imagine going outside and meeting that! And check out the walls of this place. They’re made of whole trees. Big ones. This building must be a hundred years old, maybe more. Look at this, an actual stone fireplace, burning real logs. Inside the building! Like something out of King Arthur.
I’m waiting for Georg to get back. He took the Toyota to pick up a tent from repairs. And a bear-tranquillizing gun, just in case. I thought I’d go along for the ride, but he said he couldn’t afford the time, he had too much to do to get ready for the trip tomorrow. The other two guys aren’t here either. They’re both profs, one from the University of Western Washington, the other from Canada. The Canadian guy, Dave, belongs to some northern campus here. He’s spent a lot of time with bears. This year he’s a visiting prof at UO, and Georg is one of his students. I still can’t figure why we have an ethology program on the space station. Georg’s their gofer on this little expedition into grizzly bear country. This part of B.C. is called the Great Bear Rainforest. The locals don’t call it that, though. I haven’t seen any bears yet, but the “forest” and “rain” parts are accurate.
The rain is amazing! I’ve watched a million movies with rain in them, but they don’t prepare you for the experience of water falling on you out of the sky! The other times I was on Earth it didn’t rain, and the way people talked it sounded like no big deal, kind of a drag, actually. But rain is magical. There’s a lot more happening than you get from movies. The air isn’t still – it moves around, in cold blobs coming off the ocean, and the air moves the trees, even though they’re huge, making all kinds of noise. These blobs of air carry rain, some more than others. I always thought the sky was an even grey when it rains, but actually there are levels – you can see lots of structure – clouds against clouds, some lighter, some darker, some unbelievably wet. The rain isn’t gentle, it stings! It drums on the ground, and on the roofs, loud, and hits you like a million little hammers. It’s all around, pelting down, splashing up, misting, the trees thrashing and the air buffeting your body like somebody tossing pillows – like it’s all alive! And I saw an eagle flying through the storm! It’s like being in the middle of a storm of life.
My jacket is totally inadequate. But the weather’s supposed to turn sunny tomorrow, so no big deal. Okay, I see Dave is back and I think he wants to talk, so I’ll sign off.
(cut to head shot of Frank)
Frank again, in my room at the Mighty Moose. So I’m all set to go out tomorrow and see bears! I had a long talk with Dave while Georg was out, and I guess we hit it off okay – I asked about his research and what they were trying to accomplish. Then the Western Washington guy, Wilf, showed up. They’ve both got beards. Dave’s is brown and short. Wilf’s is grey and bushy, and he wears his hair in a ponytail with a rubber band around it. Wilf’s kind of famous. He’s the lead author of their study, but most of his research is on wolves. Dave’s the bear expert. Dave has spent months out there in a little tent, surrounded by bears.
They’re both Earth guys, and they seemed interested in me as someone who’d grown up in space. They asked a ton of questions, especially Wilf. Wanted to know about my feelings towards animals. Shit, I’ve hardly ever thought about animals – they’re basically like giants and leprechauns as far as having anything to do with real life. He asked if I’d ever been bitten by an insect. That creeps me out! I don’t like the thought of being some little critter’s lunch. Apparently that can happen in these woods, when it’s not raining. Anyway, they must’ve liked me, because they invited me to join them for the first night of the expedition. I’ll help them set up camp, and see some wilderness. Georg will drive me back to Rupert the next day when he goes to pick up the rest of the provisions. Wilf seemed tickled by the idea. By the time Georg showed up again it was a done deal.
Georg let me help him with the rest of the packing, but didn’t seem thrilled about it. I haven’t said anything yet about Alis. I don’t think he realizes that’s why I’m here. There’ll be a chance to talk tomorrow.
The program starts with breakfast here at the Mighty Moose, then hit the road by eight. That’s five AM station time, so I better sign off and get some sleep. We may actually see wild bears!
(cut to highway shot from moving vehicle)
September 11th, 2091, 09:20. I’m in the back seat of the Toyota, with Wilf Wilder of the University of Western Washington. In the passenger seat is Dave Thompson of the University of Northern BC. And Georg’s at the wheel. They’ve given me permission to record, so – hi, guys!
We’re heading east on Highway 16. My phone says it’s also known as the Highway of Tears. I have no idea why. Today is freaking gorgeous! The sun’s out, the sky’s blue, with long streaky clouds way, way up. There are trees everywhere – millions of them! Mountains, too. The highway runs right between the railroad track and the bank of the majestic Skeena River, which is one of the few significant wild salmon runs left in the world.
“No fish farms.”
What’s that, Dave?
“Locals and natives stopped the fish farms coming in. That saved the wild salmon here. Which saved the grizzlies too.”
“That was eighty years ago.”
Oh, interesting. Uh, now that it’s sunny the bugs have come out, in incredible numbers. All those yellow splatters on the windshield are dead bugs! Now Georg’s got the windshield washer going, but it’ll be covered again in five minutes. Wilf is laughing at me. Kid from the space station has never seen bugs.
“That’s okay, Frank. I could never handle zero-G. My stomach won’t take it.”
And so on. That car ride was long and frankly boring. After a while Georg turned off the highway onto a dirt road – once a logging road – which followed a tributary of the Skeena. You’d been bumping along for about twenty minutes when Wilf suggested lunch. You stopped on a bend of that little river. Wilf and Dave were hoping to find bears, but there weren’t any. There were salmon, though. Bruised, bashed, hook-nosed Chinook, with bits of skin falling off them. The four of you sat there having lunch, watching those enormous fish fight their way up to spawn and die.
Wilf and Dave decided to wander upstream to look for bears, leaving Georg and you to pack up after lunch. They took the tranquillizer gun; Georg and you had cans of bear spray. You figured it was a good time to raise the subject of Alis. As soon as you did, you knew you were right to be worried – Georg was uncomfortable discussing her. He had definitely noticed Alis.
As you guessed, she phoned Georg after you died the last time. They even met for coffee – her idea – and talked about you. Or Alis talked. Georg wouldn’t tell her much about you. Georg was a loyal friend, who would never chase his friend’s girlfriend. But if Alis chased him, and managed to convince him that she’d dumped you for good – that scenario made you a little uneasy. There was no doubt they had lots in common.
So you were just letting Georg know Alis was the reason you’d followed him to Rupert, that it wasn’t over between you and her, just a pothole in the road. Georg seemed relieved to hear you hadn’t followed him to do something crazy which would screw up his job or something. You had legitimate personal reasons. He still didn’t say a lot, but you sensed agreement. It was getting hot, and vicious little black flies started buzzing around, driving you nuts. You suggested getting in the car. You got up, and Georg’s eyes drifted downstream. “Hey, there’s a bear,” he said. You grabbed your phone and immediately switched to record mode.
(video on – quick pan of streamside scene)
I don’t see anything.
“Behind that log. You can see his butt.”
That? Oh god, yes, it moved! Jesus, Georg, how big is it?
“Big enough. They’re more dangerous if they’re little, ‘cause Momma’s around somewhere.”
I’m zooming in on the bear – the brown thing sticking out to the right of that log. Is that a grizzly?
“It has to be. Hey, Frank, where are you…don’t approach the bear!”
I need a better shot. I can’t just show its butt!
“You left your bear spray behind. Frank! This is why I didn’t want you along!”
Just take that in, Frank. Georg said that because you always do this kind of thing. He knew you well, Frank; he was your best friend. Listen to it again.
(video on – back end of bear behind log)
“You left your bear spray behind. Frank! This is why I didn’t want you along!”
Jesus, I think he heard us. Look, he’s sticking his head up. He’s standing on his hind legs! This is amazing. That guy is huge!
“Don’t go so close!”
Don’t worry, I’ve stopped. Look at the fish guts hanging out of his mouth!
“Stop yelling, Frank. Don’t move at all. Make eye contact, and talk to him calmly.”
Uh, okay, how’s it going, bear? Christ! He barked at me.
“He’s a little stressed, Frank. You invaded his personal space. Stay really calm, and don’t move.”
But he’s moving! This way!
“Damn it! Bear! Look at me, shit-face! Over here!”
Christ, he’s fast!
So, Frank, I want to recall this scene for you, because the video doesn’t really do it justice. I remember how it was from the inside, for you. Things happened real fast. There seemed no time at all between the bear being way off behind the log, an unimpressive brown blob framed on the tiny screen of your phone, and the bear being too close and coming way too fast and filling your entire field of view. You didn’t even have time to be afraid. There was just an adrenalin rush and the thought, What happens now?
Take a look at this close-up of the bear, Frank. That’s a really good shot. Appreciate it, because it’s the last one before he whacked the phone out of your hand.
Then you were knocked back and hit the rocks and he was on you and tossing you like a doll and he threw you down and was eating your face. It didn’t hurt at all, but you felt him eating your face, his teeth grating on your skull and cheekbone. And you didn’t hear what happened next, but your phone heard it. The next image is when the phone was flying through the air. After that, it’s Georg talking to the bear.
“Get off my friend! Look at me, I’m attacking you! I’m giving you trouble, shit-face bear! That’s right, over here. Come on!”
(static shot of rock)
“Come on, bear! Let go of him. Let go, because I’m trouble and you have to deal with me. I’m right here, come on, come on! Forget about him, come this way. I’m here, shit-face! Okay, one more step. Now listen up, bear! You’re out of your league. Why don’t you go back to the river and eat fish? Get out of this weird shit. Forget you ever saw humans here, because you know what? Humans are trouble for bears. Just ask your friends. Pretend you never saw us. Go back for the fish.”
(shouts, loud bang, audio confusion – static shot of rock)
I better explain what happened. After spraying the bear and whacking it with a stick to draw it off you – off me – Georg was trying to calm it down. He might have succeeded – or might not – but unfortunately Dave and Wilf came back. Wilf was the one carrying the gun, and he wasn’t used to bears. He fired before Dave could stop him. That just made the bear more excited. A tranquillizer takes minutes to work on a grizzly. And when the dart hit him, the bear’s attention was focussed on Georg.
Both Dave and Wilf had first aid training. They were able to keep me alive until the airlift arrived. Pretty dramatic rescue – got on the local news. Space cadet tourist chases bear for photo. Friend dies saving his life.
I was out of it, hospitalized for the best part of a month. Extensive puncture wounds to face, neck and arm. Partial scalp removal, requiring stem cell treatment. Reconstructive surgery required to nose, cheek and mouth. Loss of right eye, permanent. Neural damage to right arm, irreparable. Post-traumatic stress disorder, acute.
I had visitors in the hospital – Mom and Dad. Not Alis. Mom was the one who told me what happened to Georg. She’d already talked to Georg’s Mom. That must have been hard. I don’t know how she did it.
My parents went to Georg’s funeral too. I wanted to go but couldn’t – stuck in hospital. Alis went.
I also learned that Georg’s parents had been on his case for at least a year about getting insurance, but he refused. Same arguments he gave me – he wasn’t ready for it – liked to keep his eye on the risk.
Georg’s dad contacted the itravel company, in hope that Georg’s mologram was still on the server. Georg could have been restored from that mologram. He died less than twenty-four hours after the trip to Rupert. But the data was gone. Apparently travel molograms get wiped within seconds of the passenger’s confirmed arrival. It would hardly cost anything to keep it! Pennies! You’d think the company would do that as a customer service. But no – the woman told Georg’s dad they’re not allowed to do it. It’s because of licensing and government regulations. Only insurance companies can legally maintain human backup files.
When it was time to leave the hospital, Mom and Dad showed up to take me home.
That’s about it. I’ve been putting in most of my time between surgery, rehab and counseling. The stem cell treatments are pretty amazing. I’ve made a lot of progress in four months. I can’t type with my right hand, but I can hold a fork. However, I’m reaching the point of diminishing returns. I am…not a pretty sight. So, Frank – keep watching – don’t quit on me now, please.
(video on – Frank’s room. Fingers and a hand enter the frame)
This is my right arm. The scarring looks worse than it is. The best medical opinion is that I can recover 50% of normal function, over a period of years, if I do all my exercises. Right now I can’t even pick up a pen, although I can hold one. As for writing my name, forget it.
(pan to the top of Frank’s head)
It’s still raw and mangled where the bear scalped me. The stitches you see will eventually come out. The black bits are necrotic skin, which I will lose. It’s quite painful.
(slow pan down Frank’s forehead to his face)
Yeah, well, I told you. I wear an eye patch, which makes a vast improvement. But there’s another thing: I have nightmares, which aren’t getting better. I’m actually afraid to go to sleep at night. The truth is, Frank, I’m seriously fucked up. I only see one way out. I paid the premium, so why shouldn’t I take advantage of my policy? True, my back-up’s eighteen weeks old, but sixteen weeks of that have been hell, plus I haven’t been working, so, no loss there. The one thing that matters is the experience. I don’t want to lose this experience. That’s why I made this video. Frank, understand that if you don’t learn from this, Georg will have died for nothing. Do you understand that, Frank? You did this to me! Do you fucking get it?
I, uh…I probably shouldn’t have said that. That was the pain talking. I warned you I might get abusive. Sorry. It wasn’t you – I did it to myself. Are you still with me, Frank? You didn’t do it. Not yet, anyway. You are my last good backup, from August 29th, 2091, before it all happened. I’ll never update my mologram again.
I don’t have anything more to say, Frank. Just take a good look at yourself, and decide whether you want to maintain your insurance coverage. I’ll sign off now.
(fade to black)
(video on – face shot of Frank)
I’m back because I realized this video will never work. I’d never take that kind of advice, least of all from myself.
Here’s how it would go – when the video ran out, I’d stare at the wall for awhile in shock. Then questions would start flooding through my brain. Why would Georg take that risk for me? He knew I was insured! He should have let the bear kill me – then everything would have been fine. Obviously Georg didn’t think of that in the heat of the moment.
Then I’d think, how could I be so fucking careless as to chase a grizzly bear?
Next – get this – I’d say to myself, wait a minute, I never chased the bear! It was that other Frank. What was wrong with him, doing a dumb-ass thing like that?
But I’d know that was a lie. It was me all right. I’d have to admit it was in character. That’s exactly the sort of thing I would do.
Then I’d start to think deliberately and rationally. I’d tell myself I understood exactly why Frank asked me to cancel my policy. He thought it was the only way to break the cycle. But he was under huge stress! And depressed. And in pain. He felt guilty as hell about Georg. From my undamaged point of view, I could see the situation objectively. Okay, Frank, I’d say to myself, I hear your message loud and clear. I’ll never chase a bear. But, looking at it objectively, it would be unreasonable to cancel my insurance.
I’d never do it.
So what now?
I’m considering not dying after all. What’s the point? I know I’d never take my own advice afterwards.
No, I won’t go through with it. This video is for me, post-bear-trauma, not for me, pre-bear-trauma. I just need to learn to live with my injuries. People live with worse.
But, but, but…I’m disabled and I’m hideous! I scare off every woman who sees me. Society doesn’t tolerate this level of damage – there’s no excuse for it these days. People speak to me slowly and loudly, like I’m retarded. It’s not right, but that’s the way it is.
Fine. When faced with a hard choice, list the pros and cons. Suicide or not? The pros are, one, I’ll be restored to full physical and mental health, two…that’s the only pro.
The cons are, one, I won’t have learned anything, two, I’ll probably just repeat the whole scenario in another time and place. Which is the same thing, isn’t it?
One pro, one con. Which is more important to me?
I have a choice, which has to be a good thing. I can decide to live with my disability, and the pain, and this face that frightens kids, or I can start again. Why would I choose physical and psychological limitations – and loneliness – when I can avoid them all by going out gravity diving, one last, beautiful time?
Looking at it that way, I see only one option.
What would Georg say? Georg, what would you advise me to do, in my circumstances?
Georg chose differently. Nothing I can do now will bring him back.
Jesus, I can’t decide! Maybe if I don’t decide, I’ll die anyway. It’s happened so many times before. Maybe it will work out okay.
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