Monday, March 25, 2013

Puerto Orleans

    It was midnight when I reached the cellar hatch.  Beyond the bandaged door frame lay Claudia - once deceased, but breathing now.  I tried to stifle my paranoia by filling my head with thoughts of the thousand breakfasts she and I had shared over the years.  Instead, the only thing occupying my mind was each creak as it filtered through generations of living floor down to the cellar where I stood.  Uncle Sam's men would be up again soon.  The verdict had been reached as soon as they learned of her existence.  Now it was just a matter of deciding who she and the house belonged to.  They would soon be ready to exhume her, and what came next I couldn't know.
    I remember the thrum of adrenaline rising in my chest as my fingers reached the blood-stucco gauze plastered to the wall.  It had been less than 96 hours since the cut and the house was already healing.  I looped two of my fingers through the newborn door handle wrenching itself from the hatch and tugged.
    It opened without sound.
    "Welcome back," I whispered.
    It was a warm bag she was curled up in, made of something thick that smelled like the house's insides.  It yielded to the touch, almost as though you could press your hand right through, but deceptively strong.  It took a heat scalpel on the highest setting before I could spill the membranous veil.  That's when Colonel Weathers depressed the light switch at the top of the stairs with his heel.
    For only a moment, I was blinded. When I regained my vision, I saw the tide of brackish water spilling out onto the carpet from the deflating sac.  It was like the first tide coming in on a shag carpet beach.  I looked up and saw him.  He was standing on the stairs dressed unassumingly in a red satin house robe and sweat pants - and he was holding a gun.
    There are four bits of information here that you'll need.  First, the house we were in was a class three genetic object.  That means not only was it a living house, it was coded to expand on itself as time went on - and make new objects as needed from what its roots mined. Second, it was 2098, meaning brain death was still not classified as a disease that could be treated.  Third, I didn't know the G-men upstairs had been given the night off.  And finally, this was the first time I'd seen colonel Weathers dressed as a civilian.
    "Hello, Charles," he said descending the stairs.  Already, the carpet was filtering the water from beneath my boots, drawing it back into the house's respiratory tract to be metabolized later.
    Panicked, but ignoring him for a moment, I tore my hands into the membrane and pulled her out.  My fingers desperately touched her throat to feel for a pulse.
    "Yes," the colonel said, "She'll be alive.  That's the limit of what we know at this point.  She'll be alive right now."
    It took several seconds for the words to reach me.  I was wiping salty bits of biomatter from her eyelids, hoping they would open.  How can I describe it?  I don't like to use archaic words like love.  I had met Claudia standing outside a euthanized library building.  She was photographing the flowers crawling up the side of the foundation - as flowers are want to do.  I don't remember the first thing she said to me, but I do remember how struck I was by how unreachable she seemed.  For once in my life I found the perfect balance between confidence and sincerity, and we hit it off.  Months later she was prodding me to propose to her.  That's before the aneurism.  It was a small ceremony followed by three years of planning for the future.
     There was no warning before her death, the funeral, and the months alone.  When you're left alone like that, you covet every memory that isn't documented somehow.  After she died I had been advised by a new agey psychobabbler to remove all the photos of her in the house to allow the healing to begin.  The worst part is, afterward I began to lose details.  It was almost starting to work in a way.  As much as I hated myself for it, I could no longer be sure I knew what color her eyes were.  It wasn't an easy to remember color; it was a whole collection of them swirling about one another.  Once upon a time I could describe it.  Months after I tossed the last photo out, the door showed up in the basement.  I called the house surgeon, the house surgeon called them.
    The colonel stepped barefoot off the stairs onto the wet carpet. I knew he wasn't going to enjoy any of this.  He had signed up during the '81 East Africa Reunification campaign.  He had never envisioned standing in a basement in the southwest hoping to tear a man away from his wife.
    "You can have the house," I said.
    "We have the house," he said with the cold sympathy of a morgue, "But you will be compensated.  You don't seem to understand the weight of this situation.  If it can bring her back, it can bring others back.  And we can build more when we crack how.  You could be the last man on Earth to ever have to deal with this loss."
    "But you need the process from beginning to end," I said, my eyes turned to her sleeping frailty, "Including what the house creates. Why not someone else?"
    The colonel fell silent.  He walked away from the two of us over to the table in the center of the room.  Like all furniture in the house, it had been grown years ago.  It stood with the carpet creeping up one of its legs, curling around like a spindle of moss on a tree trunk.
    "Irregular," Weathers said, pointing at the aberration with his gun, "Time makes a fool of even the most skilled craftsmen.  I have the same problem in my summer home.  No matter how carefully you gene-print a house like this, something will eventually change.  A cell will forget what it is, and it will spread without an idea of its purpose.  A single cell working like this will die, eventually.  Only it makes others - others that are confused.  Lots can go wrong when that happens, as well you know."
    The colonel pulled back a chair from the table and sat down.
    "Put someone else in the ground," I said, "Put me in it."
    Colonel Weathers tried to smile, but instead swatted the idea away with his hand,
    "How do we know you would even come back?  Trust me, if it was as simple as that we have ways of procuring bodies.  It might have been because she lived here with you.  Maybe the house filtered enough of her skin and hair over time that it got an accurate picture of the whole.  We don't know anything yet.  But in time, we will."
    "Meanwhile," I said, "I'm in the way so you'll have to kill me."
    "Kill you?" he said, a quiet rage creeping into his voice, "I'm here to serve you.  You and nearly a billion others.  What did you think was going to happen?  Did you think you'd drag Frankenwife to the car and get onto the freeway?  Then what?  Puerto Orleans?"
    "Her name's Claudia," I said.  There was something in me building.  It's difficult to describe.  It was somewhere at the crossroads between rage and terror.  All I know is that it was growing and it made me want to move toward him badly.  The gun he still held kept me back, so all I could do was stand and hold my hands together in an irregular ball.
    "Claudia's dead," he said striding up to me, "She's dead.  She's dead."
    "Then what are you hoping to make?" I said, not fully realizing the value of my words.  The logic suddenly rippled back after the words stopped echoing between us.  It made perfect sense.  It was inescapable.  Even if we could justify it away, it would be a question to be asked later.  Just as I threatened to deprive the world of this new form of reincarnation by taking her away, he and his researchers threatened equally to deprive it of any value if it didn't have the right to live.  Somehow that notion wasn't lost on the colonel, so he stood there hating me.  More to show him that I knew what he was thinking, I repeated, "What does it profit the people you serve if they come back from the dead valueless?"
    The idea that I might be able to talk my way out of this situation hadn't yet occurred to me.  Until this point I had merely been speaking reflexively.  Depending on how honest he wished to remain, I could very well escape.  And he would be motivated to be honest with me and himself now - if he could be facing immortality later. Somehow, the possibility of escape made concentrating all the more difficult.
    "I'm sure a committee of some sort, philosophers maybe, will have plenty of time to debate this later.  Meanwhile, it's an unknown."
    "If her life is deemed valueless," I said again with utmost simplicity, "you will be condemning all those who come back through this house and others like it to be valueless - to be experimented on.  If, however, she is the same as before she died - or could become that way - you are compelled to protect her."
    "Unless we make a mistake and then learn later what the right choice was," Weathers said, "after we have the knowledge to end death.  Millions saved.  Billions even."
    "All equally condemned by your action," I said, "This isn't happening in the heat of passion or under uncertain circumstances.  It rests solely on you.  She's out now.  This will happen in cold calculated moments over the course of days with the backing of others.  When they're close enough to an answer, when they need her to die, humanity will live forever in the world you made.  You think she's the one making a sacrifice, she's not.  You are.  Hated forever."
    His rage wasn't hiding anymore.  He did a quick spin and kicked one of the chairs with his bare foot.  I could see the belt of his bathrobe had come loose exposing his belly now hanging over the top of his sweat pants.  He closed it with a snap and tied it off, glaring at me.  For a second I thought he was going to run over to me and strangle me.  Instead, he just stood and pointed,
    "Even if it were true, what do I do?  Let you go?  Tell everyone that I let that ultimate dream slip away?  Hated still.  Hated more.  And probably worse."
    I didn't say anything.  All I had done was make him see that we were at an impasse.  The mind of a trapped man is likely to overlook certain truths.  It's easy to average out facts to fit the needs of a situation.  But when I looked into the burning eyes of Colonel Weathers I saw no compromise.  There was nothing there, but resolve. He turned from us and went back up the stairs.  After looking back down at us one last time, he left and locked the oakgene door behind him.
    The door was like wood, only stronger.  If given enough time I would be able to saw or break through it eventually - if I found something to do it with.  Claudia was still on the ground sprawled out with her arms out.  She was motionless, but breathing.  At first, I looked around the room for an axe or a saw but found nothing.  I was just about to run up the stairs with the heat scalpel when I noticed her eyes were moving quickly beneath her eyelids.  She wasn't just breathing, she was dreaming.
    I tapped at the side of her cheek with my fingertips, hoping to wake her up,
    "Claudia, it's time to wake up.  I know I owe you a honeymoon. Let's go right now."
    There was no response.  She was locked in a deep sleep, and dreaming.  After an eternity, I heard footsteps and realized I was too late.  Colonel Weathers was once again coming down the stairs.  He was in full uniform, and still holding the gun.  From his chest I could see a block of medals and stripes.  I was going to die in my basement trying to remember my wife's eyes.
    "Pick up that chair and sit in it," he said eying the chair he had kicked over.  I obeyed.  He sat at the table across from me and held a hand to the block of awards hanging over his breast, "This medal is the first I ever got.  I got it for even getting off the plane in Libya.  We called it the brass ball in those days, and not everyone got one.  These three are for surviving the firestorm that followed during reunification.  This one is for surviving the first year without being wounded.  This one is for getting wounded.  The rest are peace time medals.  The meanings of these two are classified, but they're for making the right call in what were complicated situations."
    "I know you've been through a lot," I began.  He held up his hand and continued,
    "This one is for managing quarantine.  We were forced to sterilize - firebomb - a region that had been exposed to a novel plague.  I didn't know there were people in the area when that happened.  I wasn't part of the team that helped clean up, but I talked to one of them afterward.  He said we did the right thing.  A congressional inquiry later confirmed this.  It could have been much worse.  Much worse.  You know how we cured HIV?  For years we did research on HeLa cells.  Lots of research.  You know who Henrietta Lacks is?"
    "No," I said.
    "Doesn't matter," he said.  Whatever steam he had been building with his speech was now waning.  He was like a great engine slowing down and stopping, or a tree sighing just before it's brought down by the final axe blow.  He looked up and I saw something terrible in his eyes.  It was a knowledge beyond words, beyond either of us.  The real decision - whether we live or die - was being made regardless of words behind barely opened eyelids.  He continued, "She's probably all around us right now in code.  They're everywhere, those cells.  Strong.  That's why I'm going to ask you to make a sacrifice you're not going to like."
    "When you left just now," I said in desperation, "I saw her eyes moving underneath her eyelids.  It's REM sleep, I know it.  She's dreaming.  She has thoughts."
    "That's nice," he said.  Nonplused is the only word I can think of, "Like I was saying I'm going to ask you for something and I'm telling you it's your only option.  You have no choice in the matter,"
     The gun was spinning like a top when it came to rest in front of me, "Give me a hero's death."
    "I'm not facing another goddamn congressional inquiry.  If what we're doing here is for the good of humanity it's worth killing for. Leave this room with my blood on your hands or not at all."
    For the moment I couldn't breathe.  Weathers was staring, not at me, but into some distant memory.  The rage hadn't left by any means, but it was of a different sort now.  It was silent, deep, and shuddering.  His gaze turned to me and, like smoke leaving the barrel of a gun, the rage soon became invisible.
    "I left," I said, "I snuck down here and dragged her away under the cover of darkness.  You never saw me."
    "You killed me," he said, "That's what happened.  I saw you, caught you, and then you killed me."
    The Colonel and I sat there.  He pulled some small black trinket from his jacket pocket.  It was a memento, a piece of obsidian abstract art.  It was meaningless to me, destined to be lost with time.  He was staring at it and running his thumb over the shiny surface to wipe away the thin film that had accumulated on it.  He set it on the table and rolled it along like a child rolling a toy car. The black token made a sound very much like music as each of its tiny ribs struck the table.
    "When you went upstairs just now, she was dreaming," I said. Though the gun was now in my hand, my situation didn't seem any less desperate.
    "What do you think she was dreaming about?" he said looking up.
    I don't remember shooting him.  I guess murderers don't.  I remember catching my breath while buckling my wife into the passenger seat of our car.  And then I remember passing a sign.  On it read the words, Puerto Orleans.  And one other thing.  I remember the color of her eyes.


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