Well, I did it! Finished my story “Basecamp” exactly on time, ending my last edit last night on Aug. 3, the last day of the Write-a-thon. And as promised, you get to read it first. I’ll be sending it out to F&SF first I guess, but I have a long list to hit if I accumulate rejection slips. Well, rejection emails. 😉 Enjoy!
by Bill Pfleging
Gazing out at the beautiful, rolling landscape, the old man thought: I am older than the hills. Well, these artificial hills, anyway. In fact, he helped to engineer and build them, centuries ago. This gorgeous, perfect, artificial day is also one of his designs. The green fields and puffy clouds in the blue sky were flying quickly past his window.
The beautiful view zooming past was only marred by the bright flashing lights that seemed to be all around him, and an incessant wailing and beeping. The landscape also seemed to be rushing past much too fast to enjoy. He tried to raise his hand to signal the driver to slow down, but his arm seemed to be tangled in wires and straps, unable to move. Dark shapes moved nearby. His nose and mouth were covered, stopping him from calling out to the shadowy figures hovering over his body.
Then he remembered – he was on his way to go die. He relaxed, and went back to looking out the window. All was well.
A beautiful day was an expensive item on a world as inhospitable as Basecamp, where even the microbes in the soil had to be imported. Of course, a Jubilarian such as he could afford all this, and much more. But it was all very necessary.
It was the time of his Joining.
Old Sten had been sitting in his home office earlier in the day, several floors above ground level, gazing out the window. He was watching two young boys rolling in the new mown grass, wrestling and laughing. His son Raif, and his son’s best friend Sten, were inseparable. They seemed illuminated from within, rather than by the brightly lit blue sky, truly the glow of youth. One of the household staff called to them from a window below.
“Sten, Raif, put your gliderbikes away and come wash up. It’s almost time for dinner.”
Answering in a stereo jumble of words, they untangled, parked the bikes, and ran around the house and out of sight, twelve-year-old legs churning the earth.
Youth. He could not remember a boyhood of his own at all, before he’d even been a First. Seven full lifetimes, and only once had he enjoyed the experiences of childhood. Now those youthful memories were gone.
A soft tone came from the desk, interrupting his reverie. Reaching out a wrinkled hand, he touched the surface. On the viewing platform appeared the young, perfect features of his head physician, Kaytlyn 3rd – no, he remembered, now 4th Ralstin. It took him a second to recognize the face. He still expected to see her as she was not so long ago . . . old and shriveled, like himself. But the shining face that appeared was the one he’d spent a few decades traveling with almost a century back, having adventures together. Jet black hair framed her perfect features, epicanthic folds on her eyes a throwback to her ancient original Asiatic ancestry from Earth. He noticed she seemed troubled, with one small wrinkle between her eyebrows seeming out of place on her otherwise perfectly proportioned smooth-skinned face.
“Greetings, Jubilarian Belnost. Am I calling at an inconvenient time?”
“Cut the drek, Kayt. Since when am I ‘Jubilarian’ to you? We’ve known each other far too many decades to use any official niceties. ‘Fourth’ this, ‘Sixth’ that. I knew you when you were barely a Second. It’s no wonder we need to live so long, the way we waste time. Don’t play the Firstie with me, you forget I know your true age.” Then his voice softened. “Nice job on your own reboot, by the way, Kayt,” he said. “First time I’ve seen you since then.”
She sighed. “I was only trying to be polite, Sten. Such an old grump you are. For now, that is, but it will change. But thank you! I took a short break last month to do my own Reboot.” She smiled, showing her dimples briefly, then her face darkened again.
Peering closer at the screen, he noticed her concerned frown. “You have the look of someone carrying a weight. Drop it. Some thing to do with Raif?”
“No, no, your son Raif is fine, and so is your base Sten. In fact, Sten’s foster parents report that, on top of perfect health, he’s having a wonderful time growing up. All the indicators show that he’s creating an excellent set of memories, which will, of course, benefit you nicely,” she said. She smiled and laughed. “They’re both great kids, fun to be around. Who knew you’d be so good at parenting?”
“Always nice to hear good news about the boys,” he said. “So why this call? I mean, not that I’m not happy at good reports, and I’m always happy to see you, but that’s not why you called.”
She sighed, becoming serious. “There seem to be some difficulties with you . . . your present body, that is. The cardiovascular system readings on my team’s last visit weren’t good, from the sim results. You . . . will need to Reboot earlier than planned.”
“Dammit, Kayt, you said it all looked fine when you were here the other day. What changed your mind?”
“It did appear fine at the time, but I told you it had to be put through the bio simulator. After running it through the sim, the most recent results showed some unforeseen problems.”
“All right, I won’t pull my punches. The results were either a massive stroke, or cardiac failure, with irreparable damage. In other words, potentially terminal, if you aren’t right where we can help you.”
That word, terminal. It means death. He hadn’t heard either word used in so long it seemed out of place, almost fantastic. He looked out at his perfect surroundings for a moment, then back at the screen.
“We can’t be sure with the various factors that go into . . . ”
“Save it for the Firsties, Kayt. How long?”
She hesitated for a second, and then answered. “Very short time left, it seems. Anytime from right now to maybe four weeks, possibly five . . . not six. The sim can’t be any more accurate than that. Evidently, it’s some micro defect that never turned up in any of your previous clones. I’ll have to ask you to try to stay confined to bed or your desk as much as possible, and avoid any exertion or excitement. We’ll get things ready here.”
He glanced down for a moment at the vid cube on his desk, showing 3D scenes of the boys that they’d made for him this last Gifting Day celebration.
“I thought bioengineering had it all figured.” He looked back up at Kayt. “Problems aren’t supposed to occur until well after the seventh full term clone. I’ve only been in this body seventy-two years, dammit, it should be good for another ten at least. Sten should have at least 3 or 4 more birthdays, it’s just too early. And Raif needs more preparation time.”
“Sten, I’m sorry, but your time in this body has evidently run out. Eight centuries of genetic research and we still get surprised. Recloning from the same genetic material over and over does have a tolerance limit. Generally, we get six reclonings, but rarely, a slight irregularity does crop up on the sixth that we were not expecting . . . ”
“Slight irregularity, indeed. Dying is not my idea of a mere irregularity. Enough disclaimer statements, Kayt, I’m not going to sue you. I’ve got too much money already. How much of a problem is it to Reboot early? Can’t say I’m enjoying being a codger, so personally I don’t mind, but I’m concerned for the boys. Sten needs to be ready, and I’m not sure how Raif will handle it at this age.”
“Well, your base seems quite healthy, mentally and physically. He’s experiencing a complete childhood, from all our observations. Well adjusted, secure in his own identity, and enjoying life as he should. It shouldn’t be a big problem, seeing as he’s well over the 10 year age safety limit for RIBT.”
Her perfect green eyes seemed to twinkle. She licked her lips with a pink tongue and smiled, showing perfect, even teeth.”In fact, he’s just entering puberty. By the time you migrate, those hormones should be pumping furiously.” She giggled at his feigned look of shock.
“You’re a vulture, Kayt. Mind if he grows up a little more first? God, you always were insatiable.” Her teasing brought back images of their past times together. He smiled and chuckled at lecherous memories of her in other lives, previous bodies. Long multiple lives had made for looser, open mores and sexual customs involving their physical bodies within the Rebooting culture.
Then he remembered the reason for the call. His smile faded quickly.
“All right, stop trying to cheer me. Guess we don’t have much choice in the matter, do we? I’ll make some arrangements to stay inactive, and also step up some quick instruction for the boys. Oh, and by the way . . . thanks.”
“You’re such an old grump. We’ll have to work on that after this is over.” She winked, shrugged, and smiled lopsidedly, then vanished off the screen as he disconnected with a curse under his breath. It wasn’t often that he was left with no choice, and it always rankled when it happened. Centuries of wealth had accustomed him to getting what he wanted when he wanted it.
Counting all the years spent occupying his other cloned bodies, his true experiential age was five hundred and fifty-two, over half a millennium old. Each new clone had been grown in a tank, basically a blank slate waiting for the old mind to imprint the brain, and took about 10 years to grow enough for the transmigration. The standard practice was at age 80, RIBT was induced, and the transferee woke to find themselves in a body that was physically a young adult, approximately 18 to 20.
He had accumulated the kind of wealth that only one of such an advanced age could amass. Throughout the many careers, travels, adventures and lives he’d led, he’d also acquired property on more planets than he could even remember visiting. The true total of his personal fortune, like those of the small number of other Jubilarians in the galaxy, would equal or even surpass the Gross Planetary Product of many civilized worlds.
But there was a cloud to all this silver lining. Despite all he had, all the possibilities for happiness he could afford, something had been fading recently. There was a gap between his advantages and his ability to enjoy them. He’d stopped feeling truly alive at least 20 years before, maybe more; He couldn’t recall when he’d last felt any excitement from living. Life was just there, stretching on both behind and ahead, and no point in either direction seemed any greater than another. No memories, no hopes, and no dreams stood out as any brighter or warmer than another. And yet, all he felt from this was a vaguely disquieting sense of loss, something missing he couldn’t name.
This was symptomatic of a much larger problem. A long life produces a large number of memories, and every time one Reboots to the next clone, a few of the earliest memories are lost. This loss of the earliest memories was not just an inconvenience to the first Jubilarians. They had found the void left by their missing memories of childhood a seriously destabilizing factor to the psyche. Like pulling a loose strand of yarn, the tapestry of their minds quite literally began unraveling, degenerating to a comatose state and gradually losing all their long centuries of memories, eventually losing all brain functions and dying. It was now beginning to happen to him, which is why he had come to Basecamp. Thankfully, Rebooting was much easier now than it had been centuries ago.
Regenerative Induced Body Transmigration (RIBT), or “Reboot” as it was popularly known, was the life-extending practice of transferring a human consciousness from an old body to a young one. During the distant centuries of the Dark Times (DT), there was rampant tolerance of many varied superstitions (called “religions”) within human societies. Enterprising leaders (called “preachers”) of these followers objected to Rebooting in the belief that the incoming consciousness displaced what they claimed was the blank clone’s consciousness (or “soul”), despite no brain activity or evidence of any awareness in the clone prior to the Reboot.
The anti-RIBT movement grew out of these protests, and practitioners of RIBT were feared by many of the superstitious “believers” as ghouls. Legislation to outlaw the practice on many worlds arose, claiming that artificial longevity through the use of clones was a breach of something called “natural laws,” and genetic and psychological problems that cropped up after the fifth or sixth clone were punishment for “moral sacrilege.”
When Basing was developed as the solution for these problems, the protests became even more violent and destructive. Massive riots on many planets forced practitioners off one civilized world after another. Facilities were destroyed, people were killed. Proponents of the practice were forced to find safe places far removed from the general populace. Permanent locations were then established in sealed domes with RIBT facilities on empty unused worlds for that purpose. This is how Basecamp came to be.
After the DTs ended, science and knowledge became the rule, and the old religions died out. RIBT as a general practice was declared medically and mentally safe, becoming accepted throughout the known galaxy. Planetary governments declared it fully legal on all civilized worlds.
Now, like Earth’s salmon and the solitary Sand Cetaceans of Proxima Centauri IV, they spent their time far away, living full lives on many worlds in between each Reboot, but always returning to renew themselves.
Resigning himself to his need to be inactive, Sten called for his own dinner to be brought to the office while observing the interactions of those in the house on his viewer. From his desk he could see and hear all that transpired, always a spectator but not often a participant. Being of great age also came with more need for solitude, at least in his experience, so he more often had his dinner separately. But he did like to at least eat his meal at the same time they did the same.
The two boys exploded through the kitchen door, laughing and gasping for breath. Casting their dirty coats into the laundry chute, they dashed into the washroom and cleaned up, babbling all the while in that language only the young can understand.
“Didja see that ball scream off?”
“That was a real one, all right! Didja?”
“Jever seeit? Zowers!”
It was impossible to tell who was saying what, but since it wasn’t intended for his ears it didn’t matter. They came galloping into the main dining room where the household staff had been waiting, and scrambled into seats.
Quickly and quietly they were served platefuls of hot food, and the noise finally subsided somewhat as the two youngsters shoveled it into their mouths. Old Sten ate from his dinner tray slowly, as old men generally do, savoring each taste. He wondered if the boys actually tasted what they were swiftly devouring. There was no record of any tastes left in his childhood memories, he realized with a slight shock.
Olive-skinned Raif looked much like older Sten did in his ancient First youth, according to the few images that had survived the five centuries and more since then. His brown eyes and curly dark chestnut hair were in contrast to the green-eyed, freckled, redheaded young Sten. As was usual in these cases, the Base was designed to be a more complex genetic mix from the original Jubilarian’s cloned body. Clones had just one set of genes, from the original body, but a Base must be a mixture of the original with a different genetic set. In other words, more like the traditional blending of two sets of genes, just in a lab instead of in a womb. The results were similar.
The boys continued gulping their meal at about twice the rate of the adults. He was continually amazed at the speed and energy the young brought to everything. He chuckled to himself, shaking his head.
“Did I move that quickly once, that recklessly?” he thought to himself. No memory came in answer.
Admonished for their rapid intake, the two slowed, but still finished far in advance. The cook allowed the boys’ dessert to be brought out early. They quickly made it vanish, asked permission to leave, and were gone. Old Sten blanked the screen and ate the rest of his lonely meal, listening as the distant thunder of youth shook the old house.
II. Old Sten
“Father, what happens to a Base after…you know…?”
Startled, he looked up from the paperwork he’d been studying on the screen, frowning deeply. Raif rarely came up here to visit, and he’d not heard him coming. He was usually aware of Raif’s whereabouts, but this business of needing to migrate early had unsettled him the past few days, and his routines were disrupted. “Hello, son, what brought this up?”
“Well, the other night, I asked Sten why he had the same name as you. He said it was ’cause he was your Base. Well, I knew that, but when I asked him what that really meant, I mean, what happens to him…and you… he said he couldn’t tell me unless you said ok. So I figured you could just tell me.”
The easy logic of youth, so direct and simple. He looked away from the innocent eyes awaiting an answer to an honest question. He’d never lied to Raif before, and it was important for their relationship for him to remain honest. He’d always thought it was in the best interest of the young to withhold some of the truth about Rebooting almost until the Time came. But this was more than RIBT, this was Basing. And Raif’s best friend Sten was the Base.
“The Base,” he said hesitantly, “provides necessary elements – memories – to the continued existence of one who reaches their Jubilee stage, like I have now. When the Rebooting Time comes, the Base joins with their Jubilarian. Someday, young Sten and I will join. Understand?”
Raif paused, nodded, thought for a minute, and said, “No. I still don’t know what a Base is.”
Old Sten shifted in his seat, not sure how to say it any other way. Raif had certainly inherited his stubborn streak, worrying at a problem until it was resolved.
“If it’ll help, maybe I should let young Sten explain. His teachers have been training him well, from all I’ve seen, and he could perhaps say it in a way you will understand. Would that help?”
Shrugging his shoulders, he said “Ok, Father, I guess,” then turned to go, waving his arms and saying, “but I don’t see what the big mystery is all about. I’ll tell him it’s ok with you.”
Raif left his father to his business, and went out through the side sunporch. His gliderbike sat on the lawn where he’d left it that morning. Straddling the seat, he kicked the antigrav lifter, and quietly sailed into the mid afternoon sun.
Old Sten watched him float over the treetops and out of sight, hoping he could get an answer he would be content with.
III. Young Sten
At the same moment, several miles away, Young Sten had just lifted off on his glider. As he gained altitude, he could see all the way across the rolling hills to the barrier that surrounded this huge tract of land, separating it from whatever was out there. About 30 kilometers in any direction, the idyllic countryside simply faded into a haze. Raif’s house was more or less at the center of a small village, while Sten’s farm was about 13 kilometers to the west. Other residences, homes of other Jubilarians, could be seen here and there around the village and through the trees.
Once, he’d asked what the barrier kept out, and his father had simply said “The Afterlife, son. When you’re ready, you’ll get to go out there. Don’t rush it.” Not a satisfying answer by far, but enough to tell him not to ask it again for a while. He had his own guesses, of course.
He occasionally saw strangers enter, usually maintenance or medical workers, but also visitors as well as occasionally one of the other Jubilarians visiting from other domes on Basecamp. From the look on their faces when they first entered this microcosm, this had to be a much prettier place than whatever was outside.
Soaring through the clear air, he spotted a dot in the sky above the next hill. It had to be Raif. He leaned his glider that way. When he came close enough, he waved. Raif waved back, and dove under him, looping around to come up alongside.
“Hey!” Sten shouted, “Race to the cave?”
“You’re on! Say when!” Raif hunched down, assuming what he imagined a racing position would be, grinning.
They swerved as one, leaning into a power dive, side by side. Leveling off at treetop height, they looked like two hawks dancing, as they weaved in and out of the hillsides, and finally came to a fairly remote section of their little world. Raif left a trail of screaming laughter as he cut Sten off between the trees, but then young Sten beat him out at the narrow passage into their “cave”, actually a weathered crater.
Coming in behind, Raif buzzed Sten on the ground, grabbing his cap before landing a dozen feet beyond.
“Hahahaaa! You won, but I got the prize!” Raif plopped Sten’s too-large hat on his head, stuck out his tongue, and danced away down the path to the “clubhouse”, an overhang of rock making a roof of sorts for the small table and stools they’d brought there long ago. Sten ran to catch up, grabbed his hat back, and sat at the table.
“Ok, secret meeting of the Eagle-Hawks is now in session!” Sten brought a stick down on the table top with a bang.
“Hold it. Point of order! No meeting without the Secret Handshake first. Let’s have it.” Raif held out his hand.
“Oops! Right, I forgot!”
They clasped each other at the wrist, then slid back to just hook fingers, like claws.
“Ok, Eagle-Hawks now in session. Any old business?”
“Yeah, remember when you wouldn’t tell about being a base? Well, my father says you can tell me, cause he couldn’t explain it right. He said you’re being trained for it. So?”
Sten’s eyebrows knitted together as he tried to think how to explain it.
“Well, ‘member when we learned how they grow clones for Rebooting and stuff? Like the dome landscape manager, and the cook are in their first clones, so they’re Seconds, and Doc Ralstin is a Fourth, and you’re a First?”
“Sure. Like my father is in his sixth, so that makes him a Seventh, a Jubilarian. And rocks are hard. So what?”
“So didja ever hear of an Eight?”
Raif shook his head.
“That’s because there aren’t any, and there can’t be any. The genes start to go bad after six times. Y’know, birth defects an’ stuff, so they have to use new genes. That’s me.” He grinned and pointed his thumb to his chest.
Raif thought for a minute.
“Oh, so they make a clone from your genes, right?”
“Well, no. There’s another problem with being a Jubilarian. Every time they try to fit all the memories into the new body, they lose a tiny piece from the other end, from when they were a kid. Dad can’t remember anything from then, and I guess that kinda makes it hard to stand being an adult. So they need a new set of memories for the new set of genes, and that’s me! Get it?”
Raif got it. He sat and stared in disbelief.
“You mean my father’s gonna Reboot into you?”
Sten nodded. “Yep. Hey, it’s all right, really! I’ve been trained for it since I was born. Relax! Actually kinda looking forward to it.”
Raif was shaking his head, wide eyed.
“Waddya mean, relax? They got you hypnotized, or something? Where do you go? Where does whatever makes you YOU go? You won’t remember you at all, you’ll just be my father! I thought we were best friends forever, not just til . . . til . . . ”
“No, no, that’s not it, I’ll still be me. I’ll just have lots more memories.” He leaned toward Raif.
“Remember when they brought in that guy to meet us, who said he’d been a Base a few years ago? He talked to me for a while, said that he was both his father and himself, but he didn’t feel like that. He said it took about a month to fully mix in his head, and after that he just felt like himself, just one guy.”
He pointed at Raif. “You’re a First, and when you get old you’ll get to reboot as a Second. And I will, too, so I’ll be right there with you, just with your Dad’s memories as well Except they’ll be my memories. Don’t you see? This isn’t just for your dad. It’s for my future, too, and your Dad’s.”
Raif stood, paced across to the other side, and back. He seemed to be thinking furiously. Standing once more in front of Sten,, he looked into his eyes, looking angry and hurt.
“Ok. Then why didn’t you tell me before?”
“I . . . I couldn’t. They said that you wouldn’t understand, that it would trama…trauma…make you worry and get upset. You are, too. Please, don’t be mad at me. I am your best friend forever, not just for now. And I will be after, too.”
Raif tried to say something else, but the words didn’t come. He suddenly turned away, ran to his gliderbike and flew off as fast as it would go. Sten yelled after him, tried to call him back, but Raif wasn’t listening.
Raif was halfway home before Sten got high enough to see, and before he could go after Raif, his wrist band lit up with a message for him to stay where he was, he would be picked up immediately. It was an emergency beacon.
IV. Old Sten
Old Sten sat and worried for quite a while after Raif left. He popped another antacid, stomach churning. How could I have explained it to him better? Would he have understood? Dialog spun through his mind, winding around different ways to explain the need to join with a Base. None of it seemed palatable, none of it seemed justifiable to a twelve-year-old, or at least to what he thought a twelve-year-old mind would think. Not that he could remember that any more than he could remember any of his own childhood.
He needed some advice. Clearing the vid, he tapped out a call. The impersonal face of the Clinic’s secretary appeared.
“May I help you, Jubilarian Belnost?”
“Get me Kayt Ralstin.” Like any older person from any era, he had no patience anymore for officious receptionists. His fingers drummed on the desktop.
“Certainly, Jubilarian, please hold.”
He was left watching a scene of some waterfall, supposedly laced with subliminals tranquil enough to ease the stress of being left waiting too long. It didn’t. By the time Kaytlyn appeared, he was in his usual foul mood.
“Well, good afternoon, Sten. If you’re wondering about the last readings, don’t. They read the same. You really don’t have time to fool around about this any longer. Can you please make an appointment for the Joining? Your heart…”
“Damn the heart, that’s not what I called about. I certainly don’t want any more lectures from you. I’m worried about Raif.”
“Raif? Is he ill? His last checkup was excellent.”
“He’s been asking for a deeper explanation of my relationship with Sten, and what happens after the Joining. I couldn’t find a way to say it that worked for him, so I left it up to Sten to explain. I don’t want to do anything that might shake him badly, but I do want to be honest with him.”
“I think leaving it up to Sten was a wise move. Since they already have this rapport, he may accept it more from Sten.”
“Yeah, well, if you’re sure . . . I was just worried about his reaction. Damn,” he said, rubbing his stomach. “This parental worry seems to be taking its toll.”
“Just heartburn. Really started bothering me a little while ago. Don’t know why, I haven’t eaten in hours. Just worried about Sten.”
“You look pretty pale to me. Feel any pain anywhere?”
“Yeah, like a gas ball caught halfway down. Just nerves, Kayt, I’ll be all right. Just gotta find another antacid, somewhere around here…” He rummaged through a drawer.
“Well, don’t ignore it. I’ll come over to check. Lie down, relax until I can get there.”
He started to nod, grimaced, and fell forward, holding his chest. Pain was exploding from there and down his arm.
“Sten?…Sten!” Over her shoulder she called “Belnost home STAT!” Looking back, she said, “We’re on our way, hang on Sten!” and the desk went dark.
He hardly heard the last, as he slipped into a dark place in his head. He was only aware of pain. Weakly, he called out. Then – darkness.
V. Young Sten
Sitting alone in the back seat, he watched the fading countryside through the window as it disappeared in the evening dark. The aircar was nearing the barrier between his known and unknown worlds.
He now knew where he was going, and what would happen there. None of that scared him much, he’d been very well prepared for this very moment. But he was afraid of losing his best friend. He wanted to explain, but he wouldn’t be seeing Raif until after the Joining.
His last memory of Raif was of fear, the wordless questions in his eyes pleading for answers. The “who, what, where, when, how” questions. Who would he be? What would he be? Where would he go? When would it happen? How could we still be friends?
Sten only knew what he’d been taught, but that had been a great deal…much more than the average youth. He’d attended school with Raif, side by side, learning all the telescreens and roboteachers could teach. Then, at night, he’d absorbed even more knowledge through the sleeping cubicles’ subliminal messaging. He’d learned the various philosophies that were used by the opponents of Basing. The arguments, both moral and religious, that fought against the very thing his birth was intended for all seemed to have different answers to the same questions. Who? What? Where? When? How? He had no idea what constituted someone’s consciousness, but he knew he felt alive. As long as he still felt like that, after all was done, then he had no complaints. He would wait, and see. But he wanted Raif to understand, to know it was all right.
He hoped it would be… all right.
VI. Old/Young Sten
Pain. He was sure there had been pain. He recalled speaking to someone, and then the pain had come. He couldn’t be very sure of much else but that.
He did know who he was. He was Sten – wasn’t he? Yes, he was definitely named Sten.
He remembered things. Slowly, piecemeal, memories came. The faces floated past, smiling, frowning, speaking, silent, young, old. He remembered feeling pain. He’d been wounded in the left leg during his brief mercenary phase, with the Confed Rebels . . . no – that was the other Sten. His/not his memory.
He remembered feeling pain. He’d broken his leg once, when the glider wing ripped and he plunged feet-first into that tree. Raif had splinted his leg and flown back to get his dad . . . to him . . . to whom? No, that . . . was the other . . . Sten . . . wasn’t it?
He was barely aware that someone had been talking, possibly for some time now. The words came and went, ebbed and flowed. He picked out random words and examined them, but could find no meaning in them. After a time, he realized the words came from both inside his own head as well as several voices in the room, and none were directed at him. He heard the words, a scrambled puzzle to try assembling. The word “sedative” floated by, and shortly after he sank back into the depths of the myriad memories.
He felt as though he was revolving about a binary twin of himself, each circling the other, through galaxies of memories. Closer, ever closer, as the memories mixed all around in a thick mélange impossible to decipher whose were whose, he reached out to himself.
Old and young Sten touched, and flowed together. Melding into one massive, convoluted being, blending all thoughts, feelings, dreams, all that constitutes the thing we call “I”, and . . . Joined.
He opened his eyes. He saw blurs.
“So,” came a voice from just above him, “how are we feeling?”
“We,” he whispered, “are not amused by bad puns. I am thirsty. Got any water?”
“Here” Kaytlyn slipped a tube between his lips, and he took a long draw on it.
The cool water helped to clear more of the cobwebs from his senses. He blinked a few times, his vision clearing, and looked around. “Am I in the Ralstin Base Clinic?”
Kaytlyn nodded. “Yes, two weeks now. How do you feel?”
He took mental stock of this youthful body. Yes, he still felt…alive. Very alive. He was Sten. And he was also still Sten. Relief washed over him.
“Actually, pretty good. Was it the heart?”
“Yes, it came even earlier than expected. Luckily, you were on screen with me at the time. We came stat, and just caught you before it was too late. You’re a damn lucky man. Stubborn, too. Why wouldn’t you listen to my warnings? Rustic house far from the clinic. Yes, I know, it’s good for growing up memories, but it’s not good if you die before you and those memories can meld. You should have been closer, and we should have been set to go Base sooner than this. I hate melodrama.”
Kaytlyn was frowning her usual professional frown, that one wrinkle spoiling her perfect features.
“Sorry to make you worry, really I am. OK, you can stop reprimanding me. I could say it was because I had every faith in your great abilities and team,” he said. Kaytlyn snorted derisively. ” . . . but to tell the truth, I was worried about my son’s reaction. He and young Sten – I mean, he and I – are very close.”
Holding up his arm, the hospital gown sleeve fell back, exposing a firm, young, muscular arm. He examined it, amazed at the number of freckles on the firm, perfect skin.
“How is he? How did he take it?” he said, looking up with sudden worry in his now brown eyes.
“Kind of hard, but not insurmountable, I think. He’s a very resilient person. You’ve done a good job raising him. Besides,” Kaytlyn said, smiling, “you aren’t the only one worrying about your progeny.”
“What?” he said with a growing suspicion. He started to sit up, then fell weakly back. “What do you mean?”
“Unlike a clone, it takes two different sets of genes to grow a First or a Base, remember? Sten’s male set came from our sperm banks here. Your son Raif has your male set, but you never asked where the female sets came from.”
Sten raised his left eyebrow questioningly . . . a distinctly Jubilarian Sten expression, noted Kaytlyn. “You mean . . . ”
She nodded. “Mine. I guess this makes me your mother now, doesn’t it?” She laughed. “Don’t worry! I won’t make you wash behind your ears. Actually, my DNA just happened to be a good match.”
He tried to look stern for a moment, but couldn’t keep a straight face, and started to giggle.
“Thanks, Mom, ” he said still laughing. “You know, I think you’re still a little too young to get away with claiming me as your natural son. It hasn’t been too long since you migrated yourself. What are you, around 21, 22? Or shouldn’t I ask a lady her age?”
She laughed again. “I thought that since we are such old friends a more personal approach was in order . . .”
“Well, you can’t get more personal than that Kayt . . . thank you. Now if Raif can just accept me as I am…”
“Raif will be fine. Just give him time to adjust; he’s quite a young man. He’ll come through it intact.”
“I hope so.” He sighed. “Guess I’m still pretty tired. Let me nap a while. I want to be rested to face Raif. Let me tell him about your genetic connection, by the way, if you have no objection.”
“Sure. By the way . . . in case you were wondering, you’re in perfect physical shape. All went smooth as silk. You’re good for another half millennium.” She patted his arm, and left.
Lying back on the pillows, he stretched his new, yet familiar, muscles. It was a strange feeling, being two different people at the same time. But he knew it would sort itself out in time.
Fourth Kaytlyn Ralstin walked with Raif down the long hall.
“Are you sure he’s all right now? He’s not sick at all?”
Kaytlyn smiled to herself. “He’s fine. He misses you.”
“Me, too”, said the boy, “Who…er, I mean, which one . . . is he?”
Her smile broadened.
“He,” she said slowly, “is both of them. They fit together, like two pieces of a puzzle. The gap left from your father’s missing memory of his childhood is exactly filled by young Sten. They’re an excellent match, and have joined well. Here we are.”
They stopped. Raif hesitated, looking apprehensively at the closed door.
“He’s got to be one or the other. To me, anyway.”
She started to laugh, then stopped when she saw how serious he was. His face was set, jaw clenched firm. There was a bench in the hall, and she pulled him there to sit with her.
“Raif, you can’t deny what’s happened. Sten can’t stop being who he is, any more than you can. He’s now as much your best friend Sten as he is your father Sten. He isn’t two people anymore, he’s one. I know it’s hard to understand, but you must.”
“Ok, I know that. But still, to me, he has to be one or the other. And that means I have to say goodbye to one or the other.”
She nodded, stood and held out her hand. They walked to the door, and she waited outside, letting him go through on his own.
Kaytlyn couldn’t hear the words through the glass, but shortly she saw them reach out, grasp wrists, and slide back to hook fingers, both smiling. Raif hopped onto the bed, and they started chattering. She glanced once more at the two, both genetically her sons, happy to be back together. She turned and, smiling with relief, headed to other duties.
Gazing out at the bleak, dead landscape, he thought: I am older than the domes, but younger than what lies outside them.
The sky was very different from that inside the basecamp domes, more greenish-yellow from the sulfurous content in the atmosphere, and darker from the constant overcast. The environment outside was less than hospitable, but they were here for one purpose only, and then they would be gone, back inside the protective cover.
Rows of metallic cubes dotted the barren countryside as far as the eye could see, separated into small fenced-off groupings. Each cube had a name and a number etched into the durable alloy, and many had an inscription of some kind. In the distance could be seen one of the numerous other Jubilarian domes, its outside surface a blank gray, almost blending with the color of the hills. All the outside surface of Basecamp had become a massive burial ground.
Two small figures in protective breather suits stood by an open hole in the ground, mechanical digger next to it. A hermetically sealed cylinder was slowly lowered into it, then the machine pushed the pile of dirt back in. The cube set at the head of the grave read “Sten Jubilarian Belnost”. Underneath was inscribed “Sixth and final clone from the original”, and under that the dates.
An additional line had been roughly cut with a hand laser. It read “Beloved father of Raif First Belnost, Rest In Peace.” Raif slipped the cutter back into the boot of his gliderbike.
“You feel better now?” Sten said as the final scoop of dirt was replaced on the grave.
“Yeah, I’m good.” He sniffed, and wiped a tear away.
“Let’s go.” Raif turned and hopped onto his glider.
“Wadda you wanna do now?” Sten asked, slipping onto his.
“I dunno, wadda you wanna do?”
They flew off to the dome entrance still trying to decide. Didn’t matter, they had plenty of time now.
– END –