He lay back on the gurney, staring at the lights suspended above him. The bright glare burned his eyes, but he scarcely had the strength to close his weary lids. He was dimly aware of shapes around the edge of his vision, but moving his head was completely out of the question.
He concentrated on trying to breathe. His chest felt like a great weight bore down on it, and each painful intake was accompanied by an echo of artificial bells and whistles.
He tried to speak, and was instantly aware of something lodged in his throat. Not cold metal, but definitely something artificial. It pressed his tongue down while wedging his mouth open.
Instinct drove him to try clawing at his face, to try and remove whatever it was, and he somehow found the strength to tense the leaden muscles in his arms. But something held his wrists fast.
His confinement only began to add to his panic. The anxiety gave him fresh strength, and he increased his efforts to break free.
He was aware of shapes leaning over him, their features cast into deep shadow. He could hear their muffled voices — low tones that seemed distant, as if they were underwater.
He relaxed, concentrating on the voices. Gradually they grew clearer, to the point he could make them out.
“You’re going to be just fine,” said one.
Another, deeper voice joined it.
“The procedure has been a success, Mr. Lazarus.”
Lazarus, he thought. That’s my name. Benjamin Lazarus. The recollection of his name was distant; a treasure trawled from the murky depths of his mind.
“Don’t try to struggle,” said the first voice. It seemed like a woman’s voice, and a young woman’s at that.
“Just relax,” she continued. “We need to monitor your condition for just a little while, and then we’ll extubate you.”
He could feel her hand on his brow, her cool touch a contrast to the raw feeling over the rest of his body. It felt like his skin was burning.
“I’m just going to give you something to help you relax,” said the man’s voice.
The woman must have sensed Ben’s apprehension, because she leaned in closer, so that the reflection from the shiny metal around Ben’s head illuminated her face. She had huge, kind eyes; and Ben wondered what she looked like behind the surgical mask.
He was dimly aware of the man, who was fiddling with some apparatus. His head filled with a warm glow, which spread through the rest of his body, soothing his raw flesh.
“Everything’s going to be just fine,” said the woman.
The glow in his body enveloped his waking mind, drawing it gently away into unconsciousness.
* * *
When he opened his eyes again, he felt somewhat different. His surroundings had changed, with the painful overhead lights replaced by the gentle glow of warm sunlight.
Ben sat up. Much to his relief, he was no longer restrained, and better still the plastic tube had disappeared from his mouth. He sat up with some difficulty and took in his surroundings.
He was in a hospital room. There could be little doubt of that. But there was something very luxurious about the room that set it apart from what Ben would normally associate with hospitals.
The walls and ceiling bore a familiar shade of hospital green, contrasted by prints of modern art dotted around the room. Ben couldn’t remember who painted them, but more than one of them seemed familiar. The light that stood beside his bed looked very expensive for a hospital room —- all chrome and glass, with a long delicate chain hanging from the gently glowing shade.
On the other side of the bed was a staggering array of medical equipment. Some of it Ben recognized, such as the heart monitor and the fluid-replacement system, but the rest was unrecognizable. Thin tendrils stretched out from various points along the bank of equipment, fastened to Ben’s body with thin sticky pads.
Ben reached under his hospital gown and started to peel off the sensors. He didn’t feel sick. As the sleep began to fade from his body he realized just how well he felt. He swung his legs over the edge of the bed, dropping to the floor, feeling the thick pile of the carpet beneath his bare feet.
His legs wobbled, as if they were unsure of his weight. Then they steadied, growing stronger as gravity drew the blood through his stiff muscles.
Ben walked slowly towards the other side of the room. There was a large flatscreen and disc player, facing a plush white-leather sofa. He padded past the screen to the wooden blinds, parting two of the slats, squinting as the bright sunlight poured through.
A large, tree-lined courtyard lay two stories below him. Here and there, patients walked with the aid of walkers or a helping hand, making their way slowly around the path that skirted the manicured lawn. Under one of the trees, a pretty nurse sat, eating a wrap and reading from a weathered paperback.
You didn’t see many of them anymore, thought Ben. But he could remember how much he had loved reading them as a young man. He could even remember the smell of the secondhand bookshop, the excitement as he dug through the shelves, searching for hidden delights.
That seemed such a long time ago. Ben slowly reached up to touch his face, his fingers finding only soft, unblemished skin. It didn’t feel familiar at all.
Ben moved into the darkened en-suite bathroom. The tiles felt cold under his feet as he searched for the light switch. He reached up to the control beside the mirror and flicked it on.
His reflection stared out at him. Ben was surprised by his own face. It wasn’t the one he had been expecting. But this was his face, wasn’t it? It had the same pale-green eyes; the same strong, square nose. So why didn’t his own face seem familiar?
When Ben thought about it, there was very little he could remember. It all seemed so distant somehow — he was having grave trouble recalling anything more than his name. Benjamin Lazarus. And this was the face of Ben Lazarus, no doubt about it. But how was it possible to seem so familiar, yet utterly alien at the same time?
The sound of the door opening brought him back into his room. A doctor entered, a PDA in his hand and a friendly smile on his face.
“Ah, Mr. Lazarus. Good to see you up and about at last,” said the doctor.
Ben grunted in reply.
“How are you feeling?” asked the doctor, signaling for Ben to sit on the bed.
Ben couldn’t answer, as the doctor wedged something in his mouth and examined his throat intently. Ben was left to stare at the top of the doctor’s head, and at the tiny flakes of skin dotted throughout the gelled black hair.
The doctor straightened up, pushing his glasses back up his nose with the point of his finger.
“I said, How are you feeling?”
“I feel fine,” Ben answered.
The doctor made a great show of examining various monitors, sucking his stylus and making approving noises as he did so.
“Everything seems to be in order,” he clucked.
“I’m glad to hear it,” said Ben. “Now would you mind telling me what I’m doing here? Am I sick? Why can’t I remember anything?”
The doctor raised his hands. “Please, Mr. Lazarus. One question at a time.”
“Then what am I doing here?”
The doctor sucked the end of his stylus again.
“Hmm. I can see the implant is taking time to integrate.”
“You have undergone a significant procedure, Mr. Lazarus. Indeed, you are one of the first to receive our special — gift.”
“Oh dear,” sighed the doctor. “We had hoped the memories might return faster, but we knew there was a chance that they might not.”
Ben tried to absorb what the doctor said.
“My memories? What the hell is going on?”
The doctor sighed again, pulled an uncomfortable-looking hospital chair from one side of the room, and adjusted the lapels of his lab coat before sitting on the plastic seat. He removed his glasses and cleaned them with the hem of his lab coat, laying his PDA across the arm of the chair.
“Just how much do you remember, Mr. Lazarus?” he asked.
Ben stared at the medicine man. He was young, maybe just past his fortieth birthday. A shirt and tie poked out from beneath his neatly pressed lab coat, the mismatch speaking volumes about the wearer. He either dressed without a mirror, or a wife, or he was trying very hard to appear as disarming as possible.
“Remember about what?” asked Ben.
The doctor shifted in his chair. Ben’s eyes flicked to his identity badge. Even in the half-light filtered through the window, he had no trouble making out the doctor’s name — Ramirez. Braulio Ramirez.
“About how you came to find yourself here.”
“I was sick.”
Ben answered almost without thinking. The words just seemed to fly out of his mouth. He stared at Ramirez, waiting for confirmation.
“Umm, yes,” the doctor said, crossing his legs and leaning forward.
“But can you remember anything else? Like how long you’ve been here?”
Ben stared at the doctor. It felt like a storm raged in his head. Whenever he tried to remember anything, flashes of other events would leap unbidden to the front of his mind. A bride, brighter than the sunlight that streamed around her. Familiar faces with elusive names. A huge yacht, glistening in the sea spray. Hospitals. Doctors. It brought him back to the stark lights that had blinded him.
It was the first thing he could actually remember properly.
“It feels like I’ve been her forever.”
The doctor sighed.
“In a way, Mr. Douglas, you have.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” said Ben, his gaze narrowing.
“Perhaps it’s time I explained a few things,” answered Ramirez. “Mr. Douglas, you have given a lifetime of service to the Yutani Corporation — a lifetime of very faithful service. In return, the Yutani Corporation has rewarded you with the ultimate gift.”
Ben waited as Ramirez agonizingly paused for effect. The name Yutani had set his stomach churning.
“After you retired, you spent twenty glorious years enjoying the golden age of a man’s life. But gradually, age took its toll. In the summer of your seventy-sixth year, you entered the Sunny View Retirement Home. And after twelve years in that institution, in the excellent care of Yutani, you were given a once-in-a-lifetime offer.”
“What kind of offer?”
Ramirez seemed pleased with Ben’s question, reveling in his role.
“A complete corporeal transplant.”
Ramirez stopped again. Ben was growing more impatient by the second and almost hissed his next question.
“Which means what, exactly?”
“You were implanted with a mapping device. It uses nanotechnology to infiltrate the neurons in your brain. At the same time, living stem cells were implanted with your DNA sequence, and a clone body was grown under sedation.”
“Wait a minute — did you say clone?”
Ramirez smiled, nodding.
“The clone is identical in all but three ways. First, its mitochondrial DNA is different. It still has the donor cell’s. Second, physically it is twenty years old, although it was accelerated to grow in just five. And third, the mapper the clone body contains is organic in nature, and more of an imprinter, really.”
“Are you saying I’m a clone?”
Reality was dawning on Ben and he was having difficulty coping. He gripped the rail at the end of the bed to steady himself.
“No, not exactly. You are Ben Lazarus. Before your body died, the exact neuroelectrochemical profile of your brain was mapped onto the clone brain. And then we woke you. To enjoy the greatest gift the Yutani Corporation could offer — another lifetime.”
Ben stared at the doctor in dumb silence. His mind tried to grasp what he had been told. How could this be possible? It explained why he was having difficulty remembering things clearly. Was it possible that this was not the body he had been born to?
He raised a hand in front of him, examining it. It seemed both familiar and alien at the same time, so he closed his eyes and tried to recall a visual image of his own hand — of the one he knew.
Other images leaped from the recesses of his mind. A clear blue sea, the water like glass, stretching out under the bright metal railings of a boat. A smile on a woman’s face, her eyes sparkling. His hand reaches out for her, but she’s gone, and he’s reaching into thin air, not on the boat anymore, but in another hospital. His hand is old, liver spots mottling the skin stretched between swollen, arthritic joints.
Ben snapped his eyes open. Ramirez still sat observing him.
“What’s happening to me?”
“Don’t be alarmed,” said the doctor. “The experience will be overwhelming at first, but rest assured you’re in perfect health. In a few days, or perhaps weeks, your memories will begin to return.”
Ben was staring down at the legs that stuck out from beneath his gown. They were pale, but also lean and well-toned. He had half been expecting to see two wizened limbs, weary with their weight of years. He could remember those legs. Something else hit him, a memory crashing through clearly. He could remember his wheelchair.
He hopped onto his feet. Ramirez stood too, pushing the chair back and smiling as he rose.
“Feels good,” said Ben, pacing over to the tall window-blinds. “Feels like it’s been a long time since I walked on my own two feet.”
Ben stared down at his own feet and then looked up at Ramirez.
“What happens now?”
* * *
They kept him in the luxurious hospital for a few more days for observation. They allowed him to watch television, and to take walks around the courtyard he had seen from his window.
The television bored him utterly. Although his memories had still not returned, most of the programmes were all too familiar. Beyond the ninety percent that appeared to be reruns, there was only news. That bored him too.
He was more interested in his new, young body. The courtyard was only a few hundred metres around, but it still felt exhilarating pounding his feet across the flagstones as quickly as he could.
He hadn’t run the first day. Ramirez had shown him down to the courtyard not long after their initial conversation, but Ben had still felt a little unused to his legs. It had been like wearing a pair of shoes that didn’t really fit.
Ramirez had stayed by the door, smoking a cigarette. Somewhere in Ben’s mind, a thought surfaced. Only Yutani employees could afford to smoke, or at least only they had access to medical technology to fix everything.
That first day, he walked around the edge of the courtyard, skirting the fringe of the lawn in the center. At first, his pace was somewhat unsure, but by the time he had reached his second circuit, and Ramirez his third cigarette, his young blood had brought fresh vigour to his legs. By his fifth circuit, the combination of soft sunshine and fresh air had his lungs pumping. He couldn’t remember ever smelling scents so sweet as those that bombarded his senses that late afternoon.
He walked around the courtyard, watching the other hospital dwellers. Most were elderly patients, but some were younger patients bearing the visible scars of tissue regeneration. As he had seen from his window, some were able to walk alone as Ben did, while others were accompanied by an auto walker or a member of the clinic’s staff, conspicuous in the gentle pastels of their uniforms.
The girl had returned, too. After Ramirez had left his room that morning, he had sneaked back to the window for another look. But she had left, the only sign of her presence an impossibly small area of crushed grass. But now she had returned to her favourite spot, and as Ben circled slowly around the courtyard he was able to watch her from every angle.
She was far too engrossed in her novel to notice his attention. She sat, her legs curled beneath her, her flame-red hair tied up over her head revealing a narrow, delicate neck. When she shifted her posture slightly, to turn a weathered page, or to sip from a can of Diet Coke that nestled in the grass at her side, her mauve hospital scrubs shifted to reveal a petite but attractive figure.
Ben lost count of the laps in the courtyard that first afternoon. He only stopped when Ramirez laid a hand on his shoulder, his craving for nicotine satisfied.
But three times a day, Ben would return to the courtyard to stretch his muscles, but always at the back of his mind he was hoping to see her again. On the third day, he got his reward.
She had returned to the same place, her paperback exchanged for a thicker, even more weathered one, a pair of rose-tinted shades protecting her eyes from the glare of the sun.
Ben ran the courtyard now. Ramirez had shown him the extensive gym that the clinic had, but there was something about the fresh air that brought him out here. The fresh air and the chance of seeing her.
He thought of it as his minute mile, even though he knew the courtyard’s perimeter fell well short of the mile mark. It probably took him only forty or fifty seconds to make the circuit, but still afforded him the chance to get a look at her as she sat reading.
If Ben hadn’t caught her stealing a glance from over the top of her book, he might never have plucked up the courage to go over. He didn’t give himself time to wonder what she might make of this strange patient.
He broke his run on the opposite side of the courtyard, approaching her slowly across the manicured lawn. He was glad he had asked Ramirez for some clothing. The hospital shorts and robe had been replaced with a grey tracksuit, the word Yutani emblazoned across his chest in large blue type.
She saw him coming, watching him as he closed the last few yards.
“Hi there,” she said, smiling. Full ruby-red lips parted to reveal a row of small but perfect white teeth.
“Hi,” said Ben. “Is the book good?”
“It’s not his best, but I’ve always liked it.”
“You’ve read it before?”
She nodded. “I’ve read all his books.”
Ben crouched down so that he could see the name of the author. “Stephen King? You like horror novels?”
She looked up in surprise. “You’ve heard of him? I’m sorry. Not that many people read the old classics anymore.”
“I’ve read a few in my time. When I was a young man.”
The girl laughed.
“That must have been so long ago, huh?”
Ben looked down at himself, realizing his mistake.
“Not so long ago, really. I’m Ben. Ben Douglas.”
“Hi there Ben Ben Douglas,” she said, giggling. “I’m Lucy Alacoque.” She patted the grass next to her. “Sit down, Ben Ben. You must be tired from all that running.”
Ben sat down on the grass next to her. On that first day, he not only learned her name and what books she liked, but found that she too worked for the Yutani Corporation. He had gotten a little lost when she went into detail about the exact nature of her job, in one of the top-secret labs nestled away in the clinic.
When Lucy asked him questions about himself, he did his best to skirt the truth. He could by now remember a few details about his life, so he stuck to the basics — the small town where he had been born, what his father had done for a living.
But mostly they talked about books, and the ones they had liked the most. Lucy was amazed at how many he had read, but Ben was sure he couldn’t remember a tenth of them.
The shadows moved swiftly across the lawn, so intent were they on each other. When Lucy finally looked at her watch, she gasped, gathering her things.
“I’ve have to go, I’m so late,” she said.
Ben stood. “I hope to see you again,” he said.
“I know where to find you,” she smiled.
Ben watched her leave, the pale scrubs clinging to her as she walked away. He turned back towards the door that led to his wing of the clinic.
Something made him glance upwards. His eyes fell on the window of his room. One of the slats dropped back into place, and for a split second, Ben thought he could see something moving.
Maybe it was Ramirez. Was he spying on him? He walked quickly back into the clinic. He took the stairs three at a time, pumping the muscles in his thighs, reveling in the strength he now had. It took him only a few seconds to reach the stairwell door on the third floor. He crossed the hall, throwing open the door to his hospital room.
“What the hell are you –”
Ben stopped. The room was empty. He checked the bathroom off to one side, but the lights were off and there was no one there either. He returned to the corridor. It was a typically institutional design, long and featureless, dotted with standard furnishings.
Ben padded past the water-cooler to the swing doors at the end of the corridor. He stuck his head through, taking in the procedure room that lay vacant beyond. There was an elaborate console and a complicated-looking scanning device complete with rubber pad for the patient.
But there was no sign of life. Ben let the swing doors close gently. The corridor reflected briefly in the doors’ safety glass as it swung closed. Ben could clearly see a figure silhouetted in the doorway at the other end of the corridor. It was tall and thin, with a smooth head, but it was impossible to make out any other features.
Ben whipped around, but the figure was gone. Sunlight streamed through the doorway from the huge windows beyond. Ben ran the length of the corridor, the fluorescent lights buzzing past as he sprinted the short distance.
He caught himself in the doorway, scanning the room. It was a private one, furnished much as his was, but the bed was stripped and all of the instrument mountings were bare.
Ben returned to his room unsettled. He put the news on and lay back on his bed. Lucy Alacoque. It was an unusual name. He tried to remember if he had ever heard it before, but that just made his head hurt.
He tried to get some sleep, but he kept seeing the reflection in the door again. He knew there couldn’t have been anyone there, but he was just as sure he had seen something. A smooth, bald head.
* * *
When he finally slept, dreams came. Like a deluge held back by his waking hours, they flooded over his subconscious mind.
He was on the boat again. It was more vivid this time, and he could feel the sun-warmed deck beneath his bare feet. He was at the helm, the large brass wheel held loosely in his hands. On the prow of the ship stood a young woman, wrapped in a sarong, her hair streaming out behind her in the stirring breeze. She raised her hand, waving and smiling with squinted eyes. He waved back, trying to focus on the detail of her face, but the harder he tried the more the light faded.
The sky began to darken, the blinding sunshine mopped up by the thick clouds that rolled over the horizon at an unnatural rate. The calm seas around the boat erupted, throwing great swells at the ship. The deck pitched from side to side as the heavy seas threw the vessel skywards, only to let it come crashing back to the sea with tremendous force.
The young woman on the foredeck was thrown about like a rag doll. There was nothing Ben could do but watch as she was tossed over the side, her arm flailing out for purchase as she tumbled over the railing. Her wet fingers closed around a line as she fell, skinning her palm as she slid down the line into the water. She held fast, though, and Ben could hear her desperate cries over the roar of the storm.
But try as he might, he could move neither hand nor foot. He was forced to remain a witness as the girl’s cries became more fevered. Lightning lit up the dark sky as the storm hurled its full fury down upon the hapless vessel. Ben glimpsed the shadow of someone else on the boat, but darkness swallowed the figure as the lightning faded from the sky.
With the storm had come the rain, and Ben struggled to see clearly as the horizon was illuminated again. The figure had reached the line the woman clung to for safety, and when an intense fork of lightning struck, the image was burned into Ben’s mind.
The thin, bald figure, who appeared to be wearing some kind of waterproofs, leaned over the side, shouting something at the woman. Then he untied the line and let it go. The loose end of the line snaked around the cleat, through an eyelet and disappeared into the stormy darkness.
Ben screamed at the figure, but he couldn’t hear his voice above the noise of the storm.
He was still screaming when he awoke.
* * *
They had set him up with a comfortable, if not overly luxurious apartment. And occasional night terrors aside, Ben was beginning to enjoy his new life.
During his last two weeks in the clinic, he had met with Lucy almost every day. Besides a love of old books, they discovered they had quite a lot more in common.
She was only two years older than Ramirez had told him his new body was, and she was sharing an apartment with two girls only a short way from where his new apartment would be. So on the day before he was to be discharged, he mustered up the courage to ask her out for dinner.
She initially pretended to be shocked and surprised, but Ben had the feeling she had been waiting for him to ask. She played with him for a few minutes before saying yes.
And when he walked her back to her apartment, their bellies full, their faces flushed from the wine, she had stopped him on the doorstep and allowed him to kiss her gently on the lips. Then she whispered goodnight and disappeared into the building.
The pavement hardly touched Ben’s feet as he walked home. So lost was he in his newfound romantic cloud that he walked past his turn and straight down the boulevard.
It was late, and the streets almost vacant, but still for a time Ben didn’t realize that a figure walked just ahead of him. The hair on the back of his neck stood straight up when the man walked under a street lamp and the light reflected off a shiny bald head, bleached almost white in the artificial light.
Ben quickened his pace slightly, trying to close the gap. The bald man’s gait remained constant, but Ben couldn’t seem to get any closer. He broke into a half-run, but still the man stayed fifty yards away at least. He just kept walking, his stride wavering. There was no reaction when Ben called out to him.
Ben started running, using all the power his young muscles had to sprint towards the man, the street lights blurring as Ben raced past them. The rational part of Ben’s mind was telling him that the bald man must have been farther away when he first noticed him, but there was another part of his mind that was wondering if what he was seeing was real.
He started to slow up, wondering if he had too much wine at dinner. He remembered being no stranger to alcohol throughout his long life, but it suddenly dawned on him that this was surely the first time his new body had encountered the chemical.
He stopped, resting his hands on his knees to steady his spinning head. He looked up along the street to catch a glimpse of the bald man as he turned right into some sort of small park.
Ben started walking again, and when he reached the gate the man had gone through he found it securely locked. He rattled the chain on the gates ineffectively. There was no sign of his quarry. Had it been the same man he had seen in his dream? And what was so special about this park?
He pressed his face against the bars, peering into the dark, overgrown garden. There was a narrow path stretching from the gate through the hedgerow, and when a cloud slipped away from the half-moon, Ben thought he could see some kind of structure. He checked the pillars on either side of the gate. Sure enough, one of them bore a number and a letterbox.
It wasn’t a kind of park — it was a house, one hidden almost completely from the streets by a scattering of huge leafy trees. He looked again through the bars, but couldn’t make out much more detail. It was a two-storey house, rectangular in shape and angled slightly away from the street. There were no lights visible anywhere in the house or on the grounds, but when Ben checked the letterbox he found it empty and well oiled. Somebody was cleaning out the junk mail that poured through every letterbox in the city.
Ben backed out onto the asphalt of the road, trying to get a feel for the area, waiting to see if something might seem familiar. For all he knew, he might have owned this house once.
But it didn’t feel like he knew this place. The longer he stood, the more he felt like he had never been here before.
Maybe it was time to ask Dr. Ramirez a few more questions.
* * *
Ramirez was in his office when Ben arrived for his scheduled appointment. Ben waited until the doctor had completed his cursory physical examination before starting his questions. He asked Ramirez if he knew anything about the house in the overgrown garden.
Ramirez shook his head.
“It doesn’t mean anything to me.
“Are you sure? Is it anything to do with me? With my old life?”
The doctor pursed his lips and consulted his PDA.
“There’s nothing in your files connected with that address. It would appear that you have never owned, nor resided in that house.”
“What about friends? Family?”
The doctor tried to smile reassuringly.
“Mr. Douglas, as I understand it, you had no family, and few associates. By all accounts, you were something of a loner.”
“What else can you tell me, Doctor — about the man I was?”
“You have to understand, Mr. Douglas, that I didn’t know you personally before treatment began. You were a very wealthy man, and a talented financier. Incidentally, the Corporation wanted me to tell you that they will always have a position for you, if you feel the need to return to work.”
“I must have been very good for business.”
“But as to the rest of your life, I must confess I know very little.”
“Was I married? Children?”
“You have no children, I’m sure of that. It’s one of the conditions of the treatment. We only make this — special offer — to single men with no families. You were married, but I believe your wife died, years ago.”
“I’m not sure,” answered Ramirez. “But I believe it was some sort of accident at sea.”
Ben’s blood ran cold. He was about to ask the doctor if he knew anything else, but Ramirez spoke first.
“Whatever the case, Mr. Lazarus, you shouldn’t concern yourself with it. It all happened a very long time ago. We here at Yutani advise all our recipients to make a clean break from their first life.
“While you’ve kept your name, you have a new birth certificate and social security number. To all intents and purposes, you have a completely new life, but with the benefit of a lifetime of experience.”
Ramirez laid his PDA on his desk and rose to his feet, moving around the large steel and glass desk before perching awkwardly on it.
“Which is assuming that your memories have begun to return.”
“I can remember — things. Like being in college as a young man. And working in the Buenos Aires office, too. I can even remember what I was doing the night of the Millennium. But there are so many gaps.”
Ramirez nodded and made a guttural noise of agreement.
“Sometimes, the memories from the donor implant are not as complete as we would like, but some patients remember their lives more clearly than others.”
Ramirez returned to the other side of the desk and opened one of the drawers. He removed a small bottle of pills and tossed them to Ben.
“Those should help your memories return.”
“There are dreams, too — very vivid dreams. I keep seeing the same man. And I could have sworn that I saw him on the street, too.”
Ramirez nodded again, as if this all sounded familiar, or even expected somehow.
“It’s possible you have seen someone from your previous life. Although your new apartment is a long way from where you lived before, it is conceivable that you knew this person. In time, you may even remember who it is.
“And vivid dreams, even waking ones, are often part of the process of memory recovery. The pills I have given you should help regulate it. Have you had any other problems? Pain in your implant?”
“No,” said Ben, reaching up to the back of his head, searching through his hair for the baby soft skin that covered the implant.
The doctor stood up, signaling the end of the appointment.
“Please, Mr. Lazarus, if there is ever anything I can do to help, you know how to reach me.”
He shook Ben’s hand warmly. Ben was almost to the door when Ramirez called out to him.
“And remember, you have a rare opportunity. As you said to me in this office only a year ago, you now have the chance to live your life again. Even better than before.”
There was something in the last phrase that made Ben turn in the doorway. A very faint memory, one of a number involving the good doctor came to mind.
“Did you change anything? Is this body an exact copy of my old one?”
“Yes,” answered Ramirez instantly. “Except for one or two minor changes, your gene sequence was left unaltered.”
“What changes?” asked Ben.
The doctor picked up his PDA and tapped it a couple of times.
“Nothing major. A congenital defect in one of your knees that you said played havoc with your golf swing. And of course, the early male pattern baldness.”
“Are you okay?” asked Ramirez.
“I’m fine,” said Ben. “I remember now,” he lied. He thanked the doctor and left, his heart beating a panicked rhythm against his chest.
Male pattern baldness. Maybe it was just a coincidence, but Ben had to make sure.
* * *
Ben didn’t have to travel far to find a half-decent municipal library. He hadn’t ventured inside one for half a century at least, and he had to ask the librarian to show him how to sift through the media archives.
From a standard terminal, Ben was able to access over a century of archival data — everything from television news to old newspapers and Internet pages.
He searched, using the keywords that he thought might cut through the vast amount of information. His own name was the first he chose, adding ‘wife’, ‘sea’, and ‘death’ to narrow the search.
There were still almost a hundred hits. He began to flick through the various resources, and it was a half-hour before he found what he was looking for.
It was an article from a national newspaper. The article had run on page five, with a photo, but it was the headline that drew Ben’s eye:
WEALTHY SOCIALITE MISSING, PRESUMED DEAD
Underneath was a smaller headline:
MASSIVE SEARCH REVEALS NO TRACE
Ben read the rest of the article:
“Coast guard officials today finally suspended the search for the body of Jennifer Lazarus, 32, who has been missing for four days. She is survived by husband Benjamin Lazarus, 58, who raised the alarm on Sunday night after his wife was lost at sea.”
It went on to detail various standard-issue statements from a selection of local authorities — familiar platitudes about condolences and sympathies. Ben clicked on the photo icon, calling up a visual record.
There was a photo of the boat, and the moment he saw it, a deluge of forgotten memories came flooding back. He had been there the day they had laid the keel.
He could remember standing on the sea-soaked jetty over the dry dock, the salt air on his lips. The boat would make a phenomenal wedding present for his new wife, he had thought. That was why he was naming it after her.
Ben stared in horror as another picture loaded onto the screen. There was no need to look at the captions — he knew all too quickly who the two people were in the photo.
On the right was Jennifer. Her skin was heavily tanned, and covered with a bright-blue bikini top and matching sarong. Piercing green eyes caught the sunlight from behind the photographer, staring out from under a thick thatch of sun-bleached curly hair. She held one hand to her brow to stop her curls from blowing over her delicate features.
To her right, with his arm draped over her shoulders affectionately and wearing an icy smile, was the bald man.
This was the first time Ben had seen his eyes. They looked hauntingly familiar. Like those he had seen in the mirror that morning. Who else would be photographed with his wife on their boat before they set off on a romantic cruise? Before he looked at it, Ben knew exactly what the caption would read.
It was the last photo of Ben Lazarus and his young wife Jennifer, taken just before the cruise that would claim her life.
Ben hit the sleep key, and the monitor went dark. The photo stayed in Ben’s mind. Why couldn’t he remember? What was the meaning of the dream? Was the bald man he had seen the real Ben Lazarus?
Ramirez had been very clear — the transference of memories caused the death of the donor. So the bald man could not be Ben Lazarus. He had to be someone else. A twin?
Ben shook himself from his flights of fancy. The rational explanation was that it was some kind of side effect from the implant. He examined the pills Ramirez had given him, reading the instructions quickly. He stared at the bottle for a few moments, and then shrugged to himself. He opened the bottle and swallowed two of the tiny capsules.
He resolved to forget about the bald man, and to live his new life to the full.
“To hell with you, old man,” he snapped at the dark monitor.
* * *
And, for a time, Ben stayed true to his resolution. His memories slowly began to return. He appeared to have been some sort of workaholic, as nearly all of his recovered memories involved one kind of work colleague or another. Or the finer details of some hugely important account he had managed.
But he could recall very little else about the accident at sea or his young wife. The vivid dreams receded, forced back by the medication that Ramirez had given him, but there was still the matter of the bald man.
Ben stayed away from the house with the overgrown garden, but there were still times that he felt somebody was watching him. Times when the hair would stand up on the back of his neck, an icy chill creeping up his spine. He tried to ignore it, concentrating on some minor detail close at hand in an effort to distract himself. He would stare at the floor, afraid of what he might see if he looked up. He had convinced himself that the bald man couldn’t be real. He had to be a figment of Ben’s imagination. The pills helped.
The rest of Ben’s life went on. He saw more and more of Lucy as the weeks went by, aware that it had been a very long time since he had felt this way about a woman. He kept running, too, enjoying the sensations it brought as he raced through the streets. There was a simple physical exhilaration that helped calm his mind. He could remember all too well what it had been to be old and frail.
He had even visited the Yutani Corporation. The head of Human Resources had been one big smile, shaking Ben’s hand vigorously and rattling on about Ben’s special circumstances. There had been many changes since his retirement, but the global corporation had essentially remained unchanged.
The power of Yutani was immense. It had its fingers in almost every pie on the planet — from the lucrative medical technology business to the gold mine of international arms supply. Across the world, governments rose and fell, their fates dictated by faceless money men in an office halfway around the world. Ben could remember how the power felt like a drug. You could never get enough of it, and you would justify any action you took as long as you could get more. To be crossed, to be defied, they were like challenges — ones that had to be resisted. To win, to be the last man standing, that was the game.
And Ben Lazarus had been the last man standing. He had played the game all his life, and had won. He could remember spending the long afternoons in the nursing home thinking about it. About all that he had lost in pursuit of winning the game. About all that he had given up.
Being at the corporation wasn’t the same. The game held no appeal for him anymore, even given the chance to play it all over again, only this time with a head start. Maybe he did have Ben Lazarus’s genetic code, and his memories, but he didn’t feel like the old Ben Lazarus.
He felt like a new man.
* * *
The next day, he ran harder than ever before. His mind wandered as he ran. He thought about the next time he was to see Lucy. He couldn’t remember anything from his old life that had excited him as much as the time he had spent with her. He suspected that was because for whatever reason, he could remember very little about Jennifer.
He lost track of where he ran, his chest pumping furiously as he randomly turned right and left. He had no idea how far he had come when he finally paused for breath, his clothes soaked with sweat, his legs numb. He used the end of his T-shirt to wipe the moisture from his face, bent double as he caught his breath.
When he looked up, he was shocked to find himself standing once again outside the house with the overgrown garden. Even in the daylight, his eyes couldn’t penetrate the thick foliage. The large square house was sheathed in a thick blanket of ivy, the creeping fronds stretching leafy fingers across the crumbling masonry. A flash of movement in one of the upstairs windows caught his eye.
It was gone before his gaze alighted on the dark panes, but he was sure of what he had seen. A pale, bald figure, moving just beyond the window in the darkness. Ben watched for another few minutes, but saw nothing.
He elected to put the matter to rest once and for all. It was only an old house, and Ben felt it would be easier to get on with his new life if he could unravel the secrets that seemed to shroud this place.
He pressed the rusty buzzer on one side of the gates. The padlock was gone, but the chain was still wrapped around some of the bars. Ben hit the buzzer again, speaking tentatively into the intercom.
No answer came, but there was a metallic buzz followed by a click. Ben slowly pushed the gates open.
“Hello?” he called. Again, no answer came.
Ben picked his way through the tangled garden that threatened to swallow the path as it wound its way to the house. The thick brambles clawed at his jogging bottoms as he took uncertain steps towards the answers he sought.
It didn’t take him long to reach the front door, set into a crumbling porch that looked reliant on the support of the vegetation that coiled around it. The dark paint flaked off the door’s surface, but the heavy brass knocker looked like it had been recently polished.
Ben lifted it gingerly and let it drop. Even anticipated, the noise was enough to startle him.
“Come on in!” came a shout from inside the house. It was a woman’s voice, but unusually deep and powerful. “The door’s open!”
Ben pushed the door slowly, peering into the darkness. He stepped in, his eyes adjusting to the dim light. The house was cluttered and dusty, like stepping into an old museum. The furnishings in the foyer were all antiques — nothing was more recent than the Sixties or Seventies at the latest.
“In here,” came a call from a doorway at the back of the foyer.
Ben walked slowly towards the doorway. He half expected to run into the sinister bald man, and was greatly relieved to reach the doorway and find no sign of him.
It was a drawing room, preserved as it might have been decades ago. There was a woman, undoubtedly the source of the invitation, standing before a large fireplace. In her late seventies at least, she had long grey hair bound up atop her head. She wore a simple black dress with long sleeves and a high neck, and round black sunglasses hid her eyes. One hand rested on a metal cane, while the other arm supported her weight of years when she spoke.
“Hello,” said Ben.
“You make a habit of barging into old ladies’ houses, sonny?”
“I’m sorry about that,” stammered Ben. “But somebody opened the gate, and I –”
“I’m only kidding with you, boy,” she said with a hoarse cackle. Ben could only assume she was laughing.
“I’m too old, and too lazy to get up and answer the door. The garden tends to keep away most unwanted visitors.” She cackled again, throwing her weight onto her cane and limping across the floor to a very worn armchair. “What can I do for you, then?”
Ben wasn’t sure how to put this — he didn’t want to sound like a lunatic.
“I was looking for somebody. A man.”
The woman lowered herself with difficulty into an armchair. Once sitting, she waved her cane at a sofa on the other side of the weathered coffee table.
“Sit down, kid. What did you say your name was?”
The old lady raised an eyebrow, indicating she was not amused by Ben’s answer.
“It’s Ben Lazarus,” he added, sitting on the worn-out sofa. He could feel the sharp springs pushing through the thin upholstery.
“Well, Mr. Lazarus,” croaked the old lady. “I am Miss Johnson. And I am, to the best of my knowledge at any rate, the sole occupant of this house. And Lord knows, it’s been some time since I had a gentleman caller.”
She cackled again.
“What does he look like, this man you’re after? Is he a criminal?” This last possibility seemed to excite her. “Are you a policeman?”
“No,” answered Ben quickly. “I’m not with the police. And I don’t think this man is a criminal. At least, I’m not sure.”
He stared down at the floor before continuing. The carpet was as old as the furniture, any pattern long since worn from the now-thin pile.
“I’m not even sure he’s real,” he said.
For some reason, Ben found the old woman’s presence very relaxing. Over the next few minutes, he blurted out the story of the bald man. How he had seen him in the hospital, and again on the streets near this house, and finally in one of the upstairs windows. He did leave out, however, his unusual origins and the dreams the bald man had invaded, as well as his quarry’s striking resemblance to his former self.
Miss Johnson waited until she was sure Ben had finished his story, and then she made a peculiar clucking noise.
“Hmm,” she said, her lips drawn tight. “This calls for some refreshment.”
She struggled to her feet, waving away Ben’s offers of assistance. She scolded him, reminding him that she was not yet too old to show a guest some decent hospitality.
Once alone, Ben took the opportunity to have a nose around the drawing room. Grimy oil paintings hid behind dusty frames all over the walls, portraits of long-dead ladies and gentlemen of a forgotten age. A ceiling-high bookcase stood on one side of the hearth, packed with thick leather-bound books. It was countered on the other side by an equally impressive array of fine bone china.
Ben examined a few dusty ornaments on the mantelpiece. There were photo frames, the dirt so thick as to obscure their memories, and a selection of carved figurines from around the globe. He was turning an ivory elephant god in his hands when her voice startled him.
“Those were my mother’s.”
She was limping through the open door, pushing a delicate-looking hostess trolley. A Chinese tea set was laid on top, steam snaking from a tall, delicate teapot.
“This was her house. When she died, I decided I liked things just the way they were, and so they remain. Jasmine tea?”
“Thank you,” replied Ben. He watched as she filled one of the bowls and handed it to him. He instinctively held it between thumb and middle finger, touching the last part of the bowl to get hot. He tasted the tea, wincing at both the heat and the bitterness.
“I suppose you think I’m crazy,” he said, attempting a laugh to lighten the tone.
“No,” said Miss Johnson. “I don’t think you’re crazy. I’ve seen him too.”
Ben coughed, nearly choking on the hot liquid. “You’ve seen him?”
She nodded, sipping her tea and removing her sunglasses. Her eyes were closed, and she rubbed them with her fingers.
“You’ll have to forgive me,” she said. “I have a — condition — and my eyes are somewhat sensitive to the light. But I see well enough, or at least well enough to see him. ‘Course, when I saw him first, I thought I was crazy, too. Then I heard he was dead, and I understood. But I still couldn’t figure out why the old bastard was haunting me. And then he began to talk to me.”
Ben’s legs started to weaken. He rested some of his weight on the mantel, trying to absorb what the old lady was saying.
“Said they’d stolen his soul. That he couldn’t move on until he got it back, or something like that. Said he had a way to make everything right. ‘And what have I got to do?’ I asked the old bastard. ‘Just wait,’ he said. For you.”
Miss Johnson looked up at him, opening her eyes wide in the dim light. Two fiery emeralds stared out from the wrinkled face. They were all too familiar, and Ben felt their fire burning in his chest.
“You’re a clone, aren’t you?” she said, her voice suddenly cold and flat. “I’d seen it on the news, but I didn’t think they could actually do it. I mean, aside from the hair, and the fact that you’re so damn young, you’re exactly the same. The voice, the face — everything.”
The weakness in Ben’s legs spread to his lower torso and he was having trouble supporting his weight on the mantel. He dropped the bowl of far-too bitter jasmine tea and grabbed the dusty photo frame, his fingers scrabbling at the grime. Beneath was the photo of Ben and Jennifer before their fateful voyage. He turned back to the old lady.
“Jennifer?” he rasped. He found it difficult to breathe.
“I had no idea you knew about my affair with Antoine. After you cut my line, I realized you knew. And sure enough, when I finally did make it back to dry land, I found out that you’d had him murdered for good measure. I kinda thought I’d be better off if you thought I was dead after that.”
“I don’t remember –” croaked Ben. He was having difficulty speaking. The room spun suddenly and he crashed to the ground.
“Can’t remember what?” cackled Jennifer. “How you tried to kill your wife, Ben? How you had her lover gunned down in the street?”
She was standing over him, poking him with her cane.
“But I can remember. Enough for both of us. I’ve prayed for this moment for a long time, Ben, even after I knew it would never happen.”
She crouched down, her green eyes boring into his soul.
“And now look, Ben. Miracles do happen.”
Ben made one last attempt to communicate, flailing out with his arm and croaking. “I’m not the man I was!”
Jennifer Lazarus (nee Johnson) smiled a cold smile, reflecting the iciness that was creeping steadily along Ben’s limbs.
“And now you never will be,” she whispered, patting his cheek lightly.
And then, for the second time, Ben Lazarus died.
Jennifer stood up and reached into the pocket of her dress for a box of matches, lighting the cold logs in the hearth with the aid of crumpled-up newspaper. She took the photo frame from Ben’s cooling fingers and smashed it on the stone of the fireplace. She carefully removed the photograph and fed it into the growing flames.
She stood up, aware of the presence in the room with her. She turned to face the ghostly figure of the first Ben Lazarus. Cold dark eyes stared out of the bald, wrinkled head. It was like staring into two pools of blackest glass.
“Now go to hell, you old bastard,” she spat. “Where you belong.” *
About the Author: David Murphy is a self-styled bartender/philosopher/writer who lives in the gloriously grey city of Edinburgh, famous (amongst other reasons) as the birthplace of Harry Potter. He has had little work published, but did spend time working as a writer for a magazine in Spain and as the editor of his university newspaper, and has recently discovered a new love for the craft. David is largely focused on finishing his first novel.
(c) 2004 David Murphy email@example.com
About the Artist: Judith Warthen is a stay-at-home mom who is working to get herself published. Most of her work is Fantasy Realism.
(c) 2004 Judith Warthen http://www.primenightmare.com/