Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Nearly Departed

“Three things,” I said, and held up a matching set of three fingers.

Nelson Nelson looked tolerantly amused. “Run ’em.”

“One—” I curled my index finger. “I don’t do empaths. Two—” I bent my ring finger. “I don’t get physical. Three—” I pointed the remaining finger at the old fox on the other side of the desk. “I don’t rob graves.”

The couch creaked as NN rolled over onto his back and folded one arm behind his head. “Is that all that’s bothering you? Kitta Wren hasn’t been buried.”

“I don’t do dead people. If God had meant me to pathosfind dead people, he wouldn’t have invented the Brain Police.”

A broad smile oozed over NN’s saggy features as he reached for a cigarette. He was smoking those lavender things again. They smelled like young girls. “What’s the matter, Allie? Are you scared of a dead person’s brain?”

“I’m scareder of some live ones I know. Fear isn’t the issue. I just have certain beliefs and this job you’re asking me to take goes against every one of them.”

“Such as?”

Sighing, I shifted position on my couch and scratched my forearm. The vulgar gold lamé upholstery NN was so enamored of was giving me a rash. You can dispute taste but you can’t stop it. “Such as, death is the end. The end means there is no more. Dead people should be allowed to rest in peace instead of having their brains plundered and looted for any last bit of—of treasure, like Egyptian tombs.”

“Eloquent. Really eloquent, Deadpan,” NN said after a moment. “You’re probably the most eloquent mindplayer this agency has ever employed. Someday you might talk yourself out of a job, but not this time.” He winked at me. “Actually, I respect your feelings. Those are good feelings, especially for someone who trades on the name Deadpan Allie.”

“Being deadpan doesn’t mean you don’t have feelings. You just don’t show them.”

“I personally don’t share them. I feel there’s a lot of validity in, say, going in and getting the last measures of unfinished music from a master composer who dropped dead at the harpsitron, or mining the brain of a gifted writer for the story that was unwritable in life. Postmortem art is highly regarded and a large number of artists, including Kitta Wren, signed postmortem art contracts. It’s a sort of life after death—the only one we know about for sure.”

I scratched my rash some more and didn’t say anything.

“Kitta Wren wanted a postmortem. It’s not grave robbing. If she hadn’t signed the contract, it would be different.”

“Kitta Wren was a five-star lunatic. She had a psychomimic’s license and when she wasn’t writing her poetry, she was bouncing off the walls.”

“Ah, but she was brilliant,” NN said dreamily. I blinked at him, astounded. I’d had no idea he liked poetry. “When it came to her work, she was totally in control. Somehow I always thought that control would bring her down. In a thousand years, I never would have guessed anyone would kill her.”

I wanted to tear my hair and rend my garment. “NN,” I said as calmly as I could, “I hate murder. I am not the Brain Police. If they want to find out who did her, let them send in one of their own to wander around in her mind.”

“Oh, they will,” Nelson Nelson said cheerfully. “Right after the postmortem.” A cloud of lavender smoke dissipated over my head as NN flipped his cigarette into the suckhole in the center of his desk. “The Brain Police can’t do anything until that’s taken care of. Otherwise whatever poetry is left in there could be fragmented and irretrievably lost.”

The rash had crept up past my elbow. I kept scratching. “There are mindplayers who postmortem for a living.”

“I’ll pardon the expression. Wren’s manager hired you. Come along, now, it’ll take you somewhere you’ve never traveled.”

“I’ve never been to the heart of a white dwarf star and I don’t see why I should go.”

NN exhaled with a noise that was almost a growl. “Do you want to work for me?”

“I’m thinking.”

He gave me that oozy smile again. “Deadpan, this is important. And you might learn something.” He raised up on one elbow. “Just give it a chance. If you can’t do it once you’re in, fine. But try it.”

I sat up, scrubbing my arm through my sleeve. “Don’t make a habit of signing me up for postmortems.”

***

My eyes popped out. I held them in my palms until I felt the connections to my optic nerves break and then lowered them gently into the bowl of solution. The agency’s hypersystem would have removed them for me, but I’ve always preferred doing that little chore myself.

I lay down on the slab and felt it move me head first into the system. Even blind, I could sense the vastness of it around me as it swallowed me down to my neck. It was the size of a small canyon, big enough to spend the rest of your life in just wandering around. All I wanted at the moment was some basic reality affixing and reassurance. If I was going to run barefoot through a dead lunatic’s mind, I needed all the reinforcement I could get. After an hour of letting the system eat my head, I almost felt ready.

I hadn’t been gassing Nelson Nelson as to how I felt about postmortems just to cover a corpse phobia. To me, you ought to be able to take something with you—or at least make sure it goes the same time you do—and if it’s your art, so be it. Hell, there were plenty of living artists with a lot to offer. Stripping a dead person’s mind for the last odds and ends seemed close to unspeakable.

I supposed the appeal of postmortem art was partly what Nelson Nelson had said—life after death. But there seemed to be more than a little thanatophilia at work. Art after death made me think of sirens on rocks, and I wasn’t the only one who heard them singing. Occasionally there’d be an item in the news-tube about some obscure holographer or composer—holographers and composers appeared to be particularly susceptible—found dead with a note instructing that an immediate postmortem be performed because the person had been convinced that the unreachable masterpiece he/she had been groping for successfully in life could be liberated only by the Big Bang of death.

So there’d be the requested postmortem and the mindplayer who hooked into the brain, which was all wired up and floating in stay-juice like a toy boat lost at sea, would come out not with a magnificent phoenix formed of the poor deader’s ashes, but with a few little squibs and scraps from half-completed thoughts that had turned in on themselves, swallowing their own tails for lack of substance, vortices that had gone nowhere and never would. Some people aren’t happy just with being alive. They have to be dead, too.

At least Kitta Wren hadn’t been one of those. The information Nelson Nelson had dumped into the data center in my apartment was freckled with little details, but rather sketchy taken all together. I punched her picture up on my screen and sided it with her bio.

She’d been a very ordinary woman, squarish in the face, with a high forehead and medium brown untreated hair. Her only physical affectation had been her eyes. Since the advent of biogems, everyone had at least a semi-precious stare. Jade and star sapphires had always been popular choices and moonstones proliferated among entertainers of the more mediocre stripe. I hadn’t seen very many people with my own preference for the shifting brown of cat’s-eye and it takes a certain coloring to carry off diamonds effectively, but Kitta Wren had gotten herself something I’d never seen before.

Her eyes seemed to be shattered blue glass, as if someone had deliberately smashed the gems before putting them in. Her pupils were spiderwebbed with white cracks. I enlarged them for detail and paused, staring at them. I was wrong. Her eyes weren’t spiderwebbed with cracks—they were spiderwebbed with spiderwebs, thickened as if coated with dew or frost. “Come into my lunatic parlor,” I muttered, wondering if the webs had been a manifestation of her psychosis, or some kink she’d always wanted to indulge, or if there was any way of separating her own ideas from her psychosis.

She’d gotten her psychomimic’s license at nineteen and spent the five years after that almost continuously crazy, with a few months off here and there for extended periods of writing. Later she had begun limiting her psychotic times to summers while she worked on a cycle of poetry. The result, a long series called Crazy Summer had given Wren her first major recognition. From there, she’d gone to being crazy only at night, then only during the day, and once she’d spent six months orbiting the moon in high mania.

When she died, which had been—I punched for the date—just the day before, she’d been a week into a general schizophrenia no one seemed to know anything about. Cause of death—I blanched a little—disembowelment. There was a photograph of her office where she’d gotten it. She’d been strong all the way to the end, going clear across the room before collapsing. Dead just under an hour when her manager had found her. Not too bad—five hours was about the limit for an untreated brain. After that, it’s not worth trying to hook in with it. No suspects and no murder weapon; the Brain Police were holding off their investigation of her brain until after the postmortem was performed. Standard procedure—their technique tended to wipe a mind clean.

Under Miscellaneous, I found a small picture of Wren’s manager, a gold-skinned androgyne named Phylp with fan-shaped eyebrows. The request for a pathosfinder was entered as well. It seemed Phylp wanted someone who wouldn’t treat her like just another deader. Sounded to me as if Phylp were hoping Wren hadn’t left behind as little as he/she suspected.

***

A morgue is a morgue is a morgue. They can paint the walls with aggressively cheerful primary colors and splashy bold graphics, but it’s still a holding place for the dead until they can be parted out to organ banks for burial in the living. Not that I would have cared normally, but my viewpoint was skewed. The relentless pleasance of the room I sat in seemed only grotesque.

The other two people in the room didn’t see it that way. One had introduced himself as Matt Sabian, postmortem supervisor. The other was unmistakably Phylp. He/she overshadowed Sabian despite the latter’s silver hair, garnet eyes, and polished skin. Phylp was the flashiest androgyne I’d ever seen—most of them preferred no higher an appearance profile than anyone else, but Phylp handled major talent. It was probably advantageous to have such a memorable manager. If anyone could remember the talent after seeing the manager, the talent must be pretty major. Show biz.

“I understand this is your first dead client,” Sabian was saying. The absurdity of the statement made me want to laugh, but they don’t call me Deadpan Allie and lie.

“Up till now, I’ve worked only with living minds, yes.” I sneaked a glance at Phylp, who was more arranged in a chair than seated in it.

“You shouldn’t have any trouble,” Sabian said. His voice had an odd hint of disappointment. “Your own mind will have to provide a good deal of visualization, except for her memories and the like, so I hope you’re not given to bizarre symbolism. Other than that, everything in a living mind is present in a dead one. Except life, of course. We leave this world as we come into it—without thoughts, personality, memories, talent. When life fades, it leaves these things behind, just like any other material item we have. You’ll have to actively stimulate the mind to obtain any of them. It can’t offer you anything voluntarily. It takes life to do that.” He pulled his left ankle up onto his right knee and played with the elastic cuff of his pants. “It’ll be very much like hooking into a computer program of Kitta Wren’s identity, actually.”

I sat up a little straighter. “But it’s not really that simple, is it?”

Sabian opened his mouth to answer but Phylp spoke up for the first time. “That’s why I wanted a pathosfinder for her.”

“Pardon?” I asked.

“Someone who would understand that it’s not just a matter of searching out data.” The throatiness I had momentarily taken for emotion was Phylp’s normal speaking voice. “I want whatever it is that comes out to come out sounding alive. Because she was alive when she created it.”

Sabian pointedly did not look at Phylp, who returned the favor. It clicked for me then. Sabian, postmortem supervisor. If Phylp hadn’t insisted on hiring a pathosfinder, Sabian would have been doing this job. A nice sweet plum of a job, too, doing a postmortem on someone of Kitta Wren’s stature. I did a sight reading of his Emotional Index, but I couldn’t tell who he was angrier at, me or Phylp. I supposed I could understand how he felt, but it was still extra stress I didn’t need.

“How well did you know Kitta Wren?” I asked Phylp.

“Not at all. I managed her, but she was a stranger to me.”

That was a lot of help. “What about family?”

“Only two brothers. One is at the South Pole. The other is under the Indian Ocean in a religious trance.”

“Do you know anything about her early life?”

Phylp almost looked sheepish. “Only that her parents gave the children to the state and vanished.” He/she spread his/her hands gracefully. “That’s all anyone knows. In the five years I’ve handled her, she never showed the slightest inclination of opening up to me or anyone else. It was a major disclosure if she told me she liked her contracts.”

“That sort of self-isolation isn’t exactly normal behavior for a poet, is it?”

“Nothing about her behavior was normal.” Phylp frowned at me. “She was crazy. All the time she was crazy, and when she wasn’t, she wanted to be. God knows what she got out of it. I don’t.”

Her poetry, apparently. I turned my attention back to Sabian. “What about the psychotic dead mind? Is the psychosis still operable?”

“Very much, though in a strictly mechanical way. And it probably doesn’t know it’s dead.”

I hesitated. “Which do you mean—the psychosis or the mind?”

“Both, I would think.”

“How does a mind not know it’s dead?”

Sabian’s chin lifted defensively. “How does yours know it’s alive?” I didn’t answer. “It’s the same question, really.” Not the way I saw it, but I let him go on. “Minds contain information, but it takes the presence of life for it to know anything. What does a computer program know?” The polished skin stretched in a tight, triumphant smile, as if he’d given me a glimpse of Big Truth.

“And where is the brain?” I asked after a moment.

“Here.” Sabian pointed his toe like a dancer and pressed a panel in the floor. A section of the far wall slid back and there it was. What had waited behind Kitta Wren’s spiderwebs in life now hung in a tall, clear canister of stay-juice, trailing wires like the streamers on a Portuguese man-of-war. The wires went down through the bottom of the canister to the maintenance box, which kept a minimum number of neurons firing. Two more wires leading from the visual center were coiled on top of the canister.

“We’re still within the optimum time to go in. In another day, the neurons will begin to cease firing efficiently and after that deterioration will be rapid. I hope you’ll be able to get everything on the first try.”

I hoped so, too.

***

They left me alone so I could set up my portable system. Assembling the three large components and five smaller ones was a kind of busy work. There are comparable systems that need no assembly, but there’s a lot to be said for the ritual of preparation as relaxation therapy. I never needed it more than I did just then.

I worked in silence, rolling the system over to the brain and then fitting the pieces together until I had the familiar unbalanced-looking but actually quite stable quasi-cubist structure. Nothing showed in the way of circuits, wires, or guts of any kind. Good equipment, NN was fond of saying, doesn’t have to show its guts.

Pulling out the drawer with the connections and thermal tank for my eyes, I paused. I would have hooked a living client into a relaxation exercise such as making colors, building landscapes, or running mazes, but what could I do with a dead one? It couldn’t get much more relaxed. Or could it? I wouldn’t have thought. On the other hand, I wanted it functioning a little more than minimally when I made contact.

In the end I decided on some abstract moving visuals since I would be connecting directly with the visual center anyway. I dragged over one of the chairs and made myself comfortable.

Despite the apprehension I’d felt about the job from the beginning, something like professional reflex took over. It didn’t take any longer than usual to calm myself into a smooth, alert state of receptivity. I had positioned the thermal tank on the maintenance box next to the canister, where I could reach it easily. When I was absolutely sure of its location, I thumbed my eyes out and let them down into the solution. It never ceased to amaze me how well I could function blind, but most mindplayers had superior short-term eidetic memory.

I had only to hold the system connections under my eyelids; they crept in and found their way to my optic nerves by themselves. After a few moments, awareness of my body faded and I was through the system and in Kitta Wren’s mind.

***

Every mind is different. Every mind is the same. Those are the first two laws of mindplay. Recognition in an unfamiliar land always came as a surprise to me no matter how often I met clients mind-to-mind. I was even more surprised to find that the initial impressions and sensations of contact with Kitta Wren’s mind were not dissimilar to those I associated with living minds.

Normally I would have made my presence felt gradually so as not to startle my client by bursting in like an invader. But this client couldn’t know that trauma and I was coming directly into the visual center instead of the less abrupt route through the optic nerve. After the usual slight disorientation of passing through the barriers of personality and identity, I found myself in the thick of random pictures and arbitrary memories. Around me, the mind seemed to tense as it felt the addition of something new and unpredictable. Then it ground on as before, accepting me as just another thought.

The abstract visuals program was still running and I was awash in lazy spiral rainbows and harlequin rivers. I set it for gradual fade-out. The program’s wane uncovered more of the brain’s own pictures, some of them mundane objects remembered for no reason, some of them vignettes from Kitta Wren’s life. I let them swirl around while I decided on the best way to go about the postmortem. Hitch a ride on a memory? Follow a random thought? Get hold of some false starts or blind alleys and reconstruct them?

I had caught a false start when the mind tried to think me. There was almost no warning. The false start was in my grasp and I was receiving multiple over- and undertones accompanied by the memory of its creation and the frustration Kitta Wren had felt before finally giving up on it. A walk in the rain in the middle of the night during late summer. Taste of rain dissolving on lips and tongue and the first line. Do I drink the rain or does the rain drink me . . . drink? Think? I was searching it for possible salvage when the mind clamped down on me and Kitta Wren’s old, unfinished poem together.

It thought the poem piece by piece, starting with the memory. It remembered the night and then the season (why not the season and then the night, I wondered), and then moisture, pausing to associate it with varieties of wetness. I was overwhelmed by the smell of the ocean, followed by a brief image of a coffin covered with barnacles lying on the sea bottom. The taste of rain returned more strongly, eradicating the picture of the coffin (my brother, that’s all) but not quite managing to suppress a fleeting thought of snow. Do I drink the rain . . . I drink the rain and the rain drinks me . . . drinking the rain I am drunk and am drunk by drunken rain . . . The mind niggled and gnawed out each variation from the original line (what was it about rain that fascinated poets, anyway?). When it was through, I was next.

I made a mask of my face and then took it off. The mind reached down for me in its purely mechanical probing and I threw my face into its processes. Traveling at the speed of thought, my face was everywhere as the mind tried to find the correct association for it. Curiously, I saw it materialize on the smooth, blank surface of a writing slate before I slipped through a half-remembered dream—images of cold stone carvings on a cathedral wall and a quick impression of I should write about a mad cathedral—and found myself down in Kitta Wren’s back burner.

There isn’t a mind in the world that doesn’t have a back burner and it was usually a lot more difficult to get a client to open it up. Sometimes the incomplete puzzlements and notions stewing there were capable of growing into full-fledged ideas; other times they changed into false starts or shrank away into un-existence. Kitta Wren’s back burner was so full of images that some of them were teetering half-dissolved on the edge of forgotten, as if she had deliberately pushed every idea that occurred to her to the back of her mind and then tried to forget all of them. Not the most productive way to work. I propelled myself through them to see what I might be able to salvage, which, I thought, would yield more results than looking at material she’d given up on. I was learning.

It was like holo-collage, the self-indulgent beginner’s exercise for holographers who aspired to feature-length work, with her inner voice fading in and out where she had found words to go with the pictures. In quick turn I was looking up from the bottom of a deep, narrow hole at a circle of innocent blue sky, staring across the surface of a bed at eye level, watching two people, their faces in shadow, touch hands and listening to the indistinct murmur of their low, womanly voices (each was Wren). I was caught in a storm in the desert with rare rain beating straight down (there was that rain again, she seemed to return to it over and over), observing a street scene populated only by machines with my cheek pressed against the pavement, tasting an empty cup and pretending there was something in it. I went back and reviewed that last one to see where she’d gotten it.

Something from nothing, Kitta Wren’s intelligent inner voice said. Something from nothing. I saw a chrysanthemum in the bottom of the cup; it metamorphosed from live to painted on. The center of the flower was an eye. Something from nothing. I fill me with something from nothing.

I had almost focused on what she had meant to taste in the cup when I began to get the feeling I wasn’t alone. Which was absurd—even she wasn’t there anymore. I turned my attention from the cup and waited. Possibly what I had felt was the mind reaching out for me again. Lowering my energy level as much as possible, I moved in among the jumble of unfinished ideas and waited. Rain punched dents in the sand. The sideways view of the street shimmered in the soggy desert sky like a mirage.

The mind spasmed. I had given it a new combination of thoughts to think by the way I had juxtaposed her old fragments. It fixed on me just as the madness hit.

That was what I had felt approaching, her psychosis, and it struck like a concentrated, highly localized storm. I thought my perception of it had been colored by my exposure to the desert scene, but it remained stormlike even after the mind separated me from its own familiar concepts, and I realized the nature of what Kitta Wren had done to herself.

Had she still been alive, I would have been witnessing a localized psychotic episode, a variety of seizure meant to produce not a convulsion but an altered state of consciousness. Except there was no consciousness. The seizure tore into her ideas and images and they flew up, dropped, rose again and fell flat with no one to pick them up and use them. The rest of the mind seemed to come to a standstill while the storm raged on. She’d been hoping for a literal brainstorm, a creative madness that would tear through her mind, stirring her thoughts into new and better patterns, giving her the stimulation she had refused to seek outside of herself. The mind seemed to shimmer and its perception of me grew vague. I slipped away down to an area of learned reflexes and automatic behavior to wait things out. As soon as the seizure had passed, I would go back, collect her ideas, memorize them and get out. Phylp had been wrong. I would have to treat this strictly as a data retrieval operation, I couldn’t deal with the mind as if it were living.

Reaching for a cigarette with only a dim awareness of the act I/she felt the first pain. I/she looked down at the slate on the desk and the stylus in my/her hand. It gleamed like a knife. (Memory run; it was a go; humans keep memories packrat style, who would have thought this one would be in Habits and Mannerisms?) But it couldn’t cut away the blankness of the slate to reveal the words that should have been there. Stuck in my/her brain.

Then I was past the memory pocket and the mind had me again. Tropism. I should have known. Minds were meant to live and be conscious. Except there was no consciousness but mine. And if mine was there, then the mind must be alive.

Alive. It pulled at me and I passed through the psychosis like a kite in a high wind. The madness clutched at me, searching for a way in almost as if it were a separate, living intelligence as alien as I was. I tasted anger and spat it out; it came back to me distorted, a sea of strange faces registering disappointment, confusion, and hate. Kitta Wren’s view of the world, vinegar laced with poison. The mind dragged me onward and I went, trailing the madness and the memory and the madness of the memory through the fireworks display of her emotional life.

Something from nothing. I looked to see who she was speaking to but there was no one. Just an affirmation. Give me nothing, I take nothing. Offer me nothing; thank you. His eye may be on the sparrow but the Wren looks out for herself. She had worked hard for her unhappiness and her mind showed her efforts to me as though they were trophies and prizes. A coffin under the Indian Ocean, something she’d never seen, an image invented and embellished for her own meditation. A silhouette in a blizzard at the bottom of the world. Empty pedestals labeled Mother and Father and an arena of thick, sweaty faces demanding a show, their greedy voices orchestrated by a golden-skinned androgyne. Give them what they want. Something from nothing. Give me nothing. You take something.

In her office, she faced the invisible, hungry multitude. Her mind tried to push me back into the memory but I clamped down and kept out of her perspective. The seizure had leaked into her visual center and the slate on the desk swelled to enormous size. She backed away from it, hallucinating patterns on the slate. Faces again. Give them what they want.

The pain doubled her over. She straightened up slowly, both hands on her belly. There was a dark stain on the stretchy material of the secondskins, just below navel level. Something from nothing. Give them what they want. Her fingers gripped the cloth. Psychotics frequently displayed extraordinary physical strength. And then there were those with a touch of telekinesis, unusable until a moment of crisis. It didn’t matter if the crisis took the form of a hallucination brought on by an anxiety attack.

Her hands fell away. She didn’t explode, or convulse, or even scream. She simply opened up and thirty years of misery poured out.

The memory went black, along with everything else. Then the mind stirred itself again and wrapped around me. Kitta Wren may have died, but her mind wanted life. Any life. Mine would do just fine.

Listen, she said. The memory was so worn only her words remained. All they want is the show. Give them what they want, but never ask anything of them. Something from nothing. The Wren looks out for herself.

I pulled back, preparing to withdraw. The mind flexed and the feel of it was almost plaintive now. Without warning I was face to face with the image of Kitta Wren as she had been, spiderwebs glistening. They still looked like shattered gems at first glance and they always would. I concentrated on that thought, sending it toward the image in steady waves. After some timeless interval, new lines appeared in the webs, running like fissures. The mind fought, trying to maintain solidity, but I was right. The cracks crept over her face slowly. I had to strain to keep them going, but they went, dividing her forehead into myriad little territories, fragmenting her cheeks, sundering her mouth. The image shuddered, almost held, and then just came apart, every piece sailing away from every other piece. When they were all gone, I withdrew without difficulty.

The first thing I saw after I put my eyes back in was the brain in the canister. The stay-juice looked milky now, a sign of imminent decay. Without really thinking about it, I leaned forward and shut the maintenance box off.

***

Nelson Nelson held up an official-looking chip-card. “This is a lawsuit.”

I nodded. He put the card down on his desk and picked up another one.

“And this is a lawsuit.”

I had my own card and I held it up. “And this is a countersuit. In case anyone actually has the nerve to go to court.”

NN looked tired. “Everything’s already being settled out of court. The agency took your side of course. No one can say I don’t back my people, isn’t it so?”

It was so. But I could tell by the way that puckered old mouth was twitching that he’d probably thought about filing against me himself for taking it upon myself to shut off the maintenance box. If the morgue laboratory had not come out and said that the composition of the stay-juice had indicated degeneration beyond the point where the mind could be re-entered, I would most likely have been signing my next thirty years of salary over to Nelson Nelson.

“Why’d you do it, Deadpan? What got into you?”

“She was dead. And nothing at all got into me.”

“Sabian says the brain couldn’t have deteriorated so quickly between the time you went in and the time you came out. Could it?”

I didn’t attempt an answer right away. The brain had been a lot deader when I came out than it had been when I’d gone in. I kept thinking in the back of my mind that I had something to do with it even though I couldn’t have proved it one way or the other. Was there telekinesis after death as well as art? I didn’t know and didn’t want to know.

“Maybe the solution was defective,” I said after a bit. “Or hadn’t been changed often enough.” That was the argument in my countersuit anyway, that Sabian had allowed me to hook into an unstabilized brain, which caused me to act in an irresponsible manner by shutting my client off instead of calling for him so he could do it. Sabian was just bitched because it meant he couldn’t enter the mind after I was through to do his own little postmortem, figuring he could sell Phylp all the stuff I’d missed. He wasn’t gassing me. Nobody filed a lawsuit over a protocol violation.

NN shrugged. “Phylp’s charge is more serious.”

“Seriouser and seriouser. It’ll never hold up. He/she got all the postmortem fragments I could find. I had them all memorized. I did my job. It’s not my fault he/she thinks none of them were worth the effort. And he/she can’t sue me for the wrongful death of someone already dead.”

“It’s a little more complicated than that, Allie.”

“But that’s what it amounts to. He/she’s charging that before I broke contact—”

“Prematurely broke contact.”

“—I dissolved her Self and killed her a second time, compounding that by turning off the box.”

“That’s the way it looks in the transcript of your report.”

“That’s the way it was.”

I thought Nelson Nelson was going to choke. I sat up, rubbing the small of my back with both hands.

“Just between you and me, NN, yes. That’s exactly what I did.”

He reached down and fiddled with something on the side of the desk facing him. Of course; he’d been recording. He was always recording. This one would have to be doctored.

“You know how a dead body will twitch when you send a current through it? A dead mind’ll do the same. It takes more than current, but it’s a good comparison. They had the neurons firing so well, it forgot it was supposed to be dead, and it tried to use me to come back.”

“Could it have?”

“I don’t know. It didn’t work. I killed it.”

“But what do you think?”

I sighed. “Possibly I might have ended up incorporating elements of her personality and some of her thoughts and memories. Then you’d have had to have me dry-cleaned to get rid of her.”

NN raised his invisible eyebrows. “Now there’s an interesting situation.”

“Not for me. I wouldn’t want any of that woman in me.”

“I mean in terms of the legal definition of existence. If such a thing had happened and the agency did have you dry-cleaned, would we, in fact, have been killing her all over again?”

I glared at him. “No. She was already dead.”

“But if she returned to life in you—well, never mind, Allie. It’s just an intellectual exercise at this point.” He waved the subject away. “All this aside, tell me. Did you learn something?”

From a bitter woman who had literally torn herself apart? “I learned she shouldn’t have been buying psychoses. She was already fogged in.”

“No, now really, Allie. Wasn’t there anything in there at all—some insight, or a vision beyond—ah, any final knowledge of any kind?”

I lit a cigarette by way of stalling. How old was Nelson Nelson anyway? And how old was he expecting to get? I wanted to tell him that if there was an answer—or an Answer—it wouldn’t have been in a dead mind because you couldn’t ask the right questions in there. If you don’t know now, you can’t know then. Instead, I lay down on the couch again and blew smoke at the ceiling. “Life’s a bitch. Then you die.”

I could almost hear NN’s mouth drop. There was a long, thick moment of silence and then he began to laugh. “That’s a good one, Deadpan,” he said finally, wiping his eyes. “You almost had me there.”

I’d almost been there myself, but I just grinned as if he had caught me out. For his own sake, I hoped he always thought it was funny. Just to be on the safe side, I put myself in for dry-cleaning as soon as the lawsuits were settled. Just to be sure.

© 1983 by Pat Cadigan.
Originally published in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine.
Reprinted by permission of the author.

Pat Cadigan

Pat Cadigan sold her first professional science fiction story in 1980; her success as an author encouraged her to become a full-time writer in 1987. She emigrated to England with her son in 1996. She is the author of fifteen books, including two nonfiction books on the making of Lost in Space and The Mummy, a young adult novel, and the two Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning novels Synners and Fools. Pat lives in gritty, urban North London with the Original Chris Fowler, her musician son Robert Fenner, and Miss Kitty Calgary, Queen of the Cats. She can be found on Facebook and Google+, and tweets on Twitter as @cadigan.