Science Fiction & Fantasy

IntheNightWood-Banner_Final_Lightspeed Oct 2018

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Fiction

Small Medicine

“You remember your grandmother,” they’d said to Sofia when she was seven, and she’d looked up and said, “Not this one.”

Her parents always told it smiling, like it was clever of her to have noticed Grandmother had changed; who could have told the difference, they asked each other, and her grandfather nodded his familiar amazement, and in the corner the machine that wasn’t her grandmother looked back and forth with a smile.

Her grandmother died.

It’s all right that she did; grandparents die. Peter at school’s grandparents had died.

But Grandmother must have known Grandfather would miss her too much, because she had herself copied, and Mori made a version of her that was perfect enough for Grandfather.

That first time they brought Grandmother to see Sofia, the machine bent over a little, rested open hands on her knees like anyone did when they were trying to be friendly to a child they’d never met.

“I’m Theodosia. Your grandmother.”

You’re not my grandmother, she thought, held out her right hand on the end of an arm stretched as long as it could go.

It was a very brief pause before Grandmother reached out to meet her handshake; in life, she had always been polite.

They must have programmed her to love telling stories more than her real grandmother had, because whenever her parents took Sofia to visit, Grandmother got her alone as soon as she could and tucked Sofia up against her side for reading. (She was squishy, like flesh, but always the same temperature—a little cool in summer and a little warm in winter—and if you pressed your hand hard enough to her side there was a curved metal panel where ribs should be.)

She’d read stories about foxes and mermaids and ghosts, about whales and the birds that lived in cracks in the mountains.

When her parents weren’t around, Grandmother read books about Tom, who had problems at school: because some kids were mean, because they didn’t have a work assignment yet and weren’t sure what they were good at, because they had done something wrong on a test and felt guilty until they confessed to the kindly schoolmaster.

“What was Tom assigned?” Sofia asked once.

“The book doesn’t say, little Sofa,” said Grandmother. It had been her grandmother’s name for her. Neither of them really wanted her to say it, and it scratched.

“Did he like it?”

“Assignments are given because of what you’re good at, little Sofa, not because of what you like.”

Sofia didn’t know anyone like this (these were charity kids who lived at their schools, not like a normal school), and at first it was like the mermaid stories, but she thought about Tom more than she ever thought about ghosts.

She asked her parents once, while working on her homework (polymer sculptures, smokeswirls of blue and gray, she hated it) what would happen to Tom if he hated his work assignment.

Next time they went to visit Grandmother, she read a story about monkeys who never come down from the trees.

“I want a story about Tom,” Sofia said.

There was a little pause; under her shoulder, something inside Grandmother was whirring.

“I don’t know any stories about Tom,” Grandmother said. “Would you like a story about a rabbit that lives in the snow?”

That was strange, Sofia thought, a cloud gathering inside her just above her stomach, but she said, “Yes.”

Grandmother pulled her closer, and opened the book so it was half on her lap and half on Sofia’s, so Sofia could help her turn the pages. Sofia’s shoulder pressed into Grandmother’s side, Grandmother’s arm a cradle, slightly cool, on the back of her neck.

Grandmother was the one who noticed Sofia’s neck was swollen; she was the one who first mentioned that something must be wrong.

The pharmaceutical company has ads for it now, in public, on buses for people to think about alongside vocational training and designer bags. Sofia always ends up right in front of one; a law of public transit.

There’s a picture of a Victorian nursemaid, hustling some dour sepia-tone children into a Technicolor future as doctors smile into middle space; there’s copy about medicine finally being able to take care of them the way you would if you could.

NANIMED, they named it, and honestly somebody should be ashamed of that branding. (She can imagine the hundreds of hours of marketing meetings that led to someone finally caving in to that.) The promise underneath: Small Medicine. Big Difference.

The fine print isn’t very fine. The costs are significant, but they’ve never pretended this is a solution for the people. The results are glowing, the benefits immense, the side effects minimal.

There hasn’t been a single death in the nano program. There wouldn’t be.

At Mori, we know you care.

We know you love your family. We know you worry about leaving them behind. And we know you’ve asked for more information about us, which means you’re thinking about giving your family the greatest gift of all:

You.

Studies have shown the devastating impact grief has on family bonds and mental health. The departure of someone beloved is a tragedy without a proper name.

Could you let the people you love live without you?

If they’d brought Grandmother back just for her, it would have been simpler. Worse, but simpler.

But when they come to visit, her mother’s eyes still get misty when Grandmother stands up to embrace her. Grandfather still sits beside her as they watch TV at night, and when they all go out for dinner he holds her hand to help her in and out of the car. She doesn’t remember him ever doing that for her real grandmother; maybe he needs to do it now. Sofia doesn’t know if a robot’s balance is better or worse than hers.

Well, not hers. She has the best balance of anyone she knows. She can do a dozen cartwheels and never even be lightheaded. The nanos make sure.

But she’s also seen whole days go by when Grandfather asks her about school and watches movies with her father and give off-kilter advice to her mother and never looks once at the corner where Grandmother’s sitting, eyes shifting with the conversation but mouth never moving, or sometimes not even that.

(They haven’t explained to her yet that Grandmother has settings, that you can close her off whenever you’re tired of her. She’s new to her nanos; maybe they just didn’t want to give Sofia any ideas.)

Technically they’re in her system to regulate her antibodies and moderate her immune responses.

“You’re lucky you caught it when you did,” the doctor told her parents, and they nodded like they’d caught anything.

“What will happen to me now?” Sofia asked. She remembers thinking of Grandmother’s metal plate, even though she could feel that nothing like that had happened. She couldn’t feel that anything had happened at all.

But it had, because while the doctor explained to her parents the wonderful side effects of nanos, he smiled calmly and made a cut with his scalpel above her knee, and before she could even open her mouth to cry the skin was furling back together, smoothing over. It still stung (psychosomatic, every doctor since had said when she told them it hurt), but there was nothing left of the injury.

If it wasn’t for the stream of blood that was already drying up, you’d never know there had ever been a wound. No one would have believed her if she’d told them.

They take the family on a trip the next year to celebrate; Sofia had always been a little tired, a little sickly, before the nanos, just enough that the trip now felt like something her parents had been wanting to do, and she’d been holding them back.

The resort is at the top of the mountain, surrounded by wide lawns and dropping off to views of the city in the river valley below. Her parents go skiing. Her grandfather spends long afternoons in the conservatory, speaking to a woman who looks a little younger than he is, who smiles at his jokes sometimes and sometimes looks away when he’s talking, and he has to talk about something else to get her to look at him again.

Sofia can see it from the library, wonders if he knows.

She ends up with Grandmother a lot, because when she doesn’t ask to spend time with Grandmother then Grandmother will sit in the hotel room all day without moving, and Sofia’s young (ten, maybe—a long time back) but she realizes that Grandmother likes having something to do, even if it’s only to read stories until the little thing inside of her starts whirring from activity and she needs to rest a little while before they get up.

The library has grown-up books, and Grandmother tries her best to wade through history and to make novels for grown-ups sound interesting. Sofia doesn’t care what they read; she’s mostly watching her grandfather.

“Do you see Grandfather?” she asks finally. It’s a direct question—Grandmother has to answer.

Grandmother looks up, where Grandfather is sitting at a table with the woman. They’re sharing a pot of tea. The woman is arguing with him. Grandfather’s laughing.

“He never did this when my grandmother was alive,” says Sofia.

“I remember,” Grandmother says; her voice sounds a little strained from reading.

But she isn’t angry, which she should be if Grandfather was leaving her alone like this—not like the machines that help you at the bank, that are always apologizing and never get angry.

You’re not my grandmother, she thinks, folds her arms, wonders why it stings.

“I want to go outside,” she says.

She’s embarrassed that she has to hold Grandmother’s arm—Grandmother’s balance on the rocks isn’t very good at all—and she purposely walks them all the way across the lawn, as slow as she can, so that everyone in the whole conservatory sees them. Sofia hopes they’re asking about that angry girl and that poor abandoned woman. They don’t have to know Grandmother’s a Memento. That’s not their business. Grandfather should feel as guilty as if she was real.

They end up at one of the overlooks, where there are a few chairs and tables left for guests to sit near the railing and enjoy the steep drop of the valley, the little pockmarks of all the houses.

The back of Sofia’s neck burns, and her hands are sweaty, and she hates everything, everything, that’s happening to her.

I could jump, Sofia thinks.

If she jumped, the nanos would repair her. They might blow out before they finished, depending on the damage and how fast they could breed, but by the time the paramedics reached her, her spinal cord would be laced up tight, her pulverized face propped up the way the nanos knew her skull should look.

(If she lived another hundred years, she’d barely wrinkle. Her skin would be pulled across the bone the way they’d all been told. She’d never look like Grandmother, no matter how old she lived to be.)

If she lived for more than ten seconds before the nanos gave out, she’d be able to see herself dying—the nanos are designed to think her eyesight is important, and it would be the first thing they improved if something went wrong. They have their orders.

“This is beautiful,” says Grandmother. “I wish your grandmother could have seen it.”

Sofia’s head snaps around; Grandmother’s smiling right at her.

“There you two are,” says her grandfather, and Grandmother turns, gives the smile her grandmother used to, says, “Have you seen the view? It reminds me so much of the year we spent in that penthouse apartment, where the trees looked like a dollhouse.”

Grandfather smiles (Sofia looks for signs of guilt, but with him she can never really tell).

“I remember,” he says, and takes her hand, and Sofia looks back and forth, betrayed.

She makes fists so tight they cut into her palms, but of course they heal; she doesn’t even notice until she gets back to the room and sees the blood already drying.

A memorial doll from Mori maps your memory and a personality sequence—the things that make you uniquely you—into a synthetic reproduction. The process is painstaking, and leaves behind a version of you that, while it can never replace you, can comfort those who have lost you.

Imagine knowing your parents never have to say goodbye. Imagine knowing you can still read bedtime stories to your children, no matter what may happen.

A memorial doll from Mori is a gift you give to everyone who loves you.

The next time her parents visit Grandfather, Sofia stays home.

She can’t claim she’s sick—that doesn’t hold much water any more. She claims a history project that requires a lot of dull reading they can trust her to do at home alone. “What’s she going to do, hurt herself?” her father asks on the way out, and her mother laughs softly. It’s an old joke between them. It’s a relief to have a child so well looked after.

Sofia’s a coward, when it comes right down to it. She tests limits—the depth of a cut, the length of it, the speed of the blade—but she never tests it with something that really matters. She’s never cut a finger off; if the nanos don’t get to her in time she’d have a problem.

(If they don’t heal the cuts in time, that’s different; then she’d just die.)

Grandfather and Grandmother come to visit in the winter, when holiday lights are everywhere and they can walk through the city that drowns out conversation, looking at the rhinestone dioramas and holographic models in every window and buying fresh sweet buns from a street vendor.

“Sofia, eat!” says her mother when Sofia tries to put half the bun in her pocket. She chokes it down.

(She tried to explain to her parents that the nanos are so efficient that she’s hardly ever hungry. They tell her to stop making up excuses. Some days Sofia just doesn’t want the argument.

Some days she wants to pick up the bread knife and cut right through her arm.)

Grandmother eats hers, same as everyone; she’s always had just the appetite she should. No one stares, all the time they’re out. Once or twice someone gives them a knowing look, like they had the same troubles with their Memento, before they stopped bringing it out.

“Mother, you should be smiling,” says her mother, and Grandmother smiles obediently, but her parents glance at each other and Sofia knows Grandmother’s not behaving like she should. They’ll be opening up her control panel on their computer when they get home, clicking at responsiveness and enthusiasm levels until Grandmother smiles when she’s supposed to.

Peter, from Sofia’s class, waves at her vaguely as he crosses the street with his father. She lifts one hand to him as they go by.

There are two little scars on his face from spots—you can’t see them from here, but she sits behind him in class. One is beside his nose and disappears when he smiles, and one is on his jaw; when he bends his head to his tablet to read notes, the little dark dry mark pulls for an instant at the soft skin of his neck.

They’re little imperfections; Sofia can’t stop looking.

Sofia’s father gets a chance to oversee the development of a subsidiary of his company. They spend a year in a country where Sofia speaks only a halting version of the language, a child’s use, and it makes her sullen not to be able to read as fast as she wants to. (It doesn’t bother her that she can’t talk to her classmates. Programming language is easy to translate, and she doesn’t see the point of making friends for just a year.)

Sometimes she sees a picture of a fox or a flock of birds and thinks about her grandmother, and of Grandmother, and turning the pages carefully as one of them read to her. When she’s that lonely, it doesn’t matter which.

But there are Vestiges in this city; they have the company brand on their arms so you know they’re not human—Mori orders—because otherwise there’s no way to tell.

The people who bring them out are always holding their elbows, their wrists, making sure they take drinks with their mark visible to the room.

Sofia thinks about Grandmother, gets knots in her stomach that never let up.

She stops going out places—museums and libraries and tourist traps always have someone there trying to get their Vestige to point at something, and at some point Sofia just stares at people’s wrists everywhere she goes, because it’s easier.

Her appetite drops so much they have to take her to a doctor to check the health of her nanos.

“They’re under strain,” the doctor says, and her parents look at her without understanding what the problem could be in a daughter who never gets sick.

They come home at the end of the year. The air, they tell their friends, was bad for Sofia.

Sofia’s fourteen when Grandmother comes to visit them.

“Your grandfather thought it would be nice for you to spend some time together,” her mother says, which means she needs a babysitter, and that her grandfather doesn’t want Grandmother any more. She wonders about the woman from the vacation on the mountain.

“Hello, Sofa,” says Grandmother, like it was the first time all over again.

Factory settings, thinks Sofia, and goes cold.

“It’s Sofia.”

Grandmother smiles a little wider. “Oh, come on, Sofa, a grandmother has to have her special names.”

You’re not my grandmother, she thinks.

“Your special name is a barcode,” she says.

She knows it’s cruel, but she still remembers the top of the mountain. She knows better than this. Grandmother knows that she knows.

There’s a little pause, Grandmother’s pupils shifting minutely as she recalibrates, and Sofia wonders if she looks like that too, when the nanos are hunting down something that’s the matter with her—if her eyes go unfocused as her body concentrates on something without her permission.

She waits to be chastised like her real grandmother might have (it’s been too long, she doesn’t remember), or for Grandmother to pretend she doesn’t know what Sofia means, but she only says, “It’s good to see you again.”

“Yeah, I’m programmed to be happy to see you, too,” says Sofia, closes her bedroom door behind her.

She sits down at her computer, pulls up Search.

Can you turn off a Mori, or is that a crime?

She asks for Grandmother’s password.

“Something’s different with Grandmother,” she says, sounding as solemn and grown up as they liked when she was a child. “I want to help.”

She sits up three nights in a row, reading through the code, reading through forums of Mori customers and Memento programming enthusiasts who probably have a talking head on their countertop.

Grandmother’s been recalibrated back to initial client specifications four times as much as factory settings would suggest. Either Grandfather has exacting tastes, or Grandmother has made some decisions her grandmother wouldn’t have made.

“Are you hungry?” she asks, halfway through making a sandwich, and Grandmother’s eyebrows go up before she can smile politely and say, “No, thank you, since you’re asking. But I’m glad you’re eating. I worry about your appetite.”

She scowls. “Did Mom and Dad tell you to say that?”

“No.”

“I don’t have to eat much,” says Sofia, makes her eyes as wide as the kid on the NaniMed poster, drops her voice in parody. “I’m being cared for.”

Blank response from Grandmother. Maybe she hasn’t seen the ads.

(They’ve moved the ads to TV; surely Grandmother’s seen them. The actress they hired for the ad looks nothing like the Victorian picture she comes out of, which is funny, considering that nanos can probably alter your appearance if you ask them nicely before you put them in.)

“I got nanos,” Sofia says, sits down next to Grandmother. Grandmother sets down her crossword and her pen. Everything’s filled out, perfectly; Sofia wonders how long she was in her room while Grandmother’s been sitting here pretending not to know.

“Remember? The year we went on vacation.”

“I didn’t know that,” Grandmother says.

Grandfather must have had her dialed down that year.

“Yeah. After you diagnosed me, they had them put in.”

“I’m sorry,” says Grandmother. “I’d hoped you just got well.”

That’s the first time anyone’s suggested she’s still sick; maybe it’s the first time anyone’s referred to the work of the nanos at all.

“How are they?”

Sofia looks up at Grandmother, holds out her hand for the pen.

She gouges her arm with it, a long practiced line from forearm to wrist that leaves a blue thread in the first welling-up of blood.

Grandmother doesn’t look at her arm. Of course not; Grandmother would know what it looks like when the nanos pull you back together and patch the seams.

Sofia watches her Grandmother not looking, counts down from ten.

“Two.” She stops. Her arm’s pristine.

“Guess they got faster,” she says, in a voice that feels like it’s trapped in a cavern.

Grandmother reaches out, his fingers hovering above the place where a scar should be. There’s an expression that looks like it hurts her to make; it comes and goes.

“I don’t like that you . . . why do you do it?”

Obvious question. She should have some offhand answer ready that makes her sound like a careless rich kid. But she’s never told anyone.

She shrugs. “I’m worried I’ll live forever. I’m not even angry. I just want to be wrong.”

Grandmother doesn’t say anything. After a little while Sofia settles against her.

“My grandmother’s name was Theodosia,” she says. She hadn’t known until she looked up the source code. “Did she like it?”

“Yes,” says Grandmother.

“Do you?”

After a little pause, Grandmother says, “Yes.”

As stockholders on a level of financial benefit you’re not supposed to mention in polite company, the family gets invited to a preview of the Mori exhibit that will be going up at the Modern Art Museum.

Moris Welcome, reads the card.

“Why wouldn’t they be?”

Sofia’s mother cuts her a look meant to shut her up, marks 3+M on the RSVP.

The day of, she knocks on Grandmother’s door and finds her dressed in her best afternoon suit, sitting straighter than her grandmother ever had.

When Grandmother stands up, she runs her hands along her skirt.

“You look nice,” Sofia says for no reason, and Grandmother looks up and smiles.

At the reception they clap politely for someone in Public Relations who gets up and makes a speech that’s quite carefully not talking about how public it’s about to make the memories of its obliging Moris, who signed the contract without striking the education clause. If Mori isn’t charging for the exhibit, it’s for academic benefit; nothing you can do.

Sofia tries to imagine a museum exhibit where her nanos are on display, alongside little flickering records of everything they’ve done to her body. How many times incision would come up. How none of them would ever say how Grandmother had read her a story a long time ago and noticed that something was wrong.

Her parents seem excited—Paul Whitcover has been curating the exhibit personally, which is the kind of press you apparently can’t buy. Grandmother, on her father’s left, looks straight ahead, as still as the year she was turned off.

“Please enjoy the exhibit,” the Public Relations woman says, “and thank you so much for letting us share with the world what your loved ones have meant to us.”

Almost everybody who stands up touches their Mori on the elbow, even though most of the Moris are already moving in the right direction.

Sofia flexes her hands in her pockets. Somewhere she can’t even feel it any more, the white blood cells in her body are marching her nanomeds where they need to go.

(They only do what they need to do, the doctors had told her, to reassure her. Your body gives all the orders. The human body is a remarkable thing.)

The exhibit has aesthetic components and explanations on how speech patterns can be recreated and anticipated by algorithms. Sofia hopes the person they used for the example on how to build a convincing facial structure gave permission, and that they’re not here to see half their face stretched over biofoam on one half of a head of gleaming chrome.

“The most amazing thing we’ve discovered,” Whitcover’s saying, modestly smiling like he can hear the music swelling behind him, “is that despite everyone’s individuality—and there’s infinite individuality—how many things we really share. We’re all alike in what we really value. It’s wonderful how alike we are.”

They cut to a building lobby in soft focus—there are no markers of a hospital, and Sofia suspects that’s on purpose. A man with gray hair at his temples comes out into the center of the frame, waving. The camera cuts to a tearful wife, her arm around a golden-haired child. The child waves back, beams, starts running. As they embrace, it fades back to Whitcover, his voice where their laughter should be.

“Mori’s work right now is to help one family at a time, but there’s hope, someday, that the work we’re doing can bring all of us closer together.”

The dark room behind it is enormous, ceilings like a cathedral, and a mosaic of memories. Empty landscapes and arguments and babies and the lowering of coffins, screaming fights playing out in silence, embraces so tight there’s no telling whose memory it is.

Sofia stares straight up for a long time. Her breath presses against the front of her throat, in and out.

At the edge of the dome, creased where it meets the wall, one of her grandmother’s memories: Sofia, seven years old, sitting cross-legged on the floor and solemnly paging through a book. There’s a scab on one knee; maybe her last one ever.

Her parents are wandering through vaguely, back out to the reception room.

Grandmother hovers near the door, neck craned. She’s seen it, too.

When Sofia’s close enough, Grandmother says, “I don’t think I would have let them do it,” her arms shoved into her pockets, frowning so hard Sofia can hear the metal straining underneath.

Sofia touches Grandmother’s elbow. Grandmother looks at her; Sofia looks back.

“No,” she says, “I don’t think you would have. Come on, they’ll be looking for us.”

They walk side by side through the party, waiting for a chance to go home.

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Genevieve Valentine

Genevieve Valentine by Ellen Wright

Genevieve Valentine is the author of the novels Mechanique, The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, Persona, and Icon. She has also written the comics Catwoman for DC and Xena: Warrior Princess for Dynamite. Her nonfiction and criticism has appeared at NPR.org, The Atlantic, LA Review of Books, and the AV Club. Her love of bad movies is evergreen; you can read about it at genevievevalentine.com.