Interlude Part I: The Tower & Interlude Part II: XIII




Interlude Part I



“Sculptor Adams…” she said, politely dismissing herself with a slight nod.


“Oh, yes, have a good evening, Maria,” the sculptor replied with airy courteousness; clearly, his mind was elsewhere.

Closing the heavy, oaken door to his office with a soft click, Maria stepped into a grand hallway; immense with the emptiness of its corridors, it seemed to reflect the dreadful hollowness opening up in her heart.

‘What is wrong with me…’ she wondered, throwing back her head and sighing loudly. It was immensely frustrating: she had felt so sure of herself, so sure that she was somehow ‘over’ everything that had happened; but in an instant, all that confidence had vanished, and she saw the wall she had erected around her heart; and now it was crumbling to the ground to reveal a frightened young woman, naked against the entropy swallowing up the world.

But she never would have told him that. ‘That smug bastard…’

Trying not to think about what the sculptor would have to say, she took an exasperated breath, her emerald eyes drifting slowly open. High overhead, an enchanting display played across the vaulted ceiling: delicate wisps of sand spiraled exuberantly amongst colossal, rose tinged cumuli, endlessly shifting within the confines of a charming art style. She found solace in the hologram’s soothing light, and smiled at how it reflected the sanguine display of the sky earlier, but the feeling of comfort was gone nearly as it came; she was no longer able to escape the Pandora’s box of memories that had been opened.

Once more the crying voices rang out in her head, crashing remnants of that world-rending night; and once more, she felt powerless against the hell she had unleashed. Even now, she could fully recall the dull, sickly feeling pulling at the base of her spine and the back of her heart; it was as if everything that made her distinctly unique had begun to detach itself, ready to depart and leave her body a soulless husk for all eternity.

The crushing feeling had stayed with her for days, prodding and chiding her like a mean spirited child, or dulling her sense of the world to the point that life no longer seemed liveable. But when it subsided, the voices—screaming, shrieking, damning—seemed only to find more clarity in her consciousness, sometimes following into her dreams… She hadn’t lied to the sculptor: the events of that night really had become a part of her. And now it was tearing her up inside.

Her eyes began to swell and burn gently. How could this be happening? Was it because of the therapy? Was it just overdue? All at once, her heart felt hard and dull; her spine stiffened; and she could feel the judgment of the world, pressing down upon her—if it had had a voice, she knew, it would have called out and shattered her into dust.

The feeling from the lab was back.

‘Why… why is this happening…’ Had she kept it at bay by pretending that she was invulnerable? Somehow separate from it? Maybe, but… sculptor Adams was right. And she would have resented him for it if she didn’t feel the walls closing in on her.

She had to get out, go home, go anywhere. Anywhere but here. Her hand bumped around in her purse, its dark, leathery recesses distorted by the tears in her eyes. ‘Sunglasses, folded cloth, stone necklace…’ she listed the mundane objects in her mind, distracting herself, and… there it was—a cool, metallic device, no larger than a tube of lipstick. A Mem.

She wiped beneath her eyes with the back of a bare hand, suddenly wishing she hadn’t worn makeup.

‘Home’ she thought, trying to blink away the tears. Swirls of black line erupted along the Mem in flowery plumes, tracing letters and numbers elegantly upon its silver body.

“Transportation available in stall 33-x7,” settled into the metal with ink-like character. And below that, in much smaller letters: “Message (1) - Lana”

‘Reserve 33-x7,’ she thought intently, momentarily piercing the muddled fog in her brain. ‘And read Lana.’ Somehow, her sense of worldliness had managed to remain independent of her emotional complications.

“Stop by tonight if you have the time. I’d love to see you!
–Lana”

Attached to the message was a set of access codes for landing in the courtyard-like area connected to Lana’s apartment.

‘Menu,’ she thought, causing a small series of boxes to spring up with the options: voice, text, link, and set as destination. ‘Set as destination, public parking.’

Somewhere at the back of her mind, she knew she needed to be with people tonight. And even in her disheveled state, her sense of courtesy was still intact—when visiting, it was always more polite to land in a public area and then enter through the front door than to land on your host’s porch; and she had been raised to always have impeccable manners, insofar as she was capable of them.

“Destination changed. Travel time estimated at 10 minutes.”

She whimpered involuntarily and gasped, trying to control her breathing, and stuffed the Mem back in her purse. ‘Okay, it’s okay, you’re fine,’ she thought, taking a few unsteady steps toward the end of the hall.

Tears still filled her eyes, dissolving the sandy, rock-textured walls and glassy windows in a blurry haze. ‘What the hell is happening to me…’

Then this thought came to her, in answer: ‘The same thing that happened to Rose and the others.’

She stopped walking. The realization terrified her—she had worked so hard to distance herself from her colleagues and their reactions to the failed experiment. But here she was, deep in the throes of her own existential outburst and… ‘Failed experiment?’ she thought, ‘Seven people died.’

It was incomprehensible. Seven people… Seven human beings. Seven. The number didn’t even make sense to her anymore, the same way a word loses its meaning when you repeat it too many times; it was as if her sensory systems had collapsed and needed a reintroduction to the world.

She struggled to raise her eyes from the floor and looked around in a trance—even the oft-traveled building seemed suddenly alien, its long hallways and grand ceilings so far removed from anything she had known growing up; or even ten years ago, for that matter.

And at the end of the hall, an electric tinged night sky revealed itself beyond a curved window, empty, save for the subtle glow of multicolored lights reflecting off the clouds. It was as foreign as this building, but it was all that rest between her and wherever she was going, and so she set off down the hall once more.

Past an earthen colored mural and beyond a set of decorative glass doors, she came into a wide corridor laden with pearl white flooring and metallic runners where a few people were milling about and talking. On one side, a variety of artwork—paintings, mostly, and a curiously phallic looking statue—could be found displayed along the sand colored walls. And to her right, ceiling high panes of glass, aglow with a variety of holographic maps and visitor information, offered a decent view of the cavernous parking garage beyond.

Walking hesitantly into the room, she was careful not to do anything that might attract attention; but a man, mid thirties, dressed in a sports jacket and tie, was coming toward her. Quickly, she stepped up to the glass and pressed a hand upon it, hiding her face from his view.

“Excuse me, miss?”

‘Why, of all the people…’

“Can’t you see I’m busy?” she asked, her voice muffled.

“Ah… I didn’t quite catch that,” he said, his accent vaguely British, “but I was wondering if you could take a photo of me and the kids with this statue?” As he talked, it began to dawn on him that she wasn’t in a right state, but curiosity prodded him along anyways. “We, ah, we have one of those bloody old digital cameras with click buttons and everything, and I love the nostalgia, but—”

She dropped her arm and stared at him pitifully, lips pressed together and quivering.

“Oh, my…” he said, raising his eyebrows. “I’m so sorry to… I didn’t mean to…” he hesitated, as if trying to decide whether or not to make an attempt to console her. Eventually, he pointed over his shoulder and said, “I’ll uh… be going then.” He walked back to his children, clapping his hands and ushering them away from the odd woman who “just needed to be left alone”.

Maria stayed where she was and leaned her head against the window, trying not to cry again. She knew she must look terrible with her mascara streaking everywhere… and she couldn’t help but feel bloated lately… and… and she had become so unattractive all absorbed in her work and she used to be attractive but now she was this dreary bloaty wreck who let innocent people die and entertained her own delusions of separation when really she was just the same as everybody else and even that stupid sculptor knew more than she did and… as if it wasn’t just enough that she was a killer!

She had begun breathing heavily. It was too much to bear.

‘But you are not a killer’, her rational side reminded her, riding into her consciousness like a stalwart knight on huffing steed, ‘Those people were going to die without your help. You had to do something!’

Her tears let up for a moment while she considered the thought. There was a lot to back it up: even the board had agreed, deciding unanimously in her favor after the accident, with the only stipulation of her continued research being that she had to visit with a board-appointed sculptor twice a week for the next six months. So, technically, she had nothing to worry about…

But somehow, that was no consolation. It still hurt. And her irrational side was crying again.

Beyond the window, thirty-three stories of sprawling manmade canyon dropped precipitously into a concrete lot just below ground level, and all along the way, glass covered bridges dotted with steel docking stations ran from one side of the building to the other, connecting the two identical halves of the Paramount Human Arts Center. Maria’s eyes had absorbed themselves in the clouds of traffic streaming through the air, but her mind was losing steam; she had worn herself out.

‘Do I really want to go to Lana’s?’ a small voice asked at the back of her mind. ‘Maybe I should just go home…’

It seemed the sensible thing to do. But another part of her understood that if she went home she might do any number of inexplicable and life threatening things, just like the others had. And so she refrained from making a decision, continuing instead to watch as waves upon waves of taxis hovered and hummed in and out of the building, going everywhere and nowhere. After a minute her eyes glazed over, lost in the busy backdrop of vehicles floating through the air like schools of shining yellow fish, and for a short time, she could forget about her worries.

‘Fifteen… no, twenty years ago now, none of this was here.’

It was always stunning when she really thought about it. No flying cars. No dune shaped buildings. No A.I. constructs directing the flow of traffic… Just a patch of burning desert and a few desiccated trees. Right now though, she couldn’t think about it. She could only watch dazedly as the cars went by, her mind drawing a numbly comfortable blank.

After a time, her arms began to move, unbidden, pressing her away from the window and upright; and soon her legs followed suit, guiding her slowly down a small set of stairs. She hardly noticed, lost in a haze, her body commanding itself by old impulses.

As she passed through a wide bridge entrance covered by a holographic display bearing the letter X, green light washed over her skin and she found herself headed towards stall number seven. Presently, she realized that it was all the way on the other side of the bridge.

‘Well that’s odd,’ she thought, plucked out of her stupor by a delightfully dull notion, ‘Most of the stalls here are empty... Hmm, there must have been a lot of people here just a few minutes ago. I wonder what’s going on?’

She looked at her watch, an old, silver timepiece that she wore mostly for fashion purposes. ‘It can’t nine o’clock,’ she realized, looking up; she’d have to reset it later. A large, blue 8:13” glowed at her from a nearby window. ‘Oh, of course.’ There were always conventions getting out around this time.

Suddenly aware of how fortunate she was to have just missed the evening rush, she hurried towards a stall midway down the bridge, keeping an eye out for any stragglers. One encounter had been enough for the evening.

‘33-x7’ she read from a holographic sign, shimmering electric blue. A gleaming car sat docked behind it, bright yellow like the taxis of the early millennium.

With a light hydraulic hiss, the cab’s door swung down from an arced roof, beckoning her up to the docking platform. Blue-lit chrome interior gleamed out at her, surrounding a large circular couch and darkly colored table in the center. Setting her purse on the floor, she lowered herself inside and dropped onto a soft, synthetic cushion, uttering a sigh of relief.

Upon the door’s sealing of itself, a variety of holographic displays appeared in the windows. The most noticeable one showed the location of surrounding vehicles: beyond the parking garage, the sky was filled with streaming lines of cars, invisible to the naked eye. For a first time rider, this was essential for peace of mind, but right now Maria preferred the solitude of a clear sky.

‘Holograms off,’ she thought, as the A.I. controlled vehicle lifted away from the platform. Immediately, the cloaked streams of cars blinked out of sight and the glowing metropolis sat unobstructed by the liquid flow of automobiles. As if on a cloud, the taxi swung around to face the city and gently took to the skies.

Inside, the cab was nearly as dark as the wispy clouds overhead. With a couple flicks of her wrist, soft, golden light filled the taxi and she found herself gazing into a large holographic mirror. Emerald orbs peered back at her, framed by long, black hair. She brushed some errant strands to the side and surveyed the damage: salty trails were caked into her makeup where tears had passed down her face, and dark lines of mascara streaked beneath swollen eyes. She looked like a harlot, she decided, letting one strap of her dress slide down past her shoulder to heighten the effect. ‘If I lose my research license, at least I’m a shoo-in for a whore,’ she thought glumly.

Blinking a couple of times, she retrieved the folded cloth from her purse and dabbed at her eyes gently. ‘No no, it’s okay… just take a deep breath,’ she thought (with a subtle undertone of ‘damn it, I thought I was over this’). Her inner rhythm calmed as she focused on her breathing. ‘Alright, you’ll be fine. Just clean yourself up, and everything is going to be fine.’

Listening to the calmer part of her mind, she accessed a holographic menu, selecting a picture of a raindrop and a bottle. She could have just said “water,” but didn’t feel in a talking mood right now. Especially when the walls were the only things listening.

With a loud plunking noise, a chilled beverage dispensed from the table in front of her. She twisted off the top and drank modestly. Then she dampened her cloth and carefully wiped away the ruined cosmetics, deciding she’d done all she could upon seeing her cheeks dry and red. A final gesture of the wrist returned the window to its transparent state, and she leaned against it to look out over the city, numb.

Subtly lit buildings dotted the landscape below; domed and slanted, each held a mountainous appearance, blending naturally with rock and tree. It was, she had been told, modeled after desert landscapes and concept paintings that looked more “national reserve” than “major city.” Still, a variety of steel skyscrapers had managed to make it into the final plan and now towered impressively into the night sky, lending a powerful aesthetic to the center of the young metropolis.

Even at night, the lighting was such that she could see intricate details of the buildings and city parks below. Achewood Gardens, a sizeable clearing in the neatly arranged forests, was littered with strange sculptures, colorful flower beds, and performance artists at all hours of the day. But from so high up, all she could clearly distinguish was the Kazenzakis fountain around which the gardens were built. Resplendent with trickling tendrils of watery allure, the purpose of this otherwise strange monument had been the topic of many a lively discussion.

Maria sniffed gently. She felt much better; silently though, she understood that it would be a long time before she found resolution, if ever. She brushed her hair back with her hands, taking a deep breath, and stuffed the half-full water bottle in her purse. She would be landing soon.

Almost imperceptibly, the taxi edged out of traffic and into an intermediary lane where it waited only momentarily before lowering to street level. Quietly whirring, it alighted upon a cobblestone platform, filled with other, similar cars, and swung its side door open with the familiar hydraulic ‘pshh.’

She stepped down from the taxi and held her arms close, sorely lamenting that she hadn’t brought a jacket. Darkened boughs of trees lifted and swayed in a cool wind and a few stray leaves rustled along the concrete as she made her way carefully down a stone flight of stairs and onto a glowing pathway. Rose bushes and dark green patches of grass lined the rough, winding surface amidst artistic hedge figures and other oddities; apparently, Achewood Gardens’ influence had leaked into this area in the time since she had last been here... Most places in the city were significantly less eccentric.

A few people passed her along the way, some absorbed in romantic subtleties, locked arm in arm, eyes twinkling; others with their heads down and arms crossed to stave off the cold. She felt a silent camaraderie with the latter group, equally unprepared for the gusty tough-love of the world.

Shivering, she crossed through a vine-wrapped archway and found herself approaching a familiar sand colored building. The Ridgeway apartments bore many aesthetic similarities to the Paramount Human Arts Center, including the dome shape and occasional glass structures that interrupted the rock-like exterior. The biggest difference was the parking, with each house having an attached landing pad rather than a community garage.

Maria looked high up, near where she guessed Lana’s apartment might be. ‘Lana…’ she thought. It had been such a long time. And this would certainly be an interesting visit, all things considered.

Her high heeled shoes clicking and clacking up a wide, marble staircase flecked with swirls of white, she came to a pair of solid glass doors that provided a dim view of what she knew to be the building’s lobby. As she approached, a red, glowing window appeared upon the glass, reading:

“Residents Only.”

‘That’s odd…’ she thought. The landing codes Lana had given her should have allowed her access to this door as well.

She rustled through her purse, searching for the Mem; ‘Oh,’ she realized, staring at its austerely metallic face. ‘It’s out of power.’

Apparently, the wireless charging mechanism in her purse had died, and with it, the Mem’s battery. Retrieving the cylindrical charging device and turning its end 180 degrees, she felt a slight tingling sensation as it energized itself with her bodily current. The Mem sprang into life.

“Access codes received. Set to expire in: 6 hr 34 min 22 sec.”

The holographic window disappeared and the glass doors slid apart with a low hum. Soft lighting and moderate temperatures beckoned to her from within, where lavish decorations and potted plants helped to create a familiar and calming atmosphere. As well, the great size of the room instilled her with a comfortable sense of anonymity, as if giving her the space she needed to breathe.

Towards the back of the room, she passed a magnificent waterfall surrounded by ferns, and headed for the stairs. Elevators were available nearby, but she felt she could use the exercise. If nothing else, it would help clear her head.

As she approached, an automatic door slid open and revealed access to a slanted stairway. Flanked by bright, ivory white wall on one side and endless glass overlooking the city on the other, it shared the same quality of construction as the rest of the building; though, if there was any noticeable difference, it was slightly less decadent, lacking the vibrant wall hangings that were so ubiquitous in better traveled areas.

She removed her heels and fleet footedly navigated up the wide stairwell in her stockings, slipping a bit on the smooth surface. She quickly found her balance, skimming a metal railing with the pads of her fingers and cradling her purse and shoes in her free arm.

Outside, the city passed by beneath the light of a few twinkling stars, previously hidden behind the clouds. She looked over from time to time to break the monotony of stairs, platforms leading to apartments, and more stairs…

After a good bit of jogging, she saw the number “16” carved in a bronze placard next to a large open archway and stopped to catch her breath on a stone bench. Setting her purse on the bench, she bent over and slipped her shoes back on, buckling a set of small, criss crossing straps. Then, not wanting to arrive winded and thirsty, she took the bottle of water from her purse and drained it, waiting until her pounding heart and fiery lungs had calmed.

While sitting, she attempted to throw the emptied water bottle into a nearby trash receptacle, a large metal sphere that looked very nearly decorative. It bounced off and clattered to the floor, rolling away from her and back towards the stairs. She watched it, waiting for it to be taken care of.

Moments later, a robotic silver feline crept out from behind the metal sphere, swishing its tail back and forth, and stood next to the bottle, gazing toward her with bright blue eyes. 'A cat... they say that's good luck,' she thought. Most recycling was handled by some form of rodent. She waved it away and nodded smilingly, prompting it to grip the mouth of the plastic bottle in its teeth and prance back to its den with the coveted prize.


Feeling enlivened by the catlike automaton’s play, Maria headed up one more flight of stairs, careful not to trip in her heels, and turned into an archway labeled “17.” Dim lights ushered her down a long hall filled with identical dark wooden doors, blandly interspersed with stretches of chamois colored wall. It wasn’t long until she came to Lana’s apartment. And, taking a deep breath, she placed her hand on the door.



Interlude Part II



A cool breeze sifted into the warm, apartment air from outside, brushing gently against Lana’s skin. Opening her eyes gradually, she drank in the world around her, familiar yet fresh: the soft, ambient lighting casting shadows from the corners of the room; the dark night sky, cloudy; the delicate smell of incense, still dancing on the air. This was the best part of meditation—coming back into her body, alive and energized, and watching her as her senses remembered the world around her. Seeing, smelling, tasting, touching, hearing everything as if just awoken from a dream.

“I apologize for interrupting your inward ponderings Madame,” came an artificial female voice, emanating tenderly all around her, “but your daughter is here to see you.”

She sighed rapturously, a great, wide smile caressing her features. “Thank you, Delilah. I’ll see her in.”

Still glowing with meditative bliss, she drifted past a glass coffee table and beyond a series of framed photos, smiling brightly from atop a small dresser, and tapped twice on the front door with her index finger. It slid open, beckoning in a bedraggled looking young woman from outside.

“Hi Lana,” said the specter-like figure, voice heavy with fatigue.

Lana beamed at Maria compassionately and pulled her into the apartment with a great hug. Oh, my dear!” she said, startled by her daughter’s appearance, “Why didn’t you take the cab straight here?”

“I didn’t think it would be polite to land on your pad,” came her voice, muffled by Lana’s fuzzy, lime green sweater.

“Sweetheart, you are always welcome to come and go as you please.”

“Thanks,” said Maria, drawing out of their embrace. She stood back and tried to regain some composure, but her usually-elegant presence was lost behind blotchy skin, exhausted eyes, and slouching posture. Softly, Lana put a hand on her back and guided her to a nearby sofa, where she sat biting her lower lip and looking around apprehensively.

“Is that smell… burned sage?” she asked, trying to make conversation.

“Ah, you have a good memory. I was using it to clear the room’s energy.”

“What did you call that again?” asked Maria, “Smudging or something?”

“That’s right.” She tried to think of what to say. The girl’s dour expression worried her, but it didn’t feel right to pry. “I’m making tea. Would you like some?”

Maria nodded and Lana went into the kitchen, opening a darkly stained oak cupboard. Below a shelf full of neatly arranged bags of herbal teas and supplements sat a cherry red kettle and three sets of teacups, neatly enthroned upon tiny plates. She was in a yerba maté mood, but felt that her daughter could probably do with something more comforting.

“Is chamomile alright?”

“What was that?”

“Chamomile.”

“Yes, that’s fine. Whatever you think is best, I don’t drink much tea…”

Setting the water to boil, she went back and sat on the couch.

Maria was hunched over partway, eyes locked on the floor, head in her hands. “Something happened today…” she said after a long silence. “And I don’t really understand. But I came because… I felt like you could help, after last time.” Then she added hastily, “And I wanted to see you, of course.”

Lana patted her on the knee, listening attentively, and a glimmer of a smile broke through Maria’s grim exterior. It felt good to be talking about this with someone who wasn’t jotting notes in a book or trying to psychoanalyze her.

“Well, I was at this Sculptor’s office, in the Paramount building today and…” She was still struggling to understand what had happened. “It’s so confusing. I tried to do what you said, you know, changing my perspective to feel differently about a situation. And it worked for a while, but then… I don’t know what happened. I started crying in the hallway and I felt like I wanted to die… That must sound so dramatic,” she laughed bitterly.

Lana tried to understand what she was saying, but Maria was mumbling, head hung low, and she looked so tired…

“Have you gotten enough sleep lately?”

“I keep waking up. And they want to give me pills, but that’s just a band-aid for the real problem; it won’t stop the voices. I tried to keep them out… And I did, for awhile. But now they’re back, and always in my dreams. You have to help me, please…” Maria looked up, eyes glistening with tears, pleading for an answer.

Lana opened her mouth to speak, but didn’t know what to say, and so she closed it again. Maria seemed to understand. After a short while, the tea kettle began to cry steamily in the kitchen. “One second, I’ll be right back, and then we’ll figure this out, okay?”

“Okay… I’m going to lie down then… Just for a minute.” Maria lay her arms overtop a soft cushion and tucked her head into the nook of her elbow, closing her eyes.

Having made her way into the kitchen, Lana poured hot water into two identical teacups, her mind ablaze with thought.

‘I’ve haven’t seen her like this since her father died…’ She remembered that troubling night well—the first time in nearly six years that her daughter had found the time to stop by, and Lana spent most of it under scrutiny for her questionable mothering practices. Since then, she had only seen Maria one other time...

She opened a small plastic container with yellow lid, spooning a small amount of dark brown powder into her cup. She hardly noticed as she stirred and sipped it, checking for flavor; it could have used a bit more maté, probably, but she didn’t need to be up all night anyways.

Placing a teabag and a spoon on one of the plates, she walked back to Maria and smiled tenderly—the young woman lay, breathing softly, asleep.


. . .

Maria woke and rubbed her eyes. Morning sun trickled through the fronds of a large palm just outside, and the air was thick with the smell of cooking. She propped herself up on an elbow and looked around the room: brightly colored cloth tapestries adorned the walls, and earthy tones dominated the furnishings, except for the clear glass coffee table on which her purse was resting.

‘Well this certainly doesn’t look like home.’ It was all such a great contrast to the glass-meets-stainless steel-meets-leather décor of her own flat.

What was more surprising though was the realization that she wasn’t being treated to any frightening recollections of the evening before, and had slept soundly through the whole night—no horrid dreams parading the faces of the dead through her mind; no frightened, screaming children. Just the warm comfort of deep, uninterrupted sleep, still glowing within her chest.

Beyond the kitchen counter, an oven door slammed. “Good morning my dear!” Lana called delightedly from the stove, “How did you sleep?”

“Unf, wonderful,” she half-grunted, struggling out from under a pile of heavy blankets.

Lana beamed at her, the gentle wrinkles in her skin exuding a deep joy. “I made a few kinds of things for breakfast, just in case you didn’t want what I was having,” she said. “And I have broccoli and mushrooms from my garden. And onions, tomatoes, and cheddar… I can make an excellent omelet… Or if you’re in a hurry, I keep the standard nutrient packages in a cupboard here, somewhere.”

“No, no,” Maria replied, “I don’t have anywhere to be right now.”

She sat up, still wearing her black, summery dress, rumpled from the night before. She tried to smooth out the wrinkles, unsuccessfully, before sauntering over to see what Lana had made. She gazed around a clean—but not entirely well organized—kitchen and rested her elbows on the counter, leaning forward to inhale the rich scents.

“Smells wonnnderful,” she said gaily. It was always such a delight to have food from a human-tended garden, especially when that was so rare amongst her and her technophilic white coat friends from the lab.

“Would you like some water? Or juice?” asked Lana, placing a glass on the counter. “Fresh squeezed.”

“What kind?”

“Orange juice.”

“Sure, thanks.”

“Oh, do you remember James, my friend who lives down the hall? He’s the one who grew these oranges.”

“Really?” she asked, feigning surprise. “Let’s see… James… James… Ah, yes, I remember him now. He was very nice.”

In fact, she couldn’t so much as recall a whisker from his face, or if he had even had any whiskers, but she was in a good mood this morning, and felt that ‘remembering’ him was the jollier thing to do.

“Oh that’s good,” said Lana, filling her glass with the rich, pulpy liquid, “He’s quite well liked around here.” Then, turning on the tap, she sprinkled some water on a heating pan on the stove. A crackling ‘fssh’ signaled that it was ready.

“So, do you want an omelet then?” she asked.

“Sure,” Maria said, watching curiously as Lana prepared the food. She knew a few people who still cooked as a hobby, but, like most, she much preferred the conveniences afforded by modern technology—namely that she could have restaurant quality dishes prepared at home at the press of a button. But, as she found herself saying delightedly in that moment, “There is something so indefinably magical about human cooking.”

“Well, love, of course,” her mother said promptly. “It’s the ingredient that even the best Metal Chef cooking cabinet can’t give you. It’s why I cook the way I do, and it’s why I go all across town for a carton or two of eggs and a gallon of milk. Things taste different when they come from something that has been genuinely cared for… Chickens, cows, and especially the Earth itself.”

“Hmm…” she intoned, noncommittally. It was a nice sentiment, if a bit cloying for her tastes. Still, she was grateful. “Thanks for making it, Lana.”

“Sure,” said the older woman, focused on sautéing a skillet of mushrooms and onions.

While waiting, Maria took a walk around the house. Lana had some odd things—lots of crystals, strange necklaces, medallions, and a few runic symbols scattered on a bookshelf—but the thing that most caught her attention was a winged statue of a young girl, kneeling upon the kitchen counter. Etched in stone, she had a somber appearance, as if she were contemplating things that Maria couldn’t fathom. Gazing steadily upon the effigy, she could almost see a kind of private joy gracing the lips of the young girl.

‘Beautiful statue…’ she mused, quietly entranced as she sipped at her drink.

With a clatter, Lana placed a plate in front of her and said triumphantly, “Now see if you have any doubts about the tasty power of love!”


Maria snorted unexpectedly and drops of juice dribbled down her chin. “O K” she said with a hint of irony, wiping her mouth. ‘More like the tasty power of manual labor…’

Immediately though, she was inclined to agree. Fine layers of richly familiar flavors—sweet onions, mushrooms, and peppers—melded together succulently. And while she could get quality food at home, she knew she at least appreciated it more this way.

“Omph,” she replied enthusiastically through muffling bites, “jish ish delishush.” She held a hand over her mouth in an attempt to be polite.

Lana was clearly pleased, and beckoned her to a circular table laden with a dark green cloth. They sat in wooden chairs across from each other, Maria sticking her long legs out to the side as she ate. She was hungrier than she realized.

“So tell me Maria, how are things? Are you still working at Genesys?”

“I am. But… Something happened…” She hesitated, toying unconsciously with a napkin. “We had an accident in the lab. Some people are still pretty shaken up about it.”

“And you? Are you okay?”

“I’m having to visit a sculptor twice a week, required by the company. The sessions aren’t doing me a lotta’ good though, I don’t think. It’s hard to take advice from someone who’s more dysfunctional than I am, but I unfortunately have to get his approval to continue my research.”

Lana laughed. “Well, I’m sure you’ll do fine.”

“Yeah,” she half-smiled. “But there was one thing…” She chose her words carefully. “After the session I had this sort of… breakdown. I couldn’t stop crying; and there was this hard, dark feeling in my chest. Like nothing would ever be good again. I’m fine now though… it’s just… it’s like the feeling is stuck right here,” she said, pressing a hand against her sternum, “waiting for me to be weak enough for it to take over again.”

‘So that’s what was going on last night… How long has she been this way?’ Lana wondered. “And have you been feeling well? Aside from this?”

“Lately? Well, I feel fine with life… with my life… but ever since what happened in the lab it’s like I’m suddenly in the backseat, watching the world go by as some mysterious driver chaperones me to an unknown destination.”

“Well it sounds to me you’re just changing, sweetheart. Sometimes, jarring events can do that to a person… You know, when you and Ella were little and I decided to leave you with your father, I remember going through something similar—it was like the whole world had suddenly gone dark; I even started to wonder whether the light had ever been there at all, after a time.”

‘Yeah, I can feel that… but it doesn’t change what you did,’ thought Maria. “So how did you get over it?”

“I found help. I read books and I went to seminars. It was what worked for me… And eventually, I learned that I had to face myself. I had to come to terms with the fact that I wasn’t who I wanted to be, and that I was tired of telling my sad story for sympathy. I wanted to be free… but that meant changing everything about my life, including how I saw myself and how I saw the world.

“And here’s the thing: every time you change what you believe, the part of you that believed otherwise has to die off. And like death, letting go of your opinions and methods feels like losing a part of yourself; it is painful, confusing, and often terrifying, which is why many people will instead choose to sit in their fortress of beliefs, unchanging, until life forces them to do otherwise.”

Maria didn’t say anything, listening attentively, and so Lana went on:

“I know it’s hard to grasp, but without death, we could never open to the new in life… We would be stuck in our comfortable patterns of existence, of living, of thinking. If we didn’t have death to rejuvenate us and expand our perceptions, then we would be truly dead; empty, expressionless shells unable to grow, unable to change…”

She got up from the table and went to her bookshelf, coming back with a thick, orange paperback. “There is a saying,” she began, flipping about midway through and reading aloud, “ ‘You may climb to the top of Mount Everest. You may cut to the center of creation. You may straddle the bounds of the universe, and you may cheat death at every turn. But mastery of Self is better and more difficult.’ ”


“Yeah…” Maria said, “that makes sense. I mean, it’s funny, I’ve done most of what I set out to do in life, but somehow, understanding emotions and how we work continues to elude me, no matter how much I try.”

“It’s because emotions exist independent of your brain, untamable by scholarly pursuits... Which is why you don’t get anything from your time with sculptors—they are cold and unfeeling, essentially nothing more than giant, walking books. So even if what they say can help you, there is a part of you that can’t trust them.”

“Yeah, I know exactly what you’re talking about”

“But the trick is to be discerning: take in what makes sense, ignore the rest, and most of all, listen to yourself. In the end, only you know what’s in your best interest, no one else.”

“I see…”

“The hard thing is when you’re right in it. It’s impossible to see the bigger picture when your mistakes are the center of your focus, like a pack of wolves waiting patiently in the wings as you try to act in a play… That sort of thing makes you lose focus on what’s happening in the present moment, and it makes it hard to trust yourself. But if you gently tend to your fear, neither giving up your life because of it or trying to pretend it doesn’t exist, eventually you will become stronger than it, and you will be free.”

A chill crawled up Maria’s spine. “You’re right. You’re absolutely right...” Her heart raced, but she was determined now. “The truth is, about what happened in my lab… I am, myself, responsible for the deaths of seven people, four of whom were children.” She sat up straight, trying to maintain eye contact, her muscles quivering with renewed apprehension.

Lana was caught off guard by the statement, and it took her a moment to respond. She sat with Maria’s words, but eventually said calmly, “Maria, listen to yourself. Whatever happened, I know you must have been doing everything in your power to help those people. That’s the kind of person you are… And sometimes, there is more at work than we can possibly understand.”

“God’s plan, or something?” Maria scoffed, a cold adrenaline racing her heart as she tried to stay in control.

“If you want to call it that… but, Maria, you are a conscientious woman. In the time I’ve known you I’ve come to understand two things—you don’t do anything that you don’t believe in, and you don’t do things to hurt other people...”

She watched her daughter’s face, twisted with shame; and then she realized something: “But this is different, isn’t it… whatever you did… you didn’t believe in it. And now you can’t shake it from your mind.”

‘She’s got you pegged.’ Maria took a deep breath, slowly rotating her half-full glass of juice in small circles with a light grinding noise against the table. Her eyes flicked back and forth between Lana’s face and the wall as she spoke—if there was one thing in the world that made her truly uncomfortable, it was this.

“I took on a difficult project…” she said, slowly. “Something no one else had had any real success with before, and where lives were at stake… but for some… fucking reason… I thought I could do it. I thought everybody before me just wasn’t as smart, or as clever…” She chewed her lower lip, shaking her head. “And so we tried something radical. Something no one had ever done before…”

“But sometimes that’s the only option, right? I mean—”

“No, it wasn’t,” she said abruptly. “We could have left them hooked up to their blood filters; inconvenienced, but alive. But there is this man, a scientist I have worked under before, who heads up some of the most coveted projects in the field… He asked me to try a new method. Of course, I couldn’t refuse. Part of the reason I joined Genesys in the first place was out of admiration for his work, and here was my opportunity to prove myself, finally, after four years…”

“So what did you do?”

“I got in touch with him… found out what he thought I should try.” An intense loathing for herself and what she had done boiled deep in her gut.

“And?”

“And I did what he told me to... I killed them.”

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