The road to the Phaeton Spa was shaded by a row of implacable willows that grew on the banks of a small creek. Joachim, who was dressed in a mimetic suit, reflected the trees back to themselves as he walked along a red, gravel road on the sun side of the creek. He wore the suit because in his familiar, urban environments, it made him fit in – not as an reflection or copy but as part of the noise and diversity of any city.
Today, because he was retracing steps that he had once taken, today he felt like an echo.
“Why have I returned?” Joachim wondered as he approached the Phaeton’s entrance. “Am I here simply to relive my last trip?” As someone who had devoted a life to the pursuit of new experiences, returning anywhere seemed like a denial of what he was, but he dismissed the idea: just because his accommodation would be similar to last time did not mean his experiences would be.
The gravel walkway ended at a tiny log cabin. Joachim entered while his valet robots whizzed off across a manicured garden to his room. He was greeted by a pretty, petite blonde who looked more like an anima extracted from his subconsciousness than someone real. The anima smiled radiantly as she spoke,
“Welcome back to the Phaeton, Mr. Banks. I understand that it has been 100 standard years since your last visit.”
“To the day.”
“Happy anniversary.” The anima turned away from the flat black terminal on which she did her work, and looked at him directly. She spoke in a quiet, intimate voice, “Joachim, do you have any special requests?”
“I’ve asked your therapists to surprise me”, he replied.
The anima’s dark blue eyes went blank for less than an instant. “Indeed. You’ve signed all of the releases.” She smiled mischievously “Do you think that you can be surprised by a memory, Mr. Banks?” He returned her smile, but did not answer her cryptic question.
The anima continued,”Your cabin is a re-creation of the one you stayed in during your last visit. It’s at the top of the Lower Falls, on the ocean side of the Commons. Do you remember how to get there?”
Joachim nodded assent as he turned away from the holographic anima and began to pensively walk toward the exit at the back of the cabin, which opened out into the garden. As he did so, the anima disappeared into nothing. He walked down a dozen steps that resonated tunefully as he stepped on them. The garden cafe behind the admissions office was known locally as the Commons. If he went left, toward the ocean and the setting sun, he would reach his cabin in a matter of minutes. Instead he decided to relax and have a drink, and so walked forward, to the Commons Bar. He found a seat in an empty section of the bar near a pond. His table was surrounded by a small, manicured garden of diaphanous flowers. In the foreground tiny song birds fluttered merrily. As he watched a great raptor flew by like a dart and swallowed a song bird whole. Approximately 50 metres from where he sat there was an elevator entrance embedded into a gargantuan oak tree; behind the tree was a sharp drop to the ocean.
He sat facing the ocean and the setting sun. Perhaps 10 minutes before sunset a woman exited from the oak tree elevator and walked directly toward him. With the sun at her back she appeared as a lank, black shadow. He recognized her immediately by her gait. He was not surprised by her unexpected appearance. After all, this was her anniversary as well. When the woman got to within several paces he could make out what she was wearing: her jacket had sharp, padded shoulders, and bluntly cut edges; her simple skirt was pleated. He could barely make out the curves of her body through this web of lines. He had always thought of this woman in terms of lines: the linear cut of her clothes and hair, the edges of her cheekbones, the slant of her writing, the crosshatched scars on her wrists. And of course, the last words she had ever said to him, ‘Don’t cross that line.’
The moment the woman got close enough that he could see her in color, and not as a limned shadow, the rays of the setting sun hit the diaphanous flowers at just right angle and turned them into a riot of refracted colors. The woman spoke first, “Do you remember the spectral flowers?”
“I’ve forgotten nothing, Marina. We first met on this exact day, at this exact time, at this exact table 100 years ago. These might even be the same flowers.”
“Are you here to celebrate?” Although he knew her words were acerbic, her tone was gentle and polite.
He replied, “‘Celebrate’ is a strong word. This visit is more like therapy than a vacation. Why have you returned, Marina? You were never one for dwelling on the past.”
“I’m here for the same reason as you: therapy.”
“That’s another change.” She had always chided him for wasting time on therapy.
“I’m here for your therapy.” She smiled obliquely as she sat down beside him, uninvited.
As Marina sat down she adjusted the straps of her dress. Joachim noticed that the scar she used to have on her back, just below the nape of her neck, was gone; neither were there scars on her right wrist and just below her left eye. He said, “You’re not really Marina, are you? She would never remove her scars. You’re some kind of image of her. Like a greeting card”
The woman winced at his words, and then said “Joachim, I am a clone of Marina.”
“How could the Phaeton allow … ?”
“I left instructions for this” the clone gestured toward herself “to be constructed should you choose to return here. Although management was reluctant, the staff therapists thought the idea was intriguing. As you can see, the therapists got their way. After you signed the release, of course.” She smiled sweetly.
“What did you say?” Marina leaned forward to hear him better. He was acutely aware of her perfume, the sound of her breath, the touch of her hand on his arm, the heat of her body, the electricity that attracted the hairs on his arm to her.
“Your visit is quite a surprise.”, he said.
“Shall I leave?”
“NO!” The intensity of his response surprised him. He lowered his voice to near the point of inaudibility and continued. “Please stay. At least keep me company while I finish my drink.” He nearly concluded by saying that they had left so many things unfinished, but didn’t because he realized now that maybe everything had been resolved the last time they’d met.
The clone of Marina pulled her chair closer to him. They sat quietly for a moment looking at the garden, the cliffs, and the sky in the afterglow of the sun.
He broke their silence the moment the spectral flowers faded to black, as if he had prepared his words and was waiting for his moment, “What should I call you?”
She moved her head so that she looked directly at him when she replied. Her black eyes were clear. “Marina, of course. That is who I am, after all.”
“No, you’re not. You’re close to Marina, but you’re a branch, not her.”
“What does that mean?”
She turned to look at him when she spoke. The moment she directly faced him, she came into sharp focus. Without the scar under her left eye her face was perfectly symmetrical. He had never seen how Marina had looked before her scars, her first scars, that is. She had added others after they met. It took effort to look away from her. But he did before he was consumed by … he did not know what.
He spoke out toward the ocean. “There .. there was a time when I used to think about meeting you again. I mean Marina”, he said
“I am Marina”, she replied.
He ignored her and continued to speak, “But I rarely think about meeting her now. I thought we left so many things unresolved. I left so much unsaid. Now I wonder whether it was all complete the first time around.”
“You have nothing to say to me and think I have nothing to say to you?”
Her words were harsh and angry. This time she didn’t mask them with a pretty, innocent smile. That was one of her tricks, to quickly switch from best friend to best foe. But this time she didn’t do that. Her harsh words made him less uncomfortable, not more, because they were unfiltered.
“I’m not certain I have anything left unsaid …”
“What have you been doing this past century?” she asked.
“Nothing exceptional. I’ve married twice, and had 2 children. They’ve grown up now and scattered to
the corners of the galaxy.”
“… and your wives?” she asked tentatively.
“We keep in touch for anniversaries, but I’m single again. I’m done with family life. What about you?”
He realized his mistake; they both smiled awkwardly. Despite his faux pas, he forged ahead anyway, “What about the original Marina? What is she up to? You must know? Is she listening in to this conversation?”
“I left no contact information.” She smiled a pretty, innocent smile as she shrugged her shoulders.
Her response angered him. “What do you mean? Aren’t you here as some form of emissary? What kind of game is this?”
Without thinking she placed her hands over his and said, “Joachim, I’m only here to say goodbye.”
The last time they had met Joachim’s anger had led to violence; this time his anger – already muted by age – was diffused by her touch. He sat for a moment longer, then all of the fatigues in his life caught up with him – fatigue from travel, fatigue from remembrance, fatigue from ceaseless effort. “Marina, I really must rest. I’ve had a very long journey.” He rose and turned to go, avoiding her gaze, afraid that it would lead him somewhere he did not want to go.
“Shall we meet again?” Marina spoke to his back. He turned around and looked at her. There was no smile on her face when she spoke these words. She gripped the table edge slightly. Her voice had a faint tremble.
Her perplexed angry face imprinted itself on Joachim’s mimetic suit. The absurdity of the image broke the tension of the unanswered question.
She rose and spoke. “The concierge knows how to reach me. It was wonderful to see you again. Goodbye.”
She rose from the table and turned to walk away. But not briskly, the way she might have a century ago. There was time for their eyes to meet. She looked happy, which was not an emotion he associated with Marina. She smiled at him. He tried not to smile back. That was the game. His face remained expressionless for five seconds – he counted – and then he returned her smile.
She turned to face the elevator As she retraced her entrance he saw her differences – the curve of her blemishless back, the lithe way her hips moved as she walked her self-consciously sexy walk. Was trying to seduce him, or was this simply habit?
After a dozen steps she turned and saw that he was still watching her. She smiled her pretty smile, waved an unscarred hand, and then disappeared into the oak tree elevator.
The walk to his cabin was mostly as he remembered it, though with subtle differences. His cabin was still perched on the cusp of a waterfall and had an expansive view of the Western Ocean, but a century of erosion had moved the entire cliff face inland.
As he walked down the side of the cliff to his cabin his mind turned to Marina and her clone. Although he was open about how he had once loved Marina, his memories of her were tinged with rage, bitterness and regret. But those were old emotions that after a century he could barely still feel.
His thoughts kept coming back to the clone with her missing scars.
The next morning, the moment he finished breakfast, he asked the concierge to contact Marina. The phone rang immediately. It was early in the morning, so he wasn’t surprised that the video feed was turned off.
“Marina?”, he asked the blank console.
“I’d like to see you again.”
She did not immediately reply. He tried to read some meaning into the blank, silent console in front of him, but could not. The video feed suddenly activated and Marina appeared in front of him. He had expected to see her in a dressing gown, so was surprised to discover that she was dressed for tennis. From the sweat on her brow he realized she had been awake for some time.
“Joachim, this may strike you as odd, but I don’t know if I want to see you again. When I left this”
she gestured to herself, “I only had one goal – to say goodbye. I never thought beyond last night’s meeting.”
He tried not to sound insistent as he pressed her, “Marina left you as a gesture That task is done.
“But what about you? You are your own person, aren’t you?”
The clone of Marina nodded.
“Do you want to meet me but are afraid to?”
The clone looked away briefly and then her image disappeared. When she resumed speaking, her disembodied voice was slow and precise.
“I would love to meet you. Joachim.”
They met for tea at a tiny restaurant on the beach at the foot of the waterfall. It was a convenient location
for him, so he arrived early and ordered a drink at the bar. Marina arrived precisely on time. Her hair was cut asymmetrically, and was slightly blacker than when he met her yesterday. She wore a peasant skirt that was embossed with mirrors, and a low cut sleeveless blouse that exposed her unscarred back and unscarred wrists. He was dressed in sand-colored shorts, a pale cyan colored t-shirt and seaweed green sandals. He was not wearing anything mimetic, but nevertheless was nearly invisible against his background.
The hostess escorted them into the main dining room, which was a circle divided into two parts. One half
looked out over the sea. The back wall was a curve sliced out of a limestone cliff. Fossils could be seen if you looked closely. In the center of the circular room was a tiny hearth that was home to a hot, red fire. They sat with their backs to the limestone wall, looking out over the water. The sea was dotted with an atoll of islands. Air Town, floated just above the horizon.
“Was this restaurant here the last time we met?”, she asked idly.
He replied, “I don’t remember. During our last visit we didn’t dine out much, unless you count picnics on the beach.”
He paused and then continued, “Why can’t you remember? Surely the memory is fresher for you?”
She replied, “I have Marina’s memories. The challenge is learning which ones are important. But never mind that. Tell me: How did you feel the instant you first saw me? This time.” She lightly clasped his hands – which were resting on a table – into hers.
“Wary. Amused. That question reminds me of … you.”
She smiled flirtatiously.
Despite himself he was charmed. Like the first time he met the original Marina.
He asked, “How did you feel?”
She replied to the ground by her right foot, avoiding his gaze,”I was nervous.” She looked up. “I still am nervous.”
This unsettled him. Nervousness was not an emotion he associated with her. Nor vulnerability. The later emotion he just now realized she experienced.
Joachim asked, “When did Marina decide to leave you? Before or after the … episode?” He tried to temper his insistence, his compulsion to know the answer to his question.
“After. I gave instructions that I could be cloned one month after you left. That’s when the therapists first would let me.”
She stopped and unconsciously rubbed her wrists.
She continued. “I knew that you would come back here. For someone who searches for new experiences, you have a way of always coming back to things.”
The clone flashed her pretty, innocent smile. He read no malice in to it. “You’re right. I’m still not certain whether I’ve gotten closure on our relationship.” Although the wounds had closed, there were still a lot of scars.
“Marina, I’m very sorry our relationship ended the way it did.”
Marina’s clone had been sitting so close to him that he could feel the heat radiating off her body. She acknowledged his apology silently, and then adjusted her seat so that her left thigh leaned against his right. The moment she touched him, he realized that he was tense. He exhaled slowly and unsuccessfully tried to relax his jaw. She took his right hand in her left, and then turned to face him. She tried to speak. To his surprise, she said nothing; she simply held his hand. They leaned back against the wall and looked
out over the ocean. She slid ever so slightly down into her chair; when she was done moving her head rested on his shoulder.
The moment she finished her drink she sat up straight, and said in a forced but excited voice,
“Joachim, I hope you don’t mind, but I have to go now. I limited myself to one drink. Do let us meet again.” She smiled obliquely. Her lower lip trembled slightly.
“A picnic” he replied. “Let’s have a picnic”. A picnic had begun their romance.
“Yes we’ll have a picnic.” She kissed him chastely on his right cheek. Although her manner was restrained, and her lips continued to tremble, in his mind the kiss was full of intensity.
Joachim had no plans for the evening so he wandered idly through the Commons. At the entrance to his cabin, he spent a moment looking at the waterfall. He knew exactly how he would feel if he stepped into it. He knew also what he would do when he stepped out of it, for he had done so a dozen times before.
While he stood at the edge of the waterfall a distant movement caught his eye. The source of the distraction was Air Town. It was glittering tonight, as it hovered in the air just above the horizon. The ocean glittered as well as it reflected the Town’s lights.
He had not gone there on his previous trip. That made him decide to visit it now.
He wore his mimetic suit. When he removed it from the closest it still had the image of Marin’s perplexed face. He turned the suit back on and the frozen image gradually dissolved into fragmented images of himself preparing to go out. He never liked to look at images of himself, so reprogrammed the suit to no longer mimic people.
He completed his outfit by tying a dark black cravat around his neck, and wrapping an anti-gravity belt made of chain linked copper around his waist. His taxi arrived promptly. It hovered on the edge of his veranda, partially obscured by the mist from the waterfall. He stepped over the wooden pickets which acted as a guard rail for his veranda and into the car. As he did so, he looked down. There was a small gap between the taxi and the railing, through which he could see the roiling pool where the waterfall met the ocean.
Air Town was ten kilometers away, and floated 100 metres above the ocean. As Joachim approached it, he saw that the halo of sparkles that he had noticed from his cabina deck were lights from the hundreds of people falling toward the diamond studded southern ocean. Some floated slowly to the water, assisted by anti-gravity devices; others seemed to have sped up their descent. Thrill seekers annoyed him because they replaced imagination with adrenaline. Tonight he was content to let them be.
The taxi took him to the bohemian section of town. He exited into a crowd, glad that he had been made invisible, or at least unremarkable, by his clothing. Tonight he felt like being an observer, not a participant.
He found a street-side table at a restaurant, ordered a drink and surveyed the scene. There were few places anywhere where you could see so many sentient species partying together.
A group of humanoids sat down at the table beside him. His eyes were drawn to a young woman who had an asymmetrical haircut similar to the one the new Marina had, short on one side, dyed and long on the other.
The young woman noticed his attention and used it as an excuse to introduce herself. “Hey Mister, hi.”
“I was looking at your haircut. Did you get that here? I like it”, he replied.
“Thanks. I got it cut over there.” She pointed to a partially transparent tubular building, which appeared to be full of water and then said, “I like the way your suit throws the world right back at you, but all messed up.”
“Are you here alone?”, she asked.
“You’ve met someone, haven’t you, but she’ not here tonight? It’s easy to meet people here. My sister and me already we’ve met all these people.” She gestured to the eight men and one woman sitting at her table. “We’re going sky diving next, if you want to come. Of course you do, that’s why everyone comes here. You should bring your girl. She’ll love it.”
Joachim’s eyes lingered on the young woman’s features. She didn’t just resemble Marina because of her hairstyle. She was the same size as Marina, with a similar figure, balanced features and unblemished skin. “If I could erase all history, all memories, all context, would it feel any different making love to this woman than to Marina or her clone?” he wondered. How would the experiences, skin on skin, be different?
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“I think I’ll stay here and watch the world go by, Jin. Enjoy your visit.”
“See ya. Thanks.”
She turned away, and then quickly turned back while shouting. “Watch this!”
The young woman’s words were a cue. Her friends pushed back their chairs and shouted “Oi!” They then ran as a group to the fence that marked the Town’s edge, climbed to its top and hurled themselves into the night sky.
Joachim arrived late to Marina’s cabin. She did not invite him in but instead asked him to wait outside while she gathered her things.
They walked slowly along the seaweed strewn beach. The sky was overcast so there were no shadows. On the north cove of the inlet the beach gave way to tidal pools. The tide was out, so the water in the pools was still. Marina walked carefully across slippery, sharp stones into the middle of a large pool. When she got to the center she stood still. The water was a perfect mirror. A drop of water fell directly in front of Marina. When it hit the water one wave rippled out. The crest of the wave was turbulent, but otherwise the pool remained still and the mirror image intact. A handful of drops fell and Marina’s reflection dissolved in ripples.
At the far edge of the tidal pools was a mossy cliff, into which stairs had been crudely carved. Even though the stairs were damp, their surface was abrasive, so they were not slippery. Joachim and Marina decided to climb them to see if they led to some hidden, dry place.
At the top of the cliff, it was as if the sky had fallen: clouds scudded low across the ground; the air was damp and cold. Although he knew Marina loved these moody, damp days, Joachim was ready to have their picnic indoors. Marina was adamant. She attempted to use an energy field to keep out the mist, which worked, but created an annoying hissing sound. While she was thinking about what to do next, the sun broke through the clouds. For one moment there was a rainbow in the misty sky above them. The sun lit up Marina’s face. She said, “Joachim, I have an idea. Put this on.” She removed a bright purple sash from her waist. It was too small to fit around his waist, so she tied it into a loose knot around his head. He scowled as she did so. She brushed away his objections, “Forget about fashion, the sash is an anti-gravity belt.” As she spoke, she wrapped her right arm around his left. Arm in arm they leaped off the cliff into the air. Marina steered them. Initially they moved out to sea. She wrapped her legs around Joachim’s hips and then maneuvered herself so that she straddled him. They hovered for a minute, Marina whispered in a hoarse voice, “hold on”, and then they rocketed straight up into the clouds. They were blinded by mist, buffeted by turbulence, and then burst into sunshine.
They hovered in the strong, white light for a moment and then Marina fell backwards off of Joachim’s hips and landed on her force-field blanket. Her gear fell akimbo around her, and immediately began to organize itself into a picnic.
Although the air around them was clear, their force field was relatively hot, so water in the air began to condense. When Joachim landed beside Marina, he did so into a puff of mist. She said, “Pretty quick thinking, huh?”
As she spoke, he placed his hands on her shoulders and encouraged him to rub her. She was not relaxed.
After a few minutes the clone rolled over so that she faced Joachim, and asked, “Do you think I’m like the original Marina? No, don’t answer that question. What I mean to ask is how am I different?”
“I think that you are exactly like her, but better.”
“Because you have no scars.”
The clone rose up onto her knees, extended her arms and then twisted them so that he could see her wrists, “But I do have scars.” She clasped his left hand in her right, and guided it to the base of her neck.
Her voice wavered, her lower lip trembled and then she flashed her prettiest smile.
“You did that last night.”
She said nothing.
“Does it make you feel more like the original Marina ?”
“I am Marina. I have all of her memories.”
“But none of her experiences.” He replied too quickly and archly. This was how fights began.
She turned her hands palm up so he could clearly see the new scars.
“Why would you want to scar yourself? You’re so …” He choked before he could complete the sentence, from too many emotions, not just sadness but anger and frustration.
“Incomplete”, she said bitterly. “I am incomplete. The scars are part of who I am.”
“No. They belong to a branch of you. Who that person is has yet to be undecided.”
“Really?” He was unsettled. They had arrived at this point by such an indirect means, he hadn’t noticed what part of the story line they were in.
She smiled her pretty smile. “I know better than you what that means. Of course it will be different this time. For example, I don’t have to warn you about crossing my red lines because you already did so, one century ago.”
She paused and fidgeted with her wrists and then continued. “You taught me to hate myself. I hate you for that.“
She raised herself up, “After a century of reflection – you didn’t know that.”
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
The clone didn’t answer. Instead, she methodically tore a strip of coarse material off of a napkin and rubbed it against the soft skin below her left eye until she drew blood. When she threw away the bloody cloth, Joachim tried to grab her wrist, but she was protected by a force field. She picked up a water bottle and a wine bottle from their wicker picnic basket and smashed both of them together. With her right hand, she removed two pieces of glass from the wreckage, one clear one tinted green, and cut a crosshatch pattern onto her thigh. She continued cutting, in exactly the same spots as Marina had, until she passed out from blood-loss.
Joachim refused the medic’s offer to give him a lift home. He remained on the bloodied cloud, brooding, until late afternoon.
As Joachim exited the spa, the anima concierge materialized beside him. She said with a cheery voice,
“Thank you for visiting, Mr. Banks.” Although it was difficult to show any kind of affect, he returned her smile, assisted by habit. Sensing his desire to be alone, the anima hologram dematerialized. He imagined her smile disappeared last, like that of a Chesire cat. Perhaps it did.
Joachim retraced his steps along the red gravel lane to the pedestrian entrance. It was dusk, the air was still and the pathway long, so it took but an instant for the implacable willows to suck him into one of their timeless moments. But time did pass. Gradually the sky darkened. In the last moments before sunset the spectral flowers that lined the lane-way burst into light. The flowers lit his path to the gate.