2:9: “Mere Potential”, by Mark Yohalem

2:9: “Mere Potential”, by Mark Yohalem

For us, it has nothing to do with existentialism or morality, as much as these problems had troubled the first pioneers in the field of reincorporation. These days, we dispose of the original corpse for purely pragmatic reasons. Customers have more difficulty getting their mind around the original philosophical problems: how can my son be lying, seventy-two hours dead, on a metal slab in a refrigerated morgue, while my son is also standing, ninety-eight point six degrees, with a smile, right in front of me? Is he my son, or is my son dead?

Then, there were the fluke cases when reincorporated patients would insist on confronting their old selves. I suppose they were socialized into thinking that such dramatic gestures — patients taking their old crania in hand and crying, “Alas!” — were worth their while. Of course, psychological harm is inevitable in those moments, and such harm is legally actionable.

Now, when your contract is filled, only a small sample is kept on file, a matrix taken from various organs. A vial with a number. Not even your name. Because, really, who can think that little Timmy is a floating glob of tissue labeled 14322-B?

But as anyone who’s ever done anything important can tell you, there are always, always, problems.

———•———

When I saw Michael Alstrom for the first time, the left side of his body looked as though it had been hit by a truck — which indeed it had. On his ride over to County, the paramedics had spent a good fifteen minutes trying to pick the fragments of three ribs out of his lungs and left ventricle, while simultaneously managing to shatter two more through their ham-fisted efforts at CPR.

Not that a virtuoso performance would have made much difference. By the time they had reached the scene of the accident, Alstrom’s neurons had made their last feeble flashes of lightning across synaptic gaps — probably saying “Fuck that driver” — and he was quite certainly dead. The hospital doesn’t do resurrection. Which is why Alstrom was sent downtown to our facility.

The first thing we check is the brain. Contusions, lesions, and, of course, more serious trauma, are all enough to get a patient tossed off our docket and sent down to the morgue, with a form letter to the bereaved — “We’re sorry, but please try Lazarell Corporation again should the need arise. Remember: without Lazarell, you’re just plain dead.” Or something like that. I haven’t seen any paperwork since I got my employee benefits package.

We checked his brain and it was fine — as intact as his body wasn’t. So, we took the usual DNA samples from his organs and gametes, and had a counselor get on the phone with Alstrom’s wife. Once the forms were signed, the old body was sent to disposal, the samples were given a number and put in a cooker, the neural patterns were scanned in, and I went home for dinner.

———•———

When I saw him next, was it Michael Alstrom I saw? Or was it 88729-A? Lazarell has an official policy that staff cannot, amongst themselves, refer to a potentiality by name. Officially, then, he was to be called Two-Niner Alpha. Right. Michael looked as though he was asleep: his chest rose and lowered rhythmically, his eyes twitched beneath their lids as if dreaming, and occasionally his body gave a slight start.

Mrs. Alstrom had paid for the premium plan, and that meant that a doctor, not a technician, would oversee her husband’s entire reincorporation. Really, it was a bad idea for everyone involved, except maybe Lazarell’s shareholders: doctors have better things to be doing, and counselors are trained at helping patients cope. Normally, a nurse and a shrink do a better job than a doctor — but apparently customers think otherwise.

I checked the screen with Michael’s vitals, and nodded to the nurse on hand. “Okay, you can proceed.”

Michael didn’t even flinch as the hypo went under his skin — but Marianne had stuck so many people by now that she’d made an art of it. A few moments later, Michael gave a jolt, and his eyes flew open.

“Good morning, Michael,” I told him, extending my hand. He stared at it for a moment, then cautiously extended his own, and gave mine a weak-gripped shake. “Today’s the twenty-third. How are you feeling?”

He swallowed and closed his eyes, hard, not just a blink, and then rubbed them. He swallowed again. “Okay,” was the uncertain answer. “Do you have some water, or something?”

I nodded to Marianne, who passed him a small paper cupful. He downed it in a gulp.

“So, let’s take those IV’s out,” I told him, as I waved Marianne forward, “and get you something to eat.” He gave a slow nod and jerked slightly as the IV’s came out. Marianne quickly applied a swab to the drops of blood that welled up, then put a Band-Aid over the pricks.

Before she did, however, Michael’s eyes were fixed on the crimson beads rising out of his body, and his face had the slack expression of a man who does not even know what it is that he’s forgotten.

“Come on,” I told him. “Let’s grab a sandwich.”

———•———

It takes about three days for implanted memories to settle back into place. Until then, patients suffer from an acute sense of cognitive dissonance. When Lazarell brought Autumn Augusta back from her first fatal drug binge, she wrote:

Born with body already full-

grown, heads filled with memories

unlived, we are strangers

to us and at once

self and not-self and

Our new hearts are all arush

with alien emotions.

Needless to say, I imagine she got used to the ordeal after the third or fourth try. But Lazarell always makes sure that we read her poem in the little packet they give us before handling a patient. It makes the executives feel important to think they were referenced in a laureate’s work.

Right now, Michael’s mind was full of “memories unlived,” but I was much more concerned with getting his stomach full of a sandwich and a Coke.

“I bet that hits the spot,” I said, pointing to the half-eaten sandwich. He looked down to where I pointed, as if asking, “Mayonnaise? Ham? Where did this all come from?”

“Yeah. Well. I wasn’t so hungry. Just thirsty.” He pulled a hard drag on his straw, slurping the last of the soda up. He pushed the straw aside, and knocked a few ice cubes into his mouth.

“You can have another, you know.” I gave him a reassuring smile. What a joke of a job.

He shook his head. “No, I’m all right. I guess. It’s just, my head. Right here.” He pointed to his forehead. What a diagnostician he would make.

“You were in an accident, Michael,” I prompted. “It only makes sense that you’d be feeling a little shaken up. For now, the best thing you can do is relax, and try to answer a few questions.”

“Questions?”

I nodded. “Very simple ones. For example, can you tell me your birthday?”

“What?” he asked. Then, after a pause — I said nothing to ease the silence — he nodded. “Yeah, of course. May fourth.”

I nodded. “So tell me about turning twenty-one.”

Again, the blank, expressionless face. The pause. Lips mouthing words, as he repeated to himself facts that made no sense. It was all part of the process of helping his mind internalize the memories we had implanted. They needed to be referenced and stored — the key ones, at least; after them, the rest would fall into place — or they would never properly become his own. He would, forever, be an alien to himself.

“I…” He opened his mouth, and then his eyes, very wide. Then, abruptly, the look of confusion vanished from his face entirely. “I never turned twenty-one,” he told me, as matter-of-factly as if we had given him that ourselves. “I was born today.”

———•———

And that, as far as the legal department would be concerned, was the moment when 88729-A proved faulty enough to demand replacement by 88729-B. I knew it, and I harbored no particular moral qualms to the contrary. Judges, politicians, and philosophers had settled the question for me — or for Lazarell, if nothing else: for the three days before a personality becomes established, the clones we produce are not people. They are potentialities who may, once their memories either settle or fail to do so, develop into people. But as long as they have no fixed “self” they have no interest in continuance of being. So, for three days, Lazarell has the right to study them, determine if they exhibit aberrant behavior, and terminate and replace them if so.

Cloning a living person is, after all, illegal. If 88729-A were ever allowed to become Michael Alstrom — or, whomever he decided he was — Lazarell would have no recourse but to return his wife’s money and explain that the procedure had failed.

Lazarell returned bodies to life, not money to wives.

I had returned Michael to his room and asked the nurse to provide him with a sedative. Despite his newfound confidence, he remained quite pliant, and put up no protest. Of his revelation in the food court, I said nothing to the nurse, or to anyone else.

I had two days to render a decision. Michael was not displaying the sort of behavior typical to a botched insertion; moreover, I had pride in my work, and my work on Michael’s brain had been perfectly acceptable. A typical abnormal patient displays a sort of dyslexia with his memories, is confused, often violent, and usually cannot form new memories. Never, in fifteen years, had a patient displayed perception of his true condition. Nothing had been said in front of — or even near — Michael to suggest to him the truth.

He would be terminated the moment an executive heard of his condition, which would no doubt become apparent shortly. But I had two days to study him before he needed to die. If I was going to play nursemaid, I might as well get a paper out of it.

———•———

I told my wife I wouldn’t be home for dinner, busy at work, and so on. But I wasn’t busy. For the next hour I sat alone in my office and stared blankly at the monitor of my computer. I scrolled through articles as if I were reading them, but I wasn’t. There was no reason to: none of them had any research even remotely related to Michael’s condition. It was unprecedented.

Eventually, I pulled myself away and went to the cafeteria, got myself a tall coffee, downed it, and headed over to Michael’s room. He was still sleeping, of course. The sedative wouldn’t wear off until the next morning. Meanwhile, electrodes ran from a bank of computers on the wall to the receptors still imbedded in his scalp. It was a standard reinforcing procedure which fed and sequenced images — not just visual ones, but the full range of sense — in his sleeping brain. I wondered though. What was he seeing? No system had been developed to decode the data passed from brain to computer back to brain: we simply had faith that the process worked, and the evidence had more than borne that hypothesis out.

It took about five minutes for me to realize what a pathetic figure I cut: hungry, tired, staring hopelessly at the sleeping face of a simple anomaly. Sometimes an infant is born albino. Sometimes snakes are found with two heads. Sometimes an abnormal potentiality says something surprising. And who spends time gasping over it all? Morons and intellectual midgets, for whom freaks contain the last sordid mysteries that might give their lives meaning. Not me.

I turned off the light, closed the door, left Lazarell, and drove home.

Dinner was waiting for me in the oven.

———•———

When the phone woke me up the next morning, I felt like I hadn’t slept at all. By the second ring, my eyes were open, though my vision was blurry, and the glowing red numbers of the alarm clock said it was only six. The phone rang for a fourth time.

“You getting that?” Lisa mumbled beside me.

With a sigh, I picked it up. “Hello?”

“Dr. Morgan?” A woman’s voice, but my mind was far too bleary to sort out whose it was.

“Yeah.” I cleared my throat. “Yes, this is Dr. Morgan.”

“This is Ellie. I’m…”

“The new nurse. Yeah, right.”

“I was going to say that I was sorry to have woken you up.” Somehow, her voice didn’t sound very contrite.

“Yeah, me too.” After a brief pause, I yielded. “Well?”

“When I went in to check on patient 88729-A, I noticed that his transfer cables had been decoupled, and, well, the records said that you were the last one to leave last night.”

A longer pause. I blinked my eyes and tried to clear my head. Beside me, Lisa stirred. “Honey, can’t it wait?” Yeah, honey, I was thinking the exact same thing.

I suppose Ellie got tired of hearing me breathe.

“Well, I was calling to ask whether you had unplugged him.”

“What?” I finally asked. My mind had just about caught up with the conversation, and was starting to warn me that something was quite wrong. “No. No, obviously I didn’t unplug him.”

“Okay, but then how…?”

Yeah, thanks, I need you to remind me the story’s far-fetched.

“Maybe a cleaning crew came in and knocked them out. Maybe he rolled over?” But by this point, I was fully awake, and out of bed. Lisa looked at me once, inquiringly, then rolled over and pulled a pillow over her head.

“So I should plug him back in?” Her voice was gratingly polite.

“No,” I told her, finally pulling myself together to speak in my neurosurgeon’s voice. “Didn’t you check his records? He’s on the premium plan. If you tamper with his treatment, it would be an obvious breach of contract. Come on! I know you’re new, but not that new.”

This time, the silence was on her end.

“I’ll be there in half an hour. Don’t touch a thing, and don’t wake him up.”

———•———

“So you unplugged them yourself?”

Michael nodded.

We were alone in his room. Though I had banished Ellie, the shades were pulled wide open, and the bright morning sun made our discussion seem less clandestine than it was. I hoped that Michael suspected nothing, but as our conversation had gone on, I couldn’t help but feel there were secrets hidden inside his head. “Okay.” I rubbed my tired eyes and swallowed. “Why?”

Finally, I got something like a reaction out of him. He jerked his head toward me, startled. “Why?” echoed inside him. “Why?” was precisely what we were told never to ask potentialities, though it was a question they asked incessantly. The metaphysical “why” lay precisely in their gap of “self” and “not-self.”

That one word was enough to get him to stand, and begin pacing. “Why?” he repeated, more to himself than to me. I quickly checked the door — it was locked, as I had left it. He rubbed his hands together. “Dr. Morgan—” he began.

“Call me Richard,” I reminded him. The response was as reflexive as Pavlovian slobber: Lazarell’s crash training courses in counseling had been effective.

“Richard, listen. I just woke up, and, well, there were these wires in my head. I mean, I didn’t remember, I can’t say — are they normal? Everything is, I don’t know, just fuzzy, screwed up. I just hardly remember anything, like the last time I was in a hospital…there weren’t wires then, I don’t think. So why now? And then you ask me, ‘Why?’ Come on, doctor, if you had wires in your head, wouldn’t you…?” He looked at me imploringly, his empty eyes stretched wide open.

“Would I pull them out myself, rather than buzzing a nurse?” That was enough of an answer. Immediately Michael was deflated, and sat back down. “Something more was bothering you, wasn’t it, Michael? You’re a reasonable man — not prone to taking medicine into your own hands, right?”

As Michael stared at me, his eyes lost their vacant glaze and seemed to focus. It was unsettling, unnatural for a potentiality to show such clarity and confidence. “I was having nightmares. Very vivid ones. Then, I woke up, and there were wires running into my head. What is going on here, doctor? Richard?”

I nodded. “You’re confused. You suffered a terrible accident. A truck hit you and caused a lot of damage, especially up here.” I tapped the side of my head. “They sent you here for special treatment.”

He stood again, and clenched his hands into fists. “Why are you lying to me! I can see it in your face, and I know it, inside of me. Something’s not right. I…I was…I feel like I was just born. But not…”

“You suffered a serious concussion. Obviously you are upset, and things don’t feel right, Michael.” At his name, he seemed to flinch, and spun toward me.

“Michael! You keep calling me that. But you might as well call me Howard, or John, or Alan.”

“You answered to Michael when I called you that yesterday,” I reminded him. But he wasn’t listening by then. He was pacing again, his fists white-knuckled and straining at his side.

“Just because you called me that, because you were looking at me. I don’t think that’s my name. Don’t you think I would know if it was my name? That it would mean something to me?”

He paused for a moment. Panic was obviously gripping him, but I was feeling it too. My unique Michael, so different from anything I had seen before, was degenerating into another textbook abnormality. “Does Claire mean anything to you?”

In a breath, he had crossed the room and his hands were on my shoulders. “Claire!” He pulled back and ran his hands over his face. “Yes!” And then, “No!” He spun and kicked the chair. “Yes, she’s in here, in me. She’s beautiful and she’s singing. We’re dancing at a ball. I’m making love to her. No. Michael’s making love to her. Your Michael. Not me. And she’s not my Claire, not my love. You put her in me, with those wires!” He pointed at the cords hanging out of the computer on the west wall.

“You know that’s not true, Michael. If you didn’t love her, you wouldn’t be so angry.”

My words seemed to touch something in him — perhaps I was cut out for counseling after all. His shoulders slowly slumped and his hands unclenched. He let out a sigh and sank back into his chair, defeated.

I couldn’t help but sigh as well. I would terminate him in the evening, unless he seemed likely to normalize within the next day. Whatever had prompted his shocking outburst during the previous day’s lunch was gone, replaced by the paranoid schizophrenic’s rantings. No paper, and probably another round with a new Michael. “I’m going to leave you with Nurse Ellen for a few hours, Michael. She’ll handle some basic therapeutic treatment, and then we’ll meet for lunch.”

He nodded listlessly.

“Well, I’ll see you at lunch then,” I told him, as I stood and opened the door. I glanced over my shoulder to see if he had any answer; he didn’t. Oh well. Maybe next time around he wouldn’t be so petulant.

———•———

So my plan for the rest of the day was simple. I would spend the morning looking over a few patients who were in for routine check-ups, then I would take a break and call Lisa to apologize for being home late and for leaving early. Then, to recover from her grumbling, I would grab a coffee, read the paper, check out the crossword. Finally, I’d pick up Michael, determine that he was a bust, and pass him along to be terminated. I’d order up a new body, double check the wiring, draft the paperwork on the failure of 88729-A, go home early, pick up some wine, and smooth things over with Lisa.

Simple.

Until halfway through talking to my wife, I got another call from Claire Alstrom. “Listen, honey, I’ve got to run. A customer is calling on the other line.” Click. “Yes, Mrs. Alstrom?”

Could she see her husband yet? No, she could not. But everything was going well? Internal assessments were favorable, I explained, but of course no timeframe could be estimated. None? Well, perhaps a week, I assured her. And then, the kicker: “So you’re with him right now?” No. Genius. That’s why I was a goddamn surgeon, not a PR man. That’s why I dealt with operations, not with customers. “But I paid for you to supervise the whole process!”

A sigh, an angry voice, an apology, a threat to talk to my supervisors, and a conciliatory promise later, my break was ruined and I was on my way to see Michael again.

Simple, right?

———•———

Some days start bad and get better, at least, that’s what they tell you. It certainly never happens to me. When the phone rang that morning, I should’ve picked it up and dropped it on the hook. I should’ve called in sick. A bad day looks bad from start to finish.

Waking up at six was unpleasant. Claire Alstrom’s call was unpleasant. I could’ve cut my losses there, and had Michael sent straight to termination. Instead, I opened the door to his room and found Ellie sprawled on the floor, with Michael sitting next to her, a pen pressed up against her throat.

Bad days only get worse.

“I knew you’d come by sooner or later, Dr. Morgan,” Michael said, without looking up. “But it’s early for lunch, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” I told him. “It’s only ten thirty.”

“I thought so, but my sense of time… well, you know how I’ve been feeling.” Did I? There was no trace of the doubt in his voice, no tremor, no wondering at the why of it all.

“Why don’t you put the pen away. Even if you stabbed her with it, we’ve got a pretty good intensive care unit here, and she’d probably be all right.” It was me who shook as I spoke, my voice that cracked.

But he listened, and let the pen fall out of his hand. He looked up. “Like one of those Gordian Knot toys Michael had as a kid,” he said softly. “You know what they are, of course. You might’ve even invented them, just like you invented Michael.”

I sat down in the same chair I’d used earlier that morning. I gestured for him to sit in his, but he gave no reply. “Michael —” I began.

“Don’t call me that.” His voice was now a whisper, but it wasn’t doubt or fear that quieted him. Even I could hear the pain.

“What do you want me to call you?”

He shifted slightly, and pulled a folder out from under himself. In my handwriting, across the front: 88729-A. “You tell me, doctor.”

“Your name is Michael Alstrom.”

His name is Michael Alstrom!” the man cried, hurling the folder across the room. Sheets of printed papers — the biographical notes Lazarell had prepared for me — and photographs sprayed out. Landing at my feet was one of Michael — many years younger — dressed in a tuxedo. A pretty woman leaned in close beside him. I picked it up.

“Claire?” I asked, even though I knew.

“Why are you doing this?” he pleaded.

“Doing what?” I asked. “Is it so surprising that we would file you under a serial number? We serve many patients, and alphabetical sorting isn’t always the easiest. You had a concussion, and the resultant trauma impaired your memory. We have been working on…”

“You’re going to kill me.” His voice was practically inaudible. The hum of the computers and monitoring devices in the room almost droned him out.

“What?”

“I can hear it in your voice. And you won’t look at me. You keep calling me Michael because he’s already dead. Or did you forget that his death certificate was in that folder? You’re calling me Michael so that you can kill me and think that I was already dead to begin with.”

“You’re being ridiculous,” I told him. I slowly gathered up the papers scattered near my feet. “I don’t blame you, of course. You wake up, uncertain, alone, in a strange place…”

“Please,” his eyes met mine, “don’t do this to me. Let me at least know why.”

I sighed, and looked everywhere but Michael’s face. The monitor banks all flashed with error messages — apparently Michael had been meddling with them after he knocked Ellie unconscious. She hadn’t moved on the floor, but I could tell she was breathing. Sunlight still streamed in through the windows, onto her, onto him, onto me.

“You answer something for me first, Michael. When we got lunch yesterday, you told me, ‘I was born today.’ Why?”

“I …” He, too, glanced at the window. “I felt like I knew something. There was something inside me, something you hadn’t put there. It was me, and it was new, and I … and it’s gone.”

“I’m sorry,” I told him. “His wife loved him, you know?” I rubbed their picture between my fingers. “Loved him enough. Or too much.” From the documents in my lap, I took out a picture of Claire — a recent one. She smiled in it. I passed the photo to him, and he took it in trembling hands. “You remember her?”

He nodded. “He remembers her. You gave me that.”

“Could you have let her go?”

“He couldn’t have.”

So I nodded. “When I leave the room, I’m going to need to call the orderlies.”

In his eyes, I could see that he understood. He looked back at the woman in his hands.

“Just make sure,” he said, empty, tired, “that he loves her. That he really loves her. Because, otherwise, otherwise, why did I, why am I…”

It always came back to why. I nodded.

“Goodbye.”

———•———

Even the general staff at Lazarell is covered under the Employee Policy, but the doctors and the executives had full family plans. In my desk, I still had the paperwork I had signed the first day: the medical waivers, the consent forms. Other places offered life insurance policies, but not Lazarell. When I was sure I had all the papers, I called up accounting, explained what I was sending over, and that I wanted the policies terminated. I expected that I would wind up talking to a boss about it, and, of course, I was right. He explained how it would look — one of Lazarell’s own who rejected reincorporation. I told him I understood. He offered a nice severance package. Lazarell had deep pockets. I accepted.

When I went home that night, 88729-B was sound asleep, plugged into an array of circuits and wires that flashed with the memories of the now twice-dead Michael Alstrom. I tried to convince myself that I had only ended a potentiality, one with no interest in the development of his self.

In the end, all I could do was kiss Lisa, and then apologize, and then explain, and cry, and make love, and go on living the rest of the life I had been given.



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