The Phoenix Experiment
a short story by Eric Brown
"The Phoenix Experiment"
is a companion piece to my short story The Disciples of Apollo. It follows some of the same themes and concerns
of that story, loneliness and redemption, though in an overtly
science-fictional setting. It is a mood piece, the description
of the time in the life of a recognisably human character, perhaps
one hundred years hence.
It was published in the small press
magazine The Lyre #1, in the summer of '91.
It was published in the small press magazine The Lyre #1, in the summer of '91.
One month after the death of his daughter, Jonathon Fuller decided to leave the city. The life and energy of the place was too stark a contrast to the isolation he had imposed upon himself, too harsh a reminder of his daughter's passing. He needed the tranquillity of the countryside, where his desire to be alone would not be seen as perverse, to come to terms with his guilt and eventually, perhaps, to persuade himself to return. He shelved all his projects and told his agent that he was going away for a long holiday.
Early that Summer he drove from the city and toured the southern coastline in search of a suitable retreat, somewhere isolated and idyllic, untouched by the technologies of contemporary life. Within a week he discovered a lonely village overlooking the Channel, and made enquiries at a local property office. He was told that there were no houses for rent in the village itself - but there were chalets available in the Canterbury Rehabilitation Community, half a mile away.
He'd heard about the Community, but, far from being deterred by the nature of the place, it occurred to him that there he might be allowed the privacy he desired. When he arrived at the enclosed estate later that afternoon he was met by an invalid in a carriage, who called himself the Captain and showed Fuller to one of a dozen identical A-frames that occupied a greensward overlooking the ocean. The view of the seascape, and the chalet's relative isolation, cheered him. He thought back to his depressive state in the city and told himself that this was exactly what he had been seeking.
That first night, as darkness fell and the stars appeared, he took a bottle of scotch onto the balcony, drank and stared at the constellations. The Captain had told him that he would be made welcome by the rest of the patients - at this stage of their rehabilitation, he had said, they rarely had contact with outsiders. Fuller had been unable to bring himself to tell the Captain that he would not be requiring company for some time.
In one of the other A-frames on the gently sloping greensward, a party was in progress: the patients, he thought, doing their best to forget the present. Dark shapes passed across the lighted squares of windows like figures in an Indonesian shadow play, and laughter drifted to him on the warm night air.
He decided to set up a camp bed on the balcony, in the hope that his dreams of late had been in part a product of the claustrophobia he had experienced in the city. But the open air, the mild sea breeze, could do nothing to alleviate the guilt, and in the early hours he awoke in a sweat and watched his daughter's smiling face vanish into the night.
He took to going on long walks early in the mornings, so as to avoid the patients who were active mainly in the afternoons. He would spend the rest of the day reading, or drinking, or watching television. It was as if he was purposefully filling his head with trivia, and allotting only the two hours he spent walking for the serious consideration of his circumstances.
At the funeral, and its aftermath, he had been unable to show the slightest sign of grief. Many of his acquaintances assumed that he was still in shock, but his father had seen through his silent facade and called Fuller cold and emotionless, accused him of feeling nothing for his dead daughter.
Only later did he begin to experience the guilt - not so much at being unable to grieve at her death, rather at his inability to show her more affection during the short time that she was alive. He had kept his distance, remained aloof - believing that by doing so he could insulate himself from the hurt that inevitably followed emotional involvement. He believed that with involvement came the fear of another's mortality, and from that the reminder of one's own - and Fuller feared his own death more than anything else. Over the years, he had succeeded in distancing himself from everyone with whom he had contact, his daughter included. He was rewarded by the inability to suffer anguish at his bereavement. Only now was he coming to realise that the quality of his daughter's short life had suffered from his apathy.
One morning, after a long walk, Fuller encountered a patient on the beach beneath the cliffs. He came to think of the brief meeting as prophetic, though not at the time.
He saw the woman as he came around the headland, paused and considered retracing his steps so as to avoid contact. She was staring out to sea, with her back to him, and he decided to walk quickly past her towards the steps cut into the cliff-face.
She stood in the wet sand, her hands slotted into the back pockets of her denim cut-offs, a short white tee-shirt emphasizing her tan. She was a crew-cut blonde with the figure of a small boy, and it occurred to Fuller, with mounting shock that, if she were so physically perfect, then her debilitation had to be cerebral.
Then he became aware of the subcutaneous network, the threads of gold that embroidered the surface of her arms and legs, the small of her back and belly between cotton shirt and the frayed waistline of her denims.
She turned and caught him staring. Her face was young and open. Fuller tried to hurry past, but her question stopped him.
"Are you one of them?" Her voice was transistorised, straight from the larynx, while her full lips smiled and her green eyes stared at him.
"I arrived here yesterday, from London." He stopped. "But aren't you-?" He gestured to the greensward.
"I'm a patient, but not of the Canterbury Line. We do not mix."
He saw that although she had followed him with her head, her stance in the wet sand had not altered. She stood with a torque to her spine that was at once awkward and becoming, her hands still pocketed behind her.
He gestured to the steps in the cliff-face, suggesting she might care to accompany him. "Why don't you mix?" he asked.
She walked with movements of such brittle care she might at one have time broken every bone in her body, yet she was far from clumsy. She moved with the fluid grace, the deliberation of an actress in a noh play.
She said simply in reply: "I scare them." And smiled at him.
At the top of the cliff he made an excuse and returned to his chalet. There, he turned and watched her as she moved off with laborious languor. Her perfection, despite whatever injuries she had sustained, filled him with wonder - and he suspected that it was her perfection that scared the other patients.
Two nights later he came close.
It was a contradiction that although for thirty years he had absented himself from emotional involvement, so that he might hold himself at some remove from the inevitability of death, now he was contemplating taking his life. A fear of death had made him what he was - and it was as if threatening himself with oblivion he was in fact presenting himself with an ultimatum: either change, and learn to live and give as others do, or kill yourself now in the full knowledge of the futility of your existence... So naturally he had flung aside the pistol with which, with ultimate irony, he had intended to shoot himself through the heart.
Then, in lieu of fulfilling the directive of his ultimatum, he found the bottle of scotch and drank himself senseless.
Often, during the next few weeks, the patients invited him to join them, and Fuller could not bring himself to refuse. He attended picnics on the greensward, barbecues on the beach, late night parties at which the invalids would sit outside in groups and point to the stars where they had served.
His main concern in capitulating and joining their company, that he might have to explain himself and his presence here, proved unfounded. They had heard of Jonathon Fuller, the historical-scripter, and knew of the loss of his daughter. He found himself accepted without having to explain his past, and part of him - the part that had refused to end his life the other night - knew full well that he was cheating himself.
He soon spent almost every night at their gatherings, and it was ironical that they regarded him - the only fit and whole person among them - with the pity that they themselves deserved; they had come to accept their own injuries, but they found it hard to come to terms with Fuller's loss. They had passed so close to death that the mere thought of it terrified them.
They were daunting company, these survivors of starship burnouts, novae, alien pestilence, war and a hundred other far disasters. They spoke of their experiences with a gentle wisdom at odds with the enormity of their physical deformities. He had thought that, beside them, perhaps his own problems would come to appear slight, but such was not the case. Through their experiences they had come to know themselves with a thoroughness that emphasized his own uncertainty and lack of self-knowledge. All he had that they did not was a fully-functioning body.
He could not talk of himself without appearing superficial, so although he drank and laughed and partied with them, he remained aloof. He knew that to save himself and accept intimacies would mean that they must accept him, and he was not prepared to open himself to the pain and humiliation he knew that that would entail.
One warm evening, at a party which had spilled from a chalet and across the greensward, Fuller sat on the grass with a bottle in his grip while he listened to the Captain recount the meltdown of his starship.
They were alone, and Fuller had ceased to be revolted by the Captain's extensive injuries. They were rebuilding him piece by piece; he would disappear for days on end, and reappear at last a little more human.
Fuller sat well beyond the crimson glow that encapsulated the Captain and his overdose of radiation. A geiger counter on the spacer's belt churred like a cricket.
He came to the end of his story, and they regarded the star where it had happened. A silence came down between them, like the end of an act, and on the periphery of his vision Fuller was aware of a familiar movement. He turned to acknowledge her presence.
She crouched on the grass twenty metres away, hugging her bare shins and staring at them. Her epidermal network glowed in the gathering darkness like spun gold. She had the aspect of an angel.
In a bid to overcome his unease at her constant regard, he turned to the starship captain. "Who's the woman?" he asked.
The carriage swung so that the gobbet of flesh and gristle that was the extent of the Captain's physical being now faced the perfect woman. "She's the Phoenix Line experiment," he said.
Her tragic isolation touched something deep within Fuller. "Why doesn't she join us?"
It was a while before the Captain replied. "She's not one of us," he said, and his carriage rose and hovered off towards the chalet.
Fuller walked over to the woman. He passed across her line of sight, and it was seconds before she compensated and moved her head to regard him.
He crouched beside her. "What happened to you?" he asked gently.
She just smiled, shook her head. Her distant eyes relived the trauma of her accident.
"Why don't you join them?"
Her lips remained fixed in a smile and she shrugged artlessly.
Fuller shook his head to indicate that she mystified him. He wanted to find a question that she might answer, as if to establish her psychological reality within his frame of reference.
She rose and smiled uncertainly at him. The sound of her static-choked voice was sudden."I really must be going," she said, and still smiling she moved off like a narcoleptic ballerina.
Over the next few weeks he saw less and less of the patients. He made excuses when they called with invitations to their gatherings: he was working, he was thinking. Of course, he was doing none of these. The patients frightened him with their personal certainty, their understanding. He felt inferior in their company.
The woman in contrast seemed weak and lost, and Fuller resolved to spend more time with her.
He continued his long walks around the estate, hurrying until he came to the beach and there pausing to admire the view, hoping he might happen upon the woman again. He was confused, but no longer suicidal. He had even considered returning to the city, but something, some intimation that he was not yet ready, restrained him.
One morning as he walked along the beach he saw the woman approach him from the opposite direction, moving through the warm air as if wading along at the bottom of the sea.
She paused before him. The process of coming to a halt involved a gradual shut-down of her bodily movements. She settled into stasis like some machine.
As ever she was smiling, distant. "Jonathon, you remind me of my father..."
They walked side by side along the seashore, and although she was present physically, she was absent; it was more than just her silence - she seemed removed as if inhabiting a private universe of her own, a universe that earned the constant praise of her smile. Fuller wanted nothing more than to establish some means of contact with her, to take her in his arms and communicate. It was as if she were imprisoned within her perfect form, and only a show of affection on his part might provoke from her some reciprocal response.
At last she broke the silence. "Why are you here?"
He told her about the death of his daughter, and despite some inner urging said no more. Later, when they concluded their walk outside his chalet, and she said, "Perhaps we might meet again?" - a no-doubt sincere request made formal by the means of its delivery - he was torn between wanting to accede to her request, and wanting to shut her from his life for ever.
Summer progressed and Fuller spent more time with the woman, and the other patients shunned them. No longer came the invitations to picnics and parties, and whenever he met a patient while out walking he was pointedly ignored. The dissociation did not bother him unduly; he supposed, in a way, that he had begun the rift when he sought the woman's company in preference to theirs.
They met every day and walked, lunched, sat on the balcony of his A-frame and drank, then dined and watched the sun set. They never discussed their tenuous relationship, or how it might continue; they simply met and passed the time of day together. She was always distant, present in body but rarely in mind, and when she spoke it was with an objectivity shorn of all emotion. He often had the urge to ask her how she felt, if she had plans and ambitions for the future, joyous memories and loves. It was as if the accident through which she'd passed had traumatised her, made her loath to become the feeling human being she used to be.
Fuller never demanded from her a statement of commitment, or anything that might require from her an expenditure of the emotion she was unable to declare. Perhaps she saw in him someone who would accept her as she was, and perhaps he saw in her the same.
One evening as they watched the sun sink into the ocean, he asked, "Why are you here?"
"I was a xeno-biologist on Thallia, in the Persephone Cluster," she began.
She was a xeno-biologist - but she was also something more. She was born on Thallia and lived there until the time of her accident twenty years later. She was fifteen when she joined her father in the study of the alien natives, and they became the only humans the aliens would trust. She lived among them, learned their ways, was accepted by the arboreal, ape-like creatures as goyu, "one of us." When the Phoenix Line moved in on the planet, they used the father and daughter team as liaison officers between Head of Command and the native elders. The Line wanted to mine the planet's only island, and as the planet was protected territory they needed the Thallian's permission. The only humans with whom the aliens would consent to discuss the matter were the xeno-biologist and his daughter.
She told him this over the period of an hour, with no stress or inflexion, with no passion that might suggest she was on the side of the natives.
They watched the light die on the horizon.
She continued, "My father and I were in a shuttle accident, coming from the planet's surface to an orbiting starship for debriefing. My father did not survive; I did. They brought me to Earth and began to rebuild me. In one month I return to Thallia, to negotiate with the natives. I am a valuable commodity to the Phoenix Line."
He glanced across at her, but her face was expressionless, with no hint of grief or regret, or anger that she had become no more than a chattel of the Line.
He tried to imagine the shuttle accident, the extent of her resulting injuries. She had said that she had been rebuilt, and he wondered how much of her had survived the crash. The only indication of physical damage was the golden net that held her body together, the only hint of mental impairment her eternal distance.
Two days before she was due to leave for the Persephone Cluster, he led her to the bedroom of his chalet and undressed her as she stood perfectly still with a distant smile on her lips. Then he carried her to the bed and they made love - or rather he, overcome with lust, raped her, and she moved her limbs with a semblance of passion but without conviction. It was as if the absent part of her disdained physicality, allowed her body only a token role in the experience.
Later he caressed her occipital computer, fitted flush to the back of her neck, and smoothed his hands over her body network, a filigree matrix slightly firmer than the flesh it underlay. She had said not a word during the whole encounter. She stared uncomprehendingly at his tears.
He kissed her and said she was the only person he had ever loved.
"Did you not love your wife?"
"I was never married."
"Then the mother of your daughter?"
He had adopted his daughter when she was two years old, in an attempt to bring something into his life that he might love, without having to undergo the catechism that would have revealed him as the emotionless failure that he was.
He told her all this now.
She was unable to make an adequate response, as Fuller had suspected. He wondered if this was the reason he had opened up to her; he had experienced the catharsis of confession without an adverse reaction, without the questions that would have accused him - which, he realised, was no catharsis at all. Through replying to criticism, attempting however futilely to defend himself, he might have come to understand more about the person who was Jonathon Fuller - he would have undergone the process of sharing personal pain and anguish which was all part of the exchange of human love but which he, in his cowardice, had never experienced.
She reached out and touched his cheek in a gesture so empty of affection that it was almost brutal.
"I think we are very much alike, Jonathon."
He told her that they were very much different. He thought that, despite the injuries that had left her unable to exhibit the regular run of emotions, she could perhaps feel them - whereas he had the ability to do neither.
"But you said earlier that you loved me," her vocal-assist pronounced through smiling lips.
She lay still beside him as darkness gathered, then closed her eyes and slept.
"Words," he murmured to himself.
In the morning she was gone.
At dawn he left the chalet and attempted to find her; he needed her acceptance, and rationalised that anything other than her refusal to tolerate his presence he could count as that acceptance. She was the only person to whom he had ever admitted the truth, and he could not bear the thought of her rejection.
She was not in her chalet, or anywhere else in the grounds. He spent the rest of the day performing an extended version of his morning walk, but the woman was nowhere to be found.
That evening, as darkness gathered and the patients began another of their interminable soirees, Fuller crossed the greensward to the fire-side group and sought the Captain. He knelt beside the carriage and regarded the nub of flesh that, despite its appearance, was nevertheless human.
"Have you seen her?" he asked.
The party noise around him stopped abruptly. Their dialogue became the centre of attention. "Is she missing?" the Captain asked.
"She left this morning. I haven't seen her since."
The Captain seemed to vent a weary sigh. "Fuller... Fuller. Stop this idiocy, man! Don't you see that nothing can come of it?"
"I need her," he said, and the silence around him deepened.
"Oh, Christ... Fuller, please listen to me. Don't you realise - she's dead."
It was as if the Captain had physically assaulted him; for a second he was breathless, incredulous. He laughed. "She can't be! She was with me just last night-"
"I'm sorry, Fuller. I'm very sorry. We thought you knew... I mean, she's really dead. She died six months ago in the shuttle accident. The woman you know is nothing more than programming... "
He could feel the weight of their silent pity as he turned and ran.
The following morning he found her on the beach.
She stood in the wet sand, staring out across the ocean. Her shorts and tee-shirt were soaked, clasping her body. Fuller sank into a sitting position on a nearby rock.
"The Captain told me about the accident," he said. "He told me what happened..."
She turned to him from the waist and stared. Her face, as ever, was empty of expression.
"Biologically," she said, "she is dead. She died in the accident and all that survived was her body. She was brain-dead, so they manufactured a digital analogue of her mind and re-vitalised the remains of her body. Over a period, here on Earth, they rebuilt her... me."
Fuller stood and held the woman. "But you're still her - you have all her memories, her knowledge."
She avoided his eyes. "I am a continuation of her."
He sensed her doubt, her reservation.
He shook her. "But you're still human!"
Her eyes found his, accusing. "I tried to drown myself today... I failed, of course. I am programmed to save myself. I am a valuable asset to the Phoenix Line."
He looked into the vacancy of her expression, which he had thought of until now merely as distant. He recalled his own aborted suicide attempt, and he had the first stirrings of an awful premonition.
"Why...?" he released her and took one step back. "Why did you try to kill yourself?"
"I have her memories. She knew love before she died. Yesterday, with you, she would have been able to feel. I knew then for the first time that I could no longer pretend to be her. I am no longer human, and the part of me that was her cannot bear the thought."
A silver ambulance, with Phoenix Line emblazoned along its flank, drew up on the cliff-top. Two uniformed men climbed from the cab and came down the steps, and the woman allowed herself to be walked away without so much as a backward glance.
He followed, burdened with grief for the woman. He crossed the greensward towards his chalet and, as the vehicle started up, he recalled her words of yesterday, when she had said that they were very much alike. Fuller realised that, of course, they were. He also realised their difference: the woman was condemned to existence with the full and terrible knowledge of her inhumanity, denied release by her programming and unable to regain that which she once had been, while he....
Fuller thought of the city, of the life and the energy. He turned and watched the silver vehicle drive from the estate, carrying away the woman who was no longer human.
© Eric Brown 1991, 1997
This story first appeared in The Lyre #1, in 1991.
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