“Thank you.” Her voice seemed to come from the walls around her rather than her throat. Adelaide dropped the card into her purse and returned to the PET scan results. Her skeleton glowed before her in 3D, a ghostly smudge of purple, grey, and the traffic cone orange of radioactive glucose. She drew a hand through the hologram, tracing the disease through her body. When she’d gotten the call she had ordered herself to stay calm, but her body had trembled ceaselessly. She couldn’t speak. It was like someone had ripped a hole in her throat.
The cancer has metastasized, Dr. Foss had said gently, like a mother speaking to a child. Months ago they’d slit her pancreas and scooped out the tumor. For months she’d danced with the fantasy of branding herself a survivor. She’d imagined herself striding out of the office after the oncologist declared her cancer-free. She would have called Nick first, then her parents and friends, then—heck—posted cliché Facebook prose about how grateful she was to be alive and how she would forevermore live every day to the fullest because she was Adelaide Fox, conqueress of cancer.
“Dr. Viande offers free consultations to people in your situation,” Dr. Foss continued, scribbling something on her clipboard. Her eyelashes were sheathed in mascara, so thick and curly they almost looked like feathers. “It may put you at ease to speak to him now even if you never end up needing the Operation.”
Adelaide digested this. “I want the chemo as soon as possible.”
Dr. Foss looked up from her clipboard. Her thick brown ponytail reeked of hairspray and bounced every time she moved her head. “We can give you your first round this Thursday.”
“Perfect. Give me the highest dosage you can.” She’d had a taste of chemo before the surgery, and while it wasn’t fun, she could muscle through the main course if it meant her life. She stood. “I want to blast the hell out of this thing.”
“Noted, Mrs. Fox,” Dr. Foss replied. “The receptionist will be in touch.”
The wet clay felt good between her fingers. Adelaide inhaled the strong, metallic smell and pressed hard around the neck of the vase she was creating. This was what she loved about wheel throwing—making art with nothing but earth, the physics of rotation, and the force of her own body. Every piece started as the same lump of mud and then her hands coaxed out a form. It was rhythmic and pure.
Marylise sat on the floor drawing a rainbow with Crayola markers. “Mama?” she asked, shaking mousy brown bangs out of her dark eyes. “What are rainbows made of?”
Adelaide splashed more water onto her vase. “They’re not really made of anything the way you and I are,” she said. “We see them because water reflects and refracts light.”
“What does refract mean?
Marylise drew some purple flowers at the base of the rainbow. “What is light made of?”
“Streams of photons.”
“What are photons?”
Adelaide knew where this rabbit hole led. “A photon is a tiny, tiny particle. So small you can’t see it—not even with a microscope.”
“What are photons made of?”
Adelaide slowed the wheel to a stop. Her hands were gloved in clay, and a few wet traces snaked down to her elbows. “I think that’s as basic as it gets. Or as far as we know.”
“Where do photons come from?”
At that moment the door to the studio swung open. Nicholas entered, still dressed for work. He crossed the room in long strides, newspaper crunching beneath his feet. When he reached his wife he crushed her into his arms. He didn’t say a word, just stood there and held her.
Adelaide’s phone rang so frequently in the next few days that she began glaring at it every time the screen lit up with an incoming call. Yes Mom, they found some spots. No, not just in my pancreas. In my liver too. Yes Dad, I’ll send you the scans. Yes, those days work Dr. Foss. I’ll mark my calendar. Thanks for the casserole Ashley—that was so sweet of you. Could you watch Marylise after school this Thursday?
Trips to the hospital. Medical records, physical examinations, blood tests. Drug disclaimers and informed consent papers. A whirlwind of white smiles and firm handshakes. Oncologists, nurses, assistants, nutritionists, even psychologists.
Thursday afternoon, Nicholas and Adelaide sat in Dr. Foss’s room, listening to the final speech. “The chemotherapy agents will target cells undergoing cell division,” Dr. Foss said, repeating information that Adelaide had heard fifty times. “We can take out the big guns against your cancer cells, but the drugs don’t act preferentially. They will disrupt the cycle of frequently dividing cells all over your body. This means your hair, skin, the lining of your gastrointestinal tract—”
“I understand. I’m gonna get sick.”
“Probably. And you understand that the five-year survival rate is 25%?”
“If these drugs fail, there are others we can try. However, should chemotherapy prove completely ineffective, you know that you will become eligible for a Spare.”
“We’ll cross that bridge if we come to it,” Adelaide said, but Nick leaned forward. Another one of those crisp, little cards changed hands.
“If you have any interest whatsoever in the Operation, I would advise you speak with Dr. Viande now.” Dr. Foss finished writing on her clipboard and gathered Adelaide’s paperwork into a file. “Now let’s get you hooked up.” She led the way out of her office with quick, clickety-clack steps, brown ponytail swinging behind her head like a pendulum.
The chemo nurse was tall as an Amazonian warrior and looked to be as strong. Adelaide couldn’t help staring, bewitched by the luster of her golden curls, the hills and valleys of muscle beneath her flesh, and the unnatural green iridescence of her eyes. She winced as the needle sank into her arm, but when she opened her eyes the catheter was in place. “You’re all good to go, hun,” the nurse said. She must have detected the anxiety brimming beneath Adelaide’s fight face because she touched her shoulder gently and said, “I’ve been in your position before. I was scared too. But one way or another you’re going to be fine.” She flashed a porcelain smile and turned to leave.
“Five hours to go,” said Nick, handing her the television remote. He evaluated the selection of magazines cluttering the bedside table and reached for the Sports Weekly. Adelaide leaned back into her pillows, her mind engulfed by wonder. She painted a mental image of who the nurse had once been—a willowy sixty-five-year old with long silver hair, maybe—as poison began to drip into her veins.
When they got home, Adelaide went upstairs to her studio, where Marylise was abusing a sheet of paper with crayons. The little girl squealed when she saw her mother and leapt up to hug her. Adelaide paid the babysitter and then sat at her wheel. The sun was sinking in a gold-stained sky; there wasn’t enough time to actually start and finish a piece, but the routine of the wheel soothed her. Feeling the power of it turning beneath her hands made her think of her heart pulsing blood through her circulatory system. Around and around and around.
By Saturday she was vomiting. Adelaide spent most of the day in the bathroom crouched over the toilet. Nicholas took the day off from work. He held her hair and rubbed her back while she retched.
Two weeks later she was in her studio, preparing to start a piece. She pulled her hair back with her hands to put it up and a silky black clump drifted to the floor.
The biweekly chemo rounds became routine. The days blurred together and the weeks bled into months. Nausea was her new baseline. Dr. Foss prescribed some anti-nauseates. They made the room stop spinning but they didn’t keep the food down. Her belly caved in. Bones she’d never felt before poked out of her hips.
Many nights she would stand in front of the bathroom mirror, naked, and drag her hands across her stomach. She’d pinch the skin over her pancreas and liver and imagine she could feel her cancer squirming beneath like some sort of parasitic worm. She’d pretend that she could suffocate it if she just squeezed hard enough. “Leave my body,” she’d whisper. “You have no place here.”
“Can I kiss your pancreas better?” Marylise asked sometimes. Adelaide let her kiss her surgery scar.
At first the cancer responded to the chemo. “There’s been shrinkage here, here, and here,” Dr. Foss said, pointing out the areas on her most recent scan. “This is good progress.”
Then gravity reversed. “The cells are replicating again. This is not abnormal; it just means they’ve begun to resist the effects of your particular regimen. We need to get you on new drugs.”
She got on a carousel of new drugs. Each time one stopped working that familiar numbness seeped from her bones.
A call from school came one day. “Mrs. Fox? Yes, hello. This is Ms. Becker, your daughter’s home room teacher. Marylise tried to take all the Band-Aids from the medicine cabinet today. I found her backpack full of them. I don’t mean to intrude here but I hope… is everything ok?”
Adelaide’s throat was dry. “Thank you for letting me know.”
Time flowed through her fingers, washing away more and more of her with every wave. Finally she was sitting in Dr. Foss’s office again, hearing words she had once refused to consider hearing.
Dr. Foss removed her glasses. “I’m sorry, Adelaide. It’s time to face reality. Chemotherapy is not eliminating the cancer from your body. It may be impeding the growth of tumors, and you may buy yourself time by continuing your regimen. But it’s time to think about quality of life. You can stay on chemo or you can end it. It’s your choice.”
Adelaide wore a face of stone. Her hair had long since abandoned her body. Hair, eyebrows, even eyelashes. “Are you saying in your professional opinion I will never be cancer-free?”
“Your body won’t, Mrs. Fox. But you can be, if you want.” Dr. Foss reached for a card.
“I already have one,” she said quietly. It lay crumpled at the bottom of her purse along with loose change and grocery store receipts.
“There is grant money, Mrs. Fox. Charities. The Board of—”
“I’ll stick with the chemo for now. Thank you.” Her eyes were glassy with tears as she strode out of the office, her breathing punctuated by involuntary shudders.
Her car recognized these signs of distress. “Are you okay?” chirped its computerized voice as she buckled her seatbelt.
“Home please.” It dutifully backed out of its parking space and fed into the network of AI-controlled traffic flow.
In the bathroom, facing the mirror, she surrendered to her sobs. She looked so old. Maybe she’d never been conventionally beautiful, but she had loved her body and cared for it well. She’d loved her crooked, little nose and her almond eyes and her thin lips. But now her chest swelled with revulsion. She was infuriated by the ludicrous incompetency of her body, by the way her own DNA was trying to destroy her. What a way to die. No airplane crash. No snakebite in the Amazon rainforest. No gunshot, no stab wound, no broken bones. Not even a last exhale of breath in the night at old age. Just a self-destruct button. A flaw in the machinery.
Was that all the body was? A piece of equipment humming inside a case of flesh, driven by mechanical processes, disguised as life? She scraped her fingernails down her cheeks, wondering what she would find if she peeled back the layers—a soul or a computer? Perhaps everything could be slashed down to the tiniest bits; every part of her, every organ and bone, every muscle, every thought—perhaps it was all just an ocean of particles, slamming into each other and reverberating in endless, mechanical chaos.
She turned and saw Nick standing in the doorway. The defeat in his eyes made him look almost as broken as she was. He reached for her. “I want to talk with this consultant,” he said.
She looked at him as if he’d just proposed treason. “You can’t mean it,” she said, closing her eyes. “We organized protests against this shit in college, for Christ’s sake.”
“It’s your only chance. And even then, maybe we felt squeamish about the Operation but we always knew fighting it was a hopeless cause. The Spares aren’t people. They aren’t competent enough to survive. This business—it makes sense.”
“It’s not fair. I—”
“Please listen to me, Adelaide. Your body is dying. I am begging you to call the number on that card.”
“Let’s talk about it after dinner,” Adelaide said, pushing herself to her feet.
She got her body up the stairs to her daughter’s room. She wiped the wetness from her cheeks. “Marylise?” she asked. She pushed the door open and gasped. “Oh God, what—”
Her little girl sat on the floor, hacking off her hair with a pair of craft scissors. The blades were blunt so she was having a hard time of it, but piles of brown hair already littered the floor. Marylise looked up with another snip. “Mama!” She grabbed a handful of the hair, bounced to her feet, and barreled into her mother’s arms. “I wanted to surprise you. Since you don’t have any more hair we can share mine.”
Adelaide stroked her little girl’s head. “I wish you hadn’t done that,” she said. “But that was a sweet thought. What do you want for dinner?”
“Can you make pasta?”
“Sure. I’ll start it now.”
She left and went back to the bathroom, where her purse lay on the floor. She dug around the bottom until her fingers brushed a small piece of cardstock. She retrieved it and stared at the number and pulled out her phone. And she dialed.
“A pleasure to meet you, Mr. and Mrs. Fox.”
Dr. Lawrence Viande was a human skyscraper. Adelaide had to tilt her head up to look him in the eye. His face was dominated by a bulbous nose and a mane of silver hair. He gestured for them to sit in large leather armchairs. Everything about his office boasted class, from the chairs to the mahogany bureau to the Persian rug and the velvet curtains.
“And you as well,” Nicholas said, shaking hands with the doctor before sinking into his chair. Adelaide sat down stiffly.
Dr. Viande gazed at her like an owl. “I can only imagine the pain which you and your family have been going through,” he said, his forehead crinkling like a sheet of paper. “You don’t have to suffer anymore, Mrs. Fox. I can save your life.”
“With a Spare,” Adelaide said. Her mind registered the crispness of her words, but she couldn’t think of anything charismatic to pull from her throat.
“Are you familiar with the Operation?”
“It’s a body transplant.”
“Essentially, yes. There will be some preparatory analysis and then once we find a good match for you, it’s five hours in the Operating Room. When you wake up you’ll spend eight weeks in Rehabilitation, adjusting to your new nervous system and refining your motor skills. In the beginning you will experience difficulty speaking, walking, and eating—a consequence of scarring of the nervous tissue—but with a daily supplement of neurological growth factor, physical therapy, and the care of our highly trained employees you will regain every function you currently enjoy.”
“As good as new.”
“Better than new.” Dr. Viande took a sip of water. “Mrs. Fox, our Spares are genetically engineered to approach physical perfection. They have higher muscle mass, denser bones. Their cells harvest 20% more of the chemical energy in food. They resist a range of diseases and contain genes for the production of antibiotics that are activated by the detection of foreign bacteria. They have enhanced mechanisms playing roles in cell repair, cell communication, homeostasis—Mrs. Fox, you don’t ever have to be sick again.”
Adelaide inhaled. The thought was beautiful and it terrified her. She felt a door inside her open just far enough to let a crack of light through. “What about the souls that inhabit these bodies?”
“The Spares aren’t natural, Mrs. Fox. They’re biochemical machines assembled in test tubes and gestated in tanks. Without us they would never exist. That being said, we take pride in the humane treatment of our Spares.”
Adelaide’s eyes narrowed.
“The Spares enjoy more luxury during their existence than most people see in a lifetime. Caretakers see to their every need and nutritionists design a specialized diet for each individual. They have intense exercise and enrichment schedules, with daily opportunities for social interaction. Our clients are welcome to tour the facilities, if you would like to see firsthand the quality of life we provide for our Spares.”
“And what about consent? Do they consent to the Operation?”
“Mrs. Fox, due to the artificial nature of their existence, Spares are not recognized as humans and are not inherently entitled to the same rights as you and me. Consent has no technical applicability to this situation. However, speaking from personal experience, no Spare has ever voiced a word of opposition to the system.”
Adelaide was incredulous. “Truly? They show no emotion at all when you tell them they are born to die?”
Dr. Viande wove his fingers through his beard. “We don’t use such abrasive language with them… the consensus within the scientific community is that their brains would be unable to process the complexity of their purpose. For all their physical superiority, the Spares show a pattern of intellectual incompetence. They have limited emotional capacity and often require assistance to complete the most menial of tasks. They panic in the absence of structure. They are utterly incapable of taking care of themselves on their own.”
“What exactly do you tell them? When you’re leading the sheep to the slaughterhouse, what do you say?”
Dr. Viande did not falter. “Merely that it is time to sleep,” he said calmly. “The nurses hold their hands and administer anesthesia. During the Operation the brain is severed at the spinal cord. It’s the quickest, gentlest death possible. Absolutely painless.”
Nicholas turned to his wife. “What are you thinking?”
Adelaide saw the quiet hope in his eyes. “I think… I need some time to think.”
“Take your time, Mrs. Fox,” Dr. Viande said, reaching to shake her hand. “I realize this is a powerful decision. I want you to know that I have only your best interest in mind.”
“How much time do I have?”
Adelaide had quit chemotherapy one week ago, when the pain had become so relentlessly consuming that surrender had finally seemed like relief. Her cheeks were hollow, and the whites of her eyes were not white at all, but the color of mustard.
Dr. Foss clasped her hands. “Your disease is aggressive, Adelaide. You probably have a few months.”
In her studio, Adelaide watched the wheel spin round and round. She wanted to create, but her touch no longer commanded the power it once had. The clay seemed to wilt instead of grow. She looked at her hands and imagined them rotting. Skin blackening and softening until it slid right off, exposing the meat, which itself would wither and wash away until all that was left behind was pristine white bone.
Nicholas’s study was littered with bottles and Operation literature. Adelaide felt tiny next to him, as if she were his child rather than his wife. Long gone were the days when his eyes had looked on her with desire. Now they roamed the pictures of dollish Spares, feeding upon any material they could find—pamphlets, books, web sites. She wondered if he found that manufactured perfection beautiful, if he imagined touching her through one of those flawless bodies. He toiled whole nights away clicking through articles and message boards, searching for some crucial piece of information which he had not already read. Adelaide, who had months ago taken to sleeping in the guest room to sequester the stench of her sickness, wouldn’t know until she’d go to the study for their morning coffee and find him typing away, exhausted and bleary-eyed.
“I’m scared,” she said one morning, staring into her mug.
“We’re running out of time, Adelaide.” Nicholas’s voice was never cruel, but veins of frustration invaded it every now and then. He reached out and swallowed her hand in his, his grip so strong it was painful. “I know you’re stubborn and idealistic and you hate admitting defeat. But this operation… it wouldn’t be that. It’s our chance to win. To reclaim your life.”
“But the Spares… I just… you used to say—”
“We didn’t understand what we were talking about then.”
The preparations were in place in two weeks. A computer program incorporated blood test analyses and trait preferences into an algorithm to identify optimal matches. The results were ordered in the form of single-page profiles, with photographs and basic statistics about physique, proportions, and internal physiology. During a second consultation with Dr. Viande, Adelaide chose the Spare which most closely resembled her healthy self. 5’5, fair skin, brown eyes, straight black hair. #2706.
“Your new body will, of course, be sterile,” said Dr. Viande.
“Copyright issues. Furthermore, testing on the matter of whether the body of a Spare can successfully reproduce with a human remains inconclusive. Studies suggest that insurmountable complications arise from the extensive differences between the two genomes. Your body will, however, be fully capable of carrying an implanted embryo to term. You may wish to harvest some of your eggs before the operation, if you and your husband plan on having more children. We can do this for you for an additional fee.”
On the third consultation, Dr. Viande had nurses bring #2706 into his office. She moved like a doe, stepping lightly and pausing frequently. She fit the computer’s description and looked like the girl in her photographs, but she had a beauty and vitality in person that was impossible to communicate on a piece of paper. Her skin was white and luminescent as moonstone, her hair dark and glossy as onyx. Her figure itself looked cut from crystal, though the soft roundness of her features promised femininity. “Hello,” she said, big brown eyes gazing vaguely in Adelaide’s direction. Her voice was strangely lyrical.
“Hello,” Adelaide replied, blinking rapidly. Panic blossomed within her; what did this creature think of her? What had she been told? She desperately wanted to leave the room, and yet at the same time fascination flickered amidst her unease. She didn’t move.
A silence sprawled between them. “Feel free to ask any questions you have,” Dr. Viande prompted. “Anything at all.”
Words tangled up in her throat. At first she had no idea what to say, and then questions swarmed in her brain. There were a million things she wanted to know, without knowing why she wanted to know them. They clogged up her thoughts, each vying for her voice. The ones which actually made it past her lips seemed utterly random.
“What’s your favorite color?”
“Blue makes me happy.”
“What time do you go to bed?”
“When the light disappears.”
“Do you like the smell of rain?”
This question seemed to trouble #2706. She struggled with it, her luscious brows curving into Roman arches.
“You’ve never felt rain?”
#2706’s eyes darted to her nurses for guidance. One of them signed something with her hand. “No,” she said.
Adelaide was leaning forward now. “What do you live for? What do you dream of? Do you feel wonder, desire? If you could have anything—anything in the entire world—what would you have?”
#2706 clutched the arms of her chair. Each question seemed to physically wound her, like a needle prick or a flash of light right in the eyes. Adelaide saw no comprehension there. She saw nothing at all.
Adelaide’s hesitations did not vanish in the days leading up to the Operation. She worried about what people would think and how she would explain everything to Marylise. She ruminated on #2706. The thought of extinguishing that simple creature made her gut squirm. But now that the door had opened, she couldn’t bear to close it. Hope bloomed in the chaos of her mind like a wildflower reaching up through cracked concrete, and each day when she looked in the mirror it grew stronger. Whenever the pain was crippling, whenever the cloud of despair settled around her as she thought about the End, how could she not bask in the light of that seductive salvation?
As time drained away that hope grew brighter. Fiercer. She woke each day inside a cage of skin and bone, impatient for the freedom which dangled in front of her. Her moral scruples became less problems and more inconveniences. When she sifted through the photographs of #2706, she didn’t see a person; she saw an animal. She hungered for the vibrancy of health, the softness of that hair, those breasts, those firm legs, that power. The thought of spitting in Death’s face filled her with ecstasy.
The day arrived. Adelaide’s parents came in the morning to watch Marylise. Adelaide, who had not eaten anything in the past twenty-four hours, had to be helped to the car. This nightmare is going to end, she repeated over and over inside her head.
She wasn’t really aware of the nurses taking her vitals and connecting her to monitors, or of #2706 lying placidly on the surgery table beside her or of Dr. Viande entering the room and shaking her hand. She didn’t feel the needles. Everything in the world had smeared together. It was only when she was under the mask inhaling general anesthesia into her lungs that she felt the urgent need to speak with #2706. She had something to say, something… But her voice slumbered in her throat and her lids were suddenly made of iron. The need slipped from her mind as she floated out to sea. Her last conscious thought before sleep claimed her was that she would not awaken inside this ruined body. She would molt it like an outgrown shell.
“She’s awake now.”
Nicholas sat in the waiting room with Adelaide’s parents and his daughter. At the nurse’s words they all stood. As they followed her back to the Recovery Room, Nicholas took Marylise’s hand. “Marylise, Mama is going to look different, remember? And she’s going to be weak for a while. But she’s still herself.”
“She’s going to have hair again, right?” Marylise’s own hair had recently been fashioned into a short bob to remedy her last haircut.
“Right through here,” the nurse said with a manufactured smile.
Dr. Viande greeted them on the other side of the door. “Hello Mr. Fox. And Adelaide’s parents I presume? And you are…”
“A pleasure, Marylise.”
“Can I see Mama now?”
“Absolutely. At the moment all she can do is open her eyes and move her fingers, but—”
“Why can’t she do anything else?”
“Her range of movement will improve with time,” Dr. Viande continued. “Your mother is going to live a very long, healthy life.” He stepped aside and gestured for them to enter.
Adelaide lay in bed, staring at the ceiling and wiggling her fingers. The body she had lived in for thirty-eight years and which one year ago had begun to fail her was gone. It had been designated for Disposal and wheeled away, along with the irrelevant tissues of #2706. As Nicholas approached, he could see her lips moving slightly, begging to form words that wouldn’t come. “Shhh,” he said, placing a hand on her shoulder. “You’re safe now.”
The bed was too high for Marylise to see her mother. She stuck her arms out. “Daddy can you lift? I made a card for Mama.”
Nicholas reached down and hoisted his daughter into the air. When Marylise looked down and saw her mother’s face—the huge eyes, the straight nose, the full lips and the perfect, unwrinkled skin—her body went rigid. “That’s not Mama,” she said, wriggling to free herself from her father’s arms. He set her down and tried to calm her but she wrestled away from his touch and turned to Dr. Viande. Amusement crinkled the tall doctor’s face. She started to tremble. “What have you done to Mama?”
Dr. Viande gestured at the body on the bed. “She’s right here, sweetheart. She’s much better now.”
Marylise’s eyes were glassy with the onset of unbidden tears. “But… but that’s not Mama.” She turned to her grandparents, who were reaching for her hands.
“Yes it is, Love,” said her grandmother. “She looks different, that’s all.”
“That’s not Mama!”
Nicholas saw the anguish in his wife’s new eyes. “Everything is going to be okay,” he assured her. He caught sight of Marylise’s card, which she’d dropped upon seeing her mother’s strange face. He bent to pick it up and held it open for Adelaide to see. “Look what Marylise made for you, Love.”
Inside the folded piece of paper were the words, “I love you Mama” and the drawing of a rainbow. Bright blue puddles of water lined the bottom and an orange sphere burned in the upper right-hand corner. Bits of glitter fell from it and filled the blank spaces. Leading away from one particular streak of glitter was an arrow to the side of the card, where Marylise had scrawled in big, five-year-old writing, “THE FOTONS.”