Time’s Arrow – C. Heidmann

Time’s Arrow – C. Heidmann

In 2130 the Nelari began resurrecting the dead. In 2133 Talia’s father called for the first time in five years.

“You want to bring her back, Dad?” After all this time, after what you did? Talia wanted to add, but didn’t. Couldn’t. Not to his face. Not anymore.

She barely recognized the white-haired, eighty-three-year old figure; the holo-projectors in her quarters relayed every etch-mark of time, his still-bright blue eyes peering at her out of a sagging, heavy face.

“Don’t you?” He looked… hurt. Like when she was small and had uttered an expletive. How could she, his perfect little girl, have said such a thing? “But she’s your mother.”

“Have you thought this through? How it will be for her? For all of us?”

He rubbed at his left eye and blinked a couple of times. “You think I haven’t? Ever since I got that notification, I can hardly think about anything else.”

Talia’s notification about the offer to reanimate her mother had arrived the previous day. Half-knowing it wasn’t going to go away, she’d ignored it; until her father’s call woke her in the middle of Copernicus Station’s artificially maintained night.

“She deserves another chance, Talia.”

Yes, but did he deserve another chance with her? She clamped down on the retort.

Twenty-three years earlier, Talia had lost her mother and learned of her father’s infidelity in one afternoon. He’d been away on another ‘business’ trip which couldn’t be put off even in the face of his wife’s terminal cancer. When Talia tracked him down and gave him the news, he’d been heartbroken. The shameless display of grief had enraged her.

The pause lengthened as she concentrated on not fidgeting.

What could she say that would convince him she didn’t want to talk? Not about bringing her mother back from the dead. Not about anything. She didn’t want to get caught up again in the emotional turmoil of his dredged-up pain, his guilt, self-justification, or whatever new form his latest plea for absolution would take. It was part of the reason she lived off-Earth, as far away from home, from him, as she could get.

Her father’s hologram fragmented as interference rippled it into multi-colored snowflakes, granting her a reprieve.

“Do you know how lucky we are?” he said as the holo-emitters recomposed his image. “If we’d not had her buried, if we’d had her cremated instead…”

“I know, Dad.”

For their own mysterious reasons, the Nelari had revealed their technology in stages. Initially, only people who had been cryogenically preserved, a full body or a head, could be reanimated. Then the Nelari taught human scientists techniques for reviving the interred. Now families of the cremated lived in fervent hope that it might become possible to resurrect even those who had suffered complete body-loss.

“I thought you were opposed to the Nelari, Dad. You said you didn’t trust them, that you don’t believe in benevolent beings from the stars. Now you’re ready to roll over and take their offer?”

He scratched his lip with his thumb. “I did say that. And I still don’t trust them. There’s no such thing as something for nothing.” He shook a crooked forefinger. “One day those damned aliens are going to want something in return and payback’s always a bitch.”

She resisted the urge to roll her eyes. “They’re not like that, Dad. In all their time here, they’ve not once demanded anything in return for their generosity.”

“Then why don’t you want me to take their offer?”

She rubbed at her rat’s nest of hair. “I don’t know if it’s the right thing to do, I don’t—”

“What do you mean not the right thing? Don’t you want your mother back?” She didn’t react to his accusation but the hardness in his eyes pushed at her, shoved like a playground bully.

“What about the rehabilitation? It will take weeks if not months, and you realize there’s a chance she might not retain all her memory or personality when they revive her.” Some reanimations had not gone well—people failing to re-integrate, like a graft not taking. Unable and unwilling to face life again, having never expected to be resurrected, they ended up in mental institutions or chose to end their lives again—with a stipulation to never be revived again.

A glint of moisture filmed her father’s irises though he pretended it wasn’t there. “I read all the literature. I know there’s a chance we could lose her all over again.”

“But you’re not going to let that stop you, are you?” Certainty of his answer, his total conviction, sat like a lead brick in her stomach.

“You can’t expect me to walk away.”

“Why the hell not, Dad? It’s what you did last time,” she spat, instantly regretting it, suddenly tired and wanting to get this over with. She massaged the beginnings of a headache at her temples. “Why do you want my approval when you’ve already made up your mind?”

“Because that’s what your mother would have wanted—us, united as a family.”

“Since when did you care what she would have wanted?” The sound of her voice rising a few octaves spurred her on. “You were the one who broke up our family. You walked out on her when she needed you the most.” Ignoring the bounds of the holo-pickup fields, she gesticulated wildly, punctuating her words, slashing the air, decimating the millions of miles between them.

“I can’t believe you’re still holding on to that pain—”

Blood whooshed in her ears. “Her dying gave you an excellent way out of the mess you’d made of your marriage. You think she’d want to come back to that? To you?” She dreaded the return, hated the idea her mother would have to face it all again, her own tragic end, her husband’s betrayal, the pain he’d caused her and the rifts it had opened in their family. Why couldn’t he see that?

“Talia,” he cast around him as if searching for his words, “listen to me. You don’t know what it’s like to lose a partner, a… a soul mate.” His eyes tracked left to some point in the virtual distance, somewhere she could never see.

“Everyone who’s lost someone wants them back, it’s part of mourning. But we have to let them go, learn to live without them. Hasn’t Mom suffered enough?”

She stepped back from the holo, folded her arms across her chest and became aware of her rapid breathing, accelerated heart rate. Finally, she’d run out of words, weapons to hurt him with.

This time his voice rose. “She has suffered enough, that’s why I have to bring her back.”

She had started it, but he wasn’t going to let it go. She strove to keep her voice low. “Dad—”

“It’s okay, I get it.” He nodded as if he’d read her thoughts. “You don’t want your mother back because you don’t want me to have her back.” He choked to a stop and lowered the accusatory finger he’d been brandishing. “You want to make me pay again.” He was pointing his thumb at himself.

He was right. She wasn’t denying her mother, she was denying him. But she clenched her mouth. Time had worn him down to a wrinkled, shrunken version of what he’d been, a badly made puppet of his former self. She’d said more than enough hurtful things to him over the years. This time had proven no exception.

In her father’s world, a buzzer sounded. The evening mealtime call for the residents of Raintree Retirement Village. His eyes flicked to his right, then avoided hers.

The buzzer sounded again. “You’ll have to excuse me, I have to go.” He rolled his chair away, an old man not wanting to miss his dinner.

“End connection,” she told the com and headed for the medicine cabinet. She slipped a medi-film strip onto her tongue, let it melt into her palate. Within seconds, her headache disappeared, but the chagrin, the bitter aftertaste of their argument lingered. No instant medi-film remedy to soften that.

Did she really want her mother to remain dead just to punish him? She’d mourned, accepted the loss, and moved on. How could she go back on it now? How could her father expect her to retrace those painful steps?

Her mother had never yearned to be brought back to life and cured. And she couldn’t be asked if she wanted to come back or to be left alone. But if obtaining consent was impossible, did that make it irrelevant?

Never before had it been necessary to deal with questions like these. When people died, that was it. End of story. Time’s arrow had always pointed one way. Death followed life, not the other way around. Until now. Until the Nelari.

In a few short months, she would have to face the reanimated version of her dead mother. What should she do? she wondered. What would she say to a mother she’d already buried?

“Hi Mom,” was all she said.

The regenerated version of her mother smiled as she came into the waiting room. She looked incredible, radiant, and almost too beautiful. But her face didn’t hide the shock, the disbelief, the pain and the disappointment when she saw how time had changed Talia and her father. She recovered and revealed nothing more as she greeted them in turn, asking the appropriate questions, keeping everything normal, calm, as if nothing untoward or overly emotional, were happening.

Talia had gone numb. When her mother hugged her, it didn’t feel real. It was like holding a doll, an automaton. Who was this perfect imitation they’d been given? Why did she want to outright reject this manifestation of her mother? Why did she feel she had to keep her own emotional distance? Was it because she’d perceived this… this… ghost of her mother, as doing that?

She’d been coached, Talia told herself as she watched the apparition of her mother; prepared for weeks ahead on how to cope.

Her father was a mess. He began weeping the moment his past wife emerged. More than two decades of pain and guilt, and of mourning her, came out and pulped him, mashed him up like a losing boxer. He failed to stay up-right on his new Nelari-gifted cyber legs. They had to help him into a chair, get an aide to give him something to calm him.

Juxtaposed against Talia’s decrepit father, her stunning, young ‘mother’ kept smiling, fussed over him in an over-caring, and to Talia, false way.

“Did you want to come back, Mom?”

All eyes in the room—including those of the bot-assistant who’d been facilitating the meeting, turned to Talia. No one moved.

“I… I, yes, of course, darling.”

“Really? You wanted to come back?” Talia flung her forefinger towards her father, “to him?” Back in his mobility chair his tear-filled gaze pleaded with her.

“You remember how he hurt you? Abandoned you? Right when you needed him the most?”

“We can talk about this later, okay, Honey?” The manifestation of her mother tried to soothe. Was this her mother? Weren’t they supposed to reconstruct enough of a person’s personality to be indistinguishable from the original, assimilating every scrap of information left behind by, or about that person?

The resurrected woman’s words seemed to de-immobilize everybody. Everyone started talking and moving at once. Talia barely heard them.

A timer display in her left vision flashed. “I have to go,” she said in a loud voice. “My ship leaves in an hour. We talk now, or not at all.”

They didn’t talk then.

Outside, she blinked in the mid-afternoon sun, her space-accustomed eyes smarting in the harsh light. The trip to the spaceport was a blur. The whole way, she cried for her mother. Before her mother had passed away, she’d never spoken to Talia about what her father had done. She’d let Talia believe she’d accepted her impending death early on; that she’d been coping and that at the last, suffering and in pain, she’d wanted it to end, for herself and for all of them.

“Talia, wait.”

It was her.

Almost through the departure gate, Talia paused. The reanimation of her mother stood alone, on the other side of the crowd, waving at her. Talia hesitated before weaving through passengers clamoring to get ahead of the line.

“I did want to come back,” her mother started, out of breath, “despite everything. I… I mean, if I could have, you know, had a choice.” Her cheeks were flushed, two distinct red patches on either side of her face, like Talia remembered.

Her mother had never been good with words, had had difficulty explaining herself. For the first time, Talia felt sympathy for her. Here was a woman scarcely her senior now, facing the prospect of going home with an eighty-year-old man, thrust back into a world she didn’t know anymore. How would she pick up the pieces of a life death had made her leave so long ago?

“I’m… alive.” Her mother’s eyes shot full of tears. She shuddered in a breath and gulped. “I mean I’m glad I’m alive again. I can go travelling now like I always wanted to…” Her mother offered a smile. “I understand you live on a space station? I would love to see it, I mean, to see you… I mean, to talk… some time.” Her mother hooked an imaginary strand of hair behind her ear. Despite her new short hair style, she repeated the action two or three times as if she still had the shoulder-length hair she’d lost to cancer and its medications so long ago.

The jittery little gesture triggered Talia’s memories, countless instances when she’d seen her mother repeat exactly that nervous tick, always when her mother had been anxious, emotional. Talia’s heart melted. It sounded like her mother, looked like her mother, felt like her mother. She grabbed her. “Oh, Mom.” Her tears spilled unabated.

They hugged until the final boarding alert flashed red in Talia’s vision.

Her mother went home with her father to the house bought back for her at great expense. Refurbished and re-decorated to as close as possible to the way it had been when she died. The pitiable, harmless-seeming gesture of a guilt-ridden erstwhile cheat and widower.

Talia wasn’t surprised when they broke up.

It took about six months for everything to unravel before her mother found a younger man and moved away.

Talia’s father died shortly after.

Her mother was still alive, of course, carrying on with her new life and her new beau. She might even outlive Talia now, might even be brought back from the dead again someday, like Talia would be.

But when the Nelari offer came to revive her father, Talia discovered that despite his insistence on resurrecting her mother, he’d neglected to specify his own wishes. He’d left the reanimation decision to his next-of-kin.

Her mother was hesitant.

“I… he said he didn’t want to live without me. I… I feel bad… about the way I left him. But that house, the way he… I know all he was trying to do was atone, but I couldn’t take it…” Another person hovered in the holo behind her mother, too far out of range to be rendered in detail.

“I felt like a ghost, like I was haunting him,” The person in the background moved into the holo-frame and squeezed her mother’s shoulder. She squeezed back. “What I mean to say is, I have Antonio now, and… maybe… your father deserves another chance at life too.” She spread her hands, as if opening the best possible outcome.

At the resurrection and rehabilitation center, they let Talia in early.

She paused in the doorway to her father’s room. He didn’t notice her right away as two bots helped him upright out of bed. She eyed the figure of her dad.

Still eighty-three, still white-haired, he looked… invigorated, sprightly. Gone were the sunken haggardness, the slow movements, and the pallor that had washed him out. His cheeks had a rosy glow, almost like the cliché Santa Claus figure, and despite still being a little unsteady on his feet he had a quickness to his movements, a new sureness. Restored to the peak of health for his age, he should have another thirty, forty odd years of good quality life. More, probably, at the rate of Nelari-gifted medical advancement.

“You had me brought back.” His soft words broke her reverie. Her mind had drifted. He took a step toward her, bots hovering either side in case he lost his balance. “Does that mean you’ve forgiven me?”

She opened her mouth. Had she? She bit her lip. She wasn’t sure. But she was willing to try. In the post-Nelari world of selflessness and compassion, disallowing his resurrection would’ve been tantamount to purposely keeping him dead. She couldn’t live with that; with herself.

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