Luna Station Quarterly is a speculative fiction magazine featuring stories by emerging women authors.
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In this Life and the Next

They tell you your daughter came within an inch of death that day. That Becka’s one of the lucky ones—any closer and she wouldn’t be here at all.

You wish you could hear her properly, despite knowing you can’t. I’m just a silent presence in the depths of your skull, seeing and sensing everything you do. A sliver of chilled, artificial wetware, aching like desperation and itching like things unsaid.

The technician continues with his reassuring patter. But what does it matter that it’s all thoroughly tested? That the HOST neuro-patterning has never been known to fail on such a close relation, that of course she’s fully conscious and herself, somewhere in the crevices of your mind? That yes, there’s a good chance your emotions might blur, but your thoughts are just as private as hers are?

You’d trade it all in an instant, just to know she’s safe.

There, that’s it. Smile at the technician!

Don’t think about your daughter’s body, being wheeled away to storage. Don’t think about what might be years of rehab and deductibles, about how your precious girl might never be the same. Don’t think of the mess she made of her life, or why she tried to end it. You’re determined to make everything right again.

See?

You were always good at lying to yourself, weren’t you?

***

HOST. Homologous Origin Sentience Transfer, that’s what the acronym stands for—or Soul Transfer, if you’re one of the more religiously inclined. The details of how it works are a closely guarded secret, but most insurers cover it, and there are plenty of online LawShops to steer you safely through the legalese. The only real decision used to be whether you chose a reputable company for the procedures, like Lifeline or Étendue-York, or went abroad for a more affordable generic treatment. It’s even simpler now. They install the substrates at the paediatricians, right there in the consulting room, on the same kind of schedule as vaccinations and port integrations.

And what parent wouldn’t sign their skull away as a host, on the off-chance it might save their child’s life? What sibling of today would turn their back on the social programming they’ve been drip-fed from birth?

-I barely know he’s there, the testimonials go.

-When I think of her, it’s… kind of like a hug? Or like when she was small and I just used to listen to her breathe.

-You find yourself seeing the world completely differently—seeing it the way your loved one does.

-Sometimes I laugh for no reason, and then I realise it’s him. He’s happy, I can tell. I can’t wait to hear his side of things!

-It’s like… wow. I never realised she felt that way about me. I hope I never have to, but I’d totally do it for my own kids. I love you, Mom!

What most people also know –but generally choose to ignore– are the countless caveats in the small print. That’s where the grief comes in. The skills that don’t quite come through unscathed. The genetic infidelities and betrayals that stop the process completely: critical mutations, vascular weaknesses, or any of a dozen other common physical flaws. And sure, a healthy mind might not be as hard to come by as it used to be, but the chemicals they use to enforce it don’t take any prisoners, especially not the small, mad ones that make you you.

And even in the best of cases, there’s always a chance that the graft just doesn’t take.

***

I watch you in the reflections off the monitor, chasing symptoms with your eyes. There’s a numb streak running down the back of your right arm, but it goes away whenever you touch it. You’re craving sulphites, and your toenails throb—and that’s just the physical symptoms. There are ghosts of foreign memories in your head, rapid flickers of overwhelming fright that your brain lacks the plasticity to process. But even that doesn’t bother you that much.

No, it’s the doubts that are the problem. The insidious question of whether I’m in here at all.

We’ve been looking at baby albums today. Images and vids of ‘Becka’s first steps’, ‘trip to the park’, and various family gatherings that I certainly don’t remember. You check the date-stamps compulsively, but none of it fits, none of it feels real.

You press your wrists hard against the table top, welcoming the solid reality of the pain. “Just give me a fucking sign, Becka!” you cry. “Is that too much to ask?”

Apparently, it is.

There are other folders further down the screen, a sanitised précis of the decades that followed. Neither of us are ready for those, not yet. You stagger from the chair, and I walk us to the bathroom, stumbling only once. It helps that you have your own idea of what we need when we get there.

We open up the medicine cabinet together, but I leave the child-proof cap to your more accustomed fingers.

***

You’d never seen Becka’s shared apartment before, or met any of her friends. You don’t known what to expect.

Casey opens the door, red-eyed and awkward. It’s disorientating, and nothing you say comes out quite the way you mean. But she takes the hint, and talks enough for everyone while she boils the kettle for tea. You stare at the cupboard surfaces that Casey didn’t think to clean, at the accumulation of splash-marks and fingerprints. Some of them are mine.

“Did she never tell you about that trip she and Shay took to Vegas?” Casey asks, before leading into a lengthy anecdote that wouldn’t be my first choice for a grieving parent. Or any parent, for that matter. But to be honest, you’re not really taking any of it in. You don’t think you need to know how happy she was… or how broken. Don’t need to question what changed. You’re still convinced she’ll explain it all to you herself, a few months or years from now. Right now, you’re only here because you need to be… even if you don’t quite know why.

“I miss her so much, you know?” Casey says, draining the dregs of her mug. “She could be irritating as hell at times, but just having her around, talking, and laughing…”

You nod. You can’t actually recall the last time you talked to Becka in person.

I remember, though. I can’t stop remembering. The agony of that failed attempt at dying, and every small step that took us there. We share each other’s hurts, caustic and numbing all at the same time.

I push back the chair, guide you unsteadily out of the kitchenette and into the back room. The framed pictures on the wall are waiting. You lift your eyes to an image of your daughter that you’d never seen before: her and a girl that you vaguely recognise from last year’s news as Shay Steffen-York. You hadn’t realised she was that Shay. They’re clutching each other, closer than sisters. Both are wearing identical smiles and coordinating hair above promotional monogrammed tees from Étendue-York.

Yeah, this is what we’d been avoiding up until now. What we’d lost. The girl we’d loved more than the world.

I try to blink, but you’re trying to hard not to. Your eyes glaze with unshed tears, blurring the corporate message on the tees: Enjoy Yourself! – in this life AND the next!

We both laugh at the irony.

Behind us, Casey sighs. “That was a weird patch all right, after Shay’s… accident. Becka was so strong though. Heartbroken, but strong. She just kinda took everything she felt and just threw it out there, you know? Nothing fazed her any more. I can’t believe she actually told EY to stick it, and they still gave her compensation on top of her severance. And wow, did she know how to spend it!”

You hadn’t known about any of that, and don’t particularly want to hear it now. Casey’s voice blurs into the background as your eyes and mind light upon the matching lanyards and passes in the photo.

“Enjoy yourself…” you murmur thoughtlessly, staring hard at the tees, and the familiar shape of the building in the background. “In this life and the next?”

I feel the chill running up your spine. I catch hard at your breath, stilling the whole world and forcing you to take stock.

You’re getting closer to the truth of it now.

***

Getting inside is surprisingly easy. Companies like Étendue-York always have plenty of admin for the temporarily bereaved relatives of their employees, especially when the employee in question was last seen being escorted off the site with their personal effects in a cardboard box.

They give you a guest tag at reception, and you follow its subtle bleeps up to the second floor of the admin block. The screens lining the corridors play automatically as you walk, a continuous loop of history. The trailblazers who’d fought to make the inevitability of their deaths meaningful. Early trials, and the first glimpses of hope. The essential markers in the genes, the route that made homologous origin transfer a success. The narrative concludes just as you reach the room you’ve been directed to.

You go inside, sit down, and wait. It’s a good ten minutes before the interior door opens: the humans in the building clearly don’t run on the same smooth schedules. You sign the waiver for the standard exit interview, and agree on the terms of a sanitised job reference. You countersign Becka’s original NDA, and extend EY’s monopoly on her future employment in the industry by another five years. The HR drone thanks you and sends you on your way.

Outside, it’s raining. You take shelter in the lee of an adjacent building, and swap your guest tag for Becka’s pass. It was probably deactivated weeks ago, but at least by wearing it you won’t rouse anyone’s suspicions if we’re seen. Then we walk purposefully across the site towards the back of a narrow-windowed lab that isn’t named on any of the visitor maps.

A small flight of steps leads down to the basement fire exit. I slip the pass out from its wallet and slide it into the narrow crack between door and frame, just enough to trick the system – a technique I perfected a long time ago, in another lifetime, with a different set of hands. Next, the keypad. You close your eyes for this, the better to let my memories do their part, and the door glides smoothly aside. After that, I leave the decisions to you. There aren’t that many doors to choose from, and they’re all clearly named.

Eventually, you find what we came here for: the Heterogeneous Life Lab. Welcome to HeLL!, we used to quip, but the door art’s been sanitised since I was last down here, and I don’t think the joke even occurs to you. I wonder what else has changed, inside.

We go in together, uncertain, not expecting the lab to be empty.

And it isn’t, of course. Because Becka’s already there.

***

Your knees go weak. We can’t decide whether to run to her, or collapse where we stand.

Your heart is pounding. My thoughts are stifled by the unheard clamour of yours.

One of us makes the choice. You’re confused as fuck, but I smile and walk us closer anyway.

“Hello, Shay,” says the woman wearing Becka’s body. “And Becka too, I presume?”

I’d promised her, hadn’t I? That I’d bring her back to us? I’d loved Becka to distraction, but I love Dr York more. What else could I do? She was mother, she was me, and I.. I’d only ever lived on sufferance. I try to express it all, my love and my loyalty, but the best I can do with your lungs and lips is a faint, lisping slur.

She smiles in a way that isn’t Becka at all. It’s incongruous, and it hurts. I make us smile back, pretending that it doesn’t.

“You’re the parent then,” Dr York says, an uncharacteristic statement of the obvious. “I suppose that’s something we have in common.”

You stammer something that might be Becka’s name in reply.

She takes a hypospray out of her pocket, and places it between us on the countertop. “Four whole months! I couldn’t have asked for better results. You should be very proud of your daughter’s role in the work.”

“What do you mean?”

Dr York shakes her head. I wish she would tell you more, but she’s smarter than that, and it’s not like you need all the details of ex-familial transfer. You just need to be here. Like Becka was, for me, through all those weeks of silent, perfect, poisonous union.

It broke her, eventually.

At least it’ll be over much quicker this time.

“Who are you?” you demand. “Give me my daughter back!”

“We already have,” she says, then sighs wearily. “But it’s never enough, is it. They always want more.”

You don’t understand what she means. You should, but you don’t. How selfish love is. What people will do, thinking they’re helping, desperate for any sense of purpose in their lives. Becka was just like you.

“Shay?” Dr York prompts. “I think it’s time.”

I pick up the hypo, set it to our throat, and squeeze.

***

We watch you wake up from behind the one-way glass, alone in your own head again. It’s an efficient, streamlined process these days—it needs to be, if we’re ever to achieve full uptake.

Beside your bed, a technician takes your hand. “I’m truly very sorry,” he says softly. “There was a fatal problem with your daughter’s graft, one we could never have foreseen.”

You’re weeping already. Part of you already knew… the part that’s forgotten everything else, that doesn’t know about the other you that’s here.

I’m sorry, sorry, sorry, we echo—Becka to Shay to you to Becka again, fragments of self, fragments of someone else’s immortality. We’re bleeding together now, but hard as we try, none of us can find a way out.

We watch you leave, and wish we could follow.

Instead, Dr York darkens the glass.

A bit about the author:

Katherine teaches astrophysics for a living and spends her (infrequent) spare time populating the universe with worlds of her own. She is a mother to two boys, and enjoys chaos, water-fights, tree-climbing, and thwarting plans for world domination. Katherine is addicted to chocolate and Japanese logic puzzles, narrates for a variety of podcasts, and is an assistant editor for Cast of Wonders. Visit author page