http://www.albany.edu/offcourse
 http://offcourse.org
 ISSN 1556-4975

   

Since 1998, a journal for poetry, criticism, reviews, stories and essays edited by Ricardo Nirenberg.


 

"Lucy of the Valley," a story by Rebecca Lu Kiernan with art by Bett Appel.

 

Ghosts will Tell, by Bett AppelWilson, a purebred Pharaoh Hound and guardian of Lucy, stood illegally on the indigo eel skin couch.  His ears and nose flushed deep rose with excitement.  A curve of drool was beading between his sleek, beige chin and trembling, white paw.  He was transfixed by the action on the coffee table.  The velociraptor orchids had been eating mice again.  Blood-streak was drying on the cave crystal vase.  Heads and tails of mice being gobbled alive wiggled grotesquely.

“Off!” Lucy snapped.  Wilson leaped down.  She grabbed a bleach wipe but decided to wait until the feeding was complete.  Damn, she thought, she would never get the hieroglyphs clean.  Wilson offered an empathetic whine and skulked off to his bed.

Wilson had picked out his bed at the store with his master, Seth, the day after the hound’s sentience chip had been implanted.  The chip interacted with a computer program and allowed Wilson to understand the world the way humans do and communicate his thoughts when the chip was in sync with the system.  His thoughts appeared in English on the screen.  His first attempt at a sentence was “Love me you, bed bad, hurt side.”

 Within a week the program had brought Wilson’s intellectual capabilities to approximately the level of a fifteen-year old adolescent.  He was educated beyond his capacity to cope.  Wilson fully understood what it meant to be alive and he understood death as well as any human.  He knew every living creature eventually dies.

He educated himself on the Internet and became depressed about the extinction-level asteroid that had a sixty-three percent chance of hitting the Earth in seven years. He was aware that global nuclear war was a high threat, which explained why Seth and Lucy had moved to an elegant shelter in Arrastra Canyon, a valley in California’s Tulare County.  Still, Wilson wondered, whether the pending apocalypse arrived via war or asteroid, what could survive nuclear winter?

The worldly canine wondered why they called it a “sentience” chip.  From his studies, he had learned that America described animals as sentient beings only in relationship to their ability to “feel” and “suffer.”   After much reflection, Wilson had asked that his sentience chip be removed.

Seth complied, but Wilson was a changed creature.  His brain had rewired itself.  He could no longer communicate through language, or experience thoughts of high order, but he understood death.  He was aware that the time would come when he would cease to think, feel and Be.  Although the threat of nuclear war had somewhat cooled, there was still a tension between Seth and Lucy’s communications that kept Wilson in a state of high alert.

Wilson stretched his muscles and went to check on Lucy.  She was lethargically draped over the computer.  She tried the Internet, but it was down.  She pulled up the message file and clicked on “Mars.”

Seth’s face appeared, blond hair gently graying, but cobalt eyes as bright as the first time he had touched her in the lab where they met.  “I’m making a run to Mars, ion propulsion, 29 days to and from.  Probably work a week or so.  Remember the hybrid violets I bred for precognition?  They have developed paranoia.  They are all predicting that one of the others will kill them and have started developing root systems that strangle surrounding flowers and deadly venom they spit into their neighbors’ faces.  I need to see if I can make adjustments.  If not, I’ll have to scrub the species... A year’s work for nothing.  Miss you, baby.  I’ve got a copy of you and Wilson so I won’t get too lonely.  There’s a duplicate of me in the pod for your honey-do list and, um... companionship.”  His eyes flashed, smile-swept.

The message was over two months old.  Lucy was already on her third duplicate.  She touched “record”:

“I don’t know if you’re getting my messages.  Something’s wrong with the Internet but the satellite com should be operational.  I think I need to tell you I’m having trouble with your proxies.  I’m afraid I’ve been... killing them.  I feel so miserable afterwards, your body, your face, but... killing them is getting... easier.  The weird thing is, they’re changing too.  It comes as less of a shock every time.”

She touched “erase.”

Lucy released the sleeping copy from the pod and asked him to change the air filter.

He politely refused.  “Lucy,” he said, “this structure is composed of surgical-grade tantalum and diamond.  This house is asteroid- and bomb-impact proof and radiation-repellent.  Oxygen is created here.  Nothing can get in or out.”

“What about the mice?” Lucy screamed in a tone that was not quite human.

“Now, Lucy,” he replied, “you know those were lab mice and the velociraptor orchids have learned to open their cages. You should be grateful the orchids come out only when you’re asleep, out of respect for your sensitivities.  They know it would upset you to see them running around loose.  And let’s face it, you haven’t been feeding them regularly.”

Lucy saw something on the floor and asked what it was.  “It’s a plastic tarp,” the duplicate replied.

“Why are you standing on it?” she demanded.

“You are depressed and have become psychotic in your isolation.” the copy said. “You are in a state of denial about the war. Lucy, the bombs were salted with cobalt.  It would be eight years before the planet could be terraformed and that’s too late for nuclear winter.  After you kill me, just roll me up in the tarp and take me to the hatch.  Would you like me to roll myself up in it for you?  Oh, you couldn’t use the knife.  You will be using the knife, right?  Just tell me what’s easier for you.”

She stomped to the kitchen and grabbed the knife she had used on the others.  The copy turned his head to the side, exposing his jugular vein and Lucy sliced it as calmly as a surgeon making his way to an inflamed appendix.

After Lucy disposed of the body, she sat back down at the computer.  She played Seth’s video messages over and over.  She was still wearing his robe that carried the scent of him: apricot, clove and hyacinth from his latest home project.

Wilson emerged from beneath the bed.  He always went there for the killings.  He saw Lucy’s head bent, sobbing into the robe. He could not bear the suffering of his beloved Lucy.  One of her broad pink-veined white petals fell with a slapping sound on the marble floor.  Her nodding bell-shaped flowers stilled themselves.

Wilson knew the Lily of the Valley was poisonous to eat, especially as she had been created to grow six feet tall to be compatible with Seth.  Still, there was no question about what must be done.  Lucy was slowly dying of a broken... well... what she thought of as a heart, and she would just continue to kill the copies.  Seth would not want her to suffer.

Lucy’s death was quick and merciful.  Wilson’s was slow, painful and contemplative.  How fine it was to be loved by any sentient being.  How beautiful the sky and trees had been before they went to the new house.  How right it felt to sacrifice one’s life to spare the misery of others.  He had a seizure, then the pain was gone and as everything dimmed and his world grew silent, he hoped...  Is it not enough to say that he hoped?

 


 

Ghosts will Tell, by Beth AppelThe child whipped his head back from the translucent dome.  “Why do you keep buying me this toy?” he howled to Mother.

“An Earth farm is not a toy, it’s a project,” Mother replied sternly, “What did you learn?”

“Well,” the child replied, “It goes fire, tools, airplanes, atomic bomb, cell phones, altering life forms and a big nuclear apocalypse at the end every damn time!”

“Donald, language!” Mother snapped.

“Can we get this thing out of my room?” asked the child.

“Any sentient beings must be euthanized first,” ordered Mother.

“Nobody left except some guy planting flowers on Mars,” Donald reported.

“No one in that galaxy ever got to Mars,”  Mother said, frowning.  “What makes you think that?”

Donald hesitated.  He did not want to get into another conversation with Mother about creationism versus evolution.  He was trapped.  “You know how SOME people are saying we could have evolved from some form of Earth life, like cells on an asteroid?”

“Donald,” Mother said in her forced calm voice, “We have had this discussion.”

“I borrowed a DNA program from a friend at school”, Donald confessed, head down, “It checks for the closest possible DNA match.” “Some other kids have been finding them too.”  He took a long breath.  His forehead wrinkled.  “I found one”, he announced.  “I used zoom function to see everything from his point of view.”  “The guy on Mars was stranded after the war.  He couldn’t get back to his …family.  There was a dog named Wilson.  He’s my DNA match, Mother. The man on Mars was his master and he created a hybrid flower-woman as a companion.  He was on Mars in the end with a copy of the flower-lady and a copy of Wilson too.”    

“Father will be back from Europa in the morning.”  Mother said softly, trying to wrap her mind around the matter.  “We have to report this; I don’t know where to begin.”  Mars colonization was a classified project.  The family was scheduled to move there next month, but the children had not been told.  “Nothing can be done tonight.” she said in the most comforting voice she could summon, “Let’s all sit down to dinner.”

The family gathered around the community bowl.  All sat on their hind legs except for Donald, who put his face into the bowl, tail wagging.

“Donald, sit!” Mother ordered.

“I’m hungry,” he whined.

“Donald, you do not know what hunger is,” said Mother, her paw on his.  “Now let’s all say an act of compassion we performed for the day.”

“Why do we do that?” asked Donald, testing Mother’s patience.

She replied thoughtfully, “It’s one of the things that separates us from the savages.”


Rebecca Lu Kiernan is a frequent contributor to Offcourse. See her bio notes.



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