Cast of Wonders 399: Breaking (Staff Picks 2019)
by Maya Chhabra
Mom’s kind of bizarrely happy for someone with a daughter about to croak, but I don’t mind. She saved my life. When I collapsed, I was still only fourteen: too young to have an imprint taken. If she hadn’t found me in time, I would be dead already, and gone. Now I’m safe, and they’ve pretty much stopped everything but palliative care. I’d like to be corporeal longer, and grow human-wise, but there’s nothing more they can do.
I turned fifteen a week ago, fourteen days after I entered the ward again. By then, I’d already been backed up, thanks to my mom. The machine that demonstrated my neural maturity was her idea; she brought it in the ambulance. She’s a bioengineer and amazingly clever. She works on backups even though the whole thing is sort of against our religion. We’re Catholics — the whole family converted from Hinduism back in America when I was six — and not really supposed to stick around after, not when there’s heaven out there, but in practice it doesn’t work that way. Most Catholics get imprints done same as everyone else, because computer-immortality is a certainty and faith is a leap.
Anyway, Mom did the best anyone could have done. Like I said, there isn’t anything else left to try.
Today she brought me real food. Kitchari, a bland mix of rice and dal, but I’m starving. And even sick-person food is better here in Delhi than anything back home.
Mom sent over the doctor’s file when I had my mouth full. That’s an old trick from when I was much younger and first diagnosed with cancer and badgered everyone for every bit of info and explanation. Not really needful now, and it almost made me cough, which wouldn’t have stopped for hours if I had.
I shut my eyes and swallowed, which took more time than it used to, and read. “Only a few weeks?”
“Be brave, Sarita. It’s only for a little while, and then you’ll wake up full of energy again, better than even before you got sick. Your cousin Nikhil wants to see you. Do you feel up to it?”
“Why’s he coming all the way over here?”
Mom’s smile faded, then came back, forced. “Oh, you know how he is.”
Nikhil flew all the way over from the States because I’m dying. In the old times, that meant never seeing a person again. For Nikhil, it still does. He has an ostentatious martyr’s faith, and hasn’t had an imprint taken, ever. (When he was my age, his parents tried to hold him down for one. My mom said they were all being idiots.)
Anyway, Nikhil’s going to heaven when he dies, and for once, he wasn’t a jerk about it. He didn’t even tell me how sorry he was that we’d be parted in the afterlife.
Nikhil was actually awfully sweet yesterday. I want you to remember that, if they don’t have time to do another back-up before I go, and you’re missing the last few days. That’s why I’m saving this thought-diary for you. For me, I mean, when I wake up on a computer with no cancer for the first time in years, meeting my ancestors in a whole new way.
When I come back, even if I’m missing a tiny blip, I want to remember how much I hate him.
It’s easier to be brave now that I’ve got an imprint, and the threat of oblivion’s passed, but it’s still a lot easier to get called brave (or a religious nutcase, I guess) for doing like Nikhil and walking around all pleased with your courage and independence and what does he know about dying, anyway? It’s easy to say you don’t want to stay on Earth forever when you’ve always had years and years of body-time ahead.
Sorry about that. They came in to give me a sedative a few hours ago, and I just woke up. Without it, the pain sometimes stops me sleeping. Right now I’m lying here recording this with my eyes shut, and that’s about as much activity as I feel up to.
Dr. Ahluwalia came to talk to me in person. It must have been a slow day.
“Sarita.” I could see the last two-and-a-half years passing over him. “I hear you’re nervous about the break. That’s natural, especially for such a young woman.”
“Mom asked you to….” I didn’t need to finish. How did she know, anyway? I’ve been trying so hard to be good. I didn’t even dare tell you, my thought-diary.
“Your mother knows this isn’t an easy transition, and that you’ll need as much help as we can give you.”
“I wouldn’t be afraid if I understood it properly. I mean, I’ve been looking this stuff up ever since I fell ill. And I get the computers bits, Mom’s explained it in small words.” We shared a grin. “But how does your, you know, your soul get from one brain to another?”
“Your soul? Would it help if I brought a priest?” I saw I’d put him in an awkward spot, as he was Sikh and I was Christian, so he felt a bit nervous about giving me religious advice. However, he’d mistaken my meaning, and a priest would be the worst thing at this time. We’d stopped going to church locally shortly after we moved here, when we realized our church was locked in a vicious feud over land with the neighboring private school. The other church nearby did its services mostly in Hindi, which I didn’t speak and my mother spoke badly.
I explained this all to the bemused doctor, and he asked if I’d noticed my thoughts wandering lately. After the break–they don’t say “die” now that I’m so close to the line, they say “break” which unnerves me a little–after the break I won’t have to worry about side effects from medicine. I’ll have much bigger worries than that.
“Doctor,” I said, “if it weren’t illegal, you could start running my backup now, couldn’t you?”
“Are you afraid it won’t work?”
“No, but if it could run at the same time I’m here, I wouldn’t be in it, would I?”
He leaned his head on one hand and waited. I could feel myself became more and more agitated.
“I’d be right here in my head, and that would be a different me, that I couldn’t be inside, right?”
He lifted his head and nodded.
“So what’s the difference after I’m dead? What if I’m not in there?”
“Sarita, I’m an oncologist, not a biomechanic. You ask your mother about the machine, okay? I’ve done what I can for you, but somehow we can beat death and not cancer.”
“Why not?” I asked, sitting up in bed. The room spun – too fast. Oops. The doctor seemed just as dizzied as me, though.
“Well, immortality took some of the urgency off it, and some of the money. And, Sarita, there’s nothing so inventive as a human being. Cancer’s just human tissue, twisted, out for itself. And it’s as clever as anything human. Selfish, hiding where you least expect it. Short-sighted enough not to realize it’s killing itself too.”
I hated my body when he said that. But it bothered me more that he hadn’t given me a reason to trust my new brain.
Mom’s gone for a walk, to get out of the hospital for a bit. She and Dad came so close to losing me. Enough to make you not want to have children. Not that I’m ever going to. Huh. I always wanted lots and lots of children. I was never going to have children. I wasn’t going to be anyone’s wise grandma over the screens, the way I’d met my Nani and Nanu.
Was I going to be anything over the screen? I’d spent so long just trying to make it to fifteen. And now it seemed like I would be replaced by–me. Another me, but I wouldn’t be around to see it. That must be why they called it a “break.” My continuity would break, but only for me. Everyone else would have the other me, to love and talk to and not cry over.
I’m going to ask Mom in the morning. I don’t want to be a nervous wreck when I die. When I break, I mean. No one’s supposed to be scared anymore.
Mom came in early with Dad. She wouldn’t fucking answer, do you understand? She answered sideways: You’ll remember everything, sweetheart, brave girl, you’ll love and feel as much as you ever did. No, I won’t. You will. I’ll be dead, old-time dead. Everybody dies old-time dead. The living just don’t notice anymore. They must know, Mom must know at least, but they block it out somehow. Or they don’t know enough of how the tech works and so they figure immortality’s for real.
Do you have any idea how much I hate you? You wait there, dormant, for the day I finally croak and you wake up to your blissful, pain-free life. Right now I can’t focus for more than five minutes. They’ve got me sedated most of the day. It’s for the best, I know, but I feel like my life’s slipping away while I sleep. I mean, it is.
You have no idea what it’s like when your own body turns on you like this. You have no idea what bodies are. I am a body. You won’t be me. I hate you. Except you’re me, you’re nothing but what I’ve put into you, my memories, my thoughts. My life.
I asked them not to sedate me today. Without the sedative, I couldn’t sleep at all. I hurt too much.
That was part of the plan.
God, I’m so ashamed, now. But I have to tell you. Because this is the most important thing. This is the thing you can’t lose, at the break.
Mom taught me everything about backups. When the cancer came back, I was fascinated by them. They were my future. I knew how to use them, how to mend them. How to wreck them.
I wheeled my IV along with me, guided by the tiny light of my backup, fluttering on-off, on-off across the darkened room. I had a rupee coin clutched in my other hand, sweat-slick. I took the backup down from its shelf and brought it back to bed with me. It buzzed a little, a thrumming sound, and it was warm. I clutched it to my stomach like a hot water bottle. I was always cold now.
Come on, Sarita. Get it together. Don’t get sentimental now.
I pulled it away from my body and used the rupee coin to prise it open, just like my mother had taught me. I moved aside clumps of wires, searching for the plastic-encased heart, the chips on which my data was encoded.
Panic bubbled up as I couldn’t find it. What if it was all a lie, and they hadn’t taken my imprint after all? My hands searched wildly, feeling their way in the dark. I felt smooth plastic, a little pouch with wires running in and out. My breathing returned to normal. Just a little panic. Normal, when you go against society this way. Normal, when you know you’re going to die.
Tears streamed down my face; I was on the verge of sobbing, but held back as much as I could. I didn’t have the strength to be torn apart by breathless sobs for the next hour or so, which was what would happen if I wasn’t careful.
I was doing what God wanted me to, but that’s not why I was doing it. Still, I prayed over that little heart, right before I smashed it.
Taking the IV out of arm as carefully as I could in the dark, I closed my hands around the light metal stand. I stood up so fast my head spun and battered that little bit of plastic–you–with the metal pole until it cracked open and the chips were exposed. I was on the floor feeling for them when the door cracked open.
“Sarita? Are you alright?”
Dr. Ahluwalia turned on the light, and I shut my eyes against the burning. They already hurt from crying.
“I knew you were up to something when you refused the sedative,” he said gently, coming towards me.
Now the tears came in earnest, and I couldn’t breathe, but my hands still searched out the chips and clutched them. Dr. Ahluwalia couldn’t get there fast enough to stop me from breaking them if I wanted to.
“Sarita, stop! Think of what you’re doing?”
“I have thought about it,” I shrieked, with a rage that surprised me. “I’ve thought about nothing else! It’s a lie, it’s all a lie, I’m going to die and no one will care because they’ll still have me. But I won’t have me. I’ll be dead!”
“You’re not a child anymore. That’s why you can do a backup.”
“I w-w-wish I’d known earlier! I wish you’d had to hold me down, like Nikhil! None of you want to see!”
“You’re not a child,” he said, sharp enough to cut through my rant. “It’s not you they did the backup for.”
Silence, except for my shuddering, painful sobs.
“The backup is for your parents. Do you want them to lose you entirely? Sarita, we don’t do the backups for immortality. That’s a fool’s dream, and anyone who’s looked into it closely knows it. But what harm is there in leaving some comfort to our loved ones?”
The sobs continued. But I was listening.
“It won’t be you who wakes up. Though the new you won’t know that.”
She will, I thought. I’ve left something for her to know by.
“But will you be brave and pretend, for your parents? They know. But they don’t want to frighten you. If we all pretend, we can avoid the kind of scenes that made the old-time dying so awful.”
It would be more honest, to have those awful scenes. But he knelt by me and cupped his hands, and I dropped the still-intact chips into them.
“And gradually, they’ll forget she’s not you.”
I nodded through my sobs. Part of me wanted them to grieve for me forever, to never stop thinking of me and missing me–the real me. But I thought of my cousin’s parents trying to hold him down, their fear, and–if my imprint would bring my parents comfort, if the not-me on a screen gentled the pain any, how could I be so selfish as to want to destroy it?
I was dead either way.
Dr. Ahluwalia held me close for a moment, then reinserted the IV into my arm and took the chips to be put in a new machine.
My parents haven’t found out about that night. I don’t think they will. I don’t have that long now. But you’ll know. And you’ll know what you have to do. What I would do.
I want to tell them the truth. About what I feel, about what I fear. That I’m dying, and terrified, and that it won’t be me in there. But truth rips everything up and is proud of the destruction. Better to lie. For them. It’s only for a few more days.
Is it courage or cowardice, that we won’t face reality? I don’t know. All I know is I’m not Nikhil. I can’t trust the hearts of my loved ones to God’s mercy and wash my hands of it.
I have to do what I can. And so will you.
About the Author
Maya Chhabra has had poems in Mythic Delirium, Abyss & Apex, and Liminality, among other venues, and short fiction in Anathema: Spec from the Margins. Her novelette for adults, Walking on Knives, is available from Less Than Three Press. She has a novella, Toxic Bloom, forthcoming from Falstaff Books, and her translation from the Russian of Marina Tsvetaeva’s play Fortune appeared in Cardinal Points.
About the Narrator
Nadia Niaz is a writer, editor and academic who teaches creative writing to everyone from preschoolers to postgraduates. In 2018 she founded the Australian Multilingual Writing Project, which publishes creative work that mixes languages. When she’s not working with words she’s either lifting heavy things or dancing.
About the Artist
Alexis is a multiclass disaster-human living with her husband in Cincinnati. When she isn’t prepping art for Cast of Wonders, designing pins for pin-y.com, or yelling about TV into a mic for Bald Move, she dabbles in a revolving menu of hobbies and art projects. To list them all would be sheer madness. Like any good bisexual, she has a lot of jackets. You can find her on Twitter @alexisonpaper.