One of the newcomers onto the Croatian SF scene, Tereza Rukober lives in the city of Rijeka on the Adriatic coast. She quickly established herself, and she wrote this story especially for "Parsek".
EVERYTHING SHE WAS
Rea was sitting on the bed, talking to herself. She was asking questions, forming them into sentences without saying them out aloud - after a short pause her memories would answer.
Do I like walnut pancakes?
A moment of silence, emptiness in her thoughts. Then: Yes, they are fine. Not my favorite, but I don't mind having them. The recollection of taste followed: the smell, the aroma, crumbled walnuts between her teeth...
Yesterday Ana asked me would I like pancakes for lunch?
There was no delay. The image was already in her mind: the tall, dark-haired woman, broad shoulders, friendly smile ... All the memories she has collected in the past two weeks were accessible instantaneously.
How did I meet Ana?
Elementary school: a new girl in class, sitting next to Rea. Rea and Ana playing basketball. The red jogging suit, school competitions ...
What should I do now?
Instantaneously: Darko will pick me up and we'll go to Ana's house. He said he'd be here at three o'clock. I need to shower and wash my hair.
She got up and went to the bathroom. When she was washing her hair for the first time after the hospital, it took her a while to remember what to do. Now there weren't any problems.
The doctor told her that the pauses in her thoughts would become shorter and disappear with time. That soon she wouldn't feel any difference between the "lived" and "copied" memories.
There were no pauses when she was dreaming.
Last night she dreamed of climbing down the stairs. She was inside a high tower and had to get down. The tower had a shabby, old elevator, which she didn't dare to use. She started to walk down carefully, feeling each stone plate with the tip of her shoe before stepping on it.
The stairs were gradually becoming higher. After a while she had to jump down from one to another. They were also getting wider, turning into consecutive stone platforms. She turned and looked up, wondering if going back and taking her chances with the elevator was a wiser thing to do. But climbing up would be exhausting - she must have climbed half a way down long ago.
She decided to continue, hoping to reach the ground before the stairs became too high. She was moving on by sitting on the edge of a stair, and then sliding down to the next one. They became so wide that she could see only one subsequent stair at a time.
The stairs were higher than her now and it would be impossible to go back. The fact that she had no choice left brought a wave of panic. She sat for a while on the edge of a stair, gathering the courage for the next jump. Then she took a deep breath and ventured down.
What she saw was terrifying. The stair she was standing on was the last one. There was nothing more below her, besides the ground. And she must have been standing at least 20 meters up in the air.
Her estimation to have already climbed more than the half a way down was completely wrong. Suddenly there was no stair under her feet and she was falling, sinking through the air faster and faster. At the last moment she realized that it would have been better if she had used the elevator.
"I dreamt again I was dying," she said to Darko. "I was falling down and I knew that was it. I think it might not been a dream, but a piece of my memories?"
"It was a dream, Rea. You can't recollect your own death."
"Maybe I can remember, at least some parts?"
"It can't be possible. Your memories were downloaded three days before the accident and you can't remember anything that happened in the mean time. But it is normal for you to dream, you went through a traumatic experience."
"It wasn't me. It was her who lived through that experience."
"By experience I mean waking up and everything that followed. And there is no her. You are the same person." Darko spoke with a calm voice, but Rea recognized a bit of nervousness in it.
They arrived at Ana's building and used the elevator to the fifth floor. Rea felt awkward inside the small ascending space although the ride was very short. Ana opened the door with a smile. "Take a seat, tuna salad is on the table and the pancakes are coming!"
The room was completely unfamiliar. A round table with no tablecloth, four chairs, a blue couch, a TV on a small table, a bookshelf and an exercise bicycle in the corner. The walls were colored light pink and on the wall across from the balcony door there was a painting with a floral motive. Rea stood still for a second and waited. Then the images came back.
She and Ana are sitting at the table, studying for an exam.
They are watching TV with Darko and two more friends.
Marina, Ana and Rea are redecorating the apartment - all the furniture is packed into one corner and there is some pink painting waiting in the bucket. The walls are still pale yellow.
It is late at night; Ana and Rea are sitting on the couch, talking - about boys, exams, rent payments, plans for the future.
"Everything's all right?" Ana asked.
"Yes, it's all right. I haven't been in your apartment yet."
"Of course you have, many times."
"I meant after the accident, you know."
Ana nodded and smiled with understanding. They sat down and started to eat. Ana told them how she had prepared the salad. "I lost my can opener. If you saw the way I opened the tuna, you would laugh your head off!"
"What did you do? Use your teeth?" Darko asked.
"No, I used a hammer and a screwdriver."
Rea and Darko laughed and praised Ana's ingenuity. She brought in the pancakes and tea. "I've got your favorite," she said, showing the tea box. There were blueberries drawn on the box.
Rea watched the picture without recognition for a moment, but then the memory of the smell and taste poured into her mind. She nodded. "I'm getting tired of having to wait to remember things," she sighed. "But I've noticed the pauses are becoming shorter."
"I think you'll feel better when you start training again," Ana said. "When are you going to start?"
"I don't know. The doctor told me to decide myself. Physically I feel excellent, I even believe I'm stronger than before."
"Your muscles are weaker than they used to be. You'll have to make up for that," Darko added.
"But I have a new knee," Rea laughed. "The old one was giving me trouble, but I don't have to worry about it any more."
She said it cheerfully, but a moment later she became absorbed in her thoughts. "You know, Ana, in a way I am here for the first time. No molecule in my body has ever been here before."
"Nonsense," Darko argued. "You're not just a bunch of molecules. Look!" he said opening his palms. "Could you tell which of my molecules have been here before and which haven't? The skin, the hair, the tissue, everything grows and changes. You are a person, not a set of molecules. And that person had been here before!"
"Darko, why are you trying to persuade me? Or console me? I appreciate your support, but let me deal with what I'm going through. I need time to get used to it, I'm also a bit frightened whether I'll be able to. But I'll be fine soon."
Rea was speaking abruptly and Darko just shrugged his shoulders, looking at her. "I'm sorry if I'm exaggerating; I'll try not to do it any more. But I worry about you."
Ana put her hand on Rea's forearm to reassure her. "I think you're becoming your old self again. This is the first time after the accident I've heard you raise your voice!"
After dinner they decided to go to the cinema. They left Ana's apartment and headed towards the elevator. When Darko pressed the button, the machine produced a deep humming sound, announcing that the elevator began ascending from the ground floor in order to meet them. Rea caught a glimpse of the thick black cable moving behind the glass door.
When the door opened, she stared into the small cubical space opening up in front of her. "I'm not coming inside, it frightens me," she said and slowly turned towards the staircase. She began climbing down one step at the time, holding on to the wall. Darko and Ana followed her. "Help me," Rea asked in a low voice and let Darko hold her hand. They climbed all the way down together, and when they reached the ground floor Rea's heart was beating fast.
Watching the movie was relaxing - everything was new to her, she watched all of the scenes for the first time and didn't have to struggle with her memories.
Later, when they walked through the park, Rea said: "I've never been afraid of the heights."
"The fear will go away eventually, I'm sure," Ana answered.
"Tell me what happened in those three days which I can't remember."
Darko began talking: "After you finished the recording in the laboratory, you called me and we went out for a dinner. We went to your place afterwards and spent the night together. In the morning we packed and caught a train. We met Ana, Vedran and Maja, hiked all afternoon and reached the cabin by sunset. We made a fire, cooked dinner, sat around the fire and talked as we usually do. In the morning we continued towards the top. You were walking behind all of us and you fell behind a bit. When we almost reached the top, on the steepest part of the path, we heard a scream. We ran back and saw you lying on the rocks. When we climbed down to you it was already too late."
They were silent for a moment, and then Rea asked: "Who did you call?"
"People from the laboratory, of course. If we had called mountain rescue, they would have pronounced you dead and we wouldn't have been able to ... bring you back."
"Vedran and Maja know everything?"
"They know there is a laboratory and that it practices some unofficial medical methods. They think they succeeded in bringing your body back to life."
"You mean they didn't know she had died?"
"No, Ana and I are the only ones who know."
"Why did you say her, instead of me?" Ana asked.
"Because I can't say I died. It makes no sense. It is the thought that scares me a lot. I didn't want to tell you, but sometimes I regret what I did." Rea spoke very seriously.
"You know," Darko said, "when you decided to let them clone your body, I didn't like the idea. I almost tried talking you out of it. I didn't because it was your decision after all. But now I'm so glad you did do it."
"I am afraid to remember that."
The waiting time in her recollections was becoming shorter. When Rea eventually gathered the courage to reach for her frightening memories, the pauses were hardly noticeable.
Four years ago she had agreed to be a part of an experiment. "People who engage in dangerous hobbies, like you, might benefit from what we are doing," said the doctor, the leader of the medical team. "Since the project is still in an experimental phase, we have to ask for complete secrecy. But on the other hand, you'll only have to cover part of the expenses."
She didn't want to know the technical details - not even how the inside of the laboratory looked - all those tanks, containers and instruments. All she had to do was to let them take some of her blood.
Three years later she was informed that the body was ready for installation and that she should begin with the memory recordings. "It would be ideal if you came once every three months. And also, before undertaking any dangerous climbing," her doctor had told her.
The doctor's surgery resembled any other surgery she ever was in. She had to sit in a large, comfortable chair with a head rest. The nurse would put something that resembled a motorcycle's helmet on her head. Although she knew it was a very sophisticated piece of equipment, she preferred to think about it as a simple helmet. She would be given an intravenous anesthetic then, and would stay out of consciousness for a few hours. Apart from the injection itself, there would be no other discomforts during the procedure.
"I'm glad you're back to work," Ana said. The two of them were sitting, wearing the tracksuits, on a bench in the entrance-hall of the fitness club.
"Yes, it was about time for me to do it. I have to go on with my life." Rea felt cheerful and energetic.
"You know," Ana smiled, "I believe our clients will also be glad when they see you're back. Your aerobic students were slowly dropping out ever since they were lead by substitute trainers."
Rea was physically strong enough to lead two groups in a row. Still, during her first week back on the job, she discovered that she didn't feel the same any more. Before the accident, the rhythmical movements used to fill her with enthusiasm, almost elation. She used to be able to transmit her élan to the women in her group. The time they spent exercising would pass quickly, and the clients left the club feeling happy and satisfied. But Rea found that she wasn't able to build a good atmosphere in the group any more.
During the exercises, she observed the women around her. A young, plump girl did her best to keep up with the others. The thought crossed Rea's mind that she comes to exercise only because she sees herself as overweight and unattractive. That she finds no pleasure in the rhythmical movements and that she considers her sore muscles a sign of failure.
Another woman, lean and tall, moved harmonically and almost without effort. Rea knew her well - she came several times a week, both to the aerobics classes and the gym.
She knew that her main goal in life was to keep her body fit. She was almost forty, but appeared to be much younger. It suddenly occurred to Rea how senseless that desire for prolonging physical youth actually was.
One afternoon, ten days after she came back to work, she realized that she didn't find her job fulfilling any more, although she used to, for so many years. The whole club, the scents of sweat and deodorants, voices and music coming from the gym - it all suddenly seemed distant and unfamiliar. "I don't belong here," she thought. "I'm not the woman who used to work here. I'm someone else just trying to live her life."
Darko had asked when they would start hiking. "Our team has already been to several trips without us. We should join them."
"I'm not sure I want to go."
"Go where? On a hiking trip or to the expedition?"
"I don't understand, Rea. You used to want these things so much. You were the one who talked Ana and me into it. The only thing you dreamed about in the past two years was to climb Kilimanjaro. The expedition starts in six months. If you don't start training, you could end up not being part of the team."
"But I've never trained for that expedition. I've never climbed a single mountain top. At least my body hasn't."
Darko shrugged his shoulders. "You told me not to try comforting you. But I will tell you that the climbing experience you possess does matter, even if you never physically did it."
Rea nodded. "I guess you're right. I will think about it some more."
She asked her doctor to introduce her to some other patient of his, somebody who had gone through the same thing. The doctor said that that wasn't possible, because the files were strictly confidential. But Darko managed to find an email address.
She couldn't tell the person's name, gender or age from the address. She wrote a message and asked the recipient to meet her. Her request was denied, but she was told that she was welcome to ask questions, as long as they didn't involve personal information.
Are you the same person you used to be? she asked.
Yes, of course I am. I have the same memories, the same name, the same family and genetic code I used to have ...
That's not what I meant. Do you feel the same? I'm asking you because I feel different compared to how I used to feel. It seems as if someone has put me into that woman's life, but it is not mine. I don't want the same things she used to. I don't know who I am. Am I a person, or just someone's clone?
In a technical way, you are a clone. But whether you're a person, you have to decide that for yourself. You said that you don't want the same things you used to. What do you want?
Rea didn't know what to say. She wrote that she hadn't really given it much thought. Se did her best to continue her life, without even trying to change it.
She asked the mysterious correspondent if he (or she) believed in souls. Are we just shadows, soulless bodies? Maybe they really died, and we're just shells of the people they used to be?
I don't have any specific belief in that matter. But I know I'm an individual, not a shell. And I am different than how I used to be before the accident. However, people change all their lives.
What accident? When happened?
It was a car crash - I won't tell you anything else.
Rea did tell her correspondent everything about her accident. About what she was told by her friends and about her dreams. Do you ever dream about your death? she asked.
No, Rea, I don't. But I prefer trains to cars.
One weekend Rea decided to join her friends with the preparations for the expedition. Darko and Ana had already been participating in several mountain climbings without her.
The group gave her a warm welcome. They set off on Saturday morning, from the feet of the mountain which wasn't far from the city. The plan was to climb almost to the top before sunset, make a camp in a meadow, and wait for the sunrise on the top of the mountain the following morning.
Rea was fit enough not to fall behind. She kept her job at the fitness center, because she couldn't decide what else to do. In despite of her adequate physical strength, the climbing felt difficult.
They walked fast, as they always used to - the main goal of the trip was to gain the physical strength. They had walked the same path many times before, and Rea knew the way well. She wasn't falling behind, but she was aware of her tiredness and the drops of sweat sliding down her back. The backpack she carried was heavy and pressed on her shoulders like a stone.
"Hey guys, we're doing well and moving fast. I believe we could break our record!" Vedran said after a while. The team agreed that it was something to be happy about.
Rea suddenly stopped walking. "I'm not going any further," she said. She stood on a steep rocky slope, covered with the rough grass. The sight she could see beneath her was amazing - the whole valley with the city cradled in the middle.
"What is it Rea, are you tired?" Darko asked.
"I'm not too tired. But I don't want to climb any more. I'd like to sit down here and enjoy the view for a while. To sunbathe. I wish I had a camera - it is so beautiful."
"But this is a training climb, not a pleasure trip. We need to reach the top!"
Rea shook her head. "I don't want to reach the top or to go to the expedition."
Darko stood beside her, letting their friends walk away. "I think you’ve changed a lot," he said.
"Yes, I have. I’m not the same person I used to be." She looked at him, with more sadness than determination in her eyes. "You should go after them. I’ll return to the city and we’ll see each other tomorrow."
"Darko nodded. "I regret that you and I are drifting apart," he said before turning away, and then he began walking.
The next morning someone rang the bell on Rea’s door. When she opened it, there was an elderly man, wearing jeans and a sports jacket. He greeted her with a wide smile: "Good morning Rea. I’ve decided I wanted to meet you after all."
Rea looked at him with surprise. "Are you …"
"Yes, I’m your cloned friend," he laughed. "My name is Miroslav." He held out his hand to greet her and asked her if he could come in.
"Yes, of course you can."
Rea took him to the living room. She offered him some coffee and told him about her unsuccessful climbing. She felt as if she was talking to an old friend. "I’ve realized I can’t live her life any more. That scares me."
Miroslav shook his head. "It is your life. However, I’d like to tell you something about me. When I was younger, I used to travel a lot. I ran a merchant firm and enjoyed the work that allowed me to spend a lot of time in motion and on the road. I used to drive fast and careless – my wife worried about my safety and she was the one who talked me into participating in the experimental program. When the accident happened, they installed my memories into the awaiting body. However, they weren’t able to set the body’s biological age precisely back then – I woke up in a body which looked and reacted as if it were ten years older than my old one. I also felt very different. As if I had became another person. My behavior and habits had changed and I started to take interest in different things. After a while, I sold my firm and opened a restaurant – instead of traveling myself I decided to let people come to me. I started to spend more time with my family, although I gave them a hard time during the first year after the accident. Finally, I realized that I was the same person I used to be, although I had been going through things that had changed me."
Rea asked if he ever regretted participating in the project.
"No, if it weren’t for the project, I wouldn’t be alive now. And life is something to be appreciated. I got another chance."
"I’m not sure I understand what you said about the changes. Are you the same person you used to be? Am I?"
Miroslav smiled. "What I wanted to say is: your accident did change you. But it didn’t make you a different person. Memories and thoughts make a person, not the body. You did change – it’s what happens to people during traumatic experiences – like nearly dying is. Even if you survived the fall in the other, "ordinary" way, you would feel like this. You would be scared of heights and would cease wanting to climb mountain tops. Nevertheless, one small thing is enough to start an avalanche of changes in our lives."
Rea nodded in understanding. The talked for a while longer, then Miroslav said he had to go. While he was heading towards the door, Rea noticed he was limping slightly. "Is that from the accident?" she asked.
"No, of course not. It happened a year ago, while I was skiing with my children."
"I forgot to tell you that my doctors suggested I have another spare body cloned, in case I have another accident. They told me I could use it not only in case of death, but also as a way to heal major injuries. Did they propose that to you? I mean, you could have your leg cured."
Miroslav shook his head. "They proposed it, but I didn’t want to accept."
"Why? You just told me that the body doesn’t make a person. And that you’re glad to have a new one."
"Yes, that is true. But I have learned another thing in the process. I wouldn’t be able to appreciate this life enough, if I knew I could replace it. It is valuable because it is unique and irreplaceable. It’s something I hadn’t realized before the accident."
When Miroslav was gone, Rea set on the couch for a while. Then she poured herself another cup of coffee and walked to the window. Now, when she realized that the life she had was still her own, she needed to decide what to do with it.
The morning sun bathed the treetops beneath her window in a uniform, warm light. Rea felt she couldn’t make any major decisions right now. She would leave that for later. But she thought buying a new camera would be very nice.