After the Fire


They don't give you training for days like these.

Sure, there are the orientation courses that take you through all the likely downsides of the job. But nothing quite as weird as this. And nothing that really tells you what it will be like when it happens.

So I'm standing here, knowing I don't look good in black, especially the long drapy thing Mme. Beryl came up with for me, feeling like a sack done up in the middle, and wondering what I should be doing and thinking.

Life has been good for me and such of my family as I still keep in touch with, and the UG makes sure that there's enough medical cover for modern treatments that I'd been able to live my life to date without having to attend a funeral. What a one to start out with.

The Syncretist Neo-Shinto priest in all the robes is intoning away in high flown Japanese, and despite all efforts, I've simply not managed to do more than get to the tourist getting by stage in that language. I'd probably understand more of what he's going on about if it were the padre that great-gran always insisted on dragging me off to, when I was just an ankle-biter, doing the whole thing in Latin — and that is all Greek as far as I'm concerned.

Her father is standing opposite me, across the grave, a small man, who has let his hair grey at the temples to get the distinguished look that a mid-ranking functionary needs. Her mother is holding on to his arm. He has a dark suit, she has a kimono that she's now too dumpy to look dignified in.

Neither of them has met my glance.

They still blame me for taking their little flower and leading her astray — and that was back when we were freshman students. That's ancient history — heck, I wasn't even me, the me I am now, back then. Barely more than a naïve little kid myself.

Two of her older brothers, standing behind them. They look like they could be enforcers for the yakuza in their dark suits and slicked hair. Today, for the first time, they're not looking at me like they want to get into my drawers. There's anger and bewilderment in their looks and posture instead.

On my side, the Chief, standing there with that worried expression he always has whenever we see him, fidgeting with the collar of his shirt; and Mme. Beryl looking like everyone's favourite sainted aunt. But then she must have attended every TroCon's funeral for longer than I care to think about — and while the CC doesn't circulate the numbers, in our line of work, that'll be a very large number. I hear she even invited herself to Deirdre's — and she had wanted that to just be a personal affair.

The priest is rambling on. If I've kept up with the order of service, this must be the bit where he's praying for good things for her soul in its next life. Myself, I always thought you get one life, and you've got to — I plan to — live that one to the full. But now, with back-ups — well — I'm no longer the me of yesterday, not yet the me of tomorrow, so if it's not me personally there then, I won't really notice the difference in each here and now. I'll live each life to the full.

I must get another engram back up taken before I return to duty. Someone — some me — has to remember today. Even where it hurts. I've already backed up the bad parts. Two of her, each dying at the other's hand. That some last flickers of life remained was enough to drive me on. If there had been none, if they had been more efficient, more competent, more brutal, I wonder if I might not have simply given her a Viking send-off in the pyre of Egawa, and performed suttee into the bargain.

A crazy mad flight. Days like a raw wound, like a brand.

I think I treated the staff at base hospital worse this time than when I was a patient there, until I was sure that they were doing all they possibly could for her.

It's getting to the “Earth to Earth, the cycle continues” bit. The little digger mech is starting to move.

She looks so serene, as if she were sleeping, the white brocade looking like a wedding dress. Even though I know she's well on the mend in her hospital bed, truly asleep, waiting for me, I feel my eyes filling. I tell myself that I'm in control, calm and dignified, but I can't help my face screwing up, hot tears leaking slowly down my cheeks.

This is the one I've laughed with, gotten drunk with, chased guys with, had rows with, worked with, studied with — though, honestly, she did most of the studying — and never held close to me as I want to hold her now. At least they were able to get her engram, even if they couldn't save her body.

That was the first thing they did — tissue for cloning they could take at somewhat more leisure — take a backup from both of them. It came as a surprise that only one of the results was playable. When it was clear she was out of danger, but still comatose, they were able to reconcile her memories and stabilise her mental balance. The back-up problem certainly caused a stir, and they've gotten a lot of people involved, working on fixing that, up to and including the CC itself. But for the moment, she's write-only. If the worst comes to pass, she'll lose everything since New Eysenck.

And if that happens, I'll find the bastards who did it and kill them. And then take their back ups and do it again. Actually, I plan to do that anyway. It's just not quite so urgent just at the moment. Not while she's still to get well again, will need me there, even if she doesn't know it.

The mech is firming the soil down now, ready to roll out the turf and plant flowers.

Everyone else is wandering off. There's a buffet in a pavilion. An acceptable reason to move people along, remind them that life goes on for the living. The Chief is talking to the grieving relatives, expressing his condolences, while Mme. Beryl is accepting the wishes for a swift recovery, and I'm standing here, leaning on an old fashioned walking stick, and my leg is killing me where it's still in its cast.

As I stand here alone by her grave, I can hear a sound in the distance like surf against a cliff. Beyond the security perimeter, the sound of the riot, as mourners, distraught fans — off-world as well as local — are clashing with those who would rather be burying both of us today, backups and all. Closer, but keeping their distance, the press pack, reporters talking to their audiences, with camera drones hovering around them. The handful actually at the graveside are only the ones who were obliged to come.

I wipe my eyes with my sleeve, and snuffle.

Now the priest is out of the way, and my eyes are no longer blurring, I can see the stone her parents had chosen for her. A formal portrait — I think it was one of the ones they insisted she had done when we graduated — and some sentimental words. I know she'll hate it when she sees it.

I take the exercise that I know I should — necessary upkeep on the most gorgeous legs in the galaxy. It's not the physical discomfort of new-healed muscle that holds me back. It's the fact that I don't know what to say — if any of her family actually do speak to me. Even though I saved her life, they will look at that headstone, and say different, the child they raised is dead, and that it was my fault.

The buffet looks great, and well over-catered for such a small group of mourners. Normally, with free food on offer, I'd be scarfing it up — but today I have no appetite. Sheer habit drives me to take a plate, put a few things on it. There's nothing stronger on offer to drink than warm sake by the thimble, so I'm spared the decision of whether I'm finally going to go and get stinking drunk now, as opposed to later.

I keep my distance from the others. I don't know what would be worse — getting into a brawl if any of her family says anything to push me over the edge, or wrecking my bad-ass reputation by bawling in public, on UG-wide live hyperwave news. There's something screaming inside me to be let out, but I grit my teeth. She would not believe the amount of self-control I'm having to use today. I think of her, and breathe again — a gasp for breath, not a sob or a howl.

I look up from the plate I'm holding, and see her father and the Chief talking together. They must have been talking about me — their glances suddenly turn in my direction — the Chief showing a strange expression that it takes me a moment to recognize as concern, rather than his usual worry; and her father showing startled incomprehension — does he find it surprising that I could be as broken up as I am? — that her life is not just a family matter, and hasn't been for years, since we first met each other? When they see I'm looking up, they hastily look away again, embarrassed. What had been said? Does the Chief know, suspect, the thing I haven't even told her. Did he tell her father that he thinks, knows, I love his daughter? Or is it just that I'm looking such a mess today that they can see I'm in anguish, simply at the death of a close colleague?

If she were here, she'd have a mirror so I could see what a state I'm in. I don't — that's not my sort of thing.

That nearly sets me off again, as I remember that she is — was — here. I want out of here. If I could, I'd hobble out of here, right now, take the elevator back up the World Tree, and fly back to her side this instant. But this trip, I'm strictly a passenger. Something about public profile after Egawa — and concern about having the Lovely Angel in orbit around a world with only domed cities, especially with one of us piloting.

I think they can read that need on my face. There's some encrypted chatter between the Chief and Mme. Beryl — they've both been deskbound so long that at times I forget that they still have their field-agent upgrades maintained — and they start to make their excuses. A glance, a nod, a tilt of the head are clear enough to say that we're moving out, the Chief in the lead as we head past the family.

As I turn to go, something happens that surprises me. Her father catches my attention. I'm about to bite his head off, when he bows to me and says “Thank you for saving our daughter's life.”

I'm taken aback, don't know if I can have heard this right. I really wonder what the Chief must have said to make this man swallow his years of dislike. But I know what I must do.

I return his bow, grope wildly for the right words to say. I don't know if there even is a word for what it was. It was like breathing — something you have to do, and do without really thinking about it — when you do it because you gotta do what you gotta do. It wasn't even as if this was the first time. Just the first time I hadn't been completely successful. I open my mouth to speak.

“That's what I'm here for.” are the words that come out. Because they are true, though they only scratch the surface of the truth.

The moment is over; the walls come up again. We look away from each other. I feel relieved that I didn't blurt out the secret, nor descend to the “Aw, shucks, just doin' my job.” cliché. And shaken, both by the surprise of the gesture, and at the fierce choking rush that grabs at my throat when I tried to think how I would put my true feelings into words. That I would fight the whole friggin' universe to protect my little flower.

Just the press pack to deal with now, and the car is in sight just past where they are waiting. They are moving forwards now, with the cameras swarming. I don't have my gun, otherwise I'd clear the skies of these vultures.

“What about the rumour that you've only buried a clone?”

“— that there's a clone out there already causing another disaster?”

“— that this is the first time one of them has actually survived a disaster?”

The Chief meets them all with a studied “We have no comment at this time.” Mme. Beryl is twitching one hand in a manner that is so achingly familiar, a gesture that says that she would dearly love to use a BloodyCard and is barely managing to stop herself. I'm strongly tempted to just give them the finger, but then I think of my — our — fans, and give a cheesy smile, and the old Victory–V salute.

“ — that it's always a new set of clones each time, so that it's never the fault of the current release of the D—”

“Say that name, pal, and you'll be eating that microphone.”

I know I'm too much of a state, looking too much of a hag, right now, to do my usual glare of death at twenty paces, but the message is understood.

“ — of the Lovely Angels?”

I don't know where in the UG we'll be able to carry out our work after this. Maybe it is the end of the line for the Lovely Angels. Maybe we'll even the get the month off that we joked about so long ago. The CC hasn't said anything, no one's been sniffing around to measure me up for a desk job. It's been completely quiet while we rest up and recover. I have this ridiculous notion of sweeping her off her feet, taking her away somewhere and living happily ever after — even though the thought of settling down creeps me out, even though we have shared flats ever since we first met.

But when we are together, I know I won't be able to find the words to tell her, will be too scared to let actions take their place. Even if I thought she'd understand.

I'll probably choke up, keep my distance, try not to blub, and just give her a prettified version of what has happened today, say “care about” or “like” rather than anything more dangerous, rather than tell her the truly important thing, in case she runs from me.

There is one faint hope, though. For all her bluster, even when completely out of her tree, she couldn't bring herself to pull the trigger or even just leave me to burn. What does she think about, about me, when lying awake in the dead of the night?

At last, we are at the car. I sink into one of the deeply upholstered seats, a sigh escaping my lips, glad to take the weight off my leg. One day, one day, my beloved, when you are able to remember it forever, I will open my heart to you. Until then I will always be there by your side. Soon I will be back where I belong.

The car starts to move.

Soon, I think, so soon.

© Steve Gilham 2004