The man at immigration inspected my documents, my bags and my very person in minute detail. Although disconcerting it was expected. I was their first.
“It all seems in order. Welcome to Earth.”
“I saw the newscasts. Terrible tragedy.”
“It’s regrettable dying so far from home and kin.”
“That’s what I meant.”
My driver whisked me from the spaceport. It gave them a chance to keep an eye on me without being too obvious. Not that I was a threat. They were all curious, cursed with overactive imaginations, a boundless entertainment industry and insatiable emotional appetites. I didn’t want to be here, thankfully I only had to put up with it for a day or two. I just had to remember not to touch anyone.
Sweaty and gap toothed the driver stared at me through the partition.
“I haven’t seen your type before.”
“We don’t travel much.”
“Too nice at home eh? Well we’ve got some stuff too, big things like Pyramids and even some lions. You should go see.”
“Maybe next time.”
“I saw it you know. Nasty, going all that way then that.”
Everyone probably saw the recordings. It was no use, they’d all want to tell me so I might as well get used to it.
“How many died, I mean of your lot?”
“That any of ours survived was a miracle, pure miracle.”
“You’re a tough species.”
“Couldn’t understand it.”
“How only two made it. To go through it all, survive the crash then die later, that’s rough.”
How could I tell her, make any of them understand? We wanted to help but there had to be precautions. I’d been first there dragging them out bare handed then those three broken ones more dead than alive. I was paying the price for my recklessness.
“We mourned yours as we mourned our own.”
“Tragic loss for the families, their friends.”
“Yes, our world’s very tight knit, very close.”
They’d been told I was coming to make sure they were prepared. It was to be just me and the person behind each door yet the streets were still closed off. We pulled up in front of a small blue-grey box, flaking paint and tall thin plants obscuring the ground.
“How long will you be?”
“Depends. Five seconds, five hours. Just wait.”
The porch steps creaked, the doorbell needed to be pressed twice to work. He was older than I recalled, hair thinner and greyed, stoop shouldered. Behind him the grandfather clock stood, that one ostentatious anachronism he couldn’t shake.
“I am —”
He opened the screen door, offered me his hand. I removed my glove, grasped his firmly just as the clock started to strike five.
— Indrani? Indrani my poor, poor baby girl.
— Don’t go all soft on me now.
— You’re back, back home.
— No, you know why I’m here, you know what they told you.
— Why did you have to go? You should have stayed here where it’s safe.
— It’s all I ever wanted. I was no idiot, I knew what it might cost. I was happy dad, totally in love with it. I wouldn’t change a thing even now, and you made it happen.
— All those years after mum died you were alone, you took care of me, encouraged me, made me think I could own the stars. You put me where I could follow my dreams, all the while putting yourself last. I’ve never said thank you properly. It’s why I’m here, to say thank you, thank you for everything.
— You don’t have to, I’m your father. What else could I have done?
— You could have done anything at all. All my life I wanted to thank you but somehow I never managed, never found the time or the words. Now I have to.
— Have to?
— It was the only regret I had, the only thing I’d left undone. It was all I was thinking of when he pulled me clear, when I died. It’s torturing him having me here, having it unsaid. They’re not built for it we’re … we’re too intense.
— What happens now when you, I mean he leaves? Do you die again?
—I can’t, you die once then that’s it. But this echo has to leave him or he’ll be in pain his whole life. I’m luckier than most, I’ve had the chance to put things right. He can be released, I can fade away.
— And me?
— You can’t change the past. I died happy dad, peacefully.
— Will it hurt?
— No. Just let go and that’s it. On. Off. Simple.
— I love you Indrani.
— I know dad, I always knew. And I love you.
He released my hand as the clock finished striking five, his face quivering as the emotion worked its way through him. My headache and chest pains reduced. She’s gone, faded and left. He extended his hand again then pulled it away.
“I’m sorry, I forgot. I’m glad you made the effort.”
“I had no choice, your daughter was insistent.”
“And you’re better?”
“Somewhat, I have more to see.”
“I figured you might. I’m sorry for your pain, those people of yours who died.”
When I left the next one it was too late to see the last, too early for my rituals. I was feeling better but the last weighed heavily upon me. I was hungry, thirsty and tired.
“This will do,” she said as we pulled up under the garish neon sign “I can get them to give us the food in the car instead if you want.”
Only one or two people were inside. I glanced to the left, the security tail seemed to be keen to rest.
“They have food that is not from an animal?”
She pulled out a piece of paper.
“These ones, anything with the word ‘vegan’. You squeamish?”
“No, let’s just say I get a bad feeling.”
I ordered, squeezed into a booth in the far corner. My food arrived. Nutritious perhaps, appealing not.
I was trying to wipe off a white liquid that had oozed onto my gloves when I became aware of an adult male sitting opposite me staring nervously, intimidated by something behind me. I looked around. There was nothing, just myself.
“You’re one of them?”
“One of what?”
They’d called us that when we met. A simplistic misleading meme that had been no end of trouble.
“Yes but I’m not amortal. It’s the wrong word.”
“It doesn’t matter, a rose by any other name. You all look alike don’t you?”
“No, it’s just your differences are so dramatic.”
“It’s true isn’t it, the rumors?”
“You talk to the dead.”
“It is and it isn’t, depends what you mean.”
“No one really dies do they, you take on their memory, their spirit when they go.”
“Among our own people yes, you could say that. But you do too with your memories, it’s just different.”
“But that’s why you’re here. Bringing those three back to their families, making them live again.”
“No, that’s not quite —”
He shoved a picture at me, his purple splotched hand shaking. A woman and two young children smiled out at me through creases and stains.
“My family, they were all I had. You got a family?”
“Offspring? Yes, and parents.”
“Then you understand. I killed them twenty years ago.”
“You killed them?”
“I was driving home. I’d been drinking and picked them up. There was an accident. I lived, they died.”
“I lost it all when I lost them. Not an hour passes I don’t think of them.”
“It sounds like a horrible life, is there —”
“Bring them back.”
“Bring them back now like you did the other two.”
“Don’t lie! I know you can, so do it.”
“You don’t understand, no one comes back it’s just echoes. Even if I wanted to I couldn’t, I wasn’t there when they died.”
His face turned red, one arm rising holding a knife.
“It’s not fair bringing back the others and not mine. You’re like the rest of them, disrespecting and discriminating me! So help me if you don’t bring them back right now I’ll —”
The knife clattered to the floor as he slumped to the table. The uniforms took him away, my driver staring at me.
“I’m sorry, my fault. Didn’t pick him soon enough.”
“No real harm done.”
“A lot of people think that way.”
“Hardly. Live once, die once, all over.” She opened the car door. “Who’d want to come back to this shit hole?”
They’d increased the guard overnight, I stepped from my room to an escort of a dozen men. So much for discretion.
“They heard what happened, don’t want a repeat.”
“Guess you’ll be glad to get rid of me.”
“No, I’ve had worse. The Pope, now that’s another thing. He thinks you’re the antichrist.”
“What’s a pope?”
“Yes, I’ve been expecting you. Come in.”
She ushered me into a neat, sparsely furnished space. Careful not to touch me she sat on a chair opposite, out of arm’s reach.
“Thank you for seeing me.”
“It’s no trouble. I have a few questions.”
“If it will help.”
“It will. Why?”
“Oh. Pure chance. When the ship malfunctioned the escape pod crashed into my house but left me alive. No other reason.”
“No, that’s not what I meant. Why’d they give their echoes to you?”
“They didn’t actually give them. It was an accident.”
“I didn’t think, I just reacted. I didn’t know who crashed so I didn’t take any precautions, just went straight in and pulled the five of them out before it burnt up. Everyone else just stood around and by the time I realized it was too late.”
“And you had all five in you?”
“Initially. The two who survived I was able to give theirs back, but the other three were impossible.”
“If the echo comes across with unfinished business it stays with the host until it’s satisfied, then it fades and releases. All three of them died with unfinished business.”
“But it’s never really gone is it?”
“Where’d you hear that?”
“Brendan. He spent years with your people studying, thinking, watching.”
“It’s true. Once the echo’s satisfied it leaves but the … it’s hard to find the words … the essence or flavor still remains. Nothing specific just impressions, generalities, but then again more.”
“Dead but truly never forgotten?”
“Yes, perhaps that will do.”
“Brendan must be giving you trouble.”
“Yes, his emotional state is far above even your norms.”
“Your people, they quarantined you for this?”
“They had no choice. We can’t risk contamination.”
“You want to grip my hand, be done with him?”
I started to remove my gloves.
“I don’t. I want the other way, the way of your people.”
“No, that’s not permissible.”
“It’s either that or Brendan stays with you until you die.”
There was no choice. I couldn’t continue like this.
“Very well. But don’t watch me change, the process is confronting. I’ll … Brendan will let you know when I’ve changed.”
She closed her eyes and I let go. It hurt enough morphing to one of my own, but changing into this creature was an absurd and painful struggle. Our masses weren’t even close, I had to lose a few inches of height to compensate. She’d never know.
Of course the stupid bitch wouldn’t, I only married her so I’d have a decent body on tap if I couldn’t get lucky. What she had in looks she lost in brains.
“Erin. I’m here.”
“Brendan. You look good dead, it suits you.”
“What do you want?”
“Me? You’re the echo.”
“Oh yeah, that. Just died thinking how useless you were, how you’d ruined my life and how much I’d miss telling you that.”
“Isn’t it enough? You’ve hardly got room in your head for your name never mind anything else. I’m surprised you remembered anything I said.”
“Depends if I wanted to.”
“You’re like a faulty computer, can’t remember anything unless I punch it in a few times.”
“You enjoyed that didn’t you?”
“Are you kidding? Come home, bang you senseless, punch the shit out of you then go and do your little sister? It was the best.”
“You’ll pay for that.”
“How, you forgotten I’m dead already? Shame, I was going to get rid of you when I got back, it’s not even funny anymore.”
Erin reached behind her, lifted the Taser and fired. Brendan collapsed to the floor, Erin sending two more shots into him for good measure. Methodically she removed the darts, bound his wrists and ankles, taped over his mouth and waited.
He nodded, face up.
She fired the Taser point blank into his groin.
Accompanied by his muffled screaming she went to the kitchen, returning with a cup of coffee and the knife block.
He nodded, this time from the fetal position.
She sat, placed her feet on his face.
“That was just for fun, help me calm down. I can’t tell you how excited I was when I heard you were coming back. I mean, I was so glad you died but it was too clean and neat if you know what I mean.”
She moved her feet slightly, driving a stiletto into his nostril. Funny how such a small thing could control him but then again he’d always been controlled by small things.
“You never noticed me change. While you were away I got help, got my respect and strength back. I was heartbroken when I heard you died, the thought of dragging you through court was delicious but even that you tried to take from me.”
A small twist brought his face towards her. She resisted the temptation to take out an eye with the other heel, contenting herself with scouring his forehead, seeing exactly at which point blood flowed or bone showed.
“Charles is such a thorough solicitor. Do you know your host isn’t legally a person on earth? Or that we don’t have an extradition treaty with them? No? Pity.”
She leant in, let the tiniest drop of spittle fall.
“As far as this world’s concerned you’re dead, and I can’t get charged for killing a dead person now can I? But we both know as long as you live he lives whether you’re wearing his body or not.”
Brendan twisted slightly, nearly tearing his nose open. Erin pulled on a pair of elbow length rubber gloves.
“No, I’m afraid that’s no use. You’ll find the Taser’s charge will stop you shifting back for a couple of days. That should be more than long enough.”
She took the sharpening rod and paring knife from the block and slowly started to sharpen it.
“You’re right of course, I never was much of a cook. My knife work was never up to scratch. But we’ve got all day, so much to catch up on, so many memories to re-live.”