art by Jonathan Westbrook
The Bittersweet Here and After
by Maggie Clark
In fourteen years of marriage, Pritchard Nichols had on many occasions considered himself a bad husband, but none worse than the day he informed his dying wife of his intention to grieve her passing.
"Are you mad?" said Myna, though it was increasingly hard for her to speak, and her once-dulcet voice now rasped at the attempt. If it weren't for the nano protocol routinely targeting pain centers in her deteriorating body, Pritchard's declaration might have sent her to an early crematorium then and there.
"No, I assure you, I'm in full control of my faculties. And I intend to stay that way. I'm not subscribing any more to Ease--starting today. Starting right now, actually; I stopped the program over lunch."
Myna stared at him, running her tongue over parched lips until Pritchard got the hint and brought the straw to her mouth for a sip of water. Her eyes looked bruised and recessed; her skin, already adopting its fatal, jaundiced hue. Red hair, once dark and lustrous, now hung limp and dull about her sunken cheeks, while her IV-punctured hand sat skin and bone within his own. Yet for all her labored breathing, a note of contentment lingered in each halting sigh, a sonorous hum after every wracking cough. For all that Pritchard had come to resent the nanobots within him, he was glad at least to see his wife registering so little of her pain on their account.
"I know what you're going to say," he said.
"Do you," said Myna, pausing to spit mucus and blood into a tray Pritchard brought next to her lips. "Do you really?"
"'How can I possibly retain my faculties if I give over to grief?' That's the gist of it, isn't it? Well I don't know, Myna, I don't. But it must be a natural response for a reason. Like pain receptors. Like that Thai girl last week."
"Oh for the love of--is that what this is about? One measly broken foot? I told you, you can't watch that stuff unfiltered. It's unhealthy, Pritch. It's just no good."
Already Pritchard felt the beginning of his protocol's absence--a tightness in his chest, a fresh weight about the region of his heart. He knew the tissues of this central, beating muscle were of a different composition than the neighboring arteries and veins, and in that difference incurred the pain that he now felt, but such knowledge alone could not relieve their ache. Doubt, just this morning an idle, objective proposition flitting through his brain's evenly regulated neural pathways, was now taking physical form, followed swiftly by the inner monologue of anxiety: Had he made a mistake? Should he turn the Ease back on? How could he cause his wife such confusion anyway, in these, her final days?
Pritchard brought Myna's hand to his lips and held it there. "I love you," he said.
"Oh," she said. "I--" And her back arched and her neck strained and in the heat of her body's vicious arching she made a sound verging on one Pritchard had only weeks ago taken great pleasure eliciting on his own. From this induced high, designed to doubly counter the reality of her body's pain, the palliative protocol kicked her into the mercy of slumber before her body again fell slack against the crisp, white hospital sheets. Well before letting go, Pritchard realized he had never felt so alone.
Khumpai Sunetra's smiling face still played on repeat in the darkened transit tunnels Pritchard took to work. All about him were the calm murmurs of commuter debate over the worth of UN condemnation over government protocol tampering, but Pritchard could not be turned from Khumpai's countenance, so close to sickness was he with his first bout of genuine empathy for this stranger, now incredibly well-known. Would this sense of universal kinship, so removed and most likely unrequited, always feel so much to him like grief?
"Only in NuChina," said the newscasters again and again. The subway vidscreens were flooded with ensuing reports of factory workers singing blithely as their fingers bled; hauling product long after their backs seized up; toiling without pause until their hearts gave out. But always at their center was the now-iconic tale of Khumpai, the elegant young woman waiting tables to support her love of dancing, yet unable to recognize her own, severely shattered foot during a sixteen-hour shift under the HapiWurkr protocol.
"Barbaric, isn't it?" said a man to Pritchard's right. "Goes against the whole point of the thing, the freedom, you know? To be able to work for a living without being so run down you can't actually get to the 'living' part after. To be able to leave your office feeling refreshed every day without fail. No way you'd have such state interference with nano programming here--we wouldn't allow it. We just couldn't."
Messer was already at his desk when Pritchard got in. Other than a few framed murals of far-off vacation vistas, the walls of their office were drab and nondescript, though until today Pritchard had never paid them much heed.
"So? How'd she take it?"
"All right, I guess." Pritchard sank into his seat and surveyed the day's appointment roster. Messer drummed the side of his desk, waiting.
"And how'd you take it?"
Pritchard closed the task book and pushed it aside. "It was awful."
"You know what I'm going to say."
"Yeah, I know."
"Not just because of that, but think of the consequences here, too. Sure, there are laws and all, but you know how it goes in practice. Michaels would never flat-out admit that was the reason for your dismissal, but you know that's always how it starts. One little slip-up after he's got his eye on you, Pritch: that's all it'll take, if he ever finds out."
"I'll take my chances. I can still get my work done while waiting for the call, and when... when it happens I'll just use my personal days."
Messer frowned. "And when those run out, and you still don't feel any better?"
"Well." Pritchard hesitated. The depth of difficult emotions incurred since just noon yesterday was already more intense than he had expected. Sleep the night before had been sparse, fitful, and marked by frequent bursts of dry and hiccoughed sobbing. In the morning he had had no appetite, and now already felt strung out. Fear, he had to keep reminding himself: this was fear. A necessary part of the package. "That's kind of the point."
Messer shook his head. "Which is what, exactly? To devolve until your worst emotions run your entire life? Are you really that selfish, that you'd pick a bunch of debilitating primordial instincts over mental and social enlightenment?"
And this was anger. Pritchard had no trouble identifying the hot-blooded sensibility, but immense difficulty trying to rein it in. "I just want to be a goddamn human being when my wife dies," he said through gritted teeth. "Why the hell is that so hard to understand?"
But Messer was cool and unfazed, his work protocol in top form. "Because before nano programming, you know how much time our species spent in mourning. And to what end? You should be living your life to the fullest the moment she passes, Pritch, in honor of her. Instead you want to cripple yourself, to make her death somehow more about your loss than hers. What do you expect me to think about that?"
Pritchard started to respond when Messer snapped his fingers and went on.
"Look," he said. "It's not just you. What if some people who'd undergone gene therapy before birth suddenly wanted the treatment reversed? To connect with their 'natural' selves by reclaiming their genetic disorders? Should I not think them selfish for willfully making themselves dependent on the kindness of others for the rest of their lives?"
"Think whatever you want," said Pritchard. He was startled by the tingling in his limbs, the trembling in his fingers that compelled him to ball them tight against each palm. He almost spat the words to follow: "And don't worry, Messer, when Myna passes, I won't be depending on you for anything."
Messer threw up his hands before turning back to his terminal. "So it begins."
"--and you know what really gets me? The name. The name gets me."
"Oh, definitely, definitely. It's insulting, it's dishonest, it's--"
"Arrogant. Absolutely arrogant. Here we call it Pace, you know? And that's not a promise, or a guarantee, or even a demand: it's an idea, a trajectory, a process. But 'HapiWurkr'--I mean, just try to keep a straight face while saying that. That's not a loose translation from Mandarin, by the way--"
"Yep. Yep, absolutely. It's--"
"--that's what it's actually called over there. Like slapping a vaguely Western mashup on the product somehow makes it seem more trustworthy--"
"But you know, it must. It must for some because--"
"For some it really does, I'm sure. Or at least the government thinks people will trust it if it looks vaguely similar to the stuff we have in the West. But go on, Jeff, I cut you off."
"Oh, no no--it's fine. I was--I was just going to say that it'd all be laughable, really, if this policy wasn't killing people. If it wasn't sustaining exactly the kind of world this technology's supposed to save us from. As it is you almost want to cry over it, you really do."
"Well, I'm crying right now on the inside, Tom. I really am. You just can't tell because--"
"You're on Pace right now, aren't you, Jeff?"
"I'm on Pace right now, Tom, and I feel fine."
Pritchard froze the talk program and let himself adjust again to the silence of the house, the darkness in other rooms, the emptiness all around him. Outside only stray dogs barked wildly at the crescent moon, and various skittering things in the middle of the night: the housepets all carried nano protocols of their own, which kept their senses alert but sparingly applied whenever they slept outside.
Pritchard also wanted to be outside, away from the cloying stillness of his home; away from himself, too, if he could. The day's sales calls wore at him and would not give him peace; he had always been one to review his performance scene by scene, but on Pace he'd never invested shame or anguish or frustration in the process. Now as he reviewed all the details of his day, each one out of place lanced at him with a ferocity he could not dispel.
The Lindmanns plagued him most, which was surprising as they were regulars, and over the years Pritchard had built with them a good rapport. But perhaps it was precisely this familiarity that gave him to fear they had seen some change in him, some defect of the absent protocol, during their modest interaction earlier that day.
"I just was saying to Marty how resilient this industry is," said Linda Lindmann at one point in the call. "A generation ago everyone was so sure new media would do you in. Who'd want to waste time and money--no offense, Pritchard--"
"--on travel planning? When you could do it yourself with the touch of a button?"
"But not always," said Marty. "I mean, there's always the local custom you never see coming, the key requirement that gets overlooked if you don't talk to someone first. Someone with experience in the region, I mean."
"Yes, but dear, there are always people willing to offer that service for free online. They just aren't always--"
"--trustworthy, exactly. Not to say that they're all wrong, but with no contractual obligation underlying the exchange, there's never any real guarantee for the traveler who goes down that route. But with an agent--"
"Exactly. With an agent, worse comes to worst you can always sue." Linda laughed. "Sorry, Pritchard. I'm just awful today."
"Not at all," said Pritchard, attempting a wan smile of his own. "So, have you decided on a protocol yet?"
"Protocols! Yes!" Linda slapped her forehead. "Entirely my point. Then nano programming launches and now there's always fine-tuning to be done, the little tweaks your people do that guarantee the perfect vacation every time. Marty, am I getting senile in my old age?"
"Nonsense," said Marty, squeezing his wife's hand. "You've always been senile. That's why I married you. Mother always said a woman would have to be crazy to have me."
"And here I am," said Linda, leaning in.
"Excuse me," said Pritchard. "I'm so sorry." He could just make out Linda and Marty's surprise as he switched the screen to standby and pulled down his headset, pinching the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger while attempting to clear his mind.
"You all right?" said Messer, swiveling in his chair. "You need me to...?"
"I'm fine." But even the question aggravated him; Pritchard struck the top of his desk and watched his hand continue to shake. "I'm..." Exhaustion fell over him, a wave of it. He took a ragged breath and slipped the equipment back on. "I'm fine," he said again, and rebooted the call. "Sorry," he said, when the Lindmanns' puzzled faces returned. "Technical difficulties."
The streets, when Pritchard finally took to them, were not all inviting: rather, the bright, clean, animated boulevards nearest his house were rife with businesses he and Myna used to frequent often, and so repulsed him at first sight. Even the grocer's dredged up memories of Myna skimming fruit stands with one slender hand as she ordered her idle thoughts aloud, while the closest pharmacy recalled evenings where medicine runs had made Pritchard's heart swell with tenderness for his wife--how much genuine, how much aggressively converted from exhaustion by the nanobots inside, he'd never know.
Instead, Pritchard walked the less sightly parts of town, the stark industrial blocks pocked by bars and clubs and all-night coffee shops, around which those who'd never been afforded or inclined towards nanobots soliloquized under dim streetlamps, or stumbled about in shabby dress and often wept.
Despite their new, unspoken kinship, Pritchard found it hard now to manage his repugnance, his anger for these poor folk, where just days ago their existence, however sad, had at least been objectively understood: If they'd only been outfitted with nanobots as children, they'd have completed all their schooling, acquired higher paying jobs, and then--like Pritchard, in time--as established citizens been better situated to exert their right to feel.
But the nanobots were not infallible, or omnipotent. They could not eradicate disease or impose a uniformity of thought, predilection, or instinct upon their hosts. And as much as their programming curtailed the physical impact of negative sensations, they could not strip humans of that ceaseless thirst for greater highs--at least not while maintaining the host's full functionality and alertness, too.
And who would want such a program, either? Passing neon pink and yellow signs boasting protocols for "EXXXTASY" and "Everhard," Pritchard remembered that there were even those who sought out nano protocols to induce more pain--localized, externally controlled, and leaving no lasting mark upon the body--in pursuit of pleasures deemed by certain users to be much greater than whatever brief discomforts were needed to get them there.
The fool human endures, thought Pritchard, for all our efforts to wipe him out. He took a moment to study his reflection in the window of an empty, darkened fabric store, hiked up his coat against the encroaching cold, and started home.
The next day, Pritchard could hear his brother-in-law's laughter long before he entered the hospital room where Sam and Myna sat, holding hands and reminiscing. Was it real laughter, though, or just Ease doing its job managing the grief? In stories from generations' past, it was often written that laughter could break through weeping as a kind of triumph against the odds; that one could feel both sadness and joy at once. Pritchard wondered if he would ever reach that point himself, for he had not slept at all the night before, his frantic, active mind contriving all manner of impossible ways his Myna might still survive.
Sam spied Pritchard at the doorway and stood to give the husband way.
"No, no," said Pritchard. "By all means."
"Oh no, I insist," said Sam, and made a show of moving to Myna's other side, exchanging with her a meaningful glance as he took her other hand in his.
"Of course you do," said Pritchard, taking grudgingly to the proffered space--and even then, only because his wife was fixing him with such an urgent, pleading look. Pritchard had no difficulty identifying the emotion that reared its nasty head next as he surveyed her brother, the veritable glow emanating from the tall, tanned man at rest. What surprised Pritchard was instead how grounding that envy was, how conscious it seemed to make him to every subtle intimation, posture, and sound that dribbled out.
"Myna tells me you've stopped your grief protocol." Sam's eyes were dark and calculating over a smile Pritchard decided was so bland as to be offensive, and Pritchard found himself longing to strike at the broad tract of Sam's jaw.
"Uh huh. Yup, I have."
"I can tell," said Sam. "It's--it's quite remarkable, you know. In a man who always used to be in control, to see his deeper nature coming through."
"Sam," said Myna.
"Sorry," said Sam. "But it's all very problematic for me, you must understand."
"I don't see why," said Pritchard. "It's my life. And my wife, for that matter."
Sam hesitated. "You know, Pritch, it was awful about that girl Senatra, it really was--Myna told me all about it, about how it affected you on enough of an abstract, rational level that you'd even think to do something like this. And I get that, I do. But don't you see you're doing exactly the same thing to yourself that Senatra's protocol did to her?"
"No, actually, I don't. Enlighten me."
"You're so angry, Pritch," said Myna, hoarsely. "Why are you doing this to yourself? Don't you see it's destroying you?"
Sam held up a hand to his sister, then patted her arm, still facing and addressing Pritchard. "Senatra loved to dance, right? But her government tampered with HapiWurkr, and now her passion's been derailed for months. Well, you love your wife, but all you're doing now is damaging your ability to love her properly in her final days, when really, now's when she needs you the mo--"
"Who the hell are you to tell me how I should and shouldn't love--"
Pritchard had leapt out of his chair, shoulders thrown back, right arm upraised and poised to strike across the bed, but at Myna's voice, her frail arms outstretched between them, he froze, willing himself instead to stand down and to breathe. He could feel his heartbeat resounding even then within his skull.
Sam frowned and looked around for the spare stool.
"Pritchard," he said. "Do you have any idea how much good this technology does for the world? I'm not talking individuals right now--I mean, the world. Crimes of passion are at an all-time low; if they happen at all it's because the perps weren't on the program, and after conviction it's required, so recidivism's almost nonexistent. But more importantly to me? To what I do? Pritch, we've got world hunger cornered. Abject poverty's on the way out, and war, and you can't even keep count of how many diseases we've eradicated in just the last forty years.
"And you know why? Because people can't prey upon emotional vulnerability in public policy debates anymore. Desperation's no longer a gateway to ignorance, and suffering, and death. And because when people here aren't thinking first with their gut instincts, they can actually be taught to give a damn about the fate of large populations in distant lands. Do you have any idea how incredible that is? How much we're able to accomplish as a species when we leave the barbarism of out natural physiology behind?"
Pritchard worked his jaw slowly. "This isn't about charity, Sam; it's about Myna--"
"Oh for the love of--" said Myna, and promptly hacked phlegm into her hand.
"It is," said Pritchard. His eyes grew hot with tears at the sight of his wife's tiny, shaking form. "Myna, it's about you and me. That's all I care about right now."
"Exactly." Sam wiped the dark, blood-tinted fluids from his sister's face and hand as she struggled for deeper, cleaner breaths. "That's exactly what I mean."
"Nichols?" said Michaels the morning after. As he spoke he stood inspecting his loafers at the foot of his office door. "Mind if I steal you for a moment?"
Pritchard entered with no illusions, and took the one extra seat in the small room wearily. Michaels walked around the desk and folded his hands behind his back.
"You know why you're here, don't you?"
"Mr. Michaels, I know my performance these last few days has been--"
"Messer was the one who told me, by the way. Said he wouldn't have, usually, but he no longer feels safe around you during normal working hours."
Michaels waited, and Pritchard searched his boss's neutral expression with a frown. "Why are you telling me that?"
"Because," said Michaels. "If you're really as barbaric now as you're cracked up to be, I figure you'd be storming after him this instant to beat him to a pulp."
"I still might," said Pritchard.
"Wouldn't advise that." Michaels fingered a picture frame on the desk.
"Are you firing me?"
Michaels' flicked his gaze up; there looked almost to be a smile quirked at the corner of his lips. "Do you think you should be fired?"
"I--" Trick question? Pritchard elected silence.
"You know I have a daughter, don't you?"
"Of course, sir. Fifteen."
"Fifteen indeed." Michaels sat down and steepled his fingers before him. "That used to be a hell of an age for parents. Just nonstop fighting, arguing, boundary-testing, risky behavior all hours of the day and night."
"Yes sir," said Pritchard.
"Not anymore, though, huh? Kids are well-behaved, focused, hard-working, high-achieving--you name it. A parent sometimes wonders if it's the right thing to do, putting his kid on Excel, but then some other kid at school's on the stuff, and, well, excelling, so suddenly everyone else is in a mad panic to make sure their kid isn't left behind. Next thing you know, parenting's a cakewalk, but the doubt remains. You and Myna ever...?"
"No," said Pritchard. "Myna couldn't rationalize having one with the world population still what it is."
"Fair enough," said Michaels. "It was an accident for us, too, quite honestly. But a good one. Lot to learn about yourself, and life, from raising a child."
"Yes sir." Pritchard waited. Michaels sighed and shifted in his seat, then turned the photo Pritchard's way.
"This is her," he said. Pritchard studied the image for what he hoped was a long enough period of time, then handed the frame back.
"Yes," said Michaels, touching the glass with his thumb. "Yes, she is. But, you know--it kills me, Nichols, not knowing if she's angry with me. Not knowing if, deep down inside, she hates me for not letting her make the choice herself, when she was older."
Pritchard studied his boss as if in a new light. The silence that followed took time for him to fill. "For all you know, sir," he said at last, "she might have hated you for not making the choice for her."
"True," said Michaels. "Very true. But still, you know what helps the most?"
"Seeing you make the choice, as an adult, despite the risk you know it entails. That gives me hope. That tells me it's not too late, if my girl wants to change her mind down the road."
Michaels shot up an eyebrow. "The correct response is 'Thank you, sir.'"
"Thank you, sir." Pritchard hesitated, then made to stand. "So... I can go?"
"In a minute," said Michaels, setting the picture frame back and folding his hands on the desktop before him. "But first--"
"Anger, Nichols. Real anger." Michaels leaned forward, his voice dropping to an excited whisper. "What's it like?"
It wasn't enough that all the nurses shot disapproving looks his way when Pritchard came in for his evening visit; Pritchard needed to see his wife firsthand to realize what she had done on his account.
"Myna," he said. "What have you done?"
"Well, you didn't--" She winced, and gritted her teeth, and clenched and unclenched her trembling hands. "--didn't give me much choice, Pritch. You go off making decisions... that affect us both like... like I'm already dead. Where's my agency in all this? How else am I supposed to make myself heard?"
"You can't do this, Myna, you just can't. I can't bear to see you hurting this way."
Myna's eyes flashed. She cried out--a wrenching, aching sound--as she tried to turn to him to speak. "It's done, Pritch. But at least you have the... nngh... the decency to admit that it was, after all, all about--" She had to breathe the last: "...you."
Pritchard found a cloth at the nurse's station, soaked it cool in the sink, and brought it still dripping over a metallic waste bowl to dab at his wife's perspiring temples. Myna watched him with a look in her eyes like desperation, and a plaintive whimper in her every shuddering breath. It was not long before Pritchard paused, set aside the bowl, and wiped at her tears with his thumbs.
"Khumpai Senatra," he said. "The Thai girl. She really does love to dance. In the reports they said she even danced at work, and on the way to work, but never took part in any competitions, never turned her passion into work itself. She said that dancing alone was enough--can you believe that? I saw those things on the news, and I thought, what have I ever loved that much? My job? Old friends I haven't spoken to in years? All the safety in the world, Myna, all on the back of those nano protocols, and what have I used it for?"
Pritchard hesitated as his wife reached for his arm and parted her lips heavily, struggling to speak. "Except you," he said, after it became clear that all her labored efforts were for naught. "You're the only thing on this planet I've ever loved so much, and yet that feeling is crippled by these machines inside of me. I'm expected to let my favorite thing just slip away from me, and do everything in my power to mitigate the imprint it leaves in its passing. To let you become another fond but ultimately distant memory, with no depth or meaningful substance in my life. I'm sorry, Myna--I can't. I just can't."
The light was slipping from her dark and filmy eyes as she wheezed and wheezed. After what seemed an eternity the change began in earnest, and when it did Pritchard took hold of her hand and leaned his left ear over her lips, through which her last conscious sounds were then just barely pressing through:
"...I'm scared for you."
Pritchard sat up slowly when she was through, for in the wake of her words came a terrible wet rattling and sucking of breath. Myna's eyes were closed now, and Pritchard knew that as long as this next phase might take, they were not likely to open anew. Though he had expected tears of himself there was nothing--not yet. He had no idea how to classify the numbness instead closing in.
"Love you, too," he said at last. But why had the words taken so long? Pritchard watched as his wife's chest stilled, then her breath, but only when a doctor filed in to pronounce the death did it occur to him that for all their years together, and all that they had shared therein, Myna's version of that pure, ancient utterance was a formation of the term they had both only just learned.
This story was first published on Friday, April 27th, 2012