The nurses were gorgeous. I had seen so many at other clinics, but the nurses here were special – long legs, dark, storm-tossed hair, confident smiles.
You pay for what you get, and today I was paying.
One nurse captivated me with her deep chocolate eyes and light olive skin. Everything about her spoke of unaffected elegance: the calm ushering of clients through to the treatment rooms, the neat placement of the client files in the crook of her arm, the casual tilt of her head so the light caught her high cheekbones. Her clothes had clean, simple lines: white flat shoes, a pale blue skirt, and a low cut white blouse that stretched firmly around her breasts.
I looked away, suddenly self-conscious. But it didn’t take long for my eyes to linger again along the length of her legs, tracing the profile of her tanned calves up to her perfect knees, and further still. They really were–
“Mr Michaels. Stephen Michaels?”
Did I say that out loud? No, she was still looking around the waiting room.
I sprang out of my seat.
She smiled warmly and stretched out her hand, palm up. “Please come this way. My name is Veronica. I’ll be your nurse today.”
I followed her along a bright corridor. The room at the end had white walls flecked with granite-effect grey and silver. A tall shelf unit stacked with boxes of surgical gloves stood next to a small sink and bench top. The long reclining chair in the middle of the room looked comfortable and inviting.
A picture hung on the wall in front of the chair – a maple tree in hues of scarlet, orange and gold, a spray of leaves tumbling away in the wind. The caption read: “Have you ever been a leaf and fallen from your tree in autumn and been really puzzled by it?” The line was from T. E. Lawrence, apparently in a letter to an E. Kennington.
I felt my pulse quicken. There was something disturbing about the picture. I breathed in deeply and let the air out slowly as if it might somehow stem the inevitable flood.
“Take a seat,” Veronica said, and placed my file down on the bench top.
I sat down. The chair reclined under my weight like a regular dentist’s chair, but moulded around my back and shoulders like something out of a racing car.
“Not that I mind,” I said awkwardly. “But are there any doctors here?”
She looked down at me, her face framed in raven black curls.
“All our nurses are qualified.” She tilted her head in that same way, a twinkle of conspiracy in her eyes. “Between you and me, who needs doctors? We can do the same job for half the price, without all the baggage of egos and astronomical insurance schemes.”
I let out a long sigh, but it wasn’t one of relief. Tension started building in my neck and shoulders. The doubts I had thought buried seemed to be nudging up through the veneer of self-control. I felt my right eyelid flutter.
She turned back to the file.
“I’d just like to go over your form again. No allergies of any kind?”
“None that I know of.”
“Have you had any physical illnesses or disease?”
“Just my appendix when I was a kid, plus some dental surgery from my ju-jitsu days.”
“Did you get a whooping?” She gave a cheeky grin.
“Yeah, but you should have seen the other guy?”
I cringed at the cliché, but she laughed anyway. I didn’t have the courage to tell her I had trained in my living room using an online tactile glove interactive. I had fallen and smashed my mouth on the corner of the coffee table.
Come on, Steve, you can do better than this.
“How about you?” I asked.
“Jeet Kune Do. Karate – the old, traditional styles like Shotokan. A bit of kick boxing.”
“Oh. How do you find the time?”
I caught her sidelong glance. She reached over and squeezed my arm. “I’m an effigy.”
She playfully nudged my chin up with her knuckle.
“It’s true. All the nurses in the clinic are. We don’t administer treatments unless we’ve tried them ourselves.”
Of course, that explained the sublime genetic traits.
“That’s good to know.” My mind raced at the possibilities.
“Now. Just one more question. Is there any history of mental illness in your family? This one’s important.”
I thought about the question, knew I’d have to answer truthfully. I had no doubt that she had already seen my case history and genome report.
She waited patiently.
“Well, I’m not sure I’d call it an illness, but then again, maybe it was. My dad committed suicide when I was 10.”
The tide rose. My pulse beat a staccato. After 25 years I still hadn’t got used to the gap. A boy should never have to grow up without his father. Never. What were you thinking that day, dad? Did you think that getting me through my first ten years was enough and that I’d be all right from there? Or were you just too absorbed in your own self pity? Well, I’ve got news for you. Life’s full of setbacks. Get over it.
“I’m sorry.” Her words broke the spiral. “Have you shown any suicidal tendencies, had any inclination whatsoever?”
“Well,” I added, “It’s not like I haven’t thought about it. It sounds perverse, but thinking about the worst sometimes makes it easier to get through a bad day.”
“Are you comfortable with this treatment?”
“Truth.” She wasn’t messing around, this was digging deep.
“No, I’m nervous as hell. I thought it might give me something more, give me back my life. I’m chronically introverted. I’ve had bouts of depression and anxiety ever since he left. I’m not married, can’t hold down a relationship, don’t have a social life. I find it hard to interact with anyone.”
The words seemed to slosh around in the empty spaces in the room.
I felt like a coward. It wasn’t supposed to be like this, not today of all days. But that picture had really thrown me and now her line of questioning had opened up everything I hated about myself.
This was supposed to be a good day, a happy day. Wasn’t it?
“I know this is hard, Steve. I think you are doing fine, by the way.”
I wiped away the beads of sweat from my forehead.
She handed me the form and a pen. I scrawled a signature, skipping the standard fine print liability clauses. What did it matter, it’s not like they could stop mid-procedure. She tucked the form and pen away in the file.
As she walked out she glanced over her shoulder and winked.
“Be back soon.”
It was good to have human contact again, but it was exhausting. I quickly spiralled down and began counting the stitching on the chair. Then I noticed the picture wasn’t hanging straight.
I stretched forward without looking at the caption and nudged it up on the left a few millimetres. That was better. As I leant back in the chair I saw that the boxes on the shelf weren’t stacked properly–
Footsteps sounded along the corridor.
Veronica entered first. Something followed her in.
“What the hell is that?”
I pushed back into the chair, hands white-knuckled on the armrests, legs kicking and sliding involuntarily.
The thing was clearly female, with a perfect bio-alloy face and bright amber eyes. She had at least eight double jointed limbs and an array of sharp probes connected to a clear canister on her back. The canister contained some form of animated liquid like fizzing black mercury. A long silver cable hung from the base of her spine. She reached down in one fluid motion and plugged the cable into a socket behind the shelf.
“It’s all right,” Veronica said with a calming touch on my knee. “This is our auto nurse, Sabine. She will be assisting me today.”
Sabine nodded, her metal lips forming a perfect smile. One of the probes rose above her head like a stinger, attuning itself to my movements, waiting, anticipating.
“You have got to be kidding.”
“Oh, now come on, Steve.” An eyebrow arched, those chocolate eyes turned flinty. “You must have read the brochures, seen our in-patient video.”
I nodded in mute response.
“Look, I admit we don’t show all our equipment as it can be a little daunting.”
Veronica straightened her back. “Do you want the best treatment?”
“Of course,” I said, my eyes riveted to the silent, swaying scorpion-woman.
“This is not like the black clinics. Brain emulation can’t be done by some sort of tomography, it’s just too complicated. It requires an invasive procedure. We need to get right in there to model the quantum level processes in your brain and make sure we pick up your physical and conscious mind. It’s pointless otherwise. You don’t want to wake up as a virtual zombie, do you?”
“No.” I was aware of the horrifying implications of choosing the wrong clinic.
Sabine’s sharp edges twinkled.
I swallowed. “What about anaesthetic?”
Veronica sat on the edge of the chair and crossed her incredible legs. She took my hand. Her palms were smooth and warm.
“We need all your synapses firing so the nanotech can make a true copy. The information gets transferred into the computer out the back.” She looked along the length of the silver cable. “You’ll be up and loaded in no time.”
“I’m going to die, aren’t I?” I had finally got to the core of it. I couldn’t stop my eyes filling.
She held my hand tighter. “We can’t inject the nanotech in your head and have you survive the process. And no, Steve, you’re not following in your father’s footsteps.”
“He was a Gen-Twenty.”
She nodded. “It was a terrible time.”
I forced myself to look at the picture again.
“I’ve tried to understand his suicide all my life. Why he was so consumed by his dream. Why he didn’t talk to anyone. I used to blame myself at times. I’ve tried to be less like him, to be less isolated. But it seems the more I try, the lonelier I become and the more blasé I get about my life. What I’m doing now feels so much like a self-destruct mechanism kicking in, a genetic legacy that can’t be stopped no matter what.”
“We’re such social creatures,” she said. “What really happens to us when we’re cut off from the love and warmth of family and friends? And for your dad’s generation, what happens when the dream of the uploaded global mind, the dream of immortality they had been waiting for all their lives, is wrenched from their grasp?”
Autumn leaves falling. “So many,” I whispered. “Why?”
“No one is quite sure why the mass suicide occurred. When technology development slowed it crushed the hopes of millions. Maybe they needed a release after so many years of preparing for death anyway. But then the black clinics just added to the slaughter with their unstable architectures. Even Moore said if his Law was pushed to the limit it would end in disaster.”
Yes, probably. I said, “Exponential escalation of technology for the sake of it just creates chaos.
“But things are different now,” Veronica said buoyantly. “We’re slowly taking back control of the technology, outlawing the legacies and thinking for once about where it’s all heading. This is the right clinic, Steve. For the nurses here, the picture represents hope, not despair.”
“The singularity,” I said.
She laughed, a rich sound that reminded me of summer. “Of course.”
The spiral pattern of leaves was hypnotic, falling and spinning with some secret harmony. “The leaves drop,” I said, “not because they’re dead, but because they’re free. Their original purpose is complete, and now they are unbounded.”
A nod, a smile. “This is not suicide, it is rebirth,” Veronica said. “You said it yourself. You’re just painfully shy and you want something else. Where’s the harm in that? And besides which, there’s less risk than you think. Going through the technology singularity isn’t a one way street. The effigy option gives you the choice to come and go as you please. Trust me, I’m there.”
She patted my hand.
“Now, are you ready?”
“Ok,” I said, mustering strength back into my voice. My mind was still absorbing, recalibrating. I had done enough of talking to ghosts over the years. I shut the door to the void. “Let’s do this.”
Sabine didn’t hesitate. She sat on top of me, her back arched, as two sets of arms pinned my legs and wrists. Her face hovered close. I could see flecks in her eyes, like smoky quartz. Her aroma was like musk and linen. Her weight grew heavier as two more arms swung around to hold my shoulders steady. I hardened at the warmth of her in my lap and shuffled in embarrassment.
Veronica moved in closer and whispered. “That’s good. You’ll need a healthy sex drive where you’re going.”
The probe with the slender, silver spike whisked around Sabine and swung under my nose. Images of dead pharaohs having their brains sucked out made me squirm in the chair.
Veronica leant closer, pressing her upper body against my arm so that she could hold my head firm. She was warmer than Sabine. I saw the pale blue logo on the plunging curve of her blouse for the first time – The Afterlife Clinic – with the A inverted so it looked like a V. The tops of her breasts pushed up and a hint of white lace lingerie appeared-
The probe slammed up my nose in one fluid motion. I screamed once before the conflagration, the liquid nanotech pumping up from the canister, scanning and burning across my skull like a cleansing fire.
My head lolled to one side. The last things I saw in this life were Veronica’s white shoes and her long, long legs.
They really were legs to die for.
Autumn Leaves Falling received an Honourable Mention in the Oct-Dec 2009 quarter of the Writers of the Future contest.