“The mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death.” Oscar Wilde
How long has it been since I held you in my arms? I’ve lost count of the hours, the days, the years. Time is an illusion. Love remains a constant.
The room is familiar to me. There are things that I never forget, things I can’t let go of, images that stay vivid in my mind no matter how much time passes. The feel of you dying in my arms — the weight. The terror. The hollow vision of a future without you. And this room, lines of the dead, where I opened my eyes and saw you, still and dead, for good and all. Dead. For real. My lover. That pale face is burned in my memory.
Gwen is there already. She lifts the sheet from my other self, smiling in sympathy at my temporary peace. Then she turns to you. Such loss in her face.
In my pocket is my future. “What’s life?” the Doctor said once. “Nature’s way of keeping meat fresh, nothing to a nanogene.” It only works with the freshly dead, though. Where the cells are still dividing and growing. But Nanogenes are tricky things. Don’t I know it. In this syringe is a dose for only one. Temporary activity — they will deactivate after an initial repair. One life is trembling in my palm. Your life. Your future. I debated getting it for you, actually, but Alonso — dear Alonso — told me I had to. He never got over how much I missed you. I think he’s grieved for you as much as I have, and he’s never even met you. But you begged me to remember you, and he begged me to tell him. Between the two of you, I hadn’t a hope in hell of leaving you behind me. Once he knew the vortex manipulator was fixed he had this all planned out.
Such a romantic, my Alonso.
I turn. I don’t know who it is who stands behind me. He has an unmarked uniform and a look of despair on his face. I don’t know if I ever knew him — there are so many faces I forget. But he surely knows me. And he knew my place in this debacle.
“This is all your fault!” he growls. “I saw the vid. It was you who did this!”
“I know,” I say. “And I’m sorry.”
“Sorry won’t bring her back!” The tears are streaming down his face.
I know who he is, now. Not personally, but it’s obvious. He’s one of the officials who had family or friends in Thames House. His wife or girlfriend or daughter or friend is out there in that grid of the dead, slowly growing cold.
With an icy desperation, he pulls something out of his pocket. It’s a gun. It would have to be.
“That won’t bring her back, either,” I say, but I say it quietly. I could stop him, but I won’t. I know how he looks. The same expression is on Gwen’s face, as she sits there beside you. It’s on my own young face, as I hold her tightly, grieving for my lover. If he pays any attention, he might see the other me out there. Might hurt Gwen trying to get to me. I’ll let him have me instead. I grip the nanogenes tightly in my hand.
He’s trembling, torn by terror and indecision. “Do what you need to do,” I say.
He holds the gun to my chin. The bullet would go straight up into my brain. Fairly straightforward. Brain injuries heal the fastest — probably that’s where the power settles first. I’d be awake again within five minutes.
But he doesn’t pull the trigger. He cries instead, trembling with the fear and the horror and the pain. He doesn’t like what he’s turning into. Quietly, I reach for him, pulling him into my arms. It doesn’t reach the pain in his heart, I know, still too sharp to even feel like pain. The wound is still fresh. He’s still bleeding. But it drags him back to his body, and holds him together. “I know,” I whisper.
“What can you know?” he says.
“I lost someone too,” I say. “And then I lost myself.” I take the gun from his slack hand. “You don’t have to do it.”
“I hate you.”
“You’re entitled,” I say.
He turns to leave, abandoning the gun. I unload it and set it on the floor, pocketing the clip. Gwen and my former self are leaving, now. Now’s my chance, before the others come. Before the room fills with the weeping of families claiming their loved ones. I’ll bring you back, and then I’ll bring you with me. Everything will finally make sense. I step into the grid. Your freshly dead face is still uncovered.
Tears stab my eyes as I stare at you. No, I haven’t forgotten. I promised you I wouldn’t forget. I pick my way through the corpses to kneel beside you, holding the nanogenes tightly in my hand. And I hear a sound.
It’s him. He’s kneeling a little ways down the row, beside a young woman. She’s barely into her twenties. I’m about to save you, bring you back to life, back into my arms. I can already hear your voice. Jack, you say. Jack. You didn’t forget.
“We’ve only been married a month,” he says to me, accusing me. “The baby was a surprise, so we had to speed it up.”
I look at him. “Five months,” he says to me, the words as harsh as the bullet would have been. I look at the body he is mourning. Her stomach was only barely beginning to show.
I want you. I want you back. I want to hold you. I miss you — still I miss you.
Out of nowhere you come. Like an echo. Like a dream. Deep inside, your voice, still recalled after all this time. Don’t you dare, you tell me. Look at him. Think of the child.
I try to blink you away, return you from my memories to the corpse before me. You’ll be real, then. Alive and real and mine. And then... then what? If I bring you back now, what will you say? What will you feel? I cannot save everyone — the structure of the universe won’t hold still for that. But you won’t accept that. What’s so special about you? Apart from everything, of course. Apart from the truth that you have been the center of my universe.
But what does what I want have to do with anything?
You won’t be the survivor. You’ll be the returned. Snatched from death by a power beyond your control.
You’ll be like me.
And for what?
I suddenly realize you won’t thank me for it. Not after you think about it. Not with a baby dead before it could live, not four yards from you. It was for the children that you gave your life.
I touch your face. Your skin is already cold. But many of your cells are still alive — death has not gripped you entire. If I implant the nanogenes now, warmth will flood through you. Your heart will beat again. You will open your eyes and your hands will reach for me.
I could bring you back to me. And then what? Bring you back again in fifty years? Dart around the universe to a thousand different technologies trying to keep you alive? Have your body rebuilt, reorganized, stop your time clock, shift your consciousness from one skin tank to another? Try to make you immortal? Try to turn you into me?
And what of Alonso? Do the same to him when it’s finally over? Grip onto my loves like a child with a ragdoll?
Life shouldn’t be frozen, you say. Life... continues. Let me go.
I stare down at your face. Even in death, you are still so beautiful.
I look back up across the grid. Five months, you say. Think of the child.
Think of the child.
I feel as though a piece of shrapnel has just been removed from my skin, something that has been keeping the wound from closing all these years. I close my eyes. All right. You always knew better than me.
Instead of the nanogenes I reach for the tiny medkit in my pocket. Instead of dragging you back into life, I pull a lock of hair from your head, carefully sealing it into a glass vial. I touch your face one more time. Cold. Then I leave you behind.
“She’s alive,” I say to him.
He glares at me, but there’s no fight in him. “Don’t be cruel,” he says, his voice dead.
He can’t see that I’ve just injected her arm. “Look,” I say. “It was a virus. Some people are always more resistant.”
“Fuck you,” he breathes.
I nod. “Just cherish every minute,” I say quietly. Then I turn and walk away. I don’t hear his reaction when she opens her eyes, when the life — the two lives — inside her body return. I don’t need to see it. And I surely don’t want thanks — she wouldn’t have been dead in the first place if not for me.
Alonso is waiting down in the foyer. He was nervous, pacing. He’s been looking forward to meeting you — Sto has a multi-plex marriage tradition, so the concept was natural to him — but he wasn’t sure how you’d take it.
“Did you do it?” Alonso asks when he sees me. “Where is he?”
“He’s dead,” I tell him.
“But I thought you...?”
“Things end,” I say. “Life goes on.”
Alonso stares at me. “You still love him.”
“And I’ll always love him,” I say. I reach out to touch his withered face. Alonso isn’t young anymore. “I’ll always love you, too.”
Alonso is stunned. “But he died too young...”
“He did,” I say. “It happens.” I walk out of the building, away from crowds. I can’t turn on the vortex manipulator in the center of London. Why confuse people?
Alonso walks on with me in silence for a while. “What happened?” he asks.
“Why bring him back?” I say. “Where’s the sense in that? He’d die again eventually.”
“So will I,” Alonso says. “I was hoping he’d take care of you — be with you when I....”
I look at him. “You can do it together,” I tell him. “The two of you.”
He blinks. “What?” The meaning of my words only make sense after a moment. “I thought you didn’t believe in life after death?” Alonso says.
I shake my head. “I’ve never seen death until today,” I say. “In all my years, I thought I had. I thought I knew it. I thought, of all the people in the universe, I knew.”
“Jack.” He stops me, turns me, makes me face him. “What happened?”
“I can’t explain it,” I say.
Alonso won’t understand. Not until he’s like you. In the pattern of the universe, in a voice inside me, in the feel of you, guiding me along. “I never realized before,” I say. “He isn’t dead.”
Alonso takes my hand. “How do you mean?”
There’s no way to explain. Instead, I pull a strand of hair from Alonso’s head. “Tell me,” I say, holding it to the light. “Did I ever tell you about the sixty-third century?”
“Well, they have this magnificent genetics program,” I say. “Until the Ioplexian Dark Ages, when it all gets lost again. But until then, it’s the best in all recorded future history for embryonic introgenesis. At least eighteen different methods for full term fetal development, too.”
I’m just surprising Alonso all over the place today. His eyes grow wide with hesitant joy. “I thought you said no children,” he said. “That you didn’t want them.”
“I didn’t. Besides, I have a feeling my genetic structure will be all over the universe way too many times. But if you’re still willing to be a father at your age...?”
Alonso looks as though I’ve just handed him the moon. “You know I’ve always wanted...”
I smile at him. My Alonso, such a romantic. “I know. Do you mind if it’s yours and Ianto’s instead of mine? You know I’ll love him — or her — even more than my own.”
Alonso only grabs me, holding me tightly. “What did I do to deserve you?” he whispers.
“Save a few planets,” I say. I pull away and look down at him. “I think after all this time, it’s time I grow up. If I bring him back, I’m just stopping life, keeping it stagnant. Like me. But if I let it continue...” I shake my head. “I should have listened to you years ago. He would have wanted that, too.”
Alonso stares at me. “I never met him,” he tells me. “And I’m going to miss him.”
I smile at him, at you. I know he won’t understand. You’ve always been here. In the people who love me, in the best of you I carry inside me. You’re in me. You’re in everything. And you’ll go on. After all this time, all this regret, I feel like I’ve just learned to see after being blind all my life. Now, now, I can finally feel your arms around me. Echoing Alonso’s. Holding me so tight. I still miss you, but now I know.
You won’t ever let me go.