Whenever Renny stands upright his prosthetic leg presses in under his pelvis, painfully.
By the time Dr. Marek returns, blisters have started up on the nubbly flesh once comprising Renny's upper thigh. He thinks to mention this, but there is something in the doctor's aura - specifically, the sinews shifting tightly in her neck - which says I do not take criticism gracefully.
"Did you wait long?" Her voice is too loud, her smile too broad.
Renny grins without saying anything. If this is enough to communicate a yes, Dr. Marek does not respond. She opens a manila folder previously tucked under her arm.
"Your wife is in perfect condition," she says. "Memory Resonance technology is old - it was developed before I was even born - but it's held true. Of course, Mr. Padilla, you don't need me to tell you that older things are often more reliable."
When Renny cringes, the lines in his face deepen. Dr. Marek hesitates.
"We have Caitlin's memories on file. A computer file." She does not know Renny spent his forties as a software engineer. "A healthy 905 Terabytes, thanks to compression. The reclamation process should take only a few hours, and I assure you that your wife's memories will be fully applicable."
Renny smiles again, this time without bitterness. "That's good," he says. "It's funny - ninety-four years of memories on a computer file. Technology's come a long way since I made my living in the field."
"Absolutely," Dr. Marek says. "Now, her appearance -"
Renny waves a hand. "Keep her the same. As she was at ninety-four."
"Good. I probably shouldn't say this because of confidentiality rules, but most male widowers want, I'm going to say on average, twenty years taken off. If their wife was a hundred, they want her eighty. It's nice to see someone who loved - loves - his wife for what she is, in this moment."
Renny chastises himself inwardly - he should say make her the same. But it's no matter.
Dr. Marek starts to extend her hand for a shake, but thinks better of it. "We have everything we need, Mr. Padilla," she says. "Caitlin will be ready to return home on Friday."
Skin-to-skin contact between strangers has been outlawed in the Third Country since the Prometheus virus reduced the world's population by half thirty years ago. Still, the word "Prometheus" is not used in the media.
The Prometheus virus targets human cell membrane, originating at point of contact with an infected individual. The semi-solid mass which eventually characterizes the bodies of victims was coined "Promethean" in an expose by a reporter who, himself, succumbed to the illness 72 hours later. Because nerve tissue is dismantled first, it is a painless death.
Four months after the initial case, instances of the virus dropped off abruptly. While it is assumed that this is thanks to simple mutation, to this day bare-skin touching is disallowed as a precautionary measure.
Renny remembers, pointedly, that the last time Caitlin touched him was four days before she died. She squeezed his thigh and remarked that her fingers felt numb.
Renny neglected to mention to Dr. Marek that, as a software engineer, he had worked on the beginnings of the Memory Resonance Project himself, funded generously with military money. Back then, memory upload was done the hard way - physically, with hardware. Today, Renny remembers the phrase "with hardware" wryly, consigng the associated images to a place deep in the back of his mind. "With hardware" was PC denotation for "open skull."
The human brain was renowned until recently for its ability to store nearly limitless amounts of information. The biologists working with Renny's software team found that a lifetime of memories, encoded in binary, comprise only ten- to fifteen-thousand terabytes, most of which is taken up rebuilding associative cues. The ultimate goal of the Memory Resonance Project was not only to assess the viability of the technology, but, if possible, to demonstrate its applicability in public circles. Bolstered by the discovery that human memory could be quantified, the science team worked to make the upload process less invasive.
Mercifully, this happened quickly. However, the Third Station government would remain forever silent on the fate of several dozen men who, charged with various capital crimes, died in Renny's labs.
When Renny and Caitlin underwent the upload process themselves some years later, the technicians needed only to attach them to a retinal scanner. However, even for a procedure this simple, complete sterilization was required. The technicians wore heavy suits without seams and administered with hands gloved with so many layers as to be stiff. By now the virus had already done enough killing over the mountains to create a panic. An auditor watched via feeds built into the ceiling.
Renny leaves the Reclamation Center that Friday feeling new. The movement of people in the lobby seems strange now. He understands that nobody has touched for thirty years, but the wide paths strangers cut around one another feels alien, moreso when Dr. Marek shakes his hand at the exit.
"I stopped driving some time ago," Renny says. "Nobody drives anymore - they use transport."
Public transportation in the Third Country is superior to that of other nations. Renny and Caitlin ride an aircutter with cushioned seats which soften when reclined. The barren earth of the West Sector is a blur in the windows: it's four-hundred latitudes between the Reclamation Center and Renny's home, but they will traverse it in twenty minutes.
"What about the five-seven?" Caitlin does not miss a beat. The five-seven was the last vehicle ever to be mass-produced with a gasoline engine. Even after petroleum was regulated only for emergency military use, Renny exploited ties with friends within the industry to acquire it.
"It's in the downstairs bay. Gets a little dusty, but I can't move like I used to to keep it clean."
Caitlin naturally does not understand the insinuation. Renny places her hand on his prosthesis.
"Leg's not right," she says. It's a good prosthesis, but a wife could tell the difference.
"What the hell happened to your leg?"
"It's gone," Renny says. "Virus. Remember?"
Caitlin stares at his leg for a long time, too long.
"How does it feel?"
Renny is unsure what she means.
"It's got fake nerves in it. It feels mostly like my old leg, except it rubs a little bit when I stand too long."
Caitlin looks down at her own thighs, which are significantly larger than Renny's. Renny is unable to read her eyes - the android they produced was good, but not perfect.
"I suppose there's a lot to figure out," she says.
Alien, too, is the weight of another body in Renny's bed. Though this is the house he knows, the passage of years catches him all at once, as in a dangling rope whose slack terminates in a snap. As sleep comes he tries to ignore the desperation of wondering when in this ordeal he can hold his wife.
The body behind him shifts. He feels the strange hand resting on his stomach only because of its unsureness: it shakes for awhile, and stops, its owner having drifted into sleep. After awhile Renny sleeps too, though he does not dream.
When Renny wakes up late in the morning Caitlin is not there.
He finds her in the bay downstairs, with the five-seven. He marvels that, even though he received a pressurized ionic monstrosity used for cleaning cars as a gift some time ago, she is using a rag and a bucket of water mixed with what smells like wax to wash his vehicle.
Caitlin looks at him. She glances at his leg. She squeezes suds onto the windshield.
"I've had this car since before we got married," he says. "You never touched it once. And, God forbid, you're washing it the right way. What gives?"
Caitlin pauses for a moment, and resumes washing. Renny observes that many of the parts they used in creating her were likely synthetic: she moves too quickly. She hoists the bucket - approximately five gallons - one-handed. He also observes that this is probably not a good time for teasing.
"Not sure what you're talking about," she replies flatly. "Grab me one of the shop towels, will you?"
"They're saying the virus is coming back," he says, feeling uncomfortable in a way unfamiliar to him since his days at university. "There are cases. In the northern line. They're quarantining people."
"I know it's a bad time, you just coming home and all. But we should probably talk about what you'll do if I, you know. If I get it again."
Caitlin sits on the hood of his five-seven. Renny knows that the blankness in her eyes is not attributable to faulty hardware. "Well, I guess I'll go on living as I've been doing until I get it myself," she says. "What's there to talk about?"
At the facility, Dr. Marek explained that the Caitlin would need time to adjust to her new, mechanized body. She also cautioned that sleep would be a problematic issue, at least for the first few weeks. This explains why Caitlin is washing cars at four in the morning. Renny deflects her with a smile. "It's one of things we'll be talking about, I suppose."
"You been keeping her oiled?" She asks seemingly without hearing him. "You'll have a hell of a time getting oil for this since petroleum's been discontinued."
"No; she hasn't been driven in fifteen years, since Robbie died. With him gone I didn't know anyone else to get oil or gas. So I just leave the car here."
"You took the old oil out, right? You keep it clean in here, but over time the dirt will get in and -"
"Of course, Cait, what do you take me for? Do you want to take care of the car from now on?"
Caitlin snorts, and looks at Renny's prosthesis. "Sure," she says, "if that's alright with you."
Renny laughs, loudly. "You've got a mouth on you now, lady."
As Renny leaves to return to bed, Caitlin shouts back:
"Don't call me lady!"
Renny believed for a long time that only the young experienced new love.
Over the next two days, Caitlin spends much of her time with the five-seven. The hood is open and she is obviously dismantling things at the vehicle's peril, but the familiarity of having her in the house is, to Renny, a fair tradeoff.
When she is not eviscerating the car, she plays chess with Renny. He marvels, again - Caitlin hated chess. At first she plays on a novice's legs, but suddenly she cuts him off at every pass. After a day, Renny loses every game. He does not mind at first.
"Do you still feel the way I do?" He would ask over dinner.
"Of course," she would reply, eyes blank.
When Renny wakes up before dawn, Caitlin is not there.
He searches the house, finding her things in the drawers exactly as she left them, wanting to believe that they still hold her scent. They do not. When he comes home the pictures of him and Caitlin are turned to face the wall; he fixes them, quickly.
Before dawn he goes silently to the downstairs bay to look over the five-seven. He cannot see it until he is close, but the windshield is clouded with a hair-fine layer of dust. He has been meaning to take better care of this car but time has been just so hard lately, like a dream, and anyway -
It's no matter.
The bay door opens a short time later, and Renny recognizes a thankfully familiar shape moving closer. He squeezes suds onto the car's windshield.
"Renny Padilla? This is Dr. Marek. Hi."
"Hi. Is everything okay?"
Marek is small and pale on the communicator's feed. Even using the low-resolution knockoff he purchased nearly a decade ago, Renny can see panic in her face.
"Are you alright?" Marek asks. "Where's Caitlin?"
"She's in the car bay, as usual." Renny is smiling. "You know, it's like she knows she's gotten a second chance at things. These last three days have been the best part of our marriage. Really, Dr. Marek, I underestimated -"
"Mr. Padilla," Marek cuts him off. "I need you to bring Caitlin to the facility."
"Let me explain some things first. Okay? By government regulation, a human memory can be transfused into a machine only once. The transfer process causes corruption, so after the first procedure the memory is effectively unusable."
Renny pauses. "That's fine. That's only an issue if I'm unhappy with what I got, right? Really -"
"The issue is that Caitlin's memory is uncorrupted."
Renny is silent.
"And yours is."
The doctor - apparently her name is Marek - is apologetic at first, but gradually treats Renny without warmth, as one would regard a misbehaving computer.
Without a fight, Renny enters what he believes to be a branch in the facility concerned with assembly and software. By now he has gotten used to inhabiting this strange replica of Caitlin's body: she is less flexible but softer, and with both legs she is able to stand upright for longer intervals. But it's no matter. He has the distinct impression that this dream is about to end.
The man with the prosthesis - who Renny understands to be some projection of himself in the future - watches the proceedings from a chair a few yards away. Eventually he gets up to leave. Dr. Marek moves to him, offering various profuse apologies, and returns.
Dr. Marek guides Renny into a small room with expensive-looking electrical equipment, seemingly unafraid to hold his hand.
She watches blankly as a crew of technicians attach Renny to a retinal scanner.
When the faulty machine's memory is purged, Dr. Marek thinks to tell Renny Padilla that its final thoughts were of Caitlin. She thinks better of it, assuming that Renny probably already knows this.
A man died this morning of the Prometheus Virus, four latitudes from the facility. Workers in quarantine who did not touch him are developing symptoms. Their lungs are failing. It's airborne: this time, it will not be a painless death.
Dr. Marek wears a facemask when she escorts Renny from the facility. "I'm sorry. The timing - everything is just awful. We can give you another Caitlin. Free of charge. I don't know what's going to happen now with the virus, but we can have her ready in two days, if I put a rush on the work order."
Normally Renny would resent any implication of his own mortality, but Dr. Marek begins to cough.