Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 7
Silent As Dust
by James Maxey
Lost Soul
by Marie Brennan
The Price of Love
by Alan Schoolcraft
The Braiding
by Pat Esden
After This Life
by Janna Silverstein
The Smell of the Earth
by Joan L. Savage
From the Ender Saga
Ender's Homecoming
by Orson Scott Card
Tales for the Young and Unafraid
The Talk
by David Lubar
Split Decision
by David Lubar
A Plague of Butterflies
by Orson Scott Card
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews

After This Life
    by Janna Silverstein
After This Life
Artwork by Tomislav Tikulin

The woman next to Warden Chapelle was the first female Jake Drogan had seen in person in years. She sat on one side of a circle of folding chairs set up in the blue room. That was where they held group therapy sessions for other inmates: touchy-feely stuff, pastel colors, a little too much lemon-scented air freshener and waxy floor cleaner. The wire-embedded windows looked out onto chain link fences and razor wire, putting a lie to the illusion of normalcy. The four guards didn't help, either.

He was surprised the conference wasn't being held in a non-contact room, but he wasn't going to ask about it. It was time out of his cell, cushy and colorful; that was what mattered. But he was still cold from the strip search.

This woman -- as Drogan took a chair in the circle, he couldn't stop looking at her. His mouth was dry and he licked his lips, rubbing them with one hand at the same time to hide it.

She seemed to be in her thirties. Nice figure, he guessed, but he couldn't be completely sure because of the dark suit jacket she wore. The jacket hid her hips, too. Slim legs in tailored pants. Smart not to show her legs here, but damn! Straight hair cut short and falling around her cheeks like parentheses. Dark-rimmed glasses perched on her forehead. Egghead chic.

A woman. A pretty one.

Drogan squeezed the half-dollar in his left hand, feeling the edges cutting into the calluses in his palm. Weird to feel again, to feel anything again, here.

He took a seat along with the three other prisoners escorted to the room -- Mitchell, Villanova, Pasco, he knew all these guys -- leaned his elbows on his knees, looked at the woman and waited.

"All right now," Chapelle drawled. "This is Dr. Louisa Ferrara. She's got a proposition for you boys, approved by the governor. You be good now. You listen to what she's got to say."

"Gentlemen," she said.

Villanova -- 24, scarred across one brown cheek, stick thin, tattooed and unrepentant -- snickered. "Who she think she talkin' to?"

"Hey!" Chapelle snapped. The woman started. Villanova shut up. "Go on, Dr. Ferrara."

"I'm from TransLumina Transports, with the R&D group," she went on. "We're developing something new, and we need people to work with us."

Drogan knew the name TransLumina. Twelve years ago, they were the first company to market commercial teleportation services. They'd revolutionized business, put a bunch of shipping companies into the crapper and created a new economy. At least, that's what Drogan had gotten from the newspapers. To a guy like him, a gardener -- well, a death row convict -- it was pretty remote.

Ferrara opened a leather briefcase and pulled out a handful of booklets, handed them to Mitchell on her left. "Please pass these around," she asked.

Drogan put away his half dollar, took the batch, kept one and passed the rest to Villanova. Beneath a cover page sporting the slick TransLumina logo and the word "Confidential" were thirty pages of information and technical-looking diagrams. Drogan flipped through it, suppressed a smile. Who'd they put these things together for? He had an associate's degree, but most of the guys in here hadn't finished high school.

"Until now," Ferrara said, "TransLumina transport technology has been used only to ship construction materials, manufactured goods and so forth. We've spent the last five years working on something new. Would you please open your booklets to page five?"

Drogan flipped over the table of contents and confidentiality statements. There the heading said, "Light transmission of living subjects."

"Woo-hoo," Villanova said. "Beam me up, Scotty." A chuckle rippled around the circle. But Drogan didn't laugh.

A couple of days ago, Harville, Drogan's lawyer, had come to visit. He'd told Drogan that because he'd earned credits for good behavior, he'd been offered an opportunity that could change his sentence. Harville had him sign a form that said he wouldn't talk about anything he heard in this meeting -- easy enough. He'd learned how to keep his mouth shut after ten years in the pen. Besides, it was another chance to get out of his windowless, eight-by-ten foot cell. Worth a little ink and silence.

Now he understood why.

"For the last five years," Ferrara said, "we've been working on teleportation technology suited to living beings. Until now, this has been impossible. But we've recently teleported mice, rats, pigs and, a year ago, a chimpanzee."

"You're looking for human volunteers, aren't you?" Drogan asked.

"Yes, sir. You are . . .?" Ferrara said.

"Jacob Drogan."

"Yes, Mr. Drogan, we are."

"Why us?" he asked.

"That's none of your business, Drogan," Chapelle said. "You just . . ."

"No, Mr. Chapelle, he has a right to know. Mr. Drogan, what do you know of teleportation technology? Anything at all?"

"I know it gets stuff from one place to the other. I don't know how."

"I'll . . . uh . . . I'll try to keep this as simple as possible. When a person or a thing is teleported, a machine scans the item -- anything, a bar of soap, a crate of car parts, what have you. It records the item down to its smallest particles. The system then transmits that information to the target system -- the place we want to send it -- and creates a replica of it there on the other end bit by bit."

"Does it always get there? To the other side? I've heard that shipments get lost sometimes," big blond Mitchell said.

Drogan wondered if Ferrara knew Mitchell had raped and murdered a 10-year-old girl. If they were handpicked for good behavior, though, she probably knew everything about them: shoe size, inseam, sperm count.

Ferrara shifted in her seat. Her mouth twitched. "We have a ninety-eight percent success rate with transmission," she said. "Every now and then something gets lost in transit, but it doesn't happen often."

"I heard about something like that a couple of years ago," Mitchell said. "Was it, what, Cheviot Automotive, lost something like 50 or 60 million bucks in one shipment?"

"That was an extraordinary case," Ferrara said.

She clutched the briefcase on her lap; her knuckles blanched. She pressed her lips tightly together. We're pushing a button, Drogan realized.

"Helluva screw up," Villanova said. "So how'd you do with the rats?"

Ferrara reached up and resettled her glasses on her head. "So far, with living subjects, we've had slightly less success."

"How much less?" Mitchell asked.

"Our success rate, right now, is . . . about sixty percent."

Pasco barked out a laugh.

"Isn't that a little low?" Mitchell said.

"The numbers are skewed by our early results. The last year or so, our success rate has been much higher."

"This is bullshit," Pasco said. That was Pasco all over: all or nothing. Then he seemed to remember himself and spoke respectfully. "I'm ready to go Warden Chapelle, sir." He stood slowly and deliberately, dropped the booklet on his seat, and waited for a guard to escort him out. He and the guard left.

Ferrara was hiding something; they all knew it.

"What, exactly, happens when a transport fails?" Drogan asked.

Ferrara adjusted her glasses again. She put her briefcase on the floor beside her chair and looked him straight in the eye. "In the process of reading the item to be transported, the item is destroyed. Failure usually occurs at the receiving end."

Drogan's stomach went sour. He swallowed. "The item? You mean us, don't you? So, if you're alive when it starts, you die as you're being read and if transmission fails, you're gone for good?"

"That's correct, Mr. Drogan, yes." So businesslike.

"That's why you came to us, isn't it? Because we're going to die anyway."

"Yes, Mr. Drogan."

"You don't mince words."

"If you're going to participate, then you deserve the whole truth."

"What's in it for us?" Villanova asked.

"Well, the process destroys the item it scans. For a human, this means death. The state has agreed that by undergoing the process your sentence will be fulfilled, so if you're successfully transmitted, you'll be given a year's retraining with the potential for hiring by TransLumina or one of its affiliates, and released into society. It's a fresh start."

One of the other men -- Drogan wasn't sure which -- said, "Whoa." Drogan, however, was looking at the floor -- chipped, tan aggregate tiles that looked a hundred years old. One way or another, it meant death for certain -- no cancellation of his death penalty after all, but then Harville had said it would change his penalty, not commute it. Lawyer talk. If it worked, like she said: new start.

The warden pursed his thin lips. His pale eyes narrowed as he watched Ferrara. This must really chap his ass. There's got to be something in this for the state, otherwise the governor would never have signed off on it.

"I'm sure this is a lot to consider," Ferrara said. "Look over the booklets. Talk to your attorneys. I'll be back here day after tomorrow to answer any questions you may have. Thank you for your time."

Drogan spent the afternoon sitting on his thin mattress leaning against the cold concrete wall reading the TransLumina booklet. A lot of it was technical, describing things covered in school courses he never took or never passed: terms like "entanglement" and "spooky action" that made no sense to him. What he understood was that the process would be enormously expensive to test, and that TransLumina hoped it would revolutionize travel the way it had revolutionized shipping.

The last few pages in the booklet talked about what TransLumina called "Volunteer Compensation." Housing, training. Neither Ferrara nor Chapelle had mentioned that the volunteer wouldn't be a free man post-transport, at least not immediately. He'd be on a sort of extended parole during his training and under medical and psychiatric supervision until TransLumina was sure that the process left no residual effects. But he'd get a clean slate and a new life. Sort of like a witness protection program.

But would it be him? Ferrara said that the machine destroys the original and creates a replica. It was death, wasn't it? Whoever came out at the other end would be someone so much like him that no one could tell the difference. Or could they? Would he -- the replica -- know the difference? He, the original, would be . . . where? Dead. Gone.

Drogan put aside the booklet, pulled the half dollar out of his pocket, lay down and rolled the coin back and forth over his knuckles while he thought.

A new life. Part of him wondered if that was what he wanted if it meant living with the memories he had. A year ago he'd relinquished his fight to have his execution commuted because the life he'd lived on death row was killing him anyway: a windowless cell no larger than a walk-in closet, no visitors but his lawyer, little time in the rec yard on the rare occasion he chose to go, and defeat after defeat in appeals he didn't want anyway. He often had days when even waking up in the morning was a rude, unwelcome surprise.

He could remember a time, years ago, when waking up each morning was a gift, another day to get out into the sun and work the earth. Make love to his wife. Play with his boy.

But that was before Lainie had changed things.

Sweet Elaine. Red hair, blue eyes. Curvy hips. A curl at the corner of her lips when she smiled. Slim fingers, tiny feet. They'd married. She'd given him Sean.

When she started to badger him about money, he started calling her Lainie, which he knew she hated. He worked longer hours; at one point he'd taken an extra job to be sure everything was covered. She wanted them covered and then some. It was never enough for her.

And in the end, when Drogan caught her with Tyler, the guy from Morrison's Video downtown with the grin, the sports car and the too-perfect hair, he knew it had all been for nothing. She made it simple for him to keep track of their meetings. It was as if she'd wanted him to know where they would be, what they were doing. She'd blown up their lives.

When Drogan rigged his little firebomb that winter, built of household chemicals and fertilizer from the nursery where he worked, he was sure it would be Lainie and Tyler alone in the house.

But he'd been wrong.

Sean got caught in the blaze, had suffocated before the flames consumed his small body. He'd been found under the remnants of a blanket, charred, prone on the floor, his light brown hair curled into ash.

Drogan still remembered Sean's hair in his hands, thick and straight and sleek. His enormous brown eyes. His upturned nose so like Lainie's. Still remembered the weight of him when they'd curl up on the couch on a Sunday night to read the comics. The clean smell of soap and baby powder on him after a bath.

No more.

There were holes in his memory around the building of the bomb, around the actual explosion as he'd seen it from down the block. He owned what he'd done, pled guilty to it all and had gone to prison for it willingly in the end.

But Sean's death left him hollow. Raw. His chest still tightened as he thought of his little boy in the fire. His throat ached with it. He couldn't breathe. He squeezed his eyes shut.

In the days afterward, he'd yearned for death. He'd all but asked for the death penalty at trial. Once in custody, he was put on a suicide watch. He'd dreamed of pistols. Craved the taste of gunmetal in his mouth.

There were days, every now and then, when he woke and didn't regret the morning light, the taste of a chocolate bar or a juicy autumn apple. But he always thought that someday soon, long before his body gave out, death would come with deliberate speed.

Part of him longed for it. Most of him longed for it.

He rolled the coin back and forth.

Before he went into the blue room, Drogan stripped for inspection. Standard procedure: opening every body part for examination by three guards. He'd long since come to expect the humiliation, though he never got used to it.

He was meticulous in dressing again, buttoning his shirt carefully, rolling his sleeves neatly. He never received visitors. Appearance was important now.

A card table had been set up with chairs on opposite sides.

Dr. Ferrara wore a navy blue blazer and a white silk blouse. A gold chain with a small gold cross around her neck. She greeted him by name and with a little smile.

"What do you think of our proposal?" she asked. He seated himself opposite her. She wore a floral scent: tea rose and . . . something else. Something musky. He wondered what she was thinking, putting on perfume for a visit to death row. Or maybe it was her shampoo.

"Pretty thorough deal," Drogan said.

"We wanted to make sure that you understood the risks and the compensation. Do you have any questions?"

She folded her hands on the table before her, and Drogan thought she looked like a schoolgirl. Being brainy was her strength, he suddenly understood. She probably looked this way before every test she'd ever taken: so ready, so smart, so sure she was going to get an A. He would bet she was like that in all her business meetings. She wanted to prove . . . something. She wore no wedding ring. He wondered if she had a boyfriend. He'd bet good money that she didn't.

"What happens to me when I go through the process?"

A little crease formed between her eyebrows. "We did talk about the process the other day. The booklet thoroughly explained . . ."

"That's not what I mean," Drogan said. "I mean me, who I am. My memories, my personality. What happens to that?"

"If the transmission works properly, it should all remain intact."

"So the version of me that comes out at the other end would know everything I do now."

She hesitated.

He wondered if she knew how transparent she was. A little part of him, the part that remembered what it was like to be eighteen, to meet a beautiful woman full of possibility, found her exposed frankness charming. The bigger part of him, the part that knew death and betrayal and ten years in the company of men who'd done things that, once, he could never have dreamed of, marveled at how earnest, almost naïve, she seemed.

"Are you asking me what happens to your soul?"

That took him aback. He hadn't thought about it in those terms. He wasn't really a religious man. He shook his head, shaking off the question.

"Will I be who I was after this is all over?" he asked. But that wasn't what he meant to ask either.

He watched as she rubbed one polished thumbnail between two other fingers.

"I can't answer that in the way you mean. Some of the replicas have materialized with no discernable difference in their knowledge and abilities. The person who comes out at the other end will be who you are but not you per se. Most of the mice could run the same mazes . . ."

"What about the chimp?" Drogan interrupted, leaning forward in his seat.

"Chimps," she corrected him. "We've tested five." She paused, pulled her dark-rimmed glasses down over her eyes. Drogan wondered if she'd been able to see him clearly before this. "Two came through just fine. One didn't make it. One manifested a palsy we couldn't treat. One was . . . almost like a blank slate. She seemed normal, healthy, but it was as if her memory had been wiped clean." She clutched her hands together, white knuckled once more. "She was like an infant . . . no, less than an infant. Her eyes would track moving objects but she wouldn't react to them otherwise. She didn't seem to recognize the lab techs who'd raised her. It was like she was . . . gone."

"So even if my duplicate comes through this perfectly healthy --"

"There could be some unforeseen damage."

"I -- I mean he -- could come out a vegetable," Drogan said.

"We don't believe that will happen. The last subject came through just fine after some equipment changes, some adjustments . . ."

"But you don't know for sure," Drogan insisted. "Your equipment fixes might build a better monkey, but they might not build a better human."

She didn't answer him. She looked at her hands folded in front of her.

"Why are you telling me all this?" he asked. "You could just as easily lie and say 'Oh yes, we're all ready, easy as pie.'"

She didn't answer.

"You're not comfortable with this," he said. She lifted her eyes to face him, a hard expression he hadn't believed she was capable of giving.

"My comfort has nothing to do with this. It's my job," she snapped.

Drogan leaned back in his chair. This was the first fire he'd seen in her, and he found that he liked this Dr. Louisa Ferrara better than the straight-A student.

"Your comfort has everything to do with it," Drogan said.

"Why are you asking me these questions? All Mitchell wanted to know was how much he'd get paid on the other side."

"That's Mitchell all over," Drogan said. "But you're smart enough to have thought of all this long before you got here. I think you're uncomfortable with this because you understand very well what this process is, what it does to the person you put through the machine. The reason the governor bought into this is that it looks like research but it's really just a clean execution at TransLumina's expense. If it works, everyone comes out looking like a hero. But you're not sure you like the thought of that.

"You know TransLumina won't be able to sell this, right? When people learn what it really does, no one will want to travel this way."

Her face was red. Her whole expression had darkened. Part of him wanted to push her buttons, see what would happen if he pulled the lid off that temper.

"Dr. Ferrara, I'd respect you a lot less if this didn't bother you just a little," he said.

She deflated in that instant. Laid her hands flat on the table. She looked like she wanted to say something, but wouldn't. Or couldn't.

"What?" he asked.

Her forehead crinkled and she said, "What are you doing here?"

"I committed arson and killed my wife and son with malice aforethought," he said without hesitation. She must have known that.

"That's not what I mean. You're not . . . what I expected."

"What, I'm not like Mitchell or Villanova? Dr. Ferrara," he said, "anyone can end up on death row."

She looked at her hands on the table and didn't speak for a moment. Then asked, "Have you spoken with your attorney about this?"

"My attorney's going to tell me not to do this. I don't have to call him to find out. It's not his decision."

"Does that mean you're in or out, Mr. Drogan?" she asked then.

In or out. To be or not to be. The thought almost made him smile.

He thought of Sean, of apples and chocolate, of brown earth moist in his hands. Of fire licking a downy cheek.

"I'm in," he said, pushing that thought away. He looked forward to pushing it away forever.

Three days later, they moved Drogan and Villanova to the TransLumina lab two hours away. The adjacent cells were larger than at the pen, still concrete and metal but white and clean. He had a small, high, square window, too small for his body to fit through, but it was there, showing blue sky and, every now and then, a bird. He discovered, two days in, that at a certain time of the day, he could lie on his cot and feel the sun on his face.

What he hadn't expected was the regimen of examinations that followed his arrival: C-T scans, x-rays, encephalograms, examinations not unlike strip-searches but somehow more invasive, more personal for the remoteness exuded by the doctors who conducted them. Then there were aptitude tests, a psychological profile the likes of which he hadn't been through since just before his trial.

During their recreation hour out in the yard, he and Villanova shot hoops, Villanova smoked, and Drogan looked at the trees beyond the fences: a thick stand of spring maples sprouting electric green leaves. The other man didn't talk much, and Drogan was okay with that. They'd never known each other well, but somehow, with a finite count of days ahead, they suddenly seemed to know each other intimately. No words were necessary.

Dr. Ferrara -- in his thoughts he called her by her first name, Louisa, though she kept things formal between them -- came almost every day. Whenever Villanova was off undergoing work-ups, often for hours at a time, she'd set up a chair on the other side of the bars along with a little folding table, put a digital recorder out and just talk with him.

She wasn't the head of the research team but, rather, a sort of second lieutenant. She reported to a husky man in his mid-fifties named Dr. Baylor, one of the two physicists who ran the program. Drogan got the feeling she was excited about the research but not always pleased with Baylor. Try as he might, Drogan could never draw her out about the discomfort.

She would divert his attempts by asking him questions about his childhood, about growing up the son of an auto mechanic and a baker, both dead now the last ten years, of alcohol and illness. About where he went to school, about what he'd done for a living. Even about Lainie and Sean's deaths. During that conversation, talking about Sean's birth, he looked at her only once.

In that one glance, he saw something in her eyes flicker briefly. It wasn't fear. She had pretty impressive composure around him, all things considered. Was it pity? Sympathy? He wondered. Maybe, he hoped, it was compassion.

Louisa was different with him after that. She wasn't as formal or even uncomfortable with him. Every now and then, she'd bring coffee. As the days went by, he noticed little imperfections: a tiny scar by the corner of her mouth, a few gray hairs tucked behind one ear, a mole on her neck where the collar met her jawline. He learned that she could be funny. She had a beagle at home named Max. Most of the jewelry she wore had been her grandmother's.

"You remind me," she told him once when he made her laugh, "of my friend Jorge." He'd never seen her smile quite that way before, a secret, intimate smile that gave him shivers. And then she thought better of continuing. Drogan regretted it. That smile: he wanted to know more.

He'd forgotten what the company of a woman could be like. Not what sex and sweat smelled like, but rather, simple companionable conversation. It had been a long time.

Three weeks after they arrived, two corrections officers, Warden Chapelle, and a lawyer came for Villanova. Two technicians and Dr. Ferrara accompanied them.

Villanova had spent the previous hour with a chaplain. Drogan, only a wall away on his shelf bed in the square of pale light shed by an overcast sky, had fled into his thoughts to avoid listening to Villanova's confession and prayers. He tried to remember all the words to "American Pie," tried to conjure the names of the seven dwarves, anything not to hear Villanova's quiet, shuddering whispers.

This was why the condemned usually spent their last three days in a separate facility, he understood: to spend their fear and their grief in the privacy of deaf, silent walls.

The only difference between this and going to the chair, Drogan thought.

Unless, of course, some part of you survived.

When Villanova came out of his cage, he asked for a moment, then turned to Drogan's cell.

"Drogan," he said. Drogan looked up, got up and went to the bars. Villanova put his thin, trembling hand through. Drogan took it and they shook. Villanova's brown skin was cold, dry.

"Vaya con Dios," Villanova said. His dark eyes were troubled; Drogan understood that much.

"Good luck," Drogan answered.

For a moment, Villanova held on. Drogan shook hands one more time. He had no other words. Villanova squeezed his hand and let go.

Ferrara shot Drogan a glance he couldn't read, then followed the group out.

Drogan sat down on his cot again and took out his half dollar. Now he'd wait.

Three hours later, the hall filled. Lab-coated men rushed back and forth between laboratories, their discussions hushed and businesslike. Ferrara walked by, ashen-faced, one hand at the cross on the chain around her neck, and kept walking.

He didn't see her for three days after that. In the interim, he couldn't shake the image of Villanova's expression when they'd taken him. Drogan had never seen him look like that before, wide-eyed, unsure, and very, very young.

When Ferrara did turn up, she was her usual, professional self, but now distant, less casual. She informed him that the testing would resume, and that he'd be taken to the teleporter in a little less than two weeks.

She turned to go. He called her back.

"What happened to Villanova?" he asked. Her expression clouded.

"He didn't make it," she said. "It was bad."

Drogan's heart skipped a beat; it hurt. "What do you mean, it was bad?"

"It was . . . bad. I have to go." And she left.

It was the first time, he realized, that she hadn't given him a straight answer.

The interviews ceased.

As the days went by, he saw the same kind of activity he'd seen before Villanova's test, lots of people back and forth in the hallways. But he saw something new. Occasionally, three men in military uniforms each with a stack of ribbons on their chests, accompanied Baylor through the halls. Baylor looked tense in the company of these men, his gait quicker, his motions clipped. Military. Interesting.

There was something more to all this.

That afternoon when his orderly brought him lunch, he asked to see Dr. Ferrara.

When she didn't come, he asked again at dinner.

He got no answer that day. Or the next.

Drogan didn't know what time it was when he heard footsteps in the hallway. It was dark, late. He hadn't slept. He had figured out, however, how many cinder blocks made up walls of his cell. He'd followed the transit of the half moon across his window. When the footsteps stopped in front of his cell, he turned over and looked through the bars.

It was Dr. Ferrara.

"Hi," he said.

She stood there in her lab coat, dark slacks and shoes, her hands in her pockets, just as if it were the middle of the day. Except that his clock said 2 a.m. It was the first time he'd seen her in five days. She looked tired.

"They've got you working late," he said.

"I was told you asked for me." She kept her voice neutral and kept her distance from the bars. Drogan recognized her deliberate choices. He sat up, then stood and went to the bars himself. He noticed movement in one pocket, as if she were balling her fist. She was nervous, he realized. He didn't like it.

"It could have waited until morning." He kept his tone gentle. "If you've been working late, you should go home."

"What can I do for you?" With a flick of her head, she shook a strand of hair off of her forehead.

All business. Okay then.

"I've been seeing military men march Baylor around like he's a convict." Ferrara's face remained neutral. She'd been practicing. "This technology isn't for commercial use, is it?"

She didn't answer. Drogan decided to go on.

"You can't say anything, can you, because it's classified, right? Even though I signed a Non-Disclosure Agreement?"

Ferrara shifted on her feet, raised her chin a bit. Said nothing.

"So let me guess: TransLumina's not worried about selling this to the public. They're worried about selling it to the military. The only people who will be stepping into the teleportation capsules will be ordered to do it."

She lowered her head a fraction. Was that a nod? He thought so. Her silence wasn't about keeping a professional distance, he understood. It was about who was listening. Of course, he didn't have anything to lose.

"It gives a whole new meaning to dying in the line of duty," he said a little more quietly. "Only now our boys can do it over and over again."

"There's a great deal of good that could come out of this," she said. She didn't say it with conviction.

"Fair enough."

Her gold cross picked up the light from the overhead lamps. She wasn't just concerned about the military, he suddenly realized. He'd never seen her without the cross. She had spiritual issues with this whole business.

He paused to consider his next words. He didn't want to push her away, didn't want to add to her obvious discomfort. In the end, all he could say was, "It's good to know the truth."

Neither of them said anything for a moment. Then Ferrara took half a step back. "Good night, then."

She turned and walked away.

"Good night," Drogan said, too softly for her to hear down the hall.

Three days later, Chapelle and Drogan's lawyer, Harville, came for a meeting with him. They were accompanied by two guards and Dr. Ferrara, to discuss whether or not he wanted a chaplain and who, if anyone, he wanted as a witness. He asked for Ferrara, but never got an answer.

But the day before he was to go, she came by with two cups of coffee and sat close to the bars. When she gave him his cup, he thought she purposely touched his hand. This was a different Ferrara than the one he'd seen several nights before. She'd made a choice of some kind, maybe several. One was to let down the wall she'd had up. He couldn't figure out the others yet.

"Come to spend a few minutes with the lab rat?" he ventured. It was a lame joke and it landed like one. Briefly she looked as though she were going to bolt. "You okay?" he asked, trying to rescue the moment.

"I . . . just needed a break. We've been at it for hours in there."

"How's it looking?" he asked.

She hesitated, then said, "Good. Good." Sipped her coffee.

"You're a lousy liar," Drogan said.

She took a breath to speak, paused, exhaled and started again. Looked at him. Whatever she was going to say died on her lips.

Instead, she looked at his half dollar on the small cabinet next to his bed.

"I've been wanting to ask you about that." She motioned to the coin. "You never stop playing with it."

Drogan put down the coffee, picked up the coin, held it up. It was a bicentennial half dollar. John F. Kennedy's profile showed on one side; a straight-lined rendering of Independence Hall, worn with years of fingering, showed on the other. Now, most of the detail in Kennedy's hair had been rubbed flat. Independence Hall was softer-edged and windowless.

"It was a gift from my father," Drogan said. He handed it to Ferrara so she could examine it more closely. "He gave it to me when I turned ten."

"That's sweet," she said with a smile, turning it over in her hands. "And you still have it." She sounded surprised.

Drogan frowned. "I don't understand."

"I thought con . . . people weren't allowed to keep personal items when they went to prison."

"Not when they enter; the stuff is stored until your release, assuming you get out. This was in a safe deposit box with some other things my wife and I put away. I asked Harville to get it for me after my sentencing."

She handed the coin back to him. "Why keep this and not something else? I mean, most kids would have spent it right away."

Drogan clutched the coin tightly. Started turning it over and over while he spoke.

"My dad wanted to teach me about coin collecting. It didn't stick, but . . ." And Drogan's throat tightened up. He hadn't thought about his father in a long time. The reaction frightened him. He blinked a couple of times to relieve the pressure behind his eyes. "It was good time we had," he said. "We used to go to coin shows together. A good time." He picked up his coffee and sipped.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I shouldn't have asked."

"No, it's all right." He put the coin down on the table. Looked up at her brown eyes, eyes like Sean's. "I was going to give it to my son when he turned ten."

He picked up the coin again. Ran his thumb over the image of Independence Hall. What would his duplicate remember if he made it through? And would he himself have to face Sean in the darkness of his own journey? Suddenly death lost its appeal. For a moment, he wanted the one who came after to wake up a clean slate like the chimp Louisa had spoken of, not having to worry about any of it. But then he wouldn't remember even Dr. Ferrara.

He held the coin out to her.

"Take it," he said. "I'd like you to have it."

Hey eyebrows rose.

"I couldn't," she said.

Drogan felt a disappointment he hadn't expected.

"Then keep it for me until . . . after." He took her hand -- soft and cool -- and laid the coin on her palm. "Give me . . . him something to look forward to."

She closed her fingers over the half dollar. Looked up at him with a smile.

"It's a deal," she said, blinking rapidly, and put the coin in the pocket of her lab coat. "You can still get out of this, you know." Her voice was a little husky. "It's in the paperwork you signed. There would be no penalty."

Drogan squinted at her as she sipped her coffee again. It wasn't what he'd expected and he wasn't sure how to take it.

"It wouldn't matter. I go this way, or I go by injection somewhere down the line."

She put the coffee down, fingered the cross she wore at her neck. She seemed elsewhere.

"Louisa?" he said, and surprised himself by it.

Surprised her, too. She shook her head as if awakened from sleep, glanced at him as if she hoped he hadn't noticed.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I keep thinking about what happens . . . after."

"I don't follow."

"It's nothing. My Catholic upbringing gets the better of me sometimes." She smiled absently, sipped her coffee again.

"Worried I'm going to Hell?" Drogan asked, and it came out lighter than he meant it to. He didn't want to seem cavalier about it if she took it seriously.

She didn't answer. Her mouth was a straight line, her lips tense.

He watched the ripples in his coffee. "If it comes to that, I've been there. I'm ready for it." His voice tripped on the words, his throat tight.

It occurred to him that she was thinking about all the soldiers who would face this as well. If she was a true believer, then from her perspective they'd all be facing heaven or hell whether they were ready to or not. He'd never believed in God, but he sympathized with Louisa.

What she said was, "You would have more time."

More time to repent? He wondered. If there was a God, Drogan figured he'd already had all the consideration he was due.

"But it's the kind of time I'd have that matters," he finally said. He stopped to choose his words carefully. "This way, when I go, my last days will have had something worthwhile about them. I got a last few days in a clean room with some quiet. I got to see some trees. I got to . . . I had good company. I'll take that. It's enough."

She looked at the window a long time while they sat in silence. Drogan didn't know what she was thinking, but he was sure she was fighting with herself about something. As he watched her, her eyes glittered, but she never shed a tear.

"Okay then," she finally said, dry-eyed and clear.

The capsule at one end of the isolation room looked a little like a white tanning bed with closed ends. Six feet away, another, larger capsule hummed. The air conditioning was on full blast giving the air a metallic smell. Goosebumps rose on Drogan's skin beneath the bathrobe they'd given him to wear after his final strip search. His stomach growled. He hadn't eaten in two days except for clear broths and the God-awful chemical they'd made him drink to clear his system.

The technician and the two prison guards behind him inched him forward.

A wide window spanned the wall to his right through which he could see the team hustling back and forth or poring over controls. Dr. Ferrara, a pen stuck behind one ear, stood consulting shoulder to shoulder over a clipboard with Dr. Baylor. They were almost of a height, with Baylor at a slight advantage. Another, smaller window -- one-way glass -- was at the opposite end of the room; Drogan knew that government witnesses were there. A combination experiment and execution.

The technician beside Drogan said, "Are you ready?"

Drogan shook himself. "Uh, yeah." Glanced at the tech, then back at Ferrara. She peeked up from her work. What was that expression in her eyes before she looked away? Drogan wasn't sure.

"I'll need your robe."

"Oh, right." He slipped out of the robe and handed it to the man, then sat down on the edge of the capsule. The metal was cold on his butt, chilling him. He slipped his feet out of his slippers, hoisted his legs onto the platform and settled himself into position. Though he'd lain in the capsule before as part of the preparation, somehow now the top of the capsule seemed closer, claustrophobic.

He turned his head to one side so he could look out one more time. Ferrara stood over a console glancing back and forth at things Drogan couldn't see. She glanced up at him again. Then away.

"Ready? We need to close up the capsule," the technician said.

Drogan laid his head back, looked up at the glass pane above him. Through the glass he could see the scanner mounted on its track. He suddenly felt like a document laid on the glass of a Xerox machine, ready to be copied.

His stomach tightened. He took a deep breath. Exhaled with a shudder.

"Are you ready, Mr. Drogan?" the tech repeated.

"Yeah," he said. "Close it up."

The tech pulled down the retractable side of the capsule, walling Drogan in.

"Can you hear me, Mr. Drogan?" Dr. Ferrara on the intercom.

"Yes." His throat was so tight it was hard to speak. "Louisa," he said. "Call me Jake, would you please?"

There was a pause. Drogan looked through the glass above at the scanner, a long, thin tube. He knew the kind of light it would emit, had felt it warm up over him before in a dry run three days prior.

"Jake," Dr. Ferrara said. "We're starting the sequence now. Breathe normally. Relax."

Drogan took a deep breath, held it a moment. Exhaled. The low hum of the capsule intensified. This was it.

The moment before the bomb. The gunmetal in his mouth.

He closed his eyes. His abdomen trembled, his heart beat skipped. You can still get out of this, she'd said. He took another deep, shuddering breath.

The heat built above him. The buzz and hum of the unit rose. The darkness behind his eyelids went red with the light shining through. It would be more time.

In his mind's eye, he saw Sean's grin. Lainie's red curls in the wind. He saw pink spring tulips and bright yellow daffodils. Tyler's denim-clad arm around Lainie's waist. Sean. Burning.

Let it end.

And then he saw electric green maple trees and Louisa Ferrara.

He felt burning at the top of his head, like prickling sparks all over his skin. Lightning crackled around him, stinging like pins and needles pushing deep. The world went hot. White. It rushed away with a sound like tides.

The world was gone.

A tunnel opened before him, light and long, and he let himself be pulled away.

The world was back.

The world was pain.

Every part of him felt raw, stinging, like his nerves had been scraped with knives. He lay on a slab of ice. When he opened his eyes, the light burned and he closed them again. He tried to cry out; his throat was parched: only breath and no sound when he screamed. The air tasted like iron. He bent one knee and banged it against the glass above him; the impact reverberated up his leg, a club to the bone. Tears escaped his eyes and burned paths toward his hairline.

"Is he okay? What's going on?" The voice was loud, a shock.

"I don't know; he seems disoriented." The second voice sounded uncertain.

"Mr. Drogan?" The first voice. Female. Why was everyone shouting?

"Whisper," he rasped. "Too loud."

"Let's get him out of there," someone else said.

They rolled his body, lifted him, moved him off of the ice -- or was it glass? Every contact stung; he felt handprints all over his body like spots of sunburn. Then he was on sheets, rough and stiff, and the movement of the gurney rattled him so hard he wanted to scream again. When they moved him onto the bed, it hurt so much he passed out.

Voices far off called his name. He knew his name. Warm cotton sheets beneath him, over his stomach, his chest, rough like fine sandpaper. Opened his eyes slowly. The light was harsh and bright. He felt muzzy. His mouth tasted like sand. A distant echo of pain pushed at him. In the back of his mind he thought he must be drugged.

"Mr. Drogan, do you know me?"

The person silhouetted in the light over him was familiar. Louisa -- no, if he was "Mr. Drogan" again, then she was "Dr. Ferrara." He didn't like the renewed formality after what had felt like intimacy, but he understood it. He was thinking that clearly.

"Yes," he said. It was breath, not sound.

"Do you know where you are?"

He did: TransLumina Labs. He nodded. He knew more than that. He remembered everything: Lainie, Sean, all of it. No heaven for him, but he hadn't expected that.

No hell either.

"We've given you something for the pain. Your nerves are firing to get reoriented. We saw this once in one of the chimps."

"Thanks for telling me in advance."

"We had to leave some surprises," she said, a smile in her voice. "How do you feel?"

He thought a moment. He was alive. Lightheaded. Disappointed.

"I'm okay," he said. "It hurts, but not like before."

"Good. There's water here if you need it." She held out a cup with a straw for him. He tipped his head up a bit to sip: cold, sharp, the water slid down his throat and through him like quicksilver. He lay back again, his head too heavy to hold up for long. He closed his eyes. Lainie was there. Sean. But it was hard work to keep his eyes open and away from them.

When he did open his eyes, he caught Dr. Ferrara looking at her watch. She glanced at the wall to his left, where Drogan noticed a large one-way window. He couldn't see through it, but he understood they were being watched. He didn't like that. He didn't like what such observation might mean in the days to come.

But she looked agitated, worried somehow.

"Dr. Ferrara . . .?"

"I'm sorry, Mr. Drogan, I have to go."

She got up and pulled her lab jacket close around her. It seemed too quick somehow. She was uncomfortable, but he didn't have the energy to ask more.

"See you later," he said.

"No. No, you won't."

That was a jolt. Suddenly he felt clearer. His heart beat triple-time.

"What?" he asked.

Dr. Ferrara paused, then sat again, on the edge of her chair as if she wanted to be sure she could bolt if she had to.

"After Villanova, I gave notice. I couldn't be a party to this anymore."

That was the last thing Drogan had expected to hear. Her reason made sense, knowing her as he'd come to do, but he hadn't been prepared for it.

More quietly she said, "I decided, though, that I couldn't go before I knew whether or not you came through."

He wanted to thank her for that. Somehow the words wouldn't come. He realized that he'd expected her to stay with him in this new life.

Idiot. You're her job, nothing more.

He took a deep breath -- get used to it, he told himself, she won't be here for you, she was never here for you -- exhaled and said, "So what comes next?"

"I don't know."

"I won't ever see you again?" Drogan asked before he could stop himself. He felt like a teenager.

"No. Conditions of your agreement and my separation from the company."

He knew it. He just needed to hear her say it. They were both silent for a moment. Dr. Ferrara looked at her hands clenched in her lap. Drogan closed his eyes.

And they were there again: Sean and Lainie. He had a flash of the pain he'd felt at the beginning of the transport. Other memories flooded in. Ferrara had opened a floodgate by telling him she was leaving. He forced his eyes open.

"This isn't what I expected," Drogan said.

"I'm sorry."

"No, no. It's not that. It's . . . I thought I wouldn't . . . know myself." His throat tightened. God, this isn't what I wanted. "That I'd feel like a stranger to me somehow. That some of this would be gone."

"Some of what?"

He had to rest a moment. His mouth was dry again. "The memories. I thought it would be different. I thought I'd be different."

"Technically, you're only about eight hours old."

"I need a minute," he said and turned away. The avalanche of memories crushed his heart. He hadn't planned on grief and regret in this afterlife; he hadn't counted on any afterlife at all. Hell would have been better. His whole body shuddered at the recognition: old memories, no release. "I didn't want this." He clenched his hands and wanted to weep; he had no tears. He'd wanted death. His dry sobs shook the bed.

"Mr. Drogan," Dr. Ferrara said.

He opened his eyes, turned to face her again.

"You died. I was there. I saw it."

"But it's still here! I can't stop it." He balled a fist and hit his head. Two, three times. She stopped him.

"That's good. It means this worked."

"No . . ."

"Look at me." Her sternness surprised him. She'd been in such a rush to leave but now she was present, there for him one last time. She kept her hand on his arm. "You're eight hours old. All you've done is sleep in this bed."

"It's a lie."

"Then live the lie until it becomes the truth. This is a new start. That's what you signed up for. The part of you that died took the rest of it." She opened his fist and put something in it. "He left you this." He lifted his arm to see. His joints felt stiff, new, as he bent his elbow.

His half-dollar gleamed in the too-bright light. His fingers, clumsy with medication, dropped the coin onto his chest.

Louisa picked up the coin and put it back in his hand.

"You told me to keep this for you until after. You hold it now. It's your inheritance," she said. "It's worth having."

He felt the edges of the coin in his hand, thin, blunt, familiar. He wasn't ready for it; he didn't feel worthy of it, not yet.

"Just . . . think about it." Louisa looked at her watch. "I need to go. I've been here too long already." She got up.

Drogan grabbed her hand. She gently tried to extricate herself, but he couldn't let go. Not quite yet.

"Mr. Drogan, please." He recognized that crease between her brows.

"Dr. Ferrara. Louisa . . ."

She pulled her hand one more time, but it wasn't a whole-hearted attempt. He loosened his grip, then. She didn't move.

"Thank you," he said.

"There's nothing to thank me for, Jake. Really."

He let go. She went to the door and left without looking back.

He looked at the coin again. Maybe time would dull his past the way it had dulled the edges of Independence Hall and the details of Kennedy's hair. Maybe he could live with that.

He squeezed the coin tight in his hand.

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