Kat watched the smoke rise through the hazy air, curling and swirling in on itself to form strange little loops. Gordian knots tied and unraveled themselves within the span of a breath, as ripples of air passed by. She pursed her lips and blew, clearing the canvas that hung in front of her, then waited for Beth to light another cigarette.
“I still can’t believe they made me black…” Sharon said, staring at her arms.
Sharon had been something of a skinhead, Kat recalled as she leaned back in the pew, watching the smoke as it began to dance again.
“…and a girl!” Sharon continued, the frustration evident in her voice.
She had also been a man, and was having a bit of trouble adjusting. Kat looked around at the others - their four and five-year-old bodies had been somewhat of a shock to them all at first. Some had adjusted smoothly, while others, like Jimmy, who kept killing himself in wildly creative ways (this was his fourth body in as many months), were taking a bit longer.
Most were talking or playing cards - though there really wasn’t much else to do. None of them knew why they were here, and none of the people who ran this place - whatever it was, with its high, barbed-wire fences - were talking. There were rumors, of course, as happens in any information-deprived group: Pam, the preacher, declared that this was heaven, and they were all now cherubim; Ron, the conspiracy theorist, quietly suggested that they had all been abducted by aliens; Starfish, as she insisted on being called, offered the theory that they were all part of a consensual hallucination caused by massive doses of LSD which had been administered by the CIA. Kat had her own theory, but she wasn’t sure anyone else would have understood, so she kept it to herself.
She looked over at Beth’s cigarette, sighed, and plucked it from her mouth. Placing it to her lips and inhaling deeply, she smiled bitterly. If it hadn’t been for the cigarettes, she wouldn’t be here now.
Hoffman turned the mask over in his hands. As the chair of the Institute for Advanced Artificial Intelligence, he had been responsible for its design, both inside and out. From the outside, it looked vaguely Incan (the study of said culture being a favorite pastime of his), and was made of a translucent, blue polymer that gave it the appearance of being carved from ice. That the polymer had the ability to gently mold itself to the wearer’s face in order to maximize comfort was an added plus.
Inside, the mask was laced with a series of circuits that acted as a fractal antenna. When initialized, those looping, twisting fibers would emit a signal that would create a sympathetic resonance in the synaptic pathways responsible for the interpretation of external stimuli. Any change in either the mask or brain’s signal would trigger an identical change in the other.
The special wideband connection and fractal compression that enabled the transmission of the massive amounts of data necessary to accurately recreate the sensation of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch in the human brain was his design as well. The massively parallel computing cluster that generated the artificial stimuli wasn’t of his design, but had been donated by the government - something to which he initially objected. With the news he had received recently, though, he was secretly thankful - he would be years behind now without it.
When the cancer came, it did so quickly and decisively. Kat remembered walking down the beach, after visiting the doctor and hearing the news. In the middle of the afternoon, on a cloudy, April Thursday, the beach had been deserted. The gulls that cried in the distance were her only companions, which was fitting, she thought, for someone who had done so little with her life. The waves lapped methodically at her bare feet, washing grains of sand from between her toes and depositing others. A gentle breeze tousled her hair and tickled her skin, causing her to shiver involuntarily.
After a moment, she began to cry; beginning softly, but increasing in intensity until her whole body was sobbing. Every muscle contracted with each breath, as she gulped lungfuls of sea-salt air. The thought of dying, of ending, of ceasing to be, was overwhelming. A terrible cold gripped her, sending ice water rushing through her veins, freezing her to the very core. She shuddered.
The thought of all the things she had never done assaulted her all at once. She had never ridden a mechanical bull, been to New York, been married, had children, run a marathon, gambled in Vegas, had sex in the back of a car, owned a dog, or had a chili cheese dog from that little shop down the street that was owned by the old Greek guy with the B.O. and the mustache.
She had gone straight from high school to college, where she had majored in math, then to grad school, where she studied fractal geometry, then to a Ph.D. program at Berkeley where she spent four laborious years as a teaching assistant, then to a research position, all because that’s what everyone else told her she was supposed to do. Go to school, go to more school, go to even more school, get a job, get a better job, get an even better job - she had never even fucking been to Peru!
She screamed, and fell to the sand, and screamed some more. When she finished screaming, she opened her eyes. The gulls were quiet, the wind was quiet - even the waves were quiet, in that moment when she looked up and saw the sand sculpture.
Whether someone had sculpted it, and left it there, or whether nature had lovingly crafted it, she couldn’t tell, but there it sat, atop its own little sand dune. Spirals of sand curled in on themselves, connecting internally and externally, to form a pyramid, of sorts. Running through and around, with no beginning and no end in sight, the whole sculpture formed a strange little loop; each grain of sand playing its part in the eternal, unending, whole.
The tears subsided as she rolled over on her back and stared at the sky. The clouds, the waves, even the beach itself were each a reflection of both themselves and the whole. In that moment, she could see everything, the whole of the infinite, in that sand sculpture, in the beach, in the clouds and waves and gulls and sky, and she whimpered. She was still afraid.
“Are you going in, doctor?” a voice interrupted his reverie. His assistant, a slim woman in her mid-thirties, whose voice had grown steadily weaker over the past month, looked expectantly at him.
“Oh, yes. Yes,” he replied. He leaned back in the chair and placed the mask over his face, while his assistant dimmed the lights and put on a collection of Bach. “Yes,” he smiled, “I think we’re getting very close now.”
“I’ve been reading your synopses at night,” she replied wearily, “the progress that you’re making is astounding.”
Ah, if only you knew, he thought to himself, just how close we are. He had been making observations for months, tracking the progress of his artificial subjects. Soon it would be time, he thought, as the mask synchronized itself to the activity in his brain. His office faded out, replaced with an entirely different scene, as the new reality took hold. I just hope that it’s soon enough, he thought.
Kat was 15 when she first started smoking. When she was in high school, she had joined the dance team her sophomore year, to try and fit in with the other girls. They all wore letters on their uniforms, and part of their act was to spell out words at different points. She wore an “O,” so she ended up in a lot of the formations, and at the end of their routine, she was the one who kneeled in the center. Her friend Jenny, who wore a “P,” kneeled to her right, while Kim, who wore a “G,” and who she despised, kneeled to her left. JJ and Leah sat in front of them while the rest of the girls leaned in behind them. It was a great finish, and people always clapped wildly, even though they didn’t actually spell anything at that point.
After rehearsal one rainy day, while Jenny was driving her home (she was a year older, and passed her driving test on the third try), they pulled into a gas station. “Wait here,” Jenny said, and hopped out of the car. Kat passed the time drawing on the fogged-up passenger side window with her finger.
“Want one?” Jenny said after returning and pulling the package of Marlboros out of her pocket. Kat wasn’t sure what to say. She knew they were bad for you, but she really liked Jenny, and didn’t want her to think she was uncool.
“Sure,” she replied a bit dazedly, taking the cigarette and putting it to her lips.
Jenny lit her own cigarette, took a drag, and coughed violently. She looked over at Kat, “Oh, these are a different brand, so, uh, I’m not used to them.”
Kat nodded, and lit her own cigarette. She took a long drag, and, much to her surprise, didn’t cough. In fact, it felt entirely natural, like she had done it before, a long, long time ago. Jenny looked at her in surprise. Kat just shrugged. Something tugged at the back of her mind, but she shoved it out of the way, and took another puff. She watched the smoke float gently up through the air, curling in on itself and forming strange little loops, and sighed.
Finally! Someone was actually going to talk to her. The guard had been very curt in giving the order to follow him, but since it was the first time any of them had been talked to by the guards, she hastily followed. Beth and Sharon stared in amazement as she dropped the cigarette - stamping it out as she stood up - and followed the man. He led her down a long, hospital white, tiled hallway. They passed door after door, though she wasn’t tall enough in this body to see through any of the windows, until they came to the end. The guard opened the door and motioned for her to continue in ahead of him.
The sounds of Bach’s “Air on the G String” floated out into the air as she entered the room. A middle aged man in a tweed jacket sat in a leather chair in the middle of what looked like a psychologist’s office. Bookcases lined the wall, a desk sat to one side of the room, and a sofa sat across from the man’s chair.
“Hello Katherine,” the man said, motioning to the sofa.
“Kat,” she replied, “I prefer to be called Kat.”
“Oh yes,” he smiled, “that’s right. My mistake.”
She looked at him for a second before hopping up onto the couch.
“Do you know why you’re here?” the man asked.
“Do you mean practically or metaphysically?” she replied.
He chucked. “Both.”
Kat shrugged, “Practically, I don’t know. I’d say you’re doing research on something, but I’m not sure what.”
He raised an eyebrow, “Go on.”
“Metaphysically, I’d say that each individual is part of a whole. A giant, infinite fractal, if you will. I think you’re tapping into that to bring us back when we die. I just don’t know why or how you’re doing it.”
“Interesting,” he said. He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes, “care for one?” Kat accepted his offer, and leaned back on the sofa. “How much do you remember?” he asked.
“Of my previous life? A lot. But not all of it - there are still some blanks.” She paused for a moment, “I remember the cancer. I remember the feeling of helplessness, of failure, though I don’t remember actually dying.”
The man paused for a moment. “How would you like another chance? To live your life over again - to create new memories?”
“I’d like that more than anything,” she said, beginning to cry.
I think it’s time, he thought to himself. “You wait here,” he said, as he stood up from the chair. He opened the door to the office, and then turned to her, “Someone will be along shortly.” He stepped through, closing the door behind him, and was gone.
“Katherine,” Hoffman called to his assistant as he removed the mask.
“Kat,” she corrected him.
“Oh yes,” he smiled, “that’s right. My mistake.” He stood up from the chair and motioned for her to sit down.
“Oh, no doctor,” she replied, although sitting sounded incredibly appealing right now, “I’m ok, really.”
“No, no,” he waved his hand dismissively, “I want you to try the mask this time.”
Kat was shocked - he had never let anyone use the mask, not even the men from the government who had funded the project. “Are you sure, doctor?” she asked.
“Yes, absolutely,” he motioned to the chair.
He helped her lower herself into the plush leather seat. “I’m sorry, but this is going to get in the way,” he said as he removed her wig - the result of her recent chemotherapy.
“Doctor,” she said, embarrassed, reaching for the wig.
“It’s ok,” he said reassuringly as he placed it on the table next to her, “it’s just me.”
He handed her the mask, and she took it with trembling hands. She gently placed it on her face, and was surprised to feel it fit so comfortably. “Just relax,” he said, as the lights dimmed, and the sound of Bach floated through the air. She took a deep breath, as Hoffman worked the controls, gradually fading out this existence and fading in the artificial one.
As soon as the mask had taken effect, and she could no longer sense him, Hoffman opened Kat’s purse, and began searching for the syringe and morphine he knew she kept, in case the pain got too bad.
Kat looked out at the office through four-year-old eyes. She held a cigarette in her hand, and took a puff as she felt an unexpected pain in her right arm. The world began to blur for a moment as the sounds of Bach faded from the background. Then, reality reemerged with a bright clarity, and the realization of what had happened overwhelmed her as two sets of memories merged.
She fought back tears, her lips quivering, as the office in front of her faded away, replaced with the ancient Incan city of Machu Picchu. Gasping, she looked at the mountains and boulders and stones around her, each part of the unending whole. Smoke drifted up into the air, curing in on itself, forming those strange little loops. She smiled, and, dropping her cigarette, stamped it out. This time, she thought, I’m going to do it right.
Author’s note: this story was originally written for the first round of the Ceramic DM writing tournament in 2004.