Stories > Roatan

When I think of her eyes, looking up into mine, I see an aerial view of this island: emerald green surrounded by pure white, the edges vanishing into layered depths the way French Harbour Hotel's glaring, phosphorescent beaches slip quietly into the Caribbean.

Roatán.

In the eighteenth century, Henry Morgan, the pirate, established a base here. Safe, secluded, but close enough to the northern coast of Honduras for him to keep tabs on it, feel the vast hum of money and commercial goods vibrating along his nerves, infiltrating his soul.

Now, I can't seem to forget her. Tanja. At night I still feel her warm breath against my cheek, and I remember her soft skin cooling on a penthouse balcony of the Hondu­ras Maya. Tegucigalpa's night sky was a silky sheet of black drawn over us. In the city below, white stucco houses with red clay-tile root's sprouted the dull, moonlit metal of old TV antennas. Around them, curtain-glass office buildings reflected the headlights of late-night traf­fic, the inkblot shadows of trees snared in the yellow, high-pressure sodium lights that lined the streets.

They call Tegucigalpa the "City of the Silver Hills," and that evening silver was also the color of her hair, deli­cate strands clinging to her forehead, pulled back be­hind her ears. We lay cradled in each other's arms , nei­ther one of us speaking, and I had the feeling she was trying to hold onto something she knew would never happen again, embrace it one last time.

I ran my hands down her back, along the goose­-pimpled curve of her buttocks and thighs, and tried to quell the spasmodic quivering I felt there, running through her muscles and hones. I tried not to think about what she had done, the symbiotic combination of artificial and natural intelligence that she hoped would he born inside her while the rest of her nerve cells were dying. I didn't want to believe it was true, didn't want to think about what she might become, cocooned in my arms.

Later, after I thought she might he dead, I felt her press the Lancetilla Research Labs vial into the palm of my hand, close my fingers around the smooth glass cylinder of sticky white neural net macromolecules I'd helped to develop, before she drifted away for good.

I shivered then and disentangled myself from her arms, got up from where we lay and told her I would only be a few minutes, even though I doubted she could hear me. I told myself all I needed was a short walk to clear my head. And then left her there.

Because I knew she wanted me to go with her, and I was afraid. Afraid of what I might find when I got there. Afraid of what I might leave behind. Some essential part of me absolutely and irrevocably lost.

Watery light ripples around the sun-bleached collection of shabby houses on stilts, barnacle-covered docks, and pastel blue, red, and green shrimp boats that clutter the lagoon of Roatán. I squint at the moss-green hills hunched beneath a tatter of clouds, watch gulls dance around a collection of half eaten papaya and empty beer bottles that someone has dumped on the sand, lis­ten to an ancient ghetto blaster blare tinny salsa through the tarpaper walls of a nearby shanty.

"She took advantage of you," doña Flor tells me in her tobacco-scratched curandera voice, sliding another Dos Equis across the scuffed and stained bar she sometimes tends when she's not out curing the sick, dispelling evil spirits. "To get what she wanted."

"No," I say. I take a swallow of warm foam, and she lets me stare out the window for a while, a tourist post­er of pure French Harbour sand, wild palms and reef water. It's like someone has pasted a travel holo­gram on the wall at the end of the countertop, then overlaid it with the shrill cry of the competing gulls, the garbage reek of flotsam, and the quiet gentle fingers of an offshore breeze caressing my cheek.

"That one, she was a tabayuku ," doña Flor says after a while, the words wrapped in the stale smell of cigar­ette smoke, pepper-tree branches and cheap Siete Ma­chos perfume, the three items she most commonly uses to affect her cures. "A she-devil who was paid to steal your soul and everything you know. Cause you trouble."

"No," I say again. "If she was working for someone else, she wouldn't have done what she did." But Some­times I wonder if what Flor says is true. If the odd metaphorical reality she lives in actually exists, apart from my own.

Dona Flor is a Christian adivina, what the mainland Indians call a curandera. A Spiritist healer. In the three years since I first discovered the tiny curative hostel she runs, a kind of spiritual boarding house for people who want to free themselves from the electronic hiss of every­day life, I have seen her cure people the local hospital could not by simply passing an unbroken egg over them, rubbing their bodies with herbs and a paste she prepares from her own spit.

Flor is an anachronism whose goal is to release me from one past by immersing me in another, unaware that her system of belief has been tainted by the century we live in, new technology that has seeped into the cus­toms and rituals she still practices.

Now, only her memories are uncontaminated. When I see the smoke she blows into the face of a person who is sick, the rosemary-treated perfume or saliva paste she applies, I think of the long strands of information-encoded molecules and tiny ribosomelike assemblers that have seeped into the environment, infiltrated the cell structure of the plants she uses, making them physiologically active.

The same assemblers that crept into Tanja.

"She's still looking for you," Flor says. "I can sense it. You should let me protect you from her. Before she comes back."

"Flor, she's in Tegucigalpa somewhere, over a hun­dred kilometers away. I don't even know if she's the same person anymore. If she remembers me. She might not even be alive, for Christ's sake."

"She's alive, Miguel, and she remembers. A tabayuku never forgets her lover. And she's not going to rest until she finds you again. Takes your life away and makes you go crazy." Her eyes hold mine, hard gray flecks of concern in a stone face as ancient and cracked as a Mayan bas relief.

I tip the beer bottle, stare into the tiny dark hole it makes, and shake my head. "You don't know that," I say. "She's eating you up already. From the inside. Even now I can see it happening."

And she's right. I can feel my own detached curiosity tugging at me, wanting to know how it turned out. And when I remember her face, the feeling of her body stiffening against mine, I get the sudden urge to go back and find her, enter her one more time and lose myself in the long hard pull of her arms, and the mysterious life they reached out to embrace.

"She was dying," I tell Flor, bringing the bottle to my lips. "There was nothing else she could do."

I met Tanja for the first time at a small cafe near the Plaza Morazan in the Parque Central. It was early evening, the sky a tapestry of neon graffiti above newly refur­bished colonial facades and clusters of dust-covered acacia trees. All around me the sound of brass horn music mingled with the smell of coffee, warm tortillas, and ex­haust fumes. I went there mostly when I wanted to think but didn't exactly feel like being alone, wanted to immerse myself in the strange psychic anonymity and social belonging imparted by a crowd.

She found me at a corner table, pulled up a patio chair and sat down, like I'd been waiting there for her all along. Casual but purposeful in her taupe sharkskin jacket and khaki parachute pants over Milano sandals. No makeup, but then she didn't need any. I had the feeling I'd seen her before, but I couldn't t remember where. I saw forced calm in her face and the movement of her hand as she set her purse on the wrought-iron mesh tabletop and settled into the hard metal seat. Her fingers trembled momentarily on the thin leather shoulder strap, knotted around it until the faint chaotic twitching stopped.

"Buy me a drink," she said, and I could feel myself falling into those eyes, vertigo spinning inside me like an off-kilter gyroscope. She looked at the empty glass in front of me, the ice it had held melted in the warm eve­ning air. "You might want to get another one for your­self, too."

"All right," I said, trying to put my finger on the glossy but faded magazine memory I had of her. "What would you like?" I picked up the glass, idly swirled what was left of the diluted rum, and finished it.

"Lancetilla Labs MOLI-AI14," she said. Her eyes held mine as she reached for something inside her purse, and I felt my stomach go suddenly queasy as it tightened around the trickle of warm rum that had settled there.

"A trade," she said, tossing a small, diamond-sheathed chip onto the table between us, her hand quivering again, out of nervousness maybe, or fear. "One classified pro­gram for another."

l looked at the chip -- square, thin, featureless -- and set the glass down as calmly as I could.

I build models for a living. Neural nets constructed out of artificially engineered molecules instead of nerve cells, assembled from seed programs in small cubes of electroconductive gelatin. In some ways what I do isn't all that different from a hobbyist assembling the toy­-sized representations you can sometimes still find sitting on shelves and hanging from ceilings -- scaled-down re­productions of cars, ships, and airplanes glued together out of die-cast plastic parts. The materials might be dif­ferent, and the level of detail, but the basic shape and elements are still there.

Speed. Miniaturization. Memory capacity. Three hard­ware Grails that more than a few research scientists in the pursuit of an independently intelligent machine would do almost anything, to possess....

Which was what I was thinking about when Tanja reached into her purse.

Because the lab team I worked with was getting close to finding all three.

And I had been a fool to think that I could walk the streets of Tegucigalpa, alone.

"Half now," Tanja said. "Half later, when we make the exchange."

I picked up the diamond case, sharp-edged and virtu­ally weightless, no larger than the palm of my hand. In­side, the iridescent sheen of an MED chip. Molecular Electronics Device. Binary information stored in millions of redundant, molecule-sized logic gates, the data read in and out through laser beams instead of wires. The lat­est in information storage. Available to only a very few.

I shook my head. "I don't even know what's on here. It could be totally useless."

That was bullshit, and she knew it.

"Direct synaptic interface," she told me, her face a beautiful clay mask, fired and glazed in the kiln of lights around us. "Basically, a neural placenta. Developed by Noogenics to isolate and study a wide range of untreatable mental diseases. If you're not interested, I'll try someone else."

I remembered then where I had seen her, a journalist looking out at me from a satellite news broadcast, while in the background naked children played on the rain-­puddled streets of some Indonesian shantytown built out of old bedsprings, refrigerators, and the side panels of cars, welded together in some life-sized parody of func­tional, abstract sculpture.

"Okay," I said, my fingers tightening around the hard, cutting edge of synthetic diamond.

"She was desperate, Flor," I say, trying to explain, star­ing out across calm motionless water undisturbed by the currents circulating through me.

"So? A tabayuku is always desperate. That doesn't mean you have to give your life up for hers."

"I had no choice."

"That is what everyone thinks." She wipes the counter one last time, drops the rag into a bucket she keeps on the floor behind the bar, and picks up a brown-speckled chicken egg that has been sitting on the shelf behind her, wedged between bottles of Bacardi, Jack Daniels, and Smirnoff vodka.

It is still early. The bar is empty, and I let Flor rub the unbroken egg across my forehead, down my arms. She believes that the egg will absorb some of the illness in­side me. The cleansing rite is known as a limpia, and I have seen her perform it more than a dozen times over the past few years, watched her break an egg into a glass of water and make her diagnosis from the pattern it creates.

She breaks this egg.

I stare at the glass in front of me, the slow swirl of egg white and tiny bubbles coagulating on the surface. "Yeyecatlcihuatl," she says after a time. Evil air from a promiscuous woman.

She had something I wanted," I say. "Needed."

Flor dumps the glass of cloudy, putrid water into the sink beside her. "That is what all she-devils would like for you to believe," she says. "Otherwise they would never get what they're looking for."

"I'm afraid," Tanja said as I got up to leave, the metal legs of my chair scraping loudly on the red brick of the patio.

I slipped the MED chip into the front pocket of my jeans. "You're not the only one."

"No," she said, standing. "I'm not. But sometimes it seems like it."

I felt the twinge of panic that had been lurking in the back of my mind suddenly surface, and glanced around at the time-lapse blur of faces moving in slow proces­sion around the square, half expecting to see the taut, choreographed movement of the people Noogenics would have sent after her, paid to bring back what she'd stolen.

"They don't know yet," she said, watching me. "Won't for a while. Trust me." She picked up her purse from the tabletop, her hand still quivering erratically. "Before you leave, there's something I want to show you."

Cool fingers against the warm night, she threaded her way through the nighttime maze of Tegucigalpa's tumul­tuously lit gift shops, restaurants and museums until we came to the white, domed Cathedral of San Miguel. Twin hell towers framed the massive colonial front, the deep arched doorway leading in and the huge stained-glass rose window above it. Inside, the walls were plain smooth stone, the tiled floor worn and dusty beneath pews of polished, oily-smelling wood. The place was empty and dimly lit, the air heavy and solemn, reverberating with silence.

"The sense of peace here is wonderful," Tanja said, running her hand along one of the pews. "Now I know why so many people come." She walked slowly down the main aisle, sandals scraping softly in the enormous volume. I followed her down to the silver altar, looked up into the dark hollow space of the dome above it.

"Xiang's syndrome," she said softly, walking toward a large wooden statue of St. James that stood off to one side, arms outspread and palms turned up, face carved with eternal compassion and hope.

Xiang's syndrome. It was one of a number of new prion-related subviruses that inserted their own genetic material into a specific gene. I'd heard they had evolved as a result of environmental contamination and increased radiation, random mutations in a changing world. Xiang's was one of the more debilitating. The gene it altered coded for a protein necessary for the proper functioning of certain central nerve cells. The disease led to the progressive and irreversible deterioration of one's motor skills, short-term memory, and, in the final stages, autonomic nervous system.

"Ever feel like your life's slipping away?" she said af­ter a few minutes. "Like there's nothing left to live for?" Her voice was distant, lost, and I realized how small and fragile she had become, standing there beside me.

"Yes," I said. More than I wanted to admit. Because I had spent most of my life trying to build something that might never materialize, aware that if it never did I'd be left with nothing. No one to turn to, hold onto.

She moved away, and I breathed in the smell of fresh­ly washed hair and rose-water perfume, felt it drifting through a part of me I'd closeted away, sealed myself off from for as long as I could remember.

"It was my choice," I tell Flor. I take a deep breath and uncap another bottle of beer, wrap my fingers around the smooth, condensation-beaded neck.

"She made you believe that, Miguel. Made you desire her so you'd do what she wanted. A tabayuku always wants you to believe that she lusts after you the way all men hope to be wanted by a beautiful woman." Her voice is harsh, steel-edged, and I shut my eyes trying to piece together her logic. But either I've had too many beers or there isn't any logic, and nothing seems to make sense.

Flor washes the glass and then calmly places it in the rack beneath the counter.

"If you go back," she says after a long pause, "you're going to give up everything you have. Including your soul."

I took the chip Tanja had given me to Mizuho Aoki, the head of my research team. She held the diamond case in her short, stubby fingers and frowned slightly, skin crinkling like fifty-year-old paper beneath outdated wire-rim glasses and a cloud of steel-wool hair.

"Where did you find this?" she asked. She turned the chip slightly, and it gave off an insect-wing shimmer in the bright swath of morning light that knifed across her desk.

"A reporter," I said. "She gave it to me last night."

"This reporter. Did she say what's on it?"

"Direct neural interface and feedback. Developed by Noogenics."

Aoki swung her chair over to a sleek laser/diode unit and slid the chip in, watched the program scroll down the tilt-up screen next to the black anodized processor. It went on for a long time, and Aoki sat there mesmer­ized, as if she was watching the unfolding of some eternal truth she had thought would never he revealed, now being given to her in one single moment of electronic satori.

"'There's more," I said, when the screen finally went blank. "She only gave me half."

Aoki clicked the chip out. "Why'd she give it to you? What's she want in return?"

"Artificial intelligence," I said. "She wants me to build a neural net inside her head."

"So you gave her back her life," Flor says. She pours herself a glass of whisky, sits down across from me, thick arms resting heavily on the scuffed and stained counter­top, marred by the small dark circles of cigarette burns. "Only she wanted you to go with her, and now the peo­ple you work for are looking for you also."

"They wanted to study her in a controlled environ­ment, monitor the results."

"Maybe you should have let them." She raises the glass to her lips. "Maybe if you knew how it turned out, then you wouldn't be haunted by her, and she wouldn't have the power over you that she does."

I stare at the beer bottle in front of me, empty now except for a few bubbles clinging to the inside Surface of the dark brown glass, and shake my head. "If she's alive, she's probably not even human anymore," I say, my face numb, the black-and-gold label in front of me beginning to blur. "She's either dysfunctional or some­thing completely alien, a totally new kind of life form."

Flor gives what might he a shrug beneath the cotton print layers of her dress. "She asked for it, no? She was dying and you gave her what she wanted, and now she wants to take you with her and turn you into a machine, too. So she won't be alone."

"I don't know what she's feeling, Flor. I don't even know if she can feel."

"It was her choice."

"Yes," I say, meeting her gaze. "But it was my decision."

Tanja called two days after that first evening. We met in La Leona, the Old Quarter, a hillside of tangled streets that looked out over blocks of red-tiled colonial roofs, shabby bungalows, and white concrete office buildings that rose above oak and yellow-blossomed San Juan trees. It was a little before noon, but the air was already hazy, filled with exhaust and the smoke from slash-and-­burn agriculture in the surrounding hills. My eyes stung as I breathed in the fumes, the heavy odor of geraniums and street dust. A mongrel dog barked at us from an open doorway, and chickens flapped out of our way, shards of broken glass glinting out of the dirt they kicked up.

I had the most recent model I'd built with me, and a proposal from Aoki. She wanted to work with Tanja di­rectly, use her to develop a molecular net that would mimic the human brain and still he able to run tradition­al software. It was Aoki's attempt to come up with a unifying theory of intelligence, a paradigm that would complete the synthesis between biological and electron­ic systems.

Aoki's Grail.

One that she told me would improve Tanja's chances of success.

"Forget it," Tanja said, lips pressed tightly together. "I played that game at Noogenics. I'm not going to become a case study again. That's why I'm here."

"You don't have to do this," I said. "There's always a chance someone will come up with a cure."

"Not in less than a month." She paused in the middle of the sidewalk and squinted at me.

"There's no guarantee it'll work," I said. "But there's a chance."

"Yes. But if it doesn't, what you're asking me to give you is no different from a lethal injection."

Tanja laughed. "I don't believe it." she said. "An ethicist." Then she started to walk again, heading for a small scenic park that had been built at the crest of the hill.

I was sweating when we reached the top, shirt and pants clinging uncomfortably to my hot, sticky skin as I listened to the dissonant symphony of Tegucigalpa's congested midday traffic below us.

'I'anja walked over to a wrought-iron bench beneath the low branches of a wide-spreading oak and sat down. "I'll make a deal with you," she said. "Don't tell me how to end my life, and I won't tell you how to live yours. All right?" She slid a bulky spectral chromatograph out of the shoulder bag she had been carrying and posi­tioned it on the curved seat next to her.

"This is the only way I have of checking what you're giving me," she said. "Making sure you don't hang me out to dry. I may not be able to decode and analyze the assembler program, but I can determine if all of the cor­rect chemical components are there."

I nodded, handed her the sample vial I'd been carry­ing in my shirt pocket. So far Lancetilla Labs had been able to isolate only a small number of chained macro­molecules that could be used as improved functional analogs of excitatory and inhibitory neurons in the brain. Aoki and the upper-management personnel who pulled her strings had wanted to give Tanja a placebo solution, betting she wouldn't be able to tell the difference mid wasn't working for someone who could. She was going to die anyway, they said. Why risk losing years of proprietary work when they could probably get something for nothing?

I watched Tanja prepare a slide of the assembler flu­id, then feed it into the unit, and hated them for that. Hated myself for even considering it and for what I had become, a detached automaton without a life of its own, following the set of programmed instructions given to me. Like Aoki, not really alive, but not really dead either.

Now, I didn't want to know that I was responsible for her death. I wanted to be able to tell myself that I hadn't knowingly killed her, the way someone on a firing squad can, when it's over with, ease his conscience by think­ing that maybe his gun was the one that held the blank. Because of that, and because some part of me want­ed to see her succeed, wanted to go with her, the pro­gram I handed over was real.

No turning back.

I stood and listened to the quiet hum of the portable unit, the stiff leaves rustling above me in a dry, smolder­ing breeze, and when it finally stopped I thought I could hear her begin to breathe again, as if she had finally al­lowed herself to come up for air, had broken through the surface tension of all-consuming desperation she'd submerged herself in for weeks or months.

"I don't have the program with me," she said, her hands trembling as she tried to slip the chromatograph into the handbag, fingers fumbling at the canvas corners and strap. "I thought you might try something, so I hid it in the right palm of St. James." A few seconds later she let her hands fall into her lap, closed her eyes and bit her lower lip as both hands twitched uncontrollably, tiny spasms that sent tremors through the rest of her body.

"You don't have to stay," Tanja said, opening her eyes, staring at me with emerald-green islands of isolation.

Don't have to see this, I thought, the unspoken words stirring up a mixture of pain, guilt and pity inside me. I reached out to touch her, saw her flinch, and realized that she had already shut herself off from everything she hated and desired in the world she was trying to leave behind. The same way I had isolated myself in a re­search lab, turned my life into an empty theoretical ab­straction that had starved me of all physical contact.

"Where are you staying?" I asked, slipping the gray plastic case into the shoulder bag.

"Aren't you afraid of becoming infected?"

"Should I be?"

Tanja stared blankly at the horizon, blinked, and then shook her head. "No," she said finally. "I'm not conta­gious anymore."

There was a kind of painful irony there, mixed in with the bleakness, because normally that would have meant she was recovering. Instead, the virus had left behind a post-mortem time bomb, a non-communicable legacy that no one had been able to figure out.

Tanja could barely walk, so I took her to the Honduras Maya in a dusty combustion-engine bus that smelled of overripe fruit, urine, and raw gasoline. In between the harsher jolts and rattles of the loose metal siding and windows, I could feel tiny tremors running through her arm and shoulder where it touched mine, taste the dry metallic residue of the fumes and fear that had begun to coat my tongue.

She stumbled on the last step leading down to the grimy concrete curb, clutched at my arm with her hand and steadied herself, nails digging into my skin. I rode that grip all the way to the penthouse floor, then felt it relax as we stepped out of the elevator and made our way through the plush, new-carpet smell of the hall to her room.

The door opened into gold-edged glass, reflected marble and crystal chandeliers set against a window backdrop of hazy afternoon mountains and sepia-tinted sky. Expensive, but then she hadn't planned to stay long.

I put the shoulder hag on a Danish-style sofa, soft brown leather slung low on a sleek frame of polished chrome tubing, and followed Tanja into the bedroom, watched her unzip a small cosmetic case on the bed­spread beside her, take out a syringe and care­fully transfer the fluid from the vial, her hands quivering.

"Help me," she said, raising the needle to her neck, feeling tremulously with the fingers of her other hand for the vein pulsing just beneath the skin.

I think I shook my head. My throat had clenched up tight. I'd been telling myself all along that it might work, but now I didn't know what to believe. Even if the mol­ecules distributed themselves into a neural net patterned after her own, responded to the same sensory input as her own failing neurons, it seemed unlikely that who and what she was now would be preserved. That she would remain the same.

"No," I told her, my voice a strained, barely audible whisper. I didn't want to see her die, but I didn't want to see her pseudo-survive either. I didn't want to see her become one of those shadow-entities exiled by technol­ogy to some mindless purgatory somewhere between life and death.

"Help me," she said again, "and I'll give you what you came for."

"So you stayed with her," Flor says. "Spent the night. Out of pity."

"I took advantage of her," I say. My arms and legs are heavy, my vision constricted, blurred around the edges. I take a deep breath and think about what Flor said ear­lier about wanting to be loved by a beautiful woman and tell her, "It's true."

And it is.

Flor takes the empty beer bottle from my hands. When she comes hack, she steadies me by the arm and leads me outside, and I have some idea of what Tanja must have felt like those last few days and hours, trying to walk, to get her body to do what she wanted.

The air beneath the corrugated sheet-metal awning of the front porch feels like hot breath against my skin; the bright phosphorescent white of the beach brings tears to my eyes, and I can feel her smooth frail body fusing to mine, pulling me into her.

"You have a fever," Flor says, sitting me down on a bleached wooden chair that smells faintly of dry sweat and creosote. "Yeyecatlcihuatl. Evil air."

"I'm drunk," I tell her, the words heavy and thick. At the end of the porch I can hear the soft rustle of sea grape leaves, see wild-haired palms leaning toward the water like bodiless heads on thin, supple necks.

"We went to church," I tell her, closing my eyes as the scent and feather-light touch of pepper-tree twigs, rue, and red geraniums brushes across my face, down my neck and arms.

We went to church.

Closed San Miguel's heavy wood doors on Tegucigal­pa's neon dusk, and entered into expansive silence that seemed to breathe on its own. A few scattered parish­ioners sat by themselves in separate pews, old women with scarves around their heads, fingers dutifully count­ing out Our Fathers and Hail Marys on the ancient, worn beads of rosaries.

Tanja took a seat close to the front, the side of her face flickering in the light of the votive candles that had been placed at the feet of St. James. The chiseled robes seemed to shift as I stared at them, the statue brought to life by the faith of the people who believed in the spirit it contained.

Next to me, Tanja had become a statue too. Face rig­id, body unmoving. Even the quiver in her hands had stopped. I wondered, then, what she was looking for, if she believed in anything beyond herself, or if she was trying to make that leap for the first time. Maybe she had already made it, had decided to put her faith in some­thing else. Something she would never know the answer to until it was either too late or didn't matter anymore.

I'd never been able to do that, and sometimes it felt like I was missing something important. Something that would fill in all the little voids in my atomistic and ratio­nalist world; the empty gaps between all the simple quantifiable elements -- molecules, memes and electric impulses -- that I had built my life out of.

The Music of the Spheres. There have been times when I thought I could almost hear it, half believed I had touched some mental finger to its vibrating chord and felt it sing, however briefly, through my body.

In her own way, I think that's what Tanja was after. Which was why she had put the MED chip in the up­turned palm of a saint and then gone back to place her­self in those same hands, to discover some measure of salvation and commit her soul to the new life she hoped to be born into the way the people who filled those pews around us during a mass wanted to be reborn.

An act of faith.

And hope.

If she prayed, I never heard her. The words were spoken privately, in the silent cathedral of her thoughts.

Flor lights a cigarette and blows a thin cloud of white smoke across my sticky, sweat-covered face, sprinkles Siete Machos over me. The smoke is supposed to pre­vent the evil spirit that has been banished from my body from infecting others, possessing them the same way.

Flor intones one of her prayers, steps back and makes the sign of the cross. The sharp smell of perfume makes my head swim, and when it clears, when the ritual is fi­nally complete the way Tanja's was that last night in San Miguel, I know a little bit more about what she was go­ing through, the fear and the loneliness she faced, and why she needed me the same way I still wanted and needed her.

To ease the terrible sense of isolation and uncertainty she'd felt, standing at the edge of a dark abyss that no one had leapt into before, trying to choose between death and an artificial synthesis of life that might or might not be able to recreate whatever it is we call human.

The same edge where I stand now: thinking of how she's gone where I want to go, remembering the sudden sharp intake of breath, nails pressing into my back, and the smooth glass invitation she placed in my hand.

I squint at the sun glinting off the stained-glass blue of French Harbour and imagine myself in Henry Morgan's place, perched on the edge of the Caribbean, drawn to Roatán by passion and the lure of the unknown, the freedom to live and die as I choose.

Aoki is hunting me, marionette strings being pulled from somewhere high above her in Lancetilla Labs' ex­ecutive stage set. The MED chip is still in St. James's up­turned palm, and I know I can do what Tanja did. Ex­change my old life for a new one. When I close my eyes I can see the chip, along with the flickering robes and the outstretched arms. Tanja's arms, waiting to embrace me, and her hands held out. An offering.

I squeeze the empty vial she gave me and the promise of rebirth it represents. It's mine if I want it. All I have to do is reach out and take hold of it, like the hand I left behind.

I'm praying for you, Tanja. Be there. Catch me when I leap.

...................................

Copyright © 1992 Mark Budz. All rights reserved. First appeared in Amazing Stories, Vol. 66, No. 10, February, 1992