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Alfred Bester Is Alive and Well and Living in Winterset, Iowa

Bret Bertholf
The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Sep 2003, Vol. 105 Issue 3, pp.8-37
ISSN 0024-984X
September 2003

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The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction 105:3 (cover)

I WAKE UP TO THE SOFT padding of an enormous sphinx at the foot of my bed. Its hide shimmers in the thin half-light of the ward, like an ebony idol. Its face is long and elegant, the eyelids carved heavy and deep, sleepy like Violet Dugan in The Flowered Thundermug. She's a carnal creature of inscrutable lusts, but somehow familiar. She parts her bee-stung lips and says,

"alfrEd bester is alive and well and living in winTERset, iowa."

Then she coughs, turns her preposterous head on its side, heaves twice, her shoulders flexing in discomfort, rolling purple and green hair over savage muscles. Eventually she spits up a ball of fur.

It's a sticky mess. There'll be no sorting it out.

I look back up at the sphinx, wanting to talk to it, but the sphinx is gone.

I don't know where she's gone, but she's definitely no longer at the end of my bed. It's not normal. I'm not normal. I'm old, falling apart. And I signed up for neural implants as soon as Eldertech was offered for just that reason, because I hoped it would return me to normalcy. It's very important to me to seem normal.

But it doesn't help that I see things that most likely don't exist. The implants helped at first, but as my health deteriorated, they've only intensified many of my fantasies and hallucinations.

For instance, I am convinced, frequently, that I am being pursued by three men who come to me in different combinations, with different names. Historical figures, friends from my youth, and even people I've never seen before. None of it is to be trusted. Nurse Dubedat explains that the nanotech is still so new, the implants in my head so alien, that it may be my mind's attempt to sort things out. Confusion is, of course, a normal part of senility. "You're doing better than many men of your advanced age," she says.

Some comfort. But the thought does inspire me to check my messages, to see if perhaps my sphinx is an electronic courier. Neither rain nor snow nor addled brain ....

Eyes left, center, and left again. At least I remember that. I seem to have spasms of lucidity. I wait for the icon, like nurse Dubedat instructed, and when it appears, I hold my eyes on it until it opens.

5,271,009 MESSAGES

As I've had so few messages, except for advertisements, I'm shocked. After a few moments, the titles of the first thirty or so float before me like the ghosts of road signs. I read:

alfred besTEr is alive and well and living in winterSet, iOwa alfred beSter is Alive and well and living in winTerset, iowa alfred bester is alive aNd well and living in winterSet, iowa alfred bEsteR Is alive aNd well and living in wintErSet, iowa alfred besTer Is alive and well and living in winterset, iowa alfred besTEr is alive and well and living in winterset, iowa alfred bester Is alive aND well and living in winterSet, iowa alFrEd bester Is alive and well and living in winTersEt, iowa alfred bester is alive and well and living in winteRset, iowa Alfred besTer Is alive and well and living in winterset, iOwa alfred bester is alive and well and living in winteRsEt, iowa alfred beSter IS alive and well and living in winTerset, iowa alfred bester is alive aNd well and living in winTErset, iowa alfred bester is alive and well and livinG in winteRset, iowA alfred besTEr is alive and well aNd living in winterset, iowA alfred bester is alive and well aNd living in winterset, iOwa alfred bester is aLIve and well and living in winterset, iowa alFrEd bester is Alive and well and Living in winterset, iowa aLfred bester is alive and well and living in winterset, iOwa alfred bester is aLIve and well and living in winterset, iowa alFrEd bester is Alive and well and living in winterSet, ioWa alfrEd besteR iS alive and WEll and living in Winterset, iowa Alfred bester Is alive and well and living in winTerset, iowa alFred bester is alive and well and living in winterset, iOwa alfRed besteR is alivE And well and living In winterSet, iowa alfred bester is alive and well and living in winterset, iOwa alfred bester is alive aNd well and living in winterSet, iowa alfred bester is alive and WEll and living in Winterset, iowA alfred bester is alive and well aNd living in winTerset, iowa alfred besTer is alive and well and living in winterset, iOwa alfred besteR is alivE and well and living in winterSeT, iowa

I open the first message.

I'm in the gray room. It's used for their therapy programs. They jack you in, and your eyes guide you through their exercises. Sometimes it's Nurse Dubedat's voice guiding me, other times I just follow the Eldertech icons. Sometimes I sit in the gray room for what feels like days.

Now it's empty. I'm alone. I feel ....

I open my eyes and I see

in a sienna suit and skinny tie.

The man reaches forward, but somehow can't reach me. I look at my own hand, gnarled, riddled with age, spotted like it was stained by spilled coffee.

Next the man speaks. He says, "Mr. Buchanan, my name is Israel Lennox. Can you speak? Can you tell me where you are?"

I cough. I strain my vocal chords, and in a reedy voice say, "No."

Lennox smiles. "You're disoriented. It'll take a while for you to adjust, and you can expect some rather severe and vivid...episodes."

I look around. The gray room remains the gray room. Lennox remains Lennox. In the corner is a goon, someone impatient with Lennox. He's tall, mop-headed, and currently examining his patent leather shoes. A government man; a civil servant.

Lennox says, "I'm going to ask you some questions. They will help you orient yourself in the present. We should have anywhere from five to fifteen minutes for the interview."

"Interview?" I whisper.

"I'll explain in a bit. First, can you tell me your full name?"

"Stuart Buchanan."

"Good. Your age?"

"Eighty-eight, I believe."

"Eighty? Oh. That's okay, Mr. Buchanan. A few lapses are bound to appear. We have you as ninety-four years old."

"What?"

"We'll return to that .... "

I don't want to return to it. I want to talk about it now. "I'm ninety-four years old?! What year is this?"

"Mr. Buchanan, please. We're on a strict time budget. We've managed to stem an acute swelling of your cerebral cortex, and stimulated your memory and speech centers, but we need to ask you some more questions while we still can."

I decide it's best to stand at attention. Or am I? I'm in the gray room, Lennox is in a chair, the goon is behind him, and I'm...where?

"Please, Mr. Buchanan. Everything will be explained during the interview, if we have the time. Please, if you would just go to your eye icon. It will help you, and us, to understand."

I go to the eye. I look away quickly, then back. A 2-D image assembles in front of me. I minimize it and move it off to the left of Lennox. He asks, "Who is this, please?"

"It's me, in 1959, during basic training in the U.S. Army. It was the beginning of two awful years."

"How were they awful?"

"It was when I learned, or maybe gave up on...why are you asking me that?"

"It's not important. Not yet. Please scroll to the next image."

I look down at an > and hold on it. My nineteen-year-old face dissolves but nothing replaces it.

"What's wrong?" I ask.

"Nothing. Much of your network has degenerated since its installation, some of it past usable levels. We've established a make-shift substitute, tying into the old workings, but there will be delays." The goon snorts behind Lennox. Lennox shoots him a look. "This is my colleague, Henry Hassel. He's anxious for results."

"What results?" And then an image of Sima appears in place of the army I.D. It's her last passport photo, taken just before the trip to England, while she was pregnant, before the accident. She thought she looked drugged in the picture.

"That's your wife, Sima Buchanan, née Morgan, isn't it?" Lennox asks.

"Yes."

"What year?"

"2005, I think."

"December, '04," Lennox corrects.

"'04."

"You were married when you were sixty, correct?"

"Yes."

"And she was forty-one?"

"Yes. What's your point?"

"No point, Buchanan. I'm just testing the new networks. We've got a lot of ground to cover, and I want to be sure you're up for it. Can you identify the next image, please?"

Already I know it's going to be Jemmy. Lennox's weasly eyes narrow. He's trying to guess what I'm thinking, gauge if he's going too fast, if he ought to try a different direction. Maybe he can tell I'm getting annoyed, that he's keeping too much from me. I decide to just ask.

"This is about Jemmy, right? Who are you, and why do you need me?"

Lennox's eyebrows shoot up. Hassel sidles up behind him and sighs. Lennox casts a perturbed look over his shoulder, still in charge, though when he looks back at me his expression softens. He goes all gentle.

"Yes, Mr. Buchanan, it's about your daughter. We believe she is in serious danger."

"So what? She's been in danger ever since she started working for you guys. What are you, CIA?"

Lennox looks surprised again. "We're not exactly with the government, Mr. Buchanan. At least, not in the way you'd think. I know that you and your daughter have not Been on speaking terms for some time, but .... "

"Damn right. She dumped me in this place. A veteran's hospital. Is there anything worse? You come in here telling me that I'm ninety-four years old and that my daughter's in danger. You better start explaining, or I'm logging off."

"Mr. Buchanan. Please. You can't log off. You don't understand the situation, your position. Things have changed since you were truly lucid. Do you even follow current events? Are you aware of the current chaos in our government? Jemmy was high clearance. Much of the technology that's allowing us to communicate right now was developed by Jemmy and her husband. The whole Eldertech program grows out of their research. Many of the Eldertech recipients, such as yourself, are storing...er, strategically significant data. Peter was working with us before he disappeared, as was Jemmy, transferring intelligence. So you see, we're up against a strict timetable. We've got to find Jemmy while we still can. If we still can."

"Look, Lennox. I don't have a clue who you are, or whether anything you're telling me is true. Probably not. But if you know anything about me and my daughter, then you'd know that coming to me is a waste of time."

Lennox smiles. "No, Mr. Buchanan. We know quite a bit about you and your daughter, and that's precisely why we came to you. You will be able, with our help, to locate Jemmy quickly. After all, she sent you messages."

"She sent me those messages?"

"Indeed. Mr. Buchanan, look: if we have the time I'll explain everything I can, but I've got to ask you a few questions first. Please, I want you to tell me about

"Where you going, Mister?"

In the front seat is a tough-looking kid, maybe seventeen, or a little older, his T-shirt sleeves rolled up to reveal freckled biceps. There's a cigarette in his thin and curling lips. His red hair is greased into a fierce pompadour. Next to him is a girl who looks all of twelve. It's hot in the car, even for November, but she wears a brown and orange plaid jacket. Her hair is greasy and obscures half her face. She doesn't look back at me.

I look around. We're on a paved highway, the sun is high. I roll my eyes, looking for icons, and find nothing. I feel...I feel great. Completely lucid, only at a complete loss.

"Mister?" the kid says again. "Where you going?" His voice is high, like Mickey Rooney convincing his cronies to put on a show.

"I'm not going anywhere," I say. "Where's Lennox? What happened?"

"Lennox? I don't know any Lennox."

"The questioning man. Brown coat, small neck."

"Look, Mister, you got in my car. Do you need a ride or not ?" The kid snaps his eyes between the road and the rearview mirror. He shifts his weight, sitting up to appear taller.

I don't know if I need a ride. I don't know what I'm doing here or how I got here. It must be some aspect of the gray room, but it feels real enough. Times have changed so much; I'm not sure if I'd even know the difference between hallucinating and virtual reality. Perhaps what I'm experiencing is virtual senility?

"I'm looking for my daughter," I say. "Where are we?"

The kid relaxes a little. He says, "You tell me, old man. We're outside some small town in Iowa. Wintertime, or something. You were just standing on the side of the road. You lost?"

An odd moment passes. What was I doing? Was I wandering away from the hospital in a state of dementia? How'd I even get out the door? What should I tell the kid? Should I ask him to take me back?

"I'm...I'm looking for my daughter, Jemmy Marko."

"Marko," the kid says, considering, "that name is familiar."

"Really? It's an odd name, one you don't hear too often. Her husband's name is Peter."

The kid's face falls. "Peter Marko? The Pi-guy? I shoulda killed that son-of-a .... "

The girl's head jerks toward the kid. "Jimmy," she whispers.

The kid takes his right hand from the wheel and cocks it over his left shoulder, like he means to backhand her. "I told you not to say my name!"

It's quiet. No one says a word. The kid glares at the girl. Finally he says, "Just sit there. Don't say a thing! Pretend you're not here. Pretend you're not even a person. You're a robot, or something. And take off that stupid jacket, it must be 98 degrees freaking Fahrenheit."

The girl makes a whimpering noise, brushes the hair from her eyes, always looking down. Then, defiantly, she reaches over and snaps on the radio.

The radio crackles and then an announcer's voice erupts from the speaker.

"...goes out to Vice President Nixon, standing in for Ike in the hospital. The Russians may have the Sputniks, but we have Great Balls of Fire!" Then Jerry Lee Lewis starts to growl.

The kid turns off the radio and then reaches for something under the seat. In a moment he's up and twisting around, aiming a sawed-off shotgun in my face. He says, "Make a wish," and then he pulls the trigger.

I open my eyes in the gray room. A fat pasty man sits in front of me frowning.

"There you are, Buchanan. We lost you for a minute," he says.

"Who are you?"

"Dr. Lennox, remember? Think back. We were talking, but there was interference in our connection."

"But you're not Lennox. I remember." He's so different. This man looks more like the man identified by Lennox as Henry Hassel. I look over the fat man's shoulder, but this time there's no one else in the gray room.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Buchanan, but your memory has become extremely corrupted. I'm doing my best to help you, but .... "

"Wait a minute," I say. "Who was that kid? He shot at me! Am I all right?"

"Mr. Buchanan, stay calm. I think it may be possible that you are, in the words of your daughter, skipping files. You remember that we're looking for your daughter, right?"

I nod.

"Good. This is part of the process. It's how we want you to help us look. But you've got to concentrate. I need you to stay with me for as long as you can. I'm running as many searches in your databases as I can, but you're overloaded with the messages Jemma sent you. Many of them are encoded in what is almost crude basic programming. We've hacked into DefenseNet, but all we can get from them in terms of I.D. is '1957.'"

I look at this Lennox. He's sweating. His upper lip shimmers and he wipes it with a meaty paw. A roll of fat under his chin nearly covers his collar and the knot of his tie. He seems to have a slight twitch, followed by a quick blink.

I look down. The icons are all back, but at the far right there's a new one. Lennox begins talking again.

"Tell me about yourself, Mr. Buchanan. What kind of man are you?"

"What kind of man.?" I ask. "What's that got to do with anything?"

"A lot. You must be with us. It helps if you're focused. Talking."

I think about this some, wondering if I'm in any position to do anything else. I reach, out a hand and try to touch Lennox, but he's somehow just out of reach. I look at the new icon, and looking at it say, "I'm the kind of man who dies alone. The kind of man who specializes in mistakes." Then I open the icon.

There are times when my heart races for no reason. Or for no reason I can identify. There may be someone in my room, or I may be eating, and suddenly I'm filled with apprehension. But it's been this way for years. I've always considered it a part of getting old. I attribute it to stray memories. Maybe something, a scent or a flash of light, that reminds me of Sima, or how it felt when the police told me I couldn't see her broken body. And times before that. Like when I was a kid hitchhiking my way to New York for a science fiction convention and the first car pulled over. Or how I felt when I was waiting for Jemmy to be born. That's what I attribute it to, anyway.

There are also times that go on for just a moment, and when I look up a day has passed. I receive certain medications. Paranol, for instance. There are times when Nurse Dubedat brings in the meds, says, "It's good to see you this morning," leaves, then walks in a moment later. She'll say, "It's good to see you this morning," and I'll say, "but you just said that!" And she'll say, "Mr. Buchanan," and purse her lips and roll her eyes, "I haven't been in since yesterday." Then she'll tell me how much better I'm doing.

Now my heart races though I'm not thinking of anything in particular. My eyes sting and the familiar smell of tobacco, long absent from my world, surrounds me, hugs me, makes me warm and comfortable. I sit down in the arms of the cloud.

There's a general din, glasses clanking, laughter, voices rumbling, and above it all, the nasal percussion of a man's voice, with a Brooklyn accent, reading. The voice is familiar, like a recording I've heard before.

I turn my head toward it, and through smoke, through other heads craning to see, I catch a glimpse of Solon Aquila, the beat poet.

"HimmelHerrGottSeiDank!" he yells. "I'm crazy, man, crazy. Eclectic, by God. The Weltmann type, nicht wahr? My ideal: Goethe. Tout le monde. God damn."

I squint, trying to figure this scene out. It's him, all right. Solon Aquila. Even though I know he's been dead since the late '90's. But what's stranger is that he's young, like in the early photos of him in New York with Odysseus Gaul. Around the time Gaul wrote On the Road. From the comer of the room comes the mad sound of bongos banging erratically.

A waitress with a brown tray bumps my table and says, "What'll it be?"

She's tall, and wearing what looks like a one-piece cat suit. She has amber hair that falls in cascading curls around her face. Her eyes are heavy-lidded, like Galatea Galante, the film star from the fifties.

I don't know what to say. I look down, up again, back down, thinking about icons, about the gray room. There's nothing. I'm in a bar somewhere. After a moment she says, "Come on, old man, you want a Ballantine or what?"

I say, "Lennox?"

She says, "You can call me whatever you want as long as you order something."

"I'm looking for my daughter," I say quickly. "Her name is Jemmy Marko."

The waitress's eyes bug out. "Jemmy Marko?! JEMMY MARKO?!" She pulls a chair out from the other side of my table, and steps up on it. Then she climbs up onto the table above me. I don't know what to do. I stand up, step back.

Heads swivel as she mounts the table and extends her arms. She's up on her toe-tips, throwing her head back like she's a diver on the cliffs of Brazil. She yells, "You will see something new! After Drink One and Drink Two!" Then she bends at the knees, flexes her muscles and leaps toward me from the table. I hardly have time to reach up to her, or to duck, when two strange little creatures dash out from under the table and catch her. They look like miniature clowns with blue fright wigs. Their faces are taut and old, with skin like antique paper. They set the waitress on the ground and proceed to tear the bar apart, first knocking over my table and chairs, then flinging bottles and cans of beer at people's heads. They move so fast it's hard to keep your eyes on them, bouncing from table to chair to bar to floor to stage, queer participants in some kind of savage video game.

Solon Aquila, still on the stage, yells, "I've seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness .... "

Drink One and Drink Two run full tilt from the stage toward me, and they are screaming as they do so.

In brightest day
In blackest night
     No evil shall
  escape our sight
 Let those
who worship
evil's might
  Beware our power
  Beware our light

A police officer pushes his way in through the front door, calling for everyone to stay put, but it's pandemonium. People are ducking behind the overturned tables, and running for any available exit. Glasses and windows shatter.

Then Drink One knocks me over, and Drink Two kicks me on the side of the head.

It's dark. I'm afraid that something serious has happened to me. I can't feel my hands or my feet, or I can, but they feel infinite, like they extend for miles. I can't move my head. I look down, and there are the icons again. An odd row of symbols, hovering against a black field. Some are familiar, most are new.

I look at one and then another, but nothing is happening, none of them open.

Still, I'm thinking, I'm remembering, and that at least is something. It's time, I think, to look at facts, at what I think I know.

I know that I am old, perhaps older than I'd thought. I know that I'm infirm, that I live in a hospital. I know that I am connected to something like an Internet; possibly, though, something military in nature. There are people who may be guiding me through programs, virtual realities, absurd scenes that don't make a lot of sense.

When I ask about my daughter, I get violent reactions.

I know that I am in pain. My head is throbbing, on fire where the little clown kicked me. My chest is also burning, but at some kind of remove. It feels like mild heartburn, around the area where that boy, James, James Vandeleur, the infamous serial killer, pointed his shotgun.

And I am hearing voices. Pieces of a conversation.

"Establishing link," "Nothing substantial," "Few hours," "The nanotech," "Isolate degenerate matter," "Creative hyper links," "Buchanan," "Bester," "Shouldn't be this hard," "Coming on line, we should have...."

These words cut across my consciousness like lightning, like bursts of static on a radio. Now I want to stay in the darkness. Now I don't want to see the faces connected to those voices. Now I don't want to be a puppet any longer.

I look at the envelope icon, look away, then stare at it hard. Nothing. I do it again, and then again. The messages, I think. I've got to get to them, open them. But there are so many. I look away from the icon, and back again. I will it to open. If it does, it does so gently, and I feel as though I'm falling asleep, the voices receding, the darkness swallowing me like a great whale.

Here is a familiar scene, a reunion, of sorts. There's the four of us sitting around a table ....

For years after I got out of the army, and, in fact, before I went in, I wanted to write science fiction. Once, in 1957, when I was seventeen, I hitchhiked my way out to New York for a convention. I wanted to meet the Guests of Honor, Alfred Bester and Cyril Kornbluth. Bester didn't show. But it was there that I met Lela Machan, Nathan Riley, and George Hamner. They edited a small fan magazine from their shared apartment in Edgewater, New Jersey, and somehow I'd become one of their subscribers after reading an ad in the back of one of the pulps. They seemed so glamorous when I first met them because they were all in their early twenties. I'd fostered hopes they would publish a story of mine, though when I finally sat with them, as I would many times, around some anonymous kitchen table or a booth in a bar, they tore my work apart.

In fact only one of us would ever have anything printed professionally, and that was Lela. One of her historical romances about Ben Hur.

"I...I thought you were all dead," I say, looking at each of them.

"Dead?" says Nathan Riley. "Dead? We're still right here, Stuart. What's dead is the plot to this new story of yours. Dead and decomposing."

"What plot?" I ask.

"This story, alfreD bester Is alive and well and liviNG in wINterset, iowa."

I stare at Nathan, unsure what to say to him, unsure if it really is him. It sure looks like him. It sure sounds like him.

"It's a sticky mess," Nathan says. "There may be no sorting it out."

I start to object, but George Hamner, his bald head gleaming, says, "He's right, you know, Stuart. It's all wacky."

Lela says, "Let me help." She grabs a stapled manuscript out of George's hand.

"Okay, you've got some kind of tech-interface with the human brain, and you're looking for your daughter, I mean, your character, Jonathan's daughter, who's sent you messages."

"A lot of messages," George adds. "About Alfred Bester! You know, I finally did meet him. It was in Ireland, of all places, in 1978, at the writer's conference."

"Really?" asks Nathan. "I don't think I ever got to see him. And even if I did, I probably wouldn't have been able to say anything to him. I would have just stood there in awe."

"You guys, we're talking about Stuart, or at least his story," says Lela. Then she turns back to me. "We can talk about what Bester represents in the story later. Right now, let's just hit the plot."

"Well, it's just nutty," says George. "He's supposed to be, what, ninety-something years old?"

"You know what would help?" says Nathan. "If we just stopped and threw this story out." The three of them laugh, like they always do, at someone's expense. "No, really, Stu, maybe you ought to have the main character, the 'you' character, want to die. Maybe he's real sick. Maybe his daughter is sending him some kind of virus. A sort of mercy killing online ? Pretty good, huh?"

"No, no," Lela says. "I like the state intrigue. I like it that you don't know who these people are who are after the daughter. You've never had a great deal of respect for government, have you, Stu?"

"No," says George. "That's what's wrong with the story. Nathan's right. It should be simple. Between the father and the daughter."

Lela shakes her head. Her red hair shivers on her shoulders. "But it's the trouble that the daughter is in that gives the story its interest, its gravity, don't you think? I mean, he's trying to find her, to rediscover her, maybe for the last time."

"Well, why doesn't he just interface and follow the tracks of the sphinx?"

"That's what he's trying to do, right, Stu? There're complications. He's sort of stuck in a loop of 1957, right?"

"Yes." George now looks at me, with his nose wrinkled, like he'd smelled something foul. It's the look he gives bad movies. "What's with the 1957 stuff?"

"Well it's us, right?" asks Nathan. "1957 is the year we met. It is the BESTER virus, after all."

"Who said anything about a Bester-virus?" I ask.

"Oh, God save us all from Alfred Bester," George says. "I still can't believe that pompous ass pulled the disappearing act on us."

Nathan clears his throat. We can all tell that he's about to deliver his ten best science fiction writers speech. Quickly Lela asserts herself in the conversation. "Bester's problem was that he was enamored with the patriarchal ideal of power-hungry capitalists. You, of all people, Stuart, should be sensitive to that, what with Sima's political bent."

"Sima!" George yells. "Now we're on to it. You know, Stuart, if I didn't know this was all B.S., I'd think you were writing your autobiography." He waves his hands at me letting me know that he's got a point, not to interrupt just yet. "You really ought to write about her. That's where your feelings are, where the guts are. It's what's missing from the story. Conflict. Emotion. Passion. You need to bring in your dead wife."

"What?"

"Your dead wife, Stuart. That's what this is all about, isn't it? Not really the daughter. I mean the 'you' character, what's his name? Jonathan Strapp in the story. He's you, right? Well, he needs his Sima, his dead wife."

"What are you talking about?" I'm having a hard time with this. It's so nice to spend time with old friends that the circumstances are almost completely lost on me. These, after all, are probably not my friends, if I think of it. They sound just like them, look just like them, know things about me that they ought to know, but what, exactly, is going on? Why are they here? I feel like I keep falling asleep and waking up in different dreams.

"This really isn't like you, Stuart," George says.

"Not like me? Why?"

"Well, look. I mean, this could be a very successful story. There are so many of these around today. They're very popular."

"What do you mean, 'these stories'?"

"Alternate histories."

That's Nathan's cue to jump back into the conversation. "This isn't alternate history, it's just history. Stuart's just disguising things, calling them by different names. Look, there's James Vandeleur for Charlie Starkweather. And the Beatniks. That's the best part. Odysseus Gaul. That's great. He's Jack Kerouac, right?"

"Who?"

"Jack Kerouac. Didn't you tell me that he was on a bus you took the last bit of the way into New York? When you first met us? He was on his way from San Francisco or something."

I'm thinking about this when Nathan starts up again. Just like Nathan. Once he gets started, he doesn't like to stop.

"And didn't Dr. Seuss put out Cat in the Hat in 1957?"

Now I'm very confused. "Dr. Who?"

"Dr. Seuss! Kid's books." Nathan guffaws at me. "Oh hell. It doesn't matter, Stu. The point is, you ought to bring in the wife. It'll add drama. You have to deal with her. Bring her outta the closet. She's got something to do with finding the daughter. She must. Right, Lela?"

Lela says, "I'm not so sure."

"Sure you're sure," Nathan says. He likes feeling right, or like he even has a point, it happens so rarely. "It'll be like a self-help article. Dealing with grief.

"In a representative democracy, an ideal, you, the individual, manipulate the government, right? But here, the government manipulates you. So, the government manipulates you, government precedes culture, culture elaborates technology, and technology created us we you them together.

"You used to talk a lot about paranoia and truth, Stuart. Let's talk about truth."

"The truth?" I say. I'm stunned, again by the changes around me, by the fact that I'm talking to my deceased wife. Or at least to her image. Her image asking me to talk about the truth.

"The truth, Stuart. For instance, did I die, or did I leave you?"

"What do you mean? You died! Death brings us to the realization that the world isn't really about individuals. When you died, it wasn't something you did to me. I have some problems with ego, but I'm not so selfcentered as to think...."

"Aren't you? Isn't everyone? Grief has its component of anger. Weren't you angry?'

"Sure, I was angry. But mostly for Jemmy."

"Oh, come on. Even you have some access to your own feelings, Stuart. You weren't angry with me for leaving you alone with a one-and-a-half-year-old child ?"

"Of course. She kept saying 'Mommie.' What was I supposed to tell her?"

"Didn't you know how to bring me back?"

"What ?"

"I'm here, now."

"You're not here. This is...like a dream. Some digital and psychological contrivance. Something conjured by nanotech and my imagination. And besides, if anyone is responsible for this, it's Jemmy. She's the one who sent me all those messages, all that information. Maybe some kind of virus. She's the reason you're here, not me. And I was looking for her, not you."

"But here I am."

"Here you are."

"Am I Jemmy's wish to return to childhood, or your desire to fix the past? To apologize to your daughter."

"What are you talking about? You're a program."

She's quiet for a moment, but her image haunts me, pulls at my heart. I'm at an emotional carnival. Old friends, whole experiences on parade. Do I bring them up, or are they ordered, part of a program meant to ferret out information? Is Lennox leading this, sitting beside my bed, drawing me into dream after dream, consulting a dossier filled with places, dates, events? Are they examining this Bester virus, or just letting the information run its course, hoping it will lead them to Jemmy? Did they, perhaps, give me this virus? Is it a virus? Or some new version of interrogation? One where you question yourself?

But here is Sima. Exactly the same as she was, as she is, in my memory. I feel now like I haven't felt in years. In pain, alive, sorry for myself. Her dark hair falls over her right eye and she brushes it away. She looks exactly the same. Like her passport picture.

"Stuart, look around you. Where are we now?"

"I think...I...we're in some kind of laboratory. A high-tech virtual space. I don't know."

"You're in a satellite, Stuart. What are you doing in a satellite?"

I don't know what to say.

"How did I die, Stu?"

"What?"

"Tell me how I died."

"You were crushed, under a satellite that crashed into our kitchen roof."

"You weren't home, were you?"

"No."

"And Jemmy was with you?"

"Yes."

"Stuart, you couldn't know this, I couldn't tell you before now, but the emergency crews arrived before the accident. I saw them parked across the street. Do you know why they were there?"

"No idea."

"Because of OBO. You weren't allowed into the crash site for two weeks, right? You never saw the body."

"That's right."

"That was OBO. The crash was because of OBO."

"Who?"

"OBO. Orbiting Biological Observatory. A satellite. But not just a satellite. A sentient entity. OBO. Developed in the early seventies, launched in '73, under the same umbrella funding Jemmy worked for much later, but still, that's the connection. The FBI told you it was accidental, that the orbit of the satellite that fell had decayed in an erratic fashion, much sooner that expected. But it was OBO's doing. What happened immediately after the crash was information retrieval; nanotech, experimental intelligence. OBO wanted me. He...he had a crush on me."

"What?"

"He had a crush."

"Had a crush?"

"Yes. He had fallen madly in love. OBO has connections. He can control flight patterns."

"This is ridiculous! Lennox? Are you still here?"

I look around me. Dash past Sima, or the image of Sima, to the end of the tubular room, and look out...the window?

Below me is the Earth, the crest of atmosphere glowing like a halo.

"Lennox!"

Sima sighs, "You're still the same, Stuart. You know that? I should have seen it when I married you. What are you now? Ninety-four?"

"What?"

"Oh, for God's sake. 'Alfred Bester is Alive and Well,' right? Do you think we haven't been involved? That we haven't been watching Jemmy and Peter? Guiding them, correcting them? Do you think I wouldn't take an interest in my family and my government?"

"This is silly!"

"No, this is you refusing to look at the truth. The truth, Stuart. You're still concerned with normalcy, with what's possible in your little world. Well, that is something that's changed in you since you were a child. What if you're able to make wishes again, Stuart? What if they could come true?"

"Okay. This isn't silly, it's insane."

I look down at the floor, at something closer' to me. They're back. Icons.

Where is home? What does that even mean? Am I at home in the Veterans' Hospital? Is Nurse Dubedat my family? I'm dwelling on what I've lost.

Home.

I'm afraid to open my eyes now. Afraid of who I'll see, or where I'll end up. Afraid of more questions, and no answers that make any sense. At least now, I can be with only myself, at least for the moment. It feels like an hour since I saw Sima's face. Since the hallucination/projection of the satellite laboratory. I want this absurd journey to finally end. I want to know what's going on.

Again, I open my eyes.

Before me, in the gray room, Jemmy sits in the chair once occupied by Lennox. Her head is down, her brown/blond hair is disheveled. It looks stringy and unwashed. She seems defeated, exhausted.

I reach out to her, but again, like Lennox, she is just out of reach, somehow in front of me, but beyond me. She is dressed in a white jumpsuit, the kind of thing you might give a patient, or a prisoner.

I say, softly, "Jemmy."

Her head comes up slowly, hair covering parts of her face, her eyes, but it is her, it is Jemmy.

So where are they? Where are Lennox, and Hassel? The intelligence armies? The dogs at the gates? How did I find Jemmy? Why is she in the gray room?

Jemmy looks at me and says, "Oh my God." A tear runs down her cheek, and she begins wringing her hands in her lap.

I say, "Jemmy."

"I can't believe he did it. He really did it." Something snaps behind Jemmy's blurred eyes, like an idea has just occurred to her. She sits up straight, alert now, wiping the tears from her cheek and sniffing. There's the familiar air of defiance that I remember.

"What's your name?" she says.

"It's me, your father."

"Say your name!"

"Jemmy, we need to talk."

"Just say your name, damn it!"

"Stuart Buchanan, your father. All right? It's me."

She stares at me, then looks away, biting her lip. After a minute she's scrutinizing me again. "Am I in? Am I back on?" Her eyes dart back and forth, they close, look down and up, down and up again. "I'm on. I'm on. How did you get in here?"

"Jemmy," I say.

She doesn't talk. Now she's moving her arms, eyes still darting. Something happens to the gray room. It shifts subtly, doesn't seem to be a room any longer. Jemmy is starting to stand up. She's trying to leave.

But I don't let her go. I hold her in our crucible. I move to dislocate her from her reality, will her to stay with me.

"Jemmy, I've been looking for you."

"Well, you haven't found me. You can't have found me."

The room settles back into its formal gray cube.

"Jemmy, talk to me. I'm your father, for God's sake."

"You're not my father. At least, not anymore. You don't even know, do you?"

"Know what? Jemmy, talk to me."

She shakes her head, mutters, "Steve." She waves her arms frantically, punching at the air.

"I won't let you go, Jemmy."

She closes her eyes, puts her hands in her lap, and balls them into fists.

"Jemmy."

She opens her eyes. This time she raises her right hand slowly, deliberately, determined to try new processes, new escape routes. I don't think this matters, and somehow, it doesn't.

"Jemmy, let me help you."

She moves her hand to her temple, rubs it as though to soothe an aching head.

She sighs. "My name's not Jemmy. There you go. It's not even a name. No one's named 'Jemmy.' It's a password. Just like 'Stuart Buchanan.' It's my connection to you."

"Jemmy, I don't know what you mean."

She shrinks back down. Back into the resigned Jemmy I saw when I first opened my eyes.

"Think," she says. "Think about who you are."

"Who I am? I'm Stuart Buchanan."

"That's not your name. It's the name of a furniture store! Not a person. No. My dad is not Stuart Buchanan. I'll tell you who he is. He's a crotchety old prick of a man, who alienated my mother a year before she died of breast cancer; a man who handed me over to his wife's sister because he was too much of a selfish bastard to make concessions.

"Jesus. I spent years of my life trying to impress you. Why do you think I even went into the sciences in the first place? Because of you and your private fantasy world of, discoveries and popular science. I thought if you read about me in your magazines, you might want to know me.

"And where are you now? Stuck in a nursing home in Iowa. Feebleminded and incontinent. You don't know what day it is, and you don't know your name."

"Jemmy. My name is Stuart Buchanan. You are Jemmy Marko, my daughter."

The tear is back on Jemmy's cheek. She wipes it away.

"You are not my father. You're a virus. A computer virus, all right? You don't even...damn it! I don't have time for this."

"I won't let you go, Jemmy. I've found you. It's what Lennox said I'm to do. But I wanted to see you for myself, not just for Lennox. They said you were in trouble. They needed me to find you."

"Yes, I know. There are a lot of people looking for me. But Steven must have known, he must have sent you to my father."

"Jemmy, what do you mean by calling me a virus?"

She sighs again. "Like I said, 'Jemmy' is a password. It's my password. My husband's was 'Peter Marko."

"Peter Marko? The Pi-Man?"

"Yes. He designed the Bester virus. You."

"Bester?"

She looks at me again. I'm suddenly self-conscious. I must look a wreck. An old man, returning to his daughter after years of neglect.

"Will you let me run a survey?" she says.

"Do what you want," I say. "But you can't jaunt off-line. I only just found you, I can't let you go."

"Jaunt off-line," she says, and purses her lips. "You talk like Steven." Then she moves her eyes, her thumb and her forefinger. It looks like sign-language.

"Oh, God," she says. "You have to let me out. Dad...Stuart, how long have you been running?"

"What do you mean?"

"I mean I can't find the install...you can't have been running since...Stuart! Tell me who killed Peter Marko?"

I flash on the getaway car, on the angry kid and his weird robotic partner. "James Vandaleur," I say.

Jemmy's mumbling to herself. "Who's Vandaleur? Where's the date...where's the connection?"

"Jemmy," I say, "I'm not here to hurt you. I want to help. I know I've been an awful father. I was never there for you. But I'm here for you now. Talk to me. Tell me what I should do."

"Listen to me. You are not real. You are a virtual intelligence, a computer virus. You are named Stuart Buchanan after a short story by Alfred Bester. Stuart Buchanan was a child who could make his own wishes come true."

"Do I look like a little kid?"

"That's just it. You're mutated. Adapted to your host. You're activated by opening messages in a host body, creating networks. That body is organic. My dad's body. But the network is virtual. Steven did most of the delivery development."

"Steven?"

"My husband. 'Peter Marko.' The virus is administered with codes and string passages that make reference to the work of Alfred Bester."

She's paranoid, raving, creating stories to substitute for a painful past. But why shouldn't she be paranoid? People are after her. I'm after her. And this crazy conversation is no stranger than meeting her mother on a satellite. I want to shock her into a recognition of her delusion, to show her, somehow, that I am really her father. A real man who lived an entire life. A failed man, perhaps. Maybe even failing still, but a real person.

"Tell me more," I say.

"Steven created you as a kind of radical insurgence. I didn't think he'd ever set you loose, but he did. Things are worse. He must have sent you to my father just before they picked him up. Just before...."

"Jemmy, where are you now?'

"Underground. No connections, no interfacing...at least until just now. I don't know how it's happened. And you! Look at these port interfaces. There are thousands...you've been talking to satellites, crossing borders, skipping files. These connections are listed as Steven's character names. They're your I.D.'s."

"What do you mean?"

"When you interface, you sequester the sites as names from Alfred Bester stories. Things like 'Odysseus Gaul,' or 'Lela Machan.'"

"Why would Peter...your, husband, do this? You're saying that my memories, my consciousness, is some kind of a weapon?"

"No. Well...sort of. Steven and I work for the Defense Department. You were meant to be chaotic, mutable, and adaptive. You grew in relation to each interface. It's fractal engineering. Steven's specialty, not mine."

"Jemmy, this is ridiculous. I'm a person. I've lived a life. I remember it. I'm a normal man with an extraordinary daughter. Look, when you and Peter came to me with the chance to reconnect with life through the VA and the Eldertech programming, I jumped at it. I'm still a senile mess, but without these connections, I wouldn't even know your name."

"Where do you think that money came from? The millions of dollars to install nanotech in the infirm and elderly? The Defense Department! That's our biggest contract. And why do you think the Defense Department would be interested in a marginal population?"

"Because we're not marginal! We're baby-boomers. We have all the money! We want quality lives and quality deaths. I'm a little bit older than that group, born in 1940, but it's what makes the world go around."

"You're not completely real, Stuart. Dad. Please. You've got to let me go. I know enough now to get away, if you'll let me. Steven knew you'd come for me. I think he may have sent you as a messenger. Think of it, Dad. You've been so disappointed in life, wanting to be a writer and failing. Failing as a father. I'm sorry, but it's true. Use the parts of you that you took from my Dad, and think about what you've done. Think of what you are now. About what you could be. Stuart Buchanan, a kid who could wish for things, and make them come true. A computer connection. The Word made Flesh."

Here is a mental exercise I'm entertaining as I look down into, up from, across a room in a veteran's hospital. There is my old emaciated body, with a wrist-band that has a nondescript Mid-Western name printed on it, the back of the head with a number of mechanisms emerging from the scalp. Around the bed are machines, nurses, and doctors. Also, a man I think of as Israel Lennox, though which one is Lennox changes from time to time.

Lennox is thanking me now for helping his organization, such as it is, locate Jemmy Marko. I make the old mouth say, "I didn't help you."

But here is the exercise, the question brought to me by my sphinx. Suppose, as my daughter Jemmy said, I am the Word made Flesh, a manifestation of programming combined with biology. Is it, in effect, any different from having been a character in a story that could wish for anything and have it come true? Suppose, for instance, that I had wished more than anything to be a real person, with normal problems and a normal family. That would certainly mean facing disappointment and failure.

Perhaps now, on the other side, my wish would be to return to childhood, to remain forever enchanted, full of possibilities. And I would chase away my pursuers and set them on some eternal treadmill, a path to nowhere.

Often, I think I might choose to only exist between covers, only in the minds of readers, of real people, people with humor and grace and convictions. All of whom are disappointed and stuck. All of whom are human.

alfredD bester is Alive aNd well and livinG in wintERset, iowa.

It's all such a sticky mess.

An Interview with My Dead Wife

I haven't seen Sima in twenty-eight years, if I am, in fact, ninety-four years old. She died in the summer of 2006, two years after the birth of our daughter, Jemmy.

We were an odd couple. I was sixty and she was forty-one when we were married. It's funny, but when she was pregnant, I always thought it was irresponsible of me to have a child at my age. But the looks we got were invigorating. They made me feel strong and young, like I was seventeen. That's something when you're in your sixties. And besides, whose business was it, anyway?

I had thought that by the time Jemmy was a teenager, I'd be gone. But a freak accident took Sima from us in a moment. She was there, and then she wasn't. And then it was just Jemmy and me.

I'm afraid I wasn't the best single father. I panicked. I didn't know what to do. I would say that Jemmy basically raised herself. She and her Aunt and Uncle.

So, Sima. The wife I met at a science fiction convention, the woman who shared so many enthusiasms with me. What she says to me, now, really doesn't make any sense.

By Jonathan Strapp

Bret Bertholf lives in Denver, Colorado, and works for the Tattered Cover bookstore. He also plays in a rockabilly band and recently illustrated Allen Kurzweil's book for young readers, Leon and the Spitting Image. At the moment, he's working on The Long Gone Lonesome History of Country Music, an illustrated book for young readers. "Winterset" is his first published story and it's a doozy -- both an homage to the mind-bending fiction of Alfred Bester and an inventive tale in its own right. By the time this issue of ours hits the stands it should also be available in chapbook form from Wormhole Books.

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