Project Nemesis is pleased to announce a new page: The Daniel Ribot Story Collection. Dan has graciously given us the use of some his best short stories for your reading pleasure. He is also the Author of Vampsov 1938: A Spectre Haunting Europe available at Amazon now.
Daniel Ribot lives in Leicester in the United Kingdom and writes all kinds of stuff up to and including science fiction and urban fantasy. He is too fond of travelling and has spent long periods in France, Mexico, Spain and New Zealand as well as the rain-lashed British Isles. He also holds the only PhD in Mexican comic books on the Eurasian landmass. If the circumstance should arise that he develops any hobbies, interests or any of life’s significant milestones, he promises to let everyone know.
Isaac Asimov, Michael Moorcock and Jules Verne first fired Daniel’s imagination as a reader. His later explorations of particularly Latin American magical realism (Borges, Carpentier, Asturias, Garcia Marquez, Vargas Llosa and Bolaño), opened up his mind to the possibilities of fantasy as a vehicle to express serious ideas. He is a founder member of ‘The Speculators’ (Leicester’s SF/Fantasy writers group) and the Phoenix Writers. Daniel blogs (on writing, music and comics) at: http://floppybootstomp.wordpress.com
64 Deaths For Alistair by Daniel Ribot
64 Deaths For Alistair deals with a family’s grief over cot-death and how transporter technology can be used to bring the dead child back from the dead. The results are painful as well as redemptive, and mark the lives of all those involved. 64 Deaths is my attempt to bring melodrama into SF. I hope the combination works for you.
My name is Daniel Ribot and I have had a number of short stories published in small press magazines. My debut fantasy novel, Vampsov 38, (published by Omnium Gatherum)will appear in early 2013.
They had told me, time and again, that I would always be their baby. For mum and dad my childhood stretched across three decades, so I guess the phrase had a double meaning for them. My feeling as a boy was that, as well as being obvious, it had to be the natural state of things. How was I supposed to know that most children did not go to bed on a balmy June night in their Spider-man pyjamas only for the next morning to arrive in November, in a different set of clothes, with your parents two years older? It never confused me because I thought of it as the natural rhythm of life: Childhood stretched out for decades, adulthood swept past like a few fleeting instants. My first encounter with true normality took place when Dr Brook sat me in his office. I must have been about five or six…
“So Alistair, how are you today?”
“Great. Well, Alistair, I don’t know how to tell you this. It is probable you won’t understand what I’m saying but …” Dr Brook was fidgeting. Alistair liked him, he had frizzy red hair and a kind face.
“I’ve got a doggy.”
“Ahh, ohh. Well, let me put it this way then. How old is your doggy?”
“Three and a half months. He’s just a puppy, akshully, so me and dad have to train him because sometimes he’s naughty.”
“Right, well your doggy is now a bit older. He’ll be about a year old now because… because you have been asleep for a long, long time. When you get home, you will probably find he’s a much larger.”
“Is that the name of your puppy?”
“Well, Pippin will be a much bigger dog, you see, because you have been asleep for nine months.”
“I’m afraid so. I know it must be difficult, having to readjust every time and everything, but you have to understand what’s going on, otherwise you will just get so confused, won’t you?”
Suddenly, tears began to well up his my eyes. Dr Brook hugged me.
“I’ve missed Pippin’s birthday?”
“Oh, Alistair, I’m sure you haven’t.”
We named him Alistair in honour of his Scottish grandfather. He arrived after long years of trying, of frustration and of getting the runaround from all the medical experts we could find. Infertility had proved an expensive business. From treatments to counseling, money seemed to vanish at an alarming rate. We joked that he would be the priciest baby in the country, that he would be worth his weight in diamonds. Well, we could have gone on a lot more holidays and had a much more lavish lifestyle if we hadn’t been trying, I’ll tell you that much. In terms of the emotional cost, he’s also put us through the ringer, bless him. It wasn’t all his fault, though. By the time Jazmin got pregnant, our relationship had already been stretched to breaking point.
I try to remember the good times, to hang on to the positives. The first time the both of us met. It was as she hurried towards the city centre with her friends in fancy dress. It was December, she was on her sister’s hen night. Steve knew one of the girls from his work. We went over to chat to them. I was smitten. I didn’t know what to say to her. I hold on to that moment when things get really difficult. How her nose crinkled when she smiled, how her ears peeked from under her auburn hair. Her voice, soft yet ever so slightly throaty. I knew then that she was the one.
The good times are what you need to hang on to. Alistair’s arrival in this world was certainly the best. Holding him in my arms for the first time. It was the most wonderful experience in the world. I remember it all: how he squawked, that new baby smell. I cooed and whispered like an idiot, telling him how much I loved him. I swore I would protect this little bundle of fragile life, whatever the cost. It was a promise I have kept, regardless of the price it has extracted from me. From the entire family. I was so proud at his christening and when we took him to Australia to meet his grandparents! We were among the first tourists to use a teleporter to travel long distance. We figured it was so much easier that way than a six hour flight with a baby in tow. They spoilt him rotten down in Adelaide. Jazmin was glowing, full of maternal pride after the long years of disappointment. Me, I couldn’t stop smiling. All the videos we made of that visit show me grinning like an idiot, so proud of my perfect family. Did I realize back then that it was all too good to be true? I stare at the images of my former self. No idea, mate. You didn’t have a fucking clue.
“Wake up John! Quick! Wake up!”
“Wha …? Wassamater, what time is it?”
“It’s Ali! Get up, John, he’s not breathing!”
“Shit! Are you sure? Shit, shit, shit!”
“Look at him John! He’s blue! Not moving! Do something, for fuck’s sake!”
“Alistair! Alistair! Baby! This is Daddy! Wake up, darling. Come on!”
“What are you doing? For God’s sake don’t shake him like that!”
“Phone the ambulance, Jazmin! Get the fucking ambulance!”
“Oh God, John, please let him be alright…”
“Just get on that phone! Alistair, honey, listen to Daddy, you have to start breathing now. Alistair. Please. Oh, please, darling.”
The ambulance, to their credit, arrived in minutes; but by then it was already too late. I have never known pain like it. It sucked at my chest and filled my eyes with tears. The confusion, the impotence, the feeling that I had failed tiny Alistair, the one being in this world who depended on me for life itself. Alistair was pronounced dead at the hospital an hour later. Jazmin was in bits. It was left to me to phone the family and tell them the news. You want a feeling of total despair? Try phoning your parents to tell them their only grandchild is dead. I had to make three of those calls: to Jazmin’s parents, to my dad and to my mum who now lives in Spain with her toy-boy. Thankfully, dad took charge. He phoned round the rest of the family and arranged everything. He’s still a better, more practical father than I will ever be.
It was all a bit of a blur after that. The inquest seemed to take forever. Sudden Infant Death Syndrome was the official cause of death. In the end, the funeral was a curiously dispassionate affair. Perhaps because we were all cried out by then. On the other hand, it might just have been that aberrant outgrowth, the Anglo-Saxon stiff upper lip. For my part, I was numbed by the grief. There was also none of the banter you get at adult’s funerals. You couldn’t possibly say that Alistair had had a good innings or anything comforting like that. He hadn’t even strolled out of the pavilion, poor little soul. As the tiny coffin disappeared behind the curtain, Jazmin let out a cry. Half wail, half shriek it was. It broke my heart to hear it.
“Mr and Mrs Cornish? Welcome. Please come in, take a seat. Do you want anything to drink? Tea, coffee?”
“No thanks. You know why we are here, please tell us if you can help.”
Dr. Brook sighed. This was not a matter that he was comfortable dealing with. As was always the case at Neutrino Industries, the other partners dumped tricky situations onto his lap. Their arguments were always the same; he was the senior engineer and technician, he could explain all the technical stuff to the civilians. He, when all was said and done, was the largest shareholder. As he stared at the couple sitting in front him on the other side of his desk, he restrained the urge to fidget or pull at his shirt collar. He tried hard to focus on them and their problem rather than on his own awkwardness.
“Right”, he began, “I understand that you wish to access our data records for your last teleportation. Is that correct?”
“That’s right, Dr Brook. We need you to bring back our baby. Our son.”
“Yes. We were all impressed by your letter. We are so sorry for your loss. It is one of the reasons why I wanted to meet with you, to express my condolences. Additionally, I felt that we should discuss a number of practical matters arising from your request.”
“Our lawyers say that those records are our property. You have no right to just keep them without permission.”
“We would also like to tell you about Alistair. What beautiful little boy he was…” His mother leaned over the desk, presenting him with a fotokard. The moving image it displayed showed a little baby crawling and giggling in a garishly coloured playpen.
“That was taken just days before he passed away”, added the father. As if on cue, the grieving mother burst into sobs. Dr Brook’s hand made an instinctive grab for his shirt collar.
“Err… a beautiful child. Really, really sorry about this whole… thing, really. Awful. Really awful.”
“Please, Dr Brook. You are the one hope we have left.”
Dr Brook, regaining some of his composure, cleared his throat and arranged the papers on his desk. Using his most businesslike and authoritative tone of voice, he began to lecture his guests.
“Right, well, as you both know the teleporter journey to Australia your family took last year with Neutrino Transport Services is the key to this. We have kept a copy of your last hadron-electron scan; the one of your return journey, as we are legally required to do. We have to keep them for eighteen months, in accordance with the United Nations protocol governing this area of technology. Are you familiar with how teleportation works at all?”
Mrs Cornish leaned forward in her seat. Her voice made Dr Brook think of snapping guitar strings and he tried not to look into her eyes. “We know all we need to, doctor,” she took a sheaf of web printouts out of her bag and placed them on his desk “We checked everything we could. It works just like a matter replicator doesn’t it? The same principle…”
“Well… sort of.”
“So you can remake our baby again?”
“Yes, in theory. It would mean isolating his scan from yours, but that should not be a problem. Thing is though…”
“He would still be the same child. All the illnesses and weaknesses he had before will remain. As you know, Sudden Infant… cot death is still, by and large, an unknown area in medical science, particularly the type that your son suffered… suffers from. Teleporting can’t cure that. After the procedure, you would still have to be extra vigilant with Alistair. If we agree to do this, he still might die again later on. We would need to scan him regularly.”
“So what do you need?”
“I don’t know. Nobody has asked for this sort of thing before. Psychiatric reports on the both of you would help… I will also check what you said about the legal status of the scans. Apart from all that, it seems to me that we should try to bring Alistair back. It’s just a question of getting all the details right. I’ll call you next week and inform you of progress, before that if we get a quick decision either way. OK?”
“So, you’ll help us?”
“If I can.”
“Thanks, Doctor, my wife and I would like to say just how grateful we are. You are making our family whole again. I have no words strong enough to thank you for this. Bless you, Sir.”
After the grieving couple had left his office, Dr Brook buried his face in his hands. He foresaw all kinds of problems further down the line if this procedure went ahead. What a mess this was going to be. But, looking at the faces of those poor parents, begging him, imploring. What else was he supposed to do?
As I stand here at their graveside in the pouring rain, I can conjure up all the emotions that their sacrifice on my behalf has earned; my gratitude, my admiration but, over and above those, the guilt. My own children are now starting to moan, bored with this annual pilgrimage to their grandparent’s graves. No matter. All children should endure their parent’s wishes until they are old enough and big enough to stop them. I will shape their futures just like my parents shaped mine. If they don’t like that, well, there is little they can do about it now they are born. For kids today there is no way out of that particular predicament. Not even death can save them. They will certainly learn that lesson in this family, that’s for sure. And they will damn well learn it because it was what mum and dad passed down to me: Children’s lives are treasured because they bring meaning to others. That’s the most important thing about them.
Alistair’s first birthday party, like his first funeral, was more about his parents than him. Family and friends were all there, as was Dr Brook and many of the people responsible for getting the child this far. Earlier there had been a photo opportunity for the press. Neutrino Industries and the parents were eager to raise awareness of Infant Sudden Death Syndrome. Dr Brook had read out a prepared statement advising concerned parents to get in touch if they wanted to scan their own children as a backup. Marketing had identified this as a potentially huge source of revenue.
“Did you enjoy your birthday cake, Alistair?”
“Got a lot of presents?”
Dr Brook smiled. He ruffled the child’s head and straightened himself back up. His knees tweaked him. “Ooh!”, he groaned.
“I can never thank you enough, Dr Brook.”, said his mother, loaded down by a tray of sandwiches.
“Please, call me Malc. Those look good.”
“Ham and mustard on the left, cheese and tomato on the right. Help yourself, Malc.”
The doctor grabbed a handful of sandwiches. “Don’t mind if I do.”
“We’re still coming on Wednesday. We need him scanned as soon as possible. I couldn’t bear it if we had to put on this party again…”
“No fear. I’ll make sure he gets it. How long since the last one?”
“Hmm. Any news from the specialist?”
“Nothing definite, as always. He keeps having the night asphyxia episodes. They have no idea why or how to stop them. We just have to keep vigilant and hope.”
“And how are you holding up, Jazmin?”
“Sometimes I just feel so helpless. It’s terrible, waking up to find your child has died. So far, I’ve had to go through it five times.”
“It must be so hard.”
She laughed. “Hard? After each death, we spend at least a month in mourning, another month in therapy so that we can get you to bring him back…”
“We have to make sure of your mental state…”
“I know, but it’s been such a trial. It’s now two years since he was born and here we are celebrating his first…”
Just then, a screaming one year-old stumbled towards his mother, red in the face with tears. He’d fallen. Jazmin smiled weakly, handing Malc the platter of sandwiches before she took her son in her arms to comfort him. The doctor turned around to face the other adult guests, here hiding from the loudness of the kids party.
“Ham and mustard on the right, cheese and tomato on the left,” he misinformed them.
It was an odd kind of a puff of smoke. The toddler appeared, dressed in his orange dungarees and stripey shirt, sitting on the edge of a hospital-style couch.
“Good. Looks alright. Confirmation scanning engaged.” A pale green beam of light, resembling a laser swept over the child who was now looking around the room.
“Crap. Another discrepancy. We’ll have to go again.”
“Crap indeed. Let’s do it then.”
The technician flicked a switch and the child disappeared. A few minutes later, he appeared again. This time the copy was perfect (or as near as dammit) so the child was returned to his parents, waiting in the relatives lounge. They embraced him like he’d returned from the dead and they hadn’t seen him in months (which they hadn’t). The child looked confused as he had just gone into Doctor Brook’s room to look at the pretty lights about a minute ago.
“You know, sometimes I think it would be easier to let poor Alistair go.”
“What do you mean, John?”
“Well, its just… we never seem to move on. We lose him, we’re both left in pieces, we pick ourselves up again and its back into the fray. More fighting to get another teleportation, more psychological tests …”
“I know it’s hard, love.”
“Hard? Did you hear that last psychologist? Going on about Munchhausen Syndrome by Proxy. As if we’d ever hurt him. After all we’ve been through! The smug, know-it-all bitch.”
“She was just doing her job, love.”
“Yes, I know. But it might be kinder if …”
“What are you getting at?”
“Nothing. Forget it.”
“No, John. We’re in this thing together. You have to be honest about your feelings. We both have to. Otherwise this thing will tear us apart.”
“You mean it’s not already?”
“Not for me it hasn’t.”
“I know, love. It’s just… so hard. Could we just think about letting him go next time, you know, letting him rest?”
“You want to let our baby die?”
“I didn’t mean it like that. What I meant was…”
“I know what you meant, John. It was clear as crystal. How could you think that?”
“After all we’ve gone through! Do you really want to throw all that away?”
“Of course not. But its just getting worse and worse. Every time we have a funeral, every time we have to tell our parents its happened again. How many times have your mum and dad had to come from Oz and help us bury him? I don’t know if I can put our families through much more of this.”
“Do you think they would rather have him die for good? Is that what you think? My God, John, don’t hide behind our parents if there’s something that you want to say.”
“I don’t know how much more I can take, Jazmin. I cry all the time, I’m a wreck at work, we don’t sleep at night, our friends are avoiding us. We’re becoming obsessed by this. Oh Jazmin, love…”
“Let go of me!”
“You think it’s easy for me? Having to enroll him in six separate first terms at school? Do you? He hasn’t got any friends at school, did you know that? Never around for long enough, that’s why. They’ve suggested home schooling. Do you think I want that, being with him twenty four seven, worrying every minute with no end in sight. Do you? Bastard.”
“Don’t you ‘oh, Jazmin’ me. You want to let our baby die because you can’t take it? What about me. It’s ten times worse for me and I’d never even think of… I thought you loved us, you selfish prick!”
“Fine. So everything’s wonderful, is it? We just carry on, regardless, no matter who gets hurt in the process. We have a six year-old son that was born twelve years ago, Jazmin. Think about it. By the time he’s ten, I’ll be fifty and at this rate we’ll be both dead before his eighteenth birthday. And every minute of our lives, from now until then, will be wholly occupied with the episodic deaths of our one and only son. Trapped forever in this nightmare. Fan-bloody-tastic!”
“You think I’m trapping you John, holding you back?”
“God, you always do that! Twisting my words around. I don’t feel trapped, you hear me?”
“There’s no need to yell at me like that!”
“What else am I supposed to do? Every time we talk about this, you accuse me of not giving a shit! Would I stick around if I didn’t love you, if I didn’t love Alistair?”
“Sorry, its just so difficult and…”
“Minnie, please don’t cry…”
“Oh, John, what are we going to do?”
“That the alarm?”
“Yeah. I’ll go.”
“It’s my turn.”
“Never mind, love, you get some rest. Won’t be a sec.”
“Well, everybody’s here, so I think we can get started. The purpose of this meeting is the end of a twenty-year journey. Finally, after all we have been through, Alistair Cornish has finally been taken off the ‘at-risk’ register. To all intents and purposes, he’s cured.”
There was a huge cheer. The Neutrino Industries Medical Services Division staff grinned and banged their mugs on the table.
“Well done, guys!”
“Never thought we’d get rid of that rotten little kid!”
After the first suggestion of a few words to mark this unique occasion, others joined in. Eventually Dr Brook got reluctantly to his feet, accompanied by wolf-whistles cheers and humorous asides of a distinctly unsavoury nature.
“OK, OK! Let me say a few words, then. You all know Alistair and his medical problems. I first met them when they approached us to use our newly-developed teleporters to bring back Alistair, who had died a couple of months previously. It’s hard to believe this nowadays, but back then there was no routine scanning of infants. Parents just had to take their chances. In a way, Alistair’s case was the breakthrough that made all future advances possible. Without Alistair, the zero-rate infant mortality figure might never have been reached. This is one thing that I, that you guys -even that loser Jenkinson over there- can be proud of.” People started jeering, particularly from the corner where Jenkinson and his friends were sitting. Dr Brook continued.
“Right, well, although this is a happy occasion, we have to acknowledge and honour the price this very brave family paid for this breakthrough. As you know, Alistair’s mother sadly committed suicide some years back. None of us had anticipated the emotional strain this procedure would involve. Effectively, we have been slowing down Alistair’s normal growth by about a half and failing to deal with the grief and dislocation our treatment has provoked in those around him. We now look at offering more support in that area, but perhaps, with hindsight, we might have done better by her. Thank God that his father has survived this whole thing. Apparently he’s gone on holiday to Barbuda to celebrate, so he can’t be with us today. I imagine he is enjoying himself and finally happy that Alistair has a clean bill of health at last. Well, that’s enough gassing from me. Cheers guys! Well done!”
The champagne corks popped and the bottle was passed around. It didn’t last long. There were over forty people working in this building now. In June, they would be moving to a larger, state of the art facility. Dr Brook looked around at the faces of his team as they shared this victory together. He would hate to see the building go. It was true that it was too small for a city this size, that most other cities and towns had bigger and better facilities for staff and patients, but this had been the first of its kind. In its day, people from all over the world had come here. All the hard cases, including Alistair. Dr Brook felt a tear in his eye. How stupid, he thought, to cry on such a happy occasion. Just then his musings were cut short when Donna Kashivili of nursing services decided to bend his ear.
Sometimes the stupidest things will trigger an emotional tide so catharsis can begin; releasing the pent up tears, screams, accusations and anger you have held inside for so long. I’ll tell you what did it for me. There is a popular song by the Mexican group Los Bukis called ‘Tu Carcel’ (‘your jail’ in English). I got the lyrics from the Internet years ago after someone sent me the file. Hadn’t really listened until now. It’s funny, because I always thought that kind of Mexican pop music as incredibly uncool. All those frizzed perms and mustaches, the laughable outdated fashions they wear. Compared to the Americans, so blond, toned and perfect, those Mexicans are ridiculous: dumpy, ill-dressed and just plain ugly. I’m ashamed to say I laughed at them and their over the top kitsch. Then I read those lyrics and really listened.
‘Your Jail’ is all about a man whose girl has left him for a better looking, richer, more perfect guy. He tells her that before she forgets him in her new life, that her vanity has blinded her. Sure, her new lover is better than him in a thousand ways, but the one that matters is that the new guy will never love her like he can. One day she will realize this and find that her shiny new life is her jail. He then tells her not to believe those that say that poor people cannot love, and that she is throwing away something real in exchange for style and froth. Two listens to that song while following the words and I was crying my eyes out. Despite the way they looked and dressed, these guys wrote songs that meant something.
After about half an hour of listening to Your Jail on a loop, I turned off the music and sat down to think. On reflection, I have been such a selfish idiot. The froth, my ideal of the perfect family life, was destroying me. I had something that was real and mine and precious; I had Jazmin, I had Alistair. I’d had to bury that boy a hundred times or more but I loved him and he loved me. So what was the problem? As for Jazmin, shit. Where would I find another like her? Realization was like a smack in the face. Everything important was still with me. All that I had to do was not throw it away like some stupid, smug, superior, over-educated gringo dickhead. I blew my nose and went to wash my face. Tonight, we’d get the babysitter in; so John and Minnie could paint this sorry-ass town a nice king crimson.
“I’m bored, Dad. Can’t we just, like, go?”
“No, John. Not yet. When we’ve all laid flowers and said our poems, then we can go.”
“No buts, John. If it wasn’t for your grandparents, do you know where you would be now?”
“Careful, Ali, he’s only a child.”
“I know, but he still has to know these things. It’s important. I named you John after your grandfather. Did you know that?”
“Good. Mind your manners. Remember where you are. Did you know that I died forty-eight times before I was thirteen? By the time I was your age I had probably died, ooh, lets see… about sixty times already.”
“Yes, wow. If your grandparents hadn’t fought hard to bring me back every single time, guess where you would be?”
“Not even born.”
“That’s right. If just once they’d given up on me, if just once they had thought that ‘oh, well he’s choked on his own tongue again, let’s leave him in the ground and get a cat instead’, you and your sister wouldn’t be here.”
“A cat?” The little girl held on to her mother’s hand and giggled.
Alistair sighed, then smiled to himself. “OK, kids, lecture over. Now, who’s going to read their poem out first. How about you, Minnie?”
The little girl stepped forward to the edge of her grandparent’s grave and unfolded a hand-written sheet of paper, the margins all doodled with glitter pen. She took one look at her poem and cleared her throat.