Author’s Note: This is not my usual fare. However, there are some stories that demand to be told. This is one of them.
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Sarah Walters was just eight years old when she learned she had IT. IT was a string of unpronounceable syllables that ultimately meant nothing to the bright eight-year-old child. Instead, she liked to think of IT simply as IT… and IT was a death sentence.
At eight years of age, Sarah really couldn’t care about the medical whyfors and chemical formulae that meant she was going to die, she just understood that, for some reason only known to the Ultimate, she was not going to live as long as her parents.
For a whole year, Sarah underwent procedure after procedure, endured indignity after indignity, all because her parents were desperate to cure IT. But nothing worked.
And so, Sarah shrugged it off and prepared to return to school. After all, she wasn’t even the only girl in her class to have IT.
Sarah, however, was not like many of those girls. Sarah was wealthy. Okay, she wasn’t wealthy, but her parents were. And though they could not leave their Corporation-run colony planet (nor could she, or her children, or her children’s children, should she live long enough to make them.), they imported the very best that medical science could proffer.
On the morning of her ninth birthday, Sarah met Caroline. Caroline was, in every single way but one, Sarah’s genetic twin. Right down to the last double twisting helix of DNA, which instead of spinning one way, went the other, and produced a perfect version of Sarah.
Oh, she looked nothing like her genetic sibling, nor were they even from the same branch of the human cryonic soup that had been blasted into space so many millennia ago, nevertheless, they were a match and that was all that mattered. Sarah was big, clumsy, blonde and green eyed. Caroline, pretty, perfect Caroline was tiny, elfin, with luxurious brown curly hair and beautiful blue eyes.
Since medical science could not remove IT from Sarah, they would remove Sarah from IT.
For five years, the girls lived together as sisters. Like sisters, they alternately hated each other, loved each other, and eventually, found a middle ground wherein they could at least suffer each other’s presence on a daily basis.
The other girls in school avoided them. Like all the others, they had IT, but what they had was somehow different. More pure perhaps, because they would die while Sarah would live on, because of Caroline.
Sarah was never sure how this would happen; no one had bothered to explain to a nine year old child that her new best friend would someday have to die so that she might live. No one told her that one day, she would wake up and Caroline, sweet, bright, loving, beautiful, funny Caroline would be gone and in her place would remain boring, dull, plain, average Sarah.
If she had known, she would have run to her parents screaming, “No Mommy, no Daddy, I don’t want you to do this!” But she had not, did not, and would not. So, she went about her everyday life as blithely as all children do, with perhaps a single hitch.
IT was still there, and sometimes, IT was very horrible. Those times, those days, were the very, bad, really awful, don’t want to do anything days. The kind of days where she wafted between being disgustingly sick, to high on a list of drugs that was longer than her given name. It was because of those days, though, that Sarah and Caroline learned to be friends.
When Sarah was sick, sweet Caroline would stay with her, singing her sweet songs and playing all kinds of games with her until, late at night, Sarah’s eyes would close. The very next day, Caroline would be there, all smiles and bright blue eyes, ready to help Sarah get dressed for school once more.
Sarah’s parents were important. They got up every morning, fed the girls, patted them on the head and then escaped their plush apartment before anyone could talk about the gargantuan purple elephant that lived in the room. Their jobs with the Corporation were such that, even on a population-controlled planet, they could afford the expenses of an extra child without batting an eyelash. They never even tried to hide Caroline from the census police; they just displayed a special permit, paid their monthly fees, and went on with their daily lives.
When she was sixteen, and planning her college education, (it was always assumed that she would work for the Corporation, and that the position she held would be entirely dependant on her academic abilities), Sarah began to wonder what was going to happen. The time for IT was coming close. Like the slightly electric tingle that filled the air just before the weather control made it rain, Sarah knew that the day for IT to kill her was just over the horizon.
She thought she should be afraid, but truthfully, she was somewhat excited. After all, all those years ago, Caroline had come and she was supposed to make it all better. Caroline loved her; of course she would make it all better. And amazingly, she loved Caroline in return. Loved her like she didn’t love anything else. Not her parents, not her dog Rex, or even the plain, stuffed monkey that she had been given by the hospital.
Caroline was her twin and ultimately, they shared everything. Hopes, dreams, fears, and even secrets were traded between the girls like candy. Caroline had come from the other side of the galaxy; her parents had died when she was very small and she had been raised in a government-sponsored orphanage. Without IT, Caroline’s future would have been assignment to a deep space survey ship, and Caroline couldn’t stand the idea of being in space.
Lying together on Sarah’s bed, giggling over a boy who’d clumsily asked Sarah to the dance, the girls stared up at the network of lights embedded in Sarah’s ceiling. When she was four, she had asked her Dad about where they had come from, so he had made the sky for her. Far, far away, the glimmer of a tiny blue light sparkled in a sea of yellow, green, red, and orange.
Sometimes, Sarah wondered if Earth were still there. It had been centuries since anyone from the Corporation had heard from the planet of their origin. In the most secret of her secret thoughts, Sarah sometimes thought that she would like to go there, to Earth, and see the land and skies that had birthed the human race.
But now, nestled next to Caroline, all she wanted was to be close to the other girl.
Caroline knew that the time for her purpose was fast approaching. She knew it in the way that Sarah would sometimes stop and stare, as if caught in a thought or an action, and then just topple over, like someone had flipped a switch. At those times, if Sarah’s parents were around, they would weep and wail and bemoan the horrible fate that had given IT to their daughter.
Sarah’s parents. That was how Caroline thought of Mr. and Mrs. Walters. They were not her parents; they were not her family, not like Sarah, who was everything. And more, so much more.
Lying with her fingers entwined with Sarah’s, Caroline wondered how the Ultimate could have created her so far away from this singular person that she had to travel across half the galaxy, just to be with her. Caroline loved everything about Sarah. From her dull blonde hair to her watery green eyes, Sarah was all that Caroline wanted or needed in a companion. In every way that mattered, Caroline was content.
When Sarah Walters was sixteen and a half years old, IT tried to kill her. She was at school, in a class on colonial history, when her whole body shut down. When she awakened, she was in the hospital, on the same ward as all the other girls who had IT. Tubes trailed in and out of her body and machines clicked and popped and beeped and generally made an insufferable racket.
It was a decidedly horrible situation to a girl who had spent all of her life running free and happy.
In the bed next to hers lay Caroline. All of her beautiful brown hair was gone, shorn away to make way for a collection of patches, tubes and leads that led to an impossibly huge machine.
Sarah reached up to touch her head and found that she, too, had lost the lanky blonde hair that had always confounded her attempts to style it. Cocooned in a helmet of wires, Sarah could barely turn her head more than the inch or so it required to look upon Caroline’s somnolent form.
She opened her mouth to speak, but found that she could not. Her voice was gone, already consumed by IT. Her feet, legs, hands, arms, even torso were a numbed, jellied mass of flesh and bone that ceased to accept commands from her brain.
Sighing unhappily, she waited for someone to come and speak to her, for Mommy or Daddy to come and hold her hand, but no one came. Tears trickling weakly from the corners of her eyes, Sarah surrendered to sleep.
The next time she woke up, she was in a far different room. Everything around her looked the same, and yet, was so completely different that she drew back against the bed in confusion. Gone were the leads, tubes, and wires. All that remained was a single intravenous line carrying a load of something in a bilious shade of green.
Her parents were perched on chairs at the end of the bed, peering at her with such breathlessly hopeful expressions on their faces that she couldn’t help but react.
“Mommy? Daddy?” she croaked and immediately went silent.
She had not spoken. No, those strange, thick and heavy tones were not the bright patter of her usual voice. They were not, however, unknown, either.
A new and dawning sense of horror started to paralyze her. Where was Caroline? She looked around the room, seeking the face that was as familiar as her own, but all she found were the curtain-shrouded beds that dotted the ward.
Before she could do more than push aside her covers, her parents were at her side.
“Oh honey, we’re so glad it worked,” said her Daddy, his big man’s voice choked with tears.
“Yes darling, we waited so long for this day. Now you are finally ours again. IT is gone, baby. Gone forever.” Her mother, caught in a torrent of tears, grabbed hold of Sarah and clung to her so tightly the teen could barely breathe.
When she could get a breath in, Sarah whispered, “Mommy, where’s Caroline?”
“Who’s Caroline, honey?” asked her Daddy in a tone so confused that Sarah almost reached out to comfort him.
“She’s my sister, Daddy. You know that. You brought her to live with us when I was nine.”
At her words, an incredible look of sadness crossed both her parents’ faces.
“Oh honey,” they told her. There never was a Caroline, just the hospital. You see, when Sarah had been diagnosed with IT, all they could do at the time was to transfer Sarah’s consciousness to the mainframe of their computer and wait for the Corporation to complete testing and modeling on their new bodies. For centuries, the consciousnesses of the original colony members had labored long and hard to create perfect android bodies to host the minds of their children and they had failed. Over and over, they failed until one day, the day that they discovered a subroutine called Caroline existing within an unusually featured android body, they were able to manufacture perfect, unflawed models.
On wobbly legs, Sarah stood and shuffled over to a nearby mirror. Gazing back at her was a pixie-faced, blue-eyed, brown-haired girl.
Softly, almost reverently, Sarah whispered, “Hello Caroline.”
From someplace deep inside, Sarah felt her sister’s response: Hello, Sarah.
Message in a Bottle