I opened the eyes and stared up. The body I had was lying face up on a wooden veranda—from where I could see the underside of a corrugated metal roof, and the edge of it, and the sky beyond, blue and empty and cold. The arms ached, and I could taste blood inside the mouth. I lay there for a few minutes to get used to it a bit, then propped myself up carefully onto one of the arms and looked around. The body I had was outdoors, which was unusual, in front of a dusty wooden building surrounded by other, similar buildings. The sun was up, and a light haze of dust hung in the air.
A few meters away, a woman’s body sat in a wooden chair. It was slumped across the table, but its eyes were open and staring at me from under an unruly mass of dark hair. They blinked slowly.
It got to its feet and limped awkwardly towards me, and I swung the legs I had over the edge of the veranda. The feet were bare, and I slowly began to feel the warm dust shifting beneath them. The sensation grew stronger as the numb half-asleep sensation in the legs started to fade.
I could see the body I had was dressed simply—dusty grey jeans and a plaid shirt, and no shoes. The other, the woman, had similar trousers but a T-shirt with a tear at the neck that exposed its shoulder.
When she got near to me, she knelt the body down and reached out an arm towards the face I had. I flinched, then relaxed. The hand the woman had was small, the nails covered in polish but broken. Her face had been made up, but since then someone had been crying and dark rivers of mascara traced down the cheeks to the mouth. The woman’s hand touched the cheek I had—a gentle caress, but I felt a sting and jerked the head back a bit. As often happens, the reflex brought with it the feeling that the body was truly mine—and as sometimes happens, the sensation was not entirely pleasant. I felt a deep tired ache in my bones. My hands were sore, my shins ached, my side felt as though I had been hit by a car, and my testicles felt swollen and broken, a horrible pain I have come to understand and fear since the freedom.
The woman’s hand drew back, then dropped to my own. I let her tenderly bend my fingers into a fist—which she then pulled up to her arm, putting my knuckles next to a matching mark on her shoulder. She rolled up her T-shirt to reveal a garish bruise at the bottom of her rib cage. Again, it was the same size as my fist.
“They were fighting,” I said carefully. She nodded, then stood up suddenly. “I guess they were still at it when the sleep came for them.”
“Those fuckers!” she screamed. Furious, she swept up the chair she had been sitting on and smashed it against the edge of the table. “Assholes! Fuckers! Sons of bitches!”—each time pounding the chair against the tabletop. The wood had dried and warped, and on the sixth or seventh such attack one of the legs cracked and flew off.
Across the way stood another building—larger, but otherwise almost identical to the one I’d woken beside: the same corrugated iron roof topping a simple one-floor wooden building with a covered veranda. I guessed we were somewhere in the American West. Quite a big jump for me, although not as big as the one that had brought me to Boston from Cork. The opposite door opened, and a head peeked out. After a few seconds the rest of the body followed it—another woman, older than the body I was in, older than the screaming woman. She was wearing a simple flower-pattern summer dress, and something like a cast on her left arm.
“Hey,” I called to the screaming woman. “Quiet.”
“They just have to do one thing,” she protested. “One thing, the motherfuckers.”
“Hey! Enough of that.” I shot her a disapproving look, then nodded to the other woman and beckoned her over.
“I’m Jonathan,” she called out nervously, walking a few steps closer.
“Stephanie,” I replied. We both looked at the woman who’d been screaming.
“Caroline,” she told us, shrugging.
“I found this,” Jonathan said, holding out her arm. Caroline and I exchanged glances. I leant forwards and took her arm, twisting it towards me and so leading her around to my left. The note had been laminated and then zip-tied onto the woman’s arm, tight enough that it wouldn’t easily be removed, but not so tight that it was affecting her circulation.
THIS ONE IS PREGNANT, read the note. ESTIMATED DATE OF CONCEPTION 7/15/23.
“Only two months gone,” I told Jonathan. “Nothing to worry about, unless you come back.”
“Shit,” she sighed. “Dude, that’s a relief.”
“About that . . . ,” Caroline began, but at that moment she was interrupted by a loud buzz. I could feel Jonathan’s surprise—her arm jumped out of my hands, and all three of us began to look around for the source of the noise. Jonathan spotted it first.
“Speakers,” she said.
I spotted an old horn-style speaker tucked under the eaves of the veranda. It squawked again, and then a man’s voice yelled from our right.
I looked down that way. There were two more wooden and metal houses, and past them a barn just like I’d seen in the movies, complete with lifting assembly and a door just under the roof. A tall man was standing in front of it, and as I spotted him he spotted us and began waving us over.
“We’d better go,” Caroline told us.
I’d heard the speech before, plenty of times. It was different in America than it had been in England or Ireland, but not by much. Wherever you were, the principle was the same, and once you’d heard it a couple of times you knew the spirit of it—I had even managed OK the one time I’d ended up in Sweden. I spent my time looking around for anyone I thought might be trouble. Newborns, hedonists, other assorted wasters. There’s always one, and I had no reason to doubt it would be any different in America than it was in Europe. Slightly different was the food—no badly-cooked porridge here, just two people wandering through the crowd handing out bread, cups of water, and ugly sausages that turned out to be heavily seasoned chicken meat. As usual, the chickens were the only farm animals to have survived the early years of neglect, which meant that we’d be doing the heavy lifting.
The farm staff comprised about thirty bodies—a strange number. I was more used to England, where it was all either tiny family-sized farms or the leftovers of giant agribusiness concerns. It was post-harvest work at this time of year. Not quite so vital as a few months earlier, back when Jonathan’s body had got knocked up. I’m surprised anyone had the strength in them to have sex, but then perhaps the assortment that day had been heavily biased towards wasters. According to the organizer’s ring-binder we were to plough grain stubble back into the land in preparation for something-or-other. I didn’t pay much attention once he’d described the physical nature of the work, to be honest. As long as I knew what I had to do today, there was no point bothering about tomorrow.
“Where are we?” a man at the back shouted. The organizer glanced at his ring-binder, flipped to the first page, then nodded.
“Nebraska,” he replied.
Caroline’s hand shot up, and another one in the crowd to my right.
“You,” said the organizer, pointing at Caroline.
“Is there a phone?”
The organizer tilted his head down and stared at her, and I guess that he was old enough to have worn glasses before the freedom.
“You know the drill,” he said carefully. “Not until after one o’clock at least.”
“But there is a phone . . . ,” she pressed.
“There is a phone, yes.”
“I need to use it too,” I called, and there were a couple of “me too”s from behind. The organizer nodded.
“You’ll all get your turn,” he said. “After lunch. No privacy, though. You.”
“I don’t have shoes.”
The organizer frowned, flipped through his binder, and nodded.
“If you do not have shoes, you should be able to find some cloth in the barn. Wrap your feet up, it says here.” He shrugged. “Look in the barn, I guess. Anything else? You, the—uh, the woman body in blue.”
“There’s a kid in the second house back there,” the woman to our right said, dropping her arm but tapping the side of her head as she did so: A full-grown kid. “You’d better check on him.”
“Ugh. OK, get to work, all of you. The field’s the one through that gate. There are two ploughs in the shed to the right, if anyone knows how to use them properly?”
A single hand rose—Jonathan’s.
“I was at Texas A&M,” she said sheepishly.
“OK, you steer one, pick someone to steer the other, tell them the basics. Get volunteers to pull . . . err . . .” He flicked through the binder. “Six to a plough, it says here. The rest of you get hoes and follow behind. Oh, I almost forgot—if you need to go to the bathroom go now, because you won’t get another chance until lunchtime.” He fell silent, staring at us. “Come on, then, get on with it!”
The group broke up, and began to shamble over to the storage shed in dribs and drabs. Jonathan touched me on the shoulder.
“Hey,” she said. “Do you think I should be working?” She glanced down at her belly. “Like this, I mean.”
“It won’t hurt. Not two months along.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“First time?” I asked.
“What? Oh, this.” She tapped the laminated sheet. “Yeah, first time. I guess it can’t be all that common these days.”
“Still enough newborns around,” Caroline said. “You must have had a few stays in the diaper hotel.”
“I guess,” she agreed; then: “Hey, do you want to steer the other plough? It’s pretty easy.”
“Nah,” said Caroline. “Look at him. Look at me, we’re both fucked thanks to yesterday’s assholes.”
“It’s true,” I said, nodding. “We ought to take the hoes—no sense us doing anything where we have to keep up with the rest of the team. We’ll just slow everyone down. Either that or we’ll just break ourselves completely, and tomorrow’s lot will be cursing us and breaking chairs.”
Jonathan laughed. We stopped, and an elderly man who had been struggling to interrupt us tapped her on the shoulder.
“I can maybe steer the other plough,” he said. “I done it once or twice.”
“OK, sweet,” Jonathan said, shaking hands with the old-timer. “I’m Jonathan.”
I saw, just for an instant, a cloud go over the old man’s face. It was surprisingly sudden—there one second, gone the next. I remember in the old days seeing that sort of thing all the time, but it is too hard to do nowadays. No matter how at home you feel, you’re never quite used to a body until it’s too late.
“Matthew,” he said.
“This is Caroline and Stephanie,” Jonathan said. Matthew glanced perfunctorily at Caroline, but gave me a long look over.
“Do you know me?” I asked after a few seconds. He didn’t know me, but he knew what I meant.
“Can’t say I do.”
“Come on,” Jonathan said, and Caroline and I let the two of them get ahead of us, walking slowly into the cool darkness of the storage shed. The hoes were old, the wood dry and likely to splinter, so Caroline fetched some rags from a table in the corner and wrapped the handles. She passed one to me, then took the other herself and spun it once around her arm in a martial flourish.
Outside, we helped six people into the harness straps of each plough, Jonathan warning those who didn’t know that they should make sure to swap with their opposite partners every time they reached the end of the field, so that they didn’t strain one shoulder. When he and Matthew had set up their teams, they called out a beat and the two ploughs began to pull, slowly and rhythmically, across the field. The rest of us followed behind, turning the ground still further with our hoes and making sure that any clumps of plant matter were covered up. Caroline stuck to my side, keeping us within speaking distance.
“You saw that,” she said quietly.
“Matthew?” I asked. She nodded. “What do you think it was?”
“No idea.” She smiled. “But we’ve got something in common now.” She dug at the ground a bit with her blade. “What do you think they were fighting about?”
We fell silent for a few minutes. I listened to the songs of the plough teams, the slow sounds of pounding and raking and the sounds of birds calling above us, wheeling in the air and rejoicing in their own freedoms.
“What? Oh, no—” I waved dismissively. “I just meant—you know. You?”
“I’m a scientist,” she said.
“Why not? There’s still science to do. This”—she slapped her chest above her breasts—”this doesn’t answer any questions. It makes questions, and those are the things science answers. Maybe science can tell us what Matthew is all about.”
“I wouldn’t bet on it,” I laughed, and she joined in. Not because it was funny, I think, but because of the tension. “Where are you from?”
“Here,” she said. “Nebraska, I mean. I’ve never been to this farm before. You’re not local, though, are you?”
“Ah, I thought I heard a touch of that. Difficult, though. This is American through and through”—she punched me gently on the shoulder, neatly avoiding two bruises—”it covers up your accent pretty well.”
“You can’t get the staff these days,” I told her.
We got back to our work. The day began to warm up, and just as I was beginning to worry about sunburn, the organizer appeared, carrying a bag full of hats and a big waterskin.
“Sorry, sorry,” he apologised, handing each of us a hat and giving us a swig from the bag. “That stupid newborn. The muscles on the thing, it almost kicked me over as I was trying to get it fed.” He hurried away to the rest of the workers, who had got far ahead of Caroline and me.
“You think that’s his real body?” she asked. I tried to guess whether she was joking or not, but the brim of the hat threw an impenetrable shadow over her eyes. “Matthew, I mean.”
“What are the odds? Six billion to one on any given day?”
“Not that much,” she said, shaking her head. “Plenty of people dead since then. Half that, I reckon. Maybe more. Then big hops aren’t that common. I mean, people like you, I guess. . . .” I nodded in confirmation. “But I haven’t been even as far as California myself. Most people stay close by. It happened to me, once.”
I raised my eyebrows.
“No, really. It was weird. You’d think there would be something special about it, but it’s just the same. I realised it within about a couple of minutes, you know, up here.” She pointed to her head. “But it took me an hour to get the feeling.”
“What did you do?”
“Well first off I wrote a message to the tomorrow girl. I mean, I must have put on like forty pounds. This was back in ‘sixteen, so, what, forty pounds in five years? People were pricks back then.” She sighed. “You know, way back when—I exercised, ate healthy, all of that. Just crap. If I’d known, eh?” She spread her hands. “I wrote: whoever’s reading this, go for a goddamn walk.”
“Did you take your own advice?”
“Ha, no. I phoned the number of a guy I liked in twenty-eleven. I thought perhaps—you know, the new tenant might be a bit more accommodating than the old one, right?”
“You hussy! Any luck?”
“No, sadly nobody home. Sucks to be me, eh?”
We leant on our hoes for a minute, and I thought of Francis. I wasn’t wearing a watch, but I could tell by the sun that it must be getting on for noon. The phone, the phone, I thought to myself. Caroline seemed fairly relaxed—most of the time, if someone wants the phone they want it straight away, and for as long as possible. I’d spent whole days waiting on the phone in the past.
“I spent the day tidying the house,” she continued. “Stupid, really. It was just nice to have things back the way they were for a while. I thought, you know, maybe that was the end of it. Perhaps everyone was going back to the way they were. I could just get back to my business and forget all about the freedom.”
“No such luck.”
“No such luck indeed.”
We worked for another hour as the sun got hotter and hotter, until finally the organizer called time and ordered us back to the gate. We left our tools where they were—confident that nothing would happen to them—and headed back. The building almost opposite the barn turned out to be a canteen of sorts: long tables arranged inside with benches near them, a kitchen and a big vat of chilled water which the organizer proudly pointed out was powered by solar panels on the roof.
“You’d think he made them himself,” Caroline whispered to me, smiling. “I’ll bet it’s his first time doing this.”
The plough teams had had the worst of the day’s work, so they sat down on the benches while the rest of us fetched tin plates and old cutlery from the kitchen.
“Lucky it’s a Monday,” the organizer told us cheerfully, reading from his binder. “Looks like the baking and preparation is mostly done on the weekend, so we’ve got fresh bread and soup without any of the hassle of making it.”
The soup was tomato and wheat, sealed in big tins that were big enough that two would feed everyone for one meal. There was a fridge, too (also solar-powered), in which we discovered three roast chickens. Someone would be responsible for killing, plucking, and roasting another three for tomorrow’s people. Caroline and I volunteered to carve, and carefully divided the meat up so that everyone got their fair share. It wasn’t much, but it was something. I slipped a few tidbits into my mouth and savoured the delicate taste of the chilled meat. I hadn’t had chicken for months.
“I guess it gets this every day,” Caroline said. “But it can’t get bored of it.”
The table was quiet at first—everyone had a hunger and a thirst on them, but it grew louder as the meal went on and the few voluble people started to ask questions and talk about themselves. It turned out that the body in the other building was not the only newborn—the body of a man in his fifties turned out to house something that called itself “Lilac Sea.” He was well-behaved, though, much older than most newborns, and only mentioned our “delusions” in jest.
“Things what they are,” he told Jonathan when quizzed about working on the farm. “Food must come, or perhaps death. Too gamble for me, I help food.” His accent had the familiar newborn oddities to it, a cross between the body’s accent and that of a deaf person.
“I guess you ain’t got a goal in life,” Matthew said—the first thing I’d heard him say since we sat down—and he glanced at Jonathan. Lilac Sea shrugged. “Can’t be much of a life.”
“Alternative perhaps worse,” the newborn told him, and Caroline laughed.
“What’s your goal, Matthew?”
Matthew glowered at her. For a moment I thought he was actually going to get up—either to leave, or to hit her. I shuffled a bit closer, hoping to get between them. But Matthew relaxed, and sat back in his seat.
“I’ve got someone,” he said.
We finished our meal, and Caroline asked about the phone again. The two of us, plus a young man and a middle-aged woman, were sent to the building that Jonathan had come from.
“No privacy,” the organizer reminded us, flipping through his folder to the relevant pages. “If it’s got a speakerphone, I want you to use it. If not, pick someone and hold the earpiece between you so you can both hear it. If you’re listening in and someone starts to say where we are, you cut the call and tell me immediately.”
Pointless paranoia, of course—what were the chances that a waster trying to call for help would get through to someone willing to help them? Right-thinking people knew not to help other people escape their duty, and other wasters would have less tedious things to do. But the “no privacy” rule had got into the three-ring binder, so we were stuck with it.
Inside, the farmhouse was sparse but well-tended. There was little point stealing from a farm—the people outside would generally return you by force if they spotted you leaving—and if you were working, you would most likely not have time to break anything indoors. There were still pictures up on the walls, porcelain gewgaws on the mantelpiece, and a faded cotton doily underneath the phone. A well-thumbed Bible sat next to it.
“Still connected,” said Caroline. “Thank fuck for that.” It had a speakerphone, too, so we were able to monitor each other comfortably without having to stand heads pressed together around the handset. We took it in turns to make our calls. The young man went first, but there was no answer. Then me.
“How are you!” said the phone, in Francis’s voice. “This is Francis. I’m busy or something at the moment. Leave a message.” The phone beeped, then, in a different, mechanical voice: “Message memory full.” After a few seconds of silence, the phone clicked and the dial tone returned.
“Hope I have better luck than you two,” the woman said. She dialled, then waited as the phone rang, rang, rang, then:
“Hello?” An elderly woman’s voice.
“Hello,” the woman at our end answered. “Who is this?”
“Who’s this?” the phone retorted.
“This is Angela Bradshaw,” the woman said. “You’re in my body. Listen—I’m diabetic. If you’re in my house, there’s a supply of insulin. . . .”
“Hey, don’t worry,” interrupted the phone. “I found your note, I’ll be careful.”
“Oh, OK. Thanks. Thanks, and make sure you keep the phone charged up.”
“Sure. Listen, I’ve got to go.”
“Wait, just tell me you’ll—” The phone clicked dead, interrupting her.
“Oh well, better than sometimes.” She turned to Caroline. “I’ve been calling them every day since 2011, and it’s still alive. I mean, I guess.” She sighed. “Maybe some other body’s got the phone, and I’m slowly killing it with my instructions and insulin.”
“How did you get twelve years of insulin?” I asked.
“I lived over a dispensary, just got lucky. Plus, type two. Diet’s been better since the freedom.”
Caroline was tapping away at the phone.
“Can anyone see a pen?” she asked. Angela pulled at a drawer beneath the phone stand, and pulled out a handful. “Oh, score. No paper, I suppose?”
“Here.” I grabbed the Bible and opened it up to the inside cover. Someone had already scrawled in it.
“Welcome,” said the phone. “Enter code, or wait for instructions.”
Caroline tapped in 2-0-1-1.
“Enter your ID, or press pound for a new ID.”
“One Seven Two,” Caroline said, typing as she said it. With her right hand she was furiously scribbling with pens and discarding them when they proved to be dry, and finally a purple gel pen began to leave a trail.
“Welcome back, Caroline Voss. Enter body ID, or press pound for a new ID.”
Caroline pressed the hash button.
“New body ID alpha bravo zero kilo. Please describe, then press pound.” Caroline carefully wrote the code along the inside of her left arm, then hit the button.
“Woman, late twenties, dark hair. Currently a farm worker in Nebraska. Approximately five foot five, medium build, no apparent health problems, current state slightly battered from recent fighting. No explanation known.” She hit the hash button.
“Thank you, Caroline Voss. Press pound for other options or hang up now.”
“Want to get registered?” she asked us. The other two shook their heads, but it seemed like I had nothing to lose. The procedure was pretty simple. I had to tell the phone my name, and in return it gave me an ID number for me (307), and for the body (AF2D). My job when possible was to dial in each day and either get a new registration number for that day’s body or enter the body ID if there was already one there. She wrote the body’s ID on my arm, along with the phone number for the service. I would simply have to remember the phone number, plus my ID.
“It’s not perfect, because people wash off the numbers. I’m sure there will be duplicates, but it’s better than nothing.”
“What’s the point, though?” asked the young man.
“It’s science,” Caroline told him. “We have to know if there’s a pattern.”
“There’s no pattern,” Angela said.
“And you know that how?”
“It’s obvious. If there were a pattern we’d be able to spot it.”
“Of course,” Caroline said mockingly. “Just like we used to be able to spot atoms.”
“How does it all work?” I asked, hoping to distract them from the argument.
“There’s a data centre somewhere,” she told me. “It just sits there recording when people call in. I don’t know who set it up, or how they get power to it. But it’s clever. It used to just be the number thing, but now you can leave a message for anyone else who’s registered. If you remember their number. One Seven Two.”
“Three Oh Seven.”
“You’ve got the hang of it,” she laughed.
“This is ridiculous. I’m going back to the dining hall.”
She left, and the young man followed. I was about to leave too, assuming our business there was finished, when Caroline grabbed my arm and held me back. She pointed to the number on my arm.
“We’ll have to make it more permanent,” she said. “The organizer will have a sharpie or something, they always do.”
I thought that was all, but she kept her hand on my arm. It was lean and strong—and small; perhaps no smaller than my original hands, but it seemed tiny against the tough muscles of my forearm. I supposed that the bodies must have been on the farm for years, working every day. They had been toughened up while we had done little to exercise ourselves. If we improved it was only passively, by the experience of walking in another’s shoes. I felt that now—the body responding by itself, the odd stirring in the groin that I have had to come to recognise. I shifted uncomfortably, and Caroline removed her hand and pointed to the table that the phone stood on.
“Did you see the Bible? In the back?” I shook my head, and she handed it to me, flipped open to the back page. In amongst the random scrawls and the scribbled depressions where Caroline had tried to restart her pens, there were a few sentences—angry, spiky letters.
I’LL KILL HIM FOR WHAT HE DID TO ME THAT ASSHOLE HE SHOULD BE KILLED. HE KEPT CALLING ME JODI WHILE HE WAS DOING IT, TELLING ME HE LOVED ME, BUT I’M NOT JODI, I’M NOT JODI. I AM RICHARD AND I AM GOING TO KILL HIM WHEN I FIND HIM.
“What does it mean?”
Caroline nodded to the pictures on the wall.
“Look,” she said. “They’ve got names on some of them.”
Sure enough, there she was—Jodi, a girl in her teens, dressed up fine for her family portrait with her two brothers and her mother and father, the farm owners. She had aged a lot since the photo was taken—at least twelve years, of course, probably more than twenty—but she was surely the owner of Jonathan’s current body.
The sun had fallen from its heights, but the air continued to get hotter and hotter as we went about our second shift. My skin felt sensitive where the permanent marker ink was, and I had to continually remind myself not to scratch it. My arms began to feel over-warm and tired, but there was little in the way of aching or stiffness except where I was bruised.
“Do you get many messages?” I asked Caroline.
“Eh, a few now and again. But, you know, anything’s better than nothing, like Lilac said.”
“True. Quite deep for a newborn. Or perhaps they all get like that, perhaps they know better than us what’s good and bad nowadays. I mean, you seem OK, and I know I know right from wrong, but what about those bastards yesterday?”
The sun continued to sink towards the horizon and our conversations tailed off as we tried to catch up with the plough teams. It looked like they’d probably get at least half of the field done by the end of the day, those of us doing the hoeing maybe half of that—but as the organizer helpfully pointed out, our work wasn’t so important. The plough teams worked side-to-side on the field, and every time they got close to us Caroline would stop working and stare at them—and then I would stare trying to work out what she was looking at. Eventually I realised that it was Matthew and Jonathan that she was watching, and I came to examine them myself. Jonathan had grown more used to her body, and was now steering the plough much more naturally than she had before. Matthew just worked as he had, and I noticed that his steering was somewhat awkward.
“He’s watching her,” Caroline told me, noticing my interest. “On the other hand, I’m pretty sure that I was wrong this morning. That isn’t Matthew’s original body. It’s too old. I think he’s old, but not that old.”
I stabbed at a recalcitrant root, cutting it up and pushing it further into the soft loam.
“Who’s Francis?” she asked. I shook my head. “Sorry, just wondering.”
The plough crews passed us once more, and I could see that Matthew was not really looking where he was going. He was watching Jonathan, but by keeping a constant distance behind and to her right, he was killing two birds with one stone. He had such an intense look on his face, such concentration, I could not decide whether it was fury or love. Perhaps both.
“A guy,” I told her.
“Francis, he was just this guy, he came from a town called Mallow, where my sister worked. I was kind of in love with him. We went out a lot, we fought a lot. I said something, just before . . . you know.”
Caroline nodded, and with a sudden violent thrust dug her hoe handle-first into the ground so that it stood up unassisted, then gave me a hug. I didn’t know what to do, but it did make me feel a bit better. She let go again, and got back to work.
Dinner was much the same as before—no chicken this time, but more bread with our tomato soup. And, it turned out, some kind of sponge cake with syrup that seemed to me more of an English-type pudding. Lilac said that he’d been somewhere with a lot of buildings and eaten a similar thing before, but no matter how we tried, we couldn’t decipher his description and link it to any particular town that any of us had visited. The organizer advanced a theory he’d heard that newborns, not being so tied to any one place as those who had grown up slowly, would naturally wander further across the earth.
“There’s no evidence,” Caroline said. “But I really mean, there’s no evidence. It might be so, might not.”
“Do you have any newborns in the system?” I asked.
“Don’t know everyone, but I doubt it. I’ve never persuaded any to register. How about it, Lilac?” She explained the system to him (and the rest of the table), but he shook his head.
“Do, don’t do, same same,” he explained.
“I’ll do it,” said the organizer. Caroline agreed to help him after the meal. “Oh, and we need to organize the food for tomorrow.”
“I’ll go,” Caroline told him. “Matthew will help me—you don’t mind killing a chicken or two, right, Matthew?”
Matthew glowered at her, but nodded. She turned to me and, out of sight of the others, mouthed: Follow us.
I waited, watching, while Caroline and Matthew between them managed to corner the chickens one by one and lead them to the block. Matthew used the axe and dispatched the chickens carefully and quickly while Caroline held their bodies. While they were catching the third and final bird she gestured me over. I got there as they caught it.
“Hey, need any help?” I asked innocently.
“Nah,” Caroline told me. “Matthew and I have it all under control, don’t we, Matthew?” She shoved his arm. “Right, Matthew?” She shoved him again, almost a punch this time. “Matthew?”
“What’s your problem?” he asked.
“Who’s Jodi, Matthew?”
I wanted to tell her to stop, that to antagonize a man with an axe in his hand was pure idiocy, but he swung before I could as much as open my mouth. Caroline jumped back and sprang at him as the head whistled past her. Her fist hit Matthew smack in the side of the head and he crumpled sideways, the axe escaping from his hands and flying away to hit the ground in a plume of dust. Caroline followed him to the ground, kneeling on his arm.
“You leave Jonathan alone,” she told him, voice full of menace.
“She’s not Jonathan,” Matthew spat. “She’s Jodi, she’s my Jodi, she’s . . .”
“Jodi’s gone, you fucker.”
“She’s mine, she’s mine.”
Caroline raised her fist to hit him again, but I stepped forward to grab her arm.
“No,” I told her. “Remember what you said.”
She shook herself free, but stayed her hand. Climbing to her feet, she walked over and retrieved the axe, then passed it to me.
“You hold onto that,” she told me. “Just in case he gets any ideas.”
We persuaded Jonathan that we should stay with her that night, just in case of any problems. She seemed convinced, poor soul, obviously under the spell of our supposed womanly knowledge. We didn’t tell her that neither Caroline nor I had been pregnant before, and certainly not before the freedom when we would have had an opportunity to learn something. Nor did we tell her about Jodi and Matthew.
There was a proper brass bedstead in her room—maybe it had even been Jodi’s in the past. Caroline and I made up bedrolls on the floor beside it and agreed that we would wake each other up if we saw that one of us were sleeping. The sleep would come on us soon enough, we knew, but that sleep would take Matthew at the same time as it took us and Jonathan, and then the whole thing would be out of our hands. We lay there in the gloom, and when Caroline slipped her hand into mine I let her.
“Memories are the question,” she told me. “You understand? In the past, everyone thought their memories were in the brain. But then this happens, and it’s all different.”
“They’ve got some memory, you know.”
“What? Oh, accents and such. True. But the memories, the story of me. Who knows where that is? We continue, we go from one body to the next, but what is it that goes? Souls, maybe. Not souls like in a religious sense, but something.”
She fell silent.
“One day it’ll be just newborns, I suppose,” I said.
“Not for a very long time. But unless we get fixed again, yes. It’ll just be newborns, and no one will know what it was like, to. . .”
“To have a home,” I suggested. “But that’s the problem, isn’t it. All we do, we do it because of our old home. The newborns don’t have a home to worry about, and of course they’re right.”
“Our time will pass,” she said in a somber tone. “God, that’s depressing.”
I thought about how Matthew must have stayed so close to the girl he—what, loved? I didn’t think so, but perhaps craved. Who was he once—a farmhand, a delivery boy? A neighbour? Just some classmate? Why did he stay close enough to turn up at her farm twice, maybe more times? Why had he stayed here, and I had travelled so far?
“Ghosts,” I told her. “Perhaps that’s the way to think of us. Ghosts with unfinished business.”
“Huh,” she said. We lay there, hand in hand, until the sleep came over us and I closed the eyes.