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Mark L. Van Name

With this story we change gears and come back to Earth, to a world that's just a little ahead of ours and to one long night and a single man struggling to find himself in a hostile environment many of us have experienced firsthand: a high-school reunion.

The walls of Tom's apartment glittered with pictures of parties he had never attended. Posters, magazine pages, and glossy group photos filled every blank spot. People smiled and laughed all around the room.

In New Orleans revelers at Mardi Gras smiled and crowded together and spilled their drinks. In Colorado Springs whole families screamed in happy terror as ghouls jumped from hiding places on the Air Force Academy's Halloween trail. In San Antonio men and women packed shoulder to shoulder and back to front craned their necks to catch a glimpse of the first float of the Fiesta parade on the river.

Scattered among the other pictures, at least a few on every wall, were photos of reunions: reunions of high-school and college classes, of families, of fraternities and sororities, of military regiments and baseball teams, of survivors of plane crashes and train wrecks.

Tom took his wallet from the dresser and checked its contents. He had everything he needed: money, driver's license, credit cards.

His license marked him as thirty-eight. He knew he was six months old. He remembered his high school, sitting in the back of physics class and making jokes about Mr. Dunlop, the bald teacher with the unfortunate namesake tire of fat around his waist. He also knew he had not gone to school. He remembered his parents, the way they never quite seemed to see him, to focus on him, even when they were talking to him. He knew he had never been born.

Most of all, Tom knew he was not human, and that he was not supposed to know he was not human.

It had come to him in his sleep on the seventh night of his life. He had awakened, shaking, at 3:47 a.m., with the knowledge that he was not human. He remembered the time glowing red on the clock on his night stand. The knowledge had not come as a dream, not as a garish image fading as the unconscious surrenders the brain to the waking mind, but as an absolute certainty, knowledge as sure and deep and built-in as the way he knew how to run, the way he knew the ground was down and the sky was up.

For a few seconds the void of his identity was complete. Then, as if a pause instruction in the programming of his brain had completed and the rest of the program was resuming, a second realization filled the void. He knew in that instant he was a program downloaded into a human male's body, an experiment, a new kind of person, or maybe not a person at all, but at least a new kind of personlike thing in a person's body. He did not know the source of this data, whether the information about his origin was a gift or a slipup by some programmer he hoped he would never meet, but he knew.

He suspected he was not the only one of his type, but that feeling remained only a suspicion. For some time now the television news shows, Web sites, and newspapers had regularly been running stories on the attempts in labs around the world to download human minds into computers. None of these attempts had succeeded, or so the media was reporting. The stories hinted, however, that once scientists could download a mind into a computer, it should not be a huge step to go the other way, to upload a program into a body. Keeping the first successful experiments secret might be necessary to protect those involved.

He knew his body was real enough. He checked that right away: He cut his arm with a small penknife, and the cut bled and hurt. As soon as he could get a doctor appointment, he called in sick and had a complete physical. The doctor said he was fine. He saw his X-rays. They definitely showed a human body.

The fake past he still remembered was as complete as his body. He could recall all sorts of things that had never happened. For the first few days he investigated his false history, but his searches were as fruitless as he knew they would be. The company where he had supposedly last worked had folded, employees scattered with no forwarding addresses when an NEC-Rockwell joint venture had bought its computer-modeling technology and disbanded the firm. Only two of the members of the computer science faculty at North Carolina State University remained from when he had earned his master's, and both were conveniently on long-term sabbaticals, e-mail addresses bouncing, unavailable for his questions. His high-school senior annual listed him, the words "Thomas Walters" in the senior index filling him with a moment of doubt tinged with hope, but the space next to his name was blank; he was not in any of the photographs. His parents were dead, killed in a plane that did not pull up in time to avoid the gully at the end of the main runway of the Pittsburgh airport. No search engine yielded anything more than his name, address, and high school. The credit records he requested showed no loans, no late bills, only a great rating with no history of misconduct—of any conduct—supporting it.

With each investigation he turned up shredded paper traces and thin online data trails of a past, but never anything he could follow further. As he searched, the stories of download experiments continued to leap at him from the front pages of all his sources, each attempt seemingly closer to success than the others before it.

He gave up his research quickly, afraid those who had created him would notice a change and decide to cancel the experiment. In the days he went to work and did his job and tried to stay inconspicuous, worried at first that someone would notice his essential falseness, and then later that anyone might be an observer sent to decide if the experiment was still working. He fixed bugs in the software that managed the interfaces between North Carolina Power's internal computer network and its substations, and he avoided people. He fixed more bugs than ever before, and his boss was happy. In the nights he read magazines and clipped photos and wondered what it was like to be human.

For a few months this routine was enough, but Tom gradually grew desperate to have a past, a set of attachments to the world. One day, he saw an article in the newspaper about an upcoming high-school reunion, and on the night of the reunion he went to the hotel and joined the crowd. His name wasn't on the invitation list, but it was a big class and he had done his research. He convinced the Reunions Inc. staff workers at the door that he should have been on the list, paid his hundred bucks, and joined the group. He sat alone that night, rarely speaking to anyone, but nonetheless enjoying the almost tangible strands of memories and feelings that connected the people in the room.

Since then he had hacked his way into the Reunions Inc. computers by using the power company's automated billing links to those systems. He did the same with the three other firms that ran reunions in the cities near him. Now his name always appeared on the right lists.

He put his wallet in his jacket pocket and checked his hair in the mirror over the dresser. That first reunion had been more than three months ago. On the wall next to the mirror were class photos from the four other reunions he had since attended. He was in each of them, always standing in the second row on the right side, a good spot but not one so important that anyone else cared to have it. He smiled in anticipation of tonight's party, his sixth reunion. He took down a Time picture of the first astronaut reunion and put it in the top drawer of his dresser, to make a space for his next class photo.


The parking lot was already crowded when he arrived. He liked parking fairly near the entrance, which meant squeezing his Prius into a space partially occupied by a Winnebago with a vanity plate that read "Deacon" and a huge, homemade "Patriots" banner hanging from its side.

A smiling woman whose badge marked her as a Reunions Inc. staffer ran her finger down a sheet of paper when he arrived at the sign-in table. "Tom Walters, Tom Walters. Let me see. Here it is. One ticket, not prepaid?"

"Yes, that's right." He forced himself to smile back. "I'm not married."

She flashed him a smile and nodded toward another woman seated behind the rows of badges lining the table in front of her. "Lindy?"

The seated woman scanned the badges and came up with one with no photo, just Tom's name printed on it in large block letters. Her badge showed a younger version of herself wearing a cheerleader outfit and smiling brightly, plus the name "Lindy Bishop." She smiled at him, a smile every bit as bright as the one in the photo, her beauty barely touched by the intervening two decades, and handed him his badge. "Sorry there's no photo. You must not have been in the Peterson annual."

"I was sick the days they took those photos." He handed her the money and took his badge.

She smiled again. "Don't feel bad, that happens to lots of people. Have a nice time."

Tom thanked her, grateful for the minor kindness of her words, and pulled the lanyard holding his badge over his head. He always wore the same clothes to reunions: gray pants, blue blazer, pale blue shirt, blue striped tie. Safe, look-like-half-the-other-men clothes, clothes guaranteed not to stand out. He stepped past the registration table into the rear of the hall. He liked arriving about a half hour late, in time for the photos but late enough that the drinkers determined to load up for the evening would be sure to have kicked off the party. This room bubbled with chatter and laughter, clumps of people randomly sprayed among the openings in the dinner tables, a few couples sitting and nervously checking out the groups, here and there individuals looking sideways and over the edges of drinks, hoping for friends or at least acquaintances to yank them into the fray.

He took a step forward, then stopped as he felt a hand clamp down on his shoulder from behind.

"Hey, I don't remember you."

Tom turned around. The man who had grabbed him was tall and thick, with a thick neck, thicker chest, and still thicker waist. Red streaks lined eyes set deeply in a tan, acne-scarred face that the photo on his badge showed had been headed for handsome but never quite made it. The preprinted part of the badge read "Bobby Stevens"; someone had written "Deacon" in magic marker just below the name. Bobby stared at Tom, took a pull from a beer that was barely visible in his large hand, and waited for a reply. Tom stared back.

Bobby cracked first and tried again. "I knew everybody at Peterson, but I don't know you."

Tom wanted to bolt, run home, and hide, but he had known this could happen and had prepared himself. Forcing a smile, he said, "Sorry, there were a lot of us." Seven hundred eight students had graduated from Peterson that year, one of the reasons Tom had felt safe coming. "We must not have taken many of the same classes."

Lindy and a second person, a short, medium-weight woman with red hair, tried to squeeze past Bobby and failed. The second woman, Angela Wilson according to her badge, playfully punched Bobby in the arm, and Bobby took the hint. He stepped out of the way. "Yeah, I guess that's it," he said.

Tom kept smiling, said, "Have a good night," for good measure added, "Go Patriots," and joined the people wandering in the room. He was sure Bobby was staring at him, but he did not turn around. If Bobby was the investigator he had long feared his creators might dispatch to check on him, his best option was to finish the party and go home as he normally would; any damage he could do was already done. Besides, Tom told himself, Bobby was almost certainly no more than a drunk ex-jock looking to cause a little trouble.

Though he had never been in this hotel before, the banquet hall could have been any of the rooms from the earlier reunions he had attended. A plywood and two-by-four white bandstand filled the center third of the front of the room. Speakers sat in stacks on either side of it, blaring Top 100 fare Tom knew even though he also knew he had never heard the songs before his first reunion. Banners over the stage proclaimed it the temporary home of the Greensboro Party Boys. The bandstand was empty, the Party Boys not yet at work. A portable parquet dance floor covered the carpet in front of the bandstand. Two rows of chairs lined the opposite side of the floor. Round tables filled the rest of the room. On each sat eight place settings and a vase that held a small, obviously plastic bouquet. Two balloons, one pink and one blue, floated above each vase. The air was thick and the room already warming despite the dim lighting, its air conditioners losing the battle with the body heat of the Peterson alumni.

Tom went to a small bar in the corner and bought two glasses of ginger ale. He was afraid to drink alcoholic beverages at reunions, unwilling to surrender even a little control. The second glass marked him as someone waiting for a companion and frequently discouraged potential visitors. He looked around until he found the door the wait staff used to enter and leave the room, then sat at the table closest to it. Tables near the kitchen were always the last to fill up. He sipped his drink and watched the crowd.

The group had grown since his arrival, and so had the activity level. Almost everyone was checking out someone else. Those few sitting alone scanned the crowd like hungry hunters desperate for game, their chests turned outward to afford standing onlookers the best possible views of their badges. Shrieks of recognition preceded hugs and kisses that never quite touched cheeks. Everywhere Tom saw people recognizing other people, talking, concentrating, focusing hard as they grabbed their pasts, time-traveling, even if only for a moment, to younger years.

The woman who had been working the front door appeared on the dance floor, a microphone in her hand. "Time for the class picture, everyone. Women on the chairs, front row sitting, back row kneeling. Men in two rows behind them, shorter in the front. Come on, everybody, let's go."

For the first time since he began attending reunions, Tom did not enjoy the group photo. Worrying about Bobby kept him from losing himself in the pleasure of being a member, if only for a night, of the class. When the photographer finished, Tom bought two more ginger ales and chugged one on the way to his seat. He dried the sweat from his face with the two small napkins the bartender had given him and sipped his other drink. The dance floor was busy now, a slow song having pulled a dozen or so couples onto the parquet. Most swayed gently, eyes rarely on each other, ships brushing hulls for a moment on a gentle ocean. Several gripped each other tightly, eyes locked, fervently holding one another, maybe seeking new passion, maybe hoping this moment, this dance could bring it all back, restore the heat that had once fused them. A few, Tom hoped, a few might even have sustained the passion, this dance one more moment in a storm of life they would always weather together. He envied the dancers, yearned for the completely human connections he knew he could not have.

Dinner would follow soon. Tom draped his jacket over the back of his chair to save his spot and followed the signs out of the room and down two hallways to the restroom.

* * *

Coming down the hall that led away from the bathrooms, Tom found his path partially blocked by Bobby Stevens and Lindy Bishop. Bobby was leaning against the wall, arms extended to trap Lindy between him and it. Lindy stared at Tom as he approached, her eyes wide, obviously unhappy and afraid.

Bobby's back was hunched, his face bent so it was almost touching Lindy's. "I never did figure out why we didn't hook up back in the day, Lindy, but that's okay." He leaned closer, until his forehead touched hers. "We can take care of that right now. My bedroom is parked outside." Bobby chuckled, spotted Tom, and straightened. "Nothing for you here, buddy." Lindy tried to slip under Bobby's left arm as he looked at Tom, but Bobby grabbed her shoulder and forced her back. "Miss cheerleader and me, we're catchin' up on old times. Move on."

Tom dipped his head as he looked away from Bobby and Lindy. It was not his problem. He did not know these people. He squeezed behind Bobby and resumed his walk down the hall. She had been nice to him at the check-in, but that was her job, right? That was what she was there to do. Her smile was beautiful, and he had enjoyed it, but it meant nothing.

After a couple of steps he stopped. He could not simply walk away; it was wrong. He turned around and said, "Bobby, I don't think Lindy wants to be there. Let her go."

Bobby was on him faster than Tom would have believed the big man could move, pushing him against the wall, compressing his chest with one large hand. "I told you to move on, you jerk!"

Lindy took the opportunity to scoot behind Bobby and run down the hall.

Bobby did not appear to notice her, his anger now totally focused on Tom. "You stupid idiot. I don't know you, but I can't believe you don't know me. And if you know me, you know you just made a huge mistake." Bobby lightly punched the wall next to Tom's head. "A huge mistake."

Lindy appeared at the end of the hall, Angela Wilson, a few other women, and a couple of men in tow. Tom looked at them and wondered if they could get to him before Bobby could hit him. He braced himself for the blow.

"Bobby Stevens, where have you been?" Angela Wilson was walking toward the two men, acting as if nothing odd was happening, just one old classmate seeking another. Bobby shook his head and stared at her. As she drew closer she stared at the two of them as if noticing the situation for the first time and said, "Tom Walters, will you leave him alone? You know the big guy has blood-pressure problems." She stepped under Bobby's arm and wedged herself into the space between Tom and Bobby. "Bobby, I do believe you're more than a bit red. You need a cold drink. Come to think of it, so do I. Tom, how about you?"

Tom nodded his head, yes.

Angela turned the two men so they were all facing down the hall. Tom could not tell if he or Bobby was more surprised. "Well, come on, boys. Let's go get those drinks."

"Aw, hell, Angie, it was nothin'," Bobby said. "Me and him, we were just havin' a talk."

"That's fine, Bobby, but Tom promised he'd sit with me at dinner to make up for all those times he ignored me in class, and they're serving the salad, so we need to get to our table. I'm sure you don't want to miss the food." At the end of the hall she steered Tom away and picked up her pace. "Tom, what table did you choose for us? I've totally forgotten."

Tom stared at her. Large, round, bright brown eyes sparkled and a smile played at the edges of a mouth that was a bit small for the rest of her face. Bobby was a few steps behind them, apparently still as confused as he was. Tom pointed Angie toward the table near the kitchen.

Angie glanced back at Bobby, then at Tom. "Tom, did you hear the news about Mrs. Wee, our homeroom teacher? She ended up principal of her own high school. Now wasn't that just about the funniest name you could imagine for a woman that big? She must have weighed three hundred pounds."

Tom nodded; it seemed the thing to do. At their table he sat heavily on his chair. Angie took the seat beside him. Bobby, shaking his head slowly, headed for a group of large men on the other side of the room.

Tom looked at Angie. "Thank you, but I don't—"

"That jerk," she said. "He was a bully then, and he's still a bully. Good thing he never could see through the sweet little Southern girl bit."

Tom tried again. "Look, I appreciate you helping me out, but I have to say I don't—"

"I know, I know, you don't remember me. Well, that's okay. Hardly anybody remembers me. I wasn't always this forceful, you know. Assertiveness training at my job. I work for the state over in Raleigh, case analysis for Social Services. You have to be tough in that job, you know. You probably never would have thought I could do it, but there you go. What do you do, Tom?"

Tom felt caught, although by what he did not know. He loosened his tie. Waiters were putting salad and glasses of water on the table. Tom checked his watch: Nine o'clock. He took a drink from his water glass. Angie was still looking at him, waiting.

"I work for North Carolina Power in Durham. I'm a programmer."

"Well, there you go. You always were pretty good with computers, weren't you?"

Tom nodded, his head bobbing up and down on a string Angie was pulling.

"I thought I remembered that," Angie said. She leaned closer. "Look, you're obviously here alone, and I'm here alone, and you seem to be having about as much luck with folks as I am, so why don't we talk to each other? Just because we never talked in classes doesn't mean we can't talk now."

A waiter holding two bottles of wine tapped Tom on the shoulder. "Would you and your wife like wine with your dinner, sir?"

Tom gazed longingly at the door that opened onto the parking lot. It seemed very far away. Bobby Stevens sat at a table right in front of it. Lindy Bishop, clearly the focal point of a group of chattering women, perched on her chair at a table two away from Bobby's. Tom saw that Bobby was still watching him and turned to face the waiter. "We're not married." He looked at Angie. "Would you like some wine?"

"Sure, why not? Red, please."

Tom decided to break his usual rule. "Yes," he said to the waiter, "we'd both like some wine. Red for me also, please."

The rest of the chairs at Tom's table filled quickly as the waiters served salad. Tom ate, glad to have something to do. Angie picked at her food and asked Tom questions about his job and where he lived and what he liked to do. Tom answered as briefly as he could and asked her the same questions.

He learned that she liked her job and enjoyed the feeling of helping people, though the stress of their situations did wear at her. She had never gotten married, dabbled in gardening, and did volunteer phone-bank work once a week for the Democratic Party. All the information was a blur, as hard to grasp as smoke because he could never quite shake his fears about who she was and what she wanted.

Midway through dessert, a pasty piece of apple pie with a scoop of ice cream the color of the dance floor, the Party Boys cranked up. Angie tapped her foot to songs Tom knew from the fake part of his memory. The third song was a slow tune Tom did not recognize.

"You know," Angie said, "I never went to a Peterson dance. How about you, Tom?"

"No, I never did either." He looked first at the dance floor, where couples swayed and shuffled in small boxes, and then at Angie. She was staring at the dancers. She was no longer tapping her foot, and she held her hands tightly together in her lap. A bit of the red from the band's stage lights played in her hair and eyes, and he could see her as she must have been in high school, the younger, slightly thinner woman in the photo on her badge. Her eyes were moist, her back straight, every bit of her attention focused for a moment on the dance, and in that moment Tom felt her yearning as strongly as his own, saw in it his own desire for connection, noticed for the first time the sweep of her cheeks, the wisps of hair on her neck, her long lashes, her beauty. He could no more look away from her than she could turn from the dance.

When the song was over the dancing people clapped so much that the band started another slow one. Tom saw Bobby leave the dance floor, walk his partner to a table, and head Tom's way.

Tom turned to Angie. "Would you like to dance?"

"Yes," Angie said. She turned to face him, the intensity of the previous moment now focused on him, and he felt it like a punch to his heart. "I would like that. A lot." Tom took her hand, and they stepped onto the dance floor. Bobby stopped and watched as Tom put his arms around Angie and pulled her close. He did not know how to dance, so he shuffled around like everybody else, staying close to Angie, feeling her warmth. Angie did not complain, so he figured he must be doing all right. Bobby went back to his table.

When the dance was over, Tom and Angie returned to their seats. A woman whose badge Tom could not read waved to Angie, and Angie headed over to talk to her. Tom watched as Angie spoke first with one woman and then with two more. They all hugged and stood close and laughed. He envied her past, those women, even, a little, her knowledge of Bobby Stevens. All real, all more than he had, more than he would ever have.

When she returned Angie pulled her chair close to his and whispered in his ear. "Can you believe those three? Back in Peterson, they wouldn't give me two seconds; now, they act like we were best friends." She shook her head. "Not that I act much better. I guess I would have liked them to be my friends back then." She pulled away and looked in his eyes. "Sounds stupid, doesn't it? Still wanting stuff like that after twenty years."

"No," Tom said. "Not to me."

"Well, who cares anyway? At least we remember each other, right?"

Tom nodded. He did not know what else to do.

"Excuse me for a minute, will you?" She stood, started to go, and then looked at him over her shoulder, smiling, the light illuminating half her face and leaving the other half in shadow. "When I get back, maybe we can dance some more." She headed toward the bathroom.

The Party Boys stopped playing, and the lead singer announced they would be taking a short break. He said the bar would be closing in fifteen minutes, at midnight. Many of the dancers headed for the bar, and in less than a minute it was invisible behind a crowd.

Tom wondered whether it was time to leave. He checked the table by the door; Bobby Stevens was nowhere in sight. If either Bobby or Angie was here to check on him, now was the time to head home, hide in his apartment, and hope they decided he didn't pose them a problem. He put his hand on Angie's chair, and he could almost see her there again, staring at the dance floor, her desire to belong as palpable as his own. Leaving her now felt no more right than walking by Lindy in the hallway.

A tapping on his shoulder interrupted his reverie. He turned to face Lindy, a group of women arrayed behind her like geese in flight. "Tom," she said, "I wanted to thank you for jumping in with Bobby. I like to think he wouldn't have done anything bad, but I have to admit I was a little scared. I really appreciate it."

"No problem," he said. "Anybody would have done it."

"The thing is, though," she said, "when I was telling the girls about it, none of them could remember you either. Which homeroom teacher did you have?"

Tom's chest tightened, and he realized he could not keep this up, could not keep on wondering what it meant every time anyone spoke to him. He glanced at the path to the bathroom; Angie was still not back. He did not want to abandon her, but he had to get away. Recalling her comment to Bobby, he said, "Mrs. Wee." He stood. "Listen, Lindy, I don't mean to be rude, but I have to get home."

Lindy appeared a bit taken aback but remained polite. "Of course. Well, thank you again."

As she walked away, Tom caught snatches of conversation from her group. "Didn't you have Mrs. Wee?" "Do you remember him?" He headed for the door, moving as quickly as he could while trying not to attract any attention. Walking across the dance floor he passed through a band of red from one of the Party Boys' lights, and the memory of Angie's hair came unbidden to him. He shook his head and moved on, kept walking until he was out of the hotel and in the parking lot. His hands were shaking, the sweat on his body drying fast in the cool night air. He sat on a curb and willed himself to calm down.

After a moment he walked toward his car. He would have to give up reunions. He could not afford more encounters like this one.

And then he thought again of Angie. He could not shake the image of her at the table, wanting to dance, or the feel of her in his arms as they shuffled around the dance floor, their slow swaying moves bringing them in and out of contact, one minute linked only by arm and hand, the next their bodies so close she was a soft, warm part of him he had only that moment realized existed.

When he reached his car he remembered his jacket, still on the chair at the table, its pockets holding his keys, his wallet, everything. He could not afford to lose those things, could not leave without them. He started back.

Angie was waiting next to the banquet hall door, his jacket in her hand.

"Forget something?"

"Yes." Embarrassed as he was, he forced himself to stare directly into her eyes. "I was coming back for it. I owe you an apology. I'm really sorry for leaving this way."

She handed him the jacket. "Yeah, you could have at least said good-bye. After what I did for you, you could have at least done that."

Tom put on his jacket and by habit checked its pockets. Everything was there.

Angie stared at him, her face tightening, eyes flashing. "Oh, great, now you think I'm some kind of thief. That's really nice, thanks a lot." She kept staring at him.

The skin in Tom's face felt tight over his skull as he fought for self-control. He had not meant to treat her poorly, she had been nice but he did not know why, and he did not know what to do, whether to run from her or grab her or push her away. It was all too much.

"What do you want from me?" he shouted. He couldn't help himself. "You know you don't know me and I don't know you and what do you want? Why were you nice to me?"

Angie backed away a step. Her mouth was open. "What do I want?" She shook her head and stared at the ground. "What do you think I want? Somebody to talk to, to sit with. That's all, nothing special." She took a deep breath. "I was being nice to you, saving you from Bobby Stevens. Okay, I don't remember you, but there are lots of people I don't remember and lots of people who don't remember me. That's how it is. I thought you could use a hand and you looked nice and so I helped you. Then we talked, and we danced, and . . ." She paused, her eyes misting ". . . and, well, I thought you were really nice. Boy, was I wrong." She turned and walked into the hotel.

Tom stood alone, eyes wet, face hot, caught in a tangle of feelings he did not know how to handle. He thought about all the pictures on his apartment walls and wondered why they never showed scenes like this, people yelling at each other and then standing alone in the dark feeling torn, ripped up inside. He searched his memories—fake, maybe, but all he had—and retrieved plenty of painful moments, but somehow he had always believed a real past would be better, happier, easier to understand. In the distance a stoplight turned to red, and he thought again of the stage light playing through Angie's hair. She was real, and the way he had felt while dancing with her and talking with her was real, new, immediate, powerful.

He walked back into the reunion. Angie was standing next to their table, talking to a woman and a man. He waited until they finished and approached her.

She saw him when he was still a few feet away. "What do you want?"

"To say I'm sorry. I didn't know who you were, and I didn't know what you wanted, and I was scared. I was a jerk, and I'm sorry."

"So now you know who I am and what I want?"

"No, not really, though I'd like to. I want to apologize." He held out his hand to her, and though she wouldn't take it he kept talking, no longer able to stop. "Could we start over? My name is Tom Walters. I didn't go to Peterson." He shook his head, breathed deeply, and plunged ahead. "I don't even think I'm a person. You'll probably think I'm crazy, but several months ago I realized that I'm a program someone downloaded into this body. I came here tonight because I'm too afraid of losing what life I have to ever do anything with other people except work—and go to reunions. I know that may sound sick, but some nights, sitting alone in my apartment, the thought of going to a party, even a party that's not mine to attend, is all that keeps me going. I do work at North Carolina Power as a programmer, and everything else I told you is true. Meeting you, talking with you, and dancing with you, they were the best, the best things that have happened to me." He dropped his hand and stepped back. "All I can do is say again how sorry I am."

The band was jamming quietly in preparation for another slow song, the drummer marking a slow beat, the lead singer urging everyone to find a partner, the lights dimming, red and blue highlights playing over the rapidly filling dance floor. Angie's face was a mystery to him, her expression unfathomable, backlighting washing over her, and the ache in his heart was almost more than he could bear. In that moment nothing else mattered, not what he was, not what he wasn't, not whether his memories were fake, all those concerns gone in an instant in the face of his desire to make it right for her, to hold her, to make it right for both of them. "Angie, if I had gone to high school and known you then, I like to think I would have been smart enough to take you to every dance, hold you tight, and never let you go. I'm sorry I had to go to someone else's party to meet you and figure that out. I'm sorry for how I treated you."

Angie slowly shook her head. "Do you think you're alone? Do you think you're the only one who believes he's a program? The news is so full of these download stories that at Social Services we're seeing at least a couple of cases every week, people every bit as convinced as you are but usually so disturbed by the thought that they're unable to keep working. The first symposium on it—they're calling it Download Anxiety Syndrome—is next month. Folks in the office expect we'll soon get special training for it." She stepped closer to him. "And so what? Do you think you're the only one who sits at home at night, alone and afraid?" She bent slightly, rubbed her face with her hands, then straightened and looked at him. "Maybe you are a program, though I doubt it. If you were, you'd still seem like a person to me, and it would still be true that when we were dancing I felt better, less alone, and more real than I've felt in a long time."

As what Angie told him sank in, Tom smiled. I'm not alone!

Others like him existed. Most of the ones she mentioned were probably only people, but at least some were bound to be like him—and Angie could help him find them. "Angie, I didn't know that other people felt this way. Maybe I could meet some of these people, the ones who feel like me."

She tilted her head slightly and stared at him. "I hope you're not suggesting that I give you names." She shook her head. "I couldn't do that. Our cases are confidential. I would never do that."

As Tom stared at her he realized with a flash of certainty he could not rationalize that if he worked her and stayed with her and gave it time that, yes, she would do it for him. He could make it happen, convince her to do it. He could get her to put him in contact with others like him.

All it would cost him was her.

The lights dimmed, the blues fading and only the reds flowing over the room, and the singer started, slow and gentle. Angie still looked beautiful, but now for the first time she also appeared fragile, no safer than Lindy under Bobby's arm, than Tom himself under the watch of his creators, than, he supposed, anyone.

The price was too high. He would find another way to meet those people, or maybe he wouldn't, but if he was going to make a life for himself, a real life, he wasn't going to start it by using someone as badly as those who created him had used him.

"Angie," he said, "I'm sorry. I wouldn't ask you to do anything wrong." He stepped closer and took her hands in his. "None of that really matters, though. What matters is you, the two of us, right now. Will you please dance with me?"

She nodded yes and stepped into his arms.

They merged with the crowd on the dance floor, arms around each other, and Tom lost himself entirely in the gentle light and the music and the moment, his arms encircling her, hers around him, so tightly holding one another that for a few perfect moments they moved as one person.


* * *

Afterword by Mark L. Van Name

I wrote the first draft of this story many years ago, not long after having a remarkable experience: going with a friend to a high-school reunion that wasn't my own and in which I had no emotional stake. She wanted an escort, and I thought the trip would be weird enough to be worth making. It was. The freedom of not caring what anyone thought was wonderful, but the sense of alienation was equally strong, because I was an outsider intruding in a moment of great import and, in many cases, intimacy for people I'd never known and would never see again. I wrote that initial draft and the first cut of another story ("The Ten Thousand Things," which appeared in issue six of Jim Baen's Universe, an online magazine I strongly recommend you check out and subscribe to) in what for me at the time was rapid succession. For various reasons, I ultimately put both stories aside. Years later, I realized that both pieces were examining the effects on real people of the rapid rate of technology change that is constantly reshaping our lives, and from that realization this anthology was born.

Alienation is one of the themes in many of my works, but in this story I give it perhaps the most direct examination I've ever made of the subject.


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