REPLAY
by Ken Grimwood

 

TWELVE

‘… apparent murder-suicide. Initial reports indicate a scene of awesome mass carnage, bodies strewn everywhere about the settlement, the corpses of infants still in their dead mothers’ arms. A few of the victims had been shot to death, but most seem to have taken their own lives, in a macabre ritual unlike any –’

Jeff reached for the frequency dial of the shortwave set, tuned it away from the BBC news broadcast until he found a jazz programme.

The coffeepot began to burble. He poured himself a mug, added a dash of Myer’s Rum for extra warmth. There’d been a fresh snowfall last night, six inches or more; one windblown drift already covered the lower half of the kitchen window. He really should shovel it away this afternoon, he thought. And it was time to get out to the storage shed, split another batch of cedar kindling, and haul some more white oak firewood up to the back porch. But he didn’t feel like doing any of that, not right now, at least.

Maybe he was still vulnerable to the general malaise that always gripped the world the week of the Jonestown horror, despite his having heard the loathsome tale revealed afresh three times before. Whatever it was, all he wanted to do today was sit by the crackling wood stove and read. He was halfway through the second volume of Hannah Arendt’s The Life of the Mind, and was planning to reread A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century next. Both had been published just this year, but he’d first read the Tuchman book over twenty years ago, the summer he took Judy and the children across Soviet Asia on the Trans-Siberian Express. Just looking at the cover of the volume brought back memories of the vast steppes, the infinity of silver birches outside Novosibirsk, and little April’s fascination with the ancient yellow samovar in the corridor of their railway car. The conductress had kept the samovar steaming with chunks of slow-burning peat, had served up endless glasses of hot tea from it on the six-thousand mile journey from Moscow to Khabarovsk, north of Manchuria. The metal holders for the glasses had been engraved with images of cosmonauts and Sputniks. At the end of the trip the conductress had given April a pair of them to take home with her. Jeff remembered seeing his adopted daughter curled up before the fireplace in the house on West Paces Ferry Road in Atlanta, sipping a glass of hot milk in one of those holders, just a week before he’d died …

He cleared his throat, blinked away the memories. Maybe it would be best if he did do some chores today, kept himself physically occupied instead of just sitting in the cabin and thinking. There’d be enough of those kind of days ahead, anyway, what with winter –

Jeff cocked his ear, thought he heard an engine. No, couldn’t be. Nobody’d be fool enough to head out this way until spring, not unless Jeff had put out an emergency call on the shortwave. But there it was again, by God, a whine and a roar, louder, sounded as if it were headed right down his road.

He pulled on a down parka and a wool cap, stepped outside. Was there some trouble over at the Mazzinis’ place? Somebody sick or hurt, a fire, maybe?

A glimmer of recognition flashed in his mind as the mud-spattered Land Rover made a hard left through his open gate; then he saw the driver’s straight blond hair, and he knew.

‘’Morning,’ Pamela Phillips said, swinging a booted foot onto the running board of the rugged four-wheel-drive vehicle. ‘Hell of a driveway you’ve got.’

‘Don’t usually get much traffic.’

‘I’m not surprised,’ she said, hopping down from the cab. ‘Looks like one poor guy’s car hit a land mine back there, a long time ago.’

‘They tell me that was a man named Hector, George Hector. He had a portable still installed on that Model T during prohibition, kept moving it from place to place so he wouldn’t get caught. It blew up one night.’

‘What about Hector? Did he blow up with it?’

‘He wasn’t hurt, apparently. Had to build another still, but he gave up on the portability idea. At least, that’s what they say.’

‘So much for innovative thinking, hmm?’ She took a deep breath of the clean, cold mountain air, let it out slowly, looking at him. ‘Well. How have you been?’

‘Not too bad. Yourself?’

‘Pretty busy since I saw you last. That was … Jesus, three and a half years ago.’ She rubbed her hands briskly together. ‘Hey, is there anyplace around here a lady could get warm?’

‘Sorry; come on in, I’ve got some coffee. You took me by surprise, that’s all.’

She followed him into the cabin, pulled off her jacket, and took a chair by the stove as he poured the coffee. He held up the bottle of Myer’s with a questioning look, and Pamela nodded. He splashed a dollop of the rich gold liquid into her mug, handed it to her. She sipped the mixture, mimed approval with her mouth and eyebrows.

‘How’d you find me?’ he asked, settling into the chair across from her.

‘Well, you told me the place was near Redding; my lawyer spoke to your broker in San Francisco, and he was kind enough to narrow it down a little more. When I got up here I asked around in town; took a while before I found anybody who was willing to give me directions, though.’

‘They have a deep respect for privacy around here.’

‘So I gathered.’

‘A lot of people don’t like having somebody drive up on their land without warning. Especially if it’s a stranger.’

‘I’m not a stranger to you.’

‘Damn near,’ Jeff said. ‘I thought that was pretty much how we left it in Los Angeles.’

She sighed, absentmindedly stroked the sheepskin collar of the faded denim jacket that she’d folded across her lap. ‘As much as we had in common, we were coming from opposite directions. We got pretty pissed off at each other, there at the end.’

‘Yeah, you could put it that way. Or you could say you were just too damned obstinate to see past your own obsessions, to –’

‘Hey!’ she snapped, setting the coffee mug down sharply next to the shortwave radio. ‘Don’t make this any harder for me than it is already, OK? I drove six hundred miles to see you. Now just hear me out.’

‘All right. Go ahead.’

‘Look, I know you’re surprised to see me today. But try to imagine how surprised I was when you showed up. You’d seen Starsea. You’d had time to speculate about me, and had come to the obvious conclusions. You knew I was probably a replayer, too, but I had no idea there was anybody else like me out there. I thought I’d found the only possible explanation for what was happening to me – to the world. I believed I was doing the right thing.

‘Well, I still don’t know. Maybe I was, maybe I wasn’t; it’s a moot point now.’

‘Why?’

‘Could I have another splash of rum in this? And maybe some more coffee?’

‘Sure.’ He freshened both their mugs, sat back to listen.

‘I’d already begun working on the screenplay for my next film when you came to LA; we had the shooting script ready by October.

‘Naturally, budget wasn’t a problem. I signed Peter Weir to direct; he hadn’t made The Last Wave yet, so everybody thought I was crazy to use him.’ She smiled wryly, leaned forward with her long hands wrapped around the steaming mug. ‘The special-effects team I put together was interesting. First I hired John Whitney. By then he’d already done all the groundwork in computer-generated images, and a lot of his short films had focused on mandalas; I wanted that to be the central image in the film. I gave him free rein, set him up with one of the very first prototypes of the Cray supercomputer.

‘Then I got hold of Douglas Trumbull, who’d done the special effects for 2001. I nudged him in the direction of inventing Showscan a few years earlier than he would have. We shot the whole film in that process, even though –’

‘Wait a minute,’ Jeff interrupted, ‘what’s “Showscan”?’

Pamela gave him a look of surprise, which contained a touch of wounded pride. ‘You haven’t seen Continuum?’

He shrugged apologetically. ‘It never showed in Redding.’

‘No; in this area, it played only in San Francisco and Sacramento. We had to specially adapt all the theatres.’

‘Why?’

‘The Showscan process produces incredibly realistic images on a movie screen, but to get that effect you need special projection equipment. You know the basic principle of how motion pictures work, right? Twenty-four frames, twenty-four still pictures a second … As one image begins to fade on the retina, the next appears, creating an impression of fluid, unbroken movement. Persistence of vision, it’s called. Actually, there are forty-eight frames a second, because each of the images is repeated once, to help fool the eye. But of course it’s not really the eye that’s being tricked, it’s the brain. Even though we think we’re seeing uninterrupted motion on the screen, at some deeper, unconscious level we’re aware of the stops and starts. That’s one of the reasons video tape has a sharper, “realer” look than film; it’s recorded at thirty frames per second, so there are fewer gaps.

‘Well, Showscan takes that process a step further. It’s shot at a full sixty frames a second, with no redundant frames. Trumbull used EEGs to monitor the brain waves of people watching film shot and projected at various rates, and that’s where the responses peaked. It appears that the visual cortex is programmed to perceive reality at that particular speed, in sixty bursts of visual input each second. So Showscan is like a direct conduit to the brain. It’s not 3-D; the effect is more subtle than that. The images seem to strike deep chords of recognition; they somehow resonate with authenticity.

‘So, anyway, we shot the whole movie in Showscan, including all the computer-generated mandalas and Mandelbrot sets and other effects that the Whitneys and their team came up with. We filmed most of it at Pinewood Studios in London. The actors were all talented unknowns, mainly from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. I didn’t want any star’s ego or presence to overshadow the theme of the film, its … message.’

She finished her coffee, stared at the bottom of the heavy brown mug. ‘Continuum opened on June eleventh, worldwide. And it was a total failure.’

Jeff frowned. ‘How do you mean that?’

‘Just the way I said it. The movie flopped. It did good business for about a month, and then fell off to nothing. The critics hated it. So did the audiences. Word of mouth was even worse than the reviews, and they were bad enough. “Leftover sixties mysticism” pretty much summed up the general reaction. “Muddled,” “incoherent,” and “pretentious” were thrown in there a lot, too. The only reason most people went to see it at all was for the novelty value of the Showscan process and for the computer graphics. Those went over well, but they were just about the only things anybody liked about the film.’

There was a long, awkward silence. ‘I’m sorry,’ Jeff said finally.

Pamela laughed bitterly. ‘Funny, isn’t it? You refused to have anything more to do with me because you were concerned about the potentially dangerous impact this film might have, the global changes it might set in motion … and the world ended up ignoring it, treating it like a stale joke.’

‘What went wrong?’ he asked with gentleness.

‘Part of it was the timing: the “Me Generation,” discos, cocaine, all that. Nobody wanted any more lectures about the oneness of the universe and the eternal chain of being. They’d had enough of that in the sixties; now all they wanted to do was party. But it was mainly my fault. The critics were right. It was a bad movie. It was too abstract, too esoteric; there was no plot, there were no real characters, no one for an audience to identify with. It was purely a philosophical exercise, a self-indulgent “message picture,” with no meat to it. People stayed away in droves, and I can’t blame them.’

‘You’re being kind of hard on yourself, aren’t you?’

She turned her empty mug around in her hands, kept her eyes down. ‘Just facing facts. It was a painful lesson to learn, but I’ve grown to accept it. Both of us have had to accept a lot. Had to lose a lot.’

‘I know how much it meant to you, how much you believed in what you were doing. I respect that, even if I disagreed with your methods.’

She looked at him, her green eyes softer than he’d ever seen them. ‘Thank you. That means a lot to me.’

Jeff stood up, took his parka from the hook by the door. ‘Get your coat on,’ he told her. ‘I want to show you something.’

They stood in fresh snow at the top of the hill where he’d been clearing out the irrigation system the week before he first saw Starsea. The Pit River was clogged with ice now, not salmon, and the trees on Buck Mountain were heavy with their burden of white. In the distance, the majestic conic symmetry of Mount Shasta rose up to meet the clear November sky.

‘I used to dream about that mountain,’ Jeff told her. ‘Dream it had something of great import to tell me, an explanation for all I’d been through.’

‘It looks … unreal,’ she murmured. ‘Sacred, even. I can understand a vision like that coming to dominate your dreams.’

‘The Indians around here did consider it holy. Not just because it’s a volcano; some of the other Cascade peaks have been more active, made more of an immediate impact on the environment. But none of them ever had the same allure Shasta did.’

‘And still does,’ Pamela whispered, staring at the silent mountain. ‘There’s a … power there, I can feel it.’

Jeff nodded, his eyes fixed, like hers, on the far-off stately slopes. ‘There’s a cult – white, not Indian – that still worships the mountain. They think it has something to do with Jesus, with resurrection. Others believe there are aliens, or some ancient offshoot race of humans, living in the magma tunnels beneath it. Strange, crazy stuff; Mount Shasta seems to inspire that kind of thinking, somehow.’

The wind gusted colder, and Pamela shivered. Reflexively, Jeff put his arm around her shoulders, drew her to his warmth.

‘At one time or another,’ he said, ‘I’ve imagined just about every possible explanation, no matter how bizarre, for what’s been happening to me – to us. Time warps, black holes, God gone berserk … I mentioned the people who think Mount Shasta is populated by aliens; well, I once had myself convinced this was all some sort of experiment being conducted by an extraterrestrial race. The same idea must have occurred to you once or twice; I could see elements of it in Starsea. And maybe that’s the truth – maybe we’re the sentient rats who have to find our way out of this maze. Or maybe there’s a nuclear holocaust at the end of 1988, and the collective psychic will of all the men and women who have ever lived has chosen this way to keep it from spelling an absolute end to humanity. I don’t know.

‘And that’s the point: I can’t know, and I’ve finally grown to accept my inability to understand it, or to change it.’

‘That doesn’t mean you can’t keep wondering,’ she said, her face close to his.

‘Of course not, and I do. I wonder about it constantly. But I’m no longer consumed by that quest for answers, haven’t been for a long time. Our dilemma, extraordinary though it is, is essentially no different than that faced by everyone who’s ever walked this earth: We’re here, and we don’t know why. We can philosophize all we want, pursue the key to that secret along a thousand different paths, and we’ll never be any closer to unlocking it.

‘We’ve been granted an incomparable gift, Pamela; a gift of life, of awareness and potential greater than anyone has ever known before. Why can’t we just accept it for what it is?’

‘Someone – Plato, I think – once said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”’

‘True. But a life too closely scrutinized will lead to madness, if not suicide.’

She looked down at their footprints in the otherwise-pristine snow. ‘Or simply failure,’ she said quietly.

‘You haven’t failed. You made an attempt to draw the world together, and in the process you’ve created magnificent works of art. The effort, the creation – those acts stand on their own.’

‘Until I die again, perhaps. Until the next replay. Then it all vanishes.’

Jeff shook his head, his arm tightly around her shoulders. ‘Only the products of your work will disappear. The struggle, the devotion you put into your endeavours … That’s where the value truly lies, and will remain: within you.’

Her eyes filled with tears. ‘So much loss, though, so much pain; the children …’

‘All life includes loss. It’s taken me many, many years to learn to deal with that, and I don’t expect I’ll ever be fully resigned to it. But that doesn’t mean we have to turn away from the world, or stop striving for the best that we can do and be. We owe that much to ourselves, at least, and we deserve whatever measure of good may come of it.’

He kissed her tear-streaked cheeks, then kissed her lightly on the lips. To the west, a pair of hawks circled slowly in the sky above Devil’s Canyon.

‘Have you ever been soaring?’ Jeff asked.

‘You mean in a sailplane, a glider? No. No, I never have.’

He put both arms around her waist, hugged her close. ‘We will,’ he whispered into the softness of her tawny hair. ‘We’ll soar together.’

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