Alan found himself standing at the gate of a little cottage, completely oblivious to the fact that he’d been killed in a hit-and-run accident seven months prior. There was the sound of a van pulling away behind him, quickly and quietly. He glanced over his shoulder at it, but it was already halfway down the road. The brief glimpse he’d gotten of it revealed it was entirely black — windows and all.
He turned back around, frowning. He looked at his hands, turning them this way and that. Alan looked around, up and down the street he was standing on. It looked pleasant enough, with trees in full bloom, green lawns and a nicely paved road. The houses themselves were modest but pretty. He looked back at the cottage.
Alan hesitated for a moment, uncertain, and then started to push open the gate that led into the front garden. A small stone pathway curved its way towards the door, its course the shape of an ‘S’. As soon as the hinges of the gate began to squeak, the front door of the house was thrown open.
“Alan! You’re back!” cried the woman, holding the entrance open.
Back from where? he wanted to ask but didn’t. His head felt foggy, like he’d just overslept by ten or twelve hours. “Yep,” he said hoarsely, offering her a smile. “I’m back.” He could tell that she’d been crying quite recently, but he chose not to mention it.
She kissed him, then. Kissed him and pulled him in close, holding him tight, squeezing him. Alan only resisted for a second, and then allowed himself to fall into her embrace. “I missed you,” she said into his ear. “I love you, Alan. I love you.”
And then, suddenly and completely, he realised that he loved her too. It was as if his heart finally showed his brain the cards in its hand. “I love you too,” he said softly. And then he added the next bit he remembered: “I love you, Iris.”
When Alan died, she’d been inconsolable. Dead at thirty-two. Hit by a car. Drunk driver. It wasn’t fair, it just wasn’t fair, God damnit! Iris had cursed the deity she was no longer sure she believed in. “How could you?” she screamed at the ceiling, when she was home alone. “How could you, you utter, utter bastard?”
When Altera Vita had reached out and offered her the opportunity to take part in a revolutionary scientific study, Iris hadn’t doubted for a second that she was going to follow through with it, even though they themselves had told her to think about it, before giving them her final answer.
“Sit with it, for a few days. Mull it over. We’ll give you a call in two or three working days. We’ll also send you an info packet with everything you need to know about us.”
“O—okay,” she said, shaking. “I’ll do that,” she lied. “I’ll be waiting.” In truth, she’d already made up her mind, and just pretended that she was following their advice so that she didn’t seem overly eager. Who knows, maybe she’d put them off and they’d change their minds about the whole thing?
“Oh, and Iris?” the voice on the other end of the phone said, relaxing a little. “Don’t worry about a thing. And please, look after yourself.”
A package came in the post the next day, containing leaflets and pamphlets and guides and recommendations and reviews. Iris pored over them obsessively without pausing to sleep or eat. Altera Vita, her lips soundlessly read as she tore through every little bit and morsel of information on offer. Altera Vita.
When the representative for Altera Vita had gotten back in touch, Iris had done her best to tamp down the excitement brimming in her chest. “Yes, hello, who is this?” she asked, as if she hadn’t been sat at the phone for two days straight, waiting for them to call again. Nobody else was phoning. The last of the consolatory calls and telephone check ups had slowly trickled away, and the assumption that she should “just get on with it and move on” had been clearly communicated, even if not out loud.
An appointment was made for later that week, and the representative arrived right on the dot — perfectly punctual. He was a friendly, ageing man with a kind face, deep laugh lines and greying hair. “Dr Alexander Davies,” he said, offering her his hand. “Mrs Gladwell, I presume?”
For the briefest of moments, Iris had experienced dizzying déjà vu. She put her hand on the door to steady herself.
“Mrs Gladwell? Iris?” the doctor had asked, clearly concerned. “Are you okay?”
She’d smiled and brushed it off, and then invited him inside, where they discussed how it all worked. Once all the necessaries had been dealt with, Dr Davies moved on to one of the most important things for Iris to remember — it was one of the few prerequisites that he actually insisted on. She even had to sign a form confirming that she would — to the best of her abilities — adhere to the rule. It was a simple rule, but its implications were huge.
She had to hide her grief, for even though she’d suffered through his death, he would be back.
And he wouldn’t know that he’d died.
And she couldn’t let him know the truth.
“He can’t know,” said the man she’d eventually come to call Alex. “It’d be too much for him to handle, he’d likely suffer a breakdown or severe emotional distress. I can’t in good conscience continue unless that is absolutely clear; I couldn’t do that to somebody.”
“I understand,” she’d said, solemnly.
“Every one of his and your friends, every family member, anyone who ever knew him or knew of him… everyone’s got to play their part, you understand? I know it’s a big responsibility, but…”
She’d nodded, and repeated that she understood completely.
“He won’t be a fake or a substitute, he’ll be the real thing. He’ll be Alan, through and through. Don’t forget that, and don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.”
“I won’t,” Iris had said, unable to stem the flow of tears.
“Brilliant. Then let’s begin,” Dr Davies had then said, with a clap of his hands, clearly eager. “And Mrs Gladwell? Iris?” he said, voice softening. “Don’t you worry about a single thing. We’ll be getting your life back on track soon.”
Dr Alexander Davies smiled as the van pulled away. He watched through van’s blacked-out rear window as Alan took everything in, during his first few conscious seconds on Earth. Back on Earth. He’d be monitoring Alan, of course — in secret — just to ensure that he was assimilating back into his old life properly. His memories had been implanted, and it would all slowly come back to him. Or at least, it should.
It wasn’t always one-hundred percent perfect, but the end result could often be tweaked or adjusted without need for recall. In fact, Iris herself had been the posterchild for just how well the process could work. He’d personally overseen her rebirth — that was why he’d asked to oversee Alan’s own one, as well — and watched with scientific pride and sheer altruistic humanity as she unknowingly picked up the threads of her former life, after they’d become unstitched by sudden arrhythmic death syndrome at the age of twenty-nine. Of course, Alan and Iris’ relationship was now a real-life example of Theseus’ paradox, of sorts, considering that neither one was the ‘original’ (although he preferred to not use this word, in his line of work). Dr Davies had seen the hug between the two, however, a few seconds prior. You couldn’t fake that kind of evident love and compassion. He was confident that they’d be happy — continue to be happy — blissfully unaware of their own untimely demises, oblivious to the fact that they were not the originals.
Dr Davies held the company’s pamphlet in his ageing hands, fingers tracing the quote written at the bottom. He’d had his people remove all traces of their being there prior to waking Alan up, as was standard procedure. They’d done the same when Iris had died, back with the original Alan. It included taking all the papers and leaflets back, anything that had a mention of their company name. Iris didn’t need them, now that the process had been completed, and they’d be watching from a distance, just to make sure that all was okay.
The doctor whispered the company’s catchphrase to himself, as the vehicle took a turn and Alan disappeared from sight. “Altera Vita,” he said, “buy another birthday for your loved ones.”