34. Rob

By the time Rob got home from meeting with Peter, it was after eleven. He went directly to his room to continue watching Nathan’s recordings.

As Winter leaped to life in his room, Rob recalled how horrified he’d been the first time he’d seen her face on his dad’s little handheld. Now, despite the sting he felt seeing her so vibrantly alive, there was also pleasure. He was the cause of all the horror that had befallen her, but he was more than that now. Exactly what he was to her, and what she was to him, he wasn’t sure. But it was something substantial, unlike any connection he’d ever had with another person.

He watched Nathan and Winter’s first face-to-face. Evidently Nathan pulled out all the stops the first time out—he’d finagled virtual passes to watch someone brought back to life. Rob had seen a hundred recordings of revivals (who hadn’t?), but few got to witness such a personal moment in real time. Rob had no idea how Nathan had managed it. After that, they went to dinner at an underground restaurant called Beneath, where the food was harvested from vertical gardens that ran right through the restaurant and even deeper underground.

It surprised Rob that Winter always seemed to be laughing. Veronika had said to find clips where she was happy; that would be no problem. Laughter came effortlessly to her—not laughing seemed more of an effort. He should have expected the living Winter to be profoundly different from the dead, terrified Winter he knew, but it was still a shock. He barely recognized her, as if the serious, somber Winter he’d been visiting in the minus eighty was a completely different woman. It was a little disturbing, actually, but watching her made Rob ache to see her again, in the bridesicle place, if that was the only option. To see her alive, breathing, laughing… that would be indescribable.

This had to work.

Because Nathan recorded all the time, most of the clips were nothing more than the two of them riding somewhere in Nathan’s Xero, or sitting at a bar. With time short, Rob sampled random slivers, backing up to watch potentially interesting ones in their entirety, seeking the few gems that would bowl over potential suitors.

It was a jarring experience, because as it turned out, Winter had been a human being, fraught with the usual flaws and quirks that you rarely saw visiting someone in the minus eighty. She had a quick temper to match her easy laugh. Once Nathan and Winter took Nathan’s nephews to a zero-G park. Nathan took off with the older nephew, who was maybe fourteen, to experience the wilder attractions, ditching the sulking seven- or eight-year-old. Winter was right to chide Nathan for hurting the little guy’s feelings, only she didn’t chide him, she got in his face and screamed at him.

And then there was her spending habits. She didn’t care much about clothes or vehicles or other material things, but she would drop three hundred dollars on a meal, another two on a play, then pull Nathan into a club with an eighty-dollar cover for a quick drink. Rob had no idea how she could afford her half on a teacher’s meager salary. At one point she joked about being hauled off to a debt camp, and Rob wondered just how much debt she was carrying when she died.

None of this dampened the urgency Rob felt to save Winter, but it did make him wonder if he’d professed his love for her based on an idealistic image of who she was.

At around three a.m., Lorne came in carrying a Superfood omelet. “How’s it going?” He handed Rob the plate and sat down.

“All right,” Rob said without looking away from the recording. “Tell me what you think of this.”

Rob paused from wolfing down the omelet to show a clip where Winter called Nathan into her kitchen, opened the cabinet above the sink to reveal a space neatly divided between brightly colored cereal boxes on one side and liquor bottles on the other.

“This must say something profound about my psyche,” Winter said, deadpan, as they peered into the cabinet.

“What’s a psyche?” Lorne asked.

“Kind of her mental makeup.”

Lorne laughed out loud. “I like it. Funny.”

“I think so, too.” It wasn’t one of his finalists, though, because not everyone would know what a psyche was. He’d had to look it up himself.

Rob went back to sampling. Lorne hung around for a while, watching silently, then slipped out.

Winter had a distinct walk. She was slightly knock-kneed, reminding Rob of a colt; her hands gave a little twist at the end of each step. It was an unself-conscious walk, feminine without straining to be so. She tended to walk quickly, evidently eager to get wherever she was going. Often Nathan was left scurrying to keep up with her.

He wondered why Nathan had broken up with her. Nathan clearly liked to spend money, so it wasn’t that. He also seemed strong enough that he could handle her temper.

Rob came upon the recording Winter had been referring to the day before. Winter and Nathan were on one of those tour hovercrafts that cruise around Manhattan in the evening. They were on the deck, a chilly fall wind blowing, watching the city. Nathan put his arm around Winter and pointed out Baneth One, the wealthiest condo tower in the city.

“I wonder what the people in the top floors are doing right now?” he said. “One day I’m going to live there.” He glanced at Winter, who was trying to keep from laughing. “What? I am.”

Winter worked her system for a moment. A giant bottle of Chocolate Rocket with arms and legs sloshed out of the Harlem River, roaring like a dinosaur, the virtual image set so that only the two of them could see it. It headed right for Baneth One and smashed it to pieces.

“That’s vicious,” Nathan said, shaking his head.

Winter was laughing hysterically, so hard she was fighting for breath. “I can tell you what the people in there are doing right now. They’re cutting their toenails, and arguing about stupid things.”

Rob was giving her a pained look. She leaned in and kissed him lightly, playfully. “They’re just people. They may have a shitload of money, but they’re still just people.”

And suddenly Rob thought he understood why Nathan had broken up with her. The things he aspired to meant nothing to Winter, and Winter’s best qualities were things Nathan didn’t care about. Nathan was a modern man, while there was a timeless quality to Winter. She was a schoolteacher. Was there a more timeless profession? She wasn’t impressed by the flash of Nathan’s technology, the glamour of his life in High Town. She wasn’t a climber, seeking to expand her social network. She was grounded.

He came to a clip of Winter undressing. Not so much undressing as stripping, actually. There had been plenty of clips of the two of them making love, and Rob had mostly skipped over them, partly for propriety’s sake, but mostly because they made him jealous. But this one he watched, his heart racing, marinating in guilt yet unable to stop.

This one, he thought as he watched. Veronika hadn’t directed him to look for recordings with nudity. He wasn’t sure why; any man who watched this recording would want to meet her.

Rob yawned, checked the time. It was three a.m. He was supposed to leave for work in an hour, but he would call in sick.

As he got toward the end of Nathan’s recordings, it occurred to him that all of Winter’s time in the classroom should be accessible to the public. Clips of Winter teaching probably weren’t of much use for her profile, but he used his handheld to locate and download a year’s worth anyway, just because he was curious.

Again, she surprised him. Teachers got paid next to nothing, yet Winter acted as if each class was the last she’d ever teach, her last chance to light some spark in the kids. She buzzed around the classroom, cutting up, familiar with all the interactives popular with her students. She got right up close and personal with the kids who were there physically instead of via screen. When her students got out of hand, Winter’s temper was evident here as well. Her students clearly loved her, but also respected her. She was no pushover.

Veronika’s screen popped into Rob’s room, startling him.

“How are we doing? I’ve got her profile just about finished.”

Rob showed her the virtual destruction of Baneth One, another where Winter played basketball with a bunch of twelve-year-old kids in a park.

“Rob, she comes across as too independent in these. Too willful,” Veronika said.

“What’s wrong with that? She is willful. A lot of men find that sexy.”

You find that sexy. You’re not the typical bridesicle client.”

Rob opened his mouth to argue, but Veronika cut him off.

“Let’s say you just inherited a billion dollars, and you could easily afford to date women at the bridesicle place. Would you?”

“Of course not.” The thought of sitting beside cr?ches with animated frozen corpses inside, desperate to please him, made his skin crawl.

“Of course not. You’re not our target audience.”

Rob rubbed his eyes. He was profoundly tired after the adrenaline surge of his last fourteen minutes with Winter, followed by a night spent watching recordings. He stifled a yawn. “I don’t get why the bridesicle program works at all. Why would rich men come to these places? They’re rich, for God’s sake—can’t they attract trophy wives who are still alive?”

Veronika pointed at Rob, nodding slowly. “Now you’re asking the right question. What motivates the average bridesicle patron? Two things.” She flicked up one finger where it was visible to Rob. “First, there’s the knight-in-shining-armor syndrome. What man doesn’t want his partner to see him as a hero charging in on a white steed to rescue her from a terrible fate?”

Actually, Rob would settle for not being the villain who put her in a position to need rescuing in the first place. But he saw Veronika’s point.

Veronika held up a second finger. “Then there’s the power factor. If you literally bring a woman back from the dead, she’s going to be very, very grateful. She’s going to do what you say. On top of that, she can never divorce you, although you’re free to divorce her. You hold all the power. Some men like that arrangement.”

“Ah, I see. That’s why ‘willful’ isn’t good.” Rob knew men like that, who were drawn to women who, for whatever reason, put up with whatever shit they pulled.

Veronika nodded emphatically. “That’s why ‘willful’ isn’t good. There’s another reason: even with legally binding contracts and stiff penalties for breaking them, these men are worried their new wives will bolt. It happens.”

Rob wondered where they bolted to. You’d definitely have to lose your system to keep from being located. Even then, a face-recognition alert would pin down your location unless you got hold of some high-quality fake-face.

“Okay, how about this?” He called up the clip that had left him dizzy and a little ashamed. Suddenly Winter was in the room with them, smiling coyly, her fingers playing with the top button of a lavender silk blouse. The button popped open almost by accident, and Winter’s hand slid down to the next.

“Damn,” Veronika said. “Definitely sexy.”

Winter slid her shirt off, revealing a transparent bra supporting breasts that few plastic surgeons could replicate.

“You’re suggesting we include something like this in her profile?”

“Not something like this. This.” He stabbed a finger at Winter, who was unclasping her belt.

Veronika shook her head. “It’s over the line. Cryomed has strict guidelines for their profile engineers; they want to keep the place classy, to match an upper-class clientele. They’re marketing expensive wives, not prostitutes.”

Rob recalled the man with the red beard cajoling the woman near Winter to talk dirty, and thought maybe the line was a bit blurry. The men who visited these women were mostly old, looking for much younger, beautiful wives. Sex was clearly a big part of the draw. “What do we care about their rules? We’re swapping profiles without Cryomed’s knowledge. It doesn’t have to pass their censors.”

Veronika pointed at Winter, specifically at her breasts, which swung slightly as she bent over. “This is going to tip off clients that her profile’s been tampered with. What if one of them alerts Cryomed?”

Winter’s skirt slid to the floor.

Veronika snapped her fingers in front of Rob’s face. “Over here, Rob.”

He dragged his eyes off Winter.

“I asked, what if one of the clients alerts Cryomed?”

“I say it’s worth the risk. Men have to start visiting her immediately, in numbers. Everyone who sees this is going to want to meet her.”

Veronika laughed. “Yeah, no kidding. You’ll be first in line. Do you think Winter would mind us showing this?”

“If you were in her position, would you mind?”

Veronika made a raspberry sound. “If I was in her position, the last thing that would save me is a clip of me getting naked.”

Rob clapped his hand over his eyes, laughed in spite of himself. “Not true. You’ve got a lot of sexy going on.”

Veronika blushed, fumbled to respond, then just gave up and vanished.