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;Just like Old Times

Before they vastened me I felt a need I hadn't felt for thirty years and more, and so I did what I hadn't thought I would ever do again. I practiced a solitary vice. I sent my wife, Essie, off to the city to make a sneak raid on a couple of her franchises. I put a "Do Not Disturb" override on all the communications systems in the house. I called up my data-retrieval system (and friend) Albert Einstein and gave him orders that made him scowl and suck his pipe. And presently—when the house was still and Albert had reluctantly but obediently turned himself off, and I was lying comfortably on the couch in my study with a little Mozart coming faintly from the next room and the scent of mimosa in the air system and the lights not too bright—presently, I say, I spoke the name I hadn't spoken in decades. "Sigfrid von Shrink, please, I would like to talk to you."

For a moment I thought he wasn't going to come. Then, in the corner of the room by the wet bar, there was a sudden fog of light and a flash, and there he sat.

He had not changed in thirty years. He wore a dark and heavy suit, of the cut you see on portraits of Sigmund Freud. His elderly, nondescript face had not gained a wrinkle and his bright eyes sparkled no less. He held a prop pad in one hand and a prop pencil in the other—as if he had any need to take notes! And he said politely, "Good morning, Rob. I see that you are looking very well."

"You always did start out by trying to reassure me," I told him, and he flashed a small smile.

Sigfrid von Shrink does not really exist. He is nothing more than a psychoanalytic computer program. He has no physical existence; what I saw was only a hologram and what I heard was only synthesized speech. He doesn't even have a name, really, since "Sigfrid von Shrink" is only what I called him because I could not talk about the things that paralyzed me, decades ago, to a machine that didn't even have a name. "I suppose," he said meditatively, "that the reason you called for me is that something is troubling you."

"That's true."

He gazed at me with patient curiosity, and that also had not changed. I had a lot better programs to serve me these days—well, one particular program, Albert Einstein, who is so good that I hardly bother with any of the others—but Sigfrid was still pretty good. He waits me out. He knows that what is curdling in my mind takes time to form itself into words, and so he doesn't rush me.

On the other hand, he doesn't let me just daydream away the time, either. "Can you say what you are disturbed about right at this moment?"

"A lot of things. Different things," I said.

"Pick one," he said patiently, and I shrugged.

"It's a troublesome world, Sigfrid. With all the good things that have happened, why are people—Oh, shit. I'm doing it again, right?"

He twinkled at me. "Doing what?" he encouraged.

"Saying a thing that's worrying me, not the thing. Dodging away from the real issue."

"That sounds like a good insight, Robin. Do you want to try now to tell me what the real issue is?"

I said, "I want to. I want to so much that actually, I almost think I'm going to cry. I haven't done that for a hell of a long time."

"You haven't felt the need to see me for quite a long time," he pointed out, and I nodded.

"Yes. Exactly."

He waited for a while, slowly turning his pencil between his fingers now and then, keeping that expression of polite and friendly interest, that nonjudging expression that was really about all I could remember of his face between sessions, and then he said, "The things that really trouble you, Robin, deep down, are by definition hard to say. You know that. We saw that together, years ago. It's not surprising that you haven't needed to see me all these years, because obviously your life has been going well for you."

"Really very well," I agreed. "Probably a hell of a lot better than I deserve—wait a minute, am I expressing hidden guilt by saying that? Feelings of inadequacy?"

He sighed but was still smiling. "You know I prefer that you don't try to talk like an analyst, Robin." I grinned back. He waited for a moment, then went on: "Let's look at the present situation objectively. You have made sure that no one is here to interrupt us—or to eavesdrop? To hear something you don't want your nearest and dearest friend to hear? You've even instructed Albert Einstein, your data-retrieval system, to withdraw and to seal off this interview from all datastores. What you have to say must be very private. Perhaps it is something that you feel but are ashamed to be heard feeling. Does that suggest anything to you, Robin?"

I cleared my throat. "You've put your finger right on it, Sigfrid."

"And? The thing you want to say? Can you say it?"

I plunged in. "You're God-damned right I can! It's simple! It's obvious! I'm getting very God-damned fucking old!"

That's the best way. When it's hard to say, just say it. That was one of the things I had learned from those long-ago days when I was pouring out my pain to Sigfrid three times a week, and it always works. As soon as I had said it I felt purged—not well, not happy, not as though a problem had been solved, but that glob of badness had been excreted. Sigfrid nodded slightly. He looked down at the pencil he was rolling between his fingers, waiting for me to go on. And I knew that now I could. I'd got past the worst part. I knew the feeling. I remembered it well, from those old and stormy sessions.

Now, I'm not the same person I was then. That Robin Broadhead had been raw with guilt because he'd left a woman he loved to die. Now those guilt feelings were long eased—because Sigfrid had helped me ease them. That Robin Broadhead thought so little of himself that he couldn't believe anyone else would think well of him, so he had few friends. Now I have—I don't know. Dozens. Hundreds! (Some of them I am going to tell you about.) That Robin Broadhead could not accept love, and since then I had had a quarter of a century of the best marriage there ever was. So I was a quite different Robin Broadhead.

But some of the things had not changed at all. "Sigfrid," I said, "I'm old, I'm going to die one of these days, and do you know what pulls my cork?"

He looked up from his pencil. "What's that, Robin?"

"I'm not grown-up enough to be so old!"

He pursed his lips. "Would you care to explain that, Robin?"

"Yes," I said, "I would." And as a matter of fact the next part came easily, because, you can be sure, I had done a lot of thinking on the subject before I went so far as to call Sigfrid up. "I think it has to do with the Heechee," I said. "Let me finish before you tell me I'm crazy, all right? As you may remember, I was part of the Heechee generation; we kids grew up hearing about the Heechee, which had everything human beings didn't have and knew everything human beings didn't know—"

"The Heechee weren't quite that superior, Robin."

"I'm talking about how it seemed to us kids. They were scary, because we used to threaten each other that they'd come back and get us. And most of all they were so far ahead of us in everything that we couldn't compete. A little like Santa Claus. A little like those mad pervert rapists our mothers used to warn us against. A little like God. Do you understand what I'm saying, Sigfrid?"

He said cautiously, "I can recognize those feelings, yes. Actually such perceptions have turned up in analysis with many persons of your generation and later."

"Right! And I remember something you said to me once about Freud. You said he said that no man could truly grow up while his father was still alive."

"Well, actually—"

I overrode him. "And I used to tell you that was bullshit because my own father was nice enough to die while I was still a little kid."

"Oh, Robin." He sighed.

"No, listen to me. What about that biggest father figure there is? How can anybody grow up while Our Father Who Art in the Core is still hanging out there where we can't even get at him, much less knock the old bastard off?"

He shook his head sadly. "'Father figures.' Quotations from Freud."

"No, I mean it! Don't you understand?"

He said gravely, "Yes, Robin. I understand that you are referring to the Heechee. It is true. That is a problem for the human race, I agree, and unfortunately Dr. Freud never considered such a situation. But we aren't talking about the human race now, we're talking about you. You didn't call on me for abstract discussions. You called me because you're really unhappy, and you've already said it is the inevitable process of aging that has made you so. So let us confine ourselves to that if we can. Please don't theorize, just tell me what you feel."

"What I feel," I yelled, "is damn old. You can't understand that, because you're a machine. You don't know what it's like when your vision gets blurry and the back of your hands get those rusty age spots and your face sags down around your chin. When you have to sit down to put your socks on because if you stand on one foot you'll fall over. When every time you forget a birthday you think it's Alzheimer's disease and sometimes you can't pee when you want to! When—" But I broke off then, not because he had interrupted me but because he was listening patiently and looked as though he would go on listening forever, and what was the use of saying all that? He gave me a moment to make sure I was finished and then began patiently:

"According to your medical records, you had your prostate replaced eighteen months ago, Robin. The middle-ear disturbance can easily be—"

"You hold it right there!" I shouted. "What do you know about my medical records, Sigfrid? I gave orders this talk was sealed!"

"Of course it is, Robin. Believe me, not one word of this will be accessible to any of your other programs, or to anyone at all but yourself. But, of course, I am able to access all your datastores, including your medical charts. May I go on? The stirrup and anvil in your ear can readily be replaced, and that will cure your balance problem. Corneal transplants will take care of those incipient cataracts. The other matters are purely cosmetic, and of course there would be no problem in securing good young tissue for you. That leaves only the Alzheimer's disease and, truthfully, Robin, I see no signs of that in you."

I shrugged. He waited a moment, then said: "So each of the problems you mention—as well as a long list of others that you didn't say anything about but that do appear on your medical history—can be repaired at any time, or already have been. Perhaps you have put your question the wrong way, Robin. Perhaps the problem is not that you are aging but that you aren't willing to do what is necessary to reverse it."

"Why the hell would I do that?"

He nodded. "Why indeed, Robin. Can you answer that question?"

"No, I can't! If I could, why would I be asking you?"

He pursed his lips and waited.

"Maybe I just want to be that way!"

He shrugged.

"Oh, come on, Sigfrid," I wheedled. "All right. I admit what you say. I've got Full Medical Plus and I can take somebody else's organs for myself as much as I want to, and the reason I don't is in my head somewhere. I know what you call that. Endogenous depression. But that doesn't explain anything!"

"Ah, Robin"—he sighed—"psychoanalytic jargon again. And bad jargon. 'Endogenous' only means 'coming from within.' It doesn't mean there's no cause."

"Then what's the cause?"

He said thoughtfully, "Let's play a game. By your left hand there is a button—"

I looked; yes, there was a button on the leather chair. "That's just to keep the leather in place," I said.

"No doubt, but in the game we are going to play, this button will, the minute you press it, cause to be done at once all the transplant surgery you need or might want. Instantly. Put your finger on the button, Robin. Now. Do you want to press it?"


"I see. Can you tell me why not?"

"Because I don't deserve to take body parts from somebody else!" I hadn't planned to say it. I hadn't known it. And when I had said it, all I could do was sit there and listen to the echo of what I had said; and Sigfrid, too, was silent for quite a long time.

Then he picked up his pencil and put it in his pocket, folded the pad and put it in another pocket, and leaned forward. "Robin," he said, "I don't think I can help you. There is a feeling of guilt here that I do not see a way to resolve."

"But you helped me so much before!" I wailed.

"Before," he said steadily, "you were causing yourself pain because of guilt over something that was probably not at all your fault, and in any case lay well in the past. This is not the same at all. You can live another fifty years, perhaps, by transplanting healthy organs to replace your damaged ones. But it is true that these organs will come from someone else, and for you to live longer may, in some sense, cause someone else to live much shorter. To recognize that truth is not a neurotic guilt feeling, Robin, it is only the admission of a moral truth."

And that was all he said to me except, with a smile that was both kind and sorrowful, "Good-bye."

I do hate it when my computer programs talk to me about morality. Especially when they are right.

This is Albert Einstein again. I think I'd better clear up what Robin is saying about Gelle-Klara Moynlin. She was a fellow Gateway prospector with whom he was in love. The two of them, with other prospectors, found themselves trapped in a black hole. It was possible to free some of them at the expense of the others. Robin got free. Klara and the others did not. This may have been an accident; may have been Klara selflessly sacrificing herself to save him; may have been Robin panicking and saving himself at their expense; even now, there is no good way to tell. But Robin, who was a guilt addict, carried with him for years the picture of Klara in that black hole, where time almost stopped, always living that same moment of shock and terror—and always (he thought) blaming him. Only Sigfrid helped him out of that.

You may wonder how I know about this, since the interview with Sigfrid was seated. That's easy, I know it now, the same way Robin now knows so much about so many people doing so many things he was not present to see.

Now, the thing to remember is that while I was having this depression, that was not the only thing going on. My God, no! Many things were happening to many people in the world—on all the worlds, and in the spaces between—that were not only a lot more interesting but mattered a great deal more even to me. I just did not happen to know about them then, even though they involved people (or nonpeople) I knew. (Or came to know or had known but had forgotten.) Let me give you some examples. My not-yet friend Captain, who was one of those mad-rapist-Santa-Claus Heechee who had haunted my childish dreams, was about to get a lot more scared than thinking about Heechee had ever made me. My former (and soon to be again) friend Audee Walthers, Jr., was about to meet, to his cost, my once friend (or nonfriend) Wan. And my very best friend of all (making allowance for the fact that he was not "real"), the computer program Albert Einstein, was about to surprise me . . . How very complicated all these statements are! I can't help it. I lived at a complicated time and in a very complicated way. Now that I have been vastened all the parts fit neatly together, as you will see, but then I didn't even know what all the parts were. I was one single aging man, oppressed by mortality and conscious of sin; and when my wife came home and found me slumped on a chaise lounge, gazing out over the Tappan Sea, she at once cried, "Now then, Robin! What in hell is matter with you?"

I grinned up at her and let her kiss me. Essie scolds a lot. Essie also loves a lot and she is a lot of woman to love. Tall. Slim. Long goldy-blondy hair that she wears in a tight Soviet bun when she's being a professor or a businesswoman, and lets fall to her waist when she's coming to bed. Before I could think over what I was going to say long enough to censor it, I blurted, "I've been talking to Sigfrid von Shrink."

"Ah," said Essie, straightening. "Oh."

While she was thinking that over, she began to pull the pins out of her bun. After you've lived with a person for a couple of decades you begin to know them, and I followed her internal processes as well as if she'd spoken them aloud. There was worry, of course, because I had felt the need to talk to a psychoanalyst. But there was also a considerable amount of faith in Sigfrid. Essie had always felt she owed Sigfrid, since she knew that it was only with Sigfrid's help that I had been able to admit, long ago, that I was in love with her. (And also in love with Gelle-Klara Moynlin, which had been the problem.) "Do you wish to tell me what was about?" she asked politely, and I said:

"Age and depression, my dear. Nothing serious. Only terminal. How was your day?"

She studied me with that all-seeing diagnostic eye of hers, pulling the long dirty-blond hair through her fingers till it fell free, and tailored her answer to fit the diagnosis. "Bloody exhausting," she said, "to point where I need a drink very much—as, I perceive, do you."

So we had our drink. There was room on the chaise for both of us, and we watched the moon set over the Jersey shore of the sea while Essie told me about her day, and did not pry.

Essie has a life of her own, and a pretty demanding one—it's a wonder to me that she is so unfailingly able to find plenty of room for me in it. Besides checking her franchises she had spent a grueling hour at the research facility we had endowed for integrating Heechee technology into our own computers. The Heechee didn't actually use computers, it seemed, not counting primitive things like navigation controls for their ships, but they had some nifty ideas in nearby fields. Of course, that was Essie's own specialty and what she'd got her doctorate in. And when she was talking about her research programs I could see her mind working: No need to interrogate old Robin about this, can simply run override through Sigfrid program and at once have total access to interview. I said lovingly, "You're not as smart as you think you are," and she stopped in the middle of a sentence. "What Sigfrid and I talked about," I explained, "is sealed."

"Hah." Smug.

"No hah," I said, just as smug, "because I made Albert promise. It's stored so that not even you can decrypt it without dumping the whole system."

"Hah!" she said again, curling around to look me in the eye. This time the "hah" was louder and it had an edge to it that could be translated as, Will have a word with Albert about this.

I tease Essie, but I also love Essie. So I let her off the hook. "I really don't want to break the seal," I said, "because—well, vanity. I sound like such a whiney wretch when I talk to Sigfrid. But I'll tell you all about it."

She sank back, pleased, and listened while I did. When I had finished she thought for a moment and said, "That is why are depressed? Because have not much to look forward to?" I nodded.

"But, Robin! Have perhaps only limited future, but, my God, what glorious present! Galactic traveler! Filthy-rich tycoon! Irresistible sex object to adoring, and also very sexy, wife!"

I grinned and shrugged. Thoughtful silence. "Moral question," she conceded at last, "is not unreasonable. Is credit to you that you consider such matters. I too have had qualms when, as you remember, some gloppy female bits were patched into me to replace worn-out ones not so long ago."

"So you understand!"

"Understand excellently! I also understand, dear Robin, that having made moral decision is no point in worrying about it. Depression is foolish. Fortunately," she said, slipping off the chaise and standing up to take my hand, "there is excellent antidepression measure available. Will you care to join me in bedroom?"

Well, of course I would. And did. And found the depression lifting, for if there is one thing I enjoy it is sharing a bed with S. Ya. Lavorovna-Broadhead. I would have enjoyed it even if I had known then that I had less than three months left before the death that had depressed me.

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