The Receptacle
by Walter Jarvis ©2010

Dr. Drummond was sure that when the moment arrived, Amanda would perform as beautifully as she had in practice sessions, making all the right responses, saying the right things, and in the end filling her mentor with pride. Still, so much was riding on this first meeting with the countess that Drummond could not help but feel a tightness in her throat, even though she had successfully been through the same exercise several times before. But with other girls, she reminded herself.

Amanda stood in the center of the vast room, almost motionless, her eyes downcast, her head lowered with the proper show of humility. She was dressed in white, with a red rose pinned to her hair. She was a little older than seven, a difficult age to remain still for such a long period of time, yet she was handling it beautifully. Drummond was sure that they had both been observed for some time from behind the two-way mirrors that lined the walls.

The carrot and the stick, the doctor thought. Even at this early age, they respond. It had been drilled into Amanda that if she played this out perfectly, she would receive some special reward when it was over. Prohibitively expensive real ice cream, perhaps, made the old-fashioned way, with actual milk instead of soy.

When the Harrier party entered from the front, in an explosion of sound and movement, the toadies and hangers-on and advisors sweeping around the countess like whirling particles circling an atom’s nucleus, Drummond stiffened slightly, although she tried not to let it show. Amanda had her back to the party, and although she could surely hear their entrance, she remained as motionless as before.

Elizabeth De Rochmont DiBellagio Harrier (each name represented a marriage of considerable prestige and aggrandizement), bore down on Amanda with her retinue which tonight consisted mostly of hand-picked psychologists, geneticists, a few educators, and even a phrenologist, a discarded science that Countess Harrier in one or her many eccentricities still adhered to.

She was a woman of an indeterminate age. It was hard to tell if she were in her thirties or forties, although actually Drummond knew she was far, far older than that. The texture of her skin, and its lack of blemishes, the svelteness of her body, all conspired to hide even a rough reckoning of her years. The beauty of youth had waned with age, but many men, and not a few women, still considered her beautiful. Only her eyes were a true revelation of how old she was: They were world-weary, cunning and slightly cruel.

Like a shark nosing at its prey, Countess Harrier circled around Amanda, who was careful still to keep her eyes on the ground.

“Good bone structure,” she said at last, “although she’s a little on the scrawny side. Proper diet and exercise should correct that.” Her eyes, imperious, questioning, impatient, met Drummond’s. “You’ve checked and double-checked everything, I suppose, doctor? Genetic blueprinting, intelligence testing, family history.”

“Test upon test, and everything checks out perfectly. I have no doubt that in time she will make the perfect receptacle for you. If you still have any reservations, now is the time to voice them, countess. You are surrounded by men and women who are expert in their fields.”

“Why do these girls always have to come from the lower classes?” Harrier asked petulantly. “Just once, couldn’t you find me a middle-class surrogate?”

“It is very difficult,” Dr. Drummond said. “The poor are motivated to give up their children. They see it as a chance for a better life for them, even if it’s of short duration, and the ultimate sacrifice is considerable. The middle class, what little remains of it, think they can hold on to their children and provide a better life, although often they are disappointed. Sometimes, though, I think they would be better off coming to people like you.”

Without warning Countess Harrier reached down and took Amanda’s face in her pale, blue-veined hand and tilted her chin up. “Look at me, girl,” she said. Slowly, unwillingly, the little girl raised her eyes.

“Do you know who I am?”

“You’re Countess Harrier,” Amanda answered in a small voice. “One of the richest, most powerful women on earth.”

The countess smiled, pleased. “And do you know how lucky a little girl you are, to have been chosen, among all the people in this miserable, overcrowded world, to be my receptacle in the future? That probably doesn’t mean very much to you now, but as you grow older, under the tutelage of Dr. Drummond here, you will come to realize its significance, and even grow to appreciate it.”

She stood up and looked around at her entourage. “Does anyone have any questions or comments?” she asked.

“Her features are not completely regular,” a blonde-haired woman who had perfect facial symmetry herself, said. “That chin will only grow more pronounced with age.”

“Plastic surgery,” Countess Harrier answered. “When she’s old enough.”

“She tests in the 87 percentile on the Kimodo-Glasser,” a gray-haired man with glasses spoke up. “That is acceptable, but not brilliant.”

“Intensive tutoring,” Harrier said. “Nocturnal oral repetition. She doesn’t have to be a genius. I never was.”

Then she turned back to Amanda. “You will not see me again for some time,” she said, her voice softening. “I will leave you in the entirely capable hands of Dr. Drummond, who will act as both a mother and father to you. She will train you, educate you, teach you the ways of the world and make you the person I need you to be. I know I will be pleased with the end results.”

She seemed suddenly to lose interest in the interview, turned and left out of the room, her hangers-on following like autumn leaves behind a gust of wind, and was gone as suddenly as she had come.

“Do you think she liked me, Dr. Drummond?” Amanda asked.

Kay Drummond tried to smile. “I believe that Countess Harrier was truly pleased with you, dear. That’s enough for right now. That’s all you can ask for.”

“She looks young, but she acts old,” Amanda said, taking her mentor’s hand.

“She is very old. But that won’t concern you for some time. You will see her again, of course, but it may be years from now. The countess is a very busy woman.”

Hopefully, Drummond thought, leading Amanda toward the small door in the back through which they had entered the room, unless she finds a way to extend my life again, there will be a point where it won’t concern me either.

Amanda had celebrated her twenty-first birthday before she laid eyes in person on Countess Harrier again. Of course, she had studied her in holovisions which Dr. Drummond had provided, so she could learn Harrier’s mannerisms, facial expressions and body language, and these she had mastered through countless practice sessions. In the meantime, she had matured into a lovely young woman, but that in itself would not have impressed Countess Harrier. Beauty, she said dismissively, could be purchased through the talents of a good plastic surgeon. The countess expected much more; after all, her investment was significantly greater than a few strokes of a knife.

Tonight was the G-10 Ball. They had flown into Beijing 48 hours ago and spent all today preparing for it. Cosmetic solutions had removed the dark circles from jet leg from under Amanda’s eyes. Hours had been spent on her hair. Her Chinese attendants were impressed with her poise, the fluidity of her movements, but this came second nature to her. Over the years she had had some great teachers, thanks to Dr. Drummond. Countess Harrier, from whatever remote citadels of power she was occupying at the time, had followed her progress from a distance and approved. Amanda had been groomed to act effortlessly with people of power, and could converse intelligently about world affairs, or the global economy, as well as about the latest exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in Old New York. At this point hardly anyone could intimidate her, which was remarkable, given her young age.

Yet Amanda herself was treated with a certain diffidence that was the direct result of her present and future relationship with the countess. It was normal and understandable for powerful people to react to her like that, even though the Amanda with whom they tried to ingratiate themselves now was not the Amanda who would be able to reciprocate later.

“You look lovely,” Dr. Drummond said, watching the hairdresser make final touches on the girl’s golden strands. Drummond caught a glimpse of herself in the full length mirror in the dressing room and quickly looked away. And I look positively ancient, she thought; then she had to remind herself that fourteen years had passed since she had last seen Countess Harrier in person.

There were many things available to mere mortals to postpone the aging process, and Kay Drummond, under the auspices of the countess, had been allowed to take full advantage of all of them. Still, her hair was showing gray, and she had crow’s nests around her eyes. Her age even was more noticeable when contrasted with the radiance of Amanda’s youth.

At one time she had held out hope that Harrier would find a receptacle for her, allowing their relationship to continue into the distant future, but the countess, after bringing it up once in a rather off-handed fashion, had said nothing more about it. Drummond had given up on it ever happening.

The hairdresser finished her work and stepped away. “I wish my real parents could see me now,” Amanda said softly, examining herself in the mirror.

“They probably wouldn’t recognize you, dear. Not anymore.”

“I can’t help but wonder where they are and what they are doing.”

“One of the provisions of the contract that they signed was that they would have no further contact with you, Amanda, nor you with them. You know that. As to why they gave you up, they wanted you to have an opportunity that few others can even dream of.”

“It’s a death sentence,” the girl said, a faint flush of anger coming into her cheeks.

“By the time you go in for the transfer, you will have a lived a life that would be the envy of most people in the world. Think of the places you’ve been, the people you’ve met, the things you’ve done! You will have done more in your 21 years than most people experience in a life time.”

“You always take her side, Kay.”

That’s what I’m paid to do, Drummond thought. Instead she said: “Let’s go. I want to make sure that you get there before Countess Harrier arrives.”

Kay need not have worried; Countess Harrier, who liked to be fashionably late, did not show up until half way through the ball. By that time, Amanda had almost forgotten the woman was coming, she was enjoying herself so thoroughly. She was the center of attention everywhere she went. Men lined up to ask her to dance. Kay Drummond watched her success from the sidelines with mixed feelings. She was pleased because here were the concrete results of years of labor on her part, and they were good. The girl had learned quickly and had taken to heart everything she has tried to teach her. Pleased, but saddened because it would soon be over for both of them.

When the countess arrived, Amanda was deep in conversation in with a young man who could not tear his eyes away from her. They had settled in two chairs in the corner and were lost in an exchange that seemed to exclude everyone else in the room. Seeing the Harrier party arrive from the other side of the ballroom, Kay reluctantly felt she had to do her duty and forewarn Amanda that the countess had made her entrance. It would not do for Amanda to give her benefactress anything but the full attention and respect that she demanded. Drumond planted herself in front of the couple and said simply: “She’s here.”

The boy glanced up at her with a bewildered smile. It was obvious that he had no idea what all this was about.

Amanda sighed, then tried to smile. “This is Alfred, Kay,” she said. “Alfred, this is Dr. Drummond.” Then she tilted her head ever so slightly and asked: “What if I stayed right here? What if I didn’t get up to greet her?”

“I would be the one to suffer,” Kay said quietly. “You know that.”

“I have to go now,” Amanda said to the young man. “I have to meet my benefactress. Perhaps you’ve heard of her. Countess Harrier.”

His eyes widened slightly. “You’re the one she’s chosen?”

“It won’t happen for awhile. I have a few more weeks left. And I would like to see you again.”

“I’ll arrange it, Alfred,” Kay said, “but right now you have to go.”

He had barely left when Countess Harrier swept toward them and Amanda rose to meet her. The woman was smiling broadly; it was the first time the girl had ever seen her smile.

“You have made quite a favorable impression,” she said, taking Amanda’s hand in hers, which were smooth and cool and encrusted with jewelry. “I have heard nothing but good things about you, and not only tonight.”

“All the credit should go to Dr. Drummond

The countess glanced briefly at Kay but did not smile. “She is very professional at what she does. The final touches for the body I occupy now, Amanda, were done by the doctor here. Among her other skills, she is a marvelous plastic surgeon.”

“Don’t give me too much credit,” Kay said stiffly. “Amanda has been wonderful to work with. She will be a perfect receptacle.”

“Sometimes, the candidates become a little ambivalent when the actual date of transfer approaches. A perfectly normal reaction, but I’m glad we’re seeing none of that here.”

“Countess Harrier, if it would be all right with you, I’d like to return to the dance,” Amanda said diffidently. “Since it may be my last.”

“Of course,” the countess said. “You enjoy yourself, dear. It should be your night.”

Yes, enjoy yourself while you can, Kay thought, because you don’t have many days left now.

***

Dr. Drummond tried to look angry, deliberately crossing her arms across her chest, but it broke her heart to see how miserable Amanda was.

“I should never have let you see him again,” she said. “The dance should have been the end of it.”

“We’re in love, Alfred and I. He wants to marry me.”

“Impossible. The countess would never allow it. If she ever remarries, it will be to increase her fortune. She would never marry for love, Amanda. She has forgotten what that word means.”

“But I can love!” Amanda cried. “I have feelings that are my own. I don’t want to give them up. I don’t want to become her anymore. I never did.”

Kay turned away to stare out the window of the Harrier estate. The emerald-green grounds spread as far as the eye could see. It was hard to believe that in a world of so much poverty and overcrowding, great open spaces could still exist like this that belonged to one person.

“Unlike the rest of us,” she said, “the countess not only has the desire to live forever, but the means to do so. It’s an air-tight contract, Amanda. She will take over your body in a few days and inhabit it until that point when she decides she needs a new one.”

“Don’t do the transfer, then,” Amanda said desperately. “Let me keep my body, and put her to sleep instead. I could play Countess Harrier the rest of my life – that’s what I’ve been trained to do, isn’t it? — and no one would know the difference.”

Kay looked at her as if she had gone mad. “I couldn’t do that! It would be murder.”

“And what do you think you’re going to do to me? She’s taken so many lives, Kay, don’t you think it’s time for someone to stop her?”

“Don’t ever let me hear you talk like this again,” Kay said, turning her back on Amanda. “The transfer will go through as scheduled.”

Two days before it was to take place, the countess called Drummond into her private suite of offices. In preparation for the transfer, all activity had been moved into the center of the Harrier palace, an area which was more like a laboratory than a residency.

“And how is my little ward?” the countess asked after they had both been served tea. “A little nervous? Regretful? Angry, perhaps?”

“She’s bearing up remarkably well.” Kay wasn’t going to tell her about their last conversation.

“That’s good. Actually, I called you here for an entirely different reason. You know, Dr. Drummond,” she said, leaning back in her chair, “once I said that there might come a point where it would make sense that you be transferred, too.”

Kay felt her heart stop. It had been a long, long time ago since this had come up, and, after raising the subject once, the countess had never come back to it.

“My thought was that since you had been with me from the beginning, through all the other transfers, you not only knew the procedures but exactly what I was looking for. Bringing you along seemed a natural.”

Kay held her breath. Was this the invitation to the immortality that she had dreamed of but never really expected?

“However, I have changed my mind,” the countess said after a pause, “and thought it only fair to tell you so up front. I believe it is time for some new blood, someone who can look at future candidates in a new way. Take Amanda, for example. On the surface, she is the perfect receptacle, but I’ve decided she is almost too nice. Those who have been around her over the years may subconsciously see that as a sign of weakness, which will be a challenge for me after the transfer is complete. In the future, I need someone more aggressive, edgier, perhaps, and to be honest, Kay, I’m not sure you’re the one to find her. If you look at it objectively, you’ll agree.

“I will still need your help, though, in screening candidates for your replacement. You will be handsomely rewarded for your past efforts, of course.”

Kay barely heard the rest of what she said. For the countess to dangle the possibility of immortality in front of her, and then crush it with a few casual words, seemed cruel beyond belief. The only thing that was worse was asking her to find her own replacement. In the end Kay meant nothing to her; she was just another cog to keep the Harrier engine of immortality running smoothly.

Well, she thought bitterly as she left the countess’ quarters, perhaps it was time to throw a wrench into the machine.

***

The transfer room was as quiet as an abandoned sepulcher. Kay was alone in it except for the two bodies on the platform. She felt at peace with herself as she waited for the first signs of awakening. For the one who had slipped into eternal sleep, there had been no pain, no realization. Whatever happened now, Kay felt she had done the right thing.

Amanda groaned softly and began to stir. Kay stood over her, smiling down.

“It’s done,” she said. “Let your body regain its strength. Don’t try to move, don’t try to talk.”

Ignoring her command, Amanda clumsily disconnected the metal transfer bonnet from her skull and sat up.

She glanced over at the lifeless body of the old countess. “Could you get rid of that as soon as possible?” she asked. “It bothers me.”

“Of course. And Alfred is waiting to see you. I told him he could be the first. That must be him at the door now,” Kay said.

“Alfred?” Amanda raised her eyebrow as the door to the transfer room opened. Kay looked over her shoulder and her smile faded as she saw it was not Alfred after all, but the countess’ security guards. “Oh, you mean that young boy. He will have to find someone else to moon over, I’m afraid. Someone his own age.”

It was the eyes that gave her away, and Dr. Drummond took a step back.

“You’re not Amanda,” she whispered. “You’re the countess.”

“I thought you were acting so strangely after our conversation in my office that you might try something desperate and foolish,” the other smiled coldly, “so I had the transfer machine reprogrammed so it could only do what it was supposed to do, no matter what commands you gave it. I suppose I will have to find your replacement sooner than I expected.”

“Someone will stop you!” Dr. Drummond said, her voice shaking. “You won’t be able to move from body to body forever. Someday you’ll die like the rest of us.”

“Even if that’s true,” the countess said, motioning for her guards to take Kay away, “it will happen long after you’re gone, Dr. Drummond. I have a few good years left in me yet, I assure you, as long as I can continue to find the proper receptacle.”

x x x

Not all stories have a happy ending; sometimes the bad guys win. The trick is to make the story interesting even when that happens. Mr. Jarvis turns that trick nicely in this November yarn. Your comments are welcome at the BBS. - GM



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