He Said, He Said by Tracy Neis

Sketch by Karen Neis

John Lennon pulled his cross-body bag off his shoulder and rested it on the floor of the dusty cavern beside his newly purchased camping lantern.  Then he took off his old jean jacket and spread it on the ground beside the lamp.

He tried to remember the bartender’s words as he pulled his eight, carefully-selected, totemic items from the bag and arranged them in a circle around the lantern. “Cup each piece in the palm of your hand for a few seconds,” she’d directed him. “Call to mind its significance in your life, and try to absorb its psychic energy before you place it on the ground.”

One by one, he pulled out:

 – His creased, yellowed, hand-written set-list from the Beatles’ 1966 concert in Candlestick Park.

– A poem Yoko had sent him in February of 1968 when he’d been in India.

– A ticket stub from the “Let it Be” matinee he’d watched on a spring afternoon in 1970.

– The headband he’d worn when he’d stayed with his acupuncturist’s family in San Mateo in 1972.

– The strange hunk of metal he’d found on his apartment balcony in New York City in 1974, the morning after he’d seen a UFO.

– A matchbox from the Hong Kong hotel he’d visited in the fall of 1976, and

– The map to this cave and the cigarette lighter that the bartender had given him just before he’d left Manhattan.

He remembered the days when each of the items had come into his possession.  Then he sat down on top of the jacket and bent his legs into a lotus position so he could begin clearing his mind of unwanted thoughts. His eyes immediately fell on the cigarette lighter the bartender had given him. Might as well have a smoke first, he decided impulsively. Meditation can wait.

He pulled a pack of Gitanes out of his bag, reached for the lighter and lit a cigarette. He inhaled deeply, letting the hot smoke fill his lungs. Then he curled his lips into an ‘O’ and blew out a long, thin stream of smoke. He took another drag and felt suddenly lightheaded. After exhaling his breath, he examined his cigarette in the dim lantern light to make certain he hadn’t smoked a hand-rolled joint by mistake.

I’m just imagining things, he decided as the lightheaded feeling began to pass. He closed his eyes and started thinking about the last time Yoko had sent him on a trip in a westerly direction to erase his bad karma. 

He’d been terrified to travel alone on that occasion. He’d been even more frightened to travel to a country where he couldn’t read the language, let alone speak it. But he had settled into The Mandarin Hotel in Hong Kong without much difficulty on that otherwise uneventful day in 1976. Then, after spending three days holed up in his suite drinking Whiskey-and-Cokes, he’d stripped off his clothes and climbed into his bathtub. 

While he’d soaked in the warm water, he listened to the radio in the adjoining bedroom and thought about each of the most unpleasant parts of his personality. Then he’d projected those traits, one-by-one, onto the articles of clothing he’d just removed. He’d had a long conversation in his head with each of his most noxious selves. Then he’d sent his discarded personalities into the recesses of his hotel room. When he felt completely cleansed of his worst habits, he’d climbed out of the tub and tossed the tainted clothing into the far corner of his bedroom. Then he’d put on a fresh suit and left the hotel.

He’d boarded the ferry for the mainland, strolled through the mists of Kowloon, and spied the majestic peak of Mount Victoria. He’d felt a sudden rush of peace, as if he had been reborn. He was a boy once more, visiting his aunt’s cottage on the shores of a misty loch in the Scottish Highlands! 

But the peaceful sensation had been short-lived. A tourist recognized him and called out his name. And then a crowd of people started crushing against him. Somehow – he had no memory of exactly just how – he had made it back to his hotel room. Once there, he’d cast disdainful looks at his pieces of discarded clothing. They seemed to be taunting him. He’d realized then, with a flush of shame, that he would never entirely kick his demons. So he collected his ghosts in his suitcase, drank a few more Whiskey-and-Cokes, and took a taxi to the airport. He boarded the next plane for Bangkok, hoping the second leg of his westerly journey would prove more fruitful than the first.

John took another long drag on his Gitane and tried to put the memory behind him. Then he turned his face towards the lantern and hunk of metal, and exhaled. His smoky breath curled around the base of the lamp, then settled like a small fog on top of the slab of metal. It started to glow.

He eyed it curiously. Then he sucked on his cigarette once more, leaned closer to the slab and blew directly upon it. The metal turned a blinding shade of white. Wisps of cigarette smoke bounced off its surface and flew towards the back of the cave. John laughed and repeated his actions. The hunk of metal continued to repel the smoke and send it flying away in dart-like projectiles.

“You’re not just a rock anymore,” John whispered to the iridescent slab. “You look more like a ray gun from some cheesy sci-fi flick.” 

After John smoked his Gitane down to its stub, he crushed the remains of the cigarette in the dirt and tossed the butt towards the spot where the smoke had been traveling.

“Ouch,” said a man’s voice. “I felt that.”

John’s eyes grew instantly wide. “Who the fuck said that?” he shouted into the darkness.

“I apologize,” the voice replied calmly. “You did not actually hurt me. But I believe ‘ouch’ is the appropriate response to being struck on the nose with a small projectile.”

“Who are you?” John shouted. “Where are you? Make yourself visible, you bloody coward!”

“Again, I apologize,” said the voice. “I am unable to move at the present. But if you picked up your lantern and walked with it in the direction of my voice, then you would be able to see me.”

John hesitated for a long moment, then grabbed the handle of the lantern and stepped towards his mysterious companion. When he saw the source of the voice, he drew in a deep breath and blanched.

At his feet, lying beside a lumpen stalagmite, a golden pocket watch, a pair of wire-rimmed glasses and an old-style Colt revolver, was a man’s head.

John stared at it for a long moment, then crouched down and held the lantern closer to the head’s face.

“Were you talking to me just now?” John asked. “Or am I going stark raving nutters?”

The eyes in the head shifted and looked directly at John. “I was indeed just talking to you,” the head answered. “But as to your second inquiry, I have insufficient evidence to respond. Have you ever been diagnosed with a psychological disorder?”

John sat down on the floor in front of the head, examined it more closely, then smiled in relief. “You’re some kind of a practical joke, aren’t you? A mechanical toy, or some half-arsed robot an engineer forgot to finish. The bartender who gave me this map must have been playing a trick on me.”

The head closed his eyes for a long moment. The muscles of his face contracted, as if he were lost in thought. Then he opened his eyes once more, revealing a pair of amber-hued irises, and looked directly at John with a quizzical expression. “Was the bartender of whom you speak a woman or a man?”

“A woman,” John answered.

“What does she look like?” the head continued.

John leaned back on his hands and scrutinized his companion, then chuckled. “Okay, I’ll play along with you, little robot. I’ve got naff all else to do just now. She’s Black, with a wise face and kind eyes. I can’t describe her hair for you, since she always wears a big hat. But she has a lovely smile.”

“Is she, perchance, named ‘Guinan’?” the head asked.

“She is indeed,” John replied. “Now, why don’t you tell me where your microphone is, Mr. Head, so I can talk to her through it?”

The head furrowed his brow. “I have no microphone imbedded in my person through which you can speak to Guinan, or to anyone else, for that matter. I am not a communications contrivance. I am an artificial life form. A sentient being in my own right. My name is Lieutenant Commander Data, and I am the Second Officer of the Starship Enterprise, from the United Federation of Planets.”

“Right,” John sighed. He backed away from the head. “And I’m Buck Rogers. I’ve forgotten the name of my rocket ship. Sorry. I haven’t read any comic books in a long while.”

“Buck Rogers is a fictional character,” Data replied. “You are a real person.”

“Actually, that’s a debatable point,” John countered. “I’m a living legend. A walking, talking myth. People used to treat me like a god, but when I complained about that, they burnt me in effigy. So then I became one half of the world’s most famous couple. And that experience damn near swallowed up what was left of my battered self. So there you have it. You’re a head without a body, and I’m a body without a soul. Are either of us real? I’m going to say no.”

Data scrutinized John’s face. “You look very familiar. I believe I might recognize you.”

“Great,” John replied. “Join the club.”

“Your accent marks you as being from the North of England,” Data continued.

John laughed. “You’re very perceptive, Mr. Robot.”

“I prefer to be called Mr. Data,” Data corrected him. “It is my name.”

“Fine,” John said. “I’ll call you that then.”

“What should I call you?” Data asked.

“I thought you said you recognized me,” John pointed out.

“The light in this cavern is dim, and my visual sensors were damaged in the explosion which severed my head from my torso,” Data apologized. “So I am hesitant to venture a guess. I would not want to embarrass you if I hypothesize incorrectly.”

“Go ahead, nothing embarrasses me anymore,” John said.

“As you will,” Data said. “I believe you are a member of the rock-and-roll band ‘The Beatles’, which had a far-reaching impact upon popular culture in mid-twentieth century Earth. You have a rather large nose, so you might be Ringo Starr. But you are also wearing glasses. So I speculate that you are John Lennon, the band’s leader.”

John laughed. “Well, I used to be the band’s leader, Mr. Data. But I grew bored with that gig, so I ceded my reigns to Paul, whose nose is, I’ll grant you, smaller than both Ringo’s and mine. But then my band broke up. So what does that make me? The former head of a group that doesn’t exist anymore?”

“I am the former head of a man who doesn’t exist anymore,” Data replied. “So perhaps we are in similar straights.”

“You have a clever way with words,” John chuckled. “We should write some doggerel together. After all, two heads are better than one.”

“Ah, an aphorism,” Data replied. “Not an entirely original one, but it is appropriate nevertheless.” He lifted his chin with obvious effort and focused his gaze at John’s. “I wish to express my gratitude for your tolerance of my unsightly appearance.”

John shrugged. “I’ve seen stranger things when I was tripping on acid. Which reminds me, I should try out that trippy lighter again. Do you mind if I smoke?” 

Before Data could reply, John returned to his original spot and grabbed his Gitanes and lighter. Then he picked up his jacket, used it to grab the glowing slab of metal, and returned to Data’s side. He dropped the hunk of metal in front of Data, sat down cross-legged on the cave’s floor, and lit a cigarette. “You wanna bum a fag?” he asked.

Data scrunched up his forehead. “I do not understand your question.”

“Would you like to smoke one of my ciggies?” John clarified.

“No, thank you,” Data answered. “I have never acquired a taste for tobacco products. And they are highly toxic, as I am sure you know.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” John agreed. “These nasty little buggers are sure to kill me some day.” He inhaled deeply, then blew a stream of smoke at the glowing metal hunk. It started pulsing with flashes of pale blue light. “That’s pretty damned cool,” he noted dryly.

Data scrutinized the metal. “You are correct. The metal is in fact cool, though it appears to be white-hot. You did not need to pick it up with your jacket. It would not have burned your fingers. If I am not mistaken, it is a piece of Rodberrium, a metal with radiant properties that is only found on the planet El-Auria in the Delta Quadrant of the galaxy.”

“You’re wrong, Mr. Data,” John replied. “I found this hunk of junk on my terrace in Manhattan on the twenty-fourth of August, 1974, the day after I saw a UFO.”

“A ‘UFO’?” Data asked. “Do you mean an ‘Unidentified Flying Object’?”

“That’s what the initials generally stand for,” John concurred.

Data released a gasp which sounded very nearly like a sigh of frustration. “I wish I could access my ship’s computers to determine if the El-Aurians had sent any spacecraft to this solar system on that date. My own memory storage banks have been severely depleted since the loss of my torso.”

“Right,” John replied. He took another drag on his cigarette and exhaled. “So what happened to you?”

“It is a very long story, and I hesitate to share it with you, a man from the twentieth century, since it involves time travel,” Data said. “I do not wish to reveal any information that might alter the course of my own personal history.”

“You’ve already told me about the planet El-Auria in the Delta Quadrant and its wonky metals,” John challenged.

“Indeed I have,” Data acknowledged. “Please accept my sincerest apologies. I was being careless. The experience of dying and re-awakening in this altered state has apparently been more discombobulating than I initially realized.”

“He said, I know what it’s like to be dead,” John murmured in a sing-song voice.

“But I do not,” Data protested. “The moment my head separated from my body, I lost consciousness. I remember nothing that occurred from that moment until I was just now awakened by your smoke.”

“You’re making me feel like I’ve never been born,” John continued singing.

Data furrowed his brow. “Why is that?”

John chuckled. “I’m having you on. It’s just a line from a song I wrote years ago.”

“Ah,” Data replied. “Might I ask what year is it now?”

“It’s 1978,” John replied. “Late October. I’ve forgotten the date. Sorry. But it’s past my birthday, which was the ninth, so I’m getting older. What else matters?”

“I see,” Data said. “If you will excuse me, I will attempt to access my remaining memory banks, so that I might find some appropriate reference points on which we can converse.” He rolled his eyes behind his lids briefly, then almost immediately rolled them forward. 

John laughed. “That didn’t take long.”

“I process information at twice the speed of sound.”

“Good for you,” John said. “It usually takes me years to work out what I’m doing. I waste a lot of time.”

“I shall take that information into account,” Data replied, assuming a professorial tone. “According to the historical archive I have accessed and the date you have given me, you are now thirty-eight years old. You are in the third year of a self-imposed retirement from the music industry, although you did write a song entitled “Cookin’ in the Kitchen of Love” for your former bandmate Ringo Starr. That song appeared on the album “Ringo’s Rotogravure,” which was released in September of 1976. You have not ventured into a recording studio since then.”

“Damn, you’ve got a crapload of information about me stored in that head of yours!” laughed John. “Can you tell me when I’ll go back to the studio next, and how that record will sell?”

Data frowned. “I do not think it would be wise to speak of your future. For many reasons.”

“Right,” John agreed. “I suppose you shouldn’t. So tell me more about yourself then.”

Data’s face assumed a relieved expression. “Before I tell you my history, I must ask you not to share it with anyone except Guinan.”

“Sure,” John agreed. “Who else would believe me, anyway?”

“A good point,” Data agreed. “I shall attempt to be brief. I come from the twenty-fourth century. On Stardate 45959.1, my starship was recalled to Earth on a priority mission to examine evidence that extraterrestrials had been on the planet’s surface in the late nineteenth century. A collection of five-hundred-year-old artifacts, including my head, had been discovered in this cave by a group of seismologists. My crew and I conducted a thorough investigation into the matter, and discovered that a race of shapeshifters from the planet Devidia II in the Marrab Sector had been using this cave as a teleport, through which they traveled between space and time to the Earth. Each time they visited, they collected large quantities of life energy from dying humans, then brought that energy back to their home planet, where they consumed it. In an attempt to make contact with the Devidians, I journeyed back with them through time to San Francisco in the year 1893. My captain, Jean Luc Picard, and crewmates joined me after a delay of a few days, and together we confronted the shapeshifters. Unfortunately, I died in the skirmish. But I realize now that my death solved the mystery of how my head was found in this cave by twenty-fourth century seismologists.”

John stared at Data in complete bewilderment. “The only thing you just said that I understood even remotely is that your captain is French.”

“Indeed he is,” Data agreed. “Though he speaks with a British accent.”

“Your story makes no sense,” John continued.

“Time travel does defy logic,” Data agreed. “It is fraught with paradox.”

“As is your captain’s accent,” John laughed. “So tell me, how does Guinan fit into your adventure?”

“Guinan is from the planet El-Auria, which I mentioned before,” Data explained. “Her species is remarkably long-lived. A typical El-Aurian lifespan runs for seven hundred Earth-years or more. Unfortunately, much of El-Auria was destroyed by the Borg many centuries ago, and the citizens who survived the attack were compelled to take refuge on other M-Class planets with humanoid populations. Guinan happened to be living on Earth in the year 1893, and I had the good fortune to meet her in San Francisco. And apparently she is still living on the Earth, since you have met her in a bar in New York City. In the twenty-fourth century, she will be working as a bartender on my ship, The Enterprise.”

John laughed. “Well that’s happy news. In the future, spaceships will come equipped with bars.”

“The larger ones do,” Data confirmed.

“So what happens to you now?” John asked. “Will your Franco-English captain travel through time and collect your head, so he can reunite it with your body?”

“I do not believe so,” Data answered. “According to the timeline in which I exist, my head will not be discovered for several hundred years still. But perhaps, when that day occurs, my captain or colleagues will endeavor to reattach my two parts. I certainly hope they do. I should like to be whole again.”

John nodded in sympathy. “But for now, you’re just a nowhere man, sitting in your nowhere land.”

Data cast a quick glance at the glowing piece of metal. “Perhaps you should blow some more cigarette smoke on the Rodberrium. It seems to be losing its radiance.”

“Glad to,” John said. He lit another Gitane and projected his smoky breath at the metal. It immediately regained its shimmering luster.

“May I ask, what are you doing in this cave, Mr. Lennon?”

“Call me John,” John said. “Please,” he added as an afterthought.

“Of course, John,” Data said. “You may dismiss my honorific as well and simply call me Data.”

John pulled a deep drag on his cigarette, then released his breath slowly over the Rodberrium. “I’m on holiday.”

Data waited several seconds for John to elaborate, then said, “This dusty cavern seems an unlikely place for anyone to take a holiday. Especially a wealthy and successful celebrity.”

“Well, there’s the rub, then, isn’t it?” John replied. “If I go out in public, people pester me. But here, all I have to cope with are talking heads like you.” He gazed directly at Data and scrutinized his pale, greenish face. “You wouldn’t happen to know David Byrne, would you?”

“The name is unfamiliar,” Data replied.

“Okay,” John laughed. “So where was I? Oh yeah. So, Mother told me I needed to go on another trip in a westerly direction to clear my bad karma. My last attempt failed, you see. I just wasted my time.”

“I am very confused,” Data replied. “When I accessed my memory banks, I discovered that your mother died in the year 1958.”

“You’re right,” John sighed. “It’s been twenty years now. I’ve lived more than half my life without her…” His voice trailed off.

“But you said your mother…”

“I call Yoko ‘Mother’,” John interrupted. “Please don’t ask me why. It’s complicated.”

“As you wish,” Data replied. “But could you please explain the other half of your statement? The part about traveling in a westerly direction to clear yourself of bad karma?”

“The notion is based on an Asian philosophy called ‘Tatu-tugai’, which combines the sciences of numerology and cartography,” John explained. “Mother is good friends with a Japanese restauranteur who knows all about it. They plotted a course for me.”

“I see,” Data said, his gentle voice very nearly masking his general confusion.

“So anyway, before I left, I dropped by this bar near Central Park that I’ve been frequenting lately, and had a long conversation about my upcoming trip with Guinan,” John continued. “She’s quite the world traveler, you know, so I thought she might have some fun travel tips for me. I told her my first stop would be in San Francisco, and she immediately mentioned this cave. She said it was filled with triolic waves, which might be able to wipe my karmic slate completely clean, so I wouldn’t have to journey any further across the Pacific. But she warned me to bring along my meteorite, or whatever this hunk of metal is, to counter-balance the waves’ toxicity.”

John darted his eyes at the glowing metal, then looked back at Data. “I’d shown it to her once before, you see, and she was quite fascinated with it. She’d wanted me to tell her everything I could remember about my encounter with the UFO. But anyway, to make a long story short, she ended up drawing me that map there.” He gestured towards one of the pieces of paper on the floor. “And she told me to bring some other items with me to this cave that held some personal history. Then she showed me how to draw out their energy. And she gave me this cigarette lighter too.”

“I suspect Guinan placed some sort of molecular infusion in the lighter fluid that would combine with tobacco smoke to draw out the radiance of the Rodberrium,” Data proposed. “I furthermore speculate that she knew the waves created by the metal and the smoke might re-energize my positronic brain. But this is, of course, just a hypothesis. Guinan possesses not only a wisdom beyond her years, but a great store of El-Aurian scientific knowledge, which she has always hesitated to share with me. I believe she fears I would dismiss her axioms as nonsensical, because they are drawn as much from spiritual tenets as they are from Newtonian physics.”

“Right,” John said. “If you say so, Data. Actually, I’m starting to wonder if these triolic waves are getting the better of me. I’m feeling a little peaky.”

“Please lie down,” Data said. “I can speak to you more easily if you are supine. Our heads will be at the same level.”

John rested his head on his jacket and stretched out his legs. “Ah, this is more like it,” he sighed. He turned his face towards Data and flinched. “Christ! There’s a fuckin’ gun pointing at my head!”

“You need not fear,” Data assured him. “There is no-one here to pull the trigger.”

“Right,” John sighed. He stretched out his hand and gently pushed the gun’s barrel away from his face, then examined the other items lying on the ground. “So where’d you get that old pocket watch and pair of specs?”

“They belonged to the American author Mark Twain,” Data answered. “He became embroiled in our adventure with the Devidians.”

“I wonder if he ever wrote about it?” John asked. “I’m not familiar with his work.”

“I cannot say for certain, but I believe he did not,” Data said. “Might I ask the significance of the items you brought along to the cave?”

“Oh, they’re just trinkets,” John said dismissively. “Guinan said I should take along some talismans to help me on my spiritual journey, but I didn’t put too much thought into my selections. I just found three items that reminded me of San Francisco – the set list from the Beatles’ final concert, a ticket stub to a showing of our last movie that I saw in a cinema here, and a headband I wore when I came to the Bay Area with Yoko for some medical treatment. The poem is one of many that Yoko sent me when I was studying Transcendental Meditation in India. I brought it along to remind me of her. The lighter and the map are from Guinan, of course. And I brought that hunk of metal with me too, at her instruction.”

“I see one more item,” Data noted.

John laughed. “Oh, that’s just a matchbox I nicked from my hotel the last time Yoko sent me on a westerly journey. I went to Hong Kong and drank Scotch for three solid days, then hallucinated about my clothes absorbing all my bad karma. When I sobered up, I had a good laugh at myself, then pinched the matchbox because of the song lyric. You know, from that old Carl Perkins number?” He started singing:

“I’m sitting here wondering, will a matchbox hold my clothes?
I’m sitting here wondering, will a matchbox hold my clothes?
I ain’t got no matches, but I sure got a long way to go.”

“Ah,” Data said. “So the matchbox is both a physical symbol and a literary metaphor for the hallucination you experienced the last time you attempted to practice ‘Tatu-tugai’.”

“Damn, you make it sound like I made an intelligent choice when you put it that way!” John laughed.

“I see the makings of a pattern in your other choices as well,” Data continued. “The set list and ticket stub both represent finality – your last concert, your last film. The poem and the headband, however, remind you of your wife Yoko.”

“Right, but she sent me that poem when I was still married to my wife Cyn, so it kind of represents the end of my first marriage too,” John replied. “And the headband…I wore it six years ago when Yoko and I spent a week in San Mateo, about twenty miles south of here. We stayed at the home of an acupuncturist who helped us kick our methadone addiction.”

“It appears to me, then, that all of the items you selected represent endings of a sort,” Data suggested.

“Perhaps you’re right,” John agreed. He stared at the glowing Rodberrium and sighed. “Let’s talk about something else. This is depressing.”

“As you wish,” Data agreed. “Where will you travel after you leave San Francisco?”

“Oh hell, I don’t know,” John groused. “Mother will call me at my hotel tonight and tell me, I’m sure. It hardly matters though. Wherever I go, I’ll just sit in my hotel room and watch the wheels go round and round. Though perhaps if I shuffle off my karmic coils in this cave, I could go on a proper holiday to a destination of my own choosing.”

“Where would you like to go?” Data asked.

“Dunno,” John sighed. “I’ve been all around the world. But all I’ve ever really seen has been the insides of hotel rooms.”

He turned his attention back to Data and smiled. “I’ve got an idea. How about I put you in my bag and take you with me?”

Data flinched almost imperceptivity, then immediately regained his composure. “I do not think that would be advisable,” he replied in a hesitant voice. “The Starfleet scientists who found my head were quite certain that all of the artifacts in this cave had been untouched for five hundred years.”

“Fuck that!” John cursed. “How would they know if your head left this cave for a short while in the late 1970’s? I’ll return you in a few years’ time and you can start collecting dust and grime once more. Hey – I’ve got an idea. The first stop on our westward journey should be Easter Island!”

“I believe Easter Island lies east of San Francisco,” Data countered.

“Doesn’t matter. We’ll pretend it’s west,” John insisted. “You’ll fit right in there.”

“Why is that?” Data asked.

“You know – because you’re just a head!” John answered. “And Easter Island has all those…”

“Giant head statues,” Data finished for him. “I see.”

“Sorry, that was cruel of me,” John apologized. “I meant it as a joke. I guess I haven’t shed my bad karma yet. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.”

“You did not hurt my feelings,” Data assured him. “My emotion chip is not currently active. I was unable to control my passions when it was, so I asked my friend Geordi to disable it. One unfortunate consequence of this action, however, has been the curtailing of my sense of humor. I presume that your Easter Island jest would be considered an example of a ‘sick joke.’ Am I correct?”“You are,” John replied. He winked at Data. “So after we visit the big stone faces, we’ll catch a plane to Paris, and I’ll plop you on top of the Winged Victory statue in the Louvre and snap your photo.”

Data furrowed his brow while he considered his response. “Another tasteless witticism. I shall attempt one of my own. After Paris, we can travel to the Tower of London, and you can pose my head on top of the block where Anne Boleyn was decapitated.”

“That’s the spirit!” John laughed. “I’ll ruin you yet, I will.” He fell silent for a long moment. The slab of glowing Rodberrium was beginning to lose its brilliance. “Would you like me to have another smoke, Data?”

“I do not wish you to damage your lungs for my sake,” Data replied.

“They’re black as tar already,” John sighed as he reached for his pack of Gitanes. “Sometimes I’m surprised I’m still alive.”

He lit his cigarette and took another long drag, then turned towards Data with a thoughtful expression. “What was it like seeing your decapitated head when you first came to this cave on your twenty-fourth century mission, before you traveled back in time with those shapeshifters?”

“It was a fascinating experience,” Data replied. “It filled me with an unexpected sense of wonder as I contemplated my own mortality. However, my crewmates appeared unaccountably disturbed by the ordeal. And they started to behave differently around me after the discovery. They treated me as if…how shall I word this? As if I had been diagnosed with a terminal illness.” He looked squarely at John for a few seconds, then softened his expression. “At the time, I found their reactions disconcerting. But now I think I understand their behavior.”

John nodded. “Did you live your life any differently after you looked your own death right in the face?”

“I do not believe so,” Data answered. “Though I hardly had the time to give the matter much serious consideration, let alone the opportunity to modify my customary behavioral patterns.”

John laughed. “I suppose that’s good then. It’s probably best to just live every day of your life like it’s a normal day, and not obsess about the endgame. I mean, honestly now, what is life really, but all the shit that happens to you while you’re busy making other plans?”

“I agree with you, John, though I would not have worded that sentiment with a scatological reference,” Data replied. “Nevertheless, it was a distressing experience to die. The moment my head was detaching…I briefly felt…I briefly saw…”

“Did your whole life flash in front of your eyes?” John asked.

“No, just one image,” Data said. “The face of someone I have grown attached to. Someone who depends upon me.”

“Yeah?” John asked. “Might I ask whose face it was?”

“My cat Spot,” Data answered. “Unlike you, I do not have a wife. I had a daughter, but she died. My father is also dead. And my brother Lore…well…perhaps the less said about him, the better.”

John rested his hand on Data’s cheek. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think a robot like you could have family members. There’s a lot about you I don’t understand.”

“I do not expect you to,” Data replied. “You come from another era.”

“Right,” John agreed. “But I do understand death. My uncle who raised me died when I was fourteen. My mum died when I was seventeen. My best mate Stu died when I was twenty-one. My manager Brian died when I was twenty-six. Yoko and I lost several babies during our first few years together. My dear friend Mal, who’d been with my band since the earliest days, died three years ago. And the list goes on.”

“Death is the common denominator that unites all living creatures,” Data noted. “There have been times in my past when I wondered if I were truly alive, since I was not fashioned from organic materials. But knowing now that I am capable of death makes me feel somehow more alive than I did when my mortality was less certain.”

“Hhmm,” John mumbled. “Actually, I think the fact that your final thought was about your cat, and not about your own life, is proof of your humanity. Being able to care more about another living being than you do for yourself seems to me the very definition of love. And love is what makes us human. It’s all we really need, you know.”

“An interesting notion,” Data replied. “I shall contemplate it when a reflective opportunity presents itself.”

John cleared his throat, then let loose a deep smoker’s cough. “Fuck, I think I’ve smoked enough fags for one afternoon.” He crushed out his Gitane in the dirt, then stood up and looked down at Data. “Sorry. I don’t think I can keep this bit of metal glowing for you much longer.”

“No apologies are required,” Data replied. “I very much appreciate your making the effort for as long as you have.”

John crouched back down and smiled. “Are you sure you don’t want me to take you out of this cave for a short while? Maybe even a few years? It shouldn’t make any difference, should it? Your skiving off for a decade of the five centuries you’re meant to spend in this dark little hole in the ground shouldn’t matter much in the grand scheme of things.”

Data opened his mouth to reply, then closed it. “Thank you for your generous offer, John, but I strongly believe that it would be in my best interests to stay here and not go with you. I do have a favor to ask of you, though.”

“Sure, Data, what can I do for you?” John offered.

“When my head was severed, the experience was…disconcerting,” Data began. “I do not relish the notion of undergoing the sensation again. And yet, I also do not wish to linger in this dark cave alone, now that I am awake and alive once more, until my batteries wear down. I…I…I have an off switch on the back of my head. If you would toggle it, I could return to a state of rest that I am more familiar with.”

“Sure,” John said. He picked up Data’s head.

“If you lift the patch of hair just above the back of my neck, you should see a small panel with a pattern of eight purple lights, blinking in a syncopated rhythm.”

John examined the back of Data’s head. “Yeah, I see it.”

“Lift the panel, then look for two green buttons of equal size, next to a yellow switch. Press the top green button, then toggle the yellow switch, then hold the bottom green button until I…until I…”

“Go gentle into that good night,” John said.

“A euphemism?” Data asked.

“A poetic one,” John replied. He cast a quick look at the items at his feet, then tucked Data’s head in the crook of his elbow. “Hold on just a sec. I’m going to leave you a gift.”

John plucked Mark Twain’s wire-rimmed glasses off the ground and exchanged them with his own. “Damn, I can hardly see out of these specs. That bastard was even blinder than I am.”

“I do not think it would be wise for you to trade your spectacles with Mr. Twain’s,” Data admonished John. “When the artifacts are found four hundred years from now, the glasses are supposed to be a pair of bifocals.”

“Hear me out,” John said. He positioned Data’s head so they faced each other. “Guinan told me that before I start meditating, I should cup each of my talismans in the palm of my hand, call to mind its significance in my life, and try to absorb its psychic energy. So when you’re resurrected in four centuries’ time, Data, after you and your crewmates figure out what to do with those homicidal shapeshifters, I want you to take a moment to reflect upon my glasses, and remember me.”

“I will,” Data agreed. “And John, I want you to promise me something as well.”

“What?” John asked.

“I want you to…I want you to savor these days that you are spending out of the public eye. Make the most of them. Do not undertake any more frivolous expeditions to clear your karma. I want you to enjoy every moment that you have with your family over the next few years, and not just waste your time.”

John chuckled. “Oh, I don’t know, Data. This expedition hasn’t been a frivolous waste of time, now, has it? I’ve always believed that the time you enjoyed wasting was not wasted.”

“That is another prescient notion for me to consider in the future,” Data replied. He looked away for a brief moment, then met John’s eyes once more. “I have one more favor to request. If you have a cat, please tell it about me. I do not think your pet will share the information with anyone else and affect the time-space continuum.”

“I have three cats,” John said with a smile. “And I will tell each of them all about you.”

He held Data’s head aloft and admired his handsome face. “Here I stand, head in hand,” he announced. He bowed to Data with a theatrical flourish and said, “Alas, poor Data, I knew you well.” Then he turned Data’s head around and started to sing as he reopened the panel and began pushing buttons: 

“Close your eyes, and I’ll close mine. Good night. Sleep tight.
Dream sweet dreams for me. Dream sweet dreams for you.”

He turned Data’s now somnolent face back towards his own and smiled. “Someday, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men will find you and put you back together again. It will be just like starting over. And speaking from experience, I can assure you that a cavern is a very good place to launch yourself into the world.”

He rested Data’s head back in the dirt beside the gun, pocket watch and glasses. Then he picked up his lantern and bag, collected his talismans, and walked to the wooden staircase at the back of the cave that would return him to the land of the living.

* * *

Inspired by the two-part episode “Time’s Arrow” from “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” written by Joe Menosky and Michael Piller. (1992)

“Alas, poor Data.”

Tracy Neis is the author of the “Rock-and-Roll Brontë” series of novels (“Mr. R,” “Restless Spirits,” “Wildfell Summer,” and the upcoming “Nowhere Girl”), which reimagine the stories of the Brontë sisters with a British Invasion-era twist. She writes Beatles-themed fan fiction under the name CremeTangerine on archiveofourown.org and fanfiction.net, and on her blog, cremetangerine.video.blog. She lives in Southern California with her husband and daughters.

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