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    Rachel Burns is dead. Well not really, but anyone reading the morning paper would think she was. Her obituary was right there for everyone to see, and she just knew the obvious clerical error was going to screw with her credit. But when she calls her husband, Dr. Nathaniel Burns, head of the cybernetic robotics department at the local university, to complain, he seems anything but surprised to hear of her untimely demise.  In fact, the strange announcement is the least of his concerns.

    Dr. Nate Burns loves his wife. He loves her so much he can’t live without her. Unfortunately, neither can the University who made her existence possible. In their eyes Nate’s a thief and they want their property back.

But when the definition of life comes down to how much you want to live, love can make all the difference.


Part I

“I’m dead,” I said to my husband’s voice mail. I knew he wouldn’t answer. He never picked up at the lab—too lost in his research. But this was too bizarre to wait until he came home.

“Funny. I expected Heaven to be whiter…and cleaner,” I said, scanning the mountain of dishes filling our kitchen sink. Gawd, Nate must’ve used every dish in the house. It took real skill to get the pile that high without any slipping off onto the floor. He hadn’t even bothered to scrape the leftover food off half of them. “Geez, Nate, you could wash a dish now and then.”

An uncomfortable twinge squirmed through my stomach, like a worm munching a rotted apple. There was something wrong with this picture. What is it?

“Anyway,” I said pointedly, shifting my thoughts away from the strange stirring of intuition and back to the reason I’d called. I refocused my gaze on the Global Web screen, reflected on the inside lens of my Connect Wear glasses. The multifunctional eyewear showed our local newspaper’s web-port. “My name’s in today’s obituary section. Right there after Scarlet Baker and before Frank Cockren.”

The port’s background music chimed through my head, the glasses transmitting notes directly to the electric synapses of my brain. A simple thought stopped the sound. I leaned my butt against the kitchen counter, folding my arms across my belly. “Probably someone with a similar name or something. They just got the info mixed with mine. It’s kind of creepy, though. And you know it’s going to screw with my credit—”

An incoming call vibrated my glasses, interrupting my message. The caller ID flashed the name, Lord of Geeks, over top of the newspaper’s page on my right lens. “Oh. You’re calling me. End outgoing call,” I said to Nate’s voice mail. The words call ended flashed for a moment under the caller ID then vanished. My eyes focused on the ID of the incoming call.

“Answer, Lord of Geeks,” I said, and the ID changed to open call. “Hey. I was just calling you.”

“Rach?” a man asked, his voice strained—worried.

“Who is this?” It wasn’t Nate. For security reasons they weren’t allowed to use the video option from the lab, so I couldn’t see who it was.

“It’s me, hon,” the man said. “It’s Nate. What happened? How did you— Never mind…are you okay?”

A sense of wrongness snaked through my veins like cold poison, freezing me to the bone. “I was calling my husband. Dr. Nathaniel Burns.”

“I know,” he said. “I couldn’t pick up before it went to voice mail. It’s me, Rachel.”

“No.” Nate and I had known each other since his family moved in next door to mine when we were kids. I had been in fourth grade; him in ninth. We’d gotten married when I was still in college, eight years ago now. I’d heard his voice almost every day for sixteen years, and yet I suddenly realized…I couldn’t remember what it sounded like. I couldn’t be sure it wasn’t him I was talking to. Why? A stab of panic lanced through me. “End call.”

Less than twenty seconds later the soft vibration of an incoming call shook my glasses and the Lord of Geeks ID glowed in the upper right corner of my vision. “Answer Lord of Geeks. Hello?”

“Listen to me, Rachel. Please don’t end call.” I still didn’t recognize the voice but this time he kept his tone soft, like he knew exactly how to quiet the frantic pounding of my heart. “Something must’ve gone wrong. But I can fix it, I promise. You have to trust me. I’m on my way— I mean…Nate is on his way home. He wants you to stay in the house. Rest. Don’t call anyone and don’t answer the phone. And Rach…I love—”

“End call,” I said. That couldn’t have been my husband. I’d know his voice if I heard it, even if I couldn’t bring the sound of it to my mind at the moment. There was nothing familiar in the one I’d heard. Nothing.

What was going on? Why would someone pretend to be Nate? Instinct sank like lead in my stomach, making my skin clammy, telling me nothing was as it should be.

I stood there, concentrating on the in and out of my breaths, for so long that the lenses of my glasses had gone clear,  my Global Web session timing out. I pulled the glasses off and set them on the counter. My gaze flicked to the sink.

Dishes piled nearly a foot high from the countertop, both stainless steel basins full. How had he used so many dishes in one morning? I stepped closer, picking through the pile. I wasn’t sure why, but there was something else bothering me about those dishes—I just couldn’t put my finger on it.

The stink of rotted food wafted up from the pile each time I moved a plate, digging my way to the bottom. Gnats buzzed off a mold-crusted mac and cheese plate, and a small puddle of curdled milk spilled from a used cereal bowl. I swallowed down a surge of bile at the back of my throat.

There were balled-up paper napkins and box ends from Hungry-Man dinners mixed in with the pile, plus at least six Chinese take-out containers tossed on the counter beside the sink.

This wasn’t one day’s worth of dishes.

The fact settled into my brain like a backward puzzle piece—right and wrong at the same time. But it wasn’t until I spotted Nate’s coffee mug that the true wrongness needling me from the inside out finally pierced the surface of my mind.

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