Helen's lower face was still visible below the cowl, though eyes and ears were helmeted. We could touch her. My father often did. Perhaps some distant part of her still felt it. But eventually someone has to close the casket and dispose of the remains. Jim took her hand one more time. She would still be available in her world, on her terms, but later this day the body would be packed into storage facilities crowded far too efficiently for flesh and blood visitors.
Everything was reversible, we were told. There were rumors of dismemberment, of nonessential body parts hewn away over time according to some optimum-packing algorithm. Perhaps Helen would be a torso this time next year, a disembodied head the year after.
Perhaps her chassis would be stripped down to the brain before we'd even left the building, awaiting only that final technological breakthrough that would herald the arrival of the Great Digital Upload. Rumors, as I say. I personally didn't know of anyone who'd come back after ascending, but then why would anyone want to?
Not even Lucifer left Heaven until he was pushed. Whatever he knew, he'd obviously decided its disclosure wouldn't have changed Helen's mind. That would have been enough for him. We donned the hoods that served as day passes for the Unwired, and we met my mother in the spartan visiting room she imagined for these visits.
She'd built no windows into the world she occupied, no hint of whatever utopian environment she'd constructed for herself. She hadn't even opted for one of the prefab visiting environments designed to minimize dissonance among visitors. We found ourselves in a featureless beige sphere five meters across.
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There was nothing in there but her. Maybe not so far removed from her vision of utopia after all , I thought. My father smiled. You came! She always used my name.
I don't think she ever called me son. I do wish you could join us.
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Jim smiled. I know she was special to you. A startling possibility stopped me in mid-sentence: maybe I hadn't actually told them.
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I would have given them a fucking lifetime. I unplugged myself back to the ward, looked from the corpse on the bed to my blind and catatonic father in his couch, murmuring sweet nothings into the datastream. Let them perform for each other. Let them formalize and finalize their so-called relationship in whatever way they saw fit.
Maybe, just once, they could even bring themselves to be honest, there in that other world where everything else was a lie. I felt no desire to bear witness either way. But of course I had to go back in for my own formalities. I adopted my role in the familial set-piece one last time, partook of the usual lies. We all agreed that this wasn't going to change anything, and nobody deviated enough from the script to call anyone else a liar on that account. I even suppressed my gag reflex long enough to give her a hug.
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Jim had his inhaler in hand as we emerged from the darkness. I hoped, without much hope, that he'd throw it into the garbage receptacle as we passed through the lobby. But he raised it to his mouth and took another hit of vassopressin, that he would never be tempted. Fidelity in an aerosol. You can't imprint on someone who isn't even there, no matter how many hormones you snort.
Jim said nothing. We passed beneath the muzzles of sentries panning for infiltrating Realists.
She'd be happy if you did. It never did. He smiled a bit at that. I'm comfortable with it. Easy for him to say.
Easy even to accept the hurt she'd inflicted on him all these years. Do you think it's easy when you disappear for months on end? Do you think it's easy always wondering who you're with and what you're doing and if you're even alive? Do you think it's easy raising a child like that on your own? She'd blamed him for everything, but he bore it gracefully because he knew it was all a lie.
He knew he was only the pretense. She wasn't leaving because he was AWOL, or unfaithful. Her departure had nothing to do with him at all. It was me. Helen had left the world because she couldn't stand to look at the thing who'd replaced her son. The stars were falling. The Zodiac had rearranged itself into a precise grid of bright points with luminous tails.
It was as though the whole planet had been caught in some great closing net, the knots of its mesh aglow with St.
Elmo's fire. It was beautiful. It was terrifying. I looked away to recalibrate my distance vision, to give this ill-behaved hallucination a chance to vanish gracefully before I set my empirical gaze to high-beam. I saw a vampire in that moment, a female, walking among us like the archetypal wolf in sheep's clothing.
Vampires were uncommon creatures at street level. I'd never seen one in the flesh before. She had just stepped onto the street from the building across the way.