Once upon a time there was a website called Authonomy, where writers would gather and spruik their wares to the Great God Harper-Collins, who owned the site, hoping to have their opus selected for publication. Many tried, many failed, many made long lasting friendships. During my time there, one of our number floated the idea of an anthology of short stories, each written to match a randomly selected song. I joined in the fun and was allocated by Death Cab for Cutie.
I’d never heard of the band, or the song. But I had a listen, and enjoyed the lilting tune.
Now something interesting happened. I wrote a story a long time before, for a contest or something. It wasn’t selected. But that story really fitted the song. Deja vu? Who knows?
I’ve modified the story very slightly from the version in the anthology titled Words to Music. It wasn’t ever a best-seller. We donated any earnings to charity. As so often happens in the publishing game, it’s not about the money. Anyway, here’s my contribution. Enjoy.
Richard Newby put the razor back down on the wash stand. There didn’t seem much point in shaving, really. It wouldn’t matter anymore. Not where he was going.
He sidled out of the ensuite, taking care not to disturb Mary. He paused and looked down at her as he passed the bed. They’d been married for fifty-four years; she’d been his companion, his soul mate. Perhaps he should tell her what he was about to do? He shook his head. He’d been through this, agonised over the decision. Best he kept it to himself.
Richard moved on, closed the bedroom door softly behind him and went into his study. He spent most of his time here, sitting in front of his computer, surfing the net or fiddling. Mary told him he should walk or play golf, and she was probably right. But he’d been in IT all his life, and the doctors told you to keep your brain active, didn’t they? Find something you love and do it. That’s what he’d done
He eased himself into his chair and turned the machine on, a slight smile playing around his mouth as the operating system loaded. He licked his lips, a tremor of anticipation… or maybe apprehension… running through his body. One way or another his life would never be the same again.
He loaded the song and listened one more time. It had been his inspiration, gentle and lilting. He smiled. Heaven and Hell displaying a ‘no vacancy’ sign.
The helmet was on a stand next to him, already plugged in. Richard slipped it over his head and pulled the visor down over his eyes. It fitted exactly, which was understandable. That was how he’d built it.
“Into the Dark,” he said.
Mary came in an hour later with his cup of tea and two biscuits.
“Here’s your tea, dear,” she said, putting the cup on the desk. “Are you going to take that thing off your head?” She shook his shoulder.
His body slumped sideways in the chair, the left arm dangling almost to the floor, the right on his lap.
Mary’s hands flew to her face. “Richard?”
She lifted his right hand, her fingers slipping around his wrist to feel for a pulse.
“Mary? Mary, over here.”
Mary frowned and peered at the helmet. “Where?”
“The computer, hunbun. Behind you.”
Mary peered at the screen, her expression wary. “Is this a joke?” she whispered. “Because it isn’t funny.”
“No, it’s me.” Richard, pointed at his chest. “That thing there,” he pointed at the body in the chair, “that’s just a hulk. I’m not there anymore.”
Mary gasped, her fingers flying to her mouth. “You’re dead?”
“It depends what you mean, hunbun. The body out there doesn’t work anymore because the operating system has turned off. But I’m fine here, in the cyber world.”
Her eyes widened. “You’re in the computer?”
“You might say that. Sort of. See that helmet on my—its—head? I worked out a way to transfer myself—my thoughts, my memories, my mind—into data sets. I’ve loaded all of that into this.” His hands swept down his sides to indicate himself, the being she could see on the screen. “What do you think?”
He was young again, of course. But better looking, fitter, more athletic, like one of those lifesavers at the beach. No need for the glasses he’d worn all his life. And he’d given himself a nose job and wavy, dark brown hair. And of course the tumour, that malignant thing in his chest, sapping his strength, turning his lungs to mash, that was gone, too.
“You look wonderful,” murmured Mary. “But… what about us? Why didn’t you say? When are you coming back?”
“I’m not coming back, darling. This was a one way trip. And I didn’t want to say anything in case it didn’t work. But it has and I want you to come, too.”
Another avatar appeared next to him. Mary at twenty five. Only with bigger breasts and thinner thighs. He’d given her thicker, longer hair and full, luscious lips.
“Remember her, hunbun? Wouldn’t you like to be her again?”
Hope and longing shone in her eyes. Of course she’d want to be twenty-five again.
“How? What do I have to do?”
“Put on the helmet and pull the visor down over your eyes.”
Mary frowned. “Will I die?”
“Only your body. You will be here, with me.”
“But what if somebody turns off the computer? They will, you know.”
“Won’t matter.” Richard waved his hand. “We’ll be out there in cyberspace, riding the net. There’s always a server switched on somewhere.”
“What about food and… and going to the bathroom and such?”
Richard dismissed it with a snort. “All bodily things. They won’t concern you anymore. Neither will arthritis and bad knees. We’ll live forever and never grow old.”
She chewed her lip. “What about the children? They’ll be upset.”
“They’re hardly children anymore. They’ve got their own lives. And really, we’ll be saving them a lot of pain. The doctor said the lump was getting bigger. He gave me six, eight months.”
“Oh.” Her gaze lingered on the corpse in the chair and then lifted back to the screen. “The lump’s gone?”
“Of course. And here, it can’t come back. Go on, Mary, take the helmet off the body. There’s a clip under my—its—chin.”
She hesitated, staring at the computer screen as if trying to see inside, beyond the glass. “I’m frightened, Richard.”
“Mary… hun… we’ve talked about this. You don’t believe in heaven or in hell.”
She almost smiled. “No. Of course not.”
“So the option is… darkness. One day, the operating system fails and it’s over. For all eternity.”
She rubbed her hand across her mouth. She always did that when she was nervous. “And then I’d be…” She sighed. “Alone.”
“And so would I, Mary. Come on. Darkness isn’t the only option.”
She stood a little straighter, head cocked to one side, considering. “What will we do?”
“Anything you like. You’d be amazed at the sorts of things you can find in cyberspace. Visit anywhere in the world, sample all sorts of places, do…” He sniggered. “Do some things we haven’t done for a long time.”
She blushed and smiled. A series of expressions flitted across her face. He knew what she was thinking; the things she’d be giving up. The children, the bowls club and her friends. He crossed his fingers. Please, Mary, please.
Mary sucked in a deep breath. “All right.”
Richard watched her take the helmet off the… his body. There was a smile on its face and its eyes were open. Mary closed them with her fingers. She stood for a moment with the helmet in her hands, pressing her lips together.
“Come on, hun,” he whispered. “Push the… me… out of the chair and sit down.”
Mary reached out with a tentative left hand. A push, little more than a tap on the shoulder. Richard’s bodily remains slumped a little more, but remained in the chair. Mary sucked in a deep breath, swallowed, and pushed harder. The body slid sideways out of the chair and collapsed into an untidy heap on the floor. She sat down, gripped the helmet in her hands and placed it firmly over her head. It was a little bit loose, but that was all right. She fastened the clip and stared at him, a sparkle in her dark eyes.
“Now put down the visor and say ‘Into the Dark.’”
A nervous flick of her tongue across her lips and then she slid the visor down over her face. “Into the Dark.”
Richard saw her body stiffen and then relax and sag, almost as if it was deflating.
Beside him, Mary’s avatar looked down at her new body and laughed. “How about a kiss, big boy?”