“There she is! What do you think?” Cassandra tipped her tablet up so the picture was right way up to Dougal.
In the picture, Cassandra lay sleeping, head tilted back, mouth slackly open to reveal fine white teeth, a light blue sheet pulled up under her chin. Dougal looked from picture to person, spotting the differences between them. The face in the picture lacked any sign of creases or wrinkles, its eyebrows were more regular, and its hairline was perfectly symmetrical. After a few seconds of consideration, he gave his honest opinion.
“You’re just jealous.” Cassandra pulled the tablet away from him, folding it up to slide it into a shirt pocket.
Dougal shook his head. “If I was jealous, I’d sign up too. That’s just plain creepy.”
As he spoke, the waitron glided up beside the table. “Will there be anything else?”
Dougal pointed to the waitron’s head. It had the same smooth over-perfect complection as the face in the picture. “Is this really what you want to look like?”
“Will there be anything else?” It reached, with the pale tapered hands of a Pre-Raphaelite virgin, for empty cups and plates, carefully depositing them into the receptacle built into the cart that supported its torso. Its attentive, lifeless gaze dwelled on Dougal for three seconds before switching to Cassandra.
“It’s not the same and you know it,” she said, a tone of sulk replacing her earlier excitement. “That’s just a machine.”
“Will there be anything else?”
“No, thank you,” Dougal said as he unfolded his own tablet. The waitron retreated, and he showed Cassandra an image of an old tobacco pipe over a cursive caption Ceci n’est pas une pipe. He smiled, but with little humour. “I just don’t know why you’d even bother. You’re fit, you’re not even fifty yet….”
At the mention of her age, Cassandra touched the corner of one eye, as if to cover the fine lines there, one of the few signs of her years to show on her face. The gesture ended as a rubbing of the temple, a show of exasperation, almost before Dougal had noticed the brief admission of vanity.
“Look, accidents happen every day. I could step out of this restaurant and have a truck drop on my head. Once I’m BodyFree, I don’t have to worry about that sort of thing.”
Dougal’s smile remained, but his eyes hardened. “So, to keep from getting killed by a failure of technology, you want to put your whole existence in the hands of technology.”
“Now you’re just being dumb. Lifters have moving parts; of course they break. Going BodyFree means having all sorts of back-ups, living in the cloud. It’s a lot safer than keeping all my eggs in this basket.” The fingers at her temple tapped for punctuation.
“It’s still creepy. That thing looks almost like you.”
“It looks like me when I was twenty.” She moved her hand from her head to rest it on his forearm. “Can’t you just support a friend in a big decision?”
Dougal sighed. He put his free hand over hers. “It’s because you’re a friend that I’m acting like this. I’m not against the whole concept like those religious fanatics, I’m just worried about it working properly in your case. It’s new tech….”
“Oh, hooey,” she said, cutting him short. “People have been getting this done for at least six years.”
“…And how long did it take for those iEyes to start showing their real flaws?”
“Everyone got the upgrades for free.”
“Everyone that hadn’t walked in front of a bus or off a taxi pad.” He pressed down on her hand, feeling her trying to withdraw it, but she got free anyway. “Just because something new is coming out every month doesn’t mean all the kinks are worked out of things that have been around for years.”
Cassandra crossed her arms. She frowned, looking at the table between them. “It’s my life, Dougal….”
“It’s your brain, Cassie! Hell, it’s not even that much….”
“Dougal.” She did not speak loudly, but she was sharp enough to quiet him. “They keep the body for ten years. I can go back if I want. No one ever has, so everyone who’s done it must be pretty happy with it. I’m going next week, and you aren’t changing my mind. I want to stay friends , but if you can’t support me then….”
He held up his hands, stopping her before the consequences could be spoken aloud. “OK. You win. You’re a big girl, and you’ve thought it through.” She opened her mouth, but he persisted. “I’m not going to stop worrying about my friend, but I’ll stop bugging her about it. My worries are not your problem.”
“Thank you.” She stood, and as he followed suit she put her arms out for a hug. “In a couple of weeks, we’ll sit here together and you’ll see there’s nothing you need to worry about.”
Dougal hugged back, making a conscious effort to squeeze her no more tightly than the pressure she offered him. He tried to register the sensation completely, because he could not convince himself that he would ever hug his friend again.
The following week was a busy one for Dougal, even more so than the one preceding. His particular style of graphic art was in vogue at the moment in sub-Saharan Africa and he was anxious to work through as many commissions as he could before the fad deflated again. Cassandra and the procedure she was undertaking were forgotten for long stretches, but occasionally he would pause in his work to try and understand what would prompt such a move. The idea of uploading held no appeal for him; not only was he convinced by long experience of the value of the pleasures of the flesh, but he had never quite believed the announcements that the technique was perfected. He knew in his heart he could tell the difference between a piece of printed salmon and one caught in the wild, and going BodyFree was no more than the other side of the coin to synthetic flesh.
In one of these reveries, he pondered if she would have been so set on uploading if they had, as they had half-planned, gotten married after university. More likely they would now be entirely out of each other’s lives instead of good friends and intermittent collaborators.
One night, he wondered if he were jealous of Cassandra, not because she was uploading but because she was brave enough to do it. He examined his own attitudes to the BodyFree movement, trying to put a finger on the difference between this entire abandonment of the body and any other modern medical alteration. He was no Luddite, and had ordered fresh eyes the moment his originals had started to give trouble in shifting from far to near focus.
New eyes, though, were cultured from his own cells—they were his eyes. It wasn’t like those poor bastards who had been sucked in by the iEye. Was it, he wondered, a mere discomfort at the thought of an intrusion of an unnatural material into the body?
The thread of the thought became elusive as sleep came over him. It was lost entirely by the time he woke the next morning.
When the day of their next lunch-date came around, Dougal found a text message from Cassandra on his tablet:
still learning to walk C U L8R 😉
The archaic contractions were definitely her style, but the fact that the message was text instead of voice was problematic. Cassandra would always leave a voice message if she could. If she was texting, it meant talking was not possible. Dougal pondered the implications a few moments. She was not, after all, at a concert.
He used their lunch reservation anyway, explaining to the waitron that he would dine alone. It expressed regret, without a hint of regret touching its smooth face.
He did not linger over the meal.
The fad for his work passed, as Dougal knew it would. He had never gone fully viral, and most of his work was relatively local. That local work had itself seen a surge just before the recent fad, and with the usual patrons still enjoying their recent commissions, a period of leisure was in the offing. He usually welcomed such lulls as opportunities to relax and recharge his creative powers. At the moment, however, it seemed little more than a chance to brood.
Walks in the park regularly presented him with the BodyFree, or rather the mechanical avatars they adopted to have a discrete presence in the world. They strolled along the paths, sometimes in company with natural people, and all involved seemed content. Dougal began to worry that he was suffering from a form of racism, or at least a prejudice. Determined to nip that sort of thing in the bud, he took to researching the BodyFree movement.
By the eve of the next lunch date, Dougal was not much more comfortable with what his friend had done than when she had first decided on it. There were no horror stories, to be sure, apart from some alarmist nonsense put about by the Real People’s Liberation Front which was clearly without foundation. No news items of perfectly nice people turning into kill-bots, or even of utter disappearance into the world inside the wires. The only mention of a crime being committed by the BodyFree was an assault that simply rounded out a career of poor impulse control which began in a naturally-grown vessel.
That one stand-out gave Dougal a new front for worry. There was little legislation regarding the legal status of the Bodyless, and the judge had decided on a sort of house arrest; the prisoner was only able to perceive through his avatar and was kept from walking more than twenty metres from its charging station. Dougal thought that the sentence was just enough in the case at hand, but looked beyond it. He saw a world in which some as yet unborn fear, or a rise to power of some religious extremists, would see the freedom Cassandra had given away her body to achieve suddenly cut off by a technician’s key-stroke. There was even now some question about the voting rights of the BodyFree, as they were essentially without a permanent residence in any nation on or near Earth.
Dougal appeared at the restaurant slightly ahead of time. He had heard nothing from Cassandra, and had not been able to pull up his courage enough to try calling her. What, his rebellious imagination asked, would answer?
When he told the waitron he would start with iced tea, its departure cleared his view of the door just as Cassandra arrived. She was wearing the same flowered sun-dress as she had for their last lunch. Dougal felt a smile rising unbidden on his face.
It faltered. He worked to kindle it as she approached, to keep joy on his face rather than apprehension. The dress didn’t quite fit. When she smiled at him and waved, he saw the seams at the joints of her arm. Her walk was not right either; it was not the exaggerated mechanical clumsiness of a pantomime robot, nor the smooth over-calculated perfection of a real one, but it was not a gait a human could mimic easily. It was the stride of something engineered rather than evolved.
She put out her arms when she got to the table. He rose to hug her, and felt a carapace under thin silicone cushioning. He grunted as her embrace became constriction, squeezing air from him.
“Too tight?” she said, releasing him. “I haven’t totally got these things calibrated yet.”
“I’ll live,” he replied. He looked her up and down.
She posed, side on, one hand at her hip, the other held at eye height, and her head cocked slightly back, the posture which for generations had conveyed fabulous, am I not? “Pretty hot, huh?”
He made a vague grunt by way of response. He was working hard to not say what he thought, to return to his thesis from their last meeting. How, he wondered, could he tell his friend that he did not quite understand what she was? On another, reflective, level, he probed his own reactions, trying to assay them for objective misgivings when they might be no more than a manifestation of a prejudice his pride did not want to allow.
When the waitron returned with Dougal’s drink, Cassandra suggested they order directly. She surprised him by calling for her usual Waldorf salad. That surprise was quickly subsumed by a dark-edged wonder at the fact of her speaking just as she always had. It was, unquestionably, her voice and the inflections were so right he could not believe it was just sampling. The illusion was more complete if he did not look at her face, which was stuck firmly in the uncanny valley as far as he was concerned. It was reminiscent of a younger Cassandra, not a true depiction, and the glitter in the eyes was that of glass. When she smiled at him, he felt as if she had caught him at something indiscrete, as if he had spoken his thoughts aloud.
“So, how have you been keeping since last we met?” she asked as the waitron trundled away. The conversation which followed was of much the same sort as it ever had been, touching on current events, politics, and the ever-shifting tastes in art which gave their shared occupation an interesting variation. Dougal thought Cassandra’s responses were a little scattered, sometimes veering towards non sequitur. After a long delay of her sitting immobile with a quizzical expression frozen on her face, he reached a hesitant hand out to give her a nudge.
“Oh, sorry, Doug. There’s a real-time feed from one of the Rovers on Titan, and I’m letting it distract me.” She giggled, a noise her avatar did poorly. “This is actually exactly what I was hoping it would be. You know how we always said I can’t do two things at once? Well, I’m having lunch with you and rolling around on a moon! It’s so neat! It’s not like watching on a screen, either; I’m in both places!”
“Sounds… dizzying,” he said.
“Some of the others I’ve talked to can be in six places at the same time. Practice, I guess. There. I’m all here, now.” She winked at him. He couldn’t remember her ever doing that before.
Dougal’s appetite was at low ebb by the time their meals arrived. It fled entirely shortly after he commented on the fact of her eating in her current state. She launched into a dissertation about microbial fuel cells, the way they let her bow to the social conventions imposed by bodies and gave her greater endurance between charges, apparently enthusiastic at the prospect of eating bugs in an emergency. The whole of her delivery was literally breathless, eating and speaking happening at the same time. Her voice may have been coming from her face, but it certainly was not coming from her mouth.
When they parted, Dougal paused to watch that familiar dress swaying through pedestrians with an entirely unfamiliar gait. She had, he reasoned, told him directly that she had needed to relearn walking, and that change is just change, inherently neither good nor bad. The hollow tingle behind his heart did not fade under the power of that reasoning.
The client held a printout of Dougal’s rough sketch. He squinted at it, turning his head and the paper to various rotations, and Dougal began to hear the man’s next words even as the breath to say them was drawn.
“It’s nice. Really nice….”
But, Dougal thought.
“…but it’s not. Mmm. Not… Deco enough. I really wanted this to be Art Deco.”
Dougal looked at the original on his big monitor. A stylized woman rendered in chrome, only just recognizable as the client’s wife, her head back and arms held out to stream out long sleeves which fell away in precise rounded sections, looking like the hood ornament on Buck Rogers’s first spaceship. If she were any more Art Deco, she would lose all her facial features. Dougal did his own squinting and craning until realization dawned.
He brought up a reference image in a shared subwindow. “More like this?”
The client beamed. “Exactly! That’s the style I want!”
“I’ve got a friend who is rather better at it than I am. I’ll give her a call, explain the brief, and if she’s free she’ll get in touch directly.” They concluded their call, the client closing his window with a look of delight still glowing on his face.
It was not a face to which Dougal was inclined to attempt an explanation of the difference between Deco and Nouveau, even if he thought the explanation would stick. He closed the subwindow showing Mucha’s La Primevera, then scrolled his directory for Cassandra. As the connection was pulling itself together, he remembered that this was the first time he had done anything but text her since the switch. He twitched toward the CANCEL button, without effect.
Cassandra appeared. She looked as she had in college, her hair an asymmetrical curtain the colour of flames, one eye almost hidden behind it. She was sitting in a grove of cherry trees, their blossoms cascading in a gentle breeze, her face just to the right of centre of the communication window. She smiled at him, the expression not quite taken up by the eyes.
“Doug! Hi!” She was strangely still. “What’s up?”
“Are you still making art in your current situation?”
There was a pause, Cassandra entirely still except for a persistent ripple across her bangs. It was only a couple of seconds, but it was enough for him to realize how rare actual immobility is in people.
“I guess so,” she said, animation returning. “Do you need something done?”
“Not me. I have a client who wants a portrait of his wife done up Mucha-style for their anniversary, and you’re the first person I thought of. Interested?”
“Aw, that’s sweet. Sure thing. It’s about time I got back in the game.”
Dougal pushed the client’s contact information to Cassandra. As he did, the whole window changed. Behind her was the uneven white desert of Luna, Earth visible over her shoulder in the jet sky, and her hair became the Aurora Borealis.
“Neat effect,” Dougal said, trying to sound nonchalant, as if this were a thing he was used to. She giggled, and he was struck again at the mismatch in the amusement in the sound and the look in the eyes. He also realized that he should be seeing her shoulders at the bottom of frame, that her neck was far too long.
“Just a little subroutine I’m trying on; I don’t want callers to get bored.”
He nodded. “Well, it certainly does its job. Will I see you for lunch again this week?”
“Sure thing, Doug. Take care!” The comm window dropped out. He spent a few moments trying to remember the last time she had been the one to end a call.
Like most people, Dougal had some AI standing guard over his message system. He kept his on a relatively tight leash, finding amusement in occasional revivals of the venerable Nigerian Letter scam and the variations its practitioners tried on. When he opened his messages and found the warning threatening tone and words attached to one, he was surprised. Surprise was compounded when he saw who the sender was: the client he had passed on to Cassandra, a person from whom he had not expected to hear again.
The message itself was not so much threatening as simply angry. There were accusations of incompetence and periods of inarticulate spluttering, but the only actual threats concerned blackening his reputation rather than his eye. That was bad enough, of course, when all his disposable income was a result of word-of-mouth, but a single angry client wasn’t enough to do him serious harm.
The end of the message, though, wiped out the mild bemusement Dougal had worked himself into. His jaw dropped, and he felt the blood falling out of his face. The client was holding up a hard copy of a drawing, shouting, “I don’t know if you think this is funny, but I don’t have time to find someone who will do the job properly! Thanks for ruining my anniversary with your girlfriend’s crap!” He thrust the printout at his camera to underline his point before breaking the connection. Dougal ran the message back a few seconds, paused it, and considered it at length.
It was definitely a first-draft sketch, the sort of preliminary monochrome image that got produced as a foundation for complete rendering and colouring. It was, arguably, what the client had said he had wanted, a picture of his wife in the style of Alphonse Mucha.
What it was not was any good at all. Dougal’s first impression was that it was the sort of thing a high-schooler of middling talent would have produced with a light table. There were failures of proportion in the body which a student artist might let pass, but which any professional would find eye-watering. Worse yet, it was almost an exact copy of La Primevera, with some slight amendments of the face to suggest the client’s wife. The reason he had suggested Cassandra in the first place was that he knew she did not do mere pastiches. When her work made suggestion, it was always been of style rather than of subject; it would seem like it might have been Mucha’s work, but it was always recognizably original. This thing even had the same details on the headband, the sort of slavish copying that he and she had joked about before her transition.
He copied the image into his tablet. He meant to ask some very pointed questions over lunch.
“I don’t see the problem.” Cassandra handed the tablet back to him. “That’s exactly what he asked for.”
Dougal stared at the smiling forgery of a face for a few seconds, looking for some kind of cue that she was joking. She matched his stare, until the arrival of dessert broke the standoff.
Dougal regarded his pie only long enough to shove it aside. “Cassie, after I saw this, I did some more looking into BodyFree.”
“Say, did I tell you what it was like being on the Neptune probe?”
“I’m sure it was amazing. Do you know how many artists have done this?”
Dougal shook his head. “Almost none. I can’t find any who kept working after they made the switch, either.”
“So what? It’s not like anyone needs to work anymore.”
Dougal felt his jaw going slack once again and fought to keep from being stunned into silence. “Need? Cassie, the number of times you’ve talked about how much… damn it, now I know something is wrong with you.” He hesitated for a moment. “OK, four years ago, in the spring. You’d had that idea for the big mural, remember?”
“Yeah….” She was still smiling, but it was the expression of one who is not quite sure they see how the joke will end.
“Cassie, I had to pull you away from that thing and make you eat. No one was making you do that but yourself. It wasn’t a commission.”
“So… if I’m obsessed with something so badly that I forget to look after myself, it’s… better?” The smile was less full, but it was still there. Dougal would almost have welcomed anger.
“Yes! You’re supposed to be everything you ever were, just without the meat around it, right?” He waved at the tablet. “That proves you’re not, and the fact that you can’t even see what’s wrong really proves it.”
There was a silence in the restaurant. Dougal saw a couple of women behind Cassandra look away.
“Doug, I don’t want our friendship to end over this.”
He held up a hand. “No. Me neither.”
“So can you let it go?”
He looked at the image on the tablet, then back at what was a very close approximation of his oldest friend’s face. He shook his head. “I can’t. I think you’ve really hurt yourself, and it’s because I’m your friend….”
“But how can I convince you that I’m just fine? There were plenty of sessions of diagnosis and checking of heuristic pathways right after I got BodyFree. If I hadn’t passed all that, I wouldn’t be here talking to you. If that’s not good enough, I don’t know what will be. I don’t want you to worry.”
Dougal found doubt growing even on that point. Her lunch order had been in much the same tone of voice.
“I think I have an idea,” he said, trying to keep his own tone mild. “Your body is still around, right?”
“Doug, that’s silly. We already had this discussion. It’s the app that’s important, not what’s running it.”
“Maybe. Sometimes the platform does matter.” He looked steadily into the glittering glass eyes which never blinked, never moved away to suggest consideration. “If I’m right, if,” he emphasized with haste, because he had at last seen the beginning of a reaction on her seamless face, “then it will be a good thing to get you back into your body, even if it is for just long enough to figure out what the problem is. If I’m wrong, you jump right back out and go back to what you’re doing now.”
“Doug, it takes three days both ways to format and upload. It’s not like changing a shirt. If you are wrong, I lose almost a week for nothing.”
He put on a smile. “You said yourself—who needs to work these days?”
There was another, less general, silence as her unwinking gaze probed him. “You really are worried, aren’t you?” His nod shook a tear loose from his left eye. “Fine. If I’m going to live forever, I suppose I can drop six days of experience. I’ll call the storage hospital and get it set up.”
Dougal reached across the table, putting his palm over her cool, smooth hand. “Thank you. Let me know when you’re going to be… reinstalled, I guess. I want to be there when you’re back.”
The door of the reception room opened onto a short corridor, painted butter yellow. No posters, no signs, nor any art was on the walls, and as Dougal followed the nurse their footsteps echoed in the small space. The nurse stopped near the end of the corridor, opened one of the three celadon-coloured doors there, and held it for him as he entered. The room was the same colour as the corridor, and from the indirect fixtures overhead a day-toned light removed all shadows, even from under the bed.
Dougal had almost no experience of hospitals. He watched dramas, and they formed expectations of a wall of thrumming machinery which worked in concert with a team of dedicated healers to keep death at bay. Here, there was only a single monitor panel which showed three vital signs traces that seemed entirely regular. It was mounted above the bed in which Cassandra slept, her skin pale and her hair cropped, but otherwise looking as he remembered her. There was a single slender cable depending from a socket in the wall and snaking under her head.
“Mr. Pratt?” Dougal turned at the sound of his name, and saw a woman about his age in scrubs just closing the door behind her. The nurse had come in with her, and moved to stand by the head of the bed as the woman offered her hand. “Doctor Lao. I understand you’re here to greet Ms. Nkosi when she wakes.”
Dougal agreed, and as he and Lao commented on the weather, the nurse was cycling through what were to Dougal increasingly esoteric screens. He stopped on one which showed a green bar on a white background over the message Procedure Complete.
“Very good,” said Lao. She reached past the nurse to press a square on the monitor which strobed red and green briefly. The display changed to a more complex version of the vitals read-out. Lao peered at it for a moment before saying to the nurse, “Keep an eye on that.”
“Do you do this very often?” Dougal asked.
“To be honest, no. This is the first refiltration I’ve attended. Nurse Lesvesque has been present at… two, I think?” The man nodded. “Very few people reverse the procedure, and usually with far less of a delay than in this case. It’s usually a response to discomfort with the amount of stimulus available in the disembodied state, and I can’t think of one who didn’t finally decide the panectomy had been what they really wanted in the end.”
“Oh?” Dougal had been watching Cassandra the whole time. He was looking for some change in her to show the return of consciousness. “No one has just given it up, decided it wasn’t for them?”
“None I can think of. I’ve been toying with the notion of going BodyLess myself, but I’m not convinced the taste of food will be quite the same.” There was a single bass bong from the monitor. “Ah. Let’s sit her up, Mr. Lesvesque.”
The nurse folded the sheet into Cassandra’s lap, then brought the head of the bed up. He kept a hand on her forehead as she rose, and when she was at a comfortable incline he slipped the other hand behind her neck. That hand emerged with the end of the cable, a broad polished disc at its terminal, and he hung it over the railing at the top of the bed. “All ready,” he said softly, pivoting to stand back to the wall.
Lao took a small instrument from her pocket, something like a spatula for a cooking playset, and stepped forward to slip it under Cassandra’s head. She said, “This will wake her up. She may take a minute or two to come to the surface.” She then took a small step back, interposing herself slightly between Cassandra and Dougal.
The pause seemed very long to Dougal. Lao shifted her weight from foot to foot. The nurse looked only at Cassandra, and had put a hand on her shoulder before Dougal had noticed she was beginning to tip to one side. Her eyes opened so suddenly that Dougal was surprised there was no noise. She looked at Lao, then the nurse, then finally at Dougal. There was nothing of a sleeper’s confusion in those glances, and by the time her gaze settled on him, she frowned slightly, her eyes down to mere suspicious slits.
“That’s funny,” she said, and almost as she did, Lao bent slightly, saying in the somewhat over-loud voice so often heard at bedsides, “Welcome back, Ms. Nkosi. How do you feel?”
Cassandra turned her gaze upon the doctor, the frown developing. “What do you mean?”
Lao twitched back slightly, then leaned closer. “No pain? Your vision is good? Please watch my finger without moving your head.” She waved her hand in a circle.
“Fine,” Cassandra said. The frown remained. “Dougal….”
“Yes, your friend Mr. Pratt is here,” Lao said. Turning her head slightly and dropping her volume, she said, “Please step around to the other side of the bed, Mr. Pratt.”
Dougal did as instructed, sparing an unnoticed glance for Lao as he went. The doctor seemed to be absorbed by the readout over the bed. Dougal reached for Cassandra’s hand as he said, “Good to see you again.”
She didn’t return the pressure of his grasp, but merely lay there, watching the doctor rather than him, her frown fixed. “Did you bring it?” she asked, after a pause nearly long enough to become uncomfortable. He nodded, slipping his hand from hers to bring his tablet out of his pocket. He unfolded it, bringing up the image of her sketch, and turned it for her to see. She reached out to take it from him, bringing the screen close to her face.
Dougal watched her expression, expecting instant change. Her examination went on for nearly half a minute before a slow alteration, not to chagrin or even horrified realization as he had expected, but just a deepening of the frown. Her head tilted a little to one side, and her mouth, until now set in a firm line, opened just enough to part the lips in a nascent sneer. Then she looked over the edge of the tablet, searching Dougal’s face briefly before peering at the image again. In that brief moment of direct eye contact, he felt hope unraveling.
“It’s…,” she began, then hesitated. “There’s something… no.” She shook her head, thrusting the tablet back at Dougal. “I don’t know what the problem is.” The frown was gone, and she was looking only at the blankets over her feet. “I’m tired of this. I don’t want to see you anymore.”
Dougal took a breath to protest. She carried on ignoring him, and the feeling that had started in that instant of looking into her eyes crystallized into despondency. He did not say a word. The nurse had moved toward him, but he simply nodded to the man and walked out through the door. He was alone in the hall before the first tear ran down his cheek.
Dougal tried to shake the feeling that the new gallery show was the culmination of his career as an artist. He was, after all, right there in the room, in command of his facilities; if a ghost, he was one which still occupied its earthly vessel. He tried to summon up some gratification at what he knew was meant to be an honour, to imagine the event as a waypoint on a path far from its end, an achievement of fame in its present tense.
That the show was being held in a space that usually limited itself to long-dead masters made him feel his years in a way that modern medicine seldom allowed. He also considered the chronological arrangement of the works to be somewhat in memoriam in its effect. There was all too obvious a border between his cheery “early” works and the last six years’ output. The show’s catalogue did not mention the seminal break with Cassandra which he knew marked an epoch in his life, but anyone could tell just by looking that some of the sunshine had been knocked out of his world on that last day he’d seen his friend.
Reflecting on the event, he decided that there was some possibility that he would have gone moody about the same time in any event. Not long after her final words to him, he had noticed a slow but definite trailing off of commissions. It was not the sort of devastating development it would have been for an artist of his grandfather’s generation, when the loss of income would have seriously affected his standard of living, but it still felt like the judgment of the world against him. That alone would have made his art darker.
Darker yet, of course, when he found that he wasn’t the only one in that boat. Many of his colleagues mentioned the same slow leak in commissioned work. They were all still putting art into the world, but the world seemed to be growing indifferent to art.
Pausing in the slow pacing that accompanied his reflection, he confirmed the thought by listening. The gallery was entirely empty but for him, not a footstep to be heard over the whisper of the climate control system. This was supposed to be the busy part of the day. His lips twisted into the grin of a vinegar taster.
A moment later, though, he realized he was mistaken. The sound of a regular tread grew, a small entourage of echoes springing up as the walker drew near. He smiled more genuinely to himself, forming a thought on the nucleus of his own foolishness, but the smile vanished when the avatar of a BodyFree appeared around the corner.
Dougal felt his irrational element surge. This, it decided, must be Cassandra, summoned by the fact of his thinking her name. It looked nothing like her, hairless, blue-skinned, and not a stitch of clothing on its ungendered frame, and still he could not quite silence the inner voice’s insistence that it must be her.
It walked past him, keeping its bland face turned to regard the art on the walls but never slowing to savour any of it. It approached the fire exit, and as it reached for the bar Dougal called out, “Hey! What are you doing?”
The blue face turned toward him. A slow grin worked onto its lips. “Shortcut, dude.” It pushed the door open, and heedless of the twittering of the fire alarm strode into the sunlight, smiling at him as it went.
He shrank back against the gallery wall, between monitors. He had tried, since the break with Cassandra, to avoid looking at avatars directly. Those eyes were alike in every one of them despite differences in shape and colour. Whenever he looked at them and saw the inanimate darkness they held, he was reminded of what he had seen looking back at him from the living face of his friend, that last day at the hospital.
The door’s pneumatic arm slowly diminished the slice of day, now empty of the mechanical person. At last it shut, and the night he had lived in for so long closed about him once more.
“Harmonic Aliasing” © 2016 Dirck de Lint. There is an author’s statement of intent for this story, which you might want to look at if you think this is a comment on 2SLGBTQ+ matters.