“HushCabs. What’s your location?”
“9 Trinity Heights. Quick as you can!”
“On our way, sir. Serina, you got this one?” The operator, Boyd, made it sound like a confirmation, rather than an ask.
Serina pulled a microfilament from her forearm port. The minute tube retreated into the Memory Loop device. The words, ‘Of c-c-course I’m real, honey’, settled on top of the pile of memories. The ML was playing up, again. She pocketed the gadget, irritated.
“I was just about to sign off.” Serina sighed. Popped her neck left then right. Checked the holowatch on the dash. She’d been on since half six this morning. Ten hours, fifteen minutes.
“Tel and Brandy are mid-run. Kal’s got a flyer. Trace and Pete called in sick. You’re all I got.”
She rolled her eyes at the two-way radio, “Aw shit. Got no one waiting for me, so may as well.”
Brief pause. Faint hum before the radio crackled with Boyd’s voice. Curt, though concerned. “Don’t go there, Serina. Just keep your shit together and grab the punter.”
She eased the cab out into traffic. Silent. The air-con wafted ‘pine-scented’ breeze across her face and exposed collar bones. She didn’t have a clue what pine was. Something from the old times. Flowers, maybe? Checked the mirror, and glimpsed blue eyes underlined in blue shadows.
It took less than five minutes to skilfully navigate the early evening traffic; ducking between Old Hall, Roberts, and Paisley streets. She tapped a control. The driver’s seat sighed as it expanded just enough to relieve the pressure on her backside and thighs. HushCabs could afford top tech, because they were exclusive, and charged more than most companies in the city. HushCabs weren’t just quiet vehicles, they specialised in taking fares to places they didn’t want colleagues, friends, or family to find out about. For whatever reason. It wasn’t the company’s business. They never asked. She had the door open as soon as she pulled into the pick-up zone. The customer easy to spot, practically dancing from one foot to the other in anticipation. Before he was even in, he blurted,
“Festival Gardens!” Just under six kilometres. Fifteen, maybe twenty minutes on clear roads. “You took your time. Hurry!” Serina glanced at the dash holowatch. It had taken her three minutes. She didn’t argue. Never did. “I’ll give you extra if you floor it!” his voice panicky.
She chuckled, “This isn’t a movie, sir. We don’t ‘floor it’. There’s lights, and crossings, not to mention a speed limit.”
“Double!” he squeaked. Tempting, was the instant notion. But she didn’t want to get pulled over and lose her license. Good jobs were not easy to come by these days.
Wow, this guy was seriously rattled. She watched him in her rear-view mirror. Not sitting back, sitting forward. Gripping the headrest of the front passenger seat with one hand. Glancing out the window, at his watch, her dash watch, and something in his other hand.
“I gotta get it back in time.”
“Never been late before. Forgot the time. This once.” She saw he had tears on his face. Started to feel uncomfortable. “God, I miss her so much when she’s in there,” he looked down at whatever was in his palm. “I love you, Laura honey.”
She tried to concentrate on driving. Tried to block out her passenger’s personal pain. Put her foot down on Sefton and Riverside. No lights along here. Back in the twenty-first century, the Advisory Council had turned off everything outside the prime cities. Save energy. Stop pollution. All that. Long after the space-based solar relays and Oceanic Energy Grid were operational, suburbs and abandoned industrial sites weren’t fully reconnected — especially in towns and cities in the north. Halfway along Riverside, he gave her further directions. Past the old festival grounds — Pete had told her that there used to be actual gardens here. With trees. She supposed it must be true, otherwise, why would it have that name? Through some disused industrial site, finally coming to a halt outside a single isolated building.
“Want me to wait?” she asked as he dashed from the vehicle. Thought she caught a ‘yeah’.
She plugged a microfilament from the dash into her forearm port. A syrupy voice inside her head — Virtual cigarettes — for that healthier life choice. She inhaled; habitual behaviour in response to pseudo stimulus, and looked at the place her ride had dashed into. Weeds occupied cracks in the paving. Single-storey building. Looked like a cross between a retro-style diner and a bunch of shipping containers. Polished chrome, once — hints glinting between rust and painted and cracked facade. Above the door, she could just make out part of a faded sign — Museum. She lowered the driver’s window. A museum? Out here? Museum of what? Warm air hurried into the cool interior. The smell of dust. A hint of the not-too-distant river. If loneliness had an odour, this was it. She removed the dash port jack, pulled the small, black box from her pants pocket, and transferred to her Memory Loop. ‘Just ch-ch-checking you’re still real.’ ’Of course, I’m real, ho-neeeee—’ the voices stretched into distorted bass. Her ride came walking out just then. Relieved. Like someone who had visited the bathroom. She whipped the jack out.
“Everything okay?” she asked as he settled back onto the rear seat. He nodded. His face was dry now. Looked like he’d washed it. “Back to Trinity Heights?” She started the cab.
“A drink. Anywhere. Any bar,” he said.
He was silent the whole trip back. It took longer, the traffic heavier as more workers left at the end of their daily shifts. She pulled up outside The Furnace, a place she frequented, assuming he would want somewhere quiet.
“Join me.” His request surprised her. “Come on, you must take a break some time.”
You never fraternised with customers. You didn’t want that sort of relationship, where they later used your ‘friendship’ as a bargaining tool for fare reductions. Plus, it was just weird. She shook her head. She’d go home. Alone. Jack in. Lie awake all night. Remembering.
“Listen,” he said. “I got an eye for people. Y’know, facial tics, body language. Pardon me if I’m prying, but you look like someone who could do with a drink yourself. I sure as hell do. Drinking alone is crap. I promise I won’t ask you to reduce my fare.”
He must have read her mind, she thought. Her eyes went to the holowatch. Six-ten. Been on shift eleven hours, forty minutes. Fuck it. She parked the cab around the corner in an overnight bay. Followed him into the bar. Low-hanging light over each table. Gave the place an intimate feel despite its size. They took a two-seater next to the window. Ordered drinks. Sat in silence until the waiter returned.
“Cheers,” he raised his glass and swallowed half before she had sipped hers. He let out a satisfied sigh. “Needed that.”
For two hours, she and Frake; first name Albert, don’t like it, call me Frake, consumed two bottles of house wine along with a selection of ales and liquors. As though each was trying to outdo the other. Very few words had been exchanged. But now, she stared at his blurred face as he said,
“I was returning my wife.”
She thought she had misheard. Didn’t respond. Frake took it as a sign to continue. Words slurring, hiccoughing intermittently, wiping tears. He was a PR man. Widowed. Told her the museum was a front for something else. It was a secret place where souls were stored. She spurted ale when she laughed. If she hadn’t had a cavernous evening of sleeplessness before her, and if he’d been dressed like one of those Neo Dropout freaks, she’d have left. Souls! What a load of bollocks. We live, we die, and that’s the end of it.
“Seriously.” Hurt expression. “It’s real,” insistent. “They keep the souls of the dead. You can rent them out for a limited time. I heard about it from a colleague whose kid had died. Be with them again. Feel their company.” He glanced up warily, “Talk to them.” He spoke of Laura’s smile. Laura’s laughter. The way her nose wrinkled across the bridge when she giggled. She’d been killed in a hit and run. Sudden. Shocking. So young.
“Bull. Shit.” He was having a joke at her expense. But he promised it was true. Outside the bar, he repeated something he’d said earlier.
“I can tell, y’know. When you’ve lost someone, you learn to see it in other people’s faces. You lost someone too. Didn’t you?”
She dismissed him. Angry. Caught the loop-train home. Lay on the rumpled bed. Plugged in her microfilament.
‘Just ch-checking you’re still real,’ her own recorded voice said.
‘Of course, I’m real, honey.’
Imagined the touch of his fingers on her cheek. She closed her eyes. He smiled and leaned in to kiss her. No contact. Loops were made from collected recordings, simulations, and holopics. You couldn’t replicate physicality. His image flickered. This generally indicated a display driver issue. Or prolonged use.
‘Remember … … on that river cruise last summer?’ he smiled.
‘Of course, I do.’ “Of course, I do.” She spoke the words over her own.
Creating the Memory Loop had been a costly and time-consuming endeavour. She couldn’t afford the fees of the ML Corp, so she’d paid a Street Looper. Guys who had the skills, but not all the swanky tech of MLC. It was still pricey. Black-market tech didn’t come cheap; the Loopers, Docs and Modders had overheads too, y’know. She and the engineer had sat through hours of fragmented voice recordings; from Michael’s workplace, submitted by friends, and family — at least those sympathetic to Serina’s request. Original video and audio recordings worked the best. But some people had False Memories, FMs, created. The pitch, rhythm and cadence of the deceased’s voice were easily copied using old deep fake tech. She had requested a couple of alterations; nothing much. When Michael had knelt to propose at a friend’s dinner party, she’d spluttered, ‘Are you for real?’ The friend had recorded it. His response only needed the ‘for’ removed to give her a starter to her ‘Memory’. It was a patchwork substitute at best. Her responses were then recorded. The editing was tedious. If you were lucky enough to have enough data, a whole day’s worth of conversations could be reconstructed. She’d had her Memory Loop designed so that her voice was quieter than Michael’s. Speaking the words out loud just felt more real. At the time, it was all she had wanted — the memories.
‘You wore that….’ Laugh. Blip. ‘And then you bloody well jumped in the river. Wearing it!’
Blip. ‘Of course, I’m real, honey.’ Back to the bloody beginning.
She yanked the jack free. Sat up, quick. Sobbing uncontrollably. God, she missed him so much, it hurt like physical pain. Shitty fucking technology. In two years, it had fragmented horribly. He’s gone, gone, gone. Shitty waste. “It’s not fucking fair!” she wailed at the unadorned walls.
It played on her mind. She continued her twelve-hour shifts. Keep busy. That’s the thing. Was on her way to get her Memory Loop upgraded when she saw Frake again. She was drinking coffee outside one of the generic multi-national corporation outlets. Maybe she should go for the Physical Interactive Hologram? That way, she’d get to see him with her eyes open. Be able to interact with him, to a limited degree. But the prices were horrendous. A shadow fell across her pad. Glancing up, she saw a vaguely familiar face. Vaguely, because her memory of it was wobbly and distorted through an alcohol-fuelled haze.
“Hi,” Frake raised a hand hesitantly. “Remember me?”
She nodded. He seemed relieved. They exchanged pleasantries. Small talk. And then, before she knew what was coming out of her mouth, she asked him about the museum. He told her that he had been visiting for six months. Since Laura had passed. He did it fortnightly. Was looking forward to his next one.
“What’s it like?” she asked.
“Like nothing else.”
“What d’you mean?”
“You know those Memory Loops?” he gestured to her forearm. “And those Interactive Holos? Better than that.”
“Because they’re real. It’s them. Not a memory, or a copy. It is Laura.” His excitement was evident. Infectious.
“Can’t be. They’re…” she couldn’t say it.
“Dead,” he whispered. She winced. “I know. I’m sorry. But believe me. I know my Laura. They found a way to contain the human soul.”
It preoccupied her for days. They found a way to contain the human soul. She tried to keep busy. Worked more hours. Sought distraction. Visited late-night cinema shows to keep her from lying in bed — their bed. Drank too much. Paced her room, eyes darting to the holoportrait of him on her dressing table. They found a way to contain the human soul.
Finally, she drove out there.
The inside matched the exterior. Run-down, ill-lit. Cases lining the walls displayed bits and pieces from a bygone age. Radio parts. Components from digital devices. Part of a satellite dish. Gateway switches, faster than light transmission relays, and a ‘multi-port power amplifier’, whatever that was. One glass display stand held a torpedo-shaped thing. Sleek, silver, shaped like a dolphin without fins or tail. About the size of her forearm from elbow to wrist. ‘Primary Connection’, the exhibit label read. The impression was that someone had created an amateur exhibit of their private collection of junk. No wonder it was neglected. About to leave — what a waste of time, Frake had been screwing with her — she noticed a man sitting on a chair with his back against one wall, reading. No one else was in the museum.
Feeling nervous, stupid, she asked, “What is all this?” He told her it was all about communication.
“How marvellous,” he said, “and baffling, that humans were able to create some of the most sophisticated communication hardware, and yet were unable to actually listen to one another. Let alone visitors.” He waffled on about this piece and that to the point that she became irritable and bored.
“And this is it? I thought…” gesturing around the small room. He gave her an odd look. His eyes were the colour of moss in the dim lighting. Why had she come? he asked. Told him someone had recommended it. Was she disappointed? To be honest, yes. She had hoped for more. Maybe she was interested in their ‘special’ collection? She nodded solemnly.
A heavy door in the back wall. He keyed into a pad beside it. It slid open on well-maintained hinges. He ushered her through. Pleasantly cool, the lighting muted. The walls were painted a relaxing shade of deep blue. An unfamiliar sense of calm came upon her.
“Hello, can I help you?” A woman with vibrant green eyes smiled warmly.
There was nothing on the walls to indicate what the interior held, simply the words Found Souls, in a white, flourishing font above the slick reception desk. The smell of the previous room, the river and the dust were missing. In fact, there seemed an absence of odour. Reminded her of the ICU. She swallowed back the tears.
Still staring at the white words, said “Hi.” What was she supposed to say? Felt like she’d been given access to a secret club; maybe this was true. Was she meant to offer a codeword?
“Please, take your time.” The woman indicated a chair. Serena sat. “I’m the Museum custodian, and we aim to keep our customers, both parties, content.” What the hell did she mean by that? Serina suddenly felt she had made a mistake. Looked around for hidden cameras. Was it an elaborate joke after all? The custodian continued, “I understand that, on your first time, you might be nervous. It’s a tricky thing to get to grips with, isn’t it?” She sat beside Serina. “Most people first come because it was recommended.”
“I never heard of you before a couple of weeks ago,” Serina said, guarded.
“We don’t exactly advertise. We’re a relatively new enterprise. Doctors Landro and Foyle wanted to be certain everything worked.”
“Of course. One wouldn’t want to have contact with the deceased without assurances.”
“Of course.” Serina glanced around again.
“And we need to ensure everyone’s safety.”
“Safety? You mean it’s dangerous?”
The woman smiled amiably. “No. Not if instructions are followed.”
Alanna, the custodian, asked a huge list of questions, checking off responses on some hi-tech data device unfamiliar to Serina. Who had told her about the museum? Had she any medical conditions? Did she believe in an afterlife? How many friends did she have? Any living family members? Did she get on with her neighbours? Her age. Her weight. Her daily habits. How long ago had Michael been killed?
Once Serina had recovered and wiped her eyes with the proffered towelette, she was taken through a set of doors that whispered open, quiet as HushCabs seating. Down a short flight of steps, and into a large room of slim display cabinets. There were three other people in here, talking to whatever the cabinets held. Alanna left her alone, giving her time to reach a definite decision. Serina walked slowly to the nearest case. Inside was a holograph of a girl. About six years old, with short reddish hair and wearing silver dungarees. Serina watched her wave and then hopscotch forward, before jumping back to the start. Wave. Hop. Inside the locked glass door, a discrete plaque displayed the name, Rebekka Wilmot. Attached to it was a small, silver fish-shaped object about the size of her little finger. Two of the three other visitors sat at a different display and waved to an elderly man sitting on a riverbank, fishing. They each had a tiny ‘fish’ stuck to their right temple. They were having a conversation — this was not a hologram. At least if it was, Serina thought, it was a bloody brilliant one.
On one of the cases, she pressed a button on the plinth. Serina listened to a woman’s voice describe how her life had changed since her brother had come back into her life. How the museum had helped the pain to go. She couldn’t praise the staff enough. The third person spoke to her as he was leaving. He was the father of the soul over there — he indicated a young man, waving. The father’s overjoyed words at receiving his son back struck her hard. The accident had destroyed the family, he told her, but the museum had healed it. He sang the praises of the doctors. Of the technology. Couldn’t thank them enough for allowing him more time with his son. He seemed genuinely happy as he bade her farewell and left.
“The families kindly allowed us to exhibit their loved ones so that others can see the potential. Get a feel for what one will experience. They really don’t mind if you interact with them.” Alanna walked back into the room. “But most want to keep things private, understandably. Not everyone wants to share their discovery or join with their loved ones. Or they don’t want to yet.”
“You mean,” Serina didn’t know how to pose her question. “The souls of these people are, where? In those little things stuck on their temples? How? I don’t understand. Haven’t they gone to Heaven?” aware that she sounded like a kid. Felt the blush flare across her face and chest. Heaven. When did she, Serina Esther Cosgrove, ever believe in Heaven, or life after death in any form for that matter? We live, we die, and that’s the end. Isn’t it?
Alanna explained, in plain language. One’s loved one’s souls did go to the next place beyond here, wherever that was. Doctors Landro and Foyle had developed ways to tap into the ethereal realm, as she put it. Serina thought it sounded like bullshit. Communication technology had advanced beyond anything anyone could have suspected. Contact had been made accidentally, originally. And when the first souls came willingly, they saw it as a way to alleviate much loneliness and suffering in the world. A way to make a fortune, more like, Serina imagined.
“Think of it as an advanced Memory Loop,” Alanna said. “Except they are with you, in real-time. Because the souls of the dead are untethered to a geographic location, they can actualise where we are.”
“Like a hologram?”
“A thousand times better,” Alanna affirmed. “Because they’re with you like they were in life.”
She didn’t understand a lot of what the custodian spoke about. Serina swung from scathing scepticism to wanting to believe. Souls weren’t real, she kept telling herself. But what if I’m wrong? What if it’s true? What if she could have some ‘real’ time with Michael? Found herself babbling about the terrible assault. Attackers never identified.
“At the funeral, I just sat there thinking, ‘It’s not real. He can’t be dead…’ “
She felt strangely unburdened afterwards. The whole business seemed crazy. The custodian suggested a trial run. Free. It’s probably a new holo-tech, Serina theorised. But decided, as it was a free offer, to see what it was all about. She went ahead and gave Michael’s details to Alanna. She was given a Soul Relay Coil or SRC, as it was called, and instructions. Signed a contract that her eyes skimmed but her brain barely registered.
She was given a private room. Where she could ‘meet’, her Soul Mate again. Tastefully and simply decorated, it contained only two chairs and a short sofa. She took out the ‘coil’. It came in two parts. Less coil, more fishlike, it was definitely metal, but it lay soft and light in her palm. Its outer surface was articulated so that it moved fluidly when she flexed her hand. The other side flat and a little slick to the touch. The second part, which went into her ear, was a pea-sized ball on a kind of rubber silicone earpiece. She reread the instructions and attached the earpiece. The other adhered to her temple, forming itself to the contours. How the hell was this supposed to even create a hologram? She was still fairly certain that the whole thing was a hoax perpetrated to cash in on the bereaved.
“Hello?” She waited. “Are you there, Michael?”
Something whacked the side of her head. It went dark. When she opened her eyes, he was sitting on the sofa.
“Oh!” Was all she could manage.
Despite her incredulity, her uncertainty, Serina approached the image of Michael. He looked as he always had. Tentatively, half hopeful, half expecting her suspicion that it was all fake to be proved true, and readying herself for disappointment, she reached out. Her hand made contact. She snatched it back. Frightened and incredulous. He remained composed, waiting. Serina swallowed down the lump in her throat. Bit her thumb, hard. She was awake, they hadn’t drugged her, as she’d begun to suspect. He tilted his head and raised his eyebrows. She dived forward, expecting him to vanish in a puff. Imagined. A dream. Her arms closed around his neck. She smelt his cologne. His hair was slightly musky from labouring at the factory. He was solid.
“Oh,” her breath stilted, gasping. Thought she might faint. “Michael. It’s really you?”
He embraced her the way he used to. Kissed the tip of her ear. “It’s me, Serina. What took you so long?”
She cried in his arms for an age. They sat on the sofa, she awkwardly curled on his lap, her knees almost touching her chin, and talked. Not the Memory Loop conversation, but actual words. Remember that summer in Scotland? What a beautiful island. That terrible meal she cooked. Their first autonomous drive car, second-hand junk of course. The time they tried a stasis pod. She laughed until she cried.
“What’s it like?” she finally asked.
Michael gave a little shake of the head. “That’s something we can’t do. Can’t tell the living about the other side.”
“There are rules in Heaven?” she laughed despite herself.
“Not exactly,” he ran his thumb along her cheek, “I can’t remember.”
Serina had prepared herself for a short visitation — that’s what Alanna called the connections to the souls. So, when it ended, she experienced sadness that Michael was not with her anymore, elation that such a thing was possible, but anticipation for next time. Deliriously happy, she returned the SRC and thanked Alanna. The custodian seemed delighted for her, pleased it had worked and that it had eased Serina’s pain.
After her first ‘freebie’, she had hesitated about trying again. After the initial exhilaration had worn off, she had begun to question whether what she had experienced was an illusion. The logical portion of her brain argued that it was not real. The soul isn’t real. It was simply super advanced technology. It happens all of the time. Scientists and engineers are always producing new things. We live, we die, and that’s the end. But her heart said different. So, it was a while before she returned. Partly, she didn’t care because this was definitely way better than the Memory Loop or any hologram she had experienced. It was time with Michael.
She visited every last Friday of the month, for four months. The next time she saw Frake, she thanked him for introducing her to the Museum. He was delighted at her newly rekindled relationship. Told her he was ‘seeing’ Laura twice a week. “You can feel their heart beating, can’t you?” Expression animated. When she asked how come she never saw him at the Museum, he told her that he took Laura home. Serina remembered the cab drive; of course! he’d been holding his SRC then.
“How?” she exclaimed. Desperate.
He told her about the rental system. He said clients were encouraged to take their SRCs home. Gave you a longer connection. Of course, one had to pay more for it — like being a Platinum member of a club. How could he afford it? she asked. He had taken out a loan, several it turned out. Initially wary, she approached Alanna at the end of one of her museum visits and discovered that indeed Frake spoke the truth. Alanna said that Serina and Michael seemed to have made a positive and effective connection. That they were compatible. She did not elaborate, nor did Serina ask what she meant — of course she and Michael were compatible. They had been engaged to be married before his passing. Alanna suggested Serina put in a rental request. This would be reviewed, and a decision reached within the month.
The response was quicker than she expected. “It’s to be back by five o’clock the day following use,” Alanna said. Serina couldn’t wait. It cost her three months’ wages. But long hours for two years and no holidays had ensured her funds were sound.
Frake introduced her to a small, discreet group of people who were all soul users. Mostly ‘Platinum’ members of the museum. They explained how practice had extended the time spent with their loved ones. For seven months, she had returned her SRC on time. How did they manage it? Some had been users since the Museum began operation three years ago. They brushed her concerns aside. What could the custodian do about it once you had the coil? They paid for them, didn’t they? Would the Museum send out the reclamation guys, or its version of them? Ha! At a later meeting, Serina was thrilled to learn that some of the group were able to spend whole nights or days with their dearly departed. Their enthusiasm was infectious. Their neurosis and edginess ignored. Moments of disillusion were explained away. Like when three of the members said that their dead spouses had been pressing them for more time together.
It took a few meetings to realise that the group was growing smaller. The long-term users no longer turned up. Then Frake heard that Samuel, the longest user, had been found in a coma in his apartment. It was sad, they agreed, but hadn’t he looked ill for a while? Another had completely blanked Frake when he’d waved to her on the street. Like she didn’t recognise him, he said.
The times spent with Michael were the best. Better than before, she told herself. How could this be? How could a soul be here, really? Ultimately, it didn’t matter. It felt like they had been given a fresh start. It bore absolutely no comparison to the ML or a hologram. She could touch him, smell him. This was not a recording. This was Michael in the flesh. Often, he couldn’t remember events she reminisced about. Sometimes his eyes seemed to look through, not at, her. But she did not care. She could hold him again. Kiss him. Properly. Not like the stupid Memory Loop. Warm and heart-meltingly romantic in a way he had never been in life. He was, she believed, more amorous than when he had been alive. It was to be expected, she supposed, that someone who had experienced death and Heaven would have peculiarities. She ignored them all. She was more in love with Michael than she ever had been. She told herself it was because it was his soul she was with, the body thrown aside had left the best of him. He wanted to be with her more than ever. Talked of them staying together.
Serina seldom used the HushCabs canteen. A tiny room to the rear of the basement office in a multi-storey complex. Work had lost what little attraction it previously held. But she needed the money now. She poured coffee.
“Hasn’t been seen for weeks.” Kal leaned back on his chair. “Probably in a mental health lockup by now.”
“You talk a lot of hooey,” Pete said.
“It’s true. They get addicted.” Kal said.
“What’s that?” Serina said, sitting next to Pete.
Pete shoved his pad into a pocket. Reached for his cab keycard, “Kal says a bloke he knows was communing with his dead missus. Claims he got some device or other from a shady customer, who said he could actually see her again. Can you believe that?” Pete guffawed and headed out.
Kal studied Serina over the rim of his mug. She avoided his gaze. “You know what I’m on about, don’t you?” He placed the mug on the table, both hands wrapped around it.
“What d’you mean?”
“You didn’t bat an eye when Pete told you. You didn’t laugh.”
Kal regarded her some more. “Don’t tell me you’re onto it too. Serina! Please don’t tell me you’re ‘in touch’ with Michael,” making air quotes. His expression slid from exasperation to concern.
She claimed not to know what Kal was talking about. Denied knowledge of the fucking Soul device, as he put it. Finally admitted that she had been in touch with her dead fiancé. Kal was furious. Called her stupid. Said she was meddling in things that she didn’t understand. The bastards touting the idea couldn’t understand.
“How can we,” he gestured, all-encompassing, “have an inkling of the afterlife? How do we know where souls go, or what they are? We know nothing. And we shouldn’t be meddling in their affairs, Serina!”
“But, Kal,” she felt tears welling.
“It’s some crackpot con by some bloody quack! Or worse.”
“No. It’s him. It really is. I didn’t believe it at first, but —”
“Serina, listen to me, honey.” He took one of her hands in his large, calloused ones. “I know it’s terribly hard, especially for a young one like you. I know what it’s like. I lost my Gina ten years back. Do I miss her? Every single day. Does it hurt? Absolutely. Would I like to see her again? Of course, I bloody would. But alive, honey. Not this mockery of a human soul, or whatever it is they’re fobbing you off with.”
“It is him. It’s Michael. He remembers everything from his life, from our life together. It’s not a mockery.” She knew it wasn’t true as she said it. Michael didn’t remember everything. But wasn’t that to be expected when a person had been dead two years?
Kal sighed and stood. “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll stay away from whoever deals with this tripe and try to carry on without him. It’s what’s natural.”
After a whole intoxicating evening with Michael, Serina thought about what Kal had said to her. Nonsense. She and Michael were better than ever. Happier than before. His memory returned with each reminder. Michael had assisted her efforts to extend the time they spent together. Alanna had, surprisingly, been understanding about the late returns of the SRC. Of course, there was a surcharge, but she seemed remarkably flexible. Kal warned Serina it was addictive. Michael called Serina his addiction. Kal accused her of living in a fantasy. Michael confessed he believed they had been given a new chance. Kal talked about living with the pain of loss. Michael said they could be together forever. Kal told her there was no such thing as forever.
“I love you.” He was perfect. “Don’t return me tomorrow,” he said.
Serina considered his suggestion as she sat outside the Museum, engine ticking over, the device in the palm of her hand. Hadn’t seen Frake for months. The members of the group had dwindled to two; Serina and a bloke called Douglas. He said that the others had succeeded in permanently uniting with their loved ones. She recalled Kal’s words in the canteen: ‘Probably in the mental health lockup by now.’
She lay on her bed. Attached the Soul Relay Coil. Michael arrived instantly. Quicker each time, she noticed. His beautiful lips curved in a smile. His blue eyes shone green from the neon sign across the street.
“Have you decided?” he whispered, lips brushing her ear.
Serina sighed. “I have. I will.”
“You’re sure? You want us to stay together forever?”
She kissed him passionately. “I do!” Michael lay down beside her. “Will it hurt?”
She closed her eyes and felt a sensation of something passing over her. Felt Michael’s presence more intensely, growing, encompassing. Like he had lain on top of her and was sinking through her skin, her muscle, her bones. Deliciously intoxicating. She half opened her eyes. His face close above her. Concentrating. Relax, she heard his voice in her head. It’s easier if you just let go. She shuddered as if jarred on a bumpy road. He was inside all of her, and she was being squeezed into a smaller and smaller part of herself. Could feel Michael’s soul pressing hers down. A hint of panic. Is this death? she wondered. Soothing overtures. An invisible finger on her lips. I’m disappearing. Smaller and smaller. Saw blue sparks ahead, pulsing gently.
For some reason, she thought about the arcane communication debris she’d seen at the museum. The weird silver ‘Primary Connection’ exhibit. It was all about communication, the attendant said. Or lack of. She saw Alanna’s green eyes as she said that they were compatible. Soul Relay Coil — the word Relay repeating in her dwindling mind. What did they mean by ‘relay’? What was being relayed?
Michael’s infiltrating tones. She hadn’t listened. We hadn’t listened. Relay. To pass on, to receive. All those things in space. All those unanswered signals that people said were stuff and nonsense. We just didn’t listen properly.
Tendrils reached forth, tickling inside her head, making a connection. Momentarily, she and he were harnessed together. Two in one. Relax, it’s easier if you just let go. But suddenly, felt like she was sliding down a water park slide. Corkscrewing into ever tighter circles. Easier for whom? came the thought. Realising, too late that Michael — no, not Michael, an interloper, a liar, an other, occupied her body. They found a way to contain the human soul. Who, the thought slipped like silk into her mind, were They? Green eyes passed before her; the attendant, the custodian. Michael. And her conscious mind, her soul, was entering the SRC.
She didn’t even have a mouth with which to cry out.