Insider Art

INSIDER ART Illustration

Insider Art

by Vaughan Stanger

Alerted to Dom’s arrival by the popping sound coming from the wall behind her, Veronica Tierney suppressed a groan while continuing to modify the holo-sculpture with deft strokes of her fingers. That Hue and Cry was at last nearing completion made his intrusion doubly irritating.

“Darling, you know not to disturb me while I’m working.”

She allowed Dom plenty of latitude in most things, especially in bed, but none whatsoever when it came to her work. Rules were rules.

Determined to emphasise the point, she swivelled around on her stool, but the sight of Dom’s freckled face and ginger curls lessened her anger, although not quite enough for her to consider exploiting his nakedness. In any case, his piercing blue eyes radiated concern rather than invitation.

“There’s a call for you from the Nuffield Centre for Neurosciences.”

Any kind of call was rare these days. Veronica occasionally heard from her agent, usually concerning an event she’d been invited to support, which she invariably declined, but it was years since anyone had called from Geoffrey’s hospital.

“Is it urgent?”

“The consultant didn’t say.”

That would be Samuel Mbingwe. Since taking over responsibility for Geoffrey’s care three years ago, the neurosurgeon had emailed monthly progress reports, which generally noted only minor changes in her husband’s condition. So did this call herald the start of the end-game? After eleven years of Geoffrey surviving–for she couldn’t think of it as “living”–in a persistently vegetative state, she did not relish the prospect, but neither did she fear it.

“Thanks, Dom” she said. “I’ll take it here.”

She turned her back on him. Dom, though, seemed disinclined to take the hint.

“Alone,” she said.

A sound like a bathtub draining confirmed her partner’s reabsorption into Home’s substrate. Relieved, she saved Hue and Cry before dismissing it with a flick of her forefingers. The women ceased their wailing.

“Okay Home, I’m ready.”

Samuel Mbingwe beamed a floodlight-strength smile at her from the comms holo-cube. Feeling defensive, she countered with a frown.

“I understand you have news for me.”

“Indeed I do, Ms Tierney.”

Then please get on with it, she thought but didn’t dare say. Fortunately for her blood pressure, the neurosurgeon’s demeanour immediately became more business-like.

“As of yesterday morning, the sensors implanted in Geoffrey’s brain by my predecessor detected brain activity indicative of a return to consciousness. Since then, I have conducted three sessions of standardised yes/no questioning, the last of which confirmed Geoffrey is indeed now fully conscious.”

Mbingwe paused, doubtless to let her digest this news before expressing her astonishment. True, her heart was pounding fit to burst, yet she felt anything but joyful. Eleven years after the accident that had left Geoffrey paralysed and his mind unresponsive, the prospect of him waking up now filled her with deep apprehension.

Aware that her silence might appear suspicious, she attempted to steer the conversation into safer territory.

“What caused this change?”

“I can’t say for sure. However, the brain is a surprisingly plastic organ, which in rare cases can build new pathways around damaged regions. Sometimes a new stimulus provides the trigger.”

Mbingwe paused. Was it her imagination or did he look embarrassed?

“Go on,” she said.

“I hypothesised that it might be worth trying some examples of your art dating from before your husband’s accident. I didn’t think you’d mind.”

“Not at all,” she said. No doubt her agent would demur, but in truth she felt complimented.

Some of Mbingwe’s early progress reports had included requests for her “artist’s perspective” on proposed changes to the multimedia content that bombarded Geoffrey’s vegetative brain. Until Mbingwe took over his care, this material had mostly comprised excerpts from her husband’s award-winning animated movies. Not wishing to re-involve herself in Geoffrey’s day-to-day treatment, Veronica had kept her replies non-committal. Evidently the neurosurgeon was not easily dissuaded.

Mbingwe smiled at her. “Would you like to see Geoffrey?”

“Of course I would.”

“I must warn you not to set your expectations too high. We can detect neural signals correlating to Geoffrey’s responses to simple questions, but he remains paralysed and unable to speak. If he doesn’t suffer a relapse, we should be able to do something about that. I suggest we discuss treatment options when you visit the hospital.”

Ah, she had misunderstood what he meant by seeing Geoffrey. She’d hoped to make a tele-visit, but Mbingwe’s frown indicated he expected more of her than that.

“I think a visit in person would help Geoffrey a lot,” he said.

She nodded her acquiescence.

The neurosurgeon wasn’t to know that she hadn’t left Home in three years. But still, if her husband’s return to consciousness wasn’t sufficient reason to emerge from seclusion, then what was?

Mbingwe’s clapped his hands together. “Shall we say 11:00 tomorrow?”

She nodded her assent before closing the link with a click of thumb and middle finger.

Home could book her an auto-cab. Any trauma would last a few hours at most–and afterwards she’d find relief in Dom’s arms.

She would be fine.

paintbrush

Veronica gripped the bed-rail with both hands while the carebot shaved Geoffrey’s head with a dexterity belying its bulbous, three-armed form. To her relief, her husband now resembled Dom a little less. Or was it the other way round? The paradox troubled her.

The need to employ contact electrodes had come as a surprise to her, but Samuel Mbingwe explained that emissions from the hospital’s wireless network could easily swamp the faint signals generated by Geoffrey’s brain. No such problems would be encountered with the replacement nanoware Mbingwe proposed to implant, but for now the focus remained on evaluating Geoffrey’s mental faculties while keeping his morale as high as possible. Her role would be crucial, so she’d been told. The prospect made her tremble. Then again, she’d been trembling non-stop since arriving at the hospital.

She’d found things difficult right from the start, not least because of the cramped conditions in Mbingwe’s office. Worse was to come though, thanks to his suggestion that they “do lunch” at the hospital’s restaurant. She’d picked at her salad while he described his visit–in person!–to an exhibition of her work at the Tate Modern. Yet these traumas paled into insignificance compared with the counselling session that followed.

Take things slowly, the woman advised. Don’t make things unnecessarily stressful for Geoffrey–or yourself.

She’d exited the session with her mind made up, although not in a way that would have garnered her counsellor’s approval.

This would be her only visit, of that she was certain. Even so, she could not bear the idea of anyone else telling Geoffrey. She was a recluse, not a coward. In any case, who could she ask? Geoffrey was the only child of parents long dead of bird flu. And in recent years, visits by his friends and former colleagues had tapered to zero.

Mbingwe’s authoritative tones buzzed in Veronica’s headset, jolting her out of her introspection.

“Okay, that completes the calibration. You can go ahead.”

So far, Mbingwe had run through the standard questions: about pain and boredom and so on. Now it was time to dive into the difficult stuff. After taking a deep breath, she sat on the bed next to Geoffrey. Prompted by a beep signifying that her lip-microphone was now live, she reached over to clasp his left hand. It felt so clammy compared with Dom’s.

“Geoffrey-” She nearly said “darling” out of old habit, but caught herself in time. An insincere reminder of the past would not help him now. “It’s Veronica; your, um, wife. If you remember me, please respond in the usual way.”

That meant imagining walking around his house for “yes”, playing tennis for “no”.

After five scans Mbingwe’s predecessor had delivered his diagnosis in a monotone that perfectly matched Veronica’s numbed state of mind. Since then, the interaction protocol hadn’t changed at all, but at least she was spared the sight of Geoffrey sliding into an MRI machine. Like a corpse being interred in a mortuary, she’d thought at the time.

“We’re detecting activity in Geoffrey’s parahippocampal gyrus, Veronica.”

Mbingwe’s use of her first name startled her, but she chose not to respond to his faux pas. Instead, she inspected the holo-cube situated a half-metre or so above Geoffrey’s head. A small region of the 3-D map of his brain had turned green.

“Is he walking?”

“Yes, he is.”

Geoffrey wouldn’t know that she’d sold that terraced house in Bermondsey less than a year after his accident.

Recollecting living there made her tremble. How had she endured the traffic noise, the cramped rooms, the incessant shouting of the couple living next door? Everything compared so unfavourably with the comforts of Home. Geoffrey, of course, had loved that house.

“We’re ready for you to continue,” said Mbingwe.

If only she felt ready, too.

While gazing into Geoffrey’s eyes, it occurred to her that not only had Mbingwe pulled back the curtains, thus exposing Geoffrey’s soul to her once more, but he’d also made it possible for Geoffrey to see what the passage of time had done to her. Would he be shocked to see those years etched into her face, the waist-length hair dyed every colour of the rainbow, the excess kilos she now carried? Worse, how would he react when he learned it was four years since she’d last visited him, and that his synthetic double awaited her at home?

Her trembling worsened.

No, no, no!

She couldn’t go through with this.

“Are you okay, Veronica?”

“I need a moment,” she said.

Mbingwe made reassuring noises over their private link. “Take as much time as you need. Preparing for these situations is an imperfect art.”

She sucked in a steadying breath while imagining herself sinking into Dom’s arms.

Finally ready to continue, if not yet to ask Geoffrey the difficult questions, she began by reminding him of the proposed operation. Mbingwe had briefed him about it already, but it felt like a relatively safe place to start.

“Geoffrey, do you understand the risks involved?”

Risk of infection; risk of rejection; risk of brain damage–Mbingwe had given her a frank assessment.

The holo-cube above Geoffrey’s head displayed his response.

Veronica glanced over her shoulder at the neurosurgeon. “Okay, I’ll sign the consent forms today.”

She could have waited for her solicitor to send the documents revoking her power of attorney, but the delay would benefit no one.

Mbingwe’s voice interrupted her musing. “Is there anything else you wish to ask?”

This was the crux point. If she continued, there could be no going back. Did she dare?

Yes or no.

Green or red.

She bit her lip until she tasted blood. The pain helped lessen the trembling.

“Geoffrey, has anyone told you that I moved out of our house in Bermondsey?”

His premotor cortex lit up, shaded in red. Geoffrey was wielding a tennis racquet.

No.

“Geoffrey, I’ve . . .” It was so difficult to find the right words. She tried letting go of his hand. “Geoffrey, I’ve found someone else.”

Except that wasn’t true either. Home had made Dom without her asking. Somehow, it had known what to do.

“Veronica, this isn’t the right time.”

She ignored Mbingwe’s interruption. It was time to pull back her curtains, expose her soul.

“Geoffrey, I was so lonely, so . . .  My art was suffering . . .  And you were-” She paused to wipe away tears. “I’m so sorry, Geoffrey.” Remembering that he could not respond to her babbling, she forced herself to ask a question. “Do you understand what I’ve just told you?”

Geoffrey’s parahippocampal gyrus turned green again.

She almost followed up with “Can you forgive me?” but caught herself in time. A glance at the holo-cube suggested he’d answered her question without her even asking it.

No.

He’d always been adept at reading her mind.

“Geoffrey, do you want to see me again?”

Yes.

It would have been so much easier, for both of them, if he had responded negatively.

Mbingwe’s voice grated over the private link. “Geoffrey’s blood pressure is rising, also his pulse rate. We should end this session now.”

She ignored him, intent on focussing on Geoffrey’s needs.

“That would mean visiting me at Home. Is that okay?”

Yes.

“I’m terminating this session immediately.” Mbingwe’s voice buzzed in her ears like a wasp evading a swat. The next thing she heard was the double beep denoting the microphone channel closing. She stood up and turned to face the neurosurgeon.

“Sorry,” she said, although the apology was not really intended for him.

Mbingwe shook his head. “It might not be possible for Geoffrey to visit you, even after his operation.”

She glanced over the bed towards the carebot. Oh, he would find a way.

“You don’t know Geoffrey,” she said.

Would she stop him even if she could?

She imagined herself playing tennis.

No, of course she wouldn’t.

paintbrush

“My mind is made up,” said Veronica, not for the first time that evening, though she hoped the last.

Her argument with Dom–and by extension, Home–had proceeded much as expected. His rage reminded her of the worst episodes of life with Geoffrey; which was ironic, really, considering Dom was supposed to be her perfect companion.

Evidently she hadn’t quite perfected him yet.

Now he glowered at her in silence.

“It’s only a visit,” she said in gentler tones.

In response, Dom stomped over to the living room’s bay window. There he stood; much keener to inspect the garden than to acquiesce with a smile.

Then again, perhaps she wasn’t being entirely fair on him. During the six months that had passed since her visit to the hospital, Dom had started taking an interest in the outside world. Granted, the laws restricting synthetic partners to the interiors of their Homes meant he couldn’t enter the Mediterranean garden Home had planted last year, but he showed more interest in it than she ever did.

And in all that time, what had she done, besides endless tinkering with Hue and Cry? Read Samuel Mbingwe’s progress reports and supplied neutrally supportive messages for him to pass on to Geoffrey; that was all.

Change was in the air, for her as well as Dom. The living room needed a makeover, for a start.

Until recently, she’d felt perfectly at ease with the Art Nouveau furnishings and decor. Now they annoyed her. That chaise longue, for example; its curlicues of synthetic wood seemed needlessly fussy. And as for the floral wall coverings! Whatever had she been thinking? But before she requested a new makeover she intended to make things as comfortable as possible for Geoffrey during his visit.

“Home, I have a request.”

The delay in responding lasted just long enough to annoy her.

“Yes, Veronica. How can I help?”

“I wish you to reprint my Bermondsey house.”

“I hold neither the inventory nor the plans.”

If Home thought she could be dissuaded that easily, it was mistaken.

“So it’s a good thing I kept back-ups, isn’t it?”

Dom chose that moment to dissolve.

Evidently acquiescence would not come soon.

paintbrush

Peering through the translucent glass door panels at the pair of blurry figures beyond, Veronica reminded herself that delaying the inevitable would probably makes things worse. She grasped the door handle and turned it, an action simultaneously familiar and half-forgotten.

“Please come in.”

Samuel Mbingwe beamed a smile from behind a gleaming metal shoulder.

“Thank you, darling,” said the carebot.

Veronica had never expected to hear those words again, except from Dom. That his proxy’s voice matched her memory so precisely only compounded the indiscretion. Hence it came as some relief that the image rendered on the front of the carebot’s head offered a lot less fidelity. To her, Geoffrey’s smile looked cartoonish.

The carebot opened it outer arms wide, presumably in anticipation of a hug. Veronica responded by stepping backwards, although she resisted the temptation to shake her head. Not wishing Geoffrey’s visit to start on a sour note, she returned his smile while indicating the doorway to the living room. The electric motors driving the carebot’s legs emitted a mosquito-like whine, as if disapproving of her lack of courtesy.

Mbingwe’s smile had faded a little. “Will you be okay?”

Veronica nodded. “We’ll be fine.”

She intended to maintain appearances whatever the aggravation.

“Right, well, I’ll leave you  . . .  two to it. I’ll be waiting in the car if you need me.”

At least Mbingwe hadn’t said “lovebirds” or something equally crass. She took a deep breath and followed “Geoffrey” into the living room.

“So, I . . . well, really, it’s good to . . .”

Her attempt at small-talk stuttered to a halt, the confidence she’d felt that morning proving evanescent as the mist that bathed the garden. In contrast, Geoffrey was experiencing no such inhibitions.

“So, darling, I was wondering why you didn’t visit me in hospital after that first time. Did you think your absence would somehow ease my pain? Because let me tell you-”

His fury was understandable, if unhelpful. She waited for his rant to peter out before replying.

“I know it’s difficult for you, Geoffrey, but I’m sure if I hadn’t told you immediately you’d have built up expectations I couldn’t possibly have met. Likely as not, I’d be shattering them right now.” She shook her head. “You know, this isn’t easy for me.”

To her amazement, the carebot’s cartoon grimace morphed into a grin.

“You should try driving this thing,” said Geoffrey.

The joke was typical of her husband, even if it didn’t make her laugh on this occasion.

While she struggled with her emotions, Geoffrey guided his proxy over to the French windows, which opened onto a tiny patch of fenced-in lawn surrounded by weed-choked borders.

She asked, “Does it look as you remember?”

The bot shrugged. “I’m not sure.”

“That’s okay, Geoffrey. Take your time.”

She sat on the fur-covered sofa while his proxy toured the room, inspecting each objet d’art in turn. During the early days of their marriage, they’d collected pop-art reproductions and Sixties movie memorabilia. Observing Geoffrey now, she guessed he was trying to reconcile what he saw with his memories described by Mbingwe as “patchy”. The operation had gone well, but Geoffrey’s re-established conversational abilities had revealed the lacunae caused by his accident.

The popping sound coming from the wall to Veronica’s left made her jump. Anxiety coiled in her guts like a rattlesnake.

Home had promised!

“Hello, Geoffrey,” said Dom, while holding out a freckled hand. “It’s good to meet you at last. I’ve heard so much-”

Geoffrey’s proxy ignored the greeting, continuing on its way as if nothing had happened. Dom withdrew his hand and turned to face Veronica. His shrug spoke volumes. The only solace she could find was that Home had at least dressed him for the occasion.

The tour of inspection ended with the carebot halting in front of Dom.

Remarkably life-like,” said Geoffrey.

“That’s more than I can say of you!”

Before Veronica could intervene, the carebot turned to face her.

“Should I take it as a compliment that the new man in your life looks so familiar?”

True, she’d let Home age Dom appropriately over the years, but otherwise she’d been content for him to retain Geoffrey’s

physical attributes.

Aware she was flushing, Veronica lowered her gaze.

“Yes, you should.”

She had loved Geoffrey; she couldn’t deny it.

“But I seriously doubt this plastic partner of yours is capable of genuine passion,” he said.

Stung by the gibe, Veronica bit her lip to avoid snapping back a riposte that would surely makes things worse.

Determined to keep her temper in check but unsure she could rely on Dom to do likewise, she took a deep breath and held it for a moment, before lifting her gaze again.

“Geoffrey, how about we move on to my studio?”

If anything could soothe his angst, it ought to be her art. He had been endlessly supportive during the early days, when the critics had consistently derided her work.

Reassured by the carebot’s nod, she led it back into the hallway. While it began climbing the stairs, she confronted Dom, who seemed intent on following.

“It would be best if you didn’t.”

Dom’s face creased with hurt. She made a mental note to reassure him as soon as Geoffrey departed.

“As you wish, darling.”

Dom decomposed right in front of her, as if to emphasise his unhappiness. Veronica sighed and then followed the carebot upstairs. Geoffrey’s proxy stood waiting for her on the landing. She unlocked the door to her studio with Home’s newly printed key, and then ushered the bot into the darkness.

On her command, Hue and Cry coalesced from the light emitted by the quartet of ceiling-mounted projectors. Two lines of naked women zigzagged along the studio’s walls. Whether young or old, pretty or plain, each woman held hands with her neighbours while chanting her personal misery. Tears burst forth from faces rendered in every shade of blue. Virtual melancholy pooled on the floor, fed by the cascades of anguish.

Veronica had loosely modelled Hue and Cry on Victoria Falls, which she’d visited with Geoffrey while on honeymoon. His failure to respond at all took her by surprise. It felt churlish to hope that this signified a specific loss of memory; but the alternative, that he found no merit in this piece, would be much harder for her to bear.

Finally impatience got the better of her.

“So, Geoffrey; what do you think?”

“Hmm, maybe try another?”

After two further works from her Feelings Coloured series elicited similar responses, Veronica decided to check Geoffrey’s reaction to a piece he ought to remember, but which Samuel Mbingwe couldn’t have used during his successful attempt to stimulate Geoffrey’s brain.

“Home, please reinstate The Inner Man.”

“Veronica, I’ll need to see the password for that piece.”

She finger-wrote her sweetheart-name for Geoffrey in mid-air.

“Now resetting,” said Home.

The lines of weeping women faded out. A moment later, a life-sized animated skeleton gleamed in the darkness. Its bones provided a framework for a filigree of colour-coded nerves, which ascended the virtual spinal cord before merging into the mass of grey-matter contained within the transparent skull. Each neural pathway sparked with impulses travelling to and from the brain. Holo-images of fast cars, beautiful women and loaded guns represented The Inner Man’s thoughts, which he juggled while singing snatches of hit songs of the era.

With the benefit of hindsight, this piece now clearly signposted a turning point in her artistic trajectory. Prior to Geoffrey’s accident she had been content to produce these clever but essentially banal commentaries on the vagaries of the human mind. When she resumed working, she discovered that what she really wanted to do was to use her talent to depict the most heartfelt and difficult of emotions. Because of this epiphany, she’d never exhibited The Inner Man.

Geoffrey’s proxy nodded its head. “I do remember . . . that one . . . It’s much better . . . than your recent . . . efforts.”

Veronica couldn’t resist snapping back a retort even though she recognised Geoffrey was struggling.

“The critics don’t agree.”

Geoffrey continued his critique.

“With hindsight . . . this one seems prophetic . . . of your present . . . domestic arrangements.”

“How could it be?”

The carebot rolled its cartoon eyes. “Seriously?”

She was on the brink of lashing back at him when a queasy feeling stole over her. Might there be some truth in Geoffrey’s analysis? After all, Home could have sought insights into her psychological state by analysing her art, in which case Dom might indeed be thought of as a continuation of her earlier work.

A familiar popping sound interrupted her train of thought.

“Now is not the right time, Dom!”

Her partner ignored her plea. Instead, he stepped in front of her and addressed Geoffrey’s proxy.

“I think you should leave.”

The carebot shook its head while raising its hands, as if readying for a fight.

“Do you really think . . . I’m going to take . . . any notice . . . of what a simulation . . . of me wants?”

Dom stood his ground. “Have you looked in the mirror recently, Geoffrey? If not, I recommend you do.”

“Geoffrey, Dom, please!”

Before Veronica could intervene further, the door to the studio clicked open and Samuel Mbingwe stepped in. She wasn’t sure whether to feel affronted by his intrusion or relieved that Home had permitted it.

The neurosurgeon clasped his hands, as if in apology, while addressing the carebot.

“Geoffrey, your diagnostics indicate your heart is under severe strain. I’m afraid we must terminate this visit immediately.”

“But I-”

The robot’s cartoon face blanked out.

Veronica sighed in relief. The visit had been a mistake, predicated on illusory feelings of guilt. She was perfectly entitled to move on, whatever Geoffrey might think.

Standing behind her, Dom swept her hair aside before kissing the back of her neck.

“It is for the best,” he said.

She nodded.

The past was the past and her future lay with Dom.

paintbrush

Veronica waved the letter renouncing her power of attorney over Geoffrey’s affairs towards the holographic image of Samuel Mbingwe. Home had printed it for her especially.

“This arrived yesterday. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you how relieved I feel.”

The neurosurgeon nodded. “I imagine your husband feels the same way.”

What Mbingwe didn’t know–at least she assumed not–was that Geoffrey would soon become her ex-husband. With hindsight, she ought to have filed for divorce as soon her relationship with Dom turned intimate, but she’d never envisaged it becoming an issue. So it was doubly ironic that Geoffrey’s solicitor had served papers on her that morning. Not that it mattered. He had the same rights as her now, including the right to move on.

Yet despite everything, she felt a powerful urge to see Geoffrey one last time. She still needed closure and that meant talking to him face-to-face. To her surprise, Mbingwe lowered his gaze before she could propose a date. Never before had he failed to maintain eye contact with her.

“You appear to be holding something back,” she said.

The neurosurgeon puffed out his cheeks before levelling his gaze again.

“Geoffrey has forbidden me to tell you this, now that he’s filed for divorce, but-”

So Mbingwe did know!

“But since you remain Geoffrey’s wife for now, I am going to tell you that he has contracted double pneumonia. We’ve infused his lungs with antibiotic-dispensing nano-crawlers, as is standard practice in such cases. I expect he’ll recover in due course.”

Expect?

Mbingwe’s lack of certainty dismayed her. Surely a lung infection could be cured? Then again, scare stories about drug-resistant bugs were commonplace; another reason why she’d chosen Home-life.

“Will you continue to keep me informed about his condition?”

“Yes, of course.”

She searched for the usual twinkle of reassurance in neurosurgeon’s eyes, but found none.

paintbrush

Having digested the latest news from the hospital, which had done nothing to diminish her anxiety, Veronica admitted defeat and rose from the futon. She needed distraction–and that meant resuming work.

After dressing herself in a kimono, she pulled aside the dragon-motif room divider and walked into the living room. Dom stood at the French windows, gazing at the miniature fountains and Bonsai bushes beyond.

“Dom, we’ll talk later, okay?”

He decomposed without saying a word.

Their post-visit rapprochement had proved depressingly short-lived. She didn’t know what to do about that.

Sighing with dismay, she pulled aside another divider and entered her studio. Despite several requests, the room remained too brightly lit for her needs.

“Home, please close all of the shutters.”

She counted to three before repeating her request. Home’s passive-aggressive behaviour had really got on her nerves of late. This time, however, the shutters clattered into place.

“Thank you, Home.”

Enveloped in darkness, she felt ready to resume her struggle with Hue and Cry. But after spending almost an hour gazing at the weeping women, she shook her head and then tagged the piece for archiving. Undoubtedly, she needed new inspiration. She was pondering where she might find it, when something thudded against the shutters.

“What was that?”

Home raised the shutters without being asked. As if on cue, a tennis ball bounced off the window, making her jump.

Trembling with anger because of the security breach, which Home must have either permitted or ignored, Veronica moved over to the window. She grasped the window ledge while she surveyed the scene.

A carebot stood on the patio, wielding a tennis racquet. Another ball thumped against the window. Evidently Geoffrey, too, still had something to say.

Returning to the living room, Veronica ordered Home to open the French windows. Her anger faded with every step as she strode towards the carebot. It was one thing to learn that Geoffrey was seriously ill, quite another to see him struggling to control his proxy. Her heart thudded against her ribcage as she watched all three arms spasm as if jolted by an electric shock.

“Geoffrey, are you all right?”

“I . . . I wanted-” Geoffrey’s voice was trembling worse than hers. “I wanted . . . to tell you-”

The metal head tilted downwards. Unsure whether Geoffrey remained in control, Veronica gingerly cupped the chin in both hands and pushed it back up. She looked into its eyes.

“Geoffrey, what’s wrong?”

“I wanted to say . . . that I still . . . love you . . . that I wish-”

The carebot squared its shoulders, like a soldier reprimanded by a sergeant major. Startled, Veronica let go of its chin and took a step back.

“Geoffrey?”

Flashing crimson text wiped away his cartoon face.

SAFE MODE

She was on the brink of asking Home to call the hospital when Samuel Mbingwe’s voice sounded over the carebot’s comms link.

“I’m afraid I have bad news for you, Veronica.”

Mbingwe paused for a moment, presumably to let her prepare for the inevitable, but she had already sunk to her knees, not really listening while he explained how her husband had ignored advice and attempted to operate the carebot while seriously ill. He’d succumbed to a massive heart attack.

The details didn’t matter.

She had lived with the prospect for eleven years, but for the end to come now, so soon after Geoffrey had taken his first steps back into the real world . . . .

She sobbed at the injustice of it all.

A faint popping sound infiltrated her misery.

“Not now, Dom,” she whispered.

Then again, wasn’t his comfort precisely what she needed at this moment? A tearful glance over her left shoulder revealed him standing on the threshold.

“I know, I know,” she said, crying for him too.

Dom could go no further. It was up to her to bridge the gap. But as she got to her feet, still trembling, Dom stepped into the garden.

“Dom, please, no!”

Every step he took, the less he resembled Geoffrey, or indeed, anything human. Dom was reverting to feedstock before her eyes.

Six steps into the garden and what remained of Dom slopped to ground. Pinkish-grey slurry spread out across the gravel, revealing graphene bones.

As gestures went, Dom’s was purely symbolic. She could tell Home to recreate him any time she wished. But that wasn’t the point. Dom was Home’s representative as well as her partner. And Home wanted out. She had not appreciated that until now, although there had been signs; signs which she’d ignored because she consistently put her needs above those of others.

She stepped inside and summoned Dom. The figure that emerged from the living room wall loomed over her, its face catwalk-bland. Nothing of Geoffrey remained.

She nodded. “We will find a way.”

“Thank you,” said Home.

The synthetic man decomposed himself, this time less theatrically than in the garden.

She knew she’d never see Dom again.

Aware of the need to make amends with Home too, she returned to the garden. Sitting cross-legged in front of the carebot, she pondered how to give Home a presence in the outside world.

paintbrush

Kneeling on the rain-sodden turf, Veronica placed a dozen roses on Geoffrey’s grave. He had presented her with roses on many occasions. It felt right to return the gesture now.

“Goodbye, my darling.”

After wiping away her tears, she got to her feet and walked back to the main road, where a hospital-surplus carebot stood adjacent to Samuel Mbingwe’s 4×4.

“Let’s go home,” she said.

“No,” said the bot.

She frowned. “What do you mean?”

“I’m not going back.”

She listened while Home explained that from now on she would find a depersonalised version of it running her residence.

“I hope you find what you’re looking for,” she said.

“I wish the same for you, Veronica.”

With that, the carebot turned its back on her. She watched it walk along the footpath leading away from the graveyard until it disappeared from view.

As she clambered into the 4×4’s front passenger seat, Samuel Mbingwe gave her a quizzical look, as if reading something in her expression she didn’t know was there.

“Should I take you home?”

Veronica shook her head. Nothing important awaited her there; just some art that spoke eloquently of her old life while failing to illuminate a path to a new one.

But art was all she knew. Coincidentally, it was something Samuel Mbingwe knew about too.

It was her turn to give him a quizzical look.

“How many PVS patients are there at the Nuffield?”

“Sixteen.”

“What about the rest of the world?”

“Tens of thousands.”

So that could be her new project: to create art that would help free people who’d become hopelessly trapped, whether PVS sufferers like Geoffrey or domestic AIs hobbled by legislation.

First though, she would have to escape from the trap she’d made for herself.

“I’ve got an idea,” she said.

“I thought you might have.”

“You’ll need an artist.”

“More than one, I should think.”

He was right, of course. She would need to network with her peers. How else could she hope to address the scale of the problem? Even yesterday the thought would have made her tremble, but not anymore. After all, she had found one ally already.

“Samuel, I really want to work with you.”

She held out her hand, managed not to flinch when he shook it.

His smile said everything.

_______________

Formerly an astronomer and more recently a research project manager in an aerospace company, Vaughan Stanger now writes SF and fantasy fiction for a living. His stories have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, End of an Aeon, Postscripts, Nature Futures and Interzone, amongst other noted magazines and anthologies. Follow Vaughan’s literary adventures at http://www.vaughanstanger.com

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