by Jennifer Greylyn
Something wakes her in the night.
The little girl wriggles out from under the thick blanket tucked around her shoulders. Eyes still hazed with sleep, she glimpses a sideways figure in the open doorway of her bedroom. Dream-like words drift from its direction, too low for her to hear. But hope lifts her heart and makes her murmur, “Daddy?”
The figure shakes, then freezes. The soft colours, reds and golds, greens and violets, emanating from the nightlight in the hallway refract and distort.
Confused, she rubs her eyes and squints harder. That little light, shining through a butterfly’s rainbow wings, should have been enough for her to see her father. But, if anything, the colours are too bright, as though they aren’t quite blocked by his body. And why doesn’t he say anything to her? She’s missed him so much.
She sits up, determined to show him she’s awake and he doesn’t have to worry about disturbing her. The bed creaks under her and he turns all the way toward her—
But it’s not him! The figure is just as tall and fair-haired but shaped more like her mother. It’s not Mommy though. It’s no one she knows. The face is blurry, watery, but she can feel its eyes, fixed on her, staring at her. They become clearer, a blue like Daddy’s but paler, and she realizes, compared to them, the rest of the figure looks unreal. Not quite solid. Not quite there.
She screams. It flinches and disappears.
But it’s not like she can ask him. That was why she came here, to find answers. Her son may not be home, but his life is in this house, in the work he did here. Does here. She catches the past tense, corrects herself, but tears still sting her eyes, bitter despairing tears. It’s only been two days since his accident. Much too soon to give up hope. The doctors continue to assure her of that. On some level, though, she fears Andrew will never come out of the coma the car crash has left him in.
The world wobbles around her. But which world? She catches sight of the sensor patch on her hand, an innocuous grey disc, and wants to sigh in relief but then remembers what her son said about the other place and how real it could be. Needing to be sure, she pries the patch off with a fingernail from her other hand, exposing the silvery mesh of microfilaments below.
As quickly as she can in her nauseated state, Cecily removes the other six patches too and drops them all back in the little silver box where she found them, handling them as if they were poisonous. The cracked leather sofa groans and oozes more stuffing as she sags back against it, forcing herself to relax as the alternating waves of hot and cold pass over her.
Andrew warned her to take it slowly. She should have listened. But he could also have warned her about what she’d find. Anger flares, just for a moment beating out the churning in her gut and the throbbing in her head. But it doesn’t last. She can’t be angry at him. Andrew was just being Andrew. They’ve always been close, but she knows there are parts of his life she isn’t part of. She just never imagined anything like this.
Cecily closes her eyes. It intensifies the sick feeling, as if her mind no longer knows where it is. She opens them again and stares at the backs of her hands. Amid the protruding veins, the patches have left imprints on her papery skin, tiny mazes of crisscrossing lines that are already fading. Fading much faster than her memory of the experience they helped to make possible.
Seeing that child. That impossible child. Cecily knows she must be Andrew’s and Amelia’s. From the little Cecily could make out in her darkened room, she had Andrew’s dark blond curls and deep blue eyes matched with Amelia’s light olive skin and fine bones. The little girl is a perfect amalgam of the two of them and she should not exist.
Despite knowing that, there is a lightness in Cecily’s chest. An old longing stirred to new life. She wants to go back, just to see the little girl again, to talk to her. But she can’t forget how out of her depth she felt, helpless and terrified. And she can’t forget the child’s scream, which haunts her ears for all they didn’t hear it. It sounded real to Cecily’s mind and that’s what matters to her body.
Unsettled by the implications, she pushes herself to her feet. Dizziness almost sends her into a faint, but it’s not much worse than she usually faces when she gets up in the morning. One of the undeclared perils of aging. She clenches her jaw, throws the box onto the sofa and escapes the room.
Leaning against the kitchen counter, Cecily sips at the coffee in her mug. It is scalding and black, not typically how she takes it, but she hopes either the heat or the strong flavour will rouse her brain. Andrew has given her much to think about and she is too tired to think.
She’s been awake since the hospital called her about her son, telling her that she was the emergency contact programmed into his driver’s license. That surprised Cecily. She thought it would still be Amelia, because Andrew has always been bad at remembering to change things like that. But she is so grateful he did. Even though there was little she could do for him except sit by his bed and talk herself hoarse, desperate for him to hear her and open his eyes.
He never did. His hand just grew more cool and limp in hers. It reminded her, painfully, of her husband’s hand the last time she touched it. It was at his funeral, more than twenty years ago now, and she shouldn’t have done it, because she remembered it all too well. The terrible, cold softness of Jason’s large, blunt fingers.
Cecily shuddered when she realized how much Andrew’s hand was like his father’s, almost jarring loose the IV that was inserted in it. One of the machines around his bed protested and summoned a nurse, who tried to make her feel better by explaining it was normal for coma patients to feel less warm because their bodies’ reactions had slowed down.
But that only made her cry and shake harder because there was nothing normal about the state Andrew was in. The nurse gently disengaged her hand and fixed the IV, then brought her half a sandwich from his own lunch and sat with her while she ate it. When he found out she’d been there for almost two days, he insisted she go home and get some rest, promising to call immediately if there was any change.
When Cecily stepped through her front door and saw her viewscreen blinking an urgent red, she thought the nurse had kept his word. Her heart froze, though, because the message could only be very serious if it hadn’t been sent to her phone. Doubtless the hospital didn’t want to receive another accident victim by giving her the news when she was on the road. Numbly, she spoke the voice command for the message to play. She staggered when the red haze cleared and her son appeared, saying, “Hi Mom.”
“Andrew!” she gasped, unreasoning joy propelling her toward the screen before she realized it couldn’t be her son as he was now. He looked too healthy, no bruising around his eyes, no bandages cradling his head. Her second thought was that it was a copy, a virtual double he’d made before his accident, but it didn’t respond to any of her questions. It just kept talking over them.
Finally, she had to accept it was a mere recording, not interactive at all. It didn’t even have a date stamp to tell her when Andrew had made it. Sinking down into the chair beside the screen, she told it to go back to the beginning and play the message over.
Her son, tall, wide-shouldered, handsome with his strong features and brown-gold hair, greeted her again and, although she was expecting it, her stomach still lurched. Then he paused and she saw how solemn he was. No hint of a smile, mirthful or ironic, quirking his mouth. It was entirely unlike him. He hadn’t looked so grave even when he broke the news that he and Amelia had split up.
“Mom, if you’re seeing this, something bad must have happened to me. This message is only supposed to be sent to you if I don’t check into my house system for more than a day.” Cecily felt a sharp pang at that, because only something truly catastrophic could keep Andrew away from his computer network. “I can’t imagine what’s happened, but I hope you’re okay. I need you to do something for me. I can’t trust anyone else and you can’t tell anyone else.”
That sounded ominous and, in fact, a chill enveloped Cecily as Andrew gave her the instructions. It had to do with what he was asking. He wanted her to access his house system and that didn’t just mean checking his messages. Andrew was one of the founders as well as the chief designer of New Worlds, a company that specialized in virtual environments. The technology was such that he could work from home and, for the past four months or so, he’d been doing more and more of that. The day of his accident was an exception.
Cecily had suspected the sudden trend of not going into work was to avoid Amelia, who was a software engineer at New Worlds, but now she wasn’t so sure. She thought of the day a few weeks ago when Andrew had invited her over and introduced her to his system. She’d grown up in a time when a virtual world meant the Internet and she wasn’t comfortable with the concept of total immersion. Her son, the product of a different generation, had never known anything else and was kind enough not to laugh at her fear.
That day, however, he’d been strangely insistent that she learn more about immersion. “It’s so much simpler than it used to be, Mom,” he said to her as he led her into what he called his study. To her eyes, it looked more like a lab with the gleaming machines along one wall, but the rest of it was more traditional, with a big oak desk and shelves of old-fashioned paper books.
Sitting her down in one of a pair of well-padded armchairs in front of the desk, he walked behind it, took something out a drawer and then settled himself in the other chair. “Once upon a time, entering a virtual world was hard. Someone had to design the whole environment plus a shell body for the mind. Then your physical body had to be isolated in a suit and headmask full of sensors before your mind was downloaded into the shell. You were limited by the limits of the design.”
Andrew threw her his trademark smile, broad and engaging, and she thought she knew why he’d asked her over, because he was pleased about something and wanted her to share it. “But not anymore!” he proclaimed, opening his hand to reveal a little silver box, then opening the box itself with a thumbscan and pouring a number of round flat objects into his palm.
“These, Mom, are sensor patches. You put them on various parts of your body and they form a wireless link between your mind and the system. You can literally think your way into the virtual world.” He wanted to put them on her, but Cecily, as proud as she was of her son, balked. Some things she just wasn’t ready for.
His smile shrank a little at her reaction, but he didn’t push her. “Maybe next time,” he suggested congenially and then showed her how to apply them by putting them on himself. She waited for his face to go slack and his body to slump, like in the vids she occasionally caught on the holofeed, but he remained alert, only occasionally closing his eyes for longer than a blink.
“Just checking to make sure everything’s okay,” he told her a minute later, removing the patches, and, at her startled look, he did laugh. “You don’t have to go in very deep. It’s a bit like swimming. You start out in the shallow end and work your way deeper as you get used to it. Sure you don’t want to try?”
Cecily shook her head, a little more reluctantly this time because she was intrigued in spite of herself, and Andrew put the sensors back in their box, although with a flash of disappointment, she thought. When he met her gaze again, his smile had returned. “Ah well, you can’t blame me for trying. But you still haven’t heard the best part. The patches have been around for a few years now. They’re not really anything special anymore. What I’m working on these days is a virtual environment that you can control like your virtual body. By just thinking about it.”
She smiled at his enthusiasm and ventured, teasingly, “Won’t that make the design part of your business obsolete? If everyone could design the worlds for themselves?”
He grinned at her, appreciating the humour. “There you go, Mom, always looking out for my interests. But no. I’ll still be in demand because I’m much more creative than the average person.” He winked at her and it was her turn to laugh at him.
Remembering that day brings an ache to Cecily’s heart. She tries to distract herself with another swallow of coffee but finds it has gone cold. She sighs and squares her shoulders, knowing she has stood here long enough.
Andrew is counting on her. No matter how afraid she is, she has to try and access his system again. Dumping what is left of her coffee into the sink, she deliberately doesn’t think about the little girl whose scream Cecily can still hear.
Cecily looks again at the room where Andrew’s message directed her. It isn’t his study downstairs as she expected. Instead, it is a spare room upstairs that she has always privately thought of it as his junk room because it is where he stores things he no longer uses but can’t bear to get rid of.
Before today, it would make her smile, if a little wistfully, because it showed her Andrew had inherited his father’s packrat tendencies. Now, though, she feels only apprehension because she knows, amid the old furniture, old tech and anonymous boxes, new machines are concealed that are part of but kept separate from the rest of his house system.
On her first visit to the room, she found the small box of sensor patches tucked under one of the split-seam cushions of the sofa, just as Andrew said she would. He also assured her it was keyed to her like the house itself. Now, though, the box is sitting in plain view where she left it and Cecily approaches it with all the caution someone would a viper who has a phobia of snakes.
Gingerly, she presses her thumb against the pad on the top of the box and it bounces open, letting her remove the patches. Trembling, she applies them to her temples, her hands, her feet and the last one to her abdomen, just as Andrew showed her. He never said what the range of them is, so she lies down on the sofa to be near the hidden machines. It isn’t very comfortable, but she supposes that is necessary to the illusion her son has created in this room.
Andrew, I’ve never known you to be so calculating, she thinks as the cool patches warm to the temperature of her skin, becoming almost indistinguishable from it. Then, unwittingly, she remembers the little girl and realizes her son kept more secrets that his open, amiable manner would ever suggest.
“My system is responsive, Mom,” he reminded her in his message. “Think of my house. Think of meeting Amelia there. You need to talk to her. Talk to Amelia V.”
That was the most cryptic part of his instructions. His breakup with Amelia had been acrimonious and it had only got worse since then with her launching a legal action against him. Cecily’d trusted Andrew when he told her not to worry about it, but the message made her suspect her son’s ex-girlfriend might have just cause.
Amelia’s lawsuit centres around her contention that Andrew has kept an illegal copy of her from the time when they were together. Making a copy of anyone other than yourself is against the law, but, as Cecily understands it, someone sufficiently familiar with virtual technology can do it when another person is immersed in their system. She presumes Andrew and Amelia spent a lot of time in virtual worlds he designed when they were dating. It seems the present-day equivalent for young couples that going off to some sunny location was for her and Jason in their time.
But, if Andrew was going to leave a copy of anyone for her to talk to, why not himself? Why Amelia? And what does it have to do with the child she saw?
These thoughts, troubling as they are, keep Cecily from panicking over what she is doing, but, when the patches begin to tingle, she can no longer ignore it. She has to concentrate. She imagines the electricity in her body harmonizing with the electricity in the machines. Some kind of energy anyway runs through her and pulls at her, irresistible as a powerful tide.
Remembering how Andrew described immersion, she pictures herself walking into a swimming pool with a sloping bottom, starting out in the shallow end and then getting deeper. It works better than it did the first time. She knows what to expect now. The rush of sensation and her senses straining to make sense of it. The feeling of dislocation and her stomach plunging as the sofa vanishes from her awareness.
It was in this moment her concentration fractured the last time. She didn’t know where she was. She didn’t know where she was going. She called out to Andrew and begged him to help her. She thought of the room she’d left and wished herself back there.
This time, she doesn’t do any of that. She clings to the image of the pool until the air begins to shimmer around her. Her toes touch a pebbled floor and hazy blue water drifts over her limbs. Then she realizes her mistake. Andrew told her the system would respond to what she thinks. She is thinking of a pool and that is where the system is taking here.
“No!” she wants to scream, but the taste of chlorinated water fills her mouth. Her lungs burn and her heart thunders. She knows it is only virtual, but it all feels real. It is impossible to breathe. Becoming impossible to think. She doesn’t know how to get back to her world. Desperately, her mind grasps for the only other part of this world she knows—
Cecily lands with a thud on a carpeted floor. The impact ricochets through her bones. She groans and then smiles gratefully because she can make a sound without drowning. Raising her head, she sees the little girl’s bedroom, now flooded with daylight as the curtains on the window have been drawn back.
Tension sends a new jolt through her, but there is no second scream. In fact, the little girl isn’t there at all. Relief commingling with a strange heave of disappointment, Cecily takes a moment to study what the bright sunshine reveals. A child’s room, yes, but one that’s essentially familiar. It has the same dimensions as the junk room she just left.
Awe crowds out every other emotion. It looks so real! No wonder Andrew wanted her to experience this. She never imagined it could be so life-like, so perfect—
“You must be ‘the ghost’,” says a voice behind her, making Cecily’s shoulders jump and her head whip around. She sees a small, short woman standing there. Amelia, who has always been light on her feet.
“But you’re much more solid this time,” Amelia continues, looking at her with the slight pensive head-tilt Cecily knows so well. But it isn’t quite the Amelia she knows. Her rich auburn hair, normally so fashionably cut, is long and gathered back in a simple ponytail. Gone too is the exotic makeup. This Amelia wears only a little colour in her cheeks and gloss on her lips.
“I think…I think I’m getting better at this,” replies Cecily, puffing a bit as she leans on the doorframe and tries to stand. Her body still aches from the fall. To her surprise, Amelia comes forward and takes her arm, helping her up. She hadn’t expected such cordial treatment from her son’s ex. But, Cecily reminds herself, this can’t that Amelia, can it? How can she be sure?
“You should dry yourself off then,” suggests the younger woman, with a challenging glint in her dark eyes, and Cecily realizes she is dripping on the carpet, her hair and clothes soaked. She tries to imagine herself dry but can’t. The wet feels too real, even making her shiver.
“Here.” Amelia offers her a fluffy white towel. Cecily takes it, rubs at the limp strands of her silvery-blond hair and then shivers for a very different reason. “Where did this come from?”
“I made it,” Amelia explains and holds out her hands. A second, identical towel materializes in them. Cecily gasps and stands rock-still as the younger woman begins to squeeze the water from her sleeves.
“It’s-it’s like in the stories my mother used to tell me,” murmurs Cecily, torn between amazement and disbelief. “When mortals went to the land of the fairies. Whatever they wished for could come true.”
“And you told those stories to Andrew,” remarks Amelia in the same low tone. “There was, I believe, usually a price to be paid for their wishes coming true.”
The two women fall silent and look at each other. Cecily clears her throat and speaks first, embarrassed but needing to know. “You’re not real, are you?”
Amelia stiffens but doesn’t look away. “Not real in the way you mean it. But I’m real here and I’m real to Andrew.” Her gaze sharpens. “Where is he? Can you tell me?”
Cecily ignores the question, intent on asking her own. “You’re Amelia V., aren’t you? Andrew called you that in his message.”
A gentle smile briefly softens Amelia’s eyes. “Yes. It’s a joke between us. My middle name—the other Amelia’s middle name is Patricia. Andrew said the ‘p’ could stand for ‘physical’. So I’d be Amelia V. For ‘virtual’.” She stops smiling and worry creases her face. “What message? What did Andrew say?”
Taking a deep breath, Cecily responds this time. “He told me to come here. To talk to you. He didn’t tell me why, but—” She pauses and looks into the bedroom. “It must be about the little girl.”
“Katya,” supplies Amelia V. and her tone is pure love. It shocks Cecily because the Amelia she knows, Amelia P., never seemed the maternal type.
“Katya,” repeats the older woman, feeling again that lightness in her chest she experienced just after her last visit, despite the fear. “I saw her. Before. I didn’t mean to scare her. Where is she?” Cecily hears the longing in her own voice. Amelia V. does too and smiles at her, like she’s passed some kind of test. “Napping in front of the holo downstairs,” the younger woman answers and, at Cecily’s bemused look, adds, “We—Andrew and I—try to make this world as real as possible for her. She doesn’t know it’s virtual. I’d never have made the towels appear in front of her. But you, well, you—“
“—looked like a drowned rat?” finishes Cecily wryly, wrapping one towel around her shoulders and the other around her hair. “Why didn’t you just think me dry?”
Amelia V. shakes her head forcefully. “I’d never do that. Andrew and I always respect each other’s boundaries. And Katya’s. We don’t interfere with each other like that.”
“But what about Amelia P’s boundaries?” asks Cecily, forcing herself to stay calm. “How was Andrew showing her respect by keeping a copy of her? By keeping you. You do know they broke up?”
“Yes,” confirms the younger woman, looking away for the first time and then looking back. Suddenly her eyes are very intense and Cecily almost retreats a step. “He told me. When he came to say good-bye.”
“He was going to delete you.” Cecily states it baldly, the emotions warring in her heart making her hard, but Amelia V. doesn’t flinch, impressing the older woman. “Why did he create you in the first place?”
“He and Amelia P. used to fight a lot,” the younger woman explains, drifting into Katya’s room. She smoothes the bedspread with an absent gesture and sits down, as if drawing strength from being there. “He hated that. He wanted to understand her better. So he made a copy—me—and we’d talk. I’d try to figure out why she was mad. Help him see her side of things.”
Cecily follows her, stands over her, deliberately confrontational. “But he came to love you too. Maybe more than Amelia P. You were easier to talk to. So he broke up with her.”
“No!” Amelia V.’s denial is vehement. “That’s not why they broke up. It had nothing to do with me. It was about wanting to have a child. Amelia P. can’t. Her body can’t, I mean. That didn’t matter to Andrew. He wanted them to have a virtual child. He said the child would be real to them…”
Cecily collapses onto the bed next to Amelia V, so stunned she forgets about being wet. She can’t imagine Andrew suggesting such a thing, but, in the last few hours, she has learned there is a side to her son he’s never showed her. She can imagine Amelia P.’s reaction though. Shock. Confusion. Maybe even outrage. She isn’t a designer like Andrew. She wouldn’t share his far-reaching vision. She would react like any normal woman would. Like any flesh-and-blood woman would. No wonder they split up.
Amelia V., watching Cecily’s face, goes on, “He was broken-hearted when he came to tell me. He wanted a child so badly. Physical or virtual. It didn’t matter to him. I couldn’t stand to see him so sad. So I suggested we have one—he and I.”
“To save your own life,” accuses Cecily but without any true heat. She is too busy staring around the room, at the stuffed animals lovingly lined up on the bed, at the mobile of tiny colourful butterflies hanging from the ceiling, at the picture of Andrew and Amelia V. on the wall, his right arm around her and his left holding their daughter as a tiny baby.
Amelia V. bristles at her remark but seems to sense Cecily’s ambivalence, because her voice emerges soft and candid. “Maybe it started that way. I didn’t want to die. Why should I be deleted just because he and Amelia P. had broken up? But I loved Andrew too. I think I knew him better than Amelia P. We didn’t fight like she and he did—”
“Maybe because he ‘fixed’ you,” proposes Cecily quietly, finally uttering the awful thought she has had since she met this Amelia, the reason why she is different from the other. Cecily doesn’t want to believe it of her son, but—
This time, the younger woman interrupts her. It isn’t with the angry cry or the startled hiss of breath Cecily would expect. Instead, Amelia V. sounds deeply sad and her words are surprisingly insightful. “There’s something secretive about Andrew. He comes across as so approachable, so friendly and he is, but only to a certain extent. He hides a lot of himself. I’m not sure why. I don’t even think he knows. But he found he could talk to me. Talk to me more easily than anyone else.”
Her tone turns self-deprecating. “Probably because I wasn’t real to him. Not at first. He didn’t feel the same need to keep things from me. So I think we connected in a way he and Amelia P. didn’t. Couldn’t. Then, when I did start feeling real to him, the pattern was set. That’s why I can tell—” She catches the older woman’s gaze and holds it. “—tell you absolutely that he didn’t change me. He’d never have violated a copy of Amelia P. like that. He loved her too much.”
Blowing out a heavy breath, Amelia V. concludes, “The only way he ‘fixed’ me is to give me the ability to be what I want. To be anything I want. Here, I’m not infertile. I could have a child. And I wanted to have a child with him. To have someone to share this world with when he’s not here…”
“Why isn’t he here?” asks Cecily as the younger woman trails off and the older one finds she can speak again, although it will take her some time to work through the revelations she’s been given. “A virtual him, I mean.”
“I don’t want a copy to keep me company,” Amelia V. insists. “I want him. You need to tell me where he is. He always said, if anything happened to him, you’d come…”
Cecily feels a shudder go through her. It is more than the chill of her wet hair and clothes.
“..and you’re here now. So something must have happened…”
Something is pulling at her, like the energy that brought her here, but pulling her back, the tide flowing out instead of in.
“…You have to tell me. I need to know! Wait! Where are you going?”
Cecily feels the same horror that is in the younger woman’s expression. “I don’t know! I don’t know what’s happening! Help me!” Amelia V. reaches for her hands, but they pass through her. She’s become a ghost again. She’s fading…
The coffee gushes up and burns Cecily’s throat. It’s how she knows she’s back in her body. Lips clamped shut, she manages not to be sick and then notices the patches. They’ve turned red and are sending a pulse through her skin that is in time with a high-pitched alarm echoing in her ears. The house system is trying to warn her of something.
Pulling off the patches again, just dumping them on the sofa, she stands, reels but makes it into the hallway, down the stairs, clinging to the railing and sniffing for smoke. She is sure she turned the coffeemaker off but can’t imagine anything other than a fire that would upset the system so much.
Only when she gets to the foot of the stairs, her stomach heaving, her head whirling, does she see Andrew’s viewscreen lit up. Instead of a message, it is displaying an image of the front door from the outside with a border of blinking red. A woman is standing there, a small short woman who is very familiar. Amelia.
The sight is jarring because Cecily just left Amelia V and this is clearly not her. By contrast, Amelia P.’s hair is no longer than her chin, feather-cut and tinted with intense gold and crimson highlights. Her lipstick shimmers between the two colours and painted sun-rays extending out from her eyes make them look huge. She has removed the handpanel from the doorlock and is playing with the wires beneath, trying to force the door to admit her.
Cecily commands the door to open and the volume of the alarm strikes Amelia P. like a blow. Obviously she wasn’t able to hear it before. She stumbles and then stiffens when she sees Cecily. The older woman, after telling the system to turn off the noise, greets her with a cold smile. “Hello, Amelia.”
Amelia P. throws back her head, looking haughty and refusing to be embarrassed. “I didn’t expect you to be here, Cecily, but you’ve saved me some trouble.” She tries to shoulder her way in.
Blocking the doorway is no trouble for Cecily. Although twice Amelia P’s age, she is bigger and taller and has well-justified anger on her side. “What are you doing here, Amelia? You know Andrew is in the hospital. I left you a message.”
It is true. She did it as soon as she arrived at the hospital and got the news. From the way Andrew still spoke of Amelia, Cecily thought he’d want her to know. She’d never anticipated he might have had another Amelia in mind.
A shadow crosses Amelia P.’s face, making her look vulnerable for an instant, and Cecily feels her anger ebb just a little, realizing this Amelia still cares for her son too. “That was kind of you. I let everyone at work know.”
“So why are you here?” asks Cecily again, her tone turning sharp once more as her eyes catch on the dismantled doorlock. “You wouldn’t be trying to break in, would you?”
Amelia P. flushes at the blatant sarcasm but doesn’t avert her gaze. “So what if I am? I have good reason.”
More than you know, concedes Cecily, but she doesn’t say that aloud. Instead, she pushes on unsympathetically, “I doubt the courts would agree. If you win your case against Andrew, they may let you be present when his house system is searched for illegal copies. But that’s still a long way off.”
“I can’t wait!” shouts Amelia P. suddenly, losing her stubborn composure in a burst of temper. “The case is taking forever. I have to know now!”
Cecily knows why the younger woman is so emotional, thanks to Amelia V., but she can’t admit that without revealing the existence of the very copy Andrew is trying to protect. And their daughter. Stifling an exhausted sigh at how complicated everything has become, she wishes Andrew would wake up and take back control of his own life.
But she has little hope of that wish coming true in this world, even if she’d be willing to pay with her own life. So she can only do what Andrew obviously wants her to do. Defend his creations while he can’t and that means deflecting Amelia P.’s suspicion. “Of course it’s taking a long time. This is fairly new legal ground, as I understand it. The judge doesn’t want to rush into a decision that may set a precedent.”
Amelia P. glares at her. “What precedent? It should be simple. It’s my rights that may have been violated!” Cecily winces to herself at that word. It is the same one Amelia V. used. “What else is there to think about?”
Cecily almost says her son’s right to privacy, especially when he is lying comatose in a hospital bed, literally unable to stand up for himself. But something else comes out instead, surprising her. “What about your copy’s rights? Presuming there is one, of course.”
“What rights? It’s just a copy.” The younger woman shrugs dismissively. “Illegal. Not real. Not a person.”
The situation is no longer so obvious to Cecily. Amelia V. may have started out as just a copy of Amelia P., but she seems more now. And what about Katya? What would happen to her? She isn’t a physical person at all. But Cecily’s heart grows cold at the thought of her being deleted, which she could be since she was made, at least in part, from an illegal copy.
In that moment, Cecily realizes she needs to do more than just keep secret Amelia V. and Katya’s existence. Andrew tried to do that, but it has only made Amelia P. so desperate she has worked up the nerve to break into his house. A new tack needs to be taken. “Amelia, do you still love my son?”
The question throws Amelia P. off guard. She blinks, looking vulnerable again, and then disguises her pain with a scowl. “What does that matter?”
“It matters very much, I think,” replies Cecily softly. “I don’t think you’d be so concerned about a copy if you didn’t love him. I think you’re afraid he’s replaced you.”
Amelia P says nothing, but the scowl is fading. The older woman senses she’s on the right track and presses on. “If you really love my son, I’m sure you’ve been in touch with the hospital. I gave permission for them to talk to you. You must know he’s in bad shape.”
Cecily fears silence will be her only answer again, but then there’s a nod, succinct but decisive. The older woman reaches for the younger one’s hand. “My dear, I love him too. More than anything else in the world. I want to see him happy and that means respecting his decisions. I may not agree with everything he’s done, but I’ll stand by him.”
“What are you talking about?” asks Amelia P. suspiciously but doesn’t pull away. Cecily takes that as an encouraging sign and plunges in. “There’s some place we need to go.”
“To meet the other woman, you mean?” mutters Amelia P. bitterly and Cecily takes a deep relieved breath, knowing she was right about why the younger woman cares so much about a copy. But she can’t relax. The hardest part is still ahead.
Without another word, Cecily leads Amelia P. into the house and closes the door. She will worry about the damaged handpanel later. Andrew lives at the end of a quiet street and his house is secluded by trees. If no one has responded to the alarm by now, the neighbours must not have heard it and the house system must not have been programmed to call the police. As far as she is concerned, the most important thing right now is not to lose her momentum.
A puzzled frown dominates Amelia P.’s expression when Cecily doesn’t take her into Andrew’s study but instead heads up the stairs to the junk room. Her eyes, however, widen in understanding when she sees the sensor patches scattered on the sofa, all a cool and quiet grey again, and she breaks away from the older woman, to shove aside boxes until she finds the machines they screened.
“The devious b—” She cuts herself off at a warning look from Cecily but adds, “I never knew he kept more hardware up here.” The older woman just shakes her head. “You don’t know everything. Not yet. Now do you know if this is Andrew’s only set of patches or if he has a spare?”
“We don’t need any others,” claims the younger woman. “Andrew and I used the system so often that I don’t need more than one or two sensors to define my body. If you can manage with six, I’ll take the other one.”
Cecily tries and fails to suppress a shiver at such a cavalier attitude. Amelia P. notices and tilts her head thoughtfully, so very like Amelia V. “You’re still not comfortable with immersion, are you? Andrew told me. Did he finally get you to try it?”
Remembering her experiences with the virtual world so far almost chokes Cecily and her voice come out very small, “In a way. I went in for the first time today.”
The younger woman looks at her in amazement, “Cecily, why?”
“Because he needed me too.” The older woman clears her throat and fixes Amelia P. with a resolute gaze. “Like I need you to. Please. Just come with me. Don’t judge. Please.”
Amelia P. inclines her head, a respectful gesture and Cecily turns away, needing to compose herself. She always liked Amelia best out of her son’s girlfriends and was very sorry when they broke up. Despite the circumstances, it gives her some comfort that Amelia P. is here.
Cecily begins to pick up the patches, but her hands are clumsy, shaking too hard at the thought of going back in. Amelia P. gently takes over and, after motioning for Cecily to sit on the sofa, puts the patches on Cecily’s temples, hands and feet. Then she sticks the last one on her own left temple.
“It’s easier with someone to guide you,” the younger woman asserts, joining the older one on the sofa and gripping her hand. It is solid and reassuring. “Take a deep breath and let it out slowly. Imagine we’re in Andrew’s kitchen. That’s a safe place to start.”
Cecily laughs nervously. “You’re better at this than my son. He told me to think of a pool—“
“—and you ended up soaking wet, right?” Amelia P. laughs with much more vigour. Cecily doesn’t admit how close she came to drowning. She doesn’t want to think about it. Instead, she matches breaths with Amelia P., letting Amelia P.’s confidence infuse her.
The patches tingle. Energy courses through her. There is disorientation. Then dislocation. But no panic. Because someone is with her, tugging her down to a very specific place…
“You! Here?” they roar at each other. Amelia P. drops Cecily’s hand. Amelia V. steps forward. They are coming together, eyes locked and glaring, when Cecily whispers, “Help.”
“I-I can’t feel my middle,” she explains with concern which grows to outright alarm when, glancing down, all she sees is mist between her shoulders and her legs. She knows her torso is there, but she can’t make it real, not without the patch.
“Cecily, concentrate!” shouts Amelia P., seizing her hand again, while Amelia V. comes to her other side, grabbing her other hand and saying soothingly, “You’re here. Breathe. Feel your lungs. Your abdomen.” Amelia P. looks two inches taller because she is wearing heels while Amelia V. appears older because of the fear for Andrew grooving her face.
Jerked back and forth between them, Cecily feels dizzy. Her wavering gaze focuses on the small clock on the wall, pale-faced and mahogany-cased, an heirloom that Andrew always loved. She told him he could have it someday. It seems he found a way to have it now. Strangely, it says a quarter to one, which was about the time she left the hospital.
The distraction helps her body to do what it wants to do instinctively. Inhale. Exhale. Her mind responds and her middle solidifies. She shakes her hands loose from the two Amelias, to touch it for herself. Expanding and shrinking with breath. Solid as real flesh.
“Thank-you,” she says to both of them. Amelia P. leads her to a chair and Amelia V. brings her a glass of cold water. She gulps it down. “Is that the right time?”
Amelia V. follows Cecily’s eyes to the clock. “It’s the time here. I suspect only an hour’s passed for you, but, for me, it’s been half a day.”
“I’m sorry. You must have been so worried.” Cecily puts down the empty glass and sees the darkness outside the window. It is disconcerting, another thing in this virtual place that reminds her of her mother’s stories. The mortals who wandered or were taken into the fairies’ world usually found time worked differently there too. “Why is that? Why does time pass so much faster here?”
“Processing power,” answers Amelia P., as if needing to make her own contribution. “Computers can ‘think’ a lot faster than we do. So time can move faster here. It’s usually a benefit. People can spend hours in a virtual world and only be gone a few minutes from the real one.”
“So Andrew…” Cecily’s voice fades as she realizes what that means. Amelia V. picks up on it. “He comes as often as he can. Usually several times in your day. But it still feels like a long time here. It’s been over three weeks since I’ve seen him. I’m so worried.”
Amelia P. turns to Cecily. “She doesn’t know?” Cecily shakes her head. “I didn’t have a chance to tell her,”
“He’s been in an accident,” Amelia P. informs the other woman, blunt but no longer antagonistic. The strain Amelia V. has been under is unmistakable and Amelia P. isn’t unfeeling. “He’s in a coma.”
Now it is Amelia V. who staggers and Amelia P., acting out of reflex, also helps her to a chair. She then takes the third around the table. Cecily watches the pair of them, twins but not, and thinks they have never looked more alike than as they sit and think about Andrew. Their faces show the same expression of fear and concern.
It prompts Cecily to ask something she would never have contemplated just a few short hours ago. “Could Andrew come here? I mean, could we put the patches on him and somehow bring him here?”
Amelia P. immediately rejects the idea. “It’s not possible. Immersion takes an act of will. You have to think yourself here.” Cecily might have thought her response too quick if she did not sound so resigned.
She seems to take offense, however, at Amelia V. not backing her up and rounds on her with a surge of impatience. “Well? Don’t you agree?”
Amelia V. shakes herself as if she was lost in thought and answers more mildly than Cecily expects. “Yes. It’s not possible with today’s technology. But I’ve studied the history of virtual world-building. You could say it’s a special interest of mine.” The tension in her face eases temporarily, replaced by a gentle self-mocking smile. “And I was just remembering how it used to work. With the mind being downloaded into a shell. I wonder if the old method could be adapted somehow—“
Just then, footsteps pound down the stairs and a little girl in pyjamas—Katya—comes running in. “Mommy! Mommy! I heard voices. Is Daddy home?” She skids to a stop when she sees the two unfamiliar women.
“Oh my God,” whispers Amelia P., recognizing the truth about her just as Cecily did on first sight. This time, Cecily can see the resemblance even more clearly and understand how the child can look about three years old.
Amelia V., meanwhile, has rushed to her daughter’s side and pulled her close. Hovering over her protectively, she begins to make hesitant introductions. “This is Katya. Katya, this is—”
“I’m your grandmother,” declares Cecily, standing suddenly, the lightness in her chest flooding back and making her feel like she could float. She crouches down in front of Katya and gestures back toward the table. “And this is your aunt. Your mother’s sister.”
Both the Amelias look dumbfounded. Cecily takes advantage of that. “They have a lot to talk about. Why don’t you show me your room?”
Katya, wariness in her expression, peers into Cecily’s eyes and Cecily, her heart constricting, wonders if she recognizes her as the ghost. The little girl glances up at her mother and Amelia V. manages a small nod. Katya’s face instantly clears and she grins. Just like Andrew. So open, so trusting. “Grandma! Grandma!” she sings and Cecily’s heart swells again.
“I believe you like fairy stories,” she guesses, thinking of something Amelia V. said. Katya gives an enthusiastic nod. “Well, maybe I know a few your dad hasn’t told you.”
The little girl looks sad for a moment. “Daddy’s coming home, isn’t he?”
“I hope so, sweetheart,” murmurs Cecily, looking back at the two women. Amelia V. has returned to the table and is sitting across from Amelia P. They have begun to speak in low tones, maybe conferring, maybe arguing, but each has her head tilted at a slight angle.
Letting Katya lead her upstairs, Cecily knows better than to make any promises. Andrew’s accident has reminded her of just how uncertain the future is. But it seems a little brighter than it did earlier in the day, her day. She can only pray their story will have a happy ending and, with just mortals involved, maybe it will, especially if they are all willing to work together.
Jennifer Greylyn is a lifelong storywriter whose short fiction has appeared in, among other places, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Evolve: Stories of the New Undead, and a previous issue of Abyss & Apex. She’s happy to be back here and is currently at work on more projects than she wants to count, including several short stories, two novels and a nonfiction collection of cat tales. She lives in Canada.
Story © 2010 Jennifer Greylyn. All other content copyright © 2010 Abyss & Apex Publishing.
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish