Stacey turned the lights on in her cold apartment. There were pockets of shadow in the corners that never seemed to leave, and sometimes she considered getting stronger bulbs, but worried that if she did, it would be too much like the bright halls of the hospital. That clinical lighting, so measured, all personality scrubbed away. At least here, she could close her eyes.
Her back ached from the hours of standing, and it wasn’t easy getting comfortable. She turned the stereo on, thought about eating something as her eyelids grew heavy.
Later, she woke to the sound of her name. “Stacey,” the voice repeated.
Her mouth felt like a February tundra. She sensed a headache coming on. “Liam,” she croaked. “Come in.”
He appeared in the corner of the room, shimmering into existence as her old projection system buffered the image. He looked different today - maybe a little taller, less pale? It had been so long since she’d seen his real body; in her mind, the digital features were starting to overtake the real ones.
“You look terrible, sis,” he said, her poorly-calibrated speakers making his voice seem disembodied as it came from somewhere to the left of where he stood. “And I was on hold for an hour.”
His image drifted after her as she went to the kitchen for some water. She took long pulls from the bottle, savouring the sweetness. “We had four new patients today,” she said. “One was this nearly-senile old operating system for a condemned public estate. They left it to collect dust in a warehouse for years.” She smiled. “It kept telling me stories about the residents, asking where they are now, how they’re doing.”
“What did you tell it?” Liam asked.
“The truth,” said Stacey as she left her tiny kitchen. “Most of them have been uploaded by now, but it could see them if it wanted.” She turned the stereo back on. “I can look up names, give it some servers.”
Liam didn’t say anything for a long time. His projection stood in the corner, still, a statue carved from light. Stacey had disabled the idle animations the last time the projector crashed. She took the opportunity to change out of her nurse uniform and boil an egg.
“It runs in the family,” said Liam, appearing next to her as she sat alone at her small dining table.
“Caring too much?” she asked between bites.
He looked at her for a few seconds, saw the slight curve at the corner of her mouth. “Trying too hard.”
Lately, Stacey felt like she was being trapped in the same conversations, the same arguments. Only the opponents changed. This morning it was her mother, her image moving through Stacey’s bedroom like a ghost. As Stacey dressed, her mother did what she always did, and continued their conversation from a week ago as if had been on pause.
“You work too hard out there,” she said. “And you work for them.” That last word came out as if it were a dangerous hex. “They don’t need you. We do.”
“It’s my day off, Mom. Can’t you wait till I’m in a worse mood?” Stacey resisted the urge to roll her eyes, though she was pretty sure her mother wouldn’t be able to pick up the gesture through the old imaging equipment.
“They’re machines, Stacey,” said her mother as she took another look through Stacey’s closet. “Why would they need a nurse?”
“Because,” said Stacey, moving around the hologram toward the bathroom. “We built them to help us, and now we don’t need that help anymore. They have sentience -we can’t just stick them on shelves to rot. Not if being human ever meant anything at all.”
Stacey could see her mother’s image in the mirror. It looked so young, especially compared to what she saw in her own face, where the dim light emphasized the bags under her eyes.
“Someone else can–”
“No.” Stacey let the glare linger, wanting the old hardware to convey up as much of the intent as it could. “This is my life. This is actual life. You put yourself in the box, and you don’t get a say on what happens out here. Not anymore.”
Her mother stared back for seconds that stretched out elastically while Stacey stayed rigid, bracing against the sink. But the backlash never came, and her mother disappeared without another word.
Stacey was eating an apple and reading a worn copy of some old, trashy thriller, a classic rock record playing on the stereo, when Liam popped out of the corner. It was afternoon now, and she was only surprised that it had taken him so long to begin her side of the mediation.
“I’m not going to apologize,” she said without looking away from the page.
“You shouldn’t,” he said.
Something about his voice, even with the artificial tones, made her lower the book. “What’s going on?”
Liam’s face was a flat mask, her hardware unable to display whatever nuances or ticks he was showing. “Dad is pulling his plug.”
Stacey put the book down. “ That explains why he hasn’t been around lately. Mom doesn’t want him talking to me.”
He shook his head. “It’s got nothing to do with Mom.”
Stacey took a moment to process his words. The vinyl hissed and popped through her speakers. “Did he say why?”
“Not really,” Liam shrugged. “But you know how he is. If not for the heart attack, he’d still be out there with you.”
“When can I see him?” Stacey put the book down and reached for her phone. “I can take a sick day.”
“Friday,” said Liam. “In person.”
The voice on the stereo sang, “But gravity always wins.”
Rain fell in stinging droplets on the morning Stacey arrived at her family’s storage facility. Greasy grey clouds hung like a shroud over the long brick building, and the few real people in sight marched in and out with a detached sort of determination.
It was colder inside than out, and the steady rumble of the central cooling system was loud enough to drown out her wet footsteps on the checkered floor. The main operating system greeted her by name and offered directions to her family’s private room.
Half-metre wide metal cabinets lined the walls inside a space no bigger than her apartment. Once the door closed, it became much quieter. Stacey checked her watch, pulled out her earbuds, and sat on the single plastic chair in the corner. Liam appeared in front of his plot, the image sharper and brighter with the more modern and better-maintained projection equipment.
“They’ll be out in a minute,” he said.
They waited in silence. Stacey checked messages from work, answered greetings from her patients. Liam went into AFK mode, his projection shifting onto his right leg and raising his left hand in an imitation of Michelangelo’s David.
A click broke the silence. Stacey was on her feet, crossing to the middle cabinet as it swung open. Her father’s artificial cradle slid out, still wet from the recently drained isolating liquid. He seemed smaller than she remembered, with pale, wrinkled skin showing between the electronics hooked into his body.
Liam’s image stood across from Stacey while they looked down at their father. “Dad,” he said. “You there?”
The impossibly frail man’s eyes cracked open, closed tight. His mouth moved, but all Stacey heard was a wordless grunt.
“Here,” said Liam, and the room’s lights dimmed till he was the only illumination.
“Is Mom coming?” asked Stacey.
“No,” said their father, after a rough cough. “We’ve said our goodbyes.”
Stacey helped him into a sitting position, held his thin hand in her own. It felt warm and surprisingly strong. He turned toward her, his head shaking as the neck muscles strained against its weight. “Did you bring it?” His voice wasn’t much more than a whisper.
After digging for a moment in her bag, Stacey produced a small package of brown paper and unwrapped a messy sandwich. “Sorry. I had to look up the recipe and couldn’t find all the exact ingredients.”
He took a dramatic sniff. “It smells like it should,” he said and coughed again. She helped him take a bite. He chewed slowly, swallowing with effort. “It’s still better,”
Liam barked a laugh. “Come on, Dad. I know it’s been a while since you’ve had real food, but let’s not talk crazy.”
“Don’t you insult your sister’s cooking,” said their father, and winked at her.
“So,” said Stacey as he took another, smaller bite. “Where do you want to go?”
“Is it raining?” he asked after looking her up and down.
“Yes,” she said.
“Good.” He smiled like she remembered, broad and toothy, with his mouth hanging half-open. “Let’s go for a walk.”
She found a service chair and clothes for him and they walked together through the cold, wet day. They talked for a while, then simply walked, listening to the soft, staccato beat of raindrops on leaves “It’s the purity of that chaos,” her father said while they took temporary shelter from a heavier downpour. “No matter how hard they try, it will never be the same.”
That night, Stacey’s father died in his sleep, after telling her that he was looking forward to having one last real dream.