Aphelion Issue 290, Volume 27
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Let's Talk About Death, Baby...

by Sven Kloepping

Doors slide behind me.

I grab Cassandra's arm, to pull her out of the subsubway station. It's been too bright in the underground. Too much flickering strip lighting, brainscanners and technicality. We de-materialize ourselves, up to the ground floor, hoping for backwardness.

Outside, pouring rain. Thin, cold fingers in the dark. Instinctively, I feel an urge to escape from the falling water, so we hurry under a badly lit roof of leaves as we've done so many times before.

Being here is unique -- not least because our refuge is about the last non-holographic on the planet. Located in the northern territory, few people could ever find or destroy this rare spot of nature.

Take a rest, my darling.

For a moment, we stand stock still like the skyscrapers in front of us. They glitter tonight. Our 23rd wedding night. Everywhere windows and light bulbs. Electric blue antennas. Instead of walls, void blackness. Looks like swarms of overdimensional glow worms suspended in the air, unmovabie, clinging together as if demonstrating for peace.

Normal people call it finishing time. I don't believe them because too many things come to life at night. Mr. Average doesn't recognize them. He's too well-fed to want to do anything else but watch his holo-vision movies, go into a trance and forget himself 'til the next day, while navy and army guard him with "invincible" nuclear power.

There is no enemy left but "we're-afraid-we've-not- yet-encountered-them" extraterrestrials. For myself, I don't care about the ordinary customers' high- security hopelessness. I'd rather talk to people who don't ask me to be silent during commercials. There are few of them left. The majority believe in consumer-oriented fairy tales, told to us by holo-vision and the huge, metaphorical company insects spinning metallic reflecting webs with colors not natural but taken out of catalogues you can find in advertising agencies. They spread their webs all over the world, neither to protect, nor to serve -- just to suck money out of consumers' pockets and tapcards.

Business behaves like a metaphysical guru telling people they live in paradise while establishing the very hell on Earth. A hell of plastic cards, security gates and neuro-implanted micro-chips flashing the latest news directly into the so- synchronized brains, interrupted by pro-system commercials every quarter hour. Once, Cassandra and I believed there should be more in this part of Milky Way. More than holographic realities produced by The System, controlled by The System, switched off by The System if necessary. We longed for a special place, just for the two of us. Ready to give shelter when The System takes too much. A place that would be able to free our souls in a heavenly way (in fact, romanticism is more addictive than business). The only problem: there wasn't such a place. And will never be.

But that's enough cogitating. Have to enter now, to cross the boundary formed by crumbly brick walls. Our ring of defences for the next few hours. A magic circle built in a long forgotten age. We want to experience its enchantment. To enjoy our limited stay with a certain deadline kept in mind.

Finally, we're here again. At the remains of the ancient civilization never featured in our holo-visions. When browsing, one would find no image, no single picture of them in the data-processing memory card sticking in his UniMedia players, regularly updated by the global control system. Tragedy? I don't know. Never seen any, up to now. Besides, the information gap enables us to remain alone. Nobody would ever get lost in this area. But for myself, I'm fed-up with civilization's gaps and traps since ... No, don't want to think about that.

We step further on, Cassandra in my wake. On the left side of the grounds, there used to be a cemetery chapel. And there it is. I make the first move -- raindrops on my forehead, a delicate, well- known hand in mine. Rain all around. Air is filled with a fragrance of expectation. It's earth, awaiting and longing for life-spending water. Not like in the city, where asphalt covers all expectations. The former house of God is a counter now, with a counter guard sitting behind it. He has to check identity cards, so I give him ours. Everything's fine. We can enter.

Before we do that, let me explain a certain thing. As you may have expected, this is not just a special place, but a very special place for us, where dreams come true and all that stuff. It's our past and our impossible present at the same time. A present that is tolerated by the visitor system for exactly two and a half hours. All in all, it's just my personal Utopia. Just a kind of visa after which I have to check out into reality again where loneliness is waiting. So we hurry to enter.

Passing the entrance, the rusty, iron-barred gate catches my eye and soon after automatically swings open with a squeak. I'm not sure if people in those times used to say "squeak", as there's left no more "squeaking" nowadays. In post-capitalism, doors are "sliding aside" or simply vanishing as a result of "de-holographing" technologies. Interwoven with thick glass fibre cables, they connect one part of The System with the other. The System interacts with several sub-systems like birth sys, love sys, euthanasia sys to name just a few. There's something about the moss-covered, dilapidating gate. Some narrow- minded office people would call it transience, though I prefer describing it as an aura, not easy to get in touch to, but if so, it prickles like the warmth that emerges from an autumn camp fire. The gate means protection from the allpresent amnesia regarding the preceded society, guarding their world from ours, though many people say the opposite. However, we hurry in. My first impetus in this strange and so different realm is being silent. I'm so fascinated of what my eyes discover through the retina-implantates that I don't dare to say a word and so does Cassandra. It's the same procedure as every year.

You could enjoy your life, so why do you remain gloomy?

The prickling in my mind is kind of relaxing. Eases me. Don't know how people used to relax in those days, but this way it's much more effective. Muteness soothes my conscience. No gliders' buzzing, no devices turning their sounds on and off in regular intervals. Even not the usual holo-visions received by neuronal implantates. Absolute radio silence. Just me, Cassandra and the graveyard.

I'm looking around. Everywhere stones. Or so 1 think. Very old gravestones, memorial slabs and tombs here and there, bleached through the centuries by storm, rain and abundance of the physical world.

Most of the stones are ivy-covered and long since dead like the mortal remains resting under them. One could easily imagine them as memorials for a forgotten society, carved with words I can't decipher. Just a few names have survived on their vulnerable surface being hundreds of times older than mankind, while others have been broken out of the stones.

"Mary Elliot" is one of the survivors (letterwise, of course). Her name was engraved in Roman letters, but in such a strange and unusual way, rather chiseled than laserbumed, as though made by one of the outlaws who, cut off from any access to The System, are dragging out their miserable existence in the Underground several miles beneath the streets.

Nobody can re-enact the story of Mrs. Elliot's life due to the enormous lack of historical data support. Too much time's passed since her death. Too much oddities have occured meanwhile, like computerized history modifications or exterminations of genotypes endangering The System's future development. In order to "save" the future, much information from before the Great DNA War has been selectively deleted by CENTRAL CPU itself. To maintain memory capacities, as the officials said, but having other sources, I don't believe them. You ever heard of damnatio memoriae? The way ancient Rome coped with the past, deleting inscriptions of influential people that jeopardized imperial security, disfiguring their statues in vain? This was told to my by RESQ, an underground.org that tries to find out the truth about past by excavations and paleolinguistic studies. As the officials denied certain facts in history, they turned to unscrupulous criminals killing not only bodies, but wiping out memories of them. Billions of lifes -- extinguished indifferently. Though resting in peace, the dead would turn in their graves if they knew they never existed officially. But up to now, no solution has been found. Nobody can restore memories that are once wiped out. Hence I'm asking myself if there is really no way to explore our roots. Is it imply lost? Deleted by The System, to be never mentioned again? Only the gravestones will know the answer. They will stand here for at least thousands of years, stretching their marble bodies into the air, providing no proof of what we could expect after we've finished and left our unimportant lifes like a rotten ruin that is never to be visited again.

We get off this depressing place. Walking on pebbles. Sounds like crunching chips in the CineBowl arena. Anyway, we're not watching movies, although the cooing of distant owls and the scraping of European pine voles are produced by the graveyards' virtual audio system. In case of sporadic visitors like us, it's useless to make special efforts in programming interactive brainware for each of the animal "actors", so I don't wonder about the frequently distorted sound atmosphere. Has something of a dysfunctioning holo-player. Being used to that, I can live with those marginal faults. Still better than facing the outside world that is offering virtual realms to travel in your thoughts if you can't afford a subsubway drive to the northern latitudes.

You could be a winner, so why do you hold back?

Silence. Rustling silence whispers through the crumbling slates.

I feel different, somehow transformed, as though a strange spirit has overtaken my body, steering it along the virtual path, making me stray from the path of virtue. At least, it seems like that.

My heart wants to scream like a burned witch inmidst of the fearful silence of those who should know it better but never will. Fire's crackling, licking at my toes, seconds later nibbling them, full of anticipation, to devour my coal black skin.

I really want to scream. I think I really want to scream. I think ... I just want to be out of here. Out of the vision. It's too hot. Virtual reality turns from paradise into hell. Damn, what's happening? Didn't I take today's psy-stabilizing pills? Having dramatically reached a non-bearable level, the holo-vision swims in front of my eyes, then vanishes like a very dream. With help of my restored consciousness I quickly get that I just forgot to turn off the virtual tourist guide vividly explaining historical facts to the visitors, though only those facts that The System wants to be real.

This all took place while Cassandra and I were walking hand in hand through the dark and peaceful graveyard alleys. I want to tell her my experience, but I forgot that my wife is dumb and has been for countless years. She just smiles at me, raising her arms to my face, touching it carefully. I try to remember her voice, but it's too long ago since that she has talked to me. Having embraced each other, we step further on, knowing that we don't need any words in this moment.

While thinking at this and that, I have a forbidden idea: What if I wanted to stay here, to experience the curative power of this special place for years and years, not only for hours? I don't know how The System would react if I made such a request, but I'm quite sure it wouldn't be too happy.

Reality jerks me out of my reveries and another thought crosses my mind. This time, it's more realistic, but discouraging and disillusioning. For as soon as I check out of the graveyard and leave behind the inner silence that fulfills every inch of the paradise-like garden, everyday life will welcome and then overcome me. It will reintegrate me into plastic offices, plastic homes and assimilate me to a plastic society that doesn't accept any individuals, just credit cards, ID codes and proper data interfaces implanted into the cervetical vertebra. Impulsively, I strenghten my hug around Cassandra's neck and try to forget the visits' deadline waiting for me somewhere in the near future.

Minutes later, we stop and try to decipher some of the prehistoric characters engraved on some broken gravestones, part marble, part sandstone, arranged in a circle like the rays of a sun painted by a seven year old child. I have nothing more than my prenatal implanted knowledge to measure things, so I conclude that they are consecrated parts of some ancient religion. I don't understand what's engraved on the stones, it's another language. Bending over the tallest of the religious objects, I make out a swastika among the other characters, but believe that this has to be a religious symbol. If an historian told us that the gravestones were desecrated by some roaming teenagers on a Sunday afternoon, I wouldn't believe his words even if they were true. Why? Because I'm not able to accept things The System doesn't want me to accept, like all the other inhabitants of the Earth-covering mega city. Besides, there aren't any roaming teenagers in our world. They're all under The System's control.

After an intimate intermezzo on the moss-covered ground in the centre of the holy circle, we're exhausted but satisfied. One hand in my neck and the other in my wife's, I'm looking up-sky, separating the dark, filigrane line that forms an Earth-encircling superhighway from the blackness behind that is heavily pierced by myriads of stars. The tunnel-shaped magnet field was built at the beginning of the 3rd millennium to enable high-speed transportation around the globe, resting on miles-deep pillars that rise 8,000 feet in the air, nearly touching the exosphere. As I don't want to be remembered at the world outside, I close my eyes to forget.

You could travel wherever you want, so why do you stay?

Cassandra wakes me up. She has unfolded the molecular bottle containing the finest synthetic red wine on the whole planet. We had to smuggle it through the gate, because carrying alcohol in the graveyard isn't allowed since some addicts have buried their children alive last season.

The colourless drink tastes fruity, though a little bit too sweet. Then we proceed walking from grave to grave, until invisible speakers (in our heads?) indicate that there are ten minutes left. Eight minutes later, we arrive at our very special place -- our very special gravestone.

After a minute spent looking into each other's eyes, Cassandra embraces me one last time, turns around lithe but resolutely, and doesn't say goodbye. She's dumb, so what did I expect? Laying herself on her back, she stretches her body on the memorial slab that spells her name in bold gothic letters, shiny gold, on a silvery inscription tablet. Arms crossed on her breast as if imitating some prehistoric cults, she seems to be waiting for something beyond life. Then, my wife stops breathing and her body slowly disappears in the consecrated soil where the real Cassandra has been lying for over 25 years now. Her hologram, achieving its final destination, vanishes under my feet like a ghost.

Split seconds before I can toy with the idea of mourning for her, doors slide open behind me. Light comes in, illuminating a rectangular shaped area, containing my wife's grave in the centre. The graveyard seems to awaken in a ghostly dawn, as though the heavenly gates themselves have been opened. Leafs, graves, ivy and pebbles -- all enframed by divine brightness. Several metallic spots on the scattered and rusty crosses reflect the gleam, turning it into sparkles similar to that ones of a diamonds'. Simultaneously, a well-known voice raises in my head. Though it sounds female somehow, I know it's just an emulated, computer-generated version of an original human sample voice. It says:

Hello, friend. Your holographic session has now been terminated. Please proceed to the nearest exit. For further advice turn to friendly Psychiatrist No. 713, waiting for your cheerful presence on the 93rd floor.

Moving around, I discover the exit opening right on the path behind me, exuding not divine but dazzling artificial light that devalues the shapes around it to mere shadows with vague contours. The System continues to speak in its flat, affectless voice:.

I nearly cured the cute instability concerning your wife's death. I have diagnosed an unconscious aversion against me, The System, in an early stage. But treatment will have a 99 percent chance of success, so please don't fear erasure. Everything will be all right. Psychiatrist No. 713 is being informed. Please hurry up to meet him soon, for the next friend already waits for permission to enter the holo-area.

Reassured of my progress toward sanity, I step through the curtain of light that separates the real world from my memories -- what remains of them after selective erasure to facilitate a new life, without any death-strains from the past. Outside, there is a long, white-painted hallway with dozens of white doors on each side at precisely equal intervals. The graveyard disappears out of the holo-area and out of my mind. I can't recall now how many years Cassandra has been dead. Remembrance is gone, unreachable. I'm not even sure of my ex-wife's appearance. I'm sure -- if I ever meet her again -- I won't recognize her.

93rd floor. It's just twelve floors up from here. I'll take the elevator instead of the beamer. Have to save power according to The System's strict energy guidelines. I'll follow them right to friendly Psychiatrist No. 713. He'll cure my instabilities. He'll restore sanity for a normal life. A life without any problem. Walking along the hallway, the image of the white-painted walls and doors flickers for a moment, revealing mouldy walls surrounding heavy wooden doors with iron hinges and occasional padlocks. Before I can think over or interpret the scene, a cheerful, well-known voice calms me down.


(A somewhat different version of tis story appeared in InterNOVA - The Magazine of International Science Fiction in April, 2005.)

© 2010 Sven Kloepping

Bio: Sven Kloepping is a German sci-fi writer whose work has appeared in major German sci-fi magazines such as Nova SF, c't, and phantastisch! and in print and online publications including Planet Magazine. A collection of his stories (MegaFusion, in German) was published in 2001; a second volume will appear shortly. Several of Sven's poems appeared in Aphelion, most recently Cut-off (July, 2007).

E-mail: Sven Kloepping

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