The Church of the Transmigration promised an eternity of bliss in the Higher Plane of the virtual universe, unchained from the bondage and pain of earthly life. It was strange, the rationalizers admitted, but stranger than becoming one with Brahma or sitting at the right hand of God, stranger than Nirvana or Heaven? Hardly.
And where other religions only made promises about becoming one with Brahma or sitting at the right hand of God, this heaven was one you could see and taste and touch in Vir. This was a heaven whose workings you could understand, a scientific heaven in place of the mysteries of an earlier god. They uploaded you into the computer, not just a consciousness but all of you, but you couldn’t scan an object so completely and leave it perfectly intact. The process was literally deadly, it fried your synapses and destroyed your body. But then bodily death (and strictly speaking, they did not consider it that, “transmigration” was the word they always used) had always been the price of admission to heaven. And history had known no shortage of Crusaders ready to lay down their lives in the belief that they would go to paradise the instant they fell. Unlike their paradise, this heaven let you hear the testimonials of those before you, for those who had transmigrated were still there in Vir to be seen and spoken to.
Not surprisingly the Church had found adherents. Three hundred million had made the journey so far, and they said that hundreds of millions more, perhaps billions more, were on the waiting lists. (Fifty times a Holocaust their opponents cried!) Yet it had all seemed so distant to Bobbie until two weeks ago, when Pyrce told her that he would be doing it, too, and that he wanted her to be there with him, holding his hand during the ceremony . . .
Pyrce Godwin was that most enduring of nineteenth century Romantic cliches, the alienated and anguished artist. Pyrce was a young painter of unconventional illusions, moderate talent, modest background and no connections, leaving him without access to the circles in which he could have hoped for something like success, or the comforts that softened the edges of such realities. Much like his finances his health had never been good. He was no cripple, and he may have had a long life ahead of him, but his physical frailties added to his existential ennui, further isolating him from the world. Pyrce had never got along easily with others, nor they with him, which was, perhaps, how she came to be here with him; he so often seemed to be within his own little world, just as she was. And here the Church came, offering him a vision of a beautiful world, where everything would be as it should be, and nothing would ever hurt.
Sitting here alongside the scanner bed in the softly lit, rectory-like hospital room, silent but for the hum of the machinery, she remembered the objections of the rejectionists. The myriad religious and humanistic activists who firmly believed Transmigration to be murder, and the consciousnesses inside the Church’s data banks to be nothing more than elaborate computer programs. Computers and robots can never be called alive, they said. They lack the essence of experience, merely collecting and retaining data, they said. Machines are never born, linked to the rest of the living universe through parents and their parents and their parents back to the very beginnings of life, and gestated in a process where they recapitulated their species’ whole evolution, but are made whole, in a single piece. And where even a single cell comes into existence alive, indeed is alive when it is mere potentiality, the most complex machine does not even function until it is started up, dead until someone plugged it into the wall. The machine-men and machine-women are organized, not organic; synthetic, not natural.
It was all metaphysical babble to the sort of hard-core rationalist, materialistic thinking Bobbie had been brought up with. What is experience but data, the materialists asked? And what are living things but nature’s inventions? What are we all but information encoded in carbon? She didn’t feel so sure of that now, and she thought of how no one had ever been translated back from the machine – if maybe the rejectionists were right that life could not be so readily transferred, that the laws of thermodynamics held for the soul, and something was lost in every conversion of matter and energy, and something of Pyrce would be lost in the process. Something essential.
Would he still be able to love? Bobbie had long suspected that Pyrce felt more for her than he let on, and that later grew into a certainty that he loved her. He’d never been able to tell her in so many words, but she remembered the paintings of her he’d made, paintings she’d never been meant to see, or know about, and which he still thought were his secret; yet, she had seen them, and seen in them what he felt for the subject.
Bobbie didn’t know that he’d ever had a girlfriend, or even if he’d lost his virginity (and Vir didn’t count). Perhaps, she thought, even if she didn’t love him back, she could have let him make love to her, if maybe that would have kept him from this – God knew she’d done it for worse reasons than that. But it was too late for anything like that, and once he set his mind on something he could never let go of it. Nothing she offered, not even herself, could have changed that; he had too much foolish pride for that. She knew it because Pyrce had never given her the chance to do it, never mentioned his involvement with the Church until the date had been set.
“I’m Transmigrating,” he told her simply. “Two weeks from Tuesday. And I want you to be there with me when I do it.”
She hadn’t known what to say to that. She’d just sat there stunned, open-mouthed, as he watched her expectantly, waiting for her to say yes.
“I don’t think you’ve ever mentioned the Church before,” she said when she finally gathered her wits about her. That wasn’t what she’d wanted to say, but what first came to her mind would have just made things worse. How could screaming help at a time like this? That he’d lost his head was all the more reason for her to keep hers.
“No,” he said, either willfully ignoring or blissfully ignorant of the thrust of the question.
“You’re sure this is what you want?” she asked, wondering if anything could stop him. “There’s no going back.”
“I’m sure,” he told her, looking her in the eye, as hard mentally as he was frail physically.
“So this is . . . almost goodbye,” she managed, a plan forming in the back of her mind to snatch him away before the day. A plan she could never really enact.
“Of course not,” Pyrce told her. “It’s not like I’m dying. I’m just . . . changing state. The Pattern remains constant, though, and we’ll be able to see each other, just like before. Even better than before. It’s supposed to be like . . . being inside of joy.”
“That’s what they say,” Bobbie said, trying to smile.
There had been tears in her eyes then, too. She wondered if he’d seen them, if they’d made him doubt for even a moment, but if they had he never let her see it. His brave front said that it didn’t see through her brave front.
“And don’t wear black,” he said. “It’s not a funeral.”
“All right,” she said, not feeling it, but agreeing to do what he asked anyway. “I’ll wear the red dress. The one you always liked.”
He seemed pleased when she said that.
As the days wound down toward his Translation to a Higher Plane, so did her hope that he would relent, but it didn’t die completely, not until . . .
She felt his hand go limp in her own, and she knew that he was no longer here. She felt hot tears on her cheeks, tasted their salt as they rolled down to her lips, and continued to hold his hand until the bed retracted into the wall. She wondered if perhaps she didn’t love him, too, in her own way.
Moments later she heard Pyrce’s voice.
“You’re crying,” he said. “Please, don’t cry for me.”
She looked up at his hologram, a projection of the consciousness just uploaded into the computer. His appearance was immaculate, and gave an impression of robustness and prosperity that she had never seen him display before, the ashen complexion of the tubercular poet now a ruddy glow.
Pyrce’s image wasn’t so much overhauled as tweaked.
The hologram reached out, touched her cheek, smiled. “I’m free now,” he said.
It was not unexpected; this was part of the ritual, the words said from the other side for the consolation of the mourners. She could not deny being moved by it, despite herself. She wanted to believe that he was still alive, that he was not gone, and that his life continued in the machine and she could still see him and hear him and if she was in Vir even touch him, but it never happened like that. So many people hoped to hold on to deceased friends and family in this way, but the ghosts in the machine always drifted away from this world, to oblivion, the cynics said, to something infinitely more beautiful, the Church promised. No matter how many times she went through it in her mind, the desire remained, and maybe, she thought, he would at last find some of the happiness he never found in this world, she wanted to believe that he could still love and feel warmed by love . . .
As they spoke she suppressed her impulses to search the image before her for signs it was a fake, Pyrce’s face plastered onto a generic image and mouthing scripted words. She allowed herself to believe it was him standing before her, that this was not goodbye after all, to derive whatever comfort she could before she walked away.
The priest overseeing the ceremony reentered the room. He was an elderly, round-faced man with a lilting Irish accent and kindly blue eyes. His clothing wasn’t the white sheet of so many cults, but vestments that wouldn’t have drawn a second glance in the most ancient and respectable of churches. “Father O’Malley,” as Pyrce had called him with fondness, was presenting her with a ring on a cushion.
“Mr. Godwin wishes you to have this,” he told her.
The Church permitted its members to do with their earthly remains as they desired. Incineration, followed by the processing of those remains into a diamond, was a popular choice.
“Put it on,” Pyrce said. “It’s something to remember me by.”
She did as he asked, slipping it on her index finger. The hologram – no, Pyrce – saw it and smiled. It looked as if he would cry too.
“Thank you,” he said. “Everything’s so beautiful here. Even more beautiful than I dared to hope. I just wish you could see it. But then, you can see it, can’t you?” Vir allowed that. “Come and see me soon. I’ll show you my world,” Pyrce said, like he’d just moved to a nicer apartment. “Til then, I’ll message you every day!” he added in a tone of child-like enthusiasm.
“I’ll message you too,” Bobbie said, allowing herself a laugh through the tears. “Tonight,” she promised. It was a promise she meant to keep, that she couldn’t imagine not keeping when she took her leave.
Stepping out on the sidewalk the breeze on her face was redolent with summer just turning to autumn and afternoon turning to dusk, taking the edge off the brutal heat. Slipping her cellular out of her pocket she summoned Spot, named after her pet cat when she was a little girl. The silver-gray 2077 Mollner promptly rolled out of the garage and opened its rear passenger-side door to let her in.
“Canopy up,” she requested. “And dim the tint.” She needed the air, wanted the sun to wash over her. The trip wasn’t long enough to make driving to a launch platform and zipping up to the sky lanes worthwhile, so they just ground on through the rush-hour traffic. She was not in the mood for distraction, however much she might have needed it, and Spot could read her well enough not to offer it: no music, no media, no banter.
As she sprawled over the back seat, letting the car simply take her home, Bobbie drew looks from passerby, in their equally slow vehicles, from the pedestrians on the sidewalk outrunning the cars so that everyone had the chance to gawk at passerby. Though her beauty made strangers’ looks long and lingering, youth alone was enough to attract attention. Certainly anyone who could afford it looked thirty into their fifties, but for all of the promises of the bio-viziers, the fountain of youth remained elusive, and with children so few, the world had just kept on growing grayer and grayer. This prosperous borough was even grayer than most.
Not that the world had grown to value its young any more for their scarcity, as Pyrce’s fate reminded her, but who would hear of it? There was so much you couldn’t say, and not being able to talk meant long silences, and that was no way to build a relationship with another human being. It took a lot of talking before you got comfortable with silence. That seemed to her a universal problem, those silences, but for her it was made worse by the peculiarities of her past.
The silence wasn’t her only option, of course. She could have told lies. It was what she had been brought up to do, what she did most of the time, but it was one thing to do it when she had to and another to do it when she was supposed to be feeling free, and after a period she’d just stopped.
Somehow, that hadn’t mattered with Pyrce, she thought, remembering the first time they’d met. He had been living in the apartment next to hers. He had signed for a package when she was away, and when she came to collect it, fresh off the hypersonic, he invited her inside for coffee. It had been a long, exhausting trip, and even if she’d learned to be wary of guys who went out of their way to be nice, the small comfort had seemed inordinately appealing.
They’d got to talking. She didn’t know what to make of him at first. He was so shy and retiring that he seemed at once younger and older than he actually was, like he’d walked away from the world even before he’d seen very much of it. And sure enough, her first impression was the right one.
But it didn’t make a difference. He didn’t ask the prying questions that made a liar out of her, or that made her uncomfortable when she wouldn’t lie. He was content to let her have her secrets, even when she didn’t want them, even when they’d ceased to really be secrets. Even though he never asked what it was she did, he knew. Given the long absences, and all the things she never said, it wasn’t all that hard to get a general idea. But that was what made all the difference. He didn’t suspect; he just let it be, and in an unguarded moment she could drop a few words, bereft of names and dates and places, bereft of “I,” tell him something she could never breathe a word of to anyone as just a story she’d heard, perhaps. She’d tell him without telling, and he would know without being told.
And so they could just sit together and talk, all those things that made daily life so awkward and difficult obstacles no more because . . . because she was with another human being who knew everything that really mattered, and accepted it all. Someone whose face she could look into, and say a few words to, and hear a few words from, and feel safer. Yes, frail as he seemed, she did feel safer with him, safe from what she couldn’t have said, but that didn’t change the substance of what she felt. Sometimes when she couldn’t sleep she’d knock on his door in the middle of the night. He’d always be there. They could talk just like that, and then she’d feel like there was nothing to run away from anymore, and she’d go back to bed and curl up and sleep would overtake her so that she slept like a baby until the next morning.
Pyrce made no demands, just wanted her to be there, wanted the simple pleasure of having someone like her near because just as he gave her what she needed, she gave him what he needed, a sympathetic ear, a readiness to hear him without disdaining him or judging him or mocking him. Just as she never had to lie when she was with him, he didn’t have to lie to her to preserve his dignity in a world where his ideals mattered for nothing. But there was more to it than that. Having her near he could enjoy a few moments basking in that mysterious glow that a woman like her so often radiated, especially in moments of vulnerability. And in the end, an object of courtly love.
Bobbie wondered if there was something wrong with her for not doing more for him, whatever more would have been, but it was too late for such thoughts, and all she could think about was trying to hold on to what they had. She could have spoken to him right now, messaged him right then and there, but . . . she didn’t want him to see her like this, didn’t want her distress to affect him anymore. After giving up the ghost he should have been free of that, had at least that much peace. What he wanted, what he needed, was for him to see her bright and clear-eyed, able to be as happy for him as he had seemed to be.