Tony leaned back in his chair on the patio and stared silently at the clouds changing colour as the sun went down. His mother-in-law was standing in the garden path, talking to someone on her cell phone. When she had finished she walked back up to the patio, refilled their glasses and said:
“I can see you’re lost in thought. I suppose you’re still trying to come to grips with your recent loss.”
He nodded and sipped his wine. “Yes. I guess it’ll take me some time.”
“Talking to your mother will make it easier, believe me,” she said. “What’s keeping you, Tony? She’s just a phone call away.”
He shook his head, refrained from pointing out that you can’t make phone calls to someone who has passed away. He didn’t want to go into all that again.
“You know, Tony, I still talk to my husband for any important matter that comes up. I find it extremely satisfying. I was talking to him just there.”
“Yes, I know,” he said. She was making phone calls to her late husband all the time indeed. So many people these days subscribed to BeyondLink, but he had never fancied the idea. People calling the loved ones they had lost were only fooling themselves. He wouldn’t fall into that trap.
“Why don’t you give it a try?” she insisted. “Have your mother’s profile made. I’m sure you have enough material of her. You’ll quickly discover why the rest of us use BeyondLink all the time. Once you’re used to it, you can’t be without.”
It was probably that company’s intention all along to render its services indispensable, not to say addictive, he replied in thought. To them it’s merely a money-making opportunity that became a runaway success.
“It’s just not right for me,” he said. “The whole idea doesn’t ring true.”
“Try it. You’ll be convinced.”
He desperately looked for a way to change the subject, and was happy to see his wife and daughter arrive. His mother-in-law immediately turned her attention to them, getting drinks and something to eat, mercifully forgetting her proposal. Tony was relieved. He had escaped BeyondLink’s lure, at least for now.
His wife and his mother-in-law launched into one of their lengthy conversations, while his daughter was playing around and talking to her imaginary friend. She seemed to do that quite frequently these days.
He drifted off into thought again, staring at the darkening sky. Memories of his mother, who had passed away a few weeks ago, flooded back. It would be a while before her face and voice would fade from his mind. Next week it would be his birthday — the first one she would miss…
“This is the strangest birthday present I’ve ever had,” Tony said, eyeing his cell phone with great suspicion. His wife and daughter were cheering.
“You’ll notice there’s a new number in the list,” his wife said. “Call that number. Come on, Tony.”
He hesitated. They did it, he thought. They’ve had my mom’s profile made and added to my phone list by way of a birthday present. I should have known there would be no escaping this.
“Tony?” His wife grabbed him by the arm, a questioning look in her eyes.
“All right,” he said and called the new number.
After a few seconds he heard a very familiar voice say: “Tony? Happy birthday! How nice to hear you. How are you?”
It was his mother’s voice indeed. It sounded perfectly like the real one. The computer simulation was incredibly realistic. Of course it was based on authentic recorded material, and on any additional information on the deceased person’s personality the family had been able to supply.
“Tony? Are you still there?”
“Yes, mom,” he said and allowed himself, to his surprise, to engage in a short conversation with his virtual mother. After a few minutes he hung up, but not without promising to call again soon.
He had to admit it was all very convincing. No wonder so many people turned to BeyondLink to talk to their deceased relatives and hear their beloved voices again… You had to remind yourself constantly that the voice at the other end was not a real person, but a product of programming. BeyondLink performed to perfection.
Would it help him to get to grips with his loss, or would it rather make that process more difficult, he wondered. No doubt that idea was far from BeyondLink’s programmers’ minds. They were happy when people made calls and paid their bills…
He promised himself to use the hotline to the hereafter sparingly. However pleasing it was, he knew very well it was fake. There was no way he would grow dependent on it, like his mother-in-law who was talking to her late husband all the time.
“Well, how do you like it?” his wife asked.
“It’s wonderful,” he replied. “Thank you so much for getting me back in touch with my mother. And for making sure she wouldn’t miss my birthday.” He hugged her, and then she went inside to get some drinks. In the garden his daughter was playing, while talking to her imaginary friend as usual.
An idea occurred to him. One day, he thought, BeyondLink’s software developers will come up with a system allowing kids to make phone calls to their imaginary friends. Wouldn’t that be an interesting market to exploit? These guys were cynical enough to do that. They might well be working on it this very instant.
I’ll have to talk to my mother about that, he thought, chuckling. He always used to discuss his ideas and insights with her first.
Frank Roger was born in 1957 in Ghent, Belgium. His first story appeared in 1975. Since then his stories have appeared in an increasing number of languages in all sorts of magazines, anthologies and other venues, and since 2000, story collections have been published, also in various languages. Apart from fiction, he also produces collages and graphic work in a surrealist and satirical tradition. By now he has more than 700 short story publications (including a few short novels) to his credit in more than 30 languages.