The room is uncomfortably cold. There’s no thermometer, but goosebumps cover his skin. He rubs his arms, savouring the warmth that spreads from his fingertips. He thinks about turning up the thermostat, but decides against it — this is the best environment for her. Still, it’s no place to spend a life.
He stands, stretches, walks three paces to the wall and three paces back–the ten by ten room allows nothing more. His mind wanders off to memory. The park, on a pleasant spring day, with a light breeze rippling the grass. A picnic lunch spread on a blanket between them. A contented grin on her face, a blissful one on his. Happiness.
A sudden beep brings his attention back to the monitor — another drive access error. It’s the third today; he knows what he has to do. He sits, alt-tabs to her face, enables the cam and mike. She sees him and smiles.
“My love. I missed you.”
“I was here all along, darling. I just needed to scan you for corruption.”
Her expression is suddenly worried.
“Am I… whole?”
“Yes,” he assures. She’s been here awhile now; she knows the dangers. “But I do need to turn you off for a little…”
“No, please!” she interrupts. “The disconnects are so frightening! I hate the dark spots; they make me feel… less human.”
You are less than human.
It’s a stray thought, and he quickly pushes it away. He cannot let such ideas take hold. She is, after all, his wife.
“I’m sorry, but your primary drive is failing. I need to swap it with the backup, before things get worse and there really is data loss.”
“Oh,” she answers softly. She is scared of the darkness, but she is more scared of losing her integrity. All digitized systems experience errors, and when they accumulate to a certain degree, the systems must inevitably crash. For a program, the fix is a restart, or worst case, a simple reinstall. For a human psyche, the worst case is… what? A loss of identity? A descent into insanity? A second death, this one final and unrecoverable? Each has been documented, in the growing amount of literature devoted to cyberlife. She is terrified of them all — of that he is painfully aware.
“Don’t worry. Nothing bad can happen to you in the dark.”
“I know,” she concedes, though her voice still trembles. “Do what you must…”
He kisses a finger, and presses it to the webcam. Her avatar returns the gesture. The room is tiny. The air is cold and still.
He sits for a while, looking at the black screen, empty of life. He pulls his sweater tight. He thinks back, to the long winter night he spent at her bedside while the scanner mapped her brain and the cancer ate away her body. He remembers her hand resting in his, frail but warm, flesh upon flesh.
He ignores his tears, as he pulls the server from the rack and removes the failing drive. He ignores his trembling fingers, as he connects and configures the backup. He ignores a pressure building within, a pressure to open the door and run, a desperate need to be free.
His finger rests lightly against the power button of the restored system. His eyes rest on the door handle. He is frozen in time, as inanimate as the server.
She is his wife.
Ross Kimble lives in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, with his wonderful wife and son. He holds a Master’s degree in Marketing, and uses it frequently to swat flies and mop up coffee spills. Although he has sampled several professions (including newspaper editor, salesperson, computer technician and web designer), all he really wants to do is write fiction. His family loves him nonetheless. Kimble’s work was recently featured in Murky Depths, and on the Bound Off podcast.