To Have And To Hold
Jane gasped and blinked, disoriented at the sudden transition from the warm quiet of the living room. Her new surroundings were sunny, but whipped by a cold wind acrid with the tang of salt.
She glanced around. Alex sat on a rough, stone shelf, one of a series that descended like crude steps into crashing surf. His beard glistened with beads of with water, and his hair, rendered a darker-than-usual shade of red, flew in wild curls. Jane opened her mouth to ask where they were, but a wave boomed against the rocks, raising a fine spray over them both.
She waited until it subsided, then shouted, "Hi, yourself!" She gestured around. "Nice place. Where is it?"
"Ireland. The northern part." Alex patted the rock beside him. "This is the Giant's Causeway, in County Antrim." He brushed dripping hair out of his eyes and smiled wickedly. "I told you I'd pick something a little different this time."
"It's different all right." Another wave crashed, drenching them with mist. "But cold!" She wiped water from her eyes. "Sorry, but you know Vancouver, even in the winter. I'm not used to it!"
Alex stood, laughing. "I know! I've always wanted to go to Ireland, but it's not exactly the tropics, is it?" He pointed behind her, to a stone cottage perched on the shore. "An added touch. I've got a fire going inside." He took her hand and led her away from the sea.
It was warm inside the cottage, although dim and smoky. Jane frowned and stepped towards the smoldering fire.
"I think it's going out--" she began, then stopped as Alex grabbed her shoulders from behind and gently turned her around.
"I know a better way to get warm," he said, unbuttoning her damp flannel shirt. "It starts with getting out of these wet clothes...."
Afterwards, Jane watched as Alex padded over to the hearth and stirred the embers. Every movement, perfect. Every detail. Even down to that little mole on his--
"So how's everyone doing? How's your mother?" Alex asked, without turning.
"Hmm? Oh, fine. In fact, she's coming for dinner tonight."
"Wouldn't come with you for a visit, huh? Not even for her favorite son-in-law?"
"You mean her only son-in-law," Jane said, completing the familiar little joke. "No, she wouldn't."
"Well, I guess she's still not comfortable with this whole imaging thing. I guess she doesn't trust artificial intelligence--especially when you're making love to it."
Jane smiled, but it was half-hearted thing. It was so easy to forget that none of this was real--that this was all just a computer-generated fantasy world, and that this Alex was just an artificially intelligent computer construct, an avatar. Certainly, it was all based on the real Alex's communications from the Interlink ship, now just past the orbit of Mars. But those messages took nearly twenty minutes just to reach Earth. So the computer filled in the details at this end, fleshing out his character and giving context to his responses, based on what it had learned about him. This virtual Alex was much better than any of the non-interactive alternatives. The illusion could even be nearly perfect, until something like this poked a hole through it and exposed the dreary reality outside.
"Hey, you going to sleep on me?"
Jane started. Alex laughed and crawled back under the blankets. He was so warm, so....
She sighed. Well, since the subject had come up....
"How's the flight going?" she asked.
He shrugged. "Not bad. I think we worked out the programming bug we had in the propulsion monitor. And that faulty attitude thruster got fixed on an EVA. So, hopefully, the Ceres colony will have its cargo in time for New Year's." He laid an arm across her stomach. "Now, tell me about your day."
In answer, Jane reached down, grabbed his hand, and cupped it over her breast.
"Boring. Heard enough?" She squeezed his fingers under hers.
Alex laughed, exactly the way she knew he would.
A chime sounded while Jane was setting the table.
She glanced out the window, expecting her mother's flyer and ready to curse parents who refused to understand that 'not late' didn't mean 'early' . But it wasn't her mother. The flyer touching down bore the corporate logo of Interlink.
A small, hard knot formed in her stomach.
Jane watched as a figure exited and walked up towards the house. She knew the walk long before she could see the face. It was Gordon Chin, Interlink's flight manager.
The knot in her stomach grew.
"Hello, Gordon," she said when he was inside. "You've come a long way just to say hello."
He unzipped his jacket, but said nothing.
"But that's not why you're here, is it?"
He shook his head. "There's been an accident, Jane. A bad one."
"An accident," she repeated, and the knot burst, enveloping her in muzzy softness, like cotton-wool.
Gordon nodded. "About a week ago, we lost the telemetry from Alex's ship. That happens sometimes, usually because of problems with antenna alignment. But the crew usually fixes it pretty quickly."
She stared at him. "A week ago...?"
"We didn't tell you," he went on, "because...well, we didn't want to worry you unnecessarily." He shrugged--an apology, she supposed. "Anyway, they were supposed to start their first braking burn for the Ceres rendezvous three days ago. But they never did."
Jane turned and looked out the window. "What--" she began, and then her voice failed.
She heard Gordon shift behind her, a profoundly uncomfortable sound. "Yesterday, our engineers used some technical wizardry to finally get back communications with the ship. It was only partial telemetry, but we did get some readings from the on-board instrumentation." He paused, and she could feel Gordon gather himself. "There's no atmosphere on board, Jane. And radiation levels are...well, way too high. We think there was an explosion, probably in the drive."
She felt him step closer. "I'm so sorry, Jane. If there's anything I can do...."
She shook her head.
Long after the beacon on Gordon's flyer had disappeared, Jane remained by the window, staring at the sky.
It was easier that way. The sky made no demands of her. It asked no questions, required no decisions. It was just a featureless gray nothing, without depth or substance.
Not unlike how her life had suddenly become.
She was waiting, of course, for the tears, the grief, the flood of emotion that would drive her to the floor. She could feel it, looming over her like an avalanche, poised to fall.
It was inevitable.
So what was it waiting for?
But she already knew the answer to that.
She turned towards the imager.
This was inevitable as well....
She turned toward the voice, and found herself looking out over a panoramic sweep of mountains. Snow-clad and overprinted with the blue haze of distance, they swept off in all directions to the horizon. Alex stood framed against them, leaning carelessly against the railing that ringed their windswept perch. Beyond, there was nothing, just empty space--how far down, she could neither see nor guess.
"I didn't expect you back so soon," he said, smiling. "But here we are." He gestured behind him.
"The Alps--the Swiss ones, that is." He stomped his foot against the rock. "This one's Pilatus. I spent some time here a few years before we met, and thought...."
Then his voice died away into the wind, and the smile faded.
She stepped forward, oblivious to the cold, until she stood in front of him.
"Why didn't you tell me?"
He shrugged. "All I knew was that the transmissions had stopped. Since I know Alex well enough to carry on without him, I suppose...well, I just didn't want to worry you."
"You didn't want...," she began, then shook her head. He...this machine...had the same concern for her that Gordon had.
"He's dead, you know," she said.
He nodded. "I'm so sorry, Jane. Really." And that was all, for a while, except for the wind.
Then the Alex-avatar said, "I understand, of course, that you won't becoming here anymore--"
"Don't," she said, wrapping her arms around him and laying her head on his shoulder. "I don't want to think about it right now."
A pause. Then he hugged her back.
Feeling his warmth, she decided that those waiting emotions could just keep waiting. Right now, she just wanted someone to hold her.
Her husband would do.