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Rest in Peace

by Helmuth W. Mommers

91,

I hate funerals, have always hated them. Even more so when they’re held on moist cold November days while it’s drizzling. Like today. There one stands, shoulders pulled up, left hand holding an umbrella, breathing fog and praying that the priest cuts things short out of mercy for the living, before the puddles seeping into thin footwear climbs up cold legs. Like crows with folded wings, the mourners have gathered around the deceased’s coffin, that pale countenance of death, their thoughts weighed heavily by grief or the fear for their own mortality, with the onset of hunger steadily knotting up their insides. Finally! An amen seals the ceremony, and frees people to scoop up some earth and toss a final farewell down onto the coffin.

It’s not for me. I decided on a cremation for myself, out of consideration for those loved ones left behind: a warm goodbye inside a heated chapel, even though it would’ve made no real difference to me in my current state. Well, I had the choice. It was my own funeral, after all.

And so people filed past the imitation wood coffin, to look upon the dearly departed one final time and deposit a farewell flower on the glass lid. A few even suppressed a tear or sniffed, as though the winter weather was somehow to blame. Regardless, I did not expect sobbing.

I looked great; compliments to the undertakers. From my ninety-one-year old discarded shell, they had magically created a distinguished graying gentleman, dressed in a black smoking with a carnation tucked into the breast pocket, bedded on white silk. If my body didn’t lie there so motionlessly, one might have thought that a simple command was all that was needed to have it rise up and ask for a dance. Seen that way, it was almost a pity to step down.

Pointless observations. Against the back wall a greedy maw tore open to suck into its fiery jaws the coffin containing my meager biomass, which wouldn’t even have made it as an organ donor. Well, that was it, then.

With my wife at my side, seemingly untouched, I accepted expressions of condolences. One after the other I looked them in the eye: children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, relatives, friends, acquaintances, business partners. I shook hands, slapped shoulders, had my own shoulder patted, was gently embraced. It felt strange. Even more awkward where the hackneyed expressions: “You were a good friend”, “I’ll never forget you”, “you were always admired”; the same old litany. I thanked them with a mumbled ‘same to you’, or grumbled my approval.

Finally I was alone with my wife. She turned to me, I turned to her, our eyes met. She started to embrace me, her mouth opening for a kiss, but at the last moment she froze. Blushing, she lowered her eyes and whispered “good luck”, before fleeing with the retreating mourners, my “you, too” barely within earshot.

All of it I registered like an unaffected bystander, my emotions still beyond my control.

Undecided whether I should first follow the procession to the funeral reception or wait for a heavenly revelation, I paused, until the door opened again. It was the clergyman.

He pressed a container, not unlike a vase, into my hands. Instead of flowers it had a lid with the inscription:

Rest in peace

Dust to dust

Ashes to ashes

Under those words was written my name, followed by dates.

***

5

“What do you want to be one day?”

I had been asked this question more than I counted my age. I clapped down a tinted visor and playfully lifted my menacing laser cannon. Immediately coordinates flashed across the screen, flanked by glowing green columns as sensors drew a bead with breathtaking speed, metrically registering the target: grandfather.

“Space-pilot,” I shot verbally. “Ffft, fft,” the cannon went. “You’re dead!”

My grandfather smiled. “And what’s the cannon for?”

“Blowing away space-pirates.”

“But there aren’t any space-pirates.”

“No yet!” I sighed at such ignorance and lifted up the visor. “But when we reach the asteroid belt….” Arbitrarily, I shot my laser in all directions. “Ffft, ffft, ffft, ffft,” it went, lights flashing.

“Till then it’s still a long way to go, my boy.” Grandfather sat me down on his knee and hugged me with one arm. “Who knows if us humans will ever –”

“Of course we will!” I protested. I knew that we hadn’t yet found a successful way to transport astronauts beyond Mars’ orbit, with the sun’s radiation being so dangerous, but if we could finally have warp drives … or if the first aliens arrived with their superior technology…. In my mind’s eye I could see them marching towards me, weapons clanging. I reflexively let rip with a charge of electro-magnetic particles and watched them scatter in fear. “Wush!” I went. “Karump! You’re dead!”

Grandfather laughed. “Who was that you just blew into oblivion?”

“The aliens. We’ll grab their spaceships… and their weapons… and all their technology and… and then we’ll fly to Jupiter and Saturn and Pluto and… all the way to the center of the Milky Way. Yes, sir!” I puffed with enthusiasm.

I was five.

***

26

“The high court hereby pronounces its verdict. Please rise.”

Chairs scraped on the sides of the defense and prosecution.

“In the name of the people I pronounce this verdict. The accused, Roman Fitzgerald –” the judge’s gaze hit him like a guillotine “– is found guilty in terms of….” Paragraphs and paragraphs. I didn’t listen; I knew the charges off by heart. The sentencing of this criminal was just a formality; only the kind of execution was left to the judge’s discretion. “… and is sentenced to death.”

Now it came. To the death it was, but was it final?

“The accused loses his right to exist as a human. He is stripped of all his civil rights, and his shell is to be cremated. The death sentence is suspended with probation.” The judge paused artfully in the tense silence, then he announced, “Probation is set at three hundred years. Thereafter, exile is repealed. The people’s judgment has been pronounced and this court is adjourned!”

I expected it; no, hoped it. The defendant received a second chance. His personality would be scanned, zipped as a data package, stored electronically, enveloped in titanium, and finally sent out as a humanoid robot on the long trip to the asteroid belt, Jupiter, Saturn and beyond; who knows, as a prospector, a miner, a willing tool, the long arm of humanity in outer space.

I almost envied him.

Laptop over my shoulder, I left the courts with my colleagues of the defense. We had something to celebrate.

Back then I was just twenty-six.

***

32

There are moments in life when you need emotional support. This was one of those moments.

My first wife left me; she’d packed her bags, deposited a note on the commode, fetched the little one at kindergarten and disappeared, without a forwarding address. I would hear from her lawyer, she had said. Of all people.

I normally don’t drink alcohol, but for social occasions we always had a small selection in reserve. Now I befriended Mr. Scotch, without ice. Supported by Rachmaninov, I was near tears after the fourth glass, and threatening to sink into self-pity. It was comfort I wanted, but sorrow I found, on the altar of self-righteousness.

The altar! Our ancestral altar.

Tumbler in hand, I circled over to the little alcove in which our family altar stood, 3Ds of our loved ones lined on top of it, and more framed partly-faded ancient photos, hung on the walls above, left and right of the tabernacle.

My glazed eyes wandered over the familiar gallery, followed by the eyes of the miniaturized loved ones in their three-dimensional prisons. Evelyn! With my attempt to put the whiskey glass down I touched her frame – immediately she blew me a kiss and piped, “I love you!” I quickly turned the frame facedown, which smothered a second confession of love.

In its place I picked up Evie’s picture with both hands, as though I had to hold on tight to something, and promptly my angel chirruped, “Hallo daddy; daddy – I love you, I love you so –”

I pressed a warm kiss on that face, and wiped a tear from the screen with my sleeve. When I replaced her, she answered with a, “come again, soon.”

Whom to ask for help, whom to trust? Would father and mother understand? No, of course not. For them marriage was holy, and if my wife left me then only I was to blame. My sister? No way, she always stood by Evelyn. Grandfather! Yes, he had always understood me. But he was dead.

Perhaps I should wake him. Could I disturb his rest? Hesitating briefly, I opened the tabernacle. In a moment a hologram appeared: grandfather, shrunk to twelve inches, lifelike but still inanimate. Now I’d see if he would for a few moments of his sheer boundless existence in cyberspace leave the Nirvana into which he had withdrawn, and grant an audience to a mortal like me.

“Hallo, my boy,” it spoke and smiled generously. “Nice of you to visit me again.” He winked mischievously. “What’s on your mind?”

***

44

One day Mona, my second wife, surprised me with the suggestion, “I want to work.”

“What – work?” I was flabbergasted. “An attorney’s wife doesn’t need to work.”

“I’m bored.” She inspected her fingernails.

“Then organize the household. Mind the children.”

“It’s not necessary. Robbie does a better job of it than me.”

Yes, I’d reached the same conclusion. We relied more and more on electronics, automatons. Where was it all going? A time would come when we’d be helpless and unable to cope with life, completely at the mercy of machines, from the cradle to the grave.

What could I say to that? “Work is a privilege,” I tried my luck. “I hardly think that you’ll find something.”

Maybe she was thinking of a career in entertainment – a mannequin, movie star, talk-show hostess, cyberfairy, something like that. But no, she couldn’t be that unrealistic: all those jobs were already taken, if not by virtuals then by android doubles.

“That’s not what I meant.” Mona flicked a strand of hair from her forehead with an exaggerated movement that hinted at her repugnance for work. “I meant something charitable, some… noble civic service.”

Oh, that really was something new. Mona a volunteer I looked forward to that.

“That’s very honorable,” I said. “And what were you thinking of?”

“I don’t know… something will come to me.” Seemingly satisfied with her fingernails, she crossed one leg over the other and began inspecting her green-lacquered toenails, over the rim of a cognac glass.

Sometimes she came across as one of those household androids – better: playmates. Maybe, I thought, I should replace Robbie, our little tin-man.

“What a wonderful idea!” rejoiced Mona at my suggestion. “I’ve always wanted a butler. And maybe a gardener. And a chauffeur….”

The mention of a chauffeur was complete nonsense; after all, who still got around in a manual car? And a gardener… but a butler? Maybe the kids would have a competent replacement for their parents after all. .

We agreed on two androids. A butler and housemaid.

Although not human, just AIs, artificial intelligences, they at least were citizens, even if they were just second class.

I was forty-four, then.

***

62

When I married for the fourth time, this time to a woman a decade younger than me, I was already sixty-two, and both my children had established families of their own.

Nadine ardently wanted a child from me, and so she would have it. We could fetch it the week after.

It was only later that we decided to take out life insurance with an option to clone. The sales consultant beamed. “A wise choice,” he purred. “Alternatively, I recommend reanimation.” On our eloquent silence, he continued. “In the case of discord you can rest assured that your partner can be resurrected as a fresh young maiden – ahem – or virile bachelor, the way you lovingly remember him. On the other hand, you can transfer all his memories as complete, and in whatever form, as you find convenient.”

This last sentence slid so easily from his lips that he must have uttered them a thousand times before. So what, though.

In layman’s terms it meant this: if one of us died, one could resurrect him as a clone. With or without memory replay. Or even just a part of them. For the surviving partner it’d be relatively easy, but for the clone it was a new beginning, because however he felt he wouldn’t be the same as his deceased counterpart. It wasn’t immortality, that’s for sure.

For the child it wouldn’t matter, at least in the first instance. The main thing was that it had its parent again.

If I died before my wife, which would most likely be the case, would she reanimate me as a virile youth, and transfer a brain-scan? What would that feel like, when I suddenly saw an older woman in front of me, with wrinkles and liver spots and sagging upper arms, instead of the tender nymph of my memories? And alternatively, what would she feel?

One day I’d find out, or maybe not. When I signed up, I didn’t want to know any better.

***

0

I didn’t survive her, after all, just as I didn’t live longer than my fifth wife. They all outlived me. At least my mortal shell, which I shed at ninety-one and now held cremated under one arm. I was still myself, with all my memories up to immediately before the brain-scan. No pseudo-I with replacement memories transferred during virtual excursions in cyberspace, which could let my clone doubt whether he’d dreamed it or not, or whether he simply suffered from schizophrenia.

I never trusted this cloning business. I had decided differently, realized my childhood dream.

***

There it rose up in front of me, majestic and filled with promise, the shuttle that would take me into orbit, me and the few belongings I could take on my long journey. At the sight of it I felt like my heart would quicken, my throat would constrict, but that was just my imagination, a phantom sensation. I didn’t have a heart. And I didn’t have to breath either. Not anymore since I died. I now had other needs.

Not entirely different from the bunch of criminals that just thundered past me in their bulky titanium housings, condemned to an organic death, but reprieved in their service on inhospitable planets, deep in outer space. They, too, received their second chance. Like me.

I wasn’t going to be a space-commander, a Top Gun or Universal Soldier, and I wasn’t going to navigate starships or fight in distant battles, either, the way I’d wished it as a young boy. Instead, I was going to set out for the stars and take part in the biggest adventure of mankind – the conquest of space. Me and those like me, human-androids, first class.

We’d be extensions of humanity, who alone could reach into the furthest corners of the universe.

Short of the shuttle I emptied the urn over the concrete runway. With a roar and a rumble from the turbines, my mortal remains would be blown to the four winds. It would be a worthy departure, and a hopeful new beginning.

Translated by Richard Kunzmann

Original title: „Ruhe in Frieden“

First published 2004 in C’t

 Copyright © 2004 by Helmuth W. Mommers

Helmuth W. Mommers, born 1943 in Vienna, was as writer, illustrator, translator, literary agent and anthology editor one of the first allrounders of the sf scene and one of the pioneers of science fiction in Austria and Germany. After a career of businessman he celebrated his comeback into science fiction in 2002 and has been, as co-founder of Nova, as editor of the Visionen anthology series and as writer and mentor, enormously influential on contemporary sf story writing in Germany, for which he received the Kurd Laßwitz Preis in 2008. He is currently in the process of moving back to his home town Vienna and to build up a new specialized science fiction library.

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