. .

Let’s Talk About Death, Baby

by Sven Klöpping

Doors slide behind me.

I grab Cassandra’s arm, to pull her out of the sub-subway station. It’s been too bright in the underground; too much flickering strip-lighting, brain scanners and technology. We de-materialise ourselves, up to the ground floor, hoping for backwardness. Outside, pouring rain. Thin, cold fingers in the dark. Instinctively, I feel an urge to escape from the falling water, so we hurry under a badly lit roof of leafs as we’ve done so many times before. Being here is unique. Not least because our refuge is about the last non-holographic on the planet. Located as it was in the northern territory, few people could ever find or destroy this rare spot of nature. Take a rest, my darling. For a moment, we stand stock still like the skyscrapers in front of us. They glitter tonight. It’s our 23rd wedding night. Everywhere are windows, light bulbs and electric blue antennas. Instead of walls, void blackness. Looks like swarms of enormously enlarged glow-worms banded in the air, unmoveable, clinging together as if demonstrating for peace. Normal people call it finishing time. I don’t believe them because too many things come to life at night. Mr. Average doesn’t recognise them. He‘s too well-fed to want to do anything else but watch his holo-vision movies, slip into a trance and forget himself until the next day, while navy and army guard him with ’non-defeatable‘ nuclear power. There is no enemy left but ‚we’re-afraid-we’ve-not-yet-encountered-them‘ aliens. For myself, I don’t care about the ordinary customers’ high-security hopelessness. I’d rather talk to people who don’t ask me to be silent during commercials. There are few of them left. The majority believe in consumer-oriented fairy tales, told to us by holo-vision and the huge, metaphorical company insects spinning metallic reflecting webs with colours not natural but taken out of catalogues you can find in advertising agencies. Spreading their webs all over the world. Neither to protect, nor to serve. Just sucking money. Business behaves like a metaphysical guru telling people they live in paradise while establishing hell on Earth. A hell of plastic cards, security gates and neuronal implanted microchips flashing the latest news directly through the so-synchronised brains, interrupted by pro-system commercials every quarter hour. Once, Cassandra and I believed there must be more in this part of Milky Way. More than holographic realities produced by system, controlled by system, switched off by system if necessary. We longed for a special place, just for the two of us, ready to give shelter when system takes too much. A place that would be able to free our souls in a heavenly way (in fact, romanticism is more addictive than business). The only problem: there wasn’t such a place. And will never be.

But that’s enough cogitating. Have to enter now, to cross the boundary formed by crumbly brick walls: our ring of defences for the next few hours. A magic circle built in a long forgotten age. We want to experience its enchantment to enjoy our limited stay with a certain deadline kept in mind.

Finally, we’re here again. At the remains of the ancient civilisation never featured in our holo-visions. When browsing, one would find no image, no single picture of them in the data-processing memory card sticking in his UnifiedMedia players, regularly updated by the global control system. Tragedy? I don’t know. Never seen any, up to now. Besides, the information gap enables us to remain alone. Nobody would ever get lost in this area. But for myself, I’m fed-up with civilisation’s gaps and traps since … No, don’t want to think about that.

We step further on, Cassandra in my wake. On the left side of the grounds, there used to be a cemetery chapel. And there it is. I make the first move – raindrops on my forehead, a delicate, well-known hand in mine. Rain all around. Air is filled with a fragrance of expectation. It’s earth, awaiting and longing for life-spending water. Not like in the city, where asphalt covers all expectations. The former house of God is a counter now, with a counter guard sitting behind it. He has to check identity cards, so I give him ours. Everything’s fine. We can enter.

Before we do that, let me explain a certain thing. As you may have expected, this is not just a special but a very special place for us. I mean, where dreams come true and all that stuff. It’s our past and our impossible present at the same time. A present that is tolerated by the visitor system for exactly two and a half hours. All in all, it’s just my personal Utopia. Just a kind of visa after which I have to check out into reality again where loneliness is waiting. So we hurry to enter.

Passing the entrance, the rusty, iron-barred gate catches my eye and soon after automatically swings open with a squeak. I’m not sure if doors in those times really used to „squeak“, as there’s left no more ’squeaking‘ in these post-capitalist times. Today, doors are ’sliding aside‘ or simply vanishing as a result of ‚anti-holograph‘ technologies. Interwoven with thick glass fibre cables, they connect one part of system with the other. System interacts with several sub-systems like birth sys, love sys, euthanasia sys to name just a few. There’s something about the moss-covered, dilapidated gate. Some narrow-minded office people would call it transience, though I prefer describing it as an aura, not easy to get in touch with, but if you do, it prickles like the warmth that emerges from an autumn campfire. The gate means protection from the all-present amnesia regarding the preceded society, guarding their world from ours, though many people say the opposite. However, we hurry in. My first impetus in this strange and so different realm is being silent. I‘m so fascinated by what my eyes discover through the retina-implants that I don’t dare to say a word, and nor does Cassandra. It’s the same procedure as every year.

You could enjoy your life, so why do you remain gloomy?

The prickling in my mind is kind of relaxing. Eases me. Don’t know how people used to relax in those days, but this way it‘s much more effective. Muteness soothes my conscience. No glider’s buzzing, no devices turning their sounds on and off in regular intervals. Not even the usual holo-visions received by neuronal implants. Absolute radio silence. Just me, Cassandra and the graveyard‘ audio system that sounds from time to time.

I’m looking around. Everywhere stones. Or so I think. Very old gravestones, memorial slabs and tombs here and there, bleached through the centuries by storm, rain and the abundance of the physical world. Most of the stones are ivy-covered and long since dead like the mortal remains resting under them. One could easily imagine them as memorials for a forgotten society, carved with words I can’t decipher. Just a few names have survived on their vulnerable surface being hundreds of times older than mankind, while others have been broken out of the stones. ‚Mary Elliot‘ is one of the survivors (letter-wise, of course). Her name was engraved in Arabic letters, but in such a strange and unusual way, rather chiselled than laser-burned, as though made by one of the outlaws who, cut off from any system, are dragging out their miserable existence in the underground several miles beneath the streets. Nobody can re-enact the story of Mrs. Elliot’s life, due to the enormous lack of historical data support. Too much time’s passed since her death. Too many oddities have happened in the meanwhile, like computerised history modifications or exterminations of genotypes endangering system’s future development. In order to ’save‘ our world, information from before the Great DNA War has been selectively deleted by CENTRAL CPU itself. To maintain memory capacities, as the officials said, but having other sources, I don’t believe them. You ever heard of damnatio memoriae? The way ancient Rome coped with the past, deleting inscriptions of influential people that jeopardised imperial security, disfiguring their statues in vain? This was told to me by RESQ, an underground organisation that tries to find out the truth about past by excavations and paleolinguistic studies. When the officials denied certain facts in history, they turned to unscrupulous criminals who not only killed people, but wiped out all memory of them. Billions of human beings – extinguished indifferently. Though resting in peace, the dead would turn in their graves if they knew they never existed officially. But up to now, no solution has been found. Nobody can restore memories that have been wiped out. Hence I’m asking myself if there is really no way to explore our roots. Is it simply lost? Deleted by system, to be never mentioned again? Only the gravestones will know the answer. They will stand here for at least thousands of years, stretching their marble bodies into the air, providing no proof of what we could expect after we’ve finished and left our unimportant existence, like a rotten ruin that is never to be visited again.

We get off this depressing place. Walking on pebbles. Sounds like crunching chips in the CineBowl arena. Anyway, we’re not watching movies, although the cooing of distant owls and the scraping of European pine voles are produced by the graveyard’s virtual audio system. In case of sporadic visitors like us, it’s useless to make special efforts in programming interactive brainware for each of the animal ‚actors‘, so I don’t wonder about the frequently distorted sound atmosphere. It has about it something of a dysfunctional holo-player. Being used to that, I can live with those marginal faults. Still, better than facing the outside world that is offering virtual realms to travel in your thoughts, if you can’t afford a sub-subway drive to the northern latitudes.

You could be a winner, so why do you restrain?

Silence. Rustling silence whispers through the crumbling slates. I feel different, somehow transformed, as though a strange spirit has overtaken my body, steering it along the virtual path, making me stray from the path of virtue. At least, it seems like that. My heart wants to scream like a burned witch in the middle of the fearful silence of those who should know it better but never will. Fire’s crackling, licking at my toes. Seconds later nibbling them, full of anticipation, to devour my coal black skin. I really want to scream. I think, I just want to be out of here. Out of the vision. It’s too hot. Virtual reality turns from paradise to hell. Damn, what’s happening? Didn’t I take today’s psy-stabilising pills? Having dramatically reached a non-bearable level, the holo-vision swims in front of my eyes, then vanishes like a dream. With the help of my restored consciousness, I quickly realise that I forgot to turn off the virtual tourist guide vividly explaining historical facts to the visitors, though only those facts that system wants to be real. This all took place while Cassandra and I walked hand in hand through the peaceful, evening graveyard alleys. I want to tell her my experience, but I forgot that my wife is dumb and has been for countless years. She just smiles at me, raising her arms to my face, touching it carefully. I try to remember her voice, but it’s too long ago since she last spoke to me. Having embraced each other, we step further on, knowing that we don’t need any words in this moment. While thinking of this and that, I have a forbidden idea: What if I wanted to stay here, to experience the curative power of this special place for years and years, not only for hours? I don’t know how system would react if I made such a request, but I’m quite sure it wouldn’t be too happy.

Reality jerks me out of my reveries and another thought crosses my mind. This time, it’s more realistic, but discouraging and disillusioning. For as soon as I check out of the graveyard and leave behind the inner silence that fulfils every inch of the paradise-like garden, everyday life will welcome and then overcome me. It will reintegrate me into plastic offices, plastic homes and assimilate me to a plastic society that doesn’t accept any individuals, just credit cards, ID codes and proper data interfaces implanted into the cervetical vertebra. Impulsively, I strengthen my hug around Cassandra’s neck and try to forget the visitor’s deadline waiting for me somewhere in the near future.

Minutes later, we stop and try to decipher the prehistoric characters engraved on some broken gravestones, part marble, part sandstone, arranged in a circle like the rays of a sun painted by a seven year-old child. I have nothing more than my prenatal implanted knowledge to measure things, so I conclude that they are consecrated parts of some ancient religion. I don’t understand what’s engraved on the stones. It’s another language. Bending over the tallest of the religious objects, I make out a swastika in the other characters and believe that this has to be a religious symbol. If an historian told me that the gravestones were desecrated by some roaming teenagers on a Sunday afternoon, I wouldn’t believe his words even if they were true. Why? Because I’m unable to accept things system doesn’t want me to accept, like all the other inhabitants of the Earth-covering gigantic city. Besides, there aren’t any roaming teenagers in our world. They’re all under system’s control.

After an intimate intermezzo on the moss-covered ground in the centre of the holy circle, we’re exhausted but satisfied. One hand on my neck and the other on my wife’s, I’m looking up at the sky, separating the dark, filigree line that forms an Earth-encircling superhighway from the blackness behind that is heavily pierced by a myriad stars. The tunnel-shaped magnet field was built at the beginning of the 3rd millennium to enable high-speed transportation around the globe, resting on miles-deep pillars that rise 8,000 feet in the air, nearly touching the exosphere. As I don’t want to remember the world outside, I close my eyes to forget.

You could travel wherever you want, so why do you stay?

Cassandra wakes me up. She has unfolded the molecular bottle containing the finest synthetic red wine on the whole planet. We had to smuggle it through the gate, because carrying alcohol in the graveyard isn’t allowed, ever since last season when some addicts buried their children alive. The colourless drink tastes fruity, though a little too sweet. Then we proceed to walk from grave to grave, until invisible speakers (in our heads?) indicate that there are ten minutes left. Eight minutes later, we arrive at our very special place: our gravestone. After a minute that consists of looking into each other’s eyes, Cassandra embraces me one last time, turns around lithe but resolutely, and doesn’t say goodbye. She’s dumb, so what did I expect? Laying herself on the back, she stretches her body on the memorial slab that spells her name in bold gothic letters, shiny gold, on a silvery inscription tablet. Arms crossed on her breast as if imitating some prehistoric cult, she seems to be waiting for something beyond life. Then, my wife stops breathing and her body slowly disappears in the consecrated soil where she has been lying for over 25 years now. Her hologram, achieving its final destination, vanishes under my feet like a ghost. Split seconds before I can toy with the idea of mourning for her, doors slide open behind me. Light comes in, illuminating a rectangular shaped area, containing my wife’s grave in the centre. The graveyard seems to awaken in a ghostly dawn, as though the heavenly gates themselves have been opened. Leaves, graves, ivy and pebbles — all framed by divine brightness. Several metallic spots on the scattered and rusty crosses reflect the gleam, turning it into sparkles similar to that of a diamonds’. Simultaneously, a well-known voice raises in my head. Though it sounds female somehow, I know it‘s just an emulated, computer-generated version of an original human sample voice. It says:

Hello, friend. Your session has been closed. All holographics are down, so if you would kindly exit… For further advice turn to friendly Psychiatrist No. 713, waiting for your cheerful presence in the 93rd floor.

Moving around, I discover the exit opening right on the path behind me, exuding not divine but dazzling artificial light that reduces the shapes around it to mere shadows with vague contours. Monotonously, system continues to speak.

I nearly cured the cute instability concerning your wife’s death. I have diagnosed an unconscious aversion against me, the system, in initial stage. But treatment will be a 99 percent successful. So please don‘t fear erasure. Everything will be alright. Psychiatrist No. 713 is being informed. Please hurry up to meet him soon, for the next friend already waits for permission to enter the holo-area.

Reassured of my progressing sanity, I step through the curtain of light that separates the real world from my memories which were partly erased in order to facilitate a new life, without any death-strains from the past. Outside, there is a long, white-painted hallway with dozens of white doors on each side, arranged precisely the same distance from each other. The graveyard disappears from the holo-area and from my mind. I can’t recall for how many years Cassandra has been dead now. Remembrance is gone, unreachable. I’m not even sure of my ex-wife‘s appearance. I’m sure – if I ever meet her again, I wouldn’t notice.

The 93rd is just twelve floors up from here. I’ll take the elevator instead of the teleporter. Have to save power according to system’s strict energy guidelines. I’ll follow them right to friendly Psychiatrist No. 713. He’ll cure my instabilities. He’ll restore sanity for a normal life without any problems. As I walk along the hallway, the image of the white-painted walls and doors flickers for a short interval, bringing mouldy walls to the light, surrounding heavy-wooden doors with hinges and occasional padlocks. Before I can think over or interpret the scene, a cheerful, well-known voice calms me down.

Copyright © 2004 by Sven Klöpping

Sven Klöpping was born in Herdecke/Westfalen in 1979. He has published stories at the borderline of inner space sf and contemporary mainstream fiction in anthologies and magazines, Nova among them. Several of his works have been translated for sf websites such as Fantastic Metropolis and the Romainian Lumi Virtuale. His fiction has received several awards. His website is at www.svenkloepping.de. His most recent project is a poetry site to be found at www.lyrikonline.eu.

© . .

More from this author: