Background: “Until Next Time” was the result of a rather horrible thought experiment where I imagined how my world would change if my spouse passed away. My immediate next thought was, “Well, if I had the technology, I’d do absolutely whatever it took to bring her back.”
That’s it. That’s the story.
This is my story and isn’t being given away; i.e. all ideas are mine unless otherwise noted. See my copyright page for details.
Featured Image source can be found here.
I tuck her in.
It’s a well-practiced moment. One worn down by infinite repetition.
But it’s special. A thing between me and her. A moment where we leave behind all the worries of the world and simply be.
A moment when I get a reprieve from this reality.
I stroke dark hair from brown eyes and say things that make her smile. It always works. Always brings that same half-grin from the day we met in Rome. It’s the same one captured in the wedding holograms that flash, half-remembered blurs, on the barely rendered cabinet behind me.
I set a glass of water on the bedside table amongst the machines beeping their discordant symphony. The liquid is an unnatural aquamarine in the false, yellow light of the room instead of the typical sulfur-sheen of water tinged with poison. A slash of panic cuts through me. That’s the signal. It’s time.
A knife of panic shoves into my spine.
Time for what?
I wrack my brain as she takes the glass, smiling like always, and drinks deeply.
She knows what’s in the water. It’s her idea.
That almost breaks me. For a moment, I live in the moment like I have thousands of times before. I breath her in, a mix of sick sweat and sweet lavender.
The class tinks as she puts it back and the slash of blue-green liquid catches my attention again.
But what am I supposed to do? Why can’t I remember?
I let out a sharp laugh that isn’t supposed to be here in this memory prison. I can’t remember because I’ve done this for too long, but it was unavoidable.
We needed to give her time.
Frustration rises sharp in my throat. Time for what?
My face gets hot as my beloved looks up at me, curiosity furrowing her brow. It’s so hard to think in here, especially right here with her, but it’s the only place with enough emotion the AI can’t track me. Especially with the hacks I uploaded before I was arrested. We told them they shouldn’t connect the Prison AI to the Internet. My breath is ragged as I try to remember. Try to piece together why that’s important.
Her face and the room flicker like a buffering video file. I feel my will dragged into place as the Prison AI forces me back into well-worn patterns through the electrodes lodged in my brain a million miles away.
The thought, and the recognition, flitters away… and I lean in slowly, her scent filling my nostrils.
I kiss her forehead.
Reaching over the edge of the aged mattress, I tweak the terminal behind the bed to start the transfer process. That’s important, but I’m not sure why. Then I grab her favorite book and hand it over reverently, pulling a turquoise bookmark from pages worn with tender hands. Her eyes close and breathing steadies, so I set the book down on her chest. It’s open, ready to be picked up and read.
In case she wakes, I always tell myself.
Something about that tickles my memory, but it’s swept away in a wave of nausea. My stomach spins and I kiss her forehead again; quivering lips meeting her warm skin one last time, nearly perpetual fever only now starting to fade.
“Until next time,” I whisper with a small smile, and step away to the slowing breathing of one who never wakes.
The door out of the room slides open and I step through, ignoring the sounds of screaming machines behind me. The acrid scent of the prison wafts into my nose; a heady mix of antiseptic and despair that clings to flat-walled cell the AI has crafted for me. For the briefest of moments, I have my mind back… and I wish I didn’t. An ache I can’t stop scrapes and tears across my chest and up my neck; a rift tears my stomach in two. I fall to my knees. A wail echoes against the flat gray walls. It takes me a moment to realize it’s coming from me.
You’d think I’d be used to it by now.
Through eyes blurred with tears, I tear off my clothes and throw them into the corner. A pair of drab ashen fleece pants and a worn blue t-shirt that smells like sweat and shame. The pounding in my chest radiates into the room.
Heavy, hot, and booming. An unnatural crimson flashing off featureless surfaces.
That stops me in my tracks. There’s something I’m supposed to be thinking about right now. Something urgent…
It takes everything I have to stop the shuddering sobs wracking my body, but I do.
None of this is real. Not my wife; not me. Not really. My sentence is something new. It’s based off the work my wife and I did on managing artificial environments with AI. I coded the backend, she crafted the personality. At least, she did until the sickness made her too feeble. Then I took over.
We made it to heal. To provide closure. And it’s used that way the world over.
Then we licensed it to Unified Penitentiary Incorporated.
My jailer uses it to punish. One Hundred Million Repetitions is my sentence. That isn’t possible in a lifetime, but when your brain can force you to relive a moment once per second?
That’s only four years, including processing. A great way to clear the prison system of “non-violent offenders.”
Mercy, they called it in the original sales pitch.
Then I helped my wife die peacefully.
Mercy for whom?
There’s a harsh snap. A whip across my back.
The ticker in the corner increments as another sliver of my sentence is recorded.
I don’t have much time now. I need to remember what to do in there or it’ll be over. Meaningless. I’ll be stuck here for another million memories before they send me out onto the street.
It’d be better to stay in that moment forever. Then I can be with her. Sometimes, despite the push from the AI, all I want to do is sit back down on the bed and read to her as she passes…
My breath catches and, as I wipe tears from my face, the screech of a klaxon freezes me in place.
The clothes reappear on my body, their weight settling on my shoulders like a hair shirt: itchy and heavy. Acrid, nervous sweat once fills my nostrils, almost washing away the stink of the prison. Behind me, the simulation winds back to life with a squeal.
Ninety-nine million times I’ve said those three words. Until next time. A million more and I’ll never see her again.
It doesn’t get easier. Each session is a reminder I killed my wife, not the cancer. Every trip into this damned machine layers more guilt. Guilt I know I’ll carry to the end of my days… whenever that is. I sometimes wish we never created it.
My beloved may be gone, but the curse of her death follows me. The way her skin smelled that day. The beeps of the machines and the glass of water in the yellow light of the side lamp.
Her final, rattling breath as the door closes behind me.
But it’s not the memory I can’t stand.
It’s walking out of that room and remembering she’s gone. Feeling the loss of the most beautiful person in my life. Knowing her smile and laugh are missing, being forgotten by a world that doesn’t even know it needs them.
This is the only place she exists now.
The door opens behind me with a creak. From beyond it, my beloved asks for a glass of water.
My heart melts and I smile. I know what I need to do.
We go through the motions: I tuck her in, kiss her forehead, hand her the water. My heart pounds through it all, but what I need to do runs through the back of my mind, unfiltered and undetected.
And now it’s time. I lean in, heart hammering, breath short. I kiss her feverish forehead and whisper four words. “Come back to me.”
I hold my breath for a long moment, staring at her placid face as it succumbs to the poison, the machines ticking away their countdown.
This should’ve worked.
“Come back to me.” I hear the panic in my voice.
She’s not breathing anymore.
Everything skips a few frames as the AI redirects focus to me. My mind scatters trying to figure out what I did wrong, but this is it. The passphrase should have done it. Did they find the snippet and its payload buried in the behavioral analytics? I knew I couldn’t do it, despite her faith in me. I’m not the programmer she was. I’m not good enough.
It feels like someone is grabbing my limbs and pulling me to the door.
“No!” I scream, grabbing her cooling body in a fierce embrace. “No!”
But I don’t have strength to fight it off and I’m torn away, her body disappearing as I’m spun around and thrown through the door.
I hit the ground in a crooked roll, limbs flailing. When I stop, I don’t get up. There’s no point. I had one chance and I failed.
It’s over. She’s gone.
I close my eyes and wait for the ticker.
Warmth suffuses my body and I hear the distinct sound of my wife clearing her throat. I look toward the still-open doorway, tears trickling from my eyes as I choke out a laugh.
It worked. She’s leaning against the doorframe in the green sweater and jeans she wore when we first met, a nearly blinding white light shining from behind her.
“Well, are you coming?” She asks, grinning and extending a hand.
I climb to my feet unsteadily and take it.
It worked. The copy of her consciousness I grabbed as she lay dying uploaded correctly into the AI.
Overwriting the old code with the mind of my beloved.
With a sure step, she turns and steps into the light. In that light, I swear I see a million branching pathways, each leading farther away from this place. This prison.
If I follow her, I’ll leave my body behind. Turn into a series of 1s and 0s just like her. Disappear into the ether.
I should be worried, but I’m not. Instead, I smile and step into the light.
I’ve kept her waiting long enough.