It was a quiet Sunday morning, the skies grey and dripping, so Gerald decided to skip his morning walk. Instead, he settled into his favourite armchair with a hot cup of tea and his favourite book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Gerald picked up the book, caressing the spine and the worn yellow-leafed pages with his gnarly, liver-spotted fingers, and then opened it to his bookmark. He tapped his temple three times to engage his reading vision. Unfortunately, Gerald’s taps were a little clumsy and instead, his night distance vision engaged, making everything immediately dark and blurry.
“Fuck!” Gerald said, but his autocorrect voice box kicked in and “Duck!” escaped his lips.
“Millie!” he called. No response. Gerald shrugged and raised his left hand to his lips, and spoke softly into the little implanted speaker in the bottom of his palm.
“Awake the wife,” he said.
From the bedroom down the hall there came the hum of static electricity, followed by a surprised yelp from Mildred. Then her slippered footsteps came shuffling down the hall, her bionic bathrobe already knotting itself around her.
“You didn’t have to shock me, darling,” she bent over to kiss Gerald’s balding head.
“I’m sorry my dear,” Gerald said, through gritted teeth. “I would have woken you myself, but I can’t see a dangalash thing!” Gerald threw his cup of tea across the room and heard it shatter against the wall.
“Well, hold still. I can’t do anything with you thrashing about,” Mildred replied, and she gently tapped his temple twice, restoring his vision to regular daytime.
Gerald sighed heavily and looked over to the floor where the shattered cup was re-assembling itself, and the MopBot was busy cleaning up the tea.
“Can I get you another cup?” Mildred offered.
“No, no. That’s quite alright, I’ll just—”
Gerald glanced down at the book in his lap. In his darkened haze he had spilled his tea all over the open pages, and they were bleeding into an illegible black stain.
“No, no, no!” Gerald said, rapidly fanning his hands over the book as if that was a means of resuscitating it.
“Oh, for futon’s sake! That was my last ducking book, my favourite ducking book. This ducking vision is a ducking piece of ducking Shazam!” Gerald melted into a puddle of tears.
“There there, my love,” Mildred patted his shoulder. “I’ll get you a new book.”
“Oh, don’t even ducking bother! I can’t read them anyways. With all that new abbreviated jargon and no one gives a flying duck about grammar or spelling. Besides I like the old ones! I like the feeling of the paper between my fingers and turning pages.” Gerald slumped deep into his armchair.
“I think we should have The Talk again,” Mildred said, her voice kind but stern.
“You know how I feel about that, Millie.”
“Oh, but just wait!”
From the pocket of her nightgown, Mildred triumphantly pulled a postcard. Gerald looked at her in disbelief. He quickly tapped his temple three times to activate his reading vision, being a little more careful with his tapping this time. Mildred handed Gerald the card; he held it delicately and with awe. He felt the sharp, pointed corners, ran his finger along the smooth cardstock, brought it up to his nose and inhaled the sweet and musty smell of inked paper. It was real. He looked it over. On the front was a picture of an elderly couple, a few years ahead of himself and Mildred, relaxing on a beach beneath a yellow sun umbrella, both with real books in their hands and—Gerald gasped—real reading glasses on their faces. He turned the card over. There, in beautiful, loopy cursive, was penned:
My Darling Mill,
Abe and I have been here a month now, and it is simply divine. No silly AI technology except for the NurseBots. All the things we used to love from the old world are here: the books, the wine, the cassette tapes, the records, oh my! Millie when was the last time you heard a real jazz record? And just wait until you see the libraries! I hope you and Gerry make the trip soon, we do miss you two terribly.
Mildred hovered over Gerald while he read, observing his every move. Finally he looked up and met her gaze. He handed back the postcard without saying anything. Mildred knelt down in front of him and clasped his hands in her fragile, boney ones.
“Gerry, please. I know you are so unhappy here, and I know space travel sounds daunting, and I know you are always so skeptical, but it’s real! It’s really real! I’ve known Karen since she was a schoolgirl and that is her handwriting. We both know there’s no pens or paper left on Earth. Look, I know being rocketed off to a man-made planet in the middle of the galaxy is not how we pictured our retirement, but there’s a lot of things we never could have predicted. We have no children, all our friends are already there, and just think! Beaches. Books. Libraries. Libraries, Gerry, do you even remember what they were like?”
Gerald gently pushed Mildred away and struggled out of his chair. He forgot he had left his reading vision on and nearly fell over from dizziness. He quickly tapped his temple twice and righted himself. He took a deep breath, put his hands on his creaking hips, and looked down at his pleading wife.
“Mildred Anne Wilcox.”
“Yes?” Her eyes sparkled hopefully.
“I’m only going to say this once.”
“Oh,” she said, her face sagging.
“We are going to Mars!” Gerald said triumphantly, raising his fist.
“It’s Maridale, darling,” she choked, through tears of joy.
The following week, Gerald and Mildred found themselves at the end of a line of bobbing white and grey hair. They brought no luggage with them—anything they desired had already been packed up and shipped off to Maridale by MoveBots. But Gerald had tucked his book inside his jacket. Though completely unreadable now, it gave him some sense of reassurance.
The day before their departure, both Gerald and Mildred had been required to go to the Tech-Hospital where all their bionic parts were turned off and removed. Gerald’s vision was blurry and Mildred had trouble hearing, but they were assured that once on Maridale they would receive whatever medical aids they could possibly need. They breezed through the large security archway, and with help from AttendBots, they made their way along the moving staircase and up into the spaceship that would take them to their new homes. The ship looked like a large glass egg, completely clear except for rows and rows of plush red seats. Gerald settled in next to Mildred, groaning a little. His knees were aching.
“I don’t much like this ship,” he whispered to his wife.
“It’s so we can see the stars as we go,” Mildred patted his hand. “Besides, I hear after ten minutes they deploy a sleeping gas so by the time we wake up, we are home!” Her light blue eyes twinkled like two pale sapphires while she spoke, and Gerald took another deep breath and relaxed into his seat.
The ship buzzed with chatter and excitement as everyone mused about the new lives that awaited them on Maridale. The din of voices fell to a hush as the automated countdown began.
“Lift-off in five, four, three, two, one…”
Gerald shut his eyes tight, his whole body rigid, white-knuckling Mildred’s hand in his own while the ship vibrated around him. He felt his stomach turn inside out, and then Mildred was tapping his arm.
“Gerry! Gerry darling, open your eyes. It’s alright!”
He opened his eyes, and his jaw fell slack as he gazed around him. They were already far enough from the Earth that it looked like a large ball of grey dust, and the whole galaxy was shimmering around them.
“It’s so beautiful,” he breathed, his awe echoed by the coos and gasps of the other passengers. Gerald turned to his wife.
“Thank you, Millie. My love, my sweet pea. I’m sorry it took us so long to make this journey. You were right, you were right about every—” Gerald’s speech was cut short as he coughed, then coughed again.
“What’s wrong, deary?”
“Oh, I’m just… having a little trouble… breathing,” Gerald said between wheezes.
“Me too,” Mildred said, her voice shrill and thin. Other travellers had begun coughing too.
“It must just be… the sleeping gas,” Mildred said, her mouth still upturned into a smile, though her hand now grasped Gerald’s ferociously.
At the front of the ship, a man rose out of his seat.
“Look!” he said in a hoarse whisper. All the wrinkled faces turned to follow his shaking finger. They were gliding past more egg-like ships, ships just like the one they were on. Gerald squinted. His eyes were failing him, but he could make out what looked to be the shapes of people.
“Oh!” Mildred said and placed her hand over her mouth.
Gerald looked up, his head spinning. He felt like he was underwater, gasping for oxygen with nothing entering his lungs. His wife’s hand twitched in his, and then her eyes fluttered open and closed. Her hand went limp as she slumped over in her seat. Gerald tried to move, to say something, but his own body was quickly failing him, and he felt the creeping darkness of oblivion. The sounds of laboured breathing were slowly fading as passengers keeled over. Frantically, Gerald looked over to the other ship, only inches away now. There, slumped in her seat, her face bloated and blue, was Karen.