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Ethereal Things

By S.H. Mansouri From Issue No. 4

The planet Arias was a mixture of old and new: telecoms and rotary phones, hoverboards and dirt-bikes, brownstones majestically idling amidst a sea of domed condominiums in flux, as if some divine oligarchy had breathed life into a sheet of bubble wrap to cover the sharp edges beneath a glossy surface. Everything was packed away neatly, ready to be shipped off to the next star system if the forecast called for falling meteor showers. Within the technological ebb and flow of old and new, certain sentiments, echoes of the old world, struggled to exist.

Sentiments regarding life and death—and what to do with the dead—crossed the star systems, timeless and without regard to place or plotted charts, a pilot’s single light in the darkness of space. Gravesites—cemeteries of old rising with ragged stone claws—marked such sentiments. At one nearly-forgotten site in the outskirts of Trinity’s Landing—Arias’ beacon of a progressive society—Rimar stood counting headstones, a care-package wedged between his elbow and hip.

Rimar thought of trajectories, traced arcs and ellipses with his finger across a violet sky streaked with trailing white fumes and falling stars. They were the paths of his ancestors from Earth and Mars, former colonies that witnessed their eventual demise from old age or nostalgia. Now, they were here on Arias, buried beneath soil they could have never imagined would cradle their fragile remains. They might have even cursed, rolled over in their carbon-latticed coffins, had they known this would be their final resting place.

“Storm’s coming soon, son.” Rimar started and dropped the package as he twisted toward the source of the voice.

“Visiting a loved one?” It was a woman’s voice, muffled and drained of its sharpness by a dual-filtered breathing mask. From the poorness of her posture, a thin reed bending in the breeze, Rimar figured she was old. An exaggerated limp as she made her way beside him confirmed it.

“No,” he sighed, stooping to pick up the package, which sounded like it might have broken from the short fall; metal and glass clanging over the wind’s ceaseless howl. “Just wondering if I made the right choice.”

The rough exterior of her environment suit rasped at the elbow as she raised a gloved hand to her chin. A contemplative gesture for the younger generation, Rimar thought.

“What choice is that?”

“To bury my father out here…put the memories to rest.” It was more of a whisper, a portent drifting in the wind along with red dust and debris.

“It’s a good choice, I’d say. If it was my choice, and I wasn’t jacked-in to some soul drive, I’d say the ground is as good a place as any—better than floating around for centuries naked. You need a plot, a headstone? My engraving is impeccable.”

“Perpetual Life,” Rimar blurted, “part of the digital ether now. I think he likes it there.” He was uncertain if it was his own voice which spoke or that of the mass, collective consciousness encroaching.

The undertaker holstered her engraving gun and slumped forward, creaking at the seams of her suit again. “Sounds just fine,” she said matter-of-factly.

Rimar thought perhaps she’d offer up some advice regarding his dilemma. He’d been told countless times about the pitfalls of forgetting the roots of humanity, how the loss of ritual and tradition could lead to a society out of touch with its physical manifestations. “Ashes to ashes” he’d heard spoken from the older generation, like a mantra to ward off the improper treatment of ethereal things. Our bodies were only shells, after all.

“It seems you’ve already made your choice. Don’t worry too much about the logistics of it all. Only thing matters is the soul.”

Rimar wondered about his father’s soul. Was that intangible pilot of the human vessel, his essence at the very core, free to roam the universe, transforming into stardust once again, falling from the same sky his only son was now admiring? Or was he locked away, as the traditionalists called it, put on display to make everyone who was still alive feel better about the prospect of their own endless lives?

“His soul’s intact—I’m sure of it. Perpetual’s on the cutting edge of human preservation. It’s his body I’m worried about.”

“Only so much air you can fill a balloon with. Eventually…it goes flat again. Or pops.”

“A balloon?” Rimar wrinkled his brow, slightly disgusted.

“Just a little humor to get me through the day, son. I didn’t mean any disrespect.” She gently patted him on the shoulder and turned in the direction of the funeral home, a square building made of blue slate half-buried by decades of dust storms eroding its archaic architecture.

Her voice echoed across the wind’s whip. “If you change your mind, I’ll be waiting—always am.”

Rimar waved as she disappeared through clouds of dust, red waves washing over the horizon. He shook the package, listening intently, and winced when the contents rattled more than they should.

Rimar raised a green bandana over his mouth. “It’ll be alright,” he whispered. You can always bury the past.

Perpetual Life was the centerpiece of Trinity’s Landing, piercing through the gray haze floating over the city like the finger of a nameless dictator pointing skyward, perhaps to encourage further exploration of the stars or, as Rimar thought, to stiffly prod the center of his chest in judgement. Though he hadn’t been the one to make the choice to keep Rimar Sr. hooked-up to a “soul support system,” as the salesman enthusiastically called it, the thought that he had contributed to his father’s imprisonment would not relent.

“In to see your father, this late?” asked the receptionist, straining to sound concerned.

It was a façade Rimar had grown accustomed to over the last year. At first, he’d met their attentiveness with an open mind and a willing ear, heeding the receptionists’ awkward facial contortions, the physicians’ constant shoulder- and head-pats, the way the shine on the white walls and floors never seemed to wane. But as the novelty of preserving the human soul—eternally—sloughed off in layers of doubt, disappointment, and heartache, Rimar was left with only one concern: setting his father free.

“May I go now?” he asked somberly.

“Decontamination first. You wouldn’t want to make these fine people any sicker, would you?” He cut a sharp glance at her smile, and scrawled his initials on the visitors’ pad.

A thin plexiglass door slid shut, sealing him inside a small chamber used to cleanse the impurities from Arias’ surface. Had he worn an environment suit, like the old undertaker, this part of the trip to visit his father would have been unnecessary. But just like the gravestones of his ancestors standing against the winds outside, Rimar’s dirty blue jeans, Grateful Dead t-shirt, backwards baseball cap, and green bandana, all thoroughly contaminated, were a symbol of resistance to that same sweeping change, one he’d inherited from memories of Rimar Sr.

Air vents blasted his weary frame while miniscule holes in the floor and ceiling and walls vacuumed the dirty world outside. It was fun, sometimes, being inflated by the decontamination system. Only so much air left before it goes flat…or pops.

The indicator turned green, and the plexiglass door slid open again.

“Quietly,” beckoned the receptionist. “He’s sleeping.”

“Tsk,” Rimar clicked. “He’s always sleeping. He’s dead, lady.”

It was easy to tell which room his father occupied. Although Rimar had come to this place nearly every week for the last year—mostly on weekends when tech-classes were in full swing—and knew every corridor and floor like the back of his hand, all that was necessary to find his father was to follow the memories on the doors. Across from each patient’s memory door was a waiting room large and comfortable enough to accommodate an entire generation. “Trinity’s womb” such rooms were called.

Rimar had grown envious of the rooms filled with optimistic family members bearing invisible gifts for invisible patients. He could do without the holographic flower arrangements, e-cards and get-well banners draped across the wombs, but the physical signs of support—the couch cushions dented with wear, the TV screens with favorite memory loops, the books and magazines and homework stacked in corners and splayed across carbonite tables used to prop one’s feet up during memory reset—were a constant reminder that his father was alone.

Rimar Sr.’s room was empty; it was always empty.

He’d never questioned his family about their absence. He was sure the reasons they had were valid enough—no need to pry at old wounds. The monitor on Rimar Sr.’s door listed years of memories with his only son. Far from the best of times, his entire life could be seen with the swish of a glass card inside of Trinity’s womb. But Rimar wasn’t there for the memories, for the show. He was there to open the gates, to unshackle a tortured soul.

Gretta was about Rimar’s age, with cotton candy hair swirled up like a red bee hive. They had spent the entire summer rebuilding a Kawasaki six-speed for their Motor Dynamics class, a project frowned upon by the more progressive instructors. She popped her head into Rimar Sr.’s room while Rimar stared at the care package on the table. She relayed how unpopular his father’s memories had become in his absence.

“Was it a barfight this time?” Rimar asked, peeling off wisps of skin from his knuckles. A chip off the old block. “Wait, don’t tell me…a late-night rendezvous with some waitress while mom worked the graveyard shift?” He mentally tracked the more horrific memories.

Her face flushed with embarrassment for him.

“Christmas,” she muttered.

“What year?” He pushed aside the package and grabbed the monitor control, a thin slip of glass about the size of a baseball card.

“2120, I think.”

“You think? Come on, Gretta. We both know you never forget a number.”

Rimar clicked the monitor, swished his thumb in small circles on the glass slip, and there he was: Christmas of 2120.

“I should get back,” she said. “My dad’s waiting for me.”

Rimar glanced through the glass wall to see Gretta’s family huddled together near their monitor.

“Birthday?” Rimar asked.

Gretta slumped her shoulders and frowned.

“Anniversary. Dad really needs me.”

Gretta’s little brother squished his face against the glass, crossing his eyes as he blew hard, cheeks like a pufferfish.

“Barry!” Gretta called down the corridor.

“Your brother’s a jerk,” said Rimar. He swished his thumb again, and the glass around his room went dark. “I’ll see you in class—Propulsion and Trajectory, right?”

“Yeah. See you,” she sighed.

On the other side of the darkened glass, Gretta’s family celebrated the woman who’d lived and died a proud mother of five, a wife of thirty years, a sister who’d looked out for her siblings like a dutiful hen when their own parents had passed away. She was so many things to so many people. If the glass walls weren’t so thick, Rimar knew he’d hear the sounds of sobs and groans. Instead, he was stuck in a darkened room with the ghost of Christmas past jingling its tarnished bells.

His father was visiting his other family that quaint, jubilant day in 2120, which didn’t surprise Rimar. He was aware of the half-brothers and half-sisters he had, spread across the galaxy like dark matter, constant reminders of his own lowly place on the spectrum of parental enrichment. Their faces had popped up in enough memories to get Rimar investigating their place in his father’s life. His mother was forthcoming with the findings, a tinge of anger and betrayal in her voice when she’d talked about the “little bastards” who’d come before him.

Rimar Sr.’s jade cufflinks and pressed pants—visible as he glanced down occasionally to check the shine on his quarter length boots—warmed Rimar for a moment. And when Sr. spoke, something along the lines of ‘“Daddy has a gift for you,” his voice made Rimar reach for the care package again. Rimar knew it wasn’t really his father, but it was good to see him—to hear him, anyway.

Daddy’s gift, gingerly handed over to Jack or Jill—they looked the same to Rimar—was familiar, the hoverboard given to him by his father the previous Christmas, repackaged, reissued, his anarchy sticker skillfully scraped away. He’d ridden it to school for about a week before shoving it in the closet to collect dust. Rimar Sr. had ridden a dirt bike in his youth and Rimar felt he should do the same—stick to old conventions and traditions. Bonding, somehow, in the aftermath of tragedy.

However, the Christmas exchange bit hard and Rimar paused the memory.

No take-backs allowed.

Can’t go backwards, can’t hit reverse.

Forever stuck in neutral…in the ether.

He set the monitor to loop on a good memory, one of the rare occasions when Rimar Sr. did something right for a change.

He slid his forefinger along the clear tape on the care package, just enough to fit his hand inside without completely opening the cardboard box. Though the walls of Trinity’s womb were soundproof and darkened to opaqueness, flaunting a material as out-of-date as cardboard might have pegged him as a sympathizer, a traditionalist. Eyes might have somehow watched him as he fumbled with the package.

Swishing down the darkened glass, he saw that Gretta and her family had gone. He hoped she’d remember the promise she’d made on the last day of class.

He retrieved the key card, palming it tightly in his clammy hand and rested the box on his hip again. Glancing side-to-side down the whitewashed corridor from the threshold of his room, Rimar approached his father’s door. He swiped the key card and the door, which might have been a stone wheel pulled away by the hands of an archangel, for all Rimar imagined, clicked open.

Assaulted by the sterile stench of ethanol, latex, and buffer salts, Rimar quickly closed the door behind him, pausing at the invasiveness of hardware looming over his father’s body, like a shard of fleshy diamond embedded in a crypt made of metal, microchips, and bundles of fiber optic cables spilling from perforations in the clear, glass tub in which his father’s shriveled body fermented.

Preservation solutions kept him afloat while his eyes, still wide open, stared vacantly at the ceiling. Monitors blipped and chimed, eerie accompaniments to the intermittent squawk of Rimar’s sneakers across the polished floor. Forward, only forward. A mainline ran from the side of the encased tub to a large server that took up most of the room. Beside the server, a wall-sized monitor streamed random synaptic firings, an autobiographical festival broadcasted for all to see.

However, the body was what mattered to Rimar.

While the memories were vivid, elating him or deflating him depending on the content, they were never real enough—never new. The heart of this monstrous contraption, buried somewhere in the foundations of the wall, was missing. Nothing original could come from his father’s mind, nothing from his soul. The memories, embarrassing situations, sleights of hand, swindles and temper tantrums, all coalesced into something which, at the end of every day, was merely a rerun of what had already passed.

His body told a different story.

Rimar placed the tips of his fingers on the glass encasement and traced geographies, trajectories, routes of where his father had come from to where he’d ended up.

Like a rake through gravel, the thin scars across his forearms told of blue-collar hands dipping into deep engine hulls. Blackened fingernails told of circuits cross-wired, exploding, burning as he pulled his hands away from damaged motherboards. Abnormally large deltoid muscles, protruding from the rest of his atrophied body, told of hours spent heaving oil drums onto the backs of shipping transporters. And his gnarled face, petrified in time like an oaktree mourning its own fallen leaves, revealed only regret and agony—an expression Rimar had mirrored since his father had first entered this terrible device a year ago.

Rimar knew it was useless to speak those unanswered yearnings of a child abandoned during a transition from old to new, but he found himself nonetheless mouthing, “Poppa, are you there?” Rimar finished opening the cardboard box and withdrew the metal device he’d assembled from scraps and leftover parts found in the extras pile at school. He’d held and hauled the key to his father’s freedom long enough.

“A ride out in the sun, that’s what you need, Poppa. Some rays to get the vitamin D flowing, like you used to say, right? Six gears to freedom.”

Storm’s coming soon, son, a whispered answer to his nostalgia.

He plugged the device—a memory purger—into the large server against the wall, and held its opposite end to the round receptacle on his father’s encasement. “I’ll take it all back for you. You can trust me with this. I’ll bury it where no one can find it. You’ll never have to worry about feeling ashamed again,” he said.

Rimar crossed his chest with his finger, and plugged his father in.

<Warning. Purge in process. Please remain patient while power is rerouted.>

They’d be here soon now, four-legged orderlies with five gears to let loose along the hallways, possibly even receptionists set to high alert, their amicable facades melted away by breach-of-protocol messages reaching their internal sensors. The price of what Rimar thought of as setting his father free was high—nothing short of graverobbing and destruction of public property. Albeit, there was no one around, not inside the building or outside among the shimmering condominiums, to disappoint. He had only himself, and his father’s body, to contend with.

<Purge complete. Please notify operations.>

Please don’t, thought Rimar as he unplugged the device and shoved it back inside the cardboard box. Phase one, memory capture, was complete. Now came the hard part, the logistics of it all, as the old undertaker had said. Thunder crackled outside the Perpetual Life building. Rain pricked against the only window of the room, a billion tiny needles calling out for Rimar to make haste with his quest to bury the past.

He grabbed the handles on the front of the encasement and yanked, dislodging his father’s glass tomb from the wall. It floated easily towards him; everything floats if pushed or pulled hard enough. Even memories, he thought. Rimar slid the key card and propped the door open while Rimar Sr. stewed, a lone memory still looping on the monitor inside of Trinity’s womb.

At the end of the corridor two orderlies barred his passage, their tender bedside manners transformed into stern expressions of cease-and-desist. Red lights pulsed above the doors to the patient stasis chambers, hundreds of vaults outfitted with soul drives perpetually spitting out ugly truths from the minds of the dearly departed.

Some were still alive, threaded with tubes pumping precious nutrients
and minerals to maintain homeostasis, so long as invoices were paid and credits were transferred in a timely fashion. Rimar’s father was plainly dead—had been dead for the better part of a year, and so didn’t mind using the casket as a battering ram to plow his way through the fast-approaching orderlies.

With a sharp crash initially thwarting his forward momentum, followed by the piercing screech of glass on alloy, Rimar shoved his father’s casket through an onslaught of biometric scanners, syringes loaded with sedatives, and fumes jetting from vents built to resemble human smiles. Past the breach in the corridor, through the plexiglass door of the decontamination chamber, even around the receptionist firmly planted at the entranceway, Rimar bulldozed his way outside into the nascent storm, his father’s expression still etched with lines of agony.

Running again, always running, thought Rimar as he pushed his father’s casket through the wind and rain to a place he’d designated as the getaway locale. If Gretta had made good on her promise—she’d never forgotten a single detail, let alone an entire dirtbike fully-fueled and modified to push beyond its factory settings—it would be clear sailing until he reached the cemetery gates.

I’ll be waiting—always am

Would he have his own name engraved on the headstone? What did that mean? Was he done going through the motions of burying the past, now intent on putting in the ground the very source, the physical manifestation, of his own painful memories?

Bemused, he tied the encasement with a thick cord and attached it to a bar above the rear fender. Rimar Sr. floated still, drops of rain racing down his glass, seeping through the cracks from his high-speed collisions with the staff members of Perpetual Life.

The motor kicked on with a stiff-legged mount, straining to scream over white noise from the rising storm. Lightning—crimson fissures trickling across the sky—flashed in Rimar’s sullen eyes. This was his final decision, one he’d been excluded from making shortly after his father had died racing the sand dunes at breakneck speeds. Rimar Sr. would have wanted it this way.

Rimar jerked the gas, his grip slipping in the downpour, and punched the Kawasaki down the muddy road to freedom toward the cemetery gates.

Immediately, his baseball cap flew off. His t-shirt and jeans were soaked, skin goose-bumped from the sudden temperature change, his vision blurry from the constant stream of frigid desert wind.

Behind him, outraged synthetics donning white coats and floral scrubs, desperately pushing the limits of their manufacturing parameters, slowly receded into formless dots in the rear-view mirror as he shifted to a higher gear. Ahead, in the heart of the storm, thrashing against forgotten names worn and weathered by the passing of one generation to the next, gravestones were finally visible.

Checkered flags at last.

Slowing to stop, swatting mud and oxidized iron ore every which way by the skid of an underinflated tire, Rimar could see the old undertaker bent at the torso, holding her own against elements that would rather scatter her like ashes from an ancient urn. Rimar Sr.’s casket fishtailed, folding like a Swiss Army knife with his son’s body in the crux. Rimar was thrown from the leathery seat to the rain-spotted soil of the graveyard.

The undertaker offered her hand. “I waited for you, knew you’d be back, looking the way you did.”

Rimar took her hand and wiped the mud from his face, shaking off the impact of his fall.

“How’s that?” he groaned, clenching his back. He was still holding on to the water-soaked cardboard that held his father’s memories, his soul.

“Like you carried the weight of something heavy. Had a big chip on those narrow shoulders, didn’t you?”

Rimar smiled for the first time in a year. “Yeah, I suppose I did.”

“Got your plot all picked-out over here,” she said, leading him through slivers of undug soil to a square hole about the size of the encasement, six feet deep. “I figured your father was a pretty big guy. Having seen you already, a smaller version, I suppose, I estimated.”

“It’s perfect,” said Rimar.

They lowered the encasement into the grave. Once at the bottom, they turned off the tiny engines that kept it afloat. Rimar tossed the box of memories on top—outdated flowers made of soggy cardboard. In the blaze of lightning strikes, before the undertaker heaved a final shovel-full of muddy soil, Rimar swore his father’s face relaxed.

“Full name?” she asked, pulling out her engraving gun.

“Rimar…Rimar Franklin. Same as me.”

Back inside of Trinity’s womb, the ever-vacant room which his family members had failed to fill on any occasion—including his death—a monitor framing Rimar Franklin’s final memory looped on a joyous day nearly fifteen years ago, plucked from the annals of time.

His wife was warm and dewy, glowing like a saint’s halo as she squeezed his hand with a sweaty, white-knuckled grip. She would never again smile quite like she did that day. Rimar Franklin beamed, raining kisses all over her face, exhilarated by the arrival of new life wrapped in soft, unblemished skin. Its memories, ethereal things, yet to be determined.

About S.H. Mansouri More From Issue No. 4