With each fit of coughing, stars burst behind Abigail’s eyes. When Nurse Jane hooked her body to machines, when her lungs breathed at Nurse’s will, Abigail’s thinking conjoined with the computation. Her mind reverted to machinery, a computer of stars drawn as constellations. Her daydreams, which scrolled right to left, frightened her.
Abigail drifted deeper into an ether of whipping beasts: scorpions, dragons, serpents. Despite her fear, a calm permeated the drawing out of her soul into the cosmos. Her essence slowly leaked away before her internal machine crashed. She spluttered and reigned in her vitality. No outside force could exert itself on the formula, except Nurse Jane.
Her eyelids fluttered open to the blurred sight of the shadowy place, once her office, now a sickroom with hospital bed and whirring motors. Across the room sat her workstation, where, for years, she designed software for interactive LifeMaps. In fact, she was the last living member of the original team of designers. But soon she, too, would die, and her knowledge would pass to the younger generation. How sad that her own creation couldn’t save her, when it continued to rescue so many others. How sad that when she upgraded to the latest model, the 9.0, her Life Path options ended at the same cavern: death. Her map was unable to provide adequate medical advice.
She understood the limitations as well as the capabilities inherent to the LifeMap system. She understood the importance of genetics, intelligence, history, and life experiences in the LifeMap database. At her fingertips—or at the fingertips of herself only months before—she had access to the inner workings of millions of people. She encoded adequate and lifesaving medical, relational, and familial advice. When she programmed LifeMaps to guide people through life, she didn’t act as prophet, but as scientist. People were like machines—coded with strings of information that overlaid their irrational cores.
Ironically, she would need a more sophisticated model to save herself. She knew that. While she was still able to move around with the help of an oxygen tank, she created a prototype of the 10.0 map. Then she collapsed, unable to apply it to her own 9.0 database. And Nurse Jane took over the programming. No, Abigail didn’t imagine the old nurse with the puggish face was actually called Jane. The name sounded accurate, plain, and Quixotic in its precious way. As she was Abigail, so her servant was Jane, Jane of the enormous bosom, over which hung a tiny gold cross.
If Abigail could have cackled at Nurse, she would have. But she couldn’t summon the breath. And so Jane checked and adjusted the machinery, and knelt to chant and cross herself. Abigail caught the words “protect and keep her soul” as her essence drifted again, the icons scrolling right to left with unknowable numerical values attached to them. Abigail’s soul oozed through the ether, infinity chattering at her to enter the Dark Matter.
She started again and yanked herself back, as though her personhood were attached to a lead. For no rational reason, remorse consumed her. Her eyelids floated open, and she searched for Nurse, but Nurse had gone, perhaps to her own room for the night. The night-duty wench would enter at some point, and that scrawny thing didn’t have a name, didn’t deserve one, as far as Abigail was concerned.
“I want Jane,” she spoke, or tried to. She heard shuffling and assumed the wench had entered. “Ask Jane to forgive me.”
Abigail had acted like a beast to Jane in the early days, when she still had strength—Jane with her drab hair and body odor, who consistently refused the single gift Abigail offered her. No, Jane didn’t need her LifeMap, not an old model or a new one. God ordered Jane’s steps. Abigail felt stung by the refusal—her life’s work, rejected by a smelly nurse. She called Jane smelly to her face, as though she were a child with one last rallying cry: You stink!
Now she wanted Jane’s approval. Religious people didn’t approve of Abigail because Abigail and engineers of her ilk played God. No, not God—she didn’t play God, didn’t speak prophecies, didn’t know anything but science. God didn’t exist. He was far away from here, across the Dark Matter, never there for Abigail as he was for the Janes of the world.
A voice whispered at her from the direction of her workstation. Nobody was allowed near the computer, where she kept protected files and safeguarded the people encoded there. She wasn’t dead yet, and the LifeMap company had sent someone to pilfer her work. With one last fit, she yanked herself free from the machines. She hacked and searched for oxygen. She sucked in hot, dusty air, and jerked herself off the bed.
She was surprised at how light she felt, how easy it was to cross to the other side. Nobody was there. The computer itself had spoken, lit its own buttons. Save yourself, it said. What did that mean? She touched the screen, which flashed in response. After the rows of apps loaded, she scanned them until her fingers touched the 10.0 prototype. She touched it, and the screen turned blue.
“Go,” the machine said. “Hurry. The door is unlocked.”
“I can’t,” she said. “I have to encrypt the files.”
“Encryption complete. Go.”
“Then what? What will my next step be?”
Would she? She was the programmer, after all, but she didn’t know everything. She touched her bare neckline, where she used to wear her grandma’s cross for tradition’s sake.
“Good bye, Jane,” Abigail said, and in her nightgown, she slipped from the room, down the hall, and through the kitchen door.
Outside, the topography of the land struck her. The world was astonishing in its blues, greens, and browns. To the east, the sun rose over a rugged mountain chain. She stepped forward into the lightening day, away from computers, away from machines, in a place where breath entered her lungs as a matter of course.
The ground lit up beneath her: “Welcome Home, Jane. For forgiveness, keep to this path.”