By the time Leon disappeared, life was already moving too fast for Shane. His work on the Security project, the Institute, the undersea world, were all moving at a pace that he found hard to deal with. His decision to do his own personal investigation only made things more unreal. Everywhere he looked there seemed to be a problem waiting for him fix. It was then, when it seemed nothing could get worse, something worse did happen. His life, so ordered and quiet, threw up a problem he couldn’t fix. It began with a call from his sister that had him flying home immediately. All the rest forgotten…
He settled into the Institute’s hypersonic airliner seat and buckled up. He grimaced. The seat wasn’t nearly as comfortable as he’d been told it would be by others, particularly Alexis, who traveled off the Institute’s properties regularly.
“What do you think?” Yves asked as he made himself comfortable in the seat to his right. “Pretty cool, eh?”
Yves was also one of those who’d flown in the hypersonic planes before and still had a boy’s excitement at all things fast.
“I expected a comfier seat,” Shane said. In truth, it was more the queasiness inside that was bothering him, rather than the seat. He’d never traveled in one of these planes and had never wanted to do so — until his sister’s call with the news his father had a brain tumor and wanted to see him before he died.
Shane had never returned home from the day he landed on the island, more than seven years before. In his mind, the split with his family had been permanent but he’d never considered this event and knew he couldn’t refuse his father’s request.
The plane took off and climbed swiftly to its cruising height in the farthest reaches of the atmosphere. Looking out of the windows, Shane could see the dramatic blackness of space, Alexis’s territory as he thought it, and below the curvature of the blue-green-white Earth. It was awe-inspiring, even he could feel that, but it gave him no pleasure, nothing pulled him to stay. The warmth and all-encompassing oceans of Earth were where he felt at home.
Before they’d even finished their coffee and snack, the plane began its descent into Panama, one of just two places on Earth outside the Institute’s properties, the other was Dubai, where the Institute’s planes appeared to the world. From Panama, they both flew by regular air service to Toronto where Yves continued on to visit with his family in Quebec.
The limousine Shane had ordered was waiting and he began the hour-long drive home. As he got closer, his internal turmoil grew. He did his best to quell the discomfort by looking out the car windows.
Toronto seemed much the same as he remembered it when he’d left. He’d watched TV and social media portraying Canada, and all the other Western countries, as being devastated by the 2020-21 Recession but so far as he could see everything looked the same. It’s true he barely remembered his life before the Institute; in his mind it had been so unpleasant that he had no affection for it, but what he saw looked the same as he remembered.
It was only when they left the highway and entered his home town, passing through residential districts, that he saw it. Here streets weren’t cleaned and garbage lay everywhere. Hedges and trees were untrimmed, lawns uncut, bikes or other children’s toys lay on front lawns, abandoned by kids and parents. One or two houses still were well maintained, one other was burned out. The orderliness of his childhood was gone — and this had been a wealthy neighborhood.
The limo pulled up at his home, where he saw his mother waiting at the door. He’d called ahead but was still shocked at her appearance. She looked old. Her face drawn and lined, her posture bent. He stepped out and signaled the driver to leave. He’d barely turned back toward the house when his mother was upon him, hugging him fiercely to her bosom.
Shane froze. He carefully placed his arms around her shoulders and gently applied pressure in what he hoped was an embrace. He had no idea what he was supposed to do or why people did this. The only sensation he felt was one of acute discomfort for he could feel her breasts pressed against him, a sensation that was unnerving. This was his mother, smaller than he remembered her because he’d grown, but still his mother.
“I’m so glad you came,” she said, looking up at him with tears in her eyes. “he really wants to see you.”
“Then maybe we should go inside,” Shane said, hoping to disengage his mother’s iron grip on him.
“Yes,” she said, letting go of his torso but clutching his arm, “we should.”
They stepped inside the doorway together, where Shane’s sisters awaited. They weren’t as cute as he remembered them. His level of discomfort rose ten-fold as each sister embraced him, hugging him close to their bodies.
“I should see Dad,” Shane said in what he hoped wasn’t a desperate cry.
They led him into the family room where his father was slumped in an armchair, his head turned as if looking away from Shane.
“Hi, Dad,” Shane said. He’d tried to find some clever way to greet his father during the hours of travel but nothing had presented itself.
“Hi, son. It’s good to see you again,” his father said in a tired voice. “I’m not being rude,” he added, “I am looking at you. It’s just I can only see out of the corner of this one eye now.”
Shane crossed the room and took his father’s outstretched hand. He felt he could do that; shaking hands was better than hugging. His father’s grip, however, was limp and death-like and Shane quickly let go. The difference between his memory of his father and this gray wreck in front of him was too painful to prolong.
“Is there nothing they can do?” Shane asked, as much to say something rather than stand silently observing his father.
“They say not,” his father replied. “What about the Institute’s Medical Island we hear so much about?”
Shane was expecting this question, said, “I asked. The Medical Island is still too new. At present, it can do everything your medical people can do but little beyond that.”
His father nodded. He clearly hadn’t been expecting a different answer.
“They could clone you,” Shane said, “but that wouldn’t help mom or my sisters because you’d begin again as a baby.”
“But then I wouldn’t be me, would I?”
“It would be your DNA but not your knowledge, experience, memories, or outlook on life. Your body but not your mind.”
“Then I don’t see the point.”
“One day, we’ll be able to recreate everything,” Shane said. “Right now, it’s just the stage medicine is in the world at large. The Island will progress the procedure until it’s really useful but that isn’t now.”
“Sit down, son,” his father said, suddenly seeming to notice Shane was still standing as if to leave.
Shane sat, though he really did want to leave. He had no talent for communication even with the living and this meeting was beyond that. As so often happened in his dealings with people, he felt unable to enter into any kind of small talk.
“Are you happy at the Institute?”
Shane frowned. That word ‘happy’ was a nuisance. It wasn’t something he thought about and he had no idea what it meant.
“From the moment I arrived there, I’ve felt at home, Dad,” he answered. “It was the best thing you and Mom could have done for me.”
“We didn’t mean you to never come back.”
“But coming back would have been stressful for you, my sisters and the family’s friends and relations,” Shane said. “I’m not a comfortable person; I know that now but then I thought people were just being mean to me.”
“Still, we’d like to have seen more of you, to have known how you were getting on. We don’t even know how you fit in there. The only people we see are that guy, Dean, and that kid, Alexis and only then on TV. You and the others may not even exist, for all we know. I’m always afraid you’re just sitting alone somewhere in a small room.”
Shane debated in his mind what to say. Would it set his father’s mind at rest at this end of his life if he told him he expected to replace Dean in only a year or two? Or would it sound like he was making stuff up to set his father’s mind at rest and worry his father even more?
“I’m too busy to sit in my room, Dad. After the computer game made me rich, I’ve put all my energy into Security and Oceanography and that’s more than a full-time job.”
“I invested the money you gave us into stocks and bonds,” his father said, “it seemed the right thing to do for the girls’ future but the Market Crash took most of it.”
“I put funds aside in our system,” Shane said. “Mom and the girls will be fine.”
His father nodded. “I wish we could have been more involved with you,” he said, returning to his earlier thought.
Shane was glad they hadn’t been. He thought of his life, working all day and night for weeks on end and knew he wouldn’t have been allowed to do that if his parents had had any say. They would have pushed him into conventional directions, university, a 9 to 5 job with prospects, and everything sensible and sane. Only it wasn’t. Forces had been set in play by the West’s foolish leaders, which had destroyed that way of life and he would have been one of the millions of victims of their misguided altruism.
“We spoke on the communicator,” Shane said.
“Not often. You were always too busy to talk.”
Shane said nothing. There was nothing to say. He had avoided every call that he could and would have avoided them all, if had been able to. He changed the subject.
“Is there anything that can be done to make you more comfortable?”
His father shook his head. “I’m not in pain, or anything like that. They’ve given me plenty of drugs to make the end comfortable.”
They sat together for the rest of the day and much of the following days, rarely speaking for his father slept a lot of the time.
“Your being here was a great comfort to him,” his mother said when, on his fourth day of his visit, his father died. “And to me too. Not seeing you was upsetting him badly and I and the girls found that hard to deal with.”
“I don’t know how I helped,” Shane said. “Even when he wasn’t asleep, we had nothing to say to each other.”
“He was quiet and calm, which means he was happier. You couldn’t see it because you didn’t see him before you arrived. Believe me, you being here did help.”
“What will you do now?” Shane asked.
“Nothing, at first. When the girls have places of their own, I’ll probably sell the house and find an apartment but that’s years away.”
“You can call me if you need anything.”
“Will you answer?”
Shane flushed red. Would he, if the time came? He assured her he would and the remainder of his stay passed without too much discomfort, though his mother and sisters had no idea what to do with him. It seemed to Shane they tiptoed around as if it was him who was dying.
He took a cab into Toronto. It was a shock. There’d always been people sleeping on the downtown streets but now they were everywhere, even though half the buildings in the city seemed abandoned and occupied only by vagrants. Parks were unkempt and littered with garbage, blackened trees and seats marked where rough sleepers had tried to keep warm. Signs of violence were everywhere but he saw none, only dejected, defeated people shuffling through the wreckage of a once booming city.
He ordered the cab to return him home. If Toronto, Canada’s most wealthy city, was now like this, what was the rest of the country like? This was, after all, one of the coldest countries on the planet. Without fuel, people would freeze to death in winter as they did in the centuries before the 20thCentury. He decided not to investigate further andleft right after his father was cremated.