art by Jason Stirret
by Benjamin Heldt
The flickering light of the television cast Henry's shadow across the darkened room, and across me. Through the speakers a steady voice called time to t minus zero. The rockets fired. Henry gasped, though he didn't move. He was too close, as always, sitting cross-legged on the floor not two feet from the screen. Huge sheets of ice cracked and fell from the scaffolding and fuel tanks, vaporizing in the blanket of smoke and fire blooming out from the launch site.
"Buddy," I said, trying to keep my voice from breaking, "come sit with dad on the couch."
He stood and backed toward me, never looking away from the screen. When he reached the couch I lifted him onto my lap. A small Band-Aid curved along the outside of his ear.
"What's this?" I asked, tugging gently at his earlobe.
"I'm here to take care of you," I said, but he wasn't really listening.
"Mom helped me."
No, she didn't, I thought. But of course I didn't say that.
I thought the ship might shake, or rattle, or otherwise struggle to leave Earth, so the smoothness of its launch surprised me. The whole giant machine, a spaceship buttressed with giant cylindrical rockets and fuel tanks, seemed to float upwards like a hot air balloon.
That didn't last. The ship gained speed, moving fast out of the frame, and in a few seconds the view on screen widened. The ship raced skyward at the end of a thick column of grey ash and fire.
"Why didn't mommy go on the spaceship?" Henry asked. He was such a smart boy to ask a question like that. Why wouldn't she go, if she had trained her entire life for it? I choked on my words at first, but faked a cough, hoping to fool him.
"You'll have to ask mommy that," I said.
As if it had been listening, it entered the room. Sophie. No, not Sophie. Another Sophie.
"Sweetheart," not-Sophie said, brushing a hand through Henry's hair. We'd had it for a week, but this moment felt different. It was more real, somehow, with the finality of the launch. I couldn't stand how much not-Sophie looked like her, how much it sounded like her. I couldn't stand how easy everything had been for Henry. He hadn't even noticed the difference. I reminded myself: this is for him. This is so he won't grow up without her.
On TV the discarded rockets spun back toward earth, spitting the last bitter ends of their fire.
"Why didn't you go on the ship?" He asked, turning to face what he thought was his mother.
"Oh, sweetheart," it said again. Sophie had always called him that, and not-Sophie's intonation was perfect. It drew out sweet, holding that half of the word a little longer, just like she would have. It stroked his hair. "Because I love you too much to leave you." He looked back at the television.
As the ship became a bright star in the lenses of the earthbound cameras, a voice spoke from the television.
"A safe launch for Fidelity, planned to be the first manned spaceflight beyond our solar system." I turned the television off with the remote. Henry didn't see me wiping tears from my face, but not-Sophie did.
"Ok, sweetheart," it said, picking Henry up. "Bedtime."
When Henry's door closed I turned the TV on again and knelt on the floor in front of it. The image of the ship, the brightest star in the sky, remained. I touched my hand to the screen. There was no more use in holding back tears, and through them the ship warped, growing and shrinking, doubling or tripling, blending into the firmament.
"How could you go?" I whispered. Why would she go like this? Why had she lied to me? I had prepared for her to go, had known for so long that she had chosen to leave us. I was strong and ready. Why, only a week ago, had she lied to me, had she told me with a smile that she would stay?
Then she had been replaced.
I turned to see it standing by the couch. I wiped tears from my eyes. Not-Sophie was incapable of understanding this.
"Leave me alone," I said. I thought I saw its mind working, thought I saw past its humanness to the engineering underneath. I thought I saw it accessing its hard drive, calling some empathy subroutine, taxing its processor, devising some appropriate reaction to my outburst of emotion.
In my heart I held the spiteful hope that the machine would malfunction, that its programming would prove inadequate. I hoped that Henry would see how fake it was, and ask me what had happened to mommy. I hoped that I'd get to tell him that his mother had left him forever, and I was the one who had stayed, who loved him.