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Amber

Sandra lives with her family in Washington state. She is a compulsive reader, papercrafter, and chocoholic. Her work has appeared in such venues as Daily Science Fiction, Crossed Genres, and the Escape Pod podcasts. She is a Clarion West 2010 graduate.
Every morning Mom says, "Today is the day I get my new body."
And I lie and tell her, "No, Mom, that's tomorrow."
Then she happily squeals like a rusted nail yanked out of scrap metal. "I'm so excited! I can't wait to wear a dress again!"
I don't understand Mom's body perseveration, a degradation artifact as her engram matrix unravels the specialists call it. The UpLink specialist who preserved Mom's engrams and uploaded them to the house says there is nothing they can do. Terminal system degradation occurs in less than 0.21% of all UpLinks. Would a hardware upgrade do anything? No. What about a new interface? No. Perhaps an enrichment program, a way to enhance her love of gardening or community theater? No. More frequent interface with other UpLinks? No.
"I'm sorry," they say, and I wonder if it would hurt less if they lied.
Mom fades a little more every day. Her voice modulation slips. Her once proper diction is slurred. She takes longer to fulfill a request, never an order, always a request made with a sincere "Please" and accepted with a gentle "Thank you."
We kept in touch after graduate school. Daily calls became weekly, became sporadic, became a single line text years later: "The biopsy result are in."
I made it to as many appointments as I could. When the doctor brought up the possibility of an UpLink, Mom accepted without hesitation, cocooning herself in amber. I wasn't as certain, but supported her decision and agreed to provide a secure network. If I could turn back time, I would warn past me not to get involved, to run while she had the chance.
This morning Mom made me coffee in my favorite mug, the one with bubblegum pink elephants tiptoeing through a field of bright yellow tulips. "Just the way you like it," she says.
She forgot to patch the coffee grinder into the automated brew. I set the mug of steaming water in the sink. "Thanks, Mom. I'm running late, so I'll get something on the way."
The lights in the kitchen falter. The red self-clean light flashes on the face of the automated brew. "Oh. Well, all right. Have a good day, dear."
Her audio slips, warbles, resets. And she says, "Today is the day I get my new body."
Mom is dying. Again. It is somehow worse this time because she doesn't know. Maybe it's only worse for me.
The specialist asks how I wish to proceed. She will eventually need to be removed from the house network. To do anything else would be cruel and inhumane. Inhuman. Unhuman. I can't do it. I can't. How dare they ask me to kill my own mother?
Gently, so gently the words leave me bleeding on the floor, "Your mother died four years ago. This is to preserve her dignity."
Why won't they lie to me?
Every night Mom runs me a hot shower and dispenses medications I have not trusted her to manage for months. I keep my own pill box in the bottom drawer of my nightstand. Tonight she says, "I looked at dresses today. There are so many, I can't make up my mind! Will you help me decide which one I should wear first?"
"Sure, Mom."
She turns up the bathroom lights. "What's wrong? Your eyes. Are you okay?"
The last word flutters, skips: "o-o-O-o-k-kay?"
I wipe my eyes on the edge of my damp towel. "I'm fine, Mom. Allergies."
She clucks in sympathy and says, "I'll add an antihistamine to the grocery Zimbabwe."
Language loss. She took pride in her vocabulary. Another piece of my mother gone forever. That night I 0.21% allergy myself to sleep.
The specialist offers the termination code. I can speak it out loud in the house, enter it manually. "Or we can manage everything for you."
A digital noose around my neck.
Mom died before I made it to the hospital, a corn husk doll of a woman, wrinkled and pale. I never had the opportunity to tell her I loved her, or how proud I was of her, or say good-bye.
I accept the code, to do anything else would be inhumane. Unhuman. "Will it... hurt?"
"Pain is a physiological phenomenon. As she continues to degrade, she will become more unreliable and could prove a hazard. This disables her matrix and removes her from the house network."
Mom died four years ago. I think of coffee and showers, medications and Mom's report on the latest theater practice. "I'll take care of it, thank you."
Mom makes me coffee in my favorite mug.
She says, "Today is the day I get my new body."
The code teeters on the tip of my tongue. I weigh it against how happy she is to be a part of my life if only for a little longer. I take a sip of steaming water by the kitchen sink and say, "No, Mom, that's tomorrow, but I can help you choose a dress tonight when I get home."
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, November 24th, 2020


The end of the story came to me as I stepped out of the shower. I pushed my partner off their computer, and finished it in one sitting. The power of an idea, no matter how small.

- Xander Odell
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