Meghan sat alone in a tastefully-appointed waiting room in Elysium’s New York office, fidgeting with the gold ring on her right hand. She was wearing a black cashmere turtleneck and black slacks and carried a leather document case, her attire starkly contrasting with the clean, off-white decor surrounding her. A pile of magazines lay on a side table next to her seat, and a rack of brochures detailing the company’s services depicted smiling families and couples embracing. She ignored them and booted up a game on her phone, mindlessly matching brightly-colored blocks while she waited.
“Ms. Neff?” A nurse holding a tablet said quietly from a little down the hall, “You can come in now.”
She got up and followed the nurse, a boyish man wearing high-end dark scrubs, entering into a small room dominated by a reclining medical chair. Over the chair was perched a steel arm terminating in a wide plate that was swiveled over the head of an older, tanned, slightly anxious-looking man laying back beneath it. Meghan smiled politely at the man, a little pulling out of the corners of her mouth that created a line too stiff and horizontal to be considered truly friendly. He nodded slightly in response. The nurse gestured to a seat and Meghan deposited herself in it, placing her hands in her lap and looking around the room so as to avoid making eye contact with the man occupying its center.
“We’re all set to go,” the nurse said, after consulting with the technician, a middle-aged woman with short-cropped hair standing next to a console behind the arm. “Are you ready?” The question was directed not at the man, but at Meghan. She tried to reply in the affirmative, found that her mouth was suddenly quite dry, and nodded instead. The technician inputted something into the console, and the entire room seemed to hum as the machine whirred to life.
As the device did its work, Meghan finally looked into the eyes of the man sitting across from her, searching for some sign of recognition. For a moment, none came. Then, something shifted in his features as the apparatus over his head delivered a last series of audible clicks and then was withdrawn by the nurse.
“Your time starts now, Ms. Neff,” the nurse said, then withdrew to confer with the technician.
“M… Meghan?” The man said, and while the voice was unfamiliar, the words and intonation were unmistakable those of her father’s. Her father, who had been dead for over a year, was speaking to her. A genuine smile spread across her face and was mirrored in his, though his features quickly slipped into confusion.
“Is this heaven?” Her father asked. “It looks more like a hospital room.”
Meghan continued smiling, reaching up to dry the corner of her eye with a tissue produced from her purse.
“It’s… it’s not heaven, dad,” she replied.
“Well, then that must mean…” he trailed off, face contorted in thought. “I didn’t die. I’m still here! That heart attack didn’t kill me after all, and I feel better than I have in years, too!”
The nurse caught Meghan’s eye from behind her father in the chair and motioned politely with his head towards the analog clock in the room. Meghan sighed.
“Dad,” she began, recalling the script she’d rehearsed with the help of Elysium’s advisors. “This isn’t heaven, and you did die. I need you to listen carefully to me. A little while after you passed, a startup developed a way to bring the deceased back to Earth, but it’s only temporary.”
Her father’s face — it was strange how quickly she came to think of it that way — shifted again as he struggled to process the information. His gaze wandered, creeping down his body, and a dawning look of horror settled on him.
“This isn’t my body,” he said. “This isn’t me. I’m not here. Meghan, honey, is this hell? I shouldn’t be here. This is wrong, this is-“
Her father’s diatribe was cut off by the nurse, who swiftly inserted a syringe into the crook of his arm, depressed the plunger, and removed it.
“What’s going on, Meghan? What’s happening?”
“Just something to help you calm down, dad,” Meghan said kindly. “I’m told that the process can be pretty disorienting, and we don’t have much time.”
She was warned about the possibility that her father might be alarmed upon his return, that his spirit — well, Elysium didn’t like to use the word “spirit” or “soul” — might be jarred by the transition. The way they explained it, there was nothing metaphysical about the process at all. Consciousness persisted beyond the death of the body in a kind of psychic residue like data on a disc. With the proper tools, with the process they’d developed, it was possible to “read” that data, to effectively return the person’s essence to the physical world.
“What do you mean?” He replied, the panic in his voice cut somewhat by the sedative the nurse had administered.
“The process,” Meghan explained, “uses a tremendous amount of energy. And given how expensive that is right now, well, we can’t really afford to keep you here for long. I’m sorry, dad.”
She watched as the man that was her father nodded. If she had any doubts about his authenticity, the understanding he evinced when he mentioned their financial concerns dispelled them for good. Their situation might be completely novel, but her father had always understood money.
“But… I still don’t understand. This isn’t my body.”
“No, it isn’t. The way it works, well, we don’t have time to get too deep into it, but basically they find a healthy contractor who fits a number of criteria and use them as a kind of vessel that you can communicate and act through.”
“But it’s only temporary?”
“That’s right. In addition to the cost of the procedure, we’re paying the man whose body you’re occupying right now for his time.”
Her father sighed, the quick-acting drug working its magic. “I see. Well, sweetie, why is it that I’m here, then? Did you just want to say goodbye?”
Meghan gazed warmly at her father for a moment before swiftly producing a multi-page document from a manila envelope inside the document case. “It’s like this, dad. When you died, it was all so sudden. It was so soon after your wedding, and-“
“Oh, yes. How is Jessica? Is she holding up alright?”
Meghan frowned involuntarily. “That’s just the problem, dad. Jessica got everything after you died. We tried to talk to her, to fight her, but she cut us off. Me, Eric, Alicia, we’re destitute. We’ve got nothing.”
“I’m sorry, honey. I don’t want you kids to suffer. But what can I do?”
Meghan fished around in her purse and pulled out a steel pen, uncapping it and handing it and the document to her father.
“You can sign this, dad. It’s an updated will that includes us.”
“Of course she’s in there too. We don’t hate her. We just can’t live on nothing. You understand.”
The man reached out to grasp the pen, his head bobbing slightly. He gazed down at the page as Meghan’s face pleaded silently with him, and for a moment, the room was still except for the whirring of machinery and the muffled cough of the technician. Finally, he moved the pen to the bottom of the page and signed it.
“There you go, pumpkin. I’m sorry you had to go through all this.”
Meghan broke out into a wide, appreciative smile. “Thank you so much, daddy. If you could just initial on each page too, that’s all we need.”
Her father turned up each page at its corner, initialing each time. He passed the will back to her, looking down at hands that didn’t belong to him. Meghan made eye contact with the nurse who’d injected him earlier, and he prepared to administer a second dose. But her father simply turned his hands over, marveling at them like a stoned teenager.
“This is incredible, honey. Getting to see you again, it’s wonderful. This updated will, do you think the courts will accept it?”
Meghan shrugged slightly. “I hope so. There’s not really any precedent for it. As you might imagine, this technology has created a lot of legal questions.”
“I bet… but say, since I’m back around, why update my will at all? I mean, I’m alive again!”
“It’s like I said, daddy. This is only temporary. It’s still a new technology, and it’s so expensive.”
“Well sure, but we’ve got money. How much is this guy’s time worth? We could write a long-term contract with him. I could get to see your brother and sister. We’d be a family again.”
Her father’s tone was pleading, and Meghan opened her mouth for a second before closing it and shaking her head. “I’m sorry, dad, but it doesn’t work that way. I wish it did. Thank you for this, though, and I’m so glad to get to see you again.”
“Of course, sweetheart. So is that it? They’re going to pull me back out now?”
“Well, we have a couple of minutes left,” Meghan said. She wasn’t entirely sure she wanted to ask, but when was she going to have the chance again? “There was just one more thing…”
“What is it?”
“I’m… well, I’m not really supposed to ask you, but…”
“What is it, honey? I’m your dad, you can ask me.”
Meghan took a deep breath and looked intently at her father. “Dad, what did you see? After… after you died, I mean.”
The man nodded and closed his eyes, as if deep in recollection. He took a deep breath in and exhaled, lost in his serene expression. As she watched, Meghan forgot that the face wasn’t that of her father but of a total stranger. The technician muttered something to the nurse in the background.
“I saw… it was beautiful, Meghan. It’s hard to describe. But I saw your mother, my parents… it was calm and peaceful. Don’t worry about me, ok? I’m going back to a better place.”
Meghan’s eyes welled up with tears and she leaned over, giving her father an awkward half-hug as he lay back in the chair. “Thank you, dad. I love you.”
“I love you too, pumpkin. Goodbye, and take care.”
Meghan stood up and walked towards the door, ushered along by the nurse as the technician interacted with the console, spurring the machine noisily to life once more.
“You know, Ms. Neff,” the young man leading Meghan out of the room said pleasantly, “We did recently start offering long-term packages. For a family of your means, they’re quite reasonably-priced, too.”
Meghan scoffed. “I’m well aware of thats. My father, however, is not. And the last thing I want is him sucking away at my inheritance for a few more months of life.”
“I see,” the nurse said, slightly taken aback by the sudden shift in Meghan’s demeanor. “Well, we hope that Elysium has helped you somewhat in this difficult time.”
“Oh, you have. I’ll be in touch if I need to speak to him again, but hopefully that won’t be necessary.”
As Meghan left the building, the nurse shrugged and returned to the room where the man was now laying unconscious in the medical chair, wondering at the family dramas of the wealthy. But none of that had anything to do with him, and it wasn’t his job to judge the clients.
“Did you tell her about the long-term packages?” The technician at the console asked, shutting the system down. She cracked her knuckles, stepping out to watch as the nurse checked the man in the chair’s vitals.
“I did, yes,” the nurse replied. “She already knew.”
The technician chuckled, running her hand through her short hair. “So, she lied to her father? Must run in the family.”
“How do you mean?”
“Well,” the technician said, gesturing to the man in the chair. “At the end there, when he was telling her about what he saw after he died?”
“That was all bullshit. Nobody sees anything.”
“What, you mean it’s just… darkness?”
She shook her head. “Not darkness. That’s what a lot of people imagine death must be like. Being alone in the dark. But it isn’t like that. It’s nothing. The color behind your eyes. Nada.”
“The color behind my…?”
“What do you see behind your eyes? It isn’t darkness. It’s just nothing. That space behind your field of vision, that’s it. A void. Going into a dreamless sleep and never waking up.”
The nurse frowned. “That’s…”
“That,” the technician said, tutting, “is why we tell them not to ask about it. But I guess dear old dad wanted to protect her from the truth. Better than she deserved, by the sounds of things.”
The nurse finished his inspection of the man in the chair, ticking off the post-procedure checklist on the tablet. He was disturbed, but tried not to show it.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to freak you out. You’re new, right? You’ll get used to all this,” the technician replied encouragingly. “If you want my advice, try not to think about it too much. Who knows, maybe they just forget what it’s really like when we bring them back.”
“Yes, I suppose that’s possible.”
“Anyway,” the technician said, patting the nurse on the shoulder, “let’s get this guy his fifty bucks and get out of here. Buy you lunch?”
“Yes,” he said, smiling uneasily as the man’s eyes fluttered open in the chair. “I’d like that.”
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