This Life Without Wings | Gary Emmette Chandler

This Life Without Wings

 
 
 
 

At the edge of a meadow, a gaunt young man reaches up and places a cloud in the sky. He straightens two fingers and rotates his hand into an open palm, filling the cloud until it swells with rain. It hovers there, a mile above him, puffed and dark against the sky. After a moment he extends both hands, stretching it like dough. The cloud spreads and billows, blanketing the sun. He smiles, and listens to the wind.

The sound vanishes, replaced by a large, buzzing icon. Alice O’Malley calling, it says. He groans and taps the picture that hangs suspended several inches from his chest: brown hair to her shoulders, a grinning face, glasses.

“Connor,” she says, speaking quietly. “I’ve been knocking on your door, but you’re not answering. Are you still in the machine?”

“Yeah,” Connor says. “What’s up?”

“Dinner’s ready. We’re waiting for you.”

He sighs.

“Give me a minute to disconnect, okay?”

“Just hurry up,” she says, and ends the call.

The icon vanishes, and Connor tears a handful of grass from the earth, tossing it into the wind. It evaporates, forming a small hill behind him.

“Damn it,” he says to no one. “That wasn’t what I meant.”

With a swipe of his hand, the hill vanishes. He takes a deep breath and closes his eyes. For one more moment, he lets the wind run about him, rocking his body like another blade of grass. Then, Connor reaches up and sends the cloud to the edge of the horizon. He saves the pattern and speeds time by five-hundred percent. Connor watches in silence as the cloud strains and slips away, just a breath in winter, impermanent and unimportant.

 

*

His family is already at the table when he enters the dining room.

“You should come when you’re called,” his father says.

Connor glances at him—that beard of fire, those eyes of stone—but says nothing. Instead, he turns to his mother. The brown close-cropped wig she wears lies at an angle, and her lips are chapped, pale.

“Mom, you’re up,” he says as he sits, putting his hand out to her across the table. “I’m sorry I’m late.”

She reaches out and squeezes as tightly as she can, which isn’t much.

They all place their hands in their laps, and Connor’s father bows his head, closing his eyes. His mother keeps her eyes open, gazing somewhere beyond the room. Alice kicks Connor beneath the table and glares at him, ducking her head. He half makes a face, then closes his eyes and does the same.

“Bless, O Lord, this food we are about to eat,” his father begins, reciting the grace Connor has heard since he was a child.

Connor bites his lip, mumbling Amen along with his sister and father, before looking at his hands like he’s been stung.

Alice prepares dinner most nights, now, except for Sundays, which their father has off. It’s one of Alice’s nights, and right now that means meatloaf and asparagus. None of them care for the vegetable—the ropelike texture, the bitter taste—but it was on sale, and no one complains.

“Did you see the news?” his sister asks, looking around the table and almost smiling. “Mars One landed—it’s all over the web. They transmitted video from the touchdown.”

Their father grunts, and Karen only stares politely back at her daughter, wearing that same distant expression. Connor blinks at Alice, stirred from his own thoughts.

She sighs, and looks down.

“It’s kind of a big deal,” she says in a murmur, pushing the green stalks around on her plate.

Connor turns to his meal, and begins to eat as quickly as he can, trying to chew without letting the asparagus touch his tongue. He can feel his father’s gaze, but shakes it off and stands, shifting the bitter greens about his mouth as he leaves the table.

 

*

The curtains are drawn and the blinds are shut tight in Connor’s room. He leaves the light off as he shuffles over to the machine. The darkness helps when he disconnects; it’s less jarring to come back to this world when he can’t see it clearly, where the lights aren’t gnawing at his head, drawing out a migraine.

The machine takes up most of the space at the far side of his room. It’s a wide tube, the top encased by sliding glass, and reminds him of the hollow inside an MRI. He thinks of this each time he gets in: how they watched his mother disappear within those white, curved walls at the hospital, that first day after she passed out.

There’s a knock at the door as he’s approaching the machine.

“Connor,” his sister says, stepping in and closing the door behind her. “Wait, I want to talk to you.”

She wears contacts now. Like Connor, she’s thin and wears her hair long, though it doesn’t curl and tangle like his. The way she talks, you wouldn’t guess she’s fourteen.

“What’s with you lately?” Alice asks, crossing her arms and frowning. “You never used to fuss about grace.”

Connor grits his teeth. He feels like shouting or laughing, but ends up whispering instead.

“I don’t understand how Dad keeps his faith—how you do—when Mom’s still just…”

“You know it doesn’t work like that,” Alice says.

“I’m not sure what I know anymore.”

“Connor, you have to believe in something.”

“I believe in myself,” Connor says. “I believe I can win this, and get Mom help.”

She sighs, and shakes her head.

“Connor, if you don’t start spending time with her now, before she—”

Alice stops, and hides her face.

He opens his mouth to say something, but nothing comes. After a moment she glances back at him.

“It’s like you haven’t been here at all this year,” she says. “Just… please. Spend more time with Mom, okay?”

Before Connor can say anything else, she leaves and shuts the door behind her. For a moment he just stands there, eyes closed, breath held, waiting for the guilt to back itself into a corner and slip away.

Connor walks over to the machine and switches it on, sliding back the glass. It sounds like some beast waking as it starts up—a deep rumble surfacing, lurching forth in ragged breaths. He lies down inside and patches each of the nodes to his head, securing his left arm in the jack and gasping a little as the needle slots itself in.

The machine takes him under.

 

*

It feels like a current surging through his body, like a sleeping limb restored to life. He’s in the meadow again, where the sky is blue and vast, clear, free from the pollution that clots the city. Connor takes a long, slow breath as the wind floods about him.

Each month a technician comes by to perform a maintenance check, and restock the fluid. With the June software update, Connor rarely needs to use the interface. The menus are there when he’s under, if he needs to pull them up, but mostly he uses his hands. His fingertips and arms, his gestures—these are all coded in. Eyes closed, arms outstretched, Connor becomes a conductor drawing in the sound, dragging the hills and trees and lakes from the earth with each turn, each pivot of his body.

Idly, he loads the cumulus from before. He pushes it around, clones it several times, and draws the mist together in a writhing storm. With one hand he seeds a wildflower package in the clouds, and then breaks them overhead.

The downpour begins. With the rain and thunder, hundreds of wildflowers sprout up around him. Each bloom is different—this one white, a primrose there.

Connor gives a bitter laugh and kneels down in the writhing field. After a moment he stands and switches to topography mode, which sends him up, suspended far above the surface of his world. There, he orbits a vast, translucent sphere of ridges and valleys, caught among the light of a billion burning stars.

He promises he’ll get more done tomorrow and disconnects from the program, lying still as he wakes to the pale darkness of his room.

 

*

“I’m going to assume you all watched the Mars One landing this weekend,” Connor’s 4th period history teacher, Mrs. Bowen, is saying. She’s tall and narrow, several years older than his mother, with tired skin and graying hair tied up in a bun.

Connor’s eyes grow bleary as she speaks and scrawls her notes on the whiteboard at the front of the class. He’s thinking of the meadow, trying to find something unique, something to make it appeal to the judges. Leave it undeveloped, he thinks, as he yawns. There’s nothing like that around here. Connor sets his head on his desk, and watches the clouds outside the window, where the thought drifts into view: a meadow in the sky.

He laughs, and begins sketching it out.

“Yes, Connor?”

Connor snaps awake, glancing around and blinking. Mrs. Bowen leans back against the board, arms folded.

“You had a question,” she says. “Your hand…” She trails off.

Connor’s cheeks flush as he recognizes the silence, and the stares that follow him.

It’s not the first time it’s happened; sometimes when he starts to fall asleep it’s like he’s still in the machine, and his body just takes over.

“No,” he says, clearing his throat. “No question. Sorry.”

Mrs. Bowen sighs and turns to the clock.

“I guess that’s it for today,” she says, over the clamor of chairs scooting back and tablets shutting off. “The assigned section is in your reader. Essays are due in three weeks, so if you have any questions, please—don’t wait till the night before it’s due.”

“Connor, hang back a moment,” she says, as he reaches for his tablet.

There’s a murmur around him as they leave. Connor tries not to listen; he’s heard it all before.

“How is that legal?” someone says, in a hushed voice. “Seriously, you shoot up and stick your head in a machine. I mean, look at him.”

“Have a nice nap, tweaker?” Brandon says, laughing, loud enough for the whole class to hear.

Connor glances up and catches the look on Cassie’s face, as she mouths, “Sorry.”

After everyone leaves, Connor grabs his tablet and walks to the front of the classroom.

“How’s your mom, Connor?” his teacher asks, settling into her chair.

He looks away, shrugs.

“I know this is a hard time, but…” She takes a deep breath before she speaks again.

“I’ve spoken with the other teachers. You’re failing all of your classes. They say you show up and that’s it.”

“That’s eighty percent of success, right?” he says, managing a grin.

She shakes her head.

“What are you doing, Connor? You’re not going to graduate.”

He looks right at her, locks her weary eyes with his own.

“I’m going to win. And then it won’t matter.”

Mrs. Bowen sighs, but says nothing else. She’s always sighing—he’s noticed that—like she’s accepted too many things, too long ago.

As Connor opens the door to leave, he almost walks into Cassie.

“Yeah,” she says, stepping back with an awkward laugh. “I guess I was eavesdropping a little.”

Connor is speechless. She hasn’t said anything to him in months.

Cassie is tall, with dark hair bleached blonde, and soft, subtle features. This year she’s found a supporting role on some television show. He hasn’t watched it, and it’s still difficult for Connor to square this fact with the girl he used to know.

“I’m sorry about your mom,” she says, with an expression that makes Connor’s stomach ache. “Look, I just wanted to say, Brandon’s—”

“A dick, yeah, I know,” Connor says, cutting her off. “He was my best friend, remember?” He pauses for a moment. “I can’t believe you’re with him.”

She gives Connor a strange look, then shakes her head.

“He was there for me, when you just… Connor, you shut us out like it was nothing.”

Connor grimaces, but nods. A memory surfaces, and he’s there again, slipping back into his room with her after school, mouths pressed together, his hand beneath her shirt, fumbling with the clasp on her bra…

“Connor,” she’s saying, snapping her fingers in front of his eyes. “Are you listening to me?”

His face flushes. She’s got her brow narrowed, watching him like he’s some sort of stranger. It’s reflexive then, the way Connor’s mind pulls the pieces into place and twists the memory to what it is now: instead of him, it’s Brandon tossing her onto the bed—rough, with something like anger—and he can’t seem to shut the image out.

Cassie adjusts her purse and looks away.

“Look, is it true what they say? About it being like a drug?” she asks, glancing at the floor.

“Sort of,” he says. “But it’s not a big deal. I mean, I had to sign all these releases when the contest started. Scary shit—in case of this, in case of that—all waived. It’s amazing though, Cass. It’s like a dream, but you control everything, and it’s all there when you come back.”

She shivers a little.

“A dream, sure,” she says. “Just you in an empty world.”

She fidgets with her necklace for a moment.

“It’s almost over, isn’t it?” she asks, meeting his eyes.

“Yeah,” Connor says. “This week.”

“Good,” she says, reaching out and tugging on a strand of his hair. “You haven’t been taking care of yourself.”

He laughs, a little hurt.

“I thought you liked guys with long hair.”

She smiles out of one corner of her mouth, clutching her tablet to her chest.

“I’ll see you around, Connor.”

Connor nods, and watches as she vanishes into another classroom, feeling like a part of himself is tumbling away. It’s a choice he made a long time ago—it doesn’t matter now. And yet, somehow, it does.

 

*

Connor’s the first home. Before he goes to the machine, he stops to check on his mother, and knocks. After a moment, he hears her cough and stir. Connor opens the door.

He leaves the light off. Connor tells himself that it’s because he doesn’t want to disturb her rest, but it’s also that he’s afraid to see her when she looks so small and fragile, so thin in her nightgown. She shifts in bed as he enters, trying to pull herself upright by her elbows. His mother doesn’t wear the wig when she sleeps, and there are just these sparse, frayed hairs near the scar.

He walks over and sits at the chair by her bed, taking her hand.

“Hey Mom,” he says.

“I thought you had practice,” she says, easing back down. Her voice is dry, raspy, like a paper bag tumbling across the street.

He shakes his head.

“The season’s finished,” Connor says, lying. He quit track almost a year ago, soon after the contest began. She knows, but sometimes she forgets.

“Do you need anything?” he asks.

His mother nods.

“Water,” she says, in that rough, frail voice.

Connor stands and takes the empty glass by her bed to the kitchen. They have to leave her at home, alone, after his father leaves for work, when he and Alice are at school. There’s no money to hire anyone to help, and most of the time she’s too weak to get anything by herself. She can hardly make it to the bathroom some days, so they leave a bedpan there for her. He curses everything under his breath, and comes back with the water, helping her drink. His mother gulps down almost half the glass in seconds.

He sets it down, and they sit there together in the dark room.

“I’ve missed you,” she says.

“Mom,” Connor says, in a sob that’s out before he can stop himself. It’s a moment before he can say anything else.

“I’ll spend more time with you, I promise,” he says. “I just need to finish this. I can do it, I know I can. Then we’ll be able to afford that drug, and you’ll get better—”

“It’s okay,” she says, stopping him, reaching up to touch his face. “I know. I know.”

Connor stands and leaves the room, closing the door behind him. He heads to the machine, bites his lip, and walks instead to his desk. He switches the tablet on and sorts through his e-mail. After a moment, he navigates to the contest’s homepage: Build the New World. The video he’s watched a hundred times envelops the screen.

Triumphant music blares as the logo—a globe—appears on-screen. This fades, and an attractive, well-dressed man steps into frame.

“America was thought of as a new world when it was discovered,” the man says, grinning. “Next year, we’ll see the first colonists establish a permanent home on Mars; the discovery and exploration of new worlds is in our blood. Why not create them, too? I am William Marshall, CEO and Founder of New World Enterprises.”

The video cuts to a diagram of the machine.

“This is our development model of the Globe. From the applications we’ve received, we will choose fifty contestants to participate. The winner will be awarded five hundred thousand dollars and will have their world featured alongside our signature designer worlds when the Globe is released to the public. The Globe is a new method of connectivity; it is the Web 4.0, a virtual world visually just like our own, where imagination is the only limit. It is the future inside each of you. Join us, as we build the new world.”

Connor closes the video and taps the contestant page. He’s watched the other introductions so many times that it feels like he’s met these people, though he hasn’t. There’s a girl Connor’s age from Delhi whose father works for the UN. Another man is an architect from New York City. There are professional game designers, studio executives, even a Wall Street banker. Some of the videos seem like they were made for reality television, panning about a white background in slow-motion and focusing on the contestant as they strike a dramatic pose.

After opening a few, he watches his own.

Connor sits in his room, bright eyed and short-haired, speaking into the tablet’s webcam. His body is still visibly fit, and he glows with optimism. There are movie posters on his walls, his second place track meet medal, a photo of him with Cassie.

“Two months ago my mother was diagnosed with a grade three glioma,” Connor says, on the screen. “They operated and managed to remove most of the tumor, but even with radiotherapy and continued chemo the doctors tell us she has a year, maybe a little more.”

In the video Connor swallows and looks away for a moment.

“Thing is, there’s a new drug on the market that could help her. There have been trials showing complete remission, but they’re not just handing it out. My father is a janitor, and my mother teaches—”

He stops, shakes his head.

“—taught the 4th grade. It’s not covered by her insurance, and we could never afford it on our own. If I win, I’ll use the prize money to get her a full series of treatments. In the end, that’s the sort of world I want to build: one of hope, for all of us.”

This eager ghost of himself grins back from the tablet’s screen, and Connor shuts it off, placing his head between his hands. After a moment, he stands and approaches the machine, resting one palm against the glass. With a deep breath, he crawls inside and plugs in.

 

*

The meadow is just as Connor left it. Wildflowers spring from the grass in pale shocks, whipping about in the breeze. Far above, thick, puffed clouds roam the sky, following the weather patterns he’s plotted out. Each time the sun slips out, the chill on his skin vanishes. Two moons—one as green as the grass beneath his feet, the other larger, scarlet—rise in the east.

He takes a deep breath and steps forward. Connor opens the interface and selects the cut tool. With his right arm outstretched, he traces a perimeter around the meadow, stopping several kilometers in front of the forest. He makes a fist and turns it to the ground, shaking his fingers loose. There’s a tremor beneath him as he lifts his hand upward, drawing the meadow into the air, until the forest below looks no larger than a shrub. At the edge of the meadow, he builds a thin, translucent dome, where clouds move like smoke through the surface, like ghosts in the light.

Connor smiles, selects a redwood from the landscape menu, and adjusts the scale so it could fit a small home, before planting it at the center of the island. The tree looms above him, shading the meadow as it grows. Reaching forward, he hollows out the center, and places a wooden door with green trim at the base. Connor steps inside and raises the ceiling several meters above his head, then sets about building the rooms. He pulls a floor plan and traces the walls, watching as they sprout up around him. Connor stops and takes a deep breath, lost in the scent of fresh-cut wood. He’s never stepped foot inside a national park, but it doesn’t matter; here, he can create his own.

As he runs a hand across one of the walls, Alice’s call icon comes blasting through the silence.

“Not now,” Connor says, under his breath, and mutes all incoming calls. The icon hovers there in front of him, quivering without end, until he sends it to the side, out of sight.

Browsing the art menu, he fills the hollow with paintings; Cropsey on one wall, Rembrandt on another. He drops cedar bookcases around the center chamber, and pulls a reading selection from the creative commons. To light the room during the day, he pierces several sections of the wall, pulling the sun through in lazy, dusty shafts.

He reaches up and adjusts the time. When there’s nothing but an absolute darkness in the hollow, he begins floating several paper lanterns to the ceiling. They hover there, casting a soft warmth about the room. Connor glances up, basking in the glow. After a moment, he pulls a kitchen counter from the wall, and places a table and several chairs in the main sitting area. He looks around. It’s not a bad room. It’s different.

Connor steps outside and raises two small alder trees, then casts a hammock between their limbs. He crawls in and stretches out, gazing at the stars. With a flick, he pulls up a map of his world and spins the small model in front of him. His continents are populated with the cities he’s built this long year. There are suspension bridges, streets crowded by shops, and buildings that stretch to the sky. He’s borrowed a little from Paris, a little from San Francisco and New York, but in the end it’s all his own.

He yawns and stretches. Will it be enough? Connor has less than a week to polish the world, to make it stand out. There’s no telling what will score with the judges. He can only believe in his work. If it’s not chosen… he shakes his head, pushing the thought from his mind.

As he turns to one side, his sister’s muted call icon appears again. This time, Connor opens the line.

“Connor,” she says. “I’ve been calling for an hour. Get out of the machine. It’s Mom.”

 

*

Because of the drug, Connor’s not supposed to drive within eight hours of disconnecting from the machine, but a taxi to the hospital is going to cost forty bucks, at least. Swaying a little, Connor throws on clean clothes and grabs the keys to his mother’s Toyota off the wall.

He starts the car and plugs his phone into the slot beneath the radio.

“Directions,” he says, as he pulls out of the driveway.

Then, as the phone brings up the map, “Huntington Memorial—Pasadena, California.”

“Turn left in zero-point-three miles,” his phone says, in a woman’s voice.

His phone continues to speak every few seconds, leading him out of his neighborhood and onto the highway where it says, “Destination at current pace of traffic: fifteen minutes.”

As Connor drives, he glares at the cars that scurry alongside him like beetles, clogging the highway, keeping him from pressing past the speed limit.

When Connor gets to the waiting room in the cancer wing, his father ignores him and won’t stop pacing. He keeps walking back and forth between the chairs, hands clasped together.

“Dad, come on. What happened?”

Connor’s dad stops, finally, eyes blank.

“One rule,” he says. “Just one.”

“Dad, I—”

“You stay with your mother when we’re not home!” he shouts, stepping forward and throwing his son against the wall.

“Dad—” is all Connor can say, whimpering a little, trying not to cry.

After a moment, Alice steps out of the bathroom. Her mouth drops open a little, but she says nothing. Everything seems quiet, still and frozen, like one of the cities in his world.

At last, Connor’s father drops him, and turns away.

Alice steps over, standing close but not touching him.

“Mom had a seizure,” she tells him. “When I got home she was on the floor. I was screaming at you in your room, outside the machine, but you didn’t move. I tried calling, but you wouldn’t pick up. I had to call an ambulance.”

There’s nothing Connor can say. It feels like his chest, and heart, and eyes, and every inch of him are all on fire.

“I can’t hear anything when I’m in there,” he says at last, in a feeble voice. “And I just… I thought if I didn’t answer your call once, what difference…”

Alice shakes her head and takes a seat.

“You should have been there for her,” their father says, almost to himself.

Connor knows he’s right, but all he can think of is that beautiful, peaceful world—that island in the sky he built while his mother was lying on the floor, thirty feet away.

 

*

She’s still unconscious when the doctor takes them into her room. Only two visitors are allowed at a time, so Connor goes in last, after his sister and father have left. She’s wearing a blue hospital gown, and looks so different from the mother he remembers. An IV runs into her arm, and Connor looks down at his own, bruised and punctured in the same place from the Globe’s needle. He steps forward, takes her hand, and kisses her forehead.

The doctor is speaking with his father and sister in a room next door when Connor leaves.

He hangs to the back, listening.

“The scans from the MRI show an excess of swelling in her brain,” the doctor is saying.

Connor’s father sits there, holding his hands together, face pale.

“How long does she have?” he asks, after a moment.

The doctor sighs.

“A month, perhaps a little more.”

“What about the tumor drug,” Connor asks, from the back of the room. “Procalyvene.”

The doctor looks at him, glancing at the chart, then back at Connor.

“I’m afraid that’s not covered by her insurance.”

“I know,” Connor says. “Just, what if.”

“At this stage…”

The doctor trails off.

“You should prepare yourselves.”

Connor closes his eyes. There’s this sound in his ears, deafening everything else the doctor says. Everything he’s done this year—what was the point?

It’s a few minutes before the words start filtering back through.

“If you’d like to do home care,” the doctor is saying, “we have a hospice program where a nurse will come by a few times each week. However, she’ll still need someone there with her throughout the day.”

“My job’s the only income we have right now,” Connor’s father mumbles, looking away as he speaks. “I can’t take any more time off.”

“I’ll do it,” Connor says.

“What about school?” his sister asks.

“I was going to have to repeat the year anyway.”

After another silence, the doctor begins to speak.

“There will be some literature for you to read, of course, but we’ll prepare all of that for you. In the meantime I’d like to keep her under observation for a day or two.”

As they stand to leave, Connor is lost again in the sound that fills his ears, in the static that washes over him and whispers that nothing now will change.

 

*

Connor speeds along the highway and the surface streets, until he’s clambering up the driveway and fumbling with the lock, heading for his room, and the machine. He slides back the glass and slips in, fitting his arm into the socket. Taking a breath, he hits the power switch with his free arm, slots the needle, patches in, and goes under.

He blinks at the meadow around him. The house in the tree, the floating island, they’re all there, silent and serene—waiting as he left them. Connor sends himself up, above the atmosphere, where the world shrinks to match his size. They float together, the boy and his planet, there in the darkness of space.

With a gesture, he rotates the globe, focusing on the first city he built: a metropolis of high-rises and stadiums, pristine, without a hint of pollution, resting along the coast of the eastern continent. Straightening one finger, he traces a perimeter around the city and plucks it from the earth, raising it several miles above the surface.

Connor works throughout the night, returning to scale and flitting about the planet like a firefly, reaching out and tearing every city and monument from the earth below. He drags mountains from the plains, ripping their spines aloft. With each motion, he fractures the world. In his wake he leaves a shock of craters and basins, cities that float above the horizon. He builds stairs that stretch to the sky above, rewrites the DNA of the wildlife, and alters the transport schematics of each vehicle to allow for flight.

Last, before he disconnects, Connor fits each user with wings. It is a broken world, but a beautiful one.

 

*

The day before the contest’s deadline, Connor downloads the world to his tablet and props it up across from him on the desk. There are two options on the contestants’ login page: upload, or record. Connor selects record, and the tablet’s screen shifts to reflect his face.

Connor starts to speak, then stops.

“It’s been a tough year,” he says finally, with a sigh, staring at the dark hair that falls to his neck. “Before the contest started, everything was different. I was in a relationship, and I was doing well in school, in track. And Mom… she seemed so healthy still. I was so sure I would win this thing.”

Connor laughs without smiling and sets his jaw, looking away from his reflection.

“Most of the year I had myself convinced it was all for her, you know,” he says, holding one hand in the other, following the creases in his palm. “But I think I was afraid to accept that she was dying—afraid to watch it happen. And there, in the machine, it was my world. I could control everything. I could create something beautiful.”

He sighs and sits back in his chair, putting a hand through his knotted hair. His walls are bare, and laundry is heaped across the room.

“Really, I was hiding. It took me a long time to understand that, and it’s not something I can change now. But in the end, regardless of everything else, I did my best.”

Connor opens his mouth to say something else, but shakes his head and reaches forward to shut off the video.

He confirms the submission and waits as his world, and closing statement, are sent off. Within moments, a form letter arrives, thanking him for the submission, designating a pickup date for the machine once the winners have been announced, and inviting all contestants to the televised event in New York City, in a month.

Connor finds the RSVP and writes back. He identifies himself briefly, and explains that he won’t be able to attend, due to his mother’s health.

“Please contact me if this is an issue,” he adds, at the end of the email, with some flicker of hope.

Shutting off the tablet, it feels like another piece of himself vanishing, and there’s a panic like freedom before he stands and turns away.

 

*

The following Monday before class, Connor calls the school and asks to be connected with his history teacher.

“My mom’s got maybe a month left,” he says when she answers, listing logistics and specifics, until she cuts him off.

“Go take care of your mother, Connor. I’ll draft the paperwork on our end. You’ll need signatures from your father, but I’ll see to the rest.”

“Thank you Mrs. Bowen. Really.”

He hangs up, and goes to his mom’s room.

“Connor,” she says, in a hoarse voice, looking around for the clock. “What time is it? You should be at school.”

He shakes his head, taking her hand.

“Dad was right,” he says. “I should have been there for you. I’m here now.”

“What about the contest?” she asks.

Connor shrugs.

“I’m done. There’s nothing else I can do.”

She sighs, but makes no further protest.

While his mother sleeps, Connor takes to cleaning the house. He makes her soup and helps her get to the bathroom when she can’t. The Hospice nurse comes at noon, three days a week, and Connor works with her to make sure his mother’s comfortable. When she’s awake, he sits with her and reads aloud—not from his tablet, but from the books she keeps in her room. Sometimes she can hardly speak, and she’s confused, but right now she watches him intently, in silence.

Connor is reading her a story about a group of settlers from earth, on a mission to colonize another world, when she stops him.

“Do you think we’ll ever do that?” she asks. “Build another world, somewhere.”

He shrugs.

“They’re doing it on Mars, I guess,” he says.

His mom coughs.

“I wish I could see it.”

“Mars?” he asks, and she shakes her head.

“No. The world you built.”

Connor’s face pales.

“You will, if—”

He stops, and closes his eyes.

“Connor,” she says, shaking him loose from his thoughts. “I’m just happy you’re here with me now.”

Connor smiles, faintly, and nods.

It feels like too little, too late, but he will give her everything he can in the time that’s left.

 

*

The morning of the event, Connor’s mom sleeps longer than usual. When she wakes, she’s weaker than he can remember seeing her. He helps her up, and lifts the water for her to drink, but she coughs most of it back. He sits with her as she sleeps, holding her hand, unable to do anything else. When she wakes again, it’s mid-afternoon.

“It’s today, isn’t it,” she says, in that voice like paper.

He can only nod.

“Mom,” he says, finally, “I don’t think…”

“Oh, Connor,” she says, speaking with pain, in between breaths. “You tried. Do you understand? That’s what matters—to me.”

Connor can only squeeze her hand in response. She closes her eyes and settles back down.

“Still,” she says, a few minutes later, eyes still shut, “we should know. How are they announcing it?”

“NBC is doing a segment tonight, at nine,” he says.

His mother nods.

“Well then,” she says, “we’ll watch it together, as a family.”

Connor smiles, then looks away. If he’d won, he’s sure they would have contacted him about his absence at the event, and made other arrangements. But maybe, just maybe…

 

*

Alice comes home first, followed by their father. He carries his wife into the living room, and they turn on the television at eight, where the station is airing a program on Mars One.

“I’ll admit, it’s been hard,” a woman says, beaming at the camera from inside the small living unit. “Each day, we look out and know that the earth is there, and that we’ll never go back. Life here won’t be easy, each of us understood that from the beginning. But what we’re doing—it’s something that will last.”

Connor closes his eyes as she speaks, floating there in the darkness of his mind.

When the show ends, and NBC starts their segment on his contest, it’s different than he imagined. There are lights, and projected fireworks, as photos of each of the contestants flash across the screen, backed by a percussion ensemble. Briefly, a photo of Connor flits past alongside the others and vanishes. Then, they are showing clips of the worlds. There are crystal towers, cities beneath the sea, and vast, dense ranges that teem with strange creatures. For a few seconds, they show Connor’s world: all those islands suspended in the sky.

The program cuts to the CEO grinning on stage, in front of a live audience.

“It’s been an incredible year,” he shouts. “Let’s hear it for 2025!”

With this, he raises his hands into the air, and the crowd bursts into applause. Several cameras pan about, catching the camera flashes and confetti that fill the auditorium. The man grins into the camera, and Connor is rendered mute by the spectacle; even in 8k the man’s complexion is immaculate, and he grins like he was born for this moment, whipping the crowd into a frenzy. After a moment he spreads his arms like he’s splitting the sea, and a hush spreads across the audience.

“When the contest began, we asked you to create another world, and fifty brave, brilliant contestants stepped up to the task. All year they worked to create a vision unchained by the laws of physics—one planet that together, we will inhabit and explore through the Globe—a new world.”

The man pauses, reeling in the silence.

“It wasn’t easy judging this. Each world was beautiful, perfect in its own way, but we could only choose one.”

For a moment, everything—the television, the auditorium—is quiet. And then, in one swift movement, the man’s arms are back in the air.

“And we have that winner for you here tonight: Bryan Chen, come on down!”

The crowd erupts into applause, and Connor sits frozen, watching. His pulse seems to stop, and everything but the screen evaporates around him. The words are said, and the grinning face that walks out onto that stage—the world projected onto the backdrop—is not his.

His family sits there, without a word.

At last, his father reaches over to the remote, and turns off the television.

It’s his mother that breaks the silence.

“I want to see Connor’s world,” his mother says, in a strong, clear voice.

They look over, startled, unsure.

“Put me in the machine tonight,” she says. “Before they take it back. You can do that, can’t you?”

“Karen, you can’t,” Connor’s father says. “It uses a drug. We don’t know—you might not wake up.”

“It’s been like that for a long time now,” she says, watching her husband with a sad smile. “And I want to see the world my son has built.”

They begin to protest, but she puts one hand up to stop them.

“I’d like a moment with your father,” she says, glancing at her children.

The siblings shuffle off to Connor’s room, and Alice plops down on his bed, resting her chin on one hand.

“I hate this,” she says.

Connor nods, and sits down beside her.

“I know.”

There’s a space between them, a vast berth of silence, before he speaks again.

“I was wrong. The way I handled everything this year. I think Dad hates me for it.”

Alice lifts her head and looks at her brother.

“No,” she says after a moment. “You tried. In your own way tried. We all know that.”

Connor reaches over and tousles her hair, forcing a grin.

“I kind of miss when you would just yell at me.”

She laughs, crying, and rests her head on his shoulder.

When their father comes through the door, carrying his wife, Connor stands and dashes over to the machine. He sets the interface to user mode, then slides back the glass, and their father sets her inside.

“Mom, are you sure about this?” Connor asks.

She nods, and Connor squeezes her hand. He secures her arm in the needle’s brace, and places the nodes along her warm, pale head. With a deep breath, he closes the glass and starts the machine.

Together, as a family, they watch her gasp and go under, where each breath takes her further from this life without wings.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:



Gary Emmette Chandler

Gary Emmette Chandler works from his apartment in Portland as a copywriter and web developer, mostly in pajamas, with a cat nibbling at his leg. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in BastionDaily Science Fiction, and Plasma Frequency, among others.

 

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