"It's a beautiful day for a wake!", some demented part of me says.
"You're not wrong..." I think in response. White billowing clouds, far below us, extend to the horizon. Can't even see the ground today. Multiple wagons cross the pitch-perfect sky overhead and I follow them with my eyes. A shuttle bursts through the cloud cover and blows past at supersonic speeds, a long column of white trails behind it. I wonder where it's going, what kind of a journey it's on.
Coffee comes out of the maker right on time. I grab the mug and take it out onto the balcony, and shiver in the morning's chilly air. I tie the bathrobe around me a bit tighter and hold the warm mug in both hands, allow myself to steal some heat from the breakfast of champions. I stay outside and watch the clouds until I've finished my first cup of coffee.
I go back inside, get myself another cup of coffee, and check on Marlene. She is feasting on the morning rays. I check her soil, see that it's a bit dry and too acidic, dial in today's nutrient distributor settings. Then I go through each and every leaf and wipe them down, search for any signs of infection or disease. I talk to her while doing this, tell her about my plans for today. After she's clean, I start searching for today's leaves.
The leaves have to be at the right growth phase. There are a handful here that I've been following, they look like they may be ready today. No, no, too soon. What about these? Yes, these look ripe! I make the cuttings and take my six precious leaves to the curing room. The new leaves go into the container closest to the door. I write today's date on a piece of tape and make sure the leaves are sealed behind the wood-and-glass door.
Dozens of wood-and-glass doors look out at me and for a moment I feel faint.
When it's time, I take a taxi drone to the Year One wake. It's at Heavenly Meadow Acres, one of those "late to the party" start-ups that floats high above California, Arizona, and Nevada, no static address for them. Rolling green hills are separated by valleys, rivers, lakes. On a hill overlooking a windy beach is an elegant white house, with a creek winding through its open-air architecture. The drone lets me out on the front lawn, where everyone is dropped off.
A beefy cop, colors on full display even in funeral attire, stands on the side of a five foot tall purple obelisk. At the top of the obelisk is an urn planter with a small bush growing in it. To the side is a small dish that holds a pile of dried tea leaves. A short priest in full wake attire is on the other side of the obelisk.
"We're here, @YearOne of Jim L̢͘͘'͜͝Ą̶̛͟ş̶̵͡t̢͜͞ņ̸͟҉a̛҉̶̵m̶̷̕ȩ̨́͏'s death, to drink of his spirit..." We follow the protocol, do a song and dance, and eventually make tea out of the dried leaves. The cop watches the attendees as the priest serves up tea in small cups. We come up one by one and are offered Jim's spirit.
There are plenty of benches under trees, by the creek, pointed in the direction of a forest or the lake, or otherwise proferring a compelling view. We find our seats. I look down to the windy beach. We're a few hundred feet up from the shore. I watch the waves crash below us.
"Remember, that time we kayaked on Lake Union?" Deep, hoarse voice brings back tears. I bite back a cry and watch the water. "It was your first time out on the lake, ever. And of course I kayaked ever weekend."
"I asked you how to tip a kayak," I remind Jim. In the waters, not far off the beach below us, are a pair of familiar-looking kayaks. One is neon-green, the other is a red that's been dulled by many a Seattle season. I'm wobbling around in the red kayak, testing how the balance works, wondering what happens if the kayak has to roll, if I have to go in the drink.
"And I, stupidly, answered!" Jim laughs at the memory.
Below us, the red kayaker listens to something then throws himself sideways and his kayak rolls over. But it's having trouble coming back up.
"In my defense, Jim, I only asked about tipping a kayak, hadn't even thought to wonder about un-tipping it."
"What do you suppose is the lesson here?" Jim is always trying to teach me a lesson or two.
"I suppose, that we don't need to be fully prepared to make the next step. Things'll probably work out just fine."
We watch the floundering duo. Eventually they get going and swim out of view. I take the time to update Jim on the past year. The great summary? "The world moved on." He responds to the random news and I smile, remember our morning chats over complicated coffee brewing systems.
"It's been too long, I've missed you, Jim."
We talk and I remember things about Jim, things I'm going to miss. His presence lit up my life, I finally tell him that. He gives me the smile. The smile of a man who just won a Big Lebowski impersonator contest. The smile of a six foot tall hacker who read some of the same insane meta-fiction I've sampled, and so much more. We talk and reminisce, and I remember what the world lost a year ago.
"Are you still seeing Marlene?" he eventually asks.
My eyes go down for a moment, but then I look back at Jim: "Yeah, I'm still seeing her."
"This temporary life," Jim says and waves his arms around, "it's not worth it, man. I'm happy to see you, don't get me wrong, but... Look, I died a year ago, right?" I nod at that. "And a year later, you're still devoting most of your life to Marlene." Jim said something similar more than a year ago, when he was still around. After I confided in him, told him about Marlene.
Eventually, Jim wanders off. I look around and see that all of us have been crying. Without talking to anyone else, I head back home.
Marlene demands more attention, there's rot under one of the roots, so I spend the rest of the day tending to her. The wake took longer than I expected, so I'm behind with the Marlene-related chores. When I'm satisfied with the root structure, the clock says that it's 8:45pm. I have a shift in less than twelve hours, but that's more than enough time. I grab some aged leaves from the curing room and start heating up the water. The tea is made and I'm drinking it before the clock strikes 9.
I put a soft skullcap on my head, hook a fat data cable into it, and dial into Claaang!.
I'm in the Castle, walking around the market. City walls and multi-story buildings block out most of the sky, it's gloomy and claustrophobic. I rush through the market and get to one of the river bridges, stand at its edge and look at the pristine waters down below. There is a gust of wind over my skin, it feels cool and mesmerizing.
I follow the waters, walk to the end of the bridge and keep going, over to where the river turns into a waterfall. I stand on the side and look out toward the Great Sea. The Castle stands at its south side and the river finds its way through the gardens and down to the shore. I'm reminded of the Heavenly Meadow Acres house, a creek similarly passing through the structure. I wonder if that touch was at Jim's request. I wasn't there for the reading of the will, so who knows-
"Glorious, isn't it? To think, our ancestors lived in castles like these. They don't really teach you about the smell, do they?" Her voice raises the hairs on the back of my neck. Even after all these years, she is able to get a rise out of me with a random observation.
The game is hooked directly into my neural net, so the moment that Marlene's hallucination "appeared" for me, the game added a matching player. Instantly, Marlene has shadows, she rustles the grass when she walks through it. Her hand passes over a knife and she grabs it, stuffs it into her jacket. The tea is working its wonders, the game accepts my altered reality and even enhances it.
We walk down the beach, find our ship, and start going over the safety checks and sailing prep. The game is realistic to an insane degree. I tell Marlene about my life, things that have happened since she died, and eventually we set out on the ship. I remind Marlene that Jim passed away a year ago, and she cries, as she always does every time she finds out. I tell her about the Year One wake, the tea ceremony, and eventually about my chat with Jim.
"Do you come here often?" she asks.
I think back on the wall of humidors. "I miss you," I offer weakly.
I go to bed too late.
And then it's morning and I have to go to work. It's too early and I didn't get enough sleep, but I'm getting out of bed, I'm getting... I jab a Green Crack disposable into my leg, let the chemicals cross the blood-brain barrier... and I'm off! I shower, grab a coffee on my way out, ride a taxi drone into the city. My calendar reminds me, almost too late, that this morning I'm expected out in the field. I redirect the drone north, to the outskirts.
Today's location shoot is on a mountainside overlooking a lake. I can figure out where we are, but that information doesn't interest me right now. And doesn't change my job.
The taxi lands next to a quad of familiar-looking trailers. Something about them makes me uncomfortable, but I can't quite put my finger on what. So I get out of the cab and start pulling my equipment from the cab. A helper drone starts to fly the equipment toward the trailers.
I look toward the stage and my stomach drops. Gammo is working today. I see her ostentatious eight-foot tall purple Marge Simpson hair and practically dive back into the drone, almost abandon all the expensive equipment that's already been off-loaded. Then Lars is suddenly there, holding onto my arm for dear life before I can make my escape. Maybe I can chew my arm off...
"Please please please, we have called everyone, I know you have a history, but please, you'll be saving my life-" and so on pours out of Lars' mouth and I have to squeeze my temples to suppress a migraine.
"Yes, yes, shut up, I'll work with her, just shut up," I whimper and wipe the sweat off my face. This is literally killing me, I think. I'm hyperventilating. But what else can I do?
Leaning against the hopper drone, I think about that question.
You're already on thin ice with the Guild, a sadistic part of me pipes up. If you bail on this, they'll probably kick you out, and you'll-
Fuck! Shut up! I know the consequences! I run a hand through my hair and end up squeegeeing out a gallon of sweat.
"Let's do this shit!" I scream out and head toward the trailers. Doesn't have to be a big deal at all, I think to myself. Just fly the drones, get the shots, and get out. Don't dawdle and definitely don't engage with Gammo. She's not worth it.
Nevertheless, not half an hour later I'm in a screaming match with Gammo. Lars pulls me away, but it's obviously too late. Gammo stalks off to the Guild representative and my dreams start to crumble.
"Hey, maybe take some time off?" Lars suggests sheepishly.
"Don't think it's up to me," I growl out. "Oh, and thanks a lot, asshole. Couldn't find anyone else for this shit?!"
Lars shrinks back from my sudden outburst. "I tried..."
The Guild representative is glaring in my direction as Gammo prattles on. I'm so screwed.
The house in the clouds is unnaturally stark. Dark clouds surround us and blot out the sun, the only illumination is the default sterile lighting. Most of the furniture has been deconstructed, same for the lighting fixtures and blinds. But the humidor is hand-crafted, so I've had to arrange for a collector to swing by and pick it today.
The great wooden beast looks strange and out of place in the empty apartment.
The doorbell rings and I welcome in the buyer. She's young and energetic, walks in like she owns the place and instantly beelines for the humidor. "Ah, there it is! What a beauty! It's perfect!" She remembers that I'm not just a butler. "Oh, hi! Sorry, I'm just so excited!" She snaps a picture of the humidor as she talks at me. "I'll take it! Here," she extends a card in my direction, her attention is still held by the wooden beast.
I tap the card against my phone, enter the agreed-upon amount - she didn't even bother haggling - and extend the phone to her. She glances briefly at the amount then authorizes the transaction by hamming up a smile with a V gesture of her right hand toward my phone's camera.
Then the buyer taps twice at a bracelet on her hand, turns back to the humidor, and I feel invisible. A duo of heavy-duty drones roll in and start transporting the humidor out of the apartment. The woman follows closely behind.
I'm a bit rich. It... doesn't feel as good as I thought it would. There's a red tote bag on the kitchen counter. I pick it up and head out, leave the apartment for the last time.
While waiting on the roof for a taxi, I watch dispassionately as the transport drones wrap up the humidor in miles of ghost-like protective gossamer and load the cocoon-like entity into a huge U-Haul drone.
I point the taxi towards the tourist-trap vista point at the north end of Golden Gate. It's a dreary day, dark clouds make the whole world seem inhospitable and constantly angry, so it's little surprise that it's uncharacteristically empty here. The taxi drops me off and I walk from the vista point down to the pier. It's not a long walk, but I'm still drenched by the time I get down to the water.
Carefully, I take the glass jar out of the red tote bag and hold it close. "Remember," I address the jar, "when we came here that first time..." I trail off.
Some part of me wants to stay here and reminisce. But I don't. I open the jar and tip its contents out. Dried out tea leaves tumble out in an avalanche and land on the steel-gray waters a few feet below. The jar slips out of my fingers and follows the leaves into the bay.