Ellie had missed four calls from Jenny. The afternoon had been a gauntlet of customers, each armed with their own set of complaints, which Ellie handled with a grim politeness. The efforts to maintain it drained her, and she still had the kids to deal with, let alone Jenny. She let each call drift into voicemail, but a small dagger of guilt dug into the lining of her stomach with each one.
The showroom door opened and the Cloud floated in, three bubbles floating atop one another, filled with sparkling liquid which flashed and exploded in patterns of light.
‘Hi, I’m Mrs Underwood.’ it said.
Ellie looked down at the laptop, took a deep breath and raised her eyes as the thing floated towards her. She had seen the first Clouds on television and the internet, but this was the first one she’d seen in person.
‘Yes, come on through.’ she said.
Oscar came out of his office. He wasn’t sure what to do with his hands. Mrs Underwood emitted a field of blue light and Oscar waved his hand through it. The air sparkled where they touched and Oscar gulped with surprise before he gestured for it to join him in the office. Ellie watched it float inside, fighting the rapture which burst like lightning inside her chest.
Your consciousness was a net of neural electricity. They scanned it, put it into a frame of molecular robots which left you in a body of light and chemicals, without the weight and failures of the flesh. The liquids were bacteria, providing a source of nutrients which could generate sensory fields of an exquisite variety. Immortal and insubstantial, being a Cloud was a way to cheat death. They were seldom seen because the technology had gone through the normal process of testing – from animals to ill people then athletes and the wealthy. You could generate forms of utility and beauty with the molecules in the air around you in whatever materials you could imagine.
So many people depended on their illnesses and burdens to define them. You couldn’t reproduce, or at least no one had figured out how to hack the matter of post human reproduction. Ellie wanted more time with the kids as her, despite the weight which never seemed to shift off her hips and stomach, and the twinges in her back when she was in the car too long.
She wanted to remain human, but then she would see Helen, her grandmother. Ellie would watch the pulse of her veins and the translucent, yellowing parchment skin which fell in dewlap folds around her jawline. Her hair, which had been strawberry-blonde curls had thinned and bleached out to kinky wisps on her scalp. Ellie loved her and knew she insisted on going out human but she had spoken to her about it.
Ellie was talking to herself about it. She checked her phone and rang Jenny back.
Ellie, I’m so glad you called.
Jenny’s phone had been incapable of holding a conversation for long. Ellie would make affirmative noise without getting all the details because Jenny would tell her again later, but now the signal was crisp and clear enough to make her wince.
‘It’s ok, saw you called. Are you okay?’ she said.
‘It’s amazing. Listen, I will try something. Hold your phone away from your ear.’ Jenny said.
Ellie’s head throbbed with a surprising burst of tension but she pointed the phone away. She had stopped using the hologram feature on her phone because it ate into her data, but she indulged Jenny with the same patience as she did her children.
The air sparkled into a column of light, ribbons of colour which burst into blooms of differing textures.
‘God, I can’t believe it worked. I followed the signal and here I am.’ she said.
Ellie shivered with a horrible awe as she folded her arms across her chest.
‘Jenny, what have you done?’ she said.
Jenny giggled as she formed the bubble tanks, which floated in perfect orbit. It was a tango of jellyfish, wreathed in clouds of energy and Ellie thought it was wasted on her.
‘I’m a Cloud, Ellie.’ she said.
Jenny floated into the passenger seat and formed a version of herself, stretching the tanks out into limbs and a torso. Ellie struggled not to cry as she sat there.
‘How could you be so selfish?’ she said.
Jenny frowned and put a field of light out towards her friend. Ellie cried out at the static snap against her skin.
‘It was that or kill myself?’ Jenny said.
Ellie brought her hands up to her face and shook her head.
‘You can’t hold your kids, Jenny.’ she said.
Jenny laughed and shook her head.
‘I can see every electrical impulse and molecule in the air. I’m sure I can figure out a way to hold my children when I can see them on an atomic level.’ she said.
Ellie looked away and gripped the steering wheel.
‘What about Gerry?’ she said
Jenny turned into a stack of bubbles and sighed.
‘We’ve been separated for a year. Plus, I’m dead now, so he can remarry.’ she said.
Ellie closed her eyes and shook her head.
‘I can’t believe you’ve been so irresponsible, Jenny.’
Jenny’s bubbles glowed red and orange.
‘What was I giving up?’
Ellie turned and looked at her, eyes narrowed against the growing tension in her head. Jenny changed colours to a mahogany river of colour and bursts of buttercup yellow which danced through each one.
‘I don’t have to worry about my IBS or menstrual cramps. No more checking for lumps. I don’t have to take a shit again, Ellie, tell me what I’ve lost out on.’ she said.
Ellie lifted her chin and pouted.
‘Orgasms.’ she said.
Jenny laughed, turned into a column of cerulean and emerald.
‘I can have them on demand. The chemicals and electricity in the tanks come together and I go all smooshy.’ she said.
Ellie sighed and sat back in the driver seat.
‘What about a job?’ she said.
She knew the answer. Jenny could generate her own personal possessions, nutrition and entertainment. Money could not compete with divinity, which was what frightened Ellie. She wiped her eyes and shook her head.
‘Ellie, I love you but this is the best thing for me. I have you to thank.’ she said.
Ellie sat up in her seat and sniffed before she asked her what she meant.
Jenny asked when she last saw her grandmother.
Ellie dialled her from the car.
‘Grandma?’ she said.
She heard the chuckle, girlish and clear in her ear. Most of their conversations had been shouted and repeated, small phrases which exhausted them both.
Listen, I will try something. Hold your phone away from your ear.’ her grandmother said.
There was a glow from the backseat as Ellie turned and looked at the cloud of sparkling light which grew, blushes of pink and gold.
She got out of the car and winced as she walked down the path. Henry was crying and Lucy was singing along to something on the television. She wondered where Greg was, and why he wasn’t watching them. Ellie needed to pee and wondered if he had retreated to the bathroom which would mean having to deal with the kids, get him out then have the bathroom to herself. She hoped her pelvic floor would be kind to her this evening.
Ellie wondered where Helen and Jenny were. The front door opened and Greg stood there, smiled at her until he saw the soft, thoughtful expression his wife wore and asked her if she was okay.
‘I could use a hug.’ she said.
He limped over, put his arms around her and she rested her cheek on his shoulder as he put his hands on her hips and let her give a sigh of muted relief.