I bring people back to life but only for a few hours at a time. Usually, the length of a concert performance, though my company has been experimenting with meet-and-greets and other extended events. We create holograms of dead famous folks. There are some like us in the industry but we’re the best by miles and miles. We’ve even been using A.I. to generate practical, real-time responses that perfectly mimic the “client’s” personality. The tech hasn’t actually been shown to the public yet. Everything is hush hush. But believe me when I tell you that we were so close to changing the world.
I say “we” as an umbrella term for all the engineers and programmers and marketers and everyone else that works on these projects because everyone plays a role in these virtual resurrections. But it is my tech. I was the one about to move us from modern recreations of a cheap parlor trick to true 3D immersion. Coupled with learning A.I. and some haptic feedback systems we had in the works...it was starting to feel like magic. Digital necromancy.
It was rewarding, exciting, if somewhat morbid work. I loved it. I put my whole life into it, my whole soul. What a thing, what a wonder, if the world would remember me as the man who learned how to raise the dead. And then Sophia got sick. Her mom wasn’t in the picture anymore for a lot of reasons. I was all Sophia had and I was hardly ever there. I was too distracted by the work, away at the office or locked in my workshop in the garage. Maybe if I was around more I would have noticed Sophia’s headaches earlier. Maybe I would have paid more attention to her lack of focus, her trouble speaking, all of those mood changes I just chalked up to becoming a teenager.
Glioblastoma is rare in adults, rarer still in twelve-year-old girls. Brain cancer is an ugly fucking parasite; it causes agony and chips away at the host’s identity, their self, before draining them to the bone.
It took Sophia from me in six months. By the end of it, I didn’t recognize my daughter. Her hair--once dark as fresh ink and long as a winter night--had all fallen out. Her eyes were white pits surrounded by cracked skin. Sophia couldn’t speak, didn’t even look at me most days. She only stared up towards the ceiling. But sometimes she held my hand, even squeezed a little, and that became my universe.
The day we put her in the ground, in the dark, I came home alone. There was no wake. People called, some knocked on the door or left food, but I ignored them all. That night, I got drunk, sat on the deck breathing cool October air, and I put a gun in my mouth. I tasted the metal and the plastic. For a very long time, I sat there, eyes closed, listening to the sounds coming from the woods. I had my finger on the trigger but couldn’t move it that final, lethal quarter inch.
Then I heard a bird singing, a nightingale. It was beautiful, like bells on the wind. The song saved my life because it reminded me that the dead don’t need to stay dead. I could bring my Sophia back. I could rip her soul from that buried dark and give her a new body made of light.
Modern “holograms,” the kind you might have seen when a dead singer pops up on stage, aren’t really holograms at all. They’re two-dimensional projections using light and mirrors, a technique which has been around since at least the 19th century, then known as “Pepper’s Ghost.” A more modern equivalent using metalized film and LED screens is called “Musion Eyeliner.” But none of that, none of what you may have seen before, is a true recreation. My system was nearly there before Sophia got sick. It took me a year to finish after she passed. I devoted every waking moment to the project, quitting my job, withdrawing from the world.
Because you see, it wasn’t just the hologram that needed to be perfect. At the end of the day, that’s only light. The projection needed to be my daughter. That was the difficult part. I had some brain scans to work from prior to the tumor taking over completely.
There wasn’t much. But I had Sophia’s own words, pages and pages of a diary where she bled her heart-blood onto the page. I had old videos, pictures, and my memories. Twelve years of memories. If only I was there for her more often. If only I hadn’t missed so many birthdays.
I fed all of the information I could find into the A.I. The day I flipped the switch and brought Sophia back...it was the happiest day of my life. The workshop was dark, blackout curtains on the walls pushing out any outside light. The room was dominated by a six-monitor setup next to the Platform. It was an illuminated pair of rings--one on the floor and another on the ceiling. Each ring contained 2,500 projection points. The rings worked in tandem to stitch light into flesh.
The recreation...the resurrection...was perfect.
“Daddy?” Sophia asked. “Where am I?”
She was just how I remembered her. The most alive version of her. Her hair was back, her eyes bright and curious. Sophia was wearing her favorite dress, white with big, golden sunflowers.
“Hey sweetie,” I said, hands in my pockets so she wouldn’t see them shake. “How do you feel?”
Sophia bit her lip. “Tired. I’m tired. I’m going to sleep now, daddy, okay?”
The Platform flickered and powered down.
“Sophia?” I called out into the dark.
There was no answer. Part of me was devastated but another part was...thrilled. Even a perfect recreation of my daughter with every hair in place, with every octave of her laugh, it would all still be artificial. A doll made of air and electromagnetic waves. At best, it would mimic her and maybe I could pretend enough to get by. But this first reaction...Sophia turned her own light off. That wasn’t supposed to be possible.
If you create a vessel perfect enough, a new body, why shouldn’t a spirit be able to find its way home?
I decided not to push the issue and left the workshop. I would try again the next morning. That night, I barely slept and when I did sleep, I dreamed an old dream. Me and Sophia at the shore, walking along the beach, hand-in-hand. It was the year her mother left and Sophia took it hard. But the ocean--the salt air and the cries of gulls--brought her back to me, at least for that day.
I woke up and immediately went to the workshop.
When I powered on the Platform, there was no immediate response.
“Sweetie, can you hear me?” I asked.
A flicker of light. Then Sophia appeared.
“Daddy? I feel strange. Is this a dream?”
“No, Sophia-no, this is real.”
Sophia held up her hand and looked down at the palm. “I’m cold. Why am I so cold?”
“There was, um, there was an accident. You were sick for a while. Not well, I mean. But you’re better now. Everything is fine.”
Sophia was shaking her head. “Daddy, I’m scared. I don’t feel right. What’s happening?”
I would have traded my life to hold her for even a moment. But she was only light and memory. Still, I couldn’t resist reaching out for her to the edge of the Platform.
“Where am I?” Sophia asked.
“We’re in the workshop. You were...sleeping.”
Sophia shook her head again, violently this time. “No, no I’m somewhere else. It’s dark. I think I hear the ocean. I hear waves and there’s sand under my feet. But why is it so dark? Wait-did you hear that?”
I stiffened. Something must be wrong with the A.I. It was mixing up past memories with the present; a malfunction.
“Honey, we’re in my workshop. Focus on my voice.”
“Dad. Dad, it’s cold. I think there’s a storm coming. I want to go home. Why is it so dark here?”
“Soph, it’s okay. You’re okay. Just-”
“There’s something here with me,” she yelled. “Daddy, where are you? Dad.”
Sophia curled up in a ball, knees against her chest.
I couldn’t speak. My hands were shaking terribly, no longer from excitement.
“Shh, daddy, be quiet,” she whispered. “I think it’s looking for me.”
“What’s looking for you?”
“I don’t know. I hear it over the sound of the waves. It’s coming out of the water. It sounds so big. Dad, I’m scared. Where are you?”
Whatever was happening, it didn’t seem like any kind of computer malfunction. This was my daughter, I was sure of it, and she was in danger.
“You’re going to be okay,” I whispered. “I’m going to protect you. Do you hear my voice? Come towards me.”
Little Sophia, head against her knees, shivered. “I can’t. It won’t let me.”
“What won’t let you?”
“It found me. It says I can’t go. I want to see you, daddy. Why can’t I go?”
“To Hell with that. Honey, whatever’s there with you, don’t listen to it.”
Sophia was rocking back and forth now. “It wants to hurt me.” She screamed. “Daddy. Daddy help.”
I jumped onto the Platform. I’m not sure what I was expecting. To land on some alien beach? To stand between my daughter and a monster? I don’t know, I couldn’t think straight. When I touched the Platform, the lights shut down. Sophia disappeared. I was left in the dark.
“Sophia, where are you?”
No answer. I felt for her, searched. Nothing. It wasn’t until I stepped back off the Platform that the lights flickered back to life and Sophia returned. She was still sitting down, head against her knees. There was an angry, red scratch on her left calf. Something was hurting her.
“Sweetie, tell me how I can help you,” I begged.
Sophia finally looked up. “Do you still want me?”
“Yes. You’re my world, Sophia. Please come back to me.”
“You have to invite me.”
“It says that I can’t come over unless you invite me.”
I felt a chill but ignored it.
“Sophia, I don’t understand.”
“If you want me to come over, you have to invite me. You have to say it.”
She shook her head. “Say it all. Mean it.”
“Sophia, please come back to me. Please be alive. I need you to be here. I’m sorry, so goddamn sorry that I wasn’t there for you. Please give me another chance. I...I invite you. Whatever you need. I don’t care, just be here.”
Sophia smiled but it wasn’t her smile. She was changing, subtly, at first, but unmistakably. Her skin became waxy, with wrinkles appearing around her eyes. Sophia was a small girl in life but her limbs were stretching while her body stayed the same. Her pupils dilated until they nearly filled her eyes, then rapidly shrank until they disappeared, leaving only the brown irises.
All of the lights on the Platform died. I stumbled in the dark hunting for a light switch. Before I could find one, a glowing figure appeared in the corner of the room. It was similar to my daughter like some gruesome jigsaw puzzle that recycled a few familiar pieces.
“So...Sophia?” I asked, backing away until I bumped into the wall.
The thing smiled.
“Thank you,” it whispered in a voice far too old to be my little girl.
Then the thing was gone and I was left in the dark alone. It took the better part of a panicked minute for me to find a light switch. The workshop was empty, nothing out of place. The Platform was offline and remained dead no matter how many times I tried to reboot it. I sank to the floor and wept. Then I noticed the cold. I could see my ragged breaths coming out as steam. I fled the workshop and I’ve since barricaded the door.
I don’t know what I invited over. If it causes any harm, I am sorry. Put yourself in my place. I thought I had a chance…
I don’t know where to go from here. Every moment, every conversation with “Sophia” keeps playing on a loop in my head. Was it ever really her? Did I miss another opportunity to save her? Or was my daughter only a mask for something that wanted to cross over?
If it was an imitation, it was perfect. But, if I could recreate my daughter down to the last detail, maybe something else could too.
Light and memory. Sophia, I’m sorry.