The first part of my abridged version of ‘Thank You For Afterlifing With Us’ (see here for details).
Part two can be read here, part three here, part four here, part five here, part six here, part seven here and part eight here.
Jason awoke with a strange sensation in his head. He pulled himself into a sitting position in a bed he was not familiar with in a room he had no recollection of entering, and assumed himself to be hung over once again. He looked around for things like underwear strewn across the floor and listened for muffled shower sounds. He sniffed the air hopefully for evidence of bacon frying. The room was unnaturally sterile. The walls were blue and blank. There appeared to be no door.
A little alarmed at that, he threw back the white covers and got to his feet. He walked to the other side of the room and felt the wall all over. It was a mildly odd sensation: he could feel the surface, pressing against him as he leaned on it, but his fingertips registered no texture and no temperature. Other than that there was something there, they felt nothing at all as he moved them up and down and left and right.
Jason looked down at his body, prodded himself here and there, felt the pressure against his fingertips and also where they probed. On impulse, he took hold of his penis and felt a vague pressure down there and a swelling inside his closed fingers. His cock looked… different. He did not recall his pubic hair being quite that dense. Or that colour. He tried to think of something erotic. Fucking Rachel. For a moment, it felt like there was possibly a faint movement of some description, but nothing visible appeared to happen.
There was nothing in the room apart from the bed and a small table next to it. He tried to remember what had happened the day before and a meeting of some description came hazily to mind. He recalled feeling impatient.
He wondered what he would do when he needed to urinate if he couldn’t find a door to get out of the room, though in fact the familiar internal pressure he ordinarily felt on getting up each morning was oddly absent. He examined the ceiling and the corners of the room for cameras; he looked again for cracks and found nothing.
He went back to the bed and sat down on the edge of it, then picked up a booklet from the table that he hadn’t noticed before. It had a white cover, blank but for the words ‘Please read me, Mr Harlan’ in large, black serif capitals.
He sighed, tried to break wind and failed. He opened the booklet and read.
Welcome to your new life in Pink Dawn, Mr Harlan.
In a short while, someone will come to talk to you about where you are and what you’re doing here. Please remain calm. There is no reason to become frightened or distressed.
The purpose of this booklet is to give you a basic understanding of your situation and some time by yourself to assimilate this information. Please do not worry: you are not alone. You are being monitored whilst you read this and if you should become distressed someone will come straight away to assist you. Please remain calm.
Please make sure you are comfortable. It might be a good idea to sit down whilst you read this. When you are ready to proceed to the next page, please-
Jason grunted impatiently and turned over.
If you have not already worked out where you are, then we are very sorry to have to inform you that you have passed away. In the physical world, you are now deceased.
For some reason, Jason looked down at his cock again, stared at it, nestled snugly within those thick, strangely mousey pubes. Dead? Surely not. He felt suddenly odd, but not the sort of odd he would have imagined news like this might bring about. News like this surely merited big, fleshy thumps in the chest and a pow to the gut. He felt none of this at all. It was the absence of these symptoms which unnerved him. He knew he felt scared, but the physiology was absent.
Dead? Impossible. He read on.
The specific circumstances of your death were:
Road traffic accident 5 June 2039 @ 14:07
You will be given more information about this event in due course.
2039? But that was over a year from now. Jason tried to remember how he had come to be in this room, but everything about the previous day was blurred and vague. He recalled some sort of meeting in an office. He remembered a rubber plant. Could this be some sort of reality TV stunt? Had he agreed to yet another charity deal?
Right now, you are probably doubting the validity of this information. This is perfectly normal. You are probably also having difficulty remembering events from the last week or so: this is due to a simulated unconsciousness we impose on activation of your brain scan so that we can monitor its function prior to inducing consciousness. The fog will lift over the next hour or so. You will start to remember things which would have stood out for you in your thoughts at the time of your last scan. For example, if you had been anxious about an upcoming flight (our clients often choose to backup before travelling on aircraft) it is probable that this would be one of the things you remember first, starting with a vague feeling of anxiety and gradually becoming a more detailed memory.
We can help you a little on this. On the next page is a video of your pre-scan meeting. When you turn the page it will play. It is likely that you will recall this event – as the memory comes back to you – as something which happened yesterday. Be aware, however, that it could be a considerable period of time since this event happened in real life, depending on the frequency with which you performed your backups and the date at which you set your activation.
Jason turned the page. The paper lacked texture. He smelled it, out of habit, but sensed nothing at all. There was no smell to the book; there was no smell, for that matter, to the bed or to the room or to the him.
The video was presented in a small window in the middle of the page, with a scroll bar across the bottom. It played automatically. He saw himself from the view of a camera in a ceiling corner that was looking down on a small office with a desk and three chairs. Rachel was beside him. A man in a tweed jacket came in from behind and sat opposite, crossed his fingers on the desk and said, Yes, we have a slot in about an hour, actually. There’s been a cancellation. That’s just enough time to go through the literature with you. Can I get you a coffee first?
On the screen, Jason waved a no response to the coffee and asked how long the scan would take. He looked at his watch. It’ll take an hour for the scan, the man behind the desk said. Give or take. But then clients are asked to remain for a further twenty minutes whilst verification takes place. That way, if a re-scan is required, it can go ahead straight away.
Does that happen often? Jason asked.
It hasn’t happened a single time, Tweed Jacket Man replied, not without a trace of pride. He tapped his head with his knuckles as he spoke. Better safe than sorry.
I have to be in studio at three, Jason said, impatiently. We have to get recording finished on Playmate by the end of the week. It’s now twelve and I need at least half an hour to get across town. I can’t stay for any ‘verification process.’ If I need to be re-done it’ll have to be another day.
As you wish, the man said. Jason remembered now those three words and remembered the tone of voice they’d been delivered in. As you wish. No attempt whatsoever to talk him into staying. He remembered feeling resentment at the ease with which he’d won his point.
Will it… hurt? he asked.
You won’t feel a thing, Tweed Jacket Man assured him. You will, of course, be unconscious. We require brain activity to be reduced as far as possible for maximum resolution. Thinking – even dreaming, in fact – interferes with the equipment; our drugs can induce a very deep, but temporary state of unconsciousness. Did you have any more questions you would like to ask?
The Jason on screen sighed. Rachel squeezed his hand and said, See, baby? I told you it’s no big deal.
And my backup brain, Jason said, ignoring her; you guarantee that you’re not going to turn it on before I croak? It’ll be kept securely?
What difference does that make? Rachel asked.
It makes a big fucking difference when your brain is your main source of income, he snapped at her. Jason remembered thinking about that issue, how someone might be able to ‘activate’ him secretly, bang out a Jason Harlan song completely unofficially. Fuck that. He’d sue them until they wept. He remembered wanting to make sure they understood that. I think I’ll need my lawyer to look at this paperwork, he said.
That would be no problem at all, of course, Tweed Jacket Man said. It was clear from the neutrality of his voice that he really didn’t give a shit one way or the other. Do it today; do it tomorrow; do it next week; don’t do it at all, if that’s what you prefer. Do or don’t do whatever the hell you want. It was the position of a man whose business model was working, and working well.
Jason, you promised me, Rachel said. He couldn’t remember what her motivation was in all of this, but he did now remember the fuck they’d had the night before. Jesus Christ, she was a horny little bitch after ten in the evening. Too bad that was when Heather expected him home by most nights.
Heather. That was the reason she’d wanted it. Of course. He remembered the conversation now. Two nights ago… possibly three; a minute after orgasm: Rachel on top, spent, her knees either side of his chest, her arms around his neck, her hair across his face, her lips next to his ear. He was still hard inside of her. I want you all to myself, just like this, she had whispered. Each and every day. There is a way, you know. Tell me all about it, darling, he had replied, feeling himself slipping slowly out and sleepiness approach. He had agreed to nothing in that moment, but the next evening, his appetite replenished, she had teased his cock with her tongue and teeth and lips until he had agreed to it. He remembered now. The plan had been that they would do it together.
That way, she had said, we’ll be guaranteed a second chance. By ourselves. The moment will be preserved for us to come back to, whatever happens. Even if we fall out of love. When our lives are over, we can start again.
You do realise, he had said, that you won’t get to experience any of it? It’s just a copy of your brain they make: it’s not as if any part of your consciousness will transfer into it after you’re dead.
Maybe you’re wrong, she had replied.
On the page in the booklet that he held in his hands, Jason said, Fine. Do it. But come two fifteen, I’m out of here, completed scan or not. The video window went blank. Some writing appeared in its place:
An advisor will be with you shortly. Please use this time as a reflection period. You might like to browse the rest of this guide during your wait; alternatively, you might want just to sit and think. We understand that this is a moment of disorientation. If you would like an advisor to come to you straight away, please state this in a clear, loud voice.
In the meantime, thank you for afterlifing with us.
Jason said, without hesitation, “I want an advisor.”
Text appeared on the wall in front of him: You have requested an advisor to assist you. Please stand by whilst an advisor is located. So much for straight away. And so much for ‘being monitored while you read this’. Typical. He flicked through the rest of the booklet, pausing on a page that had the title, “Physiology.” He glanced at some of the questions covered: Why is my sense of touch reduced? Why do I feel no internal sensations? Why am I unable to feel temperature? Why am I unable to smell things? He skimmed forward, looking for references to sex, but found nothing. He chose to watch a video presentation instead and thumbed the toggle at the edge of the page. The text dissolved. Dramatic music started to stream thinly from the booklet, drawn out strings set to close-up, out-of-focus images of children playing on a roundabout. The voice-over commenced:
It seems remarkable now to think that people as recently as fifty years ago considered the sensation of surface texture to be qualitatively no different from the sensation of stomach pain: back then, both would have been considered examples of ‘touch’ information.
For many years, scientists believed human beings to have just five senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. Such was the assumed validity and ultimate longevity of this construct – attributed, incidentally, to Aristotle – the term ‘five senses’ exists in colloquial language even today, despite the fact that this very limited understanding of sensory perception was dismissed many years ago.
The blurred images sharpened; the camera moved back from the roundabout to focus on a smiling man in a blue Nehru shirt at the park bench. In this section of your guide, he said cheerfully, we’ll look at how sensory information other than sound and vision is processed by your brain in Pink Dawn. Before we start, don’t forget we’re always working on improving your afterlife experience, so be certain to check the guide server for any updates available.
“Mr Harlan.” The sound of the voice in front of him startled Jason, but his heart did not quicken. He looked up. A large man stood in front of the wall, looking down on him. “My name is Lexington Greene,” he announced. “I’ve been assigned to your welcome. It is my very great pleasure to meet you.”
Jason said to him, “Are you alive?”
“I live both in and outside of the metaverse, yes,” Lexington Greene replied, with professional tact.
“So you’re sitting someplace else right now? In front of a screen?”
“We don’t really use screens much these days as you understand them, but yes. It’s a hard thing to comprehend, I understand.”
“And you can hear me? You can hear my voice, just like I can hear yours?”
“We take a copy of your voice print at the same time that we perform the brain scan,” Greene said. “We apply that to your brain’s output intended for your vocal chords, apply simulated breath and the three things together make up your voice. So, yes: I can hear you. From my perspective, there is no difference between my interaction with you and my interaction with anyone else in Pink Dawn, whether they are alive or not outside of the metaverse. In fact, it is not apparent to any resident – living or dead – whether the person they are talking to is living or dead. Of course, you have a substantial advantage over-”
“Why am I naked here?” Jason demanded. “Is it too much to expect some goddamned clothes? Do I have to buy them from you – is that it?”
“Of course not, Mr Harlan. I do apologise. We can sort that out straight away, if you would like. We have a range of clothing that you can choose from. If you’ll just look at the wall behind me…”
Jason waved the idea away. “Forget about the clothing,” he snapped. “What the hell is this place? Am I really supposed to believe that I’m dead? I only signed up for this shit yesterday! Did you murder me in my sleep or something?”
“Mr Harlan,” Lexington Greene said, “please try to remain calm. Your disorientation is perfectly normal.”
“Why am I here? What do you want from me? Who are you, anyway? Why are you wearing that watch? How did I die?”
“Mr Harlan, you were killed in a car accident many years ago, but this scan that we took of your brain is a snapshot of how it was at a particular moment in 2037, some time before that crash. Your digital brain has no knowledge of the things you went on to do after it was created, or of the things which have happened since your death.”
“What do you mean I died many years ago?”
“You will recall,” Lexington Green said, “that the instruction for this particular copy was that it was only to be activated once both Jason Harlan and Rachel Petstoof had passed away. Jason died in 2039, but Rachel didn’t die until 2068. Ten days ago, in fact. So you see: the day you think of as yesterday was in fact over thirty years ago.”
Jason stared at him. “2068…?” he said.
“Yes Mr Harlan. It’s a lot to take in, I understand.”
“Believe it or not, some of our scans have instructions attached not to activate until a hundred years have passed since the date of death.”
Jason screwed his eyes up and shook his head. “Rachel’s here?”
“It is not our policy to activate partners in shared space. The psychological impact of activation varies a great deal from person to person; our judgement is that it’s a moment best experienced in solitude, with support.”
“Where is she?” Jason demanded. “I want to see her. Right now. This whole thing was her idea in the first place.”
“I’m afraid that won’t be possible right now. Not until you’re calm. Don’t be angry with your friend. Without her, you would not exist right now.”
“I want to throw up,” Jason said, feeling the sensation rising inside him, suddenly. “I can’t breathe.”
“You have no stomach from which to eject food,” said Lexington Green. His voice was complete calm. “You have no lungs to fill. You do not need to throw up. You do not need to breathe.” Jason leaned against a wall and dry retched for a full minute, feeling his stomach spasm, but at the same time feeling absolutely nothing at all. “These are phantom reactions,” Lexington Green told him, standing close by his side, well within the zone which Jason ordinarily could not have tolerated. “They are similar to the sensations amputees have of feeling their absent limbs. Your brain is becoming panicked, it’s sending fight/flight information to your body. Your body is not there to send sensory information back, but your neural receivers are trained to expect a given brain output to trigger a given sensory input. You are experiencing the result of many years of neural conditioning, Mr Harlan. Sensory echoes. You feel, and yet you don’t feel.”
“Has there ever been a case of a dead brain murdering a living one?” Jason said.
“Now, now, Mr Harlan.” Lexington Greene put a hand on his shoulder. “You’re not going to force me to read you the Pink Dawn Acceptable Behaviour Policy, are you? It’s a very long and very dull document.”
“Go fuck yourself. I want to see Rachel.”
“Aggressive language achieves nothing here. To answer your question, of course you cannot harm me. How can I help you to calm down? Would you prefer a different setting? I can change our environment to anything of your choosing; this is just a neutral starting point. Would an outdoor location be better?”
“Yes,” Jason said. “Outdoors.”
“A beach? A mountain? A boat? A-”
“A beach, then.” The blue room was gone. The wall that Jason stood against became a rock. Straight away, he started to climb it. “Where are you going, Mr Harlan?” Lexington Greene called after him. Jason ignored him. At the top of the rock, a path led a zig-zag route up into the cliff. He ran to it. Where he could, he took short cuts, pulling on clumps of grass, scrabbling up over muddy rocks that coated his fingers in a thin layer of dirt he could not feel. At one point, his feet slipped and he smashed his knee into digital stone; very dimly, he felt a pain there: it felt like a headache in his leg.
At the top, not in the least bit out of breath, Jason looked back down. Lexington Greene was nowhere to be seen. The land in front of him now, a lumpy, uneven mixture of grass and heather, of soil and stone and moss mottled rock continued to rise. He picked a path through it, walking more slowly than perhaps he needed to so that he could look back and see if the avatar was in pursuit.
It occurred to him that, in this made up universe, it might be possible to fly. The more he thought about it, in fact, the more he was certain he had read something about that once. He wondered how one went about doing such a thing and also why Lexington Greene had not just flown up after him. Experimentally, he jumped up and down a few times on the spot to see if that launched him into the air. It did not. He thought about this for a few minutes and decided that was probably a good thing. If you could fly just by exerting an upward force, getting up out of a chair over-enthusiastically might be enough to put you into the air by accident. He imagined restaurants full of diners ricocheting from wall to ceiling because they had all got up too quickly when their dates came back from the bathroom… cutlery flying everywhere… soup spoons catapulting virtual Borscht across the tables…
He saw buildings on the horizon and strode out towards them. It was a clear day, but as he put distance between himself and the top of the cliff, clouds started to move across the sky and it grew dark.
In time, it started to rain; Jason felt tiny pin-pricks all over his skin as the raindrops hit. He stopped walking to examine his arm more closely, saw droplets of water on him and rubbed them. His arm looked wet, but he felt no wetness on his fingertips. How would you describe the sensation of wet? he wondered. He resumed his journey.
Quite at odds somehow with the current environment, he then came across a large lake. Jason stood at the edge and looked at the white building on the other side. Its windows were lit and he could see the shadows of people moving about inside. Wanting, suddenly, to be there with them – whoever they were – he took a tentative step forward into the water. There was the faintest of feelings of pressure around his feet and ankles, and the sound of water stirring gently. He walked further into the lake: ‘waded’ would have been the word to use ordinarily, except it felt like just normal walking and wearing closely fitting socks that somehow grew on him the further he went. As he reached waist depth, the ‘sock’ continued to move upwards, over his body. Instinctively, he raised his arms above the waterline as it approached his chest. It did not feel cold. Eventually, the slight sensation of pressure moved all the way up and over his head. The light changed to murky as the ‘water’ covered his eyes and the sound changed to thick as it covered his ears. Jason felt the need to blink.
Before taking the step that would put his mouth below the waterline, he had tried, instinctively, to take a lungful of air. Of course, he could not breathe and had no lungs to breathe with, and had stood instead with his mouth open making a hissing sound that had no function other than being a hissing sound. Jason thought about how he would deal with the loss of internal sensation. No more headaches, no more indigestion, no more the need to piss or take a shit. No more coughing. No more shortness of breath. No more pins and needles from sitting with his legs crossed for too long; from this point onwards he could sit however the hell he wanted. But what about the golden state of drunken stupor? What about the satisfaction of a full stomach? What about the high frenzy of cocaine? What about ejaculation, for God’s sake?
Visually, everything was perfect. The light and how it fell upon prims so tiny they could hardly be seen was indistinguishable from the real thing. If this had been a picture or a hologram he would have put money on it being authentic. Fish swam around him. Weeds slapped against his shins.
Jason became aware that he was holding his breath – even though he wasn’t – and started to feel panic as his non-existent oxygen became depleted. He tried to relax. He concentrated on imagining the sensation of breathing, focusing on all the tiny little ways in which he was accustomed to feeling the flow of air over his tongue and into his windpipe. He imagined his chest rising and his lungs feeling satisfyingly full. And then the exhale. He shut his eyes to allow the visualisation a better chance to stick. Finally, his phantom body responded. The non-existent feeling of tightness seemed to dissipate. He walked on, but quickened his pace.
He understood perfectly; it was simply that the neural pathways for internal senses were less well understood. All those years of ignoring their importance had resulted in a massive lag behind seeing and hearing and taste and touch and smell. Taste! Jason commanded his mouth to open to the lake water, and felt nothing upon his tongue. Even the sensation of pressure was absent.
The shock of this was immense. It pushed him to the ground. No food, no drink, no drugs, no sex; was this really, he asked himself, any better than dying?
When he emerged from the far side of the lake, he found the building in darkness. In the entrance foyer by a fireplace, Lexington Greene was waiting for him, his legs crossed in a swallow chair and his fingers steepled.
“Am I some sort of computer program?” Jason asked him.
“No, Mr Harlan, you are not. You are a human brain, stored digitally. You are stored on a computer and the computer runs a program that allows the digital copy to function and interface with this metaverse. But you – your thoughts, your memories – are the firings of the same organic matter. Your brain functions – and will continue to function – exactly as it did in the first world. You are you, but in a different place and in a different body visiting it.
“It’s like walking around in a fucking spacesuit.”
“I understand it takes some getting used to. Everyone feels this way at first. You should talk to some people in the dead community about your feelings. There are plenty of mentors who’ll spend time with you; they can help you to understand the experience and become more used to it.”
Jason said, “I want to meet them. As soon as possible.”
“Good!” A big smile appeared across Lexington Greene’s face. “Then it looks very much like you’re starting to make the necessary progress. Well done, Mr. Harlan.”
“And if I don’t?” Jason said. “If I don’t make progress: can it… end?”
“It can end, yes,” Lexington Greene replied, uncomfortably. Jason heard the hesitation in his voice. “That decision is yours to make, although it will usually take about a week to process. Not because it actually takes a week, of course.”
Jason thought about that. “How many people chose it?”
“I regret to say, an unacceptably high number. It’s a difficulty we have. It’s often referred to as ‘The Malaise’. We are trying to make it more real, Mr Harlan, but these things do take time.”
“And how much time exactly do I have?”
“Well let’s see… your payment was for the minimum initial period of 100 years. An entire second life, Mr Harlan! Of course, you can buy as many additional decades as you want. Naturally, you’ll need to find a source of income for that – or a sponsor – but we think a century should be enough time for that to happen! Our pricing plan is very reasonable.”
The sale of existence, Jason thought. And the thinnest, most watery form of existence that there was at that. I think, therefore I am. But only just. Thought might have defined being, but that wasn’t to say that being didn’t also define thought. A life without sensation. But was that really worse than nothing?
“At least I don’t need to think about money,” Jason commented. “I should have plenty in my account if I only died a couple of years after the scan. Do you know how my third album did?”
Lexington Greene paused – tactically, tactfully – as though he was double-checking something he was perfectly certain of. “…No, Mr Harlan, I’m afraid there’s no money deposited in your account. Any funds you accrued during your life don’t appear to be available to you now.”
“What do you mean?” Jason asked. “Don’t tell me I squandered it. In two years? How could I have lost it all so quickly?”
“No no. Not lost. It appears that…” Lexington Greene was clearly reading from a file whilst he spoke, “…your fortune remained more or less intact, right up until the date of your death. So what seems to have happened is your estate has been attached to a different account. By yourself, I hasten to add, sometime after the date of your brain scan.”
“What?! Someone else has my money?!”
“Yes, Mr Harlan. I’m afraid so.”
“I want to know who and I want to know right now.”
“I understand your anger. It’s very difficult when this sort of thing happens. Unfortunately, for privacy reasons, that is information we are unable to reveal without consent from the other party.”
“Please tell me this is some kind of joke.”
“I’m afraid not. On the plus side, you’ll find that a basic living in Pink Dawn costs virtually nothing. In the short-term, at least, this shouldn’t disadvantage you in the sli-”
“That’s my fucking money!” Jason snapped. “He had no right to take it from me. Who was it given to? Was it Rachel? Was it my wife?”
“As I said, I do understand your frustration, Mr Harlan. I can only repeat that I am not able to divulge that information.”
“Fuck!” Jason picked up the nearest chair and flung it at the window. The glass shattered; tiny shards flew across the room. “You’d better tell me, one way or another.”
“Calm down, Mr-”
“I will not calm down.” Jason rounded on Lexington Greene, placed his hands palm down on the front of his chest and pushed. The chair he was sitting on pivoted on the rear legs and he fell backwards. His skull hit the stone corner of the fireplace and there was a loud cracking noise. Blood started to expand from beneath his head. You had to admire the detail, Jason thought.
“You can’t hurt me, Mr Harlan,” Lexington Greene said, weakly. His voice sounded shaken. He felt the back of his head and looked at the red on his fingers in confusion.
“We’ll see about that,” said Jason. He picked up a poker from the fireplace and drove it through the tall man’s eye.