The second part of my abridged version of ‘Thank You For Afterlifing With Us’ (see here for details).
Part one can be read here, part three here, part four here, part five here, part six here, part seven here and part eight here.
It took Jason a week to track Rachel down. In fact, he found her in the main directory within a couple of hours, but she did not reply to any of the messages he sent. Jason’s first thought about that was she was too stupid to work out how to reply to his messages, and for his first day he sent her a new and more insulting message every hour. Eventually, he typed up instructions for her in a console window he found he could open at will. He gave this step-by-step guide the title, ‘Communication guide for a fucking idiot’. He sent it to her four times before starting to wonder if she was actually not responding to him intentionally.
He looked at her profile, which was blank because she was new just as he was. He reasoned she would probably be likely to join one of the ‘new dead’ support groups he had read about in the user guide he still had from the room with blank walls (he had not taken it physically with him, but had found a copy in his inventory, along with some basic clothing and hair styles; his inventory, it transpired, he could summon by saying, “Pink Dawn: Inventory” or by waving his hand in a certain way). Going to a support group sounded like just the kind of thing Rachel would do; she had a thing for ‘meeting new people’ that he had never understood and – frankly – found irritating. He pulled up a list of all the groups and resolved to visit each one for an hour, and to get them all done within the next four days. There were forty established across the mainland grid, it turned out, with hour-long help sessions for up to ten people running almost continuously. A lot of dead people, but not that many when expressed as a percentage of the total number of people on the planet who died each day, he supposed. Later, he learned that any given group session was eighty per cent people who had attended at least one session previously, and several people went on to sit through twenty to thirty repetitions of the same workshop.
At one group, an elderly woman stood and heckled the facilitator. “Are you sure this ain’t the afterlife?” she said to him. “My daughter once told me that maybe heaven was just some giant computer some place. Can I talk to my daughter? Can I hear her prayers?” The facilitator told her that this was indeed an afterlife of sorts, but not a ‘religious afterlife’. “But when do we get to meet The Lord?” she asked him. “I’d like something to change into for that. I don’t seem to be able to find my clothes anywhere, I suppose they’re still down on Earth.” Presently, her daughter turned up, a living avatar with six years’ experience in the metaverse. She was stunningly attractive. She put an arm around her mother’s shoulder and directed her out of the circle and towards the area where Jason stood and watched. She put her into a high-backed chair and tried to reassure her. She told her who she was, but the old woman would have none of it. “Get away from me, young lady,” she ordered. “You don’t look even remotely like Georgina. She’s not up here in any case. Unless something happened. Oh I hope she’s keeping safe. She always was such a careless girl.”
Jason wondered over to them, attracted to the girl. “We scanned late, I know that,” she said to him as he approached. “This is the fourth rollback. You know they cost double, right?”
“Rollback?” Jason enquired.
“Restoring the brain to its scanned state. To do that you have to keep a back-up of the original scan. That costs double. But it’s mandatory on anyone over sixty.”
“Spend spend spend,” the old woman said. “All you young people ever talk about is spending. You don’t know the meaning of the word caution. I lived through the coronavirus, I’ll have you know.”
“Mandatory?” Jason repeated. “Why?”
“They expect problems,” the daughter replied. “But I don’t know what the point is, anyway. Rollback never seems to make any difference in the end.”
“Your mother has dementia?”
“No. This is just mother being mother.”
“Why doesn’t she recognise you?”
“Because, mister, in real life I’m forty-nine and I’m fat and my hair is going grey. Ok?”
He wondered absently whether the knowledge would be a problem for him if he fucked her. “So why don’t you change your appearance here so that you look like your real life self?” he asked, not really caring one way or the other, but keen to demonstrate his complete indifference to any revelations she cared to make. “That way she’d recognise you, right?”
“Part of the reason I look the way I look in real life is that I spent way too long letting my mother dictate what I thought and felt and did about stuff,” she began, anger in her voice. “If you think I’m about to – “
“Fine. Whatever. Solve it or don’t solve it. It’s your problem. Switch the old bag off, for all I care.” He walked away from them, back to a leaning point at a pillar, where he could stand and watch the group.
“What am I supposed to do about the contesting of my will?” one man was saying. “My son says I wasn’t thinking straight when I cut him out. Don’t I get any say in the matter? Can’t I be on a screen in the court room or something? For God’s sake; they do that with murderers – why should they get preferential treatment?!” Avatars were shaking their heads at the man, whispering to each other that they’d seen to it their offspring were loved and catered for. “You wouldn’t be so quick to judge if it was your partner he chased off, just when things were getting good for a change,” the man continued, angrily. “That’s right: the love of my life, she was; but did my happiness matter one jot to dearest Kieran? I think not! His mother’s son, he is; every last inch of him. I’ll be damned if he contests my final wishes whilst I’m still around to hear it.”
“I thought they might be able to… do something for her,” the forty-nine year old daughter said from behind him. Jason hesitated for a moment, then turned to look at her. She stood about three feet away. Her mother had climbed out of the seat and was fiddling with the hem of some curtains.
“You thought,” he said, “that because she was going to be stored on a computer they might be able to reprogram her or something.” He made it a statement rather than a question, because this was so obviously what had happened. She nodded. “Well, she isn’t a computer program,” he said, with contempt in his voice. “She’s not made out of ‘subroutines’. Didn’t they explain that to you?”
“They did,” she said, “but I didn’t understand. I thought they just meant it would be a hard thing to do, not an impossible thing. I thought I might be able to find myself a genius coder or something. I get it now.”
“What fabric is this?” her mother called across the room to them. “It looks like velvet, but I can’t feel a thing. Is it some sort of synthetic?”
“I need that money to sustain myself in here!” the will defender shouted. “You’re telling me I have no legal rights just because I modified the will two weeks after I got myself scanned? Two weeks?! Why didn’t my solicitor tell me about this? I want him here right now.”
“She left all of her money to my step-father,” Forty-nine said. “I won’t be seeing a penny of that.”
“I don’t know why you bother with her,” Jason said.
“How can you say that?! She’s my mother!”
“My mother died when I was twelve,” he said. “Is that right what he said? Do you need money in here?”
“Only for things like clothes and if you want to rent or buy a place.”
“I haven’t slept yet,” he said. “But I don’t feel sleepy. How does that work? Surely my brain needs to sleep in here, just like it did in real life. No?”
“Of course it does. You just need a sleep ball and somewhere to rez it.” she told him. “They’re free. I have one in my inventory I can give you a copy of. I got it for mother, not that she ever uses it. That’s part of the problem. Like you said, the brain needs to sleep. Didn’t anybody explain this to you yet?”
“I might have overheard something about it,” he commented, vaguely. “I wasn’t really paying attention.”
How long have you been here for? As a dead guy, I mean.”
“Five days. How do I use a sleep ball?”
“You rez it and you sit on it,” she told him, “and it sends you to sleep. If you’ve been five days without sleep then you should get some right now. You’re probably already finding it hard to concentrate on things. A couple more days and you’ll start seeing things if you’re not careful. And then it really gets bad. And sleep deprived people are far more prone to the snaps than are properly rested folk. So they say. Find yourself a sleep hall. I think I have a landmark I can give you if you want.”
“What the hell are ‘the snaps’? What the hell is a sleep hall?”
She looked at him. “Isn’t it sort of self-explanatory what a sleep hall is?”
“Fuck off,” Jason told her.
“Fine,” she said. “You can swear at me all you like, but make sure you go and get some sleep. You don’t want to end up like my mother, and you definitely don’t want to end up getting the snaps.”
“It sounds like some sort of warehouse,” he said. “Fuck that. I’m not sleeping in any place where other people can see me.”
“The sleep rooms here are smaller, but you have to queue. I think you get a curtain though. Or rent a place. Whatever. But you have to sleep, one way or another.”
“I don’t have any money.”
She sighed. “Did you never play Pink Dawn before you had your scan done? I don’t understand people who sign up for this without ever having tried it.”
“Oh yes,” he said, “and I can see your mother’s a real professional at it all.”
Presently, she replied, “I thought I was doing her a favour, you know.” She looked across at where her mother was feeling and smelling the pages of a magazine, one by one. “You want to know what the worst thing is? My stepfather hasn’t even created an account so he can spend time with her. He hasn’t even so much as looked over my shoulder whilst I’m inworld to see how she’s doing in here.”
“Too busy spending all his inheritance,” Jason said.
“He says he wants to go into orbit. He says mother would have wanted him to fulfil his lifelong dreams.”
“You should buy him a digital frame for his bedroom that she can look through. Then she can keep an eye on him.”
That made Forty-nine smile, albeit briefly. Jason marvelled at how it lit her face and at his own reaction to the movement. Fat, old, grey hair; these were just distant, meaningless words. “Look, I know I’m going to regret offering this,” she said, “but I suppose you could stay at my place for a couple of days if you wanted. Just until you’ve got yourself somewhere else to sleep.”
Jason turned his own smile on at her. “I don’t like sleeping alone, though,” he said.
“I thought you just said you don’t like sleeping where other people can see you.”
“That’s other people. That’s uninvited people.”
“How old are you?” she asked him, “in real life?”
“Thirty,” he said. “But I died thirty-one years ago. So I guess that actually makes me older than you.”
“No it doesn’t. You died thirty-one years ago and you only just got here now?”
“I’ll explain it to you when I understand it myself,” he said, resolving to be long gone by then. He pointed at the old woman. “Is she staying with you too?”
“No. I couldn’t bear it. In any case, she probably wouldn’t let me teleport her there if I did. There’s a video room here she goes to, just down the hallway. She seems to go into some sort of trance in there. If I could just get her to use a sleep ball instead of watching soap opera, things would be so much easier.”
“Forget about her,” he told Forty-nine. “Take me to your place.”
Each induction group met in its own dedicated building, the designs varying across the metaverse within a very narrow band of aesthetic nuance that seemed to range from urban concrete brutality to dirty, prefabricated cardboard. A clear strategy appeared to be in place to convince the newly dead to move on, to get away from there as quickly and efficiently as possible, to start their new life in a place more colourful and clean and optimistic. It made Jason think of old British comedy films from the seventies – the nineteen seventies – of tired pastels and pebbledash and Sid James’ laugh. Of green cups of tea and broken biscuits on their saucers. Of dustiness and condensation and drafts. In spite of this, every building had its facilities for the dead to use on an ongoing basis: amenities for those who were unable to step out into this strange new world and not look back, and there were plenty of people in this category, it appeared. Jason observed that all of these places – the ‘dead dumps,’ as he learned that they were called (particularly by those who had moved on) or ‘mortuaries’ or ‘morgues’ or ‘cemeteries’ or ‘die bars’ – were of approximately the same design in function. They all had a bar area; they all had a number of video rooms showing real life news and sports news and movies and soap opera. They all had a couple of small sleep areas, and these were always full with a trail of waiting avatars outside, like the queue to a men’s’ room. Before he had had sleep explained to him, Jason had walked past these lines and not understood what the people in them were doing there. It was mostly men who hung out in the dead dumps. In the sleep lines they spoke about sports events and news and military issues and politics. “They ought to put someone up for office who actually understands what it’s like for corpses,” was a common enough theme he overheard in passing. In the real world, an election was coming up, apparently.
Jason started to wonder if these were the people he needed to be talking to if he was going to be successful in finding Rachel. The day after he met Forty-nine, he joined a line so that he could come in on one of these conversations, wondering as he did just how long it was that people had to wait here. There were at least thirty avatars in front of him and, so far as he had been able to see when he passed it, there were only ten sleep balls in the room that it led to. Each was curtained off – and even the curtains looked grotty – with its own bedside lamp and shelf. He had seen a sign there asking ‘guests’ to “kindly refrain from setting sleep periods of longer than four hours.” It did not look like a mandatory restriction, but he supposed that if someone did try to exceed this period then the guys waiting in the line would know all about it.
“Fine,” said the female avatar two spaces in front of him as he joined the queue. “I’m not going, then.” She left the line hurriedly, pursued by the man behind her. “Don’t for a moment suppose that I give a damn about going in that godforsaken room myself,” he said as he followed. “I was only trying to please you, for Christ’s sake. What does it matter what I think?”
Well, that’s two places forward, Jason mused. He moved up to a very short avatar with a grimace, who looked up at him with an expression of extreme disdain and said to the guy in front of him, “Kind of makes you think again about going in there at all.”
“What does?” the other man said, looking down at him; a large, muscular avatar with tattoos all over his biceps.
The short guy said, “these are hardly the sort of circles I’m used to.”
“Huh!” the big man said and added, looking at Jason, “Don’t you take no shit from him, Mister. You’re not scared of him, right?” When Jason said nothing he rounded on the smaller guy and said, “Not good enough for your sort, are we?” He smacked him one on the side of his face and sent the small man crashing into the wall behind him and then down to the ground. “Leave him,” Big Man seemed to say to the queue in general (which had made no move to help). “I’m a man with rights the same as anyone else, get it? In here, we’re all the same.” The short man said nothing, picked himself up and left the corridor quickly, and Jason moved up yet another place.
The guy in front of Big Man was complaining about parking spaces. “Three spaces we had in front of our house and two in front of the neighbours on the left. With your back to the properties, that is. Then we had another three in front of the neighbours on our right, after their dropped curve. Of course, they had pretty much a car park in front of their house, you know. The rich ‘elite,’ just like that little guy you just popped there. We never saw much of them, you know; they would never stop and talk to the likes of us. That gate would open and shut, and out they’d come in their brand new Deeyatsu or whatever the hell make it was.”
“Diatsu,” said Big Man. “I used to be a mechanic.”
“Is that so? I knew a car mechanic once. So anyway, if you were lucky they’d raise a hand at you if you were on foot, waiting for them to come out. They’d raise their hand as they drove past. Like this. And that was that. That was the most you ever got from them.”
“I hate that,” Big Guy said. “Who are they to look down on us? It’s like I just said to that idiot, you and me have rights, just the same as anyone else.”
“You’re quite right, you know,” the man in front said, as though this was some sort of revelation. “You’re absolutely right about that.”
“In here, we’re all the same.”
“We are indeed. As it happens, I sometimes thought the wife – the wife next door – wanted to be more sociable towards us, but of course the husband never let her. They never had people around, you know; at least, not that we could hear. Come to think of it, it was always her who waved when they went past us in that car.”
“Did you wave back?” the guy in front of him asked, a grey haired man with glasses.
“I most certainly did not,” he replied. “Well, only when it was the wife who waved.”
“I thought you said it was only ever the wife that waved anyway,” Jason commented.
“Yes,” he said, looking across at Jason carefully. “It was her most of the time, for certain. Anyway, to a point I had no beef with them; they kept themselves to themselves; they weren’t the ones who used up all the spaces on the road. After all, what use did they have of them?”
“Because they had their own car park,” Big Man said.
“Exactly. Right in front of their house, instead of a front lawn. You could have got six cars on there easily.”
“You didn’t have a driveway?” Grey With Glasses asked. “That’s too bad. Everyone needs to have a driveway. Did you have a garage?”
“We didn’t have a driveway; we didn’t have a garage. But here’s the thing: the house opposite had both a driveway and a garage.”
“Lucky them,” said Big Man.
“Lucky them indeed.”
“They wouldn’t have wanted any of those road spaces then,” Grey With Glasses commented, provocatively.
“Well; you’d think so, wouldn’t you?”
“Ah, I see,” Grey With Glasses said and nodded, showing that he’d thought as much.
“What do you see?” asked Jason.
“They used up the spaces, yes?” he said. “I’m right, aren’t I?” The guy in front of Big Man nodded confirmation. “So what was it?” he continued. “Did they keep a caravan on their drive or something?”
“You see, that I could have understood. To a degree, at least.”
“What about a car on bricks, then? One of those so-called ‘projects’? Was it that?”
“Hey! I had a car on bricks,” Big Man protested. “A black 2002 Trans Am. I was doing it up. What’s wrong with having a project?”
“Well of course, vintage is different,” Grey With Glasses said hurriedly. “That’s skilled. We all benefit from that. Was it that they had more than two cars?” he asked. “Was that what it was?”
“Four cars, my friends. Four cars.” The guy in the middle held up four fingers to emphasise this point.
“Four cars?” said Big Man. “Wow. How many were there living in that house?”
“Well… four. I mean, that’s a car each, you know.”
“Really?” said Jason, dully.
“What earthly need did they have of a car each?” said Grey With Glasses. “Honestly. A car each, indeed.”
“The thing is, they could have parked in front of the rich neighbours, right? They could have left the spaces in front of our house for our cars. That would have been reasonable, right?”
“Reasonable is too much to expect of people these days,” Grey With Glasses said, shaking his head.
“How many cars did you have?” asked Jason.
“Just the two, my friend! One for me and one for the missus.”
“So, a car each, then?”
Car Spaces looked at him now with extra scrutiny. “That’s right mister. One for me to go to my job in and one for my wife to go to hers in. Two jobs; two people; two cars.”
“Let me guess,” Grey With Glasses said, “those guys opposite were unemployed? I’m right aren’t I?”
“It was a family,” Car Spaces said, looking annoyed at the detour. “The guy was an engineer and his wife was a teacher. Their kids were in college.”
“College!” said the Big Man and snorted at that.
“All kids learn these days in college is how to get drunk and have sex,” said Grey With Glasses, nodding.
“Jesus,” said Jason. “They learn how to do that long before college!”
“Well is that so?” Car Spaces said, folding his arms.
“True enough for me,” Big Man said.
“All I’m saying,” Car Spaces said, “is is it too much for a man to expect to be able to park his car outside of his own house? Is it really?”
“Let me guess,” Grey With Glasses said, “you always ended up having to park in front of the rich neighbours? I’m right, aren’t I?”
“It’s hardly fucking algebra,” said Jason. “Of course he did.”
“You seem to have a whole load of opinions, Mister,” Car Spaces said, sensing he had a moment.
“Yet another idiot,” Big Man said. “Not good enough for your sort, are we? You know what’s coming your way, right?”
Jason ignored him and said to Car Spaces, “What did you die of? Was it a heart attack?”
“In 2068?” he snorted. “Are you kidding me?”
“Really?” Jason said, actually interested. “They found a cure for heart disease?”
“What year did you die in?” Car Spaces asked, and they all laughed, like this was some sort of well-known joke.
“2039,” Jason told them. “But I only got activated six days ago.”
“A late waker!” Grey With Glasses declared. “Jesus Christ, I was only twenty in 2039. Brain scanning must still have been a new thing back then, right? Oh boy, a few things have happened since then!”
“Yeah, they found a cure for heart disease… old man,” Car Spaces said, with a chuckle.
“They can grow you a brand new heart these days,” Grey With Glasses said. “Not to mention any of the other organs.”
“Of course,” Jason said. “All the stem cell stuff.”
“Just so long as you have the insurance, of course. New hearts don’t grow on trees, you know.”
“Try telling that to the youth of today,” Car Spaces commented.
“So what did you die of?”
“Some kid wearing sparkle broke into my house whilst me and the missus were in bed, and I woke up and heard him,” Car Spaces said. “I know I should have just stayed put, of course. I should have let him clean us out, because that’s what you do these days, right? Let them do whatever the hell they want to. I’m telling you, it was more than I could bear. The injustice of it all just ate away at me. Of course, I’m only telling you what it said in my wife’s statement – I have no actual recollection of these events myself, you understand. All the same, it sounds just like I would be in circumstances like that. I’ve always said I’m no bystander.”
“You were scanned some time before?” Jason asked.
“Yeah, but it was only by a few weeks, so I didn’t lose much. I still have a couple of episodes of the Dallas remake to see, then I’m pretty much up to date on everything.”
“So you got out of bed and went after the burglar?” Big Man said.
“My wife says she never saw me so angry,” Car Spaces said, slicing the air sharply with his hand on the word ‘never’. “Can you believe, I went after him first of all with a rolled up magazine? I saw that in a movie once. This guy actually managed to kill another man using nothing more than an alumni mailout.”
“Good for you, for standing up to him,” Grey With Glasses said. “That’s what I say. He’ll think twice about it next time.”
“Yeah, well. He shot me four times in the head, the little bastard. I had only a month to go before retirement. They found me at the bottom of the stairs with a length of vacuum cleaner pipe in my hand. Get this: they never found the magazine.”
“What magazine?” said Jason.
“The magazine he rolled up to whack the sparkle guy with, obviously,” roared Big Man, angrily.
“They reckon he took it with him,” Car Spaces said. “The police guy told my wife it was likely one of two reasons. The first was that I hit him so hard with my improvised weapon I actually managed to break his skin and get a DNA sample splattered on the pages.”
“Nice work,” said Big Man.
“And the second reason?” asked Jason.
“That he saw an interesting article and decided to steal it.”
“Bollocks!” Big Man retorted.
“What magazine was it?” Grey With Glasses asked.
“Reader’s Digest, I think,” Car Spaces said.
“They are compelling covers,” Grey With Glasses mused.
“So how come you had a vacuum cleaner pipe in your hand?” Jason asked, confused.
“They think the killer put it there,” Car Spaces said.
“Look buddy, who am I to know the mind of a murderer? Personally, that’s one ability I’m glad to be without in life.”
“Or death,” said Grey With Glasses.
“But it doesn’t make any sense!” Jason protested.
“Only evil knows evil,” Grey With Glasses commented, as though he was quoting something.
“Anyway, why didn’t they activate your scan until now?” Car Spaces asked. “Did they lose your file or something? You know, I heard about them losing some scans once. Some guy left a memory stick on a train, or something.”
“I was supposed to be activated only when my girlfriend died too,” Jason told them.
“Let me guess,” Grey With Glasses said, “she out-lived you, right? I’m right, aren’t I?”
“Well, of course she outlived him,” Car Spaces said, looking annoyed that Glasses had beaten him to the explanation. “By twenty-nine years, obviously! So where is she, this girl of yours? Is she here?”
“Well that’s just the problem,” Jason said. “I can’t seem to find her.”
“Ah,” said Glasses, “I think I read about that. They activate couples in separate places. It’s standard procedure. Did you try messaging her?”
“Yes. She didn’t reply.”
“Even so,” Glasses said, “they should have hooked you up after activation.”
“I had a bit of a falling out with my advisor,” Jason said. “I think I might have upset him. I don’t think we completed the official procedure.”
“Yeah well, they’re trained to expect that,” Spaces said. “Or they should be. Of course, it’s just a load of kids they have working the system these days. College kids, at that. They don’t know how to say ‘thank you’ in a shop, let alone break the news to a customer that they’ve croaked it.”
“College kids!” said the Big Man and snorted.
“She didn’t reply to your messages, you say?” Glasses asked.
“She is still new, though,” said Spaces. “Maybe she didn’t work out the system yet.”
“I messaged her several times over,” said Jason. “I even typed her up a guide on how to message me back and sent it to her.”
“Why don’t you send me a copy of that guide?” said Spaces. “I could send it to my wife!”
“I’d say what you need,” said Glasses, “is a private detective. Check out the notice board in the main lounge. There’s a guy who comes in on Tuesday afternoons, picks up a lot of work from widows wanting to keep an eye on their ex-spouses and the like. But there’s nothing to stop you from contacting him yourself in between.”
“I was hoping I might be able to find her myself,” Jason said, “like by asking around in the induction centres. People like you. I mean, you guys know what’s going on round here, right?”
“Needles and haystacks, my friend,” said Glasses. “I’m telling you, you need to get hold of a professional.”
Spaces turned to Glasses and said, “Look, this guy’s a newbie. Where do you think he’s going to get the money from to hire a full time PI?”
“That is true,” said Glasses. “They’re not cheap. Do you have any money? Did you leave yourself anything in your will?”
“That’s also something I need to follow up on,” Jason said.
“You got anyone who can lend you the cash for the time being?”
“Actually, yes,” Jason said, “I think I just might have someone who could do that.”
The previous day, he had accepted Forty-nine’s teleport to her place and put his arms around her neck the moment he got there.
“Ohh!” she exclaimed and giggled with unashamed delight. The whole forty-nine/fat/grey thing seemed about as distant in its relevance to being told by someone stunning that they had once been overweight. He immediately asked for her name, so that he could dismiss the present, unhelpful, irrelevant moniker. “Annabelle,” she told him. “But you could have found that out just by looking at my profile.”
“Your profile. Of course.” It would be a while before thinking to do such a thing became habit.
He tried to slide his hand between her red t-shirt and her back, but it was as though the clothing was glued to her. After several attempts he pulled back and looked at her. “Is there a trick to this that I’m not aware of?” he asked.
She giggled again. “I have to give you permissions, silly,” she said. “You really never played this before you died, did you?”
“Even if I had done,” he said, “I suppose the Pink Dawn of the 2030s would be very different from the Pink Dawn of today.”
“Oh sure,” she said. “In a million ways, but it’s still five gears and a wheel.”
“It’s what?” he said. She laughed again and explained. Jason waited whilst she defined terminology and sorted out his clothing permissions. She readied herself for him when she was done and assumed an inviting stance. He lifted the sweater up and over her head completely, dropped it on the tiled floor, cupped the perfect breasts beneath with his hands and started sucking and kissing her nipples. He heard her gasp.
It was like kissing soft polystyrene. There was no texture to feel with his tongue. There was no taste. There was no heat. And there was absolutely no reaction to be felt. At this total confirmation of his worst fears, Jason felt the swift and bitter approach of despair. He persisted for no more than a minute, then he stopped and pulled away.
“Please don’t stop,” she gasped. “Somehow or another, it was as though I could really feel you.”
“Lucky you,” he said.
“What is it Jason?” she asked him. “What’s wrong?”
“I feel nothing,” he said. “It’s just hard and soft, nothing else.”
“Oh lover,” she said, “you have to engage your imagination in here. After all, I don’t have any tactile sensation, not really.”
“You have in real life, though,” he pointed out to her.
“Yes but- Oh,” she said, suddenly. “Oh, I see what you mean. Of course. I never thought about that. Never even crossed my mind. Well, I’ve never been with…”
He finished her sentence for her. “A dead guy.”
“Yes,” she said presently. “That’s right.”
“What you see is what you get, my dear,” he said bitterly. He sat down on her couch and put his head in his hands. This was it, then. This was how it was to be.
“I’m so sorry, my darling. I don’t know what to say.”
“Don’t call me darling,” he snapped at her.
She covered her breasts with her left arm, bent over to retrieve the t-shirt from the floor. She turned her back to him whilst she put it back on.
“This place is a fucking living hell, that’s what it is,” said Jason. “When I find that bitch I swear to God I’m going to tear her head off.”
“I have to go,” Annabelle told him. “I need to eat and then I have to pick up my brother. I’m late already. He’s going to be mad at me for sure.”
“At least you get to eat,” Jason told her.
“Do you get… hungry?” she asked him. “Mother never mentioned wanting to eat. She just keeps asking for tea.”
“I’m not hungry, no,” he told her. “I feel nothing from my stomach. No pains, no rumbles; nothing. But Jesus Christ, how I want to eat.”
“That doesn’t make sense.”
“Of course it makes sense. You don’t eat just to fill your fucking stomach. I have thirty years of conditioning telling me it’s time to put something into my mouth. I want to taste again. Something. Anything.”
She sat down next to him and kissed him on the ear. “What would you eat right now if you could have whatever you liked?” she said. “Maybe I’ll cook it and think of you whilst I eat it.”
“Bitch,” he told her.
“But you want to tell me, don’t you?”
He put his hand suddenly around her throat and squeezed it, gently. She gave a little whimper. “Yes, actually, I do. I have an odd urge for scrambled eggs, as it happens.” He looked at her eyes and tried to imagine the spider lines he knew would be around them in real life. “With toast.”
“White or brown?”
“Then that’s what I shall make myself,” she told him and moved back, out of his grasp. She got up. A small blue ball appeared in her hands.
“Don’t put the eggs on the toast,” he said quickly, sincerely. “Softened toast is an abomination.”
“Sleep ball,” she said, holding it up. “Maybe you’ll dream of eating, when you sleep,” she said. Maybe you’ll dream of fucking me. That would be like real, wouldn’t it?”
“I never remember my dreams,” Jason said.
“I think it’s easier in Pink Dawn. I hear the dead talking about their dreams a lot. I suppose they feel more in them.”
Jason looked at the sleep ball, which she had positioned, for artistic effect, over her bed. He said, “How do I wake up from this thing?”
“When you click on it – I mean, select it – you get a menu up. You enter in the number of hours you want to sleep and it automatically wakes you when that time is up.”
He selected the ball by pointing at it with his right index finger, then dipping it slightly. A translucent menu appeared in front of him. “Can you see this?” he asked her.
“See what?” she replied.
“I have the menu up. It’s right here in front of me.”
“No,” she said. “I see nothing. It’s a personal display. How long are you going to choose?”
“I suppose I’d better go for a full eight hours, right?”
“Very sensible. I’ll make sure I’m here for when you wake up.”
That’s what I’m afraid of, he thought, and entered in five hours. “How come you’re so available in here, anyway? Don’t you work in real life?”
“Of course I work,” she told him. “But it’s Saturday.”
“It is? I had no idea.”
“There are personal displays you can get to keep you in touch with real world stuff like that,” she told him. “I’ll help you look for one later if you like.”
“Enjoy your eggs,” he told her, and hit the ‘ok’ button.
He dreamed of being awake in a drawer in a morgue, pulled out so that everyone could crowd round and inspect him. Then they were smoking cigarettes, and Jason could smell the stale stench as the wispy haze settled in a layer in the room, and it got mixed in with it the smell of whiskey and aftershave and perfume. Then they were each reaching over with their butts, pushing the glowing ends into his flesh. And he wanted more. And he wanted more.
Colt Lawrence, ‘metaversian investigator,’ met Jason in the lounge that showed the sports results. They sat for a few minutes and talked about how tennis had changed over the last thirty years. Then Lawrence teleported them both back to his office, a dimly lit room somewhere with venetian blinds, a wooden desk and a metal filing cabinet in the corner. “Oh please,” Jason had said upon entering and seeing it all, and a big, toothy grin had spread across the face of the investigator.
“Not bad, eh?” he said. “Peeling wallpaper too! Plus you have to bang the side of the filing cabinet if you want to get the middle drawer to come out. A right old whack, it needs. I attended a two week scripting course just to work out how to do that.” He jumped into his seat and swung his feet up onto the desk.
“So. Late waker, eh?” he said, echoing the remark made by Grey With Glasses earlier.
“Technically,” Jason told him, “I woke up exactly when it was agreed that I’d wake up.”
“That is true,” Lawrence said, with another smile. “Good reframe! All the same, I can’t say I envy you the head spin you must be in right now. Thirty years! That’s a lot of soap opera missed. What did you say you were when you were alive?”
“A singer/song writer.”
“Jason Harlan… Jason Harlan…” Lawrence repeated the name, drawing out the four syllables individually as though trying to locate them somewhere in his memories. He shook his head slowly, stuck out his lower lip. “You didn’t wear an orange scarf, did you?”
“Maybe I’m thinking of that Glaswegian chap… Did you used to perform with a talking animal of some sort?”
“In that case,” said Lawrence, “I’m afraid I can’t say I can think of a single tune of yours. Sorry about that.”
“Well… it was thirty years ago, after all,” Jason said, trying to keep the irritation from his voice.
“Oh I do know music from that era. The Remotes would have been big around about then, right?” Jason nodded. “What about Tony Vardel?” Jason nodded again. And scowled (Vardel had beaten twice him to number one in the streaming chart). “Oh yes,” Lawrence continued, “a golden era, in many respects. Anwing. Yellowtape. Of course, Mary Felhart would have been just starting up back then. And you were successful, you say? People knew you?”
“Maybe it would help if I told you some of my song titles,” Jason said. “In the corner of the store was my first number one – did you ever hear that?” Lawrence stroked his chin for a bit, then shrugged and shook his head. “Ok. Then what about Up to my neck in sin?”
“Oh, yes!” Lawrence said. “Yes, of course! How could I have forgotten ‘Up to my neck in it’?” He hummed a couple of lines and Jason tried to stop himself from grinning. “Really, that one was yours? We used to sing that at school a lot. Was the last word always ‘sin’?”
“Fair enough. Fair enough. We used to substitute something else.” He chuckled. “Good song!”
“Too bad you missed the whole thirties revival thing a few years back. You could have made a killing out of that!”
“Listen, about my case-” said Jason.
“Yes, of course,” Lawrence said, and assumed a serious face.
“How do you do that?”
“Change your expression like that. You do it so easily. That can’t be something menu-driven. Are you wearing some sort of face mask?”
“Good heavens, no!” said Lawrence. “High-definition ultrasonics, mate; vision through inaudible sound. It’s the latest thing! Very clever stuff, you know: ultrasound emitters and receivers in every corner of the room; the computer can see everything through it, including what the muscles of your face are up to. Then it just maps it all onto your avatar. Different face; same movements. Well, not everything’s the same: it all depends on what you’ve got your filters set to. Mine are set to block out involuntary horror and any instance of a gag reflex. If either of those two things should happen it defaults straight to nose scratch mode. Apparently, the new stuff can even map the texture of your skin. Isn’t that amazing?”
“Very impressive, I’m sure,” said Jason. “A pity they can’t show the same ingenuity for physical sensation.”
“Riiiiight. Yes,” said Lawrence. “The whole dead people not feeling their genitalia thing.” He held his hand up. “No disrespect, of course. I’m all for embracing the entirety of existence. It’s quite a big debate, actually. Lots of very confused religious people, I must say! Pink Dawn Incorporated officially do not recognise the existence of – or, indeed, necessity for – sex in the metaverse – well, it was either that or the ghetto idea, and think what a nightmare that would have been. So what you need is some third party gear, and you won’t find pointers towards that kind of thing in those godawful corporate induction centres.” He shivered. “Christ, I hate those places. They remind me of Scout huts.”
“Oh yes. There’s quite an industry for metaverse accessories, you know. You need to do some net browsing when you have some time. ‘Thr!ll’ MultiGen are quite good, I gather. And a company called, um, ‘Kumquick’ are developing new, multi-channel sensory input systems. So I’m told. The pleasure receivers are still there in your brain, you see.” He pointed at his head. “It’s just that at the moment there’s nothing connected to them. So what you need, my lad, is what we call a ‘plugin’. I should warn you, though; they’re not cheap.”
“Hopefully I’ll manage to get back some money from the bitch who took it from me,” Jason said. He felt suddenly optimistic.
“And if that fails then there’s always escorting, right? It’s a joke,” Lawrence said hurriedly. “You could sing, though. A lot of call for live music in clubs these days. Although, in your case, I’m not quite sure that ‘live’ is the word we’re looking for.”
“What’s the ratio of dead people to living people in here?” Jason asked.
“Ahhhh, good question,” Lawrence said, with another one of his toothy smiles. “We’re not quite at Dead Day just yet, although they say it’s not far off. Could be as close as a couple of years, apparently.”
“The ‘Day of the Dead,’ mate; the day when the number of dead people in the metaverse exceeds the number of living people in real life.”
“There’s that many dead people in here?”
“Oh yes. The dead have quite a status now. In fact, the Vice President of Pink Dawn Inc. is a dead man of seven years.”
Jason shook his head. “It’s madness,” he muttered.
“You haven’t seen the half of it yet,” Lawrence remarked. “Just you wait until you’ve visited your first dead-living cohab. I scratch my nose an awful lot in those places. Are we going to talk about this case of yours?”
“Yes,” Jason said. He went through the details in full and Lawrence, he was pleased to see, made notes. At the end, the investigator looked at him for what seemed like a full minute and then said, “You know, you might get a happier outcome if you put the money you want to spend on my time towards one of those Thr!ll plugins I was just talking about. It’s thirty years, mate; a lot could have happened since that scan you did together.”
“She got me into this,” Jason said.
“Would you really rather be dead?”
“I am dead. This is just some sort of clever trick of science.”
“So be it. But at least let me talk you through some of the things which might have happened.”
Jason nodded. And the investigator began. But, within a couple of sentences – because five hours sleep in six days still was nothing like sufficient – his attention had wondered. As Colt Lawrence talked, Jason thought about Rachel. He thought about how he was going to wring that little bitch’s neck when he got hold of her, but also he thought a bit about fucking her, because fucking her, after all, had been incredible. And then, for the first time in six days of being dead, he actually thought about Heather. Heather! Was there a Heather in here somewhere also? If there was, were they technically still married? He wondered what had happened to him in the eighteen months or so between his scan and the car crash that had killed him. He supposed it was important he find out.
It took Lawrence just a little over twelve hours to get hold of a set of teleport co-ordinates for him. Jason was at Annabelle’s place when the message came through. He got up straight away, kissed her plastic nose and left. He materialised in a hotel lobby.
The message accompanying the co-ordinates had said just ‘Room 43’. He took the stairs, found the room and knocked, being certain to use the identifying rhythm of two short and two long raps he had always used when coming to her apartment. That would freak her.
“Just coming,” said a voice he recognised immediately. He felt non-existent goose bumps rise.
The woman who answered the door was in her early fifties, or thereabouts. Jason looked past her into the room, searching for Rachel, but then something about how she was standing caught his attention. He looked back at her, recognised the nose, recognised the way her eyes were searching him. She sighed.
“Hello Jason,” she said. “So you found me. I suppose you’d better come in.”