The fourth part of my abridged version of ‘Thank You For Afterlifing With Us’ (see here for details).
Part one can be read here, part two here, part three here, part five here, part six here, part seven here and part eight here.
Jason gets an appointment to meet his clone.
Twenty-four hours later, Jason accepted Harmony’s teleport to the Client Support Centre, a sprawling city of virtual metal and plastic and glass, and neon signs and display screens running FAQ vidcasts. The sky had been artificially darkened, perhaps to make the light coming out of the buildings seem more inviting. A queue of avatars led up the steps to the main foyer of the building he had been directed to report to. Jason looked up and saw helicopters coming in to land on the roof. “Please be aware that flight has been deactivated in this area,” an echoing female voice intoned from all around him. “Security fields are in operation. Please do not spam either voice or text chat. Please do not attempt to gain entry to the building other than through the front entrance. If you have an appointment, please use doors A, B or C.”
“Why didn’t you just set me down in your office?” he messaged his new advisor, walking past a number of video screens on his way to the main entrance. Having trouble navigating that packed inventory, Mr Harlan? One asked him in a cheerful voice. The latest version of ProInven now comes with our patented SpringClean organisation algorithm. Yet another reason to become a Pink Dawn Pro subscriber!
“Everyone has to go through the front door,” Kingston Harmony replied. “No exceptions.” New, from Fax Furniture, the all-in-one ‘Homestead’ skybox, featuring Bake 2.5 – our revolutionary food simulation software for retired residents: you won’t believe how realistic it is! Want us to prove it to you? Why not visit our store today and we’ll give you your very own five-use oven and bread mix – absolutely free! It’s the closest thing in Pink Dawn to smelling home-baking again!
How long is it since you last updated your welcome guide, resident? Edition 27 is out now and contains step-by-step instructions on the exciting new hi-definition ultrasonics. Update today and soon you too will be on your way to getting rid of that uncomfortable sensuit! (Please note that update does not include hardware upgrades or operating system required. Please obtain your landlord’s permission before installing HDU. Resonant frequency information is available on request. Pink Dawn will not be held responsible for damage to properties arising from improper use).
He walked through a small market at the foot of the steps. A few of the vendors were actually standing behind their stalls. He spotted dresses, casual wear, suits (the double-breasted jacket was back again, he noted with dismay), coats, belts, bags and hats. There was a long tabletop covered in electronic gadgets – everything from ‘RL connected’ phones and radios to book viewers and wrist watches and vinyl turntables and old computers (there was even an original, working, IBM PC there). There was also a tiny stall squeezed in – manned by a rather blank looking avatar – that just had a single sign on it saying ‘Top links here’. Jason made a mental note of that one for later.
He entered the building through one of the doors at the left, walked into a roped flow serving three desks. But no-one else was in the foyer and only one of the desks was staffed. Jason approached and the girl looked up at him and beamed.
“You have an appointment, sir?” she asked.
“With Kingston Harmony,” he confirmed.
“Let me see Mr… Harlan.” She looked straight at him, as though staring at him intently. Outside of this place, he supposed, a flesh and blood person was bringing up his details on a screen of sorts. Outside. A place he could no longer access. A place he could only look at through windows. He thought of the long divide in the reunion park, of the dead avatars that sat by themselves on benches and looked into the real world and longed. “Ah yes; here we are. Down the corridor here to the lifts, then. You want the twelfth floor. Miss Harmony’s office is room 128.”
The lift seemed to move at a crawl. It annoyed Jason to think about it. Why all this pretence at normality? They could have set up a teleport pad at the desk and had the receptionist program it to take him straight to his destination. Why struggle so hard to mimic the ‘outside’ in a place so dull and bureaucratic as this? There was even a no smoking sticker in here on the wall, just above the buttons. Ludicrous. He had a sudden impulse to try and tear it from the wall. Unfortunately, the ability to do that was not an element of normality included in the emulation.
As he ascended, he went over what he had learned over the last day. From the web station at Annabelle’s, he had found out about the last eighteen months or so of Jason Harlan’s life; the months he had not been part of. Perhaps it was odd that it had taken him this long to get round to doing this, but then a week ago in his memories (well, just over a week) he had been alive, rich, having sex with (a much younger) Rachel and working on his ‘eagerly awaited’/difficult third album. A week ago. The bubble of continuity which he had somehow managed to extend for those first seven days of afterlife had popped well and truly the moment he had looked upon Old Rachel. 54 years old. 54. The taught skin and its glow was gone. The laughing eyes were gone. The full lips, the young teeth with which she had teased him, the pout when she was dissatisfied; all gone; all over, long ago. He had wanted to put his hands around that slender neck, promised to him for all time, and strangle her for getting him into all of this, but the moment Old Rachel had said the words, “I deleted her,” the lens had switched completely. His Rachel was gone. His Rachel was dead. Defenceless, his Rachel had been killed in her sleep by this withered old hag and she had never even known that death was coming. It was the biggest sense of outrage he had ever felt about anything, it even topped his anger over losing his money. Except he knew it was the money he had to focus on now. Things would not be right until then. Once that was done, however, he would be certain to return to the issue of Old Rachel and making sure she paid for her actions.
In particular, her non-availability now made him want her body badly, old skin or no old skin. He had thought about fucking her a lot before coming to the CSC; it had caused his phantom cock to grow and thicken. He had focused on this strange sensation for nearly half an hour, finding it more pleasurable than he had imagined something so subtle as that could be. He thought again how stupid it was that she hadn’t yet changed her shape and skin yet to make herself look young and firm again. Still, it was only just over a week for her as well. There was all of eternity for her to sort that out. But perhaps the old and unattainable Rachel in the body of the Rachel he remembered and wanted would be even harder for him to deal with.
Playmate had been a flop. It had charted outside the top ten and dropped from the top 40 within eight weeks. It was inexplicable. Jason had pulled up every last review he could get hold of to try to find the one that made sense of it. ‘A fine offering from Harlan, long overdue’ from PopCom. ‘At last, the wait is over… and it’s worth it!’ from Untitled. ‘Playmate is exactly what we wanted it to be… a record that works in the car as well as it does the bedroom’ from Empii. Matthew Sandor in the Dispassionate Times had described the album as ‘twelve tests of tolerance in my struggle to remain a non-smoker,’ but then since when had anyone paid any attention to what he thought?
He had located and then downloaded the album onto Annabelle’s web station and reviewed the tracks, one-by-one. Listening to this finished thing – which, a little over a week ago, had been for him still a ‘work in progress’ – was something of an unnerving experience, especially when it came to the vocals on ‘Wait ’til I get you home.’ Hearing his own voice singing words he knew well but had no memory of recording gave him a momentary, (imaginary) chill. The production on the album was good. And the choice of promotional singles was exactly as they had agreed. He watched the three videos through several times and got the chill again at the sight of himself in locations he had never visited; but he approved of the mix of longing looks, slow-motion photography and soft-core pornography. So, why hadn’t it sold?
He had downloaded the clip of the grand final. It had taken some searching, but he had found it in the end, broken Annabelle’s last one hundred mellars (whatever the hell they were) to buy it. Jason felt himself sinking back into that same trance state he always went into when he watched this video. The studio lights, dipped… The three spotlights… The tension music… Voting is now closed… We can now reveal that twenty-four million people have voted in tonight’s final… The envelope… The winner of the 2033 contest is…
And Heather was dead. She had died almost a year after his scan, six months after the release of Playmate, eight months before his own death. A mugging gone wrong, apparently. She had attempted to take on the guy who was after her purse and he had stabbed her in the stomach twice before running off. He thought about his wife, lying on asphalt, blood spreading out from her gut. He wondered what she had said as her face had paled and the last of her life had drained out of her. Oddly, he wondered what she had been wearing. Tackling an unknown assailant was just the sort of thing that Heather would have done too. The daft bitch. Of course, she had never had a brain scan done; in this case, therefore, dead really did mean dead. The odd thing was (even though this was Heather he was thinking about) Jason was starting to view that as a waste.
“It should be compulsory,” he had decided in conversation with Annabelle the previous evening. “Not the being plugged into the afterlife thing, I don’t mean that. Jesus, think of the crowds. I mean just being scanned. Then they store your brain somewhere in case they need it.”
“What are they likely to ‘need it’ for?” she had asked.
“You might have some special skill,” he said. “Even if you didn’t, you might be useful for establishing historical accuracy or something. You could be called up as a witness. You might have been somewhere at an important moment. Or maybe you knew someone who went on to do something significant. Or maybe you did something during your life that was never appreciated properly until after you died.”
“Do you really think there are that many important people out there?” she had said.
“How should I know? Probably not. It’s just a safety net, isn’t it? Fuck it; who cares if you never have to activate more than a handful? I just think it’s better if you have everyone archived for just in case. It’s insurance.” Heather might have spoken up for him in his trial. Apart from his affairs, he hadn’t treated her badly.
“Imagine if they started doing that now,” Annabelle had said, “and then you’re this guy three hundred years into the future whose job it is to investigate stuff by switching on a whole load of archived brains. Think of all the people you’d meet.”
“You never know,” he said, “maybe that’s the way we’ll all end up choosing anyway. I can’t see myself tolerating a single year of this existence, let alone a hundred. Getting resurrected in a thousand years’ time, once they’ve worked out how to smell-enable me, doesn’t seem like such a bad idea in the slightest.”
“I’m sure they’ll work out something before then. I know everything is slow these days, but they have to make faster progress than just that one thing in a thousand years!”
“Everything is slow these days?” he said. “What do you mean by that?”
“It takes ages for new developments in Pink Dawn to become stable. Months, usually. Sometimes years. The problem’s been getting gradually worse as the autistic population’s gotten smaller and more elderly.”
“Really? They’re that important? Well there you go, then; there’s your argument for mandatory back-up: you never know when someone’s going to come in handy. Even the retards.”
“I don’t think that was an acceptable term even in your day,” she had said. “In fact, a high number of the recently deceased autists are inworld, and very happy here; as a percentage of the total number of people in existence – dead plus alive – they’re ever dwindling, though. Their skills are in massive demand in here. Those who code, that is. It’s been said Pink Dawn would collapse entirely – just from the day to day bugs that crop up – if it weren’t for the dead coders and the work they do.”
“’Dead coders’,” Jason said. “How delightful.”
“The power they might end up with could be considerable. Not to mention ironic.” She had changed the subject back to her mother at that point. Jason had sat and thought about his own parents. He wondered what it would be like to have digital versions of them he could activate if he ever needed to know something about his upbringing or his heritage.
And then turn off again when they became annoying. That would be the most important bit, he reflected.
No more Heather, then. One less thing to have to think about, at least. Dead, because she wouldn’t just leave a guy to take a few notes and some plastic. He found himself thinking momentarily about their wedding day. The smiles. The sunshine. The press. All those plans they had made back then. All those plans he had had for himself. All those plans he had had with Rachel. It had all amounted to nothing, in the end. Absolutely none of it had happened, and yet still the world was turning. Oh well.
Kingston Harmony looked up when Jason entered and pointed to a seat across her desk. “Take a seat, Mr Harlan,” she told him. She finished tapping something out on a keyboard whilst he sat. As he waited, he noted the absence of a vacant gaze.
“You’re dead, aren’t you?” he said.
“If it were down to me, I’d use the term ‘enjoying my second life’, but apparently there are legal reasons why we shouldn’t use that term,” she replied. “Yes, Mr Harlan, I’m dead. Just like you. Now then; how can I be of help to you?”
“I want to know where the other Jason Harlan is,” he told her.
“He’s in prison,” she replied, without hesitation.
“I know that. Where is the prison?”
“’Where’ isn’t really an appropriate word in this case,” she told him. “It’s not like you could set out to find it with a map and compass. The prison isn’t connected to regular Pink Dawn in any way. It’s a separate pocket of metaverse space altogether. Were you hoping to visit?”
“Yes,” he said. “And as soon as possible.”
“You know,” she said, “if you had just finished your induction meeting with Lex last week, you would have been put in the picture on all of this.”
“Bollocks,” he said to her. “That idiot knew nothing. I asked him who had my money and he said he wasn’t able to tell me. Why would he have said that if he knew the details of my case?”
“Because the details of where the Harlan estate was willed is confidential,” she said. “Simple as that. There are things we can tell you and there are things that we can’t. If one of the former bits exposes a part of the latter bits then that is of no relevance to anything. Does that help?”
“Does the second Harlan scan have the money attached to his account?” Jason asked. “Yes or no?”
She smiled. “The best way you’re going to get an answer to that,” she said, “is if you ask him yourself.”
“You’re incredible,” he said. “It’s like I have no rights here whatsoever.”
“Technically,” she responded, “you don’t. And neither do I.”
“It’s a fucking outrage.”
“Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. But what I need you to understand right now is that there is nothing that I or any other Pink Dawn employee or you or any other resident can do about it.” She rested her elbows on the desk in front of her, steepled her fingers in the same way he remembered seeing Lexington Greene doing.
He gave a resigned sigh. “In any case,” he said, “that Greene prick walked out on me, not the other way around.”
“After you had assaulted him,” she said.
“Assaulted?” he said, incredulously. “You can’t be serious? How can you call the movement of pixels ‘assault’? I didn’t actually hit him. I pushed his avatar over.”
“In my opinion,” Kingston Harmony said, “assault is outcome, not action. It’s not up to you to decide what is and what isn’t an experience of violation for any individual.”
“You’re not going to tell me he’s filed some sort of complaint against me, are you?” Jason pressed his finger into her desk. “Is that it? Is that why he’s not about? Is he on stress leave, or something? Is he preparing some sort of case against me?”
“Calm yourself, Mr Harlan,” she told him, leaning back in her chair. “I have no desire whatsoever – nor, in fact, legal right – to impart to you any knowledge concerning Lex.”
“You tell that idiot he should get himself some fucking interpersonal skills if he wants to continue waking up dead people,” Jason spat. “Did it ever occur to you to consider that the experience might be just a little bit disorientating?”
“Yes,” she said. “It did. You sound like a little boy caught fighting. Are you finished protesting your innocence now?”
All of a sudden, Jason had to fight the urge to laugh. “What the hell killed you?” he asked. “Did your empathy break free from its chains and strangle you with them?”
“Sweet,” she said. “Writing those lyrics of yours must have been like an act of self-mutilation.”
“I live in a dream world,” he replied. “It’s not my fault if reality is a constant disappointment to me.”
“Reality is something you no longer need to concern yourself with, Mr Harlan,” she told him. “Do you want me to help you to see your update or don’t you?”
“My update?” Jason said in disgust. “Is that what I have to call him?”
“Well he is more up-to-date than you are.”
“So what does that make me to him? His… ‘downdate’?”
“Don’t be silly, Mr Harlan. ‘Previous version’ will do fine, don’t you think?” She stared at him. Her gaze was unwavering.
“So how often does this sort of thing happen?” he asked her. “I mean, two versions of the same person both activated at the same time.”
“Not often,” she said. “It’s one of those ideas that lots of people are interested in until they think it through properly.”
“Would you feel comfortable knowing there’s another man out there with exactly the same thoughts and desires as you have?” she said. “Say you fall in love with someone in first life and then you make your copy: who would get the lover in the afterlife?”
“Easily resolved,” he said. “Just create an extra copy of her as well. Then my clone and I get one each.”
“How pragmatic you are. Well, there is also the issue of funds allocation.”
“That I can identify with.”
He looked at her whilst they jousted, took in her shape, her glow, her freshness. She was tight and firm, just like Rachel had been. He wondered what she had looked like in real life before her death and realised she hadn’t answered his question about how she’d died. He asked her again and she chuckled softly. “Ok, Mr Harlan,” she said. “The truth is, I’m not actually dead at all. I was in a road traffic accident which didn’t quite destroy me, you see; in real life, I’ve been in a coma for the last two years. My family activated this scan eighteen months ago so they could ask me what I wanted them to do.”
“You told them to leave the machines running,” he said.
“I told them to switch the machines off!” she replied. “Quite apart from anything else, the cost of keeping them running was crippling my parents. But then some legal clause was discovered banning the involvement of activated scans in any form of medical decision making. The very fact that they’d consulted me meant that if they did then turn off life-support it would leave us all open to prosecution, myself included. So the machines stay on, and this is the job that pays for them.”
“So what happens to you,” Jason said, “if the real world Kingston wakes up?”
“I get to keep my monthly pay check,” she replied. “Don’t worry, it’s not like the world will implode or anything.”
“And that example you gave about two copies in love with the same person,” he said, “was that purely hypothetical?”
“Don’t try to analyse me, Mr Harlan,” she told him. “I’ll only end up lying to you just to screw with your mind.”
“It delights me to know you consider I still have one.”
“You still have one,” she said. “You’re only a few days old. Wait until your months are into double figures. Then you’ll start wondering what’s what.”
“How close are they,” he said, “to working out things like taste? Really?”
“Taste? Not even remotely close,” she replied. “The programming skills just aren’t out there any more. Ever since the pre-natal autism scan programme was introduced the people with the required skills just stopped being born. It’s enough of a challenge just to keep the existing platform running – almost all of the skillbase is dedicated solely to that. But, of course, you didn’t hear that from me.”
“Can’t they reverse that autism policy?”
“They already did. But the gene pool is depleted now. And it still takes twenty years to educate a baby.”
“What about these… third party ‘plugins’ I heard about?”
“Ah. Those. Well, what can I say?” she said. “They’re better than nothing. Not that you should in any way interpret that as an acknowledgement on my part as an employee of Pink Dawn Inc. of the existence of sexual activity in the metaverse. As an unofficial matter of fact, I imagine that sort of stuff will improve quite rapidly. Sex and war are the two biggest incentives to invent stuff, after all.”
“Is there a war on that I should know about?”
“There’s always a war on. Try reading up on the news. Just because you’re dead doesn’t mean you have an excuse to lose touch with current affairs.” She hand wrote something on a piece of paper and the marks she made turned into printed text. “You’re going to need to put in a visitor’s request to the governor,” she said. “This form here. I can’t imagine it will get turned down.” The text dissolved. “You do realise, by the way, that you were one of the first guys in there, right?”
“One of the first?” he said, confused. “I thought I was the first.”
“You were the first case to be brought to trial and found guilty. You then managed to string out the whole appeals process for nearly a year. During that time, the floodgates got opened. A whole bunch of other people with more serious crimes and less competent representation than you had got put away whilst the lawyers were arguing over your case.”
“What happened to my update whilst this was going on?”
“He got put on standby, I think,” she replied. “I suppose they could have confined him to a room somewhere, but then that’s not all that different to the virtual prison in concept, or at least the way it was conceptualised at that point in time.”
“What does it look like?” he asked. “Does it look and feel like a prison does in real life?”
“Actually, yes,” she said. “At first they just made a whole load of individual rooms, sort of like a whole load of isolation chambers. It was just less complex that way, plus it looked to the victims like a more severe punishment. The human rights groups made a big fuss about it, but scans didn’t – and still don’t – have official human status. The inmates who had to endure that went mad pretty quickly – the lack of human contact and visual stimulation drove them crazy. Pink Dawn were unhappy about it and they filmed some of the prisoners and put the footage on the web. They realised it was only a matter of time before someone else got in there and did it anyway. From their point of view, the small amount of time they’d saved by implementing a simpler system just wasn’t worth the scandal they could see approaching. It wasn’t like they had any real ownership of the issue in any case. When the media got hold of the footage there was quite an outcry, but Pink Dawn’s efforts to be seen only as an observer to the issue paid off. The lens of scrutiny was turned on the judicial system that had campaigned for virtual sentencing in the first place and when they tried to pass the buck to the organisation that owned the metaverse, the Pink Dawn directors pointed to their pre-published statement saying they would implement incarceration however they were instructed to. It was a brilliant piece of PR strategy.”
“How come you know so much about this?” Jason asked.
“I knew bits of it anyway,” she said. “But when I looked over your case notes I got interested in the story and read around it. Your case got passed to me after you assaulted Lex, you see. I’m the next layer of advisor: I get passed the difficult ones.”
“I didn’t assault him,” Jason said, but without a great deal of interest now. “So they ended up changing the system? What happened to the inmates who went crazy?”
“They redesigned the prison to allow contact with others, yes,” she replied. “They modelled the new facility on real world prisons. They moved the inmates over to the new place, but for some of them it was just too late. It was inhumane to keep them there; they ended up being deactivated.”
“They switched them off? Couldn’t they do a rollback or something?”
“Rollback wasn’t common practice back then,” she said. “It requires a backup copy of the scan to be kept, which still isn’t part of the basic package today. It’s only mandatory under certain circumstances.”
“And I suppose it costs double,” he said.
“So, by the time my update finally got locked away, all of this had been resolved?”
“Yes. His lawyers timed it well. The basic prison structure has remained pretty much unchanged ever since. Well, it’s only thirty years or so. There have been plenty of extra changes in legislature since then, though.”
“Such as a custodial sentence given to a living person can now include metaverse years. A fifty year sentence, for example, could be covered party in real life years and partly in metaverse years.”
“So they scan you,” he said, “whilst you’re in prison, so that after you die you can continue your time inside?”
“That’s right,” she replied. “Dying no longer reduces your sentence.”
“Even if you don’t want to be scanned?”
“Even if you don’t want to be scanned.”
“Think about it, Mr Harlan,” she said. “Imagine someone kills someone you love. They get caught and eventually sentenced for life. But after they’ve been in prison for just a couple of years they manage to hang themselves. The next thing you hear, a brain scan they got made before they were sentenced is running around free in the metaverse. How would you feel about that?”
“From what you’re saying, though,” said Jason, “the rule would cover inmates who died of natural causes as well.”
“Not at first,” she said. “But prisoners started finding ways of committing suicide that looked like natural causes: pills smuggled in by lovers that triggered heart attacks, accidents arranged to look like health and safety incidents; and so on. It became increasingly difficult to distinguish between planned and unplanned death. In the end, it was ruled it made no difference in any case. X years should mean X years, regardless. And so the law got changed.”
“What a bunch of idiots,” he said. “Does everyone really believe it’s them that gets transferred to the metaverse?”
“A few notable exceptions aside, I believe the criminal population isn’t widely known for its philosophical analysis of the afterworld and the transfer of consciousness.”
“What’s it like in there? Are the prisoners able to communicate with people via private messaging like you can out here?”
“No. All communication with the outside world is restricted. They each share a room with a cellmate, they get an hour of social time per day, and they get up to three visits per week in the visitor centre. And that’s it.”
“And the rest of the time they do nothing?”
“They have to take six hours per day sleep and do six hours per day minimum work. Most opt to work for longer work shifts, because jobs are undertaken by small groups so it means more time with others. And it’s more stimulating”
“What sorts of ‘jobs’ are there to do?”
“It’s coding work, mostly. Maintenance stuff marked up by the dead coders.”
She nodded. “Their time’s too valuable to be wasted on mundane coding tasks. They provide a steady flow of non-critical maintenance tasks, which are broken up and allocated to the code teams.”
“You want to trust that sort of stuff to convicts?” he asked.
“We don’t have a great deal of choice, Mr Harlan,” she told him. “There are measures in place to prevent corruption, of course – designed by the dead coders themselves. Plus a reward system to motivate inmates to code efficiently.”
“So, my update’s a code monkey now, is he?” Jason remarked. “I bet he’s happy about that.”
“You’ll be able to ask him yourself in a few minutes,” Kingston Harmony said.
“Really? That fast?”
“We were in luck: the governor was at her desk. Your request came back almost immediately. They’re moving him to the visitor centre as we speak.”
“I’m astonished,” said Jason. “You’ve exceeded all my expectations. Thank you.”
“Pure luck,” she said. “But, if you really can’t shake the need to thank me, there’s a compliments box in the foyer downstairs.”
“I’d ask you out to dinner, were it not for the whole not being able to eat thing,” he said. “Is there some sort of metaverse equivalent I need to be aware of?”
“Dancing,” she said. “And I accept.”
Ten minutes later, Jason was sitting on one side of a visitor table, watching his update being guided to the seat across from him.
“Well well,” the second Jason Harlan said. “Here you are at last.”