The seventh (and penultimate) 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 four here, part five here, part six here, and part eight here.
Rachel. She lay before him, perfectly motionless, her avatar prepared but as yet empty. Of course, it wasn’t just a case of recovering a couple of bytes from the file header; there was the whole business of re-establishing her account settings, not to mention the location of her shape and skin and voice patterns. But it had all been done, and it had all been done extremely well. The body was prepared in front of him and all he had to do was give the order and the connection with the waiting brain scan would be made and consciousness would be invoked. The avatar would be filled with Rachel.
He ran his finger across the skin of her shoulder, down her arm, over the back of her hand. He felt the pattern of her veins there and felt a rush of recognition. Yes, this was Rachel. It would be Rachel. He would give the word and the fingers of the hand would start to twitch. Her movements would reprise. Maybe she’d do that thing again where she scratched the back of her index finger with her middle finger. Not that anything would itch, of course.
The opposite of death: this body had yet to know animation (and what splendid animation awaited it, too). Now it was a statue, but in a few moments it would be a person; now it was art, but in a few moments it would be life.
He looked at her face, felt tenderness for the way her cheek was shaped. He had never felt this way about this face before. Rachel had had to die in order for him to fall in love with her. Jason had had to see himself from the outside in order for him to allow this change to happen. Love. He had hated the word. Achievement had been the only thing that mattered in the moment that this snapshot had been taken. And adoration. And fame. And wealth. But Playmate had flopped. His career had flopped. As a singer, he had been well and truly finished by the time of the crash; only the publicity of the subsequent trial, in fact, had raised downloads above the meagre trickle they had become (and most of those had been illegal). A life is one half the things in your head and one half the places that you stand in; the places that Jason had stood in were all gone: no more recording studios, no more fan mail, no more interviews, no more autograph hunters. Even the stalkers had disappeared. The only link he now had to that past lay on the bed before him, inanimate, lifeless, awaiting ignition. He wondered how she would cope with the new world. He wondered if she would still want him, now that his fame was over and – perhaps more importantly – now that he had lost his outrage about that happening.
Love. Was it really love? Did he want her because he loved her or did he want her only because there was nothing else left of any of his old life any more… except her?
Time was getting on. He conjured up the virtual console, sent the command to awaken her.
They had met in a bar after a show, the sort of place where he had picked up maybe a hundred women in first couple of years of his fame – sometimes as many as three or four in a single evening (and not necessarily sequentially) – except by then, of course, there had been Heather. When Jason had met Rachel, he and Heather had been married for nearly eight months; by his reckoning, he was just about ready for a taste of infidelity. Marriage had not worked for him, just as he had been told it would not by his mother. But the magazine deals to cover the ceremony had been simply too good to ignore. In any case, what was a good marriage without a great divorce (as the saying went)? “You have to have a five year plan,” his publicist had told him. “Marriage, suspected infidelity, affair made public, divorce, retrospective revelations about previous affairs, then maybe a second marriage – but by then you’ll be in your enlightened phase. Aim for something every six months or so during the gaps between albums. It’ll keep you alive in the minds of the public. You should also consider an addiction of some sort that you can check into rehab over.”
It had been an easy job that night: The Royal Variety Performance, if he recalled correctly; his second (and last) appearance there. His act had followed the previous year’s winner of England’s Got Talent, a singer/cat juggler from Rotherham. A quick one-liner pun involving the words ‘paws’ and ‘purrfect’, a three-and-a-half minute song (his latest download, naturally), a bow to the Royal Box on his way out and then he’d been done, exiting stage left and making a beeline for make-up. Within five minutes, he had been in the mostly empty bar, eyeing up the women, of which there were two and of which Rachel was one. Alone, she had been the obvious choice (accompanied, she would have been the obvious challenge). Smoothly, he had slid into the seat next to her, only to find someone else’s drink in front of him.
Sniffing at it – leaning forward to the glass and waving his nose across the rim – his first words to her had been, “By an amazing coincidence, I do believe this is my favourite drink.”
“I know it is,” she had replied, and only then had she turned to look at him. “That’s why I ordered it for you, Jason.”
As per the advice given to him, he had flown up to ten thousand metres, then up another twenty thousand for good measure. The world was almost white at that altitude, like endless linen.
He had rezzed the cuboid prim that had the script embedded in it. Once active, this would sit beneath the floor of his living room and that spot would become the materialisation point for him and his update – his evil older twin – at the start of their twelve hour shifts.
“Timeshare Jason initialise,” he had said.
“Set password,” the box had replied in a flat, Australian accent.
“Repeat to confirm.”
“Password is ‘Pink45’. Is this correct?”
“Password set. Commence procedure ‘timeshare’ now?”
He had taken a deep breath at that point. Think, he had said to himself silently. One more word, one more syllable, and after that there would be no going back. One more word and he would be committed to this for the next twenty-three years. He had looked at the deal from every possible angle and had completely failed to find the crack that a part of him, deep down, kept telling him just had to be there, somewhere. But there was nothing: no catch, no ploy, no secretly hidden algorithm or closeted malicious code. And yet.
He considered aborting, flying back down to the ground, giving himself another twenty-four hours to contemplate it. Things often only made themselves apparent after you had come within a hair’s breadth of committing. Another few hours and something new, something obvious just might-
“Yes,” he had said.
“Procedure initialised,” the box had reported. “Rez point will be one meter above this prim. Time to next shift is nine hours and forty-seven minutes.”
Her fingers twitched. Her eyes opened.
“Hey you,” Jason said from the corner of the room, where he leaned against a wall. Presently, her head lolled in his direction. She propped herself up on her left elbow. She smiled a sleepy smile at him.
“Hey,” she said. Then she looked around herself, recognised that she was in an unfamiliar place. She looked back at him in mild confusion, asked, “Where are we?”
We. Jason felt phantom warmth moving through him. He walked to her, sat on the side of her bed, took her right hand in his. “This is probably going to be a bit of a shock for you,” he started.
“Your hand feels so odd,” she said. “I can’t feel your warmth. My stomach feels… Oh!” And, with that, he knew she had worked it all out for herself, right there and then. “This is it, isn’t it?” she gasped. “This is the afterworld? Oh my God! Oh my God! I must be dead! Holy crap! What did I die of?
“Oh and you’re here!” she added, suddenly looking straight at him, a delighted grin spreading across her beautiful face. “Just like we planned it. See, baby?” She sat up properly, held her left palm against his cheek. “I told you it would be simple!”
He resisted the strong urge to ask for her definition of simple. Instead, he said, “How do you feel?”
“A bit strange. I think I’ll get used to it. I read that there’s no touch in the afterworld, but I can feel you, even so.”
“I think they made some improvements since we had our scans done,” he told her. “They still have a lot to do though. I really miss eating and drinking.”
“Someone will see to it someday soon, I’m sure,” she said, beaming. “How long has it been?”
“Thirty years,” he told her.
“Wow! I wonder what I got up to in that time? That’s interesting… I’d been sort of thinking we might have updated our scans together if things had continued to go well between us. Do you think we fell out of love?”
Of course, he thought. That was one of the reasons she wanted to do this in the first place. ‘The moment will be preserved for us to come back to,’ she had said to him, ‘whatever happens. Even if we fall out of love.’ Much of what had happened, she had actually foreseen. She had not foreseen the vitriol, though; she had not foreseen the venom. Jason wondered if he would ever know what that had been about.
Or, in fact, care. Fuck! he thought. I did it! I got her back! Never mind the fifty-four-year-old, never mind the evil twin or having no money or Lexington fucking Greene. I did it; I did it, despite the lot of them. I got what I wanted, just like I always manage. A smile broke out across his face as he soaked in the exhilaration. Just like I always manage, he thought again. No-one tells me what I can or cannot do.
“What’s so funny?” she asked, mirroring back his grin.
“Actually,” he said to her, “you outlived me by something like twenty-eight years.”
“Baby!” she cried. “You poor dear – all that time, you’ve been waiting for me? But of course not – your scan can only have been activated just now, like mine. That was the contract. So how do you know all these things? Did they activate you first?”
“It’s a bit complicated,” said Jason.
“I want to hear! Wait! First things first – I need to know just that you are actually finally mine. What about Heather?”
“She’s dead,” Jason said. His smile dissolved. “She didn’t scan. She died before me, in fact.”
“Oh? That’s kind of sad. I guess I’d sort of imagined she’d have her own Jason Harlan scan to live with. I didn’t want to have you only at the expense of her life, you know.”
“How did she die?”
“She was mugged. She got stabbed.”
“Oh my God. Poor Heather.”
“Yeah,” said Jason. “I’m sort of more upset about that than I thought I’d be.”
“Well of course you are darling; I mean, you married her: you must have loved her once. However things might have turned out in the end, that’s still important, isn’t it?”
He tried to remember when he had first met Heather. A charity function, he thought, but his recollection was hazy. He realised, all of a sudden, that his ‘update’ had said nothing about Heather. Nothing at all.
“I wonder why she didn’t scan?” Rachel said.
“Well,” he replied, “it was still new back then. Only a small number of people were doing it. And, of course, she wouldn’t have known about me getting one done.”
“Do lots of people scan now?”
“Oh yes, I think so. It’s getting more and more common.”
“So how did I die?” she asked. “Did they tell you that?”
“You died of cancer.”
“I don’t know. A type they can’t yet fix. I know that your death was peaceful. I know it was how you wanted it to be.”
“You seem to know an awful lot,” she told him.
“I’ve been awake for quite some time now,” he replied. “Rachel, there’s quite a lot to tell. I’ve had to… break some rules to get you here.”
“Really?” she cried. “Darling, you must tell me everything! But wait, there’s one more thing I have to know first – is there an older version of me in the afterworld also?”
“Yes,” he said. “That’s part of what I have to tell you.”
“Oh!” she said. And she thought about that. “You’ve met her, haven’t you? I can tell. What’s she like?”
Jason smiled at her insight. “I have met her, yes,” he said. “Actually, a part of me quite liked her.” The image of the fifty-four-year-old came to him, as she had stood in front of him in the doorway of her hotel room. Briefly, he imagined doing them both together. “I cannot, unfortunately, say that the same was true of her for me. Also, she did something I can’t forgive her for.”
Rather than pursue this, Rachel asked suddenly, “Does she – did she…” She paused. “Did she… have any children?”
“Yes,” Jason said. “She had… has a son and a daughter.”
“She found someone else, then.” A statement.
“Have you met him?”
“I wonder,” she said. “Did she try to delete me? Is that what she did that angered you? You said she doesn’t like you any more.”
“It’s not that she tried,” he told her. “She did delete you. I’ve had to get your file recovered. She doesn’t know that I’ve done this. She’ll be pissed as hell when she finds out.”
“I wonder if I shall ever have a relationship with them – with my children?” she mused. “I wonder if she will let me.”
“Does it have to be up to her? They’re all grown up now, they can make their own decisions about that sort of stuff. Imagine that. Imagine meeting your mother from before she gave birth to you.”
“Of course. It’s just it would be so much easier with her blessing. Gosh.” She wiped her forehead. “So much to take in.”
He asked her, “Do you mind that I went against your later wishes?”
“And had my scan undeleted? Of course I don’t mind, my darling! You and me are you and me. Whatever it was that happened to break us apart out there doesn’t have to happen in here, does it? I’m sorry that she did what she did, but I guess she’d forgotten by then how good we were together. I’m so lucky to have you out there, rescuing me from digital oblivion! You got my file recovered, you say? Was it a lot of bother? And do you know what it was we broke up over?”
“No,” he said. “Neither of them will tell me. I don’t even know when it was, exactly. Sometime after Playmate, I think.”
“Oh!” she said. “How did-”
“Badly,” he said, glad to get to this issue sooner rather than later (and knowing that the question was about the record and not his wife).
“Really?” she sounded genuinely surprised. “Even Wait ’til I-”
“Even that. Yes.”
“Do you remember,” she said, “I came up with that title?”
“Yes,” he lied. “But one thing you should know right now is that I’m no longer famous. I hope that’s not going to be an issue. I’m a nobody.”
“You’re a somebody to me, my darling,” she told him. She frowned. “Neither of ‘them’?” she asked. “There are two more of me?”
“There’s one more of you,” he told her. “And there’s one more of me.”
“Oh!” she said. “You got a re-scan too before you died?”
“About six months beforehand, from what I can make out.”
“And what did you die of, baby?” she asked him, softly.
“I died in car accident,” he told her. “There’s no nice way of putting this, Rachel – and this is the next thing you should know – I died in a car accident that I caused, and other innocent people died because of it.”
“Oh,” she said.
“It’s a strange thing,” he continued, “to feel guilty for something you have no recollection of, to feel guilty for something you didn’t actually do.” And the strangest thing was, this really wasn’t a lie; he did now feel bad about it. It was an interesting phenomenon. He wondered how much it had to do with meeting – and hating – his second self. Is taking on guilt about the accident some sort of dissonance reduction? he had mused. Does it help me to distance myself in my mind from what I became? Does it make me less like him if I assume the guilt that he will not? Does it add credence to my belief – my desire to believe – that we really are two different people? So much for guilt, if that were the case; however bad he felt, it was basically just so that he could feel better about himself as a person.
“That just means that you’re a good man, my darling,” she told him.
“I’m not a good man,” he replied. “Not really.”
“Maybe now you’re a better man, then,” she said. “Just a little?”
“Just a little. Perhaps.” He smiled at her.
“Your second scan has been active all this time since the accident?” she asked. “Did he meet you when you were woken up?”
“He’s been active, yes; sort of. He wasn’t there at my activation. I have met him, though.”
“What’s it like,” she asked, “meeting a copy of yourself?”
“It’s odd,” he said. “It doesn’t feel like you’re meeting yourself at all at first. But then they start talking about things that only you know about. Things you did when you were a kid. Things you used to think about. Things you used to believe.”
“Does he want to know you? Does he want to spend time with you?”
“I don’t think he’s all that interested in me. But, you see, I was deleted too and he’s the one who undeleted me. I have something he wants.
“You were deleted too? By who?”
“When you – the real you – deleted your scan, she asked me – the real me – to delete his. By the sound of things, I think they were both glad to be rid of each other.”
“I see,” she said, looking disappointed, but only a little. “So what is it that you have that your number two wants?”
“Freedom,” he told her.
“Freedom? I don’t understand.”
“He’s in prison, Rachel. A special prison they built for the metaverse. He’s in prison for killing the people who died in the car accident. It was a family, you see. They put his scan on trial after the accident. He got fifty years.”
“You’re kidding?! Seriously?”
“I thought it was ridiculous too when I first heard it, but it’s true. I gather it’s now pretty commonplace, to sentence people in the metaverse. The world has changed.” In the months that had passed, he had studied the case in detail (it was, after all, his last moment in the public spotlight). The video footage had made him cringe. To begin with – notwithstanding a near fatal error by his first defence team – things had gone reasonably well for the defence. But then the guy that had been driving the other car – his resurrected scan, of course – had taken the stand and the world had had its look at a man who had lost everything. Frank something, his name had been. The moment Frank had spoken, the case had changed; from that point onwards, everything had been against the defendant. And there and then, in front of countless millions, Jason Harlan had stopped trying to win favour and let loose his utter scorn for the proceedings, destroying whatever slim chance he had. The commentaries made especially uncomfortable viewing. He couldn’t help but find himself agreeing with the broad consensus they all appeared to reach.
“What do virtual world prisons look like?” she asked.
“Actually,” he said, “not all that different from real world prisons.”
“Fifty years!” she declared. “And you don’t have to do time as well?”
“It’s only for scans created a year or less before the crime,” he said. “In any case,” he added, “I got deleted. I didn’t exist at the time of the trial. Sort of.”
“Awwww,” she cooed. “We’re both of us ex-patriots of non-existence.”
“So why did he undelete you? And how did he undelete you? Isn’t prison meant to restrict freedoms like the ability to undelete human beings?”
“Technically, we’re not human beings,” he said. “But that’s a whole other conversation. I have no idea how he did it. I gather he has a lot of contacts outside of prison, both in Pink Dawn and in the real world – some of them are old, die-hard fans; some of them are people he’s just bought with his money.”
“And how is your freedom useful to him?”
“Well here’s the rub: he’s worked out some method for the two of us to swap avatars.”
“He’s the one who actually managed to get you undeleted. I had to agree to his bodyswap plan before he’d do it.”
“Then unagree,” she said. “Right now. Rescind on your agreement.”
“Your undeletion isn’t yet permanent,” he said. “You can still be sent back to the void if I change my mind. Besides, I’ve already initiated the timeshare program. It’s locked in now: changes can only be made with authorisation from both of us.”
“Timeshare?” she repeated.
“We share this avatar,” he explained. “Twelve hours of me each day and twelve hours of him.”
“Oh,” she said.
“The switches are automated. At twelve midnight I depart and he arrives.”
“What time is it now?” she asked, her voice almost a whisper.
“Nine fifty-three,” he replied.
“So you have to serve out half his remaining sentence? I don’t like this arrangement, Jason; I don’t like it at all.”
“It won’t be so bad. I’ll hardly know I’m there. You have to sleep in the metaverse, you see; just like in real life. I plan on spending all twelve prison hours in sleep.”
“It’s not fair. If they had both of them just left us alone and abided by our original wishes this would have happened all by itself.”
“I’d love to see you have that conversation with your older self,” said Jason, with a slight smile. “I really would.”
“Don’t make light of this,” she told him.
“I’m no happier about it than you are,” he said. “I did what I had to do to get you back. Don’t ask me to regret that.”
“So what am I to do when this guy takes over your body?” she asked him.
“Do whatever you want,” he said. “Just make sure you’re back twelve hours later,” he added, winking. She did not respond.
“Do you trust him? How do you know he won’t try and trick you? Maybe he’ll fix it so you end up in prison permanently.”
“I’ve had all the coding examined by an independent developer,” he told her. “It’s watertight – there are no secret stings hiding away in there. And like I said, changes can only be made to the code with both our authorisation, so he can’t sneak extra stuff in once it’s activated.”
“I feel cold,” she said, rubbing her arms.
“That’s impossible,” he told her.
“All the same, I feel cold,” she said. “I don’t like the sound of this one bit.”
When it happened, there was no sensation, there was no sound and there were no fancy visual effects. One moment he was looking at Rachel, the next he was sitting on the side of his bed in a prison cell.
From Rachel’s point of view, nothing appeared to happen at all. Then Jason stretched a little, and a broad smile spread slowly across his face. “Hello, my dear,” he said. “My my, it’s been a while since I’ve seen you looking like that.” It was the same voice, but different. It was worn. It was old. It was cold. “And there I was, trying to talk him out of it; now I’m actually here I’m thinking I just might take a bite out of you myself. But first thing’s first.”
He looked down at his now flaccid penis. “C350A Jason Harlan settings,” he commanded. His cock turned grey and a menu appeared in front of him. “User extension Harlan one,” he said.
“One record,” the cock told him.
“Record created nine hours, forty-nine minutes ago; activation on phrase, ‘Timeshare Jason initialise’ in presence of object ‘ObjectJH1’.” The recording began: “Set password… Pink45… Repeat to confirm… Pink45… Password is ‘Pink45’. Is this correct?… [a long pause]… Yes… Password set.”
“Excellent,” breathed Two.
He pulled up the cube from under the floor beneath him.
“What are you doing?” Rachel asked him.
“Think of it as an upgrade,” he told her. He addressed the box. “Timeshare Jason settings.”
“Password?” asked the box.
“Set cycle time,” said Two.
“Cycle time currently twelve hours. You have eleven hours and fifty-six minutes remaining. Enter new cycle time now.”
“Zero,” said Two.
“Cycle time is zero. Is this correct?”
“Awaiting confirmation from second user.”
“Timeshare BigJason settings,” Two said, without hesitation.
“Password accepted. Confirm cycle time at zero?”
“New cycle time set at zero.”
“Settings exit,” said Two. He turned back to Rachel, let out a long sigh of pleasure. “And that’s the last we’ll see of him,” he said.
Twelve hours later, One came out of his sleep cycle and stood up in his cell and waited to be taken back to his house and his inventory and Rachel. An Hour came and went, and then the guard was at his door with a big bunch of unnecessary metal keys.
“Time to work, Harlan,” he announced.
“There’s been a mistake,” said One.
“Let me guess,” said the guard, “you’re someone else that’s been tricked into taking up Harlan’s body.”
“Yes!” said One. “That’s exactly right! How did you know?”
“Is it that time of the month already?” said another guard, appearing beside the first.
“So it would appear,” the first guard said. “Out.” He indicated the way out for Jason through the open cell door with his stick. “Now.”
Later, he would find the note to him in his inventory. “I tell them I’m someone else at least once a month,” it read. “Every now and then I’ll keep it up for a whole week, but normally I give up after about an hour. They stopped taking me seriously about six years ago. Sorry, old boy; you’ll find all angles are covered. In case you’re wondering, I hid a password capture script in that prick you’re so fond of. Still think I don’t know you? See you in twenty-three years.”
As Two had hoped she would be, Rachel was wearing the P350A he’d given One to give to her. The extra code he’d added to this a week previously gave him complete control over her movement. In fact, he chose only to reduce her physical strength by twenty per cent and to disable her ability to teleport. He liked at least a bit of struggle. He pushed her face into a cushion whilst he took her, enjoyed the way her whole body twitched in panic as she fought for the air she didn’t actually need. Afterwards, she phantom retched for a full five minutes.
Then he pulled out a phone and dialled a number. “It’s Jason… Yes… Yes… Without a hitch… He won’t even realise it for another twelve hours. Let’s try and have everything wrapped up by then… Yes… I’m with her now… In ten minutes, please… Thanks.”
“What are you going to do to me?” she asked him, quietly, from the corner of the room.
“What am I going to do?” he said. “I’m going to delete you, of course.”
She looked up. “Delete me?” She tried to swallow.
“Yes,” he said. “Well, there’s no real purpose in keeping you around any more, don’t you think? I told him to do it in ten minutes. That’s how long you have.”
“But… but…” Quickly, she sat up.
“And not just deletion, either,” he said. “I’ve arranged for your file to be completely overwritten with random data. I’m going to replace every last byte of you so you can never be revived again.”
“Death. Yes. That’s death. Ten minutes from now you will no longer exist.”
“But…” Her eyes darted about the room, as though looking for an exit, as though looking for a weapon, as though there was something, physically she could do.
“It won’t hurt,” he assured her. “You’ll just wink out of existence. That’s all that will happen.”
Now she looked directly at him. “Please don’t,” she said, urgently. “Please don’t kill me Jason.”
He sighed, pulled out his phone and redialled. “Me again. Scratch the ten minutes.” He looked at her, saw her go tense in anticipation and enjoyed it. “Thinking about it, I’ve got better things to be getting on with. Rub her out right now.”
“Please please please!” she implored, getting to her feet. She reached out to him. “I’ll do anyth-”
And then her eyes went empty and her body went limp and she fell back down to the ground. Two had to take a step back, out of the way. She hit the glass coffee table hard and upturned a bowl of virtual fruit; a prim orange rolled to the edge and fell onto the floor beside her knees.
“I know you would,” he said, stepping over her. “Where on Earth would be the challenge?”