The Eighth (and final) part of the 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 seven here.
“There’s been a problem,” the voice on the other end of the phone was telling him. Then there was a knock at the door.
“Hang on a minute,” Two told the caller. He looked through the peephole, saw two men there. He sighed. “Listen, I’ll have to call you back.”
“This is really important,” the voice insisted.
“Ok, I understand; but I have people here I’m going to have to get rid of.”
“If you don’t call me back within five minutes, I’ll no longer be at this number.”
“Fine. I’ll call you back before then.” He opened the door. “What?”
“Remember me, Jason?” asked Stuart Willis, stepping into the hallway. The man behind him looked down at the ground and interlocked his fingers.
“What?” Two said. He looked at the other guy. ‘Floating Point’. That name rang a distant bell. In fact, the face was familiar too. He turned back to Willis. “Who are you?”
“Perhaps you remember me better as ‘Lexington Greene’?” asked Willis, a note of triumph in his voice.
“Lexington who?” Two repeated. “Are you a fan or something?” He had always assumed there would be at least a few of them left. “I really don’t have time right now. There’s an important phone call I have to make.”
“You arrogant, egotistical… son of a bitch,” said Willis/Greene.
Greene…? Greene…? “I’m sorry,” Two said, looking quickly at his watch, “I’m obviously missing some very important detail here. When did you say we met?”
“How about, when you were born into this world?” the man shrieked.
On a hunch, he checked his proximity log, scrolled it all the way up, right back to the beginning of this avatar’s existence. There.
“Oh right, of course; you’re the guy who inducted me. Could this wait until tomorrow?”
“I remember now,” Two said quickly. “We had an altercation, didn’t we? Did I not get around to apologising about that? I know I meant to. It was very uncivil of me, what I did.”
Willis/Greene started to say something, and then he hesitated. “You don’t know, do you?” he said. “You don’t know what it is you did.”
“Of course I know,” Two said. “I… hit you, isn’t that right? Completely unacceptable behaviour on my part, you’re quite right to be angry about it.”
“You don’t know what the consequences were though, do you?” Willis/Greene said. “Nobody’s told you, have they?”
“Told me what?” Two looked at his watch again. His five minutes were almost up. What sort of a problem means he won’t be there any more? he thought. He was starting to feel nervous, a phantom sensation he’d not experienced in literally decades. He looked back at his visitors impatiently.
“Well of course they haven’t,” Point muttered, the first five words he had said so far. “What did you expect? They kept him active so that they could study him; the last thing they want is for him to know what he can do. He could hurt people.”
“Know… what?!” Two asked.
“Know what you did!” Willis/Greene declared.
“You know what transkinesis is?” Point asked him.
“I don’t have time for this,” Two said. He opened the phone and redialled. The call went straight to voicemail. “Shit! Now look what you did.”
“You killed me, Harlan,” Willis/Greene said, poking Two in the chest on the words ‘you’ and ‘killed’ and ‘Harlan’.
“Transkinetic homicide,” Point said.
“You’re transkinetic,” Point told him. “Things you do in here can cause real-world, physical events.”
“Which means you fucking killed me, you son of a bitch,” Willis/Greene shouted. You fucking killed me, just like that; just because you were in a bad fucking mood. You killed me like I was a fucking fly.”
Two tried to take this in and failed. “You two are nuts,” he said. “How can I possibly ‘kill’ someone in here?”
“It means that when you cracked my head open and drove a fucking poker through my eye, that actually happened to my brain in real life,” Willis/Greene continued. “’Uncivil‘? You call that ‘uncivil‘ behaviour?”
“Let me get this straight,” Two said. “What you’re saying is the first Harlan scan – not the one that went to prison – has… ‘transkinetic’ powers?”
“It happens to less than one in a hundred thousand people,” said Point. “No-one understands how it works. It has nothing to do with brain biology. If you duplicate a transkinetic brain scan the copy lacks the ability.”
“We’re not here to fucking educate him,” Willis/Greene told him.
“What are you here for?” Two asked slowly.
“You killed me too,” Point told him, looking back down at the floor again. “And my wife. And my daughter.”
Of course. Two recognised him now. The last time he’d seen this avatar, it had been in the virtual court, three decades ago. How could he have forgotten that cowed, broken stature?
“You’re the father,” he said, quietly. “Yes, I remember you.”
“How come you remember him?” Willis/Greene demanded. “You never actually met him.”
“I read up,” Two said. For a moment, he was back there in that dreadful room again, trying to blank out the scrutiny, the humiliation, the end of all of the dreams. He thought back to his own awakening: a blank and empty room, just like it had been for One. But no guidebook: when Two had awoken, a man in a tweed jacket had been standing at the foot of his bed, his hands clasped together in front of him.
“Mr Harlan,” he had said. And Two had blinked at him uncomprehendingly.
“What are you doing in my…” He looked around, took in the unfamiliarity, then completed the now redundant question anyway: “…room?”
“Mr Harlan,” the man repeated. “Do you know where you are? You and I have met before. Twice, in fact.”
Two scratched his head and was puzzled by the way it felt numb. And the way his hair felt between his fingers was wrong as well. He wondered what he’d been drinking the previous night and propped himself up on an elbow. The new position gave him a view of the floor and he looked for a woman’s clothes thrown upon it. There were none. He studied the man. “Aren’t you the brain scan man?” he asked eventually. The man nodded. “You said we’d only be seeing each other again if I updated or if I died.”
“A parting comment I used to make to all my clients until very recently,” the man said. “I bumped into one at friend’s house-warming and it nearly gave him a heart attack. Accordingly, I have changed my farewell.”
“But…” Two looked at the man in confusion. Slowly, he worked it out.
“Yes, Mr Harlan. This is not an update and neither for that matter is it a house-warming party. I’m afraid it’s the only other possibility that is the reason you are here.”
“Yes, Mr Harlan, you are. You died six days ago in a road traffic accident. It is now several months since we last met and I supervised your new scan.”
“Get the hell out of here,” Two said, sitting up properly now. “That was only yesterday.”
“It feels like that only because you haven’t experienced the passage of time since then.”
“I come in to get a brain scan and – just like that – I’m dead? There ought to be a health warning at your place.”
“As I said, several months have passed since then.”
“Prove it,” Jason said. Show me something with today’s date. Show me a paper.”
“Mr Harlan, what you are currently doing is engaging in a behaviour we call distraction. The issue you and I need to address is not the matter of the date, but the matter of-”
“Prove it,” Jason insisted.
The brain scan man sighed, shrugged and rezzed a newspaper.
“Wait a minute,” Jason said. “You just pulled that out of thin air.”
“Well of course I did. You’re in the metaverse now. You live – you exist – in Pink Dawn. The physical laws you’re used to don’t apply here.”
“Give me that.” Jason leaned forward and snatched the paper out of his hands. The pages felt smooth, almost plastic. He looked at the date, scrutinised it closely for a full twenty seconds, as though it held a secret that could be revealed if he looked hard enough. Then he threw the paper to the floor and glared at Tweed Jacket Man. “That proves nothing,” he said. “You could have faked it.”
“Yes,” Tweed Jacket Man said. “I could. Now tell me: why is the detail of today’s date more important to you than the matter of your death?”
“I can’t feel my pulse,” Jason said, his two fingers across the inside of his wrist.
“You no longer have a heart.”
“I can’t be dead,” he said. “I’ve so much that’s left to be done.”
“A very common remark. We used it as the slogan for the first draft of our business plan.”
“I want to throw up,” Jason said, feeling the sensation rising inside him, suddenly. “I can’t breathe.”
“Settle down, settle down,” Tweed Jacket Man said. “You’re perfectly fine. Those are phantom reactions – completely psychological. Your brain just isn’t yet used to emotions without sensation.”
“What do you mean?” Jason asked him, opening his mouth as wide as he could, trying to scoop up extra air.
“Physical sensation is an integral component of all emotion, Mr Harlan. Can you imagine feeling anxious without your stomach feeling queer? Can you imagine feeling anger without your heart pounding in your chest? You don’t have any of those internal events any more, but your brain still expects them. It’s been trained to do so.”
“I feel like I want to cry,” Jason said. “Only I can’t.”
“One day,” Tweed Jacket Man said, “we’ll be able to emulate every last mechanism in the human body and a perfectly emulated physical world for it to live in. Plants will grow and die, sunlight will feel hot on our skin and animals will give birth to offspring. Our bodies will work and feel just like our real ones did. Then, we’ll be able to breathe and eat and drink in here. And cry, if we want to.”
“I can’t eat any more?” Jason asked him.
“But on the plus side,” the man said, “neither will you ever feel hungry.”
“I don’t eat just to fill my fucking stomach.”
“Imagine it, Mr Harlan – a virtual world full of millions and millions of people. Billions, one day. Trillions is even possible – as the population expands, we’ll just keep adding more land. Imagine what they’ll be able to achieve. Imagine how it will be when being in here is a more common existence than being out there. And the best part of it all is that I’m the first future gazer who can truthfully say that I’ll get to see if I’m right or not.”
“Eternal life, but no meal times,” said Jason, grimly. “It’s true what they say, then: immortality is a curse.”
Tweed Jacket Man smiled. “Eat to live, Mr Harlan; don’t live to eat. Anyway,” he said, “we need to talk, you and I-”
“Wait a minute,” Jason said suddenly. “Just wait a minute. Let me think about this. I’m dead. I’m dead, and that’s going to be on the news, right? I’m going… to be… on the news! Well this is it, then! This is just the break I’ve been waiting for!”
“I… don’t quite follow, Mr Harlan,” Tweed Jacket Man said.
“I’m going to be on the news!” Jason repeated. “Don’t you see? People will start buying my records again! It’ll be like when that Jackson guy died – his albums rocketed. Get me my agent. I’m willing to bet I’m the first famous singer to have died and come back from the grave. This is going to need some serious planning.”
“As a matter of fact,” Tweed Jacket Man said, looking a little apprehensive, “your death has already been the focus of media attention. But-”
“It has? Damn!” A grin broke out across Jason’s face. “Damn!” He jumped out of bed, started pacing, naked. “Just when you’re starting to think it’s all over,” he said. “And then this happens. Fuck me, what a turn up! Why isn’t Clarys here already? Do you have a phone? I can place a call from in here, right? I’m in Pink Dawn, you say? So in fact I could be messaging her, no?”
“Sit down, Mr Harlan,” Tweed Jacket Man said, firmly, solemnly. “I’m not finished giving you important information yet.”
Jason detected the tone and stopped. “What?” he asked.
“You’re… in a bit of trouble,” the man told him.
He stared at Tweed Jacket Man for a moment, then sat on the edge of the bed. “Has this got anything to do with Rachel?” he asked, very carefully.
“I don’t know anything about anyone called Rachel,” Tweed Jacket Man said to him. “This has to do with your road traffic accident.”
“Accident?” said Jason. “What accident?”
“The accident in which you were killed.”
Jason said, “I don’t understand.”
“There’s strong forensic evidence to suggest that you caused the accident, Mr Harlan.”
“I did? I caused the accident?”
“So it would appear.”
“That can’t be right,” Two muttered, distracted by this information. “I’m the best driver I know.”
“Your interest in driving has indeed been noted by the media,” Tweed Jacket Man said.
“The evidence is conclusive?”
The man shrugged in a slightly helpless manner. “That’s really not something for me to judge.”
“Were there witnesses?”
“No witnesses, no. Other than the boy, of course.”
“Boy?” asked Jason.
“There was a boy in the other car who survived.”
“…survived?” Jason said.
“Yes, Mr Harlan. I’m afraid to say the others in the car all died.”
Jason’s voice was nearly a whisper when he asked, “How many?”
“There were four in the car altogether. A man and a woman, and their two children. All but the oldest child perished.”
“Oh God,” Jason said. “Oh Christ.” His next thought after that was, But how can I be in trouble for that? How can I be in trouble for something I didn’t do? And then he thought, In any case, what does that matter? Of course I’m not ‘in trouble’ for it – that’s not what this man is telling me. He’s talking about my career. Whether it was me – this brain – that caused this accident or not is irrelevant: the media will crucify me, regardless. I’m finished. I’m fucking finished.
“No big come back, then,” he said.
“I doubt it,” Tweed Jacket Man said. “These next few months could be very hard for you.”
“You’re right,” Jason said, bitterness at the theft of that wonderful feeling creeping into his voice. I could have gone down in history for this, he thought. If only I’d actually had this idea when I was living; I could have topped myself and done it properly. How typical of me that I even managed to fuck up my own death. “I’m going to have to lie low for a while,” he said.
“Lie low?” Tweed Jacket Man repeated, looking confused.
“Keep my head down,” said Jason. “Stay out of the press. Hmmmm. Perhaps I should sign up with Atonement for a bit, do one of their celeb rehabilitation schemes. Something overseas. Yes. I could take along a cameraman and make a docu-series. How long do you think would be sufficient? Three months? Six?” Tweed Jacket Man started to say something and Jason cut him off with a dismissive wave. “Why am I asking you? What the hell do you know? I need to speak to my agent. You still didn’t tell me why she isn’t here.”
“Mr Harlan,” Tweed Jacket Man said, “I don’t believe you’ve grasped the seriousness of this situation.”
Jason looked at him. “What now?”
“You – that is to say, your original – killed three people. You orphaned a child. The media isn’t interested in atonement; the media wants justice.”
“Justice?” Jason repeated. “I don’t understand what you mean. I thought you said my ‘original’ was killed.”
“That is correct.”
“So how can ‘justice’ be achieved?”
“Look at it this way, Mr Harlan: if someone you cared about was killed by a reckless driver, would you be happy to see their digital copy running free in the metaverse?”
Jason stared at him in slowly dawning horror. “Now just a goddamned moment-” he began.
“You have to understand,” the man continued, “what to do with your scan is not just a topic of conversation at the moment – it is the topic of conversation. Few people are talking about anything else.”
“You can’t be serious,” Jason said. “They want to punish me for something I didn’t actually do?”
“There’s even talk of building a digital prison.”
“This is some sort of a joke. It has to be.”
“It’s no joke, Mr Harlan. The Crown Prosecution Service has put together a special committee to consider a proposal for posthumous trial. The police have been pushing quite hard for this, and they have strong public opinion behind them.”
“So what?” Jason cried. “This isn’t something you hold a referendum on. I didn’t do it! That’s a matter of fact, not opinion.”
“The Home Secretary is paying close attention to the debate.”
“And?” Jason demanded.
“And it’s election season coming up.”
“Oh fuck!” Jason spat. “I do not believe this! This is out-fucking-rageous!”
“If it makes it any easier,” Tweed Jacket Man said, “there’s a strong human rights protest going on in your favour.”
“Fat lot of good that’ll do me. It’s not like I was ever the tree huggers’ darling.”
“You’re lumping together human rights protesters and environmentalists into the same category?”
“They’re all do-gooders,” Jason said. “They’re all sanctimonious idiots.”
“They might just be the best hope that you have.”
“Then I have no fucking hope whatsoever. In fact, their involvement will only make things worse: they’ll polarise all the right-thinking people against me, just because they’re involved in it. And in any case, I’m not even ‘human’ any more, am I?”
“That is correct, yes.”
“Right. So I’m fucked.”
“There’s a solicitor waiting here to talk to you,” Tweed Jacket Man said. “She’ll talk you through what’s to come. In the meantime, I’m afraid we’re going to have to restrict your movement to this room.”
“I’m being arrested?” Jason cried. “On what charge? You can’t just keep me here without some sort of process.”
“You’re talking about laws which exist to protect human beings,” Tweed Jacket Man said. “As you just pointed out, you’re not a human being. You’re a computer file, Mr Harlan, an emulated brain. The jury’s still out on whether you’re even conscious.”
“Of course I’m conscious, you idiot,” Jason said. “Would we be having this conversation if I wasn’t conscious?”
“According to the critics,” Tweed Jacket Man said, “what you’re experiencing is ‘quasi-consciousness’, an illusionary form of consciousness which is qualitatively different from the actual consciousness experienced by living humans. The pro-rights campaign, of course, argue that there is no such thing as non-illusionary consciousness in the first-”
“Oh for fuck’s sake,” Jason spat.
“Yes, I appreciate it’s probably something of an arbitrary debate from your point of view, but-”
“You academics sure know how to get distracted by bollocks,” Jason said. “You’re saying the ones who want to punish me claim I’m not conscious and the ones who want me free claim I am. But why would anyone make any sort of argument for punishing a non-conscious entity? Surely the whole point of punishment from a justice/retribution point of view is that the entity punished does at least experience the punishment as a negative occurrence? From a non-consciousness point of view, it’s just processing, no? At best it’s like kicking your dog for pissing on the carpet.”
“Well… yes. A rather simplistic summary, to be fair to nuance, Mr Harlan; but a valid deduction, nonetheless. Please don’t aim your criticisms at academics, though. An academic would be influenced by your argument; a politician, on the other hand, has additional agendas.”
“I want to fly,” Jason said. “Don’t tell me they’re going to lock me away before I can fly. At least give me a bigger space to fly around in. Please.”
Tweed Jacket Man sighed. “Pink Dawn is receiving an exceptional amount of attention over this,” he said. “The executives have made it very clear to me that there must not, under any circumstances, be any reason for the viewing public to have issue with our policy. There’s been call for us from monopoly organisations and pressure groups to be broken up for years now – to release the metaverse economy as a proper, rather than simulated economy. They want to turn Pink Dawn into a country, Mr Harlan! Privately, there isn’t an executive who would side against you if this was a hypothetical debate. But this is real, and it has the capacity to destroy us. It is absolutely vital that the company is seen as nothing more than a conduit in the affair, providing precisely what is asked of it by the parties involved – and nothing more and nothing less. I will ask for a bigger space for you, Mr Harlan; but I’m warning you now not to get your hopes up. And, for the moment, your ability to fly will remain disabled.”
“Now who’s the politician?” Jason had asked.
How could he have forgotten that cowed, broken stature? The court had been specially rigged up with two human-sized vid-screens – now affectionately known as ‘sentry boxes’ – for the occasion: one for Two, the defendant, and one so that Frank Marland – aka Floating Point – could be called as witness. Two’s team had contested this aggressively – Frank’s last update had been six months before the accident, they argued: he had no relevant knowledge to offer in examination. It was not the right tone of voice/turn of phrase to be used with a judge well-known for his pro-family views. “Would you care to tell me,” he had asked the defence, without a moment’s hesitation, “how being the only person remaining able to talk with authority about the deceased makes one ‘irrelevant’?” Sensing the tone, the objection had been withdrawn; but the damage had been done. Would it have been any different if they had shown due respect to Frank, his grief and the pain of his own transition? Probably not in the long run, Two had decided (in the many years he’d had to dwell on it); as a starting move, however, it had been disastrous: the defence, which would be arguing compassion for a digital being, had attempted to deny another digital being its own emotional needs being met. The media had had a field day; it was the only story to be found on the events of day one. His lawyer had attempted to bluster points of law in his defence that evening, but his non-verbals didn’t quite line up with his assertions. He knew that he had failed his client. Two fired him, and that had led to a delay of two weeks whilst a replacement legal team had been put together.
Frank, in the end, had not appeared until day four of the trial – on its resumption – and not because that was the way the prosecution had arranged it. Legally, his brain scan was the property of the European Ministry of Defence and the delay to court proceedings had moved the trial into the middle of an important military exercise. Whilst the opening statements were being made and the initial evidence presented, Frank Marland’s avatar had been beneath the surface of an undisclosed ocean, monitoring the acoustic properties of a new type of torpedo. The judge had been about as unimpressed by this as he had been by the defence’s block attempt, but the coverage of this in the media had been decidedly less vitriolic; and only sympathetic towards Frank himself, which was the most important thing in the end.
Frank was sworn in with his hand upon a prim bible, and no-one made a sound about what God it was supposed he should now be fearful of. He and Two both stood in virtual places – but not the same virtual places – designed to look just like the court room all the flesh and blood people were assembled in. From the viewpoint of the TV audience, it looked like they were actually in the real court, but behind some sort of glass. The moment that the clerk had moved away and Two could see clearly the father of the child he had killed, he knew his case was lost. Frank Marland looked like a man who had nothing left to exist for – not even a fight for the virtual blood of his family’s killer. He had spared Two hardly a glance; in fact, the only person he had looked at, pretty much the whole way through the trial, was his son, with a look that was longing and helpless and desperate.
Up until that moment, Two had gritted his virtual teeth through all the things said. He had stared forward, stood straight, answered questions with ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’. He had talked about his shame at what he had learned of his ‘behaviour to be’. He had talked about his shock that he could have become such an uncaring, malicious, despicable creature. He had worn ties. He had worn shirts. He had cut his prim hair short and set his stubble length to 0.1 millimetres (almost clean shaven; just enough stubble to make it look like he had shaved a couple of hours ago, because that gave the impression of effort). He had stood with his hands in front of him and his head bowed. He had shaken his head in shame.
When the prosecution asked him, acidly, how he could stand there like a lump of stone in front of the boy he had orphaned, he looked at her and said, “I’m not able to cry here, ma’am; I can’t even get out of breath with apprehension or anxiety. I have so much guilt in my head right now it’s like I feel I’m going to explode. Humans are made that their emotions are things they feel throughout their body. I’m not like that any more.”
“And this is the creation,” she had said to the jury, “this is the digital approximation to human existence we are supposed to feel pity towards.” He had made no riposte, because the comment was its own rope. It left her wide open to ridicule from the defence. They didn’t miss the opportunity. “This is little more than a game to the prosecution,” his lawyer said to the court. “On the one hand, such scorn at the very existence of Mr Harlan; on the other, such sympathy for the pain of Mr Marland. The defence assures the members of the jury that it shares the sympathy expressed for Mr Marland, but in our case it isn’t just pretend sympathy put on for the sake of spectacle.” The judge had told him to begin his cross-examination or to sit down and shut up, but the point had been made and the prosecution’s stony silence had passed as irritation at the mistake. Later, she had frowned at some other thing, perhaps the way her seat felt, and that was the picture that had made it into the media that evening beneath headlines about digital approximations and double standards. That was the moment when Two had thought that the case just might be winnable.
And then Frank Marland had taken the stand, and the world had wept to look at him.
That was when it had happened. That was when one world had ended and a new life had started. That was when the fanfares of 2033 fell finally silent in his head. The three spotlights, the tension music, the envelope, the wait, the announcement, the joy, the explosion of ticker tape and glitter all around him, the flashing bulbs, the audience at its feet… that was when he realised there was no point in thinking about any of those things any more; it was all over and he would never return to it. It was finished. It was gone.
Henceforth, he had thought to himself, I am a bad person. There. It’s said. It’s done. Everything up until that moment, he had managed to bat aside, to ascribe to bad luck, to timing, to inevitability. Nothing they talked about had actually been his doing, and even if it had been, by some perverted philosophy or logic, then those had been the actions of a man in a temper, not those of a person with actual intent to kill. There was also the thing they didn’t know about, of course, but that had been an act of desperation: men backed into corners were capable of terrible things; still, it was all about survival.
Up until that moment, he had managed to believe the situation would resolve itself. But no more.
They want so desperately for me to be evil, he thought. Fine. So be it. I will be what they want me to be. Never mind that I am the victim of a society so bored by its blandness that it has to make up scandal to pass the time; never mind that I am this month’s public enemy and that next month there will follow another. It’ll be better for everyone if I become the ogre. They think they want to see me in pieces, but what they really need is someone who stands defiant against them, who growls at their approach, who roars when they get too close to the bars on my cage so that they can step back in fear and hold the hand of the stranger beside them. I will not want that which has to be given; I will not kneel; I will not beg. If they fancy to push me, I won’t demean myself further by pushing back against them. Not any more. To hell with them. To hell with them all. They can all go fuck themselves. The three spotlights, the envelope, the announcement; these things had been empty all along; he saw that in this moment, and hated, resented the revelation. But he also welcomed it. The bubble burst and the dream inside it turned to vapour before him. It was a worthless dream now. It was a pointless dream. Whatever he did from this moment onwards, he was cursed because that was the string they had decided to pull. So be cursed. Be damned. Better to relish a life in hell than be mocked for dreaming of heaven. That was when he had stopped caring. That was when he had let loose with his venom and damned them all, and publicly. I am born, he told them silently. You were all of you right all along.
Now he knew why the two men were here, still standing just inside his hall. “You want to delete me,” Two said. “Well how are you going to do that? It’s not like I only just got here. How are you going to get rid of me from the database without anyone noticing?” He tried to lace the questions with scorn, but a part of him knew that the answers to these questions would be thorough.
“We’re not going to delete you,” Point said.
“We’re going to give you the snaps,” Willis/Greene said. “Your brain’s going to eat itself up from the inside out. Do you like the sound of that?”
“You can’t do that,” Two said, suddenly fearful. “Nobody can do that.”
“His son works for Pink Dawn,” Willis/Greene said, indicating Point. “The one you orphaned, remember? He can do whatever we tell him to do. He has the virus on a stick.”
“Your son?” said Two, looking at Point.
“Stuart, you promised,” Point said.
“Don’t worry, he can’t touch him,” Willis/Greene said, sounding irritated. “Remember what I told you – if he’s outworld, he’s safe. I want him to know it’s inevitable. None of this is worth a damn if he doesn’t see it coming.”
“You think I have to be able to see someone’s avatar in order to hurt them?” Two said, thinking quickly. “Well you got that wrong.”
“Now he’s bullshitting,” Willis/Greene said. “Don’t listen to him. Barry’s safe.”
“Barry?” Two said, and took a gamble: “Barry Marland?”
“Stuart!” Point barked. “What are you doing?”
“Will you listen to me Frank?” Willis/Greene shouted at him. “He can’t do a thing!”
“Don’t shout at me,” Point said, taking a step back towards the door. “You’ve broken your promise. You said you wouldn’t say about Barry and now you’ve broken your promise.”
“Don’t trust this man,” Two told him, pointing at Willis/Greene. “He broke his promise to you. You can’t believe anything he says from now on.”
“Will you shut up?” Willis/Greene shouted.
“Don’t shout,” Point said.
“He’s shouting because he’s angry with you, Frank,” Two said calmly. “But I’m not. You can trust me, Frank. I did a terrible thing to you and your family thirty years ago, but now-”
Willis/Green stepped between them, stood in front of Point so that his view of Two was obscured. He held the man’s arms and said, “I apologise, Frank. I broke my promise to you and I’m very sorry. It was wrong of me to do that. I became angry by the sight of this man and I forgot the promise and what it meant to you. I’m very sorry. But I repeat: this man cannot harm your son. He’s saying these things because he wants to manipulate you. Let’s do what we came here to do and then leave, ok?”
“Stop talking to me like I’m an idiot,” Point said. “I’m not about to switch sides on you. Just don’t fucking break your promises.”
Two sighed. “Look, there’s something you need to know,” he said to them both. “I don’t know how to prove this to you, or even if you’ll care, but you really should: I’m not the Jason Harlan that assaulted you, Stuart. That was a different scan. I switched places with him. He’s in prison now and I’m out here. We made a deal. So you see, I’m the scan that stood trial thirty years ago, not the scan that you’re after. I’m not transkinetic. I’m incapable of hurting people in the real world.”
“You’re lying,” Willis/Greene said.
“I’m not,” Two told him. Whilst he tried to think of a way of proving it, he added, “And, you know, you’re right to be targeting him instead of me – he’s absolutely the guy you should be after. I mean, not only is he the guy that attacked you, he’s also done no time at all for the crash – I’ve done thirty years. And he’s the transkintic one – not me.”
“You’re lying,” Willis/Greene said again.
“What if he’s not?” Point said.
“Don’t listen to him. He’ll say anything.”
“Get Barry to run a neural comparison,” Two said to Point. “Digital brains change over time, just the same as organic ones. My brain has nearly thirty years of memories more than the brain you’re looking for has.”
“Now he’s trying to play for time,” Willis/Greene said. “That really could be dangerous to Barry.”
“I’m not lying.” Two told him.
“Yes,” he said, “you are.”
“Please don’t give me the snaps,” said Two. “Please.”
He’d seen it just the one time, but that had been enough. An inmate had contracted the virus. Part-way through the social hour, everyone had turned at the sound of his body hitting the ground. Instantly, the room had cleared as the man had gone into his seizure. Terror had filled the room. Everybody knew in theory you couldn’t catch it without unprotected file sharing, everyone knew in theory that physical proximity in the metaverse was meaningless; but everyone had forgotten about all of that completely, pressing themselves into the very wall of ‘the canteen’ if they thought an extra centimetre of digital space between themselves and the bucking, screaming beast in the middle of the floor would make the vital difference. Once the seizures began, death was inevitable within fifteen to thirty minutes. Peter Plastic had died in twenty-one. An inmate of only seven months, he had ninety-nine years left to serve out his punishment for the murder of his mistress two years before he had died in real life. It turned out the virus had been hidden in an inworld letter he’d accepted from his father-in-law.
“Please don’t give me the snaps,” said Two. “I swear to you I’m telling the truth. I’m not the guy you’re after.”
“How I wish,” Willis/Greene said to him, “I could hear the things that you’re saying to yourself in your head right now.”
“I can’t regret something I didn’t do, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“You took me away from my little boy,” Willis/Green said, “and you took Frank away from his. Do you know what’s it’s like, having to watch everything you crave to be a part of through a window?”
“I’m sorry,” Two said. “I’m so sorry.”
“You will be.”
Point looked at his watch. Two said, “Then do it. Christ. Ring him now. Let’s get this over with.”
“Do it?” Willis/Greene repeated. “Ha! You thought you had some sort of chance, didn’t you? I’ve got news for you, pal: it’s already done!”
“The virus takes five hours to develop into its fatal form,” Point said, flatly. “My son added an item to your inventory this morning that contained the infected code.”
“We’re just here to watch the final stages,” said Willis/Greene.
“You bastards,” Two said. “You’re even worse than everything you think I am.” He had known about the five hours, but he’d assumed they had some sort of stronger, faster, ‘weaponised’ strain. He cursed. He asked himself in anger, Why today? If only they’d done this yesterday the idiot One would be here in place of him. All that time he had spent in his cell, screaming in his head for One to get a move on and make up his mind; look what a difference an extra day’s wait would have made.
“You made us what we are,” said Willis/Green.
“Barry and I used to make things out of Lego together,” Point said, quite out of the blue.”
“I’m sorry you got taken from your son and your wife and your daughter,” Two said. “More than anything else that’s happened in my entire life, I regret that most of all.”
“He had to be fostered,” Point continued. “They made me a screen in his bedroom, but then most of the things he did, he did downstairs; they said they couldn’t afford another one there and anyway they didn’t like the idea of a window into their living room that just anyone could walk up to and look through. So I could only really watch him when he was sleeping, and then they made new laws about that.
“I try to make people understand how bad that felt, but I don’t know how to say it,” he stated, simply.
At that moment, Two felt his fingertips go numb – even more numb than his fingertips ordinarily felt in Pink Dawn. He thought, This is it. And he wondered why he had just assumed it began straight away with the seizure. Now he remembered something new about Peter Plastic’s demise: seconds before the crash of his body to the floor, there had been the sudden sound of chair legs being pushed backwards, over floor tiles, urgently. He wondered how many seconds of growing oddness Plastic had experienced before pushing back against the table to stand up, to look down at his suddenly alien body. And still, he thought, I have yet to fly.
Willis/Green had noted the change, for Two now stood in silence with his right hand in front of him under curious inspection. Willis/Greene smiled. Point said nothing. I will not die in front of them, Two thought. He ran to the window. He launched himself out, into the space between prims they called ‘air’, and he started to fall.
Two had studied virtual flight extensively. In his cell, he had read about it and he had quizzed the various cell mates he had had over the years. At work, he had coded the behaviour of flight objects and learned about their movement at the different altitudes. He knew everything there was to know about flying in the afterworld, except the actual experience of doing it. His first flight might also be his last, but it would count for something. And he waited until the street was so close he could make out the individual oil stains on the concrete textures, he waited until the pedestrians were looking and the expectation of crash could be seen clearly on their faces, and then he stretched his arms out ahead of him. He flew. He pulled his arms back to his sides in one graceful, breaststroke movement and let his face be the tip of the knife that cut its way through the air.
Except there was no air. Duly, it whistled around his ears and his shirt flapped in eagerness, but the pressure against his face that he had imagined he would feel was non-existent. He had dreamt about the wind making his eyes water, but here he could look upon the world no differently than it would have been to look out of a cockpit window. No clouds felt wet, no raindrops soaked him, no sunshine warmed his skin. Here ends my last link with the physical world, he thought, realising the mistake he had made, realising it was the last of the dreams he had held on to.
And then his face went numb. And that was when the seizure hit. There was no gradual build up; when the first convulsion took him, it was as though a bomb had gone off inside his belly. That was how he smashed through the glass of an office window – a speeding, thrashing, twisting, writhing mass of spasm and gasp and scream. His momentum took him straight across the corner of the room, over a desk with green tinsel curled around the legs; an avatar secretary in front of an RL interface stared, frozen in shock; through the glass on the other side, which soaked up all that remained of his speed. He fell.
He hit the ground still convulsing. He landed on the edge of a flower bed and his thrashing bent and broke the stems of red and purple tulips. People nearby shouted. He made out the word ‘snaps’, but nothing more; even so, he felt the space around him empty out. The background noises thinned and became more distant. Within two minutes, he knew he was completely alone.
And then, just as quickly as it had started, the seizure stopped. He lay in silence. A minute passed, then another. Two gazed across the grass and saw Kingston Harmony coming to land gently beside him.
“Honey, I’m home,” she said to him, quietly. He tried to work out who she was, then realised. One’s bit of official stuff.
“I have the snaps,” he informed her, matter-of-factly.
“I can see that,” she replied.
“I can’t move,” he said.
“Your input/output channels are desynchronising,” she told him. “Try to relax.”
His tongue moved along his lips, as though to moisten them. Pink Dawn was full of little movements without function like that, he reflected. Nobody ever noticed their absurdity.
“So anyway, I flew,” he said.
A faint frown crossed her face, but only for a second. “And how was your flight?” she asked him.
“It was… nothing, really. It was nothing at all.” He paused. “You were studying me?”
“Yes,” she said.
“What did you learn?”
He looked past her at some distant people who were pointing at him. “I’m scared,” he said.
She put a hand against his cheek. “Think of something wonderful,” she told him. “What do you miss most of all from real life? Really?”
He thought about that for several moments, thought about the tulips he had broken. “Sunflowers,” he said finally. “I miss the way their stems feel. Especially when they’re wet. How odd.” He thought some more about that and then started to say something else, except he could no longer move his lips and the words emerged as a distorted, electronic noise. His eyes widened in fear at the sound and its pitch rose urgently. She held his hand. She stayed with him, looking into his eyes, until the frequency he could generate had dropped so far he was only able to utter clicks and popping noises. And then came the reason why this was called the snaps: the final, repeated finger-snap sound that continued at one a second for as long as it took the brain to die completely. In Jason Harlan’s case, that amounted to a wait of seven minutes and twelve seconds.