Aphelion Issue 219, Volume 21
July 2017
 
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AfterBook

by Glenn M. Diamond




Hey, Melinda Delano here, but call me Mel. I’m a normal twenty-one-year-old; part dreams, part drama. I’m no curvy redheaded Italian actress, but I could pass for her mousier younger sister... with cute black-framed glasses. I’ve always been a little old-fashioned, but my friends would say that was the old me, the one before my “death” last month when I got a strange and unwanted makeover.

Now I’m sitting on the hood of my second cobalt blue Toyota, on this warm September afternoon at the Pine Crest highway overlook west of my home town of Spring Grove, Utah with this giant thought-bubble of puffy clouds in the sky that spells “WTF?”

There’s plenty to be pissed off about, and this loaner car isn’t helping. It’s a nearly perfect clone of my lost baby coupe but it feels like two tons of undead steel. It’s just a machine, I remind myself. At least it’s not washed up on the banks of Big Elk Creek. Still, machines aren’t rating high with me these days. I give them one star.

Although I’m alone I still scope out the parking area before sipping some peppermint schnapps. Ahhh...better. I need to get a grip. Spring Grove is a good place to live, but it sucks to be dead here. Sorry, maybe I should back up.


* * *

It was six weeks ago and I needed to get away from my three closest friends Cynthia, Zach, and Alison, who are also my roommates. The general vibe around the house was anti-Melinda, on account of my poorly hidden disgust about how they’d all become self-indulgent cyber addicts crippling themselves with nonstop distractions; brainless chatting, video streams, so-called news feeds, and the worst part -- allowing machines think for them. Is there anything worse than giving up on thinking? I don’t think so.

My friends aren’t stupid, in fact the opposite, which makes it even sadder because they refuse to see what’s happening. At some point a person becomes a biological puppet dancing to lines of code running through a magical slab of polished glass.

Sure, I’ve been saturated with technology since I could crawl, and wonder how anyone ever survived the thousand dark generations before Wi-Fi. I mainly use FriendBook, since the Earth would stop spinning without it, and the only ones who don’t are either in a coma or my awesome Aunt Bonnie!

So I ask you: I have 277 FriendBook friends, but how many of them would stop whatever they’re doing to help me find a lost dog or take me to the doctor or just listen to me freak out if I miss my period or something? The answer is maybe the three other people I live with, and only if I can penetrate their electronic cocoons of cat videos, porn, texts, or the general tide of bullshit we’re all swimming in.

You might as well know you can find me on FB as MeliDeli99. On BlabbIt I’m MellyDee93. I’ve got profiles on others as well; even on MeToon -- but I’m afraid to use it. Have you seen it? MeToon crawls the web looking for content about you, which the AI converts into three-panel cartoons about your life. People say it predicts the future, but I’m leaning towards ‘creepy self-fulfilling prophesies’.

None of them are fooling me, by the way. They only want to ream us with their marketing dongs until we’re choking on ads. Plus, they always lie about the whole “ security” thing. Encryption? Yeah, whatever. Let’s face it, right now there’s some post-pubescent hacker in Seattle named Kevin with bag of chips who can tap his keyboard and find out I just ordered size seven polka-dot panties on-line. It’s disgusting.

If it weren’t for a reclusive aunt, a freak network glitch, and a 20-year flood, I might never have crawled out of this rabbit hole... only to fall into a deeper one.


* * *

There are times you badly need a change, and this was one of those times. I was drifting between temp jobs, had some money saved up, and had applied for classes to become a medical assistant. Suddenly here’s this life-changing opportunity and all I needed to do was grab it. Bonnie Baker, my Mom’s sister, was an actual retired rock star who had moved to the mountains about three hours away. She’s a total recluse but offered to teach me how to play guitar at her custom log home tucked away in the woods near Dos Cabras Pass.

No way could I miss it... private lessons from a rock star! Bonnie toured with all-girl bands in the 80’s and 90’s, first with Bitchen’Heat and then The Electric Tacos. Of course, the Tacos mellowed out, got all New-Agey, broke up, and then reformed as Matching Cycles. Now she stays tucked away in the mountains but lately was getting lonely. That’s where I came in.

There was a catch... a BIG one. Bonnie lives off the grid, so I’d have no phone, no Wi-Fi, no dish, no internet, no texts, no posts, nothing for nearly a month. She made me swear not to tell anyone where I was going. Okay, I planned to cheat on that part, but never got the chance. My parents weren’t an issue -- they’re missionaries in Guatemala. Forget email, they’re lucky to find a real toilet every other week. So I only needed to ditch my roommates, and that was sounding better each day.


* * *

I hate to be so blunt in describing friends I’ve known since grade school, but you need a quick introduction so here goes.

Cynthia is an exotic, well-rounded (she says “fun-sized”) Asian / American blend and just sharp enough to keep guys off balance. Cyn makes good money waitressing but doesn’t have much ambition in life except, I think, for Zach. And cat videos.

Zach is a tall, freckly, blonde skateboarder / video gamer who studies coding at Spring Grove CC. He can be sweet, but not always mature. We have a history -- friends who went too far. That was a year ago but it’s still awkward. I suspect he still carries a torch, but not for any romantic reason. It’s more like those old toy cars that would keep going straight until they hit something, then bounce off into another direction. He’s mostly clueless about Cyn, and I just stay out of it.

Alison is our petite caffeinated go-getter with short brown hair, charcoal grey eyes and spooky intensity. She works as a junior buyer at the Branded Planet megastore.

Alison can’t go five minutes without a complete refresh of her digital landscape. She’s hyper efficient and loved it when BlabbIt dropped their character count to 46 because now she could Blabb more on pee breaks.

So here’s the problem: According to them, I was anti-social. I didn’t text enough, didn’t Blabb enough, didn’t post enough, didn’t “like” enough, didn’t reply enough, and didn’t chime in on every trending story. It’s true I wasn’t as connected as them, but how many texts or emails or posts per day is enough... twenty? Fifty? I didn’t want to live like a bee buzzing around in a hive and yet it seemed my entire generation was leading itself into a virtual cul-de-sac. All I wanted was more reality -- less FriendBook, more friend. Less Blabb, more talk.

Something gets lost when a machine handles both sides of our interactions. Since the machines can’t think like people, people have begun to think like machines just to make it easier to fit their lives into an app. I just didn’t feel connected on a human level anymore. Modern relationships only look real from a distance. Up close they’ve become pixelated; ambiguous.

My friends didn’t openly resent or challenge me, but I sensed a growing wariness and frustration. The harmony in the house was cracking and it always seemed they were the punchbowl and I was the dark thing floating in it.


* * *

You want an example? Fair enough. I came home one day and all three of them were there. Zach was on the sofa, cross-legged, serious expression, looking down at the phone in his left hand on his lap, his right sliding and tapping on the screen while he muttered and bobbed his head.

Cyn was draped in the recliner, pretending to be reading the latest issue of FameBlast while discretely glancing in Zach’s direction every few seconds. Her phone was partially tucked in her bra and jutted out of her blouse like a tiny version of the giant black stone in that 2001 space movie.

Through the passageway into the kitchen I saw Alison at the table which was covered with the usual chargers, cases, cords, and coffee cups. She was pecking away at her laptop, those long nails clicking out a bad techno beat.

As I stood in the middle of the living room, nobody said anything. Only Cyn even bothered to look at me. She threw me a smirky eye-roll, glanced at Zach, and then went back to the magazine. I started to talk but immediately got shut down.

“What’s...”

“Leave it alone Mel.” Zach warned in an offhand but snotty tone without even looking at me. Cyn just shrugged her shoulders.

I walked into the kitchen and Alison, eyes glued to her screen, dutifully summed it up for me.

“Zach fucked up big-time with Cyn and now he’s working on his AppOlogee.” She shifted her glance towards Zach for a second then back to her screen. “Guess he’s still trying.”

This made no sense. “Apology? For what? Anyways, he’s just messing with his phone.”

Alison, always the efficient and mildly condescending office-trainer type, set me straight.

“You haven’t been on Blabbit lately? That figures. Anyways, not apology, App-O-logee. Shit Mel, what planet are you from? AppOlogee is only the top apology app on the globe.

What fresh hell is this? I totally never heard of it. “ You’ve got to be making that up. If Zach needs to apologize to Cyn for something, why doesn’t he just TELL her? She’s sitting like nine feet away.” I gave Cyn a scrunched-up face but she just shook her head. Finally, I got the rest from Alison.

Zach had been on BlabbIt and thought he was sending private Blabb messages to his skating buddy Vance. Boys will be boys I guess and those two had been speculating, in alliterative detail, about -- well, about Cyn’s boobs.

“I thought it was private,” Zach yelled from the other room, as if that made it okay.

“Dude,” Cyn offered somberly, “You need to learn BlabbIt better. You second-level BlabbedAll.”

Alison’s math brain tossed out the punchline. “That works out to about a thousand people -- including of course our poor Cynthia and her ‘sister-sized sweater slappers’. Right Zach?”

Serves Zach right I guess, but now I know about AppOlogee, which monitors everything you do on social media and detects all sorts of mistakes and oversights. Mostly it gives you little reminders called SociAlerts -- but if you accidentally send an embarrassing BlabbAll, it does damage control. It was going to track down all recipients plus the re-Blabbs so Zach could tell them all he acted like a dick.

I don’t know which annoys me more; the fact that this even exists, or the idea that there’s something wrong with me for thinking it’s ridiculous.


* * *

The funny part about my death is that I wasn’t even there when it happened.It all went down like this: I never told anyone about going to Bonnie’s. The ranch house is way back in the woods on twelve miles of miserable two-track driving from the nearest paved road. My little car would never have made it, but there’s a short fishing access road from the state highway that dead-ends near an old footbridge over Big Elk Creek. From there it’s only a half-mile walk up a pretty easy trail to the back gate of the property.

Before losing service on the way up the canyon I texted Alison with the basic facts about my trip. The screen said “message sent” but it never actually went through due to a freak glitch in the network. That was problem number one.

When I “disappeared,” my friends never plugged Bonnie Baker into the picture, since I always respected her privacy and never said much about her -- except that she lived in Ireland. That was problem number two.

A few hours after I got to Bonnie’s we were in her massive timber-framed living room in front of a roaring fire, laughing and drinking wine... and it started to rain. Then it rained more, and finally it rained enough for Big Elk Creek to flood and wash out the footbridge plus the ground my car was parked on. I might as well stop counting at problem three.

When it was all over, my car was found miles downstream half-buried in a sandbar, unidentifiable but for the license plates and VIN number. It was Melinda's car, but there was no Melinda. Her body was lost. Too bad I wasn’t trying to fake my own death because I did a spectacular job.

The county sheriff was in no hurry and listed me as missing while the search continued -- but the AI servers at FriendBook decided I was dead and took over my account. Within five days they changed my status to “Eternal” and put me back on line -- as a “ virtual dynamic afterlife avatar” controlled by their newest platform, The AfterBook. No, I couldn’t believe it then and I still refuse to accept it now.

It might take years for society to grasp why such a thing would ever be developed, let alone permitted. I’ve heard of taxidermy but this is insane.

So instead of the real me who lived three amazing weeks learning power chords, twelve bar blues, and sharing time with a rock star’s priceless memories, I had also become a transcendent virtual Friend living somewhere inside the cyber heaven of AfterBook. But my end was only the beginning. You see, there are perks on the other side. Suddenly I was a New Mel -- way cooler, much smarter, and holy shit was I trending.


* * *

Don’t say they can’t do it. They own your digital ass and can do anything they want with it. Have you read your FriendBook user agreement? No, you just scroll down and click “I agree” figuring they’re giving you this free service, so it can’t be too bad. Here’s a clue -- it’s far beyond bad. Just take your standard pact with Satan and mix in fifty pages of gibberish from the US Tax Code and you’ll get the general idea.

They own your profile, posts, images, likes, politics, dreams, habits, fears, secrets, and lies. They know your deepest thoughts, even ones you haven’t had yet. Free? Not so much. The true cost is your very essence; a shocking idea when you realize ‘essence’ is another name for ‘soul’. And once the AI has it, they really don’t need you anymore.

I knew nothing about my death until I was ready to come home. In fact, I never even got the chance to discover the washed-out bridge or missing car. One morning a light-green U.S. Forest Service SUV drove up to Bonnie’s and this tall, gorgeous black-haired ranger named Tyler Fallbrook got out and knocked on the front door. No particular reason, just checking in like he did at least once a month.

Okay, I admit our eyes locked and I forgot Bonnie was standing there while that ranger’s uniform was making me goofy. Tyler started asking innocent questions until he must have put a few things together and WHAM he got real serious and asked to see my ID. When he started making urgent cop talk into the little microphone clipped to his collar, I started to realize what had happened.

Tyler drove me into town to meet with a deputy and file a report. It was 25 miles each way but it flew by and I wished it was 50. We had SO much in common. Funny -- he’s not on social media so he gave me his old-school business card. It was late when we finally got back to the house, and the next day Bonnie drove me all the way back to Spring Grove.


* * *

You’d never expect three weeks would be enough to make any homecoming as strange as mine turned out to be. My “rescue” was common knowledge by the time I got back, and the first one I saw was Alison. She seemed polite but a little cold and broke the news that Cyn and Zack had become a “thing” and they wanted her to tell me first. Next, she broke the news about AfterBook.

“We thought maybe you offed yourself. I mean, you’d been acting weirder than usual. The police came here and asked us all a shit-ton of questions, each in a separate room. It sucked, Mel. All we could say was you left and didn’t tell anyone. I don’t think they bought it. This one cop kept looking around like he expected to see small bits of your brain on the walls.”

I told Alison about the lost text message, but she didn’t seem to be paying attention.

“A few days later you popped up on FriendBook and started posting, but it redirected to something called AfterBook. You had a new profile picture with this little golden halo. You looked so happy, we all cried. At first, we thought it was a memorial. But the page banner said, ‘Welcome Melinda, Our Newest Eternal Friend’. That night the three of us checked into AfterBook and found out it really was a thing. Pretty soon you were posting all the time. I’ll show you.”

She opened her laptop and took me on a tour of my surreal postings. That was bizarre enough, but I also sensed a distance between us. It was a little like one of those dreams where you go to your own funeral and try to talk to family and friends but even though you’re not made of substance anymore they still detect enough of your presence to be creeped out by it.

Alison perked up when she showed me one of the early posts. “See? You explained it all here. Yes, you’d passed on, but there was plenty of content for the AI to develop custom algorithms and launch the dynamic avatar. Thanks to AfterBook, you’d still be an active part of the scene.

Anger struck me. “Stop it, Alison. I explained nothing.”

“Wait, I don’t...”

“You said YOU explained,” I snapped, “ But that wasn’t me. It was some fucking computer program. I was 160 miles away, alive and kicking.”

“Did you read it? Seriously, Mel. Maybe you didn’t type it, but it’s totally you. And look at some of these other posts. It really IS you.”

“Bullshit!”

“You even quoted Shakespeare: ‘There’s hope a great man’s memory may outlive his life half a year.’Then you added: ‘But in Afterbook, it’s forever.’”

This was getting ridiculous. “I never heard that quote before.”

Alison pointed fondly at the screen. “Yeah, but she has.”


* * *

Zach and Cyn got home about an hour later. I tried to keep things light -- plenty of smiles and hugs. After all, I really wasn’t jealous, but this stupid little idea kept nagging at me, that my “death” really simplified things for these two. Or was there more too it? What a mind-bender.

We had some wine and tried to be cool with everything. They were still really pissed at me for running off and never telling them about Bonnie Baker. I did my best to make amends, told them about my adventures, bragged about what I learned, and said I might even try to find a band.

By now it was getting late but I had to insist this AfterBook nonsense was going to end as soon as I had a chance to contact FriendBook in the morning. Hey computer ghouls! Very funny, but I’m alive so you can turn it off now. Zach and Cyn looked at each other sheepishly before they both turned towards Alison and more weird vibes bubbled around me.

“That might not be easy,” she flatly stated, “ I don’t think there’s any way to contact them.”

“I’ll figure it out. If I have to, I’ll just delete the account and start over.”

Cyn was playing with her hair and acting too squirmy for eleven pm. “Really? But... have you thought how amazing it is? What they did -- creating a new you, I mean. Don’t you want to see where you take it?”

Next it was Zach’s turn. “Yeah, Mel! You have this AI twin who has all your personality merged with this god-like brain. I wish I had one!”

My jaw started to drop but Alison chimed in before I could say anything. “Mel, Zach might have a point. You need to read all your postings. They’re so insightful. You’re on top of everything that’s going on with all of your friends. You’ve got answers to problems in the Middle East, the mess in Washington, and even the European financial situation! You’ve been brilliant, funny, and -- okay I’m sorry -- not the least bit snarky or whiny!”

“She’s right Mel,” Zach affirmed. “You’re awesome.”

“Mel, maybe you should take some time and listen to yourself,” advised Cyn.

“But guys, that ‘Mel’isn’t me.”

Alison laced her fingers together, speaking in a lowered voice for emphasis, “That’s what we’ve been trying to tell you.”


* * *

The next morning I woke up in a bitchy mood, determined to shun them all. I’d become a punchline in search of a joke. I stayed in bed until everyone else left. Is that shitty? Maybe, but I didn’t care. I had a major goal for the day, mainly to kick some serious FriendBook customer support ass.

Packed with confidence on the strength of my clearly non-deceased status, I started my challenge and quickly found... futility. My account was locked out, there was no phone number to call, and the diabolical maze of customer support options left me sending an email to a generic “admin” address probably in Bangalore.

Disillusionment followed once I started to wade through the terms and conditions. My identity on FriendBook, and by association AfterBook, had been completely owned by them since the first microsecond I launched my account five years ago. Their legal position was as solid as a granite tombstone. The way I see it now, it probably never mattered if I had ever been alive. This was their game, and I had no way to play it. There was only one thing for me to do -- walk away.

Sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee I became aware of a growing sense of detachment from my life, my plans, and my friends. Change was in the air, but somehow, I couldn’t take my mind off some irritating little puzzle-piece about Zach and Cyn. Reluctantly I texted Alison and asked her if we could meet for lunch. I was in luck.

She was always the most practical of our group and probably welcomed the chance to smooth it all over and wrap it up with a pretty bow. We agreed on a nearby sit-down place with a festive outdoor patio. I pretended to be amused and asked her what role my AfterBook avatar played in this romantic twist.

“Pretty perceptive,” she began, “ and all I can say is don’t underestimate the power of the AI. It evaluates your complete history down to the smallest details you’ve forgotten about and runs it through the personality modeling routines. It can make decisions based on past actions, apply these weird fuzzy-logic emotion filters, and...”

She was stalling. “Alison, what about Zach and Cyn?”

I’m getting to that, but you need to know something else. Once you’re ‘eternal’, you’re considered sage and wise, a sort of oracle, and people can seek you out for advice about almost anything...even personal or even romantic issues. Cyn sent you a request, explaining she wanted to make a move on Zach and asked for your approval, plus for any tips. She never told me the details, just that you pretty much hooked them up.”

It’s tough to explain how that made me feel, but there was definitely a little wave of nausea. I did my best to hide it. “ Awww, really? That was so thoughtful of her! But... is this another feature of AfterBook? Your avatar just hands out advice to people, even personal romantic advice?”

“Well, yes and no. At the end of the day they’re running a business, of course. To get that sort of access, Cyn had to join AfterBook Insider for $12.95 a month.”

I’d say that I was surprised, but I wasn’t. I was revolted.


Epilogue

That’s why I’m alone at the Pine Crest overlook with my imposter Toyota and flesh and blood body, puzzled about this post-modern world gone mad. These are strange times, so I’d better keep it simple. My rent is paid up, classes don’t start until next quarter, and there’s time for a new beginning.

Tomorrow I’m heading back to the mountains. This time, I’ll park at Tyler’s place and he’ll drive me to Bonnie’s. My friends won’t miss me; they have AfterBook. I don’t need much, just friends who don’t mind that I’m human and won’t disappear when the network goes down.

If I really am old-fashioned, why does that sound exciting and new?


THE END


2017 Glenn M. Diamond

Bio: Mr. Diamond has a background in electrical engineering and currently lives in Northern Colorado with his wife and daughter. His first published short story "The Cleansing" appeared in the Huffington Post in 2014. His last Aphelion appearance was “The Machines at Ellison” in our February 2017 issue.

E-mail: Glenn M. Diamond

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