Aphelion Issue 273, Volume 26
June 2022
 
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Now That You’re Dead

by Daniel Burnbridge




The world is black and empty. I might as well be blind. Maybe I am.

But I hear. Crystal clear. The voice. Loud and hurried. Biting into my consciousness. It seems unkind, ungiving. Inescapable. Like a grappling hook.

I cannot taste or smell or feel. Where’s my mouth, my nose, my body?

It’s just the voice.

The whole world consists of just that voice.

I’m sure I’m supposed to be dead. I remember the hospital, the machines. I remember fading, hovering faces. There wasn’t much left of me, last I can remember. The cancer had its fill, ate all the soft parts, left just bones and sinew. I remember the world narrowing as they upped and upped my painkillers, until there was nothing left but dreams and shadows, reality a nonsensical mush, a horrid fantasy.

I don’t remember the end, of course. But I have a sense of an interval of something, like the way one loses track of time when one sleeps.

I have no pain. That’s a relief. I’d rather be dead than go through that again. But, then, I don’t seem to have a body, either. Which explains that, I suppose.

I think I must be dreaming. Or maybe it’s a sort of coma. Neither explains why my mind is unmuddled. It’s been a long time since I could think clearly.

And neither explains that I’m stuck.

In the darkness. Alone with a voice.

The voice sounds impatient now. I know it’s been speaking. It’s asked something. I don’t know what. I haven’t listened. I infer it was a question from its concluding lilt. From the now expectant silence. I’ve been distracted, though. Feeling lost. Dealing with the fact that I’ve lost my body. Somehow. Somewhere along the way.

It's a bit much. Quite a lot to process.

‘What?’ I ask, stupidly. And I get what I deserve, I suppose, because the voice volleys my bad manners right back to me.

‘Sir,’ says the voice, that single word so clipped it’s almost like it had spat it out. ‘I’ve been explaining for a while. It’s late and I’m tired, and this is my last call for the day. Seems to me the least you can do is listen.’

‘I’m sorry,’ I say, taken aback by the tone, definitely a bit alarmed now. ‘Where am I?’ I ask. ‘Who are you?’

There follows a long, lingering exhalation. The kind one could piggyback all the way to enlightenment. ‘I’ll start over,’ the voice says somberly.

‘My name is Gladys,’ says Gladys, real slow, like she’s talking to an imbecile. ‘Gladys Knotts,’ says Gladys Knotts. ‘I’m calling from Reincarnation Incorporated. I think you’re familiar with us. We’ve approached you before. You should remember. I have the logs right here. You’ve always declined. Regrettably. Religious reasons.’

‘Everyone knows about Re Inc,’ I say. ‘It’s the biggest company in the world.’

‘Yes, sir,’ says Gladys Knotts of Re Inc. ‘I didn’t want to presume you’d remember. After what you’ve been through.’

‘I’m sorry, Gladys,’ I say. ‘I have some questions.’ I’m trying to be pleasant. I have a terrible track record with salespeople. Especially over the phone. They bring out the worst in me. Fray my patience.

I can be a real asshole, then.

But I’m at a disadvantage here, it seems to me. Not having a body, and all that. Not even knowing where I am. That I might be dead also doesn’t help. Probably reduces my social currency quite a bit. And so, I figure I should build some sort of rapport with Gladys Knotts of Re Inc, since we seem to have started off on the wrong foot, and I have no idea what’s going on, and she might be able to help with that.

‘Where am I, Gladys?’ I ask. ‘Where’s my body?’

I’m pretty sure she hasn’t made a sound, but it’s like I can feel her roll her eyes. ‘It doesn’t matter, sir,’ says Gladys Knotts of Re Inc, her voice a bit breathy, very exasperated. ‘All that will take a while to explain, and, really, it won’t serve any purpose. Once our conversation is done, you’ll have no recollection of any of this.’

Which is not encouraging. Doesn’t make me feel better at all.

‘Please,’ I say. ‘Once I understand, I think I’ll be better able to attend to the purpose of your call.’

There follows the most dreadful silence. Without her voice, there’s nothing. Just the void, my mind nestled in it. How long would it take, I wonder, for a disembodied mind to lose sanity?

‘Gladys?’ I ask. I expect a quiver in my voice. But it holds.

‘You’re dead, sir,’ says Gladys Knotts of Re Inc, apparently not one to beat around the bush once she gets going, sounding like she’s more than a bit annoyed she has to explain this. ‘You probably know that. Or should know that. At some level, at least. I’m sorry for your loss, sir,’ she says, not sounding even a little bit sorry. ‘You died an hour ago at the Swedish Medical Center in Seattle. I’m having this conversation with a transient whole brain emulation, uploaded from your nervous system, run on our corporate neural network. As you suggested, sir,’ says Gladys Knotts of Re Inc, with more than a little acerbity, ‘everyone knows what Re Inc does, so this shouldn’t be too difficult for you to comprehend.’

If I had a stomach, I think it would have churned. But, instead, I feel calm. Maybe because I’m dead already. A new perspective on life. In a manner of speaking.

‘Of course,’ I say. ‘Uploading minds to new bodies. Old data on new hardware,’ I say.

‘Yes,’ says Gladys Knotts of Re Inc, ‘pretty straightforward.’

‘But I declined,’ I say. ‘When I was alive. Re Inc called, and I said I wasn’t interested. You called again, a couple of times. I’ve always said no.’ I can sense the end of my patience, my good intentions turning to dust.

I’ve explained. Many times. I’ve explained nicely, taking my time, making sure I needn’t repeat myself later. I’ve told them. I’ve said I believe souls can’t be copied. I’ve said I think we’re more than bodies and brains and data. I’ve said dying is just part of the bigger picture, and that we should accept that, not try to change it.

I’ve said I don’t expect anyone else to think as I do. Or to agree with me. But it’s what I believe. And I’m entitled to that.

‘How could you bring me back without my consent?’ I ask. It feels like I raised my voice, yet it sounds the same.

‘Sir,’ says Gladys Knotts of Re Inc, in a timbre that makes it clear she’s not going to take any crap from the likes of me. ‘As I’ve said, the emulation is temporary, and only for purposes of this call. Unlike a human mind in a human body, a disembodied mind has no legal personality. I’m sure you know that. We’re doing nothing wrong. Technically, you’re not even here. We do this every day. It’s all above board. You’re not real.’

‘I bloody well feel real,’ I say, trying to catch my breath, remembering there’s no need for that.

‘Check your language, sir,’ warns Gladys Knotts of Re Inc. ‘I’m just doing my job. I didn’t make the rules. No reason to be rude.’

I want to be a smartass; ask how I can be rude if I’m not real. But that might be a bridge-burner, I suppose. ‘I want to make a complaint,’ I say instead. ‘This is not right.’

‘We don’t consider complaints in this division, sir,’ says Gladys Knotts of Re Inc, with real relish. ‘There’s no point listening to the complaints of non-legal entities,’ she says.

‘You’re fucking kidding me,’ I say.

No response. An eternity passes in a second. Or is it the other way around? Without the voice, my thoughts are my only reference points. How long does it take to think a thought? I think she’s giving me time to cool off. Or maybe it’s a kind of torture. Sensory deprivation. I wonder whether she can keep me here in perpetuity, and the thought scares the hell out of me. I think about dropping the call, but how would I even do that, and what would happen to whatever I am, if I should?

‘Is this a sales call?’ I ask, not very tactfully, not trying to hide my disdain for calls of that nature.

‘Well, sir,’ says Gladys Knotts of Re Inc. There’s a flat demoralized tinniness in her voice that makes me think she’d given up on me. ‘Now that you’re dead, and know what it’s like, Re Inc thought you may appreciate an opportunity to reconsider your options. This is a courtesy call. No obligation. If you decline, we’ll delete the emulation data we’d gathered to create this version of you.’

‘Great,’ I say. ‘I’ve never had the pleasure of being deleted.’

‘Mind, though, sir,’ says Gladys Knotts of Re Inc, ignoring my sarcasm. ‘Once your nervous system starts decomposing, we can’t reconstitute at all. That’ll be the end of you. For good. And the sooner after death we upload, the better the results.’

‘You don’t think having died once today was bad enough?’ I ask. ‘You had to bring me back, do it one more time.’

‘I’m sorry about that,’ says Gladys Knotts of Re Inc. She probably says that to a hundred people a day. ‘It’s the job, sir. Many people are happy for a second chance. Many people realize they were a bit hasty first-time round. When this simulation ends, there’ll be no pain for you. It’ll be like this never happened.’

‘Tell me, Gladys,’ I say. ‘When my body died, where did my soul go? Is it part of this emulation? Is that also part of Re Inc’s technology?’

She gives me the textbook answer, the same one they’d given the other times they’d called. ‘That’s not our business, sir,’ says Gladys Knotts of Re Inc. ‘We don’t express ourselves on issues of faith.’

‘Yet you take it upon yourself to ignore the choice I’ve made before I died,’ I say. ‘To reach beyond the grave. Literally.’

I’m livid. Infuriatingly, whatever passes for my voice here conveys none of that, manifests none of the physical feedback that comes with having a body.

‘I didn’t call to argue, sir,’ says Gladys Knotts of Re Inc. ‘You’re a disembodied mind. You’re not a real person. You shouldn’t take yourself so seriously.’

‘Tell me,’ I say, ‘if you’re not talking to a legal person, what’s the point of this conversation?’ But I already know what she’s going to say. And she does. Had it locked and loaded. Not her first rodeo.

‘The call identifies whether you’ll give consent once you’ve been reanimated,’ says Gladys Knotts or Re Inc, in a voice smooth and soothing with puerile self-satisfaction. ‘It’s called retrospective ratification of intent,’ she says, saying the words like she’s reading it off the back of her hand.

If I had shoulders, I would have shrugged. I’m done with this, the gesture would have said. I’ve had enough. ‘What do you want?’ I ask.

‘To offer you the opportunity to subscribe for reanimation. So you can live again.’

‘I’ve heard the pitch before,’ I say. ‘I remain uninterested. Changed circumstances notwithstanding. Let me be.’

‘Certainly, sir,’ says Gladys Knotts of Re Inc. ‘I didn’t mean to upset you.’

‘OK, Gladys,’ I say. ‘Thank you for the call,’ are my last words.

‘Goodbye, sir,’ says Gladys Knotts of Re Inc, hangs up.

THE END


2022 Daniel Burnbridge

Bio: "I have published in Prick of the Spindle, Pif, Liquid Imagination, Umbrella Factory and Hello Horror. My debut, the Gift, was nominated for the Pushcart Prize.
I have not yet published under the byline Daniel Burnbridge, which I hope to keep for my Science Fiction and Fantasy work. "

E-mail: Daniel Burnbridge

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