Ray Marken could have sworn the tiles surrounding the hospital room were the whitest things he had ever seen until he saw the teeth of a rep who had just closed a sale. Her smile shone down on him, pinning him to the bed. A biometric reader appeared in the rep’s hand so fast Ray did not even see where it came from.
He reached up to take the reader and scan his retina. The sleeve of the hospital gown slid down his arm. The rep glanced at the blue patch of a tattoo, faded beyond all recognition. Ray tried to remember what it had been. Things often slipped his mind these days. Not that it mattered, when the prostate cancer would kill him long before his mind went.
He pressed his thumbs to the reader to complete the transaction. “There, if I’m accepted, Afterlife Inc will receive my full estate to hold in trust for the maintenance of the servers.”
Nothing wrong with his mind when it mattered.
He met the rep’s eyes. She would be the last human he would ever see and he wanted some kind of connection with the girl, but his gaze skidded off her professional smile. He sighed. She was on the upside of fifty, which he guessed made her a girl to a ninety-nine-year-old man.
“Thank you, sir,” she said. “Now if you’ll just keep still…”
Keeping still was about the only thing Ray’s body did well, so he did it while she placed the helmet over his head. Green lights flashed in her spectacles and he recognized one of the new eyeball tracking systems.
The girl’s eyes refocused on Ray. “We’re connected,” she said. “Remember what we said? You’ll feel a bit funny at first, but you’ll be in the interview room almost straight away.”
Her smile bathed Ray in indulgence. Who said “cool” any more?
She closed the faceplate. Ray’s senses switched off.
Losing his constant companion was so disorienting that it took a moment to realize he could not sense the bed. He did not even know which way was up.
An unfamiliar sensation made him flinch. It felt somehow human, although it engaged none of his five senses.
Hold it together! The command bellowed from within himself, but he had no idea where. A life in middle management gave little experience of barked commands.
The human sensation returned. He forced himself to relax into it. There was something reassuring about it, he realized. The echo of the command subsided. Edges began to form in darkness. The sensation resolved into a voice. “It’s okay, Ray. Don’t panic.”
The voice was reedy but reassuring, like the voice of the oncologist who had told Ray he had a few weeks to live.
A light in the darkness became a window. A rectangular block became a coffee table. A dark mass became a sofa behind it. White-painted walls solidified around him.
“Can you see me, Ray?”
Ray did not see where the middle-aged man had come from, but he belonged perfectly in the suburban living room, right down to his paunch. His long-sleeved shirt looked comfortable, as though it was his idea of casual attire.
“Ah good, you’re resolving nicely,” said the man. “Please have a seat.”
He gestured at an armchair and Ray sat down without really knowing how he did it.
“It takes the brain a few moments to interpret the signals, but you seem to be adjusting well. You were warned, I take it?”
“The rep just said I’d feel a bit funny.”
“Oh dear, that was rather an understatement, wasn’t it? I suggest a cup of herbal tea. It usually helps.”
The man settled himself on the sofa and waved at a teapot that Ray did not remember seeing before.
“Peppermint or chamomile?”
Ray blinked, gathering his thoughts. “Peppermint, please.”
“Excellent choice.” The man poured from the teapot and handed Ray a cup without placing a bag in it. Ray tested it with his lips, but the tea was just the right temperature and tasted of peppermint.
“Good,” said the man. “It helps to engage all the senses as soon as possible. Now we can get started. My name is Pete. I’m the doorman for today.”
“You’re doing the interview?”
“Well, yes, we have our formalities. Though this is a little more than a formality, if you follow.”
Ray placed the cup on the saucer. Something looked wrong. He looked down sharply. His hand was a blur with a few finger joints.
“Don’t be alarmed,” said Pete. “Your self-image is taking some time to form, but it’s quite normal.”
“Let’s just say that you won’t want to look in a mirror for a while. Not to worry, I’m sure you’ll harden out in a few moments. Shall we begin?”
“That door,” Pete pointed behind Ray, “is the door to Afterlife. If you go through it, this model of your consciousness will be uploaded to Afterlife’s servers and you’ll join us in, well,” Pete gave a deprecating chuckle, “immortality, really.”
Ray turned to see an ordinary white plywood door. There was no keyhole in the handle, and the wood looked too soft to hold the screws of a bolt very firmly. Ray felt a flash of contempt for anyone who would depend on such a fragile barrier. But then, he thought, it wasn’t a real door so it wouldn’t need a real lock. He turned back to Pete and took a sip of tea.
“Would you believe that some people have tried to break down the door?” Pete shook his head. “I must admit, we like to make a little test of it.”
“You’ve seen our brochure, of course, but you can’t begin to understand how Afterlife works until you’ve been at least this far. Our emotions are not contained by our bodies, as in prelife.”
Ray felt his lips twitch. “Prelife.”
“Well, yes, in our bodies. We have to be careful who we let in. People prone to anger, people carrying any sort of unresolved angst, even people with poor social skills…well, you have to keep in mind that a consciousness only functions if it’s continuous. Backing it up just doesn’t work, so any sort of disruption could make the cat among the pigeons seem rather benign.”
“That must limit Afterlife’s intake.”
“Very much so. You might call us a rather exclusive club. Of course, you wouldn’t have got this far if your records had shown any obvious problems. You were born in nineteen fifty, so you’ll be in good company. The technology came at just the right time for the last of us Baby Boomers. You went to Pennsylvania State College, sixty-nine to seventy-two. You weren’t drafted?”
Ray remembered typing his final dissertation on an ancient PC that had been top of the range at the time. He was conscious of something about the memory that did not quite add up, but he concentrated on Pete.
“No, my number didn’t come up.”
“Then you went into human resource management?”
“My whole working life.”
Ray remembered filing cabinets giving way to servers as his hair receded. He tried to remember further back, but the memories would not come. Instead, he vaguely remembered stilted buildings burning to the sound of helicopter rotors. His mind flinched from the odd image. It must have been a movie he’d seen once.
“Married of course,” said Pete.
“Yes, for fifty-four years.”
“But not until you were forty. A little late, perhaps?”
Ray remembered Mary laughing as they counted the wrinkles on each other’s bodies. “Worth the wait.”
“A happy marriage, then?”
“Good, marital troubles are hard to leave behind. Now I have to ask you this, and I hope you won’t be offended. How do you feel about her being rejected by Afterlife?”
A blur of emotions flickered through Ray. He remembered sitting by Mary’s bedside, holding her hand as he watched her eyes close for the last time.
He took another sip of tea. “I had the chance to say goodbye to her properly. I’m just happy with that.”
Pete nodded. “Some men might feel some bitterness. If you’d had some idea of spending eternity together, it must have hurt to be refused?”
Ray met Pete’s gaze. “No, Afterlife was a new idea at the time and we hadn’t thought that far ahead. Anyway, I’m not given to strong emotions.”
An image of a gun aimed at the back of a kneeling man’s head flashed through Ray’s mind. The gun did not waver as it blew pieces of skull and brain in all directions. Ray could not remember where the image came from. He had never liked violent movies.
Pete smiled. “Excellent. You seem to have coped very well with losing your wife. Are there any other sources of trauma in your past? Particularly painful bereavements? Episodes of depression? Harrowing experiences?”
As Pete spoke, Ray felt something probing his reactions that had nothing to do with Pete’s gaze. He summoned memories of suited men and women shuffling papers or tapping keys. He became aware of an itch in his memory rather like an incipient sneeze. If he ignored the urge to sneeze at an embarrassing moment, it usually went away. The technique seemed to work as a post-human.
Pete sat back and smiled. “Yes, we’ve all had our altercations with the helpdesk, but it hardly scars us for life.”
An image through the eyes of a man lying on his back, vision blurred by drugs and pain, leapt into Ray’s mind. He somehow remembered the movie was about a man being interrogated for the location of Mujahedeen commanders in Afghanistan and that he had seen it in 1987, but he could not remember whether it was on television or in a theater. A man in the image threw a switch and dissolved the memory with a white flash.
Ray focused on Pete’s smile. “I think I can manage not to strangle any IT support people I run into in Afterlife.”
“Good to hear that. I see your self-image is developing nicely.”
Ray held up a hand. The outline was indistinct, but he could no longer see through it.
“I think we’ve covered everything,” said Pete. “You’ll find the door unlocked if you try it. Some people like to have a last look at prelife, but it’s entirely up to you.”
A thrill of excitement simmered through Ray’s sense of calm. He drained the cup of tea and stood up. “No, I think I’m quite ready.”
“Then welcome to Afterlife. Please do remember what I said about keeping emotions under control. It takes some practice, but it becomes second nature after a while.”
Pete opened the door and stood aside. Ray stepped on to a lawn. People milled around tables covered by print cloths and plates of finger food.
An overweight man smiled and held out a plate. “Are you a newcomer? Please join us. Would you care for a cucumber sandwich?”
Ray looked around him. This was Afterlife? A bunch of fat people at a garden party? The sandwich tasted as bland as cucumber sandwiches did in reality. Other people turned toward him, and Ray found himself the center of attention.
“Now now,” said the man with the sandwich plate, “let’s not crowd our new friend. We all felt a bit odd for the first hour or two.”
He turned back to Ray. “Please do try a vegetable kebab. It’s not as though we’re in danger of running out. Ah, I see your hands are almost complete. That’s excellent. It will be nice to know if you see yourself as fat and middle aged as the rest of us.”
People laughed as though they had heard the quip before but still appreciated it.
Ray held up his hands and narrowed his eyes at the scarred knuckles and plain gold wedding band.
“I must say, I was rather disappointed,” the fat man was still talking. “I’d been warned, but I still rather hoped to find myself looking like, oh I don’t know, Bruce Willis in Die Hard or someone else thin.”
That brought another laugh, which Ray heard as though from a great distance. The sneeze-like itch was back, and Ray felt no need to ignore it.
“Oh really, Charles,” said a woman. “You talk such nonsense. Wasn’t life so much more comfortable when you stopped fighting the waistline and settled into middle age? I don’t think any of us would have got through the door if we hadn’t felt that. Besides, I might have risked my marriage with, what was that Englishman’s name? Hugh Grant. But Bruce Willis? Please!”
Ray was vaguely aware of attention slipping away from him as he remembered the face of the man he had once called Lieutenant, now as creased as his own. He couldn’t understand how he had forgotten meeting him, only a few days ago.
“Know why they washed her out, Marken?” the memory of the Lieutenant’s voice was sharp and clear. “She’d picked up too much of your trauma. You probably didn’t talk about it much, but she felt your pain and made it her own.”
Ray chewed the kebab. What trauma had he been talking about? Ray had spent his life in a happy marriage with an undemanding job. So how had he known a man named Lieutenant?
“They won’t touch any of the guys or anyone close to us,” the Lieutenant had said. “All those years we bled for their fat asses. Now they slam the door in our faces.”
Ray was vaguely aware that the man named Charles was speaking to him again. “Oh my, you seem to be something of an exception. Did you really look like that? You must have practically lived in the gym.”
There was a nervous edge to the laughter this time, and Ray noticed people edging back from him. Ray looked down at a white T-shirt covering a toned torso and combat trousers on his powerful legs. He ripped off the T-shirt to see the scars where the KGB had attached the electrodes. He lifted his arm to see the eagle’s head tattooed on the bicep, over the word “Airborne.”
Charles put down the plate and waved a nervous hand. “I-I’m sorry. There must have been some mistake. You don’t look at all comfortable…”
Ray felt a flutter of nerves in his stomach, but somehow knew it was not his own fear, but Charles’s. It felt like a violation. How dare these pathetic people infect him with their fear? He found himself looking for the point where a blow would crush Charles’s windpipe.
Charles clutched his throat and sank to his knees. The buzz of conversation died as people looked at them.
What had the Lieutenant said next? “No one could handle interrogation like you, Marken. Hell, they worked you over for a week in Kabul and you gave them nothing. You musta hidden everything from yourself or they’d have got the whole lot out of you. You can do the same again. When you were discharged, the army buried your record so deep it’s probably never seen a computer. There’s nothing to say you were ever even in the army. Even your tattoo’s faded so nobody could see if you got the bird or Nixon’s ass. You’re perfect. So how about it? One last black op?”
Ray held his wedding ring in front of his eyes. The gold gleamed, almost mesmerizing him. The people backing away could have been on another continent. He pressed the ring to his lips. It was as if he had opened the sluice gate he had so carefully constructed to keep the first thirty-eight years of his life at bay. Memory roared into his consciousness like a Niagara of pain. Everything from the first time he’d killed and seen friends die as a dumb kid in ‘Nam right up to spending a week strapped to that table in Kabul, forcing his mind to stay blank while the best interrogators in the business worked through the textbook.
He looked around the people gawping at him. He remembered Cambodia, Iran, Nicaragua, Zaire, and all the other places he’d sweated and fought so these people could treat him as an embarrassment when he came home.
Charles writhed on the ground. Wrinkles on his face faded and returned as he became a teenager one moment and an octogenarian the next. People a little further away held their heads and moaned.
Ray remembered staggering out of the helicopter when he was exchanged, and the breakdown that came afterwards, when his mind filled with every moment of horror and terror he’d suppressed since that first firefight in the paddy fields.
Charles’s face blurred and disappeared, leaving nothing but a pile of clothes.
Ray remembered the peace he’d found when he met Mary. He even went to college to sink himself into the inconsequentials of middle management. Mary had been his angel. These people had condemned her because of him. He became hate. He became rage. He became every moment of pain he had ever felt or inflicted. He was a scream of pure emotion.
It was sheer exhaustion that ended the moment. Ray found himself standing among tables of food, surrounded by piles of clothes that had once contained post-humans. He smiled at the thought of the consternation among Afterlife’s flesh and blood management and wondered how long it would be before they switched the whole lot off and Ray Marken was no more. He hoped it wouldn’t be too long.
He poked through the plates until he found a bacon sandwich. It was better than the cucumber.
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