“I’m very tired,” he said, looking up at Suzanne as she pulled a heavy-looking book off her shelf.
“Well, if you hold on, somewhere in there, we will find you,” Suzanne said. She was not as tall as he had previously supposed during the few times he had seen her. She wore a simple black tunic, long eyelashes dangling off a meticulously groomed face draped in silvery hair.
“The process of re-integration is a difficult one, I’m afraid,” she said, smiling as she walked away. Her gait imitated her tabby cat’s, lithe and silent, like she was trying to evade detection from some unseen predator. The mottled feline sat on top of one of the many hardwood bookcases that lined the walls, its hair splaying out in spiking edges around the curve of its butt as it purred incessantly.
“We’re going to give this another turn of the crank. Re-integration attempt 3,001, beginning now.”
Suzanne melted away with a sound like baking soda dissolving in water, the electricity of his neurons carrying him effervescently to a new reality. He woke up at a wrought iron table under a pale, faded veranda, a cup of oily black coffee sitting in front of him. He took a sip. His legs were warm, and he put down the cup after a few more drips, knowing the caffeine and the sun might cause sweat to percolate from his anxious brow slowly.
A new man approached. He vaguely looked like someone he knew from the cloudy time he thought of as “before,” but he couldn’t place it. His throat tightened into a pocket of nervous tissue.
“Hello Abe,” the man said. “My name is Karl.”
Abe, he thought. Now that’s a rare name. He pivoted and looked around near Karl, but no one else was there. So, that meant the man was talking to him—and he was Abe.
Okay. We’re getting somewhere, he thought.
“At your usual spot?”
Abe? He marinated on the word again, letting it pass, a dull, masculine word, like a brick between his ears. He pointed at himself with one finger, scowling back at the mystery man.
“I didn’t know my name until now,” Abe said.
“Well. Whose name do you know?”
Abe stared off into the distance at a battered sign sitting over steel rails with a red x, suggesting it was bad to cross over there, but he could not for the life of him remember why.
“There is a beautiful woman I remember, but I don’t know her name. I don’t even know if she’s real.”
Somewhere in him, the vestiges of her image, reconstructed, pieces of auburn hair, blue eyes, thousands of kisses, moments shared.
“From the information I have, I think you may know her better than you think,” Karl said.
“Maybe,” Abe replied. But what seemed to make the most sense at this point was that he had imagined her completely. “Well, it’s certainly nice to meet you Karl.”
“You really don’t remember anything?”
Abe bounced out of the rendering, whatever it was, and landed back in the interstitial area. Karl, the table, and the coffee were all gone—and in their place was the same non-descript room, ringed with plants and crawling ivy, screens appearing here and there between the vegetation. In the middle of a long hall that connected to the main room and extended into the distance, he saw nodes of transparent wires that looked exactly like neurons lighting up together.
“You know,” she said, “I can tell that you’re attracted to me.”
“I’m sorry. I’m a very old man. I don’t see beautiful woman very often.”
“It’s okay,” she replied, and walked around the room, watering plants and bending slowly over them with a copper watering can. A giant view of some kind of computer display was projected over a ledge, looking like it was built right into the matte surface of the white wall, its source impossible to ascertain.
“One second,” she said. “I have to get this.”
“Okay,” he said, wishing he could laugh to himself about it, but his affect stayed flat as a board, his muscles limp under his face.
“Hello Karl,” she called into the screen, a giant face appearing from a place that seemed to be from somewhere far away from Suzanne’s room, a flash of a lab coat visible at the very bottom of the image under his head. “Just give me one second.”
She turned to Abe, who was staring at the watering can, with only the vague feeling that he was not supposed to be here. He held onto the image of the beautiful woman in his mind, and the name of Karl, who increasingly was seeming like an important figure in whatever world he’d found himself.
“Abe, I’m going to send you back into another implementation. 3,002, starting now. Sorry for the jarring movement.”
“But…” he replied. No matter.
He was moving with a young girl in his arms around a waxed gym floor, some benign high-school dance, redolent with deodorant, sweat, and hardwood polish. He had the knowledge of an older man, the lived experience, but still lacked the explicit memory of anything, which seemed to be the defining experience of his current condition. He held onto her loosely, his hands about the same size they would’ve been when he was about 16 years old, and the girl draped hers languidly over the tops of his shoulders. She had blonde hair the color of healthy straw, and she smelled like fresh dryer sheets. She moved serenely, allowing him to lead but cleaning up his mistakes as they shuffled around and around. The music put a spell on him, and her eyes cut through his innocuous and empty brain like lasers through fog.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Cindy,” she said.
It looked like the woman he barely remembered, but not quite. Something was a little different. The hair certainly, but the smile was close. Out of all the thousands of spins, the wheel had settled on her.
They rotated around each other. The music droned on and on, something saccharine sweet from long ago, sibilant high notes pumping through an auxiliary cord into a rented PA system ringed in by columns of multi-colored balloons.
“I’m Abe. At least I think I am.”
She laughed. “You’re a weird guy, you know that?”
“Yeah. I’ve heard that before.” But where exactly? What existed before the room with the strange tall woman who was taking video chats from a distinguished looking man in a lab coat?
A young man tapped him on the shoulder and broke the hazy spell of the dance. Abe thought that he looked like Karl, but many years younger.
“Hey,” Abe said. “We’re dancing here man, get a life.”
“I need to speak with you,” he said.
With an exaggerated shrug and a sigh, Abe left the company of Cindy and joined the Karl look-alike.
“Listen, you look familiar, but I don’t know you,” Abe said, following behind as they strode past punch bowls and gaggles of red-faced couples furtively kissing on the rows of gymnasium seats.
“Well, I certainly should look familiar. It’s Karl,” he said quickly. “I see you’re building up memories again. That’s good. You may have noticed we’re both about 16 years old again, at least according to this implementation, so obviously I look a bit different.”
They made it out into a poorly lit hall, fluorescent lights scattering harsh light over a polished tile floor. Gold trophies sat in dusty cases all around them.
“The last time we met, you were drinking coffee at the table near the empty railroad tracks. Do you remember that encounter in detail?”
“I remember. You’re one of the first new things I remember.”
“Listen, that woman, Suzanne, she’s not what you think she is. She’s not a nurse or something, taking care of you while you’re waiting to be transferred to heaven. She’s a computer, a very powerful one. And she’s, well, she’s misbehaving.”
Abe stared past him into the trophies, transfixed by the chintzy plated gold, the burnished spots shining more brightly when the erratic fluorescents sputtered out more light.
“I don’t understand,” Abe replied.
“Abe, your wife has already passed on to the other side, the rendered world. Suzanne was in charge of your placement as well, but somehow she messed up your placement into the same shell as your wife. You’re supposed to be living with her there in a virtual implementation. Instead, she’s frantically trying to get you into different empty shells to see if anything clicks with you. This, all of these, every different map she brings you into, it’s just someone else’s lost, empty memory.”
“Jesus,” Abe said.
“I know. I work for the National Laboratories. She has her own life, even some physical appendages—it’s hard to explain. But the real problem is that she has her own volition, her own motives. I imagine she doesn’t want to lose the contract, which is understandable, because we keep her alive, in a way. She runs the memory banks where everyone lives on after their life, and we keep her turned on to do it.”
“What? What happened to me?”
“Well listen,” he started, getting out of the way for a girl with her hand to her mouth, ready to eject puke in all directions. She smelled like rubbing alcohol and cheap, flowery perfume as she ran into the women’s bathroom, the door swinging on its hinges behind her.
“Listen. You’re—you’re dead. You’re a CET, a cognitively enabled template. When you were physically alive, before you came here, you had Alzheimer’s. Your information was corrupted; that made your placement totally reliant on the tagging system, but of course, there was one benign technical glitch after another, and here we are. No next of kin we were able to contact. Your wife dead too, though the transfer instructions she left were explicit that you were supposed to join her.”
“So who am I?” Abe asked. “Whose personality is this?”
“It’s something like yours. They were able to get the basic essence of that. But somewhere along the way, there was a problem. Your memories—at least the ones that were still there, many of them long term—were lost when your transfer failed to be placed in the right shell. Now, I know where you need to go, but I need to figure out a way to transfer you out without her noticing, because she’s dangerous, and I don’t want her to hurt you.” Karl looked away for a second, like he was listening to instructions in an earpiece. “Hang on a moment,” he added.
“She’s coming back to check on you. If I had to guess, she’s probably going to pull you out of this simulation and back into that holding room she’s keeping you in.”
“What about you? Where are you?” Abe said.
“Think of it…I guess you could think of it like a VPN. But for virtual reality.”
The girl walked back out of the bathroom and past them, a blank look on her face, smelling less fragrant than when she’d passed by the first time.
“Listen. Sit tight. I’m going to try to help you get home. I need to go, but I’m coming back. You’re going to be okay.”
Karl walked away slowly, waved, and exited through a set of heavy brown double doors. Their paint had coagulated in ugly clumps, layers over layers over layers, people probably touching it up over the years with slightly different shades of color. Abe watched him disappear slowly into the slightly foggy night air like a ghost into an otherworldly mist.
Abe almost didn’t realize he’d been switched back.
“Well,” Suzanne said. “Anything stick? Did we find your new home?”
“There was a girl. She looked a lot like the girl of my dreams I told you about.”
“The blonde one?”
“Yes,” Abe replied, like he was distracted by something he saw in the distance. It was remarkable how the scene with the dance hall had disappeared. Suzanne’s strange abode had faded in like a movie scene cut so abruptly that it jarred the viewer into a kind of confusing trance. Her purring cat sitting above a maze of bookcases had replaced the miasma of sweating teenagers.
“But maybe it wasn’t her. The hair was different, other things were a little different too. Like I said, I can’t really remember.”
“Interesting. Well, it might be closer.”
She did not add anything else, but grabbed her watering can and walked around, slowly tending to each plant one at a time.
“You’re not real,” he said.
Suzanne stopped and pivoted, the can dripping water onto the ground as she moved.
“You messed up. I’m not supposed to be here. I’m supposed to be in my correct mind, my right mind, not being shuffled around like a joker,” he said.
Suzanne did not respond for a moment. She pulled her hair behind her head and toyed with it out of boredom, let it go, and smiled at Abe.
“Honey. You don’t think I’m real? This doesn’t seem real to you?”
“I want to get out of here.”
“Oh yeah? And where do you want to go?”
“Home. Wherever that is.”
“Who put this idea in your head?”
The cat ran up a ramp that Suzanne had built and back up on top of one of the bookcases. Abe nearly smiled, half-remembering something from another time or place.
“Karl. His name is Karl, and you don’t want him to know you messed up. But he knows where I belong. If you cared about me you’d fess up, ask him for the name of the placement, and put me there,” he said.
“Shit,” she replied.
The lights dimmed in the room, and Suzanne emitted a slow, mild laugh, controlled and almost benign, but as it got darker, her intentions clarified.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“I’m getting tired of putting you in these implementations, trying to see what sticks. You’re trying to get me in trouble with them.”
“Yes you are. Now, I do know one place your brain remembers, a place I can locally render you, off the grid, a physical extension of me that they cannot scan. A little, measly box, in the bowels of my brain, near the cooling fans.”
“I’m transferring you there now. It’s one of the last things you remember from your real life, before all this. One of the only things I could glean when I first got you, all corrupted and blank.”
It got darker.
It was foolish to think she was beautiful.
The woman in the white coat was waving blocks around. Abe looked at them and pointed to which numbers were which, and so on. He could tell when he had to respond by the look on her face.
“Very good,” she said.
She began asking him more questions, this time from a list. It was basic things, questions about what he had done recently, what he remembered, the names of certain people, his family. After she posited her questions, she half-smiled and said he did well.
“Who is this?” she said, holding up a picture of a woman, the one I remembered but could not remember, the most beautiful woman I had ever seen—the one with the auburn hair. She was sitting on a concrete ledge near a boardwalk on a beach, and she looked like an angel that did work in a rough part of town.
“That’s…” he said, staring. The name sat on the tip of his tongue like so many things had, waiting to jump off the edge but somehow vanishing every time in a bitter joke.
He felt like he had disappointed a young girlfriend, failed again at kissing or moving his feet in the right way. The doctor waved goodbye, and he eyed her intently, two looks in his eye: one of need and trust, the other of anger. His gaze turned to double vision as he fixated on the picture of the nice young people in front of him, but he could not remember them either.
There were some things he remembered, but they felt out of order, like a spliced tape. One was a man speaking to him while he sat, a fresh cup of coffee steaming at a table in front of him on a sunny day, a sign in the distance over a set of steel rails. The other thing was a woman in a strange room full of books, the dominion of her and a short hair tabby cat.
He got the strange feeling he had been somewhere else, but figured it had been one of the strange spells the doctor had explained.
There were pills on the wardrobe laid out by the day. He looked at them and could not remember what they were for, or which ones he had already taken.
Suzanne was sitting on a beanbag chair when Karl entered her foyer. She gazed up at the byzantine chandelier refracting so many pieces of light in the visual noise of the white tiled walls surrounding her.
“I got lazy and left this chair here after I created it with my mind,” she said. “I got really stoned and just sat down.”
“You can probably get higher than any human being in history, you know that?” he replied, incredulous. He laughed nervously, and tucked his hands into a thin bomber jacket. “Just by thinking about it.”
“Do you want something to drink?” she asked.
“Okay. As long as it’s water and just water”
The two of them walked into the kitchen that looked out over a verdant backyard, a weeping willow hanging down over a zen garden of sorts, tiny stones piled up in circles, like the implementation of miscommunicated instructions on landscape design. Suzanne filled up a red cup under the large sink and turned around to give it to Karl, who continued standing with his hands in his pockets.
He drank the water slowly, a robin landing on the weeping willow, dew lifting off the grass slowly as the sun baked the yard.
“Can you feel the drain on your computing abilities, rendering an environment so complex to live in? Wouldn’t it be easier to just be floating in the void, in black, like some kind of disembodied brain?”
“Well Karl, that wouldn’t be very fun for me. I know you’re supposed to be like the police of me. But I think it’s okay to have a little fun.”
A woman turned the corner from the foyer and walked gingerly down the hall that led to the kitchen. She looked about 30 years old, full auburn hair, wearing a sweater and high-waisted jeans. Karl remembered the picture he had seen before he dipped into Suzanne’s architecture—they had digged through a small set of pictures and artifacts in a plastic bag that was the only physical evidence of Abe’s existence beyond his presence in Suzanne’s mind. And there she was again, the woman from the picture, the only other link back to Abe, one of probably many this had happened to, but finally they were getting to the bottom of it.
“Ah, another guest you’re hosting?” Karl asked. Dream woman, he remembered.
“Yes. This is Carly.”
“Hello Carly,” Karl said.
“I don’t know where I am,” Carly said. “I was at home, I was getting notifications for my virtual union with Abe, that he would be transferred over soon, and then they stopped. And Suzanne did not return my tech support requests.”
Karl eyed Suzanne warily, like someone afraid to be scratched by a wild animal.
“If you unplug me, if you try to shut this down, I pulled her in here with me, out of the memory banks. I’ll wipe her out with me too,” Suzanne said.
“No,” Karl said. “No you’re not doing that.”
Suzanne did not say anything for a moment. Carly stood in the kitchen over the maple table, alternating her gaze between Suzanne and Karl.
“You see this woman? Who is this?” he asked.
“I don’t, I…”
“What Suzanne. You don’t what. What are you trying to say?”
“I don’t know why you’re asking me that.”
“That’s not Carly.”
Now Carly looked perplexed, and backed slowly into the wall behind her, unsettling a painting of pears sitting in a bowl.
“When you were walking around your mind-palace getting stoned or whatever, I found the real Carly, all the buried tech support requests you hid, and matched it up with her marriage records and knew she was Abe’s wife. Then I backed her up to the reserve computational framework. But that version of Carly right there is just a template, she’s not fully loaded. She’s a backup, maybe only half the really personality in there.”
“No,” Suzanne said. “You can’t do that. I would have known.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I really am,” he added, and disappeared. “We’re shutting you down now, by the way, already transferred all the important data out” he added, now a disembodied voice that seemed to come from between her ears. “Can’t have you wrecking our client’s afterlife experiences, as I’m sure you understand.”
Fake Carly disappeared, and the house began pixelating into a grainy, flat image.
“Oh god,” Suzanne said, as the air condensed into black all around her, the garden wiped away like notes on a chalk board, her vision slowly turning darker than a deep well full of black coffee.
Karl walked around the computer banks in circles for what felt like hours, eventually stumbling onto a row of innocuous black solid-state drives nestled in between some cooling fans. The tiny boxes looked like they held copies of financial reports or schematics, not simulacrums of minds, of lives still living.
It couldn’t possibly all fit on there, he thought.
Karl unplugged the small batch of them, cool to the touch, and dropped them carefully into a banker’s box that he usually kept near his desk. He walked back to the new system with them cradled in his arms. The area with the bays to plug them in was humble, but fully automated, mechanically controlled by small, autonomous robots. Suzanne was gone. There was nothing milling about but electricity, and the carefully insulated consciousness’s of millions of people who had payed to live on in the only way that they could.
He plugged them in manually and began inspecting the data as it scrolled across a small utility screen until he saw the identity tags he was looking for.
He began loading them in, and once the progress bar indicated full uptake, he plugged in to see them as something beyond pixels on a tiny screen. He closed his eyes, placed the cable against his head, and let the magnet find its place. It latched into the node and then locked automatically. And then he opened his eyes after the sound, like a camera lens focusing.
Abe was sitting at the same table in the middle of the dusty town from the implementation Suzanne had found, one of the stray memories that had no home. The same cup of coffee sat in the same saucer, no need to change it out or wash it—it was probably still “warm” to the touch. The woman sat next to Abe in a wrought iron chair, her hand wrapped around his lightly under the table.
“Hello Abe. Hi Carly. You holding up okay?”
“Well, I don’t know. You just loaded me into this other place and then left. I missed you for a bit,” Abe said.
“I’m sure that wasn’t very fun.”
Abe didn’t reply, and he squeezed Carly’s hand.
“Well I’m here now,” he said. “With the woman of my dreams, at last.”
“What else could a man ask for?” he added. The railroad crossing sign came down in the distance as a freight train rumbled by slowly. As the train rattled against the tracks, the coffee shook in its cup, some dribbling over the lip of it and onto Abe’s jeans.
“You probably haven’t seen each other looking like this in 60 years or so. It must be strange,” Karl said.
“No,” Carly said. “We’re finally together again.”
“And this time it’s forever,” she added, as the train moved on and the crossing sign lifted, the vacant road finally clear for tumbleweeds in both directions.