Three, maybe four days now, since the accident. Isaac is back at the Manhattan apartment, seated at their dinner table, looking out over the leavings of last night’s ordered-in dinner. There is a knotted plastic bag here with duck sauce and mustard packets in it, fortune cookies uncracked.
At some point the radio came on. Playing through the open-air speaker on Jean’s phone, which he brought back from the hospital and left on the kitchen counter’s hot pad to charge. It’s tuned to National Public Radio: @Henry Woolsey joins Tom Sigurdsen live on Topics to discuss the Sherman case. Jean must have calendared it to play this episode — her grandfather/ mentor/ law partner, regaling the public about the case she was slated to argue before the Supreme Court next month.
Listeners, we will take your call at 1-888-999-1200.
Isaac reaches for his phone, on a whim. He has thirty-six voice mail messages. Many, many check-ins and condolence calls he could not summon the energy to take. He dials the Topics toll-free number. Our operators are busy taking other calls. Please hold. You are #11 in the queue.
He clips his headset into his left ear, and he waits. Forty minutes of hold music: selections of Holst’s The Planets, then Bolero. His right ear takes in what’s left of the Topics broadcast: @Henry going ten rounds with the lightweight Christian fundamentalist Topics brought in to counter him. Most days this would end in an early TKO, but @Henry isn’t in his best fighting shape. Still, he probably wins on points.
At five of 11 Sigurdsen separates the combatants. That’s our show for today. We thank our guests Henry Woolsey and Sheila Tso for joining us. Please tune in again tomorrow at 10 AM. We’ll be talking with @BruceSpringsteen, whose forty-seventh album drops next week. Here’s a track from that album, to tide you over …
The phone’s hold music breaks off.
Today’s broadcast of Topics has ended. We are sorry we were not able to connect you with Tom and our guests today. If you would like to share your views with other listeners in writing, please visit our online forum www.topicsradio.org. You may also drop us a note at our Klatsch account …
Isaac hangs up the phone. It was a dumb idea anyway. What did he think would happen?
Isaac in New York City joins us. What’s on your mind, Isaac?
“I have a question for Mr. Woolsey.”
Go ahead. Shoot.
“Henry — it’s me. Isaac. Jean’s Isaac. I need to know: what do I do now?”
And @Henry’s answer? Isaac might have found fleeting satisfaction in wrong-footing this wisest of wise men — the advocate, the philosopher — on live radio. But then that dust, too, would settle, leaving him here alone, back where he started.
The new Springsteen song sucks. He hasn’t recorded anything worth a damn since he discorporated. Too far gone with the Alzheimer’s, by the time they got to him, and anyone who says otherwise is being politically correct. The clock strikes 11 AM; the radio show is over, and the phone turns off.
There is noise in the outside hall. Pings from the elevator, now footsteps, voices, equipment clanking off walls. A key zips into his front-door lock. Isaac crosses the kitchen, pulls a butcher’s knife from the wood block on the counter. The door to the apartment opens from outside. Isaac tucks himself behind the kitchen doorframe. He peers out around the corner into the front room, where a man is standing. Young, probably under thirty, dressed in a neon orange neoprene hoodie and worn brown corduroys.
“Lights are on,” the man says. “Hm.”
There is a loud bang.
The man turns around. “Careful — Jesus. You took a big chip out of the molding.”
A woman answers. “Cart won’t push straight. It’s this shitty wheel.”
“Funny: we can put a man on a hard drive …”
“Yeah, funny. You could help.”
Isaac turns back into the kitchen and closes his eyes. These two with their day-glo clothes, their clattering and schtick: they don’t seem like home invaders. Still, though: how do home invaders act, when they’ve don’t know they are not alone? Into his fourth day of grieving now, with next to no sleep or human contact: the mind turns to conspiracies. Jean a young and rising PCE civil rights leader in the PhysWo. Wackos bombarding her with online threats and abuse, going back months. Then a truck runs her off the road — a truck that didn’t stop and has not been found by police. And now these two strangers have blundered into her apartment. Looking for something?
“Running out of charge here,” the woman says.
“There’s an outlet to your left. Unplug the lamp.”
“Don’t we want the light on when we scan?”
Scanning for something. Isaac swaps the knife into his left hand and digs into his pocket for his phone.
“How about in the hallway?” the man says. “You packed the extension cord, didn’t you?”
Isaac thumbs his phone on. 911 isn’t the play. He would have to speak to the dispatcher, and the man and woman are steps away, around the corner. He’ll text the office and have them send for help. One hand wrapped around the knife, one hand thumbing:
Karen, I’m in Jean’s apt in NYC. There are ppl here they had a key they don’t know I’m —
“Oh — oh. You’re the boyfriend, aren’t you?” Isaac looks up. The man is standing opposite him, against the refrigerator.
Isaac drops the phone and surges forward, bringing the knife to the stranger’s throat.
“Hey — HEY. Whoa there —”
“Don’t move,” Isaac instructs.
“Not moving. Not gonna move.”
“Who are you? Where did you get the key?”
“You’re the boyfriend. Yes. We were going to call you. LIDDIE!” the man shouts.
“I’M IN THE HALL!” Liddie shouts back. The two loudest burglars of all time.
“LIDDIE, COME IN HERE!”
“No,” Isaac says. “She stays outside.” He has just the one knife, for the two of them.
“Right,” the man answers. “LIDDIE, STAY IN THE HALL.”
“WHAT? WHY?” Liddie asks.
“LIDDIE, JUST STAY IN THE HALL. PLEASE.”
“LIDDIE? THE BOYFRIEND — WHAT’S HIS NAME?”
“ISAAC. ISAAC ELBERG.”
The man nods, bugs out his eyes at Isaac, as if he’s proved something.
“Isaac, I’m Doug Fallon. I work for B.org. LIDDIE — YOU WERE GONNA CALL ISAAC ELBERG AND TELL HIM WE WERE COMING?”
“I DID. HE DIDN’T PICK UP, AND I LEFT A VOICE MESSAGE. CAN I COME IN NOW?”
“Can she come in now?”
Isaac kneels down and picks up his phone, keeping the point of his knife trained on parts Doug does not want stabbed. He hands the phone to Doug. “Find the message for me,” he says.
“Sure thing,” Doug says. He is scared, and he fumbles with the phone for a few seconds before mastering himself. He flits his fingers over the touchscreen and conjures up a sound file, finally.
Mr. Elberg, my name is Lydia Kaufman. I’m a DRE specialist at B.org. I’m staffed on the digitization project for Jean Woolsey. I’m wondering if we can arrange a time to visit Ms. Woolsey’s apartment, perhaps tomorrow morning? I’m sorry for the fire drill, but we need to render up an NBT replica of her apartment for her. Our marching orders are to have it ready for when she leaves quarantine, and the six-way scanning can take some time —”
Isaac understands just enough of this to believe it may be on the up-and-up. “Do you have ID on you, something? A business card?”
“I’ll have to reach into my pocket for it.”
“What about her?” Isaac points out into the front room, toward the swung-open door.
“CAN I COME IN NOW?” Liddie asks again, as if on cue.
“AS FAR AS THE FRONT ROOM,” Isaac says. “And slide an ID and business card across the floor, toward me.”
“Her voice is the same as the one on the phone,” Doug says.
“Nevertheless,” Isaac says.
Liddie complies, and Isaac reviews her credentials while awkwardly trying to keep Doug in check with his knife. While this awkward process runs its course, Doug does not make a break for it, and this helps establish his bona fides. Five minutes later Isaac is slumped down on the couch in the front room, watching Liddie and Doug unpack their cart. They pull out a series of six different devices, power them up, connect them with fiber-optic cables — “too much data for wireless,” Doug tells him, “we’d be here all week” — and begin futzing with their many knobs, antennae, and touch-screens.
“We’ll run these scans over every inch of every room. Every surface, every drawer, every nook and cranny,” Liddie explains. “We’ll log everything in here into inventory, from that sixty-inch TV you’ve got on the wall to the crumbs on your kitchen table. The scanners take dimensions of rooms, closets, drawers, and appliances. They record information about the property of materials — the color of paint and where it’s chipped. The weight and grain of the wood in the cupboards, the sheen of its finish. Does Jean have a bathrobe? If she does, we’ll run the scanner over the terrycloth, lock in its texture, stitching, thread count, and dimensions. We’ll do the same with all the rest of her clothes, all her belongings — everything in the apartment scanned and cataloged. And for each item, its material properties, condition, placement, and so on are logged in our system, so that we can render it digitally.”
“No detail is too small,” Doug chimes in. “We’ll scan the text on the tags of her clothes, the sheets, the mattresses. If the HVAC hums, we’ll record it for replication. We’ll run the scanner over her toothbrush, to get a sense of how bendy or stiff the bristles are.”
Isaac has one question: how long will this take? But anticipating he won’t love the answer, he doesn’t ask it.
Doug goes on: “A lot of the DREs you read about — the casinos, the beach resorts — they’re low-rent. Primitive stuff: a passable rendition of sights and sounds, but smell and taste are off the table, and the feels are unsophisticated. They’ll do temperature, solid walls and ground under your feet, and a chintzy liquid sensation so you can feel like you’re swimming in a pool or walking along the shoreline. But do you really?”
Isaac shrugs. He doesn’t know.
“You don’t. There’s a significant gap between what your five senses perceive in the PhysWo and what they perceive in these junk DREs. And for the human mind — even a discorporated mind — that gap can be disorienting. Now as time passes, memories fade. This goes double for memories of sensory perception. Without periodic refreshers, the mind forgets what, say, sand feels like between your toes. You wait long enough in the dark, and a 1990s Super Mario Bros.-quality DRE can feel real. But for someone who has just crossed over, diving into shitty renders is a recipe for depression.”
“And yet you’re making a render for Jean,” Isaac says.
“We are. But with our tech, the experience gap approaches zero.”
Liddie answers: “Our research shows that a new 101er adjusts most easily to the change, if she has recourse to the comforts of home.”
“Lydia is proposing that we call PCEs ‘101ers’,” Doug says, by way of explanation. “Not that it’s catching on …”
“The descriptive terms we’ve been using are politically freighted,” Lydia argues. “‘Post-Mortem Entity,’ ‘Post-Corporeal Entity’ — there’s no consistency of usage. In the PhysWo Jean was carbon-based, DNA-coded. Now she’s constructed in binary code. Ones and zeroes. Hence, 101er.”
“What she’s not saying is that the 101ers —”
“… were Joe Strummer’s first band,” Isaac says.
Liddie sets down, for the moment, the scan-wand she was waving at the ceiling. She turns to Isaac. “You know him?”
He stands up, the better to pull his phone from his front pocket, and cues up the Clash’s Give ’Em Enough Rope to play over the in-wall speaker system. This gesture impresses upon Lydia that he is more than apartment matter for scanning. She walks over to him and places a hand on his shoulder.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” she says.
“It’s okay,” he says.
“No it’s not. We should have started with that.”
He sinks back into the couch, and with the century-old music in the background, the other two go about their work in silence for a few minutes, Doug with a scrunched-up nose — not his thing, apparently — while Lydia bumps around to the rhythm.
“At some point,” Liddie says, “if we haven’t bored you to death, we’ll need you to get up off the sofa so we can work in between and under the cushions.”
“If we have bored you to death, we’ll just move your body,” Doug says.
“And the NBT apartment will be yours, too,” Liddie says.
They’ve used that acronym twice now, and so Isaac asks: “What does NBT mean?”
“Next Best Thing.”