8/ @Jean 03

Her eyes open.

The sun is warmer — much warmer than before. Could be it’s higher in the sky, her tactile perception is increasing, or both.

Jean, how are you feeling? It’s Dougie asking.

“I’m —” She could say that she is in love, still, with Some Body, but now she’s a No-Body. She could say that this Some Body loved her, but now she wonders. Now that he can’t touch her, hold her, penetrate her; now that their grand plans, the family they would start, it’s all out the window — what do they do? What is fair to him? To her? “I’m okay,” she says.

Well, her discretion center is working. A woman’s voice, flat in its affect but still communicating wryness. Unmistakably PoMo.

Jean, my shift is ending, Dougie says. Anne is going to take it from here. Do you two know each other?

“Know of each other,” @Jean says. But we’ve never met.”

Hello, Jean, @Anne says. Henry’s told me so much about you.

“Likewise,” @Jean says. “Great to meet you.”

Jean, I’m so sorry about your early departure from the PhysWo —

“Accidents will happen,” @Jean hears herself reply. She is not prepared to talk about it.

Doug, have you sectioned off … ?

It’s in the status report, Dougie tells @Anne. Generally speaking, she’s handling the transition well.

Cog is at 90, @Anne observes. That’s good, fast work.

Jean, you should know that Anne is connected to you by VPN.

“Meaning I’m online?”

Technically, yes, @Anne answers. Or else I wouldn’t be able to work with you. But you’re directly ported to my profile over a secure connection.

100-megabit encryption, Dougie says, anticipating Jean’s next question. Should scare off any creeps hovering. More likely someone steals your box from me at gunpoint than this line with Anne gets hacked. Anne, are you all set?

I think so.

Then I’m punching out. Call me if you need anything. Jean, you’re in good hands.

Metaphorically speaking, @Anne quips.

Dougie’s chuckle cuts off as he deactivates his mike.

Jean, my screen shows your cognitive processing is at 90%. That’s high enough for us to start setting system preferences, if you’re comfortable doing that.

“Should I be?”

90% of you is smarter than 100% of me, so I’d say go for it.

@Jean doubts @Anne’s premise, but then again she’s been on this beach for hours now, she’s at 90% cognition level, and she is a bit bored. “Let’s do it,” she says.

Great. I’m going to lead with the disclosures. At this point, our conversation will be recorded, for quality assurance purposes. @Anne pauses.

“Fine.”

Let’s begin. The technicians at the hospital converted 2.71 petabytes of stored information from your brain to digital media. They successfully mapped 99.3% of your neural connectome. We received both file folders by secure file transfer last night. Download initiated at 1929 EDT and completed 2021 EDT. The affidavits tracing and confirming chain of custody are available on your tablet. Promptly upon receiving the data, we commenced auto-implementation of organizational security and redundancy protocols and got to work on your processing configuration. Do you have questions?

“The processing configuration is what allows me to think.” Not exactly a question.

Yes. And to access memory, receive information, and feel sensations in digitally rendered environments. Your processing configuration is unique to you. It is compiled with reference to your own distinctive neural network, to create a digital profile as close to your PhysWo self as our programming limits will allow. Your config establishes how you think — how you create and access memories, receive and process information, and feel and respond to sensation. It is the architecture of your self.

“And my emotions?”

Emotions are tricky, because they can have a physiological basis outside of the brain — hormones, for example — and we’ve only reached out and grabbed your brain. We have written code to fill in these gaps. We also run auto-searches over your memory, mining the full extent of your emotional experience. By extrapolating from that information, we are able to construct an emo-layer to drop into your config stack. It’s not perfect. And in your case even less so, because we have only 28 PhysWo years of life experience to draw from. But it’s orders of magnitude better than when I was Translated.

“Or my grandparents.”

Right.

“I feel sorry for them.”

Because you can. @Anne pauses. That was a joke.

@Jean smiles.

Continuing. The Board has voted a resolution naming you a Charter/ Critical Member of B.org. Accordingly, your baseline storage and processing charges will be covered by income from the B.org endowment, into perpetuity.

“Or until the stock market tanks.”

We’re in bonds, too. The responsibilities of a Charter/ Critical Member are set forth in the Organization’s By-Laws, which are loaded in the Documentation file on your tablet, for you to review at your leisure. If at any point you should forfeit Charter/ Critical status, you may be reverted to Pay-as-You-Go status. Please confirm your understanding of these disclosures. Or if you have questions —

“I confirm.”

Good. Clatter of keys.

Your PoCorp carrier B.org is a member of the RenderPool Consortium.

@Jean notes @Anne’s use of the term PoCorp. Some insist on fighting this battle, favoring PoCorp or PCH, for “post-corporeal human,” over PoMo or PME, for “post-mortem entity.”

RenderPool is a cross-carrier data depository that allows its member carriers’ customers to contribute their memories into pooled secure storage. If you elect to contribute to RenderPool, your memories will be made available to carriers and subscribing third-party systems to draw upon to enrich digitally rendered environments, or DREs. For example, your memory of how a person looked, sounded, smelled, etc. will be incorporated into that person’s presentation in a DRE. If you contribute to RenderPool, memory deposits of other contributors will be incorporated and enrich your rendered presence. You can withdraw your memories from the RenderPool depository at any time. At this point in time, you may elect to participate, decline to participate, or ask to read the RenderPool Privacy Policy —

“What do you recommend?”

I’d rather not say. It’s entirely your decision, Jean.

“Is it secure?”

B.org IT has vetted RenderPool’s security policies and procedures and found them satisfactory. Doug is staffed to the RenderPool Security Committee —

“Has Henry opted in?”

As I’m sure you’re aware, Henry doesn’t think much of DREs —

“Right. Of course he wouldn’t. Has Violet opted in?”

She has.

“I elect to contribute, waive reading of the Privacy Policy.”

Done. I just sent you a link to the Privacy Policy, in case you want to review it later.

@Jean’s tablet pings. New message.

Earlier today we ran a search over your code. We found no evidence of Category 1 mental disorders and no evidence of dementia. We did identify the following Category 2 personality defects, which may be corrected during the configuration process: (1) moderate-to-severe susceptibility to stress, (2) mild routine capture/ inflexibility, (3) below average score on the Generalized Patience/Anxiety Index (23rd percentile), and (4) chronic insomnia. Correction of these defects may qualify as an ‘enhancement’ in certain states, with the result that you may forfeit legal personhood status in those states. Shall we proceed with correction of any Category 2 disorders? Please indicate by saying ‘yes’ or ‘no.’

“No,” @Jean says.

Answer is recorded as no. Next: we have the ability to overwrite sex and death drives, learned or habitual behaviors such as smoking and drinking, and caffeine dependence. Overwriting these human deficiencies may qualify as an ‘enhancement’ in certain states, with the result that you may forfeit legal personhood status in those states. Shall we proceed —

“No,” @Jean says.

No is confirmed. We can increase your processing power —

“No,” she says.

We can increase your memory capacity —

“No,” she says.

We can load particular libraries into your memory: for example, in your case, the contents of the United States Supreme Court Case Reporters —

“No.”

We can delete selected memories.

She pauses. She could make this easier on herself. On the both of them, maybe.

Deletion of memories does not qualify as an enhancement in any legal jurisdiction, other than Kansas.

She pauses.

You don’t need to decide now.

7/ @HenryWoolsey 02

“We convene this meeting of the B.org Board of Directors at 0930 EDT on May 10, 2075.  The log counts all members present and online.  Secretary Clarkson will take the minutes.  Are there preliminary motions?”

There comes the usual motion to waive reading of the minutes from last week’s meeting.

Seconded, motion carries.

Now @Hentzler moves, for the nth time, to conduct the meeting in a DRE.  “We should sit face-to-face when we do our business,” she says, “and look each other in the eyes.”

“Waste of money,” I say, playing my usual role. “That’s overhead paid to render the boardroom, more overhead to render everyone in the boardroom, and then the org pays for each of us to process all the sensory inputs.”

“Not so much money,” @Hentzler insists, in her charming German accent.  “Render tech grows cheaper by the day.”

“Slippery slope,” I say.  “Starts with a boardroom, ends with elaborate weekend retreats to fake Bermuda.”

The motion fails 5 to 3, and the tally shakes out the same as always.  There is a contingent of cheapskates in this group, and they comprise a reliable voting bloc.

@Fukuda calls for last licks on motions.  Then seconds pass, and @Fukuda speaks again.  “We meet today outside of the ordinary meeting cycle to discuss the admission of Jean Woolsey as a Level 2 member with perpetual funding.”

I text @Violet: It’s what we thought.  The Board calls an ad hoc meeting, outside of cycle, with no advance written agenda provided — at least, not to me.  Only one noteworthy event could have prompted it, and that was @Jean’s discorporation.  I need to take charge of this:

“Brothers and Sisters, what is there to discuss? She’s on the List.”

@Klein-Ellis jumps in.  He’s probably the driver here.  @Fukuda is a stand-up guy and wouldn’t pull this shit.  “We have just a few concerns, Henry.  She passed over much earlier than we would have expected. Her assets in the PhysWo are not significant —”

“She’s on the List.  She gets full Level 2 status.  Period. Jean paid her way through college and law school.  Borrowed and paid back loans and was earning.  She’ll have —” I check my notes — “roughly $70,000 in assets when the accounts are settled. Under the by-laws, she buys in with half her assets, at $35,000.  And if she had nothing to contribute to the endowment, not one cent, she would still have paid-into-perpetuity status, contributing half of zero, because she’s on the List.”

@Fukuda chimes in.  “We understand that, Henry.  What Charlie means to say is that right now, given the state of our accounts, the volatility in the financial markets, and the commitments we’ve made on a number of our projects, we anticipate that Jean’s arrival will necessarily place additional strain on our budget —”

“If that’s the case, Hiro, then I might have thought you’d open the meeting by saying we’re here to discuss our operating budget, and not Jean’s admission.  Maybe we can rewind five minutes and start over?”

@Fukuda doesn’t answer.

@Klein-Ellis does: “I only note that ordinarily a Board member puts a spouse or his or her children on the List — persons who have survived longer in the PhysWo and so will have more assets to contribute to the endowment.”

You’ve got to be kidding me.  “Let me stop you there, Charlie.  Spouses and children on the List are as likely to die bankrupt and penniless as any granddaughter.  And in any case, the by-laws are clear.  As a founder and Board member of this organization, I am entitled to designate three persons of my choice to receive core carrier services from B.org into perpetuity, upon payment of a lump sum buy-in of half their assets on the date of their discorporation.  @Jean was on my List.  The matter is settled.”

“The by-laws are the by-laws, Charlie,” @Hentzler says.  “If we don’t follow them, where are we?”

“Better off than if we go broke and have to shut down our operations,” is @Klein-Ellis’s answer.

“Vivek, are we going broke?”  I am asking our treasurer, @VivekAshram.  “Have the accounts changed dramatically from what you presented to us last week?”

“There have been no materially adverse events affecting the endowment, and no noteworthy additions to the liability sheet.”

“As yet,” @Klein-Ellis says.  “With your permission, Hiro, I move for an emergency moratorium barring admission of any further non-revenue bearing PCEs to the carrier rolls, until such time as the organization’s cash reserves exceed ten million dollars.”

“Hiro, this is bullshit.  There is no financial crisis.  The endowment is up 6% over the last twelve months.”

“Vivek, how much money do we have in cash reserves right now?” @Fukuda asks.

“Nine million, eight hundred fifty K.”

@Fukuda: “So we could settle this matter right now for $150,000?”

Now I see this for what it is, and I text @Violet: It’s a holdupHiro, Vivek, and Charlie.  “That’s one way this could go,” I say.  There are too many undercurrents here: let’s put everyone’s hands on the table where we can see them.  “The other is, I refuse, you dare to take this ludicrous motion to vote, I raise holy hell, and people start losing their jobs.”

@Klein-Ellis answers: “As president and treasurer, Hiro and Vivek serve at the pleasure of the membership, not the Board.  It would take a two-thirds vote of our full carrier base to remove them.”

“I’m well-known and well-liked by our members.”

“Members who donated the entirety of their estates and took on extensive service commitments to B.org, in order to access our carrier services.  How supportive do you think they will be of your rights to have your granddaughter jump the queue at half-price?”

This is a fair point.  A reply text arrives from @Violet: Pay them, Henry.  Don’t be stubborn.

And so I start to give ground.  “Full freight for Jean would be another $35,000.  How do we get from there to one hundred fifty?”

@Klein-Ellis: “Let’s revert to first principles, Henry —”

“Yes, let’s,” I interject, even though I don’t know where he’s going.

“We formed this organization to prove the concept that a nonprofit PCE carrier, fully funded by member contributions and managed by its membership, can provide a more sustainable and superior quality of life to PCEs than the for-profit carriers, with their various monthly, pay-as-you-go, and lock-in contract models.”

Other than that he hit the word sustainable pretty hard in the telling, I have no beef with this characterization.

“Now that’s the mission, but there’s more to it than simple proof of concept, isn’t it?” @Klein-Ellis takes a breath and continues.  “The dream is to grow and expand access to our services, until anyone, regardless of who they are and what they’re worth, can join us and have the benefit of our model. And when the for-profits are no longer able to justify their abuses in terms of simple economics, they will either conform to the new values — our values — or be left in the dustbin of history, with the slavers and the mine owners and health insurance companies.”

Henry, pay them!

“Now as hard as we try to bring storage and processing costs down — and we will always try — our model will always require wealthy members to subsidize the underresourced, and significantly.  As a result, what we’re doing here carries more than a whiff of socialism.  And history tells us that prior socialist projects failed in no small part because the elites that managed them played favorites and lined their own pockets, at the expense of the Cause —”

I check the time: it’s almost 9:45.

“I’m going to stop you right there, Charlie, because, whatever you meant to say, it sounds like you just called me corrupt. And all I’ve done is ask this organization to hold to the commitments it made, in its by-laws, to its founders.  You talk like I’m some Party apparatchik, trying to wheedle my granddaughter a no-show job and a dacha on the Black Sea.  The truth is I — and she — give heart and soul to this project every day.  I’ll note, too, that we’ve already exhausted the three names on your List.  I didn’t hear anyone at this table making Soviet graft analogies when your wife and kids came over.”

Quiet on the line, while we all sulk.  Ten minutes too late, I am coming around to @Hentzler’s view on running these meetings in DRE.  If these crooks are going to extort me, they should have to look me in the eye.

@Hiro speaks.  “If we can return to regular order, I believe Charlie was making a motion. Madam Secretary, can you read it back?”

@Lillian Clarkson: “Director Charles Klein-Ellis: ‘I move for an emergency moratorium barring admission of any further non-revenue bearing PCEs to the carrier rolls, until such time as the organization’s cash reserves exceed a million dollars.’”

“Seconded,” @Vivek says.

“Shall we vote?” @Hiro asks.

Much as I am on the side of right, I am not feeling the love here.  @Charlie, @Vivek, and @Hiro will vote in favor and bring three more votes with him.  @Hentzler hasn’t signaled one way or the other.  Our ninth member, Th@ch, isn’t in the room.  And now @Violet is calling me on a private line.

“Seventy-five,” I mutter.

“I’m sorry?” @Hiro says.

You should be.  “Seventy-five.  I make a onetime donation to the Fund, and Charlie withdraws the motion.”

“How about it, Charlie?” @Hiro asks, and I know I’ve won.  Or I’ve only half-lost.

“I’ve run the numbers,” @Klein-Ellis says. “Since we’ve been administering the List, the average buy-in payment for Level 2 members has been two hundred grand. Your granddaughter is a remarkable woman, Henry, but as a fiduciary of this organization I can’t let this go at $75K.”

“It’s one hundred ten, counting her contribution.”

“Even so, Henry, I’m sorry.  This has to go to a vote.”

“In that case, I suggest amending the motion to change ‘a million dollars’ to ‘$925,000.’”

@Hiro: “Seconded.”  Bam.  “Read it back, Lillian.”

“Motion as amended: I move for an emergency moratorium barring admission of any further non-revenue bearing PCEs to the carrier rolls, until such time as the organization’s cash reserves exceed $925,000.”

And we vote on the Woolsey amendment to the Klein-Ellis motion.  The three backbenchers, @VanDuesing, @Clifford, and @Ishii, do their usual work as @Hiro’s pawns: they sit quietly through the meeting and vote alongside him. The count shakes out seven to one in favor.  Motion carries as amended.  Eat it, Charlie.

“Is this all that’s on the agenda,” I ask, “or were other hostages taken?”

Nobody answers.

“So bang the fucking gavel already, Hiro, before I say something I can’t unsay.”

6/ @SamSmith 02

@Daisy asks, “Are you ready? It’s almost time.”

“All set — let’s go.” @Sam gives the instruction aloud: “Command, colon: go to amedt.lnac.gov.” @Daisy gives the same command, and off they go to the Jobs Lottery.

This site is operating under quarantine.

“What?”

This site is operating under quarantine. Access is available to PMEs with ten or more shifts and an Aggregate Performance Score of 61 or greater. Please present credentials.

“@SamSmith94. 314 shifts, APS of 74.” And climbing, @Sam thinks, but does not add. The bot guarding the gate seems to mean business today. In the distance he can hear @Daisy disclosing name, shift count, and score, too.

Do you consent to a full code screening?

“Since when?” he blurts out, before he can check himself. His APS drops to 71. A penalty just for asking?

Do you consent to a —

“Yes.”

Time passes. Time that puts him back in the arrivals queue, further down the list TaskMasters will scan for candidates worthy of work. But then again, maybe they’re holding everybody else up, too.

Screening complete: no malicious code found. You may enter. You are assigned to Server 17. In the distance, he can hear them sending @Daisy elsewhere. That’s not ordinary: since they signed up for the shared line together, the gatebots have been assigning them on through to the same server.

Welcome to AMEDT.LNAC.gov.

LNAC stands for Low-skilled/ Nonprofessional Assignments Center, but just you try and find a worker here who will swallow his pride and call it by name. Jobs Lottery is the informal title, the name that took with the PMEs. In principle, it’s a market: PMEs make themselves available, and the TaskMasters shop around and make offers to candidates, based on their Aggregate Performance Scores and listed skills — or they just find someone they’ve worked with before and like. @Sam’s APS is strong, generally trending upward until that gatebot docked him three points just now. So he has had good work in the last three months. Consistent work. Still, with 19 million PMEs crashing the gates each morning for an average 11 million jobs, it can feel like a lottery here. Hence the name.

A DRE loads around him. The usual massive public square, stretching off to @Sam’s vanishing point in all directions, where the PMEs wait to be plucked for assignments. A plane flies across the sky, trailing a banner that reads Server 17. The render is extreme low-res: the Lottery renders common spaces free of charge — free to load, free to perceive and process. That cost comes out of overhead, so they don’t exactly deliver a state-of-the-art, high-quality sensory experience. Strictly audiovisual: no smell, taste, or tactile here, and the figures are heavily pixelated, cornered, squared off. Like the creatures in the Minecraft game @Sam’s younger brothers played when he was a kid. @Sam checks the time: 8:12. Ordinarily by now the Square would be chock-full, and the PME avatars would be stacked three high, feet standing on heads. The quarantine has thinned out the crowd considerably, and for now everybody has their feet on the ground.

“Command, colon,” @Sam says, “search server for familiars. Command, colon: render familiars and open lines.” The crowd in @Sam’s immediate vicinity thins out still further, until only a handful of figures remain in his rendered environment: the subset of PoMos @Sam knows on this server. @Sam looks them over and grunts — there’s @Brion: figures he would land on this server — and he calls out to a red-haired man in plaid pants ten perceived feet away.

“Hey! Scotsman!”

@Scotsman412 ambles over. “Sammy,” he asks, “dae fuck’s goin’ on?”

“You don’t know, either?”

“TGIF, am I right?” @Brion pipes in. “Someone hacked Greenwich AM.”

“Attacked?”

@Brion shrugs, approaches.

“Ye cair to elaborate, laddie?”

“So all y’all who don’t want to set aside cycles to read the paper can free-ride on me?”

“Fuck off, Brion,” @Sam says.

“Ay.” The @Scotsman agrees. “More wehrk for us, is all I naed to know.”

His bluff called, @Brion opens up: too good a story, apparently. “Somebody slipped an infected bot past security on Greenwich Mean.”

“Some Body?” @Sam asks.

“Not what I said, but yeah, that’s the working theory. Meat-jockey bigots on the march.”

“What happened?”

“They’re still getting to the bottom of it. Started like an ordinary day in the EU. Then two hours into the shift everything goes haywire. Renders crash, task registry gets dumped, some nasty virus comes flooding in and works its way into the PMEs.”

Into the PoMos?” @Sam is incredulous. “What crap carrier were they on?” There has not been a significant virus outbreak among PMEs in four years. To the point some are (were?) saying the PME Immune System Conundrum was solved.

“Not clear,” @Brion says. “At least, the carriers aren’t owning up.”

“How many people?”

“Fifty-five hundred, by the time they could clear everybody out.”

“Jaysus,” the @Scotsman says, and @Brion turns on him:

“See that there? That came out Irish. Scotsman, my ass. For all we know you’re a fat Greek from Chicago.”

“Fifty-five hundred,” @Sam says. “That’s fast-acting.” A virus has to burrow through a thick wad of security, to get into a PoMo. @Sam gestures up toward the Big Board over their head. Names and numbers flash up on it: TaskMasters calling out meeting points to PMEs who have caught their eye:

@Terrell$chiffman — Socket 12.

@Lorraine1412 — Socket 770.

@Macmillan**Jr — Socket 181.

Ads run alongside the shoutouts, but sometimes they’ll set aside a segment of the Board for important breaking news. “You’d think they’d flash us a news update.”

“On the Board?” @Brion scoffs. “Scaring the rest of us off is the last thing they want to do.”

@Sam has no answer for that. All things considered, with a virus on the loose, it seems best to close off his lines of communication, and he does. “Command, colon, isolate,” he whispers, so as not to offend. As it happens, @Scotsman and @Brion probably had the same idea and are already walking away. He takes a seat on the lime-green lawn, looks up at the Big Board, waits for his number to come up.

AMEDT stands for morning shift, Eastern Daylight Time. There are 72 LNACs in total: day, evening, and overnight shifts in each of 24 time zones. Some of these shifts are livelier than others. For eleven months now, @Sam has been working Day Shift, Eastern, but before that he bounced around. Evening/Greenwich Mean one day, Day/Pacific the next, the Tokyo Overnight after that, like most of the Freshly Dead. First thing a PoMo learns is he doesn’t have to relocate to find work half a world away. Circadian rhythms do carry over with the Transfer, but their effect is dampened without a body around to tire alongside the mind. So you go where you think you can find paying work, and if that means hopscotching over the time zones, you do it.

There’s a running account total up in the right top corner of your vision field — at least, that’s where Perpe2ity puts it — and it makes a fellow anxious. If it runs down to zero, you go offline.  Dead for real this time, and you won’t be revived unless a friend or Good Samaritan happens along to put a coin or two in your Meter. Naturally you’re going to obsess at first about finding work, socking away dollars against a rainy day. If a hot rumor pops up about a labor shortage on the Dubai Overnight, you go there, and you queue up with a hundred thousand other rookies who fell for the same story. But there comes a point where you get used to the hand-to-mouth living, you pay less attention to the Bean Counter, and you choose a single shift to settle in.

For @Sam, AMEDT is just a good fit. Most everyone speaks English — including the employers, which means he’s eligible to do much more of the work than he could on Greenwich Mean. He’s made friends, met @Daisy here of course, and the work lets out at 6 PM, leaving him plenty of time to clock out, bank his earnings, and tune in to the Phillies game before first pitch at 7:05. Radio broadcast only on most days, but on Sunday afternoon he’ll check the old Bean Counter and, if he’s flush, treat himself to a few innings of video.

The muckety-mucks like to say that the Jobs Lotteries are a product of “public-private partnership.” One way to describe it. Here’s another: thirty PoMo carriers, the United Nations, 84 nation labor ministries, and tens of thousands of employers in public service and private industry meet in Davos for the biggest, sloppiest month-long orgy you never wanted to see. Once the cigar smoke clears, the graft settles, and everyone has their pants back on, you get Jobs Lotteries. Work opportunities for the dead plumbers and day laborers, the wait staff and short-order cooks — all the folks who made a living with their hands, back when they had hands. If you wrote code in the PhysWo, or if you had some special expertise, advanced degree, professional certification — if you were a lawyer, financial advisor, architect — you would be out of this swamp.

(Doctors, too, these days. Fifteen years back @Sam fell off a staging platform. Twenty-foot drop into the dirt. The surgeon who put him back together died five years ago. Now he’s a PME, he uses software to control a robot, and the robot pulls disc-jelly out of people’s spinal columns. A guy with that kind of angle lives worlds away from the Lotteries, and he’s probably not slumming it on a carrier like Perpe2ity or V@lhalla, either.)

The jobs posted on the Lotteries fall within a very narrow skills band. For obvious reasons, if a task needs done in the physical world, it won’t be posted in a Jobs Lottery. Employers hire PhysWo muscle for that. All the “knowledge economy” gigs are ruled out, too, because a PME like @Sam isn’t qualified to do them. What’s left is low-skill, non-physical grunt and busy work, assuming employers can’t program a bot to do it on the cheap. U.S. labor law sets a minimum hourly wage floor for “any task to be performed by an online entity, if said task requires the exercise of judgment.” That provision of law carves out some space for PoMo labor, even as bots grow more and more sophisticated by the day. You can code judgment into a bot, but you have to pay it the same wage a PME would earn on the Mountain Time Overnight shift. Bot wages go into PoMo charities and support funds. Assuming you’re not one of those “morally opposed” holdouts to PoMo consciousness, you may as well hire the dead man: there but for the grace of God, etc. Naturally there’s a shitload of litigation re what tasks actually require exercise of judgment.

Ten, fifteen minutes pass — geez, already — until finally the Big Board gives him a shout:

@SamSmith94 — Socket 62.

“Command, colon: open line with Socket 62.”

Sam, good morning. A familiar voice.

“That you, Mike?”

In the flesh.

“Ha. Scan shift today?” Mike Mobutu works for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Among other projects, he directs the government’s scan-reader program, which relies heavily on PME labor. Lately @Sam has been one of Mike’s go-to PoMos on the AMEDT shift. Scan-reading is good, steady work. You look over feeds from baggage and body scanners in airports, courthouses, malls, restaurants, department stores, and so on. The scanners fan out copies of images to multiple PoMo reviewers — DHS standards require ten-reader signoff before entry into a federal building or the passenger-only restricted areas or airports and train stations. Readers are graded on speed and accuracy. Miss a weapon and you’re blackballed from federal gigs for three months. State agencies and private security firms offer the same sort of work, but their standards and protocols may vary, along with wages.

There is surveillance work, too, on the Lottery. The workflow is the same, multiple copies fed to multiple reviewers, except it’s video footage from cameras posted in public spaces. This is harder work than looking over still shots of the inside of a traveler’s shaving kit. You can’t turn away, and you can’t pause the feed. There’s a long list of suspicious activity, and it changes all the time. If you miss something that an overlapping reader picks up, your meta-monitor will ding up your work rating. Pays more, though, and they don’t blackball. For his part, @Sam prefers working image scans.

Actually, I’m looking at you for foreman.

“Really?” A shift foreman supervises ten to fifteen federal agency readers, monitors and rates their performance over the course of the shift. That’s triple the pay, if you can land the gig. Thing is, ordinarily you have to have an APS of 80 to be eligible.

I have authority to waive the APS requirement today. The quarantine here is killing us. There’s a two-hour security line backup at Hartsfield today. Ninety minutes at Laguardia. Threat level was raised to orange after the virus attack on Greenwich Morning —

“PhysWo, too?”

Greenwich could have been your garden-variety hate crime on PMEs, but given the scale and sophistication, we can’t rule out that the L/NAC was the first stage of a larger attack. Bring on a quarantine, weaken the security infrastructure, then send out your bombers.

“Wow.”

I’d have picked you out sooner, Sam, but I had you at 74 APS going in this morning. Now I see you’re at 71. What happened?

“Gatebot thought I got lippy.”

Did you?

“All the added security took me by surprise. I asked a question.”

Mike sighs. I don’t know how you guys do it.

“Life’s a bitch, and then you die, Mike.”

Well, work this shift for me. Work it well, and I’ll make sure you get a three-point bump on top of the usual day’s rating.

“Deal.”

Great. You stay right here. I’ll send the meta-feeds to you.

“Mike, I really appreciate the opportunity.”

Help me get through this day, Sam, and I’ll be the one saying thanks.

Twelve windows open, tiled 4-x-3, in @Sam’s vision field. His team for the shift. Top row, third from the left: @BrionBurbridge. @Sam smirks, but no one sees.

 

5/ @SamSmith 01

An alarm buzzes in his head, and @SamSmith94 wakes up to blackness.

TGIF.

“Time?”

Lit characters flash an answer on the black backdrop: 0720 EDT. The morning-shift Jobs Lottery starts at 8 AM sharp. Time enough to dial up a cup of coffee, sit through the commercials, and present for a shift assignment. Suckers in the PhysWo have to spend hours on end in cars, in rush-hour traffic.

@Sam switches off the alarm. The buzzing stops, and The Woman speaks. Disembodied and in stereo:

Good morning, @SamSmith94. You have $450 in your Perpe2ity account. Are you interested in viewing Today’s Headlines?

“No, thanks.” Reading means thinking, which means processing, which burns energy, costing him money. Therefore, @Sam only reads what he needs to read. Updates on who is bombing who in the PhysWo, where some hurricane made landfall, don’t qualify as need-to-read. Any fool ten days dead knows better than to burn cycles catching up on the news. It’s all upsell bullshit from the Carrier.

Your day will begin after a few brief messages from our sponsors.

A DRE thuds down over him: a room dropped from the sky. It lands off-kilter, bounces once, settles around him — a bit much, @Sam would tell the animator, if he were asked — and now @Sam is standing in the center of a massive casino floor. He turns a 360. A row of slot machines spirals off from each of the twelve clock-points around him. Lights flash in a hundred colors, retro Japanese computer-game melodies beep and bleat at him from all sides. Bells ring, signaling payouts everywhere. The ambient noise drops out as an announcer — male, enthusiastic — steps to the fore:

PLAYTIME PLAYTIME PLAYTIME —

“Are you up, honey?” @Daisy has logged in.

“Yeah, I’m awake,” @Sam says. “Just watching the ads.” Three weeks ago he asked @Daisy if she would share an open line with him — just in the mornings, before work. She’d said yes. The boys down on the Jobs Lottery gave him no end of shit. But the truth is, it’s just a first-level commitment. The open line means that every morning, between 0600 and 0800 hours, they can talk together, without one of them having to dial and the other picking up. Like they’re in a room together. It’s a slightly greater level of intimacy, that’s all. It’s not marriage, for Christ’s sake.

Open for business TWENTY-FOUR hours a DAY, SEVEN days a WEEK, and our slots pay out at the HIGHEST RATE ONLINE —

Some of these guys on the Jobs Lottery are real broken souls. Butting in with words of advice he never asked for. That prick @BrionBurbridge, for example: “Love? Please. It’s just another money grab by the Carriers. Some coder at Perpe2uity hacks a ‘spark’ between the two of you, and it’s off to the races. Fancy dates in hi-res rendered restaurants, late-night heart-to-hearts, five-D sim-sex, shit: all the time just thinking about the girl — I’ll bet a guy doubles his processor load when he’s in ‘love.’ The girl probably triples hers. And who cashes in? The Carrier.”

Come for Happy Hour, stay for our GRAND PRIZE DRAWING. EVERY DAY a lucky winner takes home a voucher for ONE FULL MONTH OF PROCESSING. Additional terms and conditions apply: visit grandprize.playtime247.com for contest rules.

There’s at least some truth in @Brion’s rant. Since he’s hooked up with @Daisy, @Sam has been drawing down on his account with Perpe2ity at a higher rate. It’s not double: he is paying out an average of $200 per day lately, versus $150, $160 before @Daisy. So maybe a programmer did shoot him in the ass with Cupid’s arrow, and maybe Perpe2ity paid the guy a bonus for it. Thing is, @SamSmith94 could give a shit. @Daisy’s the best thing to happen to him in the three years since he died.  And she’s real.

The PlayTime 247 casino whirls out from under him in a rush of color. Blackness again. Then, a twinkle of light arises in the center of his vision. The light grows in size and resolves into the form of a woman, walking slowly — ever so slowly — toward him. She is perfectly proportioned, wearing a dress cropped barely three inches below her waist. Petite, redheaded, with a bobbed haircut, round eyes, pouty lips daubed red. She swings her hips when she walks, just enough. The woman hits every one of his buttons. Custom-built, no doubt, by a bot whose owners paid Perpe2uity for a peek into @SamSmith94’s account profile. They know just what he likes.

The woman stops in front of him, fans out wads of cash in both hands. @Sam can smell the fresh bills, smell her perfume, smell her sweat.

“Are you still in the ads?” @Daisy asks him, over the open line. “Seems like they get longer every day.”

The woman takes two steps closer to him. Her breasts are barely an inch away from his chest. She leans over to whisper in his ear. Her hair grazes his cheek. It feels like silk. Her hot breath tickles his ear, while she tells you her secret. The same secret a hundred thousand different renderings of her are telling every other No-Body man who had a 7:20 wake-up call:

Oh, baby, I’ve missed you soooo much. Why don’t you drop by later, when your shift is over? Bring a hundred dollars and your hot, throbbing — she laughs, and God, her laugh itself is enough to close the deal — self by my room. If you’re the best performer I get today, maybe I’ll pay you.

The woman leans back, cocks her head to one side, smiles, turns, and walks away — again, ever — so — slowly — the way she came. She takes ten steps, looks back over her shoulder, and blows him a kiss:

NightFevers.com, she said. Room 314. See you at 5:30.

@Sam sighs and turns his head to the left. His entire perspective swivels left with him, to keep the girl dead-center. He closes his eyes, and the image of the receding woman appears inside his eyelids. There is no way around it: he will spend the next four minutes watching this bot-fabbed dream girl walk away from him, swinging her hips just enough as she goes. Might as well surrender to it, he decides. He takes a seat in the blackness, fixes his eyes on her, watches her shrink to the size of a distant star.

“Sammy?” @Daisy asks him, but he doesn’t answer.

Three or four more ads follow. @Sam pays them varying degrees of attention. Word down on the Job Lottery is that sponsors are pressuring the carriers to monitor their users’ focus on the ads. If you come in under some threshold level of attention, they’ll make you watch the ad all over again.

@SamSmith94, please stand by for an important bulletin from Perpe2ity’s attorneys.

“Are you still not out yet, Sam?” @Daisy wants to know.

“Important bulletin,” he answers. “New TOU?”

“Yep.”

“Did you sign off on it?” @Sam asks.

“Of course.”

A rendered man in a suit appears in the blackness. He is carrying a briefcase. He sets it down, opens it, pulls a stack of paper out of a manila file folder, and offers it to @Sam.

Perpe2ity has revised its Terms of Use. Before proceeding with your day, you will need to sign this document.

@Sam flips through the pages, sixty-four in total. “Does it show the edits against the last version?”

I’m sorry, @SamSmith94. I seem to have left my redlined version back in the office. The bot-lawyer hands @Sam a pen.

@Sam checks the time. 7:51 AM. No way he can get through all this and make the Jobs Lottery. For that matter, a close read cover to cover would burn three, maybe four dollars. He looks over the front page:

This document sets the terms and conditions of your participation in Perpe2ity, the World’s Friendliest PoMo carrier. You must agree to these Terms of Use in order to receive memory storage, thought and sensory processing, and other related services (collectively, the “Services”) from Perpe2ity …

@Sam accepts the pen, turns to the last page of the document, and signs. Attorney, briefcase, and contract disappear. He checks his meter, his Bean Counter, like he does every day before he leaves for work. Four hundred and twenty dollars.

“Well, shit,” he says aloud. “They’re charging us processing costs for watching the commercials?”

“So it seems,” @Daisy answers.

“We need to switch carriers.”

4/ @Jean 02

Too warm?

@Jean opens her eyes. She is laid out over a chaise longue, on a pool deck. She wiggles her toes — nails painted, she notes, in the very shade she last remembers. There is even the chip off the big toe, where she kicked the bedframe on the morning she died. Out past her feet is a painted railing, and beyond that inklings of a beach.

Her first thought is for Isaac. They were supposed to meet at the Cabin last night. She’d packed salmon filets for dinner; he would have come up after work. The fish are in police impound somewhere, most likely, stinking up what’s left of her car. The techs gave her just the one call, to her grandfather, named as the Authorized Contact on her B.org account. She regrets that she had not updated the listing. It’s true that she and Isaac would not have had time, on that five-minute Courtesy Call, to work through all the complications her death just raised. But if she had only heard his voice, she would have a sense of where they are heading.

Jean?

The sun is high in the sky and bright. The view past her toes is indistinct. Foggy, pixelated, in pastels, like some low-res photograph of a watercolor by that French painter. Her favorite, but she can’t extract his name from her memory, and she wonders why. She can hear waves crashing, gulls crying out. These sounds fade out briefly, while the voice addresses her again.

There’s a weather app on your tablet. Temperature controls, wind, precipitation at your fingertips.

“Thank you,” @Jean says. She sits up and looks around. “But there’s no tablet here —”

No? A brief pause: sounds of waves and seagulls again. Yikes. My fault. Give me a minute. Through Dougie’s sound-activated mike she hears a clacking of keys. Incoming: 3 … 2 … 1 …

A glass table appears from nowhere beside her chair, just off the armrest, inches away from her elbow. She jumps in her seat.

I’m sorry, Jean. It’s been one of those shifts.

“It’s fine,” she says. “Just startled me, is all.” Side tables don’t just splash into existence, in the PhysWo.

Tablet’s on the table. Weather app, as I said. Plus controls for the chair, a few games, poolside service menu —

“Internet?”

I’m sorry. We need to keep you offline for now, while we’re configuring your profile. Right now you’re very vulnerable to third-party attacks and malicious code.

“How are you and I talking?”

Direct one-to-one connection. My laptop on the desk, hard-wired into your box.

She is in a box. The jokes write themselves.

“There’s just the one copy of me? Aren’t you supposed to distribute copies of our profiles across the Net? As a failsafe?”

It’s taken care of, Jean. You really should rest now. Now is not the best time to have conversations like these. You’re not yet fully configured

“By the time I’m fully configured, my question won’t be relevant.”

Dougie chuckles. Henry warned me about you. Said you’d be wide awake and asking questions. We keep three encrypted backups, all offline, stowed in secure locations in the PhysWo, until you’re fully compiled, tested, and online. We don’t set up the distributed online profile structure until you’ve gone into production. And even then we still keep the flash-drive backups, for disaster recovery.

@Jean takes a minute to sift through what Dougie has told her, evaluate it, and frame a reply. This work of comprehension, cognition, sentiment and syntax formation takes longer — much longer, it seems — than it should. The sea continues to crash on her shore, while she thinks, or tries to. Finally she answers: “Couldn’t someone steal the copies, hack the copies, take them online?”

The hijacked evil twin, digitally enhanced, robbing banks and taking down the power grid? He chuckles again. Always a possibility, but there’s also the risk you — this version of you, the REAL you — become infected or corrupted, or God forbid deleted online, and we may need to access a pristine copy of your data to do a reinstall from scratch. There’s a real tension here: on one hand, we need several iterations of your consciousness and memory, for the sake of redundancy. To keep you safe.

Dougie pauses. Jean does not answer.

On the other hand, every iteration of you is one more a bad guy could get hold of. The Board is constantly reevaluating our policy and procedures, to strike the right balance. Bottom line is your data has to sit somewhere in the Physical World, and your profile has to sit somewhere online. Wherever those places are, someone could get at them. The best we can do is obscure the locations, vary them, and overlay security —cyber and physical — to keep you safe and non-multiple.

These words are cascading down on her. “I — I can’t follow. I’m sorry. You’re speaking so fast, and it’s too much information.”

It’s a lot to absorb, Jean.

“I was scheduled to argue a case in the Supreme Court. A significant case on the rights of Post-Corporeal Entities.” Her rights, now. She reaches for the tablet on the table beside her. She checks the date on it. “One week from today. But now I’ve died and I can’t understand your words.”

Completely normal. It takes time to reconstruct your mind profile in a digital format. At this point we’re barely a third of the way through our compiling. It will be probably another eighteen hours before you’re ready for high-level processing. Then again, you’re sharper than most at this point in the build. So it could be sooner.

“I was awake before this, briefly. I talked to my grandfather.”

That was not the full-and-complete you talking. The Transfer Techs ran a script at the hospital. Just a rough cut sketched into a temp file. The for-profit Carriers love it: “you” can make a first phone call to loved ones, to say you made it over. Problem is, on the back end it sticks a guy like me with all this crummy accumulated code to scrub out. Hence, “one of those shifts.”

“I don’t know what you’re saying.”

I’m talking too much, Jean. I’m sorry.

“I need a drink,” she says.

Menu’s on your tablet. Dial yourself up a cross-breeze while you’re at it.

@Jean takes the tablet, opens the drinks menu app. Mai-tais, coladas, daiquiris, an array of soft drinks. She wonders why a person without a body would order a Diet Coke.

I’m going to cut the mike now, Jean. We’ll be back in touch in a short while to talk about your settings.

“Okay.”

You should know there are three of us working your case in eight-hour shifts: Lionel, Anne, and I. If you need anything, you can reach us through the concierge app on your tablet. Good?

“Good. Thank you, Doug.”

The rendered environment here will assume sharper definition over time, as we make further process with the compiling. Your smell, touch, sound, and taste sensations will improve as well.

@Jean sits, processes, forms her next question: “How long does it take?”

I’d say maybe three days before you can perceive DREs — digitally rendered environments — at 100%. You can track your percentages on the tablet. In your Utilities folder, there’s an AT icon. Stands for Acuity Tracking.

@Jean fumbles her fingers over the tablet’s surface. She conjures up a status window:

Vis: 77%/ Aud: 84%/ Tac: 38%/ Olfac: 14%/ Gust: 9%

She decides to pass on the drink.

Progress on the sensory build is nonlinear, so it will come in fits and starts. In the meantime, just lie back and relax.

“I don’t do that well.”

We can help with that. There’s a Sleep button on the tablet —

“Yes. I see it here.”

Up to you, if you want to use it.

3/ Isaac 01

He toggles out of auto-drive so he can pull up in the fire lane. He throws the emergency brake.

You are unlawfully parked.

“Fix it your damn self,” he says. He is out of the car, slamming the door closed, running. He rounds the back bumper, flicks a switch on the key remote, and the car motors off in search of an open space in the hospital lot. He runs into the lobby, calls out to a woman at Registration:

“The ER — where is it?”

The woman behind the counter points the way. The gentleman she is currently serving humphs at him: You could have waited your turn.

But he couldn’t. He is in a dead sprint now, down the main corridor, through the automatic doors into Emergency. The lobby is empty. No one in sight. A county hospital like this, out in the sticks — they probably max out at three patients per day in the ER. There’s a television in the corner, hanging on a swivel mount high on the wall. That woman, the comedienne with the daytime talk show, is nattering on about her next guest’s new movie.

He stops at the reception desk. His heart is pounding. He drags a shirtsleeve across his forehead, to swab away the sweat. There’s a push-button on the desk, and a sign Scotch-taped beside it: RING FOR HELP.

He pushes the button and immediately jumps, as an old-time school bell, done in red metal, rings on the wall behind the desk. His phone buzzes while he waits: he assumes it’s the car telling him where it parked, and he doesn’t check it.

And now an EMPLOYEES ONLY door opens, and a man walks through it.

“You’re the emergency contact for Jean Woolsey?” the man says to him, looking down at his tablet for a name. “You’re Isaac Elberg?”

He nods.

“Dr. Sanchez-Padilla. If you would come with me to the sitting room —”

“You can’t tell me here?” Isaac says.

The doctor looks around the room, and finding it empty, he says, “Ms. Woolsey passed away about a half hour ago. I’m sorry.”

There is a pause. A long pause. Then the doctor says, finally, so Isaac doesn’t have to ask, “She was successfully digitized.”

“Can I speak to her?”

“That’s not my department. You’ll have to talk to the Technicians.” The doctor hands him a business card. Issac looks at it, blankly. There is a phone number on it. “I’m not personally familiar with this carrier,” the doctor adds, “but ordinarily contact with the deceased is forbidden for an adjustment period of up to two weeks. They may allow you to leave a message.”

“Can I see her?”

“Come with me.”

He follows the doctor back through the door.

“She’d lost too much blood,” the doctor says, projecting his voice down the hall. “She was too far gone. If we could have got to her sooner —”

“The wreck was out on The Bumps on Route 12. That’s fifteen miles from here and three from St. Jude’s. Why didn’t they take her there?”

The doctor answers without turning to face him: “St. Jude’s won’t admit Copy Techs into their facilities. Policy of the diocese. Goes all the way up to Rome. If the ambulance had gone there, and she didn’t make it, she’d be lost forever.” The doctor quickens his pace. It’s like he’s running away from the conversation.

Isaac shouts after the doctor: “But they could have saved her.”

“They might have saved her. It was a judgment call. The paramedics had seconds to make it, and they chose the safer option. Ellie!” The doctor flags down a passing nurse. “Can you take Mr. Elberg to see his —?”

The doctor waits for Isaac to finish the sentence. Isaac tries and fails. He staggers toward the side of the corridor, grabs hold of the rail there, and starts to cry.

“Ms. Woolsey,” the doctor says to the waiting nurse, by way of explanation. He pats Isaac gently on the shoulder and continues down the hall.

“You can come with me, sir,” the nurse says. “When you’re ready.”

Minutes later they are standing in a room. Two beds. She is lying in the one by the window. The sun knifes through the slats in the window blinds, striping the walls, the floor, and Jean.

“I’ll leave you alone with her,” the nurse says, before leaving the room.

He approaches her. Her hands are folded across her chest. Her eyes are closed. The top of her head is wrapped in a white cotton sheet. They do this after the Transfer is completed, to make the body presentable. His hairs stand on end.

He reaches into his pocket and pulls out the jeweler’s box. He opens it, takes out the diamond ring, and slips it over the cold fourth finger of her left hand.

2/ @HenryWoolsey 01

“That’s a strange thing.”

“What happened?”

“I was on the phone with Jeannie.  She screamed, and the call cut out.”

“Do you think she’s all right, Henry?”

“I don’t know,” I say.  “She was driving.”

“Are you sure of that?”

“I could hear the dashboard talking.”

“I’m worried,” @Violet says.

“No you’re not.”  This is an ongoing joke between us, and for that matter in the broader Post-Corporeal Community.  The minute I tell it, I wish I hadn’t.

“That’s inappropriate, Henry.”

“Force of habit.  I shouldn’t have said it.”

There is a pause.  Five, ten seconds.  “Have you tried calling her back, Henry?”

“Several times,” I say.

“Do you think she’s had an accident?”

I redial.  The phone rings once, then clicks into voice mail.

“Henry?”

I hang up the phone.  “I don’t know, Violet.”

Five, ten seconds.  “Do you think she’s all right?”

“I don’t know.”

This is how we worry.  ‘Worry’ in finger-quotes.  ‘Fingers’ in finger-quotes.  And so on.

“Do you think she’s —”

“I’m looking.”  I check online sources — tap police scanner audio, access the several street surveillance live feeds along Jeannie’s route to the cabin.  She was going to the cabin to prepare for the argument.

“Has there been an accident?”

“I won’t know for some time.  You can search, too, Violet.”

“I’m afraid to.”

I don’t say, No you’re not.  I don’t say anything.  I bring up fifteen video panels, tiled in four rows, four wide across my custom Mac OS/Firefox user interface.  My 76&19th birthday gift from the Community. @Violet’s idea, Dougie’s build.  Vintage design, sixty years old, back-end enhanced to handle the millionfold increase in bitflow rate from 2015’s Internet to today’s.  The sixteenth window, set on the bottom right, is open to Maps.  It plots the fifteen cameras along Jean’s route north into Connecticut.

Street surveillance peters out, as you get further from the City.  If she was more than sixty miles out, she won’t appear in any of these feeds.  Still, I watch them all.

“You’re not very good at this sort of thing,” @Violet says.  “We should call Anne.”  She waits five, ten seconds.  “We should call Anne and see what she can find out.”

“Anne is a hacker.”

“Exactly.”

“She’s the kind of hacker who will break into five secure servers, violate six federal laws, and deliver you information that’s on the front page of the newspaper.”

@Violet doesn’t answer.  I look over the video feeds for another few minutes and, seeing nothing of interest, I close them.

“I’m sure she’s fine,” I say.  “The call probably dropped.  We never did have good signal up by the cabin.”

“Calls don’t drop anymore,” @Violet says.  “That’s been fixed.”

“Oh, I’m sure.”

“Check Klatsch, maybe?”

I groan.  “Back in the day, I hated Twitter.  Then I hated OutWithIt, then ClapTrap —”

“Are you going to go through them all, or are you going to log into Klatsch and check on your granddaughter?”

The rendering software has a deadening effect on her voice, but seventy-one years into this marriage, I know what that tone means.  I log into Klatsch.  I run a handful of searches.  I review the results.  “There’s something here.”

“What?”

“A single-car accident on Hammaker Lane.  Called in by the driver of a tanker truck.”

“A truck like that has no business on Hammaker Lane.”

“My understanding is they’ve widened it.”

“When?” @Violet asks.

“Since our day.”

“Even so.”

“Driver of the car a 25-year-old white female.  That’s our Jeannie.”

“Nearby hospitals?”

I call up the browser window with Maps.  “There are five.”

“Call them.”

“They won’t tell us anything.  Medical privacy laws.”

“So what do we do?”

Now we call Anne.  Have her peek into their network.”

“Henry, don’t.  You’ll get her in trouble —”

“Anne?  She was born in trouble.  She died in trouble —”

“No, I mean, Jeannie.”

I don’t answer.

*          *          *

Inbound text message from @Anne: Time of Death 13:01.

Outbound to @Anne: Did they get to her in time?

Inbound: I can’t tell.

“Do you think she’s all right?” @Violet asks.

“I don’t know.”  I don’t elaborate.

The phone rings.  I pick up.

“Grandpa.”

I understand they’ve recently written code that digitally renders the physiological outputs of limbic system activity so that, for example, a grandfather on the Other Side can feel his scalp tingle and heart swell when he finds out his granddaughter is still — well, once again —alive.  The new arrivals have the software written right into their profiles, but I’m an old dog, a separate install is required, and as yet I haven’t bothered to do it.  To date my afterlife hasn’t been so adventurous that I’ve felt the need.  It will have to be enough, today, to recall how I felt the time my son — @Jean’s father — fell out of the oak tree in our backyard.  Fifteen feet to the ground, while I watched horrified through the kitchen window.  But then he rolled over, climbed to his feet, walked over to the tree, and started kicking its trunk for dropping him.  The shudder of relief that tore through my body that day and left me nearly incapacitated in its wake — I don’t feel that today, and because of that I can calmly address my granddaughter:

“Hello, Jeannie.”

“Can you conference Grandma in?”  It’s a fine approximation of her voice.  They do good work these days — miles better than they did with mine twenty years ago.  Or with @Violet’s, ten years after.  If I hadn’t spoken with her only an hour ago, I might not be able to tell the difference.

“You need to rest, Jeannie.”

“I just wanted to tell you I made it.”

“The process is difficult.  You’ll need to time to adjust.  They shouldn’t be letting you on the phone.”

“I’m allowed one Courtesy Call.”

“I don’t like that they do that.  This is a critical time and you should be in Quarantine.”

“Put Grandma on the phone,” she insists.

“Fine, but only for a minute.”

Two clicks.

“Hello, Grandma.”

“Jeannie, you’re all right?”

“I’m copied over.”

“Jeannie, I’m so sorry —”

“Enough,” I say.  “We’ll talk in two weeks.”

1/ Jean 01

Hammaker Lane is a ten-mile stretch of Route 12.  Cut through the woods: two lanes, narrow.  Dips and hills like a sine wave.  She loved this ride as a kid — how the car leaped as it came over the humps, how the sun slashed between the trees on the way home after school.  Her grandfather brought her here when she first got her learner’s permit.  She brings her left hand to the steering wheel, toggles the drive switch from auto to manual.  The car asks her:

Are you sure you want to disable the auto-drive app?

She clips her phone’s hands-free headset over her ears.  “Henry Woolsey, please.”

Are you sure you want to disable —

“Right — Jesus —”

Are you sure you —

“I’m sure.”

Auto-drive is disabled.

“Henry Woolsey, please.”

Dialing …

She slots her hands at the 10 and 2 positions.  Just as he taught her.

“Jeannie.”

“Good morning, Henry —”

“’Henry, today?  What did I do wrong?”

“I’m calling on business,” she says, “so you’re Henry.”

“Is this a new thing?”

“It seems right to me.”

“Fair enough.  You’re on the road, then?”

“Route 12.  The Bumps.”

“Hammaker Lane.”  Where Some Body might laugh, @Henry says, “Ha.”  And then: “I remember hanging on for dear life.”

“I’m better at it now.”

“Are you calling about the Sherman argument?  I had us booked to talk later in the afternoon.”

“We never made a decision about the lease.”

“Oh.  Didn’t we?” he adds, brightly.

“If we want out, we have to give notice by tomorrow.”

“I don’t see any reason to make a change.”

She hits the pedal hard.  The car surges forward into an incline.  “The Firm could have twice the square footage in White Plains, for a third of the rent.  It’s just so much money.”

“Jean Bean, if we leave Midtown now, it’s as good as admitting defeat.”

“You could put that savings into the Foundation.”

“Location matters, my dear.”

Sensors indicate oncoming traffic.

“Noted,” she tells the car.  “It blows my mind, Grandpa, that of all people you would care so much where our offices are.”

“What can I say?  I’m a traditionalist.”

A large vehicle is approaching.

“Noted.”  She is coasting to the bottom of a trough.  Accelerating, now, into the next rise.

INBOUND TRAFFIC HAS CROSSED THE CENTER LINE.

She sees it.  A truck.  She whips the wheel right: 10 and 2 to 3 and 7.  The car plunges off into the trees.

SENSORS INDICATE DEPARTURE FROM PAVED SURFACE.  INITIATING AUTO-DRIVE

IMPACT REGISTERED.

Her leg is pinned down over the pedal, pressing it to the floor.  The car’s electric motor spins, whips mud into the air behind her.

Initiating auto-drive override.

The pedal goes limp.  The motor stops spinning.  She blacks out.

Dialing 9-1-1— 

*          *          *

 

She is flying on her back, feet-first.  Panes of frosted glass wipe away the sky.  She hears a wham, and the frosted glass gives way to segments of dropped ceiling, flashing by like movie frames.  She hears shoes slapping on floor tile.  She hears shouts, words she should understand:

The goddam Copy Techs: where are they?

Scrubbed and standing by, in OR 2.

CLEAR OUT CLEAR OUT CLEAR OUT —

Her head lolls to her left.

We’re losing her.  Hands clasp her cheeks, turning her head.  A face hovers over her, framed by fingers.  Talking, insisting.  Stay with me, sweetheart.  Just a little longer.

She closes her eyes.