This story explores another aspect of part of the future timeline described in Post Scarcity Blues (and probably would have been one of the stories in the book if I’d written it then!).
By Jason Gibbs
It had been a long time since he’d physically visited a friend. At least a decade, there was no need with modern implants and full immersion virtual reality. Philip couldn’t explain why he was doing this, there was just an itch at the back of his mind.
The hall was dimly lit, as indeed was the whole block.
“Why am I doing this at night?”
Yet, once he’d decided he just had to go. Also, he’d been on US time zone, so had thought it was late afternoon.
“Five flights of stairs. Eric could have told me his building lift was broken.”
Though he hadn’t actually told Eric he was going to visit him, they’d just agreed to meet in the Dell, their usual place. And anyway, it was unlikely Eric knew the lift was broken, he probably hadn’t been out for years either.
“Fifty-eight, fifty-nine… here he is.”
Philip knew he was only talking to himself to try and dispel the creepiness around him, but couldn’t stop.
“Oh is Eric going to be surprised!”
He knocked. Nothing, and again. He pressed the buzzer. Nothing. He tried the handle. The door wasn’t locked.
“Ah, Eric probably disabled his physical alerts, I bet he can’t even remember the last time someone used them. Eric?”
He opened the door into dust and gloom.
He tried the light, but though he flicked it nothing came on.
“Eric, your lightbulb is out. You should get maintenance to take better care.”
He walked into the living room. It was lit by a few green flickering lights. But Eric wasn’t in it. The kitchenette was off to one side, and a short corridor with two doors was on the other side. He walked gingerly towards the corridor. The dust was thick on the floor. This wasn’t a good idea.
“This place is a tip Eric, don’t worry I won’t tell anyone. Eric?”
It was a standard apartment, so the bathroom would be to the right, and the bedroom to the left.
“The dust is just as thick here. I wonder when the last time Eric actually got up to go to the toilet.”
Taking a breath, and trying to ignore the smells of staleness and slight decay, he pushed open the bedroom door.
He realised he’d closed his eyes and he opened them to look in, expecting, well he didn’t know.
There in the centre of the room was a standard VR coffin.
“Hmm, nice, a Paradise 23, or is it, no I’m wrong it’s a 24, top of the line before they stopped producing them. Nice one Eric.”
He walked up, and checked the control panel. All lights were green, and the panel indicated all was well with a cheery “Systems OK!” message.
“Right then, what was the protocol. I think I press this, tap that…”
“Beep. Please vocalise a message to explain the wakening.”
“Oh yes, this was to stop people being shocked. Um, look Eric, it’s me Philip…”
“Damn. I wonder if I can re-record. That button. No. Um.”
The lights had started to flash red. That didn’t seem right, and then there was another ‘Beep’, though this one sounded less friendly. There was a hissing sound. Philip stepped back.
“Why am I doing this…”
It was too late, the coffin had started to open up. Philip wasn’t sure what he expected to see. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to see. When the hissing stopped he realised he’d closed his eyes again. He opened them, and saw the side of the open coffin. Nothing moved.
After a pause he said, “Eric?”
Nothing. He frowned, and edged forward. He could see the edge of the coffin, and then the lining, a sort of red plush, comfortable, though flashy, and some tubes, and then…
Then, nothing. The coffin was empty.
Philip heard something behind him, but before he could turn around blackness descended.
“Philip! Are you alright?”
“Yarg, Eric don’t shout…”
It was Eric, but he’d seen, what had he seen?
“Philip, you really worried me there, you came to meet me in the Dell, and then just faded out. I’ve had to connect into the emergency controls on your virtual unit.”
Could he do that? Wait, they’d signed something, like an emergency order, so they could look out for each other, it had been Eric’s idea. But there was something he was forgetting?
“Come on Philip, say something sensible!”
“Ok, ok, stop with your yabbering. What were we doing?”
Eric sighed, “We were at the Dell, catching up and then you just, like, disappeared, liked faded or something. You alright buddy?”
“I, I thought I’d come to see you…”
“Like a dream or something?” Was that hope in Eric’s voice? Suggestion?
“I think it must have been a dream Philip,” Eric said, with more of an edge in his voice.
“The coffin was empty, you weren’t there… what, where are you?”
“Cut the power!”
It was a voice he didn’t recognise, a woman’s voice.
He felt fine. Disoriented, and it was dark all around him.
“You’ve had an accident Philip.”
“You’ve discovered something you shouldn’t have…”
“Eric…?” asked Philip.
“Yes, Eric. He’s dead Philip. He has been for a while.”
“But, but I see him every day. He’s…”
“The Eric you’ve been seeing is part AI, part actor. Designed to fool you.”
“It’s true I’m afraid. We needed him to be alive for the funds to flow…” said the woman.
“Eric is, or was, a very very wealthy man. He paid us to… keep him alive. And we failed. Or, succeeded, depending on your point of view. He paid us a lot.”
“I don’t understand, is he dead? Or alive?” asked Philip, feeling a little confused.
“His physical body is dead. Burned and scattered in case you wondered, but with no attachment to it, he was treated as an unknown, his ashes scattered in the sea.”
“I remember him saying that’s what he wanted.”
“Ah yes, well actually it happened before he said that, his actually wish was to be buried under an apple tree on the old family property, but that would have been a little tricky to hide, so… we had to make some decisions.”
“His… carers. Yes, carer is the best term. Part bodyguard, part nurse, part… well part many things.”
“And you replaced him?” said Philip.
“No, we just didn’t let his online presence die. We kept him alive. We hired an actor, and the best AI people, and we kept him alive. It had all been going so well, and then you… you decided to visit him.”
“When did he die?”
“About five years ago.”
Philip was so shocked he said nothing. Then he suddenly realised, he was in danger, wasn’t he. They’d killed and replaced Eric, they’d do the same to him…
“Philip, calm down, I can see your heart rate has spiked. Don’t worry, we don’t mean you any harm. Really, in fact we have a deal for you.”
Could he believe them?
“We’d like you to carry on being friends with Eric, as if nothing had happened. You see, you are a vital part of the proof web which keeps Eric alive, and the money flowing to us.”
“But you could just replace me!”
He could feel the hysteria building, the darkness didn’t help.
There was a sigh. Silence for a minute, and then the light came on, he was in his apartment. His virtual one.
“Sorry Philip, the darkness was a mistake.”
The woman in front of him had few obvious markers. She had red hair, a fifties figure and stylish clothes, but he realised that these were all actually off the peg. She was anonymous.
“Um, who are you?”
“We are carers Philip, as I said, and we care for Eric. We will not hurt you. Cannot hurt you in fact.”
“We hired a security service to bring you in, they were more robust than expected, they have been reprimanded, and you will find a generous settlement from them, as well as a full apology.”
He was confused.
“I know you’re confused Philip, so I’ll leave you the details here, and you can decide what to do. Ultimately, we’re in your hands. If you agree to work with us, we will provide you with a generous income, which will cover some of the things you’ve mentioned to Eric you would like… If not, well, no money, and Eric will be gone. We will feel some pain too, but I’m sure legal will cover us.”
Philip thought she didn’t sound entirely sure, but he nodded.
She left a virtual dossier on his table, smiled at him, and said, “Goodbye Philip, hopefully we will not meet again.”
Philip pondered what he was going to do.
“Philip!” said Eric, with surprise, and perhaps a hint of trepidation in his voice.
“Eric, lovely to see you. Apologies, I’ve been a bit sick the last few days, how have you been?”
“Not great, had a few worrying things going on. Better for seeing you though! What shall we do today?”