“Wake up, honey, or you’re going to be late for work again.”
I rolled over in bed and groaned.
“Stacy, you asked me to make sure you didn’t oversleep again and here it as, almost 8:00. If you don’t log in within the next ten minutes, it’s going on your record. Can you afford another pay decrease?”
My grandmother was right, as always. I had been given two warnings. If I logged in late a third time, it would be a mandatory pay cut, which I definitely couldn’t afford.
“Fine,” I grumbled as I hit the button to raise myself into a sitting position and pulled the keyboard tray over in front of me. The screen on the wall lit up and I saw the time. 7:58. I hurried to hit the login button and took a deep breath only when I saw the green light that meant I had made it to work on time.
“Thanks, Gram, I owe you one,” I said and heard her light laugh in response as I got to work. I finished my assigned tasks by 11:00 and debated whether or not to continue on my optional project or take a break for some food. My stomach growled and that answered that question. I logged off and headed to the fridge for something to eat. Some of my friends had put in a food replicator, but that was more than I could afford. I still had to prepare my food with my own two hands like some kind of cave woman. I stared at the scant selection and debated sending out for something, but decided I didn’t want to wait that long. Fifteen minutes sounds like a short time, but it’s an eternity when you’ve skipped breakfast yet again.
“Hey, Gram,” I called out as I pulled out a yogurt, “why don’t you cook for me, anymore. I miss your chicken noodle soup.”
“Gee, I don’t know,” my Gram said with a wry tone to her voice, “maybe because I’m dead.”
“You use that excuse a lot, you know,” I teased and flopped into the chair by the one window in my efficiency apartment. My place was tiny, just enough room for the essentials, a bed/recliner for sleep and work, a fridge and reheater for food, an alcove with a shower and toilet, and not much else. I only had two luxuries, a second chair for a visitor to use or, more often, as a change of pace from my primary furniture, and a window. I had debated whether or not to pay extra for the window, but I had never regretted it. I was just glad I lived in a small town where the rent was more affordable. I had heard of two or more people sharing an apartment not much bigger than mine. I tried to imagine it and my mind boggled.
Now I looked out over the town and saw that traffic was heavier than usual. There were over two dozen cars out on the roads.
“What’s the bustle about down there, Gram?” I asked as I ate my lunch.
“It’s a holiday, isn’t it?”
“Is it? What’s the date, anyway?”
“July 4, 2082,” she said promptly.
“Oh, is it? That’s a holiday?”
“What are they teaching you kids these days? It’s the Fourth of July, nimwit.”
I shrugged. “Yeah, that’s what you said, July 4, so?”
“The Fourth of July? Independence Day?”
“Oh,” the light dawned, “that’s ancient history, right? Is that still a holiday?”
“Barely,” Gram muttered, “evidently some people still care about the old traditions. I hear there are some companies that still give their employees holidays off.”
“Wouldn’t that be nice,” I said with a laugh. “Speaking of which, my lunch break is about over. I’d better get back to work.”
Gram wished me luck and then went off to do whatever it is the dead do when they’re not talking to the living. I assumed she had other friends and family to talk to and didn’t think much about it.
My grandmom told me that when she was a kid you would just die and that was it, there was no afterlife. There was no real internet for one thing, not the way we know it now. There were interconnected computers and some rudimentary AI, but not the sweeping, global connections we enjoy. I asked her what happened to your soul before the internet and she tried to explain death and religion, heaven and hell, but it didn’t make much sense.
We know people have souls, obviously, because that’s what goes into the internet when your body stops working, but we don’t have death, not anymore. Everyone is connected to the internet at birth and, when your body wears out, your soul just transfers over. My grandparents were part of the second generation that made the transfer. Sadly, none of my great grandparents made it over before they died, so their souls were lost forever, along with all of the generations before them. Now, almost no one really dies. I hadn’t lost a friend or family member since my grandparents’ generation, although I knew someone who knew someone who had.
I couldn’t imagine dying permanently, it was my greatest fear. As a child, when I first learned about true death, I had nightmares about it. I couldn’t sleep well for weeks until my Granddad realized what I was worrying about. He’s the one who explained the process and made me see how impossible it was to die now without soul transfer. He had recently made the transition himself, and he told me how tight the controls are and how many fail safes the system has. The details were over my head at the time, but he stayed with me throughout the nigh, reassuring me, until I realized that I was safe. I would never die, not like people of ancient times. My soul would never just disappear; it would be held safely in the internet.
I finished my workday at 3:00, automatically logged off by my supervising program. I had just enough time to mark my current task as complete before the display changed to my home screen. My employer was a stickler for hours, but at least they didn’t expect overtime.
I sat back in my chair, adjusting it to semi-recline and took a deep breath for the first time in hours. I was good at my job, but the new kids were practically born knowing how to code and it was already getting hard to keep up with them. I was going to have to transfer to something else soon. At 30, I was already considered too old for this career. I read once that there used to be protections against age discrimination, but that didn’t make any sense to me. Obviously, old people couldn’t keep up, they just weren’t as fast and it took too long to teach them the new techs. I had heard that more people were opting for a permanent retirement earlier every year.
I thought about it, and not for the first time. Because of my genes I had been rejected for reproduction, so I had no parental responsibilities. My income had never been enough for me to make a permanent attachment so I had no spousal responsibilities, either. With the planet stretched to its limit, only a lucky few were allowed a pet, and I hadn’t won that lottery, so no dog or cat needed me, either.
“Gram,” I asked, suddenly, “do you mind being dead?”
She responded within a few seconds, “No, babe, I’m good. Why do you ask?”
“I don’t know. I was just thinking about all of the hassle of changing jobs and employers and it just seems like a lot. I was just wondering if maybe it was time for me to opt out, you know? I mean, I’d still get to talk to everyone, but I wouldn’t have to work anymore and I could just spend my days doing anything I want, right? No more schedule, no more boring job…” I tapered off.
I could almost hear her shrug. “It’s an option, but you know there are a few downsides. No more chocolate, for one thing.”
I laughed. “Do you know how long it has been since we’ve had chocolate? And the imitation stuff is just not the same.”
“Good point, but there is no food at all, good or bad. I do miss eating.”
“I don’t think I’d miss it, and I sure wouldn’t miss going hungry.” The food rationing was getting tight and I had noticed that even celebrities were getting unfashionably thin. There was a lot of talk about thin being the new curvy, but I didn’t buy it. I looked down at my own flat frame and sighed.
“What about the other senses: smell and touch? You wouldn’t miss the smell of flowers or the feel of a hug?” Gram sounded serious now, all hint of teasing gone.
“I haven’t smelled a real flower in ages and when was the last time I got to see anyone in person? Travel is too expensive. I wouldn’t be missing out on anything.” I was really warming up to the idea. Would the transition be that bad? I could spend all day hanging out with people I loved and I heard that even souls could sleep.
“Do you dream, Gram?” I asked. I had heard theories, but had never asked.
“My life is a dream,” she said and I couldn’t read her tone. “I go wherever I want in a thought. I have all of the world’s knowledge whenever I want it. I can watch or read anything I want. I have no worries about money or death or taxes. Even the current administration hasn’t figured out how to tax the dead.”
“Give them time,” I muttered.
“Indeed,” she chuckled. “Look, I’m not trying to persuade you one way or another, but, despite the promises made to us when the transfer first became available, it doesn’t look like we’re ever going to be able to transition back.”
Early on, the idea had been that the soul transfer would be temporary until the scientists could figure out how to put souls back into bodies. But the resources of the planet were strained enough without adding reborn souls into the mix and that idea had quietly faded away.
“Maybe, if they open up Mars to colonists…” I started, but she cut me off.
“They don’t have the funding for it, you know that. Even if they solved the technical difficulties of getting souls into new bodies, do you really think the living would let reborn people take over a whole new planet, if they had one? No, I’ve accepted that this is my life after death and I’m happy enough. I just don’t want you to rush into it. You only get one life, and death, so far, is forever. Besides, you could be one of the failures.”
“That’s not very likely, is it? Only .001% of all deaths end in transition failure. That’s not a very high risk.”
“Still, you never know. Why chance it if you don’t have to?”
“I guess you’re right. Well, if I have to keep living, I guess I’ll go eat something. Sure you don’t want to cook for me?”
“I would if I could. Love you.”
“Love you, Gram.”
After a quick, unsatisfying dinner, I spent the evening in VR, hanging out with friends, hardly remembering which ones were living and which were transitioned. In some cases I wasn’t even sure, but realized it didn’t matter. Here we were all equal.
I didn’t think much about my convo with Gram until later that year. I received a memo from my employer, noting that my position had been transferred to another citizen.
Just like that I was unemployed.
I had three weeks to find new employment or I would be put on work detail with the city. In the middle of an interview, one morning, a few days later, I got a ping from official channels. My mother had just died. I finished the interview, another no, and called out.
“Mom, are you there?”
“Hey there, Stace, how’s the job search going?”
“Forget the job search. Did you just die?”
“Sure did. I guess they notified you?”
“Yes, of course. What happened? Is Dad okay?”
“He’s fine. It’s all a little hazy, but the transition went smoothly and everything is okay here. I’m a little worried about you, though. You really need to get another job, honey. You are not strong enough for physical work.”
That was just like Mom, she never did believe in me.
“I’ll be fine, Mom, one way or another.”
“A mother worries, you know,” she said and then she was gone, probably to check on Dad.
I wondered how he would handle the transition, but knew Mom would keep on eye on him. She had always taken care of him more than the reverse. Dad was brilliant, but not at all practical. If she didn’t remind him, he would forget to eat and then he’d be dead, too.
Unfortunately, my mom was right, and I didn’t find another job. I was given a low-level city job, which covered my food rations and basics, but after a month the writing was on the wall, literally, I was going to be evicted and would need to report to the city hostels for housing. Dad offered to help, but at 50, he was nearing retirement age and couldn’t afford to spare much.
My last day in my tiny apartment, I lay on my recliner and stared into the future. Sure, there was some hope that, with advanced training, I could get another job, but the market was tighter than ever. A new bill had recently been proposed, suggesting that transitioned souls be allowed to continue working, which would mean even fewer jobs for the living.
I lay there and thought hard about it. I could go to the hostel and live surrounded by other desperate, starving people, or I could transition now. What did I have to lose?
I held the transition capsule in my hand and stared at it, so tempted, but I couldn’t do it. Some part of me told me not to give up. Not yet.
The irony isn’t lost on me that I died only a week later. My mother hadn’t been wrong when she said I wasn’t made for physical labor after all. The genetic issues that kept me from reproducing also caused some heart issues I could never afford to get fixed. I could have saved myself a week of labor, but I’ll never be sorry that I waited. Who knows how things would have gone if I had rushed the end of my life.
From the first chest pain until I passed was just moments. I barely had time to experience the agony before my life faded from me.
After a timeless interval, I woke in a field, the scent of grass and spring flowers strong in the air. I could feel the sun beaming down on me and the breeze blowing across my face.
I lifted my head and saw a light across the field, brighter even than the sun. I felt pulled toward it and found myself moving without consciously planning to.
This was not what I had expected. The internet was full of descriptions of the transition, and this didn’t fit. Not at all. The afterlife was supposed to be cool and distant, a little like VR, nothing like this assault on my senses. I couldn’t remember the last time I had felt the sun on my face or smelled anything other than reheated food or artificial perfumes. I inhaled deeply, suddenly desperate for the smell of nature and life.
Something had obviously gone wrong. Was this a hallucination or a dream before the transition? But it felt so real, more real than anything I had experienced in a very long time.
I saw a crowd of people coming from the light and I knew them, although I couldn’t have given a name to any one of them. I knew that I had known and loved them in another time, another place. They greeted me with so much love and welcome that I felt tears of joy flooding my eyes. From among the crowd came a woman whose face I recognized. She was my Gram’s mother, my great-grandmother. She kissed me on the forehead and enfolded me in her arms.
“I’m so glad you made it out,” she said, holding my face in her hands. I felt her love and concern and the tears fell – not for myself, but for those I had left behind.
Just before I entered the light, I turned back and mourned the tragedy of the world I was leaving behind. I was one of the lucky .001% who had escaped the trap we had created.
I had not transitioned as my grandparents and mother and friends had done. Their souls were bound to the technology of man, the trap that kept them from progressing as they were meant to do.
I turned and moved into the light, praying that one day my loved ones would be loosed from their prison; free to be with me in paradise.