DeathNet

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Father’s Day. He always started off the week leading up to Father’s Day coming up with all the possible excuses not to visit his father. A presentation that needed tweaking, a new romance that needed coaxing…something. However, when it came right down to it, he always made the trip; this year would be no exception. He sat on the edge of the hotel bed, staring at his hands, thinking about how different he and his father were. He slowly rotated his hands around looking at the well manicured nature of them, the pushed back cuticles, the perfectly trimmed nails and the buttery, softness of his hands, and he felt acutely ashamed. He clenched his fists, feeling his trimmed nails bite into his palms. He would wait until dark to make the trip, so there would be less chance of other visitors.

A few hours later, he walks out of the hotel entrance towards the idling rental car. He presses his thumb against the rear passenger window and the door actuates open. He slides inside and mutters his destination, the door closing automatically. The car pulls away from the curb and makes it way along roads that he’d wished he’d forgotten. He sees the specters of his youth standing on a familiar corner, like a movie playing out from his past he sees two classmates jumping his best friend, while he stands by frozen with fear. His nails, once again, digging into his palms.

The road, now bordered by trees, winds it way to the outskirts of the city. A big wrought iron gateway opens at his approach and the motion activated streetlights brighten, leaving a trail through the hills of Woodlawn. The nearest tombstones visible in the lights glow, like jutting teeth of long forgotten giants. He looked at these headstones and wondered if family visitors were better off with these relics.

The streetlights behind him slowly went out as the lights up ahead lit up, making it seem like he was traveling through a void in a bubble of light, where trees and tombstones came into existence and then disappeared into oblivion. The cenotaph sat atop a plateau. It glowed from within a peaceful blue and was back-lit from the city lights in the valley behind. The car coasted into the parking circle, stopping beneath the porte-cochere. He steps out of the car, the door closing behind him, and small LED lights bordering the path to the foyer come to life. His hand drifts into his left jacket pocket, tracing the smooth round surface with his fingertips. His legs move woodenly, his heels dragging across the concrete, like gravity was fighting his every step. He plods on.

He places his thumb against the front door and it slowly swings inwards, the foyer changing from being lit with pale-blue light to regular LED. A panel in the far wall slides open and a coat hook slides forward, then after he deposits his coat it slides into the recess and the wall is whole again. The interior door swings open and a faint green line pulses on the floor to show the way to his father’s kiosk. The digital wall map shows that the illuminated path is the most direct route, as there are currently no other visitors to be diverted around. The heels of his dress-shoes sound hollow reverberating off the marble floors.

At about thirty feet from an intersection in the hallway, there seemed to a flicker of light to the left, in the direction that he was going, and the sounds of conversation are barely audible. He strains to hear over the clumping of his heels, but just as he is certain that it is people talking he can no longer hear it. Nearing the intersection the faint flickering of light is gone as well. He begins to wonder if he is alone or just imagining the whole thing, which wouldn’t be surprising considering where he is. He glances at the dormant kiosks that line both sides of the hallway. Some are made of marble, others are made of darkly stained wood. These personal touches make the experience seem more homey, less like using a vending machine. People leave personal effects, like flowers, flags or bottles of the deceased’s favorite alcoholic beverages. In here they don’t become sun-bleached and faded…they remain.

The green line stops ssix kiosks ahead and points to the right side of the hall. He takes a deep breath and remembers that as a child, in the back seat of his father’s car, him and his friends would hold their breath while passing cemeteries, and a half -smile creeps across his face. He dropped into the hard, wooden, straight-backed chair and exhaled forcefully, then placed his thumb on the wooden kiosk in front of him. The smell of ozone is there, or at least he imagines so every time he accesses his father’s simprint. A life-like, three dimensional representation of his father’s head, rises from the center of the kiosk. His father’s eyes are closed and the buzz-saw of his snoring echoes throughout the hallway.

“Funny, dad. You haven’t lost your touch,” even though it’s the sixth time you made this joke, he thinks, as he straightens himself in his seat.

“How you been, boy?” his eyes opening slowly, as a shit-eating grin dominates his face.

“Good, dad. Busy.”

“Still have time for your old man…that’s good. How’re them Jets looking? They got a shot this year?”

“I don’t know dad, I haven’t followed football since you di—, uh…yeah, they’re looking good. They’re young, but they’re really starting to gel. So, I…uh, got you something for Father’s Day,” he places a coffee cup, from his pocket, onto the kiosk. His fingers grip the rim and rotate the cup towards the simprint cam, which is used primarily for facial recognition.

“World’s Greatest Coffee Connoisseur. Man, now there’s something I miss. What I wouldn’t give for a cup of Jamaican Blue Mountain or maybe some Kona!”

“Hey dad, look…I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have got you this. I should’ve know how much you missed coffee and you certainly don’t need this as a reminder.”

“No. I love it. Sometimes we need to be reminded about…about the parts of us that are gone or untouchable.”

It still floored him when his father’s simprint was able to come up with new ideas, but ideas that felt truly genuine to him. They’ve come a long way. The first generation were simple hologram heads with a handful of prerecorded greetings—not even an integrated facial recognition cam for tailoring the greetings to respective visitors. Then the next leap was the hard drive Max, where whole brain emulation became possible, but the AI of the time couldn’t support it, so it was static and reacted like the main character from the TV series Max Headroom—glitchy, erratic and more or less an accessible database of information that has zero short-term memory. It was this latest generation, his father’s, that acquired the AI complexity to support actual interactivity. The whole brain emulation, or upload, was imprinted into the AI support structure and with the latest in solid state hard drive tech and immense amounts of RAM the holo-head, or avatar could react and learn in real time.

There was a time when people had the simprint installed at their homes, but half of the people would become overly obsessed with it and the other half would become incredibly depressed, having a constant reminder of the loved one lost, the reminder capable of everything but the close, warm hug that most truly desired or needed. In one of the strangest examples of simprint usage, a narcissistic, megalomaniac, industrialist willed his simprint be put in charge of his empire. One of his children and 6 members of his board committed suicide before year’s end. An unexplained accident burned out the imprint storage and the backup was never found. In the fine print of his will he had a clause that if something of this nature were to happen, that all of his assets would be liquefied and given to his afghan hound, who was already scheduled to have a simprint done.

“Listen, son, there is something that I need to tell you.”

“I know, you’d wished I had gone into a trade and not wasted my life away trying to become a writer.”

“No, no, no…not at all! I know that I’ve been hard on you in the past, but I think that you were meant to be exactly what you are, and for good reason. You’ve told me before that you’d tried your hand at mystery writing, right?”

“Yeah…”

“Well, have I got some story ideas for you! They’ll take some research, but I’m sure you’ll make out great!”

“What are you talking about?”

“Well…let me introduce you to some of my friends.”

All of the simprints in the hallway come on in unison and give various greetings that echo off into the distance. He stumbles to the floor getting out of the chair and steps back until hes flush with the wall, arms spread, looking up and down the hall, as all of these avatars look at him with smiles.

“Wh-wh-what is going on here?”

“Listen. I told them about you and we’ve decided that you’re just the guy to help out. I have to make this quick, in case someone else comes to visit. You are the only one who will know what I am going to tell you. We, us simprints, have been communicating. We have a fantastic network, that uses all of our own specialties and skill sets, and some of us have need of your…mobility. We can only talk with each other here at this cenotaph”

“I…I don’t understand.”

“We need you to settle some scores and widen our network. We have resources that family haven’t figured out yet, so your expenses will be covered. I need you to visit Mrs. Beaumont, get her story, then go to the Washington DC cenotaph and upload a little code to a sympathetic, so our reach can get longer. Connect your phone to the wifi and open your bluetooth. Now the fun begins.”

“Now the fun begins?”

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The Solution (Part 3): Jacob’s Ladder

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The motorized kiosk moves along on caterpillar tracks, stopping momentarily at each job station. Jacob estimates it’ll be to him in less than 5 minutes. He quickens his pace assembling another print head. Just when he gets really good at assembling one of these 3D print heads they come out with another model. A touch of solder and a couple screws zipped in with the pneumatic and this unit is done.
“Good morning, 972378.”
“Good morning to you, supervisor,” Jacob glances at the designator on the kiosk, “343.”
The computer generated face on the kiosk almost seems to smile. The kiosk makes a loop around Jacob’s workstation and stops again, in front of him. Jacob, knowing the drill, sets what he’s working on down and stands at attention. He glances at the red flashing light next to the onboard vid and sees that a red hooded figure is monitoring the interaction in a window in the upper-right corner of the monitor. He takes a steady, deep breath.
“You are surpassing the standard by two units, but you are one unit behind your average and three units behind your record pace. Reflections?”
“I think that there are fluctuations in the air pressure to the pneumatic screw gun, that are causing some time loss, but…”
“Analysis of i/o monitoring indicates no fluctuations, would you like to reconsider you reflection?”
“I would’ve sworn, but…well, I guess I’m just not obtaining maximal output. I was planning on staying over, off the clock, to achieve a Tier 1. Will this station be available?”
“Yes. You’re positive reaction will be noted for your next review,” and the kiosk moves off.
Jacob felt pretty good, with hitting Tier 1 for the past 6 months, that his upcoming performance appraisal would prompt a promotion. He was due. Positive thoughts brought positive results and these motherfuckers owed him. His time in the trenches should be at an end.
No one reported to him so he not only didn’t need to wear a hood at work…he wasn’t allowed to. Management passed a rule years ago that entry level employees weren’t allowed to wear their hoods; the thought was that it would create camaraderie and eliminate any non-team players. All Jacob knew was that it meant practicing his smile in the mirror for hours…getting his eyes just right was the hard part, as it seemed a very fine line between sincere and insane.
* * *
Calling it happy hour seemed somehow ironic to Jacob. A third of the people in here were fueling a self-destructive addiction, another third were getting toxed to forget the miseries of their lives, and the other third…well, that was him. He slipped the straw into the drinking port of his hood and hoped it wouldn’t take too many of these to loosen him up. He glanced around the bar and could easily pick out those on the make by their exaggerated posturing. Men walked around like four star generals, while the women thrust their boobs and asses out and flopped their hands around when talking. He imagined it to be a circus and regretted not developing a link with a girl back in elementary school as his mother told him he should. He could’ve avoided all this.
Three drinks later and he was finally invited to a privacy booth. Her voice was light, airy and carried a long buried southern lilt that she must’ve worked very hard to erase. They slid into the booth and closed the door. She started to reach for her facescreen in her hood, but Jacob gently reached out for her hand to stop her.
“Let’s take this slow. How’s about we pick top or bottom for each other?””Oh, sure…you’re cautious. That’s cool. ”
“No…it’s not that, I just want to leave a little mystery for later. If things progress, then we can really open up.”
“Umm…ok, you go top.”
“You go bottom.”
They both reach for their facescreens. Jacob un-velcros the top and rolls it down to the bridge of his nose, while she rolls up the bottom half of hers. He felt vulnerable, though he wasn’t showing his whole face, but seeing this woman open up to him had his heart racing and he could feel his face flush. She had full lips that had a pouty appearance and she was lightly chewing at the right corner of her mouth. Now he wished he had seen her whole face…her mouth was beautiful and she had a delicately, feminine jawline.
“You have beautiful eyes. Are they grey?”
“Thank you, yes. You have a beautiful…smile.”
“I don’t mean to pry, but I thought it was a little odd that you’d brought a planner with you, but I see from the embossing that you work at RepliCorp. My cousin is a mid-level manager there. What floor do you work on?”
Jacob’s heart sank. He couldn’t possibly tell her that he worked on the lower third and if her cousin worked there then lying was out of the question. Game over. He apologized and excused himself, not looking forward to the long, cold walk home.

The Solution (Part 2): I’m Will

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I look around the waiting room, trying not to make eye contact. My eyes settle on the old magazines fanned out on the coffee table…some look decades old. I rub at my old aching knees and look at my hands, which are thin, frail and covered in age spots. Not the strong hands from my youth; the hands that carried Edith across the threshold. I close my eyes and feel a tear trace its way down my cheek. In that darkness a distant light of memory approaches and I am once again in the all-to-familiar world of the past.

***

Edith is there. We’re in our old kitchen, the one before I moved into a one room efficiency. She’s telling me about how she thinks she’s really reaching her students this year and her face is lit with an inner joy.

“I’m telling you…they’re really getting it! I started the year out by giving them the ability to bye one test score—gone. But I tell them that there are extra credit assignments, available to those that don’t use their bye, that add up to two tests worth of points! You see where I’m going with this?”

I smile, “Yes, my love. I think it’s wonderful. It’s just sad that—“

“I know baby, but that the world we live in.“

I smile back, though it feels only half genuine, and as I look at her, her face slowly goes slack. Her eyes slowly close, her once parted lips seal tight and her face is suddenly covered in far too much makeup. I stand up and walk towards her, as I do she slowly reclines back. I reach her side and suddenly she is in her coffin and I am in my one black suit, preparing to shake hands with all of the people she’s touched. The place is filled with faceless people. Only the little ones, her students, who haven’t reached age yet, come in wearing their grief for all to see. One little curly-haired boy goes up to view and whisper something to Edith. I swear he tells her that she should’ve done the extra credit.

***

I open my eyes. A couple of the people in the waiting room are looking at me, but quickly turn their hooded faces away when they notice I’ve opened my eyes. I feel vulnerable and quickly grab a 7-year-old issue of Time and hide behind it. Warm tears stream down my face. Blinking the tears away, I glance at the clock, which wavers like a Dali painting. They’re 20 minutes late calling me in and two people were here when I came in. Glancing over at the admin, she’s sitting behind a PC in a standard, white hood and her nameplate generically says, “Administrative Assistant.”

After a few moments the admin announces number 72 and I check my ticket, though I know it says 74. I want to scream out that I am not number 74, that I’m Will. I choke back the rage and look at my frail hands lying limp in my lap. I’m Will.

The Solution (Part 1): We the People

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We thought we were all so smart. We had it all figured out. The greatest of us, the deep thinkers, the philosophers, the PHDs, and the psychologists all weighed in and we crafted The Solution. Our world had become too chaotic, we needed peace of mind and this seemed to be a buoy we could cling to in the rough waters. We bought into the concept hook-line-and-sinker, but what really excited us, what really had us salivating was how suddenly everything felt like an even playing field. There was no lottery, no tests to pass or fail, and though we knew that the start of it all would be chaotic, we felt powerful…a little deus ex machina in each of our pockets. The hope was that when the dust settled we would walk out anew and better for having gone through it.

Violence, already at an all-time high, was fueled by the hate mongering of the last President, whose very breath when he spoke seemed to fan what was only embers of our human frailty into raging forest fires of hate. We needed peace, to be able to walk through our towns without fear…to become the great nation that was promised us by the previous administration. When The Solution was in its infancy it held the hope of a better tomorrow, it felt like the panacea for our moral decay just might be within our reach.

We followed the talks held by officials on TV, we formed our own local committees, weighed in during town hall meetings, and we cast our opinions out into the ether of every social media platform we had access to. These acts alone seemed to give us a unification we hadn’t witnessed in generations. Then we waited.

Civil service exams were held, offices erected and what seemed like a dream was made real by every city, town and hamlet having their very own federal office to administer The Solution. We were all sent an official letter from on high, outlining the rules and provisions of The Solution. All social media platforms were inundated with The Solution notifications and our TVs rang out in unison with Emergency Broadcast System alerting us that The Solution would be in full effect on the first of the upcoming month.

Now, three generations later, most of us can’t remember a time before The Solution. It has simply become a part of our lives. We were all so smart…