April 20, 2029
My husband of seventeen years died last year when his car slid on an icy patch and slammed into a truck carrying live chickens. Many of the fattened up birds got free of their cages and ran into the woods and disappeared. I include this detail because my husband had a great sense of humor and would have enjoyed knowing that he died saving a bunch of McNuggets from the slaughterhouse. Not long after his death SystemZone sent me his last neural upload—luckily from only a month before the accident—but I have yet to turn it on. I miss him terribly and I want to tell him what happened, describe the crazy scene of his death—there were feathers everywhere!—but I’m afraid if I start talking to him I won’t be able to stop. I’m only forty-five years old and I want to remarry someday. The thing is, I can’t imagine dating again and I’m starting to wonder if talking to my dead husband would help me get some closure. So my question for you is: do I risk talking to him or should I leave his program on the hard drive, untouched?
April 22, 2029
My daughter died listening to her favorite song. She loved music and hoped to be a singer someday and asked me to play it even though she was barely able to sip water. She listened for several minutes before a small smile—one I hadn’t seen since she’d been diagnosed six months before—crept over her face. And then she was gone. She’d uploaded her neural configuration that morning, as she had every morning since being diagnosed, and my husband and I immediately turned it on and told her that she’d died. She cried for the loss of her body and begged us to explain why this happened to her. But what can you say to an eighteen-year-old about death? I nodded and agreed that it was all just so unfair.
For the first year or two after our decision to activate Samantha I felt like my heart was a ship on a violent sea. Was I plowing full steam ahead into the lightning and the wind and the twenty-foot swells as a way of avoiding the truth, that my daughter was gone, that she’d jumped overboard? Or was she the boat keeping me from drowning? Then I awoke one day and I knew it didn’t matter anymore. Kids grow up and nothing, not even death, can stop that. A month ago she started dating a boy named Brad who also died of cancer. Brad seems like a smart kid. He was an English Lit major at Sewanee College in Tennessee and through him Samantha has developed an interest in Jane Austen and old Barbara Stanwyck movies; these new passions seem to be helping Sam accept her changed existence. I’m happy for her: they make a lovely pair from what I can see, although to be honest, I don’t see much. My daughter keeps her love life hidden from her poor old momma and who can blame her?
By this point you’re wondering when I’m going to get around to answering your question, and you may think that my decision to activate Sam has nothing to do with your own difficult choice. And you’re right about that. You’re entitled to your own grief, your own complicated compromises. What I want you to know is that if you decide to activate your husband he will be exactly as you remember him from the time just before his accident. But you’re not the same anymore. You’ve lived with your grief—with your indecision—for a full year, and he has not. His death will come as a shock to him since, from what you’ve told me, he was still young and healthy and expecting to live a long life. So I can’t help wondering, dear one, what kind of closure you are likely to get from talking to him now. I don’t know your husband, but even the most generous man would need time to process all of this, time you’ve already spent. You so clearly love your husband—I feel that love vibrating through the computer screen—and activating him may very much bring you back into that love. On the other hand, it might make moving forward impossible. Yes, you have a difficult decision to make, so let me offer you this stern bit of advice: if you really wish to move on, you mustn’t leave his neural upload lingering on your computer. Sever your attachment forever. Otherwise, he will always be there tempting you and you will never remarry.
While I don’t know which choice is the right one for you, I wonder if another question might help: do you want to remain frozen? Because no matter which decision you make—to activate him or to destroy his neural upload—you will surely stay as you are if you do not choose. My husband and I made our decision and we now embrace the consequences. So I say just decide what to do—either option is okay—and let that be your life. That’s all anyone can do.
* * *
August 9, 2044
One day about four years ago I couldn’t get out of bed after a bad fall and I knew that was that. I was eighty—a nice round number if you ask me—and I was ready. I told my son I was proud of him for taking over the family cleaning business. You see, for most of his life he acted in community theater but we both knew he wanted to act “for real.” He never once complained. He was a good son. So I was surprised when he told me on my deathbed that he’d always resented me for stifling his potential. He said that if I’d encouraged him just a little bit he would have pursued acting, and even though he now understood how foolhardy such a deal might have been, it had been his life and his choice, and I’d had no business coercing him into a decision that left him secure, but, in his words, “empty inside.” I’d never seen this part of my son before. I tried to talk to him about it, but I was weak, and I couldn’t find the words. He also felt guilty for confessing his thoughts and asked my forgiveness for bringing it up three days before I bit the big one so we never really had a good conversation about the matter.
I was surprised then, when he activated my neural configuration a week ago to ask my advice. In the intervening years since my death he’d gotten divorced, sold the store, and moved to New York to pursue his dream. He was struggling to make ends meet and wanted to know if I thought he—now a forty-four year old man—should give it up and go back into the clothes cleaning business. I have to admit that he looked wan and sad and my first instinct was to tell him, “of course, you dummy!” But his words to me as I lay dying rang in my ears. I don’t want to make the same mistake twice so I told him I needed time to think it over.
What do you think I should do?
Dead and Kicking
August 11, 2044
Dear Dead and Kicking,
It must have been difficult for your son to make a choice that led to the dissolution of his marriage and to see that decision lead to the pain that naturally comes with being an artist. And now that he’s found himself struggling, he’s questioning his choice to switch careers. I can’t read his mind, but it sounds like he’s looking for an excuse to give up. He activated you, it’s my best guess, to provide that excuse, even if he doesn’t realize it. But you should not fall into his trap, my dear reader. One thing I learned from my experiences with my daughter is that it’s important for the living to allow the dead to make their own choices: we simply can’t understand what it’s like on their side. Likewise, I believe the dead have an obligation to the living to allow them to make mistakes that they know could be avoided. You should encourage him to continue to pursue acting, to track down his dream like a hunter stalking the last living boar on the planet; he should continue making the mistakes that make living imperfectly beautiful and tragic. Because soon enough he’ll be on the other side of the divide and, as we’re beginning to see, that side is haunted by fantasies of things that could have been.
About a month ago I was riding the Amtrak train between New York and Boston where I live. I had attended a writing conference in the Big Apple and was returning home, energized by my experiences. New York can do that to the worst of us. A young man sat beside me reading and memorizing a script. I struck up a conversation and it turned out he was an actor in a small downtown theater and was about to perform in a new science fiction play called “The End of it All.” The title made the play sound like a downer, but Kai, my new friend, assured me that it wasn’t; that the human race, after a terrible plague, finds itself better off as computer software. I have my doubts about whether or not a world without human bodies would be the paradise the playwright imagines, but I promised him I would come back and see the play when it opens. I asked how the actors managed to research such a difficult role, and he said that they’d been talking to neural uploads and, after several minutes of back and forth, I discovered that he’d met my deceased daughter, Samantha. Many of you know that she passed away more than ten years ago now and that she vanished three years after that. You can imagine, then, how exciting it was to hear that she was still in there, still interested in the living, even if she could no longer maintain a relationship with her mother. I thought, at first, that it was a tremendous coincidence, but when I thought more about it, I realized that Sam had always been interested in the idea of putting on masks, of discovering what it meant to be something other than who you were. Being dead was a kind of acting, she said to me not long before she vanished: it’s being a face pretending to be a full human being.
I must have asked Kai a hundred and ten questions about Sam, but he said she didn’t share that much personal information with him. She was still dating a lot—he gathered that much because she was always leaving rehearsals early for one rendezvous or another—but she mostly stuck to abstract ideas about what it meant to be among the living while dead: the feeling of being a shadow on the wall, untouched and invisible. He did say, and he put his hand on mine when he said it, that Sam seemed sad. I didn’t bother asking how he knew this because I’d become accustomed to the blackness in her that weighed more than the solar system.
Don’t make the same mistakes I made, my love. This is an opportunity to begin a real conversation with your son about his life, and a chance for him, if he accepts it, to begin to understand you. Why did you encourage him to choose the family business? What do you regret about that? Why did he feel he had no choices as a child? Tell your son you’re proud of him. It sounds like he doesn’t know that. Tell him that you love him. It sounds like he doesn’t realize that either. I wish everyday that I could find a way to communicate with Sam; your son is giving you a chance that I may never get again.
When you two begin to really talk, perhaps your son will find his own identity; maybe he won’t feel the need to prove something to himself anymore. Perhaps he can get a job again.
And find love. And still act. Those pursuits—as Kai showed me—are not mutually exclusive.
That’s what life is, you might remember: it’s a muddled mess. It’s up to us to make it joyful.
* * *
December 12, 2137
I died three years ago, but my husband and I stayed married. We loved each other very much and we never even thought about breaking up. I was a lawyer and died of degenerative heart failure at a fairly young age. After my death, I continued working as a legal consultant and our lives got better in some ways. He took me on his business trips to New York and Japan, which was impossible before. I kept him company every morning when he drove to work, talking to him through the car’s stereo system. We were spending more time together than ever and I was happy and I thought he was too.
He confessed to me about three months ago that he missed having real sex and asked my permission to have an affair. I said I understood and he started sleeping with my old friend Rachel Kramer almost immediately after our conversation. I’d always suspected she had her eye on him, but I didn’t think she was his type—arrogant, angry, gaunt. He picked her, he said, because she and I had been very close and sleeping with her would almost be like sleeping with me. I suspect they’d been talking about this for a while. I still feel obligated to encourage him to enjoy the pleasures of living, but I really hate that he’s having an affair with Rachel. I thought dying would rid me of all the confusing emotions I felt while alive, but, if anything, I’m more confused than ever.
I want to tell my husband how I feel, but I’m afraid if I do he’ll leave me. Please help!
December 12, 2137
I’ve been answering letters like yours now for over a hundred years and much has changed about the world since my own death. One thing that hasn’t: living people need sex and their deceased lovers get jealous. It’s one of the most natural patterns of life and death, and I’m telling you this so you know you’re not alone.
There are many ways you can continue to experience sexual pleasure with your husband: he could wear an earpiece so you can talk to him while he’s having sex with someone else. That would work better with a prostitute so your husband doesn’t feel any emotional connection to the person he’s sleeping with. You could also talk to him as he pleasures himself. Since you and I now reside in this vast electronic universe, I’m sure you’re aware: the neuronet is nothing if not filled with sex. Sex, sex, sex! What I’m wondering, actually, is why you haven’t accessed this information on your own, and why you haven’t talked to your husband about all of this already.
I suspect something else is going on here, my sweet friend.
When I died my husband—his name is Roger—turned on my neural configuration immediately. I was 81 when I passed and Roger was still doing back-flips at 83. We had become accustomed to talking with each other, to comforting each other, to loving each other. No one else knew our history. We shared a sweet two more years of daily reminiscences before he also passed away. When he died we were reunited as electronic voices. We thought we would live this way forever, but forever, as it turns out, is a very long time. my husband, now detached from his body, felt restless. He started dating women both inside and outside the net. He said he wasn’t sure what he was after, though I think he knew very well: he wanted to feel alive. I tried to wait out what I thought was simply a phase and we continued talking every day for an hour or so. He became very sad and even began to regret the life that we’d lived together, thinking that he’d missed out on a lot. Having access now to so many voices, to so many others without the encumbrances of a physical body, without the worries of taxes and a job, can be liberating but also overwhelming. And there was so much to learn from other people, he said. I chalked this up to a bit of melancholia—a condition growing more prevalent on this side—and attempted to stick with him, but his interest in what I had to say was waning. One day he, like my daughter, was simply gone. I searched the neuronet for him, but found no trace. I still think about him all the time: he was a loving father, a corny joke teller, a dedicated math professor, and a complicated person. We are all complicated beings and when you enter the net, with infinite resources and infinite time, there is the chance that you will become something very different from what you were when alive. The SystemZone designers didn’t think about this. It’s happening. It’s wonderful and terrifying: we are evolving. I still hope that someday I will be reunited with my husband and daughter. I continue to search. But you know what: they made their separate decisions because they saw some great potential inherent in death. Perhaps you see this too.
I suspect, my friend, that the reason you haven’t offered to have sex with your living husband is because that intimacy bores you now. It’s okay if that’s true. It’s okay to give yourself permission to date other people if that’s what you feel compelled to do. Your husband senses your distance. He’s having sex with your best friend because he’s clinging to some idea of the way things used to be. You’ve changed. Embrace it. Say goodbye to your husband if that’s what you want and pursue something new. The neuronet is vast. Start exploring.
* * *
February 10, 2168
I killed myself fourteen years ago at age twenty-eight. My lover at the time uploaded my software to the neuronet and I spent the next several years trying to cure my depression. I had body issues to be sure when alive, but I’m not sure why Lover thought I’d be happier as a disembodied voice. We argued constantly and I was relieved when we finally broke up. I begged him to shut down my program but he said I’d have to do it myself, that he was no killer. There is a virus called Also going around that will dissipate all your data: it scatters your ones and zeros to the proverbial winds until it’s as if you never existed. I tracked down an Also dealer and prepared to put an end to my misery. I didn’t feel sorry for myself. I didn’t feel anything. I just wanted it over with.
My dealer was named Tonya. She showed me why death was worth living. She showed me how to travel at light speed. She showed me how to spy on still living lovers who forget to shut down their computers at night. She showed me that living is really a state of mind. Even though my depression was chemical and continued into my neural capture, I began to change. My programming slowly evolved and soon I was a fairly happy person. I even started dating again. First Tonya and I dated, but she didn’t like to stick with one person for long so after we broke up I dated a series of pretty interesting people, some living, some deceased. Then one day I met Samantha. She had a beautiful voice and she hadn’t lost her anger over losing her body at such a young age, even after a hundred or so years inside the box. She was sarcastic and funny. I thought: this is the one. You see, I’m someone who thinks every person is an infinite universe: you can explore them for a lifetime and never stop discovering new galaxies. Your daughter and I were together for three years. Then one day when I was busy spying on a fifty year old man practicing swing dance moves in his living room, she bought two packets of Also and took one.
She never told me she was planning this and I don’t know why she did it. Many of us are bored here. Many of us are overwhelmed by choices. But I don’t know. Like I said, new galaxies.
I’m writing, first, to let you know that this happened. I’m terribly sorry to be the one to convey the news, but I saw in other letters that you’ve been searching for her all these years and I didn’t think it was fair of me to hold back this information. I can’t imagine the pain of losing a daughter, but losing her a second time must be infinitely worse. I heard there are programs that attempt to put the ones and zeros back, but that the results are not good: you end up with a Frankenstein monster version of your loved one. So please don’t try this, however tempting it might be. Sam had her reasons and I’m sure she doesn’t want to come back.
I’m also writing to ask your advice. She left me a packet of Also and I’m seriously considering executing the file and dispensing with my existence. My “it’s all worth it” phase is over. The purpose of life and now, of death, is to find meaning. But I can’t find meaning here anymore. I worked for NASA for a year helping them perfect rocket launches—Sam’s idea—and even that got boring. I’m beginning to think we are not meant to live infinite lives. I don’t believe in a divine being, and for me there is sense in the arc of a human life. We live, we learn, we love, we have children, we hold a job, we decay, we mourn our failures, we celebrate our triumphs, we admit that it was magical. And we die. But what is this?
My old dealer, Tonya, dissipated herself last week. Do I join the many others in Also?
Or do I continue?
February 10, 2168
Dear Deep Ocean,
Thank you for writing. It’s been a difficult series of decades and although I assumed the worst—the very information you conveyed, in fact—it is good to know the truth. My own mother never had the opportunity to exist in this realm, and I felt lucky that my relationship with my daughter was able to continue for even those few short years after her death. Perhaps I became too meddling. Sam, however much she changed inside the net, was always still a girl who died tragically young. She had a rebel’s heart.
I agree that life after death is not all it’s cracked up to be. You may recall, dear reader, that my husband resurfaced a few years ago. He’d gotten remarried, this time to a living man who worked as a cowboy at a western theme park. Roger apologized for all the pain he’d caused me over the years and our friendship entered a kind of coda: a reminder of the original motif, but something different, beautiful and final. All of that lasted a few years before Roger became frustrated with the limitations of our type of existence again. Cowboy said he didn’t mind, that he loved my husband for his sense of humor and encyclopedic knowledge of the history of wine. But relationships just weren’t relationships without “real reality,” according to Roger. He vanished after that and now I believe he is gone, like my daughter, consumed by Also. Many of my old friends are gone too. They died liked valiant Siberian Huskies, crushed by the weight of a million snows on their backs. It has become difficult, even painful, to sort through the tens of thousands of letters I receive every day. So many are filled with despair, though few are able to articulate the reasons for those feelings as well as you, my gentle friend.
Sometimes unhappiness is the price we pay for knowledge, Deep Ocean. In my experience, however, death is a portal: a place of wisdom and, yes, a new kind of happiness. For me the answer is clear: keep going. There is only one version of yourself and when it’s gone, not even its echo will be loud enough to say what we must until there’s no more saying anything: I exist!
* * *
April 9, 3066
I’m terrified of the new plan SystemZone has devised and wondering if you have any advice. Like everyone, I mourned the passing of the last living human, Alice X, yesterday, but now that she’s dead and they’re ready to hit the plunger, I’m scared. To me there is still so much to learn on this side and it just doesn’t seem fair that I won’t get the chance to live out my death like all of you got to. I’ve only been dead a few years and actually prefer this life to the one that had become so awful on the living side. It was so hot there, not at all like what you remember from your time. The air itself burned your lungs and there were bugs everywhere.
But here everything is quiet and I don’t feel anything unless I want to.
Sure, I get that so many people got unhappy and felt displaced and all that, but how is this better? Isn’t this just another version of Also? Some kind of great combining of all our minds into one super mind? How can we be sure that’s really what’s going to happen when they hit the plunger—and do they have to call it that, like they’re flushing us down the toilet?
I also have to say that I think this is very unfair to Alice X. She was an amazing and generous person: she communicated with thousands of us on this side on a monthly basis, just because she saw it as her obligation. And now she’ll get like five minutes of being dead before—pow!—she’s part of some greater organism or whatever. How can SystemZone do this to her?
To me? How can you be part of it? Can this be stopped? Help me! I don’t want to be plunged!
Pissed and Scared
Dear Pissed and Scared,
I had a dream that lasted a thousand years. In the dream I was the immovable trunk of a towering sequoia, stretching toward the cobalt sky, surrounded by other great trees, all resisting the icy winters, the howling winds, the scorching sun. Some of us were struck by lightning and died on our feet, hardening into charred effigies, others fell down under their own weight. The rest of us kept stretching, hoping that if we reached the sky we would discover some truth about our existence. I dreamed I had willpower, that I had thoughts and desires and hopes. I was a mother. I was a daughter, a wife. I was an advice columnist, all while the magnificent trees around me cracked and stretched through their own chaotic dreams. The dreams are over and now that we’re awake we see that we were never any of these things, least of all a singular, towering sequoia. We were always tiny branches on a single tree; yes, even the insects and plants and other animals. We were growing together all that time, but we were too much concerned about feeding the leaves that extended from our tiny selves, about our petty, singular problems. No one sees that more clearly than Carlotta.
But that’s okay. We’ve evolved: for we now know that the sky itself is an illusion and there is no truth that can satisfy an individual. We hoped to be gods, but we were not gods. We are and always were we.
My sweet, final reader, fear not your fate. You are a single cell in a being that will move off this dying planet and begin exploring the universe. We are love.
Jonathan Kravetz is the founder and former editor-in-chief of the literary webzine Ducts.org. His plays have been produced in New York, Dallas and Brighton, England, and he holds an MFA from Queens College. His short story “Conch” was named the fiction category winner for the Fall 2017 issue of Cardinal Sins. He’s been published in All the Sins, Drunk Monkeys and others, and his short story “The David” was turned into a podcast by Welltoldtales.com. He works and teaches in New York City.