Discover more from The Sprawl: Speculative Fiction
My pop’s avatar keeps blowing up my phone. The afterlife is boring, he says. Like it’s my fault he swallowed the flavor packet in the ramen bag and choked to death.
His wearable pinged the proper authorities or something like that, but they were too late. They found Pop on the kitchen floor in his boxer briefs. Real gross. But they got there in time to freeze his brain, which was lucky for him.
I roll down the I-5, vibing real hard and enjoying the way the drones merge lanes like they’re telepathic or something, when Pop’s sigil pulses. It’s the total worst. And being his only living relative, I’m the meat bag that’s got to take it. Like, come on, Pop, there’s plenty of deads you can bother. But fine, I pull him up and give him a nice smile, since I’m a great son.
“It never rains here,” he says. “They promised realism and it never rains.”
“You’re from California.”
“I want weather permutations. Big weather matrices? You got to call someone out there.”
“You can call as good as me.”
“But you have legs.”
He had me there. “I’ll file a complaint. But you know it doesn’t get anywhere.”
I hit the eject button and his avatar bursts into nothing. I have twenty more minutes of this traffic dance and I want to chill out and enjoy it before the big meeting. Can’t let dead Pop ruin my commute.
As my drone tries to merge into traffic, its front end bumps the rear end of the drone in front of us, and both instantly pull out of line and into the breakdown lane.
I stand there staring at the damage: two small scratches and a dent.
“Has this ever happened to you before?” I ask.
The lady from the other drone shakes her head. “Never.”
In the end, we both leave. Nothing else for it. Real bizarro.
We cremate his body on a Tuesday, two weeks after he went to heaven. He insists on the Full Catholic ceremony. I’m like, Pop, it’s just meat, who cares? But he pays, so whatever. The priest intones his biblical stuff, then we throw some dirt on the floor before they slide Pop’s meat sack into the oven. I get the ashes, but I’m like, what do I do with this stuff? The priest says some weirdos keep it in a jar on their mantle. No thank you to that one.
We opted for a physical afterlife. Like, the engram copying is totally not the same thing and everyone knows it. There’s got to be continuity. So they had to harvest Pop’s brain and stick it in a big blue and white cooler for storage. It left a real nasty stain on the carpet. I’m still pretty annoyed about that. Ruined Pop’s apartment resale.
But he made it to the facility. He’d been dead for ten minutes before they got to him, and there was some question over whether there’d be anything left. They warmed him up just enough, plugged him in, and boom, there was Pop, floating in the ether. He freaked at first, but no kidding. He was dead.
“Cell won’t work,” I say to the priest as we step out of the mausoleum-thingy.
“Mine won’t either.” He frowns and jostles the device in the air. “Strange.”
Pop’s sigil flashes and I answer. “How’d the burial go?” he asks.
“Cremation. Real tasteful. You’d be proud.”
He sounds depressed. “I feel like I can’t smell.”
“I’ll talk to the developers.”
Pop rings one evening while I’m busy facial cleansing. I answer with the mask still on. “Listen, Nathan, I need you to do something for me,” he says.
“There aren’t enough people here.”
“What do you mean, not enough people?”
“I walk outside and see ten, maybe twenty people all day. Can you imagine? A world with ten or twenty people all day?”
Hard to picture on my end. Overpopulation and all that. “I’m not sure what I can do about it.” I give him a twisted smile and look real creepy in the beauty mask. “Maybe I can go kill some folks. That might help.”
Pop rolls his eyes. “I’m just saying, maybe we’re with the wrong company. Can you get me transferred to another afterlife? Or maybe there’s a more populated server?”
“I’ll see what I can do. But you can call too.”
“Legs, Nathan. And a face. And a voice. I’m just a brain in a jar now.”
“Bye, Pop.” I hung up and went back to getting gorgeous.
Customer service is the total pits. I stand in line at the call drop just to face a screen. They make you hump your ass all the way out to the middle of town to try and limit the number of complaints they get per day. Total jerk move, but not much we can do, since they control the afterlife and all.
The service girl is cute and smiles when it’s my turn. “What can I do for you?”
“My pop says the afterlife is empty.”
Her smile doubles. I get the feeling they’re trained to smile bigger instead of frowning. “I’m sure we can fix that. Name and customer account number?” I rattle off the info. She clucks her tongue. “Looks like his world’s packed to the max, I’m afraid.”
“He says it’s empty.”
She gives me another smiling frown. “Current worlds are capped at thirty people. Your father may have some adjusting to do.”
“Thirty people?” I look back and at the old lady behind me, like, is this service girl for real? But the old lady isn’t having that. “Come on, thirty people is crazy. Thirty people for eternity is insane.”
“We can shift him to an open world if he’s not getting along with his current neighbors.”
“Are there updates coming? Thirty people forever, it’s just—it’s supposed to be heaven.”
“It’s a physical afterlife, sir, and updates roll out on an ongoing basis.”
So he’s hosed. I thank the service girl since it’s polite then stomp back to my drone. I’ll ask him about changing to a new world, but he won’t be happy.
Not that I can blame him. Thirty people in his entire existence. That’s some rough stuff, right there.
The lights in my apartment flicker for a week after I give Pop the bad news. I complain to the maintenance guy but he’s got his head so far up the ass of his VR vids that I’m pretty sure he doesn’t experience the real world anymore. I bet he’ll opt for cloning, the psychopath. Pop refuses to change worlds, on principle, so there’s not much I can do.
His sigil pulses almost every night. Half the time, I ignore the thing. My screens go fuzzy though, and no matter how much I smack the control units, nothing plays. I answer Pop out of boredom.
“The street ends,” he says one night after a particularly loud screeching sound played from my stove for twenty minutes.
“I don’t know what that means.”
“It just ends. One second you’re walking and the next, there’s a black wall, stretches up to forever.”
“That’s the limit of the world. Bandwidth, server space, that stuff.” It’s like talking to a twelve-year-old with him.
“My neighbor’s name is Lady. What kind of name is that?”
“Your name’s Alan. All names are stupid.”
“I knew you’d take Lady’s side.”
“Why don’t you go for a walk with her, Pop? Might do you good.”
“Ah, screw her. She knits all the time and whines about her kids.”
“You could always change worlds.”
“Yeah, and I could always have them pull the plug and let me go to heaven.”
I sigh and rub my eyes. These conversations always end in him threatening to off himself.
“You’re already in heaven, Pop,” I say, and he just groans.
Eventually I can’t take it anymore. The lights, the screeching, then the refrigerator hatch popping open and beeping at all hours. I log off and head to one of those analogue retreats. I have meetings at work, presentations. I need charts and acronyms, pomp and circumstance, so much circumstance. I bathe in hot water and scrub my skin pink with sea-creature-like sponges while practicing my gestures, wide open gestures that encompass the room. Going analogue is just the thing I need. My gestures will be on point.
I get one call per day and waste in on Pop. It’s a total drag but I can’t have him unplugging. That’d cost a fortune, total vibe-killer, and anyway, I don’t want him to go.
“The sky is all wrong,” he says.
“How’s it wrong, Pop?”
“The wrong color blue. It’s more like teal than sky.”
“Did you complain this much when you were alive?”
“Mind yourself, Nathan. I’m still alive in here.”
That’s new. He hadn’t corrected me before. “Right, sure you are, Pop.”
“I went for a walk like you said I should. There were bottle caps on the ground down by the rail lines. Bottle caps, can you imagine? Someone littering in here? I bet it’s fat old Mr. Berks. I hate that guy.”
“Did anyone come on your walk with you?”
“Of course not. What, you’re still on about Lady? She’s a knitter. Likes the Yankees. Thinks basil smells nice. Not my kind of woman.”
“Sounds like you’ve been talking.”
“Got nothing better to do. She sits on her porch most mornings, so we talk.”
“Invite her on your walk.” I hear a soft knock on my door. Time for my foot massage and kelp wrap. “Got to go. Duty calls.”
I hang up and as soon as I stand, something feels off—until I realize it’s the AC unit gone dead. Super quiet in the room. I kick at the wall terminal, but that doesn’t help. Broken analogue retreat. Might as well get pampered.
Upon my return to the city, my apartment freaks out.
The dishwasher throws codes. I look them up as fast as I can, but it’s all gibberish: f0, c313, honeydew12. The screens play static, then foreign film channels, then animal documentaries. It’s pure and total chaos. I complain to the maintenance guy, and he’s all like, maybe you got a ghost.
Okay, bro, great suggestion.
Pop calls me up the next day. “I took your advice.”
“Yeah?” I’m half paying attention. The washer’s stuck on spin and I got the big presentation tomorrow. I practice my gesture in the hopes that the washer will appreciate how gracefully I can encompass the room, but it keeps on going, rude as hell.
“Took Lady with me on the walk. You know, she’s not half bad.”
“Sorry, Pop, I got a problem here. Major malfunction. Might have to burn the place down.”
The washer stops all of a sudden like it never broke at all.
“Did I tell you Lady likes spy novels?” he asks.
“You never mentioned it.”
“Spy novels. Can you imagine? She loves them. We’re going for another walk tomorrow.”
I yank my clothes from the depths of the foul washer beast and toss them sopping onto the floor. “Good for you, Pop.”
“She says some of the other folks here aren’t terrible. I promised I’d play Bridge with them tomorrow.”
“Really?” I stand there wondering how the heck my pop ever learned to play Bridge.
“It’s such an old asshole thing to do, but hey, it’s better than nothing. Lady says the guys are kind of funny. And they got beer. Can you imagine? Beer in heaven?”
“I can imagine.”
“Anyway, I’ll call you tomorrow. Love you.”
“Uh, yeah, great. Love you too.”
We hang up and for the first time in weeks, the apartment’s quiet. I can finally practice my speechifying in peace. It’s like heaven, except Pop says heaven stinks, so maybe more like somewhere nice, like that analogue retreat.
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