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I was waiting for the doctors to finish Lianne's last MRI when I noticed the help wanted sign.

"You're looking for people to mind the ghosts?" I asked, as I signed for the co-pay.

"Uh-huh. Here, fill this out." The secretary didn't bother to look up from her computer as she pushed the application pad at me, let alone correct my terminology. Later, I learned that people call clients much worse things. If I'd said "zombies" or "simulations," she would've told me they were hiring janitors.

Afterwards, I sat by Lianne's hospital bed. She squeezed my hand. I squeezed back, gently, so she wouldn't know how weak her grip had become.

"It's a great idea," she said. "I like the thought of you taking care of me, after I'm dead." She could say it so easily now.

I just said, "We need the money." I'd dropped out of grad school after her diagnosis. After the failures of the first three series of injections, after the confirmation that the cancer was nano-resistant. The virus mutated too quickly for our little machines to rescue her. I pictured it sometimes, while she was doing her own visualizations: a clever creature, an old-fashioned, mustache-twirling villain cackling in the fortress of my wife's body.

"And eventually, we'll be together again. We can let our minds flow into each other, see each other's thoughts. Do you ever wonder if the ghosts are having telepathic sex, in their computers?"

"Lianne!" I glanced at the next bed, but the teenaged kid who shared her room was asleep. I brushed my wife's forehead with my free hand, trying belatedly to smile.

"I'm sorry, Jim." Another squeeze, light as dust. "I just miss making love. It feels like it would be something clean. All this medical stuff—the doctors, the chemo—"

"They're trying to keep you alive."

"I know. But it's not going to work."

"It might."

"It won't. I can tell." Her hand relaxed, her eyes drifting shut. "But I'm going to live forever anyway."

Melissa wasn't bad, once you got to know her. She did more than hand out applications, too—when she got out from behind the desk, I saw that she had a pistol holstered at her waist. "For keeping the wackos out," she'd explained. If she shot anyone, I asked, did she have to make sure they were backed up? Don't want to get blood on the scanners, she'd said, shaking her head. They're expensive.

"You sorta got the catch-all job," she told me.

"What am I catching?" I tried to sound cheerful, but the place felt like a graveyard to me. That was entirely in my head. Bright paint, nice office furniture, landscapes on the walls, all combined to give the Personality Support Center the feel of anything but. Only the terminal room was dimly lit, and shaped to mute sound so that every conversation became a whisper. The families wanted it that way. I suppose nobody wants to talk to their dead uncle in a cubicle.

"Lot of things. You keep an eye on visitors, see if they need anything, make sure they don't do anything dumb or evil. Water if they need it, or handkerchiefs. If they start screaming at a client, toss them, or make them rent a private room. You'd be amazed how many people think they're gonna win a fight with Mom here that they been losing for twenty years at home."

"Okay. Keep people from beating up their dead relatives. Got it."

"Don't call them dead in front of visitors, unless they say it first. Also, you keep an eye on the clients. They talk to each other. There's a monitor you can look at, I'll show you later. But they're stubborn. They don't change their minds much, so they get into loops sometimes. Separate them, distract them, ask them about themselves. You were in sociology, you said?"

"Just my first year."

"It'll help. On the applications, we look for sociology, psychology, customer service—clients can be pretty strange, but they're still people."

"Are they?" I asked. It wasn't a challenge—I'd just read enough arguments to be curious what she thought.

"You don't believe it, you can walk out right now."

"She was nauseous earlier, but she's sleeping now," said the nurse. Still, when I came in, Lianne's eyes opened. For a moment, she looked just like she always had, waking up at home: lids fluttering, not really seeing yet, but a little smile on her face. I swallowed.

"Hi. I brought you something."

"Ooh, show me." She started to hold out her arms, but grimaced instead and pressed the button that gave her a little more painkiller. Her face relaxed, but the smile was gone.

"You wanted a wig, you said." I pulled it from the canvas shopping bag, unfolding it carefully and smoothing out the strands.

"My favorite color. Will you put it on me?" I untied the scarf and fit the sea-green animé cut over her skull. I let my hand rest on her shoulder, and she leaned against it, eyes closed. "I love you," she whispered, quiet as a conversation in the terminal room.

"Ray needs a hook-up today," said Melissa when I came in. "Got to lecture at a conference somewhere in California. I'm checking network security at the other end. Can you do the authorizations?"

"Sure." Ray had been the first PSC client, sort of a pioneer. I took the notepad and stylus and started tabbing through forms. "So who gets paid when a dead guy gives a talk? Do we get the money?"

"Wouldn't that be nice? His estate gets it."

"I found the form." I scribbled my signature under permissions.

"Could be worse," she said. "There was a case around five years back, said they were 'recordings' and we were playing them. Every time one of them talked for money, we were supposed to pay a license fee."

"That was smart. Can dead lawyers take on cases, if no one living wants them?" I always felt bad about telling lawyer jokes. I could feel my mom sighing and shaking her head.

"Not if the judge can tell they're dead. Hard to figure out, though."

The rest of the morning was dull. In the afternoon we had a commencement service. The family came directly from the cemetery, the mother still dabbing at her eyes. The father kept saying, "It's okay honey, he's right here," and a pair of little twin girls kept asking when they could see Thane. Poor kid had gotten sideswiped on the way home from his senior prom; I wondered how often they'd bothered to get back-ups for an 18-year-old.

The priestess didn't seem to know them that well. I guessed they were from one of the sects that didn't approve of computerized resurrection, and had found this lady in directory assistance. The soul that shines in the body is carried by the mind, she said. The mind that expresses the soul lives so long as we maintain it. Thane Meza, eighteen years fleshly, is with us still. We bless the continuation of his life.

I'm always impressed by the lengths people will go to believe that God wants what they want. I count myself as a nervous agnostic. If a deity exists, I'd rather avoid his, her, or its notice. In a way, I thought that might be an advantage of the uploading process: if the soul was tied to the mind, then heaven, and judgment, could wait.

The mother handed me the back-up disk, unnecessary but a nice touch of ceremony. I carried it out of sight to the terminal. I clicked on Thane Meza's file, fantasizing, as I always did, that some day we'd find a client who turned out to be an ideal word processor or video game, a talent that would only be discovered at this moment of rebirth. So far, though, they all seemed to be people—or something passing for people—in death as in life.

A long stream of ASCII eventually ended in: {where am i the scanner i'm blind i can't feel help!!!!!} This, Melissa had explained, was why we didn't let families perform the initial boot themselves.

{You're not blind,} I typed. {You're in the Personality Support Center. Remember how you came here to get back-ups? Once your program is integrated, you'll have voice interface, audio-visual input, and an avatar, but for now you're text only.}

{I'm dead?}

{Physically, yes. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news. I'm Jim, by the way.}

{Thane. Shit I don't Excuse me I didn't mean to say that. How did,k% what happened?}

{You got in a car accident. You were leaving your prom. There was a drunk driver.} I'd found early on that it was a bad idea to soften things. Another reason not to leave this part to the families.

{Is Nessa&8?/i is she okay?}

Melissa, thankfully, had checked on his date. {She's in the hospital with a broken arm, but they say she'll be fine.} Wait a second. {But I thought her name was Wendy.}

{O Nessa must have said no okay good. Are my parents here. here?}

{In the next room. I figured I'd give you a chance to panic where no one could watch first.}

{Thanks. I'd better go talk to them the twins will be scared. This doesn't feel right.} I could see Thane beginning to adapt to the text interface. We'd probably still get typos and expressed private thought, but the curve should drop off.

{I'm told you adjust pretty quickly. Are you sure you're ready to talk to them? I can give you a couple more minutes, at least.}

{I want to talk to them i want to talk to someone I know. I won't sound scared I promise.}

"Skin is pain," whispered Lianne.

"That sounds like the lyrics to a bad song." I ran my hand across her forehead, dry and hot. "Feel that? Skin is more than pain."

"That burns." I pulled my hand away, stung and ashamed of it. "Oh, sweetie, I'm sorry. Here . . ." She twitched her fingers, a jerk that was as close to reaching as she could manage today. I took her hand and stroked it. It shook a little, and I wondered if I was still hurting her.

"Everything burns, or itches, or stings," she went on. "I almost scratched my eyes out this morning, without even thinking about it. The sheets are like sandpaper. Even ice cream feels like a knife in my throat."

"There are going to be bad days," I said, feeling like a shit.

"There aren't good days any more. I'm tired, Jim. I'm done with this body. I want to stop the chemo."

"Not yet." I wasn't sure who I was talking to. Not just Lianne, but whoever had made her sick. God, if existing meant he or she or it had to listen. "I'm not done yet, I need you."

"Let me out, then. I'll still love you when the pain is gone."

"You won't . . ." What was I supposed to say? I worked with the clients every day. I heard them tell their families that they did still love them. I saw their lovers crying in the lobby, sometimes. "I can't hold you when you're a ghost." Her lips were cracked; they'd bleed again if I kissed her. I wiped the streak of wetness from beneath her eyes, as gently as I could. She almost managed to hide the flinch.

"It would feel so good," she whispered. "I don't want to hurt any more. I want to be happy again. And you'll be with me, soon. We'll be together, our thoughts . . ." She'd run out of strength for words, but her eyes were open and wet.

I shook my head. Her eyes widened, pleading, then closed in pain.

"All right," I said, not sure if she could still hear me. "You win. You always did." I closed my own eyes, and felt the sting of salt water behind the lids.

"How are you settling in?" I asked. "Audiovisual interface working okay?"

"Yeah." Thane's simulated voice sounded like teenaged boy, but also definitely had a bit of automated telephone system in it. The CGI avatar, built off his photos, still jumped a bit. That would smooth out over time, but even the older ones always felt a bit off to me. "Ray's been showing me around. The others are all very nice, but too many old people." It was the eyes, I decided. It made sense that the avatars wouldn't meet your eyes directly. After all, they were getting their input from the cameras above the screens.

"What do you think of Ray?" I'd talked with our "senior spirit" a few times. He was optimistic to a fault, enough to make me want to smack him after a bad night at the hospital. I guessed that was one of the advantages, at least for some people, of being non-corporeal. No possible physical repercussions from the exasperated.

"He likes being dead. He says he can think faster. He showed me how to speed-read, though, and I think the books he wrote when he was alive are more interesting."

"I didn't know you were the sort of guy to read philosophy."

"I've got a lot of time now," said Thane. "What else am I going to do?"

"What did you do when you were alive?" I asked.

"Read some. Not as much. Played football—can't do that. Wrote dumb poetry about girls—no point in that now, either."

"Do you like being dead?" I knew I shouldn't ask that, but it had been a bad night. I wanted to know.

"I don't know. Maybe."

"That's all?"

He shrugged. "It beats nothing." His avatar flickered and cleared again. He didn't seem to notice.

Melissa and I went out for Thai before I went to the hospital. Our post-work dinners weren't dates—she wasn't my type, I wasn't hers, and I wasn't that much of a shit anyway—but it was good to talk to someone who didn't know Lianne and didn't try to pretend there was nothing wrong with her.

"I hope I won't be knocked down to janitor for this," I said. "But do you ever feel like there's something . . . a little off . . . about some of the clients? Or am I just being oversensitive?"

"We get that sometimes," she admitted. She poked at the plate of pad thai with her chopsticks. "Sometimes I think the problem is with the live folks, sometimes with the dead. Lots of people argue about it, just not in front of the families. Some of the clients even argue about it—don't know what that tells you. Mostly the folks that weren't sure about the whole thing even beforehand. You've noticed they mostly have the opinions now that they did when they were alive. Embodied, I mean."

"Most living people don't change their minds easily either," I pointed out.

"That's true too. You see the problem. Plenty of live folk wouldn't pass for human so well, if you wanted to doubt them."

"What do people think is wrong? The ones who think there's anything wrong, I mean."

"Some people think it's the soul." She snickered. "Like they're undead or something. That's where the whole 'zombie' thing came from. Makes me want to start wearing a cross, just to show them that the computers won't burst into flame." Melissa was a dyed-in-the-wool atheist, born and raised, secure in her non-faith.

"Is that the only thing?"

"No, just the funniest." She scooped up a bite of noodle, and took a moment to think while she ate. "You know we have people who come in and do psych tests on the clients, for calibration or just for their own experiments. Mostly, they look like you or me, but there are some ways they seem to learn differently. Nothing anyone can agree on, and I haven't seen any useful numbers. Maybe it's just our imagination. Or maybe the resolution on our scanners isn't perfect yet."

"Maybe it's that we're just scanning the brain," I said.

"The brain is you," said Melissa. She reached over and tapped my forehead for emphasis. "Everything you are is here. The rest is just a shell."

"That's what I'm wondering about. I was talking to the new kid earlier. He's already gone from writing adolescent love poetry to reading tracts of tech philosophy. And I was thinking—when I feel something. When I love Lianne. My heart beats faster, hormones flood into my system, I want to touch her. Or when you try to calm down, when you're mad or upset, the first thing you do is try to control your breathing." I stopped for a moment to do just that. Air, smelling of ginger and chili pepper, filled my lungs. "It's all physical. Maybe there's a part of the self that's in the breath, the blood, the pain of healing wounds and the itch of mosquito bites."

"You think we need simulated mosquitoes? That'll thrill the clients."

"I don't know." It had been more than I meant to say. "Maybe we do need them."

"Maybe guys get too focused on the, um, physical aspects of love." She pointed her chopsticks for emphasis. "Haven't you ever heard of loving someone for their mind?"

"It's very poetic, anyway. Maybe you're right." I let her change the topic. I really didn't want to think about it any more.

The hospice felt empty, echoing. It was good, on a general level, that not all the beds were full, but I felt like something huge and patient filled the extra space. Death sat among the neatly made sheets, waiting.

"Your hair is growing back," I said. Lianne's head was covered with a soft fuzz, fine as a baby's. We had been going to have kids, in a couple of years when I got out of school.

"I know. I've still got the wig, though." She smiled faintly. They had her on a regular morphine drip now, holding back some of the pain. She seemed to be getting translucent, though, thinner and paler as the thing on the empty beds leaned close. "I love you."

"I love you, too." We said that a lot, now. Anything beyond was a risk. I told her about the weather, the news, books I'd started and set aside. I didn't talk about work. I thought about it, but what would I say? What would she say? Well, Jim, if you aren't sure about uploading, I'll just have to die later. Never do today, the sign on my grad school office had said, what you can put off till tomorrow.

"You know," I said finally, "you're not going to remember these last few weeks. Your last back-up was before the chemo."

"I know. It makes it easier. It's like the pain wasn't real—just a side trip." She looked uncomfortable, sadness breaking through the wall of morphine. "It's eating me, I know it is, but I can bear it knowing the real me will be whole."

I hugged her, glad that I could again, even if it was only for a little while. "You're still real. You're real to me."

"I'm glad. But this—" she brushed my hand against her cheek, "—is just an imitation. It's not what I remember being; it's not what I want you to remember; it's not what I will remember. I can't even get my head around what it was like to be healthy any more. When I'm dead, I'll have that memory back."

"I love you," I said.

"I love you, too." She closed her eyes. "I'm tired."

I sat with my wife, or what was left of her, all night, awake and watching the empty places around her.

I came in early to work the next day. Melissa wasn't there yet, and I unlocked the building, turned on the lights and the secretarial computer. I checked the clients, who hadn't slept either. They never slept. Two old physicists had gotten caught in a loop, repeating the same arguments about string theory for hours. I broke them up, made them apologize, and sent them to talk with their friends in different parts of the system while they cooled off. After that I sat alone in the terminal room. With its somber quiet and shadow, it was our Hades, our Sheol, our Heaven and Hell. Maybe it was the only one we had, or maybe it was a side trip on the way to the real thing. I didn't have the answers.

My wife was dying. There was no way around it now. Parts of her were already dead, had been for months. I would never kiss her again, not with the hope and passion that we'd had at the beginning. We'd never share a bottle of wine, discussing the intricacies of our favorite stories, ideas becoming wilder as the night went on. We'd never make love again. I let myself cry, here where no one living would see or hear.

Lianne would be dead, but her ghost would live forever. And eventually I—or something like me—would join her.

For now, I wiped my eyes and went back to work.

Current Issue
26 Jul 2021

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