Second Life

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Science Fiction
A near-future sci fi story in which the implications of artificial intelligence, the questionable morals of corporations, and the desperation of a grieving high school teacher come to a head in a small bar run by a man who only wants a cigarette. When the teacher pulls out a gun and begs him to kill him, he refuses, but has no idea just how far this man will go to stop his ex-wife's voice in his head, a voice stuck on repeat, the same sentence over and over and over again.

Submitted: August 24, 2016

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Submitted: August 24, 2016

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It is 11.14am on a Monday and, like most days now, the rain is coming down hard outside. Rick Morton stands alone behind the bar, polishing wine glasses with a thin white cloth that has seen better days, with hands that are already starting to stiffen. His receding hair is streaked with grey, and his teeth, like his fingertips, are stained yellow. He reminds himself to buy cigarettes after he finishes work.

As he turns the glass upside-down and slides the stem between the rails over the bar, hears the quiet clink as it meets its neighbour, he glances over at the television. A spokeswoman for the Second Life Corporation is talking into an array of microphones, and he turns the volume up because, despite himself, he is interested. Second Life is bringing people back to life, in a way, and everybody has something to say about it.

The spokeswoman is warning people against the dangers of NICK, pirate copies of Second Life that are flooding the black market, but this is nothing new. Rick has seen a lot of desperate people, and desperate people do desperate things. What interests him more is what The Timeshas called The Question of the Century: the question not of whether the dead can be resurrected, but whether artificial life--a second life, so to speak--can be called conscious. According to the spokeswoman, no, it cannot. Second Life is, in her words, 'the Siri of the 2020s, but all grown up. Second Life technology, the Neuro-Interfacing Chip, or NIC, is a thousand times more complex, a thousand times more convincing. Quite frankly, we have made Siri look like a neanderthal.'

The joke gets some laughs from the reporters. Rick grunts.

'God always had a shit sense of humour,' he mutters, turning the television off. He picks up the next glass.

It is at this moment that the door opens--Rick looks up briefly--and a man he recognises as Martin Anderson steps in out of the rain, his long overcoat drenched, his thin black hair hanging down over his forehead.

'Martin, been a while. How's things?' But of course, Rick knows how things are. Martin is a high school teacher in his late forties with no children or living relatives. He lives alone a few minutes' walk away, probably with a cat, and drinks Jack Daniels neat, no ice. Rick has not seen the man since his wife Julia--who came to the bar only with her friends and only to bitch about her husband--was lowered into the ground two weeks ago. Rick knows this because he knows people; he knows when to talk, and, more importantly, he knows when to listen. He also knows when a man needs a drink.

Martin does not answer or look up. He walks towards the bar, the door banging shut behind him, and takes a seat on one of the stools.

'Still raining out there, huh?'

Martin says nothing. He puts his arms on the bar and looks over at the bottle of synthetic Jack Daniels in the speed rail. Rick follows his gaze and nods. He puts the glass and towel down and grabs the bottle and a tumbler, pours the man a drink, neat, no ice, and passes it over. Martin knocks it back in one and hands him the glass.

'One of those days, huh?'

Martin says nothing. He looks pointedly at the bottle, and Rick obliges him, then goes back to polishing wine glasses. He knows the time. He knows the type. Admittedly, Martin is not the type at all. He is a slow drinker, a quiet, timid man, the product of a lonely childhood and a lonely marriage, who no doubt writes poetry about a world that does not understand him and which he does not understand. But the man has lost his wife. Rick had seen the sympathetic looks when she had been alive; now, he thinks, nothing would change. And if he had honestly loved her and wants to drink before lunch, if he wants to sit in silence and stare into his glass, fine. At least he isn't lying in the gutter in the rain, looking up at the sky and wondering where it all went--

'I want you to kill me, Rick.'

Rick, half expecting something like this, looks up with weary amusement.

'What?'

Martin raises his eyes, and Rick's smile falters, if only for a second.

'I need you to kill me, Rick.'

'I'm not going to kill you, Martin', Rick says, reaching up to slide the wine glass between the rails. He wipes his hands and looks at this man hunched over his bar, soaked from the rain, feeling sorry for himself. It is his belief that people in bars are all suicidal, in a way, all trying to kill the mediocrity of their little lives. Some, it seems, are more serious than others.

'Is this about Julia? I heard--'

'Please. I can't do it myself. She won't let me. I need you to kill me. I have a gun.' Martin reaches into his coat, pulls out a pistol and places it on the bar. His expression does not change.

'Christ!' Rick grabs the towel and throws it over the gun, looks around the bar. It is, of course, still empty. 'Stay here.' He runs out, past the stools, and pushes the doors fully shut, slides the bolts up. Then he turns and looks at Martin. The man is hunched over the bar, still dripping.

Rick walks back behind the bar and, as Martin looks up, takes a good long look at the man. He is no younger than himself, his scalp showing through his hair, his eyes bloodshot and deeply shadowed. He wears a week's worth of stubble and his skin is grey, his cheeks sunken, his lips thin and pale and humourless.

'Now,' Rick says, glancing at the towel. He remembers the last time he saw a gun, held to his head, the cool metal kiss, the ragged man behind it, his eyes. There is a ragged man sitting at his bar now, with a gun. The thought makes him uneasy.

'We're going to have a drink. And then you're going to tell me just what in hell is going on.' Martin nods, and Rick watches him closely as he grabs his glass and takes another, pours two drinks. Synthetic JD, neat, no ice. He drains one and refills it, hands the other to Martin.

'Speak', he says, hearing the edge in his voice. Martin drinks, sighs, and rubs a hand over his face. He says nothing, but reaches into his coat again--Rick stiffens a little--and pulls out his phone. He taps the screen with his index finger three times, then offers it across the bar.

Rick takes it in his free hand, starts to read, and is unsurprised to see a message from Julia. He looks up at Martin with faint disgust, but the man is staring into the bottom of his glass. The message is one sentence typed over and over again, without punctuation or spaces, and like the woman herself there is nothing remarkable about it.

'We all have to grow up sometime, Martin,' he reads aloud, and does not see Martin flinch.

'What is this?'

'Look at the next one,' Martin says quietly, and something in his voice makes Rick look up for a moment, but he taps the screen for the next message. It is the same, unremarkable, except that its sender is dead and buried. The next one is no different, nor the one after. Martin's inbox is full, and when Rick checks the date, it has been full for--

He frowns. The latest message was sent on the fourth. Six days ago. Which isn't-- And then he understands.

'Tell me you're joking.' Martin shakes his head. When he speaks, his voice is flat, numb.

'The NIC is connected to everything. She's everywhere.'

Rick grunts, puts the phone on the bar and finishes his drink. He says nothing as he takes Martin's empty glass and puts them both on the dirty glass tray, which is otherwise empty. It is still early, after all.

'So this is what ten grand gets you now, huh?'

Martin smiles, a thin, sly smile that sets Rick even more on edge.

'Eight, if you know the wrong people.'

'And I'm guessing you do,' Rick snaps. He has lost all interest in this conversation and wants a cigarette. If he is honest with himself, which is a rarity, this man at the bar is making him nervous. Besides, it is eleven thirty on a Monday morning, the rain is beating against the windows, and there is a gun on the bar and a man making jokes while asking him to murder him. Fuck this man.

'So you bought NICK. Something broke. Now you come here with a fucking gun and ask me to kill you because you don't have the balls to do it yourself? Fuck you, Martin. Grow up and get the fuck out.'

'Something broke,' Martin imitates, sneering. The sudden change makes Rick stiffen, and though he feels a strong desire to punch every tooth out of that grin, he does not, because that grin makes him more than nervous. That grinscares him. He curls his hands into fists and crosses his arms.

'I read the small print, after,' Martin continues, all thoughts of silence seemingly gone. 'Significant emotional distress and elevated levels of cortisol may impair the normal functioning of the Neuro-Interfacing Chip, or NIC. Do you think having a dead person in your head constitutes 'significant emotional distress', Rick?'

'I wouldn't know', Rick says quietly.

'Well, I think it does. But you're talking to a guy who hasn't slept in a week. Nothing works. I've seen every minute of every day and night since last Saturday. You know many minutes are in a week, Rick? Ten thousand and eighty. Ten thousand, and eighty. And I saw them all. Every single one. So what do I know?'

Rick says nothing. Martin watches him for a while, then shrugs.

'I should've known better. Twenty two years of marriage, and after two days we were fighting again and she wasn't even real. I was shouting at the walls. I must have looked crazy. Maybe I am crazy.' He laughs, and Rick flinches. He says nothing, but glances at the doors, bolted at the top. Nobody is going to come. There is a lunatic locked in his bar with a gun, and the rain is still coming down hard.

It is then that he realises that Martin had come on the first day of the week, in the pouring rain, almost as soon as he had opened. He had waited until it was virtually guaranteed that they would be alone. He's serious,he thinks, glancing again at the gun under the towel.It's driven him out of his mind and he's fucking serious. He wants me to kill him.

'I don’t even remember what we were fighting about,' Martin says. 'And then something went wrong. Something...' His voice becomes very quiet. 'We all have to grow up sometime, Martin.'

Suddenly it hits Rick almost hard enough to rock him back on his feet, but he stands perfectly still and keeps his face neutral, even as his skin crawls. It feels like a dead man's finger is running up his spine, and he shivers a little. You think having a dead person in your head constitutes 'significant emotional distress', Rick?No, of course not. Because he had assumed it was just the NIC, just a microchip in Martin's head. Only it isn't. It is Julia's voice. And what was she saying, over and over and over and over where nobody but Martin could hear her? What was that one sentence she had said, to make him feel small and pathetic and powerless, perhaps, that one sentence he was hearing every three or four seconds, over and over and over?

'Martin...' Martin's head snaps up and Rick's blood runs cold. He remembers the eyes of the man with the cold metal kiss, the man who had wanted and taken the three hundred and fifty two pounds in the till without so much as a protest from Rick. Those eyes had been white and wild with a desperate, reckless madness, a fraying of the edges. Martin's eyes are dark and still and cold. He stares at Rick and Rick says nothing.

'We all have to grow up sometime, Rick, don't we? Oh yes. We all have to grow up sometime. We all have to grow up sometime.WE ALL HAVE TO GROW UP SOMETIME!WE ALL HAVE TO GROW UP SOMETIME!' He leaps to his feet and slaps his hands onto the bar, grinning as if his face has been slit from ear to ear. He leans forward and Rick throws his hands up and steps back in horror.

'Come on Ricky Rick Rickster, kill me. Kill me kill me kill me. Kill me like you killed your little whorish daughter. How old was she, huh? Four? Five? Old enough. Come on, do it. Kill me. Kill me! BE A FUCKING MAN AND KILL ME, RICK! KILL ME DEAD!'

'No,' Rick whispers, lowering his hands. All he can see is those eyes, those dark wide eyes like pools in some old, strange forest, all the flickering lights in the world lost behind them.

'Fine,' Martin says, and sits down, smoothing back his hair. He pulls the towel from the gun and throws it at Rick, and Rick blinks, suddenly back in the room.

'You know, I begged him to take it out when she glitched. Begged him.' Martin shakes his head in slow, melodramatic sadness. 'Can't be done, he said. Should've read the small print, my good man. Still, he gave me a discount for this.' He grabs the gun. Rick's mouth is very dry and his heart is beating very hard. He can almost taste a cigarette over the copper of adrenaline, and the thought makes him want to laugh. He says nothing. If he laughs he is dead, and he knows it.

'And he told me something. You want to know what it was, Rick? The Big Secret? You want to hear it, huh? You want to?' He leans forward, whispers. 'There is no NICK, Rick. Second Life gives it away for free. They just, they just give it away!' He throws back his head and cackles at the ceiling. 'They hand it out like crack, that's what he said. Like crack, Rick!' He laughs harder, laughs until his grey cheeks are flushed and wet with tears. Suddenly he stops. But the grin remains, a white slash on his face, and Martin lowers his voice. His eyes flash with conspiracy.

'No one can prove it, of course,' he says. 'But it makes sense. You know why?'

Rick shook his head, no.

'That's what I said. And you know what he said? Well, Ricky, I'll tell you. He said, because when people are scared, they need someone to blame to feel safe.What was it you said, Rick? So you bought NICK. Something broke. Of course it would break if it was NICK, right? But it's the same fucking thing. What is it they say on the news? Corrupted software. Incompatible chip. How about glitch during an argument? When something goes wrong, it's NICK. So it's true. It's like he said,' and now the grin fades as he stares at Rick with those sly, dark eyes, and Rick is drowning in them, locked in place, even when Martin raises the gun towards his head. 'You, my good man, are a god damn beta test. He gave me two bullets, Ricky boy. One for me and one for you. One for me, and one. For. You.'

He pulls the trigger. Rick squeezes his eyes shut and stands rigid and almost screams but his throat is clamped shut and his pulse thuds in his ears, a hard, fast beat, and the only other sound is the rain coming down outside, a hard, steady beat against the windows, only the rain, only the rain...

'Bang,' Martin whispers, and laughs. It is a harsh, hysterical cackle, the sound of something metallic and broken being struck over and over again, and Rick opens his eyes. Martin grins. In his left hand, held up between his thumb and index finger, is a single dull gold bullet.

'One for you,' he croons, placing it gently on the bar. Still staring at Rick, still grinning, he reaches into his coat pocket and pulls out a second, holds it up for Rick to see, and places it next to its neighbour. 'And one for little old me.'

Rick's jaw clenches. He grits his teeth as the high school teacher slides the clip from the pistol with disturbing, practiced ease, thumbs the two rounds into place, and reloads the gun.

'We all have to grow up sometime, Rick.' He winks and pushes the pistol across the bar. Rick watches him slide lazily onto his feet, and then looks down at the gun. His legs are numb and the edges of his vision are hazy, pulsing with his heartbeat, but he knows that he is alive. He knows that the gun was never loaded-- the gun was never fucking loaded--that the strength is returning to his legs, that his terror is turning to rage at this man who sat in his bar with an unloaded gun and asked to be killed, who made him believe that he wanted to die, who would have sat and let him pull the trigger. As Martin staggers to the doors and pulls down the bolts, Rick lunges forward and grabs the gun, holds it up, and sneers.

'Where are you going, you son of a bitch?' His throat is tight and his mouth is so dry, but Martin looks around, smooths back his hair and grins. He spreads his arms.

'To live my second life,' he says, and laughs, and as he turns away Rick pulls the trigger and this time, this time, the pistol jumps with the loud crack of a gunshot, and Martin's head slams back against the door with a halo of blood. He falls backwards and then sideways as the door opens behind him, slides out into the rain, onto the street. Rick can almost hear the sick crack of his broken head as it hits the pavement.

He lowers the gun slowly. His heart is beating so hard that it hurts, but he is alive, and there is no other sound than the rain beating against the windows and the faint ringing in his ears. There is one bullet left. He shakes his head, places the pistol next to the till, picks up the remote and turns the television back on. Without saying a word he bends down, takes a fresh towel from the shelf and picks up the next wine glass, trying to ignore how much his hands are shaking. He is sure that the police will be here soon. It doesn't matter.

Through the door, propped open by Martin's feet, he can see the rain bouncing off the back of Martin's coat, washing Martin's blood away over the curb and into the gutter. He slides the glass between the rails, listens to the soft clink as it meets its neighbour, and smiles a little, crooked smile at the sound. As soon as the rain stops he will buy a pack of cigarettes, sit on his front doorstep or in a park somewhere, and smoke them all, one by one, one after the other, until they are gone. This is what he tells himself.

But the rain is still coming down hard, and as he reaches for the next glass, wondering if he can hear the faint call of sirens or if it is just his imagination, it shows no sign of stopping anytime soon.

'We all have to grow up sometime,' he murmurs. He slides the glass between the rails, slowly, cocks his head to one side, and listens.

 

END

 

 


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