Hannah’s husband, David, was watching a live interview of the deceased creator of Transference.
“Hey,” Hannah said, her long, red, threaded-with-grey hair braided close to her head. She collapsed onto the couch, tired after a day of teaching. “Oh, right,” she said of the interview. “I heard that she died.”
“Yep,” said David, scratching his beard.
Although Dr. Jimenez was dead and had Transferred in her eighties after becoming terminally ill, she appeared on the monitor in the news studio as a deeply tanned woman in perhaps in her forties. Dr. Jimenez’s daughter, actually in the studio and looking like an older sister to the woman on the monitor, reminisced with her mother about a family gathering years before. The daughter nodded and laughed as the mother recalled some family joke. The studio audience applauded.
Dr. Jimenez’s body, the host reminded the audience, had been stored post-Transfer until physical life had become impossible. But her existence in Virtual Reality continued. Other members of the Jimenez family planned on Transferring near the end of their lives.
“Maybe we’ll have forever,” the daughter said, and the image of her mother nodded.
Hannah snorted. “Bullshit,” she said. Visiting Virtual Reality was one thing, but an existence in VR without a real-world working mind? There had to be some trickery.
David frowned, the monitor reflected in his perpetually smudged glasses.
She read his face. “Wait,” she said. “Are you working on Transference now?” It’d make sense if he was; David was one of the most highly-esteemed software architects in the Northern American Alliance and a prize Company asset. The Structure (a fortress in China that served as the world’s data repository) and associated projects, like VR and Transference, were the biggest things going on in tech.
“She apparently thinks she’s real,” he said, nodding at Dr. Jimenez’s image. He wasn’t allowed to talk about many aspects of his work, so he often sidestepped questions about it. “She claims to remember her life up to the moment of Transfer.”
On the program, Dr. Jimenez was explaining how she spent her VR life. VR-Hawaii was a significant theme. The daughter often visited her mother there, and they were learning how to surf.
Hannah made a face. Now, even her best students were writing essays about VR, not that any of them could afford to go there. With real life, with all of its good meals and tender hearts and missing stairs and lonely nights was there waiting to be loved, endured, and explained with words, the only code she understood.
However, she herself was estranged from the real world, so who was she to criticize? After the Pacific Northwest Quake ten years before, she’d begun to create her own distance from real life, reading about events rather than watching them unfold. Dr. Jimenez’s interview was the first news program Hannah had watched in months.
Flash forward five years, after the car crash that had severed Hannah’s spinal cord and left her paralyzed from the waist down. Then came the onset of a skin ulcer that left her bedbound. The skin ulcer had started out small, but then she’d picked up a superbug.
It’d been three months that she’d been stuck in bed because her body couldn’t beat the infection. One surgery to close the ulcer had failed, and she was recovering from the second operation, the success of which was yet to be determined. She was on IV antibiotics, with a nurse visiting the Company dormitory daily. The nurse changed the sheets by rolling Hannah back and forth. Sometimes, the room smelled of the bedpan. Hannah kept herself as clean as she could with sponge baths and no-rinse shampoo.
She loathed her confinement. Lying on her side or her stomach, she only had the patience to read and write for four hours, tops. Then she’d turn on the VR server that Daniel had used his Company ties to get, stick the pods to her temples, and jack in for a visit.
One of the reasons why VR was one of the hottest commodities on earth was twenty-second-century nostalgia for lost geography. The sea level rise had devastated North America’s Eastern and Southern Coasts, and out West, the Cascadia Fault had ruptured. Fifteen thousand dead in the Pacific Northwest Quake–including Hannah’s family and many school friends–thirty thousand injured, a million buildings destroyed, and the tsunami-inundation zone (everything west of I-5 from Vancouver, Washington to Northern California) was uninhabitable for the near future.
Hannah visited VR Pacific Northwest at first infrequently, so much vanished beauty initially very painful to behold. But after a while, her two-hour trips to VR (visits had durational limits so people wouldn’t neglect their real-world bodies) felt like time traveling, like there was no reason to be sad because nothing was actually lost.
In VR, she had her legs back and was free of the neuropathic pain that plagued her in reality. In VR, she had her long hair, which she’d cut off after the accident. In VR, she could feel the sun on her legs and grass, sand, and pine needles on the soles of her bare feet. When she picked up a tree branch, she felt its weight, the scrape of bark. Sometimes, if she turned her head quickly, there was pixelation at the edges of her vision. But aside from that, VR felt real. Her brain insisted it was real. The fact that her actual body and home had been irrevocably changed became easier to bear the more she kayaked, hiked, and skied in the Cascades.
One day, she stood on the beach, taking a break from a jog, smelling the Pacific and the kelp washed ashore. Haystack Rock, a stout tower of basalt, stood in the sea maybe a few hundred feet from shore, cloaked by fog.
There was a faint buzzing, a pop, and a handful of steps away from Hannah, an adolescent in some wildly colored workout gear appeared. The girl waved.
Hannah waved back, stiffly. She was a solitary person by nature and had little in common with other VR visitors.
The girl seemed to inspect Hannah’s standard VR t-shirt, shorts, and sneakers. Most visitors spent big bucks on software that gave them clothes by the latest designers. “Now aren’t you cute,” said the girl. “Who are you supposed to be?”
The girl squinted, snaked out a hand, and grabbed Hannah’s arm, hard.
More buzzing, and a middle-aged man dressed in colorful workout gear appeared. “Ma,” he said to the girl. “I asked you to wait.”
“Honey,” the girl said. “This is Hannah,” she said. “I mistook her for an AI and pinched her!”
“Hannah, is it? I’m so sorry, this is a new experience for my mother.”
“No worries,” said Hannah. “Well, I’m going to finish my run, have a nice day.”
As she jogged away from the pair, she heard him say, “Why are you going around pinching people?”
“She was so odd–I thought perhaps she was an AI refugee.”
“Why would there be refugees in VR, Ma?”
“Well, I don’t know–there are refugees everywhere else, aren’t there?”
Hannah’s wrist pad beeped, meaning David was almost home. Her run would have to wait.
She clicked a button on the pad, closed her eyes–
–and found herself lying on her side, the tug of the IV in her arm. She could see the VR egg on the table next to her bed, glowing a pulsating orange, next to stacks of books (she hated reading from her wrist pad) and the remote for the monitor.
David entered the dorm.
“Hello, love,” he called. He came into the bedroom and kissed her. “Mind if we watch the local news, just for a bit?”
“Oh no, what?”
“More riots.” He flicked on the monitor, and a Philadelphia local news channel appeared. Burning buildings on Broad Street, some uniforms aiming guns from a rooftop, their targets a crowd swarming a police car. The sound was off; David hunted for the remote on Hannah’s table. There was no chyron to indicate what had caused that day’s disturbance, so until David found the remote, it was fill-in-the-blank sadness: police or immigration patrol violence, gasoline or food rationing, a new curfew, cessation of some public service.
“Okay,” she said after a while. “No more, I think.” She had VR vertigo, the sense that realities existed alongside one another, an epistemological disorientation. The scenes on the screen were an eye-blink away from the fire, water, and crumpled earth, cars, buildings, and bodies in the aftermath of the PNW Quake.
He pushed a button on the remote and the images were replaced by a pattern of moving pastels. “Sorry,” he said. “It’s just things are–”
“Bad. I get it. What will we do?”
“Same plan. Things get critical, the Company goes to China.”
“I’m too old and banged up for this shit,” she said.
“If only the world had ended in our twenties.”
Two months later, she’d had a third surgery that failed, and the superbug was fighting back. She was put on a different antibiotic, one that gave her severe headaches.
She listed her reasons for Transferring. She’d be out of the bedroom for good, completely regain her mobility, live free of pain. David could join her via the VR set. They could do all the things together that they hadn’t done since the breakdown of her body. She’d have the trees, mountains, lakes, the Pacific, all the time.
David was resistant. He was now on the Company’s Lead Structure Team. He believed in Transfer. But that didn’t mean he wanted her body in cold storage. They talked for days.
He held her hand, rubbing at the small bones.
She said, “We’ll be able to touch there, right?”
“It won’t be real.”
“Does it matter if we can’t tell the difference?”
After she convinced him that this was something she really wanted, that she was tired of the bedroom but not of life, she said, “Would we able to do it?” If access to VR was limited to the super rich and important Company assets, Transferring was even more so.
“Probably.” The Company had of late awarded David a steady stream of promotions.
“Maybe we’ll have forever,” she said, rolling her eyes, but her heart raced, because part of her believed that they might.
One day she said, “Perhaps we should say our goodbyes ahead of time. In case the Structure goes down and I vanish.”
“Won’t happen,” he said. “It’s the Structure.” The giant facility consisted of Chinese tech developed for their Mars mission; it was a vast cavern of machines: any data that had survived the cataclysms of history until the late twenty-first century, when the Structure was built, was contained within. It was ten miles underground and protected by dozens of layers of the most advanced security.
“But let’s say North America loses its connection to the Structure,” she said.
She looked at him, waiting for an explanation, having just read a piece about concerns over power grid security. Most Company dorms ran on solar panels and batteries that used China’s indestructible tech—for ecological reasons, or so the Company had always said.
North America’s connection to the Structure, however, needed the grid.
“You take a list of the ten thousand wealthiest people on the continent,” he said, “and about every one of them has a loved one who has Transferred. The system is secure.”
She doubted but decided not to press. The benefits of Transferring were worth the risks, as she far as she was concerned. But how would David fare if she disappeared? Yet he was the expert. So, she let it be.
For the Transfer, Hannah, in a medical gown, was rolled to an antiseptic Company room. She lay on a table and watched a tech turn on an egg much like their VR set at home, only this one was bigger and pulsed blue instead of orange. The tech put the nodes to her temples.
She closed her eyes one moment and opened them in VR the next. She was in a woodsy clearing. She stood up, brushed soft dirt off her jumpsuit, sucked in pine-scented air, heard birds calling. A mass of red hair fell past her shoulders.
She shivered with the knowledge that she didn’t have to return to the bedroom. She danced through the woods, branches whipping her face and limbs as she whirled and laughed like a wild thing.
When David wasn’t working, he joined her via their VR set. They enjoyed each other’s bodies in ways they hadn’t for a long time, played in nature, and ate well.
One weekend, the two of them hiked VR-Mount Hood on a warm spring day.
At dinner, they ate at the unusually empty restaurant at Timberline Lodge, tended by an AI waiter. Hannah, her mouth full, talked about switching the seasons in Settings so they could ski during David’s next visit.
But he stared into the fire, oblivious.
“Hey,” she said and waved. “Hello?”
He blinked and picked up his fork. “Yeah,” he said, spearing a ravioli.
“Going to tell me what’s wrong? You’ve been spacing out all day.”
He tried a smile that faltered, put his fork down, and pressed a hand over his eyes.
“What is it?” she asked.
“Sure you want to know?”
She tensed at his tone. “Broad strokes, please.”
“Big attack last night.”
She put down her own fork and with difficulty swallowed her food.
“Hannah, it was a suitcase nuke. It killed thousands of people. The President and her children are dead.”
Hannah’s hand flew to her mouth, and she pushed away her plate and looked around the empty dining room. People who might’ve been there were back in the real world, playtime deferred for mourning. The knife of despair turned in her gut, the blade’s edge sharpened by her absence from the communal grieving.
Many years before, after the question of children was decided in the negative, Hannah had stared at the fact of her mortality and said, as the two of them lay in bed after sex, “I get to die first.”
“I’m selfish. I don’t want to grieve.”
“Honey, that’s not very nice.”
“Yeah. You know what? Okay. You can go first.”
He turned to her. “Yeah?”
“I’ll be alone and sad while you float around in heaven, sure.”
He curled a lock of her hair between his fingers. “You’d do that for me?” he asked.
“Wouldn’t you do that for me?”
“I’d do anything for you.”
One day, David joined Hannah in a pine-forested valley to give her a present. There was a loud pop, and an A-frame redwood house appeared before them.
Inside, the many rooms of the house had shelves crowded with replicas of her real-world books and tchotchkes. On the second floor was a writing desk against a window. A deck encircled the house, and there a bird feeder attracted AI robins, finches, jays, and the occasional woodpecker. A monitor sat on the living room table; on it, she could make video calls to the real world
David showed her how to use the Structure to order any book. “See that?” He nodded at a nearby shelf. “Put your hands here,” he said, leading her to two palm-sized depressions in front of the monitor. “Okay, close your eyes and think of a book.”
The Collected Works of William Shakespeare, she thought.
“Okay,” he said.
She opened her eyes.
He reached for the previously empty shelf that now held a large book, which he handed to her. It was The Collected Works of William Shakespeare.
“It’s a data interface,” he said as she held the heavy book in her lap and leafed through thin pages. “You can download stuff to your wrist pad, but I know you prefer hard copies. You want any material, think about it. The Structure finds it for you. You have access to everything.”
“Really? That’s incredible!”
“I opened the hole a little bigger than necessary. Don’t tell anybody.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
A week later, they were on the deck, David reading something on his wrist pad as she enjoyed an after-dinner cigarette (no health consequences in VR) and looked out into the darkening pines and the rising moon.
Then there was a horrible flickering, like somebody was switching all the lights in the universe off and on.
When the flickering stopped, the outdoors had been replaced by an empty grey that ended with the house, like a carefully defined fog. But even fog had more substance than the nothingness that surrounded them.
Hannah moaned, and David, his face inches away from hers, cried, “Don’t look at it! Go inside!”
She fled into the house.
As she huddled on a couch, he closed the blinds. Then he got her a mug of tea, all the while speaking rapidly into his wrist pad incomprehensible-to-her instructions to Company people.
“Hey,” she said after he finished a call. “Did you know this was going to happen?”
“I thought a connection failure was possible,” he said stiffly. He wasn’t looking at her. “The power grid’s in trouble.” His wrist pad beeped. He went to the blinds, looked through them, and pulled them up.
The dusky mountains, rising moon, pines, everything was back.
From the couch she stared, afraid to move, as if doing so would turn the world off again.
“It’s all right,” he said, sitting by her side. “We’re all right now. Backup kicked in, and we’re reconnected. This house,” he said, thumping a couch cushion. “It stayed here the whole time, right?”
His tone, one of a man who wanted to believe that things were under control, alarmed her further. She got up and backed away from him. “You told me that Structure tech would be all right,” she said.
“I know.” His gaze was fixed at his feet. “I’m sorry.”
“Eight states seceded from the Alliance. Insurgents got to the power grid, which is why things were gone for a minute, there.”
“Hannah, I have to tell you some things.” His hands were gathered in a tight ball. “China purged all North American personal data after some anti-Alliance people tried take the Structure down with a virus. And there’s something else. All the storage units for North American Transfers failed. More sabotage.”
“Why would anybody do that? What’s the point?”
“They want to, as they say, delete the wealth.”
“So,” she said with a rising panic. “North Americans who Transferred are–”
“Yes.” He rubbed his hands over his face. “They’re gone. Their bodies, their data. Your body–.” He fell silent and shuddered.
She wondered, astonished, how he’d kept this to himself. Her body tucked in its pod alongside ten thousand others, the lights in the room going out, all the pods going dark. Her sense of intense loss was hard to square with her continued existence in VR.
“Maybe,” he said, “if the country wasn’t in flames, we could restore the data, but as things are–the Company’s relocating to China in maybe two weeks.”
“This house. Why didn’t it go away? Why didn’t I go away?”
“You and the house are running on a server in our bedroom closet.”
“It’s off the grid, powered by the dorm’s solar panels. I set up your data on it and established an independent connection to the Structure. Nobody else knows.”
“I thought Structure tech needs the power grid,” she said.
“I found a way to run a small program.”
He’d broken many serious laws. Her body tingled with the VR equivalent of goosebumps as she’d realized the scale of what he’d done. “David.”
“I had to. I saw how things were going.”
“And you said nothing to me.” She went to the window to look at the woods, a view she suddenly resented because it wasn’t real. “Nothing.”
“You don’t like hearing about how bad things are,” he said, his voice high. “I didn’t want to–”
“You can’t manage me like data.” But wasn’t that exactly what she was? Code? As she looked out at the convincing lie of permanency, she said quietly, “So, if my mind and this house is in our dorm, and my body’s gone, and you’re going to China, I guess that’s it?”
“I can get the server running in China.”
“You can’t run illegal tech in China. You won’t even be able to get it there! Think!”
He was silent for some long moments and finally said, “We can make this house into anything you want. Anything.”
She took a deep breath and held it for a beat or two, knowing how’d the conversation would go. He’d declare he’d protect the server with his life and not listen to her. She’d lose her temper, lash out at him in fear and anger. She didn’t want to. He, predictably, had only tried to protect her.
He looked at her, his lips moving. Then he said, “Please. I can figure this out.”
She said nothing.
“Hannah.” He stood up from the couch, held out his hands to her, dropped them.
“You need to go.”
He looked at her, swaying as if pulled in different directions by invisible ropes.
Then he touched something on his wrist pad, there was a buzz, and he was gone.
In the following days, with difficulty she fought off the impulse to contact him. The idea of him made her sad, and getting through to him seemed impossible.
She read feverishly, the countdown to her turn-off setting the pace. From the Structure, she ordered book after book, which she brought onto the deck with her and read while she drank wine and smoked cigarettes.
She did this for a week.
When reality winked out again, she was deep in a book and saw, from the corner of her eye, the hills disappear. She looked up. Everything but the house was gone.
She stepped inside and dialed up David on her wrist pad, left a message, and waited.
He video-called on Hannah’s living room monitor a half-hour later, out of breath and sweating, glasses cockeyed. “Sorry for the delay,” he said. “I have a lot of people demanding to see me.”
“What’s happening,” she said.
“The feds carpet-bombed Kansas City. Secessionists have blown up more stuff, including the power grid again, which is why we’re disconnected from the Structure. Malware got to our back-up generators, so we don’t know how long things will be down.”
“Well,” she said sadly. “When are you leaving?”
“It’s us, we’re leaving. You and me.”
“This server in the closet that I’m on. How big is it?”
He held his head and was silent for a moment. “The size of the server doesn’t seem that important,” he said finally, “when they’re finding mass graves in Missouri. They’re wiping out entire towns, Hannah”
Memories assailed her: after the quake in Oregon, people trapped, workers clearing rubble, body bags. She tried to shut the door on that part of her mind, to master the growing sense of loss. “I’m sorry this is happening,” she forced herself to say. “There aren’t enough words to say how sorry. But the size of the server is important. Because you can’t take it with you.”
“Well, I’ll have to break it down some to pack it, but–“
“I need you to listen to me and think. It’s illegal tech, and you’ll be a refugee. They’ll confiscate it, and you’ll land in jail or get killed.”
“And I need you to listen to me. VR-USA isn’t going back up anytime soon. This house is the only thing. Hannah, it’s like you’re in an island in the middle of the ocean and the house is the island. If there is no server, there’s no island, there’s no you! Don’t you get that?”
“I do,” she said gently, like a doctor telling a patient there was no cure. “It won’t work. But you have a chance. Go to China. Impress them all with your giant brain.”
He got up from his chair, and her monitor showed him pacing around the dorm. Then he sat, and the conversation began again as he pled, argued, and, finally, hope died in his eyes.
With a deep breath, David began to type, preparing to throw away Hannah’s code.
But there was a knock at the door.
He opened it to find two armed men in Kevlar vests with Company badges.
“Doctor?” said the man in the lead.
“You’re to come with us, sir. Your presence is required in the main lab.”
“I need an armed guard?”
“The streets aren’t safe, sir.”
“Let me get my coat,” David said, trying to feel nothing, absolutely nothing, for as long as possible, because on the other side of nothing, an expanse of black with Hannah’s name on it waited. He picked up his coat and satchel and accompanied the security guards to a car.
They made it two blocks before the car struck an I.E.D. One guard survived; the other guard and David were killed instantly.
Hannah opened her eyes
She recognized the ceiling of the bedroom of the VR redwood house.
She lay in the hollow between David’s side and his arm, her head on his shoulder.
She smelled his musk, felt his warm body.
She heard birds.
She yawned, stretched, and froze, remembering. She sat up in panic, hair in her eyes, and turned to David, who sat up too.
“Are we–David, am I–are we–”
“We’re okay,” he said. “I have to give you something.” From the bedside table he took a locket on a silver chain and handed it to her. “If you open that,” he nodded at the locket. “There’s a dial. Turn it three times, and we disappear for good.”
“Did you get us to China after all?”
“No.” He was silent for a long moment. “I didn’t get us to China.”
“I rigged up a couple of things in case something happened to me.”
She gripped his arm. “What are you talking about?”
“That hole I mentioned, the access to the Structure? It made a few things possible. Like making sure you weren’t stranded here alone if, well, if I died.”
“You—died?” That couldn’t be right–he was here; he was right here.
“It happened before I had a chance to do what you asked me to do. But at least I can give you that.” He nodded at the locket. “I made a way so you get to say, do we go or do we stay.”
She felt at the solidity of the bed around her as if that might explain what was real. “We’re both in the closet?”
“Yeah. It’s hooked up to the solar panels. And since the Company is off to China, we can be on, well, conceivably until the sun burns out.”
Too full of questions to actually voice one, she looked out a window and saw an impossibly tall and thin pillar of rock, capped with a tree.
He followed her gaze. “We’re in VR-China, near Tianzi Mountain,” he said. “I did some fiddling.”
She held the locket between her hands, looking at the bit of shiny material that hid the end of them.
“Any ideas about what you want to do?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said, lay back on the bed, and drew him to her.
Julie Rea’s work has appeared or will soon appear in several places, including The Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine, BLYNKT, Halfway Down the Stairs, and Broadswords and Blasters. She lives in the Philadelphia area, where she teaches and writes about life in a wheelchair and other fascinating subjects; you can find her on Twitter @phillylitgrl.