“Reality’s Shelf-Life” by J.T. Hamilton

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She died with a virtual reality headset strapped to her face. Jaw agape, cheeks sunken, polygonal patterns of crystallized sweat stuck to the fabric of her clothes. Her body was splayed out on an undressed mattress. A ceiling fan wobbled above. It was hot. Real hot. Alabama mid-summer-sun-expected-to-implode-this-decade hot.

Scattered around the mattress, small plastic appliances vibrated and beeped, each displaying a unique blinking pattern of red-green lights. Tubes and wires wrapped around the woman’s torso, entering all orifices of her body, and exiting back into the machines. One was a feeding tube. Another a catheter. Some were monitors. Most provided in-game haptic feedback.

An old man, her husband, scratched his neck and squinted. His thin emaciated body was tense and weak. He gritted his teeth and leaned against another man, a police officer, who helped him stand. Together they looked down at the corpse.

 

~

 

The officer, Clarence Pavlon, had received a deceased user alert from the DreamStream© administrator that morning. It pinged his retinal HUD right as he’d clocked in, flooding his visor with three thousand lines of diagnostic logs, drowning him in techno-babble.

“Here we go,” he groaned. “Paperwork at 7 am sharp.”

Three cups of coffee and two aspirins later, he’d narrowed it down to seven pertinent lines.

22:43:12 – Heart rate abnormal

22:43:13 – Emergency service drone notified for check-up

22:45:54 – Blood vessel ruptured in right frontal lobe

22:47:16 – All major vital signs offline

22:48:43 – User pronounced deceased by system

22:48:44 – Emergency service drone cancelled

23:01:45 – Law enforcement notified for next-of-kin notification and clean-up services

He filed the report and spoke the victim’s address to his vehicle. The car’s engine hummed with electricity and rolled forward. Out the window, the sprawling live oak trees of Mobile, Alabama draped long coils of Spanish moss over the city’s abandoned sidewalks. Their wide branches never failed to impress him. And to think that most people alive today will never even see a real tree. It sent shivers down his spine. He instructed the car’s AI to black out the windows and play music. “Something mid-twentieth century,” he said. “Something relaxing.”

The slow swell of orchestral strings filled the cab, followed by a muted trumpet and the smooth syrupy voice of Ella Fitzgerald.

“Summertime and the living is easy.

Fish are jumping and the cotton is high.

Oh your daddy’s rich and your ma is good looking,

so hush little baby, don’t you cry.”

Another alert popped up on his HUD as the music continued to play. This one from a superior officer.

Initial report received. Deceased user has one living relative. Gerald Downer, spouse of 46 years. Age 66. Both users integrated with DreamStream© technology in the beta phase 4 decades ago. Please file closing report once notified. We’ll send clean-up drones once received.

He blinked the text away and the car’s engine stopped along with the music. The door opened. Officer Pavlon stepped out onto the red dirt of the driveway. An enormous brick mansion with linked arcades and front facing windows loomed over him. This was an old plantation home. Slaves had worked this property once.

For a moment, he felt sick. The live oak trees he’d just admired, they’d once been used to hang his own relatives. His grandmother had told him the horror stories as an adolescent. “Never forget,” she’d told him. “Those white folks cheered while your great-great-great-grandmother clawed at a cotton rope around her neck. Black skin turned purple. Veins protruded from pulsing temples. She was dry heaving and kicking at the air.”

One horrible reality melds into another. He pushed the thought away. He had a job to do. A good job that made the world better.

He opened the front door to the grand foyer. The woman’s corpse laid flat on the undressed mattress, fully integrated with DreamStream© technology.  The officer swallowed.

Behind the corpse was a staircase which sprouted up from the center of the parquet court floor, its wide branches transformed into a mezzanine. Large oil paintings of civil war battle scenes hung between bedroom doors. The master bedroom was open and the officer heard the irritating buzz of DreamStream© tech coming from within it.

“Alright,” he said to himself, “let’s do it.” And he jogged up the staircase, skipping every other step as he went.

The husband laid on a king-sized bed; shoulders, elbows, and the notches of his spine protruded from his body. Something had gone terribly wrong. Users should appear as healthy, if not healthier, than those in meat space, but this one was near starvation. The officer checked the serial number on the user’s virtual reality mask and sent a message to the DreamStream© administrators:

Badge#9034. S/N: 4CE060D0G – Waking user for notification of deceased family member. State of health: questionable due to extreme malnourishment. Requesting general ejection. Please advise.

Three minutes later, a response:

Evaluation complete. 13.482% risk of psychotic episode upon waking. 99.971% risk of general confusion and memory loss. Malnourishment acknowledged. Best guess is the feeding tube clogged and monitor didn’t alert. Reason for faulty monitor unknown. User is otherwise healthy. Sending medical drone for full bio-inspection before re-integration. Sending technical drone to replace feeding tube and monitor. Beginning general ejection sequence. ETA 2 hours. Please standby.

The officer quietly paced the room, listening to the various appliances click on and off as they coaxed the old man from unreality. He looked at the pictures on the couple’s dresser. He saw the woman’s parents, who appeared to have lived in the same home. Generation after generation of people living here. This would be the last. In one picture, a group of smiling children tugged at each other playfully. Probably the woman and her siblings.

There were also traces of the old man’s pre-integration life. A diploma in computer science from the University of Alabama hung near the closet with his name on it. Some old mementos were stashed away in a cigar box.

There was an actual cigar in there too. Officer Pavlon took it out and sniffed it. It smelled like old wood and dried leaves. There was a time when respect for personal property had been the foundation for society, but that time had long passed. For the immersed, physical property was irrelevant. So the officer thought nothing propping open a window, cutting the tip off the cigar, and lighting it. Hopefully, it would help the two long hours go by a little faster. He pulled one of the mementos out and studied it as he smoked.

A pair of concert tickets to a band he’d never heard of, dated 46 years back. He rifled through some more and found a love letter that they had passed back and forth in class. “Do you want to go out with me?” It read. “Check yes or no.” The other had checked yes and circled it three times. There were some photo-booth pictures, a bracelet, and then a picture of the woman pregnant and smiling. No kids mentioned in the briefing. They must have lost the pregnancy. It was common for people to integrate after experiencing some form of personal trauma.

The officer would never truly understand the general ejection process, but it had been described to him in training. Protocol followed as such: any user who had been integrated into the DreamStream© for a period of time exceeding 3 months was required to undergo a psychological evaluation. If it was determined that a psychotic episode was relatively low (under 33.333%), the evaluation would be followed by a series of actions within the virtual realm. These actions assisted the user in the safe transition between unreality and reality, an uncomfortable undertaking. Almost all users experienced confusion and memory loss.

Younger users, those integrated before adolescence, had become unable to eject under any circumstances. Their minds melded so severely to the DreamStream© that removing them would be torturous. If ejected, they’d behave like rabid animals, attacking and attempting to kill anyone in sight.

Any users able to be awoken was required to be in the event of a loved one’s passing. It was a federal law and it required a certain human touch that the drones and AI couldn’t quite handle. The local police departments, having little else to do, took the baton. They stood by as DreamStream© administrators woke multi-decade users and they attempted to help them face their loss. Then (and only if the person chose it), they would assist in re-integrating the user back into the DreamStream©.

At first, he had always hoped that the person would remain in meat space. So often they displayed regret. But few could cope with reality once its shelf-life had expired and the consequences of trying would typically lead to suicide.

As Clarence finished the last of the cigar, the old man rustled and sat upright. “Right on time,” said the officer.

The husband looked around in panic, headset still strapped to his face. He began to tear at the wires and tubes, making gurgling and choking sounds.

“Woah, woah, shhhhhh,” the officer said with his palms up, “calm down, Mr. Downer.” He put his hand on the old man’s foot to let him know where he was.

The old man, still tense and short of breath, stilled himself. “I can’t see,” he said. “Why can’t I see?”

“It’s okay. You were in the DreamStream© and now you’re back. I’m going to remove the mask now.” Officer Pavlon moved forward and unlatched the virtual reality mask. He placed it on the nightstand beside the bed.

Frightened eyes looked back at him. The appliance, which monitored the old man’s heart rate, beeped faster indicating a dramatic BPM spike, but the he appeared calmer than before.

“What are all these tube and wires?” Downer asked.

Shit. He doesn’t even remember being integrated. “Let me help you with those,” Officer Pavlon replied. He put on a pair of latex gloves, leaned over the old man and began removing the various tubes and wires. It was disgusting work and probably embarrassing for the the old man, but he was too confused to resist. “Would you like something to drink?”

A hint of recognition entered the old man’s eyes. “I think there might be whiskey in the top dresser drawer,” he said. “I’m not certain though… of anything.”

The officer smiled. Progress. Good. He walked to the drawer and found the whiskey along with two tumblers. It had a nice amber color. “Not the cheap stuff,” the officer joked. “Mind if I have one as well?”

“Sure” said the old man.

The officer poured them each two fingers of whiskey. He handed one to the old man and then clinked the tumblers together. The old man grinned, recognizing the universal camaraderie that comes with a drink.

“So, let’s get started.” Officer Pavlon sat on the edge of the bed. “You and your wife decided to integrate with the DreamStream© about forty years ago. It was in the beta phase then. Do you remember?”

The old man took a swig of whiskey, finished the glass and motioned for another. The officer obliged. “This doesn’t feel real,” the old man replied. “Time is moving slow.” His gaze shifted around the room. “Much too slow. Like there’s a heaviness in the air.”

“Do you remember being integrated?”

“I remember. But forty years ago? That doesn’t seem right.”

“Well,” said the officer. “When you enter the DreamStream©, you can request general ejection at any point up to six months; after six months, the user is only ejected if necessary. Logs say that you ejected once. You and your wife both. And that was three weeks after the initial integration.”

The old man looked down at his fragile hands. He glanced around the room. “My wife?”

The officer frowned.

“So I re-integrated after that and didn’t come back out?”

“And once you’ve been in for six months, we only wake you if it’s necessary.”

Two drones flew in through the open window. The smaller one began working on the old man’s feeding tube. The larger one landed on the bed beside him.

“Something went wrong with your feeding tube, Mr. Downer. That’s why you’re so thin. That drone needs to do some tests on you. Okay?”

The old man nodded. The drone immediately purred upon receiving consent and began to poke and prod at the old man’s skin. “That’s why you woke me then?” he asked. “Because of my feeding tube?”

“Afraid not. This might be difficult to hear.”

The old man frowned at the medical drone extended an antenna into his ear, checking his temperature.

“Mr. Downer. Sadly, we ejected you from the DreamStream© because your wife passed away last night.”

“My wife?” He said. “I never married.”

The medical drone dinged in an affirmative tone, announcing that all vitals checked green, then flew out through the open window. The technical drone remained, reviewing the circuitry of the various DreamStream© appliances.

Officer Pavlon stood, offering to help the old man out of bed. “Can I call you Mr. Downer?” he asked.

“That’s fine.”

“Okay. You can call me Clarence. We’re going downstairs, Gerald. Can you walk if I help you?”

“I believe so.”

“Okay. Your wife is downstairs. She’s dead. I’m required to show you her body. I know you don’t remember, but when you see her, you might.”

The old man nodded.

The two of them hobbled awkwardly down the staircase. When they reached the woman’s body, the old man stared blankly. “I remember her” he said, “but I can’t remember her name. Maybe…” His eyes widened. He squinted. His corners of his mouth tightened in defeat. “Coleen…” he whispered hoarsely. “I didn’t know it would be our whole lives, Coleen. I’m so sorry.”

He kneeled on the mattress beside her, fumbled with the latch on her virtual reality headset and removed it. Two bulging eyes stared back at him, retinas rolled back, sclera framed by blueish-black rings. “Oh, Coleen…” He held her face in his frail wrinkled hands. Her lips were cracked. Dried blood stuck to her teeth. A grey strand of hair fell across her forehead, so he tucked it behind her ear. “She had brown hair,” he said. “She should have brown hair. Why doesn’t she have brown hair?”

The officer didn’t intervene. There was no suspicion. No evidence to gather. Meatspace was a wasteland. Crime ceased to exist when humanity surrendered its will to power, so he placed a hand on the old man’s back to comfort him instead.

Gerald Downer cried.

“She went peacefully,” Officer Pavlon said. Then pulled some medical-grade tape from his pant pocket, tore off two small bits, and offered them to the old man. “You’ll want to tape her eyes shut,” he said. “To keep them closed.”

The old man did as he was told.

The two of them stayed there for awhile, the old man holding his wife’s body and the officer standing over them both. As the sun wen down, the officer sent his final report to his superior.

Spouse successfully notified. Send clean-up drones.

He squeezed the old man’s shoulder. “There’s some more drones coming to take the body away. It can be hard to watch. Are you gonna be okay?”

The old man nodded, stood up, and then sat on the first step of the staircase. Officer Pavlon joined him and they waited in silence.

 

~

 

As the full moon appeared in the plantation home’s front windows, the clean-up drones arrived. They buzzed over the woman’s body like flies, spraying her with a jelly-like foam which solidified into plastic. Hooks dropped from their under-bellies and attached to her appendages. Moving in unison, they lifted her off the ground and left. The two men watched as the drones whistled through the sky. The wife’s body silhouetted by the moon. Cicadas screeched as they clung to the bark of the live oak trees.

The old man hung his head. “It’s as if she never existed.”

“Should we re-integrate you now?” asked the officer.

The old man said, “Yes.”

 

 

 

 

You can find J.T. Hamilton on Twitter @J_T_Hamilton
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