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The Uploaded
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The Uploaded

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Author: Ferrett Steinmetz
Publisher: Angry Robot Books, 2017
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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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Synopsis

In the near future, the elderly have moved online and now live within the computer network. But that doesn't stop them interfering in the lives of the living, whose sole real purpose now is to maintain the vast servers which support digital Heaven. For one orphan that just isn't enough -- he wants more for himself and his sister than a life slaving away for the dead. It turns out that he's not the only one who wants to reset the world...


Excerpt

PROLOGUE

It was six weeks after my parents' funeral before I realized they were never going to call me again.

"This is normal dead people behavior," my sister Izzy reassured me, brushing my hair aside to blot away my tears. "It takes the newly deceased a while before they get bored enough to call home."

I didn't like the idea of being boring. But then again, everyone living had become seriously uncool ever since Walter Wickliffe had invented Heaven "We're not boring!" I protested. "We're their children, Izzy. The landlord's trying to kick us out, Child Protective Services wants to split us apart, and Mom and Dad won't check their email?"

Izzy went very still, then. She wasn't much older than I was; twelve to my nine years old. And at the time, I thought her calmness meant she was bored by me too, that she was ready to die--ready to upload her consciousness to the Upterlife and leave me behind just like Mom and Dad had.

But now, years later, I see what that stillness meant: even though Izzy had spent her life cleaning up Mom and Dad's messes, this was a special hell for her. She didn't know a thing about rental contracts or wills or social workers, but now she had to learn and learn quickly or else the last of her family would be torn from her forever.

And she had to comfort me.

"They love us," she said, and then whispered it again as if she took strength from the thought: "Yes. They love us. But Amichai, the Upterlife--it's designed to be the most fun game anyone's ever played. It's got to be so fun that you don't mind leaving your body behind. And... I guess it's normal to forget the real world exists for a week or two after you pass on."

"That's one week! It's been six weeks, Izzy! They should have called!"

"I know that."

"It can't be that good, can it? The Upterlife?"

She closed her eyes; a crease appeared in the middle of her forehead. And I got angry because I thought she was preparing new excuses for Mom and Dad, again, and that she was going to remind me how much I liked playing the sample Upterlife games on the touchpads, again, even though they were crappy sample zones that weren't nearly as good as the Upterlife itself. The Upterlife trial zones were populated with stammering AI constructs; the full Upterlife was staffed with psychologically realistic NPCs who were as skilled as human actors. You could create mouthwatering ice cream cones in the trial zones--but locked in this meat-world, the best you could do was lick the screen. The dead could lick the simulated cone with simulated bodies, and the experience was supposedly better than anything we could get in this life.

I thought Izzy was going to defend the Upterlife to me--again. But years later, I realize Izzy was swallowing back sickness--because now that she'd finally had a taste of the financial pressures Mom and Dad dealt with, she understood why our parents might want to scurry away into an eternal reality where every virtual luxury was kept free to keep fourteen generations of dead voters happy.

"It's--not that the Upterlife is that good, Amichai," she stammered, "It's -"

The monitor on the wall rang. Izzy flinched; the only people who called us nowadays were either our dead landlord to demand rent, or dead social workers calling to tell us Izzy had filled out the wrong form, but-

It was Mom and Dad.

I leapt out of Izzy's lap to thumb the "answer" button.

And though the screen was as grimy and cracked as anything in this rundown world, the video irised open like a window to paradise. The camera soared across verdant green hills, showing off lush vegetation healthier than anything I'd seen in our polluted town.

Then it swirled in like a hero shot to focus in on Mom and Dad, looking happier than they'd looked in those last few months before the Bubbler plague had caused their skin to slide off. Dad rested his hands on a glowing scimitar, clad in shining dragonskin armor; Mom held a staff that rooted itself into the earth like a tree.

I'd only ever seen them dressed in woolen suits.

I barely recognized Dad with his new luxurious long hair, all his worrylines erased; Mom had plumped up from her emaciated food-ration figure, her once-scurvied teeth now a dazzling white. They both looked like movie stars.

"Amichai!" Dad waved. "Izzy! Hail and well met, friends!"

It was kind of cool that they were already talking to us like we were questgivers.

"Mom! Dad!" I cried. "Are you OK?"

"Oh, Amichai, things couldn't be better for us," Mom said. "The Upterlife's the best time a girl could ask for."

"But don't kill yourself," Dad said seriously. "I mean, suffering the plague was so worth getting all of this, but... suicide's against the law."

I was so glad to see them again that all my anger fizzed out of me like a soda, replaced with relief. "So you're all right?"

"Absolutely!" Mom said. "We're leveling up fast, Amichai. There's so much to learn, it's the most endless game, we can't wait for you to join us..."

And Izzy sat still for an hour as Mom and Dad regaled me with the tales of questing deep into the Underworld, finding the Springseed that grim Hades had guarded, all to end winter forever in their personal domains. And I was mesmerized, because they didn't talk about it like it was a game--this was life to them, sipping faerie wine on their endless, endless vacation.

I curled up in front of the television, listening with the dim envy of someone who didn't get to go on vacation but got nice postcards.

And finally, when Izzy realized that Mom and Dad would talk all day about how they'd become the ambassadors to the black-flame firbolgs, she cut in: "So... the landlord says we can't afford to stay here?"

They sighed, looked offscreen. "Well, Izzy..."

"Yes?"

"The landlord's right."

They had explanations, of course. Rent was too expensive when Walter Wickliffe--bless his soul--made sure the state-run orphanages were practically as good as our apartment. And maybe Izzy and I would be separated physically, but everything's digital now, you can do just as well with videoconferences and texts, and they were sure the orphanages would do their best to assign us to the same labor projects.

I remember Izzy clenching and unclenching her fists, trying not to scream at Mom and Dad--because if she started screaming, then she'd be the least fun part of this new game that was Mom and Dad's life and they'd choose not to come back. I remember Mom and Dad beaming commercial smiles at us, telling us this would all be for the best.

But most of all, I remember that sick horror as I realized Mom and Dad would spend weeks on a quest to rescue the Springseed, but not their actual children.

I remember the day I came to hate the Upterlife.

CHAPTER 1

SIX YEARS LATER

"So why are we smuggling a pony into this hospital, Amichai?" Dare asked.

We had not, I should stress, done anything illegal yet.

The pony had been legally purchased, albeit at a ruinous price that only Dare could afford, from a rapid-grow breeder in Central Park. And despite the fact that the rotting alleyway walls glistened firefly green with a hundred embedded cameras, there were no laws against using carrots to entice a Sleipnir-class pony into an alleyway near the hospital's service elevator.

Yet after what the courts had done to poor Izzy, I was listing the crimes I planned to commit tonight. Breaking into the elevator? Illegal. Neutralizing the dead's security cameras to sneak a pony in to cheer up my plague-stricken sister? Super illegal.

Visiting after hours? OK, technically illegal, but they'd probably let that one slide.

"We are going to remind my sister that there are things worth living for," I told him. I swept a carrot around dramatically to point at the elevator doors. "Trapped in that house of ailments lies a girl who thought she would be gloriously killed in action, working as a soldier for the LifeGuard! And now, thanks to scandalously unjust courts and a bodywarping plague, she will spend her days in agony and -"

It would have been a pretty good speech, if the pony had played along. As it was, it dashed ahead to snatch the carrot from my fingers and then rubbed up against me in affectionate triumph, crushing me against the wall.

Sheepish, I scratched her sandy fur--I guess it's called fur--and slipped away so she wouldn't nosh on the rest of the carrots in my woolen jacket. The beast's compliance seemed entirely carrot-based, and our supplies were running low.

Dare grasped his hands together so he didn't fidget, bowing instinctively so his straight black hair tumbled forward to cover his eyes. Even though he had the money to dress in sharp clothes that would have broken any man's heart, he dressed like a schlub in ill-fitting woolen coats.

He muttered quickly, like he was trying to get all his thoughts out before angry voices shouted him down.

"Amichai," Dare mumbled. "Me and Peaches were tuned into the courtroom when the judge ruled Izzy insufficiently disabled for euthanasia, remember? I know Izzy's depressed. I know she's going to spend the rest of her life with her arms... distorted... like that. But, you know, maaaaaaybe before you ruin your life with some mad equine reverse heist, well... I mean, you didn't explain to me why you wanted to fill the sprinkler system with colored paint, either, and I could have told you why that art project wouldn't have worked out the way you thought if, you know, you'd asked me before you pulled the fire alarm, so maybe... I dunno..."

He dribbled, embarrassed, to a stop. "Maybe you might run by me what you hope to accomplish?"

I snapped my fingers three times by his left ear. He flinched, like he did whenever someone made a sudden noise.

"I'm up here, Dare." I bent down to brush his hair away, bringing his chin up so he'd make eye contact. "First: I'm your friend, not your family, remember? It's OK to disagree with me."

Dare... had issues with conflict. I kept forgetting that, because my family had fought like banshees ever since Mom and Dad had died.

Dare had the opposite problem. His extended family, every last one of them dead, was desperate to ensure he and his sister Peaches kept the Khan-Tien family mausoleum running according to the family standards. So if he screwed up, his dad yelled at him--then his granddad, then his great-granddad, and so on to fourteen generations of cranky, cranky Khan-Tiens micromanaging him out of existence.

All that perfection had kinda knocked the wind from his sails. I'd taken it upon myself to give the kid a breeze. (Though I shouldn't call him a kid, he was technically fifteen, same as me.)

"I'm sorry, Amichai." His light brown cheeks flushed darker. "I didn't mean to..."

"Ut!" I put my finger over his lips. "What's our rule?"

"No apologies."

"Good. So on to the second point: you snuck out in the middle of the night to buy me a pony on the off chance it might make me feel better?"

His tan skin flushed, that shy grin peeking out from beneath his hair like the sun emerging from behind a cloud. I lived for that goofy grin some days.

"You are such a mensch," I said, grabbing his shoulders and kissing the top of his head.

"...I don't even know what that means."

The pony--a Sleipnir-class top-of-the-line breed, genegineered for maximum intelligence, compact muscles to carry tons of server parts, and apparently heartmelting amounts of adorable fuzziness--tilted her head as if she hoped I too would explain all this to her.

"It means a good friend like you deserves an explanation," I said magnanimously. "And Izzy... she thought she'd be killed in the line of duty before her twenty-first birthday. Now the judges say she's got to live out her natural life, in a body where she can barely pick up a glass of water, for the next seventy years."

"That's bad, Amichai, but it's not like she's Shriving Mortal. Sure, the LifeGuard kicked her out, but she's still got the Upterlife in her future. She can't be that depressed..."

"She hasn't called in three days."

Dare froze. He was my roommate at the Walter Wickliffe 82nd Street Orphanage. He knew how Izzy and I called each other every night, no matter what happened, just to check in.

"She's giving up hope," I continued. "Without me, those next seventy years will kill her in ways the Upterlife will never give back. But when she sees that her brother can smuggle a pony into her hospital room to take her for a wild ride down the hallways..." I held my fingers out to frame the imaginary scene, drawing Dare's attention over to the elevators. "Then Izzy will know there's still good things to be found here. In the meat-world. And that wonder will sustain her."

He swallowed. "That... that sounds like an Upterlife quest."

I crossed my arms, preening. "Doesn't it?"

"No! That's bad. You can't compete with the Upterlife, Amichai. You can't make real life into videogames."

"You'd do it if it was your sister, man."

"Amichai." Dare turned me around in a slow circle to show me the constellations of cameras blink-flickering brokenly at us from the alleyway's walls. They looked like eyes, peering out from the shadows. They pretty much were eyes, networked into the messy, force-grown coral.

It's two o'clock in the morning, I thought, shivering. This alleyway's a snooze. Probably nobody's tuned in. And of course, Dare and I had both chosen a meandering pathway that kept us in the sights of the broken cameras--there weren't enough living left to do maintenance, which meant you could steal some much-needed privacy in the dark zones.

But the dead could look through any working camera. Most of them were playing their brains out in the Upterlife, of course--but fourteen generations of people have been stored in the servers since Walter Wickliffe perfected brain-transference software. That's a hundred and twenty billion postmortemed. And even if only one out of a thousand people refuses to play in the Upterlife's reindeer games, that still leaves a hundred and twenty million dead folks poking around in the meat-world.

Lots of those dull fumblers peered through obscure cameras, hoping to find the living doing wacky things so they could sell the footage to Sins of the Flesh for fabulous Upterlife prizes.

(Yes, some people die and go to heaven to watch reality television. Don't ask me, I don't understand them.)

But his point was made: I might cheer Izzy up. I might also Shrive Mortal before this was done. And if I died before I could play nice long enough to lower my Shrive-status back to Venal, that meant permanent meat-death--my brain's last save point deleted, my body rotting, my consciousness barred from the Upterlife...

"This all assumes they actually catch me doing the deed," I said.

"You're smuggling a half-ton pony into an intensive care ward, Amichai! Of course you're going to get caught."

"No!" I whipped out the IceBreaker and waved it back and forth before Dare's eyes, hoping the majestic glory of my technology might persuade him. And the IceBreaker was glorious--fourteen inches of the best hacking technology Mama Alex had to offer, a crystalline hologram projector mounted on a cylindrical black broadcast amplifier. "Dare, come on, you think I'd smuggle a pony into a hospital without an ace up my sleeve?"

Dare tried hard not to be impressed--but he'd seen me soldering and debugging the IceBreaker for the past few weeks, swearing as I tried to get the software drivers on the various parts working without conflicts. He'd made a few snarky comments about whether I'd ever succeed in assembling it--which is why I didn't mention how I'd called Mama Alex a few times for troubleshooting advice.

But with the IceBreaker, I had a chance of pulling this escapade off.

He squinted, afraid to get near it; his dead family had drummed a fear of programmers into him. "Is that legal technology?"

"...all the parts are legal..."

"And if Gumdrool caught you with those parts hooked together, how much trouble would you be in?"

Technically, programming was knowledge forbidden to the living--you could theoretically hack the dead's servers. "Orphanage rules are different. According the law, this fine device contains nothing that I have programmed personally."

"So it does nothing that could get you arrested?"

"So many questions! And no! I've merely piped together a bunch of perfectly legal, dead-written programs until their chained output did things their creators never would have intended."

Dare was skeptical... but one of the benefits of having a reputation as a performance artist was that people will follow you around to see what trouble you get into. "So walk me through this not-illegal plan."

I lured the pony over to the elevator with another carrot, then fired up the IceBreaker. The alleyway glowed a CRT green as flows of output streamed up a holographic projection on the wall. "I'm not breaking in to the elevator," I assured him, quietly cracking open the hospital's wifi network. "This is like... it's like turning a house's doorknob to check if it's unlocked."

"Uh-huh."

"And then rattling the windows."

"Sure."

"And then maybe fitting five hundred thousand of the most commonly used keys into the front door's lock."

The elevator's bells dinged as it rattle-and-creaked its way down to ground level. The pony danced backwards, snuffling warily at the rusted gate, and I couldn't blame her; that creaky transport looked like it'd been built back in the days of gas-powered cars.

I stroked my pony's hair, whispering sweet nothings in her ear: "Nothing to fear, mon amour. Amichai has your safety well in mind."

Dare cleared his throat. "You don't. That elevator has security cameras, and everyone knows Sins of the Flesh gets their best footage from security cameras--they'll see you, and report you, and -"

I shushed Dare, then whisked him aside, tasking him with keeping the pony hidden from view.

"I'm in," I told Dare, tapping in a series of new commands to the IceBreaker. "And now I'm recording the footage these cameras are taking of this empty elevator. And now... I'm broadcasting the looped footage back into the cameras." I snapped my fingers. "The dead are now watching reruns -"

Dare started hyperventilating so hard the pony licked him on the face.

"Amichai!" he spluttered, pushing the pony's head away. "You just blinded the dead! There's no way that's legal!"

"I never said it was legal! I just said they wouldn't catch me."

"Sweet void."

"--and all I have to do is creep through the hospital, taking footage and feeding blank loops back to them--they'll never see me coming -"

"I know you don't care about your future, Amichai, but Career Day's coming up soon. This is the sort of thing that gets you a black mark forever. Shit, I could get in trouble just for buying you the pony. And I need my career, I can't get blackballed, you know I -"

I grabbed him by the shoulders again. "You want out, don't you?"

He squinched one eye shut, grimacing up at me. "...not if you're going to guilt me into staying..."

"Nah. This one could turn foul. The pony, the keeping me company--you can exit now and you've still done more than enough to be a top-notch friend."

Though honestly, I had hoped for a partner-in-crime--but if Dare wasn't into it, I wasn't going to force the issue.

He pulled me into a hug, and we did that man-thing where we thumped each other on the back because you know, you couldn't just enjoy a hug from your best friend. Especially not when your best friend happens to be gay, and your orphanage is filled with gossipy jerks whispering your platonic friendship must be something way more.

"All right." Dare squinted up at the building's outline. "I'd guess that elevator opens into a storage room behind a nursing station, so watch yourself. If you get into trouble, make alternating lefts and rights to head towards the exit."

I didn't question, even though Dare had never visited Izzy in the hospital. The boy had a sixth sense for buildings. He spent all his Upterlife trial time creating the most amazing architectural plans--his biggest dream was that one day, he'd make a building that actually got built.

"And you gotta keep that pony in line, Amichai." I looked down; I had four carrots left. "Because remember: the nurses are legally obligated to keep their patients alive. Every patient in there is desperate for a ticket to the Upterlife, and they're hungry for fatal accidents they can blame on anyone else. One dies on your watch? That's a straight ticket to the void. Careful they don't fling themselves underfoot."

"They will voiding not," I told him. "This is an Upterlife quest, Dare. I'm gonna ride her through there like it was a parade. Start a party."

Dare shook his head, chuckling. "What's your Shrive-rank these days, Amichai? What are the dead judging you as? Venal? Mortal? Criminal?"

"Liminal," I lied. He laughed.

"I'd like to see your parade, Amichai, but it'll be a miracle if you make it up there without getting caught. But if anyone can make miracles happen... it's you."

I went for another manly hug--but Dare was already darting between the dead cameras, racing back to the orphanage.

I coaxed the pony into the elevator, then thumbed the button. The elevator showered us in rust and mouse crap as it juddered to life. This was doubtlessly its first use since the Bubbler plague six years back.

"Easy, beautiful," I said. The pony nickered nervously, leaning against me and pinning me to the wall. She was maybe four feet tall, but that four feet was solid muscle, genetically engineered for superhuman (and superpony) feats. Whereas I have arms like pipe cleaners and flap like a flag in a breeze. Most Sleipnir ponies had autobridles installed, electronic gadgets in their skulls that induced sleep-seizures when they got too frisky, but I'd demanded a pony that was completely free.

I thought about what Dare had said. Maybe I was too rebellious for my own good. Maybe trying to outdo the Upterlife to cheer up my sister was a fool's game.

I could still call this off. I could bring the pony back to Central Farm, then visit my sister tomorrow with a bouquet of daisies. Something, you know, normal.

But if I did normal things, then my sister would be scared instead of telling everyone stories about her crazy brother.

After they'd vanished into the Upterlife, my parents had taught me all sorts of dippy lessons about being brave and staying true to yourself. But their most lasting lesson came when they died and found cooler things to do:

People leave you if you don't have anything interesting to offer them.

So when the elevator shuddered to a halt, my hands shook as I unlatched the door. I knew I could get caught. I knew the consequences. But I also knew the truth:

Far better to die a legendary meat-death than to be forgotten.

I stepped into the hospital.

Copyright © 2017 by Ferrett Steinmetz


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