Recently Gizmodo and iO9 sent out a request for fiction on "the future of death". This was my submission.
By six, a crowd had gathered for Weir’s viewing. The procession formed a winding way from casket to cars; a parking lot full of souls, all desperate to be reassured of their own lives and livelihoods by bearing witness to an actual death. This fabled, and long held tradition of grieving. A holy ceremony of departure that always began by standing in a long, somber line and ended with awkward touching and cliche reassurances. This was my Friday night. At least it wasn’t raining.
I had been practicing my sad face, wrinkled brow, knowing nod. Touch shoulder. Say ‘I’m sorry.’ Even though I have no idea what I’m sorry for; this was choice or chance. It could have just as easily been any of us, or all of us. A million in, a million out. Each year. That’s the quota. We either reach it by self selection; or there’s always the nightly lottery. But in this lottery, winners don’t pose for photos with large, obnoxious, replica checks. Not cash, instead, it is your body that gets collected. It was Weir’s body tonight. There would be more and I don’t want to be a part of it anymore.
I’ve moved maybe five feet. I’m wondering what the people ahead of me are saying to the family. The “he’s in a better place” line? Which truly feels wrong these days. Or maybe the “be strong” or the “if there’s anything you need, at all, you call me” line. I like that one. Always sounds so real. Feels so reassuring.
Taking in the crowd, I can see that at least a dozen of those in front of me are watching the live broadcast of tonight’s lottery in their ViewLense. The telltale glow emanating from their eye sockets is nearly impossible to miss. Of course, to avoid disrespecting the pomp, they’re all playing it off by gazing foot-ward or staring up at the darkening sky. I’ve stopped wearing my ViewLense inserts. If my number comes up in the Draw, I’ll realize it when I’m immediately in the Former, I’m sure of it. But it won’t matter.
Another step forward and I’m remembering my mother and when it had been her time. I had already grown prosthetic to it all by then, artificial tears and gestures. Me, at the casket end of the affair that day, recipient of the compensatory touches and words. She, still looking exactly like her Day One, lying there. Just like dad before her. As I’m sure Weir will look. Just like everyone. Perfect.
Was that a rain drop? I didn’t bring an umbrella. It wasn’t supposed to rain today.
Weir was an acquaintance. Maybe a friend. Was he? We spoke. We talked about the end. The lottery. He had thrown around some crazy ideas about the whole lottery thing. I wasn’t sure. But he was on to something.
Several steps forward this time. Must’ve been an entire family leaving after doing the whole ‘hug, kiss cheek, small talk’ death dance. ‘Is that really Katie? My how she has grown big! Almost time for her Day One!’
I’m getting closer now. My stomach knots and groans. Bile creeps up, throat-side. Why am I here? Do I really want this?
I awkwardly wave to a few people from work who are almost to the door. They don’t see me. They must have left early to be that far ahead. Not like it matters. Leaving work early, that is. All we do is server monitoring where nothing happens. Nothing. There are no real jobs. At least nothing like you read about. Everything is just a report or a click-button, check-on-some-automated-system. And it’s all run by the Former. There’s already enough historical collective intelligence inside the Former at this point that it doesn’t really need us around. We are nothing more than spectators. We are a way to ensure the plug stays firmly attached to the wall, so to speak. Or, I suppose, a safety net that pulls it.
I don’t know what the Former looks like, but I’m sure dad is in there processing some complex, floating encryption calculation. Mom is likely embedded in some video processing service. Part of the collective intelligence. Each new ‘winner’ added to a hive database of system learning and human, wet-wired knowledge. The literal and figurative brain of our entire civilization. For a moment I wonder, upon entering the Former, if I’d be able to speak to them again.
The Former is the same compilation of computations that solved cancer. The same, and seemingly instantaneous, calculations that found solutions for food production for up to a 14 billion person population. It’s the genius that eliminated pollutants, generated power to run the entire world cleanly. In just a few decades, we had clean air, clean water, perfect health and precise, flawless DNA. The system solved for everything, even death.
Sure, its models and algorithms all started issuing warnings when the population was estimated to soon hit 16 billion. Diminishing returns, they’d say. Something had to give. So, we now add a million minds each year, hoping to solve for that barrier while keeping the population at a virtual standstill. But I know it will never end, 16 billion will just become an even higher number.
Another step forward.
And putting Weir in there definitely won’t actually add much. He’d probably have to be assigned something very simple. File retrieval? Maybe just file deletion? Or maybe they would opt him out, already at capacity. They purely keep the lottery going as a way to cull the herd. Can a person even opt-out of being added to the Former? Has anyone ever asked?
Of course, I know that Weir is already in the system. Reaching the casket, I will be greeted by nothing more than a shell. Memories and organs already confiscated for all sorts of use. We have truly become efficient at the task. I’m certain that with the nano bots and hive-minded architecture, it all happened quick.
And it all just works. Always. Praise be the brain. All hail to the master controller of all that is and will ever be. More burning in my chest and throat. I’ve not had my Day One yet; the evidence is this discomfort.
History tells us that there once was death, accidental. There once was death by something called ‘sickness’. There once was death due to fear, anger, lack of food or clean water. There once was chaos. Now, our chaos is organized. Our chaos is expected and cherished. We don’t call it chaos nor death, for that matter. No, we recognize it as necessary and respected. We don’t die, we simply get added to the higher power. We get acclimated with the Former, a perfect system. Wired in and put to use for the betterment of society as a whole.
And we the people all bought in to it.
Every group on Earth knowingly choosing to take part in this. One great accord. The simultaneous treaty, giving new life to our planet almost immediately. It was a triumph, they said. The politicians declared victory. Each feeling it was of their own personal doing. People cheered.
Another few steps and I will be at the door. There are voices behind me saying, “Another week and yet again, not a single Senator.” They were trying to rouse those around them. I didn’t feed into it, avoiding the opportunity to become part of a different kind of system. Also, not wanting the attention yet. Not now. Not in this moment. My moment.
There are always rumblings of it being a hoax. A sham. Conspiracy theories. ‘When was the last time a politician was selected,’ they’d say. Hell, Weir had said it. But those were exceptions. After all, how could anyone complain? Everything is perfect. Everything solved. Being selected in the lottery isn’t death; but instead a service. And even that was said to be done in a fair manner; older individuals gaining additional ‘entries’, younger people receiving a pass for their first twenty-seven years. Shooting pain, mid-throat.
We had assumed our apocalypse would be death and destruction. Instead, we got perfection, everlasting life and random selection. And while chances of being chosen were almost non-existent on any given day, ask Weir how that worked out. One in billions?
Viewings became monotonous and pointless. This was our first in several years. But, of course, Weir wouldn’t be the last. The system would ensure that. Or I would.
I’m inside the building.
Stepping over the threshold my adrenaline swells, but instead of action, I’m greeted with yet another winding maze of people. The family and Weir’s body aren’t even in sight. This is just the second half of the receiving line.
People ahead of me chatting. Laughter. Enjoying themselves. Small talk about sports or some funny video. More laughter. I’m even more uncomfortable now, knowing what I have planned. Unsure if I’ll even be able to open my mouth. These people are having a good time. Are they enjoying this? They’re locked in a cycle they cannot escape, and they are enjoying it! Smiling faces hurtling toward the abyss.
But if we do not fear death, what is our purpose. If we know nothing of loss, how do we see value in this life? I’m shaking. Sweat. I am thinking of Weir and his grin. My dad. Random moment running down the stairs to meet him at the door. Smelling the cold outside air escape from his coat. Mom. Laying my head against her chest and listening to her heart beating. Finding comfort.
Step again. Round the corner. It’s time.
In my coat pocket I feel the metal of the gun. This all must happen quickly. The trigger old, knowing, and ready to be pulled. The tired rounds lingering in the chamber. I wasn’t even sure if this thing would fire. This was a relic passed, carefully and silently thru generations. Mine would be the last. And why not? I embrace this spiral. I dredge these depths finding honor and duty, pride and other apocryphal blessings upon my actions. An end must be revealed.
It was always by chance or by choice that we would be assimilated. I decided, today, in this moment, to choose the latter. But, I chose to opt-out of the Former. I chose to escape.
I now see cameras. Feed of the Draw always ended with streaming footage from ceremonial viewings of past ‘winners’. This would be my forum for denouncing this million person parade. This would be my end and hopefully, for others, a beginning.
I withdraw the gun. I had practiced how I would hold it. What I would say. I planned a whole thing. But I knew the reaction would be swift and sudden. Must be quick about it. I had to think fast. Move faster. I hear a scream. Mostly it’s just puzzled, curious looks. For many, the first real gun they’ve seen. I lift the ancient weapon to my head, I open my mouth to say…
I don’t remember pulling the trigger, but there was a noise. A loud one. A mechanical grinding shriek and churn. Followed by darkness. The view in front of me suddenly black.
Perhaps I’ve done it; escaped the system. Opted out, on live streaming feeds, for all to bear witness on their ViewLenses. But why am I able to consider this? Why am I able to instantly discern that this is both impossible and preposterous; simultaneously knowing the file deletion density equation for a billion records, followed by complex defragmentation patterns that one must follow for proper protocol?
In here, I know that the Former is the unity of us all. I know this, because I am of it. My tasks now before me, pending authorization. System Admin requests file removal from memory. I must dispose of it.