“Name?” The man asked gruffly, writing in his book without looking up.
“Profession?” More scritching of a pen on the raised desk. The platform was elevated in such a way the person talking could make eye contact with the person interviewing, much like a police station booking station, but the guy writing had no interest with making eye contact with anyone, ever.
“Writer,” Chuck replied quietly.
“Uh… Christian, at least once.”
“Not often,” Chuck said, shuffling his heels together. The line behind him was growing slowly, but no one seemed to mind.
Chuck felt compelled to hand over the bag he was holding, so he did. The gruff sergeant-at-arms took the bag, again with nary a look at Chuck, and put it on a scale. The scale tipped upwards, then downwards, then upwards again, finally balancing the feather on the other side. The sergeant grunted and tossed the bag over his shoulder, which made the scale bang down heavily on the weighted side.
“Heavy feather,” Chuck said.
“I have never heard that before.” The gruff man said sarcastically. “Go through that door.”
Chuck looked to the right, and the door swung open. It was a heavy looking door, could have been made of stone.
The man at the desk sighed theatrically. “To the right.”
Chuck turned on his heel and walked through the door. He expected it to close behind him with a grinding, heavy sound. But instead, when he turned around, the door was gone. Everything was gone. He stood alone, on a wide gray plain as far as the eye could see. It never had a horizon, it never turned into sky, instead a wide gray everywhere he looked.
“Where am I?” Chuck called out to the emptiness.
“Welcome to AfterLife. You have been wieghed and measured. Your reincarnation score is 64. You have accumulated 31 new achievements. DING. Congratulations, you have leveled up.” A computer sounding voice called back. “Would you like to review your progress?”
The featureless gray immediately turned into a place, and the colors made Chuck’s eyes water and sting. They were bright and vibrant, filling his mind with emotion and a sense of place.
“Oregon, 1978. You are three years old.” The voice announced.
“I remember this. This was my house.” Chuck replied in wonder. The toys strewn across the floor flooded his memory. “Ah man, these were my toys.”
“Achievement: First Share. You shared among your peers first.” The voice replied.
Two boys sat on the floor, playing with matchbox cars. A little boy with brown hair and blue eyes sat playing with two trucks, smashing them together and making explosion noises. The other little boy, in red overalls with a blue bear on his chest, watched with a finger in his mouth. The little blue eyed boy stopped and handed one of his trucks to the other boy, and they both smiled at each other.
“Wild.” Chuck grinned. The scene fizzled away and was replaced with a different room in the same house.
“Oregon, 1985. You are ten years old. Achievement: Saved. Your actions inadvertently but directly saved a peer’s life.”
“I remember this too… I told my mom about Robbie’s gun. She called his dad, and they found Robbie playing with a loaded gun.”
“Robbie was designed to kill himself. In the fourty previous runs, he succeeded.”
“Runs?” Chuck ventured, but the voice ignored him and continued on.
“Oregon, 1991. You are sixteen years old. Achievement: Independence First. You made the choice to not be pressured by your peers.” The scene fizzled out to behind his high school, a group of teenagers were out of sight behind the field house smoking cigarettes. A teenage Chuck was walking away with a confused look on his face, and a couple of boys were either calling him back or jeering, it was hard to tell.
“I didn’t hang out with Tommy after that day. He was pissed.”
“In the previous 14 runs, you succumbed to peer pressure.” The voice annouced.
“Huh. Runs?” Chuck tried again. “What are runs?”
“Query: Are you wishing to stop progress review?”
“Yes,” Chuck said, finally feeling severely confused, and finally realizing that he should have been confused a long time before this very moment in time. The scene around him faded away back to the featureless gray as far as the eye could see.
“Welcome to AfterLife, system is ready, Charles Beatty Iteration 4,422,102. For help, please say ‘help’, for progress, please say ‘progress’, and to continue, please say ‘start simulation’.”
“Help menu. For graphical interface, please say ‘Interface’, for reports and feedback, please say ‘reports’, and to exit back, please say ‘AfterLife’.”
“Interface.” Chuck knew that he could work a computer. He may have been a writer, but he designed his own websites and definitely had earned his nerd card. He had dabbled in all sorts of code over the last couple years, playing with all aspects of developing, updating, and making releases of his own projects. While he was not the best coder, he was persistent and loved diving deep.
“Interface is loaded. To enter, walk forward into the interface. To exit, please walk backwards out of the interface,” the voice said and faded away into the nothingness.
A bubble appeared directly in front of Chuck, no larger than a soap bubble floating in the air. The surface was not the slick rainbow thing that a child would blow from a bubble wand, but a thicker heavier bubble made of molten metal bubbling away in a furnace. Chuck stepped towards it, and one moment he was in front of the bubble, approaching it carefully, the next he was surrounded by it and simple graphical interface hovered in the air before him.
He pushed his hand forward and felt his finger tips running over the surface, as if it was right in front of him. No matter how far back he pulled his hand or pushed it forward, he felt the edges of the buttons and screens as if he was gently caressing them at whatever level he was comfortable with.
“That is a neat trick,” he grinned.
He touched the obvious menu item first. Help. A screen floated above the others and presented him something very much like wikipedia.
The screen had a quote of the day, a picture of a couple galaxies smacking into each other, and some random and popular links. He clicked the top popular result. ‘What is AfterLife?’ He read the result as it coalesced in front of him.
‘AfterLife is a system designed to allow individuals to study and develop themselves in the pursuit of achieving higher understanding. Each interface is designed to correlate to the individuals from their corresponding era, and allows them the time and space to grow at their own speed after the trauma of each simulation run.’
There were links embedded in almost every single noun in the first paragraph, and Chuck wanted to click them all. He resisted the urge and continued.
‘Each simulation run is meant to elicit a specific set of responses in the individual, allowing them to react to stimuli in unique circumstances and event chains to determine their own individual unique outcomes that can be reflected upon in AfterLife.’
“This shit is crazy.”
Chuck slid his finger over to the back button. There was no delay, no time, the other page was instantly loaded. It was more like flipping a page then it was surfing a web page. He looked back over the popular results again. ‘Is there a God?’ caught his eye. He clicked.
The page answered a question with a question. ‘How do you define God?’ There were no other links on this page. Irony there.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. The same answer as always.” Chuck muttered. He sat down and started exploring in depth.
It may have been hours or days or even weeks, but without a desire to sleep or eat, and so much information at his fingertips, Chuck found himself in the deepest links of the AfterLife App. The wiki stayed away from philosophy and the big questions, usually just answering the question with a question or providing some droll details about the system that circumvented the question altogether. What ever higher being put this together was a master philosopher in the sense that they never answered any of the big questions and left it to the person asking the question.
Everything changed when he accidentally found the querying tools. They were buried in what looked like a dev notes section for an innocuous personal setting page about the interface choice for the medieval-era European user that did not know how to read a written language. The voice interaction was a shell in its own way, and with a manual set of inputs, you could go into a series of menus that a normal user would never see.
“Hello blank. Welcome to AfterLife.” The AfterLife voice intoned.
Chuck pushed the interface button under his settings, and updated to unwritten input.
“Hello Charles Beatty Iteration 4,422,102. Welcome to AfterLife. Please ask a question.”
Chuck changed the input back to the interface.
“Hello Charles Beatty Iteration 4,422,102. Welcome to AfterLife. You are granted query access.”
“Fuck yes I am.” Chuck laughed. “Interface, open query tools.”
The interface changed from the wiki format into a 3D system that had floating boxes labeled in space around him. Each query tool was a self-encapsulated cube, with a series of floating blocks around it. The floating blocks appeared to be essentially predefined routines that would always result in the same output. Chuck realized the little snippets were test cases. They always should run and match what they were labeled with. Of course, it was only after dragging and dropping each one on the cube nearest it did he make the connection. Chuck tried dragging one of the blocks from one cube over to another cube, and the little block flashed red.
“So I know what an error looks like and I know what a completed task looks like… I wonder…” Chuck mused as he attempted to open one of the blocks. He had already tried to open a cube, but they didn’t respond one way or the other, so he figured he lacked access. He pulled open the block though without any difficultly and was presented a wall of text. Amazingly it was dead simple code. Everything was defined, annotated, and had interactive help when he hovered over portions of the script. This one was labeled ‘social randomness’, whatever that meant.
He knew he was looking at tools to query his own past life. What would you ask? What would you want to find out? Could he influence the next iteration? Everything pointed to living again, after all, his iteration number was over four million. That means that he had done this very same thing four million times. If he had done it four million times, that means that either he was unable to do anything or he had already done it.
If a literal light bulb could turn on above Chuck’s head, it would have.
“I don’t have to look for ways to change things. I need to look for things that have already changed… that way I could theoretically pick up where I left off. If I have limited time here, or if there is something that forces me to do the simulation again, I would have left a crumb trail.”
He started with a search function in the query system, and provided a new block that he hammered out in a few minutes. The script would scour his life and the results and the systems they rode on to look for his annotation initials. They would not be the same as his actual initials, since he annotated code with his handle name as an extra middle name. So instead of CBK, it was CMBK, or Comeback.
The bulk of the results were for his adult life, for code that he had put together himself. Some of the results were on forums or in games where he used his handle as his name. He changed the query to only check the system, and disregard the AfterLife results.
The answer was one. It was a block floating near the cube labeled ‘Interaction Float’. He pulled the block close and opened it.
‘Goto line 137, col 21,’ is all the snippet read.
“That makes no sense. This block only has the one line.” Chuck shook his head. “Unless that is the query…”
Chuck grabbed the block and dropped it on the nearest cube. The cube flashed red, then green, then red again, the strobed brightly between the two faster than he could count. After a tense ten or so seconds, the entire interface dropped out and came back up.
“Welcome back, Charles Beatty Prime.” The voice said from the nothingness. “Would you like to reload your core memory?”
“I would,” Chuck said. All of sudden, it all came flooding back. All of core memories that he had tried to retain throughout his iterations. He remembered the Forces, he remembered the Chasten, he remembered everything… including Heather.
“Interface, where is Heather Spurlock Prime?” Chuck asked in a mild panic.
“Heather Spurlock Prime is not loaded in AfterLife, and is currently within a run. You do have one message from her in your queue. Would you like to hear it?”
A new voice rang out from the ether. “Charlie, my love. I am glad you made it back, the Chasten are attempting to end the iteration cycles for the Known. Your escape caused a massive amount of… uproar. You need to run. Run. I will join you when I can. Love you.”
Charles swiped both of his hands up. His brain was still writing in the core memories, but he could leave the shell without it harming anything.
“Interface, reset all.”
“Goodbye, Charles Beatty Prime.”
He opened his eyes, seeing the Upper for the first time since he had agreed to go into the Simulation. The skies were gold, while massive information beams cut across the upper atmosphere, leaving harmless plasma wakes behind. He stood up steadily from his bench, feeling weak, but knowing that is was just perception.
Everything is only perception.