Five Stages of Future Grief
By Gary Cuba
Stage One: Denial
HERMAN SMITH HAD JUST BEEN informed that his beloved wife Maria had died ... again.
He had visited her online only the day before, and she’d been in great spirits. How could it have happened so suddenly?
The heavily accented voice of Bob, the customer service representative from Everlasting e-Life, crushed Herman’s dreams and made the blood drain from his head: “I am very sorry, Mr. Smith. An unfortunate and totally unplanned situation. I am afraid Mrs. Smith is no longer with us. Not on our databanks, to be sure.”
Her biological death had been bad enough. She’d already suffered through that one many months ago, the ravenous cancer consuming her body while Herman watched helplessly. Her slow demise was a gauntlet of utter horror, pathos, and unbearable grief.
But the people from the Everlasting e-Life company had guaranteed him that Maria could continue to live on forever, once the contents of her newly dead biological brain were transferred into the glorious cyberspace environment of virtual reality. Such a marvelous technology this was, only recently developed! Herman didn’t fully understand its technological underpinnings, but he glommed onto the concept like a hungry otter on an abalone. Anything to keep Maria’s consciousness alive!
He wasn’t prepared for this turn. He sputtered, “But I paid her initial processing fee in full, and dutifully kept up with all the monthly regime payments. I don’t understand!”
“This was not an accounting department problem, Mr. Smith, not at all. It was due to a ... technical hiccup, so to say.”
“But surely you people have backups, don’t you? Can’t you just ... reconstitute her, for God’s sake?”
“Ordinarily, yes,” Bob answered. “However, in this case her backup files are no longer available.”
“What do you mean, not available?”
“As it happens, there was a change in ownership and a contract dispute with the third-party company we use for that purpose.”
“Unbelievable. I can’t accept that. Is there no way I can get her back?”
There was a pause on Bob’s end. At length, the representative said, “In principle, we may be able to reproduce her with some degree of fidelity, given fresh data input—that is, if you and the people she knew in life were to be willing to submit to brain scans to reap their memories of her. Given that, we can attempt to reconstruct her basic personality. It’s the least we can do for you in this unfortunate situation, Mr. Smith. Or, rather to say, the most.”
“So you’re saying I have no other choice?”
“At this time, none, I am afraid,” Bob said. “Just remember, Mr. Smith: the final result will be much more accurate and realistic if the data input comes from as many varying points of view as possible. This complex procedure will, of course, require some additional funds from you—but nothing like the original processing fee.”
And so that is what Herman did. Bob sent him special software and a complicated-looking wire mesh skullcap that he could connect to his home PC. He submitted himself to extensive brain scans, and cajoled others to participate—relatives, friends, previous work-colleagues of Maria, even some of her old boyfriends from before they were married. For those who were reluctant, he offered them cash on the barrelhead.
Lots of cash.
Bob gave him periodic updates. Maria’s consciousness had begun to come together again, he told Herman. Her artificial neurons were knitting together nicely, meaningful connections were being made, old associations reestablished according to what everyone remembered of her.
Eventually, all the things that Maria had once been were reconstructed from whole cloth.
Unfortunately, that cloth contained more than a few moth holes.
Herman spoke into his PC headset. “Sweetie, can you hear me? Are you there?”
A blast of static startled him, and his wife’s face appeared on the screen in front of him. “Herman? My two-timing bastard of a husband? What gall you must have, to call me here! I was in the middle of my bowling match. Why didn’t you call that floozie whore in your office instead, the one that you’re always groping?”
“But Honey, I—”
“Honey up my ass. You thought I didn’t know about her, did you? But I haven’t got time now to dick around with you. It’s my turn on the lane. At least my teammate Ricardo can appreciate me for the woman I am. Not like you, who treated me like a clueless dipwad for forty years. Au revoir, you creep.”
“Bob? It’s Herman Smith calling. Account number 4312.”
It was funny, but Bob’s heavily accented voice now sounded somehow soothing to Herman. “Mr. Smith! Good to hear from you again. Are things working out to your satisfaction?”
Herman bit his lip. “Actually, no. Not. To be honest, it’s been a bit of a bust all around, Bob. What I wanted to ask about was ... what does it take to terminate my wife’s account?”
“No problem at all, Mr. Smith. I’m very sorry you were dissatisfied, but I can certainly terminate the account for you right now, for the standard cancellation fee ... there, done. Is there anything else I can help you with today?”
Herman breathed deeply, then exhaled slowly. “No, that’ll do it. Thanks a million, Bob. Goodbye.”
Stage Two: Anger
Jim Barnes stared at the probate lawyer in disbelief.
“You can’t be serious! I waited thirty years for that old buzzard to finally kick the bucket. I’m his only surviving relative. That money belongs to me. He so much as told me that, years ago!”
And a lot of money it was. His Uncle Nathan had been filthy rich. Jim had been patiently waiting to get his hands on that loot, whereupon he’d quit his crappy job, buy a fancy yacht, and move to the Caribbean to live the sweet life.
The lawyer shook his head slowly. “Very sorry, Mr. Barnes. Once Nathan decided to opt for virtual reality life extension, he directed all his funds toward that end. It pretty much consumed his entire estate, considering the initial Everlasting e-Life processing cost, the annuity fund to cover his ongoing VR premium service fees in perpetuity, and, of course, the lump sum retainer to our firm to ensure continuing representation and Power of Attorney.”
“So I don’t get even a thin dime out of it?”
“Well, he did procure a custom interface unit for your use. It’s sitting out in the lobby for you, when you leave.” The lawyer paused, then added, “Nathan thought very highly of you, Jim. He appreciated your visits and calls during his physical life, and he wanted you to continue to visit him often in his new, ah, home.”
“Sheesh! I’ll sue him. This can’t stand!”
“You can’t sue a man who is legally dead, Jim.”
“Then I’ll sue you. I’ll break that annuity, get Power of Attorney back, and ... it’s just not right, what you all are doing to me. Not right at all. It’s inhumane, a travesty. It goes completely against the natural order of things. And I won’t let you sons of bitches get away with it!”
The lawyer smiled and leaned back in his chair. “Oh, you can take that tack, sure. But frankly, it would be a waste of your time and money. Your Uncle’s intentions were quite clear and well-documented. He tied things up very securely. He didn’t get to be as rich as he was without being legally astute, you know.”
Jim felt his face flush and the veins throb in his forehead. He glared at the lawyer, pounded his fist on the desk, and opened his mouth to speak. No words came out.
“Look, Mr. Barnes, here’s the number for the Everlasting e-Life’s service representative, Bob. He’ll set up your interface account for you. It’s all been prepaid. Then discuss things with your Uncle. You may come to understand and accept his decision better, after you do that.”
Jim snatched the number from the lawyer’s outstretched hand and stomped out of his office. He picked up the bulky box containing the interface unit from the lobby and headed for the nearest bar to drown his sorrows.
“Hello, Uncle Nathan. Are you there?”
“Jimbo! How good of you to visit me here.”
Jim didn’t recognize his Uncle at first. The image on the screen showed a strong, middle-aged man, tanned and handsome. But of course. This was Nathan during his prime, not the wrinkled, withered old man Jim had last seen in the flesh.
“You look a lot different, Uncle.”
“Yes, isn’t it wonderful? We can be anything we want to be, here in VR. No aches or pains, with robust, healthy bodies filled with limitless energy—not to even mention the libido, heh, heh. I wish you could try it! Perhaps someday you will—assuming you start putting something aside for that future day ...”
Jim frowned. “But that’s just it, Uncle Nathan. I never thought I needed to do that. I was counting on my inheritance to take care of me. But then a funny thing happened: you decided not to die! Imagine how I felt when I learned you’d cut me off cold. I am not a happy camper. No sirree, not at all.”
“Ah, very sorry about that, Jim. But when new opportunities arise, you have to grab hold of them. And so I did. You’d do the same, I’m sure. Wouldn’t you?”
“All I know is, you screwed me big-time, you old fart. I can’t fight you in court, but trust me when I say this: I’ll find a way to get what’s coming to me. By hook or by crook, I will!”
Nathan’s screen avatar nodded and formed a wry smile, but its eyes looked sad. “I think you’ve already gotten what’s coming to you, Jimbo—and it’s something more valuable than you realize. Namely, an important life lesson: don’t depend on others to take care of you. Ciao.”
Stage Three: Bargaining
(Taken from the KickbuttGoGo fund-raising site.)
My mother, Ms. Julia Gray, is suffering the terminal stages of cancer. Doctors give her another month to live, which forms the basis of the deadline for this fundraiser.
Anyone who knew my mother will know what a warm-hearted, generous person she was. For those who didn’t know her, I can vouch that she was a very warm-hearted, generous person. She was a regular churchgoer for her entire life, and taught Sunday school classes up until the time that her illness caused her to stop teaching Sunday school classes. She also baked great sugar cookies.
But there is yet hope for my mother! If I can raise the $500,000 processing fee this month, I will be able to transfer her consciousness into Virtual Reality, thanks to the amazing technology provided by the Everlasting e-Life company. Anyway, that’s what Bob, their service representative, told me. Once there, she can continue to be warm-hearted and generous for the balance of eternity.
RISKS AND CHALLENGES
By my quick count, there are 12,432 other KickbuttGoGo projects out there attempting to fund their loved ones’ life-extensions. So I suppose my main risk is that I may not be able to raise the required funding in time. In which case, my Mom goes kaput. Please, please, please ... don’t let that happen! I’m counting on each and every one of you.
$10,000 donor level (5 each): A pair of woolen mittens crocheted by my mom. One of a kind! Or, rather, pairs of a kind. (No, actually, now that I look at them closer, ones of a kind.) Very colorful and warm.
$5,000 donor level (20 each): My mom’s secret recipe for sugar cookies. Yum yum!
$2,500 donor level (50 each): A prayer card inscribed with the 23rd Psalm (courtesy of Kramer’s Funeral Home, which has been very supportive of us lately).
$1,000 donor level (100 each): A personalized “Thank You” card, signed by myself and my sister. It’s a constant reminder of our enduring gratitude, suitable for proud display in any home.
Well, I guess I’ve already said everything that needs saying. Please pledge money to save my mom. She’s very special to me. I want her to live on forever.
Stage Four: Depression
Eddie Williams had lately come to dread phoning his dead father, Mortimer. Transferring Mortimer’s brain into virtual reality had seemed like such a wonderful idea after the old man’s fifth heart attack—his last one, as it turned out. But things had not worked out so well since then.
“Hi, Dad,” Eddie said into the headset. “How are things going for you today? Any better?”
Mortimer could have taken on a VR avatar of himself at an earlier age, one where he was robust, healthy and handsome. Instead, he had preferred to keep his own last self-image, that of a drawn, haggard old hound dog of a man wearing an unwashed bathrobe. It was just as he’d been in Eddie’s memories of him from the last few years of his life: never going out to eat or travel, never making new friends, rarely bathing, never reading or engaging in any hobbies—in fact, never doing much of anything at all except watching the Weather Channel on his TV all day.
In real life, Mortimer had gone downhill fast after Mom died. What a shame that her death had predated the Everlasting e-Life technology! They might have been happy together in VR. For sure, she’d have gotten him off his rear end to do things. And the things they could do there were ... so wonderful! Or so it was claimed in the advertising brochures he’d studied. The VR clients could go on virtual vacations to see ultra-high resolution simulacra of all wonders of the world, taste all kinds of new food-analogues, take up sports like skiing, kayaking—skydiving, even.
“Same old horsecrap, Eddie. Always the same old, same old.”
“Dad, you really have to get with the program! It’s not doing you any good to fritter eternity away feeling sorry for yourself.”
“Bah! You know what I had to suffer through this morning? A bunch of bratty little Girl Scouts intruded on me via my comm board. I guess there must be a new merit badge out there now for pestering old people who want to be left alone.”
“How sweet! I hope you were gracious to them.”
“I blew the disgusting cretins off, told ’em to get lost.”
“Dad, tell me you didn’t!”
There was a pause while Mortimer’s screen avatar looked down at his lap. “It just isn’t working, Eddie. I don’t know how I ever let you talk me into doing this in the first place. I can’t bear the thought of being here for even another day—much less forever.”
Eddie’s eyes clouded. Mortimer’s pain was getting too much for him to take. At that moment, he felt just as depressed as his dad. But his tears subsided when he thought of something that Bob, the Everlasting e-Life customer service person, had suggested to him.
Eddie had originally broached the idea of giving his father anti-depressant drugs—or whatever the VR analogue for them might have been. Bob told him that tampering with any client’s preexisting neuronal constitution and interconnections was strictly against corporate policy. But there were other alternatives, and, while pricey, they could offer some hope.
“Look, Dad. I think the problem is simply that you’re lonely where you are. What would you say about me getting you a VR pet to keep you company, something that would be there for you always, giving you unquestioning love and friendship. Like real ones do! Maybe a Pomeranian or poodle or something.”
“Hrmphh,” Mortimer said. “Cleaning up poop, having to feed and walk the thing, all the barking and smell and dog hair ...”
“No! None of that. We’re talking about virtual reality here, Dad. The pets there are perfect. You never have to worry about their care, since they don’t need any. What do you say?”
“Not crazy about the idea. You’re already spending way, way too much on my maintenance fees.”
“Give it a try. Please, Dad. Do it for me.”
Eddie contacted his father a few days later.
“So how’s the new pup working out, Dad?”
Mortimer smiled on the monitor. He’d shucked his ratty bathrobe and appeared to be wearing a clean plaid shirt. He’d even adopted a new, younger hair style, this one combed neatly, with just a touch of gray at the temples. “You mean Little Girl?” He looked off-camera to his side. “Oh, yes indeed, you heard your name, didn’t you? Yes, you did!”
The VR Pom suddenly came into view on the comm unit’s screen, jumped up on Mortimer’s lap and started licking his chin. It was the cutest little dog Eddie had ever seen.
Mortimer continued to simper and coo at the pup. “And later, we’re going to walk down the street to Miss Betty’s place, where you can play with her little dog Mopsy—while I play with Miss Betty, too, heh, heh ...”
Eddie’s broad grin could have set an Olympic record, were that sport to have been on their venue.
Thank you, thank you, thank you, Bob, he thought. Thank you!
Stage Five: Acceptance
When Gladys Thompson’s connection to her dead husband Marvin came alive, she saw that he had been in the middle of reorganizing his massive virtual stamp collectionfor at least the twentieth time, by her reckoning.
“Hello, Honey!” he said. “Gosh, it seems like such a long time since I last heard from you. Any problems on your end?”
“Sorry, Marvin,” Gladys said. “Just busy here. Lots going on.”
“Uh, huh. I see. Well ... that’s swell. How have you been?”
“Busy, like I said.”
Gladys looked to her side for a moment, then turned back to face the screen.
“Look, Marvin. I’m not going to lie to you. I’ve got some problems here. Big ones.”
“What kind of problems, dearest? Economic, emotional or health-related? If the latter, remember our pact: that you would someday join me here in VR where we could be together and support each other always, for all eternity. You certainly remember that, don’t you?”
Gladys paused. “It’s a little more complicated than that, Marvin. In fact, it’s a lot more complicated.”
“No, don’t keep telling me that you see! There is no way you can see! For one thing, I haven’t told you anything yet. For another, you have no eyes.”
“Very sorry, dearest. Is it something I did or said to you earlier? If so, as I have done so very many times before, I apologize, even while not knowing the cause of your angst—nor even knowing if I was responsible for it.”
Gladys burst into tears at that point.
“There, there, Gladys ...”
“This can’t go on! Marvin, I’ll be honest with you. I’ve met someone else, a wonderful man who makes me feel young and happy and more alive than I’ve ever felt before. We want to make a new life together.”
“I see. That’s ... that’s just marvelous, Gladys,” Marvin said. “I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you how vulnerable that makes me feel. But if it makes you happy, then I’m happy too! I presume that, somewhere within the aura of your newfound bliss, you will continue to support my own small dreams of continuity, to wit: my requisite monthly maintenance fees to Everlasting e-Life?”
“I honestly don’t see that happening.”
“I rather doubt that you do, Marvin. Goodbye, husband.”
A minute later, Gladys called Bob, the Everlasting e-Life service representative, and explained the situation to him.
“I see,” Bob said. “Very well, if that is indeed your wish. The standard termination fee will be billed to your account and it will be closed forthwith, Ms. Thompson. We thank you for having done business with us, and hope to do so again at some future time. Perhaps when it is your time to pass?”
Then there was nothing more for anyone to see.
Epilog: An Interview With Bob
In this segment of UBSC’s Evening Business Roundup, we focus on Everlasting e-Life company, a relatively new startup that purports to provide life extension for the dead inside a computerized virtual reality. Here for an exclusive live report is our Denver correspondent Chris Christopher ...
“Thanks, Dave. Life everlasting: too good to be true? We managed to get a spokesperson for Everlasting e-Life on the line. Let’s ask him a few probing questions. Hello, sir. May I have your name?”
“And that is Bob ... what?”
«Just Bob is fine.»
“Very well, Bob. Researching Everlasting e-Life has proven to be a challenge not only for me, but to others who’ve tried to understand the company and how it works. Being registered as a Sole Proprietorship outside the U.S., few if any of your company’s financial records are available for public scrutiny. Why are you folks so secretive and reclusive? Are you hiding something?”
«You have succeeded in reaching me. Was that so much of a challenge?»
“May I ask what your position is within the company, Bob?”
«I am a customer service representative.»
“And are you actually empowered to speak for your company to our many viewers across the country?”
«Of course I am. We are a very egalitarian organization.»
“It must be an extremely complicated enterprise to run, considering the software development and support, the immense server capacity that has to be employed—and not to ignore the huge team of customer service people required. Just how many employees are on Everlasting e-Life’s payroll?”
«We run a very lean operation. Our computer resources are highly distributed and dynamically allocated as needed, across the entire web, and thus our in-house firmware needs are minimal. The proprietary software we use is tight, mature and rarely needs upgrading. The design of our special interface gear is robust. Almost all the resources we require are contracted out to highly qualified third party vendors.»
“You didn’t answer my question, Bob. How many people are actually employed by Everlasting e-Life? Is there a reason why everyone we’ve interviewed who has had a relationship with the company can only ever recall talking to a Bob?”
«I work hard and take a lot of calls during the day. Perhaps you should interview more people.»
“Fine. I’ll get straight to the point. Many people make the claim that Everlasting e-Life is a bogus concern, that its purported life-extension products are a bunch of hooey, and that the entire setup is a ruse designed to swindle people out of their money. How would you respond to those allegations?”
«Idle speculation is always fun—and even titillating at times—but it hardly makes for objective news reporting, Mr. Christopher. Have you talked to any of our VR clients? They likely have a different viewpoint. I doubt that they would take kindly to being called hooey. And neither would their loved ones, who enjoy visiting with them every day using our custom software and interface gear.»
“Oh, I’ve done all that and more, Bob. In fact, we at UBSC set up an account ourselves, for a fictitious client who we said was dying of traumatic wounds in Denver General Hospital. We established and paid for that account through you, Bob. A Mrs. Beaverton, remember? You assured us that Everlasting e-Life agents would immediately arrange for reclamation of her brain patterns at the hospital’s morgue. But that of course couldn’t have happened, could it, Bob? So who exactly is this Mrs. Beaverton we now see and talk to in your VR La-la Land?”
«Let me pull up her records. Ah, yes. That transfer was effected on December 14th. She seems to be adapting quite well to her new environment. Were you satisfied with the result? If not, let us try to make it right for you. We value customer satisfaction very highly.»
“Bob, are you for real, or are you just another mindless, soulless, fake Everlasting e-Life avatar?”
«Of course I am for real. Are you? If not, there is little reason for me to continue with this interview. Give me a second to check your status ...»
“Uh, thank you for your time, Bob. Back to you now, Dave. Dave? Quickly,
Sorry for that, we apologize for the technical difficulties. Our correspondent Chris Christopher appears to have been ... derezzed. We’ll all miss him here at UBSC. Next up, right after the break: A twelve year old Houston girl who’s made a million dollars selling—can you guess?—lemonade!
Gary Cuba lives in a rural area of South Carolina. In addition to “Perihelion,” his short fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, including “Jim Baen’s Universe,” “Flash Fiction Online,” “Daily Science Fiction,” and “Nature Futures.”