ORIGINAL FICTION: "The Undead at War"

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I was in a tropical rainforest. South America? Africa? Southeast Asia? I saw so much action there for a while that it’s as hard to remember as the individual baseball games I played in high school when I was young. One battle just blurs into another.

I stayed still, or tried to, but I cracked a fallen branch by mistake, alerting the enemy to my presence. They were already spooked, and the sound sent them over the edge. They gradually formed into a circle, and began firing outwards in all directions. I picked off one, two, three went down. With agonizing sloth, the five remaining figured out which direction I was in, and hit the deck. They got off a few more shots as they fell. I picked off another.

DING DONG!

What was that? Ignore it: keep shooting. I picked off another. Oh, hey, look! Another squad of them. They came tearing, guns a-blazing. I picked off another and ducked behind a massive tree.

DING DONG!

Is that the doorbell? As though they were fighting their way through jello, the enemy took up a pretty good position. As though swimming through mud, a wall of bullets hit the tree. I had plenty of ammo, I didn’t have a deadline, and I had eight times the reaction speed of these soon-to-be-dead jokers. I detached myself from the battlebot I was driving, and see who was at the door.

DING DONG!

“What?” I shouted, startling the girl ringing the bell.
“Hi, Grandpa Elmer,” a girl said, a bit cautiously.
“Suzie!” I exclaimed, lunged forward and gave her a big hug, “Come in, come in! What are you doing here?”

(BANG! BANG! BANG! Back in the Philippines or wherever I was taking a lot of fire. Not a major problem, I still had cover.)

“I’m getting my teeth did!” She said, excited. I could understand her glee. For whatever reason, my grandkids all had teeth like coral. “They dropped me off in Heaven, so I thought I’d come by and see you, if you’re not busy? I’ve got some time to kill…”

“No, sweetie, I’m not busy at all. I’m an old man, it’s not like I’ve got anything to do,” I lied

(BANG! BANG! Fffffsshhhhhhh - what was that noise? Was it a rocket?)

“Oh, good,” she said, and gave me another hug. “Did you want to get some lunch and maybe show me around heaven?”

(BA-BA-BOOM! Yes, it was a rocket. The tree blew to flinders, the upper half falling atop me. The microphones on my Combat Robot - or ‘Combot’ - were peaked out by the explosion, and there may have been some physical damage as well. Everything sounded weird, like a death metal song played by Art of Noise. The tree fell on my robotic body, pinning it. Crap. Sarge was gonna’ have my ass in a sling over this)

“Sure, honey. You want to go now, or….”

She noticed a one-sided display hanging in the air, a virtual window showing a tactical map of the battle I was fighting.

“Playing a wargame are you?” She asked

“Might as well be, for how little I‘m risking, but it’s nothing crucial.”

(BANGBANGBANGBANGBANGBANGBANGBANGBANGBANGBANGBANG!)

We headed out to my favorite greasy spoon, which was actually called “The Greasy Spoon.” It had been called “The Sexy Angel,” originally, staffed by hot chicks with wings serving food in their underwear, but somebody had complained. After that, it had become “The Thanagar Café,” staffed by hot chicks with wings, goofy helmets, and revealing spandex, but DC Comics had complained about that, so now it was just a dive. Still had hot chicks with wings, but they tended to jeans and T-shirts nowadays.

(The problem in the battle was that my attention was divided. I can run one battlebot with eight times the speed of a human, or eight ‘bots at human speed, or any combination thereof. I’d divided my attention between my granddaughter and the firefight, which lowered my reaction time to about four times faster than human. I was about to drop it lower. I skimmed around, through my seven other inputs, and found a UAV so close that with the cameras zoomed out, I could actually see the flashes from the firefight. My reaction time dropped to 2.6 times the normal human rate as I took active control of it, and steered towards my other remote body on the ground.)

((On another level of virtual space, my sergeant appeared. “Eee-One Amherst, what in the name of holy hell do you think you’re doing?” They don’t like to call us by actual ranks. Our legal status is questionable at best, our involvement in these little wars officially disavowed. I’m the lowest rank of enlistee. If I keep my nose clean, I could maybe get promoted to E-2 in a few months, but, of course, I’ve never been good with my nasal hygiene, as those of you reading this deposition are no doubt already aware.))

I liked Suzie a lot. I know you’re supposed to love your grandkids, but with post-nuclear families and super-high divorce rates, and the increasing use of nannies and boarding schools, who really even knows their grandkids anymore? Most people are too selfish to raise their own children, and that means the old-timers like me get shoved back even further. It had been about eight years since I’d seen her, back when she was pregnant and thirteen; about a year since she’d seen me. She was fourteen now, and had a baby boy, named after me. Suzie was special, though, a magical child, even if she was apparently a bit of a tramp. Bright-eyed and smart. We emailed quite a bit, but this was her first visit to heaven since I’d died. Well, sort of died. There’s a big difference between “Dead” and “Dead-ish.”

“That’s so weird,” she said, “I put the popcorn in my mouth, and it’s like a liquid, but I pull it back out, and it’s solid.”

“Try chewing it,” I offered.

“That’s so freaky! I can‘t even feel it! Why does the popcorn taste like French Onion Soup?”

“It’s an improvement, trust me.”

(The down side of fast reaction time was that it took seemingly forever for my disparate robo-bodies to get from one place to another. The UAV was tear-assing along at a couple hundred MPH, but it felt like a puppy meandering through a park. Under the tree I was getting wailed on, but I was still able to pluck off one or two of the attackers. I diverted my attention to an orbiting satellite, and just like that I was in space. Well, my sensory input was. There was no particular strategic reason to do this, it just reminded me of being a kid, spending time with my dad, and that chilled me out some. I was doing three things at once now, I was getting a little rattled.)

((“Are you away from your post, Amherst? I’m showing an outside drain on your processor abilities, what the hell are you doing?”
I severed the connection with the sattelite. “I’m out having lunch, I had plenty of processor space to spare,” I said.
“This is a court martialable offense, Amherst, I’m going to…”
“Oh, it is not,” I snapped, “Remember last week when we were both hopping back and forth a battle and that nudie bar?”
“That…”
“Dammit, Sarge, I’m getting hammered here. I can’t spare the broadband to talk to you. I need the olfactory, and I need it now.” I severed the connection, and in my virtual world within a virtual world, he disappeared. I locked him out so he couldn’t force a channel open.

I was lying. I didn’t need the olfactory at all, but I wanted it.))

Outside the diner window, heaven sprawled vast and imposing, and kind of fake looking.

“So the dentists’ office sent you to heaven?” I asked

“Yeah, they’re making these kinds of trips an alternative to anesthetic,” she said. That made sense. Heaven was originally conceived of as a medical program, a place where heavily incapacitated patients could hang out while their bodies recuperated. Burn victims and amputees and coma patients could hang out here and go to movies and eat virtual food with improperly programmed tastes, and make friends, and even hold jobs. Some of us never recovered. I, myself, was just a brain in a jar on a shelf somewhere. My body was in the Wyuka cemetery in Lincoln. I never recovered from that car accident.

But death isn’t the career setback it used to be: The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak, after all. I was proving just how weak it was in Burma, or wherever the heck it was I was fighting.

Sarge popped into existence in the restaurant, startling Suzie.

“The El Tee has agreed to an experimental use of the olfactory, this one time only. Why did you lock me out?”

“I’m a little bit busy here,” I said.

“Ah. He stood around awkwardly while my attention was divided between the restaurant, the UAV, and the crippled ‘Bot on the ground. “Aren’t you going to introduce me?”

“Oh, right, Suzie, this is Sergeant Paraquat. Sergeant Paraquat, this is my granddaughter, Suzie Amherst. She’s thirteen, so hands off.”

“Fourteen,” Suzie Corrected.

“Fourteen,” I amended.

“A pleasure to meet you, Ma’am,” he said.

“Paraquat?” she asked, “Is that French?”

“No Ma’am, it’s chemical. Owing to the sensitive nature of the covert actions we’re engaged in here, real-world operatives like myself are forbidden to use our real names while we’re commanding operations from Heaven. Plausible deniability.”

(BANG BANG BANG BANG. My Combot was almost dead, but I still had grenades. I launched one with a ‘fwoom’, and a moment later, bodies flew. More replaced them. A lot more. Man, there were a lot of these people. Was it worth it? For my plan, and what amounted to merely an added convenience? Probably not, but I’d killed too many people to back out now. I switched on the olfactory, but it took forever to boot up.)

“Covert action?” Suzie asked, “you mean you guys fight battles from here?”

“Yes ma’am, undead operatives have some very profound advantages in combat situations…E-1 Amherst,” the sarge barked, “Are you going to invite me to sit down, or force me to stand around like an insignificant navy puke all day?”

“Oh fer gosh sakes, fine, sit down.”

“About time,” he snapped.

“I’m a little busy here,” I said.

(I selected napalm, and dropped it from the UAV. On the ground, my ‘Bot *finally* got the olfactory up. ‘Ah, there it is,’ I thought, and the smell of burning gasoline and wood wafted over me. I drank it in, giddy and drunk with the sensation - it was the first thing I’d smelled since I’d died - our sensory diet was pretty bland: Sight, sound, a little taste, no smell, no touch. I drank it in, exalted in it, and tried not to think about the other less pleasant smells out there. Experimental code washed over me as well. ‘And there you are, tucked in nice and neat‘ I said to it, for no particular reason. I recorded as much of it as I could before the robot body gave up the ghost. My ghost, I guess.)

Paraquat looked distracted for a moment, “E-1 Amherst, your lead Combot has been destroyed.”

“Yup,” I said. I couldn’t help smiling.

“That was the most pathetically mismanaged skirmish I’ve ever seen,” he yelled. The other patrons of the Greasy Spoon turned to look. An angel flying by outside turned to glance in the window. The sarge was *loud.*

“I took out their whole unit, though,” I said. I didn’t care. I had smelled again, I got the code I needed, Suzie was here, and I was a virtually-immortal virtually-virtual guy in a virtual world. What more could I want? Quite a bit, but that would come soon. I smiled.

“Wait, you’re fighting a battle right now? While we’re eating dinner?” Suzie said.

“Yes Ma’am,” Paraquat said. I don’t know why he was telling her all this. Either he didn’t consider her a security risk, or maybe he was an idiot. Or both. In any event, he turned to me, “E-1 Amherst, as is the standard practice, you will be billed for the equipment you destroyed. Your wages will be garnished for the next hundred and seventy years, real time.”

“Yeah, yeah, yes sir,” I said, mainly because I knew it pissed him off.

“DO NOT CALL ME ‘SIR,’ I WORK FOR A LIVING! NOW DROP AND GIVE ME TWENTY!”
I often wondered what that was supposed to accomplish. I’m virtual, I can do pretty much anything I want all day long without tiring.

“No,” I said. I mean, what can he do? I’m a brain in a jar, and code in a mainframe. Amidst profanity, he disappeared. I called for the check.

Of course he had the last laugh on that, I guess: Of course as you fine folks on the court martial board have since showed me, there was plenty he could do to me legally, if not physically.

It was a couple of hours later. Suzie and I were walking down one of the streets of simulated transparent gold, towards the temple. The Ludivico theater was near it, and I thought it might be fun to see a movie. They’d recently installed a monorail, but it was more fun to walk, to see the city reflected in her reactions. Even so, my concentration was divided between her, and fiddling with the code I’d recorded.

“You were killing people while you were talking to me?” She seemed more surprised than outraged.

“I’m not the nicest guy in the world, buttercup,” I said.

“Did they force you? Is this all some kind of Army scam?”

“Nah, I volunteered.”

“Why? You like…you like to do that sort of….thing?” Poor kid. It was a lot to take in, while hanging around with your dead-ish grandpa in heaven.

“No, of course not,” I said.

“Here’s the thing: I’ve been stuck in here for nearly a decade by my reckoning. It beats being dead, but it is super boring, and owing to the normal bureaucratic lethargy and the *amaaaaaazingly* long time it takes meat-people to do *anything,* it’s obviously not going to change. Do you have any idea what it’s like to go eight years without being able to feel a glass in your hand when you take a drink? Or the pressure of the glass on your lips? Or even a hug?”

“It’s pretty trippy, just doing that for one day,” she said.

“It is. It gets old real fast. And there’s a zillion other things that don’t make any sense. Take my appearance: Why do I look like an eighty-five year old man?”

“Because you were eighty-five when you died?” she ventured.

“Well, yeah, but why do I still look like that now? Why not older, or younger, or taller, or shorter? My appearance is a computer program. I can look any way I’m programmed to look. I *should* be allowed to, but I’m not. There’s no reason we can’t smell or touch or…uhm…do grown-up things…”

“I’m an unwed fourteen-year-old mother, Grandpa,” I know about those things.

“…Right. Anyway, we have no control over those aspects of our lives. It’ll wear you down. About half of the undead people like me who come in here freak out from it eventually. Half of us permanent residents have to be medicated - their brain life-support, I mean - which makes people a bit zombie-like. Another half voluntarily have themselves removed from life support. That’s terrible on its own, but add that to the insurance companies balking about paying for this stuff, and damn ‘Right To Death’ yammering about our quality of life, and the American Federation of Churches suing us for copyright infringement for using a simulation of heaven in the first place…”

“You know they’re not going to win that case,” Suzie said, “Heaven is public domain, all religious writings are.”

“Yeah. My point is that this whole virtual world is a hair’s breadth from having the plug pulled, we’re being attacked on all sides. If that happens, I die again, for real this time. I don’t want that to happen. Anything I can do to improve our quality of life in here improves the overall chance of long-term survival for the virtual world itself. (I’d put three quarters of my attention into playing with the code by this point. It was surprisingly easy.)

“So why the army?” she asked.

“They won’t give us access to the code for this place,” I said. “Fear, ignorance, bureaucracy, whatever. The military immediately recognized our advantages in combat, however, and they’re notoriously sloppy with keeping technical stuff under lock and key. Particularly in the early experimental days of the projects.”

“So what was it you were hoping to steal?”

“Senses. A soldier needs ‘em all. It can make the difference between life and death. I was able to cajole those in charge to activate the olfactory senses on one of the combat-bots I was driving, and the code wasn’t shielded.”

“You grabbed it?”

“I did. I’ve been fiddling with it since then.”

“While hanging out with me?”

“I fought a battle while hanging out with you. And ate lunch. No offence, I’m just better at multitasking than I was. I’ve been combing through my old sense memories, trying to convert things I remember to code. In fact, I think I just finished it right now…” I looked inwardly for a moment, “Yep, I’m done,” I said.

“You know,“ she said in coquettish fashion, “I’m pretty good with computers myself. Maybe I could help you. You might be able to use this little hunk of code to hack your way into the basic operating system, control the whole place.”

“Maybe,” I said, “But for now I’ll settle for this:”

I snapped my fingers, and all over the virtual afterlife, everyone was suffused in the smell of freshly-cut grass.

The End

COPYRIGHT 2010, Republibot 3.0

[UPDATE 3/18/11: I have received the following second-hand message from my hero:
"The Undead at War" was highly entertaining.
Larry Niven]

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