ORIGINAL FICTION: "The Undead at Work"

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It’s always about space with me, ultimately.

I was in space. Well, I wasn’t really in space, I was very much on earth. My brain was in a jar in some hospital somewhere, and my body was six feed under in some cemetery somewhere. But my senses were all plugged into a geostationary satellite twenty-two thousand miles above the Atlantic Ocean.

“Wow,” Saint Peter said.

“Wow, indeed,” I said, “I’ve been here eleventh jillion times, it always takes my virtual breath away.”

“I always wanted to be an astronaut,” he said, “Back when there were astronauts.”

“I know, right?” I replied, “My dad took me to a shuttle launch when I was little. It was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen. From that moment, Saint Peter, I wanted to be in space.”

“I really wish you wouldn’t call me ‘Saint Peter,’” Saint Peter said. His real name was Aloysius Shabaz Gumpert. It was a horrible name. I preferred the nickname I’d saddled him with, both because it annoyed him, and because of my own sentimental reasons: He was the paramedic who’d taken care of me when I’d died two years ago. Well, more-or-less died. As far as he and I were concerned, I wasn’t dead, but legally my status was debatable.

“Sure thing, Pete. Lunch?”


I blinked and the two of us were outside The Greasy Spoon, my favorite not-quite-adult diner. The waitresses were hot angels, waiting tables in their underwear. It was impossible to get lucky, of course, all the supernatural beings here in this virtual heaven were simply artistic representations of artificial intelligence programs. But that was part of the appeal: they were an idealized kind of hot, and I’m a guy, and the place has the best apple pie in the afterlife. The pie itself was basically an artistic representation of pie, with virtual taste, texture and smell added. These entirely-artificial variables were fed to my brain in a jar on a shelf in wherever-it-is that they’re keeping my brain these days, along with an electronic representation of Pete’s voice - always too loud, forceful, and direct - and I interpreted the former with a ‘yum’ and the latter as being slightly unpleasant.

Am I being too remedial? I don’t know how many of you folks in the Securities and Exchange Commission have ever been in here for some first-hand experience, and I know a lot of people don’t really ‘get it’…well, anyway…

“How old were you?”

“At the shuttle launch? Young. Three or five. Probably around 1990,” I said.

“Seventy-five years go.”

“Slightly more.”

“Is there anything further out than geosynch?” Pete asked.

“Nope. I spent about a month trying to access the sensory gear from the Chinese moonbase, but that’s been abandoned so long now that nothing’s working.”

We had to wait for a table. It was crowded. It was always crowded in heaven these days. In the two years since it had opened as a pilot medical program, it had become a refuge for hundreds of thousands of people like myself, who never recovered from their injuries. There were also at least twice that many daytrippers - people having surgery or whatever, who were ‘sent’ here rather than use conventional anesthetics. Add to that an increasing number of hard-luck (Gang violence mostly), medical professionals who telecommuted, and their families who frequently just came here to hang out, and there were a lot of people running along the streets of transparent gold.

Heaven was a big place, but it was finite, both in terms of memory and in terms of simulated virtual space. It could hold an indeterminate number of people before our processing time slowed down conspicuously - all our programs running at the same time, don’tcha’no - but the program parameters were limited. You couldn’t go ‘off the map’ here any more than you could visit the cyclorama out the window in a movie set - it just didn’t exist. There was nothing there. Because of programming and processor limitations, Heaven couldn’t be expanded. We’d need a whole new system of hardware to run another program. The insurance companies were taking a bath - unwillingly - keeping this place running, so that clearly wasn’t going to happen. They’d keep packing ‘em in and packing ‘em in until the system crashed, or perhaps they decided to turn a blind eye to someone sabotaging us.

Once we finally got a table, some Crips blustered in and demanded it. Saint Pete was starting to give it to them, but I said “No.” What are they gonna’ do? They grabbed a chair away from under a fat guy, and motioned like they were going to swing it at me, but when I didn’t even pay attention to them, they gave up and went over to hassle some fat people in another booth. You can’t hurt anyone here. I mean, it’s not physically possible, there’s not a subroutine for that (Though they did finally give us touch six months back). That didn’t stop ‘em trying, though. The whole downtown area by the temple was essentially an everlasting riot. Much like in the world of real meat, it accomplished nothing, but there was no getting around the fact that heaven was going to hell.

“Ok, so you’ve got the plan down?” I asked Pete

“What are the phases again?”

“Phase 1, you do what I freakin’ tell you, which leads to phase 2: I make us a lot of money. This leads to phase 3 - “

“I know all about phase three,” he interrupted, “What about phase 4? That’s why I signed on.”

“Right, right, right, that’s the ultimate purpose of all this: we make enough money to start a private-industry space program. We can use virtual people like me, and waldos, and the occasional meat person like you to explore, and then colonize the solar system.”

“Hot damn tamale!” he said, too loud and too forcefully and too directly, with a kind of “Can. You. Understand. Me?” cadence to it.

“Hot damn tamale!” I agreed just as emphatically. This could work, this really could work. We chanted “Hot. Damn. Tamale!” for a while, until we got bored with it, and ate our simulated pie.

“Where is Suzie, anyway?” Pete asked. “I figured you’d want her around for the final briefing.”

“Ah, come on, man, with all these half-naked big-hoochie-mama waitiresses? This isn’t appropriate for a fourteen year old kid!”

“Fifteen,” He corrected.

“Fifteen,” I amended. At exactly that moment, a swarthy looking guy came in. He was clearly an avatar - that is, a virtual body driven by a meat person in the real world - and a low-quality one at that, with unrealistic hair, artifacting in the motion sequence, and his clothes were obviously polygonal. Who uses that kind of crap anymore? He tore in, looking shifty and nervous, jumped atop a table, and screamed “Right to Death! Right to Death!”

The data bomb looked more or less like a real bomb explosion. The bomber himself - or at least his avatar -instantly ceased to exist and an expanding circle of flame shot out at the speed of light. It hit us. If you looked at it really close up, you could see it was made up of static and ones and zeros. Oldschool stuff, very hackey and inelegant. As it shot out, it un-wrote all the code it passed, and things behind the wave of destruction simply ceased to be, replaced by a data void. The bomb’s destructive potential was limited by its own memory limitations, however, which meant that once the blast expanded to about fifty yards in diameter, it was taking more memory to eat up code than it actually had available, and it fizzled out.

It didn’t hurt - again, it’s physically impossible to be hurt here - and it couldn’t kill anyone since the undead like me aren’t programs to begin with. Scary, though. An saved copy of my virtual body reloaded instantly, and I found myself on the bottom of a perfectly hemispheric crater, with the thirty-or-so other patrons of the restaurant. The crips were terrified and crying, nothing like this had ever happened to them before. Pete was gone. His avatar *was* a program, and that had gotten deleted, severing the connection. The AI Angels and the entire restaurant were gone, too. Worse yet, the apple pie I’d eaten had also been deleted from my virtual gut, so I no longer had that pleasant endorphin-filled calm that follows a good meal.

Nuts to this! I teleported myself home.

Suzie was waiting for me there.

“Hey, look at you, handsome! What did you give yourself the makeover?“

“Huh? Oh. A few days ago. New career, new look.” It suddenly occurred to me that there was no reason I had to go through eternity looking like a fat, bald, eighty-five year old man, so I’d rewritten my code so I looked like I did when I was eighteen. No more turkey neck and dangly balls for me!

“Where’s Aloysius?” She asked.

“I presume he’s at the exchange. There was a bomber, his avatar got fragged.”

“Oh my gosh! Are you guys ok?”

“Of course we are. Where are you?”

“Beijing, of course.”

“Good girl. You know what to do?”

“It’s not hard. I’m not really pulling my weight here.”

“You are more than you…whup- Games on!” I said.

A window opened up in my virtual world. I checked it out. It was the Chicago Stock Exchange. Excellent, Pete - who, upon my urging had become a fully-licensed day trader - had physically taken one of the Emergency Medical sets to the exchange and plugged it in. This wasn’t illegal - traders can use whatever equipment they wanted, but insofar as I could tell, no one had ever done this before. I checked, and the connection was at full veracity.

I opened seven other windows. The morning bell sounded, and it was higgledy piggaldy on the floor, with traders doing the antiquated and ritualized dance they’d done for, what, a couple centuries now? Online, using the old-fashioned internet, there were millions of other traders. In heaven, there was me. I watched the floor, and decided it was mostly useless. I watched the internet data as it ebbed and flowed. I couldn’t read it in real time, of course, but I could identify which signals were coming from the traders, and I could tell from watching the big ticker board what was being bought or sold.

Us Undead have certain advantages when dealing with the outside world, principle among which is reaction time. For meat people like you, your bodies have to have a sensation - visual, olfactory, touch, it doesn’t matter - and then convert that sensation to electrochemical impulses, which have to wend themselves through a nervous system, up to the brain where they go through a series of processes before your brain finally interprets them, and then you have to codify a response, which then has to be converted to another electrochemical signal, which then has to weave its way back down through your nervous system to whatever it is you’re trying to control. It’s laborious, tedious, slow.

I don’t have that problem. Since we Undead don’t have bodies, our reaction times are anywhere from seven to ten times faster than a meat person like yourselves. My own, from personal experience, was about eight times faster. Meaning, when I was interacting with the real world, I could do eight times as much as a normal person per second, or I could bilocate myself, and do, let’s say, four times as much per second in two separate areas, or I could quadlocate myself and do twice as much in four location. Or I could be in eight places at once, talking to people, or running equipment, whatever.

Anyway, bottom line is that I could see who was buying, and I could check the board and see what they were buying even before they finished purchasing it. I sniped it away from them. This drove up the price, and created a run. There was suddenly a feeding frenzy on whatever particular commodity I was grabbing - the first one, for instance, had to do with feminine hygiene futures - and the price would go crazy high. Then I’d sell at an insanely high price, and move on to the next thing. I say “Move on,” in fact, I was generally doing two or three of these at the same time, buying low, selling high, driving up prices across the board. If popcorn is pricey next fall, that’s because of me. If Ethanol makes a comeback, that’s because of me, too, I think.

This went on for seven hours, until the Tokyo exchange opened. Suzie had done the same thing Pete had, jacking me into the exchange with a medical VR transmitter, and suddenly I was in two places at once, trading there and in Chicago. I’d never been in two locations that far removed before. It was kind of giddy, it made me a bit dizzy, like having one eye in daylight and one in darkness. Eight hours after that, I was jacked into the Paris exchange and trading there as well.

Hmm? You want to know who got me access in Europe? It was my old friend Sergeant Paraquat, freshly defrocked following unwisely blabbing covert information to my granddaughter, but you know about that incident already, right?

You’re not? Hm. Well, now that I think about it, the details of my court martial were sealed in the interests of national security.

Anyway, the point is that I was trading in real time all over the world, frequently in three locations at once. I kept this up for about a day, my human agents sleeping in the hours when their respective exchanges were closed. It was unbearably cool. Us Undead don’t have a physical need for sleep or food or air or any of that stuff - again, we’re just brains on life support, all our nutrients and oxygen fed into us via a heart/kidney/lung machine - but we simulate these things in our virtual Heaven for psychological reasons. People tend to go unhinged rather quickly if they don’t have to eat and crap and screw and randomly itch and all the other things we need to do in order to feel human. We have a lot of latitude with it, however, and can turn any or all of these drives off for short period if we’re in a situation that, say, requires our undivided attention for a week straight. It’s dangerous, though. Suicides and madness have declined to almost-normal levels since we went full-sensory here in heaven, so it follows that monkeying around with that kind of stuff is an easy way to go self-destructively goofy. There were mandatory timers built in to any kind of sensory modification to prevent just this. After so long, you defaulted to normal again.

Thus, I decided to take a break - for psychological reasons - every twenty four hours or so. Eat a baked potato, run around the block a few times, hit the can, maybe watch some news. I say “break.” In fact, I really only divided my attention, with a quarter of me in my home, three quarters of me in the exchanges. I never stopped trading, but if I was cautious about my mental needs, I wouldn’t need to.
There had been two Right To Death bombings in the last twenty-four hours, and an average of one a week for the last two months. There was the one I’d been through in the Greasy Spoon (Which was already being re-installed and re-booted, and would be up for business again by tomorrow morning), and a much larger one at the Pearly Gates. The guards had stopped a terrorist, who’d blown himself up there, erasing a sphere of about a hundred yards in all directions. That wouldn’t take any longer to reboot, but they were having trouble finding the files for some reason.

There was a great deal of haranguing amongst the newscasters and other talking heads about how these whack jobs were getting access to us in the first place. No one had been able to figure it out in our world, and no one in the outside world seemed to care enough to investigate.

Arguably, terrorists are all kinda’ dumb, but R.T.D. was the dumbest bunch I’d ever come across. Mostly southern Europeans, they were vehemently opposed to the presence of a medically-induced life extension, mostly for religious reasons. Many of them didn’t seem to understand the difference between our fake heaven, and the (hypothetically) real thing. Many others did understand the difference, and claimed that we were profaning the concept by our knockoff imitation. Fair enough, I actually kinda’ felt that way myself. I’m not particularly religious - hell, I’m not even a very good man - but the eternal riots and the sex-and-simulated-murder clubs down by the temple were enough to repulse even me. Which was, of course, the penultimate reason for my plan: Get a lot of money, built a new server and a somewhat less sacrilegious fake world for us to live in. Others said that we were a soul catcher, preventing the dead from going to judgement. Ok, fair enough there, too: I’d be dead without this place, and I very much don’t wanna’ be dead. Yet others said that we were a blasphemy against the nature. Well, duh, not dying of diabetes is a blasphemy against nature. Keeping your own teeth past forty is a blasphemy against nature. Having sex without getting pregnant is a blasphemy against nature. Nature, in my opinion, is what we’re here to rise above.

But beyond all this, the terrorists were stupid unto the point of harmlessness: they couldn’t seem to wrap their heads around the idea that imaginary bombs have no effect on a hallucination, which is all our virtual heaven really was. Short of going to the place our brains were stored, and shooting ‘em with a silver bullet, or driving a stake through ‘em, they could not hurt us. But of course the vicious hateful idiots tried. They always do. Predictable as death and taxes. Well, taxes anyway. There’s a kind of flag on the play for death nowadays…

I digress.

By the end of day two, I was trading as fast as I physically could, and making a fortune, but I was familiar enough with the system, and experienced enough with it, that I was literally running up against the walls of my own limitations.

I took my quarter-break and allowed myself an entirely-ritualistic whiz. My nose itched. I scratched it. Distracting. I though about how much time and effort it would put my body-simulation through to generate the random itch and scratch my nose when I could have been buying sheep’s brain futures in Minnesota. I wondered how much effort it was putting my body simulation through to even push a button.

Why use my body simulation at all?

I took a longer break, three quarters of me online, the rest getting jiggy with my programming. Fingers? Who needs ‘em? I replaced them with direct file manipulation codes. My fake eyes were replaced with instant character recognition software. My voice was replaced with direct command of all the keystrokes I’d been making. Things went faster, my profit margins edged up. This was kinda’ good! What else could I do?

I adjusted my external nerves to sense the eddies and flows of the numerical credit exchanges to optimize the transfers, so I could *feel* the water coming in, rushing over me like hot water in a shower. I breathed in bear markets and exhaled bull ones. I blinked and margins were made or broken. My profitability increased. I rewrote my bladder controls so that they’d register it being time to sell, rather than thinking about it consciously. I super attenuated my senses more and more, interacting on a more and more rarified level, my consciousness becoming more and more distended, relying more and more on extensive subroutines to do things well beyond the scope of what nature intended for our nervous system. And remember: I am basically nothing but a nervous system. The virtual world became my prosthesis. Well, I guess it always had been, but I don’t think anyone had ever experienced it the way I had. The way I extended and rewrote myself was intoxicating! I ceased to be aware of myself as Elmer Amherst, eighty-seven-year-old somewhat dead retired IT guy, and I *became* something no human had ever been before, even though I was still at the root of it.

I ate funds, pissed profits, farted fortunes, I am become Shiva, purchaser of worlds! I -

DINGDINGDINGDINGDING! The timer went off. I snapped back to being little old me.

Holy God, what a rush! That was the most amazing thing ever! Wow!

I did it again and again until the weekend, and trading ceased. I tried to do it again the next week - I mean, I was seriously jonsin’ for another hit - but you guys had suspended Pete and Suzie’s accounts. I kept on doing it on Paraquat’s account until you guys shut out all heavenly access to the outside world. Except for yourselves, of course. In ten days I made twenty-seven billion dollars. Twenty-seven thousand million dollars. How about a big ol’ Sagan shout-out: Biiiiiiiiiilyun! Yeah! Huh? You don’t get it? Oh. Well, there used to be this astronomer guy when I was a kid and he…never mind, it doesn’t matter.

So that’s my story. As far as I can tell, I didn’t break any laws. All my agents are fully licensed international day traders, not that that means much. Twenty bucks, forty five minutes time, and a true/false test, and - bang - you’re in. The rules allow for traders to use financial AIs to make purchases, and those AIs can be driven by a tech, empowered to make decisions on behalf of the users purchases if he’s got a signed agreement with them to that effect. I’ve got that, of courses, and I can be either the tech or the program, whichever you’d prefer to see me as.

Suzie? Oh, no, I see where you’re going with that, but, no: She’s legally emancipated from her parents, and is legally recognized as an adult. Nope, we’re all covered there. Next question? Anyone? Fine, while you’re thinking up something to ask about, let me say this:

I’m getting sick and tired of getting brought up on legal charges every time I think up something new. At some point it stops being funny, and you’re just harassing a crippled old man, and it’s not really helping you, either. Whether you want to admit it or not, us Undead are a fact of life. We’re not going away, and it is utterly stupid not to make use of our advantages. If I figured this out, others will, too. You can stop me, throw me in virtual prison, once you invent one, maybe you can even stop everyone else who tries it in the United States, but do you honestly think this won’t happen in other countries? Do unfriendly governments won’t sponsor this sort of thing? The game has changed, and my way is the way it’ll be played from no on. Accept it, and we can turn the US back into the richest country on earth. Ignore it, and someone else will turn us into the poorest, or simply buy us and break us up into spare parts.

That’s all I’ve got to say. Any other questions?

Where did I get the seed money to make the initial investments? Oh, that’s easy: I sold virtual world access to the terrorists. Well, I had Paraquat do it for me. Logic bombs, too. I mean, it’s safer than letting them buy useful weapons, right? And it would be a sin *not* to part fools like that from their money.

The End

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