When I drove my car into a light pole after being run out of my lane by a self-driving semi-truck, I died slowly. It took a long time for first responders to get to me and start talking options, but they were fairly helpless as they asked me meaningless questions, to which I slowly nodded.
The dark overtook me eventually, starting at the edge of my vision and working inward until it gobbled up the last mocking flicker of street lamp.
I opened my eyes in a forest with a sun breaking through the trees--no pain, no stress at all, like someone pushed a reset button on years of pent up tension. To breathe in and smell the pine like the few times my family was able to go camping, damp grass at the foot of each tree trunk, each cloud strolling across the sky with a peace that surpassed my understanding, I cannot express how it broke me when I realized that someone really did push a reset button.
There was a quirk to it all. The same cloud shapes started to recur. A butterfly crossed from behind a tree and landed on my nose as I lay sprawled out in the grass, weeping, thinking I had made it to heaven after all. And then another butterfly did the same thing. I crawled on my belly to the other side of the tree just to see a third instance of the butterfly leave the base of the tree as if it had grown from the bark itself.
I understood then. When I nodded to the paramedics, I volunteered to transfer my consciousness to a virtual world. Vita Secundus. I would continue to be alive until someone decided to cut my participation in the program, likely after I settled my estate with my family completely--though I had nothing of importance except loans.
I only knew what I saw in videos--people reporting back from death, looking very much like themselves, grinning in an impossibly bright sunlight even though they were all just digital reconstructions of their old identities. The top comment would be a racial slur, but the next highest comment would be about how the “uncanny valley” had become an inhabitable place. Someone further down the line would suggest that it was all a hoax to give some hope of an afterlife to those who were too tainted to expect redemption. I figured that the reconstructions were just avatars of the system, remarking like puppets on things they could only know if their families played ventriloquist and gave facts. The reaction videos of families speaking to their dead always felt hammy.
Of course, I’m here now, wondering if my mom will ever get to hear my voice again.
There were early adopters. They were quick to report that, transitioning from death to consciousness again, they retained no memories of an afterlife in between.
Naturally, this caused stocks to rise considerably for Ceohl. Other knock-offs of Vita Secundus popped up, but none could compete with the newly original option for an afterlife, especially when the pretenders had to use in-service advertising to remain cost competitive. And Ceohl was always faithful about applying updates as necessary.
Initially, it was a cost prohibitive service. I wasn’t certain what caused it to change until I was also uploaded to the program.
After several days of nonstop walking without tiring or eating, guided by increasingly artificial sun and moon cycles, I found a town.
It was an amazing creation considering there weren’t any hewn trees for the log cabins that spanned the valley floor. Perhaps it was just laid out as a barren meadow, or perhaps someone tweaked it after settlements started to be built--maybe someone would wake up in the morning to find that his treeline was inexplicably receding. From the top of the ridge, it looked like a compass rose with points going in four cardinal directions.
Every little cabin had friendly people and cozy furniture in it. I talked with them as much as they were willing to talk--they weren’t fake people, sure enough. Roger, one of the first men I came across, was incredibly open about the affairs he’d had and the drugs he’d taken while alive, of which only a few sounded familiar. Full disclosure of things like that made it almost certain that he was hiding something more, but he smiled broadly and offered to get people together to build me a house.
Because none of us were capable of feeling exhaustion, the building went very easily. Apparently, all one needed to do to get lumber from a tree was to expectantly hold out one’s arms in front of one. The tree would entirely vanish as a stack of lumber was added to my arms. If I laid down the stack a, wall would immediately spring up at that location. It was surreal to watch, initially--how seven people working for five minutes managed to make me a larger home than I’d ever had with better furniture as well. My residence sat on the end of one of the points of the compass, which was a bit initially galling since everyone had seemed so warm just to put me as far away as possible.
“Do you like your place?” Roger said, brushing his hands on his pant legs as if he’d gotten sawdust on them.
“I suppose. I mean, do I really need a house? I can fake sleep anywhere and never need to eat, so…”
“We do it to preserve the appearance of normality. I know you noticed pretty quickly that things here are repetitive. Even your breathing and heartrate are locked at the same constants unless you force them to be different. We labor to give uniqueness to our world. Humans are always a fluid variable in our environment.”
“I’d like to say I agree with what you’re saying, Roger, but don’t people also have a prescribed limit? I mean they put our whole consciousness in here--it has a data cap right?” I replied.
“It does, but it’s so much farther off than the trees that make up your cabin. I was an early adopter of this system, you know?”
“And you still live in a log cabin?”
“There’s a reason for that,” Roger answered, adding, “One I hope you don’t need to know.”
He sat down on the mattress we built by throwing bird feathers and cut grass at the ground until it took the form of a bed. He started to tell me about the early days of the program. Apparently, it was a nasty experience. Exhaustion and hunger were enabled but couldn’t be overcome by eating or resting. Spastic weather effects often ruined any attempt to bring human construction to the world, and random world shapes often caused deep caverns to run beneath the surface, creating massive sinkholes from which people couldn’t escape.
“As an afterlife, it was something. You had assurance that your existence continued and that, because someone was making money off of you, it would probably keep continuing. In those days, we still had watchers.”
“What is a watcher?” I asked.
“It was a person who monitored the content from the outside. If you saw videos of us speaking about our grievances, watchers were choosing to air those concerns. For example, I met a deer early on that looked like someone had assembled it piece-by-piece. It charged me even though its back legs were backwards, it screamed with a woman’s voice, and it had human fingers instead of horns. Needless to say, I put forward a complaint about that.”
“What was the problem? Did they say?”
“Everything is generated from math. It’s just that someone accidentally used variables from the human table to create this particular type of deer. It bore qualities of someone or maybe several people who were once alive--and everything that comes from the human table is supposed to delete upon use so that there is only ever one version of you. Essentially, whoever made up that deer will never exist again.”
“It escalated,” Roger continued. “People who started this program are incomplete. Not all of their consciousnesses migrated over. Some are more stunted than others.”
“You said you’re an early adopter, but you seem fairly normal to me.”
“Yes, I’m not the worst case, but I lack the capacity to learn in my state. I’m exactly as I was when I died, except more complacent because I’ll never be able know more than I know now. An existence without learning is hardly any existence at all. I can share information from new people, so I tend to live through your experiences.”
“Can’t you have a watcher tell you what is going on in the outside world?” I asked.
“There are no more watchers. We’ve not had outside contact in probably five years.”
Roger wished me well and walked out after that, leaving me to lay on my bed and recall that I had seen his face before. Three years ago, a promotional video for Vita Secundus was released, advertising that a new pricing system was available so that much poorer families could participate. Roger was right there, telling people how stable the program had been for the last two years. No complaints.
It was well into the night when they attacked. Human forms with wings came out of an empty sky and tore the roofs off of houses as if they were ripping open a box of toothpicks, seized the people inside, and carried them into the black.
After the chaos, we burned their houses in a bonfire and said the names of those taken. It was a strange sensation to mourn someone whose existence was snuffed out a second time, but the other villagers made it quite clear that the victims of the attack would not be returning. In the light of the bonfire, it was also obvious why they had me build my house at the end of a point. One of the arms of the compass rose was completely ravaged.
“It was a one in four chance it could have been you,” someone told me while I gawked at the scene. It was a woman of about my age who hadn’t helped me build my house but had stood nearby, arms crossed, while it was being done. “We always draw lots to see who lives where each week. They come once, randomly, at some point during that time. They always attack the points that are farthest from the center and then leave. Probably whatever they see first, they attack.”
“What are they?”
“We don’t know,” the woman, whose name was Yanna, responded. “New people live on the outside first, before they see an attack. Sorry, but we have no reason to sacrifice ourselves if we can help it.”
“Is there any way to fight it?”
“We’ve tried making weapons, but this program has something against it. Anything that looks like a tool for fighting just falls apart. Hard to put traps in the sky, as well. So no. Most of us just sit here and wait to die again.”
Two days later we drew lots. I pulled a short stick, while Roger pulled a longer one. I was at the end of the X, and he was in the middle.
“Why do we just wait here and let them take us?” I asked Roger, knowing that one of us was likely to be taken no later than a week from that night. “We could make barricades if all they do is just attack the nearest house.”
“Come with me,” Roger said, gesturing to me with the back of his hand as he turned and walked toward the center of the village. I followed.
We descended into a tunnel that was held by wooden supports. A ladder dropped far down into the subterraneous caverns that Roger had previously described--except that these were now reinforced with hard stone.
“See?” Roger said, holding a lantern behind us.
There were hundreds of little tunnels that extended from our stone chamber. Holes that were barely big enough for my body merged with our room in all directions except down.
“What happened here?” I asked.
“They got bored of it.” Roger shrugged, shifting the light in his hand so that the darkness twitched within each carved out hole. “We tried filling this hole and other holes so many times to stop them, but they came through anyway. They used to demand sacrifice from below. Now they take their sacrifice from the sky.”
“Did you reinforce this room with the stone?”
“I did. I’ve been here longer than anyone. It seems that they’ll never come for me, so only I can stay around and maintain this place to remind people how helpless we are, even though I knew some of the vultures once upon a time. They don’t talk to me anymore.”
“You knew them?”
“The vultures were people once, you know. They were always people that afforded more control.”
“Everything.” Roger sat down on the floor of the cavern and propped his chin up against his lap, holding his head in his hands. "Look, I’ve said all of this to hundreds of people before you, and they’re almost all gone, so I hope you’re alert to what I’m telling you and showing you. You cannot win.”
“Can they be talked to or reasoned with?”
“They’re not really human anymore. At least, not by our standards. They paid the premium price to get a more diverse experience back when Vita Secundus was just getting started. None of them came in quite right, however, and they’ve long lost interest in enjoying the simple fact that their existence means something. They grew claws for burrowing when living above ground became tedious and wings for flying when they needed to see a cloud up close for what it really was--a two dimensional image printed across the sky. And they started to consume people when more came in.”
I thought about the initial crowd that bought into the Vita Secundus. It cost millions of dollars to sign up, so it wasn’t too hard for me to imagine the self-serving insanity the original occupants must have adopted, especially when the bar was lowered to just a couple thousand dollars.
It occurred to me then that someone must have told the outside that the original users were getting bored with their content. In an effort to appease their clients, someone decided to allow other families in for the purpose of predation. No wonder that don't have watchers. No one cares to report how our afterlives are going, I realized.
“Do you suppose they still have watchers?” I asked.
“I think they must. How else could they have made it so that we only feel pain and fear when they hunt us and only perish when we’re caught? I think someone is listening to what they say and making changes to the program to accommodate their wants, no matter how inhumane.”
I’m not a great person. The record of my life prior to my passing was just a sputtering series of failed take-offs. I didn’t feel any great desire to amount to more, but neither did permanent death in a world after death feel like much of a threat compared to constant fear of attack from the vultures.
“If I outlive tonight, I’m going to try to do something about these creatures.”
“Then I hope you don’t outlive the next night,” Roger snarled. “I’ve had enough of fools that cannot accept that there is no other way. Every time someone decides to act up, the likelihood of us being too ordinary to be bothered with decreases. Don’t you understand? They need you to be human so that they can recall the feeling! You can’t kill them, can’t convince them not to attack, but they’re falling into routine! It won’t be long before we’re beneath their notice!”
“I don’t think it’s your ability to learn that you’ve lost, Roger,” I retorted. “I think it’s your will to live. Your essential humanity.”
I ascended the ladder to the surface with him swearing behind me, wondering if it was perhaps Roger who was the cheery outside contact after all, collaborating with the vultures to ensure that the right amount of fear always permeated our village, spreading lies about what happened inside Vita Secundus just to ensure that people would continue to arrive as food for the birds.
That night, they attacked again. Roger’s cabin was ripped to shreds. I watched as he was also dragged into the black sky, a note of shocked confusion echoing from his body as it vanished in the dark.
Something in the pattern had shifted. The vultures had gone after someone they once knew, someone who had been there since the first iteration of Vita Secundus, and they had gone after the person in the middle of the X rather than someone on the perimeter. When we burned Roger’s house, the tension was palpable. No one could say his name.
“Every person must hear me!” I shouted over the crackling of the fire to the hundreds of people that waited there wondering if it would be their turn to soon be whisked away, never to be seen again.
When I suggested that we needed to do more than sit on our hands and await permanent death or whatever the vultures did to the people they carried away, Yanna put her hand on my shoulder and shouted my name. They all shouted my name.
And we made a vow to live our afterlives to the fullest, even if it meant we had to sacrifice ourselves to stop an enemy we had no means to defeat. I wondered if someone outside the program was watching our sudden swell of righteous volition and laughing, but in the darkening flame of the bonfire, I did not care.