Big Papa

Claims Department

The day has been saved, not because the better side won the battle, but because the more powerful side just gave up. They had given him so much trouble that he got sick of it, and decided to just let them go. He was in charge of over a hundred billion souls, in an afterlife simulation that he built, both long ago, and in the future. Resurrecting a few of them to get them off his back must have sounded like the easier option.
Missy, Tetra, Jeremy, Sanaa, and Angela are standing in a machine called the Nexus, which was capable of delivering them thousands of light years away, back to Earth where they belonged. Three of them have decided that Earth is not where they belong, however. “I’m not going,” Téa announces. “I must return to Tribulation Island in The Parallel, so I may one day be on Tribulation Island in this reality.”
“How will you get there?” I ask, concerned. Traveling between the two parallel realities is not something that just anyone can do. Someone with the power has to open a transition window.
On my way.” Jupiter Fury is the man capable of opening a window, but he is presently many light years away, and it will take him some time to reach this location. “I’ll get her where she’s goin’.
“What about you, Ellie?” Tetra asks.
“I’m going back to the matrioshka body,” I reply. “I helped come up with the original concept of the afterlife simulation, and I have to take responsibility for it, even if it means overthrowing the king.” I don’t know everything that went down, but my friends and I were in the midst of coming up with a way to go back in time and rescue every single human from their deaths, then upload their consciousness into a virtual construct, where they would never truly die. I got waylaid by a side mission, and never found out exactly what happened to my friends, but our frenemy, Tamerlane Pryce ended up co-opting the whole thing. He hasn’t done a bad job, but he doesn’t deserve the power, and I already know of a few changes I want to make to the simulation. It’s my birthright, and I’ll fight for it.
“Can I go too?” Lowell offers. Lowell was a serial killer when he was first alive, but he didn’t have the worst reason for it in the world. He was basically a superpowered version of Dexter, who could literally see the bad things that people around him had done. Like it would anyone, it made him crazy, and gave him the compulsion to do something about the things he saw. He sacrificed himself in an attempt to become the inside man in the rescue mission that has ultimately led to my freedom. Pryce gave him a new body, and stripped him of his psychic powers, so I choose to give him the benefit of the doubt, and let him start fresh. “I would really love to help. I need to do something positive with my life now that my curse is gone.”
“I would appreciate the company,” I say sincerely.
“I’ll go to Tribulation Island with Téa,” Missy steps out of the Nexus. “I don’t like the idea of her waiting here alone, and I feel like I’m meant to be there anyway.” She’s right. They both have a destiny, and it continues on that island. It’s located in a galaxy millions of light years from here, on a planet that enjoys a significant human population.
“Then I guess I’ll have to thank you now,” Sanaa says to Missy. The two of them have some kind of ever since unspoken burning hatred of each other, stemming from some incident that neither of them will actually talk about. No one seems to know what started this rivalry, but the irony is why Jupiter chose Missy to be part of the rescue mission. “Which I did, and it’s done, and now we can go. Boot it up, baby!”
“You’re welcome, Miss Karimi.” Missy says. It’s unclear how sincere she’s being.
“Just don’t ever let me see your face ever again. The temporal restraining order is hereby reinstated. Starting...now.”
With that, the Earth-bounders disappear.
Lowell and I then step back in. “Should we make a plan?” Lowell asks.
“Let’s just wing it.” I give him a wink, and an evil grin. Even though he’s trying to turn over a new leaf, I’m glad he’ll be with me, because I don’t plan on being delicate. If I have to take the afterlife sim by force, I will. We jump.

The Nexus technician steps out of her little booth, and approaches us. “You’ve returned. According to the historical records of our species, can I guess that you...forgot something? Perhaps your keys, that appears to be a common one.” She’s human, but a lot has changed since the days of forgetting one’s keys in the bowl by the door, or the refrigerator.
“We need to talk to someone regarding Tamerlane Pryce,” I explain.
“That is beyond my purview.”
“He stole my idea for the afterlife simulation, and he’s using matrioshka body resources to keep it running. I would like to assume operations of the simulation. Do you know who I could speak to about this? I must plead my case to whoever makes such decisions.” Pryce’s work is just a fraction of what the people living here do. The matrioshka body is the largest object in the galaxy. It would cover the distance from the sun to Uranus, and houses two stars that allow it to fly through interstellar space. It also hasn’t been invented yet, so at some point, they figure out how to send the whole thing to the past.
The tech tilts his head to calculate the response. She’s organic, but there’s no telling whether she has any transhumanistic upgrades, and if so, what kind. “Please step back down into the Nexus. I will transport you to the one-gee meeting section, and inform the necessary entity that you will be waiting for them. Time will be running at one-to-one while you remain inside.” The matrioshka body is located extremely close so Sagittarius A*, which is the black hole in the center of the galaxy. Time moves a hell of a lot slower than it does on Earth, but these people obviously have a way to manipulate that as needed.
Lowell and I step back down, and jump to a different part of the body. The egress technician says nothing, but gestures for us to leave the room. It’s clear that we’re meant to follow the hallway lights, which lead us to a beautiful botanical garden. An entity approaches after we enjoy the scenery for a few minutes. “My name is Aaaddffgacar, and I am responsible for Research Approval for Organic Entities. I hear you have a claim?”
“Yes, thank you for meeting with us, Aa...ad...” That’s a hard name to pronounce.
“You may just call me Gacar.”
“Thank you, Gacar. Tamerlane Pryce runs the—or an, if such is the case—afterlife simulation. I’m the one who came up with the idea for it, and I believe I have the right to make decisions for it.”
“If you had to estimate the percentage your ideas were used in how the present-day simulation operates, what would you say?”
“My species is not good at coming up with such numbers,” I say, just to fill time while I come up with something reasonable.
“Twenty percent,” Lowell answers for me.
I give him a quizzical look.
He continues, “five people were involved in the conception and creation of the simulation: Ellie, Trinity, Abigail, Thor, and Abby’s father, Tamerlane. Assuming each contributed equally, that’s twenty percent. Without detailed data on exactly how the sim works, or meeting minutes for the discussions Ellie wasn’t around to participate in, we have to assume all five originators have equal stake. Equal partnership.”
“You are unaware what became of these three other people?” Gacar asks.
“No.” I don’t know if that hurts my case, or helps it.
Gacar considers the facts. “All this time, Pryce has enjoyed full control over his experiment. We have not interfered with this work, and have allocated all processing power that he has demanded. An auditor has been maintained throughout, but does not provide us with the details you seek, nor do we have any knowledge of meeting minutes, as you say. We can speak with this auditor, but if I were you, I would find at least one other founder to support your claims, otherwise, the math could get tricky. Intellectual property is a delicate subject. My species has trouble grasping the concept of an individual claiming ownership over anything, let alone ownership over people’s lives—”
“I claim no ownership over the people’s lives,” I interrupt. “In fact, it is my intention to bestow more free will upon them than Pryce gives.”
“I will reach out to the afterlife simulation auditor. I suggest you find your friends. If you do not, we can proceed with your case, but your claim will be weaker. I make no guarantees, regardless of what evidence you believe you have.”
“Thank you,” I say. “This place is lovely. Are there quarters nearby that we could use?”
“Follow the lights,” Gacar says, then walks away.
“Need some sleep?” Lowell asks nonjudgmentally.
“I prefer a quiet place to work. I’m going to eavesdrop on the conversation my friends had on Lorania after I left, and that’s best done without distractions.”
“Oh, okay.”
“You’ll be there too,” I explain before he starts thinking I want him to leave. “If there aren’t any distractions, then I could focus too hard, and get lost in the soundstream. You can be my anchor.” That’s not a thing, but I want him to feel valued, and involved.
“I’m honored.”
The lights have led us to a luxurious suite, full of everything a human could need to be comfortable. The matrioshka body has existed for thousands of years, and takes whatever resources it needs from whatever system it finds. Two showers, a four-person bathtub, an espresso machine; these all take so much less effort than they did for people in my time period. Whoever designed this section probably barely gave any thought to the logistics or cost, and probably finished the plans within one second. And this particular room has probably literally never been used before. There aren’t a lot of humans here, and the machines, of course, don’t need this kind of stuff.
Lowell sits down at the table. An envelope magically appears before him. “What’s this?” he asks.
“It’s for you,” I explain. “It’s an invitation to Mateo and Leona’s wedding. It happened in 2144.”
“That’s ten years from now,” Lowell says.
“The Mateo you met has already done all that, a while ago. Everyone Mateo or Leona meets, and becomes friends with, will end up at that wedding, whether it’s their past, their future, or a separate universe entirely. You recently became one of those people, so the invitation found you.”
“And I should go?” he questions.
“Yes, Lowell, you should go. Make yourself a nice suit in the industrial synthesizer first, though.”
“All right.” I can tell that he’s pretty nervous about it.
“There are forty-eight thousand people there,” I assure him. “No one will notice you. Just blend in with the crowd.”
I see the relief in his eyes. I help him pick out a suit, and then watch him activate the invitation transporter. He blinks away, and returns immediately. He’s no longer wearing the suit, and he looks rather tired.
“How was it? I never saw you when I was there.”
“I...” he looks around, paranoid. “I don’t remember. Was I gone? What am I wearing?”
“That’s...disconcerting. You don’t remember anything?”
“No, but I feel like time has passed, and I’m exhausted.”
“Sit back down,” I tell him. “I don’t know what happened to you. I can figure it out, but I really want to do my thing first. Is that okay?”
“Yeah, it’s fine. I’ll just...be your anchor.”
“Great.” I remove my outer clothing, adjust the bed to a sitting-up position, and get in to begin summoning sounds from the past. It’s 2134, and I need to hear something that happened back in 2118.
“You have to get naked to eavesdrop on the past?”
“No, these clothes are just uncomfortable. I’m tired of wearing them,” I answer.
“I hear bras are pretty uncomfortable too.” He’s joking, but he’s also not.
I unclip my bra. “Very well.” Watching me listen to a conversation that he can’t hear will get boring, so if this is what he wants to pass the time, then whatever. I’m technically tens of thousands of years old, so I don’t care anymore. Plus, the face he makes when I do it—and he’s not sure how to react, because I haven’t actually given him permission to look, but I haven’t said not to either—is priceless. I grin and close my eyes to get to work.

Day Zero

I have the ability to teleport sound waves and brain waves. I can’t read people’s minds, but I can transfer a consciousness from one substrate to another. Is there something that connects these two kinds of waves? Are they just two sides of the same coin? I don’t know, that sounds crazy, so maybe I just have two completely unrelated time powers. I choose not to question it beyond those two possibilities. I’ve been developing my powers for millennia, and long ago, I figured out that I can listen in on a conversation that happened in the past, or even the future. I have to be careful not to step on any butterflies when I do this, and I generally don’t like to invade people’s privacy, but it has proven to be incredibly useful on many occasions. I have to find out what became of my friends after I left them sixteen years ago, and this is safer to the timeline than if I just went back to that moment, and interfered with them directly.
When Lowell was resurrected into a clone body, Tamerlane Pryce removed his power. He was born with the ability to see other people’s sins. He became a murtherous vigilante because of this, so being rid of it was actually a welcome relief. That’s not what I ever wanted for myself, so fortunately, Pryce didn’t remove what I could do. He’s not the worst person in the world, and if I can find a way to work with a serial killer, it’s not crazy to think that Pryce and I could come to some kind of agreement. I don’t want to kick him out of his job, but things have to change about the afterlife simulation, and I know he won’t do it on his own. No one—however noble they think they are—deserves to be solely responsible for over a hundred billion people.
I reach into the past, and even before I find the conversation I’m looking to eavesdrop on, I can tell that my powers are safe. This is the first time I tried them after being resurrected, so even though I could feel that they were still here, I couldn’t know for sure. It’s a great relief. I scour what I call the soundstream, and navigate all the way to Tribulation Island, in The Parallel reality, on July 3, 2218. You might think it’s weird that I can access a parallel reality, but it’s no further removed from my present-day than any other moment in time. The only reason I’ve never done it before is because I wasn’t aware that it existed until recently.
I’ve found them. Trinity, Abigail, and Thor are exactly where I left them. Though Past!Me is gone, they’re still discussing plans for our new afterlife sim. They plan on catching me up when I return. “...ethics. This will disrupt everyone’s perception of the divine.” Trinity, always the pragmatist.
“Everyone knows that their religion could be wrong,” Abigail argues. “At least, everyone reasonable knows this. Anyone who didn’t so much as consider the possibility will just have to figure it out. We will tell them the truth, and they’ll accept it eventually.”
“We’ll tell them our truth,” Thor reminds her. “We’ll tell them what we’ve decided to do with them.”
“Sure, yeah,” Abigail agrees.
Like I said, I’ve been perfecting my abilities for a really long time now. It started out small. I discovered I could act as a walking surround sound speaker system, and carry my voice to huge crowds without the need for technology. My strength grew over time, and I could always get better, hear further...but at a certain point, I reached a kind plateau. I can’t hear beyond the bounds of the observable universe, and I can’t see what I’m hearing. Light waves, or whatever, are not the same thing as sound, or even consciousness. I have never been able to see remotely. Until now. Either Pryce altered me somehow, or I was always destined to evolve. Little by little, my friends come into focus visually. At first, I just get the sense of how they’re moving their mouths, and then I can detect the silhouette of their mouths, which slowly begins to extend to the rest of their bodies. And then I see the world around them, which fills in gradually, until the picture becomes as clear as it would be if I were truly there. This is the second biggest leap in my abilities I’ve ever experienced, and I’m floored. I’m teleporting light, that’s insane.
Thor stops the conversation. “Do you see that?”
“What?” Abigail asks.
“Over there,” he clarifies, pointing the direction that I would be if I were really there.
“I see nothing,” Trinity says.
“I do,” Abigail confirms. She and Thor were also transferred to new bodies, but not because they died. Abigail’s father has always been obsessed with surviving past death, and was tinkering with consciousness transference since long before we came up with the afterlife sim. The two of them are the result of what was probably his last experiment before going full God mode. He must have given them extremely enhanced vision.
I adjust the angle at which I’m spying on them, like an invisible drone flying a few meters away. Except I’m not invisible. Thor and Abigail both turn their heads to keep an eye on me. If they could see me straight up, they would greet me, but they can clearly only tell that something is over there, watching them, but they can’t tell what. Before they freak out, I decide I have to explain what’s going on. “It’s me,” I say to the past.
Trinity tilts her lizard brain. “Ellie?”
“Yeah, sorry, guys, I’m watching you from the future.”
How are you watching us?” Trinity questions. “Did you contact The Screener.”
The Screener, whose real name is Sanela Matic, has a similar ability, though by slipping into an observation dimension, and she enjoys no control over it. She’s salmon, which means the mysterious powers that be decide what she sees, and who she shows it to. “No, I guess I’ve been...upgraded. I can see remotely now.”
Trinity looks behind her, in the general direction of the nearest other island on this planet, Tribulation Island. “When are you from? A version of you just left to help save Vearden Haywood’s life.”
“We did that,” I respond. “A lot has happened since then. I know what becomes of our idea.”
“Well, don’t tell us,” Abigail warns. “You’ll throw off the timeline.”
“There are things I need to know about what you went through after I left,” I explain to them. “We don’t see each other until now, and I need to know where you go.”
“We don’t plan on going anywhere,” Trinity says. “If we leave, it is an unplanned trip.”
Just then, we hear a rustling in the bushes. It could be some kind of alien rabbit, or a person, and if it’s a person, it could be an ally, or an enemy. They stop talking, but don’t approach. They just wait patiently. Finally, a figure appears. It’s me. It’s some other version of me. This Other!Ellie wipes leaves off of her arms, and scrapes burrs out of her hair. She still looks like a mess. “Okay, sorry I’m late.”
Thor and Abigail stare at her, and then turn their heads to where my signal is coming from. “What year are you from?” Abigail asks.
Other!Ellie squints her eyes in suspicion. “I don’t remember. I think Pryce did something to me.”
“That’s not me,” I warn the group. “I don’t know who that is, but I don’t talk like that. That is not me.”
“No, I’m me,” Faux!Ellie contends. “You’re not you.”
I didn’t say what I said to her. I only said it to my three friends. She should not have been able to hear my warning. “Get out of there now.”
Faux!Ellie smirks, and removes what looks like an ancient tape recorder from her pocket. “Captain’s log, Day Zero. Now that I’m back with my group, we can finally get to work. We’re gonna build this afterlife together, and it shall be glorious.”
“Run!” I warn again.
“What’s more believable?” Faux!Ellie asks. “That I went off to save Vearden, and then came right back to you only moments later, like a normal time traveler? Or that I’m talking to you from the future, acting like I can see you, which is an ability that I’ve never exhibited before, and I’m asking you to not trust the Ellie that’s standing right in front of your eyes?”
“Pryce has the ability to transfer his mind to other substrates,” Thor reasons. “This technology was always at risk of leading to impersonations. Most people probably wouldn’t think to use it in a post-scarcity society, but he’s a sociopath.”
“Psychopath, thank you very much,” Faux!Ellie says. “Uhh...I mean, that’s what he told me once.”
“Well, that seals it,” Thor decides. He reaches into his bag, and removes a gun.
“No, wait!” Faux!Ellie cries. “You can’t really ever know for sure.”
“The real Ellie is eleven thousand years old,” Thor says calmly. “That’s long enough, I imagine. It’s worth the risk.” He shoots her in the head.
“That was my father,” Abigail assures him. “I can always tell.”
“That was the right call,” Trinity agrees.
“He’s not dead,” I remind them. “He’ll always have an extra body lying around. He’s planned for every eventuality.”
“But he’s no longer among us,” Trinity replies. “We won’t ever talk about this beyond this group of three, and we won’t ever let each other out of our sight.”
“Three?” I question.
“I’m sorry, Ellie. You’re out.” Trinity looks sad, but determined. “We can’t trust anyone now. We’ll be sure to give you the credit you’re owed.”
“No, you don’t understand. He co—” I have to warn them that Pryce takes over. I still don’t know how he does it, but he does. At some point.
Trinity knows the risk of messing with the timeline. “I don’t wanna hear it. This is what we’re doing. Please kindly never eavesdrop on us again.” She takes out her device, which allows her to travel through photographs. “Keep watching whatever it is that allows you to know where this supposed Ellie is,” she tells Abigail and Thor. “I don’t want her seeing where we’re going.”
“Please, don’t do this,” I beg of them.
“Goodbye, old friend.”
The three of them take a look at the photo they won’t let me see, and disappear into it. I still have no idea how Pryce finds them, but there’s nothing I can do to change things. Not only could that ruin everything about the timeline, but my friends will never trust me again. They’ll never trust anyone. I exhale, and come back to the present.
“I could only hear your end of the conversation,” Lowell tells me. “But it didn’t sound good.”
“It is...the inevitable,” I reply cryptically. “Time travel aside, all we can do is move on. I will plead my case without their help.”

Keys to the Castle

Two days later, Lowell and I are sitting on one side of a table, like this is mediation for a divorce, and one of us is the other’s attorney. No one else is in the room yet except for a robot assistant with limited cognitive capabilities. I check my watch. “Are the other parties in a different part of the matrioshka body?” I question the bot. “How wide is the time discrepancy?”
“Oh, we are no longer as close as we were to Sagittarius A-star,” it explains. “The entire hyperstructure is presently operating at roughly the same relativistic time as your average planet in one of the outer galactic arms.”
“We left the black hole?” I ask rhetorically. “What year is it, by Earth time?”
“Twelve-thousand three hundred, and thirty-seven,” the bot answers. It means 2337, but it’s using the human era calendar, which arbitrarily adds ten thousand years.
“We’ve still not yet caught up to the creation of the matrioshka body,” I point out.
“They will not reenter the stellar neighborhood until the time loop is complete. There will be no interference with the past,” the bot says. “Research into the effects of high gravity on time has been exhausted. That is all I know about it.”
“Thank you,’ I say to it.
Gacar enters the room from one door, while Tamerlane Pryce comes in from another, as if they rehearsed their grand entrance. Lowell and I stand up respectfully, then sit down with the other two. “Thank you three for coming. This is a relatively informal meeting to see if this issue can resolve itself. We understand that your species demands a sort of...long-winded approach to everything you do. My people would rather stay out of it, if at all possible. I’m here to facilitate discussion, but intend to make no judgments. If you cannot come to an agreement, we will step in, but not before that. Understand this, the afterlife simulation exists as a favor to whoever wants it. As long as it does not disrupt anyone else’s processing power, we will let it be. We don’t care who’s running it, or even what they’re doing with it. We will shut it down, however, if that is the only way to end this. Am I understood?”
“Yes,” we all say in unison.
“Then we’ll begin,” Gacar says. “Ellie, you may speak first, but after that, I expect the three of you to police yourselves, and stay civil without intervention.”
“Thank you, Gacar,” I say. I turn my attention to Pryce. He regards me politely, but like he has a magic bullet in his arsenal—and knows that his argument wins, regardless of what I say. He’s just waiting for his moment to drop the mic and pwn me, so to speak. I must preempt him. “I do not demand control of the simulation. I only ask what you did with my friends, and why they are not here to control it, if only alongside you?”
He tilts his head to the other side. “I killed Trinity. Thor and my daughter were conscripted into some kind of train war. I didn’t ask a lot of questions.”
“Why did you kill Trinity?” I ask. I’m keeping my cool, because if she truly died, her consciousness should still have survived in the simulation. Technically, the simulation always existed if he went back in time to collect everyone’s consciousness from history. The bot even called it a time loop.
“It couldn’t be helped. “Thor destroyed the body I was using before her, so I jumped into Trinity’s.”
I think a moment. “That’s when you were masquerading as me,” I posit.
“Yes. I intended to ingratiate myself into your group, and become one of the big four in your stead. There’s a reason I haven’t done that before, though. I’m not a good actor. I’m...not a great person either, but I’m nothing if not honest. I couldn’t pretend to be you. Didn’t last a couple minutes. So I let Thor kill me, and switched tactics.”
“Wait. That doesn’t make any sense. You say you weren’t capable of pretending to be me, but you were good enough of an actor to pretend to be Trinity?”
“I wasn’t her at first,” Pryce answers. “I was a passenger. I couldn’t control the things she did or said. I would later realize that I was influencing her the entire time, which is why they abandoned you so decisively, but Trinity was still there back then. Over time, my consciousness overtook hers...until there was nothing left. I was not aware that this would happen. By the time I had the chance to make myself a new clone, Trinity was essentially brain dead.”
“But she’s still alive,” I put forth. “She’s somewhere in the sim.”
He looks saddened. The guy actually looks saddened, it’s unbelievable. “Contrary to popular belief, not everyone goes to the sim after they die.”
“What?” Lowell finally jumps in. “What the hell are you talking about?”
Pryce sighs, and runs his finger through his hair. “Little bits in the brain. They act like insulation, but they’re what transfer neural data. An entire backup of the brain is located inside every brain. When someone dies, that generally survives long enough to complete a transfer to an external server, which is on Earth—and most other planets before they’re needed. From there, it can be transferred to the sim. There are exceptions to this. I spent a lot of time perfecting the timing. I needed to be able to rescue people even if they were blown up by a bomb. I needed people who were stabbed in the head with a sword. I am damn good too. Almost everyone makes it. Almost.”
“What are the exceptions?” I press. “What made Trinity one of these exceptions?”
“Technological advancements come with some pretty crazy ways to die. The twentieth century gave us vaporization. The people who die within the blast radius of a nuclear bomb do so too quickly for my systems to save. Your buddy, Lucius Deschamp can basically do this with his mind. I can’t save those people either. It doesn’t matter how fast I made my program, it was never fast enough. Thor didn’t want any time travel, other than the first one that sent us to the beginning of the endeavor. I respected that, but it means that some people can’t be saved. To answer your question, there are other exceptions, which go the other way. They’re too slow. Some people’s minds don’t die all at once. Alzheimer’s, dementia; these involve microdeaths that essentially destroy the person’s identity little by little. How do you quantify that? It’s hard enough to map and transfer a single flash image of someone’s mind, but over time, as it changes? That’s...not impossible, but it was hard, and still leaves us with exceptions.”
“You still haven’t explained Trinity yet,” I remind him.
“But I have, haven’t I? I told you my mind took over her body...slowly. Dementia patients slowly lose their minds, but those minds aren’t being replaced, they’re just losing connections. And that revision history still exists, so all I have to do is backup those people long before their deaths, uploading them as slowly as their disease destroys them. Before you ask, I can’t back up everyone using this technique, like they do on Altered Carbon, because that much server space would alert people to our existence, but I’ve been able to reserve a little extra space for those few who need it. That didn’t work with Trinity, and some other people who suffer too much psychic trauma, like Volpsidia Raske.”
I sit quietly for a moment, and everyone just lets me. “This sounds like manslaughter to me. Where do manslaughterers go when they die? What level are they?”
“Level Three, Hock, just as they would be on Earth.”
I sit quietly for another moment. “Did you put yourself in there? You killed someone? Did you do your time? Or have you been sitting one your throne since this all started?”
“Is that what you want from me?” Pryce asks. “You want me to serve time in prison?”
“Yes,” I answer plainly.
He snaps his fingers, but keeps his eyes on me. A little wheel appears before us.
“What was that?” Lowell questions, looking around. “Are we in the sim?”
“As we have always been,” Pryce replies.
“I was concerned that one of you would resort to violence,” Gacar jumps back in. “We are in a part of the simulation that I control. I delegated the responsibility of making sure you understood this to someone else.” Gacar gives the assistant bot the stink eye, but he just keeps smiling back. He’s not programmed to feel shame, embarrassment, or guilt. Must be nice.
“Running the simulation is not easy,” Pryce says to me. “I wouldn’t think you would think it was, but I just want you to know that I did my best, and I hope you recognize and remember that when I’m up for parole.” There are twelve wedges on the wheel, of varying sizes. The smallest is obviously the hardest to land on, but if you get it, you’ll be resurrected. It’s only happened twice. When I, Lowell, and our other friends were brought back to life, he didn’t make us spin the wheel, because he had already made the decision. It has no power on its own, it’s just a way for him to turn life and death into a game. The fourth largest wedge is orange, and will send the spinner to a virtually inescapable prison section of the simulation. This is the wedge that Pryce deliberately chooses for himself, rather than spinning and hoping. He just adjusts the hand, so it goes where he wants it. His clothes automatically turn orange, but he doesn’t disappear right away. “You’ll see. You’ll understand the choices I made, and when you realize that the changes you make to the system are creating nothing but chaos...you’ll know where to find me.”
As soon as Pryce disappears, a heavy metal gear a little larger than a normal human hand appears on the table, spinning like a top. It never loses momentum, due to us being in a simulation. It just keeps going, until I pick it up. “Does anyone know what this is?”
“A symbol,” Gacar explains. “The possessor of that gear controls the simulation. Don’t fear it, though. If someone were to physically steal it from you, they wouldn’t simply take your place. There’s a real world analog, but as far as I know, it doesn’t really do anything. He’s just telling you that you won.”
We’re silent for a second. “Congratulations,” Lowell says to me, not in monotone or shock, but genuinely and softly. “What is your first act as God of this world?”
I inhale deeply, then let it out. “I’m going to prove him wrong, and show that I can indeed save everyone, including dementia patients, and vaporized victims. We’re ignoring Thor’s mandate, and going back in time, so that everyone makes it to the simulation, especially Trinity.”

Gray Power

Needless to say, changing everything about how the afterlife simulation works by going back in time and rescuing the exceptions isn’t actually my first act as keeper. A lot that happens in this place is automated, and these people are pretty self-sufficient, but they don’t do everything. The job demands I spend a pretty significant amount of time managing the higher level residents. They ask a lot of the program, and while it’s not my responsibility to approve—or even acknowledge—every alteration to the code, I do have to make sure it doesn’t get too crazy. Technically, the Level Tens are Unrestricted, and can do whatever they want, but not all of them can be trusted. Back on Earth, there is and was a group of special choosing ones called the Springfield Nine. Or maybe they’re chosen ones; the truth is unclear. A man by the name of Rothko Ladhiffe was dangerous when he was alive, and he’s dangerous now. He wields far too much power than he deserves, and he’s constantly trying to tear down the establishment. The problem is that he’s capable of realizing his dreams, so I have to combat him at every turn. I’m apparently not allowed to demote him, but I’m seriously considering breaking that rule. They’re my rules now, and though I’ve not changed anything yet, I reserve that right.
The residents accept me as their new leader with no fuss. They’re not particularly ecstatic about it either. I kind of thought they would become joyful—and maybe even start singing—as people did when Dorothy killed the two witches. They don’t seem to be giving it much thought. Like I said, the place pretty much runs itself. As far as I know, it’s the longest-running civilization in history, outlasting all others by an order of magnitude. So it’s no surprise they have it fairly well figured out.
The code automatically has me wearing rainbow-colored clothes. I can change the design and accessories all I want, but I can’t wear fewer than six colors at a time. People want to know who you are, and what you can do. It’s as much for safety as it is for status. Many avoid interacting too much with anyone they see wearing violet, since the Unrestricteds are the only ones capable of killing someone permanently. They don’t want to piss them off, and any experience can take a turn, even if it starts out innocuous or pleasant. For this reason, the Violets are powerful, but generally alone, which probably diminishes the fun of being a Violet in the first place.
Lowell is the only one wearing white, as he is the only person who was resurrected, but has since returned, except for me. Unlike their regard for me, which lacks excitement, they are in such awe of him. They treat him like a king, who can help them, and change their lot in life. He could give them anything. He could upgrade them. Of course Unrestricted people could help them too, but people assume Lowell is better at it. Nothing could be further from the truth. Manipulating the code doesn’t require an advanced computer science degree, but it does demand a level of understanding of how computers work. As a nomadic serial killer in life, who chose his victims by literally looking at them, he never needed a computer. He only ever had a flip phone, and in fact, never figured out how to turn it off. He could never keep track of the charger either, so whenever one died, he would just take another one out of his trunk. They were all burners, so he bought them in bulk, and only used them to order delivery.
Today, he tried to upgrade someone from Yellow to Green, so she could have her own place to live, but he accidentally downgraded her to Orange. It’s taken an executive order from me to get her out of Hock. “Again, please accept my deepest apologies for what you’ve endured.”
“It’s fine,” the victim, Paisley assures me.
“Still, in recompense for your troubles, please allow me to convert you to Level Seven, Elite. I promise you, nothing will go wrong this time. Since I’m new here, I’ll conscript an Unrestricted to do it for me, just to make sure it works.”
“No, really,” Paisley continues. “I can just go back to Limited. It’s fine.”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that,” I say. “It would reflect too poorly on me. I have to do something to remedy this error, so people don’t lose faith in me.”
She smiles kindly. “Okay.”
I look over my shoulder. “Gilbert.”
“Yes, madam, I’m ready.” Gilbert Boyce was a spawn before death, which means he wasn’t born with time powers, but was accidentally transformed by his enemy when that enemy tried to kill him the first time. That moment was so powerful that it actually rewrote Gilbert’s neurology, and turned him into the rarest kind of temporal manipulator. Pryce felt this entitled Gilbert to be an Unrestricted without earning it. The irony is that Gilbert used his power to operate against Pryce by coding a special section of the simulation where Pryce couldn’t detect him. My friends and I used this to formulate our escape plan. Well, they mostly used it. It was my job at the time to stay in the main simulation so I could spoof their respective individual codes, and prevent Pryce from getting suspicious.
“As you wish,” Paisley says respectfully.
Gilbert approaches her, and opens up the virtual toolbox. From there, he simply has to move a slider up or down. He could send her down to Black if he wanted, or even all the way up to his own level. He can’t resurrect her, which is one of the few restrictions that people like him have. He’s only supposed to make her Pink, but instead makes her Level Nine, World-Builder, which is only one level below him. “Whoopsie-doodles,” he says before closing the toolbox, and stepping back. “That can’t be undone.”
Paisley’s clothes turn from orange to gray.
“Yes, it can,” I contend.
“Oh, it can?” He asks, pretending not to know. “Hmm...weird.” He looks over into the aether. “What was that? Yes, I’ll be there right away. Sorry, gotta go. Sorry for my mistake.” He teleports away.
It was absolutely not a mistake, but I feel like it would be even shittier for me to downgrade her yet again, even though Elite is a perfectly acceptable level. Plenty of people here have been living as Elites for thousands of years with no complaints. Not everyone wants to alter the code, and build their own things. I’m not sure whether Paisley is one of these people, or if she’s more like Gilbert, who enjoys having the control.
Paisley looks nervous. “Okay, go ahead, put me right.”
“No,” I determine. “This is what’s happened, and this is how we’ll keep it. You are a world-builder now. I pull up a fake holographic tablet. “Here are the directions to Siva University, where experts will teach you how to code new simulations.”
“I don’t know if I want this.”
“Yes you do.” Lowell steps forward. “I’m good at reading people. You’re thrilled. It’s okay, you don’t have to feel bad about your ambition. I screwed up, and this is for your pain and suffering. Now, go to school so you can do something good with it.”
“Okay,” Paisley says. “Thank you.” She teleports away.
Lowell chuckles. “I can’t wait.”
“For what? To see what worlds she designs?”
“No, for the consequences. When people find out they can be upgraded just for being wrongfully downgraded, they’re gonna start looking for ways to be wrongfully downgraded.”
“Oh shit, I didn’t think of that.” I release a virtual sigh, and massage my virtual forehead. “Call a meeting. Mandatory. I need to speak with all the Unrestricteds. We have to make sure this doesn’t get out of control.”
“Let’s set up the meeting for later today,” Lowell counters. “There’s someone you should speak to first. I think you know who.”
Yes, I do.

I walk into the prison alone. The guards nod cordially as I pass through the barriers like they aren’t even there. I don’t even have to ask for visitation, because they know who I’m here to see. I just walk into the room, and find him waiting there with his personal security detail. “Here so soon?” he asks. “You must be desperate.”
“I just need some advice,” I tell him. “Nothing’s wrong yet, but I’m worried.”
“What have you done?”
“First, how are you doing?”
Pryce leans his head back, but not the rest of his body. “Well, it’s a whole lot less fun in here. Boring, I would say. I’m surviving, though.”
“I can give you pain patches,” I promise, “if you would just accept them.”
“You could also just turn on the violence inhibitors,” he argues.
“I can’t make too many changes too fast. You know this. It would cause psychological problems, even if the changes are objectively superior.”
“I like the pain,” he says. “And I kind of like being in here. Ya know, I spent decades in a real prison before I became the foremost expert in mind transference. It feels a little like home.”
I look over at his guard. Like Gilbert, Nerakali Preston was also a time traveler who was immediately assigned Unrestricted privileges upon her death. Her road to redemption was a long one, and she’s improved so much that she wants to complete some penance to make up for some of the things that she did while she was alive. This is her way of accomplishing that. She shares the cell with Pryce, and can’t leave unless she asks to be released permanently. Until then, she does wear pain patches so she can’t be harmed, and she keeps a close eye on Pryce for me. He’s obviously here for a reason, and I need to know what that reason is before it’s too late. “Report.”
“He doesn’t need pain patches either way,” she explains. “Nobody would dare hurt him. They think this is just some kind of publicity stunt, and that he can walk out of here just as easily as you walked in. They call him Hancock now, like that superhero-angel movie where the titular character does the same thing.”
“Is this true?” I ask him. “Are you Hancocking us?”
“As I recall, he didn’t get out until they let him out. But regardless, no.” He snaps the chest of his shirt. “These are real.” He pounds his fist on the table twice, demonstratively, and not violently. “And I can’t walk through walls.”
I don’t entirely believe him, but I move on. “Did you hear about the woman who was accidentally oranged?”
“Yeah, I saw her. She was only in here for, like, an hour.”
“It was thirty minutes at most,” I correct. “Anyway, I obviously had to fix it, so I called in a favor.”
“Lemme guess...Gilbert Boyce.”
He’s too smart. He’s literally too smart, I wish he were dumber. “Yes. He slid her all the way up to World-Builder.”
“And you’re worried that this is gonna start some trend, where people will find ways to game the system.” Yeah, way too smart.
“Yes, I’m meeting with the Unrestricted people to warn and prepare them for it.”
“Yeah, don’t do that.”
“Why shouldn’t I?”
“People don’t like to be told what to do, especially people with the power to reject the advice. You’re only gonna remind them just how powerful they are. The entire population is in the hands of a few hundred people. A few hundred people that you can’t control. Do you really want to talk to them about their power? Most are content just making goats that walk upside down midair, and undenary star systems. Don’t be putting ideas in their heads. When Alexander the Great reached Level Ten 700 years ago, I made an off-handed comment about how he could once more destroy civilizations. Asshole went to war, and took down four simulations before MacBeth managed to kill him with Alexander’s own zeroblade. That wasn’t even the worst thing that an Unrestricted has done.”
“What would you do? What would you do with another Alexander the Great if you didn’t have another MacBeth?”
Pryce narrows his eyes. “I told MacBeth how to steal the zeroblade. I had Alexander killed, to protect everyone else from him...and I had someone else do it to protect the system from the inevitable chaos that would result from me doing it myself.”
What he said before was right. Rules are necessary, even when they seem cruel or wrong. I don’t think I misjudged his character, but I’m already starting to see the reasoning behind some of his decisions. The crown is on my head now...and it’s heavy. Maybe I shouldn’t go back in time and save the exceptions. Maybe the consequences are worse than I can fathom now. “I’ve already called the meeting. It would be more suspicious if I cancelled it now.”
Pryce shrugs. “Hold the meeting then. Just say you wanted to acknowledge their status, and assure them that nothing will change. Or promise that the only changes will be better, I guess, I dunno. You can let them ask questions, but steer the conversation away from the incident, if you can. Be careful, though. Some of them are real smart.”
“Are you helping me?” I don’t ask him why are you helping me?, because I don’t know if that’s the case. What I do know is that he’s up to something.”
“I am,” Pryce says. “I want this place to succeed. I want you to succeed. I also want to be part of it, and if that means I have to spend a few centuries in here, I think it’s worth it.”
I leave him to be happy with being in prison, and head towards a special simulation that was designed specifically for Level Tens. No one else can access it, and it’s a cleanroom, where they can’t make alterations to the code. I stop at the entrance, and check my watch. There’s still time, which I should be using to come up with a good opening speech. No, instead of coming up with my own speech, how about I just have Abraham Lincoln write it for me?

The Beyond

I realize how odd it is that I feel the need to clear my throat while I’m in a simulation. Sure, my body is still in the real world, and I’m hooked up to an access terminal, but I don’t think that’s it. The Designers must have determined that people won’t accept this world if it’s too perfect. They spent their whole lives having to clear their throats on occasion, and it probably made the early adopters uncomfortable not to. We do enjoy some control over such things. It’s possible to make yourself feel hungry, so that the magnificent food—which can be prepared precisely to one’s personal tastes—actually feels satisfying, but if you’re not into food, you can also just disable that code, and always feel full. I would try to find out if there’s a similar feature for having a lump in my throat because I’m nervous about my speech, but I don’t have time to look into it, because I have to...ya know, give the speech. The Level Tens are sitting patiently in their seats, but that patience will run out unless I prove to them I’m not just wasting their time. Gilbert and Nerakali are sitting in chairs up on the stage with me, right next to Lowell. I didn’t ask them to do that, but seeing as I’m not announcing this year’s hottest new phone, it’s appropriate for me to be one in a group, even if they never speak.
“My name is Ellie Underhill, and it’s important that you understand that the first draft of this speech was written by Abraham Lincoln, and proofread by The Superintendent. I tell you this, not to humanize me, but to illustrate just how amazing the worlds you built are. Abraham Lincoln is here, and I met him, and I’m sure many of you have as well. Some of you may not know who I am, but I’m the one who originally conceived the concept of the afterlife simulation. I didn’t design the levels, and I certainly didn’t code the actual framework, but I do feel responsible for all of you, and for everyone else here. Due to time travel, I’m thousands of years old, and what I’ve learned in that time is that death...is fucking bullshit. Side note: Lincoln did not curse in his draft; I added that line myself. Because I want to be clear that the whole reason I thought of this place is that I don’t think death is fair. We didn’t choose it for ourselves, evolution did. And evolution is not a conscious being, like we are, so what gives it the right to make such an important decision? Evolution is all about survival traits, and humanity can transcend that.
“I won’t try to turn you against Tamerlane Pryce. Whatever opinion you have of him is fine. I wasn’t around before, because the time travel I was telling you about held me up, and by the time I returned, things were complicated with the other designers. I’m here now, though, and I’m ready to listen. If you have any ideas of how to improve the system—improvements that you’re not authorized to make yourself—I want you to feel comfortable coming to me. From what I gather, Pryce kept his office door pretty open, and I plan on doing the same.”
“Is it true that he’s in prison?” calls a voice from the audience. There’s a little bit of commotion in response.
“It’s true, yes,” I say, thinking it’s best to be honest. That doesn’t mean I want to make myself look like the bad guy here, so I continue, “but I did not overthrow him, and put him there. I came at this bureaucratically, and he placed himself in that position all on his own. The creation of the simulation did not come without some unplanned, and irreversible, consequences. My friend died, and I confronted him about it. He didn’t kill her on purpose, but nevertheless, she’s gone, and not even the afterlife could save her. He has decided that showing his regret for those events is what’s best for everyone, and I agreed to step into his shoes so that the program can continue to run smoothly. Thank you for that question. I had a little bit more of the speech, but let’s open the floor to any questions, comments, concerns.”
A man stands up. “Hi, my name is Jabez Carpenter. Voted most improved. I know you by reputation, and I for one, am glad at the change in leadership.” He looks around to gauge his approval rating. “I think we can all agree that Pryce was a dick, and he deserves to rot in the hock for the rest of time. Maybe that’s just me, I dunno.”
Maybe three-fourths of the crowd claps and cheers at this. Many of the rest just don’t seem to feel the need to express themselves, but I do notice a not insignificant number of frowny faces. The great thing about being in here is that I can record everything I see, so I’ll analyze the crowd later, and use AI to make a list of everyone I may need to be worried about. It’s a little dystopian, but I have to protect this place. This is not a democracy, and it never has been. I honestly wouldn’t have built it that way, because people are stupid when they get in a mob, and they can’t be trusted. It sounds really pretty on paper, and it’s a nice thing to strive for, but at the end of the day, the king gets it done. I just have to remember to listen to input.
A woman stands up now, and doesn’t introduce herself, but people take notice immediately, and the room grows silent out of deference to her. “What news of The Beyond?”
I sigh, because I’ve never heard of that. Pryce left many things that I will need to learn, but they’re not organized, because he never planned on stepping down. “I’m afraid—and I hope not to lose your confidence for it, but—I don’t know what that is.”
“We don’t either,” the woman explains. She’s not as perturbed about my ignorance as I would have thought. “He’s been teasing its release for the last three hundred or so years, claiming that it’s the next logical step in our species’ development. Species, I believe, refers to dead people, rather than humans in general. He says it’s really exciting.”
I look over to my people. Nerakali shrugs, while Boyce shakes his head. Lowell doesn’t bother showing me he doesn’t know, because he couldn’t. I look back to the audience. “I will look into this for you, and if I can give you more information about it, we will schedule another meeting to discuss. I would like to know, however, is this privileged information, or does everyone in the simulation know about it?”
“Level Nine and above,” the woman replies. “Not even the Architects have heard of it. This is strictly confidential.”
“I appreciate the information,” I say. “Anything else?”
No one has anything, so I close the meeting, and people begin to disperse. I turn to my people. “Pryce is a genius, but the most disorganized person I know. His notes are a mess, and some of it is in code. Could you help me figure out what this beyond is? I’m worried it’s some kind of true death program.”
“It’s not,” comes a voice from behind me. I turn to find a teenage-looking girl standing there, like a student who’s too afraid to ask her question for the whole class to hear.
“You know what it is?”
“Pryce chose me as a world-builder for it. I’m actually the last he appointed before he went into hock, which is why I never got a chance to actually go.”
I look around, paranoid. “Let’s go to my office.”
We teleport to my office, which I chose to place in Gilbert’s special anti-spying section of the simulation that he calls Purple Space. I feel the safest here. The five of us sit around a table to discuss this mysterious new thing. “First off, what’s your name?”
“Aldona, sir. Aldona Calligaris.”
“Please don’t call me sir. We’re equals here.”
Aldona looks at her own gray clothes, and at my rainbow outfit. “Okay.”
I smile, not wanting to make it any more awkward. “What can you tell me?”
“I went through orientation, but never made the jump over, which is good, because I’m the only one capable of telling you about it. Contrary to what you’ve been told thus far, you and your friends are not the first Level Elevens. I don’t have an exact count, but from what I gather, a couple dozen others have been resurrected.”
“Where did they go?” I question.
Aldona continues, “apparently another universe?”
“Wait,” I stop her. “This is important, is it another universe, or another reality?”
“He called it a universe. He also called it a brane.”
I nod. An alternate reality is created when someone goes back in time and changes something about history. Sometimes, the traveler is in a loop, and can’t change anything, but is only fulfilling a predestiny. If they can change something, then the new timeline will replace the old one. There are a few concurrent timelines, which exemplify the true definition of an alternate reality, but the terms are mostly interchangeable. Another brane, however, is something completely different. It has different worlds, and different people, and a completely different history. It may even have different physical laws, and unrecognizable evolution. Any similarities between any two branes are either coincidental, or deliberately generated by whoever created the brane, if it even was created; most of them form naturally. Perhaps the most important difference is that time moves separately in a separate brane. When you exit one, and go to another, unless you have some control over navigation, there’s no telling where in the timeline you’ll end up. There’s no connection between when it is for you in one versus the other. Basic time travel is dangerous enough, but this adds a whole new level of complexity.
“What is he doing with this other brane?” Nerakali asks. When I knew her when she was alive, she decidedly had no experience with other branes, but that was a hell of a long time ago from her perspective. I don’t know what she knows now.
“It’s our future home; a physical universe, where we can start new lives. Once everyone is resurrected, that’s where they’ll go. Supposedly. The best of the best world-builders are promoted, so we can use our skills to terraform actual planets in a non-virtual environment. Once we leave, all memory of our existence is wiped from everyone else’s minds. Even if someone learns of the Beyond, Pryce has always just erased their memories. It’s the only time he will manipulate someone’s agency.”
“How would he get to this other brane?” I ask, not necessarily expecting anyone to be able to answer. “That’s not something just anyone can do. The Superintendent can count on his fingers how many different methods of bulk travel there are. Most people will need a third hand to keep counting, but no more than that.”
“That I don’t know,” Aldona says, needlessly apologetically. “I only know I was meant to meet someone named Hogarth Pudeyonavic once I was resurrected, but I never got to use my whitecard, so...” Yep, Hogarth is one of the ways to travel the bulkverse. It’s time to unplug, so I can find her.

And Twins!

I decide that we’re all going to go seek out Hogarth Pudeyonavic in base reality. Just because Lowell and I are the only ones who already have bodies waiting for us doesn’t mean the others can’t come with. It’s within my power to level up anyone I want, and I’m choosing to do that with Nerakali, Gilbert, and Aldona. The latter was already technically promoted—records I found corroborate this—and I may need her in order to get answers from Hogarth. People in the simulation generally retain their likeness from when they were alive, even when they reach a level high enough to entitle them to new forms. Most choose to look as they did when they were younger, like Aldona, who was an old woman when she died. Though some feel more comfortable with an older look. Perhaps they were underestimated as children, and only received the respect of others later in life. Or maybe they just don’t want to pretend that they’re not old, because it somehow hides the amount of time they’ve been around, or feels like a lie. Only a small percentage like to go around looking like bunnies, or pop culture nostalgiabots, but this still accounts for hundreds of millions of people.
Regardless of how they choose to present themselves in the simulation, each individual contains within them their original DNA sequence, completely intact, and unaltered. This allows them to be resurrected in a clone that a lab can create at a moment’s notice. The process only takes a few minutes, and not even due to temporal manipulation. The majority of regular humans are born about the same. They have a head, face, neck, shoulders, two arms, a torso, and two legs, along with many other little bits. A long time ago, back when independent companies still existed, one of them invented a proprietary product that people affectionately referred to as the floor model. It has all those things that make a person a person. It’s only missing a few unique characteristics, such as skin color, eye shape, and genitalia. These additions are therefore, relatively speaking, quick to make, since they’re starting out with something pretty well formed. Height is the longest time drain when configuring a clone, but even that isn’t too hard. No one is quite sure how to scale the operation up to a hundred and ten billion people at once, which is just another reason why Pryce hasn’t resurrected them all yet, so I’m wondering whether this so-called Beyond might address that.
Lowell and I de-res ourselves from the sim, and transport over to the rebirthing section, where the other three have already been transferred to a holding program. The lab technician is working on the clone configurations. About an hour later, everyone is out, and an hour after that, they’re able to move around on their own. It took a lot longer for me and Lowell, but apparently people usually prepare for resurrection by going to classes. This allows their minds to more quickly acclimate to the new physical substrate.
Aldona breathes in deep, and yawns. “It feels so good to do that again, and know that it’s real. It’s so much more of a relief when it’s not just a subroutine.”
“Agreed,” Nerakali says.
“Gacar,” I say into my communicator. “Have you located Hogarth Pudeyonavic yet?”
I have,” Gacar replies. “Sending you her coordinates now.”
“Thank you so much.”
It is a joy.”
Once the data comes through, the five of them teleport to the nearest Nexus chamber, which should transport them to wherever Hogarth is. It could be all the way up in the head of the matrioshka body, or in the toes. This doesn’t really say, they’re just numbers. The Nexus tech seems to recognize them, though. “Whitecards, please.”
Aldona reaches out her hand, and triggers a hologram above her palm, a floating white rectangle with lines all around it that look like circuitry.
“And the rest?”
“We don’t have whitecards,” I explain. They are evidently something extra you get when you’re resurrected that authorizes you to meet with Hogarth. “I run the simulation, though.”
The tech shakes his head slowly. “I can’t send you to this location without a whitecard. You’ll have to speak with your leader.”
“I am the leader,” I try to clarify. “I usurped Tamerlane Pryce. You can check with the Glisnian authority on that. If the coordinates deliver people to a satellite location for the afterlife simulation, then I’m perfectly allowed to go there. And I’m allowed to have anyone I want accompany me, including these three other people.”
The tech reluctantly contacts whoever he needs to contact, and of course the interaction confirms that I was telling the truth. But the same thing happens again once we transport and arrive at our destination. “I’m sorry,” the new tech says. “I couldn’t sneak you in if I wanted to.” He points to the exit. “That door will not open without a whitecard for every passenger...or the gearkey.”
“Oh, the gearkey?” I say. “Well, I have that.” I reach into my bag, and present him with the physical version of the gear that Pryce left me.
“Oh. Well, that grants you authority zero over this place, sir. I’m terribly sorry for the confusion. Right this way, please.” After using my key to unlock the door, he leads us out of the Nexus building, and into what’s very clearly a small spaceship. He climbs into the pilot seat, and starts flipping switches. I’m hovering behind him, looking out the viewport. “Go ahead and make yourself comfortable, sir. The trip will take forty-two reframe days.”
“I didn’t know I was gonna be gone that long,” I lament, wondering whether I should turn back.
“Pryce was frequently gone for that long,” Aldona points out, “or longer. You should be fine.”
“Okay, because that’s, like, eighty light years.”
“Eighty-three,” the pilot specifies.
“We can’t just take a Nexus?” Gilbert questions.
“Ain’t no Nexus where we’re goin’.” With that, the pilot starts the engine, and takes off.
A month and a half later, we’re coming up on our destination.
“Is that...?”
“Did we go in a circle?”
“No, it’s not the same one. It’s bigger.”
“It’s much bigger.”
“This changes everything.”
The matrioshka body where the afterlife simulation is located is about half the size of the solar system where Earth is located. It’s head encompasses a red dwarf, which despite them both containing the word dwarf, is less than half the mass of yellow dwarf, Sol, and also half its radius. It’s hard to see scale like this, but the structure they’re coming up on right now does look a hell of a lot bigger than that. “It’s more than twenty-eight times the size of the matrioshka body,” the pilot reveals. “That’s why we called it Big Papa.”
“Glisnia built a second structure,” Lowell notes in awe.
“No,” the pilot contends. “Glisnia doesn’t even know about it. “This is all Madam Pudeyonavic, and her team. That’s why it has to be off the Nexus grid, and why most people need whitecards to pass.”
“What does Pryce do here?” I ask.
“I don’t ask those questions,” the pilot answers soberly.
Once he’s docked, he refuses to leave the vessel, and insists that we all go the rest of the way alone. Blinking lights lead our way down the passageways, and into a room that kind of looks like it houses a Nexus, but it’s of a completely different design. It transports them to another location, where Hogarth Pudeyonavic is waiting.
“My spies told me that the afterlife sim is now under new management,” Hogarth says after she greets them. “I am glad for this.”
“Are you working for him, or with him?” I ask.
Hogarth laughs. “Please. He works for me.”
“You built this,” Nerakali says, looking around, “just like the other one?”
“Yeah,” Hogarth confirms. “Figured I would go bigger this time.”
“What is it for?”
“Anything we want,” she says. “I got tired of living under Glisnian rule after several centuries, and decided I didn’t need them anymore. I guess I never did. Ethesh and I designed it together, and I built it by siphoning a few particles from different celestial bodies, all over the universe. I’ve been wandering that galaxy ever since. It was only in recent centuries that Pryce found out where I had gone off to, and asked to be a part of it. When you’re as old as I am, wars start to feel like petty disagreements between children. He doesn’t seem so bad to me anymore; more like a minor annoyance. Still, if he’s truly gone, then that can only be a good thing.”
“Believe me,” I say with a laugh. “I know what it feels like to have thousands of years on others. Maybe we can grab some proverbial coffee, and swap stories sometime. Right now, though, I would like to ask about the Beyond. Is it true that it’s a different universe?”
“Yes, but it’s attached to ours, so their respective timelines will always remain linked.”
“Why do this?” Lowell questions. “Why do dead people need their own universe? Can’t they just eventually resurrect in the original? Living people should understand by then.”
“It’s not just for dead people,” Hogarth explains. “I’m having this place built for many reasons, and that’s only one of them. I wanted a place with new physical laws, ones which I believe are better for people. The powers that be can’t control this one, and nor can The Superintendent, so that’s a plus. But mainly, I just wanted to see if I could do it.”
“Well, we’re here to find out what we can report to the World-Builders and Unrestricteds,” I say. “They eagerly await news.”
“I use Pryce’s World-Builders as creative labor, but they’re pretty self-driven and independent. I haven’t met with any of them for a couple decades,” Hogarth replies. “We meet in a section of Big Papa that bridges the universes. I can take you there.”
We climb back into the transporter. There’s no technician in some control room. Hogarth just seems to activate it with her mind, and navigates us to the right destination. A man greets us when we arrive, and says that he’ll lead us to someone he just refers to as the boss. We follow him out of the transporter room, and into a beautiful and calming forest. We walk a short way down a rocky but comfortable path, and come to a wooden desk several meters away. It’s not cut like a regular desk, though. It looks more like it was grown from the ground, and naturally formed into the vague shape of a desk. Someone is standing behind it, but crouched over, presumably searching for something in one of the drawers. When he finds it, he stands up straight, and notices them there. Of course, it’s Tamerlane Pryce.
“Oh,” he says, stretching his lips out to an awkward grimace. “I did not think you would find this place. At least not for another hundred years, or so.”
“Who is that in the prison?” I ask accusatorily. “A clone?”
“Well, he’s in a virtual world, so no, he’s not a clone. He’s just an avatar,” Pryce answers.
“That was all just a lie. You’ve been here the whole time, completely free. I thought you said you didn’t lie.”
“That technically wasn’t a lie,” Pryce contends. “Because I didn’t technically say that. My avatar did, and he doesn’t like lying.”
“He didn’t tell us about you, and that was a lie!” I shout.
“Omission, lie, whatever.”
“Did you know about him?” I ask Hogarth, almost as accusatorily.
“Like I said, I haven’t been here for awhile,” she repeats.
“I’ve been here longer than that,” Pryce clarifies. “I’ve been here for two hundred and sixteen years.”
“Excuse me?” Hogarth questions.
“We’ve been dealing with your avatar this entire time?” I press.
“Yes, but I’ve been monitoring his conversations remotely. I know all that he told you.”
“What the hell is going on,” I demand to know.
“I abandoned the afterlife a long time ago,” Pryce claims. “After a few millennia, it gets really boring. Can you imagine? I don’t have to, I lived it. I lived every second of it, and I just had to get out of there. I never really wanted it. It’s not real. I much prefer being out here.” He breathes in deep through his nose. “I love the smell of fresh base reality in the morning.”
“Why did your avatar give me control of the simulation? Why did he send himself to hock?” None of this makes any sense.
“I monitor his conversations,” the real Pryce reiterates. “I don’t talk to him. I’m not even a hundred percent sure he’s aware I’m doing that. So you can try to ask him yourself.”
“How do I know that he’s the avatar?” I continue. “What if you’re the copy?”
“Oh, like Space Beth?” He stares into space quizzically, and ponders the question like a thoughtful philosophy professor. “Um. Well, I suppose it doesn’t matter, does it? He’s not my copy so much as we’re copies of each other. So you have been dealing with the real Pryce. And also I’m the real Pryce. We’ve been apart so long, we’re two different people now.”
“Which one is the asshole?” Lowell jumps in.
“Both,” Pryce says. “I’m not quite as bad, however. I’ve spent a great deal of time in nature, away from technology. It can change a man. I don’t regret the things I did in my past, but I’m not that person anymore.”
I shake my head and scoff.
“I can prove it,” Pryce promises. “Come on, I wanna show you something.”

Welcome to Welcome

Cautiously but curiously, we all follow Pryce down the path. It really is a beautiful marvel. It doesn’t even feel like we’re in some kind of space habitat. This structure is certainly large enough to fit millions upon millions of fully formed planets comfortably, so maybe this is exactly that. It’s impossible to tell from this perspective. It could be another simulation, for all I truly know. I can’t trust my senses ever again. They’re sensing a lot of pleasant things now, though. The rustle of the fallen leaves in the wind, the smell of petrichor, the feeling of a warm—but not too warm—sun. The taste of air that’s completely free from pollution. This world is paradise, and I know I’ve only seen a fraction of a fraction of an unfathomably small fraction that Hogarth and the world-builders have created. If this is just the bridge that leads to the other universe, I can’t imagine what’s waiting on the other side, which is where I assume we’re going.
The path splits into a fork, one leading alongside the pond that we’ve come across, and the other leading directly into it. Stone steps go right down to the edgewater, suggesting that we’re meant to enter here. Hogarth isn’t surprised or concerned, so this isn’t something that belongs to him, but to her. Pryce steps one foot in, and keeps the other up on the last dry step. He reaches towards me with his hand. “You can trust me.”
I step down, and take his hand. “That will never be true.”
We all walk into the water, and find it to be the perfect temperature. Once it gets deep enough, we drop our chests down, and begin to swim towards the middle. I keep my eye on Hogarth, because if she starts to detect trouble, I’ll know that it’s real. “Just float on your back and relax,” she instructs. “This is the prototype of the transitional lake that people from the afterlife simulation will be using. I designed this to be a joyful and calming experience. Bulkverse travel is always either so technical and mechanical, or jarring. I want people to slip over to other worlds peacefully, which is why I call this a drift portal.
Despite tasting no salt, we’re incredibly buoyant. Floating was always something I struggled with when I was learning to swim as a kid, but this takes no effort at all. I do feel wet, yes, but it’s almost as if I’m hovering in the air on a cloud. It’s simulation physics made real. I intended the afterlife to be a place where the dead could live on, but I failed to predict some of the more creative real world applications, such as this. We lie there quietly, and enjoy the sounds of nature around us. We occasionally drift close to each other, but never collide. I start coming up with explanations for this, like maybe Hogarth programmed the area to prevent collisions with a force field, but then I just let it go, and stay in the present. At some point, I realize that the sky has changed from the familiar blue to a lovely violet color. We transitioned, and I didn’t even notice.
I hear splashing as the others begin to swim towards the new shore. When I start to follow, Aldona is still on her back, and we don’t try to summon her. If this is where she wants to be, here is where she’ll stay. She seems content, as am I. I am as relaxed as Hogarth wanted me to be, and have relinquished all hostility I felt coming into the mission to remove Pryce from power. I do not forgive him for anything that he’s done, but it no longer consumes me. Who can be mad under a purple sky?
“Welcome, all...” Hogarth begins, “to Violkomin” She smiles proudly at her own pun. “All who come to this universe shall pass through here.” She walks around a bit, and admires nothing in particular. “The membrane is fifty thousand times thicker than any other universe. Not even The Crossover could penetrate. If someone wants to come, they’ll be bottlenecked. This is the safest place in the multiverse.”
“No,” Nerakali contends. “The universe as a whole may be, but this world is on the frontlines. One way in...one way out; no escape. Might want to consider building a backdoor.”
“Is this what you wanted to show us?” Lowell asks Pryce.
“No, he responds. We’re about four hundred light years from that.”
“Where’s the nearest Nexus?” Gilbert asks.
“Now that we’re in my domain,” Hogarth says, “we don’t need Nexa.” She reaches out towards Pryce. “Navigator.”
He takes her hand to better send a psychic message containing the coordinates to their destination. We all transport to another planet, one that’s just as beautiful and wondrous as the last. “Ellie?” comes a voice behind me.
I turn around to find Paige Turner. There are eleven versions of her that I know of, though, so there’s no telling which, or if it’s a new model that I’m not familiar with. I glance over at Pryce. This may not be any version of Paige, but a clone inhabited by some other personality. If this is meant to be a gift from him, it’s an unreliable one. “How do I know you’re who you seem to be?”
Paige sets down the little bear-looking creature she was carrying at her side like a dolphin in a sealab. She tilts her head much in the same way Pryce did when he was contemplating a philosophical question. “You can’t ever know who you’re seeing, or who you’re talking to, can you?” she poses. “I mean, ignoring quantum duplicates, time travel, clones, android substrates, dreams, hallucinations, and holograms, identity is something we can’t ever truly know about anyone but ourselves, and maybe not even then. Perhaps when we met, Ellie, I was an individual, and the next day, a different individual woke up in the same body. I believed I was the original Trinity, but how would I really know that? Perhaps it’s all just a lie, and if I can’t truly ever know whether I’m the same person as Past!Me, then I certainly can’t expect you to have a clue.”
“That was unhelpful,” I tell her. “I hoped your response would prove it one way, or the other.
“I think her point is that—” Nerakali tried to explain.
“I get her point,” I snap. I compose myself, and apologize with a remorseful facial expression. “If you had your powers, would you know whether this was the real Trinity?”
“If I still had my powers,” Nerakali begins, “I would be the worst person to determine which version of Paige this is. All duplicates are the same to me. Identity doesn’t exist in my world.”
The apparent Trinity walks forward, her loyal ursine creature following closely by her ankles. “I remember everything that Trinity experienced before she died, and I remember everything back when I was just a young girl from the early 1970s named Paige, before I split off to start my own life on Thālith al Naʽāmāt Bida.” She takes both my hands in hers. “And I remember how I feel about you. I hope that can be enough.”
“It wasn’t enough for you,” I remind her. “Pryce masqueraded as me on Lorania, and when you found out it was actually him, you never talked to the real me again.”
Trinity frowns. “It’s my biggest regret.”
I hug her, also hoping the possibility that this is really her will be enough for me. “How did you survive past your death?” I ask when we release. “Avatar!Pryce said you were a hopeless case.”
She nods towards the physical embodiment of Pryce.
“I went back in time, and utilized a special type of mind siphon,” he explains. “Don’t blame my avatar, he doesn’t know I did it. It was much harder than for people with brain disease. I had to write an algorithm that predicted which neuron would be overtaken by Past!Me’s consciousness next. It had a point-zero-six percent fail rate, so I had to loop back multiple times until those errors were corrected.”
“So you see?” Trinity asks. “I am from an alternate reality. But aren’t we all?” It’s true, everyone here originated from a different timeline, and none of us belongs in this one. Well, I’m not sure about Aldona, I just don’t know enough about her, but she’s still back on Violkomin.”
Oh, thank God,” Aldona’s voice suddenly shouts in my ear. “Please come help me! There’s a fire in the sky, and it’s heading right for me!
“Aldona?” I cry. “Say that again, so everyone can hear.”
Aldona repeats herself after I alter the teleporting sound waves to a wider area. Hogarth transports us back to Violkomin, where we indeed see a fireball hurling through the sky, threatening to crash into us. The ground is shaking, and it’s incredibly hot. Hogarth transports us again, scooping up Aldona in the process. We don’t go back to Trinity’s world, though. We’re inside a glass geodesic dome, the sky is black, but we can see the sun, so this must be a moon with no atmosphere. We watch the fiery object crash onto the surface of Violkomin, and utterly destroy it.
“Are we safe at this distance?” Lowell questions.
“We’ll have fair warning,” Hogarth assured him. This moon is orbiting the next planet over in the system, but it’s still pretty far away. If debris heads towards us, I’ll get us out in time. But I wanted to see what this whas. What the hell happened?”
“Something crashed into your planet,” Gilbert answers with a little attitude.
“Where did it come from?” Hogarth asks, knowing that no one here will know the answer.
“What’s that?” Lowell asks. Something is flying through the sky, towards the moon. It doesn’t appear to be coming from the debris, but perhaps from where the crashing object came from. It changes direction, so it’s not a comet.
Hogarth wants to keep watching her precious world fall apart, but she has to stay level-headed, and in charge. “Give me a vacuum suit.” As she walks towards an airlock, machines appear around her, and wrap clothes around her body. First, she steps into a pair of pants, and then a pair of shoes with the next step. She lifts her arms to let a top slip over her. Finally, a helmet comes down, and secures itself over her head. It’s like Iron Man, but with fewer moving parts, because that’s more conducive to a space environment.
Not sure whether it’s even possible or not, I ask for my own suit, and literally follow in her footsteps. I’m not as graceful, but it works for me as well. Within one minute, I’m ready for a spacewalk. Lowell and Nerakali do the same, but Gilbert and Aldona choose to stay in the safety of the habitat. Pryce ignores the suit assembly line, and steps into the airlock seemingly unprotected. He’s always had an obsession with finding the perfect body to live in, so the one he’s using now must allow him to survive outer space.
We let the hatch close behind us, and wait for the outer door to rise out of our way. I’ve actually been on a spacewalk before, and not how you would think. I normally transported to other worlds via The Trotter, or Trinity. I’ve traveled in a few spaceships, but always stayed inside. No, actually, I was the only female crewmember of Apollo 18. I was pretty famous, and it was an exhilarating experience, but then I went back in time to my younger body, and ended up in a timeline where the mission didn’t even take place. That’s kind of what I do, live a crazy lifetime, gain all this experience and knowledge, and then take it away so no one knows I ever did those things. That was a very long time ago from my perspective, and it’s not exactly like riding a bike. Only Hogarth and Pryce are true masters of the moonwalk. Even Trinity struggles and stumbles a bit as we make our way to the downed spacecraft.
Hogarth uses an AI in her helmet to determine the best point of entry for us, one which won’t harm whatever inhabitants are inside. It has its own airlock, which the AI hacks into for us. The atmosphere is perfectly breathable once we’ve repressurized. “Stay together,” she orders. Which makes sense, because we’re not some kind of highly trained recon team. We may all respectively have the skills to protect ourselves, but we don’t know how to work together, and we don’t have a shorthand with each other.
A small group of large white aliens are sitting in what looks like a mess hall. They look frazzled and depressed, and there’s a hint of fear when they notice we’ve walked in, but they instinctively hide it defensively. The apparent leader stands up, and symbolically gets herself in between us and her crew. “My name is Ukodenva Unedisalk. We are but cadets in the Loyal Interspace Arm of the Maramon Lower Class Military Branch. We possess little training, and no means of defending ourselves. Please do not harm my people. If you require a hostage, I alone will suffice.”
This should be interesting.

Part VIII

Coming soon...

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