Artificial Endings is a series of short stories about what the afterlife might look like if reality is a simulation. Some endings are uplifting, some are touching, many are dark. Waking up and realizing life was an illusion tends to be like that.
You died December 13th, 1957 in a small hospital near your hometown of Winslow, Arizona. You were 86 years old. You knew you were dying — the cancer had been slowly destroying you for months, but you realized this was just the way life went. Everyone grew old and died of something. Feeling the end coming on, you asked for your five surviving children, their spouses and as many of the grandchildren and great-grandchildren as could make it to join you on the ranch. You threw a three day family and friends reunion.
The Friday weather was fine, so you had old Norman and the ranch-hands lay out a big table in the field, and you dined in your wheelchair with sixty four of your kids, their kids and their kids, wives, husbands, local friends and not so local compadres who flew in for the festivities. Rather than a proactive wake, it was a celebration of life. You insisted there should be no tears. The ranch hands roasted a whole pig and grilled prime rib. You hired a dixie jazz band and there was dancing into the night.
More family and friends arrived on Saturday and the weather was glorious. The whole group took to the lake, swimming and picnicking the early summer day away. You couldn’t swim, but you had old Norman and the boys carry you down to the water’s edge where you rocked in your favorite chair and giggled as the great grandkids splashed at your feet.
On Sunday, you knew it was your time. It was the first day you couldn’t get out of bed since you had learned to crawl. You called your children together and said a few words for their departed father, your beloved Samuel. You also remembered their sister Sylvia who had died in childbirth, and their brother Alfred who died of cerebral malaria while working in Africa. You told your children you loved them and were proud to have shared a life with them.
Then you closed your eyes and, with happiness in your heart, died. You have a blissful few moments of eternal peace.
You open your eyes and look around. You are not in your wrought iron bed in the family home.
You know exactly where you are. You’re in a brothel.
A nurse comes to check on you. She adjusts your intravenous line, gives you a package of crackers and tells you to make sure you sip your water. You have been an absentee landlord for a long time and your body must recover.
You look around the brothel. This isn’t the front end, full of soft red lights, suggestions of flesh and sensual music. This is the back end, where they process and release men and women for periods of indentured prostitution. A row of beds line the wall, and to your left and right two men and three women also lie in hospital gowns, eating crackers, sipping water and drinking from their IVs.
And it isn’t 1957. You signed your contract during December 2062. You ask the nurse the day and year. She says December 13th, 2065. That means they woke you up mid-simulation and asked if you wanted to opt-in for the third year, and you said yes.
You don’t remember that at all. They must have wiped it from your memory.
You feel around the back of your head and find a bandage running from your occipital bone at the back of your skull to halfway down your neck. That’s where they removed the implant that kept your brain busy in the simulation while your body was used here.
You ask the nurse to draw the privacy curtain around your bed and she does with a knowing nod. You flip up your hospital gown and examine yourself. Your body looks quite fit and toned but very pale. You expected the former — clients want a shapely package and they said you’d be exercising daily. But you didn’t expect the light skin. You were never wealthy enough to afford the treatments and avoid so much sunlight.
You check yourself. You breasts are firmer and fuller than before — a side effect of the hormone treatments they gave you. Your public hair is neatly trimmed, just a stripe, and everything below seems to be in working order. You have a large fading bruise on your right hip. You don’t want to think about how it got there. Satisfied you’re whole, you replace your gown and pull the blanket to your chest.
After thirty minutes, the nurse checks your vitals and takes you to a private room, where you put on the clothes you wore when you arrived. They are a bit tight up above and loose below. No matter.
The nurse guides you to an out-processing cubicle where a young woman provides you a stack of paperwork to sign. There are waivers for nearly everything. Affirmations that your body is disease free and healthy, and that there was no permanent damage during your contract period. You double-check that your STD and pregnancy tests were both negative. You affirm that you are psychologically whole and waive any right to sue for lingering post-contractual trauma. You are wary about signing, but you know you must to get your check.
The woman provides you a receipt for your three years of services. It is nearly twenty times what you made in an average year in your old job cleaning the governement state house. It is enough for you to buy and stock a small store, and a house with four rooms for your mother, sisters and brothers to live in.
You will find a husband and the two of you will have a room of your own.
You leave the brothel and buy the house and the store. The money provides a substantially better life for your family. In your poor agricultural community, you are now relatively well off. After your father passed away — the sole provider for the household — you really had no other choice.
But you know what the people in the community think when a young woman of your ethnic background disappears for several years and then returns with a bonanza. She sold herself to one of those specialty sexual services companies. Most horny johns these days just solicit an android — it’s looks good enough and performs well enough. But the wealthy want the real girl experience. They want the feel of human flesh and the taste and smell of a real man or woman.
The government, under pressure from Western NGO do-gooders, decreed that the types of sexual services provided by these specialty brothels are too detrimental for the human psyche. So while you spent a lifetime in accelerated virtual time, your body was controlled by a weak artificial intelligence program designed for pleasure and kink.
The people in the community know this. And while they’ll buy the goods from your store, they shun you in social interactions. To find a husband, you must travel to the city and marry into a lower class than your new economic status might imply. You try to have children together, but learn you are infertile, likely the result of past venereal disease, according to the doctor.
Your mother dies of heart failure brought on by obesity. One by one your siblings grow up and flee the fields and the store for menial jobs in the bright metropolis. Your husband leaves you for a younger woman and returns to the city, never to be heard from again. As an abandoned wife, your social isolation deepens.
After a few years you’ve had enough of being shunned and you try to go back to the business. You miss living in America and crave the deep, meaningful relationships you cultivated in the simulation. But you’re a bit too old, too droopy and too flabby for high-class sex services. Only the most despicable brothels will take you, and you can’t imagine subjecting your body to that level of depraved abuse.
So you run your shop in a community of familiar strangers, and spend your nights at home alone, praying for a life you already experienced, which was as patently false as your present reality is starkly true.