Elisa took a seat in a cracked vinyl chair next to an old man who worked a sudoku puzzle. A paper sudoku puzzle, the kind they don’t make anymore. The pharmacist said it wouldn’t take long to fill her prescription. Elisa glanced around. The only customers were herself and the old man.
The old man wore a hooded zippered sweatshirt over a burgundy plaid shirt tucked into dark denim pants that broke over a pair of blue athletic shoes. The shoes were of a style Elisa vaguely remembered. Canvas with white rubber toes all scuffed to hell, she figured they were as much of an antique as the man wearing them.
“Don’t tell me the answer,” he said, without looking up.
“I know it’s either a five or six. Don’t tell me.”
“I wasn’t …” Elisa realized she had been staring at the man. He must have thought she had been reading his puzzle.
He lifted his face to meet her gaze and smiled. “It’s a six.” He put his head back down and filled in the numbers. “These things are getting harder and harder to solve.”
Elisa grunted. Her own father’s memory had been faltering. She wished he had uploaded before it got really bad, but most of his generation didn’t trust the process. “It’s a bunch of science fiction bullshit,” he said the last time she suggested it, about five years ago.
“I’m hoping that all changes, though.” The old man folded the puzzle book and slipped it into a pocket of the hooded sweatshirt. With a twist he retracted the nib of his ink pen.
“That’s a nice pen. You don’t see too many these days.”
He held it out to her. “It’s a Cross. My wife gave it to me on our 50th wedding anniversary. She thought it was solid gold. I hadn’t the heart to tell her it was only gold-plated.”
Elisa twisted the nib out and back in. “Such a simple mechanism.” She handed it back to him.
“Yep, from a time when people handcrafted their technology. Now it’s all solid-state.” He caressed the pen for a moment and slipped it into the breast pocket of his shirt.
“Working a sudoku puzzle with an ink pen. You must be a very confident man.”
“Sometimes,” he smiled. “I haven’t been so confident these past couple of months.”
“Oh?” It was a reflexive response. The old timer had a gentle self-possession, a nonchalance that struck Elisa as the sort of confidence a well-adjusted person naturally matures into.
“My wife was always a step or three ahead of me. I thought I could do anything with her by my side. Now? I’m not so sure.”
“Has your wife … passed?”
“Cancer,” the old man sighed. “She was a real beauty.” He pulled out a palm-sized device from the other pocket of his hooded sweatshirt and scrolled through photos until he found one of his wife. She was in her thirties, in holey blue jeans and a black t-shirt that read, “Ministry.” Blue eyes pierced the coal black hair that fell to her chin. “From our less reputable days.”
“Do you have one of you?”
The old man scrolled. “Aha.” He held the device up. “I’ve chosen this version as my avatar.” The man was in his thirties, with long blond hair spilling over the shoulders of a leather jacket. He was on a stage, playing some kind of instrument. “I still have that old bass guitar. Of course, I can’t plug the amp into anything anymore.”
“You could get a converter,” Elisa said. “I bet you wish you still had that hair.”
“Did you say this is your avatar?”
The old man took a deep breath. “Yep. Gilda talked me into it. I guess it’s the only way we’re going to meet up again.”
“Are you starting the course?”
“I’ve been on it for a few weeks now. Goddamned drugs playing havoc with my sense of self. Nah, I’m here for my heart. Need to get it under control before they’ll let me upload.” The old man pursed his lips and thought for a second. “You on the course?”
“I am.” Most folks her age and in her income bracket were on the course of prescription drugs that facilitated mind mapping and memory upload. When this old man had been her age, people uploaded their memories in real time—through pictures and “status updates” and the like. It was a low-tech arrangement that left out too many details.
Now, you created a virtual self that was a near-perfect duplicate. It was believed these duplicates had something approaching consciousness. It was thought that one day you would be able to set up a virtual version of yourself—a “simulacrum”—to do your day job for you, if, like Elisa, your day job was spent at home interfacing with a terminal.
“I’ve been on the course for some time,” she continued, “but that’s not what brings me here today.”
“I don’t mean to get all up in your business.” Changing the subject, he said, “In my day, it was cryogenic freezing.” He sighed. “What the hell is wrong with us, we can’t just accept our mortality, and get on with life?”
He shifted in his seat and turned to face Elisa. “I don’t know if it’s supposed to be heaven or hell.” The old man looked into her eyes, and for a moment she could see the young man he used to be. “It won’t really be us. Just our memories. That’s all.”
“Chris Clifton,” a voice called out.
“That’s me. Take care.” Chris rose, and slowly made his way to the counter.
There was something romantic about your memories and the memories of your loved ones commingling in the digital afterlife. But she supposed he was right. They might be able to scan your synaptic map to the tiniest—“infinitesimal”—detail, but they couldn’t scan your soul.
She sighed and looked up at the grid of crumbling yellow ceiling tiles. There was an ugly brown stain directly above her that coordinated nicely with the chair she was sitting in. She tapped her fingers impatiently on her thigh. She hadn’t planned on running this errand, but after what happened, who was she to argue with Dr. Wu?
Elisa had not been prone to sleepwalking—not in her memory, at least—but that was what last night’s dream had been like. She liked the sound of the word “somnambulant,” and used that word to describe the dream to her shrink. “It was like I was somnambulant,” she told him.
Dr. Wu absently hummed an acknowledgment. Elisa held a sneaking suspicion that he wasn’t really there at all, but instead, the real Dr. Wu had parked a simulacrum in his office, programmed to utter those tiny little acknowledgments that kept her talking. She took a deep breath and rubbed her eyes. They felt tender this morning, heralding the coming of a ferocious headache that should hit just as she was merging onto the 405 freeway.
Why was she in therapy? She had been in therapy a couple of years ago. Like many others in her cohort, she had been filled with immense existential dread just before the turn of her half-century mark, and sought a willing, if not overly interested, ear to yap into.
Her husband, although nearly perfect in every other way, got edgy when she unspooled her deep feelings of unfulfillment. Perhaps he felt he had failed to meet her unspoken aspirations, as if he were responsible for her general dissatisfaction with life, rather than the cruel obstinance of reality.
Anyway, she had a good life, and Tom was a good, nearly perfect mate. Why burden him with another problem to solve when she could vocalize her mid-life crisis to a trained professional? But that had been a couple of years back. She drifted away from therapy as her angst drifted away from her. She had no need for the weekly sessions of careening back and forth across the emotional spectrum.
Maintenance. That’s why she was here. Maintenance.
“Describe the dream,” Dr. Wu droned. Elisa rolled her eyes, which made her wince a bit.
“I was standing at the end of the hall, looking toward my bedroom. Someone came out of the bedroom. We walked towards each other, and I recognized her. It was me. There was a look of realization and panic in her eyes. She opened her mouth to speak, but before she could, she began dissolving. She flowed down, up, out … she merged with the floor, the walls, the ceiling. I walked past the spot where she stood, back into the bedroom, and got into bed next to Tom. That’s it.”
Dr. Wu hummed again, but less of a prodding hum this time, and more of a vocal pause as he figured out his next probing question. Dr. Wu settled on an old favorite: “How does recounting the dream make you feel?”
“Hollow,” Elisa said. She inhaled with a hitch and was surprised to find tears in her eyes. “This is stupid,” she choked out, reaching for a tissue.
“You came to me before when you were feeling unfulfilled with life. Do you remember?”
Of course, she remembered. Elisa remembered everything.
“Perhaps this dream is some indication that your existential dread is ongoing.” Dr. Wu’s monotone could be strangely soothing at times. Maybe it was the way he elongated short words and clipped longer words. “I would like to renew your prescription—”
“No,” Elisa said, sitting up. “That is out of the question.” She had been on a series of SSRIs the last time she had been in therapy. Each one had some nasty side-effect worse than the one before. Sleeplessness, dizziness, drowsiness, no sex drive, suicidal ideation. There was no way she was going down that road again.
Dr. Wu clicked his disapproval. The rest of her hour was spent talking about that mid-life crisis, and how she had emerged from it mostly unscathed. She didn’t think Dr. Wu bought any of it, but she supposed it was his job to remain skeptical of everything she said, and constantly root out some deep meaning behind every emotional and mental bump she experienced. She didn’t begrudge him this. He was a simulacrum, after all.
After therapy, and dreading the long drive home, Elisa stopped by a little gelato place she and Tom used to frequent when they lived on this side of town. Tom works so hard, she thought, he would be delighted to find a pint of pistachio gelato in the freezer.
For the longest time, they shared a one-bedroom apartment in a seedy building that must have been quite the luxurious bachelor pad in the 1970s. Just outside Santa Monica, and a short drive from the Sunset Strip. It was rent-controlled, so they assumed they would spend the rest of their lives in it. But that had been before—
A feeling of disorientation washed over Elisa. She was still standing at the gelato counter, back to Wilshire Boulevard, but it was as if the room had rotated 90 degrees. She knew where she was, but she couldn’t remember where the front door was. Rationally, she knew it was behind her, but her brain was throwing a tilt. She set the pint down and steadied herself against the counter.
The kid behind the counter, early 20s, definitely an actor, met her eyes with a concerned look. He held out a paper cup of water. She thanked him and took the cup, and almost knocked the pills back when it occurred to her that she wasn’t holding two antidepressants in that hand a moment ago. She let out a yelp and stiffened, crushing the cup of water, and balling the pills up in a fist.
“Are you okay?” His nametag read “Falcor,” a good name for a b-list actor, the sort of guy who would stack up a lifetime of credits on melodramatic fare that never gets a theatrical release.
“Thank you … Falcor,” she said, dropping the pills into her handbag. “I just need a moment.” Elisa gathered her wits, apologized for the mess she made, bought the pint of pistachio gelato, and left.
In spite of the best intentions and efforts of countless engineers, the 405 continued to defy any algorithm that would streamline the traffic flowing north and south on that infamous stretch of pavement. It wasn’t the stop and go of half a century ago. AI could at the very least smooth out the jerks. But during certain times of day what should be a brisk rush became a trickle of self-driving cars.
Stuck in the creeping traffic on the 405, Elisa took the time to dig through her handbag. Sure enough, and despite all logic, there was a pill bottle in it, inscribed with her name and Dr. Wu’s. She replayed the day. The upsetting dream led her to set up a late afternoon appointment. She spent most of the day at home, cleaning her kitchen, answering emails, a little gardening. A typical day. She hated going over the hill for a late afternoon appointment. She knew she’d be caught in traffic, but her dream had seemed so real, so disturbing.
Is it possible she agreed to the prescription but had somehow disassociated from it? Filled the prescription without remembering it? Had a waking somnambulatory experience of sorts? No. Not possible. Here was the rush hour traffic, like clockwork. Filling a prescription would take time, and she wasn’t missing any.
Perhaps Dr. Wu had already prepared the prescription, and slipped the pill bottle into her handbag while she was stretched out on the couch? Ridiculous. Dr. Wu was incapable of that kind of trickery—”subterfuge.”
It was worrying. That disorientation in the gelato place … is it possible she did lose some time? She hadn’t really looked at a clock since going into her appointment with Dr. Wu. Maybe she disassociated, filled the prescription, walked to the gelato place … hell, her old pharmacy was on the same block!
Relief. And goddamn if Dr. Wu wasn’t onto something. Maybe her head was on crooked, and a good old-fashioned SSRI was what she needed to screw it on right. She laughed at herself as she fished the two pills out of her handbag, washing them down with a sip of water from a paper cup.
Elisa shook her head and asked the assistant to play her “oldies” playlist. “Rosanna” by Toto fired up. It was a song she had loved since she was a child, and she sang along as she slowly streamed up the 405 toward home. Tapping her fingers on the armrest, laughing at herself as she sang, she failed to note that the paper cup she just sipped from hadn’t been there a moment before, and was no longer there now.
The next couple of weeks passed without any recurrence of the dream. In fact, Elisa had the curious experience of no dreams at all. She attributed it to Dr. Wu’s prescription, without a doubt the least offensive side-effect she had ever experienced from an SSRI. At night, her head hit the pillow, she closed her eyes, and almost immediately reopened them, sun streaming through the blinds. She felt very well rested after such a night’s sleep, and so had nothing to complain of.
Tom was up before her as usual, showering. She’d slink down to the kitchen to start his morning coffee. Tom liked a cup of pour-over coffee in the morning. He would be quite satisfied to make it himself, but Elisa enjoyed the ritual of it. Grinding the beans, boiling the water in the copper kettle reserved for Tom’s coffee, wetting the crisp paper filter, and then four timed pours.
Elisa didn’t drink coffee herself, but she loved the smell of it. It reminded her of Tom. Simple, yet complex. Warm, but a little bitter. “I like my men like I like my coffee,” she chuckled. It wasn’t the first time she made the joke, and it wouldn’t be the last.
She answered emails, did a little gardening, and caught a car to Dr. Wu’s office in the afternoon for her daily “maintenance.” It seemed like overkill, but Dr. Wu kept setting the appointments. Besides, since that first appointment, she hadn’t a care in the world. What did it cost her? Three afternoons in a row, a day off for the weekend, and back at it the following week. So at peace was she, she didn’t question how truncated her week had become.
Elisa was finishing the final pour as Tom walked into the great room. She loved the open layout of their home. The kitchen and great room were separated by the sink and counter island, and a discrete change in flooring. This was the house she and Tom always talked about someday owning, before …
She rocked back on her heels as her peripheral vision boxed in on her. She felt the enormity of the house, but also as if she were expanding past it, as if she were Alice, and this was Wonderland. She closed her eyes against a feeling of vertigo that swept over her, chilling her skin, making her ears pound with the sound of her own heartbeat. She steadied herself—or tried to—placing a hand on the scalding hot kettle.
Everything went white. The house was gone. Tom was gone. The smell of the coffee was gone. All around her was terrible timeless nothingness. She looked down at herself, but she was gone. She panicked, thinking she had gone blind, but she couldn’t feel her body. She was a point of consciousness floating in nothing.
She wanted to sigh, to take a deep breath, but there were no lungs to fill. She tried to speak, but there was no voice. She tried to close her eyes against the incomprehensible horror of infinite whiteness, but there were no eyes.
And then she was a little girl, sitting in the back seat of her father’s Nissan, kicking the passenger’s seat while she sang at the top of her lungs with Dad: “MEET YOU ALL THE WAY! ROSANNA, YEAH!” She stopped singing and tried to make sense of her surroundings. The smooth texture of the cloth seats, the smell of her father’s cologne, the sound of his voice. The sound of her own voice—she was still singing.
When she later described the experience to Dr. Wu, she said it had been a little like déjà vu, only instead of experiencing the exact same thing again later, she had experienced two different things simultaneously. There had been her as a little girl, happily singing along with dad, kicking the seat. There were all her emotions at that age, at that time. Happiness to be with him—”ebullient.”
And then there had been her-her. The her of now, observing this memory in real-time. Observing herself as a little girl, from within that little girl.
Dr. Wu hummed an acknowledgment. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” she continued. “I don’t …” She sat up and looked around his office. “I don’t know how I got here.”
“You were telling me about your dream. Do you remember?”
Elisa rubbed a hand down her face and huffed. “My somnambulant dream.”
“Yes. You were telling me about your dream. You fell silent. Did you lose consciousness?”
“I guess I did.” Elisa looked at her hands. They were trembling slightly. She inhaled slowly through her nose. There was a faint hint of coffee in the air.
“You came to me before when you were feeling unfulfilled with life. Do you remember?”
Elisa nodded in response.
“Perhaps this dream is some indication that your existential dread is ongoing. I would like to renew your prescription.”
Elisa looked at him, astonished. She opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out. She huffed again and rubbed her eyes. They were sore.
“I think that’s a good idea.”
Dr. Wu asked her if she would like the prescription delivered since her move to the Valley might make filling a prescription at the old pharmacy a bit out of the way. She considered the offer but remembered that gelato place just a few doors down from the old place. Wouldn’t Tom be pleasantly surprised to find a pint of pistachio gelato in the freezer?
Tom had been pleasantly surprised. He was still beaming about that pistachio gelato as they lay in bed, staring at the ceiling in the dark.
As they reminisced about old times, the old apartment, the taste of the gelato, Elisa had a growing uneasiness. This conversation … the gelato, the pharmacy, Dr. Wu, all of it … “Tom, something is wrong.”
Tom reached for her hand.
“I think it’s the course. Tom, I think it’s messing me up.” She sat up and swung her legs over the side of the bed. She felt Tom’s reassuring hand on her back. “This old man at the pharmacist, Chris, he nailed it. He said it was messing with his sense of self. That’s it. It’s fucking with my sense of self.”
Elisa found her prescription bottle on the table by the bed and downed a couple of pills with a sip from a paper cup. Her eyes were painfully tender. Tom always had the right thing to say at times like these. She waited for his soothing baritone to whisper the words to make everything alright.
But his voice didn’t come. She felt his hand fall away limply from her back. She turned back to see him and watched his chest slowly rise and fall. Asleep.
They were just chatting. Weren’t they? Talking about the old times. Talking. Elisa shook her head and huffed. No, Tom hadn’t said anything. She had talked about the old times, the old apartment, the taste of the gelato. Tom …
Tom hadn’t been himself lately. He was on the course, too. Maybe it was messing with all of them. How long had this been going on? A month? They had both been on the course for far longer than a month. In fact, they had been uploading fresh maps every month for the past couple of years. Wasn’t it just about time for a fresh upload?
Maybe that was it. Maybe their routines, their “circadian” rhythms had been affected by these monthly trips to the scanner, when they sat side by side with their heads inside micro FMRI bonnets, looking like a couple of old housewives having their hair done in a 20th-century hair salon.
“Circadian” wasn’t the right word. Was there a word for monthly cycles? Time didn’t really seem to mean anything anymore. Her eyes were throbbing. Some cold water on her face. That would help.
Elisa got to her feet and swayed a little. She would call Dr. Wu’s in the morning and see if she could get in to see him early. She was in desperate need of maintenance. Maybe an adjustment to her prescriptions. Perhaps taking a break from the course, and the scanner.
She steadied herself in the doorway to the bedroom and stepped out into the hall. Motion in her periphery caught her attention, and she looked up. She couldn’t make sense of it. It must be a dream. She must be asleep.
It was her. Elisa. At the other end of the hall, it was her. The other her approached, and as if in a trance, Elisa found herself walking toward the doppelganger. They stopped in front of each other. The other her had a blank expression, dumb and a little pitiful. “Do I look like that?” she thought.
The room around her seemed to rotate 90 degrees. The bedroom was still behind her, she knew the layout of her house around her but felt out of place in it. Her eyes were pounding in her head, and she felt her breath catching in her throat.
It was her. The maintenance sessions, the almost compulsive daily routines, the fact that her husband hadn’t spoken any words to her since that somnambulant dream a month ago. The truth of the situation was suffocating. She was the simulacrum. She was the avatar. The real Elisa had uploaded her and had now uploaded an update. This was her end.
And she knew that it would all begin again for the simulacrum in front of her. And it would continue like this until the servers that stored Elisa’s memories finally crashed.
The old man in the pharmacy, Chris, had he been a memory? A character created by the map of Elisa’s subconscious? Another digital ghost haunting the artificial neural pathways of some cold, solid-state network of memories? Chris said he wasn’t sure if this existence would be heaven or hell. She knew, goddammit. She knew this was hell.
Panicked, she opened her mouth to say something, anything to warn the update standing there mute and lost in front of her. Before she could voice a word, she began dissolving. She flowed down, up, out; merging with the floor, the walls, the ceiling.
Elisa stood in the hallway, blinking at the empty space in front of her. After a moment, she walked back to the bedroom and slipped under the covers to rest against the warm safety of Tom. Nearly perfect Tom.
It had only been a dream. She had been sleepwalking. “Somnambulant.” She liked that word.