What Comes After

Imaginary ones and zeros streamed across the insides of Carol’s eyelids. She tried counting them, since she couldn’t manage sheep.

Frontspiece, Night thoughts on life, death and immortality : Young, Edward, 1683, remixed by Paul Jarvey

Imaginary ones and zeros streamed across the insides of Carol’s eyelids. She tried counting them, since she couldn’t manage sheep.

Her watch alarm had told her it was time for bed, and she listened to her alarms. If she didn’t sleep, she’d pay for it later.

She took deep breaths and burrowed into her covers.

The cocktail of cancer medicines that kept her alive threw off her sense of her physical needs — without the alarms, she’d code all day, all night, without eating, sleeping, or drinking anything.

But her thoughts would slow, her fingers get clumsy, and eventually her whole body would ache so deep that she might die of it.

She paid attention to her alarms.

She tossed and turned for a bit longer, then she slept.

She woke to the smells of coffee and bacon. She couldn’t have either anymore. She dragged herself to the kitchen and poured bran cereal into the bowl that she’d used and rinsed every morning since he’d left.

Sam frowned at her cereal. “I’m making breakfast.”

“No coffee. No bacon,” Carol grunted. She missed coffee. But giving up physical pleasures was good practice.

Sam frowned down at his sizzling pan. “Oh. I — I’m sorry.”

Carol kissed his cheek. Scratchy. Warm. Familiar and wonderful. “I missed you.”

Sam ran a finger over her bare temple. She thought he might miss her hair more than she did. “It’s going to be a gorgeous day. I was thinking we could go to the park. Just sit, watch people walking their dogs.”

Carol shook her head. “Can’t. Need to work. Don’t have much time.”

“There are more important things than work, Carol.”

“I have to finish this, Sam,” she said. She swallowed the rest of her words — she couldn’t risk getting his hopes up.

And she wasn’t sure that he’d understand what she was doing, anyway.

She’d had to special order the hardware — she’d gone through five separate prototypes before she’d been satisfied — but she wasn’t trusting the software to anyone else. She had written a language from the ground up, and she was finally gaining some ground on her program.

Sam came and went. Carol ate, drank, and slept when the clock told her to.

And she worked.

Sam climbed into her bed one night, and she woke cradled in his arms. His breath was soft against the back of her neck. His smell wrapped around her, tricked her into forgetting for a few beautiful seconds.

She wanted to roll over, to kiss his lips, his ears, his throat, to ravish him before he was quite awake, to fall back into the covers together, where he’d stroke her hair and whisper about the future.

She cried for the first time since she’d started working.

Sam woke and held her.

“Talk to me,” he whispered. “Stop — stop leaving me before you have to.”

“I’m going to upload my consciousness. I’m almost done with the program.”

She waited for the questions — for the doubts and fears and sane reasoning that she’d refused to think about.

“When?” he asked.

“I should finish today, I think. It’ll run final tests while I sleep. Then I’ll upload tomorrow.”

He kissed her palms, one then the other. “Wait till the day after tomorrow. Come to the park with me tomorrow.”

She wiped drying tears off of her cheeks. “Okay.”

She finished, and Sam cooked her dinner while her tests ran. Foods carefully chosen from her safe list, prepared with love and lots of garlic. They made love gently enough that she felt more pleasure than pain.

The next day, they went to the park. She ate a forbidden ice cream cone. People walking their dogs stopped and let her pet their silky heads. She tried to memorize every texture, every sound, every smell, every taste. It was too much. She fell asleep in the sun, and Sam carried her home.

The next day, he helped her fasten all the wires, stick all the cold electric pads to her thin skin.

She managed a nervous grin. “At least I don’t need to shave my head.”

She typed in the run command. Took a slow, deep breath. Would it be her last?

She hit enter.

Memories swirled around her. Her body felt distant — strange. But for the first time in months, there was no pain. Her awareness stretched, thinned, expanded.

Then it snapped back.

She cried out as the pain rushed back. Sorrow ripped through her. Sam rubbed her back in little circles. “I don’t understand,” she choked out between sobs. “It should have worked. I shouldn’t be in this broken meat sac, I should be in there!”

Sam turned her face toward her monitor.

“I don’t want to fix it now,” she snapped.

“No. Look,” Sam said.

She looked at the instant message box — the one where she should be now.

Carol2.0: It worked! Sam, it worked! This is amazing — there's no pain. I'm alive! I'm alive. Sam, I'm not going to die.
Carol2.0: Sam? Are you there?

Carol stared at the screen and felt a strange, surreal jealousy.

Sam’s fingers moved on the keyboard.

TrueSamwise: I'm here. And so are you.
Carol2.0: I know, silly. That's what I was just saying.
TrueSamwise: No, you don't understand. Your body — you're still you.
Carol2.0: You mean there are two of us?
TrueSamwise: Yes.
Carol2.0: And she's still dying.

A long moment passed before Sam typed again.

TrueSamwise: Yes.
Carol2.0: I don't know what to say.

Carol pushed Sam away from the computer.

TrueSamwise: Carol here. Don't say anything. Do something. You don't have to eat or sleep now. You don't have my limits. I'm — you're smart. Learn medicine. Help me ...
Carol2.0: I'll try.

Days slipped by. The doctors lifted Carol’s dietary restrictions. They told her to do whatever made her happy.

She posted her program online, along with diagrams of the hardware. The internet buzzed with her name. Uploaded intelligences set themselves to solving the world’s problems.

Carol2.0 reported her progress every morning. Her progress was slow.

Politicians debated the uploaded’s rights. Religious groups despaired for their souls.

An uploaded doctor discovered a cure for Alzheimer’s. Uploaded diplomats bartered peace in war-torn nations. An uploaded scientist found a clean, safe, energy-efficient way to desalinate water.

Sam took Carol for long drives. They rode roller coasters, ate at the most expensive restaurant in town, went to the symphony.

Despite all the food, Carol grew thinner and thinner. She couldn’t stand for long, couldn’t really walk at all. Sam rented a wheelchair.

Carol2.0: I think I have something. It's experimental and needs rigorous testing. I think it might be too late to help you.
MeatCarol: It's not too late till I'm dead.


The screen filled with formulas. Carol asked for donations to pay for the experimental treatment. Money poured in.

She started the treatment.

It didn’t help.

Carol curled in her bed. Tubes filled with medicine dripped into her arms, monitors beeped from every corner, and she hurt all over.

Sam held her hand. “You’ve done an amazing thing,” he said. “You made the whole world a better place. And you — you’ve made my life wonderful. I love you.”

“I love you, too.” She tried to squeeze his fingers. She wasn’t sure if it worked. “I wish I could stick around and see what happens next. But I guess I’m going to find out what comes after death, after all,” she whispered. “I really wasn’t that curious.”

Sam kissed her one last time, then her eyes slid closed.

The machines screamed. Sam unplugged them. They weren’t telling him anything he didn’t already know. She was gone.

He went to the computer, opened up a window.

TrueSamwise: Carol's dead.
Carol2.0: I'm still here.
TrueSamwise: I'm glad. She'd be glad, too. She was worried.
Carol2.0: I wasn't.
Carol2.0: I wish I could hold you.
TrueSamwise: Me too.


Jamie Lackey lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and their cat. Her fiction has been appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Penumbra. She’s a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

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