reading time:   ·   tags: Short Stories   ·   by nicky case


Welcome, the clockwork corpse says, to AfterLife.

Still the same booming voice after all these years. I first visited AfterLife with my mom and dad when I was seven. I remember looking up in wonder at the strange half-robot man, seeing through his glass-panel chest into the gears and pipes which made his taxidermied body stretch his arms out and bellow, I am Ozzy Clarke, the founder of this Museum.

Then looked down, the camera in his eye recognizing the twinkle in mine, and he knelt level to me and asked: Who is this magnificent young lady?

My mom gave me a nudge, so I told the man, “My name's Mu. I'm seven years old, and when I grow up I want to be a game designer!” In the present day: my name's Mary, I'm fifty years old, and I'm a financial analyst. Right now, Ozzy is telling me the history of AfterLife. I've heard the speech dozens of times, and it gets better each time. Ozzy uses a genetic algorithm: he gives several variants on the same speech, and selects the best speeches based on how many smiles his camera detects. This way, his speech can evolve with the times, words and sentences competing in the survival of the funnest. Decades after his death, Ozzy Clarke is still improving his art.

At the end of his speech, Ozzy opens the gates, and I follow him in.

The corpse orchestra begins to play. They all used to be world-class virtuosos. When I first saw them as a kid, their bodies were taxidermied to look like when they were alive, and they played standard instruments. Now, their bodies are modified to be the instruments. The violinist draws his bow across the vibrating muscle fibers of his arm. The woodwind blows into a clarinet made of her bones. The conductor's arms are now 10 feet long, with five elbows each, madly swinging a baton across the stage in tempo to a neural-network-generated variant on Also sprach Zarathustra. He used to be a friend of my dad's.

Simply stunning, Ozzy had said to seven-year-old me and my family. We now have a choice, Mu. Which wing of the Museum would you like to visit first?

“The games!” I said. My mom tried to hide a laugh.

A young woman with exquisite taste! Ozzy led us to the Games exhibit. Games are an under-appreciated, but ancient art form. The oldest known board game, Senet, dates to 5000 years ago in Ancient Egypt. Its name is believed to mean, "the game of passing".

“Passing, like a test?” I asked.

Passing, Ozzy grinned, into the next world.

At the time, I was enthralled by the chess-playing corpse, a former Grandmaster who was controlled by an AI trained to play in his style. And I had a small childhood crush on the basketball-playing corpse with tan muscular arms and carbon-spring legs. But secretly, I was disappointed they didn't have any _video_games. They do now. If one so desires, one can play VR and AR games with the corpses of their world-famous designers. And some of them are still world-famous designers. When you play their games, their camera-eyes watch your face, see when you express frustration or delight, and they use a genetic algorithm – the same as Ozzy's – to evolve their games to perfection.

But I'm not here for that today. I thank Ozzy for the warm welcome, and let him know I'd like to go off-tour.

Why of course, Madam! Please make yourself at home. Was he really such a gentleman when he was alive?

You and your family are long-time friends of AfterLife, and you're always welcome here any day, on the house. Does it matter who he was in his previous life?

As Ozzy turns to walk back to the entrance, he shoots me a secret wink and smile.

Hey. It's good to see you again, Mu.

The actuators in his cheeks and the LED twinkle in his eye make it seem like he's really there. Maybe he is there.

While Ozzy returns to the gates, I walk straight down the main hall. I pass by my favorite corpses. There's the painter, using her blood to paint red trees in the autumn. There's the sculptor, with his eleven prosthetic arms, to mold clay into a shape of a new prosthetic arm. There's the novelist, with their 44 fingers directly attached to a ink-and-paper typewriter. There's the theatre troupe, dangling from strings like marionettes. There's the photographer, with telescopic lenses for eyes, strolling around the Museum, snapping photos of his artistic peers – all of them still creating art, still evolving their craft, still living death to the fullest.

It's not all smiles, though. Outside the window, there's a throng of protestors. There always were protestors. When I first came here with my mom and dad, the mob chanted, "PEOPLE ARE NOT PUPPETS". They thought what the Museum was doing to human corpses was an affront to God or human dignity or something. As if it's more dignified to have your corpse pumped with embalming fluid and fed to worms.

But that's not what they're protesting now. Now, they're angry that the corpses in AfterLife are living better lives than they are. The AI technology used in the Museum has also put millions of people out of work. While living people are barely surviving, a bunch of dead rich narcissists built this warehouse to store their dancing corpses. Hell, the corpses are even making money. Although AfterLife is partially funded by donors like myself, 60% of the Museum's revenue comes from selling the dead artists' new art.

"LIFE IS FOR THE LIVING," the protestors chant now. And: I agree. I think in an ideal world, we should all be living in AfterLife. We should all have no fear of starvation or shelterlessness or shame, and be able to fully dedicate our lives to art, to science, to something greater than ourselves. In an ideal world, we should all live like these corpses.

But this is not that world, and I don't have time for this.

I walk away from the window, to the end of the hall, and into the House of Donors. I go through the living room, past the kitchen, and into the back garden. Next to a bed of roses is a small table, on the table is a fresh pot of tea, and drinking the tea are my mom and dad.

“Mu!” Mom turns to me. “Happy birthday, sweetie! The big Five-Oh, huh?” She's just as sarcastic as she always was.

“Thanks for coming to see your old folks.” Dad stands, and walks towards me. “Actually, we have a little present for you!”

“Oh, Dad, you didn't have to...” A part of me knows they're not real.

“Nonsense, honey.” Mom stands up. “It's the least we could do after you paid Ozzy $10,000,000 for our corpses to not be rotting hunks of flesh under six feet of dirt.”

“Mom...” Another part of me doesn't fucking care if they're real.

“To be honest,” Dad says, ”your present's not much, but your mother and I hope you like it anyway...”

Mom walks up next to me and Dad. “Here it comes, you post-menopausal old fart!”

And they both give me a great, big hug.

In their arms, I'm thinking about when we first visited this place as a family. I'm thinking about the times Mom played Super Smash Bros with me and defeated me mercilessly. I'm thinking about the way Dad hummed symphonies while he sorted out the bills. I'm thinking about the first human beings, sheltered in a cold dark cave around a dying fire, painting pictures of their lives and hopes and dreams on the cave walls, knowing, even in this earliest stage of our evolution, that the only way to survive is to do more than just survive.

(originally posted on r/WritingPrompts)