The Space Between Worlds
They arrived late for the funeral. They sat silently, wearing form-fitting black suits, quietly judging the cheap lo-rez skins of their fellow funeral-goers. They shared brief glances of disapproval. It wasn’t that the skins were bad – good skins were rare – it was that they were clearly failed attempts at high fashion.
Porter and Jack had spent so many years designing holographic skins for the rich and fashionable—skins with minute expressive details, skins that didn’t look like skins at all—they’d forgotten all about the middle-income, faux-fashion, mass-produced skins. They stared in embarrassed awe as the GPS programming of their fellow funeral-goers slipped, exposing a bit of an arm or leg beneath the hologram. That kind of faux pas would get you laughed out of a party in the hills.
It was a funeral of design flaws.
Porter leaned over and whispered in Jack’s ear.
“It’s fitting, you know. She was a shitty designer.”
Then he spotted something out of the corner of his eye, something interesting. She was wearing a black kimono and a geisha skin. She radiated ritual sadness. He watched the rate of her blinking. He timed the breaths. He watched for clipping. It was one well-made skin. Her head turned slowly, her eyes tracking perfectly; she wore an expression of unforced melancholy, her eyes strained a little at the edges, with the faintest hint of a nostalgic smile. It was a complicated expression, layers of meaning and emotion. It was a thing of beauty and yet, despite his years in the business, he couldn’t place the designer.
The geisha’s expression transformed, seamlessly, into one of polite recognition. She nodded. Jack forgot to breathe. Then, within seconds, the entire skin started to come apart. The geisha’s left eye rolled back in her head, the side of her face drooped, and the hair began to unravel. Oily black tears appeared on her cheeks. Jack looked away, breathless. He kept his eyes on the rabbi at the front. But he felt her stare burrowing into him. When he looked back, her seat was empty.
They sat in the car as a wave of color surged by. A fair or a protest or a parade, they didn’t know, didn’t care. Porter leaned his head against the wheel. Jack looked in the glove compartment, found nothing.
“Do you think she knew she was going to die?”
Jack shut the glove compartment. “Miriam didn’t see it coming. She choked on an ibuprofen.”
“I heard she signed up for some immortality program at Cal Tech. They copy and paste your brain into a computer.”
Jack looked out the window. Outside, a giant hotdog was selling hotdogs.
“Do you think it worked?”
“If it did, do you think there would have been a funeral?”
“I guess not. We would have attended a celebration of transformation from one state to another. Which is a lot like a funeral when you think about it. Except, there probably would have been gifts. More like a bat mitzvah.”
“Jesus, I hate it here.” Porter swerved into the breakdown lane, revving the engine and jerking forward like a feral animal.
“Who holds a funeral in the Uncanny Valley?”
“Did you see those skins? They were disgusting. Every one of them moved like a flipbook missing half the pages.”
All around him, even in this protest/parade, Jack noticed expressions cut and pasted from his newest line. Expansive joy, serene thoughtfulness, all perplexing and complicated. But each expression just snapped from one to the next with unsettling suddenness. No natural transition. The real art of hologram designing was the transition. And, of course, real art costs real money, and no one here could afford Jack’s designs. And the worst part was that they all thought they looked like the pinnacle of fashion, all the while twitching around like creepy broken dolls.
Images of the geisha returned to Jack. He made a noncommittal sound.
“She had no sense of detail. Her hair, fine manipulators, christ, she couldn’t even get teeth right. And we were kind enough to not fire her for five years. We deserve sainthood for that.”
They finally cleared the crowd and begin climbing Laurel Canyon. Porter relaxed noticeably, returning to a place of established wealth and decent illusions.
“Who do you think designs the Pope’s skin?”
“The Pope wears a skin?”
“Yeah, his robes clip all the time.”
Back at Jack’s house, Porter poured drinks, while Jack busied himself with work, files spread across the floor with wavering opacity. An unfinished skin stood by the fireplace, her expression calmingly neutral. She still needed the back of a head.
Porter excused himself to take a piss, bringing his drink with him.
Something flickered behind the shower curtain.
Porter emerged with an empty glass and an unzipped fly. There was a disquieting expression of horror mixed with indignation on Porter’s face. It was clearly a prototype expression.
“You should change your home network password. You’ve been geo-hacked. Unless that was your creepy, ink-weepy geisha in the shower.”
Jack dropped the file he was holding. It floated to the floor in slightly pixilated oscillations.
Jack and Porter discussed possible scenarios - ardent fan sending unfinished work, stalker, glitch, scam. They buried their jitters in laughter, they drank some more, but at the end of the night, when Porter had gone home, Jack hesitated by the light switch. He wasn’t sure if he was ready for darkness.
Jack called Porter before breakfast.
“She showed up in my bedroom last night.” Jack had taken to standing in doorways, pacing along the edges of rooms, chewing coffee beans.
“Did you recognize the design?”
“Maybe. I was looking through Miriam’s work last night. She was working on a geisha skin.”
“No way. Miriam couldn’t program transitions for shit.”
“She was working on adaptable light interactions.”
Porter sighed. “Did you change your passwords?”
“Yeah. That’ll keep her out of the house at least. But not off the streets.”
Jack shuddered at the idea of Miriam’s unfinished geisha watching him from just beyond his driveway, half of her face switching emotions, the other half slipping into lo-res pixelation.
Jack reminded himself that skins weren’t really there. They were just digital information. They couldn’t interact with the world, with light. They couldn’t creep, hide in shadows. They couldn’t catch moonlight, reflect in your bay windows. But she had. She had crawled across his sheets, wept in the shadows.
“We need to track the source. I’m at your door by the way.”
Jack opened the door and eyed the street in each direction before letting Porter in.
“I saw her twice on the way over.”
Porter sat down heavily on Jack’s sectional. They sat in miserable silence for a moment.
“I hate to use the ‘h’ word.”
“I wish you wouldn’t.”
“We’re being haunted.”
They stared out the sliding glass door at the hills that rolled away behind Jack’s house. They examined every shrub, every contour in the sand.
“She has to be haunting us from somewhere.” Jack started pacing again.
“No. That skin has to be stored somewhere. It must be broadcasting. We need to find out from where.”
Jack snapped his fingers and a screen appeared before him. He cycled through directories, then began typing on a gaseous keyboard.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m opening a cloud monitoring system and changing my password back to what it was yesterday.”
“You’re inviting the ghost back in?”
Jack tore down a few more firewalls, opening the floodgates. He clapped his hands together and the screen vanished.
And they waited. The fire in the fireplace hit some lag and stuttered. Jack frowned at it.
“I’m getting a drink. You want one?”
Porter stood up and walked into the kitchen. Jack considered upping the fire’s bandwidth allocation, or maybe simplifying the program. A glass shattered in the kitchen.
A little red warning message popped into existence in front of Jack. It read, “New geo-link from [Loading…]”
Back in the car, they drove down winding roads through the hills, occasionally catching glimpses of the downtown skyline, all flashing lights and dancing colors.
“Why would her parents be broadcasting her geisha?”
Jack shrugged. He was new to being haunted. He wasn’t sure what the rules were.
The road grumbled beneath their wheels. Digital yellow lines illuminated the road in the dark. Sometimes they’d see a figure crouched by a sign, or darting between trees. They kept their eyes on the road.
“It’s up here on the left.”
They got out of the car and looked up at the little cottage, nestled between the unforgiving angles of the Hollywood hills. The lights were on, yet the property seemed dark, enshrouded.
They knocked and assembled themselves into a tableau of respectful sadness. The door opened. A man stood in the doorway wearing a linebacker’s skin, with a black hat and black clothes, yet part of the skin was missing, a small chunk out of the left shoulder. Beneath it, they could see his real shoulder in a black thermal shirt.
“Who are you?” the man said, in a high nasal voice not quite fitting his towering visage.
“We’re Miriam’s former employers.”
“Come in.” He opened the door wider and they could now see that the house was filled with people, some crying, some chatting, everyone stuffing their faces with food. Like the man, little pieces of their skins were missing, fragmented omissions in the digital spectrum.
Jack blinked a few times, wondering if his ocular implants were malfunctioning. Porter began programming silently, then quickly emailed his program to Jack. At once, each of them lost a chunk of their skins, just enough to show the body beneath.
Jack received a text from Porter. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Or, in this case, Israel.
“Did you know Miriam long?” the host said, closing the door behind them.
“Yes. Five years.”
“She was a good girl.”
“She was great.”
“She had so much passion.”
“Absolutely brimming with it.”
“She had so much love in her heart.”
“She was so beautiful.”
Jack nudged Porter and nodded toward a slick black cube under a vase of flowers. The word ‘Tithonus’ glowed in sickly green on one side of the cube.
“Is that a broadcaster?”
“You aren’t by any chance broadcasting an unfinished skin your daugher made, are you?”
“Have you seen her?”
There was an obsessive look to Miriam’s father at that moment. Jack knew instantly there was no chance this would end well.
“Yeah. Would you mind terribly turning it off?”
The ceiling light flickered.
In under a minute, Jack and Porter landed on the porch. The door slammed behind them. Jack tried out a new prototype expression he called “condescending frustration” on Porter while they stood up and recalibrated their GPS coordinates.
“‘We need to exorcise the spirit of your daughter!?’”
“They’re Jews! It seemed topical.”
“You exorcise demons in Judaism. Not dead loved ones.”
Porter groaned and opened the car door. Two eyes peered at them from the darkness.
They scrambled into the car as the geisha darted out of the woods, kimono rippling like great ocean waves as she soared across the driveway, her mouth frozen in an inhuman shriek, her hair a tangle of snakes. She stopped just short of the door, her expression resetting suddenly, before her eyelids peeled back and her teeth began evacuating her mouth.
Porter popped the car in reverse and spun out. They left the mourning house and Miriam’s geisha behind them, shrinking into the night.
They sat in the waiting room, arms folded across the chest or behind the head; legs splayed out or expertly crossed. A picture of coordinated nonchalance. They looked at posters, digital images of the human brain. The sign hovering above the counter read, “Want to live forever? Sign up today for Project Tithonus.”
“Shit, man, the chairs have skins.”
Jack looked down to see that the chairs were indeed wearing a layer of hologram.
“Some people don’t understand the concept of moderation.”
Every surface of the waiting room was covered in hologram, right down to the door knobs. It made the furniture seem a little too thick, like childhood memories. The desk clerk bobbed her head to unheard music. Then a doctor entered the room.
“Porter?” he said, then double checked his clipboard. “Mr. Porter?”
Jack and Porter approached.
“We want a tour.”
“We’re interested in your servers.”
The doctor’s face flickered into an exaggerated smile, warm and broad, his eyes squinting, his teeth seeming to merge into one perfect white plane.
Jack and Porter shared a moment of disgust.
“Come this way,” the doctor said. He led them down a gleaming hallway.
He opened a door and they stepped into a frigid room lined with state of the art servers. Everything hummed.
Porter began inspecting the machines.
“Explain the process.”
“Well, first we take a high resolution fMRI of your brain, capturing every neural pathway in action, then we translate all that into raw data and store it here. In the event of the subject’s death, we activate that data on one of our servers and link it with a skin of the subject’s choosing.”
“How long does the process take?”
“We record the brain for about five minutes.”
“That’s not long.”
“We’re recording a massive amount of data in those five minutes. Every neuronal spark in the entire brain. Our goal is to record how a person thinks. Not just the thoughts themselves. And once we’ve captured the method of thought, we believe we’ve captured the essence of the subject.”
“So you store thoughts. But only five minutes worth of thoughts.”
The doctor attempted a look of suspicion.
“You aren’t here for the procedure are you?”
“No. We’re being geo-stalked by the skin of a woman you uploaded a few months ago. Miriam Klein. The unfinished skin she decided to give you has been riding us for days now.”
“Interesting. There must have been a glitch in the upload.”
“Yeah, we don’t care. How do you turn it off?”
“Oh, that’s not allowed. Miriam’s digital property was left to her family. You cannot shut down her data without their written permission.”
“Doc, she’s haunting us, not her family. We’re the injured party here.”
“I’m sorry, but Ms. Klein’s digital consciousness is simply expressing itself. If I allowed two inconvenienced strangers to destroy the data she entrusted us with, it would be a breach of contract. You understand.”
They soared down the road. Jack felt comfortable in the car. Even without a destination, it felt like progress was being made.
“What do you think she was thinking about?”
“During those five minutes?”
“Whatever her thoughts were, they must have had must have something to do with us.”
“You know what it was? It was the damn blink animation. We ripped her a new asshole over it.”
“You think we overdid it?” For the life of him, Jack could not remember his notes on that day. Seemed strange that they would now live forever.
“Absolutely not. She was six whole frames over the acceptable range.”
Jack reclined in his chair. “You think that immortalizing your thoughts for all eternity seems like a great idea but your thoughts, ninety nine percent of the time, are just petty shit. Any of the really meaningful things in her life, they weren’t immortalized because she happened to be thinking about her shitty bosses, who she hated.” Jack noticed there was a chunk missing from the Hollywood sign. “Being haunted by grief, or tragedy... That would at least be dignified.”
“Do you think we could get a restraining order?”
Jack sat up.
“Remember Benson v. McDonald’s?”
“Woman tried to get a restraining order against McDonald’s advertisements. The holograms kept following her around, demanding she buy a Big Mac.”
“Did it work?”
“Technically, the ocular implants are a product we choose to use, so she could, at any point, turn off the oculars and no more ads. Thus, no restraining order.”
“You mean she had to go the rest of her life without oculars?”
“No, she just went and bought a Big Mac. The advertisements moved on.”
“So she caved! She gave them what they wanted. She rolled over. That’s bullshit! We don’t roll over for anyone, dead or alive—”
Jack opened the glove compartment and found a joint.
“—I don’t care if her immortal soul is stored in that server, I want her wiped from the fucking earth. I want to live in a Miriamless world! I want to go to the Tithonus program headquarters with a box of hand grenades and marshmallows on sticks. I want to wipe every single skin she ever made from our company logs! I want to redact her fucking obituary!”
Porter spun the wheel and they screeched around a corner.
“You know, I think you’re onto something.”
“I was just venting.”
“She was an employee. Our employee. She signed a contract giving us ownership of everything she created while at work. And, like I said earlier, I found that geisha skin on her work computer.”
“Which means we own it.”
“Which means Tithonus is guilty of copyright infringement.”
“Which means we can sue them!”
“That’s not all.”
“Oh go on. Please.”
Porter slipped into a rapt, almost pre-orgasmic expression.
“She scanned her brain during a lunch break. A paid lunch break. She was technically still on company time.”
“Which means that we own those brain scans.”
Porter started punching the wheel.
“We own that cunt’s dead brain!”
Porter and Jack grinned as they wove through the canyons. They liked the idea of being the first people in Hollywood to sue a ghost. They’d crush cocktail parties with this story.
It only took one ‘Cease and Desist’ before Tithonus gave in. Porter and Jack had hired the scariest lawyers in Hollywood. The kind of guys who move in packs, tap their watches, eat with their left hands, and never wear skins.
Tithonus had given Jack the hard drive containing Miriam’s brain patterns and he and Porter had driven up to Malibu to toss it into the ocean. They stood on the high cliffs, staring at the crashing waves. They made no attempt at ritual. They just tossed the drive over the edge and watched it smash on the rocks before the ocean rolled up and consumed it. Jack lit up.
On the drive home, Porter told Jack a story while Jack fell asleep.
“So there’s this playwright who gets so tired of directors mangling his material that he designs holograms to perform the whole play on their own, no bodies needed. Then he gets so sick of critics panning the play that he decides he’s going to stage it where no one can see it.”
Out the window, Jack watched the guardrail slither and bob.
“So he geo-locates the sets, the players, everything to the upper stratosphere, thirty miles above the earth. You’d have to be in a spaceship to see it. And he leaves them on repeat, performing this play over and over to no one.”
Somewhere between waking life and slumber, Jack thought he saw Miriam’s unfinished geisha crawling across the seaweed and rocks, looking for her teeth.