Like 4 Ever

Submitted into Contest #221 in response to: Write a story where ghosts and the living coexist.... view prompt

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Fiction Speculative Science Fiction

It’s the first time in a month I’ve left my house. The first time in a month I’ve worn anything except my pajamas. The first time I’ve done pretty much anything since I got the diagnosis from my doctor.

I shift in my seat, glancing around the space I’m in. It’s a nice enough waiting room, with comfortable furnishings and pleasant decorations. Paintings of peaceful landscapes and actual live plants. Everything’s done in soft, muted tones. All designed to be soothing and comforting. Necessary, I guess, considering what they do here.

Now I’m thinking about what I’m doing here, and I don’t want to do that. Believe me, I’m very much in touch with the concept of my own mortality. I pull out my phone, eager for distraction, but also realizing that it’s been like ten minutes since I checked my feeds and comments. If I don’t stay on top of it, my views and likes could slip. I might even lose followers and subscribers. Not good for my business.

Then a door in the wall across from me opens, and I stiffen, an involuntary reaction somewhere between alarm and anticipation. Through the door steps a young woman wearing an outfit that manages to be both casually disarming and professional at the same time. She spots me instantly and heads over, a smile on her face and one hand outstretched.

“Hi there,” she says, her tone warm and inviting. “I’m Cassandra Daly, but please call me Cass. I’ll be walking you through what we’re doing today, answering any questions you might have.”

I stand, take her hand briefly. “Brian Henderson—er, you might know me as Image309.” I grin nervously and shrug. “You know, my social media branding and everything. But, please, it’s Brian right now.”

“Of course,” she says, still smiling. “You have quite the following, Brian. What is it, up to about eleven million?”

“Something like that,” I say, with forced nonchalance.

“Great. Well, Brian,” her smile widens. “That’s why you’re a perfect fit for Like 4 Ever. If you’ll just follow me, we’ll get this started.”

Like 4 Ever. It’s the foremost company doing this kind of thing. Right out there on the cusp of the emerging market. They contacted me shortly after I publicized my condition, coming to me after my tearful display of fear, uncertainty, and vulnerability. They said all the right words, made all the right promises. Offered me an insane amount of money, all as an advance, of course. More than enough to make the next six to eight months—all I’ve got left, apparently—an experience worth a lifetime.

And all I have to do is sell them my soul.

Literally.

I follow her, through that door and into a short hallway. “So, how long is this all going to take?” I ask.

Cassandra’s smile turns into something sympathetic and understanding, like she knows how precious each moment of my remaining time is. “Don’t worry, Brian. We know what we’re doing here, and we’ve streamlined the process. Today is just the registration phase. Nothing too serious. We’ll do some scans, and you’ll take an in-depth personality test for verification purposes. You’ll be in and out in a half hour or so.”

“Good.” Wow. They’ve got immortalizing your online personality down to a science. That’s nice to know.

Ten years ago, not many people believed in ghosts. Even those of a religious bent didn’t think lingering spirits and haunted houses were a real thing. You died, and either went where you were supposed to, or didn’t go on at all. Then some pack of geniuses figured out about “non-quantifiable essence” and “residual energy forms.” The talking heads talked about it for years, with new technologies providing mountains of proof. So, now, yeah, ghosts are a thing. You die, and now you can decide if you want to move on in the natural way, or if you want to stick around for all eternity instead.

“So, how do we get this started?” I ask.

“Well, you’ve already gone through most of the paperwork,” Cass says, pulling out her own phone and tapping away. “Received all the briefing material and signed almost all of the required forms.” She glances back at me, smile still in place. “It’s not a small matter, licensing the rights to someone’s residual energy form; we need to make sure it’s all done properly, with full understanding and investment.”

Licensing rights to residual energy forms. Yeah, of course good old commercial interests swiftly got involved, and if you made money while you were alive, well, you could keep right on doing it after you died. Forget film studios licensing actors’ likenesses; now you could have all the famous people continue to star in one bad sequel after another.

And that led to another new trend: spiritual social media celebrities.

This goes way beyond deepfakes or AI using databases to pretend to be people. No, now you can have your immortal soul plugged in 24/7, answering questions, delivering opinions, commenting to the commentors, Tweeting and posting, until the end of time. People like me, social media influencers and personalities with a decent following, get offered contracts to sell the rights to their eternal souls, granting parent companies their continued use. I guess it’s a good deal. A life of luxury and popularity, and then an afterlife of continued fame and relevance. No one will ever forget you.

“Okay.” Cassandra holds up her phone. “All we need is one more signature. As explained, this is a legally binding contract, granting Like 4 Ever, and its affiliate companies, exclusive rights to your residual energy form, i.e. ‘ghost’ upon your death, in perpetuity, for any use or purpose the corporation sees fit, within the bounds of propriety standards set forth by the Senate Committee on Post-life Affairs.”

I blink, the whole thing coming home in inescapable fashion. I sign this, and I’m locked in. After my looming death, I will spend the rest of my conceivable existence doing what I’ve been doing for years. A social media celebrity forever. But, hey, it’s not like I was planning to do something else with my eternity.

Without another word, I trace my finger across the tablet, scribbling out a more or less legible signature.

“Perfect,” Cassandra purrs. “Let’s get started.”

*

Exactly thirty minutes later, I’m once again in that waiting room. The ordeal is over, and it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Of course, I didn’t understand anything that they did, but that’s par for the course, I suppose.

The scanning process had nothing to do with taking my picture or recording any facet of my physical likeness. The technicians said that it was all about anchoring my residual energy form after my passing, so that it would end up where it was supposed to be. Disconcerting, but okay. The personality test seemed to just be a bunch of questions about my childhood and formative years, with a sprinkling of other time periods mixed in. When I asked what it was about, the they just said something about the “verification process.” Guess they need something to make sure they’ve got the right ghost. Weird, weird, weird.

“So, we done here?” I ask.

Cass is still smiling, though now I get the sense that it’s a satisfied grin, like a cat who already has the cream. “Yes, Brian. Everything is set. You’ll receive email confirmation, a copy of the full contract, and instructions for what to do when your… transition… approaches.”

I’m not sure I want to think about that, but curiosity compels me. “What will that look like?”

A tiny frown furrows Cass’s brow. “Well, it can be different, depending on the circumstances. With an unexpected passing, for instance, most ghosts don’t even realize they’ve died. It’s just so sudden that they come back and go right into their work again. In your case, with your… situation… we’ll conduct the final procedure in one of our affiliate clinics.” She gives me a look of earnest reassurance that I’m sure she practices in a mirror. “It will be no different than any death under those conditions. You’ll be in a bed, on strong pain medications most likely. You’ll simply fall asleep… and then wake up.” She gives the smallest of shrugs. “Then you’ll just keep on doing what you do best.”

I nod, purse my lips. Okay. That’s enough of that. I move on to the next most important item. “And the payment?”

“Being processed as we speak.” Cassandra shakes my hand one last time. “Please, contact me if you have any further questions or concerns.”

Yeah, and have a great rest of my life, I think.

I leave the building, trying not to look like I’m as eager to be gone as I am. Once in the parking lot, I stand next to my ten-year-old Civic, wondering if I should just head to that Porsche dealership right now. Yeah, I think splurging on my dream car is the perfect way to celebrate this milestone in my eternity.

Then my phone chimes, and I whip it up to my face, eager to see all those numbers in my bank account.

But it’s not from the bank. It’s from my doctor, an urgent request for a meeting, in person, and a very, very heartfelt apology.

It seems like there’s been a mistake in my diagnosis.

*

“So, yeah, that was a big surprise.” I smile into the webcam, once again feeling that sense of profound relief, the same one I got when my doctor explained the mistake to me. “I know, this kind of thing can happen. Charts get mixed up all the time; people hear the wrong person’s diagnosis. But it shouldn’t happen. I really feel bad for the other guy, of course.” I take a long sip from my energy drink. “Which is the real reason I’m pressing the lawsuit. It’s not about me, not about the money. It’s about accountability.”

I check the comments feed and see that most of them are about one question. Then my gaze darts to the clock; I’ve still got enough time left in the episode to give an update. “And on to the burning question of the day: Like 4 Ever, and will I keep my contract with them?” I give a small, but theatrical, sigh. “Okay, I’ll admit, when I found out I’m going to live a long and healthy life, I was tempted to back out of the whole thing. It always felt a little… I don’t know. Weird. Creepy. But after giving it a lot of thought, I decided ‘why not?’ Once again, it’s not about me. This time, it’s about you. All of you. If I can continue to serve my fans, keeping them informed and entertained, even after I’m dead, then that’s just what I’ll do.”

Okay, so I’m not being exactly honest here. Yes, I did want to back out of the deal, like, so much. Especially when my lawyer told me how much I could wring out of the HMO behind the mistaken terminal prognosis I got. But when I had him look over the contract with Like 4 Ever again, he told me in all honesty that it wouldn’t be worth it to back out. They’d already paid me in full, and weren’t pressing for a cancellation of the contract or the return of any part of the money. Apparently, they still wanted to keep my soul when I died, even if that wouldn’t be for decades yet. In the end, I just gave a mental shrug on the matter. I’ll live my life to the fullest, helped along by all that lovely money, and worry about what happens next when it happens.

“So, all of my loyal fans out there—and those who one day will be—yes, you can look forward to my podcast, the True Image, for a long, long time.” I smile, hit by a sudden, clever inspiration. “Like, forever.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I see the comments blow up, one ecstatic, energetic, validating post after another. Score. I’ve done it again.

“That’s all for today, good people,” I say. “But don’t worry, I’ll be back tomorrow, same time, bringing you my unique perspective on everything that matters. No matter what happens.”

With that, I sign off, shutting down the livestream. I lean back in my chair—my brand new, custom-made chair—with a sigh of profound contentment. Oh yeah, my life is going to be great.

I reach out for my drink, but when I lift it to my lips, it’s empty. Well, I guess not everything could be perfect. I’ve still got work to do, research and stuff, and for that I need fuel. Turning away from my workstation, I open the small fridge I keep nearby, only to find that was my last can. Just great. I think about just getting another case delivered, but the idea of sitting here for hours, trying to work, without a constant stream of sugar and caffeine, is already giving me a withdrawal headache.

Another glance at the clock. I can take a few minutes to run to a store. Besides, it’ll give me an excuse to take my new Porsche for a spin.

I snatch up my wallet and keys on the way out.

I back the car out of my garage, enjoying that lingering new-car smell, and the tight, responsive feel of the handling. I really love this car. And, hey, all it cost was one little old soul.

Then I hear the squeal of tires, the roar of a gunning engine, and look up just in time to see the totally nondescript black SUV bearing down on me. It’s like time is frozen in that instant, every detail etched into my brain, from the dark, opaque tinting on the windshield that hides the driver, to the absence of a front license plate. I have maybe a split second for an ugly suspicion to start to form, and then—

*

I open my eyes, blinking to bring my monitor screen into proper focus. My gaze goes to the clock, and a smile crosses my face. It’s showtime. The livestream starts, the comments feed opening up with a torrent of mingled praise, joy, and sympathy.

“And I’m back, good people,” I say. “Thanks to my new sponsor, Like 4 Ever, I’ll be here on the True Image, bringing you my unique perspective on everything you need to know, here to inform and entertain my loyal fans—and those who one day will be.” My smile widens as a clever bit of witticism comes to me.

“Yes, I’ll be here, like, forever.”

October 27, 2023 14:10

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