“The first step,” the salesperson said smoothly, “is to choose which of our ‘Afterlife’ packages best suits your needs.”
Gavin stared at the bewildering array of thumbnails in front of him: ‘Millennium Plus’, ‘Ten Perfect Months’ and ‘The Best Ten Minutes Ever’ were all equally baffling. “Perhaps you could walk me through some of your best sellers?” he hazarded.
“Certainly, sir.” The deference and the accompanying smile were just a little too perfect – almost posed, one might say. There again, Afterlife Inc was currently leading the field when it came to post-death care: countless celebrities had endorsed the company and shares were doubling in value on an almost weekly basis.
“We operate on a pyramid structure, as it were,” the salesperson began. Noting the expression on Gavin’s face, he hurried to clarify. “I don’t mean a pyramid scheme, of course – we don’t ask you to sell anything or recruit new members. We’re far too successful for that. No, what I mean is a sort of pyramid of time, if you will, with a base of ten millennia gradually decreasing to ten seconds at the apex. The experience becomes more personal the higher one climbs, hence the rapid tapering.”
“But it’s the same price for ten thousand years and ten seconds,” Gavin objected. “That can’t be right.”
The salesperson sighed. “You pay for quality or quantity, Mr Jones – you can’t have both. Now, why don’t you put on the headset and try the sample programme? After all, you wouldn’t buy a new car without test-driving it first, would you?”
Gavin accepted the proffered audio-goggles and slipped them over his eyes. Nothing happened. “Why isn’t it working?” he asked.
“If you’d just touch ‘Start’ on the screen, Sir. The programme will take you through ten possibilities to enable you to choose the optimum ‘Afterlife’ experience for such a time as you need it.”
You mean for when I’m dead, Gavin thought. And why not? These days, no one needed to stop existing once their body gave out. The days of being cryogenically frozen were long gone and extended memory-life was the new way to go.
Ten millennia seemed like a bargain for the money. He touched the screen that hovered in the air in front of him and waited to see what would happen.
It was as if he were watching a speeded up video. At first, he saw nothing but darkness, and then a brilliant burst of light shattered the inky blackness and pinpointed the heavens with countless stars. He focused his attention on one that seemed to glow less brightly than the others and found himself tumbling towards it, drawn by some unknown force. From his vantage point in the firmament above the terrain, he watched barren ground crack open and springs issue forth, gradually swelling to become rivers and oceans. Vegetation sprang up where the earth was watered: plants and trees bloomed into existence; woods and forests began to dot the planet. Next, life began to teem in the water: he was aware of arthropods, then crustaceans and fish moving beneath the waves. After a while, creatures crawled out of sea onto dry land, limbs forming as they did so. Some of the lizards scuttled into the forest; others stretched out on rocks; and another group flexed their powerful forelegs into wings and flew into the sky. Gradually, the forest lizards evolved into sub-species, differing in size and shape. Some hunted the smaller ones, whilst others were content to munch grass and leaves, but as the temperature cooled, one by one, the creatures faded into dust.
“If you choose our ‘Millennia’ package,” a chirpy voice-over began, “you will be able to view ten thousand years of our world’s history in real time. Imagine witnessing the ‘Big Bang’ – or watching life slowly beginning to evolve. Please note that you will be a spectator only in this process and will not be able to interact with any of the creatures you see. Human evolution happens gradually over a time span of at least six million years, so you should think carefully where you wish to place yourself in history should you choose this option.”
It sounded like ten millennia where potentially not much happened at all. Was the ten centuries option any better? Gavin wondered, pressing the screen in front of him.
Again, time seemed to hurtle by. Poorly dressed people (Serfs? Peasants?) went about their business, tilling fields and building villages that gradually grew into small towns and then cities. It wasn’t terribly exciting. It was only as the sample drew to a close that Gavin started to recognise people and places he remembered from his early childhood. “Good grief!” he said, astounded. “That’s Auntie Pat! But she died years ago!”
“Depending on your personal preference,” interrupted the voice-over as if activated by his comment, “you can choose to include your own lifespan within the allotted timeframe. Please note that you will experience life exactly as it was the first time around. Our state of the art technology will retrieve your hidden and forgotten memories to ensure that everything is an exact copy of the life you once lived.”
Gavin removed his goggles and looked at the salesperson accusingly. “You mean I just live my whole life again and then that’s it?”
“As part of your chosen ten centuries, yes,” the artificial lifeform replied. “It’s quite a popular package –“
“You must offer something better than that.” What was the point of extending one’s life if the majority of it was spent watching some kind of cosmic Netflix before living and dying in exactly the same way he had done before?
“If you would care to try the other free samples, Sir...”
And so Gavin allowed the computer programme to show him what he would experience over ten decades, ten years and ten months. Ten decades wasn’t for him, he decided. Really, it was just like the centuries option, except there was less to watch before he lived his life all over again – ten times over. Ten months on the other hand...
“So I can choose any ten months?” he queried.
“Any ten months from your own experience, Sir. Many people choose to relive the first ten months of marriage – when they were still experiencing ‘the honeymoon period’, as it were.” A self- conscious laugh accompanied this comment. “And you will have a hundred repetitions of your chosen ten consecutive months before the programme erases.”
“And if I try the ten weeks option?” Gavin thought he could see a pattern emerging.
“A thousand repetitions.”
That was more like it. But which ten weeks would he choose? Those two weeks diving in the Seychelles had been incredible, but they’d been preceded by an incredibly stressful time at work; and then, a week after they’d returned home, he’d discovered Marie had been having an affair – with his friend Dave, of all people. He couldn’t have the Seychelles without the hell of work in the weeks before or the pain and heartbreak of the weeks afterwards.
“So, I’m guessing the ten days option has ten thousand repetitions, then?”
He could choose the best ten days of the holiday; except, now he thought about it, he remembered having an attack of food poisoning halfway through their time away – he didn’t want to experience that again, let alone live through it ten thousand times. Besides, Marie had seemed a little distant, even then. She must have been feeling guilty about the affair, but he’d assumed it was PMS.
The screen in front of him shimmered and a specs list popped up. He’d been right: ten days at ten thousand repetitions; ten hours a hundred thousand times over; ten minutes repeated a million times; and, finally, the ‘Eternity’ experience: ten seconds on a continuous loop forever.
That last one was ridiculous: what could anyone do in ten seconds? But ten hours might be a possibility. What if he chose his wedding day to Marie? He could marry her a hundred thousand times, and on each and every occasion, she would look into his eyes and promise to love him forever. He started working out timings. The wedding had been scheduled to begin at eleven, although he’d been at the church long before that, waiting nervously in his morning suit, terrified that she might change her mind at the last minute and jilt him at the altar. She hadn’t arrived until eleven twenty-five – almost half an hour late – but everyone had smiled and said it was the bride’s prerogative and didn’t she look lovely – even Dave, the best man, and he’d never thought Marie particularly attractive up until now.
Perhaps he should start the ten hours from the moment he turned and saw her walking down the aisle towards him – a vision of perfection in off-white satin and lace? Half-eleven, an hour for the service, then they’d had photos afterwards – except it had rained and Marie had thrown her bouquet at the photographer in frustration and stormed off for a while. Did he really want to relive her tantrum thousands of times over?
But their wedding night – that was definitely something that he would happily go through time and time again. The way she’d looked when he’d unhooked her dress and slipped it off her body... It had seemed a moment of pure perfection. Perhaps ten minutes was all he needed after all – he could live without the wedding service as long as he got to enjoy the feeling of knowing she was his and that nothing could take her away from him.
A half-forgotten memory suddenly resurfaced. Even as he’d gazed at her, caught up in the wonder of knowing this was his wife and he was about to experience the most wonderful night of his life, there’d come a knock at the door of the honeymoon suite and one of the ushers, Mick, had been standing there apologetically, saying the hired suits needed to be returned to the shop the following morning, and although it was technically the best man’s job to do this, Dave had disappeared with one of the bridesmaids and so Gavin would need to put his trousers back on and help Mick track down the missing morning suit. At the time, he’d honestly thought his wedding night was ruined.
Maybe not those ten minutes, then. Should he choose an earlier time in their relationship, like the time he’d proposed, or the first time he’d kissed her? The problem was, as wonderful as each of these experiences had been, he couldn’t say for certain that they’d been perfect for the whole ten minutes. When he’d proposed to Marie – surprising her in their local park by getting down in one knee and slipping a Hula Hoop on her finger – she’d thought he was joking. In retrospect, he supposed he couldn’t blame her – after all, a snack food wasn’t as conventional as a diamond; but he’d honestly thought she’d find the idea cute, not to mention wanting to choose her own engagement ring. (He knew how particular she was.) He still had the empty Hula Hoops packet now, thirty years after she’d left him, side by side in a double frame with a photo of her finger wearing the ‘real’ ring. Silly, really, to be so sentimental.
His mind delved further into the past. Even their first kiss had not been without its problems. He’d planned it all so carefully, parking his car outside her parents’ house at the end of their first date and leaning over to kiss her, not realising that she was trying to release her seatbelt at the time. Her head had hit him squarely in the chin and, for a moment, he’d thought she’d broken his jaw. She’d insisted on taking him inside and making him an ice-pack with a bag of frozen peas wrapped in a tea towel; and while the gesture had reassured him that she cared about him, the kiss she’d placed on his forehead afterwards had seemed more platonic than passionate.
Perhaps that was why things hadn’t worked out between them, he thought now. His feelings for her had always been more intense than hers for him. From the moment when he first saw her, across a clichéd crowded room, he’d known she was the only one for him. Those ten seconds when he’d just stood and looked at her, aware that this was the girl he wanted to marry, were probably the happiest of his life. If only he could have paused time there and then – before he got to know her properly; before she broke his heart.
And that was when he knew. If there was one perfect moment that he wanted to relive for eternity, that was it.
“Ahem.” The salesperson coughed discreetly. “If Sir would like to continue...”
“No. I’ve seen enough, thanks.” Gavin removed his goggles for a second time and handed them back to the android. “I think I’m going with the ‘Eternity’ package after all.”
“Very good, Sir. And have you selected the precise moment you want?”
“Then I’ll just wire you up, sir, so we can harvest the memory for you.”
As almost human fingers attached soft diodes to his skull, Gavin took a deep breath, aware that his heartbeat had accelerated. And then he was back in the past, looking up from his conversation with Dave to see a beautiful woman on the opposite side of the room. “Who is she?” he breathed.
Dave shrugged. “Dunno, mate.”
But Gavin knew, without a doubt, that this was the woman he wanted to marry.
He would love her for eternity.