Drop By Forever by Zorana Dimitrijevic

She’ll wait and be silent; and when she finally speaks, it will be in that casual, flat manner, the one that is supposed to mask her anger because she waited too long for him to show up. Oh, she will be silent and pissed, thought James, counting the floors on his way down and desperately searching in his mind where he left the car keys this morning.

People would say that good business has been made from offering the promise of eternity to the dying and ill. And to those who died before their time, like she did. Like the story about the stars you could pay for in order to attach someone’s name to them. He read that the star business seemed like a big thing back then and that people were going for it like crazy. Fiction of the humans, by the humans, and for the humans. It did not matter anywhere outside the known world, while it did not matter at all within the boundaries of the known universe; it was, after all, comical in its attempt to merge romantic and immortal notions in that mythological word of “forever”.

It made sense in a way, James thought while trying to think of the best exit from the crowded highway, that it did guarantee immortality in some form. It had nothing to do with the universe itself, but the space of the Internet that will continue long after those who claimed the stars in their or someone else’s name have ceased to exist. Wasn’t that, then, the best one could hope for in the attempt to claim not the stars, but immortality itself?

Now things have changed. The stars were out of fashion and a more down to earth sense of immortality was industrialized. The necessary conditions were met, technological development allowed it and the human mind managed to create not the comical space of a promise, but the actual realm of the afterlife. The conditions were met for man to re-create what has already been created in another form, a process essentially identical to the one of writing down stories that survived through retelling until there was a sign to pin them down for all times. It was the form that has changed, not the content. The content remained the one of a promise. And it was all about translation: in this case, the translation of consciousness. It required technological conditions on one side and legal provisions on the other. While James has been participating in the technical part of the project, the legal aspect of it was known to him to the degree to which it was known to everyone else. Just to sign the consent that he is willing to cross over in case he dies. Or, “dies”. He wasn’t sure anymore what was the proper signifier for the event of dying.

Was it a mistake? James could not tell. He felt guilty every time when he asked himself that question, being afraid that she might learn, somehow, of his question herself. Or, even worse, that she might think of the same question herself. Were there regrets? What would happen if he asked her if he dared to ask her if she would prefer…nothing over that something she’s been translated into? Would it hurt if he asked, with the kind of pain one cannot live through but must live with it without being alive? It was becoming obvious that there occurred a shift no one considered seriously enough while focusing on the progress alone. We stepped over the boundaries of knowledge within which we learned how to be, he thought with great discomfort. The calculus of the project was not complete.

The motivation to participate in something that would free the world of the fear and biological inevitability of dying was rooted in his belief that he could make a difference with his knowledge and skills. Or that was what he liked to believe. After all, the project was rational. It was not about abolishing death as a category, it was about alleviating the fear of dying by transforming it into the expectation of transition. Instead of disappearance, it allowed for metempsychosis to become a possibility of all our possibilities. In that sense, the “Drop By” consciousness project did not differ much from the stars’ promise of love-forever archetypal dream of immortality, with the difference that the process of collecting one’s mind, as he liked to say, for the future of non-being seemed more responsible, more sensible to him. It motivated him with the invitation to conquer death and he wasn’t immune to the call.

The idea was to construct this after-life space in a way that will serve the imaginations of many. The possibilities of the spaces he could have created were endless, yet there was a surprisingly limited number of wishes regarding the content of the after-life worlds. People were mostly hoping for nice, conventional images. They talked about preferences. She told him about the place where she could chat with all those people whose work she read and read about. “I’d have all eternity to discuss things I couldn’t ask them from here. Do you think you can make something like that?”

Were it not that that the project was flawed, terribly flawed in its perfection. The wishes and ideas projected into the images of the worlds structuring the Drop By spaces worked in both directions. They were the soothing thoughts for those crossing over and invitations for those who listened to the stories from the other side. Consequently, the living abandoned the fear of dying and were becoming eager to join the departed. With euthanasia as a custom and with a somewhat abandoned concept of suicide as sin, there was the entire dying industry operating behind the one to which he belonged. And no one seemed to notice that the number of assisted suicides was increasing. No one seemed to care.

In time, it was becoming clear to him that there must be an additional software that was incorporated into the structures he had created. It was carefully designed to navigate the transferred consciousness of the departed. Argus, as James named it, was constantly searching for the potential inhabitants on the other side, offering incentives, promises, and consolation. It communicated messages of forgiveness for those who needed it to cross to the other side with ease.

The intruder software was the project. A perfect solution to the problem of the over-populated world. It was yet another crime of obliteration, different from former attempts of this kind because there was no war and no bloodshed. It was perfect in its invisibility and indistinguishable in its complicity with the fantasies of those who were embracing it without knowing. What he said during today’s meeting should keep them busy for a while. The fact that someone made it official will prompt them to spin their way out of it. That will buy him some time to complete his work in peace.

There remained this last sequence of the program he needed to bring to perfection, that last step that needed to work and, more importantly, to work on time. It was simple, really. While it was true that many psychological and philosophical boundaries were crossed with the transition process alone, the translation was based on the man-made mathematical models. At the end, it was all about the equation that could work both ways. The approach to the equation could have been taken from both sides of it. The choice of the side depended on the result one was aiming for.

She said that she didn’t care much about the body she was supposed to come back into. This made sense. Body is changeable. It can be re-shaped in so many ways, in time, that is, and in case he succeeds in his attempt to bring her back. There was this girl that asked no questions, did not care, did not mind. She was in a hurry to cross. She lost someone and the only thing she was hoping for was to get to the other side as soon as possible. He met her in front of one of those offices allegedly operating in the shadow of the official industry. His reputation and the guarantees he offered were beyond anything any agency could meet. In case everything works out fine, his assistance will be only a favor to her…just that, a favor with no consequences. It will benefit her; she who wants to be on the other side. However, he did not say anything about that “other side’s” limited period of existence, projected to be terminated after the things here have been put in order. When the project becomes narrowed down to the numbers that can be sustained, leaving only a small percentage of those that remain after the living population is decimated through carefully planned and successfully realized Drop By benevolent practices of extermination.

Small, but sufficient to enjoy life on the planet in a way that will not inflict harm to its survival. Small, because births will be controlled through the advancement of genetic engineering they’ve been working on so feverously for centuries. In that kind of world, Drop By will be nothing but a threat. When the time is right, the project will be obliterated with the same indifference with which the planet today is relieved of the bodies of those eager to step into the eternity of the cyber-created Eden. The promise of delayed death is not the same as the promise of no death. But, what will happen when the time comes for Drop By to shut down? What kind of death will those on the other side experience? How long, he thought, does a second that it takes to pull the plug really last if you are already there?

And, finally, will that matter at all? Was it, maybe, that his attempt was prosaic in that he was impatient in his loneliness and hunger for her flesh, any flesh? Will he feel less guilty if the mind within that some other body will carry the mind that was her? Does it matter how you die, when you die, since you die after all that?

She will be mad, he remembered while turning the key to enter the house. The wall-size screen lit up with his next movement.

Zorana Dimitrijevic is a Ph.D. candidate in Law and Legal Studies at Carleton University (Ottawa, Canada) doing research on international criminal law and film. A big fan of ancient myths, nostalgic for a different order of things in the world of contemporary mythologies (Barthes). Her MA is in comparative literature and for eight years she worked as a professional on the prevention of grave violations of human rights. This is her first short story in English. Her work in Serbian appears in literary journals Sveske (fiction) and Rec (poetry).