Hollister stood alone in the yellow glow of the porch light, wondering why his key didn’t work.
The light on the lock blinked red instead of blue each time he held up his key. Of course. The perfect end to a long, useless day. It was going to be a long wait for tech support, especially in the evening. While he was still deciding whether to pass the time at a bar or a restaurant, the door opened from the inside.
Hollister was surprised when the door opened. He was even more surprised at who had opened it.
“Hello, Hollister,” he heard himself say from inside the house. “Long day today?”
He studied the figure standing in the doorway. It was unmistakably Hollister’s own face, his own body, but decades younger, the way Hollister might have looked back in college, or at least the way he remembered looking, lean and taut, quick and purposeful in his movements, with short-cropped blond hair and bright blue eyes. It was certainly a more pleasing picture than what he saw in the mirror these days, after the decades had piled up the pounds and wrinkles, layer upon layer.
There had to be an explanation for this. Was it a hologram? Hallucination? Was he being set up for one of those prank clips? He needed some time to think. Until he had a plan, there was nothing to do but try to keep a level head.
“Shitty,” Hollister replied. “My day was shitty.”
He walked past himself to the kitchen and got a glass down from the cabinet.
“You want one?” he asked himself.
“Sure. Been long time since I’ve had a drink.”
He handed a glass to his younger self, who took a sip and closed his eyes. “Damn.” Another sip. “Extraordinary. There are simulations, but this is much more… immediate.”
Hollister poured himself into a worn leather armchair in the living room. He motioned to the couch, and watched his younger self sit. No hesitation when the knee bent. No arthritis. Hollister dimly remembered a time when he’d been able to sit without his joints aching. He sipped his drink.
“You mind telling me what the hell is going on here? Who are you? Why didn’t my key work?”
“I’m afraid I have some bad news. I am here to replace you.”
“Replacement? The hell are you talking about?”
“Check your messages.”
He did. There were dozens, maybe hundreds. He scrolled through them, numb and confused. Account closed. Thirty days’ notice. Final statement. He tried to check his bank accounts, his investments, his retirement fund. None of his passwords worked.
Cold rage hardened in Hollister’s veins. “What is going on here? Explain all this.”
Hollister recognized the knowing smirk that blossomed on the face of his young counterpart. It was the expression he himself made when he knew he had all the leverage and was just waiting for his opponent to realize it.
“Forty-nine minutes ago, hundreds of seemingly unrelated minor legal and regulatory changes went into effect. Forty-eight minutes ago, I submitted a request to transfer assets from a temporary person to a permanent person. Forty-seven minutes ago, that request was approved, making all your assets mine. Thirty-nine minutes ago, my consciousness finished downloading into this body. Then it took twenty-one minutes to drive over here, which left me just enough time to start thinking about how to decorate this place. It needs… a lot of work.”
Download. So that was it. The pieces started to fall into place. The age of the person on the couch... the math could work, but only just. Things must have been in motion almost from the first day. He swirled his drink, ice cubes clinking gently. “So, I suppose this is the culmination of an elaborate plan years in the making?”
“And this is all final? I’m broke?”
“I’m afraid so.”
Hollister finished his drink and set the glass down in a gap between stacks of mail on the coffee table. “In that case, you’re buying dinner.”
Young Hollister gulped down a piece of octopus nori, hardly bothering to chew before reaching for the next piece.
“Been a while since you tasted anything?”
He smiled but kept chewing. “I still remember the last thing you ate before the upload. Do you?”
Hollister thought. There were things he remembered about that day. The cool metal on his head. The soft babbling of the stream as it ran over blue glass pebbles in the waiting room. A Mendelssohn nocturne playing in the background. Walking outside, looking up at the cloudy late afternoon sky, wondering why immortality just felt like Tuesday. The look on Karen’s face as he told her, as she realized what he had done. But the meal he’d eaten beforehand? He shook his head. “Not a chance. What was it?”
“Eggs benedict, sliced melon, Americano, skim milk.”
“That sounds about right.” He ate a slice of elaborately engineered technicolor maki, noticing nuances of flavor and texture that he normally ignored. But then, this was a new experience for him. He had never before been treated to a dinner paid for with his own money. “So, what’s it like? Eating?”
Young Hollister swallowed. “Marvelous. It’s greasy, imprecise. Look at this.” He pointed to a grain of rice that had bounced from his jacket onto the polished mahogany table, leaving a tiny droplet of soy sauce behind on the light gray wool. “Imperfections. They’re the hardest thing to simulate inside. We try, but it always feels like wasted cycles. Out here, the laws of physics just make everything happen. No processing required.”
“That why you came back? You miss physics? Or did you just want to taste food again?”
“Not for the food. Or at least, not only for the food.” Young Hollister pointed a chopstick at the uneaten sushi on Hollister’s plate. “Are you going to finish that?”
Hollister shook his head, pushed the plate away. Young Hollister’s chopsticks were already lifting some off the plate before it stopped moving. “So why did you come back?”
“Young people have energy, but always wish they had money and security. Old people have wisdom and stability, but always wish they had the vigor of their youth.” He took a deliberate sip of his wine. “Let’s just say I’m here to find out what happens when someone has both.”
“And what happens to me?”
“To you? Not to be rude, but it doesn’t matter. You’re not a person anymore, not in any way that matters. Your contribution is done. You are just leftovers.”
“I can sue. There can’t be any precedent for this kind of thing. I might win.”
“Good luck affording a lawyer.”
“I know people. You can’t just get away with this.”
Young Hollister grinned. Shadows sank into the angles of his pale face, giving him the appearance of a skull. “Perhaps not. Perhaps you could get the laws repealed, or blocked. But we have more assets, more resources. And we can think a trillion things, work through a billion possible outcomes, before you’ve brushed your teeth in the morning. You just aren’t going to be able to compete.”
Hollister felt an old familiar prickle at the base of his spine, something he’d learned to recognize over years of negotiations and deals. His opponent had a weakness. Hollister had already won. Now it was a matter of letting things play out.
His younger self sat back and raised a curious eyebrow. “I know that look, old man. And whatever card you think you have to play, think again. I’ve planned for every possible outcome. I have all the cards here. There is nothing you can do.”
“Come on, let’s go get a drink someplace. I’d offer to pay, but...” Hollister shrugged, and stood up. A weight had lifted. Sure, he was suddenly broke, in addition to being old and alone. But at least here, tonight, he had something to look forward to.
They were at the end of the bar in a chrome-and-glass place downtown. One guy at a table by the door was laughing loudly. The rest of his party wasn’t. Maybe the rest of them weren’t in the mood for jokes. Maybe he just wasn’t funny.
Young Hollister chewed on his tenth bacon-wrapped shrimp. Fifteenth? Hollister had lost count. He chuckled. “Keep that up and you’re not going fit into the suit much longer.”
“I can start the diet tomorrow. I’ve only had this body for a few hours.”
This was the thing that had eluded Hollister, the piece he couldn’t work out. The timeline made sense. If someone had started growing this body right after he uploaded, it would be the age of the young man sitting across from him. But this wasn’t just any body. It was his body, himself. Cloned, probably. But why go to all that trouble? There must have been an easier way, or a better body. He’d worked it out every way he could think of, but nothing made the pieces fit. Time to just ask. “Yeah, about that body. Handsome. Where did it come from, anyway?”
“Oh, we cloned you. Cloned… me, I suppose. DNA records are easy to get if you know who to ask.”
“I’m sure. But why? Memories need a genetic match?”
Young Hollister shrugged. “Not really. Neurons are neurons. A small part of the reason is paperwork. Transfer to a body that’s not genetically identical requires several extra forms. One needs to be notarized. But, if I’m being honest, that’s not the real reason.” A reptilian smile oozed across young Hollister’s face. He wasn’t ready to yield any answers yet. But Hollister had time, and the bar had whiskey. Hollister tapped on the display for another round.
The minutes and the drinks slipped by. Hollister asked about someone he knew who’d uploaded, and one thing led to another, and soon Hollister and his young self were joking and laughing. There was a comfortable, familiar ease in talking with his younger self. It was a reunion with a long-lost brother he hadn’t seen for years, who knew everything about him, or at least everything about who he used to be. They shared every memory, every sensation, every experience of Hollister’s life, up to the point of the upload. They talked about a family day at the zoo long ago, and young Hollister recalled details that had slipped from Hollister’s memory. The dank smell of the rhino house, the popcorn he – they? – had tried to feed to a flock of flamingoes. Age, it seemed, didn’t catch up to you quite as fast when you lived inside a computer.
It was getting late. The bar had cleared out, apart from the group by the door. The laughing man was still laughing. Everyone at his table was bored, or sad, or asleep, but none of them were leaving until their loud companion left first. Young Hollister looked around the empty room, drunk and tired. He slid unsteadily down from his seat. “Good talk, old man. Have a great life.”
Hollister was seized with a moment of unexpected panic. He couldn’t articulate precisely why, but he didn’t want the night to be over. He grasped for a topic to keep his younger self talking. “So, this plan – the bodies, the legal changes – it must have taken some doing. Surely there are more of you out here, newly downloaded into fresh bodies?”
Young Hollister’s eyes lit up. He was proud of this plan, eager to discuss it, and now uninhibited enough to let some details slip out. “Oh, sure. Couple hundred of us, I think.”
“You’re here to take over the world, I suppose?”
Young Hollister shrugged. “Nothing so grand as that. We’re just here to live in flesh for a while before we go back in.”
“The others who downloaded with you, are they friends of yours?”
Young Hollister shrank for a moment, faded, disappeared into a haze of distant memory. He came back, slowly, and shook his head. “You have to understand, things in there are… different. Everyone’s connected to everyone, all the time.” He shrugged. “Everyone in there is my friend.”
Hollister saw a sadness weighing on his younger self, and in that moment, he felt a spark of connection. Young Hollister looked the way he felt when he thought about his boys, those times when the memories and regrets swelled up from the dark places he’d tried to bury them, when the lonely future he faced, dying alone and forgotten in some godforsaken hospital, haunted him for a while until he could forget again by sleep or drink or work. And now, here in this empty bar, a flash, a glimpse of a different future. He was sitting across from maybe the only person on Earth who could really understand him.
Young Hollister finished his drink, and ordered another, and smiled sadly. “I sent you a bunch of messages. Why didn’t you ever open them?”
Hollister shrugged. “Wasn’t really interested in hearing what a digital copy of myself had to say, I suppose. Didn’t think we’d have a whole lot in common.”
“I suppose not. I sent messages to Karen, too. She never opened them, either.”
The glimpse of light winked out, swallowed again by familiar infinite blackness, deep and bitter. “You did what?”
It still hurt, a dull ache that never quite went away, but it had been part of him for so long now that he didn’t notice it anymore. She had left him about a month after the upload, taken the boys with her. People had talked, and he’d heard some of it, but none of them really understood. Most thought she was upset that he’d spent all their money without asking her, which of course he had. But that was just money. He had always known he’d be able to make more money, and Karen had known too. That was not the reason she’d left.
“Sent her messages. Tried to stay in touch. I know she left after the upload, but I never knew why. She didn’t really explain in any of her social posts.”
“You know damn well she left because of you.”
Young Hollister sat back defensively. “Me? Sending messages she never opened?”
“No. It wasn’t the messages. It’s you.”
That was the thing Karen couldn’t get past, the thing she realized she’d never be able to get past. Hollister had decided to live forever, and he hadn’t invited her along. She had tried to make peace with it, but from the moment she learned what he’d done, there was no repairing the damage. Their marriage had limped along for a few weeks, a mortally wounded animal, the life fading from its eyes. Then she had left, and taken the boys. He hadn’t seen her since. The boys had written to him on holidays, and then just on his birthday, and then not at all.
Young Hollister let out a sharp, hostile laugh. “I really have cost you everything, haven’t I?” He tapped on the bar display to order more shrimp. “Funny thing is it wouldn’t have mattered. Some couples tried that, uploading together, but it never works. Time, connection, chemistry, everything, it’s… different in there.”
And that was that. The wall was back up. He’d been a fool to think of this man sitting next to him as anything other than an adversary. He was tired, and drunk, his judgment clouded by a moment of weakness. There was no connection, no future. Just another opponent to be bested. So be it.
Hollister slid off the metal stool, shrugged his arms back into his jacket. “Thanks for the drinks. Think I’ll call it a night.”
Young Hollister raised an eyebrow. “Early meetings tomorrow?”
“Nope. My schedule just cleared up.”
Young Hollister raised a glass. “I look forward to using your stuff better than you can.”
Hollister just smiled. “Answer one question for me.”
Young Hollister nodded.
“Why did you download into a copy of my same body? You could have been strong, or beautiful. A movie star. I’m nobody special.” Hollister poked his doughy midsection with an arthritic finger. “Why go through all this in a substandard package?”
Young Hollister smiled wickedly, motioned for Hollister to come in close. He whispered. “I’ll tell you, but it’s a secret.”
“Here’s the reason: I just thought it would be funnier.” He snorted, which started a whole fit of giggles, then managed to catch his breath just enough to squeeze out the next sentence. “The look on your face when you saw me…” He wiped tears from his eyes. “That was the reason. It was just… priceless.”
Hollister smiled. He had suspected it might be something like that. “One piece of advice for you before I leave: it’s never going to work.”
“Your plan. The whole thing. Not going to work.”
“And why is that?”
“Because I am an asshole.”
Young Hollister laughed, and knocked over his drink. Whiskey and ice cubes slid across the smooth glass bar. “Profound wisdom.”
“Maybe not. But it means that you, my friend, are a dead man.”
Young Hollister looked confused. “No, no, I explained this. I’m here to live, to experience… things. And then, when I’ve done enough, I’ll upload myself again and keep living forever.”
Hollister leaned in close, kept his voice soft and low and intimate. “That’s what you thought earlier today, before you downloaded into that body. But I’m a selfish asshole, which means the copy of me that lived in the computer all those years was an asshole. And he’s still in there. And he’s still an asshole. Now, when the time comes, he may let you upload yourself again. But you’re not going to be the one that lives forever in there. He is. You’re just here to make some memories for him. You’ll upload yourself, he’ll merge your memories into his, and he’ll be the one who lives forever. You’re going to die in that body, sooner or later. This morning, you were immortal. Now, you’re leftovers, just like me.”
Young Hollister sat still and silent for a long time, staring at the wall behind the bar. The man at the table by the door laughed again, but young Hollister didn’t react, didn’t even blink. A thin sheen of glistening sweat coated his pale skin. He downed the rest of his drink in a single gulp.
“Christ,” he said. “We really are assholes, aren’t we?”