The heaven helmet is old. Rust flakes against my temples as I stuff it on, but the magnetic coils still seem to work: they clickety-clickety as soon as I switch it on, and I get a brief hazy vision of an empty white room around me, clean and antiseptic—really, a white room?—before it fades out, returning me to the grime and filth of the real, the ruin of the machine room at the abandoned upload clinic.
The wall and floor were institutional pale green, once. There are still patches of green visible through the stains, which are all the colors of the rainbow at the end of the world: old blood, water damage, rat droppings, black mold.
I bang the side of the helmet. It starts clicking again. The desolation of the clinic fades away and the abstract white room comes back. This time there’s somebody there. He looks like an old hipster white guy with a beard, an ironic flowing robe, and an even more ironic harp.
“I want to come in,” I say, in English. “Asylum.” My voice has an echo, and a bit of a croak because I haven’t made any sound in weeks except for incoherent screaming, but at least it sounds steady. I’m not phrasing my request well. My English is rusty. And it’s been a hard and bloody road just to get here—I hadn’t thought this far ahead.
“I think you’ve got the wrong address,” he says. The immigration angel has a British accent, though that doesn’t mean anything; digitized humans can appear as anything, and I have no idea who I’m really talking to. I know he’s seeing all too much of me. The heaven helmet refused to activate until I swiped a Muladhara ID card and validated it against fingerprints and a DNA sample. I had to swipe it again because my hands trembled. All the data ever associated with my identity is now flowing to him—where I’ve lived and travelled; what I said and how I voted; what I read, watched, listened to; what I bought, considered buying, aspired to buy; what porn I watched late at night, what turned me on or off; who I friended and unfriended; what products and places and events I rated high or low; what debts I paid, what debts I’m still carrying. My merit score, the tally of my good and bad deeds, my few virtues, my many sins. It will all be there, laid out. As gatekeeper he’ll be overclocked, godlike long enough to take it all in at a glance. A life, splayed out on the table.
It’s almost enough data to upload me, here and now if he approves me. There are only ten thousand decision points that differentiate each unique person’s veneer of selfness from the baseline human template. This is the secret that made emulated-sentience uploading possible; we are all more alike than we care to know.
He’s silent, presumably rifling through my life in the world, back when there was a world. Not so long ago. He doesn’t know what I’ve been doing Since. That’s a good thing.
“This is unusual, I realize,” I say, after practicing the phrase in my head first. I think I sound good. Fluent, sane and polite. “However,” that was a good one, however. “Under the circumstances.” Another good one. Did I finish that sentence? No, but sort of, yeah. I don’t say anything more. I’m not confident of putting together full sentences. Let him do the talking, I tell myself. He doesn’t need me to tell him about the (hot and rapidly emptying of life) former third world.
“Well yes, technically,” he allows. “You can do that. Apply for, as you say, asylum. It’s just that we don’t, ah.”
“You don’t, ah?”
“We don’t, ah.”
“I heard you do,” I say. A little too desperate. He can’t see me in the real, I know that. He can’t see the state of the clinic around me. I take deep breaths.
“Well,” he says, and here he makes an awful, botched attempt at pronouncing what he thinks is my name, stuttering over the syllables, no doubt reading it off a database record where it’s only been stored in romanized form. “This is the New Apostolic Kingdom (Progressive) hosted in Ordos City after the Rapture of the Republic of Texas. We are a heaven of eternal bliss, et cetera. I’m looking at your Moo-lad-aura database and you’re registered as Orthodox Theravada Buddhist (Sinhala), which has an iterative reincarnation-based afterlife on a server in Tanjong Kling intended to serve your region. So I think you’ve just connected to the wrong server. I’m remotely changing the settings on your machine so you can just disconnect and reconnect to the appropriate emulated-sentience posthuman virtual environment for your registered locale and polity.”
“But I don’t want rebirth,” I say. This is exactly what I’m trying to avoid. I know my merit scores are terrible. The Muladhara database will be wildly inaccurate now, of course—it only ran for fifteen years before the government collapsed and the system stopped taking new data, and it’s been a while Since. But I remember the scandals, the data leaks; everybody’s merit scores were always bad, because the algorithm was rigged against you. What are the odds that a score from years ago would be good enough to earn a desirable rebirth into a Theravada heaven?
“You won’t be ‘reborn’, but instantiated as a human-equivalent emulated sentience,” he corrects, which is terribly pedantic but I’m in no position to argue so I say yeah, whatever. He says precise terminology helps manage expectations. I say sure.
“I’ll convert,” I say. “I want to—to your new apostle thing. I repent. And stuff. That works, yes?” I’ve learned a bit of the jargon. I hope it’s enough to let me upload as whatever kind of white Christian is allowed into this heaven.
The immigration angel considers this. I think he’s consulting the conversion protocols.
If I’m to upload—and I have very few options right now—I want to go into a heaven of eternal bliss, not into the horrible didactic grind of Theravadist reincarnation where I’d have to be instantiated as a lizard for a thousand subjective years to pay off all my recorded demerits before I can even earn an incarnation capable of thinking in sentences again. Oh, they managed to preserve all the misery when designing Theravada heaven. I’d rather chance somebody else’s rather than being a lizard in a heaven run by fascists. Not that the Christian heavens aren’t. I don’t know of any heavens that aren’t run by fascists. The world went to hell and the monsters won, or, well, stayed winning. But if you want to be uploaded at all—while the planet outside the climate—shielded datacentres slowly broils—then you have to be ready to make some moral compromises.
So I’m serious about being willing to convert. I’m past caring who I have to be, if I can get out of hell. I can be whoever and believe whatever they want. I can, I tell myself, convince myself of anything.
“We would have been very happy to consider your application,” the immigration angel says, finally, tone conveying an insincerity so total that the virtual environment around us flickers, briefly revealing the wreck of the real. My temples throb. “But your origin polity has anti-conversion legislation on record, and we are a signatory to freedom of religion instruments that prevent us from violating it.”
I breathe out.
“I’m not really a Buddhist,” I try. “I didn’t go to temple. I forgot the words to the prayers. I never gave up my seat to monks on the bus.”
“Nevertheless,” he says, and that’s a complete sentence. He pauses long enough for me to understand that the matter is closed. “You might consider connecting to a Pure Land Buddhist server. They should have a conversion protocol that will accept you, but I’m afraid you’ll first have to find a different upload clinic where the equipment is compatible with the Japanese standard rather than the American one—”
I try to pull the helmet off. It’s tight around the temples so I struggle for a minute, during which the white room fades slowly from my perception while the immigration angel sardonically plays me out on his harp. Nothing but a headache to show for my attempt at storming the gates of heaven.
I want to get out of the clinic, maybe see the sky. The sunsets are better now. But the thought of climbing all the way out again, crawling on hands and knees, inch by inch over the rubble and the bodies, is exhausting. I was lucky to find this equipment still in working order. I’ll never find another one. Can’t ask for a second miracle. One was already one too many, in the real.
I’ve stopped bleeding, but I feel feverish. I think the wound is infected.
The body that I took the Muladhara ID from is still at my feet. I had to drag it over to the machine to get the biometrics to work. I try not to touch it now. Cold stiff bodies frighten me. I prefer to do my looting while they’re still warm. I mutter their name in thanks, the name the immigration angel could not pronounce. The syllables are smooth on my tongue.
I would have made do with wearing a strange face and a strange gender for eternity, if it had got me in the door. But it didn’t.
It’s okay, I tell myself. I’ll do what I’ve done ever Since. I’ll make it work with what’s within reach. I can be patient. Even a thousand years will end someday.
I stuff the helmet back on. It reconnects, and the world that fades in around me this time is a sandy riverbank under a clear blue sky. The water is clean and transparent all the way through to the riverbed. The forest is slightly pixelated. This heaven was made with a much lower budget, you can tell.
But at least it accepts me. There is no gatekeeper here: they authenticate my stolen ID, go straight to the paperwork.
By the time my body dies of the infection, helmet still on my head, my sentience has long since been successfully emulated, measured, found wanting, and assigned to serve out the first of many penitent nonhuman incarnations. I still take note of my bodily death when it comes, though. There’s an unmistakable hypnic jerk when mortality uncoils, like waking up from a dream of falling, rippling across lost worlds and false worlds through the world that is you, even when half of your self was stolen, even when you're an unthinking, slightly pixelated lizard in the sun.