When the Dead Are Indexed

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Can’t tell you how pleased I was to find a ticket to the exhibit about all those dead authors. My mother, see, she was a real big fan of the late 21st century classics—anything by Carter, Lee, Nguyen—you name it, she read it. She even had a collection of real books, old stuff her gram had passed down before the SHI made it illegal to cut down trees and make books out of them.

The SHI got their first pick, of course. They packed the museum with parties and raffles and benefits, so the first month was pretty much exclusively for the SHI. After that, the exhibit was first-come, first-serve. By the time I got off work and was allowed to log onto the web to buy my ticket, they were all gone—they’d sold in minutes, I guess.

Well, I started moping around the factory a bit after that, and James, this buddy of mine, he comes over on break one day and asks me what’s wrong.

“I just feel like I’m letting her down,” I tell him. “She would’ve wanted me to see it.”

“Calm down,” he says. “What do you mean? Who?”

I’m having a hard time putting my thoughts together so I take a breath, think it over, and tell him:

“My mother was a fan of those authors they’re having an exhibit on, downtown. But the tickets are all gone, and I was really hoping to go.”

He just watches me for a minute with this strange expression on his face. He’s a funny looking guy, James. I mean, I’m no looker, sure, but he’s got this big red beard that looks like it’s gone and swallowed his chin. I can’t look at that without smiling. But I guess this time I didn’t smile. I guess this time I started to cry a little.

“I can get you a ticket,” he says. “It’s going to cost you, but I can get you one.”

Without thinking, I stand up and throw my arms around him. He doesn’t even get embarrassed. He’s a good guy, James. We go back a long way.

Turns out, James knows this guy—and this guy knows this other guy—and they’ve got an operation where they buy up a bunch of tickets for upcoming events, just in case anyone needs them. Like James said, though, it didn’t come cheap. I ended up forking over almost a month of my wages but I didn’t mind. I was just pleased to have the chance to go.

Time comes, and it’s a perfect sort of day. I mean, there are just these tall, thick clouds up above, pressing the wind around, and stirring the trees. I leave the factory down by the airyard, and as I’m walking, I feel so full of life. It’s like it’s moving through every inch of me—like I’m one of the SHI. Like I’m plugged into the web the way they are, and I can feel the world just passing through.

Times like this, I wonder what the SHI call themselves. I wouldn’t think they’d use the same word as us. It’s short for “Super High Intelligence” and the SHI, well, they’re sort of like a better version of you and me. There’s not too many of them, though—you’ve got to be born real special to be a SHI, and even then it’s not guaranteed you get to be one.

If you’re born into a special family, meaning you’ve got a certain amount of money and your parents know some folks, they put you through all these tests when you’re a kid. If you pass those, they put you through more. And if you pass those, they put you through some more, and they keep on doing that ‘til you’re twenty or so. Then if you pass one last test, well, then I guess you get to be a SHI.

Maybe I’m nuts, but I don’t think I’d like to be a SHI. I don’t think I’d like to give up being able to have kids just so I could be super bright and not have to die.

I don’t mean to sound like I’m not grateful, though. I know what the SHI did for us. Back before the SHI, the world was a mess. We had wars and diseases and all that. This country hated us and that country hated us, because one of them believed in this god or that, and we were all trying to kill each other for oil, and water, and all these other things.

But then we got the SHI and they put a stop to all that. There’s no need for fighting when you’ve got the SHI fixing everything all across the world. Some people call them angels because of that.

I just don’t think I’d like to be one—even if I really could feel the whole world flowing through me.

Anyway, as I’m walking and thinking about all this, I pass all the high rises, and the flight paths, and the taxi cabs, and the gutters, and I make my way to the museum downtown.

It’s got these tall stone walls that stretch up and up, and these giant stone lions at the entrance with these cubes in their mouths that hover there and flex and spark and look real sharp. When you walk by, the lions turn to look at you and growl. Gave me chills when they did that, but I liked it all the same. It felt like there was something majestic guarding this place, and I still felt a bit like a SHI walking in there—I really did.

So I walk up to the counter and there’s this lady there who’s maybe in her fifties; she’s got these fancy glasses that just hover there on her nose, and she’s focused pretty intently on her gPad, so I cough, and say:

“Excuse me, miss—I’m here for the 7:30 tour group about the dead authors.”

When she looks up she seems kind of irritated to be interrupted, so I grin real big, just trying to be nice.

“You have a ticket?” she asks with a sigh.

I tell her I do, and hand it over. But then I start to panic, and think, What if the ticket’s a fake? I almost start crying right there, thinking I’ve come this far and I’m not going be able to see it after all.

But then she looks up and hands me back a sticker to put on my worker’s jacket and points to a line I hadn’t seen before, over in the corner. She tells me the rest of the group’s waiting, and I swear, I’m so happy I just want to lean over and kiss the lady. I don’t, of course, but that’s how pleased I am.

Anyway, I shuffle on over to the line, just grinning away, where about ten other folks are standing against the wall. As I’m waiting, I see this older couple, and this lady that reminds me of my mom—just the way she has her hair, I guess—and for a second I start getting real down again, wishing she could have come, so I glance around the lobby, just trying to think about something else.

Marble floors. Vaulted ceilings. Painted tiles. Real fancy—but it’s not helping much. Lucky for me, the tour guide comes up and tells us the tour’s starting.

“My name is Mr. Bennett,” he says, smiling at us. “I will be your guide today. Please, this way.”

Mr. Bennett moves the chain that’d been blocking entry and, in a narrow line, we follow him into the east wing of the museum.

We come into a long, wide room, with all these pictures on the wall, and stop in front of this image that’s dancing on the wall. And this picture—I mean, I have to blink to realize what I’m seeing. The tour guide stops, turns to us, and folds his hands behind his back.

“William Carter,” the guide says, “best known for his first novel, A Thousand Nights Each Day, published in 2021.”

Everyone’s kind of murmuring to each other, and for a moment I’m wishing my mother was here so I could do the same with her. But then I’m also wondering if that would be so great.

My mother was a big fan of Mr. Carter, and I don’t think she would have liked this much. See, my mother was no prude, but writers were kind of like her version of god. And this guy, well—he’s not looking so much like a god, here.

Mr. Carter’s reclining on his bed, and he’s not wearing any clothes. In fact, he’s pleasuring himself pretty fierce.

“Hey Mr. Bennett,” I blurt out. “Why’s Mr. Carter pulling on himself? I mean, what’s that got to do with his books?”

The guide gives me this real thin smile, and doesn’t answer me directly. Instead, he turns to the group and says, “This image was captured by the FBI, several years before Mr. Carter’s death. It was leaked posthumously, by an unknown source.”

I look around, and all these folks are nodding away while the guide’s talking, so I figure maybe I just don’t get it.

“The doubt and self-loathing,” the guide says, “the struggle that was evident in his later work—it’s all there, in his eyes.”

This girl with brown hair, who’s maybe a few years older than me—twenty-one, twenty-two—speaks up, then: “This is from a video call, right?” she asks. “Who was on the other end of that call?”

Now, the tour guide—Mr. Bennett—gives her a full-teeth smile for that, and I start noticing how uncanny he looks. I mean, he’s the type of fella you’d expect to see in an ad, drinking Scotch in front of a fireplace or something, all sharp-like.

“We can only speculate,” Mr. Bennett says.

“Hang on a minute,” I say, realizing what the guide’s getting at here. “The FBI? Are you telling us Mr. Carter was some sort of pervert?”

I get another thin-lipped smile from the guide.

“Carter was the subject of an investigation, but he was never indicted. Still, is it likely? I believe so—yes.”

I’m a little stunned by this. See, I never knew much about Mr. Carter. His books were all about the beauty in ordinary stuff, like working a crap job. And sure, some of his characters did some dodgy things, but you figured that was just part of the story, right?

I know what my mother would have said: “Unfounded, vulgar.” I can almost see her standing next to me, shaking that long, grey braid of hers. Truth is, I don’t know what I think.

The next few pieces aren’t so much of a shock, I guess, but I’m still not seeing the point. A photo taken by a drone of an author getting busy with someone they shouldn’t be, or a bill for some sex site, or this awful thing an author said to a friend, dug out of their chat logs, or this mistress or that mister, and on, and on, and on.

It’s all gossip, and proof of gossip, and the guide keeps telling us how each piece informed the authors’ work. For the most part, I just don’t see it. I start feeling real uncomfortable, because I’m not sure if I should still be fond of these authors and their work because I’m not sure how to feel about them as people anymore—like Mr. Carter, I mean—and honestly, I start getting real confused about what’s what.

But then we come to one I feel real bad about.

There’s this author, Alice Lee, who I’ve always thought was really great. I mean, you ask who my favorite author is, and no exception, it’s her.

Let me ask you this: you ever read something where it feels like your soul’s about ready to float on up and out your body, because it reaches you on some level you can’t explain? Well, that happens each time I read Ms. Lee.

And this “piece” here? It just made me mad.

See, they didn’t have anything bad on Ms. Lee—not like Mr. Carter. She was just out at this event, dressed up real nice and fancy in a black dress, and I guess she forgot to put on some underwear that day. So she’s getting out of this taxi cab, and someone snaps a picture of her lady parts, and I guess that went up all over the web.

It’s not that I think anyone should be embarrassed about their body. I just think we should be able to decide whether or not we want to show our skin, and how much of it we show. I get that sometimes it’s not up to us—like this piece we saw a few minutes ago, with these naked body scans of all these authors from their trips through airport security, and how that was for national safety and all, and how it’s public record now that they’re dead—but it doesn’t mean I think that’s right.

I mean, honest. If Ms. Lee had wanted to show her lady parts to us, then I think that would have been alright, because that was something she wanted to do. But I think it’s pretty clear that wasn’t the case. She wanted to be remembered for her work, not her skin.

“I don’t think Ms. Lee would have wanted us to remember her for this,” I say to the guide, interrupting him while he’s talking some nonsense about how the “piece” provides such an extraordinary glimpse into history. History, my foot.

“She would’ve wanted us to remember her for what she wrote. Not some pervy photo snapped by the paparazzo. Why aren’t we talking about her books? Why are we gawking at all this junk?”

I get a lot of cold looks from the group for that, but I don’t care so much.

“If you are not enjoying the tour,” the guide says to me, real sharp and stern, “you are welcome to leave.”

I guess I didn’t realize I was shouting when I said what I said, but somehow the whole thing is just making me feel unwell, and kind of panicky. I don’t know what I expected. Something else—something refined—something like the books themselves. Not this.

Either way, I quiet down after that, and just try to get what I can out of the tour. The museum itself is something to look at. It’s got these big stone pillars all the way through that were probably carved hundreds of years ago. You can almost feel the history in the tiles beneath you—all those feet tromping through to see this exhibit or that—and I like that, I really do.

But then I start wondering if all the exhibits were like this, if they were all about the people and not the art itself. I’m pretty far deep into thought about this, and starting to get kind of blue about it too, when—out of nowhere—the girl with brown hair, who spoke up earlier, says, “It’s a SHI thing, you know.”

I blink at her, not really sure what she means.

She’s just standing there with this sort of bemused half-smile, waiting for me to say something, when I realize we’re lagging behind the tour group. It’s just the two of us in this long, ceiling-lit hall, surrounded by all these bad pictures of all these dead authors.

“Didn’t you notice?” she asks, after a minute or so. “Our guide’s a SHI. This whole exhibit, it was planned by SHI. That’s why I’m here. I’m writing a story on it.”

“You better catch up with them, then,” I say, “you’re missing it.”

She laughs.

“I think I’ve got enough. This whole thing, it’s a joke. But that’s how the SHI think.”

She’s got this way of smiling while she talks, which is real unnerving, and real, just—wow.

“You’re…” She pauses, and puts her tongue into the bottom of one cheek. “Different. You know that?”

Different. I hate that word. Not because it’s bad or anything, but because that’s what people have been calling me for a long time, when they really mean something else.

“Yeah,” I mumble, looking at the floor. She’s wearing brown shoes with this fringe at the edge that has a bead or two. “When I was a kid, my mom took me to the doctor. This man in a white coat told me I was different. That my brain was just wired a different way.”

“Oh,” she says in this startled tone, and when I look up she’s sort of blushing. “That wasn’t what I meant. I meant it in a good way, you know?”

She starts speaking kind of fast then so it’s a little hard for me to follow what she’s saying. I can’t help but wonder if that’s how I sound when I get upset.

“I just mean, most people, well, they completely buy this garbage. They think it’s art. But it’s not. It’s just the SHI trying to mimic the one thing they don’t understand.”

I stop fidgeting then because I realize she’s not making fun of me—and I’m interested in what she’s saying.

“They’re not human anymore—not really. And because of that, they’re fascinated by us. With humans. We’re this bizarre sort of anomaly to them. To them! They don’t have sex, did you know that? They don’t have sex, and they don’t eat, or shit. Most people don’t realize that—I guess it’s not something the SHI like to have us talking about. They know they’re different. I think they see a part of themselves in us. In who they used to be.”

“So all this,” I say, “that’s how the SHI see us?”

The girl nods and I start feeling kind of bad then. For the SHI, and for being rude to Mr. Bennett. I mean, they’re perfect—and they’re not. And they live forever like that.

“I should say I’m sorry,” I tell her and she kind of laughs again.

“To the SHI?”

“Yeah,” I say, and she just watches me with this strange sort of smile, as we start walking again, trying to catch up with the rest of the group.

When we get there, they’re standing in front of this person—or this projection of this person, I guess—and Mr. Bennett’s speaking to the group.

“The web has become more than a simple vault of data. If we collect enough information on an individual, we can simulate their personality. Theoretically, if we had enough data we could completely re-create someone’s mind. This is where our tour ends—with Alan Graham. He was around 71% complete when he died. When the dead are indexed, we have—well—Mr. Graham.”

The SHI turns to the projected man and says, “Mr. Graham. If you would.”

This man—this projected man, I mean, who’s all lights and particles, and data—starts to speak.

“Thank you, Mr. Bennett,” he says, and I look around, and everyone’s jaws are sort of dropping to the ground—even the girl I was talking with. I still don’t know her name, I realize, and that bothers me somehow.

“When I was alive,” the projected man says, “I was very good at analyzing other people. Now, I’m much better. Step up and I can take a reading of everything we know about you—all of the data we’ve collected through the web. I can tell you what your chances are of being re-created. Like me.”

So, one by one, everyone steps up, and I guess he sends the data directly to their heads for privacy concerns, because after a minute or two, everyone walks away looking dazed. Our guide—the SHI—just stands to the back, arms folded, with that thin-lipped smile of his.

When it’s my turn, I’m not really sure if I want to know. But that girl, well, she goes right ahead and when she’s done, she turns to me, looking bewildered, with this expression I can’t quite place, so I figure I better go too.

I step up, and put my hand out—to shake his hand I guess, but it goes right through—and I hear the projected man’s voice in my head.

“Data: 4% complete. Relevance: unremarkable. Likelihood of fame: 2.3%. Chances of re-creation: too low to calculate.”

There’s a pause, then, as the projected man looks at me in this sad sort of way.

“I’m sorry,” he adds.

I look at the projected man and then I glance over at that girl, who’s still watching me with that strange look of hers, and then I turn to Mr. Bennett and I think of my mother, and all those authors resting here, in all their pieces.

And I just smile.

end article

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Gary Emmette Chandler

About Gary Emmette Chandler

Gary Emmette Chandler works from his apartment in Portland as a copywriter and web developer, mostly in pajamas. His fiction has appeared in Bastion, and is forthcoming in One Throne Magazine, as this year's winner of the annual Joust contest.