Mr. Khoury awoke to the sound of his phone alarm at six A.M. sharp, as he had done for near on forty years. After tapping his phone’s screen to check the time (which was always the same, but he checked it every day anyways), he proceeded to the same lonely routine he’d been following for a few years, since his dear Rachel passed away. A yawn, a stretch, an eye rub, a belly scratch, and then on to the early-morning meds, faithfully on his right-hand nightstand, along with a small bottle of water. As he sat up and slapped the light switch… the lights failed to turn on.

“Huh?” he muttered, still groggy, and patted the wall where the switch was supposed to be. Not only it wasn’t there, but the wallpaper felt entirely unfamiliar, and it was also at that point that he noticed the strange headboard behind him.

“Where am I?” The morning light softly filtered by the curtains (wait… wasn’t it winter?, he thought) showed an environment that was at once foreign and entirely familiar from his past days as a sales representative. A hotel room, he realized. Where am I again? I don’t remember this trip.

After finding the light switch and flipping it on, he got up and took measure of his new environment. Classy and well-appointed, although small. The combination of style and size suggested a horrendously overpriced hotel, on account of its location. The idea that he’d never spring for a place like this when an out-of-the-way bed-and-breakfast did the job just fine never had the time to settle in his mind, overshadowed by a curiosity about which wretched big city this was. The trip still eluded his memory completely.

Mr. Khoury tugged open a thin gap between the curtains and peeked outside. An impenetrable wall of buildings dominated the view, completely blocking any hope of a skyline. On the ground, many floors below, a traffic officer was helping a truck maneuver into a parking spot, while a fat person in an orange jumper slowly set up a newsstand across the street. Traffic, both foot and vehicular, was light. Well, they do wake up early here, he thought. The little signage that was in sight didn’t really narrow it down much. “What the hell am I doing in this city?”, he asked himself. “Did someone die or something?” He couldn’t remember anything recent besides going about his daily life back home.

As he looked for his clothes, he saw his phone’s screen flashing. A schedule reminder greeted him as he picked it up. “Meeting with Ms. Leon from Amrith – hotel mezzanine – 6:30 AM”, it read. Amrith? What do I have to do with that?, he wondered. And who the hell sets up a meeting at six-thirty? Nevertheless, being the dutiful man he was, he quickly got into his khakis, leather shoes and button-up shirt, gulped down an instant coffee from the minibar, grabbed his coat, phone and keycard, and rushed out, as the time was almost up.

The elevator was waiting for him a couple doors away, already at his floor. It was a rather old-fashioned model, with a big metal button for each floor (going up to 24, he noticed), and a large, bright red sticker with the Amrith logo highlighting the mezzanine level. Mr. Khoury immediately jabbed that button; it was only after the doors closed and the cabin started its descent that he realized he forgot to check which floor he was on. His keycard didn’t shed much light on that, having only his name and a crudely-printed photo of his face on it. I suppose that’s so thieves don’t know where to find my things if they steal this, he pondered. Still, my room number really should be written down somewhere. As he fiddled with his phone to look for any notes to that effect, the doors opened to a brightly-lit hallway.

“Mr. Basil Khoury?” An attractive young lady was waiting by the door, wearing a smart gray suit. “I’m Ms. Leon,” she said, with a warm smile. A glance at her company badge – Renee Leon – corroborated that. “I believe we have an appointment.”

“Uh… yes, that’s right,” Mr. Khoury replied, looking at the time on his phone – 6:26. Was she just standing here waiting for me?, he thought. What if I ran late? This is really strange. “I seem to be a couple minutes early,” he said with an uneasy chuckle.

“Not a problem at all,” she waved away. “If you would follow me into my office, please?” She walked away, and he quietly followed, hoping for some answers at last. They made their way across a modest waiting room and an office corridor, still furnished with the hotel’s distinctive burgundy carpeting, and past a few closed doors, until an open one led to a small, sleek office. Mr. Khoury looked around for family photos or other personal items that gave him a sense of his interlocutor, and found nothing of the sort – only a small sculpture and a couple paintings, all in a rather vague, noncommittal modern style.

“I must be honest with you,” he said with a bashful smile, as he sat down across from her. “I’m having a little trouble remembering what’s this appointment about…” Or even where I am and how I got here, he left unsaid.

“Don’t worry, that’s perfectly normal,” she said, without any hint of surprise.

“Oh, don’t get me wrong, I usually don’t forget things like this,” he quickly added, feeling a bit offended that she expected him to be forgetful, perhaps due to his age. “I’m very serious with my appointments, it’s just that this one time…”

“Mr. Khoury.” She interrupted him, with a firm hand gesture softened by a smile. “Really. This situation is anything but ordinary. The memory loss is expected, and in no way reflects your usual mental faculties. In fact, it would be really strange for you to recall how you got here.”

“Wait… what? Have you guys drugged me or something?” He instinctively recoiled in horror.

“No, no, nothing like that,” the young lady said with a chuckle. “You’re here by your own choice, of course. After all, you signed up for our services, didn’t you?”

“I didn’t sign up for anything!” He was already out of his chair and half-turned toward the door. “You’re a bunch of crooks, peddling lies! Why would I ever want anything to do with your nonsense?”

Ms. Leon seemed more confused than offended. “But you have clearly signed the contract. It’s all there, your name, photo ID, social security…”

“I don’t care!” He stormed out of the office and started roaming the corridors. “It’s a scam! You guys are committing fraud! Goes hand in hand with your usual lies!”

“Mr. Khoury, please!” She ran after him, clearly distressed. “If you would just come back to my office, we can clear up any…”

“Where’s the exit?” He wandered around the elevator lobby, seeing no stairwells. “I want out of this place, now” He slammed the elevator call button, which did not respond.

“I’m sorry, sir, but it’s not possible for you to leave now. If you’d let me…”

“So I’m being held captive?!” He picked a corridor at random and hurried into it. “That’s a new low, even for Amrith!”

“Sir…” She struggled to keep up with him without losing her meticulous, business-like composure. “It’s not that we wouldn’t allow you, it’s just…”

“There’s got to be at least a fire exit or something, right?” He opened the door at the end of the corridor, which led to another office. “What will you do if this place catches fire, huh? Did the city approve this mad building’s plans?” He looked out the window. The ground outside seemed to be many floors below. A traffic officer was helping a truck maneuver into a parking spot, while a fat person in an orange jumper slowly set up a newsstand across the street.

“If you have any problems with our contract, Mr. Khoury, I’m sure those can be worked out…”

“Oh, no problem, other than that the contract does not exist, because I never signed it!” He ran out of the office and through the corridors, looking in vain for a way out. After trying the elevators a while more, to no avail, he hurried to the opposite side of the building, ignoring the young woman’s pleas, barging into and out of small office rooms as he tried every door.

As he reached the office at the end of that corridor, he considered jumping out the window. This is criminal captivity, he pondered. They drugged me and are now keeping me captive. God only knows what they’re planning to do with me! He approached the window, unlatched the glass pane, took a deep breath, and looked down at the drop…

A traffic officer was helping a truck maneuver into a parking spot, while a fat person in an orange jumper slowly set up a newsstand across the street.

Wait… this isn’t right, he realized. All the way across the building… and up at my apartment, come to think of it. He shoved past the still-pleading Ms. Leon and entered the next office. He now realized its decor was eerily similar to the previous room, to Ms. Leon’s, and in fact, to every other room he had entered in this floor – all of which, come to think of it, were empty, but had their lights and electronics on, as if their occupants had just left for a moment.

He approached the window and looked down. The scene was exactly identical to the one he’d seen three times before now – a traffic officer was helping a truck maneuver into a parking spot, while a fat person in an orange jumper slowly set up a newsstand across the street. The buildings, in fact, were all in the exact same position from his vantage point, and the ground seemed as distant here as up from his room. This made no sense at all, unless…

“It’s one of your simulations, isn’t it?” He turned to Ms. Leon, furious. “You’ve got my brain hooked up to one of your machines!”

“Yes, Mr. Khoury, it is a simulation.” She smiled softly. “This is just a temporary environment, where you can feel at home while we figure out your next steps.”

“Well, I know my next step very well,” he said with a triumphant smile.

“Great, now we can-”

“End the simulation, please.”

She frowned. “Sir… I’m not sure you fully understand your predicament, or you wouldn’t be asking for that.”

“My predicament is that I’m being held here against my will.” He crossed his arms. “Get me out of this thing, now.”

“Well, if that’s really what you wish, we have to comply.” She seemed disappointed. “As long as you understand that there’s no return.”

“I am perfectly certain of that decision,” he said, with a certain smugness.

“Very well then, we’ll have to…”

“Don’t worry, Ms. Leon. I got this.” The voice came from down the hall, attached to a well-dressed man who made his way into the room. “Hello, Mr. Khoury. I’m James Marinelli, lead consumer relations.”

“Hello, Mr. Marinelli,” Mr. Khoury said, shaking his hand. “Nice to meet you… but I’m sorry to say, I’m not sure what can you do for me that the young lady can’t.”

“Let’s just say… Ms. Leon has her limits,” Marinelli said. “I mean, she’s perfect when it comes to routine situations, but if things veer too off-script, well…”

“Oh… I see.” Mr. Khoury cast a long look at her, who was standing in a corner of the room with a vague smile. “She’s not real, is she?”

“She’s never had an organic brain or body, yes. As for being real…”

“There’s that talk again.” Mr. Khoury shook his head. “See, that’s why I’ve never wanted anything to do with your company. You keep trying to change what it means to be a person, to be real… as if you had any say in the matter.”

“Um… since you’ve mentioned that, the reason I’m here is because you’re saying you never signed anything with us.”

“Which I didn’t.”

“Right… but the thing is, you do have an active contract. Which is fully settled, so don’t worry, we won’t be charging anything.”

“Can you show me this damn contract? Because I’m quite sure that I never did any business with Amrith!”

“Of course… in a minute.” Marinelli pulled a small tablet from his pocket and thumbed through it a little. “Here you are… oh my, you’re one of our very earliest customers! 15 years of activity. Right here.” He turned the gadget to Mr. Khoury.

“Oh, I’m sure I’d remember paying the absurd price you charge for your scam for fifteen years,” Mr. Khoury said, squinting at the small screen. “Hmm… it all does seem legitimate. Your forgers must be excellent.”

Marinelli seemed hurt by the accusation. “Oh, no, we would never attempt something like that. Amrith takes ethical consumer service very, very seriously. There are all sorts of controls in place to prevent just that…”

“Ah-ha!” Mr. Khoury pointed at the tablet, grinning. “I can prove this contract is fraudulent! See the date here?”

“Uh… yes,” Marinelli said, turning his body to look at the screen while keeping it pointed at his customer. “What’s the matter with it?”

“I can prove I couldn’t possibly have signed this… because I was in a coma at the time, from my car crash! Let’s pull my medical records and you’ll see!”

“Wait, then how did…” Marinelli scrolled down a few screens. “Huh. Turns out you actually didn’t sign this contract… your wife did.”

“Of course! Then… what?” Mr. Khoury was taken aback. “Rachel signed it?”

“Look, that’s her signature. Rachel Khoury.”

“Well, isn’t that just terribly convenient,” Mr. Khoury said, annoyed. “Pin it all on someone who’s dead and can’t account for herself.”

“Mr. Khoury, we can contact the hospital you were in to clear all that up, but I can assure you, we’d never install our hardware without explicit consent of either the affected party or the responsible next of kin, if only for the PR consequences… especially at such an early stage in our company, when we were still looking for venture capital!”

“See, that’s something that just doesn’t add up,” the old man said. “If you were in such a bind for money, why would you put your… hardware, as you call it, or perhaps flagrant invasion of privacy, inside my head for free? And keep the contract active until now? I’ve heard you folks charge a large monthly fee as well, and I certainly haven’t seen a penny leaving my account to pay for that. I say you’re bluffing.”

Marinelli wore a condescending smile. “Well then, let’s just look at your payment information, shall we?” He tapped a few times on his device. “Here we have… wait. Oh. Wow.”

“I’ve never paid a red cent, have I?”

“As a matter of fact, no, you haven’t.” The young man was genuinely surprised. “Really, the date should’ve given it away. You got not just the install but a lifetime’s worth of upkeep for free, for participating in our beta testing. Which means I must thank you, Mr. Khoury, for the invaluable insights you’ve provided our researchers in a critical development phase!”

“Save the groveling,” Mr. Khoury said with disgust. “So you’re saying you not only put your invasive chip inside my head, without my consent -”

“You were incapable of making decisions at the time, and the legally responsible next of kin -”

“Not just that, but it was a beta?! A buggy, incomplete version, for which I was a guinea pig?”

“For which you were a resounding success, that is. Your version ended up being practically the same as our market blockbuster, the Omega, minus a couple irrelevant cosmetics.”

“But why?” Mr. Khoury sat back, despondent. “Why would Rachel do something like that? Even back then, she knew how I felt about that… that whole virtual mind nonsense!”

“Perhaps she was looking for options. Let’s look at your install log…” He tapped around a bit more. “See, there you go. Severe laceration in the frontal and temporal lobes, subdural and subarachnoid hemorrhage, cerebral edema…”

“Yeah, yeah, the accident was really bad, my head was in a horrible shape. I knew that already. What does that have to do with your chip?”

“It’s not just a chip, it’s a whole… well, nevermind. Mr. Khoury, which complications do you recall having from your brain injury? Loss of memory, loss of cognitive function, behavioral alteration, what?”

“My brain was functioning just fine,” he grumbled. “I didn’t forget signing up with you, if that’s what you mean. I didn’t get crazy or anything either. We had a good neurologist to make sure.”

“You’re welcome,” Marinelli said with a smug grin.

“What the hell do you mean?”

“See, the Omega – our psychic recording and duplication platform, that’s the official term – doesn’t just make sure you live on after your body’s gone. It’s constantly logging and encoding all your brain activity-”

“In other words, even my thoughts aren’t private anymore, eh?” Mr. Khoury was furious.

Marinelli sighed. “Ask anyone who works in the field. Government regulations on psychic recording are tighter than on nuclear weapons. The system’s airtight. Zero communication, and the strongest encryption technology can offer. You just don’t get into a recorded psyche outside of a legally mandated restore, and the auditing on those is brutal.”

“You just wish you could snoop around unsupervised, don’t you?”

“I won’t lie to you, all that oversight does make our work harder. But then again, that forces us to push ourselves to the brink.”

Mr. Khoury groaned and rolled his eyes at the PR talk.

Anyway,” Marinelli continued, “my point is – the Omega records all your brain activity to create a perfect digital copy of yourself, which can be accessed when the time comes, sure, but that also serves as a backup of your brain. It can be configured so all that data it’s saving loops back into your organic brain to recover and reinforce damaged material. In other words, it’s a lifebuoy for your brain – a real-time backup to ensure nothing is lost in the recovery from traumatic brain injury… such as yours. Don’t blame your wife, Mr. Khoury. She was just doing what she could to save you… and it worked.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t ever blame her, not at all.” His voice was soft and despondent. “Only you, who took advantage of her desperation and lack of technical knowledge to… to sweet-talk her into this, somehow. To make it sound like the only option, like she’d be a monster not to agree.”

Marinelli shrugged. “Well, in my perfectly honest opinion…”

“Which I don’t give a fig about, so zip it,” Mr. Khouri interrupted. After a short pause, he sighed. “I suppose that’s a moot point now, anyway. It’s done, right? It’s already there, there’s no coming back.”

“Might as well enjoy the perks that come with it,” the younger man added.

Another long sigh. “If I must. In any case… what was it that you people wanted with me after all?”

Marinelli adopted the carefully warm expression of someone who’s had this conversation several times before. “Well, Mr. Khoury… even if we’re not your favorite company, you must surely know what our main business is, right?”

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s fleecing people out by making a silly souvenir out of an artificial intelligence that sounds like a dead person and passing it off as the real deal to their family, for way too much money… except in my case, it seems.”

“Your case is an exception only for being free of charge. Well, and being originally contracted without your knowledge, sure, but that doesn’t change the nature of our services.”

“Okay, so what? You want me to set the details of what my digital clone will sound like when you make it? I couldn’t care less. Do whatever you want.”

“No, that’s not it. See…” He paused, carefully considering his words. “We don’t create your, as you call it, ‘digital clone’. It’s just you, a one-to-one reconstruction based on the data your Omega has accumulated over the years. Which, over such a long run as yours, is as perfect a reconstruction as it could possibly get.”

“Then I don’t see what could you possibly want from me! What is it that I still have to decide?” Mr. Khoury got up from his chair, exasperated.

“Let me put it this way. You… seem to be under the impression that we enable this digital reconstruction for the benefit of the deceased’s loved ones.”

“If not for them, then for whom?!”

“For yourself,” Marinelli said calmly, with a smile. “We’d do it anyway, even if you hadn’t left anyone behind. After all, the contracting party is you, not your family. Do you understand it?”

“What does that have to do with anything?! Just say what you mean already!”

“Alright, if that’s what you’re asking…” Marinelli took a deep breath. “You’ve lost all memories of the past few hours, by design… your experience would be quite traumatic otherwise. But I can fill you in.” He thumbed through his device a bit. “According to your notes, you were home, alone, around 7 in the morning. Your pacemaker remotely alerted the hospital, as expected… but by the time they got there, it was already too late. Fortunately, most hospitals by now have a habit of checking with us anyway if they don’t find anything that says you’re our customer, so that’s how your name came up in our system. So we stepped in during your final processing… and here we are.”

“Wait, are you saying that I… that is, I’m… am I?”

“Yes, Mr. Khoury. You passed away from cardiac failure this morning.” He patiently waited for his client to process the news.

“So… if I get this right…” Mr. Khoury was slightly nauseated. “Does that mean I’m… not me?”

Marinelli shrugged and raised his eyebrows suggestively. “You tell me. Do you feel like you’re you?”

“Oh, I see what you’re doing!” Mr. Khoury pointed at the younger man. “You’re just trying to prove your point, isn’t it? That your little robots are people?”

“I’m just saying, no-one knows your feelings better than yourself. What do you feel?”

“This isn’t real.” He felt dizzy and lost. “I’m not really dead, am I? You’ve put me in virtual just to prove your stupid point.”

“Here.” Marinelli offered him his device. “Call your daughter. It’s patched into the voice network.”

Mr. Khoury waved away the tablet, sat down, and stayed still for a couple minutes. Marinelli just waited patiently, not looking at his client. He’d been through this routine before.

“Let’s say I accept your claims,” Mr. Khoury said, with a creaking voice. “What now?”

Marinelli slowly leaned forward and looked the man in the eyes. “The reason why you’re here, Mr. Khoury, is to look at your afterlife options. That’s the whole point of our program, after all.”

“Hah! Afterlife!” he cried out. “Don’t even remind me! The real Basil is probably with Jesus right now, in Heaven, while I’m stuck here in this hell with you.”

The representative adopted a cautious, studied tone. “We, uh, offer a variety of spiritual experiences that have tested really well with our religious -”

“Forget it,” Mr. Khoury cut him off, somewhat offended. “If you think I’m settling for a cheap imitation that your faithless marketing people cooked up, rather than the real place I should be in – that I am in, as a matter of fact – then you can shove it.

“No problem, then. We can look at several popular packages, or work together on a custom experience. You can have full online integration if you want, and if at any point you feel unsatisfied with any aspect of your experience, we certainly can -”

“Nevermind all that,” Mr. Khoury said with a dismissive wave. “Just take me home.”

“We, uh, can certainly work out some parameters on where you want that to be, what will your virtual form be like, who’s going to…”

“I don’t care how you do it. I’m sure you can pull up all the details you need. Just… take me home.”