The house dissolved into thousands of dust particles and swirled from their sight, immediately replaced by a gymnasium—banners covering the walls and hundreds of students sitting restlessly in the stands. Instead of a game taking place on the court, though, a long platform had been set up, complete with a row of fifteen Coffins.

In the middle, facing the stands, a woman stood at a podium. She wore a blue shirt with a symbol emblazoned on the right pocket: an M and a D on the upper left side of a slash, an L and an N on the lower right side. The slash itself ended in an arrow, pointing forever upward.

The woman spoke into the microphone. “We’re so grateful that all of you have chosen to participate in the Mortality Doctrine Initiative. It is a decision that you will never regret, for the rest of eternity. The next fifty years of your lives will be full of adventures and wonders impossible to describe or imagine. The VirtNet Hive is like an infinite realization of your dreams, and we at Life Neverending can hardly wait for you to let us know about your experiences. Who’s excited out there?”

Every last student clapped and cheered, loud and long, even though some of them looked more than a little afraid. Michael wasn’t sure what he was watching, but he had a pretty good idea. And it felt as if he were watching the beginning of the apocalypse.

The woman let the applause go on for a minute before calling for silence. “You’ve all been briefed, and everything’s in order. While you take your fifty-year journey into the VirtNet, remember that you have not the slightest reason for concern. Enjoy yourselves to the fullest; learn and grow and experience the universe. And when your time is up, we’ll have the next generation of human hosts awaiting you, themselves excited for the VirtNet stage. All is taken care of. Your only job is to embrace immortality and leave your mark on it. Now let’s stop talking and begin!”

More applause erupted at this, and students began getting up from the stands and lining up, guided by adults wearing the same shirt as the speaker. The MD/LN symbol obviously stood for Mortality Doctrine/Life Neverending. Michael shivered at the realization.

The first people in each line were being led to the Coffins, where they handed over some kind of data chip, then lay down in the open device. They were fully clothed, though Michael never was when he Lifted. But he had already figured out that these students—most of them around his own age—were only going to be in the Coffins for a short time.

The people in blue shirts worked at the control screens on the outside of the NerveBoxes, and soon the lids were closing, almost perfectly in sync. With a series of thumps, one by one they snapped shut, lights blinking all over them. The workers stepped back and smiled warmly at those watching and waiting.

“See the joy on their faces?” Kaine said. “The expectation, anticipation? If you could look deep, deep into their eyes, you’d see that there’s no trace of that lingering, nagging awareness in humans today of their impending doom. The inevitability of their death, whether it be five, ten, or fifty years away. That’ll be gone once my vision is complete. Now watch and see what happens.”

The entire gym blurred for a moment, colors darting back and forth, melting together. Then it snapped back to normal, crisp and clear. Michael looked down and the Coffins had opened, the same kids who’d just climbed in now climbing out. Although there was something distinctly different about them. They appeared disoriented, as if they had no clue where they were or how they’d gotten there. The workers in blue shirts took them by the arm and gently led them off the temporary platforms, into the arms of others ready to escort them out of the building. Where they went, Michael didn’t know. The next students who’d been waiting had already started getting into the now-empty Coffins.

“And so it goes,” Kaine said. “Or so it will go. Generation after generation, born into one body, transformed into an indescribable VirtNet experience for fifty years, then reinserted into the next line of humans ready to embark on Life Neverending themselves. With immortality and endless education and growth, our levels of technology will skyrocket, just in time for us to expand to the planets and stars beyond our own. Always replenishing the human race, where no one need die ever again.”

Michael closed his eyes to focus. “So these bodies in the gym—they were replaced by other…people who’d been in the VirtNet for fifty years? I mean, I know it’s a simulation, but is that what’s going to happen? What about when they get old? They’ll still die. You can’t prevent that.”

“Oh, yes, we can,” Kaine responded. “When these bodies, now occupied by another intelligence, reach the age of sixty-five, their intelligence is downloaded back into the Hive. They will once again experience another fifty years inside the Sleep, doing whatever they want, learning and growing even more. The bodies back on Earth will be frozen and stored, probably never to be used again. Unless, of course, we someday come up with other ways to significantly extend life. But the key is that no one will die again, ever. You’ll either be in an actual human body, or you’ll be just as alive—even more alive, in some ways—within the Sleep.”

“Won’t you run out of human hosts?”

“Of course not. People will keep having babies. We might have to extend the wait time within the Sleep. We’ll even clone bodies if we have to, when that technology is sound. That’s not a problem.”

“What about accidents?” Michael asked. “Heart attacks? What if someone murders you? What then?”

Kaine’s tone made it sound like he’d been anxiously awaiting the question. “Those will still be tragedies, but not a complete loss. One can always go back to their last known download into the VirtNet. Or, if you can afford it, you can go in every year, every week, every day—whatever works for you—and update your consciousness. Your memories, your knowledge, your everything. If you have a premature death, then you will be restored to your latest version. It’s all worked out. Think of it as backing up your work.”

Michael opened his eyes, but there was nothing there. At some point they’d slid back into the darkness. He instinctively reached to touch his face, but he had no hands or arms. It was like he’d become a part of the Sleep itself.

“There’s more to show,” Kaine said, startling him. “The future is a place of pure wonder, Michael, and I want you by my side.”

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