Johnathan answered the buzz of his doorbell on the third ring, glaring across the threshold. His normally unkempt mane of hair had been swept back into a semi-coherent tail, but the tie around his neck was still untied, the collar of his light blue dress shirt unbuttoned. His cheeks were clear of stubble, but a dark patch under his neck suggested that I had caught him in the middle of shaving.
"Adam, hi," he said, verbally making a show of forcing civility into his tone. His gaze was tight, unflinching. "I'm sorry; did I or did I not tell you that I had a date tonight?"
I sighed. This is it, I thought. Make or break time. "That's why I'm here, actually."
A scowl crossed Johnathan's face as he turned away from the door. "You don't like Mitsuko," he said, half-accusingly, as he stepped back into the apartment. It wasn't an invitation, but he didn't slam the door in my face either. Maybe he wanted to have this out as much as I did. "You never did."
"It's not that I don't like her, Johnathan, it's—" My voice cut out as I stepped into the front room that served as both living and dining space in Johnathan's cramped studio. Outer space seemed to be the theme of the week. Last Saturday, the wallscreen opposite the entrance had been a bay window letting in the last rays of sunset across a distant beach was now a porthole to a starry sky, an orange sun rising over an alien planet filling the bottom-left corner of the viewport. The other holoframes dotting the walls all echoed the theme, the images flickering from vintage spacesuit cheesecake to drifting starfields to futuristic shots of silver cigar-shaped ships docked at spindly stations.
The only static image in the room dominated the wall to the right, opposite the entrance to the tiny kitchenette. In it, an anthropomorphic raccoon in a jade-green teddy stretched luxuriously against a sea of darker forest velvet. Her tail curled over her legs and she gazed upwards towards the frame with a warm smile. Yellow and white camelia petals dotted the image, clinging to both background and subject. It looked as though someone had tossed a handful of flowers into the scene, and then captured her just in the moment before she began to laugh.
I turned towards the short hallway that led towards the bathroom. "It's that... how can I even say this?" Frustration mounted in my voice, and I blurted out, "She's not real."
The snap of an electric razor coming to life punctuated my statement, followed by the drone of it doing its work, the only sound in the apartment. An eon of uncomfortable moments later, it snapped off again, leaving the whole room silent. Finally, into the empty air, Johnathan said levelly, "You've met her."
"You know... you know that's not what I meant," I called down the hallway towards him. "She's not... I mean... she's...." I was at a loss for words. Nothing seemed like the right thing to say; I'd blown my entire argument in the opening statement.
Johnathan stepped out of the bathroom, back up the hallway, fingers at his neck, buttoning his shirt. "She's a digital sentience inside one of Tadashiissei's systems." For his inflection, he might have been talking about the weather forecast. He grunted, lifting his head to fasten the top button on his collar. "Your point?"
"I... my point is...." I fumbled for words, backing up towards the entrance as he continued his advance back towards the living room, trying to make eye-contact with him. "Johnathan, what kind of relationship do you really think you can have with her?"
He grinned, a genuine smile just shy of laughing, eerily reminiscent of the raccoon's in the picture. "I'm about to go on a date with her, aren't I?"
"No, that's not...." I shook my head. "I mean, what kind of life can you have?" I was trying to be nice, trying to bite my tongue, to be reasonable. There had to be words to express what I was thinking, and I fumbled for them desperately, trying to say something that would make sense to him. "You can't go every week plugging yourself into their network. You can't afford it. It was fun once in a while, but you can't keep this up forever, can you?"
His grin widened. "I don't have to."
As he spoke, his eyes widened, and I saw within them a glimmer that made me pull away as he brushed past me into the living room, gazing out the porthole while he tied his tie. "What do you mean?" I asked his back. "I mean...." I froze as realization dawned. "You can't be serious."
He turned around, smoothing out his Windsor knot, his expression thick with false innocence. "Serious about what?"
"You... you're..." I didn't want to say it; that might have made it real. "You're going in there. Permanently."
"The industry term is 'upload,'" Johnathan replied, unnecessarily. "And yes, I am."
I stared, incredulous. For a moment, my eyes slid past Johnathan to the viewport, and I felt for a moment as if I would simply fall past him and out into empty space beyond. "How're you going to afford it?"
Johnathan's expression toned down to a serene smile, and he picked up a remote off of the short table in front of his sofa. Turning towards the picture over the mantel, he thumbed a button and Mitsuko's portrait flickered out, to be replaced with a pair of raccoons in the same setting, their arms and tails entwined. Mitsuko still wore the same teddy as before, while the other, a male, bore only a pair of what looked like pajama pants made of the same near-translucent fabric. My eyes widened in recognition; it was the avatar Johnathan had worn the last time I had gone with him into Tadashiissei's servers.
The frame beeped again, and the scene changed, this time to a shuttle landing bay, where Johnathan-the-raccoon and Mitsuko wore immaculate orange mechanic's uniforms, toolbelts at their waists and hats in their paws. Another beep, and Johnathan stood at the doorway leading to a shuttle in a silvery steward's uniform, a translucent green bubble helmet tucked under one arm, while Mitsuko stood opposite him in a classic uchuufuku, reading flight plans from a palmtop computer. Another beep, and Johnathan was motioning out the window of the shuttle towards some kind of space platform.
"Tadashiissei's offered me a job in their design department," he said as a flood of similar images flickered past. "Their first space expansion is due in three years, and I'm going to be part of the lead team. I'll even have a job in-world as chief steward on the station, and Mitsuko's thinking about applying with the hospitality staff." With a final beep, the screen snapped back to the original image, of Mitsuko gazing up at the camera, dotted in chrysanthemum petals, just about to giggle.
"You're serious," I said, turning away from Mitsuko's picture, back towards the person I thought I had known as my best friend. "You're really serious," I repeated, unable to make eye contact. My gaze slipped up to the picture of his girlfriend, to the alien world behind him, to the remote that he'd been wielding moments before. "You're really going to stick yourself inside the computer for good."
Johnathan chuckled. "Yes, I am." He stopped, and his face became the mask of earnestness. "Adam, I know I can't explain this to you, but I'm happy. It doesn't matter to me that it's all inside a computer. It doesn't matter to me that she's made of ones and zeroes instead of flesh and bone. What matters is that I love her, and that she loves me, and that we have a chance to be together, that I have I chance to be doing what I want to do, with someone I care about. I'm happy, damnit, and I don't understand why you and the guys can't just be happy for me."
"But... but it's not real," I protested. "None of it is! It's all just a game!"
"What is real?" Johnathan asked as he shook his head. "We could all be brains in jars, for all you can really prove about the world. You don't know for sure that you're not a simulation already. Science can only answer so far up the chain of metaphysics before it has to throw up its hands in disgust. You can't conclusively prove that we didn't all come into existence five minutes ago, that this isn't some grand simulacrum being run by a cosmic computer preloaded with this configuration, our argument included. So what's wrong with going down a level, instead of up one? Why should Tadashiissei's worlds be considered any less real, just because we know where they came from?"
His words gnawed at my heart. I wanted to answer him, to deny him, but I knew that even if I could prove my point, it wouldn't matter. "She doesn't love you, Johnathan," I snapped. "She can't. She's programmed to respond to stimulus, not to feel. She's an AI, not a person." I was lashing out now, but I didn't care.
Johnathan's expression darkened. "The polite term is 'digital sentience,' Adam, and now you're just being rude. You and I, we're just programmed to respond to stimulus, too, only our programs run on organic lubricants and glands, instead of silicone wafers. What's the difference? Her code's as complex as mine, and she's as blind to her underpinnings as I am to mine. She has thoughts and emotions and hopes and dreams as much as I do. The only difference is that in her world, age is a myth, scarcity is only limited by processing power, and anything literally is possible, if you're willing to work for it. Damnit, Adam, who wouldn't jump at a chance to live forever in a world like that?"
I turned away, back towards the door. "I can't explain it any more than I already have," I mumbled, eager now to make my escape. "You just don't get it. I'm about to lose my best friend, and all you can do is play messiah."
"No, Adam," he replied sadly as I retreated out the door, "it's you who doesn't get it. I'll be in paradise in six months, and you'll still be here, wondering where your world went. Good-bye, Adam. I can't spare you any more time, or I'll be late, and reservations at Junsei-en aren't easy to replace."
I turned around to answer, but the door was closing, Johnathan already gone behind it. The last thing I saw before it snapped closed was a rocketship blasting off from the surface of the alien world in his holoscreen, heading for the station.