Science Fiction Afterlife virtual reality undertakers comeuppance

Devil's Architect

By Edward Willett
Jun 28, 2020 · 3,535 words · 13 minutes


Story art by Hieronymus Bosch.  

From the author: Two words: “programmable afterlife." Need I say more? (Apparently I do: here are 3,500 words inspired by that phrase.)

TERRANCE WALKEDEN KNEW WEALTH when he saw it, and the woman who had just entered the showroom of the Pearly Gate exuded it like an exotic perfume. Money practically dripped from the vat-grown mink draped around her shoulders, from the glittering micrograv gold spheres she wore as earrings, from the sleek black silk of her dress, and from the never-marred-by-the-sun porcelain perfection of her skin.

Peripherally, Walkeden saw Gerald Peters, his assistant manager, starting toward the new customer, but Walkeden stopped him with a hand on his arm. “I’ll take care of her myself.”

“Of course, sir!” Peters smiled, bowed, and turned away.

Walkeden molded his face into his best expression of sympathy and approached the woman, who waited by the showroom’s silver sarcophagus centrepiece, one spike-heeled shoe tapping the marble floor impatiently. Walkeden held out his hand. “I’m Terrance Walkeden, proprietor and chief afterlife architect of The Pearly Gate,” he said softly. “How may I help you?”

She squeezed his hand perfunctorily with bejewelled fingers and met his gaze with sapphire eyes. “May we talk—in private?” she said in a voice like velvety gravel.

“Of course. Come into my office, Ms….?”

“Mrs. Mrs. Helen Cavinaugh.”

“This way, Mrs. Cavinaugh.”

He escorted her past the afterlife-display holoprojectors built into the Grecian pillars of the showroom (and past Peters’s amused gaze), into his ebony-panelled office. He closed the door, then turned to find Mrs. Cavinaugh gazing at him with disconcerting directness. “Won’t you sit...” he began, but she cut him off. The velvet was gone from her voice and the gravel now had sharp edges.

“Never mind the false sympathy, Mr. Walkeden.”

He blinked. “I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

“You will. Sit down.”

Walkeden dealt with all kinds of people in his business; he simply nodded and sat behind his desk. Mrs. Cavinaugh took the seat across from him, and crossed one shapely leg over the other. “My husband is about to die,” she said matter-of-factly.

“I’m very sorry to hear that.”

Mrs. Cavinaugh laughed. “No, you’re not. And neither am I. Thomas Cavinaugh, Mr. Walkeden, is a two-faced, two-timing, penny-pinching rat. Charming when I first met him, but the charm vanished long ago.” She shrugged. “However, I won’t have to put up with him much longer.”

“A terminal disease?”

“Something like that.”

“I see.” Walkeden thought he did. Quite clearly. He cleared his throat. “Well, then, Mrs. Cavinaugh, I presume you have come to The Pearly Gate in search of a suitable afterlife environment for your—um, soon-to-be-late husband.” He reached into his desk drawer, took out the latest catalogue, and slid it, face-up, across the desk. “Perhaps you’d care to browse...”

She kept her cold blue eyes on him. “I want a custom design.”

Walkeden pulled his hand back from the catalogue, leaving it in place. “Are you sure, Mrs. Cavinaugh? You just described your husband as ‘penny-pinching.’ Custom design costs—”

“My husband is very wealthy, Mr. Walkeden, and while he has spent little enough of it on me while alive, I will inherit that wealth when he dies.”

Somehow, Walkeden had guessed as much. “Very well, madam. But I would still suggest you look through the catalogue. It may be that we will be able to meet your needs simply by modifying something already in stock. No other firm has as wide a selection of nirvanas, heavens, utopias, and paradises as The Pearly Gate, and we are currently the only company offering Oneness-With-The-All—”

“You don’t stock what I want. No one does.”

“Indeed? What do you have in mind?”

If her eyes had been sapphires before, now they were blue Arctic ice. “Hell, Mr. Walkeden.”

Walkeden sat very still. He already knew she was planning to kill her husband—none of his business. That being the case, he should have guessed she’d hardly want to install him in a paradise.  He cleared his throat. “We offer a special discount on oblivion...”

“Not oblivion, Mr. Walkeden. Hell.”

“But, madam, that’s quite impossible. There are strict laws—”

“Not laws, Mr. Walkeden. Professional ethics, is all.” She took a debit card from her slim black purse. “How expensive are your ethics, Mr. Walkeden?”

“Mrs. Cavinaugh!”

“A quarter of a million? Half?”

Walkeden couldn’t take his eyes off that thin piece of plastic. The woman had done her homework; there was no law against what she was asking. The Supreme Court had decided three years before, in the landmark case of Simon vs. City of Gold, that while the religious were free to believe in the continuance of human identity after the death of the body via the soul, what afterlife architects placed into their computer-generated worlds were only computer simulations of the dead personalities they were based on, not the personalities themselves: that the artificial afterlives were, in effect, no more real than the worlds of computer games.

But the North American Society of Afterlife Architects had its own professional code, which prohibited unpleasant afterlives. Even Valhalla, with its eternal cycle of feasting and fighting, was against the rules. He could lose his license...

“If you turn me down, Mr. Walkeden, I’m sure you have competitors who will not,” Mrs. Cavinaugh said.

He looked back from the outstretched debit card to her face. “Why choose me in the first place?”

“A mutual acquaintance recommended you.”

“But who—”

“I need an answer, Mr. Walkeden.”

Walkeden looked at the debit card again. The Pearly Gate did good business, but there was a high overhead. All that posh and glitter... Other afterlife architects had gone out of business—some of them because of him. He still wasn’t as secure as he would have liked. The kind of money she offered would help—a lot.

“If NASAA found out...”

“Do you really think I am likely to tell them?”

She’s planning to murder her husband. She won’t tell anyone. And for the same reason, she can’t blackmail me later.

It was, really, the perfect business arrangement.

Abruptly he made up his mind. “Very well, Mrs. Cavinaugh. I’ll do it.”

“Good.” She started to slide the debit card into the slot on Walkeden’s desk, but he stopped her with his hand on hers, her skin cool beneath his fingers.

“But not for a quarter of a million, or even a half. One million dollars, Mrs. Cavinaugh. Or it’s no deal—and I report your request to NASAA and the police.”

Her cool expression never changed; she just inclined her head slightly. “Agreed,” she said. Walkeden pulled back his hand. Mrs. Cavinaugh finished inserting her card, then keyed in her security code and some figures. “$250,000 now, the rest when the job is done to my satisfaction. I’ll give you a month.”

Walkeden’s satisfaction at the credit transaction gave way to outrage. “A month? For a whole new afterlife?”

“My husband only has a month left to live, Mr. Walkeden.”

“But you haven’t even told me what you want!”

The woman reached into her purse and pulled out a folded slip of paper. “This should give you ample detail.”

He took it without opening it. “What about the preliminaries? I’ll need a complete brain digitization—and a continuous persona recording from now until he dies.” Reflexively he rubbed his own recorder, a tiny chip affixed to the skin behind his right ear, where he could show it to customers reluctant to have the inner workings of their minds stored in The Pearly Gate’s computer. “A month simply isn’t long enough for a good persona simulation.”

Mrs. Cavinaugh smiled. Her perfect white teeth weren’t pointed, but they still reminded Walkeden of a shark’s. “The brain digitization is already in your computer, Mr. Walkeden, and the persona recorder has been in place for several weeks.”

“Awfully sure of yourself, aren’t you?”

“Oh, yes, Mr. Walkeden, I am.” Her predatory smile vanished. “I’ll check on your progress in exactly two weeks. In four weeks I’ll want to give your work final approval.”

“I trust your husband’s condition doesn’t kill him earlier than you anticipate.”

“Oh, there’s no fear of that. Goodbye, Mr. Walkeden.” Mrs. Cavinaugh exited, and Walkeden caught a brief glimpse of Peters staring toward the office as the door opened and closed.

At once he turned to his terminal to check his personal account—and found it $250,000 richer.

A second check revealed a digitized replica of Thomas Cavinaugh’s brain in place in the computer’s memory. “It seems I am committed,” Walkeden muttered.

But committed to what? He picked up the piece of paper Mrs. Cavinaugh had left.

It bore only two words. “Hieronymus Bosch.”

Someone tapped on the door. “Enter,” Walkeden said.

Peters stuck in his head.  “Is there anything I should be doing for that woman who just left, sir? She didn’t give us any instructions—”

“No, Gerald, I’ve dealt with it.” Walkeden turned off the terminal. “Gerald, I’ve decided to take a month’s vacation. I’m leaving you in charge.”

Peters smiled and inclined your head. “Thank you very much indeed, sir. I shall endeavour to validate your trust.”

Walkeden felt a familiar flash of irritation at his assistant’s unctuousness, but brushed it off. Peters had been with him for three years, joining The Pearly Gate shortly after his own afterlife business had failed. Although Walkeden didn’t like him much, he had to admit the man was a hard worker. It was time to give him his chance to show what he could do. And there was no way he could spend time at work creating hell without Peters getting suspicious. He’d have to work at home.

He spent the next hour sanitizing the computer records of any trace of Mrs. Cavinaugh’s visit, then turned over the security codes to Peters and left.

For the next month Walkeden sequestered himself in his apartment. He spent part of his advance payment on upgrading his VR design equipment; he hadn’t used his home rig much since giving up his freelance career to found his own company, and technology had marched on. Now, for a fraction of what he had originally spent setting up the Pearly Gate’s system, he could create a home system that matched and, in some ways even surpassed it, in resolution.

Of course, the transfer of the persona simulation into the afterlife would have to be done using The Pearly Gate’s specialized software and hardware, but Walkeden knew that computer inside and out. No one would ever stumble on the private hell he would build for Helen Cavinaugh’s husband. Only he and she would ever be able to view it and watch Thomas Cavinaugh’s simulated suffering.

And what a hell Cavinaugh’s persona was condemned to! The note Mrs. Cavinaugh had given him carried far more information than he’d first thought. Heironymous Bosch was one of the most fascinating and bizarre painters of the late 15th and early 16th centuries. His most famous work was a triptych, “The Garden of Earthly Delights.” The left panel showed the birth of Eve in the Garden of Eden. The central panel swarmed with naked men and women engaged in licentious revelry.

The right panel was “Hell.”

A month was practically no time at all for the complex process of turning a two-dimensional painting into a full-sensory virtual reality. Walkeden spent every waking hour on it. He slept too little, ate too little, and drank too much coffee, while the fantastic images of Bosch’s painted nightmare carried over into his dreams.

But, to his surprise, he found a grim satisfaction in the work. I’ve been living behind a facade, he thought. I’ve been nothing but a glorified salesman, slipping on a mask of sympathy to make a sale. But I used to be an artist: and this proves that I still am. Head encased in his VR helmet, he looked around at the frozen scenes of horror he’d been crafting. Bosch’s masterpiece—and mine, too.

True to her word, Mrs. Cavinaugh called exactly two weeks after she had come to The Pearly Gate, and Walkeden, keeping the video off so she wouldn’t see his bloodshot eyes and scraggly beard, assured her the deadline would be met.

But her call reminded him of the outside world, and so after she hung up he phoned The Pearly Gate. “Any problems?” he asked Peters.

“Nothing I haven’t been able to handle, sir,” Peters said. “You’ll find all in order when you return.”

“Two more weeks,” Walkeden replied. “Enjoy yourself. Maybe someday I’ll put you in charge for good.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Why not give it all up? Walkeden thought as he turned back to his work. Concentrate on art, instead...serious VR work, none of this commercial stuff. With a million dollars in the bank, he could afford to take the risk: and he wouldn’t have to deal with Peters or Helen Cavinaugh—or their ilk—ever again.

“You look like hell,” Helen Cavinaugh greeted him two weeks later as he opened the door of his apartment.

“Appropriate, don’t you think?” Walkeden stifled a yawn, then made a grand gesture. “Please come in.”

She stalked in and looked around the cluttered living room with distaste. Fast-food cartons, hardcopy, beer bottles and datasticks competed for space on the coffee table.

Walkeden followed her gaze and shrugged. “I’ve been too busy on our little project to clean house.”

“It is finished, I trust?”

“Pretty well. I’d like to fine-tune it if I have time, but...” He led her into his study, even more cluttered than the living room, with trash teetering precariously on every flat surface. “Have a seat.”

Mrs. Cavinaugh sat gingerly in the swivel chair in front of the terminal. Walkeden handed her the VR helmet. “Of course, even the best VR interface can’t capture all the nuances that the simulated persona finds in a well-designed afterlife—for one thing, it engages all five of the persona’s senses—but this should give you a pretty good idea...”

He booted up Hell and turned it loose.

Mrs. Cavinaugh stiffened. Her head turned this way and that, avidly, like a hawk searching for prey. Finally she laughed and sat back. “I’ve seen enough, Mr. Walkeden.”

He stopped the program.

Mrs. Cavinaugh pulled off the helmet and tossed black hair out of her face. Her eyes glinted fiercely as she turned to look at him. “Impressive work, Mr. Walkeden.”

“Well, of course, what you’ve seen is only the background,” Walkeden said, pleased despite himself. “When your husband’s simulated persona is added, the program will focus on him as he moves about the afterlife environment.”

“Afterlife environment?” Mrs. Cavinaugh laughed. “Your occupation is as full of euphemisms as a mortician’s, Mr. Walkeden. Call it what it is—hell.” She stood abruptly. “My husband is not expected to last the night. I will bring his persona recorder to The Pearly Gate at 2 a.m. for the final transfer.”

“Tonight?” Walkeden blinked. “I’d hoped—a few more details—”

“Tonight, Mr. Walkeden. Your work is quite satisfactory as is.”

He would have protested, but a yawn seized him, and when it had passed, he just shrugged. “Tonight, then.”

“I’ll see myself out.”

After she had gone Walkeden looked at the computer for a moment, thinking he might still try to smooth out a rough spot or two, but another yawn took him and he turned away. If she likes it, so do I, he thought, stumbling into his bedroom.

So exhausted even nightmares couldn’t trouble him, he slept.

At 2 a.m. Walkeden waited, cold and wet, at the back door of The Pearly Gate for his patron’s arrival. Fresh sleep and icy rain had filled him with second thoughts, though it was far too late to back out. Still, one thought troubled him.

He knew why the ASAA prohibited unpleasant afterlives. The lawyers for the plaintiff in the Supreme Court decision, a deeply Catholic individual who has been horrified to find that his wife had chosen a particularly sensual afterlife for herself featuring multiple sexual partners, had made much of the fact that the simulated persona of a living person had never been successfully transferred into an engineered afterlife. The simulation always crashed, as though some essential bit of code were missing.

The plaintiff’s lawyers had noted  that many religious leaders believed that “missing code” was the soul, which, breaking free of a dying body, was attracted to the computer’s copy of its former home, and thus gave the simulation “life.”

The Pope, most imams, and assorted others thus condemned afterlife architecture in general, claiming that the computers hosting simulated personae were reservoirs of ghosts, man-made Purgatories preventing the souls trapped within them from proceeding to the true, eternal afterlife.

Walkeden had always said he didn’t believe it. The Supreme Court had dismissed the notion as unscientific.


Always before he had transferred people into pleasant, happy afterlives, for the comfort of survivors, who could look into their computers and see and hear their loved ones rejoicing in heaven or Neverland or wherever.

But this time...if soul transfer were anything more than a myth...

A car turned into the alley and Walkeden pushed the thought from his mind. All I’m going to do, he told himself, is insert one complex computer simulation into another. The only pleasure or pain it will give is to those who look into it—and for Mrs. Cavinaugh, it’s clear, it will be pleasure. And the money she’ll pay will be pleasure for me.

The car stopped beside him. Mrs. Cavinaugh got out. “My husband died just a few minutes ago,” she said calmly. “I’ve brought you the persona recorder.”

“I’m sorry for your loss,” Walkeden said. He unlocked the door, then led her through a dark corridor and into the computer room, gently aglow with green status lights. He turned on the overhead LEDs. “No one can see in here from outside,” he told Mrs. Cavinaugh.

“Please get on with it. I have to get back.”

“Of course.” Walkeden went to the circuit printer, booted it up, and then opened an airtight compartment above it and took out the smooth silvery wafer of a blank superchip. He slid it into place in the printer, then took “Hell” from its padded container in his pocket and placed it in one of the originator slots. Before he turned around Mrs. Cavinaugh was at his side, her husband’s persona recorder in one outstretched white hand. She stared intently over his shoulder as he slid it into another originator slot, then turned to the circuit printer keyboard and called up Thomas Cavinaugh’s brain digitization. He looked over the screen display to make sure everything was in order, then activated the merger program.

As the circuit printer hummed to life, he glanced at Mrs. Cavinaugh, thinking she looked very calm and relaxed for someone who had just murdered her husband. Could he have misread her?

“How did he die?” he asked.

She gave him a cold stare. “Suddenly.”

“Of course.” He turned to check the readouts on the screen.

“How long?” Mrs. Cavinaugh asked.

“A few minutes.” Those minutes passed in silence. Walkeden watched the computer; Mrs. Cavinaugh watched him. He was uncomfortably aware of her gaze, and of her strange half-smile.

The figures streaming across the screen became zeros, then ended. A green light flashed.

“Your husband is in hell,” Walkeden said without looking at Mrs. Cavinaugh. He reached for the new superchip.

A voice from the doorway stopped him. “Leave it, Walkeden. We’re not quite finished with it yet.”

Walkeden turned irritably. “Peters, what—”

He stopped when he saw the gun.

Mrs. Cavinaugh crossed to Peters and kissed him deliberately on the cheek, then turned to face Walkeden, her shark-like smile back full-force. “It’s a sweet deal, Mr. Walkeden. My husband’s money, your business, each other—and no witnesses.”

Walkeden’s mouth was very dry. “Peters! Why do you need my business with her money?”

“I don’t. But I had my own business once, Mr. Walkeden. Until The Pearly Gate stole all my customers. Now you’re the one who’s out of business.” He aimed the gun at Walkeden’s head. “Permanently.”

“Peters, wait—!”

“Good-bye, boss.”

The gunshot was incredibly loud.

The lurid light of the burning city on the horizon reflects off the low and boiling clouds, turning the jagged landscape the colour of blood.

Walkeden crouches naked beneath an overturned table, blood from its red-soaked surface dripping onto his back. He wraps his arms tightly around his legs, trying to make himself as small as possible.

His eyes flick wildly from place to place; he cannot bear to focus on any one horror too long, but the images remain in his mind even when he closes his eyes—a hog wearing a nun’s habit raping a naked woman; a giant hare carrying the trussed, headless bodies of a man and woman slung from a pole; a creature with the body of a man and the head of a bird ripping dripping strings of intestine from someone whose blood-soaked legs still kick the air feebly.

Screams rend the air, and searing winds waft the stench of burning sulphur and human excrement across the hot, barren rocks.

Walkeden hears a chitinous clicking behind him—but the worst horror of all is that he already knows what is about to take him in its curved, crablike claws.

He remembers programming it.

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Paths to the Stars: Twenty-Two Fantastic Tales of Imagination

Twenty-two tales of fantasy, science fiction, and horror from Aurora Award-winning author Edward Willett.

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Edward Willett

Edward Willett is an award-winning author of science fiction and fantasy for readers of all ages.