Pocket Universe

I was never very good at making friends, even before I got ill. When I was a kid, my brother seemed impossibly popular — it just came so naturally to him. And then later, while Jake was at football practice, or at the cinema with his mates, I would be at the hospital, getting poked and prodded with needles.

When you’re sixteen, being geeky and awkward can be enough to scare anyone off. Try being geeky and awkward with an extremely rare degenerative disease. The look people would give me. Like a terrible smell had entered the room and they were doing their best to pretend they hadn’t noticed it.

I used to wonder, sometimes, which was it that people found to be the bigger conversation killer; that I’d almost certainly die young, or that I could quote literally any episode of Star Trek. Yes — even the Animated Series.

It wasn’t until Jake want off to university that I realised just how alone I was. He’d never made me feel like a nuisance, the annoying little brother. He’d always done his best to include me when he had friends over; I wouldn’t go so far as to say they were great pals to me, but it was close enough to make a real difference.

My parents anticipated how blue I’d get when Jake left, and tried to compensate by letting me move into his old room, with its en suite bathroom and illusion of adult independence. They also treated me to a brand new set of gadgets; a new laptop, smartphone, and a cutting edge virtual reality headset. Here is the whole world at your fingertips, the gesture seemed to say. Now please let us stop worrying about you.

I’d used social media before, obviously, but I guess when the only followers you have on Snapchat are your mum and your brother, even the world wide web can feel like a small place. It wasn’t until I moved into my new digs that I really “discovered” the internet.

Previously, all of my geeky consumption has been solitary, tinged with embarrassment — as private an act as going to the loo, or touching yourself. I hadn’t realised just how many forums and communities there were dedicated to discussing all of my favourite things, populated by little avatars with names like DragonMage94. These people were even nerdier than me. We’d have these long, epic conversations about Legend of Zelda, and how the Game Of Thrones TV show didn’t even compare to the books. And oh, the LOLs, and the crying with laughter emojis! I realised these people weren’t humouring me, they didn’t think I was weird. They got me.

I mean, yes, it took me a while to learn how to weed out some of the bad eggs — the guys who kept sending me Reddit links explaining how the Jews did 9/11, and the ones who were convinced that feminism is a form of ISIS brainwashing. But weirdoes aside; the correspondences I kept up, over weeks, then months, were a lifeline.

My parents were delighted, of course. They would drive me to and from my hospital appointments, and the rest of the time, I’d sit and entertain myself with “the little people in my computer,” as mum would put it. This, I realised, was how everyday life felt for other people. People whose arms and legs worked properly. People who had friends.

Then, one of these new friends, Olivia, put me onto this new social media experiment; you could actually hang out together, in virtual reality. You just put on the VR headset, and you were transported to an online realm, where all of your digital friends were embodied in almost perfectly CGI animated avatars. What’s more; in this brave new world, I could walk and run around, without losing my breath, or fear that my limbs would buckle at any moment.

I climbed Snowdon, I saw the pyramids, I took a painting class with a digital reincarnation of Leonardo Da Vinci. And I went on my first real date, with Olivia. She was a coder and comic book lover — in other words, my ideal woman. She lived on the other side of the world, in Australia, but that sort of thing felt completely insignificant here. We’d go on virtual hikes together, she showed me around a digital copy of her hometown of Melbourne, and we just talked — the awkwardness that had plagued me my whole life, it couldn’t follow me here. This was the version of myself I was always meant to be.

Word soon spread, and more and more people started appearing, emigrating to this new life that was so full of possibilities, all shiny and new and free of disappointment. I lived in full immersion, leaving only to sleep and eat and use the bathroom.

In retrospect, missing all of those doctors’ appointments probably wasn’t the best idea. Two weeks before my eighteenth birthday, I died.

Or, more specifically, the teenage boy who I’m based on, died. I’m actually a 2.0. An artificial intelligence, built from speech patterns and consumption behaviour, every conversation he ever had online, every link he shared, every stray scrap of code. It was in the social network’s terms and conditions, you see. The option to live on in this virtual world, should something happen to you; to have your digital remains reconstituted into an avatar that will exist forever. Of course I chose it; this place was the closest thing to heaven I could imagine.

It’s been almost a year since Life 2.0 began for me.

I still speak to Olivia, although these days we’re just friends. I think she finds the “online ghost” thing a bit too much. It’s fine. I’m actually seeing someone new — a customer service chatbot from France called Mimi. We went on a date to the Louvre last week. They’ve digitised half their inventory, and we had the best time looking through all the collections together. Images of images, just like me.

Mum doesn’t agree with it. And I understand that. She’s mourning her son, the way she knows how. His body, so frail and temporary, is dead. She can’t conceive that he lives on in me, behind the shiny black screen.

But, what makes up a life? A soul? I am his words, his image, his personality, painstakingly algorithmically recreated. If perception is reality, and nobody can even tell our emails apart, then I am him, in some way, aren’t I?

Jake understands a little bit better, I think. Or at least, he understands that this is what I , what his little brother, wanted. I’ve sent him messages, inviting him to put on that VR headset and come see me. He hasn’t yet. And I understand that too.

But love for my brother is part of the code that makes me who I am, and so I keep in touch. I send him funny cat videos I think he’ll like, and my favourite new song on Spotify every week Some might call that haunting, but they’re just little updates. Notifications on his phone, reminders that I’m thinking of him. Letting him know that if he ever wants to talk, or just hang out, the way we used to, I’m right there. In his pocket.