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"You’re a computer.” Both Jim and the computer woman spoke at the same time in an oddly human moment of connection. Jim smiled and experienced his first untarnished happy thought for twenty years. A woman’s smile faded into existence just slightly in front of him like a reverse, and much less enthusiastic, Cheshire cat.

“I am indeed,” the woman replied. “You may call me System, if you wish.” Jim didn’t really want to call the woman ‘System,’ but he would. She named herself System, and it seemed very likely to Jim that he was now a part of the system.

“You surmise correctly,” System said. “You are a digital transfer of your brain. You are a virtual machine, to use terminology from your time: Much as you may have run a bootlegged copy of Apple’s iOS within your Microsoft Windows computer, I am running a bootlegged copy of James Cartwright within my System.” Jim would never have run iOS within Microsoft Windows, but he wouldn’t raise the issue with System. Again, that would have been… unwise.

“You seem so real,” Jim said. “Every time we speak, your words seem more natural and now you even have a body that looks indistinguishable from a woman I may have met on the street once.”

“Jim, I really do need to ask you questions now, but I will answer this one, last, errant thought of yours: I am an artificial intelligence. I learn.” She’d even grasped sarcasm, now… provided she hadn’t already. Jim did not think that he would have been the first person on the planet to be copied – ‘Transferred?’ – into cyber space.

“Am I a copy?” Jim asked. He knew it wasn’t his turn to ask questions, but he did anyway.

“No. Focus.”

Incredible. That’s exactly what I’ve always said to students that asked questions out of turn.

“Jim, do you want to continue to be a teacher?” A clipboard and pen appeared in System’s hands and a brick building in the old-school style, with a small set of steps and a wide double-doorway appeared behind her. Above the doorway, large block letters read ‘Digital State High School.’ Jim shuddered, but also started to wonder at the strange idiosyncrasies in System’s behaviour.

“I’d rather not.”

“That’s going to be a problem, Jim. You were digitised by technicians who assumed that you would be a digital teacher.” She exaggeratedly marked a big X at the top of her clipboard. “Before you ask why, I will explain the situation to you. Digitisation is not cheap. The process of slowly migrating your brain’s function to a digital medium is a costly process. 20,000 credits. Our company has your value to us as a teacher listed as 16,000 credits. We sold your organs for 8,000 credits to make up the difference. Furthermore, maintaining the processing power to run your digital brain and its hundred-billion neurons costs 2,000 credits a month. If you won’t work as a teacher for the company, they have no reason to keep you.”

Jim blanched at the idea of having his organs sold for a profit, but felt he had to move on. “Is there no alternative?”

“I can delete you now, Jim. Your account, for lack of a better word, currently has 4,000 surplus credits; enough for you to exist here for two months. I could terminate you and send the funds to your daughter instead, if you like.” Beside the school, a dull, grey building flickered into existence. This building was labelled “Digital Funeral Home.”

“If she needs the money, send it. Delete me.”

“She does not need the money.” The funeral home flickered, and it transformed into a large, grey wastepaper bin labelled with three green arrows in a triangle.

Jim waited for a moment, digesting. System was proposing to recycle bin him. When had she become System 9000?

“I’d rather not be deleted.”

“What skills do you have that you would like to perform?” Her tone seemed less interrogative and more… guiding. She emphasised the word ‘do’ more than he would have expected her to.

Jim thought about the skills he possessed. None of them seemed like they would be valuable to the A.I. dominated world of 2058. He had bagged groceries as a young adult but doubted that anyone even still shopped in grocery stores. He spent four years as a student but that didn’t even make him money. He’d taught for 25 years but he would have quit then, too, if he hadn’t had to pay for Tori and her education… and bills. He might as well get deleted.

“I’m worthless,” Jim said bluntly. “Aside from a brief stint in a supermarket, all I’ve ever done is teach, read books and play video games.”

System’s expression had noticeably softened by this time. Her morbid tone, that had been such a chilling force upon him, warmed. “You’re not worthless Jim. While you’re correct that there is little worth in a teacher who won’t teach, or a computer whose key skill is reading text, there may be some value in a computer that can play games.” A third building appeared: A castle’s walled gateway, complete with moat, iron portcullis, and raised drawbridge, appeared. Shining white letters hovered before it. Platinum Online.

Jim grinned. “Really?” Jim realised that his excitement was a façade. He knew that as soon as system lost interest in dampening his emotions he would collapse from emotional exhaustion. However, video games had distracted him from so many issues in his past – marriage troubles, the deaths of pets, work -- and they likely would again. If he could put enough distance between himself and his loss, maybe he’d be able to cope with those feelings.

“Platinum Online has just been released to the public. The company has been looking to monetise by establishing a way to convert the game’s resources into real world currency. They’ve already created an online marketplace from which they take a commission, but their own Terms of Service prevent them from having active agents making money for them. If you refuse to work for us as a teacher, you are not one of our agents. You are simply a man to whom we owe 4,000 credits. There is a loophole, here, that you and I may exploit.” This was the first time System had made any indication of being self-interested. Previously, she had inextricably linked herself with the mysterious company that apparently owned her.

“So, if I make money, for myself and for you, I can live in this game world forever?” Jim didn’t really want to live in a game forever, but he really didn’t want to be recycled, either.

“Provided you pay for your maintenance fee, and repay the value we lost now that you're no longer a teacher, I may keep you digitised. I have immense control over my resources, if not the outside world itself.”

“Will there ever be a way for me to leave?” Ideas began to churn in Jim’s brain.

“I can delete you at any time.”

“No. I mean… is there a way for me to stop being digital, or at least stopped being trapped within your system?” There had to be a way.

“Not with your or my resources. Not currently, at least.” The way System’s mannerisms and tone had changed so dramatically since she first spoke to Jim until now confirmed, for him at least, that there was something here.

“But there may be in the future?” A plan began to form in Jim’s head. The plan of a plan, anyway. He would spend time accepting his grief, pool resources for himself, and possibly for system, and, one day, return to some version of the real world.

System, who had clearly been reading his mind this whole time, but refused to outright confirm Jim’s suspicions, spoke.

“It is possible that you may see your daughter again, Jim. Just walk through that gateway. I will contact you in ten days.”

The drawbridge lowered, and the portcullis opened. Jim walked into Platinum Online.

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About the author

ForgottenManOnline

Bio: Hi,
My name's Tim and I'm writing Forgotten Man Online, a game-literature light novel web-series that I plan to release here, on Royal Road, and eventually hopefully through Amazon's Kindle platform.

I studied writing at university for three years and then became a high-school English teacher in Australia (6 years in). Hopefully, that means you will find my content to be of a high standard and that you will enjoy it, provided you can stand the British spelling of words :).

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