This is the Ninth round of the Title Writing Prompt Challenge. For them not familiar with the challenge, a quick summary: three writers offer the fruit of their labor and inspiration based on a given title.
The Round 9 Title — Behind the Green Door — was chosen by Perry. I’ll choose the title for the next round.
The writing challenge has no restrictions and the stories span a wide gamut of genres. The majority of the stories fall in the G and PG rating range with a few perhaps pushing into the soft R-rating. Those ratings are guidelines but they are subjective. If you find a story disturbing because of the topics, language, and/or plot points, stop reading and move on to the next one. The same goes if you are not interested in finishing a story. It may seem like obvious advice, but these days many people go out of their way to experience outrage (and then complain about it).
This, then, is my submission written with a day to spare, for a change.
And, here’s the blurb for this story:
Your life continues Behind the Green Door . . . or, does it?
Behind the Green Door
Copyright 2022 — E. J. D’Alise
(4,360 words – approx. reading time: about 16 minutes based on 265 WPM)
Venessa removed the headset, gloves, and sensory suit.
“Amazing,” she said. “It felt like I was there, and the tactile feedback is very realistic.”
The salesman, Todd, carefully placed the equipment on the mannequin as he nodded and slipped into his sale mode.
“It’s the latest AI-designed model. Lighter and more responsive than version 4.1, with more data acquisition points. There are tiny actuators at all the data points, providing tactile feedback when interacting with the VR environment.”
“Who was the person I was interacting with?” Venessa asked.
“Oh, that wasn’t an actual person,” Todd replied. “That’s an AI-driven Avatar we use in demonstrations.”
“So, all the questions I asked were answered by an AI simulation?”
“That’s impressive,” Venessa said, “but I was hoping I could interact with a real person and perhaps get some feedback from a user.”
“Did the AI not answer all your questions?”
“Well, yes, but…” Venessa answered, struggling for the right words.
“Are you not comfortable dealing with AIs?” Todd asked. “Perhaps I can help,” he continued. “I’m fully trained in the technology and can answer questions.”
“Oh, it’s not that,” Venessa answered. “It’s just that… well, I wanted to get a feel for the psychological aspect from someone who had crossed over.”
“Oh,” Todd said, a surprised tone tingeing his response. “We have many testimonials if you’d care to peruse them.”
“No offense, but are you familiar with the feedback scandals?”
The young man looked at her quizzically.
“You know, where companies were buying positive reviews and suppressing negative feedback.”
“Surely, you don’t think that BTGD would stoop to such tactics, even if they weren’t illegal?”
“Look, I’m not old, but I am old-fashioned. I still consider word-of-mouth a fairly reliable source of unsolicited endorsements,” Venessa said. “Even then, there’s no substitute for speaking directly to a few random users and getting their unfiltered opinions.”
“Pardon me for being blunt,” Todd said, “but starting from a position of mistrust, I’m not sure how we could ever assure you that what you hear and see isn’t manipulated.
“I mean, if you don’t trust us to provide truthful answers, why would you trust anyone we put you in touch with?”
“Would it be possible to wander in the BTGD world for a while and interact with users?” Venessa asked.
Todd shook his head and pointed to the sensory suit.
“Aside from the privacy concerns, we only have one of these per location. As you know, appointments are scheduled three months in advance and limited to thirty minutes. But, more importantly, the families of people who have crossed get first dibs on suits. We have a backlog of more than a month and struggling to keep up.
“We can’t ask families waiting to interact with their loved ones to wait any longer than necessary,” Tod continued. “Even leaving aside the cost, surely you can see the logistics make what you’re asking impossible.”
“I understand,” Venessa said.
They stood there in uncomfortable silence for a few seconds, then they both tried to speak at once.
“Could I maybe…” she said.
“Are you…” he said.
“Sorry,” Todd said. “I didn’t mean to interrupt you.”
“No,” Venessa said. “Go ahead.”
“I was about to ask if you are the customer or if you’re shopping for someone else.”
“It’s for someone else,” she replied.
“I see. In that case, I can recommend you to a family support group. Some people have difficulty coming to terms with the decision of their loved ones and form support groups. Perhaps speaking to them could at least get you second-hand customer feedback,” Tod said, then gently continued. “Perhaps even assuage any apprehensions.”
“That’s very kind of you,” Venessa replied, “and yes, I would be very interested. That’s like what I was about to ask.”
Just then, a chime announced the next customer.
“Let me get that information for you,” Todd said, tapping a few keys on his tablet and sending the information directly to Venessa’s contact email.
Later, Venessa sat with her mother and discussed what she had learned.
“It sounds pretty wonderful,” her mother said. “I don’t think you should worry.”
“Why not wait?” Venessa asked.
Her mother smiled. They’d had many conversations prompted by that simple question.
“You know why, Nessa. I don’t know how long I might have before I lose so much of me, I’ll no longer know myself . . . or you.
“Aside from the burden I’m placing on you, I want to preserve at least the memories I have before they flutter away.”
“It’s no burd—” Venessa started, but her mother put a gentle finger to Venessa’s lips.
“Nessa, I’ve had my life and have no regrets,” her mother said. “It’s time for you to live yours. Besides, it’s not like I’ll be gone.”
People who had crossed ranged from the very young to the very old, and the support group reflected that. People whose loved ones were now a part of a vast artificial reality world; brothers, sisters, parents, but few husbands or wives, most of them young since older couples often crossed together.
Venessa mainly listened and didn’t interact beyond brief exchanges of greetings. The group listened to a brief presentation regarding the new sensory suit, and a few new members spoke about their loved ones.
People missed those who had crossed, but most people who spoke had come to terms with the new state of affairs and seemed grateful for the opportunity to continue interaction with their loved ones.
“I’m still not comfortable with it.”
Venessa turned her head toward the man who had stopped next to her and echoed her feelings.
“No, that I can cope with,” the man continued. “It’s this new phase of existence.”
Venessa looked the man over. She’d always found it difficult to judge a person’s age, but the man was probably in her age group.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be forward. It’s just that you don’t seem to embrace your loved ones going Behind the Green Door,” the man continued. “Who did you lose?”
Venessa hesitated, suddenly feeling like an outsider intruding on people sharing private grief.
“No one… yet. I’m doing research. My mother… she’s…” Venessa stopped, finding it difficult to utter the words. Not because she didn’t want to accept the truth, but because it always elicited sympathy when what she wanted were solutions to an unsolvable problem.
“I understand,” the man said. “My grandmother raised me and opted to cross a few months ago. I had a difficult time coping with her decision. I still don’t know what to make of it.”
“Have you… visited her since then?” Venessa asked.
The man looked uncomfortable and looked away as he answered, “No. I’m on the waiting list, but I don’t know if I will or not.”
“Surely she’d want to see you!” Venessa blurted out.
The man looked at her for a few seconds before extending his hand.
“I’m Tom,” he said, “and if you want to talk about it, let’s grab a coffee around the corner.”
“I’m not sure…”
Just then, Paul, the group’s facilitator and organizer, walked up.
“Sorry to interrupt,” he said, then continued, facing Tom. “Tom, do you mind? I need help with the membership database.”
“Sure,” Tom replied. “I’ll be right there.”
Then, turning to Venessa, he smiled and said, “Some other time,” and walked away.
“Wait!” Venessa heard herself say. “I’m Venessa, and I’d love… I mean, I would appreciate your insight.”
“I’m not sure how long this will take,” he said, “but if you care to wait, we can still do that coffee.”
More than an hour after the members had left, Tom walked back to her.
“Sorry about that. Paul is self-funding this support group, and I help him with the technical stuff,” Tom said. “Do you still feel like a coffee, or is it too late?”
“How about a walk along the riverfront?” she offered.
Ten minutes later, they were strolling along Pueblo’s East Riverwalk, with a few ducks swimming along and pacing them, hoping for food.
“What did you mean when you said you’re not sure if you’ll visit your grandmother?” Venessa asked.
Tom pointed to a stone bench, and they sat.
“I’m uncomfortable with the Green Door project,” he said.
“There’s no closure, and I’m not even sure what, or rather, who, is behind it.”
“You mean the corporation in partnership with the government?”
“That’s one aspect of it,” Tom said, “but it goes beyond that. I’m talking about the persons who cross over.
“No, scratch that. The persons who died and are now Behind the Green Door.”
“But,” Venessa said, “they don’t die. Their consciousness is uploaded to the cloud. Families and friends can — and do — still talk and interact with them.”
Tom looked at the ducks. Having lost interest in them, they were now following someone else. That person had a small paper bag and occasionally threw breadcrumbs the ducks competed to get. He wanted to tell the person breadcrumbs were not healthy for the ducks, but didn’t for the same reason he hesitated speaking to Venessa about this; it had a chance of destroying the illusion they were living.
“Look, I’m not a religious man, but the whole thing is the concept of an afterlife realized through technology. The thing is, I didn’t buy the religious version, and I don’t buy this version.”
“I’m not following,” Venessa said, not because she didn’t but because she didn’t want to take it to the logical conclusion.
“Do you really want to hear me spell it out?” he asked. “Most people’s eyes roll, and they lose interest whenever I speak about these things.”
“I’m interested in your opinions,” Venessa said, “or I wouldn’t be sitting here.”
“Often, when people say that, they want reassurance for what they already think or believe.”
“Well, now you’re drifting into the condescending,” Venessa said. “How do you know your thinking and beliefs won’t be challenged?”
“Sorry,” Tom replied. “Force of habit and decades of similar conversations have made me cautious. Plus, it’s always difficult dealing with belief, including one’s own.”
They sat in silence, Venessa still mildly irritated by what she considered condescension on Tom’s part.
“Screw it,” Tom said, apparently reaching a decision.
“It’s an oversimplification, but I don’t think it is far from the truth,” he said. “Throughout history, there have been two major driving forces behind every religion, ancient or new.
“A search for meaning and fear of death. Of those two, I think the fear of death does the heavy lifting. After all, you can find meaning in almost anything you set your mind to, but there’s no escaping death,” Tom said. “But that’s exactly what most religions offer, and that’s what the Green Door offers.”
“But, there is a difference,” Venessa countered.
“The promise of interaction,” Tom ventured.
“Yes,” Venessa said. “The concept of Heaven doesn’t have the immediacy of Green Door. You have to wait until you die before you rejoin your loved ones.”
“With the proviso of salvation tied to the acceptance of the Faith,” Tom said. “You have to hand it to the various religious movements. Adding the fear of eternal torment to the fear of non-existence was a stroke of genius. It sure made them a lot of money.
“And that’s why Green Door is mounting such a strong challenge to religious institutions. The offer of immortality without judgment appeals to many,” Tom added.
“I’m sorry,” Venessa said, “but I still don’t understand your reluctance to visit your grandmother.”
Tom turned to look at Venessa.
“You’re sounding more and more like someone defending the Green Door approach.”
Venessa looked away, then down at the hands on her lap.
“Maybe I am. I hate the inevitability of death, but Green Door does — at least on the surface — provide an alternative.”
Tom leaned forward, resting his forearms on his legs.
“Let me tell you a story,” he said. “Two stories. The first is a story of a woman who ran a successful business. She marketed herself as a psychic medium, helping people get in touch with their loved ones. She never reached national notoriety, but in the local spiritualists’ circles, she was well respected and made a good living giving private and open séances. Over thirty years, she got really good at cold-reading, good enough that she could do it without even realizing that’s what she was doing.
“In that regard, she was no different from people who believe God or some other entity speaks to — and through — them.” Tom paused for a few seconds before continuing. “I’ve always wondered, and still do, if the Pope believes in everything the church teaches. Or that he gets his inspiration directly from god. And not just the Pope, but the many people claiming this or that god speaks to them. Are they scamming others, playing the game to reap the rewards, or do they seriously believe the thoughts that god directs them?”
“Perhaps they’re just trying to do good,” Venessa said.
“Perhaps… but I’m still curious to know whether they’re knowingly telling white lies to comfort the followers, or to fleece them. Or do they believe it’s not white lies, but the truth of things?
“But, I digress. Eventually, this lady came to believe her own story and unconsciously pushed the envelope, getting more specific and giving advice instead of vague reassurances. She eventually believed she was a medium, a conduit between the customers who came to her and their deceased loved ones.”
“What happened then?”
“Leaving out the details, some of the advice she dispensed caused great harm to some, and they sued her. No matter the strength of her belief, it wasn’t enough of a defense to keep her from losing nearly everything, and the people who believed in her suddenly called her a fraud. The support that elevated her self-confidence crumbled, and so did her spirits. In the end, it affected both her physical and mental health.”
“. . . Your grandmother; the lady was your grandmother,” Venessa said.
“What’s the other story?”
“Her story is concurrent to the Behind the Green Door story. Their breakthrough in consciousness mapping, merging AI to reconstructed personality modules, and the eventual proof-of-concept led to consciousness transference to The Cloud. Funny, that.”
“The fact that it was called The Cloud long before people were stored in it. The irony isn’t lost on me; people are essentially ascending to an artificial Heaven.
“Anyway, you know the rest; the resistance to assisted suicide evaporated practically overnight. People weren’t ending their lives; they were merely transcending their mortal life and heading on, Behind the Green Door.”
“There are rumors the company name was ill-chosen or purposefully ironic,” Venessa said.
“The rumor that it was the title of a pornographic movie late in the last century?”
“Yes, something like that; a movie from over a hundred years ago.”
Tom smiled. “I wouldn’t doubt there might have been such a title, but the company’s founder believes in the power of colors; green is the color of life, renewal, and nature, meant to be relaxing and evoke images of youthfulness. The green doors of their establishments and transference rooms promote the idea of going to a better place once you go beyond it.
“Anyway, the rest of the story is about their eventual collaboration with the government. It practically saved Social Security and revamped other economic aid programs. The disabled, the sick, and the old could opt to have the government pay for them to cross to a better place or keep getting payments as they slowly withered away and died. For my grandmother, it was a simple choice; in her mind, she would meet the people she’d been channeling all those years. Once she decided, both her spirit and health improved. She couldn’t wait to cross.”
“Again, I don’t understand the problem,” Venessa asked.
“Look,” Tom said, “on the one hand, I think it’s good that she crossed. She had nothing left to give to life, and life had nothing to offer her.”
“But I can’t help feeling the whole thing is nothing more than a massive euthanasia program, with a sideshow to ease the minds of the living,” Tom said, “much like the perennial message that’s voiced at religious funerals as consolation to the survivors; ‘they’re in a better place, now’ … but, are they?”
“What do you mean?” Venessa asked.
“Take the idea of Heaven… no religion can give definite answers to what it’s like, and people don’t question it beyond generalities; it’s supposed to be nice, but it’s never explained. Some believe we’ll have actual bodies, but that raises a host of questions. Others believe the soul goes to heaven, but that’s not us. By definition, it’s something apart from who we are and what we are.”
“Those echo my reservations about the Green Door option,” Venessa said. “The idea of incorporeal existence as energy in a virtual environment. As a physical person, I’m told that I cannot imagine it and can’t even comprehend what that’s like, even if they could describe it.”
“For me, it’s the root assumption I can’t come to grip with,” Tom said. “Even assuming something survives after our physical bodies die, it can’t be ‘us’ because we are so inexorably tied to our bodies, and that not even considering that the idea of ‘self’ is an illusion created by the brain.”
“Once the brain dies,” Venessa said, “the constructed self also dies.”
“Yes, but what Green Door has done is map that self onto another brain, an artificial brain,” Tom said. “But then, we’re left with a huge question; does the consciousness take over the artificial brain, or does the artificial brain direct the consciousness?”
They sat in silence for a few minutes; the ducks making their way back to them but veering away once it was clear there still was no food to be had.
“There’s another thing to consider,” Venessa said. “Regardless of the actual working of it, the question is whether whatever — or whoever — is on the other side can be hurt.”
“Yes, of course.”
Tom sighed and leaned back, looking up at the sky. A few clouds were doing a poor job of resembling animals.
“I struggle with that,” he said. “Just like for us, even if our awareness is just an illusion, even if our feelings are an illusion, they are real to us on a practical level. That’s why I never worried about any of it; as far as I’m concerned, I aim to live life as best I can, and that’s it.”
Venessa turned to Tom.
“I understand the conflict; before the Green Door option, whether loved ones ascended to a different plane of existence was irrelevant. Now, with the option to interact with the surviving consciousness, the question is very much at the forefront.”
Tom looked back at her and smiled.
“What’s so funny?”
“I’m reminded of an episode of a show I once watched. One protagonist fell in love with the digital personal assistant on his phone,” Tom explained. “It was funny, but now we regularly interact with eerily realistic AIs, possibly forgetting they’re not real persons.”
“Yes, and more and more robots serve as companions, be they animals or humanoid-shaped,” Venessa said. “I see where you’re going with this. Even when we know for a fact that something has no will of its own, evolution has programmed us to react as if the robot has needs and feelings.”
“It’s an irrational but understandable reaction,” Tom said.
“So, what are you going to do? Visit your grandmother or not?”
“Other people in my life have died, but all of them before the Green Door option was available. I attended funerals where people spoke as if the dead could still hear them,” Tom said. “I’ve been to cemeteries where people talk to headstones and even hug them.
“I was close to some people who died, but standing at a grave, I felt no part of them was in attendance. They were gone, and the only place they survived was in my memory of them.”
Tom fell silent, and Venessa waited.
“This is different,” Venessa said after a long minute of silence. “Something is there. Something you can interact with, even hug.”
“Does it mean you now feel better about your mother going through the Green Door?” Tom asked
It was Venessa’s turn to look away as she spoke, perhaps signaling the uncertainty of her answer.
“I don’t feel better about losing her physical self, but I think I will visit her to be on the safe side. If there’s any part of her, the real her, that survives, I don’t want her to think I’ve abandoned her.
“Plus, admittedly, in part, it’s for my benefit.”
They spoke for a while longer and agreed to meet again after the next meeting.
“I’ve been thinking about Behind the Green Door,” her mother said.
They’d finalized the arrangements, the Government subsidizing the transfer and the cost of the sensory suit, and were now waiting for scheduling some time in the next month.
“You’ve changed your mind?” Venessa asked.
“No, I’m still going through with it,” her mother answered. “But I want to talk about after.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t think you should visit me. I think you should donate the sensory suit for people waiting for one.”
“Why would you say that?” Venessa asked, her voice rising a tad.
“Let me explain,” her mother said. “I remember when I lost my dad and, before that, my mother. Each time, it was difficult, the pain and loss almost unbearable, but, with time, that pain and loss morphed into comforting memories of them.
“I’m concerned about you visiting me after I’m gone. I fear each visit will reignite the pain and loss rather than letting them gradually fade.”
“Closure and moving on,” Venessa said. “That’s what Tom said.”
“Someone I met at the support group,” Venessa explained. “His grandmother crossed the Green Door a while back, and he’s debating whether to visit her or if it’s even her on the other side.”
“What did he decide?”
“Nothing yet. Logic tells him whatever is on the other side isn’t her, but he can’t be sure. He says that doubt prevents him and others from achieving closure and moving on.”
“He’s a wise man,” her mother said.
“But,” Venessa said, “what if I want to visit you? What if it’s not going to prolong the sense of loss but help me cope with losing you?”
“If life has taught me anything, it’s that there are no easy paths to dealing with the grief of loss. But grieving and then accepting that loss shortens the way back to normalcy. Hanging on negatively affects a person and those around them. I’ve seen it, and it’s sad.
“As your mother, I ask you to, yes, remember me, but also move on. I will be gone, and I’ll be happy to live on in your memory.”
“But if I don’t visit you, will your consciousness live on?”
Her mother reached out to hold Venessa’s hand in her own and then hugged her.
“I don’t know, Nessa. But then, we’ve never known. But we know that we’re here now, and we should make the best of this life before worrying about what comes after.”
Tom and Venessa finished emptying the container of cracked corn they had brought for the ducks and sat on their usual bench.
“That was a nice service for your mom,” Tom said. “And I’m glad I met her before she crossed the Green Door.”
“Thanks, Tom. She liked you too.”
“Did you decide if you’ll visit her?”
“She made me promise I wouldn’t.”
“If it helps any, I can tell you a brief story,” Tom said.
“Another? My, you’re just full of stories!” Venessa said in a playful tone.
“That’s me, alright. I would have been a hit during the age of oral tradition.”
“What’s the story?”
“You know I decided not to visit my grandmother,” Tom replied. “In part, because — if that is my grandmother on the other side — she would know how much I cared about her and understand how I feel about it. In part because of speaking with your mom. But also because of something that recently happened.
“I had some Internet friends that have died. I miss them and still think of them, but I also came across online conversations I had with them, which was a shock. It was as if they were still alive. It’s not like reading a letter, but as if they were still alive and responding to my comments. On the one hand, I smiled recalling the past interaction, but it reawakened the sense of loss, and the loss part was the greater feeling.”
“You think interacting with your grandmother’s consciousness would be even more difficult than reading your friends’ comments?” Venessa asked.
“The thing is, I know my friends are gone, and reading those comments hit me harder than I expected. I can’t imagine what it would be like interacting with my grandmother and knowing that she’s gone.
“It goes both ways, too… if there’s any part of her in the simulation, she’d be hanging on to a life that’s past,” Tom said.
“Ghosts,” Venessa said. “They’re almost always depicted as tortured and wanting to go on, but something is holding them back.”
“That’s a good analogy,” Tom added. “Are we just creating ghosts? People who can’t move on while haunting the living, no matter how willing the living might be?”
“Well, now that we’ve solved nothing and raised even more questions, why don’t we let it rest and concentrate on our lives?” Venessa said. “For instance, where are we going, and what are we doing with ours?”
“I don’t know,” Tom replied, “but I hope we find out together.”
“Me too,” Venessa replied. They got up and, holding hands, walked along the river, the ducks pacing them.
If you’ve already read the other two stories and are ready to vote, click HERE<<<Link, and you’ll be taken to the voting poll.
If you’ve not read the other two stories, they can be found at the following links:
R. G. Broxson submission<<link
Perry Broxson submission<<link
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