If this was the afterlife, thought Spencer, it was extremely dull. The train carriage rocked gently from side to side as it moved between stations. The London skyline raced by in the brief moments the train was above ground. Spencer wasn’t sure how long he’d been here. It was hard to measure the passage of time without a watch. It was also getting harder to recognise the landmarks through the window. They were becoming jumbled and twisted as if they were the subject in a game of architectural Chinese whispers. The train itself seemed to be running through some version of the London Overground; The stations were in the wrong order and it seemed to be going in a vague loop. Usually it would go Canada Water, Surrey Quays, Rotherhithe. Brockley, Crystal Palace and repeat but it often seemed to skip stations entirely or stop at new ones. Sometimes it would stop at a station with the usual hideous, municipal “Art” adorning the walls, the usual circular London Underground logo, but no station name written in the bar across the middle, as if someone had started to create the illusion of a train station and lost focus before the final touches were done.
Whenever Spencer tried to start a conversation with one of his fellow passengers they would just smile politely, nod and look away as if they didn’t quite understand him, as if he were a well meaning but irritating foreigner asking for directions. People would occasionally board the train but no-one seemed to get off and yet the carriage did not appear to be getting any more full.
Spencer absentmindedly picked up the DubiousNews sitting on the seat beside him. DubiousNews was a rag of a free newspaper that could be found littering London’s public transport system on any given weekday. It spouted vaguely right-wing rhetoric and stuck to prevailing public opinion like dog shit in the tread of a jackboot. This one was a little different though. While the name of the paper was clear enough, whenever Spencer tried to read any of the headlines or stories he found he could only pick out individual words and letters, and never got a full grasp on what it was he was reading about. The whole experience was as if someone had decided to build a facsimile of the London Overground but had little or no interest in the final result. Spencer put the paper down and decided he would get off at the next station and try to find out what was going on.
The train pulled in to Whitechapel, not one of its regular stops, but Spencer thought it would be as good as any. He got up and walked to the door just as it opened. The platform looked solid enough. A gruff looking man in a damp coat was waiting to board. He did not wait for Spencer to get off but pushed past him.
“No, after you. I insist”, Spencer mumbled before stepping off the train.
His feet landed on the platform. It was definitely real. The beeps that signify the imminent closing of the doors sounded behind him, he turned to watch them close and wondered if he had done the right thing. The doors closed with a hiss but as the train pulled away Spencer noticed that he was moving with them. He looked down and realised: He was back inside the train. The man in the raincoat looked up at Spencer from the garishly upholstered seat and snorted before raising the paper up in front of his nose.
Spencer sat back down. I suppose you could consider that a successful experiment, he thought.
The carriages on the Overground line were not separated by doors, rather it was one long snaking tunnel. You could watch the carriages ahead go around corners and the carriages behind struggle to keep up as you made your way. This time however the train did, quite literally, seem to go on forever in both directions. On the longer straights Spencer could see for what seemed like 100s of meters before the train curved away, blocking his view.
Spencer looked up with a start. He didn’t remember buying a ticket or touching in with his Oyster card, in fact he didn’t remember getting on the train at all. He looked up into the expectant eyes of a stern looking woman in a blue “Transport for London” uniform. A fitted blazer and short skirt were an odd contrast to her rather blocky shoes. Her long dark hair was tied back in a sensible pony tail.
“I don’t think I…”, Spencer reached into his inside coat pocket for his wallet: Nothing. He tried the other side where he usually kept his phone: An abundance of nothing, “I don’t have a -”
“It was a joke, don’t worry about it,” said the woman as she sat opposite Spencer, “What’s the last thing you remember?”
The sensation of dying was not wholly unpleasant for Spencer Townsend. As he lay on his back on the tarmac, a calmness drifted through him like ink dropped into water. The road beneath him felt soft and warm, the voices of the people standing over him were muffled and distant; They were not something he needed to be concerned with. A woman with a bloody nose was looking down at him, shaking and crying. Why is she crying? She’s only got a bloody nose, Spencer thought. Her hair was messy and some of it was stuck to her face with blood. Spencer wanted her to stop crying. He wanted to comfort her but all he could do was stare up at her from the floor. The blood dripped from her nose, down her chin and onto her shirt. It was almost the same colour as her jacket, Spencer noticed. He looked up at the sky. It was a lovely day, especially for October. The sky was the most perfect blue he’d ever seen. That colour would look nice in the bathroom, he thought, not that that really matters now.
Everything was going dark now. The voices were even further away. He could feel his heart beating slower and slower. It fluttered for a second and stopped. Spencer could feel a gentle force pushing him upwards, similar to the feeling of being in a moving lift.
Spencer was looking down at his own body from above. His own vacant eyes looking back up at him. His clothes were covered in blood. Some ghastly assortment of white and red awfulness was jutting, awkwardly from his leg. What a mess, he thought, with unusual disinterest. He was moving upwards now, or the whole Earth was moving away from him. It was a bit hard to tell. Some invisible elastic band seemed to snap as he began to accelerate to an alarming velocity. The city was beneath him now, getting smaller, the details melting away. Now he could see the whole of the United Kingdom. He felt very calm despite the ever increasing speed. He could see Ireland now as the Earth spun beneath him. The Atlantic Ocean, the marvelous deep blue expanse filled his view before it was blocked by the clouds. On and on he went before he was looking down the Earth from a great distance. A dumb, blue marble hanging in an inky void.
“Where am I?”, Spencer asked, already knowing the answer.
“You died and this is where your consciousness has dropped you.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, you,” she pointed patronisingly at Spencer, “have died. Your consciousness,” she pointed to her head, ”has created this place, or rather this place has been created for you, using your consciousness. I’m not 100% on the methods here. I just need to give you some information before - “
“The Overground? The flippin’ Overground? That’s my afterlife?” Spencer was quite upset at the idea of spending eternity on the Overground Line.
“Yes, I suppose. It’s not so bad though, you can talk to the other people who died in your sector.”
“Sector?”, Spencer’s mind was spinning. The serene detachment that had kept him together this far seemed to have evaporated.
“Yes. Organising a Universe teeming with life isn’t easy, you see, so we had to make some… compromises. There are logistical limitations and there’s always scalability and capacity management to consider, let alone the costs - “
“Are you an angel or something? Are you… God?”
“No. Listen, Spence, you’re going to need to prepare yourself because this might take some getting used to. You have died and you are here in the ‘Afterlife’, with -”
“Is my mother here?”
“When did she die?”
“Two years ago, pancreatic cancer. Can I talk to her?”
“Two years? No, she’ll be very far away,” the woman, who seemed to be in a bit of a hurry, was trying to get the conversation back on track, “Please pay attention, in order to manage the huge number of Disconnected Consciousness or DCs we had to divide things up a bit so we could keep tabs on everything and make sure everyone got the right experience -”
“What? Did you have a question?”
“Er… yeah… what’s your name?”, Spencer had wanted to ask something else but he was having trouble keeping a coherent thought in his head for more than a few seconds.
“I don’t really have a name, I suppose. You can call me whatever you want.”
“Oh. Ok. Angela?”
“Oh yes, very good. That’s the first time I’ve gotten that one.”
“Oh sorry, I’ll - Something else? - “, Spencer was embarrassed but it really was the first name that came into his head.
“Angela is fine. In order to manage such a large number of DCs we divided the Universe up into - “
“The whole Universe?”, Spencer asked, dimly.
“Yes, the whole Universe - into cubes which are - “, Angela looked down at a notepad in her hand, “ - roughly... 8 astronomical units cubed.”
“Ok, so, all of the DCs that are created within that Cube go to the same afterlife, so we can manage - “
“Wait what? So am I all alone here?”
“No, it’s - there are lots of other people here -”, Angela looked down at her notepad, “That’s strange…” She trailed off. A frown was crossing her brow.
“What is?” asked Spencer, a familiar sinking feeling in his stomach.
“Well… It usually takes about 9 weeks for your planet to pass through one of the sectors.” said Angela, not at all reassuringly.
“But isn’t the Earth always inside the same one?”
“No, because - ”
“Our orbit can’t be that large, can it?”
“Will you just listen. The Earth’s orbit isn’t that large but it’s not just your planet’s orbit that moves you through space, the solar system has it’s own orbit within your galaxy and the Galaxy is moving, too. And space is expanding too but we took that into account - but the thing is… Your planet just sort of… skimmed another cube during the time your consciousness left your body… so… there aren’t that many… there are hardly any other people here - Are you ok?”
It must have been obvious from his expression that the full horror of the situation was sinking in for Spencer. The vastness of the universe was becoming clear and the weight of it was sitting on his chest like a truculent older sibling intent on ruining his day. If everything was as vast as it seemed, Spencer would trapped in this personal hell never coming across anyone he knew or anyone at all for that matter.
After a short silence during which Spencer contemplated this little existential crisis, he spoke: “What about the other people I saw? What about that guy?” Spencer was pointed to the man in the raincoat.
“He’s sort of not really real - You’re not real, are you, mate?” Angela addressed the man in the raincoat.
“I’m as real as you are, sweetheart.” He said, before going back to his paper.
“Yeah,” Angela turned back to Spencer, “Well, he’s not,” The man snorted and flicked his paper, “You’ll know when you bump into a real ‘person’”
Spencer was trying to put aside the idea of spending eternity alone and did what any self-respecting Human would do in this situation: He decided to poke holes in the situation.
“Why couldn’t I just stay on Earth? Why couldn’t my consciousness just stay there?” An unpleasant whining quality had crept into Spencer’s voice.
“What held you to the Earth while you were alive?”, Angela had had this conversation before.
“And how much gravity do you think is exerted on a massless consciousness?”
“Well, I wouldn’t want to get too technical, so, yes, ‘not much’, is about right.”
Spencer tried another tactic, “What about if people come back to life? What about people who are medically dead and then they come back? Do they come here and then go back or what?”
“The thing about existing outside of linear time is that forward planning isn’t really an issue.”
“That’s convenient,” he said snidely.
“Not really. I exist in linear time whilst I’m dealing with matters here but when I go back I’m aware of all ‘future’ and ‘past’ events simultaneously.” her exaggerated air-quotes made Spencer think she didn’t hold much stock in this new fangled linear time nonsense.
The two sat in silence for a moment listening to the click-clack of the train as it trundled along. The brakes whined as it slowed for the next station.
“Well, I think that’s everything. I should be - “, Angela stood up to leave.
“Wait, please. I have more questions.”, Spencer pleaded.
“Oh really, like what?”
A moment passed as Spencer failed to get his thoughts in order.
“Can I go to the place where my mother is?”
“Not really. I mean you could, but you’d be effectively walking there. This place represents normal space so you’re welcome to… but it would take… like… ages,” Angela looked perturbed.
“Which way should I go?”
Angela looked to her left, then to her right.
“That way, I think,” she said pointing to her left, the opposite direction from the train’s movement.
“Definitely. It’s definitely that way.”
Spencer stood up. He held his hand out to shake Angela’s.
“Thank you,” he said, “It’s been… very strange.”
Spencer began to walk down the train. He smiled politely at a young man who had just boarded at Crystal Palace.
“Good luck, mate.”
The young man nodded as Spencer walked by.