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The virtual conference room is large, pristine with huge windows overlooking a scene of paradise: palm trees against an azure sky, a crooked trail leading down to a distant beach and a dazzling sun shimmer on the ocean.

It’s distraction, Leora tells herself, but her attention is snagged by it. There’s the muted cry of seagulls, and the crash of waves. Back in the tiny privacy booth Leora has hired for this meeting, she fidgets in her hard seat, adjusting the VR lenses digging into the bridge of her nose, aware of the smell of sweat and despair saturating the stuffy room.

They’re late. She fumes and looks down at her VR hands — smooth, manicured, nothing like the calloused, swollen ones that pulse pain constantly. Years of back-breaking work in warehouses have wrung all the health out of her.

Leora looks to her right, where her lawyer sits, a handsome Chinese man wearing a suit. His name is Zixin, but he’s not a person, just a bot assigned to her by the firm that’s handling this transaction, for a 30% fee.

“Life rights aren’t complicated,” Ryka assured her. “Get the bot, keep the cash.”

Ryka sold the life rights of her entire family to Historic Entertainment Inc.. They’d been wiped out in the New Jersey Tsunami. A chance bus trip to Philly to visit her ailing auntie had saved Ryka. Now her dad was the face of an Indian fast-food chain, and her sister was a minor character in a sim soap opera. “I watch every day,” Ryka said. “She’s a firecracker! Nothing like my Binita. But sometimes, she tilts her head and rolls her eyes, and bam! We’re back in our kitchen together.”

A trio materialize opposite Leora — two Black women and a Japanese man — attractive, wearing stylish attire that oozes sophistication. At least none of them turned up as a cartoon character. Leora hates talking to big-eyed plastic faces. She wonders if they’re together in a suite at their office or using equipment from their homes. She imagines them in sweatpants in a cramped cheap apartment, rather like her own. Leora smiles.

A soft chime peels, followed by a calm voice noting, “Recording in process.”

“Ms Silva,” Olivia begins — her name is on a tag floating next to her, “we’re here to finalize the transfer of the life rights and resemblances of your parents and grandparents to Historic Entertainment Inc., and all our subsidies, in perpetuity.” She is looking down at papers in front of her and glances up to smile engagingly at Leora. “Have you had the opportunity to review the agreement?”

Leora darts a look at Zixin, suddenly aware of how basic he looks compared with his chic counterparts. He must be an obvious fake to these people … but maybe she was being fobbed off with better fakes? Perhaps there were no young lawyers at all, labouring from their living rooms, merely a more refined program than the one she’d hired. She could be the only real person in this phony room.

She chokes back a nervous laugh, and replies, “Yes.” The money is good, and her parents and grandparents died years ago. Matias, her little brother, is gone too; perhaps the reason for her parents’ final, swift decline. There are no kids to worry about. Leora miscarried five times with two partners, and now, alone, she could have another ten years left. The bills never stop streaming in.

“You’re certain you wish to implement the morality clause?” Olivia’s face is sympathetic. Surely she was a real person behind that façade? “The extra money is significant.”

Leora has not forgotten the number Zixin told her, but she can’t risk one of her beloved family becoming the face of a porn star or a sadistic villain in a drama.

She shakes her head. “No. The clause stays.”

“And you’re aware that the rights extend to all aspects of their lives?”

Leora looks over at Zixin for an explanation, and he turns to her. “My colleague is referring to your part in your parent’s lives.”

She frowns. “No, I’m not in this deal. It’s my parents and grandparents. I’ve sent all the files, photos and vids I have of them. Just as you asked.”

Olivia nods. “We appreciate your thoroughness collecting your IP, and we’ve scraped their information from the available databases. Yet we will need you to sign off on continuing rights in relation to you and your brother,” she glances down again, “Matias.”

“I wasn’t told about this,” Leora says, flustered, feeling conned.

Zixin initiates a side-bar private room, and a blurred wall appears around them. “Ms Silva, I warned you of this potential in our first meeting. Your parents were young when they had children. The company must be interested in some aspect of your life.”

“Matias,” Leora says, a sick knot tightening in her stomach. “It’s Matias. He was so sweet as a kid, but later he got mixed up with the Heavenly Host Cult. He died with them.”

She sees a flicker of something like greed in his eyes. “There could be a significant windfall if you include his story but excise yours.”

In the booth, Leora’s shoulders slump. It was this, the whole time. They wanted Matias. Poor, misguided, angry Matias, so they could reanimate him for their series and specials.

Leora closes her eyes, and imagines taking the steps down to the ocean, and its hot, glittering sand. She tastes salt on her lips.

“For Matias, they will have to pay a lot extra,” she says.

“I will ensure appropriate remuneration for his unique life.”

She opens her eyes again and the trio before her unblur.

Leora does not listen to the bartering. She tunes in to the sound of the gulls, wind-tossed, calling to each other. Echoes of former lives.

The story behind the story

Table of Contents

Maura McHugh reveals the inspiration behind Life pay.

This story came together quickly and emerged from my ruminations on how a mixture of bots, data mining and the rapid advance of deep-fake technology could offer entertainment industries an endless supply of characters for easily produced dramas in the future based on our lives, and those of our past loved ones. Algorithms could write scripts while other code could conjure dead people up to play a multitude of roles. It would be easy to issue money transfers to living people and scoop up all these properties legally, so companies would have the rights to the lives of past people locked in for perpetuity. After all, we already give away so many of our images and memories to billion-dollar companies. Perhaps we will be selling tooth paste to our grandchildren in the future? If they remember to brush their teeth, of course, in a VR universe …

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