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art by Billy Sagulo

Followers

S.R. Algernon studied fiction writing, biology and post-war Japanese science fiction, among other things, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has been a member of critters.org for three years. His fiction interests include historical fiction, Golden Age science fiction, contemporary Japanese science fiction, hard science fiction, and science fiction that explores the sociological and political impact of new technology. He currently resides in Singapore.
I saw the court through Athena Washington's eyes. I felt a quiver in her lungs with each intake of breath. Her muscles ached for rest, but training and adrenaline kept them going. Her palms sweated as she bounced the ball.
The score was 101-99, with the Blue Birds trailing.
The clock read 00:07.
At least two billion people watched Athena. Most of them, like me, were brains in tanks somewhere in sprawling storage facilities, tuning in to the video stream. Fifty thousand or so flesh-and-blood fans filled the stands. Most of those spectators were children on furlough from the city's childcare center; minors could stay flesh-and-blood even if they were broke. The rest were upper-crust types who had kept up with the rising Physical Presence Fees, buying the right each year to inhabit their ageless bodies.
I was not so fortunate. Like most people, without cash or credit for the first year's payment, I had gone into the tank on my eighteenth birthday. Still, I counted myself lucky in other ways. I had snagged all-season Follower rights to Athena early on, when the Blue Birds had been struggling and Athena still had those ankle problems. Forty minutes of game time each week was enough reality for me, but I had held out hope for this one moment all season long.
In Athena's peripheral vision, two of her teammates were open near the basket, but I knew she would save the shot for herself. I knew the game was ours.
I had faith in her.
00:06. I pushed those thoughts out of my mind, losing myself in the moment as much as I could. There would be time to tweet about it later.
00:05. A yellow line of text flashed in the lower edge of my visual field.
BID FOR MOTOR CONTROL ENTERED--$250,000 for 3 sec. by elite follower: JoeSixPack.
A quarter million. Damn, I thought. JoeSixPack must have sponsors, or a hell of a day job.
00:04. Athena feinted a pass. I could tell she was stalling while she mulled over the bid. A bid that large would pay off a chunk of her Physical Presence Fees and draw the attention of heavy-hitter sponsors. Taking a bid like that showed that she trusted her fans and that, to her, the game was about more than her own ego. The crowd liked that.
I would have turned down the bid if it had been up to me. What if the shot missed? I would have always wondered how things might have gone if I had taken the shot myself.
For immortals, whether flesh-and-blood or in the tanks, "always" was a long time.
00:03. The bid flickered green and a warning flashed. BID ACCEPTED.
"Hold on, everyone," said the announcer. "We've got an amateur on the court."
Athena gripped the ball tightly and shuddered as JoeSixPack took control. With a flick of Athena's wrists the ball was in the air. I felt JoeSixPack's anxiety as an unfocused tension in Athena's muscles until the ball bounced twice off the rim and dropped into the net.
"There you have it, folks," said the announcer. "A crowdsourced victory for the Blue Birds. We'll be seeing more of JoeSixPack, maybe even in the flesh next season. A shot like that could earn anybody a sponsor, even in the vats."
The buzzer sounded. Balloons and confetti dropped from the rafters and the crowd jumped to its feet before the ball had time to hit the hardwood.
The cheers and the reflected glow of Athena's pride sent a jolt through my brain. Last year, when Athena had made it to the playoffs, I had felt the same rush. This time, though, the feeling slipped away quickly. It wasn't enough just to watch anymore. JoeSixPack had been a part of the game, and what had I done? I was no better than the average vat-dweller.
Athena waved to the crowd and gazed out at them in a way that would look like poise and determination to the camera. In a few more seconds, the neural stream would have ended. Athena would have walked back to the locker room and I would have returned to the blogosphere, except...
A girl in the third row waved to Athena. She wore her hair in tight braids and held a stuffed Blue Bird mascot under her arm. To me, she was just like the other fifty thousand fans, but I was watching through Athena's eyes. She called the shots. My view of the crowd lurched as Athena met her gaze.
That wasn't part of Athena's persona, I thought. Athena always had poise. In every other game that season, she had cast her eyes out over the crowd in a panoramic pan shot before walking off the court in cinematic serenity.
Athena's chest tightened and her face flushed. She had gone off script, and she knew it, I thought. But why?
The girl in the third row was still a child, still flesh-and-blood. Her teeth were crooked, not the hallmark of a privileged upbringing. One day, she might head to a vat like me. Maybe all she needed was the right inspiration to follow in Athena's footsteps for a chance at real immortality. I had no access to Athena's inner thoughts, but I wondered if the girl reminded her of her younger self.
I thought back to Athena's bio. Her mother had given birth to her at age sixteen and had struggled to stay out of the tanks until she was nearly twenty. Athena must have remembered her mother as a living person, not just an avatar or an occasional ghostly presence in the caretaker android. If Athena had gone to the games as a spectator, she must have carried with her a sense of being alone, one that we vat-born brains could never really imagine.
Athena recovered from her lapse and became once more the paragon of athleticism that the sponsors wanted her to be. The twinge of tension faded away, blending into the hollowed-out ache in her muscles. I was sure the feeling that the pain would come back to her that night, or maybe in the offseason. She would never let it get to her, though. Like the twisted ankle, it was something to push through for the sake of the game.
I did not have Athena's dedication. I could not bear the thought of looking back on a championship game and wondering how it might have turned out. She could spend the rest of her life wishing for that moment back.
For immortals like us, that was a long time.
Bidding was still open.
In my mind's eye, I glanced at the bidding display and willed a hundred-dollar bid for ten seconds to the top of the queue.
I felt a chill run down Athena's back as she pulled herself back mentally from the celebration.
"What's going on here," said the announcer. "There's a post-game bid on the board. Is that legal? Someone fact check that for me. I mean, is that even possible?"
I waited while the neural scanners plucked the response from her brain.
BID ACCEPTED
I had no clear plan in the instant my motor pathways engaged with Athena's nervous system. I was glad enough not to fall down. My first thought was just to get closer to the fan.
"Hold up," said Athena. "There's one more thing I've got to do." I recognized my voice transmuted through Athena's lungs and vocal cords. I thought back to my eighteenth birthday, when I still had a voice of my own. It had never resonated like that.
I walked past the other players, and they looked back at me, at Athena, with surprise or concern. I felt just about ready to faint, and I must have looked it. My path, by chance, took me past the basketball and I scooped it up. I bounced the ball twice and tossed it one-handed toward the third row.
"You could be here one day," I said. "Never forget that."
The girl caught the ball and beamed to the kids on either side.
I let the rest of my ten seconds wind down after that, not knowing what to expect. As my motor connection shifted back to my virtual body, I felt a smile on Athena's lips as she waved.
"Thank you," she said. "I couldn't have done it without you." She looked the girl squarely in the eye as she spoke, but I could not help thinking that at least part of what she said was meant for me.
I shut off my connection to Athena for a while and waited in my darkened virtual living room. Comments on the night's action already trickled in.
JoeSixPack had won the game, but that night a few people out there in the blogosphere shared my hunch that, just maybe, I had made the better throw.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, December 12th, 2013


I first approached "Followers" with the aim of exploring the limits of population growth and the encroachment of virtual interactions into our daily lives. If we are to attain physical immortality, we will have to deal with population growth, and living in the brick-and-mortar "real" world may become a luxury. Just as people nowadays seek immortality through virtual likenesses (statues, memoirs, etc.), immortals in a virtual existence might vie for the chance for ephemeral interaction with the real world. Contests like the basketball game are a way for people to earn their realness. I envisioned a conflict between established, polished celebrities (Athena) and newcomers looking for recognition (JoeSixPack). A story could center on the basketball game itself, or the bidding war. Each has its winners and losers. I wanted my protagonist to reshape the game rather than win it—and to show that a spark of inspiration can matter more than victory or defeat. Thanks to everyone at critters.org for their help.

- S. R. Algernon

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