My gaze swept out over the sea of bored, oily, fuzz-lipped faces. They weren’t convinced.
‘You’re young. You have your whole lives ahead of you,’ I said, spreading my arms. There was a twinge in my shoulder I hadn’t noticed before.
‘But one day, maybe one day soon, those lives will end. You could get cancer. You could get hit by a bus. There’s no way of knowing.’
There was a murmur in the crowd. Going negative didn’t work wonders on the young ones, but it got them paying attention.
‘What if there was a way to be sure? What if you could know for certain that you would never die? That you, and your family, and your friends, were safe and sound. Forever.’
The murmur was louder this time. I saw a few of the kids sitting forward in their chairs, or turning to look at one another questioningly. They already knew this stuff, though. It’d been in the news for years, and the movement was growing exponentially. Which brought me to my next selling point.
‘With every person who upgrades, the experience is better for everyone. Imagine: you can’t die any more. You can do almost anything you want. Explore the net, sure. But you can get dangerous. Be a spy. Go skydiving. Shoot some bad guys. Upgrade to the Arc, and you can do all of these things, and more. With as much or as little danger as you want.’
It was vague, but it had to be. The laws the government had cobbled together over the last three years didn’t cover everything, but they were very specific when it came to minors. These kids would be old enough soon, though, and the company had decided that teenagers were the next target market. The Arc had plenty of the old and depressed by then. It needed new blood. Young blood.
There was a commotion at the back of the hall, a brief scuffle, muffled voices. A couple of men seemed to be grappling near the doors. The students were still watching me, though, so I continued.
‘Skyline Futuristics built the Arc as a key to the future. The world is changing, faster and faster, and you can be a part of that. You should be a part of it. Don’t get left behind,’ I said, leaning into the microphone a little, projecting over the increasing noise at the back of the hall. ‘Talk to your parents or guardians about upgrading to the Arc today.’
The display behind me lit up suddenly, a blaze of white, silhouetting me against the Arc Project logo. I raised my arms again, magnanimously, feeling a little silly. The guidelines were very specific about this part. As the lights faded, I saw a few kids in the crowd rubbing their eyes, and one in the front row was standing, glaring up at me.
‘I can’t talk to my parents!’ he shouted up at the stage, fists balled at his sides. He was a tall, gangly boy, his cheeks constellations of acne, his eyes glistening with rage. ‘You killed them. They went to you and you killed them!’
He looked around, hands clenching and unclenching. Other kids nearby leaned away, watching warily. I remembered that feeling from my own school days. Never associate with crazy. He was talking now, low and monotonous, cheeks shining with tears.
‘They left me and they died and you turned them into zombies. You killed their brains and kept their bodies,’ he said. He was shaking, looking at the ground. He slumped back and dropped his head into his hands.
I stared at him for a moment, lost for words. There was a shout from the back of the room. A man had broken away from the others, the teachers. He was walking up the central aisle of the hall, yelling something towards the stage. I couldn’t make out the words. I could see the shoulders of the boy in the front row, heaving with silent sobs. I closed my eyes for a half-second, then followed the guidelines.
‘The Arc Project does not kill anybody. We provide the means for people to transcend their bodies and achieve immortality. While donation of the body to the Project is an option, it is by no means mandatory.’
The scripted lines rolled off my tongue, but I couldn’t shake the guilt balled deep in my stomach. Optional body donation. Upgrading without donating cost a fortune. Most people couldn’t afford the procedure without that option. It was obvious, but it worked.
‘The Project provides counsellors for families electing to undergo the upgrade, and we work to define an upgrade package that suits all…’
I was interrupted by a second shout from the newcomer. A few kids turned away from their wracked classmate to watch him as he advanced down the central aisle. He drew level with the front row of seats, glanced over at the sobbing student, and then looked up at me on the low stage. The teachers at the back of the hall were huddled, conversing, pointing. One glanced wildly to the front of the hall as he brought a phone to his ear.
The man’s breath was a little ragged. I could see pale spots of colour high on his cheekbones, proof of his exertions. There was a rushing in my ears, though the crowd itself was eerily silent. My knees wobbled suddenly, and I grabbed the worn wooden podium for support. When he spoke, his voice was raised, but quite level.
‘You and your Project are an affront to the Lord,’ he said. He reached into his coat and produced a pistol. It was short, snub-nosed, and the same matte grey as his eyes. ‘Only the Lord has the right to sit in judgement of a human soul. The Arc has no right, no right to decide when humans die. No right to use human bodies in these perverse ways.’
I felt sweat prickle across my shoulders, a cold, burning sensation which spread up to my scalp and down my spine. The man calmly squared his shoulders, raised the pistol with both hands, and levelled it at my head.
‘Only by the Lord can we be one.’ he intoned. I saw the minute flex of his hand as his finger tightened on the trigger. I saw the dull metal of the pistol. I saw the bottomless black hole of the barrel. I saw it look me right in the eye.
(This is pretty much unedited, so please excuse any massive plot holes/spelling errors/general crappiness.)