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Rollback

* Story contains bad language

It isn't something I'd had to consider before, but when they asked me, I decided I would prefer to know they were about to kill me rather than it just happening.

Maybe that makes it sound like it was an easier choice than it was. The ignorance of not knowing looks wonderful. Peaceful. For the past few days, all the ignorants have been happily going about their business as if nothing's going to happen to them, believing it isn't, and I'm jealous of them. Jealous that their last day of life will be like any other, full of work and laughter and boredom and sex and booze and sleep, while I, and all the others who decided we wanted to know, frantically run around trying to get everything in place while pretending – under contractual obligation, I might add – that we're not utterly fucking terrified. It was easier at first. A few more days of life, weirdly, seemed like plenty. But now the end's almost here, rolling towards us like an avalanche, and you can pick the knowers out of a crowd. You can practically follow the trail of shit and nibbled fingernails right to them.

Knowing – or, more specifically, remembering that we were told – was the only option for some of us, despite the obvious appeal of the alternative. Personally, I had a few debts I wanted to clear up here, instead of taking them with me after I die. (I was going to say 'taking them home', but this is home, and it's the only one I remember.) The company reps won't tell us anything about whatever afterlife we can expect after they kill us all. They won't even tell us how long we've been in here, or where here really is. So my questions about inflation and currency and exchange rates were met with, let's say, professionally discourteous apathy. Honestly – weird, creepy reps show up, tell you your entire life – the whole world – is a lie, add that you're about to die, and then get sniffy when you have the gall to ask for a few details. Arseholes. So I got my affairs in line here. Better the devil you know. Because we haven't been told anything, nothing at all, about what's coming afterwards, after everyone in the world is killed. And that's gotten a lot of us worried.

We were given some dubious spiel about how the lack of information about the outside, or afterlife or whatever you want to call it, is a transitionary aid. That knowing nothing about after-death makes the process of dying easier. My rep said she knew that sounded counter-intuitive – corporate-speak for "we know that sounds like bollocks", because it does, doesn't it? – but she assured us they've been doing this a long time, that they're very good at their jobs, that "ease of retransition" is part of the service package we paid for, blah blah. And I'm not buying it. A lot of us aren't. Think about it – if there was some peaceful, wealthy paradise after we die, they'd fall over themselves to tell us all about it. That would make the process of dying easier. "Mr Cho, we're killing you, everyone you know, and everyone in the world for that matter, even your dog. But don't worry, because you're about to wake up in a money-and-sun sex-blancmange champagne-topia". I wouldn't mind that at all. I'd put the gun in my own mouth and dash the wall behind me with brains. But their "not knowing makes it easier" bullshit speaks louder than anything they've actually deigned to tell us. Something's wrong. It has to be. And they won't, or can't, tell us what it is.

The longer I think about it, the more dour the conclusions become. Firstly, you wouldn't break the fourth wall unless there's absolutely no other option available to you. No way. Not unless you're happy for any corporate reputation you once had to be flushed down the toilet forever. But to pull back the Wizard of Oz's curtain to calmly inform billions of people they are about to die is corporate suicide. The company, whatever it's called (they won't tell us, which at least suggests we'll have some memories when we wake up), is obviously finished. That they don't care about that – their money, shareholders, any of it – scares the shit out of me. If the company had simply gone bust, they would have sold this...lucid dream, or whatever it is, to someone else as part of a settlement package. They wouldn't decide it was necessary to tell a world full of people they're in a simulation, only to yank them out of it. Not if there was any other option open to them. Things must be bad out there, and 'out there' is exactly where they're sending us. Whether we want to go or not is of little consequence to them.

The political logistics have got a lot of the knowers worried, too. Imagine it: billions of people, all waking up simultaneously, confused, traumatised, needing housing, healthcare, welfare, rehabilitation, food. The economy of wherever we're going after we all die is going to implode, because how could it not? We'll be waking up inside a global catastrophe, while being understandably vilified for being the very cause of it. (Another thing that bent my brain: are there even billions of people? Or are there only a few thousand of us? Is it just me, and everyone else in the world is an AI? Is my dog a dog? Is he conscious, I mean? Or a sort of dog-software fake-dog? And if so, why did they design him to fart like that? Sorry. Imagine being told that everything you know isn't real but not to worry about it too much because you're going to die anyway. It sort of messes with your head.)

I've been told I'm worrying too much, and some impatient knowers who don't share my (I think quite reasonable) apprehension about the afterlife have already gone through with it. Most, understandably, opted for a heroin overdose, wheezing down to a gentle death in a fug of opioid euphoria. All the dealers who chose ignorance must have wondered what the hell was going on. But assurances by the reps that there wouldn't be any pain led to some attention-seekers getting pretty creative with how they did it. Jumping out of planes and aiming for famous landmarks, going to the zoo and getting into a fistfight with the lions, stealing sportscars and driving them en masse off Dover's cliffs. There were chatrooms in which people were asking for the wackiest suggestions, setting up funding accounts and streaming them. Some closet psychos organised killing sprees, seeing how many 'frags' they could rack up before the police showed up and cut them in half with machine-gun fire. Noticing that a spate of bizarre suicides and mass murders didn't make the news, yet these chatrooms were allowed to flourish, was the first time that the artificiality of the world became clear to me – that life was constructed in such a way as to facilitate certain desirable outcomes. It's probably always been like this – money, religion media and politics are all used to steer the world in certain ways, which is the only logical explanation for their inclusion in it – but once you notice the machinations, after you've seen the strings, it's like a magic-eye picture. You can't see anything else.

If you're wondering if I'm going to do it myself, take matters into my own hands, and if so then how, I'm going to have to disappoint you, sorry. After the reps arrived and told us we had seventy hours of life left, and the ignorants chose to forget about it and live out their last days in peace, us knowers were offered the option to sign up to something called Cleanup. Basically, if any knowers find a way to cheat death, it's Cleanup's job to track them down and...well, you can work the rest out. Click. Pop. Done. I'd assumed death would be a quick snap – alive, and then all-of-a-sudden not. But apparently it's hardwired into the system as a safety feature that death actually has to happen somehow. Biologically, I mean. Some form of actually-fatal trauma needs to occur. The reps did a whole presentation on it. So for a global extinction event that doesn't take forever, my money's on either an asteroid strike, super-earthquake tsunamis or a solar flare. Big-budget popcorn stuff.

Anyone who's signed up to Cleanup will be assisting the company in locating and picking off any prepper stragglers holed up in underground bunkers or roaming the ruins afterwards, pointlessly delaying the inevitable. I was surprised the company needed help, considering they seem fairly confident in their ability to ably wipe out an entire planet. But, when you're talking about billions of people, a few are obviously going to slip through the net, so I suppose it makes sense that they'd need to outsource. People aren't as good at dying as you might think. "Unfortunate work that needs to be done," is what they say, the reps, because anyone left alive in here when the plug's pulled on the world will be gone forever. Permadeath. And the plug does have to be pulled, they told us, or they wouldn't be going to all the trouble of killing us all. It's unavoidable, apparently. They just won't tell us why.

You'd think knowing all this would make people lay back, sip a brandy, crack one off, take a few ruthless bangs on the nearest bong and calmly let it happen. But the human survival instinct is that troublesome combination of strong and deeply illogical. Some idiots will choose permadeath over death-with-afterlife through atavistic, self-preservatory reflex, knowing even as they're performing them that their actions are absurd. People will still try to 'save' their children or loved ones, for example, and it's Cleanup's job to help these people to die – in return for financial incentives on the outside, of course. (Between us, I think this is the only reason we were informed ahead of time that we were all going to die at all. Staffing shortages. Otherwise the company would have just quietly released a pandemic into the water and waited for us all to live to death. That's what I would've done in their place, anyway.)

You can probably gather from my tone that I signed up for Cleanup like a shot. Which might be a poor choice of words, but whatever. Gallows humour. Most knowers didn't, whether through squeamishness or laziness I don't know. But if the company's being so cagey about the after-outside-life, I want to be as prepared as possible for whatever comes next, at least financially. And it's not murder, is it? Not if it won't hurt and they're going to wake up somewhere else straight afterwards? I suppose I've always been curious about what it would feel like to kill someone. There's nothing like a global apocalypse to make you think, "ah fuck it, there's never going to be a better time to find out." Maybe I'm a closet psycho too. More likely I'll just bottle it when the time comes and let whoever it is escape. Who knows. Though I do hope they give me a bazooka. I've always wanted to fire a bazooka.

If you're wondering why I'm wasting precious minutes of my dwindling life writing about bazookas, I suppose it's because, truth be told, I am a little bit scared. I don't mind admitting it. You would be too. And seeing these words on a screen helps make sense of them, this whole thing, somehow. I'm not scared of the actual process of dying – it won't hurt, and I've seen enough Roland Emmerich movies to know it's probably going to be spectacular, if clumsily plotted – but I am scared of everything I don't know about After. Who am I? Really, I mean? What kind of person signs up to something like this? Who abandons their 'real' life, and why? No one with anything worth going back to – I worked that much out, even with zero information forthcoming from those smug, dickhead reps. What was I running away from? What am I going back to? Is there a war going on outside, is that why they're wiping us out here? Hurling us into some god-awful Matrix-future with gruel and shit music, so we can be conscripted in some war against hunter-killer ED-209 death-machines? Because, if so, and on behalf of me and the billions like me, no thanks. We'd rather stay put.

Why does my whole life and everyone else's – here, on Earth, wherever Earth actually is – have to end? Are my family still my family after we all die? Are we even still related? The reps told us to try not to think about it, but I'd like to see them not think about it if they were in our place. It's a lot to deal with all at once. What do I even look like out there? Am I ugly? Is my name still Robert Cho? Am I even a man, or am I going to wake up with a pair of enormous boobs and no idea how to put on a bra? Every question throws up a thousand more. Trying not to think about it doesn't work, and thinking about it will send you mad. "These are your two options", they might as well say. "Pick one." Yeah, well, thanks a fucking bunch.

No. Sorry. Hang on. Who am I trying to convince here. I'm not being totally honest with you. And I don't need to lie to you, because no one else is ever going to read this. You are me. I'm writing this to myself. Once whatever-is-about-to-happen happens, everyone will be dead, and there won't be anyone left to read it, so I might as well say whatever I want. What's really on my mind. So I think it's okay and important to mention that, between us – me and, erm, you, who is me – that I am scared of dying. Just a bit. I know it's likely that it'll be like falling asleep, just like the reps say it will, but what if they're lying? What if there is no outside, and we're just, well, dying dying? What if it does hurt, and they're lying about that too?

And I'm angry. Really fucking angry at them for ripping everything I have, my whole existence, away from me and dumping me outside in some place I don't know, to live like who-knows-what until I die all over again. None of us remember the outside – we were born and raised here, inside this...fabrication. None of us even knew there was an outside until a few days ago. We forgot everything about our old lives the second we were born. I don't even know how old I am. I don't know anything else other than here. And I like it here. I want to stay. If I'm being truthful, I think that's why I signed up to Cleanup. It feels like controlling it somehow. Having a say in death, someone else's, when the inevitability of my own is the one thing that's out of my hands.

My parents chose ignorance. I can't blame them. I still decided to come home to them anyway. Just to be with them, so I'm here when it happens. They're sat watching TV like it's a normal Thursday. They think I'm texting. I don't want them to panic when it starts. Maybe I can reassure them without blowing the lie. What harm could it do if this extinction's already begun, anyway? In fact, screw the Cleanup NDA – I don't care if it voids my contract. If they start to worry, I'll tell mum and dad everything but that it's going to be alright. That all they need to do is close their eyes and wait until it's over, because there is something after death, I'm certain of it. They'll think I've become one of those Bible nuts with megaphones who accost you in the street, but it'll be worth it, even if it only helps them a little bit. It will help me more. Even though this death won't be the end for any of us, I don't know if my parents will even still be my parents after we all die. So I'm glad I'm spending my last minutes with them. To say thank you, for everything they did for me while I knew them. They might not even remember me once they're dead, just like they don't remember the reps or the announcements or the panic that came before they chose to forget. If they don't remember me or I don't remember them, I'm going to miss them. I'm crying and they're asking me why. I don't think I've got time to tell them. I just told them I love them is all. They think I'm drunk.

Wait, I can hear something. There's screaming in the street outside. It sounds like a crowd. Has it started? This must be it. I'm scared. On second thoughts, don't want to see. I think I'd rather not watch a thousand-foot tsunami flying at me at the speed of sound, or some fireball in the sky heading straight for my head. I shouldn't have said I wanted to know. God, I wish I didn't know. My hands are shaking. I don't want to die. There, I said it. I don't want to die. Why are they making me if I don't want to. They're going to kill us all, murder us, and there's nothing we can do about it. It's not fair.

The screaming outside is louder now. Some kind of mob. I can hear car alarms ringing and windows smashing and there's just been an explosion somewhere nearby. I think someone's trying to get into the house. My parents are starting to panic and my mum's calling the police but there's no answer and there still isn't anything on the news. They're asking me why I'm not helping and why I'm still texting when someone's breaking in. It's definitely happening. I know I should just let it, but I'm terrified. I'm not ready. I don't want me or mum and dad to die and I'll kill anyone who goes near them, I swear it.

The sky just went dark. The street's gone quiet. This is it. I'm out of time. I'm going to post this now, send it to everyone I know, sit with mum and dad, and try and put their minds at ease until... Just until.

In the unlikely event anyone anywhere ever reads this, this is all I want you to know: for twenty-six years I was Robert Cho. I lived in London. I had a dog and a life and a job and a family and was happy. I'm dead now. I didn't want to die, but they killed me anyway. They killed all of us. Whoever I am on the outside, if I'm out there, I hope I remember the life I once had. Maybe I'll see you around.