Joe lives the most ordinary life in the world. Look in the census for the average guy, and that’s Joe. Oh, sometimes he might have diabetes, or an aneurysm, testicular cancer, maybe heart disease. But he gets well each time; they’re just for show.
They took out his pancreas, put it back. His heart. His spleen. His brain. And he lived through it all. But take me away…
Most of the time he enjoys his middle-of-the-road existence, with his two-point-whatever children, his wife, and his utterly mundane life. But then along come the butchers — oh, excuse me — medical researchers, the ones who take him apart and put him most of the way back together. If anybody else were doing the cutting, it would be illegal. But not them. They’re special; it’s their job. Saves experimenting on animals, I guess.
That brings me to, well, me. See, Joe’s special, too. He lives through every operation. That’s because he has me.
Oh, I didn’t say there wasn’t pain. The research wouldn’t be worth the pulp its printed on if he weren’t in agony for every slice. Those nerves around the heart — brr. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear there was a special readout on the EEG just for pain.
Now they plan a me-ectomy. I am Joe’s Will to Live, and I don’t have long for this world.
But I’ve got me a little secret, see? I’m a numinous quality, like the collective unconscious, or apophenia, or those creation myths that seems so similar from culture to culture. I’m shared.
That means they can’t take it away from Joe without taking it away from everybody.
See you on the other side.

Clara said she would do the final tidying herself. The apartment’s cleaning cycle wouldn’t finish before six, and that left less than an hour to decorate before the guests arrived.
The living room sang a chime of agreement; dust mice scuttled back into the baseboards.
While Clara cleared coffee table clutter, previewed panoramas on the walls, and pushed chairs into configurations that opened the floor for dancing without blocking easy passage to and from the kitchen, the local sun belched a wave of X-rays.
Some radiation made it through the city shield, but microscopic machines in Clara’s blood repaired the damage almost as quickly as it occurred, re-knitting DNA and patching leaky cell membranes. She put her feet up on the hassock for a minute, drank a lemonade the kitchen gave her, then realized it was later than she thought, and jumped up to change clothes.
The apartment was ready in time — so was Clara — and the party was a great success. Richard was there, and Mary Maddox. The McClellans, the Spenders, the Rosseters — they were all there.
No one noticed when, sometime after ten, another storm of X-rays overwhelmed the shield and outstripped the nanomachines’ ability to heal. Clara just had time to feel a wave of nausea before relays clicked in the walls and everyone was loaded up to their virtual backups in computers miles underground.
Radiation baked the city and seared the dying bodies of its inhabitants. (Clara lay in the doorway to the kitchen, one hand extended toward Richard.) The little mouse robots were busy all night with the ashes.
At dawn, when all the levels were safe and green, tiny machines wafted through the city like smoke, rebuilding from memory everything right where it should be. Relays clicked and everyone was loaded back into new-built bodies.
Clara woke and stretched, watching dust drift through a blade of sunlight that came in past the curtain, dust which, the morning before, had been her eyes. She got up, and asked the house to buy her flowers. The house chimed in answer.

For a minute there, Tom thought he smelled something burning, but then the phone rang, and he muted the YouTube video and picked up.

“TotalCast Cable, this is Tom,” he said, tilting his head to see the contortionist in the video better. “Your call is important to us. How may I help you today?”

The person on the other end of the line asked something about local hours in Vermont.

“OK. First, can you give me your address?”

The other person complained that Tom didn’t need her address: a troublemaker. Tom hated these people.

“I need your address to find your closest local office,” he said patiently.

The other person gave the exact address of the closest local office and repeated, as though Tom hadn’t heard the first time, that all she needed was to know what time they opened on Saturday.

“Yes, but I need your address to be able to tell you about special offers in your area.”

The person yammered on about having already closed their account, blah blah blah. Tom brought up the hours of that local office on the screen just for his own amusement, then closed it. The contortionist video had finished, but there was a link to an X-Rated contortionist site. Tom clicked on it.

“I can try to look it up without your address, but it may take a while,” Tom said. There were two contortionists in this video, and one of them was a redhead. “While you’re waiting, let me tell you about some of the new features available in your area.” Without waiting, he started doing that while the customer tried to protest, talking over him. Then, suddenly, the room went dark.

“That will be plenty, thank you,” said a grating voice that was so loud it hurt his ears. The computer was gone, and the room he was in, and the light had gone dull red. Realization flooded back in on him.

“No, let me try again!” he shrieked. “I promise I’ll do better! I promise!” He reeled away, but the demon grabbed him by the¬†throat and dragged him along the gritty black rock toward the Door.

¬†“Don’t worry. You can try again in another hundred years,” said the demon. He patted Tom on the head, and a patch of skin on Tom’s scalp burned away at the acid touch. “I’m sure you’ll get it eventually.”

The new reality show, “Your Life,” received an unprecedented five billion viewers–all hyperwired to be seated among the stadium’s studio audience. Cameras panned the virtual viewers as the red velvet curtains rustled slowly away to reveal an empty stage.
A few hands clapped tentatively.

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