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..."Me 1.0" - a story that received "Honourable Mention" from The Writers of the Future contest.
“Mr. Gordon...can you hear me?” A nurse bends over my bed. I’m in a hospital – again – but this time will be my last. My body is at the end of the line, like my credit. All my companies – the mobility software, the Asian fabs – have been sold off or shut down.
The paint on the walls is the same pea soup green in all these places. Grey linoleum tiles, thick with years of industrial wax, on every floor. A wheeled cart with racks of monitor screens stands guard by the bed where my body lies propped up. The monitor bleeps a heartbeat line that pulses reassuringly. Staff in blue medical scrubs come and go, hurrying past my doorway on their way to do battle for the living. Overhead lights and voices have dimmed for the evening, as if the whole place is waiting for death.
“Yes, I can hear you fine,” I reply. She glances down because my neck speaker has been re-routed to the external CPU at my waist to make room for a breathing tube. She looks back up to my face. Even though it’s common now, no one likes talking to your waist.
I don’t want to die, even though my body hurts like hell everywhere. I’ve pushed and bribed and cheated the Fates as far as science allows, but my organic path finally ends here. I volunteered for the upload program because, face it, with all the stuff I’ve added on over the years, I’m half-way there already. I don’t care that I made it to my 133rd birthday. I still don’t want to die.
“No, I meant can your ears still hear me?” She holds her electronic clipboard to her chest, as if it can shield her from my terminal vapours. I concentrate on listening the old way. It’s hard.
I’ve got no family to worry about. Never married. An over-rated institution, in my opinion. I thank my parents for great genes but nothing else. Certainly not military school, their strict religion, or any one of a number of boxes they tried to stick me in. I’ve hated authority ever since. Here I am at the very end, still fighting to stay out of the very last box - a pine one.
“No, nothing up there…through my ears, I mean,” I reply.
My hearing probably could have managed for a decade longer since cochlear implants had come a long way. I can hear the old guy snoring four rooms away when I turn up my external sound inputs. I told the last nurse to check on that gurgling in his lungs.
“System confirms your auditory nerves have completely shut down, so your inner-ear implants won’t work. Can you see anything?” She clicks her pointer on the pad, working down a list.
“I haven’t been able to see naturally for years. I can see you fine, otherwise.”
I can see everything – an average-sized woman with reddish hair tied back (not her natural colour); a faint scar on her left cheek hidden under make-up; oversized scrubs covering a bit of extra weight in the back end...I can use the camera in my CPU or the ones on the monitor rack – any cam in the room, if I want. She’s kind of attractive, for someone at least a hundred years younger than me.
“Sorry, I forgot.” she mutters. “About your eyes, I mean." She looks down again, uncomfortable under my gaze, wherever it is. “I’m sure it won’t be much longer.”
Vision was the second sense to be rescued by electronic implants, after hearing. It was kind of a natural because science had been refining cameras and lenses for years and all we had to do was connect to the visual cortex inside the brain. Fortunately, the nerves there are reptilian basic, allowing researchers to poke in a few wires for simple black and white patterns. I’ve upgraded with every new advance and can now see in the dark and count the threads on a silk tie. If they even measure human eyesight the old way anymore, I’d probably be about 20/1. Frankly, I’d bypass my natural eyes even if they still worked. Many people do now.
Reyna, says her badge. I can see it behind her clipboard through the high ceiling camera.
“What are you feeling right now?” A second voice asks. “Is your center of thought still mid-brain, Pieter?”
Dr. Collins is looking at the readouts. He’s tall, so I swivel the monitor’s upper camera to look him in the eye. The world’s leading scientist in artificial enhancements still wears glasses and he’s bald on top. Never had time for a re-grow, he says.
“It still feels where it was, Dr. Collins, I think. Maybe not completely inside my body now - it’s hard to tell.” Dr. Murray Collins and I got off to a rocky start, years ago. He was doing research along traditional brain-mapping lines, copying patterns and signals to download them into software. His group was one of the best in the world but still going nowhere, at least in my opinion. They had achieved artificial intelligence of a sort, if you count rats or dogs as intelligent. No matter how well they copied memories and personality fragments, replicating human consciousness in software eluded them. Eluded everyone, actually. I approached the university with a new idea and a very, very large bequest, which made Dr. Collins furious at a level only people who know they are wrong can reach. He came around, though. Maybe money can’t buy happiness, but it sure can be persuasive.
“I’m losing sensation in my feet. It’s like they’re going to sleep.” I’m so cold. It could be the bone cancer, hardening of the arteries…I’m at losing the war on so many fronts.
Dr. Collins reaches down and lays a warm hand on my shin. I can’t call us friends, but we’ve come to respect one another. I still call him Dr. Collins, just out of courtesy. In the end, he agreed to my plan to attempt a gradual upload, which I nicknamed the THOT Process - Transcending Humanity Over Time. He hated the name, but it caught on anyway. I didn’t even have to fight for it, but I would have. I don’t like to lose even little battles.
“We’ve never had anyone walk us through their own death before. If this works, Pieter, who knows?" He smiles and shrugs his shoulders. “Still...this is a brave thing you’re doing. I truly hope I can...it is still you in...you know what I mean.” He whispers to the nurse to call him if anything changes and walks out quietly.
Still you. What a concept. Immortality has been the goal of every king since time began and here I am, watching others watch me die. I have to admit, I’m scared about what happens next. My heart rate is picking up and that’s not good.
“I’m finding it hard to breathe, Reyna - I feel like I can’t get enough air. It’s quite uncomfortable.” Most of my 'brain’ is external now, held in a pack around my waist. LEDs are flashing rapidly, flickering red off the ceiling, which further raises my stress. Fear is one of the primal emotions, centred in the amygdala, deep inside the brain. Scientists have modeled it and even tried digitally copying it, but can a program really feel fear? My electronics are well-supplied with power, but my body isn’t keeping up. I don’t know where it’s coming from, but I sure as hell am feeling fear now.
“We can increase your oxygen.” She adjusts something then turns quickly towards the hallway. “Dr. Collins!” she shouts.
He arrives, panting, and checks levels on the monitor. “How’s that now, Pieter?” I’d heard his steps accelerate from far down the hall.
“Better, thanks.” I relax a little, nudging my pacemaker down. My heart has always given me problems, so by the time I needed a full transplant at 92, I had the choice between someone else’s heart, a ventricular assist pump, or a stem cell re-grow. I took the stem cells, even though some research suggested they might lead to rampant cancer. Turns out I should have taken the pump. The cancer’s been a bitch to keep ahead of.
“Not too low on the heart rate, please, Pieter. We need to see the natural progression to the terminal phase." Dr. Collins always lifts his glasses when he looks at the monitor screen.
“Death. It’s okay - you can say the word,” I tell him.
“Okay. We need to watch the natural progression of your heart’s death.” He bends over and smiles at my face. I know he’s wondering where I really exist now. I’m wondering too.
I frantically review the last few moments of stored memory to try and detect where my fear response is being generated. I think most of my “self" now exists in external hardware, but the response appears to come from both new and old “me”. Is enough of me uploaded?
The idea of human consciousness inside an electronic world, free of disease and capable of living forever, has been percolating for decades. The grim reality is that the deep regions of the brain can only be copied through a process so invasive, no one has ever survived. My problem, and that of some philosophers, is who am I if I do survive?
If a copy of me was successful, and everyone who knew me agreed it was me, where did that leave the original me? I found myself thinking more and more about this as I got older. Sure, a copy was great, especially if science ever succeeded in cloning a body to insert a version of me into, but I was more interested in the old me. Me 1.0 as I call myself. I would still have died a natural death, even if Me 2.0 was happily running around, and much as my loved ones might be convinced, I sure the hell wasn’t. Me 1.0 wants immortality to be a serial existence, not a parallel one.
“Kidney function starting to fail, doctor,” whispered the nurse.
“I see that, nurse, thanks. Breathing becoming laboured. Liver function degrading.”
My old organs are shutting down, one by one, overwhelming everything I turn on to fight back. Like an army retreating to a defensive shell, I must focus on my vital parts. Breathe. Breathe. I try to focus on climbing up and out of my flesh, to be in the electronic world beyond my dying body. I have no idea if thinking of escape enables it, but I have to do something! My thoughts are crisp and cloudy at the same time.
“Dr. Collins! Dr. Collins!” I am shouting inside but my face stays inert. I can’t feel my hands anymore. The heart monitor is beeping faster and faster, my breathing can’t keep up. Panic only makes it worse. I switch on my speaker.
“In case this is it, Dr. Collins, it’s been nice working with you,” I try to keep my electronic voice calm, but I can’t.
“Murray, Pieter. Call me Murray, for God’s sake! I’m shutting every assistance off, just recording now. Godspeed, Pieter.” The rapid beep of the heart monitor suddenly levels into a solid tone. I see the flat red line on the display, and then...
...my body is so pale. I am looking down from the security camera at a waxen body in a dark room. Dr. Collins is looking around the room at the cameras and calling out my name. He sounds frantic.
I suddenly realize I am seeing all this from another viewpoint, not electronic, from somewhere else. It makes me dizzy to see two. The skin on my body begins to whiten. A light from above, like sunlight. So bright to one set of eyes, but absent to the other. My electronics show nothing, no rise in ambient light or temperature at all. I must be coming from my inside my dying brain. Is it narcosis?
A circle opens above me and brilliant light streams out. It is so intense, but in an emotional spectrum rather than electromagnetic. I don’t know how else to say it, but I feel love radiating down on me from the opening.
Dr. Collins - Murray - I hope you’re getting this! I have never felt so complete in all my life. It can only be God!
His love is like a laser drilling into my soul, whispering to my body to rest, to stop fighting.
Join me. Rise.
With all my heart, I want to give in. My cameras show Dr. Collins silent at my bedside, holding my hand. I hesitate, reminded of why he is here. Part of my soul wants to leave but the part in the circuitry isn’t sure. I have to concentrate hard on a question.
What do I want again?
Suddenly, the emotional pull from above is redoubled. My electronic mind is pushed so far back in my split consciousness, it is almost extinguished. My human mind, or what’s left of it, sees a flash of light, and then…
An image of a man with a beard in a white robe appears. I recognize Him instantly from my own imagination, memories formed when I was six. God wants to comfort me. I know He can appear in a thousand, a million, or a trillion forms. He has chosen this guise for me.
It makes me feel warm and safe. I am aware of something truly infinite and me a minute part of a greater whole. My consciousness fades as though I were sinking into warm water, becoming one with God. I cannot say no. Who would? And yet I am still able to ask that question. I feel the warm water cool a degree.
An infinitesimal part of my consciousness remains connected to Earth. I strain my electronic eyes to concentrate on the people in the dark hospital room. God whispers more insistently for me to rest, but my mind is no longer as sure as it was just a heartbeat ago. I remember a time in church when I was fourteen. I asked a question, but the priest said to question God was to doubt Him. I hated that.
What do I want again?
“Pieter.” Murray Collins quietly says my name like a farewell, back on Earth.
Pieter. I am Pieter Gordon. My identity becomes my anchor. I wanted immortality, I remember now. I still want it.
Will I still be Pieter Gordon? I ask God.
A storm approaches, an emotional vortex pulling even more strongly. A new image takes shape, another manifestation from my childhood. An angry God this time. The Old Testament God of fire and wrath.
Let go, He commands.
My mind is clearing. I hold on.
Every soul shall taste death. I am the light of the world and I guide whom I will.
The storm of biblical proportions hit me, with lightning and emotional fury everywhere.
A realization sears into me with the intensity of a laser: this is about far more than me. I am the first soul from Earth to face God when death is no longer the only option.
I will not be the last.
My mind – my electronic mind - is now clear. I lean back from the ethereal gravity and pull with all my strength. I can be a stubborn bastard when I want something, and I realize with great clarity that what I want is to live. Me 1.0 is still alive, and I realize Earth has just joined a battle raging over the vast plain of eternity. A war between God and those who refuse to die.
Desperation, fear, anger...I grasp with every emotion to extend what and where I am. I can feel the monitor power supply - pull! Displays are flickering everywhere. Come on…I need everything in this building. Lights dim in the room and the hallway. A siren goes off in a distant stairwell.
I feel a micron of reversal, then more, accelerating down into...me. A new me, electronic, expansive, with a million fiber paths. But still the old me, with my thoughts and memories intact. Me 1.0 lives on.
The vast expanse of light shuts off above my body with the force of black vacuum. I can smell the acrid smoke of anger lingering in the room.
I can’t say God and I are parting on the best of terms.
“Murray...Murray? It’s me, Pieter!” I shout from the hallway speakers and every speaker I can find.