Use Future (Cluster 00)

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Use Future (Cluster 00)

Part 1

It all began with the Fragment.

It crashed to Earth twenty miles west of Portage Lake, Maine, out past High Landing in the Allagash Wilderness. Sixteen-hundred square feet of metal fell from the sky unannounced. At first we thought it was just a normal asteroid impact. It wasn't. It was a spaceship, or rather a badly damaged fragment of what used to be a spaceship. Hence the name.

Government agencies and tech experts swarmed upon the Fragment to unravel the secrets it held. In an earlier age, even just ten years prior, it might have been exploited for terrible weapons of destruction or mass mind-control applications. But things had changed; people had grown fed up with both capitalist plutocrats and fair-weather liberals, and demanded a better world, and voted accordingly. It had not been a smooth transition at all. It was won with no insignificant amount of blood and trauma. But it was won all the same.

The Fragment became a sort of symbol of the new world, a changing from the old guard, and brought with it promises of fantastic benefits for everyone. What was most remarkable about it, and most terrifying, is how much more its existence implied beyond what we were able to discern ourselves. Had it been part of a cybernetic medical bay? An engineering section that incorporated biomechanical schematics? An entertainment interface for some exotic alien hobby? There was no way to know, and not enough information to speculate; in any case, we could only ever understand it in human terms, which were not the terms by which it had been designed and constructed.

That, however, was a matter for the philosophers and biologists. For the engineers and geneticists, it was the key to a door that opened to immortality.

- - - - - -

That was ten years ago. I was still teaching then. I retired a few years later when the colleges started to die out, their necessity and allure killed off by the new medical miracle of knowledge-injections. No point in spending 8 years getting a doctorate when you can acquire all the same neural pathways with a cocktail of chemical retrace constructors in forty minutes. Thankfully, keeping a job wasn't a particular dilemma anymore either, as the new economy made it unnecessary for actual humans to do anything considered labor. And even without academia in my life I was still a writer, and I published several novels and found a small following for them, a household name to a particular slice of society.

I suppose I should explain just what I meant about "actual humans." The Fragment delivered us quite a number of intoxicating technical advancements, but the greatest of these was called Medical Resurrection. I'm not a scientist, so I won't pretend to understand the proverbial nuts and bolts of it (and, as it turns out, literal – but I'm getting ahead of myself). What I can tell you is that the process somehow changes the structure of the human brain into a sort of magnetic plastic. This has the practical benefits of:

1. halting biological decay, as the organ is now materially stable, and

2. allowing common electronics to interface with it as a sort of hard drive / processor.

This, of course, was a massive breakthrough in senescence studies. By turning the brain into, essentially, a technological component, one could preserve the knowledge and experience of a human mind beyond its natural death – theoretically indefinitely.

The downside of this is that the "mind" is no longer considered a person. Philosophical, legal, and ethical debates raged across the world when this was originally discovered. At first some believed that it could not be true, but scientific knowledge derived from the Fragment squashed this avenue thoroughly. The next round of argument was that even if such mind-archives weren't people, it was ethical to treat them as such. That, too, soon fell by the wayside as it became clear that the products of the procedure had certain limits which restrained them from acting as full agents in society. Eventually, the current legal standard was enacted, in which the Resurrected, as they came to be called, were considered objects for unrestricted public and private use by human society, provided they were not abused.

The Resurrected weren't unhappy with this decision at all. In fact, they were quite eager to help.

- - - - - -

I tried not to think about it too much, to be quite honest. Of course, I couldn't help seeing all the humanlike robots everywhere, vehicles for all the converted brains that had become their processing modules, and how quickly their numbers grew. People die every day – a hundred and fifty thousand of them, in fact, and every single one of them is terrified of meeting oblivion. When the choice is "willingly becoming a robotized servant of humanity" or "death" you would be surprised how many people convince themselves into the former option.

The scientists, mind you, helped this along. Their party line had always been that the conversion was a temporary measure, a holding pattern of sorts until the next inevitable advancement was revealed, at which point all those who had been robotized would be returned to life as immortal humans, or perhaps something even better. A hundred years of programmed servitude measured against infinity is a solid bet even if you're terrible at math. Thus the Resurrected grew with each passing year, as more and more of the dead opted to stave off the Grim Reaper even if it meant becoming an appliance in some random person’s home.

I did not have any of them in my home. After my wife had passed – two years before the procedure had been perfected, too late to save her even if she had chosen it, which I firmly contend she would not have – I fell quite comfortably into the role of the reclusive writer, living outside of the city on a small but decent plot of land just off the main roads. There I could continue to craft stories and publish them, one of the few pastimes that was still wholly human, that could not be automated by even our fantastic new technical wizardry.

I did, however, see them regularly, as part of a social program to make sure that the elderly were not left alone too long. Two were assigned to check on my well-being twice a day, at six hour intervals. They came to the door at 9 in the morning and 3 in the afternoon, and made secret, silent observations the other two times. A third was stationed nearby in a service kiosk erected for the express purpose of reaching me in time in the event of an emergency; I could see its tiny shed just outside the edge of my land, its roof paneled with alien cells to convert errant electromagnetic radiation into a usable charge, and often imagined the robot inside, patiently sitting for hours, days, weeks on end just in case it was needed.

One day, it was.

- - - - - -

I’d like to be able to say that my impending death was less boring than a standard heart attack, but I make it a policy not to lie even when the truth is disappointing.

You tend to think the symptoms will be sudden, that there will be an obvious switch that flips that says “yes, you should definitely go to the hospital.” It’s not like that. It’s a culmination of little things, check boxes that can themselves be easily ignored individually as the minor pains of aging, until there are so many of them that the whole can no longer be, but by then it’s already happening.

The border robot knew before I did, somehow; I presume it was outfitted with a kind of sensor that monitored my vital signs from afar. It crossed the field with blinding speed and let itself into my home without knocking.

“I am detecting signs of cardiovascular distress,” it reported in its usual calm, friendly lilt. It was a female-shaped unit, nearly indiscernible from a real woman save for the telltale plastic sheen to its cool, hairless skin, segmented at the wrists and neck and likely several other places obscured by clothing, and the occasional visual blip of a teal-blue LED indicators somewhere behind its pupils, and that general enigmatic, dreamlike quality that all such units had that made them seem more like idealized paintings of humans. “Please report any difficulties you are currently having.”

I had sat myself down on the sofa a moment earlier, debating whether or not I should call an ambulance, and my breathing was somewhat labored as I gasped between vocal spurts: “Arm pain. Neck pain. Some heaviness in the chest area. Slight vertigo. General fatigue and malaise.”

“Possibility of ongoing cardiovascular failure: 72%.” Its eyes flickered with their bluish light. “Paramedics have been contacted and are en route. Please do not exert yourself as further stress may exacerbate current circumstances. Do you have any aspirin on hand?”

“Medicine cabinet,” I blurted, gesturing weakly and vaguely in the general direction of the bathroom. It fetched me the bottle and a cup of water.

I can’t say I recall much more after that. I have an indistinct memory of the sound of the ambulance as it pulled up the road to my home. I remember seeing people standing over me, trying to stave off my demise. And I remember the robot, looking down at me from behind them with its manufactured, slightly too-big puppy eyes, and how curiously stirred I was by how empathetic and concerned its expression seemed to me. Then I fell numb and was taken away.

- - - - - -

“Admittedly we don’t get many celebrity patients, Mr. Endicott,” said Dr. Sharma, flipping through the holographic projection coming off of the surface of his tablet. He was flanked on either side by two nurse robots, both of which stood perfectly still, awaiting any potential direction by the physician.

“I’m flattered,” I replied from the hospital bed, “but I think ‘celebrity’ is a bit of a stretch. I’m little more than an ex-professor who got lucky enough to live out his twilight years in a world where money doesn’t matter anymore, and spent that time producing dependable but ultimately unremarkable fairy stories.”

“Well, my daughter knows you,” he countered. “A friend of hers wouldn’t stop gushing about The Witches in the Windows so she injected it at the local library. She seemed to like it quite a lot.”

“How old is your daughter?”

“Fifteen. But if I recall, she injected it last year, when she was fourteen.”

“That’s about the right age.”

“Do you have any children?”

“No. I suppose my books will be my legacy.”

“Well, let’s not start talking about legacies just yet. We still have some options.” Dr. Sharma rotated the hologram around the z-axis to face me, displaying the name HUBERT ENDICOTT and a number of medical diagrams. “The good news is that we were able to stem the necrotic decay with an application of somatomorphic gelatin, which is why we’re currently having this conversation.”

“And the bad news?”

“We caught it too late. We’ll need subsequent applications to keep the damage at bay, and each one is factorially less efficient than the previous one. Put simply, eventually there wouldn’t be enough gelatin on the planet to hold it off.”

I paused as the gravity of his words began to pull me down. “How long?”

“Practically speaking, three days. Possibly four, if we can enhance it with a few electropathic tricks we haven’t tried. Beyond that...”

“...beyond that,” I repeated, finishing his sentence for him, “you want me to make a particularly significant decision about not meeting the void with dignity.”

Dr. Sharma made that sort of frown people make when they’re trying to hide the fact that it’s a frown. “Mr. Endicott,” he said, “it’s not my job to pressure you into anything. I just want to make sure we explore all the options. Are you opposed to Medical Resurrection on religious grounds?”

“Religious, no,” I answered, which was true. I wasn’t religious at all, or for that matter truly opposed to it at all. I had obviously seen all the good that had come of it in the world. But I was certainly anxious about it – about becoming a thing, an object, a gadget for anyone’s whim. To lose one’s humanity simply to keep functioning, to keep moving, an animate corpse of sorts, seemed so utterly against what humans were supposed to be and do. Yet there was also the very present fear of dying and a spark of curiosity within me about defying it, particularly when I thought back to the expression on the robot that stood by watching as the paramedics took me. What was it thinking, or feeling? Could it, even? Was its projection of concern and kindness merely that: a manufactured projection? Or was there something of the human still inside it, something that could and did care?

Dr. Sharma let me sit with my thoughts a moment before speaking again. “It is both my professional and personal opinion,” he said finally, “that all lives are worth saving. However, there are people who believe differently; that some lives are worth more than others, that it is frankly less tragic when a homeless drug addict is lost than it is when a great writer meets their demise. My point in bringing this up, Mr. Endicott, is that your life is worth saving in either case.”

I scoffed lightly. “As I said, I’m hardly a great writer, and anyway I don’t suppose your nurses have written any novels lately.”

Dr. Sharma smiled slightly at that. “That’s a very good point, actually,” he said, as if I’d just made an obvious blunder on a chess board. He turned back to his robotic assistants. “Who were the two of you, before you were Resurrected?”

The unit to his left, of male form, spoke first. “My name was Avigail Shapiro. I was a practicing lawyer for thirteen years. I specialized in toxic tort claims. I met my demise in an automobile accident, and have been Resurrected for three years.”

Then the other, female unit spoke: “My name was Geoffrey Marchand. I was a sales clerk at a convenience store for twenty-two years. Like Mr. Endicott, I suffered a fatal heart attack and was Resurrected two weeks ago.”

I’m not sure what I had expected from their answers, but I found myself somewhat thrown by them. Here were a professional and a retail worker, both reduced to the same inevitable fate; for at least one of them, this existence might have been sarcastically considered a significant upgrade. Yet there was something inherently democratic about it, this erasure of class and capital value. And that one was only two weeks fresh, already functioning in a new occupation! I wasn’t comfortable with how to appropriately vocalize these notions, so I mentally switched topics: “They’ve both switched their gender, it seems.”

“Well,” said Dr. Sharma, “a robot technically has no gender; we rather project that onto them based on how they’ve been designed to appear. But yes, to answer less cryptically, that’s actually a fairly common request. People generally tend to want to try being something new; in for a penny, in for a pound, and all that.”

“I get to choose how I look?” I asked, perhaps a little too eagerly.

Dr. Sharma smiled wider. “Yes, you would,” he said, accenting the last word. I realized, suddenly, in contrast to his officially stated impartiality, that he had me where he wanted me. I had used the indicative mood (get) and not the conditional mood (would get) – which meant, on some subconscious level, I had already decided, and he knew it was now merely a matter of waiting me out until I succumbed to my own verdict.

I sighed, defeated. “How long does it take to set up an appearance?”

“Much less than three days,” he answered, “generally speaking.”

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