You wake up on a table, blinking out the haze under bright lights. Your skin is goosebumping against a sheet draped over your body. Your breathing is slow and…. clear. Deep. As you inhale greedily, you become aware of a strange lightness, and with the exhale you realize that it is an absence of pain. You’d forgotten what that felt like.
You sit up, a little faster than you meant to. The room is a strange cross between a hospital and a hotel lobby; there’s wires hanging out of the ceiling and a large machine covered in screens by your bed, but the ground is carpeted and the walls are draped in heavy salmon curtains patterned with pineapples.
This isn’t your room, the little converted closet your family had put you, waiting for you to finally die, with the blue peeling wallpaper and the drone of that old fan in the summer heat.
A man enters with a whiff of cologne. He is holding a clipboard and is wearing little round glasses.
“This is the year 2442 AD,” he says before you can think to ask any questions. His tone is abrupt, procedural. “You died four hundred and three years ago at the age of….” he glanced at his chart.
“Ninety-two,” you croak. You turned ninety-two last month, but you certainly don’t feel dead.
“Correct,” he says with the tone of someone who’s said these words many times before. “Your body was selected as part of a program by a startup company which would later become the corporate governance known as Jericho. Your brain was scanned and saved in its exact configuration – your memories, personality, subconscious, instincts, your entire brain structure. All of it was compressed and put into a file. Over time Jericho amassed hundreds of thousands of these scans, and recently has begun an initiative to boot them back up in artificial bodies.”
Artificial bodies. You look down and see what you already knew – a smooth, taut skin surface, poreless, with texture lightly imprinted for realism. There are tiny bolts in the back of your elbows. You can’t find the outline of any veins in the back of your hands.
The man continues. “We’ve constructed an artificial body that nearly perfectly resembles a human body, with a few improvements. It will not age, it will not get ill. It can eat, dance, and enjoy sexual intercourse. It cannot reproduce, but we have new methods for that now, which we can address later. It must recharge every night, but sleeping is no longer necessary.”
This is absurd and you are somehow accepting it, numbly. 2442 AD. This means everyone you knew has died. They should have brought in a counselor, or someone who at least started out with “my condolences.”
“Did you download the personalities of everyone, when they died?” you ask.
“No.” His voice remains even, but he glances at you from beneath his spectacles. “Only corpses within a certain eligibility were saved at first. Later on we expanded our reach to 85% of the world, with 100% coverage in developed nations. We have a few thousand prior to your time as well.”
“Wait,” you say. “How do you save the personalities of people before 2042?”
“We reconstruct them,” the man says. “We place bits together from memories of loved ones, of writings, of records. It is a long, painstaking process.”
These questions are something to hold onto, some sort of anchor that gives your mind grounds to think. “How do you know it is accurate?” You ask. “What if you make a mistake?”
“There is a variance in every replica,” he answers, with a bit more spark this time. Maybe he isn’t used to these sorts of questions from…. new bodies. “It’s around 0.02%, even in yourself. The variance in personalities recorded prior to 2042 can reach up to 0.09%, but it is a negligible difference. All the presidents of the United States are currently living, as well as many major historical figures. A version of Shakespeare is currently living in New Jersey.”
“Historical records were not comprehensive enough for high levels of accuracy.”
“So is it him?”
“More or less. We have philosophers to argue over the petty details now, but if it means anything, he’s been writing some additional great literature. You should read his newest play By the Shore if you’ve got the time.”
You run your fingers over your skin and have an eerie sense of being sixteen. Sixteen with the mind of an ancient.
“Will I ever die?”
“Your body will eventually fail,” he says. “Artificial macrocells last for approximately 240 years before they must be replaced. Don’t worry, we have a financing option.”
“And then I’ll be put into another one?”
“Yes, unless you specifically request a non-continuation of your memory.”
You stand from the table and test your walk. Your legs take a moment to respond to your will, but your new brain picks learns fast, and within a few tries you are spinning around on one leg with absurd balance. It is a good distraction.
“So if you can reconstruct memories, can you change them? If I ask, can you erase shame, or the memory of death of loved ones? What if I were a murderer? Can you erase sadistic tendencies in people?”
“Yes,” he says. “There are extensive modification forms you can submit for change upon your next body shift if you wish to improve yourself. We refuse to reawaken criminals unless they agree to positive modification.”
Your mind immediately flies to the extremes. “Do people change so much they become someone else? Wait, no – can they choose to forget who they were, entirely? Are there people who want to be someone else upon their next… wake-up? Like a reincarnation?”
“Transferral into another body is something we call a birth. This is your second birth. And yes. There are many people who choose an identity and remove memory of their prior lives. Most of those are not aware that they are on their second birth; they believe they have simply been born. Some opt to put in false memories from a life that didn’t exist, just for the fun of it.”
“Then how are they even the same person?” Your brain may be fast, but it is still yours, and it has limits. “How is this any different than booting up any arbitrary consciousness with random specifications you feel like making? How is it them?”
The man shifts, and you don’t remember at what point his enthusiasm had become discomfort. “It isn’t.”
You realize you are naked. He doesn’t seem to care. You can feel the ligaments within you moving… differently. More precisely. Cleanly. It is hard to focus on your body with your mind whirling. There are a thousand questions to ask at once.
“Are my children alive?”
He consults his clipboard, obviously relieved to have an easier question. “You have four children alive.”
“I only had three children.”
“One elected to be birthed twice.”
The man talks calmly. He looks pleasant now. You wonder if his body is organic or artificial. “Your child Miranda lives in Texas. She also lives in New Canada.”
“What are you saying?”
“Canada had sort of an identity crisis last centur-”
“No, about Miranda. Are you saying I have two Mirandas?”
“Yes. There are two bodies that carry her consciousness.”
“But – which one is her?”
“Both are her.”
“Both? How do you have two of the same person?”
“We booted the file into two different bodies.”
“You what? You can do that? Could you do that to me?”
You stand there dumbfounded, and stare at the man with his stupid little glasses. He’s shorter than you. You have an urge to push him over, but suppress it. “So if you booted me twice, would the other one be a clone?”
“Not any more than you’re a clone right now, I think. That’s actually the subject of the presidential debate’s new platform right now, outlawing of multiple copies. But I personally think it’s just the same thing, there would just be two of you.”
“And this other me – over time it would be subjected to different experiences. It would be me for a little while, but then it would change. How could it really be me, then?”
“You think because it has gone through different things, that it is not you?”
“Then how do you draw the boundary between what is and is not me? Could anyone be me?”
“Some say everyone already is you.”
“But how? I can see and touch them!”
“You can see and touch another instance of your brain booted up into another body, too. Just because you’re looking at another body you’re not in doesn’t mean it’s not you.”
You grab your head – full of thick hair – and run your hands down your face, smooth and unfamiliar.
“What am I?”
“That is a very good question.”
“Is this me? You’ve taken something that remembers some life of mine, some collection of ideas – hell, they might not even be real, maybe I elected to have them imprinted inside of me because of some some twisted idea that it would be fun – and now I’m something that can be replicated? What is this? I died! I was gone, and now I’m awake again and I remember being me. I remember my children.”
“We don’t use the term death anymore,” he says, gently now. “We call it sleeping.”
“Don’t try to soften the truth. People do die. I died.”
“And when you’ve gone to bed to sleep at night? You closed your eyes, fell unconscious, and then hours later you opened your eyes again and remembered being you. We could have replaced your body when you slept every night and you would feel no different. And just now – you’ve closed your eyes and opened them four hundred years later. Sleeping is no different from death, except with sleeping, you just remember who you were last time. With death, the memory leaves. If you remember who you were, then you haven’t died, you’ve only slept.”
You have no words. The man continues. “You will meet many people who are on maybe their tenth births who will not remember their past births.”
“What about me? Have I lived in the span before this time and chosen not to remember?”
“If you had, I would not be at liberty to tell you.”
“Why do people choose not to remember?”
“Most will say they got bored. Immortality is quite the fad, but it seems a lot of people get tired of it. They say it’s not really fun to be a kid again if you already remember being an adult. You’re just smaller and nobody really takes you seriously. So you can’t really be a kid if you don’t die first.”
“I thought you said you didn’t use the word death.”
“We do in cases of non-remembrance – if you elect to be rebirthed and not remember it. I don’t really think that’s any different from regular humans being born and dying though, but that’s just me.”
“How many times have you been born?”
“I don’t know,” he says.
“Does anyone know, for sure?”
“No,” he says. A beeping sounds from outside the door. He reaches into a drawer built into the wall and hands you a simple robe. “My shift is up, though. Take this. Are you finished with your questions?”
“No,” you say.
He smiles, his first real expression, and you catch an artificial green reflection in his pupil. “You can come back whenever you wish. There is food waiting for you. You will also find a full manual and a trained Birth Specialist just down the hall. Two of your children will meet you outside.”
You thank him, your head still spinning, and with your new legs you step through the door.
4 thoughts on “You Wake Up On A Table”
Can I second the Greg egan recommendation? His work quarantine is one of the best sci films books I’ve read- all the more accessible for its question of identity and consciousness but in a very different setting. Enjoy:)
This is nice. The comparisons to Philip K. Dick and Ghost in the Shell (a personal favorite) are well deserved. To that list I might offer a less familiar name: Greg Egan, a science fiction writer and amateur mathematician. I’ve read only two short stories by him, each with similar themes as this story and are called “Reasons to be Cheerful” and “Wang’s Carpets” (they’re about as different from what you might expect from their titles as possible).
Although I feel a little silly offering advice to someone as skilled as yourself, I think the story would benefit from being a little less, well, naked. This is awkward for me; I usually prefer the “just say what you have to say” approach, which you do with appealing directness. In this case, though, it seems almost like the characters are just window-dressing for the ideas. God I like the ideas though! I really don’t want to seem aloof here, but I suspect that a lot of people don’t have this view of consciousness. If your aim is to persuade, change, or teach people to see it in a new light, you might want to recreate their ideas in your story too -and show how they fit in.
Honestly, I’m a slightly jealous.
Philip K. Dick, eat your heart out! 😂😂😂
This was awesome. It reminds me of the questions the Ghost in the Shell series asks. If we can manipulate our bodies even brains by adding mechanical components that enhance us or have the ability to add or remove information from our brains at will like a hard drive, when do we stop being us and become some one or something else?
I feel that the experiences we have growing up make us who we are. That manipulation of personal memory poses the greatest threat to changing who we are even to the very spark that makes us human. For example if I could remove all memory of pain, misery, and sadness and only those but by extension I would probably lose the ability to use and or act on empathy. I would probably remember it by the definition but without pain, misery, and sadness practical application in regards to other people would be beyond me. So by removing a set of memories that helped create and define me as an individual person other aspects would be changed and or completely removed and I would no longer be me.