I was born yesterday. Or perhaps I should say I woke up yesterday. That would be more like it. After all, there were no labor pangs, no exit from the womb – in fact, there was no womb at all, or, for that fact, a mother. She was there, of course, but standing, on the other side of the room. It was all very clean, really; no mess, no blood, no crying. Just waking up and seeing bright lights above me. That’s the way it is with brainloads.
How they can take a person’s brain – no, the person’s mind – and put it into a computer is something I never really understood. But it happens; I’d seen it happen. How they can take the mind and then put it back into a body is something I understand even less, but I’d seen that, too. Several of my friends had been regenerated, either out of necessity or luxury. The technology had, unfortunately, come too late to save any of my grandparents, but several of my more distant relatives had undergone the process. Dad’s company had paid for his computer copy, but he had never changed bodies. The silicon backup was just a precaution against workplace hazards – just to be on the safe side. Not that there were many hazards for a gov-tank philosophy specialist; his bosses were more concerned that he’d die crossing the street, and they’d lose all the accumulated information in his head. That’s because the government had started funding philosophy projects after computers took over all of the other thinking jobs, and they were very protective of their information. Still, mom nearly freaked out when she heard about it; it almost seemed better to take no precaution than to admit there was a possibility of danger and to prepare for that.
But there was more to it than that, I think. She didn’t know what to make of it. I didn’t know what to make of it. Someone you can’t even understand makes a copy of themselves; someone who doesn’t exist, doesn’t exist twice. The computer knew dad better than I did. But that wasn’t the first time I’d encountered the technology. Nearly a year ago, one of my friends died in a car wreck the night of his high school graduation. It was one of the last classes ever to traditionally graduate, as the same technology that could copy data out of your head could also copy data in. He had taken a backup a few weeks before, and his family had a clone “cell scaffold-grown” to replace him. I talked to him afterwards, and he seemed like the same person. When I asked if it was really him, or a copy of him, he laughed and replied easily enough that it was, really, him.
“But how?” I pressed. “Just because they take all the information in your brain and put it on a chip, and then put the information in a body just like yours – that doesn’t mean it’s you! It’s got all your physical characteristics and memory, sure, even your personality, but there was no consciousness-transfer.”
“So?” he asked. “Why does that matter?”
“Because if there was no consciousness, then you’re not you, you’re just a body running on the same experiences.
“It’s immaterial,” he said, leaning back in his chair. We were in his bedroom, for the first time since he died. “Look, when you wake up after anesthesia, it’s still you, right?”
“Right…” I agreed, slowly.
“But there was no consciousness between the time you went under and the time you woke up. Your mind was really, except for a few processes like keeping your heart beating, inert. Dead. When you woke up there was no continuity with the time before the anesthesia – in fact, you probably forgot the several minutes before they knocked you out – so your waking self was, more or less, an identical body (in this case the same body) with the same memories. No different from me. No different, really, from sleeping and waking up. Sure, I’m a copied body with copied memories. But that doesn’t change the fact that I’m Jacob Hendrikson, the same one you always knew.”
“Still… don’t you feel a little… do you really think you’re you?”
“Yeah… besides, you should know that you’re continually being replaced, too. Every cell in your body’s going to be gone in two years, but you’ll still be you.”
“Yes,” I insisted, “but I don’t go all at once. It’s little by little. My consciousness is intact throughout.”
“How do you know mine wasn’t?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Forget it. I’m glad you’re back.”
* * *
I hadn’t meant to be so callous to my recently deceased friend, but I felt that this new Jacob was somehow an impersonator, a fake. An illusion, like the AI-recreated historical figures at the school library. In time I got used to it. I got used to it all. Everyone seemed to be getting new bodies. People who died, and those who just wanted an upgrade – say, an extra fifty points on the IQ, or maybe an extra-big pair of biceps. Ten years ago, cloning scandals had been rampant in sports and academia, but no one cared anymore, not when so many were disappearing into their own heads to pursue interests and entertainments unheard of in the real world.
The dead and the upgraded weren’t alone; for a while, there were those with enough money to grow a new body whenever the old one had an injury and they didn’t want to wait for it to heal. It was a boon for a few mega-paid extreme-sports stars. You could be backed up on your parkour board and making your millions again in no time flat. Then nanotech caught up with brainload and made body-switching, along with thousands of years of surgical techniques, obsolete for healing injuries. Pretty much anything, in fact, from crushed limbs to colds to acne, could be solved with a sprinkling of medbugs. This didn’t mean gratuitous body-switching slowed down in popularity; I’d even heard of a new branch of Shinto whose members traded bodies every set number of years. And there were those with neural interfaces, broadbanding every second of their sensory experience into a remote drive, storing every memory and perception, continuously refreshing their backup so that, in the event of a sudden death, they wouldn’t lose anything. Even when a backup was done premeditatedly, you typically lost the previous day or two of memory. Something about how the brain recorded data and how the machine read it. Doctors assured the press that they would have that wrinkle worked out soon.
Still, our family hadn’t done any of that yet. After all, the technology was only about two, three years old. Sure, I figured I’d brainload one day – nobody, except a few hard-core atavists, actually planned on dying anymore – but not until I needed it.
I guess I changed my mind.
I woke up yesterday and heard the doctor’s voice.
“Welcome back, Phil.”
“Hi, son.” It was dad. He was crossing the room mom to come to the side of the bed.
A wave of panic washed over me. What had happened? Had I been hurt? Why was I in a hospital? I sat up, and immediately felt the most insane desire to stretch, so I did – one of those big, almost involuntary stretches like you do when you get out of the car after a long ride and lean back, just a little, and suddenly have to strain every muscle in your body. It felt so good. I jumped out of bed and flexed a moment, then suddenly looked down. I had heard about hospital gowns. But oddly, I was wearing my own clothes: a pair of sweatpants and a hoody.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“You’ve been regenerated,” mom said.
“Oh. I was afraid you wouldn’t remember.” She looked at dad. “But once you decided you wanted to do it, we didn’t see any reason to wait. How do you feel?”
“I feel fine,” I said, and I did. I felt great, just slightly panicky. “I decided to brainload?”
Dad interjected, quickly. “We were talking about what to give you for a graduation present.”
(I, like Jacob, had gone the traditional route to education. With the year I had left, it didn’t make sense to get the neural interface work done, at least to my conservative mind.)
“Lots of ideas came up,” dad continued, “but then your mother and I wondered if you wanted to brainload – well, to regenerate. We mentioned it to you, and you were enthusiastic. Then we thought, ‘Why wait until after you’ve graduated?’ This way, you’ll be brand new for the ceremony, the prom, all that.”
“I… I don’t remember. I don’t remember any of it.”
“It may come back to you,” the doctor interposed. “However, it’s normal to lose up to thirty-six of the hours preceding the procedure. If the decision was made in that window, it may have been lost from you memories. Still, it’s possible that it will resurface after you get reoriented. That typically happens within the first few hours.”
“I want to go home,” I said. I felt like crying.
During the ride home, I asked what had happened to my old body.
“Well, Phillip, you know…” Mom’s voice made her seem faintly resentful of being asked, like I had broken a taboo.
“Yeah, I know. I just wondered.”
“You signed a release form. You’re an organ donor.”
“No, I mean, I guess it was an injection?”
“Yes. You just fell asleep. It was very peaceful.”
We were all silent for a moment. For no particular reason, my eyes got watery.
“Did you watch?” I asked.
Now mom was the one who seemed ready to tear up. “Your father did. He held your hand.”
I wondered if it was the one that took the needle.
* * *
My skin was pink; bright, healthy pink. My nails were short and my body hairless. It felt good to be alive. As I talked more to my parents, I learned about some of the benefits from the procedure, the things that had prompted me to brainload. All my scars were gone. I had gotten a knee injury playing football and our insurance wouldn’t cover medbugs, and the old-fashioned surgery was only partly effective, not to mention accompanied by a long, painful recovery and a longer physical therapy period. Both my knees were in perfect condition now. I saw 20/20, although that might deteriorate with age – no genetic manipulation had been done, I just had brand-spanking new corneas (there’s always time later for improving on nature, my parents said). According to the doctor, my neural networks were even still in something of a formative stage, so I would be soaking up information like a kid, at least for a few months. Now might be a good time to pick up a foreign language. My teeth were straight and cavity-free. My lungs were clear, with none of the previous seventeen years of inhaled grime and pollutants. My bloodstream and brain didn’t even have a trace of toxic chemicals. Everything about me felt so right. And the old-body thing didn’t really bother me; I couldn’t even remember it.
And that was what bothered me.
That evening when I showered, after a beautiful, pain-free bike ride, I inspected myself to see if there were any signs of wear and tear, and to find stubble growing in all the right places. Knowing you were born today is a funny feeling. It’s like the numb shock of learning the Facts of Life, or of the loss of someone who died, but also the awkward thrill of puberty, all at the same time.
I went downstairs to dinner, still glowing under my clothes. I sat down and ate with my parents. Midway through taking a drink of water, a thought occurred to me. A cold sweat broke out on my brand-new skin. I felt the nightmarish way you do when you realize an assignment is due today and you didn’t do it, when it’s the first day of your new job and you’ve slept right through it, or the way when you’re a kid and you know you’ve done something horrible and you’ll never, ever be forgiven.
I put my glass calmly down, concentrating on the movement of my arm, and continued to eat while I thought it over. I examined this thought every way I could, trying to take the sting out of it, the hot/cold pain, the nausea, by familiarizing myself with it. I looked the thought in the eye and ate my food automatically, swallowing stiffly and hoping that I could turn this thought into something small and meaningless by staring it down. I would take the shock out of it.
But the shock was still there: How did I really know I had been born again? Maybe I was still on the doctor’s computer, a disembodied consciousness dreaming away, waiting to be woken. How could I tell?
“Mom? Dad? How do I know I’m really here?”
“What do you mean?” Mom put down her fork.
“How do I know this isn’t all a dream? How do I know I’m not still a pile of data sitting on a chip?”
It was a good question. You can pinch yourself to see if you’re dreaming, but what if you don’t have arms? You can look down and verify for yourself that you have limbs, that you have a torso; you can look in a mirror and see that you have a head – but there’s no way to see if you have a body, no system check to run. Our brains were never intended to be without bodies. And time doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t take long to transfer a mind from computer to fresh-grown body, but perceived time is squishy. Just like in a normal dream, you could experience years of subjective time in an hour. And in the quantum-quick medium of a computer rather than the slow cells of a cerebrum, anything, any amount of time compression, might be possible.
“Are you sure this was such a good idea?” My voice was starting to crack. I envisioned the long years stretching in front of me with the constant thought hanging overheard that everything could be an illusion, that at any moment I could be jerked awake and find myself just beginning. Everything looked real, but I could never know for absolutely sure. And if anything impossible happened, anything too fantastic to be real… how many times had impossible things happened in dreams that I didn’t realize were impossible until I woke up? How did I know this wasn’t all a dream? There was no way, no way to check, ever.
I was stuck. I panicked, throwing my fist down on the table.
“I wish you’d never brainloaded me in the first place!” I yelled.
My parents sat there, stunned.
“Phil…” mom said, leaning her head to one side. “You don’t… mean that?”
I laughed a little, nervous.
“No, no, just kidding with you. I just had this funny thought. But I know this isn’t a dream. I was just kidding.”
“Phil…” Dad put his arm around me. “I’m real. I know that may sound a bit like a solipsistic argument, but… we’re here.”
And suddenly, all that was real was that arm around me, and the faces looking at me, full of hope and fear. It doesn’t matter to me now whether this is only flashes of electricity across a disk, or a simulation thought up by an illusion – this is love. This is real.
About the Author: Shelby Davis has little to report on the matter of his life, and would have a hard time explaining his literary ambitions without sounding trite. He is, however, ecstatic at having found a print copy of “Dream Days” in the basement of his fourth-favourite used bookstore this morning.
(c) 2009 Shelby Davis firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Artist: Romeo Esparrago makes pictures when he can.