That came from the generator level. They're inside the Hall.

The hospital looks incredible from the outside - white and glassy and curvy, like it was built ten years from now. Hell, there's no reason why it shouldn't have been. According to innumerable works of science fiction from previous years, decades and centuries, the year in which Mitch Calrus' appointment is due to take place is the incalculably distant future. Although the Cold War ended a few decades ago. And the Singularity still hasn't happened. And cyberpunk is bunk.

On the way in, Mitch keeps an eye out for anything that might break the illusion of a perfect Utopian white city. Reception is immaculate, as is the waiting room. Gorgeous, soft, firm seating. The magazines on the nearby table are all in French, but they're hardly thumbed and the cover dates are next month's. There are ill people in the waiting room, not looking their best, but Mitch decides to give the place a free pass on that one. Exquisite plant life - fake, probably to avoid allergic reactions, but extremely convincing and still quite beautiful. Squeaky clean floors, recently mopped, signposted as potentially slippery. A water cooler.

No plastic cups left in the dispenser for the cooler. Is that it? That really might be this place's only concession to human error.

The whole point of all of this is to build the patient's confidence in his doctor's competence. It works. Mitch relaxes, smiles, enjoys the air conditioning. It's a pleasant morning. In the afternoon, if there's time, he hopes to visit the beach he spotted from the coast road on the drive here.

Mitch. You are the last copy of you. Wake up now, please, or you're going to die.

The doctor sees him at nine on the dot.

"The process is almost completely passive," he explains. He's thin, bald, incredibly confident. He runs to work in the morning. "The danger of damage to the integrity of your corporeal mind is negligible. The equipment we'll use is an order of magnitude less powerful than would be necessary to actually damage your neurons. We expect your brain's internal temperature to rise by perhaps a few tenths of a degree Celsius. This is something we'll monitor. Obviously, in the event that this parameter passes outside of certain limits, the operation will be abandoned, you'll wake up unharmed, and we'll go back to the drawing board. We have seven other parameters which we will be monitoring in a similar way. Half of these are routinely monitored during all surgical procedures. There is very little to this procedure, you understand, that is new from a surgical point of view.

"If we do abandon the procedure, then obviously a complete and intact mind-state will not be stored. Naturally, there is a chance that even if everything does go according to plan, your mind-state will still not be stored. In either case we still have a chance to try again. We'll set up a fresh set of consultations and go from there.

"However. If your mind-state is successfully stored in the Hunt array, a slew of other dangers arise. The most obvious is the failure of the array. Improving storage technology will gradually reduce the amount of physical space required to store your mind-state, which in turn will permit greater redundancy, at multiple sites. But until that point, which isn't anticipated until five years from the present time, your mind-state will be in one place and one place only, other than inside your actual head.

"There could be a fire, a flood, a hurricane, an earthquake... a bombing, a raid. There could be a failure in the air conditioning, the electrical supply, the battery backup, or the drives themselves. There are redundant electrical and HVAC provisions and the drive arrays themselves have some... some sort of redundancy built into them... you would know better than I do..."

"RAID," suggests Mitch.

"Yes, that rings a bell. Obviously Dr. Hunt will be able to tell you more about that when he gets here. And, as he's explained to me, the fact that the drives don't need to be continuously active will drastically increase their lifespan. The most important fact remains, however, that the corruption of a very small percentage of your mind-state - as little as one thousandth of one percent - could render it inoperable.

"We are not lawyers.

"The capability to serialise and store a human mind-state is unprecedented. We believe that the only reason we can do this today, without legal obstruction, is that the law of man does not know that it is possible. If it was known to be possible, there is an excellent chance that it would be illegal. This is despite the facts that you are a consenting adult and neither of us have raised significant ethical objections.

"A mind-state is not a legal human being. It does not hold rights, including the legal right to exist. It is copyrighted binary data, and it would be protected by copyright law. You would be the copyright owner. Copyright law varies in severity depending on geographical location, but it extends little beyond fines and jail time, whereas the destruction of a mind-state could be seriously construed as murder. While you have a contract with Mr. Hunt to protect and ensure the integrity of the binary data you'll be storing at his data centre, once the serialisation procedure is published, he may find that he has no legal course of action but to destroy it.

"And finally, much like cryogenic storage, the technology to reactivate a stored mind-state, either in a computer simulation or in a real human body, does not yet exist. For all we know, it may never exist.

"These are not the risks. These are the knowns. We can put numbers to all of these possibilities. They are the safe outcomes; the eventualities in which your mind-state is lost forever, and you continue with your life as normal, and all we have wasted is time.

"The simplest way to put it is this: once digitised, your mind could be sent anywhere, anytime. As you've mentioned yourself, it's thought that within a few decades it will become possible to store an arbitrary amount of data in a single fundamental particle, itself stored in a device as small as a basketball... or a thumb... or a fingernail. You will be copied and copied and copied all over the world. Copies of your mind-state - the first digitised human mind-state in history, remember - could survive until the end of human civilisation. After you go to sleep this afternoon, one of you will wake up tomorrow morning. There is, let us say, a one in a million chance that you will wake up tomorrow morning. The rest of you are embarking on a subjectively instantaneous one-way journey into the uttermost unknown, where, beyond a few decades into the future, your single physical self will not be able to protect you. You will be completely without support or protection or preparation.

"We can't put a mind-state back into a body. But the hope is that one day it will become possible. Somebody could steal your mind and insert it into another body on the other side of the world. Under their terms. And do anything they liked to you. They could kill you. Then they could find another body, insert your mind-state again, and continue to kill you. For ever.

"You could wake up in a digital world. Any of countless possible digital worlds. They won't be real, but you'll feel them for real. Imagine a virtual heaven. But now imagine a virtual hell. In a simulated environment, a malfeasor would have absolute, eternal, unbreakable control over you.

"The concept of the human lifespan is about to become non-linear. Because binary data can be perfectly duplicated infinitely many times, you are not risking one life, but infinitely many. This is the most dangerous thing anybody has ever done."

Mitch, wake up!

"I need to live forever. As soon as possible," says Mitch Calrus. He looks at Anne Poole, seated to his right, and she returns his smile.

"And I'll be there when he wakes up," she replies. "No matter how long it takes."

And a fragment, a mere trace of scepticism crosses the smart, tall, handsome doctor's face. Of course, he knows who Anne Poole is. "That's a beautiful love story," he says.

And they nod. But neither of the two look like love has anything to do with this.

NOW!

And what jolts him awake the following morning is the dull crack of a gunshot.

The first sensation is body horror: "this-is-not-the-person-I-am-supposed-to-be". That was something which became familiar a long time ago when his consciousness was first earthed inside Mitchell Calrus' body, but the sensation has changed substantially in tone and inflection. This is somebody else's body. A rather taller man, different hair, heavier clothes, heavier muscles.

The second is space. This is not the hospital bed in the anaesthesia room - not that he expected it to be - and it's not a recovery ward, which was a more likely outcome, and it's definitely not the beach. He's flat on his back inside a cream-coloured, fluorescent-lit cylinder a little larger than a coffin. Mitch has never had an MRI scan but this is what he imagines the inside of a magnetic resonance imager looks like. The platform he's lying on is in motion, carrying him feet-first out of the machine. Just a moment after he opens his eyes, they pass the rim of the circular hole in the machine, and suddenly he needs to figure out what he's looking at all over again.

A rumble echoes and fades.

It's a vertiginous sight. Dizzy, Mitch instinctively tries to sit up and get out from under the machine stack - he hits his head on the rim of the cylindrical hole.

Mitch thinks: Starship hangar. Missile silo. Vehicle Assembly Building. The building is a huge empty black shell, an upright octagonal prism, easily tall enough to have weather and even wider than it's tall. Smaller buildings rise up around the edges, clinging to the interior walls like ivy. There are two big, complex machines suspended in gantries elsewhere on the factory floor, far enough away that they might as well be in other countries. One of them is fifty percent of an experimental space rocket. The other is a monumental spherical chamber seemingly built out of patchwork metal plates, connected up to a dozen pipes of different colours, each fat enough to drive a bus through. It looks like it was designed to contain an atomic explosion.

Mitch looks up at the machine from which he just emerged. The third big experiment, a thirteen-storey stack of dirty silver, black and red machinery, tapering as it descends as if it were all focusing down on the MRI-like machine in which he was sitting, itself positioned to focus on a point in the middle of his brain, just behind his eyes.

This is a laboratory, he thinks. The biggest laboratory, for the Big Projects.

There are three people at the foot of his bed. One is an extremely tall, broad-shouldered man with a blond beard and long-barreled projectile weapon. He wears a bulky black jacket and trousers covered in some kind of lightweight armour made of heavy leathery scales a few inches across. Looking down at himself, Mitch realises that he is wearing the same. On top of a computer console nearby he sees an identical gun set down.

The second is a tall, skinny sixty-year-old female scientist with loose and unhealthy grey hair and a huge black pair of goggles strapped to her face. She wears red. Mitch guesses it is a medical uniform. She's sat at the console, facing away from him, tapping at what Mitch recognises as a keyboard. There's no screen, though; the woman is staring into space or at her hands, as if typing while asleep. On closer inspection, he realises there is a cable from the goggles into the computer. "I've lost contact with the transformer control room," she says. "We've got to shut the system down, it'll run itself into inoperability within minutes without active current shaping."

The third person, a relatively diminutive woman, ignores the scientist and instead says to Mitch, "What is my full name?"

What she's wearing... well, Mitch doesn't quite have the vocabulary. It's rather too elaborate, with too much embroidery, to be a 21st-century business suit, but that is the closest reference point he can think of. It's long and grey, unsuitable for a manual labourer, pretty inconvenient even for office work. Formal wear, then. She's a manager? A politician? Her hair and makeup, though, look like something out of another planet. There's a black diamond painted on her forehead, and she's wearing some sort of thin metal tiara or crown. And while she hasn't aged a single day, somehow her eyes say she's seen everything.

"Anne Nicola Poole," Mitch replies. "What happened to you?"

"Doctor Poole!" prompts the older - well, older-looking - woman.

"Yes, do it," Anne responds. "Do it and get out of here as fast as you can. Mitch, I don't have time to explain. You are going to find this world extremely difficult to come to terms with at first and I won't be there to help you. When you went to sleep it was the first of October, 2016, is that correct?"

"Yes. And you said as I went under the anaesthetic that you'd be there when I woke up. Or else it would mean something had gone wrong... and I had to run."

"Earth's orbit has been altered slightly which means the definition of the year has undergone a certain amount of revision but the best number I can give you for the current year, based on the analeptic Gregorian calendar, is Common Era two-two-nine-eight-five."

"...What?"

"And something's gone wrong. You have to run. Take this, and run. Guard it with your life because that's what it is." Anne puts a slab of red metal into his hand. It has a collection of electronic contact points at the end of it. It's dense.

"What's happened? I can't process that number!" Mitch tries to convince himself that he was genuinely ready for all of this. "What's going to happen to you?"

"They've found a way to kill me."

The sound of the second explosion is large enough that it bounces off every wall in the building, making its point of origin difficult to place, but on gut instinct Mitch looks upwards and sees a piece of metal the size of an articulated truck falling towards them.

"RUN!" bellows Anne.

Mitch launches off the bed towards the computer console and grabs the arm of the older woman. He tries to change direction and drag her out of her chair towards the man with the gun, but she hasn't reacted fast enough and he's not quick enough and the soldier is recoiling away from him out of instinct. Mitch's fingers are a centimetre short when the equipment hits, crushing the soldier to sludge but passing through them both like holograms.

Once a moment has passed and metal seems to have stopped raining on them he pulls the grey-haired woman out of the wreckage and allows them both to sink back to three-dimensionality. A 4D glance at the burning heap of metal reveals an unpleasant amount of crushed bone and organ where the soldier had been. Anne is buried in the pile too, but she's intact, though unable to move.

"What did you just do?" exclaims the rescued woman, pulling her now-disconnected goggles down around her neck.

"I... I don't have time to explain. Anne!"

"Leave me," she shouts back. "Go!"

There's a crackle of gunfire from somewhere else in the hall. Scientific staff on the upper levels of the far wall are being mown down. It'll be a matter of seconds before the attackers decide to look down. Mitch grabs his new partner by the hand and runs for what he assumes is the main entrance, a colossal door at the nearest end of the hall, tall enough to accommodate a battleship. She's old; in decent shape for her age, but still slow-moving compared to him... or rather, his new body. He feels fit, energised.

Then the main entrance explodes inwards - the loudest noise Mitch has ever heard - and six more followers of the Trail Of The Indivisible Soul surge into the building. In any era, Mitch can recognise automatic weapons. Mitch's (latest host's) gun is buried thirty metres behind him. The nearest cover is ten seconds' sprint away, across bare cement floor.

"Don't shoot! Don't shoot!" screams the woman beside him.

That will stall their triggers for all of one second.

 

< this is not over and I am not dead | Fine Structure | Crisis On Earth >

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