"Welcome, Aaron, to the Life Services Department of the Global Governance Consortium." The figure appeared to be standing before him, but was actually projected upon the lenses of his glasses. "Unfortunately, we are no longer accepting applications for birth licenses. Applications will be resumed upon the completion of the first stage of the Mars Colonization Project."
As soon as the projection stopped talking, it froze. A recorded message. It stood silently, unmoving, waiting for him to respond.
"I would like to speak with someone, please." His voice echoed in the empty room, and the figure jumped to life once more.
"One moment please." The apparition disappeared, only to be replaced by another. This one shifted restlessly, chewing something in its mouth.
"Hello, Aaron." it said, glancing up to the corner of its eye. The glasses provided the video link between them, but never rendered itself in the image. "My name is Sasha. I thought it was quite clear. We will be reopening applications along with the genetic screening tests in approximately five years, to stabilize the population when the colonists leave."
"I'm not here to apply for a birth license. I was looking for a specific piece of information, and I couldn't find it anywhere else. Do you happen to offer death licenses?"
There was a pause, and Sasha stared for a moment, jaw stilled.
"Death licenses? We don't offer death licenses. May I redirect you to a suicide help group?"
"No, I'm fine. Thank you for your time." With a small hand gesture, he ended the connection.
His name was Aaron Strider, and he was the only male he knew. The only person who wasn't jumping bodies, the only person who lived as himself. He had only died once, and that was of his own doing. But he didn't know that he had killed himself until he woke, and was confined to six months of suicide counselling. They didn't allow you to die that easily.
Taking off his glasses, he slipped them into his breast pocket. He remembered a time when people cared for their bodies, when they couldn't change genders on a whim. He remembered when not everything was controlled, and when people still grew old.
He walked out of the door, brushing back his greying hair.
But no more. He was born at the end of an era, when the field of body replacement was still new, where consciousness transfer was still ten years away. It was standard procedure: a full body scan, or a brain scan at the very least, at every doctor's checkup. He never thought of it then; he was still too young. It was routine, stepping into the scanner, waiting thirty seconds for the lights to go out, then stepping back out. Just something fun to do at the doctor's office. Now they had handheld models, and scanning took place in just under half a second. Progress.
Crossing the street, he heard the cars around him slowing to the stop. No one would look out to see what was going on, oblivious to their surroundings. Before, some might have been curious enough to see what was slowing them down, but now they were enclosed in their own personal world. When his parents were children, people actually had to pay attention when maneuvering their cars. Now those cars were outlawed, citing safety concerns.
It was one of those cars which shattered his ignorant bliss, his naivety about the world. He was ten, as was Timmy. Timmy Carter.
Timmy was his best friend. Was ever since he was little. Four, five, somewhen around there.
They were playing ball. An oversized, round red inflatable ball, barely graspable in their armspans. Aaron dropped the ball, and it rolled into the street. Timmy chased after it.
He remembered vividly what happened afterward, even though it happened in the blink of an eye. Maybe he didn't see it, and made the event up afterward. It didn't matter. The only thing he knew for sure was that the next time he opened his eyes, Timmy was gone, replaced with a red stain drawn across the black asphalt road and various bits of flesh littering the sidewalk. He stood paralyzed by the side of the road until the adults came and ushered him away.
He didn't go to school for months, and when he returned, Timmy had already been back for a week. The two of them stayed after school to catch up on two months' worth of work, but Timmy was back. At first, that was all that mattered.
The building was unmarked, just like all the others, and he walked up to its door. If anyone was watching, they would see him enter a building labelled "Travel Agency". He knocked.
It was great having Timmy back, but he felt that there was something different. There was nothing wrong with Timmy; it was an exact copy, just two months behind. Watching someone die and having them come back to life was what changed him. Timmy was back, but he was the same, which made all the difference.
Pulling open the door, he stepped inside. There was a desk, a chair, and a receptionist. An unmarked door stood opposite to the entrance. Nothing else was contained between those empty white walls.
"Please wait one moment." said the receptionist. There was a tone of surprise in its voice, but its eyes were hidden behind the lenses of its glasses. Not many people came in without calling ahead.
There was nowhere to sit, so Aaron stood by the side of the room, listening in to the disjointed one-sided conversation with another customer. A few minutes passed, and the receptionist waved its hand at him.
"Hello, welcome to Universal Travel. How may I help you?"
A person walked through the door in a brisk stride. Taking one look at it, the receptionist took in the visitor's name and confirmation number, and nodded. The visitor disappeared through the opposite door.
"I'm looking for a way to the capital." said Aaron, and the receptionist turned back to look at him.
"New York?" It shuffled some imaginary papers in its hands, and read what could only be seen through its own glasses. "That will be one hundred fifty dollars, as well as a six dollar per kilo deposit, returned when you are reassembled back here."
"I'm looking for physical transportation."
It looked up from the papers, surprised. "Physical transport? We don't carry those services here. If you want, I can call up a replenishment group and see if they'll take you with them. Where's your glass, anyways?"
He tapped his pocket. The receptionist turned, looking through the information on its glasses.
"Lucky you," it said, tapping an invisible display screen. "They've got a run this afternoon. They've agreed to pick you up here, at a rate of ten dollars per kilo. Anything you need to bring?"
Aaron shook his head, thanked the receptionist, and left. He sat on the curb, awaiting the truck.
The visitor never came out.
An hour later, an unmarked, oversized vehicle rolled up beside the road. Aaron got up, putting on his glasses, and watched the projection of a person get out of the truck.
"Aaron?" it asked, reaching out with a gloved hand. He took it, and felt only air. "I'm Robin. You're looking for a ride to New York? Hop in. We'll charge you once you're weighed."
A door swung open upward, and he stepped inside. The projection of Robin followed him in, and sat opposite to him.
"You weigh 83.533 kilos, so that'll be a charge of $853.33."
The transaction overlaid itself on the lenses of his glasses, and he dismissed it with a wave of his hand. Once debited from Aaron's account, the door swung shut, and the vehicle began to move.
"I'll be waiting at your destination. Have a nice trip!"
Robin winked out of existence, and Aaron pulled a map into view. Three hours. He pocketed his glasses once more, and tried to sleep.
Three and a half hours later, the vehicle slowed to a stop. Aaron slipped on his glasses, and found himself to be in New York, at the back door of the Times Square Station. The physical manifestation of Robin was standing outside, and it pulled open the door.
"Welcome to New York." it said, inviting him out. "Nothing travels the old-fashioned way anymore, except for the raw matter. I'll be filling up the assembler here, and the truck's going to leave in five hours, and if you're back by then, I can give you a lift back. Otherwise you'll have to wait ‘til next month. See ya!"
It took a long hose from the back of the vehicle and pulled it inside the station. As soon as Robin disappeared out of sight, Aaron dropped his glasses, crushed them underfoot, and wandered off.
He had never been to the city, but he knew where he was going. Years of augmented virtual reality simulations brought Aaron to every corner of the globe, and when visiting friends, one gets to know the neighbourhood. He walked down the street, under the shadows of identical unmarked skyscrapers, faces unfinished. Who needed to finish walls when nobody looked at them anyways? All they saw was a virtual image stretched across the skeleton, making the building appear however the makers wanted it to appear.
The system rolled out when he was in high school, and he and Timmy were one of the first adopters. Just a pair of glasses, and an entire augmented reality for a single individual to peruse. No longer any need for signs, aesthetics, or even the laws of physics. Education, entertainment, everything was revolutionized. People could live in whatever reality they wanted.
Tim and Aaron had an entire world built for themselves. They built the world together, mutual, symbiotic. A world of steel and glass, of electricity and power, plasma and light. They lived in that world, and no one else did.
He entered a skyscraper, and walked up the stairs.
But then the cost of writing a mind into flesh fell below the magic threshold, and companies sprang up to fulfil the demand. Soon it was easy enough to get a body with a day's worth of wages, and it wasn't just for medical reasons, either. It became a recreational sport, swapping bodies, turning into whoever you wanted, whenever. Everyone was doing it. Everyone except for him.
Tim was doing it, changing bodies, changing genders, one day being Thomas, the other being Timothia. But Aaron still remembered the old Timmy, the one who lived for those two forgotten months and was killed crossing the road. The one that was replaced by this new Timmy. But he wasn't all of Timmy. He wasn't the Timmy of those two months. He wasn't the same.
Aaron refused the new wave, and he was the only one left when everyone changed their names. Gender neutral. Samuel/Samantha. Alexander/Alexandra. Jacob/Jessica. Robin/Robin. All with nicknames that could be used to refer to either gender. But Aaron was still Aaron, a boys' name. A masculine name. He could give himself a masculine pronoun, and even though others still used them, they weren't truly worthy of them.
He stopped beside an unmarked door, and knocked.
Tim changed his name as well. Tim was his only friend now, but he wasn't called Tim anymore.
It was Sam.
Samantha opened the door, and looked at Aaron. She (He? It? It was hard to decide if Tim was still worthy of a gendered pronoun) took off her glasses, to look at Aaron more clearly.
"Aaron!" she cried out, "It's a surprise. One second while I change into something more comfortable."
She disappeared, and left the door open. Aaron walked in and sat himself on a white padded couch. Sam came back a few minutes later, in a male body. More comfortable for Aaron, not for Sam.
"What's the occasion that you show up, in person, on my front steps?" Sam sat himself down opposite to Aaron.
"Oh, nothing much. How have you been?"
"Fine, fine. Still against resurrection, I see? How old is that body? Seventy, eighty?"
"Sixty-five. And so are you."
"Not this body. This one's still twenty-three."
"How many times have you been twenty-three now?"
"Too many to count. Gender switching has been so much fun."
"Look, Tim. There's a reason why I came."
"I need your key to the database. You still work there, right?"
"I want to die."
"Just take a gun to your head. I think I have one around here somewhere..."
"Tim." Sam was pretending to search. "Tim!" He looked up.
"That won't help. If I commit suicide, they'd just bring me back and force me into six months of rehabilitation treatment. I've been there before. It won't make a difference."
"I can't just give you the key to the database." Sam protested. "Do you know how much effort it's taken me to just get up to sub-programmer? Do you know what would happen to me if I even make a mistake? Do you know how many lifetimes it would take to recover my reputation just to get employed?" Sam was visibly agitated.
"Do you know how many lifetimes of suffering I'd experience if you don't give it to me?" Aaron's voice was solemn, and Sam's expression faltered.
"No, I can't give it to you. I'm sorry."
"No, I'm sorry, Timmy. I have to do this." Aaron reached into his pocket, and drew out a gun, pointing it at his friend.
"Whoah, Aaron." Sam put up his hands. "I still want to live."
"You still will. You have a personal backup machine in your apartment, and don't tell me that wasn't expensive."
A smile flickered over Sam's face. "It wasn't cheap."
With his free hand, Aaron reached over and carefully pocketed Sam's glasses. He carefully pulled the trigger. The gunshot echoed in the empty room.
"Fuck, my leg!" Sam yelled. "What the hell did you do that for?"
"I'm sorry, Timmy. But I have to get into the database."
Sam was incoherent with pain. Red blood was beginning to pool, a splash of colour in the otherwise monochrome room.
"I could do this all day." said Aaron. "I don't enjoy it, but I have to. I have to die."
Another shot. This time, to the abdomen.
"Tim, I hate to do this. You're my only friend."
"Aaron, I'm sorry. You can't get it out of me. I'm sorry."
Aaron sighed, turned his head, and pulled the trigger.
Sam's body crumpled back in the couch, and Aaron got up, carefully stepping around the pool of blood. He walked deeper into the apartment, towards Sam's room. He pushed open the door, and walked in.
The personal backup machine was the size of a wardrobe, made of a dull grey metal. Putting on Sam's glasses, he watched as a Victorian scape projected itself over the plain walls. No longer the city of steel and light. Aaron connected with the machine's interface through the glasses, and ordered the duplicate assembly of the same Sam that was resurrected twelve minutes before. He took off the glasses, and pocketed them once more. The machine wouldn't run when the glasses still detected vital signs, or else it would run the risk of creating the moral dilemma of multiple people with the same personality. A soft hum filled the room, and Aaron waited.
The door swung open, and an unclothed Sam walked out, to be greeted by the end of the Aaron's gun.
"Aaron! What the hell are you doing here?"
Aaron beckoned at him with his gun, and Sam followed as Aaron walked backwards out into the living room. Sam took one look at his own dead body, and blanched.
"What do you want?"
"I need your key. I want to die."
"You come in here and kill me, and expect me to give you what you want? Come on, Aaron. I'm your friend."
"I know." Aaron whispered. He carefully avoided looking at the body. "I don't like this either."
He pulled the trigger again, and Sam collapsed to the floor.
"I just want to die. Please don't make me do this."
"Fine." Sam coughed, spitting up blood. "CarterS. Password is JimmyCarter."
"People may be able to live forever, but still won't cure autism, won't do anything to modify the structure of the brain. He'll live with it forever. Maybe you can find a way out for him too."
Aaron paused for a moment, and nodded. "Thanks."
He pulled the trigger one last time.
Aaron put on Sam's glasses, and left the skyscraper. Nobody would care about anyone screaming out in their own apartment; all the rooms were soundproofed to keep the fantasies of individual people separate. In time, Sam's bodies would be found, and he'd be resurrected. But he couldn't stop Aaron now.
The database complex wasn't that hard to find, but was the most secure building in all of New York. Everyone had a copy of their mindscan there. It was recommended to keep various backup copies at other secure locations, but for those who were paranoid in keeping their mindscan safe, it was allowed to keep their mind in only two places at once.
Aaron had called himself sufficiently paranoid.
Nobody checked his identification as he passed by security, as one's identification was incorporated into one's glasses, although some did stare at his aged body. With the changing bodies, biometrics no longer worked, and the only thing that stayed the same between people were possessions and memories. And Aaron had all that he needed.
He sat behind the keyboard, and pulled up the login prompt, displaying itself over the glasses. For security purposes, the interface was only available within the building, and the only input to that interface was the keyboard set into the desk. Typing in Sam's username and password, he got in.
The organization of mindscans was easy enough. Chronologically by date of birth, then alphabetically by last name. But it was amazing how many people had lived in forty years, and without any of them dying, there were literally billions of names in the database. Most with at the very minimum one mindscan every two years of life.
Which was clear why a complex was needed to store all the data.
Sam was only a sub-programmer, and was only programming data retrieval mechanisms to optimize searching for the data. He didn't have access to the data itself. Oh well. It would have been easier to just delete the files from the terminal, but Aaron wasn't expecting it to be that easy.
Instead he pulled up the blueprints of the complex into his view, and made his way to the storage center.
It was more difficult to locate where the mindscans were in the material realm. The programs located them in virtual space, but in real life the newest scans were just appended to the end. Luckily, the storage racks were separated geographically, however haphazardly. All of North America was placed in a series of solid-state storage racks in the northeastern corner of the building. Aaron got up and began to make his way there.
Physical access to the mindscans was strictly prohibited. Only those people installing new memory storage were allowed anywhere close to the machines, and even they were kept under strict surveillance. Sam's glasses got him through the first few doors, but were no use anywhere near the storage locations. The glasses broadcast their location, and once they found him in a place where he wasn't supposed to be, they would be bound to come to investigate. But Aaron had enough time to do what he had to do.
Taking a fire extinguisher from the wall, he pulled it out. Fire alarms began to ring across the facility, unlocking the doors and turning on the overhead sprinklers. It would be a few minutes before the building detected no fire, but he had until then.
Now it was time to move. Aaron ran through the corridor, throwing open alarm-unlocked doors and manually overriding emergency fire door lockdown procedures. There was nobody else in this portion of the building to stop him.
Pulling the override mechanism on the last metal door, he found himself at last at the seat of his second consciousness, the one that threatened to resurrect him once he was gone. The shrill sounds of the fire alarm cut out suddenly, and he could hear the sirens of emergency vehicles pulling up to the complex. They knew where he was now. They'd be after him. Hopefully, he'd be gone before then.
Solid state drives were known for the sturdiness, but fortunately, they could be damaged more easily by electronic means.
Forcing open the front panel of the closest shelf, Aaron pulled out the wires and various other components linking the memory storage units together. Bringing in any material would have been cause for suspicion, so he had to make do with what he could salvage. Once he got the components, he began splicing wires and components together. The police were surely in the building by now.
Twelve minutes later, he was finished. A coil of wire and a collection of ultracapacitors, hooked up to the main high-voltage power transformer. A potent EMP weapon, silent and reusable, though short-ranged and limited in mobility. Fragile, too, and slow to recharge.
There were seventeen shelves of data storage, and it was probable that his mindscans were distributed amongst all of them, despite his repeated requests to delete them. The EMP's range was unknown, but Aaron guessed that one shot would be able to take down one shelf.
Placing the EMP beside the closest shelf, he spent thirty seconds charging the capacitors. As soon as he closed the circuit, the lights on the shelves went out.
He got to work.
By the time the tenth shelf was out, he heard footsteps echoing out in the hall. By the thirteenth, he heard the doors unlocking at the other end of the room.
He was at the last row of four. The police team spread out on their side of the room. They could see where he was, with their glasses on infrared, but it didn't matter. He'd be out of there in no time.
Three. He caught a glimpse of the police, but they seemed cautious to shoot inside the complex. They had no way of assessing the extent of the damage already done. He could hear their footsteps as they approached slowly and cautiously.
Two. Only now did Aaron realize that they were yelling at him, telling him to stop. He didn't care. He moved onto the next shelf.
One left. Aaron fired a few warning shots with his gun into the wall, but it did nothing to deter the police. They had all been scanned prior to the assignment; death was no deterrence.
"Freeze! Drop your weapon and put your hands in the air!" He dropped the gun to set up the device with both hands. He was flanked on both sides, but he kept working.
"I said freeze!" The device was set up, and would wipe his final mindscan in a few seconds. He bent down to pick up his gun.
A shot tore through his left shoulder, and he was flung back, gun in hand. He tried to point the pistol to his own head, but another bullet lodged itself into his hand, and the gun clattered to the ground.
Looking up, he saw the glowing end of a gun pointed at his face, and knew he had failed.
Aaron closed his eyes, and the policeman pulled the trigger. A light, familiar from the visit to the doctor's in his childhood, brightened then faded. A few seconds later, a gunshot echoed in the dead chamber.
Aaron opened his eyes, and he stepped out of the resurrection tube. A set of clothing was on the ground next to him, and he put it on. He sat down on the ground, and waited.
A few minutes later, somebody walked in.
"How was your rest?"
"Fine. What happened?"
"You were found guilty of the murder of three billion people, and will be given suicide counselling and sentenced to three lifetimes of hard labour. Counselling starts tomorrow."
He was left alone, and he collapsed, weeping.