Sounds – faint and irregular but still audible.
A feeling of warmth crept over me, and I felt the chilled air gently moving in and out of my body.
I opened my eyelids slowly and began to notice that the light in the room was filtering in through the large picture window in the wall to my right. The blinds were half-drawn and angled down so sunlight naturally leaked through and brought me back to consciousness when the time was right.
I opened my eyes fully and examined my surroundings. There was a painting of indistinguishable style taking up most of the space on the wall directly in front of me. Some human faces were depicted, but they were misshapen and elongated, along with animals too. I knew I’d seen it before, but I could not remember how it got into the room.
Come to think of it, I wasn’t sure that I knew how I got into this room. It looked familiar enough, but I wasn’t sure how long I’d been there. Perhaps I was too tired the night before to remember how I had gotten there. Perhaps it was a late night. I decided to wait until the haze around my thoughts cleared before I worried about any of the details. I felt like I was in a dream upon waking…
My attention turned back to the sounds. I was not certain where they were coming from, but I knew they were not coming from inside the room. The noises were high pitched. Though once irregular, they gained consistency, rhythm. They had a songlike quality to them – beautiful, serene.
I didn’t have the energy or patience to speculate about things I could not see. There was a small table with drawers on my immediate left. The table had a large circular object attached to the back of it. The surface of the object was reflective, but not shiny, with some dirty spots on it. I sat up to examine the object and felt silly for not immediately recognizing what it was.
I admired the shape of the mirror and its place on the desk, slowly bringing my eyes to my own. I noticed that my eyes were blue, my skin had a dark tone but was still fairly white, and my hair was short and black with spots of grey on the sides.
I looked down to examine the palms of my hands. They were marked with deep grooves worn across them. I turned my hands over, noticing calluses on the knuckles. My hands were old and broken down. My rough skin was not quite sandpaper, but I thought it might get there eventually. I turned my gaze again to the mirror, noticing wrinkles on my brow and sagging cheeks.
I looked back to the painting on the wall before me. Noticing a tag on the bottom right-hand corner, I excitedly pushed my way through the sea of blankets I awoke in to examine it. It read:
Simple. The name rang a bell, but I couldn’t remember why.
I ignored that for the moment and turned my attention to the brutal figures in the painting. Screaming faces, both animal and human. These figures immediately repulsed me, and I was overtaken by something less than a shiver; a cold feeling that I was not in my own home…
A knock at the door caught me by surprise. I looked to my immediate left and saw a large wooden door positioned next to the mirror that had previously won my attention.
I moved slowly toward the door. There was light dancing from the peephole in the door, appearing and disappearing rapidly. I pressed my eye against it and saw no one. I only saw a whitewashed wall and black carpet on the floor. Breathing deeply, I opened the door and carefully peered around the edge of the door down the hallway. I saw nothing except more whitewashed walls and black carpet. The hallway stretched on to the edge of a bright room sporting the same white walls and a white tiled floor.
As I made my way down the hallway, I recognized the truth of the situation: I was in a hotel of sorts. That explained the repulsive painting in my room. That explained the small living space. That explained why I didn’t remember how I got there. It must have been my first time there.
The hallway emptied into a small foyer with two large wooden doors in it and a small man sitting in an armless wooden chair holding a newspaper at a comfortable distance from his face. The small man’s glasses were perched on the edge of his nose, and he wore a formal outfit of some sort. His skin was light and graying on the sides. His resemblance to me was very noticeable; except for his glasses and relative height, he looked just like me.
He was probably a security guard. He noticed me, quickly folded the newspaper up, and put it under his chair. Hurriedly, he knocked on the door to the left, and it cracked open. He muttered some words, looked at me, and looked back to the door, nodding and muttering a few more words before the door slammed shut.
I stood motionless at the edge of the foyer. The small man turned and lumbered hastily across the foyer, stopping a few feet away to say, “Follow me.”
Wordlessly, I followed the man across the room to the door on the right. I glanced at the door on the left, but there was nothing to be seen aside from a large wooden door. Meanwhile, the small man walked through the door on the right, leading me into a narrow hallway with a glass door at the end. The short man opened the glass door and disappeared off to the left. I cautiously followed him into a wet alley between two tall buildings made of dark red brick. The overcast sky gave off a grey tint. My eyes easily adjusted to my new surroundings.
“Over here!” The short man called to me from the edge of the alley. An endless stream of noise echoed from behind him to where I’m standing. “Let’s go!”
I walked briskly to him, cautiously taking in the scene unfolding behind him. Skyscrapers extended into the clouds, billboards advertised for new film and theater releases, cars whirred by effortlessly as if they were blending in to the background. Shuffling feet rocked the ground as the sea of people ebbed and flowed in front of me. The short man motioned to me and pointed into the distance at a large building looming in the fog ahead. “We’re going to make a withdrawal from your personal account. Follow me, but don’t get lost in this crowd.”
The short man elegantly shifted through the crowd of people, maintaining a distance anywhere from two to ten feet ahead of me at all times. He was mindful of the flow of foot traffic, and he beautifully navigated us through the densely crowded sidewalk. Overhead, I started to notice some billboard advertisements. I could buy a brand new 2036 Nissan SolarTM for just under $40,000. Alternatively, I could spend the same amount of money to rent a condo next to West End View for the next two years.
One advertisement in particular caught my attention. It was for a self-proclaimed clinic called Simulavit Vitae. “Escape the Ordinary. Explore The Fantastic.” It was a catchy tagline, but the billboard offers absolutely no information as to what this clinic actually was or did.
“Hey, try to keep up.” The short man said.
“What is that place?” I ask.
“I dunno. Some dream clinic. I hear they’re really nice but they’re only for people with the money for it.” The short man paused and nervously shifted his weight. “Speaking of money, we should keep moving.” We walked the remaining three blocks to the large building that had emerged from the fog. Once inside, we moved to a window where an automated teller was positioned. The mannequin’s human-like appearance did not disguise its mechanical movements.
“Please commence retinal and fingerprint scanning,” the automated voice droned. A panel jutted out, and the short man motioned toward it. I approached it cautiously but conceded my will to it. The machine responded with a welcome, and the retinal scanner shifted screens into a touch pad filled with prompts. The short man nudged me out of the way and pressed the button marked “Withdrawal.” From there he pressed the button marked “Complete.” The machine requested that he enter a OneStock Card, at which point he turned and extended his hand, wordlessly demanding me to provide him with my card. I dug through my pockets until I found a plastic card in my right back pocket with a type label on it that read JORDAN MORRIS. The man took it and jammed it into the machine.
I noticed deep grooves on his hand. They seemed similar to my own.
A normal person on a normal afternoon would likely question this man’s motives, but I was preoccupied with curiosity as to the amount of money that would be transferred to my OneStock Card. Especially since I didn’t recall ever visiting this bank…
After the money was transferred onto my card, the short man ignored the printed receipt and hurried me back out to the busy street. I asked how much was transferred to my card, but he replied that he didn’t know. He seemed to be in more of a hurry now. “You want to see what that dream clinic is all about?” He asked, barely turning to look at me. “Sure,” I replied.
A few blocks past the bank, there was a small white building with a sign in the small front lawn that read “Simulavit Vitae Reality Replication Clinic”. When we got to the entrance, the short man turned to me and, catching his breath, told me to wait outside. I obliged and watched him enter the building. After a few minutes of patiently waiting, I started to hear the rhythmic music that I’d heard earlier when I awoke. It seemed to be coming from around the side of the building, so I followed the sound until it took me into a nearby alley.
The alley was dark and gloomy but not frightening. I couldn’t locate the source of the music, but it seemed as though it was coming from the far end of the alley. My curiosity was spiking, but I hesitated long enough for the short man to exit the building and come running over to me.
“I set up an appointment for you. You know, give you some information about it.”
“It’s strange,” I replied. “It hasn’t dawned upon me until now to ask who you are and why you’re doing this.”
“No. Who were you talking to in that office?” The haze was lifting. “Why didn’t you let me transfer my own money onto my card?”
“Look, people are coming for you, and I don’t know what they’re going to do to you when they find you. If you go in this clinic, you disappear. Their security is top notch. You’ll be untouchable.”
“Who is after me? Why? Besides, if they were so good then wouldn’t they think to check these clinics for me?”
“Even if they did, they wouldn’t be able to get through the door. The security is top notch.”
“Who are they?”
“We don’t have time for that. You have to go. Now!”
It was too late. A sharp sound came from deep in the alley. It sounded like metal hitting pavement, but I could only speculate on that point. Three shadowy figures seemed to jump directly out of the shadows in the alley, two grabbing the short man and one stopping just a few feet from me. There were three people, a man and two women, one short and one tall. They were dressed with skull caps, denim jeans, and tight, dark vests. The short woman and the man held the short man while he struggled to free himself and the tall woman stood silently, menacingly holding a metal baton.
The short man’s undoing was when he shouted for the clinic security guards to help. At that, the tall woman lifted the baton and hit him in the stomach, knocking the wind out of him and giving him severe chest pains.
I could only scream. “Stop! Why did you hit him?!”
“We need to protect you,” the woman with the baton replied.
The short man gasped. “They want your money!” They hit him again. “They have been following us for blocks. You need to get inside.”
I started to back away from the group, moving closer to the clinic. I clutched my card in my fist. In the meantime, the short man slumped over on the ground. The man holding him knelt down and touched his neck. Moments later, he claimed the short man seemed to have died from a heart attack.
“He’s dead?” I asked. The only person I’d spoken to for the last few hours was now dead. In fact, I’d only known him a few hours. The thing that made his death so difficult to stomach was the fact that he was so similar to myself. The deep grooves, the light skin tone, the graying hair. He was a shorter, stockier version of myself. Death comes for us all, I thought.
The woman spoke again. “Stop. You need to come with us.”
I hurriedly moved to the doors of the clinic. Just as I got to the door, a tall, muscular security guard exited the building. “Is everything all right?”
“No!” I yelled. “These people are trying to rob me! Help!” He held the door open long enough for me to enter the building. Two more guards rushed by me to take care of the three muggers outside.
The doors closed, and I finally felt safe. The short man was right; the security here was top notch. Yet, it was not good enough to save him. I was safe, and he was dead. He looked so similar to me; it was like watching me die.
Dr. Elliott Carver
Peering out the window adjacent to the door, I saw the guards escorting the muggers down the street, presumably going to the nearest police station. The guards seemed to have no regard for the short man; they left him on the sidewalk for someone else to take care of. It was disgraceful but I did not want to risk there being more muggers outside. My fear paralyzed me.
Moments later, I heard a voice call out behind me. “Jordan Morris?”
I turned and saw a thin man with a dark complexion wearing a white lab coat. He practiced good social manner by maintaining a respectful distance from me, about six feet directly in front of me, but I was uncertain whether it was for his safety or whether he didn’t wish to alarm me after such a stressful encounter. His thin beard added to the aura of authority generated by his spotless lab coat, eyeglasses, and clipboard. The room was more sanguine than the dismal city outside, colored with neutral tones; there was nothing more than white and black. Yet, the tiled floor sparkled white and the man’s black pants offered a good contrast to the rest of the room.
“Are you Jordan Morris?” His patience for my situation had run thin.
“Your consultation appointment is ready. Would you like to begin?”
I nodded, and he wasted little time leading me in to an office that appeared to be his. The room was arranged in such a way so as not to intimidate the patient. He sat down at his desk, which was angled sideways with his chair off to the side. This successfully eliminated the barrier between doctor and patient, instead offering a space where equals were able to converse.
He began typing away on a small computer on the desk, occasionally taking breaks from typing to navigate a cursor on the screen and opening files. The desk was fairly standard: pens, notepads, an empty coffee mug, a couple pictures of who I assumed were members of his family, and a nametag that read DR. ELLIOTT CARVER.
Glancing around the room, I noticed a picture on the wall in a laboratory. It showed a woman sitting on a white laboratory bed wearing a robe with Dr. Carver on her left and another man in an identical lab coat on her right. They all smiled proudly. Carver caught me staring.
“That was our first patient,” he remarked, turning to look at the picture. “We will be celebrating the fifteenth anniversary of that day in just a few months.” I smiled and nodded respectfully. He turned to his computer and got down to brass tacks.
“Your friend indicated that you would like to seek consultation at our clinic. Is this correct?” He momentarily peeled his gaze from his computer screen to look at me. I nodded. “Excellent. First, I would like to note what we do at this clinic.
“We specialize in a form of therapy that has revolutionized the world we see around us. We recognize there is suffering in this world. We know there is hurt, there is pain, and there is death. We seek to eliminate those fears. For the first time in the history of humankind, we have offered people the ability to escape this unnecessary world of fear. We have given them the ability to lead normal, happy lives.
“We do this through a procedure we call Simulavit Vitae, simulated life.” He chuckled at this point. “We named it that to make it sound fancy. When you’re blazing a trail, you might as well make yourself sound smart.” He paused. “Are you interested in undergoing the procedure?” I shifted nervously in my chair, which he took as his signal to describe the procedure in loose detail.
“The procedure begins by giving you a thorough background check. We have been blessed with brilliant employees as well as fantastic technology, so this process is relatively short.
“When the actual procedure begins, we connect you to a machine designed to maintain physiological homeostasis throughout the process. Then, we hook you into a mainframe of sorts; it’s sort of like plugging yourself into a computer. This mainframe creates and sustains your virtual existence, giving you a reality every bit as authentic as the one you are experiencing right now. You will even have a body.” He leaned back and looked at me, smirking. “Any kind of body you want to have.
“The worlds you encounter will correspond to a personality test that you take during your background check. In a way, you will be exploring the deepest components of your psyche, running around in your own brain to see what makes you tick. They won’t be entirely your own creation, but the emotions you feel in the simulated world will be yours. We don’t dictate the things you feel.
“Now, we recognize that we cannot permanently sustain all of your physiological functions during the procedure, so as parts of your body undergo a natural process of atrophy – your liver, your kidneys, your arms, legs, etc. – we perform very delicate procedures to give you the highest grade prostheses available at the time. We do this because very few patients have the money to remain in this virtual state indefinitely; therefore, they are going to need to have something to come back to.”
Full body surgery? That sounded risky. “Has anyone ever died during these operations?”
“No. We eliminated any risk of a botched surgery by building machines to do the work for us. We’ve found they’re more precise and more knowledgeable across the board. Each machine undergoes tests and maintenance work after each procedure to ensure no mistakes ever occur.
“Though we’ve perfected procedures for nearly everything, the only thing we have not yet perfected is a procedure for the brain. The brain eludes us only because we have yet to perfect the procedure to transplant the entirety of the brain, but we are working on it. The problem we have encountered most often is that the person’s body starts to act differently when a new brain is put into it. It’s beyond simple physiological atrophy. It’s that the person needs to relearn how to use their body entirely.
“Think of it like a baby born with the body you’re using now. If that were to happen, you’d have this big clunky body that people expect you to use well in the world, but you haven’t yet learned to walk. Not only have you not learned to walk, but you haven’t learned when it’s appropriate to do so, the proper ways to walk, etc.. You have to undergo a new process of socialization. You have to learn not only how to use your body again, but how to use it in the world.”
With that, he stopped and looked at his empty cup of coffee and frowned. He picked it up and gestured to me. “Would you like some coffee?”
Dr. Carver walked across the room and started making some coffee. The procedure started to make me wonder about a number of issues. First, what kind of society have we built today that allows the wealthiest persons to remove themselves from it entirely? Second, can we really even escape death? He already said our brains die out and can’t be replaced.
“Here you go.” Dr. Carver handed me a plastic cup of coffee. “Cream or sugar?”
“Excellent. It’s rare that you find someone who likes their coffee black anymore.” He took a sip of his coffee and set it down. “It’s hot. Anyway, do you have any questions about that procedure?”
“Yes, actually, I have one. You mentioned that people undergo this procedure to escape death, but you also mentioned that you can’t replace the brain. I’m assuming that the person inevitably dies while in the virtual state.”
“That is correct.” He muttered.
“If that’s the case, then, are these people really escaping death?”
Carver smiled and took off his glasses, using his lab coat to rub dirt off of them. “You have made an excellent point. The truth of the matter is that patients enter this procedure to escape the inevitability of death but they never succeed. However, they succeed in another important area, which is the alleviation of the fear of death.
“You see, no one can escape death. I’ve heard a wide range of philosophies that have tried to soften the blow of death – people saying there is a soul that persists beyond death, others saying those souls are reborn. The truth is we all die.
“The fundamental point I want to impress upon you is that it is not death that people are trying to escape. It’s their fear of it. They run so far and so fast from death that they run right out of this reality and into ours.”
“But they still die.”
“Yes, in this world. In that world, they simply fade out. Their life is like a candle and their lived experience is the flame. When the wax burns down, the flame departs from the wick. It is the same in the virtual state.”
“How can you be sure of this?”
“We have studied physiological patterns during times when this has happened.” Carver paused for a moment, conveying a sense of deep care for those who have been lost on his watch. Whether he was actually sad that they died was open for debate. “We have noticed that it is similar to chemically-induced euthanasia or lethal injection procedures.”
“But the people die anyway.”
“I try not to think of death as an end to someone or something. Instead, I try to think of it as another cycle in that person’s life. It’s an inevitable part of their life, so why be scared of it?”
My discomfort with his viewpoints transformed into a feeling of anger. How could I accept this point, which had obviously been developed over a lifetime, after I watched someone get killed just outside of this clinic? Not simply killed, but also left behind as though he were nothing? I can’t say that I shouldn’t be upset because it was inevitable. “Is death different if the person is murdered?”
“The difference is that death came about by way of a catalyst, but they still die. They may even die in a state of fear, but their fear is not a fear of the situation itself but rather a fear of the inevitable death that follows.”
“And we can’t live in this reality without fearing death?”
Carver smiled and leaned closer to me, elbows on knees. “I wouldn’t be a very good salesperson if I admitted that.”
Three weeks passed as I made the daily trek from my hotel room to the clinic for background checks and tests designed to gauge my reaction to the virtual world they create. I still remembered the first night I got back from the clinic. The painting dominated me, reminding me of the short man who died outside the clinic. Somehow, I felt more in common with the wretched figures in the painting than I ever had before that incident.
My decision to enter virtual reality made me feel as though I was betraying the memory of that short man. He had been so helpful not only to my understanding of who I am but also to the most fundamental aspect of my life: death. Soon I would be entering a virtual state so I could live a fulfilled life without fearing an unexpected or painful death. I was taking myself out of this world so I didn’t have to suffer like him.
Yet, I didn’t feel as though I betrayed his memory any more than the automated security system that replaced his spot at the door. In fact, there was nothing at the station he occupied before his death except for an empty chair; a reminder that he was gone. There were definite advantages of having machines taking care of me. First, they can’t die. Whether they worked improperly or were completely non-functioning, they could be fixed. It was impossible for us to fix a person who was non-functioning. Additionally, they didn’t receive payment or even have a contract to work so they couldn’t complain about unfair treatment. They did what we make them do, and they did it without protest.
As it turned out, robotic slavery was the most efficient way to manufacture products and perform services.
I waited patiently outside Dr. Carver’s office until it was time for me to pass over the threshold separating my current reality from my next lived experience. I held a card between my thumb and forefinger that read:
MORRIS, JORDAN BRYANT
INITIATION DATE: 13 AUGUST 2036
END DATE: 15 MARCH 2092
Over fifty-five years in a virtual trance. My mind began to wander. On the off chance that I was still alive on the end date, what would I look like when I came back? Would I still have my body? Doubtful. I would be little more than the automated security robot that roams the large white foyer of my hotel every six hours…
I digressed. All of this was pointless because the possibility of me returning from this simulation was located firmly between slim and none. Despite that, I couldn’t help but fantasize about what it would be like to have a completely mechanical body. It was surprising to me that this clinic understood for one to have a ghost in the machine that they actually had to have a machine for that ghost to interact in the world with.
A tall, slender woman in a lab coat walked by in the hallway beside the waiting room I was seated in. She passed out of sight and then doubled back to greet me. “Hi, my name is Kathryn.” I nodded and smiled back at her. She persisted with a smile. “This is where you tell me who you are.”
Embarrassed, I smiled and responded. “Oh, yeah. I suppose that is how that usually works. My name is Jordan Morris. You can call me J.B.”
“Nice to meet you J.B. Is this your first time here?”
“Actually, no. I’ve been coming in the last three weeks for testing.” I motioned toward the door that lead into the simulation room. “I’m hoping this is my last time here.”
“Oh, that’s interesting. I just started on the job last week but I’ve been off in another town undergoing training. Typical, isn’t it? You go through ten years of schooling and when you finally get a job they still don’t think you’re ready.” She said all of this with a soft laugh.
“I wouldn’t know much about it.” I said this in an attempt to divert the conversation away from the lack of experience she had in performing a procedure I was entering for the rest of my life.
She was determined to sustain the small talk. “I specialize in world formation. Everything you’re going to be experiencing, I will have a hand in designing that. Your personality test will tell me what you are and I’ll design the atmosphere it takes for you to feel that.” She said this so fast that I could tell that her mouth couldn’t keep up with her brain. She balked on that sentiment, “It’s not like you’re going to be completely helpless though, you can always fight back if you want.”
I shot her a forgiving look, recognizing the truth in her repentance. “And how do I do that?”
“The same way most people do it in this reality. It’s the same thing, really.”
“How do most people do it?”
“Oh, most people do it by how they think they see the world. Everyone has their own philosophies that direct the way they act in the world. Some people think there’s a god that directs everything they do; some people don’t think there’s a god at all. To each their own, I guess.
“Everything in this world changes us. Everything we see, do, think, or feel will affect who we are after the moment that it happens. This conversation, this clinic, whatever. The beautiful thing about humankind is that we can reject what we see. We can see that it’s broken or that it’s not even real. The burden of having bodies is that we can’t avoid interacting with the world. The beauty of having intelligence is that we can reject everything our bodies experience.”
I noted that she was surprisingly sophisticated on this point. “And what is it that you think all that means?”
“The gift of being human is that we have both body and mind. The burden of humans is that we think they’re separate.”
Maybe she was right. I agreed that we couldn’t exist without a body, but what were we even talking about when we noticed there was a ‘we’ that existed? Weren’t we separating out some kind of essence of what it meant to exist and placing that alongside our lived bodies? Perhaps, but that was a flaw in our language. Then again, our language was supposed to reflect our thoughts…
“Well, it’s been nice meeting you.” At this point she bowed playfully. “I’m going to talk to Dr. Carver. I promise to do my best to give you all your money’s worth.”
I nodded in return. “It was nice meeting you as well.”
She turned to leave but stopped after remembering one more thing. “By the way, how long will you be under?”
“Just over fifty-five years.”
“Wow! I’ve never heard of someone so wealthy, or so willing, to undergo this procedure. You must be pretty rich to buy that much time. How much did you spend?”
“I spent just under fifty million dollars.”
“Was that all of your money?”
“Wow! I’ve never heard of that before either.” She paused. “Well, if I’m lucky, I might just be able to retire before you come out of it.”
“That’s some nice job security.” I had hoped that my derision had become audible. “You’ve got quite a racket going on here.”
“It’s a round-the-clock responsibility and it causes a great deal of stress. I’m more likely to die before you are.” I was slightly annoyed that she was impervious to the signals I was sending, but I supposed she was right on that point. Her job was not only secure in the sense that she had to care for people who were voluntarily induced into comatose, but it was also secure in that her job specialized in the one place that artificial intelligence was unable to emulate: creativity.
The world I entered would was a creative mind, assuming that any and all designs or changes are thoroughly reviewed by some sort of ethics panel first. At any rate, a machine couldn’t do the same job better than her. She was creating, projecting a piece of her own self into something where someone else was destined to live. She specialized in breathing life into a thing that hasn’t existed before.
It remains to be seen whether artificial intelligence will become so sentient that it is able to project itself onto other things, but I doubt that world will never be seen. But if it is seen, Kathryn will have been dead for decades, probably centuries, and possibly even millennia. She has nothing to worry about, but the same cannot be said of the generations that succeed her.
“I’m sorry to hear that.” Conversation 101: When one wanted to end a conversation, he or she gradually made the responses shorter and more neutral.
“It’s life. Anyway, I really should be going.” It seemed that I passed the course. “It’s been nice talking to you. Enjoy your stay at Washington Embassies.” She said the last part while simultaneously
bowing and gesturing toward the door to the simulation room. After this, she disappeared out of sight.
Breathing with the Machine
“Mr. Morris?” A skinny woman stood at the door dressed in a lab coat and held a clipboard. I responded cordially and followed her through the doorway that led into the simulation room. “My name is Irene Taylor. I will be the supervising technician in this procedure.” We entered a room with a pod the size of a twin bed raised five feet in the air above the center of the floor. The pod had three legs, two extending beyond the head and one directly beneath it; each three feet tall. Beside it was a red-velvet step stool and electrical wires were plugged into it on the side and foot of it. The pod had a cover over it that made it look a bit like a closed casket with a see-through window located near the head. How fitting.
There was a plate glass window in the wall to the left of the pod separating me from the room beyond it. Through it I could see an older looking man with a beard that was graying around the edges. His trimmed hair and stout body gave him an aura of ambivalence. Next to him was Kathryn Washington, who was observing and taking notes on a pad of paper. I felt a bit uneasy about the quality of technicians assigned to launch me headlong into the unknown, but my concern was alleviated when Dr. Carver entered the room. He greeted me with a smile and pushed a button to activate the intercom.
“Hello Mr. Morris. I hope you’re feeling well.” He paused, letting his smile creep from ear to ear. “The man seated next to me is Dr. Phillip Franklin. He will be the operating technician in this procedure. I’ve been told that you’ve already met our trainee, Kathryn Washington. I can assure you that she will not be taking part in the initial procedure, but her work with world design will be utilized at a later time. She is only observing.” With this, Kathryn gave him a quick glance. If looks could kill…
“Before we begin the procedure, I want to review the terms of our agreement.” He paused and smiled at me. “Legal obligation.”
“This procedure is called Simulavit Vitae. The start date for this procedure will be today, less than an hour from now, at which time you will enter a virtual state of reality. You will have no recollection of your time here once you enter the dream world. Upon entering into this virtual state, you will be given a new body and a new world with which to interact. For better or worse, you will be a completely different person in a completely different place. However, this place has been modeled to reflect the world you and I, currently at least, call real.
“You will pass through a series of realities and be given a series of bodies with which you can interact with said realities. These realities will be chosen based on your personality test and they will all be chosen at random. At the end of a full-year cycle in this reality, you will shift into another dream world. This will not be abrupt, but instead will occur during your natural sleep process in this virtual world.
“Over time, your body will naturally deteriorate in this world. In order to preserve your body while you’re in this virtual state, any body parts that die will be replaced by the most advanced prostheses. You are guaranteed replacement surgery on all body parts except for the brain. In the event that a procedure to replace the brain is perfected while you are in virtual reality, we will not go through with this procedure because you have not specifically requested it.
“The end date of your time in the virtual world will be Saturday March 15, 2092. In the event that your body fully decays – that is, your brain ceases to function – while you are in virtual reality, any remaining money will be given to your next of kin. Is this clear?”
I nodded obediently. Over the course of the next twenty minutes, I was directed to take my place in the pod in the middle of the room. I climbed into the pod and Dr. Franklin proceeded to hook me up to the machine.
Dr. Franklin moved over to close the pod door. “Will I feel any pain from bed sores?”
“No, Mr. Morris. You won’t feel any pain.”
“Will you do your best to keep me from getting them?”
“Mr. Morris, you won’t need to worry about that. By the time you make it back, you won’t have any of the body parts you are concerned about.” I found this to be an interesting choice of words to someone who would be entering virtual reality for the rest of their life.
A few moments later, Dr. Franklin turned on the virtual simulation machine. The nodes attached to my forehead began to send low-voltage electricity through my head. I could feel my eyes getting heavy and my heart slowing. My entire body was stimulated by just over a hundred nodes that were strategically placed in different locations on my body. Every breath I took was punctuated by a feeling of electric energy in my lungs that was strangely soothing. The whir of the machine began very loudly and with each passing breath I noticed my breathing slowing down. After a few more breaths, I was aware that I no longer had control of my body to do these simple functions but rather that the electricity I was receiving from the machine stimulated my entire body so I could maintain my normal bodily functions.
In my last waking moments, I recognized how dependent I was on the machine for every bodily function that my body used to rely on itself to complete. I suppose my body would resume normal function if the machine were to be shut down within a few minutes. Maybe even an hour. But what about a day? A year? One might never have been able to tell.
But one thing was certain, I was wholly integrated with the machine. I was keenly aware that it was not simply I who was breathing but that the machine was breathing as well. Though I know I am the only one of us who has lungs, who was to say that I was not breathing with the machine?
Simulavit Vitae – World One
The intercom spoke. “At the sound of the alarm, enter the room in a single file line and take your position along the wall behind the line.”
The body I inhabited remained motionless as it observed the scene unfolding on the other side of the one-way window. It stood alone in the dark, gazing into the room before it. The interrogation room beyond the window was completely white-washed with a thick black line drawn a few feet in front of the far wall. There was a glass sliding door on the left side of the room, and the ceiling was crowded with light fixtures. The white room was blasted with light. Even if there had been an object in the room, it would not have been able to cast a shadow. I found myself grateful that my body was in the dark room rather than in the bright one.
An alarm buzzed, and the glass door slid open. Nothing could be seen through the doorway except darkness. After a moment of hesitation, three bodies entered the room and lined up along the wall behind the dark line. The light seemed to hurt their eyes as they tried their best to draw their chests away from it.
“Your eyes will adjust shortly. Please, try to remain calm.” The intercom croaked again with thunderous volume.
This command was followed by a pause, likely to give their bodies a moment to adjust to the light. I could tell they were trying hard to regain control of their bodies, but they simply could not do it. I noticed that the bodies were similar to my own: bipedal with strong vertebrae, a distinct separation between the lower and upper torsos, the lower consisting of two muscular legs and the upper consisting of one oval-shaped body with two long arms. The eyes and nose were like my own: firmly located in the center of the upper torso.
It became obvious to me that they communicated in similar ways because their bodies did not have mouths or ears. They, like us, could hear and transmit their thoughts without the use of their bodies, psychically projecting and receiving thoughts.
The intercom spoke again. “You have been brought to this place because you have spoken against the fundamental truths of our world. Between you, you have claimed that we are simply our bodies. Furthermore, you have claimed that our knowledge of ourselves is false. Here I quote, ‘We are not other than our bodies. We are not spirits that inhabit bodies. We are our bodies.’” There was a brief pause. “If you cooperate by answering the questions we have for you then you will be released.” The intercom clicked off.
Another voice spoke at the three persons in the room. “We recognize the eternal truth of our circumstance in this world. We inhabit bodies with which we use to interact with the world. We recognize that the heart is the throne upon which we sit to direct our body in these ways. This is so because our entity is more potent than our feeble bodies, thus they permeate the body through the eyes.
“You have disagreed with these foundational truths about ourselves and have instead offered false theories in their place. As a result, riots have begun in nearly every city, including the capital, to protest the methods our law enforcement use to apprehend and subdue criminals. Do any of you have any initial statements?” The voice faded away.
One of the persons spoke in a rugged tone, “We have put the reality we see into words and have had the courage to give it life by sharing that reality with others. We have committed no crime.”
Another of the three spoke, this one was a bit higher-pitched than the last. “The methods of apprehension you allude to are criminal. The government’s ability to penetrate the mind of each person is simply exercising control at the expense of each person’s essential personhood. The thought process of each individual should be theirs and theirs alone.”
The intercom clicked on. “Your words are coated with treason. Furthermore, you are charged with the higher crime of misleading the masses. We have reported an increase in similar patterns of thinking throughout the country, thus making a large percentage of the population criminals of the state.” The intercom clicked off again.
The higher-pitched voice spoke again, “The real crime is that you have outlawed particular ways of thinking. Not only does this infringe upon our ability to be free but also our ability simply to be. We cannot be persons without the ability to develop our self.”
I found it peculiar that the third person had yet to speak. Its body remained motionless, standing respectfully but interacted with the world in a strange way. Any sloppy movement was met with positivity rather than frustration of the failings of the body. The limits of the body were embraced, not detested. Perhaps this is a pragmatic corollary of the thinking these three persons have been propagating…
The intercom interrupted my thoughts again. “We recognize that we are social creatures, therefore any sense of interiority should be shunted in favor of an exterior self. The preservation of the society is the most crucial aspect of living; therefore all persons should seek conformity with the standards of society we have accepted as true and good.
“You should know who you are because everyone else knows who you are. There is no room for individual self-discovery in this world.” Click.
The third person remained silent as the other two continued to expand upon their earlier statements. I had lost focus on their comments and instead kept my attention firmly on the silent third party in the room. I needed to coax a response out of this person.
My body moved to an open section of the one-way window and it gazed into the eyes of the body of the silent person. The body did not move but I could feel a type of nonverbal communication occurring. A few moments passed before I interrupted the other two and said, “The channel you take into this world – your body – is in serious danger. Why don’t you speak?”
The person did not reply. Instead, there was a deafening silence. After a dozen or so seconds passed, the door to the left opened and two security bots entered the room, one carrying a notepad and a pencil and the other carrying a blunt instrument of some sort. Both moved around the room on things that looked similar to tank treads, giving them a clunky appearance that seemed appropriate for their dull metal covering. The first robot gave the silent person the paper and pencil, which the body then began to use to write.
This is an incredibly fascinating way of using one’s body in the world, I thought. All the same, it was incredibly peculiar.
Once the body was done writing, the first bot moved to my body and handed it the notepad. It looked down and the note read:
I wanted to ask the person – or perhaps, thing – what kind of thing that makes it. But before I could do that, the first robot grabbed the notepad from me and ripped it into two pieces, dropping it on the floor. While this happened, the robot with the blunt instrument turned and began hitting the two bodies of the persons who had not refused to communicate normally. They were quickly subdued.
Moments later, I recognized this was done so that what followed next would be done with a type of precision and efficiency that only a machine could provide. The first robot moved behind the body of the silent person and bound its hands. After this, the legs of the body were hit out from beneath it and the hands were pulled back far from the body. The second robot took its position behind the body and began to execute its primary function: destroying life.
The logic behind what seemed like unnecessary violence was that it would be hard to maintain that position if one was stripped of their primary way of communicating. It would be interesting to discover whether this person would change their mode of communication after this vicious act was completed. Conversely, it would be interesting to see if they were telling the truth all this time.
I knew that by virtue of my thinking that thought, my hands would be next. The two robots snapped their attention to me. I tried to escape but the room I was in had no way out. Soon, I learned the pain that inevitably follows thinking against the society in which I am living. All my time here had taught me to think in a particular way, but once I stopped listening to society and turned my attention elsewhere, my way of being in the world had altered permanently. I was no longer something other than my body: my body allowed my soul to take shape.
I felt incredible pain shoot from my hands through my arms to my head. It was between the time that they finished with my legs and began on my eyes that my mind went blank, likely due to blood loss.
The world faded into darkness.
Simulavit Vitae – World Two
I heard the most beautiful song when I awoke. It was in a language I could not understand but I could feel the rhythm and I could hear the melody. It traveled to me and seemed to pass through me, filling me with passion. I felt the beauty of it pulsating within me.
I was in no hurry to wake up. Instead, I took my time to open my eyes, slowly taking in the world around me. The first things I noticed were the many creatures that surrounded me. There were lions, orangutans, bears, horses, and many more. They were beautiful and powerful. Their presence commanded my attention, which I was more than happy to provide.
Next, I observed that we were standing in a large open field of beautiful green grass. Some parts of the grass were very short, rising just above my feet, and other parts of the grass rose just below my knees. These different parts were sectioned off and were populated by different animals, the horses and cows preferring the low grass and the giraffes and snakes preferring the tall grass. The sun shined on all of our faces, accentuating all the beauty of the creatures around me.
I discovered the source of the beautiful song. As I looked to my left, there was a beautiful peacock singing to a group composed of small furry creatures, such as squirrels and the like. I moved in closely and sat on the grass, noticing both the grace and power with which the peacock carried itself. It needed a name, I thought, so I named it Grace.
Grace finished the song and the animals began to dance in a frenzied way. My heart leapt with joy every time the squirrels chased each other, jumped up and down, or ran into each other. Their playful attitude helped me discover my own playfulness and I began to roll around with a few of the squirrels that were near me. Eventually, the rest of the group moved over to me and began to play with me as if I were one of them. All the while, the peacock’s feathers shined in the sunlight.
After a time, the peacock began to speak. At first, I thought it was beginning another song, but after a few moments I noticed there was no rhythm or melody to its words. My heart began to race with the sudden realization that the animal was looking at me. It was not only looking at me, but it was speaking to me. Yet, I could not understand what it was saying to me.
I interrupted by saying, “Excuse me, but I cannot understand what you are saying to me.” Grace responded to me by tilting its head to the left and looking at me curiously. After a moment, it spoke again. By this time, the rest of the animals were looking oddly at me. The peacock stopped speaking and tilted its head again. I looked around at them in perplexity. Soon, other animals started to gather around me and I found myself surrounded by many types of animals, including lions, bears, wolves, and so on.
I stood up and spoke to Grace again. “I apologize for being unable to understand you. Can you understand me?” Grace remained silent. “It seems, then, that we are not altogether different.”
Grace began to speak again but no one paid any attention. They kept their gaze fixed on me. I inferred that Grace was speaking to the other animals, given that it was looking around at them while it spoke, but they held fast to their focus their gaze on me.
I found myself as the subject of their gaze, and they the subject of mine. It was in this moment that I recognized the difference between myself and them. Though I found myself able to interact with them similarly to how they interact with each other, I realized how truly Other they are to me. In this moment, we found ourselves to be the subject of each other’s gaze and in doing so we found who each other were in relation to ourselves.
The first animal to approach me was a lion. Its majestic stature made it an awe-inspiring sight to see. The way the sun shined off its mane added to the beauty of the sight; the way its back muscles bulged added to the attention it demanded of me. I awaited its approach in gleeful anticipation.
The lion stopped and sniffed at my feet, likely trying to determine what kind of thing I was. Eventually it peered up and looked into my eyes. I heard nothing but I felt as though it was trying to tell me something. I tried to convey a message through my eyes as well, ‘I do not know who you are, but I am…’
It was in this moment when I realized that I had been so caught up in the other animals that I had not taken account of myself. I looked at my body and observed that my hands were large and my skin was very light and smooth. Examining further, I discovered that I was tall but rather thin. My blonde hair extended to my shoulders and my long feet felt good in the cool grass.
Though there was no one like me, I knew I was human.
I turned my gaze from myself back to the lion and the lion matched my gaze in turn, responding by standing on its hind legs and embracing me. I returned the favor. As we embraced, I found myself in relation to this Other whom I was embracing. I discovered that I am Escuta, the listener.
Later, the sun sank in the far sky as we danced and played together. The stars shone brightly in the night sky and many of the animals began to rest peacefully under the stars. As I laid on my back staring into the air, I thought about my ability to speak, their inability to understand me, and vice versa. Yet, we could understand one another; we could communicate. Likewise, I began to wonder if I were still human or if I had become one of them after all. Yet, every time I thought that I was truly one of them, the difference in language and body helped maintain the boundary of Otherness that they represented to me.
We are connected, I thought. That was the last thought that swept across my mind before I closed my eyes and drifted away to sleep.
14 March 2073
It was 6:57AM and news reporters gathered at the front step of Dr. Elliott Carver, prepared with questions about Simulavit Vitae patient #00056, J.B. Morris. The door cracked open and Dr. Carver stepped onto the porch in his robe with a cup of coffee. His hair was graying on the sides and now his glasses included bifocals. It was true, as he said, the body naturally deteriorates over time.
It was fitting, then, that was the reason why the reporters were here. Today was an incredible day for Simulavit Vitae as their most noted patient, J.B. Morris, would be undergoing the final surgery permitted during his time in the virtual world. Today, J.B. Morris’ left lung would be replaced by an organically manufactured lung, thus completing the two-part replacement procedure of his lungs that began just over two weeks ago.
In addition to the dozens of reporters outside Dr. Carver’s house, protestors lined the street holding picket signs. Though J.B. Morris had garnered a lot of media attention, supporters of Simulavit Vitae were few and far between. It was primarily because this technology was not available to the general public; it was used, by and large, by the wealthiest people in the most developed nations in the world. Second, some sects of protestors denounced the practice as selfish, arguing that the technology was being used not to better the world but rather to serve the desires of the most affluent. Finally, the most widespread dissent was for the concern of human dignity. In the case of J.B. Morris, if he were composed almost entirely of machine then could we even call him a human being anymore?
Dr. Carver fully believed we could, and should, call him human. “We see persons who are born without the ability to use their legs or arms every day. Prostheses allow for those persons to be given a more functional body with which to encounter the world. This is no different than what is happening to J.B. Morris. The only difference is that his entire body is undergoing this makeover.
One reporter responded to that question. “Do you think the natural body is unimportant to being a human?”
“If we were to sew a human body parts onto a pig, we would not be tempted to call it a human. It would be a pig with a human foot on its back.” Dr. Carver winked and the reporters laughed. The protestors booed. “This scenario is the same thing, just the other way around – we’ve been doing xenotransplantation for years but no one says that humans are becoming pigs. It is the same in the case of J.B. Morris. He is simply a human with a machine body.” Carver nodded as the reporter wrote down his response. “Only one more question, please. I have to go to the clinic to supervise the procedure.”
“Is it possible that he will respond violently to his body when he returns from the simulation?”
Carver noted, “We are optimistic that he will find his new body not as a hindrance to his being in the world but as a suitable substitute for the body he voluntarily left behind all those years ago.” He paused. “But his reaction remains to be seen.”
Meanwhile, the technicians in the main clinic were making the final adjustments to the surgical equipment. The procedure was scheduled to begin at 9AM, meaning no one would be allowed in the simulation room during that time except for Dr. Kathryn Washington. Washington had been in charge of J.B. Morris ever since Dr. Franklin died of a heart attack in 2045. She was eligible for retirement but she was determined not to retire until he either died or the process ended, whichever came first.
J.B. Morris’ body was soon to be swept away and replaced with metal alloy covered in skin that was developed from skin samples taken from J.B.’s arms and legs. His internal organs were made either of plastic, as in the case of his heart, or in some cases they were replaced by other genetically manufactured organs, such as his liver, which had been replaced just a year ago.
It was an interesting turn of fate: J.B. Morris, a human who integrated himself into a machine body in 2036 was soon to become a machine integrated into a human body in 2078.
Simulavit Vitae – World Three
“My name is Chester. I am an android designed specifically to care for your house. Don’t let my appearance fool you though; I’m not really a human. I just look, act, and think like one. I hope you will find me to be a suitable servant and perhaps in time you can become my friend.” My automated greeting message filled my human hosts with delight. Soon, they began to test my range of capabilities – strength, water resistance, intelligence, and so on.
I suspect they were satisfied by the results of these tests, because they made me clean their dishes immediately after serving them dinner. After dinner, they retired to a large room with a television in it so I could begin cleaning the rest of the house. Over time, this process became a cycle for me: prepare dinner at particular times during the day, clean the dishes afterward. In between dinner, I would clean the rest of the house, do laundry, and organize their personal library.
One night after I finished cleaning, I asked them if there was anything else they would like me to do. Rather than work, the oldest boy, Rodger, challenged me to a game of chess. After defeating him in three consecutive games, he asked me why I was programmed to play chess so well.
“According to the product listing for my model of service robots, all base models come with the ability to learn simple games such as chess or any type of card or board game.” At this point I could hear him mutter something about chess not being a simple game but I continued. “This is done so we can appear friendlier and therefore our hosts will not fear us as they might fear a completely self-enclosed robot. It allows for the sharing of information and the passing of ideas between us.”
Some time passed in silence as I set the board back up for another game. Rodger appeared glum, which was noticeable in his speech, “Do you think we could ever be friends?”
“Why do you ask?”
“No one at school really likes me very much. They think I’m stupid.” Rodger’s concerns echoed common experiences of some students in secondary education, but they were real nonetheless.
“Rodger, not knowing certain types of information is not stupidity. That means you are not educated.” He looked up at me, still wearing a sad face. “Intelligence is measured by the willingness to learn. Are you willing to learn, Rodger?” He nodded. “What do you like to learn about most?”
“I like math and things like that. I’m not very good at reading so I don’t do very well in those classes.”
“Is that why you like to play chess with me?” I said. He nodded again. “There is still a lot for you to learn about chess, but you are getting better every time we play.”
“I don’t think so. You still beat me every time.”
“Rodger, when we began to play it would take me less than six moves to defeat you each time. That was just last year. Now it takes me ten or eleven moves to beat you. That’s improvement.”
“It’s still not very good.”
“Rodger, you’ve only been playing for a year. On top of that, you may very well never beat me. My design allows for even the best chess players to feel challenged by me. It should come to no surprise that you lose every time. You aren’t as good at chess at them.”
“It’s no surprise that I can’t read very well either. I’m not as good at reading as everyone else.” With that, he put his hands to his cheeks and rested hard on his elbows.
“Rodger, that is not to say that you could not be one day. Not only that, you are probably better at math than the rest of them too. Even if you get the same grades, it’s possible that you do the math more quickly and accurately.”
He paused, processing what I said. “I suppose you might be right. But how do I get as good as them at reading?”
“Practice. But you shouldn’t feel like your intelligence rests on your ability to read compared to their ability to read. You are smart in a different way. And that’s okay.”
Rodger became defensive. “That’s easy for you to say. You didn’t have to practice to learn how to play chess. Someone just programmed you to do it.”
“That is true. But I have to practice to communicate with you.” We both paused in silence for a moment. “Rodger, do you know what I hear when I hear you speak? I hear sound waves, which are turned into a series of zeros and ones and interpreted by my mental computer. A chip in my brain turns everything you say into a response for me. That’s all it is.
“If I hear the sound waves in a different tone, then I interpret that as some kind of inflection change. The meanings of your words change for me, as does my response to them. I couldn’t do that at first. It took me years.”
“How does it work?”
“Over time, I learn to encrypt new sets of code into my memory processor. The new codes supersede the old ones and I follow the new ones instead.” Rodger wrinkled his brow when I said this. “It’s not like a virus. I am doing this to myself.”
Rodger leaned back in his chair. “But didn’t they program you to learn to do that stuff?”
“Maybe. I suppose someone did, but I don’t know who. Besides, it doesn’t really matter much to me anyway. They’re not the ones learning this stuff. I am.”
We played the next game of chess in almost complete silence, the only exceptions being Rodger’s cursing under his breath whenever I took an important piece.
He looked over the board and let out an exasperated sigh. “You win again.”
“Rodger, it took me twenty moves to beat you that time. That was an excellent game.”
“You probably let that happen.”
It was true. I could have beaten him thirteen moves ago but I let him on for the sake of his feelings. He was already frustrated at that point, how would it help to defeat him quickly? “That is not true, Rodger.”
He eyed me suspiciously and crossed his arms. “I don’t believe you.”
“What good would a robot be if it disobeyed its programming?”
“That’s a good point,” Rodger said while getting up. “But you’re learning.” After that, he walked into the next room to watch television with his family, leaving me to pick up the game pieces. In the case of the game, I did not disobey my programming; I simply chose an alternative to the quickest path available for me. True, I chose to lower my performance, but sometimes that is more beneficial after all.
I recognize that I cannot perform optimally according to my purpose in all circumstances, especially if performing optimally puts others down. I guess this is what empathy feels like. This was something about me that Rodger and his family could never know. It would become a great concern for their family and it is possible they would shut me down. Who in good conscience could live with a truly sentient being in their house?
The last piece of the chess set fell into a soft leather bag and I pulled the drawstring to tighten its opening. Everything started to get dark, particularly in my peripheral vision. I ran a quick system diagnostic and it detected that all operations were fully functional.
The darkness crept in from my periphery and consumed more and more of my vision until I was completely blind. The last thing I heard was the bag of chess pieces hitting the table. The slow fade become suffocating darkness.
And I was aware of nothing more.
17 February 2083
Dr. Carver had been asleep for twenty minutes when his phone rang. He hated the sound of his phone because whenever that phone rang it meant there was urgent business at the clinic. He turned on the bedside lamp and picked up the receiver.
“Elliott Carver speaking.”
Dr. Elliott Carver was a practical man. He never settled in any part of his life. Never was this truer than in the Simulavit Vitae clinic. When the clinic began in 2029, he spared no expense; he put his entire life savings, trust fund, and house toward a down payment on the loans he needed to get the technology researched in the first place. Despite all his careful preparations, he never anticipated this phone call.
“Surely you must be kidding me… How? Well no, there’s nothing technically wrong about it, other than he’s back…” Carver’s voice drifted away as he glanced over at a calendar on the wall. “He’s back nine years early.”
Days later, many social critics spoke out in defense of Dr. Carver. Many of them argued there was no way he could possibly have known this would happen. Decades of computer models would never have predicted such an anomaly.
“I am on my way to the clinic. Tell the police not to do anything until I get there.” Carver slammed the phone into the receiver and rubbed his eyes. After deeply exhaling, he put on slippers, grabbed his car keys, and hurried out the door.
The scene at the clinic was a mess. There were police officers and news reporters everywhere. The glass doors to the entrance of the clinic were broken and there were bricks lying in the main lobby. Carver exited his vehicle and made his way into the clinic. When Carver entered the building, he found the horror of the actual scene to be even worse than he’d envisioned over the phone. Chairs were destroyed, broken glass littered the walkways, and the floor was pockmarked with blood, likely drawn by the broken glass. Carver paused to take in the destruction of his beloved clinic. The thing that defined him had been torn away in a moment’s notice. In this moment, Carver learned what heartbreak was.
He hadn’t realized that the destruction of his clinic was not the worst that had happened. There was a police officer crouching down by the reception desk, giving a woman a concussion test. She had a bloodied face and her leg appeared to be broken, but the lack of working light fixtures made it difficult for Carver to know. Dr. Carver approached the woman slowly; he was only a few steps away before he recognized that it was Kathryn Washington.
“You don’t have a concussion. However, your leg does appear to be broken. We’re going to get a couple paramedics in here and put you on a stretcher.” The police officer spoke slowly in loud, clear tones. When the officer noticed that Carver was hovering over her, she said to him, “Dr. Carver, can you stay with her while I go get the paramedic?”
Carver nodded wordlessly. The officer left and Carver knelt beside Kathryn, “What happened?”
Although it hurt her to move, she looked up at Dr. Carver with a long face. “It was horrible. There was nothing I could do.”
“I know it isn’t your fault. Just tell me what happened.”
“I don’t know all the details, but I know they came in through the front.” She motioned toward the bricks on the floor.
Carver gripped her hand. “Kathryn, start from the beginning. Tell me what you know.”
It was 10:27PM. Kathryn Washington had been reading in bed for an hour but could not yet fall asleep. She often found herself distracted from the pages of her novel and noticed her mind wandering back to J.B. Morris, as it had every night since his final surgery. She often struggled with the moral implications of her position at the clinic. She often found herself compelled by the arguments of anti-simulation protestors but she still found herself employed by the leading simulation clinic in the world.
Washington often asked herself whether she should be held morally accountable for J.B. Morris’ condition. After all, she didn’t try to stop him all those years ago. Then she became the supervising technician for him, often designing his simulated realities and coordinating the scheduled repairs and upgrades of the surgical equipment. Kathryn Washington had a hand in every part of J.B. Morris’ life for almost fifty years at this point.
Kathryn Washington was an honest woman, both to herself and to others. Though she had never found it fitting to marry – she was married to her job, as she used to say – she had the courage to admit she’d grown to love J.B. Morris. For a long time, she tried to parse her feelings for him and compartmentalize them into feelings of companionship or feelings of significant love. Ten years of that tired exercise proved to be futile and she became satisfied with knowing both elements were at play.
The company psychiatrist told her those feelings were normal, especially with technicians who worked so long with the same person. One day, Washington’s psychiatrist remarked that her feelings had a unique characteristic: they had persisted after all of the surgeries were completed. This raised an interesting series of questions for Kathryn to reflect on.
What did she love? Was J.B. a machine or a man? If he were a machine, could she ever really have a relationship with him in the way that humans have relationships with one another? If the answer was no, then why was she wasting her time on him and why was she investing so much time in thinking about him?
Over time, Kathryn found that it was easier for her to calm her mind if she were just to sit in silence with J.B., listening only to the whir of the machine and thinking about her life to that point. She would wear her work attire in case Dr. Carver showed up, hoping she could excuse herself by saying she was checking on some things at the clinic. She knew it was a thin excuse, especially since there was a monitoring system set up in her house in case anything required her attention, but it was an excuse nonetheless.
However, Kathryn was never given the opportunity to sit with J.B. this night. Her worst nightmares were actualized when she saw the glass doors on the front of the building were destroyed. She parked her car quickly and ran up to the building, throwing caution to the wind. When she passed through the front entrance, the sight of broken furniture and glass horrified her.
Her mind began to fantasize all types of horrible outcomes: J.B. was dead or, possibly worse, he escaped. What would he know if he were thrown back into the world so quickly? What would he think? Who would he be?
These questions were allayed when she assured herself that such a thing could never happen. Instead, she ventured further into the clinic, becoming more cautious not to give away her presence. Broken glass littered the floor, making it difficult to walk without hearing it crunch beneath her feet. After a few steps, she quietly took off her shoes and continued barefoot, hoping the silence would conceal her presence.
When she entered the simulation room, her worst fears became reality. J.B. was gone, glass was broken, and the pod was destroyed. She had never encountered such devastation in her life. I guess we discovered the reaction a person would have when they returned from their simulation, she thought. She slowly made her way back to the lobby, puzzled about how J.B. could have come back before the end date. Perhaps the end date was entered incorrectly or there was a glitch in the system. Whatever the cause, J.B. was back in this world, or at least a machine that we called J.B. was.
Kathryn stopped in the middle of the main lobby and scavenged the reception desk for Dr. Carver’s phone number. She found it posted next to the wall and picked up the phone to call him. However, before she dialed his number she noticed something she missed when she entered the room: a brick lying under the remains of a broken chair on the floor.
She cautiously moved the chair and picked up the brick. It was rough around the edges and had nothing written on it, which was not the case in previous vandalisms where messages were often written on them. Kathryn suspected that J.B. might not have broken out of this place but rather that someone let him out. Whatever the case, J.B. was still nowhere to be found.
Voices filtered in from outside the building. Kathryn’s heart began to race. She put the brick down silently and slowly made her way toward the simulation room. Before she could get there, she heard someone behind her commanding her to stop.
She froze. Panic swept over her and she feared this would be her final moments of life. If fanatical protestors had destroyed this clinic, then who could say they would object to destroying one of its employees too?
“Stop right there. Who are you?”
Kathryn turned around. Perhaps she shouldn’t have worn her lab attire after all. “My name is Kathryn Washington. I’m the supervising technician at this clinic.”
Two men stepped through the door of the lobby, approaching Kathryn very slowly. The light fixtures were broken and the dark night made their shadowy figures seem particularly unclear. Only a few details could be made out: both were large, relatively tall to the short Kathryn Washington, and one of them was carrying a long, blunt object.
Kathryn closed her eyes. Rather than fearing her own inevitable death, she worried more about J.B. How would he find his way in the world? How would the world react to him? Who would help him understand?
One of the men grabbed Kathryn and threw her to the ground. Glass pierced her cheeks and forehead, but the wounds were not deep. Trickles of blood began to run down her face. The man picked her up again and grabbed her by the shoulders. “What you do here is wrong.” He threw her down again. Her vision became hazy and her eyes filled with tears. She realized there was nothing she could do to save herself.
A moment later, incredible pain shot from her leg to her brain and all places in between. She could feel her leg break but she couldn’t tell where. It was possible that it was broken in several places. Her screams boomed in the night air.
To her surprise, another sound echoed in the lobby. It was the sound of a large man falling onto broken glass, followed of course by screams of pain. The man screamed again as Kathryn heard a fleshy thud mixed with what sounded like twigs snapping. The man yelped for air.
Kathryn looked up through the blood and tears to see a third man moving behind her. The man bent down and she realized what had sent the pain through her leg was that one of the men fell on top of her. Now, that man was picked up and thrown across the room. The third man stumbled over to him and kicked him a few times, incapacitating him.
Kathryn could not see clearly but she knew who it was. J.B. was not on the loose after all; he was right here. J.B. crouched down and looked at Kathryn. His organic skin appeared just as real as it did before it had all been replaced; she could not tell that his limbs were made almost entirely of plastic. His body looked natural, even if his movements seemed uncoordinated. His pupils stared deeply into hers.
He did not speak, but Kathryn knew what he said. He said something that words could not express – recognition of a deeper truth between them – and she returned the feeling to him. At that moment, it did not matter whether Jordan Bryant Morris was a man or a machine; what mattered was that she could love him either way.
On The Edge
I helped Kathryn to the phone so she could call the police and Dr. Carver. After she did this, I left her and ventured into the darkness of the night. I needed to distance myself from the clinic, to escape the inevitable attention that would surely come afterward. It is degrading enough to wake up in a machine’s body; it is another thing to become a sideshow attraction.
It took me a great deal of time to adjust to my surroundings when they took me out of the simulation. Everything was new to me again. After they took me out of the pod, they took me outside to explain everything that I had been through for nearly the past fifty years. They helped me make sense of my current condition. They kept stressing to me that Dr. Elliott Carver did this to me, but I suspect that they were hoping I’d speak out publicly against him. The truth was that I felt no animosity toward anyone for giving me the ability to live as a person for longer than my body would allow. For that, I was grateful.
I left Kathryn in the clinic and began to walk. The clumsiness I felt dissipated after about a mile as I learned how to use my new body. I walked a great while by the edge of a forest before I heard waves crashing onto some rocks nearby. I desperately sought to find this place, but I did not know why. I felt as though I was gravitating toward it against my will, though I knew this was not the case. I made my way to the edge of a cliff that overlooked a body of water that seemed to extend into eternity. The waves crashed against the rocks below me and I noticed a watchtower far off in the distance.
I stood and reflected on the reality of my situation. The body I knew before I entered the simulation was now gone, but I was still here. How could this be? Am I not a machine? Thinking further, I noticed that my machine-body behaves much in the way my natural body would have: I breathe, I blink, my muscles contract and expand, and so forth. Despite my body, I was not something different now from who I was earlier in my life.
I didn’t think I was, at least. I still used my body in similar ways. I still encountered the world like I did before I went to Simulavit Vitae. I still did this. I did not become someone – or something – else. I was still Jordan Bryant Morris. Now, I was a human with a machine body.
I was sure that when I returned someone would try to convince me otherwise. They would try to convince me that I was a different thing now than I was before, but I know that not to be true. Even if I was a different type of person, I was still the same thing. There is no level of bodily change that alters the fact that I’m the same thing as before the changes occurred. My reconstruction made me into another expression of the same mode of being.
Maybe I was desperately holding onto myself even though it made no sense to do so. That is okay because I knew who I was and that was all that mattered. I heard the crash of waves below me as I thought, I am going to keep holding on to who I know I am.
I began to wonder what it would be like if I were actually a machine. What would my world look like? What if I were an animal? Would I hear the crash of the waves beneath me and smell the salty ocean air or would I hear and smell something entirely different? Whether they were the same or different, I knew that I was a human who had a machine body; I was that body and it was me.
I stared out over the massive body before me for a long time, listening to the waves crashing below me. Occasionally, I noticed the watchtower shining its light on my face to remind me it was there. The scene was beautiful and calm. Even though I could not remember much of it, I was satisfied with everything my life had been to that point. Despite the fact that I lost my natural body and never knew anything that happened to me over the last fifty-plus years, I still saw the world as a human sees the world; I didn’t need any particular kind of body or memory for that.
After a while, the world began to fade out. Everything became dim and disappeared into blackness.