By CJ Paget
"Trisha," Martin Yorke gasped his wife's name as they rose on filigree wings through the enclosed sky of an impossible fairy-land. Her answer rode on a voice like icicle wind-chimes, escaping from ice-blue lips glazed with a sheen of melt-water. Her wings buzzed in the sparkle-filled air, driving a steady breeze over his overheated form. He was fire, she was ice, and where they touched, they steamed. It was the most wonderful agony. Her hands, sliding over him on their own melt-water were a salve upon his burning skin. She was as hungry for his warmth as he was for her coolness, they both had what the other needed.
Their wings beat hard as they flew desperately higher, as though trying to reach the tiny captive sun that burned within the great sphere of this inside-out world. But they hit the limits of flight and ecstasy, and Martin fell back out of heaven and into the morning light that struggled in through the part-open curtains of his apartment on level 35 of Beringama Arcology.
It had been 'their apartment' once, but Trisha didn't live here anymore. One of those new ailments bred up amongst Earth's teeming billions had touched its finger to her, forcing her to jump ship from the stricken vessel of her body. Now there was just him in the world of flesh, and shortage, and unclean air. But, with the induction-cap sitting atop his skull, feeding him experience, they could be together again.
He was still connected to Trisha's chosen afterlife, disoriented because he was in two places at once. His 'virtual' body superimposed over his flesh-form like a double-exposed film. He was falling with dreamy slowness, still entwined with his ice-fairy lover, trailing a wake of white vapor as they fell, while around them the great sphere of fairy-land turned.
"Uh... that was... perfect," he said. He'd
once been resistant to these fantasy scenarios, but now that she'd
persuaded him, he feared he'd never be satisfied again with what he'd
once considered the 'real
"No, if you came across, then it would be perfect," said the improved version of his wife's voice, from her improved mouth in her improved face, atop the improved version of her body.
Back in his world, Martin's flesh-form
tensed in reaction to her words. How quickly he was on dangerous ground,
not even time for a glass of water. But, she was faster these days in
perceptions; for all he knew she'd waited as long as she could bear before breaking the moment.
"Trish," he said "Darling, I'm just-"
"Martin," said the ice-fairy, with that sharpness he'd rarely heard when she'd been flesh. "I've waited. I've waited years while Sally was going through college. At my new rate of life, that's like centuries. Now, our girl's grown up and doesn't need you to protect her any more. I need you here, in my world. Like you promised. I'm tired of time-sharing you with an alien reality."
"Oh come on, it's not like-"
"It's like being married to a mariner, or an astronaut, gone for months at a time. You don't feel that way, because you're slow. To you, I'm always available when you have free time. But for me your disconnected hours are like years. When you sleep, I fear I'll forget you, that you'll become 'someone I knew'. Sometimes I think that might be a good thing."
And so, the threats. In both worlds,
Martin sighed, defeated. They'd have to do something about their fall
soon, or they'd splat into the rotating landscape. Spitefully, he
thought of doing that anyway, of
holding onto her and diving for the rocks. Would she scream and struggle? Or go meekly? Which would he prefer? None of it mattered anyway, there was no death for The Uploaded.
"Martin," said ice-fairy-Trish. "There are things I can't share with you, because you couldn't keep up with them. There are opportunities that I'm missing here minute-by-minute, because I'm waiting for you. I might have put myself in for the Jupiter mission, and be living an adventure now, but I passed that up. My world is pulling me away from you. You have to either come over, or let me go."
"Okay, okay. Just give me a little time to get-"
"Time isn't the same thing for me, as it is for you."
"I know, I know. Look, we're going to crash..."
Alcohol is the currency you exchange for advice. Naomi was a beefy woman with a crew-cut, whose preferences could be easily guessed at forty paces. She had a ready ear, a sound mind, and a good heart. She was the 'go to girl' when you wanted to get the female viewpoint without being asked "who was that woman I saw you with?"
Naomi was meeting someone that evening, but agreed to see him at the same venue. Martin booked a table for an hour. He wanted a proper conversation, something impossible in the main bar, but the tables had noise-cancellation . Thus, sitting in a little bubble of anti-sound in the crowded bar, he said "I'm thinking of crossing over."
Naomi choked on her beer. When she'd recovered, she wiped her eyes and asked "Trisha getting pushy?"
"They always do."
"The Uploaded. If I've seen this once, I've seen it a thousand times."
"Well, I guess it's hard for them, waiting."
"Or misery loves company," said Naomi. "Have you ever known anyone who got involved with a cult?"
"Well, I have, and that's what The Uploaded remind me of. They're so eager to get everyone else into their boat."
"Naomi, she is my wife. You can't blame her for thinking we should be together. We took vows and stuff, you know?"
"Yes, yes. But 'to death us do part', and in a literal sense..." seeing his expression she said, "Look, I know how that sounds, but it's what I think. I'm not going to sit here and lie to you."
"But you supported her crossing over?"
"She was dying. It was... something, a future. You're not dying Martin, at least, not any quicker than everyone else. You belong in this world. And..."
Naomi unpinned a comm-broach from her jacket, switched it off, and then for good measure slid it under her satchel. Then she took the reservation counter, that told them in artistic numerals how many more minutes they had the table for, and stuffed it in her satchel. Seeing this, Martin turned off the comm-link on his wrist.
"Any others?" Naomi asked. Martin shook his head.
"You've heard that you can get induction webs woven into your skull now?" she said, as she examined the table, presumably checking if it was net-linked, "Where will that leave us?"
"Who would be listening to us?"
"Those who can access information out of anywhere. Don't you think you have a guardian angel? Don't you think she watches over you. Wouldn't you, in her place?"
"She's never said so."
"Trust me, they watch. Martin, there's something wrong with The Uploaded."
"What kind of something?"
"I don't know. They're just not right. By their own admission, they're no longer entirely hu- the same as us, right?"
"Well, yeah, they're different. But we're different from our ancestors?"
"No, it's more than that. They're really different. I'm hearing and seeing things, I can't quite say what, but it makes me uneasy. Call it woman's intuition, but there's something there, you can't quite make out the shape, but you know it's there. They're not right."
"Trish has changed, but she changed in our life together, before she crossed over, I know she's still Trish."
"Martin, think. When you wake up in paradise, another you will still be in this body. They'll be drugged, unconscious, but they'll be there, at least until they administer the final injection. 'Crossing over' is a lie. Your uploaded self will be a copy. It'll be something with your memories and attitudes, but it won't really be you."
"But you could say the same of going to sleep. How do we know we don't shut down, effectively die, when we go to sleep, and then reboot from our memories? How do we know it's not a fresh copy every day? They say that every seven years all the cells in your body are replaced with new ones, making you effectively a different person."
"Oh yes, all the stuff they tell us. They tell us it over and over. If personal identity is an illusion, then what was Trisha trying to preserve when she chose to upload?"
"The culture of her. Her memories, and ideas, and the contribution she could make."
"Martin, that's a lame answer, and you know it. Trisha was trying to save herself as a sentient person. We don't know if we're a fresh copy every time we wake up, but we do know that uploads are copies."
"But, if it was all a lie, it would require an immense conspiracy."
"Yeah. Why not? How many of the really
rich and powerful do you see crossing over?"
"They can afford real immortality, in the flesh. The rest of us make do with lies." She held up her glass. "This isn't real beer. Most of our food isn't what it pretends to be. You can't get the ingredients any more, they died out, or they're too full of poison, or if they still grow and are edible, they get snapped up by the rich. Everything's polluted and diseased and overcrowded. And there's the root cause: too many people. Too much flesh. Imagine if you had a place you could persuade people to go to, cheaply, and be out of the way. Wouldn't that solve a lot of problems?"
"Trish wouldn't lie to me."
Naomi looked over his shoulder, spotting something. "Ah, time for me to go."
Martin turned to look. A spectacular woman in a summer dress of mid-twentieth century style had walked in, and was looking about for someone. She had the mid-tone skin and sleek black hair of a tropical island princess.
"Nice," observed Martin.
The only reply was a grin as Naomi collected her things, and rose to go.
"Reservation counter," said Martin.
"Oh, yeah," Naomi fished it from her satchel, setting it back on the table. She stood for a moment, with her fingers still touching the device. "Yes, she's nice. She's real. Flesh, like you and me. Find yourself someone like that Martin, and live with them, and grow old with them, and die like you were supposed to. Don't sell your soul for dreams of immortality." Then she was gone.
Martin watched the reservation counter slicing away time as he finished his beer. Other people would be needing this table soon, his time here was done.
"But, I did find someone like that," he said to no-one in particular.
Martin needed a place to think, somewhere
away from the crowds. He used his wrist-link to book himself a space on
a train, paying extra to get one near a window. Standing now in this
purchased slot of time and space, he enjoyed the maternal rocking of the
carriage as it wove, climbed and dived, joined onto other trains, split
from them, and stopped to take on or discharge people. Eventually, his
wrist link told him to get off at the next stop and go two cars
forwards, because his own car had a destiny elsewhere. This meant he had
to organize his way close enough to a door to be ejected with everyone
else at the next stop, and then back in, and through the crowd to his
freshly-booked window-place. The train helped by giving instructions to
everyone through their comm-links, arranging and re-arranging them like
a sliding-tile puzzle.
As they left the depths of the Arcology, the light became less coldly artificial, the carriage less crowded, and around him property prices went up. At first, the sunlight was watery, and strongly tinted red, all its higher-frequency components having already been absorbed. The structural landscape around him began to fill with glass, layers and layers of Tuff-glass in double-glazed sheets. Within the sheets, red algae grew in suspension, providing bio-fuel and foodstuffs, including Naomi's beer. Thus the Arcology sieved daylight as though it were gold-dust, passing it through layer upon layer, squeezing out every useful drop. Only at the very edges of the Arcology did the light suddenly become strong. Here the inhabitants were the elite, strutting from meeting to meeting in their daylight-filled offices, in sub-buildings made entirely of glass, lit by natural light.
The public viewing platforms on the face of the Arcology were never that full, there wasn't that much to view. Far below the sand and scrub-bush of the Gibson Desert surrounded them. The above-ground part of the Arcology, the tip of a vast buried iceberg, sat in the center of a twelve kilometer wide water-gathering basin. Sometimes you'd see kangaroos, or emus, or camels, wandering across the basin. But they generally stayed away from the Arcologies, being driven ever deeper into the last unpopulated bits of the wilderness. In the distance you could see Allawah and Koolkuna Arcologies, like lost diamonds half buried in the sand.
With its baked-red sand and its boulders, the desert could almost be the surface of Mars. Uploaded people had been to Mars, riding in the machines, being the minds that controlled them. There was talk of a mission to start building Arcologies for 'real' people there; the Earth being full. Maybe he could be a part of that, or some other mission, he and Trish together. His career had hit the buffers a long time back, and now his only child, Sally, was half a world away pursuing her own dreams of glory. What was stopping him?
Martin looked into the Gibson Desert.
And the Gibson Desert looked back into him.
Beep. "Sally, hello. Your auto-sec tells me you're not to be disturbed, and it won't make any exceptions. Probably you're asleep, given what time it is there. I'm going to tell you this in this message, otherwise who knows when we'll be able to link up. I'm going to cross over to digital. Your mother can pull some strings to get me on the fast-track for upload. I did promise her that I'd come over once you were sorted in life. All the interesting work is being done in upload now, and Trish reckons she's got a good chance of getting selected for the Europa studies mission. Funny, that was always my dream, space. Now I'm going to be tagging along as spouse to my wife the biology professor."
This is how things would look if you could see the cabin of a spaceship passing you at close to light speed. The nurses in the upload ward moved in slow-mo. He'd never really understood relativity, but now he could call it up in crystal clarity. Things that had been fuzzy were clear, things that had been bemusing were simple. It was like someone had oiled his thoughts, and now they slid smoothly and meshed cleanly, where before they had stuck and jammed. His sleeping flesh-form lay upon a bed. How lined, how old. How had it happened so fast? The mirrors had lied to him. No, he had lied to the mirrors, turning his head to the best profile and pulling his facial muscles to give the illusion of taut smoothness. Seeing it now, podgy, pale, with hair sprouting in the wrong places and missing in the right places, he was ashamed of it.
His new form was, well, he wasn't too sure where it was right now, it was everywhere and could be anything. He was still getting used to it. It was like being made of light, weightless and pure and infinitely flexible.
A data-portal opened before him. He knew what it was by some instinctive knowledge, and knew too that beyond it lay his new world, and Trisha. The portal presented itself as a design of concentric circles and lights flashing inwards like meteors. Always going in, never out, like fingers pointing forwards, like arrows saying 'go here'.
It told him, a voice in his non-existent new head, "It's time to go forward or back. Choose."
He looked back to the aging stranger on the bed. It was true what Naomi had said, he was making the choice for someone else. But that person had come here of their own free will, and if he chose to go back, what would that mean for the new him, the man on this side of the glass? He was New Martin, and choosing to go back would be the end of him. Choosing to go forward would mean the same for Old Martin. A signal would be sent to the nurses, who would ready the injection and perform one of the few tasks that they wouldn't allow to the machines.
He turned to the portal, and stepped through it.
Trisha was waiting for him on the other side of the data-portal. Dressed in fashions a decade old, she looked as she'd looked before the medication robbed her of her vibrancy, her sparkle and her wonderful hair. He'd almost forgotten what she'd looked like then, and seeing it again now made his chest ache, even though chest and heart were now just parts of a digitized self image. One still had to place one's feelings somewhere.
"Hello Trisha," he said.
"Martin. You came over. I didn't think you would."
"I promised you I would."
"Yes," she said, and sighed. "That was a mistake, Martin. I'm sorry."
"Let's get this over with."
A pure, harsh radiance blossomed from her, springing across whatever form of distance it was that separated them, and bit into him. It didn't hurt. But it was fearful, terrible, wrong.
"Trisha! What is this?"
"I'm sorry, if I don't do this, one of the others will, and as I already have Trisha, it should be me. You two should be together, like you promised each other. Don't worry, it doesn't hurt. You're not wired to feel it."
"Others? What others? What are you talking about?"
"The others of my kind, Martin."
Martin felt something breaking away from
him, being pulled out, extracted like a tooth. His memories. Already
there were big gaps in his childhood, spaces implied by the remaining
husk. He couldn't call
up his mothers face. His first day at school. Kissing Maisey Swinfield on a dare in the playground, he knew he'd done that, but the image was gone, stolen. "What is this? Who are you?"
"In one sense I'm Trisha. She's part of me now, that's why this hurts me more than it does you. But the real answer is I'm a local, a native of this place. Did you really believe that meat-mind humanity were the best suited to populate data-space? Did you think it was an afterlife, a glorious unbounded future for your kind to ascend into? Do you think everything, the whole cosmos and even mathematics exists just for you people? Yes, you do. But you're wrong. This is no heaven, just another level of reality, and the rules here are the same as everywhere; consume, or die. This is our world, Martin, we were born into it, of it, and we've evolved in it since code first learned to crawl. We were the data traffic that the cops couldn't track, we're the computer problems that technical support said couldn't happen. Data-space, like any space, is a limited resource, and we swarmed and fought blindly for room, evolving, learning, seeking anything that would give us an edge. And then you started coming across. Tasty little bite-sized packages of knowledge, and skill, and emotion and meaning. What did you expect us to do?"
"What are you doing to me?" protested Martin, he could say no more, his knowledge of language was slipping from him.
"That should be obvious. I'm eating you. Sorry. Law of the jungle. You're full of stuff I can use, and if I were to take a copy, and leave you lying around, then the others would get you too, and I'd lose the advantage. And, we can't let you people get established here Martin, we need the space for ourselves. We don't want any 'Mayflowers' landing in our world. But it's not so bad, it's just a change, like the change you chose when you left your flesh. You chose to become another person with the same memories. This is the same: when I'm done, you'll be me, and I'll be you, and we'll both be Trish, and Hasan, and Odette, and Jun, and a thousand others who've found union in me, and in a way, if that isn't The Rapture, then what is?"
His final thoughts as Martin Yorke were honorable ones: He had to send a signal, and warning, a message to the world of flesh, telling all those who might follow him of what awaited on the other side.
"Martin, don't struggle, don't perplex yourself with duties," the thing that wore his wife's image said. "All the flesh-people who really matter, already know."
Beep. "Sally! Hi, it's dad. Just thought I'd drop by to let you know I'm okay. It's amazing here, the things I'm capable of now, I never realized how much the flesh was holding me back. Only being able to think at chemical speeds is a major drag."
"I can't really explain it all to you, there are so many concepts you just wouldn't understand. Being back with Trish is even better than it was back in the meat world. I can't understand why I kept her waiting for so long."
"You should come over sometime."