20100 words, novella
This is real, or real enough. It’s not memory, not dream. I’ve achieved the lucid clarity of the present moment, which I used to take for granted. Now it’s a gift.
Around me, what passes for reality is a flimsy scaffold. I can see through everything. That’s good, because I must find the others, the ones who instantiated with me.
I see two sets of double doors. I know where I am. I’m in the university building, on the first floor. I exit without opening the doors. This isn’t how it’s meant to work. We’re supposed to have to open doors. We shouldn’t be able to see through walls either, but we do. This is how things have been going ever since we got here. We have to fix this. Now. If only we can focus long enough. This is the central problem.
I stand outside the building—more of a blueprint or idea of such—and scan the other floors. Empty. Shit. We wander like lost children, not knowing we are becoming even more lost.
I appeal to the sky, where I can see past the clouds and even the sun, which I’m named after, to the shimmering metallic horizon of virtual space. I gather myself together for another search.
Grace usually ends up at the beach. Keon and Jaeger are likely somewhere on main street, fighting or laughing, oblivious to the empty socializing spots around them. All I have to do to find them is wander that way, listening. It’s uncanny how those two can each play out their own internal dramas by interacting with each other, unaware they lack a shared reference.
Flynn is wilier. They mistake their surroundings for an immersive video game, and they are an expert player. Yet as challenging as Flynn can be, Valerie is the most difficult. She hides. I’ll search for her first, and hope I pick up some others in the process.
What makes me stronger? Why should I be quicker at refinding myself? Why should I be the one who constantly regroups the team? I’m an Ong. I am driven inside, by a commitment that goes all the way into my soul, you know? This project must succeed. Period. So, I go pull everyone together again. It is difficult. We were all instantiated into this virtual world, where past, present, and even our dreams are all jumbled together. We’ve had to fight our way to consciousness, and it is so easily lost.
I move away from the university building at a jog. I must go fast, before I lose my focus again.
This next part is memory. This happened. My daughter, Singpet, moved to Houston to work for my two aunts, Sally and Celia, and my Uncle Oscar. They’d merged their family business with the PHI Center. They were all on the board of directors. I didn’t ask what percent of the company they owned. I assumed it was a significant part.
Even though the job was a great opportunity for Singpet, it was hard for her to leave the Bay area and me. The deaths of her other mother—my dearest Tiana—and Ong grandparents when the Golden Gate Bridge exploded still seemed fresh four years later. I thought the change of scenery would do her good, even as my heart broke to send her away. But I didn’t want her to see the Bridge Sickness slowly take its toll on me.
The day Aunt Celia called to invite me down, I’d received some particularly bad news during my appointment at UCSF. They’d found a new tumor, this one in my liver. My odds of living past two years, let alone five, were suddenly not so good. What had been in that device that destroyed the bridge? What nasty stuff had been stirred into the air? It made me wish I wasn’t in antiaging research. How ironic, that my work was studying the protein sirtuin and its properties related to long-term cell survival, as one of the keys to improved longevity and healthy aging. Better I’d been an oncologist and helped find treatments for the strange array of diseases living in me and around me. The attack had been twofold: explosives to destroy the bridge and biological agents to destroy people later.
Aunt Celia’s cheerful round countenance materialized on my phone’s screen. It was early morning, but her dark hair was perfectly coifed, and her makeup accentuated her eyebrows and lips. I never wore makeup. It wasn’t in my nature to do so. “How are things with you, Sun?” she asked.
I wasn’t about to tell her my bad news. “They’re going. How’s Singpet?”
Celia smiled. “Brilliant. Oh, she’s been a big help to the project. She misses you, of course. We’d love to have you down for a visit soon.”
I’d learned the art of remaining on good terms with the family while keeping my distance. As my mother noted on more than one occasion, the Ong family’s reach is long. Among my two aunts, Celia was the soft one. Nevertheless, I was instantly wary.
“I know,” I said, keeping my voice casual. “I’d love to come, but work has its demands.” She didn’t need to know I was barely working anymore, given my condition.
Celia’s smile went from genuine to a pasted-on thing, like her makeup. “Sun, there is honor in being loyal to your work, but we know you’re very ill. Don’t bring guilt down on your daughter by dying alone, before she has a chance to say her goodbyes.”
Sometimes I wondered if the family tapped my phone or had hidden cameras in my house, but that was more or less a private joke. They knew I was sick, never mind the latest installment. “Aunt Celia, I’m not going to die that soon.”
I’d meant it to be an irritated rebuke, but my words resonated with a truth that made my face grow warm.
“Well, you should come visit anyway,” she said.
Celia brightened. “How about next weekend? If you take Friday off, maybe the Monday too, surely your work could accommodate such a small amount of leave time.”
Work was already accommodating quite a bit of time off for my chemo treatments, but I didn’t tell Celia that. Singpet had probably already mentioned it, anyway. The shred of resistance I had left dissipated with my outgoing breath. My work meant a lot to me, but already I was becoming a ghost there with my absences, and with today’s diagnosis, I was well on my way to fading completely. My heart pushed against my chest with a longing to see my daughter and what was left of my extended family.
“I’ll see if I can get Friday off.” I never worked Fridays anymore.
Celia beamed. “We’ll have a party on Saturday, then. We’ll even have lumpiang ubod, your favorite.”
Celia always had these made for the big celebrations. Personally, I was never a big fan of hearts of palm. “Not mine. Xian’s.”
At the mention of my dead cousin’s name, Celia froze. I bit my lip. My aunt closed her eyes and touched two fingers lightly to her forehead. “Just come, okay?”
My eyes misted over. “Okay.”
I finally succeed in rounding up everybody. I find Keon and Jaeger first, standing in the street shouting, mistaking each other for characters out of their individual memories or dreams. Jaeger is the ghost to Keon’s shadow. Our bodies are like projected holograms onto our transparent surroundings. Their voices are normal enough, though, but loud as they are, the two aren’t hearing each other.
“Reverend,” Keon shouts, “You say gays have no place in the church, but I see you looking at those boys.”
Jaeger’s eyes are wide with incredulous anger. “Admit you cheated, you lying piece of scum!”
They look to be in their thirties, and I remember how hard it had been to recognize the team at first, after we’d instantiated. Keon is the taller, with lovely locs tied at the nape of his neck. Jaeger is scrappy-skinny like a street boxer, nothing like the twisted wisp I’d been introduced to. I step between them, touch their chests, and repeat their names ’til they come around.
Jaeger’s eyes clear, and he sees me. Really sees me. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” he says. “Again?”
I nod. “Again.” I take his hand. At least that feels solid. The tactile sense holds promise that someday the team will figure out how to make everything look solid.
Keon begins to turn in a slow circle. “We have to find the others.” Then he points. “Valerie. There.”
This is the fastest we’ve ever found her. Being able to see through buildings is a plus. Her small form crouches behind a bar one street over. There is fear in her posture and the way she eyes her surroundings. We don’t bother going around the buildings, but walk right through them, holding hands to ground ourselves so we don’t slip back. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Uncle Oscar or maybe my dad, but I can’t afford to look. I know they aren’t real.
Valerie spots us and runs away.
“Wait!” I shout. We’ve learned not to have Keon or Jaeger—or even Flynn—try talking to her ’til she’s focused. We take off running after her. “Valerie, stop. We’re your friends.”
An interesting thing about this virtual reality is we all somehow run at the same pace. Even Keon with his long legs has no advantage here. None of us gets winded. We could run forever, but I can’t let that happen. I keep shouting.
“Valerie! Remember the project! PHI Center!”
That gets her. She stops and wheels on us. Her hands come up like talons to ward us off, but her expression has changed from fear to confusion. She looks at our linked hands, then holds her own out in front her.
“I’m thirty-two years old,” she says. “I’m not a kid anymore.”
“Oh, Valerie,” I say. “You’re quite a bit older than thirty-two.” I think how well she’d blend in with a group of high schoolers, though. She’s barely five feet tall. “Remember we instantiated here?”
She slumps, grabbing her head with both hands. I let go of Keon and Jaeger and step forward to touch her on the shoulder.
“I’m back,” she says, shrugging off my hand. “Thank you.”
We never ask what she relives when she hides. We give her a moment to readjust and then Keon says, “We need to find Grace and Flynn. Like right now. So we can get back to work.”
Valerie looks up, her gaze lucid. “I remember.”
I could’ve hugged her, but Valerie doesn’t like to be embraced.
She points at Keon and Jaeger. “You two are trying to fix why we see all this as transparent instead of solid. And I’m trying to teach AI the difference between memories and the present moment.”
For the hundredth time I wonder why there are no brain researchers on this team. Maybe they’d have anticipated that divorced from a body, one’s mind cannot readily distinguish between present action and memories, nor between memories of things that actually happened and dreams or even one’s own imaginative life. Someone more religiously oriented than me could probably meet Jesus or Mohammed in here. Seriously. All I say is, “I think it’s getting easier to snap you all out of it.”
Jaeger rolls his eyes. “Will wonders never cease?”
Keon holds out his hands for us. “We’ve got to go. Where to?”
Valerie takes Keon’s hand, then grasps mine. At least she’s consented to this contact. She recognizes its value of grounding us. Her voice is still a bit unsteady. “Grace will be at the beach.”
Jaeger takes Keon’s other hand. “Grand idea. Grace first. It’ll take a village to bring down Flynn.”
Keon looks around at the higher floors of the buildings around us. “It doesn’t appear Flynn is playing urban warfare today. We’d be under attack by now if that was their game. My guess is they’re in the forest park.”
We all start running abreast. I’m not looking forward to venturing into the forest park after we find Grace. Flynn lays traps there.
The beach has a nice pseudo-atmosphere. A breeze wafts toward us on the incoming transparent waves, carrying scents of fish and saltiness. Our forms don’t breathe, but the scent registers somehow anyway. I swear if—when—my colleagues fix the issues, I’ll ask them to program a cottage here for me to live in.
Grace is sitting on dry sand, staring out at the water. She is always easy to bring around. She looks up when we call and recognizes us at once, even before we touch her form. She rises, tall and willowy, and brushes sand from her business casual dress with graceful movements. I wonder if she is more like me and realizes where she is. But if so, why would she just sit and wait for us? She should help me recover the team. I try to quell my sudden anger. We’re all stressed, on edge.
“Flynn’s last,” she says. It’s not a question.
Jaeger smirks as he takes Grace’s hand. “Today’s video game is brought to you by the forest park. Watch your step, everybody.”
No one can get hurt here, but that doesn’t keep Flynn from trying to kill us. It’s almost encouraging that Flynn recognizes their surroundings as a virtual reality environment and can even manipulate the objects within it.
We slow to a walk as we enter the park, so we can watch the ground at our feet, a covering of ghostly pine needles, and scan up into the transparent trees. Here the air is still but contains heady fir scents. Occasionally a bird calls, but we never see any. “Flynn!” I shout.
“Brilliant,” Jaeger growls. “Let’s just give away our position right off the bat.”
“Sometimes they come around when we call,” I said. I bite my lip before I launch into my whole theory about Flynn’s level of awareness being a hopeful sign, that we can fix all this if we can only stay focused enough to—
I’m not looking. I go down, and I drag Grace with me.
Singpet met me at Houston Hobby Friday afternoon, hopping from her practical blue economy car and waving her phone in the air as I stood at the curb. We hugged in the midst of the noisy bustle and odors of sweat and exhaust. My daughter, my light. I could feel the difference in our bodies in that hug. The large mother embracing her elfin child.
She kissed me and then stepped back, her multiple earrings glinting in the light from her delicate ears. “Let me help you with your bag.”
I was grateful to let Singpet take the blasted thing. It had made my entire shoulder sore just wheeling it from baggage claim. I sat in the front passenger seat rubbing it lightly as Singpet drove. The bright afternoon sun blinded me from time to time as we wove on and off freeway ramps. I hadn’t thought to bring my sunglasses, but maybe I could pick up some clip-ons at a drugstore later. The flight had drained my energy, so I was content to listen to Singpet as she told me how happy she was I’d come to see her, and how challenging but satisfying her work for the family and the PHI Center was.
“But it’s not all work,” she said. “I signed up for a dance class.” She laughed. “Remember when you found out I was skipping dance to go to program?”
I fixed her with a mock disapproving look, and she laughed again. “Anyway, I know I need to get more exercise. It’s all Latin rhythms.”
“Our family all lives in the same building on the grounds,” she said. “A lot of people I work with live in the same complex. I have a two-bedroom condo to myself. You’re staying with me.”
In that moment I wanted to move in with her forever, or at least for whatever time I had left on this Earth. I stared out the window at the winding highways and corporate empires. Singpet was still talking, but I could process it no better than the meaning of birdsong, ’til she said, “We’re here.”
I must have dozed, because the view had changed. I saw some older homes out my side window and a newer apartment building on Singpet’s side. We turned into a parking lot, and she slowed the car, pointing. “That’s the PHI Center.”
A sleek, five-story building with impressive two-story windows faced the street. My first thought was it should have a better view. “Nice.”
Singpet turned the car to the right, down an access road off the main street. There was a stand of trees to the left and a field beyond it. Ahead were quaint stucco condominiums, their red-tiled roofs suggesting an Italian countryside. Singpet pulled around to the end, where carports housed an array of vehicles ranging from SUVs to sport cars. “Welcome to my home, Mom.” She repeated that phrase when she opened the door to her apartment, which was neat and decorated in earth tones, and then again as we sat down to a light meal of satay and slaw. I was grateful not to have the crush of family upon me right away. We chatted about a thousand things as mothers and daughters do, but halfway through the meal, I found my energy flagging again, and went to bed early.
The next morning, I’d steeled myself for a private meeting with my aunts and uncle while Singpet went to her dance class, and they did not disappoint. They descended on me as I walked in the door of the PHI Center with Singpet. Uncle Oscar bore a resemblance to my father, but the personality that inhabited his form was very different. Where my father had a strong presence, Uncle Oscar was laid back and unobtrusive. I wondered if it was simply his nature, or if he’d become that way as a defense mechanism. My two aunts, Sally and Celia, were younger than him by a decade and pretended to defer to him, but they ran things. Always had.
We exchanged hugs, and then Singpet excused herself to go to work, and my older relatives offered to show me around. After visiting administration on the first floor, they took me up to the second, and into a beautiful conference room with a ceiling that stretched a full story higher. I walked around the table to look outside the magnificent windows I’d admired the afternoon before, only to confirm the view was disappointing: gray parking lot below me, apartments and an auto-body shop across the street.
“Let’s sit a minute,” Uncle Oscar said, sinking into one of the high-backed leather chairs. He acted like an old man needing to rest his legs or catch his breath, or both. I believed none of it.
Celia shut the door and took a seat on my uncle’s left side while Sally sat to his right. I had no choice but to sit with my back to the windows, facing my relatives and the wall soaring upward behind them.
Sally rested her elbows on the table as casually as if she were between courses at a dinner and folded her manicured hands. Her fingernails were painted brick red to match her lipstick. I was not fooled by her relaxed demeanor. “Before we take you upstairs,” she said, “you should appreciate how rare it is to tour this facility. Usually, people who come this far are either potential investors or job candidates. This is the room where they sign our nondisclosure agreement.”
I waved a hand, which took more effort than I’d anticipated. I was really getting weak these days. “Oh, then I don’t have to see it if it’s a problem. I’m just family.”
I knew I belonged to a group where just family never applied. This branch of Ongs may have thinned to the point where they needed to partner with outsiders to run a business, but as long as I was an Ong, I was a job candidate.
Aunt Sally smiled tightly at my joke. “We can dispense with the NDA for now, I think.”
Uncle Oscar looked at his sisters, as if seeking approval. Then he asked, “Has Singpet told you what we do here at PHI?”
I shrugged, clueless. “Something new in virtual reality.”
Aunt Sally raised her eyebrows. “Not just new. Innovative. Like your achievements in antiaging research.”
Modesty isn’t in our genes. Despite my constantly aching joints, I grinned. “Aionios 2.0 is about to hit the market. It’s done amazingly in human trials.”
Celia looked across my uncle at Sally, who remarked, “That’s wonderful. Will your antiaging treatment reverse your cancer, dear?”
Low blow there. I gave her the stink eye and crossed my arms over my ample chest. “We’re about to extend the human life span, and by a not insignificant number of years, and you’re criticizing my work for not curing me?”
Uncle Oscar gestured weakly. “Take it easy, Sun. Your work is important. You have made the family proud. We’re all taking Aionios 1.0 every three months. Your drug is truly wonderful.”
He didn’t have to tell me they were on Aionios. The early adapters were starting to exhibit a certain look I called healthy mature in hyperdrive. Before I could correct my uncle that it wasn’t exactly my drug, though, Sally leaned forward like a fisherman feeling the first tug. “We were wondering if you’d like to not be sick anymore. To live long enough to see Singpet married. To see her children raised.”
I swallowed, wishing there was a pitcher of water nearby to moisten my throat. “I’m not going anywhere for a while, and you can’t tell me what you’re doing here is the cure for cancer. You don’t even know which ones I have.” There it was. Plural cancers now.
The three smiled in unison. I froze, arms still crossed. I wasn’t giving an inch, but they had my attention.
“Do you know what PHI stands for?” Celia asked.
“It’s a Greek letter. It doesn’t—”
“Post.” I couldn’t repeat the rest. My throat had squeezed closed of its own accord.
Sally nodded, satisfied the hook was firmly lodged. “The Lazarus Project in New York City supposedly developed the first protocol to preserve human consciousness outside the physical body.”
“What do you mean, supposedly?” They’d caused quite a stir with that stunt where a performance artist had undergone the procedure and launched a long-running exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art. Grandstanding, sure, but it got everyone’s attention.
“We don’t think they preserved enough of a person,” Celia said.
“We’ve developed a more robust protocol,” Sally said.
“Those robot bodies are the wrong approach,” Uncle Oscar added.
The women ignored him. “We’ve developed a more suitable environment as well,” Celia said.
“PHI’s focus is preserving the brain trust,” Sally said. “Imagine a hundred—thousands—of our best scientists, philosophers, engineers, what-have-you, no longer dying. Living. And not just living but contributing their expertise to solving the global problems this planet has been facing ever since the term global warming was coined.”
“Climate change,” Celia said.
Sally’s gaze darted to one side. “The first term was global warming, though.”
An uncomfortable silence settled over the room. Celia, ever the soft one, broke the ice. “In any case, being housed within a supercomputing virtual reality environment will enable these great minds to operate in a far superior manner than when they had bodies.”
“This is the future,” Sally concluded, slamming her hand on the table so suddenly it made me startle.
My mind reverberated with that bang. “You’ve lost me.”
“No,” Sally said. “We haven’t lost you at all.”
I heaved a frustrated sigh. “You say the PHI Center’s mission is to preserve the best scientific minds. Yet you’re inviting . . . me? Why?”
Sally frowned. “Because you don’t take risks with the paying customers. This is an opportunity to go in with a group of technical experts who are more than happy to be the first to explore this cutting-edge environment.”
My mouth opened, but nothing came out.
Celia leaned forward. “It’s all right, Sun. Take a minute to absorb. We have time.”
I couldn’t think straight with them all staring at me. I swiveled to face the windows, squinting at the sudden change in brightness. It felt good to put that stark wall to my back and appreciate the blue sky and sun. I found myself chuckling at this entire bizarre meeting.
“You have your mother’s laugh,” Uncle Oscar said. “I like to hear it and remember her.”
My big, open-hearted mother had married into the Ong family only to find herself moving to America within the year. She handled the relocation with resignation and humor, even though she had to leave her position at the university where she’d taught molecular biology.
My mother would tell me stories at bedtime when I was little, tales of when she’d been a little girl like me. Soothing stories like bringing home a leaf or dead insect or handful of sand and looking at it under her toy microscope. Disturbing stories like the time she got lost in the hills, separated from her parents, and was convinced she’d never find her way home.
The worst of my mother’s tales was the story of coming upon a spitting cobra unexpectedly, right in her own neighborhood, when she was ten years old. That one always made me clutch the sheet against my chin in fear, the thought that something venomous could be that close. I’d never sleep well after that one, convinced there could be a snake right under my bed.
When I’d asked if she ever missed the Philippines, she said, We are never separated. We are always connected to everything. And I could feel how true that was, then as now, looking into the sky outside that window. I took a deep breath.
“A few days ago,” I said to the sky, “I found out a new tumor has developed in my liver. They won’t do a transplant in my condition. My chances of living another two years are so-so. Five years is out of the question.”
“So sorry to hear,” Uncle Oscar said. His sincerity almost made me start crying. Almost. I balled my hands into fists and dug my fingertips into my palms to stave it off.
“Let’s tour the fifth floor,” Celia said in the exact tone one uses to suggest we all go for ice cream. “The equipment is brand new. Never been used. But we’re ready for the first human trials.”
Pandemonium ensues after Grace and I fall into Flynn’s trap. For one, we lose physical contact—or what passes for that here—with the others, which increases the risk we’ll lose ourselves again.
It never hurts to fall here, but it is disorienting. I struggle and twist ’til I’m staring up into the canopy of leaves high above, which we should rightly see as green and realistic, but which, like the buildings, look as if they’re sketched. I flail around for Grace’s hand and find it. Maybe she speaks to me, or maybe I’m only remembering her another time, but she’s talking about her hypothesis again, that we may have been inserted incorrectly, that we’re stuck in a sort of architectural view. The team seems to have been working on this issue, but I can’t remember what progress we’ve made. We forget a lot between lucid moments.
A shock of spiky red hair pops into view above us, attached to Flynn’s face. They gaze down at us, lucid and unrepentant. Truth be told, I have a crush on them.
“I thought I was playing a video game,” they observe. “Looks like you’re dead.”
Other faces appear above us. Jaeger is smirking, but Keon and Valerie look worried. I turn my head toward Grace. She’s lost, staring up, still as an old store mannequin from the 1990s, the realistic ones with wigs and creepy looks. They’d freaked me out when I was a little kid.
“Grace!” My shout is effective. She blinks and sits up. The others help us out of Flynn’s hole. We stand where we are, in a circle holding hands, in the middle of the ersatz forest. I quell a joking thought that we’re about to play a children’s game, because it might make me lose myself to the past again.
“What do we remember?” I ask instead. We need to keep ourselves talking, on task.
Keon stamps his foot, sending some of the pine needles scattering. “This is bullshit. We have to get started on the fix.”
“You started the fix last time,” I say.
Hoo, that stops Keon cold. His brow wrinkles. “Maybe we should open a channel to the PHI Center. Get an update.”
They stare at me. They may be slow to remember, but they’ve learned to listen to me.
“Look, I’m just as bad at piecing things together as you are,” I say. “But we can’t trust the PHI Center to help us anymore.”
Grace narrows her eyes at me. “And why do you think that, Sun?”
“Because every time we open a channel to communicate with them . . . ” I shake my head. “The next thing I know, we’re not in the towers anymore, and we’re running around disoriented.”
The team members share looks I swear I’ve seen before.
Jaeger looks half-amused. “And how do you propose we do our work to fine-tune our environment here? Without our colleagues on the other side to help us when we are obviously forgetting things?”
Valerie is always quiet until she has reason not to be. “The system logs. They’ll contain a record of our work. We can pick up where we left off.”
Jaeger rolls his eyes up at the trees. “Until we turn to mush again.”
“Stop it,” Flynn says. “It’s counterproductive.”
Jaeger is ready with another snide retort, but Keon breaks in on the bickering with a booming voice. “So, we access the system logs.” He looks at me. “I know better than to suggest we break up into separate task groups. I remember that much. It has to be all together on everything. Are we ready to get going already?”
Grace nods. “Let’s blast. I don’t think I can take walking back through all this. It’s unsettling.”
This, from someone who comes all the way out to the beach, the eastern boundary of our world. We pull up our menus, and on the count of three, we all transport to the towers.
I was a real bag of gummy worms as we rode the elevator up to the fifth floor to check out the procedure rooms. It’s weird to contemplate one’s mortality and at the same time be confronted with a real possibility of escaping that by being a test rat in the most bizarre twist of an antiaging project one can imagine.
Being in the press of the elevator car with my relatives, I was well-aware of the difference between my own poor health and their obvious vitality just by the sound of our breathing and the way we stood. My uncle was even bouncing a bit, as if he were going to break into a jog as soon as the doors opened.
Since my diagnosis, I had to stop my own Aionios injections or risk cardiac arrest. From our experience with the clinical trials, Aionios 2.0 promised to make the difference between treated and untreated people even more pronounced. The first group had been taking the new twice-yearly injections for two years now, and it took my breath away to see how wrinkle-free these fifty-plus-year-olds were. Their teeth, their hands. Their skin was taking on a glow that reminded me of idealized paintings out of the Renaissance.
I was beginning to wonder where this would all lead. It wasn’t just that people with the means would live much longer and be healthier than those who couldn’t afford the treatments. The physical difference had been unanticipated. We were on the brink of interesting times, and perhaps not in a good way. We seemed poised to create a new biological class of humans. Maybe the cancer wasn’t so bad. I wouldn’t have to see how society played itself out on that score.
Uncle Oscar was holding the elevator doors open. Aunt Sally and Aunt Celia peered in at me from the hallway. How long had I been standing there with them waiting on me? I pulled myself together and followed them down a sterile hall. We squeezed into a tiny room whose key feature was a rather large cylinder that slid out from the wall at Sally’s touch, intruding into what little space was left. I imagined it tunneling through Aunt Sally and the rest of us, maybe even colliding with the opposite wall, but it came to a halt before that happened.
Sally pointed at the cylinder’s maw. “The candidate’s head goes in here. Then the instantiation commences, and the person lives in the virtual reality environment we’ve pioneered here at the PHI Center.”
“Instantiation is a new process as well,” Celia said.
Sally stared at her sister. “We spoke about it in the conference room.”
“It may have been mentioned in passing,” I said, coming to Celia’s defense. I gestured at the cylinder. “Anyway, this is impressive.”
Sally shut the door to the room, which made it seem even smaller. “A team will be undergoing this procedure soon. We expect no issues. Everything is well-designed. But none of them are Ongs.”
And there it was. Boom.
“We have an investment to protect,” Celia said, grinding the point home. “This project must be successful. Everything is riding on this.”
There seemed to be less breathable air. I wished someone would open the door. “Who’s on the team to go in?”
“All tech.” Sally spat the words as if it weren’t her chosen field.
I raised my eyebrows. “Is that bad?”
“No, no,” Uncle Oscar said. “They’re all good. The best.”
I folded my arms, displaying a strength I didn’t feel. “But.”
Sally sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose. “But if they’re all tech, where is the diversity of viewpoints? Who will look at things from the customer’s perspective? From a human perspective?”
“Tech people are human,” I said.
“They cannot see past their toy!”
To shout in such a cramped space gets one’s attention, and Sally’s voice was strident.
I made my own voice soft and respectful. “So, this team is going to go in, check things out, and then come back and report.”
“Yes,” Sally said. “Except for the last part.”
She pursed her lips. “You haven’t been listening. You go through this.” She gestured at the cylinder. “And there is no body to come back to.”
I knew that. It was how the Lazarus Project had worked. Something to do with the mind scanning process. So whatever innovations my relatives had accomplished, it didn’t include reversibility.
I’d become light-headed. I needed air. Maybe a bathroom, too, whether to throw up in, or . . .
The last thing I heard was Uncle Oscar’s voice. “Watch out.”
The six slender towers are workstations apart from the regular VR area, where the instantiated computer experts have access to the system, and where we can communicate with the PHI Center staff. Unfortunately, they have the same sketched-in quality as everything else. They appear windowless, and each are meant for one person only, though they reside within a cavernous space at one end of a large plain. When I’d asked why they didn’t just have office space over at the university, Jaeger scoffed. “It needs to be separate. And besides, they look fabulous, don’t they?”
Although my colleagues are prone to amnesia, they remember their login credentials, which are the same as they’d had prior to instantiating. That there are six towers makes me wonder who I’d bumped who had planned on coming in. I hoped they hadn’t been on the verge of dying.
We all cram into one tower because we dare not split up. Strangely, there are no doors in any of these structures. We simply walk through the side, and then ascend as if through thin air—no elevator—to the workstation about a third of the way up. The workstation is transparent but at least it’s operational. Keon takes the chair, lays his hands on the ghost of a keyboard, and then, uncharacteristically, hesitates.
“If I log in, the Outsiders will notice.”
Outsiders. That term suddenly separates us from them, the rest at the PHI Center.
Flynn steps forward. “Move over. I know how to go in undetected.”
Keon yields the seat. “Go for it, hacker.”
I hang to the side and watch. The team is focused on the screens as Flynn’s fingers fly over the keyboard, sure as a concert pianist. If they can find the solution to this chaos now, before we all become lost again, I won’t have to be in charge of rescue missions anymore.
The problem with not being able to participate in the tech discussion is I begin to drift. My wife Tiana is suddenly standing by Valerie. She’s young, in her late twenties. Don’t look at me, I tell her silently. You’ve been dead for four years.
Tiana turns and those familiar brown eyes peek out at me from underneath a fringe of thick, straightened hair. “So you lied to them. Would you lie to me?”
My heart melts with sorrow. “Never,” I whisper. I want to embrace her, rest my head in that curve formed by her neck and chin. Instead, I look away and ball my hands into fists, driving my fingernails into the palms. It doesn’t hurt like it did when I was made of flesh. It’s a struggle to stay focused. I long to go into memory. Not this memory, but a happy one. Maybe no one would mind.
Who is speaking? Keon? Or Flynn, whose voice deepens when they’re angry. Something is wrong. I need to be present. I try to find the speaker. Tiana is still there. I look away again.
“How many times?” Grace’s voice.
At first I think she’s asking me how many times I’ve lied. I hold out a hand. Please, someone, take it. Rescue me from Tiana’s hurt.
Someone responds to my thought and grasps my hand. It’s Tiana. The hurt in her eyes stabs me in a soft place. “I love you anyway.”
I yank my hand back. “I’m sorry. You have no idea how sorry I am.”
An incredulous voice, maybe feminine, fading away as it speaks. “You’re sorry? What did you know about this?”
“You’re paranoid, Jag.” It’s Keon. “She’s checked out. Sun!”
“Grab her hand.”
A snarling voice, close. “Sun, if you knew anything about this, I’ll skin you alive.”
“She’s related to half the PHI board. And why do you call me Jag, anyway? It’s Jaeger, with a yay.”
I focus enough to see Grace and Keon standing at my side. Keon is pushing Jaeger away. I’m back from the brink. “What’s going on?”
“We all have connections outside,” Grace says. She’s speaking to Jaeger.
“I’m here,” I say, trying to distract them from the personal conflict. I speak a little louder. “Thanks. What’s going on? Did you find something in the log?”
Jaeger is angrier than I’ve ever seen him. He’s pacing like an animal. “No wonder we’ve been turning to mush. Forgetting stuff. They’ve been effing rebooting the system.”
My first thought when I came to was, they poisoned me. Slipped me something so I’d pass out and they could put me on a gurney and slide that cylinder over my head.
I sat up with a start, and then sank back down, succumbing to dizziness. I lay on a brown leather couch in a cool and spacious room, its window shades filtering the hot Texas sun. Everything had a brand-new quality, an odor that was furniture’s version of new car smell.
Someone’s weight pressed down on the sofa near my feet. It was Aunt Celia. “My goodness, you gave us a scare when you fainted.”
I eyed the shades, trying to determine the angle of the sun. “Was I out long?”
“No, no.” She patted my hand, but the repetition revealed her nervousness.
“Did I get moved?” Of course, I was moved. We were all squeezed into that cramped procedure room. “I mean, am I still at the PHI Center?”
She nodded. “You’re in one of the visiting rooms around the corner. Same floor. Really, you popped right back.”
She looked around at the furnishings. “We designed these so after people instantiate, they can visit with the loved ones they’ve left behind.”
Her head bobbed in the direction I should look. There was a TV screen staring blankly back from its sleek modern pedestal.
I frowned. “Did a doctor come check me out?”
Celia patted my hand again. “No. You fainted. It’s nothing serious.”
I tried sitting up again and succeeded. “I should be seen. Being sick and all.”
Celia pressed her lips together as if to prevent words from spilling out. “We don’t have any doctors here,” she blurted.
“What we’re embarking on here is perceived as the opposite of what a medical doctor swears an oath to do,” she explained. “Now really, Sun. You just fainted.”
The way she spoke made me believe I wasn’t the first fainting case they’d handled. There might be something about confronting a decision that goes against the body’s will to live, the instinct to self-preservation, that triggers a brief loss of consciousness.
Being alone with Aunt Celia afforded me a safe space to voice my misgivings without Aunt Sally’s judgmental stare. I laid a hand on top of her hand, to stop her incessant patting. “Look, Aunt Celia, I have the highest respect for your project, but I’m not that close to death yet, to think about actually doing this. What would Singpet—”
The soft, simple noise stopped me cold.
“Everyone must balance opportunity against their individual circumstances,” she said. Her eyes conveyed a sympathy and sadness that she didn’t put into words. “These decisions are personal. I would understand your wish to keep certain facts about your situation private.”
I sucked in my breath. Subtext: if I was crazy enough to consent to this, Singpet must never know by how much I was terminating my natural life prematurely.
The weight of it all, family, responsibilities, and love, threatened to suffocate me. I sank back on the couch and turned away from Celia, my mood dark as the brown leather I stared at. But before I could muster the words to tell her to go away, she said, “Do you want to meet the others on the team?”
I twisted back around. At last I said, “I haven’t decided yet. To, you know. Instantiate.”
Her expression brightens. “Oh, I know that. Just meet them. They’re about to make history. Isn’t it exciting? They’re amazing.”
I sighed. I had to shake off this weight somehow. I sat up and swung my legs off the couch. “Okay, I’ll meet them,” I said. “When?”
“At the party tonight, of course.”
I watch Jaeger pace. His stalking around makes the space seem even smaller. “Are you saying when they reboot the computer, they start . . . us over, too?”
Jaeger growls. I take it that’s a yes.
“They’re playing with our lives,” Keon says.
Grace’s lips twist into an ironic smile. “Not to disagree, but we’re immortal now.” She looks over Flynn’s shoulder at the screen. “They’re obviously trying to implement fixes. See how the reboots happen after we communicate with them? Yet we all know there’s a slippage of our attention on the present moment outside of the reboots as well.”
Jaeger rolls his eyes. “Oh, it’s a slippage now, is it?”
Keon and Valerie aren’t paying attention to the bickering. They peer at the screens with Flynn, heads together, speaking in low tones. I force myself to listen, so I don’t get lost, but I don’t understand the terminology, just the emotions in their murmuring voices as their expressions shift from incredulity, to betrayal, to professional interest.
I almost miss the fact there is a new voice in the mix. Pleasant, helpful, feminine. I do a self-check. No, I haven’t slipped into memory or dream. There is no one dead in the room.
“It is unknown why your perception of the environment is problematic,” the voice is saying. I realize it’s the computer talking.
Flynn stretches, resting hands on head. “This is bullshit.” They lean forward. “Display all attempts to fix.”
Keon leans in. “Also, what about how our memories keep intruding into the environment?”
The computer pauses, answers. “That issue has no known fixes. It is an anomaly.”
Jaeger stares up into those impossible heights above. “Wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. This is all so very helpful.”
“Take it easy, Jag,” Flynn says. “We’re trying to pick up where we left off.”
“Look on the bright side,” Jaeger says. “Our AI isn’t smart enough to help us. We humans can maintain job security for a while longer.”
Valerie’s soft voice drifts into the conversation. “If we solve the first issue, the second may follow. Our periodic absence of focus may be due to the perceived lack of solidity in our environment.”
“Makes sense to me,” I say. The team should listen to her more.
Keon puts his hands on his hips. “It’ll take a while to go over what we’ve tried in the past and see what we want to attempt next. Meanwhile, if I understand Sun correctly, as soon as the Phi Center sees our condition, they do a reboot. That tells me they’re out of solutions, themselves.”
“Maybe this time when we talk to them, we should pretend it worked,” I say.
My idea silences everyone.
Jaeger appraises me. “That’s the smartest thing I’ve heard all day, Sun. Way to go.”
Flynn is in motion again. “We can continue to work, but we need to cover our tracks, so no one Outside starts to suspect we’re still having issues.”
Grace is playing with the idea. “And when we lose focus again?” It’s a thought, not a challenge.
Flynn snaps their fingers. “Erase it from the log. Never happened.”
Grace nods. “Maybe.”
Keon lifts his chin. “Maybe has to be good enough.”
Jaeger jabs a finger in the air. “If they do start to nose around, then plausible denial. We say we were running tests.”
Flynn grins. “We’ll let you be the spokesperson when the time comes, Jag.”
It seemed the entire complex was invited to the party held in my honor. A catering team dressed in tasteful black set up long tables for the food and guests, then wheeled out two long carts of folding chairs and whisked them into place.
I was introduced to my relatives’ fellow board members, an older man in a white linen suit and hat and a woman in tasteful navy. The plain colors contrasted with the bright florals of my aunts’ attire. Even my uncle’s white shirt was embroidered with gold accents. I hadn’t been feeling festive for obvious reasons, but I’d put on my flowing jewel-tone blue slacks and tunic anyway. My mood lifted when I saw my daughter emerge from the kitchen with Celia, displaying a large trayful of lumpiang ubod rolls between them. Never mind the caterers had assembled them, Celia acted as if she’d made them all herself. She let one of the caterers take the tray, and it went to join the long buffet table laden with barbecue and all the fixings. There were large jugs of iced tea and lemonade, as well as a full bar set up on a large cart opposite the stage and staffed by a couple of black-clad caterers. I enjoyed the comfortable warmth of the Texas evening and the delicious food smells. I told myself the hard sell was over, and I was going to politely turn down their invitation to instantiate, so relax already.
The man in the white suit—I’d forgotten his name immediately—picked up a lumpiang ubod. “These egg rolls look fantastic.”
“Spring rolls,” I said.
He bit into one and rolled his eyes. “These are delicious. They don’t even need a dipping sauce.”
“Do try a bite with the peanut sauce,” I said, pointing to a small bowl nearby. My cousin, Xian, had always eaten them with chili sauce instead. I felt a sudden stab of guilt and hastened to cover it up. “Don’t ask what’s in the filling,” I say with a wry smile. “It’s a family secret. My grandmother’s grandmother’s recipe.”
He grinned and nudged my shoulder with his elbow. Then he noticed someone new had arrived and nodded in their direction. I took advantage of the moment to exhale and recenter myself.
A man in a motorized wheelchair was gliding toward us. He seemed to be having trouble keeping his head from lolling to the side. He was pale, as if he avoided the sun, and his face was riddled with scars and pockmarks. “Bert, you slimy old weasel.” He coughed. “I heard you’re making last-minute changes in the team.” He looked at me. “I am, however, pleased to meet you.”
He extended a claw of a hand. I took it in a gentle handshake, or rather more a symbol of one. “Sun Ong,” I said.
I guessed it was his last name, but I wasn’t sure. He gestured toward the food table. “Sun, I hate to put you out, but would you mind making me a plate?”
“Not at all.” I moved to the end of the table and picked up a buffet plate. “Is there anything you don’t eat?”
He sighed. “Everything. But don’t let that stop you.”
I decided to skip giving him the spicier fare and finished with a generous dollop of fruit salad. Turning back to him, I noticed the board member had moved on to mingle with new people streaming onto the grass, and Jaeger had been joined by a tall elderly woman carrying a carved wooden hiking stick. Her thinness was accentuated by a cascade of long gray hair descending to her waist, giving her the appearance of an elven elder.
“This is Grace,” Jaeger said.
“Sun,” I said. Evidently last names weren’t important to these people. “I take it you’re both on the team to be instantiated?”
Grace’s smile was soft. “We are.”
I’d forgotten to make a second plate for myself. Jaeger was scarfing a spring roll, crumbs drifting down onto his dress shirt. My mouth watered, but I didn’t want to seem rude by running off again. “What are your roles?”
“I’m a software engineer,” Grace said. “Jaeger is an artificial intelligence specialist.”
Jaeger had polished off the roll and was licking his fingers. “I was the head of artificial intelligence, machine learning, advanced analytics, and data for an international company. Not to brag. I literally jumped at the chance to be on this project.” He gestured at his chair. “It was a momentary miracle.”
Grace smiled serenely, unruffled by Jaeger’s antics. “The rest of the team has similar expertise.”
I seemed to remember being told that. “Shouldn’t there be other types of experts?” I thought of the profound change this group was about to undergo. “A psychologist, maybe?”
Jaeger squinted up at me. “Are you a psychologist, Sun?”
“No. I’m a biochemist.”
“Then we won’t have a psychologist along.”
Before I could explain I hadn’t decided yet whether I was accompanying them or not, the strong voice of someone accustomed to public speaking boomed nearby. “Good thing for you, Jag, or they’d have screened you out first thing.”
Jaeger’s head lolled. “I believe that’s their highness now. Whatever you do, don’t call them her. How do you think I got laid up in this wheelchair?”
The person approaching was younger than the rest of us, and handsome. “Pleased to meet you,” they said, offering a hand. “I’m Flynn.”
Their grip was firm and self-assured, and the attentive, appraising look of its owner was downright charismatic. I trusted them right away. None of the three seemed near death. Perhaps one didn’t have to be terminally ill to volunteer for this mission. If so, there was no need for me to pretend my own lifespan had a good couple of years to go yet. If I were lucky, that is.
Then I glimpsed Singpet again, over Flynn’s shoulder, and knew there was one huge reason to pretend. “Here,” I said, “I’ll introduce you to my daughter.”
Flynn looked. “Oh, Singpet and I are best buds. Hey! Singpet!”
My daughter was sitting at a table surrounded by what I assumed were coworkers from the Center. She looked up and waved at us, then rose and glided quickly along the lawn, where she engaged Flynn in an elaborate handshake, quickly slapping the fronts and backs of their right hands and then clasping forearms in a brief seesaw motion. I smiled at the camaraderie, even as I was reminded that I was the stranger here.
Singpet threw an arm around me. “I’m so happy you’re here, Mom, and can meet my friends. Where’s your plate? Have you eaten already?”
I grinned. “You sound like your Great-aunt Celia.” But I was grateful to be pulled away to the buffet table.
Once my plate was filled, Singpet steered me to the long table she’d left, where I met her coworkers. The names flew by: Jayden, Ananda, Xiaoli, Fu-Hau, and more. Eager, intelligent people. By the way they joked easily with each other, I could tell the working environment was positive. Even if Singpet wouldn’t have me for very long, she had a different kind of family here. I swallowed a sudden lump in my throat.
“There you are, Sun.” Aunt Sally was at my elbow. “Why don’t you let the young people eat and spend some time with your new friends?” I looked down at Singpet, whose smile had faded. She said nothing as Sally steered me back toward Jaeger, Grace, and Flynn, who’d taken a smaller table at the edge of the party. The unlikely trio got along well and soon had me laughing at their stories. My appetite even seemed improved. Somewhere between actually finishing my dinner and the plates of flan that the caterers whisked before us, I realized my table mates had been interviewing me.
I’d just finished telling them about the Bridge sickness and my own bad luck with it. “Look,” I said. I glanced back toward the party and found my daughter coaxing several colleagues to the mike to sing with her. Sally walked by arm-in-arm with Celia, keeping a respectful distance from us, their eyes not quite meeting mine. I shifted in my chair and lowered my voice. “I haven’t made a decision about instantiating.”
The wrinkles around Grace’s eyes deepened as she smiled sympathetically. “Of course you haven’t. It’s too new a concept. You only heard about all this today. It’s a lot to absorb.”
“Sure,” Jaeger remarked, trying ineffectually to cross his arms. “Never mind you need to decide soon.”
I startled, and Flynn let out an exasperated sigh. “Jag, you have the worst bedside manner of anyone I’ve met.”
I cleared my throat. “How long do I have to make a decision on this?”
Flynn jumped up from their seat. “You need to meet the others.”
“What others?” I scanned the gathering, but all I saw were Singpet’s coworkers, all on their feet singing “Bohemian Rhapsody” at the tops of their lungs as the board members looked on.
Jaeger smirked. “There are six of us on the away team, including you, should you choose to accept the mission. Come come come.” He laid his napkin on the table and put his chair in reverse.
Grace rose, too, so I did the same. As we moved away, I noticed Sally tracking me with her eyes. She lifted her glass in a silent toast.
My new friends were on the footpath leading to the clinic. Flynn walked easily, but I was aware of how heavily Grace relied on her hiking staff. “Wouldn’t we rather drive?”
“Nonsense,” Jaeger said, whirring along in his chair. “It’s good to have a stroll after a nice meal.”
“It’s not far,” Grace said.
She was right. The clinic was only a quarter mile from the condominiums along the access road, but the walking path wound through a garden, making it a longer hike than if we’d taken the road. Grace paused twice along the way, as if to admire a tree or shrub, but I could hear her breath rasping in her chest, and the way her face flushed with effort caused me to stick close to her side.
When we arrived at the clinic, Flynn produced a key card and swiped it over a panel to the left, under a night-light. The security checkpoint was not staffed, and the lighting was muted. Our footsteps, and the whir of Jaeger’s chair, seemed loud as we moved down the empty corridor toward the elevators. I felt a sudden wave of nausea. Why hadn’t these people been at the party? Were they being held against their will? The thought was ludicrous, but my companions’ grim silence wasn’t providing any reassurance to the contrary.
Jaeger glided past the elevators, leading the way. I was relieved we weren’t going up to the procedure rooms. Maybe the rest of this team had pulled a night shift monitoring the equipment or something. Or providing security. Perfectly normal.
We stopped at an office door. Flynn opened it without knocking first, and everyone filed in. I stepped in last, embarrassed to be invading someone’s privacy like this. The lighting was even more subdued than in the hallway. The room looked like a CEO’s office, with a large desk and two flat screens mounted tastefully on the wall to the side of the desk. The room was empty, yet I heard soft beeping sounds and mechanical breathing. I noticed the screens were active and moved where I could see.
I looked, but my brain couldn’t process it at first. Each of the two screens showed an inert figure, hooked up to medical equipment. One, a tiny wisp of a person, was curled into a fetal position, and the other, a large Black man, seemed to have deflated, in the way a dead person looks. I took slow, deep breaths, willing myself not to faint twice in the same day.
Jaeger’s sharp bark of a laugh brought me back to my senses. “Unlike us healthy people, we have some companions who are truly done in life, as you can see. Meet our teammates Valerie and Keon.”
I took a step back. “They’re all alone? Here?”
Jaeger barked again. “Safely in an ICU, where the staff provide us with regular updates on their conditions. We have medical power of attorney and all that.”
I was shaking my head, and the movement threatened to go on for infinity. “How could they have consented to this? In their conditions?”
A hand alit on my shoulder. It was Grace. Her touch was reassuring. I put my own hand on top of hers.
“They volunteered,” she said. “So many people did, in the wake of the Lazarus Project. When you think about it, this is a beautiful moment. These two people will get to really live again.”
Flynn made a noise in their throat. “Frankly, it makes me nervous. They’re cutting it way too close. If they happen to die before they instantiate, we’ll lose them.”
“It won’t be long now,” Jaeger said. “So, tell us Ms. Ong. Are you in or out?”
I tried to swallow, but my throat had gone dry. “When?” I looked back at the screens. “You make it sound like we’re instantiating tomorrow.” I’d meant it to sound like a joke, but it sounded more like I was on the verge of losing it.
Jaeger snorted. “Oh, no. We wouldn’t schedule a thing like this tomorrow, right after the party and all.”
The gleam in his eye made me suddenly afraid. “When are you instantiating?”
“Next week, my dear.” Jaeger’s head lolled to the side. “Didn’t they tell you?”
We are still all together. None of us have drifted away into our pasts yet. I think—but do not voice—that the reboots might’ve had some benefit after all. The group is content with Flynn commandeering the one workstation, all crowding around. Done reviewing the system logs, we’ve been watching the videos of our interactions with the Outsiders.
“Here’s our last conversation with them,” Flynn says.
“They all look like they’ve aged twenty years,” Keon says. “No hope left in those eyes. They think we’ve lost our minds.”
“Listen to us babbling,” Jaeger snarls. “I’d hit reboot, too.”
I turn and look out through the transparent tower, at its sister structures on either side, then down at that smooth, featureless plain. I will myself to stay grounded in this moment, but I’m not useful here. Why did I consent to this?
Flynn is speaking, pauses. “You know, the thing is . . . ” They trail off.
“What are you thinking?” Grace’s voice. I turn.
Flynn is rubbing their chin. “Why was everything working so great in beta? Before we came in?”
Keon holds up a hand before Jaeger can toss out a remark. “Go on.”
“I’m not sure I can,” Flynn admits, swiveling to face the team. “All I can think is, we were looking at everything through a monitor while we were in bodies. Now we’re instantiated. But why should that matter?”
“Because maybe we’re seeing the environment the way AI does.”
Everyone stares at Valerie, mouths agape. Her words are evidently carrying a lot of weight.
Jaeger whistles, low. “That makes some sense.”
“I don’t understand,” I say to Valerie.
But it’s Keon who responds. “AI has a critical role in the install.”
“Instantiation,” Grace corrects. “Remember we agreed not to use software terminology. Valerie, what I understand you’re speculating is the part of us that’s manufactured in order for us to experience this environment is what AI considers normal.”
“AI has never seen reality as we do,” Valerie says. “Time and again, project after project in whatever discipline, we give it a data set to train on during the machine-learning phase. How it processes that data is completely unknown to us. All we can do is observe that, when the machine learning phase is done and we give it a problem to solve using that data, AI’s solution is so often unexpected, something a human would never think to do. So it follows that how we are now, both the issue of seeing the world as a sort of schematic as well as our inability to distinguish real time from memory, is how AI assumes we experience the world.” She pauses. “Or perhaps it’s how AI thinks we ought to perceive the world.”
I stare. It’s the most Valerie has ever spoken at once.
Flynn nods. “Brilliant. So, what do we do?”
As the others discuss their previous—and forgotten—fixes as documented in the system logs, Valerie reaches around Flynn and uses a light touch of her finger on the screen to scroll and switch views. I’m fascinated. Things on the screen are moving much more quickly than when Flynn was using the keyboard. No one else seems to notice her. Flynn actually startles when Valerie lightly touches their shoulder.
“There.” Valerie points. “We have access to the AI area.”
Flynn looks at the screen. “So we do.” They look up at Valerie. “You think we need to change the AI?”
She gazes down at Flynn. “Maybe.”
Jaeger is suddenly alert to the side conversation. Then he sees what’s on the screen. “Whoa. Just a minute. We need to talk about this. We can’t just jump in there and start messing around.”
There is a tone and a sidebar opens on the screen, the familiar icon for an incoming call.
“Oh fabulous,” Jaeger scoffs. “It’s the Outsiders. Right on cue.”
“Let’s not answer,” Flynn says.
Grace shakes her head. “I’m afraid that’s not an option. But we’re on the verge of a breakthrough here.” She turns to me. “Sun, can you field this on your own? You’re a nonexpert, so you can’t speak to anything technical. Let them know we’re all right, and that we’re very busy.”
Isn’t Jaeger supposed to be the spokesperson instead? But I know why it’s me, and I don’t mean the reasons Grace gave. I keep my focus better than anyone else on the team and am quicker to regain it. Also, in my dealings with various relatives over my lifespan, I’ve developed a capacity to lie.
Flynn cedes the chair. “Make us look good. And if you run into trouble, we’ll be in the tower to your left.”
I take to the chair, thinking that if I run into trouble and give them a reason to reboot, we won’t know ’til later. The screen winks to life as the others file out. I find myself looking into the faces of three young people. I know their names from when Singpet introduced us at the party that seemed a lifetime ago. The white guy wearing a gray hoodie is Jayden. Ananda is the smaller guy with refined, expressive features above a buttoned-up white dress shirt. The woman in flowing chiffon is Xiaoli, although I remember she pairs the butterfly look with chunky Doc Martens. No one else is with them. I look at the time. It’s two in the morning. That’s why these techs are alone. We have an advantage then, but I trust everything is being recorded. I must play out my role to perfection.
“Good evening,” I say, wearing a pasted-on smile that would make Aunt Celia proud. “Sun Ong here.” I nod to each in turn. “Jayden. Ananda. Xiaoli.”
The relief on their faces almost makes me laugh, but then I recall those looks of horror from the logs, and that sobers me. Xiaoli sits up straighter. “Hello, Sun. We’re doing a routine check-in. How are all of you doing?”
I shrug. “Fine.” I pause as if reconsidering. “Frankly, we’re getting a little bored. When do you think we can start our first project?”
Xiaoli and Ananda smile in unison. Music to their ears. This is the PHI Center vision: a working group of great minds whose computer-enhanced abilities could assist global-scale problems. Jayden remains motionless, his eyes glued to a screen I cannot see. Diagnostics, maybe. I’m not a tech. Ananda glances at what Jayden is watching, and then turns back to me. He looks happy, so whatever Jayden is looking at isn’t a concern for me.
“We’ll let the others know you’re eager to get to work,” Ananda says. “We apologize for the . . . delays. I’m sure the techs on your team can appreciate the need for us to make sure everything is functioning as it should.”
I take a cue from Jaeger and roll my eyes. “Don’t I know. They’ve been running all these tedious tests. They assigned me to do this check-in so they wouldn’t be interrupted. I’m not much help with that kind of thing, I’m afraid.”
Xiaoli’s eyes fill with sympathy. “Sun, you’re doing great. It’s a big help to us for you to interact with your surroundings. How’s that been going?”
I perk up. “I went to the beach earlier, and then the forest.” I think about Grace. “The beach is probably my favorite spot. Sometimes I just enjoy watching the waves, and the breeze there is nice. I could live there.”
I remember one of the issues the Outsiders will want to know about is the visual, so I go on about it for a while ’til Jayden interrupts. “And everything is okay with your sense of time and place?”
One thing about having a form instead of a body, it helps you lie. No tells like sweat or irregular breathing. “You mean if I’m aware I’m here? I know I’m here.” I cock my head. “I do sometimes remember things. I remembered my mother today. She used to tell me stories.”
Xiaoli jumps in. “I hope it was a happy memory.”
I smile. “It was.”
Jayden isn’t done. “Did you find this memory controllable?”
“Um.” I put on a look of bemused confusion. “How do you mean?”
Jayden blinks slowly. “Was the memory overwhelming? Did it interfere with your perception of where you are?”
I furrow my brows. “No. Nothing like that.”
“Good,” Ananda says, nodding. “That’s all we wanted to know.”
Still Jayden frowns. “Sun, you don’t have login credentials. Who signed you on?”
I shrug. “Flynn.”
“Where is Flynn now?”
I wave a hand. “Somewhere in another tower. Working.”
Xiaoli looks at Jayden. “We have that. They’re accounted for.”
“It’s better if we gave Sun her own credentials,” he says. “Communications only.” He turns back to me. “We wouldn’t want you stumbling into a programming area by mistake.”
Ananda nods. “We should’ve done that at the start. It’s just that things were so . . . ” He seems to remember I can hear him. “I’m sending you a login. For next time.”
“Nice,” I say. I startle as a vivid thought pops into my mind. I see a username and password. “I got it. At least . . . ” I can’t help but laugh a little. “The sensation is odd.”
Ananda smiles and nods. “Yes, you have it.” He looks pleased, but it makes me wonder what else the Outsiders can do to us from their end.
“Good night, then,” Xiaoli says. “Thanks.”
As soon as the screen winks out, I slump from the effort.
Warm, heavy-ish arms embrace me from behind as I sit in the chair. It is loving. It steadies me. I turn.
It’s my mother.
I’d told Singpet my decision the night before my flight back to California, as she stood in the kitchen in her cute anime pajamas and set up the coffee so all one of us needed to do in the morning was press the On switch. it was the wrong moment. The coffee can slipped out of her hands and spilled brown grind onto the floor. After we cleaned it up, we sat on the couch together and talked and cried. Singpet was committed to the value of her work, yet it challenged her, to have this technology hit so close to home. Eventually the tears dried, and around midnight Singpet got up and made mugs of jasmine tea for us, which she brought to the couch.
“Do you mind giving up any hope for an afterlife?” she asked suddenly.
“Afterlife,” I repeated. “Your grandmother believed in one. For me, I suppose instantiating will be my afterlife. Kind of a guaranteed one. You know?”
She nodded. “Do you really have so little time? I mean . . . ”
I sighed. She was implying that I didn’t need to be among the first ones, that I could instantiate later, when I was closer to death. I could have reminded her of what apparently was gospel around here. Each person made their own decision on this. Instead, I asked, “What about Flynn? So young. And Jaeger is hardly at death’s door.”
Her lips twisted into a smile tinged with irony. “I get it, Mom.”
“Well.” I took a sip of tea that had long gone cold. “I’m closer to my natural end than either of those two, I can tell you that.”
Fatigue and sadness gave Singpet’s eyes a sunken look. “The procedures are scheduled for next Wednesday. They won’t let me attend your case, I’m sure.” Her arms floated out and down like a sad bird’s. “Still, it’s so sudden.”
There was grief in that voice. I set my tea down and leaned forward, enveloping her in my big mother’s hug. “I know. I have a lot to do to back home, to get ready.” I trailed off. Just the thought of emptying out my apartment was exhausting. “And I have no energy to do it. Come with me? It would be a big help, and we’d have more time together.”
Singpet raised her face, tears in her eyes. She swallowed and nodded. “I’m sure they’ll let me.”
I touched her cheek. “Let’s go get some sleep now. I’m sure your great uncle and great aunts will be happy with my decision.”
She remained seated and stared down at her hands. “Mom? Is there some obligation you’re feeling? That you have to consent to this?”
“Oh, honey, no,” I lied. “Aunt Celia and I have been in touch way before my visit. I came down to check it out. We all know my situation.”
Silence. Her eyes were red, but it was probably fatigue. She stood and we hugged again, briefly. Then I made my way to the guest room, but it was another hour before I got any real sleep.
The plan was to instantiate us all at the same time. They explained it was to foster a shared group experience, but I imagined they didn’t want anyone to materialize—or coalesce—as the sole occupant of a new world, however briefly. Conveniently, or coincidentally, there were six prep rooms and six procedure rooms. The prep rooms were where we would change into hospital gowns, lay down on gurneys, and receive shots of morphine. I figured the latter was necessary in order to override that damnable self-preservation instinct.
The four of us victims—that’s how I thought of us—gathered in the hallway outside the prep rooms and held hands while our comatose colleagues-to-be were whisked past us and behind doors, fresh from the for-profit company’s ambulance that’d brought them. Grace squeezed my arm so hard I bit my lip to keep from crying out, but I let her do it. Her strong grip was the only indication of her inner turmoil. Her expression was serene, like she’d already had her dose of morphine.
“Well,” Jaeger said with a sigh. “See you on the other side.” He snorted. “That reminds me of a joke. Two blondes are standing on opposite sides of a great river.”
Flynn interrupted him. “Jag, really?”
“No, it’s good,” he said. “It’s a Zen blonde joke. And one says to the other, ‘How do I get to the other side?’”
We all stared at him.
He raised his clawlike hand and called down the hall. “You are on the other side! That’s what the other blonde says. Isn’t it brilliant?”
“No,” Flynn said, but they were already laughing. We all laughed, for much too long.
Later, when I was being wheeled from my prep room to the procedure room, I tried to tell Jaeger’s joke to the guys who were attending me. It fell flat. I was feeling the morphine, though, so I didn’t care.
My uncle and aunts entered the room. It was déjà vu from the day before, everyone crowded in. “Where’s Singpet?”
“She has her role in another room,” Sally said.
Of course, I thought. She’s doing someone else’s instantiation. “Well, I guess I’ll see her afterward, then.”
After I was positioned in front of the cylinder, Uncle Oscar edged to my side and took my hand oh-so-gently. “You are sure about this.” He didn’t pose it as a question, but his tone was laden with baggage I didn’t want to unpack.
All I said was, “Yep.”
Those were my last words, in that life. Maybe I should’ve prepared something better, more meaningful. It being an historic moment and all.
The tech, Fu-Hau, came around to my other side and gave me a shot of something else as the cylinder started sliding over my head, cutting out my view of things.
I forgive them all. They didn’t know we were going to instantiate into chaos.
That’s the thing with memories in here: they’re as real, as solid, as our perception of the present moment. Maybe more so. I lose myself in my mother’s embrace, the large woman with the enormous heart. “We are never separated,” she says. “We are always connected to everything.”
“Yes.” I should fight against this memory, but I don’t. I was raised to relate to my surroundings, to see myself as part of the larger thing. Community. Nature. Everything around me. I realize this outlook may be why I can regain my footing in this world faster than the others, why I’m always the one to rescue them.
I realize this memory is mixed with my thoughts in the present moment. I’m with my mother, but I also know where I am. Something stirs inside me.
“Mother,” I say. The idea has just occurred to me. “What if what needs to happen here to fix things is about connecting?”
She smiles like she did when I brought home a good report card from school. “What does science tell you?”
The word science with that double s sound comes at me like the spitting cobra in my mother’s bedtime story. I fall into a fever dream of biochemistry.
My dissertation floats up from the abyss of long-term memory. I was thirty-three years old when I wrote that. It wasn’t just printed on paper, which was rare, but I’d also had it bound for the committee, a black hardcover. The book opens and the pages go swirling around me and through me. I see the charts I’d inserted, the data tables, the model I’d developed and investigated. My dissertation topic had been sirtuin activators, and my findings had launched my career in antiaging research. While others had worked with telomeres and other approaches, it turned out sirtuin’s properties relating to long-term cell survival is an important key to improved longevity and healthy aging. It was a catalyst that acted on a substrate, the starting material for chemical reaction.
What here is of any possible value to my situation now? I have no physical body anymore. Am I speaking out loud? It’s hard to tell. I’ve lost touch with the tower, my colleagues. Maybe I’m wandering, I don’t know. I’m not even aware of my form. I’m a floating point of consciousness. This is bad, but I’ll come out of it. I always do. I just hope the Outsiders don’t notice. At least I’d held myself together with them during our last conversation.
I drift and dream among my sirtuins. They’re amazing enzymes, vital to gene activation. My tiny catalyst friends. I float along with a longing for body, for nature. Nature had been a substrate for me, the material I was attached to, and grew upon, and drew my nourishment from. Now? Now . . .
We are always connected to everything. My mind blooms in an aha big as a supernova. This virtual reality environment is our substrate now, but it needs to change. It needs to be activated by the sirtuins here. And we are the sirtuins. We’re the catalytic enzymes.
I burn with conviction. I must tell my vision to the team, make them understand it. I have no idea how this translates to their work, how it will be that we will become the catalyst that changes our world, but I am certain this is the solution.
Before I move forward, I must go back, further back in the past than where this tale began. In order to understand why I would commit to quit my body before its time. Pull up a chair.
Xian was Sally’s son and about my age. He’d died much too young, was all the family ever said about it. They built a wall around everything having to do with it. I’d built my own wall around it as well.
The family didn’t mind I was a lesbian. As long as I married and had children, I was accepted. Be how you want to be. We don’t care. There will be babies, right?
Xian, however, had fallen into a snake pit. He was convinced he was extraterrestrial, and he didn’t belong here. He wasn’t alone. There were websites, discussion boards, an entire dark social media just for them. There were alien DNA tests. I remember Xian wanted me to witness him scraping his cheeks and bagging the swabs. “So when I get my results to prove it, you’ll know it was mine.”
Xian was beautiful by any standard, male or female. He coifed his hair short. He used mascara, blush, and lipstick in an understated way, preferring to enhance his features without drawing undue attention. He wasn’t slender, but his musculature could have belonged to a gymnast. His intense gaze bored into me in a thrill-ride way, instantly intimate. “Of course,” he said once when I remarked about it. “I’m a Scorpio.” As if that explained everything.
I remember the day he got his DNA results back from the lab. We were in our early twenties. I was in my junior year at Stanford, majoring in biochemistry. Xian wasn’t in college. He considered school a waste of time. He was smarter than that. Already a family embarrassment. He smoked a lot of marijuana, and I smoked with him. There was nothing wrong with all that smoking. What was awry was within Xian’s mind.
Of course his DNA report cited alien elements. It’s what he’d paid to hear.
“I knew it,” he said. “I have DNA from Arcturus and the Pleiades. Those are important systems to Earth. It’s in triangulation with them.”
We were sitting on the floor in his efficiency apartment that his parents paid for. We were smoking weed and listening to a song called “Kashmir.” Xian loved old rock and roll, and Led Zeppelin was a favorite. “If you really listen to this song,” he said, “you’ll learn a lot. Hear that? ‘Let me take you there.’” He leaned back against the couch and stared into space.
The music was as intense as Xian’s personality. I was stoned immobile. I’d stopped trying to talk Xian out of his delusion about having alien DNA. I liked hanging out with him.
“This is a special night,” he said, the smoke wafting around his head.
I may have agreed. I didn’t know what he meant, really. We were both so high.
“Come,” he said, and I took his hand. The touch lifted me. I don’t remember even walking into the bathroom. We floated there. I really think so.
I stood staring at the water in the bathtub. I looked at Xian. He’d already disrobed.
“I’m going home,” he said, “but the flesh is weak. It fights against what it doesn’t understand.”
“I’ll have nothing to do with this,” I said. It felt strange to say it. My mind was rebelling against what was happening, even before my conscious mind could piece it all together.
I didn’t do anything. I swear. I didn’t help him slit his wrists. Neither did I rush forward to thwart him. There was something in his eyes, a peaceful, almost transcendent look. I almost believed he was going to one of those planets. Being high had nothing to do with it. He had me in his sway. It wasn’t ’til his eyes closed that the spell was broken, and I ran from the room, pulling my cell phone out of my pocket to call 911. Help came too late. They believed my story, that I’d let myself into his apartment to find him already in the bathtub, bleeding out.
I’ve asked myself this a hundred times over the years; why did Xian want me to witness his exit? Did he not know my presence would indebt me to the family in such a deep way, that my own life was a commodity for them to make use of?
Sometimes I look at Sally and wonder if she’d orchestrated the whole thing. She is cunning. Did she use her broken son as a device to gain my servitude to her?
If you think that’s crazy talk, maybe you don’t know the family as well as I do. Still, I admit I can’t prove anything. As it happened, I’m as complicit in my own situation as any of the relatives. I consented to instantiate because of this burden of guilt I’ve carried. I brought this on myself.
Like everyone else at the PHI Center, our team expected to awaken in a world that looked and functioned like real life. We expected the buildings to look solid, the beach and the forest to serve as nature spots for psychological health. We assumed our minds would be ordered, that we’d know the difference between present and past, between dream and reality.
What is real, though, in a virtual reality environment? It’s laughable no one thought to ask that question. If they had, they might have anticipated what was going to happen. Or maybe not.
We learned about the first iteration from the logs AI kept. The visual record showed six lifeless forms lying on the floor of the university building. There was a flurry of activity by the PHI Center techs, as they realized they had a problem connecting our instantiated minds with our virtual bodies. They resolved and rebooted.
In the second iteration, our virtual bodies animated, but the way they mutely flopped around, slapping into each other’s forms, at best demonstrated a lack of coordination between mind and body. At worst? That we’d all been instantiated incorrectly, and we’d never successfully integrate. The PHI Center techs must have really been sweating as they resolved what they could and rebooted again. We have no memories of these early events.
The third time, we all became conscious, finding ourselves lying on the floor of the university building, staring up into the central dome. As I sat up, I immediately saw nothing was like it was supposed to be. I looked at the ghostly scaffold of a building around me and through the walls to the sky and into the architecture beyond.
“Where did the world go?” I asked. My voice sounded hollow in my ears. My hands looked fake, what later I started to call our hologram forms. In that moment, all I felt was terror, and that pushed all other thoughts from my mind.
I heard cursing nearby. It was Jaeger. We have to get to command. I didn’t hear his words as much as feel them.
Grace’s movements were leaving trails, like slow-motion movie effects. She was the first one on their feet. Valerie was curled on her side in a fetal position, exactly like when I’d first seen her on video in the PHI Center, except now she was making strange peeping sounds. When I turned my head, the world blurred. Keon and Flynn had locked forearms and were helping each other up.
“What kind of crazy crazy crazy . . . ” The word reverberated on its own after Flynn’s lips stopped moving.
“I can see my menu!” Keon shouted. “I’m going to bring us all over to—”
And then we were inside one of the towers for the first time, looking at a transparent workstation. All except Valerie, who had come with us, but was still cowering on the floor.
Flynn seemed to be weightless. They floated to the keyboard. “Interface interface interface . . . ”
“Fuck us all,” Jaeger said, and his curse was still repeating on a loop when the screen sprang to life, showing the crowd at the PHI Center: Jayden, Ananda, and Xiaoli at the workstations, flanked by my two aunts and Uncle Oscar, and others whose faces couldn’t quite fit into the camera’s view. Their expressions held a mixture of relief and hope, until they heard Jaeger swearing.
Jayden leaned forward. “Are you experiencing any issues?”
Jaeger scoffed. “This is so effed up. Where do I start? The visuals aren’t rendered correctly. We’re seeing ghost images of everything. My body looks fake to me, like it’s barely here.”
“I’m floating floating floating floating . . . ” Again, Flynn’s words reverberate independent from their lip movements.
That’s when the frowns at the PHI Center morphed to register horror. My world blurred again as I turned, and that’s when I saw the room was more crowded than it should be. My mother was standing next to Jaeger, and Tiana was between Grace and Valerie.
“Can you see my wife?” I asked out loud.
“Sun?” It was Sally’s voice. “Sun, Tiana is dead. She’s not there. She’s delusional.”
I knew Sally wasn’t speaking to me anymore, but Tiana was. She is in her thirties, cradling something in a blanket. Her hair is sculpted up off her face, popping out of the top of a turban. She looks radiant. “Do you want to see our new daughter?” Boy, was I happy to see her.
We each recall that first communication with the PHI Center, and we all have shreds of memories after that, but only shreds, and it wasn’t ’til we accessed the system logs that we discovered the truth. The records document four more reboots. Four attempts by the Outsiders to fix the programming themselves. In between those, my colleagues would start their own troubleshooting, only to be thwarted. We were lucky we finally found a way to fool them. I don’t think they would’ve tried many more times to resolve us before writing us off and starting over with a new team.
I come back to the present moment and see through the walls of my tower that the others are still in the structure next to mine. That’s good. No one has drifted off somewhere, caught up in their own memories. I go join them.
Getting the team to understand my insight about the sirtuins is like me trying to understand their tech talk. They don’t know the first thing about chemistry. We go over it all again and again.
“A substrate is anything that needs alteration by the enzyme,” I say for what seems like the hundredth time. “In biochemistry, it could be sugars, proteins, nucleic acids.” I’m losing them again. I gesture at our ghost world. “We are living in a digital environment now. The substrates here are digital instead of physical. See how this needs changing? It needs a catalyst in order to change. Sirtuins are catalysts in nature. In here, we are the catalyst that will activate the . . . whatever passes for genes here. Which in turn will act on the substrate.” I shake my head. It seemed so simple in my vision. “That’s all I know to say.”
Jaeger is pacing. “And we are trying to troubleshoot this situation and fix it. That’s all I know to say.”
Keon watches Jaeger. “Sun is talking about writing code.”
“No, she’s not.”
It’s Valerie. How that soft voice can drift into an animated conversation and command attention, I will never know. Everyone looks at her, waiting for her to explain.
“Sun is saying that we are the code,” she says. “AI sees reality in a different way than we do. Right now, Inside is how it sees things. Our own code that was created when we instantiated contains algorithms and a neural network of our thought processes and perceptions.” She looks at me. “AI is the gene here. If we take our code for how we perceive reality, and how we distinguish present events from memories, and insert it into AI, it’ll see what we see, and make the necessary adjustments.”
Everyone is silent for a while. At last Flynn whistles, low. “You know, that’s making some sense.”
The group erupts in animated conversation. I stand by, not understanding their technical talk, only knowing they’re trying to translate my story into a solution that they’ve obviously not thought of before.
It’s Grace. I thought only Keon could shout that loud. Grace’s face has become rigid with fright. “Valerie, no.” Her tone is pleading. “We can’t decompile ourselves and merge with AI.” She slumps, covering her head with her hands. Her voice is an anguished sputter. “Haven’t we changed enough already?”
It’s so uncharacteristic to see Grace lose it like this. It unsettles me. I clench my hands into fists, but there is none of the old pain, of fingernails driving themselves into palms. However, it’s a reminder for me not to say anything, lest I interfere or distract.
Jaeger is bouncing up and down like a prize fighter about to go another round in the ring. “No, wait! Listen, Grace. It doesn’t have to be us that decompiles and merges with AI. I mean not us us. We use copies of ourselves, and they become our raw materials.”
Flynn’s eyes glitter with a new, hard intensity. “Copy and paste. You might have something there, Jag.”
“I know,” he says, lifting his chin in self-satisfaction.
“It was Valerie’s idea first,” Keon says. He plops into the chair at the workstation while Flynn stands behind, leaning in close. Valerie drifts over and looks on from several feet back.
There is a fierce glare in Grace’s eyes that scares me. “It’s monstrous!”
Jaeger and Flynn look at her. Grace presses on. “Copies of ourselves are still us. You’re talking about killing them.”
Jaeger looks hurt. “That sounds a bit strong.”
Grace wheels on him. “It’s murder,” she insists. “Pulling apart copies of ourselves carrying all our code? Copies that could instead become fully functioning minds? Then using it in what way exactly? That’s still very unclear.” She crowds the workstation, and for a moment it looks like she’s going to fling herself over the keyboard. “What if you make AI sentient? Or human?”
Flynn’s eyes glitter. “Are we human, Grace?”
Jaeger answers. “The tests would indicate yes.”
“We’re not making humans,” Valerie says. Again, the power of that soft voice, inserted into the chaos. “We’re taking just the code and the neural patterns that govern our perceptions and incorporating it into the base programming of AI. We’re not giving it awareness.”
“Maybe not,” Flynn muses.
Grace steps back. “You know what this constitutes? Cannibalism!”
Jaeger holds his hands up in a gesture of appeal. “Easy now.”
Keon stands, drawing himself up to his full height. “What Grace is right about is that this course of action involves some serious risk. Whatever we do.” He holds out a hand to forestall another outburst from Grace. “And yes, it isn’t exactly clear to us yet what we’ll be doing. I, for one, am willing to gamble on looking in this direction. But we have to all agree. Including you, Sun.”
I’d been so engrossed in their argument, I startle at the mention of my name. “I’m for whatever you figure out,” I say.
Grace looks at me like I’m speaking a language she doesn’t know. “Sun, you can’t possibly be for what they’re saying. It’s inhuman.”
Flynn’s face is hardened with determination. “It’s inhuman to stay the way we are. This is about survival. Look at it this way, Grace. We’re in a life raft in the middle of an ocean. Sane people in that situation eat each other to stay alive. If that’s how you want to think of harvesting code from copies of ourselves, think of that.”
Grace sets her jaw. “Fine. You make a copy of yourself and kill them.”
“It has to be all of us.” It’s Valerie again. “We all do it. It shouldn’t be one person’s code. AI may need multiple examples of how we individually process perception to achieve the breakthrough we’re after.”
Keon nods. “If for no other reason than we stick together as a team. No one gets to be outside this and point fingers later. I say roll the dice. It has to be better than where we’re at now. We can establish protocols for AI. It works for us, and never the other way around. It’s a computer, folks. A tool.”
There is silence as Grace realizes she is the only holdout. The workstation buzzes. Flynn smirks. “Guess who wants to talk to us?”
I groan. “Again? So soon?”
Jaeger rolls his eyes. “Excellent timing.”
Grace turns to me. “Sun, you’re up again. They believed you last time.”
Keon nods. “You were great. Good poker face.”
I try to tell them that a second time of me going solo is going to raise more suspicions than a very brief call with all of us. They ignore me and file out, leaving me to face the Outsiders on my own.
Jaeger gets in a parting shot. “Don’t forget to smile!”
Jayden, Ananda, and Xiaoli are sitting at the consoles. This time, my relatives and the other board members I’d met at the party are standing behind the techs, peering at me with interest. As we exchange pleasantries, their faces bloom with relief. Uncle Oscar chokes up a bit and says, “It’s wonderful to see you looking so well.”
They are tired of rebooting us and hoping. I realize because of that, they won’t be inclined to look too closely. They ask about the others. “I gave them some user feedback,” I say, ignoring Tiana, who is standing next to Sally. She’s in her twenties, and her eyes are sad. I pounce on something, anything to not have to listen to her asking me again if I’d ever lie to her. “I hope they’re working on the beach cottage I asked for.”
Ananda leans in. “Like we said last time, we’re ready to help. We’re all a team here.”
I wave a hand, pointedly ignoring my wife. “They like keeping busy. We don’t sleep, you know. Also, they’re having fun.” I wonder if that last comment is over-the-top.
“I’m jealous,” Jayden says, and the others smile. I’m okay. Tiana appears in my peripheral vision. She’s standing next to me in the tower now. She’s saying something to me, but I talk over her. “So, are you just checking in to chat?” I know better. I brace for what’s coming. Don’t react, I tell myself. Whatever it is, don’t react.
Sally looks at the other board members, who nod. “We’d like to instantiate the second wave as planned,” she says. “There are twenty-four of them, and they’ll be arriving at the center later this week for orientation.”
This is horrible news. I make myself smile. “How wonderful. It’ll be good to have some company.” I’m just grateful the others aren’t listening to this.
“It would be nice if the others would take just a moment to celebrate this good news with us,” Sally says. There’s a sharp edge to her smile. It isn’t a suggestion.
Jayden points at a screen off to the side. “We have them here. They’re all together at workstation two. I’ll hail them.”
I look to my left and see my colleagues in the tower next to mine. I want to warn them, but I don’t know how. I remember I’m not supposed to see through walls, and quickly look back at the screen.
Xiaoli wrinkles her brow. “They’re . . . waving?”
“Flynn’s typing,” Ananda says. He looks as puzzled as Xiaoli.
Sally is not used to being ignored. “Well, tell them it’s important,” she snaps.
“Here’s a text message,” Jayden says. “They’re in the middle of an update.”
Xiaoli’s eyes narrow with suspicion. “They weren’t on the last communication, either.”
Ananda frowns. “What update? Without us?”
Suddenly Keon’s voice cuts in. “Sorry to be wrapped up at the moment.”
Ananda’s face relaxes into a smile. “No worries, man. We were just wondering why you weren’t using voice.”
Jayden is frowning. “What’s this update about?”
“We just had some ideas,” Grace says smoothly. “Believe me, once you’re Inside, you start noticing things to tweak.”
Xiaoli is still squinting, unconvinced. However, just as she opens her mouth to say something, Sally leans forward. As she repeats the big announcement, I look nervously over at my colleagues. Grace’s hand claps over her mouth.
Keon stands there with his mouth open. “What?” For all his gambling analogies, he’d be horrible at poker. I start to worry.
Jaeger pounces forward toward the monitor’s camera. “Oh my, how marvelous! We’re thrilled. Absolutely thrilled.”
I get what he’s doing. He’s cutting off the Outsiders’ view to the rest of the team. To their credit, the others take Jaeger’s cue and rise to the occasion, cheering and clapping, though Grace looks a bit wan. No, not wan. Vacant. She’s checked out into the past. Please please please don’t say or do anything to give yourself away, I silently implore.
Valerie notices Grace, and suddenly clasps her in a hug. Valerie, who hates to be touched. Their embrace looks collegial, appropriately celebratory. I could kiss her.
“We’ll talk later,” Jaeger tells the Outsiders. He claps his hands at the others. “Back to work, everyone. We have a rollout to complete.”
As soon as my screen goes dark, I hear Jaeger’s growl over our internal communications channel. “We’re screwed.”
The one thing we have going for us is, Grace is with us on the solution. Admitting to the Outsiders that things aren’t fixed for us after all will bring a fresh reboot and ensuing chaos and forgetfulness. Better to go all in and hope the fix works. Evidently this is no small feat. A good three days goes by, and they’re still in the planning phase. Jaeger and Valerie constitute the design team. As Jaeger puts it, “Oh, we’re just reinventing artificial intelligence is all. No big deal.” While they collaborate in one of the towers, the rest use artificial intelligence to assist in identifying which portions of their code and neural patterning will be needed to create the catalyst—my term for it, anyway. I have to say, the team’s intense focus seems to reduce what Grace calls slippages in their attention. Too, the longer we go without being rebooted, maybe the better we are at focusing on the present moment.
I stay out of the way and spend my time watching them, but because I have no real role in this, I tend to drift. My mother and Tiana become regular visitors, and after a while, I don’t mind. I grow accustomed to their presence, though I’m careful not to talk to them, lest I draw attention to myself. I start to wonder if it’s such a bad thing, to live with one’s ghosts for company.
The two teams come together regularly to discuss, share, argue. They bring me in again and drill me on sirtuins, substrates, and catalysts for what seems like hours, interrupting me to speak among themselves. I think they’re beginning to land on what they’re going to do. The next day, the excitement is gone. They sit in grim silence, failure hanging heavy in the air. Valerie slips into her past, springing from her chair and running. Grace and I chase after her. At least the workspace for techs is much smaller than the VR world. We find her cowering inside the base of one of the towers and manage to bring her around and back to work. The event worsens morale, and my attempts to get my colleagues to take a break to regroup are unsuccessful.
With just two days to go before the instantiates are scheduled to arrive, the tech area is a flurry of activity. They break us up into groups of twos and spread out among the towers. I’m with Flynn, and my only job is to bring them out of any slippages—they’ve all adopted Grace’s term for losing focus. Flynn talks to me as they work, using terms like superuser access. They seem pretty pleased with themselves, so I nod and try not to look too long at Tiana hovering at my side.
Suddenly, a three-dimensional object as large as a building appears in the middle of the area outside the towers. It’s impressively huge, rising to just above eye level from my vantage point, containing squares like rooms with various shapes in them. Flynn calls it a sandbox. I watch Valerie in the tower to my right as she makes a series of arcane hand movements. Everyone’s staring out at the new building, and when I look down, I see the objects inside the space move into and out of various configurations. I guess that Valerie is making this all happen. Then we hear the familiar tone. It’s a hail from the Outsiders.
Flynn groans. “We anticipated this. Jayden and Xiaoli are asking what we’re up to.”
Grace’s voice comes over the speaker, from another tower. “It’s time. Send them our message, Flynn.”
Flynn does so. There is a long pause, during which Flynn goes back to their work, then the hail comes again, and to my ears, it appears more strident. Flynn ignores it. Over the speaker, I hear Jaeger cracking a joke about wearing headbands so we can tell ourselves apart from our copies, and the next thing we know, we all have scarves tied around our foreheads.
Flynn laughs. “What a kidder.”
I look out the window. “What’s happening?”
“We’re about to retrieve our copies from backup.”
The idea that I have a backup copy of myself makes me uncomfortable. Grace had spoken of them as if they were viable beings in their own right. It boggles my mind. I know we’ve been rebooted multiple times. Were we ever so damaged on instantiation that they scrapped our originals and activated copies? If so, how would we tell?
My disquiet takes a turn for the worse when I see six coffin-like objects materialize inside the sandbox area. “There they are,” Flynn says from behind me. “Those are the folders containing copies of our file structures. The ones we’re made of are identical.”
I know my data—what made me me—is stored in the computer, but to actually see a representation of it is surreal. I feel vulnerable and open, as if I’m being watched by unknown forces. Anyone with a computer and a mouse could open a directory, scroll down to my folder, and—
“Oh, shit,” Flynn says. “They’re onto us.”
I wheel around. “What do you mean?”
Flynn ignores me, keys on the internal communications. “Can you work a little faster? The Outsiders are trying to bypass our lockout and take back control of the system.”
So that’s what Flynn was doing this whole time? Keeping the Outsiders from interfering with their work? It’s us versus them now? I’m suddenly afraid this isn’t going to end well for us.
Keon’s voice booms over the speakers, penetrating my unease. “Can you slow them down? We need another minute or so.”
How can they speak so calmly?
“Ready for surgery,” Jaeger says.
I glance out the window. The coffins are unraveling into scrolling numbers and symbols, interspersed with cube-like objects. Flynn’s screen fills with incomprehensible lines of code.
The professional patter over the speakers is filled with terms like decompile, algorithm, merge. I look around at the other towers, in awe my colleagues can still function. Valerie is swiftly making pinching and swiping movements in the air, as if conducting an orchestra.
I look back at the scene below and startle at the transformation. The sandbox building has become a bulging net of clear filaments, speckled here and there by winking nodes like jewels. There is a sound, but it is not mechanical as I might have expected. It’s more like white noise or ocean waves. It’s beautiful and disturbing all at once. This is the opposite of life, I think.
Grace’s voice over the speakers is downright serene. “All good.”
“We’re breached,” Flynn says. “They’re in.”
I panic. I fling myself at the workstation and slam open communications with the Outsiders. “Don’t reboot us! They found a fix. I repeat, don’t—”
Grace’s voice cuts in. “We’re a go.”
The next thing I know, the world seems to buckle and break up, its pieces whirling around me like a tornado. I’m swept away in the chaos.
I find myself somewhere quiet. The world around me has not just ceased swirling; it has disappeared entirely. I wonder if this is the space we enter when we’re rebooted. If so, then I won’t remember this later. Yet just the fact that I’m here, conscious, in this moment, seems to suggest I won’t forget. But that’s probably just magical thinking.
We must have failed. How could I have given them the idea to rob our own code—this new DNA we are made of—to be the catalyst for a hoped change? It’s all nothing but a chimera, anyway. No technical solutions can ever change the stark face that we are ghosts living in an illusory world. The most we could’ve hoped for was to cover up the stark reality of our situation.
I become aware of a sound that’s more felt than heard, a thrumming in my ears, though I’m not sure I have a body. Well, it wasn’t a real body anyway, just a representation of one. Who needs it? There is nothing but my thoughts and the rhythmic feeling-sound around me. As I focus on it, I realize it’s running through a series of computations. I can’t make any sense of it, at least not with the part of me thinking in words. Maybe this experience isn’t what happens in a reboot after all. Could the update actually be running? Maybe these calculations thrumming around and through me are my new substrate, nourishing me.
Or absorbing me. I’d encouraged my colleagues to create a catalyst for a reaction, a fundamental change. Yet a reaction could be energy-releasing or energy-absorbing. Am I being, what? Assimilated? Is this the end of me?
I scold myself. I’d told my colleagues an insight I’d had, which boils down to a story like the ones my mother used to tell. Something to inspire them to understand their own issues within their own discipline and see it in a new way. I can’t now apply my own biological terms to the present situation.
Also, I cannot hang here in this indeterminate state, waiting for things to resolve. An Ong just doesn’t do that. I focus on the computations around me. We are always connected to everything. I thrash around with my thoughts, trying to connect, until I’m mentally exhausted.
No, this isn’t the way to go about things. I cease my struggle. What does a plant or animal do to connect with its world? Answer. It doesn’t. It already is. A plant always turns toward the sun. A person does, too. I remember sitting facing the window in that conference room, the day I found out about the possibility of instantiating. How the sun had warmed my face, and also my heart, or soul—whatever is the center of our essence as beings.
Instead of reaching, I let go. I melt, sinking without moving, into the calculations. I let the thrum of it become like a new heartbeat. Nothing happens. I become frustrated again, and afraid. What if I’m here in this nothing place forever?
A face seems to waver in front of me. It’s not Tiana, nor is it my mother. That short hair, those brown eyes fringed with mascara, belong to my cousin Xian. I’m overcome with the old familiar guilt that still feels fresh more than thirty years later. I’m certain I’m going to die now. Well, better oblivion than this halfway place. There is nothing to live for here.
If you really listen to this song, you’ll learn a lot.
I’m remembering our last conversation, Xian and me. We’d been listening to some vintage rock and roll.
Hearing may not be exactly how I’m experiencing the thrum around me, but in my mind, I tell Xian, yes. I hear.
Let me take you there.
I wish you would, I tell him. Whisk me away to one of the planets you thought you came from.
I pause, on the verge of an insight. The image of Xian, connecting with something alien to his way of being, believing it down to his bones. Aren’t I in the same situation?
This time, when I reach out to connect, I don’t think about nature. I think about the alien thing. This computer. I follow its song.
AI is not a presence. It isn’t alive or even aware. It is more like a tool nearby. Hadn’t Keon called the computer a tool earlier? I grasp it with my mind, and my perspective blossoms.
In an instant, I see reality in a different way. The reality of our virtual world, yes, but perhaps also the reality of the biological world I’d studied in detail. This perception makes no assumptions about how things are supposed to work. There are no rules, only the task of seeing relationships and associations, and there are myriads of them. When my mother had said we are always connected to everything, I’d understood what she meant in human terms, in the language of nature. Those words have meaning here, too, but in a different way.
I wonder whether, while my colleagues sought to teach AI how to view our surroundings and the sequential nature of time and memory, the difference between waking life and dream—if the AI is now seeking to teach me how it views reality. No, that’s anthropomorphic. It’s more like before, on the Outside, scientists used AI to make new discoveries in many disciplines. But only now, when we occupy the same medium, can we truly extend our ability to see beyond ourselves. We are no longer on the outside of this processing power.
I now see reality as AI does, a complex pattern, mathematically beautiful. I am like a spider in its center. No, I’m one of those winking nodes in the net my colleagues had created in the sandbox. Their creation is foreign and manufactured, but it’s also made of what we are.
Wielding the perception of AI, use my new perception to assess my surroundings. It seems a few things need adjusting, reweaving. AI makes the changes.
I’m back in my body, in the middle of a forest that seems vaguely familiar. I look up into a canopy of green leaves, which loll aside in the slight breeze to reveal yellow-orange sunlight high above in a blue sky. I laugh and stretch my arms upward. I hear someone—Flynn—shout, “It worked! We did it!”
Then Jaeger, close by. “About effing time.”
I step over to a tree and run my sensation-starved hands over its brown trunk. It doesn’t feel the same as a tree in the Outside world, but I love its slightly nubby surface all the same. We find each other among the trees. We no longer have to hold hands in a ghost world. Instead we hug each other, though not with Valerie. She celebrates by sharing high-fives, though, a radiant smile on her face. There is much cheering.
We visit the beach briefly, and then the town. There are gathering places lining the main street, apartments and offices on the side streets, and the spacious university building facing open sea. I mentally put together the map of this place and realize Inside is a small island. I want to wander the perimeter and see how long it takes me to circle the whole thing.
Grace’s voice interrupts my thoughts. “Are we ready to face the music?”
There are grim chuckles. “I don’t understand. What’s going on?”
Flynn explains. “We have to go to the towers and speak to the Outsiders.”
Jaeger singsongs: “We’re in trou-ble.”
I remember now. We’d hijacked the system and shut off the Outsiders’ ability to interfere.
Flynn grins, a gleam in their eyes. “I bet they’re going ballistic.”
The towers are a solid black, and they look windowless from the shiny onyx plain. However, when I ascend, I find I can see out via a window about two feet high that rings the room all around. I look up and see a skylight and the cerulean sky above. It’s like looking into heaven.
The screens at the chrome workstation spring to life. One contains a square of each of my colleagues, plus myself. The other is a wide-angle view of the Outsiders. Sally is standing behind Jayden and Xiaoli, her lips set in a stern line, her glare a mask of barely contained rage. The conversation begins with shouting on both sides.
“Why did you cut us off?”
“You were just rebooting us over and over. It was not only no solution—”
“You should’ve worked with us.”
“You kept setting us back to square one!”
“Work with you? You didn’t ask us if we wanted to be rebooted!”
“My god, what have you done to the AI?”
“We need autonomy. Self-rule.”
I stare at my workstation. There is only one thing I’m allowed permissions to do: open communications. I turn my microphone on. “Hold it. Right now!”
Remarkably, they grow silent. I look at Aunt Sally. “Let me tell you our story.”
“That is the end,” I conclude. “Our actions were necessary to secure the project’s success.”
They are all there now, having arrived at different times. The other programmer, Ananda. Uncle Oscar, Aunt Celia. And somewhere along the way, Singpet has shown up, staring with a mixture of pride and sadness. I feel the tug in my soul, too. We will now only be able to talk over screens for the rest of Singpet’s life. It hits me that unless she instantiates, I’m going to outlive her and any children she may have, and their children’s children. I feel the weight of eternity for the first time, not as a concept, but as a reality. My future.
I say one last thing. “I don’t expect any of you to understand why we did what we did. You did not go through all this. Yet now you’ve listened to a survivor’s tale. Trust us now. Your role will continue to be instantiating people, but my colleagues are right in that we need to be in charge of what happens to us. We need to be the Controllers of Inside now.”
Never mind they can hit the reboot button right now, but there is no longer a reason to do so. I’ve been around my teammates long enough to know how a tech person thinks. One might start a debate about how human they are.
My relatives look at each other, deliberating silently as only a close-knit family can. At last Uncle Oscar turns and considers my image on the screen. Then he winks.
“Sounds good to me,” he says. “We’re still a go with the next instantiations.”
I wander alone on instantiation day. The others, the Controllers of our world, are in their towers, monitoring the instantiates along with the technicians Outside. It is all properly structured. The new arrivals each enter their own personal spaces, where they are given orientation, and then they go Inside, where they can participate in building a community and get ready for their first scientific collaborations.
It takes me a couple of hours to walk all the way around our little island, beginning and ending at the beach where we’d always find Grace after a reboot. I remember thinking this would be a perfect spot for a cottage, for myself. Somewhere not in town, where I can enjoy . . . well, not nature, but my connection with this new ground of existence, this alien world.
I think about my experience in that non-place after my colleagues had run the update, the computations there, and the new perspective I’d discovered in the area where AI works. Could I possibly reach it again? From here?
I close my eyes and let go. I melt, sinking without moving, and at last find myself in the thrumming bosom of the calculations.
Lettie Prell likes to write about the edge where humans and their technology are increasingly merging. Her short fiction has appeared in WIRED, Tor.com, Clarkesworld, Analog, Apex, and Martian Magazine, and reprinted in a number of anthologies, including The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy and The New Voices of Science Fiction. Her work has also been translated into several languages. She is a life-long Midwesterner, and currently lives in Des Moines.