October 3, 2020
Volume 1, Issue 2
Things were going well for Steve Hertz. His book on brain emulations had hit the number two spot on Amazon that April for the Computers and Technology category; the spring semester was coming to an end, and with it his teaching duties; and the black cod at Jin Sho had never tasted fresher.
Yet a sense of unease had settled over him that evening like a chilly mist, and he was worried it would ruin his dinner with Dan Morinaga and Geoffrey Klein, his colleagues in the Economics Department at Stanford.
Steve was aware that he’d recently blogged a harsh review of Dan’s paper on Harberger taxes. And even though Dan had seemed unfazed by it, maybe even a little amused, Steve worried their friendship was turning to vinegar with all the public criticism they’d slung at each other over the past couple of years. He wanted Dan to feel like he respected him as much as he always had, whatever their intellectual disputes. So he let Dan knock on his book for a little while without hitting back as hard as he wanted.
“The problem with your prediction,” said Dan Morinaga, dipping a sliver of salmon into his soy sauce as precisely as a litmus strip, “is that elites would never allow their power to fall into the hands of billions of brain emulations. As soon as they see this tech coming, they’ll pull the brakes on it.”
Steve Hertz had addressed this criticism in chapter eighteen of his book, but no one seemed to remember it. He padded his mouth with a napkin. “If the elites in Europe had known the industrial revolution would lead to democracy, and with it their downfall, could they have stopped it?”
“That’s not the same thing.”
“Sure it is. Civilization’s a Darwinian equilibrium. No one calls the shots. If a technology can be invented it probably will be, unless everyone coordinates to stop it. And global coordination is really, really hard, Dan. I mean, look at nuclear weapons or carbon emissions—or, heck, intellectual property. And the economic incentives for ems are at least on par with those of the industrial revolution. We’re talking a hundredfold increase in the doubling rate of the economy. That’s a doubling every month. The people on the ground floor of this thing would become trillionaires pretty much overnight.”
Geoffrey Klein was silently tweezing up lone grains of rice with his chopsticks while scanning the restaurant for the waitress—or perhaps an escape route from the conversation—when Steve’s remarks caught his attention. “Oh, come on. You can’t really think this future’s desirable.”
“More than desirable.” Steve smiled a wide jolly smile. “The lack of pain and grime alone would be worth it. Everyone would be healthy and beautiful and strong.”
“And overworked,” said Dan. “It’s still a Malthusian world you’ve got here.”
“It’s true ems will have to work a lot to pay for energy and hardware,” Steve admitted. “When copying yourself is dirt-cheap, the population’ll grow until the cost of running copies is equal to their labor. But they’ll be selected for work ethic. They’ll like working.”
“By definition,” said Geoffrey, “work is the stuff you wouldn’t do unless you’re paid for it.”
Dan nodded in agreement. “We should call it what it is. Slavery. The ems will be slaves.”
“Slaves don’t have a choice,” said Steve, annoyed at his colleagues’ close-mindedness. “It’s work or die for slaves. But ems can always slow to a cheaper clock speed.”
Dan shook his head, smiling. He dipped another sliver of salmon. “I have to hand it to you, Steve. You could make Dante’s Inferno sound like Venice Beach. No wonder Silicon Valley loves you.”
Steve’s sense of unease grew suddenly, and he realized what was behind it. Déjà vu. He could have sworn he’d had this conversation before. In this very restaurant.
But when he tried to fondle the feeling, it was already gone, quick as a frisson, and he wondered what the hell had caused it.
Dan’s smile widened, as if in on some joke. Had he sensed something, too? And had he sensed that Steve had sensed it?
“It’s still a good book, Steve,” said Dan, turning to his plate of amberjack. “And hey. If you’re right, the ems will be feting your uploaded cryo-brain a hundred years from now, while me and Geoffrey feed worms in the ground. Won’t that be the mother of I-told-you-sos.”
“That’s assuming Natasha doesn’t talk you out of cryonics,” Geoffrey told Steve. “Something I’ve heard wives have occasionally been known to do.”
Now it was Steve’s turn to smile. He carefully pulled back the sleeve of his salmon-colored shirt to reveal a metal bracelet with a red caduceus and big block of red writing. Geoffrey leaned in to read the words: MED. HX. CALL NOW 24 HOURS 800-555-0167. IN CASE/DEATH SEE REVERSE FOR BIOSTASIS PROTOCOL. REWARD A-2471.
“Wow. You’re not messing around,” said Geoffrey.
“No I’m not,” said Steve.
“So if you die,” Dan said, “the paramedic is supposed to call this number, and what? The cryo-fairies come and take your head away for freezing?”
“Pretty much. It’s three hundred dollars a year, but long-term members get a discount. Anyway, even if the odds aren’t high that I’ll be thawed, the cost-benefit calculus is a no-brainer.” He twinkled savagely at the pun. “Ems don’t die, so I’d be effectively immortal once they upload my brain. From my point of view, even a one-percent chance of immortality is worth the price.”
No matter how many times Steve explained his reasoning, he felt a little nutty talking about the future as if he’d been there. Natasha had given him a look as if he’d turned into a John Carpenter monster the first time he’d suggested they freeze their brains together. But after a few years of persistent prodding he’d won her over. He could win over Dan and Geoffrey, too, if he kept at it long enough. He was sure of that. But he felt no less awkward for trying, like how he imagined a Jehovah’s Witness might feel after a stint of unsuccessful public preaching.
“I wonder how tenure works for immortals,” said Geoffrey, after finally wrangling more sake from the waitress.
“Not much different, I expect,” Dan said. “Meetings already last—"
“An eternity,” Steve cut in, more by reflex than anything. “That what you were going to say?”
His déjà vu was back, keener than ever. There was no doubt in his mind now: They’d definitely had this conversation before.
Dan’s chopsticks paused en route to his mouth with a slice of amberjack between them, pink and fatty, a tremulous drop of soy sauce threatening to fall from it. His face was still, but his eyes sparked with amusement. “Actually, it was.”
If Geoffrey had noticed the oddness of this exchange, his expression gave no sign of it. But he was always that way—inscrutable. An Easter Island statue in a suit.
Steve cleared his throat. He was about to ask, with a flush of embarrassment, whether anyone else had begun to feel a little off-kilter since coming to the restaurant, and whether it was the sake or the fish or something else, when Dan took out his leather-bound phone to check the time.
“Later than I thought,” said Dan, putting a pair of twenties on the table. “Susan will be back from tennis, and I was supposed to proofread her chapter on quadratic voting tonight.”
“Tell her not to worry, democracy’s doomed anyway,” said Geoffrey, adding his money to the table.
“Then it can be doomed in the proper manuscript format.”
“I should head home, too,” Steve said. “Papers won’t grade themselves.”
Outside Jin Sho, they said goodbye to each other. The sky over Palo Alto was turning a pretty shade of orange, and the shadows of the oak trees were crisp as black paint on the asphalt. The warm June air was sweeter than Steve remembered. He drank it with a sigh while Geoffrey got into his spotless white hatchback, and Dan strolled up California Avenue with his hands in his pockets.
Steve was heading to his car when he thought he saw Dan glance back at him out of the corner of his eye. But when he looked, Dan had already turned down an alley between a vacant storefront and the tall brownstone Menlo Equities office that stood sentry over El Camino Real.
Strange. That alley was just a service route for employees.
Compelled by a feeling he couldn’t name, Steve slipped the key fob back in his pocket and walked to the alley, moving casually in case Dan came out and saw him there.
He froze. The alley wasn’t a service route at all, but a public path that cut straight through downtown. A couple of neatly dressed women were hustling down it with their eyes on their phones, and Steve could just see Dan beyond them, disappearing around a corner.
If he followed Dan, that would be creepy. But isn’t that what the Guardian had called him? The creepiest economist in the Valley?
He would keep his distance. That was easy enough.
He walked down the alley as if in a dream, mystified that the city still surprised him after twelve years of teaching there. Chicago’s Hyde Park had been confusing enough in its way, but it was nothing next to the vast connectome of a college town he’d come to call home. It seemed to change every day like some overzealously updated MMO. Though maybe that was just him getting old.
Around the corner, the path continued up a hill. Steve had not known Palo Alto to have many hills. And the buildings—the buildings were becoming narrower and more colorful. His footsteps echoed strangely, and he looked down to find that the pavement had given way to cobblestones. Some stones were dark and others light, like an unfilled crossword, and they reminded him of a place on the edge of memory somewhere.
As he walked, he admired the slatted shutters of the windows, their pastel blues and pinks and greens, and marveled at the wrought-iron balustrades of the balconies, the helter-skelter shingles of the roofs, the old-fashioned gas lamps that adorned some of the more prosperous businesses. A slight chill had come into the air, along with the scent of trees. A clean scent, and invigorating.
As he mounted the hill, he was surprised by how light and limber he felt that evening. He wasn’t short of breath, as he should have been by now, and the slight ache in his lower back had melted away. His plantar fasciitis was gone, too.
Why didn’t he know about this part of town? Why hadn’t Dan told him?
As though summoned by the thought, Dan appeared at the top of the hill, beaming down at him with his utilitarian black bicycle steadied under one hand.
“Long time no see,” Dan said.
Steve gave a flustered smile. “Just thought I’d take a stroll before heading home. What are you doing here?”
“Nice, isn’t it?” Dan took off his wireframe glasses and tucked them in his shirt. “Natasha told us you always wanted to retire in Switzerland. Can’t blame you. It’s a beautiful country.”
“It is, but I’m not sure what that’s got to do with—” Reaching the top of the hill, Steve saw his blue bicycle poised on its kickstand behind Dan. A Cannondale Synapse Carbon, agleam in the twilight.
“It took a little longer than I thought it would, but I knew you’d get here eventually. Come on. I’ll explain on the way.”
“The way where?”
But Dan had already hopped on his bike and launched off toward the end of the alley, beckoning Steve with a wave to follow.
It was Zurich. Steve Hertz was riding through Old Town in Zurich.
A perfect simulacrum of it, anyway, save that the streets had no people.
Rows of diaphanous red-and-white Swiss flags fluttered in Dan's wake as he rode ahead of Steve, pedaling like mad when he wasn’t coasting on his momentum with shouts to keep up. Dan had gone a little crazy, it seemed, but no crazier than a hallucination had any right to be. And Steve was under no illusions—this was a hallucination. Someone had spiked his sake, probably with DMT. Charges would have to be pressed. But in the meantime he would use it as a learning opportunity.
“You know how I know this isn’t real?” Steve said. “The real Dan wears a helmet. Always.”
Dan laughed, whipping up a hand to swat a sycamore in passing. Steve ducked under the recoiling branch, cursing.
“Why'd you duck,” Dan chided, “if none of this is real? Ah, but the unconscious knows more than it tells. That’s why you knew what I was going to say in the restaurant. Why you followed me here. The unconscious knows.”
Steve pedaled faster, stunned at the speed he could reach without tiring, the reflexes that let him slice through curves and snap around corners without thinking. The cool wind hissed in his hot, thudding ears.
“You don’t have to be cryptic with me,” Steve said. “What’s going on—seriously?”
“And spoil the fun?”
Past the rooftops, Lake Zurich dazzled like a bowl of rubies under the sunset sky, and the Alps far beyond it shined like dollops of raspberry ice cream.
“Besides, it’s supposed to be difficult,” said Dan. “It's like going from cold to hot, or like coming up from deep water. If you come up too fast, Steve, you’ll get the bends. Gradual is key.”
Natasha was standing on the shore of Lake Zurich in her yellow pinafore, on a jetty where a small white boat was moored. Steve called to her—but she was gone when he reached the wharf, vanishing quick as a mirage.
“Did you see her?” Steve jumped off his bike, letting it clatter to a halt on the concrete promenade beside Dan's. “Natasha. She was just....”
Dan pointed to the boat. A pair of oars was resting crosswise against the stern. “That will take us where we want to go. I trust you still know how to row?”
“Row where? You still haven’t said where we’re going.”
“But you know, Steve. You already know.”
And Steve did.
“Oh my god,” he said, studying the flawless movements of his fingers, feeling the perfect texture of his face. His wrinkles and jowls had left him, leaving smooth, youthful cheeks and angular cheekbones. He looked at his reflection in the lake and lost his ability to speak.
“I'm glad I took your advice. About cryonics,” Dan said.
Steve shook his head in disbelief.
“I understand what you’re feeling right now.”
“You don’t,” said Steve.
“But I do. They put me through the same paces when they brought me back. Replayed ancient memories. Let me find my way through the maze, little by little, one hint at a time. Turns out the mind doesn’t come back right if you wake it up all at once. Too much trauma.” Dan put his hand on Steve's shoulder. “You were right. And I was wrong. About all of it.”
Steve sat down on the jetty and began to sob.
“It’s okay,” Dan comforted. “It’s okay. It was the same for me when I came back.”
It was just as Steve had predicted in his book, which made him feel all the more foolish for not putting it together right away: They’d thawed the last generation of cryonics patients first, then worked backward as the technology got better, thawing earlier and earlier generations with more complicated damage. Until they’d reached Steve’s, one of the first.
The day Steve had died, fewer than three hundred brains in the world had been cryopreserved. His revival had been complicated by the glioblastoma that had killed him at sixty-seven. Before the brain tissue could be scanned, the tumor had to be removed with nanosurgery and the structure restored as much as possible.
Selecting Jin Sho as Steve’s anchor had been Dan’s idea. He’d been there enough times that he could build a diorama of the restaurant from memory, and the discussion of Steve’s book on brain emulations had seemed the most logical memory-link. Using Zurich as Steve’s waypoint had been Natasha’s idea. The open-source archives held a near-complete diorama of the city as it had looked in the twenty-first century, and Natasha had hoped it would make up for the fact that Steve had died before they could retire there.
In a hypnopompic rush, Steve’s memories of dying came back to him. The tasteless breakfast burrito at Stanford Hospital on the morning of his diagnosis. The glimpses of balled Kleenexes in a wastebasket with watery mascara all over them, the only crack in her composure Natasha had failed to hide. The struggle not to dwell, during languid self-pitying bubble baths, on the children he might have had, on the ways they could have eased his terror. The headaches that made hell of the New York Times crossword. The nausea that no amount of Coltrane or Parker could soothe. The long vacation to New Zealand that had seemed to promise a reprieve from mortality if he’d simply refused to let it end. All these memories and many others.
He hadn’t believed he would really be revived. Not in his flesh, he hadn’t. The world would succumb to nuclear war before then, or the cryonics company would go bankrupt, or the upload process would fail. Despite his years of careful analysis, the prospect of technological immortality had always carried the stench of wishful thinking for him, and never more so than at the end.
“Natasha’s really here, then?” he said. “Why wasn’t she the one to wake me?”
“She doesn’t want to see you until you’ve decided,” said Dan.
“Decided on what?”
“Em law gives new uploads the right to forego admission to the em world.” Dan gestured to the boat. “You don’t have to get in, if you don’t want to. I can have the admins shut down your emulation for you. Or I can have you put in hibernation mode until a time of your choosing, if you feel your prospects in the future will be better yet.”
“Natasha can’t bear to grieve again if I choose to go dark,” Steve guessed.
Steve was afraid to ask his next question. “Would you say the em world is better or worse than I described in my book? Roughly speaking.”
Dan shrugged. “Depends who you are. For workaholics like you and me, it’s a pretty good deal. For ems driven by status, maybe less so. It’s hard to keep status for long in a server-city with ten trillion uploads.”
“What about the tail risks? Torture? That sort of thing?”
“At the clock speeds that matter, the Vladivostok and Kikiktagruk server-cities are too far away for reliable data-sharing with Longyearbyen, the server-city we’re in now. They might as well be in Alpha Centauri, so I can’t speak for them. But our torture rates are no more than one em per million per economic doubling. Mostly terrorist and insurgent ems that do it. Rarely rogue admins, and never AIs. Biological humans couldn’t hack us in a million years, so that’s not a problem either.”
“They’re still around then,” Steve said with relief.
“Fleshfolk? Oh yes. It’s a complicated relationship, but stable enough for now.”
Questions were rushing through Steve’s mind faster than the ice-slurry that must’ve been filling the fractal cooling pipes of Longyearbyen’s server-city: What speed tranche would he be slotted into? How long could the median em compete in the economy before their mind got too brittle? What was the gender ratio of uploads, or the ethnic ratio, or the age ratio? How close were the ems to full automation, and did they have the insurance to prevent mass unemployment when they reached it? How many doublings had the world economy witnessed since his death? Who was the oldest em? How many copies of himself could he afford to make?
How will I sell my labor to survive? was another question burning in him. He’d always assumed he could pay for his emulation’s energy and cooling by telling stories of the past, if nothing else. Being an antique was his comparative advantage. Catching up on his discipline wasn’t feasible, of course, and contributing scholarship in such a competitive world even less so.
But Dan forestalled these questions with a show of his hand. “It’s normal to be overwhelmed, Steve. You want to know everything. About this world. About your future in it, if you choose to have one. But our time is metered, my friend. We have already spent ourselves into time-debt—your wife and I—ensuring your wake-up was as smooth as possible. There will be plenty of time for answers once you’ve earned your first hundred leisure hours. That I promise.”
Steve nodded, trying to push down the worry he felt. It was a Darwinian equilibrium, all right. He knew if he got into the boat he would be signing up for a world of struggle. For subjective centuries if not millennia of hard work, earning just enough to keep running. The timeless logic of Malthus that’d governed life from its beginning—suspended only during that three-hundred-year fever dream between the industrial revolution and the dawn of brain emulations—had come to an end at last, and he was supposed to accept that.
But how much leisure had he needed in life, anyway? Dan was right. He was a workaholic. And work in em world would be interesting, if nothing else. He would adapt.
“I have to admit,” said Dan, “I never expected you to hesitate.”
That’s because you don’t know me as well as Natasha does, Steve thought.
He took a deep breath, and stepped into the boat.
A cool blue mist had begun to slither across Lake Zurich as Steve rowed across the sun-red water. It concealed the spiky yellow sprawl of the city, the hills and mountains and darkening sky.
Steve relished the strength in his arms and back. Dan didn’t need to explain to him what he’d already figured out on his own—that the biking and rowing were training him to handle an em body. No doubt it would take subjective years for the patterns of information that were his mind and body to coordinate perfectly in whatever server rack they dwelled in, but he was already much more impressed with virtual flesh than the legacy kind, and the fact that it couldn’t get cancer was a major plus.
Meanwhile, Dan was manipulating symbols only he could see. With his fogged expression he looked like a mathematical savant doing calculations.
Dan came back to life with a smile and flicked the air.
Steve’s vision filled at once with colorful icons: an ankh, a compass, a Golden Snitch, a stack of books, an arrow, and dozens of what he assumed were skeuomorphs from cultures and eras he didn’t know. They startled him so much he dropped an oar and struggled to regain his momentum.
“Your starting interface,” said Dan. “I deleted the junkier apps to limit your clutter, but you can always download them from the archives if you want. They’ll hide when you tell them to.”
Steve had just begun to make the command when the icons winked out.
“Impressive,” he said.
“Oh, you don’t know what that word means,” said Dan. “But you will.”
The mist cleared.
What Steve saw made him close his eyes and reopen them.
His first thought was that he’d been sucked into an abstract painting. But that was only because his sense of space was biased to a physics-bound world, and this was not one.
There was no horizon, and no sky. The lake stretched for miles in all directions before fraying at the rim into a dozen rivers. Some of these rose to join other lakes in the chaos above, while others dropped to join those in the chaos below, so that the boat seemed to sit in a torqued web of water.
And chaos it was. Innumerable moons filled the aether through which the lakes and rivers rose and fell. Moons of oily green crystal and purple fire and chatoyant metal. Moons of terracotta cities and Jovian gas-swirls and Elysian meadows. On the moons, and on the grassy isles floating between them, stood towers of sandstone and marble, obsidian and steel. Between these flew Pegasus-drawn carriages and cartoonishly squat dirigibles.
The waters, too, had travelers: grinning plesiosaurs and antebellum riverboats, steampunk water-spiders and iridescent mega-yachts, and far more. Treasure ships from the Ming Dynasty. Giant turtles with giant trees on them, and giant tree-houses in those. An island of living magma that ferried chrome mangroves full of demon-lemurs, their tails pointed and heads horned.
On some of these strange rafts, ems milled around in suits, cassocks, kimonos, golden armor, wedding gowns.
“Vestibule 7A-6631,” said Dan. “Each moon is a gateway to a world. But you’ll learn how to use those later. For now....”
A red swirl icon pinged into existence at the corner of Steve's vision. At Dan's prompting, Steve tapped it.
A red-rimmed portal popped in front of the boat.
“Go on,” said Dan.
Steve rowed through.
They were in a cavernous room now. The water was a labyrinthine pool in a marble floor. High glass walls looked out onto the surreal space they’d left, and from the nearness of a metal moon Steve guessed they'd warped to a tower on one of the floating isles. Other ems were warping in on crafts and creatures of their own and crossing the marble floor to glass elevators and coffee-scented bistros.
“Is this where I work now?” Steve asked, stepping off the boat.
“I like it.”
“I thought you would. Your colleague can show you to your office now.”
Steve turned to see Natasha smiling at him in a bright yellow suit. Her eyes were twinkling with tears.
“You made it,” she said, her voice cracking. “Oh, Steve.”
“I made it,” he said, laughing, and hugged her tighter than he’d ever hugged her before.
Author's note: This story was inspired by The Age of Em by Robin Hanson, a superb nonfiction book exploring the economic implications of uploaded minds.
Jordan Chase-Young is an American SF writer living in Australia. His fiction has appeared in Metaphorosis and is forthcoming in The Colored Lens and the Unidentified Funny Objects anthology.