Monday, 1 July 2013

Union® by Jason Wade Howard

I’ve died. I know I’ve died because the Union® implant in my head tells me so, in his typically sarcastic way. Despite the fact his biotech systems will perish as soon as his batteries run out of juice, he finds time to gloat on the fact that long after I’m finished he’ll be able to watch my body start to eat itself away.
“It’s not me that does the eating,” I remind him. “Bacteria are the culprits once that kicks off.” But I realise he is just trying to wind me up and that really we’re both correct, in a way. His subtle suggestion is not lost on me; he always uses any opportunity to highlight the inaccuracies of categorisation.
We've been together our whole lives. He was my instructor before birth, my confidant through two thousand failed marriages, and now companion to be through death. I can’t think of anyone I’d rather die with. But that doesn’t mean I’m ready for this.
Of all the luck I have to be hit by a meteorite straight through the chest. Right out here where the radiation from the AI tests fry nanotech and block allband connections through the soil. No chance of medibot rescue, or indeed any aid whatsoever. And a very good chance my soon to be corpse could be obliterated any second by an explosion.
I can’t even feel my body anymore—like the numb before pins and needles—but in the place of sensation I can feel sweet and warm honey where my blood vessels should be. And this phantom-body isn’t restricted in scale as I see it shoot out as if my perception is shrinking down inside my body image, zooming in at a terrific speed, with the physical becoming of such a size that my body is a world, a galaxy, a universe in a split second. And I feel like I might once again see through the eyes of God, through the eyes of every living thing in the Universe simultaneously like when I ate those Pantropian Creed cakes. But this potential vision passes before I have a chance to reject it. A fraction quicker than it had during the cake debacle, so no time for cold feet to suck me to a psychological safety; only hallucinations . . . only hallucinations.
But the feeling of scale isn’t diminishing this time no matter how much I want it to. I’m not snapping back into a wildly distorted sense of self. I am looking back at a pinprick of light which I soon realise is my self.
“Definitely dead,” Mirror says, shocking me that I’m not alone.
“You’re still here . . . So I haven’t left the body yet?” Even Mirror’s wit can’t prevent him being a comfort.
“Yet? What the hell are you hoping for? no pun intended.”
“I don’t know” I say. “If you hadn’t realised this is all new to me . . . are you seeing what I see?”
“I’m patched in but the visuals are confusing.” And I sense in his tone that I am not garnering his undivided attention.
“I don’t suppose they would, we are dead,” I say, my attempt at humour about as well received as his had been.
There’s a long silence and I‘m just about to ask what he is seeing but: “Speak for yourself,” Mirror says, “I still have a chance if I conserve power until the autopsy.”
“You won’t save power in here with me . . . do you feel cold too?”
But he doesn’t answer. I feel his consciousness splitting, he must be moving into ecomode.
A large amount of time passes before I hear a voice, starting so low pitched it hums like the opposite of an engine screaming on high revs, but now the octaves rise up to: “Your eyes are open but something strange is . . . going on.” It’s Mirror’s voice, obviously intrigued, but his uncharacteristic hesitancy doesn’t reassure me. “The trees over our head have stopped moving . . . well not stopped but just slowed right down . . . and slowing. Most unsettling. And you did notice my having to speed up my processing to slow down to you?” His tone is one I’ve not heard before: “Funny thing is, despite the fact my cores are working harder my batteries are depleting at a much reduced rate in realtime.”
“You don’t have to follow me,” I say, wondering why I did.
“You’re still in your body. I’m just with you as always.”
It seems like I’ve been dead for a long time but the mirror reassures me that only seconds have passed, and that we are slipping deeper into a cognitive slowdown. He predicts that if our time perception stops slowing here at this rate my brain won’t start dying—as in losing cells—for one hundred years of subjective time. This I don’t find scary; the fact the alteration to our time perception isn’t halting but is instead accelerating is the overwhelming factor. How to keep mind from succumbing to an extreme form of cabin fever.
Like when eyelids are closed and finger pressure is applied through to the eyeballs: all around me a terrific landscape is emerging from a psychedelic fuzziness. But it isn’t wholly visual as the cascading images seem to tug at my emotions as this or that shape passes close by. The fact every formation becomes the stereotypical emotion I would expect from the shape delivering it heartens me, as it reinforces the idea I have that it’s just reflections of my own psyche, like a journey into the abstract recesses of the human mind.
“Hell of a show the brain can put on when it has nothing to do,” says Mirror, now floating in front of me as an uncoalesced blur of brain generated stuff.
“Yes and I can actually see you.”
“Well I may have some blame to take there. I thought if you could, maybe it would help?”
“It’s not hurting.”
“It’s a little strange for me,” his cloudlike form glows in sync with his every word. “Not having a visible presence, other implants do such tricks. It’s more the seeing myself through your eyes thing that is a bit unnerving. I used to have the romantic notion that if I was a real entity I would be conventional looking, maybe vaguely humanoid. But the truth is I am just a blur of nearly nothing . . . or everything.”
“Your positivity is really buoying me up, thanks,” I say. But the chatter is helping. “My brain is the one giving you that form; not sure I can effect anything different, sorry.”
“So what happens now?” Mirror swiftly changing the subject, for his benefit or mine I’m not sure.
“Wait and experience?”
The Angels’ and Demons’ pitched battle before me is all the more disturbing for its graphic nature. It is like a direct representation of all the best and worst aspects of humanity happening all at once within one inclusive vista. Birth and death, love and rape, tragedy and rapture. I’m just floating in void separate to the action, like I am stuck between galaxies and viewing the battle that would be raging at the end of the universe.
But despite the magnificence of watching star sized monsters casting planets at each other, like pinball, my mind is on the rerun of my life as usual.
The amount of subjective time that has passed since my death is hard to reconcile with the relatively short period of time I actually spent living. But I have found ways to deal with this place, those fuzzy images that had haunted me at first I quickly learnt to sculpt into something, only to find that something was gestation within my mother’s womb. Subjectively, this foetal period was the longest: eons of arms flailing in slow motions against warm flesh with less and less space. And then my whole life had repeated, steps to words, middle age accelerating back to death and here and now, all in realtime. Not as a passenger consciousness as such, but I was unable to do anything differently. Struggling through all the right and wrong decisions in my shorter than I’d’ve liked life.
But now this supernatural, gluttonous feast for the senses, hived civilisations and sapient planets at war with star sized monsters and imaginary angels, is nothing but an extension of an ability to coalesce order from the chaos of thought here; dark against light. And I’m not really sure whose side I am on, haven’t made that decision yet.
“All this put-on just for you,” says Mirror for the zillionth time. I gave up responding to this one a long time ago. When this ethereal universe had been big-banging in front of me it’d already become tedious, but the Mirror has his own coping mechanisms designed to keep him keeping my spirits up.
“Can I really say I tried as hard to do good as that lot down there?” I say, spreading my hand out lazily towards the action below and then above. Are these seas of celestial power really balancing and weighing the fearsome nature of my mind from within? I wonder.
“You can say what the hell you want I’d imagine. How long will it last?” says Mirror.
“How many years per second are we at now?”
“Stop focusing on that and make a choice already.”
“Do you honestly think I can directly influence anything that is going on there?” I point at nothing in particular as there is action everywhere, then stretch out my arms and clench my fists.
“Come on. Let’s go.”
The fact I wasn’t making the decision had come to the attention of the angels so they’d sent an emissary to speak to Mirror and myself. The angel stood so tall that it had taken subjective millennia for me to expand a body image sufficient to stand face to face. The angel’s extended hand had felt warm at first, but as he pulled away his grip the cold of it bit through the skin of my ethereal palm.
“We don’t normally have to wait this long,” he said kindly.
“How does that work?” I said, determined to get some answers.
He changed his eyes’ colour from cold white to red, to green, and then turned his back to me. “If you allow this to continue many more will die,” He said in such a way I could’ve sworn he was smiling. “The choice is not normally one hard to take. You must have an idea which way it is going to take you?”
“So does the choice exist?” I said, frustrated that I couldn’t see his face.
“That is for you to work out. All I know is that the fighting will continue until a route has been decided upon.”
“So that’s it? You came here to say that?”
“We can’t choose for you.” He turned back around and looked at me with cloudy blue eyes. “I simply beseech you to end this suffering.” He gestured his hand, palm up, to the violence beyond him.
“Is there nothing you can do for me?” I said, hearing desperation in my voice.
He extended his index fingers and scratched my forehead drawing blood, and then the world went.
I slipped to blackness but in the distance saw a light, the shine of which comforted my thoughts: of its sight, of feelings of loss. I was lost in its glow; it was growing bigger, enveloping me slowly.
Faintly I heard someone calling, all around me a song but no sound. But then it was wings spreading upwards from underneath my feet and embracing me kindly. I remembered I was dead but I had no sense of loss now for what I’d left behind. I accepted my flesh was gone. I even thought my soul flown. Surely the purpose of life was accomplished as I’d sown my seeds when alive?
Now came to my mind a judgement all of its own, an inner testing process. Had I done more than passed the test, had my soul grown into something worthy of my own positive judgement?
I looked up and thought I saw two cloudlike figures shoulder to shoulder. They both spoke as one but the voice divided when I decided it should. I saw this as my conscience battling, as if the angels imprisoned within this process were in fact in control of me, like they were the ones to decide.
One angel from the dark and one from the light; I could see one of them, its humanoid form highlighted, but the other was just pitch night.
I thought that if I was to question this, try to figure out what was going on, the questions would be unending. Was this coming from them or was my conscience really able to rejudge my life again afresh? Was my existence worthwhile or had life simply run its course; had any meaningful purpose been imposed by my choices made in life?
Then I was back in the warm comfort of the womb again, but my mind symbolically ripped me out into some cold barrier zone. I was falling as the Earth I remembered and still loved grew below me. I saw Enlightenment sitting up on his throne in orbit, looking down on me, his gaze trying to penetrate to the heart inside my chest. I put up my hand instinctively to hide it, for all the good that would capture and hold there. But I did feel something flowing through me. I felt blood pumping into and out of my heart: a balance.
The voices of the angels had gone and I didn’t believe I’d ever heard them despite the fact my mind remembered their sweet and dark tones. The thrust of their message bandied around me: a being unknowingly decides its own fate. How much of this was from me and how much was from these angels who surely were part of me was now more unclear than ever.
Then I was on a mountain ledge overlooking a pock-marked plain. It was obvious a conflict had just ceased below, and the flattened battle field was dark and barren. The sky above shone down white and cloudless but the dark of the land seemed to be rising. The horizon was fixed.
“Where were you?” Mirror said.
“How long was I away?”
“Not long but I wasn’t able to feel you, I thought I was trapped here.”
“You lost your escape route?” I said.
“I never had one. I just told you that so you wouldn’t worry about me.” His words were followed by a long silence.
“I’ll see what I can do then,” I said. I felt that things were coming closer to a conclusion. I was tempted to ask how many minutes had elapsed since my heart had stopped but it seemed immaterial to what I was now attempting. “You know, I didn’t make the choice.”
Mirror turned towards me and I noticed he’d now taken on a humanoid form: his skin was like fluorescent silver, and his body was a menacing splice of human form and robotic lines.
I reached out and squeezed his shoulder, it felt warm and I could feel blood coursing under his skin.
Sending a signal through my arm into him, I made him roll back on his heels. His face showed no surprise—no emotion at all—but he put up a hand and gently removed my grip from his shoulder.
“What now?” he said looking at me with wide eyes.
“Now we are going to go back up and walk my body to the morgue.”
As we flew up long twisting tunnels my only way of understanding the network’s structure was to imagine I was flying through the middle of a hollow tree root system. I sensed there was a hand pulling me upwards but I couldn’t see it. Mirror flying beside me was complaining about a pain in his ankle; I looked down and saw a claw had latched on deeply, exposing bone.
“How much farther?” Mirror demanded through clenched teeth.
I didn’t say anything, just looked across at him. He returned his eyes front.
After a short time the tunnel ended and I was back in my body, I looked up to see the tree above me had started to shed its leaves as my body had lain dying: In my peripheral vision I saw a few leaves around me on the ground and the smell of an autumnal breeze soaked into my nose. I felt alive, every nerve in my body was on fire but it felt heavenly. I sat up but didn’t move, I lifted my arm but nothing happened.
Mirror spoke to me inside my head: “Oh my god this feels terrible, no wonder you didn’t seem that bothered to be dead.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant, “But I’m back now!” I thought.
“Not exactly. You have regained consciousness within the eight minute window but . . . ”
It was then that I sat up and my worry dissipated as I took in a long breath. I could smell the sap of the tree and felt dirt collect under my nails as I scrabbled the ground and stood up. Then I felt Mirror laugh my lungs—and the tightness of a smile. But it was without the emotion of happiness and it dawned on me that he was in control. What exactly was I witnessing?
“This body is damaged but I think it will get me to the hospital,” said Mirror through my lips. I was dumbfounded that he was actually doing the impossible, running a human body with his own systems that were nowhere near advanced enough to cope with the processing requirements; and I could feel worry in his tone.
Managing to gather myself, I then tried to reply but couldn’t. Thoughts that should’ve turned into internal communications unable to express.
“Are you there?” he said with my vocal cords, and I felt him reach up and scratch my itchy scalp.
I screamed as loud as I could, but all I could sense was a voice echoing back at me and then screeching like feedback.
As my body set off I noticed across robot riddled fields the familiar sight of a mushroom cloud rising—another hapless person’s mind had reached critical mass, after a union with one of those new-type mirrors with quantumbots hadn’t taken, as per usual—I wasn’t scared, I’d been far closer to much bigger explosions than this. But for reasons unknown to me I froze it in time, stopping my time perception right down to a near standstill. And instead of making me feel safer it simply allowed my focus to wander over the explosion’s formation, it was beautiful yet chaotic, its shape irregular in a way I’d never seen before: it didn’t make sense.
I thought for a moment that I’d actually stopped it. That this explosion would halt its destruction, its creation to my will—but then I realised that I’d just paused my mind, and I hadn’t been in control of slowing down my time perception—and I would be losing understanding of what the cloud would be, that the very concept of it expanding out into a shockwave was becoming elusive. It was like I knew my brain was going to be picked apart from the inside by Mirror: structured anew into some kind of transcendent being. And it suddenly hit me; I'd been betrayed for an upgrade: he hadn’t told me that our union will be the first made successful between quantumbots and flesh: the answer being, cut out the middleman: then a silver brightened the world and my body and self were gone . . .

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