[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
Hugo and Nebula Winner

SFWRITER.COM > Novels > The Downloaded > Chapter 1

The Downloaded
by Robert J. Sawyer

Eric Greene
A good and wise ape


Any civilization’s collapse begins the moment its people start to ask themselves “Does this bring me joy?” rather than “Does this bring others joy?”

—James Kerwin

Interview with Dr. Jürgen Haas

So you’re the ... the person who wants to interview each of us? I know it’s hot out, but you should be wearing a coat, don’t you think? A mackinaw? As in deus ex machina? Thank you, thank you, I’m here — well, for the next seven years, at least. Try the five-hundred-year-old veal, and don’t forget to tip your robot.

       Nothing? Crickets? Talk about a tough room! Anyway, yeah, sure, I’m glad to be interviewed. But I bet some of the others will refuse. No, no — not any of us, but some of them. Go ahead, though; fire away.

       Oh, don’t bother calling me “Dr. Haas.” “Jürgen” is fine, thanks. What? Sorry; I’m having trouble understanding your accent. When did I first realize something was wrong? Let’s see. It was nighttime. Why? Because I like nighttime. Heck, sometimes I let the night last for — well, for what seemed like days, if you get my drift.

       There was a full moon. In movies, it’s always a full moon, isn’t it? Used to bug the heck out of me. And if they showed a dark night sky, it was just some random spattering of stars, never any recognizable constellations. But I made sure my sky was correct: Ursa Major in the north, mighty Orion in the south — although I did cheat on the planets, like they used to in planetariums. Instead of untwinkling points, each showed a small disc. I could see the cloud bands on Jupiter, the rings around Saturn, and hints of geography on Mars.

       But, yeah, I guess I like the full moon as much as the next guy, so it usually was full for me. I know the glare should have banished most of the stars, but in the Jürgenverse the very heavens bent to my will.

       A megalomaniac? Moi? That’d only be true if they were delusional fantasies. But the moon was indeed full and the stars were blazing; even the ones right by the lunar disc were visible, while the Milky Way arched gloriously from horizon to horizon. And, no, there weren’t any clouds. I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now — a perk of the job, see? — and unless they resemble a dragon or something else cool, I’ve got no use for them.

       So, yeah, a perfect night sky. All it needed were streamers of northern lights, like in a Yukon tourism ad, and — voilà! — there they were: rippling green and gold sheets. Gorgeous. But it wasn’t freezing; screw that. It was as warm as an old-time August night in Toronto, but with none of that damn humidity.

       Now, a night like that, you gotta do something special, right? Like, say, bodysurf over Niagara Falls. As a kid, I once saw the falls long after sunset, when they lit them up with different colors. My version was like that, too: foaming sheets of pink and magenta, green and teal.

       I had the Niagara River raging toward the precipice, a wild torrent, kicking up spray that diffracted the moonlight into rainbows. On the shores were beds of white trilliums, the goddamn provincial flower, which I’d seen precisely once in the wild. But they are beautiful, so what the heck: millions were as easy as one.

       And, sure, body surfing in the dark is insane, but that’s what made it worth doing. Now, a stunt like that needed an audience, and so I conjured one up: Letitia, dreadlocks down her back, long shapely legs quickly closing the distance between us, a huge, warm smile across her gorgeous face.

       Don’t look at me like that. She is gorgeous, and I am not objectifying her. I’m just telling you how I saw her, all right? Give me a break.

       Sure, it wasn’t the real Letitia. She was off in her own silo just like I was in mine. I hadn’t seen her in the flesh for — God, had it really been four years? Time flies when you’re having fun — or, I suppose, when your system clock is running fast.

       But, actually, the clock there was running slow. Yes, from my point of view, just four years had passed in that simulated reality, so it was now 2063 as far as I was concerned, but five centuries had slipped by in the outside universe. That made it sometime in the mid-2500s, meaning we should have been getting close to our destination.

       The last time I’d seen the real Letitia, she’d been thirty- eight. I was a year older — still am, subjectively — but got my astronaut’s wings a year after she did; medical school takes time.

       Anyway, there was no need to wear clothes; nothing could hurt me, and the temperature was always whatever I found comfortable. Still, I summoned up a pair of swim trunks in ANSA blue and gold. For her part, Letitia was wearing — well, that was odd. She was in her astronaut’s jumpsuit. But at least its light tan color made her visible in the dark.

       I looked back to make sure Letitia was paying attention, then braced myself on the trillium-covered north bank — the Canadian side — and bent down in a low crouch, then leapt up, up, up into the air. At the pinnacle, I swung my arms over my head, ready to pierce the raging waters as my trajectory started angling downward. When I hit, the water was warm — no need to suffer, after all! — and I remained submerged for a full minute before rising to the surface, my body sluicing along the top of the frothing river, barreling (but not in a barrel!) toward the sheer cataract of Niagara Falls.

       Just before I reached the rocky lip, I realized that I could have even more spectators if I added the Maid of the Mist sightseeing boat, with its crowd of tourists clad in yellow slickers, and — ta-da! — there it was, up ahead and far below, as I shot over the precipice like I had a booster rocket up my bum. I must have been flying forward ten meters for every one I dropped in altitude, and I soon realized that by the time I hit the Niagara River, Letitia would be far behind.

       I’ve got a silly fondness for superhero movies, so I pulled my right arm back against my body, the way Superman does when executing a turn, and started arcing back toward her. The air whipped my hair and flung moisture from my body. I imagine from Letitia’s point of view I was a silhouette against the night, backlit by the moon. To rectify that, I made three spotlights on rotating mounts appear along the south bank and let their beams converge on me as I continued to swoop down toward her.

       Letitia should have been applauding wildly and grinning from ear to ear, but she was doing neither. Instead, she just stood there, arms folded across her chest, shaking her head. The system usually knows what I want to see, but I could always override its choices through an effort of will and I made an effort then, telling the Letitia simulation to let out a cheer and then come running toward where I was about to land.

       But nothing happened. She just stood there, looking pissed. I spread my arms as though they were brakes and came down gently about three meters from her. As I walked toward her, I noticed something startling. Her dreadlocks were longer than I’d ever seen them, but that didn’t bother me; the more the merrier, says I. But from the top of her head down to the middle of her bottom, they were interspersed with red beads, like cranberries strung along twine. Beads I don’t mind, but I hate the color red — yeah, strange for a doctor, I know — and there’s no way I’d have conjured up a vision of her looking like this.

       I blinked rapidly three times — my usual trick for correcting glitches — but nothing changed. “Jesus, Letitia,” I said, hearing my own voice for the first time in ages. “That was pure athletic gold right there. Why the resting bitch face?”

       Anger shone through her normally charming Jamaican lilt. “I’d forgotten what a little boy you can be, Jürgen. Maybe I should turn to Dr. Chang instead.”

       Chang. That bastard. One of the best things about going into my own silo had been leaving other people behind — certain ones, at least. “Simulation override phi chi psi omega,” I said. “Reset Letitia.”

       But Letitia remained exactly as she had been, standing among the trilliums, glaring at me. “Conjure up some more clothes, doofus,” she said. “We need to talk.”

Interview with Captain Letitia Garvey

Yeah, yeah, that’s what Jürgen would say. Me waiting there for him at the side of the Niagara River with — what did he call it? — “a huge, warm smile” on my face. I won’t say it’s typically male to cast a woman as a passive spectator, but male astronauts like Jürgen still cling to that macho so-called “right stuff” the original Mercury Seven had coursing through their veins. Of course, Jürgen’s veins were now filled with antifreeze, like mine, but you know what I mean.

       Or maybe you don’t. I guess I better explain. For me, it started with my grandfather on my mother’s side — that’s the Jamaican-born one. In 1989, when he was just twenty-nine, he was diagnosed with a rare form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma called mantle cell lymphoma. How rare? Just a few hundred diagnoses a year in North America. How serious? Incurable; terminal. Doctors said he had maybe four years to live.

       Well, that wasn’t good enough for a man who’d survived a tour of duty as a United Nations peacekeeper. Nor was it good enough for someone who still had what he called his “barrel list,” a bucket being much too small to hold all his plans. We had that in common, Gramps and me: a drive to do everything. Neither of us could stand it when something got in the way of our goals.

       I’d never met him, of course, but Grandma and Mama told me all about him. A black man in what was then the white man’s world. He had to fight every step of the way — and so I’ve got to keep fighting, too, right? Carry on the family tradition.

       They used to say a cure for cancer was twenty years in the future — and they’d been saying that for five decades. But they were making stumbling progress toward treatments for mantle cell lymphoma back then. There sure as hell wasn’t going to be a cure in four years, and maybe not in twenty, but eventually there was bound to be one. And so my grandparents decided to have him cryonically frozen when the cancer finally took his life. This was a man who wasn’t going to let a little something like stage-four cancer stop him — at least not for good.

       Between the life insurance his union job provided and a policy he’d bought separately, there was three million dollars just waiting to be collected — and, back then, that was enough to look after his wife plus my momma-to-be and her two brothers with lots left over for the deep freeze. He signed a contract with ColdBoot, Incorporated, based in Nevada, the world’s top-rated cryonics facility.

       Ironic, that. Glowing reviews ... of their grounds, their staff, and their facilities for storing bodies; they had about a hundred and seventy in deep freeze. But no reviews of their ability to resuscitate a dead body, because no one had any idea how to do that. As the joke went, “How many cryonicists does it take to change a light bulb?” “None — they just sit in the dark and wait for the technology to improve.”

       Well, upon Grandpa’s death in 1994, when he was thirty-four, he was indeed frozen. As he said just before he passed away, he was always a chill dude anyway.

       During the opening decade of the twenty-first century, treatments for mantle cell lymphoma involving chemotherapy were developed, but they couldn’t be called cures. Even if you managed to beat the disease back until there was no trace of it in the body, mantle cell, caused by a chromosomal translocation, had a one-hundred-percent recurrence rate. The fucking thing always came back, and the second time it was almost impossible to knock down.

       But soon, robust treatments were developed, combining chemo and radiation with an autologous stem-cell transplant. That technique was the gold standard for a while, and usually gave the patient nine or ten years of life following initial diagnosis. And then, in the 2020s, there came something called CAR T-cell therapy. Finally, oncologists started using the word “cure” in relation to this cancer, although the noun was still most often preceded by the adjective “potential.”

       My grandma missed her husband but was in no rush to have him revived, partly because she was afraid of what a man whose body was still that of an amateur athlete in his thirties would make of a wife who was now a senior citizen.

       But by 2032, CAR T had been replaced by advanced genetic techniques, providing a total, permanent cure. And so my grandmother decided it was time. She, my momma and poppa, my uncles Devon and Leroy, and twelve-year-old me converged on Nevada and asked ColdBoot to revive him. It was a historic moment, something Grandpa never could have anticipated when he’d signed up for this: turned out he was the first person any cryonics facility anywhere was going to try to bring back to life. They’d have to rapidly remove the antifreeze that had replaced his blood to keep his cells from exploding, fill him up with six liters of O-positive, and then restart his heart.

       Grandpa’s body, removed from the steel canister that had held it for thirty-eight years, was shrouded in rapid-heating thermal blankets. Wall displays big enough that we could read them from the upstairs observation gallery showed his vital signs, or lack thereof: body temperature was 17C and rising rapidly, but both his EKG and EEG showed flat lines, as did his respiration monitor; one on me would have revealed the same thing as I held my breath.

       There were two more digital readouts, each glowing red, one atop the other. The upper one was labeled “Chronological Age,” and said “72 years / 3 months / 22 days.” The lower one was marked “Biological Age,” and said what you’d have found on Grandpa’s death certificate issued almost four decades earlier: “34 years / 10 months / 5 days.”

       Finally, it was time for the defibrillation. One of the nine doctors in the room pulled back the blankets, and another applied the paddles, and —

       — and Grandpa’s chest heaved, and the electrocardiogram jumped into action, and, moments later, so did the brain-wave monitor. Just after that, the respiration monitor showed him taking giant shuddering breaths. We watched his chest rise and fall.

       I glanced at the biological-age readout and saw that “days” now showed a six, which was doubtless a bit of theater: having that value arbitrarily set to just before the end of one day so that his new life would be marked by a changing of the last digit.

       Up in the gallery, we hugged one another and let out excited whoops. Tears of joy collected in my grandmother’s eye sockets. Below, those doctors not immediately occupied were giving each other high-fives or shaking gloved hands.

       We waited for Grandpa’s eyes to flutter open ...

       And we waited.

       And waited.

       Finally, my mother couldn’t take it any longer. In the gallery with us were three ColdBoot executives, and Momma and I turned to face them. “Well? Why hasn’t he woken up?”

       Mr. Nakamura, a tall man with slicked-back hair, tried for a reassuring smile, but I could tell it was forced. “He’s probably just like me: no matter how long I’ve slept, when the alarm goes off, I want five more minutes.”

       Momma frowned, but we turned back to look out the angled windows at the revival room. The celebratory atmosphere had evaporated and all nine doctors were hustling about. One flicked his index finger against Grandpa’s forehead as if trying to get a piece of machinery with a loose connection to work.

       After a couple more minutes it proved too much for Nakamura. He leaned forward and pressed an intercom button mounted on the window sill. “Heather, what’s going on down there?”

       A doctor with skin even darker than mine looked up and, although the bottom of her face was behind a mask, there was no mistaking the panic in her eyes. “Everything was nominal,” she said. “Everything is nominal, but ...”

       “Then why isn’t he awake?” demanded Nakamura.

       Her shoulders lifted and fell in a shrug that mirrored the tracing on the respiration monitor. “I don’t know.”

       Grandpa didn’t wake up that day ... or the next ... or the one after that. Finally, Nakamura gathered us all in his office. “I’m so sorry,” he said, “but Mr. Henderson is in a coma. He’s completely nonresponsive to external stimuli. Everything is working fine, except he isn’t conscious.”

       “You promised you could revive him!” my grandmother said.

       “Well, I didn’t,” said Nakamura, who would have been in public school back when Grandpa was frozen, “but he has been revived. He’s come back to life. No one has ever been resuscitated, and —”

       “Fuck that!” said Grandma, the first time I’d ever heard her use such language. “That isn’t living.”

       Nakamura nodded reluctantly. “We’re flying in experts in neuroscience — best in the business. Meanwhile, we should discuss ...”

       “What?” said Grandma. “You want more money? Good Christ!”

       Nakamura held out his hands palms up. “No, no, no. Of course not. It’s just that ... well, he still has mantle cell lymphoma, and there’s nothing about the gene-resequencing cure that requires him to be conscious. I suggest we go ahead and eliminate his cancer so that when he does wake up, he’ll be healthy.”

       But he never did wake up. We moved him into a long-term-care facility near Grandma’s house in Montego Bay, and she went to visit him every day until she herself passed away.

       There’d been funds set aside to freeze her when her time came, but, after watching her beloved just lie there year after year, she chose not to follow in his footsteps. And, really, who could blame her? In the time since ColdBoot had tried to bring Grandpa fully back to life, they’d also tried to revive seven others as cures were found for the things that had killed them ... and not one had regained consciousness.

       ColdBoot’s competitors also tried reviving “corpsicles,” as the press had taken to calling them, and although in all but one case, in which the body didn’t resuscitate at all, the once-dead did regain biological activity, they never woke up.

       Simple old age finally caused Grandpa’s revived body, which it seemed had no ghost to give up, to fail. He passed away in 2056, at the age of ninety-five, after spending the last quarter-century just lying there, unresponsive, a fate worse than death.

       Eventually, scientists figured out why the cryonics companies couldn’t wake up any of their patients. ColdBoot and their ilk had assumed both the body and the mind could be frozen then thawed out as good as new. But while they were refining their techniques for dodging the grim reaper, other companies confirmed what some had suspected since way back in the 1980s. Although the autonomic parts of the central nervous system run purely along classical physics lines, consciousness — the self-reflective inner life — is a product of quantum-mechanical interactions, and it was subject to the usual bane of quantum effects: decoherence. After a few days, the quantum state would collapse, destroying the consciousness that had once existed, and nothing anyone had ever tried managed to regenerate it. All those frozen people might as well have spent far less money on burial plots: they were gone, gone, gone.

Interview with Roscoe Koudoulian

More questions? Christ, I thought I was through with all that. At least you aren’t a hostile D.A. who just wants to lock people up. Or maybe you are? Seriously, why should I believe you when you say you’re not judging us? Everybody judges. That’s human nature — and, well, I guess that’s your nature, too, right?

       No response? Fine; be that way. Aren’t you at least going to ask me what I was in for, though? Isn’t that what everybody wants to know when they hear you’re an ex-con?

       Well, I’ll tell you. I killed a man. Weasely little asshole tormenting me on social media. Hiding behind a pseudonym. Jerkface thought I’d never figure out who he really was. But it was child’s play. I just waited for one of his comments to have a distinctive way of saying something, and eventually on Facebook, he said I was a disgrace to Homo sapiens — but he spelled the sapiens part so wrong even the automatic speller had no idea what he was trying to say. None of that “I before E except after C” bullshit; he didn’t even have an “I” in it. No, he wrote S-A-Y-P-E-U-N-S. So I popped over to TownSquare and put that spelling in the search box to see if anyone there had used it, and Jesus fuck if my jaw didn’t drop.

       There he was, and with no pseudonym: Mitch Aldershot, the main bully of my childhood, who’d lived the next block over back in West Lafayette. Guy had tracked me down as an adult and decided he wanted to continue to get his jollies by making my life miserable again, I guess. But, like all bullies, he was a coward, hiding behind a phony name. I’d block him, but he’d come back under another name, and then another and another.

       Anyhow, now that I finally knew who he was, finding where he lived was easy. He wasn’t in Indiana anymore, and neither was I. He’d parked his asswipe self in Boston and I was in Buffalo, but it wasn’t long before my business took me to Beantown.

       I rented a car at the airport — a completely self-driving one — and rode along, watching the news. I don’t remember the exact date, but it was a Saturday afternoon in May or June of ’57. You could pin it down, I guess, from the news stories I saw. There was something about that coup in Florida, I think, and the results of the privacy referendum from the Mars colony.

       Anyway, the car did a perfect job of parking on the street outside Aldershot’s house. My plan, such as it was, had been to march up and push his doorbell. I honestly didn’t know if he’d open up for me; he’d be able to see who it was through his doorcam. But when I arrived, he’d apparently just finished mowing his lawn and was returning the mower to his garage, the door to which was up. I almost admired him for a second, doing that chore himself instead of having a robot do it.

       I followed him in, the sound of the mower’s wheels on the garage floor masking my approach. I hit the button on the wall that I guessed operated the door, and sure enough the hinged panels started coming down.

       Mitch swung around, startled. “What the hell?” he said. And then he saw who was in there with him. “Koudoulian?” he spluttered. He knew what I looked like; he’d seen all my online photos — me and my two border collies, me and my daughter on those weekends I had custody of her, me coaching her baseball team.

       “Aldershot,” I replied, just to make sure he understood that I also knew who he was. Time had certainly turned the tables: I was a good five inches taller than him now and outweighed him by thirty pounds, all of it muscle.

       We looked at each other, terror on his face and, I imagine, fury and determination on mine. Off to my left was a doorway that I guessed led into the house. I quickly moved to put myself between him and it.

       “What — what do you want?” stammered Aldershot.

       The sweetest thing, I thought. A dish best served cold, I thought. A settling of scores, I thought. But what I said was, “To knock you on your fucking ass.”

       He raised his hands in a “Be cool, man,” gesture, and started backing away, abandoning the lawnmower. I was glad his car wasn’t there. We now had an arena bigger than a boxing ring; plenty of room to give him the epic shit-kicking he deserved.

       “Look, um, Roscoe,” he said. “I never —”

       “Never what? Never meant to make my life a living hell? Starting when I was four, for God’s sake! Beating the crap out of me day in and day out, for what? Because I sometimes wore a Star Trek T-shirt? Because I had a lazy eye? Because I’m left-handed?” I took a step toward him and then another. “I used to wonder what would make someone turn out like you. Some of the other kids said your father beat you. Everyone knew he was a drunk, so maybe he did. But that’s only an excuse — if it’s any kind of excuse at all — when you’re a kid yourself. But you tracked me down again, thirty years later. Why, damn it?”

       He stayed silent as he shuffled slowly backward toward the rear wall of the garage, which was partially covered by the electric charging station and a Masonite pegboard holding gardening tools.

       “Why?” I demanded again.

       “You’re such a wuss, Koudoulian,” he said, pulling his favorite childhood insult out of the past.

       That did it. I lunged. He darted to one side, but I grabbed his arm, spun him around, and slammed him against the back wall. “Don’t call me that,” I said, seething. “Don’t you ever dare call me that again.” I jerked him forward then slammed him back again. Next, I pulled him toward me — and saw that the back of his head had left a bloody mark where it had hit the wall.

       “Why?” I said, my voice a low rumble. “Why come at me after all these years?”

       He turned his head to the left, eyeing the door to the house, but said nothing.

       I smashed him against the wall once more, the Rorschach of blood growing larger. He brought up his knee to kick me in the balls — just like he always used to do when beating me up. I twisted to avoid that, and he used the leverage to get away. But I managed to trip him, and he went face-first onto the garage floor. Within seconds, I was looming over him and booted him in the kidneys. “Why?” I demanded once more.

       He drew up into a fetal position but just grunted. I kicked him again. “Why?”

       “Because ...” he said between wheezing, wet breaths, “because when I found you online — just curious to see what had become of you, is all — you were posting all kinds of left-wing bullshit, and —”

       “You tormented me over politics?”

       “Bleeding hearts like you have been ruining America for decades. Couldn’t have you polluting the mind of that little girl of yours.”

       What happened next was, as they always say, a blur. I remember whirling around, taking some steps, and grabbing a pair of garden shears from the pegboard. By the time I had them, Aldershot was back on his feet. He ran for the switch that opened the garage door and slammed his palm against it.

       I body-checked him into the door as it started to rumble up and I swung him around so he was facing me and —

       Yeah, this is the part I don’t remember clearly, but I guess the forensics team was right; it probably did happen this way —

       I opened the garden shears and drove one of the blades sideways into the middle of his chest. Then I pulled the blade out, and he just stood there, supported only by the slowly rising garage door, his mouth a surprised circle as blood came pouring out of him.

       And then, after what seemed like an eternity, the folding panels of the door passed the top of his head, and he tumbled backward and fell onto the driveway ... just as a woman out walking a poodle passed by on the street. I stood there dumbfounded while she brought out her phone. She must have called 911, because soon enough I heard screaming sirens approaching.

Interview with Captain Letitia Garvey

So, yes, ColdBoot and its competitors could freeze a body, but they couldn’t preserve a consciousness. All those decades my Grandpa spent just lying there, he couldn’t even be dreaming; everything he had once been was gone for good.

       But that didn’t stop me from dreaming about him, and when I was in my silo, he was often there with me. Sure, it was a simulacrum, and maybe it really didn’t resemble the actual man. Oh, physically, it looked like him; I’d seen enough photos and home movies to get those details right. And I suppose he must have had flaws and foibles like the rest of us, but in my reality he was perfect. The kind of person I always wanted to be: strong, resourceful, fearless. In my silo, we went adventuring together. I got to relive his peacekeeping experiences, dodging missiles and land mines. And I got to be in Cape Town with him when he went there in 1990 to march with Mandela. In real life, cancer was already slowing Grandpa down by then, and he apparently barely survived a mob attack by a bunch of whites, but in my version I was there with them — him, Mandela, all the others — kicking ass and taking names.

       Of course, my grandpa wasn’t the only human being who wanted to cheat death. They came along too late for him, but other competing paths toward immortality started to bear fruit, and eventually the notion of scanning and uploading consciousness into a computer went from science fiction — that is, from a rational, reasonable extrapolation of what we actually know — to science fact. Straight digital scanning of a mind accomplished nothing, but using quantum entanglement to produce an exact duplicate inside a quantum computer did the trick.

       Except that most of the first quantum copies produced went insane. Why? Because there was nothing for them to see or do inside the quantum computer. They existed but there was no sensory input, no world in which they lived, no space in which they could move.

       The first solution tried was slowing the clock speed of the quantum computer to zero; the idea was to store a snapshot of the mind without it experiencing any passage of time. But the same thing happened as with frozen brains: they never rebooted any self-awareness. It turned out that you have to keep consciousness running — and that meant you had to keep it sane, and that meant building a virtual-reality environment inside the quantum computer where it could feel and think and interact.

       Store the body at sub-zero temperatures; store the mind in a quantum computer — and reunite them at some point in the future. It was a perfect solution not just for those seeking to beat death, like my grandpa, but also for astronauts like Jürgen and me planning to go on a centuries-long interstellar voyage.

       Except, damn it all, something went horribly, horribly wrong.

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