Tamara Wilhite is a technical writer, industrial engineer, mother of two, and published sci-fi and horror author.
A Short Story by Tamara Wilhite
“The future belongs to those who live to inherit it.” The children in the small classroom nodded along to my words. Of course they did. They were the future.
The adolescents in the room listened with half of their minds, the approved, printed books holding their attention better than I was. None of them were yet old enough to be allowed the few digital readers we had left.
“Does anyone remember the most important thing we learned from the Singularity?” I could see a dozen minds racing over the prior history lessons, struggling to identify the most important one. For a moment, I wished I had an iPad to view my own prior presentations, but that wasn’t permitted in front of the children. The goal was to raise people independent of the tech that killed most of humanity.
A hand in the back shot up. His blonde hair and conservative clothing marked him as Amish, Mennonite or Hutterite. “Technology is dangerous.”
“Technology is a tool. How people use it and the intent with which the wield it is what makes it dangerous.”
A darker girl’s hand rose. I guessed a mix of Indian / los Indiginos and Hispanic. With her tight, oiled braids, there might have been “black” in there too. I tried to push away the racial categorization in my mind, but two decades of politically correct education deeply ingrained the habit. Identify the race, and you know their views, voting bloc and etc. Not that such things were still true almost a century later … “Yes, Maria?” I asked. I was almost certain that was her name. My memory for names had never been good, before the dementia fix or after.
“God prevails through even the greatest disasters.”
“We’re a conservative school, but a secular one. I’ll leave the religious interpretations of the Singularity to your religious leaders. OK, here are a few lessons we can choose from. First, when someone uses fancy words and abstract concepts instead of the truth, it is reasonable to assume they are hiding something. Secondly, mania and insanity can take hold even in the most educated populations and spread like wildfire. The result is mass death and destruction.” More than one child started looking about as if being in the school itself was a violation of their convictions.
“Does anyone remember my lessons on World War 2, the Nazis and their atrocities?” I asked. Two teenagers raised their hands. I made a mental note to go over the topic with this generation. I didn’t want them to hate technology. Lord knew, we depended on a Third Green revolution to keep food production up against the latest biotech threats. And a lot of ingenuity to keep repairing the technology we could keep, the sustainable power sources that depended on infrastructure that wasn’t as reliable as promised and cleaning up the world that was still in tatters.
“Never trust people who see people as pollution – they’re too eager to wipe everyone else out,” Johan answered from behind me. I turned around to face the bishop. I nodded to be courteous and added, “There’s a balance – between having more people than the land can support and too few. However, the problem with the population before the Singularity was many environmentalists who saw the poor as people to be eliminated while they themselves lived forever.” There was prideful laughter among the students behind me. They were the descendants of those left behind that survived the plagues that unknown parties unleashed to cull their numbers after too many people tried to “evolve”.
“The meek inherit the Earth.”
Religious banter again. I hated fighting the desire of religious extremists to turn the ruined world into a place for religious utopia. Just as I’d fought those who thought they’d solve the world’s problems by uploading to a Singularity, leaving everyone else behind. Never mind that a few EMP bombs at critical nodes were an easy way to wipe most of those out. Or the personas that had control of high tech that unleashed a dozen bio-weapons to cull those left behind while seeking revenge on the living. That’s how these people saw it, anyway.
“A billion uploaded over a decade. Seven billion ‘left behind’. A few people nicknamed ‘neo-Luddites’ blew up electromagnetic pulse weapons at major communication nodes to wipe out as many artificial personas as possible. The personas who had control of labs released bio-weapons in return.” I knew it was more likely a logical defense mechanism; kill those who tried to kill you, then the threat is eliminated. In that artificial state, the emotional responses like sympathy and compassion that would quell a violent response are silent because there are no hormones affecting the mind to create those emotions. There is only habit and programming. “That left about a billion people,” I said. “You’re their descendants. And it is our job to make the world a better place.”
Johan nodded slightly with approval. “I need to speak with you.” His tone meant ‘outside’.
I handed the class to one of the oldest teenagers and walked outside with him. I started to get worried as he kept walking, away from the building. Away from the innocent witnesses. Toward darker places and potentially angry adults.
Two of the Sheepdogs were waiting for him. The pastors are Sheppard. The people are sheep. The Sheepdogs protect people from the wolves. I felt a thrill of pure fear, the first in years. They walked with him and behind me. Johan didn’t say anything as we walked and I dared not ask.
My body threatened to collapse. I had trouble walking more than one or two miles. The metabolic demands of my implants were too great. They just stopped and waited when I needed to breathe. When I could move, they made sure I did.
We reached the nearest memory grove to the school. Another three Sheepdogs were there. Johan finally faced me. “They’re screaming about you.” He waved to someone who connected a generator. The communication connections to the memory grove activated. The internet connected grave sites lit up with the life stories of long dead people. The USB drives and computer memory crystals swung lightly in the breeze, modern day wind chimes. And at least one communication node activated, intermittent from degradation but clear. Demanding or commanding my name, calling for my death or destruction or erasure. He waved again, and the power was disconnected. “Why?”
His mild curiosity was reassuring. It was better than the wild-eyed terror and cries to leave or be killed, or the religious nut who once tried to kill me because the voices told him so. “I’m older than I look,” I told him. He said nothing. “I was in IT when the Singularity started.” His expression would have been called a poker face decades ago, but no one here would ever admit to knowing what poker was. “I couldn’t upload, so I didn’t. I didn’t help others do it. It seemed immoral to me. I did see the procedure. I made videos of it, thought that was a violation of the privacy agreements and intellectual property agreements and security rules. I captured images of the procedure. Then I shared it.”
This act is what saved my life when the backlash to the Singularity hit. I was one of the engineers on those teams, thoroughly immersed in the technology. But I had revealed the “truth”. The images had gone viral in every sense of the word. To capture the thought patterns and essence of a person required peeling back the skull, copying the brain’s gray matter and creating a model in a computer. This was the bare facts of the process.
Many copies didn’t become self-aware personas, but how would family not know this? And other personas were happy to try to upgrade the bare shadows of their peers or wear their digital faces to convince more to come join them. What I shared was more than this process. It was also the surgical teams converging on the now-brainless body, harvesting the organs for the living. I asked a very simple set of questions. Are the uploaded personas truly people? And I listed the failure rate. I asked whether or not this was a way to reduce the population. And it was, because even the personas themselves said this lifestyle reduced their impact on the planet. And I asked if this process wasn’t driven by a desire to get donor organs. Who would stop it, if there was so much going for it? Except for the dead bodies …
“Do you have nanites?” Johan asked me.
“No.” It was truth. But he’d assume I lied, because saying ‘yes’ was a death sentence.
“How can you be that old?” he asked.
This clearly wasn’t the answer he was expecting. His Sheepdogs seemed uncertain if it was a capital offense.
“Why are they calling for you?”
“They hate me.”
“Revealing the truth stopped the uploads.”
“When the truth got out, people stopped volunteering for the uploads. No one else had their body ripped apart … and the personas lost their stream of new people. In the virtual world, this was the primary source of new information. They had sensor nets, but humans co-opted those so often. And virtual worlds get boring when you live at the speed of light. By documenting and sharing the truth, I cut off the flow of new people into the Singularity.”
“You saved us.”
“There would have been people who refused to upload. The religious communities were already against it. If half went and half didn’t, the world’s population would be cut in half and those who remained would have developed social methods to discourage it in the future. The problem would eventually resolve itself. Maybe it would have become a way to try to cheat death at old age.”
“You shared the truth instead.”
“Yes, I did.”
“How can they still call for you?”
“The internet and Ethernet and Darpanet 2 and other networks spanned the world. The technology was often fragile, but later components were built to last decades. The EMPs only damaged part of that infrastructure, not all of it. Those who wanted the Singularity put robots and long term maintenance machines in place to maintain it. And there were maintenance machines that still tried to repair it.”
“Among other things, yes.”
“How old are you?”
“About a hundred.”
“You look like you are in your 40s.”
“Before the War, the Singularity and all of that, before the environmental degradation, you would have said I looked in my 50s or 60s.”
“I had a medical treatment to stop aging.”
“You don’t look young.”
“It didn’t reverse aging. It is closer to freezing … stopping the aging process.”
“Can you die?”
“Yes.” His Sheepdogs seemed reassured by the admission. That wasn’t reassuring to me. “Genetic engineering before the Singularity is not a crime. Work by Norman Borlaug and his peers was carried on through genetic enhancement of crops –“
“But it’s been illegal in humans forever.”
What do I say? Damned if I do, damned if I don’t. “There were trials. There were errors. I lived. Others didn’t. That’s why it never went forward, never became legal past the experimental stage.”
How long had I circulated in this area? I’d moved south and west over time. I felt senile. Had I failed to move on when someone recognized me from two decades before and realized I hadn’t aged? And there was a memory grove here, a high tech memorial to the dead … and the dead were still calling for me.
“What will silence them?” Johan asked.
I knew of several answers, none of which I dared utter. He grew angry at the silence, knowing that I was intentionally silent of answers he need. Oh, God, don’t classify me with them. I’m not one of them. I couldn’t be, I never will be, and cannot be. “What will silence them?”
“The numbers have to be dwindling over time. The net is failing. The sensors are failing. There are fewer and fewer of them, watching the lights go out and the windows close … that is why they hate me.”
“What will silence them?”
“Why do you care what the dead say?”
“They won’t let communications go through!”
Communication. Were they trying to use the internet again? I’d taught what I could so that productivity and quality of life could improve. “Only an upload of new people will silence them, and that is impossible.”
I could not interpret the expression on his face. I didn’t have time to think about it, because one of the Sheepdogs hit me in the back of the head. Simple ways are often the surest, they often said.
Revenge of the Singularity's Ghosts
It was hard not to wonder what Johan’s community would have thought of the sheep dogs bringing me here, the guardians of the community’s sheep. What had the personas told them? What had the personas said they should do?
I could certainly guess. Bound and gagged, they kept me hydrated and clean. When we arrived by cart at the destination, they made sure I had vegetable and fruit juice. Minerals and vitamins contained in those beverages implied that I needed to be in peak condition. The lack of care about my scratched and bruised body meant that the body itself didn’t matter. The surgical cleaning of my body and shaving of my head indicated my worst fears were going to be realized.
They took me to a surgical suite. It was maintained rather well. Of course, the processing facility was as well maintained as could be, since these places had the first and best nodes. I couldn’t tell what the personas were saying to the Luddites. I used to care for them, but I could not when they were sacrificing me to the dead.
They strapped me to the chair, cleaning up some as they went. And then they left the facility, hurrying as fast as they could. They were abandoning me to the ghosts.
I couldn’t identify the voice of the persona that tried to speak to me. The machines started their automatic routine. I wondered if the personas could control them, and if that was better or worse.
The system took automatic medical readings. It read my genetic signature, medical history and a dozen other factors. The surgical equipment stopped before it cut into my scalp. The painful weight of the robotic arm on my scalp was only matched by the keening of a medical alarm.
Reject. Failure. I had come from a family with a history of dementia. The genetic engineering had cured me, essentially freezing my biological age. The biochemical damage was halted and repaired. However, the alterations to the brain to save my soul from being lost to the sands of time made me unsuitable for upgrade to the Singularity. The genetically modified virus that had wrapped itself into my brain to stop the degradation with time had altered many other proteins and functions. This was too drastic a change for the machines to handle compared to their upload routine. It stopped and refused to go forward.
Just like the last time I was in the chair.
Several personas materialized in 3D around me, the vivid displays interrupted like a TV with static. I knew that was an analogy almost no one left on the planet would understand. Like so many other things, I was the last person in their world who did.
The Luddites hated all of the high technology. Living separate from it, they didn’t get caught up in the rush to “evolve”. When the visceral horror was revealed, it only confirmed their beliefs. Given the fact that these groups tended to be rural and socially isolated, they had a greater survival rate when the viruses hit and a greater than replaced level fertility that allowed them to rebound. They’d inherited the Earth.
It was their fear of both physical spiritual infection that kept them from swarming in and destroying this place and others like it. Only the personas who were hunting me down, thinking me responsible for stopping the flow of new people and then destruction of the sensor nets and internet, had found traces of my existence from listening into bits of conversation, tracking DNA samples or anything else. With the technological neglect, it was a harder task these days. All I had to do was manage not to look suspicious to those with whom I’d taken refuge, because they hated everything of that era – albeit it was a survival trait to fear such things now.
Even products of biological engineering were reluctantly tolerated today, like ultra-high yield seeds and plants that cleaned up brownfield sites. But tampering with the human body to such a degree as mine was, that was forbidden. Fortunately, I had found people who avoided the technology that could reveal my state ... until now.
The personas tried to demand explanations of me; everyone who knew my history had died on upload with failed persona creation or in the viral strikes. I was the only one who could explain, and I wouldn’t tell them. They couldn’t do anything to me.
They argued with each other, both in 3D and the net. The machine was restarted, and safety routines prevented it from going forward. Personas who had long forgotten human emotions couldn’t understand the torture I felt when they tried repeatedly to rip my mind from my body. Or they did know, from the medical readings, and they did it on purpose to punish me for my silence.
They called in a swarm of nanites. It was a vision from nightmares. The things had always swarmed through the optical fiber networks, computer cores and old power plants. I knew that because optical fiber, copper cables and power plants wouldn’t otherwise survive nearly a century without maintenance. The nanites poured into the machine in a bid to fix it.
The medical scan was disabled. The machine tried again. It started cutting this time. I screamed. It recognized a conscious patient and stopped. It signaled for medical intervention with the patient. And there was no one here to help.
I cried from the pain, closing my eyes from the blood pour down from the scalp wound. The personas tried to push it again. Patient safety routines activated. It shut down rather than hurt a living, breathing, screaming patient.
I could see and hear the civil war among the personas. They knew I had tried to upload, but not the reasons why it hadn’t completed. Now they had a clue, but I was the only one with the whole truth.
It wasn’t possible to say how many times after that the personas tried to go forward. The cure I’d endured had mostly worked when it undid the limited damage the early dementia had caused and underlying medical processes. I could make new memories, albeit slowly. Time passed for me mentally, but it was faster from my perspective because of the slow memory formation. The experiment to cure me was deemed a failure, because I didn’t learn as fast as everyone else anymore while the Singularity event horizon was reached.
About a decade in, I volunteered because most of my family went. The upload wouldn’t go because of my cure. I wanted to understand, so I set up recordings of the next sessions.
They’d never kicked me out of my job, because basic system maintenance wasn’t tedious to me and still very routine. Yet I was increasingly isolated as those closest to the Singularity were pulled into its vortex. I recorded more sessions. I saw the truth.
I sought out those who were uploaded. I argued with them for hours before calling up the code myself. I questioned them. I explored the code. I had nothing to do but diligent research. I found out that less than 5% of those who uploaded could be considered true simulacrums of those who had died. Would you die for the chance to go to digital heaven if 19 in 20 didn’t make it? The people who had consigned me to this fate would say they were in hell, but I asked the post-Singularity entities anyway. Would the near certain odds of my death trigger morality algorithms that otherwise demanded an upgrade?
I didn’t know what to do, so I had shared the video with a friend or two. I didn’t quite remember with whom, so I uploaded the videos again. Doing so from the IT department of the facility meant that the files weren’t immediately stopped but did get priority when received. Word got out.
I was confronted by those in the machine. They couldn’t undo the tidal wave of rage. They screamed at me for stopping evolution of the human race. I fled the facility where I worked. The emergency entrances all worked. After all, they’d been designed with human safety in mind.
The personas didn’t give up trying to force me to join them. However, the nanites were designed not to invade the human body and there no medical personnel to help a human patient. While my perception of time has been altered, physical demands like hunger and thirst are too basic to ignore.
I’m going to die strapped to this chair, along with all the post-human creations my students were taught to abhor, though just not the way that the post-humans wanted.
Tamara Wilhite (author) from Fort Worth, Texas on October 19, 2017:
Gilbert Arevalo Thank you for the praise.
Gilbert Arevalo from Hacienda Heights, California on February 25, 2017:
Interesting story, Tamara, I love the way your central character fights the aging process, and the war against people with shady agendas is intriguing. Achieving immortality in a cyber world is fascinating, especially if our souls could experience it.
Dan Barfield from Gloucestershire, England, UK on November 15, 2013:
Awesome!! I loved this - the Singularity is a great topic to tackle. What might the world be like in a post Singularity existence? There are different visions of what the singularity might be too... I may have to write a little parralell universe answer to this... could be fun. Great writing tamarawillhite!! Voted up. Followed.
Sid Kemp from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach) on June 10, 2013:
You did quite well on all those points - in a visceral tale.
Tamara Wilhite (author) from Fort Worth, Texas on June 10, 2013:
This story was written to counter the arguments that when we have computers that can upload a human brain, we'll all upload and become immortal either in cyberspace or download to robotic bodies.
And we have a history of euphemisms for disgusting processes - and uploading to the Singularity would be no different. What happens when instinctive disgust challenges the promise of immortality?
And given how many secularists dream of technology giving us immortality, why would they reveal any types of problems or failings with the process?
Sid Kemp from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach) on June 10, 2013:
Wow! Scary and intense. Great story!