Chapter 1

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“Hold still, Mr. Cline – that’s better.” As he followed the nurse’s instructions, Ben felt a slight pinch at the base of his skull, and then the very subtle – possibly imagined – sensation of cool liquid flowing into his head. As she circled around in front of him and made her way over to the control screen, he noted that even in the sterile atmosphere of the anti-aging ward, he wasn’t above imagining her shapely curves under her purple uniform. She tapped the screen and he saw some numbers that looked important flash across it. “The doctor will be in to see you next, Mr. Cline,” and she was gone.

The doctor appeared. He’d met her before, of course. What was her name again? “As you know, I’m Doctor Barnaby,” she said. “How are you feeling?” He replied: “Good. Is everything all right? Did it work?” “Oh yes, everything looks perfect. This is the last step. The stem cells we just injected into your brain will now work their magic, and you’ll be able to live for ever, as long as you keep coming in to Youthful You every 10 years for a top-up. The new body we gave you last month turned you into a 22 year old, so that will last you another 50 years or so before it’s time for a new one. Just look after it and don’t forget your supplements. And don’t get into any accidents, you can’t live for ever if you’re in pieces.”

Ben sighed an exhale. He’d thought long and hard before deciding on what approach to take to anti-aging. At first he’d found the idea of living forever repulsive – well, not exactly – he’d found it exciting but he’d worried other people would find it repulsive. Was it really ok for him to spend so much money – over 100 Bitcoins – on this, when there were so many people in the world whose lives were threatened by rising sea levels and droughts? He had reasoned that it wasn’t his fault that so much of Antarctica had suddenly and unexpectedly broken off into the ocean, and in any case he had earned his fortune fair and square speculating in cryptocurrencies in the 2017-2018 crypto boom. Lucky he got out at the right time on that one. He figured the world could use people like him, so living forever wasn’t selfish, it was actually a gift. As his mind settled into what he’d just done, he realized that wasn’t feeling the excitement or relief he’d expected to. He’d wanted this for so long, and now he had it he felt nervous – in his chest he felt a sense of distant panic, rising inexorably like the level of water in a bathtub.

Ben’s approach to living forever was actually more complicated. In the late 2030s, a few competing technologies had emerged to enable the wealthy and narcissistic to attempt to live the dream (or nightmare in some cases) of eternal life. The two front-runners used two quite different approaches. The first was the approach of periodically replacing the client’s body with a young clone of that person grown in a lab, while artfully convincing the brain to regenerate its youthfulness (without forgetting too much) using stem cells. The ‘Frankenstein approach’, as dubbed by its critics, was surprisingly effective, and had shot to fame when diminutive aging movie star Tim Roads (from the movie Fighter Pilots) had had the procedure done. The approach of grating the head onto the body was necessary because the person’s consciousness had to be maintained in the original head. At least so far, all experiments in trying to transfer the original client’s conscious thoughts into a fully new clone body had failed. Tim Roads had chosen the more expensive ‘Frankenstein Plus’ procedure in which the clone body was a genetically engineered ‘improved’ version of the original. In his case it was 5 inches taller. Ben had considered the various options and gone for the basic Frankenstein.

The second approach was called the ‘virtual life.’ Artificial Intelligence (AI) had taken off in leaps and bounds in the 2020s, paving the way for AIs that could be better and better simulations of people. When the company Real Me was founded, the best AIs couldn’t even properly simulate a gerbil, and for a long time it was a laughing stock. But they plugged away quietly, and the breakthrough came when they managed to invent an AI that could learn from humans how to be human by pretending to be human. Within a couple of years after this, they could create a virtual you by recording your entire life for one year and learning how you interact with the world. They then tuned it more finely with a series of brain scans and situational tests, and the end result was almost indistinguishable from the real thing, though without a physical presence: Real You exists in extended networks of computers. This method was ‘non-destructive’, so you could do it as a sort of insurance policy, leaving a copy of your consciousness ready to be activated in the event of your death. People preserved in this way could no longer interact with the physical world directly, but for many the attraction of living indefinitely without a body to be bruised, battered and repaired outweighed this minor disadvantage.

Two very different paths to eternal life. To hedge his bets, Ben had done both and had decided to activate the Real Me version immediately rather than waiting until he died. He wanted to be sure it was working.

As he walked out of the ward, he tapped his ear and his Babel sprang to life with a somber-sounding “Hi Ben.” For an instant he wondered why it wasn’t its usual chirpy self, then he remembered the new experimental Mood Match feature, of which he was a beta user. They had introduced Mood Match after one too many people had ended up in hospital after smacking themselves on the side of the head in anger at the overly-cheerful disposition of their in-ear hardware. He wasn’t sure whether to be grateful that the Babel was finally starting to show some empathy, or feel sad that he seemed to have infected it with his worries. He vaguely recalled reading an article about the latest research into anxiety caused by feeling sorry for machines. He felt sorry for any AIs that might have read that article and felt guilty as a result for harming people.

Call me an Uber, he thought. Nothing happened so he thought it again, more forcefully this time. Call. Me. An. Uber. Still nothing. Then he remembered he’d turned off the Telepath setting after an embarrassing incident involving 4 prostitutes showing up to his apartment dressed up as the Swedish Beach Volleyball Team. Katy had been unimpressed with that one.

“Call me an Uber”, he said quietly. “What kind?” came the reply. “Massage” – maybe that would make him feel better. It duly arrived and he stepped inside. As the van drove itself slowly home, programmed for the smoothest possible ride, the therapist began to knead his muscles, gently at first and then more firmly. He felt some of his nervousness fade, but a central kernel of it remained, and seemed to be hardening.

Ben clambered out of the van and walked up to and through his front door. As always, it swiftly opened, then closed behind him. A huge bunch of flowers sat on the table in the entrance hall. Something stirred inside of him. He hadn’t forgotten Katy’s birthday had he? He hated it when one of her other lovers made him look bad like this. It was a particularly nice bunch of flowers. The mild confusion was still tugging at him when he heard a shriek of delight and the noise of excited footsteps from upstairs. Katy burst out of the upstairs landing, ran down the stairs, and jumped into his arms with a tight embrace. She gave him a smack on the lips, and exclaimed “Ben! Thank you so much for the flowers! I LOVE them!” There was a moment’s pause. His mind flashed with the possibilities of what was going on. Had Polly ordered them? He didn’t think so because virtual assistants always told him when they were doing that sort of thing. Maybe Polly was acting up. Were they from one of Katy’s other lovers as he’d originally thought? If so could he claim credit for them without getting found out? He knew he only had an instant. His mind swirled. He resolved to do the right thing. “My pleasure! Only the best for you, my darling!”, he heard himself say. Maybe next time, he thought to himself.

He looked at Katy and smiled. He always felt that the focal point of her face was her chin. It was like an upside-down triangle, an arrow pointing towards her chest. Her features were small and punctuated by freckles. Blonde hair bounced around her face in curls. Ben had always been captivated by her eyes, which were ever so slightly different shades of green, just different enough that sometimes he could see the difference and sometimes not, depending on the light. He stared into them now, trying to act like the thoughtful lover who’d ordered flowers, not the liar who’d taken credit for someone else’s thoughtfulness.

“So, are you now immortal?” she enquired. Did he detect a touch of mockery in her voice? He couldn’t quite decide. “Getting there. I have to go in every 10 years and get a new body in 50. Of course by then the technology will have improved anyway.” “Of course,” she said with a cheeky smile. “So, eternity’s a long time. What are you going to do with it?” “I hadn’t really thought about it,” he admitted. “There’s a lot of episodes of Being the Bachelor to catch up on.” “Ugh, I hate that trash,” she scolded. “To think that we almost have fully realistic VR and we use it to experience a silly competition between vacuous women for an equally vacuous man. Truly sad.” He decided to change tack. “Let’s go out for dinner to celebrate my eternal life – my treat. Get ready and I’ll order us an Uber-Shag so we can enjoy the journey.”

Roxy Wacyk