My wife, Viola, hated the idea.
This was back in the twenty-second century when Earth was just recovering from the Shift. Water levels had risen. Populations had shifted. Disease and disaster had made a large dent in the population, and bitter wars had been fought. I was lucky to be born after all that, but the world still had the flavor of desperation. Things were finally getting better, but no one could really admit it yet.
When we met, Viola was twenty and I was nineteen. We met at university in Texas, and it was a torrid thing—biology driving us to propagate the species.
But no, I am being too cynical. She was young and beautiful with gorgeous brown hair that flowed in sheets around her shoulders and laughing green eyes. She was smart at times. Serious at others. And she tasted like life to me. I couldn’t get enough of her for those first few years, and she couldn’t get enough of me.
We married. Had children. Worked too much. Grew old. The usual.
The day I told her what I wanted to do was on my sixtieth birthday. We had spent the last year in Australia—they had survived the Shift better than most, having always had a small population given their land mass, and we found ourselves spending more and more time there. The Outback was something I had grown to love with its dry expanses of wild desert.
We had left the comfort of our cabin and taken a hike up a hill nearby. It afforded us a dramatic view of the desert—rust colored sand tentatively held together by scraggly, but hearty, bushes sweeping down as far as the eye could see.
I remember the hot sun, the smell of our sweat, the sound of our breathing. I remember the contortions her face went through when I told her about the Osiris Corporation, about what they could do, that I wanted to sign up. First confusion, then shock, and then disappointment.
“But, why? Why would you want to do that?” Viola asked. Her green eyes weren’t laughing, but she still had that gorgeous long hair, strands of it waving in the trickle of a breeze.
This was delicate territory for us. When I met her, she had a passing relationship with religion, as did I. We were both acquainted with religion, at times interested, and at others repelled, but not true believers or anything. As the decades had passed, our feelings had diverged. She believed more and more. I believed less and less.
I shrugged. “It seems like a grand adventure,” I said, “life beyond the biological, escaping the infirmities of this ‘mortal coil.’“
Her face puckered, making her look more her age. “Maybe if you’d just come to church, Paul. Just listen to Pastor Franks. Just give it a chance.”
And there we were in that rut of ours, and on my birthday.
“The singularity is here,” I said. “Our consciousnesses can be transferred from a delicate biological housing to a hearty technological one. I’m signing up. If I do it soon, they’ll include free upgrades for the first fifty years.”
“Singularity? Are we talking about black holes and one-dimensional points now?” She knew how I was using the term; this was her way of stalling, processing.
“Not black holes. The term is used in mathematics, technology, and yes, astronomy, to describe a point where things become unpredictable and growth becomes exponential. We’re at that point with technology.”
She sighed and her face fell, and I was relieved it wasn’t going to be a fight. But when I saw the fear that blossomed there I would have preferred the fight. “When?” she asked. “You are young still. You are not doing this now, are you?”
The religious had taken to calling it a mortal sin. And I guess, from their perspective, I can see their point.
The machines learn all they can about your brain, your body, and everything in between. Months of scans, legions of tests, endless poking and prodding, then when you are close to death—and aye, here’s the rub—but not dead, they put you under, they stop your biological functions, they take your brain apart a cell at a time, mapping each and every neuron. They sample your organs, study your skeletal and muscular system, hell, they even map all the microbes that are part of you, your microbiome.
All of that is combined with all the data from the tests while your biology was still functional. And then poof. You wake up, your consciousness running on a machine. You are alive, but no longer biological.
It’s a strange term, singularity. In a technological sense it originally referred to the point where computers and AI got so good that improvements became extremely rapid, resulting in an explosion of technology, and computers becoming smarter than humans. Practically, though, it referred to the point when computers were powerful enough to house a human consciousness. Not “artificial” in terms of the intelligence, just a different platform for it. The point when humans transcended biology and merged with technology. It’s why we call ourselves Singulars.
I smiled, taking her face in my hands. I loved her still, not in that torrid way of our meeting, but in a wider and gentler way. “You’re stuck with this bag of bones for quite some time, my dear.”
She sniffed and nodded. We didn’t speak of it again, but it cast a shadow on the rest of our marriage.
The crying of a seagull brought me back to the ocean and the bench and Simon. Someone was walking into the ocean, reaching down and pulling up clams, cracking them open and throwing the meat up in the air. The gulls wheeled and dove, snatching them out of the air, some crying with delight, some with frustration.
“This was very early on?” Simon asked. He sat very comfortably with his legs crossed, leaning slightly towards me. He had told the truth, he was a good listener.
“I bought into the first offering,” I said. “I was wealthy, you had to be then, and it took a big chunk of our net worth to do it. But…” I trailed off, watching the woman feeding the gulls, becoming mesmerized by their acrobatic flight.
Simon didn’t push, he sat there watching the gulls with me as the waves crashed, the children played, and the adults lounged down on the beach.
“My father was an investor,” I finally said. “He didn’t build anything, just moved money around. He had a nose for it in those turbulent times. A lot of wealth is created in wars, in economic collapses, and certainly during the chaos of the Shift. My parents had me late—they were about fifty when I was born. They had been born into the early chaos of the Shift and had survived the worst of it. My father taught me to see change right before it came, to leap on opportunity, to always strive to reduce risk.
“And that’s what I was doing. I was unsure of eternity, so in signing up for ‘life beyond the biological,’ as the ads then said, I was reducing risk.”
Simon nodded. “And the wars, the Shift, they were catalytic in the development of the tech?”
I nodded. “People started talking about the technological singularity, about human consciences on a technological platform, at the end of the twentieth century, but it took a lot longer than they expected. Most of the tech was developed for WWW—World War Water. First getting better with robotic prosthetics all those soldiers needed. When they put chips in their heads so they could control their new limbs, they had to learn a lot about the brain. Then when the humans left the battlefield and the drones and robots took over, we had to get a lot better at making machines think. The bulk of their intelligence had to be self-contained, and that gave us yet another reason to understand the brain better.
“But progress didn’t happen until the wars ended and peace came. Humans were living longer, but never long enough. The tech was almost there. The singularity was inevitable.”
The woman had stopped feeding the gulls down on the beach. Their cries had a lamenting quality to them as they slowly flew above her hoping for more.
The words “never long enough” echoed through my head, sounding very much like the cries of those seagulls. I used to believe that there could never be enough life. I was no longer sure. Not at all.
Viola stayed for another five years and then she divorced me. It was the belief gap that did it. She believed in a mythical god that would take care of her immortal soul if she obeyed the proper rituals and acquiesced to its bizarre demands. I didn’t believe in god and had, in fact, set my course to what was becoming thought of in the religious community as the greatest sin of all—eternal life without god’s intercession.
The divorce was bitter and took most of my remaining wealth. But that didn’t really bother me. I had the lessons my father taught me. I saw opportunities, I seized them, my wealth came back and then grew. I was alone. I didn’t have the energy or desire to find another partner. I had little else to do but make money.
On my ninetieth birthday, I was back in Australia. I got word from my grandson that Viola had died. The coastlines were well stabilized by then and I was staying at an exclusive beachside resort on the Gold Coast. I remember stumbling out of my cabana and onto the beach, walking into the waves. I was weeping. I couldn’t stop. We had been apart for twenty-five years, but she had been the love of my life. I felt something tear in me, deep down. I felt alone and unmoored. I felt scared.
Viola had believed—and if she was right, she was in heaven. I was in the water up to my chest, the waves crashing over my head, salt water stinging my eyes and getting in my mouth, my cries of grief drowned out by the eternal roar of the ocean.
It was dark, a moonless night. The stars arrayed above me, making me feel all that much more alone.
I had been getting my checkups with the Osiris Corporation twice a year. They were making sure I was healthy, looking for signs of mental degradation. You definitely want to make the “transition”—nice euphemism, huh?—before senility or dementia hits. I was taking my anti-aging meds, eating the right foods in the right amounts, exercising religiously. My body was strong, my mind clear. I was still healthy.
When I crawled out of the ocean, I don’t know how long later, I called them right up. I scheduled the transition. With Viola gone, I was done with this biological life.
"In this quiet but far-reaching thriller, author McCarter explores the essence of what it means to be human… Sci-fi as it should be: engaging, moving, and grand in scope". – Kirkus Review