by Dave Gudeman
He splashed water in his face to clear his eyes and looked into the mirror again. He hardly recognized the face that peered back at him. Where had this middle-aged, balding, pear-shaped, red-eyed man come from? What had happened to the young, thin, good-looking babe magnet? Where did he go? John Weston shook his head sadly and saw the old man in the mirror mimic his motion as if mocking him. He lowered his head to wet the greasy remnants of his once glorious hair and pasted it down. He didn't have a comb, so he made do with his hands. He evaluated his clothing in the mirror: dirty sports shirt with a torn pocket, stained military fatigues for pants. He looked like a bum. Hell, he was a bum, the sheriff had kicked him out of his apartment yesterday and he had spent the night on the street. Oh well, the ads say they don't care about that kind of stuff.
He kicked open the door of the gas station restroom and stepped out into the sun, blinking at the brightness. The gas station attendant looked at him sourly but said nothing, probably thinking she should have kept the door locked like she was supposed to. John gazed across the street at the Center, took a deep breath, and lost his nerve again, sagging back against the restroom door in defeat. After a moment he reached into his pants pocket to pull out the remainder of his money. Two coins. On the wall near him was a pay phone, and he stood there gazing at it for a long time. With a sudden decision he lurched over to the phone, dropped a coin in the slot and dialed.
Bzzt. Bzzt. Click. "Hello?"
"Hey John, what's up?" his big brother sounded, well, not enthusiastic.
"I'm at the Center."
"Oh! Well, good! Have you already...I mean..."
"No, I'm trying to work up the nerve to go in."
His brother sighed, "Look, John, it's just a medical procedure, I don't know why you are so worried about it."
"Just a medical procedure. Why don't you do it then?"
"Maybe I will someday. Me and Judy, when the kids are older and don't need us any more."
"I was reading this stuff on the net." His brother groaned. "No, I know you don't buy it," John added hurriedly, "but they made a lot of sense. They said it's not a real transfer, that they really kill the subject. The guy who wrote the site sounded like he knew what he was..."
"John," his brother interrupted impatiently, "they're a bunch of religious nuts. They think people have souls and you can't put a soul in a machine. Good grief man, you're an engineer, you don't believe that crap!"
"No, Paul, listen," John pleaded, "This guy wasn't religious, he was a computer scientist and he just said there is no basis for thinking that the process could transfer a personality. All they do is read your brain and then kill you. He says that the brain scan just gives information about you, it can't actually move your personality. He says that the Centers are the religious wackos, believing that they can transfer a personality just by scanning a brain..."
"He says it's the Center that's not being scientific or objective..."
"Why did you call me?" Paul sounded weary.
"Look, I was thinking." John paused but his brother was silent, Paul knew what was coming. "I know I could kick the bottle, Paul, if I just had another chance." He cringed inwardly, expecting Paul to hit at "another chance"—there had been so many. But Paul was silent. His dear brother was trying to be patient. Trying to be understanding. Bless his brotherly little heart. John licked dry lips, "I just need a place to stay." No answer. "Just a few weeks till I can prove I'm off the bottle and get a job."
John paused, but there was no answer from the other end. “I'll apologize to Judy. Hell, I'll get down on my knees and kiss her…”
"John," his brother warned.
"Sorry, sorry, I didn't mean that!" John interrupted, "I can get along with her, really. And the kids like me. You know I love your kids, Paul."
"I know, John," his brother sighed deeply. "You're a good guy when you're not drunk, and I'd like to help you out. But there is no way Judy would allow..."
"At least ask her." John pleaded, "Let me talk to her."
"No, John," his brother interrupted firmly. "She won't even let me bring it up and she sure as hell is not going to talk to you. Give it up. Go to the Center. Get the treatment."
"Yeah." John hung up the phone. He stared at the other coin for a minute, wiped a tear from his face, and plugged it into the slot. He dialed a number that he still knew by heart.
Bzzt. Click. "Hello?" She sounded good.
"Barb, you sound great."
"John. What do you want?"
John remembered when she would hear his voice on the line and her voice would suddenly turn so warm and sweet and sexy. It was like magic. Now it seemed to get chilly. He told her, "I got kicked out of my place."
"Oh. I'm sorry." She really did sound sorry. "So where are you staying?"
"Well, actually I don't have any place..."
"Just for a few..."
John stood there silently for a moment, stooped forward with his forehead pressed against the phone booth. He was remembering how much she had once loved him. There were times when he wondered if she ever thought of anything else than how to make him happy. He had thrown it away because he didn't realize how rare and precious it was.
"Is that all, John?"
"Yeah. Never mind."
"OK, I've got to go. Bye." Click.
John hung up the phone and wrapped his arms around himself as his body was shaken by a great shuddering sigh. His head bent in defeat, his arms still wrapped around himself, he stumbled toward the Center.
As he mounted the first steps of the outer staircase he was startled by a woman who came running over to him. She was about fifty and seriously out of breath when she arrived. "Don't do it!" she panted earnestly. "It's suicide! Let us help you!" She glanced over her shoulder and when John followed her eyes he saw three security guards running toward them.
She was getting her breath back now. "God loves you! He wants to give you hope, not death."
"Is he going to give me a place to stay and a job?" John asked sarcastically, raising his head and unwrapping his arms.
"Yes! We've got volunteers to give you a place to stay and help you find work," the woman said urgently, glancing over her shoulder.
"But I suppose I'd have to listen to a bunch of preaching about how I need Jesus," John said contemptuously. "No thanks, I'd rather be dead."
At this point the security guards arrived and began to handcuff her. She didn't resist, speaking earnestly to him instead, "You don't have to be a Christian, we just want to keep you from making the worst mistake of your life." The guards dragged her off, still trying to persuade him.” Across the street is the mission, go there and tell them you need help. Don't give up your life just because things look bad." The guards began bundling her into a van, but she was still focusing her eyes on John, "Don't give up! God loves you!" It was the last thing she said before the door slammed. John breathed a sigh of relief.
"We're sorry about that, sir." One of the security guards told him. "If it makes you feel any better, she's going to get a week in jail for the privilege of telling you that God loves you."
"She did me a favor." John laughed, "I was getting the nerves about this procedure but seeing that religious wacko reminded me how irrational I was being. How I hate Christians!"
The guard laughed with him.
With a sudden feeling of confidence, John stepped smartly the rest of the way up the steps. Seeing the door slam on that religious nut's face had made his day.
The glass door opened automatically as he approached and he felt a draft of cool air gush out. Inside was a receptionist's desk with no receptionist, just a computer monitor facing outward showing the face of an attractive woman. Suddenly he heard a lovely contralto voice, "Welcome to the Transcendence Center, John Weston."
He was startled for a moment, then looked at the face on the screen. As he stared, it said, "Yes, that voice is me, I'm transcended. And I looked up your name from our face database, in case you are wondering."
"Wow," he said. "Why would anyone who looks like you want to transcend?"
"I didn't look like this before! Once you transcend you can modify your appearance to be anything you want, John. How would you like to go back to looking like this?" The face on the screen was replaced with a picture of a younger better-looking John Weston, with all his hair.
"Wow," he said again. "That would be great."
The pretty woman came back. "Well then I've just registered you, John. Go through the door to the right and have a seat. The technician will be with you shortly." She smiled broadly and John had to smile back. He felt a little foolish for his earlier doubts as he walked toward the door.
On the other side of the door was a sterile-looking room with a line of surprisingly comfortable chairs against one wall. There was one other door, rather strange and heavy looking. He thought it must be airtight or sound proof.
A few minutes after he entered, the door to the reception area opened again and a man, a woman and a small child entered and took seats at the opposite end of the row. They were black, probably a family. They were dressed similarly to John, and he fancied he saw the same look of desperation on their faces that he probably had on his. The man glared at him and he realized he was staring, so he looked away hurriedly. He hoped they didn't think he was a racist.
The ads made it look like transcending was a yuppie thing. It was supposed to be something that conscientious rich white people did to relieve the environment of the burden of their existence. But some web sites claimed that in reality most people who transcended were either homeless or in deep poverty or in prison, and that a disproportionate number were minorities. John shrugged, it made sense that people who did well in the meat world would want to stay there and people who didn't would want out. That didn't make it some sort of conspiracy to eliminate people who were considered less valuable members of society. Hell. If that’s what was going on, the Christians would probably be behind it, not trying to stop it. Wouldn’t they?
John was startled when the heavy door opened and a man stepped out carrying a tablet PC. "Mr. Weston?" the man asked "We're ready for you now."
John only hesitated for a second. Then he stood and walked firmly through the door. There was a fairly large room on the other side. It smelled strongly of disinfectant. At one side was a reclining chair with a complex hood at the head that looked a bit like an old-fashioned hair dryer. At the other side of the room was a small desk with a chair behind it and a fixed chair in front of it. An odd device hung on an arm from the ceiling to just before the fixed chair. John had no idea what it was for. Across from the single door he had entered was a double door leading out.
The man politely directed John to the reclining chair and when John had made himself comfortable, the man lowered the device over his head and made some adjustments. After a moment the man said, "OK, you can get up now."
John was amazed. "That's it? I thought it took hours to read the brain."
"Just a half hour these days," the man chuckled, "and that's how long you were in the chair. A lot of people get no sense of passing time." John nodded. "Now that was just the brain-recording step," the man continued. "You have to step over here and sit in this chair for the actual transfer."
John got up and moved to the fixed chair before the desk. He sat down and the man lowered the device on the arm. It had a little laser pointer on it and looked somewhat familiar. As the man lined the point of light up with the center of John’s forehead, John was trying to remember where he had seen this device before.
"Don't move," the man warned him, going around to sit at the other chair, "otherwise it will interfere with the transfer."
John started to nod, then stopped himself and just said, "OK." He was starting to remember that the device was related to unpleasant smells.
"Good," the man said. "Now, this is the legal part. I am recording this conversation. Do you, John Weston agree to have the Transcendence Center transfer your mentality from your living body to the Transcendence Personality Net, fully realizing that this decision is irrevocable and that your physical body will cease to function?"
John hesitated for a moment, fascinated by the mystery of the device, and knowing that he was just trying to avoid the question. He firmed his resolve and said loudly, "Yes." Just as the word passed his lips, he suddenly remembered where he had seen one of these devices before. Last summer he had worked for a few weeks at a slaughterhouse. This device pointing at his head was identical to the thing that killed the pigs. With a shriek, he dived out of the chair, just as he heard the familiar pop.
"Mr. Weston!" the man shouted, "You have ruined the transfer!"
"Transfer, hell!" John shouted back, "That's a slaughterhouse gun! You were trying to kill me!" He scrambled to his feet and bolted for the door. He pulled on the handle, but it was locked. He quickly scanned for the locking mechanism but there didn't seem to be one. John spun around angrily, "Open the door!" he shouted.
But the man was not alone. Now there were three men. The new ones were two of the security guards that had rescued John from the religious nut outside. The three men came toward him purposefully.
"He...he tried to kill me," John pleaded to the guard that had joked with him outside. He pressed back against the door as the two security guards each grabbed an arm. "I wasn't transferred. I'm still here."
The man who had carried the tablet PC was now carrying a small gun. "I'm sorry, Mr. Weston," the man said firmly, "it would be better if we could use drugs for this instead of the guns, but no drugs have as yet been approved by the FDA for the purpose."
"I don't care how it's done!" John whimpered, struggling half-heartedly with the security guards. "I don't want to die. I'm still here."
"No, you are not 'there'. The legal transfer has already taken place and you are no longer legally a person, you are just a biological remnant."
"It doesn't matter what the law says. I know I'm still here," John whimpered as the man lined the gun up on his forehead. "No, please, I'm still here."
The man with the tablet PC finally opened the door, causing the already tense couple to tense up further. "Mr. and Mrs. Johnson?" he said to the couple. "And this must be little Chandra." He bent over to smile gently at the little girl. "Would you like to see the inside of a computer, Chandra?"
Chandra's stuck her thumb in her mouth, pressing back against her mother's knees and refusing to look at the man.
"I think I should go first," her father said.
"No," the man smiled. "It's better if we take the children first. We simply won't activate her on-line personality until you are there, so she won't even have to go a second without you." Chandra's parents nodded glumly.
"How about it, Chandra?" the man smiled and held out his hand. "Would you like to see a place were you can eat all the candy you want and it won't ever make your teeth go bad? Where you can swim like a fish and fly like a bird?"
"Like magic?" Chandra asked in her piping little-girl voice, her eyes wide in wonder. The man nodded and Chandra, with a look back at her mother for reassurance, took his hand and let him lead her to the door.
© 2004 by Dave Gudeman
This story originally posted at Doc Rampage, March 11, 2004.
Reprinted with permission.
Dave Gudeman writes speculative fiction (among other things) at his blog Doc Rampage. When he is not blogging or running around in his gold and purple spandex Doc-Rampage metahero costume saving damsels in distress he manages a development group at a small software company near his home in Pacifica, California.
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