Conscious

APPLICATION ACCEPTED by NEW EARTH INC. INTERVIEW to begin in 5 ETMIN. PLEASE clear your schedule for 31 ETD.

The bold, red type face seared at me while the caps lock gave me the impression, as always, of someone screaming in my face. Both 5 earth time minutes and 31 earth time days flashed rhythmically. I contemplated the appearance of the words a good long while, wondering if I had previously set the instructions for this particular presentation, or if it was a direct choice of the company. A review of my preferences determined it was the company’s choice. Why, I could not be sure. I doubt anyone would ignore an interview call from this company, the gaudy summons was redundant.

I’d applied to New Earth Inc. as a long shot and was equal parts surprised and delighted at the prospect of an interview. In the back of my mind, I finished a few things at work, quit my job, and found a replacement from the reams of applications. The instructions to my replacement were brief, but halfway through another message flashed across my mind:

INTERVIEW to begin in 4 ETMIN. BE ADVISED your MENTAL PROCESSES will be SLOWED to 10 NHT. PLEASE step down your PROCESSING SPEED to reduce SHOCK.

The part of my consciousness that functions on autopilot continued teaching my replacement, while the part of me I think of as myself bulked. Processing at only ten times normal human thought, I hadn’t been that slow in over a hundred years! What kind of bodies did New Earth Inc. plan to dump on us? Probably the most expendable out-of-date models they possessed.

However, beggars can’t be choosers, so I started rerouting processors. Most of my hardware I offered to rent out, 31etd was a long time to let processors idle. I had takers pretty quick, but since my hard drives were erring on the antiquated side, the price was less than I asked for. Once again, beggars can’t be choosers and I rented the space out.

Meanwhile I stepped down my speed to 50 nht. As the PHI running day-to-day operations of an office building in the business district of Ciaro, I had only been running at 100 nht. A speed considered archaic by most previously human intelligences, it was about the maximum speed a PHI could maintain and still have meaningful, direct interaction with a biological human.

INTERVIEW to begin in 3 ETMIN.

The time required to step down explained the long interview wait time. I could have taken 1 etmin to step down from 100 nht to 10 nht, but a full decked out PHI with the newest hardware operating at maximum efficiency would probably need the full 5 etmin and still fell woozy at the end of it.

As my processes began hiccupping I started killing scripts that were running unnecessary files. After jettisoning most of the processes involved in my previous job, I started on other background programs before building a display to show how much data I would have to lose before I got down to 10 nht. I laughed at the display. I could only run two primary processes and twenty background at that speed. What a joke! Diligently, I cut down on processes wondering exactly what job I had been selected for.

Most jobs offering bodies for PHI employees were companies like New Earth Inc. who would launch you somewhere out into space as the first wave of human colonization. We would do the dirty work, setting up space stations or doing maintenance on existing ones in exchange for temporary access to an artificial body. In some rare cases, the ultimate reward would be a new biological body to test the conditions of the space station or help establish the first human generations on these far off worlds. I would do anything for a fully functional, biological body, and my application said as much.

Most of us would. About sixty-three years ago, the number of PHI eclipsed the number of living humans, the result was a distinctive shift in how the world viewed us. Before that, becoming a PHI had been the privilege of the world elite as only the very rich could afford to have their neural pathways immortalized and made into a computer program. Now everyone can be a PHI. But with the limited supply of bodies, those have become the domain of the rich and powerful. Most of us will scrape away to qualify for a job, but the lucky few can just outright purchase a second body for themselves.

INTERVIEW to begin in 2 ETMIN.

I began playing cards against one of my other processes. Once these sorts of activities had given me a strange feeling: how could one part of my mind be playing cards against another? How come I didn’t know what cards the other guy had if he was me? Did that mean there was more than just one of me in my head? Now I just let it go and enjoyed the game.

INTERVIEW to being in 1 ETMIN. PREPARE for 10 NHT.

Switching off the last of my excess programs I entered the realm of 10 nht. It was a dull place, not much going on. I only vaguely remembered being human. I contemplated if this was how I felt than. No, life held more wonder then. Before I could pull up the answer to any question with one of the omnipresent background processes.

INTERVIEW to BEGIN.

My impression of the world went black. The programs, processes, and memories which I associate with myself were uploaded to a foreign, secure server. Another program pinged me and I was informed that a simulation was about to run as part of the interview. I accepted the simulation and another download began (I also continued to play cards; I was on a winning streak.)

The simulation initiated and my view changed. A room constructed of sheet metal and plastic stretched out around me. As my initial dysplasia dissipated I surveyed my surroundings. About a hundred artificial bodies were packed tightly into the room, all showing signs of recently going online: like moving. I assumed they were all newly inhabited by other PHI interviewing for the job.

I analyzed the specs of the simulated body I’d been given. Presumable this simulation was the same program I would use to control an actual physical body in the event that I passed the interview process. After a brief review, I certainly hoped I would get a physical copy of this body. The specs were impressive. It was probably the best body of the fifty-seven I’d piloted, despite the inherit limitations of the processors. Only four on-board computer clusters were producing the measly, 10nht.

Pinging the sim I asked why our highly superior physical states didn’t warrant an uptick in processing speed. The response flashed in my eyes in the same bold, red typeset as before:

SUCCESSFUL COMPLETION of the MISSION. WILL RESULT in a BIOLOGICAL BODY. NEW EARTH INC. suggests you ACCLIMATE to the IMPAIRED PROCESSING.

I let out a low whistle of admiration. To my immense surprise, my body actually whistled. I ran my fingers over the body’s mouth, realizing for the first time that I had one and looked at the body next to me to get a scale of things. Both gestures were reflexive and incredibly human. Surprising me in their own right.

The body next to me held my gaze, “What was that about?” it asked me in a gender neutral voice.

“Holey shit! Your mouth moved!” I yelled back. My neighbor ran a hand over their mouth, ogling me in awe. I assume my mouth moved too.

The room erupted around us as other PHI realized what was going on. For a minute, it was very claustrophobic, as everyone tried out their new bodies in the confined space. Claustrophobia, another feeling I thought I’d said good bye to a long time ago. Finally someone found a door and we began spilling out into the rest of the ship.

I struck up a conversation with another PHI, “I can’t figure out why our mouths move,” he said as we wandered a ship corridor. He could probably tell by pinging me that I was the exploitative one back in the hold.

“Me either, all I get when I ping the sim is the same message.”

He nodded “I get the same message too.” and assumed a very human body language as we strode the halls. I could tell he was thinking. A background program popped up with his personal details and I saw his PHI was only four years old.

“Huh. They’ve got quite an age range here.” I mused aloud.

Stopping in his tracks he turned to stare at me in an eyes bulging sort of way, although the body wasn’t life like enough to allow actual eye bulging, “You’re almost two hundred! I didn’t even know there were PHI that old.”

“If it makes you feel better, I’ve technically only been PHI for 184 years.” I replied, another background program informed me that half the ship had accessed my personal details with their active program.”

A look of confusion that only a four year old could still produce accurately crept onto his face, “No, it says 196.” He talked with his hands too while mine remained lifeless at my sides. I didn’t walk with them either.

“My human body was still around for the first twelve years. My body death was 184 years ago. I was part of the original PHI research.” That information wouldn’t be in my standard file. In the early days, those of us who had lived with our PHI selves had been ostracized for it, a result of the Marrietta Hanson incident. As far as I knew, I was the only one of us left, and if the applicant pool at large was going to give me crap for it, I wanted to know right away.

“You lived… with yourself?” Perplexity chased across his face and I notice the fine detail of our artificial muscles. New Earth wanted us to remember how to read facial cues.

“Yeah,” I answered and nodded belatedly, as a background program informed me that ‘acting human’ was likely to be a valued interview quality, “all the original research subjects did. The program was developed to help disabled people live a normal life. It was supposed to complement our physical selves not replace them.”

“What was your disability?” Another PHI who had walked into our conversation asked me. A few others were hanging around listening.

“What?” I asked back. I have had this conversation many times and that was never the first question.

“Why were you in the original research program?” The PHI queried, my program informed me she was 112 years a PHI she had likely been a very small child when the initiative was launched.

“Spina bifida. I had spina bifida.” I answered, still a bit shocked at the question.

“What’s that?” My first companion asked.

“How did you die?” The second wondered.

“It was a birth defect where your spine formed wrong during pregnancy. The last case was 105 years ago. I died from an infection. I had a shunt placed to drain excess fluid from my brain to my abdominal cavity, it got infected. I was 32.” The last bit might have been an over share, but my second companion just nodded at me, thinking.

WARNING. THE OUTER SOLAR PANEL has been HIT. LOSS of this SOLAR PANEL will NEGATIVELY impact the outcome of this MISSION.

The red words flowered in my vision, followed by a map of a spaceship, presumable the confines of our simulation. Most of the PHI began running immediately towards the airlock nearest the damaged solar panel marked on the map.

I flipped on a new set of background programs, they were from the office building job, but I suspected they would work well here too. Further data about the spaceship and the crew materialized before me as I walked towards the congregating mass. Everyone packed together at the end of a sleek metal hallway, shouting. A hundred identical forms milled about as one or two PHI attempted, and failed, to work the airlock. A few shouted encouragements or a desire to get through. Everybody was lining up to be the hero that saved the solar panel.

“Hey!” I yelled at the top of my lungs, “Everybody allow access to direct crew communications! You have to authorize it, and it’ll make communication much faster than shouting.”

My open channel access changed from two in a hundred to twenty-three, improvement anyway. I began pinging instructions out. To everyone I said, tell your neighbors to switch to open channel.

I called directly on Carlos Gomez, “You have flight experience. We need to be taken out of high speed travel before we can repair the damage. Can you start looking into it?”

“Sure, I’ll reroute to the bridge. I’ve never flown this model though, I’ll need help.” A body, I assume Carlos Gomez, peeled off from the mass moving down a side corridor. The channels had jumped up to forty-seven and I sent another three flight veterans speeding off after Carlos. Having never flown anything, I have no idea why this seems to require a specific location, but apparently it does.

Instructions flowed from me as we continued the exercise. The ship’s cargo logs suggested we had spare parts and I sent a group with manufacturing expertise to identify or fabricate the appropriate replacement part. Assuming we would not be able to recover the damaged solar panel, as the sim reported us to be moving at half the speed of light I assumed it was long gone. Next I put together three spacewalk crews, one to search for the missing panel, one to replace the panel, and a back-up crew in case either of the other crews had issues.

From these I assigned leaders and sent them to locate whatever tools and equipment they would need to perform their function. A final group was designated to operate the airlock, and the remaining fourteen people, myself included, were helpers to all the other groups. Nobody needed help, it turned out, and we all stood about awkwardly as the mission went off.

The individual teams continued to report to me specifically, although I saw no need for it. I figured leadership was a job skill every company wanted so I stuck it out and tried my hardest. The job went smoothly, the ship slowed to a speed at which repairs were safe to perform. The original panel was deemed too far away for recovery, but the newly manufactured one was ready. The spacewalk to repair and replace went competently and quickly. When the last space-walker returned, we gave them a little cheer before my screen went blank.

SIMULATION 1 COMPLETE. CONGRATULATIONS, RODGER, you have PASSED. AWAIT SIMULATION 2.

The words scrolled across my view, pausing briefly before ‘congratulations.’ I did not notice any new sensations or downloads, but waited patiently for the interview to continue. The time stretched on. I played several more games of cards and began to wonder if this was simulation 2.

Finally, the view came back. My body hadn’t moved, but some of the other bodies had. I pulled up the crew list and realized about fifty names had changed, and several still had their channels closed.

“What happened?”

I shrugged, the motion felt forced to me after so much time without a body, “I guess there was more than one sim, but they want the crew size to stay the same so they combined two maybe?”

“No, I only see three people from my first ship.”

“Yeah, I only have ten.”

“Really? I have fifty-three.” Many faces, I assumed the newcomers, turned to me.

“What did you guys do to keep fifty-three?”

“Worked as a team well, I suppose.”

Several people grumbled, but soon we all wondered off. I searched the list for my previous companions, Wanghoi. He had the same thought and caught up to me quickly after ascending from the fabrication studio.

“Good thinking back there, Rodger.” he elbowed me jovially, “Glad you made it through.”

I grinned, “Thanks, glad to see you too. Who was that woman? Is she still around.”

“Her name was Sarah Wilder, and no, she’s gone.”

Stopping in my tracks I turned to look at Wonghoi, “You’re kidding me, the Sarah Wilder?”

He shrugged and looked confused.

“She proved, at least academically, PHI are still human in every measurable way and some immeasurable ones. Before that we were treated as errant programs or machines.”

“How’s that different from now?”

“You would have to have been there I suppose, but it’s different. At least now we have rights in writing anyway, even if no one with a body cares to enforce them for us.”

“If no biologicals will enforce PHI rights, do we really have any?” A voice asked behind us. Despite being produced by the same mechanics as Wonghoi’s I immediately knew it was not my friend speaking.

“Erm,” I said aloud to stall the newcomer as he pulled up even with us. Walking three abreast we filled the entire main corridor of the ship. I scanned him, saw he was thirty-three years a PHI and had not participated in the same sim as us.

“Look at what happened on Triton.” The newcomer, Aalok, declared.

Wonghoi’s eyes darted back and forth, “The PHI shouldn’t have tried to take control of the station. Their contract was up. They should have returned the bodies when the company asked.”

Aalok snorted, “That’s no excuse for murdering over ten thousand people, and the trail the biologicals held was a complete farce!”

“Trials turned into the media event of the year are always a circus. Always have been always will be.” I attempted lamely to change the subject. I’d had PHI like Aalok on every job in the last hundred years. Separatists who argued for PHI independence, who swore biological humans were oppressing us. Undoubtedly they had a point, but I was not about to risk access to a body for myself by agreeing with him.

“Not one PHI in the jury box.” Aalok smacked his fist on the side of the hallway as he worked himself up. “And what’s the result? An acquittal!”

“All the rouge PHI knew about the kill switch,” Wonghoi tried to reason to his feet. “Even if they didn’t directly participate in the take-over they still didn’t stop it. No one on the space station was innocent of theft.”

“Since when has theft been a crime punishable by death? Since when was theft punishable by genocide?” Aalok demanded.

Stopping in the hall I turned to face him, and both Wonghoi and Aalok stopped with me. “So much death is always regrettable, but we’re only average guys here. We’re not looking to upset anyone or start a new world order or anything.”

Aalok’s face closed down without the slightest change in expression, “You misunderstood me, my friend. I was only discussing current events, events which affect us all.” He turned and strode off down the hall.

Wonghoi exhaled loudly behind him. I started at the noise, wondering how our bodies exhaled. This started me considering how our bodies produced speech at all, and what language we were speaking in. I spoke English and heard everybody speak English, but maybe we all vocalized and heard whatever language had been our native tongue in life.

“What language am I speaking?” I asked.

“Huh?” Wonghoi glanced at me quizzically as I started off down the hall.

“Do you hear me speaking in English?”

He shook his head and followed me, although I didn’t know where I was going. “I hear Chinese. I suppose you hear English though?”

I nodded. Very sophisticated programs they were running here. Do we actually vocalize when speaking or is it all an illusion of the sim? I mentally shrugged. After all these years I have a hard time caring about such details. Existential crisis averted. We wandered the ship in silence for several minutes, familiarizing ourselves with the layout.

“Do you think New Earth has a kill switch on us?” Wonghoi asked. He edged away from me and watched his feet as he spoke. Mannerisms I was coming to associate with discomfort.

“Not now. If we get accepted they will I’m sure. Every company I’ve worked for has whenever a body is on offer. They want to be able to recover their property, like you said.”

He shuffled his feet as he walked making him appear even more uncomfortable. How could a PHI have such a bad poker face? Even a four year old. “It’s kind of scary to think about.”

I physically shrugged. “Some risks are worth taking. You’ll never find a body job without a kill switch.” I motioned with both hands to indicate our surroundings, “PHI didn’t build this place, didn’t make the rules. We just play by them. If you want a body there will be a kill switch. If you don’t want to end up completely offline, do whatever your employer tells you. End of story.”

We found the recreation room not long after and blended in with the crowd. Most of the PHI joined us eventually, and I began to wonder if there were any essential ship functions we should be taking care of. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one with this question on the brain and a PHI called Azzila started sending out instructions for day-to-day operation of the ship. I happily laid back and let her take the lead. I’m not naturally suited to leadership. It’s more of a mood that strikes me on occasion. When the next disaster test happened several hours later, Azzila again took charge.

WARNING the OUTER CONTAINMENT of the NUCLEAR CORE of the ENGINE has CRAKED. REPAIRS REQUIRED.

Azzila sent out instructions lightening quick. Once again, I was in an auxiliary position, waiting to fill in any gaps. She placed herself on the front lines of damage control and was knee-deep in technical details. I considered this move a mistake, because she didn’t notice other details. For example, the high radiation emission would likely damage the biological materials we carried.

“Would you ping Azzila about potential damage to the biological cargo?” I asked Wonghoi, also on stand-by this mission, despite his extensive engineering background.

“Why don’t you?”

“I don’t want to look like I’m trying to usurp her authority, but it does need attention.”

“Right. You don’t want to look like you’re usurping her authority when you usurp her authority.” Wonghoi sent back and I caught a glimpse of his body smiling. He pinged Azzila and frowned.

“She doesn’t want me to do anything. Says it’s not a priority. I said I’m standing around anyway, might as well look into it. She said no.” Wonghoi reported.

“Take a team and do it anyway.” I responded sending him a list of potential candidates from those of us not actively participating. Six PHI pulled away from the group towards the appropriate cargo bay.

The leak was nearly patched when a second disaster event triggered:

UNCHARTED OBJECT AHEAD, IMPACT IN 4 MIN 35 SEC.

The seconds counted down, and a little red, flashing clock took up residence in the bottom portion of my view. Azzila sent a blanket message deprioritizing the approaching object. Carlos, Andrea, and Seema, three of the five current PHI with flight experience disregarded her and headed for the bridge. Instead of keeping her active programs monitoring each crews’ activity, she returned to work repairing the crack. Several other groups disregarded her orders and went where they thought they would be most useful.

I subtly stepped into the power vacuum. Redirecting a few PHI before they went completely off the reservation and making sure each crises received adequate attention. In the end, we all survived the event. Some of the biological material was damaged, but we had plenty of time and resources to repair it. I considered the mission a success, but caught a glimpse of Azzila entering into a towering rage as the screen cut to black.

SIMULATION 2 COMPLETE. CONGRATULATIONS, RODGER, you have PASSED. AWAIT SIMULATION 3.

The prompt appeared almost instantly this time, and the next sim loaded quickly. Only twenty-three of my previous crew members survived this cut. I guess our performance left something to be desired. Azzila didn’t return, but Wonghoi, Carlos, and Andrea did. To my annoyance Aalok stayed around as well.

A few hours later, I sat around chatting with Carlos and Andrea in the rec room. “Why’d you apply?” Andrea asked Carlos gesturing to the spaceship around us.

He sighed, and I wondered again how the simulation allowed it. At this stage it was likely an illusion. Would the real bodies actually inhale and exhale air, or would it always be a figment of our collective imagination?

“After I retired from the military, I did a poor job of staying healthy.” Carlos answered, “It’s my fault really, I know, but I had a heart attack and died at forty-nine. There’s so much I regret now. So much I never got to do. I didn’t walk my daughter down the aisle, her wedding was only three months away, and I missed it.”

“You wouldn’t get to do that where we’re going either.” I said.

“I know,” Carlos continued, “but I’d get a second chance. That’s what I really want, a second chance. What about you, Andrea?” Carlos fidgeted with his fingers as he tried to deflect the attention.

“I was pretty happy being a PHI. It’s a good life. I hadn’t applied for any body jobs in thirty years. I’d been acting as the autopilot on inter-plant travel rigs. Unlike Carlos, I lived to a hundred and two. I’ve had my share of being biologically human, and all I remember from the last forty years of it was slowly becoming more and more acquainted with my own limitations.” Andrea began.

“Then some low life asshole completely ripped me off. Sold me processors with a quarter of the advertised computing power and took away my old parts for an exorbitant fee. I should have known it was too good a deal to be true. I couldn’t work the same jobs after that. My specs were too sub-standard. I tried to sue the guy and press charges, but it was all a set-up and you know how good the police are about investigating PHI complaints. Body jobs were about the only good paying option left to me, and maybe I’ll get lucky and find a way to track that piece-of-shit con artist down.” She punctuated the last words of her declaration by emphatically stabbing the table with her fore finger and leaning in as she spoke.

“I had something similar happen once. A company assigned to do maintenance to the cluster I was using royally mucked it up. The owner of the storage warehouse managed to collect millions of dollars in damages, but we only saw a pittance.” I added. Any PHI over ten will likely have a similar story, one of the few good things about being as obsolete as I was, fewer biologicals trying to rip you off.

“Why did you sign up?” Carlos asked me, in an attempt to forestall another rant.

“I’ve been taking body jobs for years.” I answered, not expecting more explanation to be required until the silence stretched uncomfortably.

“You’re fond of them then?” Andrea asked timidly, “You never got to experience being human properly I suppose because of your disability.”

A shock ran through me. Of course that was the obvious conclusion to what I’d said, but it was odd to hear someone put it so baldly. It wasn’t true. I loved being a PHI, and even if I didn’t, there were elaborate sims like the one we currently inhabited that allowed a PHI to experience every conceivable aspect of being human. However, agreeing with Andrea’s assumption was still the easiest way out of the conversation.

“Yeah, they build more complex sims all the time, but nobody has made one yet that let me know what it feels like to hold it when you have to go to the bathroom.”

Carlos snorted, “Really? You’ve been holding out two hundred years to know what it feels like to need to piss at a bad time.”

“Not exactly, but there are a million little things which are an annoying and integral part of being human and no one ever bothers to include them.” I shrugged. The conversation moved on to sims which allowed for the idiosyncrasies of being human.

The real reason was more complex and personal. My parents tried to give me the best life they could. When the original clinical trial for what would become the PHI software was advertised, they enrolled me immediately. They always promised me a normal life, but I never believed them. After two hundred years of waiting, I might fulfill their goal. I wanted my parents to be prophetic sages, not liars.

Another emergency drill ran a few hours later. After a few more, we had a core group of about seventy which stuck around from drill to drill. Aalok was part of the group, and to my chagrin he developed a female counterpart, Jocelynn. In between emergency drills they were chatting up members of the crew, interspersing ideal gossip with poorly disguised hints at revolution. It took me a surprisingly long time to put two and two together.

About two etw after the simulation began, Wonghoi broke down. He’d been talking less and less. A few of the other regular crew members were getting worried about him and sent me to talk with him in the rec room.

“Haven’t had a chance to talk with you lately,” I started out awkwardly as I plopped down on the same couch, “Watch any good movies.”

He looked over at me, I knew from pinging him he had not been watching movies or engaging in any form of entertainment, unless you count starring listlessly about the room as entertainment.

“No,” his eyes seemed not to see me. It was a weirdly improbable expression. Of course his eyes saw me, or the simulation did anyway.

“What’s going on then?” I tried again.

He stared for another minute before focusing his attention on me, “Am I real?”

“Of course, you think therefore you are.” I answered.

“Famous quote on human consciousness…” He began, “but if I’m not human does it still apply? I spent my life being told PHI were human still and my death knowing that we’re not. Is this heaven then or hell?”

Uh oh, I thought, this is a bad line of questioning. Ever PHI has these moments, mostly when they’re still young like Wonghoi. Sometimes they get over it, sometimes they’re Mariette Hanson.

“Look, Wonghoi—“

EMERGENCY LOSS of PRESSURE in the BIOLOGICAL COMPARTMENT. IRREPARABLE DAMAGE to SAMPLES LIKELY.

“I hate that type face.” I muttered, but began pumping out commands to everyone, but Wonghoi.

“It is hell.” He muttered.

“What?” I asked him as the crew moved like a well-oiled machine.

“I’ve lured her into Hell!” He was rocking back and forth with his hands pressed over his face. “I am Judas! She followed me into this place. She wanted to be with me again, and I lead her into hell. I love her and I betrayed her to hell!  Where some fool with too much power can press a button to kill you or,” he leapt to his feet and I reacted just as fast.

Pressing him back into the couch and calling two of the auxiliaries over to help me. Wonghoi continued to flail and scream for the rest of the simulation. About how his wife had died, pulled the plug on the respirator keeping her body alive, thinking they would be together in a better world. About how New Earth would kill him now for talking, press a button and delete his consciousness as if it never was. Then black. When the sim came back, Wonghoi failed to reappear as part of the crew. His interview was over, but I hoped he would enjoy the time with his wife.

I have a memory from before my body death. I remember it twice. Once as a twenty year old stuck in a wheel chair, and once as the computer program created to allow him to live a normal life. I was telling me about the book we read for an anthropology course in college, pitying me for not being able to read it myself, and hating him for limiting me. I was listening to a computer program tell me about a book I couldn’t read, annoyed with it for forming my opinions for me, and hating him for becoming essential to my life. It’s a confluence of self-hatred.

Seventeen years after her body death, Mariette Hanson attempted to destroy the early PHI network from the inside. She left a single message to explain her action, “I always loved her.” Some of us are born to love, some of us are born to hate. I think those of us born to hate are better off here. I’m not sure the PHI software was intended to facilitate love.

The others left me to my philosophical musing, but I tired of it quickly. Or rather, after all my long life, recognized that way lays madness! and ran in the opposite direction. From the interview server, we had limited access to the compiled knowledge of humanity, but we did have open access to details about New Earth Inc. I decided to give my potential employer a through vetting in my down time.

I was surprised at the personal details of New Earth’s founders and board. All giants of technology and business with sizable personal fortunes all had died and spent at least three years as PHI before buying the costly permits allowing them to inhabit a new biological body. The first few rounds of investors brought in more individuals with a similar story until it seemed every notable born-again PHI was involved in the project.

With a mental frown, I moved on to rummage through the ship specs, and uncomfortable suspicion growing in my gut. The ship could accommodate up to 500 PHI with bodies. Fine, we all assumed a larger crew would be established in later phases of the application process. Even with a sizable increase in population, the ship still had two holds I could only describe as unused in the current layout. What could every powerful born-again PHI want to put in the cargo hold of a ship bound for a new planet, I wondered.

I slid into a chair across a coffee table from Aalok in the rec room. I pinged him, he was watching a movie with his active program, but switched it off to talk with me.

“You’re the interviewer.” I said.

Aalok regarded me with a blank expression. I monitored his messaging, but saw no activity. Although I’m sure he was frantically communicating with other members of his team. Eventually he nodded.

“What’s the mission, really?” I asked. “Are you planning on terraforming a planet or is this a scam to get PHI outside of biological control right under their noses.”

“New Earth Inc. is not a scam.” Aalok answered stiffening in indignation. “We are a real company with real investors and we fully intend to satisfy those investors by delivering at least one world suitable for human habitation to them.”

“But you also intend to set-up an advance base for PHI.” I postulated, “It will be several hundreds of years before biologicals can inhabit the world, at least a century of unregulated access to a new world of resources. Time to build new artificial body factories, better computer systems, all the things we dream about but can’t get.”

A smug expression crawled about the corners of his eyes. The message was clearly, you said it not me.

“We would like to offer you a position on the terraforming ship Mr. Lackmen. You would be an ideal…” Aalok waved his hand in the air and glanced about as if searching for the word.

“Figurehead.” I supplied and Aalok smiled at my response, “Placing me in front of the expedition would give you credibility. I have every reason to want a body, and none of them are sinister. It makes New Earth look more like what it is supposed to be.”

Aalok grinned and inclined his head.

“What if I say no?”

His expression froze, but he said nothing.

Figures. “Okay, sign me up then. One media decoy ready to go.”

My vision blacked out and a download box popped up. I accepted and played cards again as a progress bar snaked across the bottom portion of my awareness. Another red flashing message appeared.

CONGRATULATIONS. You have been SELECTED. NEW EARTH INC. MISSION 3495.AA. HUMAN COLONIZATION of the GLIESE 581 solar system. You will arrive in ET 51 YEARS, 7 MONTHS, 4 DAYS, 23 HOURS, 17 MIN, 45 SEC.

The seconds flashed rhythmically, and it dawned on me that this was not a simulation. The last download I had accepted transferred me directly to the ship. I started searching crew manifests (about half the crew had already been selected not all the disappearing applicants were dismissed) and ship specs, highly relieved to see I was operating at 100 nht again.

RODGER LACKMAN do you ACCEPT your position with NEW EARTH INC?

I confirmed. Some risks are worth taking.

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About

Microbiology graduate student, book blogger, science blogger, and sometimes fiction writer.

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Posted in Fiction, Science Fiction, Short Story (<7500 words), Work-In-Progress
7 comments on “Conscious
  1. […] Also posted on the writers group Foil and Phaser.  https://foilandphaser.wordpress.com/2013/06/20/conscious/ […]

  2. jhedrick82 says:

    Really liked it. Sound idea, well written, good voice throughout. A few typos here & there (maybe a comma in the parenthetical in the 3rd to last paragraph, semicolon in the last sentence, 2nd paragraph), but overall really, really solid. Good character, good story, lot packed into a small package.

    For suggestions for improvement, I can’t come up with much really. In parts, it’s a touch hard to keep track of the other characters and I had to go back to find Previously Human Intelligences. I like making the reader work and verisimilitude, but it might help to reiterate, just once or twice, a couple character names a little earlier and what the phi abbreviation stands for.

    Finally, nitpicky, but would a Chinese character refer to “Judas”? Just a thought, really great story though. Very entertaining!

  3. NicoleP says:

    Thanks for the comment! I’m always glad to hear about grammar issues because I’m not terribly adept at spotting them myself. I’ll also edit for clarity with the names, that’s a good point as well. Wonghoi making religious references didn’t strike me as odd, but that said, I do appreciate the comment because it forced me to go back and look at that scene. It was a last minute addition to this draft and I now realize probably wasn’t well supported or set up by the preceding text. I’m glad you enjoyed it. This story has been giving me a lot of trouble, it keeps not turning out on paper the way it is in my head and that’s kind of maddening.

    • jhedrick82 says:

      If those things were a last second addition, I wish my rewrites were as good! As for the Judas ref, we – as readers – just have very little to base Wonghoi on other than a few lines and ethnicity, so the “Judas” reference was a bit jarring. Using a similar Asian myth (betrayal) might actually improve the foundation of the character. But overall, it’s turning out great, I think. If you want a full grammar/typo/punctuation edit (which is something I do semi-professionally) let me know. If you send me the document (or google doc link), I can do a more detailed copy edit for you. I make no promises as to rapid turn around though 😛

      A great short story!

  4. jhedrick82 says:

    P.s.- how much research did you have to do for this piece? Sounds great, on the page, but it sounds “so” good, I’m wondering how much computer research you did beforehand? What research did you do, if any?

  5. NicoleP says:

    I didn’t do any real research for the computer science. The research I’m doing for my Ph.D involves a lot of sophisticated computing, specifically with regards to image processing and data storage, as such I have pretty good vocabulary for computer terminology already. Basically, I came up with a core set of things that I wanted the PHI to be capable of and then applied real world CS terms to those ideas and applied the terminology consistently throughout the piece. The ideas only vaguely correlate with real CS, but since the piece is set at least 200 years in the future I figure that’s not too much of a problem 😛

    Thanks for the offer of an edit! But I think I’m probably going to do another rewrite on this story before it’s at that stage. (Although, I might bug you about it at some point in the future.)

  6. Thanks for the story. I had the same basic comments as James. It’s important to use dialog tags, especially when you have characters jumping into different bodies and locations. Also the odd spelling and wrong verb tense. All in all, a strong story with good characters and pacing. Definitely worth the effort of a rewrite.

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