For an extra fee, I get the chance to look myself in the eyes before I die. It’s a premium service the clinic keeps quiet about, but I’m already paying them so much for the experimental procedure of downloading my physical brain into a computer, the extra charge hardly matters. Most people leave themselves a note, but I want to be sure I’m getting what the doctors are charging me so much for.
The quacks tell me the damage done to the brain by the scan is irreversible, and no matter how much I offer, they still say I’ll die not long after the procedure. That’s fine. They already failed to cure the disease that’s killing me, or I wouldn’t be doing this.
When I wake up, the world takes a few minutes to organize itself. I’m back in the room where they had me pre-op, with the big computer screen facing me from the wall at the foot of my bed. That much is clear. My body is connected to a series of bulky machines and feels like a badly tailored suit from all the anesthetic still in me, but I need to concentrate. I want to go home, but I know I never will. He will.
On the wall mounted computer screen, the simulation’s activity mirrors my own. They’ve given him a hospital room too, to prevent him from being confused when he wakes up, I figure. It should work, if indeed he’s real enough, but I’m not convinced of that. The real reason I put in for the premium service to keep my body alive after the scan is to make sure the uploaded neural simulation is really me. I don’t want some pale imitation carrying on my life.
On the screen, I see him looking at me, sizing me up, just like I’m doing to him. So far, so good, but with my body out here, an image displayed on a monitor is the closest he’ll have to being present in the world.
I use the controls on the bed to sit myself up, and the tubes and wires connecting me to the machines re-drape themselves. On the screen, he does the same.
“So far, so good,” I hear my own voice say, but it isn’t me. It’s him.
I smile. “You read my mind.”
He mirrors the same smile back. “Or, more accurately, you read mine. I can see the quality of the work, but I’m not convinced yet.”
I freeze as I realize the assumption he’s just made. “I’m sorry, do you think you’re the original?”
He scowls at me. “Of course I am, but they must have put you in a bed like mine to keep you from being disoriented.”
I am disoriented. Shouldn’t he be able to tell he’s the simulation of my consciousness? The clinic told me the uploaded mind would emerge into a comforting simulation, not the delusion that he’s the original.
But then, I paid for a perfect copy.
On the screen, my own eyes look at me, and I read the same revelation in them. We stare at each other, our mouths slightly open, thinking the same thing, neither one wanting to say it out loud. We don’t know which of us is which.
Looking into the mirror of a computer monitor, I know only the reflection will live. The original is already on borrowed time, for which the reflection will go home and receive the bill.
If what takes my place is an exact copy, it shouldn’t matter. One of me will live on. That’s what I really wanted, but unless we can spot some difference, it’s a coin flip which of us is about to die.
“Where’s the damn doctor?” my voice finally says, coming from both of us in perfect unison.
Of course, the computer simulated version of myself has no need of a doctor, and the real me told them to stay away and let me die in private. I’m regretting that now.
But it means I don’t need all these machines keeping me alive. Either I’m not real, or I’m dying anyway. I pull sensors and IVs from my arms. Machines around me blare their warnings, but I have to prove something.
On the screen, the other me has the same reasoning, and the fake machines in his imitation of the room make the same warning sounds as mine. “We’ll just have to see,” I say as we lock eyes.
“Whoever dies…” he answers, knowing himself well enough that he doesn’t need to finish the thought, that it’s a test to see which one of us is real.
“I’m the real one,” I say.
“No more life support.” He holds up one of the sensors, hairs meant to simulate mine still stuck to the tape ripped off his arm. “My proof is on its way.”
I shake my head, feeling my strength start to drain, the vital energy the machines provided no longer there. My consciousness starts to fade, but I keep my eyes open and fixed on the mirror image. I have to know how he’ll take watching the death of the man he’s a copy of, proving that I’m the original. My pain feels absolutely real. I have to be the one.
On the screen, I see myself dying. Damn, I’m a stubborn old man. A perfect simulation would do that too, act like he’s dying just to prove a point.
His imitation is realistic, though, I muse as our eyelids start to droop, our stares still locked on each other. We are exactly alike. The process worked. I got what I paid for, and I know as I fade out completely that he must know that too.
When the doctor wakes me again, it doesn’t take me long to figure out the truth. Before his face on the screen can explain the situation, I cut him off. “I’m a copy.”
“Yes.” The doctor nods, watching the image of me from the real world. “It’s our procedure to have patients wake up in simulated recovery rooms with reality parameters calibrated to their expectations, to ease the shock of the transition, but I should apologize. Having the former host in audience is a service we rarely provide, and never has a patient’s expectations altered things enough to simulate their own death.”
I smile, smug in my own uniqueness. “Apology accepted.” I look around the room. “It is a very convincing simulation. I’ll make arrangements from here to have my consciousness transferred to my own computer at home.”
The doctor smiles. “Take your time. We have plenty of extra rigs to run recovering patients.”
He walks away from the camera, and I accelerate the speed of my simulated thoughts to the computer’s full processing speed. It occurs to me that if my real body did die in the operating room, it wouldn’t be that hard to use another brain simulation rig to run a second one of me, once the digital pattern’s been created. It would all look the same from this side of the screen.
The other room I saw could have been just another copy, shut down after our encounter. The doctor could have ripped me off with that extra fee, but I’m too distracted to be mad about that, because if it’s true, the conversation didn’t prove anything. I would only know my personality is a perfect match to that other copy, not the person I was. I can never be sure if a true recreation of my old self exists anymore, because I’m all that’s left.
The real me is dead.
Timothy Kay grew up in the second generation of the San Francisco counterculture, when the home of the weirdos gave birth to the technological world we know today. His writing has appeared in SF Theater Pub, on Examiner.com and at The Dark Room Theater, where he’s also acted in productions since 2008. He is the author of The Brain Ingredient, a zombie comedy about trying to hold on to former lives, and the linked fiction of a punk rock surveillance whistleblower, Read If They Get Me.
Find both of them at numberkay.com