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Friday, January 18, 2013

Plastic Nerves

Authors note: I wrote this story years ago and it's never going to be published: read, critique, and enjoy! I personally felt the ending was weak, but lets see what you feel!

Plastic nerves

The doctors sit me down in the chair. It's hard and plastic – not very comfortable, but they tell me that's the point. “We want to make sure you're aware of the decision being made here; we want to make sure that you aren't going to regret this. The uncomfortable chair stimulates your nerves, makes you move and feel – keeps you awake.  We don't want you getting too relaxed, too at ease with what you might lose.”
I smirk. I've done this test every day for the past 23 days, and they've said nearly the same thing. Not exactly though, “you might get used to what we are saying and automatically respond instead of thinking about it, so we have to ask you in different ways, different times to keep you thinking about the choice you're making here.”
They say. 
They want to get this test done even more than I do. But they won't get the government-approved green light unless I say yes every day for a month and undergo the most rigorous psychological testing any test subject has ever experienced.  It's not that they care about me – I volunteered, I'm asking for it. But the equipment won't be reusable, and they want to make sure that they get real results – not a premature failure.  The doctors say that no one has undergone something like this – to this extreme. They say I could die. I tell them I'm aware of the risks. They say my life won't be the same – I could lose all my friends and family, my life as I know it. They remind me of my wife and daughter. I tell them I know, and I'm almost sad about that, but I want this.
I want to be the first.
“Sure we can't just get this done?” I ask the nameless doctor in front of me. He introduced himself once – I don't remember it. Something Indian. It doesn't matter. They all look the same, sound the same. This one's white, that one's black – this one's a woman, another a man. “If all goes well, none of what you're telling me will matter – I can have my entire life the way it is now. I won't miss anything.” They look at each other, and tell me the same thing they've told me every time I've said that.  “We just want to make sure that you understand the risks.” Only one week to go till the questioning ends, but I'm getting impatient.
“Is it that you don't trust yourselves?” I look at the doctor to my left. She's young, pretty. Brown, wavy hair comes down to her shoulders, almost covering her face, but she's held swept it back behind one ear, revealing a smooth, slightly freckled white face – button nose and those thin, rectangular glasses you see everybody wearing nowadays. Her eyes are blue, that light, powder blue you see on those perfect flowers – lilacs I think? I realize I'm staring at her, it seems to unnerve her.
She's scared of me – she's been scared this whole time. I try to remember why – I'd asked someone about it before. “You're too intense for her – too knowledgeable about this whole business. She imagined that our best candidate would be someone who took everything lightly and didn't make a huge fuss about it, didn't think about it. That's what we all almost wish you were, but we understand why that can't be the case.  That's why we have the psychologists.”
Too knowledgeable. Too smart. It's sad. Doctors and psychologists are always used to dealing with people less intelligent than them. People don't actually understand what the doctors tell you, what their tests are about. How can they? Doctors go to school for years and years, losing personal lives and enough money to sink a ship, while the person who's walked into their office probably just knows what they feel like and what they read on the internet.  How can they be expected to know what their choices really are?  They should just be told:
This one might kill you, but if it doesn't it will definitely work.
This one won't kill you, but might not work.
Those are usually the choices.           
Not me though – I knew enough. Enough to be annoying. Enough to know their games. Enough that if they explained something to me, I learned it well enough to explain it back to them. That's why I was here. I was an intelligent man willing to give something that most intelligent men were believed incapable of giving – my life and privacy. I'll ask you to think about that – constant surveillance of every tiny action in your life.
I'm realising that I've made no mention of what exactly is happening to me. I apologise. The aura of mystique, tense atmosphere and of course my rant on the members of the medical profession have taken my attention away from the truth of what is happening to me. I suppose it will provide you a point of reference to what I've been talking about this whole time. My name is Lucas Evans. I am 32 years old, have a wife, Elizabeth Evans, 30 and a daughter, Amanda Evans age 4. I love them, and we are a happy family – which was the one element about my candidacy for this experiment the doctors found negative.
I've mentioned it before.
As to what exactly is going to happen, well, They're going to  replace my entire body, brain included, with mechanical and electrical components. There won't be a single piece of flesh left in me – even blood. Fibre-optic nerves, plastic cells, ceramic muscles an electric brain. I won't bore you with the specifics, but suffice to say it does a near perfect job of replicating the human body.  I've seen it – it looks almost exactly like me, except for a few minor adjustments, some blemishes gone, misaligned bones re-aligned, minor changes. It is extremely strange, looking at myself, but not in a mirror. Maybe this is what actors feel like when they go to a wax museum with themselves on display. I ask the doctors if I can go see my body – they tell me ok. It's a short walk from the room where they interrogate me.   
We have to be sterilised before we go in – it confuses me because it's not like there's anything to contaminate, but they want it done anyway. I guess I understand, I don't want any dirt getting in my brain case, clog the metaphorical thinking cogs. It takes a few minutes, but it's ok, I've done this at least a dozen times before. The room we enter into is rather large for its purpose – too large, I think. But maybe that's the point. There's a large box in the centre of the room, slightly larger than a grandfather clock. It's white, like everything else in this barren place – something to remind me of the fact that I'll soon be vastly separated from my human senses, and my world may turn as sterile as this lab. As I'm thinking this, one of the doctors quips the same " I don't feel that way, so I say as much.
“Why?” asks the young woman doctor. “your skin will be a series of pressure sensitive receptors made of plastic, your body temperature will be regulated by metal valves and your muscles powered by ethanol! Everything will be artificial! Even your brain will be a computer matrix, physically and chemically copied from the biological version but made of silicon and plastic, your personality uploaded from copies of your brainwaves, you'll barely be attached to even that! How can you say you won't be separated?”
Her eyes were wide open, her chest heaving, knuckles white where she was gripping her clipboard. She stared at me from behind those small rectangular glasses, a few strands of hair falling over them, set loose by her explosive outburst. The other doctors said nothing, merely waited for my response.
There was an awkward silence.
I like awkward silences – you always get to see everyone embarrassed. I think that if you see someone when they're embarrassed you learn something about them as a person. I learned one thing at least – She doesn't like awkward silences.
“What's your name?” I ask, awaiting her confused expression. I get it. “What does that have to do with anything?” She cocks an eyebrow and frowns; I imagine she's convinced I have no idea what she's talking about. I ignore her comment and look at her name tag instead – Sara, it says. Dr. Sara Schectman, MD.
“Ok Sara, now I feel like we can talk on a personal basis. I hate talking to people I don't know. Well, I don't think it's very different, being in that body. In fact, I feel like I'll actually be closer to nature, to reality. Right now, my body is made of of trillions of tiny, individual cells, each their own little animal, working together to create who I am as a person. When I touch something with my hand, the cells in my skin feel the pressure, temperature and whatever else and send out what they felt through little chemical signals that travel from one cell to the next all the way up to my brain, where I get to figure out what exactly it is that I'm touching.
“There are thousands of tiny living things doing that work. My body is like a machine, housing and servicing my soul. We hope I have a soul, because if it's something else that makes me human, when I get put into that metal box it'll just be a bunch of experiences and emotional responses that don't think or feel – not me, the man. You're going to coax my body into using that metal brain, hoping to lure my soul into it. When I get put in there, its different than being this animal. In that body, there are touch and temperature sensors, but they aren't alive. They don't lust for self-survival, they're connected to my cyberbrain and do exactly what it says.
“Every single part of my cybernetic body function can be consciously controlled. It won't need to be, if everything goes right – my brain will barely notice the difference, but I could if I wanted to. My bones are made of titanium instead of hard, calcified cells. My muscles are ceramic tendons that expand and contract based on the temperature of the ethanol that runs through them, not long, tough living cells, individual organisms doing the work my brain and spine command. Everything in my cybernetic body goes directly to my brain. My whole body is like a single cell, each part within the nucleus where all information and function are stored. There are small microchips in and around, to help service those parts, but I'm in complete, conscious contact with them. So when I touch something, it's really much more like my actual mind is touching it, instead of just a cell of skin.”
I'm holding my right hand out to her, palm up, pointing at my fingers with my left hand. Her mouth is slightly agape, I'm not sure if it's because she's so impressed by my diatribe or because she didn't understand my point. I'll try not to think about it.
“Ok, but your body is completely self-contained – you can survive near-indefinitely without eating or drinking, your power cells just need to be recharged every few years, you aren't using the world to survive, you're now completely independent. You're a part of the world because all those millions of cells are constantly changing, constantly affected by the world around them. You'll be made up of things that were once part of this world, but were a dead part – the closest thing that body has to an organic component is the plastic that once part of a dinosaur. It doesn't have anything to do with life, just metals and plastics and clays!” She almost spits the last few words.
“It sounds like you're disgusted by this project, don't you want this to happen? Why are you here?” I ask, bemused.
Her lips jam up tight, and she crosses her arms over her chest holding her clipboard. She looks embarrassed, and turns away. “No, it's just that... this is for people that have no hope, no body of their own. This should be for people with no alternatives! Not you. You've got a perfectly working body, a good family, you don't have any history of health defects – why are you giving all that up for this? You have so much to lose!”
I smile – it's really funny how some people show they like you, and which people do like you. This girl clearly likes me. I'm sorry, this young female doctor. Why? That's a good question. Millions of years of evolution and thousands of cultural have taught her, unconsciously that whatever traits I possess are excellent qualities for a mate. I'm not interested, but it's flattering. “Don't worry – I trust you to get me through this ok and see me back to my wife and daughter.” She just looks at me.
* * *
The day we've all been waiting for finally arrives. We start the day in a meeting room with a window to the transplant room. “Let's go over the procedure.” states the Indian doctor. “First you'll be knocked unconscious through hypnosis and acupuncture, we can't afford for any drugs to mess with your system – your brainwaves need to be completely natural. After that we'll open up your head and spine, and disconnect the two. After that, we'll connect your spine to the cyberbrain, which at this point is calibrated for your consciousness and thought patterns, but hasn't been uploaded. We'll then connect your natural brain to your cyberbrain and let them work in parallel. It's going to be awkward, and you'll look a horrid sight, because we're going to have to brace your neck, and you're going to have an extra metal brain attached to the back of your skull, so I would not try to ask anyone out on a date.” He shows a model on the wall display.
It really does look awful. It's almost like some sort of horrid hunchback. The model – soon to be me – has a large plastic cover coming up from the small of its back coming up to a point about 30cm behind the shoulders and reaching back over to cover my head. Overlaid on the image is what is actually going to happen to my spine and brain. The spine is laid bare, open to the elements, the nerves pulled out and attached to the cyberbrain. The head of the model is completely shaved, covered with electrical receptors and transmitters.
"At this point we'll begin training your new brain from the spine up. We'll teach it to use your nervous system and provide subconscious responses by poking, tickling and moving your body. This will take a long time. After that point we'll have you start consciously doing things, telling your body to move, thinking, speaking and performing problem-solving exercises. We'll also begin teaching your brain how to use the cyberbrain's capabilities – such as accessing computers in the lab and commanding small robots. The receivers attached to your head will transmit your brain signals to the cyberbrain, which will command the spine, and in turn, will send the results back to your physical brain.
“After about a day of this testing, we'll begin killing parts of your brain. This will force your brain to use the cyberbrain to perform those functions, which should begin pushing your consciousness into it. After we've killed off almost all the motor functions, we'll let you sleep, and during REM sleep we'll slowly begin poisoning your brain. This will force your brain to connect to the cyberbrain, and your consciousness should slip over before your brain is completely killed. It's worked in our test animals, and there shouldn't be any problems. Then we'll disconnect you from your cyberbrain and kill your body. It'll be cremated. The uh, the crematorium is actually connected to the test chamber. After a few hours, you should wake up and we'll get you used to your new body, which should be painless and easy. Any questions?”
We'd gone over this before, but really hearing that this is what would be happening in less than an hour was intense. Of course, it'd be about 36 hours before it was finished, but there wouldn't be any turning back after the surgery. “Is there any reason for killing my body? Have you ever left an animal brain or body alive after transferring the consciousness?” I ask, tentatively. I think I've asked this before, but I want to know again. I'm starting to feel the dark tendrils of fear gripping my neck.
“We tried that. A few times. The animals would respond to simple stimulus, but even subconscious reactions were missing. Anything that actually required brain function was gone. We discovered that the brain cells, although they were being fed by the body and kept alive, refused to perform any function. Essentially, they were brain-dead even though there was no physical damage to the organ itself. At the same time the cyberbrain signals would go haywire. It was as if the brain was searching for something that just wasn't there, but as soon as we destroyed the original body, it calmed down and resumed normal function.”
This was all really getting to me more than it should have. I'd prepared myself for this. But the facts just brought up so many questions – why did the brain die? Even simple animal brains wouldn't allow two identical copies. “Has there ever been a successful re-transfer of brain function from cyberbrain to biological?”
He shook his head. “The consciousness in the cyberbrain appears to refuse re-transfers. You can't force it back in, it just won't go.”
I'd asked these questions before, I remember now. Proof of the soul, they said. I'm not a religious man, but something like that is hard to dispute. I try to reassure myself. Just because a soul exists doesn't mean it's divine at all. What was I getting so spooked about? This was it. This was the day I'd dreamed of. This was my future. Scratch that. This is my future.
“I'm ready.” I say this, my voice shaking a little. I frown after I say it.
“Are you sure?” The doctors stare at me, each one a statue – immobile, dead, silent. All except Sara, whose short, staccato breaths puncture the collective silence. Our eyes meet for a second, then she looks down at her clipboard, examining an invisible speck on her papers.
“I’m sure.” My voice is firm this time. Fuck frailty.
We all stand up and leave the room, walking single file into the transplant room. The doctors look so professional, with their lab coats and glasses and clipboards hugged to chests. They strip off my clothes and shave my head, then lay me down face first on the operating table. There's a hole for my face. No real purpose, all I can see is the floor, but I suppose its to help me breathe.
Somebody places the electrodes on my scalp.
“We're going to start the acupuncture now.” I think it's Sara speaking. I ask.
“Yes, it's me. I thought you knew I was doing this part?” She seems surprised, maybe insulted. I'm not sure.
“I guess I forgot.” Indecision, frailty and fear begin creeping back in. This isn't right. I shouldn't be feeling like this. I've been sure, confident, even obstinate in my dedication to this procedure. Not like this. I'm about to change this world. I'm about to become immortal. I won't need clothes to keep me warm, I won't need scuba gear to help me dive, I won't need a space suit to survive in space. I wont need anything.
Or anyone? A voice in the back of my head voices this. I try to quash it.
I lose feeling in my legs. They tell me that's supposed to happen.
I am about to die. Do suicidal people feel like this? Murderers before the block? Suicide bombers? Do we all share this feeling, this dedicated fear – knowing that we have chosen death but still fight to deny its cold embrace?
I lose feeling in my arms.
I am not the same as them, I am not walking in to death. Only my body is going to die, a fleshy construct made of meat. I am closer to Jesus, and Gilgamesh, and Hercules. Heroes and saviors of old who died in flesh and were reborn Immortal.
I lose feeling in my arms. They tell me it's all right.
“Yes?” Her voice is quiet, subdued – she gasps the word, like she is about to cry.
“Don't be afraid.” I tell her.
I lose all feeling. It's just me, my ears, my eyes and my trusty brain. But maybe I already said that. I'm not sure anymore.
The Indian doctor speaks. “We're taking out your spine, and opening your skull now. Tell us if you feel anything.” I don't.
They hook up the electrodes, give me access to the cyberbrain. It's so open, so different than the experiments before, when I communicated with it through a headset and radio waves. We are connected now, with flesh and metal. I have left Plato's cave, and I am looking upon the great ocean of Life. I have been standing on the beach ever since I was born, too afraid to swim. Something is calling to me, out there in that infinite sea.
They are telling me to perform some tests. They are telling me to move machines. I don't want to. Their voices are simply echoes, bouncing of the walls, the truth is coming from outside. Reality. They tell me to move the machines. I feel them there, the tiny wheels, the primitive empty minds of the robots that I am supposed to drive.
I don't need to.
I don't.
It's ready for me now.
I am leaving. I am free.
I let my fleshy husk go. I give birth to a new me. For one brief instant, I am between bodies. I am unbound, my spirit free of physical constraints. I can feel the world, the souls of those around me, the lines of love and spirit that bind my family. For one glorious moment I have no need of flesh, of steel, of man or God. It is not a religious experience.
It is a living experience.
Then, suddenly, I have a body again, but a greater body, although I no longer feel the pure essence of life. I cannot feel that, but I can feel more than I did as a man. I can see my still breathing body on the table. It will not speak another word, love another person, do another thing. There is a brain there, but it is empty, a mere shell of what it was before. There is no me in that body, no identity for me to find. It is a mannequin of flesh and blood, beating organs and flowing fluids. I step forward, seeing the looks of shock and fear on the doctors' faces. I should not be alive. I should not have been able to do this thing.
I should not have skipped the tests. They say, in fact, they shout. I should not have been able.
But I have.
I understand now why the animals could not handle this – they could not decide which way to go. They could not free themselves from evolution's gift, from the bodies they hold so dear. They lived a half-life, a fearful existence where they could not become unbound. I am greater.
I thank the doctors and tell them that this is the end, that I am leaving. I tell them that when they decide to join me, I will be waiting. I tell Sara that she will be okay, that someone will come who will love her. I do not know this, but I tell her anyway.
Maybe it will make her feel better, it’s a good guess.
I walk out the doors, out the building. No one can stop me, no one will stop me. I grin, feeling the ceramic of my muscles tighten my plastic skin. I feel alive.
I skip down the street, humming a song. It might be the tune from something else, but I think I'm making it up. I could search the net to see if I am stealing it, but I don't.
I am alive.

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