Extinction or no-cost consciousness upload into military hardware at death? The decisions of a near-term future.
The whites of her eyes were not white anymore. Yellow now, like the petals of her favorite flower, a sunflower. Making the pale blue irises pop, iridescently almost.
“Are you sure?” I asked. “One hundred percent positive?”
Mom closed her eyes, and then opened them again, looked down and up, but only barely. Vocalization at this stage took more effort than she contained. But I took her movement as an eye nod, a yes.
“Bad choice,” she whispered, her voice low and raspy. “But yes. Sure.”
She took my hand, limply, and then scratched my palm with the tip of her first finger. Our secret language from when I was a little girl. Translation. I love you.
Her skin was cold, but covered with a thin layer of warm sweat. I cranked the trans-cot up two units and adjusted the perimeter controls. The medi-drone tilted in, rotating more tightly around her head, pulsating dry heat mixed with something sweet to douse her smell.
A spray of epiblood constellated the floor.
She tapped the thumb release pump twice. The termination drugs settled across her face, softening her expression, but the forehead furrow deepened.
“Better?” I asked.
She tried to smile, crookedly, one side of her mouth went up while the other stayed flat. Unable to speak any more, I felt her push into my nano-connectors. I had left them on full open to her signal, just in case she mustered the energy.
I’ll never be better again, but now is not as awful as the moment before, she thought.
Should I let him in now?
Yes. Please. Hurry. He might leave if he has to wait longer.
I pushed the button at the side of the bed and a few minutes later, the marketman opened the curtain and slid inside, the identifying yellow sash worn bright across his chest, an upgraded brand-label.
“Has she made her decision?” he asked.
As he spoke, green lights blinked across his face goggles, followed by a short pulse of orange—auto-generated pity emblems—but he looked up at the ceiling, ignoring her wasting body and my eyes.
“Tell us the options again,” I said.
“Your mother is lucky that she even has options, given your category.” His tone irked me, and even though I knew better, the words slipped out.
“No luck here, asshole. Corp changed the goddamn rules in the middle,” I said. He stiffened.
She begged. Please, no, stop. I want this. Stop. Before he leaves.
“Sorry, go on,” I said, quickly, kicking myself mentally. Don’t make the last part bad, I thought, just don’t. Be a good daughter, do what she wants. He arched his gnarled eyebrows above the goggles, the emblem colors fading fast to black. “Really, please stay, I didn’t mean it.”
Dad passed ten years ago, but before he went he paid the tariff for a dual consciousness upload into the Meta. The policy was that with a pre-pay he would get a second upload free, plus the package included a guaranteed spousal consciousness bridge inside the Meta. My parents wanted to be together forever and sank everything into that BOGO.
Ever since Dad uploaded, Mom and me have lived frugally in the subunits below his old boss and spouse. They were nervous having us there given Dad had spent our Corp scrip below allowable levels to secure the BOGO, but Dad made them promise. Don’t let them get kicked out of AMZone, swear it, he said. Not until the spousal bridge upload. What about her, they had asked, meaning me, so little then. Contract her to be your exclusive Middie—calling me by the common nickname for our category—link her debt to your own children, he said. He made the deal to protect me, I know, and I was grateful, but it also made sure I could never leave. I guess he thought that was safest.
All these years, the boss kept that promise to Dad, even after security ratcheted up to maximal, after Corp capped the AMZone population at five million. Only way now for anyone in our category to migrate into the AMZone was by replacing a dead person and only then if modular regeneration was disallowed for some freakish reason, or maybe as a surrogate for a body baby. But those were rare cases.
But then, nine years after Dad had to upload, Corp changed the rules for Middies. Just like that. No warning. No more BOGO uploads. Upfront cash only to the Meta at time of pre-termination, and double for a bridge upload. Backlash had been harsh from all categories, even Privileged, nearly all downthumbs, so Corp modified the rule slightly, allowing the old BOGOs a guaranteed upload, circumventing the termination escape lottery, but they refused to budge on the spousal bridge for Middies. Spousal bridge in the Meta was reserved for Privileged only, no exceptions, a new policy to ensure demographic quality control on the shared consciousness plane.
“Today’s menu of BOGO options for your category is a consciousness upload into a Meringue. She has been pre-approved,” he said.
“The bots that protect the zone?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said, nodding.
“A military upload?”
He nodded again.
“She’s not a killer,” I said.
“They all learn,” he said.
I looked at Mom. She shrugged slightly, a delicate movement. Better than termination, she pushed again. Maybe I can find him there even without the bridge, or see you again, she pushed. Meet my grandchildren. That would be a miracle.
Mom wanted grandchildren, and begged me to apply for the lottery. Fuck no, I had said to her again and again. Not in this hellhole, not indentured. She pressed harder, saying she didn’t want me to be alone after she was gone, but I had refused.
“Can we meet?” I asked.
“Memories are wiped,” he said. “Routine policy, no deviations.”
The marketman closed his eyes.
“Let us begin,” he said, making the connection. “Ten beats to initiation.”
I wasn’t ready, I wanted more time. She closed her eyes.
An image of her brain flashed across his goggle glass. Her frontal lobe slowly got white bright, then red hot, and then burst into black. The whole thing was over in twenty seconds, maybe.
Her hand went limp. I kept scratching her palm with my fingertip—I love you, Mom—until the disposal-bots came.
Later that night, at the wet bar, I asked Eagle about the Meringues.
“Top of the line, the latest security,” he said.
“Hybrid AI and human, fully integrated, autonomous decision-making.” He whistled appreciatively. “Mechanics a bit stiff, clunky and thunderous, likely built like that by intent. Scary. Looks like the trekkie machines in the stories they still watch outside.” He laughed.
“Are the memory wipes always clean?”
“As far as I know,” he said. “A few reports of integration malfunctions, but the Meringues are programmed to adapt.”
“How often what?”
“Do they pass our gate?” I had heard their rumblings in the past, and once a few years back saw them from a distance, but never had a reason to pay attention.
“Random. Always at night,” he said.
Sipping my gin, rattling the cubes, I wondered what kid had named them Meringues and at what brand-cost to the parents.
“Probably named after someone’s favorite cookie,” he answered.
I paused, and then went ahead and asked my next question, against my better judgment. “What’s it like out there?”
He eyed me, surprised. Thoughts are only indexed, not real-time reads, and there were no keywords in my question, but it was still a risky topic.
“Different, squawk, world. Very dangerous, gobble, gobble, sad and short lives,” he said, chopping words, and inserting fake ones to weaken the auto-track.
Eagle is an escort. At least that’s what he tells me. He put his hand on my thigh. I wrapped my finger through the metal.
“Sorry about your mom,” he said. “But she in the Meta, she’s not terminated. That’s something.” I turned my head away, not wanting him to see me cry.
I didn’t sleep much after that night, wanting to stay awake in case I heard the Meringues, but also because the darkness afforded more cover for grief. I looked at old photos, and marveled at how beautiful she had been, her magnificent blue eyes were the color of the sky on good days.
Finally, after two weeks, just after I got the baby to sleep, in the middle of the night, the ground vibrated. Flickering rainbow-colored lights swept across the back window. I jammed my legs into pants, pulled on a jacket, dipped my feet twice—the damp air was near freezing and the extra coats would help me move faster. I hoped their baby girl would sleep through my absence, it was a gamble, but I had to go.
By the time I got to the Zone perimeter, I was wheezing, but my labored breath froze in my throat when I looked up and saw them.
Three Meringues marched in a line along the entry point, on the far side of the moat. They were enormous, like small metal buildings with legs, each foot weighing nearly a ton, I guessed, and each time a leg descended, the ground trembled, their clunky movement telegraphing terror, as people screamed and scrambled to get out of their way. Just like Eagle said.
Thick rainbow-colored beams swept the ground from the top-floor command center—a box that had been engineered to resemble an enormous metallic human head—crisscrossing the outer terrain, and bouncing off the Zone wall’s electron field. As I watched, a stream of red light pulsated from the center Meringue, the other two on its flank, crashing against the east side of the wall, about a quarter-click distance from where I stood. A group of Beggars, or maybe Rebels, or some other category huddled there. Then, around the Meringue’s head, like a crown of jewels, a ticker spelled out “terminated” and the upthumbs from the Privileged with access to the feed started piling up immediately.
Wide-eyed and open-mouthed, I stared, watching when suddenly, a thin stream of blue light shot out from the same center Meringue, swept across my body, stopping on my chest, right at my heart. I panicked and froze, my brain screaming I had made a terrible mistake coming here. But then the blue light moved down to my hand. I opened my palm. The light circled, for a beat or two, there in its center of my now outstretched open hand.
Before I could even register what was happening, or muster any kind of response, the Meringue sucked the blue light back inside.
The ground bounced as they lumbered away, gradually declining to a dull vibration and finally falling into emptiness. The screams of the people outside the gate subsided, and I walked back to the place where I lived alone, my hand closed in a fist, not wanting to surrender the still warm spot on my palm.