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Science Fiction Immortality


By Edward Ashton
May 30, 2019 · 3,574 words · 13 minutes

From the author: Imagine that when you go to sleep at night, you don’t just go to sleep. You die. You die, and when you wake up it’s someone completely different looking out from behind your eyes. Question: would that make any practical difference in your life? Is there any way you’d even be able to tell?

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“Help me,” she says.

Just that, and not loudly, but he’s twenty miles from the nearest trailhead, and a human voice is like a siren out here. Burke glances around, confused, then leans cautiously out over the edge of the trail and looks down. A woman lies on her back maybe thirty feet below, sprawled on top of her pack, baking on a ledge in the afternoon sun. Her face is bloodied, and her hips are twisted around at a painful-looking angle.

“Hey,” Burke says. “What happened?”

She grimaces, and gestures up toward him.

“I fell. Saw a snake on the trail, took a step back, and boom.”

“Yeah,” he says. “Boom. I can see that. Can you move?”

She shakes her head.

“I think my back might be broken. I can’t feel my legs.”

The trail skirts the face of an escarpment here, two feet of level walkway between two hundred feet of sheer granite on one side, and a three hundred foot drop on the other. Burke slides carefully out of his pack, leans it against the rock wall, and digs out his med kit. He looks down again. There’s a mostly climbable route from the edge of the trail to where she’s stuck.

“I’m coming,” he says.

“Bring water,” she says. “Bring a knife.”

Her name is Moira Boyd. She’ll be a senior at Hopkins in the fall. She tells Burke these things as he’s picking his way down the cliff face. She looks worse up close than she did from the trail. Her nose is discolored and pushed to one side, and cuts are seeping fluid onto her forehead and cheeks. Dried blood is matted into her dust-brown hair, and her right wrist is bent backwards and swollen. Her back is the worst, though. From the way her hips are twisted around, it’s pretty clear that something just above her pelvis is dislocated.

Burke’s stomach twists as he realizes this is not going to be recoverable.

He kneels beside her, uncaps his water bottle, and lifts her shoulders enough to let her drink. She downs half a liter without taking a breath.

“Thanks,” she says when she’s finished. “I’ve been lying here for hours.”

Burke pulls out his phone. Coverage is spotty in the mountains, but they’re high enough up to at least hope for a signal.

“You want me to call for a dust-off?”

Moira laughs, but it quickly turns into a coughing fit. He hands her his water again. She nods her thanks, and gulps down half of what’s left in the bottle.

“Look at me,” she says when she can breathe again. “Do you really think this body’s worth salvaging?”

He shrugs.

“The back looks bad, but you never know. Maybe the cord’s still intact?”

She shakes her head.

“No. And even if it were, you’re talking surgery, rehab, physical therapy... I backed up a week ago. A trip to the tank is way cheaper, and I can be getting drunk in Fells Point by Thursday night.”

Burke looks up. A thin white cloud slides slowly across the face of the sun.

“Oh God,” she says. “You’re not one of those people, are you?”

He looks back down at her.

“One of those people?”

“Yeah,” she says. “A Unitarian?”

He’d laugh, but he’s heard that one too many times before.

“No,” he says. “I am not a Unitarian. I believe in a unitary soul. Unitarianism is an old-time religion that’s got nothing to do with whether or not you think you can replicate your consciousness in a bio-printed body.”

Moira closes her eyes and heaves a deep, put-upon sigh that almost turns into a sob at the end.

“You are one of them,” she says. “You’re not gonna help me, are you?”

He looks down at her, watches as a tear leaks from the corner of one tight-shut eye and carves a tiny runnel through the mix of blood and dirt on her cheek.

“I don’t know,” he says. “I guess it depends on what kind of help you’re asking for.”

She opens her eyes. They’re clear, piercing blue--bloodshot now, but he thinks they’re probably stunning when she’s not mangled on a rock ledge, baking in the sun a hundred miles from anywhere.

“You’ve got a knife,” she says.

The sun is lower, brushing the top of the cliff-face and leaving most of the river valley below them in shadow, when Moira asks Burke if he’s ever owned a dog.

He looks down. Her eyes are closed, and he’d thought she was sleeping. He sighs, glances up at the trail, and wonders briefly if he’d be able to traverse it in the dark.

“I did,” he says. “He died a few years ago, right before I left for college.”

One eye pops open.

“He died? Or did you put him down?”

He looks away. Should have seen that coming.

“We put him down,” he says finally.

Her eye closes again.

“So,” she says. “I get less compassion than a dog?”

“It’s not the same,” he says. “Mickey was old. We kept him alive and healthy for as long as we could.”

Both eyes open now.

“Do I look healthy to you?”

“Look,” Burke says, and pulls out his phone for the twentieth time. “If you’ll just let me call this in...”

“Do it,” she snaps. “At least they’ll have the decency to put me down when I tell them I won’t pay for the retrieval.”

There’s no signal now anyway. Even if there were, they’re twenty miles out from the nearest trailhead. An extraction from here would take a full S&R crew, and at least half a day. That’d run fifteen thousand, maybe more, and if she disavows the call, they’ll bill it to Burke.

“Right,” she says wearily. “You’re totally useless, you know that?”

Clear nights can get cold on the side of a mountain in northern New Hampshire, even in July, even when the day was unbearably hot. The stars are beautiful, though. Burke only has a view of the eastern half of the sky, but the Milky Way stretches from the top of the cliff above him down to the horizon, and the stars around it are so thick and bright that he can barely make out the constellations. He’s been up to his pack and back twice now.  He doesn’t dare try to make the climb down with a full thirty pounds on his back, but he’s got his jacket, and an emergency blanket wrapped around Moira and snugged up to her chin, and the last liter of his water.

He can’t stay here forever. He knows that. It’s eight miles over brutal terrain to the nearest spring, and he’s already in for a rough morning’s walk, even if he leaves at dawn.

He can’t leave at dawn, unless he gives Moira what she wants.

He can’t give Moira what she wants.

She’s asleep now, face slack, mouth hanging open because there’s no way any air is getting through that nose. Burke sits with his back to the rock, knees drawn up to his chest, and watches her breathe. Her chest rises and falls in a steady rhythm. Aside from the broken back and some minor cuts and bruises, she’s actually not in bad shape. She could hang on for a long time here.

He’s given her most of the water. All things equal, she’ll probably outlast him.

Burke knows all the arguments people like Moira make to support Backup, to support going into the tank. The one that comes closest for him is this: Imagine that when you go to sleep at night, you don’t just go to sleep. You die. You die, and when you wake up it’s someone completely different looking out from behind your eyes. He’s got all of your memories, all of your hopes and dreams. He thinks he’s you, but he’s not. He gets up, brushes his teeth, goes about his day, then lays down in his bed and dies in his turn, replaced by a new iteration the next morning. Question: would that make any practical difference in your life? Is there any way you’d even be able to tell?

The logical answer is no.  For all Burke knows, that’s exactly what happens when he goes to sleep. Consciousness is an illusion, and the immortal soul is a myth. Back yourself up and go jump off a building, and when the new you comes out of the tank, it’ll be just like nothing happened.

Burke understands the argument. He can’t even refute it. He can’t refute it, but he can’t make himself believe it, either. He would know if he died. He’d know, because he’d be dead, and the fact that somebody else was walking around pretending to be him wouldn’t change that in the least.

“Hey,” Moira says.

Burke’s head snaps up. He’d been dozing, with his back against the rock and his forehead resting on his knees. A full moon sits half-way up the eastern sky now, and the valley below is laid out in shades of gray, ghost-pale and sickly. He blinks twice, and tries to focus on her face.

“Sorry,” she says. “I didn’t know you were sleeping. I thought maybe you were praying for my Unitarian soul.”

Burke smiles.

“No,” he says. “I wasn’t praying. I was dreaming, though. It was morning, and you were better. Your back was fixed and your legs were working, and we were walking out to the trailhead together.”

She gives her hip an experimental poke with one finger.

“Yeah,” she says. “I don’t think that’s gonna happen.”

Burke wraps his arms tight around his knees as a shiver runs from the back of his neck to the base of his spine. He’s cold. He’s cold, and his back hurts, and his neck hurts. It suddenly dawns on him that he’s gotten into a bad place, and he doesn’t know how to get back out.

“Give me your knife,” Moira says.

Burke looks at her. She’s holding out her hand.

“You know what needs to happen here,” she says. “You can’t do it. I get that. I wasn’t sure I could either. That’s why I wanted you to do it, but I’m sure now. This is bad, Burke. My face, my back, my head, my wrist… everything above my waist hurts, and the only reason the rest doesn’t is because it’s already dead. Just give me the knife, and let me do it. All you have to do is cut the ID chip out of my arm when I’m done, and drop it into a mailbox when you get back to the world.”

Burke leans his head back against the rock, and stares up into the washed-out sky.

“I can’t,” he says finally. “If I give you my knife, it’s no different than if I kill you myself, is it? Either way, it’s on my head.”

“No,” Moira says. “That’s bullshit. What I’ve been through for the last twelve hours? That’s on your head. You did that to me. You hand me that knife, though, and I swear to God I will absolve you. Just take the chip, and everything else is forgiven.”

Burke closes his eyes. He can’t stay here forever. He can’t stay, but he surely can’t leave her here.

It’s six hours of hard walking to the nearest water.

“Hey,” she says again. “Look at me.”

He does. Her arm is stretched out on the rock now, her hand almost touching his boot. Her eyes are wide and pleading.

“This isn’t your choice,” Moira says. “It’s not for you to decide. I don’t want this. Even if you could get a helicopter up here to airlift me out, I wouldn’t want it. I don’t want surgery, I don’t want rehab, and I don’t want a wheelchair. I want to close my eyes, and open them again in the recovery room at the regen center. I want to not remember that any of this ever happened.”

Burke stares out across the valley.

“That’s not what’ll happen,” he says quietly. “If I give you the knife, somebody will wake up in the tank, but it won’t be you. You’ll be dead. You’ll be dead, and I will have killed you.”

“You don’t know that,” she says. “You don’t know anything.”

Something comes out of the woods in the valley below, something big and dark and heavy-bodied. A bear, maybe? It wanders down to the river, dips its muzzle in to drink.

“It’s not fair,” Moira says. She’s crying now, softly. The bear looks up. Is it possible it can see them? It shakes its head slowly, then lumbers back into the trees.

Moira’s asleep again when dawn comes. Her face looks worse in the low, red light, puffy and swollen and purple around her nose and eyes. Her mouth hangs open, and a thin line of spittle runs across her cheek, past her ear, and into the hair behind her jawline. Burke climbs carefully to his feet, stretches the kinks out of his neck and back, and tries to come up with a plan for the day. An inch or so of water is left in the bottom of his last bottle. That’s for Moira when she wakes up. He needs to get more somehow, but it’s twelve hours on the trail to the nearest spring and back. If he leaves most of his gear with Moira, he could maybe cut that to eight. Would she be able to hold on that long alone?

Burke’s almost decided that he doesn’t have a choice when he looks down into the valley, and thinks about the bear. It didn’t have any trouble getting water. The river is right there, no more than a half-mile away.

The only problem is that the first three hundred feet of that is sheer granite.

Burke drops to his knees, leans out over the edge and looks around. It’s not quite sheer, really. The slope is probably no more than seventy degrees for most of the way down, and there are a few handholds here and there—even a ledge about half-way down where he could rest for a few minutes. If he had his climbing gear, he’d be down and back in a couple of hours, tops.

Of course, he doesn’t have his climbing gear. He’s got heavy-duty boots, no chalk, no harness, and no rope.

And no backup.  Can’t ever forget that.

Moira’s still out when he starts down. He leaves all his gear behind, other than the three two-liter water bottles that he’s clipped to his belt. He hopes she’ll take that to mean that he’s coming back.

He’s picked out what looks like a pretty reasonable route to the river. From where he starts, it’s about twenty feet down to the next ledge, with a half-dozen decent toeholds in-between. Burke covers that in five minutes of careful climbing. From there he makes a short traverse to a crack that slants diagonally across the face for the better part of a hundred feet. It’s harder to get his feet securely placed with his hiking boots than it would have been in climbing shoes, but he’s feeling good, feeling like he’ll be able to do this, until the crack peters out and he realizes it’s farther from there to the ledge than he’d thought. It’s too far to step, and he’s in no position to leap. He closes his eyes, takes two deep breaths, and looks around.

Burke’s feet are wedged into the crack, but he has to maintain pressure on his hands to hold his position, so this isn’t a great place to rest. About four feet to his left, a twisted little tree is growing from the bottom of another flaw in the rock. A loop of root sticks out from its base like a gymnast’s ring. Another two feet beyond that and four feet below, a foot-wide ledge juts out from the face. It’s not the one he was aiming for, but he can see what looks like a clear route from there down that turns almost walkable near the bottom.

Burke reaches for the root.

He’ll remember this moment for the rest of his life. As soon as he releases the pressure on his hands, his left foot pops free, and for just an instant he finds himself suspended like a fly in amber, motionless, knowing he’s fucked up, knowing he can’t reach the root, knowing he’s going to die now because of it. He’s not in free-fall, though. His right foot is still wedged in the base of the crack. He topples sideways, and as he does he pushes with his right leg and stretches out with his left hand, and just as the world shimmers back into motion he hooks three fingers around the tree root, and swings.

Burke hangs there for five seconds, then ten, feeling the rough bark under his fingers, gasping for breath, sure that at any moment the root will rip loose from the thin soil it’s buried in and drop him down onto the rocks below. It doesn’t, though. It holds. It holds, and so does he, and when the panic subsides and he stops gasping for air, he lifts his right arm up and gets a solid grip with both hands, then swings his feet over onto the ledge. He pushes himself upright, squeezes his eyes tight shut, and breathes.

The river water is crisp and clean and cold. Burke downs a liter and a half on the spot, then fills all three bottles and starts back up the cliff. Climbs are always easier than descents, but this one seems more so than usual. He was badly dehydrated on the way down, and as he climbs, he imagines that he can feel the water diffusing through his system, filling in puckered cells, reviving the muscles in his arms and legs. He reaches the bottom of the crack in less than twenty minutes. He rests there, and drinks half of one of the bottles he’s brought for Moira. When he begins climbing again, it’s with a sense of urgency. She’s been alone now for almost two hours, and Burke has a growing intuition that something has hurt her, or that she’s found a way to hurt herself. He resists the urge to call out as he nears the ledge. His breathing is ragged by the time he reaches the last few handholds, and his blood roars loud in his ears.

This is why he doesn’t hear the voices.

Two identically petite, blonde, alarmingly fit-looking women kneel on either side of Moira when Burke pulls himself up onto the ledge. He’s so badly startled when he sees them that he almost goes backward over the edge.

“Nice to come back,” says the one on the left. “Decided to get in a little more torture before lunch?”

“He just came back for his gear,” says the other. “He doesn’t give a shit about her one way or the other.”

Moira turns her head to look at him. Her expression is unreadable.

“Let him be,” she says finally. “He’s just a whack-job. He’s not mean.”

“Whatever,” says the one on the right. “Are you ready?”

Moira holds Burke’s gaze.

“Yeah,” she says. “I’m ready.”

The woman pulls a red med-disk from the kit at her waist. She peels the foil back carefully from the injectors, palms the disk, and slaps it against Moira’s neck. Moira flinches, and her eyes flutter closed. She takes one deep breath, then a second. Her face goes slack, and the air whistles out of her in a long, sad sigh.

Burke stays with Moira for a while on the ledge. He feels that he owes her that much. The afternoon is well along by the time he makes the climb back up to the trail. The blonde women are long gone. They had the identity chip out of Moira almost before she was dead, and they didn’t give Burke so much as a backward glance when they left. They didn’t see this as a death, of course. To them, getting rid of Moira’s wrecked body was no different than getting rid of a wrecked car. They’ll drop the chip in the mail, and a few days later a new Moira Boyd will climb out of a bio-printer somewhere. A cleanup crew will be dispatched at some point to get rid of the body on the ledge, but there will be no funeral, no memorial, and certainly no mourning. Moira might not even bother to tell her family that she died.

Burke looks down at the ledge one last time as he shrugs into his pack. He’d like to believe that he sees absolution in Moira’s face, but in fact her expression is as blank as a mannequin’s, and it’s suddenly hard to believe that she was ever in that body at all. He looks up. The sun is already closing in on the cliff above. He has six hours of walking ahead, and if he stumbles off the trail in the dark, there’ll be no trip to the tank for him. Burke settles the straps on his shoulders, and starts walking.

This story originally appeared in The Overcast.

Edward Ashton

Edward Ashton writes people-centered science fiction, or science-centered people fiction, depending on the day.