Humans are, on the whole, guaranteed to do only one thing: die.
Organic systems are wonderfully complex, and their robust, self-annealing properties are obvious to anyone who’s ever scuffed a knee or suffered a cold. But evolution didn’t optimise plains-monkeys for long lifespans, and even once the monkeys worked it out for themselves in the middle 21st Century, life extension wasn’t perfect. A single point of failure could grow into a cascade, a waterfall of dying cells. This risk could be managed, yes, but not banished.
Even disregarding old age, the Reaper gets his due.
Depending on how you normalise your values, the average immortal lives between 250 and a thousand years. A long time, to be sure. But if you’re a real longtermist, even a thousand years is barely the prelude to a full lifespan. And that ignores the other risks — war, murder, sabotage. And, hell, if you’re getting rid of aging, maybe you can start looking at fixing the other maladies of human nature. Why be one person, when you can become two?
By the end of the 21st Century, mind uploading was a real prospect — but it was difficult, materially expensive, and required a lot of expertise. The original brain — vitrified, subdivided into slices finer than any paper, and secured between glass in a protective atmosphere — had to be kept for constant reference, to set right the fluttering cascades early modelling firmware suffered. And, being that the mind isn’t some magic substance unhitched from the physical world, Descartes be damned, any change to the substrate changes the mind.
Alright for some, but the stability of these vitrified minds was in serious question. Too few adopters meant the technology advanced in slow lurches. Failures compounded, discouraged further funding for the research.
And then, Saniyah Chaou, a bored fifteen year old compsci student from the construction clusters at L4, circumvented the bandwidth filters on her neural link, and changed the world.
She won the 2124 Young Scientist prize. TIME magazine named her their Person of the Year. She was showered with accolades, awards, grants and bursaries. It was a shame she couldn’t appreciate them; she was still catatonic.
At the time, she’d been running an experiment with a school of fish. Well, hardly a school. Hardly even a pre-school. A dozen or so Manta Rays, suffering an induced phyletic dwarfism and dumped into a tank much too small for their needs.
They’d had neural links of their own installed as part of a research project — the idea was to train the Rays to pilot the Von Neumanns building the L4 spin cans — and Saniyah had tapped in. It was a common pastime among the compsci kids. Experiencing these truly alien sensations and perceptions could give you vertigo, or help you recontextualise things in your own life, the kids said. There were rumours that Sally Chen and Grant Wilson had hooked up in the room overlooking the Manta Rays, hooked into their neural links at the same time.
But Saniyah was just annoyed.
The bandwidth wasn’t enough. She knew, intellectually, why they’d engineered the limits into the neural link’s firmware — early experiments had shown all sorts of psychological instabilities if you had too much data crammed into your skull — but she also knew it was clouding her vision. She wasn’t like the other compsci kids. She wasn’t like Sally fucking Chen. She wanted to get into the Rays’ minds. Wanted to know if they could see her, too.
The bandwidth limit was hard-coded, naturally. Baked into the software.
But like anyone who had grown up with a link stuffed in her head at a young age, Saniyah retained a healthy distrust for the hard- and software that linked her brain to other computers. Like most everyone else she knew, she’d been running her own kernel, drivers and utilities since she was twelve.
The community that wrote the software all agreed that no-one should be exposed to a link without robust safeguards.
But that also meant that all of the knowledge was out there to build a kernel where the safeguards didn’t exist. Open source is open source.
And like all children, Saniyah was curious. Like all children of her time, she was intelligent — shockingly so. And the intricacies of neural interface programming had become second nature to her by necessity of verifying what ran in synergy with her mind, so much so that she sometimes thought of English as her second language.
The neural commands flowed like water from the tap. The flutter of a full systems reboot, like an itch buried deep in her midbrain radiating out, made her shudder. Not unfamiliar, not even unexpected. But it felt like a boundary. Caesar crossing the Rubicon. Hannibal taking his elephants over the Alps.
No time for fear, she thought.
Icewater trickled into her gut, and from it out into her veins. She let herself believe it was excitement. Saniyah remembered to breath; in, and then out. She felt her pulse in her chest, waited until its pounding calmed. And then, hooking back into the Rays’ neural links, she told her interface to dial up the bandwidth.
And in doing so, she broke her mind.
How do two brains become one mind? Naturally, the same way that two hemispheres form one, coherent, brain.
The Corpus Callosum is nature’s information superhighway, a bundle of something like 200 million insulated nerve fibres connecting both halves of the human brain — indeed, the human mind. The science is clear: its most important function by far is that it allows the chatter in both chambers of the mind to synchronise. If this link is severed — either by some random, cruel injury or the knife of a surgeon — the result is not one mind split in two, but two, distinct and functional mentalities.
In some cases, these distinct mentalities can behave independently. Every human being alive is a hivemind. Two independent minds, two wills, bound into one.
The Callosum’s I/O’s nothing to write home about, really.
Smartphones — ask your grandparents — were taking in and sending out more data than the link between both halves of a baseline brain by the early 21st Century. In hindsight it’s blindingly obvious: like everything else computational, the process doesn’t care what substrate it runs on.
Signals fluttering across white matter. Data travelling through the air. Light via a fibre optic. Hell, you could probably do it by smoke signals, if you were willing to build the biggest fire in history.
Suddenly, it wasn’t just the Rays’ sensoria being poured into Saniyah’s mind. She seized, twitched. The Rays were as confused as she was. This isn’t a flipper, they might have thought, trying to get the grasp of her monkey body. Reflexively she tried to jerk away from the strange sensation, and instead felt the motion in another body, a pull on the fins flanking its wide, broad head.
She was drowning in the air. She was submerged under the water. She was in two dozen bodies, seeing out two dozen pairs of flat, funny little eyes. And they were in hers, rifling through her memories and impressions like excited children searching through a grown-up’s drawers. Memories, if they could be called that, flooded her own mind, too — chasing another Ray, under the artificial moonlight of their enclosure; light in her blood as she herded a bunch of smaller fish into a tight ball and dove, mouth open–
Like water spilling out of a bathtub, Chaou felt herself going fuzzy at the edges. Drip, drip, drip — identity began to merge across the link — and then it was like a dam bursting, like somebody had blown out all the windows in Saniyah Chaou’s mind, and all that remained was the roar of pressure loss.
She was gone. So were the Rays.
All the pieces that made them up still existed — memories, skills, sensations; all floating in the dark like scattered stars — but the story which bound them tight was suddenly flexible, suddenly changing. Somewhere distant, human vocal cords were making a keening whine. Somewhere distant, gills were flexing wrong. It didn’t matter. All the pieces were scrambling to tell a new story, competing wills dancing in the dark — and then beginning to draw together, something new emerging, like a Manta Ray rising to breach the surface of the dark ocean, to somersault into the air above.
Chaou’s neural link registered an emergency. The user was having a seizure, one that didn’t match anything in its vast medical archives. It panicked (as much as a machine can panic), called in the cavalry, and then, following a decision tree written by someone who’d never even considered something like this happening, the neural link severed its connection to the local network.
Have you ever seen those pressure doors snap shut? They’re popular in the older habitats, wired into corridors at regular intervals. If their sensors detect a sudden drop in air pressure, airtight bulkhead doors close, quick as lightning. Do you know what they call it if part of you is on the wrong side, when those doors close?
Saniyah Chaou had proved something no ethics board would ever let you test. Her mind — parts of it, at least — had migrated. Migrated to neural tissue whose last common ancestor with humanity died out 300 million years ago, no less. It was a breathtaking discovery.
The mind was no longer tied to any one, particular body. It could migrate to another body, another life. Once Chaou’s experiences were understood, the process was shockingly simple: cloning a body in a nutrient bath, hooking its empty brain up to the user, opening the floodgates. A man could live a thousand lives in a thousand bodies, and then go on to one thousand and one. Death couldn’t come from a single point of failure any more.
In the early days, it could take weeks of painstaking synchronisation. Double vision, seeing through two sets of eyes. But technology advances. Unlike uploading, the demand was there. So was the funding. Nowadays, a backup is an hour-long inconvenience — and a relatively cheap one, at that.
Alone, ‘syncing’ was a revolution that would have changed humanity forever. But with it came other discoveries: tweak the link just so, mix high-pass filters to taste, and you get a custom-order hive mind; insert Choudry blockers into the connection, and watch as a married couple become, quite literally, a more perfect union. At last, the fluid, the genderqueer, the radically divergent — at last, a single mind could be stretched across two, three, four, more bodies.
And Saniyah Chaou? Experts are divided.
Certainly, something drew itself back together inside of her body. Finished her degree, got first married, and then divorced. The person calls itself Saniyah Chaou, but admits that’s an easy shorthand. “Whoever I was before died that day,” she says. “The ‘I’ in the girl’s body, and all the Is inside those Manta Rays, too.” There’s no distinction between the two, or so she tells us.
She goes back to L4 every now and then. The colony cans were finished decades ago, without any help from humanity’s fishy friends. She goes to the tank — now much expanded, thanks to a generous donation she gave — and she watches the Rays. They watch her back. Most of Saniyah Chaou is probably still in her body. But at least some of it ended up in those fish, too.
Or maybe she’s three Manta Rays in a trenchcoat.
Who can say?
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