© Cole Carter
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*This is the first part of the story - more to follow*
The door creaks unreasonably loudly as I ease myself into an empty study. A large desk dominates the dark wood panelled room and I scan rapidly for the safe. Possibilities jump out – the picture on the wall, the ornate rug that extends a little too far beneath the desk or maybe the full length mirror that's caught my tall, spare frame in the act.
The gentle click of the door shutting behind me cuts my thoughts dead. The cold steel of a gun barrel at the base of my skull mires my limbs in a sickly sense of deja vu and the scar above my left brow itches furiously.
A voice, heavily annunciated and far too familiar, cuts through the silence.
“Again detective? I thought we'd settled this the last time I shot you.”
Somehow he manages to sound disappointed. I don’t bother to reply. I know how this goes.
The jolt into darkness ends it.
I wake back at the station in the dimly lit Lazarus room, my scar still burning and with a banging headache. But that’s just psychosomatic. I'm not even in the same body.
This is the second time I’ve died today.
That makes it three for the month so far and it's only the 10th. At the station it's turned into a bit of a joke; the other Lazuri taunt me with quips about wanting to make the Guinness book of records but it's not like that. Dying isn’t easy, doesn't matter how often you do it - it's always like the first time. Fucking terrifying.
When they recruit you to this unit the propaganda machine is working full bore on selling the immortality angle. After all, who wants to die? But what if you could, over and over and still go home and have a life? Have a wife, kids, friends, barbeques at the weekends and Christmas with the in-laws? You just have to be prepared to die occasionally. Oh, and keep it from your family.
They’ll bring you back - memories, thoughts, feelings - everything that makes you, you or at least that's what they say. All backed up to the cloud via a cortical implant, constantly uploading and updating your soul. Cloned bodies that age with you, lie waiting in silent incomprehension for that fateful moment - that mistake, error of judgement or just plain old bad luck that suddenly ends everything. Then Bam! You're awake in a chilled darkness, all memory up till the point of death restored and, of course, fully admissible in a court of law.
The first time I died was both the easiest and the hardest. I don't mean it was an easy death, it wasn't, to be honest it was a pretty gruelling and ugly one. No, what I mean is that I was full of confidence that it wasn't the end for me, still filled to the brim with the feast of fancies and half truths I'd been fed at our induction but lying beneath it all lay a lingering doubt. What if it was all bullshit? I died a torn man but woke grinning.
It wasn't till after my seventh death that I woke without the surge of life triumphant sweeping through me that I’d become accustomed to, maybe even a little addicted.
The night before I'd found myself in a bar talking to some guy in a smart suit, tie loosened along with his tongue. He seemed genuine enough, claimed he was a defence lawyer representing an un-named aristocrat who had been accused of murdering his wife. The defence rested upon the fact that the man was one of the resurrected and had in fact been through the process twice since his wife's murder – contritious suicide his defence called it. Only society’s most affluent could afford the luxury of immortality, otherwise it was limited to the Justice department, specifically us, the Lazuri.
The case for the defence was that, whilst they did not contest the fact of the murder, they argued that the man before the jury, although physically identical, was actually simply a copy of the true culprit. He could not be the culprit himself The case had been lost, according to my drinking companion at least, in order not to set a dangerous precedent for the future.
And so it was that the fateful question of my own reality slid insidiously between me and the single malt in front of me. What if I’m more than the sum of my parts? What if I actually did die and what woke was simply a simulacrum that thought it was me? It was absurd philosophy of course, about as provable as the sound of the falling tree in the absence of anyone to hear. But the thought clung and with each successive death, grew.
I have a family: A wife - Emily, twin ten year old daughters - Kim and Tess, and a cat I can't stand, Mr Mog. They don’t know, have no idea that some nights when Dad comes home from work he might not be the same Dad that kissed them goodbye in the morning, the same husband that made love to his wife the night before in a frenzy of self affirmation. They're oblivious to the circle of betrayal performed by those that successively identify as me. I wish I could feel some guilt over it but I'm thirty two iterations of me in now and I just can't feel anything anymore. I'm a stranger, thirty two times removed in my own home.
Emily looks at me oddly sometimes, askance, but I see it. She's confused by this change in me. She doesn't know what's driven it and I can't tell her. I want to, I want to scream it - I'm not him. I'm not the man she married and had the twins with. Not the man who took a bottle to the head when he confronted an overly flirtatious bar man in Tenerife on her honeymoon. I'm the man who won't talk about work anymore, the man who can barely kiss the twins goodnight because he knows it's all a lie.
And tomorrow I'll go back out there, working amongst the shadows again. Likely die... again. The thought fills me with terror not because it will be a painful death but because I’m this new, other me. The me that's been alive approximately four hours. He values his life more than my original self would ever have because he knows he hasn't had a life yet. Why don't I quit? Stop this cycle of self betrayal? I'm bound, you don't achieve immortality as a freebie. Our induction made it more than clear - once you're in you're in. There is no going back. The consequences of quitting would be, in stark contrast to our current state, quite mortal.
It's morning, breakfast was tense. The twins sense something isn't right and Emily won't look me in the eye. Tess and Kim are playing up. Purposefully fighting, or so it seems.
“You're not real!”
What? I'm shocked out of my reverie. Kim stands before me, all blond curls and blue eyes shining wetly. Her bottom lip quivers as she stares defiantly at me. Tess is glaring across the table at her sister, mouthing the words: Shut up!
I stare back at Kim, at a loss for words and searching desperately to find some emotional feedback to her accusation. To feel something at her upset, a proper response from a loving, caring father. Emily saves me.
“Kim, you need to get ready for school. You too Tess. Bus'll be here in twenty minutes.”
Then, when she doesn't budge.
“Leave your Dad alone, he's just tired. Too many late shifts.”
She looks pointedly at me.
“Go on, on with you both. Get dressed and grab your bags and lunch.”
Kim slides away from me and Tess grabs her hand and pulls her from the room amid furious whispering.
Emily looks at me and sighs heavily. No words of comfort, just the burden of her expectant silence. She's waiting on me to explain it all, make sense of what's happening to her family. My fingers drum a rhythm unconsciously on the table until she notices and with a look and raised eyebrow places her hand over mine, stilling them. My eyes slide from her face, focus on the fridge door full of magnetic mementos of family holidays. Her family, holidays she and the twins went on with him. Not me. Something ugly wrenches in my gut.
Easing my hand from beneath hers I stand and push back my chair. Emily sags a little.
“I'm sorry,” I murmur and head toward the hall and escape, however temporary. She explodes behind me.
"What the hell is wrong with you, Ian?"
It isn't a question I can answer and though I pause, I don't look back. I can feel her eyes boring angrily through the back of my skull.
“Oh, just go for God’s sake,” her tone one of exhausted defeat. Something stirs in me, a vague sense of guilt but I can't entertain it right now, I'm not ready. The front door looms and suddenly I can't reach it soon enough. It clicks gently shut behind me.
As I walk into the station, Cole Hatton the desk sergeant, gives me a wry smile. He's been drinking buddies with my former selves for fifteen years, was Best man at my original's wedding. He's not Lazuri though, doesn't know anything about the program, just knows his friendship has somehow come adrift. Before I can pass he pushes an envelope at me, it's plain and white, just my name and a stamp to indicate that it's to be opened with urgency.
I thank him, try to pull some old camaraderie from our past but I'm blank and so it’s an awkward smile and a “Cheers Cole,” and I'm past him. Somehow I know what's in the envelope before I open it: Psyche Eval. Shit.
Gunderson’s office is small, cluttered. Homely. He's been on staff as Psyche Evaluator longer than I’ve served. You see Gunderson following traumatic policing events - it's procedure. This is the first time though that I've been pulled in as one of the Lazuri.
He isn't your stereotypical psychiatrist. There’s no tweed or pipe, his office has no chaise longue. He isn't distinctive in any way, more a grey, characterless man with no defining features. To talk to him is like talking to a mirror, somehow what you say just reflects right back at you forcing you to confront yourself. That's his talent I guess.
I sit without waiting to be asked and he looks at me, dead fish eyes appraising me.
“Thirty two,” he says, simply.
The number hangs between us. I stare back uncomfortably.
“Who are you, Mr Larne?”
The question is spot on and my eyes slide down. He gives a soft sigh and I hear him tap a keyboard. The wall behind him, a holo of a wooden bookcase filled with old world hard bound tomes is replaced with a stream of data scrolling endlessly past.
“This is you,” he says simply. “Reduced to ones and zeros. Isn't that humbling? That we can reduce everything we are, everything we know, feel and love to such a simple thing. Yet when you look closer, when you realise the complexity that can be achieved through just those two numbers it becomes a thing of wonder.”
I'm not sure where he's going with this, not sure I really care.
“Do you think you are the first Mr Larne? That you are in some way unique in coming to this troubling conclusion that you are no longer the you that originally started with this program?”
For a moment I think he is waiting for an answer but, “they say that true self is invested in continuity of consciousness...yet consider this. Before you joined the Lazuri, every night you went to sleep and every night there was some part of deep sleep where you didn't dream or know anything at all. Yet when you woke you never considered that you may not be the you that went to bed the night before. You lost continuity but woke with the same memories, thoughts, feelings and physical responses that the previous you had experienced and so chose to believe that you must be that same person. So what is different now?”
I know he is baiting me down a well worn path of debate and is almost certainly anticipating my response, ready with his own clever rejoinder. I bite anyway.
“It’s still me, my body. It isn't swapped out overnight.” He gives me a small, well practiced and sad smile.
“No, not overnight. But over the years, your cells, they live and they die. You are, in fact, remade many times over during the course of your lifetime. Is it not so?”
I've been through this thought process a thousand times but it doesn't answer the quintessential question.
“What if I'm more than just ones and zeros? “ I ask, defiantly.
“Ahh, the metaphysical,” he opines. “You're concerned about the soul.”
I guess that is what it comes down to in the end, though I've never had a head for religion and at best would describe myself as agnostic. I nod bleakly, force my eyes back up to confront his but he's turned away.
“You understand, Mr Larne, that I have no secret window on God. No-one can truly answer that question for you.”
He chuckles, a sound quite unexpected from this dry man, a splash of emotion gone almost as soon as it arrives.
“But I can share something with you, you see,” he taps again on his keyboard and the scroll of binary speeds up considerably; hundreds, thousands of pages of me hurtle across the screen then stop suddenly at an area of red, italic font. Aside from the formatting it looks like more of the same to me but Gunderson taps his finger on it.
“This,” he says, “is garbage, junk data. The system can't identify it as relating to any of the senses or memories and suchlike that we record and upload from you.”
He pauses, dramatically.
“Yet everyone has it.”
He leaves the thought hanging there a moment then continues.
“We have experimented, naturally, with removing the junk before download to host and the results have always been null effect but I can tell you this, the next time that host dies, that junk is back in the data. And it is EXACTLY the same.”
He smiles wryly at me.
“ We have no explanation for it. Draw what conclusions you will but it looks very much to me like something indefinable is migrating between hosts, " a pause, weighted with meaning, "and therein may lie your answer to continuity, Mr Larne.”
He's given me a rock to cling to, and like a drowning man, I choose to believe. I stand and offer my hand to Gunderson who takes it lightly, his skin dry and soft to the touch, and shakes it ever so slightly.
As I turn to leave, Gunderson sits back down heavily, as though fatigued and I'm almost through the door when he calls me back.
“Don't forget your picture, Mr Larne.” He points to a photograph, sat on the edge of his desk. It's me and the girls, caught in a snapshot of happiness on one of their birthdays.
I have no memory of bringing this in. Frowning, I slide it from the desk into a jacket pocket and turn back to the door.
“Good day, Mr Larne. You have a beautiful family. Take care of them.”
I leave his office, standing a bit taller, a little less empty. As I walk down the station hall I slip out the photo and for the first time in several months, I smile. I remember the picture being taken. Kim and Tess tucked one under each arm, giggling, as I carried them into the living room to receive their birthday gift – a kitten they named Mr Mog. That was over three years ago, on their seventh birthday. Before he... No. Before I died for the first time.
But where did that photo come from?