They say that when neural reconstruction was new, they tested the technique on a single mind. One single mind was transferred to new bodies over and over again. In between each reconstruction, all its memories were wiped and new, artificial ones embedded in the neural network. They say that this one mind has visited at least thirty different bodies. They say, with fixated, important looks, that this neural nomad might still be alive.
Compared to the human brain, the cosmos isn’t all that complicated. Everything can be reduced to a binary solution. Yes/no. True/false. On/off. As others gape at the shuttles that rise like near-erotic explosions out of the spaceports towards their orbits, I shrug and say it’s nothing compared to the brain.
Usually, this is when people ask me what I do. When I tell them the truth, that I work in the Nanosurgery Department of the Alan Turing Hospital, half of them usually ask what that means. The other half empty their drinks and put their hands on my thigh. Usually, this is when I omit that I’m neither neurophant, neurosurgeon, nor neuropist.
It’s surprisingly easy to get into people’s pants once you tell them they don’t have a soul.
When I was eleven, my dad took me to the top floor of the place where he worked. It was in Sector 5, and on a clear day, you could see for miles. It was then, with my hand in his, that I saw the Gigaplex for the first time. It was on the horizon like a dim, egg-shaped lump, an enormous beetle that had just crawled up from the ground and rested on the roofs of the city. It wasn’t even finished yet but already looked ageless in the same way the Pyramids of Giza or the Great Wall do.
Dad pointed to the grey hulk and said:
“That’s our new home.”
The Gigaplex dominates the city like a mountain range. Nobody who has seen it, come close to it, can deny its audaciousness. Nobody can fail to admire its orbicular exterior and its semi-transparent dome, letting in the sun shining above the smog. Living within its walls tops by far every wish list of the citizenry. The natural ramification of this is that anyone living on the outside loves and hates the Gigaplex equally much.
Already as a child, I understood that nobody lived in the sectors by their own choice. I seem to remember that life in Sector 5 was comfortable, but the shifting demographics of the city are not necessarily geographically determined. The urban sprawl expanded upwards, grew in layers, and the Gigaplex is now the brilliant center around which life orbits, the way the spiral arms of the Milky Way orbit the galactic core.
My eleven-year-old self imagined the Gigaplex to be as magical and wonderful as people in ancient times imagined the afterlife. My dad, who rarely displayed any emotion, squeezed my hand and looked so pleased that my young heart skipped a few beats. He squatted beside me, gazed at the scenery, and said: “That's where we're going to live.”
And he repeated it, as if to convince himself: “That's where we'll live.”
The scouts find most of the candidates in the wild, outside the city. People who live out there are both hopeless and lawless. They’re the “volunteers.” The patients that will inhabit the new bodies, the neurophants-to-be, all want the same things. Tall, beautiful specimens. Virile, muscular, supple, voluptuous. When the sedated candidates come in, they’re dressed in functional clothing, a mix of organic and synthetic materials. They’re dirty and ragged. The men have beards, hairy backs, and frizzy curls in their ass cleavage. The women have hair under their arms, on their legs, their sexes. And they stink. They stink like all get-out. I try to tell myself they smell like human being, but I’m not buying it.
We disinfect them. Laser away the unwanted hair. Straighten their teeth. Clean the shit out from under their nails. Wash them clean. I would like to stand the candidates in front of a mirror, before we erase their minds and reconstruct their brains, and say: “See—this is what people look like in 2546. This is what a human looks like.” Maybe they’d be grateful if they knew what we did for them.
Meanwhile, the patient’s neural network is mapped out with diffusion MRI. This map is then used to reconstruct the candidate’s brain. Hundreds of billions of neurons, hundreds of trillions of synapses are rewired or removed by nanobots, recreating a neural network identical to the patient’s. “Why not just install their minds directly?” one could ask. Because the physical neural network is part of how the mind works. To the nanosurgeons, the brain is nothing more than an electrochemical signal box. Relays, transformers, capacitors, switches. To them, the brain is a computer, and the mind is software that can be installed and uninstalled at will. But the mind, like software, is vulnerable to both faulty wiring and corrupting code.
Neural reconstruction shares its cradle with neuropathy. While neural reconstruction is used to rewire the entire neural network, neuropathy combines conversational therapy with the reparations of individual neurons. Sloppy neural reconstructions invariably lead to a host of neural disorders that in the end could cause a residual synapse cascade—the neuropathic term for complete neural burnout. They happen when nanobots miss neural connections that cause snatches of the previous occupant’s collected experience, souvenirs from former tenants, to rush in and wreak havoc in the neurophant's mind. Some neurophants who suffer synapse cascades are reduced to drooling vegetables. Others get on their feet and keep going as if nothing happened.
After the neural reconstruction, we reboot them—that's what we call the month-long routine process to monitor their status and diagnose any deviations. OCD, schizoid episodes, psychotic discomfort, hallucinations. Paranoia. Bruising, mottling, lesions, signs that the reconstruction has caused disturbances in the day-to-day running of the body machine. Side effects of appropriating another human body. If we detect anomalies, a neuropist is called in to make final adjustments.
Neuropathy is available to all Gigaplex dwellers, and most of us go to the neuroclinics once a month to have our brains scanned. There's a good reason for that. There are enough stimulants around to make people doubt their subjective reality. Enough techids streaming information even as they sleep. Enough neurostim junkies who run on electrochemical stimulants.
The Gigaplex never sleeps. It sometimes occurs to me as I wander its districts, magnetostradas, parks, and piazzas, that it’s also never fully awake.
One of the walls in Dr. Sulawit Singh's waiting room is transparent. From where I’m standing, the city looks like a gigantic moiré of concentric circles around a center. A zepicopter floats idly by below me, the word ELYSIUM written in enormous hololetters on its skin. The letters are soon replaced by azure waves rolling in on a long beach, on whose snow-white sand shadows of palm trees move back and forth.
The other wall is one big holoscreen showing greens: trees and sunlight sprinkling through massive crowns.
I'm here because I dream. Actually, it's wrong to call them dreams. Dr. Sulawit Singh calls them scenarios. The scenarios are much more substantial than dreams. So much so that I can feel the warmth of the sun on my skin. So real I can taste the bile in my mouth. So real I don’t need to record them. I remember every detail. The sensation of real grass against my palms. The sound of my feet against the cobblestone. The way the old man’s skin in Scenario 7 reminds me of the bark on a tree trunk.
I go to sleep with nanotransceivers attached to my skull. They activate when I fall asleep, parsing my neural activity, recording my dreams to the neurocorder. It was uncomfortable at first, and I didn’t sleep very well because I couldn’t stop thinking about them—and I was afraid of what I would see. Things that I otherwise would have forgotten in the morning.
What really sets the scenarios apart from dreams is, they sometimes occur when I'm awake.
In one of them, I'm standing in a field of waving grass that reaches my waist. Softly rolling hills all the way to the horizon. A warm-green forest edge behind a cluster of simple, old-age huts and cottages. I can just make out the glimmer of water somewhere to my left. A hot sun setting into the golden grass. I prefer that scenario to the others. It's calm, pleasurable, and I wake with the smell of grass tickling my nose.
Lately, things have started to happen in that scenario. I see a figure, dressed in a white, billowy garment. The setting sun shines through it, silhouetting the body; it’s a woman. On the neurocorder, it looks like she’s naked, and I can’t help but blush.
Dr. Singh lights up like I'm his favorite grandchild. Sits on his little stool and smiles at me. We talk about recent events, and then he looks at me with concern.
"They tell me they received complaints," he says. "Your co-workers seem to think you're preoccupied and vacant. That you don't respond when spoken to."
I hear the sound of birds chirping and the rustle of leaves. The waist high grass tickles my palms. Blue sky sweeps overhead.
I blink. A figure dressed in white approaches. A woman's body is silhouetted against the evening sun.
Dr. Singh's eyes narrow into slits, snaps his fingers in front of me.
"Nim? Hey, Nim?"
"Yes," I say.
"There's talk that you run around in the outer sectors at night? None of my B of course; it's your spare time."
I blink. There’s a hollow between me and the woman in white. She is walking down the opposite slope now.
“I've had trouble sleeping,” I admit.
They say that when neural reconstruction was the hot new thing, the waiting period for a new body was so long that the clients' bodies checked out before their stored minds could be transferred. When they were finally awoken, after months and years in the digital waiting room of the Alan Turing Hospital, they could finally talk about their time in limbo. Depending on whom you ask, it was either a merciful wink of an eye, like dreamless sleep, or a painful, waking paralysis. They say that some minds couldn't handle it and celebrated their new bodies by committing suicide. They say, with hushed voices and assertive nods, that some minds didn't even wait for their new bodies to switch off.
Dr. Singh brings me back. "You're having one right now, aren't you? An episode?"
I blink. The scenario is gone. "No, no, I'm just. . . Listen, did NeuroCorp do something to me? Tamper with my. . ." I point to my forehead.
It's his turn to blink. “How long have you been thinking that?”
“Not long,” I lie.
“What is it you think they've done?”
“I don't know. If something happened in. . . in my past. When I was a kid. Maybe they've been experimenting on me. Maybe they erased memories?”
“For example, what?”
“I don't remember my parents' deaths. That's something I should remember, right? And why do I dream of places I've never been?”
“I don't know, but it is interesting,” Dr. Singh says.
I sigh. “I don't think we, this, what we're doing, I don't think it's working.”
“If that's how you feel,” says Dr. Singh. The bags under his eyes seem heavier, and he is slumping more than usual. "You know. . . I wish I could tell you—"
Then he shuts his mouth.
Back in my unit, I pour an enormous, black-market vodka and bring out a small spiral-bound stack of paper I bought in an antiques shop in Sector 10 for an absurd amount of credits. I also bought a box of “pencils,” wooden rods encasing a thin cylinder of graphite that can be sharpened into a point and used to write on the paper.
I'm not used to the fine motorics involved in drawing, so I go through several sheets of paper before I end up with something acceptable. My place in the wild. It's out there. I've been there before, I'm sure of it. And I know what I have to do now.
From the maglev train, Sector 12 seems to bathe in a milky white liquid. The mist has come down from the mountains, and the raw moisture can be felt even up on the station platform. Which is, by the way, an absolute marvel of architectural boredom. A graphene-grey, ellipsoid shell over a couple of maglev tracks. Two platforms with holoscreens for information and advertisements. A row of polished elevator doors. It's to be expected. This is, after all, Sector 12.
In the seemingly endless sprawl of the city, Sector 12 is the one least guarded by whatever gods manage humanity these days. Out here, you can still find worn buildings made from bricks and mortar, concrete and glass, standing in the shadows under the gleaming truss structures, beams, and pillars of the maglev tracks. Out here, among the grey mass of skyscrapers sticking out from the ground like coffee-stained teeth out of rotting gums, your autopilot might lose contact with the satellites. Out here, people say it’s a nice day if they happen to glimpse the sky through a tear in the shit-colored clouds.
I shoulder my way through the crowd and take the elevator down to street level. It’s only out here that that term has any practical significance. The haze is so thick, I can barely see the ground, and I wait in the bustle under the Metro station, among the shadow games of the street peddlers and fast food vendors, for the morning warmth to chase the fog away.
Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to live out here. The old, time-stained buildings, the cracked asphalt streets, the LEDs in ancient metal lamp posts creating islands of brightness in the perpetual twilight—even the sounds and the intense odors that in themselves seem antiquated, heirlooms of a different age; all of it seems so familiar. I was brought up to be horrified of the dilapidated infrastructure, the moisture, the traces of graffiti hieroglyphs on brick walls, but the authenticity of it is alluring. The Gigaplex is like a colossal machine that has been polished up by its idealistic designers, but down in the bloated belly of it, the problem is built into the very architecture; the vitamin D streaming from the light fixtures in the walls and ceilings can't compensate for the mental anguish of rarely or never seeing the sun. The Gigaplex has areas large enough to pass for the outdoors—parks, beaches, copies of tropical islands long since vanished under the sea—but every year, three to four percent of the population develop claustrophobia, agoraphobia, or even astrophobia.
There's none of that out here. No nanoimplants behind the eyes, no neurostim jacks behind the ears, no colorful body modifications, no fluorescent body parts. Just naked, unmanipulated impressions.
In keeping with this notion, I left my technology back home. I’m an explorer in a strange world whose maps still have white spots. When the fog lifts, I leave the furious commerce in the metro area behind and wander through deserted streets. I stop now and then to consult the map, secretly enjoying the analogue feel of laminated paper: no icons flashing, no overlapping menus, no interactive guide that pops up to ask me if I’m lost.
An alien sound makes me back up into a doorway.
The door behind me opens and throws me back onto the sidewalk. A girl, or perhaps a young woman, sticks her head out and gawks at me in surprise, reading me top to bottom. For a second, I’m concerned she might be equipped with implant nanoscanners, like the check-in guards at the Gigaplex Metro. One can get cheap knock-offs from Tokyama, Guangdong, or Antananarivo that are liable to leaking, invading your head, and turning you into a mindless wreck. There are more expensive bootlegs as well, reverse-engineered by skilled migrants who don’t compromise on the materials, sort of an IPR infringement honor code. The girl doesn’t look like she can afford any of it.
“Oh, hello,” I say, mainly to seem friendly. “Maybe you can help me?”
She squints at me, squeezes out of the door and shuts it behind her.
“I think I’m lost,” I tell her, waving the map. She traces my movement with her gaze, delayed like holoscreen lag. I can smell the sweet and sour fragrance of her Comp-M chewing gum. She performs another full-body scan. Stops chewing. Raises an eyebrow. Comp-M makes the world run in slo-mo. Her arm comes up and a finger points down the street.
“You’re a plexer, aren’t you?”
A sinking feeling grips me, and I look around. “What makes you say that?”
She rolls her eyes. “You don’t think it shows?”
“How does it show?”
“Your clothes. Your hair. Everything. It’s just. . . wrong.”
She tilts her head to the side, looks intently at me, spits the gum past me onto the street. It ends up in a tiny stream of water working its way towards a sewer grating. I’m reminded of the layers under the city, ages stacked upon ages, remnants from the other side of the space age.
“We get people like you every weekend. Come down here like they're on vacation.”
“I'm not. I'm. . . looking for something.”
“I'm not sure. I'll know when I see it.” I look around again to make sure we're alone.
“Oh, you're one of them,” she says, nodding. “You're a dreamer.”
“What's a dreamer?”
She shrugs as if there's no clear definition. “They show up here sometimes, looking for things they've seen in their dreams. That's what they say, anyway. As if there's something to dream about down here.”
I stare at her, my mind churning. Her face is round and innocent, only her eyes reveal the prematureness of her adulthood. She frowns. “Are you all right? You're all pale.”
“I'm. . . yeah. I'm fine.”
“So what do you dream about?” she says.
“What kind of place?”
It's always a strange experience, evoking the memory of a memory. “It's outside. Outside of the city. In the wild. An open field. Some trees. A lake. Houses. Wait, I have a drawing!"
She looks at my crude sketch. Shifts her weight to her right hip, twists her left heel impatiently.
"You know it, don't you?" I ask.
"So what if I do? I can't take you there."
She pops another gum into her mouth, starts chewing frenetically, and blows a pink bubble. It bursts and produces a sharp echo, one single report against the walls on the other side of the street.
"I'm not. . . they're not going to come after me. I'm not important," I tell her. Technically not a lie. I am, however, a NeuroCorp employee, and they don't like it when we blab about what we do to outsiders.
"Will you pay?"
Of course. Down here, everything can be worked around with cash. Down here, cash is still king. I keep some handy in my backpack, and I serve her a pink plastic bill. Her eyes widen. I'm not sure how many credits it represents, but I know that it's the largest denomination this girl has ever seen. A curt nod. She's my guide.
"Is it far?"
"Yes. But first we have to get rid of your squealer."
Out of patience, she grabs my hand and points to a small, white scar on the back of it, in the soft fold between the thumb and the index finger.
A man in a dirty, white doctor's coat washes my hand with gauze that smells of alcohol. Places the tip of the scalpel against the skin and glances up at me. I nod once and he pushes the blade in, swiftly and expertly cutting a centimeter-long incision. Blood wells up. My new friend, the guide, is leaning against the wall, watching and smirking.
He wipes with gauze, picks up the forceps and plunges its beak into the incision, feeling his way toward the tiny plastic capsule. Grips its waist and pulls it out. Drops it in my other hand. Washes up. Closes the incision with suture tape.
The RFID chip is in a tiny, elongated cylinder—a seemingly dead object, but I know that inside there’s electric life: circuits, a memory chip, a uranium battery, and an RF transmitter that tells the omnipresent scanners who I am. My link to the Gigaplex. My link to the life I have there which, up until this moment, I could possibly have returned to.
The physician places the chip on a wooden block and hands me a hammer. It's more like a ceremony than a procedure. This is the price of trust.
The two are watching intently, and I bring the hammer down.
She takes me back to the metro area and hails a cab at least twice my age.
“Old Lane's End,” she tells the driver, and we get a suspicious look. Another bill, and the taxi is soon snaking its way through areas increasingly worn and decaying: old-age industrial complexes whose smokestacks have collapsed on top of the buildings, rows of warehouses with black holes where there used to be windows, abstract jumbles of pipes and wires and towers. Trees, bushes, and tall, waving grass are feeding on the city, gnawing on its outskirts, reclaiming land. I see shadows of people, but not the people. We pass a hand-written sign that says Old Lane. And then we're in the grass. The driver stops. The road, already broken up, its asphalt dispersed, abruptly ends and the wild begins. We linger in the back seat, and the driver looks at us in the rearview, motor running.
“Well?” he says. “Are you getting out or going back with me?”
We step outside. The grass whispers. From here, the city is like a dark, shapeless mass towering behind a veil of smog. It could be anything. The Gigaplex, visible from every other part of the city, can't even be seen. I take a deep breath.
The smell of the grass triggers an explosive recollection that imposes on my perceptions, and it's like staring into a mirror in a mirror in a mirror that goes on forever. I probably fall to my knees. I probably shout something and try to shut my eyes, but it's as if what I see is projected onto the inside of my eyelids. A thousand forgotten memories flash by in an instant, like a fast-forward through somebody else’s life. I see buildings, windows, gates and doors, stairwells and lobbies; smiling, spitting, crying, shouting people; spaceships shooting up from the ground in a tenth of a second and coming back down so fast they look like shooting stars; colors cajoling in front of me in incomprehensible patterns; fragments of movements, events, instants. A condensed parade of emotions—happiness, sorrow, excitement, horniness, sleepiness, anger—rushes through me, making my heart race. I hear voices, music, laughter, and weeping, the chime of a thousand unidentifiable sounds. My tongue burns from a thousand flavors, and my nose stings from a thousand different odors. I don't know how long it lasts. Hours. Seconds.
The last thing I see before my brain shuts down are rolling hills of green, living grass, a warm sun in a blue sky, and sparkling water. A figure walking toward me. Flimsy cloth billowing around her silhouette.
They say three to four neurophants disappear from the Gigaplex every year. They wander the Sectors and the wild like unblessed spirits, hunting for their former selves; earlier minds haunting theirs. Nobody knows where they end up. They say some go back to their old lives out there. They say, with bated breaths, that two minds can meld into one.
I awake with a throbbing head. A yellow light hits my eyes, and memories spark and flicker like static. Mumbling voices, the clank of metal. The light cuts me like a knife, and I close my eyes.
“Take it easy,” I hear a voice say. “No rush.”
I try opening my eyes again, slowly. Smeared contours of people in the glare of a single lamp. I try to ask where I am, but all I manage is a string of consonants. My tongue is like a piece of wood, and I use my hands to signal for something to drink. The water stings going down my throat.
“Where am I?” I ask. My voice sounds hollow and raucous.
It's a bare room. The walls wear a pattern that reminds me of images I've seen from hundreds of years ago. A large tear in the wallpaper above the bed interrupts the pattern. I'm lying between carved bedposts of actual wood. It must be an incredibly old bed.
“Far away from home, plexer,” says one of the voices. It’s a man.
They're farmers, animal raisers, self-supporting people from the wilderness who come into the city to hawk their wares. Real meat, real milk, real eggs—commodities that the city folk pay offensive amounts of credits for. There are a couple of restos in the Gigaplex who serve organic food. It's not verboten, but you need a license, and only those who have inured their bodies to it can eat that kind of food. Candidates. Far from the sterile confines of the Alan Turing Hospital, they don’t smell as bad as I remember. They must have found me on their way back and brought me here. I wonder if they know what I did for a living, before. . . all this. If they knew, would I still be alive?
"You have to leave," says the man. He's broad-shouldered and sports a huge, bushy beard. "Leah said you were going someplace? As soon as you can walk, you go."
The chewing-gum girl steps into view. I never asked her name.
We leave at dawn. The sun has just started to warm up the skin. Behind us is a massive wall of buildings, the city I have left behind that stands out against the sky, all along the horizon. It looks as if it's just one single unit. No details can be made out in its compact greyness. Once in a while, metal splinters glint in the sunlight as a shuttle leaves, some of them passing a few kilometers above us in straight lines.
The villagers gave us enough supplies for a day or two—"It's going to take three," Leah says.
We sleep under the stars. I'm awake, staring at the spectacle up there. An orange glow emanates from the city and drowns out the stars, but the shuttles and the orbiting docking stations are so bright, I get the impression I can reach up and grab them.
The scenery changes. Soft hills roll toward the horizon, like the ones in Scenario 1, and I want to move faster, arrive. My legs are aching, and my face and arms are sunburned; my forearms have assumed a stinging shade of pink.
We pass a grove of trees on the morning of the third day, and we rest in the welcoming shade. I love the fragrances, last night's moisture still clinging to the leaves and how the tree crowns seem to be singing. We stop by to fill our canteens from a little brook purling through soft moss. We step out of the woods on top of a hill, and we've arrived.
They say that when neural reconstruction was new, they tested the technique on a single mind. One single mind was transferred to new bodies over and over again.
Water glitters like silver in the corner of my eye. The grass strokes my hands in waves. White, wispy smoke rises from a small, square addition to one of the cottages. It's visible only for a moment and then dissipates.
The sun and I reach the cluster of cottages at the same time. Everybody is already up and about, and as I come toward them, all movement stops.
They say that this one mind has visited at least thirty different bodies.
Somebody hollers, and more people come running. I stop in the yard in front of the largest cottage, and they gather around me at a safe distance, tittle-tattling among them as if I were an alien.
They say, with fixed, important looks, that this neural nomad might still be alive.
I don't know which of my many selves recognizes the place, but it spills into my own mind. Rolling like waves on a distant beach. A woman steps out into the yard and approaches me, supported by a young man's sturdy arms. She reaches out with a gnarled hand, running her fingers over my cheek as if she can see with her fingertips. Her face lights up, and she bares her teeth in a blissful smile.