Bernie Holloway watched the needles slide out of Frank Glenwood's skull, leaving drops of blood on the pillow. The acrid smell of singed flesh wafted up to Bernie's nose. Pressing a button, the masked technician retracted the needles into their cylindrical housings. Then he disconnected the machine and wheeled it into the corner of the room and left. The doctor, a man named Underhill, leaned against the wall by the window and stared outside, not watching the procedure.
Bernie stared at Frank's body, which was still breathing, but now vacant, or at least that was what they had assured him it would be. He could see the dark masses of the melanomas where they curled around Frank's shoulders, peeking out from under his hospital gown. His eyes were closed and the wrinkles on his face hung loosely.
Bernie noted that Frank needed a shave.
"Some doctors would euthanize the body at this point," said Dr. Underhill, startling Bernie out of his thoughts. "The body still feels pain, although there's nobody in there to really suffer. I won't do it but if you want to I can have the nurse bring in a syringe of potassium chloride."
Bernie shook his head.
The doctor turned back to the window. It was starting to get light outside. Bernie would have to return to Polder soon. He looked at the ugly dark blotches of Frank's skin cancer again. His friend had been caught out in the midday sun without protection too many times.
"How long before I can talk to him?"asked Bernie.
"Not long," said Underhill. "It usually takes about five minutes to collate the quantum pattern in cyberspace. He'll call you if he wants to. Sometimes they don't."
Absently, Bernie touched his dataphone which was in his breast pocket.
"So why won't you euthanize the body?"
Dr. Underhill turned toward him and pointed to the monitor. "There's still mental activity, more than can just be accounted for by autonomic responses." Bernie looked at the screen. His doctorate was in environmental physics and he had no idea how to read an EEG. But the squiggles seemed to be smaller than they were when Frank was...was 'alive' the term he wanted?
"What does it mean?"
The doctor shrugged. He was a middle-aged man, with a receding hairline and a pudgy face, too young to actually hold an M.D. but Bernie trusted his judgment anyway. He'd known Dr. Leon, the real doctor that Dr. Underhill had been apprenticed to and knew he'd done a good job passing on his knowledge. Those of us with real degrees and accreditations are passing away; we just have to get used to trusting our lives to people who fifty years ago would have been considered amateurs.
"I don't know," said the doctor, finally turning away from the window and looking at Bernie. "I've tried to ask some of the transcribed but...I guess I should warn you, they can be a little hard to talk to. Their experiences are so much different than ours. I don't think they really understood what I was asking, or else they didn't consider it important."
"I see," said Bernie. He looked at the EEG again. "If a nerve ending fires and there's nobody there to feel it, is there pain?"
One side of the doctor's mouth pulled up in a sardonic grin. "Just one of the big questions associated with this process. His suffering, if that's what it is, will only last a few days. Those melanomas will finish killing off the body if nothing else."
"I expect so."
"Look, I've got other patients. You going to be okay?"
Bernie nodded. "Thanks, Doc."
He left. Bernie sat, conscious of the fact that the enclave's van was probably waiting, but unable to move. He wondered about his friend's decision. Right up until almost the end, Frank had refused transcription. But when the Reaper was there in front of him Frank relented. Nobody really knows how they'll react in the face of certain death. Bernie intended to ask Frank about his last thoughts but the doctor's comments didn't offer much encouragement as to getting an answer. The only way to know the nature of those thoughts for certain would be to experience them, and that would happen to Bernie soon enough.
With a groan, he stood and pulled his bullet proof vest off the back of the chair. Shrugging into it, he found that he couldn't take his eyes off Frank. "What the hell were you thinking, old man?" he whispered. Then he put on his long overcoat, making sure the hood was ready to pull over his head once he got outside. This early in the morning, he probably wouldn't need to use the coat's air conditioning.
He stepped into the hall and started to walk toward the stairwell when his dataphone rang. Inserting the earbud he said, "Is that you, Frank?"
"Bernie," said Frank's voice. "I've got some bad news."
Bernie's main job in Polder was cleaning the solar panels. Five years earlier, when he'd noticed his faculties declining, he began the process of shedding his other tasks, most notably the leadership of the enclave, which he and Frank had passed between them for fifty years. But he kept this job. Bernie liked being out this time of day. The air was still cool and fresh. And when the sky lightened it was almost like before.
Plus it was a simple job that wouldn't suffer when his mind wandered.
Frank, Bernie and a few other professors from Mercer State University established Polder shortly after the Collapse. In the early years the crises had been many. It had taken them awhile to perfect the science of urban agriculture and they had almost starved a couple of times. There had been epidemics, tornadoes, floods, fires and droughts. In the years right after the government's fall the streets had crawled with roving gangs. Other enclaves formed, including one on the north side that was run by militia types who wanted to aggressively expand. Planning, common sense and many hours on the Internet and the short wave, conferring with other enclaves across the country and around the world, had gotten them through every trial.
But not this one, thought Bernie, as he squeegeed a panel. The North Atlantic and the Siberian steppes were bubbling up methane according to Frank. Clathrates on the sea floor and under the melting permafrost, which had sequestered millions of tons of the greenhouse gas for millenia, were now spewing it into the atmosphere. The transcribed, who had taken over the old military surveillance satellites, were monitoring the situation and according to Frank there wasn't much that could be done. Climate change would accelerate and the planet would become uninhabitable in about a century.
Polder's leaders were discussing it now. Bernie had relayed the news and left. Nobody had tried to stop him. The council didn't need his input anymore. He'd taught most of them and was confident that eventually they'd make the right decisions, if there were any right decisions.
It was light enough now that the sentries on the roof were removing their night vision goggles. Bernie watched their silhouetted images against the brightening sky. They'd be relieved soon by the day crew with air-conditioned parkas and helmets. Bernie would have to go in soon. He had two more panels to clean. Pressing the stud on the handle of his mop, he squeezed water onto the first panel, mopped it up with one side, flipped it and squeegeed the silicon surface. The effort left him wheezing. Lately the mop, which telescoped to fifteen feet, was feeling heavy.
"So, are you going to ask me?" said Frank, ruining the mood. Bernie was tempted to pull out his earbud.
"Ask you what?" He started on the last panel.
"If it's me."
"We talked about this. You wouldn't know."
"It feels like me."
"We talked about that too. It doesn't mean it's actually you." Bernie shook his head. Dr. Underhill's warning about Frank being hard to relate to had so far not happened. He was, in fact, maddeningly un-inscrutable. Bernie didn't want to think about why he related so well to a dead man.
"Consciousness is a pattern, Bernie, complex to a quantum scale to be sure, but able to be replicated."
"You mean copied. A paragraph on a word processor is a pattern too. We can copy and paste it or cut and paste. In either case it is a copy, separate from the original. And what happens to the original?"
"It stays on the server's memory until it's overwritten."
"Or the server is destroyed," said Bernie, darkly.
"We're talking about something far more complex than a word processing document. The human brain takes up several hundred megabytes, arranged in patterns that even we transcribed can't comprehend."
"So there's something more there? Something beyond the pattern?" said Bernie. He finished the last panel and collapsed the mop.
"So what is the equation for the soul?"
"Oh come on. Don't be like that. You should do this."
Bernie drew in a fresh breath of air. The coolness soothed his air passages and made him forget about the aches in his shoulders and knees. He knew didn't have many mornings like this left.
One of the sentries noticed something in the street and motioned to his neighbor.
"Not today, Frank. I still enjoy watching sunrises too much."
"I can see any number of sunrises I want, anytime I want. And not just from earth. I can go to Mars. I can watch the sun filtered through the rings of Saturn."
"But you can't breathe, Frank," muttered Bernie.
"You can't draw a cool fresh breath of morning air through your nostrils to smell wet grass or lilacs, or even sewage or garbage."
"I can get data from every computerized weather station..."
"Not the same thing and you know it. That's just zeroes and ones. Don't you remember? All those early mornings before the collapse-you, me and Elise on the Quad or in Lincolnwood Park. We'd take off our shoes and throw a Frisbee around. Remember how the grass felt between your toes?"
"I remember remembering," said Frank uncertainly.
Bernie drew his eyebrows together and wondered what that meant. It was probably some of the long-awaited inscrutability.
"All that stuff would be distracting, though," Frank said, "Too much unnecessary input. It would remove the main advantage of being transcribed: the ability to reason logically without biological distractions. It really is amazing. I can solve problems in one sitting, not taking time out to eat or use the restroom."
"I like a lot of those biological distractions but I don't like the uncertainty. Even with transcription, death is still an event horizon. You can't tell me what it's like. Am I really talking to my old friend, Frank? I don't know. And yes, I realize that on a certain level it doesn't matter. But sitting on this side of it, it does. I'd be pissed if I went to all the trouble of being transcribed and then woke up in oblivion anyway."
"It's not all that much trouble," said Frank.
"What?" A few more sentries joined the two in front of Bernie. They stared into the street, obviously concerned about something. One was pulling his night vision goggles on and off in an effort to discern what he was seeing.
"Transcription. It's almost painless and not at all traumatic."
"What does that have to do with..."
"Body," shouted one of the sentries.
One of the others thumbed the radio velcroed to his shoulder. "Control, this is sentry seven. We have a body lying in the alley running north from the Lakewood apartment building."
"Roger that, sentry seven. We'll send out a team."
Bernie joined the crowd at the wall. In the growing light, he could barely make out a pair of legs sticking out of a doorway across the street. This hadn't happened in a couple of years, but in the early days it had been a weekly occurrence. They'd learned from hard experience to deal with the bodies before decomposition advanced too far.
But the gangs had learned that putting a body within sight of the sentries was good way to set up an ambush. When the team arrived with a stretcher and a med kit, there were also four sentries with machine guns cocked and loaded. They surrounded the medical team, alert for any movement.
Bernie and the sentries on the roof watched as one of the team members checked the body's pulse. It was now light enough to see that it was a man, older with ragged clothes and a scraggly beard. He was one of the regulars outside the enclave. His name was Pearson and nobody knew if that was his first or last name because he was so heavily autistic he could barely communicate. After a second the pulse checker motioned frantically to one of the other members of his team who grabbed the med kit. Another member spoke into his radio.
"He's still alive but unresponsive." Bernie heard the words over one of the sentry's radios. His mind raced with speculation.
"Proof of concept," said Frank.
"You can't do this," said Bernie, bursting through the door of his apartment. He didn't want to discuss this where others in the enclave could hear until he understood what was happening.
"It was difficult," replied Frank. "We still need contact with metal to replicate the pattern. Fortunately Pearson was sleeping on a concrete slab that had some exposed rebar. We're working on ways to do it without contact. That would be more efficient."
"That's not what I meant," said Bernie. The curtains were open, letting sunlight in. He walked around the apartment, closing them. "It's unethical to transcribe someone against his will."
"Pearson was autistic. It's actually an interesting case. Most mental illness is physiologically based and transcription cures it instantly, but in this case the excess of dendrites, causing the autism, translated into Pearson's pattern. Of course, since it was all data we could eliminate some of them and return his thought patterns to the norm. He's actually pretty intelligent."
"Again, not what I meant. Did you ask him if he wanted to be transcribed?"
"Of course not. He was basically non-communicative. I'll have you know he's happy we did it."
"It's not him," said Bernie.
"Says you. Besides, that's not relevant."
"It's the only thing that's relevant," said Bernie, yanking the last curtain shut. He turned on a lamp and sat at his desk in front of his computer.
"Look, I was going to die in a couple of days, so I decided to jump over."
"Granted. I don't have a problem with that," said Bernie, although I still don't understand why you did it.
"Okay, Pearson was severely handicapped. He was starving to death, so we took him out of his head."
"Questionable but I'll give it to you. But you said that you were looking for more efficient ways to transcribe people, implying that you intend to do it on a widespread basis."
"Clathrates, billions of tons of methane in the atmosphere-humanity is on the point of extinction, Bernie. The difference is only in scale."
"That's a century away at the earliest," said Bernie. Spittle flew out of his mouth as he became more agitated. "Nobody alive today will ever see it."
"But they will see things get progressively worse. It'll get hotter and more dangerous to be out in the sun. Potable water will become scarce. When the coasts start flooding, you'll see more people migrating here. You'll have to fight them to keep from being overrun. It'll be like the bad old days just after the collapse."
"Those days weren't so bad. We were building something."
"You're romanticizing, old man," said Frank. "When I was on that side I agreed with you, but now my memories are unfiltered. Remember the suicides right after the collapse: Norwood? Elise?"
Bernie froze, his hands drifting to his sides. There had been almost twenty suicides in the first year, including Frank's wife. He had a point.
"There's still time to do something," he said. "We had plans before the collapse: CO2 scrubbers, Ozone dispersers, mirrors in orbit."
"With no government or infrastructure, or anything resembling a national or even regional economy? Polder is comparatively well off but it's not in a position to start a space program."
"We don't need that stuff. We have the fabricators, 3D printers and nano-forges. Granted, space may be out of our reach at first, but the other things are definitely possible. We can mass produce that UV blocking tarp you came up with, and we can alter the CO2 scrubbers for methane."
"That's a passive system, Bernie. It'll be overwhelmed by the volume of methane being released. Do the math; you'll see."
Bernie shook his head and typed. "I'm also thinking of something along the lines of nanotech. Chandrasekar had a paper out just before the collapse about developing a paint that changes CO2 into O2. I bet we could do the same for methane. We could take the heat from the reaction and channel it into energy creation to turn it into an active system."
"It won't be enough."
"But with the transcribed's help..."
"We've got our own project," said Frank.
Bernie's fingers froze over the keyboard. He could feel familiar emotions roiling in his chest. It had been the same in the days before the collapse, trying to convince politicians that it wasn't too late to do something about climate change, or in the cases of a few of the more idiotic ones, that climate change was real. Bernie felt like a knight rallying to one last lost cause.
"Then if you'll excuse me, I have work to do."
"Bernie, wait..." was all he heard before he pulled the earbud out.
It took him a half hour to find Chandrasekar's paper on his hard drive. He knew he'd need help devising a nanoparticle to alter methane. Bernie's field intersected with nanotech but he was far from an expert. There were websites that would design the particles for you from specifications you inputted, but over the years they had learned not to rely on them. He was planning to email several people he knew, scientists in other enclaves around the world and ask for help, when he came across a citation indicating that Chadron, who'd worked in nanotech at Mercer fifty years ago, had studied methane conversion. He dug up her paper and it said that she'd actually developed a prototype. It might still be in storage over there. He'd have to email someone to check.
But Frank was right. Chandrasekar had envisioned this as a passive system, paint that would cover roofs, houses, roadways or any other artificial surface and trap the CO2 and convert it into O2. Bernie knew they needed something more aggressive. Off the top of his head, he pictured floating barges, dozens of kilometers long made up of this material. They'd be hauled to the North Atlantic directly over the leaking clathrates and equipped with something like a scoop jet that would suck in the methane and an exhaust in the back that would emit O2 and provide propulsion as well. There would be a land based model for Siberia.
They'd need hundreds of them, if not thousands, and how to get them to where they needed to be was an even harder problem than developing the nanoparticle. There was still an enclave of scientists at Wood's Hole in what used to be Massachusetts, but they didn't have the resources for this kind of undertaking; nobody did. Frank was right. The infrastructure to deal with this problem didn't exist.
Bernie leaned back and rubbed his eyes. It was almost noon and he was getting tired. Frank's comment about being able to solve problems in one sitting resonated with him. He wondered if the immensity of the problem was contributing to his fatigue. He knew from experience that it was harder to focus on a problem when you suspected it was unsolvable.
"The certainty of failure does not excuse us from trying," whispered Bernie to himself. That had been their mantra in the early days after the collapse when it hadn't seemed possible that a band of young college professors and students could survive, much less thrive. The images from that time drifted back to him as they did more and more these days. He remembered loading the 3D printer and their first nano-forge onto a truck and driving it from the engineering lab to the apartment building where they started Polder. There had been fires everywhere that night and gangs of looters. Frank drove slowly down backstreets, avoiding the worst of it while Bernie stood on the running board of the cab with a machine gun, praying no one would come out of the shadows. He remembered the sensation of his heart pounding, sending blood pulsing throughout his body. His fingers had actually ached with the ebb and flow of his pulse. They were sensitive to the feel of the metal trigger of the gun. The acrid smoke of the fires irritated his lungs, feeling like a thousand tiny needles inside his chest.
He shook his head to clear the memories "Old man's disease," he said to himself. He frequently found himself lost in the past these days, especially when he got tired.
He sent off his emails requesting help and took a nap.
"I'm sorry, Leema," said Bernie, "but they're moving so fast, I can't keep up."
The chair of Polder's board, a forty year old Indian American woman, with almond colored eyes and streaks of gray in her long black hair regarded Bernie. She had been one of his best students and he'd been glad when she was voted chair.
When she broke eye contact to look at the 'bodies' again, Bernie did the same. The sentries had found five more around the compound during the afternoon while Bernie was napping. They lay in the infirmary perfectly still, except for their breathing. Bernie thought of Frank's body.
"And you say these people weren't in contact with metal?" she asked.
Bernie shook his head. "In proximity but not touching." He had quizzed the recovery teams on the environments in which they'd discovered the bodies about how close they were to metal. As near as he could discern, the transcribed still needed the victim to be within a meter or so of something conductive, but it was only a matter of time before they figured out how to do it without metal. How long did they have? Days? Hours?
She rubbed her eyes and yawned. "At least they're not giving it time to sink in."
"I'm not giving up," said Bernie.
The corner of her mouth curled. "Of course you're not. But how do you fight something that can do this?" She motioned to the bodies. "It's like defying the will of God."
Bernie shrugged and crossed his arms. "The certainty of failure..."
"I know. I know. '...does not excuse us from trying.' Is there anything you need?"
He nodded. "They have an old nano-particle sample at the hospital. It's one of Chadron's old projects that might be able to help us. I'd like a van and an escort to pick it up."
"I'll arrange it," she said. "I assume it can't wait until nightfall."
Bernie nodded. "We should hurry."
"Be ready in fifteen minutes."
"Bernie, is this really how you want to spend your last hours on that side?" said Frank.
"I've spent my whole life fighting for lost causes. I see no reason to stop now." He knew it had been a mistake to plug in the earbud again. The members of his escort tried not to seem as if they were paying attention to him. They sat in the other seats in the van watching the street, their rifles pointing at the roof. But of course they were listening. He wondered how many of them understood what was at stake. To some transcription might seem like paradise. Life in Polder was livable but hard. Survival depended on constant vigilance against the gangs and other enclaves. It was also hard work. Every day, every person in the enclave had tasks to do, tasks that everyone depended on for survival, whether it was in the greenhouses or the fabrication workshops or guarding the perimeter. There were no weekends and no vacations. Retirement meant that you were given the jobs that didn't require physical strength or mental acuity. He could see how transcription would appeal. But how many of them understood the risk.
"We're trying to save humanity," said Frank.
Bernie ground his teeth. He didn't want to waste any more time on this argument.
The van turned onto University Drive and sped past Lincolnwood Park.
"Body," said one of the escorts.
Peter, the team leader who was riding shotgun in the front, called a halt and the team piled out to examine another body lying on the brown dirt of the park. Bernie followed them, his feet crunching on the hard dry ground.
There were, in fact five bodies, far more than they could carry even if the van wasn't full. All but the one the escort had seen, lay hidden by a rise. They still breathed and had vital signs. Bernie looked around but could find no metal in sight. With a groan he squatted beside the nearest one. Whoever it had been he was wearing regular non-conducting clothes, jeans and a long hooded coat to protect him from the sun. The others appeared to be the same.
The will of God, thought Bernie.
"You've run out of time," said Frank.
Bernie looked away from the bodies and up toward the gentle hummock of land that made up the park. There was a small breeze that kicked up the loose dirt and swirled it into the air. The sun arcing toward the west beat the soil mercilessly. Nothing could grow in that dirt anymore, not even weeds.
"Do you remember grass, Frank?" asked Bernie.
"Or the wind on your face?"
"No, I don't remember. Sensations are distracting, Bernie."
"Sensations are the point, Frank."
"You're going to live forever."
Bernie laughed. "What was it de Beauvoir said? 'Whether you think of it as heavenly or as earthly, if you love life immortality is no consolation for death.'"
"So you would give up your own survival for the feel of grass beneath your feet?"
"There was a time when you would have too, Frank."
"I look forward to debating this with you for years to come."
Bernie looked over at his escort. Peter stared at him and the others scanned the horizon, holding their guns tightly. They'd called in the bodies and either Leema would send a team or she wouldn't. There was nothing more they could do here.
"We should go," said Bernie. Peter stepped forward and hauled him up by his outstretched arm.
"Do you think it's safe?" he asked. Like most of the people in Polder, Peter had been in Bernie's classes. He'd been a pretty good kid, tall, athletic and a natural leader. He wasn't a deep thinker but he was clever enough and good with people. It had been years since Peter had asked Bernie for advice.
Bernie shrugged. "The hospital is only a few blocks away. If you don't want to continue, I'll walk. I'll tell you right now, I have no way to stop this, no argument for continuing more compelling than I want to die fighting."
Peter scanned the horizon and Bernie wondered if he could actually walk even a few blocks in this heat. His knees ached and he was beginning to see stars shooting in front of his eyes. He struggled to breathe.
"Get in, Professor," said Peter. "We're moving out people." He reached for the door handle but stopped. "The van's almost entirely made of metal."
"The tires will insulate us," said Bernie. "But I don't think it matters anymore. Those guys aren't anywhere near metal. We just need to hope they don't take the driver while we're en route."
"There's a cheery thought," said Peter, opening the van door.
Two sentries stepped into the van and helped Bernie inside. He plopped down on the seat, breathing heavily. The others followed.
There were no guards at the entrance to the university's compound. The gate was closed and they had to stop while Peter stepped out and unlatched it. Two of his sentries covered him. He motioned the van through and then carefully re-latched the gate. They drove onward to the hospital, passing a few more bodies. Bernie looked at the buildings, which were old and in disrepair and wondered how many more bodies lay inside.
They pulled up in front of the hospital. Peter insisted on two of his people going inside to make sure it was clear. They scrambled up the stone stairs to the glass double doors. The lead sentry opened the door and rest filed in, guns pointed forward.
"The perimeter of the compound isn't secure," explained Peter.
Peter's eyes flicked from the doors to the buildings across the way. Vigilance was second nature to the sentries, almost an autonomic response like breathing. But the greatest threat at the moment was one he'd never see coming.
The scouts waved them in. Short of breath from all the hurrying, Bernie grabbed one of the scout's arms and climbed the stairs. Fiercely hot air seared his lungs and it felt like he was barely breathing. The mid-afternoon sun pounded on his covered head and his hand reached into his pocket to turn on the coat's air-conditioning. He stopped though. They were almost inside.
More bodies lay strewn in the hospital's lobby. Some sprawled on the floor, others sat in chairs, their heads back and mouths open. A man lay at the foot of the staircase, blood pooling under his head from where it cracked on the marble floor. Bernie emitted a disappointed moan when he saw it was Dr. Underhill.
One of the sentries walked over and handed Bernie a package with his name on it.
"Is this what we came for, Professor?"
Bernie looked at the black plastic container. The weight felt right. The nanoparticles would have been packed in a carbon and silicone matrix. It had an old RFID tag on it. Bernie slid his dataphone out of his pocket and accessed his reader application.
"Those are Chadron's samples," said Frank, just as the dataphone confirmed it.
"I thought you weren't going to help."
"Doesn't matter at this point. You haven't even begun to solve the delivery problem."
"I've got a few ideas," said Bernie, slipping the dataphone back into his breast pocket. Suddenly he felt dizzy and grabbed Peter's arm, for support. He shivered and realized he was sweating. Was this how transcription began? He tried to remember what he had observed when Frank went through it. Dammit! He couldn't think. Pain shot up and down his left arm. It felt like all rational thought was being drowned in a whirlpool of pain and rushing blood.
Then a thought leaped out of the maelstrom. He gasped at its strength and simplicity, even as he saw that it probably wouldn't work. Still, it was a chance.
"Peter," he said, "I need to rest. Could you take...Frank's room."
The sentry took Bernie's arm. "Maybe we should find someone here to help you?"
Bernie motioned to Dr. Underhill. "Don't think anyone's left. Get me to Frank's room."
He mouthed the word, 'important,' hoping that there weren't any working security cameras in the lobby. Peter nodded and supported Bernie as they walked toward the stairs. He ordered his team to search the hospital for survivors.
Bernie leaned on Peter as they stepped around Dr. Underhill and slowly made their way up the stairs. He found that he was grunting with every step. Peter was looking at him with wide eyes, biting his lip. Bernie shook his head slightly.
They came to the top of the stairs and the flat surface of the hallway made it a little easier to walk. Still the trip to the room where Frank's body lay stretched before them like some endless plain. By the time Peter navigated him into the room and deposited him in a chair, all Bernie wanted to do was rest. His chest felt like it was being crushed; his sight narrowed to almost a pinprick and it seemed like none of his breaths got past his throat.
"Bernie," said Frank. "We activated the heart monitor they put in you back in 53."
"How?" whispered Bernie. That thing had run out of juice over ten years ago.
"Induction. We're very good. The point is that you're having a heart attack. It's a big one. Even if there were any doctors left, they couldn't help you."
Bernie looked at Peter and motioned for him to bring the transcribing machine closer to the bed. He leaned forward, causing a fresh burst of pain to course through his chest. He took the cylinders that held the needles and placed them around Frank's head. No one had washed off the marks from where they had done it before. He pressed the power button. Frank's EKG came up and it looked the same as it had before, just a little activity.
"Figured it was a big one," said Bernie.
"Let us take you, Bernie," said Frank.
"You're asking?" He pulled his dataphone out of his breast pocket and laid it on the bed beside Frank's head. Then with shaking fingers-he never realized how thin and spotted they'd become-he pulled the connection cable out of the machine's housing and pushed it into the dataphone's jack.
"Out of respect, old man. I know how you feel about it."
Bernie pressed the transcribe button and the needles pierced Frank's head. The EKG gradually flattened out and Frank stopped breathing.
The dataphone beeped and Bernie's chest imploded. It felt some kind of wild animal, a tiger or something had sunk its claws into the left side of his chest. He grabbed the dataphone just before he fell out of his chair. Other than the crushing pain in his chest the only thing he felt was cold. He lay on the floor for a second, blind, numb, fighting for every remaining rational thought.
He saw a glimmer of light.
"Take me," wheezed Bernie. And all thought swirled away. The dataphone felt cold in his hand.
"You should stay here for a while. You're not very popular at the moment."
Bernie looked over at Frank, who sat beside him on the lawn of Lincolnwood Park. It was green, actually greener than he'd ever seen it. In their college days it had never been this lush.
"So, I'm in cyberspace?"
Frank nodded. "This is a staging/orientation area they use for the newly transcribed. I looked up the old records from before the climate change era and restored the park to its original glory. Thought you'd like it."
He couldn't get over the green.
"Why am I not popular?"
"Think back to your last moments."
Crushing pain washed over him, paralyzing him. It lasted a nanosecond and an eternity. "Oh, my," said Bernie.
"We don't really have memories; we have files that are records of our experiences. They don't degrade and we can't filter them through subjective perceptions. That's why sense memories were left behind."
"You found them so distracting because you weren't remembering them; you were reliving them."
Frank nodded. "You figured that out. You also figured out that I'd take both mine and yours if I was in a hurry to save your life."
"Did it work?"
Looking at the sky, Frank sighed and said, "We've reconsidered our position."
"So it worked."
"Not in the way you intended."
Visibly collecting his thoughts, Frank paused.
"You were partially right. By leaving our sense memories behind, we were no longer human. Our decisions were based totally on logic, not taking feelings into account. But what you don't understand yet is that the transcribed net is a hybridization of discrete individuals and a collective database of knowledge and experience. Decisions for the Net are made by consensus, arrived at almost instantaneously by the collective."
"So what you're saying is..."
"Your presence in the Net changed the consensus. With direct access to your reasoning and our sense memories, the transcribed altered their decision."
"I changed the mind of God."
Frank waved the observation away. "We've taken Chadron's nanoparticle design and altered it. We'll be dispersing them throughout the atmosphere."
"What's your delivery system?"
"Tele-operated jets. It'll take a few years but a baby born today, when he grows to be an old man, might be able to take a walk on a sunny day and not have to wear protection."
Bernie felt the sun on his face, knew that it wasn't real, and envied that child.
"So Bernie," said Frank waving at the scenery. "What do you think?"
"Are you you?"
Bernie leaned back and lay on the grass, putting his hands behind his head. "We talked about this. I wouldn't know."
Frank huffed in frustration. "We can deduce now that stubbornness is not physiologically based."
Laughing, Bernie slipped off his shoes and felt the grass under his feet.