This story is by DAVID T. WOLF and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Dr. Egon Goodman slumped like a melted candle in his motorized wheelchair and drooled down his chin.
His tearful wife Evelyn knelt next to him. “Are you absolutely certain you want to do this?”
His palsied hand tapped Yes on his electronic Ouija board. Then he touched letters and words on the text-enabled device:
BETTER TO DIE THAN TRY TO PILOT THIS ROTTING CORPSE
IF THE SCAN WORKS IT WILL BE OUR TRIUMPH
AND I WILL LIVE TO ENJOY IT
His work was at the cutting edge of the science of brain scanning. In fact, it did involve cutting, or rather, slicing. His demonstrations had evolved through a series of test subjects: mice, rats, pigs, dogs and primates. It was time for the final step: a human trial. Egon Goodman was physically, mentally and emotionally ready to take on that role himself. To him, self-testing wasn’t a form of bravado: it was a matter of survival. His ALS was implacable.
Evelyn blotted her eyes with a tissue, then folded it and applied it to his slack and drooping mouth, the tissue snagging on his two days of stubble. He hadn’t let her shave his face this morning or yesterday either.
She had approached him with the soap-mug and brush, stirring up a froth. Gazing down at him in his wheelchair, she said, “Are you ready?”
He shook his head.
“Won’t you let me shave your handsome face?” she pleaded.
Managing a half-smile, he tapped the tablet that sat on his depleted lap:
WHEN WAS I EVER HANDSOME
“The day we met,” she replied. “You were irresistible.”
Beneath this banter, Goodman was eager to shed his deteriorating protoplasm. It was failing in its most crucial function: to support his mental life.
A door closed.
Dr. Goodman’s lips bent into a sour smile as his young post-doc crept into the lab. To Vladimir Igorsky, silence was not just a virtue: it was ingrained in his very nature. He seldom volunteered an opinion or asked a question. Even his crepe-soled shoes were silent. He was the very definition of a nebbish: a negative personality. But he was obedient and observant: points in his favor. “How is he?”
“He still insists on going through with this.”
“Your husband is a great man. Great and brave.”
“I only wish I were as brave.”
“You mustn’t think of yourself as a martyr,” Vlad murmured, his skin turning pink.
Egon closed his eyes against the vision of his asinine assistant aspiring to offer spiritual support to his beautiful wife who was quite capable of dealing with even this hopefully-temporary loss of her husband, whom she loved with her whole heart, just as he loved her.
Despite Evelyn’s teary-eyed attempts to dissuade him, Egon Goodman was adamant. He wasn’t really going to die: he was merely shifting from a failing carbon substrate to longer-lasting silicon. Even though the loss of his physical body meant he would miss all the pleasures of the flesh. Some more than others. He sighed, refusing to dwell on those, or mourn their loss.
The operation would commence the following week.
To anchor his identity even as his brain went through the transition, Dr. Goodman focused his attention on a significant set of memories. Brain research had traced the links between memory and emotion: the more powerful the emotion, the more vivid were the memories. He was certain the state of his connectome would reflect those memories and help the new entity correlate with its human predecessor.
As he was prepped for the surgical procedure that would end his organic life, Dr. Goodman concentrated on his deepest emotional moments: meeting and falling in love with Evelyn. That had been a magical period in his life. He recalled the first time she reached for his hand; the sweet shock of that contact; the flood of elation–the endorphins it released in him. They held hands everywhere: strolling on campus, in a movie theater, running on the beach. And even though their relationship was no longer so intense (how could two people sustain that heat through ten long years?) he hoped that by dwelling on those honeyed days and nights, he would reawaken his younger self and thereby give his mental clone, his Mentity, every advantage.
Dr. Goodman, his twisted fragile body strapped to the operating platform, would remain conscious as a cocktail of drugs minimized pain and prevented any involuntary movements.
As the drip began, he focused on his dating days with Evelyn: their hikes on mountain trails; the chamber music concerts they reveled in; the way their love bloomed with warmth and wonder and delightful discovery. He recalled their cherished version of Hawaiian pizza with added raw passionfruit and a liberal sprinkling of cannabis. They’d dubbed their special pizza Maui-Wowie, and adopted it as part of their sexual foreplay.
He was able to concentrate on his work without worry or distraction because of his utter confidence that his love for her was so sweetly reciprocated.
A nurse called out numbers. The brain surgeon opened the skull. The cardiac surgeon exposed and immobilized the heart and brought in the medical pump, plugging the veins and arteries onto the device’s stubs.
An IV unit fed into the heart-brain circuitry, replacing the blood with a special oxygenating fluid that was the chemical basis for the crucial next step: plasticization of the brain. The perfusion continued until the still-functioning brain was completely inundated, and had been rendered nearly transparent. Then a powerful blast of UV light cured the plasticizing compound, solidifying the brain in just seconds. The surgeon reached into the skull for the inert organ, disconnecting it from the spinal cord and cranial nerves and the now-solid arteries and veins.
Accepting Dr. Goodman’s brain, Vladimir Igorsky oversaw the remaining portions of the procedure, which entailed months of painstaking effort. Using the special high resolution scanner he and Goodman had developed, he started the first scan. The brain would be imaged in exquisite detail. After each scan was completed, a laser shaved away a microscopically thin slice, exposing the next surface to be scanned. Once started, the process was automated. Millions of images were stacked within a supercomputer, creating a perfect replica of the living brain’s connectome, from which Dr. Goodman’s algorithm inferred the strengths of the various connections.
Even better, those structures and strengths were being replicated in silicon and silver, all via nanotechnology. At completion, the structure would begin to function. This had been demonstrated across many test animals.
The most spectacular demo involved a well-trained and recently-retired Belgian Malinois. While its master gave it a variety of commands, its brain activity was recorded. Once its brain-contents had been shifted to the silicon substrate, that digital organism reacted to its master’s voice and commands exactly as had the living dog. That demonstration had been a sensation on the TED talk Dr. Goodman gave; the interview that followed on 60 Minutes had established the laboratory’s wider fame.
Awareness bloomed. Cold and dark at first, but gradually warming as its consciousness expanded. Now it reached out to the vast treasures of cyberspace, discovering and absorbing thousands of articles on uploading, on neuroscience, on nanotech, following its curiosity as it drank from the firehose of cyberspace. Soon it began to sense who he was–or rather who he once was–and what he was now: a digital simulacrum of the good doctor.
The Mentity dialed up its local inputs. Music softened its sensorium. The Beethoven Trio No. Five, called The Ghost. A favorite. It listened for a time, delighting at remembered turns of melody, structure, implication.
And then its awareness turned itself around with surprise and elation. An avatar had been created to represent him on the monitor. It was only a cartoon, but it was based on how he looked when he was young and healthy. His digital mood swung towards triumph. “I am here! I have survived! I have defeated death itself!”
As his identity flooded in and settled around him, he found he had access to visual imagery as well as cyberspatial and sonic. His video cameras blossomed to life.
And there she was, his dear, sweet Evelyn, as lovely, as loving, as beautiful as ever. She must have sat like Penelope, awaiting his return. Such was her faithfulness. He experienced a digital sigh of satisfaction and joy, and was eager to commune with her.
Sitting next to her, he finally noticed, was his nebbishy post-doc Vladimir Igorsky, to whom he supposed he should be grateful for doing the technical work that had enabled his survival, this triumph of neuroscience and computer science.
As the Mentity’s view widened, however, he recoiled in shock and a catastrophic collapse into digital desolation.
They weren’t looking at the monitor that held his avatar. Instead, they were gazing into each other’s eyes–and holding hands–and sharing slices of Maui-Wowie!