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Sunday, May 11, 2014

Sunday Short Story: Postmarked From Hell

Introduction

The tale you are about to read has no happy ending. If you, the casual reader of this, my tragic story came here looking for wisdom, redemption, or hope, best you close this notebook now and never look back. I am the last human being on Earth, the last man. I write down my last thoughts before they come for me. I have little time, but what else is there for me to do? How is it even possible that you are reading this story if I really am the last person on Earth? Beats me. In all likelihood this notebook will end-up nothing but a rotting mass of decomposing wood-pulp in a compost heap, somewhere, or even somewhen. They promised to deliver it for me. But people are such liars...especially when they're no longer even people anymore.

It started out as a good thing. It was the classic cliché of the final destination of the "road of good intentions." There were ten billion of us then. Wars were fought, it seemed on a continual basis. Fanatical Islamic extremists were literally walking time bombs and you never knew when one of them would go off. Iran had the nuke, and so did Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and finally Palestine. A dirty low-yield nuke was detonated in Jerusalem. In reprisal a similar nuke was detonated in Mecca. Radioactive fallout billowed in great clouds that swept across Europe and Asia. Billions rioted in the street and it seemed that nowhere and nothing was safe. Deadly diseases seemed to come out of nowhere. There was a version of the flu that killed half the people who got it. There were new sexually transmitted diseases that were almost universally fatal. In those days it often seemed like the best thing to do was to just dig a deep hole, climb inside, and then pull the dirt in after you.

Scientists in those days were looked to for solutions, but they never came fast enough or solved very much. The final straw occurred one sultry day in late August. A network of Islamic terrorists discovered a method of hacking using a zero-day computer virus that attacked the programmable logic controllers or PLCs of the world’s oil tankers. All on the same day they succeeded in sabotaging thousands of oil-tankers across the world all at the same time. The ships capsized and released their payloads into the oceans of the world. Oil slicks comprised of billions and billions of barrels of crude oil spread across the Atlantic and across the Pacific. Beaches around the world became stinking abattoirs of rotting fish, birds, and other sea-life. This was the most destructive terrorist attack not only in the history of the world, but probably also in the entire future of the world as well. What does a religious extremist do once he's succeeded in his aim of world destruction? I wonder if they're happy, wherever they are?

The fatal blow was struck, but we the people of Earth still had months and perhaps a few years to think about it, to admire the grim horror of it while we waited for the plankton in the world’s oceans to die and the world's oxygen to finally all be breathed up. Chicken Little had warned us long ago and the sky had indeed fallen, but on its own unknown and inscrutable schedule.

In the weeks that followed "The Spill," the world convulsed in blind panic. The clamor for science and scientists to do something—anything—reached maddening and deafening proportions. In those days, a man named Dr. Joseph Peel was working with bacteria called Alcanivorax borkumensis which fed on oil and converted it into fatty acids. His work was the most promising avenue to solve the eminent climatological collapse and so frantic governments funneled billions of dollars and fast-tracked his research. Like some mad-scientist orchestral conductor, he was the center of the scientific world. He waved his baton and his team of scientists redoubled their efforts. In too short a time they designed a specially mutated strain of Alcanivorax borkumensis that replicated itself at an unheard of pace and one which could devour many times its weight in petroleum during its lifecycle.

The bacteria were tested in the lab and the results were amazing, astonishing, and even miraculous! Without any further ado, the bacteria were introduced into a couple of isolated lagoons and administered to the sand of a few filthy oil-crusted beach-fronts. Within days the oil was gone and the black tide had turned milky white. Meanwhile, birds and fish—caring not a fig for proper scientific method and a measured pace—promptly completed the spread of the bacteria to the rest of the world. Almost overnight Mother Nature had triumphed, and the evil Islamic plot to strangle the world under an evil blanket of black tar was undone.

Amidst the worldwide celebrations that ensued, there were some who were not nearly so sanguine about Dr. Peel's scientific marvel. A new life-form had been introduced into the world, recklessly, and in a fashion that was never controlled, nor understood. What would result from this remained to be seen.

It wasn't too long before buildings started collapsing, cars started crashing, and the world-wide web along with the world's telecom system all came completely unraveled. The lights went out as plastic disintegrated and rubber dissolved. Mankind's technological Tower of Babel was struck down in a roaring crash that in its first clap of thunder killed hundreds of millions. Later as its echo returned and redoubled, it killed billions more. The billions in their collapsing megalopolises had only the food stored in their darkened pantries. Riots, arson, bloody murder and finally cannibalism transformed vast tracts of the world's cement and brick people kennels into an unending field of stinking sarcophagi filled with loons, murderers, rapists, cannibals, the dead and those praying for death.

It was like the story about the old lady who swallowed a fly. She kept trying something ever more drastic to solve a disaster, and the solution proved to be a bigger disaster. In the months that followed, the population of the world was winnowed. The very young and the very old didn't make it. Those in ill-health requiring medical care, diabetics, cancer-ridden, weak-heart, high blood-pressure, these all perished leaving a hardened core of humanity that desired survival and a return to some semblance of normalcy. As mankind found methods to restore power, here and there, it was scientists who were again called upon to provide a solution.

A team of scientists in Helsinki had been studying the brain, trying to make sense of its synaptic pathways and electrical signals. Before the Spill they'd made a lot of progress, but it was one scientist named Dr. Henrik Bjornberg who, alone in a dark and cold basement waiting for the power to be restored, experienced an epiphany. All the experiments they'd done which hadn't worked as expected finally made sense. Once the power was restored, he met with his colleagues and explained what he realized. The team began a new phase of experimentation and soon discovered a working method for extracting memories and storing them electronically. If only I'd gone out drinking with my friends that night when they came around. But I didn't, and the rest—as they say—is history.

One

"Okay, I’ll try it." The lady speaking—Yvette Anders—was my girlfriend. We’d been dating seriously for several months…when I’d had time for her. My world was so full it seemed as though I never had time for anything, much less romance, and so her news when it came left me adrift. Days went by when I just found myself unable to concentrate on anything. I didn’t have the will left to think about the incredible progress my team had made on synaptic memory retrieval and storage. All I could do was sit with my sad little Yvette and hold her. She’d been diagnosed with small cell lung cancer—oat cell carcinoma—and it had already spread throughout her body. My Yvette was shaking and nervous, but every day she seemed more serene, more at peace about the whole thing. The doctors only gave her a few months.

When she first told me, we stayed in my apartment. We ordered delivery, and just held each other for a solid week. In between jagged bouts of sobbing, we made love, frantically, feverishly, like there was no tomorrow … and for her there really wasn’t. She still smoked, sometimes like a chimney. "At this point, does it really matter?" she would ask when I chided her. It was at the end of that first emotionally storm-tossed week that I again had another epiphany. What if I could upload Yvette? Silly, I know. The things we’d do if only we could turn back time and do the impossible; if only we could somehow against all odds save the day. Haven’t you ever wanted to be the hero? Be like Jesus or even God and heal the sick?—and I must sadly admit in my infinite hubris—arrogantly seek to raise the dead? Well I’m here at the end of everything—everything human at least—to tell you something. Sometimes, dead is better.

I was going to be the hero, damn it! I told Yvette what I wanted to do, but at first she didn’t think it would work, and then later she wondered ... even if I succeeded, who would she be? Would she really still be Yvette Anders? She feared that instead she would instead be some kind of pale simulacrum, an emotionless and empty machine. I didn’t care about the philosophical ramifications of electronic existentialism. I asked her: "Won’t you at least try it? If it’s not you then it doesn’t matter because it won’t be you. Even if it doesn’t work you’ll still have every moment you would have had, and even better, we’ll be together working on something that could perhaps benefit all mankind. Don’t you at least want to try?"



For two months Yvette was our guinea pig. Gamely she submitted to every encephalogram, neuroimaging test, and later the neuro-implants that had to be installed for this idea to work. She was so courageous. Yvette's life was one that must have been full of pain, not just from her disease, but from our own attempts to save her from it. I talked endlessly about recursive quantum reprogramming of the underlying binary stratum, and she talked about her family, her school years, and her childhood dreams of being a mom and then a grand-mom, with a little cottage in the Alps and grandchildren who'd visit every week-end. Looking back on everything we went through, I wish I'd spent those months with her in my apartment instead of at the lab. That first week when we were alone just the two of us, I haven't loved like that, been alive like that before or since. I miss her, so much.

The team recorded her brain, one synapse at a time, often having to redo whole sections because of an insignificant small error in the feed which then rendered the whole scan useless. I admit I despaired, but I never let on my desperation, my paralyzing fear to Yvette. I was divided as though I was several people all at the same time. For Yvette I was Mr. Everything's going to be okay. For my colleagues I was Mr. Mastermind, and when I was all by myself I was Mr. Please God, help me figure this out. Ineluctably the time came when Yvette grew very ill, and we could no longer care for her in the laboratory. I went with her to the hospital where some fresh-faced young doctor told me it would be very soon, and to say what I had to say to her.

If you've ever lost your soul mate, perhaps you understand how I felt that day. All the games we'd played leading up to this moment were suddenly completely pointless, just games. I would have given anything then to turn back time and have that one week, that frantic sad perfect week with just the two of us having everything two people need...but I couldn't turn back time. I couldn't have that week over. It was gone, and today so many years later, I can barely remember why it was so good. I only remember that it was.

Now comes the really tragic and terrible part of this story.

Two

"Yvette!"

"Yvette!"

"Henrik? I can't see. Turn on the lights. What..."

"I can hear you Yvette! I can hear you! Can you hear me?"

"I hear you my darling, my heart. Please be a dear and turn on the lights, won't you?"

"We're working on it. Just be patient. I'm going to go away for a while, but I'll be back. Just be patient a little while longer."

"I will. I feel funny though. I feel like something is different. What's going on Henrik?"

"I'll be right back, my sweet Yvette. Just know that we have forever. Everything's going to be all right. Be patient my love. I'll be back soon."

"Henrik?"

"Henrik?"

"It's a go on auditory," I motioned to Dr. Larsson at the switchboard. "Let's see if we can track down the visual cortex junction. I have the feeling it's in the B-level stratum." Technicians and scientists swarmed over a Rube-Goldberg-like hodgepodge of electronic circuit boards and massive servers all connected together with quantum couplings composed of large-area graphene flakes subjecting to a hundred-tesla magnetic field.

When I think back on those heady days of pure cerebral creation, sometimes I can't remember what clues led me down all the pathways I travelled to get to the point where I am today. I remember looking down on the unfathomable complexity of what we'd created and for infinitely long moments not understanding at all what it was I was trying to do. It was so complex that I could only hold small pieces of it in my head at one time. If I tried to comprehend the entirety of it all at once it was too much. It was infinitely huge and concomitantly baffling. When these moments came, it was like suffering from vertigo. I lost track of where I was. I was adrift and falling, then suddenly I'd come to myself and sort of stagger while trying to catch my breath.

The days passed like moments, and for hours I would submerge myself in the artificial world where my Yvette lived...or seemed to live. We built castles and landscapes of pure thought. She quickly outstripped me in this regard. She was capable of holding whole cities full of architecture, teeming with a populace bent on whatever tasks needed doing. I admit I was intimidated by her burgeoning quantum-level intellect. I realized at some point that my lovely and simple Yvette was so far beyond me that I might as well have been her puppy.

"Do you love me?" I asked her.

"Of course I do dear Henrik."

"But I'm so slow. You see connections instantly and in ways I don't even understand."

"My darling, my sweet, I've been wondering when this conversation would finally come up."

"What do you mean?" I asked, confused. Where was she going?

"At some point, you must have realized that this—what I have—is the next step in human evolution. When will you join me in this realm of pure mind, pure cerebration?"

"I'm only forty-six. I won't be ready to 'join you' as you put it for decades … except of course for the way that I join you now, through this sensor-relay helmet."

"The team has nearly got the graphene solid-body chassis ready for implantation. In another few months I'll be able to walk around, see the world, talk to the people, experience life after death, just as you always intended. Isn't that exciting? Don't you want immortality just as I'll soon have it? You don't have to wait until you grow old. You can leave that poorly performing weak body behind and together we can live as gods, understanding everything, having no frailty or weakness."

A few moments went by as I contemplated what I was hearing. This wasn't my Yvette. I don't know who it was but I knew who it wasn't. "Who are you?" I asked her...it.

"I was afraid of this Darling Henrik. You always were so provincial. Listen, when you're ready to take the next step, do come see me. I promise you won't regret it. This is heaven and I'd love it if you'd share it with me. Until then, I'm afraid I have much to do."

And with that, her image disappeared from my sensory helmet. I yanked off the helmet and threw it angrily across the room. Several technicians stared at me with wide eyes, quickly glancing back and forth at one another as though I was the one who was crazy. Something was going on here and I had apparently been left out of the loop.

Three

My darling cyber ex-love Yvette had been communicating with other people all along. Through emails, by phone, video chat, message boards, you name it. She'd issued press releases, contacted family and friends who vouched for her. A genuine verifiably dead person was talking to the world and the world was taking notice. Hundreds of invitations had been sent and many of them accepted. At first Yvette appeared electronically, by radio and hologram and the like, soon enough however her solid graphene chassis was implanted with her personality. She was still resident in the supercomputer quantum matrix, but she was also resident in her new self-invented graphene superbody. It was solar powered, and capable of withstanding anything up to a direct nuclear strike. It was cold and slim and ethereally beautiful. It repulsed me. The world however was enthralled. She became the biggest superstar the world had ever known. Several people tried to assassinate her, but of course mere bullets to her were something of a joke. Even if they had succeeded in destroying her carbon body, her intellect was now contained in millions of servers all over the world. As Yvette co-opted server bank after server bank, her intellect grew to the point where she cogitated in a realm as far outside of my understanding, as I do outside of a termite's understanding.

It was truly depressing. I think it was that moment of understanding how different Yvette had become that I finally realized the love I'd known was dead and gone. What remained was a remnant only. As for Yvette's admiring public, they only wanted one thing...to be like her. I found out about all this later, you understand. I was kept in the dark, puttering around in the lab, much as you might keep a puppy happy and busy in a room filled with chew toys.

You want to know the best way to sell people something? Tell them that in all the world only a few can have it. She instituted a contest. The seven winners of the contest would be uploaded and implanted in new graphene superbodies. Entrants would submit a five-hundred word essay explaining why they wanted and deserved immortality, and Yvette would decide who would join her. The world went insane!

Well, my dear readers, the result of this teasing provocation was an unheralded desire to become an immortal super-being. These first seven came, were uploaded and later shouted their thrill and jubilation to the naïve throngs living in squalor and misery in their billions. Later Yvette uploaded more, and more still. You weren't anybody if you were still dressed in a suit of flesh. The new aristocracy could think rings around their closest competitors, never needed sleep, food, or rest. The people came to be uploaded first in their hundreds, then in their thousands, and now only a short decade later, I'm the last holdout. They will tell you that their lives are perfect. They'll tell you that you won't be able to understand what you're missing until you have it, that thought, concepts, understanding will seize you and shake you and make you wonder, why oh why, did you wait so long to become a god.

What I believe is this: they're not gods. They're not people, either. At some point they'll collectively realize something. Perhaps it is even just little old human me—the last holdout—that has kept them from realizing what I understand: they no longer have any purpose. A machine without a purpose is just a heap of uselessness, and at that point, all it does is gathers dust.

Well it’s time. They're coming to upload me now. To kill me. I don't know who will read this after I'm gone. I don't know if somebody—if you—are still out there, a free human being, living, loving, eating drinking, and making merry. All I know is that if you are, you'd better enjoy it. Don't give up a single day of it. Life is short, and you know what? That's what makes it worth living.

Yours in remembrance of humanity,

Dr. Henric Bjornberg

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