The Coin FlipPeter Strasky felt nervous but excited as he entered Catherine’s scan room. It was a remote control station that had been refurbished into a brain scanner. Catherine was using it to save digital copies of the people at Theta and put them into a digital realm dubbed the ARK. The idea of saving your mind digitally had been discussed at great lengths during the last few weeks. To many it simply seemed unnecessary. Why would you need a digital copy of yourself? It wouldn’t physically be saving you in any way. It was nothing more than a fancy photograph. The usual counterargument was simply: why not? It was such a small sacrifice to sit down in a Pilot Seat and let Catherine flood your brain with electromagnetism for a few seconds. If anything the copy of the brain would be incredibly happy and could possibly live on for an eternity. It would be like sending off your twin to live in a paradise.
The ARK project drew so much attention that surveys were circulated to determine how the staff actually felt about it and how the project should be shaped if it was to be completed. People got increasingly invested in Catherine’s pet project, and before she knew it, it was decided that this would be Theta’s last official effort. If the human race was about to go extinct, as it decidedly seemed to be doing, then the last people left alive would leave a token to be remembered by. This digital realm, the ARK, would be a perfect way to preserve the qualities of being human.
As Strasky entered, Catherine was at the computer looking at a cluttered screen full of graphs and numbers.
“Hi,” he said.
Catherine’s chair swiveled around to face Strasky. He instantly smiled, not just because they were friends, but because Catherine always seemed to look slightly baffled with her eyebrows raised while she was in deep into her work. It was one of Strasky’s favorite things about Catherine and it made him laugh almost every time.
“Strasky, how are you?” said Catherine, and smiled.
“Nervous about the scan. How’s the project going?”
“It’s going well. The world is improving with every scan I add. Easier to tweak when there are product testers that can tell me what’s wrong.”
“Can you talk to the people inside the ARK?”
“I try not to… not directly. It’s more like observing, reading data. I’m not spying on them or anything. Just the stats. Do you want to get going with the scan?”
“Not really.” He laughed nervously. “But I guess I have to.”
“You don’t have to if you don’t want to.”
“And sit out the greatest show on earth… and beyond? I heard we’re launching it into space.”
“Yeah, I don’t like the idea of just leaving it down here. It’s a piece of technology after all. The WAU could get to it too easily.”
“Really, you’re blaming WAU? I thought you said that was like blaming evolution for killer sharks.”
“You know what I mean. It’s just a short-hand way to refer to all the madness that the WAU spawned.”
“You have to be careful about that. I’ve heard people talking about the WAU like it was a god or something. That it is actually controlling robots and machines to get to us. To kill us all. It’s hard to know what people actually mean when some people take it literally and some think of it like a shorthand.”
“Sorry, I’ll be careful in the future. Do you want to have a seat?”
“I was actually hoping on stalling some more…”
“Strask, there’s no need to worry. It doesn’t hurt.”
“It’s not that. It’s what comes after.”
Catherine’s smile dropped. She knew what he was referring to, but didn’t know how to properly handle it.
“It’ll be fine,” she said, quietly, “Just don’t get your hopes up.”
Strasky walked over to the mechanized seat and sat down. He had never had the opportunity to use one of the Pilot Seats before. They were usually handled by construct wranglers and field service technicians to remotely control complex machinery and robots. It was a firm seat, but still comfortable. Certainly made to accommodate countless of hours of work.
“Put your head back, please. All the way back to the cushion.”
The seat started powering up, leaning back ever so slightly to put the pilot in the perfect position. The helmet came down and blacked out Strasky’s vision.
“Catherine? What’s… is it supposed to sound like that?”
“Everything’s fine. You’ll see some flashing lights.”
The blackness bursted into a kaleidoscope of colors and shapes. A high-pitched buzz drowned out the soundscape. Strasky didn’t feel any pain, only a quickly receding fear. Getting past the initial fright he felt the rush of a rollercoaster ride. Just as it started to race, it stopped. The sound quickly winding down, the screen clearing up in front of him.
Strasky chuckled as the helmet came off. Then the rush of excitement faded and he started to realize what had happened. He sat up in the seat and looked over at Catherine by her computer.
“It didn’t… I am here.”
“I’m sorry, Strask.”
He didn’t get the grand prize. He tried to stop tears pooling in his eyes by quickly wiping at them with his sleeves. “I lost the coin toss,” he said, quietly.
“Nothing’s changed. You’re still here. How’s your head? I got painkillers, antacids, and other stuff.”
Strasky did feel queasy, but it wasn’t anything he couldn’t handle. Besides, he was too occupied with the thought of still being here. “Thank you, but no. I’m good, I guess. So we’re done, right?” He tried his best to push away his feelings.
“Yes, your scan is completed. But you can stay if you want. Just doing one scan per day anyway.”
“No, I should get back to work.”
As he stood up he almost fell to the floor, and found he was crying. “Goddamn it, it’s… I really wanted to go. Can’t believe I have to stay here and die with the rest of the losers. It’s so unfair. This was the way out. We were supposed to be saved. Jesus Christ.”
Catherine looked sad, shellshocked. She probably had no idea how to deal with people like this.
He wiped his eyes. “You don’t happen to have enough pills to kill me, right?”
“No, just to make you really sick.” she answered, disapproval in her eyes. She turned to her computer and got back to work.
Strasky collected himself, wiped his eyes clean again, pulled his hand through his hair, and took a few deep breaths. He looked to Catherine, but there was nothing to be found there. She had turned cold, distant.
“Well, thank you, I guess,” he said and opened the door.
Just as he was about to leave, Catherine said: “Don’t do it, okay?”
Strasky exhaled and smiled back at Catherine: “Don’t worry. You guys aren’t getting rid of me that easily.”
Before his site was evacuated Baxter Rogers used to work with the Upsilon thermal plant. What he liked about it was that it was a difficult job. It blended his engineering expertise with a good amount of gut feeling. The plant producing electrical power for all of Pathos-II was huge, fueled by geothermal heat emanating from molten rock beneath earth’s crust. It wasn’t complete madness, there were calculations and measurements, but in many ways it was like placing a power plant on top of an active volcano. Rogers was the human eye that kept the computerized systems in check. He lived for the responsibility of deciding how to channel heat through the partially natural, partially artificial flues that reached into earth’s core.
There were two recent incidents that had affected Rogers’ current mood: site service engineer Heather Wolchezk had handed over his plant responsibilities to the station-wide artificial intelligence, WAU, which practically relegated him to pure maintenance assignments. And then there was the Upsilon evacuation. He could understand the reasoning – there was no real point in keeping all of Upsilon active. After the comet took out the surface there wasn’t much use in keeping the gas harvesters or the manufacturing lines running. All of that only made sense when Pathos-II was still an active satellite launcher.
When Rogers arrived at Theta he realized he wasn’t as much out of a job as he was a refugee. There was nothing to do except to hang around the site. His new supervisors gave him as many assignments as they could, but the truth was that Theta was a well-oiled machine. The people from Upsilon were mostly in the way and it only got worse as they evacuated Delta.
Rogers could feel himself becoming worse as a person. He was bitter and jealous of the people who still had a sense of purpose. He tried to stay strong, to remain focused on being helpful and kind, but it wasn’t always so easy.
Rogers entered Catherine’s scan room without as much as a knock. Unfazed, Catherine stared at her computer screen. Rogers took a deep breath, trying to keep centered. He didn’t care much for Catherine. She was weak; he had always felt strongly that she should have been locked inside a room while the real people deal with the complex aftermath of this dying world.
But no matter how much he disliked her, she had somehow been able to give everyone a second chance, an eternal life inside a digital paradise. Get a scan and you would have a chance of waking up in a world without troubles, so they said.
“Hey, I’m here for the scan,” he said.
Catherine looked at her calendar and checked his name. “Okay,” she said with a forced smile.
“Yeah, so I just sit in the Pilot Seat?”
Rogers sat down, trying to get comfortable.
“You have to lean all the way…”
“Yeah, trust me, I know,” he said. “I’ve used a Pilot Seat before. You just make sure this doesn’t blow up or anything.”
“Heard you’re cranking it up so much it makes the blackbox vibrate – making people sick, giving them headaches, shit like that.”
“I got some medicine, for after…”
“Medicine? I think a mop would be better.”
Catherine went silent and pressed a button. The helmet came down, closing Roger’s vision.
“Do I need to do anything or is all this remote?”
“All right, let’s roll.”
“I… I just have to… You are Baxter Rogers, right?”
“Yeah, but no-one fucking calls me Baxter so you better not start.”
“You are from Delta?”
“Are you for real, isn’t this shit already in the computer? I’m from Upsilon.”
“Sorry. Found you.”
Catherine started the process. Rogers braced himself as the electromagnetism shot through his skull. It was making him sick, but he was set on not letting it get to him. Rogers fought the experience, snorting through his clenched jaw.
Finally the machine wound down and the helmet came off. Rogers sat up, retching. He managed to hold back the vomit and ended up spitting over his clothes. He wiped his mouth with his sleeve as he cursed. That’s when it hit him: he was still here.
“Short straw, huh?” he said, slowly shaking his head.
Catherine avoided his gaze, trying to look busy with the computer.
“It’s not the fucking ARK is it?”
Catherine held her breath.
“Is it?!” he yelled.
“No, it’s not.”
“Pretty fucked up, isn’t it? You’re pretty fucked up. You get people excited about your salvation. Let’s all live happily ever after in a paradise – it’s such a fucking lie.”
Rogers stood up, lumbered over to Catherine’s desk and grabbed her tea cup. He gargled a sip of her tea and spat it back. He looked at the model on her computer screen and nodded.
“Is that me?”
“I can’t believe people are killing themselves over this shit. You know who should kill themselves? You. I mean you believe in this don’t you?”
“I… never said…”
“What, you’re too scared to follow your own bullshit? You just enjoy seeing other people die, that’s it, isn’t it?”
Catherine’s eyes welled up – she looked petrified. Rogers finally realized that he was being an asshole, as ever. It kept happening, especially when faced with a punching-bag like Dr. Catherine Chun. He stopped himself, searched for a way out. He should have apologized, but his frail sense of self wouldn’t allow it.
He put down the spoiled cup of tea back on the desk and cleared his throat.
“Good luck with your project.”
He left and never spoke to Catherine again.
Robin Bass had been intrigued when the ARK project was first brought up as a serious undertaking. It sounded almost too good to be true. Could they really load their own minds into a computer and survive the hell that earth had been turned into? The answer to that question was a lot more complex than Bass had anticipated, but the fact was that Catherine Chun simply offered the staff to save a copy of their brain and let it live on inside a digital world that would be loaded on a space-probe framework and shot into space. If anything, it was a spectacular final message from the human race before it succumbed to its dying environment. Like the famous golden record aboard the Voyager in 1977, this would remain as a final statement, a reminder that humanity was once here.
What Catherine didn’t foresee was that people would find so many different meanings to attach to the project. They would see it as a second life that they might join after their physical death; or that it was their metaphorical twin and that they would in some way survive in a way beyond just being information inside a complex simulation.
The most influential idea was that of Continuity. It started in the philosophical musings of Mark Sarang. He suggested that the copy was perfect and couldn’t be separated from the self. The self that was copied would simply believe: nothing has changed, I got transported here. There would be nothing new about this copy; it wasn’t something that started or activated, it was effortlessly continuing in the same way as normal; you kept moving from moment to moment. The only thing that would make you different from the copy would be your paths diverging. When you’d spent too much time apart, you would end up as two different individuals. But for that one brief instant of copying, the you that was copied and the you that you are would be the same, not similar, but the exact same.
The controversial idea that Sarang proposed was that if you removed the physical original, your self would only have one path to go down, the one inside the digital paradise.
Simply stated: if you died shortly after the scan, your subjective self would wake up inside the digital world.
The idea was crazy. There were so many metaphysical questions that would have to be answered before coming to this conclusion. Yet it was very similar to the idea of teleportation. If you bought into the idea that breaking down your body and assembling a perfect copy somewhere else would result in a perfect transfer of the self, then the road to Sarang’s Continuity-idea was remarkably short.
The catalyst in this scenario wasn’t just Sarang’s argument, but that people wanted to believe in it, desperately so. And when Sarang successfully killed himself after getting his scan done there were suddenly a lot of skeptics coming around.
When Robin Bass finally entered Catherine’s scan room she had seen a handful of people follow Sarang, believing that they too would bypass the 50-50 chance of waking up in the digital world. Robin hoped she wouldn’t have to consider it, she hoped that she would wake up inside the ARK and leave her old physical body behind.
Catherine turned to greet her, but it ended up as an awkward wave.
“Dr. Chun. Thank you for seeing me.”
“Thank you for coming,” said Catherine with a careful smile. “Have you used the Pilot Seat before?”
“Every now and then. Been a while now though.”
Bass got into the seat and took a deep breath.
“You have to lean back.”
“Just give me a minute.”
“It doesn’t hurt,” said Catherine, smile reassuring.
“I heard. It’s the coin toss I’m nervous about. I really want to end up on the other side, you know?” Bass’ voice was cracking up, almost in tears.
They sat in silence for a moment, Bass breathing carefully.
“I wish people wouldn’t think of it like that,” said Catherine.
“Can’t blame us for hoping.”
Catherine sighed, exhausted by what she knew would happen.
“Okay, let’s do this,” said Bass and leaned back in the seat.
Catherine started the process and the helmet came down. Bass’ tried to control her breathing to minimize the nauseating effects she had heard about. As the machine wound Bass found herself whispering out loud: please, please, please…
Catherine turned her head towards the computer screen to avoid facing Bass as the helmet lifted from her vision.
“No.” Bass buried her face in her hands. There was no holding it back, Bass was devastated. She sat there for what seemed like a lifetime just crying her eyes out.
When she finally looked up, Catherine was curled up into a ball in her chair, trembling.
“I’m sorry,” said Bass as she got up from the seat. “Can’t be easy seeing all your colleagues break down.”
Catherine exhaled as a tear fell down her cheek. “They all lose. Before Sarang everyone was happy, laughing it off. There was no way to get inside the ARK. Now everyone is hoping they will be the one to continue into the paradise. Now all I see is disappointment.”
“That’s awful. How can you stand it?”
Catherine paused, struggling with an answer. “Because it’s important.”
Bass walked over to Catherine and hugged her. Catherine resisted at first, but then gradually Bass felt the tension leave her. “You are important, Catherine. You are.”
Bass let go of Catherine, hoping she had done more good than bad for this frightened child that was trying so hard to save mankind. “Never give up, Dr. Chun.”
And with those final words Bass left the scan room and headed back to her quarters, where she put a razor to her wrist.