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Kate van der Borgh

Kate van der Borgh

Ghost in the machine

by | Creative Writing, Play Area

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I wrote this story back in 2019. I’d just read To Be a Machine by Mark O'Connell, a book exploring how, for some people, death is a problem to be solved by technology.

It’s a fascinating and unsettling read, and it made me think about what might happen when our ‘self’ is finally reduced to a binary code.

He had wondered whether it would be like falling asleep. Or, more likely, like having a general anaesthetic – a woozy closing of the eyes, followed by bright lights and kind faces, a mere blink in between.
But no, it definitely felt like dying.

The first thing he noticed was a woman in a greying uniform. The short sleeves cut into her fleshy arms.
This one’s awake, she called. He tried to speak but his mouth wouldn’t work.
Take it easy, she said. You’re OK. And then, in a practised monotone: Welcome back. Please don’t be alarmed, you’ve been in stasis for – she looked at a screen overhead – 176 years. Do you remember your contract with Cryonet, to preserve your brain in the event of your death for the purposes of future reincarnation and potential immortality?
He was silent. The woman unsuccessfully stifled a yawn.
Your brain has been encoded into data and uploaded into a new physical form, much superior to flesh and blood. So, your mind has a new body. It’ll take time to adjust to your new form, but we at New Dawn will take you through it step by step.
The woman noticed him struggling to speak. Think it hard for me, honey, she said.
A voice, strange and not his own, came from somewhere: Am I alive?
Oh, sure, she replied.

He stayed at the facility for two weeks.
Each morning began with a ‘societal adjustment session’, a workshop about what to expect from the world. One session looked at changes to things like language, currency, government. Another outlined the rough proportions of humans, cyborgs, robots and cryonauts now making up the population, along with their respective rights, cultural practices and socioeconomic status. It seemed a lot to cram into three hours.
Afternoons were spent in physical adjustment, one-on-one therapy sessions in which he learned how to use the body he now inhabited. On the way to and from these sessions, he noticed other bodies that were sleeker and more flexible than his. He discovered that one of the other cryonauts could actually ingest food and drink, could still taste and enjoy a cup of coffee.
Why can’t my body do that? he asked one of the therapists.
The therapist spread his human hands apologetically. Some companies are doing really well with the hardware right now. Made some good investments, you know. The company you signed up with wasn’t one of them, I’m afraid.
You mean I’m a walking iPhone 6 in a world of iPhone Xs? he asked.
The therapist replied: what?

One pleasant surprise was that he remembered things much more vividly now. Even things from childhood. He saw the cherry-coloured wax crayon he used to write his name for the first time, saw all over again his mother sewing little labels into the collars of his school shirts.
And so in the evenings, no longer having any need for sleep, he moved up and down the corridors, replaying events from his life.
One memory he came back to again and again: the evening after the last appointment, where he’d signed the contract. He and Sayah had shared chateaubriand at their favourite restaurant, had chinked flutes of Tattinger on the balcony beneath a mild, late-summer sky.
You realise, she said, that we’ll outlive those stars.
That’s easy, he replied. Some are already dead. It’s just the light they once shone, still travelling to us, making it look like they’re still there.
Don’t be a smartarse, she said.
On the way home, they’d passed a cellist outside the tube station. Playing something classical, he didn’t know what. But the sound was so beautiful as to be almost painful, and – to his surprise – tears had gathered on his bottom eyelids. When it was over he’d became disproportionately upset that he hadn’t filmed the performance on his phone, had thumped the wall against which he leaned and grazed his fist. Sayah had taken his face in her hands and kissed him.
It doesn’t end here, she’d said.

Another memory: the clinic, its waiting room filled with buttery leather armchairs and gigantic vases of peonies.
The doctors have given me two months, he’d said.
Sebastian had nodded, his expression serious but not grave. Ideally, we’ll be with you at the end, Sebastian had said. Then, the moment there are no vital signs, we can prepare the body and transport it immediately for storage.
He already knew what would happen next. Basically, they’d cut off his head, fill it with antifreeze and store it in a massive vat somewhere in Phoenix, Arizona until such time as his brain could be awakened again. He didn’t need to go over those details.
To really maximise the chances of a successful reanimation, continued Sebastian, you could set a date.
He’d looked at Sayah, her eyes dry, and asked: you mean I should choose a day to die?
Sebastian smiled then. You keep saying this word, die. But remember, you’ll be placed into statis – frozen, if you like – before any of the processes of death have kicked in. You’ll merely be waiting for a future when you can be uploaded into a more efficient and effective body.
He trusted Sebastian completely, had known him and his extraordinary work for many years, since they were at Oxford. Actually, it’s how he’d met Sayah, who had been Sebastian’s girlfriend back when they both worked in Silicon Valley. He could never imagine them as a couple.
But of course, they’d all been completely different people back then.

After his two weeks at New Dawn, he moved into his new accommodation. A tiny, dingy flat on the edge of the city. He thought back to his old home in Kensington, with its stone walls and solid gates, and wondered who lived there now.
Since he no longer had any possessions, the space had been filled for him with cheap, standard issue furniture. There was a chair, slightly wonky, where he could recharge, and a datadesk where he could make small updates and adjustments to his system. There was also an entertainment unit which projected holograms of blockbuster films and rock concerts around the room (apparently this, like him, was a somewhat outdated model). He couldn’t afford to upload books from digital stores. But that was for the best, they said. He could still read the old paper kind, and he’d need to find ways to fill the time.
After surveying his new home, he took a trip around the local area. He felt the ground rumble, a product of the traffic that now snaked underground. And he gaped at the sheer number of feet – some flesh, some man-made, some both – stepping up and down the streets.
On the way back to the flat, he went into a shop. Not because he needed anything, but because he wanted to know what was sitting on the shelves. The answer, he discovered, was: not much. But then he remembered from his adjustment sessions that most people didn’t really shop any more. They only really went into town for leisure, like virtual reality experiences of now-extinct rainforests.
He saw a woman and a teenage boy, seemingly with no cybernetic enhancements, staring at some pink cereal that looked like it was made of plastic. The woman was stooped and unsmiling.
He made what he hoped was a friendly wave. But the woman turned quickly. Another one of those fucking things, she muttered. Drain on society. Don’t talk to it, we’ll be answering questions all fucking afternoon.
He went home and sat in his chair and remembered Sayah’s dark, smiling eyes.

The company that had made his fortune was long dead. And the agency explained that, due to the gap in their cultural experience and understanding, cryonauts like him weren’t often appointed to leadership positions in the workplace, at least not until they’d had some time to adjust. Maybe 40, 50 years or so.
So they gave him a role in a memory factory, creating chips to be shipped to a country he used to know as Russia. He didn’t even realise he was qualified to do the job until they explained that the one enhancement New Dawn had made to his person was to upload all the instruction manuals to his new, digital brain. Apparently some people had been enhanced so that they could speak new languages or master the great philosophical principles of the time. But him? He could build a 1,000-gigabyte memory chip the size of a pinhead. And he could do it a thousand times every day, with a break in the middle for ‘lunch’.
It was at the factory that he met Mario, a crumbling cryonaut who in his former life had been a cosmetic surgeon to the stars. You remember Jennifer Lawrence? Mario announced one morning. When everything started to go South, I did her butt. A masterpiece.
He explained his predicament to Mario: he had no idea how to find Sayah.
How do you know she is even here? asked Mario. Maybe she decided to die. You go into statis all those years before her time is up, who knows what happens in her life.
She wouldn’t have done that, he replied. We promised we’d stay, be together.
Well, shrugged Mario, you can always go to the Reunion Centre. They help cryonauts to find one another, when they wake up generations apart.
He felt something in his circuits, something like hope.
But be careful, Mario added. We learned how to stop death, but nobody ever stopped time.

The Reunion Centre was a great grey box in the decrepit South of the city. He arrived to find a long line of bodies like his, leading towards a single service window. When he finally reached the front, the robot at the counter welcomed him with an artificial smile.
My wife and I both agreed that we’d go into stasis, he explained. Back in the 2030s. I went first, and I was woken up a few weeks ago. So now I’m trying to find her. Here, he said, touching his hand to the robot’s own. These are her details. Can you tell me where she is?
Pardon me, the robot announced. But technically you are no longer married. The marriage contract expires upon death.
But I didn’t die, he says.
Philosophically, maybe not, the robot continued. But legally you did. You could only be cryogenically frozen once pronounced dead by medical professionals. Otherwise they would have been accused of killing you.
He realised this must be true.
And so, the robot prattled, you are not married. And I’m afraid we can’t share any data pertaining to non-relatives.
He felt a kind of rage. It wasn’t in his chest, like when he was made of meat. Just somewhere all around him, in the air.
However, the robot said, blinking unnecessarily. If you’d like to share a message with me, I can attempt to pass it on to the individual in question.
So are you saying she’s – here he stopped himself from saying ‘alive’ – here like me?
I’m afraid I can neither confirm or deny that information.
He wasn’t sure whether it was depressing or reassuring that bureaucracy was just as irritating after 176 years.

He presumed the robot did what it could. But a month went by with no word from Sayah.
In the daytime he did his job at the factory. And in the evenings he walked the streets, trying to find a corner or a face that felt familiar. But it was no use. The world didn’t even look like the sci fi films he’d loved as a teenager.
Better to leave it, Mario told him. I’ve been here years now and you know how many times I’ve found people from before? None. It didn’t take off like they thought, you see. Ironic, that immortality turned out to be a passing fashion.
You’re wrong, he said. She’s here.
They worked silently for a while. Then Mario stopped. You know, he said, I don’t know if I should even say this.
There are other ways to find out.
I know someone. With contacts, data.
What? Why didn’t you say so before?
Because it’s not legal. Do you want them to deactivate your motion facility and have you at a desk making these things 24 hours a day? Because that’s what they’ll do, if they find out. You think prison was bad when you were human…
The two of them paused. Then he said: tell me what to do.

A few nights later he was in a warehouse beneath what had once been the biggest train station in the city. The rats were as big as foxes – not that they bothered him now.
He was spread out on a table, face down. Until that point he’d forgotten that his ‘brain’ was no longer in his head but in his back.
They managed to turn off most of the pain sensors, but it was still uncomfortable – especially when they removed his hand. But strangest of all was when they copied his memories. It gave him a vertiginous sense of déjà vu.
Before the procedure, he’d asked Mario: why would anyone want the data from my brain?
Mario had laughed. You have no idea about the black markets, he said. Data is knowledge. Knowledge is power. You understand?
No, he said.
And anyway, continued Mario. They can’t get enough of the memories. You’d be amazed at the shit people watch these days.

A couple of days later he received information from Mario’s contacts, including an address in the city.
Mario had been surprised. Wow, he said. That’s an expensive place. Your wife must really be someone now.
She always was, he’d replied, fumbling, one arm hanging limp at his side.
He didn’t tell Mario that there had been more information. That his wife, in her fine house, did not live alone. That she was believed to have A Significant Other, whose name he didn’t yet know but could only suspect.

The more he thought about it, the more he wondered if he ever knew who Sebastian really was. He knew that, while his own brain had lain in a tanker of liquid nitrogen belonging to Sebastian’s global company, Sebastian had continued to live, in the same city as Sayah, experiencing the same hours and minutes of the same days. He knew that Sebastian had dated Sayah for – what? A year, two? – in their youth. He did not, however, know whether Sebastian’s attraction for Sayah had in fact survived their break up, had lain dormant, waiting for another chance in future.
And even if the Sebastian he knew from university wouldn’t have betrayed him, maybe the forty-year-old Sebastian with a billion in the bank and two TIME covers would have.
Yes. He of all people knew that the people we were today and the people we were in the past were often completely unrecognisable to one another.

Unsurprisingly, it was Mario’s contacts who helped him get into the gated compound, who gave him the shabby delivery unit’s uniform and the fake ID.
He knew it would be a shock for her, and so he’d planned what he was going to say down to the syllable. He was going to remind her of that evening when they’d listened to the music on the street, when they’d looked at the stars and told themselves that it wasn’t the end. How it was, in the past. He was going to tell her:
We can be that way again. We can go back.
But when she’d opened the door, he’d been stunned into silence. Her body wasn’t like his, new and clunky and strange. She just looked like herself, as she had done the last time he saw her, more than a century and a half ago. Perhaps a fraction younger. But so beautiful, you’d think she was purely human. He realised: hers was one of the very best models, the most lifelike, the ones he’d only ever heard rumours about.
Do you have a name? she said.
Even her voice was the same. He muttered: what?
For the parcel. Who’s it for?
Oh, he said. And then: Sayah, it’s me.
She blinked. He spoke again.
It’s me. I woke up and couldn’t find you. They wouldn’t tell me where you were, I had to ask – I had to give them my hand.
She sank against the frame of the door. He wanted to rush to her, to gather her in his arms, to tell her that everything would be OK now. But there was something odd in her expression, something dead.
She gave a heavy sigh. Then she called into the house behind her:
Darling. We’ve got another one.
He was trying to fathom what she meant when a shape appeared behind her, emerging from the warm darkness. He braced himself for the broad shoulders in the expensive shirt, for Sebastian’s sharp eyes and wide grin.
But the face he saw staring back at him, youthful and familiar, was all his own.

She sat with him at the dining table. Just her and him. It would have been weird, all three of them.
As she fidgeted with a glass of wine, she explained in a gentle but slightly remote way that they – she and the other man, the man with his face – both struggled when they first woke up. The business was gone, the money eaten up by the costs of stasis.
And then, Sayah continued, along came a company that offered to buy his data. The amount they offered seemed staggering. All that money just for someone to take a copy of his brain. They didn’t even know why the company wanted a copy anyway. But of course, the deal meant that the company had the legal right to use his data in any way they chose, including recreating his identity. But, the company had reassured them, if they did recreate his identity – if, in other words, they created another physical version of him – that version would be housed in another part of the city. Their paths wouldn’t cross.
He nodded. So, he said, they didn’t count on me finding you.
No, they didn’t, she said. Not you, or the others who have been here.
He didn’t really want to ask. How many others?
She looked into her glass. Four or five, so far.
And that’s only the ones who found you. I guess there are more, who either failed or never tried.
He closed his eyes. Why do they want to make copies of people? Doing my job doesn’t require a personality, they could just get a robot to do it.
It seemed like she’d answered this question before. Lots of reasons, she said quietly. They might be testing for another job. One of the things people still don’t want robots to do.
So, he sighed. As well as having a third rate body and a third rate home, I don’t even have a real job. It’s just a test.
You have a life.
She paused for a moment. Then she stood and said: I’m sorry.
Sayah, he said. I’m still the same person.
She shook her head and answered: nobody is the same.

When the door closed behind him, he knew he’d never see Sayah again.
Up and down the glowering streets, he thought about the other one. How did that man feel knowing that he was no longer the only one? Did it make him feel less whole? Or did he see himself as an original in a long lineup of fakes?
He’d been so confident that the survival of his brain would mean the survival of his personality. But he’d misunderstood everything. He’d placed so much weight on his identity as an individual, as a unique and inimitable set of neurons that could be translated into an equally unique list of zeroes and ones. But he hadn’t acknowledged those other things that make up the self. Our interactions with the rest of the world, at work or at play – the constantly shifting relationships that pull people closer to us or push them away. His old mind in a new world. He didn’t know what it added up to.
There was an option, besides the immortality that had cost him so much. He could turn himself off. Jump under a train, smash his ‘upgraded’ body to pieces. But what did that mean for his data? It would still be there, stored on the main system that woke him in the first place. Could someone wake him again, sometime in the future, to a world he’d understand even less?
He came to a corner where a woman, bent and wrinkled, was playing some kind of stringed instrument. An instinct made him think about using his camera function to record her. But he decided not to. Not because the music wasn’t good – on the contrary, it was actually extremely moving – but because he felt it was futile to try and capture it, to pin it to a page like a butterfly. He decided that part of its beauty was in its transience, in the fact that soon it would be gone. The fact that the feeling of the performance could never be repeated, not exactly. He listened, and once the last note had died away he clapped his remaining hand against his leg.
What instrument is that? he asked.
It’s a cello, she replied.
Of course, he thought. He shouldn’t be surprised that it had changed a bit over the years. The sound, though. It still got him.
As we walked back to his flat, he marvelled at the flatness of the sky. In the city’s electric glow, he couldn’t pick out a single star.

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