The ferry alarm above my headboard used a steady whistle to wake me, but I'd been up and packed since the first atmospheric break. It was in a stumbling fog, a compliment of the onboard alcohol service, but I was at least happy to find myself still aboard the Gateway ferry. I could have been moved to a dump pod and ejected some dozen AU away for the extra cargo space. As the A.I. had told me once before -- lethargic travelers may be subject to jettison.
The air around me leaped with electricity, and I felt the hairs of my arm stand at attention.
* * *
"System Six Representative Les Moroula. Commerce Center Universa 333 will now present an offer with Earth, the cradle of humankind, regarding the threat of overpopulation. The population of CCU-333 has spiked 12% from the previous two years, an increase that is projected to cost an extra 1.9 billion credits for housing expansions. With that, an additional 1.2 billion will be required to maintain sufficient ventilation that will cover the entire planetoid with clean air. One of the two is quite possible to accomplish. One is not. That being said, System Six is represented here to say -- there will be no population lockdown of any kind on or within planetoid Commerce Center Universa.
"To supplement the decision outlawing birth restrictions,, a new System Six program will be opened. The program may be referred to as 'Gateway' or, 'The Gateway.' Its aim will be to provide a 'second life' service to citizens of every System. We hereby formally introduce the Gateway Initiative -- fueled by recent breakthroughs in medically induced paralysis, organic decomposition, and sleep stasis, Gateway will be actively maintaining a quantum cloud capable of transferring the human consciousness from this reality to a cloud-based reality.
"As I issue this announcement there are citizens in the cloud. When the cradle of Earth introduced their injustices one month prior, there were citizens in the cloud. Trials conducted from more than two hundred trade capital residents show that anyone as young as 14 can safely have their consciousness relocated to the cloud as a standard user, so long as they use an 'open source' user as a platform. Meaning, users stay under the roof of another user until cloud independence can be learned. Applications for standard users are now available on the cradle of Earth URL. If you are the parent of a minor, please provide proof of a cradle birth to enter your child for consideration. If you wish to apply to become an open source user in the cloud, download the file pack from the CCU-333 URL."
* * *
Timely with the dying crack of the signal, the groans and bumps of twin decelerating engines eased life back into the ferry cabin. Real life, nothing simulated. That's a high distinction on this world.
A little square sunroof cracks over my head. While its technical purpose is for the septic crews to pump out waste -- the only task that could not be assumed by the ship A.I. -- the exposed unit invites a chill about the cabin, and a silvery light reflected off the surface of the approaching world -- Commerce Center Universa 333. I am hit next with the cold, so I retrieve a windbreaker from one of the cubbies, unsure if the other articles belong to myself or the owners. The warmth propels my attention to a place of wondering, and wandering thought. These thoughts were all the same; equal parts valid and pointless. Nothing could be gained from them. I was well aware. Still, something outside my own power kept me tight in their clutches.
Perhaps the clutches were just the sense of drought I'd been feeling. The Gateway called it something more technical than that, though I'm unsure there was anything as descriptive as a sort of mental "drought."
Through the open square cutout, I spot a Class-A freighter, cool blue-grey like the sky beyond it, tagged with lettering on the hull that spells: WANDERER. The freighter is holding a pilot in a white-backed seat just above the center line, like a tiny black ink drop spilled by a precise inking instrument. I let myself awe over how such tiny beings ever figured out the puzzle of piloting behemoths like the Wanderer. I suddenly felt vulnerable, naked and bare, inside this tiny ferry. It was a speck of lint in the presence of the Wanderer; the speck of lint held a pilot as well, though I'd never seen anyone. Emphasis should be considered when defining "pilot," as the ferry frame and all its onboard systems belonged to the Gateway Initiative as private property. No need for an organic touch when there's an A.I. to pilot the pilot, and an A.I. for the A.I. to council its decisions with.
A new cutout appears adjacent to the sunroof, this time within the floor panels. I slide through the hole easily in my windbreaker, and find myself inside a clean white room meant for commercial loading. Or so is my best guess. The loading room leads to cramped exit ramp that connects to the port common area, both designed to reminisce the elder ways of air travel. I take an inventory of my fortune as I walk: two disposable paper bills adding to about 2,500 credits (enough for about two mid-tier meals from any chain), and a plastic swipe card with 8,000 on it. 10,500 credits to my consciousness.
The rest of my wealth disappeared in an investment eight years prior. The Gateway Initiative was a budding private company then, and the engineers needed volunteers. I volunteered with my wallet to test the cloud; I am one of two hundred.
I invested in my Self.
Gateway refers to the Self as "that voice in your head," or "the true you," but only in the interest of public relations. The Self is a trick of death achieved through a high cost and an eight-year process: Gateway removes the birth-given brain of a patient, and the engineers begin dissolving the brain to access the tangible consciousness.
For myself and my Self, the hard part is already over. They already have my brain. I have one of theirs, a basic copy. Paying the high price for a temporary brain was my personal choice. Even if I disagree with it, I wanted things this way -- leaving my Self around without me around felt like leaving a child home with no sitter. All the feelings of a night out were there, only with no idea when I would return, and no idea who would be watching my child.
* * *
"Good morning," I say to a woman selling colorful fruit in the port common area. She's set up with a full stall just outside the exit ramp. Smart woman.
Mangos and banana crossbreeds are stacked impressively high in a pyramid to her left, with berries lining the shelf behind her in small cartons. Stalks of tall bamboo peek out from behind the folding table. The thin leaves rustle gently at first, then enter a state of sudden chaos. The leaves fall like rain over the table, forcing the woman to support the stalks with two hooped arms.
I look to the port viewing window, shaking with ten times whatever force possessed the bamboo. Looking to the pads, I realize that it's the little ferry I disembarked from, taking off with all its might, vaporous exhaust leaking from underneath. Its lettered side reads: TRANSCENDENCE DELIVERED -- a curiously divine name to choose for a science-tech initiative vessel, but from the time spent at my previous appointments, that's just how Gateway likes to be.
With enough time and distance, the glass restored itself as the crystal wall lining the entire North flank of the common area.
"Price for these?" I ask the woman.
Her eyes match mine in both eagerness and flat grey color, and when she grasps one of the yellow-orange mangos in her palm, the colors clash for dominance. "400 per. There's a little plastic bit over there that's good for peeling, if you're in a rush." She has a cradle drawl. It's hardly noticeable, but it's apparent enough to attract questions.
Her expressions roll like dew: curiosity in the eyes, something like fear in the way she moves, yet resolution in the way she speaks. She's looking right through my torso at something I can't discern.
I give her my swipe card for the fruit. She refuses to take it.
"Free. The fruit is free," she says.
"I'm sure it wasn't an easy thing hauling so much produce across Systems. I insist -- "
She guides my wrist away from the mango and strikes me with a well-meaning smirk. "I haven't left this port since '68. This all gets hauled to me, once every two weeks or so. It's free for all Gateway employees and affiliates." Then I remember the little clipped badge I'm wearing. Without a doubt, that was the most likely -- perhaps only -- source of her silent confusion.
"Oh, I don't work for Gateway, just one of the trial patients for a new service of theirs." I wonder how taboo, if at all, the cloud announcement was in the public sphere. "400 sounds great. I missed having cradle food around."
She nods in a sideways manner as though she doesn't believe me. Her face describes some iteration of impatience. Maybe eagerness. Either way, the dew continued to roll for some time thereafter.
A second customer steals her attention, someone in a nice blue garb straight from the capital building. She completes a sale for two packs of blackberries, turns back to me, and taps her own plastic badge -- click-click-click. "Look."
The badge was more or less the same as mine -- a Gateway badge, but vaguely different in a way I couldn't pick out in the tiny black text.
"Fruit is good for the transfer process. Lots of sugars to support your organics. Acid to help decompose the brain when that time comes ... and more flavor than the shit they'll give you before you go down to go up. That's what my son said when he left the cradle. He carried a crate of citrus up to the last door! I expect you follow a similar path?" A little tissue hides itself poorly in her side zipper pockets, threatening to drift away.
"Similar to ... your son?" I ask cautiously. Two things stick out to me about this Gateway-fruit vendor-whatever-woman. For one, she misses her son. The more she speaks of him the more she appears as a fragment of some other whole. That's a charitable quality in a climate where Systems push to strip the right to have children. That, and she must have given birth in the cradle long ago, since her son old enough to travel between Systems.
"My oldest, Istvan. He was one of the first to go up. You are a volunteer, one in two hundred others, but my boy was one in five. As if there's any way for me to know if he made it there all right ... " She laughs and wipes something from her face with the side of a bony, hooked finger. Her long nails catch a curtain of dark hair and tuck a rope of it behind her ear. She is proud of her son. "Number three in the cloud. Third time is the charm, isn't it?"
"And the first, and the second. I'm certain your boy made it." The Zero Accidents Report should be released soon, then she could be certain, too.
Misarranged bamboo occupies her hands. She is searching for something among the stalks. "He came back to visit me right before his appointment with Gateway," she says with a bundle of fallen leaves picked from the dirt. She picks the smallest green shoot and plucks it from its peers, taking its end and placing it between her lips like a green cigar. It has the effect of an actual cigarette, framing her as someone highly experienced, highly worn.
"I never visited anyone. I saw my brother, but only because he was my physician.
"He is your physician," she tells me. "Don't give away your final hours by acting like you're already dead."
"I appreciate that. More than you know."
She gives me a slow and knowing nod. "It was a surprise when I opened the front door that morning and saw him there. I didn't expect to see him, ever, much less take a ride to Commerce Center Universa with him. But I stayed by his side all the way here -- only 8,000 credits for a ferry! I thought that just meant I could afford some nice amenities for a few nights' stay, but then I realized who I was around here." Her arms drifted to the ceiling and made wide circles in the air, placing the entire world in the pedestal display of her two palms.
Her Gateway badge taunted an answer out of me. If it took her that long to realize who she was, how could I begin to guess? "An import trader? As far as I know, you need to have some license to -- "
"Ha!" Her sudden laugh pulls the gums away to show a cluster of yellowed teeth peeking out. "Gateway Affiliate." Her hands adjust her badge like a bowtie as she oversells a wink.
"Sounds like you made well for yourself then. Hell, you're five systems away from the cradle and more stable than I was when I left the cradle."
"It's easier when you have a kid to follow through the door. Check out the cloud center once you make it up there. My kid helped develop it. That's how I inherited my status here, if you were wondering." Her eyes read, I know you were "I wouldn't be surprised if that's the first place he went. I just want to believe he's still happy with his decision." Her hands cup around mine, forcing a free mango into them. "Do you know how useless that feels? Wanting to believe something?"
I nod and tell her I do know. Truly. "That'll be the first place I visit. Maybe I'll inherit some extra resources, then I'll be able to narrow Istvan down to at least one region of the cloud." I'm not sure she follows what I'm alluding to, but I say it anyways. If she did understand, then she would know just how impossible that sounds.
Grief creeps through her facial creases as if little needles that had been holding her cheeks up were beginning to slip. "I told Istvan I would see him again, but that was back then -- I didn't understand what the center meant. I still don't. Maybe you will."
It was getting closer to my scheduled appointment, so I toss something a little more conversational to take her mind away from Istvan. "Is there anywhere close to here I can rest? Preferably somewhere calm, like this?"
"Quiet zones are the 17th gate of each wing. Keep following the ramps to the corner, you'll see it."
As I head down the ramped corridor, I hear the woman take up conversation with another customer. The sharp corner comes up faster than I imagined, throwing the actual size of the common area into question. I try to wave goodbye to her at the exit. She's preoccupied with her fruit, talking away to someone who isn't listening.
That someone wasn't listening because they were not there. No one was there.
She must have been speaking to Istvan.
* * *
"Ernest," a tin voice calls out.
It almost seemed like a question, so I settle on a reply that would suit either: "Yes."
"Glad to hear."
"You are four minutes late, Ernest. I see your tardiness persists through time -- eight years' time. Additionally, I carried you here, with no help, from the common area quiet zone. You were asleep."
The eyes beneath my temporary brain power to full. I see a familiar face: one single black aperture, with a glass lens camera, on a smooth white surface. A Gateway kiosk. System Summons -- or, "kiosks" -- are programmable companions comparable to a sentient dog, but with the aesthetics of a pricey refrigerator. Some kiosks serve as remote employees that monitor the digital trade plane, oversee bank actions, or serve low enough to be janitorial hands and line cooks.
I know this particular kiosk by voice alone, it feels silly that I couldn't recognize it before.
"Ernest, place your attention here."
In the perfect white surface of the kiosk is a casted live feed. A shapeless object sitting in a tank of what looks like orange water, and a tiny byline with a percentage: 87%. My Self has decomposed 87% over the last eight years. Judging by the brain stem peeking out from the bottom, it was due to break into two halves any time now.
"S3," the kiosk says to me. That's the title assigned to my Self, not me. A cloud username. "The Self is decomposing too quickly. The cloud is struggling to interpret its data, and as a result, the outgoing data is being misplaced or fragmented within the cloud. About 370 terabytes of the Self has been misplaced. That is about one-thirtieth of the consciousness."
On the screen, translucent floating particles plume out of the two halves and quickly dissolve like gloomy tadpoles. Now there are two Selves in the tank -- I am one-third of the person I was born as. "Can the fragments be recovered, since the data is technically still in the cloud?" I ask the kiosk.
"Yes. Fragments are recoverable. But doing so requires full patient consciousness. That is, the decomposition process must be completed before anything can be recovered. Such a relationship poses a risk to you, S3. Understand this: If the Self continues to feed the cloud its corrupted data, then it is possible you will experience difficulty relearning your basic skills once you fully arrive in the cloud. You do not want to be trapped in a limbo such as that. Limbo states are permanent in the cloud."
The kiosk continued, wasting little time to double-check my understanding: "S3 -- you may choose one of two options. The Gateway team highly recommends the choice be made now, at a stage where early recovery is still possible. The fastest way to enter the cloud, thereby providing the best opportunity to recover your fragments, is to submit your Self as an open source platform. The Self will be used as a platform that houses and guides incoming patients. Data will be shared among these occupants."
"So I'll be a host. What's the other way?"
"Submit the Self as a processing resource. Remaining data will be used to supplement the cloud's processing powers via reversible computing, a sacrifice which will substantially benefit millions of future cloud users. The temporary brain you hold now will become your primary brain, free of charge -- the brain will be paid for by the Gateway Initiative until death. Free monthly maintenance is available as a courtesy."
"Oh, awesome." If it could process cynicism, I was sure this would be the kind of kiosk to say something about the edge in my voice.
"S3 -- which option would you like to choose?"
"How much time do I have?"
"Unlimited time. The choice does not expire. Still, caution should be exercised, as the Self is decomposing at an accelerated rate. Prolonging the decision only adds to the problem."
When I invested in Gateway eight years ago, the fact I could withdraw at any time was a great reliever. For eight years that was an option. That means eight years where I could have changed my mind, which I never did. Even when the price to leave the cradle bloated, the option to withdraw never seemed necessary.
Under that truth, the decision came easily. "Crack me open. Let's take it open source."
* * *
Standard transfer is just a long surgery. Open source transfer is a blindfolded one. Since an uninterrupted connection to the cloud is required, a kiosk stands in as the surgeon, effectively building a bridge somewhere between the Self and the cloud. The surgeon has no way of knowing where the bridge is or how many occupants it can support. That is the blindfold the user is forced to travel with.
A name appears in my mental pasture just as the anesthesia eases me under: My kiosk of eight years. My pseudofriend, my pseudosurgeon, Yheros.
Yheros initiated cloud connection and began a grim preface. Yheros explained some of the urges most common to the operation. I must not indulge the urges. I must be prepared to ignore and deflect, else the data wasted in making unnecessary interactions will be tossed over the bridge without any hope of recovery. This danger persisted in both worlds: loss of data in the cloud, loss of the brain in reality. Satisfying any urge will spell perpetual death.
A cold tingling turns my anesthesia into a blanket of ice. An external presence slips under the blanket alongside me. The presence offers to toss some of my data over the bridge. Just as I focus in on ignoring the presence, I feel its innerworkings as a single "speck" of data -- an individual. Yheros never mentioned I would meet others.
Just then, the speck initiated an integration with the platform, S3, moving me closer to the bridge. I feel movement. I am traveling. Two hands are carrying me, and I am not alone. Yheros is smuggling platform S3 to the center of the cloud.
* * *
S3: Remember that fragments may be recovered. One cannot run out of fragments to gain. As an open source platform supporting other users, S3 may find a fragment that belongs not to it, but to one of its occupants. Be sure to let them know.
* * *
There wasn't much to see besides the glow of text prompts. Movement and basic comprehension eluded me for the first few moments in the cloud center just as Yheros said they would. Revived consciousness -- a term Yheros had used once during an autumn consultation -- felt like colliding with a wall that you could have sworn was much a smaller wall moments ago. The wall before me now was unlike any I'd ever speculated on, for this wall commanded a voice.
"Hey! Where did you get this?"
Current occupants 0/10 ... ... ... (Updated via central core, 12.9.2176).
As if it had any ability to be wrong, I didn't believe what the prompt was telling.
It's been 63 years. 63 years for Yheros to build the bridge and revive my consciousness. 71 years ago I was inside a Gateway office, with Yheros, defining the rules of my investment. The voice must have traveled a similar time span, perhaps more, but thinking any harder on that was a serious waste of resources.
Distance and depth in the cloud are distorted to the point of emptiness, so locating the voice took time. When I found the source it was wandering in a dense section of the cloud that proved difficult to navigate.
The voice repeated itself until I was hovering directly over its source location.
"Where did you get this? Hey! Where did you get this? Hey! Where did you ... "
"Get what?" I asked it without much confidence.
The cloud processes thoughts in unison. Or as Gateway describes it, as a unison. The unison materializes any words in the cloud as independent ideas, interweaving every user on the most basic level the engineers could find. As Word turned to Thought, then eventually to Idea, the little voice stretched to meet them.
Funny enough, it was my Idea:
"Lots of sugars to support your organics."
"Where did you get this?" the little voice pressed again.
I released the Idea from memory so it may enter the cloud for public archiving. Images of CCU-333, Wanderer, and the fruit vendor woman appear one after the other as it travels. "Someone at the spaceport said that. A vendor."
"You remember the spaceport?"
"I -- yes, I remember it. It wasn't that long ago for me."
"Right," said the little speck. "That makes sense. It's hard for me to picture things like that now. Places, to me, are just ... non-places, like a collection of adjectives that I can't bring myself to apply in any ways that make sense. Now you're here -- and it's even more polluted because of that. I didn't think she would go through with it."
"I'll help you picture it," I say to the speck. As I do, an image of the woman and the table of fruit appear from the view of the port exit ramp.
The speck falls silent. Even its Ideas are suppressed from view.
That's enough to give me a hunch. I let the idea stay in the open for a long while. "Istvan. That's your name, isn't it?" I try to shape my ideas to appear casual, nothing too investigatory.
"What's your name now?"
"I don't have one. The earliest to go weren't given things like that."
"I see. Your mother was the last person I spoke to at the port. It might not be, but perhaps that's enough to earn a little trust. What was it your mother went through with?"
"Leaving the cradle and following me to CCU. She never made it all the way to the cloud, obviously, but she tried."
"And now she wants to join you. Is that right?"
"I believe so." Another lull period sinks the flow of conversation to depressing levels. "She said I would see her again, so she must want to come here. Right? What else could that mean?"
"There is ... a lot of time between us and her now." I try hinting at the time gap as lightly as I can.
"Oh I know. 63 years, not that I can rationalize time like you can. She's nearing the end of her life by now."
"Cloud users can't be sure of that. You know that much better than I do."
"You're right. I do."
"Is this the Gateway Center, Istvan?"
Istvan performs an action similar to a laugh, but with all the connotations of a hard sigh. "What else could this be? Tell me -- when you were an organic human, did you call yourself 'an organic human?' Of course not. It's like that. I am a standard user, and you are an open source platform. Yet, the Gateway Center alters you to appear just like me. Your surgeon moved you here, to the center, but you'll never be able to tell because it's all the same. It's all connected."
"That means the memories I have of your mother are close to being whole. This is the closest they will ever be. It shouldn't be difficult to start looking for her as -- "
"A fragment. I know what you're getting at."
"Yes. With enough of them we could build a user for her. We could make her an occupant under my platform until she figures out where the bridge is."
"That's called reverse bridging. Or that's what I call it, and it's a waste of our eternity. Let alone the fact that assembling an entire user without transferring the Self has never been done on anyone."
"Why is that?"
"Because It's hard to find someone that excited about science. It's like donating your organs, except you're still breathing. Then one day you stop breathing, and you know the engineers succeeded."
"Your mother is beyond willing. And don't we have an eternity to spend?"
Istvan paused. He mumbled unintelligibly. The Ideas he rummaged through were being thrown into the open, allowing me to read every one of them before Istvan said: "I suppose we do."
"And the cloud is designed with that function in mind?"
"In concept, sure. But that function was left out of 99% of the total cloudspace until millions more users arrive. That way it's easier to cover up the broken bridges."
"Let's start reversing it now then. We're ahead of the curve by a couple million."
"I've tried. My human body feels like a surreal fucking dream compared to my life now. I don't have the human knowledge left to do it. Don't you think I would have tried all the functions by now?"
"You have no extra resource dump to draw from. If you did, there'd likely be enough 'human data' to get you started. You just need a platform that will support your section of the cloud." I let the ideas linger in the open so Istvan may get a glimpse at them from every possible angle. "I can help with that."
"I'll just be confined to your platform then anyways. Won't help."
"I'll set it down here then."
"You haven't placed your platform anywhere yet?"
"I don't have any occupants. Not yet. I wasn't lying when I told you -- the spaceport wasn't that long ago for me."
Istvan escaped the detectable range of platform S3. The speck continued to drift away until all the recent ideas within blended with the perpetual background buzz of the cloud. Then ...
Occupant request pending.
Current occupants: (1/10)
Occupant ISTVA added to occupants. ISTVA portrait added to occupant referendum.
Designate the resources ISTVA will receive out of 10.
Though I couldn't access it directly, ISTVA contained a vault of bizarre information built up from years of designing the cloud to what it is now. His mother was right -- in the breadth of all the cloud, Istvan rarely ever wandered away from the center.
Occupant ISTVA to assume full resource power. If other occupants are present, or are expected to arrive, decrease this value before accepting any further requests.
When the prompts disappeared I started tinkering around to create new ones, ones that would pertain to the things every open source platform needs: standby, gauging, archiving, occupant profile grouping ...
A repeating message appeared then, a spotlighted beacon through the infinite dark. In that moment, the cloud became equal parts silence and commotion. I couldn't find the source, but there was only one culprit, and only one portrait in the referendum to pair it with: a yellow-orange mango.
"Lots of sugars to support your organics ... Lots of sugars to support your organics ... Lots of sugars to support ... "
It would be a very, very long time until that message is received by anyone. Longer than 63 years, no doubt. But that's all right. Istvan has no sense of time anyhow.