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In the Garden - Part One
Posted By: kabu<will36@gmail.com>
Date: 25 December 2009, 2:28 am

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August 9, 2154. Ten minutes pre-Activation.

      So you take a brain. A good brain, no strokes or aneurisms or hemorrhages or protruding knives. The best ones are the really fast deaths. Bullet to the heart, half the chest and blood supply lost in a few milliseconds and the rest drains out quickly; those ones give us the best results, so far. Not much time for the brain to get ravaged by hypoxia, cells dying as they gasp for O2. That's what causes brain damage when you drown or whatever – not anoxia, the complete lack of oxygen, but rather the minutes when the brain goes hypoxic and starts to shred itself. Sudden anoxia is good, freezing helps, like when somebody falls into ice water and is revived three hours later and writes a book about it. Theoretically, a candidate made to breath an agent that binds aggressively to hemoglobin, like hydrogen sulfide, would rapidly induce anoxia. In non-science speak, that means the subject dies quickly but the brain stays in good shape. They did a few experiments with that centuries ago, before they got good working cryo. Basically, what I'm saying is that we need good, working, dead brains. Specifically, the information contained within those brains.
      Simplified as much as possible: you take a subject's brain, and you take the neural connections hidden inside of it. You blast a current through it, watch the neurons light up, and record the data with the most sensitive quantum-interference devices our grant money can buy. And you put a copy of those same connections into a crystal, you attach an interface, and you get an AI. At least, that was the theory. Seventy-three subjects so far and no real working AI, though we had come close. Very close.
      Look at me, talking about "candidates" and "subjects." There's a very fine line, when you talk about this stuff. Our last attempts, the previous ten brains or so, had transferred various stages of consciousness into the data crystal. Shadows of a person, a dent left in a mattress and a photograph on a wall, scent hanging in the air and echoes hiding in the corners. Sometimes they manage to get a few words out before falling silent. And when they fade, or we pull the plug, it's not murder because they're not people. They're "subjects." A finished construct would be pretty much psychologically human, in theory. But this isn't theory. Right now I'm not Frank Anders, I'm Victor Frankenstein. This is crazy, this is brains in vats and fog from the liquid nitrogen spilling out of tanks, banks of capacitors and computers humming and blinking in red and green while we pull twenty-four, thirty-six, forty hour days in our dark, concrete box in the third basement of the U Mars Neuro Labs with plastic coffee cups spilling off the desks. Dark rings under eyes, shambling gaits and stifled yawns as Julia squints into the microcircuitry or Marcus tweaks another simulation, while (Professor) Carpenter sets the displays to white-on-black grayscale because it's easier on tired eyes. The thought that we are dealing with a human being, not Candidate 27-b or Subject 15-a, would finish off our already precariously balanced minds (thought/minds -- oh, never mind). There's a word in the lab that nobody ever speaks. We don't say aloud what we're really after, what we're really trying to capture. We're going after The Immortal Soul.
      And we've been going at it for so long. Jim Carpenter and I had been a team for the past twenty-seven years, working on the brain project. I've had more late nights, stale pizza and leftover mooshoo with Jim than with my (ex) wife. We lost a lot of funding after the first ten years and fifteen brains of no results, but a few articles in some popular rags put us into the limelight a few years back, and just last year the government decided they wanted a real working AI, fast, now that the Frieden on the Jovian moons were getting restless. Dumb AI, the ones that were just coded on a computer could only go so far -- they needed a human computer to pilot their fancy new battleships. Ooh-rah, semper fi, God save the King, blah blah blah.
      Today, we were hopeful. The last three brains had produced coherent images, and we had worked out all the kinks for number 74-a. We had damn well better have, because this time it's personal.
      It was five days ago. I was on the other side of the room, going over data from the day's experiments, when there was a gasp and a clatter behind me. Jim was lying on the ground, his shaggy gray hair soaking with sweat, thin fingers clutching at his chest, trying to claw away the invisible vise around his heart. Julia and David were closest to him, but nobody ran as fast as I did to his side, even with my bad hip. He was still conscious when the emergency services arrived and carried him to the elevator, with panic and tears covering his face. He met my gaze as they lifted him onto the stretcher, pale eyes in sunken sockets peering over the edge of the oxygen mask.
      His last words, uttered through teeth clenched in pain: "You damn well better get mine right, Frank."
      It was in all of our last wills and testaments. The ink wasn't even dry on the death certificate before he was pumped full of our own cocktail of preservatives and shipped to our lab, where the techs two floors up did their thing with the bone saws and scalpels. I tried not to think about my friend up their, being violated like that. Being torn apart, just like he wanted to.
      Bizarrely enough, we felt more optimistic about this one than any in the past ten years. It was as if the knowledge that he held would somehow help along the process, would direct the electricity down the proper paths, or just know some magic voodoo to make it finally work.
      Julia, David, and Marcus are standing beside me. They're all young, finishing up their PhD's. Julia, her long (I really don't want to say luscious) brown hair tied up in a tail to avoid tangling in any of the wiring, is chewing on the end of a pencil. For such a nervous person, she put her steady hands to good use. Julia was our electrical engineering genius; she and Jim had worked out together (and she did all the assembly) the current iteration of delicate fiber-optics and nanocircuitry that could contain and process the entirety of a human mind.       
      David was a neurologist like me, tall and blond whose refined, Nordic features contrasted with mine, ever since chemotherapy last year took the last vestige of eyebrow hair and my own less-than perfect posture since the hip replacement. Normally bright and energetic, the shock of Jim's passing, coupled with a lack of sleep, had given him a somewhat gaunt look these past few days. His concentration never wavered, though – in truth, it was he that was responsible for the latest breakthrough in our experiments. The last four trials had actually succeeded in transferring memory and basic comprehension to a data crystal, enough for a few minutes of communication before the AI's fell silent.
      Marcus is our computer guy. He had worked closely with Jim on adapting the interface connections of AI's like Terry to working with a human brain. He and Jim had used the technology behind neural implants for visual and aural corrections to work with a human mind contained within a computer. His shaggy brown hair was unkempt and he hadn't shaved for a couple of days, and his eyes were bloodshot but excited. Of all of us, he seems the most optimistic of our success. He's muttering a prayer under his breath.
      So now, we're all gathered at the lab. The big green aluminum tank, festooned with cables and tubes, sits solidly in the middle of the floor. Somewhere inside of that lies Jim's brain. Most of the cables, messily bundled together with zip ties and duct tape, lead to an array of computers and a single, blank data crystal. About half of the components need to be brought down to superconducting temperature with liquid nitrogen, so there is a dramatic layer of mist on the floor. That data crystal, maybe two inches on a side, is a modified version of a modern dumb AI's core, its internal components a sort of weird mirror of a human's. If everything went according to plan, the electricity that would soon destroy the fragile brain tissue would transfer to it an accurate neural map. It would transfer memories, hopefully, and personality, and thought. If all went according to plan, we would give Jim immortality. What a ridiculous plan.
      I clear my throat and speak into the air.
      "Terry? What's our status."
      "Capacitors are fully charged, all signals are reading within acceptable parameters."
      "Uh. Right. That sounds good."
      Terry was a dumb AI that Jim and I had written together. Its smooth, androgynous voice always got on my nerves a bit -- too formal. I had tried to program in a sense of humor but it just came out way too creepy.
      "Run one more test pulse through the fibers. I want to make sure we get this right."
      "Yes, Doctor Anders. Again, all signals are reading within acceptable parameters."
      Terry was smart, but it wasn't a person. It was incapable of all but the most rudimental introspection, it couldn't really do true deductive leaps, and its "personality" was hardcoded routines, call and response to certain phrases. Of course it sounded human, of course it could fool you for a time. But after a while, speaking to Terry was… unnerving. Unsettling. There was something about all AI's, even the best ones, that felt fundamentally wrong in some way. There was always something alien and cold about them. Most people ended up avoiding verbal contact after the first few days, when it became very evident that you were talking to nothing but a very convincing marionette.
      "Well, here we go."
      I'm staring at a keyboard and a vidscreen. One touch, and it'll all be over.
      This one's for you, Jim.
      I hit the button.


      Hm. This is odd.
      The last thing I recall, I wasn't here. I don't think I've ever been here, actually, wherever "here" is. I was in a bed, wasn't I? No, I was outside. The garden, yes, I was definitely in the garden. The first blooms were coming out, and I was carefully pulling weeds out from around the stalks of my Crocosmia. I love that genus. The blossoms uncurl from their buds along strands, individual flowers spilling out in a row. And the color! You never see a scarlet so bright. From a distance, the plant looks like some red star has kissed the earth.
      No, that can't be right. I was a teenager when I grew that garden, wasn't I?
      I don't think I'm a teenager now. I remember a laboratory...
      This bears some careful consideration. Careful, methodical. I've always done that.
      First things first.
      I am... what?


      We're all clustered around the vidscreen. Streams of arcane data twitch in the display, giving way more information than can be absorbed in real time. Condensed down into their essential parts, they say that the information in the brain had been successfully transferred, and that there was a great deal of activity within the crystalline matrix. Whatever that activity was, we would have to wait for Jim to tell us. Our ears perked up as the audio interface hissed, and I could swear I heard a whispered word.