Scholars claim that the intangible aspects of our experiences in life are identical to those of our ancestors. I’m not so certain. Sitting in an empty hotel room, waiting for the identity-thief with everything that I have ever accomplished liquefied into cash, I have time to wonder.
Feelings are easy. I’ve worked in the production of Sigmund Identity Chips for long enough to know that our synthetic neurotransmitters are elementally identical to serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine and the other chemicals that our ancestors interpreted as emotion. So I guess, yeah, it’s pretty safe to say that the artificial happiness that we experience today is the same sort of happiness that people felt in the twenty-first century. The fear that sends Ian sneaking into my room at night is the same fear that Roman children must have experienced when their parents whispered “Hannibal ante portas,” at their bedside, and even the guilt I feel for abandoning my son is nothing new. It’s the same sense of rue and self-loathing that led Judas to hang himself after he betrayed his lord, and it hasn’t changed in the hundreds of thousands of years separating his time from mine. Yeah. I’m certain that our emotions are all the same…but what about the rest?
What about our self awareness, our cognizance of our own actuality, that mental “I-ness” that we spend our entire lives building from thoughts, affirming and reaffirming? What about our volition, our ability to exercise free will, to make terrible life decisions? Can that immaterial part of us really be fabricated from a mass of anatomical tissues? I don’t know. I’ve lived with an identity chip for longer than I can remember, and I have no knowledge of what it’s like to think with an organic brain. Nobody does, not for themselves, not that I know of. You hear stories about women who have unexpected pregnancies and don’t discover their gravidity until it’s too late to implant the Sigmund Identity Chip, but I’ve never met one and I don’t know anybody who has. It’s like an urban myth. You hear about it from time to time―from somebody who knows a person who knows a person―but you never encounter it for yourself.
The door opens and a man steps in. He’s wearing the Syndicate’s seal of authentication, but he’s not what I expected. He looks far too young and far too normal to be doing this kind of thing. He’s just a boy, handsome and dressed like some kind of a technology geek. He gives me the impression of a college kid turned hacker for the sheer thrill of it. Only, stealing somebody’s identity isn’t something that you can do from behind a computer screen. You have to get your hands dirty. You have to capture your victim, split their skull, and rip the microchip from their head without damaging any of its fragile components. Something like that requires more skill and ruthlessness than this boy is old enough to have.
“And who are you?” I scoff, “The office intern? Where’s the identity thief?” The boy simply laughs, a slight smile playing at his lips.
“You’re not exactly what I expected either. Can you actually walk in those heels?” He asks, sounding impressed. “Got the money?” His eyes flit from me to the suitcase on my lap. He seems skeptical. It’s a pretty small container, but surprisingly capacious. I hand it to him and he kneels down, setting it on the floor and popping it open. A slight whistle escapes his lips, and I get the feeling that he’s never seen a thousand-credit-note before. Most people haven’t. He begins to count.“It’s all there,” I say to him.
“Then you won’t mind if I make sure,” he answers. Who does he think I am? I know better than to betray the Syndicate, especially when it’s their people who are about to be operating on me.
“You didn’t answer my question,” I press. His dismissive attitudes smacks of amateurism. A professional should know how to conduct business, illicit or otherwise.
“No, I didn’t. I’m trying to count.”
“Who are you?” I insist. He sighs, dropping a stack and resuming his count from the beginning. “Would you knock it the hell off and look at me?” I shout. He pauses a moment, shoves a wad of cash back into the suitcase and peers up at me with the audacity to look exasperated. As if I care about how he feels, as if I’m not well past giving a damn about his rutting tally. “Who are you? I don’t buy that you’re the identity thief.”
“And yet it moves,” he replies.
“It’s something Galileo said―after being forced to recant his endorsement of heliocentrism,” the boy explains.
“I know what it is!” I snap, “What does it have to do with our situation?” He gives me a patient look, like a teacher condescending to explain something to a particularly slow child.
“It means that I am the identity thief, regardless of what you want to believe.” He snaps the suitcase shut, rises and says “I’ll finish counting after we’ve put you under. I don’t think I’m going to get anywhere until you’ve lost consciousness.”
“What?” I shoot back, alarmed. “Don’t you have a team? We’re not going to do it here, are we?” I glance around the dirty hotel room and then back up to him. Sepsis is a thing of the past. It just doesn’t happen anymore. Not to people like me. Not to the well-to-do, to citizens who follow the law and receive their medical attention from licensed professionals in cleanly environments. Then again, I haven’t fit that mold in a very long time. On the surface, maybe, but definitely not behind closed doors. The boy seems amused.
“Of course I do. I don’t know what kind of horror stories you’ve heard, but our guys are trained physicians. Doctors in good standing with their community--the same people that medical facilities dispatch to implant the Sigmund Chips in embryos before their biological brains can develop, and to deliver those babies once they’ve reached maturity. And no, we’re not operating in a dingy motel. We’ve got a mobile unit waiting outside. A mobile unit, you understand? Not a van. It’s the same facility my guys use during their day jobs; they’re just borrowing it from the hospital. In the morning, they’ll return it and go back to their ‘legitimate,’ vocations.” He stop when he sees the incredulous look I’m giving him.
For a moment the man says nothing, and then he’s laughing. I’m surprised because it doesn’t come off as mocking or fabricated. He seems to find my skepticism genuinely amusing. “What? What are you chortling about?” I demand. He shakes his head as if in disbelief.
“Do you really think people would enlist our services if we were butchers?” He asks me. “I mean, sure. There are some quacks out there―same sort of guys who perform cosmetic surgeries in their backseats. And yeah, a handful of those we service are like you: desperate enough to take any risk. But, you know, we wouldn’t really be running a successful business if our only customers were people with no sense of self-preservation. People don’t submit themselves to this kind of surgery on a whim. They’re trying to make their lives better, to escape bad decisions and financial obligations. And they’re smart enough to know that letting some amateur dig around inside of them with makeshift tools probably isn’t going to accomplish that. They’re daring, but suicidal they ain’t.”
“I guess you’ve got a point,” I admit a bit begrudgingly. I don’t know why it makes me so angry. I should be relieved, and I guess that I am, but right now I’m just so pissed off and terrified at my situation that I can’t afford to show it.
“Yes. I do,” the boy says. “Now, given the circumstances I don’t suppose there’s any point in asking, but I wouldn’t feel right if I didn’t. So, are you sure you want to proceed?”
“What other choice do I have? Execution? A life in prison, if I’m lucky? Of course, I’m sure!”
“Really? Because there won’t be any turning back. You’ll never see your family again: not your husband, not your parents, not even your son. You won’t be able to come back for Aunty Christa’s funeral, or little Bobby’s sixth birthday. When you wake up, you’re not just somebody who’s pretending to be another person. You’re not the woman who stole Renelle Satyrfield’s Identity Chip. You are Renelle Satyrfield, and you have to act like it. Forever. All of her memories, her personality, even her way of thinking will be downloaded directly into you.” He looks me straight in the eye, his face flat as he waits for an answer.
“It’s a little late to turn back, don’t you think?” I answer, staring right back. “This lady, Renelle, she’s already dead. I’m ready.”
“Okay,” he says, “But so you know: I’m not a killer. Renelle Satyrfield isn’t dead, and if you turn back I’ll just pass her identity on to somebody else. It won’t go to waste.”
“What do you mean she’s not dead?”
“Well, yeah. I mean, not by my hands. I just paid her off. Took her identity and cleared her memory.”
“You aren’t making any sense,” I tell him. He looks at me as if he doesn’t realize that what he just said was absurd. It’s like he doesn’t understand how impossible it is for somebody to be alive without their Sigmund Chip. “If you took her identity, she’s dead.” Without it, she wouldn’t be able to move or breathe, much less accept any bribes.
“Is that what you think? People have been living without electronics in their head for a lot longer than they’ve been living with them.”
It’s true. It wasn’t until after the advent of Diluvium that we began implanting our children with Sigmund Identity Chips, and even then it was only because we had no other choice. From what they tell us in school, I can’t even begin to fathom how close our species came to being eradicated. The biblical flood for which it was named does not compare to the destructive capacity of Diluvium, and the mass extinctions of the Permian-Triassic period were a geological hiccup in comparison to Diluvium’s legacy of devastation. It was the first time since the bubonic plague somewhere in the fourteenth century that civilization seemed destined to perish before the forces of nature and, like the Black Death before it, it had come without warning.
Diluvium kills its host by inhibiting the brain’s ability to absorb oxygen. Once infected, a victim has less than thirty seconds of consciousness, and mere minutes before the onset of global brain ischemia. Worse still, because the disease comes with an irrevocable no-reflow phenomena, even those who had access to advanced resuscitation technology were unable to escape its wrath. Faced with the loss of our mental faculties, it’s no wonder that people turned to the Sigmund Identity Chip. Introduced at the conclusion of a joint public-private effort to cure Diluvium, the device instead allowed mankind to live without the use of its most vital organ. The brain was rendered obsolete.
Things are different now. The first generation of children implanted with their own identities died off hundreds of years ago. Today the population still hasn’t come close to recovering from the ravage of Diluvium, but every generation subsequent to its scourge has grown up with the implants. Nobody’s had use of a functioning, organic brain in centuries. The doctors engineer and insert our identities within thirty five days of conception--weeks before we display our first brainwaves. The chips attach themselves to our central nervous systems, repress normal neurological development and become our control centers. Without them, we die. We become incapable of even the most basic, autonomic functions.
I don’t believe a word of what he’s saying. Absent technology, none of us are actually viable. No more than I would have been as a premature delivery if stripped from my incubator. If he’s taken her identity, Renelle is dead. “I don’t buy it,” I shoot back at him. “Renelle’s not special. Her chip was inserted before she could grow a brain, same as the rest of us. Otherwise I wouldn’t have selected her.” The boy patters his foot on the wine-stained carpet.
“Really believe everything they tell you?” He asks, and this time there is a hint of mockery in his voice. That, condescension and pity. “Look, your bosses don’t want people to know this, but your organic brain is still perfectly intact. Since Diluvium died off, the Sigmund Chip actually uses it as a sort of back up, in case it shorts out or is damaged by a shock. Your thoughts, they’re artificial, it’s true. But the microchip models every decision it makes about who you are based on what it reads in the wrinkles of that neurological tissue you seem to think you’ve lost. And if it breaks down, if I snatch it from your head as I did with your future self, your brain will take over where your identity left off. Sap some damaged memories, you won’t know the difference. ”
I stare at him for a long time, first offended and then awed. If what he’s saying is true, my understanding of human thought has been wrong this entire time. I don’t know if I can accept that. Being somebody who was designed by intelligent hands is about the only thing I’ve got left. Without that, what’s my life been worth? I’ve already sold my company, and I’m halfway through the process of abandoning my family. Once I’m gone my education won’t mean a damn, and at that point I’m just a glorified monkey.
I can’t believe it. I can’t accept that the entirety of my life, my whole sense of self is nothing more than what nature can build by accident. This sensation of being, it has to be different. It has to be something above what our ancestors went through. Modern man, those of us who live in the aftermath of Samuel Sigmund’s Identity Chip, we’re more than our predecessors. Our minds were built by intelligent beings. They were fabricated with a bigger plan, according to the broader picture. That’s what tells us how much we’ve accomplished, how far we’ve moved along the evolutionary chain. So how can this man tell me that my identity is indistinguishable from a psyche formed by happenstance? I need to believe it’s not true. I need to be more than the dumb animals I descend from.
“I don’t believe you,” I tell him again.
“And yet it turns,” he replies once more. “Now then, if you’re ready…”
The rest of it passes in a haze. Everything goes according to plan. The boy assures me the Renelle won’t come walking back into her life. My life. She doesn’t remember who she was, and even if she did nobody would recognize her--the same cosmetologist that is about to transmogrify me made sure of that. A surgeon explains the process, how they permanently changed her face, transformed her fingerprints and even altered her teeth. Not even a retinal scan or blood test could identify her, and when he’s done with me I’ll be indistinguishable from the original….
As promised, the medical unit is parked outside. They carry me out in a body bag, dead to everyone that doesn’t already know it’s an act. We’ll file a report. Call it a drug overdose. The media will do the rest. They’ll hype it up, make people think that I committed suicide to escape justice. It’s not far from the truth, and their ratings will soar. When it comes time to present a body, my spot at the morgue will be filled with a surgically altered corpse. I hear somebody say that my own son won’t know the difference, and then my respirator fills with…with…
I wake up thrashing, Ian’s name echoing on my lips. Surgical light blares. I hold up a hand to shield my retina. Vertigo. I touch my head, finding it stripped of hair. Exposed scalp slides beneath my fingers. Strangers surround me. I don’t recognize them. I seem to be in some kind of a medical facility, but I don’t remember. “Wha…” Nobody moves. They just stare at me as if I’m some kind of an exotic animal that they’ve never seen before. They’re dressed in scrubs, but nobody’s wearing their surgical mask. “What happened?”
“Ms. Surratt,” a familiar voice, still crisp with youth, rings in my ear. I glance over to see the speaker standing nearby. The boy, the identity thief from the hotel room. “I regret to inform you that the operation was not a success…”
“What?” I gaze at him without comprehension, blinking my eyes and shaking my head. “The operation? What do you mean? Why not?”
“Well,” he says slowly, his voice that of a doctor about to deliver bad news. “As to that...” he glances around for help, but none is forthcoming. “Ms. Surratt, did you by any chance suffer an electric shock as a child?”
“No, no of course not. I had a very normal…” and then it hits me. “Oh. Well, yes...my mother was caught in an electrical accident just before I was born. It threw her into an early labor, I barely made it. They had to incubate me in an artificial womb for several months. But I don’t understand. What does that have to do with anything?”
“Well, Ms. Surratt, I’m afraid that shock must have had more of an impact than the doctors allowed your mother to know. Our pre-surgical scans showed that you have a Sigmund Identity Chip, same as we expected, but, well…” again he seems at a loss for words, and it takes him a moment to clear his throat. “Ms. Surratt, all of its circuits were fried a very long time ago. The hardware is in ruin, far beyond operational condition, and it has been for at least thirty years. Unless you lied to us about your age, you haven’t had an identity since before you were born….”